25 March 2011

Sick leave

I'm currently battling a particularly bad strain of pneumonia and will be back blogging as soon as I regain my strength.

13 March 2011

Gay language

Should gay language be considered a different language?  The difference between English as used by homosexuals and English as used by heterosexuals is not obvious, but for other languages, the difference is enormous.  For example, in the Philippines, gay language (known as swardspeak) has a totally different vocabulary (not used by heterosexuals) and sometimes even a different grammar.  A poem mixing straight Tagalog and gay Tagalog can be treated the usual way we read multilingual poems.  In English, however, the difference can be pretty subtle.  Here is an excellent account of a gay poem mixing gay and straight vocabularies.  Since the gay words also have meanings in straight language, it is easy to miss the interplay of registers:

“Slang words may be deliberately adopted – with all their power to disturb – in order to insist on the difference between gay and straight love poetry.  Here, their function is that of a consciously liberating discourse.

“Poems that take this line often overtly mix register, as we can see in the following example:

I love your eyes;
in my dreams
my breath is on your pants
fluctuating seashell
my hand is on the zipper
starfish opening a shell
my hand petting your jock
blue sun warming a salty ocean (R. Daniel Evans, ‘I Praise’)

“This extract describes a rapid and – in a naturalised reading – bathetic shift from eyes to groin as the addresser prepares to suck the addressee.  Although it adopts a register familiar to love poetry, with its use of expressions like ‘I love your eyes’ and ‘dreams’ and the construction of an almost mawkisly romantic scenario with such trappings as ‘seashell,’ ‘starfish’ and ‘sun,’ the juxtaposition in lines 2-3 of two grammatically parallel phrases ‘in my dreams’/’on your pants/ neatly undercuts the potentially hackneyed romanticism of the opening couplet.  The same technique is used in the next two lines, where ‘my hand’ is implicitly compared and contrasted to ‘starfish’ and ‘the zipper’ to ‘a shell.’  The final couplet resorts once more to the use of structural equivalence:  the semantically connected verbs ‘petting’ and ‘warming’ oblige a reading in which ‘my hand’ and ‘blue sun,’ and ‘your jock’ and a ‘salty ocean’ are related both grammatically and metaphorically, exploiting the sexual implications of the second phrase to the full.”  (Charles Lambert)

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.”

06 March 2011

Arabic script

The problems of monolingual readers of multilingual European texts are nothing compared to the problems of monolingual (or monodialectal) readers of texts in Arabic script.  Because there is apparently no standard way of writing the different dialects (we should really call them languages, in the same way that we call various Chinese "dialects" as languages), it is extremely difficult for a reader to decipher texts written in non-universal Arabic.  Here is an account of that difficulty:

“A text written in dialect is fully intelligible only to those Arab readers who are its native speakers or are familiar with it through other direct experience.  This is especially true of the less central dialects, but it is applicable even to such a central dialect as that of Cairo or Beirut.  Although these central dialects are, grosso modo, comprehensible to many Arabs throughout the Near East and North Africa through film, popular songs and the like, their nuances are, more often than not, lost on those from different regions.  A novelist who writes dialogue in AM (i.e., his own dialect) is therefore likely to attract a much smaller reading public in neighbouring Arab countries than his colleague writing in FU.  He also risks becoming a ‘local’ writer rather than  one who addresses the reading public of the entire Arab world.

“Dialects in the Arab world never developed writing systems of their own, and AM is normally reduced to the uncongenial orthography of FU.  Thus the reader, especially one who is not a native speaker of the dialect in question, faces many difficulties in deciphering them.  Moreover, as there is no stable tradition of committing the dialects to writing, texts that employ AM are very often inconsistent in the use of Arabic characters for this purpose.

“Since the narrative sections of an Arabic novel or short story are customarily written in FU, the use of AM in the dialogue produces a text consisting of two different linguistic types.  Admittedly, the use of dialectal dialogue is a common practice among European and other novelists, who are not loathe to mix dialectal repliques with narrative sections whose language is usually more akin to the standard variety.  But it would seem that the lingual gap between the written and the spoken varieties of Arabic is much greater than what we find in most European languages.”  (Genre and Language in Modern Arabic Literature, by Sasson Somekh, 1991)

03 March 2011

Not easy to translate

“A book that is easy to translate is, after all, useless,” says Ludvík Vaculík.  Extremely difficult to translate is a book that mixes languages, because the translation will mask a major feature of the writing (everything will be in the target language, making it appear that the original was all in the same language).  Some translators resort to footnoting (e.g., “in French in the original”) but that impedes the reading.

Here is Eva Eckert's 1993 account of Vaculík:

“The articles by Brodská and Hrabik-Samal, stylistic literary analyses of two well-known Cz authors, Bohumil Hrabal and Ludvík Vaculík, further exemplify the relationship of the spoken code and the standard language.  Both authors are considered difficult to translate; Brodská and Hrabik-Samal address themselves to the causes of this difficulty.  Hrabal’s language is characterized by endless baroque periodic sentences.  Vaculík’s, on the other hand, is elliptic; it contains typically Cz metaphors and also various forms of the northeast Moravian Valachian dialect.  CCz is always used to a specific purpose in Vaculík’s prose.  The author intentionally elaborates his own language variety, Brodská suggests, to a point where it becomes untranslatable, by using neologisms, playing with words, and altering established grammatical constructions.  In Vaculík’s words, ‘a book that is easy to translate is, after all, useless.’”

01 March 2011

European tradition of mixing languages

Mixing languages, of course, is not new.  In fact, it is very old.  Here is a passage from Transforming the Center, Eroding the Margins:  Essays on Ethnic and Cultural Boundaries in German-Speaking Countries (1998), by Dagmar C. G. Lorez and Renate Posthofen (p. 258):

“Genthe describes the long European tradition of mixing languages within literary texts.  While making verses, he tells, some Roman poets already made no difference between Greek and Latin, thereby witnessing the incorporation of Greek culture into Roman culture.  Finally, since the eve of the Middle Ages and throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, several writers – including Molière in his Le Malade Imaginaire (1673, translated as The Hypochondriack, 1732) – elaborately assimilated their native language to the scholars’ Latin idiom.  This species of poetry is called macaronic because it was inaugurated by Tifi degli Odasi’s Maccharonea in 1490.”

I find it interesting that the mixing of languages is thought to be also a mixing of cultures.  This is a rather big jump from language to culture, but since each language theoretically embodies a particular culture, it is an avenue worth pursuing.  Perhaps the labeling of English as an "international language" would then be problematized, because the language (in theory anyway, even if it has not yet been shown in practice) carries the culture of Britain (and today, of the United States).  The Australian attempt to make English english, or the Indian attempt to make English Englishes, may be masking the hegemonic or imperial nature of the English language.  Perhaps (a thought at this point, without any theoretical basis yet) the widespread use of the English language is threatening not just other languages but entire cultures.