Saturday, August 29, 2009

Two stories

I recently picked up the second season of the NBC police procedural show "Life" and have been watching it this weekend. In one of the episodes a crime takes place on an unnamed reservation in the desert near Los Angeles. As I watched, I tried to figure out what tribe it was supposed to be, mostly based on the language (after all, I am a linguist). What could it be? Western Pomo perhaps? I'm not familiar with many Uto-Aztecan languages, so I attempted to look the episode up online to see what language the actors were speaking during the few non-English lines of dialog. But suddenly I caught the word wašiču, 'white man' in Lakota (which, ironically, I learned not from my Lakota textbook or dictionary, but from my wife, who has a near-encyclopedic knowledge of the movie "Dances with Wolves"). This could be taken two ways. If we want to nitpick, we could get offended that the producers saw no need to use actual tribal members from the area or research the correct language for the tribe. Or if we want to be charitable we could be grateful that in a major network sitcom they actual decided to use Native actors speaking a Native language.

The second story is short, and comes from Bruce Rigsby via Phil Cash's Nez Perce mailing list. I've removed the name since I'm not sure if it would appropriate to reproduce here.

"Years ago several Old People on the Umatilla Reservation told me much the same account about ------, but it centred on the parable that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. The old man meant to say quu'ys haama "rich man", but mistakenly said k'uuys haama "indecently exposed man"!"

Qeciyew'yew', Bruce, for showing us that Freudian slips don't just occur in Indo-European languages.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Why linguistics is useful when learning a foreign language

Betsy Lowe has been keeping me up to date on her endeavor to learn Hungarian, and the frustrations that go along with any attempt to learn a foreign language. She commented specifically on exceptions in vowel harmony, to which I replied:

"After a while those irregularites will start to resolve into patterns. For instance, my dad, who got his degree in linguistics, was at first puzzled by the Arabic definite article, which is usually al-, but the -l- changes to the first letter of the noun it attaches to in some cases. After a while he figured out that the -l- stays an -l- only when the first letter of the noun isn't a coronal consonant, and once he realized that he no longer had to memorize the cases; it was easy to figure them out."

As another example, in many languages velar stops become post-alveolar stops or alveolar fricatives before front vowels. Thus in Italian syllables originally beginning with /k/ now begin with , e.g., cibo, 'food' is pronounced tʃibo. In Italian the pattern is not difficult to remember even if you don't know any linguistics: c is k before a, o, and u, and before i and e. However, a little linguistics knowledge makes it even simpler: before front vowels, k elsewhere. Such knowledge is especially helpful in situations like the Arabic case, where without linguistic knowledge the learner merely has to memorize a long list of letters that take the article al- and another long list that take aC-, where C represents the first letter of the noun the article precedes.