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Orthography is interesting, cultural contact and race relations can be frustrating Aug. 6th, 2009 @ 12:31 pm
I'm working on devising my own personal latin-alphabet orthography for Shachop, a language from eastern Bhutan.  I have met one person from Bhutan in my life, that I know of, and we haven't conversed outside a group setting in which we quiz him about the language.  (He volunteered for this, is getting paid, and it is For Science, by the way.)

My reasoning for not feeling like this is horrible cultural imperialism goes as follows:

1) I don't actually know if Shachopka has a script; it's a little-documented language.

2) From what I do know, if it does, it's probably similar to, or the same, as the script for Hindi.  Which just looks like squiggles to me.  ("Just looks like squiggles" is not a value judgement; this is true of all scripts that aren't either the Roman alphabet or Cyrillic.  And I can't actually read Cyrillic either.)

3) Which, since I don't have time to learn a new script, leaves me with IPA symbols, and IPA symbols are useful, but also, horrible.

Allow me to demonstrate.  This is a phonetic transcription I had with an older Aboriginal gentleman on a scooter I passed as I walked to the bus stop this morning, in IPA:

Me: "gʰədʰæɪʔ"

Him: "ɐʊhəlɐʊːhæɔːzɪtʰ"

Me: "hɔːtʰɹaɪdʰ"

Unless you are, in fact, a linguist, I am Better Than You at reading IPA, because I did Phonetics and Phonology last semester, had worked with the IPA in previous units, and am currently spending hours a week transcribing things in IPA.  I can read IPA notation fairly fluently.

That?  Is still much, much harder for me to read than this:

"G'day!"
"Oh, hello.  How's it?"
"Hot ride!"

Of course, Shachop sound values are quite different from English, but then, I'm used to reading other languages in the Roman alphabet.  I can sight-read German, French, Japanese, and Zulu with reasonable confidence, and a few others with lesser degrees of confidence.  I am accustomed to coding orthography-to-pronunciation dependant on what language I'm working with.  I can handle reading "dh" as dʰ, and remembering that /d/ is unaspirated (even though consciously setting aspiration levels on consonants is tricksy for a native English speaker).

It's also handy when I want to express this little anecdote:

We were going through some names of animals (having moved on from food, fruit, plants).  Now, I'm periodically irritated already by some of my fellow students' inability to comprehend that what's normal/common in our culture/environment might be rare or unknown in eastern Bhutan, OR a recent enough introduction that the words are simply borrowed from other languages, since we already know that that is in fact something that the speakers of this language do.

We'd already established the various words for cattle (for cow, bull, calf...) and someone wants to ask about oxen.  Only people are talking about "cattle used to pull ploughs" and things like that, and basically giving this really strong impression (e.g. as far as I, as a native English speaker, could tell, these people were in fact saying and possibly believing that an ox is just a bigger, stronger bull, which... they're bovines, but they are in fact distinct in general usage/perception) that they were the same.

And our native speaker was like... well, we don't really use cattle, there are these other things, that are bigger, and different, they're called ja:mtsa.  Not the same as what you normally call cattle.

So I had to sort of intervene, and say that it sounded like ja:mtsa were what we would call an ox in English.

We may work out there is a difference later, but right now... gah.  We are ignorant of this language and largely ignorant about eastern Bhutan, and he is an educated, literate man who is very much fluent in English, but it's not his native language and his grasp of nuance in areas that aren't part of normal conversation, especially in an academic setting, is not necessarily going to be perfect.  (Also, he's living in Australia, and it's not like there are a lot of oxen in the streets of Perth.)

Also, wow, do I not love it when people start to sound condescending.  Assholes, this man is better educated than we are.  He's a teacher, who's here because he's studying for his Master's degree.  Yes, he's soft-spoken, brown-skinned, and has an accent, and occasionally non-native English word usages, but the odds are he's in at least the top five most intelligent people in the room.  Probably top three.  And he's in a clear and outright second place for most educated, behind only the lecturer, who has a Ph.D.

Which reminds me - just on the general topic of "things that are kind of racist" - I stopped by an antiques shop just off Rokeby Road yesterday, because I was passing and have been curious since I saw the sign what sort of stuff it contained.  The place is called "Old Values", and apparently those old values include racism.  (And also very little stuff that's old enough to be interesting, actually.)

Because there are various knicknacks, statuettes, etc that have incredibly racist depictions of African and Australian natives on them.

Which makes me feel all weird and twisted-up inside, because on the one hand: all of those items are from more than fifty years ago.  Things Were Different Then, in a lot of ways.  Racist depictions of brown-skinned people showed up in Superman cartoons.  I see such items as having historical interest value.

On the other hand, selling them in antique shops suggests they're there for people to buy as decorative items, not historical artifacts of hideous racism, and raises the spectre of people buying them as decorative objects for their homes, and that's... really not right.  Product of another era, yes, but it just seems like it's too problematic for me, where other Old stuff can have appeal, even charm.  (Sole item in that shop I was tempted to buy for myself: an ancient camera.)

But I find it hard to articulate why a racist image doesn't bother me, intrinsically, if it's presented with context, and makes me feel all sick and unhappy if it's just presented, without comment, alongside a miniature statuette of Michelangelo's David and a rocketship coin box.

Current Mood: mild pain
Current Music: People chatting in the Guild Village courtyard

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