Sunday, July 31, 2011

Of stories and backrubs

Last night I did something rather heathen.  I walked away from an opportunity to lift my voice in songs of praise to my Almighty God using the timeworn hymns of great Christian saints. Instead, I went to my room and shut the door. Worse, I turned on my laptop, put in my headphones (so that I could no longer hear my whirring fan, or anything else for that matter) and pulled up a YouTube movie. The final kicker? It was a dance movie…and dealt with themes of drugs, violence, sex, and high school dropouts.*

Just hit me now.

But, when the final scene closed and the credits began spiraling down the screen, I felt something that hasn’t stirred in my heart for the past nine weeks, if not longer.

I felt a whisper of beauty.

Stories, whether true or fictional, carry much power
Call it what you will—a creative spirit, a muse, a hope of adventure, a desire to look at something more than analysis and fact, a sense of awe or wonder, a hint of heaven, a realization there is something beyond this. C.S. Lewis called it joy. It’s what drives me to paint or play music or write or sing or imagine... and it’s been something that I’ve only received in snatches these past months, all the while decreasing rapidly, as I’m sure you have noticed by my silence on here.

And it took a dance movie to remind me of it. Not that this particular movie was particularly insightful or thought-provoking or had marvelous special effects or Oscar-winning acting. (Nor was it as terrible as you might think.) Really, it was simply a generic movie.

But, it was a story.

Earlier that evening, students and professors, slipper-footed, curled on pillows in a semi-circle and regaled one another with stories from their lives. There was the story about the fire-truck smuggled across a border, the model rocket gone awry, an interview by the Russian KGB, and the woes of international travel. Peanuts, Oreos, and lemonade were passed by eager listeners, as eyes squinted in laughter.

During that time, one of the girls started to give me a backrub. Here, such a thing is a gift akin to Aztec gold—rubbing out the perpetual knots driven into our shoulders from that morpho-syntax paper in Salasaca Quechua or the discourse analysis of a Gumawana folktale. As her fingers began to separate hardened muscles from bone, what I thought was just a few tight muscles exploded in agony.

Numbness does not indicate health.

And so, as I raised my hands in deaf applause to the signed tale of a watermelon fiasco, I gritted my teeth and leaned into the pressure dealt by stories and thumbs. And, on a whim, I made a choice that probably raised a few eyebrows when I sequestered myself in my room to watch my one and only movie of the summer.

But afterwards, my heart stretched, cracked, and finally,

began to sing.  


*In case you feel like following my example, you can look up the movie Take the Lead.

A Contraband Summer

Time is a strange thing, and right now, I feel as though I have stolen some. I am sitting on the banks of the coulee (the creek that runs through campus), below the stained glass branches of an aspen and watching the ripple of the muskrat swirl around the purple phlox and cattails. Occasionally, the trees shake with the crash of train cars so close that I can read their ID numbers, a colossal domino game played in the railroad yard bordering campus. A chipmunk darts closer as I set my penny whistle down and rest from my duet with crows. A redwing blackbird cocks his head. The mother mallard calls her young.

Truly, these minutes shouldn’t be mine—after all, with finals this next week, umpteen projects to finish, packing to arrange, services to organize, and all other details that spring up like dandelions before leaving the country, I could be doing any number of things.

But since when is a thief responsible?

I feel as though I have merely blinked and the summer has disappeared (and with it, all the blog posts that I intended to share with you). I leave North Dakota in five days and the US in twelve. And yet, I look back and see this summer so packed full of everything that I’m amazed it can have such a density. I do apologize for my silence; many times, I found myself choosing between either falling into bed or writing for here. Alas, sleep regularly won out. But over the next few days, I’m going to attempt to sneak a few more chances to share with you a bit of what I have been pondering this summer.

Just call me the Bandit Blogger :)

Monday, July 11, 2011

O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing!

Music is the universal language of mankind
--Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

It’s hard to separate music and linguistics.

So we don’t.

Wander past the SIL department offices and you’ll hear strains of a violin concerto drifting through a doorjam or a trumpet running through scales in the dorms. Sometimes there is even a chamber orchestra (though flutes might have to read off the viola’s music). Drop in Smith 40 on Sunday afternoons at 4 pm, and you’ll find tenors and altos re-arranging their seating, while  basses hum their melody and a soprano or two pencils notes on this week’s choir music. We’re a linguistic choir, to be precise—after all, where else are you reminded about how certain high-frequency articulations (such as plosives, but not sibilants) are lost when heard at a distance?

Chapel begins daily with a song before the speaker, but the Friday slot is reserved entirely for music—a vast array of styles and instruments, thanks to our international audience (including both hearing and deaf). Words I don’t know how to pronounce? No problem! The IPA works its way into music, and sometimes songs are merely glossed rather than translated smoothly (following good linguistic analysis). Random worship sessions curl into corners whenever the need arises, and the stairways are perfect for four-part harmony.

And then, there is my favorite—the Saturday night hymn sing. For three hours, a gathering of brothers and sisters, perhaps reaching 30 or more, cluster in a room by the stairwell and worship a capella through the words of the generations before us. One song ends and another number is called out; someone hums the starting note and a chorus worthy of a cathedral erupts in lusty joy. Windows open, and passersby pause as the swell of voices harmonize and modulate, escaping to the outside and down the sidewalk. Joyful, joyful we adore Thee! More people crowd in until only the floor and tables are left…and then they fill. Fans are started, and hearts shout out favorite hymns until we know the page numbers so well that we cry out in anticipation when we hear 77 or 283! Prayer requests are shared, tears are shed, and we sing to soothe our souls. It’s a place to be refreshed and encouraged after a long week of classes, and to help us refocus as to why we are here.

Music is indeed a language of the heart.

The other week, I was blessed with the gift of an iPod, and I, in all my technological expertise :), am just starting to explore it. However as I contemplate its possibilities, I have come to a rather surprising realization—I don’t own any Christian music! It’s not that I don’t listen to and treasure it; on the contrary, music has always been a significant part of my life, and I can’t remember a time when it wasn’t present in our home. But, when it comes to owning albums of Christian music, I’ve somehow opted for other sources.

Somehow, I have an inkling that Pandora won’t cut it in PNG, and I doubt KTIS’s radio signal will reach across the Pacific. So, I turn to you, my trusty friends. If “music is love in search of a word” (Sidney Lanier), then where are you searching to find good, inexpensive or free (but legal!) Christian music?

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Monty Python, Gilligan's Island, Beards...and Linguistics?

Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale
A tale of renown
That started in this tropic place
Within this tiny town…

And so, last night, amid cheers and clapping, the theme song from Gilligan’s Island kicked off the second of three linguistic skit nights, a hallmark of SIL-UND summers. Even the reclusive thesis students turn out for an evening of linguistic jokes that make you laugh until you start crying. Some themes re-occur year after year, such as the presence of beards on linguists (it’s a strange phenomenon…), the preponderance of couples that emerge by the end of the summer (eHarmonics, anyone?), and, of course, the kalot. (You don’t know what a kalot is? Well, it’s not a bathrobe…)

Skit nights typically occur three times a year, put on by the returning students, the new students, and the staff consecutively. The jokes get progressively wackier and wackier as the summer continues (I will refrain from attempting any explanation…).  Music, video-skills, acting, dancing, and even cheerleading towers are all worked into a hilarious hour that provides a welcome respite from homework.

Last night, in the new students’ skit night, even Monty Python and the Holy Grail made an appearance in a parody on the Knights who Say Nee (but these particular knights say words from their phonetic lists, such as [aβaβkʰaβi] )

My first year, the Elvis favorite, Here Comes Santa Clause, turned into Here Comes SuperClause:

The plethora of rabbits that scatter across campus inspired the following video one year:

(You can see more videos from SIL 2009 Skit Nights HERE)

After all, even linguistic students need to have fun!

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

[ˈjaɭə kai̯ manˈtətʰ]?

My notebook was covered in red ink.

“So, does this make sense?” I began to read my transcription.

 “No, no.” Satyam laughed. “What did you write down? It is patʰs wasta.”

I wrinkled my nose, “Of course!” And another red mark dashed across the page.

Here you see Satyam and Zak hard at work.
We’re in my lab for Field Methods, where Satyam, and I are working on transcribing and translating a story from Marathi, a language from India. Field Methods is a very accelerated class in which my partner Zak and I get practice in applying everything we’ve learned from our previous studies in order to figure out the grammar, sound system, and wonderful peculiarities of a language we’ve never encountered before. We work closely with Satyam, a graduate student of UND, who speaks Marathi fluently and is exceedingly patient in helping us understand the intricacies of his language.

One of the tools Zak and I use is the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) which has a different symbol for every sound in the world. When I hear a word or phrase, such as in the title of this post (which means, “what is that called?”), my training allows me to listen closely and transcribe it precisely, such that another linguist could read it and pronounce all the details without knowing Marathi. In fact, I have downloaded a special keyboard so that I can type it accurately. The IPA is invaluable in both language-learning and the beginnings of orthography creation (the writing system). We even use it in our English dictionaries to indicate proper pronunciation.

The catch is, accurate transcription takes practice, and since my brain and ears are accustomed to filtering sounds for English, hearing all the sounds in Marathi (which is quite different) is a challenge. Speaking, as you can imagine, is even harder.

In fact, I sound rather like Bambi.

You know the scene—Thumper is doing his best to help Bambi pronounce his voiced alveolar stop (otherwise known as a [d]) and poor Bambi just can’t spit it out. Eventually all the sparrows join in and everyone is enthusiastically cheering Bambi on and waiting for that moment of triumph…

Well, Satyam is often put in the same position as Thumper as I struggle to pronounce and hear different sounds that are not found in English. He leans forward, studying me closely. “No,” he shakes his head, “that’s a different word. You need to sound like this.”

I watch his mouth and try to curl my tongue into the shape to produce the sounds correctly. “Better." Satyam was grinning. "But not quite right…”

I think I might need to purchase another red pen.

(If you're curious, you can see the official IPA chart HERE)

Saturday, July 2, 2011

July Newsletter and Commissioning Service!

I’ve been hard at work this past month studying graduate linguistics at the Summer Institute of Linguistics, hosted by the University of North Dakota. It has been a delight to be able to wrestle with complex issues that I will encounter on the field under the guidance of internationally-recognized linguists! Many times, I have found myself sitting in class and struggling to grasp the meaning, until the professor is able to explain it in such that I feel like my eyes are finally opened and I understand!

When Yakob Kaya read the Bible in his mother tongue for the first time at age 70, he testified to a similar experience as my academics, saying:

“When the Orya people heard the Bible in the Indonesian language, they couldn’t understand the meaning. It was like hearing a bird up on a tree singing, but not being able to understand what the bird is saying. Or like knowing that there are fish in the water, but not being able to see them – because our eyes were closed. But when we read the Bible in Orya language, our eyes were opened, and we were amazed at God's message to us.”

I just sent out my July newsletter. If you didn't receive one and would like to, please send me an email at Also, if you would like a prayer card, please send me an email with your mailing address, and I would be glad to get one to you!


My commissioning service is fast approaching! This will be the last opportunity for me to say goodbye to many of you before I leave for PNG on August 12. I would be honored and blessed if you would be able to join me there, even for a short period!