Thursday, March 21, 2013

How language affects your future

From Scientific American, a study on how language affects your "success" and future.

Chen’s recent findings suggest that an unlikely factor, language, strongly affects our future-oriented behavior. Some languages strongly distinguish the present and the future. Other languages only weakly distinguish the present and the future. Chen’s recent research suggests that people who speak languages that weakly distinguish the present and the future are better prepared for the future. They accumulate more wealth and they are better able to maintain their health. The way these people conceptualize the future is similar to the way they conceptualize the present. As a result, the future does not feel very distant and it is easier for them to act in accordance with their future interests.
 Different languages have different ways of talking about the future. Some languages, such as English, Korean, and Russian, require their speakers to refer to the future explicitly. Every time English-speakers talk about the future, they have to use future markers such as “will” or “going to.” In other languages, such as Mandarin, Japanese, and German, future markers are not obligatory. The future is often talked about similar to the way present is talked about and the meaning is understood from the context. A Mandarin speaker who is going to go to a seminar might say “Wo qu ting jiangzuo,” which translates to “I go listen seminar.” Languages such as English constantly remind their speakers that future events are distant. For speakers of languages such as Mandarin future feels closer. As a consequence, resisting immediate impulses and investing for the future is easier for Mandarin speakers.
Similar analyses showed that speaking a language that does not have obligatory future markers, such as Mandarin, makes people accumulate more retirement assets, smoke less, exercise more, and generally be healthier in older age. Countries’ national savings rates are also affected by language. Having a larger proportion of people speaking languages that does not have obligatory future markers makes national savings rates higher.
This seems utterly ridiculous on its face ---- because English speakers think of the future as "distant," we give up on the effort it must therefore take?  But perhaps the science has spoken.  Many things that are true run contrary to intuition (that the earth is round, for example, or the heliocentric theory).

See also the study discussed here, "Does Language Form Thought?"

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Twitter tribes

Fascinating bit from The Guardian's Data Blog:

Twitter users are forming 'tribes', each with their own language, according to a scientific analysis of millions of tweets.
The research on Twitter word usage throws up a pattern of behaviour that seems to contradict the commonly held belief that users simply want to share everything with everyone.
In fact, the findings point to a more precise use of social media where users frequently include keywords in their tweets so that they engage more effectively with other members of their community or tribe. Just like our ancestors we try to join communities based on our political interests, ethnicity, work and hobbies. 
The largest group found in the analysis was made up of African Americans using the words 'Nigga', 'poppin' and 'chillin'. That community was one of the more close-knit, sending around 90% of messages within the group. Members also tended to shorten the ends of their words, replacing 'ing' with 'in' or 'er' with 'a'.
Prof Vincent Jansen from the School of Biological Sciences at Royal Holloway, the institution which published the Word Usage Mirrors Community Structure in the Online Social Network Twitter report with Princeton University, explained:
Interestingly, just as people have varying regional accents, we also found that communities would misspell words in different ways. The Justin Bieber fans have a habit of ending words in 'ee', as in 'pleasee'.
To group these users into communities, the researchers turned to algorithms from physics and network science. The algorithms worked by looking at publicly sent messages between users. 
The graph and chart accompanying the article are must-sees.

I wonder what linguists' and polyglots' major Twitter jargon is?

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

On Hebrew as a bridge

From the Cristian Science Monitor, a story proclaiming Hebrew "the latest hot language" for Palestinians in Gaza.
For the first time in nearly 20 years, government-run schools in Gaza are teaching Hebrew, and demand is outstripping the supply of qualified teachers. The driving force behind this pilot program? Hamas.

“[Israel is] more developed than us, so we can get benefits out of it – in terms of science, in terms of culture,” says Mohamed Suleiman Abu Shqair, the deputy minister of education in the Hamas government. “This is also to prove to the rest of the world … that we are open-minded, even to teach our enemy’s language in our schools.”

Many middle-aged Gazans know Hebrew well, since they spent years working in Israel before the border was tightened in 2003. They say it’s only natural that their children should know Hebrew as well and even hold out hope that they could use it to do business with Israel in the future, hinting at a possible thawing of relations between Israel and Gaza. They also laud the insight of Israeli news analysts, and say that watching Israeli TV news – readily available in Gaza, along with cultural and educational programs – can help them better understand not only their neighbor, but also their own society and political climate.
For all the ways language divides us into tribes, I have always believed that the best way to bring disparate cultures together is foreign language study by the respective populaces.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Irish facts

From The Week, by Arika Okrent:

You may hear an "Erin go bragh" and a "sláinte" or two this St. Patrick's Day, but even on the most Irish of holidays, we don't hear much of the Irish language — which is a shame! Irish is so different from English or any of the languages we usually study in school, and so much about it is rather interesting and cool. Here are a few fun facts about Irish.

Gaelige is the name of the language in Irish, and Irish is the name of the language in English. Sometimes people will call it Irish Gaelic in order to make sure they aren't misunderstood to mean "Irish English" for Irish. They may also say Irish Gaelic to distinguish it from Gaelic, which means Scottish Gaelic, a related but different language.

There are no words for "yes" or "no" in Irish, but that doesn't mean there's no way to answer a question. You communicate "yes" and "no" with a verb form. The answer to "did they sell the house?" would be "(they) sold " or "(they) didn't sell." In Irish:
Ar dhíol sian an teach?
Níor dhíol.
Sentences have verb-subject-object order. So "I saw a bird" would be "Saw I a bird." "I always speak Irish" would be "Speak I Irish always." This word order is relatively rare — only 9 percent of the world's languages use it.

In addition to one set of numbers for doing arithmetic or referring to dates and times, Irish has a second set for counting humans and a third set for counting non-humans. Five children is "cúigear páiste," but five horses is "cúig chapall."

What's the word for "woman"? Either "bean" (byan), "bhean" (vyan), or "mbean" (myan), depending whether it comes after certain possessive pronouns (my, your, his), or certain prepositions (under, before, on), or certain numbers, or a whole range of other conditions that determine which form of the word is correct. Most languages people study require them to learn different word endings, not beginnings. Irish requires…both. It's a bit of a challenge!

English has a lot more. More than 80, and that's just counting the commonly used ones.
English phrases in many parts of Ireland show a parallel structure with their counterparts in Irish. "I'm after eating my breakfast " (I just ate my breakfast), "I gave out about the terrible service" (I complained/told them off about the terrible service), and in some places, "He does be working every day."

Filmmaker and native Irish speaker Manchán Magan made a documentary No Béarla (No English) in which he traveled through Ireland only speaking Irish, even when people demanded he switch to English. Shopkeepers told him to get lost, officials refused to help him, people on the street ignored him, but he kept at it and found willing speakers here and there. In any case, he survived the trip. Watch it here.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Vocabulaire: des bas, le deuil, en berne

I love it when the search for elucidation on one word leads to another discovery, and so on.

des bas: stockings
  • Chaussée avec un soin qui dénotait des habitudes d’élégance, elle portait des bas de soie gris qui complétaient la teinte de deuil répandue dans ce costume de convention.
le deuil: grief, bereavement
  • Vingt enfants ont été tués dans une école primaire américaine.  Donc le président Obama a ordonné la mise en berne des drapeaux en signe de deuil.
en berne: [lit] at half-mast; [fig] falting, staggering
  • On ne comptait plus les minutes de silence dans les institutions officielles, notamment en prélude à des rencontres politiques ou les drapeaux mis en berne.
  • Il faut aussi retrouver l'intimité qu'une libido en berne a laissé s'éteindre.

Sunday, March 10, 2013


Gamahouche or gamahuche.   I came across this archaic term in, unlikely though it is, a modern urban murder mystery by highly lauded novelist Lawrence Block (in Burglars Can't Be Choosers, 1977).

It seems to be a Victorian term for cunniligus:
I was sliding the final drawer back in the desk when Ray asked, "What the hell does gamahouche mean?"
I made him spell it, then took the book away from him and looked for myself.  "I think it means to go down on a girl," I said.
I find it on the web at this Fark discussion, the Urban Dictionary of all things (it's usually a source for invented silliness or poorly written insults), the Wiktionary, and this rather steamy Victorian novel.

I shall endeavor to insert this word (heh heh) into modern parlance as often as mores allow.

Monday, March 4, 2013

ASL is a language!

TV Show Does All-ASL Episode

I never heard of the show it discusses and don't watch much TV, but I think it's great that ASL is finally getting recognition as a "real" language to the extent that this article doesn't feel the need to explain that it is instead of just pantomime of spoken English.
Although Leclerc is fluent in sign language, the all-ASL episode brought another challenge, since it includes scenes from Carlton’s production of Romeo and Juliet. “So, in addition to speaking two languages at the same time—spoken English and American Sign Language—Daphne is doing Shakespearean English. That’s three different languages in my head at the same time!”
Also, I enjoyed June Thomas' remarks on how people tend to multitask and skim TV shows nowadays (so much different than the days of the whole family gathering around the big wooden box and just watching), and how "Switched At Birth" is, with its silences and use of ASL, a different sort of TV experience.