Finding a Mother Tongue

In my language, tongue means language.
The tongue does not have bones: it twists in the direction we twist it in.
I sat tongue twisted in the city of Berlin. 

–Emine Sevgi Özdamar



She moved to West Berlin at 18 to work in one of the factories. Eyes accustomed to the colors of Istanbul; dark, thick hair. Though she wasn’t one for headscarves, in Germany the workers wore their hair in nets. She thought of herself as a collector of words but knew none so far in German. Turkish was her tongue and her mother’s tongue. She arrived in a city rent in half, arranged around a concrete wall and its watchtowers, around control points and the efforts of some to stop others from fleeing. Her hometown, Istanbul, was also two cities, the border between them not stone but a liquid line that had been there forever: the Bosporus, a strait where the beginning or the end of Asia and Europe gaze out at one another from either side. In its waters, tides from the Black Sea join those of the Marmara and together form a single flow. South of the Bosporus, on the European side, the sea has opened a path in the land and divided the city into two further seven-kilometer-long banks on which there are mosques, palaces, and the Galata Tower. In this area, known as the Golden Horn, the water is both fresh and salty at once.

About the border of the city where she grew up and which she knew best, she wrote:

Madame Athena once told me a story about two madmen in Istanbul: one stood on the European bank and said, “From here Istanbul is mine”; the other stood on the Asian bank and shouted across to the European side, “From here Istanbul is mine.”

Perhaps Özdamar went to Berlin in search of another city split by a border.


She arrived in 1965, when Turks were moving to Germany by the dozen. Back then, migrants were welcome and no one complained about the number of foreigners crossing the border. They called them Gastarbeiter: guest workers. They arrived during the postwar period to make up for a decimated population that needed labor to rebuild itself. Other hands to dig mines and grow coarse in fields and factories, other hands to sweep the dust off the streets and out of the houses, the ashen blanket that had covered everything since the beginning of the war. Welcome. Until the immaculate brilliance of the German people shone once more in the windows, and they could claim that it was thanks to their willpower and to the discipline of their daily work that they reinvented themselves time and again. After all, the migrants didn’t speak German but Gastarbeiterdeutsch. The migrants didn’t write in German but in Gastarbeiterdeutsch. The same went for their children. As though language were passed on by blood.


Özdamar knew that arriving in a country with no return ticket meant voluntarily surrendering to an indeterminate foreignness, letting go in another language, and admitting there would always be something ungraspable about words, something at times distorted that drew back whenever you thought you were getting close. Yet Özdamar also suspected there must be some appeal to shedding one’s mother’s tongue, what with so many people packing their lives into 23-kilo bags.


She returned to Berlin eleven years later, fleeing a military coup in Turkey. By then she spoke Heine’s language and had studied acting in Istanbul. She went to Germany because theater was the only thing that interested her: “I get up and go to the other Berlin,” she wrote, “Brecht was the first person I came here for.” She lived in the West but crossed the border every day to go to Volksbühne, the theater on Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz where she assisted Benno Besson and Matthias Langhoff before putting on her own plays and giving voice to Brecht’s characters onstage. Her experience in those years inspired her to write the autobiographical novel Seltsame Sterne starren zur Erde, or Strange Stars Stare at Earth, published in 2003 and part of a series titled Sonne auf halben Weg: die Istanbul Berlin Trilogie, or Halfway Sun: the Istanbul-Berlin Trilogy, which also includes Life Is a Caravanserai and The Bridge of the Golden Horn.

Though I’ve forgotten what language my Turkish friends and I spoke together, I remember clearly the first time I saw them unveiled.

Strange Stars is told in two parts. It begins with a first-person account of the protagonist’s daily journey between Berlin’s two halves: books sold for a song in the East, the wall, and the communes in the West filled with young people ashamed of their parents’ past. The second part is a journal with costume sketches and set designs, notes, and reflections on theater rehearsals. Most images are followed by descriptions in German; only one is in Turkish. Three men sit around a table, one of them smoking and the other two listening to him with apparent unease. They wear boots, raincoats, and one hat on each head. They are most likely detectives or hit men. On the tablecloth is an important warning: kırmızı, which means red, the color of the Turkish flag.


In Strange Stars, Özdamar details her experience migrating to and living in a new city, her prior life in Turkey, and how it affected her understanding of places around Berlin. In a single narrative, a picture of three cities emerges: East Berlin, West Berlin, and Istanbul.

Berlin materializes through detailed descriptions told from the perspective of a foreigner who needs time to grow accustomed to the colors and to make sense of what she sees, to adapt to the world around her and learn the meanings of the words saturating the streets, shop windows, and train menus:

They’ve all become used to me. I’ve become used to them. The train takes me to the theater, I get on and off, at the theater bar I buy tea for fifty pfennige, I love Mozart now; from nine to three, I rehearse, Fritz smiles at me, every day I sketch the rehearsals and get better and better at German, I read Heine.

Meanwhile, Istanbul is evoked in a haze; it exists only in memory and becomes a choice setting for nostalgia:

It was a warm night. The lily, lit up by the car headlights, smelled pleasant. Through an open window, I heard the clinking of silverware and felt nostalgia for Istanbul. Right then, my brother, sister, and grandmother were probably on the balcony now. A night in May. Outside, colorful young women were likely strolling by. When it’s hot out, even the faces of Istanbul’s poor grow soft.


Languages betray the shortcomings and inclinations of those who speak them. Germany is also a land for the nostalgic. In German, there are several nouns for nostalgia. Sehnsucht, Fernweh, Nostalgie, Wehmut, Heimweh. The latter is made up of two parts that when combined with others designate particular sensations. Weh means pain or sorrow while Heim is often translated as “house” or “home.” Heim can also be used to form other nouns such as Heimat, which might be translated as “home country,” meaning the relationship a person has with the place where they grew up and learned to speak, and with the feelings and experiences of their childhood. Heimat is the connection to land and language crucial to forming identity. A derivative of this noun exists in the adjective unheimlich, the negation of Heim. Unheimlich is often translated into Spanish as “siniestro” or “ominoso,” and into English as “sinister” or “uncanny,” and refers to a thing that breaks with the familiar and day-to-day, creating a sense of unease.

The first recorded use of Heimweh dates to the 12th century, in Switzerland. It makes sense that the word would appear in specialist medical texts to describe a heightened, unrelenting sadness: Heimweh as sickness. Up until the Romantic era, when it was exported to other German-speaking countries, it was only ever used in the medical field.

Berlin materializes through detailed descriptions told from the perspective of a foreigner who needs time to grow accustomed to the colors and to make sense of what she sees.

Agglutination is the foundation of the German language: nouns, adjectives, and other particles are strung together to generate new meanings. There are hierarchies in these constructions: the last part always designates the object referred to while the preceding words accord particular qualities. So, in principle, Heimweh is “pain.” But it’s not just any pain; it’s a pain felt for home, for a place that has been lost, for a language, for something we think of as ours and which is missing.

Sometimes words and their nuances serve as thermometers. Özdamar’s nostalgia is not nostalgia. It is Heimweh.


We should adopt words across languages into our everyday vernacular. Pronounce them as confidently as we do those of our childhood, mark them with our accents, vocal modulations, and necessary pauses. Speak them as though they were ours, find a context for them in which their meanings explode, enveloping us. Turn our mother tongues into open spaces that can accommodate any word we choose or happen to come across at a particular time. Recognize others for the words they’ve chosen. Say “home,” “body,” or “ghost” in any language and assume every nuance.


In 1991, Özdamar was awarded the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize for her book Mother Tongue. The title in German is Mutterzunge, a composite word that seems wrong in appearance yet cannot be corrected and so takes on new meaning: Mutter: mother, Zunge: tongue, but not as in language or idiom, but rather the tongue in one’s mouth, that muscle blanketed in taste buds that also articulates words. A mother’s tongue, not a mother tongue, which in proper German would be Muttersprache. Özdamar makes use of this strategy of deliberate mistranslation throughout the book.

Mutterzunge was written entirely in German, like much of Özdamar’s work. Authors writing in languages not their own are frequently interrogated about their motivations, as if words were also private property. Perhaps hidden behind this line of questioning lies a suspicion of betrayal or assault, an aversion to things illegitimate in appearance that can only be expressed through relentless probing. Perhaps, deep down, people believe that those who do not write in the language of their mothers are taking something that isn’t theirs, writing where they don’t belong; that they are word thieves. Especially when they do so in a language in which a single term can refer to something foreign and strange, something unknown and which belongs to another: Fremdsprache, foreign language but also the language of another.

Emine Özdamar was no doubt haunted by this question. Before I went looking for her answer, I assumed she wrote in German in order to lay claim to the country she’d chosen to live in and, at the same time, assert her identity as a migrant and Turkish woman; she was the one choosing the words that would define her, taking up her pen and fashioning herself in opposition to the gaze of others.

Writing in German as a way to say:

I [and lay claim to the blank space that complements all clauses].

Instead of reading or hearing:

She [and always feeling other in relation to a multitude of words that through repetition risk prevailing, becoming real].

I came across one response in Strange Stars:

I am unhappy in my language. For years, we’ve only spoken sentences like: “They’ll hang them,” “Where were their heads?” “no one knows where their graves are,” “the police have not released the bodies!” Our words are sick. My words are in need of a sanatorium, like sick mussels. There is a place in the Aegean Sea where three sea currents come together. People take sacks of mussels there from Istanbul, Izmir, and Italy, where they’ve gotten sick in the filthy water. The clean water from these three currents heals the sick mussels in a matter of months. Fishermen call this part of the sea the mussel sanatorium. How long does it take a word to heal? They say people lose their mother tongues in foreign countries. But can’t this happen too in a person’s home country?

Foreign words have no childhood, wrote Özdamar. Their roots are not as deep, and their branches are brittle. How can a person reject their mother tongue without also rejecting their childhood? Özdamar writes in German in order to elude unhappiness and spurn violence. The act of fleeing might also be a kind of word sanatorium. “I remember now phrases my mother spoke in her mother tongue, but only then, when I imagine her voice, do her words reach my ears, like a foreign language that has been learned well.”

Özdamar posits another answer to this question in another piece: “In German, I became happy again; maybe this is why I write in it.”



I was 22 when I was given a scholarship to study German one summer at a university in Erfurt, a small city in eastern Germany with a population of just over 200,000 that is known only for the mustard produced there. The medieval quarter and castle give it the appearance of another time.

In Erfurt, I met a couple of Turkish women who traveled to Berlin with me after our German course ended. They were called Büsra and Gülcan, and I never learned the correct pronunciation of their names. We took the train and arrived at the largest train station in Europe, Berlin Hauptbahnhof, a hull of glass and steel five-stories tall where over a thousand trains and three hundred thousand people cross paths every day. The station thrums near where the wall once stood and has become a new gateway between East and West. The station has an exoskeleton-like structure. The Berlin Hauptbanhof is a new Tower of Babel. There, arrows and silhouettes framed in dichromatic squares are symbols of a language that claims to be universal.

These days I know that the best method to find your way around Berlin is walking, because body and mind learn out of step.

In my mind, Berlin began as a gridded map that I carried in my backpack and regularly studied on excursions. I’m right-handed, so on my map, East lies next to my pinkie finger. An imaginary line easily draws a path between the Charlottenburg Palace and the television tower in Alexanderplatz. Although I understood the signs on the street corners, it still took me longer than usual to get my bearings. I’ve always envied people who know where North and South are. The paper map seemed to show a different, simpler city. These days I know that the best method to find your way around Berlin is walking, because body and mind learn out of step.

In Berlin, there are Turkish people all through the city, so it was easy to find someone who could explain to my fellow travelers how to reach the place where we’d be spending the night. Ramadan had started a week earlier, and I had fasted with them for a couple of days. My first time going around Berlin was on an empty stomach. Maybe that’s why I was so impressed by it.

The first night, we had dinner in Kreuzberg, a Berlin neighborhood also known as “Little Istanbul,” where Turkish is spoken on the streets, people drink black tea around the clock, and the shops smell of baklava honey. During Ramadan, the fast is broken at dinner with dates and tea. I don’t think anything sweeter has ever melted in my mouth.

Though I’ve forgotten what language my Turkish friends and I spoke together, I remember clearly the first time I saw them unveiled. In memory, words turn frail and unstable; they adapt to the places to which we take them and become distorted by distance. It’s other things that remain. Maybe we spoke Denglisch, an improvised blend of English and German common among foreigners in transit. An improvised language that has no place in any grammar, no proper pronunciation or univocal spelling, and exists only to be spoken, what is said in it quickly forgotten.

I’ve since returned to Berlin without the tongues of Büsra and Gülcan to translate what other Turkish men and women say on the streets, as well as the restaurant menus and hand gestures. It’s a different city.

–Translated by Julia Sanches


This essay also appears at Words Without Borders. Julia Sanches is a literary translator working from Portuguese, Spanish, French, and Catalan into English.