Archive for January, 2010

More language maps

Posted on January 31st, 2010by Michelle
In English, Indigenous languages, Spanish, Technology | Leave a Comment »

I’ve been in Deep South of America for the past month, and it’s definitely been interesting to be surrounded by a range of southern accents. Some are so thick I can only nod and smile in response to comments!

It’s also been interesting to learn more about the many different languages people may not know are spoken in the US. Whilst Spanish is prevalent (even here in South Carolina, many miles from the Mexican border), a lot of minority languages are also spoken, including the many Native American tongues.

Whilst I’ll be looking at these further in future posts, for the moment I’d like to share this – a linguistic map of the states, showing indigenous languages, dialects and regional accents. You can also view maps of Canada, Asia, Europe and Africa. Incredible.

Language and social structure

Posted on January 28th, 2010by Michelle
In Culture, English, Mandarin, Research | Leave a Comment »

A new study has shown that language structure may be more closely tied to social structure than previously thought.

Psychologists at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Memphis have published a new study on linguistic evolution that challenges long-held views of how languages became so different. Traditional thinking holds that languages developed because of “random change and historical drift”. The differences in space and time throughout history have evolved the separation between English and Mandarin, for example.

The “Linguistic Niche Hypothesis”, however, argues that languages evolve within particular socio-demographic niches.

The researchers found striking relationships between the demographic properties of a language — such as its population and global spread — and the grammatical complexity of those languages. Languages having the most speakers — and those that have spread around the world — were found to have far simpler grammars, specifically morphology, than languages spoken by few people and in circumscribed regions. For example, languages spoken by more than 100,000 people are almost six times more likely to have simple verb conjugations compared to languages spoken by fewer than 100,000 people.

Larger populations tend to have simpler pronoun and number systems and a smaller number of cases and genders and in general do not employ complex prefixing or suffixing rules in their grammars. A consequence is that languages with long histories of adult learners have become easier to learn over time. Although a number of researchers have predicted such relationships between social and language structure, this is the first large-scale statistical test of this idea.

The results draw connections between the evolution of human language and biological organisms. Just as very distantly related organisms converge on evolutionary strategies in particular niches, languages may adapt to the social environments in which they are learned and used. (Source: Science Daily)

The SarcMarc

Posted on January 25th, 2010by Michelle
In Hieroglyphics, punctuation, Technology | Leave a Comment »

Bass clefAh, just what I’ve always wanted – a punctuation mark for sarcasm!

Yep, those of you who have mastered the art can now make it totally clear when you’re being sarcastic in writing. The invention of American company Sarcasm, Inc. (interesting, since arguably the British are masters of the sarcastic comment), the SarcMarc can be downloaded for US$1.99 and is available for Windows, Mac and Blackberry products.

Want to know how to spot when you’ve been sarc’ed? Look out for something like an upside-down bass clef (see the picture above).

Repeat, repeat, repeat!

Posted on January 23rd, 2010by Michelle
In Hints and Tips, Language acquisition | Leave a Comment »

Repetition is a great way to improve your language skills and familiarise yourself with your chosen language. In class, a teacher will often go over the same words in different ways – so you are hearing and repeating the words often and hopefully fixing them in your brain (creating neural pathways, if you want to be scientific about it!).

Outside of class, it’s also helpful to use this technique. You could repeat vocabulary lists to yourself, or write them down, but this may soon become boring. When you are bored, you stop noticing things, and stop learning.

Try listening to audio books, radio, music and television in the language you are learning. Some content may be more appealing than others. Find some things you like a repeat them over and over. You will soon find yourself recognising more words and sentences. Once you are bored or think you have learned all you can, switch to something different.

The key here though, is to not switch too much. You need to find a balance between what you find interesting and acquiring the knowledge or creating the pathways in your brain.

Talking robot

Posted on January 21st, 2010by Michelle
In Language acquisition, Technology | Leave a Comment »

TalkingRoboFor lots of people learning a new language, practicing speaking and listening is the hardest part. Finding someone to interact with, who understands your level and can help you improve, is difficult. You may make new friends in a class, but they may not be available when you want to practice.

A new robot may soon be able to help you out. TalkingRoBo features speech recognition and can understand natural language when you speak to it. In addition, it can suggest topics to talk about (thus skipping the awkward question: “What do you talk to a robot about?”) and recognise different faces so a number of different users can practice.

The robot apparently also comes in different forms, so if you would prefer chatting to a panda named Antony, your wish can come true.

Sadly no release date yet for TalkingRoBo, but it looks like a tool worth waiting for.

Can you speak business?

Posted on January 19th, 2010by Michelle
In English, Invented languages, Technology, Words | 1 Comment »

BuzzwordsFollowing up on yesterday’s post about industry-specific terminology, I thought I’d share with you this fun application.

The Business Speak Generator uses standard sentence structures and combines them with the latest lingo to create sentences that sound genuine. Perfect for when you’re stuck and can’t think of anything to add to that almost-complete report, the Business Speak Generator will come up with something that makes you sound smart, without the need to put a lot of thought into it.

Here’s an example:

In an era of discontinuous change, a need to overcome the limitations operationalizes excessive use of previously established frameworks.

I’m not sure that ‘operationalizes’ is really a word, but it sounds great… and scarily like reading a corporate report.

Workplace lingo

Posted on January 18th, 2010by Michelle
In Culture, English, Invented languages, Words | Leave a Comment »

Last weekend, the blog Schott’s Vocab ran a competition to reveal workplace lingo.

Many professions have their own languages, with terminology that only the initiated can understand. The most obvious must be in medicine, where it can seem that doctors are speaking a foreign language with lots of long, strange word combinations.

Even if your job doesn’t have an entirely different vocabulary, you’re likely to use some work-specific language during your day that an outsider wouldn’t understand. It may be specific to your industry, company or even your particular workplace. Coming up with your own shorthand can be a good way of bonding with colleagues.

So, what interesting terms did the Schott’s readers come up with?

running heads: describes the content in the margins, but always makes me think of heads running. (Publishing)

tombstone: [...], we refer to that basic block of object information as the “tombstone”. You know, the Artist’s name, life dates, title of work, year of creation, materials, credit line. (Museums)

calendar: to schedule time on someone’s online corporate calendar program (”If you want to sit down and discuss the Pensky file, calendar me”). (Corporate/office)

Code18: for a computer user whose perceived problem isn’t due to a malfunction in the computer but with something in (or not in, more like) his/her own head, 18″ from the monitor. (IT)

I can’t imagine what non-native English speakers make of these! I’m sure other languages have their own workplace lingos also, anyone got any examples?

Scots and English

Posted on January 16th, 2010by Michelle
In Research, Scots | Leave a Comment »

Interesting article in The Times yesterday about the division between Scots and English.

Both languages are from the same Germanic root (Old English), and yet sound completely different. There is some debate about whether Scots is a language or an old English dialect, although it is recognised as a regional language by under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.

Whatever the case, it seems that people are proud to speak Scots. A recent survey revealed:

Beyond the rather disheartening conclusion that a majority did not regard Scots as a language at all, there were some more encouraging responses. Just under two thirds (63 per cent) of those asked disagreed with the statement that Scots “doesn’t sound nice — it’s slang”, and 40 per cent disagreeing strongly. Eighty-five per cent claimed to speak Scots, with a substantial proportion (43 per cent) claiming to speak it “a lot”. Most said that they either spoke Scots when socialising (69 per cent) or at home with family (63 per cent) and about two thirds thought they probably spoke it without realising. (Source: The Times)

Remapping the world

Posted on January 15th, 2010by Michelle
In Culture, Indigenous languages, Research | Leave a Comment »

Papua New GuineaIn my last post I wrote about The Atlas of True Names, which renamed places according to their etymology.

Another map has been brought to my attention – one that reorganises the world according to the number of languages it has produced.
Limits of Language: Almost Everything You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know About Language and Languages (whew!) by Mikael Parkvall is “part Guinness Book of World Records, part Book of Lists, and part illustrated encyclopedia”. And if that doesn’t make you want to take a look at it, this will: Papua New Guinea is the biggest place on the map.

Yep, tiny little Papua New Guinea (it’s off the northeast coast of Australia, if you’re trying to find it on a map), has produced more languages than any other country. Its total indigenous language count is 841, of which 830 are classified as ‘living’ and 11 have no known speakers.

Take a look at this PDF file for a sneak preview.

The Atlas of True Names

Posted on January 13th, 2010by Michelle
In English, Etymology, Words | Leave a Comment »

The Atlas of True NamesWe know that all words have origins, and place names probably have some of the most interesting origins.

When I attended school in London as a child, we learned about the history of the city partly through place and street names – Pudding Lane for example, was where the Great Fire of London started, and Rotten Row is a corruption of ‘route du roi’ (road of king). (If you’re interested in this subject, check out this website).

The Atlas of True Names is a set of world maps where the traditional names of cities, countries and geographical features have been replaced with words showing their origins and literal meanings. The results are surprising and intriguing, with London renamed the somewhat less substantial “Unfordable River Town” and Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love, becoming “Sibling Love”.

As some language commentators have pointed out though, it’s best not to take the map too seriously – some of the etymology may be disputed or incorrect. As a way to look at the world in a different light and discover the fun of words though, it’s a great resource. And as the cartographers say:

“We wanted to let the Earth tells its own story,” Stephan Hormes, who produced the maps together with his wife Silke Peust, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. “The names give you an insight into what the people saw when they first looked at a place, almost with the eyes of children. Through the maps, we wanted to show what they saw.” (Source: Der Spiegel)

Take a look at a slideshow of the maps here.