Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Losing Languages

As I've posted elsewhere, I recently joined in a campaign through Kickstarter to help Tim Brookes realize his plan to display texts from endangered alphabets at libraries and museums in order to raise our consciousness(es) about impending losses. As a reward for my contribution, Tim carved the above plaque, which spells out the word for "owl" in one of those alphabets--Balinese. As many of my students already know, I'm something of a champion of language, writing systems, and the importance of translation as a model for how human beings think and create. Tim's project, therefore, afforded me the opportunity to participate in what I think is one of the more worthwhile creative projects I've come across in recent years, and the Kickstarter campaign turned out to be enormously successful. His book, Endangered Alphabets, is a treasure, and I've been sharing it with colleagues and students alike; if you haven't already done so, I highly recommend that you visit the companion website and its blog.

At Tim's prompting I looked into another Kickstarter effort, this one designed to help preserve the Balinese language itself: Balinese--A Language at a Crossroads with Endangered Script. The project is aimed at developing

the first multi-media materials for the Balinese language. Balinese script is already endangered and the spoken language is dramatically changing. These materials, which will be donated to nonprofit organizations, will provide a record of where the spoken and written language is now and will encourage the use of Balinese for the future.

The project was initiated by Alissa Stern, the Executive Director of BasaBali.org, which promotes the preservation of the Balinese language. Like many of the world's indigenous languages, Balinese is at risk of either being transformed irrevocably, or of disappearing altogether. Its script is arguably one of the most beautiful writing systems ever created. It was actually Alissa who translated "owl" for Tim to carve for me. I thought it especially suitable to photograph the plaque in one of the trees (our Bur Oak) the neighborhood owls frequent.

If you're one of those folks who's stopped buying holiday gifts from the Large Mart and have started donating to worthy causes instead, I highly recommend visiting the Balinese language project page; donation levels start at a buck, and there are only about five days left in the campaign.

One of the reasons I find this stuff so compelling right now is the growing evidence that our own language is rapidly evolving into something almost unrecognizable. More than once this quarter I've had to stop in the middle of a lecture or discussion to explain a word I was using: affable, contiguous, nefarious, wend. Good grief! I'm used to parsing words like Gesamptkunstwerk or pareidolia, not to mention more common words used in discussing art history (chiaroscuro, tenebrism, entasis--and the editor in Blogger didn't recognize any of those except chiaroscuro). But what I would consider ordinary parlance is increasingly being seen as elitist or (at best) just plain obscure.

Although colleagues indicate that they're noticing the same thing, the problem doesn't seem to be much on the minds of the country at large (perhaps because other issues loom larger). The only substantial article I could find on a quick search was one by Ian Brown in the Toronto Globe and Mail (Are we losing our lexicon?) from 2007. I thought it rather amusing that the same search ("losing vocabulary") brought me several hits about a French hip hop composer named Keor Meteor, with an album called "Losing Vocabulary." There does seem to be a hint of irony attached to that one.

But losing language actually presents some serious problems to public life. One of my big beefs about the Tea Party, for example, has to do with its collective insistence that it knows what the Founding Fathers meant in the Constitution. However, it seems unlikely that a substantial number of TP members possess the linguistic background (in eighteenth-century English, let alone Latin and/or Greek), or the contextual understanding of Enlightenment philosophy to wrestle effectively with the multiplicity of possible meanings contained in that one document. Nevertheless, we frequently hear people holding forth on how simple it all is: just read the Constitution.

I'm pretty well convinced that one reason my students don't read the same things I did is because some of the "classics" are not only "too long" (for increasingly shorter attention spans), but that they have "too many words." That is, they have too many words that students would have to look up in order to understand what's going on. It's difficult to imagine that many of today's young adults would spend an entire summer, as I once did, reading Thomas Hardy's corpus--or even take a stab at something like George Eliot's Middlemarch. I admit to having struggled through the first 250 pages of the latter--only to be rewarded many times over for my effort as I proceeded through the book.

Yesterday marked the 150th anniversary of one of the longest books I ever read: Moby Dick. Melville's opus still fascinates, as we see by Nathanial Philbrick's new book, Why Read Moby Dick?, and Sena Jeter Naslund's 1999 riff, Ahab's Wife.

Do many of us remember how funny Melville's actual novel is, beginning as it does with a tongue-in-cheek etymology of the word, whale? Even the first paragraph--containing, perhaps, the most famous three words in literature--is wryly humorous:

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.

Mind you, I think sailing about the watery parts of the world would indeed solve a number of problems--so long as one didn't become obsessed with a whale in the process. But it seems unlikely that many young folk today will even embark on an effort to read the book.

Language, I like to remember, encompasses the essence of human being: it enables thought, speech, all manner of communication, understanding. Of course it changes--I'm not one of those who constantly laments over shifts in grammar (although I will admit that misplaced apostrophes annoy me). But losing perfectly good words and substituting irritating neologisms indicates a kind of linguistic laziness that impoverishes rather than enriches speech.

We're lucky, I suppose, that English isn't in any immediate danger of annihilation (even though it could one day be supplanted as the primary language of international discourse). Nor is our alphabet tilting on the brink. Instead, its pure simplicity enables it to be written in a seemingly endless multitude of styles--some of them quite beautiful.

Preserving the past, even if it's only for the purpose of not forgetting its mistakes, requires us to pay attention when we're losing cultural artifacts. Languages and writing systems should not be allowed to get lost in the shuffle of modernity precisely because they both mark significant moments in humanity's cultural and biological evolution: from becoming human in the first place, to becoming "civilized" when the very first syllabaries and alphabets were produced.

Friday, November 11, 2011


It's been nearly a month since my last post; things have been absurdly busy, confusing, and difficult to juggle, and I just haven't had the steam to even think about writing. But today is Veterans' Day, and I've been thinking of my father and other kin who've fought in wars or supported personnel who did. My daughter e-mailed me earlier today asking if I had any photos of her grandpa Tom in uniform, so I thought a post would present an opportunity to share my favorite. The above image was probably shot during or shortly after WWII, when Daddy was still in the Army Air Corps (at least that's what the wings indicate). What a handsome kid he was!

As I've undoubtedly mentioned many times on the Farm, my family's military roots run deep. Somewhere I have a letter from the Civil War, and there were Revolutionary War veterans on my Mother's side. Both of my grandfathers were involved in WWI, and I received a La Verne Noyes college scholarship on account my being a direct descendent of a veteran of that war. My father's war career spanned WWII, the Korean Conflict, and the Vietnam War. My brother fought in Vietnam as well. One of my mother's cousins was killed on the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor, and my nephew was stationed on the USS Ronald Reagan in the Persian Gulf. The connections spread through three branches of the service and through three centuries of conflicts.

Although war is one human activity I would be glad to see end in my lifetime, I regretfully doubt if anyone ever will. Utopian dreams frequently envision its absence, but that single condition is what makes the word "utopian" synonymous with "dream" (or even "fantasy") in many minds.

But there is one positive aspect: even as it brings out the worst in some, it also stirs others to the most valiant of actions and the most selfless of acts. It enables men and women to embody the notion of honor in ways that no other endeavor allows, whether its causes are just, reasonable, or even sensible--or not.

I wish that whoever reads this post would spent a few moments today honoring the memory of those we have lost to war, those who have endured it on our behalf (including many of my students), and those who continue to serve. Were I able to hold only one hope for the rest of my life, it would be that at some point in a future not too distant, their service would no longer be required.