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Posts Tagged ‘language’

Photo: Vincent Francigny / Sedeinga archaeological mission
A large cache of recently discovered texts offers insight into one of Africa’s oldest written languages.

Archaeologists, whether professionals or amateurs like those in a recent post, keep discovering new wonders. They remind us never to make the mistake of thinking that everything has been discovered.

Jason Daley writes at Smithsonian magazine, “Archaeologists in Sudan have uncovered a large cache of rare stone inscriptions at the Sedeinga necropolis along the Nile River. The collection of funerary texts are inscribed in Meroitic, one of Africa’s earliest written languages.

“As Charles Q. Choi at LiveScience reports, the find is full of potential. … The archaeological site of Sedeinga — once part of the kingdoms of Napata and Meroe (which were jointly referred to as the ‘Kush kingdom’ by their ancient Egyptian neighbors) –- includes the remains of 80 small brick pyramids and more than 100 tombs created during a cultural period from about 700 B.C. to roughly 300 C.E.

” ‘The necropolis’ miniature pyramids were initially inspired by Egypt’s massive monuments, but during a later time, Meroitics refashioned the tombs and pyramids to include chapels and chambers where they could worship the dead. …

“In addition to the funerary texts, archaeologists also found pieces of decorated and inscribed sandstone. … One of the more interesting new finds from the dig is a lintel, or structural beam from a chapel with a depiction of Maat, the Egyptian goddess of order, equity, and peace. This is the first time archaeologists have found a depiction of Maat with black African features.

“Another find of note, a funerary stele, describes a high-ranking woman by the name of Lady Maliwarase and details her connections with royalty. Similarly, a lintel uncovered during the excavation explores the lineage of another woman of high rank, Adatalabe, who counts a royal prince among her blood line.

“These kinds of inscriptions are sure to help historians continue to piece together the story of Meroe. For instance, as Francigny tells Choi, the aforementioned finds reveal that in Meroe kingdom matrilineality — the women’s lineage — was important enough to record.”

More here.

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Photo: Zuma Press
A game called pelota mixteca helps to keep an ancient language alive.

I never thought about it before, but there are languages that go with certain pursuits. For example, the vocabulary of ballet is French, so when you are learning ballet, you are learning a little French.

Here’s a story about a sport that relies on the vocabulary of an indigenous people, helping to preserve not only the words but also cultural pride.

Walter Thompson-Hernández writes at the New York Times, “The men gather at an open field in a recreation area of the San Fernando Valley [of California] every Sunday, putting chalk to the dusty ground to draw the boundaries of a game that has been a weekly ritual as long as many can remember. After they are done, these men and others who filter in cluster into distinct teams, tossing a six-pound rubber ball to warm up.

“On a recent Sunday, one of them, Jorge Cruz, 39, lifted a 15-pound glove studded with nails and other ornamentation in the air. He glanced back at his teammates and asked, ‘You guys ready?’ in Zapotec, an indigenous Oaxacan language, before bouncing the ball on a cement slab known as el saque and hitting it toward the opposing team.

“This is how you start a game of pelota mixteca, a ballgame said by its players in California to have originated hundreds of years ago in Oaxaca, Mexico, though theories abound about whether it is an offshoot of an ancient Mesoamerican game or a European sport brought to the New World. Wherever it arrived, it serves not only as a pastime: It is also a way of keeping its players’ culture alive, and serves as a network for an immigrant community throughout the West Coast. It has even spawned an under-the-radar international tournament. …

“Oaxacan players who speak indigenous languages like Zapotec and Mixtec travel to the pasajuegos (games) every week from Southern and Northern California cities, and each makes the journey to the San Fernando Valley for many of the same reasons. …

“Because a majority of the pelota mixteca players live in communities where Spanish or English are spoken rather than Zapotec, second-generation Oaxacan children are less likely to preserve that language or any of the other indigenous languages spoken during play. …

“A number of Oaxacan youths are making efforts to ‘revitalize’ these indigenous languages by playing sports like pelota mixteca and making frequent trips to Oaxaca. It provides an environment free from the stigma or the expectation to adopt Spanish. …

“Pelota mixteca continues to be played in relative obscurity every Sunday, but a younger generation of players has appeared on the field. Mr. Cruz now brings his son Jorge, 15, and his nephew, Miguel Angel, 9, to the games with him every weekend, as his father once did more than 20 years ago.”

Says the younger Jorge Cruz, ” ‘I feel empowered and excited that I’m playing the same game that my ancestors did. … If I have children one day, I’m going to teach them this game, too, so that they don’t lose our heritage.’ ”

More here.

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Photo: u-theopera
A scene from “u,” the first Klingon opera on Earth.

I was late to the Star Trek party. I didn’t get hooked until the spinoff Deep Space 9, which featured an actor I had performed with as a child (René Auberjonois). But I have friends who are lifetime Trekkies — Asakiyume for one. (She’s a Vulcan.)

Partly because I’m interested in invented languages like Esperanto, I have written before about Klingon, a language created for Star Trek. Today I’m here to tell you about a new Klingon center — in Sweden, if you can believe it.

Lee Roden writes at The Local, “The world’s first ‘Klingon tourist centre’ [opened February 3] in Sweden, in a collaboration between a Stockholm theatre and an organization which calls itself the Klingon Institute of Cultural Exchange.

“The doors of ‘Visit Qo’noS’ [are] open at Turteatern in southern Stockholm … until late March. No stone has been left unturned at what Turteatern’s Theresa Jonasson told The Local is the ‘first Klingon centre in Alpha Quadrant’ (which apparently is the part of the Milky Way where Earth lies, in Star Trek lore).

” ‘The visitors check in at the reception desk, where they will get some tourist information, such as a visitor map of the Klingon capital First City. They will then be invited into the ceremonial presentation hall. The non-hologram live-act presentation is performed by the four Klingon ambassadors Ban’Shee, Mara, Morath and Klag, all from the House of Duras,’ she explained.

” ‘The visitors/audience will be introduced to the Klingon culture and customs and acquire lifesaving tips to apply when interacting with Klingons. There will also be a singalong, dancing, Klingon opera, and scenes from the famous Klingon play Romyo je joloywI’ (better known on Earth as Romeo and Juliet), by Shex’pir.’ …

“Even by science fiction standards, Star Trek fans are known for being a particularly passionate bunch, and the Stockholm theatre has been careful to try to meet their high expectations when it comes to costumes and staging. It has also called upon the help of Klingonska Akademien (The Klingon Academy), an Uppsala-based society with expertise in the Klingon language. …

“The Klingons will be of the more traditional kind [says Jonasson]:

‘The most common question is if the Klingons look like the Klingons in the new Star Trek TV series Discovery, which of course they do not. That series is offensive for Klingons, and should not be mentioned during the presentation.’ …

“For any readers fluent in alien languages, a message from the Klingon Institute of Cultural Exchange in Klingon can even be found here.”

More at the Local, here.

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Photo: Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer
Harvard student Manny Medrano displays a model of khipu knots, an information system that the Inca used to tally and record data. He decoded the meaning when he was 19.

This is a period in history when our hopes have been raised that young people will solve some of our knottiest problems. How can they do that? Because they have a fresh perspective, I think, and like the “whiz kids” in the Tracy Kidder book Soul of a New Machine, they don’t know what’s impossible.

At the Boston Globe, Cristela Guerra writes of a problem solved by a teenager — a literally knotty one. She calls it “a mystery that has left many scholars flummoxed.

“For all the achievements of the Inca Empire, including a massive roadway system, sophisticated farming methods, and jaw-dropping architecture, it was the only pre-Columbian state that did not invent a system of writing.

“Instead, the Inca, whose civilization originated in Peru and grew to include peoples and cultures all along the west coast of South America from 1400 to 1532, relied on knotted strings to encode information, a system so complex that scholars still struggle to make sense of it.

“Which is what makes the work of Harvard student Manny Medrano all the more remarkable. The young student provided new insight into how the Inca recorded information by analyzing the colors and the direction of the knots placed on the strings known as khipus. …

“Three years ago, freshman Medrano was working as a research assistant for Gary Urton, the Dumbarton Oaks Professor of Pre-Columbian Studies and chair in the Department of Anthropology at Harvard University. Medrano, then just 19, decided to spend his spring break analyzing the data from six khipus that were found in the collection of an old Italian count who’d lived in Peru. …

” ‘The only history we have of the Inca Empire are ones that were written by Spaniards after they conquered the Incas,’ said Urton. …

“There is no Rosetta Stone for khipus, no translation for what the patterns of knots represent, and no match between the Spanish documents and the khipus themselves. …

“Medrano set to work. Though he was most interested in studying mathematics and economics, he also had a strong interest in archeology. … He made graphs and compared the knots on the khipu to an old Spanish census document from the region when something clicked.

” ‘Something looked out of the ordinary in that moment,’ Medrano said. ‘It seemed there was a coincidence that was too strong to be random.’

“He realized that, like a kind of textile abacus, the number of unique colors on the strings nearly matched with the number of first names on the Spanish census.

“For example, if there were eight ‘Felipes,’ all were indicated by one color, while ‘Joses”’ were indicated by another color. …

“As a result of Medrano’s discoveries, Urton and Medrano produced a paper, [published] in the academic journal Ethnohistory in January. Medrano, now a junior, is the lead author of the article, ‘Toward the Decipherment of a Set of Mid-Colonial Khipus from the Santa Valley, Coastal Peru.’ …

“Medrano plans to continue his research. He has decided to major in applied mathematics and minor in archeology.”

More at the Globe, here.

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lewisset_304x400

Photo: British Museum
One of the walrus-ivory pieces among the British Museum’s 12th century Lewis Chessmen is a castle that records the metaphorbíta í skjaldarrendur” (“biting its shield-end,” or fighting on in the face of great odds), a phrase still common in today’s Iceland.

Iceland is such an interesting country. I have enjoyed reading about how everyone gives books at Christmas and how volunteers embrace danger to rescue reckless tourists. Now the Economist explains that although almost no one else speaks it, Icelanders love their language.

“It is hardly surprising that Icelanders have names for the many different fish that abound in their surrounding waters — the various types of cod, herring and so on which they have been catching for centuries.

“It is rather more surprising that they have not just one word for the coelacanth, but three. …

“But Icelanders are keen namers of things — and would never dream of simply adopting a transliterated version of someone else’s word. So they call the coelacanth skúfur, which means ‘tassel.’ Or skúfuggi: tassel-fin. Or sometimes forniskúfur: ‘ancient tassel.’ [You can hear the spoken pronunciation at the Economist.]

“Icelanders are fiercely proud of their tongue and stay actively involved in its maintenance. On Icelandic Language Day they celebrate those among the population of 340,000 who have done the most for it. They love the links it gives them to their past.

“Ordinary Icelanders revel in their ability to use phrases from the sagas — written around eight centuries ago — in daily life. The commentator who says that a football team is bíta í skjaldarrendur (‘biting its shield-end’) as it fights on in the face of great odds, is behaving quite normally in borrowing an image from ancient tales of Viking derring-do. ….

“The result is something close to unique — a language that is at the same time modern (it can happily express concepts such as podcasting), pure (it borrows very few words from any other tongue) and ancient (it is far closer to the ancestral Norse tongue than its increasingly distant cousins, Danish and Norwegian). Its complex grammar has barely changed in almost a thousand years and has a distinct old-worldliness. But if, like the forniskúfur, Icelandic is a living fossil, it is a lovely and lively one. …

“From early on [Icelanders] were particularly keen on using it to write things down; much of what is known about Viking culture comes from Icelandic texts. In the 13th century Snorri Sturluson produced the Prose Edda, one of the earliest and most important accounts of the antics of Thor, Frigg, Loki and their kith and kin. …

“Some words do look similar to English ones: bók, epli and brauð are ‘book,’ ‘apple’ and ‘bread.’ …

“Some of these similarities, though, can mislead. An English-speaker who knows that dóm is cognate to the English word ‘doom’ may find the Reykjavik building marked dómsmálaráðuneytid rather menacing. But it is just the ministry of justice: ‘doom’ in English was once mere judgment; only later did it take on first the meaning of condemnation, then ruin.

“It is not clear in quite what way J.R.R. Tolkien meant the word when he named the climactic locale in The Lord of the Rings Mount Doom. But as a philologist interested in Norse and other ancient tongues, and keen on the archaic, he certainly knew his Icelandic.

“The name of the wizard Gandalf is taken from the Eddas. The Tolkiens’ Icelandic nanny, Adda, not only took care of the children; part of her role was to help him practice Icelandic. Mrs Tolkien was not pleased by the attention.”

Wow, that’s interesting because, as we learned in this recent post, Tolkien was orphaned at the age of 12. His early years with that nanny must have made a big impression on him.

Find other curious facts about the Icelandic language at the Economist, here, and listen to more of the pronunciations.

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Photo: Library of Congress/Wikimedia
Frances Densmore at the Smithsonian Institution in 1916 during a recording session with the Blackfoot tribal leader called Mountain Chief for the Bureau of American Ethnology.

I can understand that one might be able to resurrect a mastodon that was frozen in ice, but how do you resurrect an extinct language? Turns out the answer is lasers and wax recordings. (Takes me back to my father’s clunky wire recorder and what I had to say in my 6-year-old voice on the static-filled recording we call “The Birth of Willie.”)

Allison Meier writes at Hypoallergic, “Among the thousands of wax cylinders in the University of California (UC) Berkeley’s Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology are songs and spoken-word recordings in 78 indigenous languages of California. Some of these languages, recorded between 1900 and 1938, no longer have living speakers. The history on the cylinders is difficult to hear. The objects have deteriorated over the decades, mold eating away at their forms, cracks breaking through the sound.

“A project underway at UC Berkeley is using innovative optical scan technology to transfer and digitally restore these recordings. … The initiative aims to preserve about 100 hours of audio. he collaborative restoration project involves linguist Andrew Garrett, digital librarian Erik Mitchell, and anthropologist Ira Jacknis, all at UC Berkeley, and utilizes a non-invasive scanning technique developed by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory physicists Carl Haber and Earl Cornell. …

“Anthropologist Alfred Kroeber began his field audio collecting in 1901, a month after becoming the curator of the then-new museum. Although the recordings are limited, each only a few minutes long, and were captured at a subjective start and stop by Kroeber, they are invaluable for understanding the diverse languages of indigenous life in California.”

According to Hypoallergic, the project website warns that “due to ‘the culturally sensitive material of the content on these cylinders, and out of respect for the contemporary descendants of many of the performers on the recordings, access to the majority of the audio being digitized is currently restricted.’ One of the publicly available recordings is that of Ishi, recognized as the last surviving member of his Yahi tribe, who lived out his final years at Hearst Museum. His voice, among many being recovered from the noise of the wax cylinders, leads the recently-shared video from [National Science Foundation] below.”

More at Hyperallergic, here.

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Photo: eGuide Travel
The highlands of Papua, New Guinea, are among the isolated places that linguists search for speakers of dying languages.

I’ve blogged before about linguists and others who are trying to preserve languages spoken by only a few people. The belief is that there is intrinsic value in such endangered languages and that they are key to understanding cultures. Recently I saw that one group is focusing on a particular manifestation of rare languages — their poems.

Fiona Macdonald writes at the BBC about the Endangered Poetry Project.

” ‘They fly to Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea and there they take a bus for three days and then they hike over a mountain and then they take a canoe and then they get to this little bay with 300 people,’ ” she reports, quoting Mandana Seyfeddinipur, head of the Endangered Languages Archive at London’s SOAS [School of Oriental and African Studies]. …

” They are ‘PhD students of 25 with a digital camera, a digital audio recorder and solar panels.’ …

“ ‘They live with the communities for months at a time, and develop social relationships, and talk to them and record them, and then they come back and they give me this SD card. … ‘The only record that we have of this language is in this tiny SD card.’ …

“The newly launched Endangered Poetry Project aims to tackle [language] loss at another level. ‘Languages are dying out at an astonishing rate: a language is being lost every two weeks,’ says the National Poetry Librarian Chris McCabe. ‘And each of those languages has a poetic tradition of some sort.’ …

“The project has issued a call-out to members of the public, asking for poems written in an endangered or vulnerable language. ‘In the first week, we’ve had over a dozen submissions in about 10 languages,’ says McCabe. ‘That includes poems in Breton, and poems in a dialect of Breton called Vannes. We’ve had a poem in Alsatian, and the Sardinian dialect Logudorese. We’re interested in these variations in language in different places as well, which can often be markedly different from the established language. …

” ‘You get a focus on place – in poems we’ve received from Sardinia, for example, there’s a focus on the mountain range there,’ says McCabe. ‘It shows you where people felt drawn to for inspiration in the landscape. Also, the style of a lot of Gaelic poems is very lyrical, and often uses repetition, a lot like a song. In that poetic tradition, you see how the division between poetry and music is quite slight – they often cross over between one and the other. The poetry tells us a lot about what kind of artistic experience people like, as well as what’s important in their geography.’ ”

Lots more here. Very interesting stuff.

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