Friday, September 28, 2012

The failure of language part 2: transparency

Just before you read Part 2 (if I haven't completely lost you already!), I wanted to share this because it seemed so pertinent to Part 1.  I began watching it, and even before the 'voice' of the snail was heard, it dawned on me that showing the snail up that close, focussing on it as if it was the most important thing to look at, made me a) aware of how beautiful it was, and b) how awful I'd feel if the next bit of footage showed someone casually stepping on it.  I've done that myself, I'm sure we all have, especially when I find them munching on my baby lettuce plants.  But suddenly, just looking really closely made me see the snail properly, as a fellow creature, an individual, worthy of kinship in some way.

The transparent transferal of knowledge...or not!

Colonial history shows us that one of the best ways of destroying a people is to destroy their language, because with it you destroy their culture: their stories, their history, their connection to each other and their connection to the land. In the colonial past, we gave the colonized people our language in return (believing it would have some kind of ‘civilising’ influence), which often did not have the words that they needed to describe their way of living, and so, their way of living, their way of perceiving/experiencing the world, dies. I'm sure we've all heard the cliche of the Inuit people having fifty words for snow. It’s not strictly true, but if a language that has words for concepts familiar and known to the people who speak it dies out, and there are no words that exactly match in any other language, then isn't it inevitable that those concepts will either disappear completely, or be changed and corrupted by using words that can never quite fit? We think that we create culture, that we create language to be a tool of our culture, but the truth is it’s often the other way around. Our culture shapes us, how we think and how we behave. And so does the language we speak. My eight year old said to me the other day, “imagine if there was no word ‘it’, mummy, what would we use instead?” Without really stopping to think I replied that there would probably just be another word that meant the same thing. But then I thought, what if there wasn’t? Imagine a language with no word for ‘it’?! How would that shape a culture, a people? And then I thought, imagine if there was no word for ‘hate.’ Can you hold a concept without a word to name it?  It's a bit of a 'chicken and egg' problem, but I don't believe that it all goes one way.  I do believe that language 'frames' our view of the world.  And I wonder sometimes what's outside the frame.

I remember reading years ago that early missionaries to the pacific islands had some trouble translating the notion of ‘the lamb of god’ to the islanders they were trying to convert, as these people had never seen sheep. So they settled for ‘a small woolly pig’ in the local language. On the surface it might seem close enough, but it cannot possibly hold all the centuries of information, the layer upon layer built up like an archeological site of interpretation, of experiences, of meanings. What on earth would the islander people have made of a 'saviour god' who is described simply as an animal you eat.  Language is not a transparent medium through which ideas can pass unchanged from one person to another. In terms of translating from one language to another, what do you do when you encounter idioms, slang, metaphors, culturally specific jokes or references to things that are well known within the original, but not in the new language? You really have two choices, and both are flawed. You either translate literally, and leave readers bewildered, unable to access the meaning. Or you find a similar(ish) metaphor or idiom your readers will be familiar with and use that instead. And something is lost. Sometimes it’s difficult even within the same language. If I say, “a couple of tinnies short of a six-pack,” or “too many roos loose in the top paddock”, do you understand immediately what I’m saying?

When I was studying literature at Uni, I became fascinated with what I was learning about communication, culture and language. I know there is theory upon theory upon theory, and perhaps sometimes academics are in danger of disappearing up their own arses in search of the ‘truth’, whatever that might be. But so much of it rang true for me. I was taught the ‘postmodern’ idea that each of us is an individual shaped by our unique experiences, and that we therefore bring our past experiences to everything we see/hear/experience now. Remember what I said about the brain interpreting new data depending on context and past experience. So while we might all share lots of the same information about a given thing, and the closer we are in terms of age, upbringing, sex, socio-economic status, religious beliefs, education and so on, the closer that info will be, there will always, always be a layer of experience that is ours alone, that will influence and inform whatever we see/hear/experience, so in a sense, we can never truly share the exact same experience. It will be different and unique for each of us. If I haven’t said that very well (this is a post about the failure of language, after all!), I’ll try and explain. Take the word…

tree. It’s a pretty simple word in the English language, only four letters, and we all know what it means. Don’t we? But if someone says ‘tree’ to me, will I see/feel/remember the same tree that you do? Tree to me is, obviously, a tall thing with bark and branches, it grows out of the ground, it has green leaves, it creates shade. Sure, we all know that. But tree is also…the tree of life, the tree of knowledge, the tree Adam and Eve are supposed to have eaten the fruit of. If you come from a Judeo-Christian western culture, you’re probably familiar with all that. It's the trees of the Amazon basin that are being cut down at a terrifying rate. The trees that breathe out the oxygen we all need to live. The family tree. Tree is also the thing that moves some to tears of joy (if you’ve read the poem by William Blake), the thing that breathes largely the luminous breeze (if you’ve read D.H. Lawrence’s poem). Tree is Yggdrasil, the world tree of Norse mythology, that Odin hung from in return for knowledge. Tree is the link between upper, middle and underworld in some shamanic traditions. Tree is where the mad king Suibhne of Irish legend spends his days. Tree is the home of Robin Hood, and the Secret Seven (at least in one book!) Tree is the mighty oak of European legend, the Druid tree where the sacred Mistletoe could be found. The evergreen holly tree that promises the return of spring. The weeping willow overhanging the banks of rivers where who knows how many ‘murder ballads’ have set their scene. The Magic Faraway Tree, “all shall find the light at last, silver on the tree”, “tie a yellow ribbon round the old oak tree”, the old man of the apple tree who must be left the last apple or there’ll be no harvest next year. Ents. The majestic Karri Trees that grow down south, tall and utterly awe inspiring, like being in a green cathedral.  The beautiful jarrah trees, their warm red (and very hard) wood cut down and turned into blocks to pave roads in London (or so I believe) and are still being cut down.  I could go on...and on (!), but I won’t. I’m sure many of you will recognize some, most, even all these trees. These are just a few of the ones I can think of off the top of my head. And there are many, many more that I’ve never come across, from other cultures, places, times. But then, there are my trees. There is the liquid amber tree that grew in my grandmother’s backyard, shedding red gold all over the lawn and the rose garden every autumn, and the Jacaranda I used to climb, though I wasn’t supposed to. There were the red gums I climbed in the bush behind our house when I was a child, the pear tree and the greengage by the washing line. The big willow out the front of a house we rented for a while, with the swing on it.  Do you know these trees? Or the giant pine at the bottom of my friend’s garden, the trees down in Whistlepipe Gully that I gave names and called the Guardians? There is my oak tree too, only a memory now, where I was married and where I said goodbye to my little one. There is the tree in the courtyard here, that my girls climb and sit in to sing. The weeping mulberry that every year promises blue stained fingers and tongues and feet too, the baby oaks in their pots, children of my memory oak, waiting for the day we can find our place in the country and they can be planted out to grow tall. All this and more lies at the heart of the word ‘tree’ for me. All these meanings intersect and weave together in utterly unique ways.  Even mistakes; things misheard, misread or misunderstood, and then reheard, reread or re-understood correctly, add to these intertwining layers.  And each one of us carries this kind of vast store of layered meaning...for almost every word in our language. It’s why I love poetry, it’s what makes poetry happen. All those shared meanings…and yet it’s also what makes the poem I read just a bit different to the one you read, even when it’s the same poem. 

These layers upon layers of meaning, the ambiguity between message sent and message received are some of the things I love about language, that make it such a marvelous medium. The discrepancies, the double/triple/infinite meanings of individual words, the gradual sliding of definition between generations, these are what make poetry and song and story so powerful, so redolent with meanings built up over aeons. It can be a marvelous tool, a beautiful flawed thing. If you understand it is not transparent.

Language is, at best, a translucent medium. It is impossible for an idea, an experience, to be passed from one person to another entirely intact, without any loss or change in meaning. If we are similar people of similar backgrounds and beliefs, it will pass more fully. But there will always, always be a certain amount of ‘energy’ dissipated, or transformed into something else in this exchange. There will always be the core of meaning, the seed, that remains utterly incommunicable, that remains ours alone. A secret that can never be shared.


Mo Crow said...

this song and film along with your beautiful words to start this day at 2am... I am enriched by the experience of reading your essay on the "failure" of language. This is the beauty of the written word, when it becomes poetry in the hands of a good writer... perhaps it's when we try to convey the things that really matter, to paint a picture of the experience, to say what it feels like and sounds like and tastes like, to feel the aliveness in the words and where they meet with our own understanding... in that attempt to reveal the heart of the matter lies the stuff that art is made of & if in this lifetime we can each reveal even one of those understandings well the world becomes a more beautiful place... here's a toast to more art & more poetry, there can never be too much!

A mermaid in the attic said...

I'll drink to that! And yes, I think that is the key...just because we might know it's not possible to convey something exactly as we feel/experience it, that doesn't mean we shouldn't keep trying over and over again, to find that place where our experiences meet...beautifully put, Mo!

Ruthie Redden said...

I do agree language does indeed frame our world! I remember the struggles my youngest had trying to understand the world whilst learning to cope with his dyslexia. I love the idea of there being no words for certain concepts & therefore those concepts not existing what a story that could be. I am working with a wonderful local Scottish storyteller illustrating stories written in old broad Scots, a language so very close to disappearing. Its a fabulous chance to keep the old language alive & introduce it to a new generation.

Julia Elfvenmyr said...

I recognise what you wrote about colonialisation and language from my own family history. I am a saami from Sweden and our language was all but erased. It´s gotten better now, but two generations back children would get a hard time in school, even get beaten if they spoke anything other than swedish. Many of them raised their kids into only speaking swedish. In many cases this cut the connection to the older generations, and with that the understanding of traditions that were usually not written down.

Nowadays it is much better, the children have the right to receive an education in the samic language, even though the law isn´t always followed in practice.

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