The Evolution of English

All languages change over time, and English is no exception. Now, a physicist at the University of Maribor in Slovenia has used a computer program to analyse the text of 5.2 million books published since 1520, to find out how language use has changed over the centuries.

The results lead to a couple of interesting observations. First of all, the Reformation and the Enlightenment seem to have had a huge impact on the most commonly used English words and phrases. For example, the New Scientist notes that in 1520, “of the Pope” was the most common three word phrase. In 2008, it was “one of the.”

Likewise, some of the most frequently used five- word phrases in the 1500’s were “the Pope and his followers”, “the laws of the Church” and “the body and blood of Christ.” These have been replaced by prepositional phrases like “”at the end of the”, “in the middle of the” and “on the other side of”. Simply put, we’re not as religious as we once were. Or at least, our literature isn’t.

As Lifehacker observed, you would think that the rise of the Internet would lead to another burst of evolution in our language use, especially with all the new tech buzzwords being added to Oxford English Dictionary and the longstanding linguistic debate over the effects of text messaging. However, that’s actually not the case.

As Professor Perc explained to the Australian:

“It seems that the words and phrases we use for writing books have matured, which in turn invites the conclusion that the English language itself is matured over the years. Today we know what to expect when opening up a book, much more so than we would have if opening a book in the 16th century.”

I’d always heard that English was one of the hardest languages to learn, but Professor Perc told the New Scientist that its linguistic stability could actually make it easier to master than a language that’s still in flux:

“If phrases reappear in a book, it’s easier to follow. In China, where globalisation is still taking place, there’s still a lot of change in the language, and that probably makes it harder to learn.”


Learning Hebrew from Graffiti

Just as there is more than one way to skin a cat, there is also more than one way to learn a language. In Israel, a man named Guy Sharett has stumbled upon a particularly creative method: translating the street art and graffiti that adorns his Tel Aviv neighborhood.

Why graffiti? In an article in the New York Times, Mr. Sharett explained his logic:

“It’s not only to teach language, it’s also to teach the culture. Someone took a line from a song we all know and changed one word; it’s very hard to understand that if you don’t have someone local to explain, ‘That’s a take on…’ ”

Roaming the city streets with Mr. Sharett, the students, mostly recent immigrants, get a hefty dose of politics along with Israeli pop culture. This helps to not only learn the language, but also to learn the ins and outs of Israeli society. The class works with Mr. Sharett to break down the linguistic rules behind the translations, so they learn the structure of the language as well.

The classes seem to work out well for most of the students. One of them, creative writing professor Marcela Sulak, told the New York Times that understanding graffiti and street signs requires

“[A] cultural knowledge that you don’t necessarily have. He teaches you the tools so you can figure it out on your own. You’re learning the Hebrew you need every single day by looking at the neighborhood.”

Another student, Xiaoyun Wu, from China, said that she liked the classes because

“You get more contextualized memory. The good thing is I can come back to review any time.”

So, the next time you’re visiting a foreign country and trying to learn the language, why not find someone local to help you learn how to read the writing on the wall? If nothing else, you’re bound to come away with better understanding of the culture, and isn’t that one of the main reasons for traveling in the first place?

Endangered Languages in Mexico

Spanish is Mexico’s official language, but it’s neither the first nor the only language spoken there. Long before the conquistadors arrived on the country’s shores, indigenous groups spoke languages of their own.

In fact, when Mexico was governed by Spain, the colonial government initially made the indigenous language Nahuatl the official language of the new colony, but that ended in 1696 when Spanish was declared the official language and official policies began to encourage its exclusive use by native groups. By 1820, only 60% of the population spoke a native language. By 1889, that number had fallen to 38%, and today it’s down to just 6% of the population.

Currently, there are 86 native languages with 364 dialects spoken in Mexico, but the National Institute of Indian Languages stated last Tuesday that number may soon decrease even further. According to a report by the Associated Press, 64 native tongues are “at high risk” of dying out. Though the country’s constitution recognizes the right of indigenous people to speak their own language, Spanish is culturally dominant.

Javier Lopez Sanchez, who leads the institute, told the AP that as a result, “There are entire communities where the children don’t speak their Indian language.”

Language expert Francisco Barriga says that reversing the decline means improving the visibility of the endangered languages:

“Children … turn on the television, go to school, they try to integrate themselves, and Spanish is omnipresent. The key issue is to make Indian languages present in the media.”

Meanwhile, linguist Juan Bueno Holle, of the University of Chicago, said that some communities have maintained pride in their language despite marginalization:

“There are definitely other circles where it’s very prestigious to speak, and to speak it well, and not mix Spanish…Everyone that I’ve been in touch with has been very eager to share.”

The key, as always, is to make sure that the language maintains its prestige among children as well as adults. When it comes to language preservation, “Children are the future” is much more than a cliché.


A Premium Price for Irish Text Messages

Want to send a text message in Irish? Irish mobile phone users recently awakened to an unpleasant truth: it’s much more expensive to send a text in Irish than it is in English. In fact, according to the Belfast Telegraph, it’s cheaper to send a picture message than it is to send a full-length text in Irish.

The culprit? A little accent mark called the síneadh fada that distinguishes between long and short vowels in the Irish language. You wouldn’t think that a little dash should be that expensive to send over the airwaves, but according to Irish mobile phone carriers Vodafone and o2, it is. That’s because accented vowels are not part of the standard SMS alphabet. Basically, they aren’t recognized as text, and so require more data to transmit.

A spokeswoman for Vodafone explained the company’s logic:

“If a customer is texting in Irish and they type the full 160 characters, a standard text message, that includes at least one fada, they will be charged for three text messages.”

Still, it seems odd that sending a text with accented characters would cost more than sending a picture. Also, in the Republic of Ireland, where Irish is one of the official languages, it rubs Irish speakers the wrong way to be charged more for a service than their exclusively English-speaking brethren.

The Belfast Telegraph reports that other countries facing the same issue have resorted to regulations to solve the problem:

Under regulations in Turkey, both mobile phone device producers and operators must allow the devices to use Turkish characters without an extra charge. Any devices that don’t comply are not allowed on to the Turkish market. Similar initiatives have taken place in Spain and Portugal.

However, since the mobile carriers are private businesses, the relevant Irish regulatory bodies have so far been reluctant to interfere.

What do you think? Should this particular cost be passed on to Irish consumers?

Turkish "Bird Language" Falling Silent

In the remote Turkish village of Kuşköy, residents long ago developed an unusual and fascinating method of communication: a whistled dialect of Turkish, called “kuş dili” or “bird language, ” in which whistles correspond to the sounds of the Turkish alphabet.  Using “bird language,” people could easily communicate with their nearest neighbors, the nearest of whom might well be located on the other side of a valley or a ravine.

Whistled languages are rare in human history, though other examples still exist today, including Silbo Gomero in the Canary Islands and the Chinantec and Mazatec languages of Mexico. They generally evolved out of a need to be able to communicate over long distances and rough terrain, as in Kuşköy. As Ibrahim Kodalak explained to the Atlantic,

“Electricity only came here in 1986, and before that it was hard to communicate over long distances; we really needed bird language…If you can’t make your voice heard over a long distance, you could also make a chain with different people relaying the message.”

Unfortunately, just as video killed the radio star, modern technology may spell the end for kuş dili. As village headman Metin Köçek put it:

“Now we have roads, electricity and phone lines. In our childhood, the bird language was used a lot in daily life. Now we meet the same needs by using a cell phone.”

Why learn to whistle Turkish when you can text? Plus, village children today often leave to seek work in the cities, so even if they learn the language, they aren’t likely to be able to use it much in their everyday lives. Every year the village holds a festival to celebrate kuş dili, but this year it focused mostly on other aspects of local culture, like food and dancing.

Even if the language is now unnecessary, some villagers are committed to keeping it alive. Rıfat Köçek ‘s told the Atlantic, “[W]e need to keep the language alive out of respect to our ancestors. They created it, and they never knew that one day it could make us famous.”

It remains to be seen if it will be possible to keep “bird language” alive. If the example of the Canary Islands’ Silbo Gomero (a whistled version of Spanish) tells us anything, preservation efforts may need to be moved into the schools to truly be effective…though it’s hard to say how effective that would be if all of the young adults continue to migrate into the cities.

Photo Credit: Attribution Some rights reserved by jerine

Beijing Students Learn Through Translation

A group of young students at Western Academy, an international school in Beijing, finished off the school year with a memorable project: translating a series of children’s books into Chinese to be professionally published.The students, all around 10 to 11 years old, translated 8 illustrated children’s books with stories describing the day-to-day lives of kids in other countries.

As Wang Biao, of the Peking University Press Department of Chinese Language and Linguistics, which will publish the Chinese editions of the books, explained to China Daily:

“Our target readers are those children who are learning Chinese both in China and overseas…By describing children’s daily lives in different countries these books give a simple and vivid introduction to the cultural and historical features of the four countries.”

As they translated, the children encountered difficulties that would be familiar to any professional translator. One student, Lau Tin Sun, described these obstacles for China Daily:

“In the beginning, we thought it was really easy, but when we actually started translating, it was not as easy as we thought. English has a completely different grammar compared to Chinese. Therefore, it took us quite a lot of time and energy to change the grammar. But it was truly amazing to see the books in print. Publishing books during primary school, this is really a good memory.”

You might expect that the children would need help from a professional translator to produce a finished product capable of holding its own on bookshelves around the world, but you would be wrong. According to Peking University Press’ Deng Xiaoxia, the students’ work stood up quite well on its own:

“The kids’ translation is “amazing”, as the words they choose are “childish but interesting” and appeal to young readers – compared to the words used by professional translators.”

Congratulations, kids. K International salutes you!

Photo Credit: Lori Ann

DNA May Support Linguist's Controversial Hypothesis

New DNA evidence seems to offer support for a controversial hypothesis about the origins of Native American languages put forward by linguist Joseph Greenberg in his 1987 book Language in the Americas. Greenberg hypothesized that all Native American languages could be grouped into three language families: Amerind, Eskimo-Aleut and Na-Dené, correlating with three separate migrations from the Old World into the New.

Most linguists have blown off the theory ever since, preferring instead to divide Native American languages into as many as 180 separate families. But now, an analysis of DNA, along with new radiocarbon analysis on coprolites found in caves in the American Northwest, may support his theory.

According to the New York Times, the new DNA study analyzed the entire genome of each DNA sample, providing a more complete picture than earlier studies which only examined a small portion. The scientists did find evidence for three migrations into the Americas, roughly correlating in most cases with Greenberg’s proposed language families.

However, they also found that genetically, the three original peoples had mingled substantially. There were also exceptions, like the Chipewyans of Canada, who speak a Na-Dene language but carry DNA primarily from the first, presumably Amerind-speaking migration. However, the DNA/language mismatch could be explained by conquest.

Of course, when it comes to studying ancient cultures, little is certain. As the New York Times notes, scholars have greeted the results of the study with cautious interest:

“This is a really important step forward but not the last word,” said David Meltzer of Southern Methodist University, noting that many migrations may not yet have shown up in the genetic samples. Michael H. Crawford, an anthropologist at the University of Kansas, said the paucity of samples from North America and from coastal regions made it hard to claim a complete picture of early migrations has been attained.

Still, Dr. Andres Ruiz-Linares of University College London, one of the study’s co-authors, told the New York Times, “Many linguists put down Greenberg as rubbish and don’t believe his publications. It’s striking that we have this correspondence between the genetics and the linguistics.”

Additionally, a separate DNA and radiocarbon analysis from the Paisley caves in Oregon showed that the people who lived there shared the continent about 13,000 years ago with the Clovis people, known for their distinctively shaped arrowheads and long thought to be the continent’s first inhabitants as well as the only group in the Americas at that time.

A separate New York Times article notes that this study also offers some support for Greenberg’s hypothesis, and quotes study leader Dennis L. Jenkins of the University of Oregon:

“These two distinct technologies were parallel developments, not the product of a unilinear technological evolution. The colonization of the Americas involved multiple technologically divergent, and possibly genetically divergent, founding groups.”

Photo Credit: AttributionShare Alike Some rights reserved by ragesoss

Stephen Colbert Gets His Own Language

American comedian Stephen Colbert’s late night alter ego is known for his ego…and his frequent campaigns to get everything from spiders to a piece of the International Space Station named for him.

So, the latest news from his alma mater, Northwestern University, should bring a smile to his face. Researchers there named an invented language used for an experiment “Colbertian,” after the comedian.

NBC Chicago quotes Communications Professor Viorica Marian, one of the authors of the study, explaining their reasoning:

“Stephen Colbert has brought new words like ‘truthiness’ and ‘Lincolnish’ into the lexicon. We had to invent a new language to do our research, and no one invents words as readily as Stephen Colbert. Naming our new language after Colbert was a no-brainer.”

Of course, the guaranteed extra publicity might have been another factor, as well.

What does “Colbertian” sound like? Well, basically like gibberish, but that’s to be expected in a language invented for a language learning experiment.

Incidentally, the experiment looked at how being bilingual affects your ability to learn additional languages. The results dovetailed nicely with this study by the University of Haifa, implying that being fluent in two languages makes it easier to learn a third (Colbertian, in this case).

During the experiment, both monolingual and bilingual individuals were asked to learn Colbertian, then given a quiz in which they were asked to match nouns from the language with the appropriate pictures. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, participants who were already bilingual ““experience less interference from their native language when listening to speech in a newly learned language.”

Study co-author James Bartolotti told the Chicago Sun-Times, ““We found that people who learned both English and Spanish at an early age and continued to speak them, better retained the words in Colbertian.”

Photo Credit: Attribution Some rights reserved by brokentrinkets

Welsh Language History

History of the Welsh Language

Modern Welsh dates back to the sixth century. It is very closely related to Cornish and Breton. However, its history goes even further back to 600 years BC, when the early languages of Europe and Central Asia influenced the Celtic languages spoken across the European continent.

Most European languages, including Welsh, evolved from a language that we now call Indo-European, which in turn developed into nine language groups, one of which was Celtic. The Celtic language also had its own family of languages, some of which died out over the centuries. Those that survived migrated from mainland Europe to the western islands of Britain and Ireland. Welsh may not be spoken as much as English, but it is actually the oldest language in Britain.

The passing of the 1536 and 1542 Acts of Union brought a significant change to the official use of Welsh. The purpose of the Acts of Union was to integrate Wales with England. Therefore, English became the official language of business in Wales. During this time it was not possible for any Welsh speaker to hold office in Wales without becoming fluent in English. Although the language was not officially banned, it lost all status because of these restrictions. Over the next four centuries, the use of the Welsh language in Wales steadily declined. The language would not be used as an official language again until the passing of the 1942 Welsh Courts Act, which permitted limited use of the language in the courts.

One of the most famous Welsh literary works is the Mabinogi, a string of tales first transcribed at some point between 1050 and 1170. However, it is believed that the tales are much older. In fact, the Mabinogi may have inspired some of the Arthurian legends. Over a period of centuries, these stories were passed down through the generations by the Cyfarwydd, or storyteller.

Although the Welsh language is native to Wales, people speak it all over the world. It is spoken by a minority in England and the Welsh immigrant colony in Chubut Valley in Argentine Patagonia.


A greeting in Welsh was one of the 55 languages included on the Voyager Golden Record. The Voyager Golden Record is a phonograph record which contains sounds and images selected to portray the diversity of human life and culture on Earth. It was launched into space in 1977. In 2008 the Voyager space crafts became the 3rd and 4th artefacts to go beyond our solar system.

Each greeting on the phonograph is a unique message. The Welsh greeting is “Iechyd da i chwi nawr ac yn oes oesoedd” which translates into English as “Good health to you now and forever”.

The 1993 Welsh Language Act is to-date the most significant Act passed in regard to the Welsh Language. This Act was the first to state that public sector organisations must treat the Welsh and English languages equally, and it was the result of decades of pressure from Welsh language activists.

The teaching of Welsh is now compulsory in all schools in Wales up to the age of 16. This has helped to stabilize and even reverse the decline of the language.


In popular culture, Wales has recently witnessed some of its important expats promote the use of the Welsh language by speaking it on television. The most recent example is that of Glyn Wise and Imogen Thomas. Their conversations in Welsh on Big Brother 6 sparked a nationwide debate about the Welsh language.

welsh_challengeTelevision channel S4C broadcasts exclusively in Welsh during peak hours and the main evening television news provided by the BBC in Welsh is available for download. In addition, the BBC broadcasts a Welsh language radio station, BBC Radio Cymru on a daily basis.

The BBC also recognises how important the Welsh language is in the United Kingdom and they have set up a project called The Big Welsh Challenge, which takes five celebrities and challenges them to learn Welsh in 12 months with the help of five famous faces. The aim of The Big Welsh Challenge is to encourage others to learn and understand Welsh and its importance in our society.

Many major corporate organisations have followed the Government’s lead and realised the importance of providing their product or service information in both Welsh and English.

Sign Language Translation Gloves Win Imagine Cup

A team of Ukrainian students won first prize at Microsoft’s Imagine Cup for their prototype of a device to translate sign language into speech. The EnableTalk gloves are similar in concept to this Fingual sign language translation glove, but with a few significant improvements: they translate sign language directly to speech instead of translating to text, and they are much cheaper.

In fact, the cost for the parts needed to assemble the device is only $50, as opposed to $1,200 for similar prototypes. Here’s how it works: the gloves contain built-in flex sensors, touch sensors, gyroscopes and accelerometers to help them make sense of the user’s hand gestures. The software translates the gestures into text, and a text-to-speech engine translates them into speech. The speech can be streamed to a smart phone via Bluetooth and the speakers on the phone broadcast the translation.

The device is definitely clever, and it’s great to see the price of technology like this come down to something that the average Joe or Jane can afford. Even better, TechCrunch notes that it can be “trained” by the user to recognize custom signs.

There are a couple of drawbacks, however. First, as many commenters on TechCrunch and other sites have already noted, it’s unclear how the gloves will pick up on important elements of sign language like hand placement and facial expressions.

Second, at the moment, the device only works on older Windows Mobile smartphones, as developers aren’t allowed access to the Bluetooth stack on the more up-to-date Windows 7 phones. Hopefully, though, that issue will be fixed (and the gloves will be available for people who use other mobile devices) if and when the product is brought to market.

For the moment, the team is justifiably savoring their win. The Silicon Republic quotes team member Maxim Osika at the Inspire Cup:

“We were inspired to help our friends who are hearing- and speech-impaired to have the ability to communicate like everyone else. The Imagine Cup is an amazing experience; we’re thrilled to be here learning from the experts around us.”

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