Trailer for Arrival, the new Denis Villeneuve film based on a Ted Chiang short story, starring Amy Adams, Forest Whitaker and Jeremy Renner. Ted Chiang on seeing his stories adapted to the screen. Previous Ted Chiang.
In China: Chinese dialects fight for survival. Outside China: Meet the Hong Kong academics fighting to safeguard the Cantonese language (Hong Kong); Taiwanese: a doomed language? (Taiwan); Do you speak Singlish? || The Death of Dialects in Singapore (Singapore); Penang Hokkien will be ‘dead’ in 40 years if people stop using it (Malaysia) [more inside]
During the 1940s, Harvard University's psycho-acoustic laboratory--installed in the boiler room under Memorial Hall--was a center of secret, government-directed wartime research into the effects of sound on the human ear and mind. One obscure product of this work became known as the Harvard Sentences, a set of "phonetically balanced" sentences containing a mix of phonemes typical to conversational English. These sentences are still used today by Verizon's baseline engineers, among others. Gizmodo's Sarah Zhang has more on the history of the Harvard Sentences. Meanwhile, over at Tedium, Ernie Smith offers a T-Mobile test number (858-651-5050) where you can listen to a recording of several Harvard Sentences, calling it "pretty much the most poetic, automated thing I’ve ever heard." A full list of the Harvard Sentences can be viewed here. [more inside]
Lynne Murphy's blog is 'Separated By A Common Language'. It turns out being polite is different in the UK and the US and there are specific differences in the way each culture (and subcultures thereto) use please. [more inside]
Take a look at: 😁. On many browsers, and on Android phones, this looks like a grinning face with smiling eyes (the official label), while on an iOS device, this looks like a painful grimace. A study shows that these differences can lead to difficulties interpreting emotions across platforms (and even within platforms there is a lot of variation)! With linguists arguing over whether emoji can evolve into a language, and with their own distinct grammar, these differences in interpretation can matter. Either way, the real-time tracker lets you see what emoji are being tweeted [prev], and fivethirtyeight sums up the 100 most popular.
Dr. Tim Lomas is creating a positive cross-cultural lexicography: an evolving index of expressions from many languages for positive emotional states and concepts pertaining to well-being. Most do not have immediate English equivalents. View by Alphabet, Language or Theme. [more inside]
Last week, the BBC radio programme Woman’s Hour ran an item on the American documentary film "Do I Sound Gay?" The film explores what’s popularly known as ‘the gay voice’, a way of speaking that identifies a man as gay (though not all gay men have it, and some men who do sound gay are actually straight). The Woman’s Hour feature ranged more widely over the subject of gay language, including a lengthy discussion of Polari (previously: 1, 2). But it was all about the boys–-until, towards the end of the item, the presenter broached the inevitable question: do lesbians also have a language of their own? Nothing comparable to Polari--but we do have some historical evidence of in-group lesbian slang.
English is not normal. "No, English isn’t uniquely vibrant or mighty or adaptable. But it really is weirder than pretty much every other language." (Aeon via Longform).
In Ann Leckie’s novel Ancillary Justice (Orbit Books: 2013), the imperial Radch rules over much of human-inhabited space. Its culture – and its language – does not identify people on the basis of their gender: it is irrelevant to them. In the novel, written in English, Leckie represents this linguistic reality by using the female pronoun ‘she’ throughout, regardless of any information supplied about a Radchaai (and, often, a non-Radchaai) person’s perceived gender. This pronoun choice has two effects. Firstly, it successfully erases grammatical difference in the novel and makes moot the question of the characters’ genders. But secondly, it exists in a context of continuing discussions around the gendering of science fiction, the place of men and women and people of other genders within the genre, as characters in fiction and as professional/fans, and beyond the pages of the book it is profoundly political. It is a female pronoun. When translating Ancillary Justice into other languages, the relationship between those two effects is vital to the work.
Or, what to say to your cow on the steppe. Visual anthropologist Natasha Fijn presents this short video of shouts and moos as an appendix to her book, Living With Herds.
new research has revealed that when we learn our mother tongue, we do after all acquire certain habits of thought that shape our experience in significant and often surprising ways.
"What of those grammar rules that were entirely dreamt up in an age of moral prescriptivism, reflecting nothing of historical or literary usage, to encourage the poor English language to be more like an entirely different (and entirely dead) language, namely Latin? Wait, which rules are those? It seems pretty crazy but the popular grammar rules familiar to most of us may in fact be completely fake and have no basis in linguistic reality. The English language didn't change to make those rules obsolete, they were simply fictional from the start." || Dear Pedants: Your Fave Grammar Rule is Probably Fake, by Chi Luu.
Martin Gusinde documented the life and rituals of the Selk'nam people of Tierra del Fuego, off the southern tip of South America from 1918-24. They had been nearly wiped out by a genocide led by Julius Popper, the Tyrant of Tierra del Fuego, their numbers reduced from an estimated four thousand to only a few hundred. Now a book has been published containing hundreds of Gusinde's photos. Forty-five photos are available on the National Library of Chile's website. The last native speaker of Selk'nam, Herminia Vera Illioyen, died in 2014. That same year, linguist Luis Miguel Rojas-Berscia completed a reference grammar of Selk'nam. His friend Joubert Yanten Gomez, a young Selk'nam, has taught himself the language. Selk'nam and efforts to preserve it are one of the languages profiled in Judith Thurman's A Loss for Words, an essay about whether dying languages can be saved.
"Pajubá is one of the many queer anti-languages of the world. People study them in 'Lavender Linguistics'. It's hard to study those languages because their usefulness vanishes if they are not secret anymore. Pajubá is a moving target, evolving so rapidly that it can't be documented." — Pajubá: The secret language of Brazilian trans women [via mefi projects]
The International Dialects of English Archive (IDEA) is a free, online archive of primary-source dialect and accent recordings of the English language. Founded in 1997 at the University of Kansas, it includes hundreds of recordings of English speakers by natives of nearly 100 different countries. To find an example of an accent or dialect, use the Global Map, or select a continent or region at the Dialects and Accents page. [more inside]
Why is good writing on technical subjects so hard to find? A popular explanation is that bureaucrats, scientists, doctors, and lawyers who write dense prose are intentionally obfuscating their writing to appear more intelligent than they are. After all, no one likes reading hashes of passive clauses salted with jargon and acronyms--not even fellow specialists. Stephen Pinker, however, has an alternate take on the issue. What if knowing a lot about a topic directly interferes with your ability to effectively communicate it?
The Allusionist is a language podcast with a etymological focus by podcaster and linguist Helen Zaltzman. The episodes are about fifteen minutes long and the ones so far have focused on political terms, spaces between words, crosswords, fake dictionary entries, museum display text, latin, curse words [explicit], the term viral, bras, but perhaps it's best to start with the first episode, where Zaltzman interviews her brother Andy on the subject of puns. The Extra Allusionism blog is also worth reading.
Neuroscientists find that trying harder makes it more difficult to learn some aspects of language.
In a new study, a team of neuroscientists and psychologists led by Amy Finn, a postdoc at MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research, has found evidence for another factor that contributes to adults’ language difficulties: When learning certain elements of language, adults’ more highly developed cognitive skills actually get in the way. The researchers discovered that the harder adults tried to learn an artificial language, the worse they were at deciphering the language’s morphology — the structure and deployment of linguistic units such as root words, suffixes, and prefixes.[more inside]
Science once communicated in a polyglot of tongues, but now English rules alone. How did this happen – and at what cost?
Over the past few years, some researchers have been arguing using mathematical tree-building and dating techniques, that the Indo-Europeans originated in Anatolia. In an article [.pdf] in the latest issue of Language, a group of historical and computational linguists using similar techniques say otherwise . [more inside]
New research examines the spread (or not) of local dialectical terms on Twitter. [PDF] [more inside]
Um, here’s an, uh, map that shows where Americans use 'um' vs. 'uh.' "Every language has filler words that speakers use in nervous moments or to buy time while thinking. Two of the most common of these in English are 'uh' and 'um.' They might seem interchangeable, but data show that their usage break down across surprising geographic lines. Hmm." And these lines may give evidence of the so-called Midland dialect. [more inside]
The OED in two minutes is a visualisation of the change and growth of the English language since 1150, showing the frequency and origin of new words year by year. Notes and explanations about the project. [more inside]
Strong Language is a new blog about profanity, cusswords, vulgar fuckin' language. Started just a week ago by James Harbeck and (MeFi's own) Stan Carey after discovering their shared frustration at not having a place to talk (swearily) about swearing, it already has ten posts by various authors covering such topics as the phonology of cusswords, whether shit is a contronym, the effectiveness of swearing in John Carpenter's The Thing, and a post reviving the cult classic linguistics article "English sentences without overt grammatical subjects" (previously).
Essays and longer texts written in English can provide interesting insights into the linguistic background of the writer, and about the history of other languages, even dying languages, when evaluated by a new computer program developed by a team of computer scientists at MIT and Israel’s Technion. As told on NPR, this discovery came about by accident, when the new program classified someone as Russian when they were Polish, due to the similarity in grammar between the languages. Researchers realized this could allow the program to re-create language families, and could be applied to people who currently may not speak their original language, allowing some categorization of dying languages. More from MIT, and a link to the paper (PDF, from the 2014 Meeting of the Association for Computational Linguistics).
Practice with Pronouns is a site that lets you practise subject, object, possessive, and reflexive forms of English third person pronouns. It comes with a few of the most common options, but you can also fill in whatever pronouns you like. Useful for both English learners and people wanting to practise using nonbinary pronouns.[more inside]
"I had been creating languages for 10 years. But everybody else applying was equally skilled. So I figured the edge that I had was pretty much an endless amount of time—I was unemployed. I just decided: Well, let's just try to create the whole thing. In those rounds of judging, I created about 90 percent of the grammar—which is ridiculous for two months. Then I created 1,700 words of vocabulary—which is equally ridiculous for two months. Overall, I produced about 300 total pages of material. I figure that was probably what put it over the top."
Lovatt reasoned that if she could live with a dolphin around the clock, nurturing its interest in making human-like sounds, like a mother teaching a child to speak, they'd have more success. - stories from the NASA- funded project to teach Dolphins to talk using LSD (among other methods. )
A Linguist on the Story of Gendered Pronouns. Gretchen McCulloch talks about why we have pronouns, why gender is a thing in English, and how gender is a thing in other languages. [more inside]
A number of different languages utilize compounded words, but German has a number of fun examples in the animal kingdom: how to name animals in German (Compounding German words, previously)
Math or Maths? A few minutes with Dr Lynne Murphy (an American linguist in England) should clear this right up. Via Numberphile.
The Ket from the Lake Munduiskoye (2008, 30 min.) The Ket people are an indigenous group in central Siberia whose population has numbered less than two thousand during the past century. Although mostly assimilated into the dominant Russian culture at this point, a couple hundred of them are still able to speak the Ket language, the last remaining member of the Yeniseian language group. Recent scholarship has proposed a link between Ket and some Native American language groups.
We may not speak with the butter-toned exchanges of the characters on “Downton Abbey,” but in substance our speech is in many ways more civilized.... We are taught to celebrate the idea that Inuit languages reveal a unique relationship to snow, or that the Russian language’s separate words for dark and light blue mean that a Russian sees blueberries and robin’s eggs as more vibrantly different in color than the rest of us do. Isn’t it welcome, then, that good old-fashioned American is saying something cool about us for once? - John McWhorter on colloquial American English (SLNYTIMES) [more inside]
In Defense of Talking Funny: an examination of dialects and how people deal with them.
This book deals with the Dialect of the English Language that is spoken in Ireland. As the Life of a people—according to our motto—is pictured in their speech, our picture ought to be a good one, for two languages were concerned in it—Irish and English. ... Here for the first time—in this little volume of mine—our Anglo-Irish Dialect is subjected to detailed analysis and systematic classification.P.W. Joyce's 1910 work, "English as We Speak it in Ireland," is a fascinating chronicle of a language's life, and no mistake. [more inside]
English Has a New Preposition, Because Internet. The word "because," in standard English usage, is a subordinating conjunction, which means that it connects two parts of a sentence in which one (the subordinate) explains the other. In that capacity, "because" has two distinct forms. It can be followed either by a finite clause (I'm reading this because [I saw it on the web]) or by a prepositional phrase (I'm reading this because [of the web]). These two forms are, traditionally, the only ones to which "because" lends itself. I mention all that ... because language. Because evolution. Because there is another way to use "because." Linguists are calling it the "prepositional-because." Or the "because-noun."
Are Elvish, Klingon, Dothraki and Na'vi real languages?
Dictionaries: Elvish, Klingon, Dothraki [pdf] and Na'vi
Phrases: Elvish, Klingon, Dothraki and Na'vi
Dictionaries: Elvish, Klingon, Dothraki [pdf] and Na'vi
Phrases: Elvish, Klingon, Dothraki and Na'vi
The problem with tracing meh over time, as with so many fleeting interjections, is that it’s terribly underrepresented in the linguistic and lexicographical literature. [more inside]
For several years now, Tom Scott, a young man in Britain, has mostly done silly, entertaining things on YouTube, things like, "Two Drums and a Cymbal Fall off a Cliff," "The Matt Gray High Five Face Off," "Robocoaster Challenge: Reciting Shakespeare while attached to a giant robot arm," "Google Glasses: A New Way to Hurt Yourself," and "Welcome to Life: the singularity, ruined by lawyers" (previously). But recently, he's done a series of videos that are interesting more than they're silly: eight videos which introduce linguistic concepts like phonotactics, clusivity & evidentiality, and the contrast between descriptivism and prescriptivism (he's decidedly the former, fyi).
Idibon, a company that specializes in language processing, decided to rank the world's languages to see which had the most unusual features. The winner was Chalcatongo Mixtec, a language spoken by 6000 people in Mexico. The most normal language? Hindi. [more inside]
How to pronounce Chicago street names. How to pronounce London street names. How to pronounce Austin street names. How to pronounce New Orleans street names (and a whole lot else). How to pronounce "Spuyten Duyvil," "Kosciuszko" and "Goethals." How to pronounce "Van Nuys," "Sepulveda," "San Pedro," and "Los Angeles." [more inside]
"In 1872 two men began work on a lexicon of words of Asian origin used by the British in India. Since its publication the 1,000-page dictionary has never been out of print and a new edition is due out next year. What accounts for its enduring appeal? Hobson-Jobson is the dictionary's short and mysterious title." [more inside]
"What was most perplexing of all to me was that, although I was certain that the ads contained Chinese phrases and sentences, every Chinese person to whom I showed them emphatically maintained that they could not understand a single word."
"The internationalized art world relies on a unique language. Its purest articulation is found in the digital press release. This language has everything to do with English, but it is emphatically not English. It is largely an export of the Anglophone world and can thank the global dominance of English for its current reach. But what really matters for this language—what ultimately makes it a language—is the pointed distance from English that it has always cultivated. " - Triple Canopy magazine on why do artists' statments and press releases sound so utterly odd and confusing.