The Jemez, whose name means simply "people," must have been shocked when Coronado showed up, revealing to them that they — the Jemez — were not the only people, that the name they had chosen for themselves would have to be expanded to include these other “people” or they would have to somehow distinguish those others with some other word or words.
That story has repeated itself many times throughout the history (or prehistory) of man. Hawaiians understood in the story of their own civilization that they had come from other Pacific islands, but their world view was shattered when the English captain James Cook sailed into their waters in the late 1700s. Since then, the transformation of their world has been enormous.
Hawaiians had no text for their language. After Cook charted the way, missionaries of many stripes brought English to Hawaiians in the form of The Bible and primers. Now Hawaii is mapped with Anglicized versions of the mellifluous native language: Waimea, Hanamaulu, Puupehu.
English has been a transported language since its early days, but still has its limitations. Since the rise of the British Empire, English has been spread over the globe and has accelerated its rise to dominance in the age of the Internet, but still pales in numbers of users to the collected dialects of Chinese.
English has certainly been one of the most adaptable languages on earth. Having merged its own root language with the Normans who conquered Britain in the 11th Century, it has absorbed words from all over the world when the British Empire covered a quarter of the planet. The American dialect absorbed words from Spanish (canyon, vigilante), French (filet, genre) and West Africa (voodoo, zombie).
Each human language as it developed helped its people tell its stories in relation to its own region, yet fell short when it came up against the world as a whole. Even English cannot, presumably, tell as descriptive a story for the Arctic experience as can the Sami whose languages have hundreds of words for snow.
When we translate from one language to another, the meaning often shifts, sometimes subtly, sometimes vastly. Sometimes we find that there are no words in one language to describe the experiences of another people who speak in a different tongue. Even the stories we tell lack total universality.
As I read the script for the Broadway hit The Book of Mormon this week, I was struck by the juxtaposition of two cultures struggling with their myths that underpin the belief system of each. The Mormons in the satire struggle to bring their religion to Ugandans who suffer horrors never mentioned by Joseph Smith or the golden plates. Disparate languages and backgrounds provided significant barriers, yet they managed to find enough common ground to make it work.
We humans come from many cultures, complete with languages and mythological structures that seem to clash a great deal. In fact, too often our embrace of one specific culture threatens the potential for reaching across borders and boundaries. Yet when we look beyond the particulars and embedded languages of our many myths, we find that most of the stories we revere are about humans triumphing in the face of adversity.
Our horizons can be expanded daily — often through the arts and the stories our artists tell — if we find the means to express our commonality more often than our diversity.
Terry S. Davis
Picture: Company members of Luau Kilamaku on Kauai tell the story of Hawaii's founding. Photo by Terry S. Davis