All this came as a slow realization over the years. Learning German and having to use it as a student in Germany brought the first glimmers of this understanding. Learning Thai and living in Thailand expanded my sense of how language shapes how we know things.
This awareness has made me realize that each language (and the culture it represents) is like a volume in the encyclopedia of human knowledge. Losing a language and culture is like losing a part of the encyclopedia. We lose what that particular culture has learned from its experience in its time and place in the world, its unique knowledge gained from solving the problems of survival it faced. The culture overall may not seem like an 'important' culture, but how do we know that? Much, if not most, of its cultural richness is invisible to people who don't know its language. And there are so many cultures that most of us don't even know exist.
But back to how languages shape how we see the world and how we negotiate it. A simple example.
In English, gender is conveyed, incidentally, by the simple words 'he' and 'she'. We automatically reveal the gender of the person we speak about. We don't really have to reveal the gender of the person acting when we speak. In Thai and Chinese, the equivalent words (third person singular) do not distinguish between males and females. The terms are gender neutral But in Thai, there is no exact translation for the English word "I." Instead, there are two different words - one that males use and another that females use. When a speaker uses the closest Thai word to the English "I" the speaker reveals his or her gender. Well, not always. There are other words that can be used in place of 'I" that instead of gender, reflect the speakers' relationship to the listener. They could use another word that indicates they are younger or older than the listener and other kinds of status relationships between themselves and the listener.
You simply cannot translate these words from one language to the other without some sort of explanation in the translation. The words just aren't in the other language.
This morning I heard about the Arapaho narrative past, which was explained as a tense which reflects that the speaker didn't not personally experience the events he's relating. (I can't find where I heard this - something on the radio.)
What I could find on line focuses mostly on how to understand attempts to translate from Arapaho (and other languages):
|Click image to see clearer Screenshot from Algonguian Spirit|
Or, from a paper on these issues for ethnographers from Academia:
"An understanding of non-Western histories requires not only the generation of documents and an expanded conception of what constituted documentation but also a determined effort to try to comprehend alien forms of historical consciousness and discourse." [Fogelson 1989: 134][emphasis added]
Another misplaced strategy is to impose wholesale the structures of myth to history without establishing the connection in real practices and interaction. Myth contains materials for history but does not structure it totally. The results of a reified myth approach are structures existing "nowhere" in real sociocultural space and time, much as in Levi-Strauss's analysis of myth. In the Arapaho context, "right ways of doing things" (as expressed in forms of the verb nee'eestoo-) precede instruction in myth. The shapes, rhythms, and forms of practice retain primary generative force over cognitive structures, mythologic, or even thought world. Myth is neither a charter for social action nor a model of Arapaho thought. The most sacred myths were told only to a very few people of requisite age and ritual preparedness. To generalize from certain myths to history, then, is misplaced concreteness. Rather, it is necessary to look at social practices the select or reflect mythical and historical material. Of course, myth and history often converge, though not in a direct way. They show up as bits and pieces among so much other material people exchange communicate.Arapaho Project offers a very technical description of the tense:
Sound Changes in Words:
Often in Arapaho, when prefixes and words combine, the sounds change at the combination points. This makes it hard sometimes to recognize what the original form was. The most common changes involve the letter -h-, and are as follows:
nih (past tense) + h- > nih’-
he’ih (narrative past tense) + h- > he’ih’-
For people dealing with Arapaho myths, all this technical detail is important. But for others (like me) it's a springboard to other ideas about how different language forms could change how we know things.
Why Does This Matter?
So, when I heard this concept of Arapaho narrative past, my ears perked up. I started thinking about the idea of a tense that is used when telling a story that is not your own story. Using that tense alerts listeners to the speaker's relationship to the story.
Think about how this might affect things. Politicians and business folks, when relating stories, would, simply by their use of grammar, have to indicate whether the story they were relating was their own story or someone else's. Think about other ways a language could embed truth telling into its syntax, making harder to lie, or at least easier to figure out that someone was lying.
I'm not saying that's what Arapaho narrative past exactly distinguishes, I'm just extrapolating other possibilities. When I looked this Arapaho language phenomenon, I see I'm not likely to understand it exactly, but it does seem to distinguish between talking about myth and some more than real world story from the everyday kinds of stories. That listeners know that what is being related is not of this world, that the words are supposed to be understood as describing another state of being.
Even in reading English that was written two hundred years ago, we lose a lot because we don't know, really, the way people then thought about the world, what things we assume that they wouldn't have. We know they had different ideas about slavery, about the roles of men and women, about food, about health, about religion. And, we think that we, in hindsight, can understand what they meant when they wrote something. But truly we can't really put ourselves in their world. After all, twenty year olds today talking about the 1960s are talking about a very different reality than the one I lived in the 60s. They take the outline of events, void of all the color and nuance of the times, and replace it with the color and nuance of their own times.
It's not simply historical consciousness and discourse that's hard to understand. We have alien forms of consciousness around us in our own communities speaking in what appears to be our own language. You could say this about some of the Republicans and Democrats in Congress, or our own Alaskan legislators, who take the same 'facts' and decorate them with their own cultural meaning.
That's a lot of what the citations above from the ethnographers are talking about. I'm not judging here, simply pointing it out as an inevitable cross-cultural barrier to understanding. The first step to dealing with the gap is to at least be aware of it.
[UPDATE June 15, 2015: I forgot to add a link to a related previous post on evidential language, in which the speakers give evidence for the claims they make.
"Tuyuca requires verb-endings on statements to show how the speaker knows something."]]