Type-A bureaucrat who professionally pushes papers in the Middle East. History nerd, linguistic geek, and devoted news junkie.
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No "no"

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When I lived in Nepal (1965-67), I heard of the Kusunda, but never had a chance to go visit them.  Now they are in the news, because their language — an isolate that linguists believe is unrelated to any other language in the world — is on the verge of extinction, with only one remaining speaker, 48-year-old Kamala Khatri.

"The language that doesn't use 'no'", by Eileen McDougall, BBC (8/9/22)

Selections from the article:

The Kusunda are highly marginalised and impoverished within Nepali society. Today, most live in west Nepal's Dang district, a sleepy region of yellow mustard fields and misty, wooded hills. It is here the Language Commission of Nepal has been running Kusunda classes since 2019 in an effort to preserve the language.

Originally semi-nomadic, the Kusunda lived in the jungles of west Nepal until the middle of the 20th Century, hunting birds and monitor lizards, and trading yams and meat for rice and flour in nearby towns. While they are now settled in villages, they still call themselves the Ban Rajas, or kings of the forest.

But as Nepal's population grew and farming increasingly fragmented the jungles, pressure on the Kusundas' homeland increased. Then, in the 1950s, the government nationalised great swathes of forests, presenting further obstacles to their nomadic life.

The Kusunda were forced to settle, turning to jobs in labouring and agriculture. Low numbers in the group and the disparate nature of their population meant they mostly married neighbouring ethnic groups. Almost all stopped speaking their language.

For the Kusunda people, losing their language means losing a link to their past, and to their identity.

From a linguistic point of view, it is a loss in other ways, too.

Madhav Pokharel, emeritus professor of linguistics at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu, has been overseeing the documentation of the Kusunda language over the last 15 years. He explains that several studies have attempted to link it with other language isolates, such as Burushaski from north Pakistan and Nihali from India. But all have failed to find any robust conclusions.

Currently, linguistic researchers believe Kusunda is a survivor of an ancient aboriginal language spoken across the sub-Himalayan regions before the arrival of the Tibetan-Burman and Indo-Aryan tribes.

"We can trace all other language groups in Nepal to people coming from outside Nepal," says Pokharel. "It is only Kusunda whose origins we don't know."

Alongside its mysterious beginnings, linguists have noted Kusunda's many rare elements. Bhojraj Gautam, a linguist with in-depth knowledge of Kusunda, describes one of the most peculiar: there is no standard way of negating a sentence. Indeed, the language has few words implying anything negative. Instead, context is used to convey the exact meaning. If you want to say "I don't want tea", for example, you might use the verb to drink, but in an adjusted form which indicates a very low probability – synonymous with the speaker's desire – of the drinking of tea.

Kusunda also has no words for absolute directions, such as left or right, with the speaker using relative phrases such as "to this side" and "to that side" instead.

Meanwhile, linguists say Kusunda does not have the set, rigid grammatical rules or structures found in most languages. It is more flexible, and phrases must be interpreted relative to the speaker. For example, actions are not divided into past and present. When saying "I saw a bird" compared to "I will see a bird", a Kusunda speaker might indicate the past action not by tense, but by describing it as an experience directly related to the speaker. Meanwhile, the future action would remain general and not associated to any subject.

Ironically, these rare qualities – a large part of what makes Kusunda so fascinating to linguists – are partly why it has struggled to continue.

The Kusunda and their supporters are not giving up.  They are organizing classes and even aiming to create a unified settlement that would bring together enough of their people to provide a speech community that would help them keep their language alive — whether it is related to any other language or no.

 

Selected readings

[h.t. Lisa Roosen-Runge]

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Russia’s Brutal Honesty Has Destroyed the West’s Appeasers

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Yet plenty of Western intellectuals and politicians still ignore what Moscow is saying loud and clear.

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Spotlight on: Medieval Oven Cooking

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Besides an open fire, food was heated in a number of devices in medieval times, and the cookery books mention several of them. A first group includes the mustawqad (مستوقد), which is only mentioned in the oldest Abbasid manual (10th century), where it is described as a stove built in the form of a trapezium (munharif), half a man’s height tall, with openings to let the smoke out. The kānūn (كانون) was a (portable) brazier, which appears a few times in manuals from both Egypt and Iraq, for the smoking of olives, for toasting bread topped with condiments and eggs (a kind of pizza avant la lettre, if you will), and, in one case, to heat up a harisa (meat porridge). It is possible that there were two types of kānūn, since the instructions for the smoked olives refer to their being placed inside and the door being closed. Interestingly enough, in Muslim Spain, khubz kanuni (‘kanun bread’) referred to bread baked in embers.

In terms of ovens, there were essentially two kinds: the (mud-)brick furn (فرن) and the clay tannūr (تنّور), what is today called a tandoor. The latter goes back to the Babylonian tinuru, and is shaped like a cylinder or bee-hive, with a vent at the bottom (where the fire is kindled) and a hole on top. Already in Babylonian times, it was used to bake bread — most commonly unleavened –with the dough being stuck along the sides. However, in medieval Arab cuisine, it was also used to cook dishes, which would be put inside for slow-cooking after bread baking, placed on top, or even hung inside. Some of the commercial and palace tannūrs were so big that they could accommodate a whole lamb.

The tannūr can be found across the eastern mediterranean very early on as there is evidence of similar cylindrical ovens made out of mud and clay being used in ancient Egypt, as the illustration below shows, with loaves also being stuck along the sides for baking. In fact, the tannūr may just as easily have originated in Egypt, and then spread to Mespotamia.

The conventional oven, furn, is open at the front, with a fire being lit either inside, or underneath a shelf. It was used for baking bread, as well as for the roasting of dishes. The medieval furn would have looked very similar to the one depicted in the late 18th century in the Description d’Egypte.

But was every kitchen equipped with these devices? Well, for a start, only a small percentage of houses had a separate kitchen space, which was the preserve of the elite, some of whose houses even had two kitchens; one with an oven and a kānūn, and another one — without equipment — possibly for prepping the food. However, the Egyptian historian al-Jabarti, writing about the second half of the 18th century, explained that every notable’s house had two kitchens, “one on the lower level for men, and the other in the women’s quarters (harem).”

The average person’s house in urban areas would have had neither the space nor the required ventilation. Indeed, unlike in colder climates, fires were not lit inside since, for the most part, heating was not required, in light of the climate. Another factor was the relatively high price of fuel (wood, in particular), which was outside the reach of the majority of the population. They would, in fact, get all of their hot meals outside, which explains the huge number of public food vendors and stalls. Sometimes, people would prepare some food and have it heated up elsewhere; this was the case for bread, for instance, where the dough would be prepared at home and then sent to a communal oven, as is still the case in some areas today. However, as the cookery books reveal, this practice would also exist for other dishes. A contemporary example can be found in Marrakech, where many families still prepare the famous tanjia in traditional clay jars before sending it to be slow-cooked in the ashes of the communal oven that heats the hammam.

People living in the countryside were not faced with the city-dwellers’ problem of space, and would have had self-made ovens, made of mud, which would not have been very different from those found to this day in some rural areas. There is also evidence that they would have had makeshift outside tannūrs, the average one being approximately one metre in height, and packed with pottery on the outside to preserve the heat.

The English traveller Edward Lane, writing in the early 19th century, described the situation in Egypt at the time: “in the houses of the peasants in Lower Egypt, there is generally an oven (“furn”), at the end furthest from the entrance, and occupying the whole width of the chamber. It resembles a wide bench or seat, and is about breast-high: it is constructed of brick and mud; the roof arched within, – and flat on the top. The inhabitants of the house, who seldom have any night-covering during the winter, sleep upon the top of the oven, having previously lighted a fire within it; or the husband and wife only enjoy this luxury, and the children sleep upon the floor.” For fuel, they used dung of cattle, kneaded with chopped straw, and formed into round flat cakes, known as gilla (جلّة), which can still be found in rural Egypt.

Outdoor cooking on a kānūn (Bibliothèque nationale de France)
Cooking Cakes with Fat, Tomb of Rekhmire, Nina de Garis Davies (1881–1965), Paper, tempera paint, ink
cooking cakes in ancient Egypt (Metropolitan Museum)
relief in the tomb of Ramesses depicting the baking of bread (Rosellini, Monumenti)

Oven inside bakery in 18th-century Egypt (Description d’Egypte).
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Za'atar

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Small bowl of Za'tar next to a piece of pita, a small bowl of olive oil, and a rectangular bowl of vegetables
Serious Eats / Mai Kakish

Za’atar is one of the most used and loved Arab ingredients in the West, and yet it is also one of the most misunderstood. Translations abound from “thyme” to “spice blend,” and mixes include all kinds of different ingredients, some calling for a mishmash of store-bought dried herbs to simply be mixed together. While this is neither offensive nor terrible tasting, it deprives you from experiencing za’atar in its best and most original form.

What Is Za'atar?

The word "za'atar" itself refers to a specific plant, the same way marjoram or dill or parsley do. It is also the name given to the blend made with the dried leaves of this plant—very creative nomenclature, I have to admit. Za’atar belongs to the oregano family (its scientific name, unsurprisingly, is Origanum Syriacum), and is native to the Levant, particularly the Syrian, Jordanian, and Palestinian mountains. This is probably why its closest substitute here in the West, in terms of flavor, is oregano, and not thyme as so many translations of the recipe might have led you to believe.

Every spring growing up, my family would take several trips to the mountains surrounding Jerusalem and pick za’atar leaves in the wild. We would use the fresh leaves in salads and breads, then dry the rest for use throughout the year. To this day, even with dried and ready-made varieties widely available, my parents, like many others, still forage for za’atar in the wild and dry it at home. If you’re thinking, why bother making it at home when you can now buy this condiment in stores, the truth is that what you buy tastes almost nothing like this home-made version. Give it a try, and you’ll understand why many Palestinian families still choose to forage, dry, and perform this yearly ritual by hand. 

Different elements of za'tar in separate bowls
Serious Eats / Mai Kakish

At its finest, za’atar (the blend) uses only the leaves of the plant, which have been stripped off the stem and dried. These leaves are then ground with sesame seeds and then mixed with sumac, salt, and more whole sesame seeds. The texture of the ground sesame-herb mixture should be powdery, but it will not be dry because of the oils released from the ground seeds. The whole sesame seeds added in at the end are there as much for flavor as for texture, giving the blend the most satisfying delicate crunch.  

Making Your Own Za'atar

Fresh za’atar is difficult to find in the US, but its relatives like oregano and marjoram, and even thyme, are bountiful. Yes, you can purchase dried oregano, thyme, and marjoram in grocery stores, but I highly recommend you buy your own fresh leaves and dry them yourself, as the dried ones sold in stores can be cut with other herbs, can include stems, and are probably not as fresh as they should be, which is not ideal for making truly fine za’atar. (While I haven't had much luck finding dried za'atar leaves on their own in the US, one can find the premade za'atar mix here from companies like Burlap & Barrel, Maureen Abood Market, Milk Street, and Syndyanna, all good options for those who want to try za'atar made from real za'atar leaves.)

Sumac is another important component of the blend, and since the recipe calls for store-bought sumac, make sure you use a pure version without salt. If you are unable to find it, simply omit the salt in this recipe.    

All the Ways to Eat Za'atar

Za'tar in a small bowl next to a piece of pita and a small shallow bowl of olive oil
Serious Eats / Mai Kakish

There is hardly a Palestinian kitchen table anywhere in the world that does not have a small bowl of za’atar sitting next to one of olive oil. The most common breakfast food is a piece of bread dipped in olive oil then za’atar. It is also perfect sprinkled over fried eggs or swirled into yogurt or labaneh. You can also mix it with olive oil and use it as a topping for manaqeesh (a flatbread), add it to meat and chicken marinades, or blend it into doughs. Since moving to the United Statesabroad, I have come up with less traditional uses for it, mixing it into salad dressings or breadcrumb coatings and even sprinkling it on mashed potatoes and roast vegetables. My soft spot, though, remains the most basic: a fresh piece of taboon bread dipped in olive oil and za’atar.

In an 8- or 10-inch stainless steel skillet, heat sesame seeds over medium-low heat, stirring continuously to avoid scorching, until aromatic and starting to pop, about 8 minutes. Transfer toasted sesame seeds to a bowl to cool completely.

Two image collage. Top: Sesame seeds in a pan with a wooden spoon. Bottom: Toasted sesame seeds in a blue bowl.
Serious Eats / Mai Kakish

Using a blender or spice grinder, and working in batches if necessary, grind za’atar leaves and one-third of the toasted sesame seeds to a fine powder. Transfer mixture to a large bowl, then whisk in the remaining sesame seeds along with the sumac and salt until well combined. Transfer to an airtight container, then store at room temperature for up to 3 months, in the refrigerator for up to 6 months, or in the freezer for up to 1 year.

Four Image collage. Top Left: Sumac leaves and sesame sees in a grinder. Top Right: Grinded sesame seeds and sumac leaves. Bottom Left: blue bowl with ground sumac and sesame seeds, sesame seeds, salt in a bowl unmixed. Bottom Right: za'tar in a bowl.
Serious Eats / Mai Kakish

Special Equipment 

A powerful blender (like a Vitamix or a Thermomix) or a spice grinder

Notes

The actual za’atar plant is not very easy to find in the US, although some specialty purveyors or international markets might carry it in the spring and early summer. Oregano is the most suitable substitute: For the best results, start with fresh oregano leaves and dry them according to the directions below (commercially dried oregano will be older and less flavorful). You can also mix in some marjoram and/or thyme leaves, but oregano should be the most prevalent herb (a ratio of 3 parts oregano to 1 part marjoram and/or thyme works best).

To get 1 1/2 ounces (45g) of dried oregano leaves you will need 250 to 300g fresh oregano leaves, from about 1 to 1 1/2 pounds (500 to 700g) oregano stems (once dried and rubbed to a fine consistency, this will yield about 1 1/4 cups). To dry the oregano, first taste the fresh leaves and make sure they are not so bitter, peppery, or astringent that it feels unpleasant in your mouth (some varieties of oregano can be especially intense and are best not used for this; most of the fresh oregano I've bought in the US is fine, but it's worth confirming before proceeding with the drying process). Spread oregano stems on towel-lined baking sheets and set in a well ventilated but clean area until completely dry (next to a sunny window is ideal). This can take from a few days to a couple of weeks depending on climate and batch size. Alternatively, use a dehydrator set to 100°F (38°C) until completely dry, about 36 hours. You will know the leaves are dry when one easily crumbles between your fingers.Rub dried leaves off of stems and discard stems, then proceed with recipe.

Make-Ahead and Storage

Za’atar can be kept in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 3 months, refrigerated for up to 6 months, or frozen for up to 1 year.

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hannahdraper
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Za'atar is The Best.
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bluebec
3 hours ago
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Just discovered that this is the "hyssop" that is referenced in the bible, and that I can buy the seeds to plant this if I want.
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Drama in the Bluegrass!

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By Keith Allison from Hanover, MD, USA – John Calipari, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36637946

My colleague from the athletic department has opinions:

“The reason is, this is a basketball school,” Calipari told reporters in the Bahamas. “It’s always been that. Alabama is a football school. So is Georgia. I mean, they are. No disrespect to our football team. I hope they win 10 games and go to bowls. At the end of the day, that makes my job easier and it makes the job of all of us easier. But this is a basketball school. And so we need to keep moving in that direction and keep doing what we’re doing.”

My other colleague in the athletic department was less than convinced:

The issue is question is whether the University of Kentucky will spend oodles of money on a new basketball practice facility. Mr. Stoops will make $6.5 million this year. Mr. Calipari makes $8 million. There are of course some ways in which Mr. Calipari is correct; Kentucky is known nationally for its basketball team much more than its football incarnation. However, Mr. Stoops is surely correct in his insinuation that the contribution of the basketball team in the last two years has been a 9-16 season and a first round exit from the NCAA tournament. The football team, as noted, has four straight bowl wins playing in the toughest conference in the country.

The other aspect that’s perhaps a touch less obvious to those who don’t live in the area is that the cultural footprint of football in Lexington and environs is much greater than you would imagine for “a basketball school.” It is true that everyone in Lexington watches the basketball team on TV, and especially that SEC games essentially command the social schedule for the week. However, football games in Lexington, as is the case across much of the South and the Midwest, are the primary social event of the week. Road games not so much (maybe people watch them, maybe they don’t who cares), but home games are an event in the city in ways that basketball cannot replicate. Reasons for this include the much greater accessibility of football (bigger stadium, cheaper seats), a culture of tailgating (starts at dawn on gameday and ends sometime after dusk, with huge crowds that are often pretty indifferent to the game), and frequency (handful of home games, usually against very strong opponents, compared to 2-3x as many basketball games against less proficient foes).

Long story short, despite the fact that Kentucky is a “basketball school,” the social and cultural impact of football is as big or bigger even in humble Lexington. It’s of course difficult for a university administration to sort through the claims of all the relevant stakeholders, but football is incredibly important to the community even when the team isn’t winning. Moreover, the downside of shorting investment in football while playing in the SEC is a team that goes 2-11 and loses by 60 at home to Georgia and Alabama and Florida and Tennessee. In any case, I hope that my two colleagues each with a salary many multiples of my own can sort through their issues and provide me with the sporting entertainment I so very richly deserve.

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hannahdraper
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Also, John Calipari is a cheatin'-ass motherfucker.
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The Number of ‘Lonely, Single Men’ Is on the Rise Thanks to Modern Dating’s Higher Standards

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We often hear from men about this “once great” country—a country where women were handed off from father to husband not unlike a football, where we couldn’t open a bank account or see a doctor without the express permission of our husband. Well, it’s increasingly clear why the “good old days” hold such a romantic…

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"Well, it’s increasingly clear why the “good old days” hold such a romantic appeal to men today: A new Psychology Today article posits that modern dating’s higher standards for straight men have created more “lonely, single men” than ever—and the psychologist writing the column pretty much says that men need to fix everything about themselves or die alone, which sounds like a fun little choice."
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