November 26, 2009 § Leave a comment

Just a quick post … well a link really to the SLENZ (Second Life Education NZ) …an interesting post about Maaori Tikanga online. A blessing for a second life campus building followed traditional Maaori tikanga/protocol was carried out online, demonstrating that cultures can transform places and spaces … even virtual ones … SLENZ


our students make changes

November 19, 2009 § Leave a comment

Here (people didn’t get my hear/here pun) is a message from one of our students, who is passionate about language rights.

As you know I believed there was a gap in our children’s language learning so I set up Voice Thru Your Hands to bridge this gap. Further to this we as an organisation have teamed up with Deaf Aotearoa to implement NZSL into the school curriculum.

Voice Thru Your Hands is dedicated to raising awareness of the importance of New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL). Also to show through communication in NZSL, people are able to fully express themselves. This proves that it is a given right to all to be able to communicate or at least be given the different options.

Voice Thru Your Hands is also supporting families with children who choose to use New Zealand Sign Language as their mode of communication. We’re a parent-driven, non-profit organisation providing families with the resources, networks, and information they need to improve communication access and educational outcomes for their children. Our outreach programmes, parent/professional collaboration, and advocacy efforts are focused on enabling children to reach their highest potential.

You can read more about it here: Voice Thru Your Hands

Toyota NZ has put our organisation forward for the Scholarship to help us reach this goal. We need your votes to be the winner for this round of scholarships to help turn our dream into reality.

Just follow the link and please forward to all in your email contact list!!!

Toyota scholarships

Click on the above link – We are a finalist for a Believe Scholarship!

Make sure to spread the word for people to vote.

Thanking you in advance 🙂 Have a great Christmas and a happy New Year.

Ally Attwell

Voice Thru Your Hands

never a truer word

November 19, 2009 § Leave a comment

spoken in klingon jest.

World’s first mother tongue klingon speaker … hope the child likes rap!

When the child also becomes computer literate, google awaits


feeling arty

November 16, 2009 § Leave a comment

The twentieth century might, if you are into that sort of thing, be labelled the century of typography. The visual pleasure of letter shapes made them become the focus of art and design. (Just think of how many fonts are available to you on your computer). Braille too has been the subject and the medium of art in recent years.

Lambton Quay, Wellington is graced by the piece Invisible City by Anton Parsons

Another New Zealand artist, Irene Ferguson back in 2003 produced works that referenced the story that Helen Keller read Braille until her fingers bled by punching Braille into aluminium leaving jagged edges:

However, the graffiti art project reported on here from suggests not all Braille users are happy with the appropriation of the writing system.

braille graffiti

It’s rap, Jim but not as we know it

November 15, 2009 § 4 Comments

Continuing the alien theme, the last post ended with an implied possibility that aliens might be interested in emotion as well as science. What about alien language arts? Well how about some intergalactic hop hop?  Here is a Klingon language rapper from Germany (apparently) covering a popular Eminem track.

How many speakers of Klingon on Earth is not known, but it would seem that for most it would be an L2 after a more terrestrial language as mother tongue. Don’t scoff, there are people who claim that Esperanto now has native speakers!

To understand the rap you can become a distance student of the Klingon Language Institute

Klingon, like Yoda English, is on occasion, is OVS. As a rare word order in terrestrial languages, this is deliberated chosen to represent alien-ness. For those of you who are phonology minded here is the inventory of Klingon as reported by Wikipedia and checked against the KLI website. Note before the IPA is the transliteration of the appropriate glyph from the Klingon alphbet.

Plosive voiceless p /pʰ/ t /tʰ/ q /qʰ/ ‘ /ʔ/
voiced b /b/ D /ɖ/
Affricate voiceless tlh /tɬ/ ch /tʃ/ Q /qχ/
voiced j /dʒ/
Fricative voiceless S /ʂ/ H /x/
voiced v /v/ gh /ɣ/
Nasal m /m/ n /n/ ng /ŋ/
Trill r /r/
Approximant w /w/ l /l/ y /j/

So off you go to the KLI, and geek out completely!

I thought only Vulcans on tv could mind meld

November 14, 2009 § Leave a comment

We have so far in this alien linguistics mini series looked at a scientific approach to alien communication and analysed how Hollywood has imagined alien English, but there is also another angle to explore.

Beginning in the sixties, the latest extension to the little-green-man discourse (okay most people talk about the greys these days) is the alien abduction narrative. This controversial phenomenon is worth serious study for a number of reasons; revealing tensions between academic disciplines, adding fuel to the recovered memory debate as well as disturbing answers to the are they out there/already here question.

I am not saying I believe or disbelieve the countless narratives provided by people who seem to be ordinary about extraordinary encounters with alien beings. I also can see the sense of the analysis suggest that these discourse are about the fear of the eroding interface between technology and the human body as well as the eco-message from space theme that many report. I am entirely convinced though by the argument that simply because the narratives are so similar that they can be discounted as either planted by the hypnotist/therapist or are culturally learnt discourses that these people reproduce. But what I think is interesting for linguists is the way in which the communication between the aliens and the abductees is reported. Here I draw on  encounters reported in Mack (1994), a widely read and discussed publication by a Harvard Psychiatry professor.

Aliens, it seems, are able to communicate without recourse to the spoken word. Nothing unusual in that, Signed Languages are part of the stock of human language – but aliens seem also devoid of a gestural language – hands too busy with the probes, I guess. Instead, abduction narratives suggest aliens are able to communicate directly with the brain, i.e. telepathically or as Mack (1994, p.37) puts it:

Communication between the aliens and humans is telepathic, mind to mind, thought to thought, with no specific common learned being necessary.

ET, throw away your speak and spell!

Here are how some of the abductees describe it:


The figure, perhaps sensing this [uncomfortable feeling], “gave me some sort of blanket or big towel or something” She seemed to sense his thoughts without his saying anything, reassuring Ed, for example, that they were safe and would not fall of the precipice onto the rocks below. Ed was sexually excited, and the female being “sense my horniness”.

“Then she started explain things to me.” Ed wanted to write things down so he could remember later, but she would not let him and ” just worked at my perception, my awareness, sort of mind to mind.” Sensing his frustration she assured him, “you will remember when you need to know”


When I {Mack} asked her how this information was communicated to her she said “I just know. I know what he’s thinking.  He communicates, but he can’t tell you how.”

Both of these abductees are hazy on the mechanics of communication. Perfectly reasonable if they are in a high state of anxiety (and/or horniness in Ed’s case). But it also reveals one of the problems of telepathy. While it seems to be away of avoiding the question what languages do Aliens speak and how do they understand humans, and vice versa, it simply moves the question to “how does telepathy work?”

Mind to mind communication seems to suggests that the communicative message is projected into the brain of the receiver. What would such a message consist of. Well try it now, send a message to a friend of yours by thinking very hard about them and the message you wish to send them. It could be as simply as “buy me a cheeseburger”.  Wait 15 minutes and see if one arrives.

No, seriously – what did you do? I think your options are – chanting something like “Cheeseburger, cheeseburger, cheeseburger” or “Buy me a cheeseburger” while looking at a mental image of your friend. In the first instance, both of these messages are linguistic. That is we might hear our voice in our head chanting the word/sentence … In English … back to the language problem. If you were smart(er than me) you might have visualised a cheeseburger and sent that mental image to a friend. But how interpretable is that. If humans could send a telepathic image message, how would it be received. With spoken language the sound stream is analysed and then parsed. How would we parse a cheeseburger. Someone wants a cheeseburger? Someone just ate a cheeseburger? Someone is afraid of cheeseburgers? are all possible interpretations. Say you are supersmart and sent a mental movie of them going to a burgerbar, buying one and driving over to your place. This would still be ambiguous and probably more so given that there are now more events encoded in the visual message.

So both a language message and a message analysis of telepathy have problems. Perhaps a kind of pre-language message might be the answer. By pre-linguistic I mean at the semantic level. When we put together sentences we build them out of syntactic structures that are able to encode events. These might be structured and put together before language specific rules and words take over. If this deep structure message was sent, I think there would still be issues in interpretation. Frames of events might be sent, but how would negation of a proposition be dealt with or a message with an action that is intended to be habitual?

Telepathy, the abductees’ answer to how aliens communicate is just as problematic as the naked and waving male on the side of the Pioneer vehicle. It raises questions of interpretation as well questions about transmission. One interesting difference in the assumptions the scientists and the experiencers of alien abduction behind their messages. The Pioneer message encodes human scientific and rational achievement. Scientists are clear that science is the common bond between alien and earthling. The abduction accounts, however, suggest something difference. The abduction stories tell us that aliens are interested in our minds and can interpret emotions. I think this difference reveals a fundamental difference in the nature of aliens and their interest in us. These different ways of understanding what aliens want is also revealed in the assumptions about human-alien interaction and communication

speak alien language help you I will

November 13, 2009 § 9 Comments

Aliens speak English funny.  In the movies, that is. ET acquired pidgin English and spoke of himself in the third person, immortalising ET phone home.  Perhaps an equally famous Alien English phrase is Yoda’s Help you, I will. In fact Yoda English seems to be characterised by very quirky syntax.  Let us consider the grammar of Yoda.


Taking Yoda’s sixty odd lines in the Empire Strikes Back as a mini corpus to build a picture of his grammar, the ancient Jedi produces non-standard forms, 29 or so non-standard forms – well non-standard by Terrestrial English (TE) standards, anyway. So for about half the time he speaks a pretty standard variety. His first full clause is as follows:


The major features in which Yoda English differs from Terrestrial English are word order and question formation.  What has become seen as typical of Yoda’s grammar follows the more standard clause above:


Here the standard SVO order or T.E is replaced by OSV word order.  Given that Yoda uses standard order marginally more often, we might like to argue using a Chomskyian approach that the OSV order is the result of a movement rule, and that underlyingly the sentence was originally the same as English. The object has moved leftward in a process we shall call fronting:

rootleaf I cook rootleaf

The strikethrough text represents the original position of the object before it underwent fronting. Fronting occurs in English when we want to put special emphasis on a particular element of a sentence, though when doing so we often add something to the fronted element:

You are wearing a nice dress -> What a nice dress you are wearing!

Simple obejct fronting  though is quite rare in Yoda’s English. Rather, when objects are fronted, there also seems to be other reordering processes involved, particularly when there are auxiliaries present. Beginning with future-marking, roughly half of Yoda’s sentences that contain will are constructed as an earthling would, the other half seem to exhibit fronting. A wide range of things, however front in the presence of will:

object shift, Will shift:

Nothing more will I teach you today.

nothing more will I will teach you nothing more today

consume you it will

consume you it will consume you

This last example is interesting as the verb and the object, which in English have a very close relationship. move together, in doing so however it produces a very different word, VOS AUX.

Another interesting difference is Yoda’s negation:

  • No! Try not.
  • Size matters not
  • And well you should not

The placement of the negator, not does not conform to Terrestrial English. In English not precedes main verbs with the exception of the copula  be, and requires the use of the auxiliary do:

  • No! Don’t try
  • Size does not matter

However, Y.E and T.E are similar in that the negator follows modal verbs like should.  Below are Yoda’s use of auxiliary have in the minicorpus

  • For eight hundred years have I trained Jedi.
  • Time adverbial                    AUX  S  V            O
  • This one a long time have I watched.
  • O     Time adverbial      AUX    S V
  • You must unlearn what you have learned.

The first two show some consistency in the positioning of have prior to the subject, but are inconsistent in the positioning of the object.  The last example may be different and not show this have fronting due to being inside a relative clause.

What can we say, then about Yoda English. It appears underlyingly to be interpreted as having a similar deep structure to Terrestrial English, but uses fronting more frequently. Fronting also seems to trigger auxiliary movement.

If we were to use more hardcore syntactic theory we might say that Yoda’s fronting makes use of the left periphery above the clause level; places which in the literature  house topic and focus phrases. Movement into these levels might also trigger verb movement. A topic=attracting feature might require the movement of full phrases to one of the Specifiers of such phrases above the sentence level, while the movement of the will/have type moves lower heads to heads of these Topic/FocusPs.

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