Tag Archives: research

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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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.