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Losing Language, Losing Knowledge Posted by Maralann on 26 Jun 2012

* Losing Language, Losing Knowledge

By: Susan Hawthorne

The snake-wielding Goddess of Smiss, Gotland, largest island in the Baltic Sea, off the southeast coast of Sweden. Early medieval, pre-Christian era, c. 400-1000 CE. These double-snake goddesses appear all over: Iran, Nigeria, Crete, Canaan, Mexico, Britain, Ecuador...

PICTURE: Goddess of Smiss, Gotland. Image taken from the wonderful Suppressed Histories Archives Facebook page.

This talk was prepared for a session at the 2011 Brisbane Writers Festival. It forms the basis of what I talked about in that session.

Session description: Of the 7,000 languages in the world today, 50% are likely to disappear in our lifetime. Preserving and appreciating cultural and linguistic diversity is among the central challenges of our times.

The river sings, bubbling

words into speech

from speech comes lyric poetry

sung by young women

in the service of Sappho

sister to Saraswati

who wrote her world

into existence, memory

inscribed on stone, on palm leaf

and she carried fire

underwater, underground

where she flows invisibly

more sacred than the things

that can be seen

lapis -> halapis -> salapis ->sarapis ->

sarapphis -> sarappha -> sappha  -> psappha

sarappha -> sarapfa -> sarapva -> sarapwa ->

sarahapwa-> saraswa -> saraswati -> savoir (The Butterfly Effect p. 171)

I wrote this poem after hearing about the River Sarasvati, a mythical underground river in India that is known by the name of the goddess of language. It seems an apt metaphor for the loss of language and the loss of memory which surrounds us. In this poem, I have imagined a connection between the precious stone lapis, the lyric poems of Sappho, the goddess of knowledge and language, Sarasvati and the French word for knowledge, savoir.

One of the elements rarely discussed when there is public speech about languages is the role that women play in language acquisition and maintenance. While there are exceptions, by and large it is women who are the first teachers of language. They sing, they burble with their babies, they interact with toddlers with encouragement and as they get older by correcting or by displaying correct usage.

In recent years there has been a greater recognition of women as the social glue, as the keepers of knowledge, as the maintainers of traditions. In Indigenous societies this is often accompanied by knowledge of plants and medicinal usage, in ‘modern’ societies it is the passing down of family histories, of stories that span several generations, of songs sung by grandmothers, aunts and mothers.

In spite of this reluctant recognition, there is little public acclamation. In part this is due to our economic system which simply does not recognise work done in the domestic sphere (compare the budgets of home remedies with medicine; of history with genealogy; of classical music with traditional songs).

In 1969, I enrolled in a PhD in Philosophy on the structure of belief systems in ancient societies. Unfortunately, I only lasted a year mostly due to my inability to explain what it was I wanted to write. This project, however, took me to studying Ancient Greek and by a rather circuitous route almost 30 years later, to studying Sanskrit. While I did not go on to complete the research, it has nevertheless informed much of what I have done since (so instead of one PhD, I have a novel, a very different PhD in Political Science and several collections of poetry).

In my novel, The Falling Woman, I wrote:

Each carries within her the seed of future generations, and in her mind the seed of future actions, future realities, dreams that will burst into flower. The germination of a thought may mean the creation of a whole new world, or the loss of an old one.

Each is a creatrix in her own right. (The Falling Woman p. 64)

This novel takes the reader on a journey to the centre: an external geographical centre as well as an internal centre, exploring the mythic in the everyday.

In Sanskrit there is the word Prakṛti. It combines all the following: MW 654.1: in mythology Prakṛtī is a goddess; the original producer of the material world; in grammar it is the elementary form of the word: the root. It also means cause, original source, nature, model, matter, matrix, seed.

And in keeping with the connection between matter, matrix, mother, German Mutter, and perhaps mutter and mud in English and German, Prākṛt means low, vulgar, unrefined, original and any provincial or vernacular dialect cognate with Sanskrit. Prākṛt is the language spoken by women and ‘inferior characters’.

If, as linguist and novelist, Suzette Haden Elgin argues, language structures the way we see the world, it is likely that the speakers of Sanskrit (men of the upper caste, Brahmins) and speakers of Prākṛt (women and lower castes) saw the world rather differently. Interestingly, while Prākṛt has to do with creation and matter, Sanskrit (from the word saṃskṛta) is constructed, perfected, highly ornamented, finished, cooked, refined. Looks like the women are in the linguistic kitchen!

In her novel, Native Tongue, Suzette Haden Elgin creates a non-patriarchal language in which the experiences of women are reflected in language. Here is one of her words:

radíidin: non-holiday, a time allegedly a holiday but actually so much a burden because of the work and preparations that it is a dreaded occasion; especially when there are too many guests and none of them help. [think Christmas]

With my latest book Cow, I wanted to enter the mythic zone and the best way for me to do so was to write from the perspective of an animal, as so many mythic stories are. I have a character Queenie: she is a woman, she is a cow. Like Prakṛti, she creates the world, think of the Milky Way, she carries language and knowledge in her dilly bag (the word queen in English comes from Sanskrit gau, to Greek gune, to Norse kvinna, to English queen). I chose Queenie and cows as my vehicle for this book because the cow is the default among bovines, on the one hand she is worshipped, on the other she is meat, she is a herbivore and brings much to the community. In many societies the cow holds a special place (she may be a bovine, a whale, a dugong, a camel or an elephant). She produces milk, which is magically transformed into curd or butter or cheese; she produces dung for building, making fires or improving soil quality, her hide is used for garments or shelter. It’s not surprising that rock art in Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Africa and North America includes many images of cows.

Teachers of Sanskrit tell you that learning language is like the four feet of the cow: the first is the teacher, the second foot is the student; the third are fellow students, and the fourth is time. So whether it is Sanskrit or Prākrit, Gaelic or English, Djiru or Yaggera the learning of language is what makes it possible for us to live in social units.


what the linguist says about Queenie

she was dancing over India

and out fell the languages

thousands of them written

in hundreds of alphabets

a dancer and linguist

Queenie steps out the letters

in the sands of Phoenicia

aleph alpha alif ox and cow

travelling east and west

her hooves have split

the letters morph through

Tocharian and Gandhari

Prakrit Sanskrit Tamil and Pali

there are many trade routes

many tales in the passage

of these letters finding the

edge of sound and shape

she traces vowels in the cave

of her mouth the consonants

travel from larynx to lips

she teaches them the sound of the universe (Cow, p. 79)


(The letters Hebrew aleph, Greek alpha and Arabic alif are all derived from the Phoenician word for ox or cow.)

And if we ignore the speakers of other languages, or half the speakers of the dominant language, we are losing a great deal. Linguistic and cultural diversity are as important as biodiversity. We know that when biodiversity is reduced an ecosystem goes out of balance. Likewise, linguistic and cultural diversity are essential in maintaining the knowledge of many generations of peoples. Sadly, in a period in Europe referred to as the Renaissance, millions of women died, burnt at the stake as witches. These women carried the old knowledge, particularly targeted were those who understood the medicinal use of plants, or who carried on old traditions of rituals that had become a threat to the church. It shares a great deal with colonisation which involves rooting out language use, disconnecting people from their land and the seasonal round of responsibilities.

It is heartening to hear how learning language through song is a useful way of learning one’s culture as Borooloola descendant, Shellie Morris recently discovered working in her grandmother’s language with Borooloola songwoman Amy Friday (Andrew Bock, New chapter for ancient songbook, Age, 29 August)

In the globalised world of the 21st century it involves microcolonialism in the form of the Human Genome Diversity Project, or the bioprospecting (really biopiracy) of plants and Indigenous knowledge. I see it in my own community of far north Queensland where attempts have been made to recolonise the rainforest and use the cassowary as an excuse for that. We need a world in which multiversity (knowledge that draws on diverse cultures) is respected in which so-called development is not used as yet another means of displacing people from their homes, from the places where they have lived for many generations.

I argue in my book, Wild Politics, for a society in which we have, as Murri thinker and artist Lilla Watson said back in 1984, a 40,000-year plan. She said that for Aboriginal people the future extends as far forward as the past and that means at least a 40,000-year plan.

If we are to take on this idea seriously, and I believe we must, then we need all kinds of layers of sustainability:

•          we need a world inspired by biodiversity not profit – therefore a no-growth economy, or as Wade puts it in his book: instead of economic models that are projections and arrows, they should be circles (Wayfinders p. 217)

•          in order for this to happen, languages must not only survive but thrive (and I do not mean that the languages should then be colonised and prospected for answers)

•          in order for languages to thrive, cultural knowledge – what Queenie carries around in her dilly bag – needs to be respected. The multilayered world of poetry with its cross resonances and metaphors and conceptual forms is based on linguistic knowledge and understanding of the world from inside the culture

•          along with poetry comes the mythic world, the world of ritual, dance, music, art and memory

•          with memory comes understanding of the ecology of place, of sustainable living in an environment

•          for those who can’t trust their memories, we need bibliodiversity, books that are to publishing what biodiversity is to ecology; we need the stories of those who have not been heard; that means feminists, Indigenous people, any group who has been outcast

•          we need an alternative to a world which is corporatised, homogenised and privatised

•          we need a world in which women are not subjected to pornography, prostitution and violence (the poorest of the world’s poor are women and poor – including Indigenous – women are the most likely to suffer these shameful exploitations). If the body is an ecology then none of them is ecologically sound

•          our public voices need to be heard: listen to what the women have to say, listen to the unheard or those who have been prevented from speaking their language, their world, but beware the pretenders

•          we are living in a world on the brink of environmental catastrophe

In 2006, I sat through Category-5 Cyclone Larry and again this year through Category-5 Cyclone Yasi. Previously, cyclones of this size have been around 20 years apart. I wrote this poem after finding the word yugantameghaha in the dictionary: meghaha means clouds, anta: the end and yuga: an epoch: a gathering of clouds at the end of an epoch, and there is a reference in here to the moth in the Bhagavad Gita which flies into the flame.



At the end of every cosmic cycle

at the end of a generation―yuganta-

meghaha―clouds congregate

gathering souls for the next yuga

cloud breath, soul mist

rasping winds, rattling bones

here come the galloping horses

humans astride their flanks

here come the thundering clouds

breaking the world apart

the Hercules moth climbs every building

rising upwards through 110 floors

scaling the earth to find the moon

that light in the sky through which

he might escape earth’s pull

and melt into the inferno of light. (p. 67 Earth’s Breath)


As I said at the beginning, for the last 30 years, I have been looking for ways to tell the story of the power of ancient knowledge systems. It has taken me to languages and to places I never imagined I would go to. Much of it lies right here, in knowledge of our selves, in our knowledge of the people and places who give us meaning.

* Prompted to post this, thanks to an extraordinary July 2012 National Geographic piece entitled 'Vanishing Languages', by Russ Rymer that expands on the question "What is lost when a language goes silent?"

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We need to talk about the media’s portrayal of sex work Posted by Maralann on 07 Jun 2012

By Helen Lobato

Last week I caught up with the movie Careless Love. Written by John Duigan it’s about a Sydney university student called Linh played by Nammi Le who works at night as a sex worker to help her immigrant family with their mortgage. Basically it’s just a contemporary expose of a university student/prostitute’s life without any analysis of the institution that is prostitution.

John Duigan decided to write Careless Love after reading a series of reports on how university students were turning to prostitution to cope with the rising cost of living and university fees. Duigan  says that he didn’t set out to write a story about sexual slavery or drug abuse, or to depict sex work as glamorous. He was equally  determined that Linh wasn’t regarded as a victim. Careless Love presents prostitution as a choice for young women to make; delivering greater income than the usual part-time work available for university students such as waitressing. 

Last week there was a plethora of stories in the media about sex work with workers and their supporters arguing for the practice’s legitimacy. The first of these articles concerned the Melbourne Festival of Sex Work.  To note the occasion, local sex workers intent on demystifying their profession appeared on a panel open to the public. The Age reports that at the Secret Society Bar in Bourke Street a porn star, an escort, a tantric practitioner, a dominatrix and a rent boy invited members of the public to ask any question about their sex work in exchange for a gold coin donation. Then there was an opinion piece written by Wendy Squires. In Selling your body, not your soul, Squires  defends her prostitute friend whom she says is ‘not manipulating affections or promising more than can be delivered.’ Rather she’s ‘a businesswoman exchanging sex for money in a legal and safe environment. 

In Careless Love, Linh is an intelligent and beautiful young woman who chooses to do escort work in an effort to pay for her family’s mortgage. Linh is portrayed as strong and in control of her life and her clients. For her, the process of moving into prostitution and exiting happens seamlessly. She is not a victim, for the idea of the prostituted woman as without ‘agency’ is no longer politically correct. According to Ekman, author of Prostitution, the abolition of the victim and post-modernism’s defence of the status-quo, to be a victim is now regarded as shameful. Referring to someone as a victim, according to the post-modernists, is to deny them their ‘agency’.

To be able to defend that women sell their bodies (and that men buy them) one must first abolish the victim and instead redefine the prostitute as a sex worker, a strong woman who knows what she wants, a businesswoman. The sex worker becomes a sort of new version of the ‘happy hooker (Ekman).

But a ‘happy hooker’ is not the experience of prostitutes who don’t have this so-called choice. In reality, prostitution is a job where 71% of women have been subjected to physical violence; 63% have been raped while in prostitution and  89% want to leave and would do so if they could. Women in prostitution have a death rate 40 times higher than the average and are 16 times more likely to be murdered.

If the only information about sex work is obtained from our current media then the purchase of women’s bodies for sex will continue to be regarded as normal. But rather than prostitution being inevitable and unstoppable, it is  ’socially constructed out of men’s dominance and women’s subordination’ (Jeffreys 1997, 3).

When Linh’s double life is finally revealed there is disapproval mostly from her family but also from her boyfriend. Her parents are ashamed that they have been rescued by prostitution money and her boyfriend tries unsuccessfully to forgive and forget. But why is it that the prostitute, and in this case Linh, who is condemned for her part in the prostitution contract? What about the men who use her and the millions of other women who are trafficked and prostituted.

These recent media depictions of sex work leave so much to be desired.

References: Jeffreys, S 1997, The Idea of Prostitution, Spinifex Press, North Melbourne.

First published:


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'River, River' by Merlinda Bobis Posted by Maralann on 07 Jun 2012

Writer-performer Merlinda Bobis catches up with Filipino-Canadian artists.
Photo by Christine Balmes

It is magic when the river flows: when it springs from some startling depth or height that, by chance, you’ve tapped into; when it surges into the imaginary, which turns tidal through your flesh and bones; when it sneaks into other bodies to form new tributaries of kinship, in lived stories.

This is how I experienced my recent performance of River, River, my one-woman play adaptation of Fish-Hair Woman, at the University of Toronto’s international workshop on ‘Violence in a Far Country: Women Scholars of Colour Theorize Terror’ (18-19 May 2012). I have done performances of this play at various venues, but this show was special. Jet-lagged and all, I gave my paper in the morning and, in the afternoon, rehearsed in the theatre for the first time. Mapped out light and sound with the Romanian-Canadian technical director Teo and the stage manager Mandy, whose family hails from Trinidad. Both amazing, given such a tight schedule. Then a very quick rehearsal. We did all these in less than three hours. By 5:00 pm, the show was on! The tightest schedule that I’ve ever experienced. I was terrified I wouldn’t be able to deliver. But magic: the river flowed.

I am primarily a writer-performer. While I venture into scholarly discussions on creative production, I have doubts about calling myself ‘a scholar’. Thus, the impressive line-up of scholars and the spectacular theorising in the workshop awed and intimidated me. I gave a paper (‘“Weeping is Singing”: After Militarism’) on the politics, aesthetics, and ethics of the production of both the play and the novel. But I always felt that my ‘real paper’ is the show (and the novel): the body makes its own argument. And as it enacts the horrors of war and its consequent mourning, this ‘argumentative body’ is always desiring, affirmative. Affirming itself, the dead, and the living bodies in the audience also affirming this story from a far country, and ‘weeping-singing’ with me.

The river flowed in our remembering together: my story was completed because others listened. We made new water tributaries, new wellsprings of story together. Indeed storytelling is not lonely.

And the flow does not stop; there are ripples. The overwhelmingly moving responses of the audience after the show, including the wonderful thank-you emails that I received now that I’m back in Australia remind me this is why I tell a story with the body. As one of the scholars wrote, the powerful performance brought them ‘to a different integrity space’. And humbly, I respond: I simply brought you to the river.



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Notwithstanding the recent HRT review-oestrogen therapy remains dangerous Posted by Maralann on 28 May 2012

By Helen Lobato

For some women, the news that Hormone Replacement Therapy is OK, has come 10 years too late. According to the host of 3AW’s Talking Health, Dr Sally Cockburn; “those of us who have borne the hormonal burden for our families all our adult lives and who are now in our 50s deserve better.”

Cockburn’s lament comes on the heels of a report discrediting a previous study’s finding that HRT for menopause raised the risk of blood clots, breast cancer and strokes. In July 2002, the publication of the first Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) report caused a dramatic drop in HRT use throughout the world. Now a major reappraisal by international experts, published in the peer-reviewed journal Climacteric (the official journal of the International Menopause Society), shows how the evidence has changed over the last 10 years, and supports a return to a “rational use of HRT, initiated near the menopause”.

When Jenni Murray heard that women in their 40s and 50s can now safely take HRT to help cope with their symptoms, she became very concerned. The 62 year old author thinks that HRT gave her breast cancer. At the age of 45, Murray began HRT and the various symptoms that plagued her such as the hot flushes, the night sweats and low moods miraculously disappeared. While enjoying her symptom free life, Murray managed to ignore the warnings that came from the Million Women Health study and after ten years of using HRT, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Menopause occurs when menstruation stops and fertility ends. Common understanding of the process is that the menopausal ovaries are useless and defunct and that diminished and inadequate oestrogen levels need to be supplemented in the form of HRT to ward off the terrible ravages of ageing such as osteoporosis, heart disease and lack of sexual libido. However this is incorrect for our ovaries do not shrivel up but continue to produce
hormones, including oestrogens throughout the life cycle.

According to Sherrill Sellman author of Hormone Heresy:

Millions of menopausal women flock to their doctors’ offices each year seeking relief from such complaints as hot flushes, night sweats, bloating, indigestion, allergies, headaches, insomnia, fatigue, depression, high blood pressure, weight gain, head hair loss, facial hair growth, mood swings, aging skin, irritability, foggy thinking, lack of concentration, anxiety attacks, heart palpitations, bone loss, and heavy bleeding. The common panacea prescribed for all these symptoms is usually HRT. All these presenting symptoms are lumped together into the menopausal pigeonhole, oestrogen deficiency is the diagnosis and synthetic estrogen replacement becomes the cure. An obvious and simple solution for hormonal imbalance! Or so we are led to believe.

It was after the Second World War that doctors first began to argue for the maintenance of high levels of hormones for menopausal women and by the 1960s pharmaceutical companies began to spread the myth that menopause was a medical condition. Prior to this time menopause was not a disease but a welcome stage in women’s lives that signalled the end of fertility.

Sellman claims that it is not a lack of oestrogen that is causing the ‘menopausal symptoms’ but an excess.

Unfortunately, women have been intentionally led on a merry hormone goose chase. While medicalizing and pathologising of menopausal women with potent, carcinogenic and dangerous steroid drugs has filled the coffers of the drug companies and doctors alike, the real cause of these health problems has been ignored. The World Health Organization has found that an overweight post menopausal woman has more oestrogen circulating in her body than a skinny pre-menopausal woman!!

Western women now have some of the highest oestrogen levels ever recorded in history due to exposure to medications such as the Pill and HRT along with estrogen mimics found in pesticides, herbicides, and plastics, as well as the hormones injected into feed lot cattle and farmed fish.

In HRT Licensed to Kill and Maim, author and investigative journalist Martin Walker introduces his readers to a little known world of women severely damaged by hormone replacement therapy prescribed for them by their trusted medical practitioners. When Ros, a busy wife, mother and carer told her doctor she was experiencing hot flushes and dizziness, he diagnosed the menopause and prescribed hormone replacement therapy. Six months later with Ros’s periods becoming heavier, her breasts enlarging and her moods worsening, the HRT dose was increased and at the age of 42 Ros had her uterus and ovaries removed. Her doctor had failed to tell her that her symptoms could have been caused by high, not low levels of circulating oestrogen and it was only on Ros’s insistence that her levels were finally tested and found to be extraordinarily high – measuring 2110 with normal around 400.

Over the past few decades HRT has become a drug for which the need has been created, rather than it being a therapy for a legitimate ailment. Menopause is simply the cessation of the menses, rather than some pathological condition for which we must be treated. In spite of the fact that exogenous oestrogens have been linked to cancers and other health conditions for many years, profit-hungry drug companies have continued to market HRT for the most trivial of reasons with major long - term side effects.

Following the publication of the 2002 Women’s Health Initiative study 65 per cent of women on hormone therapy stopped taking HRT but two years later the message had faded and one in four women were back on the therapy. Now that this latest review recommends that the “classical use’ of hormone therapy be initiated near the menopause benefitting most women who have indications including significant menopausal symptoms or osteoporosis, it will be interesting to see how many women return to the HRT fold.

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Your Choice! Posted by Maralann on 24 May 2012

By Pauline Hopkins

On morning radio this week, the presenters ran a quick radio telephone poll asking whether female listeners would rather be Craig Thompson’s wife or Peter Slipper’s wife. (What a choice, indeed, you may ask!) The verdict was that women would rather be Peter Slipper’s wife because “it wouldn’t be their fault.” Fault, you ask?

Well, the thinking went like this. If your male partner has an affair or liaison or tryst with another man, that means he is a closet gay. So no matter now pleasing you are as a woman, you would never satisfy him because his “problem” was him, not you or your sexual appeal or lack thereof.

With Craig Thompson, however, and his purported use of the services of female prostitutes, there is an implicit responsibility on the wife for his unfaithful behaviour because, to put it bluntly, she obviously wasn’t hot enough. Or so the morning radio theory went.

So let’s get this straight. Men behaving badly, whether allegedly fraudulently with credit cards or in breech of their marital pledges. And whose behaviour also comes under scrutiny? The not-hot-enough wife who “drove” him too it? Pleeeeease!

Anyone who doubts the need for feminism or the existence of misogyny just needs to look at this example. When women are held to account for the bad behaviour of their male partners, it is clear that there is still a need for ongoing scrutiny about the norms that operate in our societies, including free democracies.


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