Friday, July 25, 2014

The Moon System of Embossed Reading

A few days ago, we were enjoying an exhibit in the Scottish Parliament building when we came across an interesting new type of writing. The display we were viewing had text written in English and Scottish Gaelic, with Braille beneath it, and a new, mysterious writing system below the Braille. The symbols in the system were quite similar to Latin script, to the extent that you could nearly discern some of the words without looking at the English.

The Scottish Parliament display that piqued our interest.
We were intrigued by this script, debating what it could be. Given the simplicity of the symbols and the fact that they were raised, we came to the conclusion that it must be an alternate writing system for the blind. I thought that perhaps it was designed for people who had lost their sight sometime later in life after learning the alphabet, as the symbols were quite similar to the regular English alphabet. We decided to investigate upon returning home.

It turns out that the mysterious text we came across was the Moon System of Embossed Reading, which is indeed a writing system for the blind. It was created by an Englishman named Dr. William Moon, who lost his sight at age 21 after a terrible bout of scarlet fever. As a teacher of blind children, he came to the conclusion that learning other embossed writing systems like Braille was often difficult for his students, so he decided to create his own simpler system. Moon type was first introduced to the public in 1845, and is made up of raised curves, lines, and angles that are primarily based on Latin script. This makes the system incredibly useful to those who lose their sight later in life, just as I had suspected.

While the Moon system may not be as popular as Braille, it has been helpful to many people over the years. In fact, it can be used to help people who have recently lost their sight and are having trouble learning Braille, as they can gain confidence in their abilities to learn embossed writing through initial use of the Moon system. They can then eventually try to tackle the more difficult task of learning Braille.

Do you or someone you know use the Moon System of Embossed Reading? What do you think of it? Let us know in the comments below.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

How Recent is the Expression "Where Are You?"

We heard an interesting fact the other day. It suggested that other than in reference to one's immediate vicinity, nobody would have ever used the expression "Where are you?" prior to the invention of mobile communications such as radio transmission, mobile phones, or the internet.

The logic behind this is that if you were to write somebody a letter you would require an address. If you had somebody's address, would you need to ask them where they were? I think not. Before mobile telephones, you would usually call a fixed line, meaning that you also already knew where somebody was.

Did this device really spawn the phrase "Where are you?"
This supposed fact is probably not true, as communications prior to mobile phones did not guarantee that the sender of the message would know where somebody was, for example. Imagine sending a message to a soldier on the front lines, you would probably ask where they were after asking if they were alive and safe.

Another similar and more probable suggestion is that before answering machines were invented, nobody had uttered "Sorry, I'm not here right now".

While we do not believe that throughout all of human existence these expressions were never uttered, we do believe that their usage was significantly lower prior to the advent of mobile communication.

We did a quick search for the earliest recorded instance of "Where are you?" and found an example in the biblical book of Genesis, albeit a translation. I guess you'd be hard-pressed to find an earlier example, at least if you believe the Old Testament.

Can anyone actually prove this "fact" for us? Share your thoughts, proofs, or just ideas, in the comments below. 

Monday, July 21, 2014

Language Profile: Lithuanian

This week we're taking a look at Lithuanian, a member of the Baltic language family. It is the official language of Lithuania. Lithuanian is closely related to Latvian, the official language of neighboring Latvia, which is the only other living Baltic language. It is also spoken in Belarus, Latvia, Poland, and parts of Russia.

Curonian Spit sand dunes in Lithuania
Lithuanian is a particularly interesting language to linguists because it is thought to be the most conservative Indo-European language that is still spoken. It has kept many archaic features over the years that have fallen out of use in other languages, which makes it very important in terms of helping to reconstruct the Proto-Indo-European language. Due to these old features, the language contains many cognates to words in classical languages like Sanskrit and Latin that evolved from Proto-Indo-European.

One interesting feature of Lithuanian is its use of grammatical genders. Its nouns have two genders: masculine and feminine, while its adjectives, pronouns, participles, and numbers use three genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter.

In terms of its vocabulary, Lithuanian contains a number of loanwords from various languages. In the mid-1900s, most of its loanwords came from Polish, Belarusian, and German. In more recent years, they've primarily entered Lithuanian from Russian and English, especially technological terms such as kompiuteris for "computer" and faksas for "fax".

The Lithuanian alphabet has 32 letters, including letters such as č, ę, š, ū, and ž. It is written using a Latin-based alphabet with diacritics. 

Friday, July 18, 2014

Celebrating the Life of Roman Jakobson

Today marks the date of the death of Roman Jakobson. While Jakobson died back in 1982, his linguistic legacy still lives on as he was one of the most important linguists of the 20th century, especially in the field of structural linguistics, in which he conducted some of his most important work. Rather than dwell of the death of the man, we thought we'd take the time to honour his life, which is almost as interesting as his work.

The man himself, Roman Osipovich Jakobson
Jakobson was born in Moscow on 11 October, 1896 to a wealthy family. He is said to have been interested in languages from a very young age, and his passion for languages led to him studying in Moscow University's Lazarev Institute of Oriental Languages.

Despite his love for languages, Jakobson was very vocal in his condemnation of sound in films and was ironically critical of the newly emerging "talkies". He completed his master's degree in Moscow in 1918.

In 1920, just two years after his master's graduation, Jakobson fled Russia to settle in Prague, Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic) to complete his doctoral studies before being awarded his PhD from Charles University, Prague. Further political upheaval in 1939 forced Jakobson to again flee his country of residence. This time he made his way to Copenhagen, Denmark in March of that year.

Less than six months after arriving in Copenhagen, Jakobson left to escape the German occupation of the area and headed to Norway. The following year he fled Norway for Sweden before the fear of German occupation forced him to leave Sweden for New York City.

In New York City, Jakobson taught at The New School and was part of a prominent group of scholars, all of whom had fled the occupied areas of Eastern Europe, particularly Czechoslovakia. Jakobson met Claude Lévi-Strauss at the École libre des hautes études, which led to the two collaborating.

After a close brush with repatriation, Jakobson was allowed to remain in the US before moving to Harvard University in 1949. Jakobson remained at Harvard until retiring in 1967. He died in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1982.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Film Club: Les Intouchables

It was long overdue, but I finally got around to watching the highly-recommended French film Les Intouchables this weekend. The film was known as The Intouchables in the US and Untouchable in the UK, supposedly to avoid having the same name as the 1987 film The Untouchables. While it has been out for nearly two years, I sadly never made the time to watch it, despite fervent recommendations from my French friends. That said, I couldn't be happier that I finally did.


Following its release in 2011, the film was a huge hit at the French box office, becoming its second biggest box office hit after Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis, which I would also highly recommend. However, the film is the highest-grossing French film shot in the French language since 1994.

The main premise of the film is somewhat based on the true story of Philippe Pozzo di Borgo and Abdel Sellou, his French-Algerian carer. If you've seen the film poster, DVD case, or the opening scene of the film, you may have noted that the directors decided that the caregiver would be played by Omar Sy, who is not French-Algerian but rather a French-Senegalese actor.

Whether or not you're disappointed by the lack of a French-Algerian lead, anyone who sees the film would have to admit that Sy does a great job alongside François Cluzet, who plays Philippe, an incredibly wealthy disabled man who employs Driss (Sy) as his caregiver.

While the premise is incredibly simple, the execution is what really caught my eye. We've seen plenty of films that show two people becoming unlikely friends despite their vastly different backgrounds. Les Intouchables seems comfortably familiar whilst throwing a few unexpected curve balls in the process.

Without giving too much away, the film is very funny, even for those who don't speak French. The English subtitling (at least the UK version) could easily be enjoyed by anyone who doesn't speak the French language, despite a few cultural changes that were a bit irksome. In one case, a reference to French unionist José Bové is changed to refer to Queen frontman Freddie Mercury, which is understandable as I can't imagine that many British viewers would be familiar with Bové.

Even though Les Intouchables never made any waves at the Oscars, it has quickly risen to the status of being one of my favourite French-language films, simply due to the way it manages to find a great balance between humour and emotion, leaving my sides sore from laughing and my face sore from the huge smile of uncontrollable happiness it left on my face.

In more worrying news, there may be an English remake on the cards. Hopefully it won't be as bad as Dinner for Schmucks, which managed to butcher the French classic comedy Le Dîner de Cons.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Language Profile: Lao

This week we're taking a look at Lao, the official language of Laos. Also known as Laotian, the language is a member of the Tai-Kadai language family. It is closely related to Thai, the official language of neighboring Thailand. Some dialects of Lao are also widely spoken in Thailand, where they are generally called the Isan language instead of Lao.

Buddha Park near Vientiane, the capital of Laos
Lao has several interesting linguistic characteristics. Like the Thai language, Lao is a tonal language. It is also an analytic language, meaning it doesn't use suffixes or prefixes to show verb tense or other grammatical information. It is written using the Lao script, an abugida created sometime in the 14th century.

The lexicon of Lao is primarily composed of words that originated in the language itself. However, due to the prominence of Buddhism in the region, it does contain several terms from Pali, a dead language that was used in many early Buddhist scriptures.

The language has also been influenced by other languages used in the region including Thai and Khmer, and naturally has also influenced them in return. Lao also uses different registers depending on the formality of situations. Formal Lao tends to use more loanwords from Pali and Sanskrit, and also uses special pronouns and ending statements in order to indicate the formal register. 

Friday, July 11, 2014

World Population Day: The Demographics of Languages

Today is another obscure holiday, World Population Day. July 11, which marks World Population Day, was selected by the United Nations Development Program to raise awareness of population issues and, supposedly, work towards fixing them through global action.

In honour of this day, we thought we'd look at the populations of languages, and, as I love charts, figures, and graphs, attempt to show you a few facts and figures about world languages in a colourful, visual, and interesting way.

Please be patient while the infographic loads.