Conference Discusses Shaping Culture by Language

By Ellie Anderson

On Saturday, March 11, The Rohatyn Center for Global Affairs hosted its Fifth Annual International Conference, drawing many students, faculty and staff who were keen to hear lectures on the theme, “From Scroll to Scrolling: Shifting Cultures of Language and Identity.” The conference was composed of seventeen lectures by scholars from around the globe, each organized by theme into six individual 90-minute sessions.

Lead organizer of the conference and Director of the Rohatyn Center Tamar Mayer introduced the event on Thursday, March 9, before speakers Stephanie Ann Frampton of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Associate Professor of Anthropology James L. Fitzsimmons commenced the lectures.

Mayer thanked everyone who made it possible and situated the theme within a historical and modern day setting.

She spoke about a New York Times piece written by Ilan Stavans, the LewisSebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College, entitled “Trump, the Wall and the Spanish Language.”

In his piece, Stavans likened President Trump to Shih Huang Ti, the Chinese Emperor who built the Great Wall of China and banned all books from the kingdom – acts which seem parallel Trump’s construction of the wall between the U.S. and Mexico and his elimination of the White House website’s Spanish-language option.

“[Stavans] points to the power of political authority within languages,” Mayer said. “In addition to demonstrating the potency of words within a binary of structure of us versus them, the Shih Huang Ti story illustrates the role of new writing systems in forging a national identity and the power of political authority to make decisions about language.”

“This was the case more than two millennia ago and remains so today,” Mayer said.

Mayer’s intention was to emphasize the relevance and importance of language to modern culture, which is evident in Stavans’s piece regarding the minimization of the Spanish language within the U.S. and the resulting exclusion of Spanish speaking U.S. citizens.

“Of the more than seven thousand languages and dialects that exist today, it is predicted that less than 10 percent will survive by the year 2100,” Mayer said. “Since language is an important menu for culture and the display of heritage and history, linguistic and cultural survival are intertwined.”

In a lecture titled, “Learning to Write in the West,” Frampton, who is a scholar of classics and the history of media in antiquity and an associate professor of literature at MIT, spoke about her research into the formation of the written Roman alphabet.

Frampton argued in her abstract “that from its first appearance the Roman alphabet — our alphabet — was a deeply multicultural and historical technology, tying the Romans in visible ways to the communities that surrounded them.”

She shared a photo of the earliest known example of the Greek alphabet, which was an inscription on a vase used in burial practices in Osteria dell’Ossa, Italy. Its inscription, which reads “she who spins well,” is assumed to refer to the woman buried with it.

Frampton spoke about the way in which this inscription gave value to what was otherwise a simple, clay vase, and how this was most likely the reason it was included in the burial.

“When writing first appears in Italy, when the alphabet first appears in the Western Mediterranean, it appears to give value to the very material that exists as its physical support,” Frampton said.

Frampton discussed the way in which the inscription upon the vase reflected not only material value, but also many aspects of the community’s culture. Frampton concluded her lecture with a focus on the “fundamental integration” of object and text, as seen in the relationship between the vase and its inscription.

“The meaning of the inscription is indelibly linked to the substrate on which it was written, both integrated into the activity of honoring [the woman],” Frampton said.

“By re-joining texts and object, this interpretation secures the significance of this faint text as an intentional monument of commemoration for the woman in whose tomb we find it,” she said.

Fitzsimmons followed Frampton with a lecture entitled, “A Spectrum of Literacy: Writing and the ancient Maya.” He argued that the complicated nature of the Mayan writing system was actually intentional because, as he said in his abstract, “for the ruling class, broad illiteracy was a key part of statecraft.”

Throughout his talk, Fitzsimmons built upon Mayer’s introductory point that when authorities control language, they also control knowledge.

He displayed an image of ancient Mayan glyphs and described the way in which such inscriptions were most often read aloud because so much of the population was illiterate.

“Being able to read and write, being able to understand the complexities of the system you see here was probably not an ability shared by people everywhere,” said Fitzsimmons. “The vast majority of people [in these Mayan communities], perhaps as much as 99 percent, could not read or write … The elites were the ones continuing to read and write inscriptions.”

However, Fitzsimmons emphasized that this did not mean that most of the population was ignorant or unintelligent, and that the elites were not necessarily all completely literate, which is where the “spectrum of literacy” comes into play. Many elites used scribes who were able to read the complex Mayan system and were not accessible to the common man.

Fitzsimmons’s lecture was followed by an extended question and answer session, in which themes of status, literacy and the democratization of language were discussed.

The lectures also generated thought about the aesthetic value of language, and student audience member Kylie Winger ’19 brought up the phenomenon of tattoos in America being written in Chinese and Japanese characters and tshirt slogans in China and Japan being written in English.

Winger, who is a Literary Studies major at the College, said she attended the conference because of an interest in the theme.

Winger has taken Chinese for six years, and as a result felt an appreciation for those who are able to decipher the Mayan glyphs Fitzsimmons displayed.

“Sometimes I would run across people who would be blown away that I could read Chinese — it was such a foreign thing,” Winger said. “That’s how I felt when [Fitzsimmons] was talking about the Mayan writing system — it’s insane that we can read that.”

In addition to the discussion of language in Frampton and Fitzsimmons’s lectures, topics ranged from a study on “The Democratization of Texts and Qur’anic Healing in Morocco” to a lecture on the “Theater of Rebellion: Danny Yung and Political Hong Kong Theater.”

The Rohatyn Center will be hosting its Sixth Annual International Conference on March 8-11 of next year, this time focusing on the theme, “The Decolonization Project.

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