I’ve been trying to make a concerted effort to connect with my mother’s L1 – Tamil, a language that’s native to southern India and Sri Lanka. I’ve taught myself to read but I can’t manage its extreme diglossia so forget literature, even newspapers are out of reach. I am building my knowledge of the language in other ways such as David Shulman’s sumptuous and erudite ‘Tamil a Biography‘. In it, he discusses a concept called ‘vāymŏḻi’ (the ḻ happens to be a retroflex approximant) or true speech which I’ve been mulling over this past week.
“One might think that truth is a universal concept not in need of further, local characterization. There is truth and there is untruth, and the difference between them is, we could imagine, clear in every culture. But in fact the notion of truth or truthfulness is always culturally determined. The Greeks called truth aletheia, a “nonforgetting” or “noninattention,” and linked it with unveiling, penetrating past the shimmering surface. Tamil conceptions of truth are quite different. They are, above all, dependent on ideas about the autonomy and integrity of the spoken, audible (musical) word that, once uttered, will always live out its life in the world independent of the speaker’s will. Thus truth is connected to sound—specifically, to the phonemes of the Tamil language—and what sound can do in, or to, a world that is itself made up of sonic forces, inaudible quivers, subtle buzzes.”
That’s of course fascinating, beautiful and lyrical but what got me thinking was this idea of speech becoming truth because it is spoken in a certain context. When you’re training teachers, particularly trainee teachers, I get the sense that your word as the trainer is accepted as the truth regardless of whether it is or not outside that room or platform. And when these ideas go out into the real world, they continue to evolve because they’re being implemented in some form or the other. I certainly experienced this on my initial training and acquired ideas that continue to influence my practice even today. These notions once uttered, live out their life in the world independent of the trainer’s will. That’s a proposition I find deeply unsettling.
* A big thank you to Matt Noble for prompting me to start paragraph blogging with his frigging paragraph blogging fecundity this month!
Image attribution: Jaffna, Sri Lanka by arileu | Flickr | CC BY-NC 2.0