Installation Art

I recently listened to an interview with installation artist Jeremy Deller on either NPR or BCC – I don’t remember which. Normally, I would have dismissed this interview and any sort of installationist or contemporary pop-artist who lacked reasonable or obvious artistic talent, but I couldn’t, I just couldn’t! While I would have gladly dismissed this art in a purely prescriptive and subjective manner, I find myself now looking at deeper meanings and trying to understand – not only the art – but the way which the art influences society and the art world.

Previously, I viewed art as a medium which evoked emotions – fear, hatred, passion, and love – however, I find myself quickly realizing art can be objects which maintain or lose their utility, provide deeper meaning, and evoke emotions. The limitations of art are not restricted by the talent of hand, but rather the talent of mind and soul. This interview discussed ways which Andy Warhol turned product into art and it was at the discretion of the public to accept this product as art. If I were to limit my views of art as purely skill of hand rather than social commentary, I would inhibit my views as a social scientist, and even more frighteningly, I would limit my human experience to mediums prescribed to me as art.

Art as free speech has always been silenced from elitists or adopted by elitists to further classism and other propaganda. I feel it is important today to acknowledge those creating art in highly volatile areas of oppression. For example, the artistism to come from Kiev, Ukraine during their protests is an important instance of current and powerful art. During the Occupy Portland protests, I had difficulty understanding the installations within the encampment; however, nowadays, I feel I better appreciate their message and powerful usage of items.

Art is built on socio-economic constructs, and I find myself seeing through this and understanding how important it is to acknowledge these installationists or pop-artists as artists – as equals with all others.

Antonio de Torres Classical Guitar Fan-Bracing

Antonio de Torres (1817-1892) created numerous guitars aimed towards a more general audience which provided affordability and accessibility; however, these guitars did not have the praised fan bracing design. An accomplished luthier and historian, Richard Bruné, commented on one of these very guitars he restored without Torres’ fan bracing, “the lack of bracing might be an insight into how Torres viewed its role… That is, the top is there for structural reasons and the bracing serves to tune the response of the top to improve the sound” (French, 2012, p. 109). The first of Torres’ guitar created with the nine strutted fan bracing system began in 1854 and continued to be used throughout his career. Torres’ guitar gained notoriety among virtuosos – namely Francisco Tárrega (1852-1909). In 1869, an affluent business owner, Antonio Cánesa Mendayas, purchased seventeen-year-old Tárrega one of Torres’ very best guitars. When they arrived at the shop “Tárrega was shown one of the more ordinary guitars…, but when he began playing, Torres was so impressed by the young man’s skill that he brought out one of his finest instruments” (Wade, 1980, p.133). The interest in Torres’ guitars continued to perpetuate his advanced bracing system well beyond the 19th century with modern legends such as Andrés Segovia.

Torres found the importance in wood selection, ring growth, thickness, and the strutting system of the top plate. His plantilla (Spanish for template) introduced a larger body and the nine strutted fan bracing system to the top plate (Rossing, 2010, p. 4) which focused on a newer, fuller sound that resonated frequencies previous fan systems could not achieve with seven, five, or three radial struts. The seven struts, unlike previous guitars, are focused in a radial pattern with symmetrical placement spanning across the bottom of the guitar. The difference in Torres’ guitar fanning is the placement of “two diagonal braces at the lower ends of the fan braces” (French, 2012, p. 109).       

Unlike Torres’ forefathers, he knew the value of symmetrical design to create an abeyance-resonance which began at the string and ended with the highly valued soundboard. Torres selected the finest spruce wood to use as the top plate, one with symmetrical ring growth, and his symmetrical arrangement of the nine strutted fan bracing system. The thickness of the spruce wood played with tensions of the guitar’s strings; like other aspects of his guitar, all must be within moderation and equality. The radial strutting was able to allow thinner spruce wood and a larger body by compensating for the tension felt on the plate by the guitar’s strings.

Since Torres’ invention of the radial nine strutted fan-bracing system, many others came onto the scene to improve upon the design; i.e., Domingo Esteso, José Yacopi, Ignacio Fleta, José Ramirez, Vincente Tatay, and Juan Estruch. With as much interest into this style of bracing system, it is worthy to explore as to why many modern luthiers improve upon such an old model that held suggested theories of Pythagoras’ theorem.

Bracing not only serves the purpose of stabilizing a thin top and tension from strings, but also help molds the vibration modes or rather the guitar’s harmonics. Frequencies are distributed throughout the guitar that is isolated into various sections of the instrument. The fan-bracing resonate frequencies in a variety of sections of the guitar which are different from other bracing systems. In a study performed by the Department of Mechanical and Systems Engineering, Faculty of Engineering, Gifu University, Takeshi Sumi and Teruaki Ono (2008) compared three fan-bracing classical guitars produced by the same maker; however, two had asymmetrical designs (diagonal crossbar included at top) while one had a classical symmetrical fan-bracing design. The importance of strut material, length, thickness, and placement made a large different between the guitars studied. The standard strut system showed how these aspects directly correlate to how frequencies are recorded and what best suits musicians’ needs in terms of frequency registers (p. 381-383).

Sephardi Jews in America

Judaeo-Spanish, also known as Ladino, has always interested me. Understanding how this language evolved led me to better understand American history, too. Similar to my fascination with Buddhism, I, too, find a love in learning about Jewish religion and diaspora. Perhaps this came from my own curiosity with learning about Catholicism while growing up in the Catholic Church. The customs and languages associated with religion are telling of the culture, history, and people. Here, I find myself unraveling the history of Judaism in the United States, and, as a gentile, I find it revealing and utterly fascinating.

When I think of Jews in the U.S., I immediately go to Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, or Larry David, or even Sarah Silverman. What can I say? That’s the picture that’s been painted for me when it comes to Judaism; faux-Yiddish speaking comedians. That, of course, is typical, nowadays. Since World War II, Jewish identity in the United States has been dominated by Jews migrating from Poland, Germany, France, or other parts of historically Nazi occupied Europe. With this, they brought an Old High German variant of a Western Germanic language: Yiddish. So, if you see a Stand-up Comedian acting out a stereotypical Jew, you’ll hear words like “Oy vey,” “Mensch,” “Kvetch,” or, my favourite, “Schmear” – a word Andrew Zimmern from Bizarre Foods uses all the time. All words rooted from Yiddish.

Here is my favourite example of faux-Yiddish by Larry David:

These Jews coming from Europe, Ashkenazi Jews, carrying with them Yiddish, are not the first Jewish community it the United States. In fact, Portuguese was the first Jewish associated language to be predominantly spoke in the United States. Before the migration of Germans in the mid-1800s and beyond, Portuguese and Spanish Jews, known as Sephardi Jews, dominated the scene. Some accounts of these communities stated many did not learn English because the communities were so large that there was no need to learn English.

Fun fact: the Confederate States Secretary of State was Judah P. Benjamin, a Sephardi Jew. He was featured on the Confederate $2 bill. Judah Confederate Bill

These Portuguese and Spanish, or rather Iberian, Jews came to Portugal and Spain throughout the centuries, however, in the 8th century, under Moorish Rule, many Jews came to the area to thrive off the economic prosperity provided to them under Muslim rule. During the next several hundred years, Jews survived, but when Spanish Pope Callixtus III and Pope Alexander VI came into their papacy, the good years seemed to had ended. In 1492, under edict from Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon, the Alhambra Decree passed and exiled Jews from Castile and Aragon. At this point, the Vatican commanded majority of the Kingdoms in Europe, and, therefore, held control of this decree. It wasn’t until the Second Vatican Council that they withdrew the decree; for those who are unfamiliar with Catholic history, the Second Vatican Council ran from 1962-1965. These chain of events launched Sephardi Jews into the New World, occupying historic places such as New Amsterdam, now known as New York City. When the second wave of Jewish immigrants came to the US, this minority culture of Sephardic Judaism became a thing of the past.

THE NEW YORK TIMES DNA study shows 20 percent of Iberian population has Jewish ancestry

Nowadays, the Sephardic culture survives, and the languages, Judaeo-Spanish, is preserved through the linguistic community; however, is endangered. And Judaeo-Portuguese is, unfortunately, extinct. Ladino is becoming more exposed because of polyglot Susanna Zaraysky. Watch this video to learn about what she’s doing. She’s interviewed by hyperpolyglot Richard Simcott.


Insular Celts

While studying English language history, I’ve become a bit familiar with migratory patterns and languages, but not many focus on who was on the British Isles before English showed up. There was TONS going on before it showed up to an already rockin’ party!

When we hear about Celts or Celtic peoples, our minds tend to steer towards Ireland since they’ve retained this history and language better than most Celts. The Celtic people came from all across Europe and they’ve mingled with every other set of peoples you can possibly imagine. Of course, this is probably easy to imagine since they’ve had a few thousand years to do so.

Some of the more famous Celts living outside of the British Isles are the Gauls, who you may have heard about if you’ve ever watched any shows or movies about the Roman Empire. Two shows that come off the top of my head are Rome and Spartacus. Nowadays, the Gaulish culture really isn’t as noticeable as once before. The difference between these Celts is that they were referred to as Continental Celts, which means they had different cultures and languages not closely related to the British Isles’ folks.

Another part of France that held Celts was Brittany located at the top of France just a hop-skip-and-a-jump from England. Brittany was a bit different because their culture and language was actually part of the British Isles. The British Isles Celts are more commonly referred to as Insular Celts.

The Insular Celts were a fierce bunch that resisted Roman invasion and Angles, Saxons, Frisii, and Jutes invasion (these were the folks who brought English ).There were three dominant groups of Insular Celts; the Britons, Goidels (Gaels or, in modern terms, Irish), and Picts.

The Britons, they put up a good fight, but, overall, they didn’t resist invasion too well. They continually got punched around from everyone stumbling upon the Island; most likely since they were located in the South of the Isles closely located near the European continent. They did, however, put up a very good linguistic fight. They had Brittonic which evolved into dialects and eventually entire languages. West Brittonic evolved into Cumbric and Welsh and Southwestern Brittonic evolved into Cornish and Breton. I bet a couple of those sounded familiar; Welsh and Cornish. Welsh is being slowly revived today by government intervention; thanks to the Welsh Language Act 1993 and Government of Wales Act 1998, Welsh is incorporated into a majority English speaking community. Unfortunately, Cornish was not caught in time, UNESCO’s Atlas of World Languages classified Cornish as “critically endangered.” However, support has been raised to elevate this language through the European Charter for Regional or Minority Language. Additionally, here’s some trivia, some of you may have heard the name Britons or rather Breton in the series the Elder Scrolls – they’re closely based off the origins and pagan ideology of the Britons. Lots of games use Insular Celt history to build races and characters.

The Goidels, or Gaels, were intensely resistant. While many Britons coupled with Romans, Germanic folks, and Vikings, many of the Gaels stayed away and ignored their occupiers. This is apparent when surveying which words have remained in the English language when Germanic immigrants/invaders came to the Isles. Another indicator, in more modern terms, is the Y-Chromosome DNA Haplogroup; this shows they just didn’t mate as often with invaders as other Celts. And for one reason or another, the Romans never cared to invade Ireland on a mass scale. The Gaels were revered as pretty darn nuts which made invaders hesitant. Look at Ireland today, only part of Ireland is considered part of the U.K.; the rest is Republic of Ireland. Don’t mess with the Irish. Try watching the movie The Wind that Shakes the Barley, it’s about the Irish War of Independence (1919-1921). It was made in 2006 and features Cillian Murphy, the guy who played Scarecrow in the 2005 movie Batman Begins. That will give you a true treat in how badass and proud the Irish are of their heritage.

The Picts are still a mystery because no one knows a whole lot about them besides some really amazing things they left behind. In fact, Picts is not what they called themselves; this is actually a name the Romans gave them. The name is a derived from the Latin word for “painted” since the Picts painted themselves or tattooed themselves. Remember Braveheart? Mel Gibson played a Scot and painted his face blue? That’s the Picts’ influence. The Picts were known for being absolutely insane and merciless murders; at least that’s what the Romans thought of them. They were so afraid of the Picts and Northern Britons, that in 122AD, Roman Emperor Hadrian built a 73mi (117.5km) long stone wall to the North to secure the Roman Empire from the ruthless Barbarians. In addition, in 142AD, Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius built another wall farther towards the north. This wall stretched 39mi (63km) across what is now Scotland. Twenty years after that, they abandoned the wall because the Celts were way, way too hardcore for the Romans.

The British Isles are now synonymous with Monarchy, Tea, and Colonialism, but their history extends many, many years beyond. I recommend learning a language or two, or, at least, look into how these histories are preserved today by cultures and language. The history these people have left behind is still present today, if you ever find yourself in the area, checkout Hadrian and Antonine’s Walls, or the Carnac Stones in Brittany, or explore the many Gaelic language programs offered in Ireland. There’s a lot of cool history in the area.

Party of Free Life of Kurdistan

[NOTE: This was my last university assignment in reference to Louis Kreisberg’s book Constructive Conflicts. I enjoyed the research so much, I thought I’d post it here.]

The history of the Kurds in the Middle East is one of displacement and suffering; however, they’ve created quite a bit of suffering to Iranians, as well. Though their conflict is an older and complicated story, I wanted to focus on more recent events dealing with Iran and PJAK (Party of Free Life of Kurdistan). The Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran made waves in years prior trying to establish a Kurdish state in Iran, which, then, caused massive deaths and conflict with the Iranian Revolution. Since then, conflict comes and goes, but even now, since the Iranian government claims they’ve eliminated PJAK, they continue to fight for an autonomous state. To simplify this conflict, Kurds are a separate identity from Iranians and Islam, so they want to establish their own state; however, Iran does not agree.

For brevity sake, this conflict will have to be somewhat removed from the previous conflicts regardless of how intertwined and relevant they are to our discussion. In the manifestation of this conflict, each adversary holds a significant identity that is viewed in particularly prideful values. The grievances each side holds is in direct correlation with the past, but, for now, we will acknowledge that PJAK wants to establish an autonomous secular Kurdish state and Iran wants to continue to hold territory and support their view of an Islamic state. By establishing an autonomous state for Kurds, it would wholly conflict with the view the Iranian government holds on its view of their country and its people becoming homogenized. Once acted upon in a democratic way, when the revolution came, Iran reverted to hard-lined ways in silencing the minorities of Iran, especially the Kurds who are of the majority of the minorities. Mobilizing PJAK was not difficult because they are a unified people with a strong Kurdish identity and their history provided fuel to create violent acts against the Iranian government.

In reference to the text, combating the manifestation of PJAK by pure reason would be very difficult, however, not impossible. Other Kurds have taken non-violent methods and seem to be quite peaceful nowadays. As stated in the reading, “For some members of a contending side, the sense of belonging to a larger entity engaged in a struggle provides meaning and significance to their lives” (Kriesberg 318). It is these other factions that become violent and fueled by their hatred and identity who may be more difficult to discuss things with. Since identity is the dominant issue, rather than asking them to compromise to the ethnic majority, it would be advantageous to break down heightened views of identity. As stated in the reading, “promote an identity shared by the potential adversaries, for example, as members of the same nation, country, or organization” (Kriesberg 317). This view may be better carried out by democratic countries influencing Iranian identity and socio-political policies which in turn may mean less violence and prevent other radical Kurdish organization from emerging.

An important passage from the text is “Conflicts become destructive and seemingly intractable as they escalate because of the interactions between adversaries, the processes internal to one or more sides, and the developments in the adversaries’ social context” (Kriesberg 317). This is exemplified by an event that happened after a crucial point in their conflict where the Iranian Army believed they eliminated PJAK and thusly boasted the news in all of the media – which is state controlled. As discussed in the reading, destructiveness occurs when a group begins their celebration too early and thus antagonizes the opposition into more violence (Kriesberg 318).

Another issue that created a more violent conflict is outside influences. As stated in the reading, “every conflict is embedded in a larger social system and interlocked with other conflicts” (Kriesberg 319).  Before the Iranian Revolution, the U.S. and U.K. had a large portion of control of the Shah, however, after the Revolution, these political actors lost their power. Now, the U.S., though they deny this claim, funds PJAK along with the help of the Israeli government. This, of course, is part of the larger conflict that the U.S. has with the Middle East, and the conflict Israeli Jews have with Muslims. The Kurds are not only acting autonomously against Iran, but are part of the larger picture from governments that hold more power and resources with other agendas both hidden and transparent. A way to transform this destructive conflict is to offer transparency and have global powers step in to regulate resources allotted to each side. At the moment, sanctions against Iran from the U.S. are creating tension with Russia and China – two alliances of Iran. Sanctions with Iran are a start to end violence with the Kurds, so long as the U.S. stops funding Kurds to create violence. Recently, President Obama listed PJAK as a terrorist organization and denouncing working funding their violence. Knowing the history of the U.S. and our current state of affairs, I do not believe these statements. Kriesberg makes good mentions of the issue of numbers that it is rarely two sides against each other, but rather there are many actors in conflict and one conflict is not an isolated event (331).

Completing the resolution between other countries and Iran may aid in how Iran deals with its people and/or peoples residing in Iran. As stated in the reading, “Many conflicts are destabilizing for the larger social order as weakened institutions and normative controls foster conflicts and the use of violence” (Kriesberg 326). The Iranian government is in need of conflict resolution as well as the Kurds, however, their change comes to a larger scale because their national identity is built upon the ideology of Islam, and when a people who do not share the same belief system demand an autonomous state in a place historically Muslim, violence is bound to occur. This is to say, with deviating from normative thoughts and stereotypes of Kurds, this may aid in the process of resolving their conflict in a non-violent way.

To deescalate the conflict, many other conflicts must be resolved within Iran and the global perspective. When this is accomplished, tensions and violence may be settled when coming to the table to discuss options. Acknowledging this group as a political group rather than a tribe and/or ethnicity is crucial in resolving and adding legitimacy to their struggle. As discussed in the reading, “informational, normative, and ideological changes affect the sense of what alternatives are possible” (Kriesberg 321). This, as well, is a crucial aspect in legitimizing their grievances and transforming their identity into something universal where violence is not entrenched in their struggle. The important aspect here to transform this destructive conflict is to remember that no one solution will be permanent and there must always be an open dialogue when working out issues between two peoples that have historically committed endless violence against each other. With this, there are preventative measures which these two could take in the future to prevent these destructive conflicts, as discussed in the readings, “conflict resolvers increasingly are concerned with designing systems to prevent conflicts from becoming manifest or from escalating destructively” (Kriesberg 337). Developing a common identity and resolving global issues with Iran would help immensely with the conflict between Kurdistan and Iran. Unfortunately, there is no immediate fix for the violence since this is a battle that has been fought for nearly one hundred years. There are more actors involved increasing the violence, so it would be advantageous to simplify the equation and offer transparency to all parties involved. However, with Iran as a key player in oil, this is a difficult situation to address with internal violence.

[Additional NOTE: please read this article, as well, written by Veene Sulaivany of the Kurdistan Tribune. It’s a very enlightening piece titled “I’m Kurdish, if I’m not political then what am I?”]

Decolonization of Algeria

[NOTE: This is a discussion paper I wrote for a Conflict Resolution course – my last university course before graduating! So, enjoy, there’s a lot of great information in these books about constructive resolutions and Algerian colonialism. I recommend taking the time to read them.]

There is an important article I read that I’d like to reflect upon while discussing Louis Kriesberg and Bruce W. Dayton’s book Constructive Conflicts. The article’s name is Concerning Violence and is an excerpt from Frantz Fanon’s book named The Wretched of the Earth. He dictated this book on his death bed in regards to Algeria’s subjugation by France and the inescapable decolonization discussions he witnessed before his death in 1961. There is rational in violence, an idea I thought easily refuted until reading this article, and just as easily justified when hearing influential activists like Staceyann Chin screaming out for the “bell hooksian urge to kill a motherfucker.” I think it is okay for us to accept this urge when facing an entire race’s subjugation for generations, especially when the subjugators turn their ways and offer freedom in the hopes to walk away as the saviors.

Understanding and validating each side is a crucial aspect in resolving conflict and establishing fruitful negotiations. Algerians referred to themselves as Natives and to colonialists – or anyone of French descent – as Settlers. Self-Other Conceptions is an important aspect when understanding both sides. Historically, colonialists have endorsed pseudoscience in proving blacks as subhuman and often provided zoological terms in their descriptions. This, of course, did not subside even after the decolonization and can be easily argued these systematic and societal forms of oppression exist today in Algeria as well as other African nations and the Americas. As stated in the book, “in these kinds of conflicts, extreme dehumanization on one or both sides can justify the resort to extreme means of struggle” (Kriesberg & Dayton 11). Indeed, this dehumanization aided in perpetuating oppression from the Settlers, and allowed substantiated resentment from Natives and provided further demonization towards any and all Settlers regardless of their innocents.

A select reason as to why these sides were polarized was because of their homogeneity of members. As stated in the readings, “Their perceived homogeneity tends to facilitate communication and to foster a sense of solidarity and shared fate” (Kriesberg & Dayton 53). This seems to be the case, they created us versus them quite quickly and easily when they were persecuted as subhuman. Natives found French to be of the enemy and thusly resisted and maintained native languages and Arabic. Perhaps, this was a course which to resist occupation, but could be a reason why there were not mass efforts to mobilize because of the diverse population and lack of communication during this period (Kriesberg & Dayton 54). Like in many situations of oppression, peoples find ways to distance themselves from their oppressors, thus, it is not how much we can be ourselves, but rather how much we cannot be like the Settlers. As stated in the reading, “we know who we are by emphasizing how we are not like others” (Kriesberg & Dayton 57).

These ideas contributed to core ideas about social conflicts where their struggle became contests in social constructions(Kriesberg & Dayton 6)The dominant issue when dialogue began to form was how and what are the methods to safeguard the Settler population from newly empowered Natives. That’s a soft way of saying “how are the whites going to stay safe from the angry blacks who were killed, beaten, and oppressed for a hundred years by the white French Settlers.” Symmetrybecame an issue amongst negotiations, while the Settlers were well represented in their views; the Natives were represented by Settlers who championed their right to freedom. Of course, Natives were angry and felt misrepresented by someone who could not truly understand their struggle. As stated in the reading, “the resources that adversaries have relative to each other vary from balanced or symmetrical to highly unequal or asymmetrical” (Kriesberg & Dayton 15). In this view, the Natives were an asymmetrical disadvantage when the informal discussions hit the negotiation table. Another passage that stands out in the books is, “power wielders are obeyed in many social settings because they are regarded as having the right to give orders; authority is accorded them because of the office they hold and the way they came to occupy the office” (Kriesberg & Dayton 16). Again, the Settlers appoint their counterparts as Settlers who became intertwined in the movement of decolonization rather than approaching the Natives to appoint their own negotiators in this movement to a more “equal” and “just” society. The Settlers held the power since they colonized so no one stopped to question, “perhaps the Natives would enjoy their own representation…?”

The conflict seems to follow closely to the conflict funnel (Kriesberg & Dayton 7) – from the time of arrival to the point of no return. Granted, for the amount of suffering and oppression experienced, I feel the conflict came out rather well in comparison to other struggles throughout the centuries. It’s impressive the French allowed decolonization; however, it’s my understanding that they exploited all the resources they could since WWII and decided to relinquish the lands to seem like “the good guys” especially after defeating Hitler.

Overall, Algeria is a great example of what not to do, they hold so many textbook examples of peoples and grievances. If their leaders and emotions were validated by the Settlers, they would have held a more fruitful and less violent exchange in establishing independence from antiquated Colonialism. If understanding became a dominant theme in these negotiations, things may have gone smoothly, but, of course, they worked from archetypes that were available then. I feel it’s advantageous to validate the hate, anger, and violence on behalf of the Natives especially when understanding they did not have this critical information in resolution to deal with their issues. Perhaps, now, with understanding their need for violence and understanding Conflict Resolution now, we can address issues in other African countries that have as equally complex and violent pasts that involve colonization and oppressed Natives.

Comparing Äpfel and Naranjas

Every language has certain grammatical rules, and, often times, they do not correlate with one’s first language. When I first began learning German, I had immense trouble understanding verb placement. The concept of placing verbs at the end of the sentence absolutely blew my mind; then again, at that time I wasn’t very aware of my own language let alone another. Eventually, after a year, I finally caught on to verb placement, as well as kicker-words that placed verbs, once more, at the end. That experience made me nervous about verbs.

Since I began learning Spanish, I had the same problem – I wasn’t sure what to do with multiple verbs in a sentence. I wanted to say, I think I like speaking Spanish more than German. Easy enough, right? Well, in my warped, uninterrupted mind, I began, creo que, me gusta español hablar más que alemán. Of course, this is incorrect, but I can’t make myself place verbs together! In English, we can place tons of verbs next to each other and it would make perfect sense; however, that darn German corrupted me and made me question verb placement. Finally, though, after two weeks, I think I understand. English and Spanish have very similar principles in terms of verbs – with exceptions, of course – however, Spanish verbs make me oh-so-less scared of verbs.

Creo que me gusta hablar más español que alemán.

On another note, I feel learning German has prepared me for Spanish by introducing me to dative construction. By this I mean the way “me” and “I” is used in a sentence. In German, when asked, Wie geht’s dir? (how are you?) One wouldn’t answer with Ich bin gut (I am well), but rather they would answer with mir geht’s gut (me goes well). I’m sure someone could explain why this happens, but I cannot, rather I accept that this happens and use it accordingly. Similarly, in Spanish when you say you like something, one would not answer, yo gusto (I like), but rather one would reply, me gusta (me like).  There are a few more exceptions in Spanish where these eccentricities allow the language to be more exciting and unpredictable (as long as it’s not verbs)!

Thus far, I am enjoying Spanish. It’s becoming very useful in my daily life – listening, speaking, and understanding my fellow humans. In my region, Spanish is easily the second language, so I’ve been able to listen to MANY people around me speak. This has helped tremendously with my own self-study and exposure to dialects. Is there anything in Spanish that should have me worried? Difficult syntax? Nouns? Prepositions? VERBS!? Has anyone had any trouble learning Spanish or other languages?

Language Families

I read an interesting website, stating it’s easier to learn a language that is in the same language family as one’s own. But, does classification truly keep up with how languages constantly change? For English speakers, the logical choice may be learning German, as they are both part of the Germanic language family. However, English has gone far off the beaten path compared to German. Old English and German were once both considered synthetic languages; in morphology, this merely means words have lots of endings. English has dramatically changed and is now considered an analytic language – less inflectional endings.

English has developed quickly over the last 2000 years. In 5th century AD, The Angles, Saxons, and Jutes traveled with this language from Northern Germany to England where they were met by the Celts and Romans. Old English gained minimal influence from Celtic tribes and Roman Latin. Approximately 7th century AD, Scandinavians made their way to England and influenced the English language.  From there, Old English took on the Normans where French and Latin (brought by Christianity) transformed the English language once more. Of course, that stage of English is much different than what we speak now. During this period, English gained popularity and transformed into dialects and, furthermore, changed with the coming of new English speaking places – United States, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa. In the year 2012, we have numerous variations of the English language and, additionally, dialects are sometimes not mutually intelligible.

My point being, is it accurate to say that if a language is in the same language family that it will, naturally, be easier to learn? Perhaps English is the exception? Language classification seems to be a historical concept rather than modern ideology to categorize language constantly in motion – especially English. Though the English language fits into the Germanic language family, does that make it easier to learn a language in that same language family? Can this concept be applied to other language families?

I’m curious to know what others think about this. I have limited experience in languages; however, I do find some inconsistencies in claiming learning languages within the same language family are “easier.” Please share your thoughts in the comments thread.

Español: Methods and Resources

Over the last few years, I have wanted to learn more languages. I began with German, and though I learned a lot, it became difficult to practice in my region. I learned enough from textbooks and university courses, but I needed to practice with others outside the classroom. Unfortunately, the Stammtisches in my area are not well organized, so the opportunity to utilize the language to gain fluency is limited. Sadly enough, cultures using German as their first language are highly educated, meaning, their English is almost always fluent. They have to be a truly kind and exceptional person to put up with my bad German so that I may practice. So, two weeks ago I decided to learn an additional language – one that is more practical for my region.

(Check-out what Mark Twain thought about German)

In my quest for language learning, I targeted two languages in my area that could be utilized in my community; Mandarin and Spanish. Next, I looked at my career path and asked myself, “Which would I benefit most from right now?” In the last twenty years, the Pacific Northwest has become home for many immigrant families from Mexico and other Spanish speaking countries. So, my choice in language learning is really based on practicality – I chose to learn Spanish.

Learning any language is a daunting task if you’re lost in the void that is the internet. Many resources tout various slogans such as, “learn Spanish in 3 ½ days! Guaranteed!” or “Become fluent and get more jobs and money!” In the end, they are designed to teach an individual target phrases for travel, business, or ordering at the local Mexican restaurant. These are essential phrases, sooner or later, but beginning with basic lexicon is best.

Syntax: I need word order before I can tackle anything; it helps with visualizing the words when I know where to place them in a sentence.

Verbs: I look to regular verbs and how they’re conjugated in a single tense, but I generally stay away from irregular verbs unless they’re essential in language; e.g., the Spanish irregular verb ir (to go). I spend a day or two paying attention to what verbs I use most often in English. When I have a list of 10 to 15 verbs, I learn them in Spanish, as well as their present tense conjugated forms. I suggest using 501 Spanish Verbs. These verbs usually consist of human needs or giving information: want, must, need, write, go, study, live, have, eat, and speak.

Nouns and adjectives: I create a weekly vocabulary list of practical words I may use throughout the week. I suggest using a Langenscheidt English-Spanish dictionary. A fun way to learn nouns is to write their name in your target language and tape it to the object. Essentially, you’re building your own language learning classroom in your home. Each day when you look into your mirror, you’ll always see that its name in Spanish is espejo. If you’re a visual learner, this is a great method to create images in your mind. I have trouble with word recall, and being able to visualize the word in my mind allows it to be recalled faster.

(Update 01/03/13: New York Times released an article on labeling methods)

In the next step, I take these basic verbs, nouns and adjectives I have learned and create simple conversational phrases that may arise in a casual conversation. For example:

 Hablo inglés, pero yo estudio español y alemán.| I speak English, but I study Spanish and German.

El azul es mi color favorito. | My favorite color is blue.

Necesito ir al hospital. | I need to go to the hospital.

It’s nothing fancy, but it conveys important information. More than learning the phrases, you have learned their various forms and how to use the words properly; this in comparison to phrase books which do not explain the phrases, but provide half-hazard translations. When learning a new language, understanding the essentials to exchange vital information is important. Learning a new language is a slow process that takes dedication and practice – never expect to learn a language overnight and always remember we all learn at our own pace. Set a pace that is comfortable and establish firm and flexible goals for yourself and continue to practice every day even if you’re not learning new words.

If you find a great resource that establishes a lesson plan, use it! I have chosen two resources that have done this. is a great lesson plan that even provides exams to test your knowledge. The second is a resource I checked-out from my local library, it’s called Living Language: Spanish – The Complete Course. Alternating between two courses allows for a more comprehensive basis for learning a language on your own. Sometimes one may explain the concepts better than the other which allows for you to move on to the next level. Mixing resources is a great way to stay involved and learn from different perspectives.

Aforementioned, set realistic, attainable goals that engage your intellect and challenges your personality. There are two goals I want to accomplish before my birthday in April:

Write a one page biography in Spanish.

Order a Consuelo (an alcoholic beverage the size of your head) and dinner from the Cantina.

This will help further my Spanish learning, as well as expose me to my target culture. There will be mistakes made in both goals, but the goal of learning a language is not to be correct all the time; it’s to learn from mistakes and immerse yourself in a culture and language you did not know before.

Next term at university, I tutor adult ESL learners – immigrants and refugees – where I am hopeful these new language skills will aid both myself and the students. I will continue to provide resources for others wanting to learn Spanish, as well as share my journey in learning Spanish.

An American Christmas

Christmas series!

The act of gifting is rooted deep in numerous ancient celebrations – especially during the winter solstice. The ancient Babylonian feast of the Son of Isis celebrated on December 25th practiced gift giving. The ancient Roman holiday Saturnalia began their gifting towards the emperors and gods, but later spread gifting to the larger population. Christmas, which is so interlinked to world history, adopted these customs and, throughout history, has transformed this idea into a socio-economic battle of generosity and kindness.

It wasn’t until the 1800s that Christmas became a family holiday centered on gift giving. In fact, it wasn’t until this period that families began placing gifts under their trees. The act of gifting was not truly popularized – at least to our current standard – until Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” This sparked many notable figures in society to adopt altruistic values.

According to Wikipedia:

In the spring of 1844, The Gentleman’s Magazine attributed a sudden burst of charitable giving in Britain to Dickens’s novella; in 1874, Robert Louis Stevenson waxed enthusiastic after reading Dickens’s Christmas books and vowed to give generously; and Thomas Carlyle expressed a generous hospitality by staging two Christmas dinners after reading the book. In America, a Mr. Fairbanks attended a reading on Christmas Eve in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1867, and was so moved he closed his factory on Christmas Day and sent every employee a turkey. In the early years of the 20th century, the Queen of Norway sent gifts to London’s crippled children signed “With Tiny Tim’s Love”; Sir Squire Bancroft raised £20,000 for the poor by reading the tale aloud publicly; and Captain Corbett-Smith read the tale to the troops in the trenches of World War I.

After upper-class figures began to model themselves on this Christmas altruism, the lower-class began to mimic these Christmas altruistic values which transformed into hyper-gifting.

Post-WWII America created a middle-class society that prided themselves in their autonomies, compassion, and their ability to be the best. A comic strip cartoonist named Arthur R. “Pop” Momand coined the phrase keeping up with the Jones’ in 1913; he produced a comic by the same name that ran in American newspapers for 26 years. This very essence embedded itself into our social caste system and became the pinnacle of Christmas traditions. With the aid of capitalism in the United States, companies were able to identity this phenomena and branded their products to appeal to this societal value of besting one’s neighbor at Christmas. Films emerged typecasting the American family as wanting to be the best on their block – best gifts, best decoration, and best looking American family. Having the best came from accumulated wealth, and many families in the United States were often times poor. Luckily, ingrained into American values was the term pull yourself up by the bootstraps. This meant that all Americans had the possibility and capability to earn and become the best family on the block during Christmastime. American values deeply supported Christmas traditions as they strived their ways to be the best.

We must also entertain the thought of the Messiah complex where individuals feel the urge to help the less fortunate. This, often times, occurs during Christmas time for white, Christian families wanting to follow their faith’s doctrine during the time of Jesus’ birth. Unfortunately, socio-economic class comes into account where many “minorities” (I use that term loosely and do not fully agree with its connotations; however, its use will be understood by most) are placed into a lower-class system. Whites predominately reign over the upper-class, so this gift giving can have negative effects on society where many Latino families and African-American / Black families are seen as poor – unfortunately, this builds itself as stereotypes or generalization.

The United States served as a Petri dish for American consumerism during the Christmas holiday. American values, capitalism, and the history of Christmas came together to create hyper-gifting during the holidays. Gifting may seem like a good gesture during the holiday season, but I feel it’s best to gauge why you’re purchasing a gift and if there are any outside factors at play as to why you’re giving the gift. The culture one belongs to dictates so many actions that we’re unaware of. During this Christmastime, take personal inventory as to your customs, traditions, and outside factors that may be influencing your urge to gift and then decided if the gift is warranted.

The Origin of the Christmas Tree

Christmas series!

Nearly every year I put up two trees –my parents’ and my grandmother’s. Christmas decorating as an adult is vastly different from when I decorated a tree with my brother and parents when I was younger. We loved to blast Christmas music, cut down a tree, and throw a ton of homemade, hand-painted, ceramic decorations on it. Christmas is simpler when you still believe in Santa. This week I want to focus on the origin of the Christmas tree. I know many of you have put up your Christmas tree, sat there on a cold night, and wondered, “What the hell is with the Christmas tree? What does it have to do with baby Jesus and why does Santa need a damned tree to put gifts under?!”

The Christmas tree holds strong ties to the Germanic Language family. Stemming from the same Indo-European branch, the Germanic peoples had similar experiences and once spoke a similar language – Proto Germanic. It’s difficult to trace the true origin of the Christmas tree; however, it is certainly not connected religiously to the Christian religion. The Roman Catholic Church adopted the Christmas tree practice from the Asheira Cult to bring in more followers. The Church developed a plan to adopt certain rituals and customs from surrounding peoples to entice them into adopting the Christian religion as their own. This allowed a peaceful assimilation for many of the peoples.

According to Encyclopædia Britannica (2012), many trace decorating homes with evergreens (trees/branches) to early Scandinavian rituals “at the New Year to scare away the devil and of setting up a tree for the birds during Christmastime.” Of course, it’s of no wonder why these traditions are so integrated into American culture – especially with Scandinavians’ long assimilated history with England. Druids were also traced to have used trees and mistletoe as a semblance of the birth of a god. And, in some circles, the tree was used as a symbol of purity and virginity. Overall, many cultures seem to have the evergreen tree tied into their winter solstice rituals.

My favorite analysis of the Christmas tree is told by radio-host Clyde Lewis. Now, you must realize Mr. Lewis is truly into the supernatural and unexplainable, but he produced a very interesting segment tracing the evergreen tree to sacrificial customs of Germanic tribes. He also went as far to say these rituals are still practiced today by modern pagans (I use that word very loosely).  Here is a write up he did for the show – I believe it aired two or three years ago.

The Christmas tree has played a crucial role in Northern Germany and, indeed, in many parts of Europe as the peoples integrated with one another’s culture. The importance of knowing this history is to understand why we practice these rituals in our culture, why they are important, and, furthermore, how have their meanings transformed? How do you view your Christmas tree? Is it a pagan symbol christened by the Church or does it represent merriment and family? Though the history of the Christmas tree may not hold significant meaning to one’s culture now, it should help place why these rituals are still upheld hundreds or thousands of years later.

Vikings and the English Langauge

With many discussions over words and languages, few account for English’s long history with European languages – at least in my experience. One language, for myself, I have not taken into full account are Scandinavian languages. England saw many invasions of Vikings over two to nearly three hundred years (787-1014 approximately), where looting and invasion were common before their ensuing assimilation. As accounted by Baugh and Cable (1994), the assimilation was quite peaceful in comparison to their cursory contact with the peoples of England. While the noble realm of kings and laws were sought after by the English and Danes, much of the English population coupled with Scandinavians over a short period of time. This brought on many new words to the English language that were influenced by the Scandinavian language.

Even now in Modern English, we still have such words floating around our vernacular. The way philologists make sense of this influence is by comparing West Germanic Old English to North Germanic Old Norse. Old, Middle, and Modern English have transformed this influence into new variations fit for our modern times, so we must look for small indications to decipher how Old Norse has affected our language. One development that is a great indicator is how the consonants sk have transformed over time. Sk in Old English transformed into the palatalized sc which is pronounced sh; however, sk in Old Norse remains a hard pronunciation of k – as in sK. What this means for Modern English is that words that harbor the sound sh as in shirt, ship, shell, and fish are Old English. And words that contain the sk as in skirt, sky, skin, skill, scrape, scrub, bask, and whisk are derived from Old Norse.

Though many of the words have been changed from their original Scandinavian spelling or pronunciation, we can still see the influence of these many languages that have come into contact with the English language. While having adopted many words does not qualify for mutual intelligibility, it does offer an interesting look at history and perhaps where English is headed in the future. We have a diverse language that is capable of crossing many boundaries. So while you hear someone who may not be using what you may consider “standard” English, understand they are speaking yet another influenced English that just may become the next fad in the English language.  Keep your ears open – our language is transforming every day. As linguist Dr. John McWhorter expressed, English is a magnificent bastard tongue.

Old English: a hillbilly cousin of Sanskrit?

I went on a search to find a book that spoke in detail of the Roman occupation of England and their subsequent influence on the English language. Luckily, I found a great book by the name of A History of the English Language Fourth Edition written by Albert C. Baugh and Thomas Cable. It’s a bit outdated since it discussed the breakup of Yugoslavia and the recent German reunification, so, yeah, about twenty years old. Anyways, this book is very detailed in discussing English phonology and morphology. I found it most interesting when they traced English back to the Germanic language family and then further to discuss Proto-Germanic as a subset of the Indo-European language family.

As I continued reading, I remembered I read that Sanskrit was part of the Indo-European family brought by the Aryans traveling through Iran and to the Northwest region of India. Imagine my amazement when they traced Sanskrit to Old English. Here is an excerpt from the book:


Grimm’s Law is provided as an explanation. There was a consonantal shift from Indo-European to Germanic Languages. Thus, throughout history, Indo-European languages changed, Germanic branched into its own language family and then English branched off even further in various ways, shapes, or forms. This is a brief look at the change, but I wanted to inspire others to research and discover their own connections of the English language.

Fun Fact: In 1906 United States’ President Theodore Roosevelt supported a reform to simplify English spelling. It would have changed have to hav, were to wer, and addressed to addresst – amongst many others.

The Origin of Christmas

Christmas series!

For the next few weeks, I will be writing about Christmas! Coming from a collective cultural background, I have been witness to the meaning of American Christmas as well as Catholic Christmas. With my immense love of history, it has subsequently made me a pessimist when it comes to this holiday. I know too much about it to just throw up my tannenbaum, give gifts, wait for Santa, and simultaneously worship Jesus.

The origin of the word Christmas comes from the Old English word Crīstesmæsse, which translates in modern English to “Christ’s Mass.” Since the conception of Christmas – approximately fourth century Rome – it has developed numerous meanings, traditions, and holiday figures.

Many cultures observed special holidays for the winter solstice which happens mostly around December through January – give or take a month and/or days. Speculations have been drawn on the parallels of the Roman holiday Saturnalia and the Christian holiday of Jesus Christ’s birth. It’s important to understand the role of the Vatican throughout the years when discussing paralleled holidays that occurred in the same region. Catholicism has adopted many pagan holidays to make the transition easier for pagan religions to adopt Christendom. By the time Christmas was created, Saturnalia may have become a national holiday rather than a religious holiday honoring the deity Saturn, regardless, the church saw an opportunity to create an inclusive holiday that would help ease Romans into the burgeoning Catholic religion.

Saturnalia is really just a big party. They traded gifts, danced in the streets, sang, had sex, made cookies and generally did all things we still love to do. As you can see, Christmas adopted a few of those customs. We trade gifts, we sing Christmas carols, and we make cookies (gingerbread man origin), but overall, we just have a really good time. There’s nothing wrong with that. The issue here is that the Catholic Church adopted pagan customs and threw the label of Baby Jesus on it and called it good. Little did the Church know people would be like, “hey, wait a second, this year we’re worshiping Baby Jesus for Christmas and last year we were worshiping Saturn for Saturnalia.” Numerous Popes have spoken out against this saying, “it’s a mere coincidence. We counted nine months after March 25th the Feast of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary and figured that’s Jesus’ birthday.” Bullocks.

From there the Catholic religion adopted many more pagan practices in their holiday, such as the Christmas tree, silver & gold, the Yule log, and even Saint Nikolas. There is not even one original idea involved in Christmas; deities such as Horus, Osiris, Attis of Phrygia, Krishna, Dionysus, Adonis, and Prometheus were all born in December! I will cover the other pagan customs in future weeks before Christmas, so stay tuned.

American Buddhism & Gender

Coming from the United States and having grown up in a westernized society, I initially had trouble understanding the appeal of Buddhism as a religion. It became more abstract as I learned the more popular sect of American Buddhism is Japanese Zen Buddhism, which is more structured and tedious than other monastic sects. I furthered my journey and understanding by immersing myself in American Buddhism discourse; however, it resulted in stories of when and how Buddhism was introduced into the United States. It wasn’t until I related Buddhism with the role of gender in the United States that I understood the cosmic appeal of this eastern religion in a western society built on Christian values.

I will say, from my own experience in Christianity, I can see how Buddhism can impact women. I remember while growing up in a Catholic parish where the priest was called to serve elsewhere, and therefore, left our community without a priest. Without another parish within close distance, some of the church’s female administrators brought it upon themselves to conduct services and administer the Eucharist. As you can imagine, the parish was comprised mostly of elderly individuals, those who were still accustomed to the Vatican I rulings and still had troubles adjusting with Vatican II, let alone have a female conduct services and administer the Eucharist. This resulted in many empty seats and numerous disgruntled persons who traveled far and wide to attend other masses that held the proper gender and monastic order to conduct such services. Although, history has taught us most religions alienate their female parishioners, but it is the Buddhist religion that truly set the bar for its time. Certainly now as American females are occupying important roles as Buddhist teachers and administers of meditation, it’s easy to understand Buddhism’s appeal over that of Christian sects. The most influential story I have read is that of Ruth Denison (follow link to read an interview with her). Of course, with my vast interest in European happenings, it’s of no surprise as to why I find Ruth Denison an inspiring character. She traveled a long journey for her freedom and in the end found refuge in the Three Jewels.

I look forward to any other suggestions as to why Buddhism has become increasingly popular in the United States. Even more so, I would be incredibly interested to understand why Buddhism is gaining popularity in the African-American community. If anyone could direct scholarly sources my way, I would deeply appreciate the kindness of your act.

"I grow old ever learning many things." – Solon


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