This week in languages August 31, 2017

by on September 1, 2017



Think you can go incognito by anonymising your writing? Not so apparently. This article reports how the National Security Agency was able to locate a said individual by comparing his ‘known’ writings to a massive number of writing samples. This is done by performing a series of frequency analyses of the common words used in the individual’s known writings, transforming the relevant frequency numbers using a statistical technique called principle components analysis, and arriving at a ‘fingerprint’ so-called of his writing that can then be “compared to any other writing”.

Are you up to date with jargon for talking about relationships? The Washington Post summarises the gist of 14 terms for those in the digitally-savvy era (aka “Tinder-era”) to rant about other people’s relationships or sexuality, in this jocular piece. Time to slow fade.

Commentaries and Features

Has the c-word undergone amelioration? Some feminist movements believe so. Here’s a good list of resources pertaining to the linguistics of curse words, including a new podcast dedicated to them!  Ben Zimmer talks about the wonderfully colourful world of swear words and how they’ve all got interesting etymologies, in a piece for Slate. “Despite this efflorescence of talk about taboo talk, until quite recently there had never been a podcast devoted to the subject of swearing.”

For the first time since the 1970s, the southern Chinese language called Hokkien (the first language of about 40% of the population) was heard again on Singapore’s radio waves. For decades, language policy has shifted according to ‘linguistic cash crops’ of the time, drastically changing the landscape, even in the home domain. Ian Johnson investigates the linguistic dearth in households between grandchildren and their grandparents in Singapore, through the persistent story of Hokkien in the tropical island-nation and what is being done to salvage the situation, for The New York Times. 请在这里读这篇新闻。

Singapore used to be like a linguistic tropical rain forest — overgrown, and a bit chaotic but very vibrant and thriving… Now, after decades of pruning and cutting, it’s a garden focused on cash crops: learn English or Mandarin to get ahead and the rest is useless, so we cut it down.

Looking for a book to enrich your understand of (the English) language? Editor-at-large of Merriam Webster, Peter Sokolowski curates a reading list for learning about “The Glamorous Story of English Grammar”, by David Crystal; perfecting your use of emojis through “The Emoji Code”, by Vyvyan Evans; levelling up on your pun game in “Away With Words: An Irreverent Tour Through the World of Pun Competitions”, by Joe Berkowitz; and learning about the nuances of our most beloved swear words in “Vulgar Tongues: An Alternative History of English Slang”, by Max Décharné.

South Africa is a linguistically diverse space, but only 11 languages are granted official status. Languages like English (the mother tongue of 9.6% of the population) and Zulu (22.7%) often make more economic sense to learn than critically-endangered languages like Nluu, spoken by the Bushmen (or San) community, and Nama, reports the BBC. “”Because of our history, people today do not want to speak the language any more, there is so much pain around it.” Puzma Fihlani briefly introduces the sociolinguistic landscape in which those two languages survive today.

For the Love of Languages presents an interview with German polyglot Phillip Haug, who speaks or is learning 9 languages. Haug’s advice for language learners includes using social media to one’s advantage, as well as living where the target language is spoken, if possible.
☞ Read Unravel‘s column on second language acquisition, Ausländer for more on the fascinating topic.

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