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Posts Tagged ‘linguist’

To me it’s tragic that languages are disappearing and, with them, unique cultures.

Small, determined efforts can bring attention to the problem, as I noted this morning when the filmmaker behind Marie’s Dictionary retweeted this from North Carolina’s Pilot Mountain Elementary School (@pilotMtnElem).

Third grade students are learning about Marie’s Dictionary and endangered languages. @goproject #scsed #pmespirates @UNESCO

Excellent. Third graders are sure to spread the word.

Recently, I came across an article on another threatened language, Hawaii Sign Language.

“In 2013, at a conference on endangered languages, a retired teacher named Linda Lambrecht announced the extraordinary discovery of a previously unknown language. Lambrecht – who is Chinese-Hawaiian, 71 years old, warm but no-nonsense – called it Hawaii Sign Language, or HSL.

“In front of a room full of linguists, she demonstrated that its core vocabulary – words such as ‘mother,’ ‘pig’ and ‘small’ – was distinct from that of other sign languages. …

“The last-minute arrival of recognition and support for HSL was a powerful, almost surreal vindication for Lambrecht, whose first language is HSL. For decades, it was stigmatised or ignored; now the language has acquired an agreed-upon name, an official ‘language code’ from the International Organization for Standardization, the attention of linguists around the world, and a three-year grant from the Endangered Languages Documentation Programme at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. …

“An initial estimate of up to 280 surviving HSL signers was soon revised down to 40, then down to just 10 or so old-timers still likely to be competent in HSL. ASL had made deep inroads even among these signers, but there was evidence, especially from Lambrecht’s signs, that HSL was distinct, and lay close enough to the surface to be recovered. Spoken languages such as Basque, Welsh, and Hawaiian have come back from the brink of extinction – could HSL be the first sign language to do it?”

The article is from the Guardian by way of the blog Arts Journal. Read it here.

Photo: Eugene Tanner Photography, LLC
Linda Lambrecht, left, teaches Hawaii Sign Language.

 

 

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Not sure who put me on to this story — maybe Asakiyume, who has an interest in different cultures. It’s about languages in which a slight change in tone can change the meaning of a word.

John McWhorter writes at the Atlantic, “People don’t generally speak in a monotone. Even someone who couldn’t carry a tune if it had a handle on it uses a different melody to ask a question than to make a statement, and in a sentence like ‘It was the first time I had even been there,’ says ‘been’ on a higher pitch than the rest of the words.

“Still, if someone speaks in a monotone in English, other English-speakers can easily understand. But in many languages, pitch is as important as consonants and vowels for distinguishing one word from another. In English, ‘pay’ and ‘bay’ are different because they have different starting sounds. But imagine if ‘pay’ said on a high pitch meant ‘to give money,’ while ‘pay’ said on a low pitch meant ‘a broad inlet of the sea where the land curves inward.’

“That’s what it feels like to speak what linguists call a tonal language. At least a billion and a half people worldwide do it their entire lives and think nothing of it. …

“There are certain advantages to speaking tone languages. Speakers of some African languages can communicate across long distances playing the tones on drums, and Mazatec-speakers in Mexico use whistling for the same purpose.

“You know those people who can hear a stray note and instantly identify its pitch, for instance recognizing that a certain car horn is an A flat? They have ‘absolute pitch,’ and there is evidence that speakers of tone languages are more likely to have it. In one experiment, for instance, Mandarin-speaking musicians were better at identifying musical pitches than English-speaking ones. The same has been found for speakers of Cantonese—which has six or even nine tones, depending on how you count—relative to English- and French-speakers.” More here.

I used to be quite good at Mom Tonal Language. A change in tone pronouncing a kid’s name can convey anger or amusement or affection. I don’t use the subtleties much now that I’m a grandmother. It’s mostly the affection tone.

Photo: China Stringer Network/Reuters

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My husband’s latest alumni bulletin had a lot of great articles. One was about a new effort to save endangered languages, starting with Zapotec, an indigenous Mexican language.

If you go to this website and click the buttons, you can see and hear the effort that has gone into recording the ways that Zapotec words are pronounced. It’s the “Tlacolula Valley Zapotec online talking dictionary.”

The initiative has received support from the National Geographic and the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages.

Photo: AxisOfLogic.com

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Raise your hand if you were taught that one day centuries ago people in Siberia woke up and crossed a land bridge to North America and became the first Native Americans.

That’s OK as far as it goes, but history doesn’t stand still, and new discoveries suggest that before they got to North America, the Siberians stayed over on the bridge for a few thousand years. Who figured out the new chapters? Archaeologists and geneticists. And linguists.

Nicholas Wade writes in the NY Times, “Using a new method for exploring ancient relationships among languages, linguists have found evidence further illuminating the peopling of North America about 14,000 years ago. Their findings follow a recent proposal that the ancestors of Native Americans were marooned for some 15,000 years on a now sunken plain before they reached North America.

“This idea, known as the Beringian standstill hypothesis, has been developed by geneticists and archaeologists over the last seven years. …

“Though often referred to as a bridge, the now sunken region, known as Beringia, was in fact a broad plain. It was also relatively warm, and supported trees such as spruce and birch, as well as grazing animals.

Writing in the journal Science last month, John F. Hoffecker, an archaeologist at the University of Colorado, summarized the evidence for thinking the Beringian plain was the refuge for the ancestral Native American population identified by the geneticists. ‘The shrub tundra zone in central Beringia represents the most plausible home for the isolated standstill population,” he and colleagues wrote. …

“Linguists have until now been unable to contribute to this synthesis of genetic and archaeological data. The first migrations to North America occurred between 15,000 and 10,000 years ago, but most linguists have long believed that language trees cannot be reconstructed back further than 8,500 years. …

“But in 2008, Edward Vajda, a linguist at Western Washington University, said he had documented a relationship between Yeniseian, a group of mostly extinct languages spoken along the Yenisei River in central Siberia, and Na-Dene.

“The Na-Dene languages are spoken in Alaska and western Canada, with two outliers in the American Southwest, Navajo and Apache.” More here.

This is why it’s important for someone to be interested in studying mostly extinct languages spoken along the Yenisei River in central Siberia.

Map: Science, a journal, and the New York Times

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The other day I was chatting with my three-year-old grandson about language. I can’t remember how we got started, but I found myself talking to him in “Goose Latin,” which was all the rage when I was about 10. He listened with a bemused look on his face and then said politely, “I don’t know that language.”

I may not be able to speak anything but English and a few lines of French poetry, but I do love learning about language. So I appreciated receiving this tidbit from the Economist magazine on how language interacts with personality.

The reporter RLG writes, “Many multilinguals report different personalities, or even different worldviews, when they speak their different languages.

“It’s an exciting notion, the idea that one’s very self could be broadened by the mastery of two or more languages. In obvious ways (exposure to new friends, literature and so forth) the self really is broadened. Yet it is different to claim—as many people do—to have a different personality when using a different language. A former Economist colleague, for example, reported being ruder in Hebrew than in English. So what is going on here?

“Benjamin Lee Whorf, an American linguist who died in 1941, held that each language encodes a worldview that significantly influences its speakers. Often called ‘Whorfianism,’ this idea has its sceptics, including The Economist, which hosted a debate on the subject in 2010. But there are still good reasons to believe language shapes thought. …

“Bilinguals usually have different strengths and weaknesses in their different languages—and they are not always best in their first language. For example, when tested in a foreign language, people are less likely to fall into a cognitive trap (answering a test question with an obvious-seeming but wrong answer) than when tested in their native language. In part this is because working in a second language slows down the thinking. …

“What of ‘crib’ bilinguals, raised in two languages? Even they do not usually have perfectly symmetrical competence in their two languages. But even for a speaker whose two languages are very nearly the same in ability, there is another big reason that person will feel different in the two languages. This is because there is an important distinction between bilingualism and biculturalism.

“Many bilinguals are not bicultural. But some are. And of those bicultural bilinguals, we should be little surprised that they feel different in their two languages.”

If you’re interested, there’s a great deal more explanation at the Economist, here.

Photo: Alamy

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I’ve written several posts on the threat to languages that have few speakers — and on the linguistic preservationists racing against time. (Here, for example.)

Why does language extinction matter, you ask? Because language embodies so much about culture. We are poorer in being ignorant of how different people live and in having a chance to learn taken away from us.

Now the last speaker of a rare Scots dialect is gone. Writes the Associated Press, “In a remote fishing town on the tip of Scotland’s Black Isle, the last native speaker of the Cromarty dialect has passed away, taking with him a little fragment of the English linguistic mosaic.

“Academics said [October 3] that Bobby Hogg, who was 92 when he died … was the last person fluent in the dialect once common to the seaside town of Cromarty, 175 miles (280 kilometers) north of Edinburgh.

“ ‘I think that’s a terrible thing,’ said Robert Millar, a linguist at the University of Aberdeen in northern Scotland. ‘The more diversity in terms of nature we have, the healthier we are. It’s the same with language.’ …

“It’s part of a relentless trend toward standardization which has driven many regional dialects and local languages into oblivion. Linguists often debate how to define and differentiate the world’s many dialects, but most agree that urbanization, compulsory education and mass media have conspired to iron out many of the kinks that make rural speech unique.” More.

Photograph: Am Baile-High Life Highland/Associated Press.
Bobby Hogg, who recently passed away aged 92.

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