Saturday 16 May 2015

Multilingual novelties

Research on multilingualism has mushroomed over the past 50 years or so, which must be a good thing. Although some publications do take multilingual norms as multilingual norms, most research has proceeded through the bias of monolingual standards, which is not so good for the obvious reason that multilinguals aren’t monolinguals. Equally biased is the academic and media hype spawned by the flurry of interest in current multilingualism, which risks spawning, in turn, the belief that multilingualism is newsworthy not because this interest is new, but because multilingualism itself is new.

Multilingualism may indeed strike as novel those of us who go through life lacking everyday access to, and need for, other languages than the single one we were born and bred into, or for whom learning a new language has become more or less synonymous with learning ‘our’ language. Research such as Herbert Schendl’s, specifically on English in the Middle Ages, tells quite a different story.

English is a relevant example because, in addition to its current favoured status both as object and medium of discussions of multilingualism, it has paradoxically been marketed as a desirable, single common denominator to users of any other languages, complete with a misleading aura of stable uniformity across space and time. The word English features in time-honoured acronyms like EFL, ESL, ESOL (and a whole host of others), which all appear to refer to ‘the same’ English regardless of where it’s used, and to suggest that multilingualism with English dates from this E-acronyms era. And a label like ‘Old English’, which refers to the mix of languages used in Britain from the Anglo-Saxon settlement to the Norman invasion, seems to imply that this same language is only somewhat younger nowadays.

The facts are that English was, and continues to be, a product of multilingualism: it emerged as a creole through language contact, and has thrived by means of thriving multilingualism to keep itself in good working order, wherever and whenever it has been used. The history of Latin, the lingua franca of its time, confirms that barring language contact, no language can aspire to cater to a ‘global’ clientele: two of my favourite examples are the collection of manuscripts known as Carmina Burana, part of which Carl Orff immortalised in a musical piece of the same name, and the Finland-based news service Nuntii Latini.

No language is an island, in other words, as John Donne might have put it. Against the myth that (some) languages, whatever name we choose to call them by, sail monolingually unscathed through space and time, a look at historical records documenting our linguistic uses offers excellent evidence that multilingualism through language contact has been the rule, rather than exceptional. In their book Code-Switching in Early English, Herbert Schendl and Laura Wright report that language mixes abound in poems, letters, sermons, charters, as well as in medical, science and everyday texts, and that this is so for the good reason that language switches signal one way of reaching out to the people who matter to us. This, incidentally, is something that children who are raised multilingually learn to do from the outset, as I’ve noted before. Early multilingualism in Britain was also the topic of a conference, promoted by the Magdalene Society of Medievalists, addressing “the mainstream trilingual culture of England”. Doesn’t the collocation of these three words, mainstream, trilingual and England look exciting, nowadays?

Multilingualism has ruled elsewhere, too, of course. We may not know about those who don’t make it to historical records, but they couldn’t have gone on pilgrimages, say, or taken part in conquest and marketing sprees which, still today, keep so many of us so busy, without linguistic ways of feeding and transporting themselves beyond the humdrum ones back home. In The Tragedy of the Templars, for example, Michael Haag quotes The Chronicle of Fulcher of Chartres, where the author marvels:
But who ever heard such a mixture of languages in one army? There were Franks, Flemish, Frisians, Gauls, Allobroges, Lotharingians, Alemanni, Bavarians, Normans, Angles, Scots, Aquitanians, Italians, Dacians, Apulians, Iberians, Bretons, Greeks and Armenians. If a Breton or Teuton questioned me, I would not know how to answer either. But though we spoke diverse languages, we [...] seemed to be nearest kin.

Fulcher hadn’t perhaps been familiar with the military forces of earlier multilinguals such as the Polyglots in Roman Antiquity, as studied by Christian Laes, but he might as well be describing, mutatis mutandis, the linguistic composition of modern armies and the multilingual strategies required to coordinate them.

So what else is new? Not the terminological mess pervading research on multilingualism, which Schendl and Wright also note in their book. My own academic publications, this blog included, show how (un)intentional imprecision blinds us to what multilinguals do and have done with their languages. Calling past instances of multilingual productions ‘macaronic’ or current ones ‘mixed’, for example, makes it look like we’re talking about two different things. Attitudes from users of empowered languages aren’t new, either. Michael Haag further reports Fulcher’s observation that “the Franks learned the local languages, which meant Greek, Armenian, Syriac and Arabic; this stood in contrast to the Arabs and the Turks, for whom there is very little evidence that they could speak the others’ language or troubled to learn the languages of the people they had conquered and oppressed.”

We have, in short, been there and done that, as far as multilingualism is concerned: so much for our ‘increasingly’ multilingual world. History matters, so we don’t waste time and resources mistaking things for our newfound awareness of them. Multilingualism needs no attention as a ‘novelty’, whereas the misconceptions which keep blurring our understanding of it certainly do. The next post has more on this.

Laes, C. (2013). Polyglots in Roman Antiquity. Writing Socio-Cultural History Based on Anecdotes. Literatūra 55(3).

Schendl, H. (2015). Code-switching in early English literature. Language and Literature, 24 (3), 233-248 DOI: 10.1177/0963947015585245

© MCF 2015

Next post: The perfect multilingual. Saturday 13th June 2015.

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