Cat in the Throat

Written by

Caroline Bergvall
Contributor Page

Year

2011
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A lingual event is taking place, not in the voice but in the clearing of the throat.

Spitting out the most intimate and most irretrievable, the most naturalised source language, so-called mother tongue, is a dare, it is dangerous. It starts a whole process of re-embodying one's language's spaces.

The spittle can be resistant, unpleasant, potentially as well-aimed as a thrown shoe. Beckett's traffic from English to French is an expectoration of the English language's occupation on the colonised Irish body. His leitmotifs of speech loss, language stutter, assisted memory, gestural language all point to his fighting off one language with another language, transforming in the process both the spat-out source language and the adoptive language.

In French, to clear one's throat is to have a cat in the throat, avoir un chat dans la gorge. One needs to spit out a cat to clear one's throat. Literally, 'un crachat' is a spittle. One could also clear one's throat and realise that one has spat out French slang, une chatte, a pussy. This adds and maintains a crucial libidinal and erotic bond with one's pussycat.

As I become aware that I'm trying to speak, my body morphs, my cat appears. Cat is the tone in my speech, its accentedness, its autography. Cat is my speech's subjective accent, the intonation of my verbal patterns, the stutter of my silencings, an all-round explicit accentedness. So what if I were to decide to speak with a cat in the throat?

English-speakers don't so much struggle with cats as with frogs. It's a croaking frog that one would need to spit out in English. Given the dubious and long-standing historical traffic of culinary jokes and insults between the French ('frogs') and the English ('rosbif') and bearing in mind the old wars of invasion and occupation between the two countries, one could here speculate that 'having a frog in the throat' resonates more with military and political history, and the known influence of French on the development of English vocabulary, than with strictly contemporary matters. Not so, if one believes John Ashbery's line: "I hear the toad crooning."

As many of us are finding ourselves with much increased frequency living in countries in which we were not born, or where we are first or second generation citizens, or long-standing residents, or new arrivants, there is an interrupted experience of the past and of the living locale, whether we do or don't experience ourselves as diasporic. Whoever needs to create an allegiance or a correspondence, sometimes seemingly from scratch, or from access-points hidden from view, to a mixed cultural background, to a complex living jigsaw of multiple markers and untranslated biographical circumstances, will also often question what linguistic belonging means, what fluency entails. To seek this out in the fullness of language, in the connective and lubricated tissues of language, and around language, is to speak and work with a cat in the throat.

So there is this friction inside the speaker's mouth. This friction on the throat. Friction brings awareness of connection and of obstruction. The intake of breath, the raspy sound as one clears one's throat, the spit that wells up, the sounds that follow, the words that form.