Tag Archives: language

Heart of pinkness

The river runs through a pink landscape - Richard Mosse: Platon (2012). Photo: Mick 2015.

The river runs through a pink landscape – Richard Mosse: Platon (2012). Photo: Mick 2015.

Colour blindness comes in a version where green and red are indistinguishable. I cannot imagine not being able to see the many greens that colour spring and summer or the reds of tulips and cherry blossoms that are starting to show.

Richard Mosse (1980) is an Irish artist whose work The Enclave (2013) is exhibiting at Louisiana Museum of Modern Art presently. This work explores the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, changing hues of green to hues of red and pink. Mosse used the now discontinued Kodak Aerochrome to film events in DRC – the US Army used this surveillance film to show invisible infrared light, turning green into red and pink to detect camouflage. This war is largely ignored by Western media and therefore largely unknown outside Congo and Rwanda, even though more than 5.4 million people have died in this war since 1998. Continue reading

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The spirit of the age

Perhaps a pictorial for female toilet would have been a better design choice that accorded more with the spirit of the age? Sydney Opera House. Photo: Mick. 2013.

Perhaps a pictorial for female toilet would have been a better design choice that accorded more with the spirit of the age? Sydney Opera House. Photo: Mick. 2013.

Orlando (1928) is a short work of fiction, highly acclaimed and thought to be the most accessible of Virginia Woolf’s works. Frankly, I found it tedious and long in the tooth. It took me forever to read, getting lost in long passages of description. I had to look hard for the insights and gems.

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Teaching, learning and language

First day of school. Photo: Mick 2000

First day of school. Photo: Mick 2000

A different language is a different vision of life.  Frederico Felini

Language determines how we see the world. Language – its shapes, its sounds, its structures, its words shape our concepts and the filters we use. And would a rose by any other name smell as sweet? Coincidentally, the word for rose is identical in both Danish and English, though pronunciation is slightly different, so perhaps the smell is exactly the same?

The concept of education is a good example. The English word ‘Education’ comes from Latin ‘Educatio’ from ‘ex’ – out, and ‘ducere’ – to lead. The etymological roots lead to a sense of someone else teaching to ‘lead out’ what is inside a person and develop the person’s skills and competencies. According to Ken Robinson’s excellent TEDx talk, schools were established to deliver skills to power to industrial revolution.

In Danish ‘education’ is ‘uddannelse’. The etymology of the word is quite different. ‘Dannelse’ comes from the old Norse ‘don’ or the equivalent English ‘to do’. Literally ‘dannelse’ is translated to formation. ‘Uddannelse’ is linked to the Enlightenment idea that a person is not fully formed until cultivated beyond their natural state to a civilised state. ‘Uddannelse’ is about providing experiences that evolve and change the individual to become something they were not before. So after birth and physiological development, work still needs to be done to develop the character to be a whole person. This character or ‘spirit’ involves the ability to think critically about the facts, issues and views that are presented – otherwise the transformation is akin to indoctrination, the friend of totalitarian systems. In the Danish tradition ‘uddannelse’ becomes the defence against callousness and crudity.

Another crucial language difference lies in the word ‘teacher’. The etymology of ‘teacher’ takes us to the old English ‘tæcan’ – to show, point out, declare, demonstrate, instruct or persuade. The English teacher dictates the child’s learning – the word denotes an outside process that adds knowledge and skills to the empty vessel that is the child. The Danish word, ‘lærer’, comes from the idea of learning, rather than teaching. ‘Lærer’ is not a learner, but someone who facilitates the learning of another. This places the child in the centre, rather than the person who demonstrates or instructs.

Proud to be in school uniforms at 8 and 6 years of age. But why must uniformisation continue of young people to the age of 17 or 18? Photo: Mick, 2002.

Proud to be in school uniforms at 8 and 6 years of age. But why must uniformisation of young people continue to the age of 17 or 18, when we are expecting them to be ready as discerning, functioning members of society? Photo: Mick, 2002.

Clearly, contemporary teaching and learning philosophies in Danish and Anglo cultures do not reflect these subtle differences. Yet throughout my boys’ schooling in Australia, I experienced very few teachers with a child-centred philosophy. I found the approach overly authoritarian, quasi-religious and strangely disciplinarian, focusing on externalities like uniforms and behaviour on the way to school.

My point is that the language we use determine how we see the world. The language around education, teaching and learning in the two languages reflect the attitudes to children in the cultures and determines how we see children slightly differently in the two cultures.

Perhaps this difference can be traced to the establishment of universal schooling in Denmark 200 years ago. It followed 25 years of deliberation by a School Commission, influenced by rising nationalism, desire to preserve Danish culture and the Danish mother tongue in a turbulent world. Rousseau’s philosophies about education and childhood – the idea of education of the whole child as a citizen – were also influential. This may be where the English diverged – Rousseau was a Frenchman after all and had very derogatory things to say about the English.

As I am reading about the laws introduced in 1814, I am surprised to discover the discipline provision in section 27 of its supplement. While the last subsection allows the teacher to use a ‘lidet Riis’ – a small collection of twigs – to punish children under 10 years old, and with a thin rope end without knots for older children, section 27 is at pains to ensure punishment is not undue or dishonours the child and warns against punishments that could result in hardening, rather than improving the child. The teacher must not hit children with their hand, push or pinch them or swear at them. Rather, as punishment the naughty child could be excluded from the more pleasurable lessons involving play.

I am sure the very humanistic approach to punishment of children was frequently ignored in the 19th and even 20th century and potentially even after 1967, when corporal punishment was abolished in Denmark. However, the provision reflects a child-centred view seeking to support the child transforming to become able to function in civilised society. Certainly, the philosophy is a far cry from the mantra I still hear today when intermittently the Australian public debate turns to corporal punishment of children: Spare the rod and spoil the child! It was not until 1995 – the year after my older son’s birth – the Queensland corporal punishment provisions were abolished, though the defence for teachers assaulting children for correction and discipline still exists.

Homework in my father's office. Photo: Lars 1975.

Grade 2 homework with my best friend in my father’s office. Photo: Lars 1975.

When I reflect on the difference between my own experience of education in Denmark in the 1970s and 1980s and my children’s experience in Australia in the 2000s it seems the difference reflects the language. No doubt the time difference also plays a part, but my sense is that the position of children in Australia is one in the background, seen not heard, to be educated to be useful to society, whereas Danish children are much more in the centre, valuable in and of themselves, not for what they may contribute in the future.

The language creates different versions of children – a different vision of children’s place and value. It may be the language that have shaped this philosophy, and perhaps the philosophy has also shaped the language?

Time, language and war

200 years ago, in 1864 Danish soldiers fought and lost a bloody war at Dannevirke - Denmark commemorates with a new drama series, 1864. Photo: Mick 2007.

200 years ago, in 1864 Danish soldiers fought and lost a bloody war at Dannevirke – Denmark commemorates with a new drama series, 1864. Photo: Mick 2007.

Reckoning of time is an arbitrary thing. The way we have arranged the days and months follows roughly the seasons, though the messiness of the natural world require us to make adjustments like leap years and daylight saving. Despite the word’s relationship with ‘moon’, the month never aligns with the lunar cycle and one can never rely on the length of the month. We count the years from the purported birth of a little boy in Bethlehem. Yet, what is a year in the timescale of the human species, the planet earth, the universe? Completely insignificant.

Imperfect as our reckoning of time is, we use time as markers to celebrate or commemorate events of the past. This year, 2014, has seen some important ones come around.

Thanks to the early Icelandic tradition of recording and writing down stories, the first edition of Saxo’s Chronicles of Denmark, Gesta Danorum, was first published in Paris 500 years ago in 1514. This amazing work covers Danish history from the ‘beginning of time’ with the mythological king Dan and his brother Angel to Saxo’s contemporary times when the Danes defeated the Wends of the Baltic in 1185. Written in the 12th century, Saxo’s manuscript showed great command of language and linguistics and hence he was given the name Grammaticus for the publication. While he probably had access to other historical sources, like the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, the first many chapters cover the kings of Viking folklore rather than historic fact.

Though written in the 12th century, Saxo's Danmarks Krønike was published in 1514, 500 years ago. Photo: Mick 2014

Though written in the 12th century, Saxo’s Danmarks Krønike was published in 1514, 500 years ago. Photo: Mick 2014

Earlier this year I followed Michael Hirst’s historical drama, Vikings about Ragner Lodbrok. My son and I had already studied Saxo’s writings about Lodbrok when he did an assignment on the Viking king in grade 4 and was keen to go to Europe to study Medieval history when he finished school. Vikings is amazingly good drama, though Hirst probably exercised as much artistic licence as Saxo.

Fast forward three hundred years and 1814 was the year when Denmark ceded Norway. Since 1397 Norway, Sweden and Denmark had been in a union, the Kalmar Union. While Sweden and Norway remained separate countries, they were ruled by a single monarch, Queen Margrethe I of Denmark. In the 1520s, the Swedes got so jack of King Christian II – the tyrant king – that rebellion resulted in the Stockholm Bloodbath and the Swedes elected their own king, King Gustav of the Vasa. In 1536 the Danish Privy Council declared Norway a province of Denmark – an aggressive move indeed, which meant Greenland, Iceland and Faroe Islands came under Danish control, rather than Norwegian. In 1814, the Treaty of Keil forced Denmark to cede Norway to Sweden, but the Norwegians never accepted Sweden as their ruler and approved its own constitution and its own king, Christian Frederik, 200 years ago this year.

Wanting to shake off the shackles of the Danes, Norway set to change the official language from Danish to the two forms of Norwegian that are the official languages today. In a parallel across the world, 1814 marked the first time when missionaries in New Zealand tried to document the indigenous Māori language. Today New Zealand has two official languages: English and Māori. Language is indeed power.

The bold decisions about imposing Danish language on Germans in Holstein led to the bloody war of 1864, 150 years ago. Photo: Lone 2013.

The bold decisions about imposing Danish language on Germans in Holstein led to the bloody war of 1864, 150 years ago. Photo: Lone 2013.

The once mighty empire continued to shrink through the 19th century. 150 years ago in 1864, Denmark lost a war against Prussian soldiers – and the reason for the war was simplistically speaking: language. Emboldened by the victories against German sympathisers in the Duchies of Schleswig and Holstein in the Three Year War (1848-51), a nationalistic government not only formalised the inclusion of Schleswig into the Kingdom of Denmark, but also imposed Danish as the official language across the kingdom. This was as a provocation gladly accepted by the Prussian emporor and Bismarch and an uneven and swift war was fought at Dybbøl Mølle – which Denmark lost, together with the Duchies. The Danish-German border was drawn at Kongeåen and it was not until the referendum after World War II that northern Schleswig became part of Denmark again and the current border was established.

Perhaps the memory of this devastating war of 1864 was what caused Denmark to stay well out of the Great War, which has its centenary this year. World War I was the war to end all wars. Its comnemoration is a big deal in Australia. Only recently independent from the Mother Country following the 1901 Australian Constitution, Europe was still the centre of the universe and young Australians joined up in droves to serve alongside with the British against the Germans and the Turks. Australian slang for soldiers are diggers – thanks to the endless harrowing experience in the trenches. We remember up to 62,000 Australians who died in a senseless war that killed 16 million people.

Even if time is arbitrarily reckoned and a lifetime is insignificant in the history of the world, the markers we create to remember are important to our self-perception and identity. Danes proudly espouse their viking roots, verifiable in early literature, and perhaps our fallen soldiers are having a great time in Valhalla. Australians identify with the larrakin diggers who bravely fought hard in someone elses war – and remember those that the years will not weary. We count the years so that we remember and make meaning of it all.

Memory and language

Do I recall this differently in Danish and English: Moreton Island with my sister and childhood friend - obviously a lot of Danish was spoken. Photo: Mick. 1992.

Do I recall this differently in Danish and English? Moreton Island with my sister and childhood friend – obviously a lot of Danish was spoken. Photo: Mick. 1992.

When my father was dying I started to write my memories of the childhood I had with him. I wrote in my native langauge, Danish, and gave him a long, long brain dump of everything that came to mind in the short period I had. He enjoyed reading my memories and my perspective of events he himself could recall to greater or lesser extent.

Together we wrote the story of his own life, illustrated it with photos and had it published in 100 copies. I put one copy, hot from the press, into his hands just as the ambulance officers came to collect him to take him to the hospice. Two days later he died.

With both my parents now gone there is no-one to remember with me the self that I was as a child. Of course I still have my siblings and a few childhood friends, but they don’t have the memories about me that my parents did. After 23 years of living with English language, it was refreshing to remember and write in Danish. A bit rusty perhaps (but I am not a best-selling author like Christian Mørk); memories flowed easily and my brain was filled with words, images, smells, feelings and sensations that were conjured up and remembered in Danish.

I have lived all my working life in Australia. When my mother first visited us I tried to explain to her my work in Danish. I found it really difficult – I could not find the Danish words for the particulars of my day-to-day working life, which itself was word and language based, working with policy, procedure and freedom of information decision-making, carefully reading complex documents, interpreting the statute, analysing precedents and choosing the right words to describe my decision, so it could withstand scrutiny. I was constantly using English words to explain my role to mum, who must have felt she was losing me in more ways than one.

My siblings can remember with me, but my parents knew me differently. My brother and I fooling around in London 1976. Photo: private.

My siblings can remember with me, but my parents knew me differently. My brother and I fooling around in London 1976. Photo: private.

A couple of years ago I found myself working up my cv in Danish – my public service profession was under attack by an incoming government and the villification of the public service was rife in the media. A public outrage was whipped up against an old stereotype of useless, lazy public servants – a stereotype I found difficult to reconcile with the commitment and hard work of public servants all around me. I lost my job in a restructure and I thought perhaps I needed to go back to Denmark to continue to support my family. Writing about my work experience in Danish was a difficult task and I found it hard to succinctly explain my responsibilties and achievements in a different language. I never sent the cv to any prospective, Danish employers. In the end, I won back my job and I stayed in the Australian-English life world.

Language and memory go together. The story of Nabokov’s three autobiographies is well known: first he wrote and published Conclusive Evidence in English. Then he began translating it to Russian, but found thinking about his life in Russian brought out much more memory worthy of documentation, making the English version seem woefully inadequate. Once he had finished his Russian autobiography (Drugie berega or Other Shores) he then translated it to English; yet he found it difficult to fit his Russian experiences into the ‘straightjacket of English’. So he ended up with three very different documented versions of the same life, the last being Speak, Memory.

We experience the world differently in different languages.  My Australian-English experiences are very different to my Danish experiences – not just because of different place and culture. How I remember my experiences depend on the language I use to remember.

According to Dr Anna Pavlenko, language and memory are integrated – language used during particular events becomes a ‘tag’ for memory of that event and when we try to translate to another language something becomes lost in translation: We lose the sense of a correlation between words and things and words and feelings. It is never quite the same. Our childhood language integrates words with our experiences, which can make the memory feel real. Words learnt in the class room or later in life do not integrate with our experiences in this same way “because by then we learn to suppress our emotions.”

When I reconnected and started corresponding with my dear departed uncle, who was in the business of story telling, he called my Danish language refreshingly crisp and uncorrupted by adulthood and work’s habits. He encouraged me to write more and to write in Danish.

When I joined the Queensland Writers Centre, I was advised to write in English – if I wanted to be a professional writer – because the market is much larger than the Danish market. And if I wanted help and support with my writing here in Queensland, this would only be possible if I wrote in English. Fair enough, but knowing what I now know about memory and language, perhaps this is not quite right for me.

I am currently writing in English – my writing would no doubt be different if I write in Danish. It would also be challenging. I love the Danish language and want to reclaim it for my future self. If I get to write my book when I am away, it may well be in Danish. That would be my writer’s pied a terre.