performed but not spoken (2): symbolic reduction, language ideology, and ‘amis popular music

We are used to the idea that language is a form of cultural patrimony. Many arguments for endangered language preservation, in fact, begin from this premise, which defines languages as goods whose loss diminishes human culture. And yet, we might wish to ask whether such a language ideology vitiates language maintenance

On Taiwan, for example, definitions of indigenous languages as a cultural supplement for a relatively unmarked (Sinophone) civic body marks them as registers with cultural value but no economic utility. This notion of these languages as (only) culturally relevant tends to restrict their use to ritual contexts: folkloric performance, religious ritual, and greetings at academic gatherings or political meetings. It is an obligation as an indigenous subject to know some mother tongue when ritual performance requires it; one might even have to pass a competence test in one’s mother tongue in order to receive preferential treatment in civil service and other exams. Nonetheless, there is no sense that Sowal no ‘Amis could be a medium of instruction or even a dominant medium of interaction on Taiwan’s East Coast. Because there is no expectation that Sowal no ‘Amis or other indigenous languages will be languages of public debate, education, or everyday life, “Mother Tongue Education” can be limited to two hours of elective classes per week. After all, these languages have been reduced to symbolic tokens of heritage. One need not speak them, except during forms of ritual performance

informal and formal institutions still restrict when one can speak in sowal no 'amis. image:  yosifu 2010 "can't say" acrylic on canvas 30" x 24"

informal and formal institutions still restrict when one can speak in sowal no ‘amis. image: yosifu 2010 “can’t say” acrylic on canvas 30″ x 24″

wanting to be wanted
During the past ten years, ‘Amis artists such as Suming, Ado, Anu, and Calaw have emerged as singer songwriters who view their work as a form of language education and popularization. Suming and ‘Ado, in particular, foster the circulation of Sowal no ‘Amis in spaces dominated by national language media. Riffing on the performance practices of K-Pop, these young artists project an ‘Amis sensibility that is urban, young, and fashionable. Aware that maintenance of Sowal no ‘Amis requires media circulation and a reevaluation of Sowal no ‘Amis in relationship with other languages, Suming courts the attention and interest of non-indigenous people whose contact with his music might encourage them to learn the language; likewise, Ado employs urban fashion to convince urban indigenous youth that indigenous languages are not just the property of village elders

After several years of producing albums and touring, their work has attracted an international fan base and a host of young indigenous people who, aroused by the example of “big brother Suming” or “big sister Ado,” have begun careers as songwriters. Often these aspiring songwriters lack proficiency in their “mother tongue.” Thus, songwriting has become a means to learn and further develop indigenous languages

To Suming’s credit, his project derives from a clear understanding of the predicament of Sowal no ‘Amis within a broader media economy and language market. That Sowal no ‘Amis is a devalued language undermines language education programs. Thus, evaluation of Sowal no ‘Amis requires the interest and support of a larger population than ‘Amis people: after all, the issue is the relationship between Sowal no ‘Amis, Hoklo, Mandarin, and English within Taiwan’s broader society and not just ‘Amis interests (or disinterest) in language revitalization. Instances of a hip, pop culturally engaged Sowal no ‘Amis resituate the language as worthy of study, much like KPop has stimulated interest in Korean language among KPop fans, whose fetish for Korean products compels Suming to ask, “Why not you fetishize me?”

working toward an ‘Amis “super junior?”

Wanting to be wanted, Suming and Ado construct their songs carefully as contemporary popular music that just happens to be in Sowal no ‘Amis. Neither relies upon or makes stylistic reference to ‘Amis language popular music of the 1960s-1980s, a genre most youth consider too “local” to be valuable. Musically, both artists reference globally circulating popular genres, such as EDM, hip hop, rock, and bossa nova, to confront dominant linguistic ideologies. As Suming has told me on a few occasions, their lyrics cultivate pride in local culture, employing humor to emphasize a “very Taipei indigenousness and a very indigenous Taipei.” They also prod youth to concern about land rights and other important political issues facing indigenous communities. Sowal no ‘Amis, their music’s deictic strategy suggests, is not just a language of rural old people. see, for example, this clip from Suming’s “John Suming” (2012) video:

In Ado’s (2014) “Pangcah,” for example, a bass riff borrowed from EDM gives a four bar introduction, after which Ado shouts, “Kiso ko Pangcah!” (You are Pangcah / ‘Amis). The lyrics list qualities of ‘Amis people that differ from those of ethnic Chinese (faces, laughs, food, eyes, walk), concluding with the refrain, “mafana’ay kiso ko Pangcah!” (You know that you are Pangcah) leading into a chorus in vocables. Lest the song exclude a non-‘Amis audience, however, a rapper proclaims in English that Pangcah is a “kind of attitude” which can “unite everyone.” Meanwhile, the groove pulls listeners into this attitude with every heavy bass beat. Ado’s music will “Beautify”–That is, ‘A-mis-ify (美化 meihua)–everyone who dances to it

The rock anthem, “Mataledaw” (“Disappeared”), similarly describes a “different kind of voice and thinking” and “those places where the old people would gather shellfish on the ocean,” complaining that both have vanished

O ngiha no Pangcah a tamdaw
FAC.NCM voice GEN.NCM Pangcah LNK person
“The voice of Pangcah (‘Amis) People”

O pasi-fana’ no ma-to’as-ay
“Was taught by the elders”

Taldaw sa, taldaw sa
disappear-ASP disappear-ASP
“It is disappearing”

O sowal ita, O harateng ita to ‘orip
FAC.NCM word 1P.GEN FAC.NCM thought 1P.GEN DAT.NCM life
“Our language, our way of thinking about life”

Awa-ay to, awa-ay to
without-ASP ASP, without-ASP ASP
“It is all gone”

Ya ka-mi-foting-en-ta itiya ho a alo
there LV-AV-fish-UV-1P.GEN past ASP LNK stream
“The stream where we used to fish”

Ya ka-mi-‘adop-en-ta a lotok
there LV-AV-game animal-UV-1P.GEN LNK mountain
“The mountain where we used to hunt”

Ya ka-mi-cekiw-en-ta itiya ho a riyar
there LV-AV-shellfish-UV-1P.GEN past ASP LNK ocean
“The beach where we gathered shellfish”

Tala-cowa to?
toward-where ASP
“Where did [they] go?”

Hay yan, O a hay yan[…]

Again, these phrases–awaay to (they are gone), talacowa to (where to go?)–yield to vocables, signaling that the singer has arrived at language’s affective limits: at this place, language can no more suffice. Ara Kimbo, guest vocalist on this track, intensifies this affective stance, singing A hay yan ho hay yan, talacowa hayi talacowa to hay yan, amplifying the question, “where has it all gone? Although the vocables have no fixed semantic meaning, they mark a space of sincerity and deep feeling. As I will argue later, they also suggest possibilities for language revitalization not apparent at first listen

Suming shares Ado’s enthusiasm for EDM, particularly in his first studio album. Although he is not averse to writing songs about unrequited love and other pop music staples, his lyrics often reference local cultural practices, at times hiding political protest within love song metaphors. His best known track, “Kapah”, lists masculine virtues, ranging from singing to spearfishing and making money, asking who is best at them. The answer: the youth of his home village, ‘Atolan, of course! O kapah no ‘Atolan

In addition to writing lyrics in Sowal no ‘Amis, Suming has also produced an EP of Mandarin language album. His work as an ‘Amis language songwriter is situated within a set of collaborations that include work with a string ensemble, Hoklo / Hakka language hip hop artists Kou Chou Ching, a collective supporting an opposition party candidate for mayor, and now with Kachimba, an Okinawan band creating a fusion of traditional Okinawan music with Cuban dance musics

All of Suming’s songwriting has an outward orientation, tending as it does toward what Charles Taylor, following Gadamer, has called a “fusion of interpretive horizons” through collaborative and other work in multilingual contexts. His ‘Amis writing, moreover, projects Sowal no ‘Amis into an imagined global space of circulation, where it is possible for him to tell Sinophone listeners (as he has at a few concerts), “If you do not understand, just pretend it’s French!” His statement underlines that Taiwanese audiences have no problem listening to music whose lyrics they do not understand–as long as the language is European (or Korean)

Both these artists work to dislodge language ideologies that relegate sowal no ‘amis to irrelevance. They also encourage ‘amis youth to study and sing in their mother tongue. But is this project effective? What are its limits?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *