The US has more than 130 endangered Native American languages, such as Wukchumni, which is spoken by a tribe with less than 200 members left. National Geographic documents the words and story of the last fluent Wukchumni speaker Marie Wilcox in this beautiful short film showcase [9:35 min]. For seven years, Marie worked together with her daughter and grandson to build the first Wukchumni dictionary, and now teaches weekly classes to tribe members. “Who wants to keep it alive? Just a few… It’s sad. It seems weird that I am the last one.” Learn more about disappearing languages on National Geographic‘s interactive documentation of the world’s endangered languages.
The 2016 edition of the Education First English Proficiency Index has been published! For the first time, an Asian country (Singapore) is in the highest proficiency band, ranking sixth out of 72 countries. Malaysia and the Philippines are also in the top 15 English-proficient countries worldwide. The Netherlands topped the Index. Other findings include: “Women speak English better than men in almost all countries and age groups”, a finding consistent for all six editions of the Index; and “though the decline is slight, Latin America is the only region with an average proficiency level that has dropped in the past year.”
The New York Times‘ Raphael Minder tells the updated tale of the state of the last bastion of Italy’s Catalan speakers in Alghero. “Only about one-quarter of the 43,000 inhabitants of Alghero speak Catalan as a main language, according to local officials. It is hardly spoken among younger people and barely taught in schools. Nearly a century ago, almost everyone spoke Catalan, according to a census conducted in 1921.”
Commentaries and Features
Chris Taylor considers the tenuous differences between a language and a dialect within the context of modern China on his blog. “In China the language-dialect distinction has been fraught with politically charged connotations, as the People’s Republic of China government has preferred the convenient fiction of classifying all the various forms of regional speech varieties as ‘dialects’, as a way of obscuring the fact that many would be considered linguistically to be separate.”
What’s in a name indeed? The Guardian reports on the recently-published Oxford Dictionary of Family Names in Britain and Ireland, the result of a four-year research study on “almost 50,000 surnames”. The research team—including historical linguists, medieval historians, and lexicographers—noted that place names and occupations were “obvious links” to some family names, such as Smith. Some names were found to have intriguing origins, Campbell, for instance, being “the Gaelic for crooked mouth”. Yet other names were found to be contrary to the physical characteristics of those who bore those characteristics. As noted, “the early Shorts may have earned theirs because they were tall”.
You might have caught the new blockbuster movie “Arrival”, featuring actress Amy Adams as the linguist protagonist Louise, who “manages to save the entire world with her translation skills”. Slate speaks to Betty Binner, professor of linguistics and cognitive science at Northern Illinois University about the authenticity of the representation of linguistics in the movie and what it was like watching the movie as an actual linguist. Not a linguist? Gretchen McCulloch suggests books, puzzles, and websites to immerse in the world of the fictional linguist Louise for Medium.
The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, which has been largely disproven, states that our behaviour and worldviews are determined or dependent on our language. Neo-Whorfianism, however, is a pared-down version of this theory that has gained traction in recent years, forming the basis of films such as “Arrival”; they are also explored in Lauren Collins’ new memoir “When in French: Love in a Second Language“. BBC‘s Rebecca Laurence takes a close look at how US-born Collins’ French-learning experience opened up her eyes and mind in a world with her French husband.
This thanksgiving, we look back to The Atlantic archives: Zach Goldhammer traces migratory paths and etymologies of the domesticated meleagris gallopavo (or ‘guinea-fowl-rooster-peacock’) otherwise popularly known as the “turkey”.