Transcript: Robert Adams on The Hours and Mrs. Dalloway | Nov 23, 2003

Mark Abley stands behind a wooden lectern in a library. It's a small room. The audience sits in front of Mark in long sofas. The light is dim; there are two floor lamps on each side on the lectern.

Mark is in his forties, with short brown hair and balding. He has a goatee. He wears a black shirt and gray trousers.

He says SOMEONE SAID TO
ME THE OTHER DAY, WHAT MADE YOU
WANT TO WRITE A BOOK ABOUT A
SUBJECT THAT WAS SO DRY AND
POTENTIALLY BORING?

[Laughter]

Mark continues AND I DIDN'T
QUITE HAVE THE WIT TO SAY,
YOU'RE WRONG, IT'S ACTUALLY A
MOIST AND POTENTIALLY EROTIC
SUBJECT, OR VERY PROVOCATIVE
SUBJECT, THAT'S ONE OF THOSE
ESPRIT D'ESCALIER REPLIES THAT
ONLY COMES A FEW SECONDS LATER.
BUT I DON'T THINK OF LANGUAGE AS
DRY AND BORING IN THE VERY
LEAST.
SO I'LL GET THE STATISTICS OUT
OF THE WAY FIRST, 'CAUSE THE
STATISTICS PRECEDE THE BOOK,
JUSTIFY THE BOOK.
THE STATISTICS ARE THAT THERE
ARE ABOUT 6,000 LANGUAGES SPOKEN
IN THE WORLD NOW AND OF THOSE
6,000, PERHAPS 3,000, HALF OF
THEM, MAY BE EXTINCT BY THE END
OF THE CENTURY.
AND ONLY ABOUT 600 OF THEM ARE
THOUGHT TO BE ABSOLUTELY SECURE.

Now, a caption appears on screen. It reads "Mark Abley, writer. Author "Spoken here: travels among threatened languages."

Mark continues IN OTHER WORDS, 100 YEARS FROM
NOW, THERE MAY ONLY BE ONE-TENTH
OF THE LANGUAGES THAT ARE NOW
SPOKEN IN THE WORLD THAT ARE
STILL SPOKEN ON A DAILY BASIS.
MANY OF THE OTHERS WILL SURVIVE
IN THE FROM OF CHANTS AND SONGS
AND ELDERS SPEAKING TO EACH
OTHER AND MIDDLE-AGED PEOPLE WHO
STRUGGLE TO REMEMBER WORDS, THAT
KIND OF THING, BUT IN TERMS OF
ACTUAL FLOURISHING LANGUAGES, WE
STAND TO LOSE 90 PERCENT OF ALL THE
LANGUAGES NOW SPOKEN IN THE
WORLD.
I THOUGHT THAT WAS AN AMAZING
STATISTIC, BUT MORE IMPORTANT, I
THOUGHT IT COULD PROVOKE AMAZING
STORIES.
AND THAT'S REALLY WHAT MY BOOK
IS, IS A BUNCH OF STORIES AND
FOR THIS I MAKE NO APOLOGY
WHATSOEVER, WHAT I WANTED TO DO
WAS EXPLORE THE PSYCHOLOGY, THE
ETHICS, THE AESTHETICS, ALL
KINDS OF THINGS THAT ARISE FROM
LANGUAGE LOSS, THAT ARISE FROM
THE THREAT TO LANGUAGES.
WHY SHOULD IT MATTER IF EVERYONE
CAN SPEAK ENGLISH AND, UH, ALL
OF US HERE TONIGHT, I ASSUME, CAN
SPEAK ENGLISH, WHY SHOULD IT
MATTER IF ALL THE REST OF THE
WORLD SPEAKS ENGLISH, TOO, MAYBE
THAT WOULD BE A GOOD THING.
AND I GIVE, I GUESS, MANY
DIFFERENT ANSWERS TO THAT AND
PERHAPS IT TAKES ME 320 PAGES TO
REALLY ANSWER THAT QUESTION.
AND FIRST OF ALL, I GUESS, I
WOULD SAY I'M NOT AGAINST
BILINGUALISM, I'M NOT SAYING TO
SOMEONE WHO GROWS UP SPEAKING
MOHAWK OR INIKTUTU-INUKTITUT
THAT THEY SHOULD ONLY SPEAK
MOHAWK OR INUKTITUT THAT THEY
SHOULD NOT SPEAK ENGLISH AS
WELL, I'M NOT SAYING THAT.
BUT I WAS TALKING A FEW YEARS
AGO WHEN I WAS EMBARKING ON THE
PROJECT, I TALKED TO A FRIEND OF
MINE WHO'S AN ENGINEER, VERY
PRACTICAL GUY.
GREW UP IN NORWAY AND BECAME AN
ENGINEER WITH NORANDA.
AND HE LOOKED A BIT SCEPTICAL
AND SAID, WELL, SO WHAT?
YOU KNOW, IT'S VERY GOOD FOR
BUSINESS IF EVERYONE SPEAKS
ENGLISH, W-WHY WOULD IT MATTER?
AND THINKING UNUSUALLY FAST ON
MY FEET, I SAID, AREN'T YOU FROM
THOSE ISLANDS OFF THE WEST COAST
OF NORWAY WHERE THERE'S, UH, AN
OLD FORM OF NORWEGIAN THAT'S
BEGINNING TO DIE OUT?
AND HE ADMITTED THAT HE WAS.
AND THEN I SAID, WELL, HOW WOULD
YOU FEEL IF THAT LANGUAGE, THAT
CULTURE DISAPPEARED COMPLETELY?
HE SAID, OH, THAT, THAT WOULD BE
A TRAGEDY, THAT WOULD BE
TERRIBLE.
AND THAT WAS HOW I GOT HIS
ATTENTION, THAT WAS HOW I GOT
HIM TO UNDERSTAND.
VERY OFTEN PEOPLE CAN'T QUITE
SEE THE POINT OF HOPI OR NAVAJO
OR PROVENÇAL CARRYING ON, BUT IF
THEY HAPPEN TO BE LITHUANIAN,
THEY CERTAINLY WANT LITHUANIAN
TO CARRY ON, IF THAT'S THE
LANGUAGE OF THEIR PARENTS OR
GRANDPARENTS.
SO ON A VERY PERSONAL LEVEL, A
LOT OF PEOPLE HAVE AN INTEREST
IN THEIR OWN ETHNICITY SURVIVING
AND THAT'S, THAT'S SOMETIMES HOW
THEY BEGIN TO SEE THE IMPORTANCE
OF EVERYONE ELSE'S ETHNICITY
CARRYING ON.
THERE ARE ALSO PRACTICAL
ANSWERS, UM, I, I MENTION AT ONE
POINT IN, IN THE BOOK THAT
THERE'S A LANGUAGE SPOKEN BY A
VERY FEW PEOPLE, FEW DOZEN
PEOPLE PROBABLY NOW, IN BRITISH
COLUMBIA CALLED HALKOMELEM AND
IN HALKOMELEM, THE WORD FOR WHAT
WE CALL WILD GINGER LITERALLY
MEANS "A DEVICE FOR THE HEART."
PERHAPS THAT PLANT HAS MEDICINAL
USES THAT SCIENTISTS HAVEN'T YET
DISCOVERED.
WE KNOW THERE ARE ALL SORTS OF
KINDS OF INDIGENOUS KNOWLEDGE
THAT SURVIVE AMONG PEOPLE IN
FORESTS, MOUNTAINOUS AREAS,
WHATEVER AROUND THE WORLD, OFTEN
THEIR KNOWLEDGE OF THE
ENVIRONMENT IS EMBEDDED IN THEIR
LANGUAGE.
IF THEIR LANGUAGE GOES, ALL
KINDS OF USEFUL, TO US,
KNOWLEDGE WILL DISAPPEAR AS
WELL.
BUT I'M A LITTLE SUSPICIOUS OF
ARGUING TOO STRONGLY FROM THAT
FOR THE SAME REASON THAT, YOU
KNOW, BIOLOGISTS MIGHT HAVE A
HARD TIME EXPLAINING WHY THE
VANCOUVER ISLAND MARMOT OR THE
BOUNCE SPRING SNAIL SHOULD
SURVIVE, BECAUSE YOU CAN'T
NECESSARILY FIND A USE FOR THE
BOUNCE SPRING SNAIL OR THE
VANCOUVER ISLAND MARMOT, EITHER
YOU GET THE IMPORTANCE OF
DIVERSITY, OR ELSE, SOME LEVEL,
YOU DON'T.
THE BEST KIND OF OVERARCHING
ANSWER, THE BEST KIND OF WIDE,
BROAD ANSWER IN THE BOOK, I
THINK, IS NOT IN MY MOUTH, IT'S
FROM SOMEONE I MET IN OKLAHOMA
WHO'S A HARVARD-TRAINED LAWYER,
WHO ALSO RUNS SOMETHING CALLED
THE OKLAHOMA NATIVE LANGUAGES
CENTER.
OKLAHOMA'S A STATE WHERE THERE
ARE ABOUT 30 INDIGENOUS
LANGUAGES, OF WHICH ONLY THREE
ARE BEING LEARNED BY CHILDREN,
SO ALL THE OTHERS, NOT BEING
SPOKEN BY ANY KIDS ANYMORE.
SO I ASKED THIS GUY, WHOSE NAME
IS GREG BIGLER, I ASKED GREG WHY
IT MATTERS THAT HE WANTS TO
PRESERVE OKLAHOMA'S LANGUAGES
AND WHAT HE SAID IS THIS.
IT'S A GIFT THAT WE WERE GIVEN
AND I'D HATE TO SEE US LOSE IT.
I DON'T THINK YOU CAN QUANTIFY
IT IN TERMS OF DOLLARS OR
KNOWLEDGE, IT'S JUST LIKE SAYING
WHY DO WE CARE ABOUT ART AND
MUSIC?
WHY DO WE CARE ABOUT OUR
CHILDREN?
IT'S PART OF US.
IF WE LOST ALL OF THE LITERATURE
THAT WAS WRITTEN BEFORE 1900, IT
WOULDN'T STOP US EATING OR
BREATHING, BUT THERE WOULD BE
SOME INTANGIBLE LOSS THAT COULD
NEVER BE RECOVERED.
WHICH I AGREE WITH.
SO I'M GONNA FINISH BY READING A
CHAPTER, A SHORT CHAPTER, THAT
SUMS UP BETTER THAN ANYTHING
I'VE SAID YET WHAT THIS BOOK IS
ABOUT, THE DIFFERENT KINDS OF
VOICES, DIFFERENT KINDS OF WORDS
THAT ARE IN IT.
AND ALTHOUGH I DID A LOT OF
TRAVELLING FOR THE BOOK, I WENT
TO AUSTRALIA AND THE ARCTIC AND
PROVENCE AND OKLAHOMA, THIS
CHAPTER'S ABOUT A LANGUAGE THAT
IS SPOKEN IN A PLACE I NEVER DID
GO TO, UM, WELL, YOU'LL HEAR.
IT'S CALLED "THE VERBS OF BORO."
AND SCATTERED THROUGH THE
CHAPTER, THERE ARE ACTUALLY
WORDS FROM A, A, A BOOK THAT,
UM, I THINK EXPRESS CONCEPTS
THAT WE JUST DON'T HAVE IN
ENGLISH AT ALL.
SO THESE KEEP POPPING UP.

Mark grabs a book and reads.

He says ANZRAY.
TO KEEP APART FROM AN ENEMY OR
WICKED COMPANY.
MOKHROB.
TO EXPRESS ANGER BY A SIDELONG
GLANCE.
ZUM.
TO WEAR OR PUT ON CLOTHING FOR
THE UPPER PART OF THE BODY.
I WAS FEELING LOW.
I'D SPENT THE DAY WADING THROUGH
ACADEMIC BOOKS ABOUT LANGUAGE
AND MY HEAD HURT.
IT APPEARED MORE AND MORE
UNLIKELY THAT I WOULD EVER GRASP
THE PHONETIC MEANING OF A
LENGTHENED FRONT AND ROUNDED
HALF OPEN LAX VOICE VOCOID OR
A VOICELESS LAMINAL POST-UVULAR
STOP WITH SLIGHT ASPIRATION AND
A HIGH OFF-GLIDE.
LINGUISTICS HAS A SCHOLARLY CODE
THAT EXCLUDES THE UNINITIATED
AND IT HAD BEGUN TO SEEM TO ME
THAT THE MORE YOU LOVE
LANGUAGES, THE HARDER THIS CODE
IS TO LEARN.
RETURNING TO THE CROWDED STACKS
OF THE UNIVERSITY LIBRARY, I
BEGAN, ALMOST AT RANDOM, TO PULL
BOOKS OFF THE SHELVES.
I DIDN'T KNOW EXACTLY WHAT I
WANTED, INSTINCTIVELY, PERHAPS,
I WAS SEARCHING FOR SOME PROOF
OF HUMANITY AMONG THOSE DUST DRY
GRAMMARS AND THEORETICAL
SPECULATIONS.
I WAS LOOKING, I SUPPOSE, FOR A
BOOK THAT WOULD LIFT A LANGUAGE
OFF THE PAGE.
THE FIRST CANDIDATE I FOUND WAS
A PRACTICAL INTRODUCTION
TO TONGA,
PUBLISHED IN
LONDON IN 1953.
FORGET THE SOUTH PACIFIC, TONGA
IN THIS CASE REFERS TO A
LANGUAGE SPOKEN IN WHAT'S NOW
ZAMBIA, IT WAS THEN CALLED
NORTHERN RHODESIA.
THE AUTHOR, C.R. HOPGOOD, AIMED
HIS BOOK NOT AT SCHOLARS OR
STUDENTS AND STILL LESS AT THE
TONGA-SPEAKING PEOPLE
THEMSELVES, BUT THE JUNIOR
OFFICERS OF THE BRITISH EMPIRE.
HE WAS DETERMINED TO SCHOOL THEM
IN GRIEF.
HOPGOOD'S FIRST LESSON BEGINS
WITH THE WORDS
BANTU
BAFWA.
"THE PEOPLE HAVE DIED."

He stops reading and says JUST AS A DIGRESSION, I HAVE TO
SAY THIS, I'M NOT KIDDING, I AM
NOT MAKING THIS UP, THIS IS A
LANGUAGE BOOK WHERE THE VERY
FIRST PHRASE IS "THE PEOPLE HAVE
DIED."

[Laughter]

Mark continues reading.

He says AND, AND IT
PROCEEDS TO THE TONGA PHRASES
FOR "THE THING IS DEAD," "THE
SMALL OBJECT IS DEAD."

[Laughter]

Mark says AND "THE
FEROCIOUS ANIMALS ARE DEAD."
LESSON TWO STARTS OFF WITH "GET
UP, YOU LITTLE BEAST."

[Laughter]

Mark says AND LURCHES AHEAD
TO "THE ANIMALS BITE."

[Laughter]

Mark says BY LESSON FOUR,
THE SYNTAX HAS BECOME MORE
COMPLEX, "THE BABOON IS EATING
UP ALL OF THE PEOPLE'S FOOD" AND
THE MOOD IS GROWING EVER DARKER,
BUNTU BWANGA BWMADA,
"MY
HUMANITY IS FINISHED."

[Laughter]

Mark says LESSON SEVEN
BEARS A MODEST RESEMBLANCE TO
THE BOOK OF JOB.
"MY GOAT HAS ABORTED," "HIS
SHEEP WERE ATTACKED BY WILD
DOGS," "MY SHEEP'S HUT HAS
FALLEN INTO DISREPAIR."
ALL THESE MISHAPS LEAD UP TO THE
DIGNIFIED DISTRESS OF "WILD
BOARS HAVE SADLY DEPLETED OUR
CROPS."

[Laughter]

Mark says WERE, WERE UPPER
LIPS EVER QUITE AS STIFF AS
THAT?

[Laughter]

Mark says THE EMPIRE FINDS
IT HARD TO RESTORE ORDER.
IN THE END, HOPGOOD CAN OFFER
NOTHING MORE SANGUINE THAN A
TONGA VERSION OF "IT IS BAD NOT
TO HOE, SUCH NEGLECT OF
AGRICULTURE BRINGS TROUBLES, IT
RESULTS IN POOR STAMINA."
I ABANDONED THE STRESSES OF
FARMING LIFE IN THE ZAMBEZI
VALLEY AND RETURNED TO THE
STACKS.
EVENTUALLY I FOUND MYSELF
GLANCING THROUGH A VOLUME
PUBLISHED AT GAUHATI UNIVERSITY
IN THE INDIAN STATE OF ASSAM IN
1977, A DESTRICT...
A
DESCRIPTIVE ANALYSIS OF
THE BORO LANGUAGE,
B-O-R-O.
WHICH LANGUAGE WAS THAT AGAIN?
I DIDN'T KNOW AND AT FIRST I
HARDLY CARED, WHAT CAUGHT MY
ATTENTION WAS THAT PRAMOD
CHANDRA BHATTACHARYA HAD
DEDICATED THE BOOK TO THE MEMORY
OF HIS SON AMIA KUMER, DEAD AT
THE AGE OF 12, A BOY WHO IS NO
MORE IN THIS WORLD.
Dr. BHATTACHARYA HAD RESEARCHED
AND WRITTEN THE VOLUME, HE SAID,
AGAINST A NUMBER OF PERSHON...
PERSONAL AND NATIONAL CALAMITIES
WHICH OCCURRED DURING 1952 TO
1964, SOME YEARS BEFORE THE
CALAMITY OF HIS SON'S DEATH.
HUMBLED TO A FAULT, HE OFFERED
HIS APOLOGIES FOR MY POOR
EXPRESSIONS, NOT ONLY IN BORO,
BUT IN ENGLISH.
I TOOK THE BOOK BACK TO MY TABLE
AND SAT DOWN WITH IT.
EGTHU.
TO CREATE A PINCHING SENSATION
IN THE ARMPIT.
KHALE.
TO FEEL PARTLY BITTER.
KHONSAY.
TO PICK AN OBJECT UP WITH CARE
AS IT IS RARE OR SCARCE.
BORO, I LEARNED, IS A LANGUAGE
OF NORTH-EASTERN INDIA THAT
SPILLS OVER INTO NEIGHBOURING
COUNTRIES, NEPAL, BHUTAN,
BANGLADESH.
MOST OF ITS SPEAKERS LIVE ON THE
NORTH BANK OF THE BRAHMA-PUTRA
RIVER, THE LANGUAGE GOES BY
OTHER NAMES, TOO, METCH, KUCHARI
AND NOW THE MOST COMMON, BOTO.
WHATEVER NAME YOU CHOOSE IS ONE
OF WELL OVER 200 LANGUAGES IN
THE FERTILE SUBFAMILY OF TIBETO-
BURMAN, NEARLY ALL THESE
LANGUAGES BEING INDIGENOUS TO A
SMALL AREA WHO NEVER HAD GREAT
NUMBERS ON THEIR SIDE.
BORO IS ONE OF THE VERY FEW
THAT'S MAYBE SPOKEN BY AS MANY
AS A MILLION PEOPLE.
ITS SPEAKERS ARE USUALLY FLUENT
IN BENGALI OR IN Dr.
BHATTACHARYA'S MOTHER TONGUE,
ASAMESE.
BILINGUALISM IS DOUBTLESS AN
ASSET ON AN INDIVIDUAL LEVEL,
BUT FOR A LANGUAGE WITH AS
LITTLE CLOUT AS BORO, IT CAN
ALSO BE A PRELUDE TO PERMANENT
SILENCE.
NO NATION, STATE OR PROVINCE
USES BORO AS AN OFFICIAL
LANGUAGE, BIGGER LANGUAGES ARE
MUSCLING INTO ITS TERRITORY,
MANY OF ITS SPEAKERS SUFFER
WRETCHED POVERTY, MOST OF ITS
LINGUISTIC RELATIVES ARE EVEN
SMALLER AND MORE OBSCURE.
YET BORO HAS ITS PARTISANS.
THE DESIRE TO SUSTAIN IT STANDS
AT THE ROOT OF A POLITICAL
MOVEMENT THAT NOW STRIVES TO
CREATE A NEW INDIAN STATE OF
BOTOLAND, OR IN THE MOVEMENT'S
MOST EXTREME FORM, A SOVEREIGN,
FULLY INDEPENDENT NATION.
DESPITE BEING THE SONS OF THE
SOIL, ONE BORO LEADER PROTESTED
IN THE INDIAN PARLIAMENT, WE
PEOPLE HAVE BEEN NEGLECTED,
DISCRIMINATED, OPPRESSED,
SUPPRESSED AND MISRULED EVER
SINCE INDEPENDENCE.
A FEW DAYS AFTER MY CHANCE
DISCOVERY IN THE LIBRARY, I
SURFED THE INTERNET AND CAME
ACROSS AN INTERVIEW WITH YUGI
BRAHMA, PRESIDENT OF THE ALL
BOTO STUDENTS' UNION, WHO
COMPLAINED THAT UNDER THE
PRESSURE OF AGGRESSIVE
SYNCRETISATION, SEVERAL BOTO
SUBGROUPS HAD FORSAKEN THE
LANGUAGE AND CULTURE.
THIS POSES SERIOUS THREAT TO THE
SURVIVAL OF OUR BOTO CULTURE AS
A SEPARATE ENTITY.
AS I KNEW FROM LIVING IN QUEBEC,
NATIONALIST MOVEMENTS OFTEN DRAW
THEIR MOST POTENT ENERGY FROM
FEARS OF LANGUAGE LOSS AND
CULTURAL ERASURE.
TO MAKE A QUASI MATHEMATICAL
FORMULA OUT OF THE IDEA, YOU
COULD SAY THAT ANY ADVANCE OF
THE GLOBAL IS LIKELY TO PRODUCE
A DEFENCE OF THE LOCAL.
ADVOCATES OF BORO WHO FOUND THE
STUDENTS AND POLITICIANS TOO
MILD-MANNERED HAD FORMED A
GUERRILLA ARMY, THE BOTO
LIBERATION TIGERS.
IN THE PAST FEW YEARS, THE MOST
VIOLENT OR DESPERATE AMONG THE
SEPARATISTS HAD BEGUN TO
MASSACRE HIN-HINDI- AND BENGALI-
SPEAKING MIGRANTS SETTLING IN
THEIR HOMELAND.
UNLIKE MANY ENDANGERED
LANGUAGES, BORO DOES EXIST IN
WRITTEN FORM, INDEED, TWO
WRITTEN FORMS, THE ROMAN
ALPHABET OF THE WEST AND THE
DEVANAGARI SCRIPT OF INDIA.
FEUDS BETWEEN THEIR PARTISANS
SEEM TO HAVE CONSUMED MORE TIME
AND ANGER THAN THE COMMON
STRUGGLE AGAINST OUTSIDE
ENEMIES.
THIS, TOO, IS A TALE WITH
PRECEDENCE.
GOBRAM,
TO SHOUT IN ONE'S
SLEEP.
GOLEN,
TO BEND AFTER
OVERTHROWING OR UPROOTING.
UR,
TO DIG SOIL AS THE
SWINE DO OR TO MOVE CURRY WHILE
COOKING.
LOOKING AT THESE VERBS, ROLLING
THEM AROUND IN MY MOUTH, I WAS
REMINDED OF THE FIRST TIME IT
EVER DAWNED ON ME THAT LANGUAGES
COULD NOT BE TRANSLATED ON AN
EXACT WORD FOR WORD BASIS.
AS A BOY I TOOK PRIVATE FRENCH
LESSONS FROM A CHAIN-SMOKING
SPINSTER COUSIN OF ALBERT
SCHWEITZER, WHO HAD SOMEHOW
FETCHED UP IN A BASEMENT
APARTMENT IN LETHBRIDGE,
ALBERTA.
ONE DAY I TRIED TO SAY "I'M
HUNGRY."
FRENCH, HOWEVER, DEMANDS NOT AN
ADJECTIVE, "HUNGRY," BUT AN
ABSTRACT NOUN, "J'AI FAIM," "I
HAVE HUNGER."
LIKEWISE, "I HAVE THIRST," "I
HAVE FEAR," "I HAVE NINE YEARS."
YOU CAN'T JUST REPRODUCE THE
ENGLISH PARTS OF SPEECH, YOU
HAVE TO RECREATE THE IDEA.
YOU HAVE TO SEARCH, OFTEN GROPINGLY,
FOR THE BEST POSSIBLE
EQUIVALENT.
FOR A UNILINGUAL CHILD LIKE ME,
THIS WAS A RADICAL, SCARY
NOTION.
WHEN YOU VENTURE OUTSIDE THE
CONFINES OF MOTHER TONGUE, YOU
HAVE TO EMBRACE UNCERTAINTY.
AND YET ENGLISH AND FRENCH ARE
RELATED LANGUAGES WITH A LONG
OVERLAPPING HISTORY AND A
MOUNTAIN OF SHARED VOCABULARY.
HOW MUCH HARDER IS THE SEARCH,
HOW MUCH RARE IS THE PRECISE
EQUIVALENT, WHEN TWO LANGUAGES
HAVE LITTLE IN COMMON?
THE VERBS OF BORO CHALLENGE ME,
NOT WITH DEJA VU, BUT WITH
JAMAIS VU.
IT'S NOT ONLY A LANGUAGE OF
VERBS, OF COURSE.
UNDER THE DISCREET FLUORESCENT
LIGHTS OF THE LIBRARY CEILING, A
FEW NOUNS ALSO STOOD OUT ON Dr.
BHATTACHARYA'S CRINKLED,
YELLOWING PAGES.
BOHALI,
A WOMAN WHO
CARRIES A CHILD ON HER BACK.
GUNSOOTHI,
THE FIRST
GROWN FEATHER OF A BIRD'S WING.
ZUGNO,
THE SOUND PRODUCED
BY A MIXING OF MUD AND WATER IF
YOU THRUST YOUR HAND INTO A
CRAB'S HOLE.
HOW COULD ANYONE RESIST A
LANGUAGE WHOSE EXPRESSION FOR
"SLIGHTLY HUMPBACKED" IS
GOBDUBDUB?

[Laughter]

Mark continues BORO HAS A WHOLE
RANGE OF TERMS FOR CALLING OUT
TO ANIMALS, DUCKS, PIGEONS,
POULTRY, COWS, BUFFALO, PIGS,
CATS, PUPPIES AND GROWNUP DOGS
ALL DEMAND WORDS OF THEIR OWN.
IN CONTRAST TO ENGLISH, WHICH
ASKS ITS SPEAKERS TO SAY "AH,"
"OH" AND "HEY" IN A VARIETY OF
MOODS, BORO IS BLESSED WITH 20
INTERJECTIONAL EXCLAMATIVE
PARTICLES TO EXPRESS EVERYTHING
FROM INSULT TO AFFECTION, TERROR
TO SYMPATHY.
AND IT ALSO HAS A FOLK SONG IN
WHICH THE SINGER COMFORTS A
YOUNG BRIDE WITH THE REASSURING
INFORMATION, "ANTS PREPARE THEIR
FOOD STORE WITH THE HELP OF
THEIR SALIVA."

Mark says UNLESS I HAVE
SEVERELY MISREAD Dr.
BHATTACHARYA, THOUGH, THE GLORY
OF THE LANGUAGE LIES ELSEWHERE.
ONGUBOY.
TO LOVE FROM THE HEART.
ONSAY.
TO PRETEND TO LOVE.
ONSRA.
TO LOVE FOR THE LAST TIME.
VERBS LIKE THESE GO BEYOND ALL
BORDERS, THE IDEAS OR SENTIMENTS
THEY EXPRESS TRANSCEND THE
CULTURE THAT ARTICULATES THEM.
I CAN'T IMAGINE I WILL EVER NEED
TO EXPRESS THE NOISE THAT MUD
AND WATER WOULD MAKE IF I
REFUSED TO LET A SLEEPING CRAB
LIE.
AS FAR AS I'M CONCERNED,
ZUGNO
IS A WORD THAT CAN
HAPPILY STAY IN BORO.
WHILE I LOVE THE SURPRISING VERB
DASA,
IT MEANS "NOT TO
PLACE A FISHING INSTRUMENT," I
ACCEPT WITH SOME RELUCTANCE THAT
MY OWN LANGUAGE MIGHT HAVE
LITTLE USE FOR IT.
BUT
ONSAY
AND
ONSRA
ARE A DIFFERENT
STORY.
IT'S TO PRETEND TO LOVE AND TO
LOVE FOR THE LAST TIME.
HAVING MET THOSE WORDS IN Dr.
BHATTACHARYA'S BOOK, HOW CAN I
DO WITHOUT THEM?
I COVET THEM, JUST AS I COVET
THE WOR... THE VERBS FOR
EXPRESSING ANGER BY A SIDELONG
GLANCE OR FOR FEELING PARTLY
BITTER.
THEY ARE MORE THAN JUST FRESH
SOUNDS ON THE TONGUE, THEY ARE
FRESH THOUGHTS IN THE MIND.
POURING FOR THE SECOND TIME OVER
Dr. BHATTACHARYA'S PAINSTAKING
TEXT, I RECALL THE PASSAGE BY
THE LAWYER, RUPERT ROSS, WHOSE
BOOK RETURNING TO THE TEACHINGS
EXPLORES SOME OF THE VEXED
ENCOUNTERS BETWEEN CREE AND
OJIBWE PEOPLE IN NORTH-WESTERN
ONTARIO AND THE FORCES OF THE
CANADIAN JUSTICE SYSTEM.
ROSS SAYS THAT THOSE ENCOUNTERS
ARE MADE TRICKIER BY THE
DISTINCT WORLD VIEWS THAT
UNDERLIE THE SPEAKERS'
LANGUAGES.
AND HE SAYS, MY ABORIGINAL
FRIENDS TALK A GREAT DEAL ABOUT
WHAT IT'S LIKE TO HAVE TO USE
ENGLISH ALL DAY.
THEY GENERALLY DESCRIBE IT AS A
STRAIN.
IF WE TRULY RECOGNISE THAT WE
OCCUPY A UNIVERSE OF CONSTANTLY
TRANSFORMING THINGS, PEOPLE AND
RELATIONSHIPS, THEN WE WOULD
HAVE NO CHOICE BUT TO DISCARD OR
HEAVY RELIANCE ON NOUNS TO
CAPTURE AND DESCRIBE IT.
YET THAT RELIANCE IS WOVEN DEEP
INTO THE FABRIC OF ENGLISH,
NOTHING COULD BE MORE DIFFICULT
TO DISCARD.
IS BORO A LANGUAGE LIKE CREE AND
OJIBWE, IN WHICH THE WORLD
APPEARS TO BE CONSTANTLY
TRANSFORMING?
Dr. BHATTACHARYA REPORTS THAT IF
ONSRA
IS SAID IN A
DIFFERENT TONE, IT HAS A
DIFFERENT MEANING, TO AROUSE THE
FEMALE ORACLE FOR THE LAST TIME.
ASUSU,
TO FEEL UNKNOWN
AND UNEASY IN A NEW PLACE.
GABKHRON,
TO BE AFRAID OF
WITNESSING AN ADVENTURE.
SERROM,
TO EXAMINE BY
SLIGHT PRESSING.
IT'S POSSIBLE, I ADMIT, THAT
SOME OF THESE WORDS HAVE SIMPLE
ENGLISH EQUIVALENTS THAT Dr.
BHATTACHARYA FAILED TO FIND.
I'M SOMEWHAT DUBIOUS ABOUT HIS
EXPLANATION OF
KOLAB,
TO
FEEL TEDIOUS FOR AN ODD SMELL.

[Laughter]

Mark says AND WHILE I
ACCEPT HIS FAITH THAT A BORO
PROVERB EFFECTIVELY MEANS AN
HONEST PERSON IS TROUBLED, I'M
STILL PUZZLING OVER HIS LITERAL
TRANSLATION, THE CAT CLEARS ITS
BOWELS ON MILD SOIL.

[Laughter]

Mark says ABID... AMID THE
MOVEABLE CURRIES OF THE BRAHMA-
PUTRA, BOWELS SEEM TO BE A
PREOCCUPATION.
WHERE ENGLISH OFFERS A TEDIOUS-
FEELING SENTENCE LIKE, A GREAT
MAN BEHAVES HONOURABLY, BORO
CONJURES UP A SMELL.
A BIG MAN FARTS STRAIGHT BEHIND.

[Laughter]

Mark says STILL, YOU MIGHT
RETORT, ESPECIALLY IN YOU HAPPEN
TO BE AN ADMIRER OF NOAM
CHOMSKY, THE TWO PHRASES MEAN
THE SAME THING.

He stops reading and says A-AS A NON-LINGUIST, BY THE WAY,
I REALISE HOW INCREDIBLY
AUDACIOUS NOT TO SAY GODDAMN
STUPID I AM BY DARING TO TAKE ON
NOAM CHOMSKY IN A COUPLE OF
CHAPTERS, BUT ON THE THEORY THAT
FOOLS RUSH IN WHERE ANGELS FEAR
TO TREAD, YOU KNOW, HERE GOES.

Mark continues reading.

He says IN
ASPECTS OF THE THEORY
OF SYNTAX,
CHOMSKY WROTE,
IT IS POSSIBLE TO CONVEY ANY
CONCEPTUAL CONTENT IN ANY
LANGUAGE.
AN EXTRATERRESTRIAL, HE ONCE
SUGGESTED, WOULD SEE ALL HUMAN
BEINGS AS SPEAKING A SINGLE
LANGUAGE.
WE EARTHLINGS MAY BE FORGIVEN
FOR CHOOSING A VARIANT
PERSPECTIVE.
AS THE CRITIC GEORGE STEINER
ONCE NOTED, CHOMSKY'S IDEAS
COULD ACCOUNT WITH BEAUTIFUL
ECONOMY AND DEPTH FOR A WORLD IN
WHICH ALL PEOPLE WOULD BE
SPEAKING ONE LANGUAGE,
DIVERSIFIED AT MOST BY A
MODERATE RANGE OF DIALECTS.
IN FACT, HOWEVER, THE LUXURIANT
PROFUSION OF TONGUES ON THE
PLANET CHALLENGES ANY SIMPLE
NOTION OF EVOLUTIONARY BENEFIT
TO OUR SPECIES AND THE
INCREDIBLE DIVERSITY OF HUMAN
LANGUAGES IS JUST AS REMARKABLE
AS THE HIDDEN SIMILARITIES OF
THEIR GRAMMAR.
BESIDES, THERE'S MORE TO ANY
LANGUAGE THAN JUST ITS ABILITY
TO EXPRESS CONCEPTUAL CONTENT.
LANGUAGES, SAID KEN HALE, A
COLLEAGUE OF CHOMSKY AT THE
MASSACHUSETTS INSTITUTE OF
TECHNOLOGY, LANGUAGES EMBODY THE
INTELLECTUAL WEALTH OF THE
PEOPLE THAT SPEAK THEM.
LOSING ANY ONE OF THEM IS LIKE
DROPPING A BOMB ON THE LOUVRE.
GASGROM,
TO SEARCH FOR A
THING BELOW WATER BY TRAMPLING.
GOBLO,
TO BE FAT AS A
CHILD OR INFANT.
GOBREY,
TO FALL IN A WELL
UNKNOWINGLY.

[Laughter]

Mark says A QUARTER CENTURY
AFTER Dr. BHATTACHARYA'S
DESCRIPTIVE ANALYSIS WAS
PUBLISHED, LINGUISTS ARE AGAIN
AT WORK ON BORO.
UNLIKE THE IMPERIAL HOPGOOD
AMONG THE TONGA, THEY'RE
CARRYING OUT THEIR LABOURS ON
BEHALF OF THE LOCAL PEOPLE.
BUT THEIR MOTIVES ARE ZEALOUS.
THEY THINK THEY HAVE GOD ON
THEIR SIDE.
ON AN AMERICAN WEB SITE, I FOUND
NEWS OF THE LANGUAGE'S SPEAKERS
UNDER ONE OF THEIR OTHER NAMES.
AS IN MOST ANIMISTIC CULTURES,
THE METCH LIVE IN FEAR OF THE
SPIRITS OF NATURE, ONLY THROUGH
APPEASEMENT CAN THEY HAVE PEACE
OR SUCCESS IN LIFE, BUT NO ONE
IS SURE WHEN OR IF THE SPIRITS
ARE APPEASED, THE METCH NEED
LIBERATION FROM SUCH OPPRESSIVE
BELIEFS.
AS A RESULT, THEY'RE NOW
FEATURED IN A SERIES CALLED
"UNREACHED PEOPLE'S PRAYER
PROFILES."
AFTER A SQUICK... QUICK SKETCH
OF TRADITIONAL BORO CULTURE, THE
WEB SITE REQUESTS A FEW PRAYERS,
ASKS GOD TO GRANT WISDOM AND
FAVOUR TO THE MISSION AGENCIES
THAT ARE TARGETING THE MECH.
I THINK THE VERB "TARGETING."
MERITS SOME THOUGHT THERE.
ASKS GOD TO ANOINT THE GOSPEL AS
IT GOES FORTH BY RADIO IN THEIR
AREA, ASKS GOD TO SPEED THE
COMPLETION OF THE JESUS FILM AND
OTHER CHRISTIAN MATERIALS INTO
THE BORO LANGUAGE.
MY FIRST INSTINCT IS TO URGE THE
BORO TO USE THE MISSIONARIES'
ASUSU
AND TO
ANZRAY
THEM, KEEPING
ONSAY
IN RESERVE FOR
EMERGENCIES, OTHERWISE THE BORO
MAY SOON PASS BEYOND
MOKHROB
TO A DESTRUCTIVE
KHALE.
I REALLY GOT WORKED UP ABOUT
THAT.
YET IT'S NOT THAT SIMPLE.
THE MISSIONARIES CHANGE THE
CULTURE, BUT THE CULTURE IS
CHANGING ANYWAY.
EVEN RURAL ASSAM IS SUBJECT TO
THE FORCES OF GLOBALISATION AND
THE TRIBAL PEOPLES OF NORTH-
EASTERN INDIA FACE A HOST OF
PRESSURES, ECONOMIC AND
ENVIRONMENTAL ONES AMONG THEM.
AS WELL AS CALLING FOR PRAYER TO
SAVE THE OPPRESSED SOULS, THE
MISSIONARY WEB SITE WARNS THAT A
LARGE PERCENTAGE OF THE PEOPLE
HAVE ENCUMBERED UNMANAGEABLE
DEBT.
BY CONTINUING TO SPEAK THEIR
LANGUAGE, THE BORO WON'T GET RID
OF THEIR DEBTS, NOR SAVE THEIR
FORESTS, NOR HALT THE INFLUX OF
OUTSIDE SETTLERS.
BUT THEY MAY BE A GOOD DEAL MORE
LIKELY TO WITHSTAND THE
CORROSIVE DESPAIR THAT
ACCOMPANIES THESE PRESSURES,
AVOIDING THE SELF-HATED THAT
COMES WHEN A CULTURE IMPLODES
AND DISINTEGRATES.
J.R.R. TOLKIEN, A LINGUIST
BEFORE HE WAS A NOVELIST, ONCE
NOTED THE PART PLAYED BY THE
CULTIVATED ICELANDIC LANGUAGE IN
SPITE OF POVERTY, LACK OF POWER
AND INSIGNIFICANT NUMBERS IN
KEEPING THE ICELANDERS IN BEING
DURING DESPERATE TIMES.
PRIDE IN THEIR OWN TONGUE COULD
GIVE THE BORO, TOO, A BETTER
CHANCE OF SURVIVAL.
WHO KNOWS, THE ANOINTED GOSPEL
MIGHT EVEN PLAY A ROLE IN A
DRAMA OF LANGUAGE PRESERVATION.
OTHERWISE, CHAOS BECKONS.
A HARE DIES, H-A-R-E, THAT IS, A
HARE DIES DUE TO ITS SHIT, UR
SAYINGS ARE NOT FOR THE
SQUEAMISH, A DEER DIES DUE TO
ITS FOOTSTEP, A MAN DIES DUE TO
HIS MOUTH.
BUNHAN BUNAHAN,
TO BE
ABOUT TO SPEAK AND ABOUT NOT TO
SPEAK.
KHAR,
TO SMELL LIKE URINE
OR RAW FISH.
KHEN,
TO HIT ONE'S HEART.
THANK YOU.

[Applause]

Watch: Robert Adams on The Hours and Mrs. Dalloway