Category: Language Issues in the News

Our Department takes great pleasure in welcoming Dr. Jessica Greenberg (PhD, University of Chicago), as a new faculty member. Jessica’s research focuses on the anthropology of democracy, post-revolutionary politics, youth, postsocialist studies, and political communication. Her research on student activists in post-revolutionary Serbia has led her to track and analyze the conditions of possibility for transformative politics in the post-Cold War period, and the ways in which contemporary democracies are shaped by the imaginaries and expectations of earlier political forms and practices. In addition to recent articles in journals such as American Anthropologist, she is currently finishing her first book, entitled After the Revolution: Youth, Democracy and the Politics of Disappointment in Postsocialist Serbia.

Numéro Cinq

By Doug Glover

From the Numéro Cinq website

Braided Worlds is something of a literary miracle. First the story: In 1979-1980 anthropologist Alma Gottlieb and her husband Philip Graham spent 13 months among the Beng, a small language/cultural group in Ivory Coast in West Africa. A decade later they published Parallel Worlds, a gorgeously conceived and beautifully nuanced co-discovery of the Beng, part ethnology, part narrative and part family conversation. In the intervening years, Philip and Alma have returned twice for extended stays with their friends, the Beng. They brought their children; they immersed themselves in the village. But wars and revolution have torn up that part of the world, too. Darkness descends. The result of these later visits is a brand new sequel to the first volume, the just-published Braided Worlds (University of Chicago Press, 2012).”

“The literary miracle part comes from the neatly contrived cross-perspective of two gifted writers with different yet co-operative points of view. Both Alma and Philip bring different life interests, education and obsessions to bear: the one is studying the Beng with an arsenal of anthropological concepts and tools; the other is writing a novel while living amongst the Beng, bringing his literary sensibilities and his native curiosity to bear on his experience at every turn. The result is an amazing book, an amazing conversation, and a sense of life energized by difference, surprise, sympathy, respect and intelligence. (It needs to be mentioned that both Alma and Philip are very conscious of the debt they owe the Beng for their intellectual and emotional generosity and hospitality — all the royalties from these two books go to the Beng, not the authors.)”

“In the passage from Braided Worlds here published, through interweaving narratives, Alma and Philip recount unexpected dramas of cultural contact, including a religious leader’s declaration that the authors’ six-year-old son Nathaniel was the reincarnation of a revered ancestor, Graham’s late father being accepted into the Beng afterlife, and the deepening and increasingly dangerous madness of Matatu, a tormented young villager.” — dg (Doug Glover)







DECEMBER 2, 2011

As cultures and languages vanish, along with them go vast and ancient storehouses of accumulated knowledge. And as species disappear, along with them go not just valuable genetic resources, but critical links in complex ecological webs.

Experts have long recognized the perils of biological and cultural extinctions. But they’ve only just begun to see them as different facets of the same phenomenon, and to tease out the myriad ways in which social and natural systems interact.

Read more here:






[This article was originally published in the October 2008 print issue of Seed magazine.]

Embodied cognition, the idea that the mind is not only connected to the body but that the body influences the mind, is one of the more counter-intuitive ideas in cognitive science. . . .our cognition isn’t confined to our cortices. That is, our cognition is influenced, perhaps determined by, our experiences in the physical world. This is why we say that something is “over our heads” to express the idea that we do not understand; we are drawing upon the physical inability to not see something over our heads and the mental feeling of uncertainty. Or why we understand warmth with affection; as infants and children the subjective judgment of affection almost always corresponded with the sensation of warmth, thus giving way to metaphors such as “I’m warming up to her.” . . .

One of the key figures to empirically study embodiment is University of California at Berkeley professor George Lakoff.

George Lakoff

Lakoff was kind enough to field some questions over a recent phone conversation, where I learned about his interesting history first hand.

Read the rest of the article here:

Are there alternatives to Global English?

On his “Web of Language” post, UIUC English professor, Dennis Baron, writes:

“English is a world language. Once an insignificant set of immigrant dialects on an obscure island in the rainswept North Sea, English is now the de facto language of multinational business, of science and technology, and of rock ‘n’ roll. Non-English speakers around the globe seem to be learning English as fast as they can. Plus there are more than three times as many English articles in Wikipedia as there are German, the second-biggest language of the online encyclopedia. When it comes to the global domination of English, resistance may be futile.”




Read the rest of the post here:

How “Google Translate” works

Find the right words: human translators behave in a similar way to Google Translate .

Using software originally developed in the 1980s by researchers at IBM, Google has created an automatic translation tool that is unlike all others. It is not based on the intellectual presuppositions of early machine translation efforts – it isn’t an algorithm designed only to extract the meaning of an expression from its syntax and vocabulary.

In fact, at bottom, it doesn’t deal with meaning at all. Instead of taking a linguistic expression as something that requires decoding, Google Translate (GT) takes it as something that has probably been said before.

It uses vast computing power to scour the internet in the blink of an eye, looking for the expression in some text that exists alongside its paired translation.

The corpus it can scan includes all the paper put out since 1957 by the EU in two dozen languages, everything the UN and its agencies have ever done in writing in six official languages, and huge amounts of other material, from the records of international tribunals to company reports and all the articles and books in bilingual form that have been put up on the web by individuals, libraries, booksellers, authors and academic departments.

Drawing on the already established patterns of matches between these millions of paired documents, Google Translate uses statistical methods to pick out the most probable acceptable version of what’s been submitted to it.

Much of the time, it works. It’s quite stunning.

Read more here:



ACCORDING to a local news story in mid-August in Vietnam, the Vietnamese alphabet will not be receiving extra letters. The Ministry of Education denied a claim by the Department of Information Technology that it plans to add f, j, w and z to the current 29-letter alphabet.  The back-and-forth nonetheless started a debate among the literati about language and heritage.


Authoritarian governments are often tempted by language planning, but in Vietnam’s case, fiddling about with the writing system predates the modern regime. The Roman script as used there is based on the work of a 17th-century French Jesuit scholar, Alexandre de Rhodes, who learned the language there in some six months and then transposed into his alphabet.

Read the rest of the story here:

Based on the Latin alphabet, the Vietnamese alphabet ha 29 letters.

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