Istanbul & Athens Trip Part 2: Turkish Delight on a Moonlit Night

Actually, I wouldn’t have any idea if it was a moonlit night – the cloud cover was too thick – but I did try Turkish Delight late one evening.  There are, thankfully, varieties that don’t involve nuts or coconut – two ingredients I generally avoid as I am not terribly fond of them.  After all, as the saying goes, when in Rome… And, for that matter, Istanbul was once a capital of the Roman Empire.

One of the fun things about visiting a foreign country is learning and immersing yourself in another culture and another language.  Sadly, I learned very little about the Turkish language itself – I was surrounded most of the time by English-speakers (my fellow classmates) and many signs were easily readable or interpretable by English-speakers or included English translations.  But, I did want to learn, at least, how to pronounce Turkish. Continue reading

Tidbits of Inspiration: The Language of the Prairie Dogs

I heard this delightfully entertaining story on NPR this morning about the discovery of a “language” spoken by Prairie Dogs.  It was a funny but also a thought-provoking story.  Effectively, the researchers discovered that the prairie dogs have different warning calls for different predators entering into their prairie dog towns.  But then it went a step further.  They found that the prairie dogs changed their calls for different humans – and in fact there was a layer of their call that meant “human” and a bunch of other layers that were describing the human as short or tall, and what color shirt he was wearing. 

What I also found interesting was that the changes in the call were in the layers of tones in the call.  While I could tell the difference between the high, the medium, and the low pitch of the calls heard during the story, the Prairie Dogs hear more than that – they hear the collection of tones that make up the sound.  And different undertones could mean, for the prairie dogs, different colors and shapes and different animals. 

Which, to me, means this story has very interesting implications for artificial language development.  If you’re writing a sci-fi story with unusual aliens – maybe those aliens have a language like that of the Prairie dogs – one that’s tonal.

Now, tonal languages exist in the greater family of human languages.  But this is something different.  Human tonal language can differentiate meaning between words that are high-pitched or low-pitched, where the pitch is rising or falling, and so on.  But the prairie dog variant hears more than this top-level tone.  It hears the layers of sound that make it up, and can differentiate between an extremely high variety of tones. 

Listening to such a language might be like listening to music, from human ears.  And that’s something to be inspired by.

First Word

Well, not really.  But dear little B.T. is well into his baby-babble stage, and he’s making multisyllabic sounds.  His “first word” was something like [a’ʕɯ]¹ or possibly [a’ʢɯ]² (to my english-speaking ears, it’s hard to differentiate a voiced pharyngeal fricative and a voiced epiglottal fricative), which we transliterate as /a’gu/.  It is, so far as I know, a nonsense word.  Certainly not the “mama” or “dada” we’re looking for, not yet.

What I find interesting, from a linguistic perspective, is which sounds he is choosing to make.  Obviously, vowels are first, and easiest.  He specialises in [a], [u], and [i], primarily (that’s, “ah”, “ooh”, and “ee”), although I think the [u] is actually usually [ɯ] because he hasn’t really learned to round his lips at the same time as making a sound.  But it’s even more curious that his first consonant is a sound that doesn’t appear in English natively at all.  Again, I’m guessing it’s because of ease of pronunciation.  Making a voiced radical fricative involves little more than vibrating your vocal chords while forcing air through it. (Maybe it’s a little more complex than that.  The sound he makes is like a rolling-g sound.)

In other news, I am well aware of the fact that attempting to analyze the phonemes my baby is sounding out classifies me as a special kind of nerd.



¹The funny-looking stuff is from the IPA.  That’s basically a linguistic nerd alphabet.

²Clearly I learned how to do footnotes this week.

The Week Ahead

While today may be a “hiatus” day for me, I nonetheless have a small treat for you all.  For those of you who don’t already follow fellow writer/blogger J.P. Cabit’s blog, I’ve got a guest post up over as of Saturday.  It’s a little musing on the history and ideosyncrosies of the English Language – my native tongue.  So, if that’s the kind of thing that tickles your fancy, go check out my “Love Letter to English“.

Other than that – this is going to be a very tough week for me, here.  I have things going on in school every night this week.  And that’s to say nothing of finding time for regular studying/project work/assignments.  Monday and Wednesday are classes as normal.  Tomorrow is the next “STAR” practice session.  Thursday is another workshop on interview techniques.  Friday is another official “schmoozing” event.

Next week will be more of the same – almost every day will have something going on.  So, when there’s that much going on, you know what comes next: something’s gotta give.  And that means posts for the next few weeks are going to be a little fewer and farther between.  We’re getting to the real “crunch” of this whole MBA experiment – here’s the part that can make or break me, and I need it to make me.

I Am a Language Nerd

One of my most popular pages here (linked in my Popular Pages tab) was my entry on learning a bit of Irish Gaelic while in Ireland.  Well, I recently discovered another fun language, quite by accident: Scots.  Obviously, I’ve heard of the Scots language before, but until recently I didn’t understand that Scots (also called Lowland Scots) and Scottish Gaelic were actually two different languages.  As a language nerd, learning this was a fun discovery.

What happened was this: I was putting the finishing touches on this past Saturday’s post about all the projects I have going on, and ended with a reference to B.T., calling him the “wee bairn”.  I thought: you know, some people might not know that “wee bairn” is sort of the Scottish way of saying “little baby” except it sounds cooler than “little baby”.  So, I decided to link it to a definition that made it clear.  And one of the top results on a Google Search was a Wikipedia article.  So, I linked it.

But then, I went to read the Wikipedia article on Bairn.  And there was something funny about it.  Go ahead, check out the link.  It’s funny: you can read it, but the spelling and grammar are all kind of strange.  The first thought in my head: was this just a badly-written article or the result of vandalism on a lesser-visited page?  But then I noticed in the address bar that this was on “”.  That was an indication that I wasn’t reading an English language page at all, but the Scots language page.

A little more zooming around the Scots Wikipedia was very enjoyable.  Scots, as a language, is largely intelligible to English.  The spellings are frequently different, but if sounded out phonetically will sound very similar to their counterparts in English.  There are some distinct turns of phrase that would sound foreign and incorrect in English-speaking ears.  For instance, on the Scots Wikipedia mainpage we see the the following: “We hae 2,971 airticles the nou.  There’s 5,940 veesitors/uisers here the nou.”  The words “hae”, “airticles”, “nou”, “veesitors” and “uisers” are, respectively “have”, “articles”, “now”, “visitors” and “users”, of course.  But the phrase “the nou” at the end of these sentences looks odd at first.  It doesn’t take much to realize that this translates pretty easily into “We currently have 2,971 articles.  There are currently 5,940 visitors/user here.”

But that was a selection that was very similar to English.  Further digging in the Scots Wikipedia page reveals passages that sound as though they’re half in a thick dialect of English and half in some other language entirely.  Take this line from the Welcome page: “Gin ye are interestit in writin airticles thare’s mair ablo but afore haund a wee bit wicins that micht be a haund findin yer wey aboot.”  I think “gin” means “if”, but I can’t be certain.  “Mair” seems to mean “more” from other sentences I saw it used in.  But I’m not at all sure what “mair ablo but afore haund a wee bit wicins…” means even if I can parse out what several of the words that make up that part mean.  I think it all means that “before you run off writing articles on Wikipedia there are few things you should know that might be helpful”, but I’m stretching to wrap my head around it.

Anyway, if you haven’t already (and your nerdy interests run like mine) take a look at the Scots Wikipedia page and have fun looking at the similarities and differences between Scots and English.

Happy Writing!

Céad Mile Fáilte

Happy St. Patrick’s day.  Or, as they say in Ireland, Éirinn go Brách! – Ireland Forever!

I think it’s fitting that today, on St. Patrick’s Day, I continue with my wife’s idea and speak a little more about our trip to Ireland.

One of the things Dear Wife and I wanted to experience in our trip abroad was a land where a different language was spoken.  At first we were a little disappointed that we’d miss that particular opportunity in Ireland; but wait!  They do speak a different language in Ireland – or at least parts of it.  While the majority of Irish people speak English as their native language, there’s a fair-sized community of native-Irish speakers.  As we wandered around shops and through towns, we would often hear small groups of people – a mother and father and their kids, or a pair of close friends – conversing in Gaeilge, or Irish Gaelic.

I was far more excited about the prospect of learning bits of a new language than Dear Wife, I think.  Dear Wife loves the cultural immersion of being in a place where another language is spoken.  I love the language itself.  Not Irish, I mean, but foreign languages (or even my own native language, for that matter).  I love the sounds of spoken language, I love the way we infuse sounds and written characters with meaning and ideas.   Dear Wife will attest that I was excited each time I learned a new phrase, or figured out a new bit of the Irish Language. 

The first phrase I learned was Céad Mile Fáilte, which means “A Hundred Thousand Blessings”, and is a traditional Irish blessing.  We were in Kilkenny, our first stop on our Ireland tour, and in their ancient cathedral, where there was a gift stand with a number of plaques and other items inscribed with this phrase.  Naturally, I asked both what it meant and how it was pronounced.  I was told it is pronounced “KEYD meeleh FALCH-uh”.  The first word, with the “éa” is pronounced like “ey” as in the word grey (or gray) or as in shade or wade.  Elsewhere, I heard that combination of letters pronounced like head or said (I could share the IPA, but I’m not sure that would mean anything to my readers).  The “ái” was pronounced most like the “a” in fat, cat, or hat, but could also be pronounced like the “a” in fall.  The “t” was pronounced as English “ch” (and “ch” in gaelic means something else; see below), though I think it was pronounced that way mainly because of where it appeared in the word; other dialects usually treat a “t”  in the same way English does in the way we’d normally expect.  [Note: I failed to point out in the original version published this morning that the letter “t” in English frequently takes on some very non-“t” like values as well, most typically the value of English “sh”, as in virtually any word ending in “-tion”.  The original version seemed to imply that I thought English treated the letter “t” consistently in how it is pronounced, but obviously that is not the case.  I’ve amended the original sentence so as not to be accidentally offensive.]

In writing up this entry, I’ve learned that the pronunciation the gift-shop proprietor gave me sounds most like the Ulster dialect, although since we were in Kilkenny, the Munster dialect would have been more common in that area.  (However, the Gaeltacht, or Native-Irish speaking regions were all on the west coast, pretty far from Kilkenny.  Dingle, which I wrote about on Monday, is one such Gaeltacht region, within the Munster Dialect area.)

Before our trip had ended, I learned a few other Irish words and phrases.  We listened to traditional Irish music in a pub in Dingle (an Daingean) called An Droichead Beag (pronounced ahn DROE-hehd BEYG ; though the “ch” in “droichead” is actually pronounced more like the “ch” in the Scottish word “loch”, so it’s something between an “h” and a “k” sound) meaning “The Little Bridge”.  When we visited the Dun Beag fort on our tour of Dingle Peninsula, I quickly connected the “beag” together.  Dun Beag means “Little Fort” or “Little Castle”, and “Dun” is just one of about a half-dozen words in old Irish that meant fort or castle.

I also eventually learned to read the Irish Uncial alphabet (scroll down on that link).  Particularly vexing for me, for a while, was the capital-G character in the Uncial alphabet.  A lot of traditional shop signs used this alphabet so as part of learning bits and pieces of Irish, I wanted to be able to read this.  Finally I saw a sign in English using the alphabet that allowed me to figure out this one letter.

The last major lesson I learned was on the consonants.  I knew, from other studies, about the process of consonant lenition, and that this was often represented in Celtic languages by following a consonant with the letter “h”.  But I wasn’t sure how this process had affected Irish pronunciation, or when it happens.  In Ireland, they call this “Aspiration”, though in linguistics that word means something different.  In the traditional celtic Uncial, this is noted by putting a dot over the consonant (take a close look at the photo of An Droichead Beag on the link to their site; you almost can’t see the dot above the “c”, but you can see there’s no “h”), but in the regular Roman alphabet used in English, this is replaced with the “h” after the consonant.  By asking a few local Irish people how certain words were pronounced, and after talking to our friend in Ireland (who is a teacher, and has several teacher friends, one of whom let me keep a children’s text book on learning Irish), I learned how most of these lenited (or aspirated, if you prefer the Irish term) characters are pronounced.

For instance, I’d heard that “bh” was often pronounced as a “v”.  And I knew that “ch” was pronounced like the “ch” in Scottish “loch” or German “ich”.  I assumed that “dh” was pronounced as “th” as in English “the” or “them”, but it turns out that it’s actually pronounced as “gh” (I have no examples of how to pronounce “gh”, but it’s like “ch” except voiced like a “g”).  “Mh” was one that stumped me until I asked our Irish friend.  She said it was pronounced like a “w”, though I was certain I’d heard it pronounced as a “v” sometimes during our travels around Ireland.  Turns out both are right.  “Th” doesn’t make what you’d think of as a “th” sound at all: it’s pronounced only as an “h”.  What’s more, some of these sounds change based on the sounds around the lenited letter.  So a “bh” can sometimes be a “w” sound instead of a “v” sound.  And a “dh” and “gh” can sometimes be a “y” sound.

I tried to learn all I could, though ultimately one week is not enough to learn a language.  But I had  lot of fun.  And I’m happy to have shared a bit of our Ireland journey with you.

For me, learning bits and pieces of Irish was another bit of inspiration for writing.  I equate my love of languages and my love of writing as coming from much the same source inside me.  They tickle me the same way.  And I hope you’ve been tickled by my little foray into linguistics here, today.

Happy writing.