Archive for the ‘cultural survival’ Tag

Learning from the Ancestors, Part 1   Leave a comment

mallorybkI’ve mentioned my obsession with Indo-European (IE) in previous posts, and given samples of a conlang I derived from IE and use in ritual. One of the many fascinations of this reconstructed language that’s the ancestral tongue of 3 billion people — half the people on the planet alive today — is the glimpses into the culture we can reconstruct along with the language. (Here’s a visual of the IE “family” and many of its members.) How, you thoughtfully ask, can we really know anything about a culture dating from some 6000 years ago – the very approximate time period when the speakers of the IE proto-language flourished? A good question — I’m glad you asked! – and one hotly contested by some with agendas to push – usually a nationalist or religious agenda intent on serving a worldview that excludes some group, worldview or idea. Hey kids, let’s define our club du jour by those we don’t let in!

But the most reasonable and also plausible answer to the question of IE language and culture is also simpler and less theatrical. Indo-European is the best and most thoroughly reconstructed proto-language on the planet — and it’s true there’s much still to learn. But after over two hundred years of steady increases in knowledge about human origins and of thoroughly debated and patient linguistic reconstruction, the techniques have been endlessly proven to work. And if a series of words that converge on a cultural point or practice can be reconstructed for IE, then the cultural practice or form itself is also pretty likely. Notice I don’t say merely a single word. Yes, to give a modest example, IE has the reconstructed word *snoighwos “snow” (the * indicates a reconstruction from surviving descendants — see footnote 1 below for a sample) – and that possibly suggests a region for an IE “homeland” that is temperate enough to get snow.  After all, why have a word for a thing that’s not part of your world in any way? But wait — there’s more!

Here’s an uncontested (note 2) series of reconstructions – *pater, *mater, *sunu, *dukter, *bhrater and *swesor – all pointing to an immediate family unit roughly similar to our “nuclear family,” with father, mother, son, daughter, brother and sister all in place. It’s fairly safe on the basis of this cluster of reconstructed words – and others, if you still doubt, can be provided in painfully elaborate detail – that with a high degree of probability, an IE family existed all those millennia ago that would also be recognizable in modern times and terms.

[Side note: almost every reconstructed IE word listed in this post has a descendant alive in modern English. Want proof? Post a comment and I’ll be happy to provide a list!]

stan carey - Indo-European Jones meme - nothing shocks me - I'm a linguistThings understandably get touchier and more contentious when we move on to words and ideas like *deiwos “god”; *nmrtya “immortality”; *dapnos “potlatch, ritual gift-exchange”; *dyeu + *pater “chief of the gods” (and Latin Jupiter); *sepelyo– “perform the burial rites for a corpse”; and a few whole phrases like *wekwom tekson, literally “weaver of words, poet” and *pa- wiro-peku, part of a prayer meaning something like “protect people and cattle.”

What else can we conclude with considerable confidence about the IE peoples? Many lived in small economic-political units governed by a *reg– “king, chieftain” and lived in *dom– “houses.” Women *guna, *esor left their families at marriage and moved to live with their husbands *potis, *ner, *snubhos. A good name *nomen mattered then just as it does today – even with social media both exalting and trashing names with sometimes dizzying speed – though small-town gossip always filled and fills that role quite well, too. Heroes dominated the tales people told round household and ceremonial fires *pur, *ogni in the village *woikos, *koimos at night *nokwti. The most powerful and famous *klewes– heroes succeeded in slaying the serpent or monster of chaos: *oghwim eghwent “he slew the serpent” and thereby earned *klewos ndhghwitom “undying fame” (note 3). Special rites called for an *asa altar and offerings *spond-, because the universe was a place of an ongoing re-balancing of forces where the cosmic harmony *rti, *rta needed human effort to continue.

With Thanksgiving in the wings, it’s a good time for reflection (is it ever not?). Ways of being human have not changed as much as we might think or fear or be led to believe. Family, relationships, good food and drink, a home, meaningful work, self-respect – these still form the core of the good life that remains our ideal, though its surface forms and fashions will continue to shift, ebb and flow. Hand round the *potlom cup and the *dholis, the portion each person shares with others, so that all may live, and we can still do as our ancestors did: give thanks *gwrat– and praise for the gift *donom of life *gwita.

/|\ /|\ /|\

1. Linguistic reconstruction involves comparing forms in existing and recorded languages to see whether they’re related.  When you gather words that have a strong family resemblance and also share similar or related meanings, they help with reconstructing the ancestral word that stands behind them, like an old oil portrait of great-great-great grandma in the hallway. Some descendant or other probably still walks around with her characteristic nose or brow or eyes, even if other details have shifted with time, marriage — or cosmetic surgery.

For *snoighwos, a sample of the evidence includes English snow, Russian snegu, Latin nix, niv-, Sanskrit sneha-, and so on.  The more numerous the survivals in daughter languages, the more confident the reconstruction usually is. After a while you see that fairly consistent patterns of vowels and consonants begin to repeat from word to word and language to language, and help predict the form a new reconstruction could take.

A handful of reconstructed words have descendants in all twelve (depending on who does the counting) of the main IE family groups like Italic (Latin, Oscan, Umbrian, all the Romance languages, and others), Celtic (Irish, Welsh, Breton, Manx, etc.), Germanic (German, English, Dutch, Icelandic, Norwegian, Frisian, Swedish, Gothic, etc.), Baltic (Latvian, Lithuanian, Prussian), Slavic (Russian, Serbian, Polish, Czech, Ukrainian, Slovene, Polabian, Old Church Slavonic, etc.), Greek (Doric, Macedonian, Attic, etc.), Tocharian (A and B), and Indo-Iranian (Sanskrit, Pali, Avestan, Bengali, Hindi, Urdu, Sindhi, Kashmiri, Dari, Pashto, Farsi, Baluchi, Gujerati, etc.) and so on, to name roughly half of the families, but nowhere near all the members, which number well over 100, not counting dialects and other variants.

2. “Uncontested” means that words with approximately these forms and meanings are agreed on by the overwhelming majority of scholars. If you dip into Indo-European linguistics journals and textbooks, you’ll often see algebraic-looking reconstructions that include details I exclude here — ones having to do with showing laryngeals, stress, vowel length and quality, etc. indicated by diacritics, superscripts and subscripts.

3. Even without the details mentioned in note 2 above, some reconstructions can still look formidably unpronounceable: I challenge any linguist to give three consecutive oral renderings of the second element in the reconstructed phrase *klewos ndhghwitom! The point to remember is that these are usually cautious reconstructions. They generally “show what we know.” Vowels tend to be much more slippery and fickle than consonants in most languages, and so they’re also less often completely clear for IE than the consonantal skeleton is. Several people, me among them, have worked on versions of “Indo-European for daily use”!

Images: Mallory; Indiana Jones the linguist.

Corrected 18 Dec. 2014

“The Land is a Chief …”: Maui   1 comment

mauibay

Over a year ago, my wife’s aunt and uncle decided to celebrate their 50th anniversary by gathering family on Maui in Hawai’i, and very generously footing the bill for lodging as extra inducement, so we planned our car trip this summer to bring us to the west coast of the U.S., where airfares were — barely — doable on our rapidly-shrinking budget.  Imagine seventeen of us — five families, with ages from 5 to 81 — piled into three rental condos.

I suspect the more green-minded among you are already saying, “But air travel’s so polluting.” And I’ll respond outright: it is.  No argument there.  So I’ll try to make up for such extravagance and excessive consumption through my witness, and through an attempt at some range in my reporting.

Yes, of course the islands are lovely.  Even the sun-blessed sprawl of Honolulu can’t conceal the emerald hills that overlook the high-rises.  Here’s a slightly blurry view to the north from Waikiki from our hotel room …

honoview

And, yes, you really can find the heart-stopping beauty you’ve heard about, often without stepping away from right where you are. Overhead, in a tree in full blossom, or in a striking run of notes of an unfamiliar bird-call, around a corner, or in one of the splendid national parks.

[BELOW: My wife’s photo of a Hau flower, Wai’anapanapa State Park, Hana Highway, Maui]

mauiflower

But what delights me the most — neither my wife nor I are “sun and beach” people, though the steady crash of surf and the breeze off the water lull even the two of us into “aloha” mode most effectively — is the growing presence and importance of traditional Hawai’ian culture and language.  Without a sense of where I am, mere newness or charm quickly turns flat and lifeless.  It becomes plastic.  It’s easy to fall into one-dimensional tourist mode, paying for flat and plastic experiences with plastic.  We’ve all heard this, probably done it ourselves, so we know what we’re talking about.

But the handful of long-time residents we’ve encountered, along with tour-guides and wait staff, all seem to agree on a healthy cultural trend.  Much was lost during the last two hundred years of Western influence and interference — that sadly all-too-common story in so many places — but much has been preserved.  There’s a pride in the native Hawai’ian heritage that may be one of the best predictors for the future survival of old crafts and stories, language and custom. One more place to cheer, however tentatively.  If tourist dollars provide one motivation in holding onto surface charm and, gods willing, deeper cultural uniqueness, well, let’s utilize whatever works.

[Along with cultural ferment, it’s important to add, the island is striving in fits and starts to go green ecologically.  Aging and polluting diesel-powered electricity generation is being supplemented (and eventually will be taken off-line) — by three hilltop banks of wind-power stations.  And Larry Ellison (of Oracle software fame) has purchased 98% of the neighboring island of Lana’i (the former Dole pineapple island), with plans to make it eventually self-sufficient in food and power, and generate revenues by selling excess solar/wind power to other islands.]

New-ish road-signs featuring the traditional ali’i or chief, like this one marking a church, say a lot. Native traditions and images, disparaged in colonial times, or made downright illegal like speaking Hawai’ian was, start to regain something of their original stature and significance, however incomplete, through their use as symbols and icons.

aliisign

Since we’ve arrived we’ve frequently heard the Hawai’ian saying “Maui nō ka ʻoi” — “Maui’s the best”* — and without shamelessly trying to fake a non-existent familiarity with the archipelago (we’re here on Maui just 6 days, after all), we’re still inclined to think this particular island deserves its status: small enough to escape much of the busy-ness and hype of Oahu where we spent two days, and dramatically varied enough to provide rain-forest, tropical, upland, mountain and desert landscapes, all within a day’s drive on the “ring road” around east Maui.

In the end, though, for me as a brief visitor and interloper, it’s not the beaches but the mountains that call with the clearest voice of the spirits of place. He ali’i ka’aina, goes another local proverb: the land is a chief. He kauwa ke kanaka — we are its servants.  To belong to a land …

Maui’s chief mountain is Haleakala, “House of the Sun,” though clouds often skirt the slopes.  How instinctively we realize: mountains earn and deserve our attention as vivid gestures of our planet, and as ancient and powerful spiritual tools. Viewing them, meditating in their presence, ascending them, whether on a clear day or through a cloud cover that may cloak them in mystery, can mirror and induce a spiritual ascent.

Here we are part-way up and facing west, overlooking west Maui.  You can see the ocean on the left, arching inward to central Maui.

slope3

cloudslope2

Vegetation thins as you climb above the clouds, till bare volcanic rock dominates. This is no longer the beach and sun of tourist brochures, but land still being born, raw from creation.

peak1

Hikers can make the climb on foot; if you haven’t already noticed your car’s temperature gauge, the sign announces how far you have come above the sea.

haleakalaviscntr

When you enter Haleakala National Park at either the coastal or mountain visitor center, you can pick up a bilingual pamphlet (Hawai’ian appearing first, too!) that clearly attests to the re-emerging potency of native Hawai’ian culture. Yes, you can not pick it up, or pick it up and not read it, or read and forget it.  But … After a short paragraph explaining the principle of kuleana, responsibility to the land, “passed on to us from our kupuna (ancestors),” the visitor is admonished: “Therefore, as you enter this sacred place, this kuleana is now placed upon you.”

Here is the otherworldly crater at the peak.

crater

Imagine such words in every park, every public place across the land! “Therefore, as you enter this sacred place, this responsibility is now placed upon you.” Then imagine people respecting and heeding such words. Here is a start, a seed.  Let there be many such seed-places around the world. May we plant them. May they grow from here, from every such place. We need them so desperately.  And may beauty help lead us where we need to go.  This for me has been a gift of Maui.

/|\ /|\ /|\

*Maui Nō Ka ʻOi is also the name of a local island magazine, full of touristy articles and images.

%d bloggers like this: