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Posts Tagged ‘language’


There’s a website called “The Conversation” that reported recently on scientific research into how the words for color are used in different languages.

Ted Gibson and Bevil R. Conway wrote, “People with standard vision can see millions of distinct colors. But human language categorizes these into a small set of words. In an industrialized culture, most people get by with 11 color words: black, white, red, green, yellow, blue, brown, orange, pink, purple and gray. …

“Maybe if you’re an artist or an interior designer, you know specific meanings for as many as 50 or 100 different words for colors – like turquoise, amber, indigo or taupe. But this is still a tiny fraction of the colors that we can distinguish.

“Interestingly, the ways that languages categorize color vary widely. Nonindustrialized cultures typically have far fewer words for colors than industrialized cultures. … The Papua-New Guinean language Berinmo has only five, and the Bolivian Amazonian language Tsimane’ has only three words that everyone knows, corresponding to black, white and red.

“The goal of our project was to understand why cultures vary so much in their color word usage. …

“In English, it turns out that people can convey the warm colors – reds, oranges and yellows – more efficiently (with fewer guesses) than the cool colors – blues and greens. …

“We found that this generalization is true in every language in the entire World Color Survey (110 languages) and in three more that we did detailed experiments on: English, Spanish and Tsimane’. …

“Our idea is that maybe we introduce words into a language when there is something that we want to talk about. So perhaps this effect arises because objects – the things we want to talk about – tend to be warm-colored. …

“We mapped the colors in the images [of objects] onto our set of 80 colors across the color space. It turned out that indeed objects are more likely to be warm-colored, while backgrounds are cool-colored. …

“When you think about it, this doesn’t seem so surprising after all. Backgrounds are sky, water, grass, trees: all cool-colored. The objects that we want to talk about are warm-colored: people, animals, berries, fruits and so on. …

“[This] communication hypothesis helped identify a true cross-linguistic universal – warm colors are easier to communicate than cool ones – and it easily explains the cross-cultural differences in color terms. It also explains why color words often come into a language not as color words but as object or substance labels. For instance, ‘orange’ comes from the fruit; ‘red’ comes from Sanskrit for blood. In short, we label things that we want to talk about.”

More here. The article gets pretty technical, but after struggling last Tuesday to find warm and cool colors in a jumbled box for ESL students, I appreciate having confirmation that warm colors (red, orange, yellow) have fewer competing names than cool ones (blue, blue-green, violet, purple, aquamarine, turquoise …).

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Arts Journal often links to interesting articles on languages, especially vanishing ones. In Alaska, there are actually several native languages that are endangered. The Sealaska Heritage Institute has been tackling one of them and is starting to add more.

Wesley Yiin wrote about the effort at Pacific Standard.

“According to a 2007 study by linguist Michael E. Krauss of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, only three of the 20 recognized Alaska Native languages have more than 1,000 native speakers. (Compare that figure to the most commonly spoken Native language in America, Navajo, which has 170,000 native speakers.) Several are extinct or close to it: The last native speaker of the Eyak language died in 2008, as did Holikachuk’s last fluent speaker, in 2012.

“One of the most endangered is Tlingit, one of four languages from Alaska’s southeast region. …

“Recently, advocates who have been establishing means of revitalizing Alaska Native languages have created new opportunities for the preservation of Tlingit. Perhaps the most creative effort has been that of the Sealaska Heritage Institute, a non-profit based in Juneau that promotes understanding of Southeastern Alaska Native cultures. In late 2016, it produced two phone applications and a podcast that aim to teach users the Tlingit language. One app teaches Tlingit sounds and some basic words and phrases, while another instructs listeners on the Tlingit words for animals that live in Southeast Alaska through interactive games.”

Katrina Hotch is the language project coordinator for Sealaska Heritage. Here are some of her comments on the work.

“One of its goals is to help teachers create welcoming environments for their students and to create culturally and linguistically sensitive learning environments within their classrooms. …

“You can revisit words and phrases as often as you need to. You just hit the button again and then you hear it again. I think this will help people with their pronunciation quite a bit and will expand their vocabulary and basic phrases. …

“It’ll help them to speak with more advanced speakers. It’ll be easier for them to be understood because they have so many examples of fluent speakers — all of the speakers in the app are fluent speakers. …

“Passion is contagious, and if people are hearing people who are passionate about the language, then it draws them in more.” Click here for the whole interview with Hotch.

The one thing about the interview that struck me as discouraging was that Hotch herself has been studying Tlingit for years and doesn’t feel fluent. A whole different worldview is involved, she says. That tells me that the initiative is best focused on helping children who grow up in the culture to keep it going. There are not likely to be many brand-new adult speakers.

Katrina Hotch’s podcast is a first step in preserving a Native Alaskan language called Tlingit.

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Photo: British Pie Awards
One of Britain’s most traditional pies is the Melton Mowbray pork pie. It was granted protected European Union status. (Can that protection last post-Brexit? The Law of Unforeseen Consequences strikes again.)

My husband loves learning about the origins of language. He recently sent me an article about English pies and pie-related expressions.

Norman Miller at the BBC explained, “Every March, St Mary’s church in the Leicestershire town of Melton Mowbray becomes a cathedral of pies: it fills with tables bearing more than 800 pastries.

“Some recipes are particularly offbeat. While the quirkiest entry in this year’s Speciality Meat category was a cricket pie, one celebrated past winner was Phil Walmsley’s squirrel pie in 2014. Walmsley told me that it has medieval origins, but still sells out at Market Harborough’s twice-monthly farmers’ market. ‘They’re also a great way to deal with a pest,’ he laughs. …

“Even in their early days, pies served different purposes for the rich and poor: as show-off delicacies for the former and portable food for the latter.

“So while wealthy feasts might include pies containing anything from game birds to mussels, the less well-off used simpler pies as a way to have food while doing outdoor work or travelling – the crust both carried and preserved the tasty filling. …

“Pies have been adding rich flavour to the English language for centuries. Even Shakespeare got in on the act, writing in his 1613 play Henry VIII that ‘No man’s pie is freed from his ambitious finger’, giving English the phrase ‘a finger in every pie’. …

‘Eating humble pie’, meanwhile, comes from medieval deer hunting, when meat from a successful hunt was shared out on the basis of social status.

“While the finest cuts of venison went to the rich and powerful, the lower orders made do with the ‘nombles’: a Norman French word for deer offal. Anglicisation saw ‘nombles’ pie become ‘humble’ pie. …

“One gigantic 16th-Century royal pie concealed a gaggle of musicians who began playing when the pie was cut, while another trick saw people burst out of a pie to recite poetry. Concealing live birds was also popular – hence the ‘four and twenty blackbirds’ in the nursery rhyme Sing a Song of Sixpence.”

Be sure to read about some great English pastries here, especially the traditional pie with sardines gazing up from the crust that commemorates a 17th century fisherman who saved his village from starvation.

As for squirrel pie, if Erik doesn’t find a way to keep a local squirrel from getting into the bird feeder, I fear that scalawag’s fate is sealed. Hungry, anyone?

Photo: Aubrey K. Huggins

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Photo: Floyd Davidson
Genuine “Eskimo Kiss.” Iñupiat sharing a kunik at a Nalukataq festival in Barrow, Alaska.

For Asakiyume and others interested in inventive efforts to preserve the culture of marginalized groups, this New Yorker story may be of interest.

“Iñupiat people, a tribe native to Alaska, did not have a written language for much of their history,” reports the magazine’s Culture Desk. “Instead, for thousands of years, their culture was passed down orally, often in the form of stories that parents and grandparents would tell and entrust to their children.

“In recent years, those stories, and the lessons and values and history that they contain, have become harder to preserve, as the young people of the tribe, growing up in the modern world, have drifted further and further from traditional ways.

“[A new] video, which originally appeared on ‘The New Yorker Presents‘ (Amazon Originals) and is based on a story by Simon Parkin, is about a recent experiment in transmitting Iñupiat culture through a new medium: a video game … in which an Iñupiat child travels across the wilderness to find the source of the bitter blizzards that have been hitting his village.

“Before they began building the game, E-Line developers travelled up to Barrow, in northern Alaska, in the deep, dark cold of January, to meet with tribe members and to lay the groundwork for the project. The resulting game is called Never Alone. …

“Never Alone was created through a highly collaborative process: ‘We’ve had everybody from eighty-five-year-old elders who live most of the year in remote villages to kids in Barrow High School involved in the project,’ Amy Fredeen, the C.F.O. of E-Line, told Parkin. …

“As Clare Swan, who sits on the tribal council that had to approve the project, recalls, ‘We just said, “Shoot, of course it’s difficult.” Anything that’s worth it is.’ ”

More at the New Yorker, here.

I imagine that elders and students got a thrill out of this project in different ways. I would love to know to what extent their feelings overlapped. Did the elders care more about the preservation aspects and the children about making modern media?

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As some readers know, I used to be quite energetic about Esperanto, an invented international language that I’ve blogged about a few times.

Even though Esperanto never took the world by storm, it’s still in use, and the goal to create a widely accepted bridge between languages and cultures is still a worthy goal.

At the New Yorker recently, Joan Acocella wrote about Esperanto’s founder, Ludwig Zamenhoff, a Jew living in Poland at a time of fierce enmity among people of different ethnicities. Convinced that a shared language could promote peace, Zamenhoff decided to do something about it.

The usefulness of a common, intermediary language was not a new idea, writes Acocella. “Ambitious organizations such as the Roman Empire and the Roman Catholic Church made sure that their members, whatever their mother tongue, learned a second, common language. …

“Esperanto’s creator, Ludovik Lazarus Zamenhof (1859-1917), a short, sparkly-eyed, chain-smoking ophthalmologist, was a Jew, and, as he wrote to a friend, this made all the difference: ‘My Jewishness has been the main reason why, from earliest childhood, I gave myself completely to one crucial idea . . . the dream of the unity of humankind.’

“By this he may have meant that Jews were broader in outlook. In any case, he felt that they needed to be. In the town where Zamenhof grew up — Białystok, now in Poland but at that time part of the Russian Empire — the population, he wrote, ‘consisted of four diverse elements: Russians, Poles, Germans, and Jews; each spoke a different language and was hostile to the other elements.’

“He went on, ‘I was brought up as an idealist; I was taught that all men were brothers, and, meanwhile, in the street, in the square, everything at every step made me feel that men did not exist, only Russians, Poles, Germans, Jews.’ …

“[At one time a Zionist], Zamenhof became disillusioned with Zionism. … He wanted Judaism purged of all narrowness. Let the Jews keep some of their nice things, their High Holidays and the stories and the poetry in their Bible. But, as for theology and ethics, they should confine themselves to the teachings of Rabbi Hillel (first century B.C.), which, according to Zamenhof, consisted of just three principles: that God exists and rules the world; that He resides within us as our conscience; and that the fundamental dictate of conscience is that we should do unto others as we would have them do unto us. …

“At his nineteenth-birthday party, in 1878, he surprised his guests by giving each of them a small dictionary and a grammar of a new language he had invented.” It was the beginning of an international movement.

More here. The New Yorker article is a review of Esther Schor’s book Bridge of Words: Esperanto and the Dream of a Universal Language.

There’s a lot more to the story of Zamenhoff and the rise of Esperanto, which today is spoken in surprising places all over the world. (When I was first learning it, for example, China was publishing propaganda stories in the language.) To learn more, start with the New Yorker book review — and then maybe the book itself.

Photo: Loyal Books
Ludwig L. Zamenhoff (1859-1917), the eye doctor who invented Esperanto as a language to bridge disparate cultures. The word Esperanto means “one who is hoping.”

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Here’s a follow-up to a 2013 post about words and phrases that don’t have an equivalent in other languages. (“In Sweden, mangata is the word for the roadlike reflection the moon casts on the water. In Finland there’s a word for the distance reindeer can travel comfortably before taking a break: poronkusema.”)

Now Maria Popova at Brain Pickings has posted about a book that offers more on the subject. It’s Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Catalog of Beautiful Untranslatable Words from Around the World.  It’s by Ella Frances Sanders, the artist who did the illustrations that were in my original post.

“Beautifully elusive words is what writer and illustrator Ella Frances Sanders, a self-described ‘intentional’ global nomad, explores in Lost in Translation,” reports Popova. …

“From the Japanese for leaving a book unread after buying it to the … Italian for being moved to tears by a story to the Welsh for a sarcastic smile, the words Sanders illustrates dance along the entire spectrum of human experience, gently reminding us that language is what made us human.

“In addition to the charming illustrations and sheer linguistic delight, the project is also a subtle antidote to our age of rapid communication that flattens nuanced emotional expression into textual shorthand and tyrannical clichés. These words, instead, represent not only curiosities of the global lexicon but also a rich array of sentiments, emotions, moods, and cultural priorities from a diverse range of heritage.”

I’m remembering that a while back, Erik explained a few Swedish idioms to me (something about an owl in the moss?), and I tried them out on his parents when they visited. I could tell at once from their blank looks that the phrases were indeed untranslatable!

Art: Ella Frances Sanders
An illustration of an untranslatable Norwegian word.

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Racing against the clock, the last fluent speaker of a Native American language records folktales and creates a dictionary.

Jia Tolentino writes at the website Jezebel, “Marie Wilcox, an octogenarian Native American woman from the San Joaquin Valley in California, was born on Thanksgiving in 1933; she grew up in a one-room house with the grandmother who delivered her and spoke her native Wukchumni …

“In this 10-minute mini-doc from the Global Oneness Project, via NYTLive, Marie talks about speaking primarily English to her children, who worked alongside her in the fields for a good part of the year. She started learning Wukchumni when her sister started speaking it again in an attempt to pass the endangered language on to each their kids.

“ ‘I was surprised she could remember all that,’ her daughter says. ‘She just started writing down her words on envelopes. … She’d sit up night after night typing on the computer, and she was never a computer person.’

“ ‘I’m just a pecker,’ says Marie. ‘I was slow.’

“She decided to make a dictionary. ‘Not for anyone else to learn — I just wanted to get it together.’ …

“According to a New York Times piece on this documentary from 2014:

Before European contact, as many as 50,000 Yokuts lived in the region, but those numbers have steadily diminished. Today, it is estimated that fewer than 200 Wukchumni remain.”

Watch the short film Marie’s Dictionary, by Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee, here. I found it moving.

Photo: Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee

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