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History's "Global Languages"

Smithsonian Magazine

With nearly one-third of the world's population capable of communicating in English, it might be tempting to think that English is the world's first "global language."

In fact, the idea of a "global language" is older than English itself.

"Latin was the world's first recorded global language, or lingua franca, carried across Western Europe by soldiers and traders in the days of the Roman Empire," says Salikoko Mufwene, a linguistics professor at the University of Chicago. Even after the Empire dissolved, Mufwene says, Latin persisted as the main language in many Western European cities. By the 18th century, each city had added words and phrases to it, leading to a handful of "vulgar Latins." Eventually, these vulgar Latins became modern-day Romance languages such as Spanish, Portuguese, French and Italian.

But linguistic researchers believe that Latin, along with Sanskrit, Greek, Slavic and other modern language groups, evolved from a single, older proto-Indo-European language. While there's no written record of this language, scholars suspect it existed around 5000 B.C. in modern-day Turkey or Poland. As the tribe that spoke proto-Indo-European grew, small groups split off and migrated all over Asia and Europe. As they lost touch with one another, these splinter families' languages began to change, and eventually became modern-day Russian, Dutch, Farsi, German, Greek and English, among others.

Several attempts have been made to link the world again through a global language. In the late 19th century, the Polish doctor L. L. Zamenhof coined Esperanto. With its regular structure and common Indo-European vocabulary, Esperanto was meant to be the world's "international language." Although it never caught on as an official language, it has approximately 2 million speakers internationally, as well as conferences and exchange programs.

Exploring Endangered Languages

Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage
I’m approaching the day when I must leave school and make my way in the world; as a graduate student,Read More

Human Languages Skew Positive

Smithsonian Magazine

A young girl, filled with cheer, marched into American hearts in 1913 through the pages of a book by Eleanor H. Porter. The titular character was Pollyanna, whose name is now synonymous for a person possessing relentless optimism, sometimes to a fault. Pollyanna, an orphan, played the "glad game" by finding something to feel glad about in every situation. The book was a best seller and was into a movie, twice.

In 1969, two researchers took the name even farther to generalize about the human condition: Jerry Boucher and Charles E. Osgood contended that people tend to use positive words more often than negative ones. Now, that work has been updated with the help of big data. A group of researchers combed through Google Books, the New York Times, Twitter, subtitles of books adn movies, music lyrics, and other sources to determine the most commonly used words in 10 major world languages. And they found that the tendency to paint things in a positive light seems to be universal. They published their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

English, Spanish, French, German, Brazilian Portuguese, Korean, Chinese, Russian, Indonesian and Egyptian Arabic all came under scrutiny. Native speakers helped rate the positivity or negativity of each word, and the researchers averaged the scores. Some languages are more "happy" than others, writes Melissa Healy for the Los Angeles Times. Spanish, Brazilian Portuguese and English were more positive whereas, Russian, Korean and Chinese were less so — but still more positive than negative.

The challenge is making sure that the samples of words truly reflect the language and oft-used words. The researchers hope that their methods might be applied to see the happiness levels of users across large populations—say for a geographical area, a time period or a particular social network. 

“We're designing our instruments to be of use for policy makers, countries and cities, journalists, businesses and corporations ("how are my products being talked about?") and, of course, interested individuals,” one of the researchers, Peter Sheridan Dodds of the University of Vermont, told Medical Daily. “Our instruments are not just for Twitter and can be used on any large enough text.”

Of course, some are wary of a society full of Pollyannas. "A person who's a Pollyanna according to our current usage is always looking on the bright side and thinking that things will look up, things will get better, and in many cases that's not the case," says Margaret Matlin, a psychologist at SUNY Geneseo who co-wrote a 1979 book called "The Pollyanna Principle," in an NPR interview. The book extends the 1969 hypothesis to suggest that people tend to have trouble seeing the unpleasant because we are keyed into the positive. 

But the positive bias isn’t necessarily extreme. Matlin points out that even the novels of James Joyce and William Blake skew toward the positive. "I don’t think anyone would have called either of them a 'Pollyanna,'" she says.

Vocabulary of one of the California languages

National Anthropological Archives
In Indo-American Languages form.

[Miscellaneous papers relating to American Indian languages]

Smithsonian Libraries
Title supplied by cataloger.

4 titles and 2 folded maps bound together in 1 v.

Papers consist of detached copies and offprints.

Three comparative vocabularies of the Salish languages

National Anthropological Archives
One dated November 15, 1870, Ithaca, New York.

"Sent to Bureau of American Ethnology June 6, 1928 by Franz Boas, had apparently been in his possession for some time."--note on old catalog card.

Part 1 "Comparative Vocabulary of the [Interior] Salish Languages. No date. 47 pages, approximately 180 terms. Comprative vocabulary of the following Salish languages: "Selish proper or Flathead", "Kalispelm" (Kalispel), "Spokan", "Skoyelpi", "Okinaken" (Okanagan), "Schitsui", "Shiwapmukh" (Shuswap), "Piskwaus" (Pisquows). Part 2 " II Series. Comparative Vocabulary of the [Coast] Selish Languages." Ithaca, New York, November 15, 1870. 86 pages, approximately 200 terms. Comparative vocabulary of the following Salish languages: "Clallam", "Lummi", "Nooksahk", (Nootsak), "Nanaimooh" (Nanaimo), "Tait", "Poanhooch or Spokomish", "Noo-so-lupsh", "Skagit", "Komookhs". Part 3 "Synoptical Vocabulary of the [Interior and Coast] Selish languages (comprising the languages which are more exclusively treated in the 2nd Series of Comparative Vocabulary....)." No date. 16 pages, approximately 190 terms. Comparative vocabulary of the following Salish languages: "a) Clallam", "b) Lummi", "c) Nooksahk" (Nottsak), "d) Nanaimooh" (Nanaimo), "e) Kwantlen", "f) Tait", "g) Toanhooch", "h) Noosolupsh", "i) Skagit", "k) Komookhs" (Comox), "l) Kwinaiutl", "m) Cowlitz", "n) Chemakum", "o) Belhoola (Bella Coola), "p) Lilowat", "q) Nikutemukh" (Couteaux or Samena) "Nikutemukh," "a name corrupted by the Canadians into Couteaux, also called Samena."--cf. Gibbs' notes, Manuscript Number 742.

Alphabet for writing the Dakota languages 1881

National Anthropological Archives
Digitization and preparation of these materials for online access has been funded through generous support from the Arcadia Fund.

Old number 1413 (part)

Found with letters to J. W. Powell, 1878-1879.

typescript and autograph document

Numerals expressed in Siouan languages

National Anthropological Archives
Digital surrogates are available online.

Digitization and preparation of these materials for online access has been funded through generous support from the Arcadia Fund.

Old number 1483 (part)

typescript and autograph document

Truman Michelson notes on various Algonquian languages, undated

National Anthropological Archives
Digital surrogates are available online.

Digitization and preparation of these materials for online access has been funded through generous support from the Arcadia Fund.

Title changed from "Various verbal tables of different Algonquian tribes" 4/14/2014.

Truman Michelson's handwritten linguistic notes with paradigms (some extracted from the literature) for the following languages: Montagnais, Menominee, Meskwaki (Fox), Cree, Natick, Ojibwa, Passamaquoddy, and Shawnee.

Edward Sapir notes on vocabularies of Algonquian languages, circa 1911

National Anthropological Archives
Digital surrogates are available online.

Digitization and preparation of these materials for online access has been funded through generous support from the Arcadia Fund.

Apparently sent by Sapir to Truman Michelson (see 28th A.R., BAE, page 225 and ff).

Title changed from "Vocabularies" 5/1/2014.

Edward Sapir's typed notes on the vocabularies of various Algonquian languages that he collected in 1911. List of languages covered: Delaware, pages 1-6; Abnaki (Pierreville), page 7-12; Malecite (Riviere du Loup, Thomas Paul), pages 13-17; Micmac, pages 18-23, Cree (Rupert's House), pages 24-25; Montagnais (Louis Clairie, Pointe Bleue), pages 26-28. There are annotations and corrections in ink in Sapir's handwriting (identified by Mary Haas, 4/58). There are also pencil additions signed by Michelson; perhaps all of the pencil additions are his.

Comparative vocabularies of Southeastern and Gulf Languages 1916-1917

National Anthropological Archives
According to Bureau of American Ethnology-AR 38, pages 5-6, Swanton worked on a comparative vocabulary of these languages in 1916-1917.

typescript and autograph document

Contents: "Key to Comparative vocabularies," a numerical key to English equivalents of the Indian terms in the vocabularies. Typescript and autograph document. 2 pages. Comparative vocabulary of Natchez, Tunica, Chitimacha, and Attacapa. Autograph document. 22 pages. Comparative vocabulary of Creek, Choctaw, Alabama, and Hitchiti. Autograph document. 23 pages. Comparative vocabulary of Tonkawa, Comecrudo, Coahuilteco, Cotoname, and Karankawa. Autograph document. 22 pages. Comparative vocabulary of Koasati, Creek, Hitchiti, Alabama, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Natchez. Typescript and autograph document. 2 pages. Comparative vocabulary of Timucua and other Southeastern languages. Typescript and Autograph document. 19 pages. Comparison of Natchez vocabulary, phonology and structure with other Muskhogean languages. Typescript Document with A. notations. 57 cards.

Spatial frames of reference in Mesoamerican languages

Smithsonian Libraries
This article presents the conceptual and methodological framework for the special issue Frames of reference in Mesoamerican languages, which reports on the use of frames of reference (FoRs) in eight Mesoamerican languages and two non-Mesoamerican control languages. The papers included here are a result of the ongoing collaborative project Spatial language and cognition in Mesoamerica. This article provides a background to the study of FoRs, the research methodology used cross-linguistically, the classification that serves as the basis for the coding of cross-linguistic data, and a preview of the articles in the special issue.

Five Lost Languages Rediscovered in Massachusetts

Smithsonian Magazine

American history has just been slightly rewritten. Previously, experts had believed that the Native Americans of central Massachusetts spoke a single language, Loup (pronounced “Lou,” literally meaning “wolf”). But new research shows that they spoke at least five different languages.

“It's like some European families where you can have three different languages at the dinner table,” says Ives Goddard, curator emeritus and senior linguist in the department of anthropology at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. “There was probably a lot of bilingualism. A question that is raised by there being so many languages is 'how did that work?' How did they manage to maintain five different languages in such a small area?”

The lost languages were re-discovered by taking another look at several manuscripts written by French missionaries who were also working as linguists in the mid 1700s. While working on her master's thesis at the University of Manitoba, Holly Gustafson compiled lists of verb forms found in one of the manuscripts. Goddard noticed some contradictions in the compilation.

“In the course of doing this [Gustafson] sometimes says there's this set of forms that is this way and another set of forms another way,” says Goddard. The fact that there were three different words recorded for beaver was also suspicious. “And I looked at this and thought there is too much difference. That made me think that there was more than one language involved,” he says.

In the wake of King Phillip's War in the 1670's, many groups of Native Americans were displaced. “The English basically weren't too good at differentiating between their friends and enemies in battle,” says Goddard. “The ones who were still farther away in the interior trying to live a more traditional life, they just left.”

People who had lived in central Massachusetts fled to upstate New York where they stayed in villages and the refugees encountered the French missionaries who also studied their languages. By then, the tribes had been badly reduced by war and disease. The survivors were too few to maintain unique cultural identities as they integrated with other tribes. Their languages quickly disappeared.

But how could five distinct languages have been maintained in such a small region?

“This gives us a picture of the aboriginal situation in New England being fragmented into different groups,” says Goddard. “This tells us something about the social and political situation.”

Goddard believes that the situation may have been similar to that of the Sui people of the Guizhou Province of China. Women from a particular band of villages would always marry into a different band of villages in which a different language was spoken. The woman would continue to speak her original dialect, her husband would speak another, while their children would grow up understanding both but primarily speaking the father's dialect outside of the home. Family and cultural ties are maintained between the different groups of villages while maintaining an independent sense of identity.

Goddard's research begs the question of how many other native American languages may have been missed. The cultural diversity of pre-colonial America may have been underestimated. Rediscovering those languages can help to explain where the lines were drawn between different cultures.

UPDATE 5/17/2016: A previous version of this article reported that the Massachusetts refugees remained in camps in upstate New York. They were living in villages.

Five Lost Languages Rediscovered in Massachusetts

Smithsonian Magazine
Smithsonian linguist Ives Goddard finds that the Native Americans of central Massachusetts spoke five languages instead of one

Digitized, Searchable Archives Help Revive ‘Sleeping’ Languages

Smithsonian Insider

Like other kids at summer camp, a group of youngsters in the cities of Miami, Okla. and Fort Wayne, Ind. play games, work on crafts […]

The post Digitized, Searchable Archives Help Revive ‘Sleeping’ Languages appeared first on Smithsonian Insider.

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