Babbel On: November 2017 Language News Roundup
A gender fight in France, Dumbledore renamed Dumbiedykes, and more in language news from the past month.
Merry December! This is Babbel On, our monthly roundup of articles for amateur linguists and language lovers.
Your grammar teacher might not agree, but English has no standard rules that everyone agrees on. French is different in this regard, however. There is an Official French, and it’s dictated by the Académie française, or the French Academy. The rules aren’t always followed, but the academy has a strong influence in politics and media. That means when people decide they want to change the language, they are forced to go up against the considerably conservative academy. This is what’s happening now in France, where a debate over grammatical gender in the language has been raging for a while. Many people argue that it’s sexist to teach students that the masculine is dominant, and they have been hoping to erase the gender bias. Taking a different route from progressive grammatical trends like AP Style’s recent (begrudging) acceptance of the singular “they,” French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe dealt the first blow in this fight when he announced that gender-neutral language would be banned from government documents. The official academy has taken Philippe’s side and has made no moves to address the grammar patriarchy, instead saying that becoming "politically correct" will destroy the French language. There has been substantial backlash to Philippe and the academy, like the over 300 teachers who have signed a letter declaring they would no longer teach that the masculine form of words dominates over the feminine. It’s incredibly difficult to change a language, so there’s no telling how this will shake out in the end.
The most poppin’ linguistic news from November is about language evolution. For a more in-depth look, you should go read our full article about it. In brief, evolutionary biologist Joshua Plotkin discovered that language change is a lot more random than expected. Linguists used to believe that language changes to become shorter and more easily communicated, but Plotkin found that language will become more irregular and seemingly harder just as often. This sheds some light on how language works, and how it’s pretty much impossible for a language to stop changing so long as there are living speakers.
The story of Thanksgiving is a contentious one. Children are usually taught that it’s based on a joyful celebration in which the pilgrims thanked the Native Americans for helping them through the winter. This glossy view of history is pretty problematic in light of the horrid oppression of the Native Americans that followed. To help reclaim the holiday and their heritage, the descendants of the Wampanoag tribe, which attended the “first Thanksgiving,” have brought the language Wopanatooaok back to life. Just a few decades ago there were no living speakers of the language, but the tribe worked with linguists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to build a grammar and dictionary, and they soon began teaching the language in schools. There are currently 19 children being taught exclusively in Wopanaotooaok, and there are classes for members of the community every week so people can return to their roots.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was just published in its 80th language, which adds to the very impressive and long list of achievements J.K. Rowling’s book series has earned. Even more interesting is the language that was chosen: Scots. While you might not know much about the language, there are approximately 1.5 million speakers of Scots, according to the 2011 census, even though that number has been in decline ever since English became dominant in Scotland. English and Scots could be seen as competitors, but the two are close enough that you could probably understand Scots without much trouble. Here is the famous opening of the book, translated into Scots: “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, o Nummer Fower Privet Loan, were prood tae say that they were gey normal. Thank ye very much.” There are some notable changes to the names in the book, however. As just two examples, “Dumbledore” has become “Dumbiedykes,” and the “Sorting Hat” is the “Blithering Bonnet.” It may sound funny, but this is indeed a real book.
For years and years, people have been predicting that technology would completely eliminate language barriers. With the release of the new Pixel Buds, Google has declared that the day has come. Using these ear buds, you can translate what you say into Spanish, French, Malay, Greek, German, Portuguese, Hindi, Korean, Mandarin or Polish. But how well do they actually work? Business Insider tested them and found out: they’re not too bad. You have to speak clearly, you can’t use more than a few sentences and you can’t say anything too complicated, but overall the ear buds are certainly an impressive technological advancement. They are certainly very far from replacing translators, however. The ear buds could help you get around in a new country to some degree, but they don’t provide anything close to the benefits of learning to speak another language.