Author of first English novel kept it hidden for ten years – here’s why



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Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, detailing the grim fate of Protestant clerics Latimer and Ridley, is one clue as to why Baldwin hesitated before publishing his irreverent book.
Wikimedia Commons

Rachel Stenner, University of Sheffield and Frances Babbage, University of Sheffield

A dense work of early English prose, strewn throughout with serious and teasing marginalia from its author, might not be the most likely candidate for stage adaptation – but this project has just been undertaken by a team of artists and academics in Sheffield. William Baldwin’s Beware the Cat, written in 1553, will be performed in September as part of the university’s 2018 Festival of the Mind.

As a literary form, the novel is usually thought to have developed in the 18th century with the mighty classics Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe and Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne. But researchers believe we should be looking back to the relatively neglected prose fictions of the Tudor era to find the earliest English examples. Beware the Cat, an ecclesiastical satire about talking cats, is a prime candidate and is now thought to be the earliest example of the novel form in the English language.

Baldwin is barely known outside the circles of Renaissance literature, but he was highly celebrated and widely read in Tudor England. In the mid-16th century, he was earning an inky-fingered living as a printer’s assistant in and around the central London bookmaking and bookselling area of St Paul’s Cathedral. As well as writing fiction, he produced A Mirror for Magistrates, the co-written collection of gruesome historical poetry that was highly influential on Shakespeare’s history plays. He also compiled a bestselling handbook of philosophy, and translated the controversial Song of Songs, the sexy book of the Bible.

Beware the Cat tells the tale of a talkative priest, Gregory Streamer, who determines to understand the language of cats after he is kept awake by a feline rabble on the rooftops. Turning for guidance to Albertus Magnus, a medieval alchemist and natural scientist roundly mocked in the Renaissance for his quackery, Streamer finds the spell he needs. Then, using various stomach-churning ingredients, including hedgehog’s fat and cat excrement, he cooks up the right potion.

And it turns out that cats don’t merely talk – they have a social hierarchy, a judicial system and carefully regulated laws governing sexual relations. With his witty beast fable, Baldwin is analysing an ancient question, and one in which the philosophical field of posthumanism still shows a keen interest: do birds and beasts have reason?

A woodcut from William Griffith’s 1570 edition of William Baldwin’s Beware the Cat.
Author provided

Turbulent times

But rights and wrongs of a different order coloured Baldwin’s book release. He self-censored for several years before making the work public. Beware the Cat was written in 1553, months before the untimely death of the young Protestant king, Edward VI. Next on the throne (if you disregard the turbulent nine-day reign of Lady Jane Grey) was the first Tudor queen, Mary I. Her Catholicism was fervent and these were terrifying days. By the mid-1550s, Mary was burning Protestant martyrs. One of her less alarming, but still consequential, decisions was to reverse the freedoms accorded the press under her brother Edward.

At the height of his power during the 1540s, the Lord Protector during the young Edward’s reign, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, had relied on particular printers to spread the regime’s reformist message. Men such as John Day (printer of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs) and Edward Whitchurch – Baldwin’s employer – printed and circulated anti-Catholic polemic on behalf of the state. Not content to persecute these men by denying them the pardon she accorded other Protestant printers, Mary I banned the discussion of religion in print unless it was specifically authorised by her officials.

Radical press

As a print trade insider, Baldwin was intimately connected with the close community of this radical Protestant printing milieu – and Beware the Cat is deliberately set at John Day’s printing shop. Having written a book that parodies the Mass, depicts priests in some very undignified positions and points the finger at Catholic idolatry, Baldwin thought better of releasing it in the oppressive religious climate of Mary’s reign. But by 1561, Elizabeth I was on the throne and constraints on the press were less severe – despite the infamous case of John Stubbs, the writer who in 1579 lost his hand for criticising her marriage plans.

A sermon being preached at St Paul’s Cross, 1614.
John Gipkyn

Baldwin, now in his 30s, had become a church deacon. He was still active as a writer and public figure, working on his second edition of A Mirror for Magistrates and preaching at Paul’s Cross in London, a venue that could attract a 6,000-strong congregation.

Once it was released, Beware the Cat went through several editions. It was not recognised for the comic gem that it is until scholars such as Evelyn Feasey started studying Baldwin in the early 20th century and the novel was later championed by American scholars William A. Ringler and Michael Flachmann.

Now, it has been adapted for performance for the first time and is being presented as part of the University of Sheffield’s Festival of the Mind. This stage version of Beware the Cat has been created by the authors with Terry O’Connor (member of renowned performance ensemble Forced Entertainment) and the artist Penny McCarthy.

Baldwin’s techniques of embedded storytelling, argument and satirical marginalia are all features that have been incorporated into this interpretation of the text. The production also includes an array of original drawings (which the cast of four display by using an onstage camera connected to a projector), but none of the cast pretends to be a cat. Instead, it is left to the audience to imagine the world Baldwin’s novel describes, in which cats can talk and – even if just for one night – humans can understand them.The Conversation

Rachel Stenner, Teaching Associate in Renaissance Literature, University of Sheffield and Frances Babbage, Professor of English Literature, University of Sheffield

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Curious Kids: Why does English have so many different spelling rules?



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More spelling problems came in when French scribes introduced new spelling conventions — their own of course, and not always helpful.
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Kate Burridge, Monash University

This is an article from Curious Kids, a series for children. The Conversation is asking kids to send in questions they’d like an expert to answer. All questions are welcome – serious, weird or wacky! You might also like the podcast Imagine This, a co-production between ABC KIDS listen and The Conversation, based on Curious Kids.


Why does English have so many different spelling rules? – Melania P, age 12, Strathfield.


English spelling has been evolving for over a thousand years and the muddle we’re in today is the fall-out of many different events that have taken place over this time.




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Curious Kids: Why do Aussies have a different accent to Canadians, Americans, British people and New Zealanders?


A bad start

It was a rocky beginning for English spelling. Quite simply, the 23-letter Roman alphabet has never been adequate — even Old English (spoken 450-1150) had 35 or so sounds, and our sound system is now even bigger.

More spelling problems came in when French scribes introduced new spelling conventions — their own of course, and not always helpful. Using “c” instead of “s” for words like city was messy because “c” also represented the “k” sound in words like cat.

William Caxton set up the first printing presses.
Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

And then printing arrived in the 15th century — and with it more mess. William Caxton (who set up the presses in the first place) liked Dutch spellings and so established the “gh” in ghost and ghastly. Some printers were European and they introduced favourite spellings too from their own languages. Not terribly helpful either!

Those pesky silent letters

One of the biggest problems for English spelling has always been changes in pronunciation. Printing helped to stablise the spelling of words, but then some sounds changed their shape, and others even disappeared altogether. Think of those silent letters in words such as walk, through, write, right, sword, know, gnat — these were once pronounced.

If only the printer Caxton had been born a couple of centuries later, or if these sound changes had occurred a couple of centuries earlier, our spelling would be much truer to pronunciation.

And now comes another little wrinkle in this story – there’s a bunch of silent letters that were never actually pronounced. They appeared because of linguistic busybodies who wanted to make the language look more respectable. This caused some serious mess.

Take how we spell the word rhyme. When we swiped the word from French, it had a much more sensible look — rime. But this was changed to rhyme to give it a more classy classical look (like rhythm) – an interesting idea, but hardly helpful for someone trying to spell the word!

The 16th and 17th centuries saw many extra letters introduced in this way. Think of the “b” added to debt to make a link to Latin debitum. Now, the “b” might be justified in the word debit that we stole directly from Latin, but it was the French who gave us dette.

The “b” consonant was a mistake, and now we accuse poor old debt of having lost it through sloppy pronunciation!

Let’s make spelling more sensible

And so it is from this haphazard evolution that we end up with the spelling system we have.

But you know, there are in fact over 80% of words spelled according to regular patterns. So wholesale change is not what we want. However simple improvements could certainly be made without any major upheaval.

We could iron out inconsistencies such as humOUr versus humOrous. To introduce uniform -or spellings would be a painless reform (well, perhaps not painless, since many people are quite attached to the -our in words like humour)

We could also restore earlier spellings like rime and dette, and while we’re at it give psychology and philosophy a sensible look by spelling them sykology and filosofy.

So now, you can see the problem. No matter how silly spellings are, people get attached to them, and new spellings – even sensible ones – never seem to get a foot in the door.




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Hello, curious kids! Have you got a question you’d like an expert to answer? Ask an adult to send your question to us. You can:

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Please tell us your name, age and which city you live in. You can send an audio recording of your question too, if you want. Send as many questions as you like! We won’t be able to answer every question but we will do our best.The Conversation

Kate Burridge, Professor of Linguistics, Monash University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The English language is the world’s Achilles heel



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Filtering information.
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Guillaume Thierry, Bangor University

English has achieved prime status by becoming the most widely spoken language in the world – if one disregards proficiency – ahead of Mandarin Chinese and Spanish. English is spoken in 101 countries, while Arabic is spoken in 60, French in 51, Chinese in 33, and Spanish in 31. From one small island, English has gone on to acquire lingua franca status in international business, worldwide diplomacy, and science.

But the success of English – or indeed any language – as a “universal” language comes with a hefty price, in terms of vulnerability. Problems arise when English is a second language to either speakers, listeners, or both. No matter how proficient they are, their own understanding of English, and their first (or “native”) language can change what they believe is being said.

When someone uses their second language, they seem to operate slightly differently than when they function in their native language. This phenomenon has been referred to as the “foreign language effect”. Research from our group has shown that native speakers of Chinese, for example, tended to take more risks in a gambling game when they received positive feedback in their native language (wins), when compared to negative feedback (losses). But this trend disappeared – that is, they became less impulsive – when the same positive feedback was given to them in English. It was as if they are more rational in their second language.

While reduced impulsiveness when dealing in a second language can be seen as a positive thing, the picture is potentially much darker when it comes to human interactions. In a second language, research has found that speakers are also likely to be less emotional and show less empathy and consideration for the emotional state of others.

For instance, we showed that Chinese-English bilinguals exposed to negative words in English unconsciously filtered out the mental impact of these words. And Polish-English bilinguals who are normally affected by sad statements in their native Polish appeared to be much less disturbed by the same statements in English.

In another recent study by our group, we found that second language use can even affect one’s inclination to believe the truth. Especially when conversations touch on culture and intimate beliefs.

English is one of the most studied languages in the world.
spaxiax/Shutterstock

Since second language speakers of English are a huge majority in the world today, native English speakers will frequently interact with non-native speakers in English, more so than any other language. And in an exchange between a native and a foreign speaker, the research suggests that the foreign speaker is more likely to be emotionally detached and can even show different moral judgements.




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And there is more. While English provides a phenomenal opportunity for global communication, its prominence means that native speakers of English have low awareness of language diversity. This is a problem because there is good evidence that differences between languages go hand-in-hand with differences in conceptualisation of the world and even perception of it.

In 2009, we were able to show that native speakers of Greek, who have two words for dark blue and light blue in their language, see the contrast between light and dark blue as more salient than native speakers of English. This effect was not simply due to the different environment in which people are brought up in either, because the native speakers of English showed similar sensitivity to blue contrasts and green contrasts, the latter being very common in the UK.

On the one hand, operating in a second language is not the same as operating in a native language. But, on the other, language diversity has a big impact on perception and conceptions. This is bound to have implications on how information is accessed, how it is interpreted, and how it is used by second language speakers when they interact with others.

We can come to the conclusion that a balanced exchange of ideas, as well as consideration for others’ emotional states and beliefs, requires a proficient knowledge of each other’s native language. In other words, we need truly bilingual exchanges, in which all involved know the language of the other. So, it is just as important for English native speakers to be able to converse with others in their languages.

The US and the UK could do much more to engage in rectifying the world’s language balance, and foster mass learning of foreign languages. Unfortunately, the best way to achieve near-native foreign language proficiency is through immersion, by visiting other countries and interacting with local speakers of the language. Doing so might also have the effect of bridging some current political divides.


The Conversation


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Guillaume Thierry, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience, Bangor University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

English swearing’s European origins



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Science Oxford

Emily Reed, University of Sheffield

When learning a new language, what’s the first thing most of us do? If you are like me, you flick through the dictionary to find all the naughty words. And a quick glance on Amazon will reveal a veritable library dedicated to the rigorous pursuit of insulting around the world. We seem to be just a little obsessed – and why the hell not?

But we actually don’t need to reach for the nearest Collins dictionary to pick up some polyglot profanities. Many English swear words have come from different languages over the centuries. For example, the classics – “fuck”, “shit” and “cunt” – are words the language shares with older Germanic and Scandinavian languages. Fuck is likely to be cognate with the Dutch “fokken”, which in the 15th century meant “to mock” – and may also be related to Middle High German “ficken”, meaning “to rub”’. Both words began to be related to sexual intercourse in the 16th century.

The earliest mention we have in English for fuck (in the sense of copulation) is in a Latin-English sermon from 1500. That’s right, a sermon (find it here on page 91). What is particularly fascinating here is the encryption – with each letter representing the one before it in the alphabet, suggesting some level of aversion to the word:

Non sunt in cœli, quia gxddbov xxkxzt pg ifmk.

Decrypting the last four rather incriminating words gives us: “fvccant vvjvys of heli” – which, when translated means: “They [monks] are not in heaven because they fuck the wives of Ely.”. To decipher the code, we have to bear in mind the differences in both the alphabet and spelling between then and now: the letter “w” did not exist, instead, one could use “vv” to represent this sound. You could also use “j” in the place of “i”, and “v” in the place of “u”.

Fuck also appears in Middle English names and place names, often meaning “to strike”. Hence Henry Fuckebegger (on the record in 1286) most likely beat the poor, rather than shagging them. Shit and cunt, which both have cognates in earlier Germanic and Scandinavian languages, have also been used in placenames from the Middle Ages. Skidbrooke in Lincolnshire, for example, appears in the Domesday book as “Schitebroc” – that is: “Shit-brook”. In fact, if you ever walk down a Grape or Grove Lane, chances are it used to be one of the many “Gropecuntlanes”, denoting a medieval red-light district.

Cleaned up its act: Grope Lane in Shrewsbury.
Dpaajones via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Mind your language

So we know that a lot of our favourite swears are loans from the Germanic and Scandinavian language families. Well, yes and no. The words may come from these origins, but where their use comes from is where it can get interesting. I’m about to make the case that one of the most quintessentially British swear words is, in fact, kind of French. The word I’m talking about is “bloody”, as in, every time Harry Potter’s Ron Weasley exclaims “Bloody hell, Harry!”

The origins of this one seem consistent with the rest of the swear words – it’s a Germanic word that appears in Old and Middle English as an adjective meaning “bloodthirsty”, “cruel” and “murderous” alongside the more obvious “bloodstained” sense. But nowhere is it used as a swear word. One could make the case that the swear use comes from contact with Anglo Norman, which was a variety of French that came with the Normans in 1066. This is because it is in Anglo Norman that we find the French word “sanglant” (meaning “bloody”) being used as a swear word.

Sanglant appears twice in a 1396 version of a conversation manual called the Manières de langage, which was essentially the textbook for learning French at the turn of the 15th century. It appears in insults such as “senglant merdous garcion” (“bloody filthy rogue”), and “senglent filz de putaigne” (“bloody son of a whore”). Indeed, sanglant as a swear word seems to have enjoyed a particularly Anglo-Norman flavour.

Pour épater les Anglais

In the continental French farce Pathelin (1457), the eponymous character attempts to avoid repaying a debt by babbling in various French dialects in an attempt to appear mad. He utters the words “sanglant paillart” (“bloody bastard”) while speaking in the Norman dialect. Moreover, in the Chronique de Charles VII, the French call the “Angloiz et Normans” (Angles and Normans) by the insult “senglans puans mezeaulx porriz” (“bloody putrid rotting lepers”). Here, the French are ironically insulting the English in one of their own tongues, which was at that time a dialect of French.

Not that kind of swearing, silly! Although the Norman Conquest give English people a whole new set of naughty words.
Myrabella, CC BY

It is only after the appearance of “sanglant” that we then get “bloody” as a swear word – which means that it is very likely that this seemingly Germanic word has assumed a Francophone character.

Research into the English language reveals that the UK shares more with Europe than many realise. The language contact situation is particularly diverse for Britain, with heavy influence from Germanic/Scandinavian languages. As the evolution of the word “bloody” suggests, Anglo Norman also played a fundamental role in how English speakers use words.

The ConversationBut for Anglo Norman, the key message is that this was a variety of French that was viewed in the Middle Ages as a British language. Hence, English has evolved from a background of significant linguistic diversity that has formed part of the country’s identity for centuries. And the traces of that are sometimes hiding in plain sight.

Emily Reed, Doctoral Researcher in Late-Medieval Linguistics and Literature, University of Sheffield

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The slippery grammar of spoken vs written English



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We use different grammar when speaking or writing, but the difference is so subtle that linguists were blind to it for centuries.
from http://www.shutterstock.com, CC BY-ND

Andreea S. Calude, University of Waikato

My grammar checker and I are on a break. Due to irreconcilable differences, we are no longer on speaking terms.

It all started when it became dead set on putting commas before every single “which”. Despite all the angry underlining, “this is a habit which seems prevalent” does not need a comma before “which”. Take it from me, I am a linguist.

This is just one of many challenging cases where grammar is slippery and hard to pin down. To make matters worse, it appears that the grammar we use while speaking is slightly different to the grammar we use while writing. Speech and writing seem similar enough – so much so that for centuries, people (linguists included) were blind to the differences.




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There’s issues to consider

Let me give you an example. Take sentences like “there is X” and “there are X”. You may have been taught that “there is” occurs with singular entities because “is” is the present singular form of “to be” – as in “there is milk in the fridge” or “there is a storm coming”.

Conversely, “there are” is used with plural entities: “there are twelve months in a year” or “there are lots of idiots on the road”.

What about “there’s X”? Well, “there’s” is the abbreviated version of “there is”. That makes it the verb form of choice when followed by singular entities.

Nice theory. It works for standard, written language, formal academic writing, and legal documents. But in speech, things are very different.

It turns out that spoken English favours “there is” and “there’s” over “there are”, regardless of what follows the verb: “there is five bucks on the counter” or “there’s five cars all fighting for that Number 10 spot”.

A question of planning

This is not because English is going to hell in a hand basket, nor because young people can’t speak “proper” English anymore.

Linguists Jen Hay and Daniel Schreier scrutinised examples of old recordings of New Zealand English to see what happens in cases where you might expect “there” followed by plural, (or “there are” or “there were” for past events) but where you find “there” followed by singular (“there is”, “there’s”, “there was”).

They found that the contracted form “there’s” is a go-to form which seems prevalent with both singular and plural entities. But there’s more. The greater the distance between “be” and the entity following it, the more likely speakers are to ignore the plural rule.

“There is great vast fields of corn” is likely to be produced because the plural entity “fields” comes so far down the expression, that speakers do not plan for it in advance with a plural form “are”.

Even more surprisingly, the use of the singular may not always necessarily have much to do with what follows “there is/are”. It can simply be about the timing of the event described. With past events, the singular form is even more acceptable. “There was dogs in the yard” seems to raise fewer eyebrows than “there is dogs in the yard”.




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Nothing new here

The disregard for the plural form is not a new thing (darn, we can’t even blame it on texting). According to an article published last year by Norwegian linguist Dania Bonneess, the change towards the singular form “there is” has been with us in New Zealand English ever since the 19th century. Its history can be traced at least as far back as the second generation of the Ulster family of Irish emigrants.

Editors, language commissions and prescriptivists aside, everyday New Zealand speech has a life of its own, governed not so much by style guides and grammar rules, but by living and breathing individuals.

It should be no surprise that spoken language is different to written language. The most spoken-like form of speech (conversation) is very unlike the most written-like version of language (academic or other formal or technical writing) for good reason.

Speech and writing

In conversation, there is no time for planning. Expressions come out more or less off the cuff (depending on the individual), with no ability to edit, and with immediate need for processing. We hear a chunk of language and at the same time as parsing it, we are already putting together a response to it – in real time.

This speed has consequences for the kind of language we use and hear. When speaking, we rely on recycled expressions, formulae we use over and over again, and less complex structures.

For example, we are happy enough writing and reading a sentence like:

That the human brain can use language is amazing.

But in speech, we prefer:

It is amazing that the human brain can use language.

Both are grammatical, yet one is simpler and quicker for the brain to decode.

And sometimes, in speech we use grammatical crutches to help the brain get the message quicker. A phrase like “the boxes I put the files into” is readily encountered in writing, but in speech we often say and hear “the boxes I put the files into them”.

We call these seemingly unnecessary pronouns (“them” in the previous example) “shadow pronouns”. Even linguistics professors use these latter expressions no matter how much they might deny it.

Speech: a faster ride

There is another interesting difference between speech and writing: speech is not held up on the same rigid prescriptive pedestal as writing, nor is it as heavily regulated in the same way that writing is scrutinised by editors, critics, examiners and teachers.

This allows room in speech for more creativity and more language play, and with it, faster change. Speech is known to evolve faster than writing, even though writing will eventually catch up (at least for some changes).

The ConversationI would guess that by now, most editors are happy enough to let the old “whom” form rest and “who” take over (“who did you give that book to?”).

Andreea S. Calude, Senior Lecturer in Linguistics, University of Waikato

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

British literature is richly tangled with other histories and cultures – so why is it sold as largely white and English?



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Brick Lane: popularised in a novel by British writer, Monica Ali.
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Elleke Boehmer, University of Oxford and Erica Lombard, University of Oxford

Recent global developments have sharply polarised communities in many countries around the world. A new politics of exclusion has drawn urgent attention to the ways in which structural inequality has marginalised and silenced certain sectors of society. And yet, as a recent report shows, diversity and inclusion in fact “benefit the common good”. A more diverse group is a stronger, more creative and productive group.

In the world of literary writing, we find similar gaps and exclusions. But these are counterbalanced in some respects by new positive initiatives.

In 2015, a study revealed that literature by writers of colour had been consistently under-represented by the predominantly white British book industry. Statistics in The Bookseller show that out of thousands of books published in 2016 in the UK, fewer than 100 were by British authors of a non-white background. And out of 400 authors identified by the British public in a 2017 Royal Society of Literature survey, only 7% were black, Asian or of mixed race (compared to 13% of the population).

Colourful misrepresentation

A similar marginalisation takes place in the curricula in schools and universities, mirroring exclusions in wider society. In most English literature courses of whatever period, the writers taught are white, largely English and largely male.

A fundamental inequality arises in which, though British culture at large is diverse, syllabuses are not. Indeed, many British readers and students find little to recognise or to identify with when they read and study mainstream British literature.

But it’s not just a case of under-representation. It’s also a case of misrepresentation.

Black and Asian writers who have been published within the mainstream British system describe the pressure they have felt to conform to cultural stereotypes in their work. Their books are often packaged and presented in ways that focus on their ethnicity, regularly using cliches. At the same time, more universal aspects of their writing are overlooked. For example, the covers of novels by Asian British writers usually stick to a limited colour palette of yellows, reds, and purples, accented by “exotic” images.

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These writers bristle at the sense that they are read not as crafters of words and worlds, but as spokespeople for their communities or cultures. At its worst, this process turns these writers and their books into objects of anthropological curiosity rather than works inviting serious literary study or simply pleasurable reading. The message is that black and Asian literature is other than or outside mainstream British writing.

Against these exclusions, leading British authors such as Bernardine Evaristo and others have urged for a broader, more inclusive approach. They recognise that what and how we read shapes our sense of ourselves, our communities and the world.

Reframing the narrative

The Postcolonial Writers Make Worlds research project, based in the Oxford English Faculty and The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities, set out to ask what it means to read contemporary fiction as British readers. Working with reading groups and in discussion with writers, we found that readers of all ages entered the relatively unfamiliar worlds created by BAME authors with interest.

For many, finding points of familiarity along gender, age, geographical or other lines was important for their ability to enjoy stories from communities different from their own. Identifying in this way gave some readers new perspectives on their own contexts. At the same time, unfamiliarity was not a barrier to identification. In some cases, universal human stories, like falling in love, acted as a bridge. This suggests that how literature is presented to readers, whether it is framed as other or not, can be as significant as what is represented.

Contemporary black and Asian writing from the UK is British writing. And this means that the work of writers such as Evaristo, Nadifa Mohamed and Daljit Nagra be placed on the same library shelf, reading list and section of the bookshop as work by Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes and Ali Smith – not exclusively in “world interest” or “global literature”.

Bookish.
Shutterstock

Equally, much can be gained by thinking of white British writers like Alan Hollinghurst or Hilary Mantel as having as much of a cross-cultural or even postcolonial outlook as Aminatta Forna and Kamila Shamsie.

There are positive signs. A new EdExcel/Pearson A-level teaching resource on Contemporary Black British Literature has been developed. The Why is My Curriculum White? campaign continues to make inroads in university syllabuses. And the Jhalak Prize is raising the profile of BAME writing in Britain. Against this background, the Postcolonial Writers Make Worlds website offers a multimedia hub of resources on black and Asian British writing, providing points of departure for more inclusive, wide-ranging courses. Yet there is still much to be done.

The ConversationAll literature written in English in the British Isles is densely entangled with other histories, cultures, and pathways of experience both within the country and far beyond. Its syllabuses, publishing practices, and our conversations about books must reflect this.

Elleke Boehmer, Professor of World Literature in English, University of Oxford and Erica Lombard, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Oxford

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Does ‘translating’ Shakespeare into modern English diminish its greatness?


Sheila T Cavanagh, Emory University

An uproar ensued after it was reported that the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) – southern Oregon’s 80-year-old annual theatrical extravaganza – would be commissioning playwrights to “translate” all of Shakespeare’s plays into modern English.

The project drew jeers from Shakespearean professors, arts practitioners and others who believe passionately in the power of Shakespeare’s original texts, who abhor any attempt to “dumb down” their language.

OSF Director of Literary Development and Dramaturgy Lue Douthit and OSF Artistic Director Bill Rauch maintain that OSF is undertaking a bold, not sacrilegious, experiment. Nevertheless, howls of outrage have followed what Douhit ruefully has deemed a “career-ending” announcement for those involved.

As an educator and lover of Shakespearean drama, I remain committed to the value of presenting Shakespeare’s plays in their original language. I require my students to read Shakespeare’s plays in their original form, and through my work on the World Shakespeare Project, I’ve witnessed undergraduates in places such as Uganda, rural India and Buenos Aires enthusiastically respond to the challenge.

Yet the outrage over the OSF’s new modernization project is misguided. The organization – which is known for experimentation – is simply participating in larger, centuries-long tradition of molding, melding and adapting Shakespeare’s original texts.

Shakespeare for dummies?

Among those criticizing the new project is Columbia University Professor James Shapiro, a prominent Shakespearean scholar who maintains that “by changing the language in this modernizing way…it just doesn’t pack the punch and the excitement and the intoxicating quality of [the original] language.”

Earlier this month, before an audience at Shakespeare’s Globe, he added, “It’s a really bad idea.”

Notably, however, Shapiro (along with many others) responded quite differently to the translation of a different classic text. On Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney’s oft-praised 1999 rewriting of Beowulf, Shapiro wrote in The New York Times:

Examples like this add up to a translation that manages to accomplish what before now had seemed impossible: a faithful rendering that is simultaneously an original and gripping poem in its own right.

In this instance, at least, Heaney’s talent apparently overcame Shapiro’s objections to the concept.

The playwrights the company has commissioned to “modernize” the language of Shakespeare’s works may or may not achieve the majesty attributed to Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf. But for whatever reason, changing the language of Shakespeare remains an anathema, while the setting, costuming and theoretical conceptualization of his plays are fair game for innovation.

The hottest theater ticket in Britain at the moment, for example, is Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet, which caused similar outrage for opening with the famous “To Be or Not to Be” soliloquy, rather than the traditional “Who’s there?.” By the end of previews, the speech was moved back to (one of) the places it traditionally resides. Cumberbatch’s audiences have been comparatively silent, however, about the production’s addition of modern props, like a phonograph player.

London’s Young Vic Theatre, meanwhile, is currently presenting a strong version of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, with a set filled with dozens of naked, anatomically correct, inflatable dolls. Like the phonograph player on the set of Hamlet, it’s unlikely that theatergoers will object to the dolls, nor will they protest the video screens employed during the performance.

But when it comes to changing the language – well, the main objection, it appears, stems from concerns that it will encourage series such as Shakespeare for Dummies or No Fear Shakespeare, which presents original Shakespearean text adjacent to what its editors call “the kind of English people actually speak today.”

Such projects are understandable, if worrisome. Shakespeare does have a reputation for being too dense for ordinary people to easily comprehend.

At the same time, there are many remarkable projects that bring Shakespeare’s plays to even the most unconventional audiences. There’s Curt Tofteland’s Shakespeare Behind Bars, which offers prisoners the opportunities to present full-length Shakespeare plays, while former Royal Shakespeare Company artist Kelly Hunter’s project Shakespeare’s Heartbeat uses Shakespearean drama as the basis for games designed for children with autism.

Play on!

It’s worth noting the OSF is not planning to replace Shakespeare’s original texts during its current presentation of the complete Shakespearean canon, which will take place over the next decade.

While the company hopes that the newly commissioned versions of Shakespeare will be performed in Oregon and elsewhere, they also retain their commitment to presenting the conventional texts, albeit with regular tweaks and cuts.

As Shapiro and many others admit, Shakespearean drama has been altered, rewritten and reimagined repeatedly since the plays were first presented during the reigns of Elizabeth Tudor and James Stuart.

‘Is life even worth living? That’s what I keeping wondering…’
Dylan Martinez/Reuters

During the English Restoration, King Lear was given a happy ending. More recently, the 2001 film Scotland, Pa. offered a modern retelling of Macbeth, set at a fast food restaurant. Henry IV found itself placed among male prostitutes in Oregon in Gus Van Sant’s 1991 film My Own Private Idaho. Even Justin Kurzel’s acclaimed new film Macbeth opens with a twist: the funeral of Macbeth’s toddler.

The best adaptations – West Side Story, the musical Kiss Me, Kate and the Japanese film Throne of Blood – thrive. The bad, silly and unfortunate – Romeo and Juliet: Sealed with a Kiss and Animal Planet’s Romeo and Juliet: A Monkey’s Tale – fall by the wayside.

As poet Andrew Marvell might say, there is “world enough and time” for any number of Shakespearean adaptations and iterations.

While Shakespeare’s original language is remarkably rich and compelling, like Cleopatra, “age will not wither it.” Neither will OSF’s revisionary experimentation.

The Conversation

Sheila T Cavanagh, Professor of English, Emory University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

100 Best Novels Written in English


The link below is to a listing of one person’s ‘100 best novels written in English.’ What are your thoughts – please share in the comments here.

For more visit:
http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/aug/17/the-100-best-novels-written-in-english-the-full-list