Languages of the Night review: You are what you speak

Barry McCrea examines the link between two phenomena: the “linguistic homogenization of the European countryside and the rise of modernist impulses among writers in the European cities”

Languages of the Night: Minor Languages and the Literary Imagination in Twentieth-century Ireland and Europe
Languages of the Night: Minor Languages and the Literary Imagination in Twentieth-century Ireland and Europe
Author: Barry McCrea
ISBN-13: 978-0300185157
Publisher: Yale University Press
Guideline Price: £22.5

When Victor Emmanuel II was crowned the first king of a united Italy, in 1861, there was a problem: his Italian. Victor’s mastery of the language was so uncertain that in the early months his prime minister interpreted from the king’s native Piedmontese dialect into standard Italian for the other ministers.

The Blessed Virgin had a similar language dilemma when she appeared to the miller's daughter Bernadette Soubirous in 1858. Bernadette's knowledge of the major national language, French, was sketchy. So the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception was first proclaimed in Bernadette's native Gascon: Que soy era immaculada concepciou.

The assumption that the king of a country would speak the national language, or that a divine pronouncement would be made in the major language of the country, was not something that could be taken for granted in much of 19th-century Europe. The use of regional languages and dialects was widespread. It is the literary consequences of the radical disappearance or diminution of these languages in the 20th century that is the subject of Barry McCrea's absorbing new study. Subtitled Minor Languages and the Literary Imagination in Twentieth-Century Ireland and Europe, the book examines the link between two phenomena: the "linguistic homogenization of the European countryside and the rise of modernist impulses among writers in the European cities".

Losing meaning

For many writers of the long 20th century, language was hopelessly compromised by cannons, commerce and cant. The slick sales palaver of the trader or the clamourous cliches of the demagogue were undoing the power of words to mean. They were becoming the increasingly degraded tokens of perfunctory exchange. It is in this context, McCrea argues, that writers began to look to the vanishing language-scape of Europe as a way to give voice to writers’ sense of estrangement from their own languages.


For the Irish poet Seán Ó Ríordáin and the Italian writer and film director Pier Paolo Pasolini this meant choosing to write in a language (Irish) or a dialect (Friulian, from Friuli, in northeastern Italy) that was not their native tongue. They renounced the platform of a major language, English and Italian, for the minor keys of Irish and Friulian.

Prose writers such as James Joyce and Marcel Proust made different choices – or at least appeared to. They wrote in the major languages of English and French, but neither was fully at ease writing in the twilight of the tongues. Joyce endlessly fretted in the shadows of a strongly Gaelicised English and the deconstructed idioms of Finnegans Wake.

Proust, in In Search of Lost Time, is constantly attentive to the dialectical subversiveness of his servant and cook, Françoise. She appears to be both the custodian of a language that stands outside the ravages of time and the speaker of a tongue that baits the linguistic and social pretensions of the author and narrator.

Irish tippler

A predicament for the Irish tippler (“Have you no homes to go to?”) became a major problem for European writers in the globalised 20th century, when the notion of what was home and what was the language of home came increasingly under scrutiny.

McCrea claims, for example, that Ó Ríordáin’s decision to write in Irish was prompted less by the idea of finding a true home in Irish than as a way of giving voice to a fundamental sense of homelessness, which was best expressed through a language in which, as a non-native speaker, he could never feel truly at home.

The roots of this sense of homelessness are various, from a history of language shift in a family (Ó Ríordáin bypassing the mother’s English to address the dead father’s Irish) to the unwilling exile of sexual orientation.

Brendan Behan, like Pasolini, partially wrote in a language that was not native to him. McCrea argues that for the openly gay Pasolini and the discreetly bisexual Behan, the minority language captured a sense of what it was to be on the periphery of social mores and sexual conventions.

Mixed company

If Pasolini, Behan and Ó Ríordáin wrote in languages other than those spoken in the home, it is partly in sympathy with that modernist impulse to seek out what McCrea referred to in the title of his 2011 work, The Company of Strangers.

The early 19th-century novel was mainly about untangling lines of mistaken identity to make sure that "dear reader, I would marry him" and the family plot could continue. In contrast, the heroes of modernist fiction (Fagin's pickpockets, Stephen and Bloom, Proust and the invertis) were primarily engaged in finding a new sense of community outside the family, among strangers.

The fraught dialogue between major and minor languages and dialects in the 20th century becomes bound up with the seeking out of new forms of community and expression, with their risk of idealisation, sentimentality and incomprehension.

Joyce, in that triumph of hope over competence, described himself as an Irish speaker in the 1901 census. Drawing on his own family history in Co Mayo, McCrea picks through these acts of linguistic identification in the census to describe the language chaos of late 19th-century Ireland, in which parents would refuse to speak to their children in their own language and insist that the children speak a language the parents themselves did not understand.

There is to this day a remarkable degree of silence, both academic and political, around what must have been one of the most shocking psychosocial episodes of the Irish 19th century. The title Languages of the Night comes from Ó Ríordáin's description of language shift on the Cork-Kerry border: "Irish was retreating into the night. It was mostly at night that you would hear the Irish of the old people, and you associated language with the night."

Loss of voice

The night of language loss, of course, fell not just for Irish but all over Europe. And, as McCrea demonstrates in his immaculately assured prose, writers responded in different ways to the crisis of language and languages in the 20th century, from the disputed experimentalism of Ó Ríordáin and Pasolini to the radical reworkings of Proust and Joyce.

A wider range of languages and literatures, especially from central and eastern Europe, would be necessary to substantiate the ambitious thesis of this work, and organicist metaphors of death tend to leave agents of language destruction off the hook. Still, there is no disputing McCrea’s compelling core arguments.

Now, as our cities fill with more languages, might not the languages of the night (the languages of migrant workers working long, unsocial hours) upstage the pretensions of the languages of the day? Might they point to a new chapter in the tussle between language, literature and culture in European modernity?

Michael Cronin teaches in the school of applied language and intercultural studies at Dublin City University

Michael Cronin

Prof Michael Cronin, a contributor to The Irish Times, is director of Trinity College Dublin's centre for literary and cultural translation