“Writing and Reading Diglossia”


This lecture examines the impact on literature of a linguistic configuration known as diglossia. Coined during the nationalist struggles in 19th-century Greece, the term was to be revived as a concept by Charles Ferguson. He used it to describe a form of societal bilingualism where two languages in contact were used by the same people, but in different contexts (often with a clear-cut distinction between public and private uses, “High” and “Low” varieties, etc.). Since both languages are widely mastered in diglossic societies, switching back and forth between them does not take place randomly, nor does it depend on individual initiatives, but is socially regulated and follows collective patterns of behaviour.

How do these considerations relate to literature? As a rule, writers stemming from such backgrounds do not tend to write in the “Low” language of private life and intimacy, which may actually lack uniform spelling rules or not even exist in print. They either restrict themselves to the more prestigious “High” variety for their writing, or try to convey a sense of their diglossia by sprinkling texts written in the more prestigious language with more or less liberal helpings of the other, “Low” language. Yet they will do so in a manner quite different from many authors of bilingual classics (e.g. Eliot’s Waste Land or Joyce’s Ulysses), whose overt and sometimes blatant use of foreign languages calls for an equally competent ideal reader, thereby excluding the monolingual masses from enjoying their work to the fullest. Diglossic writing is entirely different in nature. It attempts to reach both a bilingual and a monolingual audience. To that end, the other, so-called “Low” variety, is used in a way that establishes a privileged dialogue with insiders from the writers’ own cultures, but without prejudice to readers not versed in the same languages as they are. In order for this to succeed, foreign speech has to be cleverly cushioned with textual buffers, as it were.

This particular mode of writing and reading will be illustrated with examples drawn from the well-known Aventures de Tintin, where Hergé’s use of “Marollien” obtains precisely the double effect alluded to. While my analysis will be based on the original French editions, I will briefly look at (English and Dutch) translations as well.


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