God-loving Linguists

Christian missionaries have become strangely vital to conserving endangered languages

In 1963 Barbara and Joseph Grimes sat down with their Huichol neighbours to discuss what to do about the bandits terrorising their remote community. It was clear to everyone that the Grimes themselves were the problem. Seeing Americans living there, at the southern tip of the Rocky Mountains, the bandits assumed the community was rich. The Grimes recognised that it would be best for everyone if they left.
So ended a productive decade for the couple. As young newlyweds in 1952, they had gone to live among the Huichol in the Mexican state of Nayarit, far from shops, roads, electricity and comforts of modern civilisation. Joseph had produced a dictionary of the Huichol language and started work on a translation of the New Testament, and Barbara had brought three children into the world.
But the Grimes soon found a new outlet for their energy. Back in America, Richard Pittman of the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL), the Protestant missionary organisation that had sent the couple to Mexico, recruited them to his pet project. The mission of SIL, now SIL International, is to research and document languages in order to translate the Bible into as many of them as possible. In 1951 Pittman had started interviewing missionaries and linguists about the languages that were spoken in the parts of the world where they worked. The result was a language catalogue called Ethnologue, the first mimeographed edition of which ran to ten pages. The Grimes threw themselves into the project, and Ethnologue grew and grew. By the time Barbara took over as editor in 1974, the next step seemed logical, if daunting. “I made the decision to try to include all the countries and languages of the world,” she told me over the phone from Hawaii, where she and Joseph live now that they are retired.
As is often the case, the true value of Pittman’s idea, and Barbara Grimes’s contribution to it, only became clear much later. In 1951 nobody anticipated the death of languages, explains Paul Lewis, Ethnologue’s current editor. Like old sailors, languages were just thought to live on and on. Now we know that’s not true. Optimistic estimates suggest that by 2100 at least half of the roughly 6,000 extant languages will be either dead or moribund, meaning that children will not be speaking them. Approximately two-thirds of those 6,000 languages have never been written down.
These days a global army of linguists (some missionaries, some not) feed Ethnologue and keep it up-to-date. Lewis coordinates their efforts with the help of a small editorial team based at SIL’s headquarters in Dallas, Texas. Academic linguists who contribute to the database aren’t paid for their efforts, though an Ethnologue citation embellishes their publication record. The catalogue includes roughly 7,000 languages and is updated roughly every five years, both in print and online; the latter version is freely accessible to anyone.
Many linguists are uncomfortable with Ethnologue’s missionary roots. Indeed, missionaries have long been blamed for linguicide for the way they impose “killer” languages such as English and Spanish on speakers of minority languages, says Tove Skutnabb-Kangas, a linguist who is now retired from the University of Roskilde in Denmark. In his 2009 book, “Dying Words”, Nicholas Evans, an Australian linguist, tells the tale of the Aboriginal language Kayardild, once spoken by inhabitants of Bentinck Island, Queensland. In the 1940s, missionaries evacuated Bentinck Islanders to the mission on Mornington Island, about 50 kilometres to the north-west, where children were not taught Kayardild. Today the language, which Ethnologue classifies as “nearly extinct”, has only six speakers left.
Yet Evans says there are also plenty of examples of missionaries helping to preserve minority languages. For example, the Spanish priests who followed the conquistadors into South America documented indigenous languages as they went. Evans describes his attitude to Ethnologue as pragmatic. “It is clearly biased by its missionary agenda,” he says, citing its information about Bible translations as an example. “On the other hand, they are the only people who have put the resources into assembling a worldwide database, and that counts for a lot in my eyes.”
Though academic linguists are suspicious of SIL’s religious goals, many concede that the Ethnologue is the best tool of its kind. This despite the fact that much of the information is dated, meaning that some languages classified as spoken are actually extinct, according to Lyle Campbell, a linguist at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Atsugewi, Clallam and Coos are just three of many examples of extinct languages he cites. A more serious problem, Campbell says, is how Ethnologue defines a language. “In most parts of the world, Ethnologue has a much higher number of languages than most linguists working there would recognise,” he says. This has led some to suspect that SIL International is attempting to justify having more missionaries in the field than the language work strictly warrants.
Lewis, the editor of Ethnologue, acknowledges these complaints. “People write to us saying, you say there are two varieties of our language, well we’re all one people,” he says. However, the criteria his team uses are the ones that Barbara and Joseph Grimes painstakingly developed half a century ago, which boil down to whether two speakers can understand each other or not. Defining a language is notoriously difficult. At which point in the divergence of two dialects does one  decide that they have become different languages? The Ethnologue definition isn’t perfect, says Lewis, but it’s one of the embarrassments of linguistics that the entire field of study hasn’t come up with a better one.
But if Ethnologue’s working method hasn’t changed in the last half-century, the image it projects to the outside world has. The Grimes had no objection to calling themselves missionaries, but Lewis’s generation is squeamish about the label. “The stereotype is not one we want to own,” he says. “We describe ourselves as linguists, translators, development workers, and we do it as a faith-based organisation and out of a Christian motivation.”
Modern missionaries are anthropologically aware, he says. They understand the importance of minority languages, not just for communication but also for a people’s identity, and they are generally more deferential than missionaries in centuries past. Moreover, in declaring their ideology at the outset, he believes that SIL International linguists are more intellectually honest than academic linguists who claim to have no ideological bias at all.
Would SIL International ever consider ceding Ethnologue, so that it could become a linguistic enterprise without a religious agenda? This has been discussed, says Lewis, but mostly outside the organisation. The problem is, Ethnologue was built and is maintained with the help of a large number of volunteers and with money provided by Christian organisations. “As I look at the academic world, I don’t see any other institution that could support something of this magnitude over this period of time,” he says. Languages evolve and die, but over long stretches of time, making the monitoring process a protracted one. Ethnologue is valuable because it has created a sort of surveillance network for languages that ensures continuity.
Since 1986 the Grimes have lived and worked in Hawaii. In 2000, aged 71, Joseph Grimes published a translation of the New Testament in Hawaii Creole English, called “Da Jesus Book”. The following is an extract: “God wen get so plenny love an aloha fo da peopo inside da world, dat he wen send me, his one an ony Boy, so dat everybody dat trus me no get cut off from God, but get da real kine life dat stay to da max foeva.” (John 3:16) The work of 12 years with the help of 26 indigenous speakers, it resulted in a grammar book and a dictionary as well.

SIL International missionaries continue to travel to far-flung parts of the world to document languages, much like academic linguists, but with the security of faith rather than of tenure, and with no official retirement age. With thousands of languages still undocumented, many of which are in danger of dying before they are written down, it looks as though these emissaries of faith will continue to find plenty of work to keep them busy.


Full article and photo: http://moreintelligentlife.com/content/ideas/laura-spinney/god-loving-linguists

Rare Find: a New Language

As Native Tongues Rapidly Become Extinct, Linguists Discover an Exotic Specimen

A Koro speaker talks to National Geographic Fellow Gregory Anderson in Arunachal Pradesh, India, as he makes a recording of the language.

In the foothills of the Himalayas, two field linguists have uncovered a find as rare as any endangered species—a language completely new to science.

The researchers encountered it for the first time along the western ridges of Arunachal Pradesh, India’s northeastern-most state, where more than 120 languages are spoken. There, isolated by craggy slopes and rushing rivers, the hunters and subsistence farmers who speak this rare tongue live in a dozen or so villages of bamboo houses built on stilts.

Koro for Beginners

Koro word
(phonetic )
English translation
jew-prah head 
ko-play four
soo-fee six
poh-lay bird
leh-leh pig
may-nay sun
may-pah night
keh-peh nose
moo-yoo rain
oh-foh older sister
kah-plah-yeh thank you/you’re welcome

The language—called Koro—was identified during a 2008 expedition conducted as part of National Geographic’s Enduring Voices project. The researchers announced their discovery Tuesday in Washington, D.C. So many languages have vanished world-wide in recent decades that the naming of a new one commanded scientific attention.

“Their language is quite distinct on every level—the sound, the words, the sentence structure,” said Gregory Anderson, director of the nonprofit Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, who directs the project’s research. Details of the language will be documented in an upcoming issue of the journal Indian Linguistics.

Prized for its rarity as an unstudied linguistic artifact, the Koro language also offers researchers a catalogue of unique cultural experience, encoded in its mental grammar of words and sentence structure that helps shape thought itself.

Languages like Koro “construe reality in very different ways,” Dr. Anderson said. “They uniquely code knowledge of the natural world in ways that cannot be translated into a major language.”

In an era of globalization, languages have been disappearing by the hundreds, edged out by English, Chinese and Spanish or suppressed by government practices. Of the 6,909 known languages, about half are expected to disappear in this century; every two weeks, the last fluent speaker of a language dies. This newest, with only 800 or so speakers, may be no exception.

“Even though this is new to science, this language is on the way out,” said linguist K. David Harrison at Swarthmore College outside Philadelphia. Many younger villagers, often educated at boarding schools where only Hindi or English are spoken, are abandoning their parents’ language. “Young people are not speaking it in the villages,” Dr. Harrison said. “If the process continues, Koro will almost certainly become extinct.”

Even as languages disappear, many of them have never been identified or named. In search of that hidden diversity, linguists have been pushing deeper into remote regions and analyzing known language groups more thoroughly.

In China last year, researchers identified 24 languages in a region where previously only one had been reported. Recently, the scholarly compendium of known languages, called Ethnologue, added 83 previously unidentified languages from 19 countries.

As a matter of formal classification, Koro belongs to the Tibeto-Burman language family, a group of some 400 languages that includes Tibetan and Burmese, the linguists said. Some 150 Tibeto-Burman languages are spoken in India alone.

The language has no written form. Its only permanent monuments are the voice recordings made by researchers during the expedition, which they hope to use in compiling an online dictionary. Since the villagers have no access to the Internet, however, the dictionary and other digital records of Koro may only be of academic interest.

This newest addition to the global catalogue of known languages eluded notice until now because travel in the region is restricted by government permit and few linguists have ever worked there.

Moreover, it was masked by the unusual language diversity of the area, where so many languages are spoken that they seem to intermingle effortlessly in streams of thought. Indeed, the local Koro speakers themselves didn’t consider theirs a separate language, even though it is as distinct from those spoken by other villagers as English is from Russian, the researchers said.

The researchers hope their work will aid efforts to preserve the endangered language. “If we care about the diversity of ideas and knowledge, then we should be concerned about losing these languages,” Dr. Harrison said. “We are losing an immense body of knowledge.”

Robert Lee Hotz, Wall Street Journal


Full article and photos: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703843804575534122591921594.html

The Foreign Devil’s Dictionary

The Oxford Chinese Dictionary is a fresh, modern bridge between two languages that can still seem a world apart.

Chinese were hardly enthusiastic about learning the language of the English barbarians when East India Company ships first turned up on the shores of the Celestial Kingdom. Only in the 18th century did traders begin to pick up a few words, using pamphlets like the one entitled “Those Words of the Devilish Language of Red-Bristled People Commonly Used in Buying and Selling.”

Today, practicing English is practically China’s national pastime, with the number of English students and speakers reckoned at between 200 million and 350 million. And with the release of the Oxford Chinese Dictionary last week, they have a better guide to the devilishly difficult language. Oxford University Press describes it as “the largest, the most up-to-date, the most accurate, and the most authoritative English-Chinese/Chinese-English dictionary ever published.”

But a bilingual dictionary in one volume can hardly be an exhaustive catalogue of every word in two languages. Instead it aims to be accessible to learners and users of both languages, presenting a broad sweep of modern English and Chinese. It’s especially useful for the student of Chinese struggling to keep up with the breakneck development of slang and allusion.

As such, it’s more a compendium of the cultural climate than an official standard-bearer for the language. There are entries for renzishi tuoxie (“flip-flops”), shua zuipizi (to “be all talk and no action”) and zhaguo (to “get excited and angry”). In the entry for san (“three”), one can peruse threes of all kinds: a three-pointer in basketball (sanfenqiu), Sun Yat-sen’s Three Principles of the People (sanminzhuyi) and an escort who provides three kinds of services (sanpei)—although exactly which three is left to the reader’s imagination.

There is breadth enough for the novice and depth enough for the specialist. Those who have breakfasted in China may already know that youtiao are deep-fried dough strips but may learn that the word is also used to refer to an untrustworthy person. Likewise with ku; those who know that it means “bitter” may not know the full span of hardship that it can describe: a thankless job (kuchai), mental vexation (kunao), lost appetite during summer (kuxia) and the feigning of injury to win others’ confidence (kurouji).

The new dictionary includes many words that are new not only to the world of Chinese-English dictionaries, but also to the language itself—the lexical footprints of a culture on the move. Fans—and in China there are many, of all sorts—will find the most current ways to call themselves: There is a straight transliteration from English (fensi, the same word for thin rice noodles) but also a more evocative rendering (fashaoyou, which literally means “fever friend”). Hangers-on will learn to keep an ear out for the word zhuixingzu to know when they have crossed the line and are officially groupies.

The Internet, predictably, contributes a jumbled heap of fresh idiom, but some of the new vocabulary represents social change along more established dimensions. China’s nouveaux riches may now be known among their jealous neighbors as “moneybags” (dakuan), “big shots” (dawan) or “bigwigs” (daheng). Graduates who have taken a little too long to leave the nest are said to be “gnawing” on their parents (kenlaozhu). Adulterers who might once have called their paramours concubines (qie) for lack of a lowlier term can now aspire to precision; an ernai is a kept woman of less-official standing.

The Oxford dictionary reaches back in the language’s history, too. China’s many chengyu, or idiomatic phrases derived from traditional fables and classical texts, present a high hurdle for learners. Often arcane and literary, they still pervade everyday conversation.

To convey in Chinese that a situation is paradoxical (zixiang maodun), for instance, is to invoke a story about an arms dealer who oversells his wares. Expressing the need for perseverance (tiechu mocheng zhen) means referring to the story of a man who made a needle by rolling a steel pole in his hands for weeks and weeks. The new dictionary does crackerjack work with these and others. Some experts put the number of chengyu expressions at 5,000, though others settle for no fewer than 20,000. Statistics on the Chinese language, like folk tales, change depending on who’s telling them.

Browsing the new dictionary reinforces a sense of the deep pools from which the Chinese language springs, even at its colloquial cutting-edge. Today’s Chinese, profoundly rooted yet full of novelty, reflects a people who revere tradition but also seek constantly to reinterpret that tradition. The Oxford dictionary is an apt monument to this ambivalence.

Nevertheless, monuments always decay. If it follows the example of the flagship Oxford English Dictionary, the Oxford Chinese Dictionary may in its next edition retreat from the printed page, living exclusively online. It would be a fitting development. The words and phrases of modern Chinese may have at last been captured and recorded. But in Shenzhen’s Internet cafés and Beijing’s rock clubs, the language is still being taken apart and rebuilt.

Mr. Zhong is a Princeton-in-Asia fellow at the Wall Street Journal Asia’s editorial page.


Full article and photo : http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703743504575494653640121096.html

Does Your Language Shape How You Think?

Seventy years ago, in 1940, a popular science magazine published a short article that set in motion one of the trendiest intellectual fads of the 20th century. At first glance, there seemed little about the article to augur its subsequent celebrity. Neither the title, “Science and Linguistics,” nor the magazine, M.I.T.’s Technology Review, was most people’s idea of glamour. And the author, a chemical engineer who worked for an insurance company and moonlighted as an anthropology lecturer at Yale University, was an unlikely candidate for international superstardom. And yet Benjamin Lee Whorf let loose an alluring idea about language’s power over the mind, and his stirring prose seduced a whole generation into believing that our mother tongue restricts what we are able to think.

In particular, Whorf announced, Native American languages impose on their speakers a picture of reality that is totally different from ours, so their speakers would simply not be able to understand some of our most basic concepts, like the flow of time or the distinction between objects (like “stone”) and actions (like “fall”). For decades, Whorf’s theory dazzled both academics and the general public alike. In his shadow, others made a whole range of imaginative claims about the supposed power of language, from the assertion that Native American languages instill in their speakers an intuitive understanding of Einstein’s concept of time as a fourth dimension to the theory that the nature of the Jewish religion was determined by the tense system of ancient Hebrew.

Eventually, Whorf’s theory crash-landed on hard facts and solid common sense, when it transpired that there had never actually been any evidence to support his fantastic claims. The reaction was so severe that for decades, any attempts to explore the influence of the mother tongue on our thoughts were relegated to the loony fringes of disrepute. But 70 years on, it is surely time to put the trauma of Whorf behind us. And in the last few years, new research has revealed that when we learn our mother tongue, we do after all acquire certain habits of thought that shape our experience in significant and often surprising ways.

Whorf, we now know, made many mistakes. The most serious one was to assume that our mother tongue constrains our minds and prevents us from being able to think certain thoughts. The general structure of his arguments was to claim that if a language has no word for a certain concept, then its speakers would not be able to understand this concept. If a language has no future tense, for instance, its speakers would simply not be able to grasp our notion of future time. It seems barely comprehensible that this line of argument could ever have achieved such success, given that so much contrary evidence confronts you wherever you look. When you ask, in perfectly normal English, and in the present tense, “Are you coming tomorrow?” do you feel your grip on the notion of futurity slipping away? Do English speakers who have never heard the German word Schadenfreude find it difficult to understand the concept of relishing someone else’s misfortune? Or think about it this way: If the inventory of ready-made words in your language determined which concepts you were able to understand, how would you ever learn anything new?

SINCE THERE IS NO EVIDENCE that any language forbids its speakers to think anything, we must look in an entirely different direction to discover how our mother tongue really does shape our experience of the world. Some 50 years ago, the renowned linguist Roman Jakobson pointed out a crucial fact about differences between languages in a pithy maxim: “Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey.” This maxim offers us the key to unlocking the real force of the mother tongue: if different languages influence our minds in different ways, this is not because of what our language allows us to think but rather because of what it habitually obliges us to think about.

Consider this example. Suppose I say to you in English that “I spent yesterday evening with a neighbor.” You may well wonder whether my companion was male or female, but I have the right to tell you politely that it’s none of your business. But if we were speaking French or German, I wouldn’t have the privilege to equivocate in this way, because I would be obliged by the grammar of language to choose between voisin or voisine; Nachbar or Nachbarin. These languages compel me to inform you about the sex of my companion whether or not I feel it is remotely your concern. This does not mean, of course, that English speakers are unable to understand the differences between evenings spent with male or female neighbors, but it does mean that they do not have to consider the sexes of neighbors, friends, teachers and a host of other persons each time they come up in a conversation, whereas speakers of some languages are obliged to do so.

On the other hand, English does oblige you to specify certain types of information that can be left to the context in other languages. If I want to tell you in English about a dinner with my neighbor, I may not have to mention the neighbor’s sex, but I do have to tell you something about the timing of the event: I have to decide whether we dined, have been dining, are dining, will be dining and so on. Chinese, on the other hand, does not oblige its speakers to specify the exact time of the action in this way, because the same verb form can be used for past, present or future actions. Again, this does not mean that the Chinese are unable to understand the concept of time. But it does mean they are not obliged to think about timing whenever they describe an action.

When your language routinely obliges you to specify certain types of information, it forces you to be attentive to certain details in the world and to certain aspects of experience that speakers of other languages may not be required to think about all the time. And since such habits of speech are cultivated from the earliest age, it is only natural that they can settle into habits of mind that go beyond language itself, affecting your experiences, perceptions, associations, feelings, memories and orientation in the world.

BUT IS THERE any evidence for this happening in practice?

Let’s take genders again. Languages like Spanish, French, German and Russian not only oblige you to think about the sex of friends and neighbors, but they also assign a male or female gender to a whole range of inanimate objects quite at whim. What, for instance, is particularly feminine about a Frenchman’s beard (la barbe)? Why is Russian water a she, and why does she become a he once you have dipped a tea bag into her? Mark Twain famously lamented such erratic genders as female turnips and neuter maidens in his rant “The Awful German Language.” But whereas he claimed that there was something particularly perverse about the German gender system, it is in fact English that is unusual, at least among European languages, in not treating turnips and tea cups as masculine or feminine. Languages that treat an inanimate object as a he or a she force their speakers to talk about such an object as if it were a man or a woman. And as anyone whose mother tongue has a gender system will tell you, once the habit has taken hold, it is all but impossible to shake off. When I speak English, I may say about a bed that “it” is too soft, but as a native Hebrew speaker, I actually feel “she” is too soft. “She” stays feminine all the way from the lungs up to the glottis and is neutered only when she reaches the tip of the tongue.

In recent years, various experiments have shown that grammatical genders can shape the feelings and associations of speakers toward objects around them. In the 1990s, for example, psychologists compared associations between speakers of German and Spanish. There are many inanimate nouns whose genders in the two languages are reversed. A German bridge is feminine (die Brücke), for instance, but el puente is masculine in Spanish; and the same goes for clocks, apartments, forks, newspapers, pockets, shoulders, stamps, tickets, violins, the sun, the world and love. On the other hand, an apple is masculine for Germans but feminine in Spanish, and so are chairs, brooms, butterflies, keys, mountains, stars, tables, wars, rain and garbage. When speakers were asked to grade various objects on a range of characteristics, Spanish speakers deemed bridges, clocks and violins to have more “manly properties” like strength, but Germans tended to think of them as more slender or elegant. With objects like mountains or chairs, which are “he” in German but “she” in Spanish, the effect was reversed.

In a different experiment, French and Spanish speakers were asked to assign human voices to various objects in a cartoon. When French speakers saw a picture of a fork (la fourchette), most of them wanted it to speak in a woman’s voice, but Spanish speakers, for whom el tenedor is masculine, preferred a gravelly male voice for it. More recently, psychologists have even shown that “gendered languages” imprint gender traits for objects so strongly in the mind that these associations obstruct speakers’ ability to commit information to memory.

Of course, all this does not mean that speakers of Spanish or French or German fail to understand that inanimate objects do not really have biological sex — a German woman rarely mistakes her husband for a hat, and Spanish men are not known to confuse a bed with what might be lying in it. Nonetheless, once gender connotations have been imposed on impressionable young minds, they lead those with a gendered mother tongue to see the inanimate world through lenses tinted with associations and emotional responses that English speakers — stuck in their monochrome desert of “its” — are entirely oblivious to. Did the opposite genders of “bridge” in German and Spanish, for example, have an effect on the design of bridges in Spain and Germany? Do the emotional maps imposed by a gender system have higher-level behavioral consequences for our everyday life? Do they shape tastes, fashions, habits and preferences in the societies concerned? At the current state of our knowledge about the brain, this is not something that can be easily measured in a psychology lab. But it would be surprising if they didn’t.

The area where the most striking evidence for the influence of language on thought has come to light is the language of space — how we describe the orientation of the world around us. Suppose you want to give someone directions for getting to your house. You might say: “After the traffic lights, take the first left, then the second right, and then you’ll see a white house in front of you. Our door is on the right.” But in theory, you could also say: “After the traffic lights, drive north, and then on the second crossing drive east, and you’ll see a white house directly to the east. Ours is the southern door.” These two sets of directions may describe the same route, but they rely on different systems of coordinates. The first uses egocentric coordinates, which depend on our own bodies: a left-right axis and a front-back axis orthogonal to it. The second system uses fixed geographic directions, which do not rotate with us wherever we turn.

We find it useful to use geographic directions when hiking in the open countryside, for example, but the egocentric coordinates completely dominate our speech when we describe small-scale spaces. We don’t say: “When you get out of the elevator, walk south, and then take the second door to the east.” The reason the egocentric system is so dominant in our language is that it feels so much easier and more natural. After all, we always know where “behind” or “in front of” us is. We don’t need a map or a compass to work it out, we just feel it, because the egocentric coordinates are based directly on our own bodies and our immediate visual fields.

But then a remote Australian aboriginal tongue, Guugu Yimithirr, from north Queensland, turned up, and with it came the astounding realization that not all languages conform to what we have always taken as simply “natural.” In fact, Guugu Yimithirr doesn’t make any use of egocentric coordinates at all. The anthropologist John Haviland and later the linguist Stephen Levinson have shown that Guugu Yimithirr does not use words like “left” or “right,” “in front of” or “behind,” to describe the position of objects. Whenever we would use the egocentric system, the Guugu Yimithirr rely on cardinal directions. If they want you to move over on the car seat to make room, they’ll say “move a bit to the east.” To tell you where exactly they left something in your house, they’ll say, “I left it on the southern edge of the western table.” Or they would warn you to “look out for that big ant just north of your foot.” Even when shown a film on television, they gave descriptions of it based on the orientation of the screen. If the television was facing north, and a man on the screen was approaching, they said that he was “coming northward.”

When these peculiarities of Guugu Yimithirr were uncovered, they inspired a large-scale research project into the language of space. And as it happens, Guugu Yimithirr is not a freak occurrence; languages that rely primarily on geographical coordinates are scattered around the world, from Polynesia to Mexico, from Namibia to Bali. For us, it might seem the height of absurdity for a dance teacher to say, “Now raise your north hand and move your south leg eastward.” But the joke would be lost on some: the Canadian-American musicologist Colin McPhee, who spent several years on Bali in the 1930s, recalls a young boy who showed great talent for dancing. As there was no instructor in the child’s village, McPhee arranged for him to stay with a teacher in a different village. But when he came to check on the boy’s progress after a few days, he found the boy dejected and the teacher exasperated. It was impossible to teach the boy anything, because he simply did not understand any of the instructions. When told to take “three steps east” or “bend southwest,” he didn’t know what to do. The boy would not have had the least trouble with these directions in his own village, but because the landscape in the new village was entirely unfamiliar, he became disoriented and confused. Why didn’t the teacher use different instructions? He would probably have replied that saying “take three steps forward” or “bend backward” would be the height of absurdity.

So different languages certainly make us speak about space in very different ways. But does this necessarily mean that we have to think about space differently? By now red lights should be flashing, because even if a language doesn’t have a word for “behind,” this doesn’t necessarily mean that its speakers wouldn’t be able to understand this concept. Instead, we should look for the possible consequences of what geographic languages oblige their speakers to convey. In particular, we should be on the lookout for what habits of mind might develop because of the necessity of specifying geographic directions all the time.

In order to speak a language like Guugu Yimithirr, you need to know where the cardinal directions are at each and every moment of your waking life. You need to have a compass in your mind that operates all the time, day and night, without lunch breaks or weekends off, since otherwise you would not be able to impart the most basic information or understand what people around you are saying. Indeed, speakers of geographic languages seem to have an almost-superhuman sense of orientation. Regardless of visibility conditions, regardless of whether they are in thick forest or on an open plain, whether outside or indoors or even in caves, whether stationary or moving, they have a spot-on sense of direction. They don’t look at the sun and pause for a moment of calculation before they say, “There’s an ant just north of your foot.” They simply feel where north, south, west and east are, just as people with perfect pitch feel what each note is without having to calculate intervals. There is a wealth of stories about what to us may seem like incredible feats of orientation but for speakers of geographic languages are just a matter of course. One report relates how a speaker of Tzeltal from southern Mexico was blindfolded and spun around more than 20 times in a darkened house. Still blindfolded and dizzy, he pointed without hesitation at the geographic directions.

How does this work? The convention of communicating with geographic coordinates compels speakers from the youngest age to pay attention to the clues from the physical environment (the position of the sun, wind and so on) every second of their lives, and to develop an accurate memory of their own changing orientations at any given moment. So everyday communication in a geographic language provides the most intense imaginable drilling in geographic orientation (it has been estimated that as much as 1 word in 10 in a normal Guugu Yimithirr conversation is “north,” “south,” “west” or “east,” often accompanied by precise hand gestures). This habit of constant awareness to the geographic direction is inculcated almost from infancy: studies have shown that children in such societies start using geographic directions as early as age 2 and fully master the system by 7 or 8. With such an early and intense drilling, the habit soon becomes second nature, effortless and unconscious. When Guugu Yimithirr speakers were asked how they knew where north is, they couldn’t explain it any more than you can explain how you know where “behind” is.

But there is more to the effects of a geographic language, for the sense of orientation has to extend further in time than the immediate present. If you speak a Guugu Yimithirr-style language, your memories of anything that you might ever want to report will have to be stored with cardinal directions as part of the picture. One Guugu Yimithirr speaker was filmed telling his friends the story of how in his youth, he capsized in shark-infested waters. He and an older person were caught in a storm, and their boat tipped over. They both jumped into the water and managed to swim nearly three miles to the shore, only to discover that the missionary for whom they worked was far more concerned at the loss of the boat than relieved at their miraculous escape. Apart from the dramatic content, the remarkable thing about the story was that it was remembered throughout in cardinal directions: the speaker jumped into the water on the western side of the boat, his companion to the east of the boat, they saw a giant shark swimming north and so on. Perhaps the cardinal directions were just made up for the occasion? Well, quite by chance, the same person was filmed some years later telling the same story. The cardinal directions matched exactly in the two tellings. Even more remarkable were the spontaneous hand gestures that accompanied the story. For instance, the direction in which the boat rolled over was gestured in the correct geographic orientation, regardless of the direction the speaker was facing in the two films.

Psychological experiments have also shown that under certain circumstances, speakers of Guugu Yimithirr-style languages even remember “the same reality” differently from us. There has been heated debate about the interpretation of some of these experiments, but one conclusion that seems compelling is that while we are trained to ignore directional rotations when we commit information to memory, speakers of geographic languages are trained not to do so. One way of understanding this is to imagine that you are traveling with a speaker of such a language and staying in a large chain-style hotel, with corridor upon corridor of identical-looking doors. Your friend is staying in the room opposite yours, and when you go into his room, you’ll see an exact replica of yours: the same bathroom door on the left, the same mirrored wardrobe on the right, the same main room with the same bed on the left, the same curtains drawn behind it, the same desk next to the wall on the right, the same television set on the left corner of the desk and the same telephone on the right. In short, you have seen the same room twice. But when your friend comes into your room, he will see something quite different from this, because everything is reversed north-side-south. In his room the bed was in the north, while in yours it is in the south; the telephone that in his room was in the west is now in the east, and so on. So while you will see and remember the same room twice, a speaker of a geographic language will see and remember two different rooms.

It is not easy for us to conceive how Guugu Yimithirr speakers experience the world, with a crisscrossing of cardinal directions imposed on any mental picture and any piece of graphic memory. Nor is it easy to speculate about how geographic languages affect areas of experience other than spatial orientation — whether they influence the speaker’s sense of identity, for instance, or bring about a less-egocentric outlook on life. But one piece of evidence is telling: if you saw a Guugu Yimithirr speaker pointing at himself, you would naturally assume he meant to draw attention to himself. In fact, he is pointing at a cardinal direction that happens to be behind his back. While we are always at the center of the world, and it would never occur to us that pointing in the direction of our chest could mean anything other than to draw attention to ourselves, a Guugu Yimithirr speaker points through himself, as if he were thin air and his own existence were irrelevant.

IN WHAT OTHER WAYS might the language we speak influence our experience of the world? Recently, it has been demonstrated in a series of ingenious experiments that we even perceive colors through the lens of our mother tongue. There are radical variations in the way languages carve up the spectrum of visible light; for example, green and blue are distinct colors in English but are considered shades of the same color in many languages. And it turns out that the colors that our language routinely obliges us to treat as distinct can refine our purely visual sensitivity to certain color differences in reality, so that our brains are trained to exaggerate the distance between shades of color if these have different names in our language. As strange as it may sound, our experience of a Chagall painting actually depends to some extent on whether our language has a word for blue.

In coming years, researchers may also be able to shed light on the impact of language on more subtle areas of perception. For instance, some languages, like Matses in Peru, oblige their speakers, like the finickiest of lawyers, to specify exactly how they came to know about the facts they are reporting. You cannot simply say, as in English, “An animal passed here.” You have to specify, using a different verbal form, whether this was directly experienced (you saw the animal passing), inferred (you saw footprints), conjectured (animals generally pass there that time of day), hearsay or such. If a statement is reported with the incorrect “evidentiality,” it is considered a lie. So if, for instance, you ask a Matses man how many wives he has, unless he can actually see his wives at that very moment, he would have to answer in the past tense and would say something like “There were two last time I checked.” After all, given that the wives are not present, he cannot be absolutely certain that one of them hasn’t died or run off with another man since he last saw them, even if this was only five minutes ago. So he cannot report it as a certain fact in the present tense. Does the need to think constantly about epistemology in such a careful and sophisticated manner inform the speakers’ outlook on life or their sense of truth and causation? When our experimental tools are less blunt, such questions will be amenable to empirical study.

For many years, our mother tongue was claimed to be a “prison house” that constrained our capacity to reason. Once it turned out that there was no evidence for such claims, this was taken as proof that people of all cultures think in fundamentally the same way. But surely it is a mistake to overestimate the importance of abstract reasoning in our lives. After all, how many daily decisions do we make on the basis of deductive logic compared with those guided by gut feeling, intuition, emotions, impulse or practical skills? The habits of mind that our culture has instilled in us from infancy shape our orientation to the world and our emotional responses to the objects we encounter, and their consequences probably go far beyond what has been experimentally demonstrated so far; they may also have a marked impact on our beliefs, values and ideologies. We may not know as yet how to measure these consequences directly or how to assess their contribution to cultural or political misunderstandings. But as a first step toward understanding one another, we can do better than pretending we all think the same.

Guy Deutscher is an honorary research fellow at the School of Languages, Linguistics and Cultures at the University of Manchester. His new book, from which this article is adapted, is “Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages,” to be published this month by Metropolitan Books.


Full article and photo: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/29/magazine/29language-t.html

Rain Men

The lost language of Italian parasols and the men who made them.

Last month, on a visit to Piedmont in northern Italy, I chanced upon a small museum in the hill town of Gignese that is devoted to the local craft of umbrella-making. At first, I wondered how this particular region along the west shore of Lago Maggiore became associated with the production—through the past few centuries—of quality umbrellas and parasols, but the reason is not hard to find. Every year more than thirty-three inches of rain falls over the neighborhood of Turin, and more than thirty-nine around Milan. That’s at least a third more than what London gets. Meanwhile the northern Italian summers are hot and sunny. The word umbrella descends from the Latin umbraculum, which means a convenient device for providing shade.

The ancient Romans were very fond of umbrellas, and regularly exchanged them as gifts. Yet umbrellas were virtually unknown in England and America before the 1780s, and the traveler Jonas Hanway, who acquired a Piedmontese umbrella in Leghorn (Livorno), was for many years held up to ridicule when, in about 1750, he returned to London with one. The problem before the mid-nineteenth century was that Regency umbrellas were oily, not necessarily reliably waterproof, and tended to run—and the harder it rained, the worse it was. Oil and dye in roughly equal measure dribbled and spattered onto silk or muslin dresses. Gloves, bonnets, and satin slippers were maculated by nasty black spots. So at first umbrellas were used in England much more as shelter from the sun than the rain, and exclusively by women. It took several early Victorian decades for the English umbrella to shed its reputation for effeminacy, and more than a century and a half for it to burrow its way into the national character, and take up its dignified position in the crook of Neville Chamberlain’s elbow.

In the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries the ombrellai of Piedmont were a relatively closed community of highly specialist craftsmen. They engaged child-apprentices from among the poorest families of the region. Upon signing up, the apprenticed ombrellaio received a pair of shoes, somewhere to sleep, two square meals a day, and, of course, an umbrella. He said goodbye to his family for at least a period of four or five years—effectively, for good—and as well as learning to make umbrellas, he hiked from town to town selling braces of them to wholesalers, agents, and traders for export, mostly through Genoa.

As with so many other northern Italian industries (most famously the glass factories of Venice) the relevant production techniques, recipes, and other trade secrets were jealously guarded and protected with much paranoia, even ruthlessness. To that end the ombrellai used an in-house language known as Tarùsc, which seems to have existed in one form or another among the hill-dwelling people of Piedmont and the southern cantons of Switzerland since at least pre-Roman times. And while it came to be associated almost exclusively with the ombrellai, it was also used for related purposes by smugglers, thieves, spies—indeed a comparatively large proportion of the population whose occupations were covert. Continue reading

What if ‘English Only’ Isn’t Wrong?

Foreigners learn our language; we don’t learn theirs.

On the campaign trail in 2008, Barack Obama was asked about foreign-language education. He responded emphatically, calling it “embarrassing” that most Americans are monolingual. Being able to speak a foreign language makes you “so much more employable,” he said. “We should be emphasizing foreign languages in our schools from an early age.”

I recently telephoned Dennis Baron, professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and read him that quote. He laughed, saying that Mr. Obama is not likely to sway many minds. Americans are still stubbornly—even proudly—monolingual, more concerned with protecting English than with learning another tongue.

This attitude is reflected in the classroom. Between 1997 and 2008, the percentage of elementary schools offering foreign-language instruction decreased to 25% from 31%; in middle schools, that figure dropped to 58% from 75%, according to the Center for Applied Linguistics.

Foreigners learn our language; we don’t learn theirs.

The number of high schools teaching foreign languages remained about the same. Yet students who begin studying a language in the 9th or 10th grade, significantly diminish the likelihood that they will ever achieve proficiency.

The picture is no less bleak on college campuses, where, according to the Modern Language Association in 2007, around 8% of students were enrolled in foreign-language courses. That’s about half of what it was in the mid-1960s. As the Chronicle of Higher Education put it, “This is not an easy time for foreign-language departments.”

This was not supposed to happen. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 focused attention on the nation’s language deficits. A report by the National Research Council put the matter starkly: “A pervasive lack of knowledge about foreign cultures and foreign languages threatens the security of the United States as well as its ability to compete in the global marketplace.”

In 2006, George W. Bush established the National Security Language Initiative, a $114 million program to encourage the study of high-priority languages, such as Arabic and Farsi.

Marty Abbott, director of education at the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, says, “We thought it was our Sputnik moment,” referring to the Soviet Union’s satellite launch in 1957 that led the federal government to pour resources into science, technology, and Russian-language education. Today, Ms. Abbott sounds dejected: “We have made no dramatic strides.” Rosemary G. Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association, says morosely that too many Americans believe “that foreign language education is superfluous.”

Maybe it is. Advances in machine translation, coupled with the global dominance of English—by some estimates, about one-quarter of the world’s population can to a certain extent communicate in English—has led some observers to question the necessity of learning a language other than English.

In his book “The Great Brain Race,” Ben Wildavsky describes a global knowledge economy dominated by English. He notes that even in France—France!—English has triumphed. Richard Descoings, president of the Paris Institute of Political Studies, told Mr. Wildavsky, “We have to stop saying that English is one of the languages. It is the language of international exchange: commercial, military, and also intellectual and scientific. . . . It is no longer an object of debate.”

That perspective is not limited to Europe. A 2008 report by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs showed that 96%-100% of those questioned in China, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea and Vietnam think that it is important for their children to learn English. The online retailing giant Rakuten is one of a number of Japanese companies to embrace English. As The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month, by 2012 Rakuten’s employees will be required to speak and communicate with each other in English.

In China, the celebrity English instructor Li Yang attracts 10,000 or more students to arena-size classrooms. His motto: “Conquer English to Make China Stronger!” It is a similar story in India, already the third-largest English-language book market in the world. D. Shyam Babu, a fellow at the Rajiv Gandhi Institute for Contemporary Studies in New Delhi, told me, “For Indians, English is an obsession.” In May this year, in a village in India’s Uttar Pradesh state, a foundation stone was laid for a temple dedicated to Goddess English.

Ultimately, some linguists and computer scientists argue, technology will collapse the world’s language barriers. Imagine walking down the street in Cairo, speaking English into your cell phone, and having your words come out in Arabic.

That future might not be far off. Reliable and ubiquitous translation technology “is really only a matter of time,” according to Nicholas Ostler, author of the forthcoming book, “The Last Lingua Franca: English until the Return of Babel.” Yorick Wilks, a professor of artificial intelligence at the University of Sheffield, is more specific, predicting in an email that adequate machine translations “will almost certainly be available as phone apps within a decade.”

That prospect is understandably alarming to many educators, who point to a mountain of persuasive studies showing that bilingualism bolsters creativity and cognitive development, as well as cultural awareness and sensitivity. “As humans, we will always use language in ways that are creative, culturally specific and idiosyncratic,” says Ms. Feal. “That’s the joy of language, and you can’t replace that with an iPhone app.”

But it won’t stop many people from trying.

Mr. Goldstein is a staff editor at The Chronicle of Higher Education.


Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704002104575290602423212366.html

In Alaska, a Frenchman Fights to Revive the Eyak’s Dead Tongue

Natives Take Dialect Lessons From Guillaume Leduey; Blurting Out ‘Keełtaak’

Mona Curry recently stared teary-eyed at a film of her late mother speaking in the native-Alaskan language of Eyak at a tribal ceremony. Then she turned to a 21-year-old Frenchman for translation.

“She said that it’s beautiful,” Guillaume Leduey explained without hesitation. “It’s a pleasure to be here. Thank you God.”

Mr. Leduey, a college student from Le Havre, France, has made it his mission to bring the Eyak tongue back from extinction. Eyak tribe membership once numbered in the hundreds in south central Alaska, then dwindled over the past two centuries as other tribes and Western settlement encroached.

Ms. Curry’s mother, Marie Smith Jones, was considered by Alaska historians the last native Eyak speaker when she died in 2008. Her descendants and others didn’t become fluent in the language because of a stigma around speaking anything other than English in Alaska’s native villages.

Lots of local dialects across the world face extinction, but few have attracted a preservationist as unlikely as Mr. Leduey, an aspiring sculptor who until June hadn’t left Europe. That month, he journeyed to Alaska to study under Michael Krauss, a 75-year-old University of Alaska linguistics professor who knows conversational Eyak. Mr. Leduey set out to traipse in the footsteps of the tribe that once inhabited this gritty fishing village on Prince William Sound.

Versed in French, English, German, Chinese and Georgian, and able to sing at least one song in Lithuanian, Mr. Leduey says he can’t fully explain why he took on the defunct tongue. “It’s like I have an inner voice that tells me I have to do that,” he says.

More than a thousand years ago, the Eyaks are believed to have settled in Alaska’s interior before migrating to the coast, hunting and fishing along the way, historians say. They passed down their language through storytelling. While as many as 20 native dialects remain in Alaska, Mr. Krauss says Eyak is considered extinct because there are no fluent, native speakers.

Guillaume Leduey (center) gives an Eyak lesson to Dune Lankard (left) and Mona Curry.

Mr. Leduey’s preservation quest is littered with linguistic stumbling blocks. Eyak bears little similarity to English or the Russian spoken by some Alaskan natives. Sounds for letters often are uttered from the back of the mouth, rather than the middle as with European languages. Eyak’s vowels followed by an “n” are nasalized, while the “m” sound rarely is used. It wasn’t until academics began studying it that the language was formally put in writing.

There are no obscenities. “If you want to insult someone, you call them a ‘nik’da’luw,'” Mr. Leduey says, using the Eyak expression for “big nose,” which means nosy. And there are a number of one-word sentences. “If you want to say, ‘I’ll kill you,” it is ‘ige’xsheh,'” he says.

To understand more about Eyaks, Mr. Leduey also learned to cook salmon in the ground, a native tradition. On an overcast day here last month, he dug a shallow pit in the front yard of Eyak descendant Pam Smith, a niece of Ms. Jones’s. He tended a crackling fire to roast two red salmon, each wrapped in giant skunk cabbage leaves. After 90 minutes, the fish were warm but still raw, so Ms. Smith threw them into an oven.

Mr. Leduey’s Eyak odyssey began at age 12, when he happened on the language while trolling through an online dictionary of languages in his hometown of Le Havre. By searching more online, he discovered Eyak appeared to have only one native speaker, Ms. Jones.

“I was like, ‘Wow, one speaker left. I must do something to learn the language’,” Mr. Leduey says. His parents were less than thrilled. “They don’t think it’s useful,” he says.

With little online material on Eyak, Mr. Leduey obtained one of Mr. Krauss’s texts on the subject, and turned to Laura Bliss Spaan, a filmmaker in Anchorage, Alaska, who directed a documentary about Ms. Jones. Ms. Spaan sent Mr. Leduey the film and some more of Mr. Krauss’s Eyak texts.


Guillaume Leduey

In April 2009, Mr. Leduey showed off his Eyak skills to Ms. Spaan while she was visiting France. “We were outside one of the most beautiful cathedrals in Paris and Guillaume showed me some graffiti of an octopus,” she says. “He instantly told me three different ways to say ‘octopus,'” which is “tsaaleexoquh” in Eyak.

Earlier this year, Ms. Spaan suggested Mr. Leduey visit Mr. Krauss in Fairbanks, Alaska, where he teaches. After Mr. Leduey’s June arrival, Mr. Krauss cloistered him in a room for up to five hours a day to pore over Eyak documents. To break the monotony, Mr. Leduey sang songs in Eyak to Scamper, the professor’s Norwich Terrier.

Mr. Leduey also traveled to Cordova, where the Eyaks made their last stand against being swallowed up by civilization. Cordova boasts Eyak Corp., a legal entity for native groups in Alaska, with about 400 members. Membership is dominated by rival Tlingits, who helped take over the Eyak territory, along with white settlers, says Dune Lankard, one of about 50 in the corporation with Eyak blood. Bits of the language remain alive even though its fluent, native speakers have died.

“There are people talking like they’re Eyaks but they’re not Eyaks,” says Mr. Lankard, a commercial fisherman.

In Cordova last month, some part-Eyaks showed Mr. Leduey a demolished village site and took him to a natural attraction called Child’s Glacier, where a harbor seal leapt out of the icy water. “Keełtaak,” Mr. Leduey blurted out, using the Eyak word for the animal.

Later stopping to inspect a roadside sign about Eyaks, Mr. Leduey caught a barely perceptible error. The sign uses the Eyak word “saqehl” for people who go by boat; Mr. Leduey said it should be “saqehł,” with a bar through the “l.”

About 10 to 15 people have shown interest in Eyak lessons, he says. Mr. Leduey recently huddled at a kitchen table with Mr. Lankard, 50, and Ms. Curry, 53, for a lesson. “Adate’ya,” Mr. Leduey said for “silver salmon.” Mr. Lankard struggled with the guttural sound. “I can’t even say that,” he says.

Despite the early stigma about their language, “it feels right to learn now,” Ms. Curry says. “This will help keep my mom’s memory and spirit alive.”

Jim Carlton, Wall Street Journal


Full article and photos: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704499604575407862950503190.html