31 March 2010

Resisting mixed language in literature

The resistance to mixing languages in a single work of literature comes not from the great writers (who have all done it, unconsciously or consciously), but from lesser writers more interested in ideology or politics than in being true to reality. Here, for instance, is a historical instance of writers trying to keep Belarusian free from the pervasive influence of Russian:

"Popular is the mixed language which is called ‘trasianka’ (e.g. ‘stirred language), it is the mixture of Russian and Belarusian but many people who speak it are sure they speak pure Russian. In the beginning of the nineties there was even suggestion to recognize ‘trasianka’ as a state language. ...

"One of the first examples of Belarusian literature is Francišak Skaryna’s translation of Bible, printed in Prague in 1517-1519. It was the third printed Bible after the German and Czech ones in Europe. Important too are the Lithuanian Chronicles and the Lithuanian Statute (the first in the world prototype of modern Constitutions), numerous church writings all dating from the 16th century. After the establishment of the Uniat (Greek Catholic) Church and making union with Poland, Belarusian language began to be strongly polonized. This can be seen in the numerous ‘intermedia’ and ‘school dramas’ of that days which have been preserved to this day in manuscripts written in the Latin alphabet."

The sentiment of the writer against Russianizing or Polandizing Belarusian is clear. I strongly disagree with this kind of sentiment (which is, unfortunately, present in other postcolonial countries). Much more important than keeping languages distinct from each other or "pure" is the responsibility of writers to reflect and to constitute what is going on in real life.

28 March 2010

Urdu as example of language development

"Mixed" literary languages eventually become regarded as "umixed" or "monolingual" literary languages. This has been documented extensively in the case of Urdu literature, but the same thing occurs, I suspect, in all literatures. English itself, after all, was never a "pure" language but has always been (and remains up to today) a language that incorporates words, concepts, and even grammar from other languages (think of syllabi and alumni, which should be syllabuses and alumnuses according to English, not Latin, grammar).

Here is an account of the way Urdu started as a mixed language and eventually became a literary language all its own:

"Before the advent of Modern Islam (late 6th Century), Arabs frequented the trade centres of the Indian subcontinent. It is conceivable that along with exchange of goods of trade, they also exchanged words of mutual interest from their languages. In the middle of the 7th Century, during the period of Khalifa Umar the Great, the Iranian Empire (of Yazdigar) fell to Arab Muslims resulting in the Muslim influence being extended up to Mulatto on the western shores of the river Sindh. However, Muslim forces were not able to establish their rule in the area. In 664 AD Muslims invaded India via Kabul and in 715 AD Mohammad Bin Qasim invaded Sindh but did not stay long. Nevertheless in the post-Christ period, those were the starting points in India for the establishment of a new homeland for the people of different culture and linguistic background. Their permanent presence as new communities among the established Indian communities would have necessitated the need of a mixed language. However, up to 1192, we do not have any written record of such a mixed language except in poetry Chand Barvai in his poem 'Parthi Raj Raso,' Dil-pat in his poem 'Khaman Raso' and Tur'pat Naal in his poem 'Bell Dev Raso' used a number of Arabic and Persian words like dunya, per'var'di'gar, salaam with correct pronunciation and some like kalak for khal'q and pai'gam for pai'ghaam, pher'maan for fermaan with modified pronunciation perhaps because of the absence of appropriate alphabets in Bridge Bha'sha to comprehend Arabic and Persian sounds. Again in that period similar examples can be found in the poetry of the Persian poets. They also used words from local Indian languages. In fact Hakim Sa'na'i, a 12th Century Persian poets, never visited India, but still used certain Hindi words.

"Although we find Arabic and Persian words filtering in the local Indian Bha'sha and Prak'rit, up to 1192, we see that, original inhabitants (mostly Hindus) and new settlers (mostly Muslims) formally used their own mother tongues with their scripts for their academic and religious literary pursuits.

"At an early stage the new mixed language was simple and without any formality in its daily use. However, with passage of time, this mixed language became structured and broadened its vocabulary by an increase borrowing of words and phrases from Persian, Turkish and Arabic languages. With little modification it accepted Persian alphabets and its script for itself. The use of these modified Persian alphabets along with the diacritical marks in the script gives to Urdu a unique ability to pronounce correctly the words from Hindi as well as from the foreign languages especially from Persian, Arabic and Persian. One cannot lose sight of several other reasons in the development and evolution of a language. It is important to recognise that there is a distinction between court (political or imperial need), mosque or church (religious need) and bazaar (commercial and days today's common purpose's need). To make a language acceptable elite and populist elements have to be present. The new mixed language developed in the environs of Delhi, the main seat of Muslim rulers (the new settlers) of India had their secular mother tongue Persian and their religious scripture Arabic."

27 March 2010

Asma Sayed

From an old news report (2006):

"Since the 1960s, South Asian Canadian writers have been contributing to the richness of Canadian literature. The immigrant writers that arrived in the Sixties were writing in Punjabi, Urdu, and Gujarati, while later immigrants started writing in English as well. But while writers writing in English have been recognized for their work, those writing in their heritage languages have often been ignored. Asma Sayed, for her PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Alberta, under the supervision of Dr. Jonathan Hart, is interested in studying the politics of language in South Asian Canadian writing.

“'My study is two-fold: on one hand, I analyze the use of heritage languages in the writings in English; on the other, I study the literatures solely created in those heritage languages. I intend to study the interrelationship of language, culture, and diaspora.'” Asma’s interest in this area is backed by her knowledge of Gujarati, Hindi, Urdu, Sanskrit, and Punjabi languages and Kachchi dialect.

"The first part of Asma’s research focuses on how heritage languages are used in English writing. 'These writers are experimenting with English to create a hybrid language. This is a language which mixes Gujarati, Hindi, Urdu, Tamil, or others with English. By bringing their different cultural backgrounds from around the world to their writing, and thus creating a hybrid or neo-language, they are extending that culture within Canadian society.'

"While these neo-languages speak volumes about resistance and culture-retention, there has been no extensive study to demonstrate the use of heritage languages by these ethnic writers. 'In fact, at times, their use of heritage languages in the English-Canadian texts has been received negatively. I think it is important to address this issue as I believe that these writers use this mixed language for a purpose. Language has been one of the primary means of struggle in the post-colonial literary world. While this linguistic hybridity challenges hegemony of English, it also serves the objective of retention of cultural identity.'”

Does anyone know Ms. (perhaps now Dr.) Sayed? It would be good to know what she now thinks.

23 March 2010

Three quotes from J. K. Gayle

Here are quotes that begin "Literary Mulattos: Three Novelists' Translingual Mix for African American Writing and Criticism," by J. K. Gayle (2009 Australia Tarver Award for Critical Essay on Race, Post-colonialism, or Multi-Ethnic Studies):

"Phillis Wheatley, the first African American poet, switched languages, from Fulani to English, under duress, after being abducted from West Africa and sold to a Boston merchant at about the age of seven . . . . Yet for others translingualism is a way to vaunt their freedom." --Steven G. Kellman, Switching Languages

“'[T]ranslingualism' [should be] employed to describe writers who cross-culturally appropriate, criticize, and reinvent language. . . . Translingual, transport, transplant, translate: these terms may have something to do with a crossing over, a movement into a new state, a transformation. Does the translingual author . . . writing in English cross over, transform, become a new linguistic subject, attain a new discursive identity? Certainly the answer is 'yes,' and yet some writers . . . then cross back to the 'old' language." -- Martha J. Cutter, Review of Switching Languages

"The globalization of cultures . . . presupposes translingualism, or . . . [more specifically] an interlation, a contrastive juxtaposition of two or more apparently identical texts running simultaneously in two different languages — for example, a poem of Joseph Brodsky in the Russian original and in English autotranslation. Interlation is a multilingual variation on the same theme, where the roles of 'source' and 'target' languages are not established or are interchangeable. One language allows the reader to perceive what another language misses or conceals. . . . Robert Frost said that poetry is what gets lost in translation. By contrast, interlation increases, indeed doubles the benefits of poetry." -- Mikhail Epshtein, "Interlation vs. Translation: Stereotextuality"

21 March 2010

Italian Canadian literature

"Italianistica versus Italian-Canadian Writing" (2008) by Joseph Pivato studies the literature in mixed languages in Canada today. Writes Pivato:

"Italian immigrants and their children are not voiceless; but speak clearly to each other and to all of us. One way that these people speak is through their arts, especially their writing: novels, stories, poems, plays, essays and experimental writing in mixed genres and mixed languages. They explore who they are; they record the immigrant experience; the meaning of growing up in Canada as both an Italian and a Canadian. These people with very humble backgrounds speak for themselves unmediated by the academic, the researcher or the professional journalist. Again I emphasise that this is direct speech with all its real vitality, spontaneity and peculiar anomalies."

Holding the mirror up to nature is still one of the crucial intentions of a lot of literature, and since nature (or the real world) for Italian immigrants in Canada involves mixing languages, their literature also employs more than one language.

17 March 2010

1984 debate

Here’s an early account of the beginnings of Utah-based Chicano mixed-language literature, from Jerry Johnston of Deseret News (4 May 1984):

“Writers such as former Utahn Ricardo Sanchez write in a mixed idiom, meshing English with a kind of spicey barrio vernacular, where a truck is a ‘troca,’ a buddy is a ‘cuate’ and a dime’s called a ‘dime’ (pronounced DEE-may).

“It is the mixed language that throws a kink in a lot of critics. Spanish critic and poet Angel Gonzalez feels mixing the languages not only cuts down on the people who can appreciate the literature (you need to be bilingual) but it furthers a type of speaking that may never be accepted.

“Chicano writers and scholars hotly disagree. [Gary] Soto is quick to defend writers who used a mixed style and Frausto Ibarra says, ‘The mixed idiom style of writing can be a very provocative stance. Our Chicano writers here in the United States use it to great effect. We’re not talking about an either-or situation with languages, but creative people who have a linguistic repertoire.'

“Many Chicano writers from Utah have used it. Abelardo Delgado, who taught at the University for a while, spiced his poetry with Spanish words, so do many of the young Hispanic writers in Salt Lake City today.

“Is it legitimate?

“Scholar Francisco Lomeli remembers the first time he heard Alurista, the poet, read poetry written in a mixture of Spanish and English. He said it was wonderful, it gave credence and beauty to the type of language he was raised speaking in his home.

“It upsets some, entices some. Love it or not, however, we readers better get used to it. According to Tomas Frausto Ibarra, Soto, [Genaro] Padilla and dozens of other members of the Chicano literati, we’re going to be seeing a lot more good literary works written in ‘Pocho’ in the years to come.”

These are writers who consciously use two languages. They represent one end of the literary spectrum that multilingual criticism discusses. The other end is represented by texts that, whether the writers were conscious or not that they were doing it, are actually in more than one language, though they look on the surface like they are monolingual. This second end is harder to unlock; that is the reason we need to sharpen our critical tools first on texts in the first end (or texts that quite obviously use more than one language) before we tackle the really hard task of showing how hidden languages add to the meaning of manifest languages.

15 March 2010

American literature not in English

Werner Sollors, in Sacvan Bercovitch's The Cambridge History of American Literature: Prose Writing, 1910-1950 (2003), writes:

“Code-switching and mixed languages are prevalent in American ethnic literature, whether such literature was originally written or published in English or in one of the many other languages that have been used in the United States. For American literature was also written in Yiddish (as was the letter that became Antin’s From Plotzk to Boston), Polish, Swedish, Welsh, Norwegian, Portuguese, Spanish, Chinese, or German – the list goes on and on – and this little-known non-English literature of the United States offers fascinating insights into American ethnic diversity in some formally accomplished and many thematically provocative works. The propaganda against foreign languages in the course of World War I marked only an interruption in a long tradition of non-English-language literary production in what is now the United States that started with recorded works in Native American and all colonial languages and continued with literature in scores of immigrant tongues. The propaganda may have been at least effective in removing this literature from scholarly attention in the second half of the twentieth century.” (p. 429)

Absolutely right! In fact, just a couple of years ago, in 2007, Benjamin Pimentel of California published a prize-winning novel in Filipino (Mga Gerilya sa Powell Street). American literature written in Filipino is alive and well, but monolingual American critics have no idea what treasures are being produced right under their noses. Vestiges of the First World War remain in literary scholarship, a strange irony, since literary critics have always prided themselves as being ahead of their times. In reading multilingual literature, they are clearly way behind American (and non-American) readers.

14 March 2010


Milton Murayama, writing about his novel All I Asking for Is My Body (1975), says, “The aim of writing is to get as close as possible to the experience, and if the experience is dialect, you write dialect. But there is a danger in being unintelligible in dialect. .. I wanted my pidgin to be intelligible to readers of standard English only.” Here lies one problem facing writers working within multilingual situations. Should the writer be faithful to the experience or be kind to the reader? Sometimes, one can be both, but not all the time. African writers decided long ago that they would spell words the way they heard them, and non-African readers have accepted that, despite obvious difficulties. Murayama (as evidenced in the title itself of his novel) tries to be a bit kinder to readers, but he does not really have to be. The burden of reading literature lies with the reader. With other types of writing (notably journalism or speechwriting or even business writing), the reader reigns supreme, because we want the reader to do something (vote for someone or allow us to do something related to our jobs or whatever). Literature, however, as the aphorism ars longa, vita brevis puts it, transcends any group of readers. Witness writers known after their time (Emily Dickinson comes to mind immediately). For me, a writer should write regardless of reader reception. The work will create its own audience. A multilingual work will create a multilingual reader. Conversely, since so many readers today are multilingual by virtue of geography, multilingual works may have come into their own.

13 March 2010

Writing Across Cultures

I just returned to Manila from the Writing Across Cultures symposium held on March 9 & 10 in the City University of Hong Kong. Many of the speakers addressed the issues we discuss in this blog. Except for two or three, all of them were bilingual or multilingual, with many writing mixed-language literary texts. Marilyn Chin, for example, who brings together not just the Chinese and the English languages into her work, but ancient Chinese culture and modern American culture, gave the keynote address on the second day. Among the speakers were Catherine Cook, Jon Cook, Andrew Cowan, Alex Kuo, Nury Vittachi, Robin Hemley, P. K. Leung, Sharmistha Mohanty, Kim Cheng Boey, Jose Dalisay, Dai Fan, Rukmini Bhaya Nair, Ouyang Yu, Dinah Sianturi, Bernice Chauly, Justin Hill, Agnes Lam. The organizers were Jane Camens and Xu Xi.

08 March 2010

Bani Basu

Meenakshi Mukherjee writes about "Bani Basu's Novels":

"No two of Bani Basu's novels are alike, each one explores a different segment of experience where imagination is backed by research; she experiments with a variety of narrative modes, realism and irrealism sometimes co-exist in startling ways; she is capable of completely changing her language to suit the theme.

"As an example of the latter, one can take Moom (1998) which focuses on a Marwari family settled in Kolkata for generations. The language is Bangla laced with Hindi, the kind many Marwaris in Calcutta use. Such a hybrid language - if used at all in Bangla literature in the past - has only been done for comic effect, and always briefly. Bani Basu dares to write an entire novel in this mixed language quite seriously, without any trace of condescension or mockery."

More and more, critics are recognizing that texts using more than one language have grown way past the macaronic phase. The mixed language used in texts is not just a way of being authentic or mirroring how people speak in real life; it is also - as literary critics know - a way to break the barriers imposed by any one language. Necessarily, one language encompasses only one part of reality. To represent or constitute more of the real world, a writer more and more feels obliged to use more than one language in a single text.

05 March 2010

Early Greek lyric

The study by Maria Elena de Luna of the Iliad and other Greek texts has something for multilingual critics. Here is the way reviewer Robert Wallace summarizes one of her points (on Hipponax):

"Ch. 2 ('The presence of γλῶσσαι βαρβαρικαί in the fragments of Hipponax') focuses on the question whether that poet's frequent use of non-Greek words reflects the popular mixed language of Ionia (Hipponax worked in Ephesos and Klazomenai), as some have thought, or was a sophisticated literary device. De Luna argues for the latter, profiting from excellent work on early Greek lyric especially by B. Gentili, A. Aloni, and G. Tedeschi."

To multilingual literary critics, such use is always (not just sometimes or often) "sophisticated" or, more precisely, deliberate. A writer can always translate dialectal words into the main language of a text, but choosing to retain the dialectal or other-language word has (or should have) a clear aesthetic intention - to incorporate not just another language but another culture or subculture into the text, thereby enriching the text.

03 March 2010

Japanese writing

Is there such a thing as a language that developed in such isolation that it may be considered a "pure" language and, therefore, its literature may not be describable in terms of multilingual literary criticism? The most obvious example of an isolated language is Japanese, which has, in fact, been called a "language isolate," even if it doesn't appear in Ethnologue's list of such languages. As W. David Marx points out, however, "the most accepted theory of recent years points towards a connection to Korean and the inclusion of both languages in the Altaic family of languages: Turkic, Mongolian, and Tungusic (Manchu)." It will be extremely difficult in practice, but in theory, multilingual criticism can still uncover various cultural substrata even in the relatively "pure" context of Japanese writing.

01 March 2010

Different Greeks

Margaret Alexiou writes in After Antiquity: Greek Language, Myth, and Metaphor (2002):

“The language of Greek prose fiction has attracted less attention than that of poetry and has followed a different path.... While the dominant poetic mode has been declamatory, or what Bakhtin terms ‘monologic,’ prose has been more ‘dialogic,’ affording a wider variety of registers and styles.... For prose fiction, the preferred registers during the nineteenth century range from ‘high’ puristic Greek to the ‘mixed’ language of the short stories of Georgios Vizyenos (1849-96) and Alexandros Papadiamandis (1851-1911), both of whom draw on registers from dialect to high puristic to convey distance, irony, and, above all, different narrative tones and voices. During the twentieth century, demotic has prevailed as the standard medium, but there is considerable variety in literary use of local dialect, from the Mytilenian colorings of Stratis Myrivilis to the Cretan tones of Nikos Kazantzakis, and a greater experimentation with register than was deemed appropriate in poetry.”

Even more difficult to analyze than the use of two or more languages in one text is the use of two or more registers (to non-linguists: types) of one language.