Posts Tagged ‘linguistics’
By the 19th century, linguists knew that all modern Indo-European languages descended from a single tongue. Called Proto-Indo-European, or PIE, it was spoken by a people who lived from roughly 4500 to 2500 B.C., and left no written texts. The question became, what did PIE sound like? In 1868, German linguist August Schleicher used reconstructed Proto-Indo-European vocabulary to create a fable in order to hear some approximation of PIE. Called “The Sheep and the Horses,” and also known today as Schleicher’s Fable, the short parable tells the story of a shorn sheep who encounters a group of unpleasant horses. As linguists have continued to discover more about PIE, this sonic experiment continues and the fable is periodically updated to reflect the most current understanding of how this extinct language would have sounded when it was spoken some six thousand years ago. Since there is considerable disagreement among scholars about PIE, no one version can be considered definitive.
More of the story– and another cool fable in PIE– at “Telling Tales in Proto-Indo-European” in Archaeology.
As we practice pronunciation, we might recall that it was on this date in 1814 that London suffered “The Great Beer Flood Disaster” when the metal bands on an immense vat at Meux’s Horse Shoe Brewery snapped, releasing a tidal wave of 3,555 barrels of Porter (571 tons– more than 1 million pints), which swept away the brewery walls, flooded nearby basements, and collapsed several adjacent tenements. While there were reports of over twenty fatalities resulting from poisoning by the porter fumes or alcohol coma, it appears that the death toll was 8, and those from the destruction caused by the huge wave of beer in the structures surrounding the brewery.
(The U.S. had its own vat mishap in 1919, when a Boston molasses plant suffered similarly-burst bands, creating a heavy wave of molasses moving at a speed of an estimated 35 mph; it killed 21 and injured 150.)
The folks at Idibon, a natural language processing company, spend a great deal deal of time thinking about how we say what we say. Of late, they’ve become positively ruminative…
The language that is most different from the majority of all other languages in the world [that's 2,67 other languages] is a verb-initial tonal languages spoken by 6,000 people in Oaxaca, Mexico, known as Chalcatongo Mixtec (aka San Miguel el Grande Mixtec). Number two is spoken in Siberia by 22,000 people: Nenets (that’s where we get the word parka from). Number three is Choctaw, spoken by about 10,000 people, mostly in Oklahoma.
But here’s the rub—some of the weirdest languages in the world are ones you’ve heard of: German, Dutch, Norwegian, Czech, Spanish, and Mandarin. And actually English is #33 in the Language Weirdness Index.
The five least-weird languages in the world? Lithuanian, Indonesian, Turkish, Basque, and Cantonese.
Read the entire tale– from background and methodology to tongue-twisting examples– at “The Weirdest Languages.”
* Jorge Luis Borges’ wry twist on Wittgenstein’s insistence that “the limits of my language means the limits of my world”
As we e-nun-ci-ate, we might recall that it was on this date in 1995 that Amazon.com made its first sale: a copy of Douglas Hofstadter’s Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies: Computer Models of the Fundamental Mechanisms of Thought.
Readers will likely have heard of the recent research that has identified a list of two dozen “ultraconserved words” that have survived 150 centuries. It includes some predictable entries: “mother,” “not,” “what,” “to hear” and “man.” It also contains some surprises: “to flow,” “ashes” and “worm.” As the Washington Post observes,
You, hear me! Give this fire to that old man. Pull the black worm off the bark and give it to the mother. And no spitting in the ashes!
It’s an odd little speech. But if you went back 15,000 years and spoke these words to hunter-gatherers in Asia in any one of hundreds of modern languages, there is a chance they would understand at least some of what you were saying.
But then there’s the other end of the spectrum…
The Guardian recounts the tale of the last two remaining speakers of Ayapaneco:
The language of Ayapaneco has been spoken in the land now known as Mexico for centuries. It has survived the Spanish conquest, seen off wars, revolutions, famines and floods. But now, like so many other indigenous languages, it’s at risk of extinction.
There are just two people left who can speak it fluently – but they refuse to talk to each other. Manuel Segovia, 75, and Isidro Velazquez, 69, live 500 metres apart in the village of Ayapa in the tropical lowlands of the southern state of Tabasco. It is not clear whether there is a long-buried argument behind their mutual avoidance, but people who know them say they have never really enjoyed each other’s company…
Read the whole sad story here… and remember: use it, or lose it.
* Peter Drucker
As we lament languages that have languished, we might send joint birthday greetings to Chang and Eng; they were born on this date in 1811. The original “Siamese Twins,” they were joined at the waist by a band of cartilage, about 8 in. circumference and 4 in. long. In 1828 British merchant Robert Hunter ”discovered” them and paid their family to let them be exhibited as a curiosity during a world tour; at the end of that engagement, the brothers went into business for themselves. In 1839, they visited Wilkesboro, N.C. with P. T. Barnum; they found the town appealing, settled there, took the surname “Bunker,” became United States citizens, and in 1843 married two sisters with whom they raised 10 children. Only after their death was it discovered that the cartilage that connected them could have been easily and safely removed.
Click here for Mark Twain’s short story, “The Siamese Twins,” based on Chang and Eng.
Bert Vaux, now at Cambridge University, created The Dialect Survey while teaching at Harvard. Dr. Vaux and his colleagues asked scores of North Americans to pronounce several dozen common English words and phrases, recoded their pronunciations, and mapped the results– as for “pecan,” above. The full list is at The Dialect Survey; each example clicks through to a set of maps like this one.
As we mind our p’s and q’s, we might spare a thought for an extraordinary enunciator, Tammi Terrell; she died, aged 24, on this date in 1970. Born Thomasina Winifred Montgomery, Terrell had begun performing at age 14, recording for Sceptre Records, then for James Brown’s Try Me label, before signing with Motown in 1965. After two years as a solo artist, Berry Gordy teamed her with Marvin Gaye. Their first release, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” was recorded by each separately, then mixed by Motown… and became a solid hit. Their follow-ups, ”Your Precious Love” and “If I Could Build My Whole World Around You” also charted Top Ten.
Terrell reportedly had a tempestuous love life (including relationships with Brown and The Temptation’s David Ruffin); but her relationship with Gaye, while extraordinarily close, was platonic (friends and colleagues Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson characterized it as “sibling-like”). In October 1967, just six months after the release of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” Terrell collapsed onstage during a performance at Hampton-Sydney College. Motown kept the incident quiet– and the duo on the road. Two-and-a-half years later, on this date in 1970, she died of complications from the malignant brain tumor that had caused her 1967 collapse. Following Terrell’s death, Gaye refrained from live performance for three years; his 1971 album What’s Going On– an introspective, mature masterpiece– was in part a reaction to her passing.
The curious art of diagramming sentences was invented 165 years ago by S.W. Clark, a schoolmaster in Homer, N.Y. His book, published in 1847, was called A Practical Grammar: In which Words, Phrases, and Sentences Are Classified According to Their Offices and Their Various Relations to One Another. His goal was to simplify the teaching of English grammar. It was more than 300 pages long, contained information on such things as unipersonal verbs and “rhetorico-grammatical figures,” and provided a long section on Prosody, which he defined as “that part of the Science of Language which treats of utterance.”
It may have been unwieldy, but this formidable tome was also quite revolutionary: out of the general murk of its tiny print, incessant repetitions, maze of definitions and uplifting examples emerged the profoundly innovative, dazzlingly ingenious and rather whimsical idea of analyzing sentences by turning them into pictures…
The full story– and lots of nifty diagrams– at Kitty Burns Florey’s “A Picture of Language” in the New York Times‘ Opinionator blog…
As we map our mumblings, we might pause to think some celebratory thoughts: today is Juneteenth.
Though the Emancipation Proclamation was issued on September 22, 1862 (effective January 1, 1863), word was slow to spread. On June 19, 1865, Union General Gordon Granger, who’d arrived in Galveston, Texas, with 2,000 federal troops to take possession of the state and enforce the emancipation of its slaves, read “General Order No. 3” from a local balcony:
The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.
Former slaves in Galveston celebrated in the streets; Juneteenth observances began across Texas the following year– and are now recognized as State Holidays by 41 states.
Ashton Villa in Glaveston, from whose front balcony the Emancipation Proclamation was read on June 19, 1865 (source)
Juneteenth celebration in Austin, c.1900 (source)