A Stubborn Language
December 30, 2016 11:42 AM   Subscribe

They don’t borrow from English or French.[...] The word they use for automobile means “that it has wrinkled feet,” which is, incidentally, an example of how the words you have reflect your culture. If you’re a tracker, you’re going to be noticing the tire tracks—the focus of that particular word.
Language Leakage: An Interview with Sarah Thomason
posted by Rumple (29 comments total) 55 users marked this as a favorite
 
I figured this article would be interesting, but it was surprisingly fun and even exciting! Aleut has 450 verb forms? Uisai speakers deliberately flipped the genders of their words just to be different? Amazing!

Though I can't help imagine an Esperanto enthusiast reading this article and shoving their laptop right off the desk.
posted by ejs at 12:22 PM on December 30, 2016 [5 favorites]


This is fascinating! I love how languages reflect culture -- I only speak English and French, but even they have words that don't translate well and reflect cultural values. In another life in which I had more language capabilities, I would have been a linguist.

Also highly recommended: the documentary The Linguists, which is about people trying to document rare languages before the last fluent speakers pass away.
posted by alligatorpear at 12:28 PM on December 30, 2016 [2 favorites]


Some of the points Thomason makes, particularly around Uisai and similar languages though also regarding Salish borrowing, must make us pause when discussing language change. Change is inevitable, but the direction, scale, and kind of change is socially-mediated. Language change is normal, not natural, and it's important to understand the difference. It is possible to judge language change as good or bad on normative grounds: borrowing an English word is 'bad' change for Salish speakers because it's not their norm.

Of course, linguists should not make such judgements, but speakers are not holden to the same standards. The example of the official French resistance to English loanwords, referenced in the article, is an interesting case where the norms were unsettled and challenged.
posted by Emma May Smith at 12:38 PM on December 30, 2016 [2 favorites]


Thomason is the co-author of Language Contact, Creolization, and Genetic Linguistics, the best book I know of on language contact and mixing. It's fun to see an interview with her.
posted by zompist at 12:39 PM on December 30, 2016 [6 favorites]


The discussion about how it appears some languages are deliberately invented, or at least new dialects are, for social reasons was fascinating. It reminded me of Light Walpiri, where the younger generation of an Australian tribe deliberately invented their own combination of the three local languages and passed it on to their own children.
posted by tavella at 1:32 PM on December 30, 2016 [5 favorites]


In another life in which I had more language capabilities, I would have been a linguist.

I lacked 3 credits towards a linguistic minor to go along with my English major. My grades were great, but I finally just said screw it. Linguistics is fascinating, but I am really piss poor at it.

(Although I'm hella at diagramming sentences, and think it's fun. Mrs. Teacher, can we DS today? They be hatin' on me in 8th grade!)
posted by BlueHorse at 2:40 PM on December 30, 2016 [1 favorite]


If interested in the history of language change I can highly recommend Empires of the Word by Nicholas Ostler - telling the story of why various languages have risen and fallen. It focuses a lot more on major languages than the smaller language communities in the original interview above, but I suspect if you are fascinated by the interview you'll also like this
posted by AW74 at 2:55 PM on December 30, 2016 [10 favorites]


Thanks for posting. I love articles like these. I still hold out that someday I could get my masters in linguistics and help keep some of these languages alive. I know it's too late for me to be fluent in other languages, but surely I could record or transcribe or something. Or maybe just get the real linguists coffee to keep them going. Something to help.
posted by greermahoney at 4:45 PM on December 30, 2016 [2 favorites]


The throwaway remark about Māori only beating "the Brits" by three centuries and hence maybe not really being indigenous would be political dynamite in New Zealand. Firstly, it's wrong by a couple of centuries at least (current thinking is around 1250CE for first settlement around the Wairau bar, the first non-Māori birth here was in 1815), and secondly, the idea that Māori are not indigenous feeds into a pretty ugly existing local narrative that seeks to de-legitimise Māori claims to sovereignty. A shame to see this in an otherwise interesting article.

(Television: pouaka whakaata, a mirror or display box; car, disappointingly, is motukā, but lots of compound nouns for vehicle use "waka", which is originally a canoe.)
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 5:15 PM on December 30, 2016 [11 favorites]


Of course, linguists should not make such judgements, but speakers are not holden to the same standards. The example of the official French resistance to English loanwords, referenced in the article, is an interesting case where the norms were unsettled and challenged.

In fact, as far as the French language is concerned, Quebec, not France, is at the forefront of the resistance to adopt English words. The word "courriel" was coined in Quebec and is widely used here. Although it is a fairly recent developement (past 4 decades), adopting English words in Quebec is considred "bad", as it perceived as a threat to the French language. The Office québécois de la langue française is the key institution in that fight. According to this article , a single one of their terminologist is responsible for coining many new computer/web related words that are widely used to replace their english equivalents: pourriel for spam, baladodiffusion for podcast, mot-clic for hashtag and hameçonnage for phishing. The OQLF terminology database is also a great resource for finding the French equivalent of English words. Of course, like any other languages, usage ultmately rules. You can encourage people to use some words, but not force them. Example of "failures" include the word T-shirt for which no proper substitute was found.
posted by bluefrog at 5:21 PM on December 30, 2016 [4 favorites]


I reject mixed Greek and Latin roots, so no "automobile," I insist upon Ipsomobile or Autokinetikon!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:27 PM on December 30, 2016 [20 favorites]


cough
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 8:43 PM on December 30, 2016


pourriel for spam
This is one of my favourites since it's a portmanteau of poubelle (garbage) and courriel to make 'garbage-mail'. At least if this effort is ultimately misguided it's not without some artfulness.
posted by Space Coyote at 8:46 PM on December 30, 2016 [4 favorites]


Office Québécois de la langue française

Office.
Not Bureau
I love you, Quebec.
posted by From Bklyn at 9:00 PM on December 30, 2016 [3 favorites]


baladodiffusion for podcast

That is just.... a terrible word. The other ones are good. I especially like mot-clic. I would totally say le podcast instead of this monstrosity, though.
posted by greermahoney at 9:26 PM on December 30, 2016 [2 favorites]


A linguist who studies language change and mixing, yet who finds English "boring", is baffling. Post-Norman English may not have been as extreme as Aluet meets Russian, but it's still far more of a hybrid mongrel than most languages, and it changes by the day.

I mean, more power to her for championing the dying languages, but there's no call for linguistic hipsterism.
posted by tau_ceti at 11:51 PM on December 30, 2016 [3 favorites]


Though I can't help imagine an Esperanto enthusiast reading this article and shoving their laptop right off the desk.

Esperanto estas stranga lingvo, ĉar teorie ĝia fundamento neniam ŝanĝas. Iu ajn lingvisto dirus ke ĉi tio ne estas vere, sed Esperantistoj feroce kontraŭas lingvajn reformojn, eĉ al la malsaĝajn aspektojn de la lingvo, la ĉapelitaj literoj kaj la akuzativa kazo. Ĉi tiu okazas ĉar la reformoj en la frua 20a jarcento, kiuj kreis la lingvon "Ido", okazigis fendon je la movado por Esperanto. Do, obstina "netuŝableco" estas parto de la animo de la nuna Esperanto. Sed kompreneble la lingvo vivanta ŝanĝas.

(Esperanto is a strange language, because theoretically its foundation never changes. Any linguist would say that this is not true, but Esperantists fiercely oppose linguistic reforms, even to the unwise aspects of the language, the letters with hats and the accusative case. This happens because the reforms in the early 20th century, which made the language Ido, caused a split in the movement for Esperanto. So, obstinate "netuŝableco" (untouchable-ness) is part of the soul of modern Esperanto. But of course the living language changes.)
posted by graymouser at 1:50 AM on December 31, 2016 [4 favorites]


Don't miss the other great linguistic articles on that site. I really liked these:
Burgers and Copters, Shelves and Pants
Fast Asleep and Wide Awake
Great Steak Break, Yeats
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:24 AM on December 31, 2016 [2 favorites]


Joe in Australia - the bracketing article was fascinating. Another one -gate. Gates don't inherently have anything to do with scandal, except now they do.
posted by double bubble at 4:51 AM on December 31, 2016


pourriel for spam
This is one of my favourites since it's a portmanteau of poubelle (garbage) and courriel to make 'garbage-mail'.

I took the first element of the portmanteau to be, well, pourri. 'Rotten-mail'.
posted by finka at 8:24 AM on December 31, 2016 [4 favorites]


baladodiffusion for podcast. I agree that this one is a mouthful, but it is usually shortened to "balado", which makes it more palatable. ..

Office.
Not Bureau
I love you, Quebec


Office is a french word, often used (at least in Canada) to denote public service organisations. The National Film Board of Canada is Office national du film in French.
posted by bluefrog at 8:24 AM on December 31, 2016 [3 favorites]


Of course, linguists should not make such judgements, but speakers are not holden to the same standards.

But this is also not a confirmation that all judgments speakers make are right or just.

For example, many arguments against new forms in English are either based on a misunderstanding of language or prejudice against the people that form is associated with - frequently, both. I'm an English speaker, so I have no trouble combating these kinds of beliefs. There's quite a few linguists who believe it's their responsibility to do so, as part public education and advocating for social justice.

It's the kind of thing you have to judge on a case by case basis.

For example: I work with a relatively small West African language that no longer has native words for many common items; they're either in French or another (more dominant) local language. That's different. How speakers feel about that is entirely their business. There's no right or wrong. But I will happily tell a French person that they're wrong when start insulting African French as being "bad" or "broken."

Also, Sally Thomason is really really great. She's one of the biggest names in the study of language contact, and her work is pretty accessible too. I second Zompist's recommendation of her book.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 10:24 AM on December 31, 2016 [2 favorites]


She's also pretty far from being a "hipster".

A lot of linguists (including me) find English boring because (a) we are exposed to so much of it, and (b) it is the most well-studied language of them all.

Its reputation for being an especially "hybrid mongrel" is also overstated. Neither the amount nor type of contact effects in English are that unusual. It's worth studying, but a lot of us just aren't interested; we want to study something else!
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 10:40 AM on December 31, 2016 [5 favorites]


pourriel for spam
This is one of my favourites since it's a portmanteau of poubelle (garbage) and courriel to make 'garbage-mail'. At least if this effort is ultimately misguided it's not without some artfulness.


It's actually a portmanteau of pourri and courriel, where pourri means "rotten".

I've always used the OQLF's dictionary. I will say this however: people like to hate on France's attempts to preserve French, whereas they celebrate Québec's. There's a lot to think about there.
posted by fraula at 11:11 AM on December 31, 2016 [1 favorite]


Its reputation for being an especially "hybrid mongrel" is also overstated. Neither the amount nor type of contact effects in English are that unusual.

So I was in a grumpy mood last night and my comment was snarkier than necessary regarding the hipster thing, I wasn't intending to be too serious with that.

That said, I was really under the impression that English really was fairly unusual with regard to the amount of changes from Old English through now, but I am certainly not a professional linguist. Not the *most* unusual or anything, but is it not relatively piecemeal compared to the average language?
posted by tau_ceti at 2:01 PM on December 31, 2016


No, English is not particularly unusual. Thomason & Kaufman have a six-point scale for language borrowing: (0) no interaction; (1) lexical borrowing only; (2) slight structural borrowing; (3) slightly more; (4) moderate structural borrowing; (5) heavy structural borrowing. They place English between (2) and (3).

Quite a few major languages are in English's ballpark in terms of borrowing: Japanese (from Chinese); Hindi (from Persian); Persian (from Arabic); Russian (from German and Latin); Quechua (from Spanish and Aymara). Others are not that far behind. Languages that really hate to borrow are the rarities— the interview talks about Salish; a European example is Icelandic. Chinese is not that hospitable either, though it acquired quite a few Sanksrit terms, and popular speech does have English borrowings.

T&K's book has a long case study on English; one of their points is that all the coastal German languages were deeply affected by French (and each other); literary High German was more (but not totally) resistant.
posted by zompist at 3:41 PM on December 31, 2016 [5 favorites]


I'm not a linguist, but I'm curious about the question of English's propensity towards language borrowing (or lack thereof). I had also thought that English was unusual, but I wonder if it is relatively average in overall language borrowing--that is, between (2) and (3) above--but is more extreme in terms of lexical borrowing? I had assumed that because of colonialism, we had more transliterated loan words--the kind of stuff in Hobson Jobson.
posted by johnasdf at 5:40 PM on December 31, 2016


I can't remember where Thomason & Kaufman place English on the scale, but I would place it at a (2) at the most.

English is not particularly extreme in terms of lexical borrowing. The biggest source of loans in English is French, and (depending on how you count) that might be 30% of English words. But then look at Korean, where words of Chinese origin might make up 60% of the lexicon.

(Of course, in both languages, basic words are more likely to be native.)

I haven't personally heard the claim that English has more loans resulting from colonialism. I would guesst that it's on par with other major colonial languages, especially if you start looking at varieties spoken in former colonies.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 3:15 AM on January 1 [3 favorites]


Both the OP and this thread have been the best.
posted by panama joe at 7:50 AM on January 1


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