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‘Rosicky asked her in Czech […] She replied in English’: Linguistic Border Crossings in Willa Cather’s Fiction

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posted on 22.07.2020, 10:03 by Francesca L. White
In 1919, Cather’s home state of Nebraska banned the teaching of foreign languages in schools. In 1921, Cather denounced this law, asking: would it make children any ‘less American to know one or two other languages’? Whilst Cather believed that English should be the United States’ primary language, she disagreed that it should be the only language spoken there. In this thesis I will explore the impact of Cather’s ‘English first, but not English-only’ language politics upon her fiction. Specifically, I will argue that, in terms of their vocabulary, grammar, narrative structures and subject matter, Cather’s texts are constructed from four types of carefully controlled ‘linguistic border crossings’ between her characters’ native languages and English: namely, codes witching, Cather’s inclusion of foreign words within her predominantly English language texts, translation and cross-linguistic influence. Breaking new methodological ground, I will apply translation, sociolinguistic and polylingual discourse theories to Cather’s work in order to explore how she crossed linguistic borders without alienating Anglophone readers. Analysing hitherto undiscussed archival material (particularly annotations in Cather’s French textbooks) alongside Cather’s overlooked translation work, I will outline her surprisingly modern theory of translation, as well as the literary inspirations underpinning her crosslinguistic experiments. In doing so, I will offer new insights into how Cather’s fiction enacts her aesthetic theory of simplification and demonstrate that her writing is more political than her critical reputation suggests. By comparing Cather’s linguistic border crossings to those made by Pound and Hemingway, I will add a fresh perspective to the debate regarding her relationship with literary modernism. Finally, I will argue that, although they put English first, Cather’s texts are inherently multilingual and should, therefore, be included in the canon of polyglot American fiction – a categorisation which adds a new dimension to the ongoing reassessment of American literature in light of linguistic diversity.



Catherine Morley

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School of English

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University of Leicester

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