Call and Response: Letting Diverse Languages Have Their Turn to Speak

Figure 1 Photo by Diomari Madulara on Unsplash

Figure 1 Photo by Diomari Madulara on Unsplash

By Emma Szymanski

You are reading this. This is written in English. English is one of many of the world’s languages (in fact, it very much dominates the existence of other languages). Language is embedded with unique characteristics per tradition and each language offers something new to the experience of human life on this Earth. It’s even in our grammar—we learn early on in American schooling that nouns refer to “persons, places, or things” and yet we don’t consider how rigidly our language marks the distinctions between those three entities. Where are you while reading this? Who is with you? Did you forget that you’re not the only living being wherever you are now? 

Right now, as you are reading this, as I am writing this, you are thinking. We are thinking together, taking on an encounter beyond the confines of time and distance. You also must be breathing, given that you’re alive and you’re able to read this; both of our sets of many, many cells must be pumping and churning well enough for us to be here. Isn’t that astounding? (Maybe I appreciate it more after I’ve forgotten and can remember again).

Figure 2 Photo by Louis Maniquet on Unsplash

Figure 2 Photo by Louis Maniquet on Unsplash

You are reading this on the Earth Law Center blog page, so by now you’re probably at least somewhat aware of the detriment to the living planet (which always includes us, both as members of it and also as the causes of this destruction to it). But let me ask something a little more focused and articulate: how can we explore and consider alternative ways of thinking, learning, and being in this world as a way to cooperate in confronting the greatest issues that this species and this Earth have ever faced?

(Admittedly, this is a big question to try to approach. So here’s one, alinear attempt).

The Earth not only provides gifts among its natural systems for all its life-forms, but it expresses its living need to thrive and persist—the activities of evolution—and thus manifests life itself through a wealth of diverse wildlife.

Through language we can, as human beings, communicate as a permeation between our otherwise disconnected, individual perspectives, and thereby pass on knowledge, convey meaning, and join to collaborate in maintaining our own but also others’ survival (in a mode of defense). With our words we cross the thresholds between one mind and another. A conversation is an exchange of more than one voice, and periods of listening versus speaking. Call and response.

Have you been listening enough? Have you listened to the Earth today? Maybe you might have noticed some birds singing compulsively outside, but when was the last time you received the choral melody of the wind? Have you ever really heard its breath as exactly that—a cyclical exchange of respiration, inhale, exhale, traveling air? (I remember being just a few years old in my grade school music class learning about the development of music from the “call and response” in work songs sung by slaves and how this later informed the musical stylings of jazz and rock & roll in the generations that followed. We should never forget all the suffering and strength that gave birth to such potentiality in music [MOU1]).

What is a song? Air and particles traveling and shaking a certain way—and when someone sings, the air and energy vibrate and release a certain way. Can’t you hear the breeze’s song? Here one moment, spinning and humming, gone in the next. Listen closely and maybe you can make out the lyrics. Maybe you can sing back, compose the words to the refrain.

Potawatomi botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer, in her book Braiding Sweetgrass, writes that language “can encode significant information concerning species interactions” (435), as well as constitute a coherent framework for perceiving and engaging with the living planet. Among the subtleties, the nuances, and even the soundscapes of distinct languages—such as the “sounds like wind in the pines and water over the rocks” among hardly discernible Potawatomi phrases which do not contain an extensive alphabet (53), their unique intricacies create fertile, inexhaustible meaning for their speakers.

Currently, according to data collected by the organization Terralingua, even though there are an estimated 6,975 human languages still in existence, the cultural-linguistic elasticity—of both language(s) and of the members of the associated culture(s)—can often no longer endure in today’s world. So, even if there are nearly 7,000 remaining languages, most of which belonging to localized and/or indigenous populations decreasing in number, the speakers—the sacred bearers, the life-givers of a certain language and all of their secrets, the immeasurable possibilities, the intergenerationally shared wisdom they can offer—often disappear along with the culture itself.

Promoting linguistic diversity is a fundamental human obligation in ensuring mutual ecocultural survival, beyond just the scope of language and culture. Or at least we need to start thinking about the gross decline of linguistic diversity in the way we think about the world’s great wildlife loss. 

When one species among the multiplicity of Earth’s life forms dies out, it loses its ability to meaningfully participate in the shared natural experience of life: all other life also suffers a great loss as a result. An untimely death of unexplored perspectives, squandered abilities, and forsaken co-existence. The thriving must be equally and unequivocally shared, rather than hoarded by a select few. This is true for species of life, and true for species of living language, too.

Figure 3 Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Figure 3 Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Though I remain cynical towards the English language and Western culture, thought, and practice at large—from its inseparability from the economic systems that sustain it, to our society’s alienation from other living beings and the natural, unmanufactured world—this does not mean I can (easily or “conveniently”) abstain from complicit involvement in its perpetuation as a global power, nor can I fully escape from the linguistic-cultural norms instilled in my conceptual framework from my early childhood development and on. None of us totally can. English is everywhere, even if not everybody speaks it, thanks to globalism. 

Yet I think back to my own falling-out with my first language, Polish, and the erasure flooding my capacity for understanding and expression from the outside-in. I lament at the loss of the language in which my mother sang lightly against my tired eyes, the ease of communication with aging and increasingly distant relatives, and especially of the privilege of speaking in secrecy among those who do not understand the gifts this complex Slavic tongue only gives to the most patient of learners or the most irritated of young children. I all too hastily abandoned this power of my familial descent—then again, I was only six years old—in order to “fit in” at school and sacrifice my inherited mysteries so that I could instead understand the jokes in English in televised cartoons.
I have quite literally lost the ability to articulate myself in Polish, to inscribe my own meaning within its unique sets of communication. Fortunately, I can still translate in my head and understand when spoken to, but I cannot reply. It is so important that I can still listen, can still hear the calls passed on through my ancestry, but for now, until my Polish improves again, I cannot respond. This causes me deep sorrow.

But somewhere in the most pleasant corners of my memory I can hear my mother’s words tracing my palm, reciting a nursery rhyme about a mother bird and her five hungry children. My own mother’s finger circles the center of my hand with the most delicate touch, singing a rhythmic melody. Each finger of mine she touches and shakes, saying something along the lines of, “this one got a bowl,” “this one got a cup,” and on, until she grabs my final digit and an untranslatable, silly phrase said only for the sake of shared laughter: and this one got “fiku-miku! Fiku-miku! Fiku-miku!” I am mercilessly tickled and then tucked in under a white blanket, feeling secure and treasured if I get to share the bed with my parents.
I still often wonder if it is too late to return to the same linguistic-cultural tradition my parents grew up in, if only to get a glimpse into how it might have developed their formative worldviews, how and why they could have become the loving, hard-working people that would, out of incredible generosity, would give me life. In a way, as I reflect on this now it feels as if my birth was a language in itself: my conception, my mother’s pregnancy, my emergence from the womb with a full head of hair, all together in one person, cast into this particular possibility of a world that could be inherited, a world that could exist and happen at all!

All this reflection is to say that we have to confront dominant monocultural structures, namely the paradigms ingrained by the English language and Western capitalist culture’s annihilation of the Earth. This includes climate breakdown, the mechanisms, economic structures that cause it as well as the consumptive patterns that only drive and perpetuate it. 

There’s a lot to be done among legislative policy and actual action both on the individual and collective levels, by consumers and the industrial sectors that cyclically drive and reinforce one another’s abuse of living systems.

There’s a lot to be said to get people’s attention. Consider this one alternative approach.

And yet, most importantly, there’s a lot of listening to do. 

Ultimately we must recognize, undo, and move away from the certain ideological frameworks deeply ingrained in dominant languages of commerce such as English. This is not to say that we should all stop speaking English; rather, we need to seriously and reflectively rethink our relations as humans to other living beings and the extent of our responsibility in the scheme of it all.

We don’t think about the air we breathe as something with a voice, something speaking or singing a song. Yet it is continually assaulted with pollutants that we inevitably take in like every other living thing that needs oxygen or carbon dioxide. If the air could sing a beautiful song, would we want it to choke? That’s a violent image, but still even doesn’t even come close to the graphic mutilation to the living fabric of the Earth on the daily.

We don’t think about the experiences of all the compiled carbon networks beneath our feet, living and passed—mycelia and decomposing beings and funky little worms and creatures that help the green grass grow.

People in this country don’t think about the truths existent and to be told in the languages they try to silence when they say, “just speak English!” or the frustration when they “don’t understand.” Of course you can’t understand a language you can’t speak—but why haven’t you at least tried to hear it?

I hope upon reading this you let others, not just human people, speak today. And that you let their voices be heard. We need to let the Earth speak, to hear it sing, much, much more than we do in the modern world today before we can respond and let tangible healing take place. How else can the conversation start? 

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