What’s making me happy today: Inuktitut mining terminology

The big issues in the news in the US at the moment:

  • The shame of the Trump administration’s treatment of migrant children from Central America
  • Why reporters don’t use the word “lie” to describe the things that come frequently out of the mouth of the current president of our country

Depressing.  So depressing that the New York Times, the best-known newspaper in the United States and one of the most well-known newspapers in the world, has taken to publishing (to take to +present participle explained in the English notes below) a page of good news on Sundays.

I took a look at said good news this morning, and was underwhelmed–there’s just nothing there to remotely match the tragedy that I see unfolding around me here in the United States.  But, that doesn’t mean that I can’t find things to feel grateful for.  Other than my cat, the fact that my kid isn’t in a refugee camp in Syria, and the fact that I will have food available to eat for breakfast today (lots of people won’t), what’s making me happy this morning is this vocabulary of mining terminology in Inuktitut.

Inuktitut is an Inuit language spoken by a bit under 40,000 people in the north of Canada.  It is a polysynthetic language, meaning that words have many parts, to the point that it’s not clear whether you would want to say that they actually have words, versus sentences.  Here’s an Inuktitut word/sentence (from Wikipedia, citing an article on developing a screening tool for Inuktitut-language speech pathologists):

  • ᖃᖓᑕᓲᒃᑯᕕᒻᒨᕆᐊᖃᓛᖅᑐᖓ (in Inuktitut orthography)
  • qangatasuukkuvimmuuriaqalaaqtunga (transliteration)
  • “I’ll have to go to the airport” (English translation)

Illuminating points about Inuktitut: the language has three vowels–in the International Phonetic Alphabet, [i], [u], and [a].  Spoken languages have a minimum of three vowels (yes, my fellow linguists, I am leaving out one controversial case here–don’t hate on me), and if a language only has three vowels, they are [i], [u], and [a].  (Languages with four vowels add [e] or [o].  Languages with five vowels have [i], [u], [a], [e], or [o].)

How do you come up with new terminology for a language that doesn’t have it?  A workshop brought together a group consisting of:

  • Tribal elders
  • Inuktitut language specialists
  • A mining expert

…who spent three days hashing it all out.

So, what does mining terminology look like in Inuktitut?  Here are some examples from the glossary, maintained by the Department of Indigenous and Northern affairs:

imaginary lines that cross the surface of the Earth parallel to the equator used to determine location with longitude
(ᓄᓇᙳᐊᕐᒥ ᓴᓂᒧᐊᖓᓂᖓ)

the process by which a mineral is introduced into a rock, resulting in a valuable or potentially valuable deposit

a deposit of sand or gravel that contains particles of gold, gemstones, or other heavy minerals of value
(ᐃᒪᕐᒧᑦ ᓴᖅᑭᑕᐅᓂᑯ)

a layer or bed of rock

…and that’s what’s making me happy today.  Does seeking happiness in les bizarreries of human linguistic, social, and technological behavior that mean that I will ignore my citizenly duty to stay on top of the daily crimes of the crooks that are currently running my country?  No.  Does it mean that I actively and daily seek things to be grateful for?  Yes–and I recommend that you try it.  Can’t hurt, right?

Source of the picture at the top of the page: http://kiggavik.ca/tag/community-engagement/

English notes

to take to + present participle: to start a routine practice of doing something.  Examples:

How I used it in the post: The New York Times has taken to publishing a page of good news on Sundays.

to take to + noun or present particple: to become good at some activity, especially quickly. You can often differentiate this from the previous usage by the presence of an analogy along with it: like a…

to take to can also be used with a person as its object, or with a location, either physical (he took to the podium) or metaphorical (he took to Twitter to…) The meanings are different here–I’m too lazy to find a bunch of examples on this Sunday morning…

underwhelmed: not at all impressed. Note that underwhelmed is not the opposite of overwhelmed. (Lesson: do not look for “logic” in language.) Some examples:

(Love this one!)

How I used it in the post: I took a look at said good news this morning, and was underwhelmed–there’s just nothing there to remotely match the tragedy that I see unfolding around me here in the United States. 

Amazing two-headed baby

What would a linguist say about it? Pretty much nothing.

Getting divorced mostly sucks (speaking from experience here–I do it a lot), but it does have one good side: you clean your basement.  Picking through old files from my days of teaching Linguistics 101, I found this old photo from the cover of the National Enquirer, a tabloid that you flip through while waiting in line at the grocery store and then occasionally buy despite yourself.

I found the headline interesting because it touches on a couple of recurrent themes in the history of thought about language, but goes in an unusual direction with it.  The themes:

  • The original language
  • Language deprivation experiments

The original language

There is a very long history of wondering what the original language was.  The top candidate in the various and sundry ravings about this is Hebrew.  Why?  It’s the language of the Bible (specifically, the Old Testament to those of you who are Christianically inclined).  Latin often comes up, too.

What would a linguist say about the question?  Pretty much nothing.  From the Hominidés.org web site:

Depuis le 17e siècle la question se posait : depuis quand l’homme utilisait-il le langage articulé ? De nombreuses théories ont été avancées dont certaines très farfelues (voir ci-contre). En 1866 la Société de Linguistique de Paris (fondée en 1864) mit un coup d’arrêt à ces tentatives fantaisistes et interdit tout simplement la publication de textes relatifs à l’origine du langage.

My translation: Since the 17th century, the question has been asked: from when have humans used spoken language?  Numerous theories have been advanced, some of which are quite nutty (or even French French French [too lazy to look up ci-contre on a Saturday morning]).  In 1866 the Linguistic Society of Paris (founded in 1864) French French French [see preceding bracketed statement] and completely forbad (forbade?) the publication of papers on the origin of language.

Why forbid study of the origin of language?  Because your theories are not testable, and if something is not at least in theory testable, it’s not science.  Linguists are not even certain that language originated just once–one explanation that has been advanced for the astounding variability in human languages is the polygenesis hypothesis, which proposes that language originated multiple times in different human(-ish) populations.  (The single-origin hypothesis is the monogenesis hypothesis.)  Hell, we’re not even certain that language originated in spoken form–it could well have been signed.  (Yes: signed languages are languages, like any other.)


Language deprivation experiments

The idea behind a language deprivation experiment is to deny children exposure to language and see what happens.  I’m not totally convinced that any of the reported language deprivation experiments (see some listed on this Wikipedia page) actually ever happened, but their stated motivations frequently include the belief that children who are not exposed to any language would spontaneously speak “the original language,” and guess what?  Latin is often reported as one of the anticipated tongues.

Language deprivation tragedies

In fact there is a depressing number of cases in which children actually have been deprived of exposure to language, either through mishap or through horrific criminal misdeeds.  What doesn’t happen when they’re rescued: they don’t speak Hebrew; neither do they speak Latin.  They don’t speak anything, and if they’re rescued too late, they never do.  (This is often taken as evidence supporting the critical period hypothesis about child language acquisition.)

The weird direction in which the National Enquirer takes their story

…is that they talk not about children who are old enough to have acquired language, but rather babies; they then take the kid-speaks-Latin phenomenon as a way to talk about proof of reincarnation.  Not unheard of (see here and here, and here), but not run-of-the-mill, either.

There’s that part of me that wants to talk about the role of two-headed babies in the history of genetics, but my breakfast ice cream is melting, so we’ll have to wait for another time…  Breakfast ice cream–yum…

English and French notes:

despite oneself: En dépit de soi-même, I think.  …tous mes efforts sont vains, je t’adore en dépit de moi-même.  (Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Julie ou la nouvelle Héloïse, which I am reading at the moment and find hilarious.)

to suck: a borderline vulgar way of saying to be bad in the sense of undesirable.  I ran across craindre un max as a French-language equivalent once, but nobody seems to recognize that when I say it.

to forbid: a super-irregular verb.  In French: interdire, I think.  (Man, I am really lazy today…)  From the bab.la web site (and I don’t buy forbid as a past participle at all, although once again, I’m too lazy today to look for actual evidence):

Screen Shot 2018-06-23 at 11.51.45
Source: bab.la web site




I don’t know—how many languages do YOU speak? Complexities of language and identity in the Ukraine

I’ve often written here about how irritated linguists get when you ask them how many languages they speak. But, I’ve written much less about how difficult it actually is to say how many languages ANYONE speaks. Here’s an article from the Washington Post about the complexities of the linguistic situation in the Ukraine and how your ability to understood non-linguistic phenomena there are affected by exactly how you pose questions about linguistic phenomena.


Now it’s time to have some fun!

Funny how nobody ever shows up to commit a mass murder at a school with an ax. Or a baseball bat. Or a samurai sword, or a trench knife (fatal as fucking hell), or a machete. We’re supposed to believe that firearms have nothing to do with anything, though.

The latest in early childhood education in America: instructions for school lockdowns sung to the tune of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. Sing it and weep.