How to Talk to Dolphins

It’s clear that dolphins have a relatively sophisticated way of communicating between themselves. And studies have shown that they have an amazing ability to understand humans as well, even to the point of being able to comprehend the importance of syntax.

Dolphins may have a language of their own, but the physical differences between us and them have kept them from being able to talk back…until now.

Denise Herzing, a biologist with the Wild Dolphin Project, has developed a system of sounds, symbols and props that allow dolphins and humans to communicate simple concepts to each other.

Herzing told Wired that she was inspired to attempt the project when she noticed that wild dolphins would sometimes seek out interaction with humans on their own:

“We thought, ‘This is fascinating, let’s see if we can take it further.’ Many studies communicate with dolphins, especially in captivity, using fish as a reward. But it’s rare to ask dolphins to communicate with us.”

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Twitter: the New Haiku?‎

Twitter, the microblogging social network that limits users to “tweets” of 140 characters or less, is growing across the globe. However, communicating with the world in 140-character bursts has really taken off in Japan, especially after the earthquake and its accompanying tsunami earlier this year.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Twitter’s Japanese membership increased by one third in just the first week after the earthquake. Of course, with other forms of communication cut off during the disaster, it’s not surprising that more people would jump on the Twitter bandwagon in an attempt to stay in touch with the outside world. Read more

Language Change Driven by Men‎

We’re all familiar with the term “mother tongue,” but as it turns out, the phrase may be something of a misnomer. Scientists from the University of Cambridge have found that at least historically speaking, it is actually men who most strongly influence language change.

The scientists analyzed both mitochondrial DNA (passed down only by women) and DNA from the Y-chromosome (passed down only by males). They found that there was a definite correlation between DNA markers on the Y-chromosome and the language spoken in a given region. There was no such correlation between mitochondrial DNA and language.  This pattern held true for different cultures across the world. Read more

Speaking Dothraki

Now  more than ever, it seems like constructed languages have really taken off. Tolkein got the ball rolling with his elvish languages, Sindarin and Quenya, and Klingon has been showing up in some of the strangest places imaginable. Now, the success of HBO’s “Game of Thrones” series has fans trying to pick up another fantasy language: Dothraki.

The show is based on author George R. R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series. Most of the characters speak English. Not the Dothraki, though- their culture seems to have been modelled after  the Genghis Khan-era Mongols. In the text, there are just enough Dothraki words thrown in to make the scenes feel exotic.

For the TV series, HBO wanted a fully-formed language. So, they hired linguist David Peterson to create one. The Dothraki characters speak in Dothraki, and there are English subtitles. Read more

Star Trek: The next generation of gadgets

According to National Geographic, every 14 days another language passes into oblivion. New languages are created at a much slower rate. Usually, new languages evolve naturally from older languages over time. On the other hand, sometimes new languages are simply created from fiction. These languages are called constructed languages. One of the most commonly spoken constructed languages is Klingon, the language spoken by Klingons in Star Trek.

Star Trek is known for having the most rabid set of fans ever, so perhaps it’s no surprise that Klingon has become a language with its own dictionary, an organisation called the Klingon Language Institute that was founded to promote it, translated editions of Gilgamesh and plays by Shakespeare, and now, a keyboard that’s lettered exclusively in Klingon.

DVICE has a review of the keyboard that begins with the question “Are you one of the biggest nerds in the world?” If you are a fluent Klingon speaker who has always wanted to be able to express your thoughts more fluently in Klingon, this keyboard is for you.

DVICE gave it a low rating because of its limited utility for the rest of us puny earthlings, but what’s really interesting about their review is the comments section, which quickly turns into a lively debate over whether or not Klingon is a “real” language.

So, is Klingon a “real” language? Yes and no. It’s a constructed language, true, but according to Wikipedia there are at least 12 people who can speak it fluently. This means that in the sense that it can be used by two people to communicate, it is a real language. However, it’s missing one of the key features of a natural language, the ability to evolve over time.

Klingon vocabulary is limited to official Klingon words supplied by its creator, Marc Okrand. He adds new words to the language every so often, but the language doesn’t evolve without his approval.

It will be interesting to see how long Klingon survives under these circumstances…will anyone still speak Klingon generations from now? What happens to the language after its creator passes on?

Ireland’s Worst Driver: Translation issues for Irish Police

According to the BBC police in Ireland had an embarrassing month after finally discovering the mystery behind Ireland’s worst driver.

He was wanted across Ireland, right from County Cork to Cavan after he accumulated a large number of speeding tickets and parking fines. He managed to get away each time he was stopped by providing different addresses.

But his luck was soon over. Mr Prawo Jazdy wasn’t quite the man the Irish Police force had thought they were looking for.

‘Prawo Jazdy’ is Polish… yes Polish for driving licence! Not the first and last name of this villain police had been searching for. The misunderstanding was discovered by an officer working within the Garda’s traffic division.

The officer then decided to check and see how many times this mistake had happened. He discovered that the system they use had created over 50 identities with the name ‘Prawo Jazdy’.

This has now been amended and relevant guidelines have been changed to prevent this happening again in the future.

So lesson learnt for the Irish police and on the plus point they now know a little Polish.

As for Mr Prawo Jazdy and all his driving offences we can only assume he won’t get away with it again.

The Evolution of Language

As this article on demonstrated, language is never static. It is constantly changing and evolving. But why? Why the English we speak is today different in so many ways from the English our grandparents spoke? Or the English Shakespeare spoke and wrote in?

Language evolves for a number of different reasons. One common reason is to accommodate new concepts or technology. For example, the word “Internet” didn’t exist a hundred years ago because there was no need for it. The word “touchscreen” didn’t exist until we figured out how to make computer and cell phone screens that could sense and respond to human touch.

Language also changes when the commonly understood meanings of words change over time. Sometimes, these changes happen when a new language “need” is created, but sometimes, people just abuse and twist the meaning of words until the “incorrect” word or meaning becomes the “correct” one.

The article referenced above gives several interesting examples. For example, take the word “empower.” Empower used to be strictly legal term, meaning “to give legal authority or power to.” However, over time, talk shows and self-help gurus have twisted the word so that it is commonly understood as “to make someone feel powerful.”

Another interesting example of this phenomenon is the word “literally.” Once upon a time, if you were to say something like “These guys are literally killing me,” you would mean that people were really, seriously trying to kill you-perhaps with a knife. Now, you might just mean that they are seriously giving you a hard time. When used this way, “literally” takes over the meaning of its antonym, “figuratively.” Confusing, isn’t it?

That’s why when you have material translated into another language, it is important to choose knowledgeable translators who are aware of both the “textbook meanings” of different words and the way those words are understood in common use.

5,000 New German Words

According to the BBC around 5,000 new words have been added to the German language in the latest edition of the well respected German dictionary, Duden. Most of the new words have come from the English speaking world.

New terms have been added such as ‘After show party’, ‘No-go area’, ‘It girl’ and ‘Babyblues’.

Twitter fans also gained a new word ‘Twittern’, which means to Twitter (or to Tweet, which ever you prefer).

New words have also come from the current global financial Crisis. ‘Kreditklemme’, meaning credit crunch has appeared for the first time. Other new words include ‘Konjunkturpaket’ which means ‘stimulus package’ and ‘Abwrackpraemie’ this translates as ‘car scrappage bonus’.

The German language is well known for its use and creation of extremely long compound nouns, for example the new edition of the dictionary includes a fantastic 23 letter example ‘vorratsdatenspeicherung’ which translates as ‘telecommunications data retention’.

The Duden was first published in 1880 by Konrad Duden. New editions of the dictionary are released every four or five years.

Scots Gaelic Gets EU Recognition

Scots Gaelic has been approved for use in EU meetings in a new memorandum of understanding, according to the BBC. The move is an important step forward for Scots Gaelic,although it still does not have the status of an EU “official” language like English.

In addition to being used in meetings, Gaelic speakers can now write to the EU in Scots Gaelic and get a response back in the same language.

In Scotland’s 2001 census, about 58,652 people reported being able to speak Scots Gaelic, while an additional.33,748 were able to understand it.

The Scottish Government will be footing the bill for the costs of translation for EU meetings and correspondence as part of their efforts to increase the use of the language in Scotland.

Use of Scots Gaelic, has declined significantly, especially over the past 100 years.  For example, according to Wikipedia, in 1911 there were 183,998 Scots Gaelic speakers. Also, in 1991 there were 7,300 more Scots Gaelic speakers than there were in 2001-a decline of 11 percent over 10 years!

In the BBC article, Scottish Culture Minister  Mike Russell commented on the news, saying, “This is a significant step forward for the recognition of Gaelic both at home and abroad and I look forward to addressing the council in Gaelic very soon.”
“Seeing Gaelic spoken in such a forum raises the profile of the language as we drive forward our commitment to creating a new generation of Gaelic speakers in Scotland.”
In honor of the occasion, here are some common words and phrases in Scots Gaelic, along with their English translations:

Halò: Hello
Ciamar a tha thu: How are you?
Madainn mhath: Good Morning
Feasgar math: Good Afternoon
Oidhche mhath: Good night
Dè an t-ainm a tha ort?: What’s your name?
Slàn leat : Goodbye
Slàinte: “Health,” usually used as a toast, like “cheers.”

Day Care Aims to Teach Cornish to Toddlers

Cornish toddlers can now learn the Cornish language through a Saturday day care program at Cornwall College in Camborne. The program teaches the tots language through play while their parents take an adult Cornish language class. So far, according to the BBC, seven children have been registered for the crèche, which is part of the Cornish for the Nursery Schools movement (Movyans Skolyow Meythrin in Cornish). The first lessons included some Cornish vocabulary as well as popular songs in Cornish.

Nursery school organizer Rhisiart Tal-e-bot told the BBC that:

“This is an idea which I have had for several years. This is about teaching parents how to bring up their children alongside our local heritage. There will also be classes run at the same time as the crèche so that adults can learn a little about the county.”

Cornish is a Brythonic Celtic language that used to be widely spoken in Cornwall.  In fact, according to Wikipedia, 39,000 people spoke Cornish in the 13th century. However, after that, use of the language began to decline in favour of English. Cornish ceased being used as a spoken language in the late 18th or 19th century; however, a movement to revive the language began in the early 20th century. Today, there are approximately 150 people in Cornwall who can speak it fluently. The language was recognized as a minority language by the government of the United Kingdom in 2002.

The nursery school is the first of its kind, so we will have to wait and see whether or not the movement takes off. Still, teaching children the language as early as possible, alongside English, is probably the best hope for a more widespread Cornish revival.