Thursday, June 5, 2014

Swirls of Old Language and New Technology

--The last Navajo Code Talker has died.  You may or may not remember the history of the nearly unbreakable codes developed by World War II soldiers; they used many Native American languages.  When I heard the news of the death of the last Navajo Code Talker (should Code Talker be capitalized?), it seemed like it should be a metaphor for something.

--Yesterday was our last day as a Reading Pal to this year's first graders.  I went to the school, but my student wasn't there.  I gathered his remaining books, and his teacher says that she'll make sure he gets them.

As I worked with my student, and I listened to the reading going on around me, I was struck by how code-like language and reading are.  I have always loved reading and linguistics in the larger sense.  Watching a student who is fairly new to literacy helped me see why people would give up on reading--language so often makes no sense.  Think of the words that have a gh in them:  tough, thought, for example.  Try to explain those words to a first grader.  I understand his exasperation.  Still, we took turns reading, and he improved, and I'll hope it's enough. 

--Speaking of languages I'll never understand, twice in the past week, I've heard the songs of ducks in flight.  We hear lots of birdsong down here, but in the 16 years we've lived here, I've never heard ducks in flight.  Parrots in flight--yes--much screechier.  The ducks sounded almost mystical,  yet also misplaced.  Have they misplaced their northern lake?

It immediately transported me back to my parents' townhouse in the Virginia suburbs of D.C.  They lived on a very small lake, but the lake was home to regular ducks and Canada geese and all sorts of wildlife--just a half hour from the nation's capital.  I miss that house, and more, I miss getting back to that part of the country as often as I used to.  They lived in that townhouse for just over 25 years, so I guess it's not strange that it felt like home in ways that the houses of my youth did not.

--And in anniversaries that are related to language, today's entry on The Writer's Almanac tells us,
"On this day in 1977, the Apple II computer went on sale, and the era of personal computing began. Developed by Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, it was the first successful mass-produced microcomputer designed for home use. It came standard with 4 kilobytes of memory, game paddles, and a demo cassette with some programs on it. Most people used their televisions as monitors.

The Apple II sold for about $1,300; today that same money will buy you an iMac, with 4 gigabytes — one million times the original amount — of memory, a sleek backlit 21-inch monitor, and a 2.7 gigahertz processor."

And for much less money, you can buy a lot of computing power that you can carry with you in your pocket in the shape of your cell phone.

--And in this language-related post, let me take a moment to praise language when it works in old-fashioned ways.  I made a new Facebook friend who liked my poem "Heaven on Earth."  That poem has opened more doors for me than I ever imagined that it would. And to think, I hesitated to send it out in the world, for fear that it would seem irreverent and would alienate a majority of readers.

The new Facebook friend called his twin brother and read the poem to him.  They laughed.  The twin brother then found my poem about Jesus after the hurricane (read it here) and called his brother back to read that poem to him.

I was struck by this swirl of old language and new technology that allows for all sorts of connections that wouldn't have been possible in the 19th century.  Poetry would have been possible, but the exchange of poems would have been improbable--research postal rates and times and see if you don't agree.  The Internet has given my poems a travelling range that they wouldn't have had in 1977 when that first Apple II went on the market.  Long distance rates are much cheaper now too--you can call a friend and read poems together over phone lines.  And because of Facebook and other social networking sites, you can find that poet and have a chat, if all parties are so inclined.

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