the past couple weeks, i’ve been visiting old friends in lukang and battening down the hatches during a typhoon in taipei (sadly, that meant no time at the hotsprings or on dihua st). after a flight from taipei to san francisco that landed me, by the clock, two hours earlier than i left taipei, i’m back at my parents’ house in coquille, oregon. it’s a bit of a culture shock, but i suspect that the biggest wave of culture shock is yet to come
while on the road, i’ve been thinking a bit about a couple papers that i need to submit soon, one a book chapter for an edited volume on pilgrimage, the other a piece on endangered languages and the role that musical practices might have in language revitalization
as for the latter piece, i wonder to what extent have discourses of language as irreplaceable cultural heritage actually vitiated efforts to revive taiwanese indigenous languages as languages of everyday discourse? what i mean to ask is actually almost the kind of question that analytic philosophy might ask: what good are indigenous languages, and do we know what it might mean to revitalize or maintain them?
on my mind of course as i ask this question was something that my friend @kerim mentioned about learning sowal no ‘amis, the taiwanese indigenous language that i’ve also been learning, albeit it in an an informal setting and not the classroom. kerim, who had been studying ‘amis at the hualien indigenous community college, said that the experience was vaguely reminiscent of a rite of passage. in a post on the anthropology blog savage minds, kerim further worked out why learning sowal no ‘amis at the community college resembled hebrew school:
Although Hebrew is now a living language, in Hebrew School in NY, at my reform synagogue in the late seventies and early eighties, it was taught as one might teach a dead language. There was no expectation that we would go on to actually use the language in daily life. It was enough to be able to pronounce the words and be able to translate some simple prayers into English so we knew what we were saying when we read it aloud
similarly, futuru tsai has described what he calls a “culture trap,” in which taiwanese indigenous people are compelled always to perform “traditional culture” in ways that marginalize them in contemporary taiwanese society. in my work, i’ve been interested in these issues, thinking about problems of neotraditionalism versus what i’ve called the “hopeful indigeneity” of the far ocean fishing cohort. as a result, i have wanted to engage in a kind of socratic irony in regard to language revitalization. how clear are those in the cultural survival / rights to language / endangered language crowd about what motivates them and how that might influence just how endangered languages are maintained or revitalized?
frankly, if it’s just to protect some cultural patrimony, let me off the train…
if indigenous languages can be tested to prove one is “indigenous enough” for affirmative action (but such testing doesn’t require conversational competence) and can be performed but not spoken, if they are only languages of ritual contexts (including greetings, political representation, as well as what one normally recognizes as ritual), have we really done a good job? might it not be better to advance what errington has called “impure but authentic” registers of taiwanese indigenous mandarin and ‘amis as spoken, with japanese numbers and taiwanese loan words?
what do y’all think?