Saturday, June 20, 2009

Odds & Ends

Hey, everyone~I'm alive! Mostly, anyway. I'm in between summer courses and about half a million other projects, but I feel so bad about neglecting our little blog, and I've been coming across some really interesting stuff lately, so I thought I'd give you all some things to read/think about.

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First up, from the British Museum website on the Parthenon sculptures (the Elgin Marbles, read more about the controversy's history here.) (emphasis mine):

"The British Museum....is a unique resource for the
world: the breadth and depth of its collection allows the world public to re-examine cultural identities and explore the complex network of interconnected world cultures. Within the context of this unparalleled collection, the Parthenon sculptures are an important representation of ancient Athenian civilisation.

Each year millions of visitors, free of charge, admire the artistry of the sculptures and gain insights on how ancient Greece influenced, and was influenced by, the other civilisations that it encountered.

The Trustees of the British Museum warmly welcome the opening of the New Acropolis Museum which will allow the Parthenon sculptures that are in Athens to be appreciated against the backdrop of ancient Greek and Athenian history. The new museum, however, does not alter the Trustees’ view that the sculptures are part of everyone’s shared heritage and transcend cultural boundaries. The Trustees remain convinced that the current division allows different and complementary stories to be told about the surviving sculptures, highlighting their significance for world culture and affirming the universal legacy of Ancient Greece."


Can we just talk about the language here for a second? First of all, this emphasis on "world public" and "world culture"-could it be more paternalistic? This is the British Museum basically saying, "we have the authority to act as curators for the world, by which we mean all you puny countries we took stuff from during our years as a vast, evil empire, because we represent the whole world."

Okay, I may be embroidering a bit. But the sentiment is there-the idea that things that are important to humanity are better off with [Western, Anglo] curators so that more [Western, Anglo, or privileged] people get to see them. "World public"=people in or able to travel to England (therefore, people who either live there or have enough money/privilege to go there [which totally undermines this 'free of charge' thing they're so proud of]).

All this stuff about "transcend[ing] cultural boundaries" is really the British Museum's way of positioning themselves as having transcended centuries of imperialism, paternalism, and other forms of international conflict, even as they continue to exert imperialistic authority by refusing to return the sculptures. It's like people in the US who think it's okay to make racist jokes because having an African-American president means racism doesn't exist anymore. Teh logik it hurtz my brainz.

I haven't had a chance to see the sculptures [yet], but I hear they're pretty awesome, and it would be cool to see them without having to go to Greece. BUT, I do think that's where they should be [unless Greece decides to let them tour]. In case you couldn't tell. What do you think?


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Next, something less controversial. If you haven't already, check out this fascinating article by Lera Boroditsky of Stanford. A few highlights:

"Follow me to Pormpuraaw, a small Aboriginal community on the western edge of Cape York, in northern Australia. I came here because of the way the locals, the Kuuk Thaayorre, talk about space. Instead of words like "right," "left," "forward," and "back," which, as commonly used in English, define space relative to an observer, the Kuuk Thaayorre, like many other Aboriginal groups, use cardinal-direction terms — north, south, east, and west — to define space.1 This is done at all scales, which means you have to say things like "There's an ant on your southeast leg" or "Move the cup to the north northwest a little bit." One obvious consequence of speaking such a language is that you have to stay oriented at all times, or else you cannot speak properly. The normal greeting in Kuuk Thaayorre is "Where are you going?" and the answer should be something like " Southsoutheast, in the middle distance." If you don't know which way you're facing, you can't even get past "Hello." "

Cool, huh? When I mentioned this to my mom (hi, mom!), she brought up the problem of people with no sense of direction, people who couldn't find their way out of a chalk circle with a map (hi, mom!). How would they cope in a culture like this? Is our ability to orient ourselves in the space we occupy inherent, or is it (as this article would suggest), cultural? How might it change the way you think about your house, your neighborhood, or your city if this was your way of understanding orientation?

"[W]e gave people sets of pictures that showed some kind of temporal progression (e.g., pictures of a man aging, or a crocodile growing, or a banana being eaten). Their job was to arrange the shuffled photos on the ground to show the correct temporal order. We tested each person in two separate sittings, each time facing in a different cardinal direction. If you ask English speakers to do this, they'll arrange the cards so that time proceeds from left to right. Hebrew speakers will tend to lay out the cards from right to left, showing that writing direction in a language plays a role."

Guess what? I'm weird. Some of you knew this already, but what you may not have known is that my visualization of time is completely wrong for my linguistic background. This, for comparison, is the average native English speaker's conception of time (note my mad MS paint skillz):

Time moves from left to right and top to bottom, just like the way we would expect to see text printed on a page. But in my head, time looks like this:

Completely reversed. I have no trouble using standard calendars, but in my head, time goes left to write and bottom to top, and it has for as long as I can remember. Same goes for months in the year-May is to the right of now, July is to the left. Plus, if you were to ask me to draw my week on a blank piece of paper (not a pre-printed calendar) the standard way, I would have to pause to reorient and "translate" my mental image into the left-right, top-bottom format.

(Interestingly, spans of years (ie. 1950-2000) are left-right in my head.)

I've done some searching, and it seems to be a pretty rare thing. I've read about a few native English speakers who picture weeks right-left, but few or none who picture their days bottom-top. How about you guys? Any guesses as to what it means?

One more quote from the article (which you really should read for yourself, because it's incredibly cool):

"Does treating chairs as masculine and beds as feminine in the grammar make Russian speakers think of chairs as being more like men and beds as more like women in some way? It turns out that it does. In one study, we asked German and Spanish speakers to describe objects having opposite gender assignment in those two languages. The descriptions they gave differed in a way predicted by grammatical gender. For example, when asked to describe a "key" — a word that is masculine in German and feminine in Spanish — the German speakers were more likely to use words like "hard," "heavy," "jagged," "metal," "serrated," and "useful," whereas Spanish speakers were more likely to say "golden," "intricate," "little," "lovely," "shiny," and "tiny." To describe a "bridge," which is feminine in German and masculine in Spanish, the German speakers said "beautiful," "elegant," "fragile," "peaceful," "pretty," and "slender," and the Spanish speakers said "big," "dangerous," "long," "strong," "sturdy," and "towering." This was true even though all testing was done in English, a language without grammatical gender. The same pattern of results also emerged in entirely nonlinguistic tasks (e.g., rating similarity between pictures). And we can also show that it is aspects of language per se that shape how people think: teaching English speakers new grammatical gender systems influences mental representations of objects in the same way it does with German and Spanish speakers. Apparently even small flukes of grammar, like the seemingly arbitrary assignment of gender to a noun, can have an effect on people's ideas of concrete objects in the world."

Since I've studied a few romance languages, this is something I've always wondered about. It has a lot of implications for how language is used/received in things like advertising, legislation, or literature.

For instance, if I read Baudelaire's "La Musique" in English, it seems either gender neutral or even masculine with its nautical images (a man at sea, the violence of a tempest), so that even a reading of the sexual imagery would be more inclined to consider the male body and the male experience. In French, though, it's full of feminine words: une mer (sea), ma ├ętoile (star), la voile (sail), la toile (canvas), and la nuit (night) are all feminine, as is the title, which gives the poem a very different sort of texture. Obviously, even if the initial gendering of those words was neutral or arbitrary (another interesting question), the reception of them cannot be.

I'd love to hear some people with more experience in translation or comparative lit weigh in on this...

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Finally, other fun stuff I've marked as blogfodder in my Google reader:

DesignerMatt Dorfman's awesome wedding invitation.

Oddly modern-looking color photography from the turn of the century.

Marvel fails spectacularly to speak to its female fans.

And this. I have no idea what it is, but it's kind of fascinating.

1 comment:

Robert N. said...

Nice blog...good luck and have a nice day :-)


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