Tongue-Strabush (A Personal Dictionary) — Paul McQuade


From the French assietteThe first time I hear the word ashet is in my mother’s kitchen. The word dances on my mother’s tongue, though neither she nor I possess one.
     Nae mither tongue.
     At first I think the ashet is a tray for bearing ashes: I imagine peeling gilt on an eye-wide plate, carrying carbon dust, an eyelash, bones so small they might have been birds.
     Is language made of bones, or of muscle? Soft tissue, soul, or soil?
     N’être pas dans son assiette. To not be in one’s plate. To be out of the self, le soi soi-même. Like a word in translation, renduBorne someplace ither, far from the ashet that would keep its place.


From Old French, barriereWe throw ourselves against them in the name of hopeespoirespérance. Exasperation and futility.
     Good fences make good neighbours.
     We’re a’ Jock Tamson’s bairns.
     The borders appear in moonlight, like mushrooms in wet grass, the long night of the eighteenth century. One dream and it is over. The father sleeps in one country, the mother in the other. Vaterland, la patrie. Die Heimat has been annexed by history.
     Lovers on one side place their tongues to the other. The beloved’s ears search the distance. The old songs sound like screams. Babel played on the instrument of the tongue.
     This is our fluency: search towers, life vests, the bones of small children. Hollow with horror. Incapable of flight. Given back, like a sign.
     No tower rises from the Mediterranean.
We are scattered to the wind like grass.


In Glasgow, New York, Paris, or Tokyo, when a day is dreich it is only dreich.
     There is no other word for this feeling, which is something like: ashes, mixed with clarity, and a tenor of the air that makes me feel, wherever I am, somehow home.
    When water touches clay, it makes it softer. Tears are how are our bodies shed the past. When the rain hits the grass, I see the world as it truly is.
     A palm held open to the storm.


Howk: creuser, extraire, excaver, enforcer, fouiller, chercher, bêcher, et aussi, bien sûr, piger.
     When I howk the words from the dictionary, I find sleeping in their history, vennels missed in passing. Following the path I come to an elsewhere, an otherwise, a place where language lets itself turn inside out, like the seam of a glove. With this, something else becomes graspable.
     I tie a knot in my tongue to mark the spot and set about reaping what I sow: pigerto dip into a fund, to see to oneself.
     Dig in. Bon appétit.
     The tongue is a feast unlike any other. Howk it ootbranch and root. Leaf, blood, and mortar.


I couldn’t read in English after he broke my heart. My thoughts were in the way. Or his. I couldn’t tell anymore. All I knew was that he hated me. And when he was gone, I hated myself for him.
     I read in Japanese that month: the form of the ideograph, the attention required, were the only things that could still my thoughts. For a time, it felt, Iwas somewhere else. Somewhere I could breathe.
     To translate: hirugaeruThe kanji for the verb 翻る contains the ideograph for wings – hane, . The original meaning of the verb is for a flag to flutter in the wind, to be caught in an updraft and reveal its underside. To translate means to lift something into the air. To change it, sudden as a storm.
     There were times that month where I trembled like a leaf. A gret ma eyes ootfighting back. Not ready, yet, to face the pain. The truth of it. The sheer fact of it.
     To be able to step out of yourself, in these moments. It is a gift.
Only afterwards could I find the strength to let myself cry.


To be bilingual, they think, means to have two tongues. To have three, three, and four, four. Correspondence. A place for everything and everything in its place. People who are multilingual have mouths stuffed with tongues, like the hollow of a game hen, bristling with livers. The muscle blocks the passage of proper nouns and saliva. Too many tongues and you choke on meaning.
     To be bilingual, we know, means the tongue is severed. Each new language cuts it again, until the tongue is nothing more than ribbons fluttering in breath. The threads of the tongue are woven, one in the other, so that at unexpected junctures a different tongue appears in the threading.
     One lone carnation in a field of rapeseed.


At a bar in New York, a man asks me: What do you think of these separatists claiming Scots is a language?
     There is a look in his eyes, somewhere between desperation and sadness. As if even a mild correction might undo his sense of stewardship. A protectionism that compels him to save me from my own madness. Some genetic failing; being born without a nation. I don’t know what to make of it, so touching is his pity.
     If I gave him an honest answer, I would tell him every time I see the word leid I hear it in German. Leida neuter noun, meaning: suffering, sorrow. Herzeleidheartbreak.
    A friend from South Africa tells me his grandmother wore a sign proclaiming: I will not speak AfrikaansA girl in Kinross’ knuckles bleed because she says hoolet instead of owl. Gaelic is massacred by forgetting and glossectomy.
     Scots leid. Suffering, sorrow. Future without pity.


Oublier: To lose, voluntarily or not, definitively or momentarily, normally or pathologically, the memory of someone or something.
     Oublierto forget. Howk the root all the way to oblivion.
     But the oubliette, the dungeon with one entrance, promises that no matter how low the thing is thrown, it can still be saved. So long as one can find the door in the ceiling. Search the seam where the light sneaks in. Jam a tongue in the lock.
     It is as though we are all just stumbling around in the dark, losing ourselves –voluntarily or not, definitively or momentarily, normally or pathologically –searching for the memory of someone or something we have lost.
    Stuck in the oubliette, we cannot remember. How we got here. How we get out.
     We spend our days here blind, weighed down by the immensity of our loss. We cannot see for ourselves how broken we have become, or how we might rise again, equal to the largeness of things.
     Search the places where the dark gives way. Let the sky pour in.
Let the past wash clear in the roaring rain.


My Polish ex-boyfriend used to love to say, Och, gie’s peace.
     I thought it was wonderful, the Slavic pulsion, the breath lifting the words. To be given something back and see it new. To have a piece of oneself returned, barely recognisable, but somehow more itself than before.
     Love, I think, is this effort of exchange. Love, I think, is a process of translation.
     Gie’s peace. Donnez-nous la paix. Gib uns Frieden. 平和を。
     In a world at war with itself, I cling to these moments, where a tongue is given over. Not as payment, but as gift: beyond economy, incapable of return. A sign of things to come.


Le chardon aux ânesOh flower of Scotland. Donkey thistle, Distel, and in Japanese, azami. A word I confuse often with the word aza, meaning bruise.
     Donkey-flowers, heraldry, Romanticism and tartanry.
    As if our souls were birthed in the Great Glen. As if we were not born from ash and grit and shipyard rot. As if we were not born to burn in nuclear light and the threat of winter without waking.
     But maybe pain is the point. Oor floor. The thistle hurts to hold. As our pasts, too, should hurt: blood in the sugar bowl where we hid the names of slaves, embroidering oor sangs on tobacco pouches and modernity, all the while searching tea leaves from Ceylon for something we could call our own.
     We are all born in the movement of one age to another, one place to another. We are all born exiled from a place to which we were always foreign.
Scatter the seeds to the wind. Take to the soil all that will grow.
     Chardon. Thrissil. Diaspora.
     A promised resurrection.


     Signifie: Une tumulte des langues. Signifie: Le monde entier.
     Tongue-strabush, chaos in language, a linguistic stramash.
Political relations.
The inside of my skull.


What is independence if it doesn’t mean we opens the doors, to the other, to all those others, inside and out, who come to us from the winds of history? Nameless, placeless, sans-papiersThe yes we say is for them and their future: for a place in which it will be possible to inscribe the loss of things beyond counting. And to grow something that as yet has no shape.
     Yes. Oui, ja, aye. This message will never fail to send. Even if it waits its unlocking in the future, by those who speak in tongues beyond our own.
     Independence, l’avenirI nail my colours to the mast.


     Tae dree wan’s weirdTo accept one’s fate.
     Failure will always come. Our words outlive us, dreaming, awaiting their awakening in all the places where stars and tongues cross.
     They will be stirred from their slumber, one day. By a touch, a word, a memory. A wind creeping in from a crack in the oubliette, lifting them to life once more.
     One must accept this weird. That all we do is left behind, promised to people we will never meet, who will not resemble us, remember us, or know our names.
     They, too, will sign for themselves all that can be gathered in the chain past, present, future. But this package will always exceed what can be thought within the limit of a heritage or sealed with the blazon of a flower.
    This is why I cannot think of a weird as ma ainIt can only ever be: oors, nos, unser… Ours. This reference points merely to a direction. To a future and a promise without end.
     Wan must dree it, aye. But ne’er alein.


Singular. Einsam und einzigartig. The one of deixis, not of the count. Yin. That yin, auld yin, wee yin.
     I have been gone so long sometimes I feel like I can’t come back. But at the same time, I never left. I have left no country behind me. I have only crossed its borders.
     Where do you live?
     A place without place, filled with nostalgia for something yet to arrive. A global plateau where the tongue stretches continents, capable of connection but so often finding none.
     The multi of multilingualism and of multiculturalism is a glyph for loneliness at the same time as manySometimes I look at the globe and see only beings alone with each other, dying with each other in their many kinds of loneliness.
     Sprachweh. Zungeleid. Multieinsamkeit.
     I see my gran every time I come back. A repetition that, increasingly, I know will end. But for now, each time I see her I say to her: Awright, auld yin.
     And in this word, I remember what is there. I remember that what language brings us is not truly meaning, but love, and a sense of place. A there, one, yin – even when the sands beneath us shift, as one age turns to the other.
     YinDeixisreference, deiknunai.
     It is always love that shows us the way.

Paul McQuade is a writer and translator originally from Glasgow, Scotland. His work has been featured in Pank, Gutter, the anthology Out There, and is forthcoming from Little Fiction and Structo Magazine. He is the recipient of the Sceptre Prize for New Writing and the Austrian Cultural Forum Prize. Get in touch @pgmcq