Loss of language paralleled by loss of story, ritual

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, November 4, 2009

Last week’s column addressed the topic of endangered languages, such as the Stoney Nakoda language spoken at Morley. But language is only one expression of a people’s collective identity. Closely linked to language is story. If language is endangered, so are a people’s story and the stories traditionally told in their heritage language.

Globetrotting fellow linguist Jack Popjes alludes to this in his response to last week’s column:

I SPEAK AND READ four languages, with varying degrees of fluency, and understand eight, at least somewhat. So do millions of other people all over the world. Europe, Africa, Asia have many millions of multilingual people, but here in North America both indigenous people and immigrants are encouraged to adopt English and forget their mother language.

What utter nonsense!

This is tantamount to telling a skilled pianist who is learning to play the saxophone to forget about ever playing the piano again. No one would ever do that. Why, then, is this the official stance of educators and government policy makers in the area of language?

My dad used to tell me stories basically in Dutch, but with lots of quotes and comments in Frisian, his mother tongue. Retelling those stories in English just doesn’t cut it. They are Dutch stories, and need to be told in Dutch.

When our family lived in Brazil we learned to enjoy Asterix comics in Portuguese. We reread them still with the same enjoyment. Recently we found one in English. It was flat, tasteless, “kiddish.” Asterix is no good unless in Portuguese or the original French.

God made both flowers and languages in wide varieties, all unique and beautiful. To use and appreciate His creation is a form of praise and worship. Abandoning a language (including its stories) and letting it die out is just as bad as allowing a species of bird to become extinct.

Don’t let either one happen.

—Jack Popjes, on U.S. speaking tour

THE SURVIVAL of both language and story depends on the respect and attentiveness of listeners, according to Mark Anielski, author of The Economics of Happiness (see my Sept. 9 column). He wrote:

I BELIEVE that only by keeping our stories alive of 'this place' by genuinely listening to the Stoney Nakoda and others who still 'hear' the vibrations of the land can we have hope of the stories surviving in whatever language we choose.

—Mark Anielski, Edmonton

IN FIRST NATIONS traditions, the “vibrations of the land” are sometimes echoed in the beat of the drum, the steps of a dance, or the heartfelt songs whose utterances no pen dare transcribe or dictionary translate.

This is where story embraces ritual.

Ritual is part of the larger sense of a people’s story, the myth that defines them. Ritual is performative and brings generations and ages together in ways beyond the abilities of language by itself. Ritual affirms one’s identity and brings comfort to life’s passages.

University of Calgary religious studies scholar Anne Moore is a specialist in this area of culture. When I asked her about the intertwining of myth/story and ritual, she responded:

MYTH OR STORY or narrative provides a mental map of the cosmos and humanity's involvement and interaction within this cosmos. Paul Ricoeur, contemporary French philosopher, sees in narrative the work of the human imagination; narratives provide realms of exploration for other possible worlds.

Ritual is the action associated with the narratives or works of human imagination. Rituals are the bodily actions that locate one's self in terms of one's own identity, community and landscape. Ritual is the embodiment of human imagination; ritual can give reality to possible worlds.

It is through embodied action and experience – or, in religious terms, participation in ritual that one becomes receptive to a community’s beliefs and stories. This embodied action facilitates a reclamation of the landscape through rituals that link body, stories, and landscape to one's own personal experience.

—Anne Moore, Cochrane

SO, IN THE CASE of Stoney Nakoda, it’s not just a matter of language survival, but survival of its values-affirming stories and rituals, as well.

When Morley parents discuss a child’s disrespectful behaviour, they sometimes say, “Nûre wanîjach” (“he/she has no ears”).  May that not be said of this entire current generation’s attitude – Stoney and non-Stoney alike – toward the wealth of wisdom in language, story and ritual that is its birthright in the great journey of life.

© 2009 Warren Harbeck

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