Week 8: A Quaint Evening

I had another rather quiet weekend this week, with little fanfare and traveling. I did venture out to Fuzhou Lu to check out the stationery stores, where I got some colored brush pens. Unfortunately, the street isn’t much to look at, but the Foreign Language Bookstore is there, and it boasts the widest variety of books in Shanghai that are written in English and other languages.

I spend a lot of my time in the evenings doing calligraphy, which you may have seen on my Instagram. My calligraphy is almost always in Kannada, which is my mother tongue. I was inspired by the beauty and tradition of Chinese and Arabic calligraphy, wanting to create a new kind of art that younger Kannadigas can appreciate. A lot of the art that younger Indians consume is less textual, not always physical, and very aesthetically oriented. More traditional forms of art, like classical music and dance, are less interesting to younger Indians, simply because of a strong fascination with Western culture. I grew up in the West, and I have opposite sentiments, being rather tired of the stuff I saw in the States.

Calligraphy is a blend between the semantic qualities of language, and aesthetic qualities of art, and that’s what I love about it.

“Ameshi – Asian American” – An original coinage of mine

Chinese calligraphy (in my experience) is often about a precision that demonstrates respect for the written word, and only once you’ve mastered that do you have the creative license to innovate in writing. Arabic calligraphy is similar, and it’s often said that a student spends years learning to prepare the paper before they even learn to use the pen. Arabic calligraphy, as artwork, is a work of devotion and encourages the beholder to appreciate the semantic meaning of the writing.

These traditions are about a conscious and active appreciation of language, art, and culture. There is purposeful selection of content, skillful application of artistic skill, and an expression of cultural appreciation. I can only hope that my calligraphy will get somewhere to that level.

“Harihara” – The composite form of Shiva and Vishnu

I really want other Kannadigas to appreciate the language in a special way, one that really inspires a love for who we are and where we come from. I feel that the spread of English and Hindi makes it really easy for people of all regional backgrounds to discard their identities in favor of something expedient.

It’s like being caught between a rock and a hard place, because on one hand, using English or Hindi makes it easier to do business and get ahead in society, but when you have all the money and material things that you need, you don’t have much of a personal identity anymore. You end up spending so much time using another language for finite ends, you lose the ability to appreciate something that really lasts.

“Sankata” – The pain of separation, grief from parting, and the sorrow of nostalgia. 

The dissolution of all these identities into the whole, in my humble opinion, is not a good thing. It’s not only easy to gloss over people’s issues this way, but it also dashes an opportunity to understand more visions of the human experience.

The only ways to really keep our languages alive is by using them in art and in our media. I know that my Kannada is not absolutely perfect, but it would make it so much easier to reconnect with my culture if I knew that there was niche culture scene where it was the predominant medium of expression. There are languages that are close to dying out (and Kannada isn’t even one of them), and I can only imagine how some young people in those communities feel. The helplessness of watching your culture die before you is horrible. To have someone else essentially tell you “If you can’t beat’em, join’em” when it comes to resisting a dominant prestige culture is even worse. Hindi is not the only language of India, and English is not the only language of the world. I won’t let my language, my history, or my people be erased, if I can help it.

Documenting a Language

About two months ago, my grandparents arrived from India to celebrate my graduation from high school, and with them, they brought me an opportunity to practice Kannada. However, more interesting than that, was that I found that my grandparents spoke yet another language, called Sankethi. Sankethi descends from Madurai Tamil, and the migration of many Tamilians from Sengottai and Madurai facilitated the formation of this language. Sankethi is spoken by two communities in Karnataka. The two varieties are Kaushika and Bettadpura, where Kaushika Sankethi has grown away from Tamil the most.

Due to the dearth of information on Sankethi on the internet, such as the rather sparse information given in the Wikipedia article, I decided to document Sankethi for linguistic purposes. From what I’ve seen, it is merely acknowledged that Sankethi exists. As it happens, my grandparents speak Kaushika Sankethi, and I have extended family members who speak Bettadpura Sankethi. Currently, I’m getting Kaushika Sankethi done. I’ve been recording lists of nouns, verbs, and particles, as well as verb forms. Granted, it might be incomplete, as I’m assuming that grammar is almost identical to that of Kannada and Tamil. In the future, I’d like to submit the document to a linguistics professional and see if it’s a valid set of information. I’m not going to post the full document at the moment, seeing as it’s incomplete and I’d like to proofread it a few times, once it’s nearing completion.

In my search for info on Sankethi, I also discovered that there exists a Dravidian language in Pakistan, called Brahui. It borrows heavily from Arabic and Persian vocabulary, to the point that I can’t even pick out what’s supposed to be Dravidian. The Brahui language seems like it would be interesting to research, so I’d like to study it in the future, if someone doesn’t beat me to it first! If you’re interested in hearing what it sounds like, there’s a video published by the Brahui Language Board, at the University of Balochistan: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X_Oj1poUWXA. Oddly enough, it used to be written in the Arabic script, but now it is written in a modified Latin script, much like Vietnamese’s current form.

If you, a relative, or a friend speaks a language with little documentation, you should try to write down as much information as you can. Minority languages with little to standardization and smaller communities are much more susceptible to language death. Even if the language will die in the future, there is no wrong in trying to keep it alive. Giving up is what really kills a language. I am thankful that there is enough literature and information on Kannada that if I was so unable to teach my children, I could send them to a school where they could learn. However, some other languages, like Sankethi or Brahui, are not so fortunate.

I’ll be posting more updates on my research and I hope you found this interesting! Don’t forget to share this on Facebook and Tumblr!

Why Minority Languages Matter

A lot of people will question learning minority languages such as Catalán, Navajo, or Irish. Many believe it is a waste of time, and that language death is inevitable. However, for the languages already mentioned, as well as several others, it is well within that community and other people’s capacity to help revitalize usage. Tom Scott makes a valid point about how if we let minority languages die, there are certain aspects of the human experience and capabilities of the brain that we let die with them. You can watch his video here: Fantastic Features We Don’t Have In the English Language.

Language is intimately linked to the way we live our lives. It is theorized that language evolved out of a method for human mothers to communicate with their children, and as human society became increasingly complex, involving multiple individuals in the process of raising children, it eventually became a medium for communicating with one another. Another hypothesis is that language is a vocal manifestation of one’s ideas. Ideas are apparent to oneself, in one’s mind, but not necessarily in comprehensible language. The idea is that humans needed a way to communicate their ideas and feelings regarding things, and that is why language evolved. Personally, the theory regarding mothers is a lot more plausible. There’s a reason, “motherese,” exists. However, these two hypotheses do point out crucial facts about the development of language. Languages have features based on the particular needs of a people in a certain place.

For example, the aboriginal language in Australia does not have words for left, right, up, or down, but rather assigns cardinal directions. As a result, most of the speakers of this language have an intuitive sense of direction..Some have proposed that due to the lack of landmarks for people to judge physical position in the Australian wilderness, language there had to have less arbitrary ways of describing direction. In a place like the Americas, the landscape is varied enough for people to judge direction based of off the various shapes of the land, and therefore, the language there can assign arbitrary directions, or at least directions revolve around a given point. The ability to distinguish direction in absolute terms is very useful, and demonstrates the capacity of the human brain to evaluate its surroundings as such. If this language dies out, we miss out on a generation of people who have this ability, and completely exclude it from the development of other people in the world.

Now, let’s look at a non-physical example. In Catalán, the construction no… pas is a nuanced one. It negates a predicate, and also indicates that this negation is contrary to a notion held by listener. This is a very useful feature, and is built into only a few words. It is for this reason that some non-native speakers of English can be very verbose, because they’re trying to express an equivalent sentiment of what might be a very short sentence in their native language. Implications and nuance are very important in some languages, especially in minority languages, where they can be unique to those languages. By letting such a language die, you allow a possibly more effective and expressive mode of communication die as well.

Perhaps the most grave loss in the process of language death is the loss of a culture and people. Language, as stated before, contains a great deal of history and knowledge behind the way people communicate. John McWhorter argues that language death and the loss of a culture are not necessarily linked. I refute this point, because of the reasons listed above. Skills and modes of expression that are exclusive to a particular language are part of a culture. A people lose a great deal of themselves in not being able to speak their language. There are things they will not be able to understand or express. Sure, they can maintain their traditions, but the meaning and history of those traditions is lost outside of the native language. By working to revitalize minority languages, even only within their indigenous areas, we maintain another part of the human experience. If it happened with Hebrew due to the work of Eliezer Ben-Yahuda, it can happen for any language at any time!

Languages are different for a reason. The subtle nuances and implications of certain words and phrases can often be lost in translation. There’s a reason that people who read manga in English will miss much of the symbolism, hidden meanings, jokes, puns, or wordplays that the original Japanese text might have. This is why I believe that translation can never do real justice to having a proper conversation in the language being translated. In a world with infinitely varied settings and circumstances, knowing other languages that express certain sentiments more accurately is paramount.

It’s been some time since I’ve written a full article. I haven’t really been doing much lately except writing language guides and subtitling Khan Academy videos (which you should do, if you know a language that you think people would benefit from having subtitles in).  I’d appreciate any comments on this, so feel free to leave some!