05 March 2009

English as today's French?

From the pro-English website antimoon.com comes this 14 February 2009 post by one of its followers:

"Do you believe that bilingual novels are coming back into fashion? I have seen quite a few foreign books with passages, often quite long, left in the original English, usually with a footnote translation but sometimes without. Are writers beginning to assume everyone knows English? I wonder if it will get to such an extreme point as, for example, War and Peace in which huge chunks of dialogue were written in French."

I think that the world is becoming at least bilingual. Even in the United States, Spanish is getting to make inroads in the monolingualism of most Americans. Outside the Commonwealth and the USA, English has become de facto a second or a third language. There is nothing wrong with that, since monolinguals, everything else being equal, surely know much less about the world than bilinguals or multilinguals (from the weak interpretation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis).

What should be examined, however, is how the use of a second language by a literary writer adds to or subtracts from the literariness of a work.

This is a question from my ignorance of scholarship on Russian literature: has anyone figured out if War and Peace (1869) would have achieved the same effect on Russian readers had the French passages been in Russian? I am told that, from the critical point of view, the French language is used as a metaphor for the decadence of Russian aristocracy. (See Orlando Figes' 2007 review in The New York Review of Books and the subsequent discussions on the Web, such as the one in the New York Times.)

Has any writer whose mother tongue is not English used English in the same way that Leo Tolstoy apparently used French, to condemn a country's elite as betraying their country by speaking a foreign language?

1 comment:

  1. Dr. Jose P. Rizal did it in Spanish in his "Noli Me Tangere" and "El Filibusterism."

    He may not have used the Castillian he had learned from cradle to higher learning as a son of an "illustrado" (upper class) to subvert a colonizing cultural influence, but he had consistently used the pidgin grasp of the language by his social-climbing characters to cast aspersion on a Philippine middle class getting comfortable with mouthing Castillian colloquy however illiterate and pretentious it became.

    One recalls that market scene in "Fili" (or is "Noli?") where a Spanish aristocrat-manque haggled with a grovelling vendor over his ware:

    The buyer: "Cuanto vale todo eso?" (How much for all of this?) Pointing to all the fruit and vegetable he had greedily piled on his side of the haggle. He almost wiped out the stall.

    The vendor summoning all his courage to respond in the little Castillian he knew: "Todo por un real, Senor." (All for one silver coin, Sir.)

    The buyer: He gave the peon his silver coin for all the practical loot.

    The vendor protested, but he did not have the proper Spanish to say "that was not enough for all the goods and services" He proceeded to take back the produce. "Todo por un real, Senor!" With his own native noises and curses (maybe), he protested, meaning precious little but to say, that was not enough.

    Affronted, the buyer pushed the vendor to retrieve his steal-of-a-purchase. Angered beyond feigned civility, he pounced on the struggling vendor with his cane.

    A fellow vendor, trying to pacify the buyer, implored: "Dale mas palos, Senor." (Give him more wallops, Sir.) Of course, he meant for the buyer to give the vendor more reales, more money, please. The Good Lord knew he meant for the assailant to stop! "Dale mas palos, dale mas palos!" He added with a more pronounced imploring plea.

    Whereupon the buyer heeded his advice and hit the recalcitrant vendor some more. The outrageous scene continued, but hardly a native intervened.

    From out of the melee, a stranger held the cane and said: "Basta ya, Senor." (Enough already, Good sir!)

    "Enough already" should have been a caveat for the colonized Filipino. But he stood by, and history saw him learn from colonizers not the "language of his blood," and got subsumed in the cultural dominance of Spanish, American, then Japanese, now the call-centre English of supplicant vendors.

    A saving grace, of course, was when he learned the language of "conquistadores," he learned them well, and wrote the adopted/ adapted languages even better. The late Filipino senator Don Claro Recto bested them with his "Bajo de los Cocoteros," Cirilo Bautista with his epic poems in English, and the late Vice President Salvador Laurel with his eloquence in Nippongo.

    We had a handsome professor of philosophy who had an impressive European mien, spoke British English, wrote and spoke true Castillian, and was forceful in lambent Pilipino -- Dr. Ariston Estrada -- but he is dead now. (One time of the other, he presented to a benighted Congress of the Philippines his arguments against making the teaching of Rizal's novels mandatory in college. He lost to Congress, of course. Rizal's novels were taught, then ultimately repealed much later. I read my Noli and Fili in English, though. He said then that this Act of Congress was a true inverse version of book burning and the imposition of the "Index." Rizal would have preferred that his countrymen read his novels without coercion. After all, Rizal meant them to be literature. They became propaganda. In 1898, when the Spaniards condemned him to die for insurrection, he wrote his fond farewell "Mi Ultimo Adios" (My Last Farewell) in Spanish.

    If no Philippine Writer in English will use English to condemn a "betraying elite by speaking a foreign language," leave the call centres to do it. "Hellooo, Ma'am, Sirrr...We have a bargayne to affer yooo...yadedayadedah..."

    Ars longa, vita brevis...Primum est vivere. (Art is forever, life is brief...Life/living comes first." If Filipino English is what the call centres need, so be it.

    In desperate remembrances like this one, I hear my late grandmother Sotera Buenaventura y Martinez admonish: "Hijo, habla en Espanol, Frances, Ingles, o Ilocano. No hay importa. Para mi, si habla con sinceridad, tu hablas con todo fuerza de corazon! Oye, Ingles es la lengua de commercio, Frances de diplomacia, Espanol de Dios, pero Ilocano es la lengua de su alma." (My son, it is of no consequence if you spoke Spanish, French, English, or Ilocano. For me, if you speak with sincerity, you speak with the heart's fervour. Listen, English is the language of commerce, French of diplomacy, Spanish of God, but Ilocano is of your soul.)

    'Nuff said. Basta! Basta!

    Am I now far removed from my soul because I speak and write English as my virtual first language now? Pity.