“I’m proud to be a linguist.” – CoLang 2014


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I’m back after two of the most exhausting, exhilarating, challenging, and rewarding weeks I’ve had in quite a long time.

welcome to CoLang

CoLang (i.e. the Institute for Collaborative Language Research) took place at the UT-Arlington, under wide Texas skies.

Oh yes, we are definitely in Texas

UTA campus

TexasThe participants and instructors came from colleges, universities, indigenous communities, and development organizations.  They were from all over the US and Canada, Australia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Mexico, China, Japan, and Iraq (and those were just the people I managed to meet!)  I met someone who documents languages on Vanuatu; someone else who has a community development project in Ecuador; someone else is working to document the languages of Zapotec immigrants living in central California; someone else who is developing language programs for her own tribe in Iowa.

The courses kept us all plenty busy during the day, and every evening there was something to participate in, including sharing nights, public lectures, and of course, Star Wars in Navajo (!)
CoLang eventNavajo Star Wars








I had personal triumphs, such as when the instructors of my Audio class listened to a practice recording my partner and I had made and said things such as “wow” and “the quality of this is so good, I would use this.”  I had personal struggles, such as time spent desperately searching for something caffeinated, or running out of minutes on my phone plan because I couldn’t stop giving my husband long detailed updates.

On the last day of the institute, several participants who had received scholarships to attend got up to say thank you and to talk about their experiences.  They all talked about how important this work of documentation and revitalization is, and how transformative the time at CoLang had been.  One undergraduate looked at the auditorium full of people and said, “You all make me proud to be a linguist.”

And that’s what I wanted to say too.  Because at the end of all of it, the courses and the training were important, of course; I certainly learned a lot.  But the richest part of the whole thing was meeting and making friends with so many kind, interesting, smart, creative, selfless people.  You go to this thing and you learn about work being done, and you watch partnerships form, and you find buddies and allies that you might not have ever met otherwise.  I feel so honored to have had that opportunity.

(Thank you to UTA photographer Robert Crosby for this!)

Thank you to UTA photographer Robert Crosby for this!

Mark your calendars for CoLang 2016 at the University of Alaska Fairbanks!  🙂

Copyright Allison Taylor-Adams.  See About for details.



CoLang 2014


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I mentioned last week that I had some summer plans that I was really excited about, and though I’m entering that how-will-I-ever-get-packed, I’m-sure-I’m-forgetting-37-things-I-needed-to-do phase that always precedes a big trip, I’m still giddy at the fact that by this time Monday I will be attending the Institute on Collaborative Language Research!

CoLang, as its abbreviated, is a biannual institute for language documentation and revitalization funded by the National Science Foundation and the Linguistic Society of America, and this year it is hosted by the University of Texas at Arlington.  I will be attending the first two weeks that consist of workshops on a variety of practical topics in language documentation!  (After the workshops is a four-week session of intense field methods courses, which, alas, my day job prevents me from attending.)  My fellow attendees will include graduate and undergraduate linguistics students, current linguists with varying levels of experience in fieldwork already, and language activists from native speaker communities from across the Anglophone world.

It’s going to be a wild couple of weeks – I’ll be taking a total of eight different workshop courses, attending one-off intensive seminars, and participating in evening activities.  Can you imagine how thrilled I was to see that one of the planned evening activities is a screening of Star Wars in Navajo??  I’ll be learning the basics of audio recording and analysis, grant writing, transcription, orthography, lexicography, and personal and cultural issues that can arise in fieldwork situations.  One class I’m particularly excited for is a course in song documentation, which is being co-taught by a linguist and an ethnomusicologist who have done fieldwork together.

I’m fully prepared to be humbled by all the things I don’t yet know.  I’m also fully prepared to feel exactly like a college student all over again, down to the facts that I’ll be bunking in a dorm and eating in the school cafeteria (and the lexicography professor already gave us homework!)  It’s no luxury vacation, but oh my gosh I get to do language work for two solid weeks!

So I expect I’ll have some things to blog about from that 🙂  I will try to keep the exclamation points to a minimum.  But until then, I better figure out how to pack!

Copyright Allison Taylor-Adams.  See About for details.

In memoriam – the last Navajo code talker


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Last week, right around the time we were observing the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the last of the original Navajo code talkers passed away.  Chester Nez was 93 years old when he “walked on.”

You might know about the Navajo code talkers in World War II – Nez himself co-wrote a best-selling book about his experiences in the war, and they even made a movie with Nicolas Cage about them.  But I learned some new things when I got the chance to visit the Comanche National Museum and Cultural Center a couple of years ago.  Codetalkers were used as early as World War I, where Cherokee and Choctaw speakers helped the US and Britain evade detection in major battles on the Western Front.  The genius of these “codes” is that they’re not codes at all, but real full languages.  Not even sophisticated decryption machines could “crack” the languages, and not a lot of people outside Native American communities speak Cherokee or Choctaw, so the WWI operations were considered a remarkable success.

It was a success that got a lot of attention, actually, and as Adolf Hitler was building up to what would become WWII, he sent linguists and anthropologists all across the US to attempt to learn our indigenous languages – hoping to head the next crop of code talkers off at the pass, as it were.  But there are just too many languages here (we are so linguistically diverse!), and US forces were able to use code talkers from 33 tribes, including the Comanche, Seminole, and Navajo, to transmit messages in WWII.

The most famous and most numerous of these operations involved a group of 29 Navajo speakers, known as the “original 29” recruited by the Marine Corps in 1942 (eventually a few hundred more would join.)  Navajo has a reputation as an extraordinarily difficult language, and anthropologists estimated that fewer than 30 non-Navajos could speak the language with any fluency by the time WWII broke out.  The Navajo code talkers didn’t just speak to each other in their native tongue.  They developed a set of code words for military terms, and changed the Army/Navy Phonetic Alphabet (i.e. Alfa, Bravo, Charlie) into one based on animals and geographic features (i.e. Ant, Bear, Cat), which they then translated into Navajo (i.e. Wóláchííʼ, Shash, Mósí).

Chester Nez was the last of these original 29 Navajo codetalkers from WWII.  Here is a video of him discussing his experiences in the Marine Corps in the Pacific theater:


In November of last year the code talkers from the 33 tribes were all honored and presented with Congressional Gold Medals for their service.  At the ceremony, Senator Harry Reid said:

“In the late 1800s, the United States government forced Native American children to attend English only boarding schools. Native children were torn from their families, taken far from home in boxcars and buggies, given English names, forced to cut their hair short and teachers beat the children with leather straps when they spoke their Native languages. The government told them their language had no value, but the children held onto their language, culture and history at great personal risk.
In this nation’s hour of greatest need these same Native American languages proved to have great value in the early years of World War II…Why would Native Americans, who had been robbed of their land and their culture agree to use their precious language to protect the country that had neglected and abused them for centuries? As one Navajo Native American code talker by the name of Chester Nez put it, ‘Somebody has got to defend this country, somebody has to defend freedom.'”

Ahéhee’, to Chester Nez.


Copyright Allison Taylor-Adams.  See About for details.

The language of summer


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For the past couple of summers, this is how I spent two evenings a week: I would leave my office at 5:30, walk through downtown DC, pushing my way through traffic and thick swampy heat, usually stopping at obligatory name-brand coffee store for something iced to revive myself, until I got to a pretty little building with a courtyard and made my way into a classroom with the air conditioning on full blast.  In the classroom, I’d take my seat, open my notebook, and spend the next two hours with one of the language loves of my life – Arabic.  To this day the Arabic language is all tied up in my memory with the sensation of humid heat outside and a slap of freezing air inside, the taste of an iced caramel macchiato, the buzz of a city on a summer night when I finally left to go home.  Similarly, this first stretch of summer swelter gives me an itch to get back into the Arabic classroom.  For various reasons I won’t, unfortunately, be studying Arabic this summer, at least not in a formal classroom setting.  But I have other language-y things planned that I’m also really excited about (I’ll tell you more about that next week!)

Summers are the time a lot of us slow down, explore hobbies, learn new things.  Recommended reading lists for summers are often filled with looooong novels, books that aren’t necessarily “important” but are hypnotizing.  We finally get time to savor things a little bit more – those of us who are students or who work in schools are particularly sensitive to this.  Summers are for indulging.

So what languages are you indulging in this summer?  Are you studying a new language just for fun?  Are you trying to pick up a few phrases you’ll need for an upcoming trip?  Or trying to stick with a language you’ll get back to once the semester starts back up?

Copyright Allison Taylor-Adams.  See About for details.

Monday Inspiration: A linguist reads the menu


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Here‘s a book that I place firmly on the “I need to read this immediately” as well as the “NUTS I wish I’d written this” bookshelves in my head:

The Language of Food

Food blogger Tyler Cowen has a great write-up about that book and I recommend you check it out.

I love linguistics in action!  (If you also love linguistics in action, you might enjoy my previous post about names in Native American languages.  And if, like me, you’re always on the hunt for a good book about languages, you should check out the Goodreads list I started!)

Nowoo3 Hall and the politics of naming


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This month’s issue of Harper’s Magazine included the publication of a letter sent to the Campus Planning Board at the University of Colorado-Boulder in November of last year.

The letter pertained to two dormitories on the campus that were due to be renamed.  The Board had proposed renaming the dorms after two prominent historic chiefs of the Arapaho nation, the original owners of the land on which the University sits.  The two chiefs in question are commonly referred to in the modern day as Niwot and Little Raven.  However, members of the faculty of the Native Studies program at CU argued that it was “culturally chauvinist” to use these names instead of the names given to the chiefs in their native Hinono’ei, or Arapaho language.  In the Arapaho language, “Niwot” would properly be spelled Nowoo3, and “Little Raven” is just a direct translation of the Arapaho name Houussoo. In the case of “Niwot,” the chair of the linguistics department (one of the authors of the letter) argued that we would never think to name something after a French leader and insist on transliterating it into English spelling just because the spelling makes it confusing to pronounce – it would be like writing Sharl duh Gahl on something, which he said would look pretty stupid.  Similarly translating Houussoo into English is not something we typically do with European languages, or else we’d have things in DC named after Stone the Child instead of Pierre l’Enfant, for example (goodness, doesn’t that give you a different sense?)  The letter argued that such a naming policy further serves to “primitivize” native languages and native peoples.

This plea caused some controversy, of course.  Amongst quite a lot of accusations of “PC Police” and comments ranging from vaguely to wildly racist, there were some cogent counterpoints.  One argument I thought was particularly on point is that the Arapaho language, unlike the French of Charles de Gaulle or Pierre l’Enfant, did not have an orthography in the 1800s when these two chiefs were in power – that is, Chief Nowoo3 or Niwot or Na-wath (roughly the correct pronunciation) never saw his own name written down, so it is hard to say that Niwot is really a “misspelling.”  While that is true, the Arapaho language has developed a written form since then, and strong efforts are being made to document the language (in its specific, non-English orthography) and to revitalize it (see here, for example.)  Deliberately ignoring these efforts, and more importantly deliberately ignoring the spelling conventions of thousands of currently living members of the Arapaho tribes, does indeed strike me as being thoughtless at the very least.

The translation of Houussoo to “Little Raven” seems even more difficult to defend.  It’s hard to understand any objections to this point.  And in case you thought there was no harm in translating native North American names into English, I’ll give you my favorite example: a prominent leader of the Oglala Lakota in the 19th century had the Lakota name Tȟašúŋke Kȟokípȟapi, and is almost always referred to in American history books as Young Man Afraid of His Horses.  “Young Man” is a rough translation of the first name, and “Afraid of His Horses” is pretty close to the last name, but the overall impression is of a puny Plains Indian so wimpy he’s scared of his own horses.  A more accurate translation of the name is something like They-Fear-Even-His-Horses.  Now that sounds more like a strong military and diplomatic leader.  But his name, his real given name, is Tȟašúŋke Kȟokípȟapi.

I would argue that the one underlying objection to “Nowoo3 Hall” is just laziness, plain and simple.  I’m not immune to it – before I did some reading I was left scratching my head as to how in the world you would pronounce that.  We Anglophones, especially we American Anglophones, can be pretty lazy and resistant when it comes to learning how to pronounce anything in any other language (let alone learning another language.)  But is laziness a good enough reason for cultural insensitivity?  The CU faculty point out that other universities have named buildings after native leaders in native orthographies – the Muwekma-tah-Ruk residential hall at Stanford, the Kanonhsesne residential community at UMass Amherst, and the very loveliest example I’ve ever seen, the Xwi7xwa Library at the University of British Columbia (I’m still pondering the pronunciation of that one.)

Both of the CU residence halls were due for a renaming ceremony in April, but I’ve been poking around and I can’t find any news about what was decided, and the CU website still lists the halls under their old names (Kittredge Central and Kittredge West.)  What do you think they board should decide?

Copyright Allison Taylor-Adams.  See About for details.

“How languages evolve” on TEDEd


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TED-Ed, a spinoff of the wildly popular and informative TED brand, has a website with original videos on a variety of different topics along with lessons planned around those videos.  Yesterday they published a great little talk called “How Languages Evolve”:


Alex Gendler very neatly and cleverly sums up a lot of the complexities of historical and comparative linguistics.  She even touches briefly upon the reasons why something like a Swadesh list just doesn’t work for determining language relationship, which I alluded to in my last post.

The lesson web page for this talk includes a guided discussion and a quick little multiple-choice quiz (you know how I love pop quizzes!)


Recently I overheard a couple of guys wondering aloud how Welsh and English could be so different from each other.  “It’s such a small chunk of land and they live right next to each other!  How did Welsh end up being so weird?”  Obviously I was primarily offended that he said Welsh was “weird” (his friend had earlier described it as “gargling,” ugh), but it took quite a bit of self-restraint to not butt in and tell them how languages are (and are not) related to each other.  I hope one of those young men come across this video some day 🙂


Copyright Allison Taylor-Adams.  See About for details.

Languages 101: Swadesh list


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In the 1950s, an American linguist named Morris Swadesh became interested in the rate of change of words within languages.  He believed that by calculating this rate of change (which he believed to be constant), one could successfully trace the way languages have evolved over time and in the process demonstrate their relationship to each other.  Swadesh set about collecting a sampling of vocabulary items that could be compared cross-linguistically to show change over time.  To be effective for his investigations, the items had to be specific, present in all languages, and also equivalent across all languages.  So, for example, a word like “computer” wouldn’t be very handy historically, but a word like “mother” would be a good way to compare vocabulary.  His list began with 500 words and after many revisions was published as a 100-word list, which has come to be known as the Swadesh List.  Here are the first twenty items from the final Swadesh list (the full list can be seen here):

This so-called “universal” list, and its implications, are precise, clear, and neat – which should be your first clue that it is flawed.  Languages are fascinating and messy things, so we would be wise to be skeptical that such a broad and clean list could really apply to all languages.  There are two key ways to criticize the Swadesh list.  One way is to question the way the list has been used in historical linguistics, as a tool for methods called lexicostatistics and glottochronology, methods which were once popular and now largely discredited (I’ll have to write more about that later!)

The other major criticism of the list is its underlying assumption that there exists some set of universal and culture-free vocabulary, common to all languages.  Languages do not exist in a vacuum; they are by nature culturally grounded and context-rich.  Not only that, but the list assumes that there is a direct, one-to-one match between each vocabulary item in any given language and another individual item in any other language.  A simple glance at English versus other European languages shows the flaw in that assumption – whereas modern English only has you for the second person, French has tu and vous, Spanish has tu and usted, Russian has ты and вы.  The final draft of the Swadesh list clarifies that the “you” (item 2) on the list is meant to be second-person singular, specifically, but that does not completely solve the problem.  Tu in French does not just indicate singularity, but also familiarity and intimacy – you call your brother tu but your professor vous.  Therefore, it is not accurate to say that French tu and English you (second person singular) are equivalent and convey the same meaning.

Lyle Campbell gives other examples, such as the fact that Navajo does not have a single stand-alone word for “water” (item 75 – instead they have words for “rain water,” “drinking water,” “stagnant water in a pool,” etc.), and the fact that Finnish does not have a stand-alone word for “not” (item 8).  Campbell also notes that many languages do not distinguish a difference between two or more items on the list.  For instance, the word for “man” and “person” are the same in some languages; in some indigenous Latin American languages the root of a tree is something like “tree hair,” which makes it hard to argue for one-to-one equivalents for “root” (item 26). [1]

It is interesting to note that it’s not just historical linguists who misunderstand the cultured-ness of languages when they use this list.  Dixon notes that some field linguists, eliciting language from a native speaker in order to document the vocabulary of that language, might use the Swadesh list, a technique he notes is “foolish.”[2]  Since we know it is foolish to assume every language has a one-to-one equivalent for every item on the list, I can understand why he is dismissive of a fieldworker who ignores the input from the speakers around him in favor of a so-called “universally applicable word list.”

The idea that one word in my language equals another single word in another language is an assumption that linguists and language learners alike have to challenge and move past.  While something like the Swadesh list seems handy, in the end the vocabulary of a language can only be defined in the context of that language itself.  Attempts at universal equivalencies of meaning fall flat when confronted by the messy, nuanced reality of living tongues.


[1] Campbell, L. (2004). Historical linguistics: an introduction (2nd ed.) Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. pp. 204-206.

[2] Dixon, R.M.W. (2010). Basic Linguistic Theory. Volume 1 Methodology. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. p. 299.


Copyright Allison Taylor-Adams.  See About for details.

Pop Quiz! Ancient Greek letters


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I work at a large urban university.  Our academic buildings are surrounded by rowhouses and brownstones bearing the signatures of the fraternities and sororities housed within.  Once, while out taking a lunchtime stroll, I found myself walking behind a couple who was visiting the campus.  “What fraternity is that?” said the woman, pausing in front of a corner building.  “Oh that’s uh…” and here the man paused to gaze upon the Greek letters, before confidently replying, “Zeta Eta Nu.”  Both satisfied by this answer, the couple resumed their walk.

The building they had paused in front of was the house of Sigma Alpha Epsilon.

I have to admit, I reluctantly admired the certainty with which that man had delivered such a spectacularly wrong answer.

Could you have identified that fraternity more accurately?  Take today’s Pop Quiz to test your Greek knowledge!

QUESTION: What are the names of these Greek characters? (given in both upper- and lower-case here)

  1. Γγ
  2. Ππ
  3. Λλ
  4. Ψψ
  5. Ωω
  6. Ββ
  7. Μμ
  8. Ζζ
  9. Σσ
  10. Θθ

Bonus:  Here is a picture of me gaping at an important artifact.  One of the scripts on this stone is Greek.  What are the other two?
staring at the Rosetta Stone

ANSWERS: (for reference, look here)

  1. Gamma
  2. Pi
  3. Lambda
  4. Psi
  5. Omega
  6. Beta
  7. Mu
  8. Zeta
  9. Sigma
  10. Theta

Bonus: That artifact is the Rosetta Stone.  The three scripts on the stone are Greek, demotic Egyptian, and Egyptian hieroglyphs.  I wrote about my pilgrimage to the British Museum here!


How did you do?  If you’ve never studied ancient Greek, how did you know as much as you did?


Copyright Allison Taylor-Adams.  See About for details.