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Language Emails (8/15/11)

I'm in Maine and have just had a visit from good friends from Nicaragua. Aldo, a Blackberry/Facebook addict, starts each day by reading his English Word-of-the Day. Predial? Look it up. There are many links that will send you English words. Here are a few: Merriam Webster,,, Oxford, and my absolute favorite, AWAD. Anu Garg, the creator, has a large and fascinating audience. He publishes comments from his readers weekly and they are often brilliant. There are many well-read people out there in cyberspace! Here's what one website recommending word-a-day emails says about AWAD.

Now in its 16th year, A.Word.A.Day at is the creation of Anu Garg, an India-born computer engineer who clearly enjoys sharing his pleasure in words. Simply designed, this popular site (over half-a-million subscribers) offers concise definitions and examples of words that relate to a different theme every week. The New York Times has called this "the most welcomed, most enduring piece of daily mass e-mail in cyberspace." Recommended for all word lovers.

One of the odder emails I receive (often) is called Language Log. Go to their website and read a few and see if you want to subscribe. Some are very long, very odd, and there are many that focus on Mandarin. Some have a political bent (in my direction). But when I take the time to read them, I'm completely awed. The entries are by many different authors, but the emails you receive unfortunately don't name the author. 

I'm currently getting two Spanish emails a day, one with a word and one with a saying. There are, of course, many more but my internet connection is too slow for my patience level to search for more. So, if you receive language emails that should be shared, please let me know.



Indigenous Languages (7/11/11)

One of the first things you learn in Oaxaca is that it contains a majority of Mexico's indigenous peoples. "The state of Oaxaca is the most linguistically diverse area of Mesoamerica and its 36,820 square miles (95,400 km2) contain at least 100 mutually unintelligible linguistic variants." (Wikipedia)

"The principal language used in Oaxaca city and the region of Oaxaca is Mexican Spanish, however, the geographical topography throughout the Valles Centrales (Central Valleys) has lead to isolation between communities. Thus each ethnic group has managed to maintain their own distinct sense of identity, preserving traditional norms and along with them, their language.

The Oaxaca languages which continue to be used on a regular basis around the entire region are attributed to each of the 16 ethnic groups which inhabit the region. ...

Many of these languages continue to be used frequently and are in no danger of language death, however, there have been warnings about little used Ixcatec, Chontal and Zoque. There are some moves to raise awareness to encourage schools to take notice of each child's mother tongue and provide ample education in this language. For now however, the future of the majority Oaxaca's languages is safe and will continue to thrive in their induvidual communities, adding to the richness of the culture." (What Oaxaca)

Today's topic was triggered by an article on texting, another fascinating topic.

"Samuel Herrera, who runs the linguistics laboratory at the Institute of Anthropological Research in Mexico City, found young people in southern Chile producing hip-hop videos and posting them on YouTube using Huilliche, a language on the brink of extinction.

Herrera also discovered teens in the Phillippines and Mexico who think it's "cool" to send text messages in regional endangered languages like Kapampangan and Huave.

 Almost as soon as text messaging exploded on the world stage as a means to reach anyone, anywhere, and anytime, young people began to find a way to scale it back, make it more exclusive and develop their own code or doublespeak to use on the widely-used devices. ... In fact, according to Dr. Gregory Anderson, young people need to be the ones reviving a dying language. The director of the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages in Salem, Oregon, says that somewhere between the ages of six and 25, people make a definitive decision whether or not to say to stay or break with a language.

'If the language isn't being used by their peer group, then they reject it categorically,' Anderson concluded."

Stay tuned for an upcoming discussion of texting expressions and other new words now incorporated into the Online Oxford Dictionary.


Ungendering Nouns in Spanish (6/29/11)

Sharon Mújica and I have just returned from a week-long trip to Oaxaca, Mexico, with Witness for Peace. It was an amazing, intense week that we are still trying to assimilate. Just before I left on the trip, I saw an advertisement for a brand new and relevant book that I downloaded to my iPad (which served me very well on the trip!). The book is No Word for Welcome: The Mexican Village Faces the Global Economy, by Wendy Call. [Addition: the author's father lives in Chapel Hill and has studied at CHICLE. We will be presenting Wendy and her book in March, 2012, when she comes on a book tour and to visit him.]

From Publishers Weekly: "Locals know the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, the 120-mile-wide strip of land that connects the Yucatan Peninsula to Oaxaca and Veracruz, as 'Mexico's little waist.' The region is a hotbed of environmental and economic issues, such as the industrial shrimp farming that threatens to leave behind 'the coastal equivalent of a desert.' Drawing on research, extensive interviews, and firsthand experiences living there in the early 2000s, Call, a translator of Mexican poetry and fiction, portrays villagers' traditional ways of life in the throes of massive change."

It is about an area south of where we were but one having many of the same problems we learned about.

As Spanish students know, gendered nouns are one of the stumbling blocks to learning the language. Each noun must be memorized along with its gender. While there is often no rhyme or reason (that we know of), it does become clear that nouns that have both male and female endings are mostly used in the male form (as in the past we used "he/his/him" primarily in English) or by repeating the word in both forms (niños y niñas, chicos y chicas). I loved the following solution, reported in the book.

"Early in the afternoon the entire Zaptista delegation arrived in Oaxaca City and stood in front of a billboard-sized banner that announced in a gaudy rainbow-palette,'Bienvenid@s EZLN.' The 'o' enclosing the 'a' de-gendered the Spanish greeting and welcomed all the leaders of the Zapatista National Liberation Army, both male and female."

For those of you who question whether "Welcome"  (bienvenid@s) in this phrase is a noun, our grammar expert has just explained to me that it can be taken as short for "We offer welcome to all of you." This doesn't, of course, solve the problem when you are speaking (Bienvenidos y bienvenidas EZLN) instead of writing—much as we haven't resolved the pronoun problem in English. Neither does it solve the problem if the masculine version of the noun ends in an e instead of an o (Señores y Señoras). But it's clever!


Genderize and bilingualism (6/7/11)

I saw Potiche this weekend, a French film with Catherine DeNeuve in full form—a force. There were some fun Bollywood moments, including the closing song, C'est beau, la vie. How lucky we English speakers be, with our ungenderized nouns. Of course beau is masculine and vie feminine. Asking a translator friend of mine why one didn't sing "C'est belle, la vie", she replied "because the subject is Ce, which is masculine." One could also sing "La vie est belle."

Of course in Spanish, where you leave the subject out of most sentences, one would say "Es bella, la vida" and "La vida es bella." Just in case you think all romance languages have the same grammar.

Please know that genderize really is a verb. Wiktionary provides the following:

genderize (third-person singular simple present—genderizes, present participle—genderizing, simple past and past participle—genderized)
1.    (transitive) To bestow gender upon; to make male or female. 
quotations 2002, Helene P Foley, Female Acts in Greek Tragedy. Yet the implications of implicitly genderizing ethical positions in these particular plays may be even more far reaching than it appears on the surface.

For non-New York Times readers, Miriam found an interesting article about bilinguilism that you may not have seen. "The bilinguals, we found, manifested a cognitive system with the ability to attend to important information and ignore the less important." Those were young children. Bilingualism also makes you a better multi-tasker and may delay Alzheimer's. However, "You have to use both languages all the time. You won’t get the bilingual benefit from occasional use."

Anomia (5/18/11)

I subscribe to way too many language blogs but do have one favorite. I invite those of you who enjoy the English language addenda to subscribe to it. If you read the recent email below, you'll see why I recommend Anu and his co-workers. He has been doing this since 1994! He sends out a daily email with a word based on a weekly theme and once a week an email containing responses to that week's words. The responses are as much fun to read as the originals. There are very many clever, even obsessed, word addicts out there. You can find more information about the work at the A Word A Day website.


with Anu Garg

The English language is one big happy family that has something for everyone. It has a word for someone who never laughs (agelast) and a word for one who laughs too much (abderian). It has a word for fear of lightning (astraphobia) and a word for hatred of reason (misology). And in between these words, there are words for almost everything under the sun (and beyond).

This week we'll visit a few terms that make one say, "I didn't know there was a word for that!"



MEANING: noun: The inability to recall names of people or objects.

ETYMOLOGY: From Latin a- (without) + nom (name). Earliest documented use: 1900. Don't confuse the word with anomie.

USAGE: "In Dad's case of anomia, he's been calling his nightly can of beer 'ink'. Sometimes he calls it 'gas', which makes a kind of sense."

Patricia Traxler; I'm Still Listening for My Father's Words; Newsweek (New York); Jun 11, 2007.


Harkers Island Speak (4/28/11)

As beach season seems to have arrived, I'm copying below something I got via Sue Mathias who got it from Eddie, Alison and Anna of Core Sound Seafood.

"As previewed in last week's email, I wanted to talk a little bit about the unique accent found Downeast. One of our shareholders, Carmine Prioli, is a writer who has written about the heritage of Downeast fishing culture and the challenges fishermen are facing in a beautiful book entitled Hope for a Good Season. As part of this book, he writes about the Harker's Island dialect and I wanted to share it here.

He writes: 'Many Harkers Islanders believe their distinctive brogue is a variant of the Elizabethan English of Shakespearean times. It is true that aspects of their language, such as pronunciation, vocabulary and grammatical constructions can be traced to the British Isles, especially to eastern and southwestern England. A linguistic study by the North Carolina Language and Life Project has shown, however, that the modern Harkers Island brogue shares features with other regional dialects, including New England and mainland North Carolina. Although it often takes a trained ear to discern the subtle differences in the 'hoi toider' speech of Outer Banks communities, the current version of the Harker's Island dialect "mix" is rich with colourful expressions and vocabulary. Unlike the more widely known village of Ocracoke, where the dialect has long been influenced by tourism and a large number of transplanted residents, Harkers Island has until recently remained semi-isolated, despite the bridge connecting it to the mainland. One linguistic trait that many islanders share is saying the opposite of what they mean: 'Well, you're looking right ugly today! would actually be quite a compliment.' (Prioli, 1998)

Eddie and Alison live on Harker's Island, where Eddie was born and raised, a 4th generation fishermen. They have taught me all sorts of selected Harker's Island vocabulary. A few examples:

"gale"= a high wind, "You can't fry cornbread with a southeast gale." (Means you can't do anything with a southeast wind, not even fry cornbread at home.)

dingbatter" = any visitor or transplanted resident of Harkers Island, "We've been right much plagued with dingbatters lately."

"feesh"= fish, "Eddie's not here. He's a-feeshin' to Core Sound today."

"gadding about"=out on a day trip, visiting someone or shopping, "Alison's been a-gadding about."

"nicket"=a pinch of something when cooking, "A nicket of salt will do."

"prog"=to feel in the mud for clams with your bare feet under water, "When we were kids we used to go over to Shackleford to prog for clams."

Hope that was a bit of an introduction into part of the Harker's Island and larger Downeast culture!"


Um and Uh, Postmodern Generator (4/11/11)

I read an odd book recently, named The Most Human Human: What Talking with Computers Teaches Us About What It Means to Be Alive, by Brian Christian. He competed against computers for human recognition. The book contains lots of random information, including this interesting bit about um and uh.

Most languages have two distinct terms, just as English does: If they are simply errors, why would there be two, and why in every language? Furthermore, the usage pattern of "uh" and "um" shows that speakers use "uh" before a pause of less than a second, and "um" before a longer pause. This information suggests two things: (1) that the words are far from interchangeable and in fact play distinct roles, and (2) that because these words are made before the pauses, speakers must be anticipating in advance how long the following pause will be.

He goes on to say that this may be meaningless grammatically, but certainly not with regard to usage. I'm listening to myself and think he's right.

These words are fillers, also known to Wikipedia as Speech Disfluencies, a lovely term! The article notes that "Speech disfluencies have also become important in recent years with the advent of speech-to-text programs and other attempts at enabling computers to make sense of human speech." Also that "Use is normally frowned upon in mass media such as news reports or films, but they occur regularly in everyday conversation, sometimes representing upwards of 20% of "words" in conversation.

Postmodern Generator

A bonus for you academics and anti-academics and related to computers versus humans is this lovely Postmodern Generator. Amazing new articles are posted regularly.


Sausage (3/9/11)

This word has generated more conversation within the office than you can imagine. Our wonderful neighbor and refuge, Elmo's Diner, has asked us to translate their menu into Spanish. Bagels, malteds, English muffins, refill, grits, collards, ... But the hardest word has been sausage. American style pork breakfast sausage is not eaten in Latin America, so we have been trying to come up with the best equivalent—salchicha, chorizo, embutido, salchichón ... None of these work as is. At the moment we're going with salchicha de desayuno. We'll let you know when Elmo's has the new menu ready. Then you'll have one more place to practice your español.

Cairene, a demonym (2/9/11)

With all the news from Cairo that I have read and listened to, I have only read this word one time and never heard it spoken. It is the demonym for a person from Cairo. Demonym is the word I am really interested in in today's addendum, but I was afraid that if I used that as the title, no one would ever link to it.

I was sure that there must be a word to describe places of residence, like Chapel Hillians, Carrboroites (?), and Beiruti, which was the word that originally sent me searching. Google expert that I am, I couldn't find it. So, thanks to Sue Mathias, one of our English teachers, for finding it. However, don't link to the Wikipedia page on demonym that she found unless you have several free minutes, because it is both long and fascinating! The development of these words is clearly quite organic.

It does absolve our ignorance though. "The term demonym is not widely employed or known outside geographical circles and does not yet appear in mainstream dictionaries. It is used by some geographers, both online and within their studies and teaching."

It's derivation is Greek and related to deme and demos. "A demonym, also referred to as a gentilic, is a name for a resident of a locality and is derived from the name of the particular locality. The word demonym comes from the Greek word for "populace" with the suffix for "name" (-nym). In English, the demonym is often the same as the name of the people's native language (the people of Italy are called Italian, which is also the name of their language). The term is foreshadowed in demonymic, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as the name of an Athenian citizen according to the deme to which he belonged, with first usage traced to 1893." 



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