Mother tongue

Review of Alfabet/Alphabet: a memoir of a first language by Sadiqa de Meijer.

De taal is ons vaderland, waaruit we nooit kunnen emigreren.

Language is our fatherland, from which we can never emigrate.

This slim volume of eclectic essays is a rich exploration of questions of identity, landscape, family, and translation. It is of particular interest to Dutch immigrants who might enjoy a thoughtful, playful look at language as it relates to cultural identity. Like a luscious piece of ‘boterkoek’ or a pungent spoon of ‘erwtensoep met worst,’ it is best to chew slowly and digest fully.

Alfabet/Alphabet is a memoir of a first language, not an immigrant story that focuses on culture shock and the dislocation of moving to another land, although there are glimpses of that. Rather, as a poet and a linguist, de Meijer examines how the very roots of language are linked to geography and identity. She has many examples that will bring recognition and delight to readers who have a basic understanding of “Nederlands.” In one of her stories a Dutch phrase even randomly saves her life!

There is no doubt that a mother tongue can evoke emotions of deep connection and cultural currents, but there can also be a sense of loss. Common problems inherent in having either a partial academic or immigrant understanding of a language, are examined here as well. Anyone involved in language learning of any kind has at some point been frustrated by a lack of skill in engaging in casual exchanges, even when that language has been studied or feels like home. Sometimes the skill deepens from an immersive trip overseas or after a telephone conversation with Tante Miep. It’s the love and connection that changes us, and allows things we thought were hidden to resurface. The dedication to the book says it all, “For each of you who came to English from some beloved elsewhere.”

Sadiqa de Meijer was born in Amsterdam to a Dutch-Kenyan-Pakistani-Afghani family, and moved to Canada as a child. She lives in Kingston, Ontario.


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