Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Whorfianism in Colonial Encounters from Melville to Mieville

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Whorfianism in Colonial Encounters from Melville to Mieville

Article excerpt

In linguistics, Whorfianism is a name given to the idea that language determines thought. This essay analyzes three novels (Herman Melville's Typee, Juan Jose Saer's The Witness, and China Mieville's Embassytown) to examine how Whorfianism influences the description of "exotic" languages and cultures in accounts of colonial encounters.

Detailed descriptions of language are often conspicuously absent from the various non-fictional accounts of colonial encounters we have available to us. We would expect such encounters to throw questions of linguistic difference into sharp relief--after all, they typically involve a small group of people or even a single person newly immersed in a society that speaks a language completely unknown to them. Such is usually the case for the largely American genre of captivity narratives, which describe the experience of being captured by a native tribe and living with the tribe as a sort of prisoner, often for an extended period of time. These captivity narratives tend to go on at great length about the culture of the tribe in question, which makes the absence of descriptions of language, which is of course a central part of culture, somewhat peculiar. But in many cases, this can be attributed to the fact that the author never learned a significant quantity of the language in which (s)he was immersed, from lack of time, inclination, or necessity. The language that these captives hear is thus nothing but an unintelligible string of sounds, which hardly admits of any interesting description. James Riley, who was captured during the Barbary Wars and wrote An Authentic Narrative of the Loss of the American Brig Commerce, limits himself to the following description of the Arabic of his captors: "Their language is the ancient Arabic, is spoken with great fluency, and is distinguished for its powerful emphasis, and elegant cadence. When they converse peaceably (and they are much given to talking with each other), it thrills on the ear like the breathings of soft wind-music, and excites in the soul the most soothing sensations; but when they speak in anger, it sounds as hoarse as the roarings of irritated lions, or the most furious beasts of prey" (379). Among the major captivity narratives that contain no significant description of the language of their captors whatsoever are those of Mary Rowlandson, Mercy Harbison, Jonathan Dickinson, Mary Draper Ingles, John R. Jewitt, Susannah Willard Johnson, Robert Adams, and Father Bressani, as well as the spurious captivity narrative of Jackson Johonnet. (1)

The same can be said of another major source of descriptions of colonial encounters: namely, the chronicles of the Spanish colonists of the Americas, chief among them those of Bernal Diaz del Castillo and Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca. In the case of Bernal Diaz, who chronicled Cortes's conquest of the Aztecs, there was no need for the colonists to learn Nahuatl, since they had access to La Malinche, who translated between Nahuatl and Chontal Maya, and Geronimo de Aguilar, who translated between Chontal Maya and Spanish. Cabeza de Vaca, a survivor and chronicler of the ill-fated expedition of Panfilo de Narvaez, also generally had access to translators. His chronicle contains a brief section called "An Enumeration of the Nations and Tongues," but although it seems that he intended to discuss the various languages he encountered, he did not follow through.

In order to see how language in colonial encounters is conceptualized, then, we might turn to novels. Even in novelistic accounts of colonial encounters, extended discussion of language is rare. Recall, for example, that Robinson Crusoe has little reason to comment on Friday's language, since he teaches Friday to speak English. Nevertheless, there are at least two novels of colonial encounters that are deeply concerned with language: Juan Jose Saer's The Witness and China Mieville's Embassytown. These two novels will form the core of my discussion, but I will also discuss Herman Melville's Typee. …

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