Saturday, July 31, 2010

posting on Clarion Foundation blog

I'll be posting occasionally on the Clarion Foundation blog on the linguistics of created languages in sci-fi and fantasy, so today I'll just give a link to my first post over there, an expansion of something I did a while ago on this blog:

Feel free to leave comments here or there, including topics you'd like to see dealt with if this is the sort of thing you're interested in.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Language and place

I've been thinking recently about the connection between language and place, not coincidentally because that was the theme of the SILS conference I attended last month. As an English-speaking American of German and Scotch-Irish ancestry, I haven't in the course of my life placed a lot of weight on the relationship between a language and the geographic location where it is spoken. No doubt this is probably partly because of the omnipresence of English, even in countries where it isn't the native language. Certainly there are plenty of dialects, even just in America, but I was born in Florida to parents from New Jersey and California, and went to school in Tennessee and Montana, and I've been speaking the same English the whole time, noticing only slight differences in the English spoken to me in those different places. It is definitely the case that American dialects are fading in younger generations as people acquire more language from standardized sources such as television and the internet, and people move around more and are exposed to people from many different regions. But that's not what I want to talk about today.

I think the issue of language and place is a difficult one for Americans because 99.8% of us natively speak a language that was imported within the last 500 years (though in my own family I only have to go back 100 years to find someone born in Germany). On the other hand, Salish peoples have been speaking Salishan languages in British Columbia for around 10,000 years. While there have been changes in the language (10,000 years bp would probably find a single group of people speaking Proto-Salish, whereas today there are more than twenty mutually unintelligible Salishan languages) and migrations (modern Salishan languages stretch south and west in Montana), there is certainly some truth to saying that 10,000 years you would find the same people speaking the same language. This relation with place can be found in the languages spoken there. No, I'm not going to claim some Sapir-Whorfian causality between the geography of British Columbia and the Salishan languages. But the time depth of lexical items and semantic change in cognates can be used as a somewhat reliable method for investigating migrations. (For instance, the time depth of words for certain types of trees can be used to map some Indo-European migrations in and out of areas containing those tree species.)

For indigenous peoples, there is typically a strong, often spiritual, connection between language and place. Yes, every people is indigenous to somewhere, but I think the most appropriate use for the term "indigenous" is to mean people who live in the general geographic area of there ancestors. For instance, we could say that the Navajo are indigenous to America, since Na-Dene peoples have been here for tens of millenia, but not necessarily indigenous to the southwest, since Apachean peoples migrated there within the last millenium. Some people talk about the fricatives and labialized consonants of Northwestern languages recalling the lapping of waves on the shore. While I agree that's a beautiful image, it doesn't really have any objective fact to it. On the other hand, the fact that Tsimshianic languages have affixes meaning "upriver" and "downriver" does say something about where the languages are spoken. At the risk of touching on the language/culture debate, we wouldn't expect to find such affixes in a language that's been spoken in a riverless desert for 5000 years.

The slogan for the SILS meeting last month was "For every place a language". I like it. Because there is a language for every place, and I think it's something that Americans often forget. People are too quick to say "Learn English if you want to live in America", even though most of our ancestors didn't bother to learn Cherokee or Delaware or Kitsai or Karuk when they came to America. Perhaps we don't like to think about such things because we don't have those ties to our ancestors. My grandmother's grandfather lived all his life in a place I have never seen, and all his life spoke a language I can't understand. Maybe we devalue the connection between language and place because it's something most of us can never hope to have.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Tongue twisters

(I'm using Lucida Sans Unicode for the phonetic transcriptions in this post; I think most people have this on their computer, but if something's not rendering properly, you probably don't.)

As a phonologist, I'm always interested in tongue twisters. One of the classics in English is "She sells seashells by the seashore": ʃi sɛlz siʃɛlz baj ðə siʃɔɹ. Especially in the IPA version, it's easy to see the proliferation of alveolar and postalveolar fricatives, which is the source of difficulty in pronunciation. For English speakers, even simple words in other languages can be tongue twisters, especially if they contain sounds that aren't present in English, such as lateral fricatives or uvulars. The Kiksht word for 'eight' is a great example of this: ɢutɬqt. My recent facebook post about the Okanagan word for 'thistles' (sntkwlkwall'iw'stn' -- don't worry, there are some epenthetic schwas in there) led to some discussion of some of our favorite-sounding words in other languages. Bill Poser mentioned the Shuswap word for 'juniper': punllp (where ll is a lateral fricative), and I mentioned Bella Coola lhk'w-, 'tiny' (where hl is again a lateral fricative). Mithun (1999) gives a great one in Gitksan: nagáksdiː gáʔaɬ ɬagaχgáːkxʷɬ ɬagaxʷɢákʷɬ ɬagaχq’áːχɬ ɢáːqʰ, 'I have just seen for the very first time the toughness of the sinews of the wings of the raven.' Here the difficulty is in the combinations of lateral fricatives, velars, and uvulars, where velars and uvulars contrast within a syllable, and voicing varies. Adding to the difficulty is the similarity of the words. Also included is one from Choctaw: ʃɔ̃ʃi ʃwa ʃwakã iʃowã, 'Do you smell a stinking worm?' Besides the fact that people like to have fun with language, tongue twisters are probably common because people who speak disfluently are seen as less prestigious than those who are able to speak naturally and without error. Obviously nobody is capable of flawless speech 100% of the time, but we definitely judge those who make noticeable errors. Case in point: the Bushisms industry.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Steven Menefee 1981-2010

I just found out today that Steven Menefee has passed away. I only just learned that he had cancer last weekend, though I gather he had been fighting it for a while. I first met Steven at the Workshop for American Indigenous Languages at UC Santa Barbara in 2008. He and a couple colleagues from University of New Mexico had come to present on creating linguistics terminology in Navajo. After the talk I went up and introduced myself, told them how much I was interested in what they were doing, etc. That probably would have been the end of our contact, but Steven was such a friendly guy that when he saw that we were staying at the same hotel he shouted across the courtyard at the Super 8 to see if I and my University of Montana colleagues wanted to join them for dinner. Steven knew the area, so he was our guide to a rather wild night that summer weekend in 2008. The only other time I had the pleasure of his company was in Albuquerque at the High Desert Linguistics Conference that fall.

I saw his name on a presentation at SILS last weekend, so it was an unpleasant surprise that when I got there and asked his UNM friends if he was there, the answer was crestfallen faces and an explanation about Steven's cancer. Steven was one of the most caring, friendly people I have met, and a linguist who cared deeply about the people who spoke the languages he studied. He was a man of strong convictions and above all open, warm-hearted compassion. He laughed easily and always created a positive atmosphere with those around him. He struck me as the kind of person whose goal in life was to make the world a better place, and I can say without a doubt that it is indeed a better place because of him.

We'll miss you Steven.