Saturday, July 2, 2016

Independence and the Right to Read and Write: A Word from Tim Brookes

Pahauh Hmong
In a recent update to the Kickstarter campaign mentioned in my previous post, Tim Brookes wrote the following and asked me to share it; I do so gladly:

As those of us in the United States head into the long weekend that celebrates the country's independence from colonial authority (yes, as a Brit I have to accept my birth country's history!), the Endangered Alphabets' Mother Tongue initiative is especially significant.

Take a look at the attached photo, for example. The Hmong were, and to some extent still are, a disadvantaged minority in many of the countries of their native southeast Asia. The fact that they did not have their own written language was seen as a sign of how uncivilized they were. When Shong Lue Yang, an unlettered farmer, created this script for his people it gave them such a strong sense of identity that the majority cultures of the region were disturbed--so much so that soldiers were sent to assassinate him.

I'd like to suggest we think of Independence Day not just in terms of nations but in terms of people and cultures, and the right of all peoples to their own culture, history, identity and language. That's what our Mother Tongue exhibition will be all about.

Please take a moment to back our Kickstarter this weekend--and then go back to celebrating independence.

Some many years ago (perhaps ten), when I was still asking Humanities and art history students to look up the meaning of their given names and interpret them visually--both with images and in writing systems different than ours, the son of Hmong immigrants from Viet Nam used this alphabet to write his name. It was my first encounter with this very new system (invented only in 1959), and my student (whose name, alas, I cannot remember) told me the story of the script and that its inventor had been assassinated. For a bit more on the story, and for a transcription of the alphabet, see the Omniglot page. This script is so much more lovely and appropriate than the Romanized alphabet popularly used for other dialects that it urgently needs preserving.

One of the saddest elements of my experience is that more recently I had to abandon what had been a creative and thought-provoking assignment because my students knew so little about language in general, and cared so little about their own linguistic heritage, that they couldn't complete it effectively.

To anyone who still reads this blog, I urge you to go to the Right to Read/Right to Write page and make at least a small contribution to help Tim complete this project and to further the Endangered Alphabets goals--for all of us who value languages and writing systems and who fear what their loss would mean to civilization as a whole.

An addendum: for an interesting and extensive commentary on the importance of Tim's work, see this post on Ever Widening Circles. There are also some lovely images of the carvings.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The Right To Read, The Right To Write

I'm devoting this post to an ongoing concern, and one you've seen me discuss numerous times on The Farm: the importance of language, and the danger represented both by the decline of linguistic richness and the disappearance of language systems.

Some years ago I participated in Tim Brookes's Endangered Alphabets Kickstarter campaign, and later joined his advisory board. Both the original project and its sequels, Endangered Alphabets II: Saving Languages in Bangladesh, and Mother Tongues succeeded in helping to raise awareness about the disappearance of indigenous languages by creating astonishingly beautiful carvings in a wide variety of endangered scripts.

The latest effort, The Right To Read, The Right To Write has been launched this week to enable Tim to "create a major exhibition of carvings for International Mother Language Day 2017 to celebrate and support endangered cultures." The goal is larger than the previous ones, $15,000 in thirty days, but its aims are equally lofty:

My goal is to create the most ambitious and significant set of Endangered Alphabets carvings yet—20 separate carvings of the phrase “mother tongue” in the traditional written languages of those cultures, carved in woods native to those cultures. These will make up a major exhibition to open on International Mother Language Day, February 21st, 2017, the largest and most high-profile display of the Alphabets so far. My aim is to spur public discussion and awareness of the importance of inter-cultural respect, and the dangers of language loss.

Keep in mind that these carvings are hand-crafted on gorgeous wood, and have to be carefully packed and mailed to their destinations. The Kickstarter page goes into more detail--and also features the goodies that come with donations--including the newest edition of Tim's book, and an Endangered Alphabets wall clock--which I just may get for myself as a retirement present.

If you were in any doubt about how important the whole question of the disappearance of languages and alphabets actually is, consider the following:

As my students have heard me claim innumerable times, writing is the most important technology ever invented by human beings. Period. We didn't invent fire; we found it. We didn't really invent stone tools; we simply modified found objects. Even weaving (which I consider far more important than stone weapon making as a measure of human achievement) was probably suggested by observations of plants and insects. Other primates can sign, but writing is purely human. No other species does it.

If it weren't for writing,  there is no possible way we would be where we are today. We've been creating and keeping cultural records since Cuneiform, Indus Valley script, Linear B, Egyptian Hieroglyphs, and other Bronze Age inventions took us far beyond the simple mark-making we'd been doing since the Paleolithic. Without these records we would have no idea of our history on this planet, no way to record what we discover, no way to transmit ideas.

Even as human culture creates new technologies to communicate, these technologies are themselves language-based. Not all of these are natural (think HTML and other codes), but all are vital. And what's really scary to me is that some of the digital technologies we're becoming so reliant upon are actually diminishing the quality of natural language. Vocabularies are diminishing among the young, and while our visual skills may be improving, critical thinking and analytical skills (language-based) appear to be declining. I wonder if some of this stems from the fact that hand writing (and handwriting) has become less important than producing words on a keyboard. But simply recognizing the potential loss of languages and scripts is an important step toward their survival.

Just this morning the New York Times mentioned a podcast from the New York Public Library on vanishing mother tongues, From Ainu to Zaza (tonight at 6:30 pm; register at the link). The live taping is sponsored by The Endangered Language Alliance and World In Words (PRI).

It's fairly clear that concern over the loss of languages and writing systems is growing. Only recently I discovered The Rosetta Project, "a global collaboration of language specialists and native speakers working to build a publicly accessible digital library of human languages."  The Rosetta Disk is a palm-sized digital collection of information on over 1500 languages, and promotes the long-term preservation of world languages by building the "largest open, publicly accessible collection of resources on the world's languages."

One of the best ways we can help to preserve these languages, though, is to foster their use among the people who developed them in the first place. This is where I think the Endangered Alphabets projects are especially important. They tie the beauty of the scripts to tangible art objects that can be displayed publicly to promote their preservation.

Even a few bucks will help, Folks. And if you pony up some serious change, you could snag yourself a work of art and help save a culture. 

Related posts: Losing Languages (2011); Endangered Languages Revisited (2013); Revisiting Endangered Alphabets and Languages and International Mother Language Day (2016)

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Lush Life

 Still Life with Books and Garden Stuff
The Farm is actually doing quite well these days, and this farmer--instead of grousing about how tough life is on the Populated Prairie--has decided to acknowledge the wonders and plenitude of this particular Spring season. Perhaps the proximity of retirement has something to do with my improved attitude, along with the relatively large amount of free time I can now devote to the abject pleasures of reading and thinking. The reading has involved two books I picked up at the Half Price emporium that makes this town tolerable: Michael Boulter's Darwin's Garden: Down House and The Origin of Species, and Gerard Helferich's Humboldt's Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Latin American Journey That Changed the Way We See The World. (Remind me never to burden any publisher with a subtitle nearly as long as the book.)

As usual, fortunate conjunctions have occurred that make the reading all the more felicitous, and I'll get to those in a minute. But I should mention that the pleasurable moments in the garden, both reading and working, have been enhanced by lovely weather interspersed with bouts of rain (and the usual terrifying Tornado Watch events) that have turned my modest half acre into a veritable jungle.

Woody enjoys sniffing the organic fertilizer in the raised veg bed.

 The "North Meadow" with Showy Primroses and Mullein

The animals are all enjoying the garden in their various ways. Mrs. Peel has figured out that if she stays still the dogs won't chase her, so she happily joins us--usually perching herself on one of the tables. Woody is fascinated with the manure-based fertilizer in the raised bed, and I've had to put barriers up to keep him out.  Arlo just looks for the shadiest spot near a human (or as near to Emma as he can get), and adorns his tail with pecan catkins, all of which have to be removed at the back door before he can go back inside.

 Emma amidst the Lambs Ears and Catnip
 Arlo observing the pots

The Humboldt book especially has made us both (The Beloved Spouse and I--not Arlo) aware of the role the younger of the von Humboldt brothers played in our current understanding of ecological relationships. Our conversations about him (and his influence on Darwin) led us to a talk on YouTube featuring Andrea Wulf (who's written a biography of Alexander) and others--including an art historian (Eleanor Harvey) from the Smithsonian who's preparing an exhibit for 2019-20 on Humboldt's cultural impact. The talk was recorded at Washington College last year, and runs about an hour and a half, but it's enormously interesting and well worth watching--especially if you're unfamiliar with Alexander von Humboldt himself. Wulf's biography is now on the wish list, and will be ordered along with his Personal Narrative of a Journey to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent and Views of Nature--unless, of course, I can snag copies of the latter two at HPB.

At any rate, Humboldt's major work was called Kosmos, in five volumes and incomplete at his death in 1859. It was on my mind on Friday when I headed to the University of Dallas with TBS for this year's Heidegger Symposium. I even had a copy of Helferich's book in my bag, in case I had time to read between sessions. The second talk of the morning, by Richard Capobianco of Stonehill College, was about "Heidegger on Kosmos and the Independence of Being in Relation to the Human Being," and I found myself wondering if Heidegger had ever read Humboldt. Apparently I wasn't the only one, because Dennis Schmidt (of Western Sydney University, who would deliver the Richard Owsley Memorial Address on Saturday) asked the question. I am immensely glad that he did, because I tend not to comment or ask questions during this conference; I'm not a Heideggerian, but he's the main focus of many of the readings considered in DASEIN (Dallas Area Seminar on European Inquiry), a local philosophical discussion group that the Beloved Spouse helped to found, and I'm essentially a hanger-on. Anyway, as it turned out, nobody knew if Heidegger had read Humboldt or not, and it looks like a nice research project for new retirees.

But I'm also interested in Darwin, of course, and Ernst Haeckel (the link is to the Wikipedia article because it includes some of his prints from Kuntstformen der Natur), and William Morris (especially his travels to Iceland) and numerous other nineteenth-century intellectuals preoccupied in one way or another with natural history. So when people ask me what I'm going to do in my retirement, it hardly looks like I'll be retiring at all.

In the end, it's about curiosity--the very component of intelligence and creativity that I find so lacking in so many of my students. All of those I mentioned, and the writers whose travel narratives I've been reading over the last year, were profoundly curious.  It may well be that the absence of widespread social media fostered this curiosity, and made it necessary. After all, I can just call up a web page on any of them and find myriad links to more--along with books, photos, drawings and paintings, manuscripts, letters, and other ephemera which help bring them all alive.  And I'm not at all unaware of the fact that if I had lived in the nineteenth century and developed any of their interests, I'd have had no way of satisfying my own curiosity.  But what stumbling into Humboldt and the others has done is to generate enough questions to last me for quite some time.

And now for a glass of wine and a spell in the garden with the animals while we await the arrival of my husband.  No doubt the good weather and the relative absence of bugs (although we're usually plagued with mozzies this time of year, the cool weather and my "mosquito dunks" have kept the population down) have combined to create the several pleasant evenings we've enjoyed. I can't help but feel grateful that no matter how bad the critters get, though, my discomfort is small compared to what Humboldt and his companions suffered on the Orinoco in April of 1800. Anyone who thinks of these great quests for information were romantic romps for the rich boys who went on them needs to read some of the accounts.  No spoilt brats involved here:

But even more troublesome than the [vampire bats] were the voracious insects that appeared every night after sundown and, able to pierce through clothing and even hammocks, covered the explorers with painful bites. Every visitor to the rain forest--not to mention the Indians and missionaries who made it their home--cursed the mosquitoes, gnats, flies, ticks, fleas, ants, and myriad other insects, and Humboldt's experience would be no different. Biting, chewing, stinging, burrowing, preying on their fellow creatures, the most numerous class of animal made life hell for every other species that came into unfortunate contact with it.
--Gerard Helferich, Humboldt's Cosmos, 121-22