Lessons for Losing

Mary Louise Pratt

Mary Louise Pratt is Silver Professor in the Department of Social and Cultural Analysis and the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at New York University. This essay originally appeared in the Modern Language Association (MLA) blog, Profession, in 2014.

The terms language and vulnerability come together in many ways. There is the vulnerability of infants, who quickly perceive they are nonverbal beings in a verbal world and for whom acquiring language becomes the central focus of effort. There is the vulnerability of the dislocated—travelers, migrants, immigrants, refugees, deportees. As a geographic fact, the multiplicity of languages on the planet challenges those who move and those who receive them. As a social fact, that multiplicity endlessly generates dynamics of empowerment and disempowerment: state-based disenfranchisements of minority languages; gatekeeping that limits access to languages of power; war scenarios in which invader and invaded cannot communicate or must rely on the strategic, suspect power of bilinguals. Imperial states often seek to homogenize themselves linguistically, creating their own linguistic vulnerabilities, as when English-only passions in the United States turned into language panic after 9/11. There is the riskiness of speech itself, the dangers of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time or using the wrong language at the wrong time, the harms of lies, the wounding powers of insult and epithet, the deadly verbal scripts of interrogation and torture. Vulnerability itself generates vulnerability when it becomes an alibi for interventions or imposes silence.

I spoke of these topics at the MLA roundtable The Politics of Language in Vulnerable Times. But not long after, I had an experience that brought me back around to the form of linguistic vulnerability that springs most readily to people’s minds: the steady disappearance of human languages at a pace unprecedented in the history of the planet. The subject comes up often, and when it does (including in my own work), it gets immediately swathed in numbing statistics—there are six thousand languages, and half will be gone by the end of the century; a language dies every two weeks. This discourse, derived mainly from United Nations pronouncements,[1] produces what Jennifer Wenzel brilliantly calls a “quarantine of the imagination” on the subject of language loss (“Reading”; see also Wenzel, Bulletproof). Stock phrases exhaust the subject in a sentence or two and elide the radically uneven nature of the process, the way it is lived by those who are living it, the question of what actually is lost and to whom. Languages disappear only through being displaced by more powerful languages, which by one means or another (mainly by schooling) succeed in interrupting the steady passing down of languages from older to younger speakers. Instead of speaking of language death, loss, or murder, linguists often avoid the elegiac and speak of language shift—but this is another imaginative quarantine. For, of course, the shift always involves loss, both to the last, long generations who live it and—as they know—to the world that loses the lessons that the language had to teach. Declaring the world’s languages to be the patrimony of all humanity, as the United Nations has done, likewise veils the unevennesses of the process and the stakes, even as it calls for attention. For all languages belong to their speakers in a way they do not belong to everyone else. Here I briefly attempt to break through the imaginative quarantine on language loss, or rather to describe the work of an artist who is devoting his creative powers to doing so, in the knowledge that lessons in losing will be sorely needed by the generations of human beings who are going to live out the unpredictable unfolding of ecological breakdown.

It was the opening day of New York University’s Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics biennial Encuentro in June 2014, held at Concordia University. I almost didn’t make Tomson Highway’s keynote. The map of Montreal crinkled in my lap as I barked street names at my driving companion and begged pedestrians for directions to a parking garage. I’d been reaching out for Highway’s work for three decades. This would be my first, maybe only chance to hear him live. We were lucky—the session started late. Highway began with lengthy, elaborate greetings in French, then Cree, then English. “I am a full-blooded Cree Indian,” he announced to his audience of Latin Americans, Americans, and Canadians. “My mother tongue, the language I grew up in, the language I most often dream in, is one of the most beautiful languages that has ever existed on earth, one of the most ancient in this hemisphere, and it is going to disappear.”

Not everyone thinks that Cree, an Algonquian language now spoken by around a hundred thousand people across the Canadian north, is going to disappear, but Highway, a playwright, novelist, concert pianist, composer, librettist, performance artist, and humorist, does.[2] He has made it a challenge of his life and work to live his place in that losing fully and consciously and convey its force and depth to others.[3] One of his prized tools is laughter. Chuckles, playfulness, and silly jokes punctuated his speech, intercepting nostalgia, sentimentality, and rage (though not grief). Cree, he said, is “the world’s funniest language”; it arose from “the laughter of a cosmic clown.” In his Encuentro keynote, he sought to break the imaginative quarantine on language loss through the powers of the fully fluent, accomplished native speaker who is able, as he put it, to “dig his way through the warp and weave” of the doomed language still so fully alive in and for himself. In the course of conveying the social and imaginative stakes in the disappearance of Cree, he performed a response to another question: By what science of dwelling can a fluent native speaker inhabit a vulnerable language in love, joy, and plenitude, knowing that its life is finite as her or his own?[4] How is such a losing to be lived?

Highway began with geography, a gigantic, resplendent satellite image of the Canadian north on a twenty-foot screen, without which, none of us would understand anything he was going to say. This is a world of “mind-boggling vastness . . . that none of you knows anything about.” Nunavut, sweeping across the screen, is the size of all of western Europe, including Scandinavia, with a population of 35,000.[5] Imagine France, with only a thousand people (chuckles, scattered applause). Growing up in his part of the world, on the border of Manitoba and Nunavut, meant having fifty lakes, not a few meters of beach, all to yourself. The Cree language he learned growing up in the 1950s was embedded in the geography, ecology, and isolation of this region; its cosmologies were constructed in and on that place, reproduced there through generations of native speakers alongside Dene, an even more ancient language of the region. Many people learned both. Nobody around him spoke French or English.

Jorge Luis Borges in his brief text “The Witness” imagines the death of “the last man who has seen the face of Woden.” Highway wanted his audience not just to imagine the last person on earth who dreams in Cree but also to imagine Cree, to attend to its gifts, its rhythm and design. “Pay attention,” he said, “this won’t come your way again.” He conjugated verbs—to breatheto sufferto stink or go sour, subjunctives included. He offered the word for skirt, coded as “dress cut in half.” One, two, three skirts. With hilarity, he described the ritual of the Hail Mary contest: a whole village on its knees in the main street, rosaries rattling in hands. With a starting pistol the priest kicks off the competition to see who can say the rosary the fastest, in Cree. Highway performed it, awarded himself the prize (more laughter and applause). He gave us a sentence that, in a room full of Cree speakers, always triggers instant hilarity. In English it means (merely), “Who just came in the door?” We laughed, imagining how this could indeed always be funny.

Then he got down to the serious business of semantic design. Speakers of European languages do not and cannot know, he said, what it is like to be formed by a language that has no grammatical gender. Or what it is like to then discover that the languages of power around you all divide the world into two, and only two, genders, one subordinated to the other. European languages are “obsessed with gender,” a trait connected for him with Judeo-Christianity’s “monotheistic, phallic superstructure,” which has no room for a female divine or for a capacious multiplicity of genders that does not pit one against the other.[6]

In Cree, as in other Amerindian languages, the key grammatical distinction is between things that are animate, endowed with soul or spirit, and things that are not. In Cree, Highway explained, the former are marked by the prefix aná-, the latter by the prefix animá-. As with grammatical gender, the distinction sometimes seems arbitrary but often is not. For example, the processing of raw materials into usable products involves a shift from having spirit to not having it. The word for cow is marked as animate; steak is cow inanimate. The word for tree carries the marker for animacy; chair is the same word, but marked for inanimacy or absence of spirit. So a chair is a tree that has had its soul or spirit removed. Likewise, the word for rock carries the animacy or spirit marker; cement or sidewalk is the same word but with the inanimacy marker. Processed or manufactured objects, in other words, are coded as inanimate or despirited versions of their animate raw materials, as something like the afterlives of the things they were made from (those are my words, not Highway’s). The distinction does not carry a negative valence but rather marks a transformation from one form of energy to another. Dead or deanimated things remain among us in different form. The live body, of course, is animate, but individual body parts—leg, hand, head—are marked as without spirit or animacy. There are three exceptions, however: the vagina, the womb, and the anus, all coded as having life and spirit of their own. The first two are capacious spaces of life, the third the birthplace of the trickster and laughter, enabling Cree, said Highway, to conceive of “a female god who laughs and laughs and laughs.”

“Don’t let these ideas upset you,” he said. Cree is a disappearing language, and this is “the last gasp,” “the Goddess’s farewell tour . . . a chance to say farewell to an idea that might have worked at one time in history.” At the same time, he demanded an afterlife: “The time has come to listen to other people’s sacred stories. . . . We need to allow our languages to lead us back to the garden and make the serpent speak to the man and not the woman.” We ought to see to it, in other words, that Cree passes on some of its transformative semantic powers: the power to “bend the straight line of the phallic into the circle of the ionic,” which has space for everything; the power to give nature back its soul; the chance to ditch the story of expulsion from the garden and of entitlement to domination of the nonhuman world. What we might want to call exit routes from Western humanism (again, my words, not Highway’s).

Highway’s garden is already in flames. As oxygen-depleting forest fires, driven by insect plagues and drought, increasingly devour the north and move down toward southern cities like Montreal, the long last gasps of Cree will merge into what are increasingly likely to be the long last gasps of carbon-based life on the planet. If, as now seems inevitable, the unfolding “environmental catastrophe of capitalism” (Povinelli, “Geontologies”) makes living loss into a core experience, unevenly distributed, of every remaining generation of living creatures, the matter of how to live the losing becomes a central social and imaginative challenge to human existence. Developing that sad new science of dwelling, clear-eyed, in the remains of the garden, is going to call for the powers and wisdom of the cosmic clown, the goddess who laughs and laughs.

Work Cited

Borges, Jorge Luis. “The Witness.” Labyrinths. New York: New Directions, 1962. 209. Print.

Highway, Tomson. “The Place of Indigenous Voice in the Twenty-First Century.” Encuentro of the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics. Concordia U. 21 June 2014. Address.

Povinelli, Elizabeth. Economies of Abandondment: Social Belonging and Endurance in Late Liberalism. Durham: Duke UP, 2011. Print.

———. “Geontologies: Indigenous Transmedia in the Anthropocene.” Sawyer Seminar on Indigeneity. U of California, Davis. 19 Nov. 2012. Address.

Wenzel, Jennifer. Bulletproof: Afterlives of Anticolonial Prophecy in South Africa and After. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2009. Print.

———. “Reading for the Planet.” TS.

  1. See the United Nations Web site Endangered Languages(www.unesco.org/new/en/culture/themes/endangered-languages/).
  2. Current census data determine the Cree population as a whole at about two hundred thousand.
  3. The life story of Highway is one no subsequent generation will ever be able to tell. He was born in 1951 into a family of hunters on the north edge of Manitoba. One of twelve children (of whom six survived to adulthood), he spent his early years in the vast expanses of lakes and pines, following caribou herds by canoe in summer and traplines by dogsled in winter, speaking only Cree and Dene, the language of fellow inhabitants of the region. The first European language he heard, he says, was not English or French but Latin. The Catholic church had long been entrenched in the region, and the local Cree-speaking priest persuaded Highway’s parents to send their two youngest sons, Tomson and his brother Rene, to a residential school for aboriginal children. Their contact with English began there and eventually led them to high school in Winnipeg, where Tomson trained as a classical pianist and Rene as a dancer. After completing university and seven years as a social worker among Canadian native people, Highway began his career as a writer in the 1980s. His works, many published in both Cree and English, include the plays The Rez Sisters (1996), Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing(1999), and Rose (2000); the autobiographical novel Kiss of the Fur Queen(1998); and a one-woman musical, The (Post) Mistress (2011).
  4. I take the beautiful term “science of dwelling” from a lecture by Elizabeth Povinelli (“Geontologies”) and from her brilliant study over many decades of the life-building work of a small Australian aboriginal group aimed not at preserving authenticity but at providing their young with viable meaningful ways of living the aftermath of colonialism (Economies).
  5. Nunavut, formerly known as the Northwest Territories, was created as an autonomous self-governing region of Canada in 1999.
  6. Highway explicitly connects a rigid gender binary with the history of brutal, often sadistic, murders of aboriginal women in Canadian cities. As I write these words, in August 2014, newspaper headlines are reporting another such murder, of fifteen-year-old Teresa Fontaine, in Winnipeg.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License

English 100 Course Readings Copyright © 2019 by Mary Louise Pratt is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.