The Mask Conceals, The Mask Reveals

“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” – Oscar Wilde

I came across this nugget of insight a while ago and it made me smile, because this is how I feel about languages–that people who speak multiple languages sometimes use them as masks, as disguises that reveal even as they hide. We sometimes use our second or third languages to distance ourselves from the words we’re expressing, because this distance allows us to be more honest than we would dare to be in our native language.

Take my dad. Italian was his first language; he spoke it exclusively until he was five or six, when he started school in Brooklyn in the late 1920s. As an adult, he spoke English perfectly, without an accent, but he remained fluent in Italian–Sicilian, really, which to my ears has always sounded like Italian’s earthier, gruffer sibling. My mom’s first language was French–she didn’t begin speaking English until she was in her mid-twenties, when she moved to New York from French Canada. When she began dating my dad soon after, she barely spoke any English, so he would speak to her in Italian, because it was closer to French and easier for her to understand. As her English improved, that became their lingua franca, and from then on they spoke American English together, sprinkled with French and Italian words and phrases.

So that’s their linguistic background. But the mask part is this: According to my mother, Dad’s father never told his children that he loved them. Never said it. Their mother, though loving, was quiet. And the children certainly never expressed any familial devotion out loud. So saying “I love you” was not something that came naturally to Dad. Even when he decided that Mom, the lovely French-speaking girl with the chic taste of a Canadian Audrey Hepburn, was the amore of his vita, this handsome, dark-haired Mario Lanza-lookalike couldn’t bring himself to tell her. Not in his first or second languages.

But he found that he could say it in hers. In the polite form. Je vous aime, he told her. Je vous aime aussi, she replied. And for the rest of their lives, they said it just that way to each other.

Dad felt love in his heart, but he couldn’t bring his lips to make the sounds that would send it out into the world to be heard and judged until he put on the mask of French. Then he was hidden, and he was revealed. The mask did its job.

I’ve seen this happen again and again. When we speak several languages, we probably find it easiest to express ourselves in our mother tongue–but then we find ourselves donning the mask of our other languages to express things that we cannot bring ourselves to say in the naked light of the language we speak best. I see myself do it when I write in my journal about difficult things–though that writing is not meant for any other eyes, sometimes I find myself switching from English to French, because while on a technical level it’s often harder for me to find the mot juste in that language, it’s often easier for me to write freely when I’m concealed behind that Gallic wall.

I also use language as a mask when I swear, often devolving into creative cursing in other languages when I’m the throes of anger or frustration. Usually the (English-speaking) people around me can tell by my tone that I’m definitely not saying the Rosary, but they can’t be shocked because they don’t know what it all means, exactly. The exception was my mother. I never once cursed in English in front of my mother; I think she would have smacked my mouth if I did. But if I couldn’t get my key in the door because I was holding onto a hundred packages and I was dropping fifty of them and it was starting to rain, I could explode with a vehement merde alors! She understood it perfectly–and she would just giggle. I swore from behind the mask, so that apparently made it okay.

This phenomenon, this permission to call out true things from behind the castle wall of a foreign tongue, is endlessly interesting to me, and represents one more reason that I think it’s so important to speak more than one language. In the field of arts integration, we talk about “multiple points of access”–in other words, giving students more than one way in to the learning of a concept. If they have trouble writing about it, get them to draw it, get them to act it out…the use of the arts can get them in a side door when, for whatever reason, the front entrance is barred to them. Using multiple languages to express ourselves, especially in times of stress or love, is just as useful. We put on the mask of a language not quite our own, and we become someone a little different–someone who can say, who can express, what the unmasked crusader cannot.

And this, mes amis, is a splendid thing.

Photo by Serkan Turk on Unsplash



I Love You, My Little Cabbage


Okay, here’s a funny story about the uncertainties of language, which I actually blogged about once before, years ago. At the time, I had just sold an article titled “I Love You, My Little Cabbage: Using Foreign Words in Your Fiction.” In it, I listed six ways to put a foreign flair in the mouths of your characters when you’re writing a story that takes place in another country. I began the article with an anecdote from my childhood:

When I was a child, my French-Canadian mother called me her little chou (pronounced “shoe”). In the summers, when we visited our French-speaking family in Quebec, my cousins were called chou or chou-chou by their mothers, as well. One summer evening, though, my aunt used the word chou as she was enticing us with the menu for that evening’s dinner. I understood that haricots verts were green beans and pommes de terre were potatoes, but chou? Which food was her darling? I turned to my mother, who smiled wryly. “The cabbage,” she replied. “Chou means ‘cabbage.'” All that time, I had been my mother’s little cabbage.

The anecdote is true. And all my life, the French term of endearment chou has been a source of merriment in my family. Why on earth would you call a loved one a cabbage? When my sister and I would challenge her on this strange expression, my mother would answer, “Well, in English you call each other ‘pumpkin.’ A pumpkin is a gourd. Why would you call someone a gourd?” And we found it hard to argue with that. We chalked it up to cultural difference and filed it under “amusing quirks in our family’s languages.”

The day after my article appeared online, I received an email from a writer in Italy. She said kind things about the article, but she wondered about my translation of chou. She said that she had always understood that the term of endearment referred to chou—meaning “pastry”—not chou meaning “cabbage.”

Hm…interesting. I wrote back and told her that while I knew the word for pastry, I had never connected it to the term for a loved one, because of what my mother had told us. I related to her the pumpkin conversation that my sister and I had had with Mom. I agreed, though, that “pastry” made more sense than “cabbage,” and I promised to do a little digging.

The next day I explained the chain of events to my mother and told her that I was intrigued that this other writer had been told that the word was chou-pastry and not chou-cabbage. Mom smiled–the exact same wry smile I saw all those years ago in her sister-in-law’s kitchen—and said, “Well, it IS the chou that means pastry. It’s like calling someone ‘honey.'”

“Mom!” I exclaimed. “Are you kidding? The word is chou-pastry, not chou-cabbage?”

“Well, yes. We say it’s chou-cabbage to tease the children.”

“Mom!” I couldn’t believe it. “All these years, I’ve had it wrong because you were ‘teasing the children'”??

“You know,” she mused, “I think a lot of French Canadians might not know which chou it is. Because we tell them it’s cabbage when they’re children. They might never find out.” She smiled again. “That’s funny,” she concluded.

“MOM! I wrote an article about it! It’s on the internet! And now European writers are challenging my translation–and they’re right!”

She laughed. “Oh, Cora. You’re so funny.”

Now, as a postscript to this little story, I googled the phrase “I love you, my little cabbage” so that I could quickly grab the opening paragraph of my article to insert into this post. And while the article came up right away, what also came up were a bunch of sites that included the phrase “my little cabbage.” Fascinated, I took a look at a bunch of them, and found that apparently there is widespread disagreement about which chou is actually implied in “mon petit chou.” Some folks say cabbage, some say pastry. So maybe Mom is right. Maybe it should be pastry—but maybe so many parents have teased so many children that we’re all convinced we’ve been called little cabbages all our lives.

Oh, well. I’m just going to go on saying it in French, and not worrying about the English translation. Pastry or cabbage, in my family it still means I love you.

Meet Me in the Middle

I’m interested in the in-between spaces. It’s because of my upbringing.

My mother was French-Canadian and my father was Italian-American; growing up, I was taken to Canada in the summers to speak French with the cousins, while the rest of the year my dad, my aunt, and my grandfather all spoke Sicilian in the house.

The languages and the cultures swirl around in my family. On Christmas Eve, dinner includes purpu—which is Sicilian for polpo, which is Italian for “octopus”—while dessert includes sucre à la crème, which is a sweet, French-Canadian delight.

Though we all speak English together, we say “I love you”—je vous aime—in French, but we say “wait a minute”—aspetta!—in Italian. Our word for “conch” is the Italian scungilli, but a flyswatter is a French tue-mouche. 

And for some reason, though spoon is always “spoon” and knife is always “knife,” fork is always fourchette.

Being immersed in this cultural stew teaches you some interesting lessons. For one thing, it teaches that it’s absolutely possible to create a space where different cultures can come together in a positive way. In that space, you can learn a great deal about the cultures involved—and then you can take the best bits from everywhere and shape them into something else—something uniquely your own.

For another, it teaches that knowing other languages opens other worlds. You see the world differently when you approach it in a different language. When we borrow words or phrases or concepts from another language, we enrich our own language, we expand the horizon of what’s possible.

That was my childhood. And that’s my life. And that’s my fascination, my passion, that I indulge when I travel, when I write, when I read, when I cook…I peek into, I roam through, and sometimes I even create those in-between spaces where cultures meet. What happens there is what I write about here. In the middle of everywhere.

Igor Mitoraj’s monumental sculptures were exhibited among Pompeii’s ancient ruins in 2016-17. When you’re able to communicate, even a little, in Italian, it makes the trip to Pompeii a little smoother, and a lot more fun.    Photo © Cora Bresciano 2017