Conscious Word Creation

Members of primarily English-speaking communities (and those of many other large, widely-spoken, culturally dominant languages) rarely encounter a situation in which their language doesn’t have a word for something they need to say. Sure, there are the proverbial “untranslatable” words (which is a whole other thing to unpack, really), but English does have a word for the German-associated emotional concept of ‘schadenfreude’. It’s schadenfreude. If the term can be the title and central focus of a Broadway song, it’s pretty thoroughly integrated into our lexicon. In any case, when we encounter a situation where we don’t feel like we have a word for something, we borrow it, or we make one up. All speakers are essentially able to make words up; the question of whether they are taken up broadly and clearly enough to really ‘count’ as lexical items in that language is the one that dictionary-makers wrestle with constantly (I will almost certainly have a post about whatever word becomes the cause of outcry when it is authenticated as a ‘real word’ by Oxford, or Websters, or whatever, next year).

Speakers of very small languages have a fundamentally different experience. One of the defining features of a language that is losing ground to one or more dominant others is that it becomes used in fewer and fewer domains or contexts. It is less likely to be spoken in schools, in political leadership, in media, in business, in courts of law, in medical centres, etc. A common goal of language revitalization and reclamation is to bring it back into all areas of life for its speakers. In trying to do this, speakers and learners often encounter situations in which no one knows the word for a given concept – in some cases because it never existed (like with words for newer technology) and in some cases because it’s been forgotten as no one has used the language in those domains for several generations. In these cases, the stakes are different – borrowing words from the dominant language might be fine, sometimes, or for some languages, but there is often the (legitimate) fear that this will simply result in the complete use of those dominant languages because they’re ‘easier’. Inventing new words can be fine, but usually, there isn’t the body of speakers who can take the word for a test drive and see if it works in context; in addition, many communities have different beliefs about who has the authority to create new contributions to the language (it may be Elders, it may be a group of local linguists, it may be a community as a whole). The values that inform what makes one form a ‘good’ representation of its meaning are often deeply rooted in the cultural framework.

All this is to lead up to what I think is an especially lovely example of conscious, considered word creation, discussed in this short article about New Maori words for disabilities and mental health conditions. The story describes the specific words for ‘autism’ as translating directly as ‘his/her own time and space’ and for what we call ‘disability’ as ‘to have ability, otherly abled, enabled’. It clearly describes the values underlying these choices – consultation with the community of people the words describe, with the goal of having them feel inclusion, safety, and lack of judgment from their potential health caregivers. It also drop some information between the lines about how both Maori language and whanau health are being addressed as parts of a broader approach to improvement in their lives. Language development is a process incorporated within mental health initiatives, not one that is being done by linguists and then stapled on to these other concerns. In other words, language is embedded in understandings of health and wellbeing, and in treatment for health concerns. In addition, the ‘preferred language’ of Maori is being welcomed into these domains, so even where people may be fluently bilingual, they are able to access vital services that support their greatest vulnerabilities based on preference and comfort.

At the same time, there are elements of the process that tweak my anthropological eye, notably that the idea of ‘autism’ is treated as a straightforward, translatable concept, without addressing the implications of such a diagnosis as a socially-embedded phenomena. Some insights from medical anthro would be very welcome here. There’s also the pattern of reporting the ‘meaning’ of newly invented terms using the more literal gloss into English. Obviously, this is a phenomenon based in the use of English for reporting, but its widespread prevalence deserves more scrutiny than it gets. This isn’t to return to the ‘untranslatability’ trope mentioned above, but it is to note that translation is much more nuanced than this framing might suggest. There is often a notion that by presenting these kinds of glosses, we English speakers are able to gain a clear insight into the cultural world of speakers of these languages, when that strikes me as dismissive of the full weight of socially embedded meaning. This makes sense for short, journalistic reports, of course, but is something I see in more academic work in the area, and it is definitely something we need to think about changing.

(PS. Shortly after I bookmarked this post, I saw someone tweet about disliking the word for autism in one of the Canadian Indigenous languages – I believe it was Anishnaabemowim – but my internet research skills are suffering from summer atrophy and I lost it. If anyone knows anything about words for these concepts in other Indigenous languages, I would be very interested in expanding this discussion).


Snapshots of Multilingualism

As I write this, I’m sitting in an airport in Brussels waiting for a flight back to Toronto. I’ve spent the last week mainly in Barcelona, attending the First International Conference on the Revitalization of Indigenous and Minority Languages. My brain and my heart are both full and energized by great conversations, interesting presentations, and supportive colleagues (both familiar and newly encountered).

In addition to the book-learning that was happening, though, being in highly multilingual spaces (first Barcelona, and then a day in Brussels due to stopover scheduling) with highly multilingual (and language-savvy) people meant that even the simplest interactions included linguistic negotiations, moving between or across different languages, and meaning making not only through the words chosen, but the codes chosen to say them in. Some snapshots to capture my point:

  • The opening of the conference was delivered in Catalan, Spanish, English, and Quechua. Some of the speakers self-translated what they had said from one language into another, while others used one to say some things, then said different things in another of the languages, and still others used one of the languages and stopped. There were Catalan sign language translators for these and the plenary sessions, and I was incredibly impressed with their ability to translate from multiple languages (the only one that vexed them was Quechua).
  • Mutual intelligibility across romance languages gets really interesting when you throw in some of the lesser known languages. One conference presenter, Guillem Belmar Viernes, a native Catalan speaker, told me how joyful he felt being able to speak Catalan with a speaker of Lombard (a Northern Italian language), and understanding each other perfectly (an interactional variety I called ‘Lombardalan’). Another linguist mentioned that he had taken a year of Catalan language classes in his undergraduate days, and that the prerequisite was one year of either French or Spanish, because the instructor used the two to triangulate to the in-between point of Catalan.
  • At the absolute opposite end of the language-learning technique spectrum were some Indigenous language instructors and teachers who emphasized the need to move away from the use of previously known languages like English (especially since the differences between these is likely to create far more confusion than bridging). I was in a group of people, speaking English, and as we got into an elevator a stranger also stepped in, and the very inspiring Cherokee language professor that was with us, Ben Frey, immediately told the stranger, entirely in Cherokee, that he liked his hat. The stranger was evidently confused, but Ben simply repeated his statements with more gestures and a bit slower. “Context-based language teaching”, Ben said when I complimented him on the interaction. I mentally filed this away under the category of “awesome”.
  • While almost everyone I encountered was very comfortable using English to interact with tourists like myself, I still prefer to make an effort to communicate using one of the local languages. In Spain, this meant fumbling through Spanish mainly by way of Portuguese, which worked a lot of the time but also caused people to give me odd looks. At one point, I was asking a fellow customer to help figure out which lineup I needed to be in, and we were both using somewhat broken Spanish and a lot of gestures…and about 30 seconds after that was finished I heard him talking to his family in Brazilian Portuguese.
  • My day in Brussels tells me it is a really interesting linguistic place, at least in the tourist area, and probably elsewhere as well. The number of different languages being spoken around me, on the train, in the museum, and in the chocolate shops, was just staggering. The way this shows up in stores and restaurants, like the Korean “Chez Kimchi” just outside my hotel, or the photo below, would be especially fun to unpack. Another instance of minor mutual intelligibility in the Romance languages emerged, as I went to an Italian restaurant and one of the two servers primarily used Italian to speak to me, while I responded in French. I didn’t see the same degree of similarity across the Germanic languages, as it seemed German speakers would switch to English to interact with service personnel, rather than attempting Flemish.

All of these snapshots give examples of how multilingualism is far more complicated than most people generally assume. There aren’t bounded spaces for using specific languages, and there aren’t even clear boundaries on how languages are divided from each other within interactions. Languages and multilingualism are made up of how they’re used, and people are endlessly fascinating in how they do that.

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.

They Who Shall Not Be Named: Taboos, In-Laws, and the Maintenance of Cultural Order

Cultures around the world use language in richly varied ways to form and define social relationships, hierarchies, and maintain a sense of order. One example of a linguistic practice that seems incredibly challenging and opaque to many Western folks is popularly referred to as “mother-in-law” speech. Bryant Rousseau recently gave a pretty decent overview of what this means in the NY Times, in an article called “Talking to In-Laws Can Be Hard. In Some Languages, It’s Impossible“.

As the article quickly illustrates, it’s less interesting to note that there are specific cultural restrictions on how, or even whether, you are allowed to speak to your spouse’s parents, and that where such restrictions exist they are often applied in gendered ways. What’s more interesting is the fairly widespread practice that extends this restriction to saying the names of in-laws, or even to names that sound like those names – possibly forbidding pronunciation of the same root, or the same opening syllable, or even the same first sounds (the article says “letters”, but that is, of course, an example of literacy-based thinking that doesn’t accurately describe what the author intends). Although the article uses the fear of in-laws as an amusing framing device, name taboos aren’t limited to the names of in-laws – they may even prohibit married women from using their own husbands’ names, or forbid the use of deceased people’s names, or insist that particularly powerful individuals should not be named (as the title of this post indicates, this idea has crept in to English speaking popular literature). To an extent, we can even see this avoidance in our own Anglo North American systems for encoding respect – we restrict the use of first names, for example, and ask that honorifics (Mr. Somethingorother, Dr. Soandso) be used as a substitution.

With any situation of taboo words, there are strategies people use to communicate their meanings that don’t require them to break restrictions. Sometimes this involves simple substitutions, sometimes it involves borrowing from neighbouring languages – it always involves creative practices that allow the speaker to say what they mean without violating norms.

Rousseau’s article does a good job describing the range of such practices in different contexts, but to my mind gives short shrift to the most interesting element of all – why do these practices exist? In other words, what’s the social function of name taboos, and what is being accomplished with the acts of avoidance and substitution that affected speakers use? By focusing only on in-laws, he emphasizes the relationship between these taboos and the expression of respectful deference, but shame and social consequences aren’t the only possible reasons for avoidance. Think again of He Who Shall Not Be Named – in the wizarding world, naming that person is an act that risks giving him power in a literal sense, helping him to be reconstituted into a physical form. These kinds of magical consequences and invocations may also be among the reasons for avoiding certain names.

While certainly oversimplifying, the idea that names carry exceptional power is a robust enough cross cultural pattern that we can make a few generalizations about why it happens and what it tells us about language. First, we use avoidance to define specific relationships, and because personal names refer to specific individuals, this category of word is especially ripe for exploitation in this regard. Second, there is a relatively common pattern that sees power expressed through the use of the particular sounds, not in relation to the meaning those sounds refer to. This is why you see items that are phonetically associated with the taboo names also restricted, but not, generally speaking, semantically associated ones (and in fact, it’s those semantic and descriptive connections that speakers draw on for substitutions). Even though “He Who Shall Not Be Named” has come, in the Potterverse, to function as a referent to one particular individual, and thus indicate the exact same meaning, Harry still shocks everyone by defiantly choosing to utter the synonymous sounds Voldemort. Finally, the practice of taboo avoidance works to performatively create, reinforce, and structure the meaning and nature of power in multiple senses of the word, including social hierarchy, spiritual distance, and, well, magic.

Language is central to the maintenance of order in given cultural worlds, including both appropriate expectations for behaviour in certain relationships and deeply-rooted spiritual meanings connected to the boundary between life and death, the protection of health and well-being, and the bringing into being of desired effects (or the avoidance of undesired ones). It’s not just about your in-laws – not being named can be an enormous form of power.

(For those with academic access, several examples and some of the analysis used here come from the following article: Fleming, L. (2011) “Name Taboos and Rigid Performativity” Anthropological Quarterly 84 (1):141-164



On Curses


What is more fitting for Friday the 13th than a post on archaeological sites and curses? NOTHING I SAY!

I’m inspired by this post, which describes the horrible experiences of the archaeologists who “discovered” the cursed City of the Monkey God in Honduras. Without rehashing the article here, that the experiences of these archaeologists was deemed worthy of a news story is likely because of one simple truth: 1) archaeology is sexy af.

But seriously, popular culture loves the idea of the brave (usually white, usually male – another post!) archaeologist who finds a lost city/tomb/temple. Of course this mysterious yet incredibly valuable site was left untouched through the ages by indigenous populations because of tales of curses and traps associated with it (Ed: how can something be “lost” if local people are aware of it? KB: Yeah that’s absolutely another post!). Many of us end up in archaeology because of these popular depictions…

A brief example: The Curse of King Tut’s Tomb. The allegedly”early and unnatural” deaths of Lord Carnarvon and several other people associated with the discovery of King Tutankhamen’s tomb have been attributed to the “Pharoah’s Curse”. While few Egyptian dynastic period tombs have been found inscribed with curses, no such curse-related inscription was ever found in Tut’s tomb. Many of the deaths were of older individuals  with tenuous connections to the project, who never went near the tomb. But google”Curse of King Tut’s Tomb” and you’ll get over 269,000 results including links and references to dozens of films, comics, and books. Clearly we love this story.

To be fair, most explanations of the “curse” do not focus on nor attribute deaths of people associated with tombs or other archaeological sites and project to supernatural causes. It has been shown that ancient mummies, for example, do indeed carry mould, such as the genus Apergillus, that can be deadly. But the connection between the illnesses or other misadventures of the archaeologists is always made back to the curse if possible.

The reality is archaeological field work IS dangerous! Every archaeologist has their stories. At my very first field school, on a Friday the 13th (no lie!) I climbed down into my excavation unit (2 m below datum) and found a dead mouse and a black widow spider. Ominous signs indeed! I once lost twenty pounds in just three weeks as a 19 year old consulting archaeologist thanks to illness caused by giardia (don’t drink unfiltered, untreated water kids! This is NOT a recommended weight loss plan). In Tanzania, I was stung by a large black wasp three times in thigh after it crawled up my pants; I was in a moving vehicle at the time so once I driver stopped I hopped out and dropped my pants in the middle of town to free the wasp. While my thigh and dignity were hurt, I was relatively unharmed by the vicious attack but still carry a reminder of it – the three spots where it stung me still “raise” up every time I have an allergic reaction to something. So infections, illnesses, diseases, and animals (don’t get me started on bears, and moose, and earwigs…) do pose serious threats to our health and safety when working in the field.

We are also put at risk by the places we work in and the very things we do. We dig. Trenches can collapse. We utilize dangerous vehicles (quads, trucks, helicopters) to get to areas that can be far from medical care or intervention. Archaeologists actually have so much to worry about do we really need to add “curses” to the list?

Well maybe.

As an anthropologist, I understand the value of curses. Curses can be used to explain misfortune, to threaten individuals, to prevent and/or to justify certain behaviours or actions, or to exercise power, particularly when one feels powerless. Curses are powerful whether you believe in them or not. For example, you don’t have to believe that Friday the 13th is a day of misfortune, but if a series of unfortunate events (*wink wink*) were to befall you on this very day, you may be more inclined to chalk it up to the date than just a typical bad day. This illustrates that it is not just that curses make for a sensational story (about a project that is already pretty darn interesting imo) but that curses are important and valued in many societies.

May your Friday the 13th be curse free.