Archive for the ‘8. The Dragons of Grammar’ Category

The DoGs on Winter Circuit: Endangered Languages

November 28, 2014 Leave a comment

It’s snowing in Martinsburg, and the Dragons of Grammar have started pestering RT, making a racket as they clamber all over the modest duplex he inhabits, blowing plumes of smoke at his sealed windows, and generally trying to cause an uproar in the neighborhood, which would be worse, except that nothing much is getting done in Martinsburg today (except last-minute preparations for Thanksgiving). People are paying the polite, if fiery and colorful, creatures no mind.

File:Zitkala Sa Sioux Indian and activist 1898.jpg

Zitkala Sa, “Red Bird”; English name, Gertrude Simmons (1876-1938). Sioux author, musician, composer, activist.

Now, RT is well aware that the DoGs love winter–it’s their favorite season, in fact–and at first he thought he also knew the subject that they wanted him to post on–Canadian Aboriginal Syllabics. Now CAS are certainly a worthwhile topic of exploration, but it turns out that that is not the DoGs’ primary concern on the day before Thanksgiving. Rather, they have a weighty matter they want RT to ponder: the definition and ways of helping endangered languages around the world.

Well, RT already knew that there are a lot of endangered languages out there, and a quick browsing of the net suggests that half of all languages, which numbered 6,900 in 2005, are in danger of going extinct (i.e., losing their last native speaker) within the next generation. About half of all languages spoken, moreover, are located either in Asia or Africa, but please take note, Oklahoma also constitutes a hot spot.

RT recollects that on occasion he has posted on endangered languages in these pages, but he thinks that a new post, especially one that contains a listing of items that help reflect the vitality of a language, would be quite useful.

Here is RT’s list:

1) Official Status. Does a language receive political or cultural support, and, in particular, is it taught in schools?

2) Writing System. Does a language have a writing system that was either created or evolved for its use? If so, is there a standardized orthography for the language? How easy is the language’s script to learn?

3) Child speakers. Are children learning the language?

4) Everyday transactions. Do people use the language in their daily routine?

5) Number of speakers. Last, and maybe least, how many people speak the language worldwide, whether as a first or second tongue? To which RT appends perhaps the most vital question: Is the number of speakers growing?

Now we come to subtler considerations.

6) Prestige. Do members of the cultural elite speak the language? Does everyone else in a society regard knowing the language as worthwhile or even as a cultural attainment?

7) National or Personal Identity. Is the language strongly linked to historical or national identity? A good example of this are the Gaelic languages in western Europe.

8) Variant of a Regional Language. Is the language a member of a widespread language family? Can a speaker travel to other areas where his or her native language is to some degree intelligible to others?

9. Global Status. Has a language become a lingua franca? Is it in danger of corruption through overuse? English immediately comes to mind as the lingua franca currently used by the largest number of speakers. How many people would speak English if it weren’t so closely tied to the current power elite?

10. Written and Audio/Video Materials. Here is a vital concern: to what extent is the language recorded in writing? In particular, do any of these materials include native legends and mythology? And do recordings of native speakers exist? Not only do these help preserve the language in the most direct way possible, but they also put a face on the language, another intangible but vital concern.

More than half the world’s languages are located in eight countries (in red): India, Brazil, Mexico, Australia, Indonesia, Nigeria, Papua New Guinea, and Cameroon. These countries and the areas around them (in light blue) are the most linguistically diverse regions in the world.

 Now RT will try to sort out various languages by their vitality:

1) English, Spanish, French: the current global lingua francas.

2) Chinese (1.2 billion native speakers) and Hindi (800 million ns) : the most widely spoken single-nation languages.

3) Basque (720,000 ns, north-central Spain) and Mapundugan (250,000 ns, Chile and Argentina): language isolates (i.e., not related to any known language). Neither language is listed as endangered; both have been officially recognized. To give some idea of how different a language isolate can be, the Basque word for “father” is “aita,” and the word for “welcome” is “ongi.”

4) Insular Celtic: spoken in the British Islands (Welsh (580,000 speakers in Wales), Irish (130,000 ns), and Scottish Gaelic (57,000 ns)) and Brittany (Breton, 210,000 ns): protected minority languages; full to limited instruction in schools; the number of speakers is relatively small but growing. And here, to give some idea of the music of these languages, RT offers a link to a YouTube video on Scottish Gaelic, the IC language with the fewest native speakers:

5) Cree: limited official recognition within Canada; written in a system constructed for the language; limited instruction in school; 170,000 native speakers. Here is a brief sample of the language via YouTube:

6) Sioux: No official recognition in the U.S.; school instruction, including immersion classes; 44,000 native speakers.

7) ‘Amkoe:  This is a click language found in Botswana. 30 native speakers. Here is RT’s final video, on Xhosa click language:


Meanwhile, the snow has stopped and the DoGs have flown off elsewhere to spread their warmth in icy climes… More on all this later.   RT

 PhotoA Quebec stop sign in Cree/English/French. Author: P199. CC3.0 BY-SA. Map: Linguistic Diversity in the World. Author: Davius. WikiCmns; Public Domain.


The Navajo Reservation–Facts & a Few Reflections

February 10, 2014 Leave a comment

File:Navajo Nation Council Chambers 6809.jpg

When he was 12 or 13, as part of a boarding school expedition, RT visited the Hopi reservation in Arizona. After all these years, he still remembers the marvelous pueblos on their mesas and the Kachina dolls for sale at the visitor’s center. The land in northern Arizona is indescribably beautiful.

To get to the HR, you might already know, you have to drive through the Navajo reservation, which completely surrounds it. Unfortunately, RT never got to visit the Navajo reservation, but it has cropped up, very possibly by some sort of fate or other, in his recent net surfing. Why devote one or more posts to the Navajo? For one thing, the NR is the largest in the nation. The stats are as follows: land area, 17,425 sq. mi. (71,000 sq. km.); population, 173,987; economic resources, ranching and extensive mineral resources, some of which, for environmental reasons, are no longer exploited (and the Navajo are also beginning to implement wind farming), and casino gambling, as of 2004. The seat of government and capital is Window Rock, AZ. And one more important fact: the Navajo call themselves Diné.


Map of the Navajo Reservation

To help put the geographical and demographic data in perspective, the NR is larger than eight American states (it’s also bigger than Denmark). Looking at things slightly differently, were the NR a state, it would have by far the smallest population–the current holder of that distinction is Wyoming at 582,658 people.

On the other hand, despite its large size, the NR faces much the same problems in its dealings with the outside world as do other reservations. To wit: although a legal nation, the Navajo people must submit all proposed laws to the U.S. Secretary of the Interior for review. In practice, most disputes between the Navajo and the U.S. government are settled by negotiation. The legal relationship between Indian reservations and individual U.S. states is decided by federal courts, which have consistently ruled in favor of the reservations, upholding, for instance, the right of Indians to hunt and fish on their lands irrespective of state legislation. As one might imagine, there have been many disputes between individual states and the reservations over the years.

In fact, one could claim that the reservation system constitutes a second tier of internal division with the United States, similar to, but distinct from, the 50 states. One difference is that the reservations send no representatives to Congress. Or at least, that is, directly. American Indians are citizens not only of their reservation, but also of their U.S. state and the United States, and as such vote for state legislatures and the Congress. But the reservations themselves have no representation either at the state or federal level.

You could say that, after all, Indian citizens pay federal taxes and serve in the U.S. military, and are therefore entitled to the same representation as any other U.S. citizen. (And surely mention must be made of the brave and sometimes unique service that Indians have offered as soldiers, for instance, the improved encryption that the Indian Code TalkersNavajo among them–provided during WWII.)

On the other hand, the American Indian’s status as members of the First Nation, the original inhabitants of the continent, and thus the only American community that had to make way for everyone else (and often in not very nice ways) argues that they are entitled to either some sort of compensation or else a special voice in U.S. affairs. One way to express this special connection might be to include a non-voting Indian representative in both the Senate and the House of Representatives.

While on this topic, RT recommends reading up on the abortive Indian state of Sequoyah, which was located in present-day Oklahoma.

On the health front, the Navajo, like other Indian tribes, continue to struggle with the devastating health and social effects of alcoholism (and this in spite of long-standing ban on alcohol sales in the NR). Diabetes is another major health concern, as are suicide and deaths from pneumonia, tuberculosis, and influenza. Homicide and suicide rates are significantly higher than in the United States as a whole.


OK, so what about the positive side of the ledger? What has been getting better on the NR?

1) RT will start by pointing the reader to the Navajo Times web site, a professional and informative resource.

2) Next, RT recommends visiting the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Indian Housing Improvement Program page. In existence since 1921, HIP is intended to work in conjunction with other federal housing programs, and targets Indian homelessness and substandard housing. RT can only ask: Shouldn’t this program be duplicated in other impoverished areas, starting with Appalachia?

3) Indian education has become a priority. Created in 2011 by executive order, the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education aims to close the gap between Indian and statewide scores on academic achievement tests. 

4) Education in Diné (the Navajo language) is getting better. Check out the Navajo Nation Department of Diné Education. Over 150 public, private and Bureau of Indian Affairs schools serve Navajo students from kindergarten through high school. Diné College, established in 1968 as the first Indian Community College, has an enrollment of 1,830 students.

5) RT has learned of one Diné citizen who is an Arizona state senator. RT’s rapid inventory of information on the net indicates that at least five American Indians have been elected a U.S. Senator, and another eight, U.S. representatives, one of whom served five terms in the House.


There is more, much more, to be learned about the status of American Indians. The questions surrounding these nations-within-a-nation are nothing if not complex. So doubtless RT will be revisiting this important topic. (And the Dragons of Grammar have expressed an interest in learning Diné!).

RT recommends that readers check out the federal government’s Bureau of Indian Affairs web site. This agency of the Department of the Interior has been charged with overseeing federal-Indian nation relations since 1824.

Before closing out this post, RT will let fly a final barb: why not create a cabinet-level Department of Indian Affairs? This will consolidate all Indian programs under a single roof and signal that America takes its obligations to the continent’s first inhabitants seriously. One might argue that this would be in flagrant disregard of the sovereignty of the Indian peoples, but RT figures that this government-government relationship is unique anyway, and if a DIA would improve quality of life for American Indians and warm up Anglo-Indian relations, why not?


Photo: Navajo Nation Council Chambers, Window Rock, AZ. Author: William Nakai. WikiCmns; CC 3.0 Unported.

Map: Navajo Reservation. Author: Seb az86556. CC 3.0 Unported.


U.S. American Indians, Identity (and Language)

February 4, 2014 Leave a comment


If there is a vexed question in United States politics and history, it is how to identify American Indians. Because the U.S. Census collects self-reported information on racial identity, it is of doubtful use in determining the actual number of American Indians–people will avoid the problems of identifying as American Indian because of the second-class status that Indians have endured over the years. On the other hand, trying to create a scientific or legal definition involves highly subjective considerations–are you Indian if you had a pure-blood Indian grandparent? What about a pure-blood great-grandparent? And how should your blood-quantum be scientifically determined?

Worst of all, such data could be used to re-establish discriminatory laws based on race.


With these provisos, RT offers the following figures on the American Indian population. In the 2010 Census:

1) 2.9 million people, or 0.9 percent of the total U.S. population, reported American Indian or Alaska Native alone.

2) 2.3 million people, or another 0.7 percent, reported American Indian or Alaska Native in combination with one or more other races.

3) Together, these two groups totaled 5.2 million people. Thus, 1.7 percent of all people in the United States (308.7  million in the 2010 Census)  identified as American Indian or Alaska Native, either alone or in combination with one or more other races.


RT thinks it’s safe to say: five million people ain’t nothing. But there are 566 federally recognized Indian Tribes in the United States and 68 state-recognized tribes. Further, as of 2012, 70% of American Indians live in urban areas, up from 45% in 1970 and 8% in 1940. The 2003 Census indicates that a little over 1/3 of Native Americans live in three states: California, Arizona, and Oklahoma.


A plausible argument could be made that a true settling of American identity will only occur when the nation has come to terms with its Native Americans (And the Dragons of Grammar have indicated a certain interest in their languages and poetry :). Time heals all (and research helps, too). RT is currently at work on a post concerning the Navajo Reservation, the biggest in the country.

Finally, RT hopes that a discussion of the status of Native Americans will shed light on the larger political question of how member states or nations of federations can relate constructively to the federal union.


Map: American Indian Reservations; U.S. Census Bureau. WikiCmns; Public Domain.



Two Simplified Spelling Resources–Unifon and Cut Spelling

September 27, 2013 Leave a comment



The Dragons of Grammar are as amenable as anyone to RT’s history essays, but of late they feel a bit slighted in RT’s writing schedule (RT reminds them that, not so long ago, they were sunning themselves lazily on the rocks outside their caves). Still, RT feels obliged to add a post on spelling and alphabet reform, a thread he will admit he has neglected of late. So here are two systems that RT thinks could help us develop a simpler, kinder spelling.

1) Unifon. Designed by Dr. John R. Malone in the 1950s, the original market that the script was designed for disappeared, and gradually the modified alphabet has drifted off the public’s radar.

Here are the pro considerations for Unifon

a) it’s clearly based on the current English alphabet.

b) it visually relates each new letter to the traditional English letter that represents its sound.

c) it’s easy to learn; in 1960, Dr. Margaret S. Ratz used Unifon to teach three children how to read “in 17 hours with cookies and milk.”

Here’s the con:

a) Unifon would require the modification of keyboards and public signage


Here is the Unifon Alphabet, weighing in at 40 letters:








2. Cut Spelling. Designed by Christopher Upwood, this spelling simplification was advocated for a time by the Simplified Spelling Society.  Here are CS’s main substitution rules:

  1. Letters irrelevant to pronunciation. This rule deletes most silent letters, except when these letters (such as “magic e“) help indicate pronunciation. Omitting or including the wrong silent letters are common errors. Examples: peace → peceexcept → exeptplaque → plaqblood → blodpitch → pich.
  2. Cutting unstressed vowels. English unstressed syllables are usually pronounced with the vowel schwa /ə/, which has no standard spelling, but can be represented by any vowel letter. Writing the wrong letter in these syllables is a common error, for example, seperate for separate. Cut Spelling eliminates these vowel letters completely before approximants (/l/ and /r/) and nasals (/m/, /n/, and /ŋ/). In addition, some vowel letters are dropped in suffixes, reducing the confusion between -able and -ible. Examples: symbol → symblvictim → victmlemon → lemnglamour/glamor → glamrpermanent → permnntwaited → waitdchurches → churchswarmest → warmst,edible → edbl.
  3. Simplifying doubled consonants. This rule helps with another of the most common spelling errors: failing to double letters (accommodate and committee are often misspelled) or introducing erroneously doubled letters. Cut Spelling does not eliminate all doubled letters: in some words (especially two-syllable words) the doubled consonant letter is needed to differentiate from another differently pronounced word (e.g., holly and holy). Examples: innate → inatespell → spel.


Here is a sample sentence written with Cut Spelling:

Th Space Race was th competition between th United States and th Soviet Union, rufly from 1957 to 1975. It involvd th efrts by each of these nations to explor outr space with satlites, to be th 1st to send there a human being and to send mand and unmand missions on th Moon with a safe return of th humans to Erth.


CS Pros:

1) Introduces no new letters into the alphabet

2) Requires no modification of current keyboards or pubic signage

3) Reduces the length of words by 8-15%.

CS Cons:

1) Doesn’t follow the one-letter, one-sound principle.


If RT had to hazard a guess as to which of these two reforms is likelier to be implemented, he would vote for Cut Spelling. On the other hand, he’s sure that the better long-term reform would be Unifon. The simplest reform might be to gradually introduce Unifon.     RT

(and incidentally, the Dragons of Grammar have let RT know they like this post)


RT’s Related Posts: 1) Learning Alphabets; 2) Mighty Mice Redux–The IPA for English Speakers


Sample Script: Lord’s Prayer in Unifon. Author: William Skaggs. WikiCmns; Public Domain. Sample Alphabet: Unifon Script. WikiCmns; CC 1.0 Generic.

It’s Snowing Particles–Polarity & the Dragons of Grammar

September 13, 2013 Leave a comment



It’s September, the month when by tradition dragons are wont to travel about the world, visiting places that most of us humans would avoid. We might find the poles and the antipodes a rather barren and challenging environment, but no so the gentledrakes of RT’s acquaintance. They love nothing better than a good snowball fight! And never mind a blizzard or two, pouring down particles upon particles; the Dragons of Grammar have found the design and interest of grammatical particles to be subtler than we might think.

You might be forgiven, and you certainly wouldn’t be alone, if you thought that “yes” and “no” are a relatively simple business in English. Well, yes and no.  Modern English settles for just two possible answers to a straightforward inquiry: 1) yes, or 2) no.

Old English, on the other hand, had a subtler system of answering questions: the four-form system. What this means is, that four the sake of clarity, questions were divided into two categories: negative (“Will he not go?) and positive (“Will he go?”). Following this logic,, responses were also divided into negative and positive categories: 1) for negative, yes, he will go or no, he will not go; for positive, yea, he will go or nay, he will not go. Any English-speaker will remember being unsure of how to respond to negative questions: “Will he not go?”; Is the speaker asking whether the person will stay, or is he asking, will the person go? The solution to this quandary over the centuries has apparently been to drop the negative form of questions, to the extent possible (or at least that’s RT’s experience of the problem), but to keep the pair of negative responses. Go figure.

And other languages, among them, French, Danish, and Hungarian, have a three-form system. For instance, French has oui, si, and non.

Meanwhile, returning to this post’s title, a sentence’s polarity simply indicates whether or not a statement affirms (positive) or denies (negative) a statement: positive (“James is here.”) or negative (“James is not here”).

And finally, we turn to the matter of particles. A particle is a part of speech which does not belong to any of the defined categories (for instance, nouns, verbs, articles) but which help convey a speaker’s meaning (examples include “not”and “to”) Particles are never inflected..

The Dragons of Grammar are rolling their eyeballs: if only humans would adopt the precision that exists in their language Dragonish. Keeping with their litigious nature and need for clarity, dragons have an Eight-form system for their responses: Positive: 1) yes, 2) yag (as in “Yes, and you’re being awfully inquisitive today”), 3) yog (as in “I was planning to, but I’m uncertain at the moment.”), 4) yigi (as in “I wasn’t planning to, but you’ve interested me in the possibility.”) and Negative 5) no, 6) noog (as in “No. I’m feeling lousy; don’t ask again.”), 7) negeehi (as in “No. Can’t you see I’m busy?”, and 8) natti :as in “No. Care for an Etruscan Salami?”). RT’s contacts in the DoGs assure him that it’s a snap to learn 8-form. RT has his doubts about their claim: Natti!! But his interlocutor merely replies: “No. Care for a snowball fight?”   RT 

Photograph: Snowball Fight, Montana State University. Author: ZeWrestler. WikiCmns; Public Domain.


Welsh–Visible and Invisible

August 23, 2013 Leave a comment

File:Siaradwyr y Gymraeg ym Mhrif Ardaloedd Cymru.png

RT can’t get out of this one: some time ago, he promised to examine Welsh as an example of a minority language.

Who needs to know Welsh? RT recalls a story concerning J.R.R. Tolkien: When Tolkien was a boy, in the 7-to-8-year-old range, he and his mother were walking near some Welsh coal-cars. JRRT looked up at the Welsh writing on the cars and asked his mother what language was written on the cars. When told that it was Welsh, he responded that he wanted to learn the language. Anyone who has admired the beauty of JRRT’s elven languages has Welsh (along with Finnish) to thank for that beauty. (As RT recalls, Sindarin is based on Welsh, Quenya, on Finnish.)

On a more mundane level, our question might be: why should the Welsh bother to speak their own language? And even more to the point: why should English speakers be burdened with the task of learning Welsh?

RT has already discussed the reasons that a community might want to learn its indigenous language again. As to the second question, one benefit lies in bilingualism, especially when children live in a bilingual environment. Some studies indicate that bi- or multilingual individuals enjoy increased cognitive function: their brains are nimbler, better able to handle ambiguities, and even demonstrate greater resistance to Alzheimer’s. It might even be, RT suspects, that bilingual persons are likelier to become poets.

File:Welsh singe in Wrexham 1.png

Finally, RT suspects, language is a concession to the genius of a place, to its history, achievements, and sufferings. Learning a language requires a significant commitment of time and energy, and it supposes the creation of friendships, even across cultural and personal barriers.

On the other hand, place can be a tricky thing to define. Wales is a part of the United Kingdom, the British Islands, Europe, and the world. We turn one face to the tangible realities of our daily routine, another to the larger world of humanity. If English speakers need to learn Welsh, Welsh speakers need to know English. And RT, an American, is uneasily aware of how this reality plays out in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia, which has its deep roots in Shawnee culture. When we make the invisible visible, when we welcome the ghosts of our past back as real people, we become an integral part of the world.   RT

(p.s.: RT is pretty sure he will be posting on this topic again.)

MapPercentages of Welsh speakers in the principal areas of Wales. (Based on the GFDL Image:WalesNumbered.png.) Based on 2001 census data. Author: QuartierLatin1968. WikiCmns; CC 3.0 Attribution-Share Alike Unported.

Photo: Welsh Sign in Wrexham; Author: Snow storm in Eastern Asia. WikiCmns; Public Domain.


Breaking the Code: Points of Articulation & the DoGs

August 15, 2013 4 comments

File:Places of articulation.svg


The Dragons of Grammar are willing, if tempted with Etruscan Salamis and other treats, to admit that they have been somewhat remiss since the coronation of Queen Margot and the Queen’s subsequent visits to her new realm: RT suspects that they have been lazing in the summer sun, glad of the opportunity to forget about the perplexities and passionate battles  occasioned by their love of language. But the responsibilities inherent in their choice of a royal form of government cannot be shirked forever: the Queen has been reminding them of their duty to improve dragon-human relations, and how better to do that than help humans gain a better grasp of the language they use? And after all, they did choose one of them to occupy the draconien throne.

For his part, RT, who will stipulate to a certain (current) lack of interest in the study of languages, will accept any help he can get in this matter. But he is also happy to add that speech is an intensely personal and even intimate activity in humans, involving as it does an effort that starts in our lungs and makes it way up into (as can be seen from the diagram) a rather intricate vocal apparatus. Dragonish, however, is a more remote and formal affair, considering the large size of dragons, their propensity to argue and spew verbal-fire at each other, and whatnot.

But on with the matter at hand, which happens to be the points of articulation. Doing his best to simplify matters, RT will say that a point of articulation is the place in the vocal tract where we obstruct the flow of air out of the lungs in order to produce a consonant. RT at this juncture will only add that the glossary below decodes linguistic nomenclature.

Here is the list of the 18 points, with a brief translation of each term:


English: Places of articulation (active and passive)
  1. Exo-labial   (outer part of lip)
  2. Endo-labial   (inner part of lip)
  3. Dental   (teeth)
  4. Alveolar   (front part of alveolar ridge)
  5. Post-alveolar   (rear part of alveolar ridge & slightly behind it)
  6. Pre-palatal   (front part of hard palate that arches upward)
  7. Palatal   (hard palate)
  8. Velar   (soft palate)
  9. Uvular (a.k.a. Post-velar; uvula)
  10. Pharyngeal   (pharyngeal wall)
  11. Glottal   (a.k.a. Laryngeal; vocal folds)
  12. Epiglottal   (epiglottis)
  13. Radical   (tongue root)
  14. Postero-dorsal   (back of tongue body)
  15. Antero-dorsal   (front of tongue body)
  16. Laminal   (tongue blade)
  17. Apical   (apex or tongue tip)
  18. Sub-laminal   (a.k.a. Sub-apical; underside of tongue)


and after this post, RT is feeling a bit more dragonish & inspired to post on grammar again!

Diagram: Sagittal Section w/ Points of Articulation. Sagittal section image based on Minifie et al. (1973); articulation places are from Catford (1977). Author: Ishwar; svg by Rohieb. WikiCmns; CC 2.5 Generic.