Tuesday, April 26, 2011

RIP Sai Baba

Anyone who has spent time in Nepal will recognise the image of the afro'ed orange-clad Sai Baba. An Indian Hindu mystic, his picture can be found in shops, homes and micro-buses alike.

Sai Baba died last night - you can read an obituary in the Kantipur Times here, or a slightly different take over at my friend Brian's site here.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Mother Tongue: Bill Bryson

Ever since Bill Bryson's 1990 love letter to the English language became a snazzy orange Penguin Classic I've been meaning to give it a read. Last weekend, between meeting family and catching up with friends, I had a lot of commuting time to give it a read and finally finished it over the Easter break. Having read it I've written some of my thoughts on it, in what will be the first, and perhaps last, Lozguistics book review.

There are some observations about this book that need to be shared straight up. Firstly, this is not so much a book about English as a global language as it is about English as a British and American language. True, you can't really talk about the history of English or its rise to global popularity without mentioning these guys a lot, but English speakers in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and a score of other places might feel themselves to be somewhat under-represented. Secondly, this book is now the age of a fully licensed driver in Australia (21 years) and occasionally it shows. English in Asia is treated as an amusing curio, and it would be hard to say today that India as trying to distance itself from English these days as it's become the major identifier of the aspirational classes.

If you're looking for an amusing collection of anecdotes held together by Bryson's trademark wit and enthusiasm then Mother Tongue a great casual read. However there are a few things that rankled while I was reading.

The first is that Bryson falls into the trap of equating the different orthographic conventions of other languages with their difficulty. Sure, Gaelic languages have some very different spelling to English, but I'm sure that with five minutes and a conversion list you'd be doing ok. There are a lot more complicated things in life than remembering that for Irish Gaelic speakers 'w' is pronounced more like 'oo.'

Secondly, there are quite a few factual errors. He falls prey to the Eskimo snow hoax (the completely unfacual assertion that there are a zillion words for snow in Eskimo), refers to Tasmaina's indigenous languages as still being spoken when the last speaker died over a century ago. The couple of paragraphs on Australian English in the whole book are riddled with errors, the worst of which being the Bryson claims we prefer the word 'cookie' to 'biscuit' - you only have to ask the average Australian to see that he's wrong (unsurprisingly, his book about Australia 'Down Under' was written a decade later than Mother Tongue).

While the book is still an enjoyable read, once you spot a few errors it's hard to believe everything that's said. If he clearly doesn't know what he's speaking about when it comes to Australians how do I know that he's telling the truth about the Scottish?

Despite what I felt about these things, if you're looking for a fun read about English and don't want to be faced with any linguistic terminology then Mother Tongue is still an excellent read and stands above many of the books out there today. I wish I had a better memory so that I could use all of his excellent anecdotes about word origins, spelling conventions and word-play as my own. It's no surprise that it has become a Penguin Classic and will entertain for years still.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

2011: year of writing

So now I've been home a couple of months from my last field trip you may be wondering what my plans are from here. I'm kind of wondering that too - but one thing I can tell you is that this year there is lots (and lots) of writing ahead.

I've now completed the bulk of my data collection. I'll spend the next month or so finishing the sketch grammar for my thesis. This is the short document I've written about how the language works and will go at the start of the thesis. By short I mean about 30,000 words, which is pretty abbreviated when you consider that a full grammar can go up to 100 000 words easily.

Once that's all tidied up I'll get stuck into chapter writing. I've decided that for the thesis I'll focus on three main areas of Tam. The first will be the verbs that mean roughly the same as 'be' in English as these do really cool things. The next is reported speech - how you say what someone else said - which Tam has a couple of very different ways of doing. Finally I want to look at questions, because you use those 'be' verbs to do some cool stuff. Underlining all this is that these features are parts of language that really involve the outside context and especially fellow speakers to work effectively.

So hopefully by the end of the year I'll have written the majority of the thesis - around 80 000 words. This will give me enough time and space for a short 'mop up' trip some time next year.

There are other projects going on as well. I'm currently tutoring 1st year linguistics which is a blast. I've got a few papers planned with different people and a medium sized project. I've also got some other exciting things planned which I'll hopefully be able to share with you all soon!

Friends, and then some

There was no silly Friday post last week as I was enjoying a brief visit up north. The trip was partly to catch up with various family and friends but also partly to attend the 100th birthday celebrations of the Handsome Pen Pal's (HPP) great Aunt.

We escorted the HPP's grandmother to the event - and didn't even get in the door of the venue before running into a crowd of relatives. I was introduced by grandma as the HPP's 'friend', which produced some sniggers from HPP and I as we are rather a bit too friendly to be classed as just friends. I wasn't too offended, I just assume that friend and girlfriend have rather similar meanings for her; my grandmother also occasionally refers to the HPP as my 'little friend', making him sound more like a pet than anything.

During the party the HPP clearly decided to hypercorrect his grandmother's earlier labelling by referring to me as his 'partner', even though he is much more likely to use 'girlfriend' in other situations. 'Partner' is, to my mind, an interesting and useful word. Broadly speaking I would say it has three main uses. 1) is when a de facto or relatively serious couple wish to mark out that they are in more than just a casual relationship - it's the kind of relationship where you love each other enough to happily tag along to great aunt's 100th birthdays. 2) gay couples who wish in certain contexts to sidestep mentioning their beloved's gender in a way that the gender specific boy/girlfriend can't. Although, of course, they can use it for reason 1 as well. Finally 3) more mature members of the dating pool who feel that it is a bit strange to refer to their new squeeze as their 'boyfriend.'

And so, in my geeky linguist way, I found it rather adorable that the HPP decided to talk me up while meeting relatives. In many ways it isn't too dissimilar to the contextually appropriate re-fabrication of truth (which some may call a lie) that I employ in referring to him as my 'husband' while working.

At the end of the day I overheard the HPP's grandmother refer to me as his 'girlfriend' - as I'd assumed, she didn't really see much difference between the two words. So all in one day I was a 'friend', 'girlfriend' and 'partner'; none of them particularly untrue but all with their own value-added nuance.

And how did I refer to the HPP? Well, I sidestepped the issue altogether and when people asked how I fitted in I would just gesture towards the HPP and say 'I'm with him' leaving it up to them to decided if I were his friend, girlfriend, partner, PA or security detail.

Friday, April 8, 2011


This is a photo I took while in Nepal, of an alleyway I'd travel down every time I visited the tourist trap that is Thamel - where there's Western food, English books and faster internet to be had in abundance.

I'd never have thought to have taken a photo, but every time I walked this way with the Handsome Pen Pal he'd quietly snigger like a naughty school boy. Perhaps you've already had a snigger too.

See, what I didn't know, and what the people of Nepal clearly don't know, is that in online communities 'cyber' is short for 'cyber sex' - and so every time the HPP saw this sign and the many like it he found it to be hilarious and inappropriate.

Like Nepalis, I think it's perfectly acceptable to use 'cyber' as interchangeable 'internet' - it just goes to show that the same word doesn't always have to same meaning for everyone. After the HPP pointed it out I'd have a little snigger too, and thought I would share the joke with you to celebrate the end of the week.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Language and Literacy

Although I'm generally not one to use this blog as a vehicle for promotion this is one occasion where there's something worth sharing with you.

A lot of the work I do for my research is language documentation - I listen to the language, I work with people and I write it down and try and explain how it works. But there's a whole other branch of working with people and language and that involves teaching them to be literate in their own language.

In the Western world so many of us take our literacy for granted, but in places like Nepal education for the masses is a rather recent idea and people are taught in Nepali, which is generally their second, or even third language.

The folk at the Language Documentation Centre (LDC) in Nepal are one of the few NGOs in the country trying to help people gain literacy in their own language. This has many flow-on benefits. Learning to read and write in your own language makes those skills easier to transfer to a second language (eg Nepali), it empowers people who thought their language was of little use/interest as it wasn't written down and it allows people to do those things we take for granted, like writing an inventory of stock in your shop or write letters.

This month, the LDC are trying to raise money to help female literacy in Nepal. Four thousand US dollars is enough money to help almost 500 women gain literacy. You can read more about their project and donate here. These guys are a really small NGO - they have about 3 full time staff and I can promise that none of the money you donate gets skimmed off to pay for glossy advertising or luxury cars.

Having seen firsthand the reality of life as an uneducated woman in Nepal I could give you endless reasons to give money. I know I sound like a cheesy celebrity ambassador but this is one way you can make a real difference.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Drag Queen Linguist Names

Today I thought I'd kick off the Friday blog shenanigans again and share with you some linguistics based drag queen names I came up with while killing sometime yesterday. Linguistics is certainly not short on technical terminology to draw upon - and for any terms that might not be familiar I've included a web link, usually to Wikipedia.

Anne Affra (anaphora)
Jenny Tive (genitive)
Alla Tive (allative)
Mera Tive (mirative)
Len Ishon (lenition)
Elle Ipsis (ellipsis)
Al Veola (alveolar)
Cardinal Vowels (cardinal vowels)
Sir Kumfiks (circumfix)

As you can see, there's almost a whole family's worth of Tive. Feel free to add your own in the comments section below!