Language and Empire - Why We Shun Asian Words, For Now

Few Chinese terms survived the translational onslaught during the age of European imperialism.

“I am Master of this College; And what I know not, Is not knowledge.” –A. N. Whitehead 


THE ROMAN Empire is narrated with pride and pomp, and Latin, its lingua franca - having superseded the Hebrew and Greek lexicons - perpetuates all European languages to this day.

My Language, Your Prison

Yet, the Mongols had their empire too, and so did the Han and the Manchu, the Turks and Persians, the Arabs and the Hindu. Their civilizations towered large and different, and their languages: just as rich and original to humankind. Yet, why are we so reluctant, even in this age of globalization, to adopt Asian key terminologies?

One obvious reason seems to be that of power and dominance; those who own its language control knowledge. The Jewish world order ended when St. Jerome translated the Hebrew (and Greek) bible into Latin; Martin Luther, the protestant reformer, translated the Latin bible into German, hence the march of the German empire.

Translation No Longer Justified

The translation rationale has served European expansionists well for a thousand years; but is it ethical, scientific or even legal in the 21st Century to translate Asia’s socio-cultural originality into convenient European words? Why is it that, say, US brand names like ‘Coca-Cola’ and ‘Google’ enjoy greater legal protection than the entire intellectual output of India and China of the past 3000 years?

One way to protect words is to limit translation: Ayatollahs and imams are not “philosophers,” philosophers are not “buddhas” or “bodhisattvas,” buddhas are neither “shengren” nor “rishis.” Western categories are often unsuitable for non-Western creations: Calling a heshang, rabbi, ulama, or junzi “priest” seems unnecessary in the face of our digital age, where we can easily dig the originals (if we wanted to, that is).

For Lack of Chinese Words

A great example is the ‘shengren’ of the Confucian tradition. The shengren is the most important key concept in East-Asia, only perhaps comparable to the role of the ‘philosophers’ in the West; yet, needless to say, shengren are not “philosophers,” nor are they (biblical) “saints,” “prophets”, (folkloric) “sages” or (Lutheran) “appointees:” the shengren are just this: shengren.

Unfortunately, the entire Confucian tradition of ‘ruxue’ -including the daxue, an instruction manual on how to become a junzi (often loosely translated as ‘Chinese gentleman’)- has been obscured by European categories. Few Chinese terms have survived the translational onslaught during the age of European imperialism.

Some commentators try to arbitrate the case. They argue that the English language has already adopted enough Asian loanwords like Japanese samurai, ninja, and sumo, or Sanskrit yoga, guru, and pundit, etc. Yet, compared to what the Asian world still holds on offer, the number of foreign loanwords remains suspiciously low and, in the case of Chinese words, almost insignificant. [This is going to change.]

The Future of Global Language

World history, or better: the writings of thereof, is still administered by the West. However, if Asia truly wanted to escape the suzerainty of European words over her thoughts and originality there is a sure-fire way: Revive and promote more Asian words and key concepts.

For the liberalization of all the world's vocabularies has only just begun.

Image credit: SimonHS/Shutterstock.com

Read it at Asia Times

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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.