14 May 2009

Multilingual in one language

To restrict multilinguality to the idea of using two or more languages in the same literary text will deprive critics of a powerful tool to deal with texts in one language. Think of the debates about Greek in the early 20th century, when students led a movement to translate classical Greek texts into modern Greek. The scholarly arguments sometimes became a matter of life and death, as in the Oresteiaka riots of 1903, when three people were killed during protests for and against the staging in modern Greek of Aeschylus's masterpiece.

In the Philippines, until about a decade ago, Tagalog purists wanted to retain Tagalog as the national language and to reject the constitutionally-mandated Filipino, leading to legal and academic battles with writers in Cebuano and Ilocano. The conflict has been partially resolved by the country's leading university, the University of the Philippines, which came out with a dictionary of Filipino (rather than Tagalog). The dictionary was the work of literary giants, led by National Artist Virgilio S. Almario, who had proven his worth writing poetry in Tagalog and could never be accused of being anti-Tagalog (though some misguided non-Tagalog writers continue to regard him as a purist). Unfortunately, the dictionary has not led to a growth in the number of writers writing in Filipino, but it highlights the multilinguality of Philippine literature, where writers can make very fine distinctions between closely related languages. Russian critics of Philippine literature, like most readers based in other countries, do not appreciate the intensity of the linguistic conflict: to them, all Philippine literature is written in Russian.

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