English as today’s French?5 March 2009 at 5:36 AM | Posted in News | 3 Comments
From the pro-English website antimoon.com comes this 14 February 2009 post by one of its followers:
“Do you believe that bilingual novels are coming back into fashion? I have seen quite a few foreign books with passages, often quite long, left in the original English, usually with a footnote translation but sometimes without. Are writers beginning to assume everyone knows English? I wonder if it will get to such an extreme point as, for example, War and Peace in which huge chunks of dialogue were written in French.”
I think that the world is becoming at least bilingual. Even in the United States, Spanish is getting to make inroads in the monolingualism of most Americans. Outside the Commonwealth and the USA, English has become de facto a second or a third language. There is nothing wrong with that, since monolinguals, everything else being equal, surely know much less about the world than bilinguals or multilinguals (from the weak interpretation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis).
What should be examined, however, is how the use of a second language by a literary writer adds to or subtracts from the literariness of a work.
This is a question from my ignorance of scholarship on Russian literature: has anyone figured out if War and Peace (1869) would have achieved the same effect on Russian readers had the French passages been in Russian? I am told that, from the critical point of view, the French language is used as a metaphor for the decadence of Russian aristocracy. (See Orlando Figes’ 2007 review in The New York Review of Books and the subsequent discussions on the Web, such as the one in the New York Times.)
Has any writer whose mother tongue is not English used English in the same way that Leo Tolstoy apparently used French, to condemn a country’s elite as betraying their country by speaking a foreign language?