Opinion, reflections and information
Maria del Mar Griera
Carlota Rodríguez Ruiz
Sociology of Religion Research Group, ISOR-UAB
Some decades ago it looked as though religion was destined to become a residual practice in 21st century Catalonia. This was not a hasty verdict. Surveys showed that the Catholic Church was losing believers and worshippers at an alarming rate, and it was becoming an increasingly discredited institution in the Catalan context. Whereas in 1980 people who thought of themselves as Catholic made up nearly 80% of the population, by 2015 this figure was closer to 52%. Plus, out of this number, less than half said they were non-practising, meaning that although they were people who described themselves as Catholic they hardly ever attended mass or other forms of worship.
However, not all religious faiths are losing followers in our country, quite the opposite. In the last few decades, religious minorities have been gaining ground and nowadays, more than 15% of Catalans say they are members of a religious minority, with Islam, Protestantism, Buddhism and Orthodox Christianity being the faiths that attract the largest numbers of people (Baròmetre, 2014). It is estimated that, at present, there are more than 1,360 places of religious minority worship in Catalonia (ISOR, 2014). Evangelical churches, Sikh Gurdwaras, Buddhist monasteries, Orthodox churches and Hindu communities are just some of the religious centres that have been set up in recent years and that have contributed to diversifying the religious map of Catalonia. Nevertheless, despite this remarkable growth, most places of worship remain tucked away in the urban landscape, camouflaged amongst industrial warehouses, commercial premises or in spaces lent temporarily by the administration or by social organisations. In Catalonia, the architectural invisibility of places of worship stands in contrast with the increase in all kinds of religious activities in the streets, including processions, religious festivals, open-air prayers and concerts of religious music that year after year are becoming more visible in the public domain.
In 2015, the ISOR sociology research group embarked on a project to explore the growth of this type of activity in the metropolitan area of Barcelona. The project was entitled “Religious Expressions in Urban Space. Negotiations, tensions and opportunities surrounding the visibility of religious diversity in the Catalan public domain”. (“Expressions Religioses a l’Espai Urbà. Negociacions, tensions i oportunitats entorn la visibilitat de la diversitat religiosa a l’espai públic català”) and focuses on analysing the (in)visibility of activities carried out, the bureaucratic and political processes that communities have to go through to hold these activities and the negotiations that take place with the local community and the audience they target. The research was designed following a case study methodology and five studies were completed, each one focusing on a single religious faith: Catholicism, Islam, Protestantism, Buddhism and Sikhism.
‘Why do religious communities take to the streets?’
Celebrating and/or commemorating significant dates in a community’s religious calendar is one of main reasons for organising activities in the public space. An example of this is the Shiite Muslim community in Barcelona, which has been holding the Ashura procession in the Rivera district every year since 2006. The aim is to publicly celebrate the death of Hussein Ibn Ali, grandson of the prophet Mohammed, and remember his suffering simultaneously all over the world. Memories of death also colour the Catholic procession organised by the brotherhood of ‘Germandat del Gran Poder i l’Esperança Macarena’ every Good Friday and that goes along the Ramblas in Barcelona as well as through the city’s historic quarter. The commemoration serves to collectively remember the basic origins of the faith and to reactivate emotional bonds with the community of believers. Both in the Ashura and in the Catholic procession, the ritualised staging of pain is a key element that transports the participants emotionally. In the case of the Ashura the ‘matam’ ritual structures the pace of the procession; the recitation of rhythmic chants that rise and fall in volume in a loop, while participants beat their chests. In the Catholic procession, the passage of the holy images of Christ and the Virgin of the Macarena are what structure and stage the ritual. The sight of the images unlocks the emotions of the people taking part and triggers a public ovation, as people with outstretched hands literally try to touch the images, amidst cries of “Beautiful, beautiful, you’re the most beautiful! Long live the Virgin of the Macarena!” (field material), demonstrating the complementarity between images, ritual high spirits and emotions.
The reason for taking to the street is not always linked to the expression of pain. For example, every year, the Sikh community holds the Guru Nanak festival in Barcelona and all over the world, to commemorate the birth of the founder of Sikhism. This festivity remembers the joy of the religion’s origins and involves men, women and children from the community, who walk in procession through the streets in the centre of Barcelona. The procession ends with a community meal to which everyone is invited and that is intended to symbolise the hospitality of Sikhism. In mid-April, the Sikh community also holds Baisakhi or the harvest festival, which celebrates the founding of Khalsa, the institution that baptised Sikhs all belong to. As one of the community members explains: “Baisakhi is the baptism festival, commemorating the creation of Khalsa. Khalsa means a pure Sikh, when a Sikh decides they want to be Khalsa, we hold this festival. (…) From this moment onwards they have to follow a series of rules like not cutting their hair or wearing a wooden comb…”.
Sometimes the reason why communities take to the streets is also because they want to complete a spiritual or religious ritual. The collective baptisms that some Protestant churches hold on Barceloneta beach also show this desire to take ritual into the public domain, away from the centre of worship.
All the activities we have described up to this point are largely aimed at the members of religious communities. In contrast, some activities are intended to show the faith of those involved to the heterogeneous audience that gathers in city streets and squares. We are referring, for example, to the so-called “evangelical campaigns” organised by Protestant communities in parks and squares, in the hope of attracting new followers, or handing out leaflets, brochures and magazines to publicise their faith. However, organisers of this kind of event frequently come up against reluctance from public authorities, who disapprove of the use of public space for what could be regarded as religious canvassing. The boundary between publicising one’s own faith and what is regarded in a derogatory sense as intrusive religious crusading is very fragile and often causes controversy. What some see as simply being part of religious freedom and the right to express oneself freely is regarded by others as a proselytizing act that should be restricted in our society. The problem is that the line between both these views is often difficult to determine using objective criteria and it is then that social and cultural biases come into play, tending to prejudice communities that are little known, stigmatised or recently established.
The latest way of using public space by religious communities is the protest demonstration. The desire to make unrest visible is what pushes them into organising an event outside the centre of worship. In a global and interconnected world like ours, these protests are frequently held in response to events happening far away from our borders. This is the case, for example, of the protest held by Sikhs in October 2015 in the Rambla del Raval to show their unrest at the attacks carried out against the holy book –’Sri Guru Granth Sahib’– in their home land, the Punjab in India. We could also point to protests held by the Muslim community on issues such as the controversy about the publication of the caricatures of the prophet Mohammed and other similar matters. This kind of event reinforces transnational bonds and the creation of a community conscience in the diaspora.
‘The importance of place: social recognition and the public space’
Being able to make oneself seen, being visible to other citizens is one of the growing demands of religious communities. They lay claim to their “right to the city”. The spokesperson for the Sikh community told us that for them it is very important to go along the Rambla. They know it is difficult because the area is very busy with traffic but, as they explained, “the community has this wish, to be able to walk along the Ramblas, so that people can see and meet us”. They also point to an unfair situation that allows the Catholic procession to parade along the Ramblas, with permission to cross the city’s most important roads. In the spirit of goodwill, they say that they understand Catholicism has a long tradition in the city but they also point out that being more recent arrivals should not make them second-class citizens. After much insistence, the Sikhs have managed to obtain permission for their procession to cross the Ramblas, although they have not been authorised to actually take it along this street. For the Shiite Muslim community it is also important to be able to hold their festival in one of the city’s iconic spots, the Arc de Triomf. It is a symbolic issue and part of their desire to be recognised. In this case, the community has expressed its strong disagreement with the proposal that they move the Ashura procession to a closed site, like a pavilion, or to somewhere on the outskirts of the city. As citizens of Barcelona they demand to be able to make their religious and cultural beliefs visible and not have to hide away. There is also another reason for their refusal to move to a peripheral location: they want to be acknowledged on global networks, like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, as citizens of Barcelona, and they need an iconic landmark to be in the photos so the city can be easily identifiable for people watching from faraway locations. They are citizens of Barcelona, but they are also travellers in a globalised world with networks of friends, family and acquaintances across the planet, and they want them all to be part of this gathering.
The separation between the sacred and the profane space is an issue common to most religions. However, the border between one dimension and the other is often blurred and expression emerge that take place on the periphery. Religious activities out on the street are frequently characterised by having a hybrid relationship with the sacred and the profane space: they are expressions of sacredness produced in a space defined as profane. In our country, historically speaking, the majority of religious expressions on the street were Catholic and part of the Catholic Church’s public ritual. But times have changed and the religious landscape has been transformed over recent decades. Religious diversity has become very important and minority groups demand their right to take to the streets and make themselves visible to other citizens.
 The project was funded by AGAUR and the Religious Affairs Department at the Generalitat de Catalunya government. The following researchers took part: Avi Astor, Rafael Cazarín, Anna Clot, Miquel Fernandez, María Forteza, Mar Griera, Antonio Montañes, Carlota Rodríguez and Wilson Muñoz.
 In all cases, one or two rituals were chosen out of all those organised in the street by religious communities, and a qualitative methodology was followed consisting of ethnographic observation, collection of audio-visual material and semi-structured interviews with various people involved in the community events.
 Self-flagellation is practised in some other countries but this is not the case in Barcelona.
Joan F. Mira
Institut d’Estudis Catalans
Before we talk about the “concept of culture” or about any attempt to define such an over-used term, we should remind ourselves of a few self-evident truths, like this one: society, the majority of the more or less enlightened population (“cultured” people in all countries, and in each country…) only apply the term culture – in its “elevated” sense, in the dignified, superior sense – to that which is presented and promoted with this attribute by those who have the power to do so; in other words, by the political, institutional, social, “media” or academic power, or whoever else that may be. This is how it is, it’s undeniable, but it needs to be repeated from time to time, because we often forget the simplest facts, especially when they don’t lend themselves to theoretical brilliance. Culture theorists, on the other hand, usually examine their colleagues’ books or papers in great detail, extracting even more theory from them (more contemplation and more ‘spectacle’, which is what ‘theory’ also means in Greek) and they tend to pay little attention to the trivial and very unassuming normal function of people and words. However, we should really be following the advice of Sir Francis Bacon, founding father of the empirical method. He recommended arriving at the knowledge of form or essence by starting with the facts and by means of induction: observing, checking, comparing, and then finally, if possible, reaching some sort of conclusion and definition. It could be, in this case or field we’re working in, that culture doesn’t have an “essence” or a form of its own, but in any case, if it does, it isn’t a substance nor does it have ‘a priori’ any identifiable and definable attributes, it is that which functions socially as “culture” and that receives this name and this recognition. An extremely sad conclusion, empty of content, redundant and perfectly useless, probably because there is no possible definition. Not, therefore, any independent and “objective” idea, let’s say, of culture, but instead an often scattered set of facts and realities that circulate and operate more or less effectively. In the same way that “intellectuals” are a normally disperse set of people who circulate and function as such, who are seen or identified by others, or who identify themselves as such. But if we ask in a survey, “what is an intellectual?” or the person concerned, “are you an intellectual (and why)?” they may not know how to answer, or the answers may be quite strange… They are hazy voices, with no substance. So expressions like “contemporary culture is…”, “the values of modern culture are…”, “today’s society lives in a culture that…”, “cultural trends in the late 20th century and the early 21st century are…”, and so many others in the same vein, are little more than a ‘flatus vocis’. But there’s a lot of theory and many texts, and very well qualified ones at that, on “culture, etc., etc.”, that without these puffed up voices would deflate until there was nothing, just an empty appearance, a coloured balloon.
Let’s remember. Who thought, at the start of the 20th century, that machines, locomotives or factories ‘were’ culture? Nobody. Well, soon afterwards, Marinetti and the Futurists thought it, but in a very particular way: they thought that they were art or the subject of art, the powerful art of the industrial future. In any case, industrial infrastructure a century ago was not “culture”, and now ‘those same’ factories, locomotives and machines are ‘cultural objects’ in museums of industrial archaeology, they are the topic of discussions and conferences, of beautifully illustrated books and major exhibitions. All organised by departments and institutions that administer ‘culture’. The objects are the same ones, but whereas before they functioned simply as industrial or transport objects, they now function as cultural expressions, presented with the added value of history and aesthetics, and therefore worthy of a new form of appreciation and contemplation. This is the issue: they’re presented (by intellectuals, those in the know, experts, specialists, etc.) as worthy of intellectual respect, and that means they’re already “high” culture and their agents are highly respected. Up until the 18th century, musicians were not “high” or “respectable” for example, and until the second half of the 20th century, neither were cooks, dressmakers and hairdressers, etc.; now they are personalities who people listen to, high culture, members of the “intellectual class”. They do the same things but they aren’t perceived or seen in the same light, now they’re part of the “high” level of culture (as well as in terms of money, social presence and contact with “power”), now their words, actions, products and ideas all exercise public influence via the media, etc.; they’re intellectuals! Aren’t they? And why not? Let’s look at idols…
Clearly, for Sir Francis Bacon, Earl of Verulam, the “idols of the tribe”, the “idols of the cave”, the “idols of the marketplace” and the “idols of the theatre”, which he criticises in ‘Novum organum’, were false images and false forms of perception, preventing us from getting to the reality of things as they really are. But precisely in this field of culture things ‘are not what they are’, but what they appear or are represented to be: their cultural ‘reality’ is their presentation, or representation, or image, or appearance. So, their recognised value is as solid or as shifting as shares on the stock exchange or currency converters, it depends on credit, on confidence, on institutional support, maybe on speculation, perhaps on expert opinion (another plague, pest or epidemic – another idol). And this, evidently, doesn’t prevent, but rather enables, monumental frauds occurring from time to time (three quarters, no less, of so-called “contemporary art”, including a considerable proportion of exhibits in the most prestigious galleries of museums in this sphere, are a perfect fraud, I have absolutely no doubt about it, fraud with a multitude of accomplices and beneficiaries; the other quarter is probably a solid and well thought out investment. In terms of examples, anyone interested can find them in practically all the cities in Europe). This also doesn’t prevent what often happens on the stock exchange or in publishing fashions, that, to use physically noisy terms, we can go from ‘boom’ to ‘bust’, or from explosion to fart. We already know that the visible use of idols is to attract, unite and congregate believers around images and representations familiar to the community, and thereby – with worship, veneration, ritual and in short, faith – consolidate the cohesion we normally call “social”. This is why the people of Israel had so many problems remaining united over the centuries, because Yahweh insisted that they should be tribes without idols (and if they did not completely disintegrate it was thanks to the Ark, the Law and the Temple, which all played an equivalent role). It’s a role that Imperial Rome was very clear about with the cult of images of the Emperor, or Christian Europe with saints and holy mothers of God. Now we think, what would a contemporary country do with no “cultural” works and names commonly or mainly recognised as valuable role models? To whom would it attribute this ‘worship of culture’ – the worship of universal gods and of the particular gods of each country – that has become necessary in every human society that regards itself as modern and more or less well run? Whether idols are divinity itself or simply a representation of it is largely irrelevant, the same as whether this divinity is “true” or “false”: what counts is the extent of public devotion, the impact and effectiveness of the rituals and the strength of faith.
The most visible result is that, in the same way that (five centuries or two centuries ago or one, or in many cases and circumstances more than half a century) “the people” of any country we would call western, ‘lived’ in an atmosphere “loaded with religion”, surrounded by religion, breathing religion, saturated by religion, now breathe culture; now we’re saturated and surrounded by culture, we ‘live in’ “culture”, whether we search for it and whether we like it or not. I mean that the presence of what we usually call “culture” (whatever its content…) is so abundant, dense, vague, every day and penetrating – even publicly imposed and you might say compulsory – as it was “before” the presence of what we normally call “religion”. With its temples, hierarchies and ceremonies, with public and private worship, and with the occupation of the mental and emotional space of both individuals and groups. The idols of culture (and especially the people idolised) are not only obstacles to knowledge, as Francis Bacon would say, they are not only images and representations, they also frequently appear to be divinities themselves – in human form, or living in eternal glory – worthy of the most diverse forms of worship, worthy of idolatry. Who is, then, the brave one – the heretic, the excommunicated – who practises a healthy and moderate form of iconoclasm and dares to say in public that, for example, that this building by this famous architect is a pretentious piece of nonsense and out of place, that most of the work by this celebrated and extremely expensive painter is complete rubbish, or that many texts by this great writer are actually meaningless and of no interest? When we think about doing it, we can think of a good many reasons but we might perhaps lack the courage…
Nancy C. Dorian
Bryn Mawr College, Pennsylvania
In the summer of 2015, a Canadian journalist writing for the Calgary Herald reviewed the very considerable measures that the Canadian government had taken in recent years to support maintenance and revitalization of First Nations languages in that country. There are about 60 aboriginal languages at various degrees of risk in the country, most of them very seriously at risk, and First Nations leaders continue to seek funding for such things as language institutes, aboriginal language programs for students and teachers, immersion schooling, dictionaries, online tutoring, and other supportive measures. Naomi Lakritz, the journalist, points out that government-funded Aboriginal Head Start pre-schooling has been available since 1998 and costs $59 million (Canadian) per year. An initiative called “First Voices” that provides tutors, interactive dictionaries, and online language labs receives part of its funding from the government’s Department of Canadian Heritage. Five years prior to publication of her article, Lakritz reports, Ottowa quadrupled its funding for preservation efforts in British Columbia alone, supporting instructional materials and youth language camps.
Lakritz is by no means hostile to language preservation and revitalization initiatives. “Languages are precious and they deserve to survive”, she writes, “for they represent the unique and irreplaceable way their speakers perceive and think about the world”. But at the close of her article, after recounting the many streams of government support for aboriginal languages in Canada she asks, “How can this not be enough? If languages are dying out and remaining unlearned despite the millions of dollars spent annually on teaching and preserving them, the problem is not a lack of multimillion dollar initiatives. At some point, people have to take advantage of the opportunities offered them. If they won’t, that’s not something more money and more programs can fix.”
This is an understandable position, and Lakritz is not the only one to take it. Journalists in Scotland have raised the same question about government expenditure on behalf of Scottish Gaelic, for example. A large part of the answer – the major part – is that by the time governments such as Canada’s and Scotland’s have become sympathetic to minority language speakers’ hopes for maintaining or revitalizing their languages, it’s very late in the day. The damage done by previous distinctly unsympathetic governments and by what is often centuries of societal and institutional mistreatment has been so extensive that minority-language populations have little left of their linguistic heritage (often a small number of elderly speakers) and in many cases a painfully understandable reluctance to re-acquire a language that was deliberately stamped out of their parents’ and grandparents’ lives. The worst of these stories are by now well known, though no less horrific for that: North American Indian and Australian Aboriginal children removed from their families and sent to boarding schools where they were punished for speaking their own languages and subjected to harsh assimilationist pressures. Even in countries where treatment was less overtly and oppressively cruel, membership in a long-standing minority group such as the Sámi in the Nordic world or the Arvanites (Albanian speakers) in Greece meant social bias and disadvantage that shadow the histories and even the present-day lives of ethnic group members.
Severe biases against minority languages and their speakers often stretch back many generations into the past, sometimes many centuries into the past. The rise of nationalism in the last century and a half has had a tendency to exacerbate the situation for minority-language populations, increasing direct central government influence over outlying regions which in the past enjoyed more independence in spheres that affect language use. More and more exposed to majority-group governance and ideology, members of small language communities can come to perceive adoption of the dominant language as the likeliest route to social acceptance and economic opportunity.
Because of the cumulative effects of long-continued social bias, one can encounter in one and the same heritage group both deep yearning to strengthen or recover the traditional language and great reluctance to reassociate themselves with a language that brought scorn and disdain to parents and grandparents. Languages have no standing of their own, but instead reflect the standing of the people who speak them. If a particular language is spoken exclusively by the poorest and least esteemed segment of the society, it will itself be poorly esteemed. For this reason languages can go rapidly from highly favored to severely disfavored if the fortunes of its speakers change radically, as happened for example with the Incas of Peru and their Quechua language. It was socially supreme before the arrival of Europeans, but reduced after conquest to a stigmatized local language subordinate to Spanish.
If social bias coincides, as it often does, with lesser economic development in an identifiable minority-language region, the combination of stigma and lack of prosperity is likely to undermine the vitality of the language and interrupt transmission of the disfavored minority language in the home and the community. Economic self-interest will then favor acquisition of the majority language in such circumstances, and if the standing of the minority language is low enough, it also favors abandonment of the minority language. If it’s better not to be identifiable as an Arapajo in Wyoming, or an Arvanite in Greece, or a Quechua speaker in Peru, then one of the simplest forms of dissociation is to abandon the ethnic language.
When the failure of home transmission has become severe enough, hopes for maintaining and revitalizing the language necessarily become a matter of providing educational support for children’s acquisition and provision for the even more extensive support that might produce adult second-language learners. Both of these approaches are unavoidably expensive. For minority-language schooling, such things as classroom space, staffing, and some level of curricular development will be needed, and in many cases also orthographic planning, lexical expansion, archiving mechanisms, and so forth. For adult second-language learning, teaching techniques and materials hat are specially targeted to breaking through the deeply established first-language habits must be developed, and then also social environments provided that encourage use of the second language in the learners’ lives. Adult second-language learning is slow compared to children’s acquisition, requiring extensive reinforcement, and it, too, involves considerable cost.
But Lakritz is right to point out that money is not the ultimate barrier to preserving endangered minority languages. The people who belong to the ethnic groups in question have to be themselves the major force for revitalization. They have to want their languages to survive fiercely enough to work through the difficult process of transforming what are often private-sphere languages, used mainly in hearth-and-home settings, into more public-sphere languages, used for example in broadcasting and political life. They have to reorder their social interactions so that they can feel comfortable speaking to contemporaries, children, and non-group members in a language that they previously used almost entirely for small-group solidarity or perhaps only with older relatives. They have to feel strongly enough about the value of reclaiming a heritage language to stand up to critics within their own group who see the effort as futile and fear that it will reawaken painful stereotypes that the group suffered from in the past. This is the truly hard part of maintaining and revitalizing minority languages, and it’s true that it can’t be done by other people or brought into being by official funding, even when it’s generous.
Where this fierce desire is present, however, and heritage-language activism is strong enough to refocus group members’ attention on the heritage language, outside funding can make a real difference, supporting measures to reverse some of the damage done over the long — often very long — period when the language was disdained or suppressed. The damage was done over a long time, and repair will also take a long time. Today there is a rising sense that people are entitled to their own language, that human rights include the right to one’s own group language. Undoing injustices and repairing damage are worthy goals, no less with regard to language than with regard to other facets of life. Certainly not universally, but at least increasingly, rights-oriented governments like Canada’s are lending substantial support to maintenance and revitalization efforts. Revitalization initiatives have proliferated around the world in recent years, as minority-language groups have recognized the precariousness of their linguistic heritages and are trying to improve the odds against the survival of their languages. These groups have difficult histories behind them and difficult challenges ahead of them. They will need help, legal and financial, from governments willing to do as the Canadian government has done in moving to counteract the effects of historical wrongs and long-term social disadvantage. Majority-language populations will also need help. They will need journalists who can make clear the long gestation period that led up to the world-wide language endangerment crisis of our time and will make understandable the investment of time and money that is needed to help at-risk language communities recover.
Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, UAB
The Myth of Monolingualism
Japan’s monolingualism has been deeply rooted in Japanese society for many centuries and today it is still preserved, both explicitly and implicitly. In 1986, Yasuhiro Nakasone, Japanese prime minister then, publicly stated that “Japan is a monoethnic country and therefore minorities do not exist.” His words were controversial and organisations defending the Ainu nation (Japan’s indigenous people) protested furiously against the prime minister. Later, politicians who see Japan as a monocultural, monolingual and monoethnic country repeated similar arguments, as though there were no linguistic diversity in Japan. This view is underpinned by the firm belief that Japan’s linguistic problem is not politicised, although the truth of this view has been called into question over the last decade.
The three basic concepts: ‘kokugo, nihongo and bokokugo’
We can observe this traditional view of monolingualism in several ways. Firstly, we focus on the various names used for the Japanese language: ‘kokugo, nihongo and bokokugo’. The term ‘kokugo’, which literally means “the State language” ―often translated as the “national language” ― appeared when the modern Japanese nation state was established in the late 19th century and has functioned as a synonym for the Japanese language up to the present day. The second term, ‘nihongo’, is normally used to refer to Japanese as a second language for foreigners in a more neutral way, although the concept originated in the historic sense of Japan’s colonial policy for Taiwan and Korea during the Second World War. This term was put in place to preserve the national symbolic and sacred nature of the ‘kokugo’, as applying the same idea of ‘kokugo’ to inhabitants of the colonies was felt to be unsuitable.
The term ‘kokugo’ refers to Japanese as a school subject. The ‘Encyclopedia for Studying the Teaching of Kokugo’ by the National Institute for Japanese Language and Linguistics defines the teaching of ‘kokugo’ on the assumption that all Japanese people speak Japanese as their mother tongue. Here we find another key concept, that of ‘mother tongue’. The two translations normally made of this term, ‘bogo’ and ‘bokokugo’, are used interchangeably without a very clear criterion. The fact that the ‘Iwanami Kokugo Dictionary’ defines ‘bogo’ as a synonym of ‘bokokugo’ confirms the confusion between these two terms. The use of the term ‘bogo’, meaning “mother tongue” is not at all normal in Japan, so it is rarely listed in the dictionaries. On the other hand, ‘bokokugo’, which literally means ‘the language of the home country’, is much more familiar to the Japanese. This term evidences the coherence between state, people and language.
All in all, Japanese enjoys the status of being the country’s sole language, which can be demonstrated by the fact that the concept of ‘official language’ is not used in Japan. Neither is there any legal ruling on the Japanese language declaring its status as official language, except for article 74 of the ‘Saibansho hô’ law on the administration of justice, which states that Japanese must be used in the country’s courts of law.
The ‘Kikokushijo‘: reflection of Japan’s ideology
One example that clearly reflects the predominant ideology in Japan that places nationality on a par with the Japanese people’s language is the name ‘kikokushijos’ used for children. ‘Kikoku’ means ‘returning to their country ’ and ‘shijo’ means ‘children’ . These are Japanese children who were born and/or lived abroad because of their parents’ jobs and who have returned to Japan. Depending on factors such as the country they were living in, the type of school they went to, their interpersonal relationships and so on, these children had different experiences in each country and their language skills can also vary. Equally, it is assumed that these children are fluent in the foreign language — which is presumed to be English — and their schoolmates in Japan typically demand that they ‘say something in English’. This phenomenon illustrates the fact that the image of a bilingual person in Japan is often thought of as someone who is fluent in English. Plus, these children are also presumed to have a much lower level of Japanese, which leads to them being seen as “Japanese strangers”, “half Japanese” and even gaijin (“foreigners”). This means that having a standard level in this language serves as a criterion for “being Japanese”.
These children have had a major impact as, up until a few decades ago, living abroad was not at all common in Japan, and the return of Japanese children with the experience of having lived in a foreign country was regarded as a threat. Instead of accepting heterogeneity, Japanese society makes ‘kikokushijo’ give up everything they have acquired abroad, including their foreign language skills, as this is incompatible with Japanese society and they are under pressure to re-adapt. This ungenerous attitude to heterogeneity comes from ‘Nihonjinron’ (Japanese identity theory), an ideology that values Japan’s homogeneity and distinctive nature. There is a Japanese proverb that says, “Deru kui wa utareru” (“The stake that sticks up gets hammered down”); it is difficult to stand out with a “different” way of behaving as this breaks harmony and uniformity. This means that ‘kikokushijo’ often prefer to blend into Japanese society rather than keep up their fluency in other languages in order to protect themselves, as being bilingual or multilingual is incompatible with Japanese society’s preference for uniformity. Despite this, in the 1980s, when the Japanese government began using the concept of ‘internationalisation’ more frequently, the negative view of ‘kikokushijo’ ceased to be predominant and these children went from being a discriminated minority to becoming a symbol of internationalisation and even objects of admiration.
‘Hyôjungo, kyôtsûgo and hôgen’
Japanese society’s huge respect for uniformity can also be seen in the Japanese language itself. In the 19th century, with the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate, Japan embarked on a period of modernisation, which gave rise to a new government. To form a sufficiently strong nation state that could compete with other countries, the people had to be united. The unification of the language was one measure, as up to then, Japan’s linguistic diversity had been huge, and the country was divided into two hundred and fifty-six ‘Han’ (domains governed by a feudal lord who paid taxes to the central government) with very little contact between them and with such a different range of variants spoken that it was impossible for people from different ‘Han’ to communicate with each other. Plus, differences between social classes also contributed to this linguistic diversity.
To achieve ‘a uniform language’, the variant spoken in the high area of Tokyo was chosen as the standard (‘hyōjungo’). The standard language is also called ‘common language’ (‘kyôtsûgo’), and started being used in 1951, as set out in the regulations governing teaching in schools, as opposed to regional dialects, since the standard could be understood all over Japan.
Other regional variants were given the status of dialect (‘hōgen’); they began to be regarded as “bad” habits to be corrected or excluded. In Okinawa, for example, the islands in the south of Japan, they even adopted a punishment system known as ‘Hōgen-fuda’ (dialect label). Regional variants were simply seen as an ‘accent’ of standard Japanese and were not usually written down. We can see this treatment of regional variants in the guidelines for teaching ‘kokugo’ up to the late 1950s, intended to correct accents and promote the standard language.
This meant that teaching ‘kokugo’ prompted a hierarchical relationship to be set up, with the variant spoken in Tokyo at the top and all the other variants below it. As a result, people who could only speak their own dialect started to feel inferior. Plus, the speakers of each dialect were given a stereotyped image, often negative (so, the people speaking the northern Japan variant were viewed as simple and rustic; speakers of the Osaka variant were seen as funny, tight-fisted, vulgar; speakers of the southern Japan variant were regarded as masculine, abrupt, etc.). But the situation gradually changed; not only did the speakers of regional dialects begin to master the standard language thanks to a mass media campaign, but social attitudes to regional variants started being more positive. Lately, these variants have even become ‘trendy’ with the younger generation, with the media often discussing the dialects issue; dialect conversation guides are available to buy, and ‘famous’ young men and women who would never have dreamt of speaking their dialect to the media twenty years ago are doing it now. In fact, some words or expressions from the various dialects ― especially those spoken in Osaka because of the success of the comedy culture there ― are being used by the younger generation to communicate with each other, even though they may not be speakers of these variants. So, dialects have become a kind of entertainment in which people choose a particular one according on the image assigned to it and ‘virtually transform themselves’ by speaking it. We do need to remember, though, that these words or expressions used by young people are not necessarily based on those that have become part of real everyday life, but that they frequently contain ‘virtual dialects’, in other words, dialects associated with their images. Yukari Tanaka, a Japanese dialectologist, has called this phenomenon ‘hōgen cosupure’ (costume play of dialects), meaning that these young people dress up in the dialect rather than in clothing. The ones who do not have their own dialect ― especially people from Tokyo or the surrounding areas where the difference in dialect is barely noticeable ― are envious of the ‘native’ dialect speakers and often become ‘false speakers’ of the dialect they like. As a consequence, regional variants have left their inferiority complex behind and acquired a kind of prestige with added value.
As we have seen, Japan’s linguistic diversity was not accepted because of the huge respect for uniformity and an ungenerous attitude towards heterogeneity. It is quite ironic that both ‘kikokushijo’ and speakers of regional variants have gone from being objects of disdain to being objects of admiration.
Abstract: Far too many people are surprised when they hear that a substantial community exists worldwide that still speaks Aramaic as its mother language. But in another 50 years, will today’s surprise be the reality? Can Aramaic survive as a living language if its speakers are driven into diaspora and scattered worldwide?
In the following article I will address three issues:
- How have Assyrians retained Aramaic into the 21th century?
- Will they be able to continue the language?
- Under what circumstances can Aramaic survive?
Changing Language Use Patterns
In this ever more global cultural environment, language has ceased to be associated with a region or country. Instead, the rise of English as an international language of business is creating a new paradigm for global language use different from French when used for international diplomacy, and Latin or Arabic as used in the past.
English today (and some posit, Chinese in the next century), serves to connect people whose schooling language is not English. In China today, teaching English is big business.
Where does this switch to English leave the speakers of small languages, some of which, like Aramaic were the international languages of their day (8th c BCE – 8th c CE).
Aramaic speakers face a dilemma: to what extent can they embrace multi-lingualism? Through what means?
For speakers of small languages multilingualism is an absolute necessity. Managing three languages on a written and spoken level, people like the Baluchis, Lezgin or Assyrians is a major challenge. Depending on circumstances, the written form of the native language of small groups often gives way, even if the spoken language is retained. Will this scenario explain Aramaic retention?
Who and Where are Aramaic Speakers?
Nearly three thousand years ago, Aramaic speakers were concentrated in the Near East, with their heartland in Mesopotamia. Writers and readers of Aramaic, an elite group trained specifically for political, commercial and religious employment, centered in the areas covered by Iraq, Syria, and adjacent areas.
Aramaic is the oldest continuously written and spoken language of the Middle East, preceding Hebrew and Arabic as written languages. Equally important has been the role of Aramaic as the oldest continuously used alphabetically written language of the world. Aramaic influenced both Arabic and Hebrew, sister Semitic languages, and even contributed to the writng of Mongolian and Uighur, in terms of alphabet development, lexical borrowing, and cultural habits like alphabet numbering.
The influence of Aramaic is widely studied by ancient historians. Aramaic inscriptions have been found from the central mountains of Afghanistan (Kandahar and elsewhere) to Egypt, and second century CE Palmyrene. Aramaic is found in northeast Britain on a tombtone associated with Hadrian’s Wall.
With the Christian period, the form of Aramaic adopted for Christian texts became the Syriac of Urhoy(Gr. Edessa). Classical Syriac as the advanced language of science, medicine and philosophy east of the Greek world, provided the Abbasid Caliphate (750-1258) in Baghdad with a ready source of knowledge that was reborn in Arabic while Syriac withered as did the churches that had tended it.
At the start of the 20th century, modern spoken dialects of Aramaic survived chiefly among Christian Assyrians and to a lesser extent among Mandeans and Jewish Aramaic speakers (the Nash Dedan).
The number for the world Assyrian population varies but the general agreement is that fully half of this population now lives in Diaspora outside the Middle East. Persecution of Assyrians, beginning with Kurdish attacks during the mid-19th century, followed by Ottoman Turkish genocide attempt during World War I, and culminating a hundred years later in the anti-Christian expansion of radical Muslim extremists, have displaced and driven into refugee camps a large number of Assyrians. The largest Diaspora lives in English speaking regions – the United States, Canada, Australia and the UK – possibly as high as one million – while large numbers live in the former Soviet Union, Brazil, Argentina, Sweden, France, Holland, Belgium and Austria. This latter group constituted about 500,000 at the start of the 21st century but Diaspora numbers have been growing with the increased persecution of Christians in the Middle East.
The largest Diaspora, or a significant portion of modern Aramaic speakers, live in English speaking and writing environments, while another large percentage is exposed to English through schools in Europe, South America and Russia. In this single fact of Diaspora may lie the seeds for the retention of Aramaic.
All sources agree that knowledge of modern Aramaic, in whichever dialect, has declined in Diaspora. The communities in Diaspora face major roadblocks to language retention:
- strength and attraction of the state language no matter where they live
- educational institutions use of the state language or bilingualism with narrow definitions prejudicial to smaller languages
- broadcast and entertainment use of the state language
Aramaic in the Middle East
In the Middle East, the situation of modern Aramaic is in turmoil. Most specifically in Iraq, the status of modern Aramaic is both hopeful and desperate.
Northern Iraq has the largest concentration of Aramaic speakers in the world. Largely located in villages scattered north, east and southeast of Mosul, many of these villages have been depopulated and destroyed over the course of Iraqi history.
In the era of Saddam Hussein, when Assyrians were dropped from the 1977 census in favor of the sectarian name Christian, some 200 villages were systematically razed. Their survivors sought shelter in larger cities – Dohuk, Arbil, Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra. For many, these urban centers served as the stepping stones to emigration from the region.
The breakdown of ancient villages, coupled with the virulent nationalism that came to fruition in the mid 20th century in autocratic Middle Eastern States from Turkey to Iran to Iraq and Syria, devastated use and knowledge of Aramaic.
In Iran, on the contrary, prior to World War I, Aramaic expanded into strong educational institutions as well as print media, no less than four Assyrian periodicals were published in Urmiah (northwest Iran), all under Western missionary tutelege. After the “cleansing” of the area of its Christians, no books, no periodicals, no publications reappeared at all.
A similar demographic downturn is seen in Turkey – despite current hopeful signs – in the West Bank, and in Lebanon. Syria and Iraq remained the possible islands of hope for Aramaic. But these countries have dissolved into chaos as have whatever institutions such as Aramaic teaching schools that had existed.
The Effect of State Languages on Aramaic
Throughout the world where Assyrians live the rise of nationalism and national languages has broken down knowledge of Aramaic. In Iran after 1934 when foreign mission schools were forced closed, literacy in Aramaic dropped by about 90% in one generation.
Iraq and the Preservation of Aramaic
Out of the chaos of Iraq grows the hope for Aramaic. Out of the immigration to English dominant countries may come the hope for Aramaic retention in Diaspora.
In Iraq, an embryonic system of elementary and secondary Aramaic instructional schools was developed in the north mainly on the Nineveh Plain, that area southeast of Mosul where a substantial number of Assyrian villages such as Alqosh and Baghdeda provided concentrated numbers, perhaps as high as half a million persons. They functioned under the guidance of Mr. Yonan Hozaya who served as the cultural pivot of the Assyrian Democratic Movement (ADM) during the late 1990s and into the early decade of the 21st century.
The preservation of Aramaic has also made halting progress in English-speaking areas of the world. In Sydney Australia, an elementary school appeared in 2002. At the same time, another school appeared in Los Angeles under the aegis of the Assyrian Church of the East. But the communities in Los Angeles are scattered geographically and drawing a core student body has proven difficult. The school closed after a few years. Another church affiliated school has come into being in 2012 among the large Assyrian community of San Jose in Silicon Valley. Some hope exists for a charter school in the Chicago area.
For the first time, spoken Aramaic has been offered to students during the 2015-16 academic year as an elective at San Jose State University. This offering differs considerably from the academic study of Talmudic Aramaic, Empire Aramaic and other highly specialized but dead languages that relate to either Biblical or ancient studies.
The most systematic and institutionalized schools for Assyrians were established in the former Soviet Union because Aramaic, as spoken by Assyrians was one of the 100 nationality languages recognized by Moscow, and therefore funded on a cultural and educational level. With the breakdown of the Soviet cultural system that sponsored “nationalities,” these Assyrian schools have decreased or disappeared except in locations such as Urmiah (sic) an Assyrian enclave in Krasnodar.
In many respects, Aramaic may be more easily preserved in English speaking areas due to the fact that it need not be studied as a third language, but as a second or first language.
The obstacles in the the preservation of Aramaic are many: immigration from concentrated areas like Urmiah, northern Iraq, the villages of Tur Abdin, Qamishly and Hasake is just the most obvious reason. Added to this is the decline in vocabulary, spoken dialects, the loss of prestige to state languages, and the lack of recognition of its cultural role in the Middle East. Some of these reasons are tied to the general decline and abuse of Christian populations in the Middle East.
But the trend may be partially reversible in Iraq under the following conditions:
- Establishment of an Aramaic using cultural and administrative zone
- Support for the elevation of Aramaic, Syriac and the spoken language of the Iraqi Assyrian community at institutions of higher learning not just in Mosul, but also in Arbil, Dohuk, Baghdad.
- Support of internet language teaching programs for the diaspora
Many factors mitigate against the preservation of small languages. In the case of Aramaic, many historical factors work for its preservation.
Tjeerd de Graaf
Fryske Akademie, Ljouwert
Originally the northern part of the Japanese main island Honshu was inhabited by Ainu people, whereas there are indications that they also lived on the southern tip of Kamchatka. Traces of the Ainu on Honshu are found in geographic names, but as a result of historical developments the Ainu also disappeared from Sakhalin and the Kurile Islands.
In the sixteenth century many Japanese immigrants began to settle on Hokkaido and to engage in large scale fishing and trading. The Japanese area (‘Wajinchi’) was located in the southern part of the island (‘Matsumae’), while the Ainu people lived in the areas called ‘Ezochi’: the rest of Hokkaido (the name of the island since 1868), ‘Karafuto’ (Sakhalin) and ‘Chishima’ (Kurile Islands). The original inhabitants southern of the islands of ‘Etorofu’ and ‘Kunashiri’ were also the Ainu.
On Hokkaido the Ainu fell completely under the control of the Japanese, who claimed these territories as part of Japan. As a result of Japanese-Russian conflict and the establishment of political boundaries, a large number of Ainu from Sakhalin had to relocate to Hokkaido. They suffered from the abrupt change in lifestyle and the prevalence of diseases, and many of them died. Later resettlements of the Ainu would follow and the result is that their number has decreased and that at present they can only be found in Japan, mainly on Hokkaido.
The modernisation of Japan caused the central government to pay serious attention to the exploration and economic development of Hokkaido. For this purpose the Hokkaido Settlement Mission (‘Kaitakushi’) was established as an administrative organisation to rule the region, and a large number of former samurai and farmers emigrated from the Japanese mainland to Hokkaido. ‘Ainu mosir’ (“the people’s land”), where the Ainu had freely hunted and gathered food, became part of the territory of Japan and was given to Japanese immigrants.
The government forced the Ainu to assimilate, and the ‘Kaitakushi’ prohibited the traditional way of hunting and fishing, and confiscated their lands. Under state-sponsored assimilation policies, discrimination and poverty relegated the Ainu to the lowest ranks of Japanese society. With the introduction of the Japanese way of life and special compulsory education, the traditional system of learning from one’s elders was broken down and the original social and cultural patterns of the Ainu population were destroyed. As a consequence, the Ainu language, together with the traditional lifestyle almost completely disappeared within a couple of generations.
According to a survey conducted in 2006 by the Hokkaido government, the Ainu population of Hokkaido then numbered 23,782 people. Many Ainu and people of mixed origin were eager to forget about their Ainu origin and until the present there are many of them who fear discrimination and prefer to hide this origin. Therefore it is rather difficult to estimate the right number of people having the Ainu ethnic background. At present, the number of Ainu living mainly in Hokkaido is estimated at between 24,000 and 50,000, but only very few of them still speak the language.
Laws and linguistic rights for the Ainu
The Ainu have lived in Hokkaido, Sakhalin, the Kurile Islands and Honshu since ancient times, and have built their own history, language and culture. When the government enforced its law in Hokkaido, it incorporated the land of the Ainu, basically confiscating their land, forcing assimilation policies, and denying the Ainu people their traditional culture. In this process, discrimination and prejudice toward the Ainu were strengthened.
In 1946, the Hokkaido Ainu Association was established with the aim to provide better education for the Ainu and to create social welfare facilities. This association is actively engaged in solving various problems experienced by the Ainu. In 1984, the Hokkaido ‘Utari Kyookai’ (Association) has conducted an active campaign to demand that the national government enact a law on the promotion of Ainu culture as soon as possible. Furthermore, various activities have been promoted to revive the Ainu language and to preserve and maintain Ainu culture, such as traditional dancing and various ceremonies.
The ‘Law on the Promotion of Ainu Culture and Facilitation of Popular Understanding of Ainu Tradition’ was passed in 1997. Regretfully, it does not mention the rights of the Ainu as an indigenous people anymore, which would allow for the provisions related to the United Nations’ ‘Declaration for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples’ (2007). However, in this law the Japanese government acknowledges for the first time the existence of a separate ethnic group inside the country and calls for respect of its culture and traditions.
The Ainu then have become an internationally recognised indigenous population. In July 1997 the Japanese government finally introduced the ‘Ainu Shinpo’ (New Ainu Law). The purpose of this new law is “to realise a society in which the ethnic pride of the Ainu people is respected and to contribute to the development of diverse cultures in the country, by the implementation of measures for the promotion of Ainu culture, the spread of knowledge related to Ainu traditions, and the education of the nation, referring to the situation of Ainu traditions and culture from which the Ainu people find their ethnic pride”. According to article 3 of this ‘Ainu Shinpo’, the national government should make efforts “to promote measures for the nurturing of those who will inherit Ainu culture, the fruitfulness of educational activities concerning Ainu traditions, and the promotion of the study of the Ainu culture”.
In 1997, after the preparations for the ‘Ainu Shinpo’ were made by the Hokkaido government, the Hokkaido Development Agency approved the establishment of the ‘Foundation for Research and Promotion of Ainu Culture’ (FRPAC) as a public service corporation. One of the tasks of the Foundation is to preserve and promote the Ainu language and traditional culture and to disseminate knowledge on Ainu traditions to the nation. The Foundation promotes comprehensive and practical research on the Ainu, the Ainu language, and material culture, and disseminates knowledge on Ainu traditions.
Teaching of the Ainu Language and Culture
The language is unique to the Ainu and forms the core of their ethnic identity. Because the number of people who use the language has been decreasing yearly due to the aging of native Ainu speakers, Ainu language education is in a very difficult state. For the improvement of Ainu language education, the FRPAC provides learning opportunities to train Ainu language instructors in cooperation with Ainu language researchers.
Ainu language classes are offered in various community centres on Hokkaido and in the ‘Ainu Culture Centre’ in Tokyo. These centres are very well equipped with modern facilities and often offer interesting expositions related to the Ainu culture. In order to disseminate the Ainu language to the general public, the FRPAC provides opportunities for many people to have contact with and to learn the Ainu language. Language textbooks are provided free of charge and special books on the Ainu history and culture are edited for primary and secondary schools. People who want to practise the language can take part in special speech contests and storytellers of traditional oral Ainu literature, such as ‘yukar’ (epics of heroes), ‘kamuy-yukar’ (stories of deities) and ‘uwepeker’ (old tales), give direct instruction to train their successors. Special attention is paid to the remnants of the Ainu language in the local culture, in particular the interpretation of geographic place.
Since the 1980s the Ainu cultural and ethnic movements have created a public awareness of Ainu heritage, and popularised Ainu culture. The purpose of teaching Ainu history and culture is to promote understanding of the Ainu and their culture, and to refute the Japanese stereotype of the Ainu as uncivilised people. The Hokkaido Board of Education and the Hokkaido University of Education have taken the lead in funding Ainu studies and education. The Hokkaido Board of Education prepared teaching materials for Ainu history and culture in 1984, and in 1992 it produced a handbook, ‘Guidelines for the Teaching of Ainu History and Culture’, for every high school in Hokkaido. In 1987, the ‘Utari Association’ requested that the Hokkaido University of Education teach a course in Ainu history and culture, and in 1991 the five campuses of the University offered seventeen courses wholly or partially devoted to Ainu history, culture, and language. The Ainu themselves, as well as several scholars, are actively researching and writing about Ainu history, language and culture. The 1997 ‘New Ainu Law’ provides public funds to museums, performance theaters, research centres, and community cultural centres.
Japanese students learn about Ainu history and culture as part of the social science curriculum in elementary, middle and high schools. Ainu issues first appeared in the social studies textbooks in 1961. In addition to textbook-centred instruction, elementary school students and preschoolers become familiar with Ainu culture by making handicrafts, reading folktales, and performing music and dance. Watching a documentary on the lifestyle of the Ainu can also give students a sense of Ainu culture. Since 1978, middle school textbooks have included chapters on Ainu history and cultures. A popular history textbook portrays the Ainu as the victims of Japanese exploitation and prejudice. It refers to Ainu revolts as justifiable resistance against exploitation by Japanese settlers and merchants prior to the 1868 Meiji Restoration. ‘Shakushain’, one of the leaders of the resistance, is portrayed as a hero.
More recently, in 2007, Hokkaido University opened the Centre for Ainu and Indigenous Studies (CAIS) with the aim of promoting comprehensive and interdisciplinary research activities concerning indigenous peoples with a special emphasis on Ainu. It also strives to establish networks connecting various organisations at home and abroad with the aim of promoting research programmes on Ainu and indigenous peoples.
The CAIS collaborates with the Ainu people and Ainu organisations such as the ‘Ainu Association of Hokkaido’ and the ‘Foundation for Research and Promotion of Ainu Culture’. Together with these organisations research activities and administrative matters are planned and this will serve as a bridge that connects the university with the Ainu. These activities result in symposia, public lectures, social surveys, museum exhibitions, lecture tours, ecotourism and overseas fieldwork. This will encourage widespread understanding and support among members of different ethnic groups.
An important aspect of the Centre is its emphasis on education. Currently, at Hokkaido University, the Centre offers courses that help students develop interest in and gain an accurate understanding of the Ainu people and other indigenous groups throughout the world. Furthermore, an ambitious project for developing teaching programmes and materials for junior and senior high school students in collaboration with local school teachers is being realised. Through such educational efforts, social justice will prevail in Japan, which increasingly is becoming a multi-ethnic and multicultural country.
Education for the Ainu about the Ainu is as important as education for young Japanese people. The Centre has a positive role to play in this regard. The Centre takes as its responsibility the creation of a space in which the Ainu people are able to learn about themselves in both academically and socially useful ways.
9. Finding the right place for languages in the community landscape: language conservation in interdisciplinary projects among the Kubeos in the Northwest Amazon
University of Brasilia
It is past 5pm in the house of Ricardo, a 60 year old Yúriwakɨ man, living in Açaí – a village of the Kubeo Indians at the Vaupés river in the Brazilian Northwestern Amazon. Roque, an older Yúriakɨ, is telling Ricardo and me about how the ancestral group of all humankind came into existence in the rapids of hipana in the Aiyari river, “the center of the world”. After the demiurge Yúri pushed humanity out from a hole in the rapids, he blew them with the sacred tobacco and each human group was set off into a journey in search for land, ceremonial power and spiritual nourishment (opeko ‘breast milk’). The journey is a process of transformation from a pre-human state in the aquatic world (moawɨ “fish-people”) to true people in the terrestrial world (põewã “humans”). For the Yúriwawa and brothers-in-law, the Yuremawa, the final point in their journey was Wakaipani, the rapids from a small tributary of the river, the unique ancestral birth-place of both groups.
Roque has never been to the Aiyari river; he has never seen most of the places of the journey he was describing. His voice, however, is firm, his memory is vivid and his words are galloping in a characteristic rhythm as he talks about places, events and make connections between mythical happenings and present affairs. As he speaks, Kubeo grammar makes it clear to the audience that Roque’s knowledge comes from retellings by his ancestors and from his own mind-travels to the places holding particular mythological significance.
Seven years have passed since I first heard the Kubeo creational myth. I was just starting my PhD, eager to document, learn and preserve the Kubeo language. As a linguist, who enjoys everything the linguistic code can teach about the Kubeos and their language, I started to think that language conservation should be more of a secondary objective, and that the emphasis should instead be on themes transversal to a number of aspects of community life. Since languages are “incidentally” also transversal to culture and society, it makes sense – at least in sociolinguistic situations like those of Kubeos – that language conservation should focus strategically on promoting community-based experiences of language use.
In our case, the Kubeos chose general traditional culture, sacred landscapes, territory and the environment as transversal themes. This text describes our initiatives related to these topics and considers the broader issues related to language and indigenous groups.
Sociolinguistic situation of the Kubeos
The Vaupés is a unique multilingual region of the world, predating the arrival of Europeans in the Americas. Speakers of about twenty-two languages from four different linguistic families co-exist in a complex network of sociocultural exchange, embedded within a system of social and linguistic exogamy. In the twentieth century, and increasingly in the past decades, however, there have been dramatic changes that made an impact in language vitality. The most notable changes have been related to the presence of Christian missionaries, national armies, guerrilla wars, intense urban migrations, schooling, television, monetization, and diminishing supplies of fishing and game.
There are about eight thousand people who speak the Kubeo language; they are agriculturalists and rely heavily on fishing, as well as hunting and seasonal gathering of wild crops. Villages typically have about ten families (bigger ones can go up to one hundred families) and are dispersed along the banks of the Vaupés, Querari and Cuduyari rivers. In these villages, one usually hears, in addition to Kubeo, Kotiria, Tukano, Desano, as well Portuguese and Spanish. Most people are at least bilingual and others speak more than two languages. However, there has been a considerable break of language transmission to younger generations in certain areas of the Kubeo territory, not to mention the typical loss of specialized vocabulary and traditional linguistic performances. Nevertheless, although Kubeo can be regarded as a threatened language, its situation is not the most critical in the Vaupés, where smaller language groups are facing greater threats.
Landscapes and the right place of language for the Kubeos
My work with the Kubeos started with a series of workshops for an encyclopedic dictionary in 2008. Kubeo teachers from the local school requested that the dictionary should include translations from Kubeo to Kotiria, Tukano, Portuguese and Spanish. From the start, the connection of language and worldview, embodied in the native conception of an “encyclopedia”, has always guided the direction of our work. Workshops were thematically organized (natural world, human world and metaphysical world). They have proved very successful in engaging the entire community with an average attendance of 70 people from several distinct villages and ethnic groups. Besides the workshops, we also invested in the training of a group of young native speakers in the use of audio and video recordings, transcriptions and translations.
However, Kubeo community had many other needs in their daily life than “just” working with their language. While we could never tackle all the problems at once, there was a clear demand that future projects should bring more tangible components and resources. As a response, we came across with the idea of “sacred landscapes”, which then expanded into a project of territory and environmental management research.
Landscapes – as we realized after the research of anthropologists in the area, including Robin Wright, Geraldo Andrello, Ana Gita and my colleague Luís Cayón – are a central component for the understanding of how local indigenous groups relate myth, collective memory territory, the environment and the “mundane” present life. In fact, every piece of the landscape is a stronghold for Kubeo tradition and identity. One particular place is part of a complex network of mythical and mystical power, relating physical and metaphysical worlds, past events with current cultural practices. Shamans manage the substances that are utterly related to the evolution of the universe and humankind, bringing harm or well-being to the current world. Petroglyphs, topographical features and taboos to the “unprepared” persons are evidence of the active forces of certain places overtime. Means of subsistence too, such as fishing sites, hunting spots, agricultural areas, are all regulated by the power that flows from place to place. Several petroglyphs standing in different rocks along the rivers were made by the demiurges when the world was still in its genesis. Entire rivers and mountains were also the product of mythological events, such as the wanderings of the Sun in persecution of the Kubeo ancestors who have gotten the Sun’s daughter pregnant.
Language is, to a large extent, the key to every place. Comprehensive access to any place is only possible by knowing the true name of a place (not only some “nickname”), by the proper use of ceremonial dialogues with the mythical forces of that place and by knowledge of the correct position of a place within the chain of verses in a healing monologue or mythological narrative. Metaphor, metonyms and euphemisms abound in toponyms, which are also interrelated by a “grammar” of naming practices and hypertexts. It is only natural that the loss of language or particular linguistic skills by the younger generations could threaten not only a specific state of knowledge related to geography and territory, but also – and more profoundly – the entire conception of life and self for the Kubeos.
This kind of approach, where language is at the background of more tangible cultural practices and values, seems to be the right place for language programs among the Kubeos. In this framework, we are now experimenting a process that let us tackle several issues in Kubeo life, namely:
- intergenerational gap in cultural and linguistic transmission
- school curriculum, teacher training and integration between formal education and community education
- knowledge about fishing, gardening, hunting, income generation and sustainability
- discrepancies between traditional and modern life
- political and economic situations of the Kubeo community and the supra-local scenarios for indigenous peoples
- production of linguistic and cultural resources on toponyms, cartography, mythology and collective memory
Community-based research on Kubeo landscapes
In an evening of May 2013, a group of 30 people, comprised by schoolteachers and students, parents and other folks from the Kubeo communities in Brazil, arrived at Wakaipani, after a one-day trip through the jungle and the Marakarĩya river stream, a tributary of the Vaupés. The group arrived exhausted after wandering in the jungle in search for trails that have barely been used in the past decades. Those trails used to be the very source of game two generations ago, when the Kubeo Yúriwawa were still living in longhouses at the tributaries of the Marakarĩya stream. The culmination of the project was the trip to Wakaipani, a rocky flat area of the size of a football pitch, with several petroglyphs representing mythological events. The clear waters cut the rock in half along a North-South axis. The place is guarded by ancestors who take the form of shaman-jaguars (jawi) and harpy eagles (mi yawi ‘jaguar bird’).
As their graduation project, students from the last years of high school and mid-school had to do a research about the origins of the Kubeo clans Yúriwawa, Yuremawa and Betowa. They participated in a weeklong workshop with the elders, who narrated and chatted about events that occurred at Wakaipani just after the clans have emerged from the mythical aquatic journey. Students also received training in audio, video and photographic documentation, as well as in techniques of interviewing, ethnographic annotations and transcription.
Students were able to “feel” the Wakaini place to the fullest. They cleaned the lichens and grass from all petroglyphs; prepared fish and game locally caught; heard the long story about how the Kotirias and the Kubeos met at Wakaipani, how the territory was passed from the Kotirias to the Kubeos, and how the Sun demiurge was finally defeated by the Kubeos. Cameras, voice recordings and notebooks in the hand of the students documented everything, which resulted in a “home-made” documentary film about their experience.
More important than concrete results, the Wakaipani project has proven as a fruitful process of learning and dissemination of ideas and practices by all participants. However it only happened once. Lack of funding and lack of initiative from school members for conducting similar graduation projects without direct participation of outside researchers prevented it from perpetuation. If such a project is disconnected from subsequent collective actions, it will become just good memories in the minds and hearts of those 30 people who were part of it, but nothing more lasting.
It did, however, spread valuable seeds. One of them is a new momentum in Kubeo schools, supported by recent educational policies more open to indigenous way of life, where traditional knowledge is being more explicitly demanded in the curriculum. Some interesting ideas being discussed include hiring elders as regular instructors in the schools, locally produced pedagogical materials, and making graduation projects similar to the one in Wakaipani as a regular activity in the school calendar.
Another important consequence of this project was a subsequent project on territory and environmental research, whose general goal is to create local knowledge of the territory and its sustainable use for the future. This ongoing project is funded by the Ministry of the Environment in Brazil, and is conducted by the Kotirias and the Kubeos, engaging fifteen villages and ten local researchers, plus an interdisciplinary research team composed by a linguist (me), a biologist (Igor Richwin) and three anthropologists (Pedro Rocha, Diego Rosa and João Pimenta da Veiga). The project expands the focus from sacred landscapes in order to cover knowledge and management of the space regarding economical and technical use of the territory, history and demographic information of the villages, traditional knowledge about the environment and ongoing transformations, as well as the mythological configuration of the landscape. It also raises several issues about the current life in each village and the region as a whole, demanding collective discussions and further organization of local society.
The project lasted for 2 years and used a varied methodology, such as workshops, community discussions, mental maps and GIS, census, a log about local daily practices completed by local researchers, and documentation of traditional texts. As a result, we are currently writing a trilingual book (in Portuguese, Kotiria and Kubeo) that will cover chapters including geographical and environmental units, local cartography, sacred landscapes, demographic and sociolinguistic diagnosis of the communities, etc.
A conclusion of an ongoing work
After eight years working with the Kubeos, we feel that this is the moment to start something that could render more lasting results. Probably this will be true in ten years from now. Life never stops and the struggle of indigenous people is getting tougher every day.
Several challenges lie ahead of us. The most important from a language conservational perspective is keep the use of the Kubeo language vibrant in every way, in the digital world, in small talks and jokes, in rituals and in profanity, in writing and speaking, in thinking about the world and dialoguing with all kinds of social groups the Kubeo are open to.
Grants and thematic projects are still the best strategy for raising language awareness and reinforcing language use in threatened domains. A sociolinguistic survey followed by language planning is likely one of the next projects we will develop. In the meantime, I will go back to listening to Roque’s story about the creation of humankind by the Yúri god, the story that this note opened:
– ‘Hipanaka põewamu maha arehame. Mahãrẽ mahẽ ñekũ Yúri batekemawɨ̃ arehame’.
“We are from the Hipana rapids”, “For us, Yúri is our grandfather”, grampa said.
– ‘Yúri buçibɨre kɨwatekemawɨ̃ arehame. Buçibɨre kɨwarĩ, mahãrẽ mahẽ põe eta kobede buçibɨre nurĩ hapukemawɨ̃’.
“Yúri had a certain cigar”, he said. “With his cigar, he was blowing smoke into the hole from where people were created (born)”.
 This is what I could learn working with the Kubeos and seems to be a valid conception for several other sociolinguistic situations. Besides the Kubeos, I would like to give the right credit the institutions which supported my research on language conservation: the University of Brasilia where my colleague Luís Cayón and I are running a comparative project on the languages and groups of the Northwest Amazon; the University of Utah and the University of Hawa’i, where I finished my PhD; the University of California in Santa Barbara where I was a post-doc fellow; and Unesco and Iphan (Instituto do Patrimônio Histórico e Artístico Nacional) where I worked as a consultant for language policy issues in Brazil.
Goucher College, Baltimore, United States
“Does speaking Catalan allow children whose physical appearance differs from that of other Catalans to be accepted as Catalan? Through what processes can they become Catalan? In which situations is their Catalan-ness questioned, and in which might they themselves choose not to be Catalan?” I sought to answer these questions in an anthropological research project that I carried out in the Barcelona area from 2011 to 2015. In the project I spent time with two sets of people who are negotiating access to Catalan-ness: immigrant families and transnationally adopted children. Children from both groups in theory have access to the Catalan language, either through the school or through both the school and the home. Do both sets of children have equal access to “counting” as Catalan?
This research project grew organically out of my previous research project. In that body of work, I try to understand what it means for Catalan to have become a public language again after its exclusion from the public realm during the Franco dictatorship. I argue that while in many ways, Catalan is now seen as a neutral public language available for all to use, many speakers still view it as a language with strong ethnonational ties that keep it from acting as the taken-for-granted language of public life.
My interest in adoption began when participants in my first study as well as other friends and acquaintances in Catalonia began to adopt children from abroad. I realized that I was witnessing a major social phenomenon, one that would permit me to continue to ponder the Catalan language. If Catalan is a public language and Catalan-ness is an identity available to all, adoptees should have the same opportunity to “become Catalan” as children born to Catalan families. The fact that the boom in international adoption coincided with the boom in immigration—often from the same countries—allowed me to design a comparative study that would tease apart place of origin, physical appearance, and home language and culture.
Kids imagining themselves at age 30
From summer 2011 to spring 2015, I used a range of anthropological techniques for collecting data, including spending time with participants informally, observing them, asking questions and conducting formal interviews and focus groups. Here I will describe a technique that I used to compare the experiences of adopted and immigrant children. I wanted to know about young people’s experience of Catalan-ness, but this is not a question one can easily ask directly, especially of children. Instead, I devised a focus group activity in which participants drew a response to a series of questions and then explained their drawing to their peers. This approach gave children the opportunity to express themselves in two different modes, providing a richer set of data and also accounting for the needs of children who might be more comfortable in one mode than the other. For logistical reasons, for the adopted children I conducted four small focus groups of three children each. For the children from immigrant families, I conducted one larger focus group with eight children. The participants ranged in age from 9 to 16.
I first carried out the activity with adopted children. The children were all from upper-middle class families from a Catalan-speaking neighborhood of a city in the Barcelona metropolitan area and they lived their lives in Catalan. I brought colored pencils, markers and blank paper to the sessions. I invited the children to draw a picture that would answer the following questions, “When you are 30 years old…What will you be like? Where will you work? Where will you live? With whom will you live? Anything else?” I let the children draw for 15 or 20 minutes, emphasizing that artistic skills were not important. Children drew themselves in professions such as SWAT team member, banker, hotel manager, computer programmer, nuclear engineer and musician, and many drew themselves large detached single-family homes. Then I asked the children to interview each other about their imagined life stories and how they had come to this point in their lives (the imagined age 30).
In setting up the activity, I did not mention adoption, physical difference, the Catalan language, or Catalan-ness; I wanted to see if these things would come up on their own. They did not. Not a single child mentioned his or her own adoption as an important life event (or in fact, at all). The adopted children participating in this activity were of Chinese and Moroccan origin. People of Moroccan origin and people of Catalan origin are not necessarily distinguishable by their physical appearance, but people of Chinese origin obviously are. Still, nothing in the drawings of children adopted from China marked a phenotypic difference. For example, none of them depicted themselves with almond-shaped eyes and one child drew decidedly round eyes (see example 1). Relatedly, these children took the Catalan language and their Catalan-ness for granted. Catalan is the only language that they used for the activity and the fact that they had begun life as something other than Catalans never surfaced. Of course this is unsurprising, since they had all been adopted at a young age. Only when I specifically brought up the issue of adoption or physical difference did the children mention limits on their ability to receive social recognition as Catalans—for example a child of Moroccan origin with darker skin and curlier hair than is common in Catalonia reported being called the racial epithet “Moor” by classmates.
When carrying out the activity with the children of immigrant families, I modified the technique slightly to account for the fact that I didn’t know these children as well as the adopted kids and I needed information about their current lives. I had them divide their paper down the middle. On the left they drew themselves now and on the right at age 30. The participants came from working and lower-middle class families from Morocco and Pakistan. Some of the children had been born in Barcelona, while others had immigrated.
As with the adoptees, these participants did not mark themselves as different in their drawings, with the exception of a teenage girl who drew herself wearing a headscarf (see example 2). Their aspirations for themselves at age 30 were also quite similar; professions included included FBI/Guardia Civil, marine biologist, social worker and banker—the children did not see themselves as emulating their parents’ roles as grocery owners, taxi drivers, cleaners and housewives. Catalan was not taken for granted among these young people. Their drawings and speech showed a range of uses, with some of the kids using almost exclusively Castilian, one using exclusively in Catalan (because he had arrived two years previously and had not yet learned Castilian), and some speaking both languages comfortably.
At the end of the session, I asked about advantages and disadvantages of having parents from elsewhere. Most kids pointed to advantages, such as getting to travel and know other cultures. The only disadvantage was given by a 10-year-old girl who complained that her mother asked her to do her Castilian homework for her! When asked, the kids reported instances of racism—from being called “Moor” to being told to “go back to your country.” When asked if he felt Catalan, a 14-year-boy born in Morocco who immigrated to Spain at age five said he felt Moroccan but not Spanish or Catalan. A girl of Moroccan origin born in Catalonia said she felt Catalan and a little bit Moroccan, but not Spanish. Other kids reported feeling all three. And a teenage girl who was born in Pakistan and moved only recently to Catalonia Pakistani and not Catalan, but then added, “una mica sí perquè sé parlar el català.”
In fact, when I asked explicitly, “Què vol dir ser català?,” the teenage daughter of a Moroccan mother and a Spanish father responded, “Parlar català.” When I asked if anyone had helped them to feel Catalan, the ten-year-old Moroccan girl responded, “Sí, a l’ escola ensenyant-nos a escriure el català.” These kids clearly see becoming Catalan as a process and identify access to the Catalan language as key. These data also point to the apparent success of the public school system: the kids seem to identify it as an institution that facilitates rather than impedes their ability to belong. Also, their aspiration to middle-class professions indicates they believe (correctly or incorrectly?) that they have a chance at upward mobility. The adopted kids, on the other hand, are not “becoming Catalan.” They take the Catalan language and their Catalan-ness for granted, although they do experience instances of racism and privately some of their parents shared their worries about what will happen to their children when they leave the protection of their schools and neighborhoods and engage with the world of strangers.
What I have described here are early findings and observations. As I undertake a more detailed analysis, it will be important to pay attention to nuances related to gender, country of origin, social class and locality. My hope is that this analysis will help social scientists think about the relationship between language, difference and belonging in Catalonia and beyond.
 Of these children, three were non-adopted friends or siblings of the adoptees. The present analysis focuses on the responses of the nine adoptees.
 This research was supported by summer funding and a research leave from Goucher College, as well as a grant from the Reed Foundation’s Ruth Landes Memorial Research Fund.
Joan Miralles i Monserrat
Universitat de les Illes Balears
Working with oral history is both rewarding and enjoyable, as it gives knowledge, information and good vibes. I started doing interviews in 1969 – AD, of course – with people who would now be a century and a half old. The oldest person, who was from Llubí, was 103 and she was from the tribe of the wife of Gabriel Janer Manila, the writer. This tribe thing is absolutely true and correct. We’ll be judged by tribes, already we often are. My colleague at the Institut d’Estudis Catalans and friend, Joan Argenter, asked me for an article on something connected with my work on oral history or on popular culture. Straightaway I thought it might be good for me, and quite fun, to share some of the experiences that I’ve rummaged around for in the depths of my memory for this piece. They are anecdotes, in fact, about people who are often illiterate but frequently incredibly powerful, and it seems to me that their experiences, what they’ve lived through, could be turned into a fantastic life lesson. Such people would never have read Sartre or Camus, not to mention Marx or Mao’s Little Red Book (and what’s more they couldn’t care less), because their culture has been adjusted to suit their needs, like a skin-tight stocking.
Once, in Sant Joan de Sineu, I was trying to get to interview an old priest, the former parish vicar. It was a baking hot summer day in the early 1970s. I hadn’t learnt to drive a car back then, so my youthful body had to lug around the wonderful eight-kilo Grundig TK 14 tape recorder, which I’d bought on the never-never for 100 pesetas a month. The priest lived on the outskirts of town. It was harvest time. I didn’t know exactly where he lived. Suddenly, on the edge of the town, I could just make out a long cart coming towards me, loaded with bundles, all spilling over, like in a Botero sculpture. The cart slowly trundled towards me. Astride the driver’s seat was an anthropological Mallorcan specimen, chubby, hatted, ruddy-skinned, pensively smoking his pipe, sitting on his throne. A few metres before coming alongside me I gave him a friendly greeting: “Good day to you, sir!”. From the entrails of this example of ‘pithecanthropus maioricensis’ came a primeval, cosmic, full-on “oooou!”. The bundles made the cart swing alarmingly. “Good day, what’s up?” “Would you be able to tell me where Father Bauzà, the old vicar, lives?” “I’ll tell you. You follow the road straight on, then you take a left turn, you go downhill and you cross a little bridge. Afterwards, when you get to a barrier, go left, you’ll see a path, don’t take it, go straight on, to the right, and after fifty paces, more or less – I’m not being exact here – you’ll find the house!” “Thanks very much, sir!” I followed his directions as best I could and after walking maybe two hundred metres I could hear the sound of animals, things and people. Turning round, I caught a glimpse of the cart coming straight for me at high speed, like a war chariot, with the driver standing on top, eyes glittering, face aflame and sweating. The road was narrow and it wasn’t going to be easy to shake this thing off. Defenceless, I saw that life’s too short, with all the things I still had left to do. I felt like Verdaguer’s worm. I was asking myself what on earth I could have said to that little man to provoke such a reaction. Suddenly, when the war chariot was four paces away from me, I could see Ben Hur standing up with the reins in his hand yelling “oooooou!”, and once again I could see how flexible that war weapon was, as it swung back and forth but with its parts rigid. It turned out that it wasn’t a war cry and the man, by using these words, couldn’t have been wiser, kinder and more generous: “I’m so sorry, sir. I got it wrong. I told you to go left and you have to go right!” Dear reader, I was stunned, shell-shocked and rooted to the spot. As God is my witness, if that man had been Marilyn Monroe I’d have given him a kiss full on the lips.
One of the most interesting families or clans in my village is that of Can Rei. One of the members of this family married a girl from Montuïri who I was able to meet and interview. The couple got married by proxy because the man was in Mendoza working as a doctor and she was in Mallorca. When the bride went to Argentina to join her husband, she met the poet Josep Carner on board the ship and apparently she made a huge impression on him. Carner dedicated a piece to her, “Casadeta de Montuïri” (little bride from Montuïri), which is a good example of his humour. Later on, the doctor ended up going funny in the head and became a recluse in his home town. I had the opportunity to talk with the little bride and also with a brother of the doctor who ended up crazy. The experience shows you, I think, the flexible nature of memory and how memories from our childhood and our youth stick in our subconscious, unlike other memories formed closer to the present. This man, Joan Mateu ‘Rei’, told me various stories from his childhood, one of which was that his father had given him a bicycle when he was a child. He told me this apparently trivial anecdote in the early 1970s, when he was in his nineties, so it must date back to the late 19th century. Anyway, after two days his son, who worked in the Town Hall, turned up at my house and said: “Joan, you have to come to my house urgently and place the tape in front of my father!” “What, just like that, what’s happened?” “Nothing, but he hasn’t slept for two days because he says he told you his father gave him a bicycle when he was a child and he’s worried that his brother, who’s still alive, is going to get jealous.” (!)
This story is a reminder of the scope of historic memory. I’ll tell you another. Around thirty years ago the residents of our block of houses were summoned to a meeting at Montuïri Town Hall so they could tell us about the project for a road extension that would run through the middle of our properties. There were about a dozen of us altogether. At some point in the meeting, Joan Vermell, already an old man, launched an impassioned defence of the advantages of opening up the road. Suddenly, the chap next to me, Moreno, leapt up from his chair, strode up to Vermell and blurted out: “Look here Vermell, now you’re telling us it’s a really great idea to have this road coming through! You weren’t saying that in 1932, in the Republic, when we met right here. This is no time to change sides!”
Each interview is an unknown and we can always learn and have fun. I remember very well an interview in a farmhouse in Petra, on the outskirts of town. The old, old-fashioned house was inhabited by an elderly couple who had that typical wisdom for practical stuff coupled with a pretty sceptical view of the human condition. After the interview they showed me round the house, disparaging the old and singing the praises of modern life. At some point, they led me down a dark passageway: “And now we’ll show you something we think you’ll like”. As the old man said this, he stopped, pulled a large key from the depths of his trousers and opened the door… “Look, sir, this is called a bathroom. We had it done for our granddaughter when she got married two years ago. We’ve never needed it, thank God!” I don’t need to tell you that the bathroom fittings still had the polythene from the factory on them.
Another time, in Porreres, a tall, lanky old man with a hooked nose, a reincarnation of Quevedo’s Dómine Cabra, showed me the formula for curing warts and gave me the list of the town’s Falange members during the Republic, plus a lengthy account of the Republican disembarkation on the eastern shores of Mallorca by Captain Bayo and his troops in 1936. It appeared that this guy had had both the time and the inclination to get married three times, and in fact he had enthroned all three wives, like a Holy Trinity, over the sewing machine. He went on to introduce them to me post mortem: “Look, sir, this is Maria, a good woman, 130 kilos. This other one was called Antònia. She was good too… She weighed 120 kilos at her heaviest. And this other one, the last one, Aina, she was a bit skinny but she still made 100 kilos.”
For many interviewees, the tape recorder was a completely unknown tool, but some of the old people had clearly heard about these machines that recorded your voice. In Vilafranca de Bonany I interviewed a woman who was reputed to be a witch. I remember that it was the time of year when almonds were picked and cracked open. On summer evenings in the streets of Mallorcan villages it was normal to hear the sound of hammers striking stone as people cracked almonds open and extracted the nuts. The interview meandered through increasingly tricky but fascinating terrain, and we soon got onto taboo topics, like the Spanish Civil War, smuggling, intimate hygiene, witchcraft and the evil eye. At one point, the tape ran out and the recorder I was using at the time gave a rather loud “click!” Then the woman realised that I had been recording her voice. She hadn’t realised the purpose of the machine up to that point and she began to complain, then started to issue threats: “And what was that noise. Isn’t that one of those machines that takes your voice. Watch out, lad, I’m not joking and it’ll be the worse for you, you’ll pay for this!” I quickly came up with something for maximum dramatic effect, personally I think it was a master-stroke. On hearing these words, I quickly grabbed the hammer the old woman was clutching in her right hand, pulled out the used tape, threw it in the hippy basket on the stone block and took out a clean tape from the same basket. Wearing a furious and tragic expression, I then proceeded to hammer the clean tape to pieces on the stone block. It only lasted a few seconds and before the crone realised what was happening the tape was in bits. After my performance, her attitude changed completely: “Oh, oh, oh, now what have you done, lad? That’ll have cost you a lot. These things must be very expensive, you know. Look at it, good heavens and now what? Look, look…!”. So I now went on the attack: “Now you’re saying that, good woman, after you scolded me unfairly. I wouldn’t have misused what you told me, don’t worry…”
Other times, the experience involves new sensations. Anyone working with oral history needs to be prepared to put up with anything. For example, the place and the conditions in which the interview takes place. I think things are a bit better nowadays, but in those days it was quite common to find that the tanks where all human and animal excrement ended up would be located in the same courtyard where people stayed. I remember an interview I did with a poet and musician right alongside the privy or toilet and the resulting effluent flow. To make matters worse, the guy was reciting ditties about the healthy outdoor life. The sanitary conditions our old folk were living in were sometimes woeful too. Whenever I talk about this, I always remember the experience I had once on the outskirts of town with an elderly man who lived alone with his mother, aged nearly a hundred, a fountain of wisdom and good humour, and of patience too. She had a hole in her nose from a tumour and you could see the raw flesh through it, and the wound was always being sucked by a bluebottle. Every so often the poor woman raised her hand patiently and waved the beast away, but it was futile. After a moment the insect would be back making her life a misery. Back then, I used to wear Kissinger-style black rimmed plastic spectacles, and I had to invent something so I wouldn’t have to see the damned thing. The invention was simply to position my glasses so I couldn’t see the pierced nose and the invasive fly. Another experience: In Algaida I was interviewing the oldest woman in the town. It was extremely interesting. It lasted three and a half hours. My bladder was demanding to be emptied. It was no use. Whenever I tried to get up, the old woman would grab my arm with a strength I had no idea she could muster and keep me firmly at her side.
I think I’ve said enough for now.
In Montuïri, on 23 August, eve of the festival of St. Bartholomew, surrounded by the aroma of lavender and waiting for the medieval ‘cossiers’ dance to start.
Lluís Mallart i Guimerà
Centre for Ethnology and Comparative Sociology (CNRS – Paris X)
The Spokesman of the Evuzok (Cameroon) and other Masters of the Spoken Word
Etundi Etundi Ambroise had been chosen his country’s ‘zomolo’ or spokesman. He was called e ‘dzomdzomo dzal’, the equivalent of «the nation’s most important figure». He presided over all the clan’s daytime rituals, with Akoa Ignace and Atangana Dominik as his assistants. He opened up many doors for us, teaching us many things at a time when his authority and prestige were acknowledged by all. He gave us his blessing on several occasions. In the midst of a conversation at his home about certain plants’ social and symbolic connotations, he moved us by suddenly interrupting the conversation and starting to sing, improvising lyrics in which he thanked us for our visit. Indeed, many were the occasions on which I heard him improvise a song in the middle of a speech, at rituals to reconcile family members or clans, or at farewells and funerals. He was a discrete figure who lived in simple style in a mud house in a clearing by the Kpwa.
I shall only recall him here in his capacity as a superb speaker, although, through him, I would also like to remember all the Evuzok who so impressed me with their gift of speech, particularly when talking in public. I refer here to men and women. Obviously some were better than others, but generally the Evuzok had a command of the spoken word far greater than ours, here in the Western world. They knew how to improvise without stammering or getting nervous. They knew how to be coherent, to follow the thread of conversation or discourse, and to put forward arguments when proof was needed. And, if necessary, in their demonstrations, they would recall the words of their ancestors, quoting sayings or proverbs. In important speeches, the speakers would resort to established forms of speech in which a kind of dialogue was forged between the speaker and his or her audience. The latter would respond in unison by giving short or onomatopoeic replies, which I found spectacular. To cite an example:
On track 15 of the CD ‘Sóc fill dels Evuzok’ (‘I am a Child of the Evuzok’), I give another example. We are in Aseng-Bede. It might rain (or the recording come out badly). We are at a farewell gathering. The following day, I am going to Europe. Etundi Etundi Ambroise begins to speak, displaying all his oratory expertise, this time in a somewhat entertaining way. He is a true showman. I had heard him many times at important rituals – in the midst of a gathering, generally badly dressed, perhaps to insinuate that he did not profit financially from the position that he held (I think that was the reason), allowing one group and then another to take the floor, picking up the thread of the discussion or discourse, inviting everyone to join him in agreeing or disagreeing, defying criticism, invoking ancestors, bestowing a blessing with his saliva, anointing a body with the blood of sacrificial goats etc. He was not the only one. Other Evuzok were skilful at doing the same, men and women. Although I have seen it less frequently among the women, it is also true of them and indeed everyone. Boys and girls are taught and encouraged to speak in public on evenings when stories and folktales are told. On such occasions, it might be the women who speak more and it is perhaps then that riddles come to the fore, when the children learn the language of metonyms and metaphors.
Having said that, the true maestros of the spoken word are the troubadours of the ‘mvet’ harp-zither, like the ‘griots’ of other parts of Africa, western Africa. This must be why on one of my returns to Europe, I spent the whole time carrying a ‘mvet’ round with me, like the bearer of a much valued gift. It had been presented to me by Ekundu David, a man from Zok. He was not a troubadour but a craftsman. Thank you Ekundu David, although the people that I would like to thank, if possible, are Owona Apollinaire, Ngul Zamba and Amugu Pancrace, troubadours who specialize in playing the ‘mvet’. It was them that I was no doubt thinking about when in ‘Sóc fill dels Evuzok’ (‘I am a Child of the Evuzok’) I wrote:
«The epic deeds of the genre known as the mvet were sung in exceptional style by poets of a kind relatively comparable to our troubadours.
Such evenings’ aesthetic enjoyment did not necessarily reside in being able to understand the sung or recited texts. On most occasions, I only understood less than half. I found the literary language, particularly when sung, very hard to catch. I was fortunate to have a tape recorder and time afterwards to listen, transcribe and translate them. The aesthetic enjoyment was derived from the atmosphere that was created. Mvet evenings were a genuine delight. In a clearing in the open air, under a well-lit moonlight sky, the audience formed a circle around a man seated on a chair, the troubadour, dressed in a grass skirt, with a bare chest and bunch of feathers on his head. His arms and legs were hung with bells and he held a harp-zither in his hands. A mvet troubadour’s instrument is made of a slightly curved raffia palm branch with four strings made from its fibrous middle and half gourds, forming a sound box, fixed to the outside of the other side of the branch.
On such evenings, the atmosphere was filled with a certain exoticism. Everything was foreign, different, strange and incomprehensible to me: the rhythm; what were almost certainly complex chords from a series of seemingly very simple musical instruments; long semitonal tales that recounted the epic deeds of Akom Mba fighting against imaginary beings and peoples; melodies sung by the troubadour and taken up by the audience to create an exultant dialogue; the poet’s gesticulations; the expressive acoustics of his onomatopoeias, the audience’s ingenuity when it came to the tale’s heroes, the encouragement, the lamentations inserted into the story to recall the unfortunate life of the troubadour, initiated in the art of singing and playing the mvest. Books on anthropology say little of the fascination that spectacles like this can arouse. When we talk of Others, we forbid ourselves from expressing anything emotional, subjective or impression related as if the Other should only be regarded from a rational scientific perspective and as if, at no time, should we reveal our feelings or emotions ».
But these two things are not mutually exclusive.
During that same period, in another corner of the Equatorial jungle, in Gabon, close to the border between Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea, a ‘mvet’ troubadour, Zwè Nguéma, sang an epic ‘mvet’ song that lasted one whole night long, recorded, transcribed and translated into French for the ‘Classiques africains’ . I set out to study a specific theme of this ‘mvet’: the interludes and troubadour’s lamentations . In this case, they allude to another epic: that of the troubadour, who compares his life – the life of a ‘mvet’ poet – to a struggle with the world of the spirits-of-the-dead from which he gets his inspiration.
I continue my research into this ‘mvet’. I have written a summary in Catalan, some fragments of which are shown below in English :
“The people of the Engong or the Immortals are made up of thirteen big settlements. The troubadour mentions them one by one, indicating their location as you travel from the border that separates this group of people from the group known as the Mortals. Likewise, he mentions the leading figure for whom each group is known .
All the men of the Engong, without exception, leave their settlements to gather at the meeting point. The women leave their fields, watching as their warriors respond to the summons in all their magnificence, as if they were birds flying across the valleys, climbing the jagged high mountains, armed with spears that might touch the endless skies.
The people know the war drum only sounds with good reason. Some ask what has happened. Others comment that a brainless mortal has dared to defy Angone Endong Oyono and plans to kill him. The more levelheaded troubadour reminds them that «a tree is never disbarked on just one side», since if, on the one side, there are the Immortals, on the other the Mortals can be found.
Then, the troubadour invites them to contemplate that gathering of forces, which he describes in grandiose in-depth style.
The men, in their warrior gear, gather to form a single body. Along the way, the members of one clan or settlement meet up with those of another in response to the war drum. Some arrive like lightning or else they fill the esplanade like thundering drops of rain. The warriors proudly display their tattoos on their chests, backs, arms and legs. The so-called “Terrible Ones” arrive, the most powerful leaders, giving the impression of beings from another world. The people gaze at them, commenting on and approving of them, discussing things among one another as more warriors keep arriving.
The troubadour then begins a long soliloquy. The audience follows it, entering into dialogue with him. There is an exchange of sentiments. The wooden drums sound. The troubadour says that singing a mvet is like dying.
People continue to arrive. Medang arrives, making a spectacle of separating the clans when they argue. The voice of Mfule Engbang, a member of one of the three big families that make up the Engong, can be heard from the big river that acts as a frontier between the Immortals’ country and that of the Mortals. The troubadour describes this important figure. His long body swings from one side to another; his neck moves like a water snake; the pupils of his eyes look like those of a curved yellow-beaked hornbill. He is the strong man of his village, able to carry out work in a large piece of jungle all on his own. He arrives, passes in front of everyone and stops, he is here.
Now it is the turn of Otuang Mba, another leading figure from the country of the Immortals. He is an old man with a long white beard. He is bedecked with necklaces made of leopard’s teeth round his neck, forehead and ears. When he moves his head to one side or the other, the teeth jangle …kpazang, kpazang...
Suddenly the startled hens begin to cluck behind the houses. The lambs flee. The hairs on Otuang’s chest stand up. The earth trembles. A big din can be heard and the people jump. The elephant-contraption sounds loudly. The goats take fright. It is Angone Endong, known as «The iron bellows that smelt the iron » and «The odzam mammal from the rainy season that has thousands of lairs». He arrives with his elephant-contraption. Everyone draws near to see the great war machine arrive. The warriors form in three rows, raising their swords and piston-driven guns. Angone Endong says all of them must fear him, whether they are relatives on his mother or father’s side. And to ensure this, he lunges at them with his contraption. They dodge him and ring a magic bell that raises a big dust cloud. But the elephant-contraption comes at them once again. Then Elang Suga calls Mone Ebo and, with a tremendous leap, the latter lands in front of the elephant-contraption. He takes out his long, powerful, flexible sword and, as if it were a whip, he encircles and immobilizes it. Angone Endong gets out of the machine. «He is one of our leaders», exclaim the Endong people and silence falls.
Akoma Mba, the head of all the Immortals, stirs in his locally made bed like a wild beast. He gets up. He opens the door and gazes at all those people. Akoma Mba is bald with huge ears. He regards the throng of people and instructs them to wake up Engbang Ondo, the person responsible for keeping an eye on everything that happens in Engong, and to get him out of his house.
Everyone wants to see him come out of his house. His wife takes it as a joke, Akoma Mba insists. Then Akoma Mba’s order is transmitted from mouth to mouth until it reaches Nseng Ondo, a girl of outstanding beauty, with a long face, full cheeks and slender neck. «Women are beautiful in many ways», says the troubadour. In Nseng Ondo’s case, her skin is shiny like palm oil or the fruit of the adzab tree and of a colour like the branches of the raffia palm. She is a woman whose cheeks grow round when she smiles, and whose smile and words become one and the same when she talks. Her calves are big, as are her thighs. She has round knees like a fist, a navel that sticks out of her belly. She is a little shy and seems to be afraid of the men. She shines like the sun. She is more beautiful than anyone else and what makes her more beautiful than the other women is the luminous crevice that separates her right breast from her left one: a clear line like the vein of a banana leaf. Her hair shines so much that you might think she polishes her body with the rough leaves of a fig tree.
They ask her to wake up Engbang Ondo and to tell him that Akoma Mba has summoned him. She goes into his room. She pulls his legs, she touches his thighs, she shakes him but Engbang Ondo does not react. She pulls his legs again; she touches his thighs again, she takes him by the waist and shakes him again, saying: «I don’t like you when you are smug or play about with me. I know you are awake and just pretending to be asleep…» And she adds: «Some say you are cruel, bad, brave, astute and a liar; others say no one is better than you. I, on the other hand, find you feeble. How can you spend all day sleeping? Can’t you hear that Akoma Mba has summoned you to transmit great news to our country, that the wooden drums are sounding all around and that all the men are here?» Engbang Ondo takes a big leap and, all at once, he can be seen standing on the roof of Akoma Mba’s house, dressed in his warrior’s clothes with a bag full of magical objects under his arms. The men of the Engong watch open mouthed, without saying a word. He says: «Why did you call me?»
At this point, the troubadour embarks on a long soliloquy. The audience follows him and enters into dialogue with him. They exchange sentiments. The wooden drums sound. The troubadour recalls the more serious moments of his initiation and how he planned to reject the precious art of singing mvets….”
With this extract of this ‘mvet’ song that I am studying, I would like to pay tribute to these maestros of the spoken word, who are capable of spending a whole night singing and reciting the marvellous adventures of their heroes and entertaining their audiences .
1. Published by La Campana (2004, 3rd edition).
2. A ‘mvet’ by Zwè Nguéma. ‘Chant épique fang recueille par Herbert Pepper réédité par Paul et Paule de Wolf (Armand Colin, 1972)’.
3. “Les interludes du mvet de Zwè Nguéma” in ‘Journal des Africanistes’, 79-1, p. 209-240.
4. A summary of the initial study, published electronically by URV Press (Servei de Publicacions de la Universidad Rovira i Virgili): ‘Un cant epic africà. Una crítica al poder absolut’ (2014).
5. The fragments written in normal print have been summarized, whereas those in italics have been translated more literally.
6. Oral archives. Lluis Mallart Guimerà Collection, Bibliothèque Enric de Dampierre, Université Paris X (Nanterre). http://www.mae.u-paris10.fr/index.html: CD 2.3.1. – 2.3.7. (troubadours: Owona, Amugu, Bikoe, Baana and Ngal Zamba).