Friday, March 29, 2013

Catharism, An Interesting Medieval Heresy

Part of a series on Stuff You Might Not Know About.

I want to cry out, but I don’t scream and I don’t shout,
And I feel so proud to be alive,
And I feel so proud when the reckoning arrives.

"Heretic Pride," The Mountain Goats

It's Good Friday (which, if you're interested, I've written about a little here), perhaps not the most utterly appropriate day to ponder heresy. Then again, maybe it's the best time.

The focus of today's post is a group called the Cathars, a medieval Christian heretical sect. They first came to my attention in an essay by Marilynne Robinson, one of my favorite authors, who describes them thus:
Catharism seems to have flourished for about two centuries, and to have enjoyed the respect of those it did not convert, who were always the great majority. Its clergy, male and female equally and indifferently, were chosen out of the general Cathar population as people who lived godly lives, and were instructed and initiated as "good people" or "good Christians." History and their detractors called them "Perfecti." These people lived in the world, but as ascetics, refusing meat and wine and other comforts and luxuries. They wandered and preached, barefoot and simply clothed, always carrying their Bibles. When Rome first began to try to deal with the heresy, delegations were sent to preach to the people and to debate with the Perfecti, but without success because of their opponents' great mastery of Scripture. They had no churches, no images or symbols of any kind, no hierarchy. They were completely nonviolent, laying great stress on the love of enemies. They absolutely refused to take oaths. For a long time they were resolutely defended, and rarely betrayed, by people who were not themselves Cathars. (The Death of Adam, by Marilynne Robinson, pg. 215)
These people, to me, sounded almost too good to be true, too interesting to be real, and (in a way) too modern to be medieval. I wanted to know more, so I did some research, and here is what I found.

Cathars were a medieval religious group that operated in the south of France (in the region today called Languedoc) from the 12th to the 14th centuries. They regarded themselves as the true inheritors of the Christian faith, and opposed Catholic doctrine in some key ways. Catharism was a dualistic religion: they believed that there was a Good God, the creator of light and of human souls, and an Evil God, the creator of the material world, whch was evil. The God of the Hebrew Bible was thought of as being the Evil God, and the Good God was the God of the Christian New Testament. Cathars believed that human souls were reincarnated into new human or animal bodies after death, but that there was a way to break that cycle: through a ceremony called the consolamentum, a laying on of hands which would infuse the recipient with the Holy Spirit and free them from sin. If you received the consolamentum, you had to remain free from sin afterwards to go to be with the Good God when you died.

 Languedoc, seat of Catharism, in modern France

The result of this dualistic theology was that Cathars, though they considered themselves good Christians, behaved and thought quite differently from Catholics of the time. Because they thought that everything made of matter was evil, a creation of the Evil God, they did not believe in the sacraments of the church, which were administered through material objects like bread and wine (Eucharist) or water (baptism), and they abhorred religious symbols and icons for the same reason. The fact that a soul could be reincarnated into a male or a female body led them to reject any important distinction between the sexes, unlike the Catholic church, which at the time taught that women were inferior to men because the first sin was committed by the first woman, Eve. Since the Cathars thought that a soul could also be reincarnated into an animal, eating meat was considered sinful. Additionally, since reincarnation into new, evil material bodies was thought of as a real shame, Cathars thought that procreative sex was wrong, since a baby being born meant the imprisonment of a soul in a new body. This contrasted starkly with Catholic teaching, in which any sex besides procreative sex was seen as sinful.
Additionally, Cathars rejected violence in all its forms, and refused to take oaths based on a strict interpretation of Matthew 5:33-37, as well as on the idea that swearing to God was essentially a futile attempt to link the doings of the evil material world with a separate God of light, who wanted nothing to do with it. These policies made them stand out, particularly in a violent, feudal society: "Minor though this may seem to us now, medieval man thought otherwise, for the swearing of an oath was the contractual underpinning of early feudal society. It lent sacred weight to the existing order; no kingdom, estate, or bond of vassalage could be created without establishing a sworn link, mediated by the clergy, between the individual and the divine." (The Perfect Heresy, by Stephen O'Shea, pg. 12)

Cathars were divided into two groups, somewhat like priests and laypeople in Christianity, but largely without the hierarchy that distinction implies. The elect or "Perfects" were people who chose to undergo the consolamentum and then to live their lives free from sin, which meant adopting celibacy, vegetarianism, and pacifism, as well as refraining from taking oaths. The Perfects traveled the country, preaching the good news and earning a living by doing work, rather than accepting donations. The credentes or believers, on the other hand, were individuals who believed in the tenets of Catharism, but who did not choose to undergo the consolamentum and instead lived more or less ordinary medieval lives, apparently incorporating more or less of the Cathar creeds into their daily activities as they saw fit and were able. They were, for example, advised by the Perfects not to get married (because it involved taking oaths) and often formed unmarried couples instead. Sometimes, the believers would undergo the consolamentum immediately before death, in the hopes of escaping the reincarnation cycle without living a long ascetic life beforehand.

Languedoc and its major cities

Catharism spread throughout the southwest area of what is today known as France. At the time, it was an area controlled, somewhat poorly, by various counts and other nobles, and known as Languedoc after the language which was spoken there (the langue d'oc was the language where "oc" meant "yes," and would become modern Occitan, as opposed to the langue d'oïl, the language where "oïl" meant "yes," which would later develop into French, and was spoken in the north, in and around Paris). The nobility were dealing with the rise of the middle class of merchants, who were pushing for greater political freedom and control. This atmosphere of increased freedom was one of two big factors that allowed a heretical religion like Catharism to flourish. The other was the Church itself. The Catholic Church of the 12th-14th centuries was attempting to simultaneously acquire more worldly power (in the 11th century, Pope Gregory declared that he was the ultimate decider of who could legitimately rule the Holy Roman Empire, as well as the primary authority in the whole Church) and reform its corrupt and decadent tendencies, but doing so rather slowly and in an inept way. In a time when people increasingly heard that priests should be celibate, and that God loved the poor, but saw that priests were often fathers, or even married, and hoarded wealth for themselves, the example of the Cathar Perfects, who actually lived simple lives of poverty and chastity, made Catharism seem very attractive, and indeed seemed to confirm the Cathars' claim to be the legitimate church of Christ.

"The Massacre of the Albigensians," from the Chronicle of St. Denis

Eventually, though, the flourishing of Catharism ceased. The Popes knew what was happening, and in the 13th century, Pope Innocent III called down the first Crusade to ever be launched explicitly against a Christian sect, the Albigensian Crusade ("Albigensian" being just one of many outsider terms for Cathar; "Cathar" itself was one, which came from the Greek for "pure" and referred to the Cathar Perfects' claim to purity; the Perfects merely called themselves "good men" or "good Christians"). When this failed to fully exterminate them, another Pope invented the Inquisition in order to root them out completely.

The Cathars have been quite influential on Church and European history, for all that they were wiped out seven hundred years ago. The Inquisition was one, pretty horrifying, Church response to them, but another more positive one was the creation of Church orders like the Dominicans and the Fransiscans, who lived lives of poverty and chastity like the Cathar Perfects, ordained in the hopes that their example might lead people back to the faith. The Albigensian Crusade, which was intended solely to wipe out the Cathars, evolved into a political conflict that led to the consolidation of France into a single entity under the King living in Paris. Finally, note that the Cathars also were part of a groundswell of Christian religious dissent in the Middle Ages, a series of expressions of dissatisfaction with various aspects of the Church, which eventually culminated in the Protestant reforms and the Counter-Reformation, both undeniably important advances in how the Church thought about itself and interacted with the world. 

The Death of Adam, by Marilynne Robinson
The Perfect Heresy, by Stephen O'Shea

Thursday, March 21, 2013

In Defense of Boring Movies: Dead Man

Part of a series of essays In Defense of Boring Movies.

Dead man, dead man, be brave,
Dead man, dead man, be brave,
Be brave:
You shall be saved, by and by;
By and by, you shall be saved.

—"Dead Man," M. Ward

Last time I wrote on this subject, I explained in detail what I mean when I call a movie "boring" in a positive sense. To summarize: it's when a movie confronts you with questions and gives you space to think about them. Movies in this category aim to enrich or enlighten before they entertain, or even to replace entertainment altogether with these higher aims.

Jim Jarmusch's 1995 film Dead Man is, to quote Roger Ebert's 1½ star review, "a strange, that provides us with more time to think about its meaning than with meaning." Like the best boring movies, it's more interested in getting the viewers to ask questions and wonder about big ideas than providing them with a clear, coherent message. While most of the viewing public and mainstream newspaper reviewers at the time agreed with Ebert's pretty abysmal assessment, it did have some noteworthy defenders in the independent press, most importantly Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Chicago Reader, my favorite Chicago periodical and local news source*.


The plot in a nutshell: a man named William Blake (Johnny Depp) goes west seeking a job, but is turned away and ends up a criminal on the run. In the process, he receives a mortal wound that will slowly kill him over the course of the film, and he meets a Native American named Nobody (Gary Farmer) who ends up guiding him through the rest of the movie, helping him accept and expect his death. All along, the two are pursued by and confront various people who wish to stop or kill them, and violent clashes ensue. 

The big questions and themes this movie wants you to ponder are several. The movie turns on its head the typical Western idea of pioneers courageously exploring and opening the frontier, with Native Americans as either an active opponent or scenic backdrop, or simply a non-presence; in Dead Man, white people are portrayed as primitive, violent, and intrusive, while the Native Americans are shown as fully human, interesting, and wonderful without quite being romanticized. The attendant questions include: what does it mean that our culture has told this story to itself this way, over and over, in Westerns and in other places? are we doing anything similar to other cultures or people, within or outside our country, today? And so forth.

The next big idea is the pointlessness and ugliness of violence. Violence is fun and sexy and great in pop culture, or sometimes just shocking and horrifying, but in Dead Man it is merely stupid, awkward, and weird. Why do we so rarely see violence depicted in these terms in our culture? How is it so rare that it is seen as utterly pointless and misguided, rather than a necessary evil or a plain good time? 

The biggest and most overarching idea is that the whole movie, like life, is one long journey toward death. The reality of death is something Blake has to confront, and it takes him a long trip and a lot of thought and talk to finally confront it, relatively peaceably. The viewers are invited to question their own attitudes toward death along with Blake.

If you're enticed, check out the opening ten minutes, in which all three big themes appear in nascent form. (Further enticements from this segment include a wonderfully bizarre turn from Crispin Glover, whom you may recognize as Marty McFly's dad in Back to the Future, as well as the beautiful and unsettling electric guitar score provided by Neil Young.)

Did you catch the big ideas already coming to the fore right here at the beginning? We get a glimpse of some abandoned, half-destroyed teepees, to which Blake reacts with fear, clutching his suitcase. And a couple minutes later, the men on the train start shooting at buffalo out of the windows of the train, which is not only a premonition of the awkward/pointless violence theme (how utterly pointless is shooting animals from a moving train?) but also an element of the theme of destruction of Native American livelihood by the intrusive, brutish white pioneers. Finally, note that the film-as-journey-toward-death theme is ever present: Blake is on a train and headed to the "end of the line" and, in fact, is already in "hell," according to Crispin Glover's character.

I really recommend this movie. Its pace is slow, even intentionally frustrating, but if you let it, the slow pace can give you the time you need to search for answers to the key questions, and to ruminate on the relevance of the big themes to your own life. It is, in other words, the best kind of boring.

* When inducting the movie into his New Cult Canon, which is the source of much of my knowledge of independent and little-known cinema (including Dead Man), Scott Tobias attributes Dead Man's current status as an acknowledged  masterpiece to Rosenbaum's review, and to a long run as a midnight movie at Chicago's Music Box Theatre. In other words, we in Chicago saved this movie; eat your heart out, New York.

Sidenote: without Tobias's New Cult Canon, I would probably never have heard of numerous movies that are now favorites of mine, like Primer, Near Dark, Brick, and The Iron Giant. This feature, and the AV Club in general, is very dear to me and has long shaped my knowledge and love of pop culture. It is also, alas, finished, as he and others have moved on from the AV Club to create an excellent film criticism website, The Dissolve.

Photo 1: 
Photo 2:

Friday, March 15, 2013

Christian Anarchism: A Response

This is part of a series of Essays from a Christian Perspective.

I want Mashiach now, so it's time we start revealing.
For today's post, I am taking a suggestion from a friend and writing a response to this blog post about the relationship between Christianity, Anarchism, and "Atheism" (you'll see what I mean by the scare quotes when you read it—the way the writer is using it has nothing to do with what we usually think of as atheism, and that's okay). Because this post is just that, a response to something, I recommend you read the original post and come back to this one to get the full experience.

The author of the post wants, in part, to show that Christianity is an "anarchist" religion, meaning that it is a religion that, at its roots, is about rejecting the idea of people governing each other, and that favors loyalty to and sole leadership by God. I think there is a case to be made for this, but I think the post makes some key mistakes along the way, mistakes that miss something I think is interesting, and maybe even important.

The big flaw in the post is the assertion that the Hebrew Bible has a beef with earthly rulers ("an anarchist strain runs through the Old...Testament"). The author holds up an extended quote from the book of Samuel as his main example*, but there's a great deal of evidence that, on the contrary, the Hebrew Bible is not at all an anarchist book.

There is a great deal of non-anarchism (archism?) in the form of pro-monarchy sentiment in the Hebrew Bible. God legitimates the idea of a king in Israel as far back as their wanderings in the desert (Deuteronomy 17:14-20). In the book of Judges, you see the phrase "there was no king in Israel" two times, right before something terrible happens (the creation of a major shrine to an idol, and a civil war), which basically comes off as "there was no king to prevent these terrible things from happening so wouldn't it be great if there was a king?" The Psalms are full of positive references to kings, including hope for the king's victory (Psalm 20:9), statements of the king's blessedness (Psalm 21), direct praises to the king himself (Psalm 45), and even visions of God speaking to the king and calling him God's son (Psalm 2:6-9)!

If there is any "anarchist" strain in the Hebrew Bible, it is not in the idea that people ruling themselves is a bad thing in itself, but rather that it is a problem when the ruler interferes with the people's relationship with God. It is almost universally this activity that gets kings condemned in the Bible; it happens throughout the book of Kings, when various kings lead Israel astray and keep Israel from worshiping God, and it is Nebuchadnezzar's crime in the book of Daniel. If you're a king who lets Israel worship God, even if you're a foreign king like King Artaxerxes in Ezra-Nehemiah, you get a pass; and if you're a king who won't let Israel worship God, like Pharaoh, you're condemned. Given that there are plenty of both kinds of rulers, who do and don't make this mistake, it's hard to see the overarching theme as "anarchist" in nature. 


So what? Does it really matter if there's an "anarchist strain" or not in the Hebrew Bible? Maybe not. But I want to point out that it is precisely because of the pro-kingship nature of the Hebrew Bible that both the New Testament and Christianity exist in the form we have them.

The idea of a "messiah" is rooted in the central role that the king played in Israelite religion. "Messiah" is just the word for "anointed" in Hebrew†, and it was used, among other things, to refer to the king of Israel, who was anointed with oil as a sign of his kingship. Later, in Jesus' time, it had come to be used to describe a hoped-for person who would save Israel from its troubles, a king who was descended from the legitimate king of Israel, David. Christians believe that Jesus is that hoped-for person, but that rather than saving Israel from the Romans a few thousand years ago by becoming a temporal king, he saved everyone by dying for us and thereby removing a barrier separating us from God.

The important thing here is that the New Testament connects Jesus with the king/messiah imagery very strongly. He is described as being descended from David, even as being born in David's city, Bethlehem. Without a pro-king slant in the Hebrew Bible, there's nothing tying Jesus to God's promises, no sense that Jesus is the fulfillment of a longstanding plan on God's part. Instead, Christians can see Jesus as a once-and-for-all follow-through on God's promise to establish the house of David as kings forever, and as a ruler who, unlike many of Israel's former kings, mediates our relationship with God properly. Plus, as we see in Psalm 2, God was thought of as having a close, even father-son relationship with the king:
[God said: ]‘I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill.’
I will tell of the decree of the Lord
He said to me, ‘You are my son;
today I have begotten you.'
Psalm 2:6-8, NRSV
This imagery becomes literal in the case of Jesus, who Christians believe is God's literal son; this little scene from the Psalms is obliquely referenced in the New Testament when Jesus starts his ministry an d God declares Jesus' sonship (here, here, and here). In other words, without the Hebrew Bible's message that kings can be and are part of God's plan for God's people, we don't have a Christianity or a New Testament that sees Jesus as a legitimate part of God's plan from the beginning. And I think that's a big deal.

All that said, the fact the Christians now owe allegiance to a king in heaven before any earthy rulers does, in my opinion, mean that we can consider ourselves a certain kind of anarchists, and I definitely think that the early church acted in a way that reflected that, which the author of the original post describes quite well. (There are some fun details embedded in this book review about how early Christians were perceived by Roman society and how weird they seemed, and would probably seem today.) I can't really speak to the history of how we've reconciled this anarchic tendency in our religion to living in and even creating societies in which we rule ourselves, but that doesn't mean we haven't had to. But I do know that every once in a while, the question of who we really owe allegiance to will come up, and Christians like Bonhoeffer will stand up and say they are Christians first, and (in his case) Germans second; so I think it's undeniable that a certain anarchism is part of who we are as a religion.

* I considered discussing this in the body of my post, but I got a little long-winded and maybe a bit away from the main point in my analysis of the text. Check out the passage and my thoughts below if you've got some extra time; I really am not at all sure that it's a good argument for an "anarchist strain" in the Hebrew Bible at all.
But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, ‘Give us a king to govern us.’ Samuel prayed to the Lord, and the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you. Now then, listen to their voice; only—you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.’

So Samuel reported all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. He said, ‘These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plough his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.’

But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said, ‘No! but we are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.’ When Samuel had heard all the words of the people, he repeated them in the ears of the Lord. The Lord said to Samuel, ‘Listen to their voice and set a king over them.’ Samuel then said to the people of Israel, ‘Each of you return home.’ 1 Samuel 8:6-22, NRSV
To me, this reads like Samuel is getting upset ("the thing displeased Samuel when they said...") about things not going his way: up to this point in the Bible, judges like Samuel were the only "rulers" Israel had, so he feels personally offended and rejected by the people when they ask for a king. If you read it this way, God's response is mostly just a commiseration with or a consolation for Samuel, rather than a rejection of the idea of kings in general. Indeed, while God tells Samuel to warn the people of what kings are like, the text doesn't make it 100% clear that the big list of things he comes up with are God's idea; it sounds to me like Samuel, more than God, is being super negative about kingship. The last bit about being the king's slaves and the Lord not responding to their cry for help sounds particularly harsh, and I suspect that God had nothing to do with it. Finally, note that it even seems like Samuel gets cranky and refuses to do what God tells him to; he doesn't give the people a king, he just sends them away ("'Listen to their voice and set a king over them.' Samuel then said...'return home'") and only follows through later.

I think the biggest argument against this representing an "anarchist strain" in the Hebrew Bible, though, is that God promises to make someone's (David's) family kings of Israel forever later in the same book (2 Samuel 7:12-16). That is not really the kind of thing one expects from an anarchist text.

† Okay, sort of; it's an English-friendly version; the Hebrew is more like "mashiach." 

Image sources:
Photo 1: 
Photo 2:

Friday, March 8, 2013

Linguistics: A Demonstration

Part of a series on Stuff You Might Not Know About.


I've been holding onto the gold,
When letting go would free my hand,
And I've been tying your tongue in a knot,
Oh! I've been tying your tongue in a knot.
—"The Rifle," Alela Diane

I try to write things on this blog that are (1) things I know more about than the average person and (2) interesting. It occurred to me today that there's a pretty big and interesting body of knowledge that I have access to, but haven't written much about, and that is the world of linguistics.

Linguistics is the study of how languages work: why and how they differ, the ways they change over time, and even how (or whether) they affect the way we think. It's a fascinating area of study, and it was my major in college. In this post, I want to give an example of the kind of question a linguist might ask about a language, and how to go about answering such a question.

For my purposes today, I'm going to ask a phonology question. Phonology basically wants to know two big things about a language: (1) What sounds occur in the language? and (2) What are the rules for how the sounds interact?

The answers to both questions are different for each language. In English, for example, there are around 40 different sounds, depending on what dialect you speak; in Hawaiian, on the other hand, there are only 13.

The more interesting question is the second one: what rules govern how sounds interact? In English, our p sounds get a little puff of air ("aspiration") after them at the beginning of words, but not when they come after certain sounds, like s. (To test this, hold up a piece of paper and say the words "pin" and "spin;" notice how the p in "pin" makes the paper move, and the p in "spin" doesn't!) So we have a "rule" in English that makes the p get pronounced one way or another based on what sounds come around it. Other languages lack this rule: in languages like Spanish, p doesn't ever get this puff of air after it, and in some languages, like Mandarin Chinese, those p with the air and p without it are considered completely different sounds, and not part of the same p sound at all!


A phonologist tries to answer both of these big questions about a language in as much detail as possible. Sometimes, the rules governing how a sound interacts with the sounds around it are really clear; usually, though, they're complicated and intertwined with other rules, and all mixed up with the data—how people actually speak the language. To figure out a rule, you usually have to work backward from several sets of data.

When first encountering English, a phonologist would notice pretty early on that there are two versions of the basic plural ending. Both are spelled with an "s," but there are two ways of pronouncing that "s:" in a word like "cats," it has an s sound, but in a word like "dogs," it has a z sound.  The difference between the two sounds is what's called "voicing," which is to say, when you make the z sound, you're vibrating your vocal cords, and with the s sound, you're not.

"So," the phonologist would say, "what's the rule here?" To find out, we have to examine some data. Let's take a look; below, there's a chart that has examples of the s and z sounds and where they show up; note that the slashes (//) indicate how something is pronounced, rather than how it's spelled (the spellings are in quotes).
/s/ Plurals:
/kats/ "cats"
/lips/ "lips"
/roks/ "rocks"
/rodz/ "rods"
/labz/ "labs"
/dogz/ "dogs"
On the left we have a series of words where the plural ending gets an /s/ sound, and on the right are words where it gets the /z/ sound. Notice anything about the words they appear in? The sounds that come immediately before the "s" at the ends of the words are different from each other in the same way that /s/ and /z/ are different: voicing! The words that have an /s/ sound end with /t/, /p/, and /k/ sounds, which, like /s/, are "voiceless" (you're not vibrating your vocal cords when you make them), and the words that have /z/ end with /d/, /b/, and /g/, which are "voiced," just like /z/.

The phonologist is ready to make a rule, it would seem. But what's the rule? Is the plural ending an /s/ that becomes a /z/ sound when it's placed next to voiced consonants, or is it a /z/ sound that becomes voiceless next to voiceless consonants? How on earth can we tell? We have to look for more data. Is there another set of data that we can look at, any third way that the plural ending shows up in English?

Sure. There's a special ending for when you have words that end in an "s," "x," "sh," or other s-like sounds; it's spelled "es." Let's look at some data:

   "es" Plurals
   /bosez/ "bosses"
   /foksez/ "foxes"
   /buʃez/ "bushes"

As we can see, in this context, the plural ending is a /z/, not an /s/, even though the closest consonant sounds are all voiceless. Our best guess, then, is that the rule is something like: "the plural ending /z/ becomes an /s/ when it comes immediately after a voiceless consonant."

That, roughly speaking, is the kind of thing you look at in phonology.

If you're interested in what a more thorough phonological analysis looks like, you could take a look at my BA thesis from college, which I wrote on a phonological problem in Zulu. It's by no means a particularly stellar work of scholarship, but you'll get an idea of the complexity of a real-life linguistics problem and the tools needed to examine it.


Ishi, last speaker of Yana

Before I end, I want to try to answer the question, "So what?" (an old habit of mine). Who really cares about phonology, or linguistics? Is it actually important, rather than simply interesting?

Language is a vital element of human culture. Individual languages encode the ideas, feelings, and worldview of the cultures they come from in a unique way, and when people cease to speak them, part of the richness and diversity of human life goes out of the world. Imagine everyone stopped speaking English; there would be no one left to explain to others the exact meaning and full beauty of English poetry, music, literature. No one would ever again be able to articulate things in quite the way we speakers of English have come to do. And that, I think, is an undeniably sad. Studying different languages helps us to understand the breadth of human cultural knowledge, creativity, and uniqueness.

Unfortunately, languages are dying all the time. There are only a few thousand languages in the world, around 6,000 or 7,000, of which more than 2,000 have fewer than 1,000 speakers. Around half of all languages are expected to die in the next century. Linguists are just about the only people out there trying to keep that from happening, and trying to preserve what we know about the ones that are on their way out.

(Additionally, even if all you are is a stone-hearted capitalist with dollar signs for eyes, uninterested in all this artsy-fartsy cultural flim-flam, you should care about the study of languages, because it has important practical and technological applications, like computer speech synthesis and voice recognition.)

For more info on this subject, plus a cool (if somewhat sobering) interactive map, check out the Enduring Voices Project.

Photo credits: the photo at the top of the page is a map I created for my BA thesis back in 2009. The second photo is in the public domain, and I found it on the Wikimedia Commons, here.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Sleep and I

While you were sleeping
You tossed, you turned,
You rolled your eyes as the world burned.
The heavens fell, the earth quaked,
I thought you must be, but you weren't awake.

—"While You Were Sleeping," Elvis Perkins

I have long had a somewhat troubled relationship with sleep. It's not that I have difficulty sleeping; far from it. You might call me a "somniac"—one who sleeps joyfully, drinking deeply of sleep's pleasures and rarely having much difficulty achieving it under the right circumstances. If there's a deadly sin I can be regularly said to be guilty of, it's sloth.

The trouble in my love affair with sleep originates not with myself nor with sleep, but from third parties. They just don't seem to understand our love, or don't care about it.

This first became apparent when I started going to sleepaway camp at age eight. Up until this time, when bedtime rolled around, I generally headed to bed, turned out the lights, and went to sleep. Happily, without a struggle, because sleep was awesome. For most of my peers at camp, though, lights out time in the cabin was inexplicably this time to ... talk about ... stuff. Like anything. It was so weird to me; they would just lie in their beds and chatter mindlessly about the stupidest things, as if the wholesome, beautiful, excellent, promising, joyous world of sleep that lay just around the corner were invisible to them, or worse: seen, but viewed as worthless. Worse than my confusion at my peers' rejection of sleep in all its great goodness was the fact that I could not sleep when they talked to each other. Or threw things around the cabin, or burped, or farted, or (everyone's favorite) mooned each other. I was despondent.

I tried various strategies to overcome this sleep obstacle down through the years, but the central one remained constant for the next decade or so: any time I knew I would be forced to sleep in a room full of other humans, I would invariably make it my goal to be fast asleep before anyone made it back to the room at night.

I had pretty limited success with this strategy. That first year at camp, the counselor would find me sleeping (or, more often, pretending to sleep in the hopes that my sleep would soon become real) and wake me up so I could participate in "devotions," the Christian sleepaway camp equivalent of an end-of-day debriefing meeting...with Jesus. For this, I earned my fair share of ridicule. In high school, I once shared a hotel room with an acquaintance, which we had booked so we could attend a weekend conference together. I successfully hit the hay before he returned to the room in the evening, only for him to [1] wake me up and ask if he could turn off the radio (why!?) and [2] invite his friends to come hang out in our room and then (because they had come to the conference without booking a room for themselves) to sleep with us in our beds. In college, I generally went to bed well before my roommates, but occasionally I would wake up to the sounds of the aftermath of "too much party" in the bathroom a few feet from my head. 

Eventually, though, I gained a measure of control over this kind of situation: I became a camp counselor. As a counselor, I considered myself second to none in convincing kids to go to sleep. True, I had an occasional kid who stayed awake out of fear rather than rambunctiousness, and in those cases I was at a loss. However, when it came to general cabin-fever restlessness (a universal problem for camp counselors, in my experience), I had the perfect method for settling kids down. The method is as follows: you sit in the room with the kids, lights off, everyone in bed. And every time someone talks, you call them by name, and tell them to be quiet and go to sleep. After about 30 minutes, no one is talking, and after about 60 minutes, no one is awake.

(Unfortunately, this method does not work if you are good friends with the people in the cabin, which happened to me once. In this case, my friends chatted away while I sat in the room with the campers, and when I told them to be quiet they chuckled and kept talking. Perhaps they thought I was joking, or that because I was their friend I wouldn't be able to do anything about it. I ended up smacking the loudest friend a few times with a broom to emphasize that I was seriously tired and needed to sleep. This got the message across.)

The best strategy, I finally realized (just a couple years ago, alas) is drugs. Specifically, over-the-counter sleeping pills; essentially the sleeping ingredient in NyQuil or Tylenol PM. Now with the magic of drugs, sleep and I can meet whenever and wherever, no matter who is there to throw things, moon people, or simply talk about nothing. 

Photo 1:
Photo 2: