Entries tagged with “language

Mayan Linguistics: Where Are We Now?
Annual Review of Anthropology
Vol. 14: 187-198 (Volume publication date October 1985)
L Campbell, and T Kaufman
In lieu of an abstract, the publisher reproduces the first page of the article. (Link)

Letters to My Tutor…

My dearest Simone,

Over the weekend I met someone whose response to his encounters with linguistics was to start work on creating his own language. On the other hand, my encounters generally leave me unendingly hopeless as to being able to say anything to anybody about anything. I once met someone of like mind with whom I had vocal interactions that consisted of primal, emotion-filled sound utterances back and forth and overlapping; this seemed as genuinely communicative as any formal language. I wonder sometimes about primal interactions using a very unfamiliar language with sounds not normally encountered in the native language in which the interlocutors choose words based on sound, shape and feel — and then looking at the translations as an exercise in making real and imagined connections.

All that was to say that I had language thoughts on my mind when choosing a review this week. Reading articles published before the internet explosion makes me wonder whether the availability of information on the internet has impacted the way scholarly articles are written. Knowing that I can turn to the internet certainly widens the spectrum of articles that I choose to read. My eyes glazed over during parts of this article. Some of the vocabulary wasn’t familiar and being a relatively short article the in-text explanations were mostly bare. When the authors wrote that Proto-Mayan was an ergative language, there was enough of an explanation to get the gist, but it’s nice to be able to turn to the internet to fill in the holes.

I was happy to be reminded of how linguistics can help create a fuller picture of prehistory. The authors write of how reconstructed vocabulary can show speakers of a language to have been highly skilled in an area like agriculture. We talk about what we know and we create finely tuned and specialized vocabulary for the things we know well. Neat.

Yours always,

Language and Disputing
Annual Review of Anthropology
Vol. 17: 221-237 (Volume publication date October 1988)
D Brenneis
In lieu of an abstract, the publisher reproduces the first page of the article. (Link)

“Language and Disputing” is a more sparse review than previous reviews I’ve read in that it is more directive than expositive (and shorter–10 pages of text).  Whereas in “Death: A Cross Cultural Study” the writers list classical schools of thought regarding the study of death followed by a discussion of each, the writer in “Language and Disputing” would direct one to a source in which a good discussion of classical schools could be found along with a sentence or two as to what makes that source of particular interest.  While I learned a lot about the types of literature available in the area of language and disputing, there was less to be soaked up from this review on its face.  Still there was enough to enrich and inform my reading and experiences.

Brenneis’ discussion of a debate between legal anthropologists and linguistic anthropologists concerning which research data is most important to share with the public provides a parallel to a discussion of literary writing.  Brenneis notes that legal anthropologists tend to focus on what is being said believing the language to be fairly transparent, while linguistic anthropologists tend to focus on how it is being said believing that analysis of verbatim language is necessary to interpretation.  A study of literature teaches and reinforces the value of both those views.  When studying the plays of Shakespeare one learns the value of the more transparent story as well as the one to be had in the subtext.  Further, one learns the value of the interaction between the two and how the one informs the other.  Brenneis makes an observation about dispute language that could equally apply to the study of literature:

Understanding the role of dispute language requires attention not only to what is said but also to how it is said and to how various speakers’ performances are linked.

When I read the above quote, I was immediately put in mind of a discussion on Roger Ebert’s blog that lead to the short volley regarding the value of literature mentioned below.  Ebert wrote a posts titled “Video Games Can Never Be Art” with a followup post about an informal poll asking his readers to choose whether they valued “a great video game” over Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, “Video games 13, 823, Huck Finn, 8,088.”  One commenter to the latter post asks, among other things, “How are you improved in any way after reading Huck Finn, as opposed to reading a plot summary of the book?” Ebert gives this response:

Plot summary? A book is not about what it is about. It’s about how it’s about it.

I suppose this sounds “elitist,” but here goes: Based on your comment, you have never learned to read.

Ebert’s response echoes Brenneis’ observation above.  One could write that dispute language isn’t just about what it’s about.  It’s about how it’s about it.  Brenneis continues with echoes of Ebert:

While past events may be discussed and accounted for in court testimony such language is about (Brenneis’ emphasis) earlier stages; it does not reproduce what was actually said.”

Having the details or “plot summary” of a dispute is one part, but the exact wording of the dispute, the pattern of the volley between disputants, the tone, the rhythm, provide valuable interpretive information.  In reading literature one learns about text, subtext, fine distinctions between synonyms, how shades of meaning can create hills and valleys of ambiguity.

Reading Brenneis didn’t just give me insight on the value of good literature, I also found a pithy example of what makes good television good.  Good television comments on and illuminates the workings of culture.  Brenneis writes the following:

Schiffrin’s examination of the characteristics and functions of argument in Jewish American conversation has been particularly effective in showing that apparently contentious speech can further sociability as well as disagreement.

An episode of the television show Frasier, “Merry Christmas, Mrs. Moskowitz”, provides a perfect illustration of Schiffrin’s findings.  The character Martin says of the apparently contentious interaction between Frasier’s Jewish girlfriend and her mother that it was “all emotional and messy and then they’re hugging and then it’s all over.”  When Frasier and Martin find themselves in a similar conversation, they discover that they lack the (Jewish) cultural skills to arrive at the same sociable result:

A transcript of this episode from season six of Frasier can he found here.

(In case you’re wondering: 1. I believe that video gaming can be art, not to say that there is a good example of that just yet.  2. Currently, I would chose Huck Finn over a great video game.   This discussion over at Ebert’s blog is actually pretty rich with thoughtful commentary and makes for a good place to observe dispute language in action, both high and low brow.  Huck Finn is the book mentioned because Mark Twain delayed finishing Huck Finn in favor of working on a game he was developing,  prompting Ebert to assert that no game would be worth not having Huck Finn.)

When I started writing yesterday, I had in mind still that I would blog for multiple days about reading “Death: A Cross-Cultural Perspective.” It has since become clear to me that, on a practical level, it would be better to have all writing finished by Monday. Otherwise, I will be tempted to linger too long on a subject and likely fall behind on the reading. For now I want to place greater emphasis on getting the reading done, including fiction reading which I think is essential to being able to read. Perhaps as I regain reading and writing skills, it will be easier to be more flexible. I imagine that over time I will naturally return to specific themes and lines of thought illuminated in previous articles.

The ease with which I am able to read is returning quickly. The return of vocabulary is fluid in a way that I didn’t expect.  Yes, I’ve spent more time with the dictionary as of late, but it’s more than that.  When I relax and start writing something in my head, I use vocabulary (correctly) with which I am uncomfortable when I stop to think.  “Wait, is that really the right word?” I ask.  Words pop into my head for which I can’t immediately produce a dictionary definition that turn out to be just the word I was looking for earlier or the day before.  Exposing my conscious mind to information appears to unlock so much more beneath the surface.

Oh the joy that comes with greater awareness of subtlety and subtext.  Just now typing the word “subtlety”,  I had doubts that my spelling was correct.   I’m typing in WordPad with no spellcheck, so no red line appears right after typing a misspelled word.  I think inserting my own question mark as opposed to noticing whether a red line appears provides an extra bit of mental stimulation.  Thinking about spelling as I’m typing encourages alertness.  I checked the spelling using  an online dictionary.  I type in WordPad, then I cut and paste into a program with spellcheck.  I don’t do this for every bit of writing, but I find it helpful when I do.

Ha, ha… just cut an pasted and realized that I had misspelled the word “misspelled.”  I only had one “s.”

I’m still in the process of deciding how I want to blog.   I continue to read anthropology blogs and other materials.

Last night I came across this blog: Cicilie among the Parisians, “a blog from Cicilie Fagerlid’s fieldwork research on poetry, anger and cosmopolitanism in Paris.”  Cicilie is a Scandinavian woman  living in Paris and blogging in English.  Most of my person-to-person accounts of life in Paris have come from Americans.   I look forward to seeing Paris from a different cultural perspective.   From a post titled “A Day in Commemoration of Slavery“,  Fagerlid writes the following:

In his speech, President Chirac proclaimed that “the greatness of a country is to take on all its history, the glorious pages as well as the dark parts. Our history is that of a great nation. Look at her with pride. And look at her as she is. That’s the way a people can unite and become more close(-knit).”

(As a foreigner, I do find interesting this constant return to the greatness of the French nation, and I can’t forget another of Chirac’s speeches lately on the issue of nuclear weapons, but be that as it may)

As an American this type of nationalist expression seems very familiar.  I’m not sure this would have stood out to me.   There are many instances of this type of difference in perspective.   From what I’ve seen, Fagerlid writes on politics, literature, city life, diversity, motherhood.  She shares pictures and video — something I’d like to do.  I look forward to reading more of this blog and others like it.

I’ve been reading, but I haven’t been sticking to my loosely defined reading list.  Instead I’ve been tumbling around various anthropology blogs and making lists of things to read.  I’ve been perusing Anthropology Blog Newspaper where they list the title of the blog along with the titles of the most recent posts.  In the process I’m developing my own list of anthropology blogs that I would like to read regularly.

I’ve been reading some French.  Well, put more accurately, I’ve been reading some lists of French words.  I studied French in the past and I’ve returned to study in part as an exercise in brain stimulation.  I’ve been enjoying the free audio lessons at Coffee Break French.     A Scotsman teaches French in 20-minute segments.  Each audio lesson has a page for questions and comments.  They have paid learning materials, but I haven’t tried those.  I have my own collection of French grammar books.

Perhaps I should try to come up with some sort of syllabus.   I’ll look around for some guides on self-study.