The New Year has started, and it has been almost exactly a month since RT last posted. By way of explanation, he will say only that various transitions and plottings are afoot and have taken him away from his regular obligations and projects. More will be revealed as some of this work begins to bear fruit (which is to say, in the next post or two). Our distracted blogger’s first contribution of 2015 is his version of a poem by Chan Buddhist monk Jia Dao (old spelling, Chia Tao), 779-843 AD. Highly regarded during his life, JD is not now as well known as the small group of most famous T’ang poets that includes Du Fu and Bai Juyi; on the basis of the following poem, RT thinks this might be a mistake. JD seems to have combined a deep respect for natural process with indications of the intensity of his experience as a monk, linking his internal and external lives in unforgettable images.
Evening; Watching the Snow Stop
Clutching my staff, I watch the storm lift;
hills and clouds braid tight, dissolve in dusk.
Woodcutters disappear into their cabins
as a weary sun drops to its bed.
And later: wildfire flowers in distant grass.
Tattered mist trailing; boulders, pine.
Hushed, I climb the monastery road—
night strikes the mountain like a bell.
Chia Tao/Jia Dao
version by Eric Quinn
copyright 2015, The Rag Tree
Photo: Tetons from Signal Mountain (1941); author, Ansel Adams. National Archives. Public Domain. *
The An Lushan Rebellion, which broke out on December 16, 755 A.D., devastated China’s Tang Dynasty and brought to a close the era known as the “High Tang,” which is generally considered to be China’s finest cultural and political flowering. The last imperial census taken before the rebellion (in 755) reported a population of 53 million; the census of 764 (the year after the rebellion ended) counted just 17 million. Thirty-six million people had died or been left homeless during the fighting.
Out of the wreckage emerged a remarkable voice, a poet whom the Chinese have honored for centuries as the greatest they have ever produced. This man, Du Fu (712-770), developed a technical mastery of the demanding 5-character Shi form of Chinese poetry that has never been equaled. But while Du Fu’s skill was evident early on, his empathy for the suffering of ordinary people and criticism of the corruption and cruelty of the elite developed in response to the rebellion and place his work in a special category. Not that other Chinese poets didn’t develop a comparable concern for the welfare of the people (Bai Juyi among them), but none of these (admittedly gifted) men spoke with such heartbreaking clarity of the crisis and its place in the Chinese worldview.
To translate a poet as great as Du Fu is to spend significant time with him (or her) via reading, reflection, and writing; RT makes no claim to having invested the requisite energy and time in Du Fu, but offers here a step towards gaining an understanding of the writer the Chinese have called “the god of poets.”
Grass murmurs along the riverbank,
and our mast sways high in the breeze;
stars fall. broad fields, flat, empty,
are gone in the moon’s eruption from water.
Has poetry not exalted my name?
old scribblers should know when to quit.
not yet a ghost, flickering, i drift
on a gull’s wings between heaven and earth.
Copyright © 2014, The Rag Tree.
Photo: Statue of Du Fu (located in Chengdu). Photo author: Fanghong. WikiCmns; CC BY-SA 3.0.
It’s snowing in Martinsburg, and the Dragons of Grammar have started pestering RT, making a racket as they clamber all over the modest duplex he inhabits, blowing plumes of smoke at his sealed windows, and generally trying to cause an uproar in the neighborhood, which would be worse, except that nothing much is getting done in Martinsburg today (except last-minute preparations for Thanksgiving). People are paying the polite, if fiery and colorful, creatures no mind.
Now, RT is well aware that the DoGs love winter–it’s their favorite season, in fact–and at first he thought he also knew the subject that they wanted him to post on–Canadian Aboriginal Syllabics. Now CAS are certainly a worthwhile topic of exploration, but it turns out that that is not the DoGs’ primary concern on the day before Thanksgiving. Rather, they have a weighty matter they want RT to ponder: the definition and ways of helping endangered languages around the world.
Well, RT already knew that there are a lot of endangered languages out there, and a quick browsing of the net suggests that half of all languages, which numbered 6,900 in 2005, are in danger of going extinct (i.e., losing their last native speaker) within the next generation. About half of all languages spoken, moreover, are located either in Asia or Africa, but please take note, Oklahoma also constitutes a hot spot.
RT recollects that on occasion he has posted on endangered languages in these pages, but he thinks that a new post, especially one that contains a listing of items that help reflect the vitality of a language, would be quite useful.
Here is RT’s list:
1) Official Status. Does a language receive political or cultural support, and, in particular, is it taught in schools?
2) Writing System. Does a language have a writing system that was either created or evolved for its use? If so, is there a standardized orthography for the language? How easy is the language’s script to learn?
3) Child speakers. Are children learning the language?
4) Everyday transactions. Do people use the language in their daily routine?
5) Number of speakers. Last, and maybe least, how many people speak the language worldwide, whether as a first or second tongue? To which RT appends perhaps the most vital question: Is the number of speakers growing?
Now we come to subtler considerations.
6) Prestige. Do members of the cultural elite speak the language? Does everyone else in a society regard knowing the language as worthwhile or even as a cultural attainment?
7) National or Personal Identity. Is the language strongly linked to historical or national identity? A good example of this are the Gaelic languages in western Europe.
8) Variant of a Regional Language. Is the language a member of a widespread language family? Can a speaker travel to other areas where his or her native language is to some degree intelligible to others?
9. Global Status. Has a language become a lingua franca? Is it in danger of corruption through overuse? English immediately comes to mind as the lingua franca currently used by the largest number of speakers. How many people would speak English if it weren’t so closely tied to the current power elite?
10. Written and Audio/Video Materials. Here is a vital concern: to what extent is the language recorded in writing? In particular, do any of these materials include native legends and mythology? And do recordings of native speakers exist? Not only do these help preserve the language in the most direct way possible, but they also put a face on the language, another intangible but vital concern.
Now RT will try to sort out various languages by their vitality:
1) English, Spanish, French: the current global lingua francas.
3) Basque (720,000 ns, north-central Spain) and Mapundugan (250,000 ns, Chile and Argentina): language isolates (i.e., not related to any known language). Neither language is listed as endangered; both have been officially recognized. To give some idea of how different a language isolate can be, the Basque word for “father” is “aita,” and the word for “welcome” is “ongi.”
4) Insular Celtic: spoken in the British Islands (Welsh (580,000 speakers in Wales), Irish (130,000 ns), and Scottish Gaelic (57,000 ns)) and Brittany (Breton, 210,000 ns): protected minority languages; full to limited instruction in schools; the number of speakers is relatively small but growing. And here, to give some idea of the music of these languages, RT offers a link to a YouTube video on Scottish Gaelic, the IC language with the fewest native speakers:
5) Cree: limited official recognition within Canada; written in a system constructed for the language; limited instruction in school; 170,000 native speakers. Here is a brief sample of the language via YouTube:
6) Sioux: No official recognition in the U.S.; school instruction, including immersion classes; 44,000 native speakers.
Meanwhile, the snow has stopped and the DoGs have flown off elsewhere to spread their warmth in icy climes… More on all this later. RT
ttttttttttt…ttttttttttttttttttttttt…a trilobite, that’s what we’re looking at.
RT likes this fossil of koneprusia brutoni, a Devonian period trilobite, unearthed in Morocco. Maybe it’s just the striking way in which the animal was preserved, on the edge of a large piece of stone; on the other hand, it could be the beast itself, in all its spiny, spiky glory. And the age of the find (420-360 million years old) adds some authority, too.
We have traveled a long way to get to our present state of affairs. The weirdness of the trilobites and other ancient fauna reminds us of the flexibility of life, its ability to adapt to almost any change in conditions. Viewed on this time scale, we are just one more adaptation to a constantly shifting environment; RT, however, likes to think that we get some of our toughness from these distant relatives and will be telling an amazing story to our descendants-in person-at some point in the far future.
Photo: Koneprusia brutoni; author, Didier Descouens. WikiCmns; CC 3.0 unported.
No one has ever said that RT isn’t a romantic, and he’ll add that being one is not a bad way to cope with troubled times. So here are his reflections on last night’s Republican sweep of the midterm elections–with a distinct stress on the positive:
1) Recreational Marijuana will soon be legal in five states, including Alaska. Five states doesn’t sound like a lot, but RT has a feeling that momentum is growing across the United States for full legalization. As RT has said recently, this can only be good news for West Virginia, which needs all the revenue sources (and legal jobs) it can get. (And by the way, Alaska will be taxing marijuana at $50 the ounce.)
2) Republicans did not quite take over the WV state legislature. They certainly got hold hold of the House of Delegates, with a 64-36 seat majority; on the other hand, the state Senate is evenly split, 17-17, and since the Governor is a Democrat, it means that the Senate remains effectively, if just barely, in Democratic hands. RT will opine that since Democrats have controlled the WV legislature since 1931, the change in power may not be an entirely bad thing. And it is certainly a wake-up call to state Democrats to do some housecleaning and decide how they can address West Virginia’s real needs.
3) Minimum Wage Increases. Voters in four Republican-controlled states have approved referenda increasing the state minimum wage. Of particular note is Alaska’s ballot measure, which raises the state wage to $10.10/hr. and thereafter indexes it to increases in the cost of living. Just to remind folks, the current federal minimum wage is $7.25/hr.
4) A Successful Gun-Control Initiative. Washington State will now require background checks on all gun sales, including at gun shows and online.
Living in the eastern Panhandle as RT does, he saw a lot of local lifestyles as he canvassed with Kris Loken for the 62nd WV Delegate seat (she lost to a longtime incumbent). The big problem that Democrats face locally (and perhaps nationally) is the image we project: non-local and successful, or, to put things more plainly, we look like carpetbaggers, regardless of the length of time we’ve lived in the area or the efforts we’ve put into local organizations. On the other hand, RT thinks that the good work Democrats are investing in local lives and politics is building some bridges.
Painting: Virgil’s Tomb: Sun Breaking Through the Clouds (1785). Joseph Wright of Derby. WikiCmns; Public Domain.
RT has had a busy morning running errands and putting together lunch for himself and his mother, but the tofu scramble was a hit, and the fudge bar for dessert was a bigger hit. Now it’s time to go downtown to see what he can do at Democratic Headquarters. But first, a few thoughts.
There is something mysterious about the U.S. constitution and elections in this country. Part of that mystery derives, RT thinks, from the first section of the 14th amendment to the constitution:
“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
RT thinks that “the equal protection of the laws” amounts to a perpetual, albeit slow moving, social revolution. As the decades have passed, “a woman’s place is in the house,” Jim Crow, and now the ban on gay marriage have all yielded to it. But of course this is confusing: nowhere does the constitution mention social revolution, but the attempt to create a society where all citizens are equal before the law (and not just in this country) may be the greatest such revolution ever undertaken.
And now the other part of the mystery: on election day, people cast their ballots in secret and, without having to explain themselves to anyone, sometimes overturn the counsels and predictions of the mighty. RT hopes that this election day will be one such moment.
And need RT remind his fellow citizens (and especially Democrats): by all means, get out and vote! (and if at all possible, volunteer to help).
Photo: Detailed View of Inclined Column and Support Brackets, Martinsburg Roundhouse. WikiCmns; Library of Congress. Public Domain.
Here’s a puzzle for RT: which of the following versions of a stanza from tablet 5 of Gilgamesh is the one he should use? Each was composed using a different metrical scheme. Decisions, decisions…
Enkidu recovered his voice, challenged the ghoul:
“How could you dirty his pure and immortal name,
utter such blasphemy, make such a threat?
I owe you nothing! You would have devoured me,
savored my liver and heart, licked my skull.
But Enlil intervened, restrained your greed.”
Enkidu recovered his voice:
“How could you soil his name,” he said,
“show such reckless irreverence?
You would have devoured me,
dined on my liver and heart,
but Enlil muzzled your gaping maw.”
Enkidu recovered his voice, spoke:
“How could you insult such a pure name?
I owe you nothing—nothing! Your cannibal rage
would have torn me limb from limb,
devoured my liver and heart, licked my skull,
but Enlil leashed your appetite.”
copyright © 2014, The Rag Tree.
Photo: Cedrus libani var. libani, Cambridge University Botanic Garden. Author: Magnus Manske. WikiCmns.CC Attribution ShareAlike 3.0.