27 February 2010

Polyglot literature

Hugo Baetens Beardsmore, in “Polyglot Literature and Linguistic Fiction” (2009), proposes a classification that is useful to us: "Polyglot literature has been produced in Western Europe since at least the Middle Ages. Its presence has been noted in Italy, Provence, Castille, The Netherlands, England, and it was produced both for the restricted literary circles of princely courts as well as the unlettered mass. Several varieties of linguistic usage come under the general heading of Polyglot literature. A first form consists in the use by one and the same author of two or more languages in separate literary texts. A second form consists in the use of more than one language by a single author within the same text. A third form owes its origin to a language contact situation and uses a non-standardised language where interference phenomena are manifest. Finally, a fourth form is one in which ‘freakish’ linguistic features, due to the imagination of their creators, are to be encountered. Unlike the first two categories, the last two are generally found in frontier areas of language contact."

The first form is not too interesting to us, except that it illuminates the mind of major writers such as Samuel Beckett. It is the second form that we usually talk about when we say "multilingual literature." The third form is, of course, also interesting, because an author apparently trying to mirror real language shares the attributes of that language (that language being by itself mixed). It is the fourth form that interests us most, because here is where literature takes over linguistics. The linguist may call parts of a literary text "freakish" (despite the quotation marks to indicate a non-literal meaning), but to literary critics, the freakishness is what writing is all about. When a writer uses two or more languages in a single text, s/he hopes to harness two or more cultures (not just languages), thereby increasing the scope and power of the text.

24 February 2010

Adrienne Rich

Jane Hedley writes in "Nepantalist Poetics: Narrative and Cultural Identity in the Mixed-Language Writings of Irena Klepfisz and Gloria Anzaldúa" (1996):

"In What Is Found There, her recently published meditation on poetry and politics, Adrienne Rich suggests that in the late twentieth century North American poetry is beginning to be ‘a multicultural literature of discontinuity, migration, and difference.’ Often, she explains, it is a bilingual poetry, ‘incorporating patois and languages other than English’: bilingualism is a fact of life for many of these writers, and it is ‘expressive,’ Rich points out, ‘of the divisions as well as the resources of difference.’”

We are not the first to notice the emergence of multilingual literature (older than macaronic verse) nor the first to take it seriously (because macaronic verse was not quite taken seriously during its time), but we are the first to propose that multilingual literature is the general case and what is apparently monolingual writing is the special case, or to push our physics analogy more accurately, that apparently monolingual writing exhibits all the characteristics of multilingual writing, but since the effects of these on the writing seem negligible, critics do not realize that they are really multilingual.

22 February 2010

Dalisay on practicality of multilingual writing

Just an alert about a column today about writing professionally. Jose "Butch" Dalisay, an internationally award-winning novelist, writes in his column Penman in Philippine Star:

"Learn to write bilingually. Many clients — NGOs, government and international agencies — need material in more than one language, especially when they’re reaching out to local communities. Also, you may need to conduct interviews in Filipino or other non-English languages."

It makes a lot of practical sense to be a multilingual writer.

21 February 2010

Inner Circle of readers

Kachru's Inner Circle used to be called, before political correctness kicked in, Native Speakers. Perhaps Marc Prensky's term Digital Natives is more appropriate. In our Inner Circle of readers of a multilingual text are those that grew up with all the languages used in the text, not necessarily because these languages were all mother tongues (that would be impossible), but because, sometime before they read the text, they either studied the languages or lived in cultures that spoke those languages. Europeans are obviously privileged in this connection, because they constantly hear, if not speak, more than their own language. So are Filipinos, who are forced by the geography of their islands to learn at least three languages (their mother tongue, the national language, and English). But all peoples, if we look at their histories, are necessarily multilingual, since no language is exactly the same as it was at the time of the Tower of Babel. Clearly, in what Circle an individual reader is will be determined by the text itself. That means that, unlike Kachru and even Prensky, we do not peg a person to just one Circle. We all move into and out of one Circle, depending on the text.

18 February 2010

Kachru-type classification

I'm thinking of applying Braj Kachru's classification of English speakers to multilingual literary criticism. We could classify readers of a literary text in this way:

INNER CIRCLE = readers who know all the languages and cultures from which all the words in a literary text come; these readers are able to understand and to appreciate everything that is going on in the text

OUTER CIRCLE = readers who know at least two but not all the languages and cultures from which the words in a literary text come; these readers are able to understand and to appreciate some or most of what is going on in the text

EXPANDING CIRCLE = readers who know only the main language of the text; these readers are barely able to understand and to appreciate what is going on in the text.

My Inner Circle comes very close to what the New Critics and the Reader-Response Theorists would call an Ideal Reader, which is something like the reader that James Joyce wanted (he famously said that, since he took a lifetime to write Finnegan's Wake, it should take a reader a lifetime to read it). Although the Ideal Reader is ideal (i.e., not real), we could all attempt to become one, at least as far as a literary text is concerned.

My Outer Circle is probably where most, if not all, multilingual critics belong. We at least know a couple of the languages being used by the writer. Since by definition, the critic always knows less than the writer (as evident in the history of literary criticism, literary theories always coming after literary movements), it is not bad at all, nor even humbling, to bow to the superior linguistic prowess of a writer.

My Expanding Circle describes probably 90% of critics writing today. Sadly monolingual, such critics miss the other languages and cultures embedded or harnessed in a text.

14 February 2010

Happy Chinese New Year

恭喜发财 or 恭喜發財
No matter how the characters are read (the Chinese pronounce the same characters in different ways), the greeting is the same: Happy Chinese New Year (or more strictly translated, "Congratulations for having lived this long, and may you have more money this coming year than last year," or something like that). Since I have Chinese blood (my maternal great grandmother was 100% Chinese), I can say this with full sincerity (though I still cannot speak nor read Chinese, despite having attended classes in Mandarin): congratulations and be prosperous!

Happy Valentine's Day

Feliz día de San Valentín
ハッピー バレンタイン
Buon San Valentino
Alles Liebe zum Valentinstag
Bonne Saint Valentin

12 February 2010

Writers change language

"‘Ordinary speakers’’ creativity in handling their own language has been in the focus of some scholars’ attention," writes Evgeniy Y. Golovko in "Language Contact and Group Identity: The Role of 'Folk' Linguistic Engineering" (2003). "For example, there are several works studying ‘language play’ in Russian. Most material in such works comes from fiction. It means that major ‘language players’ are people who have made ‘playing with language’ their profession. This professional play is not of much interest for the topic [purposive language change] under consideration. However, it should be kept in mind that the product of professional playing with language spreads to ‘ordinary speakers,’ and the ‘rules’ of language play are very well understood by them. On the other hand, examples of language play are not only found in professionals’ work, but also in folklore, of both adults and children. It is just these mere facts that point to ‘ordinary speakers’’ potential for purposive language change (in the end, language play is nothing but a conscious language change). However, the language change made in the process of language play remains a speech improvisation, it does not become part of the language system." (p. 179)

I like the clause "language play is nothing but a conscious language change," but I disagree that the work of "professional language players" (that's us) remains in the realm of fiction and does not cross over to the world of "ordinary speakers." When Sigmund Freud was trying to figure out the relationship of creative writing to daydreaming, he paid attention to the writers themselves, of course, but he also pointed out that the bigger question was why readers read the works of writers. His answer is our answer to the issue in the paragraph quoted above. The reason ordinary speakers or readers read multilingual literature is that they participate in the language change. Readers are looking for exactly the same things that writers are looking for (and have found).

10 February 2010

German the mixed language

"In this age of globalisation," writes Uwe Pörksen as translated by Aingeal Flanagan (Goethe-Institut 2009), "no language in the world can maintain absolute, original purity. But did such linguistic purity ever exist? Or is it wishful thinking, a mere construct?"

Pörksen offers ten principles (about the German language) that we could adopt, mutatis mutandis, as our own in multilingual literary criticism. Here they are:

"1. Bilingualism has been the norm throughout the history of the world’s civilisations. For over one thousand years (from the eighth to the eighteenth centuries), the most formidable counterpart of the German language was written and spoken Latin.

"2. Of all other languages, the contact with Latin has thus far had the most profound effect on the German language.

"3. Luther’s German did not emerge out of an independent development of the oral language culture, for which he had a good ear; instead, it was a borrowed creation from the Latin written culture; it was an artificial language.

"4. We were trilingual in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and parts of the nineteenth centuries. We not only spoke German and Latin, but French too.

"5. The French language also had a lasting effect on German. Peter von Polenz's magnificent three-volume history of the German language sees this effect in the inclusion of Germany in the modern, Western European cultural context.

"6. An independent German ‘literary language’, a written civilisational language, has been developed in fits and starts since the High Middle Ages.

"7. The ‘continuous’, uniform use of language advocated by Leibniz emerged both out of the Latin and French languages and in contrast to them, and it did so independently of the modern state, without a central institute, and without an academy or language supervision.

"8. It was the conscious, active work of a variety of parties that led to this state of affairs.

"9. In the century and a half between the nineteenth century and the 1960s, our country was comparatively monolingual; the German language dominated in almost every sphere.

"10. A third incisive period of language contact began almost half a century ago, namely the contact with the English language. It is likely that this contact will have a profound effect in the long term."

Once we realize that the development of a language is a conscious effort by literary persons (in Pörksen's translated words), we start placing literature once again at the center of civilization, since language, as he correctly points out in his essay, precedes the creation of states. We also start to understand why it is crucial for literary critics to unlock the multilingual substructure of any literary text.

08 February 2010


We have all been too grateful to Horace for introducing the phrase dulce et utile (actually, he never put it that way; his exact words in Ars Poetica 343-44 were "Omne tulit punctum qui miscuit utile dulci, lectorem delectando pariterque monendo") that we forget that he was wrong in condemning mixed language writing. In his criticism of Lucilius, Horace argues that monolingualism is superior to multilingualism. As Anna Chahoud explains, "A poet who picks such language – Horace insists – is no less to blame than a lawyer who is prepared to jeopardise his professional credibility: a Roman poet, just like a Roman citizen acting in the forum, has nothing to gain from demoting himself to the rank of a bilingual Apulian (the natives of Canusium spoke Oscan and Greek)." Can we not see here a parallelism between the great defender of the purity of the Latin language and the defenders of the purity of the English (or any other) language? To insist on "purity" or monolingualism is to ensure the death of a language! That is what the history of Latin (the international language for centuries, as opposed to English which has been an international language for only one century) tells us.

06 February 2010

George Puttenham

"Puttenham," writes Gavin Alexander in Sidney's "The Defense of Poesy" and Selected Renaissance Literary Criticism (2004), "is no Aristotle, and the affection in which he is held by students of the English Renaissance can appear like a very English love of the quaint and unintentionally comical." A wild thought: could the prejudice against multilingual writing be due in part to the overshadowing of George Puttenham by Philip Sidney? After all, it was Puttenham who loved using words in his prose from two languages: "Many of the words which face each other across Puttenham’s conjunctions are synonyms. The technique belonged in the mixed language which Puttenham had written a history of. For most things English had an Anglo-Saxon term and an Anglo-Norman one; and the Latinate element represented by the influence of French was being fortified by the many borrowings from Latin which expanded the English lexicon in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Puttenham is not frightened to employ neologisms when he wants to, but he sympathizes with those of the previous generation who had called for a purification of English and a return to its Anglo-Saxon origins; he employs many archaic, rustic or unusual Saxonisms.” (Alexander, lxvi) Of course, it does not help that Puttenham's authorship of The Arte of English Poesie (1589) is in question, but as in the work Περὶ ὕψους (Perì hýpsous) [On the Sublime], the name of the author should not really matter.

03 February 2010

Defense of pidgin

There is a clear relationship between racism and the fear of pidgin. An article that examines this statement in the context of "broken English" among Chinese in the 19th century is Kingsley Bolton's "Language And Hybridization: Pidgin Tales from the China Coast" (2000). Here is the abstract:

"This essay looks at the history of pidgin and creole studies in the context of linguistic theory with particular reference to the study of 'Chinese pidgin English.' It argues that, although linguistics makes the claim to be an objective and systematic science, an examination of the past reveals that its own discourses have been shaped by a range of powerful forces from outside the disciplinary study of language. In the case of pidgin and creole linguistics (or 'creolistics'), one obvious influence is from European 'race theory' of the late nineteenth century, seen most clearly in the adoption of a vocabulary which includes terms such as monogenesis, polygenesis and hybridization. In the case of Chinese pidgin English, early accounts of the use of 'broken English' are found in the memoirs of sailors and merchants on the South China coast, and these were later supplemented by missionary and colonial accounts from Canton, Hong Kong and the treaty ports of China. The most influential account was that of Leland (1876), whose 'comic' account of Pidgin-English Sing-song contributed to the formation of a cultural imaginary of Chinese people at a time of growing anti-Chinese racism in the United States and Britain. Although many pidgin and creole scholars have denied a direct link between racial mixing and language mixing, it appears evident that the fear (and attraction) of racial miscegenation was at the heart of many western responses to pidgin English in China."

At the root of the marginalization of multilingual poetry is an analogous "ism" on the part of literary critics, who were usually brought up in the age of the old and discredited prescriptive linguistics. Unable to accept that the "colloquial" or "substandard" or "ungrammatical" or "idiosyncratic" (or whatever pejorative term) language being used by multilingual writers may be just as valid and respectable as the language they learned in school, these critics do literature a great disservice by limiting its traditional role - which is to deconstruct language itself, to make it defamiliar, to make it construct reality rather than be constructed by it.

01 February 2010

Erotic Christmas carol?

I wish I knew Italian and more Spanish to fully appreciate "Fata la Parte," a 19th-century villancico. This is how it goes:

Fata la parte
tutt'ogni cal,
qu'es morta la muller
de micer Cortal

Porque l'hai trovato
con un españolo
en su casa solo,
luego l´hai maçato.
Lui se l'ha escapato
por forsa y por arte.

Restava diciendo,
porque l'hovo visto,
¡o válasme Cristo!,
el dedo mordiendo,
gridando y piangendo:
¡Españoleto, guarte!

¡Guarda si te pillo,
don españoleto!
Supra del mi leto
te faró un martillo,
tal que en escrevillo
piangeran le carte.

Micer mi compare,
gracia della e de ti.
Lasa fare a mi
y non te curare.
Assai mal me pare
lui encornudarte.

Based on the translation by Ruth Caldwell and Ruth Westfall, this is my rough idea of what the song says: "Cortal's wife is dead, because he found her alone in his house with a Spaniard, so he killed her. The Spaniard escaped, but he should watch out, because if Cortal catches him and gives him a blow on the head, the very paper will weep."

In translation, the double entendre is not obvious. Can someone please unlock the double meaning for me? It is even said that this is a Christmas carol with a sacred theme. Is this true?