How does Jean Rhys use language in Wide Sargasso Sea to portray polyglossia and orality in the West Indies?

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Tamara K. H. | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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The word polyglossia is a Greek word referring to the use and understanding of many languages. The Greek prefix poly- means "many," while the root word glossa means "tongue"; therefore, the literal translation is many tongues. However, in social linguistics it has come to refer to cultures in which more than two language codes are used for different reasons ("Polyglossia"). Such a cultural attribute can especially be seen in areas that had been colonized by outsiders. Those who did the colonizing, like the English or the French, would speak one language, while the tribes of people they had colonized would continue to have their own languages, and while all groups might be able to understand each other, all groups might refuse to speak in a language other than their own for social reasons, especially reasons pertaining to class. We can see polyglossia in action all throughout Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea, a novel that specifically refers to the English colonization of Jamiaca and starts just five years after slavery had officially been ended. The English of course enslaved the Jamaicans, so the English had one language, while the enslaved, though newly freed, Jamaicans had their own, as well as a combination of their own language and English, which we call Creole. We can see Rhys's language capturing polyglossia even in the very first chapter when the Jamaican ladies are described as using Creole to explain why they judge Antoinette's mother harshly, which is "because she pretty like pretty self," meaning "because she is as pretty as prettiness itself" (Wide Sargassa Sea, Trans. de Elizabeth Power). In other words, they judge her mother harshly and keep their distance because her mother is beautiful. Rhys's realistic use of polyglossia underscores the theme of racial tension and prejudice that's seen throughout the book.

When we speak of orality, we are referring to the ways in which ideas and knowledge are passed down through oral communication in oral cultures as opposed to through literature ("Orality"). Jamaica certainly has been and is both a very oral and literate culture. Rhys captures the orality of the culture through many stories told through dialogue. For example, during their honeymoon, Antoinette becomes extremely open with Rochester, even telling him in Part 2, Section 4, all about the history of Granbois, the manor house they stay in on one of the Windward Islands, and exactly why she sees Granbois as a friend. In the next chapter, Rochester reads a letter from an illegitimate son of Antoinette's father detailing all of the orally communicated rumors about Antoinette's family's tendency towards madness. Both are strong examples of how ideas and knowledge can be passed down orally in an oral culture, while the second example is a clear example of Jamiaca's dichotomous oral and literate culture. The use of stories to portray the orality of the culture helps show the culture, both how it is naturally and how it is due the influence of colonialism.

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