Friday, May 07, 2010

On Languages - Real, Artificial, and Dying

As you know (or don't, if this is your first time visiting this blog), my undergraduate degree was in Linguistics, and I have a lifelong fascination with languages. I think it's amazing that I can speak or write and you can understand what the spoken words or written symbols mean and take action on them. Or no action, if you're a Republican.

In the last few weeks, some of my friends have sent me some very interesting articles about language that I thought I'd share with you. Even if you're not a linguist or a polyglot (look it up), I think you'll find them interesting.

First is this interesting piece from Scientific American, sent to me by fellow local blogger and all-around good fellow Gilahi - Fantasy TV in the service of science: An open letter to HBO about "Dothraki." This article by Joshua Hartshorne discusses artificial languages - those created by filmmakers or authors for their works. Dothraki is a language created by author George R. R. Martin for his fantasy works. Fans of The Lord of the Rings know that J.R.R. Tolkien invented several languages and alphabets for his monumental work, we already have a Klingon Language Institute for Star Trek fans, and the latest rage is Navi, the language of the natives of Pandora in the hit film Avatar ... which you can learn here. In his article, Mr Hartshorne suggests that movies and TV shows could do science a favor by inventing languages that would help scientists evaluate how the structure of language facilitates the ability to learn.

It's much more interesting than it sounds.

The second article comes from the New York Times, and was passed to me the other day by my co-worker John: Listening to (And Saving) the World's Languages. There are thousands of languages and dialects spoken around the world, and many of them are dying out as "mega-languages" like Spanish, English, and Chinese crowd them out. As we learn in the article by Sam Roberts, New York City has become a huge laboratory for the study and documentation of languages that are often spoken nowhere else. Languages like Mamuju, Garifuna, and Aramaic may be dying out in their native lands, but are still spoken and available for documentation in the fabulous linguistic mix that is New York City. Mr Roberts writes:

While there is no precise count, some experts believe New York is home to as many as 800 languages — far more than the 176 spoken by students in the city’s public schools or the 138 that residents of Queens, New York’s most diverse borough, listed on their 2000 census forms.

The Endangered Language Alliance has been formed to record and document some of these languages before they die out completely. At the website, you can hear recordings of people telling stories in some very exotic languages you won't hear anywhere else.

So, as some languages die out for lack of speakers, others are being created. Klingon, Navi, and Sindarin Elvish may live on, while other - real - languages pass away. I think that's fascinating.

Now, if someone could just create an institute that would help us interpret arcane and mystical languages like the tax code, insurance policies, and political rhetoric, we'd be in good shape.

Have a good day. Learn a new language. More thoughts tomorrow, when Cartoon Saturday returns.



Leslie David said...

Tolkien was a linguist. BTW, the runes on the cover of The Hobbit are the real runic alphabet--Elder Futhark I think and can be read.

Mike said...

I'm confused about all this. I don't know what to say.