A Distant Voice, Part 1: Contact

(Click here for the first part of this story: A Distant Voice: Preface.)

The day Auntie Azra realized that she had probably found traces of extraterrestrial communication, I was bored and lonely. No one to play with, no one to talk to.

I was alone, as usual.

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A Distant Voice: Preface

When we made contact, it was not an earth-shattering meeting. It was not an invasion, nor an offer of friendship. It was not even contact. It was a whisper overheard in the darkness.

We were eavesdropping on a conversation that had taken place 90 years before. It would take 90 years before our ecstatic greetings reached Kepler 266f and another 90 years before we could hope for a reply.

Yet that distant voice changed everything.

image_1864_1e-Kepler-186f

Image credit: NASA Ames / SETI Institute

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Issues of Language and Identity: Writing Assignment for Composition

Background

In this unit, we are exploring the various forms of English we use in different contexts and the power relationships that these forms of English create, acknowledging that “standard English” is not necessarily better, but is more appropriate in certain settings, especially academic and professional ones. Becoming a scholar and learning to use standard English correctly, however, does not mean people must set aside their other linguistic identities.

 Your Task

In a 6-8 page double-spaced essay in MLA format, make a persuasive argument, advising a specific group of people to make specific policy changes involving language and identity issues, backed up with compelling reasons and substantial support.

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The Plagiarized Hero: The Hero with a Thousand Borrowed Faces

 

Language and storytelling arose as a means of creating and maintaining social ties. Tribes then spread across the planet, trading materials, goods, technology, information and stories, so it should not come as a surprise that our narratives are similar worldwide. As humans, we make up stories habitually in order to understand the universe, ourselves and others, but we can only do so within established narrative language (as we have seen) and (this is the new part) preexisting forms and genres.

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Narrative Madness: Humans are the Stories They Tell about Themselves

What distinguishes humans from the animals are statements like “What distinguishes humans from the animals . . . .” In other words, the only thing that separates us from animals is an ongoing narrative that says we are not animals. The human is the animal that pretends that it is not. Most of our social rules are designed to hide our animal natures from ourselves: shaving our beards, using deodorant, wearing clothes, buying prepackaged meat, using silverware, not fighting over food, not farting or fucking in public.

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The Myth of Myths: The Development of Human Culture through Mythmaking

“We know the scene.” The strange one begins to tell a story by the fire, mumbling, miming, chanting, swaying, and no one pays attention, but she keeps going and there is something about the quiet insistence of her song as it grows louder that makes the old woman, grinding ocher, look up. The men, scraping hides, one by one let the flint fall and find stones to sit on. Others notice the group and gather.

They were not like this before; the story has brought them together. In the warmth of the fire, they lean toward the storyteller, who is one of them, yet an outsider: she has gone away for a long time, she is crippled, or she is crazy. Perhaps she is a man.16 She tells them of the beginning of the world, the birth of the first people, the coming together of a culture, the origin of language and storytelling – a tale they all know, but only she has “the gift, the right, or the duty to tell” it (43), writes French philosopher and literary critic Jean-Luc Nancy in “Myth Interrupted” (1991).

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Writing Assignment: Issues of Language and Education

Background: As a class, we have examined issues involving language and education, including the effects of education on family life, motivation of students with non-academic interests, cultural literacy, national curriculum, agency within one’s inherited narratives, ethnic chauvinism, gender hierarchies in the classroom, the effects of new media on literacy, and grade inflation. We have read and discussed the importance of starting with inquiry, integrating reading and writing, identifying claims, analyzing arguments, identifying issues, forming questions, summarizing and synthesizing. Now we are going to use these academic skills to address an issue of language and identity in an argumentative essay.

Goal: To practice typical essay format, argumentation, support, summary, paraphrase, quotation, citation, analysis of claims, synthesis, grammar, punctuation, and writing skills.

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Extending the Linguistic “Concept” to Include “Narrative Function”

At the beginning of the last century, Ferdinand de Saussure severed language from reality. In his Course in General Linguistics, he explained that a sign is made up of two parts: the signifier and the signified. The signifier is a word, a set of sounds, sometimes represented by letters. The signified is what the signifier arbitrarily refers to. Unfortunately for those who want language to be a transparent window on the world, the signified is not an external object, but a subjective concept.

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How Language Speaks You

Recently, researchers have been looking again into the ways different languages affect how we think. Benjamin Lee Whorf proposed the idea 1956 in M.I.T.’s Technology Review and the theory became quite trendy, until closer examination revealed that he had little research to back up his claims and some of his generalizations were just too broad to accept. For example, he said that if we were missing a word in our language, then we couldn’t grasp the concept. Although we don’t have the word Schadenfreude in English, we can easily understand the idea: delighting in others’ misfortunes. We get it, but perhaps we think less of this perverse delight, than Germans.

In “Does Language Shape How You Think?” an article in the New York Times Magazine, Guy Deutscher argues, “When your language routinely obliges you to specify certain types of information, it forces you to be attentive to certain details in the world and to certain aspects of experience that speakers of other languages may not be required to think about all the time. And since such habits of speech are cultivated from the earliest age, it is only natural that they can settle into habits of mind that go beyond language itself, affecting your experiences, perceptions, associations, feelings, memories and orientation in the world” (Deutscher 45).

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The Tale a Tail Tells

Who told the first stories? Do animals tell stories?

Well, they certainly communicate! No one doubts what a Doberman means when it crouches and bears its teeth. Going on your guard when a dog growls may be instinctual, but there are many animal signs which we must learn to read. I remember being told, let’s say it was by my father, that the wagging of a dog’s tail meant it was happy and wanted to play, but a tail between the legs and flattened ears meant the dog was afraid or even angry and therefore dangerous. In other words, my father had to translate the language of the dog for me.

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