Babbel On: December 2017 Language News Roundup
A whistled language going extinct, where Yoda comes from and more in the linguistic world over the last month.
Novel January! This is Babbel On, our monthly roundup of articles for amateur linguists and language lovers.
Whistling might seem like an odd method of communication, but think about it for a moment. It’s a great way to get someone’s attention from a distance, and much easier on the lungs than screaming. Most cultures just have a few kinds of whistle, such as the one used when getting someone’s attention or when catcalling, but a group of people in the mountainous area of northern Turkey have devised a more complex whistle system to have converse from a distance. It used to be very popular, but now is used only by shepherds and people in the village of Kuşköy. Sadly, the use of cell phones has for the most part made learning these whistles unnecessary. Because of this, the whistled mode of communication, which the people in the area refer to as “bird language,” was recently added to the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding. The hope is that it will gain enough recognition to keep it from falling completely out of use.
There is a huge amount of research done about babies who grow up around multiple languages, but a recent study from the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America is one of the first to look at those that grow up hearing multiple accents. The findings seem to show that babies raised around multiple accents recognized words significantly differently than those who were raised around just one. It’s too early to show whether this provides any sort of advantage in life, but it will likely be a fruitful area of research in the near future.
Language death is nowadays an upsettingly common event. In the last century, 37 languages have disappeared from Peru alone. The modern trend of preserving dying languages has made Amadeo García García, the very last Taushiro speaker in the world, a minor celebrity in South America. His story as told in the New York Times is poignant and sad, involving the early deaths of his family members and a failure to pass on the native language to his children. The only written text that exists in Taushiro is the Bible, owing to the efforts of missionaries, and now there is a renewed attempt to record the language. Yet at 70 years old and with a failing memory, Amadeo may take Taushiro with him when he passes.
Yoda is a very strange character in the Star Wars universe, being a 900-year-old Jedi master who looks like a small green gremlin. One of his most notable features has always been the strange way he talks. He speaks English in the movies, of course, so it’s not like he literally speaks another language, he just talks differently than most English-speakers. While the character’s speech can be random, there is a very clear pattern for how he forms sentences. Take this quote: “When 900 years old you reach, look as good you will not.” In Standard English, this would be “When you reach 900 years old, you will not look as good.” In both halves of this sentence, the predicates that follow the verb — “900 years old” and “look as good” — are moved earlier in the sentence. David Adger, a linguistics professor at Queen Mary University of London, decided to see if this syntactic pattern occurs naturally in any language and found one result: Hawaiian. Yes, it’s impossible that Yoda would be canonically from Hawaii, but it’s cool to see that the way he talks isn’t completely outside the realm of possibility.
One of the most devastating stories from 2017 was the systematic erasure of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. Over the past few months, the majority Buddhist country has been denying the rights of the Rohingya, leading to ethnic cleansing and large-scale emigration. The government of Myanmar refuses to even use the word Rohingya. One of the most recent measures to push back has been to digitize the Rohingya language so that people who write in this language will be able to access the global community online. When a minority language isn’t available on computers, it completely isolates them on the web. With just the small act of putting their system of writing online, the Rohingya will have a much easier time telling their side of the story to the world.