Thursday, September 26, 2013

Language and culture

By Akta Kaushal

“The languages we lose, when we lose them, are always replaced by other languages. And all languages can get the job of life done. But something else might be lost and there might be more to the job of life than simply living it.” (David Treuer, Rez Life)

When I was young, one of my favorite words in Hindi from that I did not like translating is the word ‘ehsaas.’ ‘Ehsaas’ can mean to feel, but also to realize or become conscious. More than what it meant, I loved was how it was said and what it felt like when it was used. When I would do something bad, I would purposely say, “I feel bad, I realized I was wrong” in English.  As Truer says, any language can “get the job of life done,” and in those cases when I just used the English, I knew I was supposed to apologize. When you say 'ehsaas,' there is a sensitivity in the structure of the word that requires you to feel an aspiration before the 'saas' (which actually means breath) is spoken. Once in awhile, though, I would purposely frame my apology for deeds I really knew were bad, by finding a way to incorporate ‘ehsaas.’ I intentionally use Hindi. I felt, I realized, I was wrong, and the act of saying that word was part of expressing that feeling. 

Treuer illustrates beautifully what saddens and angers him on the death of so many Native American languages (and the many more that are endangered). Specifically he talks about what Ojibwe namesakes carry and express. Treuer describes how the Ojibwe language has “given” English so many words like wigwam, moose, totem, moccasin etc., but can it translate Ojibwe namesakes with the important term niiyaw (“my body/soul”) being a part of one’s (multiple) name(s)? A language that just gets “the job of life done” can’t catch that same sensation of “my body/soul” or of multiple names if that way of being (or naming) has become “too long” or seemingly irrelevant for today. This tradition of namesakes is similar to the aspiration that I love and that is required when I speak “ehsaas”—a word that more sensitively seems to capture my feeling of realization. I don’t make that distinction anymore. I am not choosy anymore with when I use the English version or the Hindi one. I often resort (or have) to use English.

As Treuer shows, the hastening of the death of these languages, also hastens the end of Indian cultures. I know I constantly feel that as I fall into phases where I speak and hear Hindi and Punjabi less and when I hear my accent being less comfortable. How can I teach this to my children if I myself am beginning to use and be exposed to it less, substantially less from when I was younger? What if I don’t marry an Indian? How do I carry my culture? Would I be forcing Hindi and Punjabi onto them? Will they just speak English, with no memory at all of what those languages can do and who and what they can speak to/for?

It is like Truer says:
“There are so many aspects of culture that are extralinguistic-that is, they exist outside or in spite of language: kinship, legal systems, governance, history, personal identity, But there is very little that is extralinguistic about a story, about language itself. I think what I am trying to say is that we will lose beauty-the beauty of the particular, the beauty of the past and the intricacies of a language tailored for our space in the world.”

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