This week in languages November 17, 2017

by on November 17, 2017



This week marks the 100th anniversary of the 1917 Soviet Revolution, an event that had a striking effect on Russian orthography, grammar, and lexicon. Four “obsolete” letters were eliminated, feminine and neuter adjectives lost their distinct plural forms, and honorific titles such as “most esteemed” were replaced by the generic “comrade”, recalls The Moscow Times.

The last year saw the advancement of exciting new technology claiming to be able to translate American Sign Language. Michael Erard challenges its success in The Atlantic, disses the preoccupations of the hearing world, and considers the complexity of language and the needs of signers. Interesting also, is Erard detailing the history of the idea of such gloves since the 1980s!

Commentaries and Features

Derek Owusu, a descendant of immigrants from Ghana, opines about the effects of him being unable to speak Twi, the language of his ancestors, on his upbringing and sense of self in London, England. Not only does he not feel “fully British”, he is also left feeling not “fully Ghanaian” as a result of his inability to communicate with his mother’s countrymen, in Media Diversified.

All around the world, endangered languages fight their battles to survive — sometimes by romanticising the loss of unique words specific to the language and geographical context. In an interview with the Harvard Political Review, Gregory Anderson, president of the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, he claims that it isn’t merely these cool words that makes these languages worth saving. “The more of these windows that get permanently closed, the less we’ll ever be able to know about what is and what isn’t possible and why.” Read why this idea is relevant to all endangered languages in general.

The struggle is real. Dave Gershgorn of Quartz writes about his obsession with mechanical keyboards that allowed him to discover a life hack that saves him 3 minutes a day: a single button that could generate the generic ‘shrug’ emoticon: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. Do you use the /shrug?
☞ If this is your thing, read Min Lim’s piece of Japanese emoticons (or kaomoji) as a form of expression!

Paul Baker of the University of Lancaster claims that “gradable adverbs” once employed in British English like ‘quite’, ‘rather’, ‘fairly’, ‘awfully’, and ‘frightfully’ are becoming quite uncommon indeed. His research suggests that this is because Britons are imitating the way Americans speak, and yet others are moving away from using these terms to avoid being associated with the upper class. Baker, however, is not quite chuffed— these gradable adverbs are like a mark of identity, he says.

Asylum-seekers and refugees often struggle to recount their experiences not least because the cultures they come from and the languages they speak often differ from that of the authorities who have the power to gauge the credibility of their stories, and to grant them asylum. Laura Smith-Khan for Language on the Move looks at the discourse surrounding asylum-seeking in Australia, and points out the dangers of overemphasising the asylum-seeker’s cultural difference while largely ignoring the role of the decision-maker’s own cultural biases and subjective viewpoints in the decision-making process.

And if you’re too exhausted to read any serious stuff, seriously, check out Guardian reader, Alan Greenslade-Hibbert’s three-liner gripe about people pronouncing latte with an extraneous r-sound stuck in the middle — this is classic war zone between rhotic and non-rhotic accents.
☞ See Deborah Chua’s Two Englishes for a discussion of rhoticity in Singapore and New Zealand English!

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