Refugees, languages and a tomahawk

Alain Denjean

Language and war

Original humankind had a common language, the language of nature. Human beings and the world were one. The original language was a heard, perceived but not spoken language. But the language of the cosmos and nature was too great for the increasingly individualising human soul. The latter would have burst if the feelings about nature, with which human beings were connected, had been transformed into language.

That is why the ancient common original language – in Germanic mythology Fenrir – was tamed by Tyr, the god of war. Fenrir is tamed but bites off Tyr’s fist and this remains lodged in his throat. In this myth it become the human tongue.

The taming of Fenrir gave rise to articulated human speech. The tongue touches various spots on the palate and teeth and creates the consonants; together with the power of the vowels in the voice, language as such is created..

Various great civilisations arose which populated the earth and followed one another in time. The Aesir had the task of introducing “war”, difference, into the world so that cultural diversity in space and time would arise. This continued through the ever more differentiated languages. Each language community represents through its own language a part of the original language and develops “its” culture.

Developing one’s own culture does not, however, mean destroying all the others. But if languages played a major role in the differentiation of humanity, what role can they play in the new culture of “general humanity” with the attainments of individuality?

Put another way: how can we once again give expression to the original language of humanity as we speak the languages of the world?

Grimm’s fairy tale: The Three Languages

A good example of the way language connects back to the human being of general humanity is contained in Grimm’s fairy tale of The Three Languages in which the son of a count, who has learnt nothing in school, learns the language of dogs, frogs and the birds with different masters and ends up becoming Pope.

This fairy tale shows in a wonderful way how through their threefold organism human beings have the capacity to speak three different languages: the language of dogs which enables them to set free the dogs from their guard duties and take the golden treasure. It is the language of the limb and metabolic organism, the language of business, the language connected with money and gold, but also with furious emotions.

In the swamp the count’s son hears the language of the frogs. The swamp is the place where in nature the elements interpenetrate one another: earth and water mix, but also air and water. Here we have an image of the middle organism of the human being which comes to expression in the activity of the lungs and circulation and brings about communication between the inside and outside, and ensures communication through language.

Finally two doves alight on the shoulders of the young man as he enters the church in Rome in which the cardinals must decide on a new Pope. He is asked to hold mass and the doves whisper everything in his ear. He learns what is required for religious ritual, the intellectual life, literature and poetry.

Knowledge of the three languages of the human organism is the first condition for a general culture of humanity, because however different people may be, they all possess the same organism which they use to have differentiated experiences of the world. Out of these three languages the languages of peoples and cultures are formed with their various different points of focus.

How does language develop in the child?

A second condition for a general human culture lies in the way in which adults deal with the language development of the child. Although we as adults speak the same language as children, the three languages of the fairy tale live in a different way in children than in the merely communicative language of adults.

The magic of language. At first, language in the small child appears to be strongly connected with the body, the movement of the muscles. It works magically as far down as into the muscles. We need only think of the Merseburg Incantations or the popular German verse to comfort a child when they have hurt themselves [Translator’s note: the verse has been left in German because of the reference to its sounds]: “Heile, heile Segen, drei Tage Regen, drei Tage Sonnenschein; wird schon wieder besser sein!”

What heals here is not the meaning of the verse but the caressing gesture contained in the sounds “L” und “Ei”. The important thing is the power contained in the sound gesture. The language takes hold of the body. It lives primarily in the sound, tone articulation and melody.

The imagery of language. The second stage which starts between the ages of seven and nine is about experiencing the rhythm and imagery of language.

Take the word “swing”. The word is pictorial in character; we can see and hear the momentum of the swing in motion. If we ask the children how the swing is moving, they respond: through the air. There is also another kind of swing which has another name: teeter totter [Translator’s note: US usage, in the UK more commonly called a seesaw]. Its expressiveness comes from the word rhythm and produces a different (visual and acoustic) image. This swing’s movement is controlled by a stationary central axis.

At this stage of language, which is often still connected with the first one, the important thing is to grasp images and rhythmical processes. The words correspond to mental images but the mental images are individualised concepts just like right-angled triangles and equilateral triangles are different images of the concept triangle.

We have come closer here to the meaning, the content, than in the first stage but it is not until the third stage that the content fully comes into its own. On the second level language takes hold of the human soul.

Conceptual language. At the third stage words recede in favour of sentences. Now language becomes an expression of the thinking. Only at this point have we arrived at the language of adults. What stands between or behind the words becomes important. The thinking must be experienced as something which has nothing to do with speaking, as something independent.

Through language we struggle with something super-sensory, for example with communicating thoughts. This reminds us of the language of the doves in the fairy tale which communicates something which cannot be communicated with sensory words. Now the task of language is to clarify the thinking, that is to say, help the thought to be clearly and distinctly comprehensible.

If the third stage displaces the two previous ones, the creativity and poetry of language disappears. Language becomes sober and monochrome. With the third language alone it is impossible properly to grasp much linguistic evidence from the past: die Upanishads, Buddha’s speeches, the myths of great civilisations, the Koran – they lose what they actually express by other means, through rhythm, sound and images. A reduction takes places which is only appropriate for certain areas of our modern world.

The third condition of a culture of general humanity in language development requires that in education through the mother tongue as well as through foreign languages all three stages of the human I organisation are cultivated and preserved from one-sidedness. That is precisely what Waldorf education strives to do.

Language in cultural development

The ancient languages of antiquity were of course spoken by everyone but it was the priests who possessed the power of language and through this special relationship with it received the revelations from the divine, the supersensory sphere. The language which the priests heard and spoke was the most important cultural medium.

During the Greek period, and above all from Rome onwards, language developed in a different way until the Renaissance. Language became a means of communication – in Rome a means of communication between competent citizens.

In the Middle Ages the Bible was translated. Understanding was no longer through the access of the priests to the common source but from one person to another through translations from one language to the other. Language became codified. Contracts are concluded, grammar books written; guardians of the language, such as for example the “Académie française” were set up. A language arose which moved the focus to its information character and thus also communication worldwide. After the Renaissance, the relationship between language and the human organism changed once again. Economic processes predominated, the work we carry out with our limbs. As long as there were slaves, physical work as a means of securing a person’s existence was not taken seriously.

Rudolf Steiner points out that we do not need human language for economic activity. It may be practical and convenient, but dispensable. If language dies in the sphere of rights unless it is vitalised by human beings, it becomes mute in the sphere of the economy or turns into animalistic bellowing – verbal and non-verbal.

What qualities must we develop to avoid people falling silent in the face of the battle cries of the current time and falling prey to resignation; to overcome the world of war? Steiner refers to two qualities which are important for our time so that we find renewed access to the spiritual life through language which can bring peace on earth.

On the one hand it is the expressive power in the individual languages. This power allows a connection to be created with the great gestures of the common language through the colour of the imagination of the individual peoples which is at work in the word. The person who says “Stern”, “étoile”, “star” can train themselves to speak it in such a way that the power of the star is embodied for them through its image in the individual languages and a feeling of the star arises which lives in every person.

This expressive power in language corresponds to the power of religious ritual which in the first phase of language development was able to reveal the spirit. Here we have the same power but in the opposite direction. It arises from our will activity which we introduce into language in accordance with the image in the word. This activity provides us with a new access to the sphere of the spirit.

The other quality demanded by our time is that we become sensitive to the great language of nature: if we obtain a new understanding of the language of the seasons, the phenomena of nature, the wind, sun, dew, or indeed the Tao, we also obtain a relationship with the common sphere of humanity as it prevailed before the time of the Aesir as the language of nature. Steiner developed Goetheanism to provide such access, a science which does not start with hypotheses but enables such a quality through phenomenology and insight.

We have to undertake with volition and wakeful thinking what we received in earlier times as revelation. Children bring their spiritual life with them from the past. We draw our spiritual life from the future. In the economic age this means that we have to introduce the principle of fraternity, which is connected with general human characteristics, into economic life. But that is only possible if each one of us contributes to it.

The tomahawk

Last summer I had the pleasure to receive an invitation from a member of Canada’s First Nations with whom I wanted to talk about the rituals of her tribe. A profound and warm conversation ensued and she noted my respect for her culture. Suddenly she rose, walked over to her living room wall and came back carrying a tomahawk which she reverently handed to me with friendly words.

I hesitated briefly because for me a tomahawk was a symbol of war and there was just a very peaceful atmosphere between us. But soon I was smiling too because I noticed that she had handed me the instrument of war with the side upwards on which there was a black thing on the axe. Suddenly I understood the general human gesture she had made out of the language of her culture.

A tomahawk, as a ritual object, has two sides. The one side is the axe, a stone in the form of a clenched fist skilfully tied to the handle with leather straps. Swinging this instrument of war during the ritual dance binds the martial powers of the god of war and gives the warriors courage for the coming battle. That is Tyr’s fist in the throat of Fenrir.

On the other side of the axe a small rolled-up black piece of an animal’s tail is attached. This small piece of fur with the tip pointing upwards looks like the smoke rising from a fire. From this side the tomahawk is held horizontally in reverence, the handle pointing towards oneself, the small fire rising from the axe pointed forwards towards the other person. This side of the tomahawk is the peace pipe. And the old lady made me a gift of this peace pipe. She probably felt that I understood her general human expressive language.

It is up to us to decide how we use our tomahawk.

About the author: Alain Denjean is a French and religion teacher at the Uhlandshöhe Waldorf School (Stuttgart) and a lecturer at the Freie Hochschule Stuttgart. He advises the German Waldorf schools on foreign languages.