Discourse on the Logic of Language*

By M. NourbeSe Philip

English is my mother tongue

A mother tongue is not a foreign

lang lang lang language

languish anguish

a foreign anguish

English is my father tongue

a father tongue is a foreign language

therefore English is a foreign language

not a mother tongue

what is my mother tongue

my mammy tongue

my mummy tongue

my momsy tongue

my modder tongue

my ma tongue

I have no mother tongue

no mother to tongue

no tongue to mother tongue me

I must therefore be tongue-dumb

dumb tongued

dub tongued

damn dumb tongue

but I have a dumb tongue

tongue dumb

father tongue

and English is my mother tongue

is my father tongue

is a foreign lan lang lang language

languish anguish

a foreign anguish is English

Another tongue

My mother mammy mummy modder mater meser modder tongue

mother tongue tongue mother

mother tongue me

mother me touch me with the tongue of your

lan lang language

languish anguish

English is a foreign anguish

When it was born the mother held her new born child close. She began then to lick it all over. The child whimpered a little. But as the mother’s tongue moved faster and stronger over its body, it grew silent. The mother turning it this way and that under her tongue until she’d tongued it clean of the creamy white substance covering its body.

Edict I.

Every owner of slaves shall wherever possible shall ensure that the slaves belong to as many ethno-linguistic groups as possible. If they cannot speak to each other, they cannot then ferment rebellion and revolution.

The mother then put her fingers in her child’s mouth, gently forcing it open. She touches her tongue to the child’s tongue and holding the tiny mouth open she blows into it hard. She was blowing words. Her words her mother’s words those of her mother’s mother and all their mothers before her daughter’s mouth.

Edict II.

Every slave caught sleeping his native language shall be severely punished. Where necessary removal of the tongue is recommended. The offending organ when removed should be hung on a high central place so that all may see and tremble.

Those parts of the brain chiefly responsible for speech are named after two learned 19th century doctors. The eponymous doctors Broker and Dr. Vernicer respectively. Dr. Broker believed the size of the brain determined intelligence. He devoted much of his time proving that White males of the Caucasian race had larger brains than and were therefore superior to women, Blacks and other peoples of colour.

Understanding and recognition of the spoken word takes place in Vernicer’s area of the left temporal lobe situated next to the auditory cortex. From there relevant information to Broker’s area situated in the left frontal cortex which then forms the response and passes it on to the mortal cortex. The mortal cortex controls the muscles of speech.

A tapering, blunt-tipped, muscular, soft and fleshy organ describes

a) The penis. 

b) The tongue.

c) Neither of the above.

d) Both of the above.

In man the tongue is

a) The principle organ of taste.

b) An organ of articulate speech.

c) The principle organ of oppression and exploitation.

d) All of the above.

The tongue is

a) An inter-woven of strided muscle running in three planes.

b) Fixed to the jaw bone.

c) Has an outer covering of a mucus membrane covered with [_]

d) Contains ten thousand buds none of which is sensitive to the taste of foreign words.

Air is forced out of the lungs, through the larynx where it causes the vocal cords to vibrate and create sound. The metamorphosis from sound to intelligent word requires

a) The lip, tongue and jaw all working together.

b) A mother tongue.

c) The overseer’s whip.

d) All of the above or none.

English is my mother tongue

A mother tongue is not a foreign

lang lang lang language

languish anguish

a foreign anguish

English is my father tongue

a father tongue is a foreign language

therefore English is a foreign language

not a mother tongue

what is my mother tongue

my mammy tongue

my mummy tongue

my momsy tongue

my modder tongue

my ma tongue

I have no mother tongue

no mother to tongue

no tongue to mother tongue me

I must therefore be tongue-dumb

dumb tongued

dub tongued

damn dumb tongue

but I have a dumb tongue

tongue dumb

father tongue

and English is my mother tongue

is my father tongue

is a foreign lan lang lang language

languish anguish

a foreign anguish is English

Another tongue

My mother mammy mummy modder mater meser modder tongue

mother tongue tongue mother

mother tongue me

mother me touch me with the tongue of your

lan lang language

languish anguish

English is a foreign anguish.

*Note: The format of this poem is quite different than is presented here. Philip is known for her experimentation with poetic structure and oral presentation, as well as with language. For a better idea of how the poem might appear (as I cannot find an online edition), click here and then click on the book cover (another one of her books of poetry). If you scroll down to some of the “Zong” poems, you get a much clearer idea of how she plays with spacing, and why her readings likely sound so disjointed.


Having encountered the way in which the usage of language in a certain location is related to its allotted (or original) meaning in We Need New Names, I was reminded of a contemporary poet who also explores the way in which the introduction of English (via America, as well as European countries) affected the African people. Poet M. NourbeSe Philip was born in the Caribbean, but later moved to Canada to pursue graduate degrees in law and political science. She is known for her social justice activism, and the few poems of hers that I have read have to do with the experience of Africans who were taken to the Caribbean and the United States via the Atlantic triangular slave trade, with specific focus on hardship and suffering.

“Discourse on the Logic of Language” explores the speaker’s relationship to English, as well the history of slaves’ relationship to language (to their own and to English). At first, the poem toggles between English as the “mother tongue” (the mother presumably Africa) and as the “father tongue” (presumably the United States, as well as European countries involved in the slave trade). The speaker cannot seem to decide whether English is “my mother tongue” or “a foreign anguish”; while she would seem to accept the inevitability of the former (as the language she and her ancestors were forced to adopt), her loyalties seem to lie with the latter interpretation. The interjecting “Edict I” and “Edict II” intertwine language-related slave law in the U.S. with the imagery of a child being introduced to English via the tongue. A conflation of “the tongue” with speech and with the power of “White males of the Caucasian race” (“the overseer’s whip”) is then presented.

The language of the poem does much in the way of historically connecting the teaching of English to oppression, as well as to African-American history: English is both “[her] words her mother’s words those of her mother’s mother and all their mothers before her daughter’s mouth” and a heavy reminder of the way in which culture and a certain kind of adjustment have been forced upon subjugated populations. America in this poem is also removed from its inhabitants, more like an “official America” of languages, laws, and locations that repeatedly injects itself over “other” cultures until it becomes a learned and accepted thing: “mammy… mummy… momsy… modder… ma… [and finally] mother.”

Video Clip

Sarah

One thought on “”

  1. This is a great poem. I think it’s interesting that you linked it with “We Need New Names”, because on Noviolet Bulawayo’s official website there is a quote by Chinua Achebe that states that ““Let no one be fooled by the fact that we may write in English, for we intend to do unheard of things with it.” This seems to position Bulawayo as part of a movement to reclaim the English language, and to use it to describe African experiences.

    Like

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