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.

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

Starter Kit for Romance Languages

A lot of you may wonder about what language to learn, and while I have written in the past on the utility of languages, I’m thinking that it might be better to write a series of posts about what separates different languages, through their grammar, history, or their unique difficulties. Many languages belong to what is known as a “language family”, which is a grouping of languages that have common roots and features. This means that the languages in a particular family are usually structurally similar, and given what level they’re being examined, may even have similar vocabulary. Families themselves may be part of a larger family, where the commonalities are fewer.

The language family I’m going to be discussing in this post is the Romance language family, which belongs to the Indo-European language family. Romance languages are related by the fact they all are evolved forms of Latin in different parts of the Western Roman Empire, where Latin was the lingua franca. Some examples of Romance languages include Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, and Romanian. There are other, smaller Romance languages spoken throughout Western Europe, as well as creoles and pidgins that developed in colonial territories of Western European countries. Nowadays, the Romance languages are spoken in many different regions of the world, including Africa, North/Central/South America, and even parts of Asia.

The value of learning a Romance language varies from language to language, since each language has its own charms. Spanish is the most widely spoken Romance language and is the language of many famous works of magical realism. Italian is the language of Dante’s La Divina Commedia, though in a medieval form, as well as of Italo Calvino, a renowned modernist writer. Many lyrics of classical opera and vocal pieces are written in Italian, as well as in French. French is often said to be the “language of love”, and some writers of the Enlightenment, such as Voltaire, and the author of Les Misérables, Victor Hugo, were speakers of French. Romanian and Portuguese are unfortunately the unnoticed children of the Romance family, since very few major works of literature were ever written in these languages and did not spread extensively to many territories (except perhaps Portuguese in Brazil). However, every one of these languages is worth learning in its own way!

Basic features

The basic rundown of how all Romance languages work is that they are moderately inflective, since verbs drop affixes and add others that reflect multiple meanings, such as tense, person, etc.

The general sentence order of Romance languages is SVO (Subject-Verb-Object), which is to say the default form of a sentence is to order it in that way. This is the way English orders sentences. However, it’s not as strict in Romance languages, since verbs conjugate according to person and tense. For questions, Romance languages typically flip the sentence order, but the simply making the original statement a question by inflecting has a slightly different meaning. For example, take the sentence “They eat apples” in Spanish: Ellos comen manzanas. The usual question form is ¿Comen manzanas ellos? (Do they eat apples?). However, saying ¿Ellos comen manzanas? is slightly different, as it’s asking about what they’re eating, rather than who’s doing the eating.


Romance language verbs are fairly straightforward. There six groups of conjugations, each corresponding to person and plurality. They are: “I”, “you (non-polite)”, “he/she/it/you (polite)”, “we”, “you all (non-polite)”, and “they (male)/they (female)/you all (polite)”. The word for “it” usually doesn’t have its own word, and speakers simply use the pronoun according to the grammatical gender of the noun in question (we’ll get to this in just a bit). This varies from language to language, as some do not use certain forms anymore. Brazilian Portuguese doesn’t use the “you (non-polite)” form anymore and Latin American Spanish doesn’t use the “you all (non-polite)” form anymore, for example.

Verbs belong to one of three categories, each with their own slightly different conjugational endings. These endings reflect tense and person. While the verb “to love” in English only changes for “he/she/it”, in Romance languages, there is a unique form for each category mentioned before. So, “I love” in Italian, for example, is io amo, but “we love” is noi amiamo. Because of these distinctions, Romance languages are almost all pro-drop languages, which is to say that you can drop the pronoun subject if it is obvious from context who you’re talking about.

French might be the only exception, because even though spellings are distinct, some verb conjugations are said the same way. Even many nouns can sound identical and other contextual clues as well as a pronunciation rule known as liaison are required to understand spoken French properly. For this reason, French is not as much a pro-drop language (if at all).

Every Romance language also has unpredictably irregular verbs (which you have to commit to memory) and certain types of verbs with (sometimes) predictable irregularities.

The tenses that you absolutely need to know are present, preterite, imperfect, future, as well as conditional. You also need to know their perfect forms (“have done, had done, will have done, etc.). Most Romance languages distinguish preterite and present perfect, whereas in French and Italian, they are the same, since the actual preterite in those languages has passed out of common use.

You will also need to learn a mood known as the subjunctive, an essential part of Romance languages. The subjunctive mood is a verbal mood that indicates hypotheticals or uncertain actions, to put it very simply. There’s a little more to it than that, but you can learn more about it if you decide to learn a Romance language. That’s more or less all the basics to verbs.

Noun Properties

Nouns in Romance languages have singular and plural forms, the latter of which, depending on the language, are extremely straightforward to construct. Even the languages with different ways to pluralize different nouns have easily understood patterns (except for possibly French). All nouns have definite and indefinite articles, the words for the and a/an.

Nouns also generally do not have declensional cases, except for Romanian, which has retained many features from Latin, including the neuter gender. This brings us to grammatical gender, something that confuses many novice language learners. All Romance languages have grammatical gender for nouns, and it almost never has anything to do with biology or any kind of logic whatsoever. That is, unless the noun in question is a person, in which case, grammatical gender corresponds to biological gender.

Now, adjectives and adjectival phrases behave much like nouns, having to agree in gender and number. Take the word o urso (bear), in Portuguese. If I want to say “black bear”, the word “black” has to be of the same gender and number as “bear”. So that means, “black bear” is o urso preto, where both urso and preto are singular and masculine. If I wanted to make it plural, it would become os ursos pretos.

Nouns can also be replaced by object pronouns, so as not to be repetitive. Take the following exchange in Italian as an example:

—Where is the key that I gave you?
—I put it in the box.

—Dov’è la chiave che ti ho dato?
L‘ho posta nella scatola.

The word for “key” (la chiave) is replaced by the direct object pronoun (DOP) la (contracted to l’ due to Italian conventions), which as with adjectives, corresponds to the feminine gender of la chiave. The word for “you (non-polite” (tu) is implicitly referred to by the indirect object (IOP) ti. There are a variety of double object pronoun combinations in most Romance languages, which are all fairly easy to learn. That’s about it on nouns.

Learning strategies

You may already know this, but vocabulary in Romance languages is simply a matter of memorization when it comes to irregular forms and grammatical gender. Just use flashcards and spaced repetition programs like Quizlet, Memrise, and Anki.

For verbs and other grammatical features, all you can do is just do lots of exercises and write a lot. Also, read! Reading in the language (and this goes for any other language as well) helps immensely in gaining vocabulary as well as contact with native-level uses of the language.

If you are a reasonably well-read speaker of English, you will probably notice that many words in Romance languages sound familiar. Like la biología in Spanish, or il sistema in Italian. This is because these words are of Greek and Latin origin. A handy thing to note is that in all Romance languages, words of Greek origin are all masculine! For Latin origin words, the original gender of the word transfers to their Romance language form; feminine stays feminine, masculine stays masculine, and neuter becomes masculine (except in Romanian, where the neuter gender is still around). In the end, it’s just a lot of diligent practice and a willingness to learn.

I also recommend using the WordReference dictionary, as their Romance language dictionaries are great. For language lessons,’s lessons are OK, though not to my liking. There are many language learning textbooks out there and I cross-reference materials a lot. Of course, you could just use my books on Italian, Portuguese, and Catalan, if you plan to learn those languages!

For Spanish books, I don’t recommend Realidades past Realidades 2 or if you can avoid it, mostly because you’ll end up with very, very politically correct Spanish that doesn’t sound native in any particular way. Temas is a great book for advanced learners, since it’s written for the  AP Spanish Language and Culture Exam. For advanced Italian textbooks, you can definitely use Con Fantasia: Reviewing and Expanding Functional Italian Skills (also an AP textboko). Learning Portuguese with Rafa is a great start to learning Portuguese grammar. There’s always Duolingo as well, since it gives you a good start, and keeps you practicing. Fair warning, Duolingo doesn’t help advanced learners very much.

I hope you enjoyed this article, and please don’t forget to share and comment on Facebook, Tumblr, or here. I’m planning to write more of these Starter’s Kits in the future, so keep an eye out!

When and Why Grammar (Is/Can Be) Important

As a something of proponent of grammar-based learning, I should admit that I’m biased when it comes to whether grammar is important or not. When my peers and I learned English in elementary school (which ironically is called grammar school everywhere else, for a reason), we were told that good grammar was important because it showed that you were educated. But when I’m at school, there are still some people who speak with minor grammar infractions. But why is that? It could be that grammar in speech is not enforced as much as it is in writing. We see this in a lot of places; while the sign of a business may be written in good English, the people running the establishment may have less-than-perfect speaking skills.

But you may be wondering what this has to do with foreign language. There are numerous people who give up on foreign language because they have trouble grasping the grammar. But this is not their fault; it’s not a question of studying enough. Some people simply don’t learn that way. Many respected linguists and teachers of foreign languages have said that grammar shouldn’t be stressed as much as it is in most classes. And that is true; grammar can be overwhelming if you’re not interested in it. However, this is not to say that grammar shouldn’t be taught at all. Now, I’m going to discuss reasons for whether grammar is a necessity.

Better Reading and Writing

This is a bit of a given. The written form of almost any language is expected to be flawless for the majority of the speaking populace. Again: grammar-wise. The actual written content and the mechanics of the language used to convey it are separate. Good grammar is essential to not be only understood but also show yourself as an educated, intelligent person. I realize that there are people who may view educated writing as pretentious, but I feel that is more a product of word choice and actual content. Good grammar knowledge also enables you to understand more advanced texts, because certain meanings and nuances are conveyed by more complex grammatical structures, some of which include different moods and cases.

Enhanced Understanding of Nuances

As I said before, a good grammatical understanding allows you to get certain nuances of the language. This is especially relevant when the language that you’re learning is not at all connected with your own, meaning that you have no foundation to work up from. When Romance language speakers use the subjunctive, certain uses suggest a notion of uncertainty, doubt, hypothetical conditions, etc., in a way that English doesn’t. When Korean speakers shift between the “modes” of formality and politeness, this provides certain undertones to the speech. Memorizing phrases and substituting words is no better than memorizing lists upon lists of vocabulary and rules. I think it’s important to encourage synthesis, rather than mechanical/robotic repetition.

Stress Undermines Motivation and Appreciation

As you’re probably very aware, an overt stress of grammar is detrimental to learning. It creates the impression that language is just grammar rules and words. This is not only hugely demoralizing, but also a huge underestimation of the power of language to convey the human experience. Each language is unique in its capacity to express the history, emotions, and experiences of a people.

Narrowed Understanding of the Language as a Whole

Not everyone says the same thing the same way. This is a fact of life. As much as knowing the grammar lets you make your own sentences independently, it also limits your ability to understand other dialects and expressions. Whatever you’re taught in a class or grammar book is the standardized version of the language, which not everyone speaks on a daily basis. Sometimes, the standardized version of the language is seen as pretentious, arrogant, uptight, or downright unnatural. Granted, the remedy to this requires that you go to various regions where the language is spoken, so that you can get exposed.

I hope you got something out of reading this! Please share this with your friends and feel free to leave any comments!

Fluency Revisited: 3 Things That It Is and That It’s Not

A few months back, I did a couple of posts regarding the objective of foreign language study: achieving fluency. I did several posts on the definition of fluency, and the levels thereof. Looking back on those posts and considering my views now, I think I need to revise my definition fluency. I’m going to talk about some of the things what it is and what it’s not. This is by no means an exhaustive list. So, here we go!

What fluency is:

1. Literacy

This is one thing that hasn’t really changed for me. I don’t think you can be called fluent in a language unless you can express yourself in all three modes of communication: reading, writing, and speaking. While most people think of speaking when it comes to fluency, I think that in order to master a language, which is fluency, you need to be literate. In fact, the first order of business when you’re learning a language with a different script should be learning it. The best way to acquire more vocabulary is reading, and if you don’t have many opportunities to speak, you should be familiar with the writing in the target language, especially when you’re talking with someone in a chat window on some social network.

2. Interpretation

Interpretation is the exchange of the spoken language through speaking and listening. You need to be able to process and react to the spoken language, using the target language in both instances. It’s not really enough to get the gist, because you may miss certain nuances, such as sarcasm, irony, or jokes. You can’t claim to know a language when you understand everything being said, but cannot respond.

3. Cultural conventions

A big mistake that I see with a lot of people in language classes is literally translating whatever they’re trying to say from English. It is important to understand that people who speak one language do not think in the exact same way as the people who speak another language. This is evidenced by the fact there are words that don’t necessarily translate to or from other languages. You need to learn how people use idioms, how certain words fit into certain contexts.

Another thing about this is that you cannot automatically use another language the way you would your own. Just because you talk casually with just about everyone doesn’t mean that it’s appropriate in another language. That’s not the culture. For example, in most Romance languages, it is not up to you to decide when you can use the “tu” form to address someone who you’ve become good friends after a long time. It is considered polite to either ask (though that is a bit more forward), or wait for that person to give you express permission. And don’t think people won’t notice. They will.

What fluency is not:

1. Being a scholar/academic

Let’s be honest: the majority of the speakers of any language are not professors. And by no means can learners be expected to acquire such advanced skill. Being an intellectual requires the study of advanced texts and learning of a much higher degree, which you can only consider when you actually know the language to begin with.

2. Being a native

Don’t let any teacher or anyone else tell you that fluency precludes anybody who didn’t grow up speaking the language. This is by no means true, because you can learn to acquire that facility by immersing yourself in the environment where the language is spoken (after some time studying the language of course). That’s how children learn: they’re immersed in the language, and know how to use it only after much trial and error.

3. Taking only classes

You need to get out into the world, where people use the language for their everyday lives. Get yourself out of your bubble, your little comfort zone, where all you ever do is take tests and answer questions. Sure, you can practice conversations in class; but even then, everything is scripted. Knowing the language in theory isn’t everything.

So, there’s something else for you to think about. Remember, these are just my opinions, not definitive facts. Take them as you will. Please share this on Facebook, Google Plus, and Tumblr! Leave any comments if you have something to say about this topic.

Language Survey Page

I just added a page for a language survey that I’d like you guys to fill out. Please answer honestly and completely. I’m gathering info for an article that I want to write, so please help me with this! Thanks in advance. Here’s a link to the survey:

Practicing a Foreign Language By Yourself

Even if you’re enrolled in a class for a foreign language at school, chances are it’s mostly grammar drills and writing exercises, in my experience. I’ve started to read Fluent in 3 Months (the book), by Benny Lewis, an Irish polyglot who runs a blog with same name as his book (here’s a link: In his book, he describes how conventional methods that schools use to teach foreign language might work for some people, but it’s hard to practice outside the classroom. I highly recommend that language learners read his book, by the way. It’s fascinating and really helpful. Thinking about this conundrum, I’ve thought of a couple of my own methods (which may look similar to other methods you’ve seen on the Internet):

1. Talk to yourself. This may sound really strange, but trying to speak the language you’re learning to yourself lets you practice and iron out awkwardness when you talk. If you don’t know a word, say it in English (or whatever your first language may be), and write it down to get the word later from a dictionary.

2. Go electronic with your learning. Take your electronic device (a good example is a smart phone), and go to settings, and change the language of your device. Recently, I changed my phone and computer to be in Italian, to practice my ability to read it. This helps because you begin to correlate words that you’d normally see in English with words in the target language, because they physically replace those words, and your usual instinct is to go to the location, without really looking at the word. Changing Siri on iPhones also helps, because then you can practice speaking a little bit.

3. Write more in the target language. Whether it’s posting on Facebook and/or Twitter, or going old-school with a notebook, write as much as you can in the language you’re learning, because it helps you become more literate in the language, and for kinesthetic (learn by doing) learners like me, it solidifies the foundation in your brain for learning the language. Although when you post on the Internet in your language, you should probably include a translation, so that friends who are fluent speakers can correct your mistakes by seeing what you want to say, and non-learner friends can read your posts without feeling excluded. Italki is a great way to do this with its notebook feature.

4. Get books in the target language. Whether they be children’s books or full-on Michael Crichton novels, reading is a surefire way to build vocabulary, due to the variety of contexts, and the fact the good writers usually use a wide range of vocabulary, allowing for a potentially greater number of words for you to learn to appear. Highlight words or phrases you don’t understand, or write them down. For popular book series such as Percy Jackson and the Olympians or the Harry Potter series, compare your native version and the target language version to see what it might be trying to say. You should also read out loud to practice your speaking.

5. Talk with other learners! You generally have more confidence when speaking with other learners of your language, because you know that you’re both still learning, and can’t be expected to be perfect right off the bat. Besides, it can be more social experience, and they’re more accessible, if you’re good friends with them (as you’ll probably become while learning together). Language is inherently social, so not talking with others is no excuse!

Anyway, thanks for reading! Please leave any thoughts you might have on this!