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Thursday, May 30, 2013

Literary Mythmaking: Reworking Warped Threads

As languages evolve over time, their words they contain change ever so slightly as they are uttered from one person to the next. At first, the words might only slightly change in the manner they are pronounced, yet the interlocutors' accents do not prevent them from being mutually understood. A good example is the difference between different forms of Modern English, such as when Canadian English speakers talk to their distant British friends, or with their Australian mates from the other side of the world; regardless, the forms of the English language spoken between these countries are mutually understandable, all except for certain terms which are certainly more common to each "locality" or country. Evidently, context plays a very important part in language evolution, be it historical, cultural, geophysical or whatever else that contributes to certain innovatory features that appear in a form of English and not the other.

English is the present-day lingua franca in the world today, therefore it is difficult to imagine the evolution of Modern English into so many other tongues - linguistic offshoots - but if history can bear testimony to language change; it is unavoidable. English, too, shall one day cease to exist and out of one main stem, branches will grow in many different directions. We need only to look at what happened to another great lingua franca, Latin, and all that sprouted from it, e.g. French, Italian, Spanish, Romanian... Hard to believe, but  until the end of the 18th century - not too long ago - most books were written in Latin instead of the more common everyday vernaculars. 

So where am I going with all this? No, this article is certainly not going to be about any specific language family's history or whatever else topic that could be classified under the general heading of historical linguistics in general. What I think that I wanna do with this article is just to explore a little bit... I wanna explore how language travels, how it is that through one ear to another when a story is told from one wayward traveler to another, then onwards from that last one listening to a companion and so on and so forth... Or the same goes for text, when the word has been written down. Until in the end, the story has traveled from one place to the next, and the next, and so on - until it has traversed cultures, the story translated from one language group to another. To put it simply, people like to talk and to entertain each other, and so they have always been. Everyday, everywhere, we communicate in communion with each other. Cultures often connect not on any great stage, but rather instead cultures connect when people meet together on a personal level and just talk. In a world where religions, cultures, and languages, are ruled and constantly kept into check by religious leaders, computer spell checks, dictionaries, the 40 Immortals from the French Academy come to mind... In short, there are certain constrains that try to prevent change sometimes, whether this change be found in the way we think, speak, write, or whatever else.

I feel like being creative and to invent a virtual laboratory where I can permit myself to explore how a story travels from one culture and language to another - a sort of machine that can can permit us to look at a story and to see how it changes, how it differs as it travels - as it unravels - across cultures and languages, a process not too dissimilar to how myths are created in the realm of "great" stories with "great" big and important themes. me to look at. Think about how often kids at a birthday party play the telephone game, sitting in a circle and secretly telling a simple strand of story to the boy or girl sitting directly next to them, who retells it to the next kid, then this kid retells again to the next, and then so on it goes, until the story comes back full swing making its way all too often than not a little distorted to the first kid. Then everybody has a good laugh when the original storyteller reveals to the group what the original version of the story was, and the kids all piecemeal their misunderstandings together hysterically as they realize what they had thought they had heard whispered into their ear. Think of this telephone game on a grander scale, let's say the stage of the world's cultures and languages thousands of years ago in a predominantly illiterate existence. Over millennia, seemingly this is how myths are formed, for stories take on many mythic proportions as they get passed on.

However, since we cannot build a time machine to return to any specific ancient epoch to study the "myth making" process - nor can we see it over the centuries it would take for a myth to form-, let us instead use the marvelous technological tools (Google Translate) we have at our disposal in order to set up our, hmm... for simplicity's sake - let's call this virtual lab we're creating the "mythmaker". It has a nice ring to it. To begin our experiment, let's take a simple strand of story to feed through Google Translate and make it "travel" from one ear to the next until we revert it back into the original language it started in - in this case being English. The demonstration will serve to show how the story seems to sound a little bit "odd" as it "travels" through languages and cultures, and that upon it's return the final version is quite different from the original. Then we'll put them side by side just to look at what strange changes have occurred, and that how a simple story becomes and sounds somewhat "mythical" as it traverses "cultural" zones.

In my mythmaking recipe, I'll take some strand of text and make it travel from point A to point B. England will be my Point A - since we're working in English - and point B will be located somewhere in the Punjab. This means that I will feed my "story" into the mythmaker and see what happens as the "story" makes its  way from person to person over many great distances, for many centuries (why not?), onwards until it reaches my point B, somewhere in the Punjab (Pakistan). And what languages does this story get to be recounted in? Well, an English fisherman might've told the story to a Frenchman at a tavern, who then told it to an Italian at the fish market, who then recounted it to an Austrian, who then told it to a Hungarian, and then it got passed on to a Romanian, a Greek, Turk, Iranian, and onwards until it reached my point B speaker in the Punjab in Pakistan. Are you getting the jist of it? It's like the children's telephone game on a grand scale. Look at the map below to reorient yourselves with the Eurasian languages I mentioned in my point A to point B story traveling. 

Our Mythmaking Atlas: The Eurasian Political Map



First, as for the English text that I'll insert into the mythmaker, I'll use something that easily accessible. Let's say a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche, one of my favourite philosopher's, taken from his Wikipedia bio article. It is a quote from Thus spoke Zarathustra (Prologue, §§3–4):
I teach you the overman. Man is something that shall be overcome. What have you done to overcome him?... All beings so far have created something beyond themselves; and do you want to be the ebb of this great flood, and even go back to the beasts rather than overcome man? What is ape to man? A laughing stock or painful embarrassment. And man shall be that to overman: a laughingstock or painful embarrassment. You have made your way from worm to man, and much in you is still worm. Once you were apes, and even now, too, man is more ape than any ape... The overman is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the overman shall be the meaning of the earth... Man is a rope, tied between beast and overman—a rope over an abyss ... what is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end.

Let's make this text travel from England all the way to the Punjab in our virtual little lab. So, first, we feed this text into our mythmaker machine - Google Translate is our tool for this. The recipe to make our story travel through culture, time, and space is the following: I just copy and paste the above text into Google Translate and translate from English to French, then copy paste results and translate from French to German, then German to Hungarian, Hungarian to Romanian, Romanian to Greek, Greek to Turkish, Turkish to Persian, Persian to Urdu and then finally just translate the final result into English again to see what you get.

Below, is my Point B Urdu version translated back into English. For comparison's sake, look at the mythmaking process and compare it to the above original which left from Point A in English, and see how the text changed as it traveled from culture to culture - not unlike the results one would expect from the familiar kid's telephone game. Here's the somewhat nonsensical text I get when it is retranslated in English from its Point B destination which is in Pakistan where is spoken Urdu:
Superman you. Man is something that must be overcome. You can overcome this? Fratr all by himself and Echo ... darayy cyzy wild animals, even by the Census tuannd at times stormy kaهs elderly men insult and mskrه set mamoon or pain? Shame. And human Übermensch: fun, or a painful embarrassment. Now, you guys, worms, and insects. You were apes, and even now he's a monkey, monkey ... So if Superman Earth. Views: Superman on Earth ... Man with rope between animal and human bone ... What a great man, a bridge or over.
Or, even more fun, even if this lab we've just created isn't a real world situation, it is nevertheless amusing to look at what else you get when you mythmake. Taking the same above recipe, below is the Hungarian version of the text when retranslating it into English:

You the Overman. Man is something that shall be overcome. What did you do to overcome it? ... All beings have created something beyond themselves, and want to be the ebb of this great flood and even go back to the wild animals do not beat people? What is the monkey man? A laughingstock or a painful embarrassment. And the man, the Übermensch: a laughing stock or painful embarrassment. Got the path of the worm people, and that is still worm. If you were apes, and even now, the man is more ape than any ape ... Superman is on the ground. Have your say: The Overman is on the ground ... Man is a rope between animal and man, tied a rope to divide the ... what a great man that he is a bridge and not a goal.
Not too distorted that one.

But let's move on now and follow Nietsche's words a little farther down the road - in the same "recipe" - and let's take a look what we get when retranslating into English from the Turkish:
You are Superman. Adam is available on a bad thing. What did you do to overcome it? ... All assets created something beyond themselves and return to the wild animals, even if people can not beat the great flood to decline and would make a mockery of the man is the monkey or pain? shame. And man, Übermensch: ridicule, or painful embarrassment. People and wounded wolf trail is still worm. If you were apes, and even now he's a monkey, a monkey ... If Superman is on the ground. Views: Superman on the ground ... The man is a rope between animal and human rope attached to divide the ... what a great guy is not a bad bridge, an end.
I think this is my favourite one. Or simpler still, just send the text from England to France and back again and see what you get... I even bother to show you the results because it is virtually the same - the cultural distance is not great enough. If anything, the mythmaker process could be just as useful to demonstrate what people have already known for years, that culture and language affects/effects the story being told and the way it is being heard -and retold. And this even if the listener has paid as much close attention to it as possible. In the end, since the birth of human speech, I regret to inform you dear reader that we have all been playing the telephone game, and shall continue to do so forevermore. All of the great religions, cultures, and languages of the world, in sum, have all depended on it in acquiring new knowledge and spinning new tales from old ones - with the storyteller simply reworking the warped thread.



  1. Wonderful Idea. Stories and Ideas travel on vehicle of words. Who knows one day we may simulate how languages evolved in similar fashion.

  2. There is a whole branch of sociolinguistics and linguistic anthropology that studies oral history. References are from too long ago for me to remember, but many findings in this research concluded that, despite words and contexts and languages changing, oral history generally has not changed the basic concepts in any given story, and these actually remain the same over hundreds of years if not thousands and have survived linguistic evolution (at least within a language if not between languages). In fact, my linguistic anthropology professor used to testify on behalf of some First Nations groups' land claims by demonstrating their ownership of their land through hundreds or years or oral history and storytelling in spite of not having a written language that literate cultures are so (mis)guided by. Stories were often changed to suit the listeners' context. For example, there is a Chinese proverb that states, "A single bamboo pole does not make a raft". Although our knowledge of the world is much greater now, and we know what bamboo is, in a time where they didn't, it might have made more sense to a Canadian at one time to say, "A single poplar branch does not make a canoe", or something to that effect. The concept would be the same, but the words change to suit the listeners' needs so they understand the meaning behind it. It's a pretty interesting field of study, and there's lots of literature on the topic :o)

    1. Although, unfortunately for anyone presently enrolled in a Linguistics program at the university level, more often than not historical linguistics - or linguistic anthropology - has been relegated to the proverbial "back-burner". Professors nowadays because of the Chomskyan revolution surrounding the study of languages make it so that because languages are proven to be a universal instinct, and that grammar in itself is nothing more nor less than an easily recognizable code that can be broken down into a syntactic tree on the blackboard for all to see... I speak from experience, being a former major in Linguistics at the University of Ottawa, in spite of the fact that logic tells us all that language and word meanings and their roots - etymons - are wholly important and to fully understand the characteristics and evolution of any language, without a doubt the anthropology of words and their etymologies should matter. Yet, funny story for you, I once had a professor (who will remain unnamed) - a well-respected European prof, a pure Chomskyan syntactician - who actually told the class that, "The etymology of any word in any language is nothing less than an accident and you may look up the root if you desire to do so, dear class. If anything, it might amuse you." I am not kidding, these are his exact words - translated from one of his boring French lectures.