Monday, February 20, 2012

Linguistic Evolution, and a few words on things to come

The Summer Institute of Linguistics and the Church of Latter Day Saints (Mormon) have done extensive translating work, to convey the Word of God (as they see it). Summer Institute’s first president, Kenneth L. Pike (served 1942-1979), developed a system of linguistic analysis in the 1950s and applied it to the description of a very large number of hitherto unrecorded languages, and the Mormons have done an incredible job training young missionaries in a huge variety of languages.
Encyclopedia Britannica explains about the method: “Tagmemics differs from alternative systems of grammatical analysis in that it defines the basic units of language (tagmemes) as composite elements, one part being the “slot,” or ‘function,’ and the other the ‘filler,’ or ‘class.’ For example, one such tagmeme, at the syntactic level of analysis, might be the noun-as-subject (in which the noun is a class that ‘fills’ the subject ‘slot’ in a construction).”
What interests me here is the concept of word, or basic unit of language. Like number, it may be a concept of quite more limited viable applicability in the real world than is commonly acknowledged. When teaching, as I occasionally do, I find things hardly so cut and dried. My young sister-without-law fails to grasp the concept, similarly as she fails to grasp the sounds of English language. She’s not trying to be difficult or lazy – the correspondences we, who grew up in Western society, so easily assume, simply do not really exist. For her, and for many others.
In one place, a letter, in English or any other language, will have one sound, in another, another. In one place, a ‘word’ will appear in one way, in another, another. Syllables, parts of speech, suffixes, prefixes - it’s simply not the same in all languages. In all, parts make greater wholes, and there may be something like sentences, even paragraphs, but I well remember a guy trying to get the message of his Indian guru put into written Thai, demanding that the Thai words be separated. It simply couldn’t be done!

We like a sense of unity, indivisibility - but, where in the perceptible world does it actually, unequivocally exist? It doesn’t. No atom, nor indivisible particle. No unarguably distinct boundaries. No absolute correspondence between map and thing mapped… though certainly some alphabets suit some languages better than others.
The Bible (pra-kam-phii in Thai, meaning respectable or revered word of scripture; profound treatise) will surely deliver a more than slightly altered message in different languages (which are always variant ways of looking at things). Not to denigrate faith, work on translation which helps people to communicate, or teaching in general, do I present this quandary, but to analyze, rather, what we do when we assert ourselves. We certainly sometimes anticipate, or desire, responses different than results we actually incur. This is normal.
We find it easy to assume that things actually are as we see them, and so, that others can discover the same truth we try to act upon. But systems apply only within contexts - as Russians found in trying to bring communism to Mongolia, and the USA is beginning to find trying to bring ‘democracy’ to the Mid-East. Mongolia had no ‘oppressed’ proletariat, and Persians and Arabs might even see leadership more accurately than do hapless citizens of the USA, in bondage to advertising.
An Akha tribe friend once invited me to her house for Christmas festivities. On the TV was a show of Bible stories, set, naturally, in a desert. I saw no correspondence between what was presented on the screen and life in the ‘Christian’ village around me. On the other hand, I did notice there, as I had noticed long before in Korea, a distinct correspondence between acquiescence to ‘membership’ and ‘belief’ and access to otherwise unavailable material ‘goods’!
Matthew McDaniel of Akha Heritage Foundation wrote at that “There is Youth With a Mission, New Tribes Mission, and a host of others, all hidden from the eye, unless you have done years of research, a huge mission picture, millions of dollars in trucks, compounds, salaries, budgets, but the villages are dying without representation and without a penny. They have no rights and the people are being destroyed and the missions are helping it be done.” His comments on Paul W. Lewis, Bill and Gordon Young (the “Young Dynasty” - were they all CIA, as has been claimed?), the Meese and Morse families, Rose Martinez, and Dr. Edwin McDaniel, who Matthew McDaniel (any relation?) says helped Dr. Paul Lewis (author with wife Elaine of the wonderful “Peoples of the Golden Triangle” - and many years ago retired to Claremont, California) sterilize more than 20,000 Akha women in Burma’s Eastern Shan State… seem pretty derogatory, but with some strong base in truth. He wrote, “witnesses are afraid to speak out against Paul Lewis publicly, stating that he is a very powerful man and that they fear people who continue to get money under the table from his Baptist related organizations will retaliate against them.” Dr. Lewis, though, claims, “I helped between 300 and 350 Akha women from Burma receive an operation they greatly wanted and needed. They were most anxious to have the operation because they could not take care of the children they already had.” Also, “For over 40 years I gave my life and talent to help these people in every way possible, but I always worked WITH them, and sought to turn over all aspects of the work to them as quickly as possible. In regard to the family planning program, I turned all of that over to the Thai Government at the end of our seven and a half years of service.” Anonymous Akhas reportedly replied, “They killed the best of our people… accepted it like a fish which sees the bait but not the hook.” And, “The book called ‘People of the Golden Triangle’ which has sold thousands of books in many languages must have made him some name and some money. Does he deny he made great name off us, but lives safely while we still die?” And certainly, during Taksin Chinawat’s (spelled Shinawatra in the papers) “drug war” many did die - at least one in each and every northern tribal village.
According to a North Thailand mission (EDEN Center - Serving God’s People through Evangelism, Development, Education and Nurture) website, after the 1949 Communist victory in China, the Morse family “had to evacuate all personnel from their stations. J. Russell Morse fell into the hands of the Communists and was imprisoned in solitary confinement for 15 months. The mission forced to flee in North Burma. “The years between 1950-1965 saw the work firmly established in North Burma. During the early 1950s, the mission helped settle over 20,000 Lisu and Rawang Christians onto the Putao plains. Over 30 model villages were established in the process, all of them interconnected with excellent roads and bridges.
“Swamps were drained off to fight malaria-infested mosquitoes while new land was opened up for agriculture. Citrus trees from North America were brought in and grafted onto native lemon stock which resulted in significantly improving the health of the population. Schools were started to provide education for the children of the first generation of Christians. In many respects, this period in the history of the mission was the most productive and rewarding.
“Between 1966-1972, the mission was… forced to pull up stakes and move out of its field of ministry… The mission was ordered to leave the country by midnight December 31, 1965. When it became apparent that the mission was not going to be able to meet the deadline, the group made the decision to walk out overland to India.
“This began a seven year wilderness experience as the mission became completely cut off from the outside world. Jungle survival was the new name of the game as the Morses and thousands of native Christians struggled to live off the land. The group eventually carved out self contained villages in the wilds, where community life was allowed to be guided by Christian principles.
“A real sense of peace and harmony prevailed throughout this new community until the Burmese government stumbled across the lost villages in early 1972. The missionaries were rounded up and removed to lower Burma. The Morses now became guests of the military government and spent the next three months at the Mandalay Central Prison before they were allowed to leave the country.” The site claims most of the villages in the Hidden Valley area have now reverted back to jungle, but citrus trees planted by J. Russell Morse, which once eased local malnutrition, still thrive.
“Since 1973, the mission has been based in Thailand. In Thailand… concentrated primarily on establishing churches among the Lisu, Lahu and Akha hill people. The mission is involved in a broad range of ministries that include church planting, village development work, Bible translation and literacy work, Christian literature production, promoting preventive health and sanitation, introducing alternative crops and agricultural techniques, children’s education, and leadership training.”
See: Eugene Morse, “Exodus To A Hidden Valley” (Cleveland: William Collins Publishing Co., 1974); Gertrude Morse, “The Dogs May Bark…But The Caravan Moves On” (Joplin: College Press, 1998) and Mischa Berlinski, “Fieldwork” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007).

Progress (in Thai, khwam-khao-na, stepping forward, or jalern, to grow, prosper, thrive, advance, increase, and thus, also, jarern-khao-na…), or, if you prefer, development (kan-pattana, advancement), may be less valuable concepts than adaptation (gan-prap-tua, especially about sapap-wetlom, the state of the environment). Adapting to circumstances may not get one closer to any goal, other than extending life’s goodness. And life’s goodness isn’t about possessing, or winning, or even achieving, but about interacting pleasantly, sharing good moods, absorbing delicious nutrition and enjoying pleasant rest. Things, and entertainment, don’t teach a child to interact pleasantly; guidance by the well-adapted does. Rich kids are often desperately hungry - sullen, angry, demanding and arrogant. That’s not happy. Nor can teaching through words make them so; only by example can they learn the satisfactions of giving, sharing, and being part of something greater than the illusory self.
The Morse family, to live in the jungle, must have had something to share other than words from a book. And that kind of faith is good. Missionaries may usually cause more damage than good – that depends on how one looks at things. But the temptations of the modern were going to arrive and be there, missionaries or no… and few have proven readily able to adapt to their temptations! By living so much higher than those they preach to, the worse missionaries may even have provided an exceptionally instructive example… Certainly not all affected by them have become greedy!

I posted the above on’s Chiangrai Forum years ago, and found the responses unpleasant and discouraging, to say the least. I’d been impressed with bucolic, almost idyllic Swiss Family Robinson-like tales of Hidden Valley resistance to Regime Oppression and other adversities, and had hoped to elicit some discussion and maybe even new info and insights. That came to naught, but as we approach a new invasion of Burma, by global corps bent on the kind of wholesale exploitation of mineral wealth hard not to labile “rapine’, I decided to re-post it with some new comments.
I’ve met many a citizen of Myanmar with extremely positive memories of American missionaries, of American help with railways, roads, WWII, and other forms of generosity more controversial. But the extent of something related to Post Traumatic Shock Disorder which pervades everything there prevents those niceties from carrying much real meaning. In Bangladesh, Pakistan, a lot of India (especially Kashmir), much of Africa and many places elsewhere the results of violent hatreds, extended cycles of revenge, childhoods dominated by automatic weapons, and pervasive feelings of need to seek escapist solace make for a need for community and emotional support mechanisms which infrastructure, consumerism and “democracy” can never sufficiently foster. Wounds take time to heal, and often do so better in a fairly rigid, well-structured environment. A headlong rush into the strictures of corporate materialism, modern jobs, debt, celebrity envy and insidious propagandistic advertising promotions (in Yangon, over 15 years ago, I saw TV ads for heated toilet seats with automatically dispensed sanitary-paper coverings, along with others for gaudy gold jewelry) can not in any way assist in the healing necessary for a non-violent, non-drug-addicted civil society to ensue. I can’t say exactly what IS needed, but am sure that local self-determination MUST be part of it.

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