new languages formed from ducks!

July 16, 2009 § Leave a comment

The story of the tower of Babel links multilingualism with God’s wrath induced by the threat of human co-operation. It seems, then, that this a discourse of multilingualism as punishment, as impediment.  Other cultures recall a time where humans shared a single language – a unity which disappeared due to the dispersal of groups.  Here’s one such story from the Salishan tribes of the North West of the Americas.

In a certain place in the winter months, the ducks collected in great numbers. When any one approached them, they would rise and fly away, making a whistling-noise. One morning two hunters went down to a river to kill some ducks. They had each obtained one, when a dispute arose over the question whether the whistling-noise was made with the bill or with the wings when they rose to fly. Neither could convince the other, and the words became bitter. Finally they agreed to take it to the chief, and let him settle the dispute.

 The chief heard the story, and looked at the ducks. Both of them were dead and could not make any noise. Therefore he called a council to listen to the dispute. The people came from all around to deliberate. They spoke one language and had only one chief.

 The ducks were brought in, and the chief explained the question. The people said, “We do not wish to be unjust, we will go to the river and hear for ourselves. These ducks can do us no good.” So they went down to the river and frightened the ducks which flew over their heads. Part of the Indians said the noise was made with the bills; part said it was made with the wings. They could not agree. There- fore the ducks were made to fly once more. The people began to quarrel violently, and separated in an ugly mood.

 All during the winter the feeling grew, until in spring the mutual hatred drove part of the Indians south to hunt for new homes. This was the first division of the people into tribes. They selected a chief from their own division, and called themselves by another name.

 Finding new objects, and having to give such objects names, brought new words into their former language; and thus after many years the language was changed. Each split in the tribe made a new division and brought a new chief. Each migration brought different words and meanings. Thus the tribes slowly scattered; and thus the dialects, and even new languages, were formed.

From Franz Boaz (Ed) (1917). Folktales of the Salish and Sahaptin Tribes. Journal of the American Folklore Society, Vol 11, 111-112.

Non-Salishan linguists would pretty much agree with the general analysis suggested here. New languages form over time as cultures split and migrate to new places and new contexts. Changes in cultural patterns are likely to be mirrored by divergences in language and language use.

So how come some people’s proposals get called science and some people’s just get called folklore? It seems that it depends on who is speaking and how they are saying it.

In the link below scientists from Columbia University admire the folk art of the indigenous peoples of the Andes in being able to predict potato crop success by analysing the stars.

Perhaps institutions such as universities bestow the label science on discourses produced by those who are supported by the academy. Outside of the academy knowledge is reanalysed as intuition which is a very powerful discursive move. Or as David Peat (1994, p.42)  puts it

When western science claims to speaking the truth, then, by implication other people’s truths become myths legends, superstitions, and fairystories. A dominant society denies the authenticity of other peoples’ systems of knowledge and in this ways strikes at the very heart of their cultures

Perhaps another issue is the way in which knowledge is encoded. The Salishan analysis of multilingualism is unmistakeably a narrative. We have characters-the original two duckhunters and the chief-and there is an episodic structure. Becuase of this we may pay too much attention to genre and misinterpret the meaning of the narrative.  The contrast between narrative and science made by some in the west is in istelf a construct.  The construction of scholastic scientific texts of that tradition require the defacing of the protagonist-The I of the narrator is hidden in agentless passives … the compound was soaked in nitric acid for 24 hours and then viewed under the microscope. Nor can we deny that there is a sequencing of events in the reporting of experiments which match the scrupulous seqeuncing of events in the Salishan narrative-no flashbacks no flashforwards, suggesting that science writing indeed is a narrative. 

After all, who doesn’t like a good story? And if all sciences are encoded in a narrative genre of some kind,  can we not say that all cultures produce both narratives and sciences?

http://www.columbia.edu/cu/pr/00/01/pleiades.html

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