it takes a village

November 30, 2010 § Leave a comment

The village of Bengkala, Bali, Indonesia is also known as Desa Kolok ‘deaf village’. Here like the Al- Sayyid community of Bedouins, a rel;atively high degree of deafness in a small population has seen the emergence of a signed language. The legend of how deafness came to be a feature of this village is reported by Nick Palfreyman in his travelblog.

Deafness has a place in the cosmos of Desa Kolok, and there is a well-established myth about how deaf people came to be part of the village. When we got back to the village, I asked Ketut for more information about this.

Many years ago there was a couple in the village who wanted to have children, but had no success. After a while, they sought help from the gods. A family member went to the cemetery near the Pura Dalem at midnight, to get some special offerings to take to the family temple. At the ceremony this person encountered a deaf ghost. When the couple had a baby, the baby was deaf.

There is another story that the people of Desa Kolok originally came from the nearby village of Sinabun. In Sinabun, there is a temple conaining a shrine to Bhatara Kolok, a deaf god. In Bali, it is believed that the gods descend to their temples on the day of their temple festivals (odalan). At certain times, the village communities engage with the gods through a balian, a spirit medium. Ketut spoke of an occasion some time ago on the festival of Bhatara Kolok, when a balian – who could not sign – went into a trance and started to sign the responses of the god. This was interpreted for the worshipers by a temple priest from Desa Kolok, […] in the existence of the deaf god.

 Village sign languages are phenomena that have caught academic attention only recently. With typological interest in these languages and what they might say about the possibilities of human language, villages where signs have developed are now sites of research.

Ulrike Zeshan’s paper suggests that there are some critical issues to consider in researching village sign systems. How does the presence of a researcher and their potential followers impact on the economic ecology of the small population? Should they be subject to further intrusion by the detailed publishing of names and locations, for example. Moverover, she frames her paper from an endangerment persepctive, and points out that these languages are extremely fragile as nation building and ideologies of nation and language combine with deaf education initiatives, local ways of signing derived from sustained but secluded interactions between the Deaf and across the community are replaced by national sign languages. The emergence of Nicaragua Sign language, mentioned in the post linked above might too in their own ways be language killers.


a word before dying

November 29, 2010 § Leave a comment

Nicholas Evan’s work on endangered languages, Dying Words (2010) fittingly and yet disconcertingly starts with a funeral. One gets an inkling of what it is like to bury a last speaker, a remember, or the sorrow felt by a family, a community – both including the researcher. But this book is not sorrowful. Nor is it simply an impassioned plea for the preservation of language. It is a detailed, novice reader-friendly account of what the inclusion of these faint and faltering voices can tell us about human society, the human mind and something of a global cultural history.
Drawing on research in different fields and different parts of the globe Evans shows us that without the contributions of these ‘lesser known’ languages we would not know what languages can be or what (in a Whorfian-ish way) they can do to us. He draws on both some well-known examples and some striking new research. Of particular interest (to me) was the account of work on deciphering the Olmec script. Having followed the recent flurry of activity with Mayan, it was great to see attention turned to the language of the possible ur-culture of Meso-America using the same techniques as used with the later culture, finding reflexes for Olmec words in the Mixe-Zoquean languages still spoken in discontinuous geographies in the region of Southern Mexico. The decipherment proposed by Juteson and Kaufman in the 1990s (see a comprehensive 2001 account here) was controversial among Meso-american epigraphers and linguists, particularly among the Mayanist crowd.  However, given the paucity of texts they had to work with compared to the relatively vast Mayan corpus, the work is particularly impressive.

Another outstanding aspect of the book is the reconsideration of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, one that has returned to the fore of linguistic debate thanks to Deutschers book. What I like about Evan’s illsutration of the links between language, cognition  and culture is the use of short but well contained accounts of experimental work in direction marking as well as making the lived experience of geographic orientated cultures particularly in Australian Aboriginal languages come to life. Also using his own work with Karyadild, from the Northern Territory, he shows us the elegant word-formation available in that language to create direction terms: riya– ‘east’,  rilumbanda – ‘easterner’, riinmali – ‘hey you coming from the east’,  riluyrayaanda – ‘previous night’s camp in the east’,  ringurrnga – ‘east across a greogpraphical discontinuity’.

Tthe impressive array of topics and the illustration of them with narratives and easy to follow examples from all conrers of the globe, slipping in a bit of linguistics metalanguage here and there, makes this a page turner. One charge leveled at the language endangerment movement is that linguists are interested in saving languages for selfish reasons. This volume puts that argument to bed with its detailed account of what we all can learn about our past, our capacity for language and not least the personal commitment of the author with communities with whom he has sustained and multilevel engagements with.

if linguists had talk shows

November 16, 2010 § Leave a comment

I would hope they would be as funny as this

Stephen Fry among the demagoguery and by that I mean demagoguery gives an elegant description of the innatist position before descending into metaphor hell!

but it doesn’t have pictures …

November 14, 2010 § Leave a comment

Here’s a great site that collates reports of a linguistics nature in the news … lingformant

mandom and mantrol, nz hegemonic masculinity and the road toll

November 11, 2010 § Leave a comment

Discourses of masculinity are being deployed in a new NZ ad to curb our habits of speeding.

Since male drivers under the age of thirty are the likeliest to speed, these ads try to delink dangerous driving from discourses of masculinity in this country

Hunting, cricket and controlling the barbecue are all part of being a manly man – and so is driving slowly … the ad … shows a man wanding through rooms of activings in “mandom” – including hunting, fencing, barbecuing, cricket, a barbershop and skateboarding – before coming to a room with a crashed car.

Dominion Post, November 11, 2010, A7.

You can view the ad here for a while.

The ad uses the term mantrol  a nice blend, man + control. Googling this to see whether this actually is a new neologism, I suspected that it would not be, I discovered it was the name of a sexual performance supplement ….


linguists on ice

November 6, 2010 § Leave a comment

linguistics takes you places!

Here is the story of a British linguistic anthropologist working with a language of Greenland.

A small community of 800 or so, apparently are subject to the forces of change. Despite remaining in their ancestral location and remaining with relatively high degrees of isolation from dominant languages and cultures, these Inuit are still threatened by a language killer.
As one member of the community comments in that piece

‘Twenty years ago, my children used to go skating on the ice at this time of the year. Last year, the ice was so thin that a young hunter and his dog team of 12 fell through to their deaths. If the sea ice goes completely, there will be no need for the dogs [huskies] and our culture will disappear.’

I noticed in the URL of that piece both Inuit and Eskimo appear. Ethnonyms … names for cultural groups are tricky things, and this is one of the trickier ones, with many suggesting that eskimo  is a pejorative or insulting term. For some it is, but for others, Inuit is not prefered as it links the people to a particular language group to which not all polar dweller belongs. Kaplan of the Alaska Native Language Centre explains the term eskimo  below ….

this name is considered derogatory in many other places because it was given by non-Inuit people and was said to mean “eater of raw meat.” Linguists now believe that “Eskimo” is derived from an Ojibwa word meaning “to net snowshoes.” However, the people of Canada and Greenland prefer other names. “Inuit,” meaning “people,” is used in most of Canada, and the language is called “Inuktitut” in eastern Canada although other local designations are used also. The Inuit people of Greenland refer to themselves as “Greenlanders” or “Kalaallit” in their language . […] Most Alaskans continue to accept the name “Eskimo,” particularly because “Inuit” refers only to the Inupiat of northern Alaska, the Inuit of Canada, and the Kalaallit of Greenland, and is not a word in the Yupik languages of Alaska and Siberia

move over Klingon!

November 2, 2010 § Leave a comment

Congratulations to Juliette Bergh and Jessica Charlton, one of the teams to win funding for their film idea Existence in the Escalator challenge. Their movie sent in a post-apocalyptic Makara has been green-lit to be made.

Juliette and Jessica met with Massey Linguists who imagined how a dialect of New Zealand English might sound for this salvagepunk western movie.

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