Literary language not usually mother tongue

30 June 2009 at 5:32 AM | Posted in News | 3 Comments

Thank you to the reader that pointed me to the Google Books site of the book Mother Tongues and Other Reflections on the Italian Language (2002) by Giulio C. Lepschy. The entire section on the relationship of literary language to mother tongue is on the site (thank you, Google Books!). Here is part of what Lepschy says:

“A diglossic situation, however, in which the mother tongue and the literary medium are quite distinct (either because they are different varieties of the same language or because they are different languages), seems to be prevalent in recorded history throughout the world; and the modern European situation, in which a nation-state tends to favour the use of the same idiom for literary expression and for everyday communication among the whole population, appears to be the exception rather than the norm.” (page 25)

This is a research finding that I did not know about, but it clearly shows the need for the kind of multilingual literary criticism that I am pushing. What many think to be the exception (mixed-language texts, texts not in the mother tongue) turns out to be the mainstream literary tradition!


Literary language vs mother tongue?

29 June 2009 at 5:06 AM | Posted in News | 6 Comments

This is the abstract of an article entitled “Mother Tongues and Literary Languages” (Modern Language Review, 2001), by Giulio Lepschy:

“This lecture examines the notion of ‘native speaker’ and ‘mother tongue’: the former acquired popularity in the early twentieth century, the latter is based on a Medieval Latin expression (lingua materna) which particularly in its German shape (Muttersprache) became central for European national movements in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The implications of these notions are discussed with reference to Renaissance Latin, the revival of Hebrew, and modern Italian (particularly its twentieth-century development into a spoken language, distinct both from the dialects and from the traditional written language). Finally, the intriguing question is considered whether poets can more appropriately be said to express themselves in a native or a literary language.”

Not being a subscriber to Modern Language Review (I would have to pay to read the article), I don’t know how Lepschy answers the “intriguing question,” but it is clear that the question is indeed intriguing.

William Wordsworth was not the first, but he was certainly the most influential poet to highlight the question by insisting that poets should write in “language really used by men.” (Like poets of his time, Wordsworth did not realize that he had excluded women from the human race.) Of course, Wordsworth hedged by asking for “a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual aspect,” thus typically introducing vagueness into what would have been a categorical yes-or-no answer. If the language of poetry were a literary rather than a natural language, it would not be subject to the laws of natural language. That, indeed, would be intriguing.

Conference in November 2009

28 June 2009 at 5:24 AM | Posted in News | Leave a comment


November 06 – 07, 2009
University of Hamburg
— Warburg Haus —
Heilwigstraße 116
D-20249 Hamburg

“Discourse production in multilingual contexts represents a specific type of language contact situation. Translation may be seen as the prototypical type of multilingual discourse production, other types would include parallel text production in different languages (e.g. for web sites) or the production of versions more loosely connected with the source text.

“When divergent communicative norms and conventions come into contact in any of these types of text production, one may find that such conventions transcend established language boundaries, potentially leading to the emergence of new genres. A case in point may be the so-called Corporate Philosophies in German, which owe much of their existence to the impact of English role models. These texts seem to represent hybrids in that they partly follow German communicative preferences and partly a communicative style more typical of English texts (cf. Böttger & Bührig 2003). If one looks back at the history of the European languages, it becomes clear that to some extent all of them have taken over textual conventions and/or structures from Latin, which may be related to the numerous translations from Latin into the vernaculars, generally representing a major part of early text production. For example, Koller (1998) has argued that Latin-German translations have substantially shaped the development of written German, in particular the literary language. Looking at English one finds, for instance, that the possible contexts of accusative-cum-infinitive constructions spread as a result of contact with Latin (cf. Fischer 1992, 1994). Another example can be seen in innovations in late-medieval Swedish, such as the use of new subordinating structures (cf. Höder 2008).

“Consequences of contact are manifold and may vary according to socio-historical circumstances as well as in relation to the functional and structural peculiarities of the linguistic systems involved. Factors which may determine the linguistic outcome of contact through translation could be:

* the quantitative basis (i.e. how many texts are translated from language A into language B and the ratio between translated and non-translated texts in language B)
* the prestige of the source vs. the target language (cf. Toury 1995, Baker 1996)
* the degree of standardization of the target language
* the degree of establishment of the genre in the target culture
* the possibility of establishing clear form-function equivalences (which in turn is related to the genetic proximity of the two languages) (cf. Becher, House & Kranich forthc.)

“In the workshop we wish to study in how far these and possibly other factors influence the result of language contact through translation and similar discourse production types. The central question is thus: Under which conditions does translatory activity have a (lasting) impact on the languages involved? This question may be approached from different angles.”

The deadline for paper proposals has passed, but you might want to attend the conference.

"National" literary language

27 June 2009 at 5:33 AM | Posted in News | 3 Comments

For many countries today, there is or should be no such thing as a “national language” as far as literature is concerned. Take Austria. Here is a description of what is happening there today:

“When we talk about Austria we are talking about 12 languages at least. This is, of course, less than the number of languages in Cameroon or India, but it was more than one language. It was not possible to establish German as the sole language of the Habsburg Monarchy. For every ‘ethnic’ group it was important to have their own language for university use. Within the Habsburg Monarchy some of these languages were indeed created for that purpose (like Ukrainian at the University of Czerniwzi/Czernowitz). During this time a lot of the writers or poets wrote in different languages like Franz Grillparzer or Karl Emil Franzos. And in this sense the literature of the Habsburg Monarchy was a multinational literature. In the present, too, Austrian literature is not only writing in German, as some of the German nationalists want us to believe. It is written not only in German but also in Slovenian, Croatian or Turkish, and when we think of the writers in exile, they use English, French or Spanish (just to mention a few languages).” [Herbert Arlt, “Multilingual Austrian Literature” (2002)]

Monolingual literary criticism, or criticism that ignores the mother tongue of a writer writing in a second or foreign language, perpetuates the oppressive notion of a “national literary language.”

Ezra Pound’s Canto XLIX

26 June 2009 at 5:44 AM | Posted in News | Leave a comment

Although Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot are universally acclaimed as two of the world’s greatest poets, their mixing of languages does not seem to have started a trend in poetry-writing. Pound trusted that his readers would appreciate at least the sounds of the foreign words, if not their meanings.

Take these two stanzas from “Canto XLIX: For the Seven Lakes“:

State by creating riches shd. thereby get into debt?
This is infamy; this is Geryon.
This canal goes still to TenShi
Though the old king built it for pleasure


Blogger Ben Kilpela, writing about Pound in general, observes:

“Actually, it has become a common expectation that the poet be obscure. This is a leading reason, I think, poetry has receded so far as an influential form of literature in our time. People just don’t have time to figure out what purpose modern poems have, and if and when they do figure one out, it seldom adds up to much beyond a vague, disordered expression of the poet’s state of mind.”

This particular poem is “obscure” only if the reader does not know Japanese (I don’t, so it is indeed “obscure” for me). A bilingual (Japanese & English) reader would most likely find the poem to be clear. This is one reason we need multilingual literary critics. We want to be able to understand every line of this poem (widely considered one of Pound’s best), not just to enjoy the sounds of the words or letters. Multilingual literary critics can do poets a great favor, by making poetry again accessible (as it was in the old days) to everyone.


25 June 2009 at 4:46 AM | Posted in News | 7 Comments

Let me give an example of how multilingual literary criticism can illuminate aspects of a second-language poem. Here is a stanza from a canonical Philippine poem in English, “Gabu” by Carlos A. Angeles:

The waste of centuries is grey and dead

And neutral where the sea has beached its brine,

Where the split salt of its heart lies spread

Among the dark habiliments of Time.

Notice the meter. Except for the third line, it is strictly iambic pentameter. Why is the third line not in iambic pentameter?

In the formalist way of looking at poems, we would say one of two things. First, the poet was incompetent. Second, the poet wanted to emphasize the third line and therefore deliberately did not make it follow the metrical scheme.

Angeles has proven his competence as a poet in poem after poem, including this one, so the first conclusion is unacceptable. The second conclusion might be defensible, because the stanza might be talking about the heart of salt; the other three lines could be merely establishing the setting or condition for the insight. The second conclusion, however, would not sufficiently explain why Angeles did not just break the meter in the foot (or group of syllables, for those not familiar with literary critical jargon) “split salt.” On the contrary, the entire line is not iambic (one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable), though it still has five feet (which is the definition of pentameter).

Multilingual literary criticism offers a third possibility. Angeles was from Leyte, an island in Central Philippines, where the language is Samar-Leyte or Waray. The vowels and accents of Waray are quite different from those of English. For one thing, there is a lot more natural rhythm or singsong in the language. “Split salt” has, for the native English speaker, two stresses, but it does not necessarily have that stress pattern for the native Waray speaker. The line, in other words, may be read as iambic.

The lack of a syllable in the last foot may also be explained by multilingual literary criticism. Filipinos tend to pronounce monosyllabic words starting with S as two-syllabled; “spread” has two syllables for Filipinos though it has only one for Americans. What appears as an error may now appear to be an interaction of mother tongue and second language, not an attempt at emphasis nor inability to count.

In fact, on the conceptual level, the emphasis of the stanza is really the darkness or deadness of the sea, which forms the central paradox of the whole poem, not its saltiness.

Studies of mixed-language literature

24 June 2009 at 5:15 AM | Posted in News | 3 Comments

I am not the first to advocate the study of mixed-language literature, but as far as I know, I am the first to suggest that texts written in languages other than the writer’s mother tongue should be read as mixed-language texts.

Here is an account of the criticism so far of mixed-language literature:

“Though there was some interest in ‘macaronic poetry’ before the 20th century, serious research only began with Wehrle’s study on medieval macaronic hymns and lyrics (1933). Wehrle establishes a typology of macaronic poetry from the 13th to the 15th centuries and classifies patterns of Latin insertions from a formal literary perspective, viewing them as a ‘genre of versification’ (1933: vii). The second half of the 20th century saw quite a number of literary studies on the aesthetic and poetic functions of language-mixing in macaronic poems, such as Zumthor (1960, 1963) in a European perspective, Harvey (1978) for Anglo-Norman lyrics, or Archibald (1992) for the poems of Dunbar and Skelton. These more recent studies emphasise the often highly artistic stylistic functions of poetic language-mixing.” (p. 57 of “Mixed-language texts as data and evidence in English historical linguistics,” by Herbert Schendl, in Studies in the History of the English Language, edited by Donka Minkova and Robert P. Stockwell, 2002).

Multilingual literary critics can use the findings of such studies to illuminate aspects of non-mother-tongue texts.

Empirical study of second language reading

23 June 2009 at 5:14 AM | Posted in News | 3 Comments

When poets write in a second language, the sounds that the words make in their minds are different from the sounds they make when read or written by a mother-tongue poet. There is experimental proof of this, such as revealed in the article “Comparisons of native and foreign language poetry readings: Fluency, expressiveness, and their evaluation” (2004) in Psychological Research: “American college and German Gymnasium students read an English and German poem in their respective native (L1) and foreign (L2) languages. In L2, articulation rate (syl/s) was slower and phrase length (syl/pause) shorter than in L1. Only the German women read expressively: Mean pause duration was higher than all other groups in L1 and lower in L2. Evaluations of fluency and expressiveness by American teachers of German and German teachers of English paralleled these results.”

Since poetry is made up of the sounds of words (what literary critics call “signifiers”), then the difference in sounds is crucial. This is one reason that critics have to start paying attention to the mother tongue of the second-language poet. The case of Cirilo F. Bautista rhyming men with mien is just one of numerous examples of second-language poets attributing a sound to a word different from that usually attributed by a mother-tongue poet.

Second-language readers

22 June 2009 at 4:26 AM | Posted in News | Leave a comment

It is one thing for a first-language reader to read a work done in that language by a writer with a different mother tongue. It is quite another thing for a reader to read a work written in other than her or his mother tongue. The second situation is much more familiar to teachers of literature. It is not unusual at all for a teacher to encounter students that cannot get the connotations or context of the words in a foreign-language poem.

Linguists have looked at the second situation. For example, DI Hanauer of Israel summarizes his “The task of poetry reading and second language learning” (2001) this way: “The aim of the current study was to evaluate the role of the poetry-reading task for second language learning. The study followed Skehan’s (1998) methodological approach to task choice and theoretical position on the importance of focus-on-form for language learning. The paper first describes the way poetry is read and understood by advanced second language learners and then considers the interaction between this description and the language learning process. The research methodology chosen was qualitative and consisted of an in-depth analysis of the protocols of ten dyads of advanced English language learners reading a poem from a popular song. The most basic contribution of this study is the development of a coding system that describes the types of responses elicited during poetry reading. Poetry reading is described as a close reading, meaning construction task that involves high levels of close consideration, analysis and elaboration of textual meanings. This coding system reveals how non-native readers of poetry notice form and consider the gap between input and output, thus extending their understanding of the potential uses and meanings of an existing linguistic structure. In addition, it shows how non-native readers view the distance between the poem’s content and their own knowledge of the target culture and thus find their cultural awareness enhanced.”

As far as I know, there is not much linguistic work done on the first situation. There is, moreover, a third situation: a reader reading a work not in her or his first language written by someone also not in the latter’s mother tongue. This is a very complex situation that linguists should start studying.

Not just code-switching

21 June 2009 at 7:59 AM | Posted in News | Leave a comment

A large number of linguists are interested in code-switching or any other kind of mixing of languages. Their studies illuminate many aspects of language use. For example, studies of Finglish (Finnish + English) have shown that speakers do not just shift languages out of lack of competence in one or the other language, but because the idioms are different. Idioms are based on ways of thinking about reality, so it is the way of thinking that is different.

Here, for example, is how Anne Putkuri describes the experience of mixing languages: “If you can’t find a Finnish word, you quickly replace it with an English one. The word may be English, but you use the inflection rules of Finnish. I do word-for-word translations myself, too; I do the dishes, and I don’t seem to be able to learn that in Finnish one washes the dishes.”

Writers are even more precise in their choice of languages to mix or to use in a second-language or mixed-language text. The difference between do and wash is major for a poet (they do not rhyme, for instance); the choice is dictated by aesthetic, instead of just mere linguistic reasons.

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