English in the Languages of Cultural Encounters*

By Young, Robert J. C. | Cross / Cultures, January 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

English in the Languages of Cultural Encounters*


Young, Robert J. C., Cross / Cultures


I

I WANT TO CONSIDER THE IDEA OF THE CULTURAL ENCOUNTER between English and other languages, the languages of others, but at the same time also to think about English as a language of cultural encounter, an idea which connects to Ngügí wa Thiong'o's argument that translation is "the language of languages."1 Related to this are the ways in which English literature has for some time been marked even in the categories used to define it by other cultures: world literatures in English, anglophone, postcolonial, Commonwealth literature(s). All these ways of describing literatures in English written outside Britain have particular implications, but the general assumption, as with 'English literature', is that they are written, or read, in English.

A simple example of how this cashes out in practice would be the Conference of the Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies (ACLALS). English is the official language of the Commonwealth, which hosts, in addition to ACLALS, organizations such as the English Speaking Union, whose formation pre-dates the Commonwealth itself. Any country that wishes to be a member of the Commonwealth - even those members such as Mozambique, which have no historical links to the British Empire - is required to accept the rule that the English language is the means of Commonwealth communication. The ACLALS conferences rarely infringe this rule: in my experience, even in India, all the papers are given in English. It is noticeable, on the other hand, that the name of the organization 'the Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies' deliberately avoids specifying English as the official language which ACLALS studies. I cannot find any information on any of the many Commonwealth websites about how many languages are spoken in its fifty-three countries by its nearly two billion citizens, about thirty percent of the world's population. However, the website 'ethnologue' claims that there are 6,909 living languages in the world, so with thirty percent of the world's population, we might guess that on a proportional basis the Commonwealth hosts around two thousand languages.2

The Commonwealth Writer's Prize, by contrast, considers books in only one of them: i.e. books written in English, the official language of the Commonwealth. To get a prize, you have to write in English, to be a producer of 'English' literature in some sense. But what exactly, aspiring writers might ask, is the English of English literature? In order to answer this question, I thought I would start at an obvious place, with a few examples of mainstream canonical English literature, drawn from the writers I studied when I was 'reading', as they say, for my BA in 'English Language and Literature' at Oxford University - surely the place, if anywhere, that represents the heartland of English, of pure English English and English literature proper.

My first example is a poem I was given to read in my very first term, on arrival in Oxford.

Oft him anhaga are gebideö

Metudes miltse beah be modcearig

geond lagulade longe sceolde

hreran mid hondum hrimcealde sa;,

wadan wraxlastas: wyrd biö ful ara;d!

Swa CW2CÖ eardstapa. . .3

So here, it seems, is authentic English literature, straight from the Oxford BA course on English Language and Literature. Perhaps someone should try submitting a book for the Commonwealth Writer's Prize written in Anglo-Saxon. You might object, though, that the claim by Anglo-Saxonists to call their object of study 'Old English' forms part of a particular, now historical ideology about the origins of English in Anglo-Saxonism.4 So let us look at something more recent. I could cite some Chaucer, whose language resembles modern English a little more than the poet of "The Wanderer," but I thought John Donne might be fairer as a more comparatively recent canonical figure of English literature:

Qvot dos haec Linguists perfetti Disticha feront,

Tot cuerdos Statesmen, hic livre fara tunc. …

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