Archive for Language loss

No "no"

When I lived in Nepal (1965-67), I heard of the Kusunda, but never had a chance to go visit them.  Now they are in the news, because their language — an isolate that linguists believe is unrelated to any other language in the world — is on the verge of extinction, with only one remaining speaker, 48-year-old Kamala Khatri.

"The language that doesn't use 'no'", by Eileen McDougall, BBC (8/9/22)

Selections from the article:

The Kusunda are highly marginalised and impoverished within Nepali society. Today, most live in west Nepal's Dang district, a sleepy region of yellow mustard fields and misty, wooded hills. It is here the Language Commission of Nepal has been running Kusunda classes since 2019 in an effort to preserve the language.

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Character amnesia yet again: game (almost) over

Last week, I witnessed a palpable, powerful, poignant demonstration of tíbǐwàngzì 提筆忘字 ("forgetting how to write sinographs; character amnesia").  This happened in a colloquium where, during the discussion period, someone mentioned the standard eight-volume Historical Atlas of China (1982-1988) edited by the renowned geographer Tan Qixiang (1911-1992).  A member of the gathering requested that the name be written on the whiteboard in sinographs.  A colleague — a tenured professor of medieval Chinese history — popped up and said they could write the name in characters.

Already a little bit wobbly on the semantophore / radical on the left side of the first character (the surname), with a little bit of kibitzing from colleagues, the volunteer managed to produce the requisite semantophore after several false starts and erasures.  After that great achievement (producing the semantophore amid much embarrassment), they turned to the phonophore on the right side but were getting nowhere fast, even with suggestions from colleagues who were looking on.

Finally, someone looked up the name on their phone and presto digito*, the correct writing emerged:  譚其驤 / 谭其骧 (the group — scholars all — collectively preferred the traditional form over the simplified one).

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[*VHM:  I remember hearing this expression when I was young, but it barely exists on the internet, and I can't find it in dictionaries either.]

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Preserving Taiwanese

Article by Rhoda Kwan, Hong Kong Free Press (31/10/21):

‘The loss of language is the loss of heritage:’ the push to revive Taiwanese in Taiwan

"You can't completely express Taiwanese culture with Mandarin – something is bound to be lost in translation," says one advocate for the local language.

When I go to Taipei, I seldom hear Taiwanese being spoken, especially by people under forty or fifty.  That is always saddening to me, especially considering the fact that about 70% of the total population of Taiwan today are Hoklos.

The rare usage of Taiwanese, particularly on the streets of its capital Taipei, is a legacy of decades of colonial rule. During 50 years under Japanese rule, and the Kuomintang’s subsequent martial law from 1949 to 1987, generations of Taiwanese were banned from speaking their mother tongue in public.

“A whole generation’s learning in this language was washed away, and with this language a culture and identity was also washed away,” said Lí Sì–goe̍h, a Taiwanese language advocate.

Before the arrival of the Kuomintang, Taiwanese – a language from China’s Fujian province also referred to as Taigí, Taiwanese Hokkien, Hoklo or Southern Min – was spoken by most Han immigrants who arrived on the island from the 17th century onwards. Other languages, including other Chinese languages such as Hakka and dozens of different Austronesian indigenous languages, were also spoken on the island, a reflection of the diversity of ethnic groups that have lived on the island for centuries.

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Speak not: dying languages

In Asian Review of Books (10/20/21), Peter Gordon reviews James Griffiths' Speak Not: Empire, Identity and the Politics of Language (Bloomsbury, October 2021).  Although the book touches upon many other languages, its main focus is on Welsh, Hawaiian, and Cantonese.

That Speak Not is more politics than linguistics is telegraphed by the title. For Griffiths, language is the single most important aspect of group identity, both as marker and glue: that what makes the Welsh Welsh or Hawaiians Hawaiian is primarily the language, rather than lineage, culture, belief systems or lifestyles. While some might debate this, governments have all too often taken aim at minority languages with precisely this rationale in the name of national unity.

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The pain of forgetting one's mother / father tongue

And the pleasure of regaining it with the help of IT.

"Forgetting My First Language:  When I speak Cantonese with my parents now, I rely on translation apps."

By Jenny Liao, New Yorker
September 3, 2021

This is a perennial problem among immigrants, especially those who move to their adoptive country before the age of about eleven and a half years.  There are so many poignant moments in this article that I wish I could quote the whole of it.  Instead, I will only highlight a few of the most salient passages.

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Taiwanese slipping

The following article is in Chinese and is smothered in colorful ads, but you can see with your own eyes from the headline the dismaying figure of 22.3% young people who can speak their mother tongue:

Zhuānjiā bào Táiyǔ xiāoshī wéijī `nánbù yě hěn qīcǎn' quán Tái jǐn 22.3% niánqīng rén huì jiǎng

專家爆台語消失危機「南部也很淒慘」 全台僅22.3%年輕人會講

"Experts reveal the crisis of Taiwanese disappearing; even the South is in a miserable condition:  in the whole of Taiwan, only 22.3% of young people can speak it."

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Writing Taiwanese with Romanization

Persuasive 14:09 YouTube video of Aiong Taigi explaining why he doesn't use Chinese characters (Hàn-jī 漢字) on his channel, but instead sticks to Romanization (Lomaji) as much as possible:  A'ióng, lí sī án-chóaⁿ bô teh ēng Hàn-jī? 【阿勇,汝是安盞無塊用漢字?】:

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Pinyin for ABCs

If you didn't know it already, "ABC" means "American-born Chinese".  There's no reason why ABCs should necessarily speak Chinese, no more than why ABGs (American-born Germans) should speak German or why ABVs (American-born Vietnamese) should speak Vietnamese, etc.  In this video, ABCs explain for themselves why they can't speak Chinese.  This is a long (23:14) podcast.  Feel free to watch all of it if you are so inclined, but for efficiency's sake I will guide you through it in instructions below the page break.

"10 REASONS WHY CHINESE AMERICANS CAN'T SPEAK CHINESE! | Fung Bros"

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Preventive Care for Local Languages

February 21st is International Mother Language Day, proclaimed by the General Conference of UNESCO in 1999 and celebrated every year since, aimed at promoting linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism. In honor of the day, the following is a guest post by Alissa Stern, the founder of BASAbali, an initiative of “linguists, anthropologists, students, and laypeople, from within and outside of Bali, who are collaborating to keep Balinese strong and sustainable.” BASAbali won a 2019 UNESCO Award for Literacy and a 2018 International Linguapax Award.


We’re told “Don’t wait” to treat our bodies, secure our homes, or maintain our cars. We should do the same for local languages.

Despite all the years of language revitalization, we are still losing about one language every two to three weeks.  In this century alone, the number of languages on the planet will be halved. A little preventive care would help.

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Language revival in the news

BBC Future has a very nice article by Alex Rawlings about the work of Ghil'ad Zuckermann on language revival in Australia and the larger context of such efforts. One new thing I learned about Zuckermann from this article was that before he moved from Israel to Australia, he was a specialist on language revival in Israel. (That's what we generally think of as the revival of Hebrew, but he insists that the modern language is different enough from Biblical Hebrew, because of the influence of all the first languages of those who participated in its revival, to need a different name – he calls it Israeli.) Anyway, it's a nice article. Thanks to Victor Mair for sharing it around the Language Log water cooler.

http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20190320-the-man-bringing-dead-languages-back-to-life

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Abandoning one's mother tongue

It's one thing to lose your first language when you move as a child to another country where a second language is spoken, but it's quite a different matter when you go to another country as an adult and make a conscious choice to give up your native tongue and adopt the language of the place you have chosen to live.

Yiyun Li (b. 1972), the Chinese American author, is such a person.  In some respects, her story of conversion to English reminds me of Joseph Conrad (1857-1924), who wrote in English as the natural outgrowth of his cosmopolitan multilingualism, and Ha Jin (b. 1956), who chose English "to preserve the integrity of his work".

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