Thankful November! This is Babbel On, our monthly roundup of articles for amateur linguists and language lovers. Here’s what was the most important language news in October 2017.
It’s hard to stop languages from going extinct once they’re endangered, but once in awhile, there’s a successful revival. This seemed to be the case for Sanskrit, which was revived in 1996 in Mohad, India. Thanks to a volunteer’s effort, Sanskrit classes were taught in the village, and enough people became fluent for Sanskrit to replace Hindi as the first language of the village. Now, 21 years later, the Hindustan Times reports that it’s approaching extinction again, with only about 150 fluent speakers left. The people in Mohad say that the language just doesn’t help them advance themselves like they thought it would. In 1996, Sanskrit was seen as a pathway to upward mobility. Because of the language’s association with certain castes, many in Mohad allege that Sanskrit is too oppressed by others to be useful. It’s unfortunate, but keeping a language alive is nearly impossible when there is no societal benefit to speaking it.
At the beginning of October, Catalonians attempted to hold a referendum on whether or not they should declare independence from Spain. The result was that the Spanish government forcefully kept people from voting, rejected the results and is now trying to replace the leaders of Catalonia. It is frankly amazing the Catalan language has survived for so long; Spain conquered Catalonia in 1714 and limited the use of languages other than Spanish. The language has remained an important part of creating a cohesive Catalan identity, and it has been the sole language of state schools in the region since 1980. Divisions over language have helped lead the charge for Catalonian independence. No one is quite sure what the future holds for the Catalonian people.
There are a lot of alphabets out there. The Latin alphabet, by which I mean the ABCs, is by far the most popular, but various writing systems have developed all over the world. This has created a problem for one realm in particular: the internet. The standard for text online is Unicode, which allows for over a hundred different writing systems to be represented on our devices. Computers work only with numbers, so Unicode assigns each character a number. Because it’s the standard, Unicode makes all the decisions about which alphabets are used. Unicode does try to be inclusive, and has added writing systems with the help of linguists, but it is an arduous process to standardize an alphabet. And recently, Unicode has been distracted thanks to emojis, something a huge number of people are very vocal about. Unicode is the gatekeeper of the emoji world right now because each emoji needs a Unicode number to appear in text. As debates about emoji diversity break out online and at events like Emojicon, it distracts from other work Unicode could be doing. Emojis are incredibly popular, so it makes sense that people want to create ones that are inclusive of everyone. Still, missing alphabets mean some people aren’t able to use the internet at all, and that is likely a more urgent issue.
Minecraft is ostensibly a children’s game, but people have done some amazing things with it. From a detailed version of the Shire from Lord of the Rings to building a working computer, the capabilities of this cube world are jaw-dropping. A group of Swedes and Americans is taking Minecraft to a new level, though, by using it to revitalize the ancient Viking Elfdalian, a rare language from Sweden. They’re building a detailed model of the town Elfdalian comes from, Älvdalen in Dalarna, and filling it with questions so that children can learn to read and write in the language. They are going to release the cube version of Älvdalen to the public late next year, and supporters of Elfdalian are hoping it brings enough attention to the language to keep it from extinction.
The biggest language story in October involves a study that demonstrates how alcohol consumption may improve the ability to speak a second language. The subjects of the study were 50 Germans who had all recently passed a Dutch proficiency test. Half the group was given a small amount of alcohol, usually less than a pint of beer, while the other half was given water, and then they participated in a two-minute conversation. Everyone rated their own speech as about the same as usual, but native Dutch speakers who reviewed the conversations rated the beer-drinkers’ speech better, especially when it comes to pronunciation. This shows similar results to a 1972 study, which looked at students learning Thai. There are numerous caveats to these results, though. A single pint of beer or glass of wine may make you more confident in your second language, but any more alcohol can have the opposite effect. Also, alcohol probably shouldn’t ever be your go-to when you’re trying to learn something new. Have fun, but speak responsibly.