07 February 2009

Louise Bennett

How do second-language writers colonize the language of a former colonizer? Here is a concrete example:

Yuh will haffi get de Oxford Book
O’ English Verse, an tear
Out Chaucer, Burns, Lady Grizelle
An plenty a Shakespeare!

Wen yuh done kill ‘wit’ and ‘humour’
Wen yuh kill ‘variety’
Yuh will haffi fine a way fi kill

The lines come from Jamaican poet Louise Simone Bennett-Coverley, as quoted in Post-colonial Drama: Theory, Practice, Politics, by Helen Gilbert and Joanne Tompkins (Routledge, 1996, page 185). Although, strictly speaking, English is not treated here as a second language, but as a mother tongue (as a variety of English, as linguists say), it shows the general idea: poets can force the second language to act in ways mother-tongue poets cannot even imagine. This is one reason we have to value writers writing in second languages: they bring into the second language literary devices not available to monolingual writers.

By the way, Bennett's lines "Jamaica people colonizin / Englan in Reverse" in her famous poem "Colonization in Reverse" echo Filipino critic Gemino H. Abad's equally famous "we [Filipino writers] have colonized the English language."

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