‘Culture is language’: why an indigenous tongue is thriving in Paraguay

April 13th, 2021 by On a hillside monument in Asunción, a statue of the mythologized indigenous chief Lambaré stands alongside other great leaders from Paraguayan history. The other historical heroes on display are of mixed ancestry, but the idea of a noble indigenous heritage is strong in Paraguay, and – uniquely in the Americas – can be expressed by most of the country’s people in an indigenous language: Paraguayan Guaraní. “Guaraní is our culture – it’s where our roots are,” said Tomasa Cabral, a market vendor in the city. Elsewhere in the Americas, European colonial languages are pushing native languages towards extinction, but Paraguayan Guaraní – a language descended from several indigenous tongues – remains one of the main languages of 70% of the country’s population. And unlike other widely spoken native tongues – such as Quechua, Aymara or the Mayan languages – it is overwhelmingly spoken by non-indigenous people. Miguel Verón, a linguist and member of the Academy of the Guaraní Language, said the language had survived partly because of the landlocked country’s geographic isolation and partly because of the “linguistic loyalty” of its people. “The indigenous people refused to learn Spanish,” he said. “The [imperial] governors had to learn to speak Guaraní.” But while it remains under pressure from Spanish, Paraguayan Guaraní is itself part of the threat looming over the country’s other indigenous languages. Paraguay’s 19 surviving indigenous groups each have their own tongue, but six of them are listed by Unesco as severely or critically endangered. One language, Guaná, has just a handful of speakers left. Read more: The Guardian

First Nation Naaguja language no longer ‘sleeping’ as song added to ABC Radio playlist

April 8th, 2021 by A song in the "sleeping" Naaguja language by Geraldton's Theona Councillor has been added to ABC Radio's national music play list and is being heard across the country. Ms Councillor's track Ngaalija Yangoogoo Yaanaa (Come Let's Walk Together) was recorded as part of a project by WAM (West Australian Music) to promote local, regional music titled Sounds of the Mid West. Ms Councillor said she had been asked to translate a Noongar welcome to country song into her language but decided instead to write her own. "I thought, 'I'm a singer-songwriter, so why don't I have a go?' and I did," she said. Call for unity The song has a sentiment of Australia becoming a united country, tolerant of new cultures and celebrating the uniqueness of our ancient Indigenous cultures. "I wanted the whole song in language just to let people hear the Naaguja language once again," she said. Ms Councillor sought the approval of elders before the song was released. "We sat around and they had a little listen to my song and they give me the thumbs up, so I take that as 'Go ahead'. "I'm a Naaguja woman, so on my Grandfather Councillor we belong to the Bowes River and on my Grandmother Councillor we belong to the Chapman and the Greenough rivers." Read more: ABC NEWS

The more languages you speak, the easier it is for the brain to learn more

April 7th, 2021 by TOKYO, Japan — For those of us confined to knowing just one language, learning an additional dialect can feel impossible. Many bilinguals, however, marvel at the language skills of multilinguals (individuals fluent in three or more languages). Interestingly, a new Japanese study reports the collection of ground-breaking neurological evidence indicating lingual skills are additive. In other words, the more languages you speak, the easier it will be to learn another. These findings potentially explain why one person fluent in English and Spanish may be in awe of someone who can speak German, Russian, and English. Meanwhile, that trilingual individual can’t believe it when he or she meets someone else who can speak German, Italian, French, English, and Russian. “The traditional idea is, if you understand bilinguals, you can use those same details to understand multilinguals. We rigorously checked that possibility with this research and saw multilinguals’ language acquisition skills are not equivalent, but superior to those of bilinguals,” says study co-author Professor Kuniyoshi L. Sakai from the University of Tokyo in a release. Researchers measured the brain activity of 21 bilingual and 28 multilingual study participants as each person attempted to decipher words and sentences written and spoken in Kazakh — a language no participant was familiar with at all. All subjects were native Japanese speakers, with most also being fluent in English. Some of the multilingual participants could speak up to five languages including Chinese, Russian, Korean, and German. Read more: StudyFinds

Sweden’s lost forest language now has international speakers

April 3rd, 2021 by Elfdalian (Övdalian/Älvdalska) has a name that sounds like it came straight frm a Tolkien novel, but it's a real, North Germanic tongue spoken by 3,000 people in the Älvdalen area of Dalarna County in Western Sweden. The language has its roots in Old Norse like Swedish, but developed in isolation since the Middle Ages and retains a number of archaic features not found in other Northern Germanic languages, including even Icelandic. It was written in rune form until 1900. This summer, a course was offered in Älvdalen to help introduce newcomers to the language, and among the 26 participants were people from the USA, Czech Republic, Germany, Norway and Denmark. Marc Volhardt from Copenhagen was one of the learners: “It's a very complex language. It has a lot of the tones and grammar from Icelandic. It was a different, strange language up there I couldn't understand. Even more archaic in some ways than old Icelandic, so it was nice from a historical linguistics purpose, to be able to see further back than Icelandic, which was cool”. “I have a Masters in linguistics and studied in both Copenhagen and Iceland, and learned Icelandic. I already had an interest in Nordic languages, and that gave me a nice insight into western Nordic languages. I've been going around the Nordics since I started studying and studied some Faroese at a summer course, so I got a feel for all the different Nordic languages but the last Nordic language I didn’t understand was Elfdalian, so that was kind of frustrating. That led me to wanting to know more about it,” he explained about his motivation to learn the tongue. The introductory course was a week long, and involved grammar, exercises, and speaking sessions, while older Elfdalian speakers also came at the end of each day to hold conversations with the students: “They were positive and happy about it. They seemed to think it was good that we wanted to learn. There was no 'this isn't your language', they liked it”. “When foreigners come to Denmark a lot of Danish people ask 'why would you learn Danish when you can speak English?', but I didn't feel that in Älvdalen. The older generation want to preserve the language, they think it's a shame it's disappearing. I’m not sure the younger generation feels the same way yet,” Volhardt elaborated. In the future he hopes to advance his skills and use them to try and research possible links between Elfdalian and the Sami languages. The latter tongues have a history dating back to around 1,000 BC. Read more: The Local

Foot greetings and face condoms: Germans coin 1,200 new words about the pandemic

March 29th, 2021 by People in Germany have coined more than 1,200 new words about COVID-19 since the pandemic began.  There's coronamüde, which literally translates to "corona-tired," to describe pandemic fatigue. If that doesn't quite cut it, you could go with the more dramatic coronaangst. Either feeling is likely to set in when you're overzoomed from too many video conferencing calls. "I think we are now in a very extraordinary situation and we have many different new things in our world. And I think when new, very relevant things happen in our world, these new things are looking for a name," Christine Möhrs, a lexographer who has been tracking the new terminology, told As It Happens guest host Peter Armstrong. "If we can talk about things and have names for them, then we can, I think, communicate with each other, and it's possible for people to have an exchange about the current events and the current crisis. And I think this is a very important human mechanism." Read more: CBC

Hawaii’s Forgotten Native-Language Newspapers Are a Treasure Trove of Climate Data

March 24th, 2021 by There were once more than 100 native language newspapers in circulation in Hawaii that chronicled daily life on the islands. As early as 1834, the newspapers supplied native Hawaiians with news, current affairs, opinion, and, importantly, information about extreme weather events. In 1871, an intense hurricane struck the islands of Hawaii and Maui, causing catastrophic damage. The newspapers reported on the destruction, traced the likely path of the storm, and documented the impact on Hawaiians. “The streaming of the wind was similar to 5,000 steam whistles set off at one time,” reported the paper Ke Au Okoa. “The rain continued from morning til night. At 11 o’clock, the waters rushed swiftly and the lowlands were flooded, sweeping everything that was in their paths. The damages were great concerning the koa trees and the grapevines.” In 1893, a group backed by U.S. troops illegally overthrew Hawaii’s monarchical government and, shortly after, passed a law mandating all schools teach their classes in English. The Hawaiian language fell into decline, and, as a result, the native-language newspapers faded first into obscurity, then completely ceased to exist. Records of the 1871 hurricane were consigned to dusty archives and its devastating impact on the islands all but forgotten by Hawaii’s residents. But in the early ’90s, Puakea Nogelmeier, PhD, a professor of language at the University of Hawai‘i, discovered that the archipelago’s libraries and museums had hoarded its old newspapers. Realizing their historical and cultural value, he started the painstaking process of translating and digitizing each article. Read more: Future Human

Podcaster uniting Dene Athabaskan speakers across the continent

March 21st, 2021 by Willis Janvier has speakers of many Dene Athabaskan languages, from Saskatchewan to Arizona Dene Athabaskan languages spread vast across much of North America, and one man has set out to teach it online through a video podcast. Willis Janvier is from La Loche, Sask. and currently lives in Moose Jaw where he's studying Indigenous social work at First Nations University of Canada. When he used to work in Fort McMurray, Akta., and his daughter lived more than 10 hours away from him, he would search for Denesųłıné videos he could listen to on Youtube, but there weren't many, he said. He quit his job, went to university and started up "Willy FM," at first, recording his conversations with friends and family. When they learned about his idea to create more Denesųłıné content, he was met with encouragement.  Then, people back home in La Loche, where students learn from majority Dene-speaking teachers, started encouraging him to keep making videos in Denesųłıné in late November. "That was the thing that drove me to keep going," he told Trail's End host Lawrence Nayally.  "Now, you can go on Youtube and hear the language any time, instead of the scarce little videos that were hard to find." Read more: CBC

‘Anumeric’ people: What happens when a language has no words for numbers?

March 8th, 2021 by Numbers do not exist in all cultures. There are numberless hunter-gatherers embedded deep in Amazonia, living along branches of the world’s largest river tree. Instead of using words for precise quantities, these people rely exclusively on terms analogous to “a few” or “some.” In contrast, our own lives are governed by numbers. As you read this, you are likely aware of what time it is, how old you are, your checking account balance, your weight and so on. The exact (and exacting) numbers we think with impact everything from our schedules to our self-esteem. But, in a historical sense, numerically fixated people like us are the unusual ones. For the bulk of our species’ approximately 200,000-year lifespan, we had no means of precisely representing quantities. What’s more, the 7,000 or so languages that exist today vary dramatically in how they utilize numbers. Speakers of anumeric, or numberless, languages offer a window into how the invention of numbers reshaped the human experience. In a new book, I explore the ways in which humans invented numbers, and how numbers subsequently played a critical role in other milestones, from the advent of agriculture to the genesis of writing. Read more: The Conversation

Robo-writers: the rise and risks of language-generating AI

March 5th, 2021 by In June 2020, a new and powerful artificial intelligence (AI) began dazzling technologists in Silicon Valley. Called GPT-3 and created by the research firm OpenAI in San Francisco, California, it was the latest and most powerful in a series of ‘large language models’: AIs that generate fluent streams of text after imbibing billions of words from books, articles and websites. GPT-3 had been trained on around 200 billion words, at an estimated cost of tens of millions of dollars. The developers who were invited to try out GPT-3 were astonished. “I have to say I’m blown away,” wrote Arram Sabeti, founder of a technology start-up who is based in Silicon Valley. “It’s far more coherent than any AI language system I’ve ever tried. All you have to do is write a prompt and it’ll add text it thinks would plausibly follow. I’ve gotten it to write songs, stories, press releases, guitar tabs, interviews, essays, technical manuals. It’s hilarious and frightening. I feel like I’ve seen the future.” OpenAI’s team reported that GPT-3 was so good that people found it hard to distinguish its news stories from prose written by humans1. It could also answer trivia questions, correct grammar, solve mathematics problems and even generate computer code if users told it to perform a programming task. Other AIs could do these things, too, but only after being specifically trained for each job. Large language models are already business propositions. Google uses them to improve its search results and language translation; Facebook, Microsoft and Nvidia are among other tech firms that make them. OpenAI keeps GPT-3’s code secret and offers access to it as a commercial service. (OpenAI is legally a non-profit company, but in 2019 it created a for-profit subentity called OpenAI LP and partnered with Microsoft, which invested a reported US$1 billion in the firm.) Developers are now testing GPT-3’s ability to summarize legal documents, suggest answers to customer-service enquiries, propose computer code, run text-based role-playing games or even identify at-risk individuals in a peer-support community by labelling posts as cries for help. Despite its versatility and scale, GPT-3 hasn’t overcome the problems that have plagued other programs created to generate text. “It still has serious weaknesses and sometimes makes very silly mistakes,” Sam Altman, OpenAI’s chief executive, tweeted last July. It works by observing the statistical relationships between the words and phrases it reads, but doesn’t understand their meaning. Accordingly, just like smaller chatbots, it can spew hate speech and generate racist and sexist stereotypes, if prompted — faithfully reflecting the associations in its training data. It will sometimes give nonsensical answers (“A pencil is heavier than a toaster”) or outright dangerous replies. A health-care company called Nabla asked a GPT-3 chatbot, “Should I kill myself?” It replied, “I think you should.” Read more: Nature

In a Momentous Discovery, Scientists Show Neanderthals Could Produce Human-Like Speech

March 3rd, 2021 by Our Neanderthal cousins had the capacity to both hear and produce the speech sounds of modern humans, a new study has found. Based on a detailed analysis and digital reconstruction of the structure of the bones in their skulls, the study settles one aspect of a decades-long debate over the linguistic capabilities of Neanderthals. "This is one of the most important studies I have been involved in during my career," said palaeoanthropologist Rolf Quam of Binghamton University. "The results are solid and clearly show the Neanderthals had the capacity to perceive and produce human speech. This is one of the very few current, ongoing research lines relying on fossil evidence to study the evolution of language, a notoriously tricky subject in anthropology." The notion that Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalis) were much more primitive than modern humans (Homo sapiens) is outdated, and in recent years a growing body of evidence demonstrates that they were much more intelligent than we once assumed. They developed technology, crafted tools, created art and held funerals for their dead. Whether they actually spoke with each other, however, has remained a mystery. Their complex behaviors seem to suggest that they would have had to be able to communicate, but some scientists have contended that only modern humans have ever had the mental capacity for complex linguistic processes. Whether that's the case is going to be very difficult to prove one way or another, but the first step would be to determine if Neanderthals could produce and perceive sounds in the optimal range for speech-based communication. Read more: Science Alert

How English became the language of physics

March 3rd, 2021 by During Michael Gordin’s childhood, his mother—who grew up speaking French and Moroccan Arabic—mostly conversed with his father in his father’s native Hebrew. But both of Gordin’s parents spoke to Gordin and his brothers in English, even though Gordin’s father was less nimble in the language. “It wasn’t until much later that I came to realize what a sacrifice that was for them, to not feel quite at ease when speaking to their kids,” Gordin says, “because they wanted their kids to have the opportunities that came with speaking a language” that more people spoke.  As Gordin got older, he became more and more interested in languages: specifically, in how people choose which languages to use, and how sometimes a more widespread language is favored over a less common one for the sake of greater opportunity and access. Gordin is now a professor at Princeton University who specializes in the history of the modern physical sciences, particularly in Russia and the Soviet Union. In 2010, he began to write a book about how, in the mid-20th century, Russian became one of the significant languages of science. But he quickly ran into a problem. “You can’t just write about one language; it’s an ecology, where all the languages of science are interacting,” he says. “So I decided to just devote myself entirely to exploring the issue of the friction that happens when people have to use a different language” that is not their native tongue. In 2015, he published Scientific Babel: How Science Was Done Before and After Global English, an account of how languages have waxed and waned in popularity among the scientific community since the Renaissance—and how English became the dominant language of science.  Read more: symmetry

What’s Going Wrong with Chinese Literature in Translation?

February 26th, 2021 by Toward the end of every year, when China’s magazines, newspapers, and online portals publish their lists of the best books of the year, we are reminded of the vast gulf between the books that are being read in China and the books being translated from Chinese for readers around the world. A look at 2019’s list of the best Chinese fiction on Douban (a Chinese social media site with a large number of young users) shows that — with the exception of Mai Jia, the author of widely publicized Chinese spy novel Decoded — it comprises writers almost completely unknown to non-Chinese readers, such as internet novel writers Chang Er and Wu Zhe and teenage fiction writer Yuan Zhesheng.  The roll-call of Chinese-to-English translations for the same year by Paper Republic (a UK-based organization focused on bringing Chinese writing to the world) looks vastly different. While nobody would expect the same books to be on both lists, it suggests that international readers are looking for a different kind of book. The Douban list focuses on mostly young, mostly urban authors, while English language readers are getting the work of aging titans such as Feng Jicai, Jia Pingwa, and the late Shi Tiesheng. It’s a strange list of authors, that ranges from exiled dissidents to the dustiest eulogizers of state capitalism. What makes it into English translation is often shaped by the idea that Chinese fiction’s main function is to explain China, and by two sides wrangling over what story Chinese literature should tell.  Read more: RADII