Monday, July 22, 2013

The Girls Who Spoke For Themselves : Part 4 : Our Language, Our World

One of the most fascinating things, to me, about Grace and Virginia Kennedy's "secret" language is the way in which, by creating it, they seemed to create their own secret world. At the same time, their mysterious language can also be seen as an expression of their secret world--a language and a world equally inscrutable to the adults around them, a sort of alternative culture created by innocents, serving as a troubling counterpoint to the "official" world created by "properly speaking" grown-ups.

Language is, in a very real sense, one of the primary means, perhaps the primary means, by which we human beings create the world in which we live. I don't mean of course the actual physical world--although language does enable us to alter and change our physical surroundings by way of technology, which is one of the most fundamental products of language. Some have said that language is itself the most fundamental form of technology, the most elemental means by which we modify and shape the world, and change it from what is given to something of our own creation.

Each language creates its own "world", its own culture and way of knowing. The Kennedy girls, not having been adequately exposed to the English-speaking world of the U.S., built their own world. Their language bore a genetic resemblance both to English and to German, the two languages to which they had been at least minimally exposed, but it was of course unintelligible to speakers of either language, which made it a new and distinct language. The differences between languages exist on a spectrum, ranging from dialects and accents to related languages in the same family to entirely unrelated tongues, but the general boundary between languages is lack of mutual comprehension and therefore inability to communicate; when two speakers find themselves unable to understand each other, they are essentially living in two different social and cultural worlds.

As Gorin, the filmmaker, observed, the Kennedy twins' speech seemed to function as a subversive embarrassment to the authority of the official language, exposing the various grown-up discourses around them as arbitrary--that is, just as arbitrary as the language invented by the girls. It is as though the girls' speech stood as evidence that all language is made up, and that the officially approved way of speaking was not in fact the only possible way of speaking, and therefore not the only possible way of thinking about or looking at the world, and its culture not the only way of being in the world.

"You can only be a foreigner in a language other than your own," says Gorin, implying that the girls who called themselves Poto and Cabengo were in some sense "foreigners" in their native country... until they became "naturalized" by being taught "proper" English.

Once the girls knew how to speak English, they became full members of English-speaking American society. But what happened to the world they had shared between themselves?

After it became evident that the girls could in fact be taught to speak English, their father forbade them to use their invented language. He told Time magazine, "They don't want to be associated as dummies. You live in a society, you got to speak the language."

When someone asked the girls if they remembered their language, they said yes, but their father scolded them for "lying". Evidently he did not see any positive value in the secret language they had created, but only saw it in negative terms, as a lack of "real" language, culture, and intelligence.

But what if the Kennedy girls' language was just as real as any other human language? What if it evidenced the creation of their own childlike "culture"? What if it was in fact a wondrous display of their natural intelligence?

I wonder if Grace and Virginia, now 42 or 43, remember any of their childhood language? I like to think so, but I think it sadly likely that they do not, that it has become a dim and faded memory, only vaguely and spottily recalled if at all. If so--if the language of Poto and Cabengo has disappeared from memory--then so has the culture, and the world, that it expressed. It was a world that existed only briefly on the earth, and that was only known to two small and lonely girls, but it was their world. It was a society of two--two little children who found themselves largely abandoned and alone in the world, who were left out of the world. They at least had each other, and together they crafted their own means of thought and communication, and thereby found a way to make a world for themselves.

Part 5

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