The Last Speakers

The Last Speakers by K. David Harrison Read Free Book Online

Book: The Last Speakers by K. David Harrison Read Free Book Online
Authors: K. David Harrison
may be missing and others you have to carve as you go along. Native speakers of any language can almost never explain why something sounds the way it does or is said the way it is. They rely on what we call intuition, or “grammaticality judgment.” They just know what sounds right and what doesn’t, without knowing why. Grammar is what cognitive scientists call tacit knowledge: you know it, but you don’t know that you know it and you can’t really articulate it. The kinds of so-called English grammar rules we are taught in school (“Never end a sentence with a preposition”) are, quite simply, boring and not to be put up with. (The preceding sentence ending with a preposition is fully grammatical.) Such dicta are not grammar, the stuff of deeper thought, but merely style, the artifice of writing.
    So how do you plumb the depths of a speaker’s mind to retrieve the grammar of Tuvan, Igbo, Inuit, or Sora? And once you’ve “discovered” the grammar, what use is it to anyone?
    In the field, we often start with body parts: ear, eye, nose, hand (oops, right hand). Things you can easily point to. But when you are living in a village, in a local environment, it very quickly becomes apparent why you can never figure out the whole grammar sitting in a classroom. Grammars are diffuse: they grow in gardens, flow along rivers, and float on air. One of the most fascinating sentences I ever collected in the nearly extinct Chulym language was “Worms have eaten our cabbage.” Though it was an entirely novel sentence, I understood it immediately. “Worms” was a totally new word to me, “eaten” was familiar, and “cabbage” was recognizable as a loanword from Russian. Never in a hundred hours of classroom work would I have asked for or heard such a sentence. It emerged spontaneously during a walk through the vegetable patch with last speaker Anna Baydasheva, as she thrust a worm-eaten cabbage under my nose for inspection.
    Living with the Mongush family in Tuva, I collected such wonderful (and unasked-for) sentences as “The yaks pooped a lot yesterday—go and collect it,” or “The crooked-horned yak is licking salt.” In rural villages where I conduct much of my fieldwork, I always enjoy doing a photo-shoot walk. I may take a hundred images of local objects—cat, broom, canoe, locust, pebble—and play these on my laptop as a slide show. Each image elicits names for local, culturally relevant objects, as well as the stories behind them. A round pebble I picked up in the forest was not merely a pebble but an omen of good luck from the local spirits. A tiny purple flower was the sign for the sixth lunar month. Two-day-old dried yak poop had a different name than fresh poop.
    I began to think of language as existing not only in the head, or perhaps not entirely in the heads of speakers, but in local landscapes, objects, and lifeways. Languages animate objects by giving them names, making them noticeable when we might not otherwise be aware of them. Tuvan has a word iy (pronounced like the letter e ), which indicates the short side of a hill. I had never noticed that hills had a short side. But once I learned the word, I began to study the contours of hills, trying to identify the iy. It turns out that hills are asymmetrical, never perfectly conical, and indeed one of their sides tends to be steeper and shorter than the others. If you are riding a horse, carrying firewood, or herding goats on foot, this is a highly salient concept. You never want to mount a hill from the iy side, as it takes more energy to ascend, and an iy descent is more treacherous, as well. Once you know about the iy, you see it in every hill and identify it automatically, directing your horse, sheep, or footsteps accordingly. This is a perfect example of how language adapts to local environment, by packaging knowledge into ecologically relevant bits. Once you know that

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