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Salon du Tapis d'Orient

The Salon du Tapis d'Orient is a moderated discussion group in the manner of the 19th century salon devoted to oriental rugs and textiles and all aspects of their appreciation. Please include your full name and e-mail address in your posting.

The Language of Carpets

by Costa Maroulis

The subject of languages has been a hobby of mine for many years, while carpets have only taken up the recent past. As an "armchair linguist/philologist," I have always been aware of the importance of language: language is usually the defining ethnological characteristic that delineates a people or culture. Most ethnologists would probably agree that the best way to understand a particular culture is through its language; an ignorance of the way a people communicate will effectively hide many of the more important aspects of their society, customs, traditions and beliefs. Certainly most rulers wouldn't argue: throughout history, when the goal has been to unify or centralize a country or region, the first step has been to impose an "official" language; taking away the linguistic rights of the smaller groups has usually resulted in the death knell for their cultures. The list of groups of people that have been affected by such policies would stretch for quite a distance; even today, many societies are fighting to keep their linguistic, and hence cultural, identities.

When I started collecting carpets, I was struck by the amazing variety of weavings to be found; as I learned more, I was even more amazed, as quite often this remarkable variety was originating from a relatively small geographical area. Before I had much contact with the Middle East, my assumptions were quite simplistic: I assumed homogeneity of cultures and peoples, and didn't look below the surface. Iranians spoke Farsi, Arabs spoke Arabic, etc. It was the same when I first began collecting carpets: there were "Persians," "Tribals," and "Turkish" carpets. I have since rectified my earlier misconceptions, only to find that both subjects have tended to yield more questions than answers; the deeper one studies, the more one unearths to study later.

In Iran alone, there are more than 40 different spoken languages, though Farsi is the official language (and predominates in number of speakers). In Turkey, the language issue is simpler, due to a lasting tradition of conformity by that country's rulers over the past few centuries; still, there are more than 30 spoken languages extant within the countries political borders. Afghanistan reaches the other extreme: there really is no standard, though Urdu and Pushtu are probably the most widely understood; there are several major language groups present (Turkic, Farsi, Arabic, Pushtu, Urdu, Arabic, Hindi, etc.) and many variants and dialects of each. India and Pakistan have similar situations: many languages are spoken throughout each. Most people in the region are have amazing linguistic abilities by American standards: they can often speak 5 or more completely unintelligible dialects or languages, and do so comfortably.

Weaving is an integral part of this region. As has been said before, weaving is art, and art is a means of communication. Granted, it may be at a deeper level, but the weaving of carpets and textiles by many peoples is an expression of emotion, history, tradition or culture that probably couldn't be as well expressed any other way. An important aspect of language among most weaving peoples is that their language is often only spoken; for many, there is no written form. In Armenia, Turkey, the Caucasus, Central Asia, Iran, and Afghanistan, there are over a hundred different spoken languages that do not have a corresponding written form; the indigenous peoples have always relied on oral traditions. Is it such a stretch to feel that in some ways their weavings may embody a "written" record? Not necessarily of events, in a "historical" or linear format, but of ancestors, past eras, triumphs and tragedies that are felt more profoundly than letters on a page can represent. For example, the Turkomen are well-known to have woven textiles that symbolize the particular tribes; modern-day Turkomen attempt to carry on that tradition, and one can often find weavings that use the same symbols. Some are undoubtedly produced for a more commercial purpose, but I personally know Turkoman people who weave simply to remember; they have jobs, live outside of their traditional areas, and may take years to finish a small carpet, but the act of weaving means hanging on to their traditions and culture. The symbolization is also a link: the symbols are those of their mothers and fathers, and their predecessors, and have meaning far beyond the marketplace. I think most collectors of carpets treasure those pieces that they feel are "non-commercial," for much the same reasoning; we feel that somehow we are brought closer to those that worked so hard to create something so intricate.

A further aspect of linguistic study may also have application in the world of tapetology. People do not give up their languages easily. In fact, languages change much less rapidly than one would be inclined to think. Languages are "living" things, and reflect the changes that are wrought upon a society; however, the basic structure will often remain stable, no matter how intricate. Most humans will take the path of less resistance when given the choice, and in languages it is no different. Due to this phenomenon, difficult grammatical constructions and sound combinations are often changed or dropped over the years; however, many languages, due to other social pressures, may keep just such details through force of will. We have only to look at English to see an example: there are thousands of archaic constructions and spellings, yet every attempt to streamline the language (for the past 400+ years) has met with dismal failure. Arabic (in its written and high forms) has remained virtually unchanged since the introduction of Islam and the Koran in the 7th century. Just as in France, there has been an "Academie" which has overseen the language and its structure, just to keep it "pure." Yet many smaller, non-written languages keep their form, without such noble institutions. Oral traditions, where the repetition of odes, stories, legends and family histories from generation to generation is the historical link, can often keep the language from undergoing drastic changes. When we add in the dialectical factor, it becomes even more interesting: quite often different dialects are spoken to "promote" tribal or group differences, and the dialects themselves are a marker of the people. To change a dialect substantially would, to some, alter the identity of the group itself. For these reasons, linguistic change is very slow in coming: it took many hundreds of years for the Vulgar Latin of Caesar's time to coalesce into the different Romance languages.

I think a case can be made that weaving follows a similar sociological pattern. In the villages and tribes, weaving is learned from a very young age, perhaps even at the same time as the acquisition of language skills. The methods, materials, dyes, and patterns are important considerations that may differ among each sub-group (much as dialects). Even if these people are uprooted, they take along this education: they may have to find other materials, but the methods and materials will not suffer any quick change. Neither will their language: Afghanis that fled to Iran and Pakistan did not change their language, but they did have to use alternate means of communication. In the same fashion, they were often forced to locate local sources of materials and dyestuffs, but they strove to use the same methods and patterns as their forebears; this wasn't only due to their training, but also, to a large extent, to the urge to keep a link with what they had left behind. In another example, if a woman from one tribe were to marry into another tribe, would she be expected to completely change her language or style of weaving? In some cases, adjustments are required, but the overall picture is that certain factors are more or less immutable. I have seen a carpet woven in Andkhoy by an Uzbek woman who has been married for a long time to a Suleimani; the carpet is a beautiful example of an Andkhoy, with small Uzbek-style borders. She grew up among a mixed group, and learned pile weaving from the Suleimani; her family taught her Uzbek patterns, and she continued to weave them throughout her creations. Mixtures of different styles are not uncommon, especially among the offspring of those in mixed marriages. Linguistically, a similar phenomenon can be observed: depending on the predominant language, children often use an "argot" or family-specific language until such time as they need to differentiate.

In short, the juxtaposition of the subjects of linguistics and weaving has intrigued me for some time, and I wanted to see if a discussion could be engendered which would discuss the possibilities. I look forward to seeing any responses to my meanderings, and thank everyone in advance for their consideration.