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1 day ago
The Pestilential Lexicon of Disease
WHO Director Tedros Adhanom is more effective than any Classics teacher at making everyone in the world learn the Greek alphabet.
On Friday, the World Health Organisation named a concerning new variant of Covid-19 for the Greek letter Omicron. The WHO initiated this arcane naming convention earlier this year, to avoid stigmatising countries where variants arose. …
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5 days ago
Is There a Future for Indigenous Languages?
A Wampanoag reenactor gives a presentation to a school group at Plimoth Plantation, a historical site in Massachusetts that is popular this time of year.
This week marks Thanksgiving in the US, which is generally an occasion for family togetherness and good cheer. But most will also spend a moment reflecting on the fate of those celebrants of the first Thanksgiving who were not wearing buckle hats.
The history of the native languages of North…
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Nov 16
What is “Proper English?”
A performance of Oscar Hammerstein’s “Carmen Jones,” a recasting of “Carmen” in African-American Vernacular English (1943)
In 1996, the school board of the diverse city of Oakland, California passed a resolution mandating the use of Ebonics (i.e., English as spoken by African-Americans) as a language of instruction. The anodyne headline goal was to “maintain the legitimacy and richness of such language… and facilitate [students’] acquisition and…
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Nov 9
Where Do Our Letters Come From?
St Matthew struggling to read the fine print
What are you reading here? The obvious answer is English, but that’s only partly true. What you are really reading is a series of arbitrary characters strung together to approximate spoken English. Spoken language is hardwired into our brains. It is the defining feature that makes us human. …
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Oct 15
Is Mandarin the Language of the Future?
Westerners are generally aware that in the distant past, Latin was Europe’s international language. It was succeeded by French, which ultimately ceded its place to English as the lingua franca of the entire world.
Many observe the meteoric rise of China and surmise that some day, maybe in the not-too-distant…
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Oct 11
The Family of a Thousand Languages, Part II: Austronesia Rules the Waves
Island living is the life for me
The usual explanation for why Austronesian speakers left Taiwan around 1500 BC is population pressure. Over the following centuries, their descendants colonised what are now the Philippines and Indonesia; these include some very large, fertile islands, but settled life evidently left something to be desired.
From the early centuries of…
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Oct 8
The Family of a Thousand Languages, Part I: Out of Formosa
These fishermen’s ancestors somehow sailed farther than Columbus on boats little bigger than this one.
Scientists strive to be objective and rational, seeking truth through experiment and observation in a clean, unbiased setting. Unfortunately for linguists, the real world is not a laboratory. Languages seem never to behave the way you want them to.
However, there are enough languages out there, many very isolated, that…
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Sep 9
Afghanistan’s Complicated Language Landscape
It is easy to forget today that, in spite of its troubled politics, Afghanistan really is a very pretty country.
Afghanistan is a complicated country. In the continual geopolitical furori that have thrust an unassuming, ruggedly beautiful land with few resources a thousand miles from any major capital into the global spotlight, it is easy to forget that it is notable for anything besides war.
But Afghanistan has a fascinating…
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Aug 31
Who Speaks Indian? (Part II)
Rifts between languages are often more political than linguistic, but in South India, they run far deeper. Bottomless, in fact: Dravidian languages are ancestrally unrelated to Indo-Aryan. The Hindi language is more closely related to English than it is to Telugu. …
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Aug 29
Who Speaks Indian? (Part I)
Ask anyone what language they speak in a given major country, and it is typically not a hard question. Italians speak Italian, Swedes speak Swedish, and the Japanese speak Japanese. Most people know that Argentines speak Spanish, and it is broadly true that the language of China is Chinese.
But…
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