Tag Archives: languages

“Final Say – How a self-taught linguist came to own an indigenous language” by Alice Gregory

Penobscot Bay

Published in The New Yorker, April 19, 2021

This article came out RIGHT after I read Dickon Among the Lenapes! It centers on Carol Dana, who was born on Indian Island, Maine, in 1952 and now holds the office of “Language Master” for the Penobscot Nation. I Googled the term “Language Master”, and found it to mean either a recent software offering or a very archaic term for a male language teacher. So the Penobscot use of the term is new and possibly unique. Why is it needed?

The “self-taught linguist” of the article’s title is Frank Siebert (1912 – 1988), self-taught anthropologist, ethnographer, bibliophile and cranky eccentric, who documented and analyzed the Penobscot language for decades. He was so certain of his scholarship that he once corrected a tribal elder on a point of grammar. (This was neither forgotten or forgiven.)

This article had an additional subtitle: “How to save -or steal- a language”. In what sense did Siebert “own” the Penobscot language? His books (he collected avidly) and papers, auctioned off after his death, generated twelve million dollars which went to his two daughters. Siebert’s Penobscot collaborators and hosts received nothing.

The Penobscot language was declared “dead” before 2000, meaning there were no more speakers for whom it had been a first language. Many Penobscot had been educated in the infamous Indian boarding schools, where only English was permitted. Carol Dana understood the spoken language because she remembered hearing her grandfather tell stories. She and the tribal leaders are committed to bringing back the spoken language and publishing the legends. It’s a complex, long term project.

A language is so much more than grammar and vocabulary. In Penobscot culture, certain stories belonged to certain families, who could grant or withhold the right to share them. Certain stories were restricted by gender. Some were only told during a certain season. Who regulates such uses? What happens when the situation is subject to intellectual property law?

Appointing a “Language Master” is only one of many steps (some controversial) taken by the Penobscot leadership to revive and protect their language. A University of Maine scholar commented

“if…we had never been forced to unlearn our language, we wouldn’t have to this sort of precious relationship with it.” 

American law and culture have some catching up to do. I hope Alice Gregory (who has covered a variety of interesting topics in The New Yorker) will continue to write about this in the future. 


“Owls of the Eastern Ice: A Quest to Find and Save the World’s Largest Owl” by Jonathan Slaght

I loved this book! We all need to escape sometimes. What better way than to follow a scientist into “the field”, when the field is in Eastern Siberia. And who can resist the idea of research on owls?

This is the story of Jonathan Slaght’s doctoral dissertation. His goal was to learn about Blakeston’s fish owl (Bubo blakestoni) and to use his data to generate a conservation plan to preserve this endangered but little understood species. Who knew there is such a thing as an aquatic owl, one capable of catching a fish twice its own weight? Other Asian species like tigers and bears generate considerably more popular interest.

Getting into “the field” is a big project in itself when you have to travel to a distant continent and then to a remote location with sketchy transportation and hostile weather, and then conduct your daily business in a foreign language (Russian).

In a Facebook Live interview a few days ago, Slaght discussed the issue of language. His research was done with Russians and mostly IN Russian, but he also kept a personal journal in English. What a challenge! Before writing Owls of the Eastern Ice, Slaght translated the travel and adventure classic Across the Ussuri Kray by V Arsenyev (1921), which documents the cultural and natural history of northeast Asia. (Available from Amazon, formerly unavailable in English.)

This book brings an important message to aspiring scientists. Science is not all white lab coats and precision! Slaght didn’t know much about the fish owls when he began his work. He had almost no idea of how to find them, and less information about how to CATCH one! Later, he had to fit them with transmitters and track their movements. I’m amazed at how much he accomplished. Interpreting the data was crucial, and he successfully generated a conservation plan for his target species.

Alongside the science, Slaght presented cultural and personal information about the people he worked among.

I read this book using the Kindle app on my phone. Not optimal when you want to look at a map frequently. I hope my public library acquires a copy soon.

I recommend this book to anyone who loves to travel or spends time enjoying nature. It would make a great gift for anyone in high school or college who likes science but wonders what real scientists do!


Letter to my High School French teacher

Dear Dr. Schacht,

Barbara K (with whom I have maintained a lifelong friendship) has encouraged me to write to you about our time at Hall High and your role in our education. I am happy to do so!

Marian G remembers our culinary adventures (did you eat periwinkles?). I remember our singing! You rendered La Marseillaise with great conviction. I can still sing at least one drinking song. I remember the realization that French is pronounced a little bit differently when sung.

Studying French always seemed somewhat peripheral to me in high school. I knew from early on that I was headed for training in the sciences. The value of language training became evident to me gradually, as I traveled and struggled to understand the world around me.

I regret that I never had the opportunity to become fluent in spoken French. Did you know I dropped out of our French class in senior year because of a health problem? Infected tonsils! But we had already covered lots of ground, and I value what I learned.

My next language was German, required for Chemistry majors at Michigan State University, where I earned my undergraduate degree. Despite studying German for only just over a year, I became more proficient than I was with French, because I spent a long summer holiday in Germany in 1971. I traveled with IAESTE, the International Association for the Exchange of Students for Technical Experience, a United Nations program. IAESTE arranged jobs for students. I worked at the Institut fur Kernforschung in Berlin, in the company of a dozen or so other foreign students. German was our first common language, English second, then French, then handwaving… It was a wonderful summer, and came at a time when my American campus (located not so far from Kent State in Ohio) was riven with political stress.

I also count Dutch in my linguistic toolbox. I learned it word-for-word from German. I also spent an IAESTE summer in the Netherlands, at the Technical University of Eindhoven.

Berlin and Eindhoven will always be special to me.

I’ve spent most of my career at a small public college in southern New Jersey, now (grandiosely?) titled Stockton University. I taught Environmental Chemistry and Pollution Management. Applied chemistry and engineering are my strengths. Recently, I’ve worked in Facilities Management, specializing in “green” design and energy management.

Stockton University lists “global awareness” as a pillar of its education, but does not require students to study a language. Harrumph!

I have two sons, now ages 26 and 32. My older son got excellent training in Spanish during high school, completing an Advanced Placement class. His college of choice was St. John’s in Maryland, the “Great Books” college, where everyone studies two years each of Greek and French. After college, he traveled to Argentina.

I regret to say that my younger son learned only rudimentary French and Spanish. But he aspires to travel.

I have not yet read your books of which Barbara gave me copies. I plan to do so. Almost everything I read is “reviewed” in my blog (AMG Reading Journal at http://www.amgreader.wordpress.com) which I invite you to visit.

I want to thank you for being part of the good educational experience I had at Hall High. I wish you good health.

Sincerely, Alice G

Hall High School, class of 1967


“The Signature of All Things: A Novel” by Elizabeth Gilbert

Yes, this is the book that threatened me with “literary flu” (see December 17 blog post.) I bravely fought off my burning desire to read instead of going to work. I even managed to make this wonderful, absorbing book last six days!

This book is the story of a American life, from birth in 1800 to very old age.

Some pluses… It’s about a woman’s life. Much of it takes place near Philadelphia. Although none of the characters is actually a Quaker, Quakerism is given its due as an aspect of Philadelphia society. Abolitionism also plays a part.

But fundamentally, this is a book about the study of nature, especially plants. Alma Whittaker was the daughter of a man who grew plants, sold plants and supported the study of plants, with the emphasis on their medicinal qualities. He became fabulously rich in the process. Alma grew up surrounded by scientists (they called themselves natural philosophers) and businessmen of all sorts. Female role models were in short supply, but Alma, perhaps because she had no brothers, was encouraged to be intellectually bold.

Elizabeth Gilbert creates a memorable protagonist in Alma Whittaker and then surrounds her with intense, surprising characters. There’s Prudence, who turns up one dark night and is adopted as Alma’s sister. She sheds her background of poverty and ignorance and grows up to be a dedicated abolitionist. There’s a man named Tomorrow Morning, who loses his entire family, selects a new father and builds a new, rich life. Gilbert even manages to make a dog named Roger into a memorable character. (I don’t usually pay much attention to dogs, in life or in fiction.) Not every character is benign. The peripheral Mr. Yancey is mysterious and very dangerous.

Another “plus” from my point of view is that several characters in this book are Dutch and some of the story takes place in Netherlands, a country I for which I have a decided soft spot.

This book celebrates the beauty of nature and the JOY of studying nature. Neither is sufficiently appreciated here and now. Other types of intellectual activity are also lifted up – the study of languages, for example. Our heroine speaks four languages, plus Greek which she regards as a special treat. She undertakes to learn an Asian language under challenging circumstances.

One criterion of an excellent book is that it encourages you to read more, and not just work by the same author. This book led me to think about reading Darwin, The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man in particular. I tend to think of myself as well informed on the subject of evolution. I hang around with biologists and experts in related sciences, but no, I have not read Darwin, though his books and many commentaries thereon are around the house. I envision reading Darwin as a project that might take years! I wonder if that’s true.

I have intentionally written this post without looking at the reviews of others, or even checking on Ms. Gilbert’s other published works. A few years ago, I read her two non-fiction books, Eat, Pray, Love and Committed. The first was good enough, the second (to use a culinary turn of phrase) disagreed with me. I never expected The Signature of All Things to be so very marvelous.