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.

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