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.

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