Monosyllabic grunts: A comment on language and racism

It is hardly news by this point to most students of language that statements about language can serve as support for, or more subtly still, proxies for, racist evaluations of a people or sub-group. I recently came across an stunning example of this while browsing though The Jungle is a Woman, a sensationalist travelogue written by Jane Dolinger, published in 1955. The book focuses on Dolinger’s experiences while travelling through parts of the Peruvian montaña (hence my interest), or as the cover of the book has it: “The adventures of an American girl in the Green Hell of the Amazon”. The book is replete with mid-century tropes about the neo-tropics: piranhas, disease, and of course, “primitives”, which is where language comes into the story.

At one point, while staying in an Asháninka community, Dolinger runs into another indigenous group, which she characterizes as “Pre-Stone Age primitives”. However, its pretty clear from the photos included in the book that they are simply another Kampan group, probably a sub-group of Asháninkas that avoided interaction with mestizo society. Waxing ecstatic about these “primitives”, and in the course of suggesting connections with Neanderthals and Pithecanthropus, Dolinger writes:

Their language consisted of monosyllabic words to which they added unintelligible grunts.

The tremendously strange thing about Dolinger’s claim here is that Asháninka words (and those the Kampan languages more generally) are about as far as one can get from monosyllabic. In the first place, the Kampan languages all have a disyllabic minimum word requirement (unlike, say, um … English!), which means that there are *no* monosyllabic words in these languages. In the second place, these languages are headmarking and highly polysynthetic, which means that words in these languages can get to be *huge* (According to Payne (1981), words of up to 25 syllables are possible in Ashéninka).

Whatever Dolinger was hearing, then, we can be sure it wasn’t monosyllabic words. How then did Dolinger arrive at the description of this langauge as one composed of monosyllabic grunts? Was this just some post-hoc embroidering to make the “primitives” look, well, “primitive”? Or did the fact that she had already categorized them as “primitives” actually influence the way she heard the language? We’ll probably never know. But the connection in Dolinger’s prose between primitive language and cultural primitiveness, in the spirit of 19th century cultural evolutionary thought, is clear. Either way, it is worth noting that English much more closely approximates a language of monosyllabic grunts than Asháninka does (check out all the monosyllabic words in this post!).

I think this example does a great job in showing how students of language have a tremendous advantage when responding to racist discourse like that of Dolinger’s when compared to scholars in other disciplines: racist claims based on language are frequently incrediby easy to empirically debunk. And now that talk about language is becoming one of the last respectable redoubts of racism in the US, the role of linguists and linguistic anthropologists in countering nonsense of this sort is increasingly important.

References Cited

Payne, David. 1981. The phonology and morphology of Axininca Campa. Summer Institute of Linguistics


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