Archive for Language contact

Shifty merchants with 251 secret words for trade

Lila Gleitman points out to me that in one of the slowly increasing number of articles passing round the pseudoscientific story about Yiddish originating in four villages in Turkey you can see that hallmark of non-serious language research, the X-people-have-Y-words-for-Z trope:

Putting together evidence from linguistic, history, and genetics, we concluded that the ancient Ashkenazic Jews were merchants who developed Yiddish as a secret language — with 251 words for "buy" and "sell" — to maintain their monopoly. They were known to trade in everything from fur to slaves.

You can see the article here, but don't take that as a recommendation; it looks to me like unsubstantiated drivel. Exactly 251 words for buying and selling? No examples cited, and no hint of how more than two basic words and a few random approximate synonyms could be the slightest bit useful? It looks like classic myth-repetition of the usual Eskimo-words-for-snow sort.

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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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How Sid Caesar learned double-talk

The obituaries for the great comic Sid Caesar invariably mention his proficiency in "double-talk," mimicking the sounds (but not the sense) of foreign languages. (On the phenomenon of double-talk, see Mark Liberman's posts on yaourter here, here, here, and here.) It turns out that this was a talent Caesar had cultivated ever since he was a boy clearing tables at his father's restaurant in multi-ethnic Yonkers.

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A few weeks ago, the Verein Deutsche Sprache awarded its 2013 Sprachpanscher prize to the Duden dictionary, for Duden's role in the "shitstorm" shitstorm ("'Shitstorm' Shitstorm: Dictionary Wins Award for Ruining German", Spiegel OnLine):

The most respected dictionary in the German-speaking world has come under fire for its excessive use of English words.

The Association for the German Language (VDS) — a group that campaigns to protect and promote German — gave the dictionary its annual "Sprachpanscher" (language adulteror) award, which singles out people or organizations responsible for legitimizing anglicisms in German.

(For background, see "Das Wort "Shitstorm" hat nun einen Platz im Duden", 7/4/2013.)

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A new mixed language in the news

Lately we've seen a number of hair-tearing Language Log posts (including a couple of mine) about bad linguistic pseudo-hemi-demi-quasi-science getting into major science journals and the popular press.  But sometimes the news media get it right, and here's one example: thanks to effective publicizing by the Linguistic Society of America, a new article by Carmel O'Shannessy, who has been observing the emergence of a new mixed language in Australia for many years, is being widely reported nationally and internationally, for instance here and here.

Back in 2004 I gave a talk on `The birth of bilingual mixed languages' at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  A prominent linguist in the audience protested during the comment period that I had no actual evidence that such languages actually existed and were learnable, since my evidence came from historical situations.   (I still think my evidence was solid, but I'm pretty sure I didn't convince the doubter. )   Carmel's research (which wasn't yet published in 2004) would have been an effective response to that objection: she shows that young children have been participating in the creation of Light Warlpiri, and she shows conclusively that the language is being learned by younger children.

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English or Engelsk?

A recent article in Science Daily has the headline `Linguist makes sensational claim: English is a Scandinavian language'. The claim in question is Jan Terje Faarlund's conclusion that `English is in reality a Scandinavian language' — that `Old English quite simply died out while Scandinavian survived, albeit strongly influenced of course by Old English.' The core of Faarlund's argument is that, in addition to many words that originally belonged to Norwegian and/or Danish, English has syntactic structures that are Scandinavian rather than West Germanic in origin. Specifically, Faarlund argues that `wherever English differs syntactically from the other Western Germanic languages — German, Dutch, Frisian — it has the same structure as the Scandinavian languages.' Faarlund then gives a few examples of syntactic parallelism between English and Scandinavian [that is, the Germanic languages of Scandinavia] and concludes that `the only reasonable explanation' for this parallelism `is that English is in fact a Scandinavian language, and a continuation of the Norwegian-Danish language which was used in England during the Middle Ages.'

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, as the saying goes. The evidence cited in the article is nowhere near extraordinary. Assuming that he is quoted accurately, there are some serious problems with Faarlund's claims.

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"Oppan Chomsky Style"

Somehow, Language Log has yet to take notice of the international sensation that is "Gangnam Style," the deliciously weird Korean pop video that currently has more than 560 million views on YouTube. Here's a good opportunity to rectify that oversight: among the countless spoofs of the video is this one by enterprising MIT students, featuring a cameo by Noam Chomsky at 3:20.

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Artistic touristic linguistics

Andrew Spitz and Momo Miyazaki, students at Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design, posted this charming video of their cross-linguistic art project:

WTPh? (What the Phonics) is an interactive installation set in the touristic areas of Copenhagen. Street names in Denmark are close to impossible for foreigners to pronounce, so we did a little intervention :-)

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The Mock Spanglish of @ElBloombito

If nothing else, Hurricane Irene leaves us with the legacy of a fine fake-Twitter account, @ElBloombito (aka "Miguel Bloombito"), which takes satirical aim at the Spanish-language announcements that New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg appended to the end of his many hurricane-related press conferences. Bloomberg has been working on his Spanish public speaking for years (and has even received intensive tutoring sessions), but his very Bloombergian enunciation was too good a target to pass up for Rachel Figueroa-Levin, the creator of the @ElBloombito Twitter account.

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Starkey ravings

We've had Geoff Pullum's response to "David Starkey on rioting and Jamaican languages" (here): a suitably outraged reaction to Starkey's amazingly ignorant ravings on language, race, and culture in the recent British riots (it's all the fault of Jamaican Creole!). Now, from the ironic wing of the creolist world, the following response by Peter Trudgill (Honorary Professor of Sociolinguistics at the University of East Anglia in Norwich), written as a letter to the Guardian (which might or might not publish it) and reproduced here with his permission:

During the Newsnight interview in which David Starkey complained about "this language which is wholly false, which is this Jamaican patois that has been intruded in England" (13th August), it was shocking to note that he himself used a form of language which was distressingly alien. I estimate that at least 40%, and quite possibly more, of his vocabulary consisted of utterly foreign words forced on us by a wholly other culture – words which were intruded in England from the language of Norman French immigrants to our country, such as "language" and "false". And there were many other alienating aspects to his speech. It was unfortunate, for instance, that he chose to use the term "intruded", employing a word insinuated into our language by sub-cultures in our society who abandoned their true Anglo-Saxon heritage and instead imitated the wholly false language of Roman invaders.

From back-channel discussion, it appears that pretty much all living linguists with significant knowledge of Jamaican Creole — I don't count, since what I know about the language comes mostly from Beryl Bailey's wonderful Jamaican Creole Syntax (1966) and later descriptions, rather than from personal experience — are appalled by Starkey's incendiary ravings. How could they not be?

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Francophone lexical influence in Bulgaria

I write this from Sofia, a delightful city of broad boulevards and amazing churches and friendly people and huge tranquil parks, where I arrived on Sunday afternoon. Within a few minutes I made my first linguistically-deduced hypothesis about the history of Bulgarian technology. I could be wrong, of course, but I have been led to conjecture that the Bulgarians got at least some of their modern architectural, constructional, and engineering technology via the French.

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The Assimilation of English in Chinese

The varieties of Chinese English are so numerous as to defy complete listing.  To name only the better known, we have pidgin, Chinglish, Singlish, Zhonglish, China English, Chinese-English, and sinographically transcribed English.  Martian Language, Internet Language, and much scientific, technological, and academic prose also are more or less saturated with English words.  Advertising language is particularly fond of using English words and phrases, often in very clever and unusual ways that are particularly well suited to the Chinese linguistic and cultural environment.

There have even been attempts to write English words in the shape of Chinese characters, the most famous being the "Square-Word Calligraphy" of the artist Xu Bing:  whole passage; character for "excellence"; character for "respect"; character for "elegance"; character for "design".

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Indie-pop Manglish

Over the weekend, one of the guests on the NPR show "Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen" was the Malaysian singer-songwriter Zee Avi, who has managed to convert YouTube buzz into an indie recording contract and a well-received debut album. Most of her lyrics are in English, but one of her songs, which she performed on the show, code-mixes Malay and English. As she explains, the song "Kantoi" (meaning "Busted") is in "a hybrid of Malay and English called Manglish." I talked about Manglish a few years ago in the post, "Malaysia cracks down on 'salad language,'" where I discussed measures taken by the Malaysian government to ban Malay-English mixtures. I wonder how government officials feel now that Manglish is getting international exposure, thanks to a diminutive, ukulele-strumming songstress.

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