Literary Review

Speaking in many tongues

Impure Languages: Linguistic and Literary Hybridity in Contemporary Cultures  

One of the problems with globalisation — from the earliest times to its most recent avatar — is the obsessive pressure toward a linear homogeneity of structures and narratives. At the same time, cultures in conflict often invoke their essential heterogeneity in a carnivalesque pageant offering resistance and seeking identities through difference. In our own times with its post-industrial traces, Europe is processing itself from the homogeneity of several post-enlightenment nation-states to a larger heterogeneous political and cultural entity called European Union; and India, characterised by a historically established heterogeneity, is permanently struggling against homogenising tendencies that seek to unsettle its constitutionally established secular diversity. This struggle is easily borne out by the cultural contours of language in everyday use as well as in its literary contexts.  Perhaps it is a truism to state that there is an unseen link between colonialism and monolingualism. Multiculturalism and multilingualism in the eyes of imperial powers is nothing but unchaste and impure.

The book under review is the collective labour of several scholars from Europe and India seeking to explore linguistic and literary hybridity in the present. Culture is a palimpsest of many narratives and as India has shown over centuries, a multiplicity of languages is more an asset than a liability. Nevertheless, the concept of impurity as well as the idea of contamination could be seen to exist beside the productive and provocative idea of hybridity as asserting différance (Derrida) and/or as leading toward the idea of a third space (Homi K. Bhabha).

Migration and multiculturalism are not a recent phenomenon and both Europe and India continue to experience transnational incursions and cultural conflicts, thereby giving rise to a rich texture of hybridity that celebrates difference and diversity. The issues discussed under several heads in the book are certainly relevant. There are 14 essays neatly segregated into six sections — hybrid concepts of language and culture, literary hybridity on a horizontal scale, selected case studies, Hindi-English hybridity, clash of high/low cultures, and hybrid cultural identities. This is quite typical of the theoretically-astute German eye involved in the composition of this erudite volume — the contributors are for the most scholars working in the field of Indo-Germanic literary and linguistic studies. As Bhabha has pointed out elsewhere, the process of cultural hybridity gives rise to something different, something in-between, in a new area of negotiation of meaning and representation. The volume amply bears this out in terms of a sustained collaborative scholarship.  

Claudia Benthien’s chapter on Hyperintentional Hybridity as Aesthetic Principle in Contemporary German-Speaking Prose touches on the heart of the matter. While applying the Bakhtinian concept of intentional hybridity to several post-modern literary narratives, the author takes us on a journey of exploration of hybrid spaces where the dialogic possibilities of language leaves us with a fundamental conundrum of “who is speaking?” In the clash of high and low cultures, the hybrid slides on a vertical scale and retains its elusiveness.

The chapter on linguistic capacity and hybridity underscores the idea that impurity and hybridity are intrinsic to linguistic capacity, while a case study of families displaced by the Tehri dam in the Garhwal reveals how the process of immigration to a new location usually leads to hybridity and a commingling of heterogeneous elements.

‘Hybridity and Multilinguality in the Material World’ is an interesting essay exploring the negotiation of meaning among different kinds of signs in a geo-semiotic framework. The authors point out with the aid of several images from signboards and hoardings how linguistic and scriptal boundaries are “porous, more like colours in a painting,” which leads them to conclude hybridity itself as normative in its material function. The examples gathered from urban spaces explore the fluidity of linguistic spaces and, as this study reveals, the signage created by this select group of people shows the unique human capacity of meaningfully playing with languages and scripts and thereby defeating the very idea of discrete languages and scripts.

There are two more interesting case studies — on Argentinean Porteno Spanish, and on Camfranglais (the mixed French-English of the Cameroons) — which delve into the complex reaches of lexical, morphological and semantic hybridity. Political destabilisation, economic deprivation, and cultural alienation have led to the formation of newer identities. Immigration and cultural encounters could be seen as a hallmark of the 21st century, as a couple of other authors in this book have also argued. In an essay focussing on migrant Turkish literature in Germany — quite a significant body of imaginative narratives in the present — the nuances of linguistic and cultural intermixing are explored through discussions in the field of creolistics, the study of the process of creolisation in the field of diaspora studies.

Hybridity is a key concept with political connotations in the area of post-colonial theory with serious implications in diaspora studies and the innumerable avatars spawned by it. Our abstract notions of homogeneity in culture are belied by its concrete practices. And, as pointed out by theoreticians, hybridity is not a counter-concept to “hierarchical” and “hegemonic” but to “binary” and “dichotomous”. The hybrid is neither representative of the self nor of the other, but of a third form that is new, unusual or extraordinary. As Spivak has pointed out, it is a word that serves to obliterate the hybridity of all language.

The linguistic turn of the last century might have dissipated its initial impetus over a period, but the profound implications of linguistic and semantic studies in such areas as diaspora and post-colonial in a glocalising world cannot be relegated to the background. The discourse on hybridity is a response to racial, ethnic, and national divisions, but is sustained by foregrounding race, ethnicity and nation in problems of culture and politics. The terms Paki in England or Nigger in the US connote abuse and similarly, the word Kanak is a form of abuse in Germany, but in the Turkish-German subculture, it has emerged as a form of defiance of a resistant identity. Indeed, as the chapters in the book assert, this resistance is a reflection of hybridity as a reality in both European and Indian cultures.

The writer is Professor of English at Pondicherry University.

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Printable version | Nov 24, 2020 4:04:45 AM |

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