Language without a childhood

Via signandsight, this on the Turkish-born German-writing author Emine Sevgi Özdamar. You can read the full article here:

A tribute to the writing of Emine Sevgi Özdamar, whose novels have made Berlin greater, more expansive, warmer. By Harald Jähner

It’s not necessarily boring to watch a film in a language you don’t understand. You concentrate all the more on other elements of the film, gestures, body language, the landscapes, extras. Someone who doesn’t understand the language is not necessarily watching the wrong film but sees more of the film than others. Putting this added experience into the right words is an art that few have mastered better than Emine Sevgi Özdamar.

She came to Germany from Istanbul for the first time in 1965 and she understood – nothing. She once related that her first German word was “Haltestelle” (bus stop). She memorised it in order to make sure that she would get out at the right street on her way back. Of course this didn’t work; in Berlin there were just too many placed calledHaltestelle“.

In her novel “Die Brücke vom goldenen Horn” (bridge from the Golden Horn) she instead tells about her first German words as sounding like “shak, shak, eee and gak gak.”  When she and her roommates from the rooming house went to buy eggs they had wiggled their bottoms and said “gak, gak” to the saleswoman. Much distance lies between this German and Özdamar’s novels. These books are wonderful, because they convey the magic of learning a language. She writes in German, a language which holds no childhood for her. In contrast to Turkish, which still retains the enchanting power of early comfort, the lullabies and also the first triumph of saying “I”, “I want”. In contrast, life in Berlin gave her the opportunity to linguistically start from scratch as an adult. She learned German in a strange way, by memorising the headlines of the newspapers that hung in kiosks – without understanding a word.  When someone asked her “Niye böyle gürültüyle yürüyorsun?” (why do you make so much noise when you walk?), she would answer, for example with the memorised headline “Wenn aus Hausrat Unrat wird” (when belongings become trash).

Admittedly, her father later paid for a course at the Goethe Institute, where she learned German in the classical manner. However, one can readily assume that her own original learning method honed her sense of the language. For her, words have a body, a form, not only in terms of letters but also as spoken words, and especially as words that never reach those to whom they were addressed. In “Die Brücke vom Goldenen Horn” she describes how Turkish men walked through wintery Berlin: “It looked as if they were walking behind the words that they spoke aloud. (…) They walked this way with their words, and to people who did not understand them, the men looked like people walking with a donkey or chicken through another country.”

[ctd. here]

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