Archive for Languages

Rhotic fricatives on the hoof

For a linguist, at least if the linguist is me, it is a thrill to cross for the first time the northern border that separates Austria from Czechia. Immediately after crossing the border last Sunday, my train stopped at Břeclav, and I was able to hear over the beautifully clear announcement PA system my first real-context occurrence of one of the rarest sounds in the languages of the world.

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What's in the sachet?

At my hotel here in Brno, Czechia, the shampoo comes in small sachets, manufactured in Düsseldorf, labeled with the word denoting the contents in a long list of suitable European Union languages. I can't tell you which languages they picked, for reasons which will immediately become apparent. Here are the first four:

  1. Shampoo
  2. Shampoo
  3. Shampooing
  4. Shampoo

Just so you're sure.

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French vs. English

When I travel around the world and come upon parallel translations of French and English, I am often struck by how much longer the French usually is than the English.  This impression was reinforced last week in the bathroom of the Marriott Courtyard in Columbia, Maryland.

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Where the language diversity is

In the articles-noted-but-not-yet-studied pile: an article on language diversity in a journal that (as reader Ted McClure points out to me) linguists might easily have missed (though at least some linguistics blogs covered it): in Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences (281, 20133029), earlier this year, Jacob Bock Axelsen and Susanna Manrubia published a paper entitled "River density and landscape roughness are universal determinants of linguistic diversity." The abstract says:

Global linguistic diversity (LD) displays highly heterogeneous distribution patterns. Though the origin of the latter is not yet fully understood, remarkable parallelisms with biodiversity distribution suggest that environmental variables should play an essential role in their emergence. In an effort to construct a broad framework to explain world LD and to systematize the available data, we have investigated the significance of 14 variables: landscape roughness, altitude, river density, distance to lakes, seasonal maximum, average and minimum temperature, precipitation and vegetation, and population density. Landscape roughness and river density are the only two variables that universally affect LD. Overall, the considered set accounts for up to 80% of African LD, a figure that decreases for the joint Asia, Australia and the Pacific (69%), Europe (56%) and the Americas (53%). Differences among those regions can be traced down to a few variables that permit an interpretation of their current states of LD. Our processed datasets can be applied to the analysis of correlations in other similar heterogeneous patterns with a broad spatial distribution, the clearest example being biological diversity. The statistical method we have used can be understood as a tool for cross-comparison among geographical regions, including the prediction of spatial diversity in alternative scenarios or in changing environments.

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Hong Kong interlingual contrast

John Brewer noted the palpable irony between two quotations in this article from today's NYT:  "7 Hong Kong Police Officers Arrested in Beating of Protester"(11/26/14)

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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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Too much Victor Mair

I've been reading way too much Victor Mair. In the restaurant of my hotel in London I just saw an English girl wearing a T-shirt on which it said this:


And I immediately thought, who is Ho Pe?

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English and Mandarin juxtaposed

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No word for "privacy" in Russian?

Reader and fan Will Thompson wrote to Mark Liberman, who passed his letter on to me, about a recent article by Ellen Barry in The New York Times, discussing a book by the Russian political analyst Nikolai V. Zlobin in which he explains weird/different American cultural norms to Russians.

Will notes that towards the end, the reviewer states:

He [Zlobin] devotes many pages to privacy, a word that does not exist in the Russian language[.]

And Will is suspicious of that claim.

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High school language exams in students' native languages

High school principals in the UK are discovering that immigrants can be a very useful resource for them. Schools are rated according to the number of passes their students obtain in the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE). There are 619,000 immigrants from Poland now living in the country, and Polish is available as a GCSE examination subject.

Polish is now the 5th most popular language to take at GCSE level. And 95% of those taking it gain one of the top 3 of the 9 grades (a much higher percentage than for languages like French or Spanish). Moreover, 97% of those who take Polish score worse on the English Language exam. The inference to draw is clear, and very probably true: schools are pushing Polish native speakers to take the exam, because it pushes up the school's GCSE rating.

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How many languages?

From a Globe and Mail story about the census in India (hat tip to Michael Kaan):

India concluded its national census this week, having tallied up some 1.2 billion souls, and the last night of counting focused on homeless people – of whom there are an estimated 150,000 in Delhi alone. Getting them into the count was just one in an array of staggering challenges: how to enumerate in the dozen areas under control of various armed rebel movements, and in the 572 tiny islands that make up Andaman and Nicobar; how to train 2.5 million enumerators and handle answers in 6,661 languages.

Whoa! 6,661 languages? The Ethnologue site says it has information about the 6,909 "known living languages" in the world, and lists only 438 living languages for India (for comparison: it lists 176 living languages for the United States, 86 for Canada, and 12 for the United Kingdom).

But if you look at the entries in the Ethnologue, you'll see that most languages have alternative names (sometimes a lot of them) and most languages have recognized dialects listed (sometimes a lot of them). That's probably enough to inflate the language count by more than one order of magnitude. (It's also true that "immigrant languages" — for India, the site mentions Armenian, Burushaski, Judeo-Iraqi Arabic, Northern Pashto, Uighur, Walungge, and Western Farsi — aren't included in the count, but they're probably a small contribution to the problems of the national census of India.)

So it all depends on how you count.

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New search service for language resources

It has just become a whole lot easier to search the world's language archives.  The new OLAC Language Resource Catalog contains descriptions of over 100,000 language resources from over 40 language archives worldwide.

This catalog, developed by the Open Language Archives Community (OLAC), provides access to a wealth of information about thousands of languages, including details of text collections, audio recordings, dictionaries, and software, sourced from dozens of digital and traditional archives.

OLAC is an international partnership of institutions and individuals who are creating a worldwide virtual library of language resources by: (i) developing consensus on best current practice for the digital archiving of language resources, and (ii) developing a network of interoperating repositories and services for housing and accessing such resources.  The OLAC Language Resource Catalog was developed by staff at the Linguistic Data Consortium, the University of Pennsylvania Libraries, the Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics, and the University of Melbourne.  The primary sponsor is the National Science Foundation.

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Sinitic and Tibetic

In a discussion we were having about the Tibetan evidential particle yin, Nathan Hill sent me an article by Nicholas Tournadre entitled "Arguments against the Concept of 'Conjunct' / 'Disjunct' in Tibetan" from Chomolangma, Demawend und Kasbek, Festschrift für Roland Bielmeier (2008), 281-308.  As I started reading through the article with the hope of finding how yin functions as a sort of equational verb or copula, I was caught up short by some preliminary remarks about the classification of Tibetan that Tournadre makes at the beginning of his paper.

Based on his 20 years of field work throughout the Tibetan language area and on the existing literature, Tournadre estimates that there are 220 "Tibetan dialects" derived from Old Tibetan and currently distributed across five countries:  China, India, Bhutan, Nepal, and Pakistan.  In a forthcoming work, Tournadre states that these "dialects" may be classed within 25 "dialect groups," i.e., groups that do not permit mutual intelligibility.  According to Tournadre, the notion of "dialect group" is equivalent to the notion of "language," but does not entail standardization.  Consequently, says Tournadre, if the concept of standardization is set aside, it would be more appropriate to speak of 25 languages derived from Old Tibetan rather than 25 "dialect groups."

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