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Welcome to Wordwide FX's new enterprise!

Insight by WFX is a synthesis of our passion for languages and the financial markets. Here you will find technical and fundamental analyses from our clients, media partners and contributors in different languages, as well as discussions on languages and translation. And of course we will keep you updated on what is happening inside Wordwide FX Financial Translations. Hope you enjoy it! Greetings from the Wordwide FX team!

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12/01/2017

Stanford experts highlight link between language and race in new book

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By Wordwide FX Financial Translations

Via Stanford News

By Alex Shashkvich

Language is one of the most important cultural means that people have for shaping their identity. A new field called raciolinguistics explores this relationship between language and race.

Anthropologist Samy Alim (photo below) argues that the relationship between race, language and racism plays such a key role in reflecting and defining the way human societies are structured that it deserves study as a separate field, which he calls raciolinguistics.

Anthropologist Samy Alim is one of the scholars establishing the discipline of raciolinguistics, the examination of how language and race shape each other. (Image credit: Courtesy H. Samy Alim)
Alim, a professor in the Stanford Graduate School of Education, examines the connection between language, race and power in a new book, co-edited with John Rickford and Arnetha Ball. The book, Raciolinguistics: How Language Shapes Our Ideas About Race, compiles recent scholarly research on different societies around the world.

Stanford News Service interviewed Alim, the book’s lead editor and director of the Center for Race, Ethnicity and Language, about the emerging field of raciolinguistics and his research.

You say that today more than ever, American society is hyperracial and hyperracializing. What do you mean by that and why do you think that is so?

When the U.S. elected its first black president eight years ago, some proclaimed the U.S. to be a “postracial” society, where race doesn’t matter. But every social indicator, from the income gap to incarceration rates and medical statistics on infant mortality, among others, paints a picture of a nation deeply structured and divided by race.

It is now nearly impossible to ignore social scientific research of all stripes, which demonstrates that, rather than postracial, American society is in fact hyperracial or hyperracializing. That is, we are constantly orienting to race while at the same time denying the overwhelming evidence that shows the myriad ways that American society is fundamentally structured by it.

When racist speech is prevalent in mainstream U.S. political arenas – such as the racializing words of President-elect Donald Trump and other Republicans in the 2016 presidential primary – the possibility for violence increases, as we’ve seen with the recent attacks on U.S. Muslims and Mexicans.

This type of language has breathed new life into white supremacist movements like the so-called “alt-right,” the term itself being a perfect example of how language can be used to obscure and sanitize what are overtly racist movements.

Can you give specific examples from your research that highlight this connection between language and identity?

I studied Barack Obama’s speech patterns and I’ve found that his speech changed depending on his audience. Because of prevailing racist, xenophobic and Islamophobic ideas about who he was, he had to speak in such a way that made as many people comfortable with him as possible.

Obama used a “black preacher style” to appeal to the African American community, linking himself to familiar black figures like Martin Luther King Jr. At the same time, he used “standard” English when he talked to more general audiences. But his “black preacher style” was not only important for the black electorate; he also alleviated some white American fears that he was “not American” and “not Christian.” He was caught between discriminatory discourses of race, language, citizenship and religion, and he needed to navigate between them in order to not be seen as “the African, Muslim boogeyman” that the far right made him out to be. Language and race work together here in very important ways.

I argue that Obama’s ability to switch between different linguistic varieties has been an advantage in his political career. His speech can be seen as an example of transgressive, transracial politics.

What do you believe is the biggest takeaway from the research compiled in this book?

As leading scholars argue in the book, language is often overlooked as one of the most important cultural means that we have for distinguishing ourselves from others. But rather than being fixed and predetermined, we argue that racial identities can shift across contexts and even in moment-to-moment interactions.

We use the knowledge gained from our studies to argue for a new kind of politics – a transgressive, transracial politics – that considers both the powerful ways that race is taken up by people of color in contexts of racial inequality and the ways that we challenge the very process of racial categorization itself. Race is both a social construct and an important social reality. So how do we develop a new politics around that in this current moment?

What is raciolinguistics and why was it important to establish this field?

Raciolinguistics examines how language shapes race and how race shapes language. It’s a field that grew out of a need to understand that there is a close relationship between race, racism and language and how these processes impact our lives across domains like politics and education.

Some linguists study language in a vacuum without theorizing race at all. On the other hand, race scholars that do think a lot about race oftentimes neglect the central role that language plays in processes of racialization.

So, in this book, we bring together cutting-edge, innovative scholars interested in explicating the increasingly vexed relationships between race, language and power in our rapidly changing world – from the U.S.-Mexico border to Brazil, Spain, South Africa, Israel and the United Kingdom.

What are your next steps for establishing raciolinguistics as a new field?

I founded the Stanford Center for Race, Ethnicity and Language (CREAL) in 2010 to help grow the field. It was the first and only center of its kind in the world. From there, in 2012, I served as founding director of the program in Race, Inequality and Language in Education (RILE), which now is one of the programs that receives the most applications in the Graduate School of Education.

There are several next steps, but the biggest two, for me, are these: I am now editing The Oxford Handbook of Language and Race with other leaders in the field, Jonathan Rosa, Angela Reyes and Mary Bucholtz. This is an explicit effort to build the field. Further, I have just begun editing a book series for Oxford University Press, Oxford Studies in Language and Race. Raciolinguistics is a collective effort, and scholars all over the country and the world are building it with us.
 

Below: Anthropologist Samy Alim is one of the scholars establishing the discipline of raciolinguistics, the examination of how language and race shape each other. (Image credit: Courtesy H. Samy Alim)

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02/01/2017

The Diacritics Affair

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By Wordwide FX Financial Translations

Via Languages Around the World

By Asya Pereltsvaig

[This is a guest post, written by Roger Fernàndez from Barcelona, Catalonia]

Can a few simple accents become the center of a controversy that occupy headlines? In Catalonia, yes. Catalan is the language of this northeast Spain region, whose capital is Barcelona. The Catalan language, however, is not only spoken in Catalonia; other Spanish regions such as the Balearic Islands, Valencia and some Aragon areas as well as areas of southern France, and the Italian city of Alghero, make this Romance language the 20th most spoken language in Europe (9,4M speakers ).

On 29 September an intention was announced to eliminate the vast majority of diacritical accents. The proposal was made by the IEC, the Institute of Catalan Studies, which is the organization that, since 1911, defines the rules of grammar, spelling and new vocabulary of the Catalan language. And, as if someone had thrown a match into a powder keg, a discussion has exploded and unleashed far beyond the purely academic circles.

But what diacritical accents mean in Catalan and what role do they have? The diacritical accents are marks that are introduced in some words to help distinguish words with different meanings; they do not follow the rules of accentuation,. A few examples illustrate this:

Ma (my) / Mà (hand)

Dona (Woman) / Dóna (gives)

Pel (for the) / Pèl (hair)

Net (clean) / Nét (grandson)

Deu (Ten) /  Déu (God)

And so up to 150 pairs of words were defined by Pompeu Fabra, the philologist who created the prescriptive rules of modern Catalan orthography in the early twentieth century. The new IEC proposal reduces the number of such pairs to just 14!

Initially, the news appeared in the Catalan newspapers, but it was only a small article in the Culture section of each newspaper. But after a few hours, thanks to social networks, the debate was on like an uncontrollable fire. Soon the “Diacriticals affair” was the cover story in the media all around the country.

That day, Empar Moline, one of the most prestigious writers in Catalan, published an article in the newspaper “Ara” denouncing, in his usual humorous style, that the disappearance of diacritic marks would become an oversimplification of a language which, by constant contact with the powerful Spanish language, is already suffering a loss of rigor. Why not, Moline asked ironically, remove Catalan personal pronouns (“pronoms febles” or weak pronouns), the real nemesis for any student of Catalan.

Within a few hours, Quim Monzo, a close friend of Empar Moline and probably the most recognized living writer in Catalan, responded in Tweeter standing at the other side of the controversy:

“Please, we need an immediate crowdfunding campaign to save the diacritics” wrote the eternal candidate for the Literature Nobel Prize, Quim Monzó.

The discussion, however, was not limited only to a philological and literary milieu, and Twitter was starting to warm up. That evening #diacritics hashtag became Trending Topic on Twitter. Catalan TV channels and radio stations buzzed and the controversy grew hour by hour. Right now, platform Change.org has three active campaigns to collect signatures to “save the 136 diacritical accent marks from a death sentence.”

The following day, instead of troubled waters getting calm, tempers were inflamed even more. Even some graffiti appeared:

The sentence, which with stress marks would be written “La dona dóna un os d’ós al nét net” will hardly ever be used, considering its meaning: “The woman gives a bone of bear to the clean grandson”, but it is a symptomatic example of the sudden Catalans’ love for their 136 words with diacritical stress marks. Some online media took advantage to propose tests and surveys to determine how many diacritics readers were able to recognize, as many Catalan speakers are not able to spell all the words with diacritical accents, as required by prescriptive rules. Note that these written accents do not follow any rules and, therefore, the only way to learn them is to do it by memory.

If I had to evaluate a distribution of supporters and opponents of diacritic accents suppression, I think much of the academic world (philologists and linguists) are for this simplification, while writers are divided 50-50. Interestingly, however, a large majority of Catalan speakers, let’s say, ordinary people, are absolutely against simplifying their language. Even songs and flash mobs appeared in YouTube in defense of Diacritic accents.

What makes Catalan speakers so zealous about an alleged complexity of the language? Before trying to answer, I would like to clarify that Catalan is as simple or complex as any other language of the Romance branch of Indo-European may be. Well, back to the question: With the end of sovereignty of Catalonia (in the eighteenth century), political and cultural decline began, the Catalan language was banned from public administration and education. The language was restricted to the private sphere and suffered a clear recession, reaching an almost jeopardized state during the fascist dictatorship of General Franco (1939-1975). With the arrival of democracy in Spain and the recognition of a certain autonomy for Catalonia, the language became the center of the Catalan cultural identity. Catalonia is currently undergoing a process of independence that has made people feel more proud than ever of their culture and, therefore, of their language. Catalan language now has a strong presence in all areas of society, government, education and the media, despite being a region where two languages (Catalan and Spanish) live quite harmoniously. And maybe diacritical accents have become a symbol of Catalans’ pride for their language.

After this controversy, I don’t want even to think what will happen with the spelling reform announced for 2017! If this point was reached with diacritics reform, I hope not to see barricades in the streets in defense of the only exclusively Catalan letter “L geminada “(l·l)!

 

 

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20/12/2016

Seven seriously silly Swedish sayings

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By Wordwide FX Financial Translations

Via The Local.se 

Swedish is a tough language to learn, and strange proverbs about cows, dead dogs, and suspicious owls don't help. The Local has listed some of the seven silliest sayings to help you on the way.

1. Det är ingen ko på isen (here's no cow on the ice)

This is a roundabout Swedish way of saying, quite simply, 'don't worry' or 'take it easy'. It remains unknown how often Swedish cattle are milling about on frozen lakes, but it's no stretch of the imagination to understand that a cow on the ice would be worth worrying about.

2. Med skägget i brevlådan (with your beard in the letter box)

While their English-speaking cousins are messing around getting their hands stuck in cookie jars, Swedes are getting their (probably trendy hipster-style) beards caught in letter boxes. Don't ask what they were doing with their faces so close to the letter box in the first place.

3. Det ligger en hund begraven (there's a dog buried here)

There's something fishy going on here… there's nothing fishier than a dead dog, right? Well, that's what a Swede would say. Perhaps it's the stench of the buried mutt, perhaps it's the idea of a missing canine companion, or perhaps it's just the absurdity of it all, but it's definitely fishy.

4. Ana ugglor i mossen (sensing owls in the bog)

You may think there is nothing fishier than a buried dog, and that's a perfectly logical assumption. But what about owls in the bog? Yes, those crazy Swedes are at it again. When something strange is afoot, they'll whisper to each other about those fishy owls and their boggy surroundings.

5. Inte ha rent mjöl i påsen (not have clean flour in one's bag)

If you're anar ugglor i mossen, it may be because someone doesn't have clean flour in their bag. In Swedish, this means that someone is up to no good or that they are hiding something. What are they hiding? Could be anything. Perhaps they're trying to cover up the dirty flour in their bag.

6. Du har satt din sista potatis (you have planted your final potato)

If you have had it up to here with someone, this is a good threat to throw at them. This is it. This is your final potato. There will be no more potatoes planted after I'm done with you. We suspect it stems from a time when Swedes used to walk around planting potatoes everywhere they went... or something like that (give us a break, we're not historians).

7. Nu är det kokta fläsket stekt (now, the boiled pork is fried)

Who would want to eat fried pork if you had meant to boil it? Not the Swedes, anyway. If you'll forgive us for being crude, it basically means that you're in very deep shit. Things are bad. Things are really, really bad. The boiled pork is fried, I'm telling you. The expression comes from pork being expensive back in the days, and if you boiled it as well as fried it you wouldn't have a lot of pork left.

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19/12/2016

Trump says the press mangles his “beautiful flowing sentences.” We asked linguists to weigh in.

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By Wordwide FX Financial Translations

This week, President-Elect Donald Trump canceled a much-anticipated press conference on his private business dealings, saying he was too busy nominating Cabinet members.

Despite repeatedly lambasting Hillary Clinton for not facing the press during the campaign, Trump has not held a press conference since July 27.

But now he has different excuse for avoiding interviews: The press mangles his “beautiful” sentences, and he has had enough of it, Trump told a crowd in West Allis, Wisconsin, at one of his Victory Tour rallies:

For the last month I decided not to do interviews, because they give interviews and they chop up your sentences and cut them short. You will have this beautiful flowing sentence where the back of the sentence reverts to the front and they cut the back of the sentence off, and I say I never said that. So, I said, you know what, I am not going to deal with them. They are very dishonest people, I said.
For those who covered Trump during this campaign, the comment gives some pause. Transcribing Trump off script can be a challenge — I can attest to this. When he’s speaking off the cuff, his rambling remarks can be full of digressions and hard-to-follow tangents. He often jumps to an entirely new thought before finishing his previous one.

Consider this Trump comment on the Iran nuclear deal during a campaign rally in South Carolina on July 21, 2015. Try to follow the train of thought here:

Look, having nuclear — my uncle was a great professor and scientist and engineer, Dr. John Trump at MIT; good genes, very good genes, okay, very smart, the Wharton School of Finance, very good, very smart — you know, if you’re a conservative Republican, if I were a liberal, if, like, okay, if I ran as a liberal Democrat, they would say I'm one of the smartest people anywhere in the world — it’s true! — but when you're a conservative Republican they try — oh, do they do a number — that’s why I always start off: Went to Wharton, was a good student, went there, went there, did this, built a fortune — you know I have to give my like credentials all the time, because we’re a little disadvantaged — but you look at the nuclear deal, the thing that really bothers me — it would have been so easy, and it’s not as important as these lives are (nuclear is powerful; my uncle explained that to me many, many years ago, the power and that was 35 years ago; he would explain the power of what's going to happen and he was right — who would have thought?), but when you look at what's going on with the four prisoners — now it used to be three, now it’s four — but when it was three and even now, I would have said it's all in the messenger; fellas, and it is fellas because, you know, they don't, they haven’t figured that the women are smarter right now than the men, so, you know, it’s gonna take them about another 150 years — but the Persians are great negotiators, the Iranians are great negotiators, so, and they, they just killed, they just killed us.
Trump’s simple message — "the Iran deal is bad for the United States" — was interrupted by musings on his uncle’s education, his own education, the power of nuclear energy, prisoners, the intelligence of women, and the negotiating prowess of Iranians, seemingly without rhyme or reason. Slate even called on the public to help diagram it.

"His speeches are full of non sequiturs," says Kristin Kobes Du Mez, a Calvin College historian who has done a comparative study of Trump and Clinton’s speaking styles. It’s a completely different style from nearly any other politician you normally see on a big stage.

During the campaign, I was curious if professional linguists and historians could help us figure out what makes Trump’s speaking style unique. There were lots of disagreements on this front, but one thing stood out: Trump’s speeches aren’t meant to be read or used for sound bites, which is probably why Trump is so frustrated with how he comes off in the media.

Rather, his seeming incoherence stems from the big difference between written and spoken language. Trump’s style of speaking has its roots in oral culture. He rallies people through impassioned, targeted conversation — even if it doesn’t always follow a clear arc.

Why Trump’s speeches are incomprehensible to some — and make perfect sense to others
Only a few of Trump’s big speeches have been scripted. At many of his rallies, he speaks off the cuff. We get a lot of fractured, unfinished sentences, moving quickly from thought to thought — what Trump calls a “beautiful flowing sentence.”

To some (or many), this style is completely incoherent. But clearly not everyone feels this way. Many people walked away from Trump’s rallies having understood — and believed — what he said.

It’s the difference between reading Trump’s remarks and listening to them in real time, University of Pennsylvania linguist Mark Liberman explained:

This apparent incoherence has two main causes: false starts and parentheticals. Both are effectively signaled in speaking — by prosody along with gesture, posture, and gaze — and therefore largely factored out by listeners. But in textual form the cues are gone, and we lose the thread.
In other words, Trump’s digressions and rambles — or, as he says, when “the back of the sentence reverts to the front” — are much easier to follow in person thanks to subtle cues.

His style of speaking is conversational, and may even stem from his New York City upbringing. As George Lakoff, a linguist at UC Berkeley, told me, "[The] thing about being a New Yorker is it is polite if you finish their sentences for them. It’s a natural part of conversation."

This may be why Trump’s sentences often seem, in transcript form, to trail off with no ending. "He knows his audience can finish his sentences for him," Lakoff says.

Watching Trump, it’s easy to see how this plays out. He makes vague implications with a raised eyebrow or a shrug, allowing his audience to reach their own conclusions. And that conversational style can be effective. It’s more intimate than a scripted speech. People walk away from Trump feeling as though he were casually talking to them, allowing them to finish his thoughts.

Yet to many linguists, Trump stands out for how often he deploys these conversational tics. "Trump's frequency of divergence is unusual," Liberman says. In other words, he goes off topic way more often than the average person in conversation.

Geoffrey Pullum, a linguist at the University of Edinburgh, argues that there’s more going on than just a conversational, I’ll-let-you-fill-in-the-gaps-style. Trump’s unorganized sentences and short snippets might suggest something about how his mind works. "His speech suggests a man with scattered thoughts, a short span of attention, and a lack of intellectual discipline and analytical skills," Pullum says.

More sophisticated thinkers and speakers (including many past presidents), Pullum argues, are able to use "hypotaxis — that is, embedding of clauses within clauses." Trump can’t seem to do that.

Pullum explains further: "When you say something like, 'While Congress shows no interest in doing X, I feel that the American people believe it is essential,' the clause ‘it is essential’ is inside the clause ‘the American people believe it is essential’ which is inside the clause ‘I feel that the American people believe it is essential,’ and so on. You get no such organized thoughts from Trump. It's bursts of noun phrases, self-interruptions, sudden departures from the theme, flashes of memory, odd side remarks. ... It's the disordered language of a person with a concentration problem."

Trump’s speeches can be appealing because he uses a lot of salesmen’s tricks
Lakoff has an explanation for why Trump’s style of speaking is so appealing to many. Many of Trump’s most famous catchphrases are actually versions of time-tested speech mechanisms that salesmen use. They’re powerful because they help shape our unconscious.

Take, for example, Trump’s frequent use of "Many people are saying..." or "Believe me" — often right after saying something that is baseless or untrue. This tends to sound more trustworthy to listeners than just outright stating the baseless claim, since Trump implies that he has direct experience with what he’s talking about. At a base level, Lakoff argues, people are more inclined to believe something that seems to have been shared.

And when Trump kept calling Clinton "crooked," or referring to terrorists as "radical Muslims," he strengthened the association through repetition. He also calls his supporters "folks," to show he is one of them (though many politicians employ this trick). Trump doesn’t repeat phrases and adjectives because he is stalling for time, Liberman says; for the most part, he’s providing emphasis and strengthening the association.

These are normal techniques, particularly in conversational speech. "Is he reading cognitive science? No. He has 50 years of experience as a salesman who doesn’t care who he is selling to," Lakoff says. On this account, Trump used similar methods in his QVC-style pitch of steaks and vodka as he does when he talks about his plan to stop ISIS.

"He has been doing this for a very long time as a salesman — that’s what he is best at," Lakoff says.

People understand Trump on an emotional level
Trump’s style proved to be successful — he beat out a highly competitive field of lifelong Republicans and a seasoned politician in Hillary Clinton. He's confident enough to address large crowds conversationally and ad-lib on stage.

That said, his rise can’t be attributed purely to his speaking style. It certainly has a lot to do with what he is actually saying. "If the content were different, I think it would come across as rambling and flabby and ineffective," Liberman says.

In other words, when Trump’s audience finishes his sentences for him, the blanks are filled with sentiments that resonate: fears of joblessness, worries about the United States losing its status as a major world power, concerns about foreign terrorist organizations. Trump validates their insecurities and justifies their anger. He connects on an emotional level, Du Mez says.

"For listeners who identify with Trump, there is little they need to do but claim what they’re entitled to," she says. "No need for sacrifice, for compromise, for complexity. He taps into fear and insecurity, but then enables his audience to express that fear through anger. And anger gives the illusion of empowerment."

That doesn’t mean it will translate to effective leadership, however. As much as the American people look for authenticity and spontaneity in a president, which Trump seems to have mastered, they are also known to value discipline.

"Leadership is hard; it needs discipline, concentration, and an ability to ignore what's irrelevant or needless or personal or silly," Pullum says. "There is no sign of it from Trump. This man talks honestly enough that you can see what he's like: He's an undisciplined narcissist who craves power but doesn't have the intellectual capacity to exercise it wisely."

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07/12/2016

The World’s Most Efficient Languages

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By Wordwide FX Financial Translations

Via The Atlantic.com

By John McWhorter

How much do you really need to say to put a sentence together?

Just as fish presumably don’t know they’re wet, many English speakers don’t know that the way their language works is just one of endless ways it could have come out. It’s easy to think that what one’s native language puts words to, and how, reflects the fundamentals of reality.

But languages are strikingly different in the level of detail they require a speaker to provide in order to put a sentence together. In English, for example, here’s a simple sentence that comes to my mind for rather specific reasons related to having small children: “The father said ‘Come here!’” This statement specifies that there is a father, that he conducted the action of speaking in the past, and that he indicated the child should approach him at the location “here.” What else would a language need to do?

Well, for a German speaker, more. In “Der Vater sagte ‘Komm her!’”, although it just seems like a variation on the English sentence, more is happening. “Der,” the word for “the,” is a choice among other possibilities: It’s the one used for masculine nouns only. If the sentence were about a mother, it would have to use the feminine die, or if about a girl, the neuter das (for reasons unnecessary to broach here!). The word for “said,” sagte, is marked with a suffix for the third-person singular; if it were “you said,” then it would be sagtest—in English, those forms don’t vary in the past tense. Then, her for “here” means “to here”: In German one must become what feels to an English speaker rather Shakespearean and say “hither” when that’s what is meant. “Here” in the sense of just sitting “here” is a different word, hier.

This German sentence, then, requires you to pay more attention to the genders of people and things, to whether it’s me, you, her, him, us, y’all, or them driving the action. It also requires specifying not just where someone is but whether that person is moving closer or farther away. German is, overall, busier than English, and yet Germans feel their way of putting things is as normal as English speakers feel their way is.

Other languages occupy still other places on the linguistic axis of “busyness,” from prolix to laconic, and it’s surprising what a language can do without. In Mandarin Chinese, a way of saying “The father said ‘Come here!’” is “Fùqīn shuō ‘Guò lái zhè lǐ!’” Just as in English, there is no marker for the father’s gender, nor does the form of the word shuō for “said” indicate whether the speaker is me, you, or him. The word for “here,” zhè lǐ, can mean either “right here” or “to here,” just like in English. But Mandarin is even more telegraphic. There is no definite article like “the.” The word for “said” lacks not only a suffix for person, but is also not marked for tense; it just means “say.” It is assumed that context will indicate that this event happened in the past. Much of learning Mandarin involves getting a sense of how much one can not say in an acceptable sentence.

Moreover, anyone who has sampled Chinese, or Persian, or Finnish, knows that a language can get along just fine with the same word for “he” and “she.”* And whereas Mandarin can mark tense but often doesn’t, in the Maybrat language of New Guinea, there’s pretty much no way to mark it at all—context takes care of it and no one bats an eye.
If there were a prize for the busiest language, then a language like Kabardian, also known as Circassian and spoken in the Caucasus, would win. In the simple sentence “The men saw me,” the word for “saw” is sǝq’ayǝƛaaɣwǝaɣhaś (pronounced roughly “suck-a-LAGH-a-HESH”). This seems like a majestic monster of a word, and yet despite its air of “supercalifragilisticexpealidocious,” the word for “saw” is every bit as ordinary for Karbadian-speakers as English-speakers’ “saw” is for them. It’s just that Karbadian-speakers have to pack so much more into their version. In sǝq’ayǝƛaaɣwǝaɣhaś, other than the part meaning “see,” there is a bit that reiterates that it’s me who was seen, even though the sentence would include a separate word for “me” elsewhere. Then there are other bits that show that the seeing was most significant to “me” rather than to the men or anyone else; that the seeing was done by more than one person (despite the sentence spelling out elsewhere that it was plural “men” who did the seeing); that this event did not happen in the present; that on top of this, the event happened specifically in the past rather than the future; and finally a bit indicating that the speaker really means what he’s saying.

The prize for most economical language could go to certain colloquial dialects of Indonesian that are rarely written but represent the daily reality of Indonesian in millions of mouths. For example, in the Riau dialect spoken in Sumatra, ayam means chicken and makan means eat, but “Ayam makan” doesn’t mean only “The chicken is eating.” Depending on context, “Ayam makan” can mean the “chickens are eating,” “a chicken is eating,” “the chicken is eating,” “the chicken will be eating,” “the chicken eats,” “the chicken has eaten,” “someone is eating the chicken,” “someone is eating for the chicken,” “someone is eating with the chicken,” “the chicken that is eating,” “where the chicken is eating,” and “when the chicken is eating.” If chickens and eating are à propos, the assumption is that everybody in the conversation knows what’s what. Thus for a wide variety of situations the equivalent of “chicken eat” will do—and does.

So does the contrast between Riau Indonesian’s “chicken eat” and Kabardian’s “they saw me and it affected me, not now, and I really mean it” mean that each language gives its speakers a different way of looking at the world? It’s an intriguing idea, first formulated by anthropologist and linguist Edward Sapir and amateur linguist (and fire inspector!) Benjamin Whorf. If it were correct, an English-speaker would generally think about the past more than a Chinese-speaker would, while Germans would think more about movement than Americans or Brits.

Experiments have shown that this is often true to a faint, flickering degree a psychologist can detect in the artifice of experimental conditions. But does this mean a different way of experiencing life? Is a Kabardian shopkeeper in the Caucasus more exquisitely attuned to the nuances of experience than a Riau Indonesian-speaking fisherman in Sumatra? If that Kabardian shopkeeper’s jam-packed verbs mean that he vibrates in tune to the jots and tittles of life, then doesn’t one have to say that the Riau Indonesian speaker, whose grammar directs his attention to so few details, is something of a limp string on the guitar? We would run into similarly hopeless comparisons around the world. The Zulu speaker would be hypervigilant given the complexities of his language, the Samoan speaker inattendant given the less obsessively complicated nature of hers.

If thought and culture aren’t why some languages pile it on while others take it light, then what is the reason? Part of the answer is unsatisfying but powerful: chance. Time and repetition wear words out, and what wears away is often a nugget of meaning. This happens in some languages more than others. Think of the French song “Alouette, gentille alouette …” (“lark, nice lark”) in which one sings “ahh-loo-eh-tuh.” In running speech the word has long been pronounced just “ah-loo-ett” with no -uh at the end. That –uh in the song today is a leftover from the way the word actually was once pronounced normally, and it indicated the word’s feminine gender to the listener. Today, beyond marginal contexts like that song, only the final e in the spelling of alouette indicates its gender; hearing it in a sentence we’d have to rely on the definite article la alone to know that the word is feminine.
In a language where final sounds take the accent, such sounds tend to hold on longer because they are so loud and clear—you’re less likely to mumble it and people listening are more likely to hear it. In Hebrew, “Thank you very much,” is “Toda raba,” pronounced “toe-DAH rah-BAH.” The sounds at the end of the word mark gender in Hebrew, too, and they aren’t going anywhere anytime soon because they are enunciated with force.

When a language seems especially telegraphic, usually another factor has come into play: Enough adults learned it at a certain stage in its history that, given the difficulty of learning a new language after childhood, it became a kind of stripped-down “schoolroom” version of itself. Because all languages, are, to some extent, busier than they need to be, this streamlining leaves the language thoroughly complex and nuanced, just lighter on the bric-a-brac that so many languages pant under. Even today, Indonesian is a first language to only one in four of its speakers; the language has been used for many centuries as a lingua franca in a vast region, imposed on speakers of several hundred languages. This means that while other languages can be like overgrown lawns, Indonesian’s grammar has been regularly mowed, such that especially the colloquial forms are tidier. Lots of adult learning over long periods of time is also why, for example, the colloquial forms of Arabic like Egyptian and Moroccan are somewhat less elaborated than Modern Standard Arabic—they were imposed on new people as Islam spread after the seventh century.

In contrast, one cannot help suspecting that not too many adults have been tackling the likes of sǝq’ayǝƛaaɣwǝaɣhaś. Kabardian has been left to its own devices, and my, has it hoarded a lot of them. This is, as languages go, normal, even if Kabardian is rather extreme. By contrast, only a few languages have been taken up as vehicles of empire and imposed on millions of unsuspecting and underqualified adults. Long-dominant Mandarin, then, is less “busy” than Cantonese and Taiwanese, which have been imposed on fewer people. English came out the way it did because Vikings, who in the first millennium forged something of an empire of their own in northern and western Europe, imposed themselves on the Old English of the people they invaded and, as it were, mowed it. German, meanwhile, stayed “normal.”

Even if languages’ differences in busyness can’t be taken as windows on psychological alertness, the differences remain awesome. In a Native American language of California called Atsugewi (now extinct), if a tree was burned and we found the ashes in a creek afterward, we would have said that soot w’oqhputíc’ta into the creek. W’oqhputíc’ta is a conglomeration of bits that mean “it moved like dirt, in a falling fashion, into liquid, and for real.” In English, we would just say “flowed.”
 

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05/12/2016

Y’all, You’uns, Yinz, Youse: How Regional Dialects Are Fixing Standard English

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By Wordwide FX Financial Translations

For reasons briefly outlined below, English lost the singular/plural distinction for the second person pronoun at some point in history and "you" is used either to refer to just one person or to a group of people. The different dialects of English have come up with different solutions, the most popular maybe being American English "you guys". In this article, Atlas Oscura author Dan Nosowitz argues that "you guys" is flawed and that it is the worse solution of them all. Let's see why.   

Via Atlas Oscura

By Dan Nosowitz

There is perhaps no greater argument that American English is a deeply flawed, infuriating, and difficult language than the simple phrase “you guys.”

“You guys” is the most common way Americans refer directly to a group of people; it is a de facto pronoun, duct-taped together. If you remember your high school linguistics, you might also remember that this pronoun would be the second-person plural. (First person is “I,” second person is “you,” third person is “he/she”.) The need for a pronoun to directly refer to a group of people is not a small one, or one that can simply be brushed aside; this is one of the most basic elements of language.

And American English is terrible at it. 

In “standard American English,” meaning, essentially, schoolroom English, the second person pronoun is “you,” for either singular or plural. Talking to your spouse? Use “you.” Talking to your spouse and his or her entire family, at the same time? Use…well, also use “you.” It is a huge, strange weakness in American English: when someone is talking to a group of people, we have no way of indicating whether the speaker is talking to only one person or the entire group. Peeking your head out from the kitchen at a dinner party and asking, “Hey, can you get me a drink?” is likely to score you a look of confusion. Who are you talking to, exactly?

“Why would we have one word for something as fundamental as singular and plural? That just screams ‘fix this,’” says Paul Reed, a linguist at the University of South Carolina who, as a native Southern linguist, spends a lot of time thinking about the second-person plural pronoun. “And dialect speakers have.” In place of any standardized second-person plural pronoun, English speakers around the world have been forced to scramble to make something up. You’ve heard the solutions: y’all, youse, you guys, yinz, you’uns.

These are widely seen as incorrect, or nonstandard. The most famous, of course, is y’all. So what’s the history of y’all? How did such an amateur linguistic fix become a pillar of everyday speech?

Ancestral varieties of English do, strangely, have words to distinguish between second-person singular and plural pronouns. Sara Malton, a professor at Canada’s Saint Mary’s University, has a great essay on the strange transition in pronouns from Old to Middle to Modern English. The basic history is thus: Old English, which would sound to modern ears more like German than English, did in fact have singular/plural distinctions.

Even crazier, they not only had basic one/many distinctions, but got even more granular: Old English had a third category, for dual pronouns, used for talking about or to a group of specifically two people. Old English’s nominative second person—nominative refers to the subject, like the “you” that is doing something—is þū. As for pronunciation: that first letter is pronounced with something dental (like a “t” or “th” or “d,” dental meaning a consonant that’s made with the tongue pressing against the teeth) followed by a high-back vowel (high-back referring to the position of the tongue within the mouth, like “oh” or “ooh” or “uh”).

For plural, the Old English version of “you” was , pronounced something like “yih.” And the dual form, which was completely thrown in the garbage by the transition to Middle English, was git, pronounced like “yit.”

Following the Norman Conquest in 1066, heavy influence from French speakers began to quickly change the nature of English, marking the move to Middle English. That dual form vanished, and the singular and plural forms changed. Within a couple of centuries, the dominant singular version of “you” was “thou,” and the plural was “ye.” Those each had their own families of related pronouns, like “thy” and “thine” and, interestingly, “you” and “your.” (The former is singular, the latter plural.)

Thou and ye is a perfectly fine arrangement of second-person pronouns, and we’d all be better off if they’d stuck around, but they didn’t. Nobody exactly knows why, but scholars have focused on the mid-17th century work of Shakespeare to help tell us how people were talking to each other and what pronouns they were using.

What changed around this point is that the singular/plural division between thou and ye became, we think, less important than the formal/informal divide. Thou became informal, and ye became formal. The general belief is that this change came from the French, thanks to the Norman Invasion: French has and had a firm formal/informal divide in its pronouns. “As is often the case in Middle English, English speakers like to say, ‘we have the French to blame,’” says Malton. If you remember your classroom French, you’ll remember the formal/informal pronouns: tu is informal, vous is formal.

Because of that rising influence of French, English began to show some formal/informal divide as well. We can see this in Shakespeare’s work, when he sometimes used it as a subtle dig: in Twelfth Night, Shakespeare has a noble refer to another noble with “thou,” which would have been a sign of slight but clever disrespect.

The formal/informal thing is also why “thou” makes so many appearances in the King James Bible, as in “thou shalt not (do anything).” “When you’re talking to God you want it to be this intimate thing, so that’s why the authors of the King James Bible used thou,” says Reed. But as Malton notes, this is really all just a guess; it’s not that clear that Shakespeare’s dialogue was really (or even meant to be) an accurate depiction of the way people really talked. Using it as a linguistic source has its difficulties! But we also don’t really have much better data, so.

By the beginning of the 18th century, “thou” began exiting the language completely. “Ye” stuck around, but changed slightly to become “you.” Nobody really knows how this happened; it’s possible that nobody really wanted to use any noun that was associated with the informal lower classes, and it’s possible that the colonization of North America, and subsequent desire for separation from England, led new Americans to spurn these social hierarchy language formations. There’s also the potential that the existence of the colonies, with suddenly possible upward social mobility, left little desire to use any informal pronoun at all.

“We all aspire to ‘you,’” says Malton. But that’s really all just guesswork based on how stuff turned out. All we know is that “thou” rapidly disappeared.

As the previously plural, formal “ye” became the universal “you,” English speakers worldwide became aware pretty quickly that losing a singular/plural distinction is…bad. So around the world, solutions began popping up.

“Y’all” is easily the most famous solution. Its provenance is unclear, but certainly it comes from the American South. The two possible ancestors of y’all are the Scots-Irish ye aw, which means “you all,” and the West African/Caribbean you all (a calque, or borrowed word, from England), which means, as you might expect, “you all.” Because these two phrases are basically the same, and because something was needed to fill that gap, and because both the Scots-Irish and the newly dumped African slaves both lived in the same region, eventually the two phrases were combined and shortened. Hence: y’all.

But y’all isn’t the only solution regional dialects have come up with. Reed grew up using “you’uns,” common in Appalachia, is a slight shortening of the Scottish “you ones.” “Ones,” in some forms of Scottish English, is a plural marker, like the American “guys,” so you can say “you ones” or “we ones.” 

“You’uns” gets even shorter just north of the Appalachians, where it’s been turned into “yinz” by the residents of Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania. Yinz, like y’all, has become a sort of emblem of the area from which it comes; Pittsburgh residents sometimes refer to themselves as Yinzers, to honor the unique pronoun native to their fine city.

A simpler version comes from the other side of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, and has also bled up to parts of New York City: “youse.” This is an understandable creation: you normally add the letter “s” to things to make them plural, right? And the word “you” needs to be plural. So, I don’t know, add an “s” to it. Youse.

Which brings us to the most popular and worst plural form: “you guys.” This solution has so, so many faults. For one thing, it’s gendered; taken by itself, “guy” refers to males, and it’s both inexact and distinctly sexist to use that word to apply to a group of people of any gender. It’s also just kind of awkward, the most transparently stapled-together solution to the second-person plural problem we have. “You, uh…guys. All the guys.” It’s informal in a way that feels, in many situations, entirely too casual. (The word “guy” in English seems to originate from the Gunpowder Plot, a failed assassination attempt, and one of its plotters, Guy Fawkes. Eventually, in England, “guy” came to refer to the effigies burned in remembrance on Guy Fawkes Night, and eventually to any male.) 

Elsewhere in the English-speaking world, solutions vary. “Ye,” somehow, actually persists in some parts of Ireland, as well as in the strangely cockney dialect of the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador. But it’s also changed; “ye” is now plural, and “you” is usually the singular.

In England, the most popular version is “you lot,” essentially the English version of the American “you guys,” and just as awkward. 

Though Quakers are stereotyped for their use of “plain speak,” which is said to include words like “thou” and “thee,” theoretically helping them to distinguish between singular and plural, in fact very few Quakers still actually use these words. Oh well. They’re good words.

 

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the second-person plural pronoun is what it tells us about the entire idea of “standardized” languages. Standard English doesn’t have a singular/plural distinction, and this is what’s taught in schools, drilled into our heads through newscasters and books and media. At the same time, it’s self-evidently a weakness; there is absolutely no advantage to lacking a second-person plural, and plenty of reasons to have one. 

Regional dialects around the world have filled in the gaps, with y’all and youse and yinz and you lot, but due to the weird tyranny of standardized language, these aren’t seen as clever solutions to a problem we all face: they’re seen as wrong. Incorrect. Maybe the speakers are perceived as dumb or uneducated.

Partly that’s due to stigmatization of the groups that created them.; “There’s always the underlying thought that something from the South might be somewhat lesser, or something from African-Americans might be somewhat lesser, because of the history of our nation,” says Reed. The same thing colors our national reaction to you’uns (it comes from poor rural areas), youse (poor urban areas) and yinz (Pittsburgh). 

And this is all ridiculous, if difficult to change. Y’all is not wrong or dumb; it’s a solution to a problem endemic to the “correct” dialect. “People that we would consider non-mainstream speakers kind of led the way,” says Reed. “They filled the gap that standard language, however we want to define it, left. And their language can be considered richer from that viewpoint.” Y’all is a beautiful word. It’s “you guys” that’s the problem.

 

 

 

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