Monday, March 21, 2016


A body of thought has developed that is still largely unknown to many people though it is ABOUT the nature of persons.  Coming out of the realizations of Deep Space (with telescopes we can see to the Big Bang, which is not the beginning of everything maybe, but at least the beginning of our universe) which is actually also Deep Time, and then — not touching but parallel — science-supported ideas about how life kindles, spreads out, is quenched here and fanned there, until it ends up with us, survivors of the group trying to survive as individuals.

These days we don’t talk about monkeys as our ancestors.  Instead we are tracing out the DNA of a storm of species (lemurs, langurs, tarsiers) and clades of humans deduced from fossil remnants that are not always more primitive. 
Tarsier eating a lizard.

I’ve been particularly interested in the point when hominins became humans, so far as we can tell, suddenly able to handle metaphor, code, representation and material objects that can neither be eaten nor used as weapons.  I’m interested again in the point when spoken language (augmented with gesture) began to support coded marks on a surface, written language.  And then for the last time (maybe) the shift to what I’ll call “video,” the braiding together of all art forms into portable depictions without good names — we don’t have the concepts nor the words for them either. Cross-media? is the website for a lot of thinking about this sort of thing, which needs a lot of reflection, digestion, innovation and research.  After all, what language can be used to speak about speech?  It’s not just we all have different vocabulary, but consider the problem of grammar, the arrangement of words into sentences.  It is hotly debated whether a culture invents these or whether by now it’s wired into our genes, just waiting for words.

But most thinkers are weak on the precursor of either oral or written expression, which is experience of the world.  Those who try to keep their ancient languages from disappearing tend to learn them in English grammar terms ("what is the word for X") instead of the subtle variations of words — suffixes and prefixes, inflections — that convey nuance and distinctions, which may not be the ones important in the modern world at all.  In fact, the variations that indicate gender are being challenged and accused of making trouble in the modern world.  

Gendered pronouns are one of the little twists that are hard to learn.  ESL old-timers struggle to assign "he" and "she" properly.  At the same time gays of a certain period will deliberately and perhaps ironically use “she” for “he.”  And at the same time Sioux language uses gender-separation of the whole system, so when “Dances with Wolves” had a female language coach, she taught them the way she spoke Sioux.  Then male old-timers who really spoke the language fell down laughing when the warriors talked like grandmothers.  In French even objects have gender, depending on how they fit into lives.  A kitchen table is female.  A business desk is male.

As we come closer to understanding how neurons create symbolism for the electrochemical code that the world feeds into our perceptions — that ARE our perceptions — we discover that our sensorium (not just the specialized organ instruments like ears and noses) is constantly shaped by the world, which then dynamically becomes the platform for brain operation.  

The human (like all the other animals since the first one-celled eukaryote) only perceives what it has code for, which is constantly changing because a creature is a process.  The world (food and perception) comes in one end, is sorted and emphasized inside the skin (not just the brain) and then drops out what doesn’t seem to matter and even snuffs their record in the brain.  THEN acts.

So differences between the way oral languages treat the world and the way written languages (which are still very young, comparatively speaking -- only thousands of years of writing vs. millions of talking ) record and transmit the world, are so deep that few think about them, and yet the difference is far more controlling that whether one is speaking Blackfeet or French or Morse code.

I know of no situations where writing/reading are learned before a spoken/heard language is learned.  EXCEPT Helen Keller, whose sensorium was severely limited because she was both deaf and blind.  She could not learn EITHER oral language or written language.  She operated on sign language, transmitted by touch.  She learned to read Braille which is a kind of felt Morse code, bumps on paper.

Helen Keller

Wild children, presumably raised by animals, who fail to learn any language (words, that is) during a window of development determined genetically, will never learn language.  Human beings are creatures of relationship.  Without interaction with another human being, we cannot unfold into our true capacities.  In fact, we will die of what is called “mirasmus.”  The interaction need not be friendly and cherishing.  Fighting can keep a baby alive: a child that gets no attention will use violence and provocation.

As research on language gets deeper into the neuron substructure, more dense in understanding of how we manage sight and sound for contact and expression — the deep importance of empathy — at the same time there are more things to express, more phenomena that need names, stranger people to understand.  It is surprising how many people have invented languages, not just Esperanto but constructed languages for constructed worlds.  sorts them into three categories:  auxiliary, engineered, and artistic (including fictional) languages, and their respective subgenres.  Do you speak Vulcan?  Maybe Kesh, which is Ursula LeGuin’s devisement.  Of course, we raid each other’s language all the time.  There’s never been a better word for empathy than Heinlein’sgrok.”

Going in the other direction, there are movements to clear out the underbrush and the over-elegant locutions, throwing out all the jargon and adverbs.  For some cultures this is quite offensive — vulgar and brutal.  For others, it is the essence of clear meaning, esp. in the context of science.

For some sciences — maybe the pejoratively labeled “soft” sciences — the metaphors and the primary place and culture to which they refer ARE the point of their discipline.  Getting the exact right word for a specific animal or plant in a known place at a particular season is crucial.  Most of us know about the many words for kinds of snow that northern peoples use.  Recently I ran across a semi-invented vocabulary about lawn grass for use among suburbans.  If you know nothing about snow— I mean have not EXPERIENCED it in all its states, the names for snow won’t hold content.  The same for suburbia where the grass is differently perceived than anywhere else because it has so much attached symbolism about prestige and pride.

For me, the task of writing (both fiction and nonfiction) is about prying under the rocks of assumptions in order find a more primordial set of perceptions, sometimes rather creepy-crawly ones.  To me, the more important development in terms of language on the Blackfeet rez is not the name for this or the words for numbers — though those are good things.  Rather it is the focused study of the complex place and entwined lives that exist there.  

Wading in a stream, sampling soils, describing geological forces, observing gophers or even the rez dogs, will create an interface of understanding.  I’ve begun using the self-invented terms of “in-skin” for the feelings of the gut and mind and “out-skin” for the sensorium evidence that “being there” produces.  There’s a lot more for “Skins” to learn out walking that either sitting in a classroom or driving around in a pickup blasting music.  But those are good, too.  Take in the world!  

In order to really participate in Bundle-Keeping, every animal skin must have a meaning you know in your muscles, so that if it is your turn to dance, you can become that creature and call on their gifts.

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