a king among linguists

May 27, 2011 § Leave a comment

In the history of language and linguistics, perhaps two kings are widely credited. These are King Sejong who was responsible for Hangul, the elegant and descriptive writing system designed for Korean, and King James, who got a Bible named after himself. However a forgotten King, Ibrahim Njoya, ruler of the Bamum of West Africa, made a contribution to the language and culture of his subjects in a way that reflects the goals of contemporary linguists in the documentation field.

Coming to power in 1889 as the 17th King of the Bamum he set about modernising his people. This included conversion to Islam and allowing the Christian missionaries to influence the court, resulting in a ban of polygamy. After experimenting with a pictographic system, Njoya and a coterie of intellectuals opted to develop a syllabary for Bamum. According to the great site affrocentriccultrebydesign, in a supremely democratic move, the king demanded his subjects contribute graphemes to the project. Eventually, the system stabilised as a 73-symbol set known as Aka Uku after the first four symbols.

In written Bamum he designed calendars, created volumes on ethnopharmacology and dynastic histories that promoted his line and his people’s customs and law. Moreover, to spread literacy among his subjects he built schools, and printing presses which could have been the seeds of a flourishing autochthonous literate culture had colonial intervention not arrived in the form of the Germans and French. When the French seized control of Western Cameroon, the visionary King was exiled, much of his written work destroyed or carted off to Europe into British and French collections. The suppression of written Bamum was clearly the goal of the French who destroyed the printing press, and this goal was achieved. Only now, are the descendents of this visionary monarch making attempts to revive the script for use in education, in according to affrocentricbyydesign, the Palace Ibriham Noya built.

As far as I can tell this photographs were taken by Bryan White, but sourced from Blackethics.

The dom and the rom

May 25, 2011 § Leave a comment

With the Libyan crisis having dominated the news, let us examine the linguistic landscape of the country. Unsurprisingly for north Africa, most Libyans experience Arabic diglossia with the domains divvied up between a local variety of Arabic and Classical Arabic. However a number of other languages are spoken in the country, though most of the international workers from the surrounding North African and Mediterranean region have left. There are also Berber languages spoken, Nafusi being the largest. However the second largest minority language, is not a Berber language, rather it is Domari, with 33 000 speakers. The Dom are the distant distant cousins of the Rom, both groups leaving India in the first millennium of the common era. The Rom or Romany referred to as Gypsies and variant forms of Zigeuner, Tsigane, Gitane etc form one of Europe’s largest underclasses. Likewise in the Middle East the Dom are powerless within the borders of these nations, with their largest populations in Iran and Egypt. Rarely literate in the dominant language, and living among (but apart from) other powerful groups the Dom and the Rom are constantly subject to attitudes of aggression, in some places with state sanction.

The Domari language has a number of dialects. Libyan Dom speak Helebi as do the group in Egypt. The most well document variety is that spoken by the tiny 2000 strong community in Jerusalem. You can visit the Domari Research Centre here

solimnoquy – linguists in your bedroom?

May 13, 2011 § Leave a comment

Solimnoquy or sleep talking is not too uncommon feature of sleep. It is said to be particularly common in childhood, and while most grow out of it by childhood, with some families however it continues into adulthood.

The phenomenon usually presents itself of short bursts of talk of about 30 seconds duration. Researchers are not clear as to whether it is actually linked to events in the dreams of sleeptalkers as it appears that solimnoquy can occur in any of the sleepstates we naturally experience. What does not seem to be discussed is the reasons for the lack of clarity in the production of sleeptalk. We presume this is because the brain is not in some kind of alert, wakeful state and therefore is not focusing on muscle control to produce clear articulation.

What is extremely interesting is sleepchat, where an awake conversational partner can interact with a sleeping one. It seems the sleeper pays attention to topic, even if introduced by the awaker partners, but are prone to rapid topic shifts.

While harmless of itself, solimnquoy might be accompanies by other sleep disorders including somnambulism, sleepwalking, and sleep eating. Solimnoquy often occurs during episodes of night terrors which are frightening for both those sleeping and those who witness it.

Sleep talk like other forms of communication has been the centre of court proceedings. In the US a man was convicted of sexual assault on a ten yr old girl partly on the evidence of what her father heard her say in her sleep. To be clear, there was other evidence, but the admissibility of solimnoquy raised some particular issues. The ten year old was said to have used the man’s first name in her sleep talk, demanding that he get off her. But on waking she did not recall her sleep talker, as solimnoquists rarely do so could not be cross-examined on the veracity or the meaning of the utterance.
The outcome was overturned in the Supreme Court for a number of reasons. Apart from denying the right of the accuser to address all elements of a case under cross-examination, it was argued that in a dream state there is no way of distinguishing truth from untruth since nothing in a dream is factually real. It was also successfully argued that there is no link between dreaming of an event and producing solimnoquy during it to any real events in the world that had taken place.

not an oscar category, but ….

May 4, 2011 § Leave a comment

So, we’re a little bit famous. Massey linguists have been in the news for working with two New Zealand filmmakers to make a futuristic dialect for a feature length film. We are connecting in a small way to an illustrious history of constructed languages for cinema which includes Marc Okrand the linguist responsible for the Klingon language for Star Trek and more recently Paul Frommer who created the language of the Na’vi as spoken by the blue people in Avatar. These alien languages have already appeared on *bling*, but the first cinematic outing of a language-using alien appears to date back to The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). The urbane English actor Michael Rennie playing Klaatu the alien who learnt English by listening to the BBC by the sound of it. In pop culture history however, the climax of the film is the movie’s most enduring moment. To save the earth from destruction, the heroine, played by Patricia Neal must utter a sentence? a phrase? in Klaatu’s native language ‘Gort, Klaatu barada nikto’.

It’s kind of lucky that she is speaking to a robot as she puts no inflection into what she is saying. In fact what the phrase means and how it is structured is never explained and to this day is the subject of conjecture. It lives on, though, through intertextuality having been quoted and misquoted in a number of movies, usually of the low budget sci-fi kind, in a remake of the original, and, oddly, in Two and a Half Men!

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