Languages: the strange case of Pirahã and Aymara

In my last post, I wrote about the connections between language and thought, ie. linguistic relativity / determinism.

In today’s highly globalized world, languages get mixed and evolve at a much faster pace than ever before. English, for instance, is no longer only divided into British, American and Australian English; we could say that there is a variety of English for any other natural language: Spanglish, Chinglish and so on. When French was the de-facto lingua franca of diplomacy (and, by extension, of Western Europe), it was not substantially modified by other local languages. When English replaced it, after World War I and especially after World War II, it started changing immediately.

English, especially its American variety, was not only originally used for international diplomacy; rather, as the United States rose a superpower in many fields (technology, business, etc.), one could argue that its language became widespread from the bottom-up. The average Joe in most other Western countries was exposed to American words: they wore blue jeans, they put coins into juke-boxes, they went to a bar. As English words became naturalized over time, this ultimately led to the creation of what could be easily considered a series of creoles that are for the most part mutually intelligible.

Continue reading “Languages: the strange case of Pirahã and Aymara”

Languages: life, evolution, death and extinction

To call a language “dead” is often an exaggeration. Languages seldom really die; they evolve, and sometimes they fade out of usage.

Latin, for instance, is usually deemed to be a dead language, but this is not the case. To begin with, Latin is still the official language of the Vatican, and while catholic functions have been in local languages since 1964, papal documents continue to be redacted in Latin to this day. Moreover, while there are no native Latin speakers, there are hundreds of millions of people whose native language is directly derived from Latin: Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, French and Romanian; these are usually called “romance” or “neo-latin” languages. The word romance has unfortunately nothing to do with feelings, and is rather a reference to roman. Ancient Romans did, in fact, spread the usage of Latin around the world.

Continue reading “Languages: life, evolution, death and extinction”

Language: defining identity

In my previous post about language, I said that the ability to conceive and communicate complex thoughts is what sets humans apart from animals. I want to make it clear that I do not mean in any way that animals are stupid, on the contrary. However, seeing as they rely on instinct much more than we do — partly because we traded off instinct with learning — they are more radical in their behavior than us. Anybody who tried to calm down a scared cat or dog knows exactly what I mean. I hope this settles any doubts that readers might have had about my point of view.

I have already said that language is the foundation of human culture. It is, however, more than that. Language is one of the very few “inner traits” that define the different ethnic groups, that is traits not immediately visually discernible when seeing someone new. Everybody can tell if somebody has a similar ethnic background: Caucasian people look different than African people, or Asian people. Yet, while is it true that a Swedish will probably look different than an Italian, it will be virtually impossible to discern a Spanish and a Portuguese just by looking at them.

Continue reading “Language: defining identity”

Language: the foundation of culture

Language is the fundamental trait that sets apart homo sapiens from other animals. The physical ability to generate complex sounds has given us the ability to go beyond instinct.

Culture could not exist without language, and not only because we wouldn’t be able to share it with one another. Animals, lacking full languages, are only able to communicate simple pieces of information: there is food over there; a predator is approaching; I am ready to mate. Contrary to popular belief, they do not chit-chat with one another; they are simply relaying basic information. A cat might indicate to one of its kind that it is happy, but will not seek a full conversation with its fellow. They lack the body parts to do so, and are therefore unable to conceive any higher form of communication. This is not unlinke people who are blind from birth: not having ever seen colors, they simply don’t know what color is. It’s an entirely abstract concept to them, much like every human fails to grasp the concept of a fourth dimension. (I strongly recommend reading Edwin A. Abbott’s “Flatland” to get a better idea of the problem.)

Continue reading “Language: the foundation of culture”

Analysis of a misspelling

Some time ago, Lamebook showed a picture that captured my attention. Here it is:

(Click to enlarge)

It seems to me that the author of the message is not even a native English speaker. The syntax of the phrase is unusual; nobody fluent in the language would say “I do apologise,” unless someone complained about not getting an apology in the first place. Moreover, while “inconvenence,” “mechines” and “workin” might be a direct spelling of the local parlance, there is no way that “apologise” would be written “apploiges.” Misspellings are always homophones or quasi-homophones of the correct attested variants, but “applogies” has an entirely different pronunciation than “apologize.”

What is interesting to note is that the author might however be familiar with the British usage of the ending -ise. The caption of the picture does indeed mention KFC Byker, and Byker is a ward of Newcastle upon Tyne in England. On the other hand, the -s ending in “applogies” might stem from confusion the plural ending; even in that case, though, the unlikely singular “applogy” was pluralized correctly, rather than turning into “applogys.”

Also note that the author has no problems writing shorter words such as “about,” “thank,” “but” and the never-mistreated-enough “are,” which oftentimes magically turns into “our.” It is indeed a fact that shorter words are more easily remembered, at least because they tend to be more common. In any case, I am entirely unable to guess where the author of the sign might be from.

In any case, rather than the misspellings, what I find annoying is the comment of the person who posted (and presumably took) the picture: “The intelligence levels at kfc byker are sooo high! Lmfaooo.” The person who wrote the sign is ignorant, in that he or she doesn’t know English well enough, but talking about lack of intelligence is a bold and inappropriate claim at least. That might make sense (from the point of view of logic) only in case someone keeps making the same spelling mistakes over and over, even after being instructed properly.

The line between completely different concepts should not be crossed. Intelligence and ignorance are not the same. Saying so — or implying so — is not only Orwellian, but also plain wrong. At least the person who misspelled the sign is likely a foreigner and can be excused!

What’s in a name?

Last month, and more recently the past few days, the volcano beneath the Eyjafjallajökull glacier in Iceland has been erupting, causing disruption in air travel and huge economic losses. Being passionate about languages, I can’t help but grin from ear to ear when I think about the whole ordeal.

Continue reading “What’s in a name?”