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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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