Put away your Spanish 101 tapes and close that 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.

Allison Kruske/Daily
Allison Kruske/Daily

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. “You run into the fact that we’re still figuring out the language and how it works.”

Because Sumerian survived as a classical language long after it went extinct as a spoken one, many of the texts available to scholars today were scribal texts created by people who were learning Sumerian themselves. This can complicate scholarly understanding, but on another level, it connects the academic with his or her subject.

“We can see Sumerian views through their literary texts as well as their literary training,” Konstantopoulos said.

Just as scribes of antiquity learned the language according to rules that were ancient from their perspective, scholars today reconstruct a picture of Sumerian society and language and its posterities.

However, this vast and ancient body of work is nowhere near complete. Scholars of Sumerian often use Akkadian to “read backwards” in order to understand the workings of the older language, but this can be a struggle.

“You can see how they’re interpreting this idea in Akkadian and how it’s written in Sumerian, and they don’t necessarily match up that well,” Konstantopoulos said.

While educated guessing is “part of the fun,” it’s nonetheless difficult to approach a civilization that, in many respects, has not been preserved very well. The only access scholars have is the language.

Cuneiform tablets are monuments to and by an otherwise forgotten civilization. Literary texts not only reveal bits and pieces of a culture like the place of the demonic lore that Konstantopoulos studies, but also how people thought about religion and language in general. Our understanding of Sumerian society is enhanced by not only the study of language, but close interrogation of the way that Sumerians and Akkadians studied and conceptualized language.

Keeping it local

The study of Ojibwe at the University exemplifies the relevance of a language’s time and place in history — the word “Michigan” comes from the Ojibwe language. And according to Margaret Noori, a lecturer in the Native American Studies Program, localized interest is a big part of why many students choose to study Ojibwe.

Properly known as Anishinaabemowin, it was illegal to teach the language until the passage of the Native American Languages Act of 1990. Fortunately, the culture survived the de facto purge that occurred prior to the passage of the bill. Since then, Anishinaabe culture has flourished, in no small part due to the program at the University.

When Noori first started learning Ojibwe, it was largely propagated through tribal elders who weren’t able to write and whose capacity to teach the language was largely unsystematic. A large part of the Ojibwe revival was learning how to better teach it; in this respect, Noori attained a Ph.D. in Linguistics. Her efforts to better understand language comprehension in general has paid off.

“My kids grew up with the language,” Noori said. In fact, 2012 is the first year in which Ojibwe classes at the University will contain students in their 20s who were taught the language in elementary school. These students learn about language loss and sociolinguistics as well as the nuts and bolts of Ojibwe, Noori said.

For Noori, a large part of teaching Ojibwe is the sense of locality. “It’s fun to teach a language that has a particular connection to the place,” she said.

Through social technologies and efforts by the program, the local connection has never been stronger. Through the website and Facebook page, students and teachers from the University as well as schools and tribal colleges across Michigan, can connect to reserves in Ontario, Wisconsin and Minnesota. They can share cultural events, teaching tips and accomplishments in the language.

Instructors at the University impart not only language structure and vocabulary, but culture and traditions. One project had students integrating vocabulary into songs and using drums they made. Students also made birch bark boxes as a part of the University’s initiative to repatriate bones and tribal artifacts. Noori refers to this as “language lessons as empowerment.” Far more than a simple utility, the language is a way to explore culture and history.

“Students have an authentic platform for using language in a real context,” Noori said.

History through opera

“Italian through Opera” is one of those high-concept classes that jumps off the page of the course catalogue. In any language class, one can hardly help but absorb some of the culture, through osmosis if nothing else. According to Italian Prof. Alison Cornish, “Italian through Opera” goes a step further, building on the fundamental Italian language sequence to engage the culture.

According to Cornish, students in “Italian through Opera” study one opera per semester in enough depth that many of them end up memorizing large tracts of the text. Cornish chooses the operas based on what’s available, either through a local ensemble or the New York Metropolitan Opera’s national broadcasts. According to Cornish, the music is a great facilitator, which enables students to become familiar with the text.

“Everybody can live with this opera as much as they want,” Cornish said.

Opera texts, known as libretti, are full of difficult and archaic language forms. Students discuss opera as literature and annotate the libretti with an eye for character development, images and recurring motifs, as well as grammar, cultural background and even musical analysis. At performances, they even critique the translation in subtitles.

“Students can internalize the Italian language, but not just mundane phrases — passionate phrases about love, death, betrayal, despair and life,” Cornish said.

Considering Cornish’s other work, the relationship between different strains of Italian is a foundational element of the course. Her examination of vernacular Italian translation of classical literature provides an understanding not only of the time of the translators and the literature they worked on, but of the overall relationship between language and literature.

According to Cornish, vernacular languages exist within a local context and have limited accessibility. But the vernaculars of Italy became cosmopolitan languages when they were written down in literary form. Cornish’s book, “Vernacular Translation in Dante’s Italy: Illiterate Literature,” examines the “ocean of translated work” that lies between the first literary experiments in 13th century Italy and the “Divine Comedy,” which was written 60 years after the original, nascent works in vernacular Italian.

It is particularly appropriate that Cornish examines translated works, because in intertextual examinations, we find the most profound insights about the creation of literature. The manuscripts were initially supposed to be simple copies, but scribes often corrected and improved on each other’s works, and even annotated or clarified the originals.

This phenomenon “demonstrates how many people are involved in the production of literature,” Cornish said. The “chain of people” tried to make sense of Virgil, Cicero, Ovid and other literary and devotional works, often localizing them by using vernacular vocabulary to describe historical events and concepts.

“They would call Cicero a knight. Well, Cicero wasn’t a knight — he was a Roman senator, but it made more sense to the public,” Cornish said.

More than just music

Music is perhaps the best example of the importance of the place that careful, directed and varied use of language has in culture. Anthropology Prof. Kelly Askew’s work in Swahili music reveals just as much about the society she is studying as the interconnectedness of language and creativity.

As the founding Director of the African Studies Center at the University, Askew started her eclectic career by studying music. Her doctoral work took her to Mombasa, Kenya to study musical mixing in Indian diasporas. While that search proved fruitless, she found the style and culture-mixing in which she was most interested in the sung Swahili poetry of tarab. In the syncretic form of tarab, there are audible Middle Eastern, Indian and Japanese influences and even strains of Cuban and American rock.

Askew is a trained musician and is cognizant of the amplifying effect music has on poetry. Tarab is referred to as “sung poetry,” and not simply as a “song.” The poetic structure of tarab is just as important to the form as the variegated instrumentals.

“There’s a very sing-song quality to it, because the rule in Swahili is that you always stress the second-to-last syllable,” Askew said.

Askew’s work is more than just musical analysis — tarab music also serves as a peculiar form of social cue. At social gatherings, musicians play songs from a well-established canon covering themes of love, loss and reconciliation. By publically tipping the musicians, people can send very pointed and directed messages to social rivals, all without saying a word.

“It’s not the speaker communicating through words to a listener who interprets his words,” Askew said. “The audience appropriates the songs, and the musicians’ voicing is almost tangential.”

Beginning with the basics

“Learning is only one aspect of language,” Meek said. “Language involves grammar, acquisition, and sociocultural expectations and practices.”

Even though the initial stages of learning a foreign language are difficult and, so to speak, foreign, the courses spotlighted by the themed semester are an example of where language learning can lead. “Italian through Opera” expects second-year proficiency. To interpret cuneiform tablets, one needs to first go through the laborious process of learning Sumerian. While language learning can be drudgery, it opens up singular and challenging avenues of creativity.

“Language was chosen because it epitomizes being human,” Meek said.

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