This word literally means 'the suffering of the world'. It has taken on connotations of world weariness and expresses a longer for a better world.
One of my great passions in life is learning foreign languages. The paintings on this page explore all aspects and dimensions of world languages and poses the question :"What makes a language?!"
THE JAPANESE KANJI (CHARACTER) FOR LOVE EXISTS OF THE CHARACTER FOR WOMAN (on the left) AND THE CHARACTER FOR CHILD (on the right) COMBINED!
(In Mandarin Chinese this character means HAO 'good or well': a woman and child together means 'all is well, things are as they should be'!) SOLD
I looked up the word 'language' in the dictionary. It gave the following definitions:
1 Human speech
2 A distinct variety of human speech (such as English, Bengali, Japanese and so forth)
3 Any manner of expressing thought (think Sign Language)
4 A system of signs and symbols for use in e.g. a computer (and here you can think of music or mathematics as well)
Man has always spoken different languages. In the 19th century people believed in the concept of 'Man's Original Language'. They analysed contemporary languages of isolated so called 'primitive peoples'. No 'Fossil Language' was found, just a myriad of different languages.
These lines and the concept of 'OWHO' are from a prayer to God and the Ancestors. The 'ohwo' is a sacred staff which symbolises righteousness. In the prayer the man who holds on to his 'owho', on his journey to the land of the dead, will not get lost.
Nigeria alone has 250 languages! (Though the main two languages are Yoruba and Ibo or Igbo). Yoruba was the language of the great Oyo empire of Nigeria. The Yoruba alphabet was largely the creation of Samuel Crowther, a freed Yoruba slave, who later became a Christian missionary. The grave and acute accents (which I can't produce on this computer!) indicate the rise and fall of the voice.
In 'Yorubaland' (the area of central Africa where Yoruba is spoken) names given to children reflect the circumstances of their birth or the wishes parents harbour for a particular child. All names have a special meaning. Examples of this are: Babatunde (the father has come back) - for a boy born soon after the death of his grandfather or Yetunde (for a girl born after the death of her grandmother. Other examples are: Oluwabanke (The Lord helps me care for her) or Olayinka (wealth surrounds me).
The girls' name Abeni means: we asked for a girl and behold, we got her!
The single island of New Guinea numbers a mind boggling 700 languages (approximately)!
Batak is an Indonesian language that is spoken on Sumatra. It looks very rhythmic, almost like music! The distinctive alphabet is rapidly diseappearing in favour of the Roman alphabet and today only very few people can read and write the script.
Languages are like plants or animals in that they can become extinct. The advent of mass communication has accelerated this in recent decades. For instance: I am Dutch and my mothertongue is Dutch, but English has become like an unofficial second mother tongue to young people in the Netherlands. They watch English pop videos and sing along to English songs from a very young age. We Dutch people have to make sure that we protect our language and cultural heritage.
This paintings is about Dutch, my own language! 'Klompen' or wooden shoes are are an icon for Holland. However, I never wear them and most people in Holland don't wear them these days. Therefore the title of this painting is 'Eigenlijk niet' or 'Actually not!'. These words show the letter combinations 'ij', 'ei' and 'ie' typical for the Dutch language. 'IJ' is a unique sound that has no equivalent in English.
Alexander von Humboldt, a Prussian naturalist and explorer went on an expedition to South America that lasted five years. In the Amazon region in Brasil he visited a village where the local people told him of a parrot that spoke a language they couldn't understand. Humboldt recorded the 40 words the parrot used and discovered it was a language that used to be spoken by the extinct tribe of the Atures.
The Indo-European family of languages is the world's largest. It embraces the languages of Europe, America and much of Asia. It might not appear so at first sight, but languages like Sanskrit or Bengali are related to the European languages!
LANGUAGE AND WRITING
A few comments about writing and scripts next. When you think about it, writing is a pretty amazing concept. We are so used to having a way of writing down our spoken language that we take it for granted! However, some would say that writing is the greatest invention of human history. In fact, writing made it possible for the subject 'history' to exist!
(Undeciphered Script of Rapanui - Easter Island)
To see just how miraculous an invention writing is, let's forget about our own script for a moment and look at Rongorongo, a script from Rapanui (Easter Island). No one has managed to decipher Rongorongo so far. It looks beautiful and mysterious, but no one alive today can read it! Here is another powerful illustration of the fact that languages can become extinct (think again of Humboldt's Parrot!) The one thing we do know is that the word rongorongo itself means chants or recitations.
One point I would like to make here is that when it comes to ancient or extinct scripts, a script is often not fully deciphered or a total mystery: there are degrees of decipherment. An ecample of a script that is only partially deciphered are the distinctive Maya glyphs from Mexico. At first they were thought to be pictograms, but later it was discovered that they are actually a very complex mix of pictures, ideas and phonetic signs.
XUL, (A Mayan Month Glyph) & OC, (A Mayan Day Glyph)
One thing that often helps when it comes to deciphering a script is languages borrowing words from other languages. Then those words offer a starting point, something to work with. The only chance we have of ever deciphering Rongorongo (considering that Rapanui or Easter Island is one of the most remote inhabited spots on earth) is if we discover it is related to writing brought over in canoes from Polynesia. If the people of Rapanui invented the script all by themselves we stand no chance of decipherment.
AHAU (A Mayan Month Glyph) (25.5 x 35.5 cm) £125
At this point I would like to quote a definition: 'All scripts that are full writing are a system of graphic symbols that can be used to convey any and all thought'.
Using this definition the language of mathematics (or music, or computer programming) isn't a full language.
I made some paintings about mathematical concepts for this collection. The Mathematician Gerard Michon pointed out to me that I hadn't done my home work properly and that some errors had crept in. I feel very grateful for this because this got me reading about mathematics properly and once I did I found much that was fascinating, mind-boggling even. And so a few paintings about mathematics turned a series or paintings exploring concepts from mathematics. Please visit the MATHEMATICS PAGE to see these paintings!
If you look at a book about Mathematics (during workshops I show a book by Robert Kaplan, ('The Art of the Infinite. The Pleasures of Mathematics'), you will see that mathematics requires sentences to explain the flow of argument and link the algabraic formulas together. Without those sentences the formulae mean nothing. You have to start off by explaining what 'x', 'y' or 'z' stand for.
On this page I will restrict myself to just one painting from the Mathematics Series:
In Mathematics the Infinity symbol is a figure 8 lying on its side, therefore often referred to as the "Lazy 8". My friend Judith takes the Nr 8 London Bus to work every morning and she says it is pure magic. Getting on it is like stepping into the world of Harry Potter, magic is in the air and anything could happen...
If you like mathematics: use the following links to visit
and my MATHEMATICS PAGE on this website!
For a wonderful "Little Book of Big Words" check out 'The book of PEACE & LOVE' by Adam X Hearn. It is packed with the words 'peace' and 'love' in 102 languages. A perfect 'ice breaker' when you meet people from other cultures.www.thebookofpeaceandlove.com.
Writing and reading are intrinsically bound to speech, whether or not we move our lips! Writing and literacy are mostly seen as a good thing. However, it must be acknowledged that there is a dark side to writing: writing can also be used to deceive or trick people, to falsify history or to blackmail people! In terms of today's world you can think of the paperazzi hounding celebrities.
Human beings have always felt a craving for immortality. Inscriptions on graves are among the earliest examples of writing.
(Runic Script, named after its first six letters)
A very early form of writing in Europe are the runic signs. The Runic alphabet is known as the 'Futhark' for its first six letters.
(In Nordic mythology the hero Sigurd slays Fafnir the Dragon. He accidentally tastes some of Fafnir's blood and from then on understands the language of birds. The writing shown in the painting is in the runic script)
Another purpose of writing was to predict the future, (Divination) All ancient societies tried hard to find ways of doing this. Even today we have horoscopes in our newspapers! One of the most common purposes of writing was accountancy, keeping track of trade transactions and agreements. ('Can I have this in writing please?!')
This painting shows a clay tablet that represents a trade agreement. In ancient Sumerian the word for reed 'ghi' also happened to mean 'reimbursement' .The picture of a reed (top left in the painting) therefore came to stand for 'reimbursement' for phonetic reasons.
For many years I thought that most languages were phonetic (i.e. they record how the spoken word sounds) but that some scripts (like Chinese characters or Egyptian hieroglyphs) are based around pictograms. And although it is true that many hieroglyphs and characters do originate from pictures, they have long moved on to encompass what is known as The Rebus Principle, i.e. using images for phonetic value. Say you wanted to write the English word 'belief' in pictures. You could do a picture of a bee, followed by a picture of a leaf! the word 'betray' could be written as 'bee + tray'. Or you could do something like just 'Ant' for Anthony. You find a lot of those kinds of abbreviations (bearing in mind this is an English equivalent to illustrate the principle) in Egyptian hieroglyphs.
bee + leaf = BELIEF
bee + tray = BETRAY
ant = (short for) Anthony!
Visiting Japan many years ago I couldn't work out how Chinese or Japanese people could ever use computers (or a dictionary for that matter!), if they are dealing with thousands of characters. How could you ever fit them onto a keyboard?! I put this question to a Japanese lady I met on a plane to Tokyo. She explained that in Japan there exist two phonetic systems alongside the 'kanji' or characters. Their names are Hirakana and Katakana. Each consists of 46 signs augmented by diacritics. Foreign names and terms borrowed into Japanese are nearly always written in Katakana.(I.e. to write my own name in Japanese I use Katakana). All Japanese sentences can in principle be written entirely in kana. And this takes us back to my question about computer keyboards: Japanese people type in words using kana and a computer programme translates this into kanji options. A similar thing happens in China. People type in Pinyin (Chinese words spelled phonetically) and the computer comes up with characters graded by frequency of use. (Other ways of organising the characters are by the number to strokes needed to write a character or by the radical, an essential component of a character that provides a clue to its meaning).
The Heart Radical Series
The Chinese character for 'worry' or 'anxiety' literally means
'that what hangs on the heart'...
This Chinese character consists of the character for 'to die' (top bit) combined with the 'heart radical'. I.e. "that what dies in the heart" = to forget
This character combines the heart radical (at the bottom again, telling us this character is about feelings or the heart) and the character for 'splitting'. Literally this character consists of wings flying in two different directions, i.e. splitting. Therefore: "a feeling of splitting in the heart", a "heart splitting feeling' = sadness, grief
This character consists for the character for knife or blade at the top and once again the heart radical at the bottom. 'A blade in the heart' means 'to endure'/
The Chinese character for thoughts consists of the character for the heart or feelings and the character for brain: i.e.thoughts are 'feelings on the brain'!
The Chinese character for 'melancholy, sadness, sorrow' consists of the heart radical and the character for 'autumn' (literally: time of the crop fires). In other words: melancholy is 'autumn in the heart'!
Why don't Japanese people write everything in Kana? Because of 'homophony', i.e. words that sound identical (like 'to', 'two' and 'too' in English) and can only be identified by context. Homophony occurs on a large scale in Japanese and is therefore a big barrier to kana-only writing. For many centuries kana was the main style of writing used by women. Today Japanese Braille is written in kana. The result is that the Japanese blind are able to read more easily than many of the Japanese sighted! (Obviously there would also be a tremendous loss in cultural and historic terms if they really decided to switch to kana-only writing).
At this very moment (May 2007) I am working on a series of paintings based on Japanese and Chinese characters. I find that signs that express emotions particularly fascinating. These characters all have a component that gives a clue to the meaning of the whole character. This component is called the radical. Radicals are used when it comes to grouping characters and finding them in dictionaries. The characters that describe emotions all have the character for 'heart' as a radical. They are extremely poetic. This subseries will have the title 'The Heart Radical'. This series can be found on The Art of Language page.
Here are some paintings based on languages found in China:
THE CHINESE CHARACTER FOR 'BRUSH' ACTUALLY LOOKS LIKE A BRUSH! SOLD
It consists of the sign for bamboo (the two 'scribbles' at the very top) and the sign for 'fur' or 'hair' (the bottom part of the character)
YI: A POETIC DESCRIPTION OF A PREGNANCY (80 X 100 cm) £550
Yi, also known as Lolo, is spoken in Southern China near Tibet. The Yi script is probably a thousand years old. It was used traditionally by priests and practitioners of various forms of magic. The characters generally represent syllables and number in their thousands. (This is peculiar as the language only contains a very limited number of syllables!)
The passage in this painting describes the growth of a child in the womb of a pregnant mother. Reading it always makes me think of tiny foetuses having tails and looking like a dinosaur or lizard in the early days...
HERE IS THE TRANSLATION
1. In ancient times there were differences between man and animal
2. January likes the autumn rain.
3. February likes the leaves of the grasses
4. March likes the frog.
5. April is the four-legged snake.
6. May is the house lizard.
7. June assumes the form of man.
8. July has mother's transformation.
9. August unites mother's spirit.
10. September is in the mother's bossom
Naxi is pronounced 'nah-shee' and also known as Moso. It's spoken in southern China (near Tibet. It is one of the few pictographic systems still in use in the 21st century. The script is used for recording ancient stories which are read aloud by dongba (priests). The system is not used for communication or record-keeping.
This painting shows an excerpt from the 'Song of the Dead, Relating the Origin of Bitterness'. The animals in the pictograms are yaks and stags.
I have been fascinated by language for as long as I can remember. While at Art School I wrote an essay on the development of art and language in small children. In the process of researching that I became aware of how language is not a neutral thing. How language is like a pair of glasses in a way: without them you don't see much, but they shape and colour your view of the world. As we teach children to speak, we teach them about the world. We teach them what to notice, how to describe things, what to ignore, how to interpret the world. Basically when we teach children language we wire their brain!
(Inuit Word for Pathways of Understanding)
This canvass illustrates the point I just made. The Inuit (Eskimos) believe that just as there are pathways for hunting, there are pathways of the mind. Some paths lead to knowledge and others lead to chaos. Learning language is about learning 'pathways', A point to remember is that building a road also means creating areas where you don't go, areas that remain mysterious and inaccessible!
And here is another Inuit canvass. Inuktitut is the language of the Inuit or Eskimos. It is a syllabic script, i.e. every sign represents a syllable consisting of a cluster of letters.
We all know how Eskimos have dozens of different words for snow. Apparently there are 107 words in all to describe snow and ice! Chinese people have many different words for rice and, a recent discovery, people in Northern Africa have many different ways of describing camels...
tulud (Somali) 'one's one and only camel'
nakhur (Somali) 'a camel that will not give milk unless her nostrils are tickled'
In Russian the word for 'red' (krassniya) also means 'beautiful'!
Russian is the only language I am aware of that has a word for the feeling you have for someone you used to love but do not love any longer....
Just today I was studying Chinese and Japanese characters and discovered that in Japanese the character for 'red' also carries the meaning 'sincere'
The character for RED and SINCERE (in Japanese) 12 x 18 cm SOLD
Recently I have felt an urge to put language in its most raw form on canvass: letters, words, marks, the 'building blocks of canvass'. I have made a series of smaller canvasses with fragments of languages I never even tried to learn and indeed can't read, because of the sheer beauty of the alien letters. Even the names of thosen languages have a mysterious beauty: Batak (an Indonesian language that looks very rhythmic), Tigrinya (an Ethiopian language).
LANGUAGES THAT 'PULLED BACK FROM THE BRINK'
Hebrew is one of the world's oldest languages, spoken and written today more or less as it was 2000 years ago. It ceased to exist as a spoken language around 250 years BC but was reborn in the 19th century as a modern language, very much due to the efforts of one very determined man: Eliezer ben Yehudah. (This is mind-boggling: compare it to all of us deciding to speak Latin to each other from now on!) It is the principal language of the state of Israel today. The alphabet is written from the left to the right without vowels. (E.g. the word for 'dog', kelev, appears as 'vlk'). This means that if you are not familiar with the language, you can't pronounce the words as you won't know what vowels to insert! There is a system of dots and dashes (diacritical signs) to be placed above and below the consonants. This canvass shows these signs, but in real life they are confined to school books, prayer books and textbooks for foreigners! You won't find them in newspapers or everyday books.
BERBER- Right now, in the 21st century, people in Northern Africa are working hard to rescue and preserve the Berber languages:
This painting shows the Tiginagh script which is still in use among the Tuareg people. The word 'Tifinagh' is the plural of the word 'tafineq', which means letter and is a berberization of the Latin world 'punica'.
Tifinagh is a consonantal script, written from right to left. Like Hebrew it is essentially a vowel-less script, though the dot called the 'tagherit' (top left in canvass above) can be used to indicate an a,i or u at the end of a word (only).
'Hello!' In Berber
Two other languages I would like to mention at this point are Icelandic and Faroese, the closest living relatives to Old Norse, the language the Vikings spoke. The Icelandic people go to great lengths in preserving the beauty of their language: they even have a special committee that invents words for the 21st century! By way of example: the Icelandic word for 'telephone' is 'simi', which is an old Icelandid word for 'thread' or 'wire'. The word for 'electricity' is, rather poetically, 'rafmagn' or 'amber power'. The word for computer is 'toelva'. It is composed from an ancient word for 'prophetess' combined with the word for 'digit'.
Some modern European Languages...
(The Polish word for bear)
ZEITGEIST (German) SOLD
Zeitgeist is a word that means 'the spirit of an era' or 'the spirit of the times'. It exists in Dutch as well as the word 'tijdgeest'. It's about the things that epitomise a period.
It took me a while to figure out how to turn the concept into an image. The German word 'geist' also means 'ghost'. The notion of a ghost living inside an hour glass came to me. I consulted a German friend and she approved of the concept. (Thank you Ursula!)
POSER UN LAPIN A QUELQU'UN (French) £185
This French is expression literally means 'putting the rabbit on someone', it also means to dump someone...
(French) (30 x 30 cm) £145
This French expression is about something we have all felt: as you leave a party or someone's house, on the stairs as you are leaving the perfect response suddenly comes to you and, too late!, you know what you should have said...
FAMILIA POLITICA (Spanish) (30 x 30 cm) £145
It is tempting to 'mistranslate' this concept as 'Family Politics', but actually it means the 'In Laws'! All in laws are called 'something political' in Spanish: hijo politico (son in law), hija politica (daughter in law) and so forth. The word 'politico' on its own means politician. (Spanish has a lot of interesting words for family members, such as 'madrona' - mother of spoilt children, or 'padastro' - stepfather, also obstacle or hangnail... and so forth)
AMIGO INCONDICIONAL (Spanish) (30 x 30cm) £135
In English we have the concept of 'Unconditional Love', in Spanish there is the concept of the 'Unconditional Friend' or Friend for Life!
LOERDAGSGODIS! (Swedish) (30 x 30 cm) £165
Loerdagsgodis means 'Saturday Sweets' in Swedish. All parents give their children sweets on Saturdays and the prospect of this is used as a 'stick and carrot method' all week. Behave! Remember those...
(This painting is dedicated to my Swedish friend Lena. Her conversations with her daughter Olivia gave me the idea for this painting!)
ALBANIAN £35 SOLD
'Cq!' is an expression for mild disappointment in Albanian
The branches of the tree form the lines of a Somali poem:
Birds perched together on the same tree// Call each their own cries// Every country has its own ways//Indeed people do not understand each other's talk
The Swahili word 'Akika' can refer to two very different things: a ceremony to celebrate a child's first haircut or a burial ceremony for a child that died.
This is a poignant summary of parenthood in Africa, I think
We think of graffiti as a problem of our time. However, reading up on Egyptian art I came across an example of a fresco depiciting the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs that had a line in the (everyday, simplified) hieratic script scribbled across it.
I have since come across examples of ancient graffiti in Pompei, ancient Rome, pretty much anywhere in any era! The phenomenon of graffiti is, apparently, as old as the art of writing itself!
This painting is based on a Hittite inscription from Carchemish. The name of the town is located around its logogram as is the name of the storm god Tarhuns.
The Hittite were a non-Semitic people. The Hittites settled in Asia Minor towards the beginning of the 3rd milennium BC and eventually created an empire which embraced much of the Middle East. They had a large pantheon, because their religion absorbed the cults and gods of other peoples.
Hittite myths basically divided into two categories: the slaying of the dragon and the missing god!
Vietnamese is spoken in Vietnam by about 70 million people. The only language closely related to Vietnamese is Muong, spoken in Northern Vietnam. Vietnam was ruled by China until the middle of the 10th century. So many Chinese words entered the language that Vietnamese was long thought to be related to Chinese! It was written using Chinese characters until the 17th century. Then Catholic missionaries devised a Roman way of writing the script, using a complex system of diacritical marks.
This painting shows the opening line of 'The Tale of Kieu', the Vietnamese national poem.
Korean, like Japanese, is not known to be related to any other language. Though the grammar shows similarities to Japanese grammar and more than half the vocabulary has been borrowed from the Chinese. Korean used to be written in Chinese characters before the invention of the Korean alphabet, known as the Hangul.
One feature of Korean writing that is highly unusual is that the letters of each syllable are grouped into clusters. In this particular painting the top cluster consists of the letters 'n, u, n' (eye) and the bottom clusters spells 'm, u, l' (water). In other words: 'NUNMUL' = 'eye water' = 'tear' or 'tears'
Oriya is spoken in Eastern India, principally in the state of Orissa facing the Bay of Bengal. The alphabet is very distinctive. Instead of the horizontal line across the top (shared by the other Indian languages), most Oriya letters contain a semi-circle. This reflects the fact that the script was originally designed for writing on palm leaves using a stylus. A horizontal line would have caused the long slender leaves to split - hence the rounded characters!
Bengali is spoken in the region historically known as Bengal, now spread out over India and Bangladesh (for paintings about Bangladesh and India please use this link). It ranks number six on the 'top of the pops' of world languages! (Only Chinese, English, Hindi, Spanish and Arabic have more speakers). It is related to Oriya (see preceding painting). The alphabet is based on, but distinctly different from, Sanskrit (see The Donkey in