20 February 2011

Literary critics vs. linguists

The debate between linguists and literary critics about code-switching (or as we prefer to term it, multilingual literature) might be traceable to Jacques Derrida's famous insight that writing precedes speech.  Linguists look primarily at spoken language, while literary critics look primarily at written language.  But if Derrida is right that writing precedes speech, then literary critics see a much bigger and more accurate picture of multilingual literature than linguists do.

Here is an account by linguist John Lipski, for example, of Ilan Stavans:

“A very different perspective comes from the self-declared admirer and promoter of Spanglish Ilan Stavans, an expatriate Mexican writer now teaching in Massachusetts, whose prolific popular writings on Spanglish and purported specimens of this ‘language’ have made him a lightning rod for polemic as well as a widely-cited source among international scholars unfamiliar with the reality of Spanish-English bilingualism in the United States.  Rather than applying Spanglish to an already existent discourse mode or sociolinguistic register (as done, for example, by Ed Morales or by the New York Puerto Ricans cited by Zentella 1997), Stavans invents his own mixture of Spanish and English, loosely modeled after true intrasentential code-switching typical of U.S. Latino communities. … Stavans appears to regard all code-switching as a deliberate act of creativity, whereas most linguists who have studied code-switching – in a wide variety of language-contact environments throughout the world – analyze spontaneous code-switching in spoken langauge as a loosely monitored speech mode circumscribed by basic syntactic restrictions but largely below the level of conscious awareness.   Only in written language, particularly in creative literature, is deliberate manipulation of code-switching to achieve specific aesthetic goals a viable option.”  (Spanish and Empire, 2007)

If writing does precede speech, then even oral or non-literary code-switching is deliberate, just as Lipski concedes that creative writing is.

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