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Haunted English: The Celtic Fringe, the British Empire, and De-Anglicization (review)

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 45, Number 1, Fall 2007
pp. 170-173 | 10.1353/jjq.0.0044

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By "Haunted English," Laura O'Connor means the language of the colonized, "an acquired speech," as Stephen Dedalus calls it, "so familiar and so foreign" (P 189)—a theme appropriate for a project that began as a doctoral thesis under the supervision of Edward Said. In his debate with the English Dean of Studies, Stephen realizes that "[t]he language in which we are speaking is his before it is mine" (P 189), which is the same crisis of identity facing the three "'Celtic' modernists" (xii) at the center of this study: W. B. Yeats, Hugh MacDiarmid, and Marianne Moore. O'Connor explores how these poets' "literary vernaculars . . . are shaped by their respective efforts to work through and remake their conscious and unconscious memories of Pale/Fringe linguicism" (xvii). They share an "ambivalence toward the colonial tongue," but none of them developed any sort of serious proficiency in the Celtic languages (65). Instead they "speak out of the dominant English tradition and from somewhere else [but still essentially in English] to give voice to a tradition that has been marginalized from the mainstream" (65).

The brilliant introduction elucidates the often misunderstood concept of "the Pale," which, in late-medieval Ireland, referred to the barricades separating the English-speaking colonial stronghold from the native Gaelic-speaking population (xiii-xiv). The English invaded not only geographical but linguistic territory, forcing the retreat of Celtic languages to the periphery of the British Isles. O'Connor points out that the "cartographical image of the English Pale devouring the Celtic Fringe" needs to be supplemented with the "vertical image" of the "social pyramid" that favors speakers of "proper English" over "accented" or vernacular Englishes and Celtic languages (xiv). This is where the modern colloquial meaning of "beyond the Pale" originates: from an English invader's perspective, the Irish natives "beyond the Pale" were both socially and linguistically inferior.

The "linguicism" which non-Anglo writers like Yeats, MacDiarmid, and Moore strive to overcome is a form of discrimination based on language and speaking style. O'Connor loads this term, borrowed from Robert Phillopson,1 with the double-barreled charge that English was both a "'killer language' (an instrument of Gaelic linguicide )" and a "medium of linguistic racism and ethnicized class antagonism" (xiii). As English consumed the native Celtic languages, it also eroded the cultural heritage that these Celtic languages preserved. O'Connor argues that each of these writers overcame the "cultural cringe" to discover his or her own "signature style" "[b]y working through a kind of inscribed melancholia and by unlocking a spectral linguistic resource still present within English" (xvi, xvii).

After the introduction's intriguing naming of parts, the first chapter, "Beyond the Pale," establishes the Celtic context in which O'Connor places her chosen writers. Her touchstones in the mire of Celtic discourse are predictably Matthew Arnold's On the Study of Celtic Literature, Ernest Renan's Poésie des Races Celtiques, and Edmund Spenser's A View of the Present State of Ireland.2 Douglas Hyde's lecture "The Necessity for De-Anglicizing Ireland," which prompted the Gaelic Revival in Ireland, also features prominently and supplies the "harsh, virulent, and rebellious" neologism that O'Connor adopts in her subtitle (xvi).3 This first chapter is helpfully structured with subheadings such as "Englishing the Overseas Colony," "Self Anglicizing Makeovers and the Alienation of Gaelic and Scots from Literacy," and "The Fenian Revenant: The Return of the Gaeltacht as the Celtic Fringe," which guide the reader through the argument.

The rest of the book fails to maintain this standard of pedagogic coherence and clarity of thought. Each of the final three chapters focuses on a single author. "'Eater and Eaten': The Haunted English of W. B. Yeats" examines the way Yeats consumes Irish folklore and regurgitates it as the reimagined "Collected Yeats." "Hugh MacDiarmid's Poetics of Caricature" charts the genesis of Christopher Murray Grieve's literary identity "Hugh MacDiarmid" in 1922 when, after an encounter with a Scottish etymological dictionary, Grieve/ MacDiarmid discovered the literary potential of Synthetic Scots, which is an attempt to reactivate the generic memory of "dialect" and "Scotticism" within the constraints of standard English orthography. The fact...

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