Nerds Review Things: Arrival

Ed.: Ok nerds I know you’ve both seen the Oscar nominated film Arrival and read the short story it is based on “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, which means I also know you are both dying to share your thoughts. To save our Readers from unstructured ranting and raving I am willing to serve as moderator, posing questions to frame your discussion. I’ll also warn our Readers that spoilers for both the film and story appear throughout the post.

First, what did you think of the story?

Sarah (The Linguistic One): I thought it was incredible. I loved the way that it interweaves the interactions with the heptapods with the mundane events of the child’s life. You know from the beginning the weight underlying those latter moments, and every time it cuts back to them, it’s heartbreaking. And then, ultimately, how the end makes you realize Louise has experienced her child’s life in exactly that state of awareness…it’s so beautifully told.

Katie (The Archaeology One): I agree that there is so much beauty found in the narrative style. I appreciate not only, as Sarah mentions, how Chiang plays with time to create moments of awe and of heartbreak but how this significantly represents the heptapods’ way of knowing, of experiencing too. Time is a cultural construct and I like how Chiang really pushes our boundaries of what we can accept in terms of how we may perceive the passage of time if time is non-linear. Mind blowing stuff really.

What did you think of the differences between the story and the film?

Sarah (The Linguistic One): I have to admit I liked the story a bit better, though they were both amazing. I think the film did a great job of translating the main themes and emotional beats of the short story on to the screen, but one thing I appreciated about the story is that it stayed small and intimate. The film did a couple of things to raise the sense of stakes that weren’t present in the book, and while I get that they were essentially necessary elements, some of them bugged a bit. While I didn’t hate the introduction of a threat that one of the other landing sites was going to go violent, I found the way it resolved, with Louise taking dictation from the Chinese General in the future, to be a bit too heavy-handed. The book just let the story be about Louise, her family, and the aliens, and I kind of loved that for a science fiction story.

A linguists’ point of annoyance: The book established clearly that Louise was a field linguist – someone who documents completely unknown languages, which would legitimately give her the skills needed to decipher the aliens’ communication. The movie takes a short cut and has her as the one selected for this task because she had security clearance after doing some Farsi translations for the army previously. But the skills needed to do a Farsi translation are not remotely the same as field linguistics. It doesn’t even require an actual linguist – just someone who speaks Farsi. A little detail, yes, but given how important her work is, I felt slighted in the description of her background and training as a linguist.

That said, I also want to say Amy Adams was fantastic and Jeremy Renner pulled off the adorably sexy nerd thing just fine.

Katie (The Archaeology One): It is incredibly difficult to live up to the reader’s expectations when it comes to translating story to film. I think this is a very successful adaptation overall. I agree with Sarah that the introduction of tension with China and its resolution was heavy handed. It was frankly sappy in a film that already had great moments of deep, significant emotion. I understand why they felt the need to add tension (alien = action afterall…or not) but understanding does not excuse a not-so-great choice. Amy Adams was fantastic. I needed a little more from Jeremy Renner’s character, which isn’t to say he wasn’t adorable nor sexy, I just missed some of the neat character development and physics stuff from the book (I get that this was probably difficult to incorporate).

Speaking of the cast and characters I think there are some things that can be said about gender and age as it is something much discussed in regards to representation. 

Katie (The Archaeology One): One of the interesting things is that Louise’s age is never established – this is because to do so would spoil the twist. This is not a problem when reading the book (you can envision Louise however you’d like) but when you have an actual living human playing a role it has to be addressed – we are not just our gender but also our age. It’s telling that the people behind the film never aged Louise. Now that I’m thinking about it I wonder if this is because we often don’t think of ourselves as AN age – I know I have an idea of what I look like, kind of a stock image of myself, but it doesn’t always match what I see in the mirror and also that when I think of myself as younger or older I don’t necessarily change my image of myself to reflect that difference in age.  One of the consequences of a change in how we perceive the world should also be a change in how one views oneself.

Sarah (The Linguistic One): I think the sameness of Louise over the years does ultimately become a part of the commentary on how time and our experience of it are not uniform or universal – aging as a trope in stories does seem to mean one thing all the time, and it’s a thing situated within a view of time passing that this story destabilizes. That said, this was an element where my suspension of disbelief broke down – there are, after all, certain biological realities about when certain bodies are able to bear children. And while I was totally cool with the whole aliens-have-landed thing, asking me to buy that Louise would be established enough in her career to be chosen for this incredible responsibility and kickass opportunity while still also young enough to bear a child got a giant *NOPE* from this observer of academic life patterns.

How about that linguistic determinism?

Katie (The Archaeology One): From my non-linguistic perspective, I get why this theory is included and it does explain why the heptapods behave in the way they do.

Sarah (The Linguistic One): This is the thing that has all the linguists talking about this film, and the reaction is definitely mixed. Part of that is because a lot of linguists think the theory is absolute bunk, while others (like myself) who believe it has a lot of validity still see the version presented in the story as quite a bit more deterministic than we would see working in human languages. The idea that Louise’s mind would be so thoroughly re-wired because of her learning of this different language is a sticking point for a lot of people, as that’s not really something with any real traction in studies of language and cognition. But for me, that actually didn’t matter very much, because this was where I was entirely comfortable with suspension of disbelief. It’s actually like you say, from your non-linguistic perspective, it’s an idea that is needed to explain what matters about the story. It’s like from my non-physicist perspective, I accept that warp drive works, because if it doesn’t, the Enterprise isn’t going very far.

Now, I’d love to start a conversation about other ways linguists could save the world and/or become fascinating central characters in super interesting, intellectually challenging stories, that don’t rely on Sapir/Whorf, but if this is getting us so much attention, who am I to complain?

Katie (The Archaeology One): I agree with your last few points there Sarah – it’s really hard to complain when you finally have representation BUT we need to keep talking about this to make sure this isn’t the last time we see linguists in film. I know as archaeologists we always struggle with our love/hate relationship with Dr. Jones (and other “archaeologists”) depicted on screen but they also inspire so many of us to get into real archaeology. I DO think overall Hollywood can do better – if the box office of late and the 2017 Oscars are any indication (minus a few just gross exceptions), people really love diverse representation in terms of age, gender, class, ethnicity, sexuality, occupation, etc. So moar anthropologists pls! Also Louise could totally have been a person of colour. Can we stop defaulting to white?

A bit of a derailing there Biittner but I’ll let it slide this time because you are correct. Getting back to Anthropology…so…umm… were the aliens like anthropologists or what?

Katie (The Archaeology One): I would argue no, because of my interpretation of their “role” in the story (I’m going to deliberately ignore the film’s take on why they came to Earth). The heptapods arrive on Earth because it is part of their understanding of what must pass/has already passed. I’m struggling to describe this because the story does it so well but also because I am still trying to process the implications of non-linear time and experience myself. That’s the twist – that Louise is not remembering her child, she is experiencing her child. As Louise learns heptapod she begins to think and therefore live as a heptapod does.

I also think the film makers (and some readers, particularly those of us in the west) struggle with a being that lacks agency so we look for purpose – the whole point of learning to communicate with the heptapods is initially presented as finding out what the heptapods want. Spoiler: the answer is they want nothing. So the heptapods are given agency (must give language to humans so they can help us in three thousand years) rather than simply being. To suggest they were anthropologists is to suggest they had the intention of studying humans, which they simply did not. Not on screen. Not in the short story.

Sarah (The Linguistic One): I agree that I found it paradoxically more satisfying in the story, when we were left without explanation for their visit. It speaks so much more clearly not only to this radically different way of understanding action/experience/agency, but also to the constant unknowns of the forces that do the most to shape our everyday lives. I think our dear editor posed this question to us somewhat facetiously, mostly to get us to think about whether it matters why they were there or not, and how that might relate to the strange arrivals that we, as anthropologists, engage in through our studies. So while I think in the end there’s no case to be made that the heptapods were anthropologically motivated, I do think there is a lot to say about anthropology coming out of the movie.

Also, given that Jeremy Renner the physicist was given so little to do as a physicist, maybe we could argue that he needed to be an adorably nerdy anthropologist to support Louise’s linguistic efforts.

Katie (The Archaeology One): I’ll support a Renner as anthropologist position because reasons.

Any final thoughts or comments? 

Katie (The Archaeology One): The written language in the film is very beautiful so major kudos to the designers behind it. I was underwhelmed by the heptapods themselves (looked too much like the hands they were likely modeled on; I needed more angular abstraction in their form) and thought the sequence where Louise actually enters the heptapods’ room was lame (too much use of the Galadriel “all shall love me and despair” glowing in the fog filter on Adams there). I need to re-read the story and the whole compilation it is included in because it’s all so so good. I can easily see myself using parts of the film in class – heptapod as the new con-lang. I’d rate the film six heptapods out of seven. The story is unquestionably a seven out of seven.

Sarah (The Linguistic One): I had the odd experience of almost simultaneously reading the book and watching the film. I rarely have enough energy after my kids go to bed to stay awake for an entire movie, so when I was about halfway through the story, I rented the movie and watched half of it before falling asleep. I finished the story the next day, then watched the rest of the film. This really made the differences between them stand out, and may have made me feel more negative about the movie than I might have otherwise, because of those clearly Hollywood details. What I really wish had been made more clear in the film, though, was the fact that the heptapods written language was in fact an entirely different system from the spoken language. This is something that doesn’t exist in human language at all – all of our written forms are designed to represent speech, not to function as full linguistic systems in their own right, so the relationship between symbol and meaning in our writing is indirect, while for the heptapods, it’s direct. They are essentially inherently multilingual, knowing both their written language and their spoken one. This is such a massive difference, and it’s given really only a throwaway line in the movie (to the point that many linguists I know express frustration because no true field linguist would ever focus on written forms rather than spoken ones, and the choice to do so only makes sense given what Louise realizes about that connection). It’s an example of the incredibly creative way that Chiang, in the whole collection of stories, thinks about language and inserts “but what ifs” into his considerations of how humans use language. Solid seven heptapods for the story version for me, 5.5 for the movie adaptation.

Thanks nerds! 

No, Trump Doesn’t Speak “A Separate Language”

As the world is still reeling with varying levels of disbelief, anger, and fear in the weeks since Donald Trump has taken office in the US, there is still a desire to find some explanation for his popularity. How is it that some groups of people just can’t see through the lies, the manipulations, the threats, and the abject incompetence? What tools could we use to help understand this? With varying degrees of quality, I’ve seen several attempts to answer that question with reference to Trump’s unique public speaking (and Tweeting) style.

Here, I’m picking out a recent example of a Twitter rant that was particularly frustrating to me. I copy it here in screenshot form.



The most frustrating thing about this type of linguistic analysis is that it’s based primarily on assumptions about how language works, which in fact don’t rest on solid ground. Trump’s speaking style is far from a separate ‘language’, and while I appreciate the reference to one of this linguistnerd’s favourite Star Trek episodes, it isn’t remotely similar to that form of metaphorical/mythical/historical talk. The specific quote that is analyzed as three “sentence fragments” is nothing of the sort – each of the three is easily analyzed into its subject/predicate phrase structure, and each could essentially be meaningfully stated on its own as long as you know the pronominal referents (the one element that comes off as grammatically awkward when stated in isolation is the “you” in “You look at what happened in Sweden last night”. Delete the you, however, and you have a very common standard English sentence – I would use the linguistic term hortative to describe it [Ed: You linguists love your technical terms, don’t you?]). Sure, there are connotations and implicatures to what he is saying. But that’s a basic feature of talking, not some uniquely Orwellian “different language” that Trump is using. And in fact, Trump does complete his thought – he doesn’t describe in detail what happened (or, of course, didn’t actually happen at all) in Sweden, not because he’s invoking some reference points only those in the know will understand, but because it’s not the focus of his statement. He finishes the thought with “They’re having problems they never thought possible”. The utterance is entirely grammatical, with maybe one question mark for awkwardness, and at a discourse level, its overall meaning is absolutely clear.

This example annoys me enough to write about first because it was widely shared in my Twitter feed with many thumbs up emojis and exclamation marks of praise, but second because it illustrates a pattern of faux-linguistic analysis that is most often used in a classist/racist manner, rather than against people in power like Trump. It draws on a literary/written/schooled form of “grammatical correctness” to downgrade this way of speaking as not just odd or different, but as full on not English. And while it’s absolutely the case that Trump doesn’t speak as most presidents do in his public addresses, he uses linguistic forms that are extremely common in everyday spoken versions of the language. Generally such contexts have been treated as sites for delivery of prepared oratory, which uses much more literary style. In an everyday conversation, I might easily say something like “Look at what happened with my baby last night, she wouldn’t sleep, I’m having so much trouble concentrating”. I wouldn’t write that in a formal context, but that doesn’t make it “a different language”, and grammatically/stylistically, it’s essentially the same thing. And the vast majority of the time someone assesses these ways of speaking as “ignorant” or somehow fundamentally different/incomprehensible, it’s a form of marginalization of those who don’t regularly employ formal registers and schooled structures.

The thing is, I can relate to the urge to find some way of making sense of what seems like a chasm of difference in reactions to what Trump has to say. While I recoil in horror literally every time he opens his mouth, and while I respond to commentary on “what happened in Sweden” with a locked-in “WTF” face because I know it’s another “alternative fact”, somehow we have to figure out how to communicate that to swaths of people who really do believe actual real truth is a product of a giant fake-news media conspiracy. But, much as I love my discipline and value the explanatory potential that the study of language brings to politics and power, I don’t think the foundation of this divide is in a comprehension of his “language” that his followers have, but we don’t. In this case, I agree with many scholars of colour and critical race theorists who have pointed out that Trump’s popularity among white people is unsurprising in light of the historical and present patterns of white supremacy and racism. If “we” can’t see how those prejudices are being invoked in Trump’s language, or how his followers accept the lies that confirm their underlying views about racialized people, it’s not because “we” don’t speak Trump’s language. It’s because “we” haven’t been paying attention to whiteness.


I *Heart* Neandertals Part 2

Image result for hunger games i volunteer meme

So a “willing woman” is needed to help bring back Neandertals. It all seems so simple – take some Neanderthal genetic material, science the shit out of it to create a viable embryo, implant the embryo in a willing surrogate, then wait just a short 9-10 months and blamo, you’ve got a living breathing Neandertal baby. Totes adorbs amirite?! Of course I volunteer as tribute…no wait…as surrogate (I wouldn’t last a day in the Games).

I’ve been thinking about the potential of ancient DNA studies, of cloning, and of assisted reproductive technologies (ARTs) quite a bit lately. I recently finished reading Svante Pääbo’s 2004 book “Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes”. In this well written and compelling autoethnography, Pääbo tells the story of the trials, successes, and failures in his journey to successfully extract ancient DNA from Neandertal remains. Read this book btw as I love that it is a personal narrative but one that also explains the science in an accessible manner. Connecting the article to this book is important not just because they both deal with Neandertals but also because while the article makes it seem so simple (okay not “simple” but at least something that is possible based on our current technologies), the book makes it very clear that nothing is simple when it comes to ancient DNA.  Yes we have a Neandertal genome that we can engineer but this has some problems as well (read the book to learn from the expert). Yes we can harvest a viable egg from a modern human and we could likely find an appropriate surrogate to impregnate. But should we?

While I not-so-jokingly offer to serve as surrogate (even with gestational diabetes I loved being pregnant), I also know that carrying  a Neandertal fetus to term and successfully delivering a live infant could be extremely problematic. Neandertals have massive heads – their average cranial capacity is above the human average – and they have robust cranial features that create a distinctly non-modern human head shape, both of which would likely cause problems for the narrow birth canal present in modern humans. Birth is already not easy for humans. Reconstructions of the Neandertal birth canal and pelvis suggest birth was also equally difficult for Neandertals. People die in childbirth even when doctors, nurses, doulas, midwives, and other birthing specialists use everything their western biomedicine and/or “natural” birthing traditions have to offer.

Even if we set all logistics aside, what I appreciate about the article is that it actually focuses on the ethical conundrum that cloning a human represents. Should we attempt to clone or to grow a Neandertal? Is curiosity enough to warrant trying? Honestly I don’t know, which is why this is a question of ethics not just what is/is not technologically and biologically feasible. I’m also honestly more interested in what this debate would mean in terms of arguments for/against cloning humans because that’s the subtext of Church’s final statement: that Neandertals are humans.

I will argue that because we are currently entrenched over so many debates regarding ARTs, reproductive rights, adoption, cloning, stem cell research, ape rights, primate research, and parenthood etc. that while we can and should have an academic discussion regarding Neandertal cloning, we must do so fully recognizing it is unlikely to ever happen.

Say I successfully carried a Neandertal fetus to term and delivered it healthy and screaming into our world, would I be its mother? Who would raise it? I could argue that as an anthropological archaeologist who studies human evolution that I am qualified to raise a Neandertal as I am aware of their cultural traditions…but I’m still a modern human aren’t I?  I’m not a Neandertal. Could I even be a mother to this child or is the relationship more like that of a researcher who forms a parent-like bonds with their non-human primate subject (think Patterson and Koko)? Is it right or fair or moral to raise a Neandertal in modern human culture? What would it be like to be the only Neandertal in a modern human world AND one that would be subject to extensive and intensive research for their lifespan. And this is not the time traveler’s dilemma of not being able to process life in “the future” because we aren’t creating a Neandertal from the past. What we would be doing is introducing a new hominin species into a contemporary setting. In this case maybe considering Neandertals as humans IS problematic because I feel like we’d be granting this individual human status without granting them agency and human rights.

To conclude then I’ll stand by volunteering my womb but I won’t actually allow it to be occupied by a Neandertal clone anytime soon. See I see human rights, including my own, questioned and challenged every single day. I don’t think it’s fair to bring another species into this world who will have tenuous status as human until I know that my own rights are secured. I don’t care how simple the technology may seem because the ethical quandaries are anything but simple.



How Languages Get “Lost”: Did You Look in the Last Place you Colonized Them?

In my last post, I mentioned that the discourse around how Indigenous and minority languages are ‘dying’ almost inevitably involves erasure of the vibrant activity around learning them that has been taking place within these communities for decades. Another aspect of this metaphor that is also important to note, however, is addressed very clearly in this recent post by Rick Harp on MediaIndigena:

Yet make no mistake: None of these so-called ‘dying’ languages got where they are today by accident. Far from being ‘lost’, our mother tongues have been under constant attack – what some call premeditated linguicide – by forces hell-bent on their destruction.

Harp’s post directly attacks the colonial reasoning that continues to inform settler Canada’s approach to Indigenous languages – their presence is an inconvenient, nagging reminder that we are living on someone else’s land, and therefore, they must be eradicated. In anticipation of the federal Aboriginal Languages Act that Prime Minister Trudeau has promised is coming, Harp also calculates a baseline for the financial support that we should expect to see for each of Canada’s 58 (or so) Indigenous languages, given the amount that is spent supporting each of the English and French languages in regions where they are the minority. If that seems like a high demand to you, you might want to ask yourself why.

The point I want to emphasize here is how dominant narratives about languages being “lost” or “dying” are framed in such a way as to elide the agents who cause this loss. Indigenous voices often talk about having their languages “taken” from them in residential schools or equivalent institutions, but mainstream reporting presents the concerns in much more naturalistic terms. “Dying” is certainly a powerful and unpleasant explosion-123690_1280metaphor, but it’s something that occurs to living beings as they age; when applied to Indigenous languages it therefore performs double duty – not only does it naturalize the process, it also makes Indigenous languages seem old, like relics of the past more suited for museums than modern life. Where human subjects are present in these stories of loss, they are likely to be the Indigenous people – which on the one hand is appropriate, as this story matters deeply to them, but on the other, makes it appear as though these events are transpiring in some place and time that is detached from the actions of settler Canada. Non-Indigenous people only appear in benevolent roles, like linguists in rhetorical superhero garb arriving to save the day. Language loss, then, appears as no one’s fault, because the reality is, quite frankly, upsetting. This is a tale that has a villain, and it’s not a villain whose good intentions have gone awry. It’s a villain who has been very successful in working toward a selfish and malevolent goal, and who continues to manage the great diabolical trick of convincing the world he doesn’t exist.

Telling Stories about Indigenous Languages:”DIY” Immersion in Vancouver

My main area of research as a linguistic anthropologist is how to support the continued growth and strength of minority languages, and to try to understand how social, political, and ideological structures create challenges we need to address in this work. There is an increased awareness, in Canada at least, of how the eradication of Indigenous languages in particular has been a part of ongoing colonial violence, efforts to assimilate Indigenous people, and to eradicate cultural difference. Within the recently concluded Truth and Reconciliation Commission on the impact of Canada’s Residential School system, language appears as a central theme in statements about both the damage done within these institutions and the possibility of a new path in the future.

The reality is, though, that getting language programs to work is hard. Learning languages takes a lot of energy and time even when there are tons of available resources (like classes, online learning resources, dictionaries, pedagogical textbooks, immersion programs, conversation circles, exchanges to areas where the language is spoken, etc.), opportunities to use the language, and motivation (such as improved employment possibilities). For languages with small numbers of speakers, limited opportunities for use, and marginalized political status, it takes even more.

Which is not to say it can’t be done. The central theme of the best language revitalization stories is an unwavering focus and persistence of even a small number of people who commit to making the language an active part of their every day lives. This CBC story about a Vancouver-based Skwomesh language “Immersion House” is an example of exactly that. As the story illustrates, a group of young people felt frustrated by the classroom-based learning environment that had been their only opportunity to learn the language, and created a “DIY” solution. They set up house together and established specific times and ways of using and learning the language. For busy young people, time is often a factor, and bringing it into the home, setting language-learning around mealtime, is a way of combating the constant threat of other priorities. It also, as the house’s language teacher Khelisem notes in the article, keeps them insulated from the swinging winds of funding patterns that plague a lot of these programs – periodically supportive governments at the local, provincial, or federal level will offer one-time funding, or even commit to language programs for a few years at a time, but rarely are language advocates able to count on having truly sustainable funding sources. As one might imagine, starting an immersion school or even language classes, getting kids enrolled and participating, then forcing them to drop the classes when they reach grade 4 or 5…it’s not going to provide the kind of sustained commitment that language learning requires. All that the roommates in the immersion house need is their rent – which, given that it’s Vancouver, is not small change, but it’s split amongst them and, just as with the time taken for meals, it’s an expense category they were all going to have to meet anyway.

The article doesn’t say so, but this “Language House” initiative has some particular features that are somewhat rare in the revitalization world. First, it is in a major Canadian city. Often, revitalization initiatives remain focused on places where the majority of the population belongs to the speaker group – in Canada, this usually means reserves or the Northern territories. Cities, despite obviously being part the lands taken from Indigenous people, are not usually recognized as Indigenous spaces, either in formal initiatives or ideological frames. Settler Canada continues to construct a dichotomy that says that “Indigenous” is incompatible with “modern” and urban, and this has an impact on how programs are funded and planned. Second, it’s focused on young adults, and taught by a young, semi-fluent adult. The former part of that is not exactly unheard of – there are several revitalization strategies that target adult learners – but it isn’t all that common either. Schools, and a focus on children, remain central in most contexts. The latter part is something that needs to be encouraged a lot more. There is sometimes a tendency to over-emphasize the need for teachers to themselves be fluent, first language speakers. I think, to a degree, this is something that linguists involved in documentation and revitalization initiatives need to be conscious of – since we are most interested in how the language is spoken by these folks, we might be guilty of perpetuating this idea of who ‘counts’ as a ‘real speaker’. The tendency in articles like this to enumerate the number of “fluent speakers” (often, as in this case, very low), and I rarely see counts of strong learners emerging, or even fluent second language speakers coming to be added to those counts.

This connects to a theme that Khelisem himself raised about the article, and about the way these language initiatives are talked about in general – by highlighting those involved as “saviours” of the languages.

As Khelisem further noted on Twitter, the framing of stories about Indigenous languages is always about their decline, rather than their strength. The number of people who speak Skwomesh has been on the rise for some time, but as with any minority language situation, this is never the story that gets told. On the one hand, I think this is embedded in colonialism – Indigenous ways of life are never seen as thriving, vibrant, and changing, they are always relics of the past, dying, and incompatible with the contemporary world. On the other, I think it also connects to the privileged status that first-language speakers have in these discussions. Since this group, still, is almost always elders, who are never getting any younger, the numbers only ever seem to go down. And then at the same time, the people learning or supporting the language don’t necessarily want to be seen as “missionaries”, as Khelisem puts it (as a non-Indigenous person involved in these initiatives, I am especially reluctant about this, but media outlets, quite frankly, love it). Learning the language is a highly political act that connects in vital ways to Indigenous rights and decolonization; it’s not necessarily about saving it.

The happy ending to that tweet is that in response to Khelisem’s emailed complaint about the framing, the article was revised to remove that “saviour” dynamic. I didn’t see the previous version, but I’m certainly heartened to see that this type of feedback was taken seriously by the CBC journalists.

Anyway, I could, and probably will, write for ages about this topic, but the short version is – yay Language House! I’m going to be making a donation to their campaign at their website, and certainly encourage anyone able to do the same.

Thoughts on a Pink Princess Party: Gender & Children


Sometimes being a parent influences my teaching and other times it is my parenting that is influenced by my being an anthropologist, a scientist, a teacher. I no longer know how to keep these roles separate, and indeed am not so uncomfortable when I fail to separate them.

We learn the appropriate ways of thinking and feelings behaving in our society through the process of enculturation. Similarly, socialization is the learning process for the skills we need to successfully interact in our social groups. Teaching gender as a social construct means that anthropologists recognize that socialization and enculturation teach us how we must behave as a gendered individual AND how to recognize other behaviours as gendered within a cultural context. This means that while we are assigned a gender at birth, we must learn what that means.

My husband and I assigned our kid a female gender at birth on the basis of their assigned sex at birth. We gave our kid a name that is identified as female within our culture. However, recognizing that the identities we are assigned at birth do not always “match” our personal identities as we grow and learn, we wanted to ensure our kid was exposed to diverse experiences, objects, and points of reference. Basically we wanted our kid to know that “female” does not necessarily mean sparkly, pink, princesses or other gender stereotypes. So books were purchased showing people in diverse rolls, with skin colours and hair textures and facial features and clothing etc. that are different from those represented in our household. Toys were selected without attention to which aisle in the store they came from. Cars, dinosaurs, dolls, balls, blocks, and costumes all had/have a place in our home. Awesomeness was defined based on personal interests. And it turns out that the last point is an important one.

See my daughter is a sparkly, pink, princess who is obsessed with all things Disney, and she wanted nothing more than a princess party for her fourth birthday. So that’s what she got – an over-the-top princess party. Now this post isn’t to brag about how great of a parent I am because that is far from the truth. It certainly does make clear the privilege I have on so many levels, because that I am privileged is the truth. What inspired this post is one of the things I saw in planning the party – I rented a princess.

It turns out that this is actually a thing (which will not surprise some of you with littles). You can rent an actor to come in full costume and character inspired by those, more often than not, belonging to the very large Disney universe to perform at your child’s party. There are several different companies in our city and each offer different takes on characters (to avoid copyright lawsuits) and packages. Unsurprisingly the more you spend, typically the more “stuff” that’s included in your package. I looked at the companies that focused on Princess Parties but some also had superhero or other characters available as part of their offerings.

What was extremely interesting to me was how the companies addressed gender.

Most companies clearly focused on stereotypes around not just princesses but females in western culture. Activities offered as parts of the packages included make overs, tea parties, and princess etiquette lessons. Some companies would note that other activities could be offered for boys in attendance but these mostly seemed to just include references to dress up items for knights and/or pirates. However some companies are trending towards a more gender inclusive approach.

While clearly a gendered term and while the actors who attend as princesses are female (they are meant to represent specific, beloved, and obsessed over characters), “princess” need not be defined nor represented exclusively as female. Several images used on promotional products for the company we went with show all children participating in various gender neutral activities such as face painting, crafting, singing, and dancing. Our princess painted the faces of any kid in attendance who wanted to have their face painted (I really appreciated the language of consent that was used “Would you like your face painted? May I touch your face?” btw) and offered two choices (shell or fish) based on her character’s world. The craft was for a crown or reindeer antlers because she “recently met a reindeer that another princess has and he was so cute [she] thought reindeer antlers would be perfect for our cold winter day”. She sang a song from “her” movie and read a story about “her” life. Only my daughter was referred to as “princess” because it was her birthday, all other kids were simply “friends”. So the “princess party” was themed to the character but not explicitly to a gender. Further it was inclusive in that the options were participation/non-participation based rather than female/male.

To wrap this up, my experiences with planning the perfect pink princess party as a parent and as an anthropologist reinforced the growing awareness that gender is a cultural construct. At the party I saw kids playing with a character that represented something important and meaningful to them – a princess who my kid described as friendly, fun, silly, kind, and who had a lovely voice. My kid saw qualities they liked, they aspire to embodied in that princess. I can’t find fault with my kid wanting to celebrate her birthday in a way that we might interpret as gendered but which she saw as simply “awesome”.

p.s. I  am also a little biased because I think one princess in particular is very awesome…


Note: I didn’t get compensated for this post. It is really hard to talk about princesses without mentioning Disney because let’s be real, they’ve locked the whole princess thing down!

The Lines of Sociolinguistic Decorum

Here’s the first thing: I love swearing. I mean that in both a personal and a professional sense. I love the act of swearing, but I also love the study of how swearing works. It’s an incredibly poetic area of language – people swear so creatively, anyone who says swearing is evidence of linguistic deficiency is simply not paying attention – and it’s also one where the linguistic and the social are clearly and inextricably intertwined.

Here’s the second thing: I make no qualms about my opposition to the political positions of Kellie Leitch, a candidate for federal Conservative Party leadership who has gone on record praising Donald Trump, and advocated a screening mechanism for immigrants on the basis of their presentation of “Canadian values”.


So this story – ‘Cuck’: a modern swear word that’s as dirty as the old ones –  and the very astute analysis that Leah McLaren brings to it, is another perfect storm about which I am just forced to write (Ed: this blog was your idea, not mine. Stop making it seem like you don’t want to be here). The story has been credited as one of the central forces that led to the resignation of Nick Kouvalis as Leitch’s campaign manager – no small feat for an article about words!

The thing this article really drives home is the complexity of what counts as a swear word and what that means for the usage patterns of different types of vulgar language or insults. As an example, McLaren notes that the word being discussed – ‘cuck’ – is, once you understand its meaning, so clearly vulgar and offensive that it’s surprising that it’s publishable in a respectable newspaper like the Globe and Mail. This highlights the inherent question that we’re dealing with when we think about swearing – is it the meaning that makes a word offensive, or is it the form? The short version is…both. And neither. And it depends. Some examples might help here.

  1. McLaren points to and clearly explains how the meaning associated with the use of “cuck” as a political insult is a) racist, b) sexist, and c) drawn from internet porn, which would seem to be an excellent recipe for “guaranteed taboo term in appropriate for polite contexts”. But it’s not disallowed from the newspaper she writes for (though some instances reporting on the Twitter exchange in question are prefaced with a “Warning: Vulgar Language Ahead” sign), primarily because the newspaper’s rules are based on the listing of forms, not meanings that are disallowed. The connections and connotations underlying neologistic forms would have to be argued as needing to be included on this list (a case that McLaren herself seems to be making with her article), as it seems like it wouldn’t make sense for an organization to list a set of meanings or connotations that are prohibited.
  2. There are any number of cases where we can replace a taboo word with one that is, in terms of denotation at least, semantically equivalent, and suddenly it’s ok. The referent for “shit”, “crap”, and even the childish “poo poo” are the same thing, so no matter how much we want to pretend that we forbid words on the basis of some kind of logical pattern of conceptual taboos, something else is definitely at work. That said, there is such a thing as euphemistic drift, whereby if a substitution is made often enough as a swearing replacement – “oh, crap” as an interjection meaning “bad thing just happened”, or “crappy” for something bad, in addition to just the literal meaning of the term – it comes to have some level of prohibition itself. A certain proportion of parents wouldn’t let their kids say “crap”, or in some circles, even “darn it”, any more than they would “shit” or “damn it”. Again, the meaning and sound relationship is complicated.
  3. I’m fascinated by how this plays out in terms of “what you can say on tv”. Battlestar Galactica‘s invented term “frak” was among the most interesting examples of this, as the term became a direct substitute for literally every possible time we would use “fuck” – “that fraking cylon”, “she fraked him”, “FRAK!” Again, from the network regulators’ perspective, it was clearly the form that was prohibited, rather than the meaning. There are segments of the population that clearly subscribe to this understanding of what makes certain words problematic – these were the ones who couldn’t get past the idea that it was the vulgarity of the word “pussy” that made that Donald Trump recording so upsetting.
  4. This form/meaning dynamic plays out in especially interesting ways when it comes to racial slurs – this is a topic that deserves a whole post of its own at some point, but for now, I’ll just plant the seed of thinking about how people draw on etymological arguments (accurate or otherwise) to make very specific claims about why the Washington football team’s name should be changed (preview note: I absolutely think it should be changed. I just don’t think the argument from etymology is the best claim to make for that).

In short, McLaren makes a great point about just how shocking it is, once you understand the implications, to hear the use of an insult like ‘cuck’, and I think Kouvalis was absolutely correct to resign on the basis that he is apparently incapable of modulating his language in a public, professional setting. And now I will watch with some care to see whether the word continues to be publishable in major Canadian newspapers, and think about what that says about our contemporary relationship with the semantics, rather than the phonetics of vulgarity.



New World Whatnow?

A couple of weeks ago, on the radio on my way to work, I heard an interview with a band called “New World Alphabet”, which struck a dissonant linguist-y chord with me.

The interviewer asked the band to explain their name, and while I’m paraphrasing the response here (because I was driving and couldn’t write it down verbatim immediately),
typewriter-1782062_960_720they seemed to invoke about four different linguistic points in their answer. Basically, they said “we all know somewhere between 12,000 and 30,000 words. And the only thing we need to do to change things is change the order of the words we use. If we change the order of the words, we change the way we think, and we can use that to change the world. So that’s the idea behind creating a New World Alphabet”. The interview had been recorded earlier, and so the host, when he came back live, said “I have no idea what any of that meant”. I have to admit, in some ways, I don’t either.

The most salient point seems to be an invocation of linguistic relativity, otherwise popularly known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which basically suggests that there is a relationship between the way we think and the structural properties of the language(s) we think in. While a lot of linguists dispute the idea entirely, it’s somewhat more accepted by anthropologists in their examination of the myriad ways that language and culture influence each other. It’s also an idea that gets transmitted an awful lot through science fiction, since in imagining radically different types of intelligent beings or ways of being human, it’s not unusual to also hit on the idea that we need to re-imagine how these beings might think and speak. I’m particularly fond of the feminist sci-fi novel Native Tongue by Suzanne Haden Elgin, as an example, but a more recent one appears in the movie Arrival (which I still haven’t seen [Ed.: Wait, what? How do you even call yourself a linguist and/or nerd, let alone a linguist nerd, if you haven’t seen this movie? SS: I know, okay, I try, but give me a break, I have a job and little people in my house who demand to be fed regularly. Ed.: Excuses, excuses, Shulist, I’m not sure I can take you seriously anymore. SS: That’s fair]).

This New World Alphabet articulation of how relativity works is less thoroughly developed, but definitely seems to apply far more force and conscious will to the relationship than would be supported among any type of language scholars. The focus on putting words in specific orders – and I’ve yet to see examples of how they would change word order to produce these world altering changes – seems to either defy the existence of grammatical rules (which would make people even more confused than the radio host in conversation with these people) or to suggest simply shifting ideas around would have a lot more transformative power than it ever possibly could.

And yet, okay, I can at least see the hazy version of what they’re getting at with this. What I still don’t understand is how that is manifested in an alphabet of all things. Alphabets (there are many) are writing systems, not thinking systems, and they’re not made of alphabet-1679750__340words, but of symbolic representations of sounds. All I can get to with this part is that it confirms how much Western assumptions about how language works massively oversell the role of literacy.

So on the one hand, it’s kind of cool when bands and movies and stuff take their inspiration from linguistics. On the other hand, please don’t try to actually learn linguistics from 45 second radio interview clips.

Sex, Sexuality, and Archaeology

Sex is important topic of study and framing device for inquiry. We reproduce sexually (even with advances in biotechnology and biomedicine). We define ourselves on the basis of our sex (though increasingly how we differentiate among sexes is being critiqued and challenged). We regulate sexuality – we formulate rules and taboos about who we can and cannot engage in sexual activities with and/or reproduce with, and also have what are/are not permissible sexual activities including in what context they may/may not occur. We may define our sexuality on the basis of these rules, which in term may be informed by and inform our sex and our gender.

Sex is clearly important, and what is important today likely was important in the past. However there are several problems with inferring sexual practices and sexuality from the archaeological record.

If you only read articles that pop up on social media, one could easily think that there is an abundance of evidence for sexual activities and sexuality in the past. Based on reports such as this one or this one or this older one the archaeological record is nothing but dildos, butt plugs, breasts, and “sexually explicit genitalia”. Some report these finds as art or as symbolic expression, while others suggest these objects represent something more along the lines of palaeoporn.

And indeed these objects are sexy…or are they? That’s one problem archaeologists face. How do we interpret these objects? What are they? What do they represent? What do they mean to the people who made and used them? In order to answer these questions, we must acknowledge our own biases around bodies, sex, sexuality, obscenity, and art.


Let’s start with the so-called “Venus” figurines as an example (the Venus of Willendorf is pictured to the right). How do we know that these figurines even represent females? We assume they do because they have large breasts and hips, and many, but not all, have genitalia that most identify as female. Several interpretations have focused on the signs of fertility suggested by the figures (large breasts and bellies); McDermott (1996) argued that these were self representations of females looking down on their own, possibly pregnant, bodies. Dixson and Dixson’s (2011) study suggests that these “obese” females are not meant as realistic depictions of females but rather symbols of hope for fertility, abundance, and survival during an ice age. However Soffer et al. (2000) elegantly demonstrate that we must look beyond the bodies as important information about textile industries can be inferred from caps, snoods, belts, etc. that many figures also illustrate. So we can rule out “Venus” figurines as necessarily and/or exclusively about sex and sexuality; this suggests our biases to read these figurines as females, around what a female looks like, that females are symbols of fertility, and to focus on their bodies and explicitly their bodies as necessarily tied to reproduction (i.e., pregnancy) are limiting.

The same assumptions also influence our interpretations of “male” objects, specifically of phalluses/phalli. Similar  connections to fertility are made and they are often assigned a possible function and use in sexual activity. Just because it is a phallus does not mean it was used as such! And just because it kinda looks like a penis to our modern eyes doesn’t mean its creator meant for it to represent one. Even modern artifacts are not free of this gut-reaction “it’s a penis” association, which says more about the cultural perspective of those making the association than that of the people who manufactured the object.

In the examples I present above our own heterosexual bias reveals itself – bodies are male or female, and males and females engage in sex to reproduce. Often our interpretations also reinforce heteronormativity. This is a problem too.

An example of the importance of developing interpretations beyond heterosexuality is that of Moche “erotic” pottery – I’d give you a second to google that but many would consider them NSFW so check out this wonderful summative blog post instead (still has “graphic” content but academically framed). Even when we encounter objects that are seemingly clear representations of sexuality and sexual practices, we still need to question what the makers intended. We have to remember that the makers of these vessels created them in a particular cultural context. While we may only see the performance of sexual acts, of sexuality, a person from that group could have read the object differently. This reading would be based on the knowledge of other cultural constructs of that time including power, politics, religion, dominance, and authority. Why do we treat Moche “erotic” pottery so different from our own forms of political commentary including political cartoons and caricatures? Imagine an archaeologist of the future attempting to understand any of our memes if they only focused on what is represented not why a particular cat/phrase/person is depicted, in that particular manner, in that medium.

We also cannot assume that our beliefs around what is obscene and what is art would apply to the past either. One can argue that objects may not have been studied in detail because they were considered obscene (or even just overtly sexual) to those who found them. Here cultural relativism becomes important. The “manko” art of Megumi Igarashi has gained international attention because she was arrested and charged with producing art that violates Japanese obscenity laws. Some members of her own culture call her 3D printed casts of her vagina obscene. One can only imagine what archaeologists of the future would think of them. Is it art? Is it obscene? How would one even begin to infer their purpose, the intention behind their creation? This news report argues that even how this contemporary case is reported on is subject to western bias about vaginas, phalluses, and Japanese culture. So if we cannot avoid ethnocentrism in the present, how can we avoid it in our interpretations of the past?

Finally we must consider the nature of the archaeological record itself and the problems that plague us in interpretation no matter what the subject, the artifact, the time, the place. It is an incomplete, fragmentary record. We would struggle to understand how sex and sexuality operates in our own culture on the basis of a scattering of anthropomorphic dolls without considering their context.

NOTE: I could go into how the language around how we even describe all of these objects is gendered but perhaps I’ll leave that to the Linguistic One.

References Cited

Dixson, A.F. and B.J. Dixson (2011) Venus Figurines of the European Paleolithic: Symbols of Fertility or Attractiveness? Journal of Anthropology (2011) Article ID 569120, 11 pages.

McDermott, L. (1996) Self-Representation in Upper Paleolithic Female Figurines. Current Anthropology 37(2):227-275.

Soffer, O., J.M. Adovasio, and D.C. Hyland (2000) The “Venus” Figurines: Textiles, Basketry, Gender, and Status in the Upper Paleolithic. Current Anthropology 41(4):511-537.