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Babbel On: September 2017 Language News Roundup

A death sentence over ambiguous language, a new English for a post-Brexit world, and more from the linguistic sphere this past month.

Spooky October! This is Babbel On, our monthly roundup of articles for amateur linguists and language lovers.

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When officials hold a news conference about a storm, there is almost always a sign language interpreter nearby. For some reason, this attracts an inordinate amount of attention every year. It’s treated as a funny sideshow, rather than an important resource for deaf people. During Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s conference, for example, Twitter started to obsess over the sign language interpreter because of the seeming extremity of his facial expressions. Even if it can be entertaining, it is a bit odd to focus on this amid a catastrophe. The importance of a sign language interpreter’s role can very easily be seen when something goes wrong, like what happened at a news conference in Manatee County, Florida. The sign language interpreter there apparently did a pretty bad job, warning about a “Bear Monster” ahead of the hurricane. By taking sign language interpreters seriously, we will hopefully avoid problems like this in the future.

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Brexit is going to have a huge number of repercussions when it comes to pass, but one particularly interesting possibility is that a new “Euro-English” may form. Because Great Britain is part of Europe, British English has been the standard form of the language in Europe, but that may change as the country leaves the European Union. This wouldn’t be entirely new, though, as linguist Marko Modiano says the language has already been forming, with countries adopting different spelling, grammar and lexicon. This may also allow the chance for American English to make some headway overseas. In any case, it was bound to happen Brexit or no, because as languages spread geographically, change happens naturally. There’s no telling whether Euro-English will be made an official language anywhere, though.

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Often, when a country wants to establish its national identity, it will more strictly enforce its national language. Ukraine took this step recently, passing a law on September 5 that would ban the use of any language besides Ukrainian from its schools. This might not seem radical at first, but according to a 2016 survey, 40 percent of Ukrainians speak Russian at home, and many people from neighboring countries have emigrated to the country. Hungary has threatened to block Ukraine from entering the European Union, and Romania’s president canceled a trip that was planned there. Too little time has passed to see what will result if the law stays in place.

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Color and language have an interesting relationship. The words we use to describe colors are heavily studied because they show a concrete connection between language and perception. Now, MIT has released a study, including a fascinating video, which looks at how people describe colors. The human eye can see millions of colors, but humans certainly don’t have that many words for them, so researchers wanted to see how we split up the rainbow. Looking at English, Spanish and Tsimane’ (the language of a pre-industrialized people of Bolivia), the researchers found that humans seem to have a larger vocabulary for warmer colors (reds, oranges, yellows) than cool ones (blues, greens). Their theory is that it has to do with the fact that humans needed to be better at describing objects, and objects stand out from the natural backgrounds of blue skies and green ground. It’s the first in a series of studies of human perception they plan to carry out, and hopefully, more useful results will emerge.

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In January 1953, 19-year-old Derek Bentley was hanged for one sentence: “Let him have it, Chris!” Out of context, this is a pretty ambiguous sentence. In context, though, apparently it was still hard to figure out exactly what it meant. See, he yelled it to his friend, when they were in the middle of a failed robbery, and his friend was pointing a gun at a police officer. As you can see, what was yelled could mean either “Let him have the gun” or, more colloquially, “Shoot at him.” JSTOR Daily wrote about this and other instances of linguistic ambiguity which have led to extreme consequences, like how James Comey interpreted President Donald Trump saying about the Russia investigation, “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go.” It is worth remembering that transcripts of speech are not necessarily objective, or even useful in certain cases.

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