They can burn books, destroy libraries, forbid languages, ban beliefs, delete past times,
draw new present times, order future actions, torture and execute people...
But they still don´t know how to kill the intangible and bright
bodies of ideas, dreams and hopes.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

A question of names...

A question of names

By Edgardo Civallero

It is not the first time –and probably it will be not the last one– that I ponder the close relation between our form of understanding reality and the words we use for representing or expressing it. I refer specifically to the terms used in thesauri and classification systems, controlled languages intended to codify our universe through a limited set of selected words.

During the last weeks, I have been collaborating with the Universal Decimal Classification Revision Advisory Committee in the elaboration of a classification scheme of the South American aboriginal languages (and peoples). These languages and societies have been neglected and formerly little represented in the tables of UDC (and others, like DDC or LCC). The codes I'm designing will be included (if approved by the Committee) in Auxiliary Tables 1f.

For me, this task became a double challenge. On one hand, I had to do some research in areas of my own profession with which I had no previous contact (e.g. construction of thesauri, documental languages, etc.) and in fields of other sciences (anthropology, ethnology, linguistics...) with which I had little contact through my studies in History. On the other hand, I had to take decisions about the reality I was trying to represent, and about the terms I wanted to employ.

Maybe you, who read these lines, will think that writing down a classification scheme including these languages is a simple matter. Maybe. However, since my first contact with this task, I discovered that nobody knows for certain which indigenous languages are still spoken, who use them, where they are, how many speakers are there... Nobody even knows if these languages are still spoken... Nobody knows how are they exactly, how are their inter-relations, if they have their own writing systems or not...

These points show by themselves a wide social and historical problem, which maybe do not affect us as librarians in a direct way, but that should affect us as human beings. For such languages (and their speakers, and the cultures they represent and codify) are a part of our heritage, of our cultural diversity, and of our global identity.

But let's forget this initial problem. My "crisis" started when, after sketching grosso modo the classification tree of native languages, I tried to fill the blanks with names. I will put an example of my work, so you will be able to understand my confusion...

The Ava people inhabit the eastern region of Salta province (Salta is placed in northwestern Argentina, bordering Bolivia), in a broad phyto-geographical region known as Chaco. The local, Spanish-speaking people call them "chaguancos" (a word which has become a synonym of "brute" in all the area) or "tembeta" (for the war ornament of the same name that Ava men used, in the past, piercing their lower lip). History books, however, perpetuate another name: "chiriguanos", the Spanish version of the Quechua word "chiriwano", scornful denomination that Ava received during the 14th century from their Inka neighbors (and enemies), and which could be translated literally as "frozen shit". They call themselves Ava ("human being(s)") and they call their language (an Andean-influenced variant of Guarani) Ava ñe'e ("the language of the human being(s)"). Their Chané neighbors, formerly their slaves, call them "chaya" (shortened form of the Guarani words che yara, "My Lord"). New history books, attempting to avoid the secular use of these pejorative terms, and respecting local identities, call them Ava-Guarani, setting a distinction with other Guarani-speaking peoples who also inhabit Argentina, like Mbyá people, who live in Misiones province, in northeastern Argentina.

Are you already lost? If you are not, we can add to this list the names that Ava receive from their neighbors: the western Qolla, the eastern Wichi, the northeastern Chorote and Chulupi (all of them also indigenous peoples). We also could include the terms that Spaniards conquerors (XVI-XVII centuries) and Argentinean / foreigners historians and anthropologists created for denominating the different Ava subgroups. And finally, we should not forget all the graphic variations of the previous words, like "chillihuano", "chiriwanu" or "abá".

Choosing –from this wide spectrum of words– a proper name which could accurately represent this people and their language in an international classification is not a simple task. It is not a question of elimination of old sources, neighbors-given names, or graphic variants. In the example shown above, the term Ava (the name that people give to themselves) is not known beyond the indigenous and indigenist circles. On the other hand, the name "chiriguano", the best known and the most reflected in history and anthropology books, is openly pejorative, and it is refused by the Ava themselves. The language they speak is known everywhere as Guarani, but this is not the denomination used by them to name it. It should also be considered that there are not normalized or official forms (neither in Spanish nor in English) for denominating these peoples or these languages: sometimes one is used, sometimes the other, depending on the occasion.

Which reality I must reflect? The same problem is found, repeated, in each one of the Argentinean and South American indigenous groups. It is not a simple question of words: some of these names reflect a long history of oblivion, scorn, aggression... By naming a thing or a person, we are setting a personal position in relation to what we name. Thus, we must become conscious of the value of the words we employ; we must think about their meaning, and we should be careful when using names of persons and societies...

Here I am, wondering if I should use "toba" ("big forehead") or Qom ("people"), or if I should use "tehuelche" ("unsociable people") or Aonik'enk ("people"). And I smile when I remember that, in Russian, "German" is "niemets" ("dumb"). Definitively, it seems an international problem about which nobody has thought too much. A problem that, after centuries of continuous and unconscious use, has disappeared of our minds as such. But is has not disappeared of "their" minds, of the mind of "the Others", who are just asking for a little bit of respect.

The Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights of Barcelona (1996) points out the necessity of calling the languages according to the names the speakers give to them. A little of ethics pushes me to avoid the pejorative terms. But the question, my big question, is if a thesaurus or a classification system built with "clean" (but sometimes unknown) terms would be useful for the final users.

Maybe it is just a question of checking out, for once, if the union of respect and usefulness is possible. Or if, once again, positive values fall under the pressure of suitability.