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.

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