Sunday Salon ~ My Native Tongue

70757~Cafe-Mocha-PostersLast week in the Salon I was having a grumble about novelists who either felt the need to establish their credentials as researchers or who were not skilful enough to distinguish between material that was necessary for their story and detail that pushed the book from fiction to quasi-encyclopaedia entry.  In either case the result is a novel that is relatively top heavy in minutia and light on plot. In doing so, I quoted from Henry James, who wrote:

The historical novel is, for me, condemned.  You may multiply the little facts that can be got from pictures and documents…as much as you like, but the real thing is almost impossible to do…I mean the invention, the representation of the old consciousness of individuals in whose minds half the things that make ours, that make the modern world, were non-existent.

Starting out on the journey of my first Masters module this week, I found myself thinking that in fact, the opposite was true: that when we try to understand the cultural sensibility that allowed Shakespeare to flourish, we don’t have the slightest chance of coming close because the conditions that made it possible for him to thrive, that made the Elizabethan world the crucible of linguistic invention that it was, are now non-existent.

It was just half a sentence in the course materials that set me thinking this way, although I’ve given you the sentence before as well, to set the context.

It’s never easy to account for cultural change, for the emergence of the new, or for the way in which a particular set of social, historical circumstances lead to the development of specific art forms. The early modern period was characterised by developing use of the vernacular,

And there you have it.  We take the use of our native language for granted.  Not only do the major institutions of our time conduct their business in our mother tongue, but there are consistent moves made to ensure that as much confusing jargon as possible is removed, that we understand what the powers that govern our lives are about.  How can we ever begin to even imagine what it must have felt like back in the latter half of the sixteenth century to experience the shackles of legal and religious parlance falling away and to know the exhilaration of hearing for the first time the most important and influential factors in your life spoken about in your own language?

The English Language was being liberated and Shakespeare and his audience must have been relishing this in the same way as the growing child relishes the sudden freedom to explore territory previously denied to them.  The joy in discovering the possibilities that writing in his mother tongue afforded him is palpable in everything that Shakespeare wrote and must have been appreciated just as much by the audiences that came to see and hear his work performed.  The nearest that I can hope to come to this today is to try and imagine what it must be like to be a Welsh speaker here in the UK or a Basque speaker in Spain surrounded by a culture that may pay lip service to their language but which in every meaningful way makes using it on a daily basis for anything that encourages social enhancement almost impossible.

James may have felt that it was his advantages that got in the way of writing historical fiction.  For me it’s the other way round.  What might seem like an advantage on the surface, my ability to converse in my own tongue without even having to think about it, is in fact a disadvantage, because it robs me of the impetus to explore my language and makes it almost impossible to appreciate the intensity and the exhilaration of creating a new art form in the words that are spoken around me every day.

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Published in: on October 4, 2009 at 9:54 am  Comments (10)  

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  1. What a wonderful, thought-provoking post!

    I am teaching A Midsummer Night’s Dream in my 8th grade class. I have already had several parents say to me “My child actually likes Shakespeare. They don’t seem to be having any problems with the language.” Now, I am not reading this play on the same level that you are studying Shakespeare’s works in a Master’s program, but I am trying to make the point to these young students that in Shakespeare’s time ALL walks of life went to “hear” his plays. Many of those in the audience were illiterate, and yet they enjoyed his theater. We need to become more like those “groundlings” — begin reading Shakespeare from a mindset that he is entertaining, not intimidating, and then we might be surprised how much we actually enjoy his style of the English language.

  2. Oh Molly, I couldn’t agree with you more. I was brought up in a really poor part of the city where most children left school at fifteen and went to work in the local factory before getting married (if they were a girl) as soon as they could while avoiding it (if they were a boy) for as long as they could! By sheer chance when I was eleven I saw a televised production of As You Like It and was captivated. And when they reached the scene where Phoebe falls in love with Rosalind, thinking she is a boy, I realized what was going to happen before it did. That was it. That was the very moment when I thought, “This man wrote for me.” It was the moment that changed my life for ever. Go on encouraging your children to enjoy Shakespeare, if there’s one thing we can be certain about, it’s that it’s what he would have wanted. They are, after all, the audience of the future!

  3. Well, to be fair, there is a lot of historical material from the Elizabethan period that allows actors and directors to get a good idea of the context of the times. This may be hard to translate, but it’s not impossible. (Of course, readers get the advantage of notes; in performance, that’s not possible.)

    BTW, this is totally false:

    “The early modern period was characterised by developing use of the vernacular,”

    That’s only true about the written word; the vernacular has always been used (look at how the Romance languages developed from Latin). It’s just that in Shakespeare’s time, there was a new availability of the printing press, and of the stage. (If you do some research, you’ll see why the stage became popular just when Shakespeare was writing, only to disappear for decades, in England, shortly thereafter.)

  4. Interesting ideas! I was thinking as I read your post about people who complain that the language is changing. Now the changes that are going on today aren’t at all like what was happening in Shakespeare’s time, I’m guessing, but still a changing language shouldn’t be a threatening thing, but rather a fun, exciting thing that opens up new possibilities.

  5. Imagine how it would be if we spoke English at home but all “official” documents had to be either in Latin or French. Sobering to think too that the Bible in our language, the King James Version is post Shakespeare in 1611, although the Wycliffe Bible was apparently complete in 1384. But we probably wouldn’t have used it.

  6. Well, Kirk, I think it depends on your point of view and the point I was trying to make is that most official business in England was carried out in a language that the ordinary people would be unable to understand. There is, as I’m sure you know, a great deal of research that suggests that one of the main reasons that Shakespeare and the stage flourished as it did when it did was because of the still ‘slippery’ nature of a language that had not grown completely beyond the regional.

    Dorothy, don’t let me get my soapbox out. As a language specialist one of my pet gripes is with people who complain about the changes in language. Don’t they realize that language is something alive and that if it weren’t to change then it would die? I suspect that the real fear behind such complaints is that the world that these people know and where they have some sort of power is changing and that their position is changing with it. There is nothing like having your power base threatened to get you going.

    My point exactly, Kerrie. Of course people used the vernacular at home, but where it matter, where their very existence could be threatened it was not the language used. The King James Bible very largely uses the Wycliffe Bible, although without the commentaries that had become part of the Geneva Bible. James didn’t want anyone telling him how he should interpret scripture:)

  7. >my ability to converse in my own tongue without even having to think about it, is in fact a disadvantage, because it robs me of the impetus to explore my language and makes it almost impossible to appreciate the intensity and the exhilaration of creating a new art form in the words that are spoken around me every day.

    Maybe this is why I enjoy reading/watching/listening to Shakespeare so much–it’s my language, but it isn’t–it’s familiar but it’s layered and at times obscure and often mutable, but never uninteresting and I feel richer when I understand the meaning(s) of a passage or a speech or a dialogue. It’s as if I’m constantly discovering new worlds that are both familiar and exotic.

  8. Jane, have you read Simon Palfry’s Doing Shakespeare? The first half is all about the way in which Shakespeare uses the double edge of language and I think you’d love it.

  9. This reminds me of when I taught English in Japan and my slow realization that as English became more and more popular, instead of imposing itself (which it does to some extent), the process is actually a two-way street – English is also fundamentally changed by the multitudes of new speakers who alter it for their own purposes. As a teacher, I would fight against some of that, hoping to provide the basics of language as accurately and correctly as possible, but as someone who loves language and its ability to morph and change, I loved experiencing the flexibility of language.

  10. Verbivore, I think you’ve hit on a very important point here. There is a need, I think, for a ‘core’ of accurate English. Apart from anything else, when you work with students from as many different nations as I do you have to have a base that we all accept and understand. But then there has to be room for exploration and growth. If you too out al the words in currently accepted British English that originally came from other sources our language would be very much the poorer indeed.


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