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Societal consciousness resides in language. For example, the word “awful” conveys “standing in reverence” during 15th century, but by 19th century connotes “terrible or ghastly.” This word’s meaning changes over time, reflecting the role of cultural context.

Songs and poetry pursue emotion and feeling, whereas mathematics seeks understanding and comprehension. Galileo observes, “Mathematics is the language with which God has written the universe.” Poetry touches the soul, and mathematics feeds curiosity. They bestow mental balance. History teaches that language distills cultural heritage. Destroying a people’s language constitutes genocide.

Spanish friars of 16th century burn writings to eradicate Mayan religion. Lost works contain scientific information thousands of years old. Only four Mayan books survive: the Dresden, Madrid, Paris and Grolier codices. Later, British rule in Canada ratifies the 1894 Indian Act. It forcibly takes children ages 7 to 16 from families. It exiles them hundreds of miles from home into supposedly educational institutions. Continuing until 1947, these institutions forbid students from talking in their native tongue. Even with such subterfuge, a glimmer of hope remains for resurrecting unspeakable words.

John Peabody Harrington strives to preserve indigenous American languages. He works tirelessly from early 1900s until his demise in 1961. After his death, six tons of phonetic notes and research results resurface from storage. These contain first known voice recordings of native speakers. His endeavors document 130 languages by working with the last living persons fluent in their native speech.

Harrington’s obsession with unspeakable words evokes thoughts of Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s 1928 short story “The Call of Cthulhu.” There the word “Cthulhu” unearths unconscious behaviors in the story’s characters. As Judith Lewis Herman discerns, “The ordinary response to atrocities is to banish them from consciousness. Certain violations of the social compact are too terrible to utter aloud: this is the meaning of the word unspeakable.”

Roger Combs

Ona

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