In this two-part article I will compare the use of heteroglot language made by two authors of multicultural origins in order to decide whether it is possible to employ such a feature in suggesting a definition of multicultural style. I take from Mikhail Bakhtin the notion of heteroglossia as the centrifugal force decentralising language and bringing it alive thanks to its dialogic character[1]. The two authors I will analyse are Carmine Abate and Hugo Hamilton. Abate was born and grew up in a minority community of Italo-Albanians of Arbëresh language and culture in Calabria, one of the regions of Southern Italy, while Hamilton experienced the mixed household of a German anti-Nazi mother and an activist Irish father.

Abate moved to Germany at a young age and then to Trentino Alto Adige believing that in order to be able to write about one’s own land one needs to cast a detached glance at it from the outside.

When he was asked about his different identities he replied: “It is often other people to deal with the problem of finding an identity for you, to identify yourself.” [2] He started writing in order to denounce the anger and frustration caused by the fact his father was forced to emigrate and experienced racism and discriminations even though he subsequently discovered the positive sides of migration. What makes Abate highly appreciated by his readers is precisely the fact that he uses his novels to talk about the cultural richness of migration and the openness to dialogue of the contemporary multicultural world.

His novels constitute an organic whole, starting with IL BALLO TONDO (1991) and moving on to IL MURO DEI MURI (1993), TRA DUE MARI (2002) and LA FESTA DEL RITORNO (2005). His two most popular works are those dealing directly with the history of his community: LA MOTO DI SCANDERBEG (1999), where Scanderbeg is the great national hero who drove Albanians, Abate’s own people, to Italy in the fifteenth century, and IL MOSAICO DEL TEMPO GRANDE (2006). In Abate’s novels we find the same autobiographical protagonists from childhood to adulthood. In his work adulthood does not correspond to a state determined by age but to then growth of the individual around the notions of identity and memory.

Set in Dublin in the 1950s and 1960s, Hamilton’s novels are about what he calls his ‘speckled’ family which is characterised by a mixture of linguistic and cultural features. The novelty of Hamilton’s approach to the question comes from the fact that he places the problem of identity in a broader context than the national question. Having freed themselves only relatively recently from centenary British rule, the Irish still have a strong necessity to confirm their national identity. This is due also to the high rate of emigration from Ireland to America and Australia in the late nineteenth century and in the first decades of the twentieth century, and to the inversion of such process during the economic boom of the 1990s, known and the ‘Celtic tiger.’ With the economic growth, Ireland saw unprecedented rates of immigration from other countries, and this quickly increased its hybridity in just a couple of decades. In this context, Hamilton’s novels, THE SPECKLED PEOPLE (2003) and THE SAILOR IN THE WARDROBE (2006), voice the entirely new necessity to deal with multiculturalism and globalisation.

Hybridity is defined by Bakhtin as “a mixture of two social languages within the limits of a single utterance, an encounter, within the arena of an utterance, between two different linguistic consciousnesses, separated from one another by an epoch, by social differentiation, or by some other factor.” [3] He refers in particular to different types of communication. The term 'hybridity' is significant in this context because it identifies clearly the nature of our authors as well as their works. A hybrid work is by definition something of mixed ancestry, a mixture of genetically different individuals. One characteristic of the hybrid is that the differences are evident to be seen. From a scientific angle the hybrid enriches the category to which it belongs by adding a new species to the old one.

Before analysing more closely the novels of the two authors, it is necessary to give a more specific definition of heteroglossia. In Bakhtin heteroglossia is placed in dialectical opposition to monoglossia. Monoglossia is closely dependent on the notion of unitary language which constitutes the theoretical expression of the historical processes of linguistic unification. Unitary language is based on the centripetal forces of language which aim at linguistic conformity and centralisation, while we have already pointed out that heteroglossia embodies the opposed, centrifugal, linguistic forces. In this case, the centrifugal forces are directed by hybridity of language. Abate’s use of language is characterized by a mixture of Italian, the dialect of Calabria, German and Arbëresh, while we find English, Irish and German in Hamilton.

We take examples of Abate’s style from his last novel, IL MOSAICO, because it is in this book that he reaches full maturity both in his reflection on his origins and in the narrative style he employs.

The story of IL MOSAICO is told by Michele, the young protagonist, who in his tale incorporates Gojàri’s narration of the story of the Great Time of the heroes that founded Hora, Michele’s home-town. Gojàri, a mosaic artist who works at a visual representation of the story, tells Michele of the flee of their people from the violence of the Turks in Albania and of their last descendent, Antonio Damis, and his mysterious escape from Hora. Gojàri’s stories wake Michele’s interest in the past of Hora, a place which until then he had found to be a “boring place, dying, from which to run away as soon as possible.” [4]

By mixing acceptance of and pride for the mythical past of his people, Abate’s use of heteroglot language in IL MOSAICO becomes more conscious and effectively more daring than in his previous works. LA MOTO exhibits a creative mixture of words taken from Arbëresh, German and the dialect from Calabria, and in this story Abate also often uses colloquial phrases and words. In LA MOTO we additionally find a free and creative use of punctuation. While these examples remain limited to small sections of LA MOTO, they pervade the whole text of IL MOSAICO. The heteroglot procedures break into every page of this novel until the reader finally gets used to them. The constant irruption of such irregularities on the page at first confuses the reader and makes him/her feel the experience of being an outsider. The community to which Michele belongs is a cultural minority provided with a strong sense of belonging in terms of language, traditions and beliefs. After the reader overcomes the initial feeling of being totally alien to what he is reading, the atmosphere of the novel seems to change and the community seems to open up to the newcomer.

After a slap on the face of the reader, Abate intends to communicate that in order to be accepted by a group of people, no matter how tight, one should simply be interested in, and willing to understand, its traditions and mores. This is what happens in the novel to Eleonora, the woman with whom Giambattista, the great-grandson of Dhimitri Damis (the hero founder of Hora) falls in love. She is the daughter of the farmer working for the baron who offered Giambattista's people the land where they lived. Giambattista’s mother is suspicious at the beginning because she would want him to marry a girl from Hora, but Eleonora is subsequently able to make herself accepted in the community by learning Arbëresh and more in general by doing her best to understand a different culture.

The question of language in the novels of Abate and Hamilton is particularly relevant if we consider their hybrid personal context. Abate’s native language is Arbëresh which, though no longer Albanian, is still close enough to it. In addition, all members of his community need to be fluent in Italian, that is the majority language used in their country. Furthermore they are familiar with the dialect spoken in Calabria, still widely used in the household as much as in public life like many other Italian dialects. Finally, we find German, the language of emigration for Abate and some of his fictional characters.

In Hamilton's work the linguistic situation, though less varied, is still fragmented, but the languages of Johannes’ childhood (English, Irish and German) come into stronger and more political conflict than in Abate's stories. Whereas Abate calls Arbëresh his native language, Hamilton seems to experience some difficulty doing so. Johannes’ father wants Irish to be the native language, so he forbids English in his house as it is the language of the enemy and oppressor. Since German is the language spoken by Johannes' mother it carries connotations of motherly sweetness as opposed to the fatherly language founded on authoritarian rule.

Some examples of the use of language made by Abate in IL MOSAICO is Michele’s father's mixture of dialect, Arbëresh and Italian:

“Antonio Damis non era il santarello che tu pitti. Era un figlio di putòra. Avrebbe meritato di sfracellarsi nella timpa. Gli è andata bene. Ha avuto culo, një bith’e madhe si një shportë, un culo grande come una sporta. Quello devo ammetterlo, non gli ammancava: era un culuto nato.” [5]

Besides some words in Arbëresh, in italics, there is an interesting mixture of Italian and Calabria dialect: ‘pitti’ instead of ‘pensi’ (you think), ‘sfracellarsi’ is quite colloquial for ‘scontrarsi’ (to crash into), ‘avere culo’ (literally to have an arse) is a very colloquial way to say to be lucky used in all Italy, ‘ammancava’ instead of ‘mancava’ (he lacked) and ‘culuto’ for lucky (literally ‘luck arse’), a proper dialectal term.

Michele’s mother, too, speaks an awkward variety of Italian despite her attempts not to use dialect by ccntrast to her husband. Although it is estimated that only between two and a half and twelve per cent of the Italian population spoke standard Italian after unification in 1861 [6], dialects were increasingly marginalisedas time went by. They became connected with the ignorant peasant as opposed to the richer and more educated middle-class speaker of standard Italian. Even though it is impossible to get into more detail here, we need to mention briefly that, as Gramsci argued, language plays a key role in the establishing of cultural hegemony [7]. Where the national language becomes centralised in order to signify the unity of a country, dialects decentralise, thus keeping cultural differences alive.

For instance, Michele’s mother asks him: “Che ti succede, Michè, stai malamente?” [8]. Michè is a nickname for Michele which reflects the habit of dialect to shorten words and move the stress from the second last to the last syllable. The adverb “malamente”, “badly”, is instead used incorrectly in the place of the adjective “male”, “bad”. This is likely to be an attempt at overcorrectedness when speaking a language not mastered at native level, and the result is an amusing “malapropism”.

Abate’s heteroglot language includes also English, a foreign language, when Michele, inebriated with wine, shouts to the girl with whom he is in love: “ai lov iu, kissmi plis, bebi, guttbai mai lov guttbai” [MTG, 71]. Abate amusingly reproduces Michele’s awkwardness by writing his little speech in English as it is pronounced by Italians.

Furthermore, punctuation is used in an interesting and free way. For instance, the absence of commas in lists such as “France Germany Switzerland Holland” [MTG, 29] and “surprise irony curiosity” [MTG, 33) serves the purpose to speed up reading, and it mercilessly hit the reader with plenty of information while prompting emotional reactions. A breathless list of countries recalls the emigration experience of Abate’s characters who travel from one place to the other without allowing themselves to set roots anywhere. In a different passage a list of mixed emotions indicates intensely how the whole town of Hora responds to the arrival of a new family. This is a brief insight into how the local community perceives the outsiders who try to join it.

Hugo Hamilton’s story, which includes some autobiographical experiences, is told from the point of view of Johannes Hamilton, from childhood until late teen-age years. Such a stylistic choice prevents the kind of complicity between the adult character of a novel and an adult reader which we saw taking place in Abate. Abate’s protagonists are constantly looking for a secret, often malicious, understanding with the reader. Conversely, the relationship between the reader and Hamilton’s narrator-protagonist is founded on Johannes’s naivety.

Although he grew up in a multilingual household like Abate, Hamilton’s experience was rather dual than plural. His fictional character illustrates the tension between English and Irish in his everyday life. Because of the complicated political Irish situation and Ireland’s still recent liberation from the British coloniser, language acquires for Johannes strong political implications whereas it does not for Abate. The struggle between Republican Catholic Ireland and British Protestant Northern Ireland enters Johannes’ life through the conflict between the Irish and English languages as we shall see in the second part of this article.


[1] M. Bakhtin, THE DIALOGIC IMAGINATION, Austin, University of Texas Press, 1981-2008, p. 272.


[3] M. Bakhtin, THE DIALOGIC IMAGINATION, Austin, University of Texas Press, 1981, p. 358.

[4] C. Abate, IL MOSAICO DEL TEMPO GRANDE, Milano, Mondadori, 2006, p. 152: “un posto noioso, moribondo, da cui scappare il più presto possibile”. Hereafter MTG.

[5] “Antonio Damis was not such a saint as you think. He was a son of a bitch. He would have deserved to crash against the rocks. He’s been lucky. He had a big arse, një bith’e madhe si një shportë, an arse as big as a basket. I have to give him this, he was not lacking luck at all: he was a luck arse since his birth” [MTG, 19].

[6] T. De Mauro, LINGUISTICA DELL’ITALIA UNITA, Rome-Bari, Laterza, 1986, p. 43

[7] A. Gramsci, SELECTIONS FROM CULTURAL WRITINGS, London, Lawrence and Wishart, 1985, pp. 183-84.

[8] “What’s wrong with you, Michè, are you feeling badly?” [emphasis added] [MTG, 39].