This is a little more personal than I’ve gone thus far and a great deal nerdier. Don’t judge me. Today I’m thankful for J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth legendarium.
I’m a bigger Tolkien nerd than I generally care to admit in person. I don’t speak Elvish or wear costumes (some lines will never be crossed) but I did attend midnight openings with university friends, and I know why Fëanor’s sons are important. I think I was ten the first time I read The Hobbit. Gollum frightened me so thoroughly that I couldn’t reread those parts of the book for several years. I finished Lord of the Rings (the first time) somewhere around thirteen. I don’t know why specifically, but his works struck a chord and have been important to me for a long time.
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born in South Africa and fought in WWI, surviving the Battle of the Somme. He became a professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University. He was great friends with a number of famous contemporary writers, including C.S. Lewis. He produced several well-regarded translations of Old English epics. The man was an enormous lover of languages, which is one of my favorite things about him.
Fangorn Forest is my favorite section of LOTR. I’ve also read many of the extended works. The Silmarillion is breathtaking. Tolkien’s concept of creation as a divine piece of music was deeply appealing to me. I think I’ve made my love of music transparent. As a student of geography I find the depth of fantastic history and culture he created awe-inspiring. He knew where his peoples originated, and how they developed. This is the story that stuck most with me from the Silmarillion.
This is another oblique one. Today I’m thankful for Polynesian navigators.
Some of my academic background is in geography. The idea of “place” underlies more concepts than most people ever consider. My particular interest is migrations – how mass human movements affect the places they visit, often leaving physical and cultural traces lasting thousands of years.
When European explorers “discovered” the Pacific Ocean (it is the largest body of water on earth, after all) they also found hundreds of settled islands, covering huge areas of ocean. Many of the islands are very remote, several days’ sail from each other. The Europeans couldn’t fathom how Pacific Islanders had found their way to all of these rocks amid the water. The peoples of the Pacific developed a sophisticated body of navigational skills and knowledge wholly unrelated to other navigational methods anywhere. At the risk of sounding geeky, it’s an incredible accomplishment, and really, really cool.
Only slightly related, but it was a fun film, the music geek in me enjoys the harmonies, and my language nerd side finds the Tokelauan lyrics fascinating to hear. I claim no rights to anything.
Today I’m thankful for Duolingo.
I can make myself understood in French as long as the subject isn’t too obscure. I studied Russian for two years at university and picked up some Welsh for fun. I’m currently useless at both. I’m complicating my French and trying to wrap my brain around Italian. The Duolingo app on my phone tells me I’m 12% fluent in Italian. I can only conjugate 3 verbs but they stay conjugated! Who needs formal study when one’s phone can reinforce their delusions about language fluency?
Today I’m thankful for nonsense sounds.
Sometimes combinations of word sounds just make me laugh. They sound utterly silly to me. I don’t know how many other people have similar experiences. My sample is so far limited to two.
The domain I chose reflects my love of things that sound silly together. I’m naturally pretty quiet and stern, contrasted by my very absurd sense of humor. I can be both dark, like thunderheads, and just plain goofy. It’s reflective of who I am, and sounds a bit like word salad.
This is a strange one but bear with me. Today I’m thankful for cephalophores.
Cephalophores are a particularly colorful category of saint. The word “cephalophore” roughly translates from Greek: “cephalos” (head) and “phoros” (bearer). They’re usually commemorated as people who were executed by beheading, but who didn’t die before picking up their heads from the ground and marching along to some singular spot, demanding to be remembered for this particular action.
I’ve always had a soft spot for the odd and absurd and I think this meshes nicely. So take a moment, lift a glass to St. Denis, and remember that cephalophore is a great Scrabble word.
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Today I’m thankful for languages. No, really.
I studied French in high school. I remember enough to be understood and I use my phone to practice. At university I took Russian. I was very tired of French. I can ask, in Russian, the location of the train station but I won’t understand the answer.
Languages fascinate me. I don’t go to the extent of tracing the history of every diacritic, but seeing how words evolve from common roots is truly interesting. It shows the evolution of ideas, when groups divided or came together. Learning another language exercises the brain and broadens a person’s horizons.
I’m a native English speaker. English is a stepchild language if there ever was one. First it was just another Germanic language, but then the Norse came and give it all sorts of North Germanic influences that made it unique. THEN the Normans invaded, who had originally spoken Norse but changed to French, and they had a massive impact, leaving Latin and Romance traces everywhere. As English speakers spread their particular varieties starting including traces of native languages. English in India is influenced by hundreds of Indian languages. Spanish is a large player in the United States. Even in New Zealand Maori has had a large impact. I think it’s cool, that languages are adapted to circumstances as they arise. It isn’t a formal progression. It’s messy and organic, like the rest of life. They evolve!
I’m trying to learn some Italian. It’s easier to speak quickly than some others. In Finnish it seems like every word is 30 letters long, but they are fun words.