Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Endangered Languages (or, What Dies When a Language Dies?)

Last week, I took my students to a Sustainability Symposium at Cal State Fullerton.  We heard professors and graduate students give talks, mainly on environmental topics like the decline of the honeybee, the need for solar power, and community gardens.  But the speaker whom I found most captivating was actually a linguist, and a colleague of mine--professor Natalie Operstein.  She spoke on the topic of "Linguistic Sustainability" -- how thousands of languages today are endangered and dying.  

She began by discussing ancient languages that have died, like Sumerian, Akkadian, Hittite, Coptic, and Phoenician.  Later, in the middle ages, more languages died, like Celtiberian (from Spain), Umbrian (from Italy) and Gothic.  Reasons for language death are varied: natural disasters, war, genocide, repression, assimilation, and economic/cultural dominance of one group over another.

Sumerian document from 26th century B.C.E.

The rate of language death, according to Dr. Operstein, has accelerated dramatically over the past 500 years.  For example, before European contact with South America, it is estimated that 1,500 languages were spoken there.  Today, there are only 350.  One consequence of conquest and imperialism (both economic and cultural) is the loss of native cultures, which includes language.  

This phenomenon is not limited to South America.  In North America, particularly the United States, many native languages have been lost, including the language of the original inhabitants of the area where I live (north Orange County)--the Kizh tribe.  No one alive today speaks Kizh because native Americans in California (as elsewhere) were systematically killed and their culture squashed by the dominant English-speaking culture (my culture).

Aside from simple murder and genocide, another way Native American languages were destroyed was Indian Boarding Schools, which forbade the speaking of native languages, and used corporal punishment (hitting kids).  These schools were guided by the racist ideology, "Kill the Indian, save the man."  The documentary "Our Spirits Don't Speak English: Indian Boarding Schools" is both informative and heart-breaking.  Here's a scene from that film:

Language death is currently happening all over the world.  Today, there are around 6,500 languages in the world, and it is estimated that, by the year 2100, half of them will have gone extinct, due to the dominating influence of "major languages" like English (my language).  

Given this dire situation, what can be done?  There are heroic efforts being made by the United Nations Education Science and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the World Oral Literature Project, archiving efforts like Ailla, and linguists around the world whose job (and passion) it is to study and document endangered languages.  I had never considered "linguist" to be a heroic profession until hearing Dr. Operstein speak.

Today, in my classes, we watched the following videos.  The first is from the BBC and is about a language revitalization effort with the Yurok tribe of Northern California, and also contains a thought-provoking interview with the director of the World Oral Literature Project:

The second video is a list, with images and explanations, of the 25 most endangered languages in the world today:

After watching these videos, we did a thought experiment/writing activity.  I asked my students to spend some time writing in response to this prompt:

How would you feel and what would your concerns be if you were the last living speaker of your native language?  What dies when a language dies?

As usual, I did the writing activity as well.  Here's what I wrote:

If I was the last native speaker of English, I would feel lonely.  I would feel a sense of great loss, as a lover of English literature.  I would feel that generations of cultural knowledge were dying with me.  I would lament the fact that it took generations, centuries for English to form…I would cry for the slow evolution that was ending in extinction.  I would feel a desire to pass on my language, to preserve books, to teach the next generation.  What dies when a language dies?  Language is deeply connected to human identity, to a person's worldview, to culture.  When a language dies, all of these things are lost.  Often times a language develops in response to a particular natural environment.  Among some aboriginal tribes of Australia, language (particularly song) gives meaning and existence to the physical world.  So when that language dies, in a sense, the world dies too.  

Then we discussed our writings, and agreed (for the most part) that efforts should be made to preserve languages, and that the Darwinian model of "survival of the fittest" ought not apply to human language.  I am motivated to research more deeply, and see if any remnants remain of the Kizh language survive in old government documents, anthological field notes, etc.  I would like to be a part of the kind of language revitalization that is happening in the Yurok tribe, where Yurok is now taught in high schools.  What if, instead of killing native languages, I cold be a part of resurrecting one?  That, I think, would be a noble and worthwhile endeavor, not just for my local community, but for communities around the world where endangered languages exist.

Here I am with Kizh Chief Ernie Salas and his daughter Nadine at a recent tribal ceremony.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Walt Whitman: Poet of Freedom and Democracy

The following is an excerpt from a work-in-progress called A Brief History of American Literature.

These days, words like "freedom" and "democracy" have been corrupted by political misuse.  Today, in America, freedom is often associated with "free market" capitalism, which is synonymous with global exploitation.  Democracy is, in the wake of the Iraq war, something we impose on foreign nations as a means of control.  The meanings of words can be corrupted into things which often mean the opposite of what they originally meant.  This evening, I finished reading American poet Walt Whitman's epic poem "Song of Myself" and two words kept creeping into my mind as a read it--freedom and democracy, not as they are understood today, but as they truly are, in their purest and noblest sense.  For Whitman, freedom has nothing to do with capitalism, and democracy has nothing to do with globalization.  For Whitman, freedom has to do with ecstatic personal experience, with total uninhibited living of human life.  For Whitman, democracy means accepting, even loving, the profoundly diverse people who inhabit our communities, and valuing their voices and experiences as much as our own.  Reading Whitman, for me, had the effect of breathing new life into those tired and often misused words -- freedom and democracy.  Let me explain.

Whitman's poem "Live Oak, with Moss" is about freedom, particularly sexual freedom.  Walt Whitman, perhaps America's greatest literary treasure, was gay.  "Live Oak, with Moss" is about celebrating love between men.  To write explicitly about romantic love between men, in the 19th century, was incredibly badass, and a defiant expression of personal freedom.  He describes a tender scene of love and longing and companionship with his male lover:

"And when I thought how my friend, my lover, was coming, then I was
Each breath tasted sweeter--and all that day my food nourished me more--
And the beautiful day passed well,
And the next came with equal joy---And the next, at evening, came my
And that night, while all was still, I heard the waters roll slowly continually
up the shores
I heard the hissing rustle of the liquid and sands, as directed to me, whispering
to congratulate me, -- For the friend I love lay sleeping by my side,
In the stillness his face was inclined towards me, while the moon's clear 
beams shone,
And his arm lay lightly over my breast--And that night I was happy."

Later in the poem, Whitman has a dream in which the tender love between men (not necessarily sexual) becomes a beautiful vision of democracy:

"I dreamed a dream of a city where all the men were like brothers,
O I saw them tenderly love each other--I often saw them, 
walking hand in hand.
I dreamed that was the city of robust friends--Nothing was greater there
than manly love--it led the rest."

In his poem, "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," Whitman extends this grand vision of democracy and brotherly love to all the diverse people of New York.  He speaks of solidarity and shared human experience, across distances and generations.  He speaks directly to the reader:

"I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many
generations hence,
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt.
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd,
Just as you are refreshed by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I
was refreshed,
Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift current, I
stood and was hurried,
Just as you look on the numberless masts of ships and the thick-stemmed
pipes of steamboats, I looked."

For Whitman, an essential element of democracy is empathy and compassion, and this is perhaps nowhere better expressed than in his poem "The Wound Dresser."  During the Civil War, Whitman was not a soldier, he was a male nurse, dressing the wounds of the countless soldiers hurt or killed in battles.  In this poem, Whitman, who had previously written almost propagandist poems urging war, realizes that the real fruit of war is death.  Here, democracy is not about winning battles, but about the connection between human beings, and the shared experience of pain and grief.  He writes:

"Aroused and angry, I'd thought to beat the alarum and urge relentless war,
But soon my fingers failed me, my face drooped and I resigned myself
To sit by the wounded and soothe them, or silently watch the dead...

Bearing the bandages, water and sponge,
Straight and swift to my wounded I go...

One turns to me his appealing eyes--poor boy!  I never knew you,
Yet I think I could not refuse this moment to die for you, if that would save

The hurt and wounded I pacify with soothing hand."

Whitman's greatest poem, the poem which he worked on for most of his adult life, was Song of Myself, and this is his greatest expression of freedom and democracy.  For him, freedom means total personal freedom to live, and think, and love both himself and others.  He would take long walks around New York, and in the woods of New England, soaking in the life of nature and of other human beings.  Here are a few excerpts which express the kind of freedom Whitman had in mind:

"I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and naked…
The feeling of health, the full-noon trill, the song of me rising from bed and
meeting the sun…
I am satisfied--I see, dance, laugh, sing;
As the hugging and loving bed-fellow sleeps at my side through the night…
I believe in you my soul…
tenacious, acquisitive, tireless, and cannot be shaken away…
I wear my hat as I please indoors or out…
I exist as I am, that is enough…
O unspeakable passionate love…
I believe in the flesh and the appetites,
Seeing, hearing, feeling, are miracles, and each part and tag of me is a 
A morning glory at my window satisfies me more than the metaphysics of
We found our own way O my soul in the calm and cool of the day-break…
Walt you contain enough, why don't you let it out then?
My ties and ballasts leave me, my elbows rest in sea-gaps,
I skirt sierras, my palms cover continents,
I am afoot with my vision…
Inland and sea-coast we go, and pass all boundary lines…
A call in the midst of the crowd,
My own voice, orotund sweeping and final…
Not words of routine this song of mine,
But abruptly to question, to leap beyond yet nearer bring…
I tramp a perpetual journey…
My signs are a rain-proof coat, good shoes, and a staff cut from the woods…
I have no chair, no church, no philosophy…
Shoulder your duds, dear son, and I will mine, and let us hasten forth, 
Wonderful cities and free nations we shall fetch as we go…
I answer that I cannot answer, you must find out for yourself…
You must inhabit yourself to the dazzle of the light and of every moment of
your life…
I do not say these things for a dollar…
There is that in me--I do not know what it is--but I know it is in me…
Do I contradict myself
Very well, then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes)…

I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

To me, that is one of the best expressions of human freedom: I SOUND MY BARBARIC YAWP OVER THE ROOFS OF THE WORLD!  Total freedom of expression, feeling, and experience was what Whitman was all about.  And equally important for him was democracy, not as a political system per se, but as a real acceptance of everyone's voice, of the ever-diversifying population of these United States.  For Whitman, democracy had to do with relationships between human beings, relationships rooted in empathy, compassion, and a shared journey.  There are huge swaths of "Song of Myself" in which Whitman simply lists ordinary people doing ordinary activities, but the way he describes it, it is so ecstatic and poetic that you see the beauty in everyone.  That, I suppose, for Whitman, is democracy, to see and feel the beauty in everyone, and to walk beside them, and understand how it feels to inhabit their shoes.  I will end this little essay with some quotes from "Song of Myself" regarding Whitman's vision of democracy:

"I am of old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise,
Regardless of others, ever regardful of others,
Maternal as well as paternal, a child as well as a man,
Stuff'd with the stuff that is coarse and stuff'd with the stuff that is fine,
One of the Nation of many nations, the smallest the same and the largest
the same,
A Southerner soon as a Northerner, a planter nonchalant and hospitable
down by the Oconee I live,
A Yankee bound my own way ready for trade, my joints the limberest joints
on earth and the sternest joints on earth,
A Kentuckian walking the vale of the Elkhorn in my deer-skin leggings, a
Louisianian or Georgian,
A boatman over lakes or bays or along coasts, a Hoosier, Badger, Buckeye;
At home on Canadian snow-shoes or up in the bush, or with fishermen off
At home in the fleet of ice-boats, sailing with the rest and tacking,
At home on the hills of Vermont or in the woods of Maine, or the Texan
Comrade of Californians, comrade of free North-Westerners, (loving their 
big proportions)
Comrade of raftsmen and coal men, comrade of all who shake hands and
welcome to drink and meat;
A learner with the simplest, a teacher of the thoughtfulest,
A novice beginning yet expedient of myriads of seasons,
Of every hue and caste am I, of every rank and religion,
A farmer, mechanic, artist, gentleman, sailer, quaker,
Prisoner, fancy-man, rowdy, lawyer, physician, priest…
I will not have a single person slighted or let away…
In all people I see myself…

I give the sign of democracy."

Walt Whitman (1819-1892)

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Anti-Club DJ Set List 4/18/14

Last night I did some DJing with my friend Phil at Mulberry St. Ristorante in downtown Fullerton, like I do every Friday night.  We call our DJ sessions The Anti-Club, because we don't play typical "club music."  Instead, we play music we think is actually good, and worth a listen.  Every week, I keep a record of our set list, just to share good music.  Here's our set list from last night, along with some record cover art.  Click on the song title to listen to it.  Enjoy!

See you next Friday!

A Jurassic Park-Themed Restaurant!

Yesterday, my friend Phil invited me to a Jurassic Park-themed restaurant and I was like "Hell yes."  So we went to Jurassic Restaurant in the City of Industry.  It was awesome.  The decor was like the entrance to a ride, with fake plants and dino skeletons and cave-like walls.

Notice the flying dinosaur skeleton.

There was a 15% surcharge for vomiting.

Which was weird because Jurassic Restaurant also advertised a beer-drinking contest.

The main attraction was this big T-Rex.

Jurassic is, of course, a Taiwanese restaurant.  I had a delicious tofu hot pot.

I would definitely recommend Jurassic Restaurant in the City of Industry.  Their web site is pretty awesome too.  Click HERE for a real scare!