Taoist mythology, Lanna history, mythology, the nature of time and other considered ramblings

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Location: Chiangrai, Chiangrai, Thailand

Author of many self-published books, including several about Thailand and Chiang Rai, Joel Barlow lived in Bangkok 1964-65, attending 6th grade with the International School of Bangkok's only Thai teacher. He first visited ChiangRai in 1988, and moved there in 1998.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Linguistic Evolution

A little linguistics

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.
Encyclopedia Britannica says, “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 every 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 (gan-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!

Linguistic Evolution

Whether distinct languages have ever evolved from dialects we don’t really know, but it’s easy to imagine. For language is often exclusionary, meant to communicate to some, and not to others. Sometimes people will fail to understand when someone perceived as an outsider uses their lingo. And, indeed, the outsider may well fail to utilize important nuance. Context must be established, before there can be communication.
As people, and groups of people, are often in conflict or competition, discreetly coded language has often been very important. And much of good manners has always been diplomatic evasion of a direct response.
Use of in-group argot provides safety, while open honesty can be frightfully divisive, if not worse (as in opening up vulnerabilities). To be direct, or blunt, is stupid, barbaric!
Often, the more polite, the more linguistically obscure and removed from defined meaning. In Victorian England, and even more recently too, “disinterested” meant truly interested, not just giving the appearance of it, in order to obtain something else. A computer will generally fail to give a comprehensible translation of anything non-scientific, as much depends on the perceived relationship between speaker and audience. For many things are only meant to be shared with some, and an overly rational approach may be logical, while ignoring reality.

The winds of change

Is humanity simply easily manipulated, greedy because scared, driven by forces beyond our capacity to even begin to comprehend, or just increasingly adrift, un-anchored by convention and the interactive involvement which constitutes true community?
Lord of the Flies homo-erotic frat pranks by mercenary Kabul US embassy guards indeed (drinking booze from the butt-cracks of buddies, remember?). Someone didn’t read that book the way I did (see “Differentiation and Trade”). Anti-Obama protestors waving insane signs are merely mimicking something from another era (that of my youth) – mimicking something which was quite scary and not at all understandable to the insecure. And the winds of change can make many feel (and be) very insecure.
Activists of the late 1960s too often failed to recognize what elitists they really were, how snobbish to the non-hip, “politically unaware” work-a-day people who kept the roads open and other things running, and how this complacent sense of superiority undermined all they (well, we) were working for…
It’s too easy to look down on others, and even with people acting idiotically, usually wrong – and even to try to “help” them, too patronizing. Life is full of difficult choices, and that won’t change; there will always be pressures, differences of opinion, and things to fight about. But there are also ways to live that reduce the number of occasions for conflict and disaster, as surely getting fired has been for the foolish embassy guards trying to fit in and deal with a very challenging situation with negligible guidance as to parameters… for none can claim their leadership to exhibit any real sense of morality…

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