This week in languages: Jan 8, 2016

by on January 8, 2016



Algeria’s draft revision to its constitution, which was approved by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, has raised Tamazight to the status of national and official language, alongside Arabic. Tamazight is spoken by the Berber minority in the Arab majority country.

Schools in the northern Indian state of Punjab will promote the Punjabi language, as the state government collaborates with the Punjabi Sahit Academy, in an announcement by state minister Dr Daljit Singh Cheema. He pushed for the need to make “Punjabi a tool of employment generation”, and to hoped for the medium of national examinations to be in vernacular languages.

A City Councillor in Helsinki has put up a surprising explanation for Finland’s perceived disadvantage in the international markets—the restricted area that the two official languages (Finnish and Swedish) cover. He proffered that this has kept the Finns insular and disconnected from the wider world, due to a narrow basis for content production.

A national seminar on endangered languages in the Western Ghats organised by India’s Bharathiar University in Coimbatore saw speakers discuss the importance and tenacity of 18 tribal languages such as Todas, at a time when children rarely have the chance to use their tribal language—in a system that favours the language of government schools there. “These languages are so important because many scriptures, stories and songs contain a lot of knowledge and information about their history, culture, architecture and medicine,” said linguistics professor, V Thayalan.

DC Comics has caused a firestorm on the Internet after their Superman & Wonder Woman Annual #2 featured an in-universe reference to dialogue being translated “from Pakistanian”. Beyond questions of editorial oversight, the error also raises strong questions about cultural imperalism and ignorance, especially when as Pakistani writer Khaver Siddiqi pointed out, DC Comics has “such a large operation”.

Commentaries and Features

In an interview with Scott Timberg of Salon, linguist John McWhorter discusses the most notable shifts in the English language that occurred in 2015. These include the rapidly-increasing use of the gender-neutral “they” as a singular pronoun, as well as the development of the newly-coined term “manspreading”.

We’ve all heard of the benefits of bring multilingual. But to what extent does linguistic ability/repertoire affect cognition, and do we even know how it affects what goes on in our brain? Simon Makin sums up the arguments in Scientific American and decides that perhaps the answer isn’t so cut-and-dried. For example, psychologists from National Taiwan Normal University conduced studies and found identical brain activation in speakers for languages with different scripts—fresh evidence in studies on language processing. The team’s studies have also debunked the earlier hypothesis that Chinese languages were mostly processed in the right hemisphere of the brain (associated with image processing), as opposed to alphabetic languages that were believed to be processed in the left hemisphere. Evy Woumanns of Ghent University, Belgium, notes that “it’s important for both camps to agree it’s not straightforward—when you have that you can collaborate to try to find out why some people find something and others don’t.”

Far Cry Primal, the latest entry in the popular Far Cry series, has gained its own constructed language, Wenja, after creative director Jean-Christophe Guyot felt that having characters speak “in English…felt very not immersive”. The game is set thousands of years into Europe’s past and the Collector’s Edition ships with a Wenja phrasebook; Guyot says the team worked with anthropologists and linguists to make Wenja as accurately “proto-European” as possible.

El Espectador profiled the work of Juan Carlos Niño Vergas and his attempts to document Chimila (Ette) in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta Mountains of Colombia. Among other efforts, Niño has compiled several dictionaries and word lists, information on the phonology of Chimila, and the history of the community.

On the surface, the English language reigns on the Internet. Yet a Dominican Republic-based, NGO team, FUNREDES (Foundation for Networks and Development) challenges this idea in Quartz with findings such as the falling percentages of English content online; in 2005, an underrated 45% of online content was in English—a drop from 1997 estimates at 80%. Their argument? Content on social networking sites are “difficult for search engines to index fully”, and those indexed are often English because those are the most profitable advertising sites. On the other side of the coin, people are considering the effects the of English language content online on indigenous and less popular languages, in terms of pros such as translation and educational services and cons such as the domination and prestige of using English online instead.

A series of mobile apps designed to help revitalise 12 indigenous languages of British Columbia and Canada’s Yukon territory will be tested soon by the First Nations Language Centre of Simon Fraser University. Many of these languages will face extinction in the near future without immediate intervention, but the apps’ developers hope that they could be the high-tech boost that the languages need to avoid extinction.

In noting the low standards of English used by Guyanese notables, Charlene Wilkinson, a lecturer at the Faculty of Education and the Humanities of the University of Guyana, has raised the issue of changing the medium of instruction in schools to the native Guyanese Creole. She argues in Stabroek News that learning in their native language would improve education levels, as students would be removed from a “straitjacket of pretence” that the English language imposes on them.

Singapore’s bilingual language policy allows non-Tamil Indians to study Tamil or non-Tamil Indian languages like Hindi and Urdu as a mother tongue language (second language) in schools. Prior to 1989, Singapore Indians could only study Tamil or Malay—two of the country’s four official languages—as a second language. Richard Wan for the Online Citizen comments on this change to the bilingual language policy and raises the possibility that this change may lead immigrants to demand that their children be allowed to study their non-constitutional mother tongues as a second language. He also contends that the willingness to learn a country’s official language signals a willingness to assimilate into the country’s society.

In keeping with the theme of language and assimilation, Amarillo, Texas, often receives refugees into its borders and many of them are not fluent in English. The language barrier becomes a greater issue when they call emergency services and require interpreters. Terry Bavousett, manager of the Amarillo Emergency Communications Center talks about how these calls are handled and the lack of assimilation of the immigrants for whom the authorities in their countries of origin were seen as unreliable: “dispatchers on occasion will hear from a caller who’ll report an incident, but then say ‘I know you won’t do anything about it, but they’re calling anyway.’”


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