We live in a world built on binaries. And one that is seen so frequently at university is the Sciences versus the Arts. Most degrees at a British university are split between BScs and BAs. There are a few others, but the vast majority of students will be getting a qualification in the Sciences or the Arts.
I do German, and in about a month and half they’re going to give me a BA. Languages are an Arts subject and I often feel I can’t argue that. With literature and history often heavily on the menu, it does seem a very Arts end of the spectrum subject. But then there’s linguistics, which feels like a Science. My linguistics essays always had an awful lot of tables in them considering it’s an Arts subject.
In my house, there are three Science students and two Arts students, and when there’s discussion of various degrees in the living room, you would probably agree that the Science people do Science and us language students definitely do Arts. But like I said, linguistics blurs that line a little. And now thanks the American Museum of Natural History that line doesn’t really exist anymore.
Like most museums, the AMNH has lots of stuff in storage that visitors never get to see. I mean, I’ve never been to America so I’ve not seen any of their stuff but that’s besides the point. And to show off their collection to its fullest potential as well as showing off research their scientists have done, they’ve started monthly videos called Shelf Life.
The Shelf Life series trailer
I found out about this because a publicist for the AMNH emailed me (guys, a publicist emailed me! It shouldn’t be as exciting as it is), and I’m really glad did she did. Not just because having a publicist email me makes me feel like my blog is doing okay, but because otherwise I might not have seen this. And it’s really interesting.
This month’s episode is called “The Language Detectives”, and it’s a collaboration between an anthropologist (Peter Whitely) and a computational biologist (Ward Wheeler) in order to study ancient languages. More precisely, they work together to trace the evolution of Native American languages, specifically the Uto-Aztecan languages. I can’t lie – I’m really interested in language change. No matter what the language, I find it ridiculously fascinating. So I was always going to think this video was great.
The super interesting Episode 7.
But the interesting part about it is that they treated language like DNA, drawing a parallel between phonetic sounds and the A C G T building blocks of DNA. Six minute video short, they apply scientific principles to linguistic data in order to create language family trees and then narrow it down to the most likely evolution of the Uto-Aztecan languages and where they probably originated from.
Everything is explained simply though not patronisingly, and there’s some really cool research in the video. It’s subtitled and the choice of pictures and videos are well done, helping to aid understanding. But the video isn’t all there is.
If you go to the web page, rather than Youtube, there’s an article underneath, whose headline “From A(ztec) to Yaqui” had me from the wordplay. Again, I love it. The article briefly outlines the video before going on to talk about 12 objects, picked by Peter Whitely to brush the surface of the cultures who spoke and still do speak Uto-Aztecan languages. From moccasins to medicine bags to a photograph of Chief Severa and his family of the Ute people, the objects are an introduction into the life of the people who used and use these languages. Using the video as a touchstone, the article allows the museum to share objects that may otherwise be buried in storage for decades.
As I said, Shelf Life was brought to my attention by a publicist, but I’m really glad that it was. It was a fascinating ten/fifteen minutes, and now I have six episodes to catch up on. I’m hoping they’ll be just as good.