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Posts Tagged ‘linguistics’


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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John told me that my efforts to learn Swedish online with Duolingo help to improve Google Translate and similar translation services, which purchase the history of users’ mistakes in order to refine their translation algorithms. I think Google Translate has fewer howlers lately. Maybe I helped.

Now along comes a product that claims to translate as you converse with a speaker of another language. Spenser Mestel has the story at the Atlantic.

“Last week, New York City-based Waverly Labs announced its recent invention, Pilot, a set of two ear buds that costs $299. Scheduled to be released by spring of 2017, the device purports to offer near-simultaneous translation for four languages.

“Inspired ‘when he met a French girl,’ Andrew Ochoa, the company’s founder, says that Pilot promises ‘a life untethered, free of language barriers.’ …

“Despite how quickly machine translation has progressed in the last few decades, language is a data set that’s far more complex than it seems, so no matter how quickly translation technology evolves, the stochastic messiness of speech will always outpace it. …

“In 1949, the scientist Warren Weaver proposed an alternative to rule-based translation called statistical machine translation (SMT).  Instead of attacking language one minutia at a time, Weaver suggested a two-pronged approach: First, the computer would mine millions of documents looking for statistically significant linguistic patterns, thereby discovering the grammar, syntax, and morphology rules for itself. At the same time, the program would create a model to predict how certain phrases are translated and where in the sentence they should appear. …

“Waverly Labs hasn’t yet released the details of its software, but it likely works in the same fundamental way as Google Translate, which uses these rules and the predictive model to give the most statistically likely translation, the one that best mirrors the patterns it already found. …

“Even if it lags and stutters, Waverly Labs’s Pilot … could allow for more substantive engagement with the world.” More here.

Photo: Waverly Labs
The Pilot in-ear translators from Waverly Labs

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Though I can’t say I’m crazy about the Philadelphia accent — or, for that matter, the accents of other places I’ve lived, like Boston’s, Minnesota’s, and Rochester’s — I really would hate to see it go.

I do like trying to identify where new acquaintances might be from. And the homogenization of regional accents just seems a loss. Maybe not a loss on the scale of endangered languages, but a part of a regional culture we’re likely to miss once it’s extinct like the heath hen.

This was in the NY Times recently: “The Philadelphia regional accent remains arguably the most distinctive, and least imitable, accent in North America. Let’s not argue about this. Ask anyone to do a Lawn Guyland accent or a charming Southern drawl and that person will approximate it. Same goes for a Texas twang or New Orleans yat, a Valley Girl totally omigod.

“Philly-South Jersey patois is a bit harder: No vowel escapes diphthongery, no hard consonant is safe from a mid-palate dent. Extra syllables pile up so as to avoid inconvenient tongue contact or mouth closure. If you forget to listen closely, the Philadelphia, or Filelfia, accent may sound like mumbled Mandarin without the tonal shifts.

“Some dialects can be transcribed onto the page, but the Philadelphia accent really has to be heard to be believed. And when an accent goes silent, so do its speakers. A recent study out of the University of Pennsylvania reported that, like many regional phenomena, the Philly sound is conforming more and more with the mainstream of Northern accents. And that’s a shame.

“The beauty of the Philly accent, and I should point out it’s mostly to whites that these sweeping statements apply, is its mashing-up of the Northern and Southern. Nowhere but in the Delaware Valley can you hear those rounded vowels — soda is sewda, house is hay-ouse — a clear influence from Baltimore and points south.”

More at the NY Times, here. The article is by Daniel Nester. (Nester? Not related to I.H. Nester, my Philadelphia father-in-law’s long ago employer? Now, that would be a small world.)

By the way, if you are interested in the Penn study, check out the National Public Radio interview: “Students of Penn linguistics professor Bill Labov have been walking around some 89 Philadelphia neighborhoods for four decades. At the school’s linguistics lab, they have shelves and shelves of recorded conversations from Philadelphians born in 1888 all the way to 1992.” More here.

Graphic: Jennifer Daniel
Can you identify the sawf pressel, the wooder, torsts (as in ” ‘Lannic city is too torsty ennymore”), a samalem, arnj juyce, a sennid cannle, a miskeeda, and the tayyin rowll (Italian roll)?

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Here’s a good one from The Atlantic for all you linguists out there.

Richard Solash reports, “A new study claims that mountains may have influenced a special class of sounds occurring in almost all of the languages of the Caucasus.

“In the 10th century, an Arab geographer described the Caucasus region as a ‘mountain of tongues.’ The nickname has stuck to this day, likely because of how well it captures two of the area’s main features: its dramatic cliffs and its array of languages.

“But new and controversial research by a U.S. linguist suggests that the ‘mountains’ may have more to do with the ‘tongues’ than anyone has guessed.

“In a study published last month in the journal Plos One, Caleb Everett, an anthropological linguist at the University of Miami, claims that a special class of sounds occurring in almost all of the languages of the Caucasus may be due to ‘the direct influence’ of the region’s high altitude.

“Everett’s conclusion applies beyond the Caucasus as well. He offers apparent proof that the rare sounds, known as ‘ejectives,’ are far more likely to occur in regions of high elevation worldwide.”

More at The Atlantic, where you will also find a great map of languages in the Caucasus..

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Greater Caucasus Mountain Range

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As I mentioned the other day in the post about the Latin newscast on Finnish radio, I am interested in endangered languages.

Now a composer who is also interested has melded voices of  threatened languages with his music.

Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim writes at the NY Times that the “Vanishing Languages” project by Kevin James, “a New York-based trombonist and composer, is a rare hybrid of conservation effort and memorial, new music and ancient languages.

“Prodded by Unesco statistics that predict that by the end of the century half of the world’s 6,000 languages will be extinct, Mr. James spent months in the field tracking down and recording the last remaining speakers of four critically endangered tongues: Hokkaido Ainu, an aboriginal language from northern Japan, the American Indian Quileute from western Washington, and Dalabon and Jawoyn, aboriginal languages from Arnhem Land in Australia.”

Reviewing a concert James gave at a New York venue, da Fonseca-Wollheim says, “ ‘Counting in Quileute,’ which opens with bells struck and bowed and swung in the air and ends with the ring of a Buddhist prayer bowl, had a strong ritualistic feel to it.

“The often puzzling actions of the players — flutists whispering into mouthpieces, a cellist tapping with both hands on the fingerboard as if playing a recorder — appeared like a secret choreography designed to bring forth the voices of the dead filtered through the crackle of old phonographs.

“The imperfections of these old recordings, which Mr. James used alongside those he made recently in the field, show how heavily smudged the window is that we have on these vanishing cultures. And yet at times it seemed as if it were these voices who were willing the performance into existence.” (Isn’t da Fonseca-Wollheim a lovely writer?) More.

For a couple other blog discussions of endangered language, click here or here.

Photo: Ruby Washington/The New York Times
Leah Scholes of Speak Percussion using a double bass bow to play a bowl as part of “Vanishing Languages.”

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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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To paraphrase a character in the Brian Friel play “Translations,” if you impose a language on people, one day you may find that their speech “no longer fits the contours of the land.” Language is critical to identity. People can always learn the language of the power group later, once they have learned how to learn.

That is the rationale behind a new effort in Haiti.

“When Michel DeGraff was a young boy in Haiti, his older brother brought home a notice from school reminding students and parents of certain classroom rules. At the top of the list was ‘no weapons.’ And right below it, DeGraff still remembers: ‘No Creole.’ Students were supposed to use French, and French only. …

“DeGraff is now an associate professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and he is using his influence to try to destroy the barrier that essentially fences off most of Haiti’s children from a real education.” Read the Boston Globe report here.

The dominance of a few languages was one of the concerns behind creating Esperanto as a bridge. With a bridge language, Esperantists hoped, less common languages would not die. It hasn’t turned out that way.

“There are more than 7,000 languages in the world, and if statistics hold, two weeks from now, there will be one less. That’s the rate at which languages disappear. And each time a language disappears, a part of history — a subtle way of thinking — vanishes too.

“A new documentary called The Linguists, [which aired August 4] on PBS, follows ethnographers David Harrison and Greg Anderson as they race to document endangered languages in some of the most remote corners of the world.

“From the plains of Siberia to the mountains of Bolivia to the tribal lands of India, Harrison and Anderson have hopscotched the globe, but they sat down for a moment with NPR’s Scott Simon to discuss their race to capture the world’s endangered languages.

“Harrison, a linguistics professor at Swarthmore College, specializes in sounds and words; Anderson, who directs Oregon’s Living Tongues Institute, is the verb expert. Together, they speak 25 languages.” Read more here.

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