Carrie Gillon: So, we completely forgot to mention when we recorded our intro, that this is our hundredth episode.
Megan Figueroa: I mean, are we just not good at like congratulating ourselves? Oh, I mean, this is a really major milestone.
Carrie Gillon: It’s a huge milestone. And all I can say as well, we’ve both been sick and like, I don’t know, still a worldwide pandemic and we’re pretending it’s not.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah, exactly.
It just crept up on us.
Carrie Gillon: It totally did.
Megan Figueroa: I feel like when we were at 90, I was like, oh my God, I can’t wait. And then I just forgot. And here we are, but congratulations to us. And we’re almost at five years too. So, like big year for us.
Carrie Gillon: Yes. So, we should do something special for the five years actually make it something and not just forget, like we kind of did with this.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah. And, and we also reached over half a million downloads too, recently.
Carrie Gillon: That’s true.
Megan Figueroa: So. Thank you.
Carrie Gillon: So, thank all of you for listening and enjoy the episode.
Hi, and welcome to the Vocal Fries podcast, the podcast about linguistic discrimination.
Megan Figueroa: I’m Megan Figueroa
Carrie Gillon: and I’m Carrie Gillon. And we’re both sad sacks right now. Yeah. So, just over a week ago, I came down with Covid, probably for my second time, but this time, at least I have like actual also evidence with my rapid tests and yeah, you concussed yourself like a day later.
Megan Figueroa: I did. I did. And, and we had to reschedule something with someone and I felt like it was the saddest little email thread where you were like, “ah, can we reschedule? I have COVID” and I’m just like, “oh, that works for me. Cause I didn’t have a concussion.”
Carrie Gillon: Oh yeah. It doesn’t rain, but a pours.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah, exactly. It’s okay.
Carrie Gillon: We’re here, we’re here. And now we’re going to switch topics to something possibly even more traumatic. I know what the hell LSA, you’ve done it again.
Megan Figueroa: I know. And if you’re just a new listener, the LSA is Linguistics Society of America. And that’s our, I mean, one of the few, but the most probably populated membership of linguists of a linguistic society for linguists proper. I don’t know,
Carrie Gillon: Probably. I mean, there’s a lot of linguists in the United States. And So, I can’t imagine that there’s a bigger group in a different country, but then again, maybe, maybe like there’s some other associations that have larger groups. I don’t know. I can’t think of any though. You’re probably right.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah. And I say linguistics proper as like a kind of a subtweet. What it is is that when you say it out loud, it’s not on Twitter. But there is this very much this feeling of like gatekeeping within the community. And, and a lot of linguists are actually in other, like have membership to other groups because they feel like their, their linguistics isn’t appreciated within, people who think of that there’s a proper linguistics or there’s also a very narrowly defined linguistics.
Carrie Gillon: Of course, you could always be members of multiple different societies and associations. So, it’s like, and many people are right. The LSA is supposed to be an umbrella for every type of linguist.
Megan Figueroa: Right.
Carrie Gillon: And So, the fact that there yet there’s some gatekeeping going on by syntacticians and semanticists in this resolution is yeah, not great.
So, the resolution. “Therefore be it resolved that the Linguistic Society of America adopt the following version of the Chicago Principles on Freedom of Expression.”
And then they adapted them for the LSA. And So, if you really want to know what the Chicago Principles of Free a Freedom of Expression are, you can look them up. Because it’s long.
“So, in a word, the LSAs fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth their thought by some or even most members of the LSA community to be offensive, unwise, immoral or wrong-headed. It is for the individual members of the LSA community, not the LSA as an institution, to make those judgements for themselves and to act on those judgments, not by seeking to suppress speech, but by openly and vigorously contesting the ideas that they oppose. Indeed fostering the ability of members of the LSA community to engage in such debate and deliberation in an effective and responsible manner is an essential part of the LSAs educational mission.”
Sounds all nice. Like also we’re supposed to be able to like debate ideas and discuss them.
Megan Figueroa: Right.
Carrie Gillon: But
Megan Figueroa: which I think is on purpose, right. It’s supposed to sound like common sense
Carrie Gillon: let’s never use “common sense” again, I fucking, I always have hated that for like decades. It doesn’t mean anything.
Megan Figueroa: Well, it it’s ideological.
Carrie Gillon: I mean, it’s ideological. Yeah. Each person has a different sense of what common sense is. Right? So, like everybody has a different idea about what it is. And So, yeah, your ideology is placed onto that, but like it’s supposed to appeal to your sense of like, I don’t know, educational freedom, academic freedom, and in a vacuum that might be all well and good. The problem is why this, now.
Megan Figueroa: And why did we learn later that it happened to be introduced with two other requests?
Carrie Gillon: Yes. So, I actually think that that’s the really important thing is that they were put together , yeah, they were like suggested as a threesome,
Megan Figueroa: as a shitty, shitty threesome. Shitty.
Carrie Gillon: there are three confidential requests received from a group of members. It’s hard to tell, but I assume this, this, the confidential requests all come from the same group of members. And we don’t know who these group of members are. They’re signatories on the letter, but are those the same people who requested it? it’s unclear.
Megan Figueroa: Right.
Carrie Gillon: Anyway, the first thing is that the LSA endorsed the Chicago principles on academic freedom. The second one was that the LSA sees the voluntary collecting and reporting of, demographic information as part of its individual member profiles and aggregated in its database. And three, the LSA cease publication of Prospective articles and any other opinion slash commentary in Language and/or its other scholarly publications,
Megan Figueroa: what the fuck?
Carrie Gillon: Not collecting demographic information, like, okay. Why? Like you just don’t want anyone to know how white our field is.
Megan Figueroa: That’s my only guess. My only guess that that’s what it is. And I can’t imagine how they would even lie about what the reasoning is for that.
Carrie Gillon: Yeah. There’s no reason not to collect that information. It’s just, it’s just like,
Megan Figueroa: it’s voluntary anyway. It’s voluntary.
Carrie Gillon: Yeah. It’s voluntary. It’s it’s just data. There’s no way to like, make that like spin it as like bad data. Like, no.
Megan Figueroa: Right.
Carrie Gillon: So, okay. Obviously in bad faith and number three. And by the way, I have a, written a Perspectives article, but I bet our article is not one of the ones they were thinking of when they wrote this.
Megan Figueroa: Right. And also, is that not literally undermining number one?
Carrie Gillon: Yes. It doesn’t make any sense. Like, yeah. “Just stop talking. Let the adults speak.”
Megan Figueroa: I mean, I knew that this was in bad faith when I thought it was only just the resolution, but then someone found this and I was like, oh, there’s no arguing it’s not now, because not saying that we shouldn’t, there shouldn’t be any perspective slash opinion pieces in the journal is literally undermining what this resolution. And so, there has to be the bad shitty ulterior motives that I thought.
Carrie Gillon: Yeah. And I know some of these. Not super
Megan Figueroa: cause it’s your field. You’re there at the syntax semantic interface.
Carrie Gillon: I was, yes. And I’ve met some of them and they were very nice. To me.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah. Yeah.
Carrie Gillon: Part of me is like, okay, are they completely naive about what they’re doing? And they’ve been like pulled in by people who I think are more nefarious actors? Or are they just as nefarious? I don’t know. I really don’t know.
Megan Figueroa: Cuz some of these are people of color of the 10 signatories. A few of them are racialized individuals.
Carrie Gillon: I only know one of them who is racialized, but yeah.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah. You got to ask the question, is it naivete, or is it John McWhorter shit?
Carrie Gillon: I’m pretty sure in some cases it’s McWhorter shit.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah.
Carrie Gillon: But I don’t know those people, I just know their reputation.
Megan Figueroa: So, I was talking to my partner about it and I was like, I mean, this is just going to, what it’s going to allow is like opening up things for, or an avenue for hate speech to be okay. And he’s like, “well, that’s just bad behavior. That’s not what’s going to happen.” I was like, oh no, no, no, no. We’re in the field of language. So, people actually, there are a few linguists who like to say slurs out loud because it’s a use vs. mention thing. Well, they’ll say, “oh no, I’m not using it. I’m just mentioning the word.” And they’re not part of the group that the slur’s directed at, and yet they still use it. No, this is definitely a direct avenue toward derogatory and hate, hate speech being used. Willy nilly.
Carrie Gillon: Even if some of the letter writer or signatories wouldn’t do that, which I’m pretty sure is the case in at least a couple of the cases that I know, like, I don’t think that that’s what they want.
Megan Figueroa: No.
Carrie Gillon: Some of them do probably, and it doesn’t matter. It opens the door for other people
Megan Figueroa: exactly.
Carrie Gillon: To do it. Other linguists. So, it doesn’t even in some ways matter what the impetus is, it’s the, the it’s going to have that impact and yeah, sure. It’s bad behavior. But if we’ve said openly, well, we’re not allowed to stop them. We can only, I guess, complain, maybe, although it’s not super clear what we’re allowed to do. We’re not allowed to stop it. So, we can’t kick people out of out of the LSA for using slurs.
Megan Figueroa: Right.
Carrie Gillon: We can’t kick them out of the conference.
Megan Figueroa: Right.
Carrie Gillon: Or like a workshop or something like we, we just aren’t allowed to do anything like that. Doesn’t seem right. And it doesn’t align with some people have said with like the principles of the LSA that like the, that have been passed in the previously. So, it’s a mess. It doesn’t make any sense to do this. And like, why now? Like what, what made them do this now?
Megan Figueroa: Right.
Carrie Gillon: And it seems like maybe it’s the Perspectives part of Perspectives, articles, particularly on race in linguistics.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah. Because those actually do mention the demographics and by the way, the collected information that they don’t want collected anymore.
Carrie Gillon: Right.
Megan Figueroa: Which, and I’ve talked about in the past too, where it’s like, it’s minuscule the amount of like Mexican-Americans within the linguistics society, Linguistics Society of America. Like it’s not good. It’s, it’s a, it’s a poor reflection of who I would hope the Society would want to be.
Carrie Gillon: There’s a good chance it won’t pass. Right?
Megan Figueroa: Right.
Carrie Gillon: Because a lot of people like just numerically, there’s a lot of people who are opposed to this. Let’s just say for the sake of argument, it doesn’t pass. Then what? Well, a lot of people will worry to, what’s going to happen in the media. Certainly, the right wing people are going to take this and run and be like, oh, see, linguists are against academic freedom. There’s nothing we can do to stop them from doing this. They’re going to do it no matter how nicely we word it, which is, I don’t know, it’s a nightmare.
Megan Figueroa: You know, who might do this? Linguist John McWhorter. He might be the one that is going to do, or even Steven Pinker, but more likely McWhorter, but it’s not going to be good.
Carrie Gillon: more likely McWhorter. Cause I think, I think Pinker wants to pretend that he’s above this now. Like he’s not part of linguistics, like, “oh, you don’t want me, okay. I’m not a linguist anymore.” I could be wrong. He might still do it, but I, I, yeah. You’re not the first person to say “I’m worried about McWhorter.” Yeah. I think that McWhorter is probably going to do something, say something
Megan Figueroa: the New York Times. He has a newsletter,
Carrie Gillon: it’ll be in the New York Times. And that’s the, that’s the thing like, So, I don’t think we can do anything about the right-wing media. They’re going to do what they’re going to do. They, they outright lie about things.
Megan Figueroa: Right.
Carrie Gillon: They lie about people being docs when they’re not actually docks. Like they will just a bald-faced lie.
Megan Figueroa: Right.
Carrie Gillon: But what’s more worrying to me is the New York Times is going to take this and run with it because they’re like, So, like their free speech absolutists, or at least some of the people there are. And yeah, like I even talked to the, I can’t remember his name now, the, the guy who did that Pinker article a couple of years ago, about the Pinker letter, and when I had a conversation with him, I was like, “wow, this guy is really biased.” Like he’s very, very, very pro free speech, no matter what.
Megan Figueroa: Right.
Carrie Gillon: And then he lied about not talking to anybody on the record. Cause I talked to him on the record.
Megan Figueroa: Right. Cause you didn’t say what he wanted you to say.
Carrie Gillon: I guess I didn’t put my foot in my mouth, which is good.
Megan Figueroa: Right.
Carrie Gillon: But right. Anyway, So, I don’t know what to do about that. I mean, like they they’re already. Have their mind set? Like how do you convince them? We can’t even convince like people that I consider to mostly be good faith linguists, that this is wrong.
Megan Figueroa: Right.
Carrie Gillon: Some semanticists that I know, not super well, but well enough I’m like, how are you not seeing what this is?
Megan Figueroa: Why is this a problem at the syntax semantic interface? Do you think?
Carrie Gillon: Well, I think it’s a power thing. First of all also we’re not really taught about the, about power in language. Like that’s something we don’t do. And like there’s no socio linguist involved in this. As many people pointed out on various places, So, sure. That’s true. But also, like if you don’t have an analysis of power, then you don’t see the power that you have I think? or, maybe you do. I don’t know some of them I think they really don’t see what they’re doing though. Like. I know, I know they’re not as bad as some of the other people, let’s put it that way.
Megan Figueroa: Right, right.
Carrie Gillon: Who are definitely doing missing completely bad faith.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah. Like I know one is for share and oh, by the way, one of the signatories is Noam Chomsky for all of the listeners out there.
Carrie Gillon: whose always been a free, free speech absolutist.
Megan Figueroa: Right.
Carrie Gillon: So, it’s completely unsurprising to me that he’s on that list, but I am surprised by a couple of the others.
Megan Figueroa: And of course, that makes it look more serious. People will see Noam Chomsky’s name on the list and be like, okay. That might even be enough reason for it to be in the New York Times, you know?
Carrie Gillon: Yep. Yeah, exactly. And I think there’s a good chance it will. No matter what. I mean, if for some reason it passes and that this becomes like the LSA’s statement, then it might not.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah.
Carrie Gillon: But a bunch of people are going to leave the LSA because that’s just, it’s not reflective of the, like a large group of people who are part of the LSA.
Megan Figueroa: Yep. Had to work pretty hard to be listened to in the first place for the things like the race statement and all these other things. And it feels like it’s undermining all of that work and yeah.
Carrie Gillon: Well, yeah, it’s exactly counter to that work.
Megan Figueroa: Right.
Carrie Gillon: Anyway, in this episode, we talk all about. Different language varieties learning or speech or writing in English when it’s not your first language. And it’s like, it’s a great volume .
Megan Figueroa: And I like talking to writers, poetic people, people that are just have oozing with talent.
Carrie Gillon: Yes, yes. They’re, yeah, really interesting people and hope you enjoy.
So, today we’re very excited to have two of the editors of the new book Tongues: On Longing and Belonging Through Language. Eufemia Fantetti, who is a graduate of the writer studio, and holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of Guelph. Her short fiction collection, A Recipe for Disaster and Other Unlikely Tales of Love was runner up for the Danuta Gleed Literary Award and a winner of the F.G. Bressani Prize.
Ayelet Tsabari is the author of the Art of Leaving Winner of the Canadian Jewish Literary Award for Memoir and an Apple Books and Kirkus Review Best Book of 2019. She teaches creative writing at the university of King’s College MFA and at the MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Guelph.
Megan Figueroa: Thank you for being here.
Eufemia Fantetti: Thanks for having us.
Carrie Gillon: Why did you want to put this book together?
Eufemia Fantetti: We needed something to do during the pandemic. You know, Ayelet tells this story So, much better. Like I tend to leave out details and get things wrong. So, do you mind telling the story?
Ayelet Tsabari: It’s really interesting how it came to each of us in a sort of a different way. I used to have this fantasy about having a collection of writers who write in their second language or something like that. And Leonarda wanted to do something about grammar and about grammar shaming. And I don’t remember what Eufemia’s thought was, but we all had an idea about language and an anthology and collecting also stories by writers, who write about language. And then one day I remember calling like suddenly it occurred to me that it’s one book. Then I called, I called you first. And I was like, “Hey, don’t, don’t you think that’s actually, one anthology?”
So, I mean, we all had such a preoccupation with language in our lives, as immigrants, as women who spoke more than one language, who were born into one language and then ended up speaking another in, in various levels also for you it became kind of a native tongue and beyond for Leonarda a little bit later, I’m still, English is still my second language.
But, yeah, So, we all were really, we couldn’t not be interested in it. It’s just, it’s our lives, it’s the way we communicate with our families, it’s the way people communicate with us in the world or how they perceive us also it’s in our accent, it’s in everything. And as writers, it seemed to make sense that this would be how we explore it, as writers who write in English. So, yeah.
Eufemia Fantetti: Yeah. And I think at some point early on in our friendships, we had shared some kind of story of language discrimination or language shaming. So, it was like a, that was an element that we all were interested in and we would send each other. I think it was like early on, Ayelet, sent me Leonarda’s essay. That was the inspiration. Title, the title. Yeah. And I was like, this is what I, this is, these are the stories I want to hear. These are the stories I think about. These are the stories I want to write. Instead of like also early on in my writing life, I was always trying to write towards capital L literature, which meant, I never ended up with characters who looked like me, sounded like me looked like my parents. Because they had never been represented on the page in a way that I like in, in my entire education. I had wonderful like English teachers who were really like, they were passionate. They were all these things, but I was reading things that were outside of my scope of reference and I could not also relate to Hagar Shipley and the world that Margaret Lawrence was creating. And it was like, this isn’t really an, you still see it also when you see it, it’s like kids are still being taught Lord of the Lord of the Flies. Some Lord somewhere lording. And it’s like this, you know? And it’s like, there’s So, many incredible books that have been written in the last five years, in the last year, in the last decade that these young adults would really like, they would, they would actually appreciate and they would delve into, and they would actually not have the hang-ups about reading and literature.
So, it was really just like, because I’m So, stubborn that I kept at it. And then finally, thank goodness people like Leonarda suddenly those stories were being published in literary magazines, like Room. And I could find them, or I yell at, would send them to me and I’d be like, this is, this is the world I want to live in the world where we write these stories and talk about these experiences that are not one homogenous blanket culture
Carrie Gillon: in your intro, you talk a little bit about, this is multilingual group of people who have written all these essays, and yet you they’re all written in English. So, can you speak a little bit about why you made that decision.
Eufemia Fantetti: In one way, it was a really simple decision to make because we are only capable of editing in English. Like we, or also whether we had some facility with our other languages, we just were like, this isn’t going to fly. I just couldn’t, I couldn’t edit in Italian and I didn’t, I think we wanted to keep it as we wanted to acknowledge it and also, keep it as straightforward as possible. This was going to be for specifically like an audience that could read in English. And we felt like we just barely scratched the tip of the iceberg with the pieces that we had. There are So, many we would love to see this continue. I would love to see a version of this just for Indigenous languages. Like there’s just So, many and what happens you know, if you become the only person that’s speaking to that one voice, it’s just, it’s So, much pressure. And we knew that we only had So, much room and So, many people that we could ask, cause our list of people that we wanted to invite was quite long and we had to keep paring it down. And then for us to be able to edit the work with any kind of confidence and not drag the project onto a three-year pandemic instead of a two year, sorry, we just knew we had to work with the one also and we knew that that was like, that was where our strength was as a, as a trio of editors and as a, as a group of people that were just, we were just wanting to see this book out there, we wanted that book to exist, and we knew that, like, we just didn’t have the resources to do other languages in that book,
Ayelet Tsabari: but I think what’s cool is that other languages do make appearances in the pages. And that’s the other thing, when you were talking about how you didn’t also we didn’t also you didn’t see yourself in also in the literature you were assigned in school. It’s also, like, you’ve never seen your, your language anywhere. also if you did see it, it was italicized, you were told that it’s boring, you were told that it’s different also, which is not what you want. It’s not different for you and it’s not foreign for you. So, that was one little way Uh, that we could include also the, the other languages. Of course, it was also it depended on the writer. Not everyone chose to do that, but yeah, it’s a little nod, to all these other tongues
Megan Figueroa: you spoke earlier about experiencing language shame or linguistic discrimination, does that happen in English as well as the language that you grew up in?
Ayelet Tsabari: I think we both experienced it in both languages. For me personally, obviously I came to Canada also my English I spoke English but it was, it was conversational, it was definitely not the language I could write in and yes, I made a lot of mistakes and yes, there was a lot of vocabulary gaps and because I have a good ear, the accent didn’t always also like sometimes people didn’t assume that I knew as little as they did. And then when I made a glaring error, they felt okay making fun of me or also like, “you don’t know that word!” And I’m like, “no, I ‘ve been to Canada for two years. I’m an immigrant.” But So, I’ve had a lot of these experiences. I think one of the worst, I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone that this is something new, I think. But when I came into my immigration citizenship ceremony. I came to sign my signature and my signature remains in Hebrew alphabet and the person Immigration Canada person was standing next to me, looked at me and said, very didactically “This is Canada here. We have to sign in English.” And this is the only document I have that I have my signature written in English. Like I’m an author now. I sign my books in Hebrew. The only document that exists in the world where I was forced to write my name, to fake sign my name in English was not even my signature, you know? Like So, that was, yeah. I don’t think I’ve ever actually- I felt a little bit, I felt a little bit of shame for not putting my foot down afterwards. I should have said something I should have said like, “no,” but I was like also to the magnitude of the event and whatever, and I just did it.
But then what happened to me, it’s interesting how, even for someone who moves also late in life, I was 25 when I moved to Canada. My mother tongue suffered also because I was not using it as much back when I moved to Canada. It was there was no social media. There was no direct connection. Phone calls were expensive. And very few Israelis living in Vancouver at the time, like five. This is not the case now. So, I never heard it spoken in the streets and I didn’t have anyone to talk to. So, I started to completely- it’s So, interesting. I come from living in one language also living entirely in another language and having no opportunity to practice my other. So, yeah, it atrophied.
And then whenever I came back to Israel, suddenly also that we have that Israeli Hebrew is a gendered language. So, numbers are, are gendered even, right. So, if you use the wrong gender for an object, that’s really frowned upon. That immediately marks you as someone who is not as intelligent. And suddenly I go around saying the wrong numbers and, and you know, I remember I have an uncle who’s a PhD. And he said like, “I don’t care about this.” And it was So, refreshing to me to hear him say that it’s like, “I don’t care. I understand what they mean,” you know? And I was like, “yes, yes!” I think I used to be that person. I used to think that you’re more intelligent if you know which number to- I don’t even the term for it because they don’t exist in English. So, I know you do, but I have no idea, but like I suddenly changed my mind and started to reconsider what’s important.
Eufemia Fantetti: I think anytime something anytime someone starts a sentence with “this is Canada,” everything’s downhill from there.
All the points that you making are also, like one of the reasons that we were So, inspired for this book was because I grew up in an environment where I saw people treated as less intelligent simply because they had incredibly thick accents. So, I was always fascinated with pronunciation. And then I went to become an ESL teacher. And the first month we watched a video, it was from the eighties. So, it was quite dated. We watched a video where an instructor spent, I swear, like seven minutes trying to teach people who could not make the ‘th’ sound. I was furious at the end of it. I was like, “this is a waste of time. This is going to give somebody a complex about learning languages and really like the pronunciation fascists have to calm down.” Right? Like they really have to calm down. I’ve watched people treat my parents, just because they say Tursday instead of Thursday, they’re like acting like, oh my God, why can’t I understand the thing this person’s saying. There’s no other day of the week that sounds like that. You know, you really are like a jerk for spelling out the fact that because their tongue goes to a different place in their palate in their mouth. To me-
Ayelet Tsabari: it’s hard! I struggled.
Eufemia Fantetti: But some people are not going to get there. You know but I still know what they’re saying. So, I know even as an instructor, I’ve had students, who’ve become incredibly frustrated if I don’t understand something. And I’m always sort of saying also “it’s not your pronunciation, it’s my listening skills that haven’t developed with this accent. I will get there. And I’m sorry that it’s frustrating, but we’ll get there together.” Like, it’s absolutely appalling to me that anybody would like, just correct somebody.
And I’m not talking about like, who cares if you say camomile [meal] or camomile [mile], I couldn’t care less. But if someone’s saying like a Tursday and you don’t understand, and you’re like, “oh, you mean Thursday?” What is this? What is the point of a moment like that? To just shame someone? Because, because they can’t make that sound. And if they can’t, you still understand what they’re saying and you continue the conversation also it gets like people just do a full stop and they’re like, “hold the phone. I can’t understand. This is so-” you know, and it’s like, it’s absurd. It’s absurd in those situations. Like you really need to be able to like, say “I get what this person is saying.”
And I’ve had times in my life where, because I was raised by parents who spoke one language and I read in a different language there. My reading comprehension was way ahead of my speaking comprehension. So, then I walk into a room and I say something, and this is when everybody takes the opportunity to mock me.
And I think still what I’m doing here is displaying a tendency to want to have a larger vocabulary. What’s the mock in this, whether I pronounce it this way or that way, which is why, even in my essay, when I’m talking about my name, I’m like, it’s, it’s just that it’s got these pronunciations that are mishmash of like English plus Italian plus other things.
And English is like the language that has stolen from every other language. So, it’s got like, it’s So, hard to learn because people are like, “is this a Latinate word? Is this a Germanic? Where does this word come from?” And it’s like, well, we just took from everywhere because that’s what a colonizing language does, it just goes in, takes whatever it wants, “this is mine,” you know?
And then it’s like also the king, the king of the hill language is like, I also it’s just there’s moments when you even hearing like in popular culture. And when I heard the story of Sean Bean, when he was asked, if he could do the RP, the received pronunciation of English for Game of Thrones, he was like, “No. Can’t do it.”
So, everybody had to learn to do a Northern accent in that Stark family. And I was fantastic. I love this linguistic diversity. We don’t want everybody to sound the same. Would get So, annoying. It would be So, boring if we lived in a world where everybody, it would be dystopian, actually like it would be like, everybody sounds the same. I feel like I’m surrounded by robots. There’s no musicality of accents. It would be horrific.
Carrie Gillon: What do these essays tell us about our relationship to language and languages?
Eufemia Fantetti: That’s such a great question. I mean, it tells us, I think all of them tell us how intimate the relationship to language and identity is, like, it’s So, tight. Like you just can’t separate them. So, the language that you think and dream and love and all those things are So, connected to your identity and your idea of self.
So, what happens then, like in some of the essays that we have, like, what happens if your language is violently been taken away from you? Like in Indigenous nations where they weren’t allowed to speak that they were taken away from that language as children. And then the systematic destruction of that and the cultural connection to the language, like the language represents more than just the personal identity, but it’s connected to the world around them and how they reflect and connect to the world around them.
So, I think all of the, I feel like all of- I’m not saying this just as a co-editor for the anthology- I find them all incredibly moving essays. And I know when we did the launch, Ayelet was saying something similar about like when we had the writers reading excerpts from their essays and they were all So, powerful, they were all So, incredibly compelling in that kind of way where you’re like, “yeah, I, I also I feel this tug on my heart. Like this is definitely something that matters to me and other people like language and the lost language of their ancestors or things like that.”
Which is why, which is why the ethos of this like podcasts that you’re doing. And I was talking to Carrie before about the TED Talk that she did, like language discrimination. Like it really does. I’m constantly dealing with students at the college that may have real hang-ups about writing when they come to the composition class, because they’ve been told they’ve been treated their whole lives as if they can’t communicate because they speak with an accent. They have a, they picked up their parents’ inflections or they’ve come from someplace else. And So, they speak a different version of English. And they’re being told, like, “you don’t say ‘ax’, you say, ‘ask’.” And it’s like, no, you can actually, like, I can figure it out. So, can everybody else in this room that’s speaking English, let’s keep with the like multi versions of English. And then let’s try to like stop languages from going extinct as well.
You know, like that’s what we want. We want a world where like, we stopped doing that shaming people, because it is exactly you know, you think you’re shaming them about their language, but you’re really shaming them about their class, their ethnic background, their gender, their culture.
Megan Figueroa: I think that people that speak or sign the standardized way perhaps don’t mean to be assholes. Like we say this show or why we have the podcast. But haven’t had to think about what it’s like for someone to say, “you don’t say ‘ax’, you say ‘ask'” and how that feels. It doesn’t feel good.
Eufemia Fantetti: Yeah. And I think also with the thing is if you haven’t had to think about it because you haven’t been in an environment where people speak like English with an accent, it should still in, like it’s still in the last So, many, like let’s say the last five years, but I’m hoping longer, further back. It should be obvious that you’re not- like nobody’s got time to relearn the English language that they learned growing up. Like it’s not necessary. Like, So, it shouldn’t, the idea of correcting people. You know, I’m very aware, like if it’s a correction because I think it’ll stand out and have someone be judged, I might mention it to them, but I’m not correcting them because I think there’s only one way to say something.
Carrie Gillon: And it’s a tricky, it is a tricky line, right? Because it’s it will this help you get, get those job offers.
Eufemia Fantetti: Yes. Cause they, I mean, they do it all by voice and how you speak over the phone. Right. If they’re like, they don’t even see you. So, there’s still judging from the way you sound or the vocabulary, you know?
Megan Figueroa: Oh, I, I just wanted to give you a compliment first, before going back on, that when we got the PDF of your anthology, I was just like, “damn it” because I knew I was going to be emotional and it, I think that that’s, I think that’s a compliment. I think that it’s it’s- I read to feel.
Ayelet Tsabari: Absolutely. Thank you for saying that. I always say that. This is- same . I need to feel deeply. Absolutely.
Carrie Gillon: So, yeah, I guess speaking about the emotions and feelings, Eufemia me out, what is your essay “Five Stages of Language Loss “about?
Eufemia Fantetti: So, it’s really about the fact that, I mean, I’ve been dealing with grief my whole life. Before I knew that it was grief, I thought it was depression. I thought it was anxiety. I thought it was a whole bunch of things, but it’s really knowing that at some point I won’t be able to speak the dialect of Italian that I speak with my father and my aunts anymore, because there’ll be gone and they’ve been also they’ve been getting older and ill and there’s all kinds of issues with communicating cause communicating with them. There’s still problems. Like my aunt was telling me about a certain kind of juice today and I was like, we’re trying every combination and she could not give me the word that I could translate into Italian. I was like, can we spell it? And I was like, I’m just frustrating this poor 85 year old woman. I was like, “I don’t know what juice we’re talking about.” She’s like, “you know what, I’m going to hang onto the bottle. And then I’ll either get your cousins, take a picture of it, text it to you or you can come see it.” And I was like, “okay, great.”
But So, the essay is really about the fact that I’ve tried to learn Italian and then let that go because the dialect is my language. It’s its own language, you know? And then there’s, there’s a whole thing about whether I call it a dialect or language because it is a language. So, I’ve tried to learn standard Italian and just all that that language represents because it’s a tricky relationship.
My parents had an arranged marriage and my mother had a severe mental illness. And So, there was a lot of violence in our home. So, that language as much as I love it. And as much as I want to preserve it, it is also, connected to huge instances of violence. And there’s a lot to grieve there. So, recognizing that also when I talk to myself, I usually talk to myself in that language. And then sometimes I’m aware that that’s because that’s the language of my inner critic. That’s like, “oh, nice, nicely done there. You know, good work” like in that essay, I’m trying to really think about that tight rope that I walk between these two cultures. And I’m So, grateful to live in the lands that I live in, in Canada and have the opportunity to be here. And the also I know there’s there’s problems in both, but I’m just like, I’ve been raised in a culture where people are, can be blunt and nasty and cruel also and, and they do it out of love. You know, it’s really hard to navigate that when somebody is like also there was an expression that we used in a family that my aunt would tell me in the village was you know, “I saw your name in the book of idiots” and it was like saying to someone and I was just like, oh, so, but they’re telling you things also they’re, they’re constantly judging you. “You’re going out dressed like that. Why have you got a haircut? Like what’s, what’s going on with your hair these days.” And they’re really coming from a place of love, which is really hard to take in, but it’s also it’s in that it’s all, it’s within the language. There’s like a lot of this negative bias too.
And then I’m like also there’s a part of me that’s I love the, the opportunity that I’ve had to live in a culture where people are a little more nuanced or a little more polite and less blunt and in your face. But I recognize that those two things can be like one side sees the other as deceitful and the other side sees the other one as rude when it’s like, so-
You know, I think I’m grieving what’s going to be gone when I’m not able to have that conversation in that language every day.
Megan Figueroa: Can I ask, is this like a geographical, like, based language like part of Italy?
Eufemia Fantetti: It’s close to, it’s really similar to Neapolitan, but if I called it Neapolitan, they would get upset. So, it’s, it’s, it’s within the Neapolitan language and it’s one of the subsections of that. So, it’s, it’s definitely, it’s in the middle part of Italy. Yeah.
They’re really also it’s amazing. My father went to school with someone who was who went on to get their PhD, which was kind of amazing for that time and place in Italy. And they wrote a book about the dialect that the Molisan dialect. And I could read it. I it’s the first time I ever opened a book and been like, oh my God, this is written exactly how I would expect the pronunciation to be. And I could make out all the words. And I was like, because they’re exactly the words that are in my head from that language. So,
Megan Figueroa: So, there are not very many literary materials.
Eufemia Fantetti: Yeah, exactly.
Carrie Gillon: I liked this quote from your essay. “I speak what’s proper for me and my family.” Can you talk a little bit about
Eufemia Fantetti: Yeah, So, I remember every time I get asked about whether I speak Italian, I always come back ashamed and embarrassed and I say no, I speak a dialect,” as if I’m like lesser than the people who speak standard Italian.
That was a specific instance with also a customer that I had when I worked at Chapters in Metrotown out in Burnaby, and they were also they saw my name tag and they knew how to pronounce my name. And they were like this person’s got also they, they saw my name tag, took a look at my nose profile and they were like, this person’s clearly Italian. So, they started asking me questions about whether I could speak Italian. And I thought also it’s So, fascinating because she can appreciate and enjoy that language and the country without experiencing any of that shadow stuff that I have had to deal with, the misogyny, the, this, the, that you can just be like, “oh, everything’s So, beautiful.” And it’s like, really? Because the expectations on women are out of this world and it is ground zero for like the misogyny, as far as I’m concerned of the Catholic Church and the Roman Empire. So, it was in that moment that I was like, I can’t believe this person is judging me because I don’t speak standard Italian. Like we’re all sitting around in my like Italian, immigrant, home, drinking espresso, talking about marble and books and opera. No! Everybody’s exhausted. They want to watch like some kind of entertainment that’s going to appeal to them. And then they’re just like, “that’s it. Goodnight? I’m out.” You know?
And I don’t no one else in my family is really keen on books. My dad has a few, but he’s just like also “no, I watched the movie.” They’re not into it. So, I’m always the one that’s a little bit unusual, but thankfully my dad, wasn’t the kind of person who was like, “oh, you’re wasting money on books. There’s the library.” He was always indulging that passion. So, I think I had my moment of just being kind of like this person has a specific idea of what is proper when they’re speaking Italian. And I was like also I felt exactly like what you sort of, your TED Talk covers, Carrie, where I felt like they’re judging my Italian. They’re judging where my family comes from. They’re judging you know, they can tell by my accent that I’m a peasant and I’m like, and what’s wrong with that? We’re the ones that like also we are the ones that made sure the fields were hoed and that the wheat was brought to harvest. And we’re also, the ones that usually ended up like staffing the military when you always went to war, right? Like you took from the south where there was a population explosion or you were like, “oh, these a family of 10? We’ll send like nine of them to war.”
So, I just felt like, no, I can’t handle somebody judging me for my not speaking proper standard Italian with my family. Cause it just, it does feel like economic judgment. Like “you should be more posh. Like why aren’t you speaking proper Italian. It’s So, beautiful.” And it was like, “I speak what’s right. Like we understand each other. This is the point of language.”
Megan Figueroa: So, if it’s proper Italian, you gotta talk about marble?
Eufemia Fantetti: And people are like, “oh, you’re Italian.” and I’m like, yes. And “my favorite opera is” like, it doesn’t matter in that way. They’ll tell, they’ll assume certain things. And I’ll be like also my favorite food is spaghetti and meatballs, and that’s a really Italian American version of also you tell that to Italians and they’re just like, you’re destroying everything.
Carrie Gillon: Yeah. So, what does Molisan mean to you?
Eufemia Fantetti: Molisan means people that have endured, people that are tough, people that are just like maybe also I forgive, I should forgive that negative bias a little bit because they have been oppressed. They have been like they’ve had everything taken away from them. They’ve been, they lived under a feudal system for So, long, but they are totally a little bit anarchist, I think. And they’re a little bit also So, it’s all the things that I’m like, yes. Like I’m proud of like these ancestors that were socialists or they were just like, on my father’s side, they were actually bandits. They were just like, seriously, “you’re going to tax us? Well, we’re going to actually fight back by living in caves and every So, often we’re just going to come down from the case and kill people.”
Megan Figueroa: It’s like a Robin Hood.
Eufemia Fantetti: Totally. Right. I was like, “was there anybody who stole from the rich to give to the poor?” and I my dad was like “they were poor!”
So, yeah, being Molisan just means like, because it is one of the regions in Italy that it is the one that gets made fun of, I guess like in Canada, people, when I was growing up, people made fun of Newfoundland. And I don’t know why, like lovely people, generous people, wonderful people. So, the same, I think about Molisan, I think like you don’t get to make fun of us.
And actually years ago, someone said to me, when I joined the association of Italian Canadian writers, they were like, “So, what part of Italy is your family from? And I was like, “Molise” and they were like, “no kidding, like Nino Ricci. Do you have how many people are in our association from Molise? Is there something in the water?” And I was like, “yeah, anarchy.”
Carrie Gillon: That’s really cool.
Eufemia Fantetti: So, it’s nice to know that people who were for generations denied an education or opportunity, that their descendants are being born as storytellers and coming forward.
Megan Figueroa: So, before we move on from you, how do you pronounce your name?
Eufemia Fantetti: I introduced myself as Eufemia [you-fee-mee-yah] in because it’s easier for people that speak English and I don’t want them to get tongue tied over that difficulty. And it’s because that was the name I was called for 20 years. It wasn’t until I was in first year university in an Italian class that the instructor said it’s supposed to be well in Italian, they would say [eh-u-feh-mee-ya]. And then I was in a Latin class at the same time and they were like, “it’s [you-feh-mee-ya].” And I was like, “it’s what?”
So, it was too much. Like, my brain was like, doesn’t that sound a little bit like putting on airs, like, it’s [you-feh-mee-ya]? So, I, I go by both. And I never correct people either way. I just tell them if they’re not sure it rhymes with bohemia.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah. But both of those feel okay to you or all three,
Eufemia Fantetti: all of them do, but you know, Eufemia- eu is a sound that can’t really be made by people who don’t speak Italian, Spanish, or even Portuguese, like the French struggle with it too. So, it’s a, it’s a volatile combination. That’s really only used by Italian, Spanish, Latin. Yeah. But it’s like yeah, I just, So, I usually go with [you-fee-mee-ya] because it’s just easier when I live in English also that’s the, that’s the one.
Carrie Gillon: What is your essay “Disappearance/Mutinous” about, and why did you call your essay that?
Ayelet Tsabari: I’ve written a lot about writing in a second language. I talk a lot about writing in a second language, about my relationship with English and my relationship with Hebrew. But I always knew that there was another language also inside, that I don’t speak, you know? But I know a little bit of. It always felt like a really big part of me that was not out in the open, because as we said, it’s So, entwined with our identity and our sense of selves.
I think the more that I started to accept my Yemeniness and my Arabness and that part of my identity, I also, started to long for the language more. And that is something that happened to me actually in Canada. You know, a lot of what you’re saying, Eufemia me, I find So, many also obviously you know that, but there’s So, many resonants.
It wasn’t encouraged, growing up in Israel, to embrace that part of your identity. And it wasn’t encouraged to embrace that accent which means you pronounced your ha’s and your ayns, those guttural or the glottal, I think it’s called consonants. So, I pushed all of that away and I pushed that identity and I pushed that accent and I pushed that language away.
And only as I said, as an adult, like when I was like in my late twenties, I started to want to reclaim it. But of course by then- I wouldn’t say it’s too late that it’s never too late, but it’s very hard to learn the language that late in life. And it feels like a constant ache, not being able to, to speak it even without the political added also sorrow of it also not being able to speak with my neighbors with language.
Megan Figueroa: Do you feel like it was forced on you? Was this internal or external or both happening?
Ayelet Tsabari: It’s I would say both also we do like, okay, So, the Arabic, similarly, like the Italian, probably more so, there’s So, many dialects and there’s So, many you know, regions and countries. So, the Palestinian or the regional area, the regional language that is spoken in this area, in the Middle East not even in the Middle East, I would say Palestine, Lebanon, and So, on. That was a tongue that we were kind of being taught but not really. You know, cause we would, we were taught to this, the written version of it, which is useless because nobody speaks it except for like some radio anchors and things like that. It would not help me communicate with my neighbors.
And surely I lost also interest in it because it wasn’t an alive and dynamic language that I could use. As far as the ancestral tongue, it’s a few things. A part of it was also denying that part of the identity. Part of it was that there wasn’t a lot of people to talk to. You know, there was my grandmother, but in a sense, and it’s sad to say that, but I feel like I pushed her away a little bit also because she represented something diasporic and, and foreign and also also to be completely frank, primitive also a little backwards in what also the fact that she, she didn’t know how to read and write and she spoke funny and she looked different and So, on. So, yes, a lot of it was internal, but also, brought on by them spirit of what was also what we were, I was a victim of society as we all are.
So, yeah, I guess the essay tries- it’s a lot. I was trying to do a lot in that essay and the disappearance is first of all, because this language is specific tongue. The specific dialect that my grandparents spoke and my mom still knows is dying is disappearing, right? Because there are no more Jews living in Yemen. There were very few. And they’re gone. They were just expelled. That just happened in 2021, due to the horrific war that is taking place, that there, they were just expelled. It’s the end of an era also there’s no more Jews left in Yemen. From what I know, they have been expelled to Saudi Arabia. So, there’s that.
But there’s also, that muteness because, and in Hebrew, right? That those letters, those, the sound, they sound the same. He’almut, helamut. If you don’t pronounce the guttural ayn, they sound exactly the same. If you do, then you have helamut, and you have he’almut, and that is right.
Megan Figueroa: Those different words,
Ayelet Tsabari: but they sound the same because we have flattened it, right. The Hebrew language as it is spoken today flattened it into one sound. Both of those things happening. There’s the disappearance of the languages, that was forced, that was internal.
So, that’s, that was kind of me trying to grasp all of that and how complicated that relationship I have with the Arabic language with my ancestral language and my longings for it.
Yeah. It’s So, much, it feels like an entire book could have been written about that.
Carrie Gillon: Yeah. I just loved that though, that pair of words and the iron and the ayn, and the glottal stop, I think. It was really like just this really beautiful encapsulation of what you were trying to do. I really appreciated that.
Can you just talk a little bit about how Arabic is viewed in Israel and in canada?
Ayelet Tsabari: So. The interesting thing about Arabic, like I really related to what you said, Eufemia, about also you have these ancestors and then you have the children and the grandchildren of this, you know bandits now becoming storytellers. And in Israel we have this resurgence of all of those mother tongues or the ancestral tongues, I should say, that have been quieted. And a lot of younger people nowadays want to reclaim them. So, there are a lot of also Arabic lessons and Arabic schools opening up suddenly, where younger people are saying, wait a second, this was taken away from us. We weren’t able to communicate with our grandparents, because we were ashamed. And now we want to take it back into our hands. And I think that’s amazing and that gives me hope. And also, of course, there’s also it allows for more communication with Palestinians, with our neighbors.
It was interesting for me moving to Canada because the first time that I heard Arabic in Canada, I tensed up. It was very interesting. I was like, oh wow, that’s one, an interesting reaction. And it made me see the, how fear was instilled in me, how I grew to fear that language also and because I grew to fear that language, of course, I wouldn’t want to also speak to my grandmother. And that made me So, sad to understand also like again, how politicized it became and it damaged my relationship with my, with my grandmother, because of that. And then from there, it took me to a place where I wanted also to learn it. And I started taking lessons and it’s all in the essay. I worked at a Lebanese restaurant and my Arabic improved.
That said, while I was living in Canada also September 11 happened and suddenly Arabic started to become a feared language in Canada as well. And that was, that was really an interesting development to be watching. And as someone who’s always been confused for an Arab, which makes sense since, since I am Yemeni and I am also an Arab also an Arab Jew. It was something that I saw very closely also I felt it, even, the way people viewed people who looked like me. So, I experienced that change in Canada as well.
I feel like it’s better now. I hope so also but in Israel, definitely a lot of people sing in Arabic now. There’s more of a, yeah, there’s an appreciation for it. And the reclaiming of it as not just the language of the enemy, but also, a language that was used by Jewish people for generations, you know? Not necessarily associating it- just yeah, like learning to see it in a positive way and in a way that to reclaim it, you know. That’s something from our history.
Megan Figueroa: So, is that what you’re doing? Is that how you feel about it at this point in your life?
Ayelet Tsabari: I absolutely. Yeah. Like I’ve, I’ve been feeling that for a long time now. And like I said, it happened in Canada. You know, that I suddenly, I think it was, was missing. It was missing home, and it was missing my grandmother. It was missing my family and realizing that going to the Jewish Community Center was not answering that need, where people were mostly white, where people were mostly Canadian, where their culture was nothing like mine, even though we share Judaism also what they ate and what their grandparents spoke and how they looked like was not the same thing. And then that drew me to also to find the Arabic culture in Vancouver. And see that I relate there.
And that’s where you met me, Carrie, at the community center, bellydancing.
So, yeah, I now feel, a very strong connection to it. I love the language. I have this visceral reaction to it also like from someone who feared it, who tensed up when she first heard it, now when I hear it, I have a very warm sensation. It’s a very positive reaction. I think it’s such a beautiful, beautiful language.
And I sing it. Like I say, in the essay. I now sing it. I don’t speak it.
Carrie Gillon: That’s amazing. That’s really cool. Yeah. Yeah. I actually took a couple of years of Arabic in university, So, yeah, I can’t, don’t ask me to say anything, but yeah, I really loved it. I thought I was really, yeah, really beautiful. And this was pre 9/11, So, yeah, like I still would’ve done it, but it did have a different valence for sure, pre 9/11.
Before we go. Is there any last words you’d like to leave with our listeners, either of you.
Eufemia Fantetti: Well, I know we are really grateful that you had us on your fabulous podcast. I almost said pode-cast.
Thank you. I guess they wanted to just like one last thing about something Ayelet said was this is something I came to as an adult. When I was a kid, I wanted to distance myself from that Molisan accent. I wished I spoke standard Italian. I wanted to be as far away from the people that represented poverty and hardship as possible. I wanted to like masquerade as someone else. In saying this, I guess what I would want your listeners to think about is what language is in their DNA and what language are they disconnected from.
About four years ago, Lee Maracle- it’s hard to think of her still think that also she’s gone. It’s just horrific. But So, upsetting. She was at the Creative Nonfiction Collectives Conference. And she asked the audience also who here actually writes in English, but has ancestors that speak another language and she then made the point, “you know, you’re disconnected from your body. It’s like, your, your mind is saying this and your body is saying this in the language that inhabits your body is the one that you’re disconnected from because you’re communicating in English.”
So, I mean, we need a global language So, that we can have global peace, but we need to also, remember that when we lose a language or when we ask people to speak English the same way, we are committing an act of violence, we’re going to lose So, much if we don’t like protect those languages and start feeling also when you hear another language, just engaging with it or just trying not to tense up, I guess, about certain things about language, because we’ve all had that experience.
Megan Figueroa: Anything else?
Ayelet Tsabari: Read the book.
Carrie Gillon: Yeah. Okay. Yes. Yes. Definitely read the book. I really appreciate the cover, the quotation bubble. It’s just, it’s really cool. Yeah. Yeah. So, thanks for coming on.
Megan Figueroa: Thank you So, much.
Carrie Gillon: And we always leave our listeners with one final message. Don’t be an asshole.
Eufemia Fantetti: What a great final message. I’m gonna hold that for the final stages of this pandemic.
Carrie Gillon: The Vocal Fries Podcast is produced by me, Carrie Gillon, for Halftone Audio. Music by Nick Granum. You can find us on Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram @vocalfries. You can email us at email@example.com and our website is http://www.vocalfriespod.com.