This week in languages August 18, 2017

by on August 18, 2017

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



Fascinated by science but terrified of its jargon? Fear not, for a free online programme called the De-Jargonizer has recently been created. The De-Jargonizer is capable of coding words in uploaded texts as “either frequent or intermediate level general vocabulary, or jargon.” It is hoped that with the De-Jargonizer, scientific writers would be more conscious of jargon in their texts and rework their word choice accordingly when producing texts targeted at non-experts.

New York City has the highest concentration of endangered languages of anywhere on Earth—including several indigenous Latin American languages such as K’iche (spoken in Guatemala) and Kichwa (a dialect of Quechua spoken in Ecuador). For speakers of these languages, “finding a community abroad can determine whether they sustain their mother tongue,” and José Juarez and Leobardo Ambrosio recognise this. Via their “Latin and Central American Linguists” radio show, they are helping to keep their indigenous mother tongues alive.

The People’s Linguistic Survey of India (PLSI) has surveyed 780 Indian languages and found that close to 400 Indian languages face the threat of extinction, particularly the indigenous languages spoken in coastal regions. Not all is lost, however, PLSI chairman Ganesh N. Devy points out that other indigenous languages like Khasi, Garo, and Gondi are seeing growth because their communities are using them in writing and entertainment media. Devy also dismisses the idea that the use of English threatens major Indian languages with large speaker-communities like Bangla, Hindi, and Gujarati.

Fancy guessing word meanings in a foreign tongue just by the sound of the word? A new card game called Flummoxed: The Foreign Language Bluffer’s Game will get players to guess the meanings of words from 120 languages such as Afrikaans, Chamorro, Polish, and Pali equipped with only some detailed notes on each language. From the makers of Jenga, the Oxford Games claims to have the “perfect game for intrepid interpreters.”

Commentaries and Features

Language on the Move explores the fetishisation of literacy in our post-colonial world, and reminds us of when the white man made use of the absence of written documents—such as title deeds—to steal land and other resources from communities which had had no concept of, or need for, writing. If you have other examples which you wish to share, Language on the Move would like to hear from you.

How far does the language we speak affect the way we think? The Economist’s Prospero column dissects both sides of the ongoing debate and argues for a more nuanced treatment of the entire discussion—perhaps languages may not “constrict thought”, but they may certainly “nudge or steer it” in certain ways, whether through their available vocabulary or their grammar—as the article demonstrates with a thorough analysis of the different types of second person pronouns in various Indo-European languages.

Mamihlapinatapai. Many of us would have heard of this beautiful word that expresses a concept known to many but for which English, or many other languages for that matter, has no concept of. But how has the word as understood by us changed from the meaning that it has in its parent language, Yaghan? Atlas Obscura explores the word and the fate of Yaghan in this this thoughtful piece.

Julia Hammond’s piece for BBC Travel looks at Bislama, the English-based creole language spoken among the 83 islands that make up the South Pacific nation of Vanuatu. Initially a mix of South Seas Jargon and Queensland Plantation Pidgin English—the pidgin languages mostly spoken during Vanuatu’s colonial past—Bislama is now one of the nation’s official languages and the unifying language of the islands.
☞ Look forward to Unravel Issue 12’s special feature on Pidgin’s & Creoles for more on the fascinating topic!

“It’s their not there.” Are grammatical errors your pet peeve? Quartz writes about why policing people’s grammar online is never really about grammar, but more often about proving superiority. “People are trying to signal their expertise, because being able to identify mistakes indicates that you know more about something than the person who committed the error,” says psychology professor Robert Kurzban.
☞ Read more about punctuation in the digital age and this guide to using dashes in Unravel Issue 9.

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