forbidding vowels

Blut Heimat Mutter Jude Tschusch

Blood Homeland Mother Jew Gypsy

Mária Chilf
An essay by Sabine Scholl

Translated from the German by Syd Atlas

U is my taboo. Words with u.
There's no u in my name.
Although there was a time when I couldn't stand i.
But u is different. It's not so much the words as the sounds that I shy away from. It's not so much the writing as the speaking that gives me trouble.

I learned the word Jude late. Where I grew up, the term did not exist, nor did the people to whom it referred. It was at a very late stage, in history class, when the teacher uttered it. We could hardly pronounce it. And things stayed that way for a very long time. For a very long time no one uttered this word in Austria. And when they did, it was mostly to insult the people to whom it referred, and to underline their right to do so. U! There was disgust in it. U was a container for nuances which meant something bad that one better not talk about and not even begin to mention. You got tangled up in it, could never really get it right. Or it happened because of a guilty conscience, shame or guilt. The word Jude was never free, could never be a word like house or sky or milk. I could only start to reflect on the people to whom it referred when I learned to say the English word. It was in Chicago or New York where I met people who were Jewish. For some of them, the word German was also a taboo. A term that referenced my heritage. Some of them didn't want to talk to me. Why? Because they still knew the word Jude and the way it was used in Germany. I could soon use the word Jewish in Chicago or New York without a problem. But the difficulty with the u in German remained.

The word Blut was very closely related to the problem with the word Jude. Though here the problem ran deeper. Because the word Blut became so important, the word Jude was turned into a term of abuse. That's why nothing having to do with blood could really be good. Blut was another word for Heimat. And that got rid of everything that no longer suited it. Blut bonded with land and other gruesome ways of being. Blut had the right to say yes to some and no to others. And so I never liked saying this word either.

It was unpleasant. Even my mother avoided saying the word Blut when she explained to me what would happen when I was an adult. That's why I couldn't put a name to the blood between my legs as it began to trickle down. Not only did my mother avoid saying Blut, she taught me that one should never see it. That was the worst. Seeing blood coming through clothes every month. One had to hide all these bloody procedures. Even when you hurt yourself, the blood had to be covered right away. So it was a taboo, the u. Seeing blood must always be unpleasant. That's why I never spoke about how I observed the way it dripped out of the old man's wrist and formed a puddle on the wooden floor. That's why after that I didn't speak to my mother any more. Because she was the one who had led me into the blood taboo, which was actually a u taboo. She even had a u in her name.

Only much later, when I became a mother myself, did I understand why blood was to be avoided. It was a reminder of death. It was the place where life and death came together; our bodies being merely the containers that keep it in or let it out. Nothing more.

When I was busy giving birth to my son, the midwives forgot a part of the placenta in my stomach. The double u in the word Mutterkuchen (placenta) already points out the danger. This multiple u caused unbelievable pain. Because no one believed me. Because as a mother it is normal to suffer pain in silence. Because the joy of being a mother offsets the pain. That's what the advocates of nature believe. I screamed though. And then the blood came. It broke out in gigantic waves, hot streams of blood spurted out between my legs, the midwives trying to collect it in metal pans. I felt life leaving me with the blood.

I often asked myself if there was a difference between a child who grows up saying Mutter and one who says Mama. Does the choice of u or a in early childhood influence one's later life? I read long essays about the significance of the a sound in the speech-learning process. They say that in all languages the first letter of the alphabet is also the first sound that the child learns. If that is true, then I have a problem. I grew up with the u word, I called my Mutter 'Mutti' for short. Perhaps that explains my dislike of u (and sometimes i)?

Why does the u in the word Tschusch also contain so much contempt? This word is also familiar to me from my childhood. It was the term used for the first people I met who only knew bits and pieces of my language. Instead they were very strong and able to perform work that I couldn't do like lugging sacks of cement, digging deep holes in the ground and pushing wheelbarrows full of gravel over thin boards without them tipping over. I tried this a few times, but never managed. These men were called Tschuschn and it was the u as well as the double sch that said something, that showed they couldn't belong, perhaps because they came from somewhere else and spoke with each other differently. Maybe the double sch was an imitation of their language, which we didn't understand? Later, in Vienna, I often heard the word. By then it had become clear to me. I had learned that it meant, we are we and they are they. There is a border. And in Vienna the border was close by. And everything on the other side of the border was worth less than we were. That was in the u in Tschusch in Vienna.

Of course there are other sounds that are taboo. Some of the diphthongs in the dialect of the area where I grew up, for example. I avoid the term Heimat. In a certain way this word is also taboo for me. Because there is no Heimat. In primary school the diphthongs already called attention to the fact that I came from a certain area, known for its agriculture, its farmers. But in school you're not supposed to come from there. Dialect was taboo. My grandfather wrote poetry in his dialect, and so I knew some verses by heart, which were funny, but only in dialect. When my teacher asked me to recite a poem out loud one day, I began to recite one of them in front of the class. While I was speaking, I remembered that dialect was forbidden and I tried to translate the words into High German, which of course didn't work. The punch lines in particular got lost.

After successfully assimilating, I believed I had forgotten all diphthongs until I was in Portugal trying to learn Portuguese. Portuguese is full of diphthongs and nasal sounds similar to those from my childhood. But I never felt comfortable using them because of the taboo hovering over them. I pronounced the Portuguese words wrong for a long time because my tongue refused to form the sounds of the language I had grown up with. They were taboo because they had been disparaged. I finally had to force myself to return to my childhood and my origins to form the sounds necessary in this foreign place. Where two places came together in two languages, where 'Bej' and 'bem' were the same, 'Bienen' and 'gut'.


(c) Sabine Scholl, 2005.

Translation (c) Syd Atlas, 2007.

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