Category Archives: Language

Sınaq’e bğieslhayın

Just in the last couple of weeks, I’ve managed finally to start getting myself properly re-engaged with a project that I’d given less than due attention to for a couple of years now. This is an unfortunate but hard-to-avoid consequence of losing, as a result of my depression, most of my capability to multitask. Not multitasking in the moment, to be fair; not the kind of multitasking that allows one to speak on the phone while cooking or to continue a conversation while writing a note. But in my life more broadly, the management of multiple responsibilities – of maintaining research projects alongside searching for employment alongside treatment for my multi-pronged health issues alongside staying in touch with friends alongside family responsibilities – doesn’t come naturally to me any more because of the maintenance of a certain energy level that that requires. And so, all too often in my life I’ve found that a project I had been engaged with has fallen by the wayside, sometimes for weeks, or months, or years on end.

One such project, probably the largest single endeavour I’ve ever committed myself to and one that’s been with me for more than fifteen years, has been my work with the Ubykh language (in which the title of this post is written: sınaq’e bğieslhayın “I am giving it my attention again”). For those who don’t know – which is relatively few people among my friends by now, I should imagine – Ubykh is a recently-extinct language spoken originally on the shores of the Black Sea around Sochi, and latterly in exile in northern Turkey after the Russian invasion and ethnic cleansing of hundreds of thousands of people of the northern Caucasus culminated in 1864. This is neither the time nor the place for me to recapitulate the entirety of the grim, dark history of what the closely-related Abkhaz calls амҳаџырра amħaʤərra “the Exile”, but suffice it to say that the departure of the Ubykhs en masse from their homeland was the catalyst for the abandonment of their language, and Tevfik Esenç, the last fully competent speaker of Ubykh, died on the night of the 7th October, 1992. Linguists have long since realised that Ubykh was on a slow path into extinction, though, and over the course of the 20th century many thousands of pages of texts have been recorded, as well as grammatical analysis at various levels of detail, and exhaustive phonetic analysis of a sort rarely done for endangered languages (mainly because of the recognition of Ubykh’s stupendous inventory of consonant phonemes, once thought to be the world’s largest).

Nonetheless, much still remains to be done. Until I published my grammar in 2011, no comprehensive synthesis of Ubykh grammar had been produced in nearly eighty years. The last published dictionary saw light in 1963; a revised and expanded edition was being worked on, but has never eventuated. And sadly, the work seems to be outlasting most of those who seek to dedicate their time to it. Georges Dumézil, the celebrated French scholar and immortel de l’Académie française, died in 1986 after more than a half-century of work on the language. Tevfik Esenç, with whom Dumézil had worked for some thirty years, followed a few years later. Dumézil’s disciple Georges Charachidzé, who’d tantalised the Caucasological community with promise of an updated lexicon in a 1997 paper, also passed away in 2010, before that could be completed (and worse, the draft is in the hands of his daughter, who I have no idea how to contact in order to ask if I might be able to take on the task of its completion myself – without meaning at all to sound arrogant, there are few people on Earth more suitably qualified). But still, as the Ubykhs themselves say, benen cenbadegiı zeçüın mıxhın: one ox can’t graze on all the grass that grows, and even my work stands small upon the shoulders of giants.

So this gap, a gap that’s remained long unfilled, is one that I’ve sought for the last fifteen years to address; for this reason I’ve been working with Ubykh since my undergraduate years to learn the language, become familiar with it, work out its structure, determine how it works, and finally produce comprehensive and accurate materials with which the language might someday be revived. The centrepiece of all this is, of course, the dictionary. The difficulty of learning a language to fluency without having a dictionary should be obvious even to the most linguistically challenged, and so that’s been the magnissimum opus towards which the bulk of my Ubykh studies have gone, primarily so that I can then actually sit down with the dictionary and start acquiring the language properly with the aim of starting to be able to teach it effectively to others. But with the onset of my depression some five years ago, and the loss of multitasking ability that came with it, came the necessity for me to focus my time on other projects. Primary among these was, of course, my doctorate, which I eventually successfully acquired in 2013. But by then I’d fallen off the Ubykh wagon in a sense, and the loss of drive that also accompanies depression was making it difficult indeed to climb back on. There was also a deep feeling of guilt associated with that, since this is work that doesn’t only have ramifications for me, but potentially might be a rallying point around which a whole rich culture, rendered little more than dust in the wind by one of the most effective and complete ethnic cleansings in human history, could rediscover its identity – or couldn’t, as the case may be.

But a couple of months ago, I finally sat down and consciously made the decision to try to do a little more work towards completing my dictionary, and have been spending some hours each week focusing on transcribing, correcting, and reformatting the entries from an older, poorly-formatted, and unrevised (but relatively complete in terms of content) draft I’d completed back in 2010. And in the last week or so, all of a sudden – almost literally – I started to feel a level of interest again. Satisfaction. Passion, even. I was working within the letter n (unfortunately, because of the devastating complexity of the Ubykh consonantal system, this is only the 33rd letter, out of 88 in total), which includes some rather semantically dry material. Adverbial-case formant. Absolutive plural marker in the present tense. Third-person singular ergative verbal pronominal prefix in verbs containing an oblique object marker. See what I mean? It’s all pretty pleh in terms of imaginative stimulus. But as I ground my way past the purely grammatical morphemes and started to do the revisions on semantically richer and more conceptually interesting ones, I all of a sudden did find myself back in the swing of things, back to starting to understand what it was that was so exciting – so captivating – to me about this language in the first place. Seeing the presence of words for things like badger. Youthful. Saddle strapMutton sausage. Friendship. Remembering that this language was used by people, that every word represents an entity seen through Ubykh eyes, that together they form a system of seeing the world, and that it’s a system I’m doing something to preserve and perhaps one day even invigorate, are really helping me to feel passionate about this again – hell, about something again.

Well, in truth, there’s also something else that’s being very good about bringing a feeling of passion and genuine pleasure back into my life – well, someone, I should say! But that’s another blawg post entirely, and I’ll talk about that some other time. For now, suffice it to say that things are starting to happen, pleasant and wonderful and exciting and mildly scary things, in many aspects of my life, of which the return to my Ubykh work is just one such… but certainly one that’s indescribably important to me, and one that I cherish for having brought me enrichment in ways I could never, ever have predicted. It’s taken me to places I could never have imagined, introduced me to people all around the world, and given me a sense of deep purpose that I find strangely comforting. And having such a mental place of comfort – even if it be strange comfort – is reassuring.

The arrival of Arrival

Yesterday I had the great pleasure of watching a newly-released film with a dear friend – something I’d been immensely looking forward to, and not just because this week got very I’ve-fallen-into-a-parallel-universe-and-I-can’t-get-up with the election of a sexist, racist demagogue as President of the United States of America. Being able to distract ourselves with a big cinematic experience was thoroughly lovely, and while we were surprised at first by a rather large local street festival that neither of us realised was going to be on right outside the cinema doors, even that in itself was a lovely way to pass the time, wandering up and down past stalls, avoiding the heat and humidity while we could, staying out of rain, smelling and eating street food (we both got gözleme, a Turkish fried bready dish that I love but can’t often get here in Australia), and having a relatively quiet (and cold; it was stinking humid, and a storm broke later that afternoon) drink in a café we both like. So all in all, it was a wonderful afternoon’s diversion.

It was also a particularly nice experience in that I don’t go out to the cinema very often anyway, which is due to two major contributing factors. One of those is the fact that it requires some planning and psychological strength for me to do something off routine these days, and so I often find myself “postponing” going out to the cinema to take in a film until I end up missing the entirety of the film’s run. The other is the fact that Hollywood is simply not producing that many movies that appeal to me these days, and of late the cinematic industry seems to be relying for most of its punter bucks to be coming from superhero movies, reboots and sequels, and vehicles for whoever the latest Flavour of the Month is: Anna Kendrick, Bonemarrow Crunchybits, Chris Pratt, Melissa McCarthy. Not that I mind individual instances of these – I’m super keen to see Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them when it comes out next week, for example – but on the whole, it seems that variety is rather lacking. Do we really need three separate Wolverine movies, you cats, in addition to the six X-Men films we already have? Did Jurassic World really add anything substantive to the ideas that Jurassic Park already explored? (And quite beautifully, I might add: not only was the film itself just incredible – beautifully shot, well-acted, and majestically scored – but for a film released in 1993, the special effects in Jurassic Park are mindblowing and stand up extraordinarily well even by today’s standards. What’s more, it was a rare gold star for Hollywood in the gender stakes. There were only two major female characters, but both were awesome: Lex Murphy ran firmly counter to stereotype as a teen girl computer whiz who hacked the park’s security system, and Dr. Ellie Sattler is serious life goals for me, a strong and intelligent woman with a doctorate who can be feminine, kick arse without having to wear heels to do so, and explicitly lampshade a few sexist attitudes into the bargain. While I have to confess I haven’t seen Jurassic World, a deliberate choice given that it was both Chris Pratt and a sequel that didn’t need to be done, I’ve heard that if anything the attitude towards women has moved distinctly backwards. Yet another reason not to see it.)

Anyway. I’m digressing again. Yesterday’s film was none of these: neither a superhero movie, nor a reboot, nor a sequel (nor an exhibit of Chris Pratt or Anna Kendrick). It was the science-fiction film Arrival, an adaptation of the Nebula Award-winning novella Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang. I hadn’t read any of his work previously – apart from the general difficulty I have with getting into new fiction these days, Chiang is remarkably selective about his sci-fi publication, having published only 15 stories in his career (even as they’ve achieved mindblowing success, garnering among others four Nebulas, four Hugos, and three Locus Awards to date). Indeed, he apparently once even turned down a Hugo nomination because he felt editorial urging had pressed him into producing a rushed and (to him) unsatisfactory story. It seems that Story of Your Life had long been considered unfilmable, but in all honesty, I’m glad that the screenwriters persisted, because in Arrival, they’ve produced something incredible.

Alert for major spoilers from here on out, by the way.

On its face, Arrival is an alien first contact movie, and probably the most accurate portrayal of a potential first-contact scenario in cinema history, with the potential exception of Contact, based on Carl Sagan’s novel. Arrival takes the problem of interspecies communication that most other cinematic science fiction simply handwaves away if it acknowledges it at all (with telepathy in Independence Day, with the Babel Fish in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, with universal translator devices of a thousand different incarnations in a thousand other sci-fi outings), and moves it squarely into the foreground, building the film’s major quest line out of the struggle to communicate with the squidlike heptapods and discover their purpose for visiting Earth in the first place. The military is involved, as they so often are, but the protagonist of the film – and indeed, the only one we really find ourselves empathising with throughout – is an academic linguist, Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams, whose performance is complex, deep, and really touching), who’s called upon by the Army to attempt to speak with the alien visitors but frequently forgets military protocols and security (in that strangely childlike manner that we academics often seem to be able to muster) in pursuit of the loftier goal of communication, often with the assistance of theoretical physicist Dr. Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner).

From a purely linguistic point of view, I don’t think the process of monolingual fieldwork with a previously unknown language has ever been so accurately depicted upon film; the hesitating first steps, the breakthroughs that form a foundation upon which the rest of the language can be constructed in the mind of the learner, the rapid acceleration of mutual comprehension thereafter. The film also explores a particularly strong version of what linguists call linguistic relativity or the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the idea that one’s language influences or may even define the ways in which we see the world, and the whole film’s premise turns out to be that the purpose for the alien visitors coming to Earth is to impart their language to humanity. The heptapods’ form of visual communication is a semasiographic system in which a single complex symbol forms an entire sentence or utterance, and the form of every subpart of that symbol is morphologically influenced by every other part. In other words, in order to start talking in this form of communication, you already have to know exactly how the utterance will end – to predict its future, in a sense. So the story assumes from this a particularly strong version of Sapir-Whorf, stating that in essence, being able to use the heptapods’ visual language can impart the ability to “remember” both the past and the future: to perceive time not as a linear progression from cause to effect, but as a single flow of temporality.

But despite realising Ted Chiang’s heptapod aliens in arresting visual form, and hinting at a much greater alien universe in which they (and we) are situated, Arrival – like the novella on which it was based – rises into a higher class of sci-fi in that it never gets lost in exposition of extraterrestrial creatures at the expense of exploring the human condition, telling us first and foremost something about ourselves, about humanity. Even though the film’s focus would superficially appear to be upon the arrival of the heptapods and the process of establishing meaningful contact, and indeed that’s the bulk of what you see on screen, it isn’t so much that as it is the story of Louise Banks herself, and by proxy, her future husband Ian Donnelly (the selfsame physicist with whom she deciphered the heptapods’ language, who she will eventually marry) and her daughter (and the fact that the primary character’s a woman is also eminently pleasing in a genre so often dominated by male characters). It’s the story of how Louise’s acquisition from the heptapods of this ability to perceive all of her life at once affects the way her life subsequently unfolds, and how it impacts upon the decisions she has to make in the rest of her life (including whether or not she should have her daughter at all, knowing as she does that her  child’s life will be cruelly cut short by a devastating genetic illness, and that she and Ian will divorce because he finds out she knew it would happen and couldn’t handle it). This underlying story, as much alluded to as depicted outright, is what raises Arrival from an already pretty gripping and beautifully realised alien arrival tale into the top echelons of philosophical science fiction, up with Interstellar and Blade Runner as some of the best deep-thinking sci-fi ever put to screen. Those looking for a standard humans-versus-aliens Explosionfest are going to walk away sorely disappointed from Arrival, but so they should. There’s plenty of room in the vast and unchartable multiverse of sci-fi for first contact films that are basically cheesy disaster-movie-style crash-and-bang cinema (which are nonetheless awesome; Independence Day is still an old favourite of mine) as well as for highly cerebral, richly emotional examinations of the human condition through the lens of a science-fiction scenario.

So I’m very grateful for being able to get out and experience one such film, and particularly with such lovely company.

tlhIngan Hol Quj

Those who know me mostly know my academic “dirty little secret”: that in addition to my chosen profession of archæology, I dabble in linguistics as a hobby and have done since high school. As a consequence of my lifelong interest for the richness of languages, triggered by my early beginnings learning conversational French and fanned by an encounter with written Inuktitut during primary school, among the widely-ranging but largely incoherent body of skills I’ve acquired is the ability to speak or read six languages. Four of these are of relatively substantial utility in the modern world – French, Spanish, Turkish, and my native English. The other two, however, are spoken fluently by a combined total of less than thirty people in the world, and their utility has been primarily in the sheer fascination I have for them. One of these is Ubykh, a North-West Caucasian language whose last fully competent native speaker, the good Tevfik Esenç (whose voice I’m so very familiar with from sound recordings, even though I never had the pleasure of meeting him) died in 1992; I’ll tell you more, one of these days, about my decade-and-a-half of work with that language. The sixth language I speak, and probably the one in which I (disturbingly?) have the greatest competence besides English, is Klingon. Yes, Klingon; the language devised by Dr Marc Okrand for a race of bumpy-headed aliens depicted in the Star Trek series of films. I was in high school – perhaps sixteen years old? – when I first encountered the concept that the construction of one’s own language out of whole cloth was not only possible, but had in fact been successfully achieved: not just once, but many times. The history of constructed languages is a long and rich and enthralling one that I won’t rehash here, but well worth reading about – if you’re interested in more I’ll just point you to Dr Arika Okrent’s wonderful book In the Land of Invented Languages (which, for good measure, includes some segments on the Klingon community, researched first-hand and using interviews with some of my Klingon-speaking friends) – but suffice it to say that I became interested very quickly, and Klingon in particular gave me special intrigue, not least because of the science-fiction milieu in which it’s set. But it’s not only that: as I’ve said before on this very blog, as I came to know the Klingon community I also grew to realise that they’re some of the most wonderful and worthwhile people I know. And like a pack of childhood friends playing in the same sandpit, our shared experience with Klingon gives us a complex, extraordinary, and yet neatly-bounded playground in which to revel. We talk, we sing, we recite poetry (remind me to tell you more about my Klingon version of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner sometime), we tell jokes, we spin stories, we order meals, we party; we do all sorts of things in Klingon. (I’ve been told by other Klingonists I’ve roomed with that, at times, I even speak Klingon in my sleep.)

One of the other things we do in Klingon, particularly at the qep’a’ (the KLI’s annual conference), is play games, which helps us to expose ourselves to Klingon in a fun way that helps to reinforce and strengthen our language skills. Charades and Pictionary are particular favourites; an official Klingon-language version of Monopoly also exists, as does a uniquely Klingon game called Klin Zha, a strategy game not unlike chess but played on a triangular board. (Beating my friend Captain Krankor at Klin Zha in Chicago is still one of my fondest memories of that game. I got lucky, to be fair; I’m not very good at Klin Zha.) Word games like Boggle and Scrabble are popular as well, particularly because they’re games that force one to enhance one’s lexicon and to be able to know which words are legal and which aren’t; since Klingon also relies rather heavily on prefixing and suffixing, one has to know which prefixes can go on which verbs, what order the suffixes have to come in to form a grammatical word, und so wie. For example, the Klingon word juquvHa’moHta’ you have set out to dishonour us comprises one root (quv, be dishonoured), a prefix (ju-, you [do something to] us), and three suffixes (-Ha’ dis-, –moH cause, –ta’ perfective of intent) and all of the suffixes must appear in a specific order: *juquvta’Ha’moH is a grammatically illegal word (and in Scrabble therefore an illegal play). An unofficial Klingon version of Scrabble was developed back in the late 1990s, but although people would often play it at qep’a’, as I had the pleasure of doing at my first qep’a’ in Reno in 2011, the general consensus was that the distribution of the letters was somewhat off (particularly of the qaghwI’, the glottal stop), that the balance of consonants and vowels wasn’t quite right. This letter distribution was based only on a single text – the authoritative edition of Hamlet – and while it was certainly the most substantive source material we had at the time, the fact that it was written almost entirely by a single author and in a single style meant that it was potentially going to skew what kinds of words were used, what types of grammatical constructions were deployed, and consequently, what the distribution of the individual characters was going to be.

“You have not experienced Shakespeare until you have read him in the original Klingon.”
– Chancellor Gorkon, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

And this brings me to possibly one of the nerdiest things I’ve ever done – beyond having linguistics as a hobby, beyond learning Klingon to the point of conversational fluency (I’m one of only two Australians ever to be certified to Gold-level by the Klingon Language Institute’s certification program), beyond flying around the world to attend qep’a’mey (three times so far). My most significant contribution to Klingondom is the development of the current Scrabble letter distribution. After some discussion amongst the top-flight Klingon Scrabble players, who were largely (though, to be fair, not exclusively) in agreement that the letter distribution we had needed work, I took this task upon myself. I sat down with four major Klingon texts by four separate Gold-certified authors, totalling over half a million raw characters, and from them constructed a statistical algorithm to determine which consonants and which vowels were most common in connected text; I subsequently used the model of the original English Scrabble set, which has 100 tiles scoring a total of 200 points, to distribute the point values for each tile appropriately with further subjective input from Klingon Scrabble aficionados. (For what it’s worth, the highest-scoring possible opening move in this scoring system is tlhorghqang it is willing to be pungent: 134 points.) Once I’d developed the scoring system appropriately so that it balanced out to 200 points exactly, one of the authors who’d contributed a text (the Klingon novelist Qov – Robyn Stewart – whose novel nuq bop bom is the longest extant single text in the language) did some research to locate a business that could use a laser mill to make custom-made timber Klingon Scrabble tiles, and this she had done, ordering several sets so that Klingonists who wished to could own their own set of Klingon tiles for Scrabble. And I have to admit, seeing the completed tiles, with the letters and scores on every tile in both the romanised Klingon transcription and the native pIqaD writing system, gave me a feeling of some pride that I’d been able to contribute in my own small way to this awesome community I have the joy and deep honour to belong to. Here’s a photo of a completed Scrabble game between me and Qov, showing the tiles with my score distribution on them in all their glory.

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A short poem, a long ramble

雲おりおり
人をやすめる
月見かな
“Occasional clouds
bring a person respite from
gazing at the moon.”
– Matsuo Bashō, 1644-1694 (my translation)

Poetry is a secret vice of mine, though one about which I’m involuntarily selective. Much as I’d like very much to expose myself to more poetry in the hope of discovering new and emotive mental fodder, my experience with doing so in the past has been that the moments of true enjoyment of poetry are few and very far between. When I read prose, very often I can find a wide range of material I like within a certain genre, or a specific author’s style and expression will enrapture my imagination. This latter is particularly true of some authors. When I first read Stephen King – my first exposure was The Shining, I think – his glorious, intrusive-thoughts writing style and my imaginative faculty slotted together like the two halves of a giant clam’s shell, summoning imagery in my mind’s eye that was rich, vivid, entirely memorable; he takes his craft extremely seriously and has produced fine, engaging prose as a result. Similarly, the power and fluidity of expression emanating from George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novel series captured me more or less immediately as I began to read A Game of Thrones, such that after finishing it I immediately went out to purchase every subsequent available book in the series. (And this was no small feat, as I was struggling with a deep period of depression at that point and had read no new fiction in more than two years: virtually unthinkable, since as an undergrad there were long stretches – and I’m talking months and years on end – where I’d buy and read two or three novels a week, every week, almost without fail. The woman who ran the book stall at the flea market used to know me by name, and moreover, I knew hers too. Gwen. I probably bought upwards of four hundred books from her over the course of a few years.) Others whose books I’d read more or less on the strength of their author’s name are Robert Silverberg, Tim Willocks, and Isaac Asimov, all of whose writing styles and subject matters I find a pleasure to engage with.

But with poetry – and I’m mystified as to just why this is – it’s more that a specific poem has to speak to me somehow on more than one level at a time. It’s not enough to just be by a poet whose style I happen to like; I may love one of a poet’s works, and loathe the next even if it’s similar in subject matter, style, tone. A poem has to move past intellectually objective criteria to touch me emotionally through its form, through its topic, through its power to evoke imagery, through the context in which I first heard it. That doesn’t mean, of course, that only poems of one specific form and subject are eligible for this. I love complex full rhymes just as much as half-rhyme and blank verse, I’ve been touched by epic just as much as by haiku. Indeed, what I think is one of the finest pieces of English-language poetry of the last hundred years isn’t what many would think of as a “poem” at all: it’s Eminem’s Lose Yourself, which is not only a deeply emotional story delivered with richly evocative language, but is also a mindblowing tour de force of rhyme and vocalic assonance so complex that it defies straightforward analysis and makes Alexander Pope’s poetry look like it was written by a primary schooler. But I’m also enamoured of Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (my love of the poem was what drove me to translate it into rhyming Klingon verse, my longest complete composition in the language), which has a much simpler rhyme scheme and a much more rigid metre, but expresses itself with such vibrant and almost psychedelic imagery that it conjures its supernatural and deathly visions effortlessly – due, no doubt, to Coleridge also being a well-known and incorrigible dope fiend. The fact that the Rime‘s so widely quoted and alluded to means it’s got some historical importance, as well: an albatross around one’s neck; water, water, everywhere; and so forth. There are several other poems I enjoy just as much – such as John Donne’s A Fever, William Blake’s The Tyger, A. B. Paterson’s Been There Before. And the haiku I quote above is one of these.

It’s a classical Japanese haiku, and such is how I’ve rendered it in the translation above as well – a rigid sequence of three lines in five, seven, and five morae (though the original has six in the first line). The clean minimalism of the haiku format has always appealed to me, though as I don’t read Japanese except with the aid of a dictionary and kana charts, it’s an arduous task for me to access most classics of the genre. And I know virtually nothing of Bashō beyond the fact that he’s widely acknowledged as one of the greatest poets of premodern Japan, and even less about his poetry specifically. This haiku holds meaning to me for other reasons. To begin with, it’s a philosophically interesting idea to hold onto: the idea that not all of life is brightness and beauty and illumination, and that the coming of occasional periods of darkness is natural, to be expected, and perhaps can help one to better appreciate those times when the beauty and brightness shine forth most radiantly, filling one’s life with light. In Japanese culture the moon is also a symbol of autumn (for some reason best known to someone else), and in this poem I think the moon’s own inherent quality of flux in its constant waxing and waning, combined with its cultural embodiment of the season of turning leaves, probably reflect the Zen Buddhist concept of anityatā “impermanence”. This is the idea that nothing stays the same forever, and here Bashō seems to imply that anityatā isn’t to be avoided, but to be embraced – that even the clouds cloaking the moon’s luminescence aren’t inherently bad and may themselves be fruitfully considered from a positive perspective instead (if you’ll permit me a moment of mixed metaphysics):

五色令人目盲。
五音令人耳聾。
五味令人口爽。
“Too much color dazzles the eye.
Too much noise deafens the ear.
Too much flavor deadens the taste.”
– Agnieszka Solska (transl.), Daodejing 12.1-3

But the reason I know of this haiku isn’t because of its usefulness as an illustration of how one might see the silver lining in the clouds (…as it were). Rather, it had been printed on the program of the memorial service for an old friend and mentor, Tom Loy, back in 2005. Tom was a renowned lecturer in archæology at my alma mater (the only scientist mentioned by name in both the book and the film of Jurassic Park, no less); a great polymath, but more importantly a man I was proud to call friend, his theoretical perspectives on the discipline and friendly openness to fellow seekers of knowledge – whether full professors or lowly undergrads – have basically informed the entire direction of my professional development. I was enormously honoured to have been asked to deliver a eulogy at his memorial service, since no other archæologist has influenced me more radically. More importantly, Tom was also a Buddhist, and even in his archæological lectures he taught the utility of anityatā (though never referring to it as such in his lectures) for conceptualising cultural change, emphasising that even in periods of what may appear in the archæological record to be cultural stasis, people constantly die and are replaced, tools constantly broken and are repaired, buildings constantly decay and are rebuilt; what appears to be stasis is only what the Yijing categorises as a distinct type of change, the 不易 bùyì ‘non-change’ that comprises the continuous activities necessary to maintain a diachronically ‘steady state’ or ‘permanence’.

But I digress. (My apologies. Tom never published these perspectives before his unexpected death, so I rarely get the opportunity to discuss them or how they’ve impacted upon my own conceptualisation of how to do archæology.) In any case, Tom’s memorial service was a Buddhist one, and the program bore another translation of this haiku on the back, just above the standard funerary verse from the Mahā-Sudassana Sutra; it’s only just recently that I came across my copy of the program again, unearthing it from a drawer while searching for something else entirely. The first time I saw this haiku back in 2005, it was singularly appropriate to Tom’s death already as a reminder of the evanescence of things, but having seen it anew it’s stirred up a diachronic maelstrom of emotions. I relate to it in an entirely new way now, after my struggles with anxiety and depression ramped up in earnest, but at the same time the poem still serves as a conceptual memento of my friendship with Tom and of the emotions surrounding his death. And the novel set of feelings that’s been awakened clicks snugly, almost seamlessly, into the older emotions; just as it did back then, the poem still reminds me that the idea of the impermanence of experiences and of things isn’t only to be looked at through pessimistic eyes. It’s for just that reason that I was moved to compose a new translation of the original Japanese haiku – the English translation that’s at the beginning of this post – to share with a dear friend earlier in the week, a friend who’s also suffering through some psychologically rough times. For us sufferers of anxiety and depression, much of the time it’s hard to maintain optimism and hold onto the idea that though it might seem like good times and pleasant feelings are gone for good, bad times and unpleasant feelings are just as impermanent, are just as much anityā. So I wanted to share this haiku with her, and now with anyone else who might read it here on my blog; not just because it’s one of my favourite pieces of poetry, appealing to me in its form, its subject matter, and in the hidden depth of its meaning, but because it’s been helpful to me as a mental tool. I’ll be well pleased if it can serve as such for anyone else.

22 Days of Musing: 20

20. Counselling my future self.

Last night I got into a little of a rambling reminiscence about the first painting I did as self-treatment for a fairly black phase of depression, and I shared the painting itself, which I’m now realising that I probably should have done tonight so that while I talk about it, it’d be here in front of you. But never mind – I may as well share it again here, and since it’s my blawg, what I say goes. This isn’t any kind of a democracy, after all.

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Ú-chebin galad anim. Acrylic on canvas, January 2013.

The depiction is of the elven queen Galadriel from The Lord of the Rings (portrayed in the films by Cate Blanchett) farewelling the Fellowship of the Nine as they leave the forests of Lothlórien. While the theme is admittedly maudlin, it’s also deliberately rich in symbolism. It draws upon Galadriel’s own fate, and that of all her kind: destined to fade into the West as the world passes from the Elves’ dominion, she passes the responsibility for the destiny of Middle-earth into the hands of those she farewells, and to Frodo she gives a gift of light even as she herself recognises that she will soon diminish and go into the West. That’s what the Quenya inscription says (and devising a Quenya translation and tengwar transcription of the phrase, which is spoken in the film only in English and never shown in writing of any stripe, was intended also to give me something to occupy and interest my brain).

Lyen antanyë i silme Eärendilwa, ammelda elenelma.
Nai cálë lyen nauva mornë nómessen,
írë ilyë exë calmar isintanier.
[I give you the light of Eärendil, our most beloved star.
May it be a light for you in dark places,
when all other lights go out.]

Because of this desire to develop a symbolic structure for this work, not only the topic of the painting, but many of its details, were also specifically selected to bear meaning of their own. The deep blue tone of the background symbolises the sensation of depression that was crushing me at the time under its enormity; the expression on Galadriel’s face, a calm and yet slightly sad acceptance of the inevitability of her fate, was intended to suggest my feelings of becoming resigned to – though still not at all pleased with – enduring the long dark. The broad, empty space between her and the light she gives freely to the one she farewells represents the distance I sensed between myself and normality, the pure but faint and solitary luminosity of the star Eärendil likewise representing the ethereal and perhaps almost illusory possibility of a brightness coming to render the dark powerless. All were intentional symbolic choices on my part. Even the golden hue of the inscription recalls the beginning of one of Galadriel’s verses of lamenting the autumn of her era:

Ai! laurie lantar lassi súrinen,
yéni únótimë ve rámar aldaron!

[Ah, like gold fall the leaves in the wind;
long years numberless as the wings of trees!]
– J. R. R. Tolkien, Namarië (Farewell)

The title I gave to the painting, Ú-chebin galad anim, similarly constructs an allusion to another Tolkienian reference. The phrase is in Tolkien’s other major Elvish language, Sindarin, and means “I have kept no light for myself”; it parallels a similarly-phrased line from the linnod or verse aphorism spoken by Aragorn’s mother Gilraen as she gave her son over to the Elves for protection:

Ónen i-Estel Edain; ú-chebin estel anim.
[I gave hope to the Dúnedain; I have kept no hope for myself.]
– J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: Appendix A

What I sought to do with this painting, I suppose, was to imbue it with all of the feelings of chagrin and emptiness and pain and hopelessness and fatalism that I was experiencing at the time, to memorialise and immortalise those feelings in pigment on canvas. The conceptual framework of The Lord of the Rings and its story and mythology was merely a convenient, though rich and familiar, symbolic language in which I could cast those thoughts visually. But my aim in doing that was actually not to wallow in the blackness: far from it, in fact. Instead, my thought was that by exploring all of these sensations as I painted, I would seek almost to entrap or imprison the dark, agonising feelings within that moment of time, and thereby allow me to project and communicate hope, and cheer, and well wishes for my future self – the one that would later see and experience the completed depiction and all its rich symbolism – even as I couldn’t see hope for myself in that moment. And in some ways it seems, strangely, to have succeeded; whenever I raise my eyes to the painting as I walk down the hall towards my room, I see Galadriel looking straight back at me, raising her hand in empathy and peace and love, and symbolically passing to me a little of the light, and the hope, that when I first put brush to canvas I’d been unable to find – or keep – for myself.

22 Days of Musing: 15

15. Grokking my fullness.

I’d like to talk tonight about how desperately important it is, when you suffer from any kind of mental illness whatsoever – depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, PTSD, bipolar disorder, anorexia nervosa, obsessive-compulsive disorder – to maintain a network of supportive and trusted people around you who can assist you to maintain at least a certain handle on the illness, and can act as a soft place to fall if the disorder should get difficult enough to require that. For a plethora of reasons individually too small to consider problematic but joining together to form a larger and more formidable challenge of my psychological strength, it tends to be my friends in whom I place the most trust when it comes to being open and frank about my battle with mental illness. I don’t know what it is that makes me trust them moreso than anyone else. Perhaps it’s the discomfort I feel with the fact that there’s a societal obligation upon family to care – that blood is thicker than water, to the point where in many cultures the word for “family” or “clan” even comes from terms for body parts, as in Māori iwi “clan” (literally, “bone”) and the Ubykh equivalent lhepq (literally “blood [and] bone”) – an obligation that anxiety makes me sometimes question, even as I tell myself not to be so bloody bone-headed. I ask myself, are they being supportive because they truly want to be? Or rather because blest be the tie that binds and the omnipresent ᴛʜᴇʏ would look poorly upon kinship coming not before all? Having anxiety sometimes makes me ask such terrible questions even as I loathe myself for doing so. And so the hands of my friends, bound by no such ties of kin that might conceivably oblige them to catch me as I fall, tend to be those I trust with my psychological well-being (or lack thereof), because I’m more comfortable, on the whole, with the idea that they’re supportive because it pleases them to be so.

Nkiéjuale mğiéjuale waléwmıt.
(Old friends and old roads will not deceive you.)
– Ubykh proverb

This very evening, in fact, I spent a solid two hours (we can’t seem to help talking longer, always, than what either of us plan!) on the phone nattering with my best friend, ranging over a whole slew of topics and running along glorious tangents at every other turn. The peculiar thing is that it need not be a conversation about anything in particular that helps me to feel better or more positive; I don’t necessarily need to drop my bundle or vent my spleen to get a sensation of improvement. It can simply be the mere fact of having contact with another human being who cares about me for just exactly what and who I am, warts and all, that gives salve for the wounds that respond to no physical cure. When you’re mentally ill, the value of having somebody understand you is incalculable. And I’m not talking here simply about passive understanding, the sage nod of the “oh, I see” from someone who intellectually comprehends the words you’ve said, the scenario you’ve described, and might perhaps even feel sympathy, expressed (or not) in a platitude of some sort. Merely being understood is sometimes not what you need, or at least, is often not what I need. Rather, what I mean is having someone actively understanding you, or (with apologies to the late Robert Heinlein) grokking your fullness: not the mere statement of someone’s understanding, but an activity that communicates that understanding. Actions speaking louder, et cetera. The kind of understanding I most value is that shown not by attempting to “understand” as such at all, but by simply interacting, talking, laughing, commiserating, joking, raging together, in a way that demonstrates – that perhaps even performs – one’s understanding of me. Not of my illness, or of my circumstances, but simply of me. This is exceedingly difficult to describe, and the English language really lacks the lexical and grammatical tools to express the idea as cleanly as I perceive it, but equally impossible to describe is the value I place on spending time with people who’re willing to perform this kind of understanding. And sometimes all that’s necessary is to simply exist in the right place at the right time. On two occasions in 2011 after the “girl from the conference” débâcle, I lost my composure and fell apart in public towards the end of two nights out with a group of friends. In both instances, I realised what was happening and separated myself before I dropped my bundle completely. But one friend noticed my unexplained absence and came out to simply sit with me as I sobbed in the gutter and rest his hand on my shoulder. Both times it was the same friend, and he said nothing as I wept. But he knew, somehow instinctively, that I didn’t need someone to comfort me with words; I just needed someone to be with me and perform an understanding of the fact I just needed to feel like I was not alone. To turn a phrase, he understood the shit out of me on those nights, just as my best friend did earlier this evening. Loneliness is one of the curses of depression, and knowing who your truly understanding allies are can help to fend off that loneliness when it becomes too much to bear; I imagine this could be true for any mental illness, that the establishing of a small group of intimately trusted people who can grok your fullness can save you in those circumstances when your mind is seeking rather to betray you.

22 Days of Musing: 4 and 5

Day 4. Quick as lightning in its tracks.

As much as depression and the anxiety that accompanies it are a part of me, the way in which I perceive my mental illness is often as a sort of entity apart, almost (though not quite) a spiritual companion – albeit an entirely less than pleasant one. It helps me, sometimes, to conceptualise my illness this way in order to obtain a degree of psychological distance from it, which in its turn allows me to view it through a lens of greater objectivity while seeking to find ways to treat and ameliorate it effectively. It also seems as though it does actually have a kind of mind of its own on occasion; certainly it’s often the case that its ebb and flow seem to have not much in the way of pattern, and while there are events that can trigger a phase of depression, or an attack of anxiety, there are also many instances where I have no idea why I feel more poorly than I do at other times. It seems almost like the wendigo of Algonquin and other folklore, and latterly Algernon Blackwood’s classic supernatural story: a strange malevolent being of great “height and fiery speed”, and always at my back no matter how rapidly I turn around to face it. Sometimes it can be little more than a particular thought that spirits it into existence for its eldritch fingers to begin enlacing themselves into the convolutions of my brain. Then at other times, it’s as though its whispered chant – a silent siren call to a dangerous, isolating state in which the normal ability to emote disintegrates – has lowered a veil of tiredness and desolation over me, a magical mist out of which excitement, optimism and determination can’t filter.

“…for the Wendigo is simply the Call of the Wild personified, which some natures hear to their own destruction.”
– Algernon Blackwood, The Wendigo (1910): IV

There are times that this helps, the metaphorical construction of my illness as an intangible but distinct being – not really an evil as such, but more an omnipresent irritation I’m constantly trying to learn how to deal with. There are times also when this conception is considerably less helpful, but it at least brings me a means by which I can maintain a clean separation between the depression and myself; it helps me to avoid being overtaken by it completely.


Day 5. In a mirror, lightly.

The reason why no separate reflection appeared on this blog yesterday was that I was out of range of wireless Interwebs, attending the 40th birthday party of my best friend in Armidale, some six hours’ drive from my home city of Brisbane. And upon my return, I feel that this is an excellent opportunity for me to turn these reflections on their head in a sense, and speak on one of those times during which the coin I spoke about in an earlier reflection has been successfully flipped in the air, overturning the void-swallowed obverse of the coin and revealing the reverse face, rich with the spectrum of emotion. With the exception of a hard lightning-strike of anxiety associated with a sudden change in plans today that I took very badly for a short while, the past 48 hours have been wonderful. Filled with excitement, joy, intrigue, awe, gladness, fascination, intellectual debate, and perhaps a little hilarity under the influence of a little cider and sangría, it was a night and a day of gorgeous emotional positivity that I’ve not experienced much of in the last little while. Few of the people at my friend’s birthday shindig were people I knew personally, but I knew several from either direct or indirect interactions on Facebook, some I’d met previously although briefly, and some were complete strangers. But after some initial uncertainty and anxiety on my part, the night progressed with all the celebration a good party requires, and much more besides. An exceedingly intelligent, well-informed group of partygoers interested in a wide variety of topics of conversation – gender politics, potty humour, quantum physics, gothic country music, natural and constructed linguistics – brought me pleasure of a rare magnitude, and every conversation I engaged in was a genuine treat. The reason I speak of all this in such glowing terms is that this, too, is depression. Or at least, it’s part of the broader phenomenon of depression, which need not be continuous and inexorable; if depressed people have good days, or feel happy or pleased or excited temporarily, that is not to say that they are suddenly “no longer depressed”. Depression is a descriptor for a condition moreso than a specific disease, and can be symptomatic of a wide array of underlying disorders. What this means is that a person may experience depression in a manner that might be constant, or periodic, or seasonal, or largely aperiodic. Some types of depression may even show temporary improvement in the presence of positive stimuli. In my previous reflection I spoke about the aperiodicity of my own depression, and the fact that even if I’m not suffering from a phase of that depression, a specific event (whether it be by words or by actions) can sometimes shove me into the zone in which my emotions shut down for the sake of self-preservation. The opposite is rarely true – it’s hard to move out of that zone once I’m there – but certainly I’m still capable of feeling, of emoting, and of enjoying, while I’m psychologically not in that zone. Depression may be a crippling disability, but sufferers still may have occasional bouts of relief; for my part, I usually try to take advantage of my rare such periods whenever I’m gifted with them, as I managed this weekend (although having to push through much anxiety to make myself go in the first place). And for the fact that such relief does come to me at all, I’m infinitely grateful.

Hov leng qoS 50DIch

(English: The 50th Birthday of Star Trek)

Today (well, just yesterday by now) marks the 50th anniversary of the first broadcast in the United States of Gene Roddenberry’s original science fiction series Star Trek. The fact that it managed to make it to air at all is itself due to a serendipitous confluence of circumstances, involving the vision of Gene Roddenberry and the foresight of Lucille Ball, who I just recently discovered was responsible – as the chair of the board at Desilu Productions – for overriding, in 1966, the almost unanimous decision of her board to cancel the series after the purchase of the second pilot. The fact that it’s gone on to have such immense success is a testament to the power of being given an opportunity against the odds, and the ceaselessness of the various incarnations of Trek – TV series, feature films, novels, computer games, technical manuals, and a wide variety of other media – demonstrates the power that the ideology of Star Trek holds even now. But I’m not writing this post in order to gasbag about the details of Star Trek history and Treknology, rich though those topics are; I’m neither qualified nor interested to discuss those topics in particular depth.

My connection to Star Trek is of a far more personal nature than an objective, dispassionate historical overview can outline, and what I’m reminded of today, on the half-century anniversary of the Star Trek franchise, is the impact it’s had on the lives of actual people, myself included. Star Trek‘s ideology has always been founded on highly progressive ideals, seeking itself to do as William Shatner’s pompous voice-over declaimed, and “boldly go where no man [sic] has gone before”. But it also builds a universe both diverse and spectacular, of federations, empires, and dominions of hundreds of planets, stretching over dozens of species and thousands of light-years, facing challenges and difficulties on far greater scales than even a single world could possibly imagine. Partly this was aimed at creating a fictional context in which one might allow imagination to take over on an immense scale, but in part the aim was deeper and more subtle, to use that setting to argue for those selfsame progressive ideals: to demonstrate just how petty and small the perceived “differences” between different groups of humans are, and how within a galaxy-wide perspective, we truly are far more alike than we are different if only we seek to realise it.

One of the more unusual moves in the franchise’s history was no doubt the decision to commission an actual constructed language for the Klingons, one of the alien races used most often in the various Star Trek series as a background to stories involving cultural clashes of many kinds. After having been brought on to develop Vulcan dialogue for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Dr Marc Okrand, a linguist who did his doctoral dissertation on the grammar and syntax of the extinct Mutsun language of California (a very enjoyable and useful read for one whose interests lie, as mine do, in the area of recently-extinct languages… but I digress) and subsequently worked at the US National Captioning Institute, was commissioned to produce a Klingon language for the film Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. The resulting language was published in 1985 in a little blue book called, unassumingly, The Klingon Dictionary, and it went into a second, expanded edition in 1992 after Marc was called upon to provide additional material for the fifth and sixth Star Trek films. The story of the language’s creation has been endlessly retold by many who are far more qualified than I (and I was two when the first edition was released, at any rate), so I won’t rehash it here, but suffice it to say that this book, which by Marc’s own admission he never thought would be much more than a collector’s item for the shelves of die-hard Trekkies, has sold nearly a third of a million copies – indeed, The Klingon Dictionary may well be the best-selling descriptive grammar of all time – and has spawned an actual community of active speakers, speaking the Klingon language Marc devised (with the assistance of two further books as well as two audio courses, and continuing support that Marc graciously still gives to the Klingon-speaking community).

And that’s where my connection to Star Trek lies. Despite what’s alluded to on shows like The Big Bang Theory, the Klingon language isn’t fluently spoken by a particularly large number of people; the vast majority of the copies of The Klingon Dictionary that have been bought have, indeed, been bought as collector’s items, or by people vaguely interested in putting together a few sentences for a Klingon fanfic or cosplay. But about thirty of us worldwide (according to our best estimates) are capable of not just basic conversation, but sustained conversation of arbitrary length without reference to a dictionary, usually criterion enough to be considered “fluent” by any popular definition of that word. I’m one of those thirty or so conversational Klingon speakers. Not all of us came to the Klingon language through Star Trek, though; for me, it was quite the opposite. Languages with unusual and obscure properties have always fascinated me, as those of you who know about or are familiar with my work on the Caucasian language Ubykh (SHAMELESS PLUG, SHAMELESS PLUG) will already be aware, and certainly Klingon also fulfilled my criteria for an unusual language. I started studying it when I was just 17, still young and not really thinking about which language would come in most useful for me later in life. But what’s kept me going for the subsequent 16 years is not just the fascination with the language itself – although it is indeed fascinating, and especially given that the entire core of the grammar was put together relatively quickly in a short time in 1984 and has had minimal modifications since, it’s extraordinarily beautiful in its descriptive power. (Hamlet, Much Ado About Nothing, and the Daodejing have all been rendered into Klingon, and my own small contribution so far is a translation, in rhyming ballad verse, of Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.)

No, it’s not the fascination alone. What keeps me engaged with this language is that even as small as the Klingon-speaking community is, they’re perhaps the most well-educated, diverse, accepting, direct, intelligent, curious, funny, and wonderful group of human beings I’ve ever met. For many years my engagement was primarily through online communities, but I’ve also had the infinite pleasure of participating so far at three qep’a’mey, the annual Conferences of the Klingon Language Institute, in person, and as a result enjoyed some of the happiest and most memorable moments of my entire life. We sing songs in Klingon, we joke and laugh and play games and tell stories and read poetry in Klingon. Hell, we even eat in Klingon. (And let me tell you, that fourth meal of the day is the best of the lot: ghem, a midnight meal for which there’s no real term in English, is a common event seemingly aimed at keeping us awake and socialising for as long as possible – qep’a’ usually passes all too quickly for us all – and often we’ll be at Denny’s for ghem until two or three in the morning.) And the Klingonists I’ve met, both in person and online, are all splendid specimens of the finest humankind has to offer, and perhaps more richly diverse than any other group that could be circumscribed with a single descriptor. Within the circle of perhaps fifty Klingon-speaking people I know, there are speakers of more than 18 non-constructed languages, from Chinese to Irish, from American Sign Language to Jinghpaw. There are mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, singles, couples, polyamorists. There are people who are male and female and cisgender and transgender and genderqueer and gender-nonconforming. We live in Canada and Australia and the US and Germany and Switzerland and Japan and Poland and Sweden and Greece. There are actors, and translators, and novelists; linguists, computer programmers, tour guides, singers; a guitarist and composer of Klingon three-part fugues with the most infectious laugh of anyone I know, a pilot who writes original Klingon and English novels in her spare time with the energy of the Duracell bunny, a hypnotist psycholinguist with Hugo and Nebula nominations under his belt, and a modest ex-closed-captioning director who taught Leonard Nimoy how to speak Vulcan. But even so, the nicest part of the community is that the diversity means everyone has a story to tell; everyone has a fascinating background that we can all share in and relish as a community. As Klingon speakers, we’re drawn together by our common bond of Klingon, but once together, it’s both the differences and the commonalities between us that we celebrate – in true Star Trek fashion, our diversity is what makes us so rich as a community.

So without Star Trek – without Gene Roddenberry, and without the single nod from Lucille Ball back in 1966 that ensured it would go to air – I would know none of these people, I would have had none of these experiences. This immensely wonderful little community would simply not exist. And though I would never have known it, I certainly would have been infinitely poorer for it; I can’t imagine not having these people in my life, whose love and friendship means so much to me. So happy 50th anniversary, Star Trek, and thank you for giving us this entertaining and thoughtful framework within which we can dream of reaching higher as human beings. I’ll finish, in the languages that Marc Okrand built for you, with this:

yIn nI’ yISIQ ‘ej yIchep (Klingon)
dif-tor heh smusma (Vulcan)
Live long and prosper