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Linguistic musings

October 10, 2009

A related train of thought led me into some linguistic musing. I particularly got to thinking about the use of possessives to describe relationships, and how that might be affecting the way we look at the world.

Discussing the question of language loss and cultural identity in Eastern North America*, Barbara Mann offers some interesting observations, in her “Slow Runners“:

Of course, loss of everyday language does constitute some loss of culture, for the sorts of conceptual distinctions natural to home languages are only clumsily translated into English. For instance, in Iroquois, it is not natural to refer to human beings in terms of “color,” and it is flatly impossible to use a possessive pronoun to describe another human being. People are described in terms of who arrived at a given geographical place first and the sociopolitical relationships that developed between newcomers and veterans. Thus, one cannot say, “that black woman is my sister.” One must say, That younger Salt Being and I are sisters,” a far more inlightened way to look at identity and relationships than the Euro-American characterizations of “black” and “my”.26**

I hadn’t even been considering ways of expressing “racial” concepts, but that also provides a lot of food for thought.

Besides Northern Iroquoian and Algonquian languages (with Mahican provided as an example there), this also works in Southern Iroquoian. Ruth Bradley Holmes and Betty Sharp Smith describe the conceptual differences, talking about relationships, well in Beginning Cherokee (p. 150 in the 1977 edition):

Relationship and ownership are different in a number of ways. A relationship cannot be taken away from its possessor, but personal property can be sold, stolen or exchanged. Relationship alters living beings internally, but property is external and can change ownership without altering the former owner, the new owner or owners, or the piece of property itself. Relationship must have mutuality while ownership is onesided.

The followng four kinds of relationship are separately provide for in Cherokee:
1. A finger cannot exist fully without the person of whom it is a part.
2. A father is only called a father if he has a child.
3. One must be a cousin to have a cousin.
4. A teacher must have a student to complete his or her function as a teacher.

Remember that the idea of ownership or possession in relationships is alien to the Cherokee language. It is only in English translation that possessives such as “my”, “your” are customarily used with nouns which, in Cherokee, are not considered “owned” at all. It would be more faithful to the Cherokee meaning to say “father-to-me”, “teacher-to-me”, “hand-to-me”, “we-two-are-cousins-to-one-another” or “father-for-me”, “father-in-regard-to-me”.

If a noun needs a possessive in English, when translating it into Cherokee ask yourself if you can give it away. If it can be given away, it is a case of ownership…[i]f not, it is a case of relationship

It’s not hard to see how this conceptual distinction applies to how human relationships are not just expressed in words, but thought about. If you are using possessives to describe relationships, it’s hard not to think about the other person/people as somehow owned. (“Giving someone away” in marriage, anyone?) In English–and every other Indo-European language I’ve looked at–it’s hard not to refer to the people around you in terms of possession.

I can’t help but think that this helps encourage jealous attitudes and behavior being considered normal and even proper, along with the myriad other expressions of trying to control other people. This brings us back to the old “chicken or egg” debate, but not only are these constructions used to justify controlling behavior, it would be hard for them not to engender some of the attitudes that lead to those behaviors. In a very similar type of vicious cycle to what I touched on in Wild animals”, ethics, and veg*anism, it’s hard to imagine that brutal concepts do not brutalize the person using them. If you do not refer to other humans (or domesticated animals, though Cherokee does allow “my dog”) in terms of ownership, surely you are less likely to think that you can actually own them and control their lives.

As in the marriage “giving away” example, this applies strongly to gender dynamics. Change the base concepts, and gone is the nastier side of “How would you like it if somebody treated YOUR sister like that?”. It’s easier to think in terms of “How is it right to treat any living being that way?”, once you’re not thinking of the situation in terms of proprietary interest. The same with “How dare you talk to MY wife like that?!”, and all the rest. Built-in mutuality encourages empathy, as well–and this applies to any context in which Othering and control might pop up within a different conceptual framework.

While I can see the point in some cases, trying to change English usage piecemeal is not really helping much. It looks like something one can do that might help–with that “better than nothing” appeal–but a lot of harmful ways of looking at things were built in from the ground up. I’m afraid that real conceptual change is difficult without using some other language (family) entirely. It’s nigh impossible to completely untangle wétiko language, from wétiko concepts, from wétiko societies: they feed one another. This is another case in which scratching one’s head and saying “I have no clue how to fix this” is honest, but doesn’t have any kind of mass appeal.

Mann continues, pointing out another major conceptual difference reflected in language:

If simple grammar is a linguistic headache, larger conceptual points are even more of a trial to express. How does one convey that half of the cosmos is naturally Sky and Male, just as the other half is essentially Earth and Female? (West of the Mississippi, this distinction is also posited as Air and Water, respectively.) The simple gendering of Romance languages is riddle enough for most English speakers. It is next to impossible to convey in comprehensible English the pervasive, bedrock perception, built into the languages, of the Native universe as existing by complementary and interdependent halves.

Again with the interconnectedness.

Not surprisingly, some of the conceptual differences have intimidated me, trying to learn Unyææshæötká’ and more recently Tsalagi–both Iroquoian languages–when I’ve only worked with Indo-European languages before. Germanic, Romance, and Celtic languages (to a slightly lesser extent, AFAICT)–not to mention strange patchwork jobs like Modern English–have an awful lot in common, when it comes to how things work and fit together conceptually. I have been glad to find words to express already-familiar concepts such as gadugi and duyukta (still need to do a decent explanation of that one) far less clunkily than is possible in English, but so far I’ve only had minor mental clicks as to how things actually fit together and work.*** On the personal “culture loss” front, that’s more than a litttle disturbing, and a further reason that I’m trying to persevere and learn different ways to express concepts–along with some concepts which apparently haven’t completely survived getting wrapped in English.

I’ll close with one further highly pertinent example, which Barbara Mann ran with in Iroquoian Women: The Gantowisas. The best way of expressing the title concept in English is something like “woman serving in her official capacity”. That assumes that women have a set of official roles to begin with. I believe she also points out that Iroquoian languages did not have a way to express the concept of prostitution, which IIRC is correct about other Eastern language groups. Look at the number of words and phrases English has to express that concept. Chicken or egg?

Actually, I have to finish with an uncomfortably apt and familiar quote from Kathryn Lucci-Cooper, of a very similar background to mine, from her “To Carry the Fire Home” in Genocide of the Mind:

In 1972 I boarded a bus bound for the university and became an urban Indian. Like so many others, I would never again be laced to the cradleboard of traditional innocence or wrapped in the green quilt claiming of those hollows. Instead, I found myself competing in a world of people who could not understand the language of my thoughts. A people controlled by material wealth and enslaved by issues of time. I compelled to conform or fail. It was my first real failure.

Becoming an urban Indian woman meant movement from a traditional circle of elder women who easily defined themselves into a new circle of women who seemed not to have a definitive place within their community. It also meant a diminishment of self so as to become indistinct from those who were participating in this modern academic environment.

My level of discombobulation upon hitting Greater London in 2004 helped me see that, in spite of other people’s earlier urging in other alien environments, “Yes, that IS how it goes; I’m NOT crazy, I’m just Indian,” in Paula Gunn Allen’s words. Conceptual differences, indeed.


* “If Western reservation children had some hope of thwarting language loss during this dismal period, because they still heard their languages spoken during visits home, it was never safe for Northeastern peoples to speak home languages. Families in hiding Anglicized their own tongues, wrapping them around English to avoid detection.” Thomas McElwain has also written about how this worked, also pointing out that this has not been as completely devastating as many assume.

** Best explained by the corresponding endnote:

26. The Mahican Aupaumut laid out this traditional system in detail in 1791, discussing Ohio councils in Hendrick Aupaumut, “A Narrative of an Embassy to the Western Indians,” Memoirs of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, no. 1 (1827): pp- 76-77. Salt Beings are people from across the Great Salt Lake, or Atlantic Ocean. Both Europeans and Africans are younger siblings, with the Europeans the elder of the two because they were more recently seen in the Northeast than Africans. Thus, Europeans are traditionally called “younger siblings”, making Africans the “youngest siblings.”

*** This is also partly down to lasting effects from previous medications; I even lost access to the near-fluent German I’d learned, almost overnight, when I was on one medication (and 3 years into a modern language BA). The gears are meshing a little better now, though I still don’t have access to all the memory. The cognitive after-effects have, if anything, proven more upsetting than the diabetes. Contrary to a lot of stereotypes, pattern recognition applied to language used to be my major skill. Now I have a really hard time retrieving things, for conversation or writing. I’m just not nearly as “smart” as I used to be, when that was the main thing I depended on. Another post is probably coming, though it’s still hard to talk about.

One Comment leave one →
  1. October 11, 2009 3:18 am

    I was thinking about how jealousy worked: especially in English.

    Great to see the examples in Iroquois and Cherokee.

    Australian Aboriginal languages talk about Father Sky and Mother Earth as well.

    Mutality is a BIG thing: in anyone’s language and conceptual set.

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