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.
A couple of days ago, RT found himself in the local Books-a-Million. Now, RT has to admire anyone who sells books via a storefront; what with the competition from Amazon and company, the surge in self-publishing, and the efforts of the blogging community, margins are probably tighter than ever. And a quick inspection of the large shopping space revealed that BaM had an entirely respectable copy of Moby Dick on offer for under $20, Bart Ehrman’s Lost Scriptures and Lost Christianities tucked away on the far side of the store’s considerable selection of Bibles, and even a passable, though small, selection of poetry (heavy on Homer and The Inferno).
Wallace Stevens (and his essay, Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction) didn’t make the cut. Much might be made of the absence, perhaps even the failure of American literature (and poetry, above all) to produce the story-epic-novel that will unite us all in its glorious vision of the world. Where is the American Dante?
But RT is reluctant to announce the death of American society just yet. He will gladly admit that while he is beginning to make progress on viewing the movie Cloud Atlas, he has now watched two of the Twilight Saga movies, thereby garnering an image of Kristin Stewart to accompany him as he continues his journey into the problematic heart of his fifties. Middle-aged men will be middle-aged men.
Or will we? Somewhere, hidden deep in his unconscious, RT still harbors a writer’s ambition. Fifty-fourth birthday be damned! This writer will continue his slow, plodding progress toward finishing Gilgamesh, toward publishing his mother’s memoirs, and toward whatever writing projects his reading might lead him. What’s on the bedside stand these days? The Gardens of Light, a novel about the life of the prophet Mani (definitely worth the read). RT will continue to write until he is found dead at his keyboard (or at least in the loving arms of Kristin Stewart). If a supreme fiction doesn’t exist, then we need to act as if there is one. Through the work of thousands and thousands of authors, we are making our way home.
In the meantime, a supreme potato chip will have to sustain us. There are worse fates. RT
Photograph: A Pile of The Real McCoy’s Potato Chips; author: Paul Hurst. WikiCmns; CC-By-SA-2.5, 2.0.
RT never managed to visit Spain while his family was posted in France; the deal was that he got to go to Russia, and his younger brother visited Spain the following year. RT has always been satisfied with the trade-off.
But this marvelous early-modern view of Madrid makes him wonder. The seat of the Spanish government pretty much continuously since 1561, Madrid boasts an impressive inventory of architecture, museums, and Bohemian venues. And then there is the rest of Spain; RT at the moment wouldn’t mind spending a few days in Toledo, Spain’s “City of Three Cultures.”
RT has heard that an intense, spiritual beauty is to be found throughout the Iberian peninsula, in part the gift of a long, complex, and passionate history.
Drawing: View of Madrid from the west, facing the Puerta de la Vega (1562). Artist: Anton van den Wyngaerde (called in Spain Antonio de las Viñas). WikiCmns; Public Domain.
This post has been a long time in the making. Empires of the Word, a historical survey of the relationship between language, politics, and culture by Nicholas Ostler, is rich but slow reading, more reference work than language thriller.
Make no mistake: this is first-rate scholarship, beautifully written and illustrated, vast in knowledge and replete with examples. Everything is here, from the emergence of mankind’s first written tradition (in Mesopotamia), to the exfoliation of Sanskrit in southeast Asia, to the verbal conquests of European languages in the modern era. Charts, maps, timelines, and writing samples accompany the detailed essays on each language and period. And important questions are addressed: Why is it that military conquest is sufficient to spread a language in some areas but not in others? Why did Latin turn into the Romance languages in Europe but Greek not leave descendant vernaculars behind it in the far-flung regions of Alexander’s conquest? What might be the fate of English, the current global lingua franca?
The difficulty here, inevitably, is the mass of detail that must be presented; and the author’s prose, entertaining certainly, tended to wear on this reader after a while. RT thinks that most people will have trouble reading through EoftW at a single sitting; rather like Robert Graves’ The White Goddess, this books demands memory and effort of its audience as they proceed through its lengthy argument. Language and writing are complex phenomena, not easily reduced to rules; and their ubiquity tends to hide inherent difficulties. Everyone speaks, right? How hard can it be?
At this juncture, RT is pretty much convinced that the missing piece in the language puzzle is its internal value to people; we surely rely on it for communication, but its origins may lie further back, in our emerging consciousness. Language creates community not just between individuals, but within each of us as well. Words are messengers traveling both ways, from rational to first mind, and back again. It is this earlier emergence of thought that made exterior communication possible. RT sees he has more reading in front of him as he explores this idea.
Empires of the Word is a keeper, but readers should prepare themselves by setting aside a block of rainy afternoons, attended by pots of mint tea, to travel down its meandering waters. They will see some amazing things and make landings on unexpected and challenging shores.
A local friend turned RT onto Charles De Lint several years ago; he read De Lint’s short story collection Dreams Underfoot, and after finishing that book, bought a second-hand copy of another De Lint collection, Moonlight and Vines. He has been making his way through M&V at a leisurely pace.
RT, on a tight schedule with his domestic and literary obligations, doesn’t keep too many fiction works on his nightstand. Why has he made an exception for the writing of De Lint, whose work falls into the “urban fantasy” genre?
Part of the answer lies in the world that De Lint has created: the imaginary city of Newford, which lies, presumably, in the Great Lakes/southern Canada region. Newford, as far as RT has been able to ascertain, is not a mapped-out region, along the lines of Middle Earth, for instance. It is a modern city that offers layers of mythological history and a rather long list of mythological and fantastical creatures. On its human surface, it sounds rather like any other metropolis of the 199o’s, with businesses, nightlife, newspapers, bookstores, mental institutions, universities, and the like. If the population tend to be on the young side and have a bohemian feel, blame the 90’s. If various fictive creatures show up at least once in a story, well, they at least serve the story’s purposes (and are interesting as characters). After all, what is really important in De Lint’s world is the way that all Newford’s inhabitants help each other. If you want a less-than-50-word description of Newford’s atmosphere, imagine the opposite of an H.P. Lovecraft story, where everything, the people and their surroundings, is not just going to hell, but went there centuries ago without anyone realizing it. (And RT is not saying that HPL is anything less than a great fantasy writer.)
RT could take out his technical toolbox and give a scene-by-scene account of De Lint’s writing chops, which are plain impressive. But he will only note that CDL’s nuts and bolts are solid, thoughtfully crafted, and remain scrupulously behind the scenes, where technical underpinnings belong.
These stories are accessible, comfortable, and, on a regular basis, brilliant. In particular, RT will single out “The Big Sky,” which takes the reader over the great divide and into the land of the dead. The afterlife in this story is as dusty as it is often reputed to be, but there is hope arising from, of all sources, Buddhist teaching. RT will also point out that the story’s setting is an excellent description of the horrors of Major Melancholy, a demon by no means to be dismissed in our own waking world. And if you want sheer talent, in “Passing” CDL takes us into the world of Gracie Street’s girlbars to experience the difficulties and satisfactions of love seen in the Goddess’s mirror (and through the story of Excalibur).
In a literary culture that often focuses on the horrors of history (and the last century’s in particular), CDL gives his readers healing: happy endings, but maybe not of the old-fashioned sort. There are benign spirits at work here, God, gods, mermaids, nameless sweet fates, and the subtler therapies of music and poetry. It’s not that Newford never heard of the Atom Bomb, not that there is no pain or darkness, but rather that the city’s denizens are resolutely and convincingly working to put the Bomb and other, vaguer, terrors back in the Nameless Box they came from. De Lint has sifted the debris of contemporary despair to find a tender, surprising, and romantic world. RT
Painting: View of the Colesseum by Night (c. 1830). Carl Gustav Carus. WikiCmns; Public Domain.
the muse of culinary arts recently whispered a few words in RT’s ear as he was perusing the offerings at Walmart, and, late that evening, RT was able to take advantage of her kind suggestions. here is the meal he produced in ten or so minutes:
Salmon and Artichoke Heart Salad w/ Blueberries
1 can pink Alaska salmon (red salmon might be better)
1 jar Reese’s sliced artichoke hearts
1 can Reese’s sliced water chestnuts
1 large box blueberries
garlic salt and curry powder
head of romaine lettuce
In a soup bowl combine three or four forkfuls of the salmon, five or six chestnut slices, and three or four artichoke heart slices. (You’ll notice that Chef RT is not into precise measurements.) Microwave for 30 seconds. Remove bowl from microwave and add two or three leaves of romaine lettuce. Add virgin olive oil, curry powder, and garlic powder to taste. Cover with a couple of spoonfuls of blueberries. Serves one.
well, the romaine lettuce is green, so RT will wish everyone, Happy St. Pat’s Day!
Photo: Processing salmon fish meat; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. WikiCmns; Public Domain.