This week in languages: July 1, 2016

by on July 2, 2016



New Zealand celebrates its annual Maori Language Week next week with the theme akina to reo, or “behind you all the way”. The Maori Language Commission has generated 50 new phrases to be used in conjunction with the commemorations, and there will also be use of the language in upcoming sports events, including the Olympics.

Humans have a natural tendency to want to reduce physical activity as much as possible in daily life, including while using language. While this inclination has traditionally been studied in the context of spoken languages, two linguists have discovered new information by studying sign languages and the insight they can give us into ‘universal linguistic shortcuts'”.

Efforts are underway to preserve the Manchu language, the language of a people during the Qing dynasty in China oppressed under Mao’s rule, as more people cotton on to the historical and cultural richness of the language, reported South China Morning Post. “Manchu became the court language, its angular, alphabetic script used in millions of documents produced by one of the world’s pre-eminent powers… Now after centuries of decline followed by decades of repression, septuagenarian Ji is the youngest of some nine mother tongue speakers left in Sanjiazi village, one of only two places in China where they can be found.”

Commentaries and Features

PRI reports on language activist Nawang Gunung and his Tibetan dialect known as Mustang or Mustangi, which is thriving in the suburb of Jackson Heights in New York City—America’s “most diverse neighborhood”, where 130 languages live and grow alongside each other, and also continue to wage “quiet fights here, for time, attention, and survival”.

How does the chemical make-up of our brain determine how well we can acquire languages? Viatcheslav Wlassoff investigates if “intrinsic differences in how different brain regions communicate with each other makes it significantly easier for some adults to learn a second language as compared to others” in this piece for Brain Blogger.

Now how does speech production reflect what goes on in our brains? Daniel Barron considers the utility of natural language processing in identifying people at risk of specific types of mental illness, as a non-Chinese language speaker at the Second Xiangya Hospital in Changsha, China.

What gender do you identify with? Rebecca Reilly-Copper argues to abolish the gender spectrum in view of politics and logic, in an opinion piece for Aeon.

Inspired by a live recording of the podcast The World in Words at the New York Public Library on 21 June, Nina Sparling traces the tracks of linguists documenting Ainu, Garifuna, Zaza, and Hawaiian and ponders their place in the world. “The community may have no interest in such “pickling,” instead motivated to bring the language, and its associated culture, back to into daily life. Kaufman underscored the importance of collaborative documentation processes—the speakers of the endangered language must not only participate in the documentation, but in fact direct the process.”

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