This week in languages: February 17, 2017

by on February 18, 2017



This week in wearable language tech: Semstone, an artificially-intelligent pendant that takes notes, records voice memos, upload data (unfortunately only iPhone-capatible), and transcribe them for you, has launched on Kickstarter. The wearable necklace pendant / collar clip / wrist band pendant works in 11 languages including Mandarin Chinese and Ukrainian.

What shapes human language diversity? A team of linguists, geographers, ecologists, anthropologists, and evolutionary biologists took on a study to investigate the processes that affect species diversityUsing a model where “groups would fill unoccupied spaces, rainfall would limit population density, and groups would divide when the population reached a certain limit”, the team—who published their work in published in the journal Global Ecology and Biogeography—studied how geography was linguistic destiny on 406 languages on the Australian continent.

Queens, a borough in New York City, has been found to be the most linguistically densely populated place in the world, with an estimated 800 languages spoken there, according to the Endangered Languages Alliance. In order to reflect this diverse lingscape, Rebecca Solnit and Joshua Jelly-Schapiro have created a map documenting where these language—from Minangkabau and Chavacano to Urdu and Mongolian—are generally spoken.

Commentaries and Features

The disappearing Fuzhou dialect of Yong Peng, Malaysia is described by Mary Eu as “cascading nasal sounds of ‘nga’, ‘nge’, ‘nyi’, and ‘nyu’… punchy [and] guttural.” She also describes it as an “insurmountable challenge [for non-natives] to speak the dialect beyond the basics”, but calls for awareness and preservation of Fuzhou, particularly among younger Yong Peng residents.

Nüshu, a language passed down from mother to daughter: In the county of Jiangyong in Hunan province, a group of women in the 19th and 20th centuries communicated with a “special script that no man could read or write“, writes Lauren Yong for Atlas Obscura. “The last identified woman to possess genuine knowledge of Nüshu died in 2004.”

What’s new in the murky world of cephalopod communication? Neuroscientist Chuan-Chin Chiao has discovered that squids communicate by combining pigment patterns on their skin. When Chiao stimulated different regions of a squid’s optic lobe, various parts of the squid’s anatomy would light up with different combinations of 14 skin patterns—much like the way we draw from a fixed number of letters in our alphabet to form word-messages. The next step? Deciphering the “squid-skin code“.

What’s the worth of endangered languages? Ryan DeCaire, assistant professor at University of Toronto’s Centre for Indigenous Studies and department of linguistics, shares his passion for his heritage language Mohawk and the history of one of the first inhabitants of the Americas in this video on BBC Newsday.

Think you know what the second languages of the world are? MoveHub, a website that facilitates international migration, replaced the names of countries with their top second languages. Their findings: Second languages of certain countries reflect the demographics of the local population (i.e. Mandarin Chinese in Australia) and their history with colonialism (i.e. English, Italian, or French in African countries), reported The Daily Mail. Note: This magazine thinks that English is not—at least no longer—considered a second language in Singapore, contrary to what is stated on the map.

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