NEW ZEALAND: Alien Weaponry – Kai Tangata

Alien Weaponry is a heavy metal band who sing in te reo Maori, focusing on Maori history and culture. Kai Tangata follows the bloodbath of the Musket Wars, a series of brutal inter-tribal wars in the early 1800s kicked off by the great Maori chief Hongi Hika bringing muskets back from England. Unfortunately, the Musket Wars were so bloody that, alongside encroaching Europeans and their diseases, they destabilized Maori control of Aotearoa. This eventually resulted in the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, with the British asserting claims of sovereignty over New Zealand (followed by the New Zealand Wars and land confiscations).

The members of Alien Weaponry are a pair of young brothers and their friend, who all started playing metal at a young age. They’re all of Maori background, and have been singing in te reo to connect to their culture, assert their whakapapa, promote the language, and express deeper ideas and emotions that English can’t articulate. There’s a great little doc below from 2018 following the teens as they prepare to go on tour. Since then, the band has toured Europe and are speaking out about the racism that Maori still face in New Zealand.

NEW ZEALAND: Changing its flag and name / Silver fern and Aotearoa

In 2015/2016, New Zealand held two referendums on changing its flag, seen by some as too colonial and not sufficiently distinct from Australia’s. The first referendum was to pick an alternate design, settling on keeping the Southern Cross and swapping the Union Jack for a silver fern. The second referendum was then a vote between the old and the proposed flag – the below video is from after the first vote, and gives a good explanation of the reasons and process:

The second referendum failed, with 57% of New Zealanders voted to keep their current flag. The referendum was criticized over both the process and that changing the flag became politicized between the government and opposition, with critics calling it Prime Minister Key’s “vanity project“.

While the flag is staying at the status quo for now, the name of the country is currently up for discussion. In 2021, the Maori Party introduced a petition with 60,000 signatures calling to change the name of New Zealand to Aotearoa, the Maori name for the country. Here’s an interesting interview with Australian media with the co-leader of the Maori Party, Debbie Ngarewa-Packer, on the petition and name, Maori health and social outcomes, the effects of the pandemic on Maori communities, and asserting Maori cultural integrity.

Aotearoa is increasingly being used interchangeably with the name New Zealand, however, there does not seem to be a push to fully change the name. PM Ardern has taken a bit of a cautious middle ground, not supporting a full legal change, but accepting and herself using Aotearoa at times.

Like the flag debate, there seems to be a risk of this becoming politicized. Last year, the right-wing National Party supported an immediate referendum on the name change – likely as they knew it would lose, since polls show most Kiwis currently prefer the status quo or using the names interchangeably, instead of eliminating the old name. A decisive referendum result could then be used by parties like the National Party to push back against the general use of the Maori name or changing other names inside the country to their original Maori names. A National MP even went as far last year as saying that Aotearoa should be banned from all official documents.

Maori leaders on the South Island have also expressed some concern that Aotearoa as a name historically only refers to the North Island. So while a formal name change isn’t on the table just yet, the use of Aotearoa seems to be growing – several businesses have either switched or use it in te reo (the Maori language), most notably Vodafone changing its network name in 2020 from “Vodafone NZ” to “VF Aotearoa” on customers’ phones. (Though I’m not sure if it’s permanent – they seem to have switched to “Vodafone – Stay Safe” as the pandemic worsened in early 2021.)

SAN MARINO: Sammarinese / Romagnol

The official language of San Marino is standard Italian, but there’s also a distinct dialect called Sammarinese. I’ve seen it referred to as it’s own language, a variation of Romagnol, and as a seperate dialect – this seems to be both because of San Marino’s sovereignty and the difficulty in drawing a line between dialects and different languages (especially in Italy). That being said, Sammarinese is considered an endangered language, as it’s increasingly not being passed on to younger generations.

Italian dialects can be very distinct from standard Italian to the point that some are really considered their own languages – there’s not a lot of mutual intelligibility between say, Lombard and Sicilian. Here’s a good look at Italian dialects as a whole:

As for Sammarinese, most sources I found describe it as a type of Romagnol, though one of the best studies on Sammarinese describes it as a “borderline Romagnol variety”, adding:

However, the findings also reveal a language that stands apart from neighboring varieties due to complex historical and geographical factors, including a Celtic substratum from the pre-Roman and Roman times, a Byzantine Greek heritage and Lombard/ Germanic influence from the second half of the first millennium, and a geographic position that resulted in linguistic isolation from the vernaculars spoken in the Central Romagnol plain.

Simona Montanari, “Sammarinese, the Endangered Language of the Republic of San Marino: A Preliminary Study of Documentation and Description

There’s not a lot of comparative examples of Sammarinese that I could find, but the Flag and Anthem Guy on Youtube is from San Marino and gives a little sample of the language:

UZBEKISTAN: How do you write Uzbek?

Quick, which one of the languages on this sign is Uzbek?

All of them are in Uzbek – at least according to Wikipedia (so correct me if I’m wrong). Uzbek has been through multiple changes of writing systems of the past century. Up until the 1920s, Uzbek (a Turkic language) was written in an Arabic-derived script (an example is here). That all changed when the Soviets moved in – they altered the classical script around 1920 into Yaña imlâ – a way to represent the sounds of Turkic languages better in Arabic script. Okay, that’s good, right? I guess we’re done.

Well, no. Not even a decade had passed, and in 1928 the old Arabic scripts were replaced with a Latin-based script called Yañalif. This was inspired by the latinization of Turkish in Turkey, and for about a decade, the Soviets were creating Latin scripts for non-Slavic languages … and even looking at latinizing Russian.

Well, that’s it, then? Nope! Only 12 years later, in 1940, the official decree was that Uzbek and other languages were now to be written in Cyrillic. That lasted until the fall of the Soviet Union, and in 1992, Uzbekistan decided it would transition back to a Latin alphabet – however it is a gradual process, and formal documents are often still written in Cyrillic, and with newspapers often mixing one script for headlines and text in the other. The government has set 2023 to be the final date of the full changeover to Latin, with added tweaks to the current writing system.

Again, all Uzbek – Source

Uzbek is not the only language spoken in Uzbekistan either – Russian remains important as a lingua franca and, while an official language, is often used in government or technical documents. Karakalpak, also a Turkic language but closer to Kazakh is spoken in the Republic of Karakalpakstan, which is the western end of Uzbekistan (I definitely want to learn more about that region!) Other Central Asian languages are also spoken around Uzbekistan.

Tajik is widely spoken in Samarkand and Bukhara. It’s a Persian language – see my post about Bukharian, a dialect of Tajik, spoken by Uzbekistan’s Jewish community and understandable to Afghans and Iranians. There’s no intelligibility, or even same sounds, between Uzbek and Tajik:

Interestingly, Uzbek is most closely related to the Uyghur language in China, and they are both understandable to speakers of Turkish:

UZBEKISTAN: Bukharian Jews and the Bukharian Language

The Bukharian Jewish community is really fascinating – it was an ancient community, centred around Bukhara, in Uzbekistan, with Jewish people residing in Central Asia for thousands of years. This Uzbek video gives a very gentle overview of the community, though it demurely skips over the Soviet period and other persecutions.

The Bukharian Jewish community was one of many Jewish groups that fled en masse to Israel and North America as soon as the USSR fell in the 90s, looking to escape the repression and cultural assimilation they had faced under the Soviet Union. They weren’t the only Jewish community to do so – and My Promised Land by Ari Shavit (which I read in my month on Israel) talks about the demographic and cultural upheavals of all these new communities arriving all of a sudden. There were 45,000 Bukharian Jews in Central Asia before 1990, but only 1500 still live in Uzbekistan today.

Here’s a few clips of the community today – interviews with the small community that still lives in Uzbekistan, the larger community in North America, and interviews with the Bukharian community in Israel, which has roots there from the 19th century.

The Bukharian language spoken by the Jewish community is a dialect of Tajik, with loanwords from Hebrew, Russian, and Uzbek. Since it’s based in Tajik, it’s in the Persian language family (unlike Uzbek, which is Turkic). Bukharian has a level of mutual intelligibility with other Persian languages – here’s a really cool video of a Bukharian speaker sharing poetry with Persian speakers from Afghanistan and Iran and talking about how much they can understand (in English / subtitled).

TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO: Trinidadian Patois / French Creole

Trinidad and Tobago has two commonly spoken English-based creole languages – Trinidadian Creole (see the trailer for Green Days by the River) and Tobagoan Creole. However, there is a third creole language spoken in the country as well, Trinidadian French Creole, or Trinidadian Patois.

Unlike Tobago, Trinidad was never under French control, but the French patois developed as a lingua franca under Spanish rule, as Spain encouraged Catholics to settle on Trinidad – many slaveholders as well as free people of colour came from the French Caribbean during the French Revolution. French Creole was actually the main language spoken on the island for the 19th century until English and English Creole displaced it.

While there’s still French influence in the English Creole languages, French Creole today is mainly centred around the village of Paramin, in the mountains north of Port of Spain. While it is used in casual conversation and for Dimanche Gras – the Sunday mass before Carnival (see above video) – it is an endangered language. However, there are efforts underway to preserve it and share it with younger generations.

Here’s an interesting report on the language from a French channel – there’s no English subtitles, but Creole is subtitled in French. Haitian Creole speakers in the comments all note that it’s very close to their language and that it’s mutually intelligible.

I’d also recommend falling down the Wikipedia hole on Creole languages in general – how they differ from pidgin languages, how they develop, the history of recognizing creole languages, and even the language surrounding the language.

TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO: Green Days by the River (2017)

Green Days by the River is a 2017 coming of age film, based on a popular book of the same name, set in 1950’s Trinidad. Shellie, a teenager with an ailing father, is navigating his future – both his career and education, and romantically. On the surface, this is about his relationships with two girls, Joan and Rosalie, but really, it’s about his relationship with Rosalie’s father, Mr. Gidharee – his wealthy land-owning neighbour who takes him under his wing.

Things go sour, and without spoiling it, it almost feels like Shellie is going to end up like the protagonist in Late Marriage. I say almost, because there is one subtle moment in the second-last scene that hints that Shellie may not submit to his fate, and that the power dynamics may turn.

It’s a beautifully shot movie, filmed in Trinidadian Creole – while it’s related to English, you’ll probably need subtitles if you’re not familiar with the language. Racial relations in Trinidad run through the background of this film, between Indian, African, and mixed identities, as well as the choices one needs to make to survive and to thrive. Best of all, the teenagers are real teenagers – they’ve navigating the world in their own messy, confused ways, and you can see how much they all pick up from the adults around them – good and bad.

TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO: What’s up with Tobago?

I want to start with a little look at the etymology of the names Trinidad and Tobago, and more importantly, what the historical distinction is between the two islands.

That historical difference also shows up in different demographics – Tobagoans are largely of African descent alone, while Trinidad is more of a mix between Indian and African heritages.

Digging a little deeper into modern political structure, it’s interesting to note that Tobago, while electing MPs to the national Parliament, also has its own elected legislative assembly, the Tobago House of Assembly. It seems very similar to devolution in Britain, with Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland having their own assemblies for local matters but also electing MPs to London.

Tobago’s status inside the country is a live issue. Just this past year, a bill was put forward in the national Parliament to restructure the system to give Tobago self-governance. The bill is still at committee, and there has been a lot of debate by both Trinidadians and Tobagoans on the actual content of the proposal – what powers will it give Tobago, what will the national government be able to override, and just how independent Tobago will be.

Addendum: I asked the Trinidad and Tobago subreddit, and there’s consensus that the best way to refer to both islands at once / the country as a whole is Trinbagonian or Trinbagoan – as it includes Tobagoans, who are often overlooked if just called Trinidadian.

THAILAND: Geography and history

I’ve got a few little primer videos on Thailand, just to get a sense of the basics of geography and history.

This interesting little video below that argues that a contributing factor to the frequency of coups in Thailand is it’s geography (really, its demographics) – namely the over-dominance of Bangkok compared to any other municipality.

A brief look at the etymology of the name Thailand (as well as Siam), and the history of the country’s name – I knew it had switched from Siam to Thailand, but I didn’t know it had changed back for a two year stretch!

And a short overview of why Thailand was never colonized by European powers, that does point out that Thailand did lose a lot of territory to neighbouring French and British colonies, it’s only the remainder that kept it’s independence (but was occupied by Japan during WWII).