Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

"The Interplay between Language Culture and Gender: Some Implications for English and Italian" by Elizabeth MacDonald

March 1 to March 31
A Guest Post by Elizabeth MacDonald
author of
House of Cards

If you are interested in participating in Irish Short Story Month, please e mail me.

I first became acquainted with the work of Elizabeth MacDonald when I read her brilliant collection of short stories, A House of Cards.  A House of  Cards  was listed for the Frank O'Connor Prize in 2007.   It is a beautiful work set mostly in the Tuscany region of Italy. 

author bio

Elizabeth MacDonald was born in Dublin, where she studied Italian and Music at UCD. In 2001 she completed the M.Phil in creative and Music at UCD. In 2001 she completed the M.Phil in creative writing at Trinity College, Dublin. She teaches English at the University of Pisa, where she lives with her husband and son. Her translations of the short stories of Liam O'Flaherty were the first in Italy. She has translated the poetry of Dermot Healy, Seamus Heaney, Brendan Kennelly, Dennis O’Driscoll, George Szirtes, Derek Mahon, and Old Irish nature poetry. She has a special interest is the poetry of Mario Luzi. Her translations have appeared in  many journals, including Modern Poetry in TranslationPoetry Ireland ReviewThe Cork Liteary Review andSoglieA House of Cards was first published by Pillar Press in 2006 and a second edition will be published by Portia Publishing later this year.
“This is a tender, understated and beautiful collection of stories that will leave you longing for more. ” Emma Walsh, The Irish Book Review.  

"The Interplay between Language Culture and Gender: Some Implications for English and Italian"
Elizabeth MacDonald

Life abroad can be a tricky business. It entails a re-negotiation not only of language, but also, of course, of culture. Over the course of my life in Italy – which started out as a sojourn of a year on scholarship at the Universita’ Cattolica in Milan, and before you know it you’re looking back, mouth agape, on more than two decades of life disappearing over the horizon – the precise nature of the interplay between these two components has continued to elude me. What proportions are involved in this process of re-negotiation? The chicken-or-egg situation comes to mind: is it the language that gives rise to the peculiarities of a culture, or is it the culture that moulds the structures upholding a language?
     My experience as an Irish person adds a further, if more nebulous dimension to this re-negotiation. In the ex-pat ambience in Italy, other English-speaking people find more ready answers to the question: How much of one’s collective cultural past is encoded in the language learnt as a child?  The issue has been brought into even sharper focus for me as I try to raise my child in a bilingual context. For an Irish person, the notion of a collective cultural and linguistic past buckles under the weight of history at a disconcertingly recent remove; so what exactly am I passing on to my child in cultural-linguistic terms? What is this idea of cultural encoding at a linguistic level (or is it linguistic patterning at a cultural level), this DNA-like intangible entity that can be handed down through the ages, sending a myriad of encrypted signals in sounds organized into meaning?
     Clearly the interplay between these forces is foundational in creating a sense of identity.  By throwing gender into the equation, how does this affect the proportions?  When, for instance, I compare my two languages, English and Italian, I often wonder if it is not possible to speak of language as having a more masculine or feminine bias, with all the implications that this necessarily carries in cultural terms. The first level where a masculine-feminine opposition occurs between the two languages is, for me, in the way that they show a bias towards either micro or macro structuring. Italian, along with other Romance languages, is structured at the micro level in incredible detail: the organization entailed in creating agreement between nouns (categorized as masculine or feminine, and/or singular or plural) and corresponding adjectives, articles and verbs, is immense. Indeed, this micro organization at the level of verbs is such that the precision of verb-endings allows for the ellipsis of pronouns. Therefore, constructing a sentence entails a great deal of work at the micro level of agreement. On the other hand, English displays none of these micro-level organizational preoccupations: it has more or less done away with the distinction between masculine and feminine nouns (but more of this anon); hence, the question of articles has been greatly simplified (the/a(n)); and apart from irregular endings, the cover-all approach to the plural in English is to stick on an ‘s’. Adjectives are not therefore required to correspond in gender to their nouns, nor even in number. What an admirable process of simplification!
     And yet, as any Italian student of English will confirm, it is a veritable nightmare to acquire. Why is this? Primarily, I feel, because English focuses on macro structures. These I would identify as tenses and verb structures, the large-scale scaffolding of the language. In this, English far exceeds Italian: the English fixation on time has produced a dense network of tenses and structures that lend the language a whole series of nuances that can have no direct translation in Italian (for example, the continuous passive form, or the present perfect continuous, along with many modals). There may well be a reason for British pre-eminence in punctuality.
     I find ‘Heaney-esque’ echoes emerging from this distinction between the micro organization of Italian, so dependent on the agreement between nouns and adjectives, and the macro organization of English, with its vast elaboration of tenses and verb structures. Cannot Italian then be connoted spatially by its rootedness in ‘feminine’ nouns and adjectives? And English be connoted temporally by its over-arching focus on ‘masculine’ tenses and verb structures?
     Conversely, at a macro level Italian syntax is fluid: SVO structure is only one option, depending on the emphasis one wishes to create; in English, prototypical clause structure is more rigid and largely follows SVO structure. 
     At a cultural level I find there are corresponding implications accompanying this when Italian and British approaches to governance and administration are compared. At a micro level, Italy is extremely organized: the metric system is awesome in its logicality; the breakdown of the country into administrative entities is clear-cut and easy to understand; even car registrations are immediately understandable. At a macro level, the governance of all this is somewhat more chaotic. In Britain, the opposite seems to be true: imperial measurement is a monument to mystification (A foot? Whose foot? And thank goodness pounds-shillings-and-pence disappeared); the parcelling-out of the territory into administrative entities is erratic; and even car registrations follow a rationale that could not be described as immediately discernible. Yet, the overall governance of all this eccentricity runs relatively smoothly.
     Is it possible, therefore, to speak of cultures as being more ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’?
The socio-linguist Deborah Tannen has identified certain behaviour traits as masculine (the need for independence) and certain others as more feminine (the need for involvement); these traits are then externalised in recurring linguistic and behavioural patterns – often, it has to be said, leading to incomprehension and misunderstanding between the sexes. Her elaboration of the need for independence as a masculine trait and the need for involvement – expressed primarily through relationships and family – as a feminine trait may begin to acquire significance when they are examined with regard to the figure of the mother. Italian and English differ greatly in how they relate to this.
     The importance of family ties in Italy can immediately be seen in the linguistic structures: in family circles one is not referred to by one’s individual name, but rather by one’s relation to the surrounding people (‘Tell your son to stop banging his lorry on the parquet!’; ‘Ask your aunt to come to the table’; ‘Go and play with your cousin’). One’s identity seems to depend on one’s place in this community. The centrality of the parents, and in particular the mother, in this network is also underlined linguistically. From the cradle to the grave, one’s mother is always called ‘Mamma’. This contrasts so sharply with the linguistic evolution that takes place in English: babies and toddlers call their mother ‘Mama’; this changes to ‘Mummy’ whenever the child achieves a certain sense of autonomy; and then can further modify to ‘Mum’ as adolescence and the need not to seem a ‘sissy’ kick in. Italians are chilled to the bone when they discover that certain English people take this process a step further, disenfranchising themselves to the extent of using of the word ‘Mother’. On the other hand, hearing a middle-aged man turn and address his mother with the word ‘Mamma!’ tends to make a lot of English-speaking people feel vaguely unsettled.
     Undoubtedly in Italy, the feminine looms large in the collective psyche. Commonplace exclamations such as ‘Mamma mia!’ or ‘Madonna!’ require gender-changing translations in English: in the UK the former would have to be neutralized (there it is again) along the lines, say, of ‘Good grief!’, whereas in the USA it would definitely be rendered masculine, as in ‘Oh man!’ or ‘Oh brother!’; and the latter would be rendered as masculine even in the UK: ‘Oh my God!’.
     This gender opposition can be seen also in cultural icons such as Santa, and the Italian equivalent, ‘La Befana’, who is basically a good-natured witch.
     Is language creating a cultural situation here, or is culture giving rise to a linguistic convention? And what are the implications of this gender bias manifesting itself through language and culture?
     The competing concepts of independence and involvement, as elaborated by Deborah Tannen, may be illuminating here when applied to Italian and British society. Clearly a sense of involvement is very important in Italy: family ties are strongly felt and honoured. The opposite is true in the UK, where the family is indeed more fragile; but the need for independence has led to the individual enjoying greater rights. While the need for a sense of belonging unites all human beings, it does seem to resolve itself along very different concepts of community. For Italians, the most important sense of community is the biological family; in the UK or USA, where the individual enjoys greater status, the family has been supplanted by the non-biological entity, one’s country, or State. In other words, the individual can derive a sense of belonging to a sense of community through non-biological loyalty.
     There is nothing like strong family ties to give a sense of belonging. But in many instances there is also a high price to pay in terms of conformity and loss of personal liberty. Blood ties can mean that individual rights are sacrificed for what is perceived as representing the common good. And paradoxically, it is precisely where the need for involvement is most prized, and hence in a context where family ties have remained the strongest, that the feminine can be seen to work against itself. The figure of the mother-in-law is emblematic here, as (oddly enough) she seems to give rise to a certain degree of tension in both cultural contexts. But in Italy the tension arises between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, because within the family the closest relationship is that between mother and son, who then finds himself an unwitting ‘piggy-in-the-middle’ between two women competing for emotional supremacy. By contrast, in Britain the tension arises between mother-in-law and son-in-law, precisely because mothers and daughters continue the emotional intimacy they had in the family of origin and the husband finds it hard to get a look-in.
      I would suggest that a country with a feminine bias in its social framework, despite the high levels of involvement and solidarity at a micro level, will at a macro level remain largely conformist. Evolution, or personal development, is not of primary importance; what counts is the common good. It is the countries with a masculine bias (the need for independence and consequent focus on the rights of the individual) that have shown most progress in terms of social development.
     In this regard, it is interesting to note that the concept of privacy exists in direct proportion to the status individuals enjoy within society: the more society promotes the rights of individuals (the right to one’s independence), the more allowance is made for the need for privacy. Conversely, the more a society upholds the need for ties, whether to a community or to a family (involvement), the less privacy is seen as a necessity. The concept of privacy exists in a social context where individuality is prized; lack of privacy occurs where the cohesiveness of a group (family or society) takes precedence over the individual.
     There is no word in Italian for privacy.
     Where does Ireland fit in all this? A glance perhaps at how we refer to our country might be revealing. The British refer to the ‘Homeland’: English has safely neutralized one’s national allegiance; in Italian ‘La patria’ represents a gender compromise between the masculine father ‘pater’ in a feminine noun; Germany looks to the ‘Fatherland’; but Ireland, like Russia, seeks the ‘Motherland’. What exactly is Ireland’s relationship with motherhood? The figure of the ‘Mammy’ continues to compete with the grafted emotional disenfranchisements (mama/mummy/mum/mother) inherent in the Anglophone world. She does not, however, enjoy the status of other über-mother figures, like Jewish women, or Italian women, who can rejoice in the sobriquet of “Regina della casa” (Queen of the home).
     However,  'an ghrian' is feminine in Irish. This is highly unusual, as most other cultures make the distinction sun-male; moon-female. We hover between an ancestral understanding of the feminine - 'Mother Ireland’ and a female sun - and the cultural impositions accruing from centuries of proximity with a culture that is predicated on the need for independence from the feminine. The result has been an oscillation between an uneasy acceptance of the enveloping feminine (the Mammy just won't go away!) and her relegation to a role that renders her, compared to other mother-figures, more ambiguous, more cloyingly tragic (all forgiving, all suffering, self-eclipsing).
     And yet, Feminism arose precisely in the country that favoured the masculine and
made the individual, as opposed to the family, of primary importance. It was in England that women were accorded the freedom to pursue their own individual rights. In most countries where there is a feminine framework evident in family and community ties, women are still struggling to enjoy parity of rights and dignity.

I offer my great thanks to Elizabeth MacDonald for allowing me to share this very illuminating article with my readers.

Please look for more works by here during ISSM3.

"Elizabeth, look me up next time
you are in Ireland
and thanks for this post, it is
so boring with Mel blathering on endlessly"
"Mel u

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