30 December 2010

Limitations of any language

One of the persistent reasons many critics demand that a text be written completely in one language is the belief (long debunked) that every language is capable of expressing anything and everything.  In particular, rabid defenders of the English language claim that the language can express any human reality.  Writers know better.  Even a consummate English user like T. S. Eliot was forced to use French and other languages every time he came up with a reality that the English language was incapable of handling.  The silliness, however, is not limited only to English users.  In Taiwan, using more than one language in a song (akin to poetry) is apparently frowned upon by the literati.  Here is an account:

"The mainstream of the music industry works  in accord with general attitudes of young Taiwanese. Mandarin is the language of their choice, although there are still some concepts that are better defined using Taiwanese or English, and that is where the code-mixing fits in.  English is generally used for the purpose of adding prestige and an element of trendiness to a song, while Taiwanese is used to express an idea that Mandarin is incapable of expressing."

Like English, Mandarin is considered by its speakers as omnipowerful.  It is interesting that a "smaller" language like Taiwanese has shown itself superior to Mandarin in certain cases.  It is also interesting that, in Taiwan as in many other places, English is considered a prestige language.  Truly, linguistics and literary criticism can never ignore political realities.  Once China overtakes the United States in economic and military power (within our century!), we can be sure that Mandarin will be considered the prestige language, rather than English.

28 December 2010

Black authors necessarily multilingual?

This is the abstract of an article entitled "Expanding 'South Africanness':  Debut Novels" (2009) by Margaret Lenta:

"In this article I examine a selection of debut novels published in South Africa in the period 1999 – 2008 in order to determine what inspired the authors to embark on the writing of prose fiction. A large number of such novels have been produced in this period, and most of them demonstrate the new freedom that authors feel to deal with subjects disapproved of or banned under apartheid. I have based my selection on the categories 'giving voice to previously silent communities'; 'sex and gender'; 'mixing languages', a phenomenon now characteristic of novels by black authors; 'writing back', that is, responding to and taking issue with earlier works; 'the roman à thèse', implying that the work becomes fictionalised argument. The final element is 'fusion', by which I mean that the novels register that people of different ethnic communities are now free to know each other outside of their work, and to form what ties they wish."

I wonder if it is true that mixing languages in a single work is now "characteristic of novels by black authors"?  That would make multilingual novels mainstream, wouldn't it?

25 December 2010


The article "Spanglish: Speaking la Lengua Loca" (2007) by Ilan Stavans talks about the mainstreaming of a mixed language:

"Curiosity about Spanglish is abundant. Is it a dialect? Should it be compared with Creole? What are the similarities with black English? Will it become a full-fledged, self-sufficient language with its recognizable syntax? Linguists seem to have different responses to these questions. Personally, I answer to the latter question with a quote from linguist Max Weinreich, who wrote a multivolume history of Yiddish. Weinreich said that the difference between a language and a dialect is that the language has an army and a navy behind it. I also often call attention to the fact that in the last couple of decades, an effort to write in Spanglish has taken place in numerous circles, which means the form of communication is ceasing to exist at a strictly oral level. There are novels, stories, and poems in it already, as well as movies, songs, and endless Internet sites."

Multilingual literature does not have an army and a navy behind it, but it does count some of the world's best writers among its revolutionaries.  As the history of the world shows, armies and navies eventually all surrender to the few, stout-hearted men and women of subversive movements.

19 December 2010

The spoken mode in fiction

Here's the table of contents of the book The Representation of the Spoken Mode in Fiction:  How Authors Write How People Talk (2009), edited by Carolina P. Amador-Moreno and Ana Nunes:

Table of Contents

Foreword by Prof. Michael McCarthy, University of Nottingham
Writing and Reading Diglossia: Evidence from the French-speaking World – Rainier Grutman, University of Ottawa
Understanding diglossia
Writing diglossia
Reading diglossia
Textual evidence
Colonial creole
Maghrebi mix
Another form of hybridity
Code-Mixing in Biliterate and Multiliterate Irish Literary Texts – Tina Bennett-Kastor, Wichita State University
Structural categories of mixing and switching
Functional categories of mixing and switching
Multilingualism and multiliteracy in Ireland
Code-switching in theory and practice
Code-switching in spoken Irish
The texts
“Preserving every thing Irish”? The Hiberno-English Dialect of Kevin McCafferty, University of Bergen
An oral writer?
Carleton’s peasant Hiberno-English
National writer, national dialect?
General English forms
Northern Hiberno-English forms
General Hiberno-English forms
Southern Hiberno-English forms
A levelled (Southern) dialect
Irish, not Scots
Representing Voice in Chicano Theater Through the Use of Orthography: An Analysis of Three Plays by Cherríe Moraga – Carla Jonsson, University of Stockholm

Code-switch – Lukas Bleichenbacher, University of Zurich
Code-switching: fiction and reality
Data and method
Situational code-switching
Metaphorical or marked code-switching
Indexical code-switching
Edited code-switching
Results and conclusions
Imitating the Conversational Mode in Audiovisual Fiction: Performance Phenomena and Non-clausal Units – Roberto Antonio Valdeón Garcia, University of Oviedo
Performance phenomena
Non-clausal units: inserts
We can see from the table of contents that this is a book which should be extremely useful to a multilingual literary critic.  Unfortunately for me, I can't afford it, since it sells for US$ 109.95.  Starving critics are poorer than starving writers!

18 December 2010

Luis Alberto Urrea

Readers know by instinct that the use of several languages in a literary work must have something to do with the meaning of the work.  Here, for example, is a Book Club guide question to the novel Into the Beautiful North (2009), by Luis Alberto Urrea:

"Language and dialect play an integral role in the novel’s style. Spanish words and phonetic spellings are laced throughout, and Spanglish and slang are used on both sides of the border. What does Urrea achieve by mixing language in this way? What does it say about the ability of language to bridge—or not to bridge—cultural gaps?"

One can imagine ordinary booklovers (not professional literary critics nor even students in a literature class) asking themselves why a text would have more than one language, why utterances in other languages should not be translated into the main language (the way many novels do), why monolingual readers are being asked to read words that they cannot understand.  Such first-level questions (we can no longer call them "naive" because of political correctness) should hopefully lead to deeper questions about the nature of literature itself, about why literary texts need (or do not need) to mirror reality, which at this time in humanity's history is multilingual.

15 December 2010

Amazing Amazing Grace

That it is important to sing  (equivalent to reciting or writing or reading poetry) in many languages is recognized by people outside multilingual literary circles.  Of course, a motivation was the setting of a world record, but interviews after the event had the singers saying that the world record was only secondary to being able to pray in many languages.  Here's an account of the event:

Our Amazing Guinness World Record Attempt!

 Manila, Philippines
Amazing Grace at EN2010
On Friday, July 23, Every Nation Ministries made an official attempt to set the Guinness World Record for “The Most Languages Performed in a Song (Multiple Singers)” by performing “Amazing Grace” in 50 different languages.

Background on the attempt:
The Guinness World Record attempt was performed during EN2010, the world conference of Every Nation Ministries. Every Nation has churches and ministries in 61 nations and has a vision to plant a church in “every nation” of the world. Thus, singing “Amazing Grace” in 50 different languages was chosen for the Guinness World Record. In the Philippines, Every Nation is represented by Victory Church which has 14 congregations in Metro Manila and 42 provincial churches outside Metro Manila.

This world conference is only held once every three years – the previous conference, EN07, was held in Araneta Coliseum with more than 14,000 participants from 41 different nations. This time, EN2010 was held at the SMX Convention Center with 19,173 participants from 45 different nations.

10 December 2010

João Guimarães Rosa

Here is an example of why everything gets lost in the translation of a multilingual novel (considered the best Brazilian novel):

"Born June 3, 1908 in Cordisburgo state of Minas Gerais, Rosa, the greatest Brazilian author since Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis (1839-1908), came from a wealthy patrician family. He earned a medical degree and worked as a doctor and a diplomat before publishing in 1946 his first book, Sagarana, a collection of short stories. Grande Sertão: Veredas (Big Backlands: Pathways, The Devil to Pay in the Backlands in the American translation) was published in 1956.

"Rosa was responsible for inventing a new language mixing regional slang to Indian dialects and modern and archaic Portuguese and foreign languages. Grande Sertão: Veredas is the pinnacle of this accomplishment. The novel's story is an endless monologue told in the first person by Riobaldo, an ex-bandit, who with unfinished sentences and invented words recalls what happened to him and sexually-ambiguous character Diadorim in the backlands, starting at the end of the nineteenth century.

"He died at his home in Copacabana, Rio de Janeiro, on November 19, 1967, of a heart attack just three days after being formally received at the Academia Brasileira de Letras. The author, who had a nearly fatal heart attack in 1962 was chosen in 1963 to become an 'immortal,' but refused to join the other 39 members of the Academy of Letter fearing 'the emotion of the moment.'

"A sample from Grande Sertão: Veredas extracted from the episode known as the 'Slaughter of the Ponies,' which was eliminated from the US translation:
"I can't remember how many days and nights it was. I'd say six, but I may be telling a lie. And if I hit on five or four, I may be telling a whopper. I only know it was a long time. It dragged on for years, sometimes I think. And at other times, when I consider the problem, in a different light, I think it just flitted by, in the whiz of a minute that seems unreal to me now, like a squabble between two hummingbirds.... We were trapped inside that house, which had become an easy target. Do you know how it feels to be trapped like that and have no way out?... I can tell you—and say this to you so you'll truly believe it—that old house protected us grudgingly: creaking with complaint, its dark old rooms fumed. As for me. I got to thinking that they were going to level the whole works, all four corners of the whole damn property. But they didn't. They didn't, as you are soon to see. Because what's going to happen is this: you're going to hear de whole story told."

We have no idea, from the English translation, how the languages worked to help each other out and make the text more complex.

06 December 2010


Another novel that mixes languages is Divortiare by Ika Natassa.

Here is a description:  "Divortiare  is a novel which includes dialogues containing English. The characters in this novel often mix bahasa Indonesia with English or even switch from bahasa Indonesia  into English.  Sometimes they also use ethnic languages such as Javanese or Bataknese."

Here is an excerpt:

Denny memelukku. Not this passionate-I-just-want-to-feel-you-up hug, but a warm, close, hug.
Tenggorokanku tercekat, dan aku cuma bisa berkata pelan, “You don’t want to be with me, Den. I’m ruined.
Ada rasa lega yang menjalar di sekujur tubuhku saat mendengar jawabannya.
Let me fix it.
Aku mengangkat kepalaku dari pundaknya, dan ia tersenyum menatapku.
I can fix it. And I will. If you just let me.
But it’s gonna take a while, Den. It’s gonna take a long while.
Then we have all the time in the world to make you fall in love with me, right ?

03 December 2010

Novel a-borning

On 17 October 2009, Rosine Caplot wrote in her blog:

"I have no clue what I will write about. It will probably be a crime novel, with a very wicked murderer and a very smart detective. Or just a few of the fantasies I have in my head. Except for the sexual ones maybe. Or should I add them too?
"I also haven’t decided which language I’m going to write in. Víkþórr and I had the idea of writing a multilingual novel together, mixing all kinds of languages. For example,
And when Óláfr saw what 田中さん had done, he said: «Þú skalt deyja, því at þú hefir stolit vínbér frá mér!». 田中さん answered: 「すごいはオーラフル。」.
"I think that’s a very cool idea, even though nobody else would understand it of course. However, my intuition is telling me to write alone this time. I haven’t made up my mind about the language yet.
"This language mixing thing certainly is interesting!"
Yes, indeed, mixing languages in one literary text is very interesting, not just for readers but for writers.  I wonder if she and her friend ever started or finished the novel?

30 November 2010

Code-switching as characterization technique

There is an interesting idea in the [unedited] abstract of "The code mixing and the social situation in the language of narration and the characters conversation in the novel 30 Hari Mencari Cinta" by Jeffry Widiatijono:

"Kachru (1978) proposes that code-mixing is the use of one or two languages which has constant linguistic transfer from one to another language by a speaker. As linguistic function, code-mixing usually appears when the speaker mixes up the language he/she usually uses with another language. In proving his idea, the writer of this study wants to reveal how the code-mixing appears in daily conversation. In this case, the novel 30 Hari Mencari Cinta has been chosen to become source of the data. In this novel, such code-mixing appears both in the language of narration and the characters' conversation mostly in informal ways. In the language of narration, for one thing, there can be found distinct codes and types of code-mixing as what Kachru states. In the characters' conversation, such distinct codes and types of code-mixing can also be found. In dealing with the social situation, Fishman (1971) states that social situation is constructed when individuals interact in appropriate role-relationships with each other, in the appropriate locales for these role-relationships, and discuss topics appropriate to their role-relationships. This is clear enough since in each conversation, those three terms can be found either in formal or informal language. The social
situation in the novel is varied depending on how close the relationship among characters is, and it helps the writer of the novel express how the situation of the characters in various ways. In this case, the social situation makes the story in the novel more varied."

Widiatijono appears to have discovered that the use of different languages within conversations in a novel serves as a clue to characterization.  This is an idea that should answer the need of graduate students looking for a new angle to classic multilingual works (there are hundreds of these works, as well as hundreds of graduate students in search of a thesis topic).  Study the conversations in these works, see how the use of more than one language is deliberate on the part of the author (not the character), and find out what the aesthetic purpose of the author is as far as characterization is concerned.

28 November 2010

Linguists and multilingual novels

In the book Filipino English and Taglish:  Language Switching from Multiple Perspectives (2001), Roger M. Thompson mentions one reason linguists shy away from studying multilingual texts:  “I could describe the linguistics of written Taglish as it appears in tabloid newspapers, novels, and other written forms, but these are subject to editing and may not reflect everything that is happening in the spoken language.”  Apparently not having realized that Jacques Derrida’s “writing precedes and follows speech” is right, linguists are usually not willing to help multilingual literary critics.  That is too bad, because we critics need the kind of scientific knowledge only linguists can give us.

24 November 2010

Christian Simamora

Here is a concluding paragraph from Najmah Soraya Wahdani's "Analysis of Code Switching and Code Mixing in the Novel Macarin Anjing by Christian Simamora":

"From the ten reasons why bilingual people switch or mix their codes, there are nine reasons that can be used to explain the code switching and code mixing in the novel Macarin Anjing by Christian Simamora.  Most of the characters switch or mix their codes in order to express their group identity, which means that they belong to a particular speech community, of which the members are able to use both English and bahasa Indonesia in their dialogues.  On the other hand, none of the characters switch or mix their codes in order to exclude other people when a comment is intended for only a limited audience.  It is mainly because the characters do code switching and code mixing only within their own group (bilingual community).  So, they feel that they do not have to exclude other people since they can use Bahasa Indonesia outside their group."

Linguists make a big deal out of group identity as a reason for code-mixing.  That is only one, in fact not even quite a significant one, of the reasons a writer uses other languages in an erstwhile monolingual text.  Writers do not see language as transparent, that is, not something that stays invisible while pointing to whatever it refers to.  On the contrary, writers see both what is being referred to and what is doing the referring.  The sounds and sometimes even the spelling or visual look of the foreign words are crucial to what a writer is trying to do.  Writers do not write merely for an audience that knows all the languages being used in a text, which is what is implied by the linguistic dictum that code-mixing is used for group identity.  Readers do not have to know the exact dictionary meanings of foreign words in a text.  All readers have to know is how the words look and sound; the meaning can always be deduced from context.  Writers harness the resources of other languages, importing not just the sounds and visual looks of words, but also the cultures that gave rise to those words, in order to make their meanings clearer and more complex.  This is one reason we cannot leave the analysis of multilingual texts to linguists.  Only literary critics can fully understand and appreciate multilingual texts.  That is why they have the obligation to lead readers (particularly monolingual ones) to this understanding and appreciation.

22 November 2010

Bakhtin revisited

James Philip Zappen quotes from Bakhtin’s “Discourse in the Novel”:  “Hybridization is both linguistic and cultural.  Hybridization ‘is a mixture of two social languages within the limits of a single utterance, an encounter, within the arena of an utterance, between two different linguistic consciousnesses, separated from one another by an epoch, by social differentiation or by some other factor.’  Hybridization may be either intentional or unintentional.  Unintentional hybridization is ‘a mixing of various “languages” co-existing within the boundaries of a single dialect, a single national language, a single branch, a single group of different branches or different groups of such branches, in the historical as well as paleontological past of languages.’  Intentional hybridization, such as the artistic image of a language re-created in the novel, is not only a mixing of various languages but is more importantly a ‘collision between different points of views on the world’ that produces ‘a semantic hybrid; not semantic and logical in the abstract (as in rhetoric), but rather a semantics that is concrete and social.’  Intentional, novelistic hybridization is thus productive of new linguistic and cultural possibilities, for just as the mixing of heteroglot languages forms a complex unity of self with other, so also the mixing of differing worldviews forms novel cultural hybrids.”

Bakhtin was looking at multilingual texts (or monolingual texts that actually use languages at different stages of development) from the outside, as a critic.  We can look at these texts from the inside, as practising multilingual writers.  We know that our selves are complex, we know that languages co-exist within us, we know that we have linguistic resources much richer than the language-challenged, but we also know that mixing languages is not a matter of our choice.  The languages choose us.  Texts write themselves through us.  We do not write texts through our languages.

20 November 2010

Madhu Rye

Since I am not a subscriber to the Wiley Online Library, I have read only the first page of the article “Englishization of Contemporary Gujarāti Novel:  Code Mixing and Style” by P. K. Thaker.  The first page, however, appears to indicate that the writer looks at code-mixing as a device deliberately used by an author for artistic effect.  That is certainly one way of doing multilingual literary criticism.  It is, of course, merely a first step, because the much more difficult and most likely more revealing step is to take what does not look like a text that mixes codes or languages and show that it in fact does mix codes due to either the mother tongue of the author or the author’s own idiolect (or peculiar and individual language that only authors are able to cultivate).  Here is a quote from the article:

“Sridhar, for example, has shown how ‘the mixture of English with Kannada is considered a matter of prestige, a mark of education, urbaneness and sophistication.’  We shall look at the instances of such sociolinguistically significant code-mixing between English and Gujarāti which we find in a Gujarāti novel, Sabhā, by Madhu Rye (published in 1972 by Vora, Ahmedabad).  We shall also try to identify the stylistics implications of this phenomenon of code-mixing when used as a literary device.”

18 November 2010

Jose Gallardo

Here is an example of multilingual literary criticism that seems to me to be in the right direction.  It looks not just at what a text wants to say, but the language it uses to say it:

"Gallardo’s style suggests the meaning of the text. His deviant language becomes a functional form as it incarnates the very language it refers to which is undergoing deviation. The medium is not just the message; the message is actually the medium. The language designed and employed arouses laughter as it assumes the possible configuration of a ludicrous language. Put in a total perspective, the poem recreates the possible speech habit of the Kapampangan community in its projected linguistic situation. No wonder, then, that the poet-addresser who is himself part of the list of writers he proudly presents, begets an illusion of a nightmare."

Instead of ignoring the language of a text, critics should put their praxis where their theory is:  if language is indeed opaque, then we should look at the language and not just at what the language refers to.  In Gallardo's case (as I think is the case with many other multilingual writers), the language (or more precisely, the mixing of languages) is very much a part of the content (not just the style) of the text.

14 November 2010

New book by Adam Donaldson Powell

Congratulations to a member of our community of multilingual writers!  Here's the description from Amazon.com of The Stalker (Tale of a French Bitch), the new book by Adam Donaldson Powell:  "The Stalker (Tale of a French Bitch) is a story that explores the battle between the sexes, sexual orientation, questions of gender and the psychological aspects of personal identity.  Rachel, the main character, suffers from multiple personality disorder and enters into a relationship with a transsexual in transition (a shemale).  There are twists and turns to this bilingual tale, which is mostly written in English but which also includes a bit of French."

13 November 2010

Werner Reichhold

It is fairly obvious (unless you don't speak German) that the following lines from the poem "Larval in Waiting" by Werner Reichhold are really in German, using English words:

"arcs of palms donate
imperceptible asseverations
                  desert nightfall
                 we are destined
                             to resort
with the habitual coolness of a snake’s tongue
that brings to attendance an enigmatic path
like nakedness caught by the call of insects"

I really don't think any monolingual English speaker would say "imperceptible asseverations" or "brings to attendance."  The phrases are not ungrammatical; they are just not natural for monolingual English speakers.  They are, however, quite "natural" for bilinguals.  To appreciate the poetry, we really have to have two languages running simultaneously in our minds - English and German.

Needless to say, since Reichhold is also an artist of note, the words aspire to the condition not only of poetry or music but of the visual arts.

11 November 2010

Mother tongue as second language

One mark of a true poet, if we were to believe William Logan, is how the poet uses the mother tongue as though it were a second language.  This is the other face of multilingual literary criticism.  In addition to thinking of the effect of the mother tongue on a text written in a non-mother tongue, we should also think of how a monolingual poet can actually treat a mother tongue as a learned language.  Here is Logan's observation about John Ashbery:
Ashbery is our Nabokovian genius (at times he seems invented by Nabokov): he’s the great lepidopterist of language and life in our late century. He delights in English as if it were his second language, or not his language at all.
Poets that deliberately distance themselves from their mother tongue are able to do what second-language poets do instinctively, namely, to stop treating language as transparent or directly related to reality, to think of language as an unnatural - rather than a natural - way of expressing what is inside, to return to what the Chinese critics said four thousand years ago that poetry is expressing what is in the heart, the heart being language-less.

09 November 2010

Joseph Brodsky

I'm too much of a cheapskate to part with my hard-earned English pounds, but I'm fairly sure I don't want to spend any currency on a review that starts off this way:

"Joseph Brodsky’s new selection, To Urania, gets off to a troubled start with a 20-line poem that contains at least one grammatical slip and a sentence of baffling absurdity. The slip occurs in line four, where we meet the construction ‘dined with the-devil-knows-whom’ – an accusative that seems to me justified by neither the rule-book nor colloquial usage. The absurd sentence follows two lines later. ‘Twice have drowned,’ we read (the first person being understood), ‘thrice let knives rake my nitty-gritty.’ Eh? ‘Twice have drowned, thrice let knives rake my nitty-gritty.’ I see."

Maybe Christopher Reid gets more intelligent as his review gets underway, or maybe his first paragraph is merely a rhetorical ploy ("you thought this was what I meant but actually this is not what I meant"), but in any case, I will never find out, since I will not subscribe to the London Review of Books just to read what I fear may be yet another case of someone misunderstanding why writers in a second language deliberately subvert the grammar of that language.  Being ungrammatical, as long as one does it knowingly, is a way to attack the center.  The simplest example is the way Australian postcolonial writers do not capitalize the word english to refer to the language; in this way, they dissociate the language from the British, who always capitalize the word.

The Google entry on the article quotes  some of Reid's words:   "writes in his second language and then translates it back into his own?"  Reid inadvertently discovered the strength, rather than the weakness, of a second-language writer:  s/he writes in the mother tongue, using words from the second language.  Nobel laureate Brodsky, of course, thought and wrote in Russian but later thought in Russian but wrote in English.  That was one of the best things that ever happened to the English language.

07 November 2010

Ciaran Carson

Understandably, poets writing in a second language often concern themselves with language itself.  This paragraph from a review by Paul Franz of Ciaran Carson, who writes in English, which is his second language, points to a real advantage that such poets have over those writing in their mother tongue.  The second language naturally adds ironic distance:

"Language and origins are Carson's abiding concerns, and one of the advantages of this Collected Poems is its delineation of his work's consistent thematic arc, thus providing a backdrop for his several abrupt and dramatic changes of style. For Carson, of course, these problems are not abstract, but emerge out of his particular experience growing up and living in Belfast, where he still makes his home. Born in 1948, Carson was raised in an environment unique even by the standards of his limited Catholic enclave: thanks to their parents' efforts, he and his siblings spent their first few years speaking only Irish. The ironic distance this implies from his second language, English, the language of the street and of officialdom, partially explains the elaborate playfulness of some of his recent styles. And yet, even before language became his work's central theme, one may detect the aftereffects of the gap it opened between his childhood and adult worlds. Inevitably, this gap also takes on historical and political dimensions."

05 November 2010

Languages determine what we think

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (either the strong or the weak version) is still not quite accepted by many scholars, for reasons I cannot understand, unless it's the old "my language is the best language in the whole wide world and can do anything your language can do" syndrome.  You can enjoy a light treatment of the hypothesis (without the jargon of linguists, psychologists, philosophers, and other academics) in "5 Insane Ways Words Can Control Your Mind" by Sam Cooper of cracked.com.  Here's an excerpt, dealing with the familiar color issue:


It Makes People Who Speak Russian See More Colors Than You
Everyone's perception of colors should be the same. We have the same retinal structure due to evolution and the same wavelengths of light shooting at us.

Illustrated here, probably.
Yet somewhere, right now, there is a young couple at Home Depot looking at little cards with paint colors on them. The woman holds up four cards to her husband and says, "Do you like the eggshell, ivory, cream or bone?" at which point he looks at the cards, all of which are white, and says, "You're messing with me, right?"

"And what's all this 'taupe' bullshit?"
She's not. Experiments have found that whether or not you can register a color depends on whether or not you have a name for it in your language. You can see the color, it just doesn't register in your mind.
One study compared some young children from England with kids from a tribe in Nambia. In the English language, young kids usually learn 11 basic colors (black, white, gray, red, green, blue, yellow, pink, orange, purple and brown) but in Himba it's only five. For instance, they lump red, orange and pink together and call it "serandu."

We don't know what they call that hairstyle, but we call it "awesome."
If you showed the Himba toddler a pink card and then later showed him a red one and ask if they're the same card, the kid would often mistakenly say yes -- because they're both "serandu." Same as if you showed you "Eggshell" and an hour later showed you "Bone" and asked if it was the same card from before. Now, again, they can see the colors; if you hold up a pink card and a red card next to each other, the English kid and Himba kid both would say they're different. But not when they see them one at a time.
But if you teach him the new names for the colors, that one is "pink" and the other is "red," from then on he can identify them when seen by themselves, without the other one for comparison. Same as the girl or interior decorator who can immediately identify "eggshell" as distinct from "ivory" the moment she sees it on a wall, while her boyfriend couldn't do it with a gun to his head. The ability to recognize the color comes with having a name for it.

Also, with giving a shit.
Likewise, Turkish and Russian both split what we call "blue" into two different colors, for the darker and lighter shades. Therefore they consistently do a better job than English speakers when given the same "is this blue card the same as the last blue card" test. Even weirder, when testing the Russians they found that by giving them a verbal distraction (making them try to memorize a string of numbers while doing the color test) the advantage disappeared. It was the language part of their brain that was helping them "see" the color.  (END OF EXCERPT)

03 November 2010

English as a dead mouse

In her "English as a Second Language," April Bernard describes the soul of the English language as "pretty as a dead mouse."  That's an intriguing image, not only because dead mice are seldom, if ever, seen as pretty (poets still routinely follow the almost century-old New Critical command to yoke disparate images together), but also because English is not her second language.  To poets, the English language is, indeed, a dead mouse when used by non-poets, but it remains pretty, as in pretty dead, not just as in pretty attractive.

Here is something linguists would never appreciate - that it is possible for a mother tongue to be a second language.  A poet has her or his own language, which is the mother tongue, and the language that everybody else in the community speaks, what others may call their first language, is only the poet's second language.  This is, of course, something that is way down the road for multilingual literary criticism.  We still have to convince critics that poets writing in a second language are really writing in their mother tongue, using foreign words.

01 November 2010

Wang Ping

When a poet works in a second language, it is easier for her/him to ignore the nuances of the language.  This seems to be what is happening to Wang Ping, at least when she talks about her own poetry:

"When I started reading, I started writing in both Chinese and English. After I began writing for awhile, though, I realized that my style writing in Chinese was very conservative, whereas my English-language poetry was much looser and freer. I felt I had much more freedom in English - my way of thinking in poetic images was somehow quite natural."

I think she feels "somehow quite natural" in a second language because she does not have the restrictions imposed by centuries of Chinese poetic tradition.  It is good and bad that a poet writes in a language other than the mother tongue.  On the one hand, it is good that the poet freely moves around the second language, something those born into that language cannot do because their minds have already been molded by the language.  It is, therefore, good for a language to have second-language poets working with it.  On the other hand, a poet should not forget that poetry, like everything else in life, is structured by history (or as critics like to put it, "constituted").  Veering away from tradition is just ignorance, not skill.  By not having the knowledge that a mother-tongue poet has, the second-language poet runs the real risk of reinventing the wheel.

Take these lines from Wang Ping's "Syntax":

"Language, like woman,
Look best when free, undressed." 

The deliberate use of the ungrammatical verb is in keeping with the general theme of the poem, but the image is not correct.  I am a heterosexual male, but I cannot imagine a woman looking better naked than with a few pieces of clothing.  There is a reason painters and sculptors cover even a small portion of the body of a naked woman:  clothing increases rather than decreases sexual desire.  How else explain the unattractiveness of the naked breasts of some tribal women?  Similarly, to follow the metaphor of the lines, "To be or not to be" looks much better than "Decide."  Undressed language never looks better than dressed or poetic language.

30 October 2010

Writer Wanted in Manitoba

Call for Applications: Writer/Storyteller-in-Residence

A professional writer and/or storyteller is sought for the position of Writer/Storyteller-in-Residence at the Centre for Creative Writing and Oral Culture at the University of Manitoba. This four-month position, from approximately September 1 to December 16, 2011, will require the successful candidate to spend approximately 16 hours per week providing mentorship and practical artistic advice to developing writers and storytellers at the University of Manitoba, to give a limited number of readings
and/or performances on campus, and to lead an informal non-credit workshop. The remaining time is to be devoted to the writer or storyteller’s own artistic projects. The successful candidate will receive a salary of $20,000.00 CAD, accommodation and return transportation to Winnipeg.

The Centre for Creative Writing and Oral Culture is an interdisciplinary centre with a mandate to promote the creation and the study of the verbal arts, both oral and written. Located at the University of Manitoba in the city of Winnipeg, the Centre sponsors readings, lectures, master classes and creative community projects that explore the connections between oral and written culture. Winnipeg is renowned for its vibrant arts community and its multicultural citizenry, including the largest urban population of Aboriginal people in North America. The Centre builds upon these local cultural
strengths as a basis for its creative and critical work. To learn more about the Centre, visit http://umanitoba.ca/centres/ccwoc/.

Applicants should provide a covering letter summarizing their qualifications for the position and describing the artistic work they would undertake during the residency. Applications must also include a CV or résumé of career achievements (publications, performances, awards, residencies), a writing sample of no more than 20 pages (doublespaced and typed in a standard 12-point font) and two letters of reference discussing the applicant’s skills as an artist and a mentor.

Candidates of all nationalities are encouraged to apply; however, full proficiency in English is required, and publications or performance credits in English would be an asset.

The Centre for Creative Writing and Oral Culture is committed to principles of employment equity. The application deadline is November 22, 2010. Electronic submissions of application materials are accepted at the Centre’s email address, but attachments must be in Microsoft Word, PDF, RTF or DocX only. Please direct inquiries and electronic application materials to ccwoc@cc.umanitoba.ca.

Applicants may also submit hardcopy applications to:
Dr. Warren Cariou, Director
Centre for Creative Writing and Oral Culture, University of Manitoba
391 University College, 220 Dysart Road
Winnipeg, Manitoba R3T 2M8 CANADA

Books and other materials sent in support of applications will not be returned.

29 October 2010

Never as good in a second language

Here are the first lines of the poem "Kitchen Polish" by John Guzlowski:

I can't tell you about Kant
in Polish, or the Reformation,
or deconstruction
or why the Nazis moved east
before moving west,
or where I came from,
but I can count to ten, say hello
and goodbye, ask for coffee,
bread or soup.
The lines capture the difficulty of writing in a second language.  It is very difficult, if not impossible, to discuss really important things in a language other than your mother tongue.  This poem shows it, instead of just telling it.

24 October 2010

Unnecessary mixing

Although as a theoretical principle it is better to have two rather than just one language in a poem, we have to keep in mind that mixing or adding languages should not be arbitrary.  There should always be an aesthetic reason to incorporate or adopt foreign words and ideas into a text.  This is a good point unwittingly raised by Bhisma Kukreti in a short review of Mero Bwada:  "The language is pure Garhwali and Pant tried to avoid unnecessarily mixing Hindi wordings in Garhwali poetry as Purn pant said that the poets should avoid Hindi in creating Garhwali literature."  I say "unwittingly," because Pant's dictum of avoiding a language is not aesthetically defensible.  If Pant were correct, we would have to junk not just T. S. Eliot, but a good number of authors considered canonical around the world.  What is really aesthetically indefensible is if a poet uses foreign words when local words would do as well.  The foreign words should add meanings and submeanings that are unavailable in the local language.

20 October 2010

Jahan Ramazani

Here's a year-old news item about Jahan Ramazani that still holds interest:

"Co-editor of the two-volume Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry and of The Norton Anthology of English Literature section on the 20th century to the present, Ramazani said he has tried to help make these standard textbooks global in their reach. 

"In his own research, he concentrated on 20th-century British, Irish and American poets earlier in his career, then turned his attention to Caribbean, African and South Asian writers. He realized these identifications and subdivisions in literary scholarship tended to distort global influences and conjunctions, he said. They were just plain inadequate.

"Western writers of the 20th century were influenced by contact with non-Western cultures, and vice versa. English is read and spoken all over the world, and information travels faster than the blink of an eye, but poetry has been considered 'stubbornly national,' as T.S. Eliot wrote. 

"Eliot's own poetry, however, belies that statement, Ramazani pointed out. Although he was American-born and began writing poetry in the U.S., Eliot moved to London and became a British subject and thought of himself as having a European mind. Plus, he incorporated ancient languages and Eastern religions in his work. How does a literature scholar describe him in one term?

"'My book argues against local and national visions of poetry and culture and for developing new ways of thinking about poetry's transnationalism, as embedded in language, in the metaphors, lines, rhythms and images,' Ramazani said.

"'The miracle of poetry is that in such a small space it can travel so widely, moving in all different directions. If you look exclusively at local or national canons, you miss that,' he said.

"Ramazani distinguishes this cross-cultural literature from other products of globalization, such as the one-way export of Western television to other countries or the diluted versions of foods that have become popular in the U.S., such as Taco Bell and many Chinese restaurants.

"Not only was Eliot's poetry influenced by European and Eastern literature, but his work also influenced poets in the Caribbean and Africa, Ramazani said. For example, Caribbean poets, educated in English, learned to use Victorian and Romantic styles in their writing until the mid-20th century, when they heard recordings of Eliot reading his own poetry, with rhythms from American jazz and ordinary conversation. Hearing Eliot empowered them, Ramazani said, to use their own indigenous elements, such as the rhythms of calypso and Creole.

"'A foreign import can bring the writer back to the local. Poetry can be global in its outlook, but locally responsive,' he said."

Yes, indeed.  Poets and critics that read only the literature of their own countries miss the whole point of literature.  In this blog, I have deliberately tried to include as many "unknown" or "marginalized" poets and texts as I can, in order to remove the "stubbornly national" blinders that too many poets and critics have.  I am particularly annoyed by critics that read only literatures written in English, as though the English language were the very first or the only language in which writers have written the world's masterpieces.  (I have actually met literature professors who insist that we should read only the English translation but not translations into other languages of Oedipus Rex - or the Greek original - and even critics who actually quote the English translations, as though Sophocles thought and wrote in English.  Sad.)