30 June 2009

Literary language not usually mother tongue

Thank you to the reader that pointed me to the Google Books site of the book Mother Tongues and Other Reflections on the Italian Language (2002) by Giulio C. Lepschy. The entire section on the relationship of literary language to mother tongue is on the site (thank you, Google Books!). Here is part of what Lepschy says:

"A diglossic situation, however, in which the mother tongue and the literary medium are quite distinct (either because they are different varieties of the same language or because they are different languages), seems to be prevalent in recorded history throughout the world; and the modern European situation, in which a nation-state tends to favour the use of the same idiom for literary expression and for everyday communication among the whole population, appears to be the exception rather than the norm." (page 25)

This is a research finding that I did not know about, but it clearly shows the need for the kind of multilingual literary criticism that I am pushing. What many think to be the exception (mixed-language texts, texts not in the mother tongue) turns out to be the mainstream literary tradition!

29 June 2009

Literary language vs mother tongue?

This is the abstract of an article entitled "Mother Tongues and Literary Languages" (Modern Language Review, 2001), by Giulio Lepschy:

"This lecture examines the notion of ‘native speaker’ and ‘mother tongue’: the former acquired popularity in the early twentieth century, the latter is based on a Medieval Latin expression (lingua materna) which particularly in its German shape (Muttersprache) became central for European national movements in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The implications of these notions are discussed with reference to Renaissance Latin, the revival of Hebrew, and modern Italian (particularly its twentieth-century development into a spoken language, distinct both from the dialects and from the traditional written language). Finally, the intriguing question is considered whether poets can more appropriately be said to express themselves in a native or a literary language."

Not being a subscriber to Modern Language Review (I would have to pay to read the article), I don't know how Lepschy answers the "intriguing question," but it is clear that the question is indeed intriguing.

William Wordsworth was not the first, but he was certainly the most influential poet to highlight the question by insisting that poets should write in "language really used by men." (Like poets of his time, Wordsworth did not realize that he had excluded women from the human race.) Of course, Wordsworth hedged by asking for "a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual aspect," thus typically introducing vagueness into what would have been a categorical yes-or-no answer. If the language of poetry were a literary rather than a natural language, it would not be subject to the laws of natural language. That, indeed, would be intriguing.

28 June 2009

Conference in November 2009


November 06 - 07, 2009
University of Hamburg
-- Warburg Haus --
Heilwigstraße 116
D-20249 Hamburg

"Discourse production in multilingual contexts represents a specific type of language contact situation. Translation may be seen as the prototypical type of multilingual discourse production, other types would include parallel text production in different languages (e.g. for web sites) or the production of versions more loosely connected with the source text.

"When divergent communicative norms and conventions come into contact in any of these types of text production, one may find that such conventions transcend established language boundaries, potentially leading to the emergence of new genres. A case in point may be the so-called Corporate Philosophies in German, which owe much of their existence to the impact of English role models. These texts seem to represent hybrids in that they partly follow German communicative preferences and partly a communicative style more typical of English texts (cf. Böttger & Bührig 2003). If one looks back at the history of the European languages, it becomes clear that to some extent all of them have taken over textual conventions and/or structures from Latin, which may be related to the numerous translations from Latin into the vernaculars, generally representing a major part of early text production. For example, Koller (1998) has argued that Latin-German translations have substantially shaped the development of written German, in particular the literary language. Looking at English one finds, for instance, that the possible contexts of accusative-cum-infinitive constructions spread as a result of contact with Latin (cf. Fischer 1992, 1994). Another example can be seen in innovations in late-medieval Swedish, such as the use of new subordinating structures (cf. Höder 2008).

"Consequences of contact are manifold and may vary according to socio-historical circumstances as well as in relation to the functional and structural peculiarities of the linguistic systems involved. Factors which may determine the linguistic outcome of contact through translation could be:

* the quantitative basis (i.e. how many texts are translated from language A into language B and the ratio between translated and non-translated texts in language B)
* the prestige of the source vs. the target language (cf. Toury 1995, Baker 1996)
* the degree of standardization of the target language
* the degree of establishment of the genre in the target culture
* the possibility of establishing clear form-function equivalences (which in turn is related to the genetic proximity of the two languages) (cf. Becher, House & Kranich forthc.)

"In the workshop we wish to study in how far these and possibly other factors influence the result of language contact through translation and similar discourse production types. The central question is thus: Under which conditions does translatory activity have a (lasting) impact on the languages involved? This question may be approached from different angles."

The deadline for paper proposals has passed, but you might want to attend the conference.

27 June 2009

"National" literary language

For many countries today, there is or should be no such thing as a "national language" as far as literature is concerned. Take Austria. Here is a description of what is happening there today:

"When we talk about Austria we are talking about 12 languages at least. This is, of course, less than the number of languages in Cameroon or India, but it was more than one language. It was not possible to establish German as the sole language of the Habsburg Monarchy. For every 'ethnic' group it was important to have their own language for university use. Within the Habsburg Monarchy some of these languages were indeed created for that purpose (like Ukrainian at the University of Czerniwzi/Czernowitz). During this time a lot of the writers or poets wrote in different languages like Franz Grillparzer or Karl Emil Franzos. And in this sense the literature of the Habsburg Monarchy was a multinational literature. In the present, too, Austrian literature is not only writing in German, as some of the German nationalists want us to believe. It is written not only in German but also in Slovenian, Croatian or Turkish, and when we think of the writers in exile, they use English, French or Spanish (just to mention a few languages)." [Herbert Arlt, "Multilingual Austrian Literature" (2002)]

Monolingual literary criticism, or criticism that ignores the mother tongue of a writer writing in a second or foreign language, perpetuates the oppressive notion of a "national literary language."

26 June 2009

Ezra Pound's Canto XLIX

Although Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot are universally acclaimed as two of the world's greatest poets, their mixing of languages does not seem to have started a trend in poetry-writing. Pound trusted that his readers would appreciate at least the sounds of the foreign words, if not their meanings.

Take these two stanzas from "Canto XLIX: For the Seven Lakes":

State by creating riches shd. thereby get into debt?
This is infamy; this is Geryon.
This canal goes still to TenShi
Though the old king built it for pleasure


Blogger Ben Kilpela, writing about Pound in general, observes:

"Actually, it has become a common expectation that the poet be obscure. This is a leading reason, I think, poetry has receded so far as an influential form of literature in our time. People just don’t have time to figure out what purpose modern poems have, and if and when they do figure one out, it seldom adds up to much beyond a vague, disordered expression of the poet’s state of mind."

This particular poem is "obscure" only if the reader does not know Japanese (I don't, so it is indeed "obscure" for me). A bilingual (Japanese & English) reader would most likely find the poem to be clear. This is one reason we need multilingual literary critics. We want to be able to understand every line of this poem (widely considered one of Pound's best), not just to enjoy the sounds of the words or letters. Multilingual literary critics can do poets a great favor, by making poetry again accessible (as it was in the old days) to everyone.

25 June 2009


Let me give an example of how multilingual literary criticism can illuminate aspects of a second-language poem. Here is a stanza from a canonical Philippine poem in English, "Gabu" by Carlos A. Angeles:

The waste of centuries is grey and dead

And neutral where the sea has beached its brine,

Where the split salt of its heart lies spread

Among the dark habiliments of Time.

Notice the meter. Except for the third line, it is strictly iambic pentameter. Why is the third line not in iambic pentameter?

In the formalist way of looking at poems, we would say one of two things. First, the poet was incompetent. Second, the poet wanted to emphasize the third line and therefore deliberately did not make it follow the metrical scheme.

Angeles has proven his competence as a poet in poem after poem, including this one, so the first conclusion is unacceptable. The second conclusion might be defensible, because the stanza might be talking about the heart of salt; the other three lines could be merely establishing the setting or condition for the insight. The second conclusion, however, would not sufficiently explain why Angeles did not just break the meter in the foot (or group of syllables, for those not familiar with literary critical jargon) "split salt." On the contrary, the entire line is not iambic (one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable), though it still has five feet (which is the definition of pentameter).

Multilingual literary criticism offers a third possibility. Angeles was from Leyte, an island in Central Philippines, where the language is Samar-Leyte or Waray. The vowels and accents of Waray are quite different from those of English. For one thing, there is a lot more natural rhythm or singsong in the language. "Split salt" has, for the native English speaker, two stresses, but it does not necessarily have that stress pattern for the native Waray speaker. The line, in other words, may be read as iambic.

The lack of a syllable in the last foot may also be explained by multilingual literary criticism. Filipinos tend to pronounce monosyllabic words starting with S as two-syllabled; "spread" has two syllables for Filipinos though it has only one for Americans. What appears as an error may now appear to be an interaction of mother tongue and second language, not an attempt at emphasis nor inability to count.

In fact, on the conceptual level, the emphasis of the stanza is really the darkness or deadness of the sea, which forms the central paradox of the whole poem, not its saltiness.

24 June 2009

Studies of mixed-language literature

I am not the first to advocate the study of mixed-language literature, but as far as I know, I am the first to suggest that texts written in languages other than the writer's mother tongue should be read as mixed-language texts.

Here is an account of the criticism so far of mixed-language literature:

"Though there was some interest in ‘macaronic poetry’ before the 20th century, serious research only began with Wehrle’s study on medieval macaronic hymns and lyrics (1933). Wehrle establishes a typology of macaronic poetry from the 13th to the 15th centuries and classifies patterns of Latin insertions from a formal literary perspective, viewing them as a ‘genre of versification’ (1933: vii). The second half of the 20th century saw quite a number of literary studies on the aesthetic and poetic functions of language-mixing in macaronic poems, such as Zumthor (1960, 1963) in a European perspective, Harvey (1978) for Anglo-Norman lyrics, or Archibald (1992) for the poems of Dunbar and Skelton. These more recent studies emphasise the often highly artistic stylistic functions of poetic language-mixing." (p. 57 of “Mixed-language texts as data and evidence in English historical linguistics,” by Herbert Schendl, in Studies in the History of the English Language, edited by Donka Minkova and Robert P. Stockwell, 2002).

Multilingual literary critics can use the findings of such studies to illuminate aspects of non-mother-tongue texts.

23 June 2009

Empirical study of second language reading

When poets write in a second language, the sounds that the words make in their minds are different from the sounds they make when read or written by a mother-tongue poet. There is experimental proof of this, such as revealed in the article "Comparisons of native and foreign language poetry readings: Fluency, expressiveness, and their evaluation" (2004) in Psychological Research: "American college and German Gymnasium students read an English and German poem in their respective native (L1) and foreign (L2) languages. In L2, articulation rate (syl/s) was slower and phrase length (syl/pause) shorter than in L1. Only the German women read expressively: Mean pause duration was higher than all other groups in L1 and lower in L2. Evaluations of fluency and expressiveness by American teachers of German and German teachers of English paralleled these results."

Since poetry is made up of the sounds of words (what literary critics call "signifiers"), then the difference in sounds is crucial. This is one reason that critics have to start paying attention to the mother tongue of the second-language poet. The case of Cirilo F. Bautista rhyming men with mien is just one of numerous examples of second-language poets attributing a sound to a word different from that usually attributed by a mother-tongue poet.

22 June 2009

Second-language readers

It is one thing for a first-language reader to read a work done in that language by a writer with a different mother tongue. It is quite another thing for a reader to read a work written in other than her or his mother tongue. The second situation is much more familiar to teachers of literature. It is not unusual at all for a teacher to encounter students that cannot get the connotations or context of the words in a foreign-language poem.

Linguists have looked at the second situation. For example, DI Hanauer of Israel summarizes his "The task of poetry reading and second language learning" (2001) this way: "The aim of the current study was to evaluate the role of the poetry-reading task for second language learning. The study followed Skehan's (1998) methodological approach to task choice and theoretical position on the importance of focus-on-form for language learning. The paper first describes the way poetry is read and understood by advanced second language learners and then considers the interaction between this description and the language learning process. The research methodology chosen was qualitative and consisted of an in-depth analysis of the protocols of ten dyads of advanced English language learners reading a poem from a popular song. The most basic contribution of this study is the development of a coding system that describes the types of responses elicited during poetry reading. Poetry reading is described as a close reading, meaning construction task that involves high levels of close consideration, analysis and elaboration of textual meanings. This coding system reveals how non-native readers of poetry notice form and consider the gap between input and output, thus extending their understanding of the potential uses and meanings of an existing linguistic structure. In addition, it shows how non-native readers view the distance between the poem's content and their own knowledge of the target culture and thus find their cultural awareness enhanced."

As far as I know, there is not much linguistic work done on the first situation. There is, moreover, a third situation: a reader reading a work not in her or his first language written by someone also not in the latter's mother tongue. This is a very complex situation that linguists should start studying.

21 June 2009

Not just code-switching

A large number of linguists are interested in code-switching or any other kind of mixing of languages. Their studies illuminate many aspects of language use. For example, studies of Finglish (Finnish + English) have shown that speakers do not just shift languages out of lack of competence in one or the other language, but because the idioms are different. Idioms are based on ways of thinking about reality, so it is the way of thinking that is different.

Here, for example, is how Anne Putkuri describes the experience of mixing languages: "If you can't find a Finnish word, you quickly replace it with an English one. The word may be English, but you use the inflection rules of Finnish. I do word-for-word translations myself, too; I do the dishes, and I don't seem to be able to learn that in Finnish one washes the dishes."

Writers are even more precise in their choice of languages to mix or to use in a second-language or mixed-language text. The difference between do and wash is major for a poet (they do not rhyme, for instance); the choice is dictated by aesthetic, instead of just mere linguistic reasons.

20 June 2009

Literary vs. linguistic competence

Followers of this blog having some difficulty distinguishing literary from linguistic competence might want to read Raman Selden, who was a fairly accurate and eminently readable interpreter of literary theories. Here is how Selden, writing about Michael Riffaterre, distinguished the two:

“It requires only ordinary linguistic competence to understand the poem’s ‘meaning,’ but the reader requires ‘literary competence’ to deal with the frequent ‘ungrammaticalities’ encountered in reading a poem. Faced with the stumbling-block of ungrammaticalness, the reader is forced, during the process of reading, to uncover a second (higher) level of significance which will explain the ungrammatical features of the text." (page 60 of A Reader's Guide to Contemporary Literary Theory)

First, a reader has to understand (or have competence in) the language. Then, the reader has to understand (or have competence in) the literariness or the language of poetry (or literature in general) or the conventions that writers follow.

This is where one big difficulty arises when we are dealing either with a mixed language text or with a text written by a writer in a language other than the mother tongue. We have to have competence in the two or more languages involved before we have competence in literariness. Most literary critics have competence in literariness (they would not be literary critics if they did not!), but not all have competence in more than one language.

Linguistic competence (which, of course, includes familiarity with the culture, not only the grammar and vocabulary of the language) comes before literary competence. Otherwise, one falls into the trap that otherwise excellent translator Harold Augenbraum falls into when he translates the Spanish "el Ateneo" as "the atheneum" in the Penguin English translation of Jose Rizal's Noli Me Tangere.

19 June 2009

Literary competence in education

Good news! The Philippine Department of Education, which oversees public or general primary and secondary education, has decided to include literary competence as a major component of its overall goal of "Functional Literacy for All." Previously, only linguistic or communicative competence (in Filipino, English, Spanish, Arabic, and other official or vernacular Philippine languages) was part of the declared goals of public education. If you know of other countries where literary competence (this term itself, not its equivalent) is explicitly mentioned as a goal of public education, please let me know so I can also mention them in this blog.

18 June 2009

Visayan Students

Students are getting into mixed-language writing. At the University of the Philippines in the Visayas, based in the central islands of the Philippines, student-poets are producing mixed language poems (involving Cebuano, English, Filipino, Hiligaynon, Kinaray-a, and/or Tagalog). Here is "Silent Mode" in the website Verseculo Senti:

Ginubrahan kita ng trahe
Dahil sa susunod na linggo
Ay ikakasal ka na
Sa tsinoy na nakilala
Mo sa Boracay.

Ngunit bago pa man
Maubos ang sinulid
At mabali ang karayom
Na aking ginausar,
Bakas sa iyong mukha
Ang pagkabagabag
Na iyong dinadala.

Ginpamangkot kita kung bakit?
Anong nangyari?

Ngunit walang tingog at salita
Ang lumabas sa
Namamaga mong bibig.

There are some (particularly in the Sentro ng Wikang Filipino based in that university) that would argue that this is Filipino, the legal national language of the Philippines. Some would argue otherwise. I do not want to get into the linguistic debate here (although I have said quite a mouthful about it elsewhere). What is important is that, in this literary work, the mixing together of distinct languages works, because what the poem is talking about (a confused bride getting a taste of the violence that awaits her as a wife) is mirrored by the "confusion" generated by the mixing of languages, a confusion that is of no consequence to someone that understands all three languages. The speaker in the poem and the multilingual reader of the poem are, therefore, one in understanding what is going on in the mind of the bride. (Of course, from a political viewpoint, I cannot agree with the racism against the Chinese in the poem, but using purely formalist standards, the poem works.)

17 June 2009

More on Cuban-American novelists

Here's an excerpt from Cuban-American Literature of Exile: From Person to Persona (1998), by Isabel Alvarez-Borland, pp. 153-154: “In addition to the prolific work by Cuban writers in the various literary genres in Miami and New York City, other Cuban-born novelists write in Spanish from other parts of the globe. For instance, Mireya Robles and René Vásquez Díaz visit Miami periodically but permanently reside in South Africa and Sweden, respectively. ... Among this multifarious group of Cuban-American writers producing in Spanish, poet-essayist Lourdes Gil stands out, for she has contributed to her one-and-a-half generation with her poetry and with some insightful essays on the predicament of writers such as herself. The choice of language is crucial for a writer, although in the case of Lourdes Gil the choice of Spanish assures her a place in the margins of the Anglo intellectual community. Most of Gil’s creative and scholarly writings have sought to explain her need to continue to write in Spanish. ... Interestingly, many writers publishing in Spanish are now beginning to translate their works into English in order to acquire a wider readership.”

The situation is similar to that of Filipino writers in the United States. US-based Epifanio San Juan Jr., for example, continues to write poetry in Tagalog, even as he writes his scholarly books in English.

16 June 2009

Cuban-Americans working with English

Cubans born in Cuba and now working and writing in the United States have a keen sense of the interaction of mother tongue with second language. Here is an excerpt from the introduction to One Island, Many Voices: Conversations with Cuban-American Writers, by Eduardo R. del Rio:

"A sense of duality regarding the English language is another trait of Cuban-American literature that is prominent in the works of these twelve writers. For some of them, Spanish may be a mere memory or something experienced sporadically through familial bonds. Others, however, are more at home in the Spanish language, and English thus represents a direct confrontation with a new and confusing tongue. For all of these writers, however, their linguistic consciousness includes a sense of both languages. Because of this duality, the body of Cuban-American writers' works is written primarily in English, as they seek to express this conflict in the language that is the embodiment of it."

I like the way Del Rio notices that the English language itself is "the embodiment" of the linguistic problem. English (or as literary critics like to put it, english with the small letter e) is a language made up of many other languages. Even the old British English vs. American English issue was already a sign that the English language in itself has problems of identity. Why is American English (or British English) considered standard? Why not Cuban English? Or Singlish? Or Inglish? Or, in fact, why not Philippine English? Indeed, why is the economic imperialism of the 20th century still being played out in the 21st century in the realm of language? Multilinguistic literary criticism may hold the key to the answer to this question. By focusing on texts written in a second or foreign language, we might be able to grasp the nuances of the issue more manageably.

15 June 2009

Famous elsewhere

Being appreciated by readers not sharing one's mother tongue is, of course, not new. A fairly recent example is Edgar Allan Poe, who was said to have been taken seriously first by the French before his fellow Americans. (This urban legend, of course, has already been debunked, but it still serves my purpose.) In translation or when read by non-"native speakers," a text loses its linguistic qualities (such as word-play) but gains focus (the non-language-based elements - such as characterization, plot, theme, ideas - are foregrounded). When we read a work written by a writer in a second or foreign language, on the other hand, the linguistic elements are enhanced, because the mother-tongue reader finds the language unfamiliar (literary critics like to say "defamiliar") and is forced to think about the words themselves. Like all new literary theories, multilingual literary criticism is a return to the old, the older tradition of criticism being that focused on words, not ideas.

14 June 2009

Writings of the Buddha

Buddhists appear to be more comfortable with the idea of mixing languages than Christians, not because the Christian Bible is not mixed, but because most modern Christians read the Bible in translation and are not too concerned that the Bible was not written in English (or whatever modern language) and, therefore, shares the danger of all translations (there is no such thing as a faithful translation, as translation theory has repeatedly proven). Modern Buddhists also read the words of the Buddha in translation, but the mixed-language nature of the Buddhist scriptures (due to the early splintering of the tradition among followers) makes it impossible to ignore the linguistic interactions at the beginning of Buddhism. (See, for example, the 1975 discussion on language in The Life of Buddha as Legend and History.) Since it is not technically a religion, Buddhism is often left out when the world's great religions are discussed (namely, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism [in alphabetical order]). The Buddhist scriptures, just like Christian, Islamic, and Jewish writings, are literature and should be studied by literary critics (who may or may not be believers or followers of one or the other system of beliefs).

13 June 2009

Every language is a mixed language?

Eventually, once multilingual criticism develops sophisticated tools for reading mother tongue interactions in second language texts, it will illuminate aspects of monolingual texts that have not yet been fully appreciated. After all, most (if not all) languages are inherently mixed. (There is surprise on the part of many when this kind of statement is made [see, for example, the current blog debate on the relationship of French to German].) The situation appears similar to that in physics, when we say that, for everyday life, we can make do with Newton, since we do not usually have to deal with anything that travels near the speed of light (in which case, we would have to start using Einstein). Even if we preferred to use Newton for convenience, however, we could just as well use Einstein (which would make things uselessly complicated but would be more accurate). When we read a work done by someone with a different mother tongue, we can learn many principles that we can then apply to works done by authors in their mother tongue.

What I am saying comes close to the (now considered old-fashioned) insight of T. S. Eliot that all works change their meaning when a new work is created (he said this in his still-anthologized 1922 essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent") or that every word in a poem contains all the meanings that were attached previously to that word. Any word in English (which, chances are, comes from another language) thus carries with it all the meanings in the language where it originally came from. There will, therefore, not be any monolingual text, strictly speaking.

Since it will be very hard to study every word in a monolingual text and to trace all the meanings in the language (or languages) where it came from, it is easier for us to study the obviously foreign words in a mixed-language text. But mixed-language texts are only the starting point. We are clearly interested in eventually learning more about apparently monolingual texts.

12 June 2009

Writing poetry in a second language

There is poetry and there is poetry. The poetry being written by second language learners in order to learn the second language is, well, poetry, but it is not the poetry that this blog focuses on. I realize that there is a pre-Raymond Williams bias in that statement (for those not into literary theory, Williams was one of the first to point out that the word "literature" was basically a way for Oxford and Cambridge university professors to discourage their students from reading what people outside the campuses were reading), but as a literary critic, I am primarily interested in what established writers do. That is a dangerous thing to say these days, when canon-bashing is the rule rather than the exception. That notwithstanding, this is why I am only tangentially interested in what is going on in foreign-language teaching circles, such as what Diane Farruq apparently does exceeding well in "Write Poetry in a Foreign Language: Create Original Poems and Improve Writing Skills."

11 June 2009

Aviram on literary competence

Here is a take on literary competence: "Literary competence is not the ability to resist the pleasures of reading but the ability to feel them. It arises, precisely, from the ability to distinguish between the literary and the nonliterary." These sentences come from a long study by Amittai F. Aviram entitled "Notes toward a new formalist criticism: Reading literature as a democratic exercise" (1998). In ordinary conversations with someone speaking in a second or foreign language, we are always aware that the person is not a so-called native speaker (if only because of different accents, vowel sounds, idioms, and so on). When reading a work in a language that is not the writer's mother tongue, we should also be aware that the language itself is not the writer's own and, therefore, is different from the language of a writer writing in a mother tongue. Moreover, when we read a literary text not in a mother tongue, we should take its being not in a mother tongue as an element of its literariness. What is literature if not language used and read in a special way? By ignoring the second-language nature of the text, we miss the extra pleasure of watching two languages interacting with each other.

10 June 2009

Culler and Jose Garcia Villa

Here is a summary of Culler's idea of literary competence:

"Jonathan Culler, in his Structuralist Poetics, moves away from the idea of the underlying competence of literary works, and considers instead the literary competence of readers. Culler argues that this literary competence, regarded as a kind of grammar of literature, is acquired in education institutions. In his later work, On Deconstruction, he develops the idea further, drawing on diverse critical responses to institutions, and questioning the foundations of a literary competence that surreptitiously promotes the doctrines and values of specific traditions."

What is being "surreptitiously promoted" by the usual way of reading works by multilingual authors as though they were monolingual is the dubious primacy of the second language. For example, by reading Jose Garcia Villa's poems as though the poet spoke English from childhood, we fall into the silly trap that my American graduate school teacher in Survey of American Literature fell into when he pronounced Villa as a "minor American poet." He (and most other readers) failed to see that the line "Then musical as a sea-gull" in Villa's famous "Lyric 17" makes full sense only when we realize that Villa is writing in Tagalog, using English words.

09 June 2009

Literary competence

Let us focus for a moment on the notion of "literary competence," a phrase made famous by Jonathan Culler, although the idea that more educated readers understand literature better than less educated readers (or that literary education is necessary if one is to read literature properly) has been around since the beginning of formal education.

Not very much attention has been given to the place of multilinguistic competence within literary competence. Culler and others, of course, have always talked about language (for example, you need to know the grammar of a language before you can understand a poem in that language), but they have, as far as I know, not talked about knowing the mother tongue of the author if the work is not in the mother tongue. I suggest that it is necessary for critics (as well as for more discriminating readers) to have linguistic competence in the mother tongue of a bilingual or multilingual author in order to fully or properly read a text written in a second or foreign language. That linguistic competence need not be of a very high level (the critic does not need to speak the language, but merely to read it or at least read a dictionary or similar reference work in that language); it should be enough to see how the mother tongue influences (interferes, supports, counterpoints, etc.) the language of the text.

08 June 2009

Code-switching vs. Mixed language

Linguists like to distinguish between code-switching and mixed language. For example, Daniel Long distinguishes Ogasawara Mixed Language (OML) from the expected code-switching in the bilingual community after the Pacific War: "OML differs in many significant ways from normal code-mixing or code-switching between English and Japanese. When Japanese code-mix, for example, they generally do NOT: (a) ignore honorifics (keigo), (b) ignore polite forms (teineigo), (c) use English pronouns, (d) incorporate English whole phrase structure, (e) use English phonology, or (f) use English counters. These are all significant features of OML."

The task of multilingual literary critics is simpler. For us, whether a poet code switches or uses mixed language is not of primary concern (so far, anyway). What is crucial is that readers realize that there are two (or more) languages working within the literary text, in addition to the language of literature (the latter is what critics refer to when they talk about "literary competence").

06 June 2009

Linguists on mixed language

Linguists have not quite figured out what to do about mixed languages. In a paper for the Redesigning Pedagogy: Culture, Knowledge and Understanding conference in Singapore in May 2007, Bao Duy Thai of the Australian National University starts by admitting that "there has hardly been a consensus on how a mixed language is defined (Bakker 2003; Backus 2003; Myers-Scotton 2002, 2003)." Here is where multilingual literary critics can do better than linguists. We can explore our twin definitions of multilingual literature, namely, first, literature that uses words from two or more languages, and second, literature written by a writer in a second or foreign language.

03 June 2009

Jayanta Mahapatra

The poems of Jayanta Mahapatra have been justly praised for their incorporation of themes from Orissan culture, but not too much attention has been given to the way he writes in Oriya, using English words. I don't know Oriya, but I know English, and I know that these lines (from his "A Whorehouse in Calcutta Street") could not have been written by someone that thinks in English, unless we are talking of Inglish:

you miss them in the house's
dark spaces, how can't you?

Rather than detracting from so-called International English (also called english or Englishes), the lines add to the ability of the English language to reflect other languages. More precisely, from the point of view of literary criticism, the language signals a shift in worldview, a linguistic turn that brings the reader into another world (assuming the reader is not Indian). The reader becomes a dark space in the house, interrogated by the poem, challenged by the poem into becoming one with the poet and thus being illuminated by and illuminating the dark spaces in the lines.

02 June 2009


Here's an interesting observation by a blogger:

"India is becoming a major world power -- and predictably will join with China by the end of this century to be the dominant power globally (not just in having a third of the world's population in those two national markets, but economically and politically and culturally) and that the language they will be using globally will be a derivative of the Inglish melange, a more successful form globally than the Chinese versions."

The language being referred to is Inglish, the variety of English spoken and written in India. Inglish is a mixed language, with various elements of various Indian languages incorporated into the basic International English structure.

Has anyone read the famous Indian writers from the point of view of their use of Inglish in their works? We have too often assumed that Indian writers write in International English (whatever that is), when they were most likely writing in Inglish, using English words. This is an area where multilingual literary criticism can make itself felt.

01 June 2009

Urdu a model of future literary languages?

Urdu appears to be the end result of poets writing in mixed languages, as recounted in this passage:

"The poets of the Mughal period who wrote poetry in the mixed language of Persian and Hindi, which was spoken in and around Delhi, called it Naz'm-e-Rekh'ti or Naz'm-e-Rekh'ta, meaning a kind of verse (naz'm) written in a language with a mixture of two or more languages. Later on all forms of poetry written in this mixed language were called Rekh'ti and the language itself was referred to as Zabaan-e-Rekh'ti. The basis for using this mixed language was laid down by the poets of Zabaan-e-Rekh'ti, which got its patronage from the Mughal court and people in the high places.

"Therefore, we can conclude that Urdu as a literary language was a product of various practices in written poetry in the amalgamated languages, born out of a mixture of Persian, Arabic, and local Hindi of the Delhi region in the Mughal period."

Is it possible that, in the future, there will evolve a literary language from the mixed-language poetry currently being written by multilingual poets? History tends to repeat itself, and it might well repeat itself with a new literary language. The poets now usually marginalized or even met with derision by monolingual critics might very well be the pioneers to be cited by future historians of literature.