Language Wordsplosion

Language acquisition.  It is truly beautiful and inspiring to watch it unfold.

Dear Son, B.T., has now entered this stage of his life when his acquisition of language is accelerating into a literal wordsplosion.  (Yes, wordsplosion is a word.  You know it’s a word because I just used it, and you knew what it meant.  But you probably won’t find it in a dictionary.)

Dear Wife and I  have actually lost count, now of the number of words B.T. knows.  He knows a good number of his body parts.  He knows tons of animal sounds.  He knows the words for things like “house” and “car” and “tree” and “apple” and many others.  He can identify those things both when he sees them in the real world and when he sees them pictographically represented in a book (i.e. drawings, of varying degrees of quality and fidelity, of houses, cars, trees, apples, and so on.)  He knows the names of some of his classmates at daycare (the ones he plays with most often, anyway).

Just this week, in fact, he demonstrated that he knows his own name.  This was a huge revelation, for me as the dad.  B.T. can be a pretty willful little guy at times – he doesn’t consistently respond to his name being used so Dear Wife and I weren’t sure if he actually knew his name.  (I had theorized that the reason he doesn’t consistently respond was that sometimes he was willfully ignoring us.  His revelation that he does, in fact, know his own name lends credence to this theory.)  But this week he started pointing to himself and announcing his own name (or a somewhat consonant-confused version of his name).

Just last week Dear Wife and I attempted to catalog all the words that B.T. has demonstrated his knowledge of.  By this week we’d already abandoned the effort because he’d added so many new words since then that we’d lost track.  It’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 70 words, which will probably be behind by the time you read this.  If he keeps this pace up, he’ll know hundreds of words within a few more months – enough, at last, to communicate meaningfully with his Dear Mom and Pop.

It’s been a thing to behold, and it makes me so proud.

Now, to be sure, he has a long way to go.  The aforementioned “consonant confusion” issue, for instance, being one.  And dropped consonants and truncated syllable.  The word for “book”, for instance, he renders as “mooh” (with the same “oo” vowel-sound but slightly different consonants).  Likewise, “ball” is “mah”.  A house is a “hau”.  And cats, rather than saying “meow”, appear to say “mau”.  All of these, however, I am assured (by several articles) are normal at this stage of language development.

Interestingly, all of these seem to be examples of linguistic lenition.  And I have outed myself once again as a language-nerd for even recognizing that fact.

Writing Progress: Week Ending July 23, 2011

It wasn’t my best writing week ever, not by far.  But all things considered, I’m pretty proud of what I accomplished.  Here’s how I did:

Story of G:

  • New Draft Wordcount: 368 words
  • Background Notes Wordcount: 0

Book of M:

  • Background Notes Wordcount: 1,548 words

Idea Journal:

  • New Story Idea Notes: 433 words

Grand Total: 2,349 words

Of course, my big accomplishment was finishing the first draft of “Story of G”.  I’m positive I’ll have this story ready to submit to the WotF contest by the close of the current quarter (at the end of September).  My goal from here on out is to continue submitting at least twice a year to that contest until such a day as either I have won it outright or am no longer eligible to enter.  Yeah, I’m aiming for the whole enchilada.  I don’t know that I actually expect to get the whole enchilada, but, well… I like enchiladas. 

In the mean time, I’ve entered my “personal quiet time” for “Story of G”.  I’ve already gotten some feedback, which I’ll look at soon.  But I need a little distance to gain objectivity, so I can edit it with the appropriate level of ruthlessness.  Thanks, everyone, who’s volunteered so far to give it a read!

Finishing the short story, however, was a given this week.  I was just so close that I barely needed any time at all to do it.  Considering everything else, though, I’m surprised I got as much other writing done. Continue reading

Writing Progress: Week Ending July 2, 2011

It’s been a rough week on the wordsmithing front.  Here are the details:

Story of G:

  • New Draft Wordcount: 0
  • Background Notes Wordcount: 0

Book of M:

  • Background Notes Wordcount: 1,015 words

Grand Total: 1,015 words

After a pretty fantastic week with over six thousand words, a mere thousand is a big letdown.  But it’s not a big surprise.  I knew this week would be leaner than last week on wordcount – though I didn’t expect it to be quite so lean.  So, what happened this week? Continue reading

Tidbits of Inspiration: Bad Writing System

I found this article over on Language Log fascinating, so I thought I’d share it with you.

The article is about whether a better orthographic writing system – the way a language is written down – hurts or hinders either (a) the economic potential or (b) the literacy of its speakers.  English, for instance, is often considered to be a notoriously difficult language to learn because of the inconsistencies of its spelling.  (In fact, I believe English is quite consistent in the way things ought to be pronounced – but there are a lot of arcane rules that one must learn in order to understand how things should be pronounced, and there is a series of precedents for which rules are more important.  I saw this demonstrated once by someone who created a program for making sound changes to conlang words using systematic formal rules, and used the same program by setting up pronunciation rules for English, running english words through it, and outputting a “pronunciation guide” for the words.  It was a powerful demonstration of how systematic English pronunciation really is, and only a few words fooled his codified approach.  Alas, I no longer have a link to that site.  But I digress… a lot.)  Continue reading

Istanbul & Athens Trip Part 4: It’s All Greek to Me

Here we come to the fourth and final of my blog posts about my MBA class trip to Istanbul and Athens. It was a great trip – and I hope an interesting series of posts.  It’s a trip I would definitely re-visit if given the chance.

In Athens, as in Istanbul, I was interested in more than just the sights and artifacts of a foreign land.  I was interested in language and culture.  Call it a weakness.  Little did I know that plunging into Greek was going to give me a lesson in some of the particulars of linguistics that I’d read about in a theoretical sense but had yet to put into action.  (That said, I’m going to be getting into some funky-nerdy language details in this post.)

Greek, I soon realized, was going to be both easier and harder for me to pick up on than Turkish.  Easier because it is a European language that has heavily influenced English (we use all kinds of Greek prefixes and suffixes).  Harder because it uses an entirely different alphabet to the one I am used to using.  (It is perhaps worth noting, at this point, that the word alphabet itself we owe to Greek.  It’s a portmanteau of the first two letters of the Greek alphabet: alpha and beta.  But then you probably already knew that.) Continue reading

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.

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.