A Welsh linguist has helped the Shanjo people of Zambia to develop a written version of their oral language, ciShanjo. Fascinating. Paul Tench reports, ‘It would be good for the Shanjo people’s sense of self-worth, their dignity, pride in their distinctive culture, their standing in the region, not only to be literate in their own language, but also to develop their own literature and to give visual expression in public signs, at school and in all their institutions.’
I’ve no doubt that’s true. It’s the way of the world. However, I read the story at the same time as reading The Spell of the Sensuous, by David Abram. He argues that nothing less than the ecological crises we face today stem, originally, from the huge shift in consciousness that was precipitated by oral cultures learning to write.
Roughly, he argues that the magic of reading and writing happens on the page, the extraordinary way in which scribbled marks can grip you to convey sense, voice, meaning, engagement.
But in an oral culture, language is written, as it were, on the landscape. It is intimately connected with the sensuousness of place. The classic case in point is the Aboriginal culture of Australia. Abram vividly describes the synesthesia of identity, environment, dreaming and language that roots Aboriginals, and other indigenous peoples – and that is lost with writing. Alienation from nature is the result.
As the technology of writing encounters and spreads through a previously oral culture, the felt power and personality of particular places begins to fade… Writing down oral stories renders them separable, for the first time, from the actual places where the events in those stories occurred… Once the stories are written down, however, the visible text becomes the primary mnemonic activator of the spoken stories – the inked traces left by the pen as it traverses the page replacing the earthly traces left by the animals, and by one’s ancestors… Gradually the felt primacy of place is forgotten, superseded by a new, abstract notion of “space” as a homogeneous and placeless void.
A lot has happened when you’ve learnt to write.
(Image: Aboriginal Rock Art, Anbangbang Rock Shelter, Kakadu National Park, Australia, Thomas Schoch)