The race to find India’s hidden languages

It was 2010 and Ganesh N Devy was concerned about the lack of comprehensive data on the languages of India. “The 1961 [Indian] census recognised 1,652 mother tongues,” says Devy, “but the 1971 census listed only 109. The discrepancy in numbers frustrated me a lot.”

So, Devy decided to find out what was going on himself.  

India is one of the most linguistically diverse countries in the world. K David Harrison, a linguist from Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, has labelled the country a “language hotspot“. This, according to Harrison, is a place with a high level of linguistic diversity and endangerment, as well as a low level of documentation.

As a professor of English at Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda in Gujarat, Devy has always had an interest in languages. He has founded a number of organisations for their study, documentation and preservation, including the Bhasha Research and Publication Centre in Baroda, the Adivasis Academy in Tejgadh, the DNT-Rights Action Group, among others.

As part of his work at the organisations, he used to go to villages where tribal populations lived and research them. He started noticing that these tribes have their own languages, which often do not get reported in the official government census.

“I had an intuition that the languages of communities with a very small number of people, communities that are economically deprived or communities that are nomadic are getting concealed in official statistics,” says Devy.

Devy felt that it would take a long, arduous process to document every language in India, so he stepped in to help. He launched the People’s Linguistic Survey of India (PLSI) in 2010, for which he put together a team of 3,000 volunteers from all over the country. Most of these volunteers weren’t researchers, but writers, school teachers, and other non-professional-linguists who possessed an intimacy with their mother tongue that was invaluable to Devy.

In a survey conducted during 2010-2013, Devy and his team recorded 780 languages and 68 scripts across the country. Devy says that nearly 100 languages could not be documented, either because of remoteness of the region or conflict, so the true number of languages in India continues to be hidden from us.

Read more: BBC

It’s All Greek to You and Me, So What Is It to the Greeks?

It’s a curious thing when there is an idiom—structured roughly the same way and meaning essentially the same thing—that exists in a large number of languages. It’s even more curious when that idiom, having emerged in dozens of different languages, is actually … about language. That’s the case with “It’s Greek to me.”

In a wide-ranging number of languages, major and minor, from all different branches of the language family tree, there is some version of “It’s Greek to me.” These idioms all seek to describe one person’s failure to understand what the other is trying to say, but in a particular, dismissive way. It’s not just, “Sorry, I can’t understand you.” It’s saying, “The way you’re speaking right now is incomprehensible.” And it specifically compares that incomprehensibility to a particular language, a language agreed upon in that culture to be particularly impenetrable.

Sometimes that original cultural peg has been lost. In English, the phrase doesn’t really indicate anything about the way modern English-speakers feel about the Greek language or Greece in general. It’s just an old, tired idiom. In fact, polls show that native English speakers don’t even think about Greek when asked to name the hardest language to learn. So where did the phrase come from, and why is its sentiment so universal?

As with far too many linguistic questions like this, there is no definitive answer. One theory ties it to medieval monks. In Western Europe at this time, the predominant written language was Latin, but much of the writing that survived from antiquity was in Greek. The theory holds that these monks, in transcribing and copying their texts, were not necessarily able to read Greek, and would write a phrase next to any Greek text they found: “Graecum est; non legitur.” Translated: “It is Greek; it cannot be read.”

This phrase seems to have been embedded in parts of Western Europe, and examples appear in plays starting in the 16th century. William Shakespeare, in his 1599 Julius Caesar, used it, and he is widely credited with bringing a long-latent phrase into the mainstream. Interestingly, Shakespeare’s version is a lot more literal than most of the uses of this idiom. In Julius Caesar, the Roman character Casca describes a speech made by Cicero, a scholar of Greek.* Casca, one of the conspirators who assassinates Caesar, does not speak Greek. So he says, “Those that understood him smiled at one another and shook their heads; but, for mine own part, it was Greek to me.”

Read more: Pocket

Color Linguistics Survey Finds Key Similarities Between Cultures

No language has words for all the blues of a wind-churned sea or the greens and golds of a wildflower meadow in late summer. Globally, different languages have divvied up the world of color using their own set of labels, from just a few to dozens.

The question of how humans have done this—ascribe a finite vocabulary to the multitude of perceivable colors—has been long studied, and consistent patterns have emerged, even across wildly divergent languages and cultures. Yet slight differences among languages persist, and what is less understood is how the differing communicative needs of local cultures drive those differences. Do some cultures need to talk about certain colors more than others, and how does that shape their language?

In a new study, researchers led by Colin Twomey, a postdoc in Penn’s MindCORE program, and Joshua Plotkin, a professor in the School of Arts & Sciences’ Biology Department, address these questions, developing an algorithm capable of inferring a culture’s communicative needs—the imperative to talk about certain colors—using previously collected data from 130 diverse languages.

Their findings underscore that, indeed, cultures across the globe differ in their need to communicate about certain colors. Linking almost all languages, however, is an emphasis on communicating about warm colors—reds and yellows—that are known to draw the human eye and that correspond with the colors of ripe fruits in primate diets.

The work, a collaboration that included Penn linguist Gareth Roberts and psychologist David Brainard, is published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“The fact that color vocabularies could be an efficient representation of the communicative needs of colors is an idea that’s been around for 20 years,” says Twomey. “It struck me that, OK, if this is our idea about how color vocabularies are formed, then we could go in reverse and ask, ‘Well, what would have been the communicative needs that would have been necessary for this vocabulary to arrive at its present form?’ It’s a hard problem, but I had an intuition that it was a solvable one.”

Read more: Technology Networks

On Rotwelsch, the Central European Language of Beggars, Travelers and Thieves

My aunt Heidi, Günter’s widow, had trouble finding the right boxes, as she moved erratically around the attic, trying to read labels. Then she crouched down in a corner and said, quietly, “Here they are. Take your time.” She briefly looked at me as if to gauge my reaction, and left, eager to go back downstairs. I stood for a moment, disappointed. Just a bunch of boxes. The labels, carelessly scrawled with Magic Marker, were illegible.

I had come to the apartment that used to house the commune to find out more about Rotwelsch, my uncle, and his attitude toward his father. Three people had been around at the time and could tell me more. The first was my mother, but in the aftermath of my father’s death, she was holding things together from one day to the next and was in no condition to delve into the past. I knew that I would have to wait to speak to her.

Then there was my aunt Roswitha. She would have been a teenager when Günter became fascinated by Rotwelsch, but perhaps she would have some insight, an overheard conversation ages ago about her older brother and his new interest, a snide comment about Rotwelsch made by my grandfather. I would have to find an occasion to draw her out. And finally there was Heidi, the person most likely to know things about Günter, Rotwelsch, and the strange family history connected with it, which is why I had come to her first.

I dragged one box into the middle of the attic, where a small window let in some light. It contained folders of correspondence and manuscripts as well as books. The next three boxes were similar, but then I came across one holding 4-×-6 index cards, neatly arranged in wooden drawers. I took one drawer out, surprised by how heavy it was, and started flipping through the entries. The cards—there must have been hundreds of them—bore expressions and idioms, most of them typed, some corrected by hand. The last box, equally heavy, held dictionaries of Romani and Yiddish, pamphlets on hoboes and vagrants. They had seen a lot of use, their spines cracked and their covers coming off the binding. One book, almost torn to shreds, was entitled Rotwelsch. Yes, this was what I had been looking for: my uncle’s fabled Rotwelsch archive.

Combing quickly through the boxes, I saw that this was an archive that, at least superficially, looked similar to archives created by the police against Rotwelsch, complete with vocabulary lists, names of vagrants, and police records. I was fascinated by the figures that emerged from this extensive collection. Here were the ancestors of the people who had come to our house when I was growing up—escaped convicts, runaway apprentices, deserters, itinerant peddlers, tramps, professional thieves, beggars, hoboes, journeymen, knife grinders, tinkers, migrants, and anyone at odds with the authorities and without a fixed address.

Some members of the underground were organized into large gangs of robbers, especially in the eighteenth century. They would send a messenger, a baldower, to scout out a promising target (in Hebrew, baal means possessor, owner, and davar, word; in Yiddish, bal-dover means the person in question). Once the leader had received enough information to proceed, he (almost always men) would call for a gathering of his associates, the kochemer, or wise ones, to plan the robbery.

Read more: CrimeReads

What Secrets Does This 1,800-Year-Old Carved Stone Hold?

In 1902, an Indigenous man plowing a field near the Tuxtla Mountains in the state of Veracruz, Mexico, unearthed a green stone the size of a large mango—a piece of jadeite with carvings depicting a stout human figure with a shamanic bird’s bill. Along its sides was a set of hieroglyphs.

Before long, the Tuxtla Statuette (as it became known) made its way to the United States, and in 1903 to the Smithsonian. At first, archaeologists thought the statuette’s markings were Mayan; southern Mexico rests within the heart of the Mayan civilization, where Mayan dialects are still spoken today. But one observer felt unsure. Charles Pickering Bowditch—a Boston businessman, philanthropist and scholar of Mesoamerica who served on the faculty at Harvard’s Peabody Museum—compared the hieroglyphs with a card catalog he had assembled of all the Mayan characters then available. “I cannot find any real likeness between the two kinds of glyphs,” he wrote in 1907. Bowditch argued that the statuette carried an unknown indigenous language—one with no clear relative. In the 1960s, scholars hypothesized that it was “epi-Olmec,” a late language of the Olmec people, the most ancient known Mesoamerican civilization, which predated the height of Mayan civilization by about 1,000 years. This hypothesis is still subject to debate.

In 1993, John Justeson and Terrence Kaufman, both linguists, offered a possible solution to the mystery. Aided by the handful of objects with the same script unearthed since Bowditch’s day, they put forward a translation—the first modern reading, they said, of epi-Olmec. Further, Justeson and Kaufman’s translation of the glyphs seemed to reveal the statuette’s age. Chemical dating was not helpful; sampling the object’s substrate would simply give the age of the stone, not of the carvings. The two scholars held that the writing, in its entirety, gives a year in epi-Olmec—specifically A.D. 162, dating it to the middle period of epi-Olmec society.

Read more: Smithsonian

Lost words: The struggle to save Turkey’s disappearing languages

To reach her home, Ms Vaic, a 90-year-old woman from Turkey’s northeast Black Sea region, must climb a steep hill to the village of Xigoba, where she lives in a traditional wooden house.

Here in the hills of Hopa, the traditional language spoken by the people is Homshetsi. It is one of many endangered languages in the country and speaking it is dear to Ms Vaic’s heart.

She tells Middle East Eye that she counts on traditions such as holiday gatherings to help it survive. In Turkish, her village is called Basoba and it is that name you see depicted on road signs. 
With her daughter-in-law helping to translate from Homshetsi to Turkish, Ms Vaic says she also learned Turkish in school, where speaking her native language was prohibited.

“The teachers did not like it when we spoke Homshetsi. They would ask us to open our palms and act like they would hit [them] with the ruler if we spoke. They didn’t hit us though.”

The Homshetsi are one of Turkey’s minority ethnic groups, alongside the Armenians, Arabs, Kurds, Circassians and Zazas who help make up Turkey’s current population of just over 80 million. 

The republic has come a long way since the 1980 coup, when the constitution was designed to ban the public use of minority languages. Still, the damage done in those dark days makes the task of protecting these ethnic tongues much harder, members of three minority groups told Middle East Eye.

The next generation of Homshetsi, Laz and Syriac people of Turkey may not be able to speak their mother tongues, according to UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, which classifies three languages in the country as extinct and 15 more as endangered.

This is a region that has been home to countless peoples and cultures for thousands of years. 

Read more: Middle East Eye

Scientists solve the mystery of the Etruscans’ origins

A new genetic analysis may have finally revealed the origin of the Etruscans — a mysterious people whose civilization thrived in Italy centuries before the founding of Rome.

It turns out the enigmatic Etruscans were local to the area, with nearly identical genetics to their Latin-speaking neighbors.

This finding contradicts earlier theories that the Etruscans — who for centuries spoke a now extinct, non-Indo-European language that was remarkably different from others in the region — came from somewhere different from their Latin-speaking neighbors. 

Instead, both groups appear to be migrants from the Pontic-Caspian steppe — a long, thin swath of land stretching from the north Black Sea around Ukraine to the north Caspian Sea in Russia. After arriving in Italy during the Bronze age, the early speakers of Etruscan put down roots, assimilating speakers of other languages to their own culture as they flourished into a great civilization.

The finding “challenges simple assumptions that genes equal languages and suggests a more complex scenario that may have involved the assimilation of early Italic speakers by the Etruscan speech community,” David Caramelli, an anthropology professor at the University of Florence, said in a statement.  

With cities as sophisticated as those of the ancient Greeks; trade networks as lucrative as the Phoenicians’; and a vast wealth to rival ancient Egypt’s, the Etruscan civilization, the first known superpower of the Western Mediterranean, had a brilliance matched only by the mystery surrounding its language and its origins. Rising to the height of its power in central Italy in the 7th century B.C., Etruria dominated the region for centuries until the advent of the Roman republic, which had all but conquered the Etruscans before the middle of the 3rd century B.C., fully assimilating them by 90 B.C. 

Read more: Live Science

How We Extract Meaning From Language

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

Why Are So Many Languages Dying Out?

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

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

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

“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

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