30 December 2010

Limitations of any language

One of the persistent reasons many critics demand that a text be written completely in one language is the belief (long debunked) that every language is capable of expressing anything and everything.  In particular, rabid defenders of the English language claim that the language can express any human reality.  Writers know better.  Even a consummate English user like T. S. Eliot was forced to use French and other languages every time he came up with a reality that the English language was incapable of handling.  The silliness, however, is not limited only to English users.  In Taiwan, using more than one language in a song (akin to poetry) is apparently frowned upon by the literati.  Here is an account:

"The mainstream of the music industry works  in accord with general attitudes of young Taiwanese. Mandarin is the language of their choice, although there are still some concepts that are better defined using Taiwanese or English, and that is where the code-mixing fits in.  English is generally used for the purpose of adding prestige and an element of trendiness to a song, while Taiwanese is used to express an idea that Mandarin is incapable of expressing."

Like English, Mandarin is considered by its speakers as omnipowerful.  It is interesting that a "smaller" language like Taiwanese has shown itself superior to Mandarin in certain cases.  It is also interesting that, in Taiwan as in many other places, English is considered a prestige language.  Truly, linguistics and literary criticism can never ignore political realities.  Once China overtakes the United States in economic and military power (within our century!), we can be sure that Mandarin will be considered the prestige language, rather than English.

28 December 2010

Black authors necessarily multilingual?

This is the abstract of an article entitled "Expanding 'South Africanness':  Debut Novels" (2009) by Margaret Lenta:

"In this article I examine a selection of debut novels published in South Africa in the period 1999 – 2008 in order to determine what inspired the authors to embark on the writing of prose fiction. A large number of such novels have been produced in this period, and most of them demonstrate the new freedom that authors feel to deal with subjects disapproved of or banned under apartheid. I have based my selection on the categories 'giving voice to previously silent communities'; 'sex and gender'; 'mixing languages', a phenomenon now characteristic of novels by black authors; 'writing back', that is, responding to and taking issue with earlier works; 'the roman à thèse', implying that the work becomes fictionalised argument. The final element is 'fusion', by which I mean that the novels register that people of different ethnic communities are now free to know each other outside of their work, and to form what ties they wish."

I wonder if it is true that mixing languages in a single work is now "characteristic of novels by black authors"?  That would make multilingual novels mainstream, wouldn't it?

25 December 2010


The article "Spanglish: Speaking la Lengua Loca" (2007) by Ilan Stavans talks about the mainstreaming of a mixed language:

"Curiosity about Spanglish is abundant. Is it a dialect? Should it be compared with Creole? What are the similarities with black English? Will it become a full-fledged, self-sufficient language with its recognizable syntax? Linguists seem to have different responses to these questions. Personally, I answer to the latter question with a quote from linguist Max Weinreich, who wrote a multivolume history of Yiddish. Weinreich said that the difference between a language and a dialect is that the language has an army and a navy behind it. I also often call attention to the fact that in the last couple of decades, an effort to write in Spanglish has taken place in numerous circles, which means the form of communication is ceasing to exist at a strictly oral level. There are novels, stories, and poems in it already, as well as movies, songs, and endless Internet sites."

Multilingual literature does not have an army and a navy behind it, but it does count some of the world's best writers among its revolutionaries.  As the history of the world shows, armies and navies eventually all surrender to the few, stout-hearted men and women of subversive movements.

19 December 2010

The spoken mode in fiction

Here's the table of contents of the book The Representation of the Spoken Mode in Fiction:  How Authors Write How People Talk (2009), edited by Carolina P. Amador-Moreno and Ana Nunes:

Table of Contents

Foreword by Prof. Michael McCarthy, University of Nottingham
Writing and Reading Diglossia: Evidence from the French-speaking World – Rainier Grutman, University of Ottawa
Understanding diglossia
Writing diglossia
Reading diglossia
Textual evidence
Colonial creole
Maghrebi mix
Another form of hybridity
Code-Mixing in Biliterate and Multiliterate Irish Literary Texts – Tina Bennett-Kastor, Wichita State University
Structural categories of mixing and switching
Functional categories of mixing and switching
Multilingualism and multiliteracy in Ireland
Code-switching in theory and practice
Code-switching in spoken Irish
The texts
“Preserving every thing Irish”? The Hiberno-English Dialect of Kevin McCafferty, University of Bergen
An oral writer?
Carleton’s peasant Hiberno-English
National writer, national dialect?
General English forms
Northern Hiberno-English forms
General Hiberno-English forms
Southern Hiberno-English forms
A levelled (Southern) dialect
Irish, not Scots
Representing Voice in Chicano Theater Through the Use of Orthography: An Analysis of Three Plays by Cherríe Moraga – Carla Jonsson, University of Stockholm

Code-switch – Lukas Bleichenbacher, University of Zurich
Code-switching: fiction and reality
Data and method
Situational code-switching
Metaphorical or marked code-switching
Indexical code-switching
Edited code-switching
Results and conclusions
Imitating the Conversational Mode in Audiovisual Fiction: Performance Phenomena and Non-clausal Units – Roberto Antonio Valdeón Garcia, University of Oviedo
Performance phenomena
Non-clausal units: inserts
We can see from the table of contents that this is a book which should be extremely useful to a multilingual literary critic.  Unfortunately for me, I can't afford it, since it sells for US$ 109.95.  Starving critics are poorer than starving writers!

18 December 2010

Luis Alberto Urrea

Readers know by instinct that the use of several languages in a literary work must have something to do with the meaning of the work.  Here, for example, is a Book Club guide question to the novel Into the Beautiful North (2009), by Luis Alberto Urrea:

"Language and dialect play an integral role in the novel’s style. Spanish words and phonetic spellings are laced throughout, and Spanglish and slang are used on both sides of the border. What does Urrea achieve by mixing language in this way? What does it say about the ability of language to bridge—or not to bridge—cultural gaps?"

One can imagine ordinary booklovers (not professional literary critics nor even students in a literature class) asking themselves why a text would have more than one language, why utterances in other languages should not be translated into the main language (the way many novels do), why monolingual readers are being asked to read words that they cannot understand.  Such first-level questions (we can no longer call them "naive" because of political correctness) should hopefully lead to deeper questions about the nature of literature itself, about why literary texts need (or do not need) to mirror reality, which at this time in humanity's history is multilingual.

15 December 2010

Amazing Amazing Grace

That it is important to sing  (equivalent to reciting or writing or reading poetry) in many languages is recognized by people outside multilingual literary circles.  Of course, a motivation was the setting of a world record, but interviews after the event had the singers saying that the world record was only secondary to being able to pray in many languages.  Here's an account of the event:

Our Amazing Guinness World Record Attempt!

 Manila, Philippines
Amazing Grace at EN2010
On Friday, July 23, Every Nation Ministries made an official attempt to set the Guinness World Record for “The Most Languages Performed in a Song (Multiple Singers)” by performing “Amazing Grace” in 50 different languages.

Background on the attempt:
The Guinness World Record attempt was performed during EN2010, the world conference of Every Nation Ministries. Every Nation has churches and ministries in 61 nations and has a vision to plant a church in “every nation” of the world. Thus, singing “Amazing Grace” in 50 different languages was chosen for the Guinness World Record. In the Philippines, Every Nation is represented by Victory Church which has 14 congregations in Metro Manila and 42 provincial churches outside Metro Manila.

This world conference is only held once every three years – the previous conference, EN07, was held in Araneta Coliseum with more than 14,000 participants from 41 different nations. This time, EN2010 was held at the SMX Convention Center with 19,173 participants from 45 different nations.

10 December 2010

João Guimarães Rosa

Here is an example of why everything gets lost in the translation of a multilingual novel (considered the best Brazilian novel):

"Born June 3, 1908 in Cordisburgo state of Minas Gerais, Rosa, the greatest Brazilian author since Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis (1839-1908), came from a wealthy patrician family. He earned a medical degree and worked as a doctor and a diplomat before publishing in 1946 his first book, Sagarana, a collection of short stories. Grande Sertão: Veredas (Big Backlands: Pathways, The Devil to Pay in the Backlands in the American translation) was published in 1956.

"Rosa was responsible for inventing a new language mixing regional slang to Indian dialects and modern and archaic Portuguese and foreign languages. Grande Sertão: Veredas is the pinnacle of this accomplishment. The novel's story is an endless monologue told in the first person by Riobaldo, an ex-bandit, who with unfinished sentences and invented words recalls what happened to him and sexually-ambiguous character Diadorim in the backlands, starting at the end of the nineteenth century.

"He died at his home in Copacabana, Rio de Janeiro, on November 19, 1967, of a heart attack just three days after being formally received at the Academia Brasileira de Letras. The author, who had a nearly fatal heart attack in 1962 was chosen in 1963 to become an 'immortal,' but refused to join the other 39 members of the Academy of Letter fearing 'the emotion of the moment.'

"A sample from Grande Sertão: Veredas extracted from the episode known as the 'Slaughter of the Ponies,' which was eliminated from the US translation:
"I can't remember how many days and nights it was. I'd say six, but I may be telling a lie. And if I hit on five or four, I may be telling a whopper. I only know it was a long time. It dragged on for years, sometimes I think. And at other times, when I consider the problem, in a different light, I think it just flitted by, in the whiz of a minute that seems unreal to me now, like a squabble between two hummingbirds.... We were trapped inside that house, which had become an easy target. Do you know how it feels to be trapped like that and have no way out?... I can tell you—and say this to you so you'll truly believe it—that old house protected us grudgingly: creaking with complaint, its dark old rooms fumed. As for me. I got to thinking that they were going to level the whole works, all four corners of the whole damn property. But they didn't. They didn't, as you are soon to see. Because what's going to happen is this: you're going to hear de whole story told."

We have no idea, from the English translation, how the languages worked to help each other out and make the text more complex.

06 December 2010


Another novel that mixes languages is Divortiare by Ika Natassa.

Here is a description:  "Divortiare  is a novel which includes dialogues containing English. The characters in this novel often mix bahasa Indonesia with English or even switch from bahasa Indonesia  into English.  Sometimes they also use ethnic languages such as Javanese or Bataknese."

Here is an excerpt:

Denny memelukku. Not this passionate-I-just-want-to-feel-you-up hug, but a warm, close, hug.
Tenggorokanku tercekat, dan aku cuma bisa berkata pelan, “You don’t want to be with me, Den. I’m ruined.
Ada rasa lega yang menjalar di sekujur tubuhku saat mendengar jawabannya.
Let me fix it.
Aku mengangkat kepalaku dari pundaknya, dan ia tersenyum menatapku.
I can fix it. And I will. If you just let me.
But it’s gonna take a while, Den. It’s gonna take a long while.
Then we have all the time in the world to make you fall in love with me, right ?

03 December 2010

Novel a-borning

On 17 October 2009, Rosine Caplot wrote in her blog:

"I have no clue what I will write about. It will probably be a crime novel, with a very wicked murderer and a very smart detective. Or just a few of the fantasies I have in my head. Except for the sexual ones maybe. Or should I add them too?
"I also haven’t decided which language I’m going to write in. Víkþórr and I had the idea of writing a multilingual novel together, mixing all kinds of languages. For example,
And when Óláfr saw what 田中さん had done, he said: «Þú skalt deyja, því at þú hefir stolit vínbér frá mér!». 田中さん answered: 「すごいはオーラフル。」.
"I think that’s a very cool idea, even though nobody else would understand it of course. However, my intuition is telling me to write alone this time. I haven’t made up my mind about the language yet.
"This language mixing thing certainly is interesting!"
Yes, indeed, mixing languages in one literary text is very interesting, not just for readers but for writers.  I wonder if she and her friend ever started or finished the novel?