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Photo: British Museum
One of the walrus-ivory pieces among the British Museum’s 12th century Lewis Chessmen is a castle that records the metaphorbíta í skjaldarrendur” (“biting its shield-end,” or fighting on in the face of great odds), a phrase still common in today’s Iceland.

Iceland is such an interesting country. I have enjoyed reading about how everyone gives books at Christmas and how volunteers embrace danger to rescue reckless tourists. Now the Economist explains that although almost no one else speaks it, Icelanders love their language.

“It is hardly surprising that Icelanders have names for the many different fish that abound in their surrounding waters — the various types of cod, herring and so on which they have been catching for centuries.

“It is rather more surprising that they have not just one word for the coelacanth, but three. …

“But Icelanders are keen namers of things — and would never dream of simply adopting a transliterated version of someone else’s word. So they call the coelacanth skúfur, which means ‘tassel.’ Or skúfuggi: tassel-fin. Or sometimes forniskúfur: ‘ancient tassel.’ [You can hear the spoken pronunciation at the Economist.]

“Icelanders are fiercely proud of their tongue and stay actively involved in its maintenance. On Icelandic Language Day they celebrate those among the population of 340,000 who have done the most for it. They love the links it gives them to their past.

“Ordinary Icelanders revel in their ability to use phrases from the sagas — written around eight centuries ago — in daily life. The commentator who says that a football team is bíta í skjaldarrendur (‘biting its shield-end’) as it fights on in the face of great odds, is behaving quite normally in borrowing an image from ancient tales of Viking derring-do. ….

“The result is something close to unique — a language that is at the same time modern (it can happily express concepts such as podcasting), pure (it borrows very few words from any other tongue) and ancient (it is far closer to the ancestral Norse tongue than its increasingly distant cousins, Danish and Norwegian). Its complex grammar has barely changed in almost a thousand years and has a distinct old-worldliness. But if, like the forniskúfur, Icelandic is a living fossil, it is a lovely and lively one. …

“From early on [Icelanders] were particularly keen on using it to write things down; much of what is known about Viking culture comes from Icelandic texts. In the 13th century Snorri Sturluson produced the Prose Edda, one of the earliest and most important accounts of the antics of Thor, Frigg, Loki and their kith and kin. …

“Some words do look similar to English ones: bók, epli and brauð are ‘book,’ ‘apple’ and ‘bread.’ …

“Some of these similarities, though, can mislead. An English-speaker who knows that dóm is cognate to the English word ‘doom’ may find the Reykjavik building marked dómsmálaráðuneytid rather menacing. But it is just the ministry of justice: ‘doom’ in English was once mere judgment; only later did it take on first the meaning of condemnation, then ruin.

“It is not clear in quite what way J.R.R. Tolkien meant the word when he named the climactic locale in The Lord of the Rings Mount Doom. But as a philologist interested in Norse and other ancient tongues, and keen on the archaic, he certainly knew his Icelandic.

“The name of the wizard Gandalf is taken from the Eddas. The Tolkiens’ Icelandic nanny, Adda, not only took care of the children; part of her role was to help him practice Icelandic. Mrs Tolkien was not pleased by the attention.”

Wow, that’s interesting because, as we learned in this recent post, Tolkien was orphaned at the age of 12. His early years with that nanny must have made a big impression on him.

Find other curious facts about the Icelandic language at the Economist, here, and listen to more of the pronunciations.

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Photo: Library of Congress/Wikimedia
Frances Densmore at the Smithsonian Institution in 1916 during a recording session with the Blackfoot tribal leader called Mountain Chief for the Bureau of American Ethnology.

I can understand that one might be able to resurrect a mastodon that was frozen in ice, but how do you resurrect an extinct language? Turns out the answer is lasers and wax recordings. (Takes me back to my father’s clunky wire recorder and what I had to say in my 6-year-old voice on the static-filled recording we call “The Birth of Willie.”)

Allison Meier writes at Hypoallergic, “Among the thousands of wax cylinders in the University of California (UC) Berkeley’s Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology are songs and spoken-word recordings in 78 indigenous languages of California. Some of these languages, recorded between 1900 and 1938, no longer have living speakers. The history on the cylinders is difficult to hear. The objects have deteriorated over the decades, mold eating away at their forms, cracks breaking through the sound.

“A project underway at UC Berkeley is using innovative optical scan technology to transfer and digitally restore these recordings. … The initiative aims to preserve about 100 hours of audio. he collaborative restoration project involves linguist Andrew Garrett, digital librarian Erik Mitchell, and anthropologist Ira Jacknis, all at UC Berkeley, and utilizes a non-invasive scanning technique developed by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory physicists Carl Haber and Earl Cornell. …

“Anthropologist Alfred Kroeber began his field audio collecting in 1901, a month after becoming the curator of the then-new museum. Although the recordings are limited, each only a few minutes long, and were captured at a subjective start and stop by Kroeber, they are invaluable for understanding the diverse languages of indigenous life in California.”

According to Hypoallergic, the project website warns that “due to ‘the culturally sensitive material of the content on these cylinders, and out of respect for the contemporary descendants of many of the performers on the recordings, access to the majority of the audio being digitized is currently restricted.’ One of the publicly available recordings is that of Ishi, recognized as the last surviving member of his Yahi tribe, who lived out his final years at Hearst Museum. His voice, among many being recovered from the noise of the wax cylinders, leads the recently-shared video from [National Science Foundation] below.”

More at Hyperallergic, here.

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Photo: eGuide Travel
The highlands of Papua, New Guinea, are among the isolated places that linguists search for speakers of dying languages.

I’ve blogged before about linguists and others who are trying to preserve languages spoken by only a few people. The belief is that there is intrinsic value in such endangered languages and that they are key to understanding cultures. Recently I saw that one group is focusing on a particular manifestation of rare languages — their poems.

Fiona Macdonald writes at the BBC about the Endangered Poetry Project.

” ‘They fly to Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea and there they take a bus for three days and then they hike over a mountain and then they take a canoe and then they get to this little bay with 300 people,’ ” she reports, quoting Mandana Seyfeddinipur, head of the Endangered Languages Archive at London’s SOAS [School of Oriental and African Studies]. …

” They are ‘PhD students of 25 with a digital camera, a digital audio recorder and solar panels.’ …

“ ‘They live with the communities for months at a time, and develop social relationships, and talk to them and record them, and then they come back and they give me this SD card. … ‘The only record that we have of this language is in this tiny SD card.’ …

“The newly launched Endangered Poetry Project aims to tackle [language] loss at another level. ‘Languages are dying out at an astonishing rate: a language is being lost every two weeks,’ says the National Poetry Librarian Chris McCabe. ‘And each of those languages has a poetic tradition of some sort.’ …

“The project has issued a call-out to members of the public, asking for poems written in an endangered or vulnerable language. ‘In the first week, we’ve had over a dozen submissions in about 10 languages,’ says McCabe. ‘That includes poems in Breton, and poems in a dialect of Breton called Vannes. We’ve had a poem in Alsatian, and the Sardinian dialect Logudorese. We’re interested in these variations in language in different places as well, which can often be markedly different from the established language. …

” ‘You get a focus on place – in poems we’ve received from Sardinia, for example, there’s a focus on the mountain range there,’ says McCabe. ‘It shows you where people felt drawn to for inspiration in the landscape. Also, the style of a lot of Gaelic poems is very lyrical, and often uses repetition, a lot like a song. In that poetic tradition, you see how the division between poetry and music is quite slight – they often cross over between one and the other. The poetry tells us a lot about what kind of artistic experience people like, as well as what’s important in their geography.’ ”

Lots more here. Very interesting stuff.

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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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