Thursday, 12 May 2011

endangered, exotic

Thanks to my stay in hospital last weekend I’ve finally got round to reading Mark Abley’s Spoken Here: Travels among Threatened Languages.

The author succeeds admirably in keeping us entertained with fascinating facts as he visits speakers of assorted endangered languages: Australian and Amerindian indigenous languages with only a handful of speakers, Manx and Provençal, Yiddish and Welsh, vividly bringing home to us the difficulty of being forced to live your life through a language that isn’t your own.

Despite all his energetic research (which includes mentions of Whorf, Chomsky, and Trubetzkoy), Abley is not a linguist, and is conscious of not being one. I must admit I had never realized how forbidding some of our familiar linguistic terminology can be to outsiders.

One of the things he presents to our admiring eyes as part of “an elaborate array of phonetic devices”, as used in the description of Yuchi (an endangered language of Oklahoma), is that Yuchi distinguishes between “a dorsal-palatal x (as in German ‘ich’) and a velar (as in German ‘ach’)”. Well yes, German has this ç - x distinction too, and so for that matter do many other not terribly exotic languages, including Modern Greek.

Continuing with the “elaborate array of phonetic devices”, you’ll be amazed to hear that Yuchi vowels can be “open, closed, lengthened, or nasalized”. Just imagine!

If he knew more phonetics, Abley might reasonably have mentioned that Yuchi has not only an aspiration contrast but also ejectives, so that we have p vs. ph vs etc. And it has a voiceless lateral fricative ɬ. Now that’s a bit more interesting.

Then
Yiddish … has a linguistic feature with the menacing name “devoicing assimilation”: voiced consonants like b and d are “devoiced” by other consonants that follow on, so that the vocal cords no longer vibrate.

In no time at all Abley is running with a metaphor, of a speech community “devoiced” (prevented from making their voice heard) by their gradual assimilation into the majority language surrounding them.

The take-home message is one that I agree with whole-heartedly.
One irascible, bloody-minded, language-speaking son of a bitch is worth a few dozen well-meaning hobbyists.

It’s no use just talking about endangered or minority languages, in the way that Abley found enthusiasts for Provençal doing among themselves (but in French). You’ve got to speak them, sing in them, play in them, use them. That’s the only way to keep them from disappearing.

18 comments:

  1. You're a lucky man -when I'm in hospital I'm so scared that I can't concentrate on any reading.

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  2. Well if Abley's mention of Chomsky is not the standard token one he may have some notion of Universals as “an elaborate array of phonetic devices” which any old language partakes of. But to judge from the Yiddish farrago it's the metaphors that run away with him.

    Are not we Esperanto-speaking sons of bitches well-meaning hobbyists at one and the same time? Would it not be paradoxical if perchance we have been speaking it, singing in it, playing in it, using it to destruction? Say not the struggle naught availeth.

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  3. Speaking by NNS enthusiasts might destruct the language from the inside and make it a hollow calque.

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  4. Tickled pink by your cruel sardony, but if it's intended to apply to Esperanto, you may be surprised how many NSs there have been over the generations since its calquy Euroorigins, and how decalqued and idiosyncratically original it has become over those generations of creative use.

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  5. Didn't mean Esperanto. Still, when two say arbo, one will see an oak and the other a cedar.

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  6. I see a pretty nondescript tree. I'm a disgrace for a Japanese speaker. Are these eidetic excesses related to cognates?

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  7. Nice review - I'm looking forward to reading his book :)

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  8. Glad to read the doctors let you escape from hospital!

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  9. Blogger's promised restoration of comments is obviously never going to happen, and although John may not look kindly on a discussion of Esperanto under "endangered, exotic" he might care to be given sight of this save of an earlier exchange on this entry which was removed:

    mallamb said...

    Well if Abley's mention of Chomsky is not the standard token one he may have some notion of Universals as “an elaborate array of phonetic devices” which any old language partakes of. But to judge from the Yiddish farrago it's the metaphors that run away with him.

    Are not we Esperanto-speaking sons of bitches well-meaning hobbyists at one and the same time? Would it not be paradoxical if perchance we have been speaking it, singing in it, playing in it, using it to destruction? Say not the struggle naught availeth.
    12 May 2011 14:17
    Lipman said...

    Speaking by NNS enthusiasts might destruct the language from the inside and make it a hollow calque.
    12 May 2011 14:52
    mallamb said...

    Tickled pink by your cruel sardony, but if it's intended to apply to Esperanto, you may be surprised how many NSs there have been over the generations since its calquy Euroorigins, and how decalqued and idiosyncratically original it has become over those generations of creative use.
    12 May 2011 15:29
    Lipman said...

    Didn't mean Esperanto. Still, when two say arbo, one will see an oak and the other a cedar.
    12 May 2011 15:42
    mallamb said...

    I see a pretty nondescript tree. I'm a disgrace for a Japanese speaker. Are these eidetic excesses related to cognates?
    12 May 2011 15:57

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  10. @Lipman:
    Yeah, I've heard fears that Irish is going to become a pidgin if lots of non-native speakers use imperfectly learnt Irish. But if the enthusiasts have the living native speakers as their ‘model’, I don't think that's a great danger. (After all if today pretty much everyone in Italy speaks Italian and a century ago hardly anyone did except in Tuscany and Rome, it means that there have been lots of people speaking Italian even though they didn't grow up speaking it, and yet Italian hasn't exactly become “a hollow calque”.)
    As for Esperanto arbo, what's your point? When two say football in English one will see association football and the other American football; so what?

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  11. "German has this ç - x distinction too" - isn't this allophonic in German?

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  12. Ad Kilian Hekhuis

    "German has this ç - x distinction too"

    It is. Yet it exists as a distinction, allophonic as it may be.

    Tt makes me wonder, though, that Provencal and Welsh should be seen on a par with Manx, which I was taught at school has been extinct for a couple of generations already.

    And do Prov. and Welsh have only a handful of speakers?

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  13. If it's allophonic, it “exists as a distinction” no more than dark vs clear /l/ or aspirated vs unaspirated /p t k/ do in English. Or even labiodental /m/ before /f v/ for that matter...

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  14. Ad Army1987

    Referring to the ç - x distinction in German:

    If it's allophonic, it “exists as a distinction” no more than dark vs clear /l/ or aspirated vs unaspirated /p t k/ do in English. Or even labiodental /m/ before /f v/ for that matter...

    No, I should say it enjoys a bit stronger mode of existence (as a distinction) in German than the above 'uns in English. Germans or germanophones generally are more aware of it, refer to them as the 'Ich-Laut' and 'Ach-Laut', resp., outside of strictly phonetician's contexts... The distinction, in short, is part of the common German 'pronunciation' lore.... Maybe because in various German dialects it does not exist, both allophones collapsing into 'x', (Switzerland), or ç becoming something very different from 'x', something like 'sh' (sorry for not using API). For English I am not sure if most anglophone persons are aware of there being a difference between aspirated and unaspirated /p t k/ or the two /l/'s, they rather aren't, methinks.

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  15. Sensitivity to morpheme boundaries makes ç - x somewhat less than allophonic, as in Kuchen kuːxŋ̩ "cake" vs. Kuhchen kuːçɲ̩ "little cow".

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  16. Ad Luke

    If my German is any reliable, the second (little cow) has ky: rather than ku:. Kühchen, not Kuhchen.

    The diminutive suffix -chen forces Umlaut (fronting) of the preceding vowel, and -ch after a front vowel is always (exceptions?) ç. The only exception of the former I can think of is 'Frauchen' (she-master of a pet, like a dog and so on), rather than '*Fräuchen'. But unfortunately, another word, like a verb or the like, '*frauchen', does not seem to exist.

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  17. This is in fact the standard example, the other half of the near-minimal pair being fauchen (hiss, of cats).

    But I think in real life, Kuhchen works perfectly well for most speakers of Standard German, where this kind of umlaut isn't as productive. It might be felt to be colloquial or children's language, but that's at least as much due to the use of a diminutive in the first place. Kühchen wouldn't be most people's first choice.

    There are arguments in favour and against filing those sounds as separate phonemes, but speakers surely are able to use them in the same phonetic environment.

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  18. Ad Lipman

    I know only the word 'Kühchen' from Standard German (actual use), but then I haven't studied the matter systematically.

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