On language and identity
If language is not a purely mental phenomenon but a sensuous, bodily activity born of carnal reciprocity and participation, then our discourse has surely been influence by many gestures, sounds, and rhythms besides those of our single species. Indeed, if human language arises from the perceptual interplay between the body and the world, then this language “belongs” to the animate landscape as much as it “belongs” to ourselves.
- David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous
Lately I’ve been thinking about how language influences our sense of who we are in the story of the world. I speak, read, write and think in English. This was the language given to me to use in the country in which I was born. By contrast, my recent ancestors spoke, read, wrote and thought in German.
After WWII, my grandparents left war-torn Germany for a new life being offered by Canada. They gave up the language of their heritage and took on the language of those who had defeated them. That’s how war goes. Now I don’t feel truly “German” as the language is no longer my Mother tongue. But I’m also not English, even though I speak it. I wonder, given the epic philandering the English language has been part of over the centuries, can there be a sense of pride attached to English, and if so, who is entitled to feel it? What does it mean to be an English speaker in the modern world?
While my parents tried to retain some sense of our heritage through German music, food and cultural celebrations, the language itself didn’t stick. As the saying goes, if you don’t use it, you lose it. My attempts to learn German during university and later sporadic bursts of online lessons haven’t resulted in anything close to fluency. What these linguistic soirees have shown me however, is what a rich and amazing language German is. Unlike English, which prescribes no genders for nouns, German has three – feminine, masculine and neuter. I wonder how my thought processes would differ if I had a full basket of German words and meanings at my mind’s service. What wisdom might I glean if I could plumb the depths of German poetry and philosophy written in its original tongue?
Then there are the letters that make up these languages. Both German and English are descended from Proto-Germanic and both use the Latin alphabet, the most widely used alphabetic script in the world. In his book The Spell of the Sensuous, David Abram discusses the lack of relationship between our modern alphabet and the wider, “more-than-human world.” Our letters are symbols relating to particular sounds but they have no broader meaning in and of themselves. That wasn’t always the case.
Abram writes of how in early Semitic writing, the first letter aleph, also the name for ox, was drawn in the shape of an ox’s head. An ox or auroch would have been of high value, so it’s natural that alpha signified first or leader. Our modern letter A is descended from this original pictograph, but now carries none of the earthly attachments. It was the Greeks, with their Socrates-inspired dedication to abstraction, who made these changes.
“But while the Semitic names had older, nongrammatological meanings for those who spoke a Semitic tongue, the Greek versions of those names had no nongrammatological meaning whatsoever for the Greeks. That is, while the Semitic name for the letter was also the name of the sensorial entity commonly imaged by or associated with the letter, the Greek name had no sensorial reference at all. While the Semitic name had served as a reminder of the worldly origin of the letter, the Greek name served only to designate the human-made letter itself. The pictorial (or iconic) significance of many of the Semitic letters, which was memorialized in their spoken names, was now readily lost. The indebtedness of human language to the more-than-human perceptual field, an indebtedness preserved in the names and shapes of the Semitic letters, could now be entirely forgotten.” (The Spell of the Sensuous, Chapter 4, Animism and the Alphabet)
The Latin alphabet dates from the 6th century BCE, while English has been in use since the 5th or 6th century CE. What impact has the use of an abstract alphabet had on the psyches of its language users, generation after generation? How do the worldviews of those using other alphabets differ from those using the Latin alphabet?
Of course, the fact that I use a written language is also a layer of my identity. Purely oral cultures, those that use stories and teachings passed down through the generations through repeated tellings, continue to be systematically wiped out from humanity. These languages are the ones that are rapidly disappearing from our human diversity. Every two weeks another language dies, and with them precious human relationships with the living Earth.
Once upon a time, we didn’t see ourselves as separate from the living world. We saw/felt/heard the divine everywhere. We were part of the sacred, forever-unfolding experience called Life. The animals and trees could speak to us; we honoured them, adored them, prayed to them. We knew which plants to use to feed ourselves and cure our ailments. No plastic packaged pharmaceutical prescription required.
I live in Canada, a place known for its long, cold winters. You’d think that the humans living here would be fluent in the language of Winter, be so in awe of Her power that She would be treated as a deity. But the vast majority of Canadians leave no libations for Winter, write Her no poetry, pay Her no mind. We get our Winter tires put on, turn up the thermostat, fly south if we can afford it, and thoughtlessly expect the transport trucks to keep our grocery store shelves filled. I wonder what Winter thinks of us and all our flimsy conveniences as She performs Her epic duty in the holy wheel of Death and reBirth.
Today on my daily walk I stood beside the stream with whom I’m nurturing a relationship. I listened to Her splendid bubbling, which is somewhat softer now after a couple of days without rain. Further down the road, the lyrical ditch Water no longer sounds like horse hooves over wet concrete and will likely go silent in another day or two. I know this is the world talking to me, but listen as I might, I don’t (yet) understand what is being said. I feel ashamed that I’ve spent so much of my life not being properly mindful of the Life around me. My attention was so thoroughly captured by the human world, I went blind (and deaf) to the greater meaning of things.
Screen life is pure abstraction. We hoover up tweets and video clips, gluttonous for surface information and entertainment that skids across our brains, our minds huffing bump after bump of data. Virtual reality is touted as some kind of sensual experience, but it’s just one more bubble in which the human world is reflected back to itself in a narcissistic feedback loop of self-congratulation. The aspen leaves shake their vital news updates, but no one is listening. I wonder...What’s the significance of Google renaming itself Alphabet in 2015? What claim does this tech monster make over the future of human language, speech and thought?
Wisdom reaches down into the dirt, into the past, into the deep places of the soul. Digging around in ancient alphabets is helping me stretch my understanding of the world and my own tiny place in it all.
Okay then. I'm going back out to the garden. I hope you've heard and spoken beautiful words today.