My ‘linguistic repertoire’

The notion of ‘linguistic repertoires’ is not a brand-new one, but it has become fairly central to Sociolinguistics in the last few years. I’d never heard of it until this month as I’d never studied Sociolinguistics before. Now I’m doing a master’s course which includes modules in Sociolinguistics, so terms such as ‘linguistic repertoire’ form part of my…’linguistic repertoire’. So…what’s a ‘linguistic repertoire’? Well, it’s defined in this article (written by some sociolinguists) as the “totality of linguistic resources” available to an individual, so it’s much more than the answer to the question “Which languages can you speak?”. In any case, the term ‘language’ is not all that useful when trying to understand the use of…language through the lens of Sociolinguistics, especially in a global context that is increasingly ‘conditioned by’ (yay!) linguistic superdiversity. It’s impossible to define the boundaries of an individual ‘language’ and designations such as ‘native speakers’, ‘dialect’ and ‘creole’ often serve to mystify rather than enlighten, while any given interaction or text (including this one, zum Beispiel) makes use of an often bewildering range of linguistic codes, styles, registers, varieties, etc. Ya get me? Begorrah.

I was given the task of posting a description of my own linguistic repertoire in the module’s discussion forum, and inevitably my account touched on a lot of the same issues that I’ve written about here, so I thought it might be of interest to regular visitors. (There’s a better-organised and better-informed account of someone’s LR towards the end of the article linked to just above.) Mine is a bit artless and plodding in places, but as they say in Cardiff, plus ça change…. I also forgot to mention that my main ‘foreign’ ‘language’ is…Europanto.

My linguistic repertoire

One’s linguistic repertoire indexes one’s biography, argue Blommaert and Backus (2011). Well, like any biography mine starts before I was born, in that my father left his hometown in Northern Germany at the age of 17 and eventually moved to Sheffield, England with my mum, who somehow came from both Dorchester and Leicester. Thus while most people in Sheffield have a distinctive way of speaking (familiar to anyone who’s seen ‘The Full Monty’), my family didn’t share it, although we did speak (ahem) ‘English’ rather than ‘German’. I was raised with quite a conservative set of values in relation to accent*, in that it was a family trope that pronouncing words like local people did was ‘common’. I rebelled against this to a certain extent, developing a lifelong affinity for what B & B call ‘dirty words’ as part of a far more demotic form of speech outside the house, but ended up speaking with a broadly non-regional accent, although I’ve always pronounced the short vowel in ‘baeth’ and would feel distinctly silly saying ‘ba:th’. I was exposed to German and French at school but the teaching approach wasn’t conducive to learning more than the odd fixed expression and some basic grammar.

At 18 I moved to Norwich (or, as the locals say, up Naarge) to study philosophy and literature, so acquired a fledgling command of academic discourses around post-colonialism, post-modernism and existentialism, etc. I then lived in Dublin for six years, which left a seemingly permanent mark on my linguistic repertoire in that I adopted pronunciations like ‘filum’ and started saying ‘yer man’, ‘graaand’ and ‘yis’. I can still do a passable Roddy Doyle-esque Northside accent, having felt an affinity with that part of Dublin. I later, via work, developed a command of areas of discourse including IT jargon and discourse patterns particular to software corporations.

Living in the north of Portugal I discovered an appetite (and, I thought at the time, an aptitude) for learning ‘foreign’ languages. I quickly acquired a strong regional accent, which didn’t stand me in good stead later in life. Having self-taught myself (well, it was really friends and newspapers that taught me…), I decided to try German, French, and Spanish while I was at it, in what in retrospect was an attempt to expand my range of identities, building up my linguistic capital. I remember a conversation around that time with an English colleague of mine who, having mastered those languages and more while living in ‘target language’ environments, expressed bemusement at my desire to acquire so many languages which she regarded as redundant tools since I was unlikely to need to use them any time soon. That principle hadn’t occurred to me but nonetheless struck me as a mature attitude that I nonetheless couldn’t identify with – what I’d learnt was precious and I was precious about it in turn. I moved to Lisbon and was delighted to meet someone who told me I spoke Portuguese with ‘no accent’. It’s possible they were joking – I’d only been in the country for a year at that point. I realised much later that my command of Portuguese was inevitably limited to vernacular forms in that I wasn’t ever going to be working in the language. I probably also spoke like a newspaper as that was where a lot of my vocabulary came from, and the same goes (it probably is still true) for the other languages I speak. I slowly acquired a command of ELT lingo as member of the very broad ELT ‘community’.

Although my English accent was distinctly non-specific I was astonished to one day meet a particularly perceptive Chicago cab driver on vacation who after I’d said about three words asked me what part of Sheffield I was from. I started to make friends with Brazilians who found my Portuguese Portuguese dialect hilarious and so I tried to start sounding more Brazilian; on trips to Spain I tried to sound like I was from Andalucia (erm…). I began to notice that on visits back to the UK, I felt a refreshing confidence in my ‘voice’. I felt like what Bourdieu calls a ‘legitimate speaker’ rather than someone winging it in a clearly foreign tongue. Living in China, I took pride in my speedily-acquired Mandarin, which was a bit absurd as I regularly met other foreigners who had clearly invested much more in the language. Although I inevitably left most of what I’d learned behind me, I still have an ability to recognise when people are speaking standard Mandarin. I then spent a few months in Madrid, and my Spanish developed much as my Portuguese had: good at speaking informally, advanced reading skills, little else. I’d started to realise at this point that I was depending on other languages as a source of self-esteem and to try to fulfil my lifelong dream of being from elsewhere –when I moved back to London at the start of 2006 I occasionally found myself referring to ‘other (as in fellow) foreigners’. I started a master’s course (in KCL) and developed my command of Academic Portuguese and, for that matter, English. In London through mixing a lot with Latin Americans, my Spanish and Portuguese changed. Thanks to where I was living, I developed an ability to recognise Bengali and Turkish. As for my own accent, I found it remarkable when a long-standing work colleague expressed surprise that I was from the north. Through examining I developed a knowledge of the IELTS register. Outside work my online Twitter interactions had a positive impact on my ability to express abuse and sarcasm in short written form. I visited Brazil and had to make a huge amount of effort to demediavelise my Portuguese – the Brazilians regard the European variety as atavistic and I struggled to fit in.

Through friendships with students I slowly started learning Italian, starting with certain regional swearwords, which as B & B point out can be a shortcut means of acquiring a familiarity with the vernacular. When I met my now-wife (who is Italian) I went through a period of being simultaneously impressed and intimidated by her and her colleagues’ ability to mix languages, code switching effortlessly and endlessly between English, French and Spanish. Getting my brain to think in Italian and my speech organs to not produce Spanish proved a constant struggle. Her job took us to Mexico and I experienced the same struggle in reverse. I also had to master a whole new area of place names, slang, and cultural information and had to work hard to try to Mexicanise my pronunciation. After a year there we spent a couple of months in a university in Thailand where I made a pointed attempt to fail to learn some of the language. I’d put my knowledge of Thai at about the same level as the few dozen words of Greek and Finnish I picked up on various holidays**. (My French and German have been comfortably stuck near the bottom of League 1 for at least 15 seasons.)

Regularly visiting Chiara’s family near Napoli meant my Italian features a few expressions in dialect, and then same goes for Rome, where we spent a year and a half. (Now it was Spanish that got in the way of Italian again.) Through working in a university I acquired (not without difficulty) a knowledge of the formal register of university bureaucracy, and (with a lot of assistance from others) developed my writing in a way I never really had with Portuguese or Spanish. I also had to acquire a command of the discourses around pregnancy, childbirth and parenting. Now here living in London I’ve started to think of my accent as a bit of a ‘Remainer’ accent, specially when I step outside the M25. I’ve also started using the word ‘index’ as a verb, and phrases like ‘orders of discourse’, ‘dividing practices’ and ‘kurtosis’. I’m no longer as dependent on knowing foreign languages to bolster my self-esteem, and I’m also no longer sure if and where a line can be drawn between knowledge of the world and knowledge of language, between knowing a few Greek expressions and knowing where Athens is in relation to Thessaloniki, remembering who the Prime Minister of France is and being able to identify a Colombian accent, or having the command of the necessary discourses to fake it in the world of Applied Linguistics. I can now appreciate that language competence is, as Blommaert and Backus point out, dynamic rather than fixed, and that it’s not a case of acquiring and owning a number of discrete languages but rather of using different forms of language with varying degrees of competence while inhabiting specific roles in diverse situations. Here endeth my linguistic repertoire***.

*And vocabulary – my mum, who we, despite not being officially posh (and absolutely not being rich), kept addressing for far too long as ‘Mummy’, insisted on prohibiting the word ‘wee’ and imposed ‘wee wee’ as a euphemistic alternative, which is…odd because (as any expert in linguistics will happily confirm) the term ‘wee wee’ consists of nothing but the word ‘wee’, twice. This single fact more than any other explains why I still find it I important use so much bad fucking language. N.B. I didn’t include this bit in the module discussion forum post.

**As I’ve mentioned here before I happen to know some staggeringly offensive things to say in Finnish. I once offered to share them with anyone who contacted me via the Contact link. Two people did so, I sent them the expressions complete with fully idiomatic transactions, but oddly enough neither of them ever thanked me. Kuradi pärast!

***Here I drew upon a Biblical register. Thank God I didn’t follow it with ‘Amen’. Amen to that.

Finland, Finland, Finland…


It’s refreshing right now, in the sweltering midday heat of Rome in early July, to remember that there are places on this planet which were once coldIf only we’d all done more to prevent the planet overheating in the first place. I did try, a bit. In early December 2009 I had two trips planned to Nordic Europe* within the course of ten days. My plan was that I would visit my friends in Tampere (in Finland), fly back to London and then, the following day, take another plane to Copenhagen to join the protest at the Climate Conference. As it happened, on the morning after returning from Finland I was too skint, exhausted and hungover to travel to Denmark. At least I avoided any awkward questions about my dependence on unsustainable modes of transport. 

Not that I regretted  going to Finland: I subsequently went back twice in the space of three years. It was somewhere I felt an immediate affinity with. On my first visit I took immense pleasure in the complicatedness of the language. It was about three degrees and falling quickly in the early December Helsinki midafternoon, as I wandered round in circles both concentric and eccentric and asked passers-by one of the two or three phrases I knew: ‘Missä on… Ekaterinaburgkatu?’ – Where is Ekaterinaburg Street? I had no idea what the answers meant but, having long held the opinion that the best way to discover a new city is to get lost in it, didn’t mind zigzagging around for a couple of hours. Paying careful attention to where people were pointing eventually helped narrow it down when the winter wind became too much to bear.

The people I was staying with in Helsinki were from Russia but had made their home in Finland. Ironically, it was partly through them that I began to get a sense of the unfussy hospitality which characterises Finland, which is, after all, not Brazil: it’s not a culture which goes out of its way to impress or charm visitors. People instead exhibit a quiet, uneffusive generosity. Some of that stoicism must be to do with the climate. In the Kiasma gallery I came across a remarkable artwork consisting of a wood cabin, starkly furnished, complemented by a toy train set which gave off an occasional melancholy wail. Inside the cabin TV screens showed blurred images of snowstormed forests soundtracked by heartbreaking stories of people going missing in month-long blizzards.

Subsequently learning something about history introduced me to the concept of sisu, a kind of hardiness particular to Finnish culture  and strongly associated with the staggering sacrifices of the Winter War with Russia. On the subject of suffering, getting deeper into Finnish culture would would mean dealing with the terrifying range of cases central to its famously impenetrable language (essive, inessive, ablative, illative…), which despite my attempts to rationalise them away as sort-of-like-prepositions-but-just-tagged-on-as-suffixes defy normal human understanding.

Heading north on the train I appreciated the silence and space. Outside the main cities Finland often feels barely inhabited. People told me that you can travel for days through the forest and not see a helvetin soul. This sparseness seemed to extend to the consumer economy. I enjoyed the fact that on the train there was a drink you could buy called ‘coffee’, as opposed to the skinny-grande-double-pump-caramel-gingerbread-latte-nonsense on offer in more crowded parts of Europe.

Tampere felt familiar, unsurprisingly so as it’s known as the Manchester of Finland. It has lots of remnants of its industrial past and maintains a similar deadpan sensibility: not so much dry as frozen wit. Among most Finnish people generally I’ve noticed (and admired) a certain earthiness which connects to my own northern roots, particularly when it comes to swearing. I am (courtesy of my friend Steve) the proud possessor of two of the most uproariously graphic insults in any human language, and although posting them here might result in my getting banned from WordPress for life I’m happy to email them to anyone who requests them.

Although it doesn’t reveal anything particularly edifying about my lifestyle at the time, I liked the Finnish relationship with drink. It felt that you could (if you had the money) sit in a bar in your trusty old pullover and three pairs of pyjama trousers and continue drinking until you passed out gracefully onto the sawdust floor to the sound of muttered voices and plaintive blues music. The limited variety of menu options and the narrow range of eating establishments suggested a disinterest in food which I, living in food outlet-saturated London at the time, found refreshing. There was also a carefreeness in the way that people left you alone. Nobody started talking to me just because I was from elsewhere. The society didn’t need my presence, and I appreciated its cool (because uncool) indifference. My memories of my first visit are suffused in a bluey-white blur of very strong alcohol and the weave of extremely thick socks. 

Out on the streets I found more signs of that unfussiness and lack of pretension. I was amused by the surreality of Tampere’s musty Lenin Museum and the existence of a strip bar simply called ‘Big Tits’ (I didn’t go inside to find out how big). Finland’s neuroses (about drink, sex, other people) seemed to be on the surface. Maybe that’s what it (famously) has in common with Japan, a place I’ve still never been to but have heard described as having no subconscious. It’s easy to diagnose what’s wrong with Finland: it’s cold most of the year, people drink too much, nobody says please or thank you and everyone commits suicide regularly. As it happens, in ‘The Spirit Level’, published earlier that year, I’d read that in happier countries people kill themselves more. Lots of people doing themselves in is a better indication of social bonhomie than everybody killing everyone else.

I took a trip to my friends’ country home in a tiny village called Auttoinen. Their house was a sprawling place of immense human warmth reinforced by the (exotic by comparison with private rented apartments back home) decent insulation and central heating. The energy-saving ethos extended to the local bar, where words were employed sparingly by the local ‘juntti’ (yokels). You couldn’t call it entertaining but it was, also, exotic. I recognised the mood from any number of films by Aki Kaurismaki, Finland’s leading exponent abroad. This clip succinctly captures the dark, dour wit of many of his works, and if you’re intrigued and have got ten minutes to spare, there’s another short film here (the subtitles are in Spanish, but don’t let that you put you off) (unless you don’t understand Spanish, obviously**).

My second visit took place during the summer solstice in 2011. Between June and August all of Finland heads for the countryside, particularly the lakes, of which there are apparently well over 100,000. If you can avoid the enormous local horseflies known as paarma – not quite as big as your average baby shark, but six times as vicious – it feels like paradise. At a midsummer party in Auttoinen I made friends with increasingly cheerful locals and some expat Africans who told me some hilarious stories about their interactions with more taciturn Finns. A Tanzanian told me about the marked difference between taking a seat on a nearly empty bus back home (sit down next to new friend, shake hands, pass time of day) and doing so in Finland (see other passenger, leave bus, go home, shoot oneself in head). It was difficult for them to adjust to the less convivial culture, and they were working as cleaners or musicians while trying to establish themselves. They seemed frustrated with the lack of opportunities for advancement open to them, but not about to give up on the country having invested so much time and energy into it. They were true Finns now, after all.

The next day on the train to Helsinki I picked up a leaflet aimed at newcomers wanting to learn Finnish. It was written in (excellent) English and was entirely positive in tone, rather than admonishing as would be the case in the rather-more-grudging UK. Back in the Kiasma I bought a book published by Sternberg (in the same series and spirit as the same publisher’s duo of Momus novels ‘The Book of Japans’ and ‘The Book of Scotlands’) which posits alternative future Finlands to replace the inevitably collapsing Welfare State, including a Finland which is repurposed as a nuclear waste storage facility. Another thing it imagines is a road bridge between Helsinki and Tallin, and as it happens I spent my 37th birthday travelling by ferry between Finland and Estonia, where I’m surprised to find that, contrary to everything I’ve ever been told about the Finnish language being totally unique but for a deeply buried lexical connection to Hungarian, Estonian looks and sounds almost identical. There is a short but silly photographic account of my adventures in Tallin here.

If lakes are important to the Finnish summer experience, having access to an island multiplies the fun. A friend of a friend had borrowed half of a small one for the season, and we spent an endless night with his friends from the other side of the island drinking something that tasted like licorice but had a strong aftertaste of something like ayahuasca. You couldn’t really call it a late night because night didn’t arrive, dusk turning straight into dawn. Waking up in the cabin it no longer felt like there was any limit between myself and other objects. PerkeleFrom downstairs I could smell my friend (who had been in Finland for more than ten years and so had acquired a measure of sisu) frying up some bacon. When I showed my face, which evidently looked like it’d just been through the winter wars, he politely invited me to go and jump in the lake. Having taken his sterling advice and chilled my bones to the marrow, I then went straight onto the small sauna he’d prepared and stayed there til it felt like all the alcohol I’d ever consumed was washed out of my skin, then took another dive into the lake, went back in the sauna, repeated the whole rinse cycle two or three times, and then began replenishing the lost salt and alcohol with a bacon sandwich and a beer.

One my third visit, in June 2012, I was accompanied by my then-girlfriend-now-wife. Being from Italy, she had been reliably informed by older, wiser generations of compatrioti that Finland is freezing cold all year round and that she would almost certainly get eaten by a polar bear. In reality it was 30 degrees. After a few days in Auttoinen introducing her to my friends and soaking up the rays (and the rain), we headed for the Turku archipeleago, where, driving round the labyrinth of tiny islands along tiny twisting roads and on and off, it felt like I was finally unravelling the tangled mess I’d made of my life. In Turku itself we stayed on a large boat in a cabin the size of a small mosquito, and by day walked around the town cooing at all the wonders of the nordic model of social democracy, with its large well-illuminated library reminding us that shopping need not be the be and end-all of a city. We visited the castle, and admired the fact that it wasn’t suffused in marketing overexcitability, that it wasn’t trying too hard to sell itself to us as ‘the authentic Finnish experience of medieval Suomiland’ or whatever nonsense some marketing genius in London would have been inspired to think up.

I’ve never lived in Finland and probably never will. I’m aware that many do and find it frustrating and unwelcoming. Personally, I find its existence a comfort. If, in the thankfully unlikely event I ever found myself existentially alone and listless, I would take a plane to Tampere, don my favourite pullover and at least three pairs of pyjama trousers, and head for a downtown bar to partake in a delicious, revolting glass of some sort of weird licorice drink, and after two or three sips lower myself gently to the sawdust-strewn floor. In the meantime, in summer 2018 to be precise, I will be back there, now-wife and new-baby in tow, for a hopefully paarma and polar bear-free midsummer holiday. Nähdään pian!** 

*This used to say Scandanavia but I was swiftly put right, kiitos Richard Millar.
**This now links to a version with subtitles in English, but I thought this was quite a good joke so I’m leaving it as it is, thanks anyway to Sandrita Toledo.
***I told you the language was tricky, it took me about ten minutes to type that phrase.

P.s. Anyone worried that nordic countries are being invaded by legions of hate-filled new arrivals who don’t respect basic values of tolerance and peaceful coexistence will find supportive evidence for such a view in a Facebook group called Foreigners in Finland, where immigrants from Italy, Bulgaria and the UK (the sort of people who are so patriotic they couldn’t stand to live in their ‘own’ countries) spend their time in Finland bitching about other, less privileged, newcomers. I believe the local phrase to describe such people is ‘vitun urpo’ (not that they’ll have bothered to learn the language, but still :-)). This one’s for them 

Film review: ‘The Other Side of Hope’


How often do you go to the cinema? Probably about six or seven times a day, right? I mean, I’m guessing, but I calculate that someone like you has, over the last, say, four months, likely seen in the region of a thousand films at the cinema, or movies at the moving picture theater if that’s your preference. Until last Saturday we hadn’t been to the cinema in FIVE MONTHS. This is because in January we became the first people in history to have an actual baby. We soon discovered that childrearing and filmbuffery are deeply and highly incompatible. To be fair, five months isn’t very long when you consider that I once met a guy who hadn’t been to see a film since 1972. The guy in question was originally from Iraq and had seven children. I can’t imagine how disruptive having seven children must be, or how hard it must be to persuade relatives to babysit*. As for the cinema, although he skipped all of Woody Allen and is presumably no expert on Kieslowski’s Red, White and Blue trilogy he must have seen a lot of Scooby Doo cartoons.

As it happens one of the protagonists of the film we went to see is also from Iraq, while the main character is from Syria. They are refugees in Finland, a country I know and love, partly through the films of Aki Kaurismaki, of which this is one. It’s the second in a row about people seeking asylum, after Le Havre (2011). Khaled has arrived in Helsinki by default after the traditionally tortuous route via southern Europe and is trying to track down his sister, from whom he became separated along the way. When his application is refused (the Government has decided that his hometown of Aleppo is a safe place to return him to) he escapes from the detention centre and is taken in by the owner of a comically-failing restaurant.

Kaurismaki’s aesthetic is one of out-of-time-ness. In his films pretty much everything is worn and familiar: the actors, the sets, the clothes and the music are all reassuringly dated. His characters are themselves refugees from a world that no longer quite exists, seeking asylum from disappointment in drink, music and small, awkward acts of solidarity. It’s a world of flawed but decent people: terse but charming, brusque and gauche but capable of tenderness. This film also features intrusions of almost cartoon-like evil in the form of some racist skinheads and also official indifference. It’s the kind of film which would piss off Slavoj Žižek, in that it shows refugees as individual human beings complete with hopes and vulnerabilities just like anyone else.

The cinema we went to (the Madison, on Via Chiabrera) is not far from our flat. Not just the cinema itself but also the street itself feels familiar and homely, with a refreshing absence of international brands and cash-for-gold shops. The gelataria we pop into on the way is a very Kaurismaki place, with its staff, fittings and menu seemingly not changed since the ’70s. There was another closer cinema, within five minutes’ walk from where we live, but in some apparently dodgy deal it’s currently being transformed into ‘international standard’ apartments.

Walking along Viale Marconi after the bridge we passed the spot where I recently got talking to a guy from Benin City in Nigeria who was sweeping the street in return for spare change. This is a phenomenon that seems to have started in Milan and has now spread to Rome. Back home he had been a musician; he showed me on his phone the video he’d put on Youtube. It was very professionally produced and really rather good. I was at first inspired to write a piece about him, then thought again: what right do I have, really, to exploit his life story for my own means? I just so happened that a few days later I was in the British Museum, one of whose greatest treasures is the Benin Bronzes. Maybe if I was a proper writer I’d  feel more comfortable about appropriating someone else’s narrative, displaying it as though it were my own**.

I hope he somehow manages to make his way upwards, whether socially or geographically (he wanted to reach London, where he had friends). I hope he manages to stay free. Kaurismaki’s film is a heartbreaking but salutary reminder that pretty much every town and city in the world contains a hidden population of people living in dread of being picked up and sent back to somewhere which can no longer be called home. When we first started coming to Rome I read a series of novels by Amara Lakhous about the local population of Arabs and North Africans whose lives revolve around the acquisition and renewal of their permesso di sogiorno (residence permit). Networks of volunteers which provide food, shelter and advice are continually turfed out and have their resources confiscated by the local authorities. My city and yours have invisible portals leading straight to war and immense danger. It puts things like not having been to the cinema for a while or not being able to find decent hummus into some perspective.

Our daughter was born here in Rome, on January 30th this year. She’s an immigrant from some other celestial realm and has been given asylum in this one. The locals coo at her, welcoming her into their world. No one tells her that Europe is full, that public services are overstretched and that she should go back home. Like any human, she has a right to be here. She’s just now beginning to recognise other people (and even stating to laugh at herself in the mirror). She shows no sign of being able to discriminate between people who happen to have been born in different places from her. As the song says, such things have to be carefully taught.

*As this episode of ‘Thinking Allowed’ discusses and my own experiences attest, Italian society would fall apart in about ten minutes without i nonni.

**There’s also the aspect of potentially revealing to his friends (and fans?) back home that he’s sweeping the streets rather than pursuing stardom.