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.

15 February 2011

One-way influence?

The standard way of looking at the interaction between English and another language is to say that English has influenced or even dominated the other language.  For example, here is what the leading Englishes advocate, Braj B. Kachru, says in Asian Englishes:  Beyond the Canon (2005), about English and Indian languages:  “There is general agreement that English has functioned as the main agent for releasing the South Asian languages from the rigorous constraints of the classical literary traditions.  With the influence of English literature came new experimentation, and resultant controversies.  The issues were seen in new theoretical and methodological frameworks.”

On the other hand, it is time to investigate what happens to English as a literary language when writers with a different mother tongue write in it.  I don't mean merely talking about how the language is different in literary texts written by second-language writers, because that has been studied quite well and even felt instinctively by readers.  I mean looking at English itself as a language.  There have been several studies of the number of non-English words that have entered English (I am talking of modern times, not the origins of English), but what about English structure?  Has the grammar of English changed because of the influence of Englishes or different varieties of English?  Has the English of monolingual American writers become different because of all the works written by immigrant or multilingual Americans?

I once gave a lecture on the influence of Philippine literature on American literature, and frankly, I was laughed out of the lecture hall.  Yet Herman Melville apparently passed by the Philippines on one of his whaling trips; given his sensitivity to languages and nature, he could not have possibly not been influenced by the Philippine writing then available to him.  Is it possible that the "strange" way he structured Moby Dick (usually attributed to his having dropped the project, read Shakespeare, and resumed the project without revising earlier work) been due to his experience reading the works of other countries (not necessarily the Philippines)?  Would it not shake the ego of Anglo-American writers to realize that they are as beholden to speakers of other languages as these others are beholden to them?

12 February 2011

Long tradition of mixing languages

“Language mixing in literary texts has been commented upon by literary scholars and medievalists for a long time,” writes D. A. Trotter in Multilingualism in Later Medieval Britain (2000), citing examples from Latin-French-English macaronic poems, Piers Plowman, English-Latin-French-Hebrew medieval drama, and Mary Play.  He concludes his brief survey with this:  “Even this rather sketchy survey of mixed-language texts from almost five centuries should have illustrated that switching is evidently a common phenomenon in the history of written English texts and occurs in a variety of domains, text types and/or genres.”  Note the word "common."  The large number of predominantly English literary texts today that incorporate words and sentences from various languages shows that the classical tradition of mixing languages within one text is continuing and, in fact, getting stronger.

09 February 2011

Chinua Achebe on English

Here's a familiar quote from Chinua Achebe's “English and the African Writer” (1965):

"My answer to the question, Can an African ever learn English well enough to be able to use it effectively in creative writing? is certainly yes.  If on the other hand you ask: Can he ever learn to use it like a native speaker?  I should say, I hope not.  It is neither necessary nor desirable for him to be able to do so.  The price a world language must be prepared to pay is submission to many different kinds of use.  The African writer should aim to use English in a way that brings out his message best without altering the language to the extent that its value as a medium of international exchange will be lost.  He should aim at fashioning out an English which is at once universal and able to carry his peculiar experience."

Literary critics in postcolonial countries tend to focus on one or both of two aspects of English:  how a writer's English differs but should not differ from so-called "Standard English" (whatever that is) and/or how a writer's mother tongue influences (more often, distorts) his or her English.  The kind of literary theory I am pushing for should remove the center of power from English (decenter or unprivilege it, as critics love to say) and to talk instead of the literary language that is created out of the merger of two languages - the mother tongue and the second language.  The English of a literary text is not the English that the linguists are talking about (the "authentic language," as they love to say).  Rather, it is a language that is intelligible only to readers and critics (and, of course, writers) of literature.

05 February 2011

Ana Castillo

In the hands of a poet, what is merely code-switching for linguists becomes a singular poetic code.  Here is a discussion of the way Ana Castillo lifts Spanglish from a "mixed" language to a "pure" poetic one:

"Of Castillo's poetry collection I Ask the Impossible, John Stoehr observed in CityBeat online that the author 'breaks the mono-linguistic rule by writing a Chicana-brand of poetry in both Spanish and English, effortlessly intermingling the Latinate and Germanic languages, often breeding them into an intriguing hybrid. But it's not Spanglish --it's something more lyrical and thus more poetic.' Geeta Sharma Jensen, in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, dubbed it 'a work that celebrates a woman's strength and reminds people of social justice.' Noting that Castillo 'wrote these poems between 1989 and 2000,' Jensen quoted the book's introduction: 'They are meditations, odes, stiletto stammers. . . . They are the musings of a big-city gal and the prayers of a solitary woman who can feel equally at home in the desert or rancho.' Stoehr characterized the verses as 'irreverent, witty, passionate and intensely political,' and added that 'much of I Ask the Impossible is like hearing the voice of Carl Sandburg if he'd had a Mexican accent. Though Castillo would chafe at the comparison, she can hardly deny the similarities, especially in her homage to her hometown, "Chi-Town Born and Bred, Twentieth-Century Girl Propelled with Flare into the Third Millen-nium."' He continued: 'Beyond the Sandburgian free flow, Castillo brings to the fore her own unique voice, rife with the pain of ethnic life in the United States, the joys of a rich and diverse Mexican-American past and the struggles of her Chicana present. . . . [She is a] writer . . . who's likely to continue to fight the good fight and to break the rules for years to come.'"

02 February 2011

Mixtilingual poetry

The alternative term for multilingual poetry - mixtilingual poetry - comes from an old article, "From Bilingual to Mixtilingual Speech:  'Code-Switching' Revisited" (1988), by Renzo Titone.  Here's the abstract:

"Offers several justifications for the claim that code-switching is a positive, not a negative, phenomenon. Included are three examples of 'mixtilingual' poetry: poetry 'mixing languages' in order to evoke different feelings and images within a certain cultural context. The poems mix English and Spanish, English and Italian, and Italian and Spanish, respectively."


While the term mixtilingual makes explicit the presence of two or more languages in a single text, it hides a second and more sophisticated layer of language-based meaning-making in a text, that of a mother tongue beneath the surface of a second-language literary text.  A text need not be obviously mixed to be mixed; what appears to be a monolingual text, if written by someone with a different mother tongue, is necessarily also mixed and should be read as a "mixtilingual" text.  To make the lives of critics even more difficult, there is a third layer, which is the apparently monolingual text written in the mother tongue; in this case, Bakhtin's dialogics should bring out the other languages (idiolect, subtext, other voices, personal language, whatever) that are present in such a text.