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Murakami photo: Elena Seibert
Oe photo:
Paris Review
Haruki Murakami, left, and Kenzaburo Oe are Japanese novelists who write first in a different language and later translate into Japanese.

Today’s topic is a little esoteric, but for some reason it fascinates me. It’s about two Japanese novelists who write their books first in a foreign language, not in their own.

In the case of Haruki Murakami, it was apparently because when he tried writing a novel in Japanese, his saturation with the traditional Japanese writing style weighed him down. By writing first in English and later translating, he felt freer and came up with a style that was more his own. Critics are calling this process translationese.

Masatsugu Ono, a novelist, too, writes at the Paris Review, “I clearly remember the vivid colors of the two books — one red, the other green — that a high school classmate of mine was reading. … I was from a small fishing village that didn’t even have a bookstore, and having come from a junior high school with fewer than forty students, I was intimidated by how he already had clear taste in music and literature. …

“The next time I encountered those books was after I moved to Tokyo for university. I came across a large stack of them right by the entrance of one of the city’s largest bookstores. They were the two parts of Haruki Murakami’s novel Noruwei no mori (Norwegian Wood). …

“I immediately felt that his style was different from other contemporary Japanese writers I had read. Probably because one of my professors (who was from Belgium) had translated it into French, A Wild Sheep Chase was the first of Murakami’s novels I read. And I soon found myself reading through them all.

“In 1978, Murakami went to Jingu Baseball Stadium, located near the jazz bar he ran, to watch the opening game of the season. The moment the lead-off hitter slammed the first pitch cleanly into left field, a thought struck him: I think I can write a novel. … ‘It was like a revelation. Or maybe “epiphany” is a better word.’

“Murakami describes this event — even in Japanese — using the English word epiphany. Late that night, he sat down at the kitchen table and began to write. Several months later, he finished a first draft. But it disappointed him. Murakami placed his Olivetti typewriter on the table and began to write again, this time in English.

The resulting English prose was, unsurprisingly, simple and unadorned. However, as he wrote, Murakami felt a distinctive rhythm begin to take shape:

” ‘Since I was born and raised in Japan, the vocabulary and patterns of the Japanese language had filled the system that was me to bursting, like a barn crammed with livestock. When I sought to put my thoughts and feelings into words, those animals began to mill about, and the system crashed. Writing in a foreign language, with all the limitations that entailed, removed this obstacle.’ …

“Writing in a foreign language liberated him, and he finished the beginning of his novel in English before translating it into Japanese: … ‘I wanted to deploy a type of Japanese as far removed as possible from so-called literary language in order to write in my own natural voice.’ The style Murakami describes as ‘neutral’ was deemed by some critics ‘translationese.’ …

“[When I read him], the writing did not feel like translationese to me at all. Rather, I had a strong feeling that his Japanese was our Japanese, one that I also lived and breathed. I was struck by the fact that one could write a novel in that kind of language. When reading Murakami, I never experienced the difficulty or resistance I felt each time I read Kenzaburo Oe’s later novels, which were written in a highly elaborate style that I considered ‘literary.’ …

“I’ve always been encouraged and inspired by the fact that Oe has continued throughout his career to write stories set in his hometown. And I’m strongly drawn to the original and imaginative way in which he develops local myths and small histories (in both senses of the French word histoire: history and story).

“I’ve heard that Oe didn’t much appreciate Murakami’s early books, but when Oe made his debut in the late fifties, his writing style was also considered translationese. … Oe’s early works were so spontaneous and vivid that he quickly gained a huge audience, especially among young people. But the sensual nature of his first few books was gradually replaced by an intellectually elaborated style, one that also has been described by critics as translationese.

“So while Murakami’s translationese makes him clearer and more natural, Oe’s translationese makes him more difficult and more artificial. However, according to [Kojin Karatani, one of the most influential Japanese critics], Oe’s clearer and more natural early work was already translationese, too.”

There’s a lot more here about similarities and differences among Japanese writers, but for me, the most interesting aspect of the article is learning how reading and thinking in a foreign language affects a writer’s style.

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Photo: Duolingo
Duolingo’s popular Scottish Gaelic course launched just before St Andrew’s Day.

There’s an asylum seeker from Afghanistan I’ve been working with on English. Virtually, of course. She was already very good when we started in March, and she’s now applying to grad schools in the US. An English proficiency test is part of that process.

Imagine my surprise when I heard that the free online language program Duolingo — the one that I used for a while so as to understand Erik when he speaks to my half-Swedish grandchildren — is the designated online exam for two of the universities where my young friend is sending applications!

In the same way that the previously maligned Wikipedia gradually became a trusted source, Duolingo has risen to language program of choice.

And every year, it adds options. Scottish Gaelic, anyone?

Libby Brooks writes at the Guardian, “Almost double the number of people in Scotland who already speak Scottish Gaelic have signed up to learn the language on the popular free platform Duolingo in over a month, concluding a proliferation in courses, prizes and performance in Gaelic and Scots during 2019, as younger people in particular shrug off the cultural cringe’ associated with speaking indigenous languages.

“The Duolingo course, which was launched just before St Andrew’s Day on 30 November and looks likely to be the company’s fastest-growing course ever, has garnered more than 127,000 sign-ups – 80% from Scotland itself, compared with just over 58,000 people who reported themselves as Gaelic speakers in the 2011 Scottish census. …

“Says Sylvia Warnecke, a senior lecturer in languages at OU Scotland, … ‘In the academic world, the recognition of Scots as an important part of our linguistic and cultural landscape has existed for quite a while, but that’s not the case in other areas, like education, where Scots has always been considered “bad English,” or in popular culture, where it’s used to add humour.’

“Warnecke identifies a growing momentum, bolstered by the official recognition of the Scots language by the Scottish government and awareness of Scots as a language in its own right.

“Last year also featured the first Scots language awards, held in Glasgow in September, where the winner of the lifetime achievement award was the writer Sheena Blackhall, who was recently also named as the first Doric makar, or poet laureate.

“Doric, or north-east Scots, was forbidden in schools and dismissed as slang for decades, but is now a key part of Aberdeenshire council’s language strategy. The first language of the Sunset Song author Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Doric is taught in schools across the north-east. …

“Blackhall and Warnecke point to the impact of social media: at last year’s Edinburgh fringe, Twitter curated an exhibition celebrating the best of the #ScottishTwitter hashtag, which has become an online institution for those experimenting with the Scots language. …

“The range of written Scots has been transformed, says [Dr Michael Dempster, the director of the Scots Language Centre and Scots scriever at the National Library of Scotland], since the 70s and 80s, when writers would employ the language to portray a particular type of character. ‘That was an act of stereotype, while the narrative voice remained in standard English. Now people are writing in Scots throughout. They started picking it up from Irvine Welsh, although his writing was not in standard Scots, but now you have younger writers like Chris McQueer, who is consciously working in Scots and readers are really appreciative of that.’ …

“A team of Glasgow University researchers have been charting the richness and diversity of Scotland’s local dialects, launching their initial findings in the Scots Syntax Atlas last month.

“Encompassing ‘fit like’ of north-east Scotland, ‘gonnae no’ in Glasgow, and ‘I might can do’ from the Borders, the atlas offers a means of tracing the development of local speech patterns. For example, the influence of Irish immigration can be heard in Glaswegian Scots phrases such as ‘She’s after locking us out.’ ”

I have to say I love this sort of thing. And reading the article reminds me: I need Ian Rankin to come out with a new Scottish mystery soon. I want to know what ex-detective John Rebus is up to in retirement. And I need to hear those intriguing “Borders” phrases and the accent in my head.

Check out the Guardian article here.

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joannaviyukkane

Photo: Library Loan
I enjoyed hearing Native Alaskan Joan Naviyuk Kane read her poems and talk about her life at the Poetry at the Library series.

Our library has enabled me to hear all sorts of wonderful poets over the years. The woman in charge of the poetry series is good at bringing in poets you can sort of understand even at first reading. And the poets’ books are available to buy if you want to dig in later.

Last fall, I was intrigued by poet Joan Naviyuk Kane — both by her poems and her explanations between poems of what life is like for indigenous people in Alaska. To share some of that experience with you, I poked around on the web and came up with links.

The first link is from the library, here. “Multiple award-winning poet Joan Naviyuk Kane will read from and discuss her work that explores themes of adaptation and resilience, motherhood, marriage, extended family and its geographical context in her rapidly changing Arctic homeland.”

From the Poetry Foundation, here, we learn that “she earned a BA at Harvard University and an MFA at Columbia University. Kane’s spare, lyric poems are rooted in her Arctic homeland and concerned with movement: enlarging, thawing, accruing, crossing, even at times transforming. She considers themes of ecological, domestic, and historical shifts. Kane contends with biological, cultural, and political threats to her ancestral community, including climate change, language death, and the diaspora prompted by the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ forcible relocation of King Island residents in the mid-twentieth century.

” ‘Yet as a mother and a daughter, an educator and an artist, Kane brings to these subjects a singular, sonorous voice and a lyric sensibility as alternatingly austere and lush as the land of her ancestral home,’ observed Maggie Millner in a 2014 ZYZZYVA review of Hyperboreal.” More from the Poetry Foundation.

You might also like an interview conducted over e-mail by Anastasia Nikolis in winter 2018 for the Library of Congress, here:

“The stereotype about writers is that they are solitary and isolated, but your work is so connected to your family, to your ancestral heritage, and to the Inupiaq community.
“I’m so fortunate to have been raised with a family that insists upon connection, however difficult. When I am trying to structure the life of my children so that they remain connected — not just to our ancestral heritage, but to each other and our relatives, to the replenishing aspects of the human intellect that words afford, to our present and traditional lands — I remain connected to the fact that my ancestral heritage is not just a thing of the past, but a gift and responsibility whose urgency and vitality is carried forward in the present and future. …

“I’m not alone in this. My close contemporaries in the Native literary community — Sherwin Bitsui, Terese Mailhot, M.L. Smoker, Eden Robinson, Abigail Chabitnoy, Cathy Tagnak Rexford, and Tommy Orange, for instance — bring this to bear in their writing and discussions, in their families, in their lives as teachers. … Closer to home, I was raised with books and essays and poems by Joseph Senungetuk, Susie Silook, and William Oquilluk. My mother and father are voracious readers: they made it possible for me to see that you can read to establish and inform your sovereignty, and to remind me that their best words connect people through time.

“My uncles (as I was growing up and as I raise my children), too, all world-class artists (carvers of walrus ivory), modeled one way of being independent yet joined in with the work that Inuit have done and will do as long as humanity exists. …

The poems in Milk Black Carbon work out the profound and complicated, but also dynamic and changeable, ways the body, the land, and language relate to one another. … Could you elaborate on that interaction?
“This is not an on-trend platitude: the land, water, and ice give Inuit everything we need to survive, and it’s been that way for millennia. It’s been something to live through and witness firsthand the astonishing rate of climate change in the arctic and sub-arctic, to feel in my bones some of the most drastic environmental turns.

“My relatives — Uyuguluk in particular — told me how much more of the King Island dialect I would understand once I’d been to the island. It’s among the most challenging and generative sites of human inhabitation on the planet. It requires and bestows a highly-specialized and precise command of language. I think I have some difficulty answering this question because my family had its relationship with our ancestral lands extinguished by the United States government.”

And there’s the Harvard Magazine angle, here, “ ‘We ended up going by crab tender,’ says Joan Naviyuk Kane ’00, of her latest work trip. ‘It’s not lavish, or glamorous, riding a crab tender out, 90 miles, 12 hours across the Bering Sea.’

“Kane’s choice of transportation — a small boat used alongside larger vessels in crabbing — is perhaps even more surprising given her choice of career. [She] has three books of poetry to her name: The Cormorant Hunter’s Wife, Hyperboreal, and an untitled collection just sent to her publisher. ‘I thought I was going to be pre-med,’ she says, but a gap year after high school and a fall semester in Porter University Professor Helen Vendler’s freshman seminar, reading poetry closely, changed all that. …

“But back to the Bering Sea. The crab tender was headed to King Island, a tiny, rocky landmass between Russia and Alaska. Now uninhabited, the island was home until the early 1960s to a small indigenous hunting and fishing community that included Kane’s mother and grandparents. Eventually, under the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ assimilation policy, they were pressured to leave.

“Though Kane was born after they left the island, she describes a childhood filled with stories of its landscape. … So this past summer, after a successful crowd-funding campaign, she and a small group of fellow King Island women returned. It was the first time she had set foot there.

“ ‘It’s one thing to hear; it was another thing entirely to go,’ she says of the trip’s hazards.” More.

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Photo: Greeka.com
In every language people use some expression to indicate they think certain words are impossible to understand. Many say, “It’s all Greek to me.”

In the early 2000s, I worked at a magazine that was going through a redesign. Having not been involved in anything like that before, I was startled when the designer used the word “Greek” to refer to dummy text that helped illustrate the layout.

“That’s not Greek,” I found myself blurting out. “That’s Latin”! Turns out that in the design field any incomprehensible dummy text is called “Greek” because everyone is supposed to know that means you’re not expected to understand it.

(Except that I read Greek. Or used to to.)

Today’s post is on the notion that every language has some expression for the impenetrable, and many use “Greek.” A runner up is “Chinese.”

Dan Nosowitz wrote about this phenomenon at Atlas Obscura.

“It’s a curious thing when there is an idiom — structured roughly the same way and meaning essentially the same thing — that exists in a large number of languages. It’s even more curious when that idiom, having emerged in dozens of different languages, is actually … about language. That’s the case with ‘It’s Greek to me.’ …

“These idioms all seek to describe one person’s failure to understand what the other is trying to say, but in a particular, dismissive way. It’s not just, ‘Sorry, I can’t understand you.’ It’s saying, ‘The way you’re speaking right now is incomprehensible.’ And it specifically compares that incomprehensibility to a particular language, a language agreed upon in that culture to be particularly impenetrable.

“Sometimes that original cultural peg has been lost. In English, the phrase doesn’t really indicate anything about the way modern English-speakers feel about the Greek language or Greece in general. … So where did the phrase come from, and why is its sentiment so universal?

“One theory ties it to medieval monks. In Western Europe at this time, the predominant written language was Latin, but much of the writing that survived from antiquity was in Greek. The theory holds that these monks, in transcribing and copying their texts, were not necessarily able to read Greek, and would write a phrase next to any Greek text they found: ‘Graecum est; non legitur.’ Translated: ‘It is Greek; it cannot be read.’ …

“Shakespeare’s version is a lot more literal than most of the uses of this idiom. In Julius Caesar, the Roman character Casca describes a speech made by Cicero, a scholar of Greek. Casca, one of the conspirators who assassinates Caesar, does not speak Greek. So he says, ‘Those that understood him smiled at one another and shook their heads; but, for mine own part, it was Greek to me.’ …

“English is not the only language to rely on Greek as a shorthand for gobbledygook. Spanish, Portuguese, Swedish, Norwegian, Dutch, and Afrikaans do as well. You’ll notice those are all European languages except for Afrikaans, and Afrikaans is Germanic in origin.

“Harry Foundalis, a cognitive scientist who studies Greek linguistics, says many Greek people know that in English and other languages, Greek serves as an indecipherable tongue, and many Greek people, especially young ones, speak English anyway, so they’ve encountered it before. ‘How do we feel about it? We find it funny,’ says Foundalis. …

“There are, however, an awful lot of other languages that have some version of this phrase that doesn’t use Greek. Some of these are weird in their own right. What’s up with the Baltic countries, which think Spanish is so impenetrable? Why do the Danish use Volapük, a short-lived Esperanto-type constructed language created by a German in 1880? When a Bulgarian says ‘Все едно ми говориш на патагонски,’ which uses ‘Patagonian’ instead of Greek ,,, do they mean some extinct indigenous Chonan language, or Spanish, which is the dominant language there, or Patagonian Welsh, which also apparently exists?

“And what, you might ask, do the Greeks say?

“ ‘Εμένα, αυτά μου φαίνονται Κινέζικα.’ … ‘To me, this appears like Chinese.’ Chinese happens to be the most common replacement for Greek in the idiom around the world — and the language that tops polls as the most difficult natural language to learn. …

“In Chinese, for what it’s worth, there are a couple of different sayings in the ‘It’s Greek to me’ family. A Mandarin speaker might describe incomprehensible speech as Martian, or being like the sound of birds. The way you can tell you’ve reached the peak of language difficulty is when you don’t even bother with a human language in your version of the phrase.”

It’s a long article with lots more curious factoids. Check it out here.

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Photo: Arcenio Lopez
Erika Hernandez, of the Mixteco Indígena Community Organizing Project in California, is a Radio Indigena DJ.

As languages spoken by small communities disappear, overwhelmed by other languages, it’s encouraging to read that the digital media that’s part of the problem is also part of the solution. As is radio.

Ludwig Hurtado has the story at NBC News. “Josefino Alvarado, a California farm worker, describes his typical morning picking blueberries at a Ventura County farm.

“As the sun beats down on him and his fellow workers, a crackle of static hums at their feet. ‘Hola mi gente,’ (Hello, my people) a voice calls out from the radio’s speakers in Spanish. Then, ‘tanìndíí,’ which means ‘good morning’ in Mixteco.

“On this farm and most of the farms nearby, workers have their radios tuned into the same station: 94.1, Radio Indígena. … The community-run station boasts 40 hours of original programming every week, broadcasting music and talk shows in a handful of indigenous languages, as well as Spanish programming too.

“The station is a welcome cultural lifeline for thousands of farm workers who speak Mixteco or other indigenous Central American languages.

“ ‘Listening to it is a point of pride,’ Alvarado, who is a frequent listener, said. While he only understands Spanish and Mixteco, he often will listen to some of Radio Indígena’s shows in Zapoteco, Triqui, and Nahuatl. Even if he doesn’t understand them, he said he’s proud to hear the languages being kept alive on the airwaves.

“Alvarado, who moved to the U.S. in 1997, was born and raised in the city of Oaxaca in central Mexico, where he and his family learned Mixteco as their first language. Although Mixteco has come into the national spotlight thanks to the Academy Award-winning film, Roma, the language is still virtually unknown to the general population. …

“Due to economic and cultural pressure in Mexico, many Mixtec communities are shifting to Spanish. UNESCO considers almost half of Mixteco’s 50 dialects to be either severely endangered or at risk of endangerment.

“According to the 2010 census, over 685,000 Latinos in the U.S. identified themselves as American Indian, up from around 400,000 in 2000. But experts agree that the actual number of indigenous Latinos in the U.S. is much higher than estimated because many don’t report to the census due to stigma and immigration status. …

“ ‘There’s a lot of radio stations in Oxnard, but they just play music,’ said Roberto Jesús, who listens to the show every morning as he drives to work, getting informed about the news and about his legal rights as an immigrant. … In the U.S., Mixtecs face barriers because of their limited English and sometimes limited Spanish. This leaves many of them vulnerable to exploitation and discrimination.

“Radio Indígena is hosted and run by the Mixteco Indígena Community Organizing Project (MICOP), a nonprofit organization formed to provide health outreach, humanitarian support and language interpretation to this underserved and often unnoticed community. …

“Radio Indígena started when organizers saw a void in the city of Oxnard, but [Arcenio Lopez, executive director of MICOP and Radio Indígena] said that the station has listeners from all over the country and world, since the episodes are available to stream online. …

“Delfina Santiago and Carmen Vasquez co-host a show on Radio Indígena every Sunday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Even though they don’t get paid for their work, the two spend lots of time during the week preparing for their program, ‘Al Ritmo De Chilena,’ which is an educational program that delves into the history of different indigenous cultures for each episode.

Santiago and Vazquez say that the digital age has played a role in keeping their language alive and keeping folks connected to one another, in a world where they might otherwise feel alone. Indigenous Mexican music can be found on YouTube and SoundCloud. …

“ ‘We’ve already lost three languages in Oaxaca,’ Santiago lamented. ‘They’re gone.’ ”

More here.

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Photos: Niijang Xyaalas Productions
Actor Tyler York performing in
SGaawaay K’uuna. Actors had to learn a vanishing language in order to understand their lines in this film about one of Canada’s First Nations.

We’ve had a number of posts about vanishing languages, languages spoken by few people because younger generations are choosing to (or be forced to) speak a language used more widely. Nowadays it’s usually English that leads to not only the loss of a native language but the way of life it represents. As Brian Friel said in his play Translations, about the Irish language and culture, “it can happen that a civilization can be imprisoned in a linguistic contour which no longer matches the landscape of fact.”

Dalya Alberge wrote in March at the Guardian about a new film shot in a disappearing language.

“Plenty of films are somewhat incomprehensible, but a forthcoming movie is in a language that only about 20 people in the world can speak fluently. With subtitles, audiences will be able to understand a feature film titled SGaawaay K’uuna, translated as Edge of the Knife. …

“It is in two dialects of the highly endangered Haida language, the ancestral tongue of the Haida people of British Columbia. It is unrelated to any other language, and actors had to learn it to understand their lines.

“The film is playing an important role in preserving the language, its director Gwaai Edenshaw said. He told the Guardian:

‘I know that, if our language is this far gone, statistically it’s supposed to be over. But that’s not something that we’re willing to accept.’

“The Haida are an Indigenous First Nations community whose traditional territory is Haida Gwaii (formerly Queen Charlotte Islands), an archipelago of forested islands off the west coast of Canada.

“Edenshaw said most of the fluent Haida speakers were in his Haida Gwaii homeland. … He added that the community generally lives off the sea and makes dugout canoes and houses from local red cedars. Noting that their numbers were ravaged by smallpox and other diseases in the 19th century, he said a former population of tens of thousands has dwindled to a few thousand today. …

“More than 70 local people worked on the production, with Haida speakers taking incidental roles, weavers creating the costumes and other craftspeople making props. … It is part of a wider push to preserve the Haida language, including a new dictionary and recordings of local voices. …

“2019 is Unesco’s Year of Indigenous Languages, ‘to preserve, support and promote’ them worldwide. Mark Turin, associate professor of anthropology at the University of British Columbia and a specialist in endangered languages, told the Guardian that about half of up to 7,100 languages worldwide were ‘severely endangered’ and would likely cease to be used as everyday vernaculars by the end of this century unless action is taken. …

“He pointed to recent research that shows a correlation between indigenous language sustainability and decreased youth suicide within indigenous communities: ‘Speaking your indigenous language [has] public health implications.

” ‘This film – which I’ve watched and loved – has done something that I don’t think I’ve ever seen before, using a feature movie as a process of language revitalisation.’

More here.

Actors in a film based on a legend of the Haida people of British Columbia had to learn the Haida language to understand their lines. The movie has subtitles.

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Photo: History Today
This bronze relief panel from the Gutenberg Monument in Mainz, Germany, was created by sculptor David d’Angers in 1840.

When you make knowledge available to everyone, good things happen. That was one of the attractions of helping to teach English as a Second Language to refugees and other immigrants. Although I decided to take time off to make regular visits to my sister during her cancer treatments, I hope to go back to volunteering before long. Imagine that some of our students couldn’t even read and write in their own language! Opening up doors sure felt important.

Back in the 15th century, reading in Europe was limited to a chosen few. If you wanted to know what was in the Bible, for example, you had to take the word of a Latin scholar who had access to handmade manuscripts. There were no books in circulation for ordinary people. Then Johannes Gutenberg had an idea for moveable metal type, and that led eventually to the printing of Bibles in the vernacular.

Justin Champion writes at History Today, “In 1454, in the Rhineland town of Mainz, three friends formed a legal arrangement to produce an epochal object. An inventor, Johannes Gutenberg, a printer, Peter Schöffer, and a financier, Johann Fūrst, collaborated to publish a Bible – the Gutenberg, as it is now known – widely regarded as a transformative moment in the history of European culture. …

“It heralded a step change in printing technique: whereas earlier forms of printing relied on woodblock technology, the use of moveable metal type allowed more flexible, efficient and cheap printing. The invention of new forms of ink (more like a veneer) enabled crisper and more durable printing. … Printing also enabled accurate, and (mostly) reliable reproduction across a number of volumes. It also meant that any minor mistakes would be reproduced, too.

“The printer who mistakenly omitted a vital ‘not’ from the Ten Commandments was vigorously punished by a very bad-tempered Archbishop Laud in 1631.

“The crisis of Reformation authority encouraged the printing of Bibles in Germany, England and, eventually, Geneva. Luther and Tyndale led the way with their clandestine and vernacular Bibles. … [Vernacular Bibles from] the Tyndale New Testament of 1526 (for which Tyndale was executed) to the King James Version of 1611 – captured and preserved God’s revelation in the English language, specifically aimed to provide a text ideally comprehensible to every English servant and maid. …

“The legacy of the Gutenberg Bible was a revolution in the relationship between reading and authority in the early modern period. This encompassed the practices of lowly men … or, at the other extreme, scholars such as Isaac Newton and John Locke, who owned multiple copies for forensic textual comparison and exchanged commentaries on their findings. … Newton devoted millions of words to decoding the inner meaning of Revelation, but hid his own views from the Anglican establishment for fear of persecution.”

The article History Today, here, emphasizes the effect that Gutenberg’s invention had on the history of religion, but for me as a former publishing person, what’s important is that it enabled the printing of many more books — first in Latin, then in the languages ordinary people spoke — and opened up a new world of knowledge to anyone who was interested.

Today only specialist artisans use moveable metal type and much of our reading is not on paper but online, but I hope that hard-copy print never goes completely out of style. It has a value that humanity has yet to fully appreciate.

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indigenous-grocery-language

Photo: CBC News
Canadian grocery stores and art galleries are starting to include indigenous languages on their labels. North West Company, which has grocery stores in more than 120 communities across northern Canada, embraced the idea after it was piloted by a 2015 school project. Snapping QR codes lets you hear word pronunciation, too.

Yesterday, for the first time, Native American women were elected to Congress: in Kansas, a Ho-Chunk, and in New Mexico, a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe. Of course, it’s about time, but it also seems to be part of a trend bringing more visibility to indigenous people. Very belated, but good.

Canada is actually farther along in trying to address and rectify transgressions against First Nations. The following story covers one aspect of that effort.

Judith H. Dobrzynski writes at the Art Newspaper, “Canada Day, 1 July, [ushered] in a new era for the presentation of Modern and contemporary Canadian art at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) in Toronto. The 13,000 sq ft J.S. McLean Centre for Indigenous and Canadian Art — which added the ‘Indigenous’ to its name last year when the museum established a Department of Canadian and Indigenous Art — [has] reimagined galleries that give primacy to First Nations and Inuit art for the first time.

“In each McLean gallery, ‘contemporary indigenous art starts the conversation with Canadian art.’ says Wanda Nanibush, who became the AGO’s first curator of indigenous art in 2016. Nanibush and Georgiana Uhlyarik, the AGO’s curator of Canadian art, have designed the centre’s display of 75 works around six themes: origins, self, land, water, transformations and ‘indigenous2indigenous.’ …

“Works by Canadian artists such as Emily Carr and Florence Carlyle are hung in dialogue with works by indigenous artists including Carl Beam and Rebecca Belmore … For instance, in the ‘self’ gallery, Belmore’s ‘Rising to the Occasion’ (1987-91), a dress that the Anishinaabe-kwe artist wore in a performance responding to a royal visit to Ontario, is paired with Joanne Tod’s painting ‘Chapeau Entaillé’ (1989) of a woman in a similar dress. … Labels in the McLean Centre are now written in indigenous languages (either the local Anishinaabemowin language or Inuktitut), as well as English and French.”

More at the Art Newspaper, here.

Art: Rebecca Belmore
Belmore’s “Rising to the Occasion” (1987-91) is a dress that the Anishinaabe-kwe artist wore in a performance responding to a royal visit to Ontario. It was recently displayed at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto.

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Photo: PjrTravel/Alamy
The act of building puppets has long been a form of protest for the Czech people.

Never underestimate the power of the arts to affect the course of nations. In this story, puppets kept the Czech language alive during a period of repression by German speakers.

Jacklyn Janeksela writes at the BBC, “It was thanks to the humble puppet that the Czech nation – and its language – was inadvertently saved.

“In the 17th Century, when the kingdom of Bohemia was under Habsburg rule, the Czech language almost disappeared. …

“When the Protestant court left Prague in the early 1600s, the city fell into decline for almost two centuries. The new ruler, Ferdinand II, did not tolerate non-Catholics, viewing Protestants as a threat to his faith. Czech locals, mostly peasants and working class people, were forced to speak the German language of their invaders. Soon after, intellectuals, who had initially resisted the German language, followed suit. Even Czech actors began to perform in German as an official mandate. Czech became a mere dialect, and would have slipped into oblivion had it not been for some unassuming pieces of wood.

“The act of building puppets has long been a form of protest for the Czech people. Seventeenth-Century wood-carvers, who were more versed in sculpting Baroque seats for churches than human facsimiles, started making puppets for the actors of Bohemia soon after Ferdinand II came to power, as puppets were the only remaining entities that had the right to speak Czech in public places. While the rest of the country and its people adhered to the newly imposed German language, wandering actors and puppet-masters spoke through the puppets in their native Slavic tongue.

“It might seem unlikely that a few hundred puppets and puppet-masters could safeguard a language, especially through a loophole, but the people’s last remaining legacy to their past was tied to the puppet’s strings.

“It’s easy to see why these marionettes have found a home in Czech hearts, and why the magic of puppets continues to permeate the city. …

“In the streets, puppeteers make magic happen. I watched a puppet show in a charming cobblestoned square, where the puppet-master wore the velvety cap of a pageboy, pierced by a single plume that swayed along with the puppet’s movements. He used his puppets to beckon bystanders. Melodic medieval music accompanied the dance of a peasant male and young princess, a Czech love story with a plot twist that favours the underdog, the peasant who wins the heart of a far-fetched royal love.” Read more at the BBC, here.

With minority languages threatened around the world today, it’s worth remembering that a culture and way of life can be preserved through arts like puppet-making. See also my blog post on the historically important role of shadow puppets in Armenia, here.

Photo: Carol J Saunders/Alamy
Puppets have a special place in the hearts of the Czech people. For one thing, they saved the language in the early 1600s when German-speaking rulers prevented everyone but puppets from speaking Czech in public.

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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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