AMERICAN BABEL.

Back in January I bought (and posted about) The Multilingual Anthology of American Literature; now I’ve found a companion volume, American Babel: Literatures of the United States from Abnaki to Zuni, also edited by Marc Shell (whose take on the role of language in political conflict should be of interest to Scott Martens). Here’s Harvard’s description:

If ever there was a polyglot place on the globe (other than the Tower of Babel), America between 1750 and 1850 was it. Here three continents—North America, Africa, and Europe—met and spoke not as one, but in Amerindian and African languages, in German and English, Spanish, French, and Dutch. How this prodigious multilingualism lost its voice in the making of the American canon and in everyday American linguistic practice is the problem American Babel approaches from a variety of angles. Looking at the first Arabic-language African-American slave narrative, at quirks of translation in Greek-American bilingual books, and at the strategies of Yiddish women poets and Welsh-American dramatists, contributors show how linguistic resistance opposes the imperative of linguistic assimilation. They address matters of literary authority in Irish Gaelic writing, Creole novels, and the multiple voices of the Zuni storyteller; and in essays on Haitian, Welsh, Spanish, and Chinese literatures, they trace the relationship between domestic nationalism and immigrant internationalism, between domestic citizenship and immigrant ethnicity.

That “Creole novel” is Alfred Mercier‘s L’Habitation Saint-Ybars (1881) (available online here), which is “perhaps the only systematically bilingual novel in American literature… Mercier does something very simple and very rare: he makes his characters speak the languages he judges they would have used. When he judges that his characters would have spoken Louisiana Standard French (LSF), they speak it. When he judges they would have spoken Louisiana French Creole (LFC), they speak that.” And there’s Ludwig von Reizenstein’s Die Geheimnisse von New-Orleans (now available in English), and a meditation on Hawai’ian pidgin, and all manner of good things. And it ends with “‘Prized His Mouth Open’: Mark Twain’s The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County in English, Then in French, Then Clawed Back into a Civilized Language Once More, by Patient, Unremunerated Toil,” by the editor himself, who begins: “It’s no accident that I, Marc Shell (born Meyer Selechonek), come to the problems of bilingualism with which the essay that follows—and much of the work of Mark Twain—deals. I was born in Montreal in 1947… and raised in Quebec, where questions of politics and language go hand in hand.” Along with Twain, he quotes “quebecois superfrog Robert Charlebois,” whose “Frog Song” has the refrain:

You’re a frog I’m a frog Kiss me,
And I’ll turn into a prince suddenly
Donne moé des peanuts
J’m’en va t’chanter Alouette sans fausse note.

And so we circle back, by a commodius vicus of recirculation, to macaronic poetry.

Comments

  1. I’m a big fan of Marc Shell ever since reading this article:
    “Babel in America; or, the Politics of Language Diversity in the United States.” Critical Inquiry Autumn, no. 20 (1993): 103-27.

  2. Centenary College of Louisiana has begun editing many of these works for the first time. They can be found at http://www.centenary.edu/editions

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