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The Value Of Indigenous Language In Literature: Seamus Heaney And Grace Nichols

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The study and value of indigenous literature has been increasing in the past years and regional literature is now getting more attention and praise than ever before. The value which indigenous language brings to the variety of our literature is impeccable. With greats such as Seamus Heaney, Grace Nichols and Bob Marley, it can be seen that their literature is being credited for and appreciated all around the world due to the use of their own language, dialect, and style of writing.

As the world evolves, so does language. We are constantly moving towards speaking very similarly depending on where we live, grew up, and got educated in. When it comes to modern Standard English that is in use today, we have actually forgotten the value that indigenous, cultural language brings to literature and it is an aspect that many of us have never looked in to.

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Seamus Heaney, a Nobel Prize winning author for Literature in 1995 “for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past.” was infamous for his use of traditional Irish language as well as Irish imagery in his poems. Heaney expresses a deep concern with landscape as well as language in his collections, and regards art as a way of expressing being Irish as well as being a metaphor of identity. In Heaney’s poetry, the language with distinct Irish characteristics represents landscape, showing the Irish local world, echoing the claims of Irish cultural nationalism, resisting the colonial rule of Great Britain. This shows the importance of traditional language as it is a form of identity and helps preserve the originality as well as traditions of a culture that can be often be forgotten with modern day use of language. In Heaney’s poem Blackberry – Picking, he writes, “We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.” Byre refers to a cowshed in old English. Through the use of byre, the poem achieves a flow, which could not be attained if another word, such as shed was used. As well as that, byre creates a visual image in the reader’s mind that places you subconsciously in the Irish suburbs and allows you to immerse yourself in the poem. It places you in Northern Ireland, which is what the poem is trying to do, and is an art of writing using regional language.

In addition, Grace Nichols is a poet whose work has been essential in understanding the British – Caribbean culture for over 30 years. Nichols was born in 1950 in Guyana, and moved to the United Kingdom in 1977. Her work is largely influenced by the history and heritage of her hometown, especially the oral story-telling tradition with its fantastic folk tales, its history and the landscape.

Moreover, her poetry is profound for combining the rich Guyanese – Creole dialect with Standard English to produce pieces of art that are unique, distinct, and fascinating. The effect this has on the reader is quite immense. When reading her poems, it is quite easy to spot grammatical errors and language mistakes that you would never see in published articles. However, one has to look over this and see the bigger picture in order to understand the message and intention of the poem. In her poem, I Coming Back, she starts with the line, “I coming back Massa”. Primarily, this line places the poem in context exemplifying the Caribbean’s vast history of enslavement, which delves us into the purpose of this poem. What Nichols has remarkably done is use the language to place us into Guyana. It does not take long to spot that the line is not grammatically correct but when read out loud, the correct way “I am coming back master” would not do justice to the rhythm, flow and tone of this poem. The value regional language brings to this poem is exponential as without incorporating the indigenous feel into the poem, it would not be as meaningful as it is. As well as that, throughout the poem Nichols uses “yuh” instead of the Standard English version “your”. Guyanese, along with other West – Indian dialects have a strong traditional accent that often makes the word “your” sound like “yuh”. Using “yuh” makes the poem flow easier and distinguishes it from other poems when read out loud also. If this poem or any other one of Grace Nichols’ poems were to be written in Standard English, they would lose their boldness and spirit and go down the very long path of similar style, standard poems as we have seen in the recent past.

All in all, without diversity and culture influencing or shaping us, modern day literature would all be too similar to distinct between. What Seamus Heaney and Grace Nichols have remarkably done in their lifetime is to reject the status quo and incorporate their culture, history, and heritage to produce works of art that are recognized around the world. Works by such greats emphasizes the importance and value that regional, indigenous literature brings to our portfolio of renowned literature. Having diverse cultures present in modern literature allows different styles of writing, language, and vocabulary to be seen opening up a new dimension of literature that is needed in the world.


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