In Praise of Polyglossia

In Praise of Polyglossia

By Erika Dreifus

Last winter, I sat with my fellow (American) fiction writers around a seminar table, absorbing our (American) instructor’s insights about Craft and Process. We had just finished critiquing one of my classmate’s manuscripts, and during a brief discussion the instructor pronounced one of the most shocking statements I’d ever heard a writing teacher articulate:

“People who use foreign words in their fiction,” she began, leaning back in her chair and waving her hand, “are just showing off.”

Slight, polite laughter rippled through the room. My own face froze.

Ma foi! Was she, I wondered, alluding to my own “person,” my own fiction? Was she thinking of my own reputation for peppering speech with a French phrase here and there? Because to my knowledge she had not yet read any of my stories, many of which feature immigrant characters, stories in which German-Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, especially, address loved ones as Liebchen, or slowly and painfully acquire English language skills. In any case, even granted the tension-filled time that it was, with the United States and France veritable foes at the United Nations, the instructor’s comments seemed the epitome of American exceptionalism—and certainly provided another insight concerning “why they hate us.”

I do not know why I failed to challenge her in the classroom, why I shrank from speaking up then and there in praise of polyglossia. That assumed, of course, that she would be familiar with this word, polyglossia, which covers the use of multiple languages within a single text, and which should be distinguished from heteroglossia, that concept analyzed at length by Mikhail Bakhtin, referring, in its simplest terms, to the varieties of expression within one language. Normally I am known for defending my opinions and arguing against fallacious assertions. Was I quieted, that class session, by my ordinary respect for her authority? Her reputation? She is, after all, a famous novelist. She is, otherwise, an excellent teacher.

But, world travelers or even, perhaps, simply citizens of countries with multiple official languages we can all admit this truth. The idea that “People who use foreign words in their fiction are just showing off” is—how may I say this felicitously—stupide.

In fact, polyglossia stretches far beyond my own bag of authorial “tricks.” Writers from Kate Chopin and F. Scott Fitzgerald to Anzia Yezierska and William Trevor, to name a few of my favorites, are not “showing off” when they employ “foreign” words in their fiction. Whether they give their characters “foreign” names, set their stories outside the United States, or incorporate multiple languages among—or within—their characters’ voices, they have given their work considerable thought and deliberation.

Apparently my instructor has yet to notice, but America is a multicultural land. So when Kate Chopin named characters in her 1899 novel, The Awakening, Adèle Ratignolle or Léonce Pontellier, she may not, in fact, have been “showing off.” When she created those fictional characters, products of the Louisiana Creole tradition, she may have wished to give them French-sounding names appropriate to their identities and culture.

America is, as well, a country of immigrants, possessing a rich literature by and about such individuals and communities. Since the “foreign” origins of the Shimerda family are somewhat significant in Willa Cather’s novel, My Ántonia, one might infer that not only the choice of name but even its spelling and the narrator’s instructions on how to pronounce it: “Án-tonia—they accented the name thus, strongly, when they spoke to her….” truly mattered to Cather. Given other narrative details, “showing off” was likely not what Cather had in mind for the Shimerda family. As narrator Jim Burden recalls of an early impression of Ántonia’s grandmother: “I remember how horrified we were at the sour, ashy-grey bread she gave her family to eat. She mixed her dough, we discovered, in an old tin peck-measure that Krajicek had used about the barn.” (1)

And, as we know, Americans sometimes travel outside their home country. When they do so they are likely to encounter individuals with “foreign names.” In Barbara Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible, the missionary family at the novel’s core meets, among others, an African village chief named Tata Ndu. As with the other examples, the name lends authenticity to the narrative. It enriches the setting and other fictional elements because its “foreignness” is utterly appropriate and real.

From characters’ names it is hardly a far leap to places and settings. Not long ago I read William Trevor’s novella, My House in Umbria, for another workshop. Somehow I imagine the story would have transmogrified, had Trevor titled it, My House in Utica.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story, “One Trip Abroad,” surely would have lost something in translation into “One Trip Down the Street.” As the story’s narrator tells us well into the tale: “This is the story of one trip abroad, and the geographical element must not be slighted. Having visited North Africa, Italy, the Riviera, Paris and points in between, it was not surprising that the Kellys should go to Switzerland. Switzerland is a country where few things begin, but many things end.” (2)

And I think that if Tim O’Brien had omitted the “foreign words” from the last line of his widely-anthologized story, “The Things They Carried,” the story might have, well, lost some of its power. Somehow, I don’t think that O’Brien was “showing off” when he wrote of the young American men in Vietnam who “would saddle up and form into a column and move out toward the villages of Than Khe.” (3)

This is perhaps the most interesting issue, and the area in which polyglossia deserves its highest praise.

In another and perhaps better-known Fitzgerald story, “Babylon Revisited,” a long-absent father takes his young daughter to a Paris restaurant for lunch:

“Now, how about vegetables? Oughtn’t you to have some vegetables?”
“Well, yes.”
“Here’s épinards and chou-fleur and carrots and haricots.”
“I’d like chou-fleur.”
“Wouldn’t you like to have two vegetables?”
“I usually only have one at lunch.”
The waiter was pretending to be inordinately fond of children. “Qu’elle est mignonne, la petite? Elle parle exactement comme une Française!” (4)

That’s a fairly minor example, I confess, as the waiter is a minor character. But at times a character’s speech—and the speech of those with whom s/he interacts—can reveal much about theme and deeper aspects of plot and character within a story or a novel. Here, the use of “foreign words,” or what has been termed elsewhere “multi-vocality,” possesses a powerful and deliberate purpose.

Recently I discovered—but perhaps understandably hesitated to share with my instructor—a marvelous scholarly article: “’All Words, Words, about Words’: Linguistic Journey and Transformation in Anzia Yezierska’s The Bread Givers.” The article’s author, Ruth Bienstock Anolik had chosen to write about one of my favorite novels, by an immigrant author (Yezierska came to New York from Eastern Europe at the age of 15 and studied English in night school). Although Anolik at times deploys the term heteroglossia where I feel she might, in fact, have invoked the preferred polyglossia, many of her analyses intrigue me, as in this passage concerning protagonist Sara Smolinksy:

As Sara, the character, assimilates into the cultural and linguistic mainstream of America, becoming an English speaking American person, Sara’s narrative voice changes too. The rich multi-vocal Yiddish inflected narrative voice of the early sections of the novel echo [sic?] the cadences of the mother and sisters, yielding to incorporate Yiddish, Hebrew and Yiddish-inflected English speech. When the novel begins Sara’s narrative voice reveals her linguistic roots and her connections to her family [….] As Sara develops linguistically, her narrative voice is also transformed, moving toward the uniformity of standard English [….]

Anolik argues further that the standardization of Sara’s speech brings a “loss of narrative power and richness” that represents the “loss of richness and identity that may be the price of assimilation.” (5)

So I don’t think that Yezierska was “showing off,” either.

But if I had had the presence of mind—and speech—to tell all of this to my professor back in the classroom last year, perhaps I’d have concluded by reiterating my respect for her overall talents and wisdom. Maybe I’d have done it this way:

Veuillez accepter, chère Professor X, l’expression de mes sentiments les plus respectueux.


(1) Willa Cather, My Ántonia, 1918 (Boston: Mariner, 1995), 17; 22-23.
(2) F. Scott Fitzgerald, “One Trip Abroad,” in The Short Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, ed. Matthew J. Bruccoli (New York: Scribner, 1989), 594.
(3) Tim O’Brien, “The Things They Carried,” in The Story and Its Writer, ed. Ann Charters, 6th edition (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003), 1115.
(4) Fitzgerald, “Babylon Revisited,” in Bruccoli, ed., 621.
(5) Ruth Bienstock Anolik, “’All Words, Words, about Words’: Linguistic Journey and Transformation in Anzia Yezierska’s The Bread Givers,” Studies in American Jewish Literature 21 (2002): 16-17.

© 2004 Erika Dreifus. May not be reprinted without permission.

This essay was originally published in Matrix 66 (2004).