Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Centripedal (not centrifugal)

"With respect to world poetries and the decline of English, I'd say we're in for an enormous dumbing down of the language, as other languages push English to the side, or at the very least inject it with neologisms and hybrid (illiterate) constructions. The most talented writers of any generation know their language inside-out, not outside in. The few exceptions don't disprove that rule." (Curtis Faville, in the comment stream of Ron Silliman's blog. One can always count on Curtis to be not only uninformed but also xenophobic to the hilt.)

You can add to this Silliman's own obsession with poets with "fine ears", his opposition to translators whose first language is not American-English (they foreignize the English language, being less saturated in it, and in this he makes an interesting pair with Robert Bly who I once heard say that poets could only write in the language which their mother spoke when the poet was in her womb - of course my mom spoke a lot of languages when I was in her womb...), and his inability to "hear" other dialects/languages than his own (even British English). The ear as a grotesquely detached, objective organ.

The best example of this kind of thinking is of course - as I have noted on this blog in the past - the letter in which TS Eliot speaks with fear of Gertrude Stein, claiming that she represents a future which will be "of the barbarians." A quote similar to the one Yeats makes about Jarry ("After us, the savage god").


Blogger mongibeddu said...

I just learned that the word barbarian was originally an onomatopoeia, the barbar being a jibe at the stammering of foreigners in Greece. Maybe that's commonly known, but I'd never heard it before.

Ben F.

7:09 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Great! That just makes perfect sense. Where did you learn this piece of pertinent information?


7:10 AM  
Blogger mongibeddu said...

From an old book called Foundations of Language by Louis H. Gray (Macmillan, 1939), which I turned to in search of decent definitions of consonant, vowel, and syllable (for use in teaching meter). More recent books on language are either way too technical or gloss over the question―or so it would seem from an hour spent browsing in the stacks. I may end up reading this one all the way through. It's pretty lively.

Ben F.

7:51 AM  
Blogger UCOP Killer said...

On barbarian, see, also, this excellent post by Reza Negarestani. . (Whose work I think you'd like, Johannes)


8:31 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Of course, after learning that tidbit about the word barbarian, one might re-read Cavafy's poem "Waiting for the Barbarians" with deeper insight.

I think the Bly quote is out of context. I don't Bly's position on translation is anything like what you've represented. Bly has said that poets should write in their mother tongues, but he has also said that all poets need to engage in translation, to enrich their knowledge of their mother tongues, and also to broaden their views of the world. Bly has published at least two books specifically about translation, that I am aware of or have on my library shelves, and is known as a regular translator of many different poets.

Whether or not one thinks Bly is a good translator is not the issue here: that he values the act and art of translation is.

I've been fluent in three or four languages in my lifetime, and in each case my personal test was to be able to write a poem in the new language, and/or to be able to translate poems from it. (That's a competency I'm unable to maintain at this time, because opportunities for sustained practice are few; but I did do it, and it did leave a mark.)

8:41 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


You are totally correct. I mean to write more about Bly who is an interesting and complex character. It is interesting that I saw Seth made him the representative of Quietism which is totally mistaken when you consider all his work with Translation. His friendship with Jerry Rothenberg in NYC in the early 60s and their translation work led to the idea of "deep image." Anyway, you're right I just wanted to draw a strange comparison.


9:23 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


Wow. Amazing post.


9:29 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Johannes, I understand about the odd comparison. I do want to read more of what you have to think about Bly. I also appreciate your mentioning Rothenberg; reading his big anthologies "Shaking the Pumpkin" and "Technicians of the Sacred," when I was still in college (music school), opened many doors for my own poetic and artistic development.

Not coincidentally, it was Bly and what he wrote about in his long essay "Leaping Poetry" that I posted on my own blog about, as a possible third stream outside Ron's dichotomy, a year or two ago. Ron came over and immediately folded Bly back into SoQ, which I think is quite wrong. Whatever one thinks of Bly as a poet, I think one must take stock of his critical writings on poetry. It seems to me that this has been badly dealt with, or completely overlooked, in all these binary-polarized Us vs. Them arguments.

9:52 AM  
Blogger François Luong said...

I often wonder what people mean when they say the language is being dumbed down.

As for Ron S.'s obsession with the "fine ear," I am amused he shares it with Tony Hoagland.

2:28 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Interesting also that anybody would fear English being "dumbed down" when the size of the working vocabulary is staggering compared to many other languages, and its grammar is considered to be terribly complex among second-language learners. As Francois says, it makes one wonder exactly what "dumbed down" means (one would assume it means "simpler," or more spare, something like that ... but that doesn't really fit English at all).

10:58 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Considering the fact that dumbed down means hybridity and neologism, it suggests that English will get more complex. But the entry answers your question very simply: allowing foreigners to tweak our language is to make it less refined. And this fits in with the whole Bakhtinian premise: People like Curtis wants to maintain the illusion that there is one true language (belonging naturally to white, upperclass folks with fine learning).


6:23 AM  
Blogger Max said...

That anybody would think English is a "refined" language in the first place is kind of absurd. It's actually quite the opposite of that, I think, just voraciously eating up, appropriating anything from other languages that is found the slightest bit useful. A "refined" language wouldn't have nearly so many synonyms.

I'm not sure about other countries, but Japan and Korea have actually, fairly recently in their histories, had major language reformations. For example, the Koreans used to use Chinese characters, but then they invented their own simplified writing system from scratch under the orders of a king. In order to simplify Japanese, the government, some time in the 20th century I believe, mandated a basic vocabulary of 2000 characters that could be used in newspapers and official documents (so somebody wouldn't need a 10,000+ character vocabulary just to read the news).

Has English ever gone through such a reformation, or rather, "refining" period?

4:09 PM  
Blogger François Luong said...


Can we really say that Japanese was refined? I mean, they have four writing systems (kanji, hiragana, katakana and romaji), which can be used within the same sentence. If anything, it is a very heterodox language.

5:18 PM  
Blogger François Luong said...

Oh, and yes, Theodore Roosevelt tried to "refine" English in the US, an attempt that failed, but led to alternate spellings like 'nite' or 'thru.'

5:19 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Well, to be fair to Japanese, hiragana and kanji are the most commonly used ones. Hiragana is basically just a syllabic writing system that allows one to write words for which there are no kanji. Kanji are the characters linked back to Chinese (symbols that stand for entire words or ideas). Katakana is merely a system used for writing loan words from other languages. Both hiragana and katakana are extremely simple to learn. You could probably master both in a couple days. And romaji is just writing in the latin alphabet, and is probably not terribly common in everyday writing (one sees it on signs and t-shirts, things of that sort).

Kanji is the real problem, because you literally need a college education in order to develop the kind of vocabulary that an English speaker could pick up passively by the end of high school.

The Korean writing system, called "hangul," is perhaps the most sophisticated writing system in the world. It is an alphabet, like the latin alphabet, in that its symbols represents distinct sounds (instead of syllables, like in Japanese), and you create syllables by grouping the symbols into blocks. The way a syllable block is constructed is based on whether the vowel is horizontal or vertical (the vowels are all based on straight lines with little lines coming off of them). As I understand it, the grammar of Korean is almost exactly the same as in Japanese ... they just don't have the clutter of complicated Chinese-based vocabulary. But the pronunciation of Korean is much harder than Japanese, because they have very subtle vowel sounds (like "a / eo / o" and "u / eu") and some of the consonant sounds are a pain (sometimes it's a "g" sound and sometimes it's "k" sound ... same for "d" and "t").

Anyway, yeah. Japanese is an example of a language that actually seems to need "refining," though I don't think the preponderance of writing systems is necessarily at fault. Hiragana/katakana are so easy to learn, and romaji is a negligible part of it. The biggest problem is getting away from the overly complex Chinese character system embodied in kanji, which requires a huge amount of time and effort even for native writers/speakers to deal with.

6:13 PM  
Blogger François Luong said...


I was thinking about how easily Japanese absorbs loan words and makes them its own. The easiest example is "tempura," which is written in hiragana.

Sure, the majority of those words would be written in katakana nowadays, but I find many Japanese using those words instead of the actual Japanese word for it (コンピューター instead of 電子計算機 for example).

6:27 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Well, in the case of tempura, according to wikipedia it was introduced to Japan in the 16th century, so we're not really talking about much of a loan word anymore. And when you compare those two different words in your example, it becomes easy to see why the Japanese would abandon the latter.

The Koreans have a hybrid slang called "konglish," which constitutes borrowed English and various English-isms. For example, the common term for a cellphone here is 핸드폰, which is pronounced "hen-deu-pon" (or, to Anglicize it, "handphone"). Of course, they usually aren't abandoning anything in favor of a loan word, because they abandoned Chinese characters a long time ago (mid-1400s). Unfortunately, the Japanese are still tied to the Chinese characters to a certain extent. I'm sure it leads to all sorts of inconveniences, such as not being able to easily read screen fonts.

8:04 PM  

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