November 2008 Archives

When Mummies Meet Oil


A great story from the New York Times about the Ürümchi Mummies is a classic clash of archaeology, ethnic identity and modern politics.

A while back a series of mummies with red and blonde hair were found buried in the deserts of Western China. For obvious reasons, this was sensational news, and a fascinating glimpse into population movements.

Who were these people and how did they "disappear"? Did they leave or did their descendants intermarry into other populations? A lot of people speculate that they might be an Indo-European speaking population who survived to become the Tocharians, but it's hard to know for sure. There is evidence from the surviving textile of a possible West to East movement, but that doesn't establish a language.

The current local population, the Uighurs would like to claim them as ancestors because they are evidence of a non-Chinese regional identity. Interestingly, although the Uighurs speak a non-Chinese language, it is not Indo-European either, but a Turkic language related to Turkish and Tatar.

Once upon a time the Chinese government might not have cared one way or another - it is a hostile desert on the border to the "barbarian lands." But this desert has something valuable for the 21st century - OIL! It is important now than ever that this province be established as "Chinese."

At this rate, it will be a while before we can get a clear idea who these people are. Ironically the answer to the identity of the mummies may be "None of the Above."

Rhinoceri vs. Rhinoceroses: A Ban on Unstressed */əsəs/?


Is it two rhinoceri or two rhinoceroses? The spelling of final -os (instead of Latin -us) told me that any -i plural would be a new formation. The -os is usually a sign that the learned word is actually Greek (and rhinoceros is the compound of Greek rhino- 'nose' plus ceros 'horn').

Yet, I have to confess, I favored rhinoceri because I wasn't very phonologically happy with having to deal with the another -es (especially because the singular already has Neo-classical antepenultimate stress). And lucky me, the keyword rhinoceri pulled up tons of hits on Google, include a possible entry from the Merriam-Webster dictionary.

What's interesting to me here is that my preference suggests that English phonology may be driving the formation of some neo-classical plurals. That is, some neo-classical plurals may be the result of a grammar trying to avoid unstressed /əsəs/ sequences. It would be interesting to devise some sort of experiment to determine if there is a pronunciation preference.

FYI - Depending on how you analyze the post-Greek compound, the etymologically correct plural may actually have been rhinocerotes or possibly rhinocera (if the original Greek was rhinoceron).

Ban Latin? Can they do that?


The latest linguistic new item is a U.K. edict to ban Latin phrasing in government publications (London Telegraph). Predicatbly, there is an expression of outrage, but how bad is this idea?

According to the article, only 19 terms are targeted for elimination by the Bournemouth Council, and most are ones that can be rephrased easily in native English. Examples include e.g. ("for example"), i.e. ("that is"), quid pro quo ("tit for tat"), etc. (and so forth) and others. They are a little longer, but it would be nice to avoid the whole i.e. versus e.g. debate.

But I doubt you will be able to eliminate Latin altogether - for instance, I just used the Latin word versus (in opposition to?) in the previous paragraph. It's so commonly used (even in pro wrestling), that there really is no smooth native translation anymore. In this list, I would also include vice-versa, per se and ad lib - which are in the "banned list".

Note that I haven't even touched on legal terminology like habeas corpus ("the body writ"?) or subpoena ("the show up in court...or else" writ?). Not even the U.K. Bournemouth Council has alternatives for these.

While I applaud the Council's desire to streamline the English language, I think they underestimate the impact Latin has had on our language. Not every Latin word is a "learned word" anymore but are real parts of everyday English vocabulary. It looks like that Latin, along with French, Greek, Italian and others, will be useful languages to know for enhancing your SAT score for sometime to come.

Standardizing Jamaican Creole


A link I recently encountered is the Jamaican Language Unit.

As you may or may not know, many inhabitants of Jamaica, including the late Bob Marley, are native speakers of Jamaican Creole. As with most creoles, Jamaican Creole is often considered to be a "degenerate" form of English, but the Jamaican Language Unit is working to establish Jamaican Creole as an alternate written standard.

It's interesting that the first task is to establish a spelling system. Like other "oral languages", Jamaican Creole has to first standardize itself with written conventions. Depending on how many actual dialects there are, this can be difficult. For instance, the spelling convention says that the sound /h/ is phonemic in only a few dialects.

It also requires speakers to shift their perceptions of their own language from something used just at home or in the local community to one that can be used for all functions, even potentially for news stories and technical articles. Fortunately, Jamaican Creole has been used as a language of poetry and music, so there is already a literary culture.

I wish them luck. We already know from the standardization of the Tok Pisin Creole of Papua New Guinea that a creole can become a written standard.

Could it ever happen in the U.S.?

I also wonder if this could even happen in the United States with forms like AAVE (African American Vernacular English), Appalachian English, etc. One factor in Jamaica's favor is that the vast majority of inhabitants are native speakers of Jamaican Creole (this is also true for languages like Haitian (French) Creole which is also being codified as a written standard). In contrast, although there are large pockets of non-standard English speakers in the U.S., the plurality (if not the majority) are speaking standard English, and almost all people born in the United States are able to understand Standard English.

Another factor, oddly, against the standardization of the non-standard forms in the United States is their mutual intelligibility with Standard English. American Standard English speakers may mimic regional accents or show disdain for "bad grammar", but for the most part they can understand the non-standard forms in the U.S.

On the other hand, some forms like Jamaican Creole and true Scots are so divergent from Standard English that providing a dictionary and grammar begins to seem like a sensible idea.

Finally there is resistance in both the Standard English community and the speaker communities the idea that forms like AAVE or Appalachian English could function like a "real language". When the Oakland School Board proposed support for bilingual education, the concept was generally ridiculed and inspired parodies such as Da Ebonics Page. I admit even I was a little dubious (it does depend on what you mean by "bilingual education"). In any case, there's a lot attitude adjustment to be done before AAVE can become a literary standard.

But that could all change someday. And if it ever does, either Jamaica or Scotland could serve as a model of how to turn a "colloquial" language into a written form.