Dé Máirt 28 Meitheamh 2011

Intertextual Language - Bakhtin and Gaeilge

[Originally posted here on July 7, 2010]

I’m currently reading Graham Allen’s book Intertextuality: New Critical Idiom, a pioneering book on the literary criticism scene, in order to examine poems of Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill in an intertextual light. The term ‘intertextual’ is thrown around a lot, without its users fully understanding its complicated definition. It is actually very difficult to pin down. Basically, everything that we humans ‘create’ is intertextual, because there is no such thing as originality, as it is understood generally. The way in which we ‘express’ ourselves and the mediums in which we ‘create’ are systems themselves that we enter into, for example language, conventions of literature, mediums of art and the musical stave. The very way in which we function as humans is not individual (if you think of it this way, we are a species, with a behaviour pattern just like any other species that we study); everything we think has been thought before. The only difference would be the context (i.e. the modern, or post-modern, society we live in). When we ‘express’ or ‘create’, we are working with a certain set of tools that are set and established - it is the different combinations that make it ‘individual’ or ‘new’, but nothing is a work/statement in and of itself, but is based upon, dependent on and understood in relation to everything that came before it and exists alongside it, and will be in the future with what will come. For a literary example, here’s a definition from Allen:
“The meaning on an author’s words does not originate from the author’s own unique consciousness but from their place within linguistic-cultural systems. The author is placed in the role of a compiler or arranger of pre-existent possibilities within the language system. Each word the author employs, each sentence, paragraph or whole text s/he produces takes its origins from, and thus has its meaning in terms of, the language system out of which it was produced.” Intertextuality, p. 14
Very complicated stuff, which led to Ronald Barthe’s article ‘The Death of the Author’, the death being in recognition of the author being no longer the sole ‘authority’ on his/her text’s meaning. Its meaning is dependent on the language, phrases, words, structure, conventions etc. that compose the text. But it is not so much literature that I am interested in here, but this ‘linguistic-cultural system’.



M. M. Bakhtin was a Russian theorist, who was only fully appreciated and brought to light by French theorist Julia Kristeva in the 1960s. Both himself and the Swiss theorist Ferdinand de Saussure are the fathers of intertextuality, as their theories about the system of language prompted the concept, but it is Kristeva that coined the term. Without going too in depth, Bakhtin revolutionised the way in which we see language, as he put it that language exists in specific social situations and that it is understood in specific social evaluations. Language is social, whereas ‘utterance’ (the human-centred aspect of langauge) is individual. The individual does not construct language - it is a system that we are born into, that has a life and an existence in and of itself, but is reflective of the society that uses it. As Allen explains:
“Language is always in a ‘ceaseless flow of becoming’. Language, seen in its social dimension, is constantly reflecting and transforming class, institutional, national and group interests. No word or utterance, from this perspective, is ever neutral. Though the meaning of utterances may be unique, they still derive from already established patterns of meaning recognisable by the addressee and adapted by the addresser.” Intertextuality, p. 18
These established patterns are ‘the manner in which language embodies and reflects constantly changing social values and positions.’ (ibid.)
This is all very complicated and confusing, I think, if you haven’t read these quotations in the context of the whole book, but this last quote prompted me to think about language in terms of the Irish language. I like this ‘ceaseless flow of becoming’ idea, as I can see that Gaeilge is in fact in a flow of ‘becoming’. There is evidence that shows a shift in the users of the Irish language in recent times - more and more people in cities are learning and using the language on a daily basis, whereas the amount of people using it in the Gaeltacht areas, its area of original context you might say, is decreasing noticeably. Irish is swiftly entering a new urban, modern context, which becomes even more fresh as it is young people who are increasingly using the language, both adopting and adapting it into their social life. In terms of intertextual relations, one has to question the affect that being brought up in another language has on the use of another language, because I would see different languages as having separate systems, with differnt signs and symbols. For example, if you were brought up in English and you learn to speak Irish, does this mean that the Irish you speak is technically a different language? I’m going to become really frustratingly deep here, but I’m asking if the signs and symbols from language A (English) affects the way you use language B (Gaeilge). A Dublin Irish-speaker has their own way of using the language, whilst a Conamara Irish-speaker has another way. (And there are rows over these disparate usages!) The Irish language is growing, adding to itself modern terminology that is borne out of English-language concepts; but Irish has been doing this for centuries, acquiring words from Latin and French for example. In this way, as Bakhin suggested, Irish is changing and ‘becoming’ more modern, because it is now being used in a society that has undergone a radical change of mindset in the past two centuries, and even more so because it is being taken out of a rural context into an urban one. Added to the rich tapestry of the Gaelic culture and literature (be it oral or written) is now European expressions, maybe even Eastern expressions, New World expressions, which is borne out of the fact that Irish language is now co-habiting with different cultures in a cosmopolitan, urban area. As Allen says,
“The most crucial aspect of language, from this [Bakhtinian] perspective, is that all language responds to previous utterances and to pre-existent patterns of meaning and evaluation, but also promotes and seeks to promote further responses.” Intertextuality, p. 19
I like to think that this idea of language, in terms of the Irish language, is reflected in the modern use of Gaeilge; the Irish language will always be understood in terms of the past utterances and respond to these utterances in its own tradition, but it will also promote further responses in relation to its new urban surroundings and encounters with different languages and cultural mindsets. What I am saying is that there is no way that Irish is a dead language (a debate still argued that makes me yawn), because we can see that it is in ‘a ceasless flow of becoming’.

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