Tuesday, May 16, 2017

From Mummies to Aliens: The Power of Language

Alien language in the film Arrival



Coffin of the Lady of the House, Weretwahset, circa 1292–1190 B.C.E. Brooklyn Museum)
I recently visited the Brooklyn Museum and was fascinated by the exhibit, "Gender Transformation in Ancient Egypt." The ancient Egyptians believed in rebirth, and therefore, placed great importance on the rituals of death and burial, including mummification, spells carved on tomb walls and coffins, and the prayers in the Book of the Dead that accompanied the body. 

A curious belief they had was that in order to make rebirth possible for a woman, she had to briefly turn into a man. According to Egyptian belief: the man created the fetus and transferred it to the woman during intercourse. So... a woman alone in her tomb could not conceive the fetus of her reborn self. What do you think they did? Deny women the possibility of an afterlife? Or come up with a creative solution? Like magically transforming a woman's mummy into a man long enough to create a fetus? 

That's exactly what they did. Priests turned a female into a male by the strategic use of male color and language. Red was the color used to represent a man's skin so they painted the woman's skin red -- on her coffin. 

And as a writer, here's what I find most interesting: the "you" in their language had both a masculine and feminine form. On the woman's coffin, and in spells recited by the priest, the woman was addressed with the masculine form of the pronoun, as if to fool the gods that the body buried inside the coffin was a man.

Earlier scholars attributed this to mistakes, but recent research reveals the logic behind the transformation, and the magical power of language to not only affect reality, but to change it. Later, the woman will return to her female identity and be reborn as a woman, but for a brief time, the ancient Egyptians believed that through words she could be transformed into a man long enough to give birth to herself. 

Like everything that explores and demonstrates the power of words, this blows my mind. It reminds me of the film, ARRIVAL, in which a human linguist (Amy Adams) decodes the written language of aliens. Their ink blot language is circular, no beginning or end. As the linguist learns their language, her mind expands to accept their vision of time, and she begins to perceive the world as they do, circular rather than linear. The verb tenses, or concepts of "future" and "past" no longer have any meaning, or at least not the meaning we attribute to them. The film's central idea demonstrates the theory of linguistic relativity -- that the structure of language affects its speakers. Past and future events swirled through the movie in no apparent order -- making it a frustrating experience for some viewers and a very exciting one for others. 

The idea that language shapes our world dates back to the mummies, and long before. Whether or not we believe in the power of words to express our thoughts and beliefs, and even more, to actually shape and determine them -- i.e., to transform gender or to see past and future as a flowing circle rather than a horizontal line -- we can, I think, agree that language teaches us a great deal about who we are, what we fear and desire, our potentials and our limitations. And our responsibility to use language with care.

Words can offer passageways into wondrous realities. Or slam the door in our face. 

As long as we are not chased from our words we have nothing to fear. As long as our utterances keep their sound we have a voice. As long as our words keep their sense we have a soul. 
                                                                                   -- Edmond Jabes


3 comments:

Judith Lasker said...

So fascinating. See Sapir-Worf hypothesis about this.

Judith Lasker said...

So fascinating. See Sapir-Worf hypothesis about this.

Ruth Setton said...

Judy-- I've always been intrigued by this hypothesis. It opens the door to so many possibilities.