Rediscovered Medieval Manuscript Offers New Twist on Arthurian Legend

September 18th, 2021 by Thirteenth-century manuscript fragments discovered by chance at a library in Bristol, England, have revealed an alternative version of the story of Merlin, the famed wizard of Arthurian legend. A team of scholars translated the writings, known as the Bristol Merlin, from Old French to English and traced the pages’ medieval origins, reports Alison Flood for the Guardian. The manuscript is part of a group of texts called the Vulgate Cycle, or the Lancelot-Grail Cycle. Using handwriting analysis, the researchers determined that someone in northern or northeastern France wrote the text between 1250 and 1275. That means it was committed to parchment shortly after the Vulgate Cycle was first composed, between 1220 and 1225. “The medieval Arthurian legends were a bit like the Marvel Universe, in that they constituted a coherent fictional world that had certain rules and a set of well-known characters who appeared and interacted with each other in multiple different stories,” Laura Chuhan Campbell, a medieval language scholar at Durham University, tells Gizmodo’s Isaac Schultz. “This fragment comes from the second volume, which documents the rise of Merlin as Arthur’s advisor, and Arthur’s turbulent early years as king.” King Arthur first appeared in a history of Britain written in 829 or 830, notes the British Library. That text describes him as a warlord or Christian soldier. Later accounts from the 12th century added new elements to the legend, such as Merlin’s mentorship of Arthur. English writer Thomas Malory compiled one of the best-known collections of the stories, Le Morte d’Arthur, in the 15th century. Read more: Smithsonian

Quechua language endures in Peru despite centuries of discrimination

September 18th, 2021 by Leila Ccaico walked slowly to the front of her class in a rural village in the Andes. Reluctantly, she faced her classmates, obeyed her teacher's orders and started to sing softly in Quechua. This is the first year that the sixth-grader has been taking reading and writing lessons in the Indigenous language she learned from her parents, one that has survived despite centuries of laws and discrimination that discouraged its use. Halting efforts to revive and promote the language hit the spotlight last month when Peru's newly appointed prime minister surprised the nation by delivering a speech in Quechua to Congress for the first time in Peru's history. Translation into Spanish was unavailable, angering politicians who couldn't understand the speech -- a fact that illustrated Quechua's status as a second-class language in the South American country. But the incident also raised hopes among Quechua speakers that Peru's new government, led by a rural schoolteacher from an Indigenous region, will give their language more visibility and increase funding for bilingual education in villages where children are often reluctant to speak the ancient tongue. "I feel strange speaking Quechua; it's embarrassing" said 11-year-old Ccaico, whose name is pronounced something like "Hai-Ko" in English. Talking in Spanish, she said that children who speak Quechua at her school get bullied and added that parents in her village don't want children to learn the tongue because they think it will not help children when they move to the cities for work. Ccaico, whose parents are alpaca herders, said she stopped speaking Quechua fluently at the age of 6. She said she she was visiting a city and started to speak in Quechua, but her older sister told her to stop because passersby would make fun of them. It's a situation commonly faced by Quechua speakers in South America, even though the language is used by an estimated 10 million people in the region -- largely in Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia, all of which have made it an official language in recent decades. Five hundred years ago, Quechua was the lingua franca of the Inca Empire, which stretched from what is now southern Colombia to central Chile. But the language's status began to decline following the Spanish conquest of Peru. Though Spanish authorities initially tolerated Quechua, they banned it following an Indigenous rebellion in 1781. In 1975, a nationalist military government turned Quechua into an official language in Peru, along with Spanish. But legal recognition did not stop discrimination against Quechua speakers, who come mostly from poor and rural areas. During the conflict between Peru's government and the Shining Path guerrilla group in the 1980s and 1990s, some Indigenous people were tortured by the military and accused of being rebel collaborators merely for speaking Quechua, a truth commission found. Thousands of Quechua-speaking women were enrolled in forced sterilization campaigns in Peru during the 1990-2000 government of Alberto Fujimori and were denied medical attention in their native language. "We have suffered for 500 years. We walked slowly through hills and snowy peaks to arrive here in Congress, and have our voice heard" Prime Minister Guido Bellido said during his Quechua language speech on Aug 26. Read more: NWA Online

Te reo Māori and Welsh: Two indigenous languages, two stories of revival

September 18th, 2021 by Welsh is a dead language. This is what I’ve been hearing my entire life. I’ve always been aware of the comparison between my language and te reo Māori. Both, I knew, shared the precarious position of being endangered languages. I was surprised, then, to read this article looking to Wales with admiration for its handling of the language. Growing up, I would never have confessed to enjoying Welsh language music, television or books. I made a point of not being seen with the patriotic Welsh kids, and spoke to friends in English despite knowing we both spoke Welsh at home. Wales became the first English territory way back in the 13th century, before being officially incorporated into the kingdom by Henry VIII in the 16th century. While the Celtic name for our land, Cymru, refers to “friends” or “fellow countrymen”, Wales derives from an Anglo Saxon word meaning “foreigners” or “outsiders”. I learned how Welsh was literally beaten out of school children by none other than Welsh teachers, led to believe by a government commissioned report — known today as the Treachery of the Blue Books — that “the evil of the Welsh language” posed “a manifold barrier to the moral progress and commercial prosperity of the people”. Any child caught speaking Welsh was humiliated by the wearing of a heavy wooden plaque around the neck, reading WN or “Welsh not”. The child left wearing the plaque at the end of the day was physically and psychologically punished. It was a real shock, then, to find this video of Jemaine Clement breaking down as he said his kuia would be punished for speaking te reo. Just like us, generations were robbed of the language of their ancestors. Read more: The Spinoff

Can Indigenous Language Comics Save a Mother Tongue?

September 16th, 2021 by Tlaloc is a tempestuous deity: provider and withholder. The god of rain, he looms large in the belief system of the Ñäñho people*, who reside in the seasonally parched plateau region of Central Mexico. In the heavens above, Tlaloc lives within a paradise of lush vegetation and endless water in clay pots. If only he’d share. In recent years, a comic book, Ar Metlaloke, (The Tlaloques Hunter), has reimagined Tlaloc’s domain with a twist. The comic weaves in a traditional story from the Mexican state of Querétaro about the spontaneous rainfalls of the mountain Pinal del Zamorano. In the creative adaptation, Tlaloc’s haven includes the Tlaloques, goblin-like helpers who are prone to pranks. They playfully break containers—crack!—and rain pours down unexpectedly onto the arid landscape around Zamorano. The book is the first of its kind written in Hñäñho, the language of the Ñäñho people, as well as in Spanish and English. It represents a larger, ongoing effort to preserve the people’s culture, which is under threat as speakers decline and cultural bonds erode from centuries of colonial policies. The language—sometimes called Otomi, from the Spanish name for the community—is imperiled. Today it is one of several regional dialects of a mother tongue with fewer than 300,000 speakers, a figure that’s been dropping for decades. Limited written Hñäñho has been a challenge for preservation. When linguist Ewald Hekking began researching it 40 years ago, he recalls, “I’d heard there was a local language called Otomi, but I couldn’t find any books.” Hekking, of the department of anthropology at the Autonomous University of Querétaro, has been working to address that absence ever since. The Dutch-born researcher helped translate the comic, and more recently, he co-authored an anthology of Ñäñho oral traditions and beliefs. The hope is that telling Ñäñho cultural stories in a contemporary format can help preserve them, and the language, for generations to come. Hñäñho is one of 68 ancestral tongues still spoken in Mexico, and the seventh largest by number of speakers. But many of these languages are endangered. Read more: Sapiens

How We Extract Meaning From Language

September 14th, 2021 by Much has been said about the remarkable ability humans have to extract meaning from language. That ability is remarkable indeed. In a split second, we perceive a spoken or written word and immediately assign meaning to it while concatenating (stringing together) the various words in a sentence. At the end of the comprehension process, the whole sentence is greater than the sum of its parts. It is an ability that almost comes naturally, at least for spoken words. Some 353,000 babies born today will understand some basic words about nine months from now. Around their first birthday, they will learn their first words, often words like “mummy” or “daddy.” Around their second birthday, they will be putting words together in their first sentences. And if those first sentences don't end up occurring around the second birthday, there is likely no reason for concern. Odds are that they will get there sooner or later and become the talkative creatures that we are. Almost any child, anywhere in the world, can learn how to understand and speak a language—one of the 6,500 languages in the world. How Do We Acquire Language? The big question cognitive scientists have been struggling with—linguists, psychologists, educators, anthropologists, philosophers, and AI researchers alike—is how language is acquired so naturally. A century of research has not provided a definitive answer. However, parts of an answer have been proposed. Some researchers in the early part of the 20th century argued that language acquisition is not much more than verbal behavior training. Just like a pigeon learning to make a pirouette—step by step, when provided with some reward—children learn how to speak. Rather than an edible reward, the attention and praise from parents could be considered the perfect reinforcers for acquiring our remarkable language processing skills. Other researchers in the 1950s vigorously rejected the idea that language is acquired through training. Language-learning children, they argued, are not pirouette-making pigeons. Instead, the language-learning child already has a "language mind" on its own. It does not start out with a blank slate, but instead has a built-in instinct for understanding and speaking. It is because of this preconditioned language acquisition device that children can acquire language so rapidly and effortlessly. Language acquisition is not nurture, they argue; it is nature. The nature argument can also be found in a prominent explanation three decades after. The enthusiasm about the emergence of computers convinced some researchers that the human brain must also be like a computer. If computers and the human brain can both understand language, the brain must use the same computational architecture. Language acquisition was thus seen as a combination of nature and nurture. Nature provided the neural network architecture that could be trained on the nurturing linguistic input. Over the last two decades, however, concerns have been raised about the analogy of the human mind as a computer, crunching linguistic symbols into other linguistic symbols. Instead, the argument went, meaning can only come from linking linguistic symbols to perceptual information. That is, language must be grounded to be meaningful. The meaning for the word “dog” does not come from the fact that it may occur in the same sentence with “cat,” as a computer may compute. Instead, the meaning of the word comes from the fact that in the mind’s eye (and ear, nose, and hand), we can see the four-legged animal, mentally hear its barking, imagine its particular dog smell, and picture what it feels like to pet it. That is how language attains meaning. Read more: Psychology Today

Researchers reconstruct major branches in the tree of language

September 13th, 2021 by The diversity of human languages can be likened to branches on a tree. If you're reading this in English, you're on a branch that traces back to a common ancestor with Scots, which traces back to a more distant ancestor that split off into German and Dutch. Moving further in, there's the European branch that gave rise to Germanic; Celtic; Albanian; the Slavic languages; the Romance languages like Italian and Spanish; Armenian; Baltic; and Hellenic Greek. Before this branch, and some 5,000 years into human history, there's Indo-European—a major proto-language that split into the European branch on one side, and on the other, the Indo-Iranian ancestor of modern Persian, Nepali, Bengali, Hindi, and many more. One of the defining goals of historical linguistics is to map the ancestry of modern languages as far back as it will go—perhaps, some linguists hope, to a single common ancestor that would constitute the trunk of the metaphorical tree. But while many thrilling connections have been suggested based on systemic comparisons of data from most of the world's languages, much of the work, which goes back as early as the 1800s, has been prone to error. Linguists are still debating over the internal structure of such well-established families as Indo-European, and over the very existence of chronologically deeper and larger families. To test which branches hold up under the weight of scrutiny, a team of researchers associated with the Evolution of Human Languages program is using a novel technique to comb through the data and to reconstruct major branches in the linguistic tree. In two recent papers, they examine the ~5,000-year-old Indo-European family, which has been well studied, and a more tenuous, older branch known as the Altaic macrofamily, which is thought to connect the linguistic ancestors of such distant languages as Turkish, Mongolian, Korean, and Japanese. "The deeper you want to go back in time, the less you can rely on classic methods of language comparison to find meaningful correlates," says co-author George Starostin, an Santa Fe Institute external professor based at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. He explains that one of the major challenges when comparing across languages is distinguishing between words that have similar sounds and meanings because they might descend from a common ancestor, from those that are similar because their cultures borrowed terms from each other in the more recent past. "We have to get to the deepest layer of language to identify its ancestry because the outer layers, they are contaminated. They get easily corrupted by replacements and borrowings," he says. To tap into the core layers of language, Starostin's team starts with an established list of core, universal concepts from the human experience. It includes meanings like "rock," "fire," "cloud," "two," "hand," and "human," amongst 110 total concepts. Working from this list, the researchers then use classic methods of linguistic reconstruction to come up with a number of word shapes which they then match with specific meanings from the list. The approach, dubbed "onomasiological reconstruction," notably differs from traditional approaches to comparative linguistics because it focuses on finding which words were used to express a given meaning in the proto-language, rather than on reconstructing phonetic shapes of those words and associating them with a vague cloud of meanings. Their latest re-classification of the Indo-European family, which applies the onomasiological principle and was published in the journal Linguistics, confirmed well-documented genealogies in the literature. Similar research on the Eurasian Altaic language group, whose proto-language dates back an estimated 8,000 years, confirmed a positive signal of a relationship between most major branches of Altaic—Turkic, Mongolic, Tungusic, and Japanese. However, it failed to reproduce a previously published relationship between Korean and the other languages in the Altaic grouping. This could either mean that the new criteria were too strict or (less likely) that previous groupings were incorrect. Read more:

Indigenous languages are a bedrock of Alaska Native culture, but they are disappearing fast

September 11th, 2021 by Indigenous languages are a bedrock of culture among Alaska Natives, but apart from a handful of exceptions they are endangered.  There are 21 Indigenous languages officially recognized by the State of Alaska, but every year there are fewer proficient speakers of these as elders are lost and the power of Western culture exerts powerful influences among young people. “The land we call Alaska is home to around two dozen Native languages, spoken in and near Alaska for many thousands of years. Each Alaska Native language is a treasure beyond value, holding cultural knowledge of a unique people, a unique history, and a unique way of viewing life,” the Alaska Native Language Preservation and Advisory Council wrote in its 2020 report.  However, “every Indigenous language in Alaska faces threats from colonial English-only practices, and nearly all of them are critically endangered,” the Council said in its latest report.  The Council compiles a report to the governor and state Legislature every two years on the state of Indigenous languages. The language Council was formed by the state Legislature in 2012. There are only rough approximations of the numbers of fluent speakers and their age ranges for each Alaska Native language, but surveys provide some indication.  According to the Council’s 2020 report, one language — the Doogh Qunag of Holikackuk — now has no living proficient speakers. In the Dena’ina language of Southcentral Alaska, there are only five proficient speakers. In the Dihthaad Xt’een Ian Aandeeg language of Tanacross, in eastern Interior Alaska, there are only 10. In the Ahtna language of the Copper River region, known as Koht’aene Kenaege, there are 15. Of the Tlingit language of Southeast Alaska, Lingit Yoo X’atangi, there are 60 proficient speakers. The list goes on and on. Read more: Anchorage Press

Why Are So Many Languages Dying Out?

September 8th, 2021 by Endangered vernaculars have been dying out at unprecedented rates since the 1960s. Invariably, they give way to one of the world’s more dominant languages such as Arabic, English, Mandarin or Spanish. Now, more than 40 percent of the world’s 7,000 or so languages are thought to be at risk of extinction, some with just a handful of elderly native speakers left. “This isn’t a normal or stable flux,” says Anna Belew, outreach coordinator at the Endangered Languages Project, which seeks to support efforts to sustain endangered languages. “What we’re looking at is a mass-extinction event.” Out of the roughly 700 languages that are known to have fallen silent in all of human history, more than 30 percent have gone extinct at some point during the last 60 years. Read more: Discover Magazine

Struggling to Learn a New Language? Blame It on Your Stable Brain

August 30th, 2021 by A study in patients with epilepsy is helping researchers understand how the brain manages the task of learning a new language while retaining our mother tongue. The study, by neuroscientists at UC San Francisco, sheds light on the age-old question of why it’s so difficult to learn a second language as an adult. The somewhat surprising results gave the team a window into how the brain navigates the tradeoff between neuroplasticity — the ability to grow new connections between neurons when learning new things — and stability, which allows us to maintain the integrated networks of things we’ve already learned. The findings appear in the Aug. 30 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  “When learning a new language, our brains are somehow accommodating both of these forces as they’re competing against each other,” said Matt Leonard, PhD, assistant professor of neurological surgery and a member of the UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences.   By using electrodes on the surface of the brain to follow high-resolution neural signals, the team found that clusters of neurons scattered throughout the speech cortex appear to fine-tune themselves as a listener gains familiarity with foreign sounds.   “These are our first insights into what’s changing in the brain between first hearing the sounds of a foreign language and being able to recognize them,” said Leonard, who is a principal investigator on the study.   Read more: University of California San Francisco

Reviving a once-forbidden dialect: ‘All French is good French’

August 26th, 2021 by When Janice Prejean was growing up, if she wanted to speak with her grandparents, she had to do it in French. To crack the code of the private conversations and jokes that flew over the heads of children at family gatherings, she also needed to know the language. “My lifestyle as a child and a young adult was immersed in moving between the Cajun world and les Americains,” she says. Prejean, who was raised in Ossun, a tiny, unincorporated community in southwest Louisiana, is 64 now. Her story is an echo of the thousands of people in the region with Francophone ancestry. What makes her version a little different, however, is that she learned the language. Many people her age never did. French was a source of shame—Cajuns were often labeled stupid and backward—and parents wanted to shield their children from prejudice. That started to change during the latter half of the 20th century with the launch of efforts to improve the understanding of Cajun heritage—not to mention attract tourism. Programs popped up to turn the tide on the diminishing use of the French language, including establishing immersion programs in schools and flying in teachers from other Francophone nations. Yet a generational divide remains. The dialect of aging grandparents and great-grandparents often doesn’t translate to the “standard” French that elementary- and high-school-age children are learning. To bridge that gap, locals established a new French language and literacy school for adults in the tiny town of Arnaudville, which sits at the intersection of two bayous and two Louisiana parishes and has become the unlikely hub for the French revival. Read more: National Geographic

Bat pups babble and bat moms use baby talk, hinting at the evolution of human language

August 20th, 2021 by “Mamama,” “dadada,” “bababa” – parents usually welcome with enthusiasm the sounds of a baby’s babble. Babbling is the first milestone when learning to speak. All typically developing infants babble, no matter which language they’re learning. Speech, the oral output of language, requires precise control over the lips, tongue and jaw to produce one of the basic speech subunits: the syllable, like “ba,” “da,” “ma.” Babbling is characterized by universal features – for example, repetition of syllables and use of rhythm. It lets an infant practice and playfully learn how to control their vocal apparatus to correctly produce the desired syllables. More than anything else, language defines human nature. But its evolutionary origins have puzzled scientists for decades. Investigating the biological foundations of language across species – as I do in bats – is a promising way to gain insights into key features of human language. I’m a behavioral biologist who has spent many months of 10-hour days sitting in front of bat colonies in Panama and Costa Rica recording the animals’ vocalizations. My colleagues and I have found striking parallels between the babbling produced by these bat pups and that by human infants. Identifying a mammal that shares similar brain structure with human beings and is also capable of vocal imitation may help us understand the cognitive and neuromolecular foundations of vocal learning. Vocal learning in other animals Scientists learned a great deal about vocal imitation and vocal development by studying songbirds. They are among the best-known vocal learners, and the learning process of young male songbirds shows interesting parallels to human speech development. Young male songbirds also practice their notes in a practice phase reminiscent of human infant babbling. However, songbirds and people possess different vocal apparatus – birds vocalize by using a syrinx, humans use a larynx – and their brain architecture differs. So drawing direct conclusions from songbird research for humans is limited. Luckily, in Central America’s tropical jungle, there’s a mammal that engages in a very conspicuous vocal practice behavior that is strongly reminiscent of human infant babbling: the neotropical greater sac-winged bat, Saccopteryx bilineata. The pups of this small bat, dark-furred with two prominent white wavy stripes on the back, engage in daily babbling behavior during large parts of their development. Read more: The Conversation

African languages to get more bespoke scientific terms

August 19th, 2021 by There’s no original isiZulu word for dinosaur. Germs are called amagciwane, but there are no separate words for viruses or bacteria. A quark is ikhwakhi (pronounced kwa-ki); there is no term for red shift. And researchers and science communicators using the language, which is spoken by more than 14 million people in southern Africa, struggle to agree on words for evolution. IsiZulu is one of approximately 2,000 languages spoken in Africa. Modern science has ignored the overwhelming majority of these languages, but now a team of researchers from Africa wants to change that. A research project called Decolonise Science plans to translate 180 scientific papers from the AfricArXiv preprint server into 6 African languages: isiZulu and Northern Sotho from southern Africa; Hausa and Yoruba from West Africa; and Luganda and Amharic from East Africa. These languages are collectively spoken by around 98 million people. Earlier this month, AfricArXiv called for submissions from authors interested in having their papers considered for translation. The deadline is 20 August. The translated papers will span many disciplines of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The project is being supported by the Lacuna Fund, a data-science funder for researchers in low- and middle-income countries. It was launched a year ago by philanthropic and government funders from Europe and North America, and Google. Read more: Nature