Posts Tagged ‘language’


Photo: Kyrgyz Academic State Theatre
Albina Ishmasova as Lady Macbeth. As part of a unique collaboration in Kyrgyzstan, director Sarah Berger created three versions of
Macbeth using the Kyrgyz language, which she doesn’t speak.

Theatrical directors are often up for a challenge, but this challenge takes the cake: directing actors who don’t speak your language in a production of Macbeth.

That is what Sarah Berger did in Kyrgyzstan. She writes about it at The Stage.

“I recently returned from six weeks in Kyrgyzstan directing the first ever Kyrgyz translation of Macbeth, made from Russian into Kyrgyz, at the Kyrgyz Academic State Theatre in Bishkek.

“I worked with 30 Kyrgyz actors who spoke no English. I don’t speak Russian or Kyrgyz.

“To add to the mix, I took two British actors with me, Claire Cartwright and Steve Hay, who performed in English with the rest of the cast speaking Kyrgyz. They played Lady Macbeth and Macbeth respectively. There was also a fully Kyrgyz performance that was filmed and screened on state TV.

“So I had to deliver three different versions of the production in just over three weeks, as we performed four premieres with the cast variations.

“The challenge of that aside, the Kyrgyz state theatre method of working is entirely different to what we’re used to in the UK: the company comprises people who have trained there and are attached to the theatre throughout their working life, which has its advantages and disadvantages.

“The advantages are that they practise their craft every day, and are used to working as a company. They are vocally highly trained and easily fill an 800-seat theatre. They are physically grounded and able to experiment with movement and voice. For example, the Witches and Hecate invented a unique style of delivery, incorporating song and dance.

“The disadvantages are that they are not hungry for work in the same way British actors are. There’s a competitive edge missing. …

“We discovered that the challenge of acting opposite someone speaking a different language was surmountable when the intentions of the scene or particular line were clear. In fact, the particular challenge for the actors wasn’t so much the language but the differing approach to rehearsals and the text. It quickly became apparent that we adhere far more strictly to the verse, and are led by it, whereas for Kyrgyz actors that is just one element of the performance. …

The production itself worked remarkably well given its disparate elements and the lack of rehearsal time. I would recommend the experience of working in such a different arena as it informs our practice.” More.

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Photo: Sunaina Kumar
Women of Jad tribe spinning wool in Dunda village, Uttarakhand. Their language belongs to the Tibeto-Burman group of languages and is one of 780 (possibly 850) in India.

Here is a heretical thought from someone who loves language: if practically everyone speaks a different language from everyone else, maybe we don’t need language? One must at least ponder the question of whether there is a better way to communicate with others. I’ve no idea what it could be. Even gestures have different meanings in different cultures.

There is always a need to communicate, isn’t there? It’s a puzzle. Even English, despite its frequent role as the bridge language Esperanto was meant to be, suffers from so many Orwellian uses of common words today, you can hardly trust it to convey what you mean.

These thoughts came to me because of an article by Sunaina Kumar at Atlas Obscura on the amazing array of languages in India alone.

Kumar writes, “In 1898, George A. Grierson, an Irish civil servant and philologist, undertook the first ever Linguistic Survey of India. It took Grierson 30 years to gather data on 179 languages and 544 dialects. The survey was published in 19 volumes, spanning 8,000 pages, between 1903 and 1928. …

“Ganesh Devy was frustrated by this lack of contemporary data, especially the discrepancies he saw in the existing numbers. Since the government wasn’t likely to start on a new survey in the near future, Devy, a former professor of English from the western state of Gujarat, launched the People’s Linguistic Survey of India in 2010. The name refers to the fact that it was the people of the country, and not the government, that embarked on this project.

“With single-minded ambition, he put together a team of 3,000 volunteers from all parts of the country. Since 2013, the PLSI has published 37 volumes, featuring detailed profiles of each of India’s languages. The project is expected to be completed by 2020 with 50 volumes. In the linguistic landscape of India, the work done by PLSI is not just pathbreaking, it is crucial in recording and thus preserving the languages of the country for future generations. …

“The challenge of putting a disparate team together with a minuscule budget of 8 million rupees ($1,17,000) — provided by a private trust — to map the languages spoken by 1.3 billion people was enormous.

“ ‘My team was not made of linguists, but people who could speak their own language,’ Devy says. ‘We had writers, school teachers, philosophers, social scientists, some linguists. We also had farmers, daily wagers, car drivers, people who had been in and out of jail. They had an intimacy with their language. Even if it was less scientific, it was authentic.’ These volunteers were asked to record data about the languages they spoke, including the history of the language, its grammatical features, and samples of songs and stories. It was chaotic, Devy admits, but he traveled to every corner of the country to train the team and the final product was vetted with academic rigor.

“So far, the PLSI has recorded 780 languages in India and 68 scripts. When Devy embarked on the mammoth project, even he did not expect to unearth that many. He says that the PLSI could not report on nearly 80 languages for various reasons, including accessibility of a given region due to remoteness or conflict, which brings the estimated total number of languages closer to 850.

“Based on data from the survey, Devy estimates that in the last 50 years, India has lost 220 languages, including some within the last decade. …

“ ‘India has some of the oldest surviving languages,’ says Devy. ‘A language like Tamil has been around for 2,500 years. Some of the tribal languages would be even older.

These languages have survived because they have a philosophical context to them and that philosophy is part of the lived lives of the speakers.’ …

“After mapping India’s languages, Devy, whose spirit is unflagging at 67, has turned his attention to the world at large. His next project is the Global Language Status Report. The UNESCO states that nearly half of the over 6,000 languages spoken in the world may disappear by the end of this century. The GLSR proposes to cover the languages of Africa and South America, two regions where languages are fast disappearing without any trace, and where linguistic diversity has not been mapped. …

“ ‘I have been traveling to Africa for a year now and I am not deterred by the scope of mapping 54 countries,’ Devy says. ‘The experience with PLSI was great fun, and I believe if people decide to do something, they actually can.’ ”

More here, at Atlas Obscura.

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Photo: Kensy Cooperrider
A man in the village of Gua, Papua New Guinea, points while describing a representation of Yupno history. Recent research confirms the long-held hunch that every culture uses hands in communicating.

Esperanto was meant to be a bridge between native languages, and I still believe in its potential. But three cheers for languages that don’t need bridges at all.

Blogger KerryCan mentioned one universal yesterday: music. Today’s post is about the nearly universal language of gestures — “nearly” because some gestures have wildly different meanings depending upon the culture.

Kensy Cooperrider writes at Aeon, “In the spring of 1528, the Spanish explorer Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca made landfall on what is now the gulf coast of Florida. Over the next eight years, as he and a small party traversed thousands of miles, they found themselves in a new-world Babel, moving from ‘one strange tongue to another’. In their many encounters with native peoples, their own tongue, Spanish, proved of little use. But their hands served them well. ‘You would have thought, from the questions and answers in signs,’ de Vaca later recounted, ‘that they spoke our language and we theirs.’

“De Vaca is not the first or last explorer to claim successful communication with indigenous peoples through gesture. Similar reports abound. … Sometimes, the messages conveyed were surprisingly sophisticated. If you stay until morning, we will feed you. In that direction, there are goats and pigs of all sizes. The people in that direction eat human flesh. 

“The parties in these exchanges could not have known it at the time, but they were following the advice of Joseph Marie Degérando, a French philosopher with an anthropological bent. In 1800, he wrote a treatise offering practical advice for would-be explorers and ‘philosophical travellers’. …

“Degérando’s proposals swam with the tide of much of Western thinking. The notion that gesture is a natural mode of expression – one that transcends the contrivances of culture – is a very old one. In 95 CE, the Roman rhetorician Quintilian wrote that ‘though the peoples and nations of the earth speak a multitude of tongues, they share in common the universal language of the hands’. …

“[When] Europeans were impressed by the universality of gesture, they were mostly impressed by the strength of their own intuitions. They had not actually been to ‘all regions of the habitable world’. They had no photographs, videos or other visual documents to consult. …

“In the past 50 years, however, much has changed. Technical limitations have evaporated. Video-recording technologies are now cheap, portable and easy to use; video files can be readily stored, swapped and posted online in massive databases. …

“In every group yet studied, the hands at least occasionally stir and take flight as people talk. We are certainly capable of communicating without these aerialist accompaniments, but our hands tend toward motion.

“A second preliminary point is that evidently not all gestures are universal. Most, perhaps all, human communities harbour a storehouse of hand gestures with fixed meanings, which are often called ‘emblems’. Examples of emblems in the English-speaking world include the shhh gesture (an index finger held vertical across the mouth), the peace sign (an outward-facing V made with the index and middle fingers), and the thumbs up. Notoriously, such gestures can lead to confusion or worse. Another emblem, the okay gesture, made by forming a ring with the thumb and index finger, is perfectly benign in the US but a provocation elsewhere.

“Emblems might be what many think of when they first think of gestures, but in the United States and perhaps most other places they are only rarely put to use. (Try to recall the last time you shhh-ed someone, or gave a thumbs up.) What people produce much more often are gestures for ‘yes’ and ‘no’; points to people, places and things; gestures that sketch objects, actions and represent abstract ideas through visual metaphors. These are the real workhorses of gestural expression. And, as it turns out, a case can be made that these workhorses are broadly similar the world over.”

More here. It’s a thoughtful article, and I will only add that if you help immigrants learn English, as I do, the shhh gesture and the thumbs up appear frequently. In fact, teachers and students pantomime pretty much anything that is not easily accessible using Google Translate.

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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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