February 29, 2004

Enough said

Today's NYT magazine has very, very strange article by Jack Hitt about language death, language preservation and attempts at language revival in Patagonia.

The oddest thing about this article is how completely uninterested the author seems to be in Qawasqar, the language whose death he is -- well, sort of languidly observing, more than reporting on. In the whole 4700-word article, the only concrete example of the language is presented in this passage:

In time, I got to hear some actual Kawesqar spoken, and it sounded a lot like Hollywood's generic Apache, but with a few unique and impossible sounds. I learned to say ''Æs ktæl sa Jack, akuókat cáuks ktæl?'' (''My name is Jack, what's yours?'') That second word, ktæl, means ''name'' and is (sort of) pronounced ka-tull. It happens entirely in the back of the mouth, in a really challenging way.

There is no other vocabulary discussed, nothing else about the sound inventory or syllable structure, nothing about the morphology or syntax except for a brief and completely illogical fairy-tale -- without any original-language examples -- about how "the Kawesqar's nomadic past" made the future tense rare, since "given the contingency of moving constantly by canoe, it was all but unnecessary", whereas they have several past tenses, so that "you can mean a few seconds ago, a few days ago, a time so long ago that you were not the original observer ... and, finally, a mythological past". Speaking for myself, if I were compelled to move constantly around by canoe along the coast of Patagonia, I suspect I'd be more interested in discussing where to find our next limpet, or whether we could make it around the point before the storm hit, than in making fine distinctions about more or less remote limpets and sleet-storms past. Hitt attributes this little just-so story to (unnamed) "general linguists", and he seems to accept the explanation while remaining unconvinced that it matters enough to motivate him to figure out how to express the various "tenses".

We seem to be meant to infer that really, there is nothing interesting about this language. At least it's clear that the writer has no real interest in it. Beyond these few fragments of careless linguistic description, we get several paragraphs about the author's tobacco consumption habits, sprinkled in among desultory descriptions of old people not speaking Kawesqar, odd quotations (or misquotations) from various linguists, fragmentary historical references, and musings about what languages might be good for, anyhow. Oh, and at the end, as one more cigarette is lit, we do learn that the word for match is "fire", borrowed from English.

The author's lack of curiosity is not limited to languages. Here's one of his historical asides:

When Charles Darwin first encountered the Kawesqar and the Yaghans, years before he wrote ''The Origin of Species,'' he is said to have realized that man was just another animal cunningly adapting to local environmental conditions. But that contact and the centuries to follow diminished the Kawesqar, in the 20th century, to a few dozen individuals.

What's this "he is said to have realized"? Darwin wrote about Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego at length in chapter 9 and chapter 10 of The Voyage of the Beagle, as Hitt could have discovered in 30 seconds with Google.

Dawin doesn't describe any contact with indigenous peoples of the region he refers to as Patagonia (in chapter 9), but he did meet members of several groups of Tierra del Fuegans, and discusses his experiences, impressions and reflections at length in chapter 10. I think that this is the passage that Hitt's "he is said to have realized" is probably referring to:

Whilst beholding these savages, one asks, whence have they come? What could have tempted, or what change compelled a tribe of men, to leave the fine regions of the north, to travel down the Cordillera or backbone of America, to invent and build canoes, which are not used by the tribes of Chile, Peru, and Brazil, and then to enter on one of the most inhospitable countries within the limits of the globe? Although such reflections must at first seize on the mind, yet we may feel sure that they are partly erroneous. There is no reason to believe that the Fuegians decrease in number; therefore we must suppose that they enjoy a sufficient share of happiness, of whatever kind it may be, to render life worth having. Nature by making habit omnipotent, and its effects hereditary, has fitted the Fuegian to the climate and the productions of his miserable country.

This is one of many hints about selection and adaptation in Darwin's memoir of his voyage, which was indeed written and published quite a while before he wrote the Origin of Species.

Just before the passage quoted above, Darwin writes:

The different tribes have no government or chief; yet each is surrounded by other hostile tribes, speaking different dialects, and separated from each other only by a deserted border or neutral territory: the cause of their warfare appears to be the means of subsistence. Their country is a broken mass of wild rocks, lofty hills, and useless forests: and these are viewed through mists and endless storms. The habitable land is reduced to the stones on the beach; in search of food they are compelled unceasingly to wander from spot to spot, and so steep is the coast, that they can only move about in their wretched canoes. They cannot know the feeling of having a home, and still less that of domestic affection; for the husband is to the wife a brutal master to a laborious slave. Was a more horrid deed ever perpetrated, than that witnessed on the west coast by Byron, who saw a wretched mother pick up her bleeding dying infant-boy, whom her husband had mercilessly dashed on the stones for dropping a basket of sea-eggs! How little can the higher powers of the mind be brought into play: what is there for imagination to picture, for reason to compare, or judgment to decide upon? to knock a limpet from the rock does not require even cunning, that lowest power of the mind. Their skill in some respects may be compared to the instinct of animals; for it is not improved by experience: the canoe, their most ingenious work, poor as it is, has remained the same, as we know from Drake, for the last two hundred and fifty years.

Overall, Darwin was clearly shocked by what he saw and heard about the life and customs of the people of this region. Among other horror stories, he writes that

From the concurrent, but quite independent evidence of the boy taken by Mr. Low, and of Jemmy Button, it is certainly true, that when pressed in winter by hunger, they kill and devour their old women before they kill their dogs: the boy, being asked by Mr. Low why they did this, answered, "Doggies catch otters, old women no." This boy described the manner in which they are killed by being held over smoke and thus choked; he imitated their screams as a joke, and described the parts of their bodies which are considered best to eat. Horrid as such a death by the hands of their friends and relatives must be, the fears of the old women, when hunger begins to press, are more painful to think of; we are told that they then often run away into the mountains, but that they are pursued by the men and brought back to the slaughter-house at their own firesides!

Darwin's discussion of their phonology is similar in scope and content to Hitt's:

The language of these people, according to our notions, scarcely deserves to be called articulate. Captain Cook has compared it to a man clearing his throat, but certainly no European ever cleared his throat with so many hoarse, guttural, and clicking sounds.

Like Hitt, Darwin also provides just one phrase (from the language of one of the groups he encounters):

Young and old, men and children, never ceased repeating the word "yammerschooner," which means "give me." After pointing to almost every object, one after the other, even to the buttons on our coats, and saying their favourite word in as many intonations as possible, they would then use it in a neuter sense, and vacantly repeat "yammerschooner." After yammerschoonering for any article very eagerly, they would by a simple artifice point to their young women or little children, as much as to say, "If you will not give it me, surely you will to such as these."

The editorial practices of the NYT magazine are often puzzling, and rarely more than in this case. Why send someone to remotest Chile to observe language death, rather than to Maine or Arizona? Why send someone who apparently knows nothing about languages and has no interest in learning? And if you're going to send a linguistically-challenged observer to check up on people geographically and culturally similar to the hunter-gatherers who made such a big impression on Charles Darwin, why not suggest that if he's going to discuss Darwin's conclusions, perhaps he should read what Darwin wrote?

Jack Hitt is apparently an accomplished journalist, but in this case, I'm tempted to suggest that the NYT magazine should have saved themselves the air fare, and simply reprinted Darwin's chapter, which is now out of copyright.

Factual note: according to this map, Qawascar seems to be spoken on the west coast of Chile, at about latitude 50 S. Darwin give the latitude of Tierra del Fuego at 53 38' S. So there's clearly some physical distance between the speakers of Qawasqar and the people that Darwin describes (who are in any case somewhat diverse physically and culturally from east to west along the straits, according to his account). Darwin does indicate, however, that the climate and terrain are similar for several hundred miles north along the Chilean coast.

A more extensive, if fictional, account of life along that coast can be found in a novel by Patrick O'Brian, The Unknown Shore. It tells the story of the Wager, which in 1740 was separated from a Royal Navy squadron making a trip around the world, and was shipwrecked at latitude 48 on the Chilean coast. The weather, terrain and inhabitants are pictured much as Darwin described them on his visit a hundred years later. The main characters of O'Brian's novel -- midshipman Jack Byron and surgeon's mate Tobias Barrow -- spend a very hard hundred pages getting to Chiloe, mostly in the canoes of not especially friendly indigenes, and their journey gives a compelling fictional impression of how inhospitable the environment was, even some five degrees north of Tierra del Fuego and two degrees north of the island where Qawasqar is still hanging on.

[Update: Semantic Compositions discusses the same story, focusing on some aspects ignored in my comments, including a discussion (which SC aptly describes as "weaselly") of whether languages express a sort of "sense of place" (like wines express their terroir, though the analogy is not explicit); and what SC calls "an irritating morality play that the author tries to set up between a group of linguists who allegedly 'dismiss salvage efforts...as futile exercises' and linguists who 'will tell you that every language has its own unique theology and philosophy buried in its very sinews'."

As you can see, there's plenty in Hitt's article to irritate everyone.]

[Another, very different opinion: Patrick Belton at oxblog says that Hitt's piece "shows there can be good writing, even in the New York Times", and that "the magazine should be congratulated for the highly unusual and innovative step of bringing good writing to the profit-making press."

De gustibus non est disputandum, I guess. Perhaps what Belton liked about the piece was that it left out all the boring language bits in favor of the existential tobacco-consumption moments, one of which he quotes. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at February 29, 2004 07:26 PM