Sometimes words do what they want, and no one knows this better than Herta Müller. For decades the Nobel Laureate for Literature has explored the recalcitrance and permeability of language. In the coming edition of the talk series “Dictionary of Now”, together with the writer Marcel Beyer, she discusses when language becomes an expression of resistance and when an instrument of the exercise of power. On this occasion, we reproduce here a text from an anthology of the literary magazine Akzente.

Words started following me from early on. Words like:

Tscharegl – a rickety vehicle that constantly breaks down

Pitanger – someone who roams around without inhibitions but with bad intentions

Arschkappelmuster – someone who reveals how stupid he is because he passes himself off as intelligent: a nincompoop and showoff in one

These words fit so many occasions. And they have a gruff ring, a definite attitude. Their constricted anger lets the speaker blow off steam, you don’t have to do any extra cursing, you’re already doing that by using such a word.

To this day for me every object that malfunctions just when it’s needed is a TSCHAREGL: a pair of glasses, when the temple breaks, the alarm clock when it stops ticking. For as long as I’ve known the word it hasn’t been attached to a specific vehicle. In the abstract, everything can become a vehicle. When as I child I had to spend the whole long day by myself tending the cows in the river valley, I saw the wind as a vehicle creeping or racing through the grass. It was a Tscharegl. The trees, the grasses in the fallow land, the tobacco fields, even the clouds rocked and swayed all together in the same direction. Each was its own Tscharegl. But so was everything together. At times the whole valley started moving, all the plants fluttered in the same direction. The entire earth was a Tscharegl, you could tell from the plants which way the earth was spinning at the moment. Everything could move together, and I could or had to ride along. And yet I always stayed where I was. This was the fault of being alone, everything was moving and nothing budged. The Tscharegl in the valley always deceived me, perhaps because of it I felt even more abandoned.

Tscharegl, Pitanger, Arschkappelmuster—ordinary words from the village dialect. From a village where the world was as tightly sewn up as a sack. And there at the end of the world the mouth was generally sewn tight as well. There was much silence and little speech. And when people did speak, threads had to be broken. Something would get blurted out and the matter became drastic. The only interesting words from this dialect may be its curse words. They have multiple meanings, but in every situation they know exactly what they mean, without ever being clear. As a result whenever they are spoken (because they have to be), they are cuttingly clear. They are sharpened to a fine point because they know that people inflict the deepest hurt by saying no more than absolutely necessary. Nothing is expanded or expounded.

For that reason it’s impossible and I think also unnecessary to translate these words into standard German. Their spirit only gets conveyed in the original, paraphrasing makes them cumbersome and takes away their bounce.

Sound is crucial with every one of these words, because it is as sounds that they leap onto the objects. I like their inner circus, their supple but wicked onomatopeia. Their content is conveyed in any case, but their accuracy comes from their sound. And from the mystery of their ambiguity.

And later on, when I lived in the city, it was a double mystery— the secret of the province was added to the secret of the ambiguous content. No one outside the village spoke this dialect, and that made these words special. This uniqueness flattered me. And flattery from a word that hurts others comes in very handy if you’re livid or lost or deep in despair. To this day I’m able to borrow the sharp tongue of these words when I need to. I say them out loud, or else mouth them silently.

These particular words exist in the dialect as completely normal vocabulary. They become private only through use, through the personal relevance, through the circumstances in which I use them. I left the dialect back in the village and no longer used it in the city. But when I moved to the city I did take the curse words and a few superstitious sayings. Not consciously—they just stuck to me. In the city I would have happily forgotten about the dialect altogether. But I liked the curse words, torn from their environment, even better than I had in the village. In fact I was amazed at how often they occurred to me. They became increasingly important. You could easily equip them with political connotations, they were an exact and wicked fit for the whole daily circus. In fact I think they took political connotations all on their own. The dialect had no idea how apt the village word PITANGER was for a poorly disguised socialist secret policeman in the city trying to go unnoticed. And when that wasn’t enough I could still tack on the Arschkappelmuster. The word Pitanger helped me if I sensed a person was acting on orders when they were loitering at the street corner or lounging at the neighboring table with their bodies while spying with their eyes.

Apart from these individual words there were also sayings. They, too, stuck to me. One was:

If you kill a swallow, the cow will give red milk.

That is pure superstition, with all its beautiful, threatening, skewed logic. How and why would the swallow’s blood get into the white milk. The saying contains a theater of the absurd, there’s nothing to understand. There’s also nothing to explain: for that it is far too poetically laden. The red has the upper hand, RED MILK has nothing to do with milk anymore at all. In some inscrutable way it’s all about fear, danger, helplessness, despotism, violence—the elements of state authority, the conditions of life. The hours of interrogation are also red milk, as are the suicides and accidents—both real and those staged after the fact. The small totality and the many large unexplained minutiae are all red milk. Also the painful truth of betrayal, the death of friends. Everything unbearable about the dictatorship is red milk. Perhaps at one time in my childhood the word milk wanted to stay tender. But it became something monstrous. It took on a life of its own.

To this day red milk slips into the newspaper reports, the screens, the days. And I believe it helps me, although it pops into my mind more often than I’d like. It does with me what it wants to.