[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, firstname.lastname@example.org 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
> 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
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
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
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
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
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.
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