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On being Polyglottous: a namestory.

Written By: Polyglottous on October 6, 2010 1 Comment

Stephanie’s my given name. Not much more to it; my mom chose it because she liked how it sounded. Rhythmically, it flows well with my middle and family names. Not to mention Stefanie Powers, renowned (heh) 80s actress of Hart to Hart fame, shares the name; my mom loved the show. I used to resent my name, both its popularity among the women of my generation and that I was kinda named for a now-obscure 80s actress. But no other name suits me as well. I’m gradually amassing new names, one in each of the languages I’ve studied, and I respond to them, but not with the same kind of bone-deep recognition that “Stephanie” elicits. My name is such a part of me that it’s ceased to be a label; it’s written in my every fiber. And perhaps with time and work my names in other languages will come to be as much a part of me.

I almost regret choosing “Polyglottous” as my username on this site. I picked it because it’s one of my defining characteristics: I speak multiple languages. Not all of them well, but I’m learning. And it’s what I plan to spend the rest of my life doing.

But “Polyglottous” is a mouthful. It’s a clunky word, a gargly one, a word that sticks out because of its rarity, and a pretentious one to boot. But am I not all of the above? What other modifiers could I use to describe someone who speaks parts of six languages? For someone who picks languages up like shining arrowpoints from the ground, thinking to put them in her pocket and have done with it, only for the heads to embed themselves into her skin and their slivers to slip from their stone veins into her woman ones…

It’s awkward being multilingual in a family of mostly monolinguals, in a society in which many, many people speak only one language. Even speaking with people who do know two or more languages, I’m still odd because of the number of languages I’ve studied. Listing them (englishspanishgermanmandarinvietnameseyiddish) sounds like pure vainglory, if not an outright lie.

I tried to change this username, found that wasn’t an option, and realized how fitting that was. I can’t not know the languages I’ve learned. I can’t unlearn them. I forget parts, but not forever. A brief re-acquaintance ushers them back into my life…but this is a faulty metaphor. Languages are not guests within my mind. All of them are a part of me, each one another Stephanie. Or rather, an Estéphanie, a Shtephanie, a 迪宁, each linguistic self part of a larger amalgamated identity. Like nesting dolls cupped one by another, clinking and rubbing within the bounds of my English-speaking self. I can’t remove one without collapsing the whole.

Being Stephanie (and Estéphanie, and Shtephanie, and 迪宁, and…), then, is to be Polyglottous, brimming with multilingual clamor, a Babel in one body. And the bearer of an idiolect constituted of such heterogeneous parts that sometimes even I can’t tell when I’m code-switching. Then again, within my own head, I’m not…

I’ll end with a quote in French, a language that has begun to seep in without action on my part…but that’s fodder for another post. This quote describes another way I think of language and, god, Barthes says it beautifully. Here ’tis, straight from Fragments d’un discours amoureux:

“Le langage est une peau: je frotte mon langage contre l’autre. C’est comme si j’avais des mots en guise de doigts, ou des doigts au bout de mes mots. Mon langage tremble de désir…”

Glad to be here.

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One Response to “On being Polyglottous: a namestory.”

  1. Dave on: 12 October 2010 at 11:32 pm

    It’s kind of cool how even in the space of one blog post, you have enacted a new name (you could say that Polyglottous didn’t really exist even between the time you registered and when you clicked on “Submit Comment”), thought twice about it, even tried to change it, and then had to reconcile with it, like a microcosm of the identity crises we all go through as we own (and own up to) the series of sounds or letters that will signify us for life. Best of wishes for Polyglottous’s future!

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