Daily Archives: April 27, 2010

Tribute To Mark Twain: A hundred years (and a bit) since his death.

When I waked up, just at day-break, he [Jim] was setting there with his head down betwixt his knees, moaning and mourning to himself. I didn’t take notice, nor let on. I knowed what it was about. He was thinking about his wife and his children, away up yonder, and he was low and homesick; because he hasn’t ever been away from home before in his life; and I do believe he cared just as much for his people as white folks does for their’n. It don’t seem natural, but I reckon it’s so.

(Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn).

The 21st April 2010 marked a 100 years since the death of the great American writer, Mark Twain. We were somewhat too engrossed in the events (non-events) of the IATEFL conference to pay our particular tributes. We wish to do so now, not only because of his powerful anti-racist and anti-imperialist voice but also because of the particular legacy he leaves us as language teachers.

By this we mean, the manner with which he played with dialect and intelligibility. For Twain, dialect was never about mere variation but how it contained within itself different world views. Quite remarkably, Twain captures complex dialects and makes them sufficiently intelligible to a wide audience. But he plays with language constantly throughout his work to show how meaning is not transparent and that there is no such thing as a standard English but many Englishes with many different ways of constructing the world. If this appears contradictory (mutual intelligibility/mutual unintelligibility) then such a contradiction is at the heart of language itself. This idea is well-explored (though not particularly easy to read) in David R. Sewell’s book 1954 (available on-line)

We do not wish to suggest any easy solutions to the idea of what English we should teach our students, how we can enhance intelligibility, but we do want to say that by interrogating language and the nature of dialogue (and their relation with power) we too can help transform ourselves as did a fictional teenage boy travelling down the Mississippi.


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