Thursday, September 26, 2013

Language isolates in focus: P'urhépecha

Language isolates are languages without any other related languages on earth. Roughly a quarter of the world's language families are isolates. Probably the most famous language isolate is Basque, spoken in Spain and France,* but there is over a hundred other isolated languages in the world. Today we take a look at a language isolate, P'urhépecha, a language spoken in Michoacan, Mexico.

Mesoamerican languages tend to share similar features, forming a geographic clade where the languages tended to rub off on each other. The result is that the languages in Central America, even when genetically unrelated, resemble each other. We call this location of mutual feedback the Mesoamerican Linguistic Area (MLA).

Traditional folk: A P'urhépechan musician plays the Pirekua, a
folk style of music, on the violin.
Image credit: UNESCO
P'urhépecha is strange because it is centered in the Mesoamerican Linguistic Area yet it is clearly shares none of the features and is seemingly immune from outside influence. The language did not recently migrate to the region, so we know there was plenty of time for P'urhépecha to pick up the mutual features of the MLA.

Like the languages of northern Canada and Alaska, P'urhépecha is polysynthetic (I wrote more about what what polysynthesis is, and how the northern languages use polysynthesis, here), yet unlike those languages, P'urhépecha cannot compound nouns. P'urhépecha involves double marking like Spanish. Most languages use cases to modify the meaning of a noun (like the 's in the sentence Paul's house is a possessive genitive case marker) and many languages use positionals to do that task (such as prepositions in English), but P'urhépecha uses both case markings and postpositions simultaneously. The verbs of P'urhépecha can be suffixed according to shape, position, or body part.

The language is spoken by roughly 250,000 people in Mexico, so we are fortunate that this is one isolate not in immediate danger of extinction.


* = Korean is often classified as a language isolate, easily making it the most famous isolate in the world, but its place is too controversial to casually classify in a post. First, some linguists include it in the Altaic language family and, second, some consider the Jeju dialect to be divergent enough to be a separate language, making two Korean languages under a Koreanic language family.

Monday, September 23, 2013


Let's keep tonight's update brief and light-hearted. 

Deep in the jungles of South America is the now-famous language of Pirahã. The Pirahã people and their language has been championed this last decade by Daniel Everett. The language is famous as having the smallest inventory of sounds in the world, just 11 phonemes, tying Rotokas of Papua New Guinea. 

Leisure in eleven sounds or less: Daniel Everett and a Pirahã man enjoying a dip.
Image credit: The New Yorker. 
On the other end of the extreme is !Kung, spoken in the deserts of Namibia, with a whopping 141 phonemes. No wonder the language gets an exclamation point in its name! (Actually, the exclamation point stands for a click phoneme resembling a cork being pulled from a bottle). For comparative purposes, English dialects range from 38 to 44 phonemes, which is above average but by no means extraordinary. 

Labor in one hundred and forty-one sounds: 18,000 people speak !Kung today but their way of life
is endangered due to pollution of their water sources.
Image credit: Documentary Educational Resources.

From Old Chinese to Modern

It's no secret that tonality in Mandarin is a fairly recent phenomenon. Old Chinese, the ancestor to Modern Mandarin, had no tones. Instead, suffixes at the ends of words were reduced into rising and falling tones, and then diversified into several different kinds.

This tends to surprise most, as people tend to assume that tonality is a very complex feature - and that complex features are probably older, right? The reverse is true. The creation of tone changes was a labor saving device that made clear communication possible in less time.

Excitingly, a linguist of Mandarin has taken a sentence and mapped its evolution in pronunciation, starting with Old Chinese of 1200 BCE and progressing step-wise with each sound change till the modern era. Take a listen:

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Who wants some PIE?

What did Proto-Indo-European sound like? It's a fascinating question. The reconstructed language is one of the most important languages in human pre-history - yet we are able to hear what it sounded like with some accuracy roughly 7000 years later! Historical linguistics enables us to hear with our ears the world of yesteryear.

Happily, linguist Andrew Byrd has made several audio readings of fables in Proto-Indo-European (PIE). PIE is probably the most fully reconstructed PL2 today (or PL3 if you get really pedantic, since Latin < Proto-Italic < Proto-Italo-Faliscan < PIE). Anyway, enough of my yakking.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

A List of the Ancient Languages of the British Isles

We begin today's post not in the tomes of linguistics, but in the history of economics. We take a step back to over 150 years ago when, in 1846, the British parliament repealled the corn laws. The corn laws established pricely tariffs on corn imports from cheaper foreign sources, and were significant barriers to trade. British citizens had to purchase corn from more expensive domestic sources. But why would the crown impose such a heavy burden upon its own subjects?

In truth, the corn laws were the product of the economics of the Late Middle Ages, when wealth was conceived as a limited thing. If you get a dollar that means your enemy did not get that dollar. The theory is fundamentally flawed. Why define wealth as a limited quantity and why define it solely as money/gold? Wealth can be dollars, sailboats, and sheep, and just because I bake 10 loaves of bread does not mean my enemy magically does not get 10 loaves. Fabrication of goods creates an absolutely greater quantity of wealth in the world where everyone wins.

The repeal of the corn laws signalled the end of the antiquated philosophy of wealth in Britain and the start of economic liberalism. Economic liberalism viewed the market as driven by supply and demand, and looked favorably upon trade for goods and services. Generally speaking, barriers like taxes on trading goods and services harm a nation, not help it. When you force Britons to spend more on corn in order to keep your money within the British empire, you are wasting productivity - which ultimately costs you more wealth than you saved. When you calculate wealth as more than just money, it's clear that the corn laws forced Britons to spend time growing corn when they could be making products they had a comparative advantage over other nations. 

The repeal of the corn laws also began a new era of immigration for Britain. Limiting the movement of incoming and outgoing workers tended to impede the production of goods. With the rise of immigration and the movement of laborers, however, we see the end of British languages and dialects. Many regional speeches of the British Isles were replaced with standardized speech. We also see the number of Celtic-language speakers drop like a brick in the 19th century.

Today's post addresses the languages of Britain before the 19th century (meaning we include Ireland). There were many of them, but I have never seen a full list in a single place. This list may not be exhaustive. There is no single source for all the historical languages in one place, and compiling the first of such lists risks incompletion. But without further ado, let's begin in chronological order:

Pre-Irish: The language of Ireland before the Celtic invasion. We have fragments of their forgotten tongue in the loanwords and toponyms of the Irish Gaeilghe

The Insular Celtic Languages: Celtic tribes moved into the British Isles some time after 2000 BCE. Their languages became
  • Common Brittonic: An ancient form of Celtic, it was spoken in England and Wales during the Roman Empire. As all languages will do, given time and geographic separation, Common Brittonic split up into Welsh, Cumbric, and possibly Pictish. It is better to think of Common Brittonic as an ancestral version of those languages, not as completely distinct, much like Latin is the ancestral version of the Spanish, Italian, and French languages.
    • Welsh: Spoken in Wales. Very much alive but not thriving.
    • Cumbric: Spoken in southern Scotland and Cumberland and related to Welsh. Extinct by the 1100s. 
    • Pictish (?): Controversial status as a Celtic language. The Picts were one of the chief reasons for Hadrian's Wall. Pictish was probably Celtic, but sparse records makes the job difficult. Spoken mostly in Scotland and possibly northernmost England. It would have been replaced by English, Scots, and Scottish.
    • Kaale: Spoken in Wales by the local gypsys, it was a divergent form of Welsh with heavy influences from Romani, but has since gone extinct.
  • Irish: The language of Ireland. Ancient Irishmen also settled Scotland at an early date and their speech became...
  • Scottish Gaelic: Spoken in Scotland. Scottish and Irish are closely related to each other, but distantly related to Welsh.
  • Cornish: Spoken in Cornwall, England, by about 600 - 3000 speakers.
  • Manx: Spoken in the Isle of Man. A close cousin of Irish and Scottish. Near-dead by the 20th century, there are about 100 native speakers left.
  • Shelta: Spoken in Ireland by roughly 86,000. Its foundation is the Irish language with heavy influence from an unknown source.
  • Beurla-reagaird: Like Kaale, it is a gypsy language. Its foundation is Irish with heavy influence from Romani. Extinct or near-extinct.
The West Germanic Languages: Germanic tribes invaded the British Isles beginning in 450 CE and immediately began displacing and replacing the local Celtic languages. At this juncture, Pre-Irish had been fully eradicated by Irish. The largest of the tribes to arrive were the Jutes, Angles, and Saxons. They spoke dialectical forms of a very late West Germanic tongue we somtimes call Anglo-Frisian. The Anglo-Frisian dialect in Britain evolved over time. It became
  • English: Need one say more?
  • Yola: Spoken in Ireland until the 19th century. Now extinct.
  • Fingalian: English and Fingalian diverged at a late date sometime after the Norman invasion, thus it was closely related. Spoken in Ireland. Extinct by the 19th century.
  • Scots: About 1.6 million speakers, including 100,000 native speakers. Spoken mostly in the lowlands of Scotland. 
Norn: After the Angles, Jutes, and Saxons came and formed the Anglo-Saxons, the Vikings began to pillage and settle Scotland, Ireland, and northern England. Unlike the Anglo-Saxons, which spoke a West Germanic language, the Vikings spoke a North Germanic language (both North and West Germanic had split thousands of years prior). The Scottish Isles were so thoroughly conquered that their tongues were replaced by a Viking language, which became Norn. It was closest to Norwegian and Icelandic. Norn was replaced by Scots, Scottish, and English after the 15th century. Extinct.

The Romance Languages: Following the Norman invasion, Latin-based languages began to heavily influence England through the court. The royal elite spoke what the King and Queen spoke, which were, mainly, Romance languages until the 15th century. They were
  • Anglo-Norman: When the Normans conquered England, the Normans spoke a variety of Norman that was heavily influenced by French dialects like Picardy. Norman itself is closely related to French. The result was a unique amalgam.
  • Norman: Within the United Kingdom it survives on Alderney island, part of Guernsey, and on Sark.
  • Sercquiais: Thanks to tax loopholes, the English wealthy have all but demolished this language through migration and displacement. It is spoken on the isle of Sark by about 15 people. 
  • French: Gradually replaced Anglo-Norman due to France's shift of power to Paris, which spoke Parisian French.
  • Occitan: Briefly spoken in England thanks to the influence of Edward the Black Prince, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and others. It is distantly related to French and Anglo-Norman and is closer in heritage to Catalan. It is now an endangered language, spoken in France and Spain.
  • Guernesiais: A variant of the Norman language that survived on the island of Guernsey. About 1,000 speakers left and almost all are over the age of 65. Destined to die within 40 years, I reckon, unless there is a fundamental shift in the culture.
  • Alderney: Spoken in Alderney, part of the Guernsey islands. Last speaker died in 1960. 
Yiddish: A West Germanic language with heavy influence from Hebrew. It arrove significantly later than the Anglo-Saxon invasion, with the influx of Jewish immigrants. The number of speakers is in significant decline with the return of Hebrew and the influence of national languages. 

Anglo-Romani: The language of the Gypsies, who left India some time after 1000 CE and arrived in Western Europe sometime in the 16th century, was Romani. The version of Romani spoken in England became Anglo-Romani. Number of speakers is unknown.

Thus concludes the list. We began at a vague date, some time after 2000 BCE with Pre-Irish, and ended with the introduction of Anglo-Romani in the 1500s CE. I count 24 languages of the United Kingdom and Ireland, not counting Common Brittonic. There are 11 or 12 languages no longer spoken in the British Isles, depending if a speaker of Beurla-reagaird is discovered; of them, six or seven are extinct, again with the possible exception of Beurla-reagaird.

This list also underlines the need for language preservation efforts and a change in language attitudes. The language of Guernesiais, for example, has a robust number of speakers, but only 0.1% of the Guernsey young know the language. Thus, it is nearly moribund, destined to die with the elderly. According to the United Nation's World's Languages in Danger project, many of the above languages are threatened by extinction in the next 100 years.

Not in Danger: English, French, Occitan, Norman
Vulnerable: Scottish Gaelic, Scots, Welsh
Endangered: Romani, Irish, Yiddish
Endangered, Severely: Guernesiais, Guernsey Norman
Endangered, Critically: Manx
Unclassified: Cornish, Sercquiais, Shelta

 Thank you for the adventure. I had a lot of fun compiling the list.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

How American became the official language of Illinois

Washington J. McCormick, a former lawyer with degrees from Harvard and Columbia, was elected to the United States Congress in 1921 to represent the great state of Montana. But when McCormick failed to win re-election in 1922, he decided to spend his lame duck months proposing unpopular legislation, and as a Republican with a strong independent streak, Representative McCormick proposed that these United States of America adopt American as its official language. As quoted in The Nation, he argued:
Drop your swagger-sticks: Representative
W. J. McCormick of Montana's 1st District is in town.
Image credit: Wikipedia and Library of Congress
I might say I would supplement the political emancipation of '76 by the mental emancipation of '23. America has lost much in literature by not thinking its own thoughts and speaking them boldly in a language unadorned with gold braid. It was only when Cooper, Irving, Mark Twain, Whitman, and O. Henry dropped the Order of the Garter and began to write American that their wings of immortality sprouted. Had Noah Webster, instead of styling his monumental work the "American Dictionary of the English Language," written a "Dictionary of the American Language," he would have become a founder instead of a compiler. Let our writers drop their top-coats, spats, and swagger-sticks, and assume occasionally their buckskin, moccasins, and tomahawks.
The bill failed.

Nevertheless, McCormick's firey passion stoked some independence coals in Illinois' congressmen. By the end of 1923, Illinois had hastily adopted "American" as the official state language later. Thus it was secured that the official language of Illinois is American, and not English or any other foreign tongue.

In many blue states, it is contentious to even adopt an official language. Many liberals find it a bit hypocritical, very ignorant, and terribly prideful, considering none of us learn the real American languages like Oneida, Algonquin, or Navajo. But Illinois found a way to look past that.

Sadly, the bill was amended in 1969 and the nomenclature was changed to "English." Kind of funny and sad, in a weird sort of way, that Illinois lost a very... how shall I put this... unique legal perspective on language.

Thank you, Representative McCormick.

Read the 1923 Draft of the bill at the Language Policy archive!

Read further discussion of Illinois' policy at the PBS' transcript of Do You Speak American?

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

A linguistic survey of India

Thanks to Language Hat for pointing this out. The New Linguistic Survey of India, a massive six-year, $100 million project has finally concluded. The task documented 780 languages and will be published in 50 volumes. Whoa. Click the link to read more.

Language and Economics: A Review of Chen's Tense and Savings Theory

Part I. What this is all about.

Several months ago, an economist and professor at UCLA, M. Keith Chen, published a paper in the American Economic Review, which argued that countries with languages that are future tense dependent (where they necessarily must speak about the future using tense) save less money. Or in simpler words, if you speak a language that talks about the future and the present in the same tense, you're more likely to save your money. English is a language that tends to invoke a future tense. You can say I will go to the bank later but not I go to the bank later.

Here is an article in The Atlantic about this.

Here is a video for non-linguists and non-economists:

Here is Chen's article (pdf warning).

Part II. Reactions.

Chen's study involved 39 languages, only nine of which were categorized as non-future tense dependent. Many of the nine have interconnected economies. More frustratingly, Chen categorizes languages based on popular consensus, not linguistic consensus. Danish and Swedish are dialects of a West Scandanavian language clade. Basque was categorized as one language when there are definitely two language divisions between east and west, and in reality there are probably about 20 Basque languages. The idea that the Basque language consists of simply different dialects is not a reflection of the current state of Basque today; two speakers of very divergent Basque dialects (read: languages) will have a much harder time communicating than a Danish and Swedish speaker.

But back to the problem of interconnected economies. Danish, Swedish, and Finnish utilize the Scandinavian economic and fiscal models while Danish and Swedish are dialects of the same language. This artificially inflates the N-sample and makes the report look statistically more significant than it should be.

Chen's characterization of language was awfully simplistic. English can say I am going to the store (later) in which case the sentence is free from a present-future distinction. Chen's paper, however, acknowledges these nuances in language but makes no attempt to distinguish them. Such a feat would be Herculean.

Some have pointed to Chen's paper and said, "Well this was true even within countries! A French speaker in Switzerland saves less than a Swiss German." While Chen did find that was true, his findings were not statistically significant, so the point is moot.

This was a surface examination of Chen's piece based on a single read-through. Subsequent reads might uncover more problems or they may justify Chen.

Part III. Last comments.

I was fairly disappointed with Jason Merchant's comment on Language Log. Merchant says,
Because Chen did not control for cultural factors though, it remains at best a supposition that language, and not the cultures of the people using them, are responsible for the savings and other behavioral differences found.
Wow. Did he read Chen's article? Control variables included legal inheritance and Family Values survey findings. You may say that the control variables were poorly chosen (what is the legal origin going to do with the savings rate?) but you can't say that he wasn't controlling for cultural factors.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The meaning of names from mythology

I thought a fun, easy read for today is in order. Myths often contain hidden metaphors in the names of characters. However, as names tend to change more slowly than the rest of language, the meaning of a name is forgotten: lying dormant in wait of a linguist's re-discovery. Today I'm going to list the meanings of many names of people and beasts from popular legends. This list was compiled with help from the Online Etymological Dictionary.

Hercules: Meant "Hera's glory." Kind of odd since in the stories Hera is the enemy of Hercules.

Eve: "A living being." Douglas Harper quotes the linguist Robert Alter as suggesting the name Eve may have been an ancient play on words, as the name "sounds suspiciously like the Aramaic word for serpent."

Icarus & Daedalus: Icarus' name is lost but Daedalus meant "the cunning worker." Daedalus built the horrifying labyrinth of King Minos that housed the minotaur. He tried to escape imprisonment with his son, Icarus, by creating artificial wings. In their flight out of the prison, Icarus' pride led him to fly to high. The sun's heat melted the wings' glue and he plummeted to his death.

Moses: Unknown but probably a Hebraization of the Egyptian language mes "child." The explanation that the name means "drawn from water" is not tenable; the semantical confusion probably represents an ancient similarity in sound between mes and Hebrew mashah "he drew out."

Mercury: "Merchandise." Mercury was originally the god of tradesmen.

Beowulf: "Bear." Literally "bee-wolf."

Kriss Kringle: Originally the name referred to baby Jesus, not Santa Claus. Literally "Christ child."

Lazarus: "God has helped." A very metaphorical name indeed.

Mimir: Norse giant Mimir is a Germanic element meaning "memory." Mimir guarded the Well of Wisdom.