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Posts Tagged ‘Hawaii’

Language Leakage: An Interview with Sarah Thomason

March 30, 2016 | by

The linguist discusses how technology shapes culture and culture shapes words.

A uniform for the Spokane Indians in Salish.

The first time Sarah “Sally” Thomason and I spoke, she’d just completed her annual two-day, eighteen-hundred-mile drive from her home in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where she teaches, to rural northwestern Montana, where she spends her summers studying Montana Salish. For thirty-four years, Thomason has been assembling a dictionary of this Native American language, which is spoken fluently by fewer than forty people. Thomason, a linguist, is fascinated by what happens when one language meets another, and how those languages change, or don’t. I had contacted her because I was interested in how certain words—say, e-mail, or google, or tweet—had been exported worldwide by American-born technology. I’d already called several linguists, and they all said I had to speak to Sally. No one, they said, had more insight into how linguistic traits travel, how pidgins and creoles are born, and how languages interact and change over time.  

The French government tried very hard to resist American loanwords like e-mail, promoting in its place messagerie électronique or courriel. They’d formed a whole agency for this purpose. Laws were passed and enforced. And yet e-mail prevailed—it was simply more efficient. But Sally was especially excited about languages that resist such borrowing, even in the face of extraordinary cultural influence and dominance. Montana Salish was one such language. Our conversations followed a pattern: I arrived expecting one thing and ended up somewhere entirely distinct, thinking differently about language and human culture.

Is it fair to say that you study what happens when languages meet? Is meet too friendly a word? I suppose there’s a whole range of things that happen, and sometimes it’s friendly and sometimes it’s not.

Right, but having a language disappear because all the speakers got massacred is actually really rare. There are a couple of examples where all the speakers of some language got wiped out by a volcanic eruption on an island. And there are a couple of examples, at least one in this country, where almost everybody was wiped out by smallpox and then the remainder was lynched by a mob.

What languages are those? Read More »

“I Will Not Be Trifled With!” and Other News

April 30, 2015 | by


Adolf Emil Hering, Wilhelm II, Deutscher Kaiser, 1910.

  • Finnegans Wake, in all its difficulty, was onlycrying out for the invention of the web, which would enable the holding of multiple domains of knowledge in the mind at one time that a proper reading requires.” A wealth of new projects online aim to help readers parse, demystify, and/or grapple with the text; “maybe, just maybe, future generations will look back on early discussions of Finnegans Wake’s unreadability and wonder what the hell was the matter with us.”
  • Borges’s “The Library of Babel” has been re-created online, too, in the form of a site that, if it’s ever completed, “would contain every possible combination of 1,312,000 characters, including lowercase letters, space, comma, and period … The library creates a tantalizing promise of reason—somewhere in its pages are all the works lost in the burning of the Library of Alexandria, and every future masterpiece—but drowned out by infinite pages of nonsense.”
  • A lost 1972 interview with Ray Bradbury, animated for Blank on Blank: “People need you. Go on TV. It can be done. After you speak up a few times, people say, ‘Hey, we got a crazy man in the community,’ and they’ll begin talking to you.”
  • A new documentary, Even Though the Whole World Is Burning, follows W. S. Merwin’s attempts to plant a forest of palm trees in Hawaii. “For forty years, [he] planted a tree every day that he could, restoring nineteen acres of land in Haiku, Hawaii, even as it seemed the world might well be ending, first from military conflict and then from ecological crisis. The film is a chronicle of a man struggling to make meaning through tiny, trembling acts.”
  • Kaiser Wilhelm II liked to talk—a lot. “Virtually everything the Kaiser said, no matter how risible, was recorded and preserved for posterity … he cajoles, whines, demands, vociferates and babbles, bombarding his interlocutors with fantastical geopolitical speculations, crackpot plans, sarcastic asides and off-color jokes. Reading Wilhelm II on every conceivable subject … is like listening for days on end to a dog barking inside a locked car.”

A Corner of Paradise

December 16, 2013 | by


The opening to Betsy Karel’s new book of photography, Conjuring Paradise, is a poem by Kay Ryan titled “Slant.” It wonders at the randomness of loss, suspecting that its arbitrariness may be otherwise:

Does a skew
insinuate into the visual plane; do
the avenues begin to
strain for the diagonal?
Maybe there is always
this lean, this slight
slant …

Her imagining of a plan behind loss has a theatrical cant—the man behind the curtain—but the poet’s conclusion that it’s perhaps wiser to let this observation go unnamed is a subtle riff on Emily Dickinson’s “tell all the truth but tell it slant.” Both poems imply that the truth of the matter is always set obliquely, and thus never fully seen. What, then, do we really understand of it?

Karel’s images follow the same principle, looking at paradise through the lens of loss. She visited Waikiki, on the island of Oʻahu, in 2004 with her husband, who was dying of cancer; he found solace and pleasure in the tropical resorts, his symptoms temporarily alleviated. After his death, Karel returned to the area to make the photographs in this book, and the images she captured reflect this uneasy enterprise. Torpid and tanned beachgoers, ocean-themed decor, gifts shops and bars, the aqua splendor of swimming pools—each scene feels caught between a facile, picturesque serenity and a jarring sense of unreality. Ryan’s impression of a “skew” in the “visual plane” is rendered literal in Karel’s photographs: the strange angle of a balcony set against the sea, of painted waves rolling over a hallway, of a flashy sports car parked, as though forgotten, in the blank corner of an entryway.

Tropical splendor is just out of reach, as when plumes of sea spray block access to the ocean or the rich Hawaiian landscape is supplanted by a painted backdrop (can those smiling tourists discern the difference?). In one image, a giant screen, partially unfurled, hangs between Karel’s camera and the promise of palm trees and blue sky. If you can only see paradise out of the corner of your eye or through a squint, Karel seems to ask, is it real?



Rebecca Walker, Maui, Hawaii

July 12, 2013 | by

A series on what writers from around the world see from their windows.


I have been looking out this window for three years. I have stared out of these rectangular panes full of hope and also despair, giddy with inspiration to connect and overtaken with a throbbing desire to disengage. I suppose this is what writing is to me: gripping the rope that swings between reaching out and pulling in.

But whatever my mood, I always love the light beyond this window. I love the quiet. I love my two empty chairs, sentinels awaiting their visitors, open to the promise of more. I feel at home in this spot, on this road to the small village of Hana, on this tiny piece of rock in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. I love the rain that pours down, thunderous and crashing, before sunshine, harsh and stunning, pierces through once again. —Rebecca Walker



Breaking Bad

December 7, 2011 | by

The latest Alexander Payne outing, The Descendants, is based on a book, but unlike Breaking Dawn: Part 1, the book it is based on has not amassed an army of followers so ardent that they have their own moniker. The Descendants and Breaking Dawn were released on the same weekend. Undoubtedly one is making a play for an Oscar. Undoubtedly the other will dominate every MTV award category, including best kiss, best dude moment, best male shirtless scene, and whatever else the network that produces the Jersey Shore celebrates. The movies are in many ways very different. But both use sex as a submerged theme while on the surface promoting a wholesome idea of family values; both seem to devalue motherhood; and both deal with characters who are so financially secure that they are almost impossible to identify with. The Descendants is a much better film, but that is because it is not hampered by the precedent of an extremely successful book, a rabid fan base, and a studio that is out for green (so much so that they are willing to split the product into two films, even if it means stretching the material thin to the point of vapidity).

Alexander Payne likes his characters quirky, ugly, and pathetic. Read More »


The Burden of Home

July 13, 2011 | by

Matt Adler as Rick Kane in North Shore.

If you haven’t seen the 1987 movie North Shore, take that as evidence of your refined palate. The movie came out when I was in sixth grade, and it was so corny that I refused to acknowledge how profoundly I connected with it. It’s the story of Rick Kane, an eighteen-year-old surfer from Tempe, Arizona, who wants to earn the big, pro-circuit money that his idol, and the movie’s antihero, Lance Burkhart, earns. When Rick wins a surf contest at a local artificial wave pool, he skips college and uses the five-hundred-dollar prize to move to Hawaii and tackle the epic waves of the legendary North Shore.

Once in Hawaii, Rick rides the waves alongside the locals. He falls for a native beauty named Kiani and clashes with a tough surf crew called the Hui. Nearly everyone discourages him: “This is our wave.” “Leave local girls alone.” But the line that always stayed with me came during a scene in which Rick is eating lunch with Kiani and her family. Kiani’s three brothers corner him at the table. They mock his surfing and call him JOJ—short for “just off the jet.” Then the oldest brother stares into Rick’s eyes and says, “Go back to Arizona, haole.” It was as if he were speaking directly to me, a teenage kid desperate to leave Arizona.

Like Rick, I lived in metro Phoenix, was obsessed with the beach, and wanted out of the desert. I envied the lifestyle that coastal California afforded: the temperate weather, the scant clothing, the year-round range of outdoor activities. While southern Californians spent their summers riding bikes and hanging out on the boardwalk, we Phoenicians endured an average of a hundred or more days of one-hundred-degree heat. Touch a car door in July, and you’d burn your fingers. But that wasn’t all. Arizona was completely uncool. It’s associated with lame Hollywood westerns, retirees, and golf courses. To coastal denizens, we were hicks.

Read More »