Oberlin Blogs

Brain Soup, Part Two

May 6, 2014

Last semester I posted a blog about how I was not taking more classes than I could handle. I remember writing that. I remember being happy about that. It's still true! Except now I'm taking more life than I can handle... Senior year: the time when you go "ehhhh I'm gonna be gone soon, I won't have the chance to do this again, why not!" shortly followed by "woahhh how did my calendar get so scary!"

But about the classes.

I put a lot of thought into this, my last Oberlin schedule. After four years of increasingly phenomenal coursework, thanks in no small part to the freedom that comes with creating my own major, this semester's combination of courses is the pinnacle of phenomenality - in which I have no morning classes, no Monday or Friday classes, I love everything I do, and all the subjects are wildly different from each other. This is my scheduling swan song.


1. Translation Seminar, taught by Kazim Ali

I thought this would be not only fun but maybe also useful, in case translation is a skill I want to put to professional use. And it's great! But... yeah, no. The best thing about this class is that I'm free to translate anything I choose1; if I couldn't do whatever I wanted at whatever pace I wanted, I would hate it, and I'd probably turn out some real crap. As Yves Bonnefoy put it, "if a work does not compel us, it is untranslatable."2

There's definitely an art to translating poetry. Languages are sets of relationships and poems tug on the strings of those connections in such a way that the relationships are rearranged to show something new or reveal something true. They take an awful lot of skill to set up, and they take an awful lot of skill to transport into a different linguistic paradigm. But I love it! I love it for the same reasons that I love language3: translating is a dazzling, neverending puzzle, as is language. It is an unwinnable, indescribably beautiful game. It is a uniquely communal creative endeavor. (That last parallel has its germ in Edward Sapir's brain - he wrote that "language is the most massive and inclusive art we know, a mountainous and anonymous work of unconscious generations."4) And, just as much as I believe it is impossible to completely figure out how language works, I also firmly believe that it is impossible to translate completely. Which is not to say that I think anything is inherently untranslatable or that we should just give up! As a linguist and translator, I walk a happily paradoxical line between futility and fulfillment. The imperfection is interesting, and - if you do it right - beautiful.

tl;dr it's really fun.

One thing I do feel compelled to mention about this class - Kazim is not a linguist. The first half of the semester is more about theory than practice, and the first book he assigned was this thing called Is That a Fish in Your Ear, by David Bellos, which I literally threw across my room, more than once, because it is So. Wrong. about linguistics. Kazim doesn't catch that stuff - that's not his angle on language - but for me, it's infuriating. If you know things about linguistics and take this class, be prepared to get frustrated by some of the old-dead-white-guy-saying-stuff-about-language theory.

Other than that, though, I'm into it! (Obviously.) A+ do recommend.


2. German Senior Seminar, "Love and War," taught by Jennifer Ham

The point of this class, as per the syllabus, is to examine the concepts of love and war in the context of German lit. The point of this class as per my brain is to speak German. Success on both parts! It's great to get new German material in my head, and, as usually happens with my German seminars, the more I think about this stuff, the more I dig it. Did you know - hold on to your hats, this is going to be shocking - that Germany has produced some quality literature over the centuries?!? No but seriously, Brecht is worth reading, let me tell you.5 Also Lessing and Wedekind. Also de Bruyn's version of Tristan & Isolde! (This class also included some Thomas Mann, but... he's annoying. (Don't tell him I said that.))

Anyway. Allow this worn-out senior a moment of sentimentality -

You guys, the German Department here is a thing of beauty. I have grown to love every single course and professor (and secretary!) I've encountered through it, and some of them have helped me get through my toughest times on campus. Plus, German is the language of my heart in a way that English will never be - it's the language I seek out when I get homesick for my mom; it's the language in which poetry punches me the hardest; it's the language I cultivate in order to ground myself.

My dear German Department: thank you for all the pots of coffee, beers, snacks, support, guidance, and love. Your sustenance is my survival.

So, prospie reader, I highly recommend German seminars! They usually have students at all levels of proficiency, which in my experience means that you either learn a lot about the language from people who speak it better than you, or you learn a lot about the language by helping people not as good as you. And, of course, you're all discussing incredible literature the whole time. There are zero reasons to not take these.


3. Linguistics Capstone, private reading with my advisor Jason Haugen

OH MY GOSH. I cannot overemphasize how much getting to construct my own major is my favorite. It is so much my favorite. It is the most my favorite. I get to do things like read as much about language documentation as I can in a week, every week, and then jabber about it to someone who cares as much as I do, and then I get to write about it at the end, and someone has to read what I wrote and talk to me about it oh my gosh. I get credit for that!

It gets even better: one of the benefits of absorbing all this material is that my focus has gotten progressively narrower over the past few months, and I've ended up discovered exactly what part of linguistics I am into! This is awesome! Linguistics is a lot bigger than you might think, in the way that the biggest sun in the known universe is a lot bigger than you might think, so finding my place in all of that bigness is kinda big! Unfortunately, I have yet to see a job title along the lines of "Professional person-on-your-language-revitalization-team-who-makes-sure-you-are-not-being-a-shithead-as-you-do-that-work." (Linguistics is closely tied to (neo-)colonialism, y'all, and that's a problem. I'm really into decoupling those things.)

Of course, the fact that I get to study with Jason, who is an on point linguist,6 is a perk. The fact that he's a wonderful human is another perk. The fact that I'm probably going to use my final paper as a writing sample for my grad school applications is another one. Point being: "boy, I sure regret that private reading, what a waste of time," said literally no one ever.


4. Internalizing Rhythms, taught by Jamey Haddad

I took this class because I own a bodhran and want to play it, but learning an instrument on top of my usual two/three was just not happening. I figured if I take this class (in which you learn to play hand drums using South Indian syllable patterns) and have to practice on my drum anyway, I'll just end up practicing bodhran while I'm at it. And it totally worked! Until I got too busy to practice properly, but hey. For a while there I was working on four instruments every day, that was pretty cool.

Personal motivation aside, Jamey is point blank the best person to take a class with in the Conservatory. I do not care how starry-eyed you are about whatever bomb diggity top-of-their-field musician you want to study with. Jamey is kind, wise, skilled beyond what mere mortals can fathom, does not tolerate bullshit, and is simultaneously more chill than most of the students here. He is such a human.

One of the many (many) upsides of taking a class with him is that Jamey personally organizes incredibly cool music events on campus, and you will know about all of them, and they will all blow your mind. Most recently, I went to a 12-hour Indian festival held in the Apollo (our movie theatre), which was a transplant from the Cleveland Thyagaraja Festival. Which, if you don't know, is the biggest gathering of Indian classical musicians outside of India. Which, it figures, Jamey has a hand in. I should've been doing homework the whole time I was there, but I don't care, my life - not even just my musical life, my entire life - was enriched by the hours I spent soaking that up.

Also, this class will change everything about how you think about and deal with rhythm. If you let it, this class will overhaul your entire musical practice. I'm going to be digesting and developing what Jamey has taught us probably literally forever.7

I'm just gonna lay it out for you: Internalizing Rhythms should be on your Oberlin bucket list.


5. Flute lessons with Joe Monticello

I've written about these before; if you are a close reader, you know that Joe and I lived in Dascomb together as wee ickle firsties! "Professional" is not a word I would use to describe our lessons, but "useful," "inspiring," and "never a dull moment" all apply. He's helped me change my posture, appreciate alternate fingerings, break bad rhythmic habits, and we've been through everything from Shulamit Ran's East Wind (one of the first things Joe helped me with) to Widor's Suite for Flute and Piano (my last piece this year). And one day when Joe is famous, I will have lots of embarrassing stories to tell about him.


There are some classes I never got to take that always made me wish desperately for a time-turner. Deb Vogel's class on body re-ed is one of those, because I'm into talking to my body, and because all of my circus friends swear by it. I never did get around to taking anything in the CAST department, either, even though that's supposed to be part of the quintessential Oberlin experience. And I love both Jen Bryan and Sandy Zagarell so much that I don't even care what they teach, I just want to take all of their classes. And then, predictably, I wish I'd had time to learn more languages. And...

Ah well. Time to take over my own education.

1. For the curious, I'm going through the books of poetry I got last semester for the German writer-in-residence seminar (which means I'm translating the work of a poet I've taken a class with and understand and can email if I want to, which is THE BEST) and trying my hand at the ones that speak to me. Mostly that's been the heartbreak material. For example:

Maybe

Maybe what I wanted to say was,
we are at the beginning, and you do not believe it.
Maybe all of these letters are
just a wall, through which you do not see me.

Maybe we are just winter-tired
and want nothing as much as bright light.
Maybe we are losing each other
just because the goddess who wishes us well is sneezing.

2. "Theories of Translation: An Anthology of Essays from Dryden to Derrida," edited by Rainer Schulte and John Biguenet, page 192.

3. Are you new to my life? Hi. You should know I am a linguist. A big fat language nerd. I love language a lot.

4. As quoted in "Language Death" by David Crystal, page 40.

5. Brecht is too cool for this post. If I started talking about him, I'd never get around to writing anything else. But if you're into German lit and super curious (about Brecht or any of the others I mentioned), leave a comment and I can talk a little in the comments section!

6. The first class I took with Jason was his Fundamentals of Linguistics course. Sometime toward the end of the year, we were discussing what makes a language a language (Hockett's design features and so forth - which are flawed, by the way), and some student raised her hand and was like "Why are we even discussing this? If a human speaks it, it's a human language, right?" and Jason, quick as a whip, shot back, "Actually, arguing that indigenous languages aren't real human language and therefore the people speaking them aren't real humans is one of the tactics settlers used to dehumanize and justify killing Native Americans."
That was when I decided I liked him.

7. Shoutout to Dylan Moffitt, the dude who subbed the first few weeks of class because Jamey was on tour with Sting and Paul Simon. Dylan will also change the way you play. This is one transformative experience, y'all.

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Responses to this Entry

Ida, beyond the AMAZINGNESS of this post, I have to confess: I love your scarf game.

Posted by: Tanya on May 6, 2014 10:09 PM

This is the comment I wrote in a tiny tiny voice:

What a wonderful last semester schedule! This entry makes me happy for you! Also, just happy, because your excitement is contagious. Thanks!

After skimming the Wikipedia entry for Hockett's Design Features, I am wondering in what ways they are flawed. I mean, is it specific features that are flawed? Or the entire paradigm of specific design features being necessary to call something human language?

Posted by: Griff on May 6, 2014 10:11 PM

I wondered if you would like Is That A Fish in Your Ear?. I'm not really surprised that you didn't (even though I did). Bellos is deeeeefinitely not a linguist, luckily he's funny, a good writer, and (by all accounts) a pretty accomplished translator, hence why I enjoyed the book. Also, did you read Benjamin's "The Task of the Translator?" Because I can imagine it would totally infuriate your linguist brain.

Either way, I'm glad that you're still enjoying the class. Apparently there's going to be a follow-up class to the translation seminar next year, I am so pumped for that!

Seconding Griff, I'd love to know more about why Hockett's design features are flawed. (Also I remember that moment in Fundamentals of Linguistics. It was an awesome moment. Four for you, Jason Haugen. You go, Jason Haugen.)

And I'm gonna have to agree with Tanya: scarf game is on point.

Posted by: Emily on May 7, 2014 8:12 AM

Scarves are ESSENTIAL. I do not understand people who do not wear scarves. Thank you both for noticing. :)

Griff, I shall answer you in a tiny tiny voice:
The question of what defines language is an open one (much to Noam Chomsky's chagrin). There are definitely things that all languages have in common, and potentially there is some sort of metric to be extrapolated there, but 1. I don't think that's particularly useful, because who are you trying to exclude by defining language? and 2. I am deeply skeptical of white Western dudes going "this is the human experience!" and then measuring other people by that.

Those are my big beefs with the whole project. The design features themselves are also questionable; notably, Hockett wouldn't have called sign languages proper human languages (which, like, GET OUT.). And there are more ideologically- rather than scientifically-based gems in there. (Transitoriness is another one. I just don't at all see why that's inherent to language. Inherent to *speaking*, yes, but language?) And so forth.

Emily - We did read that Benjamin! It is my least favorite piece by Benjamin I have ever read! Giant squid of anger! Questions I ask myself on the daily: why do laypeople even exist? Why can't everyone just be a linguist? It would make my life so much less frustrating.

Posted by: Ida on May 7, 2014 10:06 AM

"When I get homesick for my *mom*"?
What about your *dog*? Among others.

Posted by: p. on May 7, 2014 4:56 PM

None of my other homesicknesses get any better with a dose of German! And no other language does anything for any other ailment, really.

Posted by: Ida on May 7, 2014 9:05 PM

Idaaaaa I thoroughly love this post, as you very well know because I squealed my way though reading it the first time while in your presence.

I'm going to second the "private readings are AWESOME" sentiment: they're a lot of work, but self-driven work. You do them because YOU want to do them, and usually you're working with a professor crush of yours and half the time you spend with them is "OMG I CAN'T BELIEVE YOU'RE REAL AND WE'RE TALKING TO EACH OTHER ABOUT THINGS I LOVE" and the other half is mind-blowingly awesome realizations and ah-hah moments.

Just... everyone should consider forming a private reading at some point while at Oberlin. It's a good experience for anyone to construct their own educational path one-on-one with an amazing instructor. Eeeee!

Posted by: Ma'ayan on May 9, 2014 10:43 AM

Okay, Mom as a center of German homesickness is fair enough.
Since commenting is much more fun than what I ought to be doing, I'm going to comment.
The title "is that a fish in your ear?" (yaaaaaay, D. Adams!) encurioused me enough to send me hunting excerpts and reviews, and it sounds pretty harmless, albeit slapdash, from a linguistic point of view. You want books to threw across the room, I'll show you some *real* wieners. Unfortunately, since everyone talks, everyone thinks they're a language expert. By this logic, everyone who falls off a cliff is an expert on gravity.
Hockett's design features are flawed, but then, how many theoretical constructs from 50 years ago stand up in their entirety (besides, he was a Yalie)? Though it was before my time, I have the feeling that Hockett's theoretical proposals (design features and others) were an effort to put rigor into American-school theoretical linguistics, before Chomsky and with considerably more civility.
And while I'm here, with all respect to anyone named Haugen, I don't think European settlers were indulging in linguistic justification before going after the original inhabitants. Wanting their land was justification enough.
Good *.gifs, as always.
Just think (to steal a line): you will never again know as much as you know now.

Posted by: charles on May 11, 2014 9:36 PM

Ma'ayaaaaaan: You are so great! Also I know I did an IM so I'm biased but "It's a good experience for anyone to construct their own educational path" YES.

Papa: The first bookchuck was about when Bellos bashes descriptivism. If there are linguistics blunders worse than that, I don't want to know.

I'm not saying Hockett's design features are worthless; it's part of our thought history as linguists, and it's also worth knowing about so that you know how to critique it. However, the argument that we know more now than we did 50 years ago is not going to convince me to not point out flaws where I see them. The argument that it was probably progress at the time is also not gonna do it for me. Rigor is great! Rigor is exactly what I'm exercising when I talk about how something is flawed.
I guess I'm not entirely seeing why Hockett's ideas need defending on historical grounds.

Moving on.
Hah, I see what you did there with the Haugens! (No relation. I've asked.)
I don't know about the order that genocide and linguistic justification tend to happen in, but that's not really the point - of course the endgoal was to get the land, yes, but it's not like colonizers discussed that goal and their methods honestly. There's always some sort of story spun there about how the indigenous civilization hasn't developed enough to count as civilized yet, or how the culture includes a certain set of barbaric customs. Or how the language hasn't evolved to the ideal state of languagehood yet. (The ideal state being monosyllabic words for Grimm, who was thinking of how German inflection packs information into very small chunks and is therefore evidence of progress. For Jones, predictably, Sanskrit was an "exquisitely refined" language - more so even than Greek or Latin. Herder, on the other hand, wrote about polished languages, which have more developed grammars and prose/philosophy, and unpolished ones, which have lots of synonyms and song/poetry, with the crucial divider being literacy. Notably, all these different ideals are linked to the people who made them up, not to some actual real true perfect form of languagedom.) Point being: measuring languages - whatever that means - DOES always matter, because it is always done from a particular perspective with a particular goal, and always is shaped by (or creates or reinforces or etc.) power dynamics. That's what Jason was getting at.

Posted by: Ida on May 12, 2014 2:58 PM

There's also a choice quote from one of the foundational books (Joseph Errington, "Linguistics in a Colonial World") for my capstone paper, which is relevant here:
"If speech-like sounds were judged to fall beyond the pale of language, then the creatures producing them fell beyond the pale of humanity, and issues of commonality need not enter into any calculation of advantage and obligation. But if those sounds were to be counted as instances of a human language, however opaque and meaningless, then their producers could be immediately assimilated not just to the category of human, but to European interests."


(Also, if anyone wants to leave unrelated comments, don't be intimidated by all this ling discussion. I will love and reply excessively to your comment, whether it's an insightful note on the difficulties particular to translating the poetry of a person you know or just "I read this blog! Thanks for writing it!")

Posted by: Ida on May 13, 2014 9:34 PM

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