06 July 2010

Appropriating an international language

The idea that a writer writing in a non-mother tongue appropriates or colonizes the foreign language is not a new one.  For example, Philippine poet and critic Gemino H. Abad's statement that "Filipinos have colonized the English language" is often quoted.  Here is the abstract of the article "English and Postcolonial Writers' Burden:  Linguistic Innovations in Femi Fatoba's My Older Father and Other Stories" (2004) by Ayo Kehinde:

"In a situation where two or more languages and cultures are in contact, there is bound to be linguistic and cultural interference. This is the situation with African literature of English expression where important socio-cultural habits and traits are expressed in a foreign language. Based primarily on the examples from Femi Fatoba’s My 'Older' Father and Other Stories (1997), this essay attempts to examine how postcolonial writers have appropriated and reconstituted the English language in their texts through some linguistic processes which include loan words, loan coinages, loan blends, pidginization, code switching and the like. Fatoba strives to find a solution to the problem of bilingualism/biculturalism in his text by relying heavily on the domestication of the imported tongue. The essay observes that although Fatoba has deviated from the international literary norms (linguistically), in the text, he has not falsified the tradition he has transformed into the English language. Rather, he has been able to bridge the gap between the local color variety and the appropriate English language diction suitable to the characters and themes he depicts. The essay also contends that linguistic innovations in Fatoba’s stories offer an outlet for creativity in language and put a new life into the imported language. The paper is concluded by suggesting that in this age of globalization, African writers cannot afford to deny their works of wide readership; therefore, they should consider the appropriation and reconstitution of English as a medium of African literature."

I think that thinking of this kind is a necessary step in the path towards a multilingual literary theory.  It is clear from the literatures of postcolonial countries that the language of the center is indeed appropriated, reconstituted, or colonized by the margins.  The next step after examining what happens to the language of the center, however, is more important and much more difficult:  to see how the literature of the writers in the center itself consists of languages away from the center.  A simple example is the writing of Edgar Allan Poe, clearly an American writer writing in the American variety of English.  It has been known by literary critics for a long time now that Poe was writing for a British audience, in the (vain) hope that he would be famous in England (the former colonizer).  How can we explain the unusual syntax of the sentences in his works by looking at the British, French, and Italian languages embedded in his texts?  That is a tall order for Poe enthusiasts, who do not all have the time to look at his works word by word, not to mention learn the European languages!

In theory, however, rather than in practice, we can see what is going on.  That is the beauty of theory.  Einstein thought up of his theory of relativity all by himself, without actually doing anything with his hands.  It took almost a century before somebody took the trouble of verifying his ideas (by watching the planet Mercury) by doing practical work.  But without Einstein, we would not have the computer age we are living in today.  Literary theorists, though they may look odd to the ordinary literature teacher, may be changing the entire landscape of literary study, but it might take years before we know it.

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