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Round circles

sat13sep2008—37w257d70%— 17h20m00s—0utc

There are more concepts than words. Hence the phrase.

Jorge Wagensberg

Almost didn’t read this slow starting quote. The 1st paragraph seemed just vague philosopher fluff (philo-fluff-y?) but then at the 2nd a fascinating example is hinted, by the 3rd I was swooning. How Borgesian, fantastic and ultimately impossible a language Trobriander is!

The Trobrianders are concerned with being, and being alone. Change and becoming are foreign to their thinking. An object or event is grasped and evaluated in terms of itself alone; that is, irrespective of other beings. The Trobriander can describe being for the benefit of the ethnographer; otherwise he usually refers to it by a word, one word only. All being, to be significant, must be Trobriand being, and therefore experienced at the appropriate time as a matter of course by the members of each Trobriand community; to describe it would be redundant. Being is never defined, in our sense of the word. Definition presents an object in terms of what it is like and what it is unlike; that is, in term of its distinguishing characteristics. The Trobriander is interested only in what it is. And each event or being is grasped timelessly; in our terms it contains past, present, and future, but these distinctions are non-existent for the Trobriander. There is, however, one sense in which being is not self-contained. To be, it must be part of an ordained pattern; this aspect will be elaborated below.

Being is discrete and self-contained; it has no attributes outside of itself. Its qualities are identical with it, and without them it is not itself. It has no predicate; it is itself. To say a word representing an object or act is to imply the existence of this, and all the qualities it incorporates. If I were to go with a Trobriander to a garden where the taytu, a species of yam, had just been harvested, I would come back and tell you: “There are good taytu there; just the right degree of ripeness, large and perfectly shaped; not a blight to be seen, not one rotten spot; nicely rounded at the tips, with no spiky points; all first-run harvesting, no second gleanings.” The Trobriander would come back and say “Taytu”; and he would have said all that I did and more. Even the phrase “There are taytu” would represent a tautology, since existence is implied in being; is, in fact, an ingredient of being to the Trobriander. And all the attributes, even if he could find words for them at hand in his own language, would have been tautological, since the concept of taytu contains them all. In fact, if one of these were absent, the object would not have been a taytu.

Such a tuber, if it is not at the proper harvesting ripeness is not a taytu. If it is unripe, it is a bwanawa; if overripe, spent, it is not a spent taytu but something else, a yowana. If it is blighted it is a nukunokuna. If it has a rotten patch, it is a taboula; if misshapen, it is a usasu; if perfect in shape but small, it is a yagogu. If the tuber, whatever its shape or condition, is a postharvest gleaning, it is an ulumadala. When the spent tuber, the yowana, sends its shoots underground, as we would put it, it is not a yowana with shoots, but a silisata. When new tubers have formed on these shoots, it is not a silisata but a gadena. An object cannot change an attribute and retain its identity. Some range of growth or modification within being is probably allowed, otherwise speech would be impossible; but I doubt whether they are conscious of it. As soon as such change, if we may introduce one of our concepts here, is officially recognized, the object ceases to be itself.

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