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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
August 17, 2017

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.


Nut Job 2, Conlangs, Taíno

Nut Job 2. I saw it last Saturday.

Did you guess that I went because my grandchildren were still visiting us?

The squirrel Surly has come a long way since he inhabited those cartoons at the beginning of Pixar features, in which the one joke was his Wile E. Coyote-style way of making desperate efforts to capture his quarry -- an acorn -- and failing spectacularly.

We loved those cartoons. Partly because they were clever, well-produced, and funny. Partly because the old tradition of having short cartoons before every feature is one that I miss.

There was no profit in those cartoons in the old days. They were really there, I suspect, to allow time for latecomers to get seated before the feature started. But they made movie-going more of an event, a celebration. Even if you were there to see some dark, demented horror flick, the cartoon at the beginning put everybody in a good mood.

(That's right, even the annoying cartoons, like Woody Woodpecker. After seeing one of those, I couldn't get that obnoxious cackle out of my head for days.)

But those squirrel-and-nut cartoons, beloved as they were, had to be turned into money, and that is done by having a feature film. Never mind that the feature film had to be completely different and couldn't possibly bring the same delight. Audience loved Surly the nut-seeking squirrel, so they had to be given a markedly inferior ninety-minute story to suck money out of their pockets.

I didn't see the original Nut Job because my grandchildren weren't visiting at the time it came out. And my expectations for the sequel were low. So I was pleasantly surprised that it only sucked a little

Here's what the committee of five credited writers came up with: Exactly what every other set of writers trying to come up with a story about wild animals in an urban setting invariably think of.

The animals -- mostly squirrels and chipmunks, but also groundhogs and one dog -- are forced out of an abandoned nut store and have to survive in the nearby park. But the greedy, corrupt mayor levels the trees and builds an amusement park there, to make money (you know, like the studio that funded this movie).

Do the animals succeed in wrecking the rides, getting the mayor arrested, and turning it back into a wildlife sanctuary? If you don't know, you're either very young or you've never seen a cartoon.

But along the way, it's entertaining. As my wife pointed out, neither she nor I fell asleep during this film, making it a marked improvement over Despicable Me 3. There were people involved in making this movie who actually cared about it, and it shows.

There are funny bits. Most of them are completely unbelievable -- bulldozers getting flipped over, a lot? An army of mice trained in martial arts who are able to overpower people who ordinarily could simply step on them? Chipmunks popping acorns into their mouths and swallowing them without removing the inedible cap first?

Here's the really strange and wonderful thing about Nut Job 2 that just might make it worth seeing for some adults: It has a kind of anti-welfare-dependency storyline at the beginning. No, not anti-welfare, just urging people not to become dependent on a source of free food.

The woodland rodents have all settled into the basement of an abandoned nut store whose former owners never bothered to haul away the stock. So they get lazy and when an explosion forces them to leave, they cast about desperately looking for another source of free and easy food.

Surly, our hero (voiced by Will Arnett), goes off with his friend Buddy, a skinny, stupid, but well-intentioned rat (Tom Kenny), in search of another urban food supply, but every venue they find has more dangers than it's worth.

Throughout this opening sequence, Surly's main squeeze, Andie (Katherine Heigl), keeps urging them to stop looking for human handouts and live like animals ought to -- struggling to find nuts and other edibles in an urban park.

Now, in a talking-animal movie, we can't expect them to stick to reality, so let's forget that an urban park with a groundskeeper is not going to have the full range of forest food sources, so the animals that live there almost have to augment their diet by rummaging through garbage, snatching dropped human food, and otherwise remaining dependent on humans much of the time.

The point is that Andie makes a strong case that feasting on easy handouts weakens their independence, a powerful argument against getting used to long-term welfare if there's any other choice.

In other words, a non-leftist message somehow crept into a children's cartoon made in the last thirty years, one that encourages people to be self-reliant.

Taking this personally, woodland rodents (squirrels, chipmunks) are still acting according to their nature even when they become dependent on the food I, the welfare state, put out in our yard for them and for the birds. And the danger of that dependency isn't that it will weaken their character, it's that a pair of hawks seem to be nesting in some of our backyard trees, and one of them keeps watch over the route the chipmunks use to get to our peanut feeder, stock up, and return to their tunnels.

Just behind our patio wall, the hawk stooped on one of them just yesterday. I couldn't see whether the hawk's talons contained a chipmunk as it rose into the air again, but it spent long enough down on the ground, and there was enough noise from the encounter, that I'm pretty sure he succeeded.

Plus, the mate up in the top of a tall tree sounded like it was saying, Oh, you big strong wonderful hawk, bring me that delicious chipmunk and we can make some beautiful eggs together.

Or perhaps I'm reading too much into the high-pitched, wheezy call of the hawks.

When The Nut Job 2: Nutty by Nature comes to your cable or satellite system, you won't lose too much in the way of IQ points if you watch it.

Is that a positive review? I kind of think it is.

*

I've been teaching Lord of the Rings for years, and we always talk about Tolkien's roots in languages. Few other writers have made any attempt to come up with a fully usable made-up language for their fiction, unless you count Klingon in the Star Trek universe. And you might as well, because there are probably as many Klingon speakers as there are speakers of Quenya and Sindarin, the two elvish language of Middle Earth.

No, sorry, I looked it up and at least one source (Arika Okrent, In the Land of Invented Languages) puts fluent Klingon speakers at 20 or 30, though "fluent" is not an accurate term when the language is so limited you can't really use it to talk about cars or sports or your uncle's chemotherapy.

Tolkien's languages -- the two Elvish dialects (Sindarin and Quenya) and the Orkish language of Mordor -- suffer from the same limitation. Tolkien only included a few hundred words in the books. But he's had longer to develop a fan base that has tried to learn and use his languages.

Those who are trying to turn these into viable languages end up having to create a ton of new words so that actual conversations are possible. So ... if they make up words Tolkien didn't create, are they speaking Elvish, or are they making up a new language as they go along?

When Israel was being formed, Zionists were determined to revive Hebrew as a spoken language. Since the only source of Hebrew was scriptural, they had to start with an ancient language whose vocabulary embraced chariots but not airplanes, javelins but not bazookas. Determined to avoid borrowing from contemporary languages, the early Israeli Hebrew speakers expanded their vocabulary by repurposing old words and creating new ones by extrapolation.

The result, in the case of Hebrew, is a vibrant, living language spoken by many thousands as their native tongue; but biblical Hebrew it ain't. Not anymore.

Hebrew began as a natural language -- growing through the give-and-take of conversation within a life community. But what about languages that are made up out of nothing?

Klingon was invented so the bad guys in a sci-fi tv series could have something to say that wasn't English. Tolkien worked the other direction: He said that he created Middle Earth in order to have characters who would speak the languages he had invented beforehand.

But none of these languages were invented in order to become real-world languages. Even the languages invented, not for fiction, but for real life, exist only as auxiliary languages. Esperanto, Interlingua, Volapuk -- they have their speakers, sometimes in the many thousands, but no nation or community has adopted any of them as their native language -- the language they speak at home while raising their children, so the children grow up to be native speakers.

One loon is reported to have tried to raise his baby boy speaking only Klingon to the child, but while the boy became as fluent as possible, with perfect pronunciation, it was hard to find a Klingon elementary school and he quickly picked up English; now, we're told, he doesn't remember a word of Klingon.

Not so loony, however, was a group of Welsh families who emigrated to Argentina and formed a community there that spoke Welsh as their native language. They did this in the era when the English overlords of Wales were trying to suppress the native language, and from what I hear this Welsh experiment succeeded.

In fact, because of this group, Welsh is one of the authorized languages of Argentina, a truly weird geographical fact. But remember that this Welsh community, like Hebrew-speaking Israelis, started with a fully developed language that had grown organically.

Fictional books only need as much made-up language (or conlang: constructed language) as the writer wants. If I tell you that in my novel, a particular character is speaking Urdu, I am still free to have all his dialogue consist of English without every using an authentic Urdu sentence, phrase, or word. We accept the convention that all the foreign languages spoken in a novel will be translated for us.

In fact, we really appreciate it, since a string of Greek or Cyrillic or Arabic or Sanskrit letters will not promote our ability to understand what's going on in the fiction.

However, many if not most writers making use of this convention forget that their characters are supposedly not speaking English, so the writer will have the characters make puns that only exist in English. What, we're supposed to believe that in this fantasy language they're supposedly speaking, "sun" and "son" or "have" and "halve" are homophone pairs? Sheer idiocy.

Maybe most readers don't catch such errors, but they make me feel contempt for the writer who can't keep straight what elements of his language are translatable and which are not.

Movies can't get away with, "'Give that back to me,' she said in Greek." Their foreign-language-speaking characters have to produce foreign sounds that seem to be a language.

I remember how hilarious it was when I realized that the actors playing Yanomamö Indians in John Boorman's fascinating movie Emerald Forest had not mastered a difficult foreign language. When we saw the English subtitles during their dialogue, every subtitle exactly matched, in length and inflections, what the actors were saying.

The Yanomamö dialogue was completely fake -- it was really English with a few consonants changed. But ... good enough for that movie's needs, and it would have been way more expensive to spend the time finding real Yanomamö speakers and teaching the actors to say lines translated into the authentic language.

Game of Thrones on HBO had the same problem -- there was a lot of dialogue that needed to be spoken in two different languages, Dothraki and Valyrian. Since native speakers of these languages didn't exist, and George R.R. Martin, the author of the books, had not attempted to imitate Tolkien's obsession with and expertise in language, the filmmakers needed somebody to construct both languages, make them different from each other, and keep them pronounceable to English-speaking actors.

No Emerald-Forest tricks were going to do the job. In this age of instant internet feedback, such phony languages would have instantly become the focus of hate and rage.

So they hired David J. Peterson, a linguist who found his way into the field through the world of conlangs. His creation has functioned perfectly, for the purposes of the tv series: The actors are able to learn and say long passages of these fake foreign languages, with fluency and expression, and the subtitles don't come out even with the speeches.

Now David J. Peterson has written a wonderful book, The Art of Language Invention: From Horse-Lords to Dark Elves, the Words Behind World-Building . Since I do world-building for a living, I have to say I'm glad I didn't have this entertaining yet useful book when I was creating the worlds of Wyrms, Songmaster, Treason, Pathfinder, and Memory of Earth.

Because I would have been sorely tempted to spend months or years coming up with good conlangs, which would have left all the major works of my career unwritten.

Look, if you don't care about language, Peterson goes into more detail than you probably want, because The Art of Language Invention is actually an introductory course in serious linguistics. Peterson and the other language constructors take their work very, very seriously -- as they must, in order to do it well.

I don't know if anybody is yet studying, learning, and speaking Dothraki or Valyrian, but the construction of languages has advanced far enough -- and the standards have risen high enough -- that I imagine these languages are more complete than any other fiction-centered conlangs to date.

Some of the actors have jokingly complained about having to learn so much dialogue in Dothraki (Valyrian tends to come in shorter bursts), but they have no idea how pampered they are. Peterson's languages are pronounceable. He didn't toss in any Arabic glottals or Hindi aspirated plosives or southern African click consonants. Heck, he didn't even make them learn to pronounce the Welsh "ll" sound or any other phoneme that doesn't already exist in English, beyond the rolled or tapped "R."

Though I'm sure some fanatic will call me on the carpet about this and cite seven non-English vowels and fourteen non-English consonants, let's just say this: Whatever Peterson did, the actors pronounce the languages beautifully and consistently. When one actor speaks Valyrian, it sounds as if he's speaking the same language as other actors in different scenes and episodes.

You won't want to read The Art of Language Invention just because you're a fan of Game of Thrones -- or of Tolkien or Star Trek, for that matter. But if you're a fan of language -- if you wish that philology were still a thing, or if you've been splashing around at the edges of linguistics, as I have -- then this book will be vastly entertaining and full of practical, real-world knowledge that will expand your enjoyment of our own weird, cobbled-together, strange-sounding English language, with its "t" that becomes the "ch" sound when you put an "r" right after it, and our "th" sound and the flat "a" of "back" that hardly exist in any other languages, and the pin/pen distinction in short "I" and short "e."

We can't be held responsible for the "ti" that becomes "sh" or "s" in words like "direction" and "malediction" and "irrational." The French did that and taught it to the Normans, who carried it with them when they conquered England.

The Art of Language Invention is an excellent way to take off your shoes, pull up your pantlegs, and romp through language like warm wet mud. If you can't tell that that's a rave review, you really need to play in mud with a child or an elephant.

The child, that's what I recommend. Playing in mud with elephants is contraindicated.

*

When we were driving home from our cross-country trip this summer, my wife and I stopped off at Tamarack in West Virginia, near the town of Beckley. In fact, we stayed the night in Beckley so that we'd be able to get up in the morning and spend a couple of hours at Tamarack.

The name Tamarack comes from a tree native to the US and Canada. It's a coniferous tree, with needles rather than leaves, but it's also deciduous, turning a vivid yellow in the fall.

But the place Tamarack is an arts-and-crafts gallery that sells work by West Virginians. Now, I've often seen local co-op art galleries that are kind of awful -- truly unskilled painters making blotches so ugly that you want to staple green garbage bags over them.

By contrast, the arts and crafts at Tamarack are juried. While all the artists and artisans are West Virginians, they still have to reach a certain level of competence to display their work.

Now, that doesn't mean that none of the art is, to use Hillary's word, deplorable. But most of it is worth seeing and, in our view, some of it is worth buying. We didn't get any paintings -- there was nothing so good that it made us want to take something down from our walls to make a place for it. But there was a basket maker whose work was exquisite, and we picked up a few other things as well.

The building itself is excellent for its purpose. You enter and then move along a curving corridor in either direction. It leads you back to the entrance, and voilá. You've see everything. Outside there are some interesting sculptures, and the parking lot is convenient and copious.

Is it worth the three-hour trip just to see it? I doubt it. But if you're driving to points northwest of Greensboro -- Louisville? Cincinnati? Charleston WV? Lexington? Dayton? -- then Tamarack is right on your way. Give yourself an hour or two to look around before you drive on.

And maybe, like us, you want to stop in on your way home to Greensboro -- so you can buy a few things and not have to carry it around in your car through your whole trip.

*

I've long been aware that the population of the Caribbean islands contains no surviving Native Americans -- specifically, no Taínos, the Arawak-speaking tribe that greeted Columbus when he arrived.

But it occurred to me that genetic studies might show whether any Taíno DNA survives among the largely African and Euro-African peoples of Cuba, Jamaica (Arawak "Xaymaca"), Hispaniola (native name "Haiti" or "Quisqueya"), or Puerto Rico (native name "Borikén," or, in Spanish, "Borinquen"). If not, then the devastation of slavery, massacre, and disease was complete.

To my relief, the gene studies of both mitochondrial and Y-chromosome DNA yielded results that allow people from the Caribbean Islands to request that they be listed as Taíno if their DNA matches certain markers and if they have an oral history or traditional documentation of Taíno ancestry.

It isn't much, but it's something.

The Taíno also left us a cultural heritage of some words that have become part of the European languages: barbecue, caiman, cannibal, canoe, cay, cassava, guava, hammock, hurricane, iguana, maize, manatee, papaya, savanna, tobacco, and possibly potato came into our language from Taino (by way of Spanish, of course).

I'm relieved that some footprint remains from their sojourn in the islands. There's more of Taíno culture left in the world than, say, the language of the Picts or the Minoans.

The extinction of languages and cultures is a natural part of the passage of humans through the world. Sometimes one culture overwhelms another by force; sometimes it's simply that commerce or education are conducted in one language and the other is semi-voluntarily allowed to die away.

Sometimes people talk as if the extinction of a language were a tragedy, but that's like mourning over all the dinosaurs that had to die in order to give us those lovely skeletons. The only "tragedy" is with languages that die unattested, and that's because we can't then learn whatever they might have taught us about what language, in general, is.

We can deplore and even mourn the loss of a culture or civilization through unnecessary or preventable interference in modern times, but in ancient times, people did not hold themselves to our current standards and condemning them for obliterating foreign cultures is pointless.

Would the world somehow be better if Sumerian were still spoken in southern Iraq today? Maybe, but only for linguists.

Besides, even peoples who were not conquered transform their own language over time. And nobody conquered us in America to completely do away with our horse-centered transportation system. Not a tragedy, just a fact.

Finding any cultural group that was never conquered by another would be a daunting task. English itself is the product of Anglo-Saxons conquering (but living alongside) Britons, and then of French-speaking Normans ruling over Anglo-Saxons until a melded language became first Middle English, then Shakespeare's English, and finally ours ... as the robust and productive bastard offspring of many, many linguistic parents. (See John McWhorter, Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English.)


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