Books: The Last Lingua Franca

December 23, 2011

I came across mention of this book when I was doing a post, several weeks ago, about using the computer to translate from one language to another. Since I’m interested in anything to do with languages, I immediately put in a request for the book from the library.

Naturally, all the books I had requested became available the same week. I was sure I would like this one, so I started with it. It proved a much more difficult read than I had expected, however, so it was the last one of those that I finished.

The basic premise of The Last Lingua Franca: English Until the Return of Babel, as indicated by the title, is that English will eventually cease to operate as a global lingua franca, but no other language will take its place. Nicholas Ostler doesn’t make this argument until the very end of the book, however. All the previous chapters are laying groundwork, showing the history behind the rise and fall of various languages that have at some point served for communication among people who do not share a mother tongue.

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Computer as translator

October 29, 2011

As a lover of language and languages, I was intrigued but bothered by the opening lines of an article I read this week at The Hot Word (’s blog). “Back in the 1940s, mathematician Warren Weaver made an audacious suggestion: what if translation was not a feat of literary theory and linguistics, but one of cryptography?” The rest of the article indicates that Weaver was on the right track, as evidenced by both Google Translate, and the recent success of some cryptographers in decoding the Copiale Cipher.

I think computers are great tools, and it wouldn’t surprise me if eventually they could be programmed to understand and use human languages fairly well. But to do it by the tools of mathematics rather than linguistics? Besides, even humans often do a poor job of translation (Charles Berlitz gives some very amusing examples in his book Native Tongues) – how could a computer possibly do better?

I decided to check out Google Translate. I took a sentence from the article I had just been reading, and pasted it into Google Translate. It didn’t matter much which language I translated it into, since my aim was to re-translate it to English and see how this compared with the original. I chose Russian. The result was not perfect, but better than I expected.

Original sentence: By making a machine-readable version of the text, a team of computational linguistics were able to run the characters through a software program that found patterns in the text, which were otherwise inscrutable.

Russian translation: Делая машиночитаемой версии текста, команда компьютерной лингвистики смогли запустить персонажей через программное обеспечение, которое обнаружили закономерности в тексте, которые в противном случае неисповедимы.

Back to English: Making the machine-readable version of the text, Computational Linguistics team were able to run characters through software, which found a pattern in the text, which otherwise inscrutable.

By way of comparison, Babel Fish produced this when translating the same sentence to Russian and then back to English: “With way to make machine-readable the version from the text, the command of computational linguistics could break into a run natures to the program of software which it found the pictures in the text, which were otherwise inscrutable.” Yes, definitely inscrutable.

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Books: Outwitting History

September 23, 2011

I had never heard of Aaron Lansky or his book, Outwitting History, when I found it at the top of a box of books my sister sent me recently. It’s the sort of book I would have read years ago if I had known about it (it was published in 2005). It has everything – history, especially regarding the Jewish people, books, a foreign language, lots of stories about interesting people and places, and a handful of idealists engaged in a seemingly impossible task.

I know no more Yiddish than a handful of those words that have made their way into English (and I had no idea that some of these were Yiddish until now). I’m sure many of my ancestors on my mother’s side spoke Yiddish, but she never considered herself Jewish despite her ancestry (her father brought her up in Christian Science), and I grew up without any idea of the rich cultural heritage that was lost to me.

From various books I have read about languages, I knew something about Yiddish, but I don’t know if I ever gave any thought as to whether there were books written in the language. As Lansky explains, it was primarily a spoken language, but for about a hundred years or so there was a remarkable outpouring of literary output in Yiddish. Then the tides of history turned, and Yiddish became a dying language.

Lansky and his friends started looking for Yiddish books in order to help them learn Yiddish, initially for the purpose of academic study (at least in Lansky’s case). Like other young Jews, Lansky had not grown up speaking Yiddish. But unlike so many others, he wanted to save the books treasured by the older generations, rather than throwing them out as a relic of an embarrassing past.

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A fantastic writer

August 24, 2011

fan·tas·tic [fan-tas-tik]
1. conceived or appearing as if conceived by an unrestrained imagination
2. extravagantly fanciful; marvelous
3. incredibly great or extreme

Unless you’ve studied Spanish, chances are that you haven’t read much, if anything, by Jorge Luis Borges. I’m sure his works are available in English translations, but I don’t recall seeing any when I’ve browsed in bookstores (where I do remember seeing translations of books by other Latin American writers such as Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa).

It’s been a long time since I’ve read anything by Borges, but for a few years he was my favorite author. I first read something by him when I had been studying Spanish for less than a year (but at an accelerated rate, equal to at least two years of college Spanish) and I didn’t understand everything, but I was hooked. I read everything by him I could get my hands on.

Then a few years later, after my miserable experiences as a Spanish teacher, I boxed up most of my Spanish books and had little desire to read even my favorites. I thought I’d eventually get back to them, but I never did. I got married and started reading some of my husband’s favorite books, most science fiction/fantasy. I had kids and spent time reading parenting magazines and children’s books. My husband went to seminary and I was thrilled to have a large range of theology books available to me (both his textbooks and in the seminary library).

I hadn’t thought about Borges in a very long time, until I went to Google this morning and discovered their Doodle celebrating what would have been Borges’ 112th birthday. Between nostalgia for the delight I had found in reading his works, and curiosity what people know and think about him, I checked out some links regarding the man and his work.

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Language without abstraction

March 22, 2011

I’ve been working on ideas for a speech I’m giving Saturday (for a Toastmasters contest), and one idea (which I’m thinking now won’t really work but I haven’t figured out what to do instead) had to do with the importance of words vs numbers. (Think of King Azaz and the Mathemagician in The Phantom Tollbooth.) I remembered having read about a language that has few if any numbers, where people manage with just words like “few” and “more.”

Looking for more information, I came across this fascinating article about the Pirahã, a tribe in northwestern Brazil. Don Everett, a linguist who first went there as a missionary with the Summer Institute of Linguistics, probably knows as much of their language as anyone else outside the tribe. Their language not only lacks numbers, Everett says, but any kind of abstractions. They have no interest in the distant past or future, or in anything that they cannot experience directly.

Imagine the challenges that presents to someone trying to share the gospel of Jesus Christ. I have read a number of accounts of the difficulties Bible translators have with languages that don’t have words that are key to understanding Bible stories and concepts. But I never heard before of a language without any abstract words.

Some linguists think that Everett is wrong. His claims fly in the face of much of what is widely accepted in academic circles regarding language and linguistics, particularly the theories advanced by Noam Chomsky. Everett himself was once an enthusiastic disciple of Chomsky, until he realized that the Pirahã language simply didn’t fit the theories.

I once thought I would spend my life doing what Don Everett and his wife Keren headed to the Amazon to do. Keren still works at learning Pirahã, with the goal of translating Scripture into their language. Don now considers himself an atheist, and his interest in Pirahã is for the language itself. The couple separated years ago, after Don concluded that he found no more spiritual meaning in the Bible than the Pirahã do. (Don did succeed in translating some passages, but the stories elicited no interest among the people of this tribe.)

I have long thought that one strong bit of evidence for a spiritual dimension to life is that people of all times and cultures have spiritual experiences and beliefs (not all people, but some people in all cultures). That the Pirahã do not (if Don Everett’s understanding is correct) does not weaken my belief in spiritual realities. But it is strange.

Multilingual texting

December 19, 2010

This evening our older son (who is home from college for three weeks) was chatting online with a friend from high school, who is currently an exchange student in France. Jokingly I asked what language they were chatting in, knowing that my son chose to study German when Spanish did not fit into his high school schedule, because he hated the sound of spoken French.

Naturally they were chatting in English, but it made me wonder what chatting in French would look like. I typically write out words in full even in online chat. (I knew a few texting abbreviations, but something in me resists using them.) But I know that people who text regularly become adept at squeezing a lot of meaning into relatively few letters. Often it is by leaving out a lot of vowels – what would that do in a language full of vowels like Spanish or Italian?

I found it somewhat difficult to find examples, though I wasn’t initially sure if that was just because it was difficult to find search terms that would not turn up too much other material. Anytime I put “foreign languages” in my search, I got references to texting as a “foreign language.” When I tried specific languages such as French or German, I got links to online translation services or dictionaries.

I did find a few, but I stopped looking after reading this very informative article on the whole texting phenomenon and whether it will “degrade” the language. Author David Crystal explains that people seem particularly reluctant to share their text messages “with an inquiring linguist.” (Are they afraid, perhaps, of having their communication analyzed by someone who will find it lacking?)

In addition to that, when it comes to finding examples in other languages, there is the fact that so many speakers of other languages incorporate elements from English into their texting. As Crystal explains, English is seen as “cool.” However, I found another article that offers numerous examples from various languages.

Here are some examples from the two articles, along with a few I had found on my own. As you can see, other languages do the same trick of using numbers that sound like parts of words.

HDGDL = Hab dich ganz doll lieb (I love you completely doll)
aws = auf wiedersehen (good-bye)
gn8 = gute nacht  (good night) [Note: 8 = acht]
8ung! = Achtung! (Careful!)
BS = Bis Später (see you later)

BAP = bon après-midi (Good afternoon)
stp = s’il te plait (please)
koi29 = quoi de neuf (What’s new?) [Note: 2 = deux, 9 = neuf]
MDR = mort de rire (the equivalent of LOL)
PDP = pas de problème (no worries)

tq = te quiero (I love you)
sl2 = saludos (greetings – for either hello or good-bye) [Note: 2 = dos]
a2 = adios (good-bye)
nka = nunca (never)
mx = mucho (much)
qndo = cuando (when)

I did finally find a lengthy list of French texting abbreviations. My son’s friend has struggled with learning to speak French. I wonder if she knows how to text en français.

Movies: Tortilla Soup

March 17, 2010

I suppose it’s not very Irish to watch a Hispanic movie on St. Patrick’s Day, but what can I say? I’m not Irish (though I am wearing a green T-shirt with a beautiful golden dragon against a background of Celtic knotwork). Of course, I’m not Hispanic either, but having studied Spanish and lived in a Spanish-speaking country, I became particularly interested in their culture.

Tortilla Soup was recommended to me by a co-worker from Brazil. He was born in Argentina, so he speaks Spanish as well as Portuguese – and good English as well. He had watched the movie one weekend, and he loved the music in the movie. He told me he thought I would enjoy it also. (He knows I speak Spanish, and I have attempted to learn a few phrases of Portuguese also.)

Based on his comment, I was expecting music to be part of the storyline, rather than just background for the action (as it is in just about any movie). Instead, the art form that plays a lead role is cooking, as the movie is about a widowed master chef and his three grown daughters, who live with him. He is losing his sense of taste and smell – a very bad thing for a chef. And it seems that he is losing his daughters also, as they are trying to find their own way in life – an American way of life – without asking his advice and following the traditional ways.

My husband said it seemed like a Hispanic version of Fiddler on the Roof, with conflict between the traditional father and his daughters. As it is set in the present, the daughters have not only love interests but also careers. And in Tortilla Soup, there is also the question of a love interest for the father, who has been widowed for fifteen years.

I learned from that it is actually a Hispanic version of a Taiwanese film, Yin shi nan nu (Eat, Drink, Man, Woman). The screenplay of both movies was written by Ang Lee, and one viewer review pointed out that the dialog is almost word-for-word the same in both movies – except, I’m sure, for the obvious differences in language and cuisine.

If I had been told that the movie was about four women and their romantic interests, I doubt I would have been interested. The movie is rated PG-13 for sexual content, but the suggestive content was limited mostly to one scene, one comment in a later scene, and a brief scene showing a woman in only bra and panties emerging from a bedroom. Mostly, though, the movie is about people and their relationships – not only man and woman but father and daughter, the three sisters, and the chef’s friendship with his longtime partner at the restaurant.

Every one of the relationships seems strained nearly to breaking at times. I usually hate seeing people make fools of themselves on the screen, as I feel so embarrassed for them. But the struggles in these relationships are so typical of real life, and they are believable also in the way they are resolved. There’s not a happy ending to every relationship, but there is a happy ending to the movie.

I wonder if next I want to see Yin shi nan nu with English subtitles.