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LETZ MEDDLE ENGLISH: Speaking with Accents & Meddling in English

Each time I walk to the station in my district of Greater Copenhagen, I see LETZ SUSHI in bold white font on the black rectangle screwed to the brick wall.

And each time I smile, though I must have seen this sign hundreds of times (I moved to Denmark in 2009). I’m never tired of its delicious misuse of English: What has happened to the apostrophe? Surely ‘z’ is a misspelling… Is there even such a verb as ‘to sushi’? I’m on my way to catch a train to the university, where I meet those who want to ‘speak English without an accent’. Especially my Asian students dream about ‘correct English’, so I venture: ‘Hong Kong English doesn’t tell apart long and short vowels, unlike “Queen’s English”.’ Together we complicate the emphasis on correctness, which often frustrates our joy of language(s).

On my upcoming online course, Our Hospitable Languages: Writing Multilingual Poetry, we’ll query such frustrations and remind ourselves of the thrills of speaking diverse languages, foreign and private. (Think of Paul Muldoon’s family word for the hot water bottle in ‘Quoof’). We’ll tease them into multilingual poems: multilingual, because they will allow us to savour other languages besides and within English – to appreciate our multiple accents.

I hope that this course will attract both international participants and those based in the UK; those who speak a couple of languages because they live in them or learn them and those who want to explore different strata of English: dialects, etymologies, borrowed words, local words. (The rich assemblage of Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks comes to mind). The course description tags locations of the participants in my previous courses, so I look forward to a similar geographic and linguistic diversity, which we will explore together.

We’ll read the work of five multilingual authors, consider our own ‘multilingualisms’ and write poems to play with our languages and to blunder in them. We’ll scour dictionaries; cobble up new wordings; accept our prophetic slips of the tongue, whichever tongue; ponder misspellings in important messages; laugh at mispronounced or misunderstood words. And we’ll never use them as shibboleths.

I believe we need to resist various notions of tribal purity, especially now, but the shibboleth doesn’t want to disappear from our human history. For example, in 1937 thousands of Creole Haitians were killed, because they couldn’t roll the Spanish /r/ in the word ‘perejil’ (parsley). Say Parsley by the French-Norwegian Caroline Bergvall examines ‘mishearings and language conflicts’ in a sound-language installation which features individual letters, giant &, recordings of people pronouncing the phrase ‘rolling hills’. My ‘rolling r’ helps me speak Polish & prompts my listeners to ask if I’m Scottish or South African. Many of us started hearing ourselves self-consciously after Brexit, Trump election, … [fill in the blank for yourself].

Of course, such troubling polyphony can be also experienced by speakers with  standard, so-called ‘proper’, pronunciation. Tony Harrison’s School of Eloquence, with its speaker educated out of his vernacular, class and community, helped me years ago to rationalize my own bewilderment when, as a Pole trained in ‘Queen’s English’, I failed to understand a customer who spoke ‘local’ English on my first day at work in an Irish pub in Chiswick. Luckily, another customer offered a helpful gloss, not a sneer, the way Liz Berry offers notes to her Black Country poems, which record a variant of English spoken around Birmingham.

We’re fortunate to have (video) recordings of the five poets chosen for this course. Together we’ll listen to their Englishes, coloured by Trinidadian Creole, French, Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish, German, Polish. In our poems we’ll marvel at the accents around us, as Cia Rinne does in Sounds for Soloists, which may resemble the minimal pairs of phonology exercises, but don’t test the correctness of our pronunciation. We’ll work with the page: to include the foreign without the italicised marker of its strangeness, as in Vahni Capildeo’s polyphonic sequence on Louise Bourgeois. We’ll have a chance to talk to Ewa Chruściel about ‘the Ellis Island of language’ (as Yoko Tawada, Japanese-German writer, calls our contemporary language condition).

Not by chance Chruściel’s Contraband of Hoopoe contains fourteen Ellis poems and Bergvall’s Drift is praised (in the citation for the Cholmondeley Award, presented on 20 June, 2017) as ‘spellbinding and experimental, taking language to strange limits, while engaging with one of the most pressing concerns of our time: migration’.

To celebrate the polyphonic experiments of our private, dialectal, expatriate, migrant, multilingual voices: LETZ MEDDLE ENGLISH.


Embrace multiple languages in your poetry and challenge the boundaries between domestic and foreign, on Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese’s Our Hospitable Languages: Writing Multilingual Poetry, a new 10 week online poetry course from the Poetry School. Book online or ring us on 0207 582 1679.

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