Fighting Words: The linguistics of martial arts.

“Yī’, èr, sān, sì, wǔ, liù, qī, bā, jiǔ, shí!”

“Ichi, ni, san, shi, go, roku, shichi, hachi, kyu, ju!”

“Hanna, dul, set, net, dasot, yasot, elgob, yadol, ahop, yol!”

For those of us in the martial arts, there are, I would imagine, very few of us that cannot count to ten in the language of our art. Whether it be Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese, Korean, Hindi, German, English or any other tongue. This is just a function our drilling, which is a common thread with all practice. Our count often identifies us as practitioners of a particular “style” or nationality. This identification of language with nationality or style is all pervasive among those who are adopting the practice of martial art and, by extension, the culture of that art. In this day and age, we can add to it that often, the groups learning the arts are from different language groups as well. Be it in different countries or simply local communities, We often take on the language of the art language as our lingua franca between members of our respective schools.

This creates amazingly diverse linguistic environments. With this diversity there is of course much variation. Different teachers emphasize different things. They have different words, have different accents, and communicate in different ways. All of these factors come in to play with our experience of the martial arts because it is the method in which me must experience it. Through language.

What does language have to do with martial arts? It would seem ironic, as martial arts generally deals with the situation where words have already failed. But that would be about fighting, not about martial arts. Martial arts and language are two things that are nigh inseparable and as such, language and its use have a great impact on the arts themselves.

Language, as I am defining it based on linguistic sources, is a system of communication that is generative in nature and consists of definable parts and governing principles such as development, acquisition, and maintenance. The advantages of language include communication with future generations or people in far off lands, through time or vast amounts of space, and be able to change to incorporate new ideas. A language is any system that has these qualities. This should place language as separate and apart from other systems of organization and communication.

Martial art as I am defining it, is any system of movement based on or in service of the act of fighting and physical conflict. The martial arts contain distinct parts like development, acquisition of skill, and maintenance of that skill. These systems are often ways to record knowledge and communicate it to future generations or people far away.

At this point the temptation to equivocate language proper with martial art is almost irresistible. Both systems have many of the same qualities. So it is not much of a leap to say that martial arts is a language in and of its self. This is often said about many disciplines. Music, dance, science mathematics have all been hailed as languages in and of themselves. But is it true?

Martial arts communicates different subject matter through space and time just as language does. But an important question is how? Systems like these use language to communicate their content. Books are written on the subjects. People teach them in schools and universities. And the principles of those disciplines are communicated by using language. Wether it be notations in music, numbers and symbols in mathematics, or names and moves in martial arts, without our ability to produce language, we would be stuck teaching the new generations from scratch every time.

When we ask the same question of language, we have a much more complicated problem. One which, in truth, we do not have all the answers. Language accomplishes an amazing feat in communication, being able to preserve information through time and send it through space with accuracy and detail that no other system seems to be able to match. In part it does this through change. And that change is the secret to it’s power and utility.

Language is a generative system, which means its use promotes and facilitates its changing in form and structure. This happens without any of us being aware of it. The more you speak with other people and the more people you speak to, the more your personal language will change. This is true of individuals as well as groups and networks of groups. Over time one can trace the changes of languages to find their origins and ancestors.

This process also occurs with groups of like minded people. Communities and disciplines will inevitably come up with new words or new uses for more common words to better discuss their shared ideological thoughts and interests. Anytime this specialization of language occurs it is called a “narrowcast code” or “specialized vocabulary”. It is best known however, as “jargon”.  It is these narrowcast codes to which people are referring when they identify one of these disciplines as a language. They contain a specialized language that is particular to that group, yes, but the syntax and grammar are taken from the language of the speaker. But, the act of communicating now has an extra layer in a new set of words and uses that mean specific things in a martial arts context.

So the very art of martial art is a system of communication. We as humans communicate primarily by using language with each other. Martial art uses language to express it’s ideas, record it’s history and format it’s community. It is therefore subject to all the rules and peculiarities of language in general in it’s expression of these ideas.

There are issues of language which are shared by all languages. There are also features that make each language unique. Since all of our martial art exists within language, these pitfalls can have global effects on our understanding of martial art and it’s history. There are two main things we look at when examining this idea.

First, the specifics of the original texts and teachings, what can they tell us beyond what they are intended to communicate? Since my background in martial art is Chinese, I am concerned primarily with the numerous varieties of Chinese and of Literary/Classical Chinese. These are issues of translation and understanding the source material directly.

Second, looking at the way different language groups interact in these originally mono-linguistic environments. So much of martial arts is taken up by “immigrants” to the culture of the art. Most American students of asian martial arts do not have firsthand experience with the parent culture of their chosen art. But what happens to many of them is that they begin to adopt it. And one of the first ways is linguistically.

Which brings us back around to counting. We will talk a lot about the barriers to understanding that these situations can cause, but I would like to start out with the positive. Our love of martial arts helps us in both physical and cognitive ways. One of the appeals, I believe, to the study of martial arts is connection to a culture that is removed from the mundane one we encounter everyday. Most of us long to travel and see new things. We tend to like things that are new and adventurous and attach positive associations to those experiences. Martial arts is a nexus of many of these things that make us human. And our experience of it through language is our first steps. Our experience is shaped by it and our outlooks defined by them. But we also have contact with other’s words and language. We may find the same word in two styles in two languages. Other times two neighboring arts will have completely different terminology.

But counting is universal. Every language has numbers. And every art counts in some way. For us that practice as a way of life and even those who are just serious competitors or devoted students, this counting not only defines and differentiates us, but also brings us together. For whatever language you count in, you can pretty quickly pick up on some one else’s. Once that happens, an exchange begins.

I celebrate that exchange. Exchanges between teachers and students, authors and readers, performers and audiences, speakers and listeners. Exchanges from the past, and preparation for sending out messages into the future. I celebrate it all. And I am inviting you to come along with me.

I would be honored if joined me.

אַ שפּראַך איז אַ דיאַלעקט מיט אַן אַרמיי און פֿלאָ

a shprakh iz a dialekt mit an armey un flot

A language is a dialect with an army and navy“- Max Weinreich

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