The Venus Flytrap: Decolonising Language

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In the 19th century, a woman named Uvavnuk was struck by a meteor, lost consciousness after experiencing a vision of the bear-human spirit of the meteor, and came to with a song on her lips that has fascinated scholars of spiritual experience ever since. The language she sang, spoke and lived in (we inhabit languages, as they inhabit us) was Inuktitut. The legend about her mystical encounter is longer than her song; Europeans collecting what they called folklore documented and translated both. Until colonial contact, the Inuit languages were oral, and at least nine scripts were developed across the vastness of Canada for functional purposes after this contact began. Now, a new script that will consolidate and replace the others has been formally accepted. Called Inuit Qaliujaaqpait, it uses the 26 Roman alphabets. Natan Obed, president of the cultural non-profit Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, was quoted as saying, “It’s the first time we’re exercising our own self-determination to implement our own writing system.”

Several Canadian press outlets carried the same story, verbatim, and I was intrigued by one particular line. Devoid of quotation marks, the exact words – “Inuit have decolonised the alphabet” – are not attributed to Obed, but are implied as being the summary of his opinions. The term used recalls the 1986 manifesto Decolonising The Mind by the Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, in which he declared that with that text he was bidding a final farewell to writing in English, having already ceased to produce creative (as opposed to non-fiction) work in that language some years prior. His political assertion was instrumental in expanding the body of work originally created in African languages, including Gikuyu and Kiswahili.

Ngũgĩ wrote of how schoolchildren were faced with two Gikuyu orthographies – rival ones, developed by different missionaries. Imagine having nine, as Inuit peoples do. The Gikuyu scripts were eventually integrated, and like Inuit Qaliujaaqpait, shares the alphabet with English (without certain letters). The use of the coloniser’s alphabet, while rejecting the coloniser’s language, is a striking way of accepting history but charting the future anew. There are others: they may require learning or eliminating, but always imagining.

“Decolonising” is a buzzword now, lending itself enjoyably to hashtags and T-shirts. Someone gave me a set of stickers recently which say “Decolonise this place!”. I accepted them with glee, but realised they’d be best used in an act of protest vandalism. I’m not opposed to such gestures, but what would their context be? If I stuck them on, say, railway signage, hostel gates or temple undials without deconstructing that big word, would their intent still be conveyed? Or would nothing happen but self-congratulatory wokeness? I think I’ll pass them along, to inspire someone else. Perhaps they’ll know how to incorporate them into their activism meaningfully, while I’m unable to.

The same 26 letters can be assembled in a hundred million ways, after all. And the same words have different effects, depending on the recipient as much as the presenter. I believe we can have the courage to request translation, and to love without guilt the complicated privilege of many tongues, whether sinuous or rusty. Those are powerful decolonisations too.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on October 10th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

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