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
Here it is, folks: the Dholavira Signboard, all ten symbols of it. What the heck is it trying to tell us?
The mystery surrounding the inscription, if that’s what it is, seems to RT to characterize the Harappan Civilization (mature phase, 2700-1800 B.C.) that produced it. Here we have an ancient polity larger than Mesopotamia, characterized by mud-brick cities, an emphasis on cleanliness and ritual baths, and wide-spread urban planning. It conducting trade with Sumer and presumably Sargon’s Empire, but nonetheless has offered up only a few tantalizing examples of its writing system and pretty much disappeared after centuries of existence, leaving no successor civilization behind. What happened?
RT first got interested in this puzzle because he’s convinced that the Indus River valley represents the sharpest, most significant cultural boundary in the ancient world. East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet got its start here. And sure enough, stark differences can be seen right at the beginnings of recorded history, starting with the fact that Mesopotamia produced a civilization devoted to its writing system, one that was practically drowning in written words and that continued to use cuneiform for a couple of millennia, while the Indus valley evidently possessed some kind of writing system, but one which faded away with the civilization that produced it. Following the disappearance of Harrapan society, writing did not reappear in the Indian subcontinent until the 6th or 5th centuries B.C. We must confront an astonishing fact: India went without a written script for more than a thousand years.
Or did it? We know that the Bramhi script used to record the Rig Veda and other early surviving Sanskrit manuscripts was written on highly perishable materials such as tree bark, so it conceivable that the same was true of the Harrapan writing. But why would the Indus valley adopt such perishable media when it knew of cuneiform written on clay tablets? RT confesses himself flabbergasted. Why were the Harappans so transitory?
Here is RT’s speculation about the Signboard. The Harappan writing system clocks in at about 400 characters, which indicates it probably was an ideograph-syllable script, like cuneiform. The graphic quality of the letters suggests a compromise between a script designed to be carved on stone and written on bark–that is, the characters are constructed of angular shapes softened by slight curves. The letterforms themselves evidently have little relationship to proto-cuneiform. This writing system appears to have developed independently of other scripts.
Then there is the matter of the “wheel-form” symbol which appears four times in the signboard. Forty percent of the inscription relies on a single concept, and not just any concept, but one which might well be connected to the wheel of Rebirth, that powerful concept in Indian religion, which today appears on the Indian Republic’s flag. Could this sign be the symbol for Harappan civilization? Could its concurrent star-like shape suggest the gods or heaven? How does it relate to the fifth symbol, the open diamond/ellipse?
We will have to wait to find out. With so few examples of the script to work from, linguists have not yet deciphered Harrapan writing or been able to identify the language that it recorded. We may never know, or a Harappan Rosetta Stone may turn up. In the meantime, excavation continues.
chez RT, the muses have been on self-ordered R&R, the Dragons of Grammar have only been occasionally sighted over distant ocean horizons, and RT himself has been attending to such nitty-gritties as the extermination of bed-bugs (victory seems imminent) and the rearrangement of household furniture after knock-down, drag-out fights with the insect world.
Whew! No wonder RT has recently immersed himself in the world of YouTube, listening to old favs and checking out the impressive poetry offerings to be found on that site. But as always, discovery awaits the explorer.
Now for the details: RT has long been a fan of the pop group Toto, a phenom of the 70s and 80s best known for its ballad-style lyrics and dramatic musical arrangements. Love and corn have been the bailiwick of this group, and more power to them: where would poetry be without love and corn?
As a result of this surfing, RT has discovered the field of musical covers, that is, versions of well-known songs performed by musicians other than those who originally created the song. Is the cover better than the original? You the listener decide. The process can’t help but remind RT of literary translations from language to language (and in particular, poetry translations), and so he has decided to volunteer his critical two cents.
Surely, covers as an endeavor are more precise and accurate than poetry translations. Music is the international language, its notation standardized (for the most part) centuries ago. Western staff notation, as it is known, tells the performer the pitch, speed, meter, and individual rhythms of a particular musical work. To balance out this precision in European classical music, improvisation, the practice of creating spontaneous music during a performance, has developed. Together with musical ornamentation, improvisation allows the musician(s) performing a piece to add his, her, or their individual interpretations, greatly enriching the musical possibilities of a particular performance.
Needless to say, poetry has a far less precise muse, yet produces its own beauty. What is the difference between poetry translation and musical interpretation? RT has suggested several times that poetry exists in the tension between meaning and music, between the thought and beauty; it grows out of the roots of the spoken word. He will now suggest that music has a similar set of roots, not in speech, but in movement. To take the argument further, RT thinks that movement is a primary means of remaining connected to the external world; spatial coordination, overseen by sight, is music’s basic mental function. On the other hand, speech is deeply internal, arising out of inner silence, the stillness that human meaning arises from. Speech, in contrast, may be rooted in some kind of crisis.
Does tension between movement and music exist? As far as RT can see, the opposite is the case: movement and motion reinforce each other.
So we are looking at what may be two very different ways of creating beauty.
Take it on home, RT! A few nights ago, YouTube introduced RT to Perpetuum Jazille‘s cover of Toto’s hit, Africa. RT was impressed by the degree to which PJ reproduced Africa using an entirely different orchestration. RT will venture that PJ’s approach to the song resembles a pointillist painting. He encourages readers to watch the YouTube videos of Toto’s and PJ’s versions of the song (the links to YouTube are below) and asks his readers to pay attention to the very different motions (and number of musicians) associated with each version. Though the two versions are meant to sound the same, do they? Which approach to the musical notation is better?
1) Toto Africa Link:
2) Perpetuum Jazzile Africa Link:
The Cherokee Phoenix, published from 1828 to 1836, was the first native-language newspaper published in the United States. Readers of this blog will remember that the Cherokee use a syllable script invented by Sequoyah in 1821.
Even a casual mention of the Cherokee Nation stirs memories of the Trail of Tears. But today, the CP publishes once more, this time online. Though the paper is now published in English, RT hopes that at some point in the not-too-distant future, a bi-lingual edition might make an appearance.
Image: Cherokee Phoenix Newspaper front page May 21, 1828 (ᏣᎳᎩ ᏧᎴᎯᏌᏅᎯ). WikiCmns; Public Domain.
When he was 12 or 13, as part of a boarding school expedition, RT visited the Hopi reservation in Arizona. After all these years, he still remembers the marvelous pueblos on their mesas and the Kachina dolls for sale at the visitor’s center. The land in northern Arizona is indescribably beautiful.
To get to the HR, you might already know, you have to drive through the Navajo reservation, which completely surrounds it. Unfortunately, RT never got to visit the Navajo reservation, but it has cropped up, very possibly by some sort of fate or other, in his recent net surfing. Why devote one or more posts to the Navajo? For one thing, the NR is the largest in the nation. The stats are as follows: land area, 17,425 sq. mi. (71,000 sq. km.); population, 173,987; economic resources, ranching and extensive mineral resources, some of which, for environmental reasons, are no longer exploited (and the Navajo are also beginning to implement wind farming), and casino gambling, as of 2004. The seat of government and capital is Window Rock, AZ. And one more important fact: the Navajo call themselves Diné.
To help put the geographical and demographic data in perspective, the NR is larger than eight American states (it’s also bigger than Denmark). Looking at things slightly differently, were the NR a state, it would have by far the smallest population–the current holder of that distinction is Wyoming at 582,658 people.
On the other hand, despite its large size, the NR faces much the same problems in its dealings with the outside world as do other reservations. To wit: although a legal nation, the Navajo people must submit all proposed laws to the U.S. Secretary of the Interior for review. In practice, most disputes between the Navajo and the U.S. government are settled by negotiation. The legal relationship between Indian reservations and individual U.S. states is decided by federal courts, which have consistently ruled in favor of the reservations, upholding, for instance, the right of Indians to hunt and fish on their lands irrespective of state legislation. As one might imagine, there have been many disputes between individual states and the reservations over the years.
In fact, one could claim that the reservation system constitutes a second tier of internal division with the United States, similar to, but distinct from, the 50 states. One difference is that the reservations send no representatives to Congress. Or at least, that is, directly. American Indians are citizens not only of their reservation, but also of their U.S. state and the United States, and as such vote for state legislatures and the Congress. But the reservations themselves have no representation either at the state or federal level.
You could say that, after all, Indian citizens pay federal taxes and serve in the U.S. military, and are therefore entitled to the same representation as any other U.S. citizen. (And surely mention must be made of the brave and sometimes unique service that Indians have offered as soldiers, for instance, the improved encryption that the Indian Code Talkers—Navajo among them–provided during WWII.)
On the other hand, the American Indian’s status as members of the First Nation, the original inhabitants of the continent, and thus the only American community that had to make way for everyone else (and often in not very nice ways) argues that they are entitled to either some sort of compensation or else a special voice in U.S. affairs. One way to express this special connection might be to include a non-voting Indian representative in both the Senate and the House of Representatives.
While on this topic, RT recommends reading up on the abortive Indian state of Sequoyah, which was located in present-day Oklahoma.
On the health front, the Navajo, like other Indian tribes, continue to struggle with the devastating health and social effects of alcoholism (and this in spite of long-standing ban on alcohol sales in the NR). Diabetes is another major health concern, as are suicide and deaths from pneumonia, tuberculosis, and influenza. Homicide and suicide rates are significantly higher than in the United States as a whole.
OK, so what about the positive side of the ledger? What has been getting better on the NR?
1) RT will start by pointing the reader to the Navajo Times web site, a professional and informative resource.
2) Next, RT recommends visiting the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Indian Housing Improvement Program page. In existence since 1921, HIP is intended to work in conjunction with other federal housing programs, and targets Indian homelessness and substandard housing. RT can only ask: Shouldn’t this program be duplicated in other impoverished areas, starting with Appalachia?
3) Indian education has become a priority. Created in 2011 by executive order, the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education aims to close the gap between Indian and statewide scores on academic achievement tests.
4) Education in Diné (the Navajo language) is getting better. Check out the Navajo Nation Department of Diné Education. Over 150 public, private and Bureau of Indian Affairs schools serve Navajo students from kindergarten through high school. Diné College, established in 1968 as the first Indian Community College, has an enrollment of 1,830 students.
5) RT has learned of one Diné citizen who is an Arizona state senator. RT’s rapid inventory of information on the net indicates that at least five American Indians have been elected a U.S. Senator, and another eight, U.S. representatives, one of whom served five terms in the House.
There is more, much more, to be learned about the status of American Indians. The questions surrounding these nations-within-a-nation are nothing if not complex. So doubtless RT will be revisiting this important topic. (And the Dragons of Grammar have expressed an interest in learning Diné!).
RT recommends that readers check out the federal government’s Bureau of Indian Affairs web site. This agency of the Department of the Interior has been charged with overseeing federal-Indian nation relations since 1824.
Before closing out this post, RT will let fly a final barb: why not create a cabinet-level Department of Indian Affairs? This will consolidate all Indian programs under a single roof and signal that America takes its obligations to the continent’s first inhabitants seriously. One might argue that this would be in flagrant disregard of the sovereignty of the Indian peoples, but RT figures that this government-government relationship is unique anyway, and if a DIA would improve quality of life for American Indians and warm up Anglo-Indian relations, why not?
Photo: Navajo Nation Council Chambers, Window Rock, AZ. Author: William Nakai. WikiCmns; CC 3.0 Unported.
Map: Navajo Reservation. Author: Seb az86556. CC 3.0 Unported.
Tis the season, and RT has a lot to choose from this year; in fact, he’s overwhelmed by his output in the first half of the year. Count ’em, baby, count ’em: 138 posts in January and February 2013 alone! With such an abundance to choose from, RT has thought it wise to offer a selection from the year’s first two months by itself, then move farther into the year in his next post. He’s got a range of material, and hopes everyone enjoys his choices! RT
1) Scottish Gaelic, Manx, and the Crawling of Crabs. Ned Maddrell’s take on the importance of speaking Manx, along with other reasons to respect (and learn) a minority language.
2) Look at Me (a poem). An intense encounter of the romantic kind.
3) Dr. Michel Royon: Uncovering the Beauty of Nature. Two simply amazing photographs of seashells; Royon’s work takes the genre to a new level.
4) More Than a Pretty Face. Beauty can take us by surprise.
5) A Finch’s Mandible and the Intimate Life. Further speculations on the origins of language and its connections with place. (Or, What Did He Say?)
1) Denis Diderot and the Book that Changed the World. Think intellectuals are wasting their time, engaging in belly-button staring and whatnot? Here’s one who rocked the world to its foundations.
2) Louise Duttenhofer–Cut Paper Artist. A wonderful artist, pretty much unknown in America–and an article translated from German with many an assist from Google Translate. Wow!
3) Szechenyi Thermal Bath. A slice of life with a healthy dash of humor.
4) Beyond the Valley of the Apocalypse Donkeys. More humor, an excellent book review, and a resource for finding great small-press books.
5) Letterform–Three Characteristics. Three ways of looking at an alphabetic letter.
And how could RT end this post without a stocking stuffer?
1) The Vogels: Collecting Art as if Your Life Depending on it. A New York City couple who, on a distinctly limited income, became patrons of avant-garde art.
Image: Make-Do Dolls for Christmas–1943. Author: Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer. WikiCmns. Public Domain.
and, on a totally unrelated note, here is a map of Russia’s component provinces and republics. A demographically and politically complex country… RT