In his initial discussion of tone languages in Music, Language, and the Brain, Aniriddh D. Patel writes briefly of the Chinantec, an indigenous people of southern Mexico, who utilize a whistled speech in addition to their tonal, spoken word. They use whistle combinations “of tone and stress distinctions to communicate messages with minimal ambiguity.” And he’s not talking about a hey! or an over here! or some ridiculous catcall. He’s suggesting they actually have a whistle language. Patel quotes D.P. Foris, a linguist who has studied the Chinantec:
Virtually anything that can be expressed by speech can be communicated by whistling [by the Chinantec]. The most complex example that I had interpreted for me was on the occasion that the supply plane was due to come in. Because of heavy rains, I checked the dirt airstrip for erosion and saw that it needed extensive repairs. I went to the town president and explained the need for immediate repairs, a job that was the responsibility of the town police in those days. The town is set in a horseshoe-shaped hillside; his house is at one end of the “arm,” with the town hall at the centre, about 1/2 a kilometer away. He put his fingers in his mouth and whistled to get their attention. They responded that they were listening, and he whistled a long message. I asked for the interpretation, which he gave as the following: “The plane will be here soon. The airstrip needs to be repaired. Get the picks, shovels, and wheelbarrows and fix it right away."
If what Foris claims is true, then this Chinantec whistling business is insane. It makes me believe there’s a whole other realm—other realms—of word out there. Speaking in whistle? Please. A talking drum is crazy enough—but whistling? What else am I missing out on?
A related story comes to mind about the language of a particular Aboriginal group in Australia. I heard it recently on a podcast of the Long Now Foundation’s Seminars About Long Term Thinking (SALT) that featured cognitive psychologist Lera Boroditsky. She was lecturing about how language shapes thought and uses the Aborigines (I cannot pick up their specific name clearly enough from the podcast to spell it here) to that end. Rather than use words for left and right, they use cardinal directions for everything. So, we say left arm, right arm. They say something more like my arm that is to the south-southwest. Actually, as I type this, the arm of which I speak is more like that which is to the east-southeast. I’m not really sure. In fact, case in point, Boroditsky asks her audience, predominantly native English speakers, to point to the southwest. People point in every direction possible. She says had Aborigines been asked the same question, every one of them young and old would have pointed directly and accurately to the southwest. Think about it: if they didn’t know which way was which, they’d be lost—no different than if we couldn’t tell our lefts from rights.
Boroditsky’s point wasn’t simply to illustrate the difference in the languages but the differences in thought such different languages suggest. We left-righters understand ourselves as the center of the world. We base direction on our individual location within the environment such that left and right always means left and right of center, of ourselves. The world moves around us such that this cup of coffee to my right could soon be the cup of coffee to my left, as though it has rotated to my other side.
For the Aborigines, it’s the opposite. Rather than the world move around them, they move around the world. Their linguistic sense of direction is always relative to the object in the world rather than to themselves. If we are self-referential, they are sun-referential. Naturally, Boroditsky posits, cultures who differ in this fundamental way can reasonably be expected not only to think of themselves differently but also of each other and of the world at large differently. They are opposite, ingrained perspectives. You can theorize where such a contrast may lead.
Patel and Boroditsky have other interesting claims to make about language and about thinking, and I can’t help but wonder about poetry—itself a language and way of thought—in relation to their ideas. Specifically, I’m wondering if the writing (and reading) of poetry affects how people think. Even the prosiest of poems is built differently than essay-like prose, and I wonder—must not the thinking involved also be different? Does that thinking filter over into our everyday modes of thought or has it no effect whatsoever on how synapses meet and shake hands? Boroditsky speaks of numerous studies that suggest bilinguals and polyglots think differently when speaking in different languages. She even notes that someone who learns a new language—in effect a new way of thinking—can influence how she speaks her native tongue, thus her native way of thinking. Why should practicing poetry produce a different result?
Certainly poets learn to perceive the world differently than they did before they were poets—just like musicians hear differently than non-musicians, able to pick out individual instruments from a band or orchestra the rest of us more or less hear as a wall of sound. I speak for myself anyway, having learned to pick out guitar, bass, and drums from many a fully-produced tune as a byproduct of learning guitar. On a recent Poetry magazine podcast, Christian Wiman mentions how Kay Ryan suggests a similar perspective—something about how poetry institutes a different way of hearing.
So—what about poetry? Do I think differently when I write prose? When I write prose arbitrary chopped into lines? As I break lines according to meter? By rhyme scheme? Do I think differently when writing a sonnet than I do when writing a pantoum or an open form of my own device? Certainly I must. I recall Jane Miller once saying that a poem, the writing of a poem, was really a thought process—something like that. So, wouldn’t a different form require a different process? Wouldn’t the form at some level dictate the thought?
As I mentioned in an earlier post, I once spent a number of months writing in nothing but traditional forms, hoping to gain over them some sort of mastery. Mostly that hope resulted in failure, but the experience definitely changed me as a poet of predominantly free-verse poetry. It changed how I think of poetry at large, both as writer and reader. Did it change how I think of the world at large? Cripes. I don’t know. But it’s fun to think so. I like to think that writing poetry can affect change in my perception and thought, not just in the moment of a poem, but in my day-to-day living. This isn’t to excuse any of my aberrant behaviors nor to say it’s to my benefit, nor to the benefit of any poet, but I nevertheless like to wonder that poetry has this incredible, transformative power. Now if it would only power our cars and central air conditioning units. Everyone would be hooked.