Tag 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.

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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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.

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