The Art of Calligraphy

(Sorry I haven’t posted in a really long time! I’ve been studying for finals and finishing up my freshman year of university, but I’ve produced a lot of good work that I’m somewhat satisfied with. This is part of a larger work that I started as a project for a class that I’m going to expand in the future.)

Calligraphy has fascinated me as an art form because its artistic components and the analysis thereof have always mystified me. It seems like just pretty handwriting, and indeed in the case of Chinese calligraphy, it is often the case that calligraphy is used as an example of good handwriting.

The pedagogy of calligraphy in Chinese is highly focused upon small details. Stroke order, stroke rhythm, the correctness of the stroke, and the structure of the character are essential to the art. Apprentices begin by practicing 永 (yŏng, “eternal”), its eight strokes representing many of the most common ones, as well as its particular structure being good practice for learning proportion and shape. Deviation from the standard of the master or other teachers is seen as unthinkable, and to me, this presents a particularly puzzling issue. Copyright laws that impede the imitation of others’ works also make it difficult to maintain the tradition of following the work of masters. What defines the artistry of Chinese calligraphy? Where is there room for new stylistic choices? These questions are very important to the art of calligraphy, in my mind. Because different strokes represent different ideas, and the ultimate meaning of the components of a character comprise the final artwork’s meaning, it is very difficult to achieve mastery in calligraphy.

The meaning contained in Chinese characters, utterly unitary in their art, is contrasted with Arabic calligraphy. Calligraphy in the Nastaliq script is strongly connected with the expression of ideas and beliefs outlined in the Qur’an, since figurative depiction is forbidden in Islam. Calligraphic representations of verses and words can be difficult to understand, since meaning is distributed along the horizontal and vertical axes. Words and letters overlap one another and where the work begins and ends can be difficult to see, especially in non-singular compositions. Arabic, being a language written more or less phonetically from right to left is not well suited to the styles of Chinese calligraphy, seemingly separated into invisible boxes. Further contrasting with Chinese, Arabic calligraphy is significantly more free-form, with a higher rate of occurrence of curved lines, and other decorative forms added to further illustrate the beauty of the words.

The fundamental differences between Chinese and Arabic calligraphy lie also in the linguistic differences. Chinese calligraphy is composed of glyphs with meaning unto themselves, whereas Arabic is written in multiple symbols strung together for meaning. Each letter, however, does have numerological value, similar to the values assigned to strokes in Chinese, each with a unique classification and mode of formation. The consonantal roots of Arabic make it an interesting step away from the formation of meaning in Chinese. Chinese forms meaning through the construction of a glyph from multiple different strokes, but all of the meaning exists in one place. Words in Arabic are constructed from usually triconsonantal roots, inserting different vowels around the consonants.

For example, the root k-t-b is related to writing, and different insertions of vowels can change the meaning of the resulting word, within the limits of the spoken language, of course. But what this means is that meaning is suddenly abstracted, free from tense, gender, plurality, voice and other grammatical qualities. Only the vowel marks, which are not mandatory and in fact are discouraged, contextualize the root. Only in works concerning the Qur’an and other religious texts are the vowel marks included to ensure the absolute correct pronunciation and reading of the text. Here we see yet another contrast: meaning is inherent in the root in Arabic, whereas in Chinese meaning is derived by the construction of its parts.

This brings us to non-Semitic and non-ideographic scripts, where there is no inherent meaning in strokes and letters. This includes scripts like Latin, Devanagari, or Cyrillic, all three of which have small but present calligraphic traditions. English has used Latin calligraphy for older written documents, such as the Declaration of Independence or the Magna Carta, mostly for representation of heightened qualities of official documentation and aesthetic value. Sanskrit and other Indian languages have used Devanagari for transcriptions of the Vedas and other religious texts, similar to Islamic Arabic calligraphy, but mostly manifest in regional variations which evolve into different scripts in the north of India. Cyrillic languages use calligraphy in their everyday cursive handwriting, similar to the Chinese art of modeling handwriting.

Now, the reason I discuss calligraphy at such length is because of the nature of non-Semitic and non-ideographic scripts restricts the artistic scope of calligraphy in the languages in which they are written. They are purely aesthetic traditions, and there is little artistic meaning ascribed to anything inherent in the letters or the language. What I wish to do is establish a set of parameters for calligraphy in Kannada, a language near and dear to my heart, as my mother tongue. I wish to cultivate an artistic tradition with real meaning in the real world, one with which people can channel their ideas in significant ways. The word, “calligraphy” in Kannada is often translated as ಸುಂದರವದ ಅಕ್ಷರ (sundaravada akṣara), or “beautiful lettering”. This does little justice to the artistic, narrative, and semantic beauties of Arabic and Chinese calligraphy, and therefore I propose a different word: ಸುಬರಹ (subaraha). Composed of the root ಸು- (su-, good) and the word ಬರಹ (baraha “writing”). While simplistic, I wish to ascribe special significance to the “goodness” of the writing. Calligraphy is an artistic medium through which semantic meanings are conveyed through an aesthetic manipulation of its physical form, thereby invoking a more esoteric dimension in the writing. As such will ಸುಬರಹ be defined.

The basic components of ಸುಬರಹ shall be enumerated as follows:

  1. The choice of word(s) – The semantic and narrative choices of the artist; It goes without saying that the language of the word must be in Kannada, and if derived from Sanskrit or another language, it must be appropriately altered.
  2. The manipulation of the letters:
    1. The length of strokes – The expanse of meaning of the syllable or root
    2. The proportion of diacritics and components of each letter relative to the base form of the letter – The interpretive expanse of the work (narrative) or the ornamentation of the work (aesthetic)
    3. Shapes contained (depicted or not) and perceived in the letters – Associative elements meant to narrow the focus
  1. The thickness of the instrument – The levity of meaning, precision of interpretation, or intended intensity
  2. Color of the medium – Associative meanings through color
  3. Canvas or setting – Contextualizes meanings of the work as appropriate

The artist may ascribe a poem, subtitle, or other form of description to the work. The original, printed version of the work’s content should be included somewhere in the work for clarity of comprehension, along with the artist’s signature (their real name or pseudonym, whichever is preferred). While none of these rules are set in stone, they should be regarded as the core elements of the Kannada calligrapher’s repertoire. It falls to the artist to indicate special stylistic choices that are heterodox or unexpected. Below are a few example works for you to examine and understand, given this new set of criteria.

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Abhirāma Ilindra – A friend’s name
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Mahāmitra Arasa – Another friend’s name
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H̱ūni – Murder/Death
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Ēṣiyāda Paraṃpare Tingaḷu – Asian Heritage Month
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Qānuna – Law
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Ṛtā – Order/Harmony/”The Way” (error: should be ṛtaṃ)

How to Learn Multiple Languages At Once

I’ve written on this topic before, but I feel I need to touch on it again, especially right now. I’ve been re-organizing my language learning schedule and strategies, since my work schedule has calmed down a little bit. Currently, I’m learning Mandarin Chinese, Hindi, Korean, and Kannada. To be perfectly, it’s not entirely accurate to say “learning” for Hindi and Kannada. I already know how to speak both languages, and I’m just improving my vocabulary, since I really don’t like having to throw in English loanwords.

A lot of people, even in the polyglot community, think that learning multiple languages at once is impractical, a bad idea, impossible, or all three. This depends on who you are, your learning propensities, and your schedule. If you have a lot of work all the time, it’s not a good idea to be trying this. I was working on papers, presentations, and extracurricular activities, so I concentrated on Mandarin, because I was preparing for a placement test. This is because it was difficult for me to balance four languages and all my schoolwork, and so I prioritized. This is the key to learning multiple languages. When you’re thinking about how to organize your multiple-language learning, ask yourself these 3 questions:

  1. How important are these languages to me (in descending order)?
  2. How much time (per week) can I commit to studying?
  3. Do I have decent access to resources for these languages?

The first two are fairly self-explanatory, but the last one may confuse some people. This question is important, because you don’t want to be spending a lot of time looking for resources. You should make sure you have organized your materials before hand. Know what you’re using to study, and you’ll streamline your learning!

For example, I use Anki and Memrise for my vocabulary learning for all my languages, since I can usually find a decent set of vocabulary cards. For grammar, I locate a reliable and accessible grammar site or book to read from. Always keep your sources consistent, because even if you might learn something wrong, you can easily find where you wrong. The thing is: you should also cross-reference! Make sure that multiple sites or books on grammar say the same thing about certain principles, especially the ones that confuse you. I have some three or four different textbooks for Mandarin, and I always cross-reference if something stumps me. For some languages, I know there aren’t that many resources. For Indian languages and many minority languages, it can somewhat to very difficult to find decent resources. For Hindi, I recommend Hindi: An Essential Grammar by Rama Kant Agnihotri, from Routledge. I’m going to be very frank, but many websites out there for lesser-known Indian languages like Kannada or Tamil are absolutely terrible. Poor romanization methods, insufficient explanations, and other problems predominate.

Wikipedia is always an OK start to reading about grammar, but I warn you that Wikipedia is not only subject to change, but also can be very academic and not suited to the purposes of the language learner. I, myself, am an aspiring academic, so it’s a little easier for me, but I highly recommend finding sites written by and for language learners, like this one! I try to write explanations in the most down-to-earth way possible, even though I still believe in using the technical grammatical terms, like “conjugation” and “case declension”, because they’re convenient and acceptable ways to describe the way a language works.

Another key part of learning more than one language at once is what I call the “degrees of separation”. What this means are the ways you separate each language. A really basic one might be already be present: the languages are different structurally and historically. Mandarin, Korean, Hindi, and Kannada are all from different language families, and have very little intersections of vocabulary. Sure, Sanskrit is a common contributor to Hindi and Kannada, but Sanskrit is simply a generator of academic and specialized vocabulary for Kannada. In contrast, Hindi derives its internal structure and much of its vocabulary from Sanskrit. Similarly, Korean has borrowed quite a few words from Classical Chinese, but shares very little in common with Mandarin otherwise. There’s also temporal separation, where you study different languages at different times or on different days. You can also use methodical separation, using different methods or programs to study (ex. using Memrise for Hindi and Kannada; Mandarin and Korean on Anki). The only other one I could think of is spatial separation, where you physically study in different places for each language.

I hope this article was helpful and informative! Don’t forget to share, like, and follow my blog on Facebook and Tumblr!

The Conflict of Language Purity and Language Evolution

Many people across the world feel that their mother tongues or national language is threatened by the presence of English as a universal lingua franca. Over the years, the growth of the US as a superpower, and the preponderance of Great Britain in the Imperial Age as a major power has driven English into the communities of many countries. Languages import words from English to accommodate technological advances, and in a rapidly advancing age, some languages may find it difficult to keep up.

In an effort to keep languages alive and in use, communities across the world advocate a sort of linguistic purification, in which all imported words of English origin (or other ones for that matter) are not accepted as a part of the standard language. Due to the nature of language evolution, which (as I see it) is to tend toward simplicity, efficiency, and conciseness, this view of language presents a bit of a problem.

A policy to purify language is inherently difficult to legislate anything regarding language, as it is hard to change the way one communicates every day. In places like India, where there are multiple, distinct regional languages, it would be an extremely difficult task to change even the use of Hindi, as has been proven in the past. Movements to stop using words of Arabic and Persian origin held some ground for a time in India, but ultimately fell apart, due to the difficulty of using Sanskrit-ized Hindi. Sanskrit, as a classical language that fell out of use long ago, has not had any time to develop in the modern era, which accounts for a lack of technological vocabulary. Also, it hasn’t been exposed to much colloquial or public use over an extended period of time, and therefore, the structures in the language have not simplified to suit modern use. It made little sense to import a slew of difficult-to-pronounce words into the language of everyday life and thereby slow down communication. Sure, given time, it might have worked, but Sanskrit was well past its time, and it was largely reserved to the higher classes of Indian society and liturgical use, even in its heyday. Therefore, most academic discussion in STEM fields in India is often conducted in English rather than Hindi, making it more a language of the masses than one of science and technology. This has occurred in a similar manner for the regional languages.

Despite complaints that a language is no longer, “pure”, it is important to recognize that the import of words into a language does not necessarily mean the language itself will die. Borrowing words does not imply the replacement of the language, as demonstrated by languages such as Hindi and Tagalog. Hindi developed a flourishing and beautiful literary tradition under Mughal rule and borrowed many words from Arabic and Farsi, and the language is still in rather lively use today. Tagalog’s use of many Spanish words allowed it to develop a significant urban use, as these words allowed communication about modern technology and life. As a result, Tagalog is alive and well in the Philippines.

Therefore, I believe that it is counterintuitive and counterproductive to promote or impose “purity” of a language. As much as I’d hate to admit it, it cannot be helped that English is used instead of other languages in academic fields.The only reason that English has it all, is because much of modern technology was developed, documented, and researched in English-speaking, or at least Western, countries. However, I think that this allows languages to develop in other ways. The English language and the proliferation of technology across the world has brought many societies up to speed, and open up a number of opportunities for those societies to innovate themselves. When those innovations were brought to nations without those things, such as Britain brought things to India, they were a sort of anachronism, and the languages experienced a jump in time, so to speak. It is important to recognize the nature of language evolution and that it cannot be stopped or rewound.

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A Rundown of Indian Languages

A lot of people are becoming more aware that India has more than a single language that is spoken across the country. Even though Hindi is the official lingua franca, there are twenty-two official languages of India, which come from four different language families: Indo-Aryan, Dravidian, Tibeto-Burman, and Munda, excluding English. 

 549px-South_Asian_Language_Families

However, only six classical languages recognized by the government as such, which include Tamil, Sanskrit, Kannada, Telugu, Malayalam, and Oriya. In 2006, Minister of Tourism & Culture Ambika Soni defined a classical language as:

“High antiquity of its early texts/recorded history over a period of 1500–2000 years; a body of ancient literature/texts, which is considered a valuable heritage by generations of speakers; the literary tradition be original and not borrowed from another speech community; the classical language and literature being distinct from modern, there may also be a discontinuity between the classical language and its later forms or its offshoots.”

This is not to say that the other languages are rich in literature of their own. In fact, many modern works of literature from India were written in non-classical languages, as defined by Soni, including, but not limited to, Bengali and Marathi.

Some history is required to understand why there are so many different, non-mutually-intelligible languages in India. There are at least two major progenitor languages that are seen as major presences in India: Sanskrit and the Proto-Dravidian. It is hypothesized by scholars that migrants from what is modern day Turkey and Iran came to India from the northwest, through Pakistan, settling throughout the north, in around the 2nd millennium BCE. Proto-Dravidian, on the other hand, is native to the subcontinent, existing for much longer in India than Sanskrit. Proto-Dravidian was spoken primarily in the South. The origins of the Munda family are unknown, though it has been shown that they are distantly related to Khmer and Vietnamese, as well as  other minority languages through Southeast Asia. And it is important to remember that another large influence on Indian languages are the Farsi and Arabic languages, which came only much later to the subcontinent, through the Mughal empire. It is for that reason that the Arabic and Farsi heavy form of Hindi, known as Urdu, exists today.

Sanskrit is the liturgical language of Hinduism, and is used almost exclusively as such today, though it is an official language of Uttarakhand, and there are efforts to revive its usage. It is the language of the Bhagavad Gita and the Vedas, the core texts of the Hindu religion, though all of them have been translated into the other languages. It is also studied as a classical language in schools, in much same way Latin used to be a required subject in Western schools. Many languages, primarily in North India, borrow much of their vocabulary from Sanskrit, so it is very helpful to know. Classical Sanskrit’s formal grammar was standardized by Pāṇini, a Sanskrit grammarian, in his major work, Aṣṭādhyāyī (“Eight-Chapter Grammar”), written in 500 BCE, and is still used as the authority on the Sanskrit language today. Some of the South Indian languages, which are primarily Dravidian in origin, also borrow, to a lesser extent, from Sanskrit. Words from Sanskrit in Dravidian languages are often easily noticed by features such as the presence of aspirated consonants, and the consonant clusters dr as opposed to ḍr, and tr as opposed to ṭr.

Now, Dravidian languages are from a completely different family from the languages of the North, and share no similarities with them. Sanskrit penetrated South India as the language of the Maurya Empire, which included all of North India as well as much of South India, save for the tip of the peninsula, which largely encompasses the Tamil-speaking state of Tamil Nadu today. Tamil is not at all intelligible with any North Indian language, and influenced many Southern languages as well. The Dravidian ancestor language developed solely on the Indian subcontinent, eventually dividing into the Southern languages, such as Tamil, Kannada, Telugu, Konkani, and Malayalam. Tamil remains a sort of oddity among the Indian languages, as it is a liturgical language, of the Ayyavizhi tradition, and also exhibits unique traits as a language, because it distinguishes three different forms: a classical form based on the ancient form of the language, a modern literary form, and a modern colloquial spoken form. Tamil is also spoken in other countries as an official language, including Singapore and Sri Lanka, making it more relevant than just within India.

References:

Kuzoian, Alex. “This Animated Map Shows How European Languages Evolved.” Business Insider. Business Insider, Inc, 10 Dec. 2014. Web. 26 June 2015.

“Geography and India’s Language Debate.” Z Geography. 14 Mar. 2013. Web. 26 June 2015.

“South Asian Language Families.” 27 Oct. 2007. Web. 26 June 2015.

“South Asian Language Families” links to: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/12/South_Asian_Language_Families.jpg

CC BY-SA 3.0 links to: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/

The Process of “Conlanging” – Avreça, My Conlang

Since I joined a group called “Constructed languages” on Facebook, a conlanging side project of mine, called Avreça, has seen significant progress. From a document of a measly six pages, it has become an expansive grammar and vocabulary list of forty-two pages. I must confess that not long ago, I was highly opposed to the entire principle of a conlang. You can see a post from that time right here. I used to think that it was fundamentally pointless to create a language, especially out of existing ones, for use by the international community. You run into a number of important issues, such as: is it equitable to only include some languages and not others? is the range of expression of the constructed language vastly more limited than its constituent sources? is this practical to learn?

To address the first question, there is almost no solution. Actively including only a set category of languages, such as Slavic or Romance, is inherently exclusive. Whether it is difficult to learn is not the question here. This does indeed create the impression of superiority of that language family over others.

Second question: It’s almost a given that the expression in the constructed language won’t be as well developed. To arbitrarily give new meanings and connotations to words that didn’t have any previously is simply not appropriate, because those meanings develop with time and history. There has to be a context for it. However, the reason that Tolkien’s conlangs can do this is because his worldbuilding gives the context for the expression in those languages. If the con-universe gives a history to the language, then the vocabulary ought to reflect that history.

Third issue: The practicality of a language is entirely dependent on how the person chooses to construct the language. However, including certain features of the constituent languages is also a question of expression and equitability, the grammars of each languages have different nuances.

Granted, these things largely apply to conlangs that draw on existing languages for their lexicons and grammars. In the case of Tolkien, he built from the ground up. However, my conlang is the former, because I’m not experienced enough to build the morphology and roots from scratch.

I never intended my conlang to be used by a large community, but they certainly could if they so wished. As such, the issues mentioned above don’t necessarily apply, but I still stress practicality. It is a bit Romance-centric in terms of its general vocabulary and grammar, but its poetic and literary features draw from Dravidian languages, Sanskrit, and Hindi-Urdu. I started my conlang mostly for recreational purposes, but I had also started writing a story into which I wanted to incorporate my conlang. And thus, Avreça was born. You can download a document detailing the conlang here: http://www.mediafire.com/view/92ijw6jx0ii957a/Avreça.pdf.

Avreça’s grammar, as previously mentioned, is primarily Romance-centric. There exists an indicative and subjunctive version of each verb conjugation. Currently, all verbs are regular, but if it were to be used more often by actual people, I’m certain that many verbs would be become irregular. As per the tradition, so to speak, of Romance languages, there are three types of verbs, -ar, -er, and -ir.

A rather curious feature of Avreça is that it actively distinguishes between poetic/literary language and common language, which are nearly always separate. The actual poetic/literary lexicon, as I said, is largely Dravidian, Sanskrit, and Hindi-Urdu in origin. Only two words come from Japanese, al ossache and al hyachia, which are derived from sake and hyakki yagyō. The concept of ossache is similar to the Japanese tea ceremony, whereas hyachia describes any shady or suspicious part of society, usually in an abstract way.

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It’s All Latin and Greek to Me

Hello and Happy Thanksgiving (which is odd, considering we’ve never done it before in my family)! Today, I’m going to discuss the classical languages of the world. For language to be “classical,” as described by George L. Hart at UC Berkeley, “it should be ancient, it should be an independent tradition that arose mostly on its own, not as an offshoot of another tradition, and it must have a large and extremely rich body of ancient literature.” Personally, I would say that classical languages should have also have had a relatively large sphere of influence in the ancient world, and “overwhelming significance as carriers of culture, as Edward Sapir describes in Language (1921). The, “ancient world,” is essentially the world during and before the 17th century, as I understand it. Sapir distills the classical languages of the world down to Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, Arabic, and Chinese, all of which conform to Hart’s description of classical languages.

Classical languages are unique in that not only is there a great deal of extant literature written in these languages, but these languages continue to be of great importance to the world’s living languages. Sanskrit is still taught in schools in India as a core subject. Sanskrit is used to supplement students’ abilities to read and write in their own languages, because many languages in India borrow greatly from Sanskrit, with the exclusion of Tamil. Students can understand and learn vocabulary in more advanced works, even if they’ve never actually seen the word before, because they have rudimentary if not decent understanding of their languages’ classical roots. Latin and Greek, to a degree, occupy a similar position in Western societies. Middle Chinese and, to a lesser extent, Classical Chinese, are used as frameworks of study of modern varieties of Chinese, and Classical Arabic is regarded as sacrosanct in the Arab world, though I’m not certain of it being a focus of academic study in the Middle East.

Relatively recently, the study of classical languages has become declined considerably in modern society. Latin and Greek are not common courses of study in high schools, despite the fact that standardized tests such as the SAT require students to learn many words of Latin and Greek origin. I think that they should be mandatory courses, for no more than one year, two at maximum. It certainly would improve the reading and writing abilities of students in their English classes, and make foreign language classes much easier.

This was a pretty brief piece this time. Feel free to share your thoughts here, and share it with your friends!