Tag Archives: Reminiscence

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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Erdős, Bacon, Sabbath

It can often be challenging for me to come up with positive, funny, or at least interesting ideas to write about out of the blue, but after a rather extensive conversation and some laughs with my brother a few days ago about the concept of an Erdős-Bacon-Sabbath (EBS) number, I think I might ramble about that. It’s deep, deep into extreme nerd territory, don’t get me wrong, but such geekery gives me pleasure in some ways. Perhaps it has something to do with the passion for seeing large-scale relationships that drives me to continue my work in the field of archæology (and I’ll write more about that in future posts): drawing connections between small and superficially disparate pieces of information, gathering seemingly unrelated trivia together until a beautiful, regular system of correspondences and linkages rises out of what was a featureless sea of data, like suddenly having the hidden sailboat appear from the fractalesque background of a Magic Eye poster. The idea of the Erdős-Bacon-Sabbath number also gives me a small feeling that I’ve achieved something worthy of generating a degree of self-confidence on the one hand, and on the other, a feeling that I’m connected to a much larger network of humanity, all living their own lives and doing sometimes extraordinary things themselves. I’ll talk more about that presently.

For what the EBS number is, essentially, is a cross between an objective metric of the small-world phenomenon, a complicated Internet scavenger hunt, and the party game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon; it’s this last part that’ll allow me, hopefully, to explain what the EBS number is. If you’re not familiar with the game, Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon is based on the supposed idea that Kevin Bacon turns up not only as a lead, but as a supporting actor or indeed bit part, in so many movies. The goal of the original game is to pick a screen actor, at random, and attempt to build a chain linking that actor – in six steps or less – to Kevin Bacon, via films in which actors have collaborated. So to take Jennifer Aniston as an example, a chain you might be able to come up with is something like this:

Link 1: Jennifer Aniston was in Leprechaun with Warwick Davis. (Yes, really.)
Link 2: Warwick Davis was in Willow with Val Kilmer.
Link 3: Val Kilmer was in The Saint with Elisabeth Shue.
Link 4: Elisabeth Shue was in Hollow Man with Kevin Bacon.

You can make shorter or longer chains, naturally – Jennifer Aniston and Kevin Bacon appeared together in Picture Perfect – but the ideal with the game is that you’re doing it based upon movie trivia you personally know, and that you construct the chain to be as short as possible without relying on a search engine or the like. (My brothers and I have particular fun with this game, although usually what we do is challenge each other with a pair of random names, and attempt then to link the two to each other, not necessarily to or via Kevin Bacon. It’s a great trivia challenge, if you’re a bit of a movie buff or have a good memory for names and faces, as I’m fortunate to do.) So what the Bacon number is, in essence, is the lowest possible number of links in such a chain. I won’t bore you with too much more detail, except to note that the Erdős number is essentially the same thing within mathematical and scientific research (where the measurement is of co-author partnerships), and the Sabbath number the same again, but within the field of music (where the measurement is of performance collaborations). So it goes without saying that to have even a single one of these numbers to be defined as finite – an Erdős number, a Bacon number, or a Sabbath number – is rather uncommon; such a number is a sign of having done at least something within a field (mathematics or science research, screen acting, and performance music, respectively), and a sign also of a degree of connectedness within one of those fields, of forming a relationship that adds to a much wider network of interaction between fellow researchers, actors, or musicians (for instance, my brother, through the fortune of some televised work with a top-flight Australian show choir, has both Bacon and Sabbath numbers: 4 and 5, respectively). So by adding one’s Erdős number to one’s Bacon and Sabbath numbers, the result is an Erdős-Bacon-Sabbath number, and to have a finite one is exceedingly rare.

I, however, do have one. It’s no more than 14; a shorter chain might be calculable, but 14 is the same as Douglas Adams’s and I’m reasonably happy with that (the lowest known is 7, and an EBS number below 10 is exceptionally rare even among those who have them). Without going into the fine and tedious details here of who published with who, suffice it to say that through my archæological publications I have an Erdős number of 7. While playing baritone saxophone for the Stage Band back in high school, I had the great good fortune to have a performance and masterclasses with the great jazz musician Don Burrows for a Sabbath number of 4. And finally, I played a featured extra in a pilot for a short film series called Chill Factor, a series of short psychological thrillers, back in the early 2000s – it never got off the ground, so unfortunately you can’t find info online any longer – but I acted opposite Aash Aaron, a Gold Coast actor and acting coach (quite a lovely person, too; he gave me his card and suggested I call him if I was thinking about taking acting further), for a Bacon number of 3.

Actually, that gives me some pause to reminisce about that time a little. Because I was taking a dual degree and consequently took classes across several distinct disciplines, I made few true friends during my first few years of undergraduate study; consequently that time was one during which I was entirely uncertain about myself, about where I wanted my interests to develop, where I felt my skills lay, or what I felt my passions were, and while I had high school friends who were of course wonderful, I didn’t have very many other people with whom I could diversify my interests. I’d always been interested in culture and languages, but have been intrigued for many years by a range of subjects both diverse and peculiar. I dabbled in both gemmology and vulcanology when I was in primary school, for crying out loud. In high school I played music – guitar, clarinet, baritone sax – and upon finding the school Stage Band, whose focus was more jazzy and swing than the Symphonic Band, finally I was able to settle upon something that I found true joy in (and thereby earned myself a Sabbath number, to boot; we had a lot of good times, the Stage Band, and I’ll talk more about those in future posts as well). Once I left school, though, the first years of my university career were a period of some discovery and exploration of myself, at least in some small ways; I did many different things, sampling this and that. With this tiny foray into the incredibly vast and daunting film industry, by finding a ‘featured extra’ role advertised on a forum for budding actors, I sought to dip my toe into the water of something entirely new and different, and determine whether it was something I enjoyed enough to pursue as an extracurricular activity. And I confess, my failure to continue with it had very little to do with an absence of enjoyment. The single evening of filming, quickly though it passed and minor though my part was, was a thrill and a joy, one that stands clearly out in my mind even now. The faces of Tony Teulan, the director, of Aash who I shared my scene with, of the female lead Tiziana Simonelli, I would still recognise even if I passed them in the street today. I simply had insufficient money at the time to own a car, felt guilty about asking my parents to ferry me to acting opportunities when payment was unlikely, and consequently never went further in that sphere.

But nonetheless, it always brings me pleasure to remember that one night; as I mentioned before, even if it is little more than a dip of the toe into a deep and turbulent ocean of an industry, it was something entirely new, utterly outside of my usual experience, in a new and unfamiliar place with new and fascinating people doing something new and creative that gave me new and lasting enjoyment. Such is it also with the knowledge of my finite Erdős-Bacon-Sabbath number. To me, in a single integer score it serves as a reflection of some of the diverse experiences my life has brought me, of a series of accomplishments in several fields that, though perhaps small from an objective viewpoint, still position me within a much larger network of researchers, actors, and musicians; within this network of people dedicated to their craft, it’s comforting to know I’ve still been able to contribute, to add my small tesseræ to a much larger mosaic of human experience and achievement. Though I’m particularly outstanding in none of the relevant fields, I still have a feeling of belonging to something greater because of the contributions the EBS number represents. And because of that, it does bring me a sense of cheer, and of accomplishment, however small.