This week in languages: November 18, 2016

by on November 18, 2016



In a bid to capture the zeitgeist since the long-drawn presidential elections in the US, the Oxford English Dictionaries have selected post-truth as the international word of the year! Thanks to the discourse of populist politics around the world in recent times, the use of the term—in use since 1992—has increased 2,000% since 2015.

In a study recently published in the journal PNAS, Professor Iris Berent “reveals that people also apply the rules of their spoken language to sign language.” It is hoped that the results of this study will help to dispel the notion still held by some that sign language is somehow not real language.

The Linguistic Society of America now follows new Guidelines for Inclusive Language, that includes using the third person singular “they” in cases where gender-specificity is unnecessary or undetermined and using ‘gender-neutral’ names like Chris, Kim, and Lee to avoid gender stereotyping. In fieldwork, the term “consultant” is now preferred in place of “informant”, and the use of language names preferred by its speakers—such as Tohono O’odham, rather than Papago—aim to show respect and inclusivity on the part of linguistics researchers.

Arrival, a new film featuring Amy Adams as a linguist-hero, is due to hit the cinemas early next 2017. In the meantime, Emily Rome analyses the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis and linguistic relativity in the film.

Commentaries and Features

Language has deserted the tongue that is thirsty.” Christina Sharpe writes for Lit Hub of the violent language surrounding the refugee crisis, which, she says, is more than reminiscent of the narratives surrounding slavery.

For six months in 1990, two teenage boys designed a new alphabet for their native Fulani language—spoken by at least 40 million people in Guinea—that previously used the Arabic alphabet in written form. But because Arabic weren’t accurate in capturing certain Fulani sounds, brothers Abdoulaye and Ibrahima Barry created an alphabet like Arabic, but with vowels represented as individual letters as opposed to diacritics. Kaveh Waddell traces the steps of the brothers Barry and their alphabet’s long path to acceptance, in The Atlantic.

What’s in a slur? Feminist linguist Deborah Cameron blogs about the recent saga involving the term TERF (or trans-exclusionary radical feminist), and discusses whether or not it should be considered an insulting slur or denotative reference. “Word-meaning is inherently unstable, liable to vary among different groups of users and to change over time, because we don’t learn the meanings of most words by looking them up in some authoritative reference book, we figure them out from our experience of hearing or seeing words used in context.”

Achtung! Why does German sound scary to some people? Having studied Anthropology, Brian Powers shares how a mix of factors such as history and popular internet memes have constructed German as an intimidating language, in Languages of the World.

As a “public service”, Rice Media breaks down the perlocutionary components of a humble brag so that we can recognise it when we’re on the receiving—and giving—end of a call for validation.

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