Monthly Archives: December 2012

Boy Sopranos and Early Onset of Puberty

During the holiday season, you often hear the kind of music that the New College Choir performs. New College, a boys school in Oxford, has one of Britain’s best known choirs. Most of the sopranos are 12 or 13 years old.

When exactly will their voices break? It’s an inexact science.

“A boy’s voice doesn’t just suddenly break,” says Martin Ashley who heads the Education Department at Britain’s Edge Hill University. “It goes through approximately five stages of change that correspond with other known changes of puberty.”

“All of those stages are just coming sooner,” Ashley adds. He and a colleague in Germany have just completed a study of boys’ voices that suggests something dramatic has been happening in recent decades.

Ashley and his team tested the voices of 1,000 boys and compared them to similar tests done in 1960.

“What we would have seen in 1960 in 14-year-olds we’re seeing now in 12-year-olds,” says Ashley. The boys’ voices are breaking two years earlier.

Ashley says if this trend continues, teenage boys’ choirs won’t have anyone to sing the soprano parts.

Some choir directors are already accounting for these changes. “We do recruit younger and we give ourselves a little more time than we used to,” says New College’s Director of Music Edward Higginbottom.

But Higginbottom disagrees that the voice change is quite so recent and sudden. He says the age at which boys’ voices have been breaking has been gradually coming down for hundreds of years.

“You can find evidence in the 17th century for boys voices continuing till [the age of] 20,” says Higginbottom.

There’s evidence spanning many centuries suggesting that boys’ voices didn’t break until they were quite old. Bach, for example, wrote music to be performed by boy sopranos and altos in their mid-to-late teens.

But researcher Martin Ashley brushes that aside.

“A lot of people mention Bach’s boy sopranos,” he says. “I’m almost certain that you would have found they were hitting puberty at around 14 or 15, but there were singing techniques that I’m sure that Bach would have used that allow their voices to continue up to 16 or 17.”

New College’s Edward Higginbottom, though, doesn’t think the puberty will begin much earlier than it does now. He’s not altogether serious when he muses the following: “If we have boy basses at the age of 10, clearly it’s a wonderful occasional for the girls to stride in and help us.”

Girls in a boys choir? What is the world coming to? Next, they’ll be playing soccer…

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What’s in a Name in Ethiopia?

This is guest post from Africa-based Big Show reporter, Anders Kelto:

In Ethiopia, people have long used something called “house names.” They’re nicknames that family members give to one another. Traditionally, they have symbolic meanings. But the nature of those names is changing.

Kalkidan Hailemariam, a 19-year-old broadcast journalism student at the University of Addis Ababa, says her parents started calling her by her house name, Mitu, when she was about one year old.

Kalkidan Hailemariam aka Mitu

Kalkidan Hailemariam aka Mitu

“I didn’t know the meaning. Even my parents didn’t know what it means,” Kalkidan says.

“I really like [my house name]. When someone calls me Kalkidan, I don’t even turn my face,” she says.

Zelealem Leyew, a professor of linguistics at the University of Addis Ababa, says Mitu is a fairly typical house name for someone of Kalkidan’s age.

“We have these short and precise home names, like Tutu and Chuchu,” Zelealem says.

“And this, in linguistics, we call it reduplication – you just reduplicate or double a syllable,” he says.

Reduplication is common in many languages – from Chinese to Finnish to Maori. But Zelealem says it’s a new phenomenon in Ethiopia.

For centuries, Ethiopians have used long and colorful names, with symbolic meanings. They often bestow blessings or well wishes, or define the relationship between parent and child. Zelealem says that’s still the case in rural villages.

“If you go to the rural dwellers, they still enjoy giving names—these long names with meaning, with expressive power,” Zelealem says.

“They call them, Yene Geta, My Lord; Yene Gasha, My shield; Yene Shegga, My Beautiful or My Pretty,” he says.

Linguistics Professor Zelealem Leyew

Linguistics Professor Zelealem Leyew

Zelealem says no one knows exactly why these traditional house names are being replaced by shorter, cutesier names. But he suspects it has to do with Western influence. Ethiopia was relatively isolated from the West for centuries, but Europeans started coming here in large numbers in the 20th century.

“When they came to Ethiopia as missionaries, visitors, travelers, or scholars, they came with their languages,” Zelealem says.

“As a result of contact among speakers of different languages, we inherit names from other languages, and we donate, probably, names to other languages,” he says.

Zelealem says it’s a shame that so many Ethiopians are now using house names that don’t have meaning, and don’t have Ethiopian roots. But he acknowledges that there is a practical advantage to the shorter names – and that might explain their popularity in the cities.

“It is easier to call your baby girl Titi or Lili than Yelf Wagash or Yat’re Ida, which is relatively very long,” Zelealem says.

Eyosias Girma, a first-year student at the University of Addis Ababa, says all the kids in his family have short house names.

“My brother is Sweet,” he says.

“It’s because my mom used to eat a lot of sweet things when she was pregnant. My sister, she is Amen. Amen – let it happen.”

Eyosias says his own house name, Pio, doesn’t have a meaning. It was just something his sister started calling him. But the fact that it has no meaning doesn’t bother him. And he says it certainly doesn’t make him feel any less Ethiopian.

Note from Patrick Cox: listen to the audio file above for more from Linguistics Professor Zelealem Leyew, who himself has four house names. Also in the podcast, a proposed new marriage law would bring new rules for surnames.


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Join the Army, Speak a Language and Become a Citizen

Yoon Young Kim (courtesy Yoon Young Kim)

Yoon Young Kim (courtesy Yoon Young Kim)

Note from Patrick Cox: Here’s a guest post from New York-based reporter Nina Porzucki

In 2009 the US Army piloted a yearlong program allowing immigrants with certain language skills or medical training to enlist in the military and receive citizenship by the end of basic training –that’s just 10 weeks. The program was a wild success, enlisting nearly 1,000 people with thousands more on the wait list.

The program has been brought back for a second trial period this October. Already, about 200 people have enlisted. One of them is Yoon Young Kim, a South Korean national. He joined the Army just a few weeks ago. He’s set to leave for basic training in April. By the end of summer 2013, he’s scheduled to raise his hand again to swear another oath, this time as a U.S. citizen.

When Kim came to the U.S. eight years ago to study nursing he never thought he’d be enlisting in the U.S. military. Certainly not at age 32. He worries about his English and keeping up physically with a bunch of 20-year-olds at boot camp.

“Mentally, probably I’m better than them but physically I’m weak,” says Kim. “So right now I’m trying to work on myself for push-ups, sit-ups and running.”

Before enlisting, Kim was getting frustrated trying to find a job in nursing. His visa was running out. That’s why he leaped at the chance at fast track citizenship with the U.S. Army.

Immigrants fighting for the American military is nothing new. Substantial number of people who have served in the military during wartime in past wars has been immigrants. While immigrants have fought in wars since 1775, things changed after 9/11. A new federal rule required legal immigrants to have a green card to be able to enlist. Suddenly the Army was forced to turn away thousands of qualified applicants.

“I would get calls from people in the military,” says immigration attorney and retired Army lieutenant colonel, Margaret Stock. They would say “‘hey, how come Tanya so and so just walked into the recruiters office and she’s got U.S. high school diploma and speaks three languages and has got high test scores but I’m not allowed to let her in because she’s not got a green card,’ and they’d call me to try and get her a green card.”

And then an idea came to Stock. What if the military took advantage of a legal loophole? Stock discovered the loophole in a statute passed by Congress. “They put an exception in the statute,” says Stock, “that a person who didn’t meet the normal criteria could voluntary enlist if the person’s enlistment was vital to the national interest.”

That loophole became the Military Accessions Vital to The National Interest—or MAVNI—program. The US military today has missions all over the world and recruiting men and women who speak the local language and know the local culture is vital. Yoon Young Kim hopes his Korean language skills might be useful in monitoring North Korea.

It turns out many other Koreans are as ready as Kim. While there are 44 desired languages on the MAVNI recruitment list from Russian and Hindi to smaller Filipino dialects like Cebuano or Moro, Korean speakers have signed up in droves. The force behind this swell of enthusiasm is James Hwang. If you have a question about the MAVNI program he’s the person to contact.

“I got almost more than 100 emails per day,” says Hwang who is a civilian. He always wanted to serve in the Army but when he visited a recruiter years ago without a green card, he was turned away. Then he heard about MAVNI and made it his mission to spread word about the program to other Koreans. He hosts info sessions in his home and fields questions on Facebook. He is even responsible for two MAVNI marriages. Why does he do it?

“There were many people before this program who were on a non-immigrant visa for many years,” says Hwang. “They didn’t really have very much hope for becoming a permanent resident because of the backlog of the US immigration system.”

Hwang’s effort has led to an overwhelming number of Koreans applying.

“The Korean community got so enthusiastic and mobilized about the program,” says attorney Margaret Stock, “that if we had let the program run first come first serve we probably would’ve ended up with 800 Korean language speakers and nobody from any other language groups.”

The Army ended up putting a quota on Korean speakers. Stock is happy that MAVNI is so popular. But she says the program shouldn’t really exist. What MAVNI really points out is a broken immigration system.

“If our nation had comprehensive immigration reform—if we had a legal immigration system that worked—we wouldn’t need a program like MAVNI,” says Stock. “We could just draw on the population of people living in the US with green cards.”

Yoon Young Kim, though, smiles at his good fortune. He was one of the last Korean citizens to enlist before the Korean language quota was met last month. Of course not everyone understood his decision to serve. When he told his parents in South Korea that he was going to join the Army they were shocked. In fact, they told him not to join. But Kim was determined. “I just said, ‘Mom and Dad, I’m not applying to the US military to die. I’m applying to live, to survive.’”

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Beyond Elvish

Forget Klingon, Na’vi and Dothraki—languages created for the screen. These are languages paid for by producers, created by linguists.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s book The Hobbit is getting the three-part Hollywood treatment. The return of the Elvish languages to the big screen is a reminder of just how inventive fiction writers have been over the years in dreaming up new tongues. Think of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, with its thuggish Russian-inflected slang called Nadsat (a girl is a devochka, a friend a droog).

This urge to create new words starts at a young age. Children often make up words before they have a proper command of their native tongues.

“We enjoy exercising the way we produce sounds,” says Indiana University’s Michael Adams, editor of From Elvish to Klingon: Exploring Invented Languages.

Adams says he likes to play with the sounds of language, ”in the car or the shower or wherever I am…in the way that I suppose a poet has to think about sound and language.”

Tolkien needed to do a lot of that. A trained philologist, he did it for years before creating his fantasy world.

He worked on his fantasy languages during the First World War. It helped to pass the time, says Adams: “He did a lot of language invention and some of the prehistory of the language of Elvish is from those days in the trenches.”

The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings came decades later. By then, Tolkien had imagined an entire history of his imagined languages.

“He would even leave unexplained thing in the languages he was working on,” says Adams. “Any real language you were reconstructing would have unexplained things in it too. So he was trying to mimic behavior of natural language very closely.”

That degree of detail may be unrivaled among novelists, although Michael Adams does have someone up his sleeve. More about that in a moment.

First, consider what most language creators do in their novels: they set up thought experiments.

In her science fiction novel, The Dispossessed, Ursula K. Le Guin created the Pravic language. Or rather, she created a breakaway society of anarchists who themselves created Pravic.

This group of anarchists “want to remove from the language anything that implies ownership,” says Le Guin.

Any kind of private possession. Your name doesn’t belong to you—it is assigned to you, after someone else with that name dies and the name can be recycled.

That’s reflected in Pravic too: the language has no possessive pronouns.

That was the thought experiment. Could words shape thought, could a language make people behave a certain way? It’s a linguistic hypothesis much poo-pooed by academic linguists, not that it worries Le Guin.

embassytownChina Miéville’s recent novel Embassytown contains another thought experiment, which owes a debt to Gulliver’s Travels. Miéville creates a language for a group of aliens called the Ariekei.

It’s a language that mimics language of the garden of Eden, where the word is the thing. In other words, there’s no difference between an apple, and the word for an apple.

The Ariekei can’t lie. “If they want to use figurative speech at all they have to construct a situation which they can then refer to,” says Miéville.

“If you wanted say ‘oh I feel like an angry lion today’ you would have to get a lion and make it angry. Otherwise you couldn’t say it because it didn’t exist.”

Miéville came away from his thought experiment with the view that if human language marks a fall from grace, it’s quite a good fall. It allows us to use metaphor, as well as to lie.

Back now to the writer who may have out-Tolkiened Tolkien. French author Frédéric Werst has published something approximating a novel called Ward. It’s about a group of people called The Ward who speak a language called Wardwesân. The entire work is written in that language, with a parallel French translation.

Michael Adams says Werst is the first novelist he knows of “who’s tried to do a literary work from start to finish in a language never before known in the world.”

Tolkien never went that far, though he did tell his publisher that wished he could have included more of his fictional languages in his novels. Restraint, in that case, was probably wise.

Tolkien remains an inspiration to others. He wrote about inventing languages in an essay called The Secret Vice. “It’s a charming essay,” says novelist Ursula K. Le Guin.

le guin“He’s thought of the fact that there just are a bunch of us who love to invent languages as well as to learn them,” Le Guin says. “A lot of kids do a certain amount of it and some people carry it on all their lives. It’s like kids who draw maps of imaginary islands. Some of us go on doing it until we’re 80.”

A two-volume selection of Le Guin’s short stories, The Unreal and the Real, has just been published. It’s been a treat for me to read the stories. Growing up in Britain, I was only exposed to Le Guin’s novels.

For more in the pod about invented languages, there is this interview with Arika Okrent, author of In the Land of Invented Languages, and this podcast on the Game of Thrones language, Dothraki.

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Why I Like Catalan and Don’t Speak it

Sign in Catalan ("People live here") Photo: Josep Renalias/Wikimedia Commons

Sign in Catalan (“People live here”) Photo: Josep Renalias/Wikimedia Commons

[Note from Patrick Cox: Here’s a blog post from the Big Show’s Barcelona-based Europe correspondent Gerry Hadden. It’s a great companion piece to his report featured in the podcast above.]

When my partner Anne and I moved to Barcelona eight years ago, we decided we would send our (future) kids to local schools. Schools that teach almost exclusively in the Catalan language. I didn’t speak a word of Catalan and neither did Anne.

We could have opted for one of two French Lycees in town. We could have chosen one of several American or British schools. That way, their education would have been in one of two languages we both speak.

But we went local because we wanted to become a part of our community. We wanted our kids to belong here. At “foreign” language schools, you’re always an expat. You don’t know the kids in your neighborhood. And your friends at school inevitably move away after a few years, when their parents’ bosses transfer them elsewhere.

That’s not the way either of us grew up, and we didn’t want that for our children. We’re also polyglots (I majored in German in college) with a “the more languages the merrier” philosophy. Our kids are now on the road to speaking, naturally, without blinking an eye, four languages.

Catalan independence supporters (Wikimedia Commons)

Catalan independence supporters (Wikimedia Commons)

Eight years on, however, their dad still doesn’t speak Catalan. For some Catalans, that’s an offense. They feel snubbed. How dare I not embrace the language – the most important and cherished aspect of Catalan identity?

But the majority of our Catalan friends couldn’t care less. Many have even congratulated us for having mastered that other official language in Catalonia: Spanish.

As foreigners living in Catalonia, we’re caught in the cross-fire of a divided society. Some Catalans wish Spain would just go away. Others can’t understand such preference for Catalan over Spanish.

This debate is sometimes tedious. Often it is outright hateful, with the vitriol spewing from both sides.

In the meantime, as I say, I haven’t learned it. I can read it, and understand most of it, but I don’t speak it. Haven’t made much effort. The reason isn’t political. It has more to do with water than with politics or philosophy or identity.

Water seeks the easiest route on its journey to wherever it’s going. Language is the same. People learn foreign languages for one of just two reasons, and the first follows the water principal. The second is what happens to water when it spills into a geyser.

Reason One: Necessity. You learn Catalan or Mandarin or Tagalog because you have no choice. You have moved to a country where no one speaks your native language and you have to eat. You can’t go to market, point at produce and nod forever. Also, you have to work. You have to make friends.

In Catalonia I can do all those things without speaking Catalan. Like water, I take the easiest route. Everyone speaks Spanish. Whether they like it or not. Only once in a very long while will a Catalan simply refuse to talk to me in Spanish. This reality drives some Catalans crazy – and it’s led to public campaigns to encourage Catalans not to switch to Spanish in conversations with folks like me. But that hasn’t really worked, because ultimately people realize it’s rude to answer someone who’s speaking to you in a language you know – by using a language they don’t.

Reason Two: Love. Love makes water go in any direction it wants. It can shoot it hundreds of feet into the air, against gravity – even turn it into a gas if it feels like it. I fell in love with someone who happens to be French. Which is why, over these eight years in Catalonia, my French has gotten pretty good, while my level of Catalan has barely budged.

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A Comeback For Africa’s Homegrown Languages?

A schoolroom in Rwanda (Photo: Dan Petrescu for EFA FTI/Wikimedia Commons)

A schoolroom in Rwanda (Photo: Dan Petrescu for EFA FTI/Wikimedia Commons)

In this week’s podcast, Cartoon Queen Carol Hills and I talk language and Africa. We also consider food idioms, banana skins and robberies gone wrong.

  • Televised debates for Ghana’s upcoming presidential election have all been conducted in English, despite the fact that English is understood by an estimated 20% of Ghanaians. Critics say the debates penalize candidates with poor English, effectively turning them into linguistic beauty contests. Now there are calls for future campaigns to include debates in the Twi language/dialect, which is far more widely spoken than English.
  • Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni has co-written a thesaurus for his mother tongue, Nkore-Kiga (also known as Runyankore/Rukiga). Museveni says Ugandans favour English, along with Arabic and Swahili, over their neglected indigenous tongues.
  • Gabon is the latest Francophone country in Africa to consider switching its allegiance to English. If it does, it would follow Rwanda, which in 2009 switched its language of instruction in schools from French to English. The future for French in Africa looks uncertain at best.
  • South Africans are debating what to call President Zuma’s newly refurbished home. The US media would call the multi-acre, multi-building home a ‘compound,’ but that word has unfortunate connotations from the Apartheid period. Calling it ‘Zumaville,’ as it’s popularly known, may imply corruption, so the South African Broadcasting Corporation is directing its reporters and presenters to refer to this place as the president’s ‘residence.’
  • Having the peach, eating cold rice, other food-based idioms from around the world. Some of the best of these can be found in Adam Jacot de Boinod’s wonderful Tingo books.


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