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Why You Really Ought to Learn about Mongolian Throat Singing

Those ancient Greeks didn’t mince their words. If you weren’t Greek, you were lumped together, not with the lumpenproletariat as Marx & Engels had it, but with the rest of the world, the vast hordes of the ignorant and uncivilised unwashed. They had a single, lump-all word for the lot of them: hoi barbaroi (βάρβαροι). Its etymological roots are assumed to derive from the apparent gibberish uttered by ‘Johnny Foreigner’ (as a previous generation of Brits might have put it). “Bar-bar-bar-bar”—it’s all a bunch of codswallop. No wonder they’re all barbarians when they talk like that.

It’s not just foreigners who talk funny

Yet from the moment we set about learning another language, the morning fog is slowly burned off by the emerging rays of sunlight. The world begins to look different, ever so slightly. Why? Because I am now entering an alternative… I wanted to say, ‘world’ but that’s not quite right. It’s the same world. But I now have an alternative medium for trying to talk about it. That way, I have a vague hope of you seeing what I’m seeing.

Of course, every language has its quirks and enigmas. As a young boy it amused me to no end to learn that the literal translation for the French word for nightclub is ‘box of night’ (une boîte de nuit)—the aesthetics of some establishments make that seem a far more appropriate term. Then if you find yourself desperately needing to borrow a stapler from an Afrikaans speaker in South Africa, you may well find yourself requesting a ‘paper vampire’ (papier vampier)—makes perfect sense when you think about it. Then in Myanmar, if you get married, the usual Burmese word is also used for getting locked up in prison (အိမ်ထောင်ခြင်း if you must know—nope; I can’t read it either). To which my only response is, ‘no comment.’

Lest we English-speakers feel superior, as if ours was the most obvious and straightforward language for any human being to gravitate towards, get out the humble pie. Any heart (or primary) language will scarcely provoke even a raised eyebrow, despite objective weirdness or even absurdity of some of its idioms. We happily talk about the ‘foreseeable future’ despite the fact that the future is never foreseeable. What have cake slices got to do with finding a task easy to accomplish? Why on earth would your grandmother want to suck eggs? Although to be fair, I do get why offering her lessons would be quite insulting. Then who knows what’s really going on when we encounter some skullduggery?

A great deal of nonsense about language’s power to shape thought gets spread around, as if something is unimaginable or impossible to experience when your vernacular lacks a word for it. For even if specific vocabulary is lacking, there’s nothing to stop us from settling on a work-around. We do it all the time. And it’s one reason we have poets: they take the words we do have to articulate the things for which we don’t have words. It’s also one reason why I love the concept behind Randall Munroe’s Thing Explainer.

The book’s vocabulary is deliberately limited to the 1000 most common words in English, which is then used to explain all kinds of complexities: from the human torso (bags of stuff inside you) to oil rigs (hole-making city boats), via the Saturn V rocket (US Space Team’s Up Goer Five) and—my favourite—the Large Hadron Collider (Big tiny thing hitter). I was thinking about this earlier this week because, as my family will tell you, my taste buds seem fairly undiscerning. It suits me, because it means I find most food delicious. But the others are all conscious of minute distinctions of taste and texture. Then it occurred to me: we talk about blindness and deafness, and perhaps insensibility (when losing the sense of physical touch). But what about when we lose the sense of taste? That’s become rather more relevant recently, what with Covid-19 and all that. Medics call it hypogeusia but that’s unlikely to arouse much sympathy down the pub. Nor will substituting it with ‘I’m tasteless’ help much.

But every now and then, you come across a language which really does boggle the mind. Which brings me naturally onto the Australian Aboriginal language of Guugu Yimithirr.

It all depends on where you’re standing… doesn’t it?

This language is unlikely to be a study option at even the most exclusive educational establishments since it’s only spoken by a thousand people, centred on the small coastal town of Hopevale, in the northern tip of Queensland. Their claim to fame was initially derived from lending one of Australia’s most important words to the world’s languages, although the joke is that when the English Captain Cook first heard it, the word just meant, ‘I don’t know.’ As Guy Deutscher notes in his truly remarkable book, Through The Language Glass, that’s sadly an urban legend; despite subsequent western explorers never encountering the word (thus assuming that Cook and his crew were mistaken), the Guugu Yimithirr do use it. The word is of course kangaroo. Its rarity was simply the result of the language’s rarity.

But that is the least of the wonders of this people. To grasp what is so remarkable about them, we need first to consider some essential linguistics. Think about how you describe the location of an object. It’s an everyday occurrence. There are essentially two options: you describe its location in relation to yourself or in relation to some external, more objective criterion. This is the difference between egocentric and geographic locators. (Note: the former has no moral connotations but merely describes a fact, taking ego in its original Greek sense of “I”.)

This then affects how we describe the world around us, which ultimately can only be done from an egocentric perspective. The Bible is no different from any other pre-scientific text, with the classic example being the notion that the sun rises and falls each day. That, of course, is merely an articulation of how the phenomenon appears to us on earth; it is a far cry from the astronomical reality. That is not a problem, as long as we understand what is going on here. Human language has always depended on egocentric locators and descriptors.

Or so it was thought!

Cue: the Guugu Yimithirr! For it transpires that their language contains no egocentric locators at all. Instead, they use geographic locators for everything. Instead of saying, ‘Ginger is in front of the tree,’ they will say ‘Ginger is a little to the tree’s north.’ When Fred asks for directions at a complex junction, an instruction to turn left will not translate; he needs you to say, ‘take the south-eastern exit.’ In fact, it is so fundamental to the language that you can’t tell Mary to turn forward in a book; instead, you need to say ‘go further east in the book,’ assuming she is facing north. But only when speaking Guugu Yimithirr. They all speak English and so use egocentric locators all the time. It is not that they do fail to understand the concepts. Rather, in their heart language, they don’t need them. Why? Because they are so wired for their relationship to the compass that even when in an unfamiliar place, they still instinctively know the cardinal directions. They don’t calculate from the sun, or some other means. They just know it. Even if in a windowless room. Even in describing places visited long before or recalling dreams. Just as someone with perfect pitch just knows if a guitar has not been tuned to the standard of A=440Hz. So if you don’t share this perfect geographical sense, then you are going to need a compass when you start learning the language!

Try a walk in another’s shoes for a change…

Now, as Deutscher is careful to point out, the conclusions we can draw about the relationship between our language and our thoughts are fewer than we might assume. It is tempting to assume causes for effects or correlations. As I said, the citizens of Hopevale are perfectly capable of understanding and using egocentric locators in English even when they lack equivalents for ‘behind,’ ’in front,’ ‘above’ of their own. The point here is simple. This is an extreme example of the way language has an effect on our perceptions, so that a fluent Guugu Yimithirr speaker needs constant awareness of coordinates.

Most of us only resort to them when required; although my hunch is they are more ingrained in Americans than Brits because of urban grid systems. (Older towns over here still largely follow their mediaeval street plans, so exclusive reliance on geographic locators will get you lost!) In short, a foreign language often pushes us to bear things in mind that we rarely consider. It is not just that we are listening to voices outside our echo chambers; we’re experiencing a completely different shape of chamber!

The Christian believer needs to grow an innate sensitivity to coordinates derived not from the compass, but from the one who made the east and west. Mark Meynell

One of the most fascinating films of recent years, to me at last, was Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival (2016). Having worked in a small East African seminary for four years, the sense of dislocation from being unable to map a foreign culture was all too familiar, albeit with far less earth-shaking consequences! As it happens, the protagonist, linguistics professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams)—a nod to the great impresario of eighteenth century British science who accompanied Captain Cook in those ground-breaking explorations of the south seas, Sir Joseph Banks perhaps?—trots out the kangaroo urban legend to make a point about misinterpreting foreign cultures. Without plot-spoiling, the drama’s primary tensions are derived from fundamentally different (human vs alien) languages and the difficulties of translation that ensue (for example, a failure to grasp that one word can mean both a weapon and a tool). Once Banks starts to learn the alien lingo of weird, floaty smoke rings, however, her mind is blown. She begins to see the world, and indeed the whole of time and space, in a revelatory new light. It is life-changing.

While we would all love such new perspectives on the world, I am not advocating that we must all now learn Guugu Yimithirr or floaty smoke rings. After all, language-learning is enough to bring many of us out in hives, even though a lucky few seem to be able to get fluent after only ten minutes immersion. We don’t need to when we have the arts before us. Every art form is a language of its own, each with its language families, subdivided into distinct languages, dialects and variants. Take these crude breakdowns as a start:

If you have spent your entire life listening to only one form of music, then you may well end up with encyclopaedic knowledge but will find other forms strange and even cacophonous. Such specialism is by no means a bad thing. As long as you never forget that there are other artistic fish in the sea. So, that is why it is healthy to play the field a bit; hold onto your passions but occasionally dip your toe into the grammar and idioms of new musical waters. One of my favourite things on YouTube at the moment is TwinsthenewTrend. It’s very simple: two brothers sit in a room at home and film themselves listening to a song from an unfamiliar genre or artist for the first time. Fans write in with suggestions, ranging from Dolly Parton’s ‘Jolene’ to Pavarotti singing Puccini’s Nessun dorma. The standout is their reaction to Phil Collins’ ‘In the Air Tonight.’ It’s sublime! No wonder it’s already had over 7 million hits!

The same goes for writing, of course, or the visual arts, or movies with subtitles, or even textile installations. One of my favourite movies is an almost absurdly slow Turkish film, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan in 2011. It would never have occurred to me to watch it until a Turkish friend mentioned it and I noticed that it was screened on BBC 2 one night. It is dark, laconic, beautifully filmed and occasionally hilarious.

That does not mean you will stick with everything you hear. I can appreciate the artistry of ‘Mongolian throat singing’, but I’m a long way off from adding it to my latest chill-out playlist. In fact, let’s face it, unless a true fan guides me through it, I’m unlikely to give it a further thought. But that’s what we so often need, isn’t it? An enthusiast to get us started. It doesn’t matter much what you explore, just as long as you do.

An antidote to a fragmenting world

There is method to all this, however. Much as I do like staring into space or going down Wikipedia-rabbit-trails for the sake of it, I actually think this enterprise is vital. We are all horribly aware of the ways in which western countries are fragmenting, often in extreme violence, but invariably with mutual suspicion. As a result, we may even regard the art forms of those on the ‘wrong side’ of our own boundaries as symptomatic or even inciting of such violence. Take the typical response from many white people to rap or grime, for example.

But by entering into the thought worlds and ‘imaginaries’ of a different bunch of people, we just might begin to understand where they are coming from. And we will perhaps realise why dominant patterns or clichés (about which we never give a second thought) pall or even offend: like the movies depicting All-American heroes reliably defusing global threats, or Christ figures modelled on the extreme sentimentalism of Warner Sallman’s Aryan Jesus, or the easy resolutions of predictable chordal progressions.

Then, we might just begin to see that the world does not revolve around our own, egocentric perspective on reality, and that there really is something more reliable by which to understand both our own lives and the lives of others (who are not so different after all). For the Christian believer needs to grow an innate sensitivity to coordinates derived not from the compass, but from the one who made the east and west, and was able to deal with our failings by separating us from them further than the east is from the west.


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