Saturday, October 13, 2007

-.-. --.- / -- --- .-. ... . / -.-. --- -.. . / --. . . -.- ...

Once again the WSJ comes through with a language-geeky article. This time it's about a guy who is into Morse Code in a big way:

Nostalgic for simpler days, retired astrophysicist Chuck Adams is translating classics of boys' lit into a language he fears is going the way of kit radios and marbles: Morse code.

Holed up in his high-desert home crammed with computers, radio receivers and a very patient wife, Mr. Adams uses homemade software to download online books with expired copyrights, convert the typed words into Morse code tones and record them on compact discs he sells on the Internet.

Like all Morse experts, Mr. Adams rarely breaks signals down into letters, instead hearing complete words much as readers recognize words on a page. When he transcribes a message at high speeds, his fingers are five or 10 words behind his ears. When he is "in the zone" he isn't even conscious of what he is transcribing, he says. He has to read it later to understand the message.

When he listens to one of his books, the code is like a voice speaking to him.

I bet learning to listen to books in Morse Code would be like learning a language, only a whole lot easier. I suppose you could teach yourself to read it too, sort of like Braille.

I remember my brother tapping out Morse Code as a teenager: -.-. --.- -.-. --.- -.. . .-- -... ----. Ham radio was sort of the ICQ of that time. Those who weren't dedicated/technical/geeky enough to get a ham license had to content themselves with CB radio, which was cheaper and didn't require taking tests to get a license.

... .. --. .... .---- / -. --- ... - .- .-.. --. .. .- / ... - .-. .. -.- . ... / .- --. .- .. -. .----

Posted at 17:32 PDT  Link | Tags: ,

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Babel Babble

Every so often I receive an email about a website offering to exchange links with my blog. These websites fall into 3 categories: language blogs, language learning/networking, or sites that want to sell a language-related product. Anything that smacks of advertising is discarded. ( is proudly ad-free!) Occasionally a website in one of the first two categories looks interesting. Such is Babelhut, a new language blog by two guys who are trying to motivate themselves and (hopefully) others in their language-learning efforts. Check it out!

Motivation is thin on the ground here. In fact, my language learning efforts these days resemble this cartoon:

(BTW, Bækur is Icelandic for "books", which fact I gleaned from this thread on the UniLang forum. (I tried to register on UniLang recently, but no matter which user name I chose, it responded with the stern message ERROR: An account for such a name already exists. (even for bizarre Russian concoctions). So I gave up and fired off an aggrieved email (which remains unanswered). (Note to self: Avoid excessive use of nested parentheses (8-p)) ))

Posted at 22:16 PDT  Link

Sunday, September 30, 2007

News Flash: Latin Not Dead Yet

Saturday's edition of the Wall Street Journal throws some lux on the resurgence of Latin:

High-school-Latin enrollments are up, in part because students hope college admissions offices will be impressed to see such a hard subject on their transcripts. There are Latin translations of Dr. Seuss, Elvis Presley and Harry Potter.

But not of Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit! Get on the stick, Latinists! Apparently you're spending all your Latin neurons writing articles for Vicipaedia, the Latin Wikipedia:

Vicipaedia has 15,000 articles. Catullus, Horace and the Roman Senate all are there; so are musica rockica, Georgius Bush and cadavera animata, a k a zombies. You can read in Latin about hangman (homo suspensus), paper airplanes (aeroplanum chartaceum) and magic 8-balls (pila magica 8), as well as about famous Italians like Leonardo da Vinci and the Super Mario brothers.

Most of the work among the editors is collegial, though now and then debates break out. One involved the proper neologism for "computer." Vicipaedia calls it a computatrum, despite the vehement opposition of editor Justin Mansfield, who says the word is just bad Latin.

"You can't use 'trum' at will to make new words," insists Mr. Mansfield, also a classics grad student. " 'Trum' actually fell out of use around the time of the Punic Wars. It's like 'th' in English. You can say 'warmth,' but you can't say 'coolth.' "

Mr. Mansfield lobbied for computatorium but was outvoted. He prevailed, though, with "particle accelerators," the atom smashers used by physicists, which, per his suggestion, are known on Vicipaedia as particularum acceleratorium.

Observes Mr. Rocchio, "We tend to argue about words ad infinitum."

Still think Latin is dead? Deceased? Defunct? Demised? Resting in pacis? What about Google in Latin (quod vide), and the plethora of pages devoted to studying, learning, and translating Latin? What about that, heus? Dictum sapienti sat est.

Here are a few useful Latin phrases culled from the web:

Sit vis nobiscum. May the force be with you.
Cum catapulatae proscriptae erunt tum soli proscript catapultas habebunt. When catapults are outlawed, only outlaws will have catapults.
Feles mala! Cur cista non uteris? Stramentum novum in ea pousi. Bad kitty! Why don't you use the cat box? I put new litter in it.
Utinam logica falsa tuam philosophiam totam suffodiant! May faulty logic undermine your entire philosophy!
Si hoc signum legere potes, operis boni in rebus Latinus alacribus et fructuosis potiri potes! If you can read this sign, you can get a good job in the fast-paced, high-paying world of Latin!
Omnia dicta fortiora si dicta Latina. Everything sounds more impressive when said in Latin.

Vale, lacerte! Abeo.

Posted at 20:06 PDT  Link | Tags: ,

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Once More With Feeling

There's that word again - Sprachgefühl. This time it "popped up" in an article about editors at Merriam-Webster investigating new English words for the New Collegiate Dictionary:

The editors spend hours reading everything from science and medical journals to entertainment and fashion magazines. They have no phones on their desks, and if there's a need for conversation, communication might happen in a whisper if not an e-mail or handwritten note. New-looking words are highlighted, and the passage in which they are discovered is typed onto an index card and entered into a computer database.

...Along with an extensive vocabulary, the editors also need something a bit less tangible to hunt their quarry. And there isn't even an English word for it: Sprachgefuhl. "It's just a feeling for the language," Lowe said, defining the German term. "It's an intuitive sense of what is linguistically appropriate."

M-W's online dictionary does contain the word Sprachgefuhl, both sans and avec umlaut. The first definition, "the character of a language", is how it's used in the article about Toki Pona below. The "feeling for language" sense is used in a Wikipedia Talk discussion about loanwords:

I suggest that loanword should be limited to English words of recognizable or easily traceable foreign origin. This will require a certain amount of Sprachgefühl, but we are an encyclopedia and that is one of the requirements that is placed on us. Sprachgefühl ("feel for language"), btw, is a Gastworte, that is, a "guest word" from another language that has not turned into a loanword.

...Absorption of words from other languages is one of the glories of our language, and one of the reasons that we have more words than any other language, and also the reason our spelling is such tuff stuff.

Ain't English grand and glorious?

I found one more fun page about Sprachgefühl on the A.Word.A.Day site:

The best illustration of Sprachgefuhl, or the lack of it, was an 1855 Portuguese-English phrase book intended to help Portuguese speakers master the English language. Titled "English As She Is Spoke", it was authored by one Pedro Carolino. The only problem was that Pedro didn't know any English. On the plus side, he did have a Portuguese-French phrase book. Pedro simply picked up a French-English dictionary and tried the circuitous route: Portuguese to French to English.

The page goes on to cite examples of Pedro's tortured translations. Read them and laugh with horrified fascination.

Posted at 13:32 PDT  Link | Tags: ,

Monday, September 3, 2007

Invented Languages Want to be Free

Have you ever tried creating a language, studied Klingon or Esperanto, or pored over The Languages of Tolkien's Middle-earth? Then you'll enjoy reading this article on SFGate about the proliferation of invented languages on the Internet.

...[Sonja Elen] Kisa, 28, a student and translator in Toronto, decided to create her own language, something simple that would help clarify her thinking. She called it Toki Pona - "good language" - and gave it just 120 words. "Ale li pona," she told herself. "Everything will be OK."

And everything is OK - Toki Pona "focuses on the good things in life", according to the official website. "The language is designed to steer us towards positive and constructive thinking." Ignoring a tiny twinge of (doubtless English-induced) skepticism here, I have to say that Toki Pona is appealing in its extreme simplicity, although according to Wikipedia, it resembles Orwell's Newspeak. Surely not! sina pana e ike, la sina kama jo e ike. toki pona li toki pona.

Tolkien liked to call invented language his secret vice. He spent hours at the solitary hobby, designing grammars and modifying words from Latin, Finnish, Welsh and others for his languages. Eventually, his languages needed tongues to speak them, and those speakers needed a place to live. And thus Middle-Earth was born, with Tolkien's languages becoming the Sindarin and Quenya of the Elves, the Khuzdul of the Dwarves, and the Black Speech of the Orcs.

In the 12th century, the nun Hildegard of Bingen developed a rudimentary conlang she called Lingua Ignota, Latin for "unknown language" No one knows its purpose.

Speaking as one who has spent hours working on an invented language, I don't think there has to be a definite purpose. It's fun, and absorbing, an obsessive outlet for creativity. Something like composing a blog, in fact, or writing a computer program.

It is not enough simply to replace existing words with invented ones. To a conlanger, such a construction would be a mere code.
The conlanger considers many factors, starting with the sound of the language. Linguists call it phonaesthetics; Germans call it Sprachgefuhl - "speech feeling." ...

If a conlang is to be a language for nonhumans, the conlanger must consider their biology - if they lack teeth or vocal cords, the language's sounds will be constrained accordingly.

I was only 9 or 10, and my invented language was based on the utterances of the family cat. I compiled a big list of words, mostly made up of the sounds "m", "r", and "w". Meow, mrrr, mew, mrow... There was even a "new sound", a variant of "l". This language was basically a word substitution (code) for English, since I didn't know a thing about linguistics or other languages. I can't remember what I called my cat language, but there was an imaginary land of cats to go with it ("Kittyland") with a map and the start of a history ("Kittyland History").

As with everything else, technology marches on, and today's conlangers are quite sophisticated and have access to plenty of linguistic tools for building their languages. Just think of the interesting KittyLang I could come up with now. Prrr...

Posted at 11:48 PDT  Link

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Japanese Heroes

I've been enjoying the (subtitled) Japanese dialog in the TV series Heroes, and it sounded fine to my uncritical gaijin ears. Hero Hiro Nakamura and his sidekick Ando are the most appealing characters in the show, and now they've introduced Hiro's stern father Kaito Nakamura, played by George Takei of Star Trek fame. So here I was listening to the Japanese dialog in blissful ignorance until I read a blog entry by a native speaker titled "The numerous Japanese problems in Heroes":

Except for Saemi Nakamura, all the Japanese actors’ Japanese sounds wrong to some degree. She’s the only one who sounds like she’s actually Japanese. Hiro (Masi Oka)’s Japanese is okay I guess - I can understand him most of the time without reading the subtitles, though he does sound way like a helium-inhaling anime character. A big part of the problem is the dialogue he is given to say, which seems like it was written by some manga-anime fanboys rather than real script writers. Ando (James Kyson Lee)’s Japanese is totally incomprehensible; I have to read the subtitles to understand what he’s saying. I doubt he has any actual knowledge of Japanese. George Takei’s Japanese was stilted yet understandable, though it sure sounded rusty.

Actually I think the dialog is intended to sound like a comic book. Another blogger also took aim at the Japanese speech in Heroes:

Okay, I admittedly couldn't understand Hiro half the time. He kinda... mumbled his way through the lines, and the rhythm of the dialog through me off. His buddy was much easier to understand, although it amused me that his accent (likely Korean) slipped through a couple of times. Oh, and in just one line, the buddy busted out his Kansai-ben, which just make me laugh.

The actor playing Ando, James Kyson Lee, is of Korean ancestry, and has had to be coached with his Japanese lines. Masi Oka, who plays super-geek Hiro, was born in Japan but his family moved to Los Angeles when he was six. And George Takei is a Japanese-American whose Japanese is authentic but out of practice.

On a side note, in the original Star Trek George Takei played the supposedly Japanese Lt. Hikaru Sulu. I always found his last name to be totally bogus, since Japanese lacks our "l" sound. In Japanese "Sulu" would be pronounced "suru" - the most common verb in the language, meaning "to do". According to the Star Trek Wiki, "In the Japanese version of Star Trek, his family name was changed to 'Kato', a common surname." そうですね。

Heroes also has problems with a couple of the Japanese names. As blogger Makiko Itoh pointed out, "Ando" is a surname (安藤 or 安堂) and "Masahashi" sounds like a masculine first name, like Masaharu and Masahiro, although I couldn't find it listed in my book of Japanese Names. Hiro's father's given name, Kaito, is also listed there as a surname (垣外 or 垣内).

Oh well, on to a few Japanese factoids. The slogan Save the cheerleader, save the world! in Japanese is チアリーダーを救え、世界を救え! The word that Hiro is always yelling - Yatta!, meaning "I did it!" or "hooray!" or "Yes!", is the past tense of the verb やる, "to do"; SPACE ALC has some fun examples.

And then there's The Symbol. As it says in Wikipedia,

The symbol appears most frequently throughout the series. In episode 12 ("Godsend") the symbol, as appears on the sword hilt, is revealed by Ando Masahashi to be a combination of two Japanese characters: 才 (sai) meaning "great talent" and 与 (yo) meaning "Godsend".

The Symbol is a little bit too stylized for me to make out those characters, so I'll have to take their word for it. According to Jim Breen's WWWJDIC Server:

才 【さい】 (n) ability; gift; talent; aptitude; genius
  異才 【いさい】 (n) genius; prodigy
  才子 【さいし】 (n) talented man; clever man
  才人 【さいじん】 (n) talented person; clever person

与え 【あたえ】 (n) gift; godsend
  賞与 【しょうよ】 (n) reward; prize; bonus
  天与 【てんよ】 (n) godsend; heaven's gift

Posted at 14:36 PST  Link | Tags: ,