Prince Charles Shakes Gerry Adams Hand in County Sligo

The BBC had a fairly amazing story of Prince Charles visiting the place where the IRA killed Lord Mountbatten, but also meeting with Gerry Adams of the Sinn Féin. I think a lot of people thought this could never happen.

Back in the 80s-90s the Troubles were still very much active and something a person studying a Celtic language paid attention too. In many ways the issues surrounding Ulster were very difficult and bitters. One the one hand there the Catholic Irish were angry because their country was invaded in the past, but on the other hand, the Protests were now in the majority and did not want to become “Irish” like the Republic of Ireland.

Violence made it all uglier. Many of the legitimate grievances of the Catholics fell on deaf ears as the IRA set off bombs or assassinated people. It wasn’t until I saw In the Name of the Father (with Daniel Day Lewis) that I understood how the British could badly misprosecute suspected IRA members. But see also Cal which shows how seductive, but damaging the IRA could be.

Eventually a cease fire as declared, but I wondered how long it could last geven the mistrust on both sides over many decades. But it has lasted, and this semester when I mentioned Northern Ireland to my students, I got a lot of blanks stares from my students (oy!). There is not harmony by any means, but Adams has made the Sinn Féin (the IRA’s party) a legitimate political force and the British have been more encouraging of Irish language use in Northern Ireland (although some Protestants associate it with IRA unfortunately).

Still it’s nice to see that people can choose to at least tolerate each other if it will stop violence. I think people are also recognizing that Northern Ireland/Ulster has a unique culture which blends both Irish and UK culture. I really hope to visit some day.

Video of the Week: Singaporean “White” Boy

This Singaporean show interviews 16-year Tyler who has lived 9 years in Singapore, 2 years in China and 5 years in the U.S. Not surprisingly he has mastered both Mandarin and the local Singlish English based creole. The hosts Shan and Rozz challenges Tyler to a show off which he easily masters.

Interestingly, while Shan and Rozz tend to speak English closer to an UK RP standard accent, Tyler’s English is closer to U.S. English, but it looks like it’s not necessarily his default code.

Linguists will point out that there are really no physiological constraints on learning any language – it’s all about exposure to a language at the right time. But, there aren’t too many non-Asians that fluent in Chinese so it’s fun to watch. Especially as he describes overhearing Mandarin gossip about him…which the other Mandarin speakers don’t realize he can understand. Ooops.

Video of the Week: Irish Carlsberg Ad

If you liked One Semester of Spanish Love Song, you’ll enjoy the Carlsberg Irish ad.

The Carlsberg Irish ad stars three Irish lads attempting to get a beer somewhere outside Ireland. As payment, the barkeep demands they “do something Irish”, preferably “singing or dancing”. Instead they choose to recite a “poem in Irish”, which turns out to be random phrases they vaguely remember from their years of mandatory Irish language education. At last, they have found a use for all of those phrases….

Why Linguists Should Worry About Book Prices and Digital Access

An issue that may seem to be a bit esoteric is the pricing of linguistics books on Amazon, but I do think it has a negative impact in efforts to disseminate information among ourselves and to the community. As most linguists know, most new hardback books are usually over $100 to purchase, but even paperbacks can be expensive. Even paperbacks range from the relatively cheap $30 to over $50.

In my experience, the general public is interested in certain linguistic topics such as the history of English (or other heritage languages). They may also be interested in certain policy issues such as education and language. If possible, it would be helpful for people to get reliable information at a reasonable price. Unfortunately, really good linguistics books at a reasonable price are very scarce.

Indo-European Books

One topic that the general public is fascinated with in Indo-European, but it’s also an issue that leads to lots of problematic theories and political debates. The Nazi “Aryan race” is the worst case scenario of tying a linguistic theory to racism. Pointing people to a good Indo-european handbook might help people understand the methodologies more and put the information. These exist, but are usually over $40.

Right now the The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World by J.P. Mallory and D.Q. Adams is selling for just under $60. The Cambridge University Press’ textbook Indo-European Linguistics: An Introduction (Cambridge Textbooks in Linguistics) by James Clackson is about $45. Another textbook from Blackwell,
Indo-European Language and Culture: An Introduction by Benjamin Fortson is about $60. The cheapest respectable book is the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European roots (under $17) and a few books that focus more on archaeology than language.

Or you could spend $4.99 (free on Kindle) and get Indo-European Origins by William Davey. Reviews are mixed, but I would be concerned with this review that noted that “Googling for an author’s name did not provide any insight at all in regards with his background, so I’m still in some doubt” (I also could not find much on Google). Nevertheless, other people seem to like it, but is it as well researched as other books? Another reviewer feels dubious. But right now, it’s the top link in Amazon. Hmmm.

Lack of Basic References

In a similar vein, as an instructor, I would like my students to read informed sources about different languages or language families, but helping them find basic information is more frustrating than it needs to be in the digital age. A lot the handbooks I would recommend range between $60 to over $300, and most are print only.

Obviously, no undergraduate would make this investment, and it’s steep even for a graduate student or faculty member. Traditionally students could go to the library for these resources (and I do remind my students to step inside the library), but not all the books may even be in the library. Or they may be on permanent loan to an instructor or desperate graduate student.

At the moment, the quickest source for linguistic facts is Wikipedia, and I’ve been known to look things up myself. Hopefully, some of the editors have been able to fund purchasing of the quality resources I’ve mentioned…but you never know.

How Pricing Affects Awareness

The general assumption of academic publishing is that linguistics books are meant for either libraries or other linguists who will agree to pay an increased price that reflects a buying pool. But now that new digital options have emerged, it is time to rethink how information is distributed and take advantage of cheaper models of distribution. The Rutgers Optimality Archive (ROA) allows researchers to both access and contribute information for free. The Atlas of North American English by William Labov can be licensed by libraries in a digital format any registered user can download. Mouton also provides some information at

Libraries are starting to realize these resources are necessary, but we need to find ways to encourage other publishers to make their handbooks more readily available in a digital format. I would also like more of an iTunes model where individual chapters could be purchased as needed.

Our Tax Dollars at Work?

As other organizations such as the Association of Research Libraries have pointed out, many American academic projects are at least partially funded by U.S. government agencies. Therefore, our tax dollars are actually paying for results which should be available to the public. This is similar to the idea that content produced by the federal government is public domain. As many instructors will tell you, it is not as if they expect to live off of royalties from their books based on the limitations of distribution.

It is important to remember that publishers do need to be compensated, but the beauty of the iTunes model is that it provides access to more publishers than traditional music media distribution. It also allows customers more choice in what to buy the chance to preview what they buy. I have become a much more educated music listener thanks to iTunes. It would be great if a similar model could allow people to become more educated citizens.

What is Language Diversity?

Today I saw another article from a biologist throwing their hat into the linguistics ring. In this case it was geneticist Sarah Tishkoff who implies in the Christian Science Monitor that because humans in Africa are more genetically diverse, the languages must be too.

Tishkoff argues that “There’s just been a lot of time for cultural diversity, linguistic diversity, genetic diversity to accumulate in Africa.” At first glance this would make sense, but the reality has been that languages can easily spread independently of the gene pool. For instance, most people of African descent in the U.S. actually speak a Germanic language (i.e. English). In all of the Americas, most people of African descent speak a European language (English, Spanish, Portuguese or French or a creole based on one of these languages).

So…I will say that I (and probably linguist Salikoko Mufwene who is quoted in the article) would dispute Tioshkoff’s premise. In fact, the Christian Science Monitor mentions that the trick is “how you define diversity.”

Greenberg Index

One measure is the “Greenberg Index” which measures how the probability that any two speakers will “have a different mother tongue.” In Papua New Guinea, the number is 99% and Cameroon, the number is 97%. These are impressive figures, but they don’t measure how distinct the languages are.

In this scenario speaking Italian vs. Spanish (relatively closely related) is given the same weight as speaking Spanish vs. Basque (completely unrelated). Italy, France and Spain are European countries with more linguistic diversity than we may initially realize, but the majority languages in question are descended from Latin. This happened because most of Western Europe was within the Roman Empire, but this means that almost all pre-Roman languages in the Western Empire have been lost. The pre-Roman languages that have survived in Western Europe have been Basque and some Celtic languages. Germanic and Finnic also survived this era.

As it turns out most languages in Cameroon are all in just two language families – Niger Congo and Afro-Asiatic. So, although there are lot of languages, they are generally related. In fact, the vast majority of the Afro-Asiatic languages in Cameroon are Chadic > Biu-Mandara languages, which is a very specific group. I am by no means an Chadic expert, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them are as close as Spanish and Italian. Similarly, the Niger-Congo languages of Cameroon are generally in the Atlantic branch and many (169) are in the Bantoid branch. Again these languages may be close.

Language Relatedness

If we are going to truly compare linguistic diversity to genetic diversity, then we DO need to factor in how many language families are being used in a specific area. Language family represents a “line of evolution” for a proto language. The more language families in an area, the more proto languages are represented. In that respect, Africa is not especially diverse in comparison to some areas such as the Americas. If language spread were tied exclusively with genetics, then we would expect Africa to have the largest number of language families, but that is not what happens.

One interesting comparison is counting isolates (languages with no known relatives). These represent proto-languages that is not currently widespread. According to Lyle Campbell (University of Hawaii), there are about 10 isolates in Africa (vs. one in Europe), but 20 in North America, six in Mexico and 55 in South America. That’s a lot of leftover languages in the Americas. Similarly, an overview of indigenous Mexican languages shows they can be grouped into seven families (vs. seven in Cameroon). The issue is that most indigenous languages in Mexico may have smaller populations than Cameroon for political reasons.

The irony here is that the Americas are more diverse in terms of language families than Africa even though it was settled much later (and as expected has less genetic diversity than Africa). Whatever the explanation, we need to be very careful how we model the spread and evolution of language vs genetics.

Can Canadian Chipewian Speakers Use /ʔ/ ?

The Canadian CBC has an interesting story of a Canadian mother of Chipewian heritage not being able to use a glottal stop character ʔ in her daughter’s name.

Rather than double posting, I thought I would point you to my Unicode blog post.

Postscript: March 27

On a recent realia hunt for Canadian bilingual signs, I found this sign in British Columbia warning visitors about the local snake danger. The top part of the sign reads ḱəḱaʔlistax x̌əx̌uləxʷ. Apparently there is some support for not only “ʔ”, but also “ə”, superscript “ʷ” and a multitude of diacritics. Impressive. Photographer Heather Joan notes that the top language is the Salish language Nsyilxcen.

realia – images, video or objects that show authentic language use.

Illegal “Meads” and Other Linguistic Lessons from “Almighty Johnson’s”

A show I’ve been enjoying in recent month’s is the New Zealand import Almighty Johnson’s, the saga of family whose members acquire the powers and behaviors of a Nordic god when he or she reaches 21. Hey…it could happen.

FYI – My fellow Americans who missed Seasons 1-2 on SyFy may be able to catch up on all 3 seasons on Netflix or the DVD Box set. You should be warned that these modern Nordic gods frolic and act just as they did in the sagas.

Linguistic Lessons

Here in central PA, I’m not overly exposed to New Zealand English as it is spoken in New Zealand, so this show has been an education on some facets of New Zealand English I thought I would share.

“Shoot Through”

If you decide to pick your things, take off for the hills and abandon family responsibilities, you are going to “shoot through”. This happens when the Johnson’s mother shoots through to become a tree after her eldest son turns 21. This almost happens again when surfer grandpa Johnson (with immortality) impregnates his 20-something girlfriend.


I normally associate the longer ta ta “good bye” with upper crust English, but in New Zealand, it’s been shortened to Ta! and is used by everyone.

Everyone says “Fuck!”

In this U.S. expect to hear lots of bleeps and dead silences as EVERYONE uses the F-bomb multiple times per episode. Wow. This is all the more remarkable to me because the show started at 8:30 PM in New Zealand. WT*?

This show actually flips U.S. censorship conventions on its head – there is lots of cursing and tons of description and PG-13 depictions of sex, but very little actual blood. I have to say I enjoy this more than seeing blood at 8:30 PM.

The Most Important Lesson: The Vowel Shifts

U.S. linguists discuss the Northern Cities Vowel Shift, but the front vowels are shifting drastically in New Zealand English (similar to what is happening in Australia).

I first noticed it when I heard family /fæməli/ as fame-ily [feməli], but most front vowels are shifting up one position in many speakers (sometimes more if there’s a nasal following). A great shifter is actress Rachel Nash (Ingrid). When she proclaimed that she once sold illegal illeagal meds /mɛdz/, I first thought she meant illegal meads [midz]. She and most others also pronounces the character name Axl /æksəl/. as Exl [ɛksəl]. There’s also very ubiquitous /ɛ/ to /e/ shift so that dress /drɛs/ can sound like drace [dres].

Other vowels and diphthongs are affected. Axl pronounces grown [groʊn] as the more split [grɐʉn]. This article from the New Zealand Encyclopedia provides some details.

While this information isn’t new to New Zealanders, I would have to say it’s new to Americans, even American linguists. Like the Northern Cities shift, the New Zealand shift presents neophyte American ears some interesting phonological challenges.

“Next Year” or “January”?

December is the season for celebrating and also for hearty greeting of See you next year!, especially around 11:50 PM on Dec 31. But recently, the next year phrase came up in a conversation at the end of November that made me give a double take. It was one of those language glitches that helped me understand how semantics works.

Context: Testing a New Online Grading Tool

In my job in Teaching and Learning with Technology, we have been testing a new tool (anonymously called “GradeStuff”) and I wanted to know if it would be available in the new LMS (anonymously called “LMS X”)

Our conversation went something like this:

Scene: Office Cubicle in November 2014
Me: It looks like GradeStuff is working. Did we want to integrate it into LMS X?
Boss: Not yet, but we want to investigate it soon. Let’s talk next year
Me Thought Bubble: How is November 2015 “soon”?
Me: So you mean….
Boss: Let’s talk when we get back in January.

In a moment of clarity, I realized that for me and probably most people next year means “12 months from now (± 6 months)”. In other words, a long way off. But in the New Year’s Day tradition, my boss actually meant next calendar year which happened to be mere weeks away.

Which is why all those Dec 31 greetings are just so cute!

Native American Language Info

7 Things to Know About Native American Languages

In honor of Native American Heritage month, Colleen Fitzgerald, a linguist from the The University of Texas at Arlington Native American Languages Lab, has compiled some interesting Native American language resources.


For anyone really interested in monitoring the progress or lack of progress among indigenous languages, I recommend joining the ILAT Listserv. Posts literally cover the world and provides a great view in how different language preservation movements are progressing.

There are still many endangered languages, but it is heartening to see that places like Canada, Australia and even parts of the U.S. are beginning to recognize and officially support more indigenous languages. But as Colleen Fitzgerald notes, the U.S. Native American Languages Act of 1990 is up for reauthorization.

A Language Wanting to Die?

Speaking of native languages, there was an interesting story on the BBC about the Maidu community in California called The people who want their language to disappear

One quote indicates:

“Those that know the language don’t want to speak it. They associate it with difficult times. They don’t want to stir up… anything.”

The difficult times here refer to different efforts by the U.S. government to displace indigenous peoples and their languages. For the Maidu, there were “bounties” for scalps, relocation of people, and efforts to force children into English-only boarding schools.

This also echoes sentiments I have heard about the Irish language – namely that many people in Ireland associate the Irish language with a rural impoverished lifestyle that they feel is irrelevant in the modern world. This group in Ireland assumes that it is better to join the modern English speaking world. Of course, any Irish language specialist will tell you that Irish and Old Irish has lots to contribute to the modern world. But finding a bilingual accommodation is easier said than done.

Interestingly, the Maidu community has intermarried extensively with Welsh immigrants. Many people speaking the language actually have Welsh surnames. From an ethnic point of view, this community could more easily assimilate into an Anglo community more than other Native Americans.

A more interesting quote to me was:

“We believe the way you reach richness in life is through knowledge. It gives you power and it is your responsibility to use that wisely. If you pass that knowledge on, you are responsible for the outcome. If someone misuses the knowledge you give them, if they use it to hurt someone, you as the person who gave it to them, are responsible for that hurt.”

This speaks to a distrust of Anglo culture, including well-meaning Anglo linguists and anthropologists. Although many linguists genuinely want to help, they are part of a legacy of Anglo outsiders damaging communities they are trying to “help”. The wounds are deeper than I ever realized when I was studying linguistics. I now know that it takes years and patience for a researcher to build genuine trust within a community enough to provide genuine help.

In some ways though the last quote gives me hope. I don’t think the Maidu want their language to die. In fact some of the younger members of the community are trying to preserve it. But they definitely want to do it on their own terms.

Word Crimes & Hip Hop Battles

I confess that my personal challenge to post a linguistically interesting video every week has failed, but I thought I would end on a high note.

Despite the fact that I am not in the “grammar correction” biz, I do think that Weird Al’s recent song “Word Crimes” (based on “Blurred Lines”) makes some legitimate points on clear communication. My personal challenge is to find a way to introduce into the classroom.

Update: Read Language Log

As I suspected, I am not the only linguist who has noticed the song, and there is a thoughtful post by Ben Zimmer on Linguist List about how it could perpetuate linguistic prejudice.

FWIW – I don’t necessarily know if Weird Al means for this song to be a serious tutorial on grammar like Grammar Girl. While I’m sure he is expressing some actual language usage peeves, it’s worth noting that the same album features “Foil” (based on “Royals”) in which he advocates foil as protection from both bacteria and covert government control. In fact, he has one line about “And maybe now you find that people mock you online” that acknowledges the annoyance towards commenters who proof, but do not read or provide other constructive advice.

I do agree with Zimmer that this should NOT be used to teach “grammar” (as does Weird Al probably), but I do think it introduces some of the issues that come up in the sociolinguistics of prescriptive grammar. Zimmer has a list of questions a linguist could ask students.

Bad Grammar vs. Bad Writing

One that linguists can ask themselves though is how they could distinguish “bad grammar” from “bad writing”. While some of the diagrams in Weird Al’s songs are ridiculous, I can’t argue with the fact that some expressions like “I could care less” are overused and no longer make literal sense. This is bad writing, regardless of grammar. In fact, many books on writing do warn writers not to become trapped in jargon (good prescriptive grammar, bad writing).

What I think is missing is the idea that a colloquial language speaker CAN be a good writer (or at least use effective rhetorical techniques). For instance, many people worry about the AAVE “verbal skills deficit”, when it is partly a problem of mastering a second dialect. However AAVE speakers can clearly demonstrate verbal proficiency in hip hop lyrics and hip hop battles (spontaneous hip-hop lyric creation) as recreated in the movie 8 Mile.

I would like to see a day when dialect proficiency is really appreciated for what it is (good writing) and that Standard English is another option instead of the ONLY option.