The Limits of My World Are the Limits of My Language — peetahmoykontay

It is a scientific fact that one percent of our genes are responsible for our phenotype. This means that in the event of a zombie apocalypse, global nuclear fall out, (or the collapse of McDonalds’ supply chain) you could take any group of people – say Eskimos, Goths or Red-neck Texans – and repopulate the planet, replicating all the colours, creeds and diversities that make us human beings.

 It’s a linguistic cliché that Eskimos have a plethora of words when it comes to describing snow. In Standard English, unless verbs are applied to describe the falling of frozen water, there are considerably fewer. I’ll spare you the mundane details and paraphrase the work of Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf using the modern notion of ‘linguistic relativity’ with this crude précis: if you don’t know the words to describe something, it may as well not exist to you.

Working as an insurance salesman, Whorf noticed the words and phrases his clients used to describe incidents expressed their conception of the world. For example when investigating an incident involving an empty petrol drum, insurance claimants thought the emptiness of the vessel meant it was safe.

By associating ‘empty’ with a lack of substance, the insurance claimants failed to account for the flammability of petrol vapour. In this case an empty vessel did indeed make the most sound… after exploding.

Now imagine you are a native American Indian seeing Columbus’ ships approaching the ‘New World’. Some Anthropologists claim that with no indigenous word for ‘ship’ you would have to describe the arrival of Santa Maria as a ‘big canoe’ that causes ‘big ripples in the water’.

Taken to its logical conclusion, the idea that basic languages lack the ability to describe and conceptualise (yes it should be spelt with an ‘S’ as I’m writing in English English – as opposed to the US variant of the language) things beyond their vocabulary is farcical. There we go, cat amongst the pigeons – think about it for a second, type a few choice phrases into your favourite search engine if necessary and you’ll see where I’m coming from.

Back in my childhood days British Telecom used Bob Hoskins to front their ‘It’s good to talk’ campaign: cunning-cross-cultural-liguistics (101).

Being able to switch between linguistic codes is the mark of a good actor. Maybe because he generally plays loveable rogues or represents – to me anyway – the underdog in most of his films (apart from Zulu Dawn); I’ve always had a soft-spot for Bob Hoskins. Bob, and his British ‘boat-race’ is one I have laughed along with (Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Brazil spring to mind) or admired (Where Eskimos Live).

I would love to meet and greet an Eski’ hottie in the traditional manner. Ideally she’d be Nanook’s great grand-daughter. Nanook of the North is one of the first documentary films. Made in a time before audio could be recorded diegetically, it shows how far communication without a common language is possible. Moving pictures and non-verbal sounds make Nanook… compelling viewing.

One scene I will never forget is where Nanook is shown a phonograph (think old-school mp3 player) for the first time. Remember reading about how fascinated the ‘Little Eskimo chap’ was at hearing this marvelous invention for the first time. adopts mid-atlantic-internet-spk a.k.a.-Californian-teen-age-stoner-voice “Like whoah dude those eski’s dun no sheet” pauses, considers reality… ahem, the ability to accurately record sonic phenomena is a wonder we take all too much for granted in this global village.

The boy-in-me looked forward to seeing an indigenous-savage, a native-hunter-gatherer meeting civilisation’s most modern invention for the first time. When I watched the film I saw a tired, hungry and cold man scurrying about. Nanook’s performance for the camera couldn’t hide his grimaced grin. As he listened to the with the record player, I was  reminded of this piece of Nigerian funk: “Suffering & Smiling” – by some Naija geezer called Fela.

The ability to smile for the camera as you wonder how you’re going to feed yourself (family & friends) is something most western, civilised people, have no direct experience of.

I’m not going to shock you with a “When I were a bwai, we were so poor we ate xyzif we were lucky” cos that’s a cliche perpetuated by (western) charities during the ‘Feed the World’ 1980s zeitgeist that saw me move from Bo to Newcastle (a part that wasn’t-upon-the-tyne).

I was (perhaps am) a culturally naive lickle sometimes;

Ahh yah Kaata! You non-Africans listen to me with an open mind” (Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti).

An adventurous Daddy’s-boy (I never hid behind my Mother’s Lappa – she never wore 1) I marvelled at the wonders of this new place. Remember seeing snow for the first time; I ran outside, realised when it melted it were cold and wet then ran back indoors.

Me Mam wrapped me up in gloves (tied together with obligatory string that got in the way when trying to make snowballs), a woollen hat and scarf. I played until the cold damp seeped through, then wondered why I wasn’t getting any warmer if I ran around in the bright sunshine (I was a five-year old OK?). My fascination with snow ended when I tried to preserve it in the icebox freezer of our Kelvinator fridge. Snow + (domestic) freezer = Icy slush.

OK – back to the main script. Language, or rather it’s semantical-changing-over-time is a (potentially limiting) factor in our world(s), Hoskins is a dapper actor & Nanook is the world’s first reality TV star – with me so far? Gd.

As a kid I refused to learn how to join up my writing – never saw the point. When I first came to school in ‘Great’ Britain (this was when Regan was trying to woo Thatcher into surrendering ‘The Empire’ and officially make the UK America’s 51st state (no I’m no talking bout the Samuel Jackson film, real life-ish son/sister/dear Reader!) I was labeled average and left to stagnate at my own steam.

Not complaining – I liked the fact that the teachers here didn’t carry canes, dish out licks for wrong answers and that there was something called ‘lunchtime’ where they served hot food INDOORS! To be honest I didn’t really like the food that much, but Mum always scowled when I asked why we had to take our own dinky little packed lunches. For the record, the school dinners were unhealthy piles of stodge piled high with a side-helping of colour. adopts school dinner-lady voice “you want chips with yr fish and chips luv, ooh this one wants something different, sorry love we don’t do jungle food.” So from the bottom of my <3, fangs Mum, s.wiches & fruit saw me through those dark days.

I remember meeting the school’s deputy head when I moved to the ‘Grammar’ school in Bradford. Before any UK reader >mid-20’s get the wrong idea the school was called a ‘Grammar’ school, but was truly comprehensive in relation to its intake of pupil. i.e. it weren’t as proppa as you fink. Sure we played tennis and rugby (sports most ppl associate with the monied-classes), but the diversity of pupils ranged from upper-middle-class kids who had no idea how to butter the bread they nyammed and kids from the outer-reaches of Bradford’s districts.

“Peter’s not from the Caribbean so he’s not a nigger” are words I (almost) wish I had tattooed as the silhouette of my (imaginary) Jesus-piece.

For the record, if I ever waste my monies on some bling jewelry, I’d have to commission a piece fashioned from the bloodiest diamonds I could find. My blinging chain would be made from gold stolen from your mum, your girl/boy/partner… shit I’d break your pinky finger to remove the last sovereign ring in order to melt down it all to make. Sal:1’s performance art-jewelry-heist.

The resulting glob of gold would be fashioned into a totem with the phattest-most-Afrikan-features; with any remainder I’d have an accompanying ring (in white gold, U get mi?) that projected an image of Malcolm, MJ and Mos Def signing and dancing at the same time; then and have it sponsored by ‘Fiddy’s Vitamin water – that way I could shit, spit and scratch my way back to an age when the duality of man was something you’d be taught about in school – not gleaned from a fleeting reference in the 5th best film of all time:

– Joker presents the ‘Jungian thing’

Mr Caradice was (& most likely is) a liberally-minded intrinsically-racist-alpha-male of the Yorkshire variety. Probably hadn’t gotten over the fact that brown-skinned Indians and black-skinned ‘Caribbean Islanders’ had proved their prowess with the bat in the most English of games. He was surprised that I knew why he called his section of the school ‘The Bronx’, was dismayed when I showed no love for cricket and disliked my placing in the school’s tennis team.

Before meeting him, I’d never heard the word nigger. Suppose I should thank him for expanding the limits of my world. He definitely taught me there were more than two sides to every story. An English teacher, deputy-head teacher and kingpin of his ‘Bronx’ borough, Caradice wielded his power like his tennis racket, (roughly) often resorting to poly-trickal duplicities in order to appear fair and just.

I was quite a good egg at school. An African-upbringing made it impossible for me to express anything but respect for my elders. I may have thought Caradice a cunt of the highest magnitude but it was not my place to point to the contradictions in his closed-circuit-thinking.

For my sins I was a school prefect. Being a typical provincial boy from Mende stock, I kept my nose clean and rarely rocked the boat. One occasion I sorely wanted to stick up for a friend – a fellow ‘Black Minority Ethnic’, a girl being bullied for her un-average (by Yorkshire standards) appearance.

All the boys of certain testosterone level ‘knew’ Mel. She was t’ick before we knew what the word meant, hope she don’t hate if I recall she had child-bearing hips before even she knew what they were meant for. I used to fancy Mel but she kind of scared me at the same time – she was a man-eater in the making.

Anyway, in my capacity as a prefect I was called into Caradice’s office. Had no idea why, just that it was out-of-place to be summoned during lesson time. I knocked on his door, was told to enter and walked into Mel & some other girl (Helen) moodily eyeing each other up. Apparently the other girl had called Mel a fat (or black – depending on which point of view you believed) bitch and Caradice wanted me to help persuade Mel she’d misheard the juvenile insult.

I looked at Mel. She was pissed. Nostrils flared, she was ready for a fight. Whatever Helen had called her, ‘fat’ or ‘black’, I was ready to help her. As much as I wanted to, my prefect’s badge held no power in this playground, Caradice’s office was no place for discussion – ‘fat’ness and ‘black’ness were not issues considered worthy of much thought at that time.

Like Nanook I was reduced to being a grinning ape. Two options were presented for me to choose: If Helen had called Mel ‘fat’ well that was rude – if Mel had misheard Helen’s puerile mess of an insult, then the fault was hers. Either way isms (of size or race) were not on the agenda. Caradice’s summing up of their argument had me in betwixt a Promethean rock, a tribe of harpies on the wing and a wounded Medusa. All I wanted to do was make like Jason and kill the old Minotaur before me.

English – the common language we all spoke – using different inflections, codes & meanings divided a us as much as the schools ironic motto “We face the future.”

All the events are true, some names may have been changed to protect the not so innocent.

@peetahmoykontaythe author doesn’t wish to add a bio.