Woody Morrison: Language Vibrations - P.O.W. Report

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Woody Morrison: Language Vibrations

Woody Morrison makes regular posts on the Tlingit and Haida people of Alaska Facebook page, you are encouraged to visit there and [subscribe].

We, through the magic of G̱iihlgii's Grant Writing we are back to having Haida Language class in Vancouver. Here is a bit about it:

by Ḵáawan Sangáa Morrison

A people can no more live without it language than a tree can grow without roots.

The Languages of Dominance

How can a language be that important? Most of us take it for granted that anything we say in English can be equally well expressed in Spanish, French, or German. People who have attended meetings in Europe and have experienced simultaneous translations are amazed at the speed with which simultaneous translations are made - amazed at the speed with which their sentences can be switched from one language to another.

If ideas can be translated so rapidly between English and German, Italian and French, what can be so special about Huron, Mohawk, Dene' or Haida?
But, suppose, instead of dealing with European languages, you were to go into a law court with a Native American witness. A judge makes a brief remark.... translator begins a long oration in the aboriginal language. Judge asks in surprise,

“Did I really say that?”

Translator replies, “Yes... more or less.” “But”, says the Judge, “I only spoke a couple of sentences and you went on for about 20 minutes.” A little later, when asked a question, a Native witness will begin a long speech, at the end of which the translator may simple report, ”The witness says,'No'”.

What is going on is not simply a matter of moving between two different languages but of translating between profoundly different worldviews. What to the judge was a single sentence that may have contained words that are related to concepts, that touch on issues that are never found within the traditional indigenous worldview.

The translator will have to set the scene, as it were, and provide the context in which he judge’s remarks can be understood. Likewise, the act of saying no, in some cultures, may depend upon a variety of factors that are not thought to be relevant in ours.

For Example: X̱aat' Kil (Haida Voice) does not have a “present tense”, instead it uses a “future perfect tense” - everything is always “becoming”... it describes a life-way that is dynamic. Also there are no “personal possessive pronouns”. Instead of “I” or “my” or “mine”, it uses the concept of “this person”.

Additionally, there are no “gender pronouns”, such as he, she, him or her, instead it employs the concept... “that person”.

There is no concept for “time”, instead “Time and Space” are collapsed into a complex concept of “distance”. For example, the term “Áawaahl G̱agwii” has been translated as “long ago”. In reality it describes a past event as “it is way over there”... the Past is in front of me, I can see my history all the way to the horizon (to our beginning).

The Future is behind me. It is akin to standing in a river, facing down-stream. I cannot see the future approaching from behind me and, when it does come into view I have to deal with it right at that moment because it will never be there again – no two events (like snowflakes) are the same. If something coming down-stream swings in and hits me in the face (a traumatic experience), I cannot put it behind me because it will just hit me in the face again. I have to learn to let it go and watch to se ow it fits into my history.

Áaw tláan gyaahlangáay láa g̱íidang.
(That is all there is to the story)

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