Sunday, February 2, 2014

Finnegans Wake and the Schizophenic English language.

This is my happy birthday post.  So first of all, Happy Birthday James Joyce!

I just wanted to jot down a few thoughts I recently had about the English language and Finnegans Wake.  

I was once discussing English and German with a young German woman, in a variety of broken phrases in each other's languages, that really, our languages were just not that pretty compared to French and Italian. English indeed lacks the elaborate social kabuki theater of Japanese, or the maddeningly complex case structure of Lithuanian, or even the arguably better structure for explaining the theory of relativity in Navaho.  It's not even that easy to spell.  And we know that when Joyce wished to relax he chose to speak Italian in his own home.

What marks off this particular language though, is the abundance of borrowings from other languages, and the rapidity with which it has changed over time.  It is a kind of Viconian embedment of human historical experience inside language.  And this has led to the curious characteristic that this is embedded into individual words themselves, and a much larger vocabulary than most other languages.  There are many different synonyms for the same word for almost anything.  Joyce took this one step further: the colonized Irishman decolonized the language of the conqueror by parodying and exaggerating its salient characteristics.

English was profoundly affected by the Norman conquest, which flooded the English vocabulary with a Romance vocabulary, but leaving the Germanic base vocabulary and grammar somewhat intact.  The Saxon words are perceived as blunt, coarse.  The Romance language words are perceived as classy, nuanced.  Joyce uses shifts of vocabularies, and shifting the dominant roots of words between different languages to create or suggest invasion, cultural confrontation, or assimilation.  The courtship of HCE for ALP, takes on connotations of invasion and plunder of Ireland by the seafaring Vikings and Anglo-Saxon English.

This brings us to ALP and HCE.  It has perhaps not escaped notice that Joyce uses leitmotifs for his different characters, each getting a different use of language.  But these two have the most profound differences when they appear in focus.  In the case of ALP, the language is smooth, flowing, dominated by liquids and vowels.  In the case of HCE the language is jumpy, dominated by consonants, especially awkward consonant blends.

For ALP we have a name dominated by vowels and splashy consonants

For HCE we have fewer and less pure vowels, and the consonants
h, n, r, and the ungainly  mphr,ch,mpd...

The actual names themselves contain the two dominant strains of English.

For ALP, we have
anna (latin)
livy, livia (latin)
plur-,plural (French)
belle (French)

For HCE we have
hump (Dutch)
free, frei (OE,Germanic)
chip (OE, Germanic)
den (OE, Germanic)
ear (OE, Germanic)
wick, wicked, wiccan (OE, Germanic).

I leave the final word to the birthday boy himself:

"When morning comes of course everything will be clear again [...] I'll give them back their English language. I'm not destroying it for good."  (Quote from Ellman, James Joyce.)

February 2nd

Happy birthday, James Joyce. I take no credit for remembering the day, but was reminded by the better memory of PQ, who wrote a fine celebratory and informative post over at Finnegans, Wake! complete with links to some other fans' Joyce related blog posts. Check them all out.