Beyond Two Solitudes.

This is one of those weeks where variations on a topic keep cropping up by sheer coincidence; I had no intention of making this Indigenous Languages Week, but I keep running into interesting stuff. Canadian Art‘s Summer issue is on translation, and it includes Beyond Two Solitudes: A conversation on the politics of colonial languages in Quebec. Émilie Monnet writes:

“Double solitude” is a term often used to refer to the situation of Indigenous artists in Quebec. Access to opportunities for presenting work differs whether artists speak French or English. The ways of thinking and interpreting, embedded in language, also translate in the way artists create. Four artists from diverse Nations and generations discuss the impact of language on their work and lives.

The artists are Sonia Robertson, Eruoma Awashish, Rita Letendre, and Martin Akwiranoron Loft, and they have very different takes on the topic; Letendre, for example, lived many years in Montreal and “never felt that being an artist who expressed herself in French first was limiting”:

I speak many languages: French, English, Italian and even Hebrew. I don’t know if speaking many languages has had a significant impact on my artistic practice. For me, languages are above all a way of communicating with other people.

Loft, on the other hand, says:

In Kahnawake, we have a long tradition of resistance. We were the first ones to create our own schools 40 years ago, and today about 10 per cent of the community are fluent speakers in Kanien’kéha. I was one of the first ones to graduate from the language immersion program and today I witness how more and more people are trying to regain their language, especially with the younger generation. Every time I am invited to speak about my work, I always share some words in the language as a way to shake people up, and remind them that we are on Kanien’kehaka territory. People may not understand everything I say, but they listen. […] We have more opportunities with the rest of Canada and the United States than we have in Quebec, or even Montreal. There are more than 20,000 Indigenous peoples in Montreal and easily half are francophone, yet we hardly have any connection to them. For sure, not speaking French is a way of resisting. There was so much hatred coming from the francophone media and community during the Oka Crisis. On a certain level, we were oblivious to the violence because we did not understand French. That protected us in some way. And for every minute dedicated to learning French we are not learning our own language.

(All the statements are given in both French and English.) As I wrote at poffin boffin’s MetaFilter post, where I found the link, “I like the fact that it presents different viewpoints without feeling the need to tie it together with a pseudo-authoritative ‘this is how to think about this issue’ summary.”

I won’t make a separate post of this depressing quote, I’ll just tack it on here. Bernard Bailyn’s The Barbarous Years: The Peopling of British North America, in discussing Jonas Michaëlius, the first minister of the Dutch Reformed Church in New Amsterdam, describes his appalling attitudes to the non-Europeans he found in residence, including this passage on language (the quotes are from Michaëlius):

Their language, full of “difficult aspirates and many guttural letters . . . formed more in the throat than by the mouth, teeth and lips,” seemed impossible for others to learn. In fact, “they rather design to conceal their language from us than to properly communicate it.” It was not, he concluded, a proper language at all, but something “made up, childish,” a private jargon, so private that when spoken in conversation even the most experienced traders could not understand it.

It almost seems like a parody of colonialist attitudes, but it’s just a straightforward expression of what far too many people felt for far too long.

Comments

  1. J.W. Brewer says:

    The wiki piece on the Rev’d Mr. Michaelius indicates that he didn’t stay in New Amsterdam long and when he thought about coming back for another tour of duty, the folks there didn’t want him. So who knows how typical he was or wasn’t.

    For myself, I am pleased to learn that my lifetime neglect of opportunities to learn French was in fact a gesture of solidarity with the Mohawks. Long may they resist!

  2. I didn’t even know about this:

    The Oka Crisis (French: Crise d’Oka) was a land dispute between a group of Mohawk people and the town of Oka, Quebec, Canada, which began on July 11, 1990, and lasted 78 days until September 26, 1990 with one fatality. The dispute was the first well-publicized violent conflict between First Nations and the Canadian government in the late 20th century.

    The different viewpoints are pretty fundamental. If you’ve lost your language and much of your culture, are you really able to claim to be a representative of that culture? I’m sure that this is a dilemma faced everywhere by cultures that have been subject to strong, often forced, assimilation by other cultures. The purist viewpoint might hold that they aren’t really legitimate members of the original culture. But the purist viewpoint is, of course, concerned with drawing boundaries and is far too simplistic.

    To turn to the Mongolians again, the Mongols of Mongolia have maintained their language and much of the old culture, although much was lost, including their old script and their nobility (thanks to Stalin).

    In Inner Mongolia, on the other hand, there has been a steady loss of language and the culture has had to give way to Chinese on many fronts (especially in aspects related to “modernity”). But this does not mean that the Mongols of Inner Mongolia necessary feel they are less “Mongol”. Many still uphold their identity as Mongols even if they speak only Chinese. (See this article: Inner Mongolia has become China’s model of assimilation. But Chinese Mongolians are still asserting their identity. Indeed, they possibly cling to features of Mongolian culture (music, costume, etc.) all the more strongly in order to identify as Mongols. But to the Mongolians of Mongolia, it is ridiculous to claim you are a Mongol if you don’t speak the language.

    The Irish are another example. The Irish still maintain a strong sense of Irish identity even though most of them speak only English. Objectively speaking, I would suggest that they’ve lost a lot (most?) of their Irish culture, too, but I’m sure they would still identify “spiritually” as Irish. And if you mention “Irish literature” now, you probably aren’t referring to literature written in Irish.

  3. J.W. Brewer says:

    A little bit later (c. 1644) another dominie with a Latinized surname, the Rev’d Johannes Megapolensis, complains of the difficulty of learning Mohawk, not because it is fictitious or jargonish but because it is complicated, and he can tell it is morphologically complex but he can’t get anyone to explain the conjugations/declensions/etc. to him in a systematic way and it’s hard to piece together on his own.

  4. Come to think of it, Africans or Indians writing in English or French face related problems.

    They fall between two stools. They aren’t quite “authentic” as Indian/African writers since they aren’t writing in their native idioms, and yet they’re not fully accepted as writers in English or French since they don’t belonging to the metropolitan cultures (“British literature”, “American literature”).

    Perhaps this is changing in the postmodern era, when old identities are being deconstructed and reconstructed, but from my perception (and I’m not really in the right place to know the latest trends) the pace of change doesn’t seem terribly fast. Old stereotypes seem remarkably tenacious.

  5. Well, if you can’t be a Mongol, perhaps you can get rich, undergo loss of preconsonantal nasals, and be a mogul.

  6. 20,000 peoples or 20,000 people?

  7. Heh. I don’t know if it’s a slip on the author’s part or a typo, but surely “people” was intended. Good catch!

  8. “British literature”, “American literature”

    In American universities, the first is referred to as “English literature”, which really annoys me. Not only is American literature in English, but Scottish and Irish literature in English is treated as part of “English literature”.

  9. “Their language, full of “difficult aspirates and many guttural letters . . . formed more in the throat than by the mouth, teeth and lips,” seemed impossible for others to learn. ”

    Who the hell is a Dutchman to say anyone else’s language is full of guttural sounds?

    “In American universities, the first is referred to as “English literature”, which really annoys me. Not only is American literature in English, but Scottish and Irish literature in English is treated as part of “English literature”.”

    It’s a deficiency of English not to distinguish readily between 英国 and 英文 when referring to the literature or anything else for that matter.

  10. J.W. Brewer says:

    It is provincial to think of national-boundary subsets of literature in English as if they were primary categories, just as it would be provincial to divide up “German” literature by the particular nation-states to which particular writers owed allegiance during their lifetime.

  11. Sarah Rivett’s book Unscripted America deals specifically with the topics of how “study of how colonists[, particularly missionaries,] in North America struggled to understand, translate, and interpret Native American languages”. It spends a lot of time on interactions with the Mohawk, if that’s of particular interest to anyone.

    The New Books Network has a podcast interview with her, which was also interesting and gives some snippets of the book and the thesis therein.

  12. It is provincial to think of national-boundary subsets of literature in English as if they were primary categories, just as it would be provincial to divide up “German” literature by the particular nation-states to which particular writers owed allegiance during their lifetime.

    I dunno… to a certain extent, maybe, but I don’t think it’s comparable to German. The literary traditions of the UK, US, South Africa, and Australia are very different, although of course there’s been lots of mutual influence. It wouldn’t make sense to treat them as completely separate fields of study, but it also wouldn’t make sense to lump them all together.

  13. J.W. Brewer says:

    There are some U.S. universities/colleges who have designated the relevant department and/or major as e.g. “English and American Literature” rather than just “English.” Note how this is actually worse, because it forces a narrow-scope interpretation of “English” that necessarily excludes Irish or Australian or what have you authors who write in English.

  14. J.W.Brewer: maybe they treat America as “Little England” (that is, they study the whole field of literature written in English with special focus on American variety).

  15. One of my favorite current cartoonists is Walter Scott, who is Mohawk from Kahnawake. His recurring strip, Wendy, is usually in English, but in one episode one of his characters, who is Mohawk, travels to Japan. That story is in Japanese, with parallel English translation, but it contains a phone conversation in Mohawk between Winona and her relatives back in Canada. The Mohawk is left untranslated. From an interview:

    Those similar themes are taken up in your second book: there are some more artistic liberties taken when Wendy goes to Japan, where some of it is translated and some isn’t.

    There’s one chapter that’s in English, Japanese, and Mohawk, which is my ancestral language, but I was interested in making something inaccessible to the audience that would otherwise assume was for them. Because they relate so deeply to all of the other Wendy material and can understand it, I think people suppose that all the Wendy material should be accessible. For me, with my Indigenous identity, I went to primary school entirely in my language, and as time went on and I moved to the city, I lost touch with it. And feel like the language is inside of me somewhere, but it’s like looking at the language through a foggy window. It’s a weird cognitive dissonance to feel that something is yours and belongs to you, but you can’t access it. So I thought to make a Wendy book where an entire readership of English speakers suddenly are confronted with something that is relatable and theirs, but they can’t understand it. It’s because I want them to understand what that feeling is like.

  16. Very interesting, thanks!

  17. The literary traditions of the UK, US, South Africa, and Australia are very different

    The way you unconsciously confined English-language literature to a set of traditionally white-dominated countries (North America or British Commonwealth) is an example of how literature written by Africans, Indians, etc. tends to get left out in the cold — although you did manage to leave out Ireland, Canada, and New Zealand. 🙂

    I’m not intending to be critical here. I think most people think in these unconscious categories when discussing English-language literature. Perhaps many people would even feel that inserting African, South Asian, or Southeast Asian literature in English into the equation is actually somehow wrong since these people don’t actually speak ‘native-speaker English’. (In one way they are right, as frustrating encounters with Indians via phone or email in customer service often bears out.)

  18. The way you unconsciously confined English-language literature

    I wasn’t confining anything, just naming some obvious candidates. There are a lot of countries that have produced English-language literature, and if I had been determined not to “leave out” anything it would have been a long and boring comment. And while I don’t think “inserting African, South Asian, or Southeast Asian literature in English into the equation is actually somehow wrong,” I do think that those literatures are separate in obvious ways that do not have to do with race, and in any event they all fit comfortably under my statement “It wouldn’t make sense to treat them as completely separate fields of study, but it also wouldn’t make sense to lump them all together.”

  19. The fact that they are “obvious candidates” points out their cognitive salience for English speakers. Hat, more than almost anyone, is alive to the world of English-language literature outside its familiar haunts. But the way that the obvious candidates emerged so easily is symptomatic of the familiar mind map that most people seem to have.

  20. marie-lucie says:

    When studying for a degree in English (in France many years ago – many things have changed in the meantime), one of the three compulsory “certificates” to be completed (each one taught through several courses) was Littérature anglaise, and for the fourth certificate, which allowed a choice, I took Littérature et civilisation américaines, which was supposed to anchor American literature in its historical and cultural environment (English – or British – history and culture were covered by one of the compulsory certificates). I don’t know the current programs, but English-language literature from Africa or India or smaller current or former territories could hardly be taught meaningfully without a minimum of knowledge of the relevant cultures and their history, both pre-colonial and “post-colonial”.

  21. David Marjanović says:

    Who the hell is a Dutchman to say anyone else’s language is full of guttural sounds?

    Maybe his Dutch was southwestern enough to have pleasantly velar [x] and [ɣ] instead of the uvular northeastern [χ]?

    But more likely he was referring to the fact that [h] and even [ʔ] behave as ordinary consonants in Mohawk, happily occurring anywhere in a word, including in consonant clusters.

  22. Bruno van Wayenburg says:

    Ha, that was my first thought as a (uvular g, northern) Dutchman too. Michaëlius was from Hoorn, North-Holland, which definitely falls within the uvular zone. Generally, the north (including the northwest) has the ‘hard g’, and the south, the ‘soft g.’ But I wouldn’t agree about the pleasantness, to us northerners all these ‘soft g’s’ sound a bit, well, soft.

  23. David Marjanović says:

    My sister hates it when men speak French and when women speak Spanish.

    (I mean, she speaks [some] Spanish anyway, but…)

  24. My then girlfriend wasn’t thrilled when we were in Paris chatting with the people we’d switched apartments with (they left our place in NYC and returned home before we left Paris) and I was gabbling away in French (made more fluent by their wine) while she tried to keep up and interject the occasional remark (she spoke [some] French, but…).

  25. Lars (the original one) says:

    @David, that seems oddly specific. Is it better for your sister if the men speak Spanish and the women French?

  26. marie-lucie says:

    David, Lars: It could be that the sex of the speaker influences their delivery and makes them more or less understandable for her. At a time when I knew a number of immigrants from Latin America (and became fluent in Spanish as a result), the group was joined by a couple from Chile. I found the speech of the woman extremely clear, but her husband was almost impossible to understand. These were well-educated people, they were not speaking some remote dialect. Some years later I made the acquaintance of a (male) linguist from Chile that I had contacted by email about some technical matters, writing in Spanish. When I had the opportunity to meet him in person, I addressed him in Spanish, but was unable to understand his answers! Yet I had never had problems with a female Chilean colleague.

  27. David Marjanović says:

    Is it better for your sister if the men speak Spanish and the women French?

    and makes them more or less understandable for her

    No, she understands everyone just fine! French just doesn’t sound stereotypically manly enough to be spoken by men for her taste, and vice versa with Spanish.

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