What language can tell us: reflections on dying words and meaning

Two things I love to talk about have collided: National Geographic has published in their July 2012 issue a stunning 33-page spread on the crisis small languages face in a world run by business, the Internet, and a demand for global citizens to all be able to communicate across political and cultural boundaries. On my favorite podcast, we've been discussing the many crises and endangered languages for years, and all the many facets of culture and identity that are threatened by the loss of these smaller languages. Let me first say, that is a truly large amount of printed space to dedicate to this topic. Add to this, the challenge photographer Lynn Johnson faced in trying to capture the story of three dying languages in the frame of her camera, in frozen, singular images. The whole thing is brilliant. Her photos absolutely succeed in telling a complicated story of words, meaning, and meaning lost as fewer people learn these fascinating, enigmatic words and phrases.

Russ Rymer, the author of the article, has perfectly introduced this complex piece of globalization to the regular public, and then highlights three specific languages under threat: Tuvan, spoken in the Russian Federation territory Republic of Tuva; Aka, spoken in the Arunachal Pradesh state of northeastern India; and Seri, spoken in Mexico by two remaining settlements along the Gulf of California.

SERI: [ Miixöni quih zó hant ano tiij? ]: Where is your placenta buried? Caption: This is how the Seris ask, Where are you from? Those who were born before hospital births know the exact spot where their afterbirth was placed in the ground, covered in sand and ash, and topped with rocks.What we can take away from this story are some of the larger questions involved in the phenomenon, because the answers are neither obvious nor easy. Yes, it is actually quite inconvenient to have over 7,000 languages spoken on this planet, but so much is lost culturally, deep-rooted perspectives and beliefs from tiny corners of the world are slipping away, as one language dies every 14 days (as its last speaker passes away). What it comes down to is reckoning with what will remain, and what will be folded in to the larger culture. For example, people who speak Aka might also speak Hindi or Bengali, which both have millions of speakers and are holding strong in the international boxing ring, but what elements of Aka culture will never be properly translated into Hindi? Rymer writes:

Increasingly, as linguists recognize the magnitude of the modern language die-off and rush to catalog and decipher the most vulnerable tongues, they are confronting underlying questions about languages' worth and utility. Does each language have boxed up within it some irreplaceable beneficial knowledge? Are there aspects of cultures that won't survive if they are translated into a dominant language? What unexpected insights are being lost to the world with the collapse of its linguistic variety?

These are excellent, complicated questions that are brilliantly captured with actual words littered below each of Johnson's photographs. The perfection of this combination, word and definition alongside image, still astonishes me, days after first exploring this article. I keep coming back to the words. I'm having an experience with these words and images. Here is an example of the way the story plays out on the pages of the magazine:

The word accompanying this image is [tradzy]: a necklace of yellow stone beads. The Aka have more than 26 words to describe beads. Beyond being objects of adornment, beads are status symbols and currency. This toddler will get this necklace at her wedding.Not only is this a topic I already find important and fascinating, but here my favorite magazine has most exceptionally presented the real and complicated lives, stories, and meanings within threatened languages in a way that appeals to those outside the field of armchair linguistics. (Maybe, it will convert a few more to that pastime.)

One of the most important components of culture that language variation clues us into is the vast difference in worldview across linguistic borders, which widens across continents and geographic distances as well. It is something that first blew my mind as I was learning about other religions, and which continued to surprise me as I studied language as well (and is a reason I love both subjects so much).

Western civilizations, for example, have developed their cultural and mental timeline and calendars on the concept of time as linear, heading in one direction, ever forward. Hindu culture places time in a circle, curving round itself; this is why reincarnation makes much more sense within their concept of time than that of western culture and order. You're circling back on yourself, rather than moving ever onward into future time.

The Tuvan language featured in the article has its own notions of past and present that also highlight these basic, structural differences in world view:

Different languages highlight the varieties of human experience, revealing as mutable aspects of life we tend to think of as settled and universal, such as our experience of time, number, or color. In Tuva, for example, the past is always spoken of as ahead of one, and the future is behind one's back. "We could never say, I'm looking forward to doing something," a Tuvan told me. Indeed, he might say, "I'm looking forward to the day before yesterday." It makes total sense if you think about of it in a Tuvan sort of way: If the future were ahead of you, wouldn't it be in plain view?

These are the kinds of concepts and cultural traits that risk being forgotten. As anyone who spends time with words-- whether in their native tongue or another they have learned--readily knows, language is part and parcel to one's identity. Expressing emotions, dreaming, bonding with other humans all revolve around language. This is the kind of comfort and familiarity entire tribes have to lose as their language languishes against the bigger, tougher giants.

If Aka, or any language, is supplanted by a new one that's bigger and more universally useful, its death shakes the foundations of the tribe. "Aka is our identity," a villager told me one day. "Without it, we are the general public." But should the rest of the world mourn too? The question would not be an easy one to frame in Aka, which seems to lack a single term for 'world.'

Aka might suggest an answer, though, one embodied in the concept of mucrow--a regard for tradition, for long-standing knowledge, for what has come before, a conviction that the venerable and frail have something to teach the callow and strong that they would be lost without.

This is one of the most beautiful and well-conceived articles and photographic essays I've ever read in this magazine, whose journalism and photographs set the standard in the field.

These are a few of my favorite photo/word pairings from the story.

From the Tuvan langauge:

From the Aka language:

From the Seri language:

This doesn't even scratch the surface. Explore the online gallery and the print edition for more of these stunning pairs. Like this one. 

The Study Abroad Blues (And a few tricks to overcoming them)

Blues #1: Rice Again?

The first thing to affect a newcomer to China is the food. Very quickly it hits you—when they said China, they meant China. To use a horrible cliché, you’re not in Kansas anymore. Using chopsticks came very naturally for me, but as the meals continued along the path of steamed rice, mystery Chinese meat (I’m not vegetarian, but very selective of the meats I consume), cooked and marinated vegetables, and watermelon (dessert), I began to understand that I would not be eating the assortment and selections of foods available to me in the United States. I have been able to enjoy Pizza Hut every so often, and have had two—count them, two—cups of Starbucks since I arrived, and have also found several helpful things imported from America and tweaked to suit the Chinese market (including the no-calorie Pepsi Light, Oreos in smaller, 10-cookie packages, and Extra brand gum in “herb” flavor).

I miss sandwiches, as the concept of a cold-cut sandwich is very unusual to the Chinese, as are fresh greens and salads. I also miss Mexican food, both authentic and Tex-Mex and American adaptations. The two most elemental things in my diet that have been neglected in my time here, however, are dairy products and peanut butter. Most Chinese are lactose-intolerant genetically, because so few dairy products are consumed in the society, and the Chinese students I have asked about cheese have told me they haven’t ever had it or don’t like it. Personally, I love many kinds of cheese, and drink a lot of milk, and can’t wait for these staples again. I immediately regretted not bringing a container of peanut butter with me, as I have some almost daily at home, whether it be with toast for breakfast (which I also miss—the Chinese concept of breakfast is very different from my own) or as a snack with an apple.

My tricks: Although it’s expensive by Chinese standards, I have satiated my taste buds with western foods like McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, and Starbucks on several occasions, and found this delightful. It is also an experience just to visit these places in their Chinese adaptations, as an American. Pizza gives me a much-enjoyed taste of cheese, and I have taken to relishing in a package of peanut butter Oreos every so often—the closest I’ve come to that flavor in China. Since the milk here is not pasteurized, I am reluctant to drink it, and have stayed true in waiting until I return home to down an ice-cold glass of it. I’ve settled and grown to like the instant coffee widely served and available throughout the country, in lieu of the brewed beverage I’m used to. I do enjoy the Chinese food, for what it’s worth, and get my fill of the rice and veggies. There are delightful things in authentic Chinese food that I’m sure I will miss upon my return—the noodles and eggplant being near the top of the list. However, I will drink my sorrows away with a huge glass of ice water with lemon (my first ice-cold drink in 2 months) and celebrate both cultures’ foods.

Blues #2: Do what to operate the shower?

For lack of a good euphemism, the toilets in China are squatters. I’ve lowered my restroom standards quite easily, growing used to using these holes on the floor, and now discern a “decent” bathroom by whether you have to supply your own toilet paper or not.

The other aspect of restrooms that at first frightened me was upon our arrival at Zhengzhou University, around midnight after an 8-plus-hour train ride. Exhausted, I’m barely able to stand up, and catch the phrase, “To heat up your water for showers…,” at which point I nearly burst into tears. I recovered, you’ll be glad to know, and found that the plugging in of the water heater several hours before using the shower is not actually so bad. Our shower was just a nozzle on the wall next the toilet, in the same three-square-feet as everything else in the bathroom without anything to separate it. As one of the professors so adequately put it, “You can shower and shit at the same time!” Indeed, you could.

My tricks: When I enter the public restrooms and catch a whiff, I grin and bear it, remembering that I’m here to experience something other than the way I know life. I have plenty of travel-size tissues to make the whole process of public restrooms a little smoother. I’m actually very adapted to the toilet and shower situations. I also appreciate my own that much more.

Blues #3: “This one is the oldest Buddhist temple…”

Around the time of your fifth temple or pagoda visit, it hits you: these all look the same! Confirming your thoughts are the next twenty temples and pagodas. Differentiated by being unique in their own ways (i.e. the “oldest,” the “tallest,” the “most important in Buddhist development in China,” the “temple with the biggest statue,” etc.), the same architecture and smell of incense can only entertain the traveling student so long. I’ve long since passed that point.

My tricks: I keep in mind that I’m seeing things that collectively contribute to the culture of Chinese people, and impact their history and their current society. When considered in that perspective, one can appreciate the site as part of a larger concept and entity, and not get too bogged down by the details and specifics of each. I also strongly rely on my iPod, and a good book, journal, or Sudoku.

Blues #4: Woes of an internet addict

Coming to China has magnified a personal trait: yes, I am mildly addicted to the Internet. As a form of communication, a form of entertainment, and a means of knowledge and continual learning, I have found that going several days without it literally affects my well-being. In Zhengzhou, we had horrible internet access, and I could feel myself slowly become less content the more days passed without checking my e-mail. I will also never again take for granted being able to have more than one window open on my Firefox browser while surfing the web at home, as I take full advantage of that capability with my multi-tasking American lifestyle. Another odd obstacle of Chinese Internet is the “great Chinese firewall,” or the blatant censoring of the websites one can reach. In Beijing, Myspace is permanently blocked. The New York Times website is blocked through most of China, as are almost all large blog services. (We had enough trouble just finding a site we could use to post these.)

My tricks: Grin and bear it. My standards have dwindled considerably in what I consider “fast Internet.” Fortunately, Gmail is relatively dependent throughout China, as I’ve used it, so I have usually been able to keep up with e-mail. Myspace does work here in Yangzhou, so that is an improvement from my last home, but it is still slow and annoying. I’ve had to learn the hard way to manage the withdrawal effects of my addiction.

Blues #5: The limits of language

China has taught me things and shown me things I could never have learned in a classroom or from a book. In my inept command of the Chinese language though, I feel like I have had, and continue to have, experiences limited only to the extent one can go without speaking to the people. I have my own little China life negotiated, and I can get by doing basic things and getting myself around town and fed. I can also manage a little bargaining and buy things relatively easily. I like my little life, but I also feel like it a bubble, a foreigner bubble, and I won’t escape it until I can communicate with Chinese in their language. This makes total immersion into the society very hard, even more so when you think that two months is a relatively short time to initiate a life for oneself. It’s just long enough to feel fully away from home, but not long enough to settle.

My tricks: For this, I’m trying my hardest to learn the basics of Chinese, during class and through daily living. It is immensely difficult and intimidating, so I constantly have to encourage myself to be persistent. Hopefully someday I’ll have enough of a handle on it to return and be that much more connected.

Blues #6: The frying of a good mind

This is not a vacation. I am getting 15 credit hours for these eight weeks abroad, and it definitely feels like that. I have done enough reading and written enough papers while in China to sufficiently burn me out. Leaving three days after my last final for spring semester, I had no break and jumped right into a full semester here in China. It is increasingly harder with each day to get out of bed (at 7 a.m.) for four-plus hours of class. I lost inspiration for brilliant papers and the incentive to study dries up more and more by the day. I think is laying most heavily on me right now, of anything I am feeling. I’m just ready for a break from schoolwork. I want to read a book I chose and have nothing else to distract me from it.

My tricks: Distractions. This is music, reading non-required things, writing, Sudoku, e-mailing and the Internet, and enjoying China for all of the experiences, sights, sounds, smells, and tastes—not the history, politics, turmoil, and sociology. While all that is both interesting and important to me, when you’re in extreme burn-out mode, it is wonderful medicine to forget it all for a while.

Blues #7: I just want to sing!

I value my personal space and time very much, and maintaining this as a normal occurrence keeps me stable. I find it very difficult, the longer I go, to be around the same group of people in close quarters and at every event for weeks and weeks. I would be hard-pressed to find ten people in the U.S. that I would want to be around for such a long time, and even then, I think I would grow tired of the constant surrounding. Our group here in Yangzhou is particularly dynamic, as we have eleven very different personalities. I would say two of the only things we have in common are our homeland and our language—other than that, we’re quite the motley crew. This has taken some getting used to, for me, because I have had to tell myself to sit back and just let the tension roll of me. For the first several days it was affecting my psyche, I think. It sounds very extreme, but it’s not, disharmony just has a way of getting under my skin and making deteriorating my contentedness.

Also, I love to sing, but others probably don’t enjoy it as much. In the U.S., I, like many Americans, spend a good bit of time driving my car, and this gives me lots of times for jam sessions with myself. Also, having my own room gives me the freedom to follow my own schedule and release the exhaustion that comes from being around a group all day.

Another aspect of the trip that is grueling for an independent person is having the events of each day, week, and weekend planned out. In addition, for the past forty-two days, I have had one morning during which I was allowed to sleep in, and absolutely no days with nothing planned at all. (This weekend, June 22-24 is our “break,” which I am absolutely looking forward to, even if we have to write one last paper.) All this group-oriented activity is taxing on an American with the standard American individualistic approach to life.

My tricks: Removing myself from the group when I need space helps a bit. Once again, my iPod is a life-saver, as I can escape to my own world, full of the music that comforts and soothes me. It might sound silly, but getting lost in my iPod makes me feel closer to my own soul, and keeps me sane in my current orientation.

Blues #8: Keeping it in perspective

It might not sound long to others, but eight weeks feels a lot longer from the Eastern hemisphere than it did from the Western. Life in transit, away from the people I care about and who make me laugh and understand my humor and stories, can get to the best of them.

It’s funny because before I left on this trip, I thought I could handle anything, that it wouldn’t faze me at all being away for so long. I have altered my feelings on that—I can handle anywhere in the world, but I need the right people around me, who can understand why I find something beautiful and appreciate things alongside me, to fully capture the moments as they happen. I was a person who believed firmly that I could handle anything life might give me, by myself. But the plane ride over seemed like an eternity, and getting on the internet just to send an e-mail home two days later settled my frazzled nerves in a way I had never expected. I do need support, and I do thrive on camaraderie to an extent. I need a healthy balance, really.

I’ve been in China long enough now to really feel the longing for home. I’m content in the little life I’ve situated for myself— somewhere along the edge of Chinese and American tourist in China realms—but sometimes I feel like if I could I would throw in the towel. I miss the comforts of my own home, the people and places I know, ordering from a menu that I can actually read. In this same frame of mind, I understand how much of an invaluable experience this trip is for me, how it will affect my perspective for the rest of my life, and in my travels from here on out. I am trying to take each day as it comes, and valuing it for what it is worth, because I know while it seems interminably long now, when I get home it’ll seem like it flew by.

So, I’m glad to be here, but I will be glad to be home again.