22 June 2010

Turkish as example

The history of the Turkish language highlights one of the problems faced by multilingual literary critics.  Like it or not, we have to take into account the politics of the place where the language is spoken.  Turkish, for example, used not to have too many foreign words, but when Islam came to the place, Persian and Arabic words entered the Turkish vocabulary.  According to the Turkish Cultural Foundation:

"In the field of literature, a great passion for creating art work of high quality persuaded the ruling elite to attribute higher value to literary works containing a high proportion of Arabic and Persian vocabulary, which resulted in the domination of foreign elements over Turkish. This development was at its extreme in the literary works originating in the Ottoman court. This trend of royal literature eventually had its impact on folk literature, and folk poets also used numerous foreign words and phrases. The extensive use of Arabic and Persian in science and literature not only influenced the spoken language in the palace and its surroundings, but as time went by, it also persuaded the Ottoman intelligentsia to adopt and utilize a form of palace language heavily reliant on foreign elements. As a result, there came into being two different types of language - one in which foreign elements dominated, and the second was the spoken Turkish used by the public."

There appears to be three phases in the development of a literary language.  First, the language evolves independently of other languages (a "pure" stage).  Then, the language is influenced by other languages (a "mixed" stage).  Then, the language is either seen (incorrectly) as being pure or is deliberately cleansed of the foreign influences.  In this third stage, literary critics are misled into thinking that the language is not really a mixture of an earlier pure language and foreign languages.  Monolingual literary critics, for example, think of English as a pure language and no longer (except for  hardworking diehard New Critics who had a classical education) refer to the original languages that made it up.


  1. The first and second phases listed above are part of the development and become inherent in the language. The third is a matter of percepton, already labeled incorrect, coming from the outside. Should it be considered a phase?

  2. It is, indeed, the final phase where the borrowings of one language become enmeshed (or embedded) in the developed language. For instance, "boondocks" came from the GI's adoption of the Tagalog "bundok" during the war years (Japanese occupation). It gets encoded in the dictionary of a given language. Hence, dictionaries of developing languages are still "bestsellers" growing from academic work.

    Certainly, it would impoverish a language if it were "cleaned" of foreign adaptations and adoptions. Literary critics have found multilingualism in literature as a "happy hunting ground" (a place to die in, say) of admixtures of cultures and worldviews. Either the original flavour of the adopting language gets adulterated, or the added ingredient could "enrich" it such that it would merit "cultural or linguistic" hermeneutics. The literary critic could guide the reader to an appreciation of whether or not the borrowings (language, culture, worldview) is worth spending precious life time on, or, literarily, whether or not it is necessary in achieving the work's artisitc purpose.

    In this context, "boondocks" could also suggest "redneck orientations", Timbuktu-situated, or simply the opposite: where there is a "boon" of things, a "dock" of things (like food, the wild sweet potatoes in the hills --- which sustained the retreating American soldiers and native insurgents during WWII.

    The fact that English is not a pure language is getting really old as a caveat for critics who, I suspect, are weary of the linguistic and cultural hermeneutics as an adjunct of the literary criticism whose objective is to arrive at an aesthetic understanding of literature as an art.

    It is time for literary criticism to look
    back at its literary theories. A lot of criticism has become irrelevant if not wrong-headed.