This Place is a Message: Linguistics and the Logistics of Nuclear Waste Disposal

Deep beneath the deserts of New Mexico, there is a repository of radioactive waste left over from researching and building nuclear weapons. This repository, called the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), will, God and 19 billion dollars willing, store nuclear waste safely underground for the next ten thousand years.

When working out how to store nuclear waste safely for the next 10,000 years, language is a more crucial consideration than most people may think. Just for perspective, recall that 10,000 years ago, woolly mammoths were facing extinction, and known writing systems wouldn’t appear for another 5,000 years or so. If over the span of 10,000 years, humans went from no discernible writing systems, to simple pictographs, to the incredible plurality of ways we now communicate, imagine what changes another 10,000 years will bring to how we process and convey information.

A nuclear waste repository, as you may have guessed, has a lot of important information to convey. Most crucially, it has to tell people to stay away, or if they must enter, how to do so safely. In 2016, a simple multilanguage warning sign that says “DANGER – NUCLEAR WASTE STORED HERE. STAY OUT!” probably suffices; will it in 10,000 years?

A group of researchers brought in to consult the Department of Energy on the construction of WIPP grapple with this specific problem. How do you talk to people (or Klingons, for all we know) who may process and convey information in ways radically different from how we do today?

The researchers conceptualized their task as imparting multiple levels of information on future interlopers:

Something man-made is here.

The man-made thing here is dangerous.

The dangerous man-made thing is nuclear waste, which the US government buried 700 meters beneath this area in [YEAR].

From here on out, the information can become more complicated: charts, scientific reports, survey maps, et cetera.

In a way, we go through these multiple levels of information any time we interact with information of any sort. Let’s apply this system to a picture of the White House:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

This is a building.

This building is very important and grand.

This building is very important and grand because it is where the President of the United States lives and works.

This building is called the White House, it was completed in 1800 and has been the residence of every US president since John Adams…

We might get to the third level or layer of information in a split second. Our brains can process all of those levels of information fairly quickly. This is because we have a wealth of cultural and historical resources to draw from when we decode what that picture is of and what both the picture and its subject might mean in a given context (and as I’ve hammered home on this blog repeatedly, context is everything).

The importance of context and culture in the levels of information we convey cannot be understated for warning signs. Take, for example, this symbol:

2000px-hazard_t-svg
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

This container has something in it.

What is in this container is dangerous, perhaps something that could kill me.

The potentially deadly thing in this container is a poisonous chemical.

And so on.

That’s all well and good, but we run into a very big problem when we use this symbol. What if you saw this on a container:

1280px-flag_of_edward_england-svg
Photo Credit: Wikipedia

This container has something in it.

What is in this container must be related to pirates.

The contents of this container are fun pirate-themed accoutrements.

Now, most people can glean from context whether or not the container they’re holding is sulfuric acid or a bottle of pirate rum (why is it always gone?), but this demonstrates how similar symbols can mean very different things.

When proposing plans for WIPP’s construction, researchers wanted to avoid this very problem. The main plan of attack was to find symbols that universally mean danger or something inhospitable and bad, and to make sure that the facility couldn’t be mistaken for something valuable, historically interesting (though it is a historically interesting space, just not in an 8th grade field trip hotspot sort of way), or inviting to explorers or looters.

To that end, the researchers discouraged using symbols that suggest fear, toughness, or awe, since those symbols haven’t discouraged humans from exploring and looting ancient sites.

“We decided against simple “Keep Out” messages with scary faces. Museums and private collections abound with such guardian figures removed from burial sites. These earlier warning messages did not work because the intruder knew that the burial goods were valuable. We did decide to include faces portraying horror and sickness…Such faces would relate to the potential intruder wishing to protect himself or herself, rather than to protect a valued resource from thievery.” (Sandia National Laboratories, 1993)

This design principle has also been applied to the poison warnings I mentioned earlier. Doctors at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center saw that the standard skull-and-crossbones warning did little to deter children from drinking or eating poisonous substances (especially in the home city of the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball team). With the help of child focus groups, UPMC developed Mr. Yuk, whose unappealing green color and disgusted facial expression may better convey the message “don’t eat this! It’s bad for you!” than a skull and crossbones.

1024px-poison_help-svg
Photo credit: Wikipedia

The warning symbols the WIPP researchers used were very similar to Mr. Yuk:

danger
Photo credit: Department of Energy, Sandia National Laboratories

In both of these cases, we see how human facial expressions — more culturally universal than many “danger” symbols — can better convey danger and avoidance than “fearsome” symbols that can have dramatically different meanings and connotations in different contexts.

Besides warning messages, the researchers at Sandia National Laboratories brainstormed ways to use the architecture of the WIPP site to reinforce the verbal and graphic warnings. The researchers cautioned against using symmetrical forms or valuable, attractive materials, which can suggest commemoration or a hope that future generations would come to venerate, appreciate, or use the site, but they also stated that the site should be grand in scale and demonstrate vast human effort to construct it. When you looked at the picture of the White House and recognized that it was a very grand and important building, that was because it was large, well-maintained, and beautifully ornamented in the Georgian/Greek Revival style, topped with the national flag. Its size and workmanship say “I’m important to a lot of people! Look at me!” The WIPP site’s size and workmanship must say something similar, albeit in a very different context: “I’m here on purpose! I’m important! But stay far away!”

One of the researchers suggested a field of “thorns” or giant spikes covering the site, since those shapes, both in nature and in human cultures, suggest intimidation and danger — keep away from me. Plants have thorns to prevent animals from eating them. Many animals have spikes or quills for self-defense. Humans sometimes wear clothing or hairstyles with spiky or thorny motifs to suggest toughness and ferocity, deviation from social norms, or suffering (i.e. a crown of thorns).

The field of thorns and the other proposed designs all endeavor to convey at least the first two levels of information we’ve previously discussed:

Something man-made is here.

The man-made thing here is dangerous.

However, for a little more poetry, the proposed message to display and convey at the site best sums it up:

This place is a message…and part of a system of messages…pay attention to it!

Sending this message was important to us. We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture.

This place is not a place of honor…no highly esteemed deed is commemorated here…nothing valued is here.

What is here is dangerous and repulsive to us. This message is a warning about danger.

The danger is in a particular location…it increases toward a center…the center of danger is here…of a particular size and shape, and below us.

The danger is still present, in your time, as it was in ours.

The danger is to the body, and it can kill.

The form of the danger is an emanation of energy.

The danger is unleashed only if you substantially disturb this place physically. This place is best shunned and left uninhabited.

(Sandia National Laboratories, 1993)

When we think and talk about language, we cannot overlook the role symbols and images play in communication, and how we translate images and emblems and concepts into words, emotions, or actions. Maybe 10,000 years from now, our words and symbols will be very different, though if all of our messages in stone and concrete fail to deter curious future earthlings, at least Keith Richards will be around to tell them to steer clear.

Switch It Up: Code-Switching as an L1 English Speaker

If you study linguistics even in passing, you’ll come across the phenomenon of code-switching: when a language speaker switches between one or more languages, dialects, or registers in their speech, as often as in mid-sentence. It’s incredibly common among multilingual people; I’d hazard to say that it’s almost inevitable when two or more languages collide, whether in society at large or in one person’s brain.

Until far too recently, people commonly regarded code-switching and code-mixing as “impure” or “incorrect” speech. However, this attitude is being challenged in the linguistics world, and scholars and language teachers are beginning to see code-switching as a valid, vivid form of communication and self-expression.

Code-switching among English learners or simultaneous bilinguals/multilinguals is quite well-documented, but there are far fewer studies of code-switching among L1 English speakers learning another language.

I’m mainly interested in this because of my personal experiences as a language learner. As a Mandarin learner living in China, I frequently code-switched — in fact, I code-switched in different ways depending on whom I was talking to. When I spoke to other L1 English speakers who were learning Mandarin, I spoke primarily in English peppered with Mandarin phrases. For instance, you might hear me or my friends say something like: “Ugh, my students were so 调皮 (tiaopi — naughty) today…where should we go out tonight?” “I dunno, I’m pretty 无所谓 (wu suo wei — indifferent). Let’s grab a 面包车 (mianbaoche — minivan/minibus) and go to that 耳丝 (ersi — rice noodles) place downtown.” “Awesome, 走吧! (zou ba — let’s go, or just go in the imperative)”

In my particular experience (which I acknowledge some Western expats might not share), using Mandarin words while speaking English was primarily a way to signal a form of cultural competence. It was a way of demonstrating your proficiency in Mandarin as an English speaker and your knowledge of Chinese culture. However, as I mentioned earlier, I mostly spoke this way with other English speakers, not with Mandarin speakers; my cultural posturing, conscious or unconscious, was directed at other expats.

When I spoke with L1 Mandarin speakers, it was the opposite; I mostly spoke Mandarin, but threw in an English word here and there, or switched entirely to English when I reached the limits of my language skills. Here, my code-switching was less to demonstrate how devastatingly clever and culturally integrated I am, and more a practicality. Every day I ran into words and expressions that never came up in my textbooks or classes. Sometimes the Mandarin translation of a word was a tad clunky. At first I felt bad for doing it — using English as a crutch — but I was relieved when I would hear my Chinese coworkers code-switching constantly. “你收到了我 email 吗?” (did you get my email?) “我还没做完了那个 quarterly report.” (I haven’t finished the quarterly report yet).

I put two characters in bold in my last example: 那个 (nage, though pronounced in some areas as neige, pronounced nay-guh*). 那个literally means “that [measure word]” (in Mandarin, a measure word is similar to the English “a loaf of bread” or “a glass of water”; 个 is the most general, catch-all measure word — there are many others used for specific classes of things, like long and thin things, flat objects, clothing, pairs of items, et cetera). 那个 has come to function a lot like “like” in American English, in that it has a specific grammatical function, but is frequently used as a filler word. In particular, I noticed that native Mandarin speakers and Mandarin learners tend to use 那个 before an English word. In my own speech and in my coworkers’ speech, using 那个 both signaled that you were about to switch to English, and/or that you were searching for the correct word in either Mandarin or English. The more you said 那个, the more elusive the word was.

The words I observed people code-switching the most tended to be related to technology, business, and pop culture, especially if there was no direct translation into Mandarin, or if the Mandarin translation sounded too formal or stilted. Email, WeChat, Facebook, OMG, Private Equity. Of course, my observations are colored by the Chinese friends I made in Shanghai and London: young, tech-savvy professionals and students who had been positively steeped in both Chinese and American popular culture. I observed and took part in far less (and quite different) code-switching in rural Yunnan Province.

As is true for code-switchers in any language, I wouldn’t code-switch unless I was sure that my conversation partner would understand the second language in my speech. Unless I knew that a fellow expat spoke Mandarin, I’d stick to plain English. Unless I knew that a Chinese person knew some English and was my social equal, I would try to speak only Mandarin. My general rule of thumb was not to code-switch until my conversation partner demonstrated or at least indicated that they understood both Mandarin and English.

When I was studying Mandarin in school, I was constantly discouraged from this sort of code-switching: mixing up your English and your Mandarin, contaminating them, revealing that you don’t know a word. I was supposed to employ circumlocution, and then write the elusive word ten times, not say 那个 three times and just say it in English before abruptly switching back to Mandarin. It took me a long time to embrace code-switching in my everyday speech. Now, I’m glad that I have, and I think that it’s enriched my vocabulary and taught me a lot about both languages. Nothing in English rolls off the tongue like 无所谓. Email is less of a mouthful than 电子邮件. More broadly, switching between two languages has helped me learn to think on my feet and employ multiple ways of conceptualizing the world around me and expressing myself.

It’s also helped me feel more confident as a Mandarin speaker; contrary to the popular wisdom I heard when I was still in school, knowing that I could just throw in an English word here and there while speaking Mandarin didn’t make me complacent or lazy as a language learner — on the contrary, it lessened my language anxiety and spurred me to speak more; I could always get corrected or consult my dictionary after I’d said what I wanted to say. I feel confident saying that my Mandarin improved immensely after I allowed myself to code-switch more.

In the future (maybe in that weird alternate universe where I go nuts and decide to get a PhD), I’d love to do an in-depth study of code-switching by L1 English speakers, especially those who learn a second language later in life. I wonder if the sort of dual code-switching I experienced and absorbed during my time in China happens to other language learners. I also wonder if the social rules for code-switching, known almost instinctively by simultaneous multilinguals and English learners, are different for L1 English speakers. I also wonder how common my experience in which code-switching improved my language skills really is among language learners, and if and how teachers can make code-switching an effective tool in language classrooms.

 

 

*Yup, it’s pronounced similar to the word you’re thinking of. It’s pretty awkward when you first learn it.

Language Profiles: Breton (Brezhoneg)

When we think of Celtic languages, we imagine the lush green hills of Ireland, the windswept coasts (and absurdly long place names) of Wales, or perhaps the rugged landscapes of Scotland. But one Celtic language springs from somewhere a bit different: France.

Breton is a Celtic language spoken in northwestern France, first brought to the European mainland by emigrés from the British Isles in the early Middle Ages. It’s most closely related to Cornish, which is spoken in the far south of England (sadly, the last purported L1 speaker of Cornish died in the 19th century, but today there are relatively successful efforts to revive it). It’s also distantly related to Welsh.

Unfortunately, like its Celtic siblings, Breton has quite a sad history as a suppressed minority language. According to the International Committee for the Defense of the Breton Language, efforts to quash Breton as a spoken and written language began in the 1840s and continued, with official sanction, for over a century. Until 1951, with the passage of the Deixonne Law (note: linked content is in French), children were forbidden from speaking, let alone learning, Breton and other minority languages (such as Catalan, Occitan, and Basque) in French schools. Today, only just over 200,000 people speak it as an everyday language. Only quite recently have there been efforts to promote Breton and encourage children to learn and speak it.

Because Breton is so severely endangered and was suppressed as an everyday language for so long, there isn’t very much mainstream or international media that features it, but it does appear in some unexpected places. The soundtrack to the 2001 film Black Hawk Down included a song in Breton called Gortoz A Ran (I’m Waiting) by the Breton singer-songwriter Denez Prigent, who writes lyrics exclusively in Breton and draws from Breton musical traditions to create and perform songs that comment on contemporary environmental and social problems.

You’ll be heartened to know that thanks to the work of Breton-speaking artists like Denez Prigent and minority language rights activists, Breton is staging a comeback. If you drive through Brittany in northern France, street signs are bilingual. There are now Breton-language television and radio programs, and schoolchildren can now speak and study Breton in their classrooms, though there is a shortage of teachers and many Breton-language programs are losing funding, which has sparked vigorous protests from Breton activists. People are finally beginning to recognize and celebrate Breton, but there’s still a long way to go.

In my last Language Profile, I talked about the Bengali language, and how the passion with which its speakers defended their rights to speak and celebrate it fueled social movements that changed South Asia forever. Breton is another example of how central language is to our political and social identities, and how important language rights are, especially in a rapidly globalizing world where English and a few other “standard” languages dominate.

Note: The research I did on the history of Breton as a minority language in France was incredibly interesting, and I’m hoping to expand that into a companion piece of sorts about the history of minority languages in France and how France’s language policy contrasts with those of other countries.

I’m also trying to figure out if it’s better to keep my sources as hyperlinks within the text of the post, or to list everything as a bibliography at the end. I’m trying out both formats to see which one has a better look and feel.

Throwback Thesaurus – Retronyms and How Technology Changes Our Vocabulary

“When I was your age, a rotary phone was just the ‘phone’,” my mom told me many years ago. That’s just one small example of a linguistic phenomenon called “retronyms”: words and terms invented to reflect technological advances, and retroactively distinguish old technology from new. Acoustic guitar, black and white television, landline phone, dial-up internet, brick-and-mortar store, the list goes on. If “rotary phone” is anything to go by, a retronym is often a sure sign that a form of technology has become obsolete, and what’s taken its place is the new normal.

But what I find especially interesting isn’t the end result when the new technology is the default — TV vs. black and white TV, for instance — but that in-between stage: color vs. black and white, digital vs. analog, et cetera. That moment before a new piece of technology’s qualifiers (color, electric, digital, e-whatever) disappear marks when two forms of tech exist side-by-side and must jockey for position in our lives and culture. Sometimes, they can peacefully coexist, as the need for the old technology is still there: acoustic vs. electric guitar, for example. Other times, the new technology’s qualifier slowly fades from the public lexicon. Cellphone comes to mind. At least among my peers, who often don’t even bother to install landlines, a cellphone is just one’s phone. Even still, the qualifier cell/mobile is still necessary in many contexts, because landline phones (your work phone and your home phone) are still a part of our technological landscape, just in a greatly reduced capacity.

In an age where it seems like newfangled tech is announced or launched every week, we’re seeing this in-between stage more and more. Smart/streaming TV vs. cable TV, e-cigs vs. nicotine cigarettes, CG vs. traditional animation. Some qualifiers will be here to stay, but how long until smart TV is just TV, and cable TV is some old relic from your grandparents’ younger days? How long until “electronic boarding pass” is just your plain old boarding pass? Maybe in a few years, we’ll be sitting back in our sleek Teslas giggling at the old fuddy-duddies in their human-driven cars.

These lexical transitions reveal a lot about how we use language. When we drop qualifiers for new technology, it indicates changes to what we perceive as “normal” or obvious enough to be left unspoken. I don’t need to tell the saleswoman at Best Buy that I want a color TV, for instance, because I can easily and rightly assume that color comes standard on every TV available. It is no longer worth noting that a television has color.

I’ve cautioned against over-extension of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis — the idea that language dictates thought, culture, and mindsets — but the emergence and evolution of retronyms is a great example of the way we use and curate language to define what is normal, commonplace, or taken-for-granted in our everyday lives, and what is abnormal or unexpected. Furthermore, retronyms are a great example of how quickly we can adapt language to changing circumstances and contexts. If we think of language as a tool for interpreting and navigating our world, that we can bolt on or take off certain lexical items as needed makes it a very useful tool indeed, and makes us highly adept and innovative tool-users.

 

 

Leaders of the Free Word: Presidential Neologisms Past and Present

Believe me, a lot of people –the best people– have told me that Donald Trump used the adverb “bigly” in the first presidential debate on Monday (though others say he was saying “big league”). Now, however you feel about The Donald, I think it’s important to remember that he is not the first guy with his eye on the Oval Office to use some unexpected phraseology.

Just a few short years ago, American satirists, writers, and pundits had a field day with George W. Bush’s famous “they misunderestimated me” — was it a portmanteau of “misunderstood” and “underestimated”? Was it just an extra syllable added to “underestimated”? Either way, the word came to represent the popular image of President Bush as a bit of a buffoon with a penchant for malapropisms (Bushisms, as they came to be known).

Another president popularized a word that we frequently use today, though not without the same sorts of contemporary criticisms levied at Bush. On May 14th, 1920, then-presidential candidate Warren Harding delivered a speech in which he appealed for “normalcy” in American society after the cataclysm of World War I. Journalists of the day roundly mocked Harding for using the word, which they viewed as a corruption of “normality”. However, “normalcy” was indeed a word, with its first recorded use in print ten years before Harding’s birth.

Although her White House (well, Blair House) dreams were never realized, former VP hopeful Sarah Palin tweeted in 2010 that American Muslims must “refudiate” a mosque in Lower Manhattan near the site of the World Trade Center. Like Bush 10 years before her, Palin seemed to create a portmanteau of two words which would both work in the context of her statement: refute and repudiate.

After coming under fire for her missive (which she soon deleted), Palin responded that the English language is not set in stone and new words are coined all the time. I make no secret of my vehement disagreement with Sarah Palin’s views, but for once, I agree with her here. As Harding’s “normalcy” demonstrates, we can and do add new or unfamiliar words to our lexicon pretty readily; that’s one of the beauties of English and language in general. As I mentioned in my review of Tom Wolfe’s The Kingdom of Speech, the flexibility and adaptability of language reflects our own adaptability, flexibility, and ingenuity as a species, which has allowed us to dominate the planet (for better or for worse).

Of course, having an extensive, flexible vocabulary that one can use correctly is an important asset, especially in a speech-heavy profession like politics; however, no matter how we may feel about a politician, we should not be so quick to vituperate (or refudiate, as it were) perceived verbal gaffes — after all, we may be saying those words completely unironically soon enough.

Sources

Condon, Stephanie. (2010). Palin’s “Refudiate” Tweet on Mosque Near Ground Zero Draws Fire (for Substance and Style). CBS News. Accessed 30 September 2016. Retrieved From: http://www.cbsnews.com/news/palins-refudiate-tweet-on-mosque-near-ground-zero-draws-fire-for-substance-and-style/

No Author. (2016). Did Warren Harding Coin “Normalcy”? Merriam-Webster. Accessed 30 September 2016. Retrieved From: http://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/did-warren-harding-coin-normalcy

No Author. “Top 10 Bushisms”. Time. Accessed 30 September 2016. Retrieved From: http://content.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1870938_1870943_1870945,00.html.

Harding, Warren G., “Back to Normal: Address Before Home Market Club,” Boston, Massachusetts, May 14, 1920. From Schortemeier, Frederick E., ed. Rededicating America: Life and Recent Speeches of Warren G. Harding. (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill), 1920, pp. 223-229. Retrieved From: http://livefromthetrail.com/about-the-book/speeches/chapter-3/senator-warren-g-harding.

 

Language Profiles: Bengali

As someone who loves to study languages and linguistic diversity, it seems only natural that I be fascinated with the linguistic landscape of South Asia. India alone has 22 constitutionally recognized languages not including English, and many, many more spoken besides those noted in the Eighth Schedule of the constitution. India’s next-door neighbors — Pakistan and Bangladesh — have similarly diverse linguistic makeups. But today, I’m going to focus on just one language from the Subcontinent: Bengali.

Bengali (or Bangla) is predominantly spoken in eastern India (particularly the states of West Bengal, Tripura, and Assam) and, as you might have deduced from the language’s name, Bangladesh. It is also spoken by many members of the vast South Asian diaspora community. With 189 million native speakers, it is the seventh most widely spoken language in the world, just trailing Portuguese and Hindi.

Bengali is in the same language family as Hindi, though the two languages are not mutually intelligible and use different (though related) writing systems. Bengali’s vocabulary is influenced heavily by Sanskrit, but also draws from Persian and Arabic, especially among Muslim Bengali speakers. Due to the British Raj and the later globalization of media, education, and business, English loanwords are also common in Bengali.

Bengali is particularly notable for its rich literary pedigree. The first non-European winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Rabindranath Tagore, primarily wrote in Bengali; he penned the lyrics to both the Bangladeshi and Indian national anthems, which are sung in the language. You may have also heard Rabindranath Tagore’s Bengali-language poetry in the song Praan (whose lyrics are adapted from a poem called Stream of Life), which was the background music in the viral video, Where the Hell is Matt?

 

Bengali also has an important place in South Asia’s political history. Rabindranath Tagore and other writers used Bengali-language works to express national and ethnic pride during the struggle for independence from Britain. Later, after independence and Partition, language rights were a catalyst for the separation of East and West Pakistan into Bangladesh and Pakistan in 1971.  Although the eastern and western wings of Pakistan were united by their majority-Muslim populations and some shared South Asian cultural heritage, there were stark divisions between the two. Tensions between East and West Pakistan soon reached a boiling point when Urdu (predominantly spoken in West Pakistan) was made the official language.

On February 21st, 1952, activists and university students in Dhaka (now the capital of Bangladesh) held a protest against policies they said discriminated against Bengali speakers, including Karachi’s refusal to make Bengali a national language, and efforts to introduce Arabic as a script for writing Bengali (van Schendel 2009). Police fired on the protesters, killing five people. This day became known as Ekushe or Martyrs Day in Bangladesh, and a memorial now stands where the killings took place. The Bengali Language Movement agitated throughout the 1950s and 60s for the recognition of Bengali in Pakistani public life.

February 21st is now recognized by the UN as International Mother Language Day, which celebrates linguistic diversity and commemorates the struggles many people face to gain political and cultural recognition for their native tongues.

It goes without saying that scores of languages have made their mark on the course of human events, but Bengali’s role as a catalyst for social change, particularly as an assertion of national pride and identity during two bitter fights for independence, is unique. Today, the Bengali language unites a vast community of speakers all over the world from Dhaka to Dubai to DC, and continues to make an impact on South Asian culture in film, literature, and music.

I’m not sure if my next Language Profile will be another “B” language, if I’m going to move straight on into C, or if I’m going to go a little nuts and dispense with alphabetical order entirely. We’ll see!

Sources

Bashir, S.A. and Brady, A.J. (No year given). “Bangla – The Official Language of Bangladesh.” Accessed 28 September 2016. Retrieved from: http://www.betelco.com/bd/bangla/bangla.html

Ager, Simon. (2016). Bengali. Omniglot. Accessed 28 September 2016. Retrieved from: http://www.omniglot.com/writing/bengali.htm

Lewis, M. Paul, Gary F. Simons, and Charles D. Fennig (eds.). 2016. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Nineteenth edition. Dallas, Texas: SIL International. Retrieved from: http://www.ethnologue.com/statistics/size

Indian Constitution, Art. 344(1) and 351, Eighth Schedule. http://lawmin.nic.in/olwing/coi/coi-english/coi-4March2016.pdf

“Rabindranath Tagore – Biographical”. Nobelprize.org. Nobel Media AB 2014. Accessed 28 Sep 2016. Retrieved from: http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1913/tagore-bio.html

UNESCO. (2012). International Mother Language Day. Accessed 28 September 2016. Retrieved from: http://www.unesco.org/new/en/education/themes/strengthening-education-systems/languages-in-education/international-mother-language-day/

Van Schendel, W. (2009). A History of Bangladesh. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Talking as a Tool – A Review/Scholarly Meditation on Tom Wolfe’s The Kingdom of Speech

Three weeks after I dropped my dissertation off at the IOE Applied Linguistics/TESOL administrative office, I did something I thought I’d give myself another few weeks of leisurely trashy novel-reading and beach lounging before doing again: read a book about linguistics.

Tom Wolfe’s The Kingdom of Speech (2016) reads more like a breezy, exuberant TED talk or podcast than a scholarly tome, which is refreshing after a year of reading practically nothing but scholarly tomes. At breakneck pace, he takes the reader through the history of scientific and philosophical theories about the evolution of language, from Darwin to Chomsky to the new crop of linguists in a post-Chomsky academic landscape. I must confess that I felt a few pangs of jealousy as I read The Kingdom of Speech, since Wolfe, this giant of contemporary American literature, is pretty much doing exactly what I hope to do on this blog, but far more elegantly, in an actual book, and while wearing a very nice white suit.

Damn-he-beat-me-to-it aside, I’m thrilled that Wolfe is quite publicly adding to a conversation that I first encountered in the fall of last year in my Sociolinguistics and Sociocultural Theory class about the nature of language. I’m even more thrilled that Wolfe is discussing the concept of language as an artifact or tool — an idea that is gaining traction currently in the world of linguistics, and was quite succinctly (and not so succinctly) discussed in some of the scholarly tomes I was reading last year.

Simply put, language-as-artifact posits that language is no different (well, OK, it’s a bit different) from a spear to stab a mammoth, a match to light a fire, or a telescope to see things that are far away. Language is just one of the many tools humans use to interpret and understand — or mediate — the world around us. As Wolfe (2016) puts it, language helps us plan ahead and carry out more complex tasks, and build — and teach others to build — more complex tools than the ones some of our ape cousins have mastered.

And of course, we need tools and artifacts to mediate language itself. We need dictionaries to tell us what all those words mean. We need to take classes in school or learn from a more experienced adult to learn how to read, write and string sentences together in our L1s and in any subsequent Ls. We need to expand our linguistic toolkit and think of new words to denote or describe new concepts; to survive and thrive in the public conscience, those new words need to catch on and be durable, especially in the maelstrom that is popular culture today.

Wolfe (2016) seems to dance around just how language came to be the wonderfully versatile and complex tool/artifact we know it to be today, but I don’t think that’s to his detriment. Linguists and neuroscientists with far more training  and expertise than he haven’t reached a consensus on that. Nevertheless, Tom Wolfe makes some of the central debates and topics of linguistics accessible and downright fun to read about. Definitely pick up The Kingdom of Speech if you want to get an enjoyable and decidedly un-technical perspective on the role of language in human history.