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The highest-voted answer to the question Do we need such broad tags on questions about specific works? (+13, -3) proposed that we use tags such as for literary works written in Russian, etc, i.e. based on the language those works were written in, as opposed to the country in which they were written or published. (And based on How should we tag questions about English-language literature? we don't do this for literary works written in English.)

The issue with tags such as , , , etc. is that such tags still suggest a country, not simply a language, in spite of the original intent and the guidance in the tag wiki excerpts. An alternative approach would consist in tags such as , , , etc. (See Wiktionary's list of English words suffixed with -phone.) Since these language designations ending on "phone" are less well-known, I would not replace the current tags with ones based on "-phone"; instead, we could create the new tags and then mark the old-style language tags tags as synonyms of the new-style language tags.

To get an idea of the implications of this change, I have gone through all our -literature tags to check what would need to be changed.

Below is a list of -literature tags with their "phone-y" counterparts:

The following tags would not need to change, since the adjective they contain refers to a language only:

According to the above logic, the would need to be split up into , and (and a few more tags?). However, due to these languages being very similar to each other at earlier historical stages and due to considerable language variation within some of them, it was decided earlier to simply use scandinavian-literature. We probably don't want to reverse that decision, so this would remain an exception to the rule for the other tags.

What do people think?

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  • "due to these languages being very similar to each other at earlier historical stages" - they're still mutually intelligible and virtually identical in writing even today, probably sometimes less different from each other than the different dialects within Norwegian.
    – Rand al'Thor Mod
    Oct 2 '20 at 17:33
  • Also, surely Arabic and Bengali can be added to your second list, since those aren't countries?
    – Rand al'Thor Mod
    Oct 2 '20 at 17:47
  • @Randal'Thor A synonym probably is needed. "Bangla literature" is also an often used term by scholars of Bangla/Bengali literature/language themselves. See this and this.
    – Eddie Kal
    Oct 3 '20 at 2:51
  • Update: see also English Faculty Vote to Change Name to ‘Department of Literatures in English’, Cornell Daily Sun, 14.10.2020.
    – Tsundoku Mod
    Oct 15 '20 at 15:24
  • @Tsundoku Great find! This deserves a separate meta post.
    – Eddie Kal
    Nov 11 '20 at 17:00
3

I don't mind creating these as synonyms, but I think the primary tag names should remain the same.

  • Despite some increase in clarity by using names that are unambiguously referring to languages rather than countries, there would also be a decrease in approachability and comprehensibility. We're essentially facing a choice here between familiar words and unfamiliar words. I suspect most of our site's users will never have heard of most of the -ophone words you propose, and while some of them are relatively easy to work out (francophone, germanophone), others aren't (persophone, lusophone).

  • How do experts describe themselves? I'm very willing to be corrected here by someone who knows more about the academic study of literature than I do, but web searches suggest that far more people call themselves professors of Portuguese literature than professors of Lusophone literature, and similarly far more professors of Japanese literature than professors of Japanophone literature, and similarly for other test languages I tried.

  • Despite the ambiguity you mention, mostly, in practice so far on our site, the languages have largely corresponded with their eponymous countries. With some exceptions like a book from/about Iran written in French, or literature from Argentina written in Spanish, the questions tagged have been mostly from Russia, those tagged have been mostly from China, etc. Yes, undoubtedly there will be confusion from people who think they should create instead of using , but I think there would be more confusion if the tag appeared on all those questions instead. If people wonder why a Borges question is tagged "Spanish" when he wasn't from Spain, they can quickly work out it's because he wrote in the Spanish language. If people see a "Hispanophone" tag on Borges and Cervantes questions, I suspect the reaction "what on earth does that word mean?" would be more common.

We already have a problem with "Literature" being sometimes seen as a "high-brow" pursuit, people wondering if they're allowed to ask about non-famous literature, or pulp fiction from the 1980s, or stories containing overly coincidental occurrences. We need to strike a balance between being approachable to experts (e.g. not discouraging literature professors by using terminology that makes us look completely ignorant about the field) and being approachable to casual literature fans (e.g. not using too many overly technical terms when not necessary). Words like Lusophone and Russophone aren't technical literary terms, but slapping those words prominently on hundreds of questions' tag sections could make our site look less approachable for casual viewers.

By all means create the -ophone tags as synonyms, but let's keep the usual name of the language (French, Spanish, Arabic, etc.) as the one that's visible on the question.

3
  • There may be some issues with the second argument you make here, one of them accentuated by a closer examination of your Google hits. A lot of the Google search results from your links are people who are "professors of Portuguese/Japanese literature and culture". We can't just cut them in half professionally and regard them only as professors of Portuguese/Japanese literature.
    – Eddie Kal
    Oct 3 '20 at 1:22
  • Food for thought: "professor of Hispanic literature"
    – Eddie Kal
    Oct 3 '20 at 1:44
  • @EddieKal True, and that's a failing of relying on Google searches to replace actual knowledge. Still, no results at all for "professor of Japanophone literature" says something. I wonder, are studies of literature from say Portugal and Brazil often combined in academic research, or are they seen as separate fields of study which just happen to be about literature written in the same language?
    – Rand al'Thor Mod
    Oct 3 '20 at 12:25
1

Due to the downvotes on the question (-4), I consider the proposal as rejected. This answer proposes an alternative, namely using tags that follow the pattern x-language-literature. This would lead to the following list of synonyms:

(The order is the same as in the question but this time without question counts.)

These tags address the issue identified in the question and have the advantage that they are more understandable than the versions based on designations using the suffix "-phone".

What these tags do not address is the dividing line between "language" and "dialect". However, this proposes does not attempt to solve an issue that even linguists have not been able to solve.

1

There's not going to be a solution that is both consistent and universally applicable.

For one thing, our tagging system assumes that English literature is the default. It seems a bit beside the point to worry about french-literature versus francophone-literature when we're leaving untagged vast variations within literatures in English. Those variations matter. American literature is a very different literary tradition from English literature. Even Irish literature in English (Joyce, Beckett, Yeats, Doyle, Synge, Heaney) forms a distinct tradition. Yet we have no way of searching for questions that address specifically this tradition. And postcolonial literatures in English are another set of traditions again.

If the idea is that tags identify specific topics that fall under the general subject of "Literature", then the fact that we don't have a tag for, say, irish-literature is odd. But if we did have such a tag, we'd have the problem that Irish is also a language in its own right. What about literature written in that language? We'd run into such issues no matter what system we chose to adopt.

To take another example: There's no such language as Kenyan, so we don't have a kenyan-literature tag. Fine. But Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o has written in both English and Gikuyu, and not having a kenyan-literature tag means we can't link his work to that of his compatriot Grace Ogot in any searchable way on our site. Meanwhile, tagging Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis as french-literature suggests that she has more in common with Rabelais than with, say, Bahram Sadeghi. So we're busy lumping chalk and cheese together while keeping the yogurt strictly apart.

Or how about Beckett? He originally wrote En attendant Godot in French. Are we going to tag questions about that play french-literature but not irish-literature? It makes no sense. The problem isn't in our intentions or just that we haven't thought hard enough about our tags. The problem is this: To try to come up with a complete and consistent system of tags that will reflect the continuities of language and culture is futile. We can't succeed, because it's too complicated. Literature resists being put into such neat categories, and in fact, resisting them is often the point of literature.

We could err on the side of consistency by renaming our tags from, say, french-literature to literature-in-french. Or french-language-literature. That would remove the ambiguity that might cause us to wonder how to tag, say, Amhadou Kourouma. It's also a good gesture if we want to be inclusive, because a term like french-literature, intentionally or not, ties that literature to France and is, as such, inherently Eurocentric. But it makes sense to have a tag scandinavian-literature because literature-in-scandianavian is nonsense, and literature-in-scandinavian-languages is almost too long to fit in a tweet.

I propose we create the tags we need when we need them, and not worry about the consistency. I do think we should retag language-based tags so that they do not say portuguese-literature if the writer is Angolan; let's say portuguese-language-literature or literature-in-portuguese. Or simply portuguese-language, letting the fact that it's literature be made obvious by, y'know, what site we're on. But I also think that it would be useful to allow tags like irish-literature or kenyan-literature or even indian-literature because those are actually useful objects of analysis. Yes, we'd end up with a surfeit of tags, but the alternative is to continue to obscure those objects of analysis.

1
  • "Or simply portuguese-language, letting the fact that it's literature be made obvious by, y'know, what site we're on." Now there's a GD good idea which nobody's thought of yet. Have a +1 for a nice nuanced answer raising multiple thoughts and viewpoints.
    – Rand al'Thor Mod
    Nov 26 '20 at 12:58
0

Update:

https://literature.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/1475/english-faculty-vote-to-change-name-to-department-of-literatures-in-english

Ultimately, this post is just another call to action, meant to "help advance a discourse that challenges structural forms of racism".


I am not against creating tags and using them, but I don't think it is a necessary affair either. In general I am against mapping existing tags onto tags and using tags as primary tags.

But

I would recommend prioritizing certain umbrella tags over its nationality-slash-language counterparts on a case-by-case basis, and I will explain why. Keep in mind that the current tag-by-language method has its own inherent inconsistencies and arbitrariness that do not seem to have been adequately discussed and addressed. The idea of tag-by-language is a great idea and I think it is working fine so far. But we also have to understand language is not only language but is also interconnected with ethnicity, race, nationality, nation-states, culture, and history. This tagging method has been largely successful in blurring the country lines: we don't have to worry about if a text is by an Argentinian author or Mexican author, or a Russian Argentine author, as long as it is Spanish by language of origin. I think that is a smart idea which effectively and successfully denationalizes literature, a necessary step to a more inclusive and holistic understanding of literature. However, by insisting upon tagging by language you are enforcing other lines that don't necessarily exist naturally in language.

One of the most commonly invoked aphorisms in linguistics that often comes as a surprise to people not familiar with linguistics is

A language is a dialect with an army and navy (Yiddish original from Max Weinreich:אַ שפּראַך איז אַ דיאַלעקט מיט אַן אַרמיי און פֿלאָט)

Or to illustrate the same point with my preferred version:

The difference between a language and a dialect is a prison and a flag.

The idea is that the distinction between a language and a dialect is blurry and arbitrary, if not totally imaginary. All dialects merit serious consideration as contenders for languagehood. In other words, all dialects are languages. Whether a dialect should or need be considered an independent language separate from a language that it is normally called a dialect of is a separate matter. All linguistic varieties/lects should be treated with (hopefully equal) respect.

If I were to ask you what language is, really, you probably would give me an answer off the top of your head or a definition straight from the OED. Merriam Webster for example defines "language" in the sense that's applicable in our context as "the words, their pronunciation, and the methods of combining them used and understood by a community". It should be noted that "language", "dialect", "variety" are all sociolinguistic concepts and we can't possibly do a proper Linnaean job without looking at the sociocultural aspects of language. A variety, for instance, as per Wikipedia, "[i]n sociolinguistics... also called an isolect or lect, is a specific form of a language or language cluster."

Getting back on track with the tags, the Turkic language family has around 40 languages/dialects. Do we want all those tags when questions about texts in those language surface? What about questions about a text in a lingo that's popularly considered a dialect? How do you tag Sami Frashëri's work? Note that Ottoman Turkish is not the same as modern Turkish (historically spoken in wider areas than modern day Turkey and by ethnic groups that we wouldn't consider "Turkish").

Similarly do we tag Norman literature or ? , , all needed? Subsuming them under is a thought, but just know that we are dealing with a bundle of varieties. Create and synonymize , , , the whole shebang? Sure, could work.

Also crucial to this discussion is the fact that there has been considerable scholarship on, for example, Hispanic literature and Chinese language literature, by academics who painstakingly try to distance themselves from Spanish literature and Chinese literature and for very obvious reasons. I wonder what Octavio Paz would say in response to people calling his work "Spanish literature" (and explaining to him "Spanish" refers to the language as opposed to the country). I don't think the intellectual giant who foregrounded la Conquista and who considered himself a direct product of the Spanish violence and who had to deny the past in order to be Mexican would be too thrilled. Octavio Paz famously declared:

El mexicano no quiere ser ni indio, ni español. Tampoco quiere descender de ellos. Los niega. Y no se afirma en tanto que mestizo, sino como abstracción: es un hombre. Se vuelve hijo de la Nada. El empieza en sí mismo.

(Translation) The Mexican does not want to be either an Indian or a Spaniard. Nor does he want to be descended from them. He denies them. And be does not affirm himself as a mixture, but rather as an abstraction: he is a man. He becomes the son of Nothingness. His beginnings are in his own self.

Why is such a Nada idea so important to Latin American identities and Hispanic literature? Let's see how Wikipedia defines literatura española/Spanish literature:

La literatura española es aquella desarrollada en castellano en España.

Spanish literature generally refers to literature (Spanish poetry, prose, and drama) written in the Spanish language within the territory that presently constitutes the Kingdom of Spain.

The English version softens it by adding a qualifier "generally" which hardly does anything to solve the problem. The definitions both describe "Spanish literature" as literature of Spain in the Spanish language. (The English page later contradicts its previous position by suggesting Latin American literature is "a branch of Spanish literature". But the Spanish page seems more consistent.) This shows how unbelievably conflicted, messy, incoherent the literary taxonomy-by-language effort has been.

Only more complicated and thorny is the mess with Chinese literature. Many, if not most, scholars of literature from Taiwan resent the label "Chinese literature", for reasons that couldn't be more obvious. Recent years have seen Hong Kong scholars start to share the same centrifugal sentiment. Not to mention a lot of Chinese language writers from Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Singapore, Japan, Europe, the U.S. who don't consider themselves Chinese in the most common sense of the word. Dozens of conferences have been held, volumes published, talks given, courses started, and the conclusion? You guessed it. Sinophone literature. But it is even bigger dynamite than ever. Calling Taiwanese literature Chinese literature offends Taiwanese. Call it non-Chinese literature? You try it.

Suggestion

Keep the language tags but keep some of them with their higher category tags without mapping. Start with such tags as ,

6
  • You make a very good point about the definition of a "language" being blurry and other cultural things being involved. For Scandinavian literature we decided to lump Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish into a single tag, but in that case we had a couple of active users knowledgeable enough about the languages to competently make that call. That might not be the case for Kurdish literature, for example - do we tag Kurmanji and Sorani separately or lump them under one umbrella tag?
    – Rand al'Thor Mod
    Oct 3 '20 at 13:32
  • I've upvoted your answer just for raising this issue, even though I'm not sure to what extent I agree with your proposed solution. That "some of them" is also thorny: how do we decide which higher categories deserve tags and which don't? This same issue is going to recur anyway, of course: there's no linguistic level at which we can clearly define boundaries with no grey areas. Ultimately it probably needs case-by-case decisions: in the future we should expect more meta posts like that Scandinavian literature one, thrashing out details of how to tag other languages/dialects/language groups.
    – Rand al'Thor Mod
    Oct 3 '20 at 13:35
  • @Randal'Thor Yeah that's why my "suggestion" part is a stub. I think if we grow the community big enough and, more importantly, diverse enough, these things will become less prescriptive and more descriptive of a site in line with how literature is read and talked about in the wild. We need native speakers of various languages and need to bring them in this discussion.
    – Eddie Kal
    Oct 3 '20 at 16:33
  • Agreed! That's my dream for this site: hopefully "dream" in the sense of "how I'd like it to be" and not the sense of "unattainable desire" :-) I'm doing my best to contribute, even as a native speaker of just one language, by talking with friends IRL from a wide variety of cultures and native languages - but that's a poor substitute for having people who are equally varied and also interested/expert in literature and actually being present on this site.
    – Rand al'Thor Mod
    Oct 3 '20 at 17:19
  • "an Indo-Guyanese author ... as long as it is Spanish by language of origin." Guyana was a British colony, its official language is English, and Indo-Guyanese peeps are by definition not Hispanic (being, y'know, of South Asian heritage). I'd be rather surprised to come across an Indo-Guyanese author who wrote in Spanish.
    – verbose
    Nov 26 '20 at 8:59
  • @verbose My mistake.
    – Eddie Kal
    Nov 26 '20 at 9:11

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