Monday round-up: Lakota language

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Yesterday was Mother’s Day in the US, so I had a long phone call with my mom.  She told me that she and my dad are planning to take a vacation soon the the Black Hills of South Dakota, and we talked for a long time about that land, the people who live there, the language(s) they speak, and the head-scratching irony of naming a state park after General Custer (seriously…)

The Lakota language, like almost all Native American languages, is classified as “threatened,” and the speaking population continues to decrease as members of older generations pass on.  But organization like the Lakota Language Consortium are working hard to reach younger speakers and encourage the preservation and revitalization of their language.  And dedicated teachers in the elementary and secondary schools on reservations like Pine Ridge teach the language to their students.  Here is one such teacher, Roger White Eyes, speaking Lakota and talking about the importance of teaching the language:

I’ve blogged before about one of the projects the Lakota tribe is using – this delightful all-Lakota version of the Berenstein Bears.  I’ve also written about the difference between the terms Lak(h)ota, Nakota, and Dakota.

Roger White Eyes says, “This language has a spirit.”  Maybe before their trip, my parents can visit the Lakota Language Forum to learn some greetings!  Getting a taste of the language is sure to help them understand the spirit of that part of the Great Plains.

Copyright Allison Taylor-Adams.  See About for details.

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On fascinating vs. dull languages

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This past weekend I finished reading R.M.W. Dixon’s Basic Linguistic Theory: Volume 1 Methodology.  I came across a passage that struck a particular chord:

…people sometimes say how lucky it was that the great anthropologist Evans-Pritchard chose to work on Nuer society, from the Sudan.  His analytic skills were able to reveal the manifold complexities of Nuer life.  This is in fact little comment on the Nuer, simply on Evans-Pritchard.  Such was his excellence that, whatever society he had chosen to study, he would have made it seem fascinating.[1]

The specific context of this remark is Dixon’s advice on how to be a good fieldworker and to document a language competently.  He notes that a competent linguist might produce a solid, detailed grammar of Language X, while a less competent colleague might produce a slim and superficial grammar of neighboring Language Y; based on this work, outside observers might conclude that the first linguist was lucky to have found something as complex and interesting as Language X, while Language Y “is a rather simple and dull language.”  The truth, he argues, “is that X and Y are equally complex and interesting, if analysed in the right way.”  The problem lies in the skill of the analyst, not in the inherent qualities of either language.

I doubt that very many of us spend much time reading descriptive grammars of underdescribed languages, so we’re not necessarily getting our impressions from field linguists (of varying skill).  Most of the prejudices the general public has against a particular kind of language has to do with the more pernicious prejudices against race, ethnicity, and class.  This is a point I’ve probably made before and I will definitely make again:  There really is no such thing as a “primitive” language, and societies that have historically been classified as “primitive” tend to have linguistic complexities unfathomable to a speaker of a dominant language (see this quiz for specific examples).

Every society has the “manifold complexities” that Evans-Pritchard revealed in the Nuer people, and every language has the manifold complexities that Dixon has revealed in the communities of Australia and Fiji and Brazil where he has worked.  If we outside observers find a particular language, a particular culture, a particular way of life somehow “simple” or “dull,” that is a failure of perception and imagination on our parts.


 

[1] Dixon, R.M.W. (2010). Basic Linguistic Theory. Volume 1 Methodology. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. pp. 313-4

Copyright Allison Taylor-Adams.  See About for details.

 

Pop Quiz! Languages from Embassy Day

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In my last post I told you about how I got to spend my Saturday visiting embassies open all around DC, part of the Around the World Embassy Tour.  I said that the seven countries whose embassies I visited represented over 800 living languages total.  How much do you know about the languages of those countries?  Take today’s Pop Quiz to find out!

As a reminder, the embassies I visited were: Australia, Bolivia, Brazil, Mozambique, Peru, the Philippines, and South Africa.

QUESTIONS:

  1. Portuguese is the official language of two of the countries.  Which two?
  2. Quechua and Aymara are indigenous languages spoken in which two countries?
  3. Ibanag, Cebuano, Spanish, and English are among the 181 languages spoken in this country.  Which one?
  4. Bantu languages are spoken in which two countries?
  5. These two countries each boast over 200 living languages.  Which two?
  6. What is the most widely spoken language in the country whose artists created these? (Looking back at my last post will help a little here!)Embassy Day ducks

BONUS: I ran out of time before I could visit the embassy representing the country with the most living languages represented.  Which country’s embassy would that be? (Hint: the embassy of Papua New Guinea did not participate in this year’s tour.)


 

ANSWERS:

  1. Brazil and Mozambique
  2. Bolivia and Peru
  3. The Philippines
  4. Mozambique and South Africa
  5. Australia and Brazil
  6. Tagalog

BONUS: Next year I will be sure to visit the embassy of Indonesia, which represents speakers of over 700 different living languages.

***

How did you do?  Was there anything you were surprised to learn?  Which country’s embassy would you most want to visit if you could?

 

Copyright Allison Taylor-Adams.  See About for details.

Around the World in Washington, DC

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This weekend, I took advantage of one of the perks of living in Washington, DC:

Embassy Day!

Embassy Day!

The Around the World Embassy tour is organized by Cultural Tourism DC and is wildly popular.  This year embassies and ambassadors’ residences representing 53 nations participated!  In one afternoon you can visit all of the continents of the world.  Entrance to the buildings is free and every country takes advantage of the opportunity to showcase their very best in food, dancing, artwork and crafts, costumes, commerce, tourism…anything you can think of.  As a lover of languages and a dedicated armchair traveler (as well as an obsessive hoarder of travel brochures), this is one day I make the most of!

First I waited in line for the chance to finally (sort of) visit Australia.

Australia emblemsAustralia interior

The embassy volunteers kept the people in line happy by handing out samples of Vegemite and beef sausage, as well as free sunscreen.  Once inside I sampled Australian wine, nibbled on lamb, and said hello to some skinks and geckos on display.  (I also unashamedly made off with a temporary tattoo of the Australian flag.)

Next I headed to the Philippines, where I watched people getting dressed up for some dancing and checked out the display of elaborately carved fruit and vegetables.

Philippines interiorPhilippines carving

Then there was Peru, where the sounds of panflute wafted through the windows as I watched a weaver at his loom.

Peru girlsPeruvian weaving

I headed into the embassy of Mozambique to look at some traditional artwork

Mozambique interiorMozambique hallway

and then headed up to the embassy of the Republic of South Africa, where I sampled some remarkably spicy food and took too many pictures of the Nelson Mandela statue.

South Africa entranceSouth Africa Mandela

Bolivia had a nonstop dance party going on out front

Bolivia exteriorBolivia costumes

as well as an entire hall dedicated to quinoa.

14 - Bolivia quinoa hall

I ended my day at the residence of the ambassador to Brazil.

Brazil residenceBrazil interior

I had wanted to go into the embassy of the Republic of Iraq, but so did everyone else it seems – the line was around the block!

Iraq exterior

Maybe next year…

***

In one day I visited seven different countries!  By my calculation, the countries I visited represent over 800 living languages.  Isn’t that amazing?

(By the way, if you’re in the DC area and you missed this weekend’s embassy tours, next weekend the European embassies will be participating in the EU Openhouse tour, also organized by Cultural Tourism DC.)

Copyright Allison Taylor-Adams.  See About for details.

Ancient Languages blog carnival

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My post on Monday was part of a blog carnival about ancient languages.  The full list of other participants is here!

Ancient Greek carnival

There are so many interesting insights into what we can learn from ancient texts in their original languages.  My personal favorite is this one, discussing sound patterns in the first few lines of The Odyssey.  But there are many more great blog posts (especially if you love Greek like I do!)

Check them out and have a happy Friday!

Book recommendation: Language Death by David Crystal

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Here is a quick little book review I put together for one of my favorite language books:

Language Death cover

Language Death, by David Crystal, is at once a practical handbook, a scholarly analysis of a sociolinguistic phenomenon, and a call to action, all in a thoughtful and highly readable 166 pages. Crystal starts by quickly covering topics such as how linguists count languages and how languages come to be classified as “endangered,” before examining causes of language endangerment. His main thrust, though, is pragmatic; his largest chapters cover the topics of “Why should we care?,” “Where do we begin?” and “What can be done?”

As someone very much interested in language preservation and revitalization, I found this book to be a remarkable primer on the subject. It is an excellent introductory text, suitable for non-specialists but detailed enough for budding linguists. The bibliography itself is a goldmine for anyone interested in further research within this field, and Crystal also includes an extensive (if perhaps somewhat out-of-date) list of organizations who are working on language documentation and revitalization all over the world as an Appendix. What I really appreciated about it was Crystal’s demand for action, which is both sensible and passionate. After firmly establishing the reasons we should care about this crisis, he provides specific, tangible steps that can be taken to prevent and even reverse the forces of linguistic extinction, everything from public awareness to fundraising to technical documentation. Every concerned citizen, linguist or not, has a role to play.

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Interested in more book recommendations for language lovers?  Check out the list I put together on Goodreads!  Find some new recommendations, and vote to add your own!

Copyright Allison Taylor-Adams.  See About for details.

Greek roots for linguistics

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I was recently asked to participate in an Ancient Languages blog carnival being organized by the blog Linguae Antiquitatum.  I love any opportunity to talk about ancient languages!

I’m especially happy to talk about my beloved Classical Greek.  I believe that studying this language has made me a smarter, richer person, and a better linguist.  And there’s historical precedent for that statement!  When the thinkers of continental Europe were developing theories and models that we have come to recognize as modern linguistic science, they drew upon their classical education for their initial ideas of how languages worked.  They also drew upon their knowledge of Greek and Latin words to coin new terms for the new concepts they were developing (exactly like I did when I named this blog!)

One of my favorite things about learning Greek is that it helps me understand my own language so much better.  I sometimes describe it as “word math;” you often have these wonderful “a-HA” moments when you realize how two words have been added together to give us a modern English word. So today I thought I’d introduce you to some terms from linguistics that are made up of Greek roots.  First I’ll give you some important Greek words – a lot of these show up in a lot of different words, not just scientific terms.  Then I’ll give you some vocabulary from linguistics, and hopefully you will be able to say a-HA!

ἄλλος (allos) – “other; another.” This is probably most familiar to us via the Latin variant alias, though some linguistics terms have prefixes from the original Greek.
γράφω (graphō)– originally used to mean “to scratch” or “to graze,” this verb comes to mean “to inscribe” and finally “to write.” A graph is a system of marks used to convey information; graphite is a mineral used in pencils.
λέξις (lexis)– “speech; word or phrase.” A cousin of logos, below, but with a more precise definition. Dyslexia is difficulty reading or understanding words (that lovely curvy character in the middle of the Greek word is a /ks/ sound and gets written in Latin script as x).
λόγος (logos)– volumes have been written about this one little Greek word. It is one of the most frequent words in the corpus of Greek texts, and is especially important to theologians, who have spent centuries debating its precise conceptual definition (one important example comes from the Gospel of John 1:1, which says “In the beginning was the logos, and the logos was with God, and the logos was God.”) The noun is derived from the verb λέγω, meaning “to speak” or “to say,” and the word can mean anything from “speech” or “account” to “statement of theory” or “thesis.” For our purposes right now, logos has come to be used as a suffix denoting terms of study or science – for example, the word theology, which combines the word for God (θεός) and study (λόγος).
μορφάω (morphaō)– “to shape, fashion, or mold.” In English we can use just this bare verb, to say things like “the car morphed into a robot.”
ὁμός (homos)– “one and the same; common; joint.” The little backwards apostrophe in Greek script means there is an aspiration (i.e. an /h/ sound) before the vowel. Homo- is a very productive suffix, both inside and outside linguistics.
ὄνομα (onoma)– “name.” Though onoma is the most common attested form of this word, and is the way it would have been pronounced in classical Attic Greek, a different dialect of Greek had the word as ὄνυμα, which gives us a suffix we use in English as –onym. A pseudonym is a false name.
σύν (sun)– “with.” The Greek letter upsilon (υ) gets transliterated, via Latin, into a y in Roman script, so in English we get words that start with syn- or sync- that have to do with the idea of putting together, doing something together, etc. (i.e. synchronize – to do something at the same time).
φωνή (phōnē)– “sound; tone.” Greek has two sounds which are written in Roman script as o – the omicron (ο) which was a short vowel, and the omega (ω), which was long. Because the vowel here is long, the English form phone sounds a lot like the original Greek.

Now that you know some important Greek roots, let’s take a look at some major terms from the science of linguistics:

  • Allophone – An alternate pronunciation of a certain sound in a certain environment. For example, in American English speakers often say a lone /p/ with a little bit of aspiration – “pin” sounds like [pʰin], but a /p/ after another consonant is unaspirated – “spin” sounds like [spin]. In this example, [pʰ] is another way to make the /p/ sound.
  • Homonym – identical expressions with different meaning (i.e. “report to your editor to file your report”).
  • Lexicography – the compiling and editing of dictionaries – i.e. the writing of all of the words of a language.
  • Morphology – the study of how words are formed in a particular language.
  • Phonology – the study of the speech sounds of a language.
  • Synonyms – words which have the same or very similar meanings.
  • Syntax – The structure of sentences and the study of sentence structure – i.e. how sentences are put together.

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Can you think of other words built on these Greek roots?

Thanks, JD, for inviting me to write this post!  I’m looking forward to seeing what other bloggers have written!

Copyright Allison Taylor-Adams.  See About for details.

 

Such grammar. So linguistics. Wow.

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For your Friday enjoyment, I would like to recommend a blog post published on The Toast, analyzing the grammar of one of the internet’s favorite memes:

This article is nothing less than sheer brilliance.  The only thing I don’t like about it is the fact that I didn’t think to write it myself.  Though I shouldn’t complain too much, because I’m not sure I could have written such a delightful analysis.  As an example, I give you this sentence:

But what is it about shiba inus that makes them violate the selectional restrictions of certain English modifiers?

Grammar gets a bad rap.  Gretchen McCulloch (and Doge) makes grammar playful.  Please do yourself a favor and click over to that article.

Such Friday.  So joy.  Wow.

Pop Quiz! Which language do you hear?

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One of my favorite things about writing this blog is getting to listen to the audio clips of our Featured Speakers.  I am always looking for additions to this feature, so if you speak a language that I haven’t had a chance to spotlight yet, or you know someone else who does, please get in touch with me!  We love hearing other languages!

Today’s pop quiz comes directly from our speakers, but I’ve made it a little trickier – each clip is only about ten seconds of the original audio (wouldn’t want it to be too easy, would you?)  See if you can recognize the language, and then check out the links to hear the original and read the interviews with the speakers!

MATCHING: Which language is being spoken in the following clips?  Your choices are:

  • Azerbaijani
  • Chinese (Mandarin)
  • Danish
  • German
  • Hebrew
  • Indonesian
  • Irish
  • Italian
  • Japanese
  • Spanish
    (note not all of the choices will be used!)

***
ANSWERS:

  1. Azerbaijani
  2. (Mandarin) Chinese
  3. German
  4. Danish
  5. Irish
  6. Italian
  7. Japanese
  8. Hebrew

How did you do?  Have you studied any of the languages in those clips?  Do you speak a language you’d like to share?

 

Copyright Allison Taylor-Adams.  See About for details.

Child language acquisition

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Two years ago, one of my dearest and oldest friends had a baby, a sweet little boy born in the summer. He was the first child of my friend group, so I made sure to go visit him that fall, even though school had started back up again and I was already swamped with work. That semester I was taking a psycholinguistics class, and as my friend rocked her infant to sleep, I sat up reading about first language acquisition. It was fascinating to read about how quickly and ingeniously children learn to speak their first language, and it has been even more fascinating watching the process display itself in the speech of this little guy.

Here is a list of some of the milestones of child language abilities[1]:

  • 12 weeks – smiles and coos when talked to and nodded at
  • 18 weeks – responds to human sounds by turning head and eyes to search for speaker
  • 6 months – changes from cooing to babbling sounds
  • 8 months – begins to have distinct intonation patterns; begins to make sounds to signal emphasis and emotions
  • 10 months – appears to wish to imitate adult sounds (but is not quite successful)
  • 12 months – begins to be able to replicate common sounds; simple words (i.e. mamma, dadda) start to emerge; shows signs of understanding some words and simple commands
  • 18 months – has definite repertoire of 3 to 50 words; still babbles but now babbling has several syllables and an intricate (language-like) intonation pattern
  • 24 months – has vocabulary of more than 50 words; begins to spontaneously join words in original two-word phrases
  • 30 months – fast increase in vocabulary; no longer babbles; becomes frustrated if not understood by adults
  • 3 years – has vocabulary of about 1,000 words; “produces utterances with grammatical complexity comparable to that of colloquial adult language, although mistakes still occur”
  • 4 years – well-established vocabulary; “tends to deviate from the adult norm more in style than in grammar”

Researchers have noted that “one remarkable thing about first language acquisition is the high degree of similarity which we see in the early language of children all over the world.”[2] Babies from every different speech community – even deaf babies – begin by babbling, playing with their vocal tract. Experiments have shown that babies begin to distinguish between different sounds in adult language very early, long before their own babbling starts to distinguish itself. After a few months, though, babies begin to develop “accents” in their babbling and cooing:

Ruth Weir and Jean Aitchison have reported research that demonstrates this tuning. Recorded babbling of an American, a Russian, and an Arab baby was played to mothers. The American mothers could often identify the American baby, the Russian mothers the Russian baby, and the Arab mothers the Arab baby. But none of them could distinguish between the remaining two babies. So the babies, even though they weren’t saying anything meaningful, were evidently making noises that sounded like the language they had been hearing around them.[3]

After this early stage, language acquisition really speeds up. By the age of twenty months, children are really talking, though usually just in single-word utterances (my little friend’s current favorites are “cookie” and “helicopter.”) Around two years old, they start to be able to put words together into two-word utterances that start to look like sentences (I’m imagining phrases like “more cookie” will soon appear.) This is all very basic grammar, and there is ample evidence that even at this early stage, children are beginning to grasp the grammar of their native language. Then they start acquiring vocabulary at lightning speed. Most researchers estimate that the average five-year-old has a working vocabulary of 10,000 words, which means that in the three years between the ages of two and five, they have averaged almost one new word every hour they are awake.[4]

I’m sure any parent who has observed this kind of rapid acquisition in their small children has been amazed (and possibly befuddled.) Linguists, particularly psycholinguists, are pretty fascinated by it as well. There are so many things child language learning can tell us about the human brain and cognition, and the question of how children know what they know has sparked endless debates that won’t be solved any time soon.

Children know much, much more than they are able to say (the same is true for adults, by the way!) If only these astonishing little creatures could explain to us just what’s going on in their heads! Since that doesn’t seem possible, all of us grown-ups will just have to settle for watching, and listening, and trying to understand.


[1] Adapted from Bergmann, Hall, & Ross (2007). Language files: materials for an introduction to language and linguistics (10th ed.). pp 325, 332. Columbus, OH: The Ohio State University Press.

[2] Lightbown, P. M. & Spada, N. (1999). How languages are learned (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press USA.

[3] Jackendoff, R. (1994). Patterns in the mind: language and human nature (p. 102). New York, NY: BasicBooks.

[4] Jackendoff, p. 103.

 

Copyright Allison Taylor-Adams.  See About for details.