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Language and Ethnic Identity. Obasan , Double Happiness , Laiwan , M. Noubese Philip , & a Singaporean Example. Starting Questions: Language and Identity. Does being able to speak in English have anything to do with your sense of identity?

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language and ethnic identity

Language and Ethnic Identity

Obasan, Double Happiness,

Laiwan, M. Noubese Philip,

& a Singaporean Example

starting questions language and identity
Starting Questions: Language and Identity
  • Does being able to speak in English have anything to do with your sense of identity?
  • What do you feel about speaking in English and in Chinese or the other languages?
  • What do you feel about the “All People’s English Movement” (全民英語運動)?
in between two languages
In-Between Two Languages
  • English on the practical level: business; daily communication, jobs, etc.
  • On the level of identity:

Two languages used/combined creatively  broadened world views conflict, ambiguity, duality  self-rejection or diffidence

different kinds of languages and silences
Silence is gold. Forbearance.

Silence as a kind of language; Attentive Silence (e.g. Naomi’s family).

Ethnics-- Being Tongue-Tied or Many-Mouthed;

Losing a Language; Secrecy & Repression

(Obasan, Double Happiness)

Silence of History

Freeing Word


Language for Self-Expression; Self-Defense.

Languages as systems of beliefs(“Discourse on the Logic of Language”)

Hierarchy of Languages//Races(“Imperialism of Syntax”; Jade’s father)

Distortion, Fiction and Lies. (“Universal Grammar”)

Different Kinds of Languages and Silences
obasan two kinds of silence
Obasan: two kinds of silence
  • There is a silence that cannot speak. (repression) There is a silence that will not speak.(protective silence) Beneath the grass the speaking dreams and beneath the dreams is a sensate sea. The speech that frees comes forth from that amniotic deep (source of maternal nourishment). To attend its voice, I can hear it say, is to embrace its absence. But I fail the task. The word is stone.
obasan search for liberation
Obasan: search for liberation

I admit it.

I hate the stillness. I hate the stone. . . .

Unless the stone bursts with telling, unless the seed flowers with speech, there is in my life no living word. The sound I hear is only sound. White sound. Words, when they fall, are pock marks on the earth. They are hailstones seeking an underground stream.

If I could follow the stream down and down to the hidden voice, would I come at last to the freeing word? I ask the night sky but the silence is steadfast. There is no reply."


Revelation 2.17:

To him that overcometh

will I give to eat

of the hidden manna

and will give him

a white stone

and in the stone

a new name written.

  • hidden spiritual nourishment from bread and stony silence
  • Another history written
different kinds of silences communication
Different Kinds of Silences & Communication
  • Japanese: “To the issei, honor and dignity is expressed through silence, the twig bending with the wind. The sansei view silence as a dangerous kind of cooperation with the enemy.”(Kogawa)
  • Chinese: “Do you need me now, Dad?”“阿宏,see you got us all so sentimental. Let’s eat.”
creative usages of two languages or more
Creative Usages of Two Languages or More
  • Laiwan “Imperialism of Syntax”
  • M. Nourbese Philip
  • 《孩子不笨》
  • Laiwan was born in Zimbabwe of Chinese parents. She immigrated to Canada in 1977 to leave the war in Rhodesia. She is an interdisciplinary artist and writer based in Vancouver, BC.
  • Who is the “you” in this poem, Laiwan herself?
  • What does syntax here mean?
  • What do you think about the Chinese translation?

“. . . those rules of grammar were the forgetting of yourself.

Those letters never pronounced before

became the subject of your ridicule.

The bitterness on your tongue became hidden in need for survival

a proof of assimilation,

the invisibility of yourself . . . “

imperialism of syntax 2
Imperialism of Syntax (2)






m nourbese philip
born in Tobago, Trinidad

Nourbese "noor-BEH- seh";

BA-- at the University of the West Indies, Kingston, Jamaica.

1968 -- Arrived in Canada

1973 -- a law degree from the University of Western Ontario

1982 -- gave up law completely to write full-time

Harriet's Daughter –novel for young adult

She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks. (the Casa de las Américas prize)

M. Nourbese Philip
she tries her tongue her silence softly breaks
She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks
  • "And Over Every Land and Sea,“--Ovid's version of the story of Ceres searching for Persephone (mother searching for her daughter)
  • “Cyclamen Girl," "African Majesty," "Meditations on the Declensions of Beauty by the Girl With the Flying Cheek-bones," "Discourse on the Logic of Language," "Universal Grammar," "The Question of Language is the Answer to Power," "Testimony Stoops to Mother Tongue," "She Tries Her Tongue; Her Silence Softly Breaks"--a woman growing through adolescence into adulthood becomes aware of language as a barrier to expression. In the last poem, the speaker is ready to try her language, always counterpointed by quotations . . .
her views of language english
Her Views of Language & English
  • English as a "father tongue" for those of African-Caribbean heritage ("Absence" 276).
  • demotic or creole English as the "mother tongue.“
  • "For the many like me, black and female, it is imperative that our writing begin to recreate our histories and our myths, as well as to integrate that most painful of experiences--loss of our history and our word."
her views of language english16
Her Views of Language & English
  • “My quest as a writer/poet is to discover my mother tongue, or whether or not peoples such as us may ever claim to possess such a thing. Since I continue to write in my father tongue, what I need to engender by some alchemical process . . . [is] a metamorphosis within the language from father tongue to mother tongue. In that process some aspects of the language will be destroyed, new ones created.” (278) (Cf She Tries 27)
her views of african use of english
Her Views of African Use of English
  • “The formal standard language was subverted, turned upside down, inside out, and even sometimes erased. Nouns became strangers to verbs and vice versa; tonal accentuation took the place of several words at a time; rhythms held sway. (She Tries Her Tongue 17)
her styles
Her Styles
  • Multiple styles

Apparently official documents

Orality: rhythmic creole language


Re-defining, changing the meanings

Combined; search for the mother tongue

her styles19
Her Styles
  • asymmetrical patterning of free verse. “Discourse on the Logic of Language”

a Collage of 

a search for mother (tongue)

A critique of medical, scientific discourse & other authorities.

a personal statement of one’s linguistic identity and anguish.

mother tongue connected disconnected
mother tongue: connected & disconnected

The capitalized part:

Connected and nourished physically by the mother’s tongue in the past.

What is my mother tongue

my mammy tongue

my mummy tongue

my momsy tongue

my modder tongue

my ma tongue?

I have no mother


no mother to tongue

no tongue to mother

to mother


(cannot create tongue to create tongue)

critique of authorities 1
Critique of Authorities (1)
  • "EDICT I: Every owner of slaves shall, wherever possible, ensure that his slaves belong to as many ethno-linguistic groups as possible. If they cannot speak to each other, they cannot then foment rebellion and revolution" (She Tries 56).
  •  control the slaves by destroying their language community.
note language switch
Note: language switch
  • However, as is becoming evident in more recent Africanist research, ethnic identity in West Africa was fluid and multiple, and people could belong to several different communities, including groups based upon shared language. Certain Africans' ability to language-switch thus served as a site of resistance in the Americas; the aptitude for languages enabled them to avoid slave masters' attempts at complete control of their interactions and experiences.(Anatol)
critique of authorities 2
Critique of Authorities (2)
  • the theories of Drs. Karl Wernicke and Paul Broca on the parts of the brain responsible for speech and the racist theories of Broca as to the superiority of Caucasians
critique of authorities
Critique of Authorities
  • What are the answers to these multiple choice questions? Which authorities are parodied here?
  • From critique of male and educational authorities, Eurocentrism, to rejection of being subject to the existing or absent languages.
her styles25
Her Styles
  • “Universal Grammar”– a Collage of 

Making a sentence about “Man”

Universal Grammar

Breaking down to

the smallest fragments cell

Re-member the African origins and history of exploitation

critique through redefinition tongue penis
Critique through redefinitionTongue = penis
  • she describes the cultural violence practiced upon non-Europeans in the Caribbean as "linguistic rape."
  • What does the tall, blond, blue-eyed, white-skinned man represent?
  • Man  governing the verb “is” and woman.
  • Male, White domination of the third world (and the animal world) through their language (English?) and their cultures.
  • Rape
self assertion through parsing and redefinition
Self-Assertion through “parsing” and redefinition
  • Parsing  into fragmentary cells to re-member.
  • The smallest cell – smallest an unsuccessful definition.
  • Remember  re-member
  • O: pain  God African goddess;
  • Ex –exorcize whom? The Other or the white devils?
  • Explosion of tremble and forgetting.
self assertion through rejecting oppression
Self-Assertion through Rejecting Oppression
  • If the word gags—
  • Spit it out/Start again.
  • This is “How to make a language yours and Now not to get raped.”
english as a father tongue
English as a "father tongue"
  • English is my mother tongue. A mother tongue is not not a foreign lan lan lang language l/anguish anguish —a foreign anguish. English is my father tongue. A father tongue is a foreign language, therefore English is a foreign language not a mother tongue. (She Tries 30)
singapore s multi lingualism

Singapore’s Multi-Lingualism

孩子不笨 as an Example

singapore s language policy
Singapore’s Language Policy
  • Singapore is one of such multiethnic countries in Southeast Asia, with about 77% Chinese, 15% Malays, 6% Indians and 2% of other smaller ethnic groups. Four official languages: Malay, Chinese (Mandarin), Tamil and English.
  • National language: Malay, but its function merely symbolic (e.g. national anthem)
  • Chinese: mother tongue – Hokkien;
  • bilingual education: English for Mathematics, ethnic language for moral education. (source)
  • Movements: 1) Mandarin in 70’s; 2) Singlish No More!--to remove all use of Singlish from the media, especially the local sitcoms and comedies (source)
i not stupid
《孩子不笨》I Not Stupid
  • 新加坡2002 年最卖座的电影。《小孩不笨》探讨家庭關係、小孩子自殺、教育制度以及父母與子女溝通的問題.
  • 新加坡的小學生到了五年級,便要依學業表現,被分派就讀EM1、EM2或EM3三種不同課程,其中EM3內容最淺,亦被視為最沒前途。
  • (source)
language and hierarchy
Language and Hierarchy
  • Chinese not important – English and Mathematics most important.
  • Marlene Nourbese Philip. She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks. Ragweed P, 1989.
  • Anatol, Giselle LizaSpeaking in (M)Other Tongues: The Role of Language in Jamaica Kincaid's The Autobiography of My Mother. Callaloo - Volume 25, Number 3, Summer 2002.
  • Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 157: Twentieth-Century Caribbean and Black African Writers, Third Series. A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book. Edited by Bernth Lindfors, University of Texas at Austin and Reinhard Sander, University of Puerto Rico. The Gale Group, 1996. pp. 296-306.