Friday, 12 December 2008

Barbarian epiglottal clicks vs. Miriam Makeba's songs

A month ago, Miriam Makeba died. She was a legendary South African singer. And the voice raised for claims of dignity, in more than only one nation. Her songs, in many different tongues, undermined physical and mental borders as powerful echoes of international solidarity. 

Reading obituaries, especially when they are dedicated to fully accomplished personalities as her, makes feel like our lives could be fold up into the pages of a newspapers. "What is life? A Frenzy. What is life? An illusion, A shadow, a fiction, And the greatest profit is small". At least, according to Spanish playwright Calderon for whom "Life is a dream"...

Perhaps in a journalist's dream, life would be these few lines classified in the last pages of broadsheets, tabloids and berliners: obituaries.

When Miriam Makeba died, I did not really felt like reading any mummified portrait though. At least, watching videos or listening to her voice while having a quick look on the tight sentences of press agencies seemed a better way to remind of her art. 

This was until I incidentally found this very interesting text published by The Economist (13/11/2008). Though more interesting than the article itself were the reactions of readers, pointing out inaccuracies you would not expect from such a reputed publication. 

"Five marriages, four ending in divorce, the first with a man who beat her and the fourth, in 1968, with Stokely Carmichael, the leader of America’s Black Panthers. She loved him, and failed to see what loving Stokely had to do with anything else."

Two readers hopefully stressed on the fact that Stokely Carmichael was actually not the leader of the Black Panthers.

But another passage is a bit dissonant too:

"Ms Makeba could soar like an opera singer, but she could also whisper, roar, hiss, growl and shout. She could sing while making the epiglottal clicks of the Xhosa language. Clicking, clapping, dancing or dreaming, laughing or sad, she seemed to contain all the strength, warmth, sensuousness and burnished beauty of Africa, as well as all its sounds." 

The "sensuousness and burnished beauty of Africa" unfortunately sounds like an advertising for some safari trip where adventurous white people are not afraid of qualifying a language they do not understand of "epiglottal clicks".
And so what? That is the way they speak actually. The others, the barbarians.

In the third part of Race and History, Claude Lévi-Strauss, a French anthropologist offered a very useful analysis about the words "savage" and "barbarian", relating the latter to a false perception of the others' language, whose growling speech is considered less rational and civilized than the smooth Occidental ones:

"The word "barbarian" is probably connected etymologically with the inarticulate confusion of birdsong, in contra-distinction to the significant sounds of human speech, while "savage" — "of the woods" — also conjures up a brutish way of life as opposed to human civilization. In both cases, there is a refusal even to admit the fact of cultural diversity; instead, anything which does not conform to the standard of the society in which the individual lives is denied the name of culture and relegated to the realm of nature." 

By qualifying a different language of "epiglottal clicks", the Economist's writer reveals that his own speech is actually not so rational. Being unable to understand something does not make it not understandable for the rest of the world, except if you think the world revolves around your language and culture. As Lévi-Strauss again remarked, this is a typical feature of  "barbarians". Even if it is not sure that these words of "savage" and "barbarian" would make any sense without the reference to a dominant culture.

"This attitude of mind, which excludes "savages" (or any people one may choose to regard as savages) from human kind, is precisely the attitude most strikingly characteristic of those same savages."

Economist's epiglottal clicks?

Miriam Makeba of course already experimented this "ethnocentric attitude", long time before it was echoed by the famous magazine, as she said in the intro of Click song:
"In my native village in Johannesburg, there is a song that we always sing when a young girl gets married, it is called the click song by the English because they cannot say omotwan."

Miriam Makeba, with a few words and one song, is post-mortem throwing in the grave The Economist's inaccurate obituary. This is the revenge of epiglottal clickers: creating with their multiple minorities languages a new expression that shakes and often enriches the "proper", major speech.