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)