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Linking Languages: Building bridges to cultures past and present

Allison Kruske/Daily
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By Sam Cenzhang, Daily Arts Writer
Published January 31, 2012

Put away your Spanish 101 tapes and close that Wordreference.com window. Learning language, and learning about language, consists of a lot more than simply memorizing vocabulary and grammatical structures. When we grapple with language, we are caught up in what it means to be human. From arcane cuneiform tablets in Mesopotamian excavation sites to soaring Verdi arias in Lincoln Center, language is inextricably bound to human creative expression.

The LSA theme this semester, “Language: the Human Quintessence,” was structured to highlight this often overlooked but critical aspect of language.

“To understand language entails understanding our cognitive capacity and our social proclivities and everything in between,” said Linguistics prof. Barbra Meek, one of the co-directors of the themed semester. According to her, it is the exploration of the “everything in between” that distinguishes the themed courses.

Among the spotlighted courses are the more obscure language offerings such as Swahili, Quechua and Ojibwe, complemented by a “Roundtable on Less Commonly Taught Languages,” which will be run by the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching in March. Other classes, including an introductory linguistics course and a course on the sociolinguistics of Native American languages will study the inherent creative aspect of language.

According to Linguistics Prof. Carmel O’Shannessy, the way bilingual speakers conceptualize language is creative by nature. In the most extreme cases — such as Light Warlpiri, an Australian mixed language — contact between languages can generate entirely new hybrids atop the structures and vocabularies of existing languages. While nothing so drastic would happen for someone taking second-year German, this example shows the extent to which language and creation are linked.

But there are several University courses that use language learning to open up other avenues of creativity. These courses, such as “Italian through Opera” or “Native American Literature” purposefully use art as a tie-in to facilitate language learning.

“We’re driven to use language and be language producers,” Linguistics Prof. Robin Queen said.

As Queen explained, the language impulse is often found in children just learning to speak and read. But it’s also a strand of commonality that bounds us to our human ancestry. The study of language connects us to the place and time of that language, but more than that, the very ability to study language is an echo of human accomplishments stretching back to the fourth millennium BC.

The people behind the words

Sumerian is widely acknowledged as the oldest language in existence. The study of Sumerian unveils a system at once unfamiliar yet recognizably structured. Gina Konstantopoulos, a graduate student studying ancient Sumerian, describes a “continuity of history” in Sumerian tablets. The language is not as far removed from us as the alien cuneiform script suggests. Konstantopoulos and her colleagues can decipher the tablets well enough that they can submit the writing to much more analysis than just simple archaeological scrutiny.

“Once you start being able to read into a text, you can see its complexity,” Konstantopoulos said.

Konstantopoulos focuses on demonic figures in Sumerian texts. Through them, she tries to understand religious and cultural attitudes of a society 6,000 years old.

“It’s easy to see the fun they have with the grammar and the interplay in what they’re doing,” Konstantopoulos said.

While Sumerian is typically thought of as a monolithic civilization, there were many strands of culture and writing. According to Konstantopoulos, these scribal works can have a textual relationship, even if they’re separated by centuries.

“They were having a lot of fun with it, playing around with how the language works,” Konstantopoulos said.