McPhee and Chatwin’s Different Treatment of Indigenous Language

Cecilia Kiely '04, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2003

In his book In Patagonia, Bruce Chatwin discusses a group native to Patagonia, the Yaghans, using their language as a way to describe their culture. This is reminiscent of John McPhee’s lists of Gaelic place names and their English translations as both languages tend to have words that are quite specific and often require several English words to explain their full meaning. Yet while McPhee simply lists the Gaelic names, Chatwin analyzes the words that he chooses as examples, as seen in this passage:

Verbs take first place in this language. The Yaghans had a dramatic verb to capture every twitch of the muscles, every possible action of nature or man. The verb iya means ‘to moor your canoe to a streamer of kelp’; okon ‘to sleep in a floating canoe’ (and quite different from sleeping in a hut or with your wife); ukomona ‘to hurl your spear into a shoal of fish without aiming for a particular one’; wejna ‘to be loose or easily moved as a broken bone or the blade of a knife’—‘to wander about, or roam, as a homeless or lost child’—‘to be attached yet loose, as an eye or bone in its socket’—‘to swing, move or travel’—or simply ‘to exist or be.”

How does this passage compare to McPhee’s listing technique? Is it more effective in giving a better sketch of the culture through the language or is it simply a different approach?

How is Chatwin’s attitude towards the culture of the Yaghans expressed through his own choice of language?

What function does his parenthetical remark (“and quite different from sleeping in a hut or with your wife”) serve?

United Kingdom In Patagonia Reading and Discussion Questions

Last modified 16 November 2003