This week in languages: June 2, 2017

by on June 3, 2017



Thanks to generations of colonisation and state policy, the Iroquoian language of Mohawk (or Kanyen’kéha) has been experiencing a steep decline in the past few decades. On Thursday, Mohawk was spoken in Canada’s Parliament by Quebec Liberal MP Marc Miller, who had wanted to show his commitment to knowing the people and celebrate their shared national heritage. The Liberal government is determined to set aside $90 million to support the revitalisation of indigenous languages—potentially without micromanagement! Kudos Canada!

US security firm Flashpoint uses forensic linguistics to suss out the origins of a spate of computer hacks by a group called WannaCry, which locked up data on infected computers and presented owners with a ransom note in 28 languages. The outcome? The hackers were most likely from Southern China based on their use of English such as “Please relax, I absolutely will not scam you” and choice of words in a Chinese language such as libai (禮拜 ) for ‘week’, reports the South China Morning Post.

In honour of the National Spelling Bee this week, NPR published a humorous analysis of the words most people queried Google on how to spell, by US state. With some hilarious ones like “diarrhea”, “college” and “banana”, it was a tough fight, but our team thinks Wisconsinites searching for the spelling of “Wisconsin” over any other word in the dictionary surely takes the cake.

In a bid to reconcile communities and complete a final undergraduate project, Israeli typography designer Liron Lavi Turkenich has created a new writing system called Aravit that blends Hebrew and Arabic, in a way that makes the script intelligible to readers of both ancient languages. Street signs in the mixed Arab and Jewish city of Haifa inspired her work.

Commentaries and Features

Had enough of covfefe yet? Gretchen McCulloch shows how linguistics can systematically reveal the pronunciation of USA President Donald Trump’s newest typo, in Washington Post. “Herefefe is why it’s toughfefe to say covfefe.”

What language do you scold in? For some among the minority population of about 4,000 Sindhis in Singapore, their mother tongue is the natural language choice, reports The Straits Times. Tracing their lineage to the Sindhi region of what is now a province in Pakistan, Singaporean Sindhis are well known as the textile merchants and jewellers. “What is a Sindhi? Sindhis are like water. You put us in any container and we assimilate.”

 Language on the Move writes on the perceptions of international students in the Australian context, arguing that language used to describe them often impute negative connotations of low English proficiency in both conservative and more progressive media. The article argues that this “Othering” of international students needs to be addressed, by moving from the traditional monolingual Australian perspective to one that celebrates linguistic diversity.

Jieun Kiaer, professor of Korean linguistics at Oxford University, discusses the need for increased awareness of non-European languages in the UK, especially in education. These include languages such as Urdu, Bengali, and Arabic that reflect the growing number of immigrants to the UK who speak them.

Brain flexibility” (otherwise known as brain “plasticity”) enables children to learn multiple languages with greater ease than adults. A recent study suggests that with the onset of puberty, there are, in the frontal cortex of the brain, “significant changes in the synaptic activity thought to regulate brain plasticity”. The study was performed on female mice subject either to artificially-induced or artificially-blocked puberty. Post-pubertal mice were observed to demonstrate relatively less ease in “adapting to…rule changes”, signalling reduced brain plasticity in post-pubertal mice than in pre-pubertal ones. With the increasingly early onset of puberty “in girls in modern urban settings”, there are implications here for the window period young girls would have for learning languages with a fair amount of ease.

Benefits of speaking a minority language? Native American tongues Choctaw and Cherokee—used by the Choctaw Telephone Squad and Navajo Code Talkers—proved to be useful as secret languages during the two World Wars , preventing enemies from intercepting and decoding commands and reports. Daily Mail Online outlines the fascinating story that led to the Code Talkers Recognition Act.

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