Academic journal article Eire-Ireland: a Journal of Irish Studies

"We Must Learn Where We Live": Language, Identity, and the Colonial Condition in Brian Friel's Translations

Academic journal article Eire-Ireland: a Journal of Irish Studies

"We Must Learn Where We Live": Language, Identity, and the Colonial Condition in Brian Friel's Translations

Article excerpt

MILITARY imperialism is only the first step in establishing imperial hegemony--and an uneconomic one at that. (1) It is costly and, by itself, produces few long-term benefits for the colonizer. Therefore, it must be followed by strategies to persuade the colonized to accept their condition and transfer their allegiance to their conquerors to ensure an uninterrupted flow of benefits from colonized to colonizer without further military intervention.

As early as 1596 (2) Edmund Spenser advocated linguistic imperialism as such a strategy. In A View of the Present State of Ireland, he asserts that "it hath ever been the use of the conqueror to despise the language of the conquered, and to force him by all means to learn his" (1970:67) because language equals identity and allegiance: "the speech being Irish, the heart must needs be Irish" (1970:68). The obverse, he hoped, would be equally true could the Irish be persuaded to abandon their aboriginal tongue for English. He avers that even reviving Edward IV's statute requiring the Irish to abandon their sept names in favor of English surnames based on occupation, appearance, or locality would "in a short time [lead them] quite to forger [their] Irish nation" (1970:156). The implication is that abandoning the Irish language--including Irish names--for English would obliterate the Irish identity and culture that he identifies as the source of their resistance to colonization and would render them useful, loyal subjects. It is this implication that Brian Friel explores and, though he grants it some validity, ultimately rejects in Translations.

Spenser's idea of the effect of linguistic imperialism implies that language structures what R.D. Laing calls "experience"--i.e., how we perceive and comprehend the world, including ourselves--and implies agreement with Laing that such experience conditions identity and what he calls "behavior"--i.e., how we act as a result of our experience. If so, one assumes, the imposition of linguistic imperialism should result in imperial control of the experience and, hence, the identity of the colonized. However, effecting that control requires the destruction of the colonized's aboriginal language/experience/identity, and destroying another's experience, Laing says, is a violent exercise of "the power to define reality" (qtd. in Levine 1975:4) that, in turn, begets new violence. Laing says that "if our experience is destroyed, our behaviour will be destructive" (1967:12), which suggests that linguistic imperialism should also result in destructive behavior on the part of the colonized.

In Translations Friel assesses the efficacy of linguistic imperialism by addressing its effects and those of concomitant cultural imperialism on the culture, identity, and even continued physical existence of the colonized. Although written primarily in English, the play is trilingually macaronic: in English, Latin, and Greek. Significantly, there is not a word in Irish, even though most of the characters are monolingual Irish speakers whom the presumably English-speaking audience are to accept as speaking Irish when they speak in English. Friel's choice of languages implies much about his assessments of the effects and efficacy of linguistic and cultural imperialism, about the ways in which the colonized react to them, and about the most effective way in which they can combat the imperial agenda, maintain their culture and identity, ensure their survival, and possibly secure their freedom.

In the play Friel portrays linguistic and cultural imperialism as more insidious than the military imperialism they are adjuncts to and metaphors for; the Irish cooperate with them as they do not cooperate with the British military. A child spits at the British soldiers, but Bridget and Biddy Hanna look forward to the establishment of the National School, where the children will "be taught to speak English and every subject will be taught through English" (1984:396), and the students will sing, every morning, a song thanking God that they are happy little English boys. …

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