The Paradox of Language

Words and language open possibilities, but also limit them. When we use words in certain ways, we lay down the roots and details of how these words will shape the world, and how the ideas they influence will–and can–be used. When we choose one word over another, we offer more than a simple building block for a sentence. We offer a constellation, a worldview, a story, and action plan.”

Lyanda Lynn Haupt, Rooted, 2021

My relationship with Language has always been felt important and intense — thus likely to lead to all the emotional fluctuations and drama of a soap-opera. As a child, I was entranced by the ability of Language to create multiple realities: I swam with delight through the lively oceans of myth, fairy tale, metaphor, and poetry. I loved individual words as well as stories & was the kind of child who might spend a rainy afternoon happily curled up with a dictionary, fascinated by how one word led to another of similar or opposite meaning and then on again.

However, by high school I had begun to glimpse the demonic aspect of Language’s mutability. It was not only the lies of advertising, racism, and Cold War rhetoric that troubled me. By college, I found that that the academic world in which I was immersed encouraged a certain linguistic glibness as we learned to move facts around on various theoretical chessboards. I was appalled to discover that I could used the same myth to write an essay either “proving” or “disproving” Levy-Strauss’s theory of culture as built on binary opposites. As a college sophomore, I taped on my mirror a reminder: “Don’t believe something just because you can say it.”

At the same time, in my attempts at poetry, I became frustrated with the inherent limitations of English (or of any language). As Michel Foucault has said: “It is in vain that we say what we see; what we see never resides in what we say.”

Many cultures have a traditional belief in the efficacy of the spoken (or occasionally, written) word. The folklorist Barre Toelken worked closely with the Navajo storyteller Yellowman for many years — and I expect I’ll have more to say about that deep & fascinating relationship in future posts. One thing that Yellowman taught Toelken was that a spoken word in Navajo had the power to actually “create the reality in which we all live,” unlike English words which the Navajos considered to lack such creative power. Toelken took care to use the traditional stories properly but he was concerned about the future use of recordings he had made of Yellowman telling those stories–especially those of Coyote. When he asked Yellowman’s widow (his adoptive Navaho sister) for advice, she considered the matter:

“After a long silence, she said, ‘Someone could get hurt with those tapes: what if someone hears the stories at the wrong time of year, or what if someone says some of those words out loud in the wrong situation? They could be injured. You’d better send them to me. I will destroy them.'”

We must remember that Barre Toelken was an American academician, taught by his training that destruction of primary field data would “constitute a kind of academic sacrilege.” And yet, Toelken continues:

“On 30 January1997, I boxed up the 60-plus hours of original field recording tapes (and various copies used in classes and lectures) and sent them to her by registered mail.”

Barre Toelken,”The Yellowman Tapes, 1966-1997.” The Journal of American Folklore, Vol.III, No. 442 (Autumn 1998), pp.381-391.

[I do hope that some of you can track down Toelken’s full article — available at https://www.jstor.org — to read his full story & explanation.]

I’ve been puzzling over our current use of American English language [the only language about which I can speak from first-hand understanding] which remains a fundamental form-producing power of the Earth community at the same time as it may act as a wisp of smoke that distorts or masks that which it pretends to portray. Indeed, in the last couple of years, we Americans seem to have gone from a world of alternative stories to a world of “alternative facts.” Our language, with all its possibilities, feels animated by the Trickster spirit.

I am reminded of a piece I wrote at the conclusion of a week of quiet & writing with 10 other women in 2004. It includes obvious references to the political situation of that time:

"Language -- you Trickster, Traitor, Liar!

With corporate jingles and recycled rock, you steal our    children's souls and sell them --shrinkwrapped in plastic-- to the highest bidder.

With luscious words, you seduce the rich ones into want--Want this! Want that!-- and the poor ones into compliance with their own demise.

With pious platitudes, you lead us through the Red Sea and back into Pharaoh's hand.

With the cheap sequins of star-spangled babble, you drape from our sight the coffins, caskets, collateral damage-- 
even, or especially, the abundant breasts of Lady Justice at which we need, so desperately, to suckle.

The Haida people tell of Trickster Raven, the one seldom called by name.  When a whale swallowed him, Raven -- ever voracious -- simply gobbled the whale up from the inside out. (Jonah, take note!)  And when his brother-in-law Sea Lion grew fat and succulent, Raven gobbled him too from the inside out -- putting on the Sea Lion's skin in order to sleep with his own sister.  It was Raven who made himself into the chief's beloved grandson and, night by night, changed out of his innocent baby shape to steal the people's eyeballs. Three towns went blind before one old woman, wakeful in her corner, heard the popping of eyes roasting on the fire and woke the slumbering household.

May we be such women!

O, we are awake to your tricks, dear Language, but know as well -- for we are not without the wisdom of our years -- that few things are simple or singular.

We remember that it was Raven -- this same wandering Raven of no fixed address -- who fashioned women's sex out of chiton shells for our pleasure as well as his own.  Not bad!

We know it is Raven, too, who -- with all his mischief -- reveals the Hidden:  He brought out the Freshwater riches confined behind a screen in Beaver's house and liberated Light from Old Man Under Sea. And if it was only Raven's carelessness and the haste of his greed that spilt out lakes and rivers across the land, that loosed the Sun untethered in the sky -- never mind.  We eat the salmon; we laugh in the daylight.

Language -- Trickster, Lover, Liberator!  You are as bad and as funny and as full of possibility as Raven.  We have our eyes on you -- and they are still in our own heads and full of our own fire!

And still, I keep puzzling….

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