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A Critic's Journey

A Critic's Journey

by Ilan Stavans

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One of the leading voices in Latino literature writes about his life and work


One of the leading voices in Latino literature writes about his life and work

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Stavans (On Borrowed Words) displays an admirably broad reach in these 33 essays (previously published mainly in the Nation and the Chronicle of Higher Education), most on Spanish-language fiction from Cervantes to Sandra Cisneros and José Saramago. Some essays discuss wider topics, including how Spanish spread among the Western Hemisphere’s largely Indian peoples. Exploring Jewish issues, Mexican-Jewish-American Stavans includes a particularly interesting piece on anti-Semitism in Latin America. His writing reflects his deep love of the creative imagination and is full of pungent observations, such as, “A vast majority [of humanities professors] make a profession of being pretentious.” Stavans’s own graceful writing exemplifies his definition of his craft: “The critic is a compass that helps one to navigate the cultural map.” (Jan.)

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University of Michigan Press
Publication date:
Writers on Writing Series
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

Read an Excerpt

A Critic's Journey

By Ilan Stavans

The University of Michigan Press

Copyright © 2010 Ilan Stavans
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-472-11706-2

Chapter One

Who Owns the English Language?

* * *

I might just as well start with the simplest of answers. In general, language -"the whole body of words and of methods of combination of words used by a nation or race," as the OED announces-has neither owners nor servants. Its metabolism is the result of a slow process of decantation, an edging that happens as a group makes choices. And English in particular, after Chinese the second most frequently used language in the globe, with roughly 500,000,000 speakers, more than half of those in the United States alone, has been extraordinarily elastic in its odyssey. That elasticity, more than any other quality, is proof that Shakespeare's tongue has no ownership. (If it can be said of the language to have an owner, that owner is the Bard.)

Of course, the truth, as always, is more complicated. Languages don't exist in a vacuum. They are at the mercy of the elements: social upheaval, politics, scientific and technological advance, fashion ... They are constantly engaged in power struggles, not only vis-à-vis other languages but in their own metabolism. English is the perfect example. Such has become the growth and dissemination of English, the lingua franca of diplomacy, business, and entertainment, that not to speak it today implies to exist outside the current, in the margins of modernization, just like to be unacquainted with Latin in the Middle Ages and French in the Enlightenment entailed parochialism, maybe even barbarism. However, the question isn't only "Who speaks English?" but, more suitably, "Who speaks what English?" For among those half billion users there are emphatic differences in parlance, differences defined by class, ethnicity, and geography.

It's a cliché to say that ours is a time when verbal transactions occur at a speed at once fast and furious. Still, clichés are usable snippets of knowledge, and it might be useful to reflect on this one for a bit. If modernity is said to be defined by a leitmotif, that leitmotif is migration. Over the last one hundred years, the massive movement of people from one corner of the globe to another has been nothing short of astonishing. According to the Census Bureau, in the United States alone more than 38 percent of the population was born elsewhere. The map of Europe is also being redrawn along the same lines. In Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas, famine, military turmoil, economic instability, and political repression push people out of their homes, displacing them, forcing them to find a more suitable habitat. From west to east, from south to north, people are constantly on the go. If one were allowed to travel to outer space and out of chronological time, zooming in-sub specie aeternitatis, as Spinoza proposed-on human resettlements since the Napoleonic wars, the vision one would get might resemble a busy ant colony. This is an abstract vision, though. The story of each individual immigrant is far more poignant, and more emblematic too. Not only is there an exchange of a person's landscape, external and internal, but the journey often requires the abandonment of the native language and the acquisition of an adopted one. Arrival and departure: how to express their impact in a foreign tongue?

Needless to say, an itinerant life isn't something new. From Gilgamesh to the Bible, from the Icelandic sagas to Beowulf and the Chilam Balam, the chronicle of a hero driven from one confine to another is a recurrent theme. These books might be about a fictitious character, but they also draw light on the patterns of history. The Phoenicians, the Scythians, the Huns, the Babylonians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Berbers, the Almohads, the Ottomans all rose as civilizations eager to dominate others, not only militarily but culturally. The Hebrew letters of the alphabet owe much to their Phoenician counterparts. The impact of Latin in the Old Continent gave place to the Romance languages. As a civilization interacts, traces of its DNA are transferred onto its neighbors. Once it disappears from the face of the earth, only those traces survive.

In terms of mobility, the difference today isn't about quality-after all, a displaced people, unique as they are, go through the same register of emotions-but about quantity. There are more people alive right now than ever before. In a single minute, that number will already be preposterous, since five babies are born every second. These babies arrive into a universe of instantaneous encounter. Language gives the illusion of fluidity. Radio, TV, telephone, and the Internet disseminate images-and words-ceaselessly, allowing them to have a wider impact, to become ubiquitous. It's an illusion, obviously, for not everyone is hooked. Access is defined by education: the difference between the haves and have-nots today is less about money than about synchronicity. Are you tuned in? Do you know what I know? And do we both know it at the same time? Those that are connected share not only the medium but a common language too. Viewers of CNN in Jakarta and Buenos Aires share one thing: they speak English. There are global news channels in Spanish, French, German, Russian, and Portuguese too, yet English has unparalleled gravitas. Simply put, it is the language in which news happen. Those unfamiliar with Shakespeare's tongue aren't left "in the dark," to use a common image, but they often get their information from other sources.

Strictly speaking, English isn't a universal language, yet it's as close as humans might get to one in the foreseeable future. The biblical myth of the Tower of Babel, in which, as a result of human presumption, the use of a single unifying tongue allowing everyone to understand each other is canceled by the Almighty, replaced by a plurality of codes, is more current today than in the past, except that today there are "on codes" and "off codes." The imperial languages-French, Spanish, English, Portuguese, German-forced in the age of colonialism beyond their own confines from the fifteenth century onward, are part of modernity, and English among them reigns as king.

Again, who speaks what English? It's impoverishing to think of language only as a vehicle of communication. It is also data bank, a depository of memory. It is stated in the introduction to the OED that there are some 900,000 different words in the language. An average American-and I should say I don't know who that creature is-uses a vocabulary of roughly 2,000 different words a day. Since they aren't in vogue, are the 898,000 remaining words worthless? On the contrary, they are a reminder of what is left unsaid in a single day. More significantly, they are the reservoir uniting us to our ancestors, the Vikings, the Celts, the Saxons, the Normans, among others. Take the word cross. It has Germanic and Latin origins. Since it doesn't appear in Old English until the tenth century, it might have been brought by the Vikings. Some have also argued that it has Scandinavian roots. Whatever the answer-and evidently the word, in its religious connotation, might be closer to Latin-the compendium of clues signals an abundance of ancestry. When we say cross, the ghosts of our past appear at the crossroad. In his Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, Samuel Johnson says to his biographer James Boswell: "There is no tracing the connection of ancient nations, but by language; and therefore I am always sorry when any language is lost, because languages are the pedigree of nations."

The pedigree of nations. Do English speakers have a pedigree? Isn't it miraculous that in nations as proud of their origins as England, as diverse as the United States, with immigrants from every point of departure imaginable and technology at the cutting edge, and in places as heterogeneous as Australia, Canada, India, and New Zealand, let alone Jamaica, the Philippines, and Belize, the English language manages to survive as healthily as it does? How come it doesn't deteriorate rapidly as a result of over-exposure to outside influences, to loans, to slang, Creole, and patois? Some purists believe English is in a state of decay, but they are not only few and of the intransigent kind. They would love to have stricter regulatory forms established, a more demanding language education, maybe even an institution in charge of legislating what could be called "usage and abusage." The effort behind Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1755, arguably the most idiosyncratic of lexicons ever produced, was a cleansing of foreign influences. "Every language has its anomalies," Johnson writes in the preface, "which, though inconvenient, and in themselves once unnecessary, must be tolerated among the imperfections of human things, and which require only to be registered, that they may not be increased, and ascertained, that they may not be confounded: but every language has likewise its improprieties and absurdities, which it is the duty of the lexicographer to correct or proscribe." And in an earlier piece in The Rambler, Johnson states: "I have laboured to refine our language to grammatical purity, and to clear it from colloquial barbarisms, licentious idioms, and irregular combinations."

I don't want to give a false impression of Doctor Johnson, to whom I devoted an entire chapter in Dictionary Days and who is one of my idols. He was neither rigid nor dogmatic. His dream to purify English from excesses ought to be seen against the backdrop of eighteenth-century London, where the influence of Gallicisms needed to be addressed for national reasons. Interestingly, Johnson never requested the formation of a British equivalent to the Academie françoise. Others in his country have entertained such an idea, among them Daniel Defoe, thinking that, in spite-or perhaps because-of individual efforts of epic proportions such as Johnson's, it is simply too dangerous to leave the well-being of a language to a populace as entrepreneurial and moody as English speakers the world over. Defoe, the author of The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner, as Related by Himself, believes, as argued in an essay called "On Academies" of 1697, that "the Voice of this Society should be sufficient Authority for the Usage of Words, and sufficient also to expose the Innovations of other mens Fancies; they shou'd preside with a sort of Judicature over the Learning of the Age, and have liberty to Correct the Exorbitance of writers, especially the Translators." Amazing, isn't it? Defoe thought it useful to correct writers and translators. Would Joyce ever have come to existence? Henry Roth? Richard Wright? Defoe is clear-cut: "The reputation of this Society," he adds, "wou'd be enough to make them the allo'd judges of Stile and Language; and no Author wou'd have the imprudence to Coin without their Authority." As Yiddish speakers say: oy, oy, oy ...

Jonathan Swift also thought English would go to the dogs. In a letter of 1712 to the Earl of Oxford, he states: "My Lord; I do here, in the Name of all the Learned and Polite Persons in the Nation, complain to Your Lordship, as First Minister, that our Language is extremely imperfect; that its daily Improvements are by no means in proportion to its daily Corruptions; that the Pretenders to polish and refine it, have chiefly multiplied Abuses and Absurdities; and, that in many instances, it offends against every Part of Grammar." Swift would write to newspapers and members of Parliament asking them, as he did to Isaac Bickerstaff in The Tatler, to "Make Us of your Authority as Censor, and by an Annual Index Expurgatorium expunge all Words and Phrases that are offensive to good Sense, and condemn those barbarous Mutilations of vowels and syllables."

Honestly, I too puzzle about an academy. Spain has its own Real Academia de la Lengua, Italy the Accademia della Crusca, and modern Hebrew ha-academia lelashon ha-ivrit, among other examples. These institutions, funded at times by a monarchy, other times by taxpayers, are endowed with the responsibility of safeguarding the language. The one in Madrid was established in 1719, after the French model. Spain in the eighteenth century was in charge of colonies that extended from Idaho to La Plata and onward to the Pacific. Spanish was the unifier of a large mass of people, but it was clear there were linguistic differences: in Mexico, the influence of Nahuatl and other pre-Columbian sources impacted the way people used the language; in Puerto Rico it was Taino, in Paragua Guaraní. Already in 1492, the same year Columbus sailed the ocean blue, Antonio de Nebrija, the first Spanish grammarian, defined the language-the same one that originated in Castile and, with La Reconquista, became, along with Catholicism, a national unifier-as "compañera del imperio," language as a companion of empire.

To this day, the motto of the Real Academia de la Lengua is limpia, fija y da esplendor-clean, fix and give splendor. It sounds like a soap commercial. It isn't an accident that 1492 is also the year when Ferdinand of Aragón and Isabel of Castile, the Catholic king and queen, expelled the Jews from the Iberian Peninsula. Just as Spain was embarking in full on an age of exploration and colonization, it submerged itself in a process of defining its collective identity. That collective identity was as much about inclusion as about exclusion. The Jews and Arabs-the latter would also be expelled some years later-were unwelcome. After long and fruitful if also tense and bellicose centuries of what is known as La Convivencia-the cohabitation of the three religions Judaism, Islam, and Catholicism-splendor could only come by cleansing the nation of the first two. The Spanish Inquisition might have attempted to eliminate traces of los indeseables, but to this day the language retains their DNA. Just as there are numerous words en español of those fought by the conquistadors in the New World (canoa, accumulate, malachite), the catalog of Arabic, and to a lesser extent Hebrew, terms is substantial: almohada, zanahoria, almacén, even the ever-present hola, an invocation of Ala. Again, language as remembrance. Superficially, you might eliminate those you dislike, but their legacy is in your heart.

Presently the main project of the Real Academia de la Lengua is the republication, in revised, expanded editions, of its official dictionary. Employing the help of branches across the Americas, the matrix in Madrid collects words-called voces-and proceeds to deem them acceptable, e.g., correct. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to approach the endeavor as democratic. Indeed, for centuries there have been accusations of racism, colonialism, and other misguided conceptions. The vast majority of voces in the dictionary come from the peninsula. For an Americanism to make it to the illustrious pages of the DLE, the acronym for the Diccionario de la Lengua Española, it might take a decade, sometimes more, to travel from say Managua, Nicaragua, to the royal offices across the Atlantic, be pondered and ultimately given the imprimatur of legitimacy, by which time it probably will have fallen into disuse in its place of origin. This explains the large amount of Americanisms not included in the DLE. Gabriel García Márquez, the author of One Hundred Years of Solitude, once counted the number of synonyms for penis used in Quito, Ecuador: more than one hundred. How many of these are registered in the DLE: two. And then there are the blunders. Recently, the Diccionario Panhispánico de Dudas, released under the auspices of the Real Academia de la Lengua, stated that the gentilicio for those dwellers living in Mexico City is mexiqueño. This came as a surprise to the more than twenty million defeños, chilangos, and capitalinos, myself included. Not a single one I know, not one, has ever used mexiqueño to describe him- or herself. Not mexicano but mexiqueño, like oaxaqueño and acapulqueño. I regret being the conveyor of bad news: according to the Madrid academy, we unfortunately have no clue who we are.


Excerpted from A Critic's Journey by Ilan Stavans Copyright © 2010 by Ilan Stavans. Excerpted by permission.
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