13 January 2010

Naturally mixed languages

We must make a distinction between different uses of more than one language in a literary text.

There are texts in one language where some words from another language (or other languages) are used. (Movies today like to do this, usually supplying subtitles but sometimes not. Writers have been doing this for the longest time, sometimes using italics but sometimes not.)

There are texts in more than one language. (Once termed macaronic or ladino, these are now sometimes called multilingual.)

There are texts in a language that is naturally mixed. (Literary critics dealing with mixed languages like to point this out. For example, Krishna Raina prefaces her study of "Mystic Trends in Kashmiri Poetry" with this: "The main language of Kashmir is Kashmiri. It is said that it is a mixed language and the greater part of its vocabulary is of Indian origin and it is allied to that of Sanskritic-Indo-Aryan languages of Northern India.")

In the first case, the author deliberately uses the other language or languages to enhance the text, either by simply adding a meaning that is not available in the main language or by alluding to the literary tradition in the other language or languages.

In the second case, the author deliberately harnesses the resources of various languages and cultures to do whatever is being done in the text.

In the third case, the author may or may not know that the language itself allows various literary traditions to help bring out the meaning. (The New Critics famously said that the "ideal reader" knows all the languages and cultures of the world and is able to point to the meanings inherent in every single word in a text. A word, for them, contained all the denotations and connotations and contexts earlier used by other authors. Of course, newer critics debunked the notion, but there was nothing theoretically wrong with the statement; it was just impossible in practice.)

I wish that literary critics of an English-language text today would zero in on the mixed nature of the language itself. After all, English today is not just Anglo-Saxon nor even just French or Latin-derived. For example, there are hundreds of words in Tagalog (a Philippine language) in English dictionaries.

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