Time is divided into past, present and future, yes?
If you could divide time however you liked, how would you split it? BC and AD is an ideological slant on history, not a fact of time. A mother can see her life in epochs: before children and after children. Losing a person precious to us can rush us out the other side of the looking glass. But all of these examples are linear.
The Wapishana language divides time into real (naa) and unreal (nii). When you hear ‘naa’ you can be sure it’s about the present. When you hear ‘nii’ it can refer to any other time, past or future. This grammatical fact socks me between the eyes. It’s my babelfish, illuminating various incidents in my time here with a sudden startling clarity. (Feel free to accuse me of over-interpretation- that’s what happens when you trust philosophy to an imaginary fish from a geek book).
Why did the village council not begin preparing our house while we were back in England for Sue’s funeral- why did they wait till we came back? Because in March we were ‘naa’, but the moment we left we became ‘nii’- “they are coming back nii”. Written history is an illusion, because all history is ‘nii’- unreal. Maybe that’s why Wapishanas are not rushing around busily capturing everything in living memory on paper. History is a slippery fish, make no mistake about that. Most Wapishana can’t write or read their mother tongue, and very few seem to mind.
We have crossed the Brazilian border to attend a language course in Boa Vista. We travel there by a surfaced road that appears out of the ether at the border. The abrupt contrast is very, very weird. It is peculiar to see ité-thatched houses by a tarmac road beneath power lines. A cultural joke that doesn’t translate.
Ten of us come together to study Wapishana- priests (Father Horie is from Japan, Paul from South India, Varghese from North India, Eddy from Nicaragua, André from South Brazil, Vanildo and Sergio from the North), a Brazilian nun and two Brazilian laywomen who work in Amazonia, and me. The course is run by a Canadian priest called Ronald McDonell (not surprisingly he calls himself Ronaldo!), with three Wapishanas for speaking practice.
Over these days I am constantly reminded of trying to learn Tibetan in Yushu a decade ago. The Wapishana language barely exists in written form. The first answer from native speakers to most of my ‘why’ questions is “That’s just the way it is”. If I keep pressing, the native speakers will rack their brains for an answer, and if they still can’t decide why, they will make something up. The really refreshing thing about having a foreigner running the Boa Vista course is that he structures it so it resembles language learning as I understand it. There are dialogues to practice. We learn all the pronouns systematically. We write vocab cards. We don’t spend an entire afternoon, as we did in Aishalton, learning the Wapishana for numerous small brown birds, none of which can be translated. Add in an extra complication: our native speaker teachers are Portuguese Wapishana, so can’t explain in English. Their writing conventions are also different, with quite big spelling changes, and two different letters to the alphabet. One of my fellow participants says to me ‘They should have agreed spelling rules on both sides of the border’. Who is ‘they’? The Academie Wapishanaise?
Wapishana is fragile. There is a striking disparity between the fluency of people my age (i.e grandparents), and school-age children. Ronaldo gives out a language questionnaire to indigenous teachers to use in their communities for assessing linguistic robustness: most of them are so incongruous for Aishalton that they sound facetious. Is the language used for education? (Caribbean-wide exams guarantee that it never will be). Are public documents and roadsigns in it? (Roadsigns? We might need roads first!) Are there media in it? (No electricity, no reliable access to paper or ink, no salaries for DJs!) Is the Wapishana population small or large? (Small) Do they have economic power? (Don’t make me laugh. They barely have cassava power).
At first I feel quite panicky, but then I wonder, does this matter? If something is valuable, I think generally we Westerners immediately start working out how to preserve it. Video the wedding. Bury the ashes. Pass on the Patek Philippe watch. Frame, memorise, dry, varnish, freeze, collect, pickle, distil, and most of all, write it down.
Ronaldo says that language is important because it is the key to a group’s heart. But what if they voluntarily have a change of heart, and swap their language for a bigger, shinier one? My instinct is to start frantically scribbling down folk stories, get out the Dictaphone and run around the village elders preserving their memories. But who is to say that my instinct is useful? When we pride ourselves on ‘preserving’, what if we are actually dessicating? I suppose there is a place for frogs in formaldehyde, but they certainly have none of their charm left.
So in the end, I accept that we are learning Wapishana because we want to say to our communities, “What a great language! How proud you must be of it! Listen to how stilted and comic I sound compared with your expertise!”. And because we believe that understanding the forms in which people express themselves helps us to understand more deeply what they mean. Any grander claims, of preservation and future generations blah blah blah, run the risk of neo-colonialism of a particularly British (or perhaps I should say English?) intellectual character. Languages are chasm-builders at least as much as they are bridges. We’re choosing to have a go at bridge-building, that’s all.