The drama and the invented language

Fascinating read in the New Yorker about invented languages – most of which fail -and the other dramas surrounding them. The main focus is Ithkuil, a language invented by John Quijada, but broadly describes conlangs (constructed languages) and their inventors and adherents, sprinkled with interesting linguistic or language facts (George Soros is a native speaker of Esperanto!)

Unlike earlier philosophers and idealists, who believed that their languages could perfect humanity, modern conlangers tend to create their languages primarily as a hobby and a form of self-expression. Jim Henry, a retired software developer from Stockbridge, Georgia, keeps a diary and prays in his constructed language, gjâ-zym-byn. If there is a god paying attention, he is the language’s only other speaker.

Many conlanging projects begin with a simple premise that violates the inherited conventions of linguistics in some new way. Aeo uses only vowels. Kēlen has no verbs. Toki Pona, a language inspired by Taoist ideals, was designed to test how simple a language could be. It has just a hundred and twenty-three words and fourteen basic sound units. Brithenig is an answer to the question of what English might have sounded like as a Romance language, if vulgar Latin had taken root on the British Isles. Láadan, a feminist language developed in the early nineteen-eighties, includes words like radíidin, defined as a “non-holiday, a time allegedly a holiday but actually so much a burden because of work and preparations that it is a dreaded occasion; especially when there are too many guests and none of them help.”

The underlying structure of the language is largely glossed over, although the broad brush strokes are compelling. Most languages have cool tools, little aspects that make it more interesting than other languages, be it situational or grammatical or in lexicon. In Ithkuil Quijada attempted to bring together all of these linguistic wonders into a single language – and then, having read the cognitive linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s “Metaphors We Live By,” attempted to make a language precise, to remove the need for metaphor.

Quijada opened his presentation the next morning by showing an image of Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2,” a seminal work of Cubist painting, which captures a figure in motion with abstract lines and planes. It’s not an easy work to describe in any language, but Quijada wanted to demonstrate how one would attempt the task in Ithkuil.

He began with several of the language’s root words: -QV- for person, -GV- for clothing, -TN- for an implement that counters gravity, and -GW- for ambulation, and showed how to transform those roots through each of the language’s twenty-two grammatical categories to arrive at the six-word sentence “Aukkras êqutta ogvëuļa tnou’elkwa pal-lši augwaikštülnàmbu,” which translates roughly to “An imaginary representation of a nude woman in the midst of descending a staircase in a step-by-step series of tightly integrated ambulatory bodily movements which combine into a three-dimensional wake behind her, forming a timeless, emergent whole to be considered intellectually, emotionally, and aesthetically.”

When Quijada is invited to the conference “Creative Technology: Perspectives and Means of Development,” to speak on Ithkuil, he discovers that it is now being used by an odd sect of quasi intellectuals based in a Buddhist state, influential on anti Semitic Ukrainian terrorists and using Ithkuil to literally think different.

“We think that when a person learns Ithkuil his brain works faster,” Vishneva told him, in Russian. She spoke through a translator, as neither she nor Quijada was yet fluent in their shared language. “With Ithkuil, you always have to be reflecting on yourself. Using Ithkuil, we can see things that exist but don’t have names, in the same way that Mendeleyev’s periodic table showed gaps where we knew elements should be that had yet to be discovered.”

Really makes Esperanto seem so run of the mill, doesn’t it?

You can read Quijada’s text online Ithkuil: A Philosophical Design for a Hypothetical Language or purchase the 450 page book from the same site.

On disappearing scripts

Medium is a new online forum or format that I’ve been seeing more and more writing of note on, Quinn Norton’s essay collection is an example of some of the most interesting online writing at the moment. Smart, savvy, independent, thoughtful, nuanced.

This week I stumbled across another piece of note for language nerds, about the potential demise of the Urdu script nastaliq – one of the Persian scripts of note, still found in parts of Afghanistan, Western China, Pakistan and India:

…Urdu, a South Asian language spoken by anywhere between 100 — 125 million people in Pakistan and India, and one of Pakistan’s two official languages. Urdu is traditionally written in a Perso-Arabic script callednastaliq, a flowy and ornate and hanging script. But when rendered on the web and on smartphones and the entire gamut of digital devices at our disposal, Urdu is getting depicted in naskh, an angular and rather stodgy script that comes from Arabic. And those that don’t like it can go write in Western letters.

Here’s a visual comparison taken from Wikipedia.

Nastaliq v. Naskh. Courtesy Wikpedia.

Looking at the picture, the discerning eye may immediately realize why naskh trumps nastaliq on digital devices. With its straightness and angularity, naskh is simply easier to code, because unlike nastaliq, it doesn’t move vertically and doesn’t have dots adhering to a strict pattern. And we all know how techies opt for functionality.

I’m glad the writer goes further, finding the fascination of a language Romanized (the romance of a language romanized), although makes the following claim which I found odd, emphasis mine:

Writing in Roman letters also makes it easier to switch in and out of English. As an example, take a recent Tweet by the human rights activist Sana Saleem: “If you’ve read my tweets, or my work, I hardly ever cuss. Sorry about that, par bus boat hogaya, buss kardo bass.”

To me, as a writer, that is an astonishing piece of text. Not only are we looking at two languages collapsed into one, but the Romanized part is a language that has not yet been formalized; it is literally under construction due to the pressure exerted by the exigencies of the internet.

The implication that the English language is somehow fully formalized and is protected from the vagaries of the internet is just incorrect – it has been three years since Superlinguo dropped I can has language play on us – but even further, English is still being contested offline. Online is just giving younger people greater sway in that contest.

It’s also not that surprising or astonishing a concept to almost anyone that speaks a second or third language – I presume anyway. As someone that speaks small amounts of three or four other languages, inter lingual word play has always been a source of humour, power and poetry.

Despite this minor quibble, it’s a fascinating insight into the deep search that humans go on when confronted with so much knowledge, leading the author unsuccessfully to the doors of Apple and the, surprisingly successfully, to the doors of Microsoft.

It’s a great reminder of how fragile a language or culture can be – despite the ubiquity of information and knowledge online.

Instruments of the orchestra

Recently I had a lovely page bought to my attention – The Names of Instruments and Voices in English, French, German, Italian, Russian1, and Spanish. Hosted by Yale (presumably giving it a longevity), it’s not 100% complete – computer (under electronic instruments) only comes in French (ordinateur) and German (Computerklänge), cowbells is only in French (cloches à vache), but Tubular bells comes in a number of languages: French (cloches tubulaires), German (Rohrenglocke), Italian (campane tubolari) and Spanish (campanas tubulares).

Not being native to any of those languages, I’m not completely sure on the translations – the page looks old, pre Google Translate at least, and may not be as correct as we’d all like.

None the less, it’s great to see someone has put in the effort for the international orchestral scene!

Sometimes, they write themselves (Ibland skriver de själva)

It’s good to know that websites in non English speaking countries have a propensity to being ridiculously laid out to maximise advertising revenue as much as their English contemporaries.

Having got that off my chest, the English language Swedish online news service The Local is reporting that Sweden have had to withdraw a new word due to a complaint by Google.

There are so many WTF‘s right here that I barely know where to start. Let’s start with the obvious, the story:

In December, the Language Council unveiled its annual list of new Swedish words. Among the words added to the Swedish language in 2012 was “ogooglebar” (‘ungoogleable’). But the California-based multinational objected.

“It’s not just about our definition of the word; we also tried to describe how users define the word and Google had opinions about that,” Language Council head Ann Cederberg told Sveriges Radio (SR).

The word was to be used to describe something “that you can’t find on the web with the use of a search engine”, according to the Language Council.

However, Google was less than thrilled that a word based on its name had been highlighted by Sweden’s “official language cultivation body”.

(For those that are interested, here’s more on the Swedish Language Council, Wikipedia. Fascinatingly, the Swedish term for the Swedish Language Council, Språkvård,

is a loan translation of the German word “Sprachpflege”. Literally, språkvård means ‘language care’, but is often translated as language cultivation or language planning.)

Of course, even the most obviously odd part of this story, is quickly derailed:

According to SR, Google wanted the council to specify that the word’s definition only covered searches performed using Google, and not searches involving other search engines.
After a protracted exchange with lawyers at the US internet company in which Google lawyers “tried to influence our way of defining the word”, the Language Council finally opted to remove “ogooglebar” from the 2012 list of new Swedish words.

Google wanted to…they…redefine…not just Google…wat?

Thankfully, common sense prevailed – there’s a reason why the rest of the world is jealous of the Scandinavians – they are so reasonable, rational and socially democratic:

Cederberg explained that taking on the US search giant took “too much time and resources” and that the word already exists in Swedish.

“It’s the users of the language who decide if it will remain,” she said.

“So if the word exists, use it if you want. That’s something Google can’t decide.”

Speaking with the TT news agency, Cederberg disputed allegations that the Language Council had allowed itself to be censured by Google.

“Google hasn’t won anything with this,” she said.

According to Cederberg, the Language Council could have ignored Google’s requests, but decided to remove the word in order to spark a debate.

“We thought it would be useful to start talking about this; we have have nothing to lose,” she told TT.

Google now have enabled the Streisand effect – their complaint has bought more publicity to the word. And as the Language Council have noted, it wont stop people using the word – in fact, this act will almost certainly enshrine the word within the lexicon.

Since we are here – not only do the Language Council “announce” new words, which always seems so…arse end round really, but there’s a top ten – and there are some really winners here:

5. Nomofob (Nomophobe)

A person who feels anxious at the mere thought of being separated from their mobile phone. An abbreviation of the English “no mobile phone phobia”.

4. Köttrymd (Flesh space)

The non-digital world and the opposite to cyber space. For example: “I’m going to log off Facebook for a while and see what’s going on in flesh space.”

But nothing can really beat the best new Swedish word of 2012:

1. Tårtgate (Cakegate)

The political fallout when Sweden’s Culture Minister Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth cut into a cake shaped as a stereotype of a black woman, invoking images of female mutilation. For example: “She should resign over Cakegate!”

You really should follow the link above to see the image. It’s hard to know if it is that quirky ultra libertarian left Swedish Art humour, or if it’s an actual honest to his-noodly-greatness act of political suicide. I guess either reason just adds to the list of reasons why we would like to be Swedish – it’s very funny if it’s meant to be humorous, and it’s very funny if it’s political suicide. Either way, we all win.

For those that want to go right down the rabbit hole, there’s also the ubiquitous ten X words you wont find in Y (X = Swedish, Y = English).

Update:

Well, this was always going to blow up I guess. And it’s blowing up in a way that justifies my posting – a couple of mentions here and there, but fffffat have taken the cake (lololololololololo): http://www.ogooglebar.se/

fffffat were also good enough to point me somewhere that I really should have gone last night: the Swedish Language Council’s press release in this regard – a magnificent slap down. To complete the loop of creepy, I present it here, as translated by Google Translate (evil laugh!):

Google does not own the language!

26/03/2013

The company Google has wooed Language Council to amend the definition of the word ogooglebar the new order list. Today we instead delete the word and marks while our displeasure with Google’s attempt to control the language.

We have removed ogooglebar from the new order list. Why? One of the things that Språkrådet is known is the annual new order list. It is published at the end of the year and usually lead to discussions of word to be or not to be, their fitness and longevity.One purpose of neologisms list is to show how society and language development, interacting with each other. On the 2012 list was the word ogooglebar with, in the sense ‘that can not be found on the web using a search engine’. But since the new order list was presented in December 2012, the company Google has worked to influence the Language Council of Management of the word. Google refers to the laws that protect brands and want the Language Council amends the definition version of the name Google in the definition and add a ‘disclaimer’ where we emphasize that Google is a trademark.

Språkrådet have tried to explain the new order list in proposing solutions that do that we do not deviate from our basic approach to language. No one can define words which must be in the language or languages ​​of the users’ definition of a word. The definition Language Council states have been formulated based on how the word is used in Swedish., we have neither the time nor the inclination to pursue the lengthy process that Google is trying to launch. Nor do we compromise and change the definition of ogooglebar to it that the company wants. It would go against our principles – and language principles. Google has namely forgot one thing: language development do not care about brand protection. No individual can decide about the language. Whoever in the future googling on ogooglebar will not only find the wording that Google wanted to change, and that will remain online despite Language Council amended the list. Anyone looking will also find all the possible comments that follow after the news spread that word removed. That is how the internet world works.

 

Who decides the language? We do language users. We decide together which words should be and how they are defined, used and spelled. The language is the result of an ongoing democratic process. Everyone is in deciding which words are established in the language by choosing the words we use. Do we want ogooglebar the language we will use the word and it is our use determines meaning – no multinational company with leverage.

Words, Poetry, Translation and Boredom

For at least a decade my favourite website has been Ubuweb. Not in the visit-it-twice-a-day category like BoingBoing – more like a hot cross bun or a mango – it’s made more special because it’s visited infrequently.

UbuWeb’s main trade is in the otherwise unfindable, the undesirable, the unlistenable, the unreadable – a treasure trove of avant garde artists and their art. And more over. As a long time fan of the avant garde and outsider art, I am constantly shocked at how little I know from within the archive.

There’s the obvious points of reference – Yoko Ono, Dali, Foucault, Kinski, and Cage. Then there’s the less obvious – almost contemporary provocatuer Stewart Home‘s films and music, Ergo Phizmiz, Delia Derbyshire, Hoffman and Rubin, and Guy Debord. Then there’s those that are just plain…well, obscure. Like

If you are feeling overwhelmed I recommend the strategy of finding your birthday within one or both of the 365 Days projects and listening to what you find.

Kenneth Goldsmith is the founder of UbuWeb and MoMA‘s first Poet Laureate, amongst other things, and this interview in The Awl is a must read. Expounding on patchwriting (“post editing” in translation) and plagiarism, poetry, the internet and the new spaces for art he is absolutely mesmerising. In keeping with the theme of the piece, and because you should be reading the whole thing yourself, I’ll only reproduce the juiciest segments.

On his latest book Seven American Deaths and Disasters, a transcription of radio and news reports of national disasters and the peeling back of the media’s façade:

These DJs woke up thinking they were going to the station for a regular day and then they were in the position of having to narrate, say, 9-11 or the Kennedy assassination, to the world. They were completely unprepared and in their speech, you can hear this. It’s stunning. The slick curtain of media is torn, revealing acrobatic linguistic improvisations. There was a sense of things spinning out of control: facts blurred with speculation as the broadcasters attempted to furiously weave convincing narratives from shards of half-truths. Usually confident DJs were now riding by the seat of their pants, splaying raw emotion across the airwaves: smooth speech turned to stutter, laced with doubt and fear. Unhinged from their media personalities, these DJs became ordinary citizens, more like guys in a bar than representatives of purported rationality and truth. Opinions—some of them terribly misinformed—inflected and infected their supposedly objective reportage. Racism and xenophobia were rampant— somehow the DJs couldn’t help themselves.

His latest books were:

(interviewer) Your 2000 book Fidget transcribes every single movement your body made during thirteen hours. In your 2003 book, Day, you chronologically re-typed every single word from every page of a copy of The New York Times. Your later trilogy, Weather, Traffic and Sports, transcribe random radio reports. Now with Seven American Deaths and Disasters you’re transcribing reports of specific events.

On teaching students to copy and steal – plagiarize – to use it as a creative tool:

The students that take my class know how to write. I can hone their skills further but instead I choose to challenge them to think in new and different ways. Many of them know how to plagiarize but they always do it on the sly, hoping not to get caught. In my class, they must plagiarize or they will be penalized. They are not allowed to be original or creative. So it becomes a very different game, one in which they’re forced to defend choices that they are making about what they’re plagiarizing and why. And when you start to dig down, you’ll find that those choices are as original and as unique as when they express themselves in more traditional types of writing, but they’ve never been trained to think about it in this way.

You see, we are faced with a situation in which the managing of information has become more important than creating new and original information. Take Boing Boing, for instance. They’re one of the most powerful blogs on the web, but they don’t create anything, rather they filter the morass of information and pull up the best stuff. The fact of Boing Boing linking to something far outweighs the thing that they’re linking to. The new creativity is pointing, not making. Likewise, in the future, the best writers will be the best information managers.

On words and writing and the change that they have gone through with new technologies:

This is a great challenge to traditional notions of writing. In the digital age, language (aka code) has become materialized, taking on a whole new dimension (although one that had been proposed throughout various avant-garde movements during the twentieth-century: futurisms, concrete poetry, and language poetry, and so forth—which is why the 20th c. avant-garde is more relevant than ever).

Words are no longer just for telling stories. Now language is digital and physical. It can be poured into any conceivable container: text typed into a Microsoft Word document can be parsed into a database, visually morphed in Photoshop, animated in Flash, pumped into online text-mangling engines, spammed to thousands of email addresses and imported into a sound editing program and spit out as music; the possibilities are endless.

On boredom and inspiration:

John Cage said, “If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.” So what is boring? I find narrative boring. I find truth boring. I once wrote an essay called Being Boring where I claim to be the most boring writer who has ever lived. I can’t even read my own books—I keep falling asleep. But they’re great to talk about and think about. So I think we need to redefine our relationship to boring. Reality TV is boring with all the boring parts taken out of it. Instead, go watch An American Family from the early 70s, at this weird moment where mainstream TV fell under the spell of Andy Warhol. You’ll never be bored in the same way again.

I don’t think that journalists can be boring because to do so would be to shed too much truth on what they do. They’re mostly writing boring stuff, they’re bored, their editors are bored, and their readers are also bored, but nobody will admit it. Again, it’s here that Warhol is prescient. When asked if he reads reviews of his works, he replied, that he doesn’t—he only adds up the column inches.

His radio show on WFMU:

(interviewer) I did radio with you at WFMU in the mid-00s. Your radio show, which ran from 1995-2010, seemed to push the format as far as possible. By 2010 you were broadcasting three hours of silence, which you would break every thirty minutes with a station ID. The station staff was often angry with you and the listeners always complained it was the most unlistenable radio imaginable. 

On poetry and writing as a living in an age of advanc(ed/ing) technology – and what “being a writer” means:

…the emerging poet Steven Zultanski just put out what I feel to be perhaps the most important book of his generation called Agony. In the old days, this one book alone would’ve made his career. Now it’s just another in a sea of Lulu publications and Facebook likes.

….

Literary works—and careers—might function the same way that memes do today on the web, spreading like wildfire for a short period, often unsigned and un-authored, only to be supplanted by the next ripple. While the author won’t die, we might begin to view authorship in a more conceptual way: perhaps the best authors of the future will be ones who can write the best programs with which to manipulate, parse and distribute language-based practices. Even if, as Christian Bök claims, poetry in the future will be written by machines for other machines to read, there will be, for the foreseeable future, someone behind the curtain inventing those drones; so that even if literature is reducible to mere code—an intriguing idea—the smartest minds behind them will be considered our greatest authors.

Read through to the end for the easter egg, the master stroke…

Warhol claimed that, “Art is what you can get away with,” something I am inspired by. Artists ask questions, and they don’t give answers. Artists make messes and leave it for others to clean up. I’ve left a long trail of appropriated texts, dishonest statements, and brutal pranks. I’ve stolen things that weren’t mine and have made a career out of forgery and dishonesty. I’m proudly fraudulent. And it’s served me well—I highly recommend it as an artistic strategy.

Poetic Translation

I’ve just discovered the blog bLogicarian and am looking forward to being able to read further – see the length of Esperanto: An International Auxiliary Clusterfuck for an example of why I need a weekend to absorb. From A Brief Note on Translating Poetry:

A good translator doesn’t just translate “into” something already existing in the target tradition, but brings something new to the target language from the original. And that requires using one’s target tradition in a foreign way at some level. Though if one pulls a Nabokov, the result may be useless in many ways. For all their flaws and chinoiserie, Ezra Pound’s translations from Old English, Classical Chinese and Provençal do succeed at that at some level. So do Edward Fitzgerald’s translations from Omar Khayyām and Vikram Seth’s versions of Medieval Chinese poetry. They offer the reader something new that they can’t get anywhere else. The original must, after all, usually be something new if it justifies the reader’s attention or the translator’s effort.

Walter Arndt, in his hilariously written Picaro in Hitler’s Europe once said that to desire to do verse-translation requires one to be a either a person with more than one country or a person with no country. Perhaps he was not entirely wrong.

And then there are the valid critiques of Firefly in Sinorrhea: Why Joss Whedon’s Firefly Annoys Me – problems that I’d noticed during my recent watching of the show:

Even those cultural aspects of the show’s universe that aren’t mere occidentalisms telescoped into the distant future do not actually employ non-western cultural phenomena, but rather American re-imaginings thereof. And Whedon didn’t put the least amount of thought into any of this, of how even a slightly clued-in non-expert such as yours truly might respond to what he’s doing. He’d never dare do something like this with gender.

It’s shallow. Joss was either going for the lowest common American denominator here, or just didn’t know any better.

 

It’s not updated frequently, but there’s a lot there when he does.