Thursday, August 21, 2008

Three Cultures I Met by Studying Linguistics

I can't speak any languages besides English. I can muddle through a very rough translation of anything written in a Romance language: Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, Catalan, etc. I can stumble through a verbal conversation in Spanish as long as I can flip through a dictionary frequently for vocabulary and as long as I can speak present tense. With longer pauses and more consultation of the books, I might be able to speak a little in past tense. In written form, many words in Germanic language --of which English is one-- jump out at me, mostly because of their resemblance to English. Yet, I remain, really, embarrassingly monolingual.

I loved linguistics when I discovered it while in pursuit of my English literary studies degree. I jumped into it with both feet and earned a minor in it by taking Language Analysis, History of the English Language, Sociolinguistics, World Englishes, and Language and Culture (an anthropology course). Unlike my schoolmate Jeremy, I was spooked away from seeking a higher degree in linguistics, by the language requirement. If I had been in my 20s and pre-MS, it would have been a different story. But one's capacity for learning new languages physically diminishes with age. And I can only guess what brain damage does to it. So even though I was fascinated, I did not go the Linguistics direction.

Unlike my other schoolmate Renee, who is unafraid even of non-Indo-European languages and has learned Japanese, Arabic and Finnish just in the time I've known her. Unlike the intrepid Angela who flew away to Mexico for a summer. In fact, as I progress in academia, more and more the people I know are fluently bilingual if not more. Especially the PhDs.

But this fascination with languages persists, even as I freely admit that English is the only one I will ever be able to speak. And because I am a mom, undereducated and mostly broke, I have also not had the opportunity to travel (though my heart longs to). So I am grateful for my language study because through it I have encountered cultures that have caught my interest, not because they are literary and classical but because they are reviled, oppressed, and barred from social justice, right now today, in this bright beautiful world of ours.

First, in World Englishes, while reading God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, I discovered the Dalit (the Untouchables), a whole group of people in India who are reviled by birth, born to the lowest caste, barred from jobs, opportunity and justice. Roy is a huge social justice activist who wasn't intending to be an author of fiction, but she saw a story that needed to be told. It is her only novel. The Dalit have very dark skin. In India, skin whitener is a common cosmetic and mothers-in-law will freely brag that their son is marrying a light-skinned girl. The lighter the skin, the higher the privilege. In God of Small Things, a kind Dalit man is accused of a crime and has no redress. Also, a light-skinned woman falls in love with him and of course their love doesn't stand a chance in hell. Throughout history they have held the lowest jobs, hauling away shit and dead bodies, tanning leather, working as scullery maids. Here is the kind of neighborhood the Dalit live Note the bright-eyed curious child in the lower left corner.

Second, while doing my linguistics practicum, which was a major research project, I discovered the Aboriginal people of Australia. Yes, of course I already knew of them, already loved didgeridoos and the concept of dreamtime, had seen Yothu Yindi, seen Rabbit Proof Fence and read David Malouf's Remembering Babylon. But in doing my research, I discovered that the Aboriginal people are reviled and oppressed in Australia today, filling the jails, dying young, etc. My thesis was that they get accused of crimes and denied justice because the legal system thinks they are fluent in English when they aren't, something I had learned first from an article in Sociolinguistics. Every social ill in Australia is magnified for the Aboriginal people. That project was so hard to finish, because I learned so much that I had no idea what to do with it all. Jeremy had to come over, lend support, hand me tissues, and help me rein in my data. I was ready to fly to Australia and teach English.

Finally, I discovered through linguistics the Romani people, whose language is linked to Sanskrit, who are currently being actively oppressed all over Europe. More than a thousand years ago they came from India, spread throughout Europe, traveling in small bands and living without land. Yet against all odds they retain a culture, a language, even a flag. They maintain happiness and hope, which amazes me.

Yet it is high on the list of topics in Europe now, the "Roma Problem." These folks take it as part of life that there will be "No Gypsies" signs in restaurants and shops, that they could get arrested at any moment and no one would even care. When Hitler did his despicable things and 6 million Jews died, half a million Roma died as well. Their word for the Holocaust is porajmos, the devouring.

Here's what I really, really want to know. Why don't we ever EVER hear about any of these three cultures in American media? Who doesn't their oppression reach our news? Who decides what news we will receive here in the USA?


Anonymous said...

We do read and hear about them. Some of us just started looking before you did.

pious soul said...


The word 'Dalit' got me attracted to your post...its nice to read that somebody staying so far actually 'cares'...

Things are changing here...the government is doing all it can...sure there is lot more scope but time is not far when the picture of the shanty you have pasted on the post is part of history! :-)