Sunday, October 30, 2005

Project Phonethica

I was playing around with digg, and a search for "language" dug up a website called Project Phonethica:

Fifty to ninety percent of the world's languages are predicted to disappear within the next century.
Project Phonethica explores the diversity of the world through the phonetics of its approximately 6,000 existing languages using the technology of media art - the youngest child of art in the 20th Century. ...

Project Phonethica aims at developing a practical strategy for vigorous survival in the post-modernized society, which has been openly enjoying chaos as a conclusion of its own fragmentation.

OK, so the translation is a little murky. But I'm all for saving endangered languages...

Project Phonethica does not aim to protect languages that are vanishing at a rate of one every two weeks and to archive them in libraries. Rather, it endeavors to invent a dynamic method by which we can understand and appreciate our diversity and randomly disseminate it as part of a wider social movement.

Hmm. The article goes on to propose the creation of a phonetic database of "words" from many languages, with software to match up similar-sounding words. The example given is French "Ça va?" versus Japanese "saba" (mackerel), which "sound quite similar". Users could use the software to look up a word, get matching words from other languages, and access all kinds of information about them. But wait, there's more:

This interface will at first promote an awareness of our diversity which will then, paradoxically, give rise to a quiet consciousness of our being related respectively to one another. The world will secretly but certainly grow conscious of its connectedness and its universality.

It sounds like they're trying to create a meme generator. This project reminds me of the science fiction book Candle by John Barnes, in which a software meme called One True takes over the minds of most of the human race. Danger, Will Robinson!

Posted at 18:50 PST  Link

More on Mel's Mayan Movie

Mel Gibson held a news conference to talk about his new movie, Apocalypto, which will be filmed in the Yucatec dialect of Mayan:

He said Mayan myths from the Popol Vuh sacred texts formed part of his research for the film, which also drew on input from indigenous groups and Spanish mission texts from the 1700s and Mayan language translators.

Love that movie title! According to the Canada Free Press, apocalypto is Greek for "an unveiling" and a "new beginning". The CFP article goes on to talk about the Mayan Thirteen Moon calendar and how accurate it is. In fact, some "latter day activists connected to the United Nations want to replace the Gregorian calendar with the Mayan one". Good luck with that.

Posted at 19:55 PST  Link

Thursday, October 27, 2005

The Tingo that wouldn't die

Is it true that we bloggers will do just about anything to get a few more links and hits? Oh, probably. Why, just the other day I got an email from Adam Jacot de Boinod of The Meaning of Tingo fame, inquiring about exchanging links on our respective websites. I was somewhat bemused by his request, since I wasn't very complimentary about his book (which I haven't read). But I looked at his website, and he seems to be enthusiastic about soliciting feedback and discussing the words in his book (as well as promoting it), and I must admit that lots of people enjoy reading about weird words in other languages. So The Meaning of Tingo has been added to the ranks of Language Blogs on the right side of this page. Don't make me regret this, M. de Boinod!

Posted at 23:15 PDT  Link

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

War and Peace

A new translation of one of my favorite books, Tolstoy's War and Peace, is being published. Translator Anthony Briggs has written a lively article explaining why he did it:

...there is one good reason for trying again: to find a new tone for the narrative. Setting aside two late 19th-century attempts by American professors, all subsequent translators have been women from the cultivated, well-spoken intellectual elite. They are precise about language, obeying the rules even when the results take them away from ordinary speech. When Natasha looks in the mirror, such translators have her say "Can this truly be I?", when what you and I would exclaim is: "That can't be me!" Or they allow wounded soldiers to call out, "I say, fellow-countrymen, will they set us down here or take us on to Moscow?" - making them sound like Bertie Wooster.

After reading a suspicious review of the new translation in the Guardian, I looked up the Russian originals for some of the quotes in the articles. (BTW I was stunned to discover that the entire works of Tolstoy are available online, along with English, Italian, and Spanish translations! The name of the English translator was missing, though.)

[Толстой] Один раненый старый солдат с подвязанной рукой, шедший за телегой, взялся за нее здоровой рукой и оглянулся на Пьера.
-- Что ж, землячок, тут положат нас, что ль? Али до Москвы? -- сказал он.
[Edmonds] One of the wounded, an old soldier with his arm in a sling, walking behind the cart, caught hold of it with his sound arm and turned to look at Pierre.
'Well, fellow-countryman, are we to be put down here or will they take us on to Moscow?' he asked.
[Unknown] One of the wounded, an old soldier with a bandaged arm who was following the cart on foot, caught hold of it with his sound hand and turned to look at Pierre.
"I say, fellow countryman! Will they set us down here or take us on to Moscow?" he asked.

[Толстой] И радостное и вместе жалкое, просящее прощения за свою радость, выражение остановилось на лице Наташи.
[Briggs] And Natasha's face had shone with happiness, though it also had a pathetic look as if to apologise for any happiness.
[Edmonds] And a joyful and at the same time piteous expression, which seemed to plead forgiveness for her joy, settled on Natasha's face.
[Unknown] And a joyful yet pathetic expression which seemed to beg forgiveness for her joy settled on Natasha's face.

[Толстой]
- Цел, Петров? - спрашивал один.
- Задали, брат, жару. Теперь не сунутся, - говорил другой.
- Ничего не видать. Как они в своих-то зажарили! Не видать, темь, братцы. Нет ли напиться?
[Briggs]
'You all right, Petrov?' inquired one. 'We gave it to 'em hot, men. That'll keep 'em quiet,' another said.
'Couldn't see nothing. They were hitting their own men! Couldn't see nothing for the dark, mates. Anything to drink?'
[Edmonds]
'Safe and sound, Petrov?' asked one. 'We gave it 'em hot, mate! They won't stick their noses out again now,' said another.
'It's too dark to see a thing. How they shot up their own fellows! It's as dark as pitch, mate! I say, isn't there something to drink?'
[Unknown]
"Not hurt, Petrov?" asked one.
"We've given it 'em hot, mate! They won't make another push now," said another.
"You couldn't see a thing. How they shot at their own fellows! Nothing could be seen. Pitch-dark, brother! Isn't there something to drink?"

Which translation sounds best? I'd like to see what Briggs did with the fellow countryman phrase.

Posted at 23:00 PDT  Link

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Korean Dictionary

I was going to write about language differences in North and South Korea, but then I got sidetracked by an intriguing article about a Korean book called The Birth of Our Language:

On September 8, 1945 the chief of the Kyungsung Station (current Seoul Station) was looking at the Joseon Transportation Warehouse. He stopped in front of a large box and cried out, "This is it."

He just remembered the Joseon Language Society who was anxious about getting a copy for the Korean dictionary. The chief of the station called the Joseon Language Society.

The call was in regards to the 26,500-page original draft of the "Big Joseon Language Dictionary" that started being written in 1929. The copy was seized by the Japanese in 1942 with the Joseon Language Society case as "evidence" and was missing ever since. It was in this very moment that the long-lasting copy finally came back to the arms of the Joseon Language Society.

Two years later, on October 9, 1947, the "Joseon Language Big Dictionary, Volume One" was published. Ten years later, in 1957, the "Big Dictionary" publication completed with a total of six volumes. It was the first time a Korean Dictionary was created.

It took exactly 50 years from 1907 until 1957, beginning with when the Korean Language Center was created and discussions began regarding the necessity of publishing a Korean dictionary. How much longer would we have waited if the copies were not found at Seoul Station?

Some background: the Korean peninsula (Joseon, Chosun) was annexed by Japan in 1910 and was a Japanese colony until the end of WWII in 1945. During the occupation, the Korean language was deprecated, and a group of teachers formed the Korean Language Society to promote its study. In 1942 several members of the Society were arrested, jailed, and even tortured. The great-granddaughter of one of them, Jung In-seung, wrote an award-winning essay about him:

Jung, a graduate of what would later become Yonsei University, supervised the Korean Language Society’s work on a Korean dictionary and was imprisoned along with fellow language scholars Lee Hee-seung and Choi Hyeon-bae. He was a director at the Korean Language Society for over 50 years until his death in 1986, and was given a number of awards by the state for his contribution to the nation.
...
Jung contributed five pieces to the Chosun Ilbo, including an outline of the history of the Korean alphabet. In the Dec. 20, 1938 edition of the paper, he introduced a number of word games developed to preserve the Korean alphabet during Japanese colonial rule. Jung served as a teacher after liberation, and showed such energy that right up to his death he held lectures for his students at the 10-pyeong (about 33 square meters) Korean-style home where he lived his entire life.

Koreans take their dictionaries very seriously. Witness this editorial from Jan 2005, A Mature Culture Needs a Mature English-Korean Dictionary.

Posted at 10:45 PDT  Link

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Ce qui peut tuer

...c'est what? Watch this video, and then vote for your favorite vice:

manger beaucoup de graisse
boire beaucoup de vin rouge
parler anglais
  View Results

Posted at 09:00 PDT  Link

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Popspeak, the Sequel

A new book about pop language just came out: Slam Dunks and No-Brainers: Language in Your Life, the Media, Business, Politics and, Like, Whatever, by Leslie Savan, and I've been reading the reviews. They are not encouraging. Apparently the author is quite negative about "sitcomatosed language" and the Person Nouvelle - "a pop-culture ethnic of indeterminate heritage." Furthermore, I was chagrined to read that my attempts to use pop language mark me as a pathetic wannabe of coolness:

Light, self-conscious and theatrical, chockful of put-downs and exaggerated inflections, today's pop talk projects a personality that has mastered the simulation of conversation. It's a sort of air guitar for the lips, seeking not so much communication as a confirmation that ... hey, we're cool.

If only! But at least we can enjoy P.J. O'Rourke's savage review in the New York Times:

"Slam Dunks" is neither prescriptive nor descriptive, nor is it in fact about language at all. It is about Leslie Savan's opinions of language: "from the high-strung Hel-lo?! to the laidback hey, from the withering whatever to the triumphant Yesss!, an army of brave new words is occupying our social life. . . . The catchwords, phrases, inflections and quickie concepts that Americans seem unable to communicate without have grown into a verbal kudzu." Opinions of language are as interesting as opinions of arithmetic.

And reviews of books can be as entertaining as the books themselves.

Posted at 19:00 PDT  Link

Friday, October 14, 2005

Comme ci, Comme ça

I didn't do too well on the BBC's French quiz, scoring 6/12. I should have looked up a couple of words (like chômeur) instead of guessing. The French Monopoly question was pretty sneaky though... Oh well, je m'en fous! (Via Naked Translations)

Posted at 22:40 PDT  Link

Thursday, October 13, 2005

A Heckuva Deal? You Bet.

So, then, I found this book in the Minneapolis airport, and it's not too bad, you know: How to Talk Minnesotan by Howard Mohr (as heard on A Prairie Home Companion). Lesson One gets you started with three handy phrases a guy could use to respond to just about anything:

  • You bet - response to thank you or any question;
  • That's different - means you have an opinion, but are holding back the details; and
  • Whatever - expresses disappointment or resignation.

Lesson Four gets into basic conversations, and especially the indispensible Weather Conversation:

- "What d'ya think of this weather?"
- "Boy, it's something."
- "I've never seen anything like it."
- "You got that right."

Lesson Ten introduces the important word deal and how to use it in conversation:

- "Say, I heard you took a trip to Europe."
- "You bet."
- "How was it?"
- "It was quite the deal."
- "Sounds like a pretty good deal to me."

Lesson 16 explains the question form So...then and gives lots of example translations:

1. "Who are you?"
M: "So who are you then?"
2. "Why did you buy that car?"
M: "So why would anybody in their right mind buy a car like that then?"
3. "Is the whole-life policy a better investment?"
M: "So you're saying if a guy took that whole-life policy it wouldn't be too bad a deal then?"
4. "Why are you eating candy?"
M: "So does that one-pounder bag of M&Ms you got there in your hand mean that's about it on the diet then?"

I don't know, sounds like a pretty good deal to me, too.

Posted at 10:30 PDT  Link

Sunday, October 9, 2005

Aaniin niiji-bimaadiziig*

In honor of my visit to Indianhead Country, I decided to do a little research into Native American languages on the web, and Ojibwe (Anishinaabemowin, Chippewa) in particular. It turns out that there are quite a few resources and web pages devoted to the Ojibwe language. Besides Wikipedia, the best sites I found are the First Ojibwe NetWork (grammar, lessons, forum) and the Ojibwe Language Society (resources and links for learning). Pimsleur even has a basic Ojibwe course on cassettes or bookchip (memory card).

Fans of the comic strip For Better or Worse will recall that Elizabeth Patterson moved to the native village of Mtigwaki, Ontario to teach school, and a few words of Ojibwe cropped up in some of the strips. The artist Lynn Johnston has a very nice website that tells all about the Pattersons and Mtigwaki, and includes a list of Ojibwe words used in the strip.

Miigwech bizindawiyeg!**

* Hello, my fellow human beings.
** Thanks for listening to me!

Posted at 21:30 CDT  Link

Thursday, October 6, 2005

I Don't Think Snow

I'm currently vacationing in Wisconsin, and the sudden chill in the air does NOT make me long for snow. Instead I'll vicariously enjoy hahatla,nylaipin, or maybe a rare depptla if I can find one on eBay (and if other frenzied bidders don't drive up the price).

Thanks for an amusing post, Language Log!

Posted at 21:10 CDT  Link

Tuesday, October 4, 2005

The Hobbit in Gaeilge

Exciting news - The Hobbit has been translated into Irish and will be published Real Soon Now! Here is what the first sentence looks like:

I bpoll sa talamh a bhí cónaí ar hobad.
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.

An Hobad will be a valuable addition to all those Hobbit collections out there!

Posted at 09:25 PDT  Link

Sunday, October 2, 2005

Serenity At Last

我的媽和她的瘋狂的外甥都 [Holy mother of god and all her wacky nephews], Serenity is the best movie I've seen in quite a while! If you watched the short-lived TV series Firefly that preceded it, you'll have noticed that Chinese characters and phrases pop up all over the place. There's a long but often-interesting discussion on Hanzi Smatter about the quality and purpose of Chinese in Firefly:

Anyone who's ever seen a show written by Joss Whedon knows that odd uses of dialogue are a favorite toy of his (e.g., "If I see hand touch metal, I swear by my pretty floral bonnet I will end you" = "I swear that I'll kill you if you reach for your gun") -- They enjoy coming up with outlandishly odd curses ("oh, Elephants' flaming farts!") and had those translated into Chinese by a native speaker. No, they're not Chinese curses or phrases -- but they're not English ones, either. They're Whedonisms.

And fellow geek Ying has painstakingly annotated every use of Chinese in both Firefly and Serenity in his Chinese Pinyinary:

宁静 [ Traditional: 寧靜 ]
Ning2jing4
"Serenity"
1. on ship's logo, visible at beginning and end of movie
2. in movie logo, on official Serenity movie site
3. in movie logo, towards the end of the first and second American trailers...

And so on, for many well-indexed pages. Master Ying, I bow before your superior geekiness!

Posted at 22:00 PDT  Link

Saturday, October 1, 2005

Bonin up on Creoles

I ran across an interesting article in the Asahi Shimbun about a "new language" spoken in the Bonin Islands that was discovered by Dr. Daniel Long, Associate Professor of Japanese Linguistics at Tokyo Metropolitan University:

At a village on Chichijima, one of the Ogasawara Islands (Bonin Islands) about 1,000 kilometers south of Tokyo, Long encountered a more than 150-year-old community whose northeastern U.S. and Pacific Island roots helped create a unique native tongue. The group comprises about 10 percent of the island's 1,800 residents, Long says. While they speak Japanese, some, usually the older community members, also speak English. And many use a hybrid of both. It's not just a mix, Long says, but an entirely separate language.
...The result is a language that uses English for terms such as numbers and time - yesterday, last month, for example. Japanese words as well as sentence structure are also used to form sentences such as: "Yesterday me apple tabeta," Long says.

The Asiatic Society of Japan has a report on a lecture given by Dr. Long in 2003 with a detailed history of how this strange language came about:

Under the U.S. Navy administration, the diglossic situation was reversed, with English becoming the high language, and Japanese the low. Also by this time Japanese schoolchildren had begun to create a mixed language of Japanese and English, in which the regular grammar of each language is retained in the respective words used. Dr. Long gave an example of a conversation which began, "Oh, good morning. Omae yesterday doko itta kai?" Of this generation, some can speak perfectly natural English, and others perfect Japanese, and a few are equally proficient in both. But some can only speak the mixed language with confidence, because it was their first language, and they would have to separate out the elements if they wanted to speak only English or Japanese. Such a mixed language is different from pidgin or creole, in which the grammatical structures of the original languages are broken down and reorganized. But, as in the case of creoles, where the grammar is taken from the mother's language and the vocabulary from the father's, so we find Japanese grammar and English vocabulary where a Western man has married a Japanese woman.

In addition to their fascinating language and that whole tropical paradise thing, another charming feature of the Bonin Islands is their Japanese names: Chichijima (Father Island), Hahajima (Mother Island), Anejima (Older Sister Island) and so on. The Wikipedia has a complete list of island names, with Kanji.

Posted at 18:00 PDT  Link