Student Guest Post: The Cat Kicks the Language Because it is Tired.

Shulist’s introduction: The following is a guest post by my student, Harry dal Bello, who was brave enough to work on constructing a language with me as an independent study project. The story behind this is that last year, after seeing the ConLanging documentary (which, as my review here noted, I loved), I was inspired to think about ways to use language creation in my teaching (and for fun, but I’ve had less time for fun lately).

Enter Harry. Harry has, from the first day of my introduction to linguistic anthropology class, had a passion for the topic, and in September, will be entering a graduate program at my own alma mater, the University of Western Ontario. Given that MacEwan has no courses in linguistics proper beyond the first year level, Harry lamented that he hadn’t had a chance to learn more about grammatical description and other key elements. And here was my guinea pig – an opportunity to use the ConLang creation process as a way to teach a lot about language in a relatively short period of time and a fun way. 

On the whole, it turns out it worked fairly well. We definitely had fun. We formed an informal “ConLang club”, and a few interested students joined us, and met weekly so that I could give a very quick lesson about different linguistic concepts – how do nouns work, what is agreement, what is case, whoa holy crap verbs, etc. Harry’s reflections on his first experience with ConLanging and learning about language in general are below. 

Language is hard. This is something I don’t think that people think about enough, just how complex this thing we call language is. We take it for granted every day that we are able to communicate with each other. There is an uncountable number of different systems at play when we use language. I just finished spending the last 4 months trying to make one from scratch and have acquired a whole new appreciation of just how complex language can really be. So when Shulist (the linguistic one) gave me the opportunity to look back on this project and write a post about it I jumped at the chance. I thought I’d take the time to give you some of the lessons I’ve learned along the way so hopefully you can avoid some of the pitfalls that caught me if you ever give it a try.  So without further ado I present: Tips for making a language from someone who’d never done it before.

  1. Know a language other than English (at least know someone who does)

Let’s take a quick detour to talk about the most commonly used word in the English language: “the”. How do you define “the”? Well the Miriam Webster dictionary does it in 507 words and only uses “the” 24 times to do it. Why so long? Because “the” does a lot in English: It’s a determiner we use for almost everything and yet it still finds time to be an adverb. “Harry”, I can see you asking, “what does this have to do with learning another language, let alone making one?” Well there are a lot of things a language has to do, and English make things like “the” and word order do a lot of it. This is great for us, but makes using English to make examples difficult. Learning a new language is hard, if it wasn’t we would all be polyglots, but I’m not saying you need to go out and become fluent in Portuguese. Even my tenuous grasp of Spanish grammar was invaluable when it came to understanding things like conjugating verbs and nouns.

  1. Get yourself some IPA (the alphabet not the beer)

Do you have a favourite sound? Mine is probably either / n / or / ʃ / . Now if you just sounded those out in your head as you read them then you can probably skip this section but for the rest of us: let’s chat about IPA. The International Phonetic Alphabet was an invaluable invention to linguists everywhere, a universal set of glyphs that corresponded to every possible human mouth sound. A way to bypass cumbersome Latin alphabet transcription. There is only one problem: It’s not very user friendly.

This is something I can’t stress enough: if you have no experience with IPA you are going to have a hard time making a language that sounds like anything other than English, a problem you are going to have anyways. While you are at it start to play with sounds, see if you can make some of the strange ones (read: any missing from English) by arranging your mouth in the right shape. This aspect of language making is probably the one that will get you the most weird looks, I know I got some when I spent a 3 hour flight trying to untangle the difference between / ɳ / and / ɲ /. Don’t worry about it though, because a good grasp of what symbol sounds like what and why will save you a ton of time down the line.

  1. How does your cat sit? (use example sentences)

When I started my language I had no idea what I wanted it to sound like, let alone what it’s structure would be, but I quickly started to fill out long list of parts you need to make a functional languge. How big is this list? I’m still not sure, but It certainly isn’t all written somewhere for you to read. This is where Example Sentences come in to play. Starting with short, simple ones, come up with a list of phrases that you would like to be able to say in your language. From there take a crack at translating them. Uh oh, you can’t translate this sentence because you forgot about pluralization? Well guess what, now you can add pluralization to that list of things to do. Using this method of trial and error I was able to find what I had finished and what I was missing in a way that is easy to visualize.

Cat sits /sɨh ɵoɳ wol/
Cat eats rat /loh ɵoɳ wol ɲɨlɵoɳ/
The cat eats the rat because it is tasty /loh ɵoɳ wol  ɲɨlɵoɳ ɵolɨlan/

Above are a few of my example sentences with English on the left and / ʃɨðʎom / (read something like sh-ith-yom) on the right. Note how I keep as many words the same between sentences as I can. This is so I can avoid having to make to many words up while I am still playing with the grammar. It would suck to come up with a whole collection of plural nouns just to later decide that you don’t need them. This way I can focus on just filling out what I need to make a fully functioning grammar. This is actually the biggest perk of example sentences. They let you slowly put together your  language in a modular way, so that even if you don’t have verb conjugation sorted out (like I don’t) you can still see how it works in a practical situation.

  1. Verbs do things. LOTS of things. (and this makes them hard)

In the over 4 months I worked on this project I found again and again that verbs only made things harder. Verbs were about as complex as nouns but three fold. Think back to your last English grammar lesson: what were the parts of a sentence? Well you had verbs and nouns, nouns were things and verbs were what those things did. Simple right? Well not so much unfortunately. English teachers have been lying to us for YEARS now telling us that “verbs are action words” when they are so much more than that. If a noun is a thing then a verb is what you know about that thing, what it does, what it’s like, how it feels, all kinds of stuff. These are just the beginning as well. Verbs can (and often do) encode all kinds of other information such as tense, gender, number, aspect, mood (don’t get me started on modality), voice, and any number of other grammatical categories.  Add adverbs to the mix and things get even worse. In fact a lot of things we call adverbs are just stuff that didn’t fit in another category. So enough doom and gloom about verbs then, whats my advice about them? Well unfortunately I don’t have much except: worry about it later. I haven’t even made a verb system for my language yet. Don’t get bogged down trying to perfect your verbs until after you sort your nouns out. If you are working with example sentences like I recommended then just make some placeholder and don’t worry about conjugating. This is exactly what I did, and you can see it in my above examples If you look close enough. You can always leave verbs to another day.

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Student Guest Post: A Peer’s Wry on Netflix’s Queer Eye

Editor’s note: This guest post comes from our student Becky, who has revised it from a piece of work for Dr. Shulist’s ANTH308 class on Language, Gender, and Sexuality. As your usual bloggers are currently digging their way out of the end-of-term grading pile/why-won’t-it-stop-snowing grumpy funk, it’s great to be able to highlight some of the insights our students are bringing. Also, this editor is putting Queer Eye on the Netflix queue for a post-term binge-watch (thanks, students!). 

 

To preface this, I would like to admit that I’m an avid viewer of all things transformative in nature in reality TV set-ups. There’s something so appealing in seeing someone’s life get turned around in 40 minutes or less- especially if you consider yourself a before rather than an after effort.

(Side note: HGTV producers, if you’re out there, call me.)

Netflix’s Queer Eye certainly offers all this and more. The show’s premise is that a group of five gay self-identified men come to renovate a straight self-identified male individual’s life through multiple focuses like food, culture, style, and home renovation; Hence to what the title refers to, in giving a queer eye for the straight guy.

It makes for an entertaining concept, but it became all the more compelling to start this series right we started to discuss the concept of masculinity in one of my anthropology classes.

At it’s most basic, masculinity is the association to what is culturally assumed in being a ‘man’. Masculine ontology would therefore be one’s pursuit to be a man (in establishing particular associations linked within masculinity). But, being a man means different things, which diversifies masculinity in how it relates to the relevant cultural discourses at play that are created through the social practices of those that enact them. There’s a dominant discourse but there are always competing discourses that create these conflicting ways people may express their masculinity.

In Kielsing’s (2005) article, men’s talk is described to respond and recreate four main cultural discourses that surround the dominant discourse of masculinity. While these cultural discourses – gender differences, heterosexism, dominance, male solidarity – are examined through the language community of an American fraternity, let us now turn to Tom, from the first episode of Queer Eye.

In episode one, the ‘Fab 5’ introduce a middle-aged man from Georgia named Tom. What follows is how Tom reacts to the group’s questioning of Tom’s choices, and a push towards a competing discourse that works to challenge what Tom uses, while also making continuous acknowledgment of the dominant discourses. In this respect, this parallels to what Kiesling also describes, that when one engages with a competing discourse, one can still find themselves evaluated in reference to the dominant discourses withstanding. So no matter what you choose sooner or later you’re going to have to acknowledge the bulking frat-boy in the room.

Towards the beginning we get a sense of the schema of what Tom identifies as part of his self through repeated use of words like redneck, ugly, country, old, and fat. Based on what Tom uses to describe himself, there’s a lack of self-confidence is readily apparent. This is where I question Tom’s use of gender difference as Tom often uses his ex-wives as those behind many of his stylistic choices, in that there is some innate separation between caring for one’s appearance (and home) to being separate from masculine. Tom’s lack of confidence and physical masculinity is oddly balanced towards gender difference as having that relation to his masculine identity both negatively and positively impacting his confidence.

Further in the episode, when Bobby mentions to Tom that he’s been married to his partner of 13 years, Tom questions if Bobby is the ‘wife’ or the ‘husband’ of the relationship. In seeing Bobby as masculine, Tom still assumes a degree of heterosexuality despite the fact that Bobby is very direct about the whole husband-husband thing. To rectify Bobby’s masculinity then, Tom assumes a positionality relatable to a hetero-relationship. From previous experience with a similar line of questioning (y’know, the ‘who wears the pants’ debacle) this brings up the subordination of the woman role as being natural by placing an association to the dominating role as masculine.

This also comes to naturalize the heterosexual relationship as the representative of all relationship types. The straight couple is the original, and everything outside of that is just a spin-off series.

Moving back here, Tom also briefly demonstrates the cultural discourse of male solidarity. This is particularly emphasized by his group, the ROMEOS, or the “Retired Old Men Eating Out” … and I’m trying not to think too hard on that one.

This group represents Tom and other retired old men who meet up once a week to eat out at a restaurant, who then go and admire each other’s classic cars. Judging from these activities, there isn’t any necessarily that would suggest a gender divide to being necessary, but the important of male solidarity is emphasized by the men as being important. I mean, it’s in the title!

Besides forming the basis of Tom’s social life (in exclusion to his grandson, and his ex-wife) they’re also a heavy influencer on what social practices therefore become acceptable to establish the types of social practices to engage in. When he is recorded with a group of men, he often uses swears to accentuate his speech patterns and play into his physical masculinity.

These social practices are part of the journey the Fab 5 take on with Tom. By accepting some of the discourse that the ‘Fab 5’ utilizes for themselves, and encourages in Tom, we see a difference between Tom and the fellow ROMEOs at the end of the episode. When he is presented to the men, he is complimented with a degree of emotional restraint to the achievement of his transformation by the men merely pointing out changes (“Look at that beard”) or veiled compliments in the form of insults (“You look vaguely familiar”). Tom instead is openly boisterous and presents himself with a right bit of flair. Tom reflects on these changes when he says goodbye to the ‘Fab 5’, in stating his experiences of being open with them and himself, hoping to continue this into the future.

So, while there isn’t necessarily all four of the dominant cultural discourses present that Kiesling has outlined—there’s certainly some recognizable parallels to be drawn. Tom is definitely one of the more relaxed straight individuals that are introduced on the show, and there certainly isn’t too much push in getting him to accept the group’s mentalities. What I am suggesting still is the balance between how masculinity is practiced and conceived within the narrative of the show, as it dissects how these various men actively construct and promote their identities.

Maybe there’s a little more anthropological footwork at play than the show recognizes, but then again, that’s what nerdy bloggers are for.

 

References

Kiesling, Scott Fabius. (2005) “Homosocial desire in mens talk: Balancing and re-creating cultural discourses of masculinity”. Language in Society 34 (5): 695-726. doi:10.1017/s0047404505050268.

Guest Post: “Action, Collegiality, & Courage: An Open Letter to the Participants of Currents”

Editor’s Note: This guest post was written by Dr. Katherine Sinclair, Anthropology Assistant Professor. She kindly submitted it in response to an open call Drs. Shulist and Biittner made at the Currents conference following their keynote address. Drs. Shulist and Biittner encouraged all of the conference participants and their faculty colleagues to write for AnthropologyAs. We all hope that Dr. Sinclair’s post will be the first of many future contributions to come out of Currents. 

KS2

I’ll admit it: I struggled a little bit to get out of bed last Saturday, March 3.

I threw open my curtains to see a snowstorm. Add to that the fact that it was my birthday, and I thought this was the perfect recipe to stay home with my current book, my favourite sweatshirt, and (unfortunately) a pile of grading. I try to set aside a bit of time each year on my birthday to think about how I want my next year to look, and Saturday morning seemed like a good moment to do that reflection.

However, this year I had a conference to attend! The MacEwan Anthropology, Economics, and Political Science student conference. I had been lucky enough to be invited to be a discussant.

This conference takes place every year and is organized by the effervescent, optimistic, and boundlessly encouraging Dr. Franca Boag. Dr. Boag solicits abstracts from students at MacEwan, but also students from Mount Royal, the University of Calgary, universities in Saskatchewan, and probably more that I’m not aware of. To say that this amount of work is vast, and the success of the conference impressive, would be an understatement.

The title of the conference this year was Currents: A Transdisciplinary Undergraduate Conference about Flows, Movement, and Directions. Like the title promises, the papers were diverse, ranging from discussions about the intersections of humans with the environment, questions of gender and the #metoo movement, meditations on race and racism, concerns about economic equality, and finally to material culture. Despite this diversity, the papers flowed together and moved in similar directions within each panel.

It is, unfortunately, impossible to outline each of the excellent and insightful papers here, so what I would like to do instead is draw out the currents that brought some of these papers together, the insights they offered for anthropology, and how they helped me tether my own day in the context of my upcoming year in unexpected ways. One of the goals of this post is to honour the students who participated. The other goal is to communicate to them, and others, how inspiring I found the conference to be.

The first thing to say is the quality of scholarship of the papers on the panels. I know that many hours of work went into these presentations, and it showed.

The second thing that struck me about these papers was their focus on action. Anthropology has at times been critiqued as inward focused, and neither ready nor willing to contribute ideas to work towards solutions of local and global problems. While this has changed in some realms of anthropology, it remains a trend in some areas. What I saw in the conference convinced me that this current truly is changing. Strong scholarship was tied with suggested courses of action and movement. The focus on social change – both already existing and potential for the future – was striking. Rather than an air of cynicism, the conference sparked with hope and optimism.

As the day went on, the next aspect of the conference that resonated with me was the collegiality of the students, an area that academia broadly can on occasion struggle. Conferences and other public platforms can be used as a moment to critique the work of others in an attempt to bolster one’s own image. Who hasn’t attended that session where someone asks question that is significantly longer than any response could be, and should be bracketed by footnotes referencing their own work along with prestigious academic names? In the Currents conference, questions were asked respectfully, thoughtfully, and answered in the same fashion.

Finally, and perhaps most powerfully, the courage the student participants manifested during the conference was one of aspects of the day I found most inspiring. I saw this courage on many different fronts. First of all, having the courage to submit an abstract. One of my Ph.D. professors once told me that to be an academic means to be able to wallpaper your office with rejection letters, and too often that process starts at the undergraduate level. To reflect, to write, and to apply for a conference can therefore already a moment of overcoming uncertainty.

To then present that very paper – that one has dedicated many hours to researching, writing, subjecting to self-critique, running through with peers, family members, professors, and more – in front of an audience is itself an act of courage. Aside from the fear of public speaking, putting one’s ideas to a group always has an element of uncertainty.

Finally, as someone who tends to be reserved in nature and private arguably to a fault, the act of revealing one’s self to the group was one of the aspects of courage during the day that I found most inspiring. Whether it was talking about research, answering questions, or sharing one’s own personal story, every student who presented that day manifested it.

This conference, then, not only provided me with that very moment of reflection I needed for my next year, but also gifted me with something unexpected: coming away truly inspired. Inspired to be courageous, in my thinking, acting, and relationships with others. Inspired to be a good colleague in the workplace and a good friend socially. And finally, to try to inspire others, as the very students I have the privilege of interacting with everyday inspired me at this conference. Currents for my next year, indeed.