Archive for Language change

"Mixed" languages

On Monday (11/26/16), Erika Sandman will be defending her doctoral dissertation on "A Grammar of Wutun" in the Faculty of Arts, Department of World Cultures, at the University of Helsinki.  I have a special interest in this type of "mixed" (for want of a better word) language that is situated at the interface between the Tibetic and Sinitic groups.  My fascination with the hybrid Sinitic and non-Sinitic languages of northwestern China derives from a number of factors, including the decades of fieldwork and historical research I have devoted to the region, the fact that the 14th Dalai Lama was born here, and the intriguing thought that — if Sinitic and Tibetic are indeed related in some fashion, as many people believe — the Gansu-Qinghai sprachbund constitutes a laboratory both for the study of Tibetic and Sinitic languages individually, but also for observing their interactions with each other and with the Turkic and Mongolic languages that have also prevailed here at different times and are still present today.

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Dialect death

Reports of the death of languages and the extinction of languages are alarmingly routine, but before a language dies out entirely, when it is endangered, its dialects die off one by one.

"Last native speaker of Scots dialect dies" (10/6/12)

Dialect Death:  The case of Brule Spanish (1997)

The list of publications documenting the dead and dying dialects could go on for many pages:  I lament each and every one of them.

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"Either… or…"

The following photographs come from an article on citizen protests in Lanzhou and Beijing openly demanding governmental transparency on public officials' personal assets (I am no longer able to access the article online).

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More katakana, fewer kanji

In a comment to "Character amnesia and kanji attachment " (2/24/16), I wrote:

For the last 40 years and more, I have informally tracked kanji usage in Japanese books, newspapers, journals, magazines, signs, notices, labels, directions, messages, reports, business cards (meishi), packaging, etc., etc. and the conclusion I reach is that the proportion of kanji used now is much less than it was four-five decades ago. Conversely, the proportion of katakana, hiragana, rōmaji, and English has increased dramatically.

Has anyone done studies of this phenomenon in a more formal, rigorous way? And I would suggest extending the investigation back a hundred years or more.

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Up (for) and down (with)

From Peter Weinberger:

My group at work was discussing a proposed outing:
I said "I'm up for that".
Our intern said "I'm down with that".

Do you know if this is purely generational, or is there some sort of geographic component?

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From "Servia" to "Serbia"

[The first part of this post is from an anonymous contributor.]

The Serbian legation in London complains to the media about the spelling Servia, which is 'highly offensive to our people'.

(It is true that there is a place in Greece called 'Servia', whose name 'derives from the Latin verb servo, meaning "to watch over"'.)

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Gender bending

There's a guy with brown hair who has worked as a checkout person at a store I go to regularly.  He's been there for about five years.  Of the 20 or so checkout persons at the store, all of the others except one are female, mostly between 18 and 25.

Over the course of the last year or so, I noticed that this fellow became increasingly girllike.  Finally, last week when I went to the store, there was a new checkout girl with straight, long blonde hair.  It turned out that I was next in line to go to her counter.  She was wearing a name tag that said "Karen".  I really didn't know this person, but when she spoke to me I realized it was that guy, though his / her (–> their) voice was much higher, and manner even more feminine than before, and he / she (–> they) was (–> were) wearing a skirt.  I really didn't know what to do or say.  My overall reaction was to accept her as a new hire.

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Reversal of meanings

From Cecilia Segawa Seigle (9/18/15):

Yesterday morning's Asahi Shinbun reports that some Japanese words (or argot in certain cases) seem to be changing (reversing) meanings.

For example "yabai" (やばい), originally an argot used by criminals (thieves) meaning "not good" or "not propitious," seems to have changed its meaning among teenagers. 90% of the teens use the word "yabai" to express "wonderful," "good," "delicious," "smart-looking."  Only 5% of the people above 70 years of age used "yabai" for positive meaning; in other words the older people still use the word for negative situations.

For the word "Omomuroni" (おもむろに), an adverb meaning "unhurriedly," "slowly," 44.5% answered with the traditional meaning "slowly." 40.8% answered that "omomuroni" meant "suddenly."

This is only a small part of the phenomena revealing the breakdown of the Japanese language according to the recent survey made by Bunkacho (文化庁), Japanese government's Agency for Cultural Affairs.

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Cavemen and postmen and explanation

For those who were interested in Mark's post on the curious question of when the -man suffix gets a reduced vowel (woman, fireman, madman, milkman, gunman, batman, Batman, caveman, postman, weatherman, etc.), and especially for those who commented on it, Ben Yagoda has now written insightfully on the topic over at Lingua Franca.

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"Language cancer"

David Bandurski has posted a fine article about "The 'cancer' of all things Western" on the website of cmp (China Media Project), at the Journalism and Media Studies Centre of The University of Hong Kong.  (3/24/15)

Bandurski draws the inspiration for the title of his article from a February piece in the Beijing Daily, in which the Taiwanese poet and critic, Yu Kwang-chung, is quoted as warning against a yǔyán ái 语言癌 ("language cancer") eroding Chinese literacy through èxìng xīhuà 恶性西化 ("malignant Westernization").

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UH / UM in Norwegian

A short summary of the filled-pause saga so far: If we call nasal-final filled pauses UM and non-nasal varieties UH, younger people use UM more than older people, and women use UM more than men. We've found this to be true in several varieties of English (sampled all over the U.S., sampled all over the U.K., from Philadelphia, from Glasgow) and in several other Germanic languages (Dutch and German). In addition, in the Philadelphia Neighborhood Corpus, where we have interviews gathered over four decades of real time as well as interviews with speakers of different ages, it appears that there is a historical trend as well as a life-cycle phenomenon. Contributions to this work-in-progress have come from Mark Liberman (University of Pennsylvania), Martijn Wieling (University of Groningen), Josef Fruehwald (University of Edinburgh), and John Coleman (University of Oxford), among others.

For more detail, here's a chronological list of past posts: "Young men talk like old women", 11/6/2005; "Fillers: Autism, gender, age", 7/30/2014;  "More on UM and UH", 8/3/2014; "UM UH 3", 8/4/2014; "Male and female word usage", 8/7/2014; "UM / UH geography", 8/13/2014; "Educational UM / UH", 8/13/2014; "UM / UH: Lifecycle effects vs. language change", 8/15/2014; "Filled pauses in Glasgow", 8/17/2014; "ER and ERM in the spoken BNC", 8/18/2014; "Um and uh in Dutch", 9/16/2014; "UM / UH in German", 9/28/2014; "Um, there's timing information in Switchboard?", 10/5/2014; "Trending in the Media: Um, not exactly…", 10/7/2014.)

Below is a guest post by Martijn Wieling, adding one more Germanic language to the list.

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ER and ERM in the spoken BNC

From John Coleman:

Inspired by your recent Language Log pieces, I tried an analysis of "er" vs "erm" in the Spoken BNC. These are the two main transcriptions for filled pauses labelled as "UNC" in the Claws-5 tagset and also "UNC" in the richer set of pos labels used in BNC. I.e. they are distinguished from items labelled as ITJ / INTERJ, in which the few tokens of "uh" and "um" are classified. These "uh"s are almost all in "uh huh" meaning "yes", and many of the "um"s and "mm"s are also in contexts where the "yes" sense is clear. So I disregarded the ITJs and restricted the analysis to UNC "er" and "erm", which are far more numerous in any case. As these are mostly nonrhotic dialects one can interpret "erm" as just schwa + nasality, with no implication of rhoticity; ditto for "er".

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UM / UH: Life-cycle effects vs. language change

In English-language conversations, older people tend to use UH more often and UM less often. And at every age, men tend to use UH more than women, and women tend to use UM more than men.  These effects are large and robust – they've been documented in at least five independent datasets, from both North American and Great Britain — for details, see the links at the end of this post.

The cited patterns are consistent with two quite different classes of explanation:

  • There might be a language change in progress, with older people reflecting the patterns of an earlier time and younger people showing the language of the future, while women are leading the change, as they often do.
  • There might be stable gender and life-cycle effects, so that the UM and UH sex and age associations looked the same a few decades in the past, and will look the same a few decades in the future.

And there's an independent question about the functions of the classes of vocalizations that we transcribe as UM and UH:

  • Perhaps UM and UH are simply alternative expressions of the same compositional or communicative function — say, two different (classes of) ways of stalling for time in the process of speaking — or alternatively
  • perhaps UM and UH have partly or entirely different functions, and it's differences in the frequency of these functions that are associated with age, sex, and so on.

In neither case are the alternatives mutually exclusive — the truth might be some mixture of the two.

Yesterday, Joe Fruehwald looked at UM and UH usage in a dataset with enough time depth that we can tell the difference between a change in progress and a stable life-cycle effect. And he found that the truth seems to be a bit of both.

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