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A note from Alex

March 7, 2011

Dear readers,


Last October I stopped posting because I was no longer able to find time to manage this blog. A new semester of my online studies at the University of Manchester had started. I had my family and two jobs to take care of at the same time. So I said goodbye to the blog. I didn’t know whether I would ever return. I was pretty sure the blog would soon wane and die without me.


Now I have received two comments on my ancient postings from two nice people from different countries in the last few days. I logged on and was amazed to discover that the blog had been living a life of its own without me. The number of views per day has been on the rise and I have got new subscribers. Having googled my blog’s name and getting a number of hits (for the first time), I understand that google must be the reason. Which gives me inspiration to return here someday and carry on my noble mission of educating humankind (but mostly myself) about languages and cultures :-). With my still heavy study- and workload, however, it might not happen until summer. See you then my friends!


All the best,



Another language gone: Cochin Creole Portuguese

October 10, 2010

Someone may argue it is not a language at all. The opinion that Creole languages are nothing but dialects, or bastardized versions, of ‘real’ languages has been widespread, although it is no longer as common as it was before. One thing is for sure – there is a culture behind each Creole language which is very distinct from that of their parent language.

When Europeans colonized faraway lands in the 15th and the following centuries, the local populations had to interact with the colonizers and developed simplified versions of English, French, Portuguese and other colonial languages, which became known as pidgins. Later, these pidgins were ‘normalized’ or ‘nativized’, i.e. learned by the children of pidgin speakers, passed from generation to generation and eventually became Creoles. Often, Creoles appeared where groups of people were uprooted from their native places and had to move, for example as slaves, to a land where their native language was not spoken at all.

The vocabularies of Creoles are full of cognates from their parent languages, however the grammars usually differ greatly from those of the parent languages and are modeled on the grammars of local dialects spoken before the Europeans came. Unlike pidgin grammars, the grammar of a Creole can be quite complex. For example, Jamaican Creole features largely English words superimposed on West African grammar. (I find this a very interesting fact as it seems to prove to me that grammatical knowledge is implanted in the mind on a deeper level while vocabulary knowledge is more superficial and can relatively easily be replaced).

I found this paper by David B. Frank on the characteristics, origin and current state of Creole languages very interesting. The title is We Don’t Speak a Real Language: Creoles as Misunderstood and Endangered Languages and you can read it here.

Here is a quotation: “As linguists debate why or whether or how creoles constitute a unique class of language, we should not lose sight of the fact that we are talking about the mother tongues of real people with their own unique culture, identity, history, and forms of communication.”

As it happens, many Creole languages are facing extinction, and two weeks ago another Creole ceased to exist. Here is a tribute to Cochin Creole Portuguese. Another language is gone, and the world is continuing to lose its linguistic diversity.

Are you a good language learner?

October 3, 2010

J. Rubin listed the following characteristics of a ‘good language learner’:

1. The good language learner is a willing and accurate guesser.

2. The good language learner has a strong drive to communicate, or to learn from communication.

3. The good language learner is often not inhibited.

4. In addition to focusing on communication, the good language learner is

prepared to attend on form.

5. The good language learner practises.

6. The good language learner monitors his own speech and the speech of others.

7. The good language learner attends to meaning.

Rubin J. (1975) What the good language learner can teach us. TESOL Quarterly 9(1): 41-51.

Good points but maybe a trifle too technical. I would add being open-minded, culturally-sensitive and ready to tune into other ways of thinking.

A new language is more than just a new system of symbols or vehicle for communication. It’s a new culture and a new mode of thinking.

Any more additions to the list?

Huun Huur Tu

October 2, 2010

Some cultures are known for their art more than anything else. These cultures would have little chance of being noticed by more than a handful of academic people, were it not for some unique art they possess and for some talented people carrying the art to the outside world. The first example that springs to mind is Tuva (aka Tyva) and the Tuvan (Tyvan) throat singing.

Tuva is a Russian autonomous republic in East Siberia on the Mongolian border. Tuvan is a Northeastern (or Siberian) Turkic language, spoken by 200,000 people in Tuva plus some in Mongolia and China. It is closely related to the Khakas and Altai languages. The Mongolian and Russian influences on it have been quite strong too. In the past, Tuvans used to write with Mongolian script. The Latin-based alphabet for Tuvan was devised in 1930 by a Buddhist monk, Mongush Lopsang-Chinmit. A few books and newspapers, including primers intended to teach adults to read, were printed using this writing system. But then Lopsang-Chinmit was executed in Stalinist purges on December 31, 1941. A new Cyrillic-based alphabet was introduced by decree in 1943 and is still in use.

It was not the writing system of Tuvan that particularly interested me, however, but the phonetic system, because I thought there must be something about the language itself that gave birth to the unique art of throat singing – a style of singing in which two or more pitches sound simultaneously over a fundamental, very low pitch, sound. This musical art is related to the overtone singing/chanting done in Tibet and Mongolia, especially by Buddhist monks, but the Tuvans have taken it further, to the point where some Tuvans can even produce three audible tones simultaneously.

At the root of throat singing is human mimicry of nature’s sounds. Tuvan tradition is that of herdsmen living in the steppe. The open landscape of Tuva allows for the sounds to carry a great distance. Often, singers will travel far into the countryside looking for the right river, or will go up to the steppes of the mountainside to create the proper environment for throat singing.

I went to the concert of the most internationally known Tuvan music group called Huun Huur Tu here in Perm in July this year. The Opera House, where they were performing, was packed despite the 35 degree heat outside and no air conditioning inside. These musicians have a lot of devoted fans across the world and they are almost always on tour.

A little skeptical at first, I was glad to discover that it was more than just a circus trick. It was real art. The musicians combine throat singing with other types of singing, and their voices and instruments blend to produce a mesmerizing effect. I was soon carried away to another reality. During one particularly sound-rich song, I closed my eyes and experienced a sort of trance. I saw huge black birds darting overhead, animals rushing wildly across the steppe, I heard a waterfall rumbling in the distance… A grandiose shamanic ritual was taking place by the riverside, the shaman and his people performing a weird dance. I saw it all vividly like in a movie. That’s one healthy way to get high!

Anyway, it’s better to see once, so here is a bit of their performance at the 2006 Philadelphia Folk Festival. It is not the same song that entranced me at the concert but still a great one. (Nor does it demonstrate the whole gamut of possibilities of throat singing, but search Youtube to hear more).

What about the phonetics of the language then? Is the language itself responsible for the appearance of this genre of singing? Here is what I have found out.

Vowels in Tuvan exist in three varieties: short, long and short with low pitch. Contrastive low pitch may occur on short vowels, and when it does, it causes them to increase in duration by at least one-half. When using low pitch, Tuvan speakers employ a pitch that is at the very low end of their modal voice pitch. For some speakers, it is even lower and they use what is phonetically known as ‘creaky voice’. When a vowel in a monosyllabic word has low pitch, speakers apply low pitch only to the first half of that vowel. This is followed by a noticeable pitch rise in the second half of the vowel. The acoustic impression is similar to that of a rising tone in Mandarin, although the Tuvan pitch begins much lower. Despite the similarity, Tuvan is considered a pitch accent language with contrastive low pitch instead of a tonal language. These low pitch vowels were previously referred to in the literature as either kargyraa or pharyngealized vowels.

So it seems that the language itself trains Tuvans to combine various pitch levels and makes them capable throat singers. But it does require special talent to take this trick to the level of art, and that is why I admire Huun Huur Tu. Between the songs, they also tell their audiences about Tuvans, their language and traditions. They have done a lot to make their small nation with its wonderful culture known to the world.

P.S. Curiously, while googling for throat singing I discovered that another ethnic group famous for such skill is Inuits of Canada. And their performers are usually women!

Spelling reform or a parody of Mark Twain?

September 28, 2010

I don’t know if someone is pulling my leg, I am going crazy, someone else is going crazy, or I am just being boring and conservative. Somebody tell me which it is. I’m talking about this piece of news:

Now the part about the French crying out against the Anglicization of Europe makes perfect sense: it’s an eternal rivalry, and the fact that English has come ahead in the battle for global and European domination cannot possibly please the French. The argument that French is ‘more precise’ I believe is ridiculous, but they had to say something to belittle English anyway.

The part that makes no sense to me at all is the suggested ‘language reform’ (at the end of the article in italics). I was so shocked that I actually set up an account on in order to comment on the article. Here is what I wrote:

I wonder if this is anybody’s poor joke or plagiarism of Mark Twain? Or both? Here’s Mark Twain’s proposal – could it be that someone didn’t notice he had his tongue in his cheek?

A plan for the improvement of spelling in the English language

By Mark Twain

For example, in Year 1 that useless letter “c” would be dropped to be replased either by “k” or “s”, and likewise “x” would no longer be part of the alphabet. The only kase in which “c” would be retained would be the “ch” formation, which will be dealt with later. Year 2 might reform “w” spelling, so that “which” and “one” would take the same konsonant, wile Year 3 might well abolish “y” replasing it with “i” and iear 4 might fiks the “g/j” anomali wonse and for all.

Generally, then, the improvement would kontinue iear bai iear with iear 5 doing awai with useless double konsonants, and iears 6-12 or so modifaiing vowlz and the rimeiniing voist and unvoist konsonants. Bai iear 15 or sou, it wud fainali bi posibl tu meik ius ov thi ridandant letez “c”, “y” and “x”— bai now jast a memori in the maindz ov ould doderez —tu riplais “ch”, “sh”, and “th” rispektivili.

Fainali, xen, aafte sam 20 iers ov orxogrefkl riform, wi wud hev a lojikl, kohirnt speling in ius xrewawt xe Ingliy-spiking werld.”

I still hope the italicized part of the article was a joke. If not, I think the time has come for me and others to campaign for the preservation of the English language. I’ve been lamenting the loss of minority languages but it’s English that is in danger.

Folks in the UK familiar with Daily Express, is it prone to joking like that?

How to become superhuman

September 27, 2010

Had Nicholas Ostler’s Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World delivered to me from Amazon this morning. I really like the opening line: “If language is what makes us human, it is languages that make us superhuman”. Now I can justify calling this blog ‘languages blog’ rather than ‘language blog’. It’s a blog for superhuman readers! 🙂

Beautiful Tibetan

September 26, 2010

I have always been fascinated by mountains. My father was a mountaineer in his youth, so a love of mountains must be somewhere in my genes. Unfortunately, I have loved them vicariously most of my life. The Ural Mountains, next to which I live, are old and weathered and really look like hills. Last time I stood on top of something that could qualify as a mountain was 23 year ago. I was 15 and I had climbed some minor Caucasian peak with my father and a group of tourists.

On the way up, my foot had slipped and I went tumbling down the slope. Not a very steep slope, fortunately, but before I realized what was going on I was lying with my head next to a large boulder and my legs pointing toward the sky. I continued the ascent with my knees trembling. When we reached the summit, however, a panoramic view of the Great Caucasian Range unfolded before me, and the trembling was gone; suddenly I felt  ecstatic and awed by the beauty of nature. It almost felt like I was drunk (of course at that age I couldn’t compare). I wanted to laugh and sing. I remember the feeling very well, and the Range is still standing like a photographic image in front of my eyes. I haven’t been to real mountains since.

I think people who live their entire lives surrounded by mountains are a sublime race. I really believe there is something special about them. The beauty and grandeur of mountains is in their blood. Their eyes are directed toward the sky.

Tibetan peoples are like that. Generations and generations of people living in Tibet and the Himalayas have owned the beauty.

Just listen to these Tibetan songs and feel it.

Tibetan is a language, and Tibetan are languages. There are 25 mutually unintelligible Tibetan languages belonging to the Sino-Tibetan language family. The ‘main’ one is Standard Tibetan. The 25 languages are further subdivided into about 220 dialects. The situation with languages and dialects is complicated by politics. In China, for political reasons, the dialects of central Tibet, Khams and Amdo are considered dialects of a single Tibetan language, while Dzongkha (official language of Bhutan), Sikkimese, Sherpa and Ladakhi are considered separate languages, despite the fact that Dzongkha and Sherpa are closer to Lhasa Tibetan than Khams or Amdo are.

Sadly, the destinies of the language are enmeshed in politics in more ways than just the issue of dialects. In an extensive report entitled China’s Attempts to Wipe Out the Language and Culture of Tibet published on the official site of Central Tibetan government, various organizations and individuals comment on the marginalization of Tibetan. Here are some quotes:

[Despite the fact that Tibetans constitute 96% of Tibet’s total population], “in the organs of the Tibet Autonomous Regional Government and in the varying levels of schools, Tibetan language is gradually being replaced by Chinese. In civil service examinations, there are no Tibetan language tests at all. Government documents are almost always unavailable in Tibetan. In any meeting, big or small, the leaders make their speeches only in Chinese. Therefore, in the social lives of Tibetans, Tibetan language is increasingly being reduced to a valueless status.”

“The areas where Tibetan language can be used are shrinking [by the day]”.

“Generally in the Tibet Autonomous Region, while taking university and college examinations, Tibetan language is given either only 50% weightage or sometimes no weightage at all.”

“That the Tibetan language is not treated with dignity, or for that matter is not utilised, is the harmful effect of the wind called “assimilation” that is blowing. The sharp pain caused by this wind is still being felt [in Tibet].”

“Tsering Dhondup Dherong, a Tibetan intellectual and Communist Party member, has cited three principal reasons for this in his book Bdag Gyi Re-smon. The first, he said, is the Chinese government’s chauvinistic policy, which accelerates the process of Sinicisation; the second is the notion of Tibetan being a worthless language in today’s society; and the third, the inferiority complex suffered by Tibetans, which hampers their initiatives to maintain and protect their own language.”

Of all the above facts, it is the inferiority complex thing that is most alarming to me. I am afraid that if the people themselves have been made to feel inferior speaking their native language, there is little chance that the language might ever rise to a higher status, and its journey toward extinction has already begun.