Category Archives: language

The Spell of the Sensuous

The Spell of the SensuousFor those of us who care for an earth not encompassed by machines – a world of textures, tastes and sounds other than those that we have engineered – our task is that of taking up the written word, with all its potency, and patiently, carefully writing language back into the land. Our craft is that of releasing the budded, earthly intelligence of our words, freeing them to respond to the speech of the things themselves – to the green uttering-forth of leaves from the spring branches. It is the practice of spinning stories that have the rhythm and lilt of the local soundscape, tales for the tongue, tales that want to be told, again and again, sliding off the digital screen and slipping off the lettered page to inhabit these coastal forests, those desert canyons, those whispering grasslands and valleys and swamps. Finding phrases that place us in contact with the trembling neck-muscles of a deer holding its antlers high as it swims toward the mainland, or onto the ant dragging a scavenged rice-grain through the grasses. Planting words, like seeds, under rocks and fallen logs – letting language take root, once again, in the earthen silence of shadow and bone and leaf.

The rain surrounded the cabin…with a whole world of meaning, of secrecy, of rumor. Think of it: all that speech pouring down, selling nothing, judging nobody, drenching the thick mulch of dead leaves, soaking the trees, filling the gullies and crannies of the wood with water, washing out the places where men have stripped the hillside…Nobody started it, nobody is going to stop it. It will talk as long as it wants, the rain. As long as it talks, I am going to listen.
~~ Thomas Merton

Our strictly human heavens and hells have only recently been abstracted from the sensuous world that surrounds us, from this more-than-human realm that abounds in its own winged intelligences and cloven-hoofed powers. For almost all oral cultures, the enveloping and sensuous earth remains the dwelling place of both the living and the dead. The “body” – whether human or otherwise – is not yet a mechanical object in such cultures, but is a magical entity, the mind’s own sensuous aspect, and at death the body’s decomposition into soil, worms and dust can only signify the gradual reintegration of one’s ancestors and elders into the living landscape, from which all, too, are born.

This cycling of the human back into the larger world ensures that the other forms of experience that we encounter – whether ants, or willow trees, or clouds – are never absolutely alien to ourselves. It is, paradoxically, this perceived kinship that renders the difference, or otherness, so eerily potent.

Gradually, then, our senses awaken to the world. We become aware of the thoughts that are thinking all around us – in the bushes, under the tumbled stones. As we watch the crows, our own limbs begin to feel the intelligence of feathered muscles adjusting to the wind. Our toes listen to roots sending capillaries in search of water, and our skin replies to the lichens radiating in slow waves across the surface of the upthrust bones of the hill. Walking along the pebbled beach, we notice the ground itself responding to our footfalls – the hermit crabs all diving for cover – and sense the many-voiced forest listening to us as we speak. And so we adjust our own speaking, taking new care with our gestures and actions…

Ah, not to be cut off,
not through the slightest partition
shut out from the law of the stars.
The inner – what is it?
if not intensified sky,
hurled through with birds and deep
with the winds of homecoming
~~ Rainer Maria Rilke

Excerpted from The Spell of the Sensuous, by David Abram.

A brief summary of animism at Anthropik.


Atlas of Dying Languages

Earlier we blogged about the efforts of Canadians to save their dying languages.

UNESCO has now introduced an atlas of 2,500 languages worldwide that are in danger of becoming extinct or which have recently disappeared. That is out of a total of 6,000 world languages.

UNESCO Atlas of Languages

In a presentation Thursday of a new world atlas of endangered languages, linguists stressed the list is not restricted to small or far-flung countries. They also sought to encourage immigrants to treasure their native languages.

“Language endangerment is a universal phenomenon,” said Christopher Moseley, an Australian linguist who edited the atlas’ third edition, which is to appear in digital and paper versions.

The atlas says 200 languages have become extinct in the last three generations, and another 199 languages have fewer than 10 speakers left.

More than a fourth of the 192 languages once spoken in the United States have disappeared. Another 71 are severely endangered, according to the atlas.

There is Gros Ventre, spoken by fewer than 10 people in north-central Montana. All are elderly, and none is fully fluent. The last fully fluent speaker died in 1981.

Or Menomonee, spoken in northeast Wisconsin, with just 35 speakers left.

The digital version of the atlas invites users to contribute with updates and allows them to search according to country, degree of endangerment, name of languages or by number of speakers.

Type in Russia, and color-coded flags appear ranging from white (unsafe) – denoting languages such as Lezgian, spoken in the Caucasus Mountains – to red (critically endangered), marking those such as the Tundra Enets, spoken in Arctic islands.

Not all is bleak, however. Some endangered languages like Livonian are being revived by young people and through poetry.

Marleen Habard, editor of the atlas’ Andean regions, said indigenous groups in South America have been at the forefront of preserving their regional tongues by pressuring governments to recognize indigenous rights.

Some languages have only recently been discovered. Andoan was not known until a journalist discovered a small group of its speakers on the border between Peru and Ecuador in 2000, Harbard said.

Francoise Riviere, deputy director of culture at UNESCO, said raising awareness of the importance of mother tongues is a crucial goal of the project.

“We are trying to teach people that the language of the country from where we come is important, and what counts is being proud of one’s own language,” she said.

A paper version of the 2009 atlas – which was funded by Norway and involved a team of over 30 linguists – will be launched in May.

Source: Toronto Star, February 20, 2009

Saving Dying Languages

Dying LanguagesThe clock on the kitchen wall at the Moraviantown Reserve seniors’ centre loudly clicks away the seconds as Velma Noah waits to see if any of the few remaining speakers of a vanishing language can remember the word for “beet.”

Five elderly women and a man stare ahead of them, silently searching for a word they may not have heard since they were children, when nearly everyone on this small reserve could speak the language. Ms. Noah frets the cover of an English-Delaware dictionary, which might hold a clue. But if the word for beet isn’t in the book and she can’t tease it out of the minds of the three women most likely to know, one more piece of the language could be gone forever.

Alma Burgoon is 80; Retta Huff, 86; and her cousin Mattie Huff, 90. Along with one or two other elderly women on the reserve, “they’re the last known speakers. They’re all over the age of 70,” says Ms. Noah, 36-year-old mother of four.

Suddenly there’s chuckling around the folding table as someone remembers: maxkeetkweek.

Europeans gave this language the name Delaware (or Munsee Delaware), but its advocates today are taking back the name Lunaape (or Lenape). Its once-large territory has been reduced to a rump at Munsee-Delaware Nation — also known as Moraviantown — a reserve near London, Ont., with a population of about 200.

Like dozens of First Nations languages across the country, Lunaape is in danger of disappearing within a matter of years. Canada’s indigenous languages are in a state of crisis. Unless the knowledge is transferred to a new generation, dozens of traditional tongues will breathe their last.

Only a handful of indigenous languages — principally Inuktitut, Ojibway and various dialects of Cree — can be expected to survive without active intervention, according to linguistics experts.

There is no specific point at which a language officially becomes endangered. “The way that linguists usually look at it is to take into consideration the normal course of language transmission,” says John O’Meara, a linguist at Lakehead University who has studied Lunaape since 1979. “By that I mean languages are passed on from one generation to the next. If at some point that process of transmission is broken, then you can deduce that the language isn’t going to be spoken by younger people in the future.”

Lunaape is on the list of nearly extinct languages as “Munsee.” British Columbia figures prominently, as the home of Bella Coola (20 speakers left by last count in 2002), Haida (55), Kutenai (12), Sechelt (40) and seven others. The Yukon tongue of Tagish is a heartbeat away from vanishing: Lucy Wren, the last native speaker, is in her 90s and there is sparse interest from the community in reviving the language.”

Native languages have declined because of economic and social pressure to speak English and French. Language activists also blame assimilationist education policies; children sent to residential schools were often punished for speaking the languages they had learned at home.

“What happens, then, when you begin to devalue the languages?” asks Keren Rice, a linguistics professor at the University of Toronto, and director of its Centre for Aboriginal Initiatives. “People didn’t speak them to their children because they didn’t want their children to have the hard time that they had.”

Should a full language revival prove unworkable in some communities, experts like Prof. Poser suggest there are other ways of bringing about a linguistic comeback.

“We can certainly imagine a situation in which children learn native languages in school as written languages, together with much cultural information, just as European children not very long ago learned Latin, or as many Jews still learn Hebrew.”

For Ms. Noah, who spends a couple days each week rounding up most of what’s left of her community’s Lunaape speakers so she can practice the language, reviving Lunaape isn’t simply a matter of remembering vocabulary and syntax; it is a mission to restore traditional culture, and thus identity. Without it, she says, Moraviantown will continue to struggle with problems like drug addiction and high secondary school dropout rates.

“It’s not the social workers that’ll help, it’s the language. If you know your language, you know who you are,” she says.

Excerpted from: Adam McDowell, National Post, January 24, 2009.