Grammar Lesson #2

by Jennifer Hamilton on April 12, 2013, no comments

In 26 Views of a Starburst World, Ross Gibson argues that William Dawes was exposed to an entirely different cosmology in the process of trying to record the Sydney language. Gibson shows how Dawes began to see this different perspective on the world when he was learning the language by means of a series encounters with Patyegarang, an indigenous woman from the north side of the harbour. Gibson argues that this different cosmology is apparent in the structure of the Sydney language itself:

“If Eora language is air, English might be a machine. In English, unadorned nouns pre-exist and prevail, while basic verbs are prescribed to act in a standard way. From this precondition, the English speak can use separate, additive words merely to adjust things and actions in the dependably prescribed, present world. In general, the English language is founded on an assumption that things and actions already exist, that they are givens, pre-formed and shaped to some permanent ideal. Because things an actions are already there, they will always tend to hold the overall shape decreed to them from the world’s genesis. The work you do in speaking or writing English is therefore just an ancillary procedure, just tinkering with the predispositions of an inherited and stubborn reality. The noun or verb is given to you, rock-solid as the world is presumed to be, and you try to customise it with appended qualifiers and modifiers

In the Eora language, by contrast with English, the verb itself (and therefore the world that the verb serves and makes) changes within its sounded self, changes intrinsically rather than just ornamentally. Steele explains that this work is done by sounds such as ‘dara, nara, -gari, -li, -lyi, -ra.’ A suffix insinuates and transmogrifies long utterances, changing the very ‘DNA’ or ‘genetics’ of a proposition. A suffix changes inside the operating code of the statement. The suffix causes things and actions to shift ideational shape in relation to each other as they gather into an utterance … A suffix can cause verbs and surrounding clauses to recharge and realign so that they become entirely new composite utterances. Let’s say these ever-altering sound-events, galvanised by the suffixes dissolved into them, are not only part of the world: they are instantaneously making the world. In Eora language, it seems, the suffixes are catalysts that later the potency of whatever unfolding word-experiment they get thrown into. But simultaneously, they are also language and they are therefore just their own, contingent versions of the world. These vocal sounds are concurrently meagre and momentous. They are simultaneously nothing and a big thing. Like music. Like language. Like breath. So great was their power that they had never needed writing down. The language made a wold just by floating in the air.”[1]

The distinction Gibson upholds between English and Eora was not clear to me until this part of the book. For the first hundred pages I couldn’t help but think that Gibson was upholding a false distinction for the sake of a good argument. Like a good Colonial Soldier, I felt like I needed to defend English from the repeated charge that it was so mechanical and inflexible. It is indeed possible to change the way words “make” the world and words can also take on a different meaning in sentences by virtue of the different prefixes, suffixes, verbs and adjectives. Consider the phrases “that table is blue” and “that table is green”; the table can shape-shift with the assistance of the simple adjective. Or, for example, “the table is set for dinner” compared with “the tornado broke the table into a thousand splinters and scattered them all over the prairie”; the context of the noun shifts its materiality given its place within the sentence and relationship to verbs and adjectives. But in all these examples the idea of table is quite fixed: the idea of a table remains solid, even if the tornado shatters into pieces. So, although we may all imagine a different table in our minds, the tornado breaks apart what should be solid. Perhaps we even hope that the unlucky owner of the broken table will be able to get a new one someday. What Gibson describes here is an altogether different grammar, one that is so different it is almost difficult to imagine how our view of the world could be, if English only were more like this language. From what I can gather, what Eora ‘event grammar’ would allow for is the expression of a tornado and table linguistic combination, and this combination could remake the object itself. It would no longer be a table, but a tornado-table-prairie. The splinters, distributed across the prairie by the tornado, could be expressed as a new and lively part of the world.

At the final residency showing on Thursday April 18, we’ve invited the poet and sociolinguistic researcher Astrid Lorange along to respond to this dilemma more directly.

[1] Ross Gibson, 26 Views of the Starburst World (Perth: UWA Press) 2012, pp. 111-112.

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