Languages from Edison Cylinders.

Bob Yirka writes for Tech Xplore about another valuable linguistic project:

A team of researchers at UC Berkeley has embarked on a project to save wax recordings made a century ago using modern technology—they are calling it the “Documenting Endangered Languages” initiative. As they describe in a post they have made on the UC Berkeley Library website, the group has plans to use optical scanning technology to retrieve the recordings and then to save them in digital format.

The recordings were made using the Edison phonograph (some in 1900 and some in 1938) and are part of a collection of recordings of indigenous people speaking, singing or praying. The recordings were made by anthropologists interested in studying the languages spoken by indigenous people in California. The subjects sang or spoke into the wide-open end of a megaphone connected to a device that recorded the sounds onto wax cylinders. Those cylinders now reside at Berkeley’s Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology. Over time, the cylinders have degraded or have been damaged in other ways. In this new effort, which is part of a larger effort called Project IRENE, the team plans to transfer those songs or spoken words from the wax cylinders to digital media to preserve them. […]

The initiative is being sponsored by the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities. The goal is to transfer and preserve approximately 100 hours of audio representing 78 indigenous languages, many of which no longer exist. Retrieving them from the cylinders, the researchers note, is the only way to preserve them.

There’s a four-minute video clip where you can hear some of the cylinders and see the technique of restoration. Thanks, Trevor!

Comments

  1. What a coincidence – just the day before yesterday I was at an exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum which had a listening station for some of these cylinders set up. It also seemed to my untrained eye like they had really tried to use the most up-to-date and correct way of spelling all native names & phrases in the exhibit texts.

    http://doubleexposure.site.seattleartmuseum.org

  2. I tried to comment earlier but I don’t see it – apologies if this is repeated! I just listened to some of those cylinder recordings the other day at a station set up in this exhibit!:

    http://doubleexposure.site.seattleartmuseum.org/

    … they also seemed, to my eye, to have taken care to correctly spell things like Dzawada‘enuxw and Kwakwaka‘wakw (on the official site some of those letters have lines below them, for example)

  3. I freed your earlier comment from moderation, but I’m leaving both, because 1) you add new material in the second, and 2) this threadbare thread needs all the comments it can get!

  4. David Marjanović says:

    I’m relieved this is being done.

  5. Threadbare, maybe, but not unread. And read with interest. And links followed. Thanks!

  6. Elsewhere I heard someone mention that much of this material will be embargoed, only to be released to the public if the descendants of these peoples/Native American advocacy groups in the region expressly allow its publication. If this is true, then all this press-release talk might be mere hype when it comes to the general public being able to enjoy the results of the digitization effort.

  7. Giving native communities a say in how these records are accessed is perfectly reasonable. I don’t think that instant dissemination of all these materials to anyone is not a compelling need. I don’t see where anything is “hyped”.

  8. Giving native communities a say in how these records are accessed is perfectly reasonable.

    I think you mean “I personally think that giving native communities a say in how these records are accessed is a good idea.” Both sides in the debate are reasonable; which wins out depends, as always, on who can wield power (either soft/moral or hard/political) more effectively. I myself am strongly in favor of dissemination of knowledge, and deprecate any return to the pre-modern system of privately held information about things of public interest.

  9. marie-lucie says:

    Giving native communities a say in how these records are accessed is perfectly reasonable.

    I agree. “Giving X a say” is not the same as “letting X make all the decisions”. Not involving the communities suggests to them that “the white man” is hoarding valuable ancestral secrets that should be theirs, or degrading the worth of their cultural heritage. In fact much of the material in the records – such as linguists’ field notes – is of very imited general interest. But, for instance, letting communities decide how performances of songs should be regulated (in traditional ceremonies at certain times of the year, rather than randomly in bars, for instance) does not necessarily impinge on scholars’ ability to study such material. Also, as more and more indigenous young people get trained in linguistics and anthropology, they provide a link between the elders and the scholarly world and influence the communities’ perceptions of scholarly work as not necessarily “stealing” by “the white man” alone but something that they themselves can make use of in their study of their own past. In linguistics, records left by linguists and anthropologists, now generally open and available to the communities, have allowed some of those whose languages were extinct to rediscover them and sometimes relearn and reteach them (see the amazing work of Berkeley linguist Leanne Hinton for the first case and Miami member Darryl Baldwin for the second case). (Miami in this case is the name of a tribe and Algonquian language, not the city in Florida).

  10. I think you mean “I personally think that giving native communities a say in how these records are accessed is a good idea.”

    I’d written that first, then edited it down for brevity. Of course, that is merely my strongly-held opinion.

    …any return to the pre-modern system of privately held information about things of public interest.

    Here’s where we disagree. It’s one thing to be generous with one’s own culture, with its billions of cultural artifacts. Here you’re dealing with another’s culture, most of which has disappeared in a holocaust. A tribe of a hundred can very easily have its power diluted and weakened by a dozen outside amateur co-opters.

  11. I simply don’t understand how anybody is losing anything if voice recordings are made available to all. It’s not like stealing artworks.

  12. I suppose it is much like the superstition that taking a photograph of someone is stealing their soul. Still, the oppressed have a great need to keep everything they can, however trifling. Norman Mailer explained it well in Ancient Evenings:

    [Ptah-nem-hotep, the Pharaoh, said:] “If our excrement carries away not only the worst of us but also the best, how could you find any virtue in the bowels of a man of noble character? By your argument, the meanest poisons ought to come out of him first. In that case, is the reverse not also true? Doesn’t the poor man offer gold by way of his rear end? Why has the common wisdom of Egypt not brought everyone rushing to the meanest latrines of the foulest beggars? Think what wealth, bravery, and generosity has to be found in the evacuations of such wretches.”

    Now Hathfertiti [the narrator’s mother] roared with laughter.

    My great-grandfather [whose theory this is] was, however, undisturbed. “Yes,” he said, “like the Lady Hathfertiti we laugh at shit — but then we always laugh when a truth is suddenly disclosed and as quickly concealed. The Gods have tickled us with the truth. So we laugh.”

    […]

    Ptah-men-hotep looked again at my great-grandfather. “I still do not understand,” He said in a voice that mocked the subject as much as it betrayed His interest, “why the turds of riffraff are not coveted then by My Councillors? How could anything, according to you, be more invigorating for such people than a bath in the worst slops?”

    “Your Councillors know better. The poor and the wretched know how to put a curse on their excrement. Otherwise, not even shit would belong to them [emphasis added].

    “I am most impressed, said Ptah-men-hotep, “by this last remark.”

  13. It depends on the recording. Songs, for example, are often considered private property. Ownership is power, and this comes down to taking power away from the less-powerful few for the trivial benefit of the powerful many.

  14. David Marjanović says:

    letting communities decide how performances of songs should be regulated (in traditional ceremonies at certain times of the year, rather than randomly in bars, for instance)

    Culture shocks lurk in this:

    Until 1936, the area was sparsely populated and known only by its ceremonial name Niʼ Ałníiʼgi (“Center of the World”). John Collier, Commissioner of Indian Affairs, chose the site to establish the seat of the Navajo Central Agency. His proposal to make the ceremonial name the official name met with resistance and Navajos soon ridiculed it as “ni ałnííʼgóó” (~ “into your middle (parts)”).

    Due to this, the name of the major local landmark, the rock-with-hole-through-it (Navajo: tségháhoodzání) was chosen and rendered in English as “Window Rock”.

    I’d never have imagined it, but here’s a culture where to utter the sacred outside of a sacred context is so wrong that it makes the sacred worthy of mockery.

    The Gods have tickled us with the truth. So we laugh.

    That is simply perfect.

  15. I’ll bet there’s more to the Window Rock story than that. I looked up a bit of it right now, and didn’t find any account of the story from a native point of view. I did, however, find an account saying that Collier abandoned the term because it was also used to refer to “hell”.

  16. From what I can make out, Navajos think the sacred is always worthy of mockery. They are very big on blasphemous puns (and other puns).

    “Once a giant was terrorizing the land, and eating people, especially small children. Coyote convinced the giant that if he allowed Coyote to break his leg and then heal it by spitting on it, he would be able to run as fast as Coyote. However, this was one of Coyote’s tricks, and the giant thereafter found it much more difficult to outrun anything, even small children.” (WP)

    Then again, some Catholics feel the same way:

    “They believe in Rod, the scourger almighty, creator of hell upon earth, and in Jacky Tar, the son of a gun, who was conceived of unholy boast, born to the fighting navy, suffered under rump and dozen, was scarified, flayed, and curried, yelled like bloody hell; the third day he arose again from his bed and navigated into haven, where he sitteth on his beam-end until further orders, whence he shall come to drudge for a living and be paid.” (Ulysses, slightly improved)

  17. marie-lucie says:

    David M: here’s a culture where to utter the sacred outside of a sacred context is so wrong that it makes the sacred worthy of mockery.

    JC: Navajos think the sacred is always worthy of mockery

    I think that “sacred” may not be the right translation of the Navajo, etc word as it probably carries different “baggage” from the English word. Is a “trickster” like Coyote “sacred” because he was involved in the formation of the world along with the original Creator, or “profane” because his many tricks and (mis)adventures are lessons to humans about what NOT to do?

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