July 2008 Archives

Arabic with a Kurdish Accent?


As the action adventure show Burn Notice ended last week, the lead character Michael said that the mysterious agent Carla spoke "Arabic with a Kurdish accent". Hmmm.

What could this mean? First, I should note that Kurdish is actually a separate language from Arabic. In fact Kurdish is very distantly related to English (but more closely related to Persian and Pushto).

So "Arabic with a Kurdish accent does not mean Carla is speaking Arabic with a native accent, but rather that she has somehow picked up Arabic with a foreign accent (e.g. it would be like a French person learning to speak English with a Mexican accent). I initially thought this might be another TV screw up, but I decided to see if "Arabic with a Kurdish accent" was plausible.

If you look at the UCLA Kurdish Map, you'll see that the Kurds are a minority group living in several countries including Turkey, Armenia, Iran and Iraq. Because they are a minority group, it's likely than many are bilingual in Kurdish and the main language of the country they are currently living in. The candidate countries would be Turkey (Turkish), Armenia (Armenian and possibly Russian), Iran (Persian/Farsi) and ... Iraq (Arabic!).

So I would guess that "Arabic with a Kurdish accent" would mean Northern Iraq. Interestingly, there may be people of Kurdish heritage in northern Iraq who now primarily speak Arabic, but may be maintaining Kurdish phonology (i.e. "a Kurdish accent"). This would be similar to speakers of Hiberno-English (Irish English) who only speak English, but with phonolofical features of Irish (Gaelic) or even some New York English speakers of Latino descent who mostly speak English, but with a slight Spanish accent

I'll be interested to see if mystery agent Carla has indeed spent some time in northern Iraq (it would make plot sense). I'll also be curious to see if she speaks both Kurdish and Arabic....

The Language Without Numbers


An interesting news story from the past few years is the Amazonian language Pirahã which lacks number words. That is, instead of counting quantities (1,2,3,4...), the Pirahã only estimate quantities (relatively small, relatively large). The latest study from MIT seems to confirm this. Interestingly, when objects are taken away from a pile, the estimates change so that "small" may become 5-6 instead of 1-2 as previously thought.

This has perplexed linguists since almost all languages have some sort of counting (even in remote locations). The only other examples of low-tech numbers had been systems of 1,2, many. We normally think of counting as a "basic" cognitive skill, but it appears to be primarily cultural.

I first about this in 2000 from a guest speaker Peter Gordon. His evidence was convincing, but there have been some points I have been pondering.

  • Pirahã children who learn Portuguese also learn to count - it's not a difference in cognition [Peter Gordon, personal communication]
  • Not surprisingly, male laborers in Brazil are stiffed a lot because they do not pay as much attention to "exact" quantities. However the Pirahã women are reported to gently mock their men folk for this [Gordon, p.c.] It reminds me of cultural gender stereotypes like men can't pick coordinating colors and women can't work with computers (and yes many of us buy into them whether they are 100% true).
  • Many animals can easily distinguish quantities of 1,2,3, (or a little more) on sight, but after that they guesstimate. In this study, monkeys can recognize quanities of 1-4, but estimate after that. This predicts that a basic counting would be something like 1,2,3, many, but the Pirahã system is even more basic.

It is startling to think that counting could be essentially "cultural" because almost every other culture has some form of counting, but when I read more, I did realize that there is some truth to this. For instance, most languages have unique words for one such as one, aon (Irish), bat (Basque), but once you get into the range of 1,000,000 (one million), the word starts to resemble million in many languages (e.g. 1 million = milioi in Basque). That's because the concept of such a large quantity is relatively new (few hunter-gatherers needed to count to 106). As modern technology spreads, so do numbers (Basque itself apparently borrowed 1,000 mila from the Romans (i.e. Latin millia).

Even in my lifetime, I can see the scale of numbers "escalating". When I was a teen, 80 KB (80 kilobytes or 80,000 bytes) was a lot of memory, then in college computer drives came in sizes of 1-2 MB (megabytes or 1-2 million bytes), but today you need a hard drive of about 80 GB (80 giga butes, or 80 billion bytes). Now I'm seeing references to terabyte drives (a trliion bytes). Believe me I could not tell you what giga- and tera- were in 8th grade. Now I see on the Wikipedia SI prefix page that you can get up to yotta- (1 septillion or 1024). But I'm pretty sure there's some room for more prefixes

Postscript (24 Jul)

Pirahã is considered to be a member of the Muran language familty, and I had been wondering if the related languages had any counting. Alas, all the other Muran languages are now extinct. I'm still not sure about Everett's claim that Pirahã culture does not deal with abstract topics - That is unbelievably rare considering almost all cultures have art, mythology, and pretty elaborate kinship systems.

Losing Those [–ATR] Vowels (Australia)


After watching a memorial to Heath Ledger, I noticed that at least one speaker, Melissa Thomas Dunkley, from Australia had changed lax [–ATR] front vowels [ɪ,ɛ] to [+ATR] [e,i]. For instance him /hɪm/ was [him] ("heem") but I noticed similar changes of some [ɛ] becoming [e]. A lot of speakers are raising [ɪ] before nasals, but Dunkley has it elsewhere.

Interestingly, a chart of General Australian vowels based on work by Mannell and Cox does show that [e,ɛ] are fairly close, but that [i,I] are fairly distinct. This matches my impression of what I hear listening to most Australian speakers..

On the other hand, I do recall from the movie Strictly Ballroom that the character Fran (Tara Morice) may have had a similar accent to this lady. On the other hand, it's difficult to determine if this Morice playing a character or her true accent. Unfortunately YouTube is not pulling up any interview footage, but maybe there's something on the DVD.

While there appears to be a regional dialect in Australia where [ɪ,ɛ] are merging [i,e] (there may still be a length distinction, I'm not sure where it is. Probably not Perth.