Into the White

by Zahra 

What would happen if Literature, Anthropology and Scientific Endeavour met on a severe barren glacial fjord? Perhaps they would greet one another as brothers and huddle in their caribou hide furs to share an idea or two. It seems entirely plausible after the talk at Trinity Hall last week entitled Language, Literature and Medicine in Extremes of Latitude and Longitude where the intriguing intersection of these disciplines was beautifully explored. Each member of the panel attested to the power of extreme spaces (the Polar North, the South Pole and the peak of Everest) to inspire incredible feats.

 The work of linguistic anthropologist Stephen Leonard took place in NW Greenland with a sub-group of Inuit called the Inugguit. Their language is called Inuktun which translates to ‘language of here’ or ‘language of people’...Unsurprising when we hear that until 1818 this community of 700 believed they were the only people in the world. It is an agglutinating language of sighs and groans where words can be 56 letters long - (imagine the price of binding an Inugguitian thesis!) It is a language still deeply connected with the land, with over 24 words for wind, over 30 different ways to describe snow and a spiritual connection with the hila (the Inuktun word for weather but also consciousness and mind). As climate change brings drastic changes to this community Leonard wanted to preserve the indigenous knowledge bound within their stories. He documented the oral tradition of drum-songs and life tales which convey the secrets to their particular way of life. As Leonard so aptly conveys it, language is not merely about words but ‘how a group of speakers know the world.’ 

After the talk I reflected upon how my own mother tongue is a dialect and one which few of the peers in my community are able to speak. It saddens me that I didn’t document my raconteur grandfather’s fantastic tales before he passed away. I remember they heavily featured ambaa na jaar (mango trees) and popats (parrots) but I can recall little else except the feeling of sitting on my grandfather’s knee entirely rapt (wrapped even) within the story fabric he so skilfully wove. This rich oral storytelling history of my childhood is lost forevermore. 

The other speakers were equally fascinating. Physiologist Andrew Murray' work in Everest has attributed altitude acclimatization to the ability of skeletal mitochondria to reversibly reduce their densities. They hope this will lead to future application with ICU patients presenting with low oxygen levels. This part of the talk certainly satisfied the scientist side of me. However as this is a children’s literature blog (!) I return there for my final thoughts.... 

From the Narnian Winter of a Hundred Years to Van Allsburg’s Polar Express, extreme spaces endure in children’s literature too. Even happy footed Mumble and the March of those well narrated Penguins, point toward our collective interest in the ‘otherness’ originating from a geography so unlike our own. Where the the landscape of literature meets nature’s expanse of icy wilderness- exists a margin where Iorek Byrnison roams and where undoubtedly magic happens.

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