Languages

January 20, 2010

I’m rather proud of the fact that Snakeskin gets poetry submissions from all over the world, but I get a bit confused when the verses come from someone who rather obviously does not have English for a first language.

I once asked a correspondent from one of the smaller Russian republics: “Why on earth are you writing in English and not in your own language?”. The reply was: “Nobody speaks my language.”

Since her language was not Eyak, this was not literally true. A Wikipedia check suggested that there were several million speakers of her language.  Maybe what she meant was: “There is nobody who speaks my language who would listen to what I say, and there would be no chance of publishing my poems in my language.”

Well, the Internet makes it possible for anyone to put their thoughts and feelings in the public domain quite easily, and I suggested that she had a go. She might have been surprised by the response, and could well have discovered some kindred spirits.

But perhaps what she really meant was: “I don’t feel as though I belong to the community who speak my language. I belong to a wider global community, and the sign of being global is to speak English, therefore I write my poems in English, to proclaim my true identity.”

To some extent I can sympathise with that, but the problem is that this isn’t how poetry works. Just as a sculptor needs an intimate knowledge of the qualities of marble, and a composer of a cello concerto needs a deep appreciation of the possibilities of his chosen instrument, a poet needs a full and rich knowledge of the language he or she is working with. This inwardness usually comes from a lifetime’s experience of words and grammar. A poet needs to know precisely how colloquial or formal a particular expression is, and needs to be able to manipulate syntax with ease, in order to communicate with both subtlety and precision. He or she needs to be alive to the connotations of words, and to the relationship between of a word and the sound of a sentence.

I’m not saying that it would be inconceivable  for someone with only a second-language knowledge of English to write a decent poem in that language, but I do think that it would be very unlikely.  When submissions of this kind come in, they may have some striking images, but the sentences are either tangled or error-ridden. The cadences clunk. If there is a poetic model behind them, it is usually that of the rock lyric, a genre that does not usually flourish as pure text, without guitar accompaniment.

So by and large, such poems do not make the pages of Snakeskin, though there have been one or two exceptions over the years, when the force of ideas or  imagery got the poem in despite second-language problems.

One becomes aware however, of a huge class of people, mostly young, who have an ideal that is in its way utopian. They want a world where the boundaries of nation and language no longer limit human potential. They aspire to a globalism that the present world order cannot accommodate. They want to belong to the English-speaking community (which is so much larger than the group of English-speaking nations).

I can’t help wondering whether in a hundred years there will be a true world language, based on English, a lingua franca like the Latin of the Middle Ages. Some have seen signs of the emergence of such a language already, and have called it Globish.  Jean Paul Nerriere has defined a language of some 1500 English words, and a simplified syntax, which allows businessmen from different countries to communicate with one another. Esperanto and similar artificial attempts to construct languages have failed, but Globish is likely to succeed, because it is not designed from above, but is a response to genuine social needs.

As time goes by, there could be whole generations of children brought up bilingual, in their own tongue and in Globish. There are already pop-songs in Globish (though their writers think they are in English). Maybe poetry will follow.

Where will that leave English? Will it seem a fusty old dialect of the world language? Will it evolve away from the mainstream? Will schoolchildren in English, American and Australian classrooms need two types of language lessons – some in their native tongue, and some in Globish? Anything could happen.

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One Response to “Languages”


  1. A very fine post! I included it into my blog and hope it’s ok. 🙂


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