Recently in Random Links Category

Plains Indians Sign Language (PISL)


I just ran across a site about the Plains Indians Sign Language (PISL) on one of my Listservs. This was a gestural language used by a variety of tribes as a common language. Surprisingly, there are speakers of PISL today, but not many.

This Web site from the University of Tennessee documents efforts to document and preserve the language. The site already includes some archival illustrations, photos and informitional timeline. Interesting stuff.

Good List of King Arthur Movies


Since I actually did Celtic linguistics for my degree, I am always interested in good Celitc (or Norse/Old English/medieval) resources. Here's a good list of King Arthur movies from Dr. Dev that skips to the true classics - Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Excalibur, Army of Darkness, and of course, Camelot (the musical).

Alas, the list is still a little skimpy, so while I'm on the subject, I'm asking myself to why it is so hard to film a good adaptation of medieval and ancient stories. I think we've all sat through some very expensive, very unwatchable movies. My personal unfavorites include Oliver Stone's Alexander (which not even Angelina Jolie could save), a 1990s TV miniseries of Cleopatra (too bored to look this up) and well First Knight (sorry it was King Arthur by the book to me).

I suspect that the problem is finding that balance between authenticity and cheesy entertainment. Although we may now find these pre-modern interesting in terms of universal themes vs the original culture, it should be remembered that many were actually meant to popular entertainment much like Gossip Girl, Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek and 24. In other words, larger than life and full of drama/comedy or both (and if social criticism comes into the mix... so be it).

For me the best adaptations include authentic touches (costumes, locations, events), but don't forget the include the swagger of the original. In fact, I've been very happy with adaptations that stray from the long as the original themes have been kept. For instance, Excalibur is the only King Arthur movie to include an ancient Celtic language spell (just the wrong one though). And although Excalibur is neither purely medieval or purely post-Roman, it doesn't really matter because neither was the original. What they did keep was the theme of kingship, the mix of Christian religious purity and Druid magic and kingdom-rocking sex scandals. What else do you need?

So here's a partial list of my favorite adaptations:

Medieval Movies

Skimpy, but oh well

  • Beowulf (2007) - Believe it or not, the cheesy 3D works to showcase both the pre-migration Germanic royal hall and the terror of Grendel. Plus, Beowulf comes off as a pretentious braggart who really needs to make a legitimate kill.
  • Monty Python and the Holy Grail - No there are no socialism jokes in King Arthur, but there really was an obnoxious gate keeper in the Welsh Arthurian saga Culhwch ac Olwen. I can tell that someone read the Middle Welsh literature, because the same kinds of jokes and parody appear here.
  • Charlemagne (1993) - Don't sweat the French title; it's available in English. It may not be entirely accurate, but it gives you the idea of what the secular/Papal politics of the day were. Plus, it has a fabulous Roman bath set which Charlemagne uses a lot. And it has the go-to scene of a candlelit ceremony (the coronation of the Charlemagne, The Pope and 100 candles). The candle-lit ceremony may have been pioneered in King Arthur's wedding in Camelot, but I can't verify that.
  • El Cid (1967) - If you want a trip to medieval Spain, I can recommend this forgotten classic with Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren as his wife whose heart El Cid has to win again. Good costumes, lots of intrigue and a few lessons in honor and Christian/Islamic tolerance.
  • Lion in Winter (1968) - When only one family runs the kingdom, every little squabble turns into a politico-military crisis. Great costumes combined with medieval barges and frozen bath basin water add period detail, but it's the evilly manipulative dialogue from all the cast that makes it a true winner. For film buffs, this includes a very early Anthony Hopkins as the slightly war mad Richard and Timothy Dalton as the not-so-foppish King of France. The remake with Patrick Stewart and Glenn Close disappointed me, but Jonathan Rhys-Meyers does an excellent King Phillip.

Ancient Movies

  • The Trojan Women (1971) - If you want 100% pure Greek drama, this will do the trick. This is a very faithful adaptation of the Eurpides play with Katherine Hepburn as Hecuba, Vanessa Redgrave as Andromache and Geneviève Bujold as Cassandra. But I confess that Irene Papas as Helen steals the show. Although not classically beautiful, one look from her sultry eyes and Menelaus is ready to forgive 10 years of hellish combat (oh well). Alas, the rest of the women face the more common fate of women from the losing side as slaves and concubines.
  • Troy (2004) - Yes it diverges from the "novel" (i.e. The Iliad) quite a bit in ditching both the gods as well as Cassandra and Iphigenia. However it preserves the themes quite well. Agamemnon is still an arrogant ass, Helen is still a lonely wife, Paris the spoiled youth, the Trojans still overly confident in their military might and Hector still the noble but doomed hero. I think Brad Pitt does well in conveying Achilles' heroic swagger with the ironic awareness that this will lead to an early death (but with everlasting fame). I also think Eric Bana's Hector does a fabulous job of being both the patriotic warrior and the only one in Troy with enough sense to see what is going to actually happen, just like Cassandra would have. Good archaic Greek sets too - no Ionic pillars here.
  • Cleopatra (1963) - The one with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. This movie gets a bad rap for being overbudget and for the one where Elizabeth cheats on Eddie Fisher. However the budget is really put to good use (especially in the sequence where Cleopatra brings all of Egypt to march through Rome). Also, I think Taylor makes the most convincing Cleopatra yet. Alluring yes, but also well-educated and motivated with making Egypt a political power independent (or dominating) Rome. Like the actress herself, most of the men failed to take her seriously...but she got her way in the end.
  • Rome (HBO Miniseries) - This is the no-holds barred re-telling of the last days of the Republic. There's a certain amount of silliness (Cleopatra as a tasteless slut?), but it really picks up steam as it moves along. There's discussion in the Latinteach list about which scenes are safe to show in middle school, but this is one in which the R-rated material really, really makes the whole thing work. Polly Walker as Octavian's mother is a blast, but James Purefoy as her sometime lover Marc Anthony has more than a few original antics on display.
  • The Last Days of Pompeii (1984) - This TV miniseries hearkens back to the Sword and Sandals days, but it's quite entertaining nonetheless. You can tell it's a 19th century novel because it's primarily the Christian converts who survive, but the individual storylines crossing all socioeconomic sectors of Pompeii are very appealing, and yes the sets are fabulous. When this genre works, it really is a lot of fun.
  • Spartacus (1960 and 2004) - The 1960 version with Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis and Lawrence Olivier is a fine Hollywood classic, but I like the 2004 miniseries with Goran Visnijc quite a bit. Visnijc brings a humbler sensibility as a man who just suffered one too many indignity and rose up to kill his oppressor. He may not have meant to lead the revolution, but he lead it well and with honor...and scared the living daylights out of his masters.

MLA U.S. Language Map


The MLA (Modern Language Association) has an interactive language map of language communities in the U.S. based on the 2000 Census data (with updates from 2005) at:

In addition to the basics, you can find information on language communities by state, county and even zip code. If you really want to check it out, I recommend viewing data from the Los Angeles area. It's probably as linguistically diverse as New York.

As a fun class exercise, I just took the basic U.S. map showing concentrations of non-English speakers (bluer = higher percentage of English speakers) then asked students to guess which language communities were being represented. Another fun exercise would be to have people look up the third largest spoken languages in different regions. Overall in the U.S., the third largest is Chinese, but in Pennsylvania it's German (and Tagalog (Phillipines) in California).

P.S. I should note that today the map is hanging when collecting data, but Internet speeds have been slow in general...hopefully it's a temporary glitch. If the map isn't working, you can retrieve the raw data by clicking "Tabular View".

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.

YouTube Verner's Law Video


Although these videos parody 1950s vintage math education videos, I think they may be very helpful for students wrestling with the grim laws of Germanic philology. For one thing, they pronounce the early Germanic and Latin forms - always a help

Thank you AvunlcularFeldspar...wherever you are.

Part 1 Embedded below

ILAT Listverv - Indegenous Languages and Technology


If you are interested in effors at preserving indigenous languages (especially in the Americas), you may want to subscribe to the ILAT Listserv at

It is a fairly comprehensive list of the latest news in this field including a recent decision by New Mexico to standardize on one textbook for Navajo language classes in the school system.

Russian Pop Music Portal


One of the nice benefits of the new media outlets on the Internet is the ability to preview non-English language music - both modern and traditional.

If you are in a Russian frame of mind, you may enjoy Far From Moscow, a blog about the Russian Pop music scene. It's from UCLA and written for the American music audience. Entries include clips of sample songs, brief artist bios (with a touch of politics) and links by musical genre (such as reggae and folk). And since it's from UCLA, I'm assuming that most of the clips are legal (they're certainly high quality).

I would recommend listening to some of these tracks...even if you don't know a word of Russian. I'm feeling hipper already

World Atlas of Language Structures


The World Atlas of Language Structures Online ( from the Max Planck Digital Library is a great new resource that maps languages with phonological, morphological or syntactic features.

For instance, someone asked if front-rounded vowels (e.g. German /ü,ö/ or French /œ/) were only found in languages originating from northern Eurasia. The map at actually shows that while most languages with front round vowels are in Northern Eurasia, there are a few further south in tropical regions including a few in the Amazon basin. In case you're wondering the maps are in the Google maps format and can be exported into KML and XML format.

The sources are well cited so the data is trustworthy and lots of features are mapped out. There's also a subsidiary set of language profile pages. A nice academically rich use of Web 2.0 technlogy.

GROW (German Resources on the Web)

If you're a German instructor, you may be interested in GROW (

This one is interesting from a technology point of view because it's a "traditional Web site" which hides a modern interface. Built for both Web 1.0 and Web 2.0!

U Texas Hebrew Computing Resources


I'm always on the lookout for good language teaching resources, so here's one for Hebrew teachers.

They have some interesting instructional resources including videos and audio. I particularly like the verb root Flash demo in which the root consonants are highlighted in the different verb forms.

In Hebrew and related languages (including Arabic), the consonants may be grouped together or separated by vowels depending on the verb form. The closest English parallel would be something like drive ~ drove where the consonants /dr-v/ remain the same, but the internal vowel changes depending on the tense.