Sir James George Frazer > The Golden Bough > Page 255
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Sir James George Frazer (1854–1941).  The Golden Bough.  1922.

Page 255
 
spread like wildfire through every camp and settlement of the tribe. You would be astonished, says the same missionary, to see how meekly the whole nation acquiesces in the decision of a withered old hag, and how completely the old familiar words fall instantly out of use and are never repeated either through force of habit or forgetfulness. In the seven years that Dobrizhoffer spent among these Indians the native word for jaguar was changed thrice, and the words for crocodile, thorn, and the slaughter of cattle underwent similar though less varied vicissitudes. As a result of this habit, the vocabularies of the missionaries teemed with erasures, old words having constantly to be struck out as obsolete and new ones inserted in their place. In many tribes of British New Guinea the names of persons are also the names of common things. The people believe that if the name of a deceased person is pronounced, his spirit will return, and as they have no wish to see it back among them the mention of his name is tabooed and a new word is created to take its place, whenever the name happens to be a common term of the language. Consequently many words are permanently lost or revived with modified or new meanings. In the Nicobar Islands a similar practice has similarly affected the speech of the natives. “A most singular custom,” says Mr. de Roepstorff, “prevails among them which one would suppose must most effectually hinder the ‘making of history,’ or, at any rate, the transmission of historical narrative. By a strict rule, which has all the sanction of Nicobar superstition, no man’s name may be mentioned after his death! To such a length is this carried that when, as very frequently happens, the man rejoiced in the name of ‘Fowl,’ ‘Hat’, ‘Fire,’ ‘Road,’ etc., in its Nicobarese equivalent, the use of these words is carefully eschewed for the future, not only as being the personal designation of the deceased, but even as the names of the common things they represent; the words die out of the language, and either new vocables are coined to express the thing intended, or a substitute for the disused word is found in other Nicobarese dialects or in some foreign tongue. This extraordinary custom not only adds an element of instability to the language, but destroys the continuity of political life, and renders the record of past events precarious and vague, if not impossible.”
  That a superstition which suppresses the names of the dead must cut at the very root of historical tradition has been remarked by other workers in this field. “The Klamath people,” observes Mr. A. S. Gatschet, “possess no historic traditions going further back in time than a century, for the simple reason that there was a strict law prohibiting the mention of the person or acts of a deceased individual by using his name. This law was rigidly observed among the Californians no less than among the Oregonians, and on its transgression the death penalty could be inflicted. This is certainly enough to suppress all historical knowledge within a people. How can history be written without names?”
  In many tribes, however, the power of this superstition to blot out

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