Archive for Dialects

Furnace / heater

I have lived in the Philadelphia area since 1979, and I still can't get used to the fact that people here refer to the thing in your basement that keeps your house warm in fall and winter as a "heater".  To me, a heater is something that keeps a single room or a small area within a room warm.

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Devilishly difficult "dialect"

Are some languages innately more difficult than others?  In "Difficult languages" (1/2/10), Bill Poser addressed this question from various angles.  I've heard it said that Georgian is incredibly difficult because it possesses an "impossible" verbal system, has ergativity and other features that make for "interesting" learning, and so forth.  Yet, in comparison with some of the North Caucasian languages (whose relationship to K'art'velian [or South Caucasian], the language family to which Georgian belongs — along with Svan, Chan/Megrelian/Mingrelian/Laz, is perhaps more an areal phenomenon than a genetic relationship), it is relatively simple. The North Caucasian languages have an abundance of phonemes and an even more complex grammatical system.  John Colarusso has written an excellent grammar of Kabardinian, which gives a good idea of the complexity of this Northwest Caucasian language.

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A quick exit for Cantonese

On his blog, "Throwing Pebbles", the journalist Yuen Chan describes how hard it is nowadays to find a decent elementary school in Hong Kong that offers instruction in Cantonese, rather than in Mandarin:

"Mother-tongue Squeezed Out of the Chinese Classroom in Cantonese-speaking Hong Kong" (7/22/15)

This despite the fact that Cantonese is the mother tongue of around 90% of the population of Hong Kong.

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Maps and charts of the world's languages

A week ago on Thursday (4/23/15), the following article appeared in the Washington Post:  "The world’s languages, in 7 maps and charts".

These maps in the WP are thought-provoking and informative, but it is unfortunate that, like many other misguided sources, they lump all the Chinese languages (which they incorrectly call "dialects") into one. That's terribly misleading.  This would be similar to grouping all the Indo-European languages of Europe as "European" or all the Indo-European languages of India as "Indian".

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Another SOS for DARE

Two years ago I sent out an "SOS for DARE," that is, a plea for the indispensable Dictionary of American Regional English, which had run into funding troubles. Though DARE was granted a temporary reprieve, the latest news is more dire than ever.

Marc Johnson laid out the situation in an article for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel:

The end may be near for one of the University of Wisconsin-Madison's most celebrated humanities projects, the half-century-old Dictionary of American Regional English. In a few months, the budget pool will drain to a puddle. Layoff notices have been sent, eulogies composed…

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Jihadi Jim

There's been a certain amount of discussion in the media about the accent of the ISIS spokesman on the video showing the mass beheading of Egyptian christians on a beach in Libya, e.g. on ABC News here. But the video itself has been kept off of the internet, for obvious reasons, which limits the opportunity for crowdsourcing perceptions of the audio. So here is his opening statement:

And the shorter statement that he makes after the gruesome beheadings:

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If Scotland win

Outside a pub near my office in Edinburgh on the day of an important soccer fixture between Germany and Scotland there was a sign saying: "Free pint if Scotland win!"

Those with an eye for syntax will focus like a laser beam on the last letter of the last word. Should that have been "if Scotland wins"?

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Don't even know the rules of their own language

Bob Ladd points out that a commenter ("RobbieLePop") on a Guardian article about Prince Charles (the opinionated prince who is destined to inherit the throne under Britain's hereditary monarchical and theocratic system of government) said this:

The moment the Monarchy, with he at its head, begins a campaign of public influence is the moment the Monarchy should be disbanded.

With he at its head ? Let's face it, the traditionally accepted rules for case-marking pronouns in English are simply a mystery to many speakers.

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Intelligibility and the language / dialect problem

From Anschel Schaffer-Cohen:

I'm an avid Language Log reader, and as an amateur student of language politics I'm always fascinated by your discussions of language vs. dialect vs. topolect, and the role played by mutual intelligibility. As such, I was fascinated to see this quote show up in my Facebook newsfeed:

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"Frozen" in Arabic

The New Yorker blog has an online article by Elias Muhanna entitled "Translating 'Frozen' Into Arabic".  What's noteworthy is that Disney's "Frozen" was translated into Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), while previous Disney releases were translated into Egyptian Arabic.  Somewhat oddly, the author compares MSA vis-à-vis colloquial forms of Arabic with both King James Bible English / sportscaster English and Latin quatrains / hiphop French.

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Wondering who did Frank think he was talking to?

Biking home listening to an old Fresh Air podcast from my backlog, I was amused to hear the story of Frank Sinatra giving a grammaticality judgment. Sammy Cahn describes how Sinatra objected to his lyric for the song "The Last Dance."

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Here's the relevant bit of the transcript from the Fresh Air site:

CAHN: So when you speak, you would say they're wondering just when we will leave. You wouldn't say, they're wondering just when will we leave. So he said that one, just when we will leave. I said no, it isn't – hold it. I said they're wondering just when will we leave. But till we leave. He said what kind of cockamamie word is…


CAHN: I said no one speaks like that. I said no. I said no one speaks like that, but we aren't speaking, Frank, are we? We're singing, aren't we, Frank? And that's the only time we ever kind of good-naturedly quarreled about a line.

Apparently Cahn shared the judgment but justified the inversion on artistic grounds. Sinatra subsequently did it Cahn's way, not his way.

I also love Cahn's bisyllabic pronunciation of "aren't" here.

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Mutual intelligibility


Assuming no prior, formal study of or contact with the opposite language in a given pair (i.e., one is coming at these languages completely cold), roughly what degree (percentage) of intelligibility would exist between the spoken forms of the languages in the list below?  Naturally, you are not expected to comment on all of these pairs, but knowledgeable assessment of any of the pairs would be both valuable and appreciated.  Feel free to add any other pairs not listed, or to combine a language from any of the given pairs with a language from any other pair.  Unless otherwise noted, the languages listed are the national standards.  If the name of a city or region is given, the reference is to the language spoken in that area.

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For May 21, China Real Time Report, the China blog of the Wall Street Journal, featured an article entitled "Do You Dare Try the Devil-Language? China’s 10 Hardest Dialects" by Isabella Steger.

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