Signs on the Bodies

One of my relatives tells a story about having to go find food with his mother when he was a young child still living in Ukraine. After the Nazi invasion, older male relatives couldn’t leave the house for fear they’d be shot or conscripted – by any number of factions not limited to Nazis. “They thought my mother would be safer if she had a small child with her,” he told me. So they bundled the little boy up and sent him out with his mom.

As they walked toward the market, hand in hand, he noticed bodies hanging from the trees. There were signs tied around their necks. He looked to his mother, but she didn’t react. “I didn’t know it wasn’t normal,” he told me. “It was only later, as an adult, that these memories took on a greater depth in me.”

“What did the signs say?” I asked.

“I hadn’t learned to read yet,” he said. “I never found out what they said.”

That one detail haunted me for years, more than the stories of neighbors informing on each other, land being seized, family members abducted. What did the signs say? Do we need to know what the signs said? The hand that writes it is the same in every language. It doesn’t have to sign its name. The message is the same.

As the child of a refugee, I feel a deep sense of obligation to my ancestors, which has become a core component of my theology. I can neither live nor speak for my ancestors, but the way I live and the words I speak are informed by their lives and words. I was raised to think for myself, hold fast to my convictions, and above all to value human lives and experiences. It’s been 75 years, and my family has not forgotten what it looks like when humans claim absolute knowledge and moral authority over others. These days, when I hear dehumanizing, soul-stripping political rhetoric in America, I think: this is what the signs said.

I believe the rise of authoritarianism is the most pressing social justice concern in America today. Its effects are far-reaching and related to nearly every other social justice concern from systemic racism to income inequality. Every shade of oppression is informed by a conception of power that is zero-sum, unitary, and absolute. Either you’re in the group that hangs the signs, or you’re the body in the tree. From an authoritarian perspective, if you get shot by the cops, you must not have followed directions; if you’re impoverished, you must not be working hard enough; if you demand rights and protections, you must want to strip them away from others; if you criticize institutions or systems, you must be a traitor.

My call to ministry is founded in my sense of ancestral obligation and my unwavering belief in tolerance, humanity, and uncertainty. My family history compels me to acknowledge the fundamental humanity of others, and my faith as a Unitarian Universalist compels me to defend it. A belief in the inherent worth of all humans is incompatible with authoritarianism, which hinges on the dehumanization of “the other.” To promote a radical respect for alterity, to value otherness, to allow for that which we do not understand, is to undermine authoritarianism. Likewise, to model epistemic modesty, to insist that neither I nor anyone else has absolute knowledge or a sole claim to righteousness, is to undermine authoritarianism. My ministry must put forth these values in deeds as well as words.

Oppression, I believe, thrives on absolutism and ignorance. “Evil always carries the seeds of its own destruction, as it makes people, at the least, uncomfortable,” writes Dietrich Bonhoeffer. “Against folly we have no defense. Neither protests nor force can touch it; reasoning is no use; facts that contradict personal prejudices can simply be disbelieved.” The virulent anti-intellectualism in modern America, the devaluing of reason and expertise, and the celebration of purposeful narrow-mindedness are not just symptoms of the rise of authoritarianism – they are, in fact, perpetuating it. In Unitarian Universalism, ours is a tradition of learned ministry that upholds reason, knowledge, and open-minded inquiry. It is a tradition that is needed now more than ever.

But countering the rise of authoritarianism does not necessarily mean countering “authority” as a concept. It does, however, mean reconceiving it. The authority for my ministry will ultimately be based in community, covenant, tradition, right relationship, and accountability. The very nature of ministerial authority in our tradition undermines authoritarianism: we cannot claim the exclusive blessing of God. And in a time when the political right so frequently claims a religious authority for their authoritarian ends, it is vitally important that other forms of religious authority remain visible.

At this stage in my seminary career, I am working hard to become the best possible minister I can. There is a lot at stake. When the time comes to leave the house, so to speak, I must be able to read the signs. Nearly every facet of social justice in this country depends upon educated and diligent people confronting not just unjust policies, but the underlying ideologies that justify them.

This is our work.


And Lo, It Was Done

So! My final semester of coursework at Rutgers is done. Within 24 hours of clicking “send” on the last email of the year, I was sorting my backpacking gear and restocking/improving my outdoor first aid kit, an ongoing task I approach with such cheer and diligence you’d think I was looking forward to a bees’ nest falling on my head. Anyway, it seemed like I should get in one good backpacking trip before beginning my one-woman summer-long performance of “THESIS: THE ARCHIVENING,” a horror-short that takes places at a library.

And hopefully someone at Rutgers will give me a degree for this. The more years I spend in school, the more I realize that the trick is to convince someone to give you a degree/degrees for what you would have been doing anyway.

I stumbled into my thesis project after working with a bunch of other people on the Virgilio Archive. Nick Virgilio was an intense and enigmatic haiku poet who died suddenly during the taping of his first national television interview over 25 years ago. He left behind tens of thousands of pages of unpublished drafts. Almost none of them were organized or dated. (Aspiring writers: please do not do this.)

It’s been emotional and rewarding work, sifting through the papers of a dead man who didn’t know he was about to die. So I want to continue; other people in the group do, also. I’m going to try to get as much of his work digitized and online as I can before I move to Oregon in September to start working on other things.

But far and away, the best, most awesome, and most consuming thing I did this semester was translate a previously-untranslated poem from Old English, a.k.a. Anglo-Saxon. The poem was “Azarias”. It took up more of my time in the past month than anything else. And everything else,  come to think of it. Though partially that’s because I wound up enchanted with my new Anglo-Saxon dictionary. (And by “new” I mean “from 1894” which is new to me.)

Eel receptacle. ... Eel. ... Receptacle.
Eel receptacle. … Eel. … Receptacle.

You can read my translation – alongside the original – here. Take the grammar with a grain of salt. For comparison, my professor’s translation is here.

At the beginning of the poem, Azarias has been cast into a pyre to be burned alive, and through the flames, he begins to sing his thanks for all the things that make earthly life beautiful and mysterious: waterfalls, lightning, the sheer number of fish and birds. Once I got to the line “…and these words he spoke…” I was dying to find out what it was that he said.

Because nothing says "are you sure you want to fuck with this person at the coffee shop" like an Anglo-Saxon dictionary.
Because nothing says “are you sure you want to fuck with this person at the coffee shop” like an Anglo-Saxon dictionary.

I got pretty good at writing æ and ð. I also experienced absolutely zero interference in public places while translating – which, to a woman who frequently reads in public, is a goddamned novelty. Literally zero people spoke to me in coffee shops while I was poring over “A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary” surrounded by pages and pages of hand-scribbled notes. Not “good morning,” or “what are you reading?” or “you wouldn’t happen to be single, would you?” I reckon the dictionary, with its prominent title in 72-point font, makes all those answers evident! …except my being in a committed relationship with Nick Virgilio (Archives of). That is less evident.

And now I’m disappearing into the woods for a while to look at all those things Azarias sang about.


2015: A General Report

Blogging was not high on the priority list in 2015, but it was a productive and transformative year otherwise.

I was sitting on the side of a mountain one day in August, reading a textbook near my campfire, when I decided that the life of a linguistics PhD is not for me. This was a tough call, because linguistics makes me happy; nothing is more fascinating than words. But I can’t imagine that Future Sarah c. 2020 will find happiness in the uncertainty of trying to lock down a tenure-track job, or the gnawing self-doubt of wondering whether anybody will notice my research (statistically: they won’t).

I wonder if I can reasonably sneak into the Linguistic Society of America conference next month without anyone asking what subfield I’m in. “…Civilian?”

The other factor in my decision was a six-week-long conversation I had with myself while traveling, camping, and hiking. I sat around on various mountains, asking: what is the best use of my life? (…she asked, while staring at the clouds for a not-insignificant stretch of said life.) The answer is probably “something with words” and while I thought linguistics fit the bill, I could probably do more to serve humanity in a more thoughtful capacity.

On that note, in 2015 I continued ignoring the call to ministry, which really, you can ignore forever, as long as you don’t mind ministry creeping into your secular life at unexpected moments, and the next thing you know you’re reassuring someone on the Market-Frankford El that they’re a good and worthy person. Really, one can minister at any time. “Have you considered the ministry?” asked everyone, upon hearing that I was no longer pursuing a PhD. INTERESTING QUESTION! WHY DO YOU ASK.

Meanwhile, my MA in English continues apace, and the favorite things I’ve learned about are poetic form, translation theory, and stylistics. (Not to be confused with The Stylistics.) I wrote some research papers; I read some books; I pestered a series of professors with questions. When I consider how much my intellectual life has deepened in the past year and a half – profoundly altering my daily, lived experience – I’m struck with gratitude. This was the year the List of Books I Want To Read got long enough to exceed my anticipated lifetime. Which is something every academic probably faces.

2015 was, above all, the year I wrote what feels like a staggering amount of poetry. But that should be a post of its own.

Now it’s winter break, which is, of course, the time to do the MOST work. I’ve built myself a fort out of books and am enjoying myself.


Q&A: Is Klingon a Real Language?

Rich C. asks: “Is Klingon a real language?”

I suspect that anyone asking that question already has the answer (and at least one replica communicator badge). And although I am manifestly a nerd, I confess that I do not frequent the sci-fi neighborhood of Nerd-dom. But let’s look at it from a linguistic standpoint, for fun.

Short answer:

Depends on what you mean by “real language”, but yeah, pretty much!

Long answer:

Most of the time, when you hear an alien talking in a sci-fi movie, those sounds are not language. Linguist Arika Okrent notes in Slate that “[m]ost languages created for fictional worlds involve simple vocabulary substitutions … or meaningless streams of noise”. Klingon is different. While it is not a natural language (one that emerges organically and without anybody thinking about it), it’s also not jibberish. Klingon has a large body of words (or “lexicon”) and a functional, rule-based system of grammar – two things that every natural language has. That’s legit; think of it as an Esperanto for nerds!

In fact, Klingon and Esperanto are quite similar in that they are both constructed languages – languages that are invented intentionally, with a lot of Advil and planning. Esperanto, however, was designed to be accessible to everyone. Klingon was designed to be accessible to practically no one. Klingon, writes Andrew O’Hehir, “was definitely not created to serve the cause of universal brotherhood. … It is maddeningly and indeed deliberately difficult to learn, and doing so has no practical or theoretical usefulness”. If Esperanto were #1 on Billboard’s Top 40 Constructed-Language Hits, by comparison, Klingon would be Einstürzende Neubauten.**

So while Klingon is functional in a technical sense (having both a lexicon and a grammar), it is rarely used in real life. The good news is that speakers of Klingon are by and large “citizens of the Internet” – so even if every one of them were struck dead in their tracks today, extensive documentation of the language would still be widely available online. By contrast, there are many moribund natural languages that have few living speakers, no written records, and little hope of being revived. (Indignant Star Trek fan: “NOW who has the ‘real’ language?!” *shoots last remaining speaker of Chicomuceltec with a plasma cannon*)

So what makes Klingon so hard to learn, even for the approximately twelve** people who care?

For one thing, the linguist who invented it, Marc Okrand, deliberately used uncommon consonants. Some types of sounds (or “phonemes”) are super common around the world; for example, nearly every natural language has an “n” sound. Esperanto is full of sounds like that – sounds that the greatest number of speakers will be able to easily make. But if you are a native English speaker, you may have noticed that a lot of ESL speakers have hard time with the… well, with the “the,” as it were. That’s because the “th” sound is pretty rare. Klingon has a bunch of sounds like that.

Another thing that makes Klingon difficult to learn is its complicated syntax. It is worth noting that all natural languages – all of them! – are astonishingly complex. Furthermore, the “difficulty” of learning a second language is highly relative and depends, in part, on what language(s) you already speak. When English speakers say that Arabic is hard to learn, we mean that it is hard to learn for us… but not if you grew up speaking Hebrew. Because the syntactic “difficulty” of Klingon lies in the fact that it has armloads of affixes, it might be easier to learn for speakers of agglutinative languages (such as Turkish) or languages with extensive case systems (such as Finnish) than for speakers of English.

All technical matters aside, let us consider one last factor in whether Klingon is a “real” language: the age at which people learn to speak it. [Note that this is possibly the least interesting paragraph of this blog post, before you invest any hope in it.] [Also it is the most subjective and suffused with my own opinions.] [Two prior notes not related.] [Maybe related.] Nobody grows up speaking Klingon, and the older you get, the harder it is to attain near-native fluency in a second language. In other words: everybody speaks Klingon with an accent.*** Furthermore, because there are no native speakers, there is no benchmark for what native fluency would sound like. There are, however, children who learn Esperanto from infancy, as they would learn any natural language – and predictably, they speak the language a little differently than their parents. Jouko Lindstedt argues that this is probably not due to “nativization” (i.e., it’s not because the kids have had to fix anything or work out any kinks), and that Esperanto has likely already conformed to whatever universal rules of grammar are secretly at work in our brains. Rather, all languages change, and – for a variety of reasons – Esperanto is doing that. Point being: until there are a) native speakers of Klingon and b) demonstrable changes in the way successive generations of those native speakers talk, I see a case to be made that Klingon is not a “real” language. Yet.

The Next Generation(Photo from Costumepedia)

Thanks for the question, Rich!

* Thanks also to my sister Jul, Music-Nerd Laureate of this blog, for providing the second half of this metaphor. Her eminently hilarious writing on music can be found here.


*** I acknowledge that this sentence is the philosophical black hole of this blog post but I refuse to get sucked into it.****

**** what have i created


LSA 2015

So! This January was my first time at the Linguistic Society of America’s annual meeting. It was also my first attempt at being academicute, because one cannot go to an academic conference wearing circus tights (which comprise 70% of my wardrobe). Regarding conference-wear, the rule of thumb seems to be: start boring, add a scarf. Also: messenger bag.

LSA Pics(Shown above: with added scarf.)

This was also my first conference ever – not just in linguistics. I was lucky to have gotten a lot of advice before I went, especially about not trying to do everything. I did, however, try to do a little bit of a lot of things. This trip was primarily a fact-finding mission to help me determine what sub-field I will go into.

Upon returning to the East Coast, I mentioned to a many-time attendee that it seemed like everyone in the pragmatics room was having a good time, while the morphologists down the hall were tearing each other a new morpheme.* “So you picked up on that,” the other person responded. Prior to the conference, it had not occurred to me that the culture of a sub-field might influence what I ultimately study. Now, it has become a consideration. So there’s that.

Other notes:
– All of my best conversations happened in and around elevators.
– The Word of the Year vote was a ton of fun. So was the Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon.
– I was able to sneak in a trip to First Unitarian Church of Portland with a UU friend from Philadelphia, who was also in town for LSA. Coming from a small and close-knit congregation, it was interesting to see what a thousand-member church looks like, and what a thousand-member church can do.

Portland Pics

* Caveat: I have now spent a cumulative 30 minutes in the company of morphologists, which is admittedly far too little time to make a broad statement on the friendliness of their culture. And for all I know, at their next session the friendly pragmaticists might have made a blood-sacrifice on Searle Memorial Sacrificial Altar of everyone in the room without tenure. More investigation is needed.



I’m setting up my new website; soon, there will be a proper blog here.