Sunday, August 31, 2008

Linguistic Change: Identity crisis or opportunity?

KUER's RadioWest
8/13/08: The Prodigal Tongue
Doug Fabrizio

SALT LAKE CITY, UT (2008-08-13) Journalist and writer Mark Abley predicts that by 2015 half the world's population will be speaking - or at least learning - English. But as the language sweeps the globe, it's not just changing those it encounters - it's changing too. New words are being added at a "break-neck" rate from other languages, from hip-hop lyrics, from the blogosphere. Abley joins Doug Wednesday to talk about the journey English is taking and what the future of the language sounds like.

After our discussion about language and identity I remembered a program I heard on KUER earlier this month about the evolution of the English language. It now seems silly that I hadn't thought of the fierce debate between prescriptive and descriptive linguists in context of identity before. Perhaps I hadn't given enough weight to the influence of identity on even a language scholar in his or her approach to language until I realized that scholars are not the only ones speaking out about linguistic change. This program brought to light the fact that this debate about English is going on outside of academia as much as it is inside. Linguists who hold a prescriptive view of the English language assert that English is slipping away from us - that younger generations are changing the language so much that it is falling apart. If we do not adhere to the traditional prescribed rules of English it is doomed. On the other side of the debate are the descriptivists who propose that English is a dynamic and flexible language that will change and evolve naturally - and that this should not be threatening. But this is not a debate that oridnary American people are distanced from. Language is a part of everyday life and thus very close to each of us. It seems everyone I talk to has some kind of position on the matter. But what exactly is it that determines which side of the debate we're on? And why is this debate so intense and often personal?

Thinking more about how language speaks us, would it be safe to say that because the way we use language is tied so completely to our identity that our strong reactions to changes are our way of stabilizing ourselves and our position in society? If our language evolves, does our identity evolve with it? Deep down are we really arguing about new made-up words and meanings or are we concerned with how those words affect the way we think about ourselves and others? I think a large portion of the anxiety that is felt regarding changes in English has to do with the generational gap. Young people identify themselves as apart from their elders in many ways, and language is no exception. Because of the elasticity of language we are able to mold it into whatever we want it to be and however we want it to represent us. It is as useful as any art form in forging new ideas and new ways of thinking about the world.

Dead Sea scrolls to go online

Scientists using American space technology have started a huge project to digitally photograph the Dead Sea Scrolls and post the images on the internet for all to see, Israeli authorities said Wednesday.

High-tech cameras using infrared photography are being used to uncover sections of the 2,000-year-old scrolls that have faded over the centuries and become indecipherable, the Israeli Antiquities Authority said.

The project is expected to take about five years, and the goal is to make the scrolls accessible to scientists and the general public, Antiquities Authority official Pnina Shor said.

“Now for the first time the scrolls will be a computer click away,” said Shor, who heads the authority's department responsible for the conservation of artifacts. “This will ensure that the scrolls are preserved for another 2,000 years.”

Experts have complained for years that only a small number of scholars have been allowed access to the scrolls and the thousands of fragments that were found in caves near the Dead Sea in the late 1940s. In recent years, steps have been taken to widen access, but many of the findings are still not properly identified and categorized.

To protect the scrolls, Shor said, the new imaging will be done in a setting that minimizes exposure to light.

The pilot project started Wednesday, and when it is finished, it will be possible to determine how long it will take to digitize the thousands of fragments from about 900 separate documents, said Shor, who estimated five years.

Space imaging technology adopted

The American space connection came through Greg Bearman, who recently retired as principal scientist for the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He offered the space-age imaging equipment.

“I am an archeology buff,” he told the Associated Press, and he brought imaging technology used in space to the Dead Sea Scrolls project. “This equipment is used to study planets,” he said. “NASA uses the technology for imaging in space, and it works here.”

Infrared technology was used to photograph all the findings in 1950, the Antiquities Authority said, but technology has advanced considerably since then.

The first scrolls were discovered by accident in 1947 by a young Bedouin shepherd who was chasing a runaway sheep. They were buried in a cave in Qumran, just above the Dead Sea — one of the most barren areas in the world.

Archeologists began buying scrolls and fragments that appeared in marketplaces around the region, but many were damaged by their removal from the extreme dryness of the cave where they were buried for 20 centuries.

Occasionally, the Antiquities Authority, which is in charge of preserving the scrolls, allows the public to see some of them. A 7.3-metre section with the Book of Isaiah went on display in May to coincide with Israel's 60th anniversary celebrations.

A special hall called the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem is dedicated to the scrolls, but the fragments on display there are copies.

The Canadian Press, 2008
The Associated Press

Saturday, August 30, 2008


I was thinking about the idea that language speaks us last night and I was reminded of the following cartoon. Be aware, it contains some language.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Language and The Brain

Quick thought:

Almost all studies of the sort show that more than 95% of right-handed people house their language center in the left hemisphere of the brain (the more logical side of the brain), where less than 5% have right hemisphere language centers (the more creative side).

Oddly, in left-handed people, over 70% still have left hemisphere language centers. Leaving about 30% of left-handed people with their "language part of the brain" on the more creative side - but not the majority of left-handed people still.

It would be interesting (if it were possible) to see how much this affects how this affects the content (or even style) of those who have language centers on the logical side of the brain to those who have it on the creative side.

Of course, the brain is a network. But the reason we are right or left handed in the first place is mostly determined by whether we use the right or left brain more abundantly. Many of the greatest artists in history (Da Vinci, etc.) were left-handed. How would this hold up with poets? With lawyers? With linguists?

Unfortunately, they usually cannot check which hemisphere the language center resides in until a person is dead or some other severe case. But it's interesting (to me) nonetheless. Why are so many right-handed people left hemisphere language people, and why are the majority of left-handed people also left-hemisphere language people - thought not quite as much?

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Here the Gift of Speech Becomes a Bitter Curse

Here the Gift of Speech Becomes a Bitter Curse

Published: August 28, 200

Irish playwright and director Enda Walsh's play “The New Electric Ballroom.”

"Words, in Mr. Walsh’s harsh but illuminating vision, are both the making of experience and its destruction. The cursed gift of speech has been used to isolate and humiliate the sisters. (“Branded, marked and scarred by talk,” Breda scowls. “Boxed by words.”)

"Speak we must, of course, as both sisters attest in one of the dense, musical monologues that they recite in turn. “By their nature people are talkers,” they gabble as if by rote. “You can’t deny that. You could but you’d be affirming what you’re trying to argue against and what would be the point of that?” And so talk they do, wrapping themselves in the strange comfort of a sad story that will never end."

[the whole review here:


I just stumbled upon this image and thought I'd post it here in response to some of the discussion about the  origins of language, whether there is on original language, etc. I don't know how accurate this actually is interesting nonetheless.

Make sure to click the image to ENGLARGE IT.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008


Quick thought about Music as language (or as a form of communication).

Two weeks ago I traveled almost 1,000 miles to see a (Radiohead) concert. In preparation for such an event, my girlfriend (Paige) and I spent 5 months saving up over $2,000. It took us 15 hours to drive from Orem, UT to Auburn, WA and while waiting for the band to finally come out onto the stage I realized something. This 2,000 dollars, this 1,000 miles, this 15 hours of driving, this 150 days of waiting--all of this--it all came down to a little blurb of time that would seem to end before it began. I asked Paige if she thought it was odd, so many hours of driving, waiting, working to save money... and all of it just to experience 2 hours of music. But as we discussed this I began to look around and I realized something. It wasn't just us, there were thousands of other people on the edge of their seats, each anticipating the same thing: music. Who knows if they drove from 15 blocks away or 15 states away. It didn't matter. There were thousands of people lined up for one reason. And when the first note resonated throughout the arena, thousands of people simultaneously sprang to their feet and collectively erupted like a volcano of voice.

Nobody told any of these people to show up here. Nobody told us to scream, shout, or dance. It was simply understood.

Music not only has the ability to inspire a human being to wait 5 months, save 2,000 dollars, drive 15 hours/1,000 miles, etc. just to experience it first hand; it also has the ability to communicate with thousands of people simultaneously. The majority of the audience surely can not play instruments the way the band can, nor do most of the people watching understand how the band plays their instruments in such a way... but it doesn't matter. All that mattered was the rhythmic conversation between multiple notes and multiple people. The instruments shouting to the crowd and vice versa.

Do all languages have a common ancestor?

In the vein of similarities between different languages (as we touched upon in class today), this is a very short and interesting video: do all languages have a common ancestor?

Integrity of Berlin Wall

While visiting the Newseum in Washington DC a few weeks ago, fellow classmate Jared Magill and I(Jack Waters) stumbled upon this gem near the Berlin Wall exhibit.

Notice the fine print on the sign, in order to maintain the integrity of the Berlin Wall, please do not touch

I had to double take, and sat wondering if any passersby noticed the interesting wording of the warning. I took the photo to accompany the story I tell others, to avoid tall-tale status. It's legit.

The Evolution of Language

I've been reading Christine Kennealy's book "The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language," and have been fascinated by her account of recent additions to possible answers to this old question.

For a review of her book, see:

And for her website about the book and lots of additional thoughts about the evolution of language, see