This week in languages: April 28, 2017

by on April 29, 2017

This week’s round up compiles language news from the last fortnight.



The heads of courts of the multilingual nation of South Africa have reaffirmed a 2014 decision to make English the sole official language of the courts. Afrikaans speakers are understandably concerned, along with speakers of the other 9 national languages. Officials, however, say that this decision merely confirms what has been happening on the ground, and that other languages are not disadvantaged as court translators will still be provided.

Russian has seen the greatest decline in its use as a first language than any other language, reports The Financial Times. The decline can be attributed to former Soviet states choosing to distance themselves from Russian influence and their past under Soviet rule. In Kazakhstan, the proportion of the population who speak Russian at home has decreased by 13% since 1994. Other countries like Estonia and Latvia have seen an increase in the number of people speaking Estonian and Latvian respectively. Only Belarus is moving in the opposite direction of other post-Soviet states—71% of the population now use Russian as their main language.

With a speaker population of 400,000 people and an ever increasing number of young people preferring to speak English, is the Icelandic language headed for the “Latin bin”? Most schools no longer require students to read Icelandic literature at a younger age, while tourism (with its tendency to rely on English as a language of communication) has become the largest employment sector in Iceland.

Writing for Language On the Move, Dave Sayers explores the language and translation-related tech boom that has gotten so much press in recent months and that promises to continue producing new technologies. He also discusses the effect this might have on the issue of language rights in the future.

Commentaries and Features

“On fleek”, “guac”, “ramen profitable”… Learn how to talk like a Californian in Colleen Dunn Bates’ new book Talk Like a Californian—A Hella Fresh Guide to Golden State Speak. Patt Morrison of the LA Times speaks to the author in this interview.

Learning American Sign Language (ASL)? Check out this quick 2-minute ASL Fingerspelling Challenge game to practise and improve your skills!

How should Mandarin Chinese be learnt? Language Log says not by rote copying, but by emphasising the spoken language. Read the discussion here.

Andrew Solomon questions the extensiveness of the English language in being able to label family members in an age that recognises non-nuclear families, single-parent families, surrogate parenthood, etc, in The Guardian.

“My husband and I are often asked whether our son George’s surrogate mother is “like an aunt”. We are asked which of us is “really the mom”. Friends in an open adoption are asked whether their children’s biological parents are “like cousins”. Single parents are routinely asked what it is like to be “both mother and father”.

A local version of the popularly wicked card game “Cards Against Humanity” have hit the markets in Singapore! Called “Limpeh Says” (Limpeh means ‘your father’), the quirky card game was the brainchild of Tan Yong Heng,  Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts student and Gabriel Leow, founder of local games cafe Play Nation.

Fancy the thrill of seeing your regional accent creep into standard pronunciation and then work its way into altering orthography? This is reported by Sinosplice to have “been a trend lately” with Chinese orthography in online chat spaces and in advertising, where language play is most rampant. In these instances of language play, conventional Chinese characters used to denote a concept get replaced with unconventional ones for the sole purpose of “mimic[king] a regional accent”. Prescriptivists, you have been forewarned of how much distress this article may cause!

The French Presidential election has been in the news a lot lately, but in order to truly understand it, you might have to learn a few new words. Among them: “Président de la République française” (France’s president) and “la course a l’Elysée” (the election race or more literally, the race to the presidential mansion—known as the Palais de l’Elysèe—in Paris).

It’s always tricky to write a biography of a language, let alone a language like Tamil which has been often been used for various political and nationalist agendas on the Indian subcontinent. Read Veena Muthuraman’s lovely review of David Shulman’s Tamil: A Biography. “The beauty of this book is precisely in getting lost and then surfacing to find absolute gems irrespective of whether they are rubies, corals or pearls”, she writes. Shulman’s book, among its key highlights, draws on examples from Tamil literature and looks at the influence of Tamil on Sanskrit and Hebrew (and vice versa).

Do your puppers bork and boof? Do you love a floof? Introducing DoggoLingo: the internet language trend centred around descriptions of dogs (or doggos) often accompanied by adorable pictures of—you guessed it—dogs. Most of the words in DoggoLingo already exist in internet language, reports NPR, and may have been influenced by Australian English. Mlem.

In an opinion piece for The Guardian, Arwa Mahdawi asks if we are creating a new gender divide in language. While new words like “mansplain” and “girlboss” seek to address often institutionalised gender inequality, Mahdawi also points out that using such words may ironically end up reinforcing stereotypical differences between men and women (“Men are like this; women are like that”) rather than breaking down the binaries.

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