30 July 2009

English as a Multi-Language

Those afflicted with what I call tempocentricism (the tendency to think that our times are the best of all times or even that there are no other times at all except ours) think of those that speak only English as monolingual. That would be true of most of humanity, but certainly not of serious literary writers. Serious writers know the history of every word they use in their works (of course, poets are more deliberate than prose writers, because they have fewer words to worry about).

An account of how a serious writer deliberately uses the multilingual character of the English language can be found in the Introduction by Gavin Alexander to the Penguin edition of Sidney’s ‘The Defence of Poesy’ and Selected Renaissance Literary Criticism (2004):

"[George] Puttenham’s prose style merits some consideration. ... One stylistic habit is seen everywhere: like many of his contemporaries he is fond of proceeding by twos. To take an example: ‘implying thereby how, by his discreet and wholesome lessons uttered in harmony and with melodious instruments, he brought the rude and savage people to a more civil and orderly life, nothing, as it seemeth, more prevailing or fit to redress and edify the cruel and sturdy courage of man than it.’ Many of the words which face each other across Puttenham’s conjunctions are synonyms. The technique belonged in the mixed language which Puttenham had written a history of. For most things English had an Anglo-Saxon term and an Anglo-Norman one; and the Latinate element represented by the influence of French was being fortified by the many borrowings from Latin which expanded the English lexicon in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries." (p. lxvi)

In 20th-century and 21st-century English texts written by writers whose mother tongue is English, we can find the same mixing of British (or American) English with some other variety of English (Philippine, Indian, Singaporean, or others). It will take a thorough literary critic to go through even a short poem and show how the poet (assuming that the poet knows what s/he is doing) mixes different varieties of English for some aesthetic effect. Of course, as a theoretician, I can say that quite easily, but to put that in practice is an altogether different matter. A practical way to help both writers and readers is Alexander's: take only one sentence as an example to show how a writer uses various varieties (or registers or dialects) of the same language.

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