Monday, October 04, 2004

Nuages (those who pass like clouds)

--Janet Leigh died today. She was 77. Perhaps best known as the doomed, philandering Marian Crane in Psycho, Leigh was an accomplished actress who appeared in over 60 other films, including the Orson Welles classic Touch of Evil and John Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate. However, it was Psycho that cemented her reputation as a scream queen, and by the 1970s she was relegated to small films such as Night of the Lepus. One of her last film appearances was with her daughter Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween: H2O.

--Richard Avedon, 81. Reknowned as a fashion photographer, Avedon had been documenting all of society for half a century. Although diametric opposites, his celebrity portraits and his political images both capture the fleeting moods of the instant, whether it was a pensive Marilyn Monroe or the quietly defiant Chicago Seven. An artist equally comfortable in the realms of moody black-and-white or of vibrant color, in 1992, Avedon became The New Yorker's first staff photographer. By the time of his death, he had been honored with two exhibits at the Smithsonian, and his work appears in numerous museums around the world.

--Yang Huanyi, about 95, the world's last speaker of Nushu, the only known female-specific language. The language, incomprehensible to men, was developed 400 years ago as a way for women to communicate their thoughts and feelings to one another. (There are some who would argue that such a language has always been around and is alive and well.) Add Nushu to the rolls of extinct languages, along with countless American Indian dialects and those of remote tribes and villages. As communities spread and merge, and inter-regional communication becomes cheaper and easier to achieve, these minority langauges are going to begin disappearing at an exponentially faster rate. It's not difficult to imagine a world which one day contains at most five languages, with one global, consolidated language prevelant over all. Already, we can see the merge beginning. As just one example among thousands, for some time now English has crept steadily into Japanese, and Japanese words and phrases have crept into English as our television programs become more prevelant each other's countries.

The melding of langauges is nothing new; it's been happening since the first two hominids created different grunts for "stick"*. A couple of excellent, brief introductions to the evolution of langage are Our Marvelous Native Tongue by Robert Claiborne, and The American Language by H.L. Mencken. (After that, you can hunt down some Noam Chomsky and really develop some opinions!)

While the evolution of language is natural and inevitable, it's always sad when knowledge dies, even when it's something as simple as a method for a handful of Chinese women to laugh about what an idiot their master is.

*This is providing that one hominid did not beat the other to death with a rock during the ensuing argument.


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