Posts Tagged ‘linguistics’

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.


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.


The Russian Alphabet (Part 2)–A Brief History

June 30, 2013 2 comments



The story of an alphabet is in large part the story of the area(s) where it is used, and the Cyrillic alphabet, the writing system of Russia and other countries across northern Eurasia, reflects the many changes that have taken place in that vast region since its introduction. And readers should note: Cyrillic is used by an estimated 252 million people today.

In fact, Cyrillic has gone through at least three stages of development: 1) the Glagolitic Alphabet (introduced in the 860s AD); 2) the Early Cyrillic Alphabet (developed at the Preslav Literary School in the late 800s); and 3) Modern Cyrillic–the “civil script” mandated by Peter the Great in 1708. Finally, the most recent change in Russian orthography took place in 1918, shortly after the Russian Revolution. As one might suspect from studying the development of other writing systems, the 1708 and 1918 reforms both involved simplification, and specifically the elimination of obsolete letters. Glagolitic had at least 41 letters; modern Russian has 33. 

Further Facts

1) Saints Cyril and Methodius, missionaries from the Byzantine Empire, are traditionally credited with devising Glagolitic and introducing it into Great Moravia, a large Slavic state that existed in the late 9th century. Following the disintegration of Great Moravia, the script was adopted by the First Bulgarian Empire in the 880s, and its use spread with the expansion of the Bulgarians through the 10th century. After the destruction of the Bulgarian Empire, when missionaries from its liturgical schools helped convert Kievan Rus to Christianity in the 980s, they introduced the Gospels in Cyrillic script.

2) Glagolitic is based on the Greek Alphabet, but also contains letters derived from Hebrew and perhaps even Coptic.

3) Glagolitic and Early Cyrillic were used with Old Church Slavonic, the first Slavic language recorded in writing and many liturgical texts were composed using them.

4) And please note that the simplification of Glagolitic involved not just the number of letters, but their shapes as well.

1. Glagolitic Letters

2. Early Cyrillic Letters

а б в г д е ж ѕ з и і к л м н о п р с т ѹ ф х ѡ ц ч ш щ ъ ь ѣ ю  ѥ ѧ ѫ ѩ ѭ ѯ ѱ ѳ ѵ

3. Modern Cyrillic Letters

Ge upturn
Dotted I
Short I
Short U
Hard sign (Yer)
Soft sign (Yeri)


There is much to puzzle over here, and of course RT suspects that more is coming on this subject…


RT’s Related Posts: 1) Glagolitic-Starting a Great Tradition; 2) Moscow–Memories


PaintingSaints Cyril and Methodius, wall mural (1848); Troyan Monastery. WikiCmns; Public Domain. Glagolitic, Early, and Modern Cyrillic Alphabets: from their respective Wikipedia articles; Public Domain.


Jargon and Poetry

April 11, 2013 1 comment

File:Denis Diderot plaque - 3 rue de lEstrapade, Paris 5.jpg


Jargon is one of those necessary and mysterious things: necessary because any group of people united by common interests will eventually evolve its own terminology for the interest(s) that has brought together its members, mysterious because the use of jargon prevents those outside the group from understanding what is being said. (And RT himself remembers being shut out of more than one football conversation.)

It’s no use blaming this or that group of jargonists for indulging in their special lingo; we are all guilty of creating and participating in jargon. Just consider the varieties: professional talk, sports talk, wine tasting descriptors, scientific terminology, and, last but not least, native languages used for private conversation.

RT offers two observations on the phenomenon:

1) Poetry. Poetry is the opposite of jargon. Whereas jargon is the creation of a group and signals membership in the group, poetry possesses a universality that opens its words to all speakers of a language. Poetry is all about accessibility; its beauty and clarity are two of its primary characteristics, and these encourage reading. Poets will use rare words and expressions on occasion, but the context almost always supplies the meaning, and the word adds to the richness of the language.

2) Duplicate/unnecessary terminology. RT presents the following symbol ¶  for consideration. Is it a pilcrow or a paragraph sign? It can also be called a paraph, alinea, or Blind P. And what exactly are its uses? Poetry intrudes itself here once again: we are leaving the realm of correctness and entering that of delight. We begin to talk about preferences among users–or even schools of use.

On the other hand, RT is pretty sure that when plain meaning is the chief consideration, the term used should be that one understood by the broadest possible audience: in this case, RT would recommend the use of the term  paragraph mark. But then, RT’s poetic, anti-jargon, instincts are showing themselves again. That isn’t to say, of course, that in the right place in the right line, he might not have recourse to the term alinea. It’s a beautiful word, after all.


What is worth bearing in mind through all this is the precision that jargon can confer on communication. There are times when it helps to distinguish between the hyphen and the hyphen-minus, the guillemet and the guillemot. And when jargon is correctly used and the text beautifully copy-edited, reading becomes that much more of a pleasure (as any hardened reader can tell you).



PhotographDenis Diderot plaque – 3 rue de lEstrapade, Paris. WikiCmns; CC 2.0 generic; author, Monceau from San Antonio.


The Celts & their Languages

March 12, 2013 1 comment

File:The Dying Gaul.jpg

As RT begins to explore the history and significance of the surviving Celtic languages in Europe, it seems wise to remember the origins of the Celts.

Behind the leprechauns, 4-leaf clovers, and pots of gold lies a very different memory: of a warrior nation spreading out from its homeland in central Europe during the 6th and 5th centuries B.C. to overrun all of western and southern Europe, including modern France, Spain, Great Britain, and Ireland. The Celtic tribes moved eastward as well, crossing the Bosporus and establishing a federation of tribes in Galatia (north-central Anatolia).

Under their leader, Brennus, the Celts sacked Rome in 390 B.C. But the subsequent expansion of Rome and the arrival of German-speaking tribes in the east (during the second half of the 1st millenium B.C.) gradually pushed the Celts into the western edge of Europe, finally leaving them in control of the northern and western parts of the British Isles only.

The Celts at their origins spoke Proto-Celtic, but after their conquests, the language divided into four sub-families: Gaulish, Hispano-Celtic, Brythonic, and Goedelic. It is the Brythonic and Goedelic branches of the Celts that settled in the British Islands; nothing has been conclusively established about the time of arrival of the Brythons and Goedels, but a widespread theory links the Brythons with the Gauls and the Goedels with the Hispano-Celts. A principal difference between Brythonic and Goedelic is their use of the letters P and Q.

Irish, Manx, and Scottish-Gaelic are Goedelic; Welsh, Cornish, and Breton are Brythonic.


Images: StatueThe Dying Gaul, 3rd-2nd cent. B.C.; sculptor, possibly Epigonus; Capitoline Museum. WikiCmns; CC 2.0 Generic; Author, Xuan Che. Map: Spread of the Celts; WikiCmns; Public Domain.

One Word, Important Questions

March 9, 2013 2 comments

File:Breton dialectesiji2009.gif

welcome= English (360 million speakers)

croeso= welcome in Welsh (722,000 speakers)

dynnargh=welcome in Cornish (3,500 speakers)

deuet mat=welcome in Breton (200,000 speakers)

bin la v’nu=welcome in Gallo (unknown number of speakers, mostly older people)

bienvenue = welcome in French (75 million speakers)

Here are the facts, as RT has been able to determine them. Most people have heard of Welsh, the most widely spoken Celtic language today; the situation with Cornish and Breton is somewhat more dire: though these Celtic languages are spoken and taught, many people may not be aware that they exist. Gallo faces the most difficulties in terms of support for its use: it is often viewed as a dialect of French, though it may well be different enough to qualify as a language.

Over the next several weeks (or, more plainly, for as long as it takes), RT will be considering these  languages, two of which are near extinction. What features of history, the natural landscape, and the mind do languages encode? Why is diversity in language important? Why should people bother to learn “outmoded” or “obsolete” languages and why should their governments support their efforts? These questions have cropped up in this blog before, but RT hopes to gain a better understanding of his intuitive response: diversity in speech is vital.

Map: The spread of Upper Brittany at the Expense of Lower Brittany; User: Lotusfluerie; WikiCmns; Public Domain.


A Spring in the Step: Mood and the Dragons of Grammar

March 6, 2013 2 comments

File:Le Printemps - Giuseppe Arcimboldo.png

Spring is a bare three weeks away–o glorious vernal equinox, RT’s favorite moment of the year. Light, Hyperion’s free food, pours down on the frozen land, setting many a dragon to silly smiles, giggling, and contemplation of the season’s delightful prospects.

The Dragons of Grammar have, true to their nature, taken note. They have searched their beloved Dragonish, both High and Heroic, for the best means to convey the feeling of the moment; and lo! they have discovered that something called (what else?) grammatical mood is a chief conveyance of the many feelings that beings as intense as dragons experience.

One way to think of grammatical mood is as the speaker’s understanding of the statement he or she is about to make. The statement could be plain fact (indicative), a question (interrogatory), a command (imperative), and so forth. GM allows the speaker to indicate this distinction via inflection of the verb. Here are some examples from English: 1. “John is eating the apple.” (indicative); 2. “Is John eating the apple?” (interrogatory); 3. “John, eat the apple!” (imperative). English, which retains few inflections, usually indicates mood through word order (or syntax). But of course there are exceptions: “John would eat the apple if he were hungry.” (conditional mood–an action dependent on a circumstance).

Other common moods are the subjunctive (used to express wishes, judgments, and opinions) and the optative (used to express a wish or hope). But Nenets, (a language spoken in northern Russia) has up to 16 moods.

But now back to Dragonish, High and Heroic. The DoGs have discovered that the Heroic form of the language has 30 moods, but the High dialect beats it out at 31. What is the extra mood? The non-solitary dragons (that is, the typical ones) have a mood called “Joyful Spring Dance,” which indicates that the listener is being invited to the Great Spring Dance and Joyful Noise festival and that of course he or she must dance with the speaker (and of course in a joyful manner). The solitaries say “humph!” to that, but then they do tend to be grumpy; they need a good swig of RT’s Fired-Up Cider, a sure tonic for just about anything, to cure that…  RT

Painting: Le Printemps, Giuseppe Arcimboldo,  WikiCmns, Public Domain.


Four Phases of Learning a Language

March 1, 2013 1 comment

File:China linguistic map.jpg


thoughtful advice from somebody in the middle of the process…RT

(reposted from kiroma)

Four Phases of Learning a Language.


Map: China Linguistic Map; CIA; WikiCmns; Public Domain.