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Lecture addresses evolving language

Meg Handelman | Friday, February 22, 2013


English professor Barry McCrea discussed the relationship between language and modernity at the inaugural Keough Family Professorship of Irish Studies lecture Thursday in McKenna Hall. 

McCrea specializes in modern European and Irish literature. He released a book called “Minor Languages and the Modernist Imagination” this year.

The abandonment of language and dialects in rural communities is one of modernity’s immediate effects, McCrea said at the lecture.

“The mass adoption by rural population of standard languages as mediums for communication was a highly intimate form of globalization, one which produced a tangible change for how language itself was produced,” he said.

McCrea said two main factors instigated the switch from dialects to regional language – people began to move to cities where a need for unity in communication existed, and a mass marginalization took place in the countryside as new languages began to replace the old.

“Merely feeling or imagining that somewhere out there, there existed another language that might be more authentically their own freed writers up to experiment with the languages they knew, like English,” McCrea said. “They felt that English was borrowed and there was another language for them out there to be located.”

This sense of disconnectedness to their native language inspired writers to use language in new ways, McCrea said. Although people long for language to feel truly theirs, he said it is a natural predicament that language will always frustrate this longing.

Above all, adopting non-native languages offered the writers a new way to express their vision, McCrea said.

“Choosing to write as a non-native in a particular language whose vernacular life has quickly disappeared was a way for both [Irish writer Seán Ó] Ríordáin and [Italian writer Pier Paolo] Pasolini to express … a possible utopian vision of a language in which one might feel truly native to the world,” McCrea said. “A modernist ideal, really, of the new, perfect language for art.”