This week in languages: Mar 18, 2016

by on March 18, 2016



More than 200 writers, academics, and experts were joined by the king and queen of Spain in Puerto Rico for a week-long conference on the Spanish language. At the thrice-a-year conference, they discussed the issues and challenges faced by a language with more than 500 million speakers, such as whether to codify the word “selfie” or “auto-foto” in the long-awaited revision of the Royal Spanish Academy’s dictionary.

Where else but in human language can we find syntax? A new study, entitled “Experimental evidence for compositional syntax in bird calls”, published in Nature Communications finds that Japanese great tits combine their calls to communicate important messages, in a structure that mirrors that of syntax in human language. Authors of the study analysed recordings of the birds’ calls and noted patterns in the way they communicate, for example, to warn of predators or to signal another bird to “come here”.

Xerox has launched Easy Translator, which performs real-time translation services on their machines such as photocopiers and mobile applications. Users can now scan documents in one language and have it printed in more than 35 other languages, thanks to more than 5,000 translators working behind the service.

Commentaries and Features

Salikoko S. Mufwene of the University of Chicago discusses the prolific rise of English as a global lingua franca—including its humble 7th century origins and an overview of the countries and regions where it is spoken in various forms today.

Why have such eminent novelists as Jhumpa Lahiri and Samuel Beckett decided not to write in their mother tongues? The Economist examines the “tradition of writers trying to escape their language and render their art in a foreign tongue”, and concludes that in that foreign tongue, writers have more room to experiment and “to sin”.

Ed Shevlin, a sanitation worker-turned-academic, takes his passion for Irish studies and the Irish language one step further by researching on the life of historical figure, John Kilgallon. This Thursday, Ed commemorated the Easter Rebellion—the 1916 Irish rebellion against the British 1916 in which John Kilgallon played a part in—with a St. Patrick’s Parade in Manhattan.

A linguistic great has fallen. Jusuf Sjarif Badudu, an Indonesian language professor from the University of Padjadjaran (Unpad) has passed on, aged 89. Known for hosting the Indonesian Language Learning Programme aired in Indonesia, Jusuf Sjarif was also a keen teacher of the Indonesian language and a prolific writer. RIP Jusuf Sjarif.

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