This week in languages: June 23, 2017

by on June 23, 2017

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



“There are fewer than 20 people fluent in Haida, the language of the Haida people of British Columbia.” A new feature film in Haida called Edge of the Knife tells an iconic Haida story of a feral man of the forest and is set in the beautifully forested archipelago that is Haida Gwaii. Read about the trials and tribulations of the team behind the film in The New York Times here!

No one can do everything, but everyone can do something. The Sealaska Heritage Institute inspires with its work on Tlingit and other endangered languages in Alaska, where “only three of the 20 recognized Alaska Native languages have more than 1,000 native speakers”. Find out more about the Tlingit app, games, and podcast.

People with autism may no longer face difficulties with interpreting sarcastic statements, thanks to a system capable of “turn[ing] sarcastic sentences [in written text] into (non-sarcastic) ones”. The system was trained to do this by researchers in the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology using a database of “3,000 sarcastic tweets” and their non-sarcastic translations. Much commercial potential lies in such systems that are able to detect sentiment in text.

Interested to know more about the ancient Sanskrit language and its importance not just to India but to the wider world? Leiden University Library is hosting an exhibition on Sanskrit: Across Asia and Beyond from 18 May to 5 September 2017. The exhibition covers areas ranging from Sanskrit’s relationship with religion and daily life, to its use and adaptation by peoples in Southeast Asia, who were big receivers of Indian culture.

A Scottish court has delayed proceedings because its staff are unable to understand the accused’s strong Geordie accent which has caused discrepancies between his recorded interview with the police and the interview transcript. Said his lawyer, “The difficulty is that the accused has a very, very strong Geordie accent and (a substantial) part of his response is missing. I will need to go through it with him and put in the responses which are missing.”

A recent report from the Facebook Artificial Intelligence Research Lab describes their chat bots’ surprising ability to negotiate. So evenly matched were they as negotiators, the bots’ iterative one-upmanship even led to their developing their own non-human language to communicate with each other. Much work needs to be done, the report states, in adding to the diversity of the bots’ utterances without diverging from human language.

Commentaries and Features

Scarred by the story of a Bangladeshi migrant worker friend who lost his hand and his job in Singapore because he could not understand safety instructions in English, Sazzad Hossain, 23 year old Bangladeshi Singaporean (who also goes by the moniker ‘Dr English’) founded SDI Academy to help foreign workers in Singapore learn the country’s lingua franca, English. CNA‘s Melissa Zhu covers Sazzad’s inspirational story of a rocky journey to mastering the English language and helping others who shared his tough experience.

Differentiating between voices “is an important social component of communication”. In a task where children were exposed to pairs of words where one word in each pair was spoken in English (with a German accent) and the other spoken in German, bilingual children were found to be more apt than their monolingual peers in deciding whether the relevant words were spoken by one and the same person or by different people. The bilingual advantage in “learning voices” suggests that bilingual children “have better social perception” than monolingual children.

BBC Radio 2‘s yearly 500 Words story contest for children has served as an indicator of pop culture and political trends since its inception in 2011. This time around, references to US President Donald Trump rose by more than 800% from last year and included over 100 puns based on his name.

How do women communicate? And do they do it differently from men? Listen to this podcast conversation between linguist Deborah Tannen and host Charity Nebbe. Tannen’s latest book You’re the Only One I Can Tell: Inside the Language of Women’s Friendships looks at the interpersonal communication patterns between women and “how having shared experiences creates a deep, indirect understanding among women”.

We take dictionaries for granted these days, especially for widely-spoken languages like German. How long do you think it took to compile the first ever Deutsches Wörterbuch? For Atlas Obscura, Sarah Laskow traces the origins of the fist German dictionary compiled by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm—otherwise known as the famed fairy tale tellers, Brother Grimm. “Close to two centuries after it was first conceived, the Deutsches Wörterbuch, started as an effort to pay the rent, is a monument to the German language—and the legacy of the Brothers Grimm.”

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