An interview with Steven Pinker on the nature of language, and the window it provides into the human psyche and mind, is available on The New York times website. It would be an interesting short video to show to classes.
Wampanoag is the language of the tribe that coexisted with the Pilgrims. Their language disappeared in the 19th century, but has recently been reconstructed by a Wampanoag woman, Annie “Little Doe” Baird, who won a MacArthur “genius” Award for her work. A whole fascinating article can be found here. A film about Baird and the Wampanoag reconstruction, We Still Live Here – Âs Nutayuneân, was shown on PBS in October, 2010. A short PBS news report about the project can be found here, and a DVD can be purchased at this site.
The article concludes:
“Why should you care about Wampanoag, or any extinct language, for that matter? As Noam Chomsky says in the film, “A language is not just words. It’s a culture, a tradition, a unification of a community, a whole history that creates what a community is. It’s all embodied in a language.” But most importantly, as [Anne] Makepeace clearly shows in her film, a language can contribute significantly to mankind’s collective knowledge. That’s something for all of us, not just the Wampanoag, to be grateful for.”
Exercise: Discover what language(s) were spoken by native societies in your community. Which ones are still spoken, and which have disappeared. Is the language(s) still studied somewhere, at MIT, for example? Are there relics of it on the Internet or in local libraries?
There is a naming website, nameberry.com, established by author Pam Satran, which gets tens of thousands of visits every year. Names are fascinating, and naming things is an important undertaking. I remember after September 11th, nobody knew what to call either the kind of attack or the day itself, and we still don’t have very handy names, other than 9/11 — it was a day and attack unto itself — let’s all hope so.
We have nicknames (mine were Annie, Annie Pie, and Anna Banana), change our names when we marry (sometimes), and some people have dynastic names, like The Dutchess of York, or are known by our professions (the lead singer of such-and-such band).
People use names to indicate their lineage, their preferences, and their feelings. My son changed his last name from his father’s to mine, saying, “You’re my real family, mom.” My daughter changed her given name to reflect her attachment to a certain religion, which has as method for determining peoples’ spiritual names. Chinese speakers usually find an English name, as the Chinese naming system is so different from the English system, with the family name coming first, and the name itself usually difficult to remember — the names of students in one of my classes are Xuntian, Xin, Yuxuan, Bohan, Nuo, and Yinan. By the time I had mastered their Chinese names, their English names had already been established.
Naming teams, businesses, books, and activist groups is also challenging.
We use names so constantly and casually that we often forget how important they are.
Exercise: Have your classes look deeper into their own names. Where does their given name come from? What are their nicknames, and who uses which one? The basketball team may have a different nickname than the family.
Exercise: Every time your class does an activity in a large-ish group, have the group devise a name. I promise you will be amused, and so will they. If appropriate, and if it doesn’t take away from the fun of the activity, ask if they feel differently now that they have a name. They may bond personally or identify more closely with the result of their actions/deliberations, or become more competitive.
Below is a comment I sent in response to a post on Professor Dennis Baron’s ever-interesting blog, The Web of Language. In this post, he suggests that English may be on its way out. It’s a bit far-fetched at this moment, at our apogee (or slightly post-apogee), but worth considering. The level of discourse, especially in the public square, is taking a nose dive. The canon of literature lays unexamined in many schools, and while there are numerous outstanding authors writing in English today, most of them are familiar only to an elite much smaller than ever before. Gone are JFK’s references to poetry and literature, and at increasing number of dinner tables, the names John Steinbeck, Eugene O’Neill, Emily Dickinson, Dickens, Milton, Swift, and the long list of previously familiar, even vaguely familiar, names would meet a blank stare. Here are my comments to his post:
I’ve been writing for years about endangered languages, a subject which generates yawns even from most linguists, but Dennis Baron has presented the ultimate attention-getter — will English go the way of Latin? Of course it will, ultimately, just like the sun will go out one day.
Baron’s article is written with tongue partly lodged in cheek, of course. I don’t see any “medley” of any other languages poised to step in as the universal standard language, but our hubris about English, combined with our ignorance of how it is constructed and used, and the widespread reluctance to showcase the best of it on the most common purveyors of culture (newspapers, movies, television, even political speeches) is unsettling.
I’m fond of English myself, and there are some outstanding masters of our language out there. It’ll be too bad when it’s gone, but I’ll be gone too so others will have to deal with the sadness.
Those Indian tribes whose languages are being (sadly) extinguished at an accelerated rate lost first in the military world, then the political word, and the language survived for a century or so with the support of only tribe or family, both of which are small, weak entities in the grand scheme of things. We should pay attention to our military antics and our politics if we want the language to thrive.
Exercise: Students with an interest in history might write a paper about the various “universal” languages. They will undoubtedly be surprised to learn that English is but the most recent one. They could begin with Greek and Latin and work forward from there. The fall of Latin would be a particularly interesting essay subject. It took almost 2,000 years to extinguish Latin completely, with the Catholic Church its last bastion.
You probably are not aware of the amount of language planning that is going on around you. This posting is simply a list of the questions which language planners try to resolve. The policies are devised out of your view, unless there is reason for activism or intervention in the discussion.
What languages will be taught in your school district? What classes will be offered to students whose native language is not English? How much support will they be given? What courses will be available to new immigrants? What language will ballots be printed in? What translation and interpretive services will be offered at courthouses? At hospitals? At the police station? At school? Will road signs and signs at bus stops and other centers of public transportation be in any languages other than English? Should we have an “official language?”
Are there any endangered languages in our community, and if so, should they be supported or ignored? (Sometimes they are even suppressed.) According to the website Ethnologue, “The number of individual languages listed for United States is 245. Of those, 176 are living languages, 4 are second languages without mother-tongue speakers, and 65 have no known speakers.” One of these languages may be spoken or well remembered in your community. A local university may provide special support for a local language.
Should there be services provided for the deaf? Where are the nearest sign language facilities? Should there be a deaf interpreter at town meetings? At cultural events? In schools?
Public funds are spent to plan efficient and respectful language policies on the local, state, national level. There are international treaties governing language use, agreements among countries to provide university-level instruction in certain languages, and laws which govern the international use of various languages. The European Union has been particularly strong in its efforts to support minority and endangered languages.
One of the purposes of this blog is to raise the level of awareness of the various ways in which language impacts the lives of ourselves, our communities, our governments, and our institutions. As you read the news and chat with neighbors, you may become increasingly aware of the behind-the-scenes activity that takes place in order to use language well. (Sometimes not so well, but that would be a matter of opinion.)
Exercise: Ask students what the language policy of their own school district or town is. This would include services for people who are not native speakers, sign language resources, interpreting and translating facilities at hospitals, courts, and other public places, and signage policy. Are there communities which speak an endangered language in their community?
We often think of dictionaries as definitive in their definitions, without questioning their authority, yet there are many different kinds of dictionaries, and students should be encouraged to use them with discretion and sophistication.
An example: Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, 5th ed. (WNCD) aims its definitions at the “college student and general reader,” while The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (accessed online) (CEOEO) aims to present a far wider range of definitions, “Common, Literary, Colloquial, Scientific, Foreign, Dialectical, Slang, Technical.” They note “Main Words, Subordinate Words, Combinations, including the Identification, Morphology, Signification and Illustrative Quotations.” They include the word’s etymology in depth. WNCD takes its examples and definitions mainly from spoken customs, while CEOEO takes them from a literary database.
Exercise: Ask students to investigate the presentation of two words of their choice in two different dictionaries. They should read the front matter of both dictionaries as well as the definitions. They might comment on the fonts used. The rest of the exercise can be up to the students — what do they find the same or different in the presentations, and which do they like better.
Another Exercise: Ask students to do some research on the Web and find out how many different kinds of dictionary there are; for example, Web dictionaries with an audio module giving correct pronunciation, multilingual dictionaries (French to French, and English to French, etc.), sign language dictionaries, dictionaries for children, etymological dictionaries, thesauruses (what is the plural? I don’t know), slang dictionaries, regional dictionaries showing distinct usage in, say, Louisiana or Texas, and so on, and on, and on
From time to time, new languages develop in response to local needs. For example, a deaf sign language was developed in Central America by a small community which was isolated from other deaf communities.
A new kind of sign language is developing in the Occupy protests. To read about it, here is the link:
A previous post discussed Stephen Frye’s new tv series, in which he dismissed the language abilities of apes. The excerpt from a longer article below gives more respect to animals’ abilities.
“It was a childhood fascination with astronomy which drove him to where he is today and resulted in him joining SETI, an independent, non-political group of academics whose aim is to search for signs of intelligent life beyond our planet.
And it was his obsession with SETI which lead him to begin studying dolphins, which, he says, are the closest thing we have to aliens on this planet.
He explained why he believes it will be possible to converse with dolphins in his lifetime and how such a breakthrough would help us if aliens ever did dial earth.”
Here is the link: