30 May 2010


Has anybody following this blog read Earl Lovelace's Salt?  I haven't, but it's said to have successfully blended languages.

28 May 2010

Jaipur literature festival

Here's an interesting account of a discussion held at the Jaipur Literature Festival last January:

"The Queen’s Hinglish: Ira Pande, Mark Tully, Prasoon Joshi

"In a lively debate, the panel and audience discussed the nature and implications of the English language in India. Prasoon Joshi argued that schoolchildren who learn English in schools have an ‘unfair advantage’ because ‘language is politics.’ The issue of English language in India is more than a joke, he said, because it is affecting people’s lives and prospects, and therefore there should be a uniform language in the education system.

"Mark Tully said he thought a good policy suggestion would be for all children up to class 6 to be educated in their mother-tongue but also be taught some English, though he observed that there was the problem of a shortage of good English teachers, which meant many children ended up knowing neither mother tongue or English properly. One audience member argued that children in India were not learning ‘Queen’s English but President’s American.’ Ira Pande talked of the ‘element of fun’ in mixing the languages, as long as it is not about point scoring, and that was ‘all part of a language growing.’ Ira Pande asked what about call centre English, to which Joshi responded that was ‘a split personality.’ One audience member noted that the integration of African American language into American English was in part due to the vernacular permeating popular culture through literature and music. Joshi went on to say that Indians find it easy to co-exist in the modern world because historically they are so used to co-existing with others, that even if English were to become more prevalent a language in India because of the growing IT culture, that it would not lose its cultural distinction."

The element of fun is a good way of putting the joy of creation.  Writers have fun writing; otherwise, they would not write.  Mixing languages in one text is certainly fun; otherwise, no one would be doing it.  As Sigmund Freud observed in Der Dichter und das Phantasieren, writers are the only humans on earth who have seriously developed the childhood talent of daydreaming.

26 May 2010

Irish multilingual texts

"Code-Mixing in Biliterate and Multiliterate Irish Literary Texts" (2008) by Tina Bennett-Kastor studies texts that use more than one language (Frank McCourt’s Teacher Man, Maeve Binchy’s Firefly Summer, Cathal Ó Searcaigh’s “Do Jack Kerouac” and “Cainteoir Dúchais,” Nuala ni Dhomnaill’s “An Crann,” Brian Friel’s translations, and Antoine ó Flatharta’s Grásta i Meiriceá) and comes to the following conclusion:

"Multiliterate texts are constructed deliberately so that switch points or other points of linguistic contact within the text often signal additional, metaphorical levels of meaning which are coherent with the theme and/or other aspects of the work. To succeed in delivering these levels of meaning, the multiliterate writer must depend upon readers whose literacies overlap with those of the writer.  The implications for the development of a literary aesthetic in a multilingual society are that it is not enough to recognize that a written work exhibits two or more languages and to understand the meanings of the words in each language. To fully appreciate the aesthetic within the work, the writer and reader both must comprehend the complex political, historical, social, and cultural dimensions of the writer’s choice of language. As Ireland moves toward an increasingly integrated and full bilingualism, the potential for increased language interaction within literary works will grow. Literary theory, interpretation, and the teaching of literary analysis must keep up with the realization of this potential. ... The multiliterate writer calls out to the reader in what Joyce described in Ulysses as 'that other wor[l]d,' and depends on the reader both to hear these echoes, and to understand them."

Let's hear it for both James Joyce and Bennet-Kastor!

24 May 2010

Plurifying languages

A think piece by Leevi Lehto, entitled "Plurifying the Languages of the Trite" (2006), contains this interesting footnote:

"Some coordinates of this kind of World Poetry would be: independence vis-à-vis National Literatures, including institutionally (I'm reminded here of Goethe's concept of 'world literature'); mixing of languages; borrowing of structures – rhythmical, syntactical – from other languages; writing in one's non-native languages; inventing new, ad hoc languages; conscious attempts to write for more heterogeneous, non-predetermined audiences… Should I add that this perspective is in strong opposition to the ideologies of 'conflict', or 'dialogue', of 'cultures'."

Instead of "the language of poetry," we should really be talking about "the languages of poetry," just as we now talk about "world literatures" rather than just "world literature."

22 May 2010

Multilingual literature really old

If you think multilingual literature is a relatively new thing, you've got another think coming.  Read this account of Phoenician Semitic literature:

"The Byblos Syllabic texts is the earliest known example of mixing a Semitic language with modified Egyptian hieroglyphic characters. It appeared as inscriptions (eighteenth century B.C.), from the city of Byblos on the Phoenician coast. This script is described as a 'syllabary [that] is clearly inspired by the Egyptian hieroglyphic system, and in fact is the most important link known between the hieroglyphs and the Canaanite alphabet.'"

Of course, it might be argued that we are looking here only at the method rather than the content of writing, but since the method of writing is itself part of the language (think Chinese, where the visual appearances of characters themselves signify their meanings), we can say that the ancient Phoenician writers were thinking and writing in two languages.

Sadly, the account also tells us what happens when an international language kills a vernacular language:

"During the period of the Roman Empire the native Phoenician language died out and was replaced by Aramaic as the vernacular. Latin, the language of the soldiers and administrators, in turn fell before Greek, the language of letters of the eastern Mediterranean, by the 5th century AD."

Will English (or Mandarin Chinese) have the same effect today?  Let us hope not.

20 May 2010

Surveying bias

Last year, Serafin M. Coronel-Medina, in an article entitled "Definitions and Critical Literature Review of Language Attitude, Language Choice and Language Shift:  Samples of Language Attitude Surveys," discussed a language survey that included, among other things, questions about the acceptability to readers of mixing languages in literature.  I wonder what the results of the survey were for the original community for which it was intended (Spanish and English-speaking communities) and for other language communities that may have used it.  It would certainly be interesting for a literary critic to know how readers feel about mixing languages in creative writing.  Perhaps we will finally have scientific proof of the existence (or non-existence) of the bias against multilingual literature.

17 May 2010

Miguel Algarin

Here are lines from two poems by Miguel Algarin (I say two, because I believe that a translation is a different poem from its original), the first "My proposal is that," the second "Mi propuesta es que":

I want to live with you,
enjoy first, then procreate
children for the new century

Me gustaría vivir contigo,
gozar primero, después procrear
criaturas para el nuevo siglo

We can treat the two texts as translations (English to Spanish or vice-versa); that would be the usual way of dealing with them.  If we use multilingual literary criticism, however, we can look at the English text separately and realize, among other things, that (1) there is no rhyme, (2) the verb enjoy is used intransitively (which, though allowed in English, is not usual), and (3) procreate is an unusual word within the register or type of language being employed in the rest of the text.  These poetic characteristics will look like defects if we are not aware that the poet is really thinking in Spanish while writing in English (or as I like to say, following Bienvenido Santos and NVM Gonzalez, writing in Spanish using English words).  Notice that, if we go to the Spanish, (1) there is rhyme, (2) there is nothing wrong with the intrasitive use of gozar, and (3) procrear suits the register of the poem.  A reader reading only the English would have to use multilingual literary criticism to appreciate the beauty of the poem.  In fact, in English, the meter in the Spanish is lost, which then substantially diminishes the effect of the poem.

15 May 2010

Jewish-Dutch literature

The Encyclopaedia Judaica (2008) contains the following account of language mixing in literature:

"Hebraic Influences on the Dutch Language

"The influence of the Statenbijbel on the Dutch language cannot be overestimated.  Expressions deriving from this translation are still current in literature and colloquial usage. Besides such common words as Satan, cherubijn, etc., there are expressions like 'met de mantel der liefde bedekken' ('to cover with the coat of love'), borrowed from the story of Noah (Gen. 9:23). The influence of Yiddish began to be felt with the appearance of Dutch books by Jewish authors, which contained Yiddish expressions. Some Yiddish words that have become part of standard Dutch are Mokum, the popular nickname for Amsterdam ('place,' from makom); bajes ('prison,' from bayit); gabber ('friend,' from ḥaver); stiekem ('in secret,' from shetikah); and lef ('courage,' from lev). Many more are to be found in popular speech and thieves' slang – jatten ('to steal,' from yad), and kapoeres ('gone to pieces,' from kapparah). Others which were mainly used by Jews are disappearing with the dwindling of the Jewish community in Holland.

"The Jewish community has coined some Dutch words for its specific linguistic needs. By subtly changing the prefix of verbs and nouns, meaning has shifted – predominantly in the verbs aanbijten (lit. 'to bite onto,' to break the fast after Yom Kippur) and uitkomen (lit. 'to come out,' to convert to Judaism), and the noun voorzanger (lit. 'singer in front,' Cantor), which are not in use outside the Jewish community."

Here is a case of the language of literature influencing the language of everyday life, surely something for literary critics to celebrate.  The rest of the entry, by the way, lists some Jewish writers writing in Dutch - a huge area for research and criticism.

12 May 2010

Resistance to multilingual criticism

One reason it has taken a long time for literary critics to realize that more than one language is at work in any literary piece is the widespread bias against mixing languages in everyday speech.  Here is Katherine Hoi Ying Chen's amusing account of such a bias in Hong Kong:

"Code-mixing, in general, is socially stigmatized in Hong Kong, yet in practice it is a common norm for the young. People who oppose code-mixing often have an ideological reason to it. The ideology involved here is on language purity and the purity of Chinese language and culture. Extreme believers consider using English in Cantonese a ‘contamination’ and ‘betrayal’ of the rich heritage of Chinese culture that the Cantonese language embodied. This ideology, in an extreme case, is vividly expressed in the following metalinguistic comment given by a university professor of Chinese language and literature:

" 'This kind of Chinese-English mixing freak speech is total rubbish not only [when it is used] outside of Hong Kong. Even within Hong Kong, it is totally useless for communicating with grass roots offspring of the Emperor Huang [i.e. ethnic Chinese people], or with the ethnic white leaders at the tip of the pyramid. Some people said, this kind of speech is like a special dermatological disease, [with a symptom of having] a piece of yellow [skin] and a piece of white [skin here and there].'

"This comment is probably a bit extreme, but it is in no way an uncommon attitude shared in Hong Kong about code-mixing. ... Despite the prevailing negative attitude, however, code-mixing is the norm of speech among the younger generation."

Perhaps, with younger generations in every country today (including previously monolingual countries like the United States) routinely mixing languages in their speech, younger literary critics will start seriously considering rereading all literary texts as multilingual texts, not just with Bakhtin's multiple voices but with multiple real-life languages interacting in ways older critics previously never dreamed of.  Perhaps what we have with multilingual literary criticism is something that can fill the gap that the death of theory has left in critical circles.

10 May 2010

Patois and Linguistic Pastiche in Modern Literature

Here is a list of the essays in the book Patois and Linguistic Pastiche in Modern Literature (2007), edited by Giovanna Summerfield:

Introduction, by Giovanna Summerfield
Literary Synglossia: Vincenzo Consolo, Andrea Camilleri, Pietro Di Donato, Corrado Paina, by Jana Vizmuller-Zocco
Luciano Bianciardi and the Anarchy of Language: From the Risorgimento to the “Boom” Years, by Mark Pietralunga
Riccobene’s Nun mi maritu ppi procura: The Italian Canadian Linguistic Pastiches in a Comedy of Errors, by Salvatore Bancheri
Misrecognition unmasked? “Polynomic” Language, Expert Statuses and Orthographic Practices in Corsican Schools, by Alexandra Jaffe
Change and Variety in the Mosaic of German Dialects, by Iulia Pittman
“C’est une joie et une souffrance”: Mimetic Speech and Generic Pastiche in François Ozon’s 8 femmes, by Adrienne Angelo

The book is a major contribution to multilingual literary criticism.  Here is its rationale, as expressed by its editor:

"In modern literature dialect, patois, and linguistic pastiche have proved to be the marks of identity, of individual and regional nature.  Paraphrasing the words of Luigi Pirandello, one tends to use the standard national language to express a rational concept, while one opts to use one’s regional dialect for matters closer to the heart. The literary tradition has always accepted language mixing. Linguists and literary critics have analyzed this phenomenon from different perspectives, separately. An in-depth cooperative study of the causes, conditions, consequences, and limits of language mixing is still needed. Through a plurality of literary subjects, perspectives, and linguistic environments, this publication provides an overview of the linguistic and cultural contributions which underline, in turn, the importance of dialect use and conservation. This book recognizes the international and topical scope of interest in the academia and the public at large through the contributions made by the authors of the respective essays, who come from various parts of the world and from a wide range of disciplines, and also through the international and topical importance of the perspectives offered by these contributions."

07 May 2010

Back in Manila

Finally, I'm back in the Philippines after a working holiday in the USA, with three lectures (Montclair State, UC Berkeley, and UCLA) and the West Coast launch of two books (The Other Other and Inter/Sections), all in three weeks of cold weather I am not used to and the usual battle against jet lag.  I got to a couple of bookstores and found little to interest me; the popular bestsellers (whether academic or New York Times type) have elbowed out books truly worth reading.  Fortunately still selling are the good old reliables (the philosophers of old, so-called "classic" novels, the canonical books required by well-intentioned teachers that have never given up the faith).  Bookstores still relegate non-English languages books either to the dictionary or travel sections or to some awkward category such as "Asian Studies" or "Foreign Language Books."  They still have a problem with books written in languages other than English by American writers.  On the plus side, however, I noticed that there were a number of mainstream television channels all in Spanish.  Perhaps the USA is indeed becoming a bilingual country.  That would definitely be a step forward.

01 May 2010


About John Agard's poem "Half-Caste," BBC has this as a guide question for students:

"He writes in a Caribbean dialect -'yu' instead of 'you', for example, or 'dem' for 'them'.  Why do you think Agard chose to write 'Half-Caste' in 'non-standard' form?"

We like to tell children that "sticks and stones can hurt your bones but words will never harm you," but in fact words like "dialect" and "non-standard"  harm us all the time.  To speak of a particular language or variety of a language as a "dialect" (thus relegating it to a status lower than a language) or "non-standard" (thus implying that the standard is the language of the former colonizer) is as bad as racist slurs.  Perhaps we should add to the unacceptable isms the word linguism (or something sounding as ugly as that) to refer to manifest or hidden bias against newer or emergent languages.