Returning African Literature to Africa.

I posted fourteen years ago about Ngugi wa Thiong’o (so long ago I’ve just now had to replace a couple of dead links with Wikipedia links; amazingly, the Kitabkhana link still works); now Francis Wade writes for NYRDaily about his thoughts on what he called in a 1986 book Decolonising the Mind. There’s a lot of interesting material on cultural assimilation and “the enduring effects of linguistic imperialism”; I wanted to single out this paragraph for the specific efforts at remedying the situation it links to:

Movements across Africa and elsewhere have advocated a revival of local languages in their countries’ literary output, while translation projects have sought to both expand the non-English audience for African writers, and to “return” African literature to its native soil. Jalada Africa offers a publishing platform for pan-African authors, often translating their work into a variety of languages, both English and vernacular African. A Senegalese project, Céytu, uses translation to counter the dominance of French-language books in a country where the majority tongue, Wolof, has a rich oral, but not written, culture. Some prominent writers, notably Salman Rushdie, have argued however that the advantages of writing for a billions-strong English-language audience outweigh the symbolic benefits of returning to native languages whose readership is comparatively smaller. Only a small proportion of African writers who have won international acclaim for works in English have followed Ngũgĩ’s lead and returned to writing in their mother tongues.

Rushdie’s argument is, of course, incontrovertible in its own terms, but I’m glad some stubborn authors are bucking the tide.

The Ever-Changing Mohawk Language.

Another language-related quote from Bernard Bailyn’s The Barbarous Years: The Peopling of British North America (see this post for a quote from Jonas Michaëlius); Bailyn is discussing the dismay of Dominie Megapolensis (which he spells Megapolënsis — is that correct, and if so what does the ë signify?) at the difficulty he’s having with the local language; the quote is from A Short Account of the Mohawk Indians (1644):

One tells me a word in the infinitive mood, another in the indicative; one in the first, another in the second person; one in the present, another in the preterit. So I stand oftentimes and look, but do not know how to put it down. And as they have declensions and conjugations also, and have their augments like the Greeks, I am like one distracted, and frequently cannot tell what to do, and there is no one to set me right.

Bailyn says Megapolensis “half-believed the suggestion of the company’s commissary that the reason no one could understand them was because, to fend off outsiders, by common consent they completely changed their language every two or three years.” There’s a well-known sf story about aliens who fended off invaders by constantly changing their language; I’m sure it’s been mentioned here at LH, but I can’t remember title or author.

The History of a Town.

I just read Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin’s История одного города [The History of a Town] and enjoyed it, as Sashura predicted I would years ago. But I was also taken aback. It starts off as an enjoyably cynical account of the history of the town of Glupov (‘Stupidville’), standing in for Russia itself, with the various town governors representing the changing currents of 18th- and early 19th-century Russian governance. There are hilarious episodes like the one about the governor who only spoke a few words and eventually turned out to have a clockwork head (which had to be sent to Petersburg for repair). But towards the end it gets very dark indeed, with the final terrifying governor, Ugryum-Burcheev (‘Sullen-Mutter’), imposing an abstract military order on the town, forcing the inhabitants to tear down all existing buildings and rebuild on another site (after he is unable to stop the flow of a river that hinders his plans), with huts of identical dimensions along straight streets and people paired off according to his ideas of suitability, with a spy for every two people. His plans are developed in enough detail to remind me of Zamyatin’s 1921 Мы [We], often considered a source for Orwell’s and Huxley’s dystopias, and I can’t help but wonder if Zamyatin got some inspiration from it; I also wonder if there are earlier examples of detailed authoritarian fantasies of daily life.

One striking thing is that one of the governors is named Ferdyshchenko; this unusual name is also used by Dostoevsky for a character in The Idiot. I was prepared to write this off as a coincidence until I got to the final chapter, where Ugryum-Burcheev is repeatedly and emphatically called идиот ‘idiot.’ At that point I decided Saltykov-Shchedrin must have read Dostoevsky’s novel and decided to borrow from it.

Of linguistic interest is a phrase that a mystic mumbles in one of the sections: без працы не бенды кололацы [bez pratsy ne bendy kololatsy], which looked to me like garbled Polish, and sure enough a little googling turned up a Polish saying Bez prace nie będą kołacze ‘without work there won’t be kołacz‘ — in other words, if you don’t work you won’t eat.

The Profound Confusion Concerning gau.

Susan Ferguson at Metaphysical Musing (“online since 17 Dec 1996”!) has a wonderful comparison of translations of Rig Veda I.164.17; following an image of a notebook page with interlinear transliterations and translations of a Devanagari text that brings back nightmarish flashbacks of Sanskrit class, she presents four different translations that show “how varied the translations can be as a result of their filters in terms of word interpretations, belief systems and schools.” The versions are strikingly diverse, and she follows them with this delightful exegesis:

The M. Monier-Williams Sanskrit-to-English Dictionary has six double-columned pages of meanings for the word ‘gau’ or ‘go’ including ‘herds in the sky’ or stars; and yet this word has often been translated as ‘cow’. Shyam Ghosh interprets the meaning to be our ‘sense organs’. The Sanskrit word ‘vatsam’ (found in this verse 17) literally means offspring, yearling, or calf. Shyam Ghosh expands the meaning by resorting to the root of the word ‘vatsam’ which is √vad and is defined as: to speak, to communicate, and to indicate.

Semantics of Rig Veda by R.L. Kashyap: In Yaska’s Nighantu, which dates at least prior to 1000 BCE, “The word ‘gau’ whose common (ordinary) meaning is ‘cow’ occurs in the four lists with titles, prithivi (earth), rashmi (ray), vak (speech) and suryarashmih (rays of the Sun).”

David Frawley provides a useful explanation of the profound confusion concerning the Sanskrit word ‘gau’ and the misunderstandings that have risen from that confusion:

“Its range of meaning is so great, we have nothing even close. ‘Gau’ is symbolically a cow. … From the cow as the basic wealth of the ancients, it meant wealth, nourishment and value generally. Yet even this is only the beginning. It means a ray of light… As such, it more generally means light. Light for the Seers was also consciousness. The Cow was the receptive mind… The Cow is the Divine Word-Wisdom… As such, the cow is the Goddess, who is inwardly consciousness and outwardly the sky, the dappled cow being the night sky with its stars. … There is an additional root √ga meaning to sing. … The cow in its most correct sense means an archetype, word, note or number, the essential unit. It is the knowledge that is the measure of all things…”

I am irresistibly reminded of a dustman’s dumpling. Thanks, Bathrobe!

On Genre Fiction.

I’ve always been conflicted about genre fiction, in the sense that I love a good mystery or sf story, but I’ve never taken them as seriously (in some sense) as I do literary fiction, and I’ve sometimes floundered in trying to explain why (and have irritated John Cowan, who fiercely defends genre writing as just as worthy as the fancy stuff that gets National Book Awards and Booker Prizes). I cackled with glee while reading Tim Parks’ NYRB evisceration (subscriber-only, I’m afraid) of a trilogy by Stephen King: Mr. Mercedes, Finders Keepers, and End of Watch. He starts out by describing the enjoyable plots King is so good at creating, then explains why he doesn’t enjoy them as much as, er, real literature. He describes the plots in detail, but I’ll avoid that material above the fold, quoting a general analysis; after the [Read more…] I’ll quote the end of the essay, which has serious spoilers, so avoid that part if you want to read the books.

“You have to admire a man,” wrote John Leonard reviewing Stephen King in these pages in 2002, who treats “scaring the bejesus out of us” as if it were “a domestic art.” But is King really scary? Not in this trilogy. Not for me. And I’m hardly immune from being scared by fiction. Reading Hardy’s Jude the Obscure I remember as a terrifying experience. Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground was another book that made me extremely anxious. Coetzee’s Disgrace, Per Petterson’s [In] Siberia, and Peter Stamm’s short stories have all had me extremely fearful for the well­-being of their characters.

Bringing in literary heavyweights might seem inappropriate, yet King has been awarded the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters and peppers the pages of his writing with literary references. Aside from Nietzsche, this trilogy mentions or alludes to Philip Roth, Dickens, T.S. Eliot, Wilfred Owen, Tobias Wolff, Robert Louis Stevenson, Steinbeck, Vonnegut, Flannery O’Connor, and many others. […] In any event, a moment’s reflection on our emotional response to these different authors immediately reaffirms the distance between genre writing and literature. One is anxious reading Jude the Obscure, or Disgrace, because one quickly senses that the authors are so intensely engaged in following through their characters’ dilemmas and predicaments that they would not hesitate to have things end badly if that is where their genius leads. There is no easy division into good and evil and no feeling that order need necessarily be returned to the world in the closing pages.

Quite the opposite is the case with King, whose persuasive openings are quickly drained of their power by the all too evident mechanisms of genre. […]

[Read more…]

Beyond Two Solitudes.

This is one of those weeks where variations on a topic keep cropping up by sheer coincidence; I had no intention of making this Indigenous Languages Week, but I keep running into interesting stuff. Canadian Art‘s Summer issue is on translation, and it includes Beyond Two Solitudes: A conversation on the politics of colonial languages in Quebec. Émilie Monnet writes:

“Double solitude” is a term often used to refer to the situation of Indigenous artists in Quebec. Access to opportunities for presenting work differs whether artists speak French or English. The ways of thinking and interpreting, embedded in language, also translate in the way artists create. Four artists from diverse Nations and generations discuss the impact of language on their work and lives.

The artists are Sonia Robertson, Eruoma Awashish, Rita Letendre, and Martin Akwiranoron Loft, and they have very different takes on the topic; Letendre, for example, lived many years in Montreal and “never felt that being an artist who expressed herself in French first was limiting”:

I speak many languages: French, English, Italian and even Hebrew. I don’t know if speaking many languages has had a significant impact on my artistic practice. For me, languages are above all a way of communicating with other people.

Loft, on the other hand, says:

In Kahnawake, we have a long tradition of resistance. We were the first ones to create our own schools 40 years ago, and today about 10 per cent of the community are fluent speakers in Kanien’kéha. I was one of the first ones to graduate from the language immersion program and today I witness how more and more people are trying to regain their language, especially with the younger generation. Every time I am invited to speak about my work, I always share some words in the language as a way to shake people up, and remind them that we are on Kanien’kehaka territory. People may not understand everything I say, but they listen. […] We have more opportunities with the rest of Canada and the United States than we have in Quebec, or even Montreal. There are more than 20,000 Indigenous peoples in Montreal and easily half are francophone, yet we hardly have any connection to them. For sure, not speaking French is a way of resisting. There was so much hatred coming from the francophone media and community during the Oka Crisis. On a certain level, we were oblivious to the violence because we did not understand French. That protected us in some way. And for every minute dedicated to learning French we are not learning our own language.

(All the statements are given in both French and English.) As I wrote at poffin boffin’s MetaFilter post, where I found the link, “I like the fact that it presents different viewpoints without feeling the need to tie it together with a pseudo-authoritative ‘this is how to think about this issue’ summary.”

I won’t make a separate post of this depressing quote, I’ll just tack it on here. Bernard Bailyn’s The Barbarous Years: The Peopling of British North America, in discussing Jonas Michaëlius, the first minister of the Dutch Reformed Church in New Amsterdam, describes his appalling attitudes to the non-Europeans he found in residence, including this passage on language (the quotes are from Michaëlius):

Their language, full of “difficult aspirates and many guttural letters . . . formed more in the throat than by the mouth, teeth and lips,” seemed impossible for others to learn. In fact, “they rather design to conceal their language from us than to properly communicate it.” It was not, he concluded, a proper language at all, but something “made up, childish,” a private jargon, so private that when spoken in conversation even the most experienced traders could not understand it.

It almost seems like a parody of colonialist attitudes, but it’s just a straightforward expression of what far too many people felt for far too long.

New Words for Ojibwa and Oji-Cree.

From the Sault Star, Indigenous language experts make new words:

Elders, translators and master speakers of Ojibwa and Oji-Cree gather in Sault Ste. Marie this week to translate 2,000 words into the Indigenous languages. Participants from remote fly-in communities in northwestern Ontario, including Sandy Lake and Big Trout Lake, the Kenora area, Manitoba and southern Ontario will gather at Quattro Hotel and Conference Centre for three days starting Tuesday.

Each of the four groups will be assigned 500 words, including math and science terms, household items such as coffeemaker, blender and garlic press, and one that especially stumps Patricia Ningewance, a member of the department of modern languages at Algoma University. “Insurance is a bad one,” she said following a group photo of attendees at Shingwauk Gathering and Conference on Saturday afternoon. “How do you describe insurance?” […]

“Sometimes we have trouble,” said Ningewance. “We phone each other. ‘How should we say this?’ There’s a lot of us who translate, we don’t have the words, so this conference will help us.” There’ll be a variety of dialects in each group to ensure words are standardized and can be used by Indigenous speakers in different parts of Canada. […]

“I’m hoping that these words will be the ones that are used, let’s say, 20 years from now,” said Ningewance, a member of Lac Seul First Nation.

She plans to post the new elements of speech online, but doesn’t have a specific site identified yet. Her grandson, Aandeg Muldrew, will be one of the recorders noting the words created by the four groups in the Roman alphabet.

Ningewance is pronounced, unexpectedly (for me at least), /ˈnɪŋgˌwɑns/ (NINGG-wahns); you can hear her say her own name about forty seconds into this episode of Ojibwe Stories. Thanks, Trevor!

The Understanding Footprint.

My wife and I are about a quarter of the way through Richard Powers’ The Overstory, and we are agreed that it is one of the oddest and most interesting novels we’ve read — we have no idea where it’s going (except that trees will be involved), but we’re eager to get there. My interest at the moment, however, is linguistic. This sentence grabbed my attention for obvious reasons:

She walks in silence, crunching ten thousand invertebrates with every step, watching for tracks in a place where at least one of the native languages uses the same word for footprint and understanding.

Anybody know what Native American language fits that description, and what the word in question is?

On Teaching Useless Grammar.

Geoff Pullum at Lingua Franca describes an appalling situation:

A private English tutor in Japan, whom I’ll call Yuki, wrote to me recently to ask about the underlined relative clauses in sentences like these, which were used in actual examination questions and later published in high-school textbooks [I have replaced underlines by italics — LH]:

1. She said she didn’t like the film, which opinion surprised everyone.
2. The men wore kilts, which clothing I thought very interesting. […]

The examples feature a nonrestrictive relative clause introduced by which plus a head noun. This is extremely unusual — nonexistent in conversation, vanishingly rare in modern sources.

Yuki has to help students with such material but reports that the sentences are rejected by native English speakers, who say that as far as they can remember, they have never heard or seen such sentences before.

Yet Japanese students are not just drilled on such sentences, they are examined on them in crucial university admission tests.

I could understand it better if it involved some obscure language for which it is hard to get contemporary information, but English! Read the newspapers, talk to people, get a clue! I feel bad for all the students who have to put precious time and effort into memorizing this crap, and I shake my cane at the imbeciles who put them through it.

The History of the Appalachian Dialect.

Chi Luu’s JSTOR Daily piece on Appalachia starts with an account of all the nonsense that’s been believed about the local dialect (“pure Elizabethan English”), then continues:

It is true that Appalachian speech can be quite different from standard American English. This is a dialect that famously uses different vocabulary and meanings, some of which may be archaic, such as “britches” (trousers), “poke” (bag), “sallet” (salad, as in a poke-sallet, of pokeweed rather than bags!), “afeared” (afraid), “fixin” (getting ready, as in “I’m fixin to do something”), “allow” (suppose, as in “I’ll allow as how I’ll go over yander for a leetle spell”). […]

Where it gets interesting are the many grammatical changes from the standard dialect. Michael Montgomery and others have used grammatical evidence, which is generally slower to change than pronunciations, to track Appalachian speech back to their origins from the predominantly Scots-Irish immigrants that settled in the area, along with others. For example, most are familiar with the pronoun “y’all” but there are also unusual constructions such as “might could/should” (“we might should tell him”), “done” (“they have done landed in jail again”), a-prefixing (“he come a-running at me”), “like to/liketa” (“I got lost and liked to never found my way out”). […]

It’s important to note that the region is about more than just the Scottish and Irish immigrants who lent their language to the land. Despite the legend that there’s a pure linguistic line from Scots-Irish immigrants to present day white Appalachians, this is just another myth. What linguists like Michael Montgomery and Walt Wolfram have shown is the influx of other immigrant groups have had a profound effect on southern speech.

There’s a discussion of creole influence from AAVE, among other factors. My father’s side of the family is from the Ozarks, whose dialect has many features in common with that of Appalachia, and I’ve been known to say “might could” now and again. Thanks, Trevor! (Appalachia previously on LH: 2007, 2017.)