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[wolfrunners] Re: Languages and SF/F (fwd)

From:Yoon Ha Lee <yl112@...>
Date:Wednesday, August 23, 2000, 19:46
It was a pleasure for me to read this post on Wolfrunners...and no, I
didn't write any of it, it's a forward.


---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Wed, 23 Aug 2000 09:34:51 -0700
From: Nancy Lee <kimchee@...>
Subject: [wolfrunners] Re: Languages and SF/F

On 21-Aug-00, wrote:

> Message: 8 > Date: Sun, 20 Aug 2000 20:22:08 -0500 > From: Sara McEnhill <mcenhill42@...> > Subject: Re: Re: Languages & SF/F > >> Now what the heck kind >> of an alien culture is that, where their concepts, values, and worldview >> are just like ours, and only their animals and plants are significantly >> different? > > I think that is because animals and plants are individuals. They have > evolved and have their own unique genetic identity. A sharp pointy > object, no matter what the material components (copper, iron, ceramics, > polymers), can be easily translated between cultures or worlds as a > "knife" (by definition, a cutting instrument). Living organisms are > unique and don't necessarily translate to another culture's language.
Okay, you come from a culture that makes a distinction between animals and plants ("living organisms") on the one hand, and manmade objects (which are presumed to be inanimate) on the other. But not all cultures draw the line in the same place. At a writing conference some years ago, I met a Native American woman who did not believe there was any such thing as an inanimate object. To her, everything was a living being with a soul -- not just people and animals and plants, but also rocks and rivers; not just rocks and rivers, but also man-made objects. My cultural assumption as a mainstream American was that if something is man-made, it cannot possibly be a living being; but that was not her culturual assumption at all. (Look at Northwest Coast art: their knives, spoons, and boxes, all have FACES painted and carved on them -- the face of the spirit of the knife, the spirit of the spoon, the spirit of the box, etc. These are individual living beings.) She was on a first-name basis with her car (who was named Louise) and her typewriter (whose name I have forgotten, but I remember that "she" was female) the same way mainstream Americans are on a first-name basis with their dogs and cats. She absolutely refused to refer to a man-made object as an "it" -- she called them she, he, you, or addressed them by name, because to her they were living conscious beings whose feelings might be hurt. I don't know her native language, but I would bet there was no such word as "it" in it -- because in her culture there was no such *concept* as inanimate object, everything was living, conscious, and personal, everything was a he, she, or you. She knew the English word "it" because she knows English, but she thought it showed a fundamental misconception about the nature of life and consciousness, and refused to call man-made objects "it." When I heard her addressing her typewriter by "her" first name, and asking "her" whether "she" was feeling like typing today, and realized that this was not insane or childish behavior but was *normal* in her culture, I felt like, hoo boy, she comes from a WAY different world from the one I live in (even though we are both Terrans, both live in the same state, and she was speaking English the whole time!). But when I open a book and read a story where everything is in English except the names of animals and plants, I feel like okay, here I am back in a familiar Euro-American mindset where the lines are drawn in the same old ways: animals and plants are considered unique living beings, rocks and manmade objects are not, and what else is new. The names and details may be different, but basically I'm dealing with Euro-America in disguise. Mind you I *like* fantasy that's set in Euro-America (says the diehard Arthurian junkie) as long as there's something creatively weird about it. But tweaking species and diddling with names alone doesn't do it for me, there has to be something more going on than just that.
> Using only English words, what do you call a kangaroo?
Using only English words, what do you call a three-legged animal with two heads on long necks? Why a puppeteer, of course (from Larry Niven's Ringworld). Never underestimate the possibilities of metaphor. :) Which leads to another question. Using only aboriginal words, what do you call a kangaroo? The kangaroo hasn't always been called a kangaroo. Somebody sometime named it, and they named it for a reason. Did the unknown aboriginal man or woman who named the kangaroo give it a name that was descriptive in the aboriginal language, as "grasshopper," "woodpecker," "anteater," "firefly," "kingfisher," "hornbill," "nightcrawler," "spoonbill," "cedar waxwing," "spotted warbler," "bluebell," and "swamproot" are in English? Or did he/she give it a name that was onomatopoeiac, like the English bird-names cuckoo and whippoorwill? Whatever, you can be sure that the person who named the kangaroo named it for a reason. That reason is not apparent to us, because we don't know the aboriginal language. But it would have been obvious to the person who first gave it that name -- and it might still be apparent to living aboriginals! The English language has gone through so much drastic change, absorbed so many foreign words into its vocabulary, and gotten so far away from its roots, that the reasons why people named animals what they did are usually forgotten. Animal-names with transparently obvious derivations (such as grasshopper, woodpecker, etc.) are the exception, and animal-names without obvious derivations (such as rabbit, horse, cow) are the norm. We don't expect a name to make sense; it's just a name. Now if the aboriginal culture has had tons of different foreign influences and gone through drastic changes in what language group is in and out of power, their language would also tend to have animal names whose original meanings have been forgotten. "I dunno why we call it a flargle. That's just it's name. A flargle is a flargle, that's all." But if their language is the language of just one people, and their culture has received fewer foreign influences and suffered less disruption over the millennia, their language would tend to have animal names whose original meanings are obvious to all speakers of the language. "Well, it's called a fieldbounder because it bounds through the fields, obviously." Whether most words can or cannot be translated into another language tells you whether the natives do or do not remember the original meanings. And if the original meaning is remembered, that can tell you how that culture regards (or once regarded) that thing. If you are primarily interested in an animal's color and shape, you might give kangaroos a name that means "red bigfoot" (which is what the scientific name, Macropus rufus, means). Or if you were more interested in their motion than their shape, you might give them a name that means "bounders" or "springers" or "kickers." If you were sensitive to auras, you might give them a name that describes their aura. If you thought their ability to stand upright made them look like people, you might give them a name that means "fieldpeople" (cf. "orangutan," = "man of the woods"). If you were really not all that interested in them, you might not name them at all, but call them just "beasts" or "critters." If your people considered kangaroos to be the ancestors from which your tribe descended, you might call them "great-grandmother" and "great-grandfather." If you worshipped them, you might call them "God."
> Kangaroos could be > considered large "rabbit-like" creatures, but we don't call them rabbits.
Because they don't look much like rabbits. Nor did the Anglos relate to them in the same way they related to rabbits. (Ever seen somebody cuddle up to their pet kangaroo? Or be seriously injured by a vicious kick from a rabbit?) Whereas the Tasmanian wolf does look quite a bit like an English wolf. And is about as welcome to an Anglo chickenfarmer as an English wolf would be. If it looks like a wolf and you relate to it the same way you would relate to a wolf, then it might as well be a wolf, so that's what the colonists called it. The fact that it's a marsupial and no more related to an English wolf than a kangaroo is related to a rabbit, didn't matter to them in the slightest; that kind of thing matters to people who classify animals, not to people who live with them.
> Australians have concepts, values and worldview in common > with the rest of the world, but significantly different animals and > plants that have their own unique names.
When you say Australians, are you talking about aboriginals, or colonists? I admit I am completely ignorant of aboriginal culture, but I just bet their concepts, values, and worldview are WAY different from those of the colonists, just as the concepts, values and worldview of traditionally-minded Salish Indians in my area are way different from those of us Amurrican colonists. The fact that we haven't absorbed many Salish words into English, doesn't mean that their worldview was the same as ours. It only means that we were fundamentally uninterested in their worldview, we were only struck by the novelty of their giant ugly penis-shaped clams ("geoducks"). And that says a lot more about us English-speaking Amurricans and our world than it says about Salish-speakers and their world. Cheers, Nancy --------------------------------------------------------------------<e|- GET A NEXTCARD VISA, in 30 seconds! Get rates of 2.9% Intro or 9.9% Ongoing APR* and no annual fee! Apply NOW! --------------------------------------------------------------------|e>- -- --