Babbel On: February 2018 Language News Roundup
The language of 'Black Panther,' discoveries about cave art and more from the world of linguistics this past month.
Lucky March! This is Babbel On, our monthly roundup of articles for amateur linguists and language lovers.
The story of the division between Ireland (an independent country) and Northern Ireland (a province of the United Kingdom) is long and complicated, but suffice it to say that, for the most part, the feuding has ended. Yet as reported by the Washington Post, a dispute about the Irish language is stirring up old grudges. During the 20th century, the Irish language was close to extinction but was revived as a form of rebellion against the British. Today, the language is only spoken daily by 4.2 percent of the population of Ireland, but it’s considred an important symbol of the country. In light of this, some people in Northern Ireland have been attempting to make Irish an official language, but there is a lot of pushback by those who think preserving the language is a waste of time and money. In addition, the issue is being exacerbated by arguments over gay marriage, a lack of government in Northern Ireland and discussions about Northern Ireland’s place in the world post-Brexit.
The National Book Awards were created 68 years ago “to celebrate the best of American literature.” Since that time, they’ve become one of the highest honors an author could possibly receive, and they’ve expanded their scope considerably. This year, the National Book Foundation has announced it’ll be creating a prize for books in translation, opening the door for literature around the globe to be considered for the first time. The nominations won’t be out until later this year, but you can follow Babbeling Books to see reviews of books that might make the list.
It’s amazing to think about how advanced translation has become in the past couple decades. You can put text into Google Translate and get a decent translation in less than a second. There’s one kind of language that isn’t nearly as easy to translate, however: sign languages. As profiled in TechCrunch, the company SignAll has been working hard to create machine translation for American Sign Language. Using a Kinect 2 motion sensor and three cameras, SignAll is slowly building up a database of ASL signs as seen from multiple angles. There are a lot of difficulties along this path, proving that technology, while good at many things, is really, really bad at things like this. But with SignAll’s devoted work, automatic ASL translation is coming closer to reality every day.
The setting for Black Panther, the latest Marvel blockbuster to hit theaters, is the fictional African Kingdom of Wakanda. Despite the fantastic elements, the language they’re speaking is not fictional. It’s Xhosa, an official language of South Africa with 19.2 million speakers. The decision to use a real language was decided before Black Panther, when Wakandans appeared in the 2016 movie Captain America: Civil War, but the spotlight on this real African language has caused excitement in the linguistic community. And while the language is real, the accent used in the film is invented, which allows for realism without explicitly linking the language to any one place in Africa. There’s also a written language in Black Panther, which is based on the fourth-century African written language Nsibidi. The production designer artificially "evolved" the language to approximate what it would be like if Nsibidi had been used consistently for the last millennia. All of these linguistic elements combine to invent a realistic Afrofuturism for the film.
We know language has been around for a while — a common estimate is that it came about 350,000 years ago — but scientists still aren’t sure exactly how it began. Presenting a new theory, a recent paper suggests that language may have a very close connection to cave art. Archaeologists have found that the place where early humans decided to make cave art happens to correspond with acoustic hotspots, where the sound reverberated best. In areas that naturally caused hoof-like noises, there were more likely to be paintings of oxen and other hoofed animals, whereas quieter areas have drawings of cats and other sleek creatures. The research is not definitive, but it does seem to show a kind of auditory symbol-making that could have contributed to the formation of human language.
Then again, the linguist Daniel Everett recently argued that language developed 1.5 million years earlier than previously thought. He said that Homo erectus, a related species of primate, lived in societies too advanced for them to survive without language. This claim does not have hard evidence and Everett is known for extraordinary claims in the linguistic community, but if true, it could completely change our understanding of language.