Sunday, September 19, 2010

Summer Family!

Here's a fun memory from this past summer:

As usual, my parents wanted a group photo of all their grandkids. But, as my sister pointed out, "How do you take a picture of 7 kids? That's 14 hands, 14 eyes, and 7 smiles. All moving at the same time in different directions." (See her post for some of out initial failed attempts, plus the portraits from previous years.)

Then my SiL Louise had a brilliant idea: giant rainbow lollipops! Decorative in the photo, plus they keep some of those little hands occupied. Here's the result:

I know the baby is still screaming (and the toddler looks worried), but they were like that in all the photos. This was the best one. Not too bad, IMHO. Note: the baby has two legs, even if it's not clear from the photo.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Esperantist strikes back!

I got an interesting comment on yesterday's book review. Interesting because I essentially agree with everything the commenter said except that first line where he says I'm being unfair to Esperanto. As far as I can tell, he repeated a lot of the same points I made. The main difference is that he's actually lived the Esperanto experience, whereas I just read about it in a book. I actually don't see that he's contradicting anything I said, but maybe you guys can help me out:

I think you're being a little unfair to Esperanto. Of course there are words in every language which look or sound like rude or amusing words in English. The word 'penis' which you cited simply means '(somebody) tried'. For a fair introduction to Esperanto, go to Esperanto works! I’ve used it in speech and writing - and sung in it - in about fifteen countries over recent years.

Indeed, the language has some remarkable practical benefits. Personally, I’ve made friends around the world through Esperanto that I would never have been able to communicate with otherwise. And then there’s the Pasporta Servo, which provides free lodging and local information to Esperanto-speaking travellers in over 90 countries. In the past few years I have had guided tours of Berlin and Milan and Douala in Cameroon in the planned language. I have discussed philosophy with a Slovene poet, humour on television with a Bulgarian TV producer. I’ve discussed what life was like in East Berlin before the wall came down, how to cook perfect spaghetti, the advantages and disadvantages of monarchy, and so on.

Of course Esperanto cannot compete wwith English but it remains useful and has a steady speaker population, with people happy to meet and talk to you and me in places where it would be hard to find a speaker of English.

Now, was I making a little fun of Esperanto? Yes, of course! IMHO, Esperanto is one of those hobbies that you kind of need to have a sense of humor about. And I'm not saying that in a mean-comment-hey-can't-you-take-a-joke sort of way. As someone who has starred as a Romulan in a community-cable Star Trek parody series, I mean it in a sincere gentle-ribbing-among-friends kind of way.

Frankly, there's a limit to how many people you'll attract by taking Esperanto's noble purpose too seriously. However, you can make a very strong case for the claim that Esperanto is fun! And the Esperanto community is fun too, isn't it? Allow me to quote the letter that Esperanto's inventor (Ludwik Zamenhof) composed and encouraged people to send to their friends:

Vi rigard-os la sub-scrib-o-n kaj ek-kri-os: "Cu li perd-is la sag-o-n?"

Which translates as

You will look at the signature and cry out, "Has he lost his mind?"

So, a little light-hearted self-deprecation has been part of Esperanto's marketing strategy from the beginning, and is probably one of the main reasons that Esperanto is the most successful invented language ever. Go to the lernu website and try it out!

p.s. On a totally unrelated note, this other website has guessed that my blog is "probably written by a female somewhere between 26-35 years old. The writing style is personal and happy most of the time." Exactly what I wanted to hear on my thirty-ninth birthday! I hardly feel a day over thirty-five. :D

Supergeekland!!! "The Land of Invented Languages," by Arika Okrent

How times change! It wasn't long ago that flying across the Atlantic with my two toddlers was a horrific experience. Now that they're not toddlers anymore, my kids can entertain themselves so well that I can read a whole book during my flight!! During last year's trip to the US, my husband bought In the Land of Invented Languages, but he left it there at my parents' house. It was clearly the perfect choice for my flight home to Switzerland this year.

What comes to mind when you think of invented languages? Esperanto? Klingon? Well, it turns out that those two have a special distinction: They are probably the only two wholly-invented languages that have live speakers who can carry on a real conversation in them. Esperanto even has a handful of native speakers -- people who were brought up with Esperanto as a first language!! It's an astonishing feat, considering how many hundreds of languages have been invented, published, and forgotten. Heck, my brother and I invented one ourselves when we were kids. I also tried my hand at translating a few sentences into Klingon and Esperanto when I was in High School.

Arika Okrent tells a fascinating story about how people's ideas about language changed through the ages, and how that evolution, in turn, changed the types of languages that various mad dreamers invented. She also tells the story of how Esperanto achieved (relative) success, despite being arguably inferior to some of its close competitors. Essentially, the inventor of Esperanto wrote an amusing chain letter illustrating how easy (and fun!) it is to understand Esperanto if you already know one of the languages of western Europe. Then, once it has even a handful of speakers, it becomes the obvious choice if you want to learn an invented language. (That's why I tried it out in High School. Then I showed one of my translations to my mom, and -- instead of being impressed! -- she made fun of the fact that some perfectly ordinary verb translates, in Esperanto, as "penis." I kinda stopped bothering with it after that.)

One of the problems with Esperanto, as Okrent explains, is that it was created with an idealistic (yet not currently realistic) purpose. You want a language that has a relatively simple grammar, that is kind of halfway between the romance languages and the Germanic languages, and that people from all different countries can use to communicate with each other? Well, you've got it. It's called English. Esperanto has some theoretical advantages over English, but if you think it's a serious competitor against English's billion-or-so speakers and thousand-year literary tradition, then you come off as, well, a little batty.

But Okrent explains a different (and arguably reasonable) motivation for learning Esperanto: Over the years, the Esperanto community has developed its own culture -- one which sounds fascinating and fun! If you're thinking of backpacking across Europe (or some other continent), the Esperantists have a whole network of folks who are willing to host you wherever you go (on the condition that you speak to them in Esperanto). And their conferences sound way more fun than a Renaissance Festival or a Star Trek or other geek conference. For a short while, Okrent had me totally tempted to pick up some Esperanto books and try again to learn it. That is, until I remembered that I have only so much time and so many brain-cells to devote to foreign languages, and I really, really, really need to learn German.

Klingon, by contrast, skips the crazy idealism and goes straight for what works: fun!!! They've got a whole ridiculously silly (invented) culture and history to go with the invented language, which makes it a great (geeky) idle pastime. Naturally, the Klingon speakers do wildly frivolous things with the language like writing operas and translating the Book of Mormon into Klingon. Esperantists, being slightly more practical, have regular songs, and -- while there may or may not be an Esperanto translation of the BoM -- you can at least read the Book of Mormon's Wikipedia page in Esperanto (not true of Klingon!).

Okrent covers a whole bunch of other fascinating invented languages, and compares them with similar language innovations like symbolic languages that are used to introduce language to handicapped kids and like the revival of (once dead) Hebrew. But I don't want to give everything away, so I'll let you read the book for those! If anything I've said here intrigues you, you'll love this book. It's clear, entertaining, and informative.

Monday, September 13, 2010

"I wish I were Harry Potter..."

So, my kids have discovered Harry Potter.

During our recent visit to Minnesota, Nico heard part of an audio-book his cousin was listening to, and away he went! Fortunately, we happened to have all of the Harry Potter books and a few of the movies already (since my husband and I had read them ourselves).

Now my two little boys are going around drawing red-marker lightning-bolts on their heads and waving magical chopsticks at each other.

Personally, I'm glad to see my kids getting excited about a story in a book. They've learned an amazing amount of science from videos on YouTube (I should post some of Nico's drawings of whale evolution), but I'd like to see them want to read for pleasure. So far it's just been me reading to them a chapter at a time (plus my Mom read to them during our visit), but Nico has picked up the book and read bits of it.

For the moment, I don't mind just reading to them myself because I'd like to start by building up the idea that a story read from a book is fun and exciting. These are the sorts of crazy new challenges modern parents have to navigate! Plus, it's fun to spend the time reading with them. I hope eventually, though, they'll get the idea that they don't need mom's help, just as they finally learned to swing by themselves (and stopped asking me to push them).

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

"Prospettive" vs "Gatti neri Cani bianchi"

Comics are a great tool when learning a new language!

For Italian, as I've said earlier, I like Diabolik, but... it could be better. The main problem is that the setting is so generic. Even though Diabolik is an Italian comic series, I think it's actually supposed to take place in England. But it could just as well be taking place anywhere. It's a standard international crime/action story -- like a reverse James Bond story (reverse because the criminals are the protagonists). But when I read a foreign comic book, I'd rather taste a bit of the culture as well as the language.

So, on my recent trip to Italy, I picked up two new Italian graphic novels: Prospettive and Gatti neri Cani bianchi. Both stories are about twentysomething Italian women, moving from one boyfriend to the next, contemplating life and (especially) death. Despite these similarities, they're surprisingly different from one another.

Prospettive has more a sense of place. This story is grounded in Catania, a city in Sicily, in the shadow of Mt. Etna, the most active volcano in Europe:

I can read ordinary Italian (in comic book form), but when they start slipping into Sicilian dialect, it gets challenging...

One thing that surprised me about Prospettive is that the main character, Agata, seems very open and curious about people, and yet she can't bear the thought of leaving her home town. She's rather leave her beloved fiance than leave Catania.

Gilla, the heroine of Gatti neri Cani bianchi is just the opposite:

"I was born here, but this city seems foreign to me. So I said to myself... If I'm going to feel foreign, I might as well be foreign for real."

It's not even clear which city in Italy she's from.

So she packs up and moves to Paris:

Gatti neri Cani bianchi has kind of the same problem as people discussed in Eat, Pray, Love. Gilla has no responsibilities of any kind, she arrives in Paris and gets a free, furnished apartment, complete with an amazing vintage fashion wardrobe, and luckily she happens to have the Barbie-doll bod for it. So she mostly wanders around Paris talking to ghosts. I'd be tempted to call it "self-indulgence as self-discovery" except that it's not clear she discovered anything. Not to be mean to the book or anything -- it's an entertaining story with beautifully researched and executed artwork.

The thing I found most interesting about it, though, is that part of the reason she has these particular adventures is because of her beauty and her level of privilege -- yet she doesn't seem to be aware of it. The closest point was when a French student who was working his way through school called her leisure a luxury -- and she sarcastically responded, "What do you expect? We Italians are so superficial..." Which kinda left me going, "Um... being Italian's got nothing to do with it..."

Interestingly, while Gilla's beauty was ever-present yet unmentioned, it's the opposite for Agata. Other characters say she's beautiful, but she's not really:

It's one of the things I like about graphic novels as a medium -- there are things you can show in images that you can't express in a natural way with words.