Category Archives: Global Awareness

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.

Why Globalization at Penn State?

I’ve been involved in planning a globalization-themed for our local Penn State educational technology professionals, and a question people are asking is “How does this apply to us?” More than a few of us have struggled to make our passion for globalization understandable, but it does still seem to be a struggle. I now realize that my default answer “Because it’s so COOL” isn’t working, so let me try this another way.


I’ve always been instinctively interested in other cultures, but if that doesn’t move or seems too “politically correct,” you may want to consider this:

  1. Penn State and other universities are trying to focus on increasing “global awareness” in students. For some people, that alone could be critical.
  2. More importantly though, we really do live in a world where nations are connected to each other. The roots of some of our most pressing domestic U.S. issues such as the war on terror, immigration, drug trafficking, job creation and loss, the weakness of the U.S. dollar, the high price of oil, pollution, weaknesses in food distribution and the fight against killer bees (to only name a few) lie outside the U.S. as well as within in it. If you ever wonder why soda pop switched from sugar to corn syrup, it’s partly because there has been a historical trend to restrict sugar imports to the U.S. to “protect” the domestic sugar industry.
  3. Have you wondered why some countries are so “uncooperative”? Understanding another culture and their political complexity can help answer that. Some reasons are be the result of negative interactions with the West that our students are unaware of, but almost as many deal with local issues. An issue can seem completely irrelevant to use, but can be to someone else.
  4. Are you interested in world peace and decreasing poverty? This also requires understanding the culture and the technology you are working with. Transplanting a system that works for us can often catastrophically fail if you don’t understand WHY it works here, but may not work “over there.”
  5. Or maybe you are interested in green technology and other important innovations. Some important ideas for improving our way of life have come from traditional cultures who understand how to flourish in different climate conditions. It’s amazing how traditional building practices in the desert/tropics can really really reduce the need for air conditioning.
  6. Maybe the most important reason to understand globalization is to understand ourselves (or as a colleague put it, “travel far to come home”). The U.S. has always been connected to other parts of the world. World events could trigger waves of immigration, and the U.S. has always needed to negotiate its relations with neighbors and superpowers. They can provide missing pieces of the puzzle (e.g. I just found out that Mexico was a critical trigger in how the U.S. entered World War I).

The History Angle

Another theme that I push is history (sometimes Bronze Age history). I am amazed at how learning an event from “before our time” impacts us today.

For instance, have you ever noticed how many plantations were in the South vs the North? It wasn’t a complete accident. Because of the English Civil War (and events from before), large landowners were fleeing for the south at one point, while in previous eras, people from different middle-class oriented religious sects (e.g. Puritan) fled to New England and the Mid Atlantic.

Well before slavery began, the roots of a cultural disconnect that led to the U.S. Civil War were beginning to form here in the U.S….all based on events in 17th-16th century Europe.

¿Se habla «cristiano» en España?

As Tudor history buffs will know, Henry VIII’s first queen, Catherine of Aragon hailed from Spain and therefore spoke fluent Spanish. The Showtime series The Tudors have taken advantage of this to allow some of the characters to communicate in Spanish (with subtitles of course).

In season 4 of course, Queen Catherine is no longer with us, but her daughter Mary (the future Queen Mary I or “Bloody Mary”) is multilingual in at least Spanish and English. In this week’s episode, she welcomes a Spanish courtier in Spanish. He seems caught off guard, but Mary says she speaks “Spanish” because, after all, isn’t she the daughter of Catherine of Aragon? (¡Sí claro!).

Well, the subtitle says “Spanish”, but what Mary actually says in the Spanish dialogue is that she speaks “cristiano” (lit “Christian”). It was the case that in that period of history, Catherine and Mary’s dialect of Spanish (probably Castillian) may have been associated with Christianity in contrast to the Moors who did originally speak Arabic (although many later switched to Mozarabic, a sister language of Spanish spoken in Islamic Iberia). In the same vein Catherine of Aragon’s parents, Ferdinand and Isabella were noted for being able to oust the last of the Moorish (Islamic) rulers, hence the religious distinction was an important part of Mary’s family history.

Oddly though I haven’t been able to find any references to Spanish being called “Cristiano”. What there has been is a long running distinction between the term español “Spanish” vs. castellano, literally “Castillian” to designate the language of Castille in central Spain which then became the basis of standard Spanish. In Iberia though, Spanish has co-existed with other related languages including Catalan, Asuturian, Andalucian and others. Hence the persistence of “castellano” in Spain even though people outside of Spain (particularly in Mexico, the Caribean and Central America) prefer “español”.

This is interesting, but I am still wondering if the dialogue writers really meant “cristiano” or “castellano”. It looks like a little more investigation is in order….

Comments can be sent to if you have information.

Isn’t “Utada” Really “Utada Hikaru”?

An interesting quirk happened in an iTunes search today. I have to admit that I religiously check out the iTunes Song/Video of the Week (even on vacation on my slower home DSL connection).

Two Artists, One Person

This week, the video was from singer Utada, a pop singer hoping to break into the English market. The iTunes description noted that she was from Japan, and being a linguist, I HAD to check out the Japanse originals (especially since she sounds just like an American R&B singer).

In iTunes, you can click on the tab of the artist’s name (Utada) to see more of her (or his) work. But when I clicked, I only found her English songs. Was iTunes NOT selling her Japanese material?

Actually, they were, but under her full name of Utada Hikaru. So apparently, you need to go to Utada for English and Utada Hikaru for Japanese (aka Hikaru Utada or Hikki). What’s happening here?

Without too much investigation, it seems like that the ultimate cause is U.S. vs Japanese marketing. Hikaru does have the major challenge of trying to be the first East Asian star to break out into the U.S. market which thus far has only accepted a few Latino and non-English speaker European stars. I would say that the name Utada was chosen as a way to emphasize her R&B style (as in Rihanna, Beyoncé, Tweet, and others) as well as de-emphasizing her “alien” name. Alas the alternate “Hikki” was not an option in the U.S. market.

So now we have an American vs Japanese name, and a database that doesn’t appear to do cross references so well. Hmm.

Database Questions

First, I do have to comment that I wish iTunes had a slightly smarter database. Artists sometimes go through a lot of name changes (Puff Daddy/P. Diddy anyone), and some academics aren’t always in tune with the music scene. Even in FileMaker I know of ways of circumventing this issue.

Speaking of cross references, I wouldn’t mind if iTunes could connect bands with spin-off solo acts. For instance, I heard Ann & Nancy Wilson stopped recording under Heart and switched to a new name, but the only way to know for sure is to check Wikipedia. I bet they (& Apple) are losing some sales here.

Can’t I Find More international Music?

But let’s switch back to global culture for a moment. Another quirk of the iTunes database is that the Utada Hikaru songs in Japanese are classified as “J-Pop” (Japanese pop I presume), but other than language, I don’t think Utada is actually a different genre from say Rihanna, the Spice Girls or Jazmine Sullivan. All three acts feature strong vocals, well-crafted tracks which vary between ballads and uptempo.

The Japanese tracks are all Western musically (unless I’m missing a spare Japanese instrument). Note that this is somewhat different from Latin American music which often features traditional Latin American musical elements.

So shouldn’t Japanese Utada Hikaru be the same genre as American Utada? Apparently iTunes isn’t sure we’re ready for that yet, and maybe we’re not. But since iTunes lets us purchase single songs and experience 30-second previews, I think the opportunity for Americans to learn more about world pop (and traditional world) is there as never before. I just wish it were a little easier to move beyond the categories already established in the U.S. market.

FYI – I applaud iTunes for it’s “World” category which is mostly traditional music. But I do also want to know that the world teens are listening to – even if it’s U.S. style music with Japanese lyrics. Besides, Utada HIkaru can really, really sing.

Arabic with a Kurdish Accent?

As the action adventure show Burn Notice ended last week, the lead character Michael said that the mysterious agent Carla spoke “Arabic with a Kurdish accent”. Hmmm.

What could this mean? First, I should note that Kurdish is actually a separate language from Arabic. In fact Kurdish is very distantly related to English (but more closely related to Persian and Pushto).

So “Arabic with a Kurdish accent does not mean Carla is speaking Arabic with a native accent, but rather that she has somehow picked up Arabic with a foreign accent (e.g. it would be like a French person learning to speak English with a Mexican accent). I initially thought this might be another TV screw up, but I decided to see if “Arabic with a Kurdish accent” was plausible.

If you look at the UCLA Kurdish Map, you’ll see that the Kurds are a minority group living in several countries including Turkey, Armenia, Iran and Iraq. Because they are a minority group, it’s likely than many are bilingual in Kurdish and the main language of the country they are currently living in. The candidate countries would be Turkey (Turkish), Armenia (Armenian and possibly Russian), Iran (Persian/Farsi) and … Iraq (Arabic!).

So I would guess that “Arabic with a Kurdish accent” would mean Northern Iraq. Interestingly, there may be people of Kurdish heritage in northern Iraq who now primarily speak Arabic, but may be maintaining Kurdish phonology (i.e. “a Kurdish accent”). This would be similar to speakers of Hiberno-English (Irish English) who only speak English, but with phonolofical features of Irish (Gaelic) or even some New York English speakers of Latino descent who mostly speak English, but with a slight Spanish accent

I’ll be interested to see if mystery agent Carla has indeed spent some time in northern Iraq (it would make plot sense). I’ll also be curious to see if she speaks both Kurdish and Arabic….

Yes, the Samurai Can Laugh

I’m cleaning my desk and ran into an alumni magazine with the provocative headline Did the Samurai Have a Sense of Humor? Gee – I wonder if the answer is “Yes!”. Oh look the subtitle is The Phenomenon of 18th-Century Japanese Comic Books – and we all know how silly they are. Hey if you don’t believe me, ask Harvard 18th century Japanese expert Adam Kern

The article goes on at great length to explain that not only was there 18th century satirical manga in Japan, but that it was a criticism of modern political and social events. But let’s just cut to some compelling dialogue from 1785’s Playboy, Roasted à la Edo

Plot: The semi-attractive mercantile son Enjiro asks friends and geisha for advice on obtaining the love of many women proclaiming: “For a lifetime of memories, I’d kill myself.”

Best Advice: When placing tattoos representing fake women on your arm, don’t forget to remove some later to show that you have “discarded” them.

Kinosuke: (experienced playboy) It’ll look suspicious if some tattoos aren’t erased, so we’ll burn them off later with moxa

Enjiro: (aspiring playboy) Who’d’ve thought becoming a playboy would hurt so much?

Now that you’re done giggling, I do have a point which is that it’s still a shock when we discover that an ancient/foreign culture is capable of “sophisticated” humor or irony. Somehow we expect people far outside our culture to either be so serious or so “different” that they could not really understand Western humor or “abstract” concepts like social satire.

For instance, Vikings, Celts and Saxons are portrayed as fierce warriors whose idea of a good idea was binge drinking in the mead hall and that their comedic range was restricted to maybe bad Three Stooges pratfalls with helmets. Yet one of the best “parodies” of the fantasy quest is from the Middle Welsh Mabinogi. When the hero Pwyll, who spends a year chasing the beautiful Rhiannon on horseback, finally catches up with her, she asks him why he didn’t just yell out to her to stop in the first place. And you thought Princess Leia’s spunk was a modern invention.

So watch the Discovery Channel carefully the next time a Caucasian adventurer wants to experience a more primitive life and see if you don’t spot an “indigenous” citizen barely containing snickers at the complete idiocy that only a city slicker can display.

Math and Alternate Representations

Since linguistics invokes mathematical formalism (i.e. phrase trees, feature bundles, rules or tableauz, etc), I am interested in some aspects of how math is taught.

One question that comes up a lot is why is it important for all students to learn algebra or trigonometry if only a small minority will ever use these tools in daily life. The standard answer is that algebra teaches you “mathematical thinking,” but I’m pretty sure most students (especially those who hate math) miss the point.  Actually, I would say that if you want to learn “deductive” skills, you’re better off taking formal logic or rhetoric.

However, there is one aspect of algebra that is important in real, but rarely pointed out and that’s its ability to provide multiple respresentations for “the same thing”. For instance the concept of “1” can be represented as “1”, 4/4 (four-fourths), x0, |i2| and my personal favorite – .999999… And believe me I haven’t even touched the tip of the iceburg. Although these formulations all represent the same quantity, they do not quite the same meaning.

You normally use “1” in real life, but if you’re working on a weird property issue where an piece of lanf is divided into quarters maybe the formulation “4/4” would have meaning. Or maybe you have a formula which you raise x to a certain power – whatever it is. It’s just that when it’s zero, the result is 1.

My point isn’t just that the “same” item can have multiple
representations but that the different representations can be selected
to help you focus in a different aspect. To borrow a concept from
Semantics class, the meaning of something is partly fixed by your
context – but you have to know EXACTLY what your context is.

The use of multiple representations does extend beyond algebra (and I don’t just mean linguistics either). For instance, there are lots of places around the world which have multiple place names, and sometimes you select one based on what era you are studying.

For instance modern historians may study be studying Turkey“, but historians from the 14th-early 20th century may be studying the heartland of the “Ottoman Empire” while those who specialize in the Bronze Age probably study “Anatolia” and Roman historians are probably studying “Asia Minor.” It’s roughly the same place, but the different names not only establish the time context, but can be used fudge minor details like changing political borders.

You don’t want to start calling modern Turkey “Anatolia”, but the use of the term “Anatolia” is useful for referencing the set of Bronze Age cultures in the region (none of which are now related to the modern Turkish culture in terms of language or religion)…so you don’t usually call ancient Anatolia “Ancient Turkey” either (unless you’re writing a tourist brochure). And no matter what – you never want to confuse Turkey with Turkestan (not cool).

This kind of mathematical thinking isn’t about accepting one “right answer,” but systematically determining what the possible answers are and when to deploy them while understanding that some answers are just plain wrong!

Both/And vs Either/Or Thinking

I’ve participated in and/or observed a lot of hot academic debates such as “language rules or language constraints?”, “qualitative or quantitative research?”, “English or Spanish?” “Mac or PC” and a new addition “Is history about trends or dates?” The premise behind many of these discussions is that you must choose between or option OR another. Rarely is it the case that a discussion centers around the idea that maybe BOTH categories could be appropriate.
As a linguist, I believe in categories, but have you noticed that items often fall into more than one category? Or that depending on what “filter” you have on at the time – items may appear different?
Take the social science debate of “quantitative” (data primarily from statistical analysis) “qualitative” (data from interviews). Quantitative specialists prefer this method because results are more precisely quantified and easier to generalize (assuming your survey pool is long enough). On the other hand qualitative specialists feel that interviews allow to learn unexpected details that a survey might miss and will allow you to follow an productive inquiry path with a subject as needed.
But guess what – I think both perspectives are both right…in their own way. I do like that qualitative studies can give you more details and unexpected twists, but it usually is hard to generalized (unless you bring in some statistical analysis). On the other hand, quantitative statistics is great for highlighting oddball trends a casual user might miss in an interview. The only problem is that if you don’t ask for the right input, you might miss a discovery. Using both strategies might give you a fuller picture of a social trend.
Yet from what I have seen students in the social science pursuing a degree are typically forced to choose EITHER quantitative or qualitative. Only rarely are you allowed to combine BOTH quantitative and qualitative together. The idea that you might want to combine two techniques seems almost heretical.
FYI – Linguistics has the same “either/or” issues to suffer through. For instance it’s rare to find a linguist comfortable with both formal grammatical theory and sociocultural issues.
And it’s not just academia. I often hear discussions of whether immigrant children in the US should learn English or their parents’ language. Why not both? Their little brains are set up for multiple languages.
Or maybe you wonder if a university should be all PC or all Mac. Maybe the answer depends on whether you are working on supply chain managment (PC probably) or video editing (Mac probably). This is one reason why a major university usually has to support both platforms…even if to adds to overhead.
I know there are sometimes we have to choose (left turn or right turn to the grocery store) but there are many times I wish society was more willing to explore some “both/and” options.
For instance, maybe it really is OK for people to say both “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Holidays” – I never understood why either side asked us to choose just one holiday salutation.

Bowdoin Students Demand Arabic Instruction

I’m not sure of the particulars, but it looks like the Bowdoin Student Government passed two resolutions asking the administration to begin Arabic language instructions. Part of one bill says, “it is the opinion of BSG that the Academic Affairs division of the College should address these requests for the teaching of Arabic.”
Obviously I’m impressed that the student body is pushing their administration in their desire to expand the range of languages taught. And no matter what your political views are, I would hope most people realize that knowledge of Arabic today is as important to U.S. policy as Russian, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Spanish, French and other world languages.
And while we’re at it, we shouldn’t forget Persian (Iran), Kurdish (Northern Iraq) and Urdu (Pakistan) either – I think we really do want to try to understand what’s going on in these regions as well.

Globalization and Minority Languages

You might think that the pan-global economy and culture would be dangerous for minority languages, but here’s an interesting article that claims that some speakers are looking back to their roots as a way to resist globalization.
That is, the more the culture becomes “Standardized”, the more people are looking for ways to create regional quirks, including resurrecting of regional languages like Welsh, Catalan and even Occitan, Walloon and Breton.
Even in the U.S. we see the development of new regional varieties such as a more pronounced versions of Great Lakes English, Canadian English, Hispanicized English and Californian/West Coast English. Given that the U.S. has been watching the same TV networks for 50 years now, this is unexpected.
I think there’s something to this theory, because we are also seeing trends like regional foods cuisines (e.g. using regional ingredients) and an interest in indigenous crafts like knitting, woodworking and quilting.
I guess there are many ways to defy Gapification with both food and grammar.