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  • Neighborly Hostility and Literary Creoles: The Example of Hugh MacDiarmid
  • Laura O’Connor (bio)

This article explores the influence of linguicism—discrimination against others on the basis of language and speaking style—on the poetics and politics of literary Creoles by examining the “Synthetic Scots” of modernist poet Hugh MacDiarmid. When languages that have previously been separate are brought into contact as a result of colonization, migration, and globalization, both the languages themselves and popular perceptions of them alter significantly. The proliferation of hybrid Englishes that has accompanied the monocultural thrust of “global” English has affected literary production in English significantly. Hybrid Englishes are formed in what Mary Louise Pratt describes as “contact zone[s] . . . where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power, such as colonialism, slavery or their aftermaths as they are lived out in many parts of the world today” (4). The close proximity of English to Scots, Gaelic, and Welsh, and the documented history of their long interaction, make the internal context of the British Isles a fertile site for analyzing colonial contact-zones, places where English coexists with other vernaculars that have been marginalized or almost supplanted by it. As I will suggest, the literary Creoles that develop under conditions of linguicism illuminate the dynamics of intimate and hostile relations across a contested border. MacDiarmid’s poetics reveals, for example, that forms such as blazon and caricature reflect and attempt to reintegrate on a linguistic level one’s neighbor’s ambivalence toward oneself.

Even as it expresses the ambivalences of linguistic proximity, the convergence of diverse languages and dialects is in many ways a boon for literary creativity. Behind the apparent cohesion of a literary language lies “an intense struggle that goes on between languages and within languages,” Mikhail Bakhtin observes, and a multilingual or multidialectal environment enables writers “to look at language from the outside, with another’s eyes, from the point-of-view of a potentially different language and style” (Dialogic 66, 60). When writers combine two or more linguistic systems that relate to one another in a single literary utterance as do rejoinders in a dialogue, they objectify the worldviews of the juxtaposed idioms to form what Bakhtin characterizes as the “intentional hybridization” of “dialogical” discourse.

The ability to see one’s own linguistic habitus in the light of another’s owes something to linguicism, according to Bakhtin. He locates its prehistory in parodic-travestying expressions of neighborly hostility, the “ridiculing [of] dialectological peculiarities, and making fun of the linguistic and speech manners of [other] groups . . . that belongs to every people’s most ancient store of language images” (82). The habit of disparaging the speaking styles of neighboring speech communities and social inferiors is as old as ethnocentrism (the Greek barbaros is supposed to be an onomatapoeic imitation of incomprehensible speech) and the competitive pursuit of social prestige: “The rich man speaks and everyone stops talking; and then they praise his discourse to the skies. The poor man speaks and people say, ‘who is this,’ and if he stumbles, they trip him up yet more” (Ecclus. 13.28–29). In this essay I use the metaphor of the “Pale/Fringe” contact-zone to track how the linguicism of English-only Anglicization (figured as “the English Pale”) and the concomitant translation of the receding Gaelic and Scots culture into a romanticized “Celtic Fringe” made linguicism a pervasive and constitutive feature of British cultural life. English-only linguicism encompasses the destruction or near-supplantation of indigenous languages; the ostracism of competing vernaculars from the center of power; and the stigmatization of speakers of other languages or vernacular Englishes as “beyond the Pale.” The literary Scots of MacDiarmid exploits the discrepant registers of his hybrid linguistic heritage in order to dramatize, interrogate, and reconfigure the high/low hierarchy established between the encroaching English and marginalized Scots vernaculars.

In 1977, a BBC interviewer asked Hugh MacDiarmid, then the grand old man of Scottish letters, what difference it would have made had he been born ten miles further south and hence an Englishman. Growing up in Langholm had imbued him with “a border spirit where differences are accentuated...

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