This week in languages: December 29, 2017

by on December 29, 2017



It is often said that a community of speakers is the lifeblood of a language. This could not be truer for Taushiro, a tribal language hidden in “the jungles of the Amazon basin in Peru”, and which now hangs on the string of its sole surviving speaker, Amadeo. This article in The New York Times documents the story of Amadeo, and the circumstances surrounding the loss of and attempts to preserve the native tribal language he spoke with his parents and siblings, and which is now lost to his five children. When Amadeo dies, what is left of Taushiro would be a database of a thousand plus words, “27 stories and three songs”. Just as importantly perhaps, what is left of the Taushiro story is the awareness that linguists do at times have to face a judgement call between a scholarly desire for language preservation and a human desire to safeguard a people’s welfare.

The Canadian accent (in English) is changing, but contrary to popular belief, not necessarily to be more like the Americans, says Paul De Decker, linguist at the Memorial University of Newfoundland. Numerous vowel sounds are changing, and “pit [sounds] more like pet, pet more like pat, and pat more like pot”. Internet abbreviations are creeping into IRL speech, and the ‘eh?’ common at the end of Canuck speech is being replaced by “hey?”.

Commentaries and Features

How do the world’s languages handle gender, or more specifically, grammatical gender? James Harbeck takes us through the many ways in which different languages from French to Mandarin Chinese assign or distinguish gender, in The Week. “And it may seem like language geekery, but languages are one way cultures express their views of the world.”

Forgot what it’s like to speak the language you grew up with? You’re not alone. Quartz reporter Aamna Mohdin traces experiences of people who seem to have lost the ability to speak their mother tongue, in what is called ‘first language attrition’, in collaboration with the World Economic Forum. All is not lost, but people can actually work towards reclaiming that dormant knowledge that links them to their heritage and identity.

She would be stuck, one foot in two worlds. Though she sounds like the people from her new home, she would still be seen as an outsider, and while she looks like the people of her birthplace, the words tumbling out of her mouth would be alien to them.

Dual-immersion programmes, which were once vilified in a still overwhelmingly Anglo-Saxon White America, are slowly being seen as a viable alternative that allows children from non-native English speaking households to catch up with their peers in language ability. However, the ever present problem of opportunity hoarding by wealthy middle class English speakers are threatening to channel the benefits of these programmes the other way, back to those in privilege. Read The Atlantic‘s in depth look on the topic here.

Last week, we shared news of the US Trump administration banning the use of words like ‘transgender’ and ‘vulnerable’ by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This week, Ruth Ben-Ghiat, professor of Italian studies and history, warns about the “strongmen and their language” who have historically oppressed the masses and undermine a sense of communal harmony in places like Germany, Italy, and what is known today as the Democratic Republic of Congo, in The Washington Post. “The strongman fears language as a symbol of identity and creator of community bonds. That’s why he attempts to use it instead to sow unease and discord among his people, and to erase from the public record what and whom he rejects from the nation.”

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