Caught part of a very interesting radio interview today on NPR’s Fresh Air. Two brothers, David and Anton Treuer, fighting to protect and preserve the Ojibwe language. It was clear from their discussion that this Native American tongue is rich in metaphoric, poetic and symbolic resources. The multiplicity of words for key actions exist along side of the knowledge of the roots of those words. The brothers talk about the path we can follow back to the roots without needing to go to other language sources. And they discuss the precision needed when talking about things like water, weather, and natural phenomenon. Hunting and gathering activities have their own special set of words and images. And new words can be formed easily, because the roots are known. Combinations make sense, built upon the past.
English was formed from many different sources, nations, combinations, and that is a strength as well as a weakness. We do not really live inside the past of our own language, the way the Ojibwe once could and are striving to once again. How much easier would it be, how much more “natural” might it be . . . to write poetry in a language that carries with it streams of metaphors and symbols from just one felt source? From the same place. From known horizons. From one home.
James Joyce (through his character Stephen Dedalus) talks about the Irish not being at home in the English language, though he mastered it like no other. Are we Americans, born from the combinations and recombinations from so many foreign tribes, really at home in English too?
— The language in which we are speaking is his before it is mine. How different are the words home, Christ, ale, master, on his lips and on mine! I cannot speak or write these words without unrest of spirit. His language, so familiar and so foreign, will always be for me an acquired speech. I have not made or accepted its words. My voice holds them at bay. My soul frets in the shadow of his language.