The problem is, we don’t know which language will desperately need the world’s attention next. When an earthquake hit Haiti in 2010, international organizations suddenly required Haitian Creole resources. Ebola outbreaks in West Africa affected speakers of languages like Swahili, Nande, Mbuba, Krio, Mende and Themne. Asylum seekers from Central America often speak languages like Zapotec, Q’anjob’al, K’iche’ and Mam. These speakers aren’t the ideal customers of big tech companies. They don’t have leisure time to edit Wikipedia. They may not even be literate in their mother tongue, communicating by voice memo instead of by text message. But when a crisis hits, internet communication tools will be crucial.
One stressor that may be the tipping point for some communities is climate change. Many small linguistic communities are located on islands and coastlines vulnerable to hurricanes and a rise in sea levels. Other communities are settled on lands where increases in temperature and fluctuations in precipitation can threaten traditional farming and fishing practices.
These changes will force communities to relocate, creating climate change refugees. The resultant dispersal of people will lead to the splintering of linguistic communities and increased contact with other languages. These changes will place additional pressures on languages that are already struggling to survive.
One of my downfalls as Raffi’s Russian teacher is that I am bad at scheduling. There are constant Russian parent meetups in Brooklyn that I can’t attend or just don’t care to drag myself to. Nonetheless, a few weekend mornings ago I took Raffi to a kids’ sing-along in a bar in Williamsburg. A Russian parent had booked the space and gotten a singer, Zhenya Lopatnik, to perform some children’s songs. There we were—a bunch of Russian-speaking parents with our two-and-three-year-old kids. Most of us were more comfortable in English than in Russian, and none of us had any wish to repatriate. Why, then, were we doing this? What did we want to pass on to our children, exactly? Certainly nothing about Russia as it is currently constituted. Perhaps it was fitting that we were listening to children’s songs. There was something magical about our childhoods, we were sure of that; what we couldn’t know was whether any of it was due to the music we listened to or the books we read in Russian or to the very sound of the language. Probably none of these things; probably it was just magical to be a child. But as we couldn’t rule out that Russian had something to do with it, we had to give it to our kids as well. Maybe.
A brilliant piece about raising a bilingual child.
“In adland, we don’t call it language-mangling, we call it ‘Language DJing’ or ‘Langling’,” jokes Alex Myers, founder of agency Manifest. “In reality it’s just lazy creative work. Copywriting is a lost art. Ad agencies need to ‘Think more good’.”
Eagle-eyed bad-ad fans can quickly notice patterns emerging: “finding” something and it being “amazing” appear with the same clockwork regularity as Love Island contestants on Instagram. See, for instance, Rightmove’s “Find your happy” and Visit Wales’s “Find your epic”. Or Lexus’s “Experience amazing” and Deliveroo’s “Eat more amazing”.
Frequently described as “words that are their own opposites,” Janus words are also known as contronyms, antagonyms, or auto-antonyms. These are words that have developed contradictory meanings. Cleave is often cited as the go-to contronym: it can refer to splitting something apart and uniting two things. But it’s not the only one out there, and there is usually some sort of logic behind most auto-antonyms.
As well as cleave: clip, fast, oversight, sanction. All have contradictory meanings which arise from a word’s original specific definition becoming much broader. Or, somewhat appropriately, the opposite.
Of all the literatures in the world, the smallest and most enigmatic belongs without question to the people of Easter Island. It is written in a script—rongorongo—that no one can decipher. Experts cannot even agree whether it is an alphabet, a syllabary, a mnemonic, or a rebus. Its entire corpus consists of two dozen texts. The longest, consisting of a few thousand signs, winds its way around a magnificent ceremonial staff. The shortest texts—if they can even be called that—consist of barely more than a single sign. One took the form of a tattoo on a man’s back. Another was carved onto a human skull.
For more on old languages, see also The strange reinvention of Icelandic:
The result is something close to unique—a language that is at the same time modern (it can happily express concepts such as podcasting), pure (it borrows very few words from any other tongue) and ancient (it is far closer to the ancestral Norse tongue than its increasingly distant cousins, Danish and Norwegian). Its complex grammar has barely changed in almost a thousand years and has a distinct old-worldliness. But if, like the forniskúfur, Icelandic is a living fossil, it is a lovely and lively one.
Surveying the structure of the language as a whole, I end up thinking of it as the concentric rings of a tree, each ring defined by clear patterns in groups of words and phrases, each belying a particular history. The core of the tree is an ancient Paleo-European language, perhaps 6000 BCE or more, followed by a ring of Finnic language from 1500-1000 BC. Then, moving outwards, a ring of Old Norse for a few hundred years either side of the 8th century, leading into the language of trade and nobility, under the Swedish empire, from around 13th century onwards. This administrative language develops further in the 16th century (Helsinki was established in 1550), before the Russian rule, and the language of municipalities, during the 19th century. Finally, the outer rings of the 20th century, and its language of Fordism, modernity and nationalism, becoming the 21st century language of postmodern globalisation.
The French are always inserting their arses into the English language. There is, for example, the cul-de-sac which literally means arse of a bag and which sneaks onto English street signs without anybody noticing. Before this disgusting French term was introduced, the English had a much better, cleaner native term for a dead end; we called it a butt-hole. Indeed, the Oxford English Dictionary’s butt-hole entry lists this as the only meaning.
We resort to foreign words for a number of psychologically interesting reasons. A lot of them, I’d argue, are rooted in the middle class aversion to bluntness or crudeness. When what we’re saying has an underlying tone that may cause embarrassment to either the speaker or listener, we borrow from Latin or modern European languages (often French) to give a veneer of refinement, glossing over what’s crass, base, or stark.
For example, on the use of entre nous: “I want to gossip but gossiping is common so I’m going to get away with it by using the pretentious French phrase for it.”
The longest pair (cholecystoduodenostomy and duodenocholecystostomy) isn’t necessarily the most interesting, as both words are made up of three units (cholecysto, duodeno, stomy) in different orders.
So he came up with a way of scoring pairs based on the degree of rearrangement required:
This gave me the idea to score a pair of anagrams according to how many chunks one had to be cut into in order to rearrange it to make the other one. On this plan, the “cholecystoduodenostomy / duodenocholecystostomy” pair would score 3, just barely above the minimum possible score of 2. Something even a tiny bit more interesting, say “abler / blare” would score higher, in this case 4. Even if this strategy didn’t lead me directly to the most interesting anagrams, it would be a big step in the right direction, allowing me to eliminate the least interesting.
From this algorithm, the most interesting anagram pair is 15 letters long, with only two letters that stay next to each other. Go see what it is.