31 August 2009

Ma. Lourdes S. Bautista on code-switching

In the August 29 issue of the newspaper Manila Bulletin, linguist Ma. Lourdes S. Bautista summarizes current linguistic theory about code-switching:

"There was a time, some 40 years ago, when Taglish [Tagalog + English] was frowned upon. This was because Taglish was associated with a speaker’s inability to use either Tagalog or English in complete discourse. It was a sign of lack of proficiency in one of the two languages. This can be called 'deficiency-driven code switching.' ...

"But the more common kind of code switching now can be called 'proficiency-driven code switching.' This is the kind used by people who are proficient in both languages and who code-switch for purposes of communicative efficiency. I believe that bilinguals (and most Filipinos are bilingual, even trilingual) have the strategic competence to 'calculate,' in a sense, which language would provide the most expressive, most concise way of saying something. This kind of strategic competence is currently very evident in texting [SMS] – the texter can choose between English, Tagalog, or Taglish to state the message in the fastest, easiest way possible."

As it has always done, literature leads the way in the uses of language. Multilingual literary texts are written by writers proficient, not deficient in language skills. The general population (those using SMS) are reaping the benefits of the efforts of literary writers (admittedly and necessarily, a small percentage of the world's population) to break down the barriers between languages and to harness the best qualities of every language in the service of effective and pleasurable communication. Linguists explore universes of discourse where literary writers and critics have gone before.

30 August 2009

Assia Djebar

For insights on Assia Djebar, look into Anne Donadey's World Literature Today essay: “The second half of the essay explores Djebar’s own practice of multilingual writing in the three published novels of her Algerian Quartet. Djebar is one of the foremost Maghrebian writers, and her work on language is truly remarkable. I analyze her use of Arabic words in her texts in French to argue that she creates a multilingual palimpsest which both reflects the process of violent French colonization of Algeria and subverts it linguistically by ‘arabiciz[ing] French.’”

Donadey's "arabicizing French" is like Gemino Abad's observation that Filipino writers have "colonized English." The often asked question of whether English should be considered an Asian language has been answered decisively in conferences and books: yes, English is not just the "language of yesterday's enemy" nor is it only the current international language, but it is an Asian, specifically a Filipino language. The Maghrebians have colonized French, just as Filipinos have colonized English. And as wikcrit shows, it is not just a matter of inserting Arabic or Tagalog words in a French or English text, but the French and the English itself being qualitatively different from the French and the English of "yesterday's enemies."

29 August 2009

Postcolonial issues

Actually appreciating multilingual literature is complicated by the ideological battles being fought on the postcolonial beachheads of literary theory. Why is language such a big issue among multilingual writers? Anne Donadey gives an account of the critical war:

“The question of the language of writing is overdetermined in the context of anti- and postcolonial literatures. If postcolonial authors write in ‘la langue de l’adversaire d’hier’ (the language of yesterday’s enemy), even writers with a clearly anticolonial agenda are regularly accused, at worst of betrayal, at best of not being able to reach their intended audience. For female writers, it is often seen as a double betrayal, both of the national language and of a nationalist ideology in which women are viewed only as allegories of the nation. These questions, which are unavoidable in the francophone context, are also foregrounded in anglophone Africa, as evidenced by the controversial arguments of Chinua Achebe and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. Yet the great theorists of decolonization such as Frantz Fanon, Aimé Césaire, and Albert Memmi all wrote their electrifying manifestoes in the colonizer’s language, using French as ‘une arme de combat, pour une littérature nationale’ (a weapon in the struggle for national literature). Writers and critics have treated this issue in many different ways.” ("The Multilingual Strategies of Postcolonial Literature: Assia Djebar’s Algerian Palimpsest" in World Literature Today, 2000)

Having spent the greater part of my life doing literary theory and having realized, like Terry Eagleton and several other theorists, that the moment of literary theory has passed, I suggest that we roll up our sleeves and start actually reading texts within a multilingual and/or multicultural context. We might come up with conclusions quite different from what we get using mere theoretical reasoning. As Samuel Johnson so famously illustrated, there might be no way to prove philosophically that anything or anyone exists outside of ourselves, except by kicking a stone:

"After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley's ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it -- 'I refute it thus.'" (from Boswell)

Once we start reading literature in the "language of yesterday's enemy," we might find that such literature is as subversive and as anticolonial as the "language of our blood."

28 August 2009

Ike Muila

Here's a blog entry about the poetry of Ike Muila:

"though there is an increase in the number of poets with poems that utilize hybridization, fusing english and african languages with slang\iscamtho, rasta and rap-speak, ike mboneni muila of the botsotso jesters is probably the only south african poet who writes\performs solely in a mix of languages, and is very passionate, irrepressible and unrepentant in calling the playful mixing of languages and slanguages, the sampling of folk-songs and children’s tales and snap-shots of township and village scenes art\poetry:

i am into creative writing as a poet artist performer
my narrative mix is in eleven languages spoken in south africa
by and bye trapped in one poem
the so called tsotsi taal
iscamtho lingo alive and kicking sense of humor in you and me
mixing of languages into a witty lingo
a language of identity
a language of an ordinary person in the street
a language of unity in diversity


"his poems bodly declare that his mission is to make art\poetry out of the mixing of languages and slanguages, out of the recollection, reconstruction, re-mixing and adaptation of children game-songs, folk songs\african classics games\songs\township classics\township tales and the exposition of everyday real-life stories in the streets, villages, townships and inner-city of azania."

Multilingual poetry is indeed - instead of an esoteric exercise for the elite of the linguistic and artistic world - the revolt of the unlettered against the miseducated.

27 August 2009

Literature in a colonial language

Today, we call it multilingual or mixed-language literature, but during the European Renaissance, it was “the language question,” that is, the ideological struggle of the vernaculars against the international languages of that time.

The study by David Holton of the dialectal literature in Crete at that time is typical of scholarly work on that period. This is part of what he says:

“Between the fourteenth and the seventeenth centuries we can therefore observe an upward movement in the status of the vernacular [in Crete]; we might compare the rise of English in the period from the Norman Conquest to the age of Chaucer. The parallels are quite striking: in both cases we have to do with a colonial situation in which the conquerors speak a different language (Norman French or Italian), while the native population has both a vernacular and a formal or learned language. Of course the extent to which English was influenced by contact with French is much greater than the influence of Italian on Cretan dialect, which is mainly restricted to vocabulary. It is, however, noteworthy that the common language of Crete was Greek, that is Cretan dialect, and by the end of our period the use of Italian was more or less restricted to the realms of administration and culture. Educated men would of course be bilingual, but it is clear from documents of the sixteenth century that women, even from noble Venetian families, would usually know only Greek. Greek was written in both the Greek and Latin alphabets, and a number of manuscripts of literary works survives in Latin script.” (p. 14 of Literature and Society in Renaissance Crete, 1991)

We are privileged to watch a similar phenomenon unfolding in our time. The use of Filipino as a literary language is growing as an ideological protest against the continued dominance of English (the language of 20th century American colonizers) in literature classes in schools and in government in the Philippines. The Filipino language itself has a huge number of words borrowed from English, analogous to the situation of Chaucer with French and the Cretan writers with Italian. The Philippines is undergoing what Europe underwent five or six centuries earlier! Five or six centuries from now, if we will follow the logic of the European model, Philippine literary texts written in English will be, if I may borrow Holton's words (used in another context), "of much smaller literary significance."

26 August 2009

Why Wikcrit is soooo difficult

Here is the abstract of a paper entitled "Once Again on Khitan Words in Chinese-Khitan Mixed Verses" by Alexander Vovin (published in Acta Orientalia Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae in 2003):

"The present paper deals with identification of the Khitan words preserved in Late Middle Chinese transcription in mixed language verses from the Qidan Guo Zhi. I argue that the only cogent way for identifying these Khitan words correctly is using the up-to-date version of Middle Chinese reconstruction, and not viewing them through the anachronistic prism of Modern and/or Early Mandarin readings of Chinese characters. On this basis I provide critical assessment of certain identifications proposed by my predecessors as well as several new identifications."

It is so easy to use "the anachronistic prism of Modern" language to read texts done before our century. The New Critics had lots of fun pointing out how what we now view as colorless words used to be pregnant with other meanings in 17th century England (such as John Donne's to die as to have an orgasm). Wikcritics find themselves in double trouble: they have to think in two or more languages at the same time, and they have to place themselves in another century.

25 August 2009

My latest play

Just a little something to show you where I am coming from. Here are some lines from my musical play Baler sa Puso Ko [Baler in My Heart], which opened last Aug. 12 in the Philippines. The play is all in Filipino, except for lines sung by the Spanish and the American characters. Examples:

From the opening scene introducing the characters:

MGA KASTILA
Todos lahat magdiwang sa Baler, Baler
Porque ngayon ay fiesta de Baler, Baler
Kahit kailan, kahit saan, mula noon
Hanggang ngayon sikat el pueblo de Baler

From a scene much later when American soldiers arrive:

ANTERO AMATORIO [the leader of the Filipino soldiers]
Wat you sey wat you sey my Amerikeyno
Why you sey why you sey kami ay sa inyo

SUNDALONG AMERIKANO 1
I can talk a little Tágalog brown brother
We bili na you mura mura brown brother

ANTERO AMATORIO
Wat you mean wat you mean tarantado kayo
Hindi kami mabibili kahit nino

SUNDALONG AMERIKANO 1
Ang mga Espanyol because natatalo
Binayaran namin sila bargain you know

ANTERO AMATORIO
Weyt a minit weyt a minit we panalo
We not for seyl we not for seyl no no no no

SUNDALONG AMERIKANO 2
What is this jerk talking about ignorant fool
We came to liberate this barbarian cesspool

SUNDALONG AMERIKANO 3
These monkeys have no tails they speak real funny
They do not even know manifest destiny

(I apologize to those that do not understand Filipino.)

video

24 August 2009

Henry Roth

Check out Judith Oster's excellent analysis of this scene from Henry Roth’s Mercy of a Rude Stream:

Mom, attuned to sorrow as she was, ... stroked his arm. “Mein orrim kindt. Sit down. Sit down, pleese .... So is it shoyn millt alle fon us, vee menshen. You should excuse mine English.... Alles mus’ go sleep, mein kindt, tsi rich, tsi poor.” ...

“Talk English, Mom,” Ira rebuked....

“I don’t mind your mother speaking Yiddish,” Larry assured Ira earnestly. “You seem to think I do. I really don’t. I can’t tell you why.”

“It’s atavistic,” Ira quipped uneasily.

“No, there’s something warm about it. Honestly. Please don’t stop her. Don’t be embarrassed, Ira. Some of it I think I understand. Your mother is very eloquent, do you know? She’s really comforting. I mean it.” (Crossing Cultures: Creating Identity in Chinese and Jewish American Literature, 2003, pp. 90-91)

23 August 2009

Bani Basu

I wish I could read Bani Basu in the original. She is reputedly the first major Bengali Indian literary writer to use the actual language of people, rather than (as happens too often with writers in other languages) an artificial literary register: "One can take Moom (1998) which focuses on a Marwari family settled in Kolkata for generations. The language is Bangla laced with Hindi, the kind many Marwaris in Calcutta use. Such a hybrid language - if used at all in Bangla literature in the past - has only been done for comic effect, and always briefly. Bani Basu dares to write an entire novel in this mixed language quite seriously, without any trace of condescension or mockery." (Meenakshi Mukherjee, "Bani Basu's Novels")

22 August 2009

LibriVox

I appreciate the heroic efforts of LibriVox to popularize non-English language readings through the Web, but I wish it had spent its time and money on something other than Ursula O. Maderal's poem "Araw ng Kamusmusan." There are better, more critically-acclaimed, more representative poems in Tagalog. In fact, if it can, it would be good for LibriVox to have more Filipino poems read on mp3. The 10 million or so Filipinos that live outside the Philippines should certainly welcome such readings. (I know that LibriVox depends almost completely on volunteers and cannot really choose what its readers read, but there must be a way to encourage more discriminating readers.)

21 August 2009

Rekhti poetry

Very interesting is a study by Ruth Vanita entitled “Eloquent Parrots: Mixed Language and the Examples of Hinglish and Rekhti.” She defines rekhti poetry this way: "Rekhti is a genre of Urdu poetry, purportedly composed in ‘women’s language’, which arose in the 18th century and came into prominence in the early 19th century. Early literary Urdu, called rekhta, has a preponderance of Persian and Arabic vocabulary, but the language of rekhti, which approximates more to the non-literary language of everyday speech, incorporates words and idioms from north Indian languages and dialects." She traces today's Hinglish (Hindu + English) to rekhti. Here is yet another proof that literature precedes language, or as Jacques Derrida famously put it, writing precedes speech.

20 August 2009

Tistarangit

The histories of writing and publishing are, to use a mathematical analogy, inversely proportional to each other. Writing started with multilingual texts (because languages themselves were born from other languages) and gradually became mostly monolingual. Publishing started with monolingual periodicals, moved to periodicals with monolingual texts in two or more languages (separate but equal, as in race relations), and now (principally on the Web) is moving towards multilingual or mixed texts. Literature, like everything else in history, swings like a pendulum, and writers are once again writing mixed or multilingual texts, primarily because languages themselves are moving from "pure" to "pidgin" forms (both linguistic adjectives, of course, are oversimplifications). Having monolingual texts in different languages is a necessary but I hope short-lived step towards truly multilingual publications.

I take as a case in point Tistarangit, the first online literary magazine of Sikkim. This magazine features texts in either English or one of the Indian languages, but as far as I know, not in the multilingual or mixed mode. Of course, using Wikcrit, we can analyze a poem such as this one and see that Indian languages determine the English syntax, but to move forward, Indian contributors to the magazine should start writing mixed verse (which, elsewhere in India, has gained a respectable following):

Cannibal Times
Raja Puniani

Come
I’ll eat you all

See
World has become
So much religious
(Even physics!)
And living so much expensive

You all are gods
Gods of your own world
I want to listen to your
Frustrations first
And
Wish to see
Masturbating
Before your own porno self

Go and
Sleep with the capitalists
In a city of communal riots

Class struggle
Demonstrates itself in
Class adjustments

All are violent and disturbed
In this risky
Peaceful co-existence

Democracy is
What people earn
Just as a bonded labour earns his privileges

Come
And
I’ll eat you all

I see me
In all of you

I see nothing
While I look at myself
Though I see
A lot

My mirror
These days
Scare me

I can’t keep gazing sky

Keep away that sky from me
The sky falls
On me

Nevertheless, I like the poem and wish I knew the Indian language that gives rise to the kind of English it uses.

19 August 2009

Computer-assisted literary analysis

I wish I had time to try out computer software that is supposed to make the work of multilingual literary critics easier. For example, the CCS software colors every word according to its source language. With one look at a screen and without actually having to read a text, we can tell if a text is multilingual or not. The Palimpsest software apparently can help identify and count words in languages other than the main one of a text. Stylistic critics have been using computers for a long time to do their mechanical chores of counting. Perhaps computers can raise the level of literary criticism from the purely qualitative to a more quantitative one. Maybe C. P. Snow's classic divide (suddenly back again in the newspapers) can finally be bridged.

17 August 2009

Using colors for multilingual texts

William Faulkner wanted his novel The Sound and the Fury printed in multicolors, each color belonging to one character's point of view (the novel has several points of view acting simultaneously, leading to immense confusion for unschooled readers). Technology has now given multilingual writers the solution that Faulkner desired, not in terms of different points of view, but for different languages in the same literary text. There is now software that can print, if you are reading on a computer, words in different colors (one for each language).

"Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) is a simple mechanism for adding style (e.g. fonts, colors, spacing) to Web documents."

"For one example of using CSS, in Patrick Hanrahan’s novel NUNC, set the stylesheet to Number Two ('The author’s choice'). Stylesheet 2 uses the before: property to insert the characters’ names before their lines in a white #FFFFFF font on the black background. Patrick’s multilingual novels could be read by multilingual voice technology; language HTML font tags are included for each character’s lines, Latin, Italian, French, Spanish, Greek, German or Russian. Each character in the novel has their own font and color. They could also have their own voice accents."

Not being much of a techie, I haven't myself tried out this software, but it seems like an ideal solution for multilingual writers. Set the software to color the words according to the language (if you wish, per character as in Faulkner's novel). That will make life much easier for the reader.

15 August 2009

Call for papers

Multilingual Texts in the Foreign Language (FL) Classroom
Location: Quebec, Canada
Call for Papers Date: 2009-09-30

The panel examines the potential of multilingual texts (novels, lyrics, cartoons, theater, film, etc.) for the foreign language classroom. Multilingual texts can model intercultural speakership, promote language and cultural awareness as well as heightened contextual understanding. Contributions are invited that investigate new approaches on multilingual competence and/or present practical proposals to utilize multilingual potential(s) for foreign language teaching.

Proposals of no more than 250 words should be sent electronically by 30 September 2009 to Susanne Even (evens@indiana.edu) and David Delamatta (ddelamatta@lfcc.edu). Please include a recent CV, your academic affiliation, postal address and telephone number, as well as any A/V requirements (if any; $10 handling fee).

14 August 2009

Linguism?

There is no word for the equivalent of racism in the area of languages, so let me invent one for the sake of convenience - linguism. This is the discrimination suffered by speakers or writers of one language at the hands of speakers of another language. Linguism is difficult to detect when one is dealing only with written texts (although critics insisting on the use of only one language in a single literary text clearly think that their language is sufficient for all the needs of humanity), but it is very clear in ordinary discourse. Here's an example of a blog post where the writer does not even realize that she is guilty of linguism:

"There’s a lot of Chinese artists/bands that sing a whole song in Chinese, only to throw in some English phrases/words during the chorus?! It sounds quite silly, and I have no idea what the idea of this is? To my workmates, who don’t understand a lick of Chinese it sounded even MORE silly, gosh, one guy laughed so much tears started running from his eyes when we listened to the song 一半女生 –I ban nv sheng- by the Hong Kong duo ‘Twins’ who sang their whole verse in Chinese (something about growing up and not being a woman yet but also not being a girl…) and then went: 'Bye bye bye, bye bye happiness!' in the chorus and resulted in an instant laugh attack from my colleagues."

The only thing wrong with the word linguism is that the person afflicted with it would have to be called a linguist (unnecessarily making me thousands of enemies with one stroke of the computer, even though I have no intention of casting aspersions on language experts).

13 August 2009

Carl Sandburg's "Languages"

Thought I'd share this profound poem by Carl Sandburg (despite its sexist language). We should not hold on to "pure" forms of language, because all languages (yes, even English!) will eventually die:

Languages
Carl Sandburg


There are no handles upon a language
Whereby men take hold of it
And mark it with signs for its remembrance.
It is a river, this language,
Once in a thousand years
Breaking a new course
Changing its way to the ocean.
It is mountain effluvia
Moving to valleys
And from nation to nation
Crossing borders and mixing.
Languages die like rivers.
Words wrapped round your tongue today
And broken to shape of thought
Between your teeth and lips speaking
Now and today
Shall be faded hieroglyphics
Ten thousand years from now.
Sing — and singing — remember
Your song dies and changes
And is not here tomorrow
Any more than the wind
Blowing ten thousand years ago.

12 August 2009

Cassar's C'est la vie

These lines from Antoine Cassar's sonnet C'est la vie (2007) have received critical attention:

Run, rabbit, run, run, run, from the womb to the tomb,
de cuatro a dos a tres, del río a la mar,
play the fool, suffer school, zunzana ddur iddur,
engage-toi, perds ta foi, le regole imparar.

Marija Grech is quoted as saying: "The deeper significance of these poems may be said to lie not simply in the more traditional meaning of the individual words or verses, but more specifically in the play with sound that the movement from one language to another generates and exploits. As the poet explains, 'the mosaics are designed not so much to be read but to be heard'."

Critics always think that they know better than poets, and in this case, I will continue this self-deception. The lines clearly are meant to be heard, but they can also be read (I use read in two senses, namely, read as in looking for meanings and read as in view or see as in visual arts). That the lines are roughly the same length shows that they look like they are parts of a poem on a page; if the text were laid out as a prose paragraph, the sounds would be the same but the lines would not look like lines of poetry. The meaning (not just the sound) is, however, also worth the reader's time:

Run, rabbit, run, run, run, from the womb to the tomb,
from four to two to three, from the river to the sea,
play the fool, suffer school, the wasp goes round and round,
get involved, lose your faith, learn the rules (English translation supplied by the website itself)

"Womb to tomb," like "four to two to three" (from the puzzle in Oedipus Rex), refers to the passing of time. "River to the sea" refers to faith (if you see a river, there must be a sea; or image to reality). "Play the fool," of course, is from Shakespeare. And so on. The allusions and references play in the reader's mind like the sounds of the words. Had the poem been written in straight English, Spanish, French, or any other language, the sounds would not have mirrored the sense. In short, the choice of mixing languages is dictated in this instance by the poem itself, not by the poet. The poem could not have been written except by a multilingual poet. The inevitability of the bond between sense and sound is aesthetic, not biographical.

11 August 2009

Not polykrit

Back to the drawing board for me, since polykrit just doesn't hack it, being, as one follower says, too close to hypocrite. Polyanalysis could do it, but it sounds too much like psychoanalysis. Wikcrit might be a possibility, as a portmanteau of wika (the Filipino word for language) and criticism.

Unwieldy names for literary theories sometimes work against the theories themselves. Take postcolonial literary theory (or theories), which by having too long a name makes it harder for critics to use it (as opposed to deconstruction or defamiliarization, polysyllabic words which critics pronounce in one breath anyway). Maybe wikcrit might do, at least in the meantime, until we find a more imaginative buzz word.

10 August 2009

Polykrit

I've been looking for a short name for the unwieldy "Multilingual Literary Criticism." What about polykrit? It is a portmanteau of polyglot and the Filipino word kritika for literary theory cum criticism. The big literary theories have a word that characterizes them, even if that word does not really encompass what the theory tries to do. For example, there is deconstruction, which is widely misunderstood but is used anyway to refer to all post-structuralism, Derridean or otherwise. There is gynocritique, which puts together the really quite different sexual politics, French feminism, and other forms of literary feminism. There is marxism, which Marxists who don't completely agree with Marx use to talk about all forms of Marxism after Althusser. There is the originally weird but now universally accepted Englishes (or sometimes, english uncapitalized), standing for the struggle of Singlish, Taglish, etcetera-lish to put into its place American English or more usually British English (specifically, Received Pronunciation). I think I shall use polykrit from now on and see if it catches on.

09 August 2009

Not poetry

Using two or more languages in a text does not qualify one to be a multilingual poet. In other words, there are multilingual poems and there are multilingual "poems." There are multilingual texts that are not poems at all. Take this post from the About.com thread on "Multilingual Poems / Translation":

Se demener a etre au septieme ciel sont les arts.
To struggle in our seven heaven are arts.

This is clearly not poetry because it does not fulfill the first requirement for a work of literature, namely, that it should follow the rules of grammar. (That rule, of course, allows for its own exception, namely, that the poet may deliberately and knowingly violate the rules of grammar for aesthetic purposes.)

The second line borders on the illiterate. That the writer used a computer program to translate the French into English is obvious. There are computer-generated poems that approach the level of poetry, but this is not one of them. It is worse that we are not even talking about a computer, but a human being who could have, with some effort and time, learned a second language.

08 August 2009

Creating words

This post appears in the exchange on mixing Sanskrit and English:

"सर्वे जन्तु रुटिना: ! सर्वे जन्तु निराशया:
सर्वे छिद्राणि पंचन्तु ! मा कश्चित दु:ख-लॉग भरेत !

"Mardhekar always had a choice to NOT write Sanskrit mixed with English. Yet he wrote those lines. (And numerous others. Puncture-leli ratra can be easily replaced by malool ratra.) What about his usage like Motariche KLINNA manogat? There is not a single word KLINN in English or Marathi. It is a mixture of khinna + cleaner, and the amazing usage of Motari che klinna manogat, while prima facie talks about the motor-car's mental state, it goes beyond the object and talks about the Cleaner (Of the Driver-cleaner pair). What an amazing usage.

"I feel new idioms are created everywhere: in poetry, in drama, in cinema as years go by. It is inevitable."

Although I can't read Sanskrit, I agree that writers not only have the liberty but the duty to create words. Multilingual writers have an advantage in this regard, because they can put together words or syllables from two or more different languages. It is the job of the literary critic to "unpack" or "decode" the new word. To do this, the literary critic must be multilingual as well.

07 August 2009

Not mere fashion

Online discussions allow readers to give initial reactions to a work, pointing the way to literary theorists with more time to reflect. The thread in Another Subcontinent in January 2008 highlights an issue that a multilingual literary critic must face, namely, when a word is available in the writer's mother tongue, should the writer use a word in some other language?

"Sadly," writes one of the participants in the thread, "most of the discussions committed by the participants on this very thread lead to mark us as if we both are against the new trends, inevitable usage of multilingual form, and not in mood to allow the poet to use his/her genius while composing a particular poem. I, for me, just cannot beckon my flag in signaling as if its red-mark anywhere; because I am of the strong believer in writer’s total freedom. What I found in Indiego’s poem was the use of a particular term (wrench) in a deliberate form. She could have used this very word in her other work where reader might have gotten the feeling of appropriate use; but somehow I failed to see the usage in any relevance other than poet’s insistence in using multi-usage. Even Ehasaas is there as if pulled to make the poem in more fashionable manner, rather than illustrating pure need. I believe Indiego writes in beautiful manner, giving free reins to her inclinations and using words just as they come to her mind, irrespective of language. As a follower of new poetry and student of literature, I find her poem showing a keen sense of form and structure, and a special concern for the use of the right words in the right place. In other words, she could have written this in pure Marathi language in more expressive manner discarding question of 'new trend' in using multi-languages. I believe that a poet should labour to find the right words of the original language just as that great quotation of a beautiful girl goes, 'We must labour to be beautiful.' Here, once again, I would like to admit wholeheartedly that I am not favoring the poetry written only in conventional style measuring the various poetic meters; but would wish to see the usage of multi-languages in poem in natural form, not in deliberate attempt for the sake of keeping the wind of new trend."

It cannot be denied that some multilingual poets use "foreign" words out of whim or a desire to impress, but it cannot also be denied that some (if not most) multilingual poets have more serious artistic intentions (note my repeated references to T. S. Eliot's use of French). There is no doubt that we should worry about form, structure, and other language-independent aspects of a poem, but we should also study the language-specific aspects, such as the interaction of the sound of the word in its original language and the sound it makes in the language of the poem.

06 August 2009

Month of the Filipino language

The Philippines devotes one month (August) every year to honor its national language, which legally is Filipino. There is much debate about what exactly Filipino is or even whether it should be the sole national language, because there are three major languages (Cebuano, Ilocano, and Tagalog) among the 171 distinct languages spoken in the islands, each one with loyalists expectedly claiming that their language is superior to the other two. Filipino, which is the language spoken in the major urban centers (Cebu, Davao, Manila), was identified by the 1987 Constitution as the country's official and national language, but it lacks the voluminous scholarship and long history that the three languages have. As far as this blog is concerned, what is interesting is the third week of the Buwan ng Wika (Month of the Filipino Language). The week (8-15 August) is devoted to “Filipino Language: Instrument toward Effective Communication and for Teaching Language and Literature." The Philippine government now actively promotes the use of Filipino for teaching literature. The need for multilingual literary competence has become even more pronounced. A higher-level student, using Filipino as medium of learning, reading a work originally in Greek (I use Greek, because Oedipus Rex is a favorite of university teachers), translated into English and subsequently into Tagalog, cannot fully understand, let alone appreciate, the literariness of a canonical text, without knowing how exactly the languages interact with each other. Although multilingual literary criticism may seem to be of interest only to critics and writers, it has implications for the education of children and young adults as well.

05 August 2009

Oops! Wrong attribution!

Oops! It wasn't Sollors who wrote the passage I quoted in my entry on "Cosmopolitan vs. multilingual novels." (This is a problem when I speed-read Google Books.) It was Larry Rosenwald. My apologies to both authors.

For those that want to discover the rich field of multilingual Filipino and Filipino-American literature, I suggest as an entry point the widely-acclaimed novel Dogeaters (1991) by Jessica Hagedorn. Hagedorn's English has traces of the various languages she grew up with: English dialects (Scot and Irish), French, Spanish, Chinese, Tagalog, and Filipino. The novel has quite a number of Tagalog words (which led John Updike to remark in his review that he wished he knew the language).

04 August 2009

International Culture Lab

That the choice of language changes the meaning of a line is clear from empirical or experiential evidence. In the production of Outside Inn by the International Culture Lab, for example, one language (German), then another (English) was used separately in a performance, then the two languages together mixed. This is one finding of the theatrical experiment: "Audience members who had seen the same actors play in two languages had commented on how different the characters seem in one language or the other. The actors, in turn, noticed differences in the ways their characters responded to the same narrative circumstances depending upon the language they were using."

This is why teachers that teach the Iliad in English, for example, without referring to the Greek original and critics that talk about the English translation of the Iliad without considering the Greek text as a counterpoint fail to do justice to the literary text. Languages matter, and when used two or more at a time, they matter simultaneously.

03 August 2009

One poem in 111 languages

Just for fun, watch Ashrita Furman set a world record for the most number of languages in a poetry reading.

Here is the way NTDTV describes the event held on 15 April 2009:

"The man holding more Guinness World Records more than anyone reached the century mark by organizing a poetry reading.

"This time, New Yorker Ashrita Furman organized a reading of a poem in 111 languages. With this event, Furman now holds 100 Guinness World Records, an achievement no one comes close to matching.

"More than a hundred people read the poem at City Hall Park in lower Manhattan. The poem was recited in widely spoken languages like English, Dutch and Korean, to less well-known languages like Bahkir, Galician, Inuktitut and Telugu.

"A Guinness representative presented Furman with a plaque recognizing his 100 current Guinness World Records."

02 August 2009

Cosmopolitan vs. multilingual novels

In Multilingual America (1998), Werner Sollors writes:

"As a polyglot critic, obsessed with the relations among languages and among dialects, I can find a social utopia in any cosmopolitan city: Luxembourg, Jerusalem, Montreal, New York, or the Rustchuk Elias Canetti vividly describes in the early pages of Die gerettete Zunge. I find a domestic utopia in any good polyglot conversation, in which every participant is perpetually and expertly switching codes, and every other participant understands the switches. It is surprisingly hard, though, to name a literary utopia. There are great multidialectal novels like Moby-Dick or Huck Finn, or Berlin: Alexanderplatz, or practically anything by Dickens or Scott. But it is harder to name a great multilingual text. The authors who come to mind, like Rabelais or Mann or Nabokov or Canetti himself, are really writing not multilingual novels but cosmopolitan ones, unilingual puddings with lots of multilingual plums. No novel that I know is in this sense as linguistically complex as the ordinary conversation at any Cuban-Chinese restaurant in New York." (p. 345)

May I suggest to Sollors that he look into novels written by Filipinos and Filipino-Americans? All Filipinos (not just Filipino writers), without exception, are at least bilinguals; most are polyglots. Filipinos learn their mother tongue at birth, the national language (Filipino) when they go to market, and English when they go to school (if their mother tongue is Tagalog, which is close but not identical to Filipino, they would be mere bilinguals). If they live in a town where one of the three national lingua francas is spoken (Tagalog, Cebuano, Ilocano), that would be the fourth language. If they have Chinese ancestry, they speak Fookien Chinese with their parents and learn Mandarin Chinese in Chinese school. If they are Muslim, they learn to read Arabic. If they migrate to another island (which often happens), they learn the vernacular of that island. If they are very rich (very few are), they speak Spanish. If they live or work outside the country (a full 10% of the population do), they learn whatever is the language of that country. It is the rule, therefore, rather than the exception, whether s/he lives in the city or not, that the Filipino writer writes in more than one language. There is no such thing as a cosmopolitan Filipino novel, because every Filipino novel written in any language is necessarily a multilingual one.

01 August 2009

Corazon Aquino

In this moment of deep grief over the passing of former Philippine president Corazon "Cory" Cojuangco Aquino, I cannot help but recall that I have used her first name many times in my lectures on deconstruction. The word Corazon contains within itself two contradictory meanings: corazon meaning heart and razon meaning reason. The binary between heart and mind characterizes not just the word, but Cory's too brief stay on earth. A mere housewife (as she described herself), she was forced by the murder of her husband Benigno to take his place and challenge dictator Ferdinand Marcos in a snap election for the presidency of the country. After millions of Filipinos forced Marcos out and installed her as president, she juggled heart and mind constantly through her term, rewriting the Constitution and reestablishing democracy, while taking inexplicable slight at a journalist's figure of speech ("President Aquino hid under the bed during a coup attempt") to sue him in a lower court (the guilty verdict against the journalist was rightly overturned by an appeals court). While she maintained a reputation for being incorruptible (sadly, later presidents had no such reputation), she also did not do enough to ensure that the Congress that she reestablished would also be incorruptible (sadly, the current Congress has again and again been accused of receiving bribes from the regularly-impeached President). Here is a case where language and reality blur into each other. In deconstructing the word Corazon, we actually view the presidency of the real Corazon from quite a different angle.