Tag Archives: linguistics

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.

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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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