Ma. Lourdes S. Bautista on code-switching

31 August 2009 at 6:09 AM | Posted in News | 2 Comments

In the August 29 issue of the newspaper Manila Bulletin, linguist Ma. Lourdes S. Bautista summarizes current linguistic theory about code-switching:

“There was a time, some 40 years ago, when Taglish [Tagalog + English] was frowned upon. This was because Taglish was associated with a speaker’s inability to use either Tagalog or English in complete discourse. It was a sign of lack of proficiency in one of the two languages. This can be called ‘deficiency-driven code switching.’ …

“But the more common kind of code switching now can be called ‘proficiency-driven code switching.’ This is the kind used by people who are proficient in both languages and who code-switch for purposes of communicative efficiency. I believe that bilinguals (and most Filipinos are bilingual, even trilingual) have the strategic competence to ‘calculate,’ in a sense, which language would provide the most expressive, most concise way of saying something. This kind of strategic competence is currently very evident in texting [SMS] – the texter can choose between English, Tagalog, or Taglish to state the message in the fastest, easiest way possible.”

As it has always done, literature leads the way in the uses of language. Multilingual literary texts are written by writers proficient, not deficient in language skills. The general population (those using SMS) are reaping the benefits of the efforts of literary writers (admittedly and necessarily, a small percentage of the world’s population) to break down the barriers between languages and to harness the best qualities of every language in the service of effective and pleasurable communication. Linguists explore universes of discourse where literary writers and critics have gone before.


Assia Djebar

30 August 2009 at 3:21 AM | Posted in News | Leave a comment

For insights on Assia Djebar, look into Anne Donadey’s World Literature Today essay: “The second half of the essay explores Djebar’s own practice of multilingual writing in the three published novels of her Algerian Quartet. Djebar is one of the foremost Maghrebian writers, and her work on language is truly remarkable. I analyze her use of Arabic words in her texts in French to argue that she creates a multilingual palimpsest which both reflects the process of violent French colonization of Algeria and subverts it linguistically by ‘arabiciz[ing] French.’”

Donadey’s “arabicizing French” is like Gemino Abad’s observation that Filipino writers have “colonized English.” The often asked question of whether English should be considered an Asian language has been answered decisively in conferences and books: yes, English is not just the “language of yesterday’s enemy” nor is it only the current international language, but it is an Asian, specifically a Filipino language. The Maghrebians have colonized French, just as Filipinos have colonized English. And as wikcrit shows, it is not just a matter of inserting Arabic or Tagalog words in a French or English text, but the French and the English itself being qualitatively different from the French and the English of “yesterday’s enemies.”

Postcolonial issues

29 August 2009 at 4:46 AM | Posted in News | Leave a comment

Actually appreciating multilingual literature is complicated by the ideological battles being fought on the postcolonial beachheads of literary theory. Why is language such a big issue among multilingual writers? Anne Donadey gives an account of the critical war:

“The question of the language of writing is overdetermined in the context of anti- and postcolonial literatures. If postcolonial authors write in ‘la langue de l’adversaire d’hier’ (the language of yesterday’s enemy), even writers with a clearly anticolonial agenda are regularly accused, at worst of betrayal, at best of not being able to reach their intended audience. For female writers, it is often seen as a double betrayal, both of the national language and of a nationalist ideology in which women are viewed only as allegories of the nation. These questions, which are unavoidable in the francophone context, are also foregrounded in anglophone Africa, as evidenced by the controversial arguments of Chinua Achebe and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. Yet the great theorists of decolonization such as Frantz Fanon, Aimé Césaire, and Albert Memmi all wrote their electrifying manifestoes in the colonizer’s language, using French as ‘une arme de combat, pour une littérature nationale’ (a weapon in the struggle for national literature). Writers and critics have treated this issue in many different ways.” (“The Multilingual Strategies of Postcolonial Literature: Assia Djebar’s Algerian Palimpsest” in World Literature Today, 2000)

Having spent the greater part of my life doing literary theory and having realized, like Terry Eagleton and several other theorists, that the moment of literary theory has passed, I suggest that we roll up our sleeves and start actually reading texts within a multilingual and/or multicultural context. We might come up with conclusions quite different from what we get using mere theoretical reasoning. As Samuel Johnson so famously illustrated, there might be no way to prove philosophically that anything or anyone exists outside of ourselves, except by kicking a stone:

“After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it — ‘I refute it thus.'” (from Boswell)

Once we start reading literature in the “language of yesterday’s enemy,” we might find that such literature is as subversive and as anticolonial as the “language of our blood.”

Ike Muila

28 August 2009 at 5:44 AM | Posted in News | Leave a comment

Here’s a blog entry about the poetry of Ike Muila:

“though there is an increase in the number of poets with poems that utilize hybridization, fusing english and african languages with slang\iscamtho, rasta and rap-speak, ike mboneni muila of the botsotso jesters is probably the only south african poet who writes\performs solely in a mix of languages, and is very passionate, irrepressible and unrepentant in calling the playful mixing of languages and slanguages, the sampling of folk-songs and children’s tales and snap-shots of township and village scenes art\poetry:

i am into creative writing as a poet artist performer
my narrative mix is in eleven languages spoken in south africa
by and bye trapped in one poem
the so called tsotsi taal
iscamtho lingo alive and kicking sense of humor in you and me
mixing of languages into a witty lingo
a language of identity
a language of an ordinary person in the street
a language of unity in diversity

“his poems bodly declare that his mission is to make art\poetry out of the mixing of languages and slanguages, out of the recollection, reconstruction, re-mixing and adaptation of children game-songs, folk songs\african classics games\songs\township classics\township tales and the exposition of everyday real-life stories in the streets, villages, townships and inner-city of azania.”

Multilingual poetry is indeed – instead of an esoteric exercise for the elite of the linguistic and artistic world – the revolt of the unlettered against the miseducated.

Literature in a colonial language

27 August 2009 at 4:54 AM | Posted in News | 2 Comments

Today, we call it multilingual or mixed-language literature, but during the European Renaissance, it was “the language question,” that is, the ideological struggle of the vernaculars against the international languages of that time.

The study by David Holton of the dialectal literature in Crete at that time is typical of scholarly work on that period. This is part of what he says:

“Between the fourteenth and the seventeenth centuries we can therefore observe an upward movement in the status of the vernacular [in Crete]; we might compare the rise of English in the period from the Norman Conquest to the age of Chaucer. The parallels are quite striking: in both cases we have to do with a colonial situation in which the conquerors speak a different language (Norman French or Italian), while the native population has both a vernacular and a formal or learned language. Of course the extent to which English was influenced by contact with French is much greater than the influence of Italian on Cretan dialect, which is mainly restricted to vocabulary. It is, however, noteworthy that the common language of Crete was Greek, that is Cretan dialect, and by the end of our period the use of Italian was more or less restricted to the realms of administration and culture. Educated men would of course be bilingual, but it is clear from documents of the sixteenth century that women, even from noble Venetian families, would usually know only Greek. Greek was written in both the Greek and Latin alphabets, and a number of manuscripts of literary works survives in Latin script.” (p. 14 of Literature and Society in Renaissance Crete, 1991)

We are privileged to watch a similar phenomenon unfolding in our time. The use of Filipino as a literary language is growing as an ideological protest against the continued dominance of English (the language of 20th century American colonizers) in literature classes in schools and in government in the Philippines. The Filipino language itself has a huge number of words borrowed from English, analogous to the situation of Chaucer with French and the Cretan writers with Italian. The Philippines is undergoing what Europe underwent five or six centuries earlier! Five or six centuries from now, if we will follow the logic of the European model, Philippine literary texts written in English will be, if I may borrow Holton’s words (used in another context), “of much smaller literary significance.”

Why Wikcrit is soooo difficult

26 August 2009 at 3:30 AM | Posted in News | Leave a comment

Here is the abstract of a paper entitled “Once Again on Khitan Words in Chinese-Khitan Mixed Verses” by Alexander Vovin (published in Acta Orientalia Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae in 2003):

“The present paper deals with identification of the Khitan words preserved in Late Middle Chinese transcription in mixed language verses from the Qidan Guo Zhi. I argue that the only cogent way for identifying these Khitan words correctly is using the up-to-date version of Middle Chinese reconstruction, and not viewing them through the anachronistic prism of Modern and/or Early Mandarin readings of Chinese characters. On this basis I provide critical assessment of certain identifications proposed by my predecessors as well as several new identifications.”

It is so easy to use “the anachronistic prism of Modern” language to read texts done before our century. The New Critics had lots of fun pointing out how what we now view as colorless words used to be pregnant with other meanings in 17th century England (such as John Donne’s to die as to have an orgasm). Wikcritics find themselves in double trouble: they have to think in two or more languages at the same time, and they have to place themselves in another century.

My latest play

25 August 2009 at 4:21 AM | Posted in News | 2 Comments

Just a little something to show you where I am coming from. Here are some lines from my musical play Baler sa Puso Ko [Baler in My Heart], which opened last Aug. 12 in the Philippines. The play is all in Filipino, except for lines sung by the Spanish and the American characters. Examples:

From the opening scene introducing the characters:

Todos lahat magdiwang sa Baler, Baler
Porque ngayon ay fiesta de Baler, Baler
Kahit kailan, kahit saan, mula noon
Hanggang ngayon sikat el pueblo de Baler

From a scene much later when American soldiers arrive:

ANTERO AMATORIO [the leader of the Filipino soldiers]
Wat you sey wat you sey my Amerikeyno
Why you sey why you sey kami ay sa inyo

I can talk a little Tágalog brown brother
We bili na you mura mura brown brother

Wat you mean wat you mean tarantado kayo
Hindi kami mabibili kahit nino

Ang mga Espanyol because natatalo
Binayaran namin sila bargain you know

Weyt a minit weyt a minit we panalo
We not for seyl we not for seyl no no no no

What is this jerk talking about ignorant fool
We came to liberate this barbarian cesspool

These monkeys have no tails they speak real funny
They do not even know manifest destiny

(I apologize to those that do not understand Filipino.)

Henry Roth

24 August 2009 at 3:39 AM | Posted in News | Leave a comment

Check out Judith Oster’s excellent analysis of this scene from Henry Roth’s Mercy of a Rude Stream:

Mom, attuned to sorrow as she was, … stroked his arm. “Mein orrim kindt. Sit down. Sit down, pleese …. So is it shoyn millt alle fon us, vee menshen. You should excuse mine English…. Alles mus’ go sleep, mein kindt, tsi rich, tsi poor.” …

“Talk English, Mom,” Ira rebuked….

“I don’t mind your mother speaking Yiddish,” Larry assured Ira earnestly. “You seem to think I do. I really don’t. I can’t tell you why.”

“It’s atavistic,” Ira quipped uneasily.

“No, there’s something warm about it. Honestly. Please don’t stop her. Don’t be embarrassed, Ira. Some of it I think I understand. Your mother is very eloquent, do you know? She’s really comforting. I mean it.” (Crossing Cultures: Creating Identity in Chinese and Jewish American Literature, 2003, pp. 90-91)

Bani Basu

23 August 2009 at 3:37 AM | Posted in News | Leave a comment

I wish I could read Bani Basu in the original. She is reputedly the first major Bengali Indian literary writer to use the actual language of people, rather than (as happens too often with writers in other languages) an artificial literary register: “One can take Moom (1998) which focuses on a Marwari family settled in Kolkata for generations. The language is Bangla laced with Hindi, the kind many Marwaris in Calcutta use. Such a hybrid language – if used at all in Bangla literature in the past – has only been done for comic effect, and always briefly. Bani Basu dares to write an entire novel in this mixed language quite seriously, without any trace of condescension or mockery.” (Meenakshi Mukherjee, “Bani Basu’s Novels”)


22 August 2009 at 3:33 AM | Posted in News | 1 Comment

I appreciate the heroic efforts of LibriVox to popularize non-English language readings through the Web, but I wish it had spent its time and money on something other than Ursula O. Maderal’s poem “Araw ng Kamusmusan.” There are better, more critically-acclaimed, more representative poems in Tagalog. In fact, if it can, it would be good for LibriVox to have more Filipino poems read on mp3. The 10 million or so Filipinos that live outside the Philippines should certainly welcome such readings. (I know that LibriVox depends almost completely on volunteers and cannot really choose what its readers read, but there must be a way to encourage more discriminating readers.)

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