“Never underestimate the value of knowing another’s language. It can be far more powerful than swords and arrows.”
Cheri’s challenge this week focuses on Letters – highlighting the power of language and our ability to communicate with one another through writing. Languages have always been among my favorite things. I majored in them in college, where one of my favorite classes was Linguistics. There, we learned quite easily to read, write and speak a bit of Swahili among other things – all based on the rhythms. cadence and basic structure of language.
“There’s no such thing as dead languages, only dormant minds.”
Carlos Ruiz Zafon
While in China last fall, we visited Lijiang, home of the Naxi people. Theirs is the only remaining actively-used pictograph language in the world. The symbols are called Dongba, and they have been traced back as far as the 7th Century. During the Chinese Cultural Revolution Dongba use was discouraged and many manuscripts were destroyed. Today they are working to restore it in order to preserve the Naxi culture. Dongba priests create works on paper which is handmade from wood, then sewn into books. The language is extremely complex, with over 1,400 characters, mostly pictograms like those above. It takes upwards of 15 years to become proficient in Dongba script, which helps explain the dwindling few who use it.
“Pity the poor in spirit who know neither the enchantment nor the beauty of language. ”
Dongba is not the only beautiful script in China. There are 7 main Chinese dialects including the official national language, Mandarin. Most of the Han Chinese share a common script despite their different dialects; so although they do not understand one another’s speech, they can communicate through writing. I captured the image above at a park outside of Beijing where several Chinese were practicing script-writing with large brushes on granite pavement – a very different form of street art.
“Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.”
I had to laugh at myself when I saw this shot after downloading it. If you look closely at the yellow and brown Chinese sign, you’ll see the English translation below – “No Photograph”. For those too impatient to read, there’s a pictorial most anyone can understand! Clearly I was more focused on the shot than the sign 🙂
“Perhaps there is a language which is not made of words and everything in the world understands it.”
Frances Hodgson Burnett
Like the red circle with a line through it, some symbols work in every language. Exhibit A above, for example, delivers an obvious message regardless of language.
Finally, I’ll close with a lovely sign that includes both script and a heart-warming little white cottage complete with picket fence. Here in the US it’s a symbol of achieving the dream of owning one’s own home in a quiet, simple place where the heart can feel at home. It seems it too is a symbol that works in any language.
“Differences of habit and language are nothing at all if our aims are identical and our hearts are open.”
To see some of the letters of others, click here.