Monthly Archives: December 2010

English sources, Italian renaissance, Spanish rebellion

The online version of the Oxford English Dictionary has just had a makeover. One of the new features is a list of 1,000 sources for English words and expressions. These tend to be authors  (Shakespeare, Dickens, Twain) or publications (Chambers’s Cyclopaedia, Geographical Journal, New York Times). This is a historical list; there is no room for, to name but one modern linguistic innovator, André 3000.

My favorite entries are for people or publications I haven’t heard of: Helkiah Crooke — what a name!– a 17th century physician and anatomist; Anne Baker, a 19th century philologist; the Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue.

With budgets tight at American schools and colleges, and with a growing interest in Chinese, what happens to a language like Italian?

Once a heritage language, Italian is now more of a lifestyle choice. At Eataly — a new food emporium in New York City — TV chef Lidia Bastianich offers cooking and language classes. A latte just tastes better when you can order it in the original language, or so the thinking goes. Meantime, Italian has been canceled at SUNY-Albany, and appears imperiled elsewhere, at colleges and grade schools. It’s only through the rearguard action of people like Margaret Cuomo of the Italian Language Foundation that the language is still studied in the United States.

Also in the pod this week: Latin America is livid with the Royal Spanish Academy. That’s nothing new — there’s always been tension over how Spanish should, if at all, be regulated. But now, the academy wants to reduce the alphabet from 29 to 27 letters. The victims are a couple of couples: ch and ll, both beloved in the Americas. These sounds — or spellings — aren’t disappearing. They just will no longer have their special place in the dictionary. Those dictionary publishers will no doubt put out new editions, which will help their bottom line: they must love the Royal Spanish Academy!

Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez must like the academy too: it’s given him something else to rail about. Now that ch is no longer recognized, he has proclaimed that he will henceforward be referred to Ávez. Sounds kind of cockney.

Helping us wade through the inter-Spanish linguistic warfare is Ilan Stavans, author of Spanglish, the Making of the New American Language. Listen to an interview with him on that subject here.

Listen to the podcast in iTunes or here.


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The events of English and the future of Tibetan

Five language stories from the past month with Patrick, Carol and Rhitu

5.Tibetan in schools

Tibetans have been protesting over the potential loss of their language in schools.

It started after the Chinese Communist Party’s Qinghai province chief, Qiang Wei reportedly called for “a common language” in schools.  He went on to propose that Qinghai use Mandarin as the language of instruction in all schools. Now,  it already is the language of instruction in most schools in Qinghai, as in the rest of China. But the province is also home to a significant number of Tibetans, who typically learn at elementary level in their own language. Those who stay on in higher grades switch to Mandarin.

Estimates put the number of protesters between several hundred and several thousand. They spread beyond Tibetan speakers, with Uigher-speaking students also taking to the streets in sympathy. They know they could be next.

4. Spain re-orders its family names

The Spanish government has drafted a law that would change birth registration rules. That could result in a dramatic transformation of naming customs. Spaniards have two family names.  Right now, either of those names can come first, though it’s customary for the father’s name to assume priority. Under the proposed law, the two names would simply be listed alphabetically, unless otherwise instructed by the parents. This may well result in gender neutrality, but it would certainly discriminate against letters at the end of the alphabet. Zapatero? Forgetaboutit! Just think: had the law been around in 1892, Spanish dictator Francisco Franco might have been known as Generalísimo Bahamonde. Would he have won the Spanish Civil War with a name like that?

3. Events that shaped English

A non-profit group in Britain called The English Project is putting together a list of historical events and places that have shaped the development of the English language. It’s a thoroughly UK-centric list. Which is fair enough, until that time in history when Britain began exporting the English language. Here’s the list.  Post your ideas for a more expansive global list on English either there or on this site.

2.When can you say you speak a language? There’s no widely-accepted standard for speaking a second language, nor should there be: people use languages in so many different ways that there can never be  a single answer to this question.  But it’s instructive to try to come up with your own definition.

For the writer of this Economist blog, it’s a test of linguistic skills in journalism: “If my editor sent me to a country where I needed to report on a topic of general interest for The Economist, could I pull off interviews and research?  If yes, I speak it.”

The comments after the blog post are all over the map, as they should be:  “When you find yourself dreaming in a language, you can safely say that you can speak it.” (I disagree: I dream more fluently than I speak).  I prefer this one: “When you have mastered all, I emphasize all, the nuances contained in a given cuss word, and know when and when not, to deploy the word, so that you obtain the precise effect you want, not more, not less. This you do a native speaker of the language.”

1. We speak, therefore we think. New research out of Australia on how the languages we speak may determine how we think. Pormpuraawans — aboriginals living in a remote part of Australia — relate spatially to things according to the position of the sun. So while they think east and west, we English speakers often think left and right,  Arabic and Hebrew speaker right and left, and Chinese speakers up and down.  This plays in nicely to the recently renewed debate over language and thought: does language arise out of thought, or does it give shape to thought? Are we all prisoners of our native tongues?

Musings on this here and here. And more coverage of the research in a recent World Science podcast.

Listen in iTunes or here.


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