29 December 2009

Government vs multilingual literature

As a general rule, governments do not like mixed-language texts. The idea that people will write in the mixed-language that they speak in tends to be, for some reason, unpalatable to the ruling class in any country. Here is a 17th century example from India:

“After the fall of the Vijaynagar kingdom the Muslin dynasty of Qutb Shahi Kings of Golkonda took over and also ruled over a good part of northern Telugu area. Telugu writers, however, received some patronage from these kings specially Sultan Ibrahim Qutb Shah, who encouraged pure Telugu diction for composition, instead of a highely Sanskritised mixed language, which by that time almost completely controlled poetic activities.” [The Written Languages of the World: A Survey of the Degree and Modes of Use: India: Book 1 Constitutional Languages (1989), by Heinz Kloss and Grant D. McConnell, p. 547]

What literary critics call "hegemony" is at work here: the ruling class inevitably wants to recognize or legitimize works written only in their highly-educated language, rather than in the uneducated language of the oppressed classes. In the Philippines today, the bestselling novels of Bob Ong and numerous romance novelists (written in Taglish, a chaotic mixture of Tagalog, Filipino, and English) are not considered "respectable" and are not taken up in literature classes. Clearly, multilingual criticism cannot ignore political realities.

23 December 2009


Don't get me wrong. I am not saying that there is no theorizing going on in the field of multilingual literature. There is, not just among linguists, but among literary critics, particularly the most perceptive ones. Take Gayatri Spivak, for example, clearly among the best of the best of living critics today. She has thought hard about French, which of course is not her "mother tongue" (a term she obviously is uncomfortable about). Here is a recent paragraph showing how Spivak's theorizing has influenced another theorist:

"There’s a very nice variation on the ‘you must begin where you are’ word of wisdom. It comes from the postcolonial critic Gayatri Spivak. In an early interview with the Chicano poet and bicultural thinker Alfred Arteaga, Spivak talking about Samuel Beckett says about the bilingual writer: ‘One must clear one’s throat, clear a space, step away, spit out the mother tongue, write in French.’ This is a surprising physiological analogy through which to question connections between body and language. A lingual event is taking place, not in the voice but rather in its absenting, in the clearing of the throat."

Not everybody can understand Spivak, because the depth of her thought demands a similar profundity in her readers, but this account of one of her early statements is fairly easy to grasp. In fact, the writer of the paragraph, Caroline Bergvall, is able to draw quite a number of insights from the statement. Bergvall ends her provocative article, "A Cat in the Throat: On bilingual occupants" (2009), this way:

"I remembered this when the news broke recently of the American use of water torture, waterboarding, on some of its recent and current political prisoners. This excruciating invasion by systematic asphyxiation. Forcing up speech by drowning it. What kind of language emerges and for what kind of madness?"

Multilingual criticism (I still prefer to call it Wikcrit, along the same polemical line that second-wave feminists coined gynocritique) is not just about literary texts. It offers food for thought to all human beings concerned about violations of human, not just linguistic, rights.

21 December 2009

Call for papers

Reconstruction: Studies in Contemporary Culture has issued a call for papers relevant to our concerns. Deadline is 1 May 2010:

Reconstruction 11.1: Multilingual Realities in Translation

Edited by Angela Flury and Hervé Regnauld

"Cityscapes, landscapes, subway stations, tomato fields, universities, and bedrooms — the locales of multilingual or mixed language realities are everywhere. Yet literary and popular representations of multilingual realities as such remain largely constricted by the single language that must, in hegemonic fashion, encompass all others, especially on the printed page of a novel. The dominance of a single language also affects so-called nonliterary discourse; for instance English is now the primary language charged with disseminating scientific (and technological) words and concepts. Film, arguably, has come closest to conveying the Babeldom of public and private spheres, as its projected translation, by way of subtitles, nevertheless promises a semblance of cohesion. Perhaps this accessible rendering of multilingual fragmentation can even be regarded as one of the emerging conventions of world cinema as a contemporary global form.

"But multilingual realities are not exactly reader friendly in any medium, including film. One wonders at the function of characters’ thoughts made audible in Wim Wenders’s film Der Himmel über Berlin (Wings of Desire), when commuters on a Berlin subway train can be heard thinking in German and Turkish (though the English subtitles render only the German). One wonders what Apollinaire’s already fragmented conversation poem “Lundi Rue Christine“ would look like with bits of conversation in languages other than French. Would the bits make a meaningful difference? One wonders at the fragments of French floating through Jean Rhys’s Good Morning, Midnight, fragments yet to be translated, even in the most recent edition. Charlotte Brontë’s Villette continued to be published well over a century without an annotated translation of all its French bits and pieces. One wonders how and to what extent the foreign language is immaterial (a point raised by Umberto Eco with reference to Tolstoy’s War and Peace).

"Another open question is the status of languages in the formation of scientific knowledge. When science is concerned, some languages play a unequaled role, as did Greek at the beginning of the Christian Era (or Common Era), Latin in the Middle Ages and English today. It seems English is becoming a language which invents (creates) scientific words (and concepts) and that there is no need to find any equivalent in other languages as most every scientist speaks and publishes in English. But can scientific neologisms properly be considered English in any traditional sense, even given the fact that neologism is a constant process in any language? How can scientific concepts, born inside of one language, be translated into another language? Does working in a 'single language' limit scientific creativity? Is there anything (or could there be) like a Pidgin, or Creole way of writing in the sciences?

"How do single language texts, in any discourse or genre, signify mixed language realities? What is at stake in the representation of multilingual realities in a particular text, medium, place, or time? To what extent do texts at different historical and cultural junctures reflect the ideologies of their scene of writing? What are the affects of characters/individuals in multilingual situations, the affects of multilingual space? How do 'other' languages in a given text/situation play with questions of figure and ground, decor and inflection? How have certain authors and artists made the conventions and realities of multilingual space a central thematics? What formal innovations have writers from various disciplines and traditions produced to address such realities and what are the politics of these experiments? What are the links between language and identity, and what are the problems which may arise from these links when translation is at stake?

"We invite papers that address the above issues and related questions from a variety of disciplines and in any conceivable context, including nationalism, imperialism, modernism, epistemology, sexuality, gender, class, religion, race, etc. Please send completed papers and abstracts to Angela Flury (aflury@depauw.edu) and Hervé Regnauld (herve.regnauld@uhb.fr) no later than May 1, 2010. Earlier submissions and queries are welcome as we may be able to collaborate authors in order to produce work that not only fits with the intent of the issue but with the standards of Reconstruction. Also, we encourage you to forward this CFP to interested parties and lists."

20 December 2009

"Local" versus "national" languages

One of the reasons I got interested in developing a multilingual theory of literature is the need for tools to approach literary texts written in several Philippine languages other than Filipino (or its mother language Tagalog). Writers writing in, say, Ilocano or Cebuano have necessarily to mix languages in a single text, because Filipino (or earlier, Tagalog) and English (not to mention Spanish for older writers) are so hegemonic (i.e., powerful and omnipresent) that they inordinately influence all other languages in the country. It is inappropriate to use the technical tools we have for analyzing "purely" English or Tagalog texts on these "local" (as opposed to "national" or "international") texts. The Philippine situation (with its 170-plus languages) is not unique. The same phenomenon, I am sure, occurs in countries such as Indonesia.

An interesting article appears in the blog Antara Kita of the Indonesia and East Timor Studies Committee on the novel Sitti Djaoerah (1927), written in Angkola Batak instead of Indonesian (or Bahasa). I wish the article had dealt with the multilingual nature of the novel, which it must have had.

18 December 2009

Multilingualism in medical texts

Multilingualism is not a purely literary or even everyday phenomenon. Other types of writing also tend to be multilingual. For example, during the medieval period in the UK, medical writings used more than one language in a single text. Write Irma Taavitsainen and Päivi Pahta in their Medical and Scientific Writing in Late Medieval English (2003):

"Multilingualism has an important role in scientific and medical writings produced in medieval England. The tendency to combine materials in different languages appears to be more prominent in medicine than in other disciplines, although language mixing is also attested, for example, in astronomical-astrological and alchemical writings of the period. The proportions of languages and patterns of switching in mixed-language materials vary. Primarily Latin materials contain parts in English or French, French materials include Latin and/or English passages, and English materials incorporate Latin and/or French."

It might be a truism that, in a society where the learned language is not the market language, writers (and other users of language) will tend to use more than one language in a single text, written or oral. Either the learned language or the market language will prove to be insufficient for one's communicative needs, especially since the languages involve different cultures or subcultures, not just dictionaries.

14 December 2009

The writer's language

Poet-critic Gemino H. Abad, who won this year's Premio Feronia (the Italian international literary prize), recently gave a talk at a writers' forum in Manila. He said:

“Any given natural language has its own vocabulary, grammar, and syntax: those are the fountainhead of its communicative power, and one transgresses them at his own peril. But any language too has inner resources from the infinite possibilities of its vocabulary, grammar, and syntax, their figures and rhetoric: those are the fountainhead of its expressive or evocative power, and one is circumscribed only by his imagination by which, sometimes, by assiduously working the language, he might transcend its inadequacies or limitations.

“So then, after a time — a long, persevering time — the writer’s language becomes essentially his alone, both its matter — and its manner, by which its matter is endowed with its interpretative form.”

I quote the passage from the equally engaging column in today's The Philippine Star of Jose "Butch" Dalisay, whose novel Soledad's Sister was shortlisted in the 2007 Man Asian Literary Prize.

In our evolving multilingual theory of literature, we have to add "the writer's language" to the "natural" languages in a text. It is then easily seen that, in an apparently monolingual work, there are at least two languages at work - the language of the text and the writer's language. (Of course, this is old hat for followers of Mikhail Bakhtin.)

13 December 2009

Literary texts important to linguists

Linguists usually base their research on what literary critics, following William Wordsworth, call "the real language of men (and women)." Some linguists, however, use literary texts (though artificial or human-made) for their research. This is a very recent example:

"Motion events in Chinese novels: Evidence for an equipollently-framed language," by Liang Chen and Jiansheng Guo (Journal of Pragmatics, Sept. 2009):

"Motion events typically involve an entity moving along a path in a certain manner. Research on language typology has identified three types of languages based on the characteristic expression of manner and path information. In satellite-framed languages, the main verb expresses information about manner of movement and a subordinate satellite element (e.g., a verb particle) to the verb conveys the path of movement. In verb-framed languages, the main verb expresses the core information of the path of movement, and the manner information is expressed in a subordinate structure (e.g., a gerundive). Both manner and path, however, are expressed by equivalent grammatical forms in equipollently-framed languages. In this paper, we explore the place of Mandarin Chinese in motion event typology through an examination of motion event descriptions in Chinese novels. We find that Chinese writers do not pattern their narrative descriptions of motion events as do writers of satellite-framed languages, nor as writers of verb-framed languages. Rather, Chinese writers follow unique habitual patterns of language use that lead to the contention that Chinese is an equipollently-framed language."

Writers have a lot of influence not only on readers and on other writers, but on scientific scholarship (in this case, on the science of linguistics). This is one reason creative writers have to be very careful about what they write and also one reason literary critics have to help scholars in other disciplines to understand what is really going on in a literary text.

11 December 2009

Harry Potter in Camfranglais

I'm teaching a course in Speculative Fiction at both the Ateneo de Manila University and the De La Salle University (rival schools in the Philippines along the same lines as Oxford vs. Cambridge and Harvard vs. Yale), where I take up the Harry Potter series. Naturally, I got interested in the blurb of an article that apparently talks about the translation of the first four Harry Potter novels into Camfranglais. This is the only part I can read without paying the pay-per-view rate:

"Camfranglais: A novel slang in Cameroon schools
Jean-Paul Kouega
University of Yaounde

"Camfranglais is a newly created language, a composite slang used by secondary school pupils in Cameroon, West Africa. It draws its lexicon from French, English, West African Pidgin, various Cameroonian indigenous languages, Latin, and Spanish. Secondary school pupils use it among themselves to exclude outsiders while talking about such matters of adolescent interest as food, drinks, money, sex, and physical looks. There are four sections: language in the Cameroon educational system; Camfranglais defined; an analysis of a sample Camfranglais text; and the semantic domains of Camfranglais. There is a glossary of the terms cited."

Someone with access to English Today of Cambridge University Press may want to tell us what the article says about the use of many languages in one (translated) text. (I had an article published in English Today a long time ago, but they did not give me a complimentary subscription as a reward. All I got for the article was a lot of citations and reprints, but I wouldn't have minded a free lifetime subscription. I did say I was teaching Speculative Fiction, didn't I?)

09 December 2009

Mixed languages do not multilingual lit make

When we have a language that in itself is a "mixed language," such as Yiddish or Taglish, literature written in it may be multilingual in the general or linguistic sense, but it is not exactly multilingual in the literary theory sense. What I mean is that the use of non-mother tongue words in a mother-tongue work does not automatically make the work multilingual. What we are really looking for are works that use the second language as a way to incorporate a foreign culture into the mother or native culture. It is not just words that matter, but cultures. Yiddish, Taglish, and other languages that combine two or more earlier or older languages (English does, too, after all) should be considered as "pure" languages, or at least, in the linguistic sense, dialects. As the New Critics loved to say, it is when truly unrelated or even opposing elements are yoked together in a metaphor that the metaphor attains the level of literature. When unrelated languages or cultures are suddenly brought together in the same literary text, something bigger than either language or culture occurs. Multilingual art happens.

05 December 2009

Intellectual Property vs. poetic convention

YouTube songs that mix languages are sometimes (often?) removed "due to terms of use violation," which usually means copyright infringement (unless we are talking of obscenity, which occasionally makes it to YouTube). Music might be a different case, but in the case of poets taking lines deliberately from earlier poets, the issue of copyright (or Intellectual Property) violation has to be seen in the context of the poetic convention of allusion, or using a piece of some other poem to refer to that entire poem. It would be ridiculous to have footnotes in a poem (although T. S. Eliot did it famously in "The Waste Land," though still ridiculously). The reader of a poem is presumed to know the history of poetry, to have read the original poems which are being alluded or referred to, to realize that what is going on is not stealing somebody else's words or images but integrating poetic tradition into an existing work (exactly as Eliot theorized in "Tradition and the Individual Talent"). If we take lyrics for a song as an extension of poetry, then we could make a case for lyricists and singers that use lines from earlier artists without explicitly mentioning that these lines are allusive rather than original. I am upset that the song "Liubi, Liubi, I Love You" (described as "Romania's entry in Eurovision 2007, ... basically a love ode performed in six languages") was removed by YouTube.

03 December 2009

English lyrics in a Hebrew song

For music buffs, here's the Hebrew song "Hamakolet" by Havareth that briefly shifts to English in the middle:


I was alerted to this by an old blog.

01 December 2009

Offline & Kindle

The commercial server I use was down most of the day yesterday, and I realized how dependent I am on the Web for research and communication. Have I moved within seconds of E. M. Forster's The Machine Stops (or for younger Web followers, The Matrix)? I haven't even touched the books I bought last month but have been relying (much too much, it now appears) on Google Books. My friends tease me as "Professor Gadget," and now, instead of just being amused, I should be disturbed. Still, the next big thing excites me - the Rolltop. (I did think long and hard about the Kindle, but decided not to buy it because it doesn't have one of the best features of a book - I lend my books to my friends or donate them to a library after having read them. In fact, all my 7,000+ Philippine books are now in the Aklatang [Library] Emilio Aguinaldo of De La Salle University Dasmarinas and most of my 10,000+ non-Philippine books are now in the Library or in the Society of Fellows Room of De La Salle University in Manila.)