Sunday, January 8, 2017

ConLing - What constitutes a philosophical language?

It's been rare that I cover a topic that's exclusively conlang related, but I think this qualifies. Philosophical languages certainly don't occur in the wild, and even the most successful ones have never picked up fluent communities the way some lucky constructed languages of other types have. Indeed, the matter of whether or not a philosophical language can even be learned and used in the same way as a natural language is subject to debate - by definition they entail some major departures from the way humans naturally communicate. But what exactly are they?

A sample of Wilkins' Real Character

It's difficult to define the exact boundaries of what does and doesn't qualify as a philosophical language - the definition has something to do with the creator's intention as well as the actual structure of the language. Generally, a philosophical language is one engineered with major structural differences from natural languages, which are meant to reflect the creator's philosophy of how communication and the synthesis of meaning could or should work. They may or may not, though often do, come with implicit assertions that the language has the power to improve or bring clarity to the human condition. Much to the chagrin of many a philosophical language maker, the very things that make them special also tend to irreparably impair their potential as practical communication tools for real people. What do I mean? As always, a few examples might help paint a picture.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Conlang feature - Waku

This month I chose to feature Waku, a project by Xing of the Conlang Bulletin Board.

Waku is presented on a corner of Xing's neat little website, with sections along the side and links to a dictionary and flashcards. It looks like Xing's hand-written all the html, which is quite cool! I get the sense that a lot of conlangers are coders and vice versa. I think a prior version of the language must have been called Gaku - a few pages give that as the name. I read through Waku mostly by just going in order down the side, and if you're following along on the site, that's roughly the order I'm reviewing items in, too.

The phonology of Waku is quirky, but in my opinion realistic. Consonants are divided into "light" (palatalized)  and "dark" (velarized) a la Irish or Russian, which seems unsurprising until you realize that there's just one set of "lingual" nasal and oral stops - dark linguals are velar and light linguals are laminal coronal, drifting anywhere between dental and palatal. Wacky! I'm willing to believe it though, in view of how some Polynesian languages conflate coronals and velars. Also like Russian, front vowels are centralized after dark consonants. The phonotactics are easy enough - aside from root-medial geminate consonants, syllables are limited to (C)V(V).

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Human Story - How did the Bantu people become so widespread?

In the post on Sunday I remarked in passing how striking it is that such a large part of Africa speaks closely related languages, and offered up the theory that it was the result of a huge population expansion, but then I just dropped it and moved on to talking about Trevor Noah or something.

I mean... it's tough not to.

But let's rewind a second. It's Human Story today. How did Bantu-speaking people get everywhere they are today?

That turns out not to be the easiest question to answer - most of the evidence we have for the expansion at all is just the similarity between the Bantu languages. The thought process goes that if people in Cameroon, Kenya, and Cape Town are all speaking clearly similar languages, they must have been speaking the same language fairly recently. So it goes in historical linguistics; there's simply no other force that could have made them so similar from that distance. Based on linguistic reconstruction, it's pretty clear that the Bantu speakers began about 4,000 years ago in the Niger-Congo heartland, in modern Cameroon, from there expanding south and east into essentially the whole southern half of Africa, absorbing or displacing sparser hunter-gatherer populations like the Congolese pygmies and Khoisan bushmen. Unfortunately, studying the languages has pretty limited ability to fill in any of the juicy details about how or why the expansion happened. This is the point in the discussion where linguists usually turn things over to geneticists and archaeologists, but their findings are... mixed.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

ConLing - What are the Bantu languages?

Subsaharan Africa is one of the most linguistically diverse areas in the world, with about two thousand languages (give or take a thousand, depending on who's counting). Further, many of the recognized language "families," like the Nilo-Saharan and Khoisan groups, have no agreed-upon family tree, being grouped on the basis of vague similarities, or of not being clearly related to other established clades.

Part of the uncertainty comes from a lack of data, but even if we knew everything about these languages, they still might not fit neatly into groups - the millennia of close contact and free movement among ethnolinguistic groups means that most African languages might not slot into neat, linear family trees the same way that the languages of more recent migrants, like Indo-Europeans, do. Given this backdrop, it's shocking that right smack in the middle of Subsaharan Africa is a huge swath of area, with as many as a third of all Africans speaking a set of unmistakably close linguistic cousins, sharing ideosyncratic grammatical features and most of their vocabulary.

A Shona mother in Zimbabwe will call her infant a mwana. For a Swahili speaker in Kenya, on the other side of the Bantu zone, the word for "child" is also mwana. Coincidence? Linguists think not.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Brain Stuff - What are ingroups and outgroups?

We all feel like we have at least some grasp on social behaviors, that we understand the actions of ourselves and others. There's definitely a lot of truth to that - perhaps the greatest intelligence of humans is anticipating and navigating our social existence, and rarely does a social psychology finding fundamentally surprise. That being said, we all spend plenty of time blissfully ignoring our cognitive patterns and biases, which might be worth paying attention to and holding ourselves accountable for, even if we already, in some way, know they exist.

Our brain did the vast majority of its evolving when we lived in small, extended-family or tribal groups, and whatever instinctual behaviors served us best then are still deep-set, tempered as they might be by the cultural educations we all begin receiving from birth. Among those behaviors is the automatic tendency to construct our social identities by defining ourselves in terms of membership to particular groups - female, Japanese, Libertarian, UNC-Chapel Hill graduate, Dr. Who fan, band kid, preferrer of Kit Kats over Twix, whatever.

Essentially anything can be the basis for group membership.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

ConLing - What is vowel harmony?

There come a few times when studying language when you run across something too bizarrely counterintuitive to dream up - to me, vocalic harmony falls squarely in that category. If I didn't know it existed, I'd probably consider it impossible, but there it is, sitting squarely in the middle of Turkish, Igbo, Finnish, and even some dialects of Spanish. But what exactly is it?

Vocalic harmony is when consonant notes are sung simultaneously. jk, that's vocal harmony (wow! vocal, consonant, singing and linguistics get their terminological wires crossed a lot!) This picture was on the Wikipedia page about vocal harmony so, uh... here. It's more entertaining that any of the pictures on the vowel harmony page.
In my post on allophony, I mentioned assimilation, the phenomenon of nearby sounds becoming more alike, usually by sharing an articulatory feature. Assimilation most commonly happens over short distances, typically adjacent segments, but sometimes sounds freak out and decide they have to agree with even far away sounds, extending their assimilatory sensitivites across a whole word - harmony! In languages with harmonic systems, all sounds of a particular type within a given word live in concordant coexistence with one another, usually separating into multiple sets based on a certain feature and only allowing items from one set in each word.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Human Story - How many languages do most people know?

I need to preface this by saying that this post is a little bit of a departure from the usual research-based content. Everything I say here is anecdotal, based on my own experiences living and working in four countries (The Netherlands, Nepal, Morocco, and Latvia), and should be treated as a data point of one. If you have your own experience or viewpoint on the matter, please comment and share!

I always knew, as I suspect most do, that knowledge of multiple languages is the norm, but if you don't experience it on a daily basis it can be tough to comprehend.The first time I heard four languages over one dinner table, or realized that Moroccan TV commercials switch back and forth between French and Arabic, it blew my mind.

The movie Rabat (which I watched while staying in Rabat) contains dialogue in Dutch, English, Arabic, French, and German - that was a trip for my American brain.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

ConLing - How does ergativity work?

Almost regardless of how you go about being interested in language, a basic understanding of morphosyntactic alignment is, in the words of Kanye, "something that you need to have." It's what takes you from thinking about syntax in terms of the languages you know, to the world of ever-ineffable true thematic relations, a realm where theta roles are made up, that's kept generations of high linguistics students up at night.

I apologize for making this.

If, for instance, you only know English, or even if you're a well-read pan-European polyglot comfortable with French, German, Latin, and Russian, the concept of a grammatical subject seems absolute and immutable, a truth of the universe up there with gravity. As soon as you work up the gall to crack open a grammar of Basque or Tagalog or Guarani, though, this sure footing starts slipping away beneath you, and you turn to the only place you can - morphosyntactic alignment. The best way to start thinking about this is with a nice, clean example  - ergativity.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Brain Stuff - How does bilingualism affect the brain?

Psychology, more than most sciences, gets to make an appearance pretty frequently in popular media, and this particular notion is a favorite - that speaking multiple languages does things (these days, usually good things) to the brain. Every few months a study makes waves in the news, and like most science journalism, it usually involves hyperbolic headlines surrounding what's really an incremental advance in an ongoing and complex debate. There's definitely not a conclusive answer yet, but it still seems like too noteworthy a topic to pass up, so I'll do my best to represent the current debate.

A bilingual Hebrew-Arabic classroom in Israel

Sunday, December 11, 2016

ConLing - Why are so many Chinese logograms pronounced the same?

Anyone who's had any exposure to written Chinese has noticed how many characters have exactly the same pronunciation, or even heard the commonly thrown-around factoid that Chinese is full of homophones. Whether or not modern spoken Chinese languages are actually so unusually full of homophones is debatable, but it's certainly true that a huge number of Chinese characters are homophonic. For instance, the MDGB dictionary lists over a hundred characters with the pronunciation yì [î]. So why on earth is Chinese writing carrying so much information that has nothing to do with encoding the spoken language? It turns out that it can all be traced back to factors emerging from the history and nature of the writing system itself.

Evolution of a pictographic character meaning "sun"

There's an interesting conception I encounter a lot among speakers of Mandarin - that historic writers like Laozi and Li Bai pronounced their characters identically to modern Beijing Mandarin, with all other dialects and variations descended from this timeless, standard pronunciation. Of course, this is patently false.