Literature in a colonial language27 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.”