Tongues, violence, and colonialism. ‘Discourse on the Logic of Language’ is meant to overwhelm you. Its bold, graphic, and unapologetic polyphony of narratives wants you to question the implications of the English language, to remember that it is not apolitical. Language has always been a tool and a weapon, author Marlene NourbeSe Philip reminds you.
Although Philip moved to Canada for university, she was born in the Carribean island of Tobago, and at age eight moved to nearby Trinidad. Her upbringing was heavily impacted by British colonialism, and she grew up speaking English, a source of a disconnect between herself and her pre-colonial identity.
This poem gives more than a glimpse of Philip’s alienation from her roots, and of English’s ability to reinforce structures of power. Philip constructs her poem out of four narratives, each displaying a different perspective on language.
There is an all-caps narrative, describing a mother’s tongue caring for her child. The tongue, the language, cares for and protects the next generation. It connects one to one’s past.
There is a historical point of view, a reminder of edicts that once existed to forbid slaves from speaking their native languages. Colonizers knew that language unites communities, so they demanded silence.
The textbook-esque perspective recalls Wernicke and Broca—two white, male linguists praised for their contributions to the study of language—who colonize the body by having brain areas named after them.
Of the four narratives, Philip’s personal voice stands out the most. She writes: “English / is my mother tongue. / A mother tongue is not / not a foreign lan lan lang / language / l/anguish / anguish / —a foreign anguish.” Playing with the sound of the words, Philip invites you to say these lines out loud, to feel and embody the disjointedness between English and the connection to her heritage.
There is a gargantuan amount of privilege that attaches itself to me, as a white woman, and to many others, when it comes to language. Prior to reading this poem, I did not think about the colonial implications of language, because I simply never had to. English was always present in my schooling, in the media I consumed, and in my social life. I’d never thought about English as a superpower. Yet, in at least 59 countries, it is considered an official language, continuing to loom over cultures as a ruling power.
This poem’s sentiments are shocking, and necessary. Philip presents four perspectives on language, urging readers to acknowledge them. Language offers a paradox, she suggests: it is simultaneously survival, and it is oppression. It is a force that is often taken for granted, and rarely discussed in circles of privilege. Philip asks that readers think about language, ultimately posing the question: is there logic to it?
You can read Marlene NourbeSe Philip’s ‘Discourse on the Logic of Language’ here.
Image: Wesleyan University Press