Saturday, November 12, 2011

On Language Study

"The kingdoms, states, and empires that became involved in Atlantic exchanges together contained thousands of different languages (two thousand in the Americas alone, with considerably less variation in those European and African states oriented toward the Atlantic)."

- Alison Games, "Atlantic History: Definitions, Challenges, and Opportunities," AHR 111.3 (June 2006): 741-757.

I remember reading this passage for the first time, and thinking to myself: "Anything short of learning and utilizing the thousands of languages of the Atlantic World would be to commit historiographical injustice against the 'lesser' peoples of that world."

I fashion myself as a Pacific historian. In my view, the Pacific World has no more linguistic homogeneity than the Atlantic. I have no ready figure, as Alison Games does, for how many hundreds or thousands of indigenous languages exist, or have existed, along the Pacific Rim and among the thousands of Pacific Islands. The answer is probably just as intimidating as Games' statement that the Americas alone contain two thousand indigenous languages.

Now if we could step back in time one or two generations, before ethnohistory, before subaltern studies, before the new social history, who among us historians would have even acknowledged that these languages existed, or mattered? One thing I've learned in my orals prep this semester is that in the American historiography of China, for example, you could get away with writing Chinese history without using Chinese-language sources up until the 1980s! We used to have such faith in the English-language documentarians of the past; we thought that it was okay to interpret world history solely from their perspectives, Eurocentric, Orientalist, and all.

Skip to the historiography of Hawaiʻi, where use of Hawaiian-language materials has only become "necessary" since the 1990s. True, some historians - including many Native Hawaiian historians - never stopped using Hawaiian-language materials to research and tell moʻolelo (stories; histories), even through those dark ages of the territorial (1898-1959) and statehood (1959-present) periods under U.S. colonialism. But now, most historians of Hawaiʻi, I think, consider it a historiographical injustice to research Hawaiian moʻolelo without using the ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi (the Hawaiian language) to guide his or her research.

Step back in time two generations ago, maybe even just one generation ago, and if I had entered a doctoral program to study U.S. history, as I nominally did here at Stony Brook in 2009, I would have been expected to use mostly English-language materials in my research. And I probably would be expected to learn French and German, too. Because many of the classic works in the Western social sciences were written in French and German. The French would also be useful for studying colonial American history, I admit. Today, no one requires me, or even suggests to me, to read Ranke or Marx or any other Western theorist in any language other than in English translation. Indeed, as the Eurocentric biases of these founding fathers of Western social theory are uncovered and criticized, we are realizing that the whole foundation of Western social theory is only so useful in making sense of Chinese history or Hawaiian history, for example. (On this point, I suggest reading Andre Frank's ReOrient. It really opened my eyes on this issue.)

So where does this leave us? Let us examine these relationships between language study and doing history further. We may do so by taking on as a case study my own nascent experiences in developing competency in the languages of the Pacific World.

Languages of the Pacific World: Chinese

Excerpt from a memorial from the Zongli Yamen (總理衙門)
concerning the Tianjin Massacre (1870)

I started studying Chinese in 2003 while in college. The whole endeavor was inspired by some rather weird twists and turns in my life, in my ideology, and in my imagination. In 2001 and 2002 while living in Southern California I was exposed almost simultaneously to Taoism (道教) and to macrobiotics. Macrobiotics led me to a study of Zen Buddhism, which lasted for a while. But Taoism only led me deeper to Taoism. I remember that I first tried to teach myself Chinese language by checking out a bilingual version of the Dao de jing (道德经), the most important Taoist text, from my school's library. I compared the English to the strange Chinese characters next to it, and I looked for patterns. Let me say, that was not a good way to learn Chinese! I got nowhere!

The next few years brought me closer to something approximating true language study. I took Mandarin classes in college. I studied for one semester at Yunnan Normal University (云南师范大学) in Kunming, China. In my senior thesis on the ethnomusicology of Yi music in southwest China, I even used Chinese-language sources for reference.

Fast forward to 2009 as I entered Stony Brook nominally to study U.S. environmental history. But I could not pass up the opportunity to study for the first time in my life Chinese history. I had studied language and culture and music for six years on and off, but I had never taken a class in Chinese history. True, abroad in Yunnan, we studied twentieth-century history, and I learned about communism, but I did not yet know my Qin (秦) from my Qing (清), or my Tang (唐) from my Song (宋) from my Ming (明)! (I hope I got all those characters right!) :)

Fast forward to the fall of 2011, at present, and I have begun studying Classical Chinese for the first time. The term "classical" is debatable here. What I mean to say is that I am studying pre-vernacular Chinese: pre-Lu Xun; pre-twentieth century.

I had never tried to read a historic Chinese-language document before. That was, until I read the memorial reproduced above. Reproduced is an excerpt from a memorial sent from the Zongli Yamen to the Qing emperor. "Memorial" refers to a document that was used in official communication between the emperor in Beijing and all his advisors as well as men out in the field such as governor-generals, etc. I don't yet fully understand the complex bureaucracy of Qing dynasty communications. All I know is that the Qing had expanded the bounds of "China" to its greatest extent ever by the end of the eighteenth century, and so when this memorial was written, it was part of a huge imperial communications apparatus that stretched thousands of miles across the varied climes of "China." This was before email and the internet (you knew that, right?), and yet somehow the emperor always stayed on top of his imperial news - like the Tianjin Massacre, for example - through the regular memorials he received. And he dispensed instructions back out through memorials. Or something like that!

This particular memorial is pretty much a big summary of what a number of different people have said about the Tianjin Massacre. It is almost legalistic in its organization, with the memorialist saying first that X said this, and then Y said that, therefore the next thing to do should be Z. But of course, whatever the emperor says to do, do it! It begins:

Prince Gong memorializes that, according to Jiangsu Province governor Ding Richang, who memorialized that...

See how we are already in a memorial within a memorial within a memorial? :)

Well, Ding Richang basically says that those government officials and common people who acted out in Tianjin had good cause because the foreign Christian missionary presence there was becoming a major headache. Then the memorial offers the emperor's statement, something to the effect of, these are the facts now, so...

Let the Yamen discuss and memorialize.

More memorializing! One interesting thing to note here is that when the emperor is first mentioned, he is placed symbolically above all other matters. This is why in the original document shown above you see in the fourth column from the right (classical Chinese is read form right to left, from top to bottom) that the character zhi (旨) is placed up high above all the others columns. It is part of the phrase fengzhi (奉旨), meaning "by order of the emperor." You can see it happens again two columns later as well.

So even if you do not read Chinese, you can still learn something from the original document above. You can see how in official imperial correspondence the emperor is symbolically placed above all others. It is often said that a Chinese emperor ruled over "all under heaven" (天下). And in a Qing dynasty memorial, all words under heaven were placed beneath the emperor, too. You perhaps have heard of how visitors were required to kowtow (叩头) before the emperor, that is, to bow down. Well, you can imagine all the meager words in the memorial kowtowing to the emperor in a similar way.

Perhaps the other curious thing about the document above are the many open circles. Those are the equivalent of periods in Chinese; they mark the end of sentences.

Languages of the Pacific World: Hawaiian

Nupepa Kuokoa, Vol. 5, No. 27, July 7, 1866, page 1 (published in Honolulu)

I first began researching Hawaiian history after an initial trip to Hawaiʻi in January 2010, almost two years ago. That trip convinced me that there were a lot of moʻolelo (stories) about Hawaiian history that were simply not being told on the mainland. I have become convinced that most Americans believe Hawaiian history began in 1893 or maybe 1898, or maybe even 1959(!), but few Americans know much about nineteenth-century Hawaiʻi.

By the fall of 2010 I had already written my now-published article, "Boki's Predicament" about the Hawaiian sandalwood industry in the 1810s and 1820s. I did not consult or use any Hawaiian-language materials for that study. But then, out of the blue, a reader of this blog from Hawaiʻi contacted me with more information about ʻiliahi (Hawaiian sandalwood). When our conversation turned to my more recent project, on Hawaiian migrant labor in the American guano industry, he pointed me to a website where I could find more information. When I went to that website, I discovered that the text was all in Hawaiian! Bummer. I tried the old "comparing Hawaiian and English translations side-by-side" thing that I had done with the Dao de jing a decade ago, but of course that did not work! I wish language study was that easy!

It was not initially clear how much material existed in the Hawaiian language on the guano industry. But once I found a website called (an online database of digitized Hawaiian-language newspapers from the nineteenth century), and I typed "guano" into the search engine, scores of entries appeared! And later when I discovered other ways of saying "guano" in Hawaiian, hundreds of entries appeared. It was then that I realized that it would be a historiographical injustice if I continued to write my article on Hawaiian guano workers without consulting the Hawaiian-language archives. And so I found a Hawaiian language teacher in Harlem, and the rest, as they say, is history!

So what can we learn from Hawaiian language documents? Take the newspaper above: Ka Nupepa Kuokoa: The Independent Newspaper. It was called the "independent" newspaper because it was not affiliated with, or sponsored by, the Hawaiian Kingdom. According to historian Noenoe Silva, another newspaper that I frequently reference, Ka Hae Hawaii (The Hawaiian Flag), was indeed sponsored by the Hawaiian Kingdom. Ka Hae Hawaii ran from 1856 to the early 1860s, and then Nupepa Kuokoa took over and stayed in print, I believe, well into the territorial period (1898-1959). Silva is critical of both of these newspapers. Of Ka Hae Hawaii, edited by Christian missionaries, she says it "primarily engaged in civilizing discourse by urging Kānaka Maoli [Native Hawaiians] to work, by denigrating them and other native peoples, and by attempting to domesticate Kanaka women." Of Nupepa Kuokoa, she says the editor's goal was to "replace Kanaka identity, traditions, and the like with foreign (haole) ways and thoughts."

Silva is right to critically read between the lines and identify the haole and missionary discourses that permeate these papers. But I read the newspapers differently. I am most interested in the letters submitted to the editor. The newspapers frequently published letters written by Hawaiian men (and less frequently women) from all walks of life, reporting on conditions of life and labor from all across the Pacific World. In my work on guano, I relied almost exclusively on the writings of Hawaiian laborers thousands of miles from Hawaiʻi on guano islands writing about the conditions they experienced. In my newest project on Hawaiians in California, I have found many sad letters from Hawaiians who have outlasted the Gold Rush and are too embarrassed to return to Hawaiʻi nei from California without the riches their families expect them to return with. These letters highlight the "public sphere" of these newspapers. The letters demonstrate not only that Hawaiians in Hawaiʻi were aware of the activities of the larger diaspora across the Pacific World, but also that Hawaiians across the diaspora were reading the same news as their ʻohana (families) back in Hawaiʻi. This process of reading and writing could easily have lead to what Benedict Anderson calls the formation of an"imagined community," the nation. Whether or not the development of a lāhui Hawaiʻi (Hawaiian nation) originated in part from this diasporic community of newspaper reading is a major research question that still deserves much attention in Hawaiian history.

Unfortunately, I have yet to visit the archives in Hawaiʻi and actually see these newspapers. Based on the scans (like the one above), these newspapers appear to have often been four pages long, and they look like four big pages! Some newspapers mixed Hawaiian and English reporting, as you can see in the document above where in the first column at left the newspaper advertises itself first in Hawaiian and then in English.

Below those initial self-promotions, still in the far left column, there are listed the moku (ships). At first glance, it is not clear what services these ships are providing. Many are kuna (schooners), and some are kalepa (trading/merchant) ships.

Below that are olelo hoolaha (advertisements, or notices). The first one is for the Ahahui Hooholo Mokuahi, the Society for Riding (or Operating?) Steamships(?). Not sure what that is all about. Mokuahi is an interesting compound word: Moku is "ship" and ahi is "fire," thus "fireship" or steamship. Below are listed a number of ships, so probably this ahahui is advertising some of the finest new steamships...but I'd have to look more carefully to really find out what is being advertised here.

Below that is an advertisement for buke (books) for sale. At passing glance I would say these may be the sort of books Christian missionaries would like Hawaiians to read. Prices are given, but I have no idea how these costs compare to daily wages for a Hawaiian makaʻāinana (commoner) in the 1860s. Something to look into.

Now, if you look at the second column from the left, at top begins the real news. And the news on this day is quite somber: Na Hana ma Hale Alii Iolani, no ka Hoolewa ana of Ke Kama Aliiwahine Victoria K. Kaahumanu. The royal princess Victoria Kaahumanu has died, and this particular article concerns the work at Iolani Palace for her funeral(?). Great article for a political historian.

I see the word kanikau come up a lot. It means "song of lamentation" or "song of mourning." Perhaps this piece describes the funeral itself, the words that were spoken, and the mele (songs) that were sung. I have not read it carefully.

The final column at right deals with ahaolelo (legislative) matters. Hawaiʻi became a constitutional monarchy in 1840, and legislation thereafter became the domain of legislators, no longer the domain of the aliʻi, the traditional chiefs, although there was some overlap for a time.

But none of this is what interests me. Flip to page two of this issue of Nupepa Kuokoa and you get to the section on hunahuna mea hou, literally "bits [or scraps] of news." These are just two or three sentences per hunahuna (scrap), saying this happened, or that happened, and so-and-so is here or there doing this or that.

Page 2

Top of page three: ka nu hou hope loa, "the very last news," signaling to readers that the "news" portion is now finally ending? The second column is the "English column": only one column of about 20 in this entire issue of Nupepa Kuokoa. Who read this English column? Who would read it rather than read Hawaiʻi's totally English-language newspaper, the Pacific Commercial Advertiser?

Page 3

Then you have the nu hou o na aina e mai, "news from the foreign lands." As follows, there are news summaries for: Na Feniana (it took a while to figure this out, but it is a reference to the Fenian movement); then Ma ka Ahaolelo Amerika ("in the American Congress" - this was 1866 just after the end of the Civil War and I see Jefferson Davis is mentioned in the article. Interesting); and then No Europa (Europe).

Then finally at the bottom of column 3 on page 3 we get to Na Palapala (Letters). This is where the letters to the editor are printed. And the first letter is from J.M. Kailiopio, a writer from Baker's Island in the equatorial Pacific. His letter, titled "Moolelo o ka Mokupuni Baker's Is. Puakailima" (Story/History of the Island Puakailima [or Baker's Island]) details his experiences as a guano laborer on a tiny island thousands of miles from Hawaiʻi.

Kailiopio describes the size of the island, and what is looks like. He describes some of the biological, geological, and oceanographic features of the place. He mentions how the Hawaiian workers collected cowry shells in their spare time to sell to the resident haole (their overseers) in exchange for work clothes, tobacco, tobacco pipes, matches, and other little things. He describes how little plant life there is on the island because the bird poop is so overpowering it kills the plants. He describes the seabirds, and how in lean times the workers rely on the birds and their eggs as a source of food. And he ends with a very strong critique of the Hawaiian laborers' working conditions on the island. When they get sick, he says, the luna (overseer) just gives them castor oil, salt, and painkillers, and then sends them back to work. The luna keeps changing the rules as he sees fit, he says. Kailiopio also says that many of the Hawaiian workers' bodies have become weak, and some have even died on the island.

In conclusion, for all that these Hawaiian-language newspapers are not - as much as Silva is right that they did not represent the true voices of the Kānaka Maoli, the native people - there are still these fascinating letters to the editor. Kailiopio's letter is exceptionally interesting, moving, and significant for historians. But all the letters have something to say, and they give "voice" to the subalterns who previously were voiceless in Hawaiian history.

Languages of the Pacific World: Spanish

In January 2012, I will begin taking Spanish lessons. It is partly because my lovely fiancee and I are planning a trip to South America, and as of now I know no Spanish! But it is also because as I pursue my newest project on Hawaiians in California, I am realizing how important the Spanish language is to understanding Alta California in the pre-U.S. days of the early nineteenth century. I presented a paper last spring at a Latin American history conference on "Polynesian Explorers in Latin America," but that was more of a research proposal than a discussion of any research findings. I have not yet looked for Hawaiians in the Spanish-language archives, but there is enough evidence to suggest that Native Hawaiian laborers were extremely important actors in the economy of the Alta California coast in the early nineteenth century. And so starting this spring I will bring in Spanish as my third language of the Pacific World.

And so on?

Chinese. Hawaiian. Spanish. There are so many other languages to know. Alison Games would say there are thousands of languages to learn here. From Hawaiian one could naturally progress to studying Māori, or Tahitian, or Samoan, or Tongan, or Rapanui. From Chinese, next would certainly be Japanese. From Spanish, it wouldn't be too hard to add French (certainly useful for studying French Polynesia). One language seriously missing here is Russian. Indeed, Russian is probably next on my dream list of languages to learn for the Pacific World. Because if you want to understand Alaska before it was American, you need to know Russian. Of course, Imperial Russia simply took over other people's lands in the Pacific World, so perhaps it would be just as important to study Aleut, or perhaps I should ask my Siberian friend to teach me Yakut, her native language. Ditto for Spanish California: why not learn Chumash? And even in considering China, why not study the indigenous languages of Taiwan, and the many languages of the ethnic minorities of the South China coast?

Generations ago, few people questioned that history was written by and for the victors. In an imperial world, where a handful of North Atlantic superpowers controlled much of the Southern hemisphere through colonialism, few historians thought there was any history worth telling besides the history of the conquerors. Imperial historians went out to the peripheries and collected and co-opted indigenous stories. Through Orientalism, these historians made up a heck of a lot of stories about these "others," too. And so the many, many histories (most of them orally transmitted) of the world were synthesized into a single meta-narrative, that of the clash between civilization (white folks) and savagery (everyone else), where 99% of the world was classified, of course, as the latter. They were, as Eric Wolf has termed them, "the people without history."

But through language study, we can rediscover the long-lost words of the "others." In fact, we are responsible, as historians, to find these words and give them a critical rehearing. This is a simple matter of historiographical justice. That these documents exist demands us to learn as many languages as possible so that we can really hear what the past is telling us.

Now who wants to join me? What languages should we learn?


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  2. Thanks for sharing this with us. I've quiet enjoyed the experience of reading your blog so far. Maybe some cliff notes at the bottom would be a useful addition to summarize the lessons...regardless i will be checking back here so keep up the delightful work,your readers appreciate it...

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