Non Human Languages?

According to the surprisingly still active Slashdot, Researchers Discover New Plant “Language”:

Westwood examined the plants’ mRNA, the molecule in cells that instructs organisms how to code certain proteins that are key to functioning. MRNA helps to regulate plant development and can control when plants eventually flowers. He found that the parasitic and the host plants were exchanging thousands of mRNA molecules between each other, thus creating a conversation.

Ah! Clarity. For a loose definition of language and conversation. I’m ok with loose definitions, a good analogy can help open the mind to new possibilities and potentialities. But I’m still happy to mock a little.



The new age of cyberlinguistics

The Conversation has a post about a new smart phone app that makes collecting, saving and interpreting languages significantly easier.

Recording the world’s vanishing voices expounds the developments of Steven Bird from the University of Melbourne’s Language Technology Group:

Of the 7,000 languages spoken on the planet, Tembé is at the small end with just 150 speakers left. In a few days, I will head into the Brazilian Amazon to record Tembé – via specially-designed technology – for posterity. Welcome to the world of cyberlinguistics.

Our new Android app Aikuma is still in the prototype stage. But it will dramatically speed up the process of collecting and preserving oral literature from endangered languages

Primarily developed for ‘saving’ languages the last speakers of which are dying out, difficulties included the mandatory informed consent for recording voices from people that have little to no contact with, or understanding of, computers or the internet.

Participants will try out the latest version which includes voice-­activated translation: while listening to a recording, the user can interrupt to give a simultaneous interpretation of the recording in another language (in this case, Portuguese).

This interpretation is captured by the phone and linked back to the original recording, phrase by phrase. In this way, the collected recordings are guaranteed to be interpretable even once the language is no longer spoken. This interpretability is what gives the recordings their archival value.

All materials we collect in this way will be left for the community and also lodged with the Museu Goeldi, a local research centre where they will be permanently available to the community.

That the application itself allows for almost simultaneous interpreting, greatly enhances the value of the collected data:

If enough people use Aikuma we will accumulate a large number of recordings from the world’s small languages, including Usarufa and Tembé. The result promises to be a digital-audio Rosetta Stone.

With permission, we will store the recordings and translations in the Internet Archive, a digital repository that has been preserving snapshots of the web since its inception in the early 1990s, and which is the most credible place to store digital content in perpetuity.

Cyberlinguists of the future may be able to discover the words and structures of dead languages from this data, and even construct dictionaries and grammars.

A postal service that goes above and beyond?

Futility Closet has a sweet story about how character encoding can go wrong, and the lengths gone to to make it better. The employees in question deserve a bonus!

In 2006 a Russian student emailed her postal address to a friend in France so that she could send her a Harry Potter book. Unfortunately the French friend’s email program was not set up to display Cyrillic characters; instead, it produced diacritics from the Western character set. Apparently not realizing the error, the French girl copied them down and mailed the package. Postal employees realized what had happened, deciphered the address, and delivered the book successfully.


Useful English words

Reddit, always a source of entertaining group intelligence, has been asked ESL redditors, what’s a really useful English word that you don’t have in your native language? And they have responded with the usual gusto, listing many, and being corrected when wrong:

Of course, then there are the more, shall we say, informative answers. I’ll put a strong language themes warning here, but there’s a lot to be learnt:

The Stupid and/or MythicalRonald Reagan laughed at the Russians because their language didn’t even have a word for ‘detente’.

The Profane then educative: Fuck. Which leads to the claim and then counter claim about being the most useful word. The counter claim is fascinating, introducing me to the previously unknown Chinese poet Yuen Ren Chao and his amazing poem Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den, which I will present here in it’s entirety:

Shī Shì shí shī shǐ

Shíshì shīshì Shī Shì, shì shī, shì shí shí shī. Shì shíshí shì shì shì shī. Shí shí, shì shí shī shì shì. Shì shí, shì Shī Shì shì shì. Shì shì shì shí shī, shì shǐ shì, shǐ shì shí shī shìshì. Shì shí shì shí shī shī, shì shíshì. Shíshì shī, Shì shǐ shì shì shíshì. Shíshì shì, Shì shǐ shì shí shì shí shī. Shí shí, shǐ shí shì shí shī, shí shí shí shī shī. Shì shì shì shì.

In English:

Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den
In a stone den was a poet called Shi, who was a lion addict, and had resolved to eat ten lions.
He often went to the market to look for lions.
At ten o’clock, ten lions had just arrived at the market.
At that time, Shi had just arrived at the market.
He saw those ten lions, and using his trusty arrows, caused the ten lions to die.
He brought the corpses of the ten lions to the stone den.
The stone den was damp. He asked his servants to wipe it.
After the stone den was wiped, he tried to eat those ten lions.
When he ate, he realized that these ten lions were in fact ten stone lion corpses.
Try to explain this matter.

You can hear Google pronounce it here

The French double entendres: Not having a word for sibling (interesting) then leads to the claim that they have mutant words for the number’s 70-99 and the obvious “too distracted after 69” joke.

The where-else-but-redditApparently, the english ability to verbify other words eg, “scienced” or “googled”, is somewhat unusual, and missed, which leads to some interesting mutations and silliness.

And finally The weirdest of afflictions: the Spanish have no word for moist, which others (and I’ve met one once) consider to be the nastiest word in English, and is apparently one of the main triggers to those with the affliction known as Word Aversion:

But there are a few words that, very often, make me sick to my stomach, and, it turns out, I’m not the only one. This is, I’ve learned, just part of language and is known as “word aversion.” It’s not like word rage, which occurs when you hate a word or phrase because of its associations with a particular group of people or trend, (“bromance,” “Twi-hard”), because people often use it incorrectly, (“your/you’re”) or because you think it’s pretentious, (“nomenclature,” “obtuse,” “pretentious”). Word aversion has nothing to do with meaning and is all about the actual word. Word aversion is, according to Language Log, …bred of the mysterious relationships between language, emotion, memory, sound and mouthfeel.” (Sidebar: “Mouthfeel” is just an awful, awful word. Why would anyone include “mouthfeel” in an essay about word aversion?)

Saving Garifuna

Here’s a short video called “I want to go back” – saving an endangered language about the Garifuna language. Taking popular music that already existed, infusing with Garifuna beats, and translating the lyrics, The Afri-Garifuna Jazz Ensemble are attempting to raise

…awareness of the endangered language of the Garifuna People that was proclaimed a “Masterpiece and Oral Intangible Heritage of Humanity.” Therefore, Afri-Garifuna Jazz will be another platform where the history and language of the Garifuna will be safeguarded through music.

The language is particularly interesting in that it’s made up of other languages

  • 45 % Arawak (Igñeri)
  • 25 % Carib (Kallínagu)
  • 15 % French
  • 10 % English
  • 5 % Spanish or English technical terms

But also because there is a vocabulary used by men and another used by women:

Relatively few examples of diglossia remain in common speech, where men and women use different words for the same concept, such as au ~ nugía for the pronoun “I”. Most such words are rare, and often dropped by men. For example, there are distinct Carib and Arawak words for ‘man’ and ‘women’, four words altogether, but in practice the generic term mútu is used by both men and women and for both men and women, with grammatical gender agreement on a verb, adjective, or demonstrative distinguishing whether mútu refers to a man or to a woman (mútu lé “the man”, mútu tó “the woman”).

There remains, however, a diglossic distinction in the grammatical gender of many inanimate nouns, with abstract words generally being considered grammatically feminine by men, and grammatically masculine by women. Thus the word wéyu may mean either concrete “sun” or abstract “day”; with the meaning of “day”, most men use feminine agreement, at least in conservative speech, while women use masculine agreement. The equivalent of the abstract impersonal pronoun in phrases like “it is necessary” is also masculine for women, but feminine in conservative male speech.

The part of my brain that understands the motivations and intellectual curiosity of translation and interpreting is springing all over the room right now. I probably should have done linguistics instead of mathematics at university.

On the fascism of Grammar

I don’t know who put me onto this two part essay on grammar yesterday (I feel like it was Superlinguo, but I could be wrong), but I’ve enjoyed reading/chewing on it. It starts as a piece on why grammar purism is annoying, distracting and misplaced:

When my father is interacting with people who find out he is a doctor, he often hears, “I have a medical question for you.” My sister, an accountant gets, “I have a tax question for you.” I feel particularly bad for my brother-in-law, who is both an accountant and a lawyer and who probably not only has to field general tax and legal questions but the questions of people who are in legal trouble because of their taxes. But when people find out I’m an English teacher, they often say, “I have a grammar question for you…

A big part of the problem, in my estimation is that we as a society–even the most overeducated among us–have a poor grasp of what grammar actually is and what role it plays in writing. So here it is: grammar is a set of standards that we as a linguistic group have agreed upon to help us understand one another. Those rules tend to be culturally and regionally specific and change over time. No one descended from a mountain with two stone tablets reading, “Though shalt not use a preposition at the end of a sentence.” Adhering to grammar guidelines is about making sure that you are understood. It’s also about self-presentation, but it’s not about adhering to some sort of moral code.

Grammar too often gets confused with what it is designed to produce, which is fluency. Fluency here is defined not just by your ability to speak or write in a particular language but by a certain facility with that language, the ability to make words do exactly what you want them to do, to make them sparkle and titillate and inspire, to not just say the right thing but to sound good doing it. And that may or may not include utilizing proper grammar. Often fluency means learning precisely when to follow the rules and when to break them, to tune the correctness of your usage to the expectations of your audience (idiom!). Or to use non-standard constructions for effect (Iseewhatyoudidthere). Fluency is the ability to say exactly what you mean exactly how you want, which is harder than it sounds.

I’ve written previously on language mutability in the case of Indonesian punk rock band Punkasila and why I think it’s important. In Punkasila’s case we see language and art sitting side by side – and we while we see language moving, when the art doesn’t move, it loses all power to effect change. This piece attributed to Mark Twain, and Valerie Yule’s long career as an educator have been my two go to references, this will be my third.

As I write this, the music of artist Dual Core has come on and realise that hip hop threw grammar out the window over twenty years ago and hasn’t seen a reduction in popularity as a result. Criticisms of the genre have never been “that was poorly articulated”, quite the opposite in fact – when an MC can “make the words flow”, or express meaning in a clever and unique way, they are lauded.

While the headline I’ve chosen is overblown, my essential concern is one of conservative thought versus progressive thought. If we don’t sculpt our language in such a way that we can express new ideas, or old ideas and beauty in new ways, we run the risk of stagnation. A rusting on of ideas, an increasing boredom with beauty and difference. And that’s not the world I want to live in.

Part two of this essay is less rant, more literature – but has it’s own beauty. In particular, it address the idea of language formation moving between languages, in relation to Rushdie’s The Satanic Versus, and the richness that it provides

However, you also have to account for the fact that Rushdie often uses the speech patterns of Central Asian English speakers in his prose, and that is part of what de-familiarizes it, though in an intriguing way, I think. There is an aural quality to his writing that makes for great out-loud reading. As an Indian man who grew up in the wake of the British Raj and inhabits a globalizing society, he is interested in how linguistic groups from the former colonies have adapted the language of their colonizers. But he isn’t exactly doing dialect, which has historically been used as a kind of literary black-face. He isn’t trying to convey a character’s accent through non-standard spelling. Instead, he reproduces the idiom and cadence of those speech patterns, which is really effing cool.

It is for this reason that I don’t believe that translators and interpretors need worry about their working futures – computing has a long way to go before it can weave this magic.

The end of Morse code?

The Vancouver Sun has an interesting article about the last “native” speakers of Morse Code.  George Campbell, 85, believes that “(w)hen we die, Morse will die, forever”:

… no one needs to learn telegraphy or Morse code these days — not amateur radio operators, not even sailors, he said. The U.S. Coast Guard stopped monitoring Morse code for distress calls back in the late 1990s, he added. “We’ve got satellites now; we’ve got all kinds of radio that’s a lot better.

As someone old enough to remember a pre-internet world, I grew up reading, thinking about and studying morse code, and I think that their fears are unfounded.

It’s obvious that morse is now more of an interesting anecdote, an evolutionary step in communications theory and practice, than it is a practical way of communicating. But it has a number of advantages over other “dying languages”, primarily that it was used extensively within living memory in the developed world and it’s practice and structure will be recorded for future generations:

Campbell recently wrote a book entitled Good Night Old Man about his experiences as a wireless operator, and said the slow death of the Morse code is one of the reasons he was inspired to record his memories.

I’m sure that a subset of future nerds will continue to learn and practice morse in the same way that ham radio still exists, that vinyl records still exist, that any old tech still exist. There is even a strong case for it remaining in some part of our cultural memory on the chance the satellites fall from the sky or some other catastrophe occurs. And I imagine that the phrase SOS will remain the international code for distress – a fitting legacy, and a mighty cross cultural achievement.

To call it a language is problematic – while it does require study and translation, it is merely an addition to an underlying language – it has no stand alone grammer of its own. Despite this, it does show itself to be a precursor to current trends in the some ways:

Munsey said telegraphy isn’t that far removed from the phone texting younger people do now. “But we never had LOL,” he added with a chuckle. “We just said, ‘Hi.’ When you said, H-I (in Morse code), that meant you were laughing.”

But there’s no denying it’s a skill to think in this other system, even if it’s just another encoding of the underlying language, or whichever cipher that language had been processed with.

World’s only “Women’s writing”

dev/null posted about rural Chinese women who had their own secret languageNüshu script, which the BBC claims is the world’s only “women’s writing”. Reminds me of at least one other women’s language – that of switchboard operators (mostly women) in the early days of telephones, as reported in Sadie Plant‘s supurb Zeros and Ones: Digital Women and the New Technoculture