* Losing Language, Losing Knowledge
By: Susan Hawthorne
PICTURE: Goddess of Smiss, Gotland. Image taken from the wonderful Suppressed Histories Archives Facebook page.
This talk was prepared for a session at the 2011 Brisbane Writers Festival. It forms the basis of what I talked about in that session.
Session description: Of the 7,000 languages in the world today, 50% are likely to disappear in our lifetime. Preserving and appreciating cultural and linguistic diversity is among the central challenges of our times.
The river sings, bubbling
words into speech
from speech comes lyric poetry
sung by young women
in the service of Sappho
sister to Saraswati
who wrote her world
into existence, memory
inscribed on stone, on palm leaf
and she carried fire
where she flows invisibly
more sacred than the things
that can be seen
lapis -> halapis -> salapis ->sarapis ->
sarapphis -> sarappha -> sappha -> psappha
sarappha -> sarapfa -> sarapva -> sarapwa ->
sarahapwa-> saraswa -> saraswati -> savoir (The Butterfly Effect p. 171)
I wrote this poem after hearing about the River Sarasvati, a mythical underground river in India that is known by the name of the goddess of language. It seems an apt metaphor for the loss of language and the loss of memory which surrounds us. In this poem, I have imagined a connection between the precious stone lapis, the lyric poems of Sappho, the goddess of knowledge and language, Sarasvati and the French word for knowledge, savoir.
One of the elements rarely discussed when there is public speech about languages is the role that women play in language acquisition and maintenance. While there are exceptions, by and large it is women who are the first teachers of language. They sing, they burble with their babies, they interact with toddlers with encouragement and as they get older by correcting or by displaying correct usage.
In recent years there has been a greater recognition of women as the social glue, as the keepers of knowledge, as the maintainers of traditions. In Indigenous societies this is often accompanied by knowledge of plants and medicinal usage, in ‘modern’ societies it is the passing down of family histories, of stories that span several generations, of songs sung by grandmothers, aunts and mothers.
In spite of this reluctant recognition, there is little public acclamation. In part this is due to our economic system which simply does not recognise work done in the domestic sphere (compare the budgets of home remedies with medicine; of history with genealogy; of classical music with traditional songs).
In 1969, I enrolled in a PhD in Philosophy on the structure of belief systems in ancient societies. Unfortunately, I only lasted a year mostly due to my inability to explain what it was I wanted to write. This project, however, took me to studying Ancient Greek and by a rather circuitous route almost 30 years later, to studying Sanskrit. While I did not go on to complete the research, it has nevertheless informed much of what I have done since (so instead of one PhD, I have a novel, a very different PhD in Political Science and several collections of poetry).
In my novel, The Falling Woman, I wrote:
Each carries within her the seed of future generations, and in her mind the seed of future actions, future realities, dreams that will burst into flower. The germination of a thought may mean the creation of a whole new world, or the loss of an old one.
Each is a creatrix in her own right. (The Falling Woman p. 64)
This novel takes the reader on a journey to the centre: an external geographical centre as well as an internal centre, exploring the mythic in the everyday.
In Sanskrit there is the word Prakṛti. It combines all the following: MW 654.1: in mythology Prakṛtī is a goddess; the original producer of the material world; in grammar it is the elementary form of the word: the root. It also means cause, original source, nature, model, matter, matrix, seed.
And in keeping with the connection between matter, matrix, mother, German Mutter, and perhaps mutter and mud in English and German, Prākṛt means low, vulgar, unrefined, original and any provincial or vernacular dialect cognate with Sanskrit. Prākṛt is the language spoken by women and ‘inferior characters’.
If, as linguist and novelist, Suzette Haden Elgin argues, language structures the way we see the world, it is likely that the speakers of Sanskrit (men of the upper caste, Brahmins) and speakers of Prākṛt (women and lower castes) saw the world rather differently. Interestingly, while Prākṛt has to do with creation and matter, Sanskrit (from the word saṃskṛta) is constructed, perfected, highly ornamented, finished, cooked, refined. Looks like the women are in the linguistic kitchen!
In her novel, Native Tongue, Suzette Haden Elgin creates a non-patriarchal language in which the experiences of women are reflected in language. Here is one of her words:
radíidin: non-holiday, a time allegedly a holiday but actually so much a burden because of the work and preparations that it is a dreaded occasion; especially when there are too many guests and none of them help. [think Christmas]
With my latest book Cow, I wanted to enter the mythic zone and the best way for me to do so was to write from the perspective of an animal, as so many mythic stories are. I have a character Queenie: she is a woman, she is a cow. Like Prakṛti, she creates the world, think of the Milky Way, she carries language and knowledge in her dilly bag (the word queen in English comes from Sanskrit gau, to Greek gune, to Norse kvinna, to English queen). I chose Queenie and cows as my vehicle for this book because the cow is the default among bovines, on the one hand she is worshipped, on the other she is meat, she is a herbivore and brings much to the community. In many societies the cow holds a special place (she may be a bovine, a whale, a dugong, a camel or an elephant). She produces milk, which is magically transformed into curd or butter or cheese; she produces dung for building, making fires or improving soil quality, her hide is used for garments or shelter. It’s not surprising that rock art in Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Africa and North America includes many images of cows.
Teachers of Sanskrit tell you that learning language is like the four feet of the cow: the first is the teacher, the second foot is the student; the third are fellow students, and the fourth is time. So whether it is Sanskrit or Prākrit, Gaelic or English, Djiru or Yaggera the learning of language is what makes it possible for us to live in social units.
what the linguist says about Queenie
she was dancing over India
and out fell the languages
thousands of them written
in hundreds of alphabets
a dancer and linguist
Queenie steps out the letters
in the sands of Phoenicia
aleph alpha alif ox and cow
travelling east and west
her hooves have split
the letters morph through
Tocharian and Gandhari
Prakrit Sanskrit Tamil and Pali
there are many trade routes
many tales in the passage
of these letters finding the
edge of sound and shape
she traces vowels in the cave
of her mouth the consonants
travel from larynx to lips
she teaches them the sound of the universe (Cow, p. 79)
(The letters Hebrew aleph, Greek alpha and Arabic alif are all derived from the Phoenician word for ox or cow.)
And if we ignore the speakers of other languages, or half the speakers of the dominant language, we are losing a great deal. Linguistic and cultural diversity are as important as biodiversity. We know that when biodiversity is reduced an ecosystem goes out of balance. Likewise, linguistic and cultural diversity are essential in maintaining the knowledge of many generations of peoples. Sadly, in a period in Europe referred to as the Renaissance, millions of women died, burnt at the stake as witches. These women carried the old knowledge, particularly targeted were those who understood the medicinal use of plants, or who carried on old traditions of rituals that had become a threat to the church. It shares a great deal with colonisation which involves rooting out language use, disconnecting people from their land and the seasonal round of responsibilities.
It is heartening to hear how learning language through song is a useful way of learning one’s culture as Borooloola descendant, Shellie Morris recently discovered working in her grandmother’s language with Borooloola songwoman Amy Friday (Andrew Bock, New chapter for ancient songbook, Age, 29 August)
In the globalised world of the 21st century it involves microcolonialism in the form of the Human Genome Diversity Project, or the bioprospecting (really biopiracy) of plants and Indigenous knowledge. I see it in my own community of far north Queensland where attempts have been made to recolonise the rainforest and use the cassowary as an excuse for that. We need a world in which multiversity (knowledge that draws on diverse cultures) is respected in which so-called development is not used as yet another means of displacing people from their homes, from the places where they have lived for many generations.
I argue in my book, Wild Politics, for a society in which we have, as Murri thinker and artist Lilla Watson said back in 1984, a 40,000-year plan. She said that for Aboriginal people the future extends as far forward as the past and that means at least a 40,000-year plan.
If we are to take on this idea seriously, and I believe we must, then we need all kinds of layers of sustainability:
• we need a world inspired by biodiversity not profit – therefore a no-growth economy, or as Wade puts it in his book: instead of economic models that are projections and arrows, they should be circles (Wayfinders p. 217)
• in order for this to happen, languages must not only survive but thrive (and I do not mean that the languages should then be colonised and prospected for answers)
• in order for languages to thrive, cultural knowledge – what Queenie carries around in her dilly bag – needs to be respected. The multilayered world of poetry with its cross resonances and metaphors and conceptual forms is based on linguistic knowledge and understanding of the world from inside the culture
• along with poetry comes the mythic world, the world of ritual, dance, music, art and memory
• with memory comes understanding of the ecology of place, of sustainable living in an environment
• for those who can’t trust their memories, we need bibliodiversity, books that are to publishing what biodiversity is to ecology; we need the stories of those who have not been heard; that means feminists, Indigenous people, any group who has been outcast
• we need an alternative to a world which is corporatised, homogenised and privatised
• we need a world in which women are not subjected to pornography, prostitution and violence (the poorest of the world’s poor are women and poor – including Indigenous – women are the most likely to suffer these shameful exploitations). If the body is an ecology then none of them is ecologically sound
• our public voices need to be heard: listen to what the women have to say, listen to the unheard or those who have been prevented from speaking their language, their world, but beware the pretenders
• we are living in a world on the brink of environmental catastrophe
In 2006, I sat through Category-5 Cyclone Larry and again this year through Category-5 Cyclone Yasi. Previously, cyclones of this size have been around 20 years apart. I wrote this poem after finding the word yugantameghaha in the dictionary: meghaha means clouds, anta: the end and yuga: an epoch: a gathering of clouds at the end of an epoch, and there is a reference in here to the moth in the Bhagavad Gita which flies into the flame.
At the end of every cosmic cycle
at the end of a generation―yuganta-
gathering souls for the next yuga
cloud breath, soul mist
rasping winds, rattling bones
here come the galloping horses
humans astride their flanks
here come the thundering clouds
breaking the world apart
the Hercules moth climbs every building
rising upwards through 110 floors
scaling the earth to find the moon
that light in the sky through which
he might escape earth’s pull
and melt into the inferno of light. (p. 67 Earth’s Breath)
As I said at the beginning, for the last 30 years, I have been looking for ways to tell the story of the power of ancient knowledge systems. It has taken me to languages and to places I never imagined I would go to. Much of it lies right here, in knowledge of our selves, in our knowledge of the people and places who give us meaning.
* Prompted to post this, thanks to an extraordinary July 2012 National Geographic piece entitled 'Vanishing Languages', by Russ Rymer that expands on the question "What is lost when a language goes silent?"