Pas de souci! The French war on saying ‘no worries’

The quirks of the French language are an eternal puzzle for many foreign learners. But what students often don’t know is that they are also the matter of heated debates and controversies within France itself.

The evolution of the language and the variety of linguistic practices throughout society in France are commented upon with passion in the press, and governed by the famous Académie Française – the semi-official authority on the French language whose members, known as “immortals”, issue decrees on how it should be used.

Among the phenomena to which purists take much exception, probably none is more contentious than the now highly frequent use of “pas de souci!”, an expression mirroring the English “no problem!” or “no worries!”

The noun souci normally means worry, care or concern, but “pas de souci!” can be used in all sorts of contexts, including as an equivalent of English “all right” or even “you’re welcome”, to signify that the speaker has taken note of the other’s statement or expressed intention.

For instance, if I am sitting in a café and order a coffee, the waiter may answer “pas de souci!” to acknowledge my order. There is of course no concern or no worry at stake here.

Read more: The Conversation

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

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

Quechua language endures in Peru despite centuries of discrimination

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

Can Indigenous Language Comics Save a Mother Tongue?

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

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

Ancestors May Have Created ‘Iconic’ Sounds As Bridge To First Languages

The ‘missing link’ that helped our ancestors to begin communicating with each other through language may have been iconic sounds, rather than charades-like gestures — giving rise to the unique human power to coin new words describing the world around us, a new study reveals.

It was widely believed that, in order to get the first languages off the ground, our ancestors first needed a way to create novel signals that could be understood by others, relying on visual signs whose form directly resembled the intended meaning.

However, an international research team, led by experts from the University of Birmingham and the Leibniz-Centre General Linguistics (ZAS), Berlin, have discovered that iconic vocalisations can convey a much wider range of meanings more accurately than previously supposed.

The researchers tested whether people from different linguistic backgrounds could understand novel vocalizations for 30 different meanings common across languages and which might have been relevant in early language evolution.

These meanings spanned animate entities, including humans and animals (child, man, woman, tiger, snake, deer), inanimate entities (knife, fire, rock, water, meat, fruit), actions (gather, cook, hide, cut, hunt, eat, sleep), properties (dull, sharp, big, small, good, bad), quantifiers (one, many) and demonstratives (this, that).

The team published their findings in Scientific Reports, highlighting that the vocalizations produced by English speakers could be understood by listeners from a diverse range of cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Participants included speakers of 28 languages from 12 language families, including groups from oral cultures such as speakers of Palikur living in the Amazon forest and speakers of Daakie on the South Pacific island of Vanuatu. Listeners from each language were more accurate than chance at guessing the intended referent of the vocalizations for each of the meanings tested.

Read more: The Archaeology News Network

My belly is angry, my throat is in love: Body parts and emotions in Indigenous languages

Many languages in the world allude to body parts to describe emotions and feelings, as in “broken-heart,” for instance. While some have just a few expressions like this, Australian Indigenous languages tend use a lot of them, covering many parts of the body: from “flowing belly” for “feel good” to “burning throat” for “be angry” to “staggering liver” meaning “to mourn.”

As a linguist, I first learnt this when I worked with speakers of Dalabon, Rembarrnga, Kune, Kunwinjku and Kriol languages in the Top End, as they taught me their own words to describe emotions

Recently, with the help of my collaborator Kitty-Jean Laginha, I have looked systematically for such expressions in dictionaries and word lists from 67 Indigenous languages across Australia. We found at least 30 distinct body parts involved in about 800 emotional expressions.

Where do these body-emotion associations come from? Are they specific to Australian languages, or do they occur elsewhere in the world as well? There are no straightforward answers to these questions. Some expressions seem to be specific to the Australian continent, others are more widespread. As for the origins of the body-emotion association, our study suggests several possible explanations.

Firstly, some body parts are involved in emotional behaviors. For instance, we turn our back on people when we are upset with them. In some Australian Indigenous languages, “turn back” can mean “hold grudge” as a result of this.

Secondly, some body parts are involved in our physiological responses to emotion. For instance, fear can make our heart beat faster. Indeed, in some languages “heart beats fast” can mean “be afraid.”

Thirdly, some body parts represent the mind. This can be a bridge to emotions linked to intellectual states, like confusion or hesitation. For instance, “have a sore ear” can mean “be confused.”

Read more: phys.org

Pace of prehistoric human innovation could be revealed by ‘linguistic thermometer’

Multi-disciplinary researchers at The University of Manchester have helped develop a powerful physics-based tool to map the pace of language development and human innovation over thousands of years – even stretching into pre-history before records were kept.

Tobias Galla, a professor in theoretical physics, and Dr Ricardo Bermúdez-Otero, a specialist in historical linguistics, from The University of Manchester, have come together as part of an international team to share their diverse expertise to develop the new model, revealed in a paper entitled ‘Geospatial distributions reflect temperatures of linguistic feature’ authored by Henri Kauhanen, Deepthi Gopal, Tobias Galla and Ricardo Bermúdez-Otero, and published by the journal Science Advances.

Professor Galla has applied statistical physics – usually used to map atoms or nanoparticles – to help build a mathematically-based model that responds to the evolutionary dynamics of language. Essentially, the forces that drive language change can operate across thousands of years and leave a measurable “geospatial signature”, determining how languages of different types are distributed over the surface of the Earth.

Read more: EurekAlert!

Can language slow down time?

What if the language you spoke caused you to perceive time differently?

Does that sound like magic realism? Close: it’s economics. Some recent research papers published in economics journals – notably a 2013 paper by Keith Chen of Yale and a 2018 paper by three Australian economists – have proposed that languages that grammatically distinguish future from present cause their speakers to plan less, save less, even care less for the environment.

That sound you just heard was thousands of linguists rolling their eyes and groaning “Whorf”.

Bejamin Lee Whorf was an inspector for a fire insurance company, and he saw that language could cause safety problems. People were careless around empty gasoline drums because they were “empty” – except that, in fact, they were filled with gasoline vapour, which can explode. This spurred him to study and write about language.

Whorf spent time with the Hopi people of northeastern Arizona. He observed that they had no grammatical distinctions for future and past and no way to count periods of time. He looked at their cultural practices and concluded that the Hopi see time quite differently from us, and that concepts that seem obvious to us – such as “tomorrow is another day” – had no meaning for them.

His publication of these ideas in 1939 set the philosophy of language on fire. From Whorf’s proposals and those of his teacher, a Yale professor named Edward Sapir, came what Whorf called the Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis, commonly known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Its mildest form is that language can affect how we think; its strongest form is that we can’t think about things our language doesn’t let us talk about.

Over time, these explosive ideas – and much of Whorf’s data – were found to be mostly… empty. In 1983, a researcher named Ekkehart Malotki published Hopi Time, a thick volume detailing his research on the Hopi and their language, which proceeded with a long, slow burn to incinerate Whorf’s edifice of data and theory about the Hopi. And with the demise of the strong version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis came a mistrust of any ideas of linguistic relativity.

Read more: BBC

When Genetics and Linguistics Challenge the Winners’ Version of History

Two conquering empires and more than 500 years of colonial rule failed to erase the cultural and genetic traces of indigenous Peruvians, a new study finds. This runs contrary to historical accounts that depict a complete devastation of northern Peru’s ancient Chachapoya people by the Inca Empire.

The Chachapoyas—sometimes referred to as “Warriors of the Clouds” because they made their home in the Amazonian cloud forests—are mainly known today for what they built: fortified hilltop fortresses and intricate sarcophagi overlooking their villages from sheer, inaccessible cliff sides. The little we know about their existence before the arrival of the Spanish comes to us via an oral history passed along by the Inca to their Spanish conquerors—in other words, the winners’ version of history.

Now, a study tracking the genetic and linguistic history of modern Peruvians is revealing that the Chachapoyas may have fared better than these mainstream historical accounts would have us believe. As Chiara Barbieri, a post-doctoral researcher from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, puts it: “Some of these historical documents were exaggerated and a little bit biased in favor of the Inca.”

Many of these early reports stem from two historians who essentially wrote the book on the Inca Empire during the time period from 1438 to 1533: Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, the son of a conquistador and Incan princess who published chronicles on the Inca Empire in the early 17th century, and Pedro de Cieza de Leon, a Spanish conquistador from a family of Jewish converts who travelled through the area in the mid-16th century, and wrote one of the first lengthy histories of the Inca people and Spanish conquests.

According to Cieza de Leon’s account, it was in the 1470s, about midway through the Inca Empire, that paramount leader Túpac Inca Yupanqui first attacked the Chachapoyas in what is today northern Peru. He quickly found that the Warriors of the Clouds were not the type to give up without a fight. Cieza de Leon described the first battle between Yupanqui and the Chachapoyas in the first part of his Chronicle of Peru:

The Chachapoyas Indians were conquered by them, although they first, in order to defend their liberty, and to live in ease and tranquillity, fought with such fury that the Yncas fled before them. But the power of the Yncas was so great that the Chachapoyas Indians were finally forced to become servants to those Kings, who desired to extend their sway over all people.

Beaten but not defeated, the Chachapoyas rebelled again during the reign of Yupanqui’s son after the latter died. Huayna Capac had to re-conquer the region, but encountered many of the difficulties his father had, according to Cieza de Leon:

Among the Chachapoyas the Inca met with great resistance; insomuch that he was twice defeated by the defenders of their country and put to flight. Receiving some succour, the Inca again attacked the Chachapoyas, and routed them so completely that they sued for peace, desisting, on their parts, from all acts of war. The Inca granted peace on conditions very favourable to himself, and many of the natives were ordered to go and live in Cuzco, where their descendants still reside.

De la Vega’s account, written nearly 50 years after Cieza de Leon’s in the early 17th century, tells a similar story of a decisive conquest and subsequent forced dispersal of the Chachapoyas around the Inca Empire. The Inca often used this strategy of forced dispersal, which they referred to by the Quechua word mitma, to dissuade future rebellion in the vast region they came to control. (Quechua, according to the new study, is the most widely-spoken language family of the indigenous Americas.)

“We have some records in the Spanish history that the Inca had replaced the population completely, moving the Chachapoyas for hundreds of kilometers and replacing them with people from other parts of the empire,” Barbieri says.

These and other accounts are some of the only historical notes we have of the Inca, who lacked any system of writing other than the quipu, or knot records. The quipu system of cords used different types of knots to indicate numbers, and was used for accounting and other records.

“We know a lot about what the Inca did because Inca kings, or high officials, were talking to Spanish historians,” Barbieri says. “So the piece of history of this region that we know is very much biased towards what the Inca elite were telling the Spaniards. What we don’t know was what happened before that—everything that happened before the 16th century.”

That is now changing, thanks to a genetic study on which Barbieri was lead author, published recently in Scientific Reports.

Read more: Smithsonian