You say potato, and I say peruna.

So I tried boiling the potatoes until soft and then dunking them in a bowl of ice water for ten seconds and then peeling off the skins. It worked. Life just got a little bit easier. The skillet already had the diced onion, bell pepper, sweet pepper and collard greens. Dropped in the spuds and let them, brown and make an unholy mess out of the bottom of the pan and hot damn, Irish-German heaven. Spuds, baby, Kartoffels, pomme de terre, papas in a brand new bag. Well, recipe. Well, old recipe, new technique. Thank god for the Incas. Without them we might still be eating gruel. Though I don’t know who the lazy bum was who brainstormed on this boiling and dunking thing. A Finn maybe, leaping from the sauna into a ice cold lake. Peruna they call a potato. Comes from Swedish, something to do with pears. Probably Swedes fucking with their minds. Here, Aarni, have a pear. Though the Germans used to call then earth pears. At some point they became kartoffels, from the Italian. The French called them earth apples. The Swiss still call them earth apples. A little too close to road apples. I wonder about Europeans sometimes.

The Finns eventually Finnicized it into peruna. That crazy language has fifteen cases. Each one changes peruna into something else, and same for plurals. By itself a potato is a peruna. More than one is perunat. But as they were mine they were perunoiden. When I dropped them into the pot they were perunoihin. Once in the pot they were perunoissa. As they were boiling they were perunoita. When they were finally softened they were perunoiksi. As I took them out of the pot they were perunoista. When I removed the skins they were perunoitta. In the skillet with onions and peppers they were perunoineen. When I took them off the fire they were perunoilta. As I put them on the plate they were perunoille. As they sat there on the plate they were perunoilla. And when I gave them to my wife they were perunat again. (For those of you taking notes, those were the plural declensions for the nominative, genitive, illative, inessive, partitive, translative, elative, abessive, comitative, ablative, allative, adessive, and accusative cases.)

Luckily we ate them in English.

Beneath the Planet of the Ralphs

That Ralphs on Glendale in Glendale, the underground one, our pal calls it the Morlock Ralphs. I’d been calling it Beneath the Planet of the Ralphs, but English not being an agglutinating language like Sioux or Turkish or even long dead Sumerian (those poor things), one of those languages that can pile entire sentences into single words with all kinds of grammatical magic and trickery, an appellation like Battle Beneath the Planet of the Ralphs is just too cumbersome. Oddly, you could agglutinate it into a single noun (the-beneath-the-planet-of-the-Ralphs Ralphs), which is a throwback to the compounding possibilities in our Germanic past, like how the German Donaudampfschiffahrtsgesellschaftskapitän (Danube steamship company boat captain, once a real gig in Vienna apparently, unlike Donaudampfschiffahrtselektrizitätenhauptbetriebswerkbauunterbeamtengesellschaft, which was just some smart assed German messing with our minds), could be rendered in English, given a handful of hyphens, into that Danube-steamship-company-boat-captain guy, all nouned together in one big noun, morphologically. But we prefer to keep them hyphenless as a series of separate nouns, having no problem with nouns following one another like a line of ducklings behind their mother, something that seems to drive Germans batty, es ist so unordlich. However, once we verb Danube steamship company boat captain guy (and I worked with a very attractive woman once who vociferously loathed verbing anything, it made her so mad, but that’s another story, and it is, actually, though I don’t think I ever finished it), we are forced to agglutinate those nouns supercalifragilisticexpialidociously into danubesteamshipcompanyboatcaptaining, which could mean, say, verbing a series of nouns just to annoy an attractive lady you work with. The problem with that in regards to the beneath-the-planet-of-the-ralphs Ralphs (aka Morlock Ralphs) is that saying we are beneaththeplanetoftheralphing (that is, shopping at the beneath-the-planet-of-the-ralphs Ralphs) would be interpreted as beneaththeplanetofthepuking which makes no sense at all, except in strictly morphological terms. An agglutinative colorless green ideas sleep furiously, colorlessgreenideassleepfuriouslifying something just to be irritating. Not that I mind being irritating. But saying Morlock Ralphs is easier.

Journey to the Center of the Ralphs is good, too–my wife came up with that one–but I am exhausted from all this wanton agglutinating and just want to lie here smoking and staring at the ceiling.

Last sentence

I didn’t start working as a print journalist until 2004. I quit in 2011. Watching print journalism’s disintegration from ringside seats was incredible. Writing for one of the nation’s leading alternative weeklies as alternative weeklies found their raison d’etre disappearing was almost surreal, the medium seemed to go from important to unimportant in months. At the same time I had a front row seat to watching radio begin to disappear, as jazz radio seemed to suffer the worst first. I saw first hand in a particularly brutal way how online journalism is disintegrating–I can’t write about that under fear of being sued, however. I have watched the recording industry fall apart for years. I’ve seen live paid performances disappear. I’ve seen photography destroyed. And now, since I’ve been blogging (just because I write incessantly, not as a professional move) I am watching blogging itself drowning in its own words. There are so many words, they’ve suffocated readers, turned the blogosphere anoxic. The Internet undermines everything. When everything is free and instantly accessible, no one will pay for anything. Pay to read, pay to listen, pay to view, or pay to run ads. Even if it not everything is free or accessible, something else just as good (or good enough, anyway) is free and instantly accessible so there’s no point. And there is really nothing that can be done about this. There is no working revenue model, as they say. Nobody gets paid. Words especially are rendered cheap as air.

The only revenue model anymore seems to be page hits. Every time a viewer clicks a link, a couple pennies change hands. So the only thing of any genuine financial significance on a website are links. Writing becomes nothing but content, stuff to fill the pages around the ads. Whether that writing is good or not is not of any significance at all. As long as it drives people to those ads, as long as it gets people to click the link. Music is no longer of particular importance in western civilization. It’s nice, but it’s not essential. And writing is quickly following. It’s nice to see good writing, but it’s no longer anything people really care about. It’s rather irrelevant. It’s time consuming. It certainly has no way to pay for itself. Writers made a dollar a word once because people once read all the words. If you wrote a five hundred word piece, they read all five hundred words. If you were a really good writer they demanded more. Now people read the first couple lines. Maybe the first paragraph. Sometimes the second paragraph. Sometimes they’d skip to the last paragraph to read how it comes out. They don’t with that bother anymore. Whatever they need to know has to be in the first paragraph or they will never know. And if no ones reads more than a few dozen words of a five hundred word piece, it is no longer worth a dollar a word. In fact, you’ll be lucky to get a dime a word.

It’s a weird time. There are few famous writers anymore, and almost no famous journalists. Everybody is a writer today, and the bar has been set so low by blogs and sponsored content that the very concept of good writing is becoming obsolete. Perhaps it is obsolete already, as people do not read enough of any single piece for the quality to matter. Writers have been trained by centuries of tradition to build up to the big finish, that memorable final line. But no one reads that far now. Everything past the first couple lines is probably wasted. It’s weird to think that of all the writing there is on the internet, only a tiny fraction of percent ever gets read. That is trillions of word wasted. Interesting prospect, that, in evolutionary terms. Our brains have, over the past five thousand years, developed this extraordinary talent for writing language. This is a really new thing. Mass literacy is only two centuries old (beginning in the United States and spreading globally since) and has had a profound impact on humans as a society and humans as a species. Cultures that can read and write thrive, those that can’t disappear. Languages without a written form will disappear quickly once a language with a written form moves in. Literacy has in a very brief time transformed the human world in many ways as profoundly as the evolution of spoken language itself. Yet suddenly almost nothing we use written language for is ever read. I suspect that much of the prose that has been written in this past decade has never seen by a pair of eyes. It is written, posted online in some form or another, and ignored. Texts, of course, are almost invariably read, but texting is more like speech than written language. But of all the writing on all those billions of websites? How much of that is ever read by anybody? Even individual page views mean in almost every case that only a couple sentences were read, nearly always at the top of the page. Most everything else on the page is little read and quite likely unread. Imagine if nearly all the words ever uttered were never heard. That’s what is happening with written language now, with nearly all the words being written never being read. Yet human beings are probably writing more now than we ever will again. This is the absolute apogee of the written word. There is writing everywhere, incredible amounts of it. But if no one is reading it, why is it being written? Language evolved as an ability to communicate. We talk to pass on information, basically. Written language evolved for the same reason. Yet now, in I would guess is most of the time, no information is being transmitted by written language because no one is reading what someone wrote. Semiotically written language is failing most of the time. You need to have a reader. Without readers, writing doesn’t have much of a useful function. Evolution, whether genetic or memetic, does not abide the unused for long. Frills fall by the wayside, forgotten. Nearly all writing is in that category now, useless and forgotten. There is simply no reason for it to exist at all.

In twenty years, perhaps in a decade, there will be less writers and less words. The trillions of words on the internet now will slow to a relative trickle. Everyone writes now because there used to be a profession called writing. There isn’t much of one now. Kids will not grow up to be writers when there are no readers. We will still read, and still write. But writing like we do it now, in books and stories and articles, that is probably ending. Perhaps the only ones of you who would adamantly disagree with that prediction are the handful who have gotten to this last sentence.

last line great gatsby

Language death

Comment to a Facebook post and yes, I know it’s dull.

The head of the Assembly of First Nations is calling for the nearly 60 indigenous languages spoken in Canada to be declared official along with English and French, an expensive proposition but one that he says is becoming more urgent as the mother tongues of aboriginal peoples disappear.

Perry Bellegarde, who was elected National Chief of the AFN last fall, agrees it would not be easy to require translations of all indigenous languages to be printed on the sides of cereal boxes and milk cartons.

“That would be the ultimate goal,” Mr. Bellegarde said in an interview on Wednesday at the three-day annual general meeting of the AFN, Canada’s largest indigenous organization. “But let’s do small steps to get there.”

The problem is, if course, that perhaps ten of those languages are spoken in the home by more than a thousand people, and it’s in the home that a language survives. Some of those languages might be down to single digits of users. I know, by the way, that there are already official aboriginal languages in parts of Canada, as here in the United States.

And as in the US, there are dozens of immigrant languages that have more speakers than nearly all the aboriginal languages except Cree, I think, and Inuit. You can see the problem. If language rights are defined as a First Nation right only then you can declare aboriginal languages official without doing the same for immigrant tongues. However, as the call for official status for aboriginal languages is based on the UNESCO declaration of language rights, the same protections apply to immigrant languages as well….

Language death (one of linguistics’ more dramatic terms) is a worldwide problem, and one that has existed since the origin of language itself. Each extinction is a bitter loss, as every language has ways of viewing the world that are distinctive. About half of the world’s 6000 languages will be gone by 2100. Social media, though, might keep some around a bit longer. This is not a first world nations versus third and fourth world nations either, though it tends to be presented that way. Europe has at least thirty languages on the verge of extinction, some by the century’s end, including some with just one remaining speaker. And a couple European languages disappeared in the last few years (one in Latvia, another, a variant of Scots Gaelic, in Scotland). Throughout the world small languages die out as much larger ones spread. This is a world wide phenomenon, and across all kinds of language families.

One of the problems is that as a rule the smaller the language, the more complex the grammar tends to be*. Languages simplify as they expand. Brazilian Portuguese has shed many of the rules of Portuguese in Portugal, for example. And Portuguese has obliterated aboriginal languages throughout Brazil. Spanish has done the same. And French. Russian. Hindi. Han Chinese. Swahili. Tagalog. Latin. Quechua. Aramaic. Sumerian. And of course English, which like all the others I just mentioned, is typically easier to learn to get by in than the aboriginal languages it replaces, though much of the specificity of other tongues is lost**. (It is now–Old English would not have been so easy.) And English has a vastly larger vocabulary, a richness that seeps into other languages with fewer words. English nouns (or any language’s nouns) can be adopted without altering the language the word is being adopted into. Le hot dog. La hamburguesa. But adopted verbs too often turn into verb phrases and into sentences. You can hear this with bilingual people all the time. English nouns dropped into the middle of Spanish sentences, retaining Spanish grammar, but switching to English when they use English verbs. I think once people begin using another language’s verbs is when the problem really starts. That is how so many languages begin to disappear. (This is based on personal observation, I haven’t read this, so it’s not authoritative.)

Obviously the immersion in media spoken in a larger language is a leading cause, but keep in mind that it will not always cause a language to lose speakers. Languages died long before the invention of mass media. Languages have been disappearing since language began.

One of my favorite books ever is Empires of the Word by Nicholas Ostler. A brilliant work, I’ve read it a couple times. A history of the comings and goings of the great languages. English is having its day now. It too shall pass.

.Notes: Continue reading

Ingoorrooloorrloorroona noorroo

Using genetic analyses, it’s currently believed that the first wave of modern humans who migrated out of Africa did so around 90-130K years ago. Those first wanderers reached Australia perhaps 50-70K years ago, and today’s Australian aborigines are descendants of those people. There were other waves out of Africa afterward. Each “wave” was probably a remarkably small number of people, maybe a few hundred, maybe even less, a few dozen, who then eventually branched out across the world. Some of those additional waves may have also reached Australia, or perhaps not. They’re still arguing that one. Genetics, though, does show that aboriginal Australians descend in large part if not entirely from that first wave. At the end of the last ice age the land bridge between Asia and Australia was submerged, creating first the Indonesian archipelago and then, as the oceans rose further, separating New Guinea from Australia about 8,000 years ago. Australians, among the first people to leave Africa, became isolated at the end of the earth in Australia, and had very little to do with the rest of humanity for thousand of years until Captain Cook came nosing around. Their culture evolved in splendid isolation. Dreamtime.

I’m bringing this up because when you look at Australian languages, they seem about as far afield from the Indo-European languages–which includes English–as you can imagine. The last time someone spoke something that was the root of both an Australian aboriginal language and English was probably somewhere in East Africa, perhaps 150,000 years ago or more, almost to the point where modern humans–Homo sapiens–emerged and began speaking language. There’s no way to figure this out, of course, I’m just extrapolating from the timelines genetics and the sparse archeological record have given us. And I’m thinking in terms of the small family bands or perhaps tribal groups radiating across Africa for maybe fifty thousand years before some eventually crossed the Red Sea into Arabia and kept walking. At some point in there the people that became Australians would have lost contact with the people who became, say, Europeans. It may have been a family splitting up. A hunting band. Maybe a scattered group of related bands. Whatever. We last had contact with each other somewhere in Africa well over a hundred thousand years ago. Which gives you an idea of just how separate English is from any of the languages spoken by indigenous Australians. The last time we could understand each other was maybe six thousand, or maybe ten thousand, generations ago. You can almost picture that, ten thousand generations. Think back to your own grandparents, and their grandparents, and then their grandparents and on and on and back and back, time measured in people’s lifespans. You could talk to your grandparents, and–if you spoke the same language–perhaps their grandparents. You make yourself understood to their grandparents. It might get a little iffy after that. I’d have a helluva time making myself understood to an English speaker twenty generations ago, when everyone really did talk like Shakespeare. Go back another twenty generations before that and it would get even harder. Another twenty generations beyond that (i.e., sixty generations ago) we’d just stare at each other, confused. And that is only 1500 years. Multiply that by a hundred to get back to where a proto-European and a proto-Australian could understand what each other was saying.

But to really get an idea, here’s a page full of transcriptions of sayings in various Australian languages. They all pretty much sound as they look, the double r’s are rolled or trilled, sort of halfway between Spanish and German, and the g is hard, so ng sounds like the ng in ungood and not like the ng in orange. Never mind the grammar–it varies wildly across the continent, which still has 150 spoken native languages (down from perhaps as many as 750 before the Europeans came), though many, like Bardi, have less than twenty remaining speakers.  And like all small languages, the grammar is more complex than a language spoken by millions of people (the more speakers, the simpler the rules become). But just looking at these phrases, and sounding them out, and seeing how utterly alien they appear to us, you really get a feel for the span of time it’s been since our shared ancestors went their separate ways. My ancestors and the ancestors of aboriginal Australians have been speaking mutually unintelligible tongues almost since Homo sapiens appeared on the planet. A hundred thousand years maybe? A hundred and fifty thousand? Two hundred thousand? Who knows. But if I’d seen two people adding sticks to a small fire, I’d say they were kindling a fire. A Bardi speaking Australian who saw the same thing would say ingoorrooloorrloorroona noorroo. That’s what a couple hundred thousand years will do to mutual communication.

Ruminations on why you would rather look at a funny cat video than read this.

“Here’s another way of saying it: We are the first few generations to receive most of our sense of the world mediated rather than direct, to have it arrive through one screen or another instead of from contact with other human beings or with nature.”–Bill McKibben, The Mental Environment (2013)

Language itself totally changed and shaped our perception of the world, what we see and what we say our two dramatically different things, with what we see being much more accurate than how we say it. In many ways, information brought to us visually on screen–movie, television, computer–is more accurate and unfiltered than what we read in books, newspapers or magazines. Widespread literacy dramatically changed human perception. But visual information on our screens subverts language…a reversal of a long time trend. Language began to supplant vision, at first at the origin of speech itself a quarter million years ago and then again, dramatically, with the invention of writing. The printing press and widespread literacy began to change how people viewed the world and processed information. Sight and language battle for control in getting us information. For a couple centuries there as reading became universal (first in the United States, we were the truly literate nation after mandatory education was introduced with the founding of the republic) the written word took precedence and people would almost always believe what they read over what they saw. Movies, television and the internet are allowing the ocular part of our brain to increase its control of our information process. People read less now and look at video more. So what the internet has done is to weaken the power of language in our perception by allowing us to watch video. It has also, first through email conversation and then through texting and finally Facebook, made writing more akin to speech. Writers like me are constantly struggling with ways to get people to trust language again. So what we are seeing now is the retreat of written language in the brain as there are more ways now than ever before to watch instead of read things.

Another thing to consider is religion. Even in a world free from any sort of video or writing, as in the middle ages, when most people in Europe read not at all, their perception of reality was less accurate and direct than it is today because religion completely shaped the way people saw reality. You can see that just reading medieval and middle ages texts. Instead of seeing things directly as they were, everything was filtered though religious dogma and belief. So language had enabled religion and written language had enabled codified religious dogma which could be recited to people who couldn’t read, and which then severely limited people’s perception of reality even though few of them could read and there were almost no media at all. Free of ironclad and enforced dogma now (no one gets burned at the stake for blasphemy anymore in this country) we certainly have more appreciation of nature than they did then. People have been walking through the forests now for centuries. We preserve forests in national parks and lace them with hiking trails. But in the Middle Ages and even into the Enlightenment Europeans were terrified of forests. Mountains were a source of evil. Deserts full of ghosts and djinn. Nature more scary than it was beautiful. Even rainbows had their dangerous wee people.

The written word changed all of that. The more we read, the less scared we are. Now, with visual information coming to the fore again, via television and the internet, people seem to be more scared, or at least more wary, scared of each other. Partly, I think, because the brain takes in anything visual as self-experienced, it does not distinguish between you being in a car accident and watching a car accident on TV. It feels it viscerally as if you were in the crashing car. And now, when it sees scary video on the news or YouTube or even scary crime stories and reality programs, it automatically sets off fear and concern, often absurdly out of proportion, because our brain cannot analyze it the way we can with language. It sees everything as reality. Language does not do that. Reality programs are not possible as literature.

So today it is not so much that people who watch the internet all day long are out of touch with real life, it’s that the brain sees everything on TV or the internet as real life, no matter how ridiculous that is, or how out of context that video was. Just shoot it with a hand held camera and it looks real. Language can add context. When we read our language based analytical skills give context, and when we even listen to spoken words–news, for instance–we automatically add context. We look for raw footage of disasters precisely because there is no narrator to ruin the you-are-there sensation. 

The problem now is not the current internet drive world’s lack of direct contact with other people and nature. It is the lack of analytical context, which, unfortunately, is entirely based on language, whether written or spoken (or even thought–we think in language, but we do not see pictures and film in language.) You cannot have, apparently, a world full of video and simultaneous logical explanations. The two literally do not go together, since the parts or our brains that take in visual information and the parts that logically analyzes it are two different things, indeed are in different lobes (back and front, respectively). We haven’t yet figured out a way to merge the two.

I’m working on it, though.