Why the Jerry Cans (the Musical Band from Nunavut) is Everything Music Should Be

Happy 20th birthday, Nunavut! Well, technically speaking, it was yesterday (given that Nunavut became a Canadian province on April 1st, 1999), but who would take an article seriously if I were to publish it then?

I first discovered Inuktitut (which I have paused for several years ever since my bout with Lyme Disease in 2015, during which I wasn’t actively writing on this or any other blog) due to KNR (the Greenlandic National Broadcasting service).

They showed this music video (turn on CC for English subtitles):

My first thought was to imagine how many Americans would react to seeing the video (use your imagination). My second thought was the fact that the music was not only extraordinarily catchy and familiar but it also showed a genuine desire to showcase everything that daily life in the Arctic is for the community.

Also what’s amazing about the Jerry Cans is the fact that it showcases both Inuktitut and English at regular intervals in many of its songs, as well as the fact that their songs serve as a culture guidebook to the region.

In case you’re curious about the name, it was, if I recall correctly, named after the fact that during their first jam session they used Jerry Cans as makeshift percussion. (I believe they’re used to power snowmobiles) Obviously the jerry cans themselves were substituted for real drums, but the name stuck.

While this song isn’t one of my personal favorites from the band, the fact that it mentions the struggles that Arctic shoppers have has always made it memorable for me in another sense:

And also different cultural perspectives are in order as well, including this song that, in my opinion, no one truly ever forgets:

“This one goes out to environmental propaganda / Dear PETA, you know we can’t stand ya!” (This song will be thought-provoking no matter who you are).

Also note the presence of Inuit throat singing in the song as well, which is, I should note, conspicuously absent from most Greenlandic music (because Danish missionaries banned it in). That said, Rasmus Lyberth from Greenland does also feature something like it in some of his songs.

More controversial issues aside however (or…what people in my area would consider them), the Jerry Cans’ music is positively sublime and captures perfectly the feeling of strolling around the Arctic and admiring all that humanity cannot create.

Check the video description for the lyrics and their English translation.

(I should also remember that I saw many of the hides that you see in the video also present throughout the National Museum of Greenland during my visit there).

In a world of growing cultural divides, I think the world needs a lot more music like this that genuinely causes worlds to open up to people and ignites the curiosity that we all innately have as humans.

Feel free to check and purchase their music on iTunes should you feel so inspired.

Their website is also bilingual in Inuktitut and English as well: https://www.thejerrycans.com/home

Happy 20th birthday, Nunavut!

nunavut coat of arms

The 5 Languages that Changed My Life the Most

Yes, I know, polyglots don’t play favorites. Or at least that’s what we say we should do. I’ve noticed with great consistency that polyglots get attached to certain sets of languages a lot more than the rest of the group.

For example: I have a greater affinity to Jewish, Nordic, Celtic and Pacific Languages than I do global languages like German, French or Spanish. I have friends that focus on Balkan languages, Central Asian languages, Official Languages of the UN, Germanic Languages, languages of East Asia, and too many other types to list.

Today I’ll write about the five languages (note that I do not say “language learning journeys”) that changed my life the most.

And if I were to write a post about “The five language learning JOURNEYS that changed my life the most”, that would result in something different. The reason? Because the processes you undertake during a journey is very different from the benefits you reap from it. These discuss the benefits.

 

  1. Krio

 

“Jared, I don’t want you to learn this language. It makes you sound like an idiot.”

That’s what someone said to me once about two years ago when I was discussing my parents’ journeys in Sierra Leone and the conversation turned to Krio and how to learn it.

Suffice it to say that I was not of that opinion in the slightest, aware of the fact that my parents needed interpreters at times when they were in up-country Sierra Leone.

Learning Krio truly enabled me to understand African-American culture in ways that I hadn’t before (this may surprise some of you that don’t know it, but the African-American culture in the US, the Afro-Caribbean Culture on the Islands [and places like Belize and Guyana], and the Krio culture of places like Sierra Leone and Liberia are actually linked to each other and have ties of solidarity and cultural mindsets).

Elements from Krio and its relatives from these three areas I mentioned entered American English not only in its informal registers but also its sentence structure. “Now that’s what I’m talking about!” is one such sentence that may have Krio influence, as a speaker of Krio would say  “na ya a deh tok!” And, of course, we haven’t even discussed jazz jive, which exhibits way too many elements from Krio as well as native African languages to list coherently

The proverbs and idioms are also extremely colorful (as they are in all languages in the world and Creole languages especially).

In listening to Salone Krio speakers on YouTube, they find themselves poised between many aspects of their identity that they describe in a heartfelt matter, including the Civil War in recent memory, the hope of the country moving forward, as well as the solidarity ties to their cultural cousins on the other side of the pond (and in the rest of Africa as well).

The people of Sierra Leone seem to carry an extraordinary fortitude that someone like me can’t possibly understand, and my parents also remarked on the collective cultural work ethic and willingness to hang on as something that continues to inspire them to this day!

Krio speakers in the past century or so have been emphatic in making their language a symbol of Sierra Leone as well as a language that wasn’t just seen as “broken” or “mislearned”. You can even access Google Search in Salone Krio as well! (google.sl and press “Krio”)

Also one of my favorite rappers, who lays down a lot of realities and pains of the developing world, Bone na Throat, is very much worth checking out! (He uses Krio and English, not also to mention his performances alongside guest stars from other parts of Africa).

 

  1. Modern Hebrew

 

I knew Ancient Hebrew as a child, and when I saw what happened to it as a result of one Eliezer ben-Yehuda and millions of determined people, I was stunned.

For one, my previous knowledge of English and Russian made it clear how much foreign influence was present in Modern Hebrew, right down to the verb structure.

But despite that, the charm of Hebrew that one can feel from reading the Hebrew Bible in the original is still kept very much intact. The verb system is not only kept in place but expanded upon to as to include words related to SMS and Facebook, among many other things.

(For those unaware: Semitic languages use a system in which a set of consonants form the basis for a verb stem. These letters, known as the root word or “shoresh” in Hebrew, will dance around in various forms that differ in terms of activity / passivity, as well as in verbs-turned-to-nouns. “l’kabel” is to accept, “kabbalah” is something accepted, which is not only the name for the Jewish mystical tradition [accepted from a divine source] but also a receipt you would get in an Israeli store).

Hebrew’s development found parallels in my own life story, in which my mannerisms and even my accent (not to mention my personality) changed as a result of hopping around the world. Jews hopped around the world as well, and Modern Hebrew, with its abundant influent from Slavic languages, English, French and many others, shows it, all while retaining its primeval charm.

 

  1. Greenlandic

 

A language with HUNDREDS of suffixes!  The hardest language I have attempted to date! And, then as well as now, my overall favorite language of them all!

Greenlandic, above all, was different. No other language I have studied (with the obvious exception of the closely-related Inuktitut) has worked in a similar manner.

It confounded me to no end. I had dreams of becoming fluent but no matter what, it seemed that understanding the radio or a lot of songs was always out of reach. And my writing abilities were in the trash (and sometimes they still are).

However, I decided that I was going to do SOMETHING. And the decision to do something , however small, with consistency—it edged me closer and closer to gaining a vocabulary that will probably serve me well during my trip to Greenland in October 2017.

What’s more, the culture I gained insight into actually inspired me to make my first video game, “Kaverini: Nuuk Adventures”. That’s not nothing!

I’d say more about it, but there’s only so much I can spoil for a product I haven’t released yet, right?

 

  1. Tok Pisin

 

Up until I studied Tok Pisin, the languages I had studied in my life had been tongues of the developed world. Tok Pisin changed all that, and in encountering it I felt that I had encountered a time capsule.

The world that was captured in the cultures of PNG felt stuck between the present and whatever our ancestors were before many forms of technology made (and continue to make) our genuinely human side closed off to us.

Tok Pisin taught me how to be a human again, how to think in a language that was minimalistic yet expressive, and also gave me access to a culture that knows all too well that we are poised on a precipice in which either our desire for profit or our humanity will win (the time is not too far off in which we cannot have both!)

It also showed me that, even if I never intend to visit “the country”, I can feel a great resonance with “the culture” from a distance, sometimes even stronger than for countries that I had actually visited once!

 

HONORABLE MENTIONS:

 

Irish

Ah yes, a language more commonly used by non-fluent speakers than by native speakers…or that’s how it seemed to me when I first encountered the way Irish is used on the internet.

Given how many non-natives were using it enthusiastically online and in speech, the many usages of the Irish language, from those who speak a handful of sentences to full-on TV shows and YouTube series, has captivated me. The Irish-Language sphere on the internet is one of enthusiasm and acceptance, one that many other language learning communities, endangered or not, should take note to emulate.

 

Trinidadian English Creole

 

My first language with no standardized writing system, it truly made me think about code switching more deeply than in any other language. Trinis will often shift between standard English and Trini Creole very quickly, and listening to informal radio programs with a substandard knowledge of the latter requires you to be on your toes.

What’s more, this was a language I chose in part because I live in Crown Heights (and I’m writing this article from there). I learned this language enough to have conversations in it, and suddenly my neighborhood came to life in a way I didn’t even think possible (although my knowledge of other Caribbean Creoles, such as Vincentian, Grenadian, or Jamaican, remain weak as of the time of writing).

 

Finnish

 

The language everyone tried to tell me was impossible. Finnish made me think about how distinct formal and informal language can be. The various “grammar games” that are played in Finnish’s more informal registers made it easy for me to switch from the colloquial variety to a formal one. A useful skill to have if you ever want to learn, let’s say, East Asian languages in great depth.

Finnish music can be heart-wrenching, but also some of the edgiest music I’ve ever heard, one that truly causes me to embrace my darkness and fuel it into my missions of peacemaking and bridge-building. The great pride that many Finnish speakers take in their culture and language is also something that profoundly affected me, and it made me realize that all cultures and languages have it—they just sometimes need more coaxing to get it out and fully expressed.

 

AND #1…

 

YIDDISH

 

I bet none of you is surprised at all right now, right?

Yiddish was the first language I became fluent in as an adult, and for the rest of my life it seems that I will be of the opinion that it is an excellent choice for the first language I definitively mastered. (That said, I’m still learning new things about it and at times, if I’m rusty on practice, I’ll slip up, but given that I do that in English too…I’m okay with that, I guess…)

Yiddish showed me that a language could be a community.

Yiddish showed me that a language could echo a culture in ways that reading from a guidebook or even holy texts just couldn’t.

Yiddish showed me that a language can serve for a depository of cultural memories, as “Yiddish-Taytsch” wandered off further East, picking up words along the way from Polish, Russian, Ukrainian, Hungarian, and many others. The people groups you encounter rub off on you (as an individual AND as a nation), and that became clear with the story of Yiddish.

What’s more, the enthusiasm of the Yiddishist community all throughout the world is, I have to say it, unmatched.

The songs and stories of the Old Country are coming back to life, even among non-Hasidic Jews.

Certainly there may be some light tension (or sometimes not-so-light tension) between the secular and religious Yiddish speakers, but hey, when it comes down to it, we’re all “Klal Yisroel” in a sense (even if you happen to be a gentile Yiddish speaker, I would say! The time wasn’t long ago in which even non-Jewish Yiddish speakers were honorary Jews, as well as non-Yiddish speaking Jews as an oddity)

Yiddish showed me what the true prize of fluency in a language is, and even when I wasn’t fluency, I was still getting plenty of prizes. Yiddish made me a better Jew and a better human being through its proverbs, songs and, above all, the community and friends that I’ve acquired through this fascinating tongue that will probably not only remain with me throughout my life, but  I hope to raise my children speaking it one day! (Of course they’ll have other languages, too!)

2015-07-06 11.22.31

What languages have changed your life and how? Let me know!

Why Greenlandic is Easy

Today is a special day on multiple accounts! The Summer Solstice, Midsummer, American Father’s Day, last and certainly not least, the National Day of Greenland!

Thanks largely to having to prepare a project for publication in Autumn I left this blog unchanged (although not alone!) for about a month (it would be exactly a month tomorrow, if not for this post).

I was wondering what I could do to honor Greenland Day. More songs? I got plenty of them from the blog’s birthday back in May. Describe the language and my journey with it? I have a feeling that I’ve already done that.

Well…while thinking about it yesterday, I remember that one Norwegian linguist (Rolf Theil) actually described the Greenlandic Language as the “hardest to learn in the world”.

His rationale: lots and lots of suffixes. Part of me doesn’t blame him, I have a printout of the complete lists of Greenlandic suffixes in my living room, there are about 300 for verbs and 100 for adjectives.

But I was never one for discouragement anyhow, so this post is your antidote.

I told my friends for a long time that Greenlandic was the most difficult language I ever struggled with. I really have to say that…it is no longer true. I have found Irish far worse, although I have found both very beautiful experiences and languages and very worthwhile indeed, despite what others may want to tell you.

Anyhow, let’s get through it…

2015-03-05 13.54.21

Alphabet: The alphabet used for Greenlandic, unlike that of the Canadian aboriginal languages, is the one that you are currently reading this in. The special letters found in Danish (æøå) also surface but only in Danish loanwords, which appear more often than you might think at first glance.

A sausage is pølsi, beef is bøffi, and in Copenhagen is Københavnimi, sometimes written København-imi.

You don’t need to learn a new system of writing. Case closed.

Pronunciation: Minus the Danish and (very few) English words, pronunciation in Greenlandic is very predictable although there are a few things to consider (this isn’t as straightforward as Finnish or Esperanto).

There are a total of three vowels: a, i, and u. e and o also exist, but as mutations of I and u respectively. Furthermore, all of these vowels can be doubled. The primary trick to remember is that “a” (not “aa”) is pronounced as a short a sound. So “tassa” (this) is pronounced like English “dessa”, with the syllables having a hint of rhyme)

T is pronounced as in English, but when it comes before an I, it shifts to a “tz” sound.

The letters “i” and combinations with it like “it” that come at the end of words are not pronounced like “ee” but instead with a short I sound (like English “bit”) that is significantly weaker than in English (say “I’ll be back in a bit” quickly and note how you pronounce the last word. Like that).

And then some tricky combinations: “l” is pronounced a bit like “dl”, with the “d” very slightly. With all of these rules in mind, see if you can pronounce the word “silami” (“outside”, or, more literally, “in the weather”).

“See-lamb-meh”

Oh, did I owe you some more tricky combinations? “rr” is pronounced as a very rolled r (imagine a very stereotypical French rolling of the r”. “ll” is pronounced the same as in Welsh (I’ll demonstrate it shortly).

And then the “q” sound. The Inuktitut / Canadian Aboriginal Syllabary notes this sound as a simple “rk” sound, but you want to pronounce this at the back of the throat.

If doubled, as in “qq”, this means that it is stronger. Note that the combination of “qar” means that the “a” loses its short pronunciation, so that it rhymes with “car”.

“-qar” is very important. It means “to have” or, in some cases, “to be present” (inoqarpa? = is someone there? [Lit. Person.have.3d-sin-question?). But when you change it to “qanngilaq” (inoqanngilaq = there is no one there), the “a” is pronounced like a short a again, like “rang” in English).

I can’t explain the ll sound to those who haven’t heard it

Now, with all of those in mind, your turn:

The first words of this song (courtesy of “Sussat!”) are “Asaneruleraluttuinarsinnaarpasippakkimmi­ illit” (Note: the “mmi is pronounced as an “ee” because the following syllable is an “I”. But note: “ee-ll-it”. Note the “ll” sound.)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UzFt6knmZBY

With all of that in mind, your turn:

“Tikilluaritsi!” (Welcome, all of you!)

Good J

The Logic Component: There’s this thing in some Indo-European Languages in which “logic” isn’t particularly followed most of the time, and people are surprised when the navigate outside of the family, expecting to find awfully difficult words, and then they encounter simpler rules (take Greenlandic, Finnish or Turkish for example) and then they wonder why anyone is crazy enough to call Spanish an easy language to learn.

I’m currently learning a handful of computer languages right now as a part of my job (and yes, I will write a comparison between human language learning and computer language learning!) and the constructing of commands gave me flashbacks to when I was struggling with Greenlandic.

Let’s start with a simple suffix: “-gooq”, meaning “it has been said”, or “somebody else said”.

“Qanoq?” = How?

+gooq

=

“Qanorooq? = “What did he/she say?

Two things:

  • Q + G = R. There are other combinations that alter endings as such but I can’t introduce them all here.
  • “Qanorooq”, if you looked on google.gl already, is the name of a Greenlandic news show. Good name, don’t you think?

And just like mathematics, Greenlandic follows these rules upon getting more complicated:

Kiilumut 40 kroneqarpoq. Pissaviuk?

One Kilo costs 40 Danish Crowns. Do you want it?

Kiilu+mut = Kilo (Danish import) + mut (ablative, more lik “for” or “through”, and other uses I don’t want to get into).

40 = Let’s go on record here and say that in Greenlandic, all numbers higher than 12 are all Danish. Two-for-one!

Krone = Danish word for a crown. Pronounce like English word “groan” + “eh”

Qar + poq = qar (see above) + poq (3rd person singular verb ending).

Pi + ssa + vi + uk = Something / take something + future + you (question) (Full form is “vit”) + it.

Plurals: Yiddish has a lot of ways of forming the plurals, the Germanic languages in general do tend to have a plethora.

Greenlandic is not Esperanto (as regular as you can get), but it does have only 10 plural constructions, some of which only exists for a handful of words. All of them, however, have a t at the end. Examples: Ateq (name) = aqqit (names) erneq (son) = ernerit (sons) inuk (person) = inuit (people).

Yes, the word “Inuit” literally means “people”.

Acquiring vocabulary: You have to be smart about this! You should NOT be memorizing long formulates to begin with. You should be learning the small bits first, and from these bits you should be putting your own words together.

I think Theil and many others (including myself) tried at first by memorizing lots and lots of BIG words. But imagine if you tried to learn a language using only sentences rather than individual vocabulary? That wouldn’t go over too well.

You need a balance, on the side of smaller things.

 

Wrapping Up: Every time I look at a Greenlandic/Danish or Greenlandic/English vocabulary list, I am struck by how, in Greenlandic, everything makes extraordinary sense! Take English “food”. The Greenlandic equivalent? Inuussutissat. If you recognized “inuk” in there, good. It means, very roughly, “something people use to let themselves keep going into the future”. I could give more examples, but this I’ve given you too much already.

kalaallit nunaat

Pilluarit! Apuulluarna! (Congratulations! May you come to reach your destination/goal!)

Polyglot Report Card, March 2015 Edition, and Diagnoses (Part 2)

(You can read the first part of this post here)

Now we get to those languages in which my control of them is either slipping or weak.

Irish…I got a phrasebook back in October or so. I’ve been mostly relying on software aids, especially given as Irish pronunciation is THE hardest I have ever encountered (although it, like all others, can be adjusted to). Faroese and Danish are honorable mentions for second place…with Swedish slightly behind…Finnish being the easiest overall…

Okay, what do I need to do? I need to expose myself to real Irish. A LOT more. Given as my DuoLingo Tree for Irish is now complete, this is exactly what I need to continue. Especially with St. Patrick’s Day having come, I did have the opportunity to practice (including my first conversation! A very short one, though, but still…)

Overall, I feel that I am a few steps away from near-complete conversational fluency. But with poor time management and/or stress related to other tasks, this could be complicated further.

Cornish. I’m losing interest in it, and might drop it out for another. Finnish is in a similar place.

French, Italian, and Russian are in a limbo, because I have been devoting a lot more time to languages that I’ve been getting stronger in, these have not been receiving due time…I feel that I should rehearse French grammar with software aids, and for Italian and Russian all I need are…you guessed it…animated cartoons!

I feel moderately confident about Inuktitut. I have been learning a LOT of words but NOT a lot of real-life exposure. Thankfully, that can change, as typing “isuma.tv” into your browser will get you a very large collection of Inuktitut television, as well as plenty of other programs as well. Now if only I could include two-hour movies into my routine.

Then there are other mystery languages that I have been playing with, none too seriously. The day when I really get into these is when I’ll be writing posts about them.

Above all, I could draw the following patterns from this post and the previous one:

  • Maintain your strong languages with exposure, especially online media, unless you’ve soaked it up enough so that you feel completely full…
  • If you have a good grammatical control of a weak language, immersion!
  • If you have a weak grammatical control of a weak language, you should really be reading books and studying some more, as well as using relevant software.

Again, when I feel too overwhelmed by my time schedule that I’ll need to let go of a language, I’ll have to do it. But paradoxically, if I have the desire to learn a language, even for the stupidest of reasons, I should proceed.

If you have that desire, I highly recommend you follow suit…

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Fun Media from Winter Break 2015

Over the course of the break, I made significant progress in some of my projects (Northern Sami, mostly) and not so significant progress in some of my others (Celtic Languages), but while seeking to apply my languages I did come across some things that I thought I should share with you.

From the Sami department, I encountered a TV show on NRK’s website, “Pulk Klinihkka”, which is…I kid you not…a Sami sitcom (for those of you unaware of what Sápmi is, I intend to write a blog post about it in the style of this one about the Faroe Islands).

Language is Northern Sámi with some Norwegian (and a bit of Swedish), with Norwegian subtitles. Even if you don’t know any of these languages, this may be somewhat amusing for you…I hope.

Here is the third episode, with a particularly amusing incident involving baptism:

http://tv.nrk.no/serie/pulk/SAPR69000313/sesong-1/episode-3

Obviously, important issues about minority identity come into play, and I see the same sort of “underdog” humor that I tend to associate with Yiddish theater in this show. Funny how that works out, eh?

From a somewhat warmer place, allow me to introduce you to another television show, “No Béarla”, an Irish-Language show from Ireland in which a native Irish speaker tours the island without using English. Interestingly I think that he does use English in some episodes, but maybe they were filmed…before he made the commitment? I have no idea…

Endless issues about endangered languages and language as it is tied to identity surface beautifully in this program. Here is the first episode:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eyll-bBZzyk

And last, but not least, allow me to introduce you to some music I encountered over the break, this time from a very cold place.

The Jerry Cans produce songs in Inuktitut and in English about life in Nunavut, Canada’s youngest province. Quite eclectic and catchy music that may remind you of American country songs…I first discovered them on KNR (of all places…oh, you need to know what that is? Greenland TV) and then I followed the trail.

Here is the SoundCloud account:

https://soundcloud.com/thejerrycans

And here is the video I saw on KNR. “Mamaqtuq” (it tastes delicious) is actually a song about…seal meat stew…you can imagine the look on my mother’s face when I showed it to her. Watch the video and see why:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DueVqYKWQxE

What sort of interesting things have you done over your Winter break? Share them!