09 March 2011

Oral language as another language

Seeing foreign words in a predominantly monolingual work is a clear sign that language-mixing or language-appropriation is taking place.  Much more difficult to detect (unless one is a native speaker of various languages or at least of the predominant language) is the interaction between the spoken register and the written register.  All languages make such a distinction.  (One thinks, in English, of fragments or run-on sentences, which speakers speak routinely but writers try very hard - except with reason - to avoid.  Or in many languages, the general convention that words used in real speech to refer to the sexual organs are not found routinely in most literary texts, particularly older ones.)  Here is an attempt to deal with the issue of two varieties or registers of the same language (one spoken, one oral) in the same literary text:

“What are the oral ‘traces’ when the written text is in another language?  The authors of the articles in the second section [of volume 2 of the book Interfaces Between the Oral and the Written, edited by Alain Ricard and Flora Veit-Wild, 2005], ‘New Literary Languages,’ tackle this intriguing question.  This section focuses on creation in African languages, where the translation from oral to written text is accomplished in the same language.  Using Daniel Kunene’s groundbreaking work as a reference-point, Alain Ricard analyzes the first Sotho novel and endeavours to establish its paradigmatic nature as  a text.  Thomas Mofolo knew Sotho tradition and invented a new language to express new realities, particularly the African appropriation of Christianity.  The Swahili writer Shaaban Robert is equally revealed, in Xavier Garnier’s article, as an innovator.  A civil servant, Muslim, and nationalist, he wrote prolifically in the traditional verse-forms, but he invented Swahili prose.  A different form of new prose was created by the Kenyan David Maillu, who, in his desire to pattern a novel on a new urban life-style, decided to mix languages and to mimic the speech of the young urbanized Kenyans.  Analyzing this type of code-switching in one of Maillu’s novels, Thomas Geider details the processes by which the creation of a truly original piece of writing is accomplished.”

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