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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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english Literature

Sunday, June 11, 2006

It is fairly uncontroversial to suggest that English literature begins with Gower, Whitcliffe, Chaucer and his contemporaries. Although infused - inevitably and permanently - with the mythical strains of Anglo-Saxon and Ancient epic, by the end of the fourteenth century English was beginning to make itself heard above French, as the language of verse romance, and Latin, as the language of philosophical debate and government.

The question of if and where English literature ends is harder to answer. India is the country with the largest English-speaking population in the world, and it would be naïve for Britain to cling to an image of itself as the principle island of creativity in the language, when in numerical terms alone it is the root, but not trunk and branch, of the English word.

A glance at recent Booker prize winners – Arundhati Roy, Kazuo Ishiguro, Yann Martel - confirms that literary writing in English is no longer necessarily done by holders of English passports. As another Booker winner, Salman Rushdie, wittily phrased it, "the Empire writes back." In contemporary English-language poetry, non-British or post-colonial writers have adapted traditional verse forms and content to register their own racial and social dialects and situations. Thus in an age of global communication, it is not inconceivable that a poet such as Tony Harrison, who invokes dialects from the North of England in formally constructed verse, may share more stylistic features with someone such as Robert Lowell in North America, than with his contemporaries (Benjamin Zephaniah or Grace Nichols, for example) living in a different area of his own country. And with the growing recognition of the potential of translation as a creative and adaptive aesthetic itself (see, for example, Seamus Heaney’s adaptation of Beowulf or Christopher Logue’s War Music), the language in which something was originally written becomes increasingly incidental; it is what the word says which matters, not the originally foreign tongue - or variations on the root tongue of English - with which it was once spoken.

Is the answer, then, to make a distinction between "English-literature," of the early period, and "English-language" writing, from the modern period, which is characterised by its development by a variety of international writers? With its clumsy hyphenation and categorisation, this risks developing what linguists call "markedness," the implicit value judgement that lies behind our situating of a particular writer in relation to his linguistic heritage. Thus it is always the "Irish poet, Yeats," the "Afro-Carribean poet Langston Hughes," but never the "English poet Wordsworth."

Perhaps the only solution is to eradicate the proper noun of "English," and to use "english" instead as an adjectival marker of style and relation to tradition, in a similar way to "beat," or "postmodern," or "magic realism."

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Posted by Alistair at 4:53 pm


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