How to Address your Mother-in-Law in Dyirbal

If the formal and informal ‘you’ forms of some languages seem like a minefield to the English speaker, Dyirbal, an Australian language from North Queensland extinct since about 1930, offers a challenge of another level yet.

Dyirbal comprised two separate sublanguages, each depending on who was present. A Dyalnuy, or “mother-in-law language”, was used in the presence of certain “taboo” relatives and a Guwal, or everyday language, was used in all other circumstances. Taboo relatives (parents- or children-in-law or a cross-cousins – i.e. a father’s sister’s or mother’s brother’s child – of the opposite sex) could not be approached or looked at, let alone spoken to directly. In the case of cross-cousins, the distinction was made so as to create a distance between people who might be interested in each other as spouses, which was forbidden. Thus the language signalled very clearly who was sexually available to whom.

While this may sound like a linguistic and cultural nightmare, the complexity of the social conventions and the key role that language plays are no less fascinating.


French is so Last Century!

A new bill was discussed at the French Assembly yesterday proposing to allow classes in universities to be taught in English to encourage foreign students to come and study in the Hexagone. The proposal is causing no small stir, with some claiming that such a law would turn the French language into an “ordinary language, or worse, a dead language” (Bernard Pivot).

The Constitution stipulates that, in the name of equality and access to the same education for all, education must be provided in French only. For the same reason, local minority languages have never been recognised by the State.

There are long-standing fears amongst the more conservative French nationals concerning the longevity of the Francophonie (French-speaking culture). Just like the British seem never to have recovered from the loss of their great empire, with some still sulking on the fence about Europe (to the amusement and/or annoyance of the rest of the Union as well as part of the British population itself), many French still cling on to the memory of the long-gone days when the ability to speak their language was considered a sign of refinement and erudition in many cultures across Europe and beyond (to the amusement and/or annoyance of rest of the French population).

In light of the polemic and in support of the proposal, the newspaper Libération published on Tuesday a front page entirely in English, advising in its article, “Let’s stop behaving like the last representatives of a Gaulish village under siege”.

If this new law is passed, i.e. not considered anti-constitutional, will it create a precedent for Breton, Alsatian, Basque and other languages to gain recognition at long last?

Asterix & ObelixCartoon by Uderzo

Family Concepts

The rich vocabulary of a language in relation to a particular area of life evinces values specific to the culture. Interestingly, the notion of what is family is not as universal as we might expect.

The Wolof language in North West Africa reflects the importance of the community as almost equal to the family. In fact, the concepts of community and family are not as discrete to the Wolof as they are to the Westerner. The word ‘family’ could be translated by two different terms: mbokk includes people you are related to, care about and support (bokk means to share, have in common); njaboot refers to people you are responsible for, i.e. family, other people’s children or people you look after (boot means to carry on your back).

Conversely, while the definition of ‘family’ is clear and exclusive in Western cultures, words such as ‘cousin’ or ‘father’ would be rather vague to a Seri speaker. Seri, a Mexican language with 650 to 1,000 speakers, has over 50 words for kinship relationships. For instance, men and women use different words for ‘father’, and there are four words to designate a cousin, e.g. atcz is the daughter of a parent’s younger sibling and azaac is the daughter of a parent’s older sibling.

The matter-of-fact, and somewhat cold, Western family lexicon may be a reflection of how Western cultures have tended to be more interested in conquering the unknown world than caring for those at home.


Sounds of Mongolia

Anda Union, a band of musicians from Mongolian grassland, “are on a mission to stimulate their culture and reengage young Mongols, many of whom no longer speak their own language” (cf their website). They are also breath-taking performers.

The group plays its beautiful instruments with frantic energy, the coordination and synchronisation is flawless, the music catchy, the rhythms lively, and the costumes – albeit fairly plain – are stunning (amusingly combined with jeans and trainers in some cases). Throat singing is impressive to witness, with visible tension and concentration on the singer’s face, and surprisingly melodious. The range of sounds from whistling and other vocal effects as well as from their two-string instruments is also beyond expectations.

Similarly to Far East languages, Mongolian seems to require some constriction of the throat muscles, giving a nasal resonance to most sounds. At the end of the performance I attended, there were CDs for sale and the band was available to sign them. It is interesting to notice the striking individual movement in each signature that makes their personal handwriting identifiable even to the non-initiate’s eye.

If you have the opportunity to see them live, be sure to go and expect to be amazed!


Photo: CD cover with signatures

Extinct Languages are Cool

In the 19th and 20th century, Manx was perceived by its speakers as useless to find a job beyond the Isle of Man and was progressively seen as backwards. The lack of popularity of Manx at home and the new urgency then felt to speak English led the language to a sharp decline until UNESCO recorded the language as extinct in the 1990s. The Manx government has since invested much in its revival, and with great success.

In this BBC article and video, it is interesting to note that new comers to the isle embrace the revival of Manx as much as, if not more than, the locals themselves, and that they too feel that it reinforced a sense of belonging to the place.

Some parents have also enrolled their children to the bilingual school as an opportunity to develop their general linguistic skills, which should help them learn other languages later on. The best news of all is that the children enjoy learning it and like to use Manx as a secret language with their friends, making the parents want to learn the language too to understand what their children are plotting. One teenager also said that she liked the idea of helping to keep the language alive – a thought that reveals an unusual level of awareness and an unexpected sense of responsibility from someone so young.

Maybe introducing foreign languages to young children as secret codes to be shared with friends, and to teenagers as use-it-or-lose-it treasures is a good approach to motivate them to study languages.

Similarly, Silbo Gomero, a whistling language from La Gomera, a Canary Island, has become a compulsory subject in local schools. As a long-distance communication tool through a little accessible landscape of deep ravines and valleys, this could also prove more reliable than mobile phone reception.

Update (01/03/13): The BBC TV programme Friends and Heroes has been translated into Manx and will start in that language this Spring. It will be the first children’s programme in Manx.

Isle of ManPhoto:

The Invincible Celtic Spirit

Where there is a strong cultural identity, the related language dies hard. And the Celtic culture seems “indomitable” (see Asterix books). Despite having been pushed to the edge of Western Europe centuries ago and banned as minority languages, Celtic languages are still alive and, when given the slightest opportunity, kick back with a vengeance.

Despite the French Revolution’s attempt at eradicating all regional languages in the name of “equality”, Breton is one of the few that have survived to this day. In 1950, about 1 million could still speak Breton, including 100,000 monolinguals. Since then, the numbers have dwindled and Breton is now classified as “severely endangered” by UNESCO, but this has only triggered a sense of urgency and prompted efforts to preserve the language: some universities offer the possibility of doing a degree in Breton and more parents have placed their children in bilingual schools in recent years. As for the culture, the strong, determined and proud Celtic spirit shows no sign of relinquishing, as the many events, celebrations and Fest Noz testify.

In Scotland, although the School Establishment Act of 1616 banished Gaelic, the 2001 census revealed that 60,000 people could still speak it. Then the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005, which made Gaelic an official language of the country, granting it “equal respect” with English, sparked a keen revival: in 2008, BBC Alba was launched; there has been a surge in demand for Gaelic speakers, translators and teachers; the creation of learning materials for students of the language is a developing market; and the new requirement for making provision for Gaelic has created new jobs. The focus is now on bringing Gaelic up to date with today’s lexical needs.

In the 1990’s, a couple of acts provided that Welsh and English be treated equally in the public sector in Wales, and last year the Welsh Language Measure 2011 gave the Welsh language official status. It is estimated that just over 20% of the Welsh population can speak the language today. Time will tell what this new official status brings to Wales, but the strength of the Celtic genes should not be underestimated.


The USA to become Los EUA (Estados Unidos de América)?

The Latino population in the States (originating mainly from Mexico) has doubled in the past 20 years. Miami in particular seems to have turned into a Hispanic metropolis, with some shops advertising “English spoken here” in their windows. This southern wave is seen by some white English-speaking Americans as a threat, and the US government is going ahead of the duel over linguistic supremacy by passing a new law to “declare English as the official language of the United States”. This new tension is rather ironic for a country built on immigration. Can there really be such a debate between two non-native languages?

Meanwhile, a few hundred Native American languages are dying while their cultures and peoples are conveniently forgotten, dispossessed of their land and confined to reserves, just like wild animals – with the difference that animals benefit from reserves. But of course this is not about legitimacy or fairness; it’s about evolution. Migrations have always occurred and attempts at putting barriers to the Spanish tide over the States will intensify tensions without stopping it.


Take the first north, then second east…

compass roseThere are languages that do not have words for left, right, behind and in front of, but refer to local landmarks or the cardinal directions instead. In Australia, for instance, speakers of some aboriginal languages would mention their north or south hand or tell you that there is a spider on the wall just east of you (which would be behind if you’re facing west, or on your right if you’re facing north, etc.). To go further on in a book, you would be instructed to go west in the book if you are facing south. Similarly, if a snake is coming towards the camera on a TV screen, and the TV set is facing west, they would say that the snake is moving westwards.

This makes our western perspective sound rather self-centred. As we move around, we stay in our own little bubble, as if the world moved around us rather than we in a static surrounding, like the Sun around the Earth rather than the Earth around the Sun. Aboriginal languages require their speakers to remain fully aware of and connected with their environment as the focus is not on themselves but on their surrounding. Westerners tend to think of themselves as being the centre of the world, with what is around them being at their disposal, whereas Aborigines are probably much better aware than the so-called “advanced” civilisations that humans are only a small part of a whole.

Novel as this perspective may be to us, it actually makes much more sense than our arbitrary and egocentric left-and-right way of thinking – that is, if you have a good sense of direction.


Let Languages Die?

I recently attended a conference and a lecture on translation by Diego Marani at the University of Bristol. The lecture, which was on artificial languages such as Esperanto for instance, aimed at demonstrating how this utopia of creating a simple and immutable language is not viable.

Because these languages are not linked to a particular culture, they cannot accurately represent or express concepts that some people have. Because they are unchangeable, they cannot adapt to a time culture. These languages are restrictive, purely functional and consequently unpractical in many situations and for many people. Consequently, artificial languages soon die out – if they ever live.

When, at the end of the lecture, someone from the audience asked: “So do you think that dying languages and dialects are not worth saving, then?”, Diego Marani made the interesting point that, for him, a language could not be saved by itself. A language depends on its culture, therefore the culture needs to be nurtured, supported, used for such things as science, discoveries, philosophy, literature, etc. for the language to remain relevant to its speakers and alive.

This was a perspective that even we, linguists in the audience, had not necessarily thought of, however logical or even obvious it seems once enunciated.