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Monday, 30 July 2007

What is a mixed language?

Since about 1984, when the 10th Edition came out, I have been an avid reader of The Ethnologue, a resource that lists, categorizes, and describes every language known to science--all terrestrial, by the way.

Every edition--which comes out approximately every four years--lists more languages than the one before. The main reason for this is that formerly listed languages are constantly being examined and determined to actually consist of two or more languages closely related, but distinct enough for each to rate its own listing.

In addition to the usual Language Family taxonomy (which has also grown and evolved over the years), several languages are also listed in group headings such as Gypsy Languages, Creole Languages, Pidgin Languages, Jewish Languages, Deaf Languages, and Mixed Languages. One category, listed as a Language Family, should also be listed here, which is Artificial (made-up) Languages. All 3 of the ones currently listed could also be listed under Indo-European Languages--although there are more recent ones, not yet listed, that couldn't. More specifically, these 3 (and, to some extent, all others) are all based on Latin, so they could even be further described as Romance Languages.

Here, however, we encounter a problem of classification: What about languages that trace their immediate ancestry back to two different language families? The artificial language Esperanto, for example, borrows just as heavily from the Germanic family as from the Romance. So, some have pointed out, does English. Why then is English listed in the a Germanic Family, then, when only about half of its basic vocabulary (and almost none of its technical vocabulary) comes from its Germanic parent Anglo-Saxon?

The answer could be that the definition of a Mixed Language has never been nailed down. Linguists encountering a tribal language that combined grammatical elements of one language family with vocabulary of another were quick to list it as a "mixed language," never realizing that their own native tongue did exactly the same.

The main gypsy language spoken in England, Angloromani, has undergone an interesting transformation over the years. Listed in the Ethnologue until 1988 as a Indo-Aryan language akin to all the other Romani tongues, it was suddenly found in the 11th Edition to be a Germanic Language more closely related to English than any Germanic language of the Continent. What gives? Merely because Angloromani is replete with English-derived nouns and sentence structure, an expert had reclassified it as a form of English. This classification was perpetuated clear through to the recently released 15th Edition, which wisely compromised by assigning Angloromani to the Mixed Language category.

This phenomenon is sure to continue. Take Pennsylvania Dutch, a Mennonite dialect of German that is now at least 35% English and grows more so with each passing generation. Even stereotypical Pennsylvania Dutch phraseology like "throw the horse over the fence some hay" is usually now heard only in ethnic jokes. The language is changing because all Pennsylvania Dutch speakers, monolingual as they typically are their first few years of life, are educated in English, and they find it impossible to resist slipping words, phrases, and even whole sentences of that language into their everyday conversations.

Guess what: It's the same exact thing as happened to English itself, some 800 years earlier. All education in England was conducted in French and Latin, with the result that words from those two languages so overwhelmed the native language of Englishmen that they ceased to speak it altogether in its pure form. So English itself is a mixed language of Saxon and French.

But how about French? Well, it was the result of cosmopolitan Franks learning Vulgar Latin. Frankish was a Germanic tongue that left its heavy footprints all over the result of the mixture with Vulgar Latin. Add to that the influence of Norse, and you have the Norman French that became the language of Norman England for several centuries until it was subsumed into the new mixed language of Middle English.

Vulgar Latin--what was that? Well, it was somewhat of a mixture of educated Latin and the Celtic dialects native to Gaul, which was later overrun by the Franks.

You can see how this goes on. Latin itself bears a lot of influence from Greek; Greek from Hebrew; Hebrew from ancient Egyptian, Babylonian, and Persian. No language that is spoken by people educated in another language can long remain pure.

Take Maltese, for example. Originally the Arabic tongue spoken by Muslim conquerors in the 700's, it suffered a long and unrelenting pressure first from the Norman French spoken by the counter-invaders of the 800's, but then from the Italian spoken by Malta's greatest trading partner once it was wrenched once and for all from the Caliphate. Then the English took possession, and for the last two centuries all linguistic development has tended in their direction. Today, a native of either Italy or Arabia respectively, fluent in English, could read a Maltese publication with quite a high level of comprehension--depending on whether the subject matter is technical (Italian/English) or conversational (Arabic/Italian). A mixed language--or just a dual vocabulary?

So what exactly is the difference between a language that is merely influenced by another, and one that is actually a mixture of two distinct languages? It's still hard to say, but expect this category--still limited to only 9 languages in the 14th Edition of the Ethnologue but up to 21 by the 15th--to keep growing as linguists come to grips with the reality of the situation. Maybe, someday, even English will make the list.

Thursday, 19 July 2007

Nature had it first--and had it right the first time!


There appear to be two languages spoken by scientists. Here is an example of the one, in which they study nature in a detached and condescending way, as if they could have done a far better job if they were in charge:
* * * * *
"Phylogenetic group contributed in a highly significant way to explain the considerable variation in bird flight speeds that remained, even after the biometrical dimensions of the bird species had been taken into account," Alerstam reported.

This matches what would be expected from evolution, says Tobalske. Instead of making a perfect bird, evolution does the best it can from the animals that are around to evolve flight. What’s more, he said, the real world is always changing in unpredictable ways that require birds to adapt to keep pace or die out. Few adaptations that help different birds survive also make them the best fliers.

It’s an example of what’s called the Red Queen Hypothesis, said Tobalske, referring to the character in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass.

"The Red Queen is running just to stay in place," Tobalske told Discovery News. Evolution does the same with birds: keeping them in constant evolutionary motion, but never allowing them to get any closer to aerodynamic perfection.

* * * *

Here is an example of the other, in which they stand in awe and practically stutter at the perfection they observe in nature, one far beyond their ability to produce or even predict (I lost the example I was going to use, but this will have to do for now):

"The researchers found that the major factors involved in determining ideal wing position were speed, and the angle of the wings relative to the ground. Not surprisingly, extended wings were best for slow gliding, since they increase lift and allow the bird to float longer on a breeze. As speed picks up, drag forces increase and swept-back wings become more advantageous.

The results on turning were more surprising. In general, extended wings are better for turns, providing stability and lift that smooth the turn. For high-speed turns, however, swifts invariably sweep back their wings, and the researchers discovered that this behavior is due not to aerodynamics, but to the fragility of their wings. Extended wings can fracture under the extreme force generated during a fast turn, while swept-back wings are safe, mostly because they don't flutter.

The realization that extended wings are vulnerable to breakage during fast turns is one of several aspects of the study that may be useful in designing aircraft. Another is the proof that fully extended wings are best for generating lift; previous studies with artificial wings had suggested that swept-back wings actually give a better boost. A few high tech planes, such as the F-14 Tomcat fighter plane, already use flexible wings, but Lentink hopes his findings will help make aircraft wings even more efficient. Tomcats can sweep back their wings when they fly at super high speeds, but their abilities are primitive compared to those of swifts. "The swifts are just better at it," he told "The amount of feathers and muscle involved is challenging for us to imitate."

* * * * *
For some odd reason, articles of the second sort are typically rife with factual errors. Articles of the first sort could often be considered free of these, but only because they are almost pure hypothesis, without any factual claims subject to being disproven.

Thursday, 12 July 2007

I'm Back!

Due to technical difficulties beyond our control . . .
I haven't been able to access my own blog because my computer for some reason isn't accepting javascript. This causes the Blogger signing page (and any Blogger comment page I open) to continually refresh.
I'm using Firefox now instead of Internet Explorer. No problem!

Some articles I'm tossing around in my head right now include:
Are the Amish a Cult?
What is a Mixed Language?
Is Linguistic Taxonomy Eurocentric?
and a few others I can't think of now but will later.