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Search For My Tongue by Sujata Bhatt — Poem Analysis

In this poem analysis, “Search For My Tongue”, you will see that Bhatt explores deep questions about culture, identity, and emigration. She tries hard to express the difficulty of self-expression a person experiences when they speak a foreign language, especially when that foreign language dominates and takes over from their own.

The poem is tailored towards GCSE and IGCSE students (Edexcel IGCSE, AQA, CIE, CCEA, OCR, WJEC / Eduqas), but it’s also useful for anyone studying the poem at any level.


Thanks for reading! If you find the analysis useful, you can take a look at our full Edexcel IGCSE Poetry course here.

If you’re interested in our other poem analysis, you can find them here.


THE POEM

“You ask me what I mean

by saying I have lost my tongue.

I ask you, what would you do

if you had two tongues in your mouth,

and lost the first one, the mother tongue,

and could not really know the other,

the foreign tongue.”

(Full poem unable to be reproduced due to copyright)

VOCABULARY

Mother tongue — The language that you grew up with / the first language you learned to speak.

Foreign tongue — A language spoken by people who are not from your native country.

STORY / SUMMARY

The speaker talks directly to an unnamed addressee — we don’t know if she’s got a specific person in mind, but we assume it is addressed to all of us English speakers. She says she has ‘lost her tongue’ and asks us to imagine having two tongues in our mouth — the second being parasitic and eventually taking over the place of the first. She explains that she has lost her first tongue but doesn’t fully feel comfortable with the other — this demonstrates an inability to fully communicate or express herself properly. Her change of location has caused the original tongue to ‘rot and die’.

There is a volta beginning with the line ‘but overnight while I dream’, where the poem shifts in tone — we realize that in her imagination and her subconscious, the original tongue (language) grows back, powerfully like a spring flower, and eventually it ‘blossoms’ out of her mouth.

SPEAKER / VOICE

The speaker of the poem uses first person pronouns — I’ / ‘my’ / ‘me’ — to show that she (or he) is speaking from a personal perspective. In many first person poems, the speaker can be different from the poet or writer but in this case it feels like the poet is speaking in quite a personal sense, that she is exploring her own personal relationship with the different languages that she speaks. It is very important to note that the poem is written in her foreign tongue, not her mother tongue.

There is also the use of direct address — ‘you ask me’ / ‘I ask you’, which suggests that either the poem is a response to a question that the poet was asked in real life or that she feels the new society in which she lives makes this kind of accusation to her and other non-native speakers. The rest of the poem becomes an exploration and justification of the idea of ‘losing your tongue’, i.e. the ability to express yourself and communicate.

LANGUAGE

  • Synecdoche — The whole way through the poem, the word ‘tongue’ is used to refer to the speaker’s language — it is an example of synecdoche, where a part of something represents a whole — the tongue represents the poet’s capacity to speak and communicate or express herself clearly.
  • Metaphor — The word ‘tongue’ is used both literally (as in a visual image of the muscle in the mouth) and metaphorically, to represent language — this creates quite a grotesque central image to the poem, which gives a slightly repulsive feeling.
  • Extended metaphor — The poem uses a metaphor that compares the speaker’s mother tongue to a plant, which is cut back and seems to die but then starts to grow anew. She says that the ‘stump of a shoot’ ‘grows back…grows longer’, showing that it is beginning to live again, and finally ‘the bud opens’ and ‘it blossoms’, as if she views her native language as a flower that grows out of her. The plant is also personified as a powerful force that is difficult to kill totally, even if it faces difficulty and hardship for a while. The poet may be also making a reference to the idea of pruning — when you prune a plant, you chop it back quite violently, which stops it growing in the short term, but in the long term it grows back fresher and much stronger. It seems that the poet feels language works in a similar way — it can lie dormant in a person’s mind for a while, and suddenly it can spring back.
  • Conversational style — As we would expect from a poem about language, there is a conversational tone to the poem that takes the form of a dialogue between the speaker, who seems to be Bhatt herself, and an unnamed addressee -’you’. The language is idiomatic, it contains natural fluent expressions, to show that Bhatt does have a natural fluency in her second language as well as a longing for her native one.

STRUCTURE / FORM

  • The poem is one single stanza that wavers in line length; perhaps imitating the shape of a tongue or the undulations of sound waves that are produced in speech.
  • Short lines > Though the poem has no set line length, some lines are clearly much shorter than others — they feel unfinished and end abruptly. You can call this a hypermetric line. One example is ‘the foreign tongue.’, a short line that conveys the lack of expression the poet has with her new language when compared to her original, native tongue. The line conveys an angry or suspicious tone as if the speaker does not trust or respect her new language as much as her first language.
  • Long lines > ‘grows longer, grows moist, grows strong veins’. This line is noticeably longer than the others, it is overextended and amplifies the metaphor of the tongue as a plant that grows in size and strength when the speaker least expects it. You can call this a hypermetric line.
  • Enjambment > ‘rot/rot and die in your mouth’ — this gruesome image is enhanced by the use of enjambment, which repeats the word ‘rot’ and also spreads it across two lines; perhaps showing how rot and infection can spread sinisterly and slowly cause death, suggesting that the speaker feels this has happened to her mother tongue.

CONTEXT

  • Bhatt was born in India, 1956.
  • In an interview, Bhatt said that her language is the deepest layer of her identity.
  • Her mother tongue is Gujarati and her second language is English, she deliberately chose to write it in English — but some versions of this poem do also have the Gujarati script and a translation.
  • The poem was written when she was studying English in America, and it expresses her fears of losing her native language, but also along with that a culture and an identity.
  • Colonialism — ‘colonialism’ is when one country takes over and controls another, usually for access to the original country’s resources. India was colonised by many different European countries, but most notably it became part of the British Empire during the Victorian era and continued under British rule until its independence in 1947 (9 years before Bhatt was born). British cultural influences in India continue until the present day — for instance, in the schools many children are educated in both English and their native tongue.

THEMES

  • Emigration
  • Language
  • Identity
  • Creativity
  • Memory
  • Culture

Thanks for reading! If you find the analysis useful, you can take a look at our full Edexcel IGCSE Poetry course here.

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