Tuesday, January 31, 2006

I Should Have Known Better

It looked so promising: The Language Geek Test, with a picture of a weathered Russian mailbox. "This test will measure how much you know about languages of the world..." How could I resist?

Ignoring all the warning signs (site name: OkCupid, many links urging me to sign up), I proceeded to take the test, hardly cheating at all! After answering the 20 questions I confidently looked for a good score, maybe even a perfect score... But wait, just a few personal questions, "for statistical purposes"; "we'll never sell your data." I should hope not! You don't need my birthday, or zip code, or marital status, and I'm not open to new friends or even short term encounters; just give me my results! But no-o-o-o, it kept urging me to sign up, join up, pick a screen name, gah.

On about the fifth try, and after entering bogus personal data, I finally received the verdict: Super Megalinguist - "You scored 92% on Linggeekishness!"

What an anticlimax. I'm exhausted.

Posted at 22:59 PST  Link | Tags: ,

Saturday, January 28, 2006


Following a link from mimi33_yume's Japan Diary of Culture (via Mellow Monk), I found a Japanese-through-comics site called Mangarama, a Digital Comic Learning System. The best thing about this site is that each 4-panel comic can be played as a Quicktime™ movie so you can listen to the Japanese dialog. It also provides Romanization, English translations, and a few explanatory notes.

Mangarama reminded me of the long-defunct magazine called Mangajin, which pioneered the use of Japanese manga for language-learning. (The name is a pun on manga + jin, "comics person", and the word magazine pronounced Japanese-style.) In the early days of my Japanese study efforts I subscribed to Mangajin after spotting a tiny advertisement in a magazine. The arrival of a new issue each month was an exciting event; I would pore over the articles and try to understand the Japanese before checking the translations. I give Mangajin a lot of credit for motivating my studies and turning me into a fan of What's Michael. Anyway, the magazine expired from financial starvation in 1996, but you can still get back-issues from the Wasabi Brothers web site, as well as two volumes of Mangajin's Basic Japanese Through Comics (Amazon link).

While doing research for this post, I discovered that Mangajin editor/translator Wayne P. Lammers has a new book out: Japanese the Manga Way. "It's not cartoons, it's education," according to the respected writer Donald Richie in this review. そうですよね。

Posted at 17:55 PST  Link | Tags: , ,

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Algonquian in The New World

I read with interest that the makers of the movie The New World hired a linguist to reconstruct phrases in an extinct Native American language in order to "lend historical realism to the movie". The New World dramatizes the famous story of Pocahontas and John Smith and the English settlement of Jamestown, Virginia in 1607. Pocahontas belonged to the Powhatan tribe, whose language was one of many dialects of Eastern Algonquian called Virginia Algonquian. The National Geographic website has an interview with linguist Blair Rudes of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte:

The real job was to figure out what Virginia Algonquian looked like in terms of pronunciation and grammar and trying to figure out which of the other eastern languages it was similar to, so I knew where to go when I needed to have a word or grammatical structure that was not attested by Strachey or Smith. ...

I jokingly refer to the language in the film as the Blair Rudes dialect of Virginia Algonquian. The core of it is based on the material collected by Strachey and John Smith. But only maybe a quarter of the words necessary to translate the dialogue were attested in that material. I had to go elsewhere for the rest. ...

The Algonquian are among the easier [Native American languages] in terms of pronunciation for a European. They tend to be somewhat like Spanish, for example, in terms of having a consonant-vowel-consonant-vowel structure. This is one of the reasons why the English borrowed quite a number of words from the Algonquian language that we still have today, like pecan, opossum, and moccasins.

The NG site also has an audio clip of lines from the script spoken in Virginia Algonquian. See this page for some more information and examples.

I was amused to see that the writer of an article in Newsday seems to have gotten a little confused trying to describe the language without using heavy-duty linguistic terms:

With an inflection system reminiscent of Russian, pronunciation rules comparable to Japanese, and an overall structure similar to Spanish, Virginia Algonquian translates the phrase, "We come from England," as "Inkuruntunk nunowámun," -- the first word pronounced as INK-uh-dun-tunk.

Presumably "reminiscent of Russian" refers to the fact that "Algonquian languages are polysynthetic, i.e., they add prefixes and suffixes to stems to indicate various grammatical categories." Russian is classified as inflecting or fusional, not polysynthetic, but it certainly does have a lot of inflections.

Posted at 17:20 PST  Link | Tags: ,

Monday, January 23, 2006

War and Peace Revisited

When I walked through the door of the bookstore, there it was gleaming before me on the New Releases table: the new translation of War and Peace by Anthony Briggs. "Eh bien, mon prince," I muttered as I grasped the massive white tome and opened it to Part I, Chapter I.

'First things first,' he said. 'How are you, my dear friend? Put my mind at rest.' His voice remained steady, and his tone, for all its courtesy and sympathy, implied indifference and even gentle mockery.
'How can one feel well when one is ... suffering in a moral sense? Can any sensitive person find peace of mind nowadays?' said Anna Pavlovna. 'I do hope you're staying all evening.'

Here is Tolstoy's original text:

- Avant tout dites moi, comment vous allez, chère amie? Успокойте меня, - сказал он, не изменяя голоса и тоном, в котором из-за приличия и участия просвечивало равнодушие и даже насмешка.
- Как можно быть здоровой... когда нравственно страдаешь? Разве можно, имея чувство, оставаться спокойною в наше время? - сказала Анна Павловна. - Вы весь вечер у меня, надеюсь?

I read a review of this translation last October and blogged about it here; now I was able to see how Briggs translated the "fellow countrymen" bit:

A wounded veteran with his arm in a sling, who had been walking along behind the cart, took hold of it with his good arm, and looked round at Pierre.
'You from these parts?' he said. 'Are they dropping us here or taking us on to Moscow?'

I was delighted to find Briggs' translation eminently readable, and look forward to perusing all my favorite sections.

Posted at 12:35 PST  Link | Tags: ,

Saturday, January 21, 2006

You need to restart your computer

When I woke up my computer this morning it reacted like a startled hamster and snarled at me:

Veuillez redémarrer votre ordinateur. Maintenez la touche de démarrage enfoncée pendant plusieurs secondes ou bien appuyez sur le bouton de réinitialisation.

Sie müssen Ihren Computer neu starten. Halten Sie dazu die Einschalttaste einige Sekunden gedrückt oder drücken Sie die Neustart-Taste.

コンピュータを再起動する必要があります。 パワーボタンを数秒間押し続けるが、 リセットボタンを押してください。

I hate it when that happens. But you know, Steph doesn't seem panicked at all.

Posted at 12:05 PST  Link | Tags: ,

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Czech vs. Slovak

According to a Reuters news story, the younger generation in the Czech Republic doesn't understand Slovak:

Czech television executives decided last year to begin dubbing Slovak shows into Czech. Many middle-aged and older Czechs were outraged and articles criticising the move appeared in the national press. The executives justified their decision by citing studies that show 30 percent of Czech teenagers and young adults have trouble understanding Slovak entertainment...

Slovaks still watch Czech television and read newspapers from their bigger neighbour, and many say they barely notice whether a book or film is in Czech or Slovak. But in the Czech Republic, Slovak television has all but disappeared, Slovak press is sold at only a few fringe shops, and most of the 200,000 Slovak residents speak Czech.

I always thought that Czech and Slovak were pretty much the same language, like Serbian and Croatian, and that Slovak was just a dialect of Czech. But that turns out to be a false impression, probably because of the name of the country where they were spoken, the former Czechoslovakia. According to a Wikipedia article, the Slovak language has been evolving separately since the 10th century. And as a minority language without an army, Slovak has had to fight for recognition in other ways. A notice in the front of my Slovak translation of The Hobbit proudly states that the first publication of Tolkien's work in Czechoslovakia was the Slovak edition in 1973, five years before the Czech edition:

Prvé slovenské vydanie Hobbita bolo prvým prekladom z Tolkienovej tvorby vôbec v niekdajšom Československu. Hobbit vyšiel na Slovensku už v roku 1973, teda pät’ rokov pred prvým českým prekladom.

Posted at 15:00 PST  Link | Tags: , ,

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Listen Up

As I trawl the web for language-related sites, it's usually exotic CJK characters or cryptic scripts that catch my eye, so to speak. But occasionally I come across sites with an interesting audio component, and I've accumulated a short list of them for your listening pleasure.

First, the online language lab has pronunciation guides to 7 varieties of English and 9 other languages. They use Shockwave Flash to play sound samples, so you simply wave the cursor over the words you want to hear. I spent an entertaining half-hour sampling various English accents; I can't for the life of me figure out how the Aussies produce "oo" as in "too" - it sounds to me like "u" followed by Russian "ы". As for other languages, check out the "Stress and Tone" pages, especially if you ever wondered what Chinese tones sound like, or want to hear the difference between the pronunciation of Japanese hashi meaning either "bridge" or "chopsticks".

The next page was mentioned by le Petit Champignacien recently. You can listen to an mp3 of Jacques Chirac's New Year greetings to the people of Europe translated into 20 European languages. (Oh, stop rolling your eyes!) I was disappointed that they didn't provide an audio version of Maltese, because I was curious to hear what that language sounds like. But it's interesting to open the translated text in a separate tab and follow along with the audio. Of the translations I listened to, all followed the script except for the Czech version, which sounded as if it were being translated on the fly by an interpreter.

And now for something completely different... I received an email from Blake Harrison, who has a website called Flocabulary. It's aimed at teens studying for their SATs, and teaches English vocabulary words using "educational hip-hop". I figured that I was too old and er, colorless to enjoy it, but there are some fun pages for word lovers, such as the intriguing words with no rhyme. (I've been wracking my brain to think of a word that rhymes with silver...) Flocabulary provides sample tracks from their CD that use "real rap vocabulary":

Dr. Doctor
I travel on foot so I peregrinate.
My love of nature's natural so it's innate.
I have a penchant for rustic walks up and down the coast.
When I can't take a walk I get gloomy and morose.
The only way that I could be mollified or appeased,
is to tear the roofs off the schools and let us all free.

Perhaps Flocabulary will inspire "the transformation of bookworms into hip-hop icons, a dictionary and a microphone...". Now that would be cool.

Posted at 16:30 PST  Link | Tags: , ,

Sunday, January 8, 2006

Dinosaur Comics!

Thanks to another excellent post from language hat, I have discovered Dinosaur Comics and am now the proud user of a Dashboard widget that displays the latest episode. This is the perfect comic for the graphically-challenged, like menya. Over the years, the Spouse has tried to interest me in various fine comics like Watchmen, Concrete, and recently, Girl Genius. I tried to enjoy them, but I kept reading the text and forgetting to look at the pictures. Confusion inevitably ensued.

But back to Dinosaur Comics... I used the handy Search feature and found all the strips that contained something language-related. Click here to generate a random link to one of them:

Posted at 15:50 PST  Link | Tags: ,

Friday, January 6, 2006

Simplified Chinese Considered Harmful 二

Pei-Pei Champion (周佩佩) continues to forge ahead on her campaign to teach Chinese using traditional characters and Zhuyin (also called BoPoMo). She must have noticed my earlier post, because I received an email along with a 92-page PowerPoint presentation:

Please offer your helping hand to save my beloved traditional script and Zhuyin. Please try to urge your school and schools in your district to include Chinese traditional script and Zhuyin in their curriculum (They are actually much more logical and easier to teach and learn than the simplified one and Romanized Pinyin.)!

I found the presentation pretty interesting, especially the section that shows how the "simplified" characters have caused confusion (from p.35):

"Misusage of Street Signs" from main-land Chinese Newspaper 光明日報, Sep 28th 1986

• In a prominent city, on one street, there are 35 out of 40 newly installed shop signs written in traditional characters.
• In another city, on one street, character 富 was miswritten by three shop owners into three wrong characters (self-created).
• The "travelers' inn/旅館" was even changed into "love motel/侶館".

It looks like the overriding consideration in simplifying some characters was to save strokes, regardless of meaning or convention. For example, the traditional character for "cool, cold" contains the 3-stroke "water" radical on the left, while the simplified version 凉 contains the 2-stroke "ice" radical. (Reference: Chinese-English Dictionary) Here's an example from the presentation of how the word 涼爽 "cool and refreshing" was simplified:

To save one stroke:
爽 is replaced by
Water is changed into ice.

If Ms. Champion gives me permission, I'll post a link to her presentation.

Posted at 10:35 PST  Link | Tags: ,

Sunday, January 1, 2006

Gaelic spelling update

As part of an effort at revitalization, Scottish Gaelic is getting an update. According to The Herald:

Gaelic, often characterised as a language frozen in time and embedded in the past, has proved it can keep pace with the modern world by adding to its vocabulary.

For the first time in almost 25 years, the official set of rules governing aspects of the language such as spelling, punctuation and grammar, has been revised and updated.

From ochone to òson, the language has proved it is striding confidently into the 21st century.

Included in the list of about 2000 words for which clear guidance is given on correct spelling are a few new ones which reflect Gaelic's ability to absorb modern concepts and adapt accordingly.

Definitive spellings of lesbian, giro, pizza, yoga, ozone, giraffe, Sikh and curry, among others, are listed in the new guide.

The "definitive spellings" are leasbach, dìoro, piotsa, iòga, òson, sioraf, Siog, and coiridh. Even more exotic spellings can be found in section 12 of the Gaelic Orthographic Conventions document (PDF). Can you figure out what the following words mean? (Click on a word for the answer.)

Posted at 19:10 PST  Link | Tags: , ,