Archive for Language and culture

Throw a language party!

Magdalen Kelantumama telling the story Murtankala, The Woman Creator, Tiwi language, Australia, Darwin Fringe Festival, July 2017.

2019 is UN International Year of Indigenous Languages. How do we celebrate linguistic diversity and recognise the people who are keeping endangered languages strong? Inspired by the work of Joanna Macy, we have developed a format for storytelling in the original languages. While listeners don't understand the individual words, they get the message:

Speech does not consist of words alone… it consists of utterance – an uttering-forth of one's whole meaning with one's whole being – the understanding of which involves infinitely more than mere word-recognition. With an emotionally-laden utterance the meaning may be fully grasped even when every word is missed. –Oliver Sacks

And the message isn't just a story to be translated and digested, as though language were merely a tool for communication, and linguistic diversity no more than a barrier to be overcome through translation. Audiences experience Language as art, music, spoken soul. The thread of each story linking us back to the ancestors. Language connecting people to country. Each language a treasure for the whole of humankind. A language's emblematic stock of untranslatable words.

Today, speakers of endangered languages are found in urban centres across the world. This presents an opportunity to gather and listen to them, embrace the diversity in our midst, and create new ways and new places for people to belong. A special reward awaits: we all come to belong in our place in a new way.

The good news is that the world is still home to 4,500 vigorous languages. Celebrate with us, and throw a language party!

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More on trends in the Google ngrams corpus

In "Lexico-cultural decay?", 10/9/2018, I called into question Jonathan Merritt's evidence for the view that "most of the central terms in the Christian vocabulary are rapidly declining". Merritt cites Kesebir & Kesebir 2012, who argue on the basis of Google ngram-viewer data that

Study 1 showed a decline in the use of general moral terms such as virtue, decency and conscience, throughout the twentieth century. In Study 2, we examined the appearance frequency of 50 virtue words (e.g. honesty, patience, compassion) and found a significant decline for 74% of them.

I explained several reasons why unigram frequencies for many ordinary words in the Google ngram dataset tend to show a decline over the 20th century, citing Pechinick et al. 2015 and giving some illustrative examples. It occurred to me this morning that there's a different way to illustrate one of the issues, namely the changing mix of types of books in Google's collection. At some point after 2000, that collection shifts fairly abruptly — the earlier material is based on scans of books from cooperating research libraries, while the later material is based on digital texts provided by publishers. This shift produces such a pronounced change in the frequency of nearly all words that the default ngram viewer stops in the year 2000.

But you can ask the viewer to give you data up to 2008 (as far as it's willing to go), and the results almost always show a pronounced change. So I tried it for the items underlying Merritt's argument.

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Why it's harder for him to "speak God"

In "Lexico-cultural decay" (10/9/2018) and "Lexical orientation" (10/12/2018) I discussed Jonathan Merritt's 10/9/2018 argument that "traditional sacred speech is dying in the English-speaking world" ("The Death of Sacred Speech", The Week 9/10/2018).

Yesterday, a related piece by Merritt was featured in the New York Times — "It’s Getting Harder to Talk About God". This time he adds polling results to numbers from Google Books:

More than 70 percent of Americans identify as Christian, but you wouldn’t know it from listening to them. An overwhelming majority of people say that they don’t feel comfortable speaking about faith, most of the time. […]

As a student of American Christianity and the son of a prominent megachurch pastor, I’ve been sensing for some time that sacred speech and spiritual conversation are in decline. But this was only a hunch I had formed in response to anecdotal evidence and personal experience. I lacked the quantitative data needed to say for sure.

So last year, I enlisted the Barna Group, a social research firm focused on religion and public life, to conduct a survey of 1,000 American adults. This study revealed that most Americans — more than three-quarters, actually — do not often have spiritual or religious conversations.

More than one-fifth of respondents admit they have not had a spiritual conversation at all in the past year. Six in 10 say they had a spiritual conversation only on rare occasions — either “once or twice” (29 percent) or “several times” (29 percent) in the past year. A paltry 7 percent of Americans say they talk about spiritual matters regularly.

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Lexical orientation

In "Lexico-Cultural Decay", 10/9/2018, I examined Jonathan Merritt's Google-ngram-based argument that "traditional sacred speech is dying in the English-speaking world" ("The Death of Sacred Speech", The Week 9/10/2018). Today, as promised in that post, I'm returning to his neo-Whorfian conclusion:

Now, words have fallen out of usage at every point in history. Language is always changing, and humans keep marching on. Does this trend matter?

Actually, yes. An emerging body of research now reveals that the languages we hear and speak also influence our worldviews, memories, perceptions, and behaviors more than scientists once realized. Children who grow up speaking the same words tend to think in similar ways. Our minds don't just shape our words. Our words shape our minds, too.

A linguist named Lera Boroditsky once asked an audience of celebrated scholars at Harvard University to close their eyes and point north. Hands shot up around the auditorium like roman candles, aimed in all possible directions. She repeated the experiment at Princeton and Stanford, as well as in Moscow, London, and Beijing. The result was the same — an array of hands aimed at each of the four major directions and every point in between.

But when Boroditsky traveled to a community on the western shores of Australia's Cape York, she discovered that children as young as 5 can point north at all times with absolute precision.

Why the difference? The answer, as it turns out, is words.

Or maybe the answer is walls.

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Lexico-cultural decay?

Jonathan Merritt, "The Death of Sacred Speech", The Week 9/10/2018:

America boasts more Christians than any other country on planet Earth. But you wouldn't know it from listening to us.

According to Google Ngram Viewer data, a searchable database of millions of printed works stretching back 500 years, most of the central terms in the Christian vocabulary are rapidly declining. One 2012 study in the Journal of Positive Psychology, for example, analyzed 50 moral terms associated with Christianity and found that a whopping 74 percent were used less frequently over the course of the last century […]

"Whopping "? If the frequency of each word were following a random walk, we'd expect 50% of them to decline and 50% of them to increase. And to be confident that 74% is "whopping", or even meaningful, we'd need to do something that neither Merritt nor the cited paper do, namely verify that there's no overall bias in the data source for reasons other than changing "cultural salience", either towards decreasing frequency of certain types of words, or decreasing frequency of individual words in general, But in fact there's good reason to believe that both sorts of bias exist — see below.

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The Nth Noun

Yesterday while stuck in traffic I listened to Michael Lewis being interviewed about his new book "The Fifth Risk", and I passed the time thinking about other titles of the form Definite Article + Ordinal Number + Noun. There are many of these, but there are clear stand-outs for numbers 1, 2, 3, and 7:

The First Circle
The Second Sex
The Third Man
The Seventh Seal

I couldn't think of any iconic examples for 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10, 11, etc., but no doubt readers will be able to supply some.

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"OK Google/Siri/Alexa/Cortana, What's Next?"

Penn's School of Arts and Sciences sponsors a series of "60 Second Lectures", where

Penn Arts and Sciences faculty take a minute out by the Ben Franklin statue in front of College Hall to share their perspectives on topics ranging from human history and the knowable universe to fractions and fly-fishing.

This past week, they asked me to do it, and I chose the title

"OK Google/Siri/Alexa/Cortana, What's Next?"

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Pronouns in physics

Madeleine Ngo, "Penn's physics department has started listing gender pronouns on its website", The Daily Pennsylvanian 9/26/2018:

Penn's Physics and Astronomy Department now lists gender pronouns on its website for some of its student, faculty, and staff members in an effort to combat stigma, encourage respectful communication, and promote the department's inclusivity.

The Diversity and Inclusion in Physics group initiated the project last semester with graduate students at the helm. In April, students and members of the department were emailed and given the option to submit their pronouns to be publicly shared on the website.

The department has been updating its website to include the responses. Physics and Astronomy Administrative Coordinator Glenn Fechner, who manages the department’s website, collected people’s pronouns and added them to each individual biography.

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"I am a cat" t-shirt

Thorin Engeseth sent in these two photographs of a Zara brand shirt that his wife bought yesterday:

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Balkan-Chinese rock, with a Turkish twist

From Charles Belov:

This song turned up on my Apple Music new music playlist. Imagine my surprise when, in the middle of this Balkan-language (Croatian, I think, the page mentions "hrvatsko") pop/rock song, Mandarin hip-hop turned up.

"Mladen Burnać (feat. Rock) – Džaba Džaba"

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"I'm here to be told"

In a production of Hapgood last night at the Lantern Theater, I was struck by a phrase that the character Elizabeth Hapgood uses four times. In fact, it caught my attention the first time she used it — as I've noted, a word or short phrase can be contextually salient even at a frequency of one (See e.g. "And yet", 3/28/2004).

Hapgood is the complex, not to say baffling, story of double (and triple and quadruple) agents, in which literal and fictional twins play a key role in complex espionage and counter-espionage operations. If  you're interested, you can find a plot summary here.

The phrase in question is "I'm here to be told", meaning something like "There's some information that I'm expecting from you, but not immediately, so I'm here standing by until you can tell me". The first three times that Hapgood uses it are in the context of radio communication with field agents during an operation, where it's clear to them what she wants to know or what she wants done, and "I'm here to be told" is essentially an instruction to them to do their job and report back. Her final use of the phrase is in a telephone conversation with her son, in which he's due to give her details about a rugby match that he'll be playing in. McKenna Kerrigan, the actor playing Elizabeth Hapgood, produced all four examples crisply, seriously, and without hesitation.

Although it's obvious in context what the phrase means, I don't recall ever having heard it before.  A search in Google Books comes up empty. A general web search turns up a few example with a complement to told and a rather different sort of meaning, for example "I’m not here to be told my pictures aren’t good. I’m here to be told why they weren’t good so I can improve."

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Pronouns: identification by paradigm?

A graduate student in classics expresses appreciation for the new norm of academic staff announcing their pronoun preferences, but wonders why everyone gives their preferences as three-element paradigm: she/her/hers, he/him/his, they/them/their. It's not like anyone is going to mix and match, she/him/their or whatever.

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The geo-, socio-, ethno-, and politicolinguistics of Taiwan

I've had guests from Taiwan for the past few days.  Two of them are mother and daughter, both primary school teachers.  The mother is a nationally known teacher of Taiwanese language who received special awards from two presidents, Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian.  She is very proud of the beauty of the Taiwanese language and is honored to be able to teach it to her students.  She refers to Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM) as "Huáyǔ 華語", as is done in Singapore and elsewhere in Southeast Asia, and refuses to call it 國語 ("National Language"), because, as she says, "It is not the language of our nation".

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