SEVEN CIRCUMSTANCES

Book Reviews & Essays on Literature

Poetry that mixes mother tongues – and my poem about my Grandma

My very dearly loved Grandma, Martha Magdalena Schreuder, long passed on.

It is very hard to make two different languages rhyme. This struck me again when I was researching the phonetic symbol for a “J” with two lines through its stem, for the review of Howard Jacobson’s novel J. Some sounds and letters exist only in certain phonetic alphabets. The guttural uvular fricative “g” (for instance /χ/ /χut/ as in “goed”), which is a frequent sound in Afrikaans, does not occur in English. The closest is the “ch” sound like in the Scottish Gaelic word “loch”. But it does occur in a handful of other languages including Spanish, Dutch (of course), Persian and Kurdish. (But having said that, below is one of my poems, in English and Afrikaans, about my Grandma. It features this particular uvular fricative “g”.) I have recently been listening to the band Orange Blossom, particularly the song Ommaty from their 2014 album Under the Shade of Violets. The lyrics are sung in Arabic and I must say I find the repetitive /χ/ very pleasant to listen to even though I only have a vague idea what the words mean. 

On the interactive International Phonetic Alphabet chart, click on the /χ/ to hear the sound, and also click on another common Afrikaans sound, the “schwa”, /ə/ which sounds like “uh”.

So, you can imagine that to make sounds from different languages rhyme in one poem or set of lyrics would be tricky. This kind of writing is called “Macaronic Verse” (talk about an obscure term!) and it is especially common in cultures with widespread bilingualism, and often the mix in languages is for punning or humour and either language is mutilated in the process. (For example, the Dutch/English verses of Jan van der Meulen.)

But when the intention is not humorous, and the ultimate form has to be aesthetically pleasing, the phones, phonemes and intonation would have to overlap for the rhyme scheme, and the rhythm, to work.

Mixing up languages in lyrics

This is why, I think, the Canadian singer Alex Cuba, on his 2012 award-winning album Ruido en el sistema, recorded the same songs with separate English and Spanish lyrics. Also, why actor/poet/artist/publisher Viggo Mortensen publishes poems in different languages, Spanish, English and Danish, sometimes in the same book, on the same page, but not in the same verse. For most bilingual and multilingual poets and lyricists, it is either the one or the other. That is also why some of  PSY’s lyrics sound so peculiar, because he writes in Korean and then adds in English phrases and words that he tries to make rhyme with Korean words. He doesn’t always succeed. A lyricist may write a song with one verse in English and another in French or Spanish, but they are seldom mixed up in the verse itself.

My poem in English and Afrikaans

Here is my attempt to write a poem in English with a few Afrikaans words and phrases thrown in. This is because my Grandmother, whom the poem is about and whom I definitely resemble, would never ever have spoken to me, her “Little Martha”, in English, and I had to keep her words like I remember them.


Grandma in the photo

Walking down the cool gloom of the stoep
with cracked cement underfoot,
into the small kitchen outside,
I see bars of sunlight streaming wide
with dancing flour motes, from the hands
of my Grandma, who’s filling pans
of petrol cans, cut down half-size,
with creamy bread dough on the rise,
for the mud brick oven up the hill.
She glances at me, kneading still,
says Gee dan vir Ouma die skottel, Marthatjie.
And then, as often in dreams of things that we
lose, miss, rediscover and collect,
for scarcity in retrospect,
I reach again to the oilcloth-covered table
and pick up the old flowered basin of enamel,
and see in her face, so like my own,
the sober stare, the heavy bone,
the bloodline that forever ties us
with looks and places, times and vistas.


Translation: “Gee dan vir Ouma die skottel, Marthatjie” – “Please give Grandma the basin, Little Martha”
“Stoep” – porch

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