Having established that
polyphony is a key structuring principle in each of these works, I will now consider how the multiple voices they present are characterized by language. How does polyglossia manifest itself on a linguistic level in these three texts? In Zaimoğlu’s work, at least two languages or varieties of language are spoken: standard German and the so-called Kanak Sprak. Kanak Sprak is spoken by the twenty-four “Kanakters,” a pejorative expression for young migrants in Germany of Turkish origin. Standard German is spoken by the apparently empiric author, Zaimoğlu, in the foreword. It is here that he gives an introduction to Kanak Sprak:
A long time ago, they created an underground-codex and now speak their own jargon, “Kanak-Sprak,” a kind of creol or RotwelschFootnote 7 with secret codes and signs.
The Kanake speaks his mother tongue only erroneously, and only masters “alemannisch” to a certain degree. His vocabulary consists of a gibberished glossary and idioms that do not exist in any language.Footnote 8
In this multiethnolect, which could be interpreted as a sociolect on the basis that it is also the language of the precariat, these young German-Turkish men give aggressive expression to their negative experience of Germany, or as they call it, the country of the “Alemannen.” This designation, which is just as pejorative as that of the “Kanakster,” underlines the tensions between these two social groups. It is important to note, however, that Zaimoğlu’s
“Kanak Sprak” is not in fact an authentic multiethnolect. Zaimoğlu informs us in the foreword that he has recorded his interviews with these young men, and then re-told their mini-autobiographies in his version of Kanak Sprak, a version which he says should be more intelligible for the intended reader than the original. The text had a significant impact on youth language in Germany in the 1990s, and today Kanak Sprak is a general term for a multiethnolect: the mixture of German, Arabic, and Turkish spoken by young second- and third-generation migrants. For the purposes of this chapter, however, the importance of the fact that Kanak Sprak is a linguistic construction rather than an authentic language of the ghetto cannot be overstated.
work, too, features multiple languages and language varieties. Alongside Swedish, the matrix language, a multiethnolect is spoken in which linguistic features of Arabic and Turkish are mixed with Swedish. The impact of Arabic is visible on a lexical level in Halim’s frequent recourse to words like “Walla” (Khemiri 2003, 12) and “Inshallah” (Khemiri 2003, 13), and even more so on a syntactical level, where Halim uses inversions that are atypical in Swedish. Interestingly, Halim also demonstrates from time to time that he can speak perfect Swedish, but much to the regret of his Moroccan father, he opts for the multiethnolect, which is strongly reminiscent of Rinkebysvenska. This hybrid youth language is spoken by young Swedes from migrant backgrounds, a “cool” multiethnolect that has nothing in common with the clumsy, broken Swedish of Halim’s father. But the question of authenticity arises once again when we consider the conflict between critical reviews of Ett öga rött in 2003, which deemed Halim’s narration an “authentic representation of Rinkeby-Swedish” (Behschnitt and Willems 2012, 11), and interviews of Khemiri, in which he maintains that this is a fallacy, arguing instead that Halim speaks his own language. Khemiri insists that he attempted to create a main character who spoke a language that reflected the desperate search for his identity (Behschnitt and Willems 2012, 12). Halim’s multiethnolect, in other words, is just as contrived as Zaimoğlu’s Kanak Sprak.
In Hassan’s volume of poetry, we see the same multilingual pattern: standard Danish is used in conjunction with a multiethnolect, which Hassan dubs “perkerdansk.” “Perkerdansk”—another example of pejorative expression—is a hybrid principally composed of elements from Arabic, Turkish, and Danish.Footnote 9 The variations of standard Danish are manifest in the presence of Arabic words, mixed metaphors, and the “false” use of genus, as well as in atypical inversions, as was the case in Ett öga rött. In addition, Hassan experiments with the phonetic dimension of his texts, by performing his poems in the mesmerizing manner of an imam and thereby indicating the underlying impact of Arabic culture. The orthography of the text also varies from standard Danish in that all letters are capitalized and no punctuation is used, as in the following example:
THEN YOUR FATHER WAS BORN IN A REFUGEE CAMP
AND THEN MY FATHER WAS BORN IN A REFUGEE CAMP
THEN YOUR FATHER FLEES FROM A REFUGEE CAMP
THEN MY FATHER FLEES FROM A REFUGEE CAMP
AND THEN OUR FATHERS THEY CHANGE
DANISH APARTMENT BLOCKS INTO REFUGEE CAMPS
THEY BRING OUR GRANDPARENTS
OUR UNCLES AND AUNTS
AND ALL OF THEM THEY RECEIVE CASH BENEFITS
THEY BRING THEIR COUSINS
AND THEN THEY START THEIR
FITTING IN INSHA’ALLAH
AND YOU YOU TURN INTO A DONKEY
A WASH GENUINE DONKEY
YOU YOU TURN INTO A HIPHOP AND CRIMINAL AND MUSLIM
YOU YOU TALK A BROKEN DANISH
AND A BROKEN ARABICFootnote 10
The syntax is characterized throughout by repetition, indicating a limited capability of varying the language, and morphologically, in the original Danish, articles are often left out or the wrong article has been chosen. These lingual strategies together produce a highly expressionistic form, the capitalized writing indicating that the lines should be screamed out in an accusatory manner.
Parts of the collection of poems are written, by contrast, in a high standard Danish that bears the stamp of Yahya Hassan’s life outside the ghetto, namely, as an intellectual, a student at the Danish Author’s School (Forfatterskolen), and a celebrated writer. It is noteworthy, however, that in the final and explosive thirty-three-page poem “LANGDIGT” (“Long Poem”), the most comprehensive autobiographical account in the collection, Hassan chooses to express himself in the multiethnolect (Hassan 2013, 135–169). In this poem, he compiles events from his life and his opinions, writing in “perkerdansk,” and through this multiethnolect immersion he foregrounds the “perkerdansk” version of his existence. As the reader is aware from the earlier poems in the collection that he masters an elegant Danish style perfectly, the “perkerdansk” of the final poem appears to be something of a caricature. As in Khemiri’s and Zaimoğlu’s texts, the mixture of languages is not simply a matter of multilingualism but also a matter of the deliberate construction of multiethnolects.Footnote 11
By hybridizing language and referring to these languages by their pejorative names, the three authors make their texts a performative act in the sense of Judith Butler’s “resignification” (Butler 1990). The conventional power relations between the national matrix languages and the subversive multiethnolects are turned on their head in a way that exposes a mundus pravus. This maneuver is perhaps best interpreted in terms of a Bakhtinian carnivalesque scene, in which the very notion of a national language is deconstructed through the use of polyglossia. Khemiri and Hassan both refer explicitly to the immense power of language inside their texts, conceiving of words as a weapon. Halim states that “words are like the most powerful weapons which will never be blunt or run out of bullets” (2003, 89) and Yahya Hassan ends his “LANGDIGT” with the line: “ME, I FIGHT AGAINST YOU WITH WORDS” (2013, 169).