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This is part of a series on the supposed death of nushu, considered to be the only language in the world spoken exclusively by women.

So, if we filter all these motives and groups and concepts, there remain just a couple of ideas that show up time and again. Namely, individualism and language death, concepts imposed on the original culture, affect whether nushu can broadly be seen as a living language and form.

It’s not only that nushu’s death has been aligned with a last speaker: it’s that the idea of language death presupposes that languages can die just as an individual can. The value of human life becomes an academic equivalent, and becomes remarkable only in terms of grounding an intellectual loss. This is why Yang Huanyi’s obituaries read so horribly false: they’re not really about her.

The alignment of nushu’s death with that of a last speaker requires a dismissal of remaining speakers. It also requires the acceptance of overarching scholarly authority and a prioritisation of the individual regarding a form that functions in communal terms. As per Daniel Heller-Roazen in his Echolalias: on the forgetting of language:

The attempt to demonstrate that a language has reached its end cannot but be motivated, for better or worse, by a powerful, albeit unstated, wish that has little to do with speech and a great deal to do with the desires of those who would be its keepers, who seem often desperately in search of the assurance that a language has truly been laid to rest.

To declare nushu dead is to declare Western and scholarly determinants of more social value than those of the originating culture.

Individualism, then, is not simply an imposed concept as attached to humans, if I can twist the meaning a bit. It also requires the proliferation of only a singular, socially powerful set of ideas about nushu. That there is a clash between cultures and concepts means that views of nushu as dead and alive are both existent, even though the death narrative has greater social traction. If the dominant set have to push so hard to get their ideas to have traction, there’s clearly another – living! – narrative going on.

Even if we are to accept the idea that languages can die, nushu cannot be both dead and alive. Deadening may be a better term. What is being deadened is not, strictly speaking, nushu itself, but the social value ascribed to it as a living form. Again, the claim of death becomes the deadening influence, rather than careful study of how nushu actually functions culturally.

Chu reported that Yang ‘could still enthral visitors by singing nushu songs in a quavery voice, the last keeper of a remarkable tradition’. In the terms of Yang’s culture’s idea of nushu as collaborative, in having being enthralled, visitors participate in keeping nushu alive, too. If nushu is still transmitted and used, we must hold suspect the insistence on its death according to the ideological terms of socially powerful forces.

That’s all for the series. I hope you enjoyed it.