Monday, December 9, 2013

SAving Endangered Languages

(This article appeared in the November Senior Times)

What we lose when we lose a language


Howard Richler

The adjective “endangered” is usually twinned with the noun “species” as the onslaught of civilization has brought about a diminution in the planet's biodiversity.

But not only are many species on the verge of extinction, many languages are teetering towards oblivion. Of the approximately 7000 languages spoken on our planet, it is estimated that anywhere from 50% to 90% will not survive the end of the century. So whereas the largest 80 to 100 languages in the world such as English, Chinese, Urdu and French are spoken by 4.5 billion people, there are around 3500 languages whose total number of speakers equals no more than ten million; an average of less than 3000 speakers each. Generally speaking a language is regarded as secure if it has over 100,000 speakers. However, many of the languages spoken today are on the abyss of extinction having fewer than 100 speakers.

Not surprisingly, many of the native languages in Canada fall into the endangered camp. Only Cree, Ojibway ans Inuktikut are regarded as relatively secure. In many of the 53 Canadian aboriginal languages, more than half of the population can't communicate at all in their mother tongue and fluency declines drastically among the youth of the tribe. Hilda Nicholson, a spokesperson for the Mohawk band of Kahnawake, told me that the fluency rate in the 65 year and older category was around 75%, but in the 6-15 age group, this rate drops to under 20% So, there is a clear sign when a language is in danger. Parents stop teaching it to children and children stop wanting to learn the language of their ancestors. Unfortunately, the obvious role of schools is limited no matter how great the effort of the school program, the ultimate fate of the language is determined by whether it is used on a daily basis in casual conversation.

So, why should we care? Several things are lost when we lose languages. First, we lose cultural knowledge. Since there are around only 200 written languages, when a non-written language vanishes we lose the beliefs and stories that may provide insights into our humanity. These oral histories could possibly inspire us by providing a new way to perceive the world.

More concretely, the loss of languages is also a loss for science because a language represents an adaptive technology. For example, the Inuit language possesses approximately 100 words for sea ice and this instructs one about complexities not generally known in other languages. According to Mark Pagel, a biomathematician at Oxford, different languages have “particular habits of mind” and learning a specific language can possibly alter the brain. For example, Pagel interprets the inability of Japanese adults to differentiate between “la” and “ra” sounds as meaning that on a physiological level there may be brain distinctions based on language.

The difference, however, between Japanese and English pales compared to some nuances we find in other languages. For example, it was once assumed that certain sentence structures were not possible. So while one can say “I will eat this kangaroo” it was believed that in no langauge would some rational person utter “This will eat kangaroo I.” But then linguists “discovered” the Waripiri of the Australian Outback. Not only do tribesmen state in Waripiri, “This will eat kangaroo I.” They also say “Kangaroo will this eat I” and “Eat will kangaroo this I.” By observing which rules hold and which do not (e.g., “will” always comes in the second position in the sentence), linguists have been better able to set parameters for universal grammar. But in order to test and refine universal grammar, linguists require a myriad of examples from the grammars of diverse languages. Unfortunately, until recently the data base has been shrinking drastically.

“Until recently” is used in the last sentence because hope is on the horizon. This year Google introduced the “Endangered Languages Project,” (ELP) a website that allows people and organizations involved in language preservation to find and share the most current and comprehensive information about endangered languages. With ELP, Google provides its technology and vast storage capacity to create a headquarters where data can be shared in a variety of forms, such as text, audio and video files.

Howard's latest book is How Happy Became Homosexual and other mysterious semantic shifts.

English Words from Scotland

Are the original blackmailers being blackmailed?


Howard Richler

On August 21, 2012 the headline in The Scotsman read, Scottish independence; Navy frigate contract will be held after UK split vote. This story related how lucrative contracts to build the next generation of Royal Navy frigates would only be announced after the Scottish referendum on independence scheduled for autumn 2014. Not surprisingly, this announcement elicited this response from an irate reader: “So now the bastards are trying blackmail.” 'Twas not the first time the charge of blackmail has been levied against 10 Downing Street. In October 2011, Scottish Finance Secretary John Swinney averred that Scots “should be able to take our decisions without the financial blackmail of the U.K. Government.”

These two comments are etymologically ironic because the original blackmailers were Scots. The first definition of blackmail in the OED states, “A tribute due to farmers in Scotland.. by freebooting Scottish chiefs in return for protection or immunity from plunder.” The “mail” part of blackmail derives from a Scottish word meaning “rent.” The “black” part of the equation comes not only from the age-old association of black with evil but also from the fact that the tribute paid to the extortionists came in the form of cattle, known as “black mail” as opposed to coins known as “white mail.” In fact, in modern Scotland, “mailer” remains a term for a tenant farmer.

Mercifully, the Scots have given us other words aside from blackmail. If your favourite slogan is “Make love - not war” you are etymologically off base. The word slogan comes from the Scottish Gaelic sluagh for “army” and ghairm for “shout” and originally referred to a war cry of the old Scottish Highland clans in the 16th century that usually consisted of a personal surname or of a gathering place. Originally, in Scottish English, it appeared as slughorne and slugurn and its modern spelling surfaced only in the 17th century. Its sense became generalized in the early 18th century to refer to a distinctive cry or phrase of any person or group of people. By 1859, Thomas Macaulay was using “slogan” in its modern meaning when he says in his History of England, “The popular slogans on both sides were indefatigably repeated.”

Along with the two above, there is a whole host of words that have Celtic origins and it is impossible to say with great accuracy whether the word originated in Scotland or in another part of the ancient Celtic world. For example, in Scottish Gaelic and Irish the word brogue referred to a shoe or sandal. When the word made its English debut in the 16th century it referred to a rudimentary shoe made of untanned leather worn by inhabitants of the Scottish highlands and Ireland. Today it designates a leather shoe with tooling patterns in the leather. Similarly, the word galore is also Celtic in origin; in Scottish Gaelic and Irish it meant “sufficient.” From here it was hardly a large leap when it appeared in English in the late 17th century with the sense of “abundant.”

Despite its association with the very English Shakespeare, another word that has a Celtic lineage is “bard.” The OED tells us that it originally referred to an “ancient Celtic order of minstrel-poets, whose primary function appears to have been to compose and sing verses celebrating the achievements of chiefs and warriors, and who committed to verse historical and traditional facts, religious precepts, laws, genealogies, etc.” Bard still remains the word for “poet” in modern Celtic languages.

Some linguists claim that the Celtic languages of Roman Britain had hardly any influence on the language spoken by the Anglo-Saxons. For example, David Crystal claims in The English Language, “Only a handful of Celtic words came into English at the time such as crag,.. brock (badger) and tor (peak).” Linguist Loreto Todd, however, believes that the number of Celtic words in English is underrepresented. According to Todd, the view that Anglo-Saxons borrowed few Celtic words is “particularly strange if we remember that few of the Germanic invaders would have brought wives to England with them. We are asked to accept that Celtic-speaking mothers passed on only Anglo-Saxon and perhaps Latin words to their children.”

In any case to commemorate Robert Burns Day on January 25th, I propose we raise our glasses not only to the fine single malts the Scots have distilled but also to the colourful words they've contributed to the English language.

Howard's most recent book is How Happy Became Homosexual and other mysterious semantic shifts. He'll be speaking about this book at the Westmount Public Library on January 15th.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Facebook Word Puzzles-501-550


(For the convergent words puzzles there are 4 categories: animals, food & beverage, body parts, items of clothing,)

501- Name a 2 word palindrome phrase that refers to beer fit for a king

502-Discern the convergent words: a)law-legal-eye b)fight-food-gone c)burger-berry-jaw

503- Name a 2 word palindromic phrase that refers to an ivy league race

504- Discern the convergent words a)bag- box-elevator b)id-in-king c)bath-dis-ward

505- Name a 2 word palindromic phrase that refers to daredevils

506-Discern the convergent words: a)meat-on-out b)brave-worm-rate c)ad-venture-custody

507- Name a 2 word palindromic phrase that refers to the foot of an elk

508-Discern the convergent words: a)corn-earner-flat b)ball-drop-tree c)cake-hermit-complain

509-Name a 2 word palindromic phrase that refers to a tv premiere

510-Discern the convergent words: a)old-kosher-lick b)nest-fried-white c)clear-closet-color

511-Name a 2 word palindromic phrase that refers to an Alaskan devil

512-Discern the convergent words: a)need-got-mock b)chocolate-bone-whole c) fly-cup-salad

513- Name a 2 word palindromic phrase that refers to a Nevada recluse

514- Discern the convergent words: a)wag -a-strap b)leader-letter-light c)reading-leaf -sunday

515-Name a 2 word palindromic phrase that refers to cats with Alzheimers

516-Discern the convergent words: a)rack-red -rod b)bra- in-maker c)blue-car-rain

517- Name a 2 word city comprised of an animal + a body part.

518-Discern the convergent words: a)fish-iron-let b)cocktail-jumbo-boat c)hole-toe-dropping

519-What do these words have in common? martinet-decadent-apricot-octagon

520-Discern the convergent words: a)disease-fish-iron b)bad-motor-sore c)mass-sore-stiff

521-What do these words have in common? divers-canard-court

522-Discern the convergent words: a)drops evil-glass b)type-work-young c)ball-drop-tree

523-What do these words have in common? panglossian-pollyanna-luddite-braggadocio

524-Discern the convergent words: a)away-potato-wood b)man-girl-cotton c)kidney-black -pole

525-What do these words have in common? piazza-manager-appeal

526-Discern the convergent words: a)lashing-mother-piercing b)blue-buck-eye c)cad-boot-tar

527-What do these words have in common? shotgun-rabbit-genital

528-Discern the convergent words: a)hold-hills-light b)start-stone-strong c)tragically-cat -wars

529-What do these words have in common? outer exist needles

530-Discern the convergent words: a)flying-urine-leaf b)jelly-net-pig c)cracker-pea-shell

531-What do these words have in common? diabetes-ligament-hypertension-diseased

532-Discern the convergent words: a)white-wooden-racing b)wolf-blood-elk c)flying-hole-news

533-Name a 2 word palindromic phrase that refers to unworldly health food

534-Discern the convergent words: a)oil-eyes-bite b)trained-navy-imprimatur c)under-leg-tag

535-What do these words have in common? Sky-skirt-skill, aside from starting sk -

536-Discern the convergent words: a)chair-dis-fire b)brave-broken-burn c)bone-cap-numb

537-What do these words have in common? cent-due-once-seize

538-Discern the convergent words: a)games-gear-hammer b)color-cut-dresser c)bone-man-red

539 -Name a 2 word palindromic phrase that refers to avian cartilage

540-Discern the convergent words: a)few-are-in b)soup-island-shell c)tail-cote-love

541-Name a 2 word palindromic phrase that refers to bread from Vietnam

542-Discern the convergent words: a)cap -soup-cloud b)arm-floss land c)see-tree-up

543-What do these words have in common? tycoon-ramen-tsunami

544-Discern the convergent words: a)back -whip-out b)symbol-warming-worm c)middle-beat-eye

545-What do these words have in common? bidet-tragedy-easel

546-Discern the convergent words:a)flip-ground-half b)gold fore-food c)roll-saddle-seat

547-Provide a 2 word palindromic phrase that in Spanglish means “very tasty.”

548-Discern the convergent words:a)cap-deep-sock b)bad-motor-sore c)shirt-spray-style

549 -Name a 2 word palindromic phrase that refers to an aggressive tennis shot

550-Discern the convergent words: a)sun-top-trick b)puppet-stretch-sweat c)skull-white-ability