Wednesday, April 30, 2014

April 30: International Jazz Day

Today we have another obscure holiday for you. It's International Jazz Day, which is organised and recognised by UNESCO. UNESCO considers the objectives of this holiday to celebrate the "virtues of jazz as an educational tool, and a force for peace, unity, dialogue and enhanced cooperation among people". While this seems like a good reason to celebrate jazz, as per usual, we are more interested in the linguistic elements of jazz. First though, we need to really understand what jazz is.

You should already know that jazz is a type of music, shamefully dismissed by some as a way to be a pretentious hipster. In fact, jazz couldn't be farther from the pursuit of twenty-something white guys who sport vintage knitwear and enjoy only the obscurest of coffee-based beverages.

Jazz music started in the southern United States during the dawn of the 20th century as a lovechild between African and European music. When the harmonies of European music got together with African syncopation, swung notes, and improvisation, jazz was born.

New Orleans, one of the best places to enjoy jazz music.
As jazz was cultivated in a number of places, a number of subgenres arose, in addition to later fusions created from being mixed with a number of other musical genres. Whilst jazz has all these subgenres and fusions, the origin of the word jazz has a number of contested origins.

Jazz as a noun in the English language used in reference to music is thought to have come from the Creole patois word jass which either means "strenuous activity" or refers to the act of love-making, which while strenuous, is also incredibly enjoyable, just like jazz music.

While the name for jazz shares its etymological roots with the ethnic roots of the music, the word for one of the most important aspects of jazz, improvisation, is wholeheartedly European in origin. Improvisation, like many musical terms, comes from Italian improvviso, then improvvisare, making its way into French as improviser, before finally arriving in the English language as improvisation. However, it wasn't until 1786 when this word had a musical connotation in the English language. From the fifteenth century, the word actually referred to the unpredictable or an "unforeseen happening", which pretty much perfectly describes improvisation.

As you can see, these two words have both African and European origins, like jazz. In fact, the relation between jazz and language runs much deeper than mere etymology. Unfortunately, jazz music came about due to the deplorable slave trade in the United States in the nineteenth century. We think the slave trade was absolutely horrific, but the resulting jazz music is one of the very few good things to come from it. The obscure rhythms of jazz are inspired by the speech patterns of the African languages, so while music has shaped a lexicon, a family of languages could be said to have shaped jazz music entirely.

Friday, April 18, 2014

More on the Voice

On Wednesday, we celebrated World Voice Day. As a result of this obscure holiday, we looked at the vocal cords, which are found within the larynx and are arguably the most important part of the body when it comes to making the human voice.

That said, the vocal cords are fairly useless without the assistance of the lungs, which push air through the vocal cords, thereby vibrating them and making a sound. Of course, not every sound we make requires the lungs, at least not the variety of clicking sounds that are common in a large number of African languages.

Once air passes through our vocal cords and causes them to vibrate (or not in the case of unvoiced phonemes), it then passes into our mouths where our mouths and tongues act as filter. This filter changes how well certain frequencies of sound are omitted from the mouth.

Various mouth positions for vowel sounds.
Whilst the vocal cords dictate whether or not the phoneme is voiced or unvoiced, the mouth is mostly responsible for vowels, particularly in the English language. The tongue also plays a part in the formation of vowels, whilst the lips and teeth play a more important role in the production of consonants.

Unsurprisingly, for sounds like th in both "think" and "though" in which the tongue sits against the teeth, the phonemes are known as dental. For sounds like the letters f and v in English, they are known as labiodental as both the teeth and lips play a role in making the sounds.

When phonemes are made by placing the tongue on the alveolar ridge, the point in the mouth behind your upper incisors, the sounds are known as alveolar phonemes. When you use your voice to make a sound by pressing your tongue just behind this point, it's known as post-alveolar.

Palatal phonemes are made pressing the tongue against the palate, and velar phonemes are when the tongue is against the soft palate. Right at the back of the mouth pharyngeal phonemes are made against the pharynx and epiglottal phonemes against the epiglottis, but neither of these are present in the English language.

In addition to the vocal cords, mouth, tongue, lips, and teeth, the nose and nasal cavities can also play a part in the production of sounds. The sounds for the letters m and n are both produced nasally, which is why they are really difficult to say when you have a cold or blocked nose.

Although the vocal cords are pretty neat, the entire system that makes up our voices is incredible. We'll see you on Monday for our weekly language profile.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

April 16: World Voice Day

As we love celebrations here at The Lingua File, today we're celebrating one of the more important obscure holidays for language lovers, World Voice Day.

World Voice Day is an international holiday organised as part of an effort by both European and American otolaryngologists, more commonly known as ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialists. The goal of World Voice Day is to celebrate the huge importance of the human voice. In this vein, we thought we'd do our part and aim to establish what the human voice actually is.

A diagram including the vocal cords, because
an actual photo makes them look disgusting.
Most people have a vague understanding of the human voice. We all know that the voice is made using our vocal cords, which can be found in our throats. If you have ever seen Police Academy, and we're sorry if you have, then you will know that these vocal cords are capable of some amazing things.

The cords themselves are incredibly impressive. They differ in size between men and women, with men's vocal cords being longer than women's, which is why men generally have lower voices than women. Though the size difference accounts for the tonal range of men and women, the cords can alter the pitch within those ranges.

The muscles that operate the folds in the vocal cords are amongst the fastest in the body, allowing the vocal cords to change the quality of sound rapidly. It is this rapid movement that helps us to speak in our respective languages.

When the vocal cords get together with our lungs, mouths, and tongues, we can make an incredible range of noises. The difference between certain phonemes, such as voiced and unvoiced phonemes, is due to a phenomenon in the vocal cords known as abduction.

Abduction is when the vocal cords separate, rather than adduction, when they come together. If the act of abduction is sufficient enough to stop the vocal cords vibrating, the result is a voiceless phoneme, like the sound of the letter s in English, at least in most words. When the vocal cords are allowed to vibrate, the result is a voiced sound, like the letter z in English.

When the effect of adduction is strong enough to almost fully stop the vibrations, the result is a glottal stop. If you remember our post on the IPA, the system used to identify almost every phoneme used in human language, then you'll remember that the human voice is much more capable than reproducing all the sounds of just your language.

So we know the vocal cords are important, but what about the "voice"? We'll get to that on Friday. See you then!

Friday, April 11, 2014

Day of the Finnish Language: Part 2

On Wednesday, we celebrated the Day of the Finnish Language with a look at Mikael Agricola, the Finnish clergyman who is considered to be the founder of literary Finnish. While the celebration of the day coincides with the death of Mikael Agricola, it also coincides with the birthday of Elias Lönnrot, a Finnish physician and philologist. We feel a birthday is a much better reason to celebrate than somebody's death.

Sammatti, Elias' birthplace.
Elias Lönnrot was born in 1802 in the Grand Duchy of Finland. He studied his first academic year in the very same place that Agricola was acting bishop. However, the fire of Turku destroyed the university, forcing Lönnrot to move to Helsinki and graduate from the newly established university there which replaced the one in Turku.

He studied medicine and became a district doctor in Kajaani, in eastern Finland. Sadly, he was the only doctor for a population of around 4,000 people who lived across the length and breadth of a wide geographical area.

While his work in medicine seems depressing, it was really his work in linguistics that earned Lönnrot his fame. Lönnrot loved the Finnish language and collected folk tales in the language. He was a founder of the Finnish Literature Society in 1831 and as a result received financial support for his work.

He often took leave from his work as a physician to tour areas of Finland, including Lapland (where Santa lives) and part of Russian Karelia. His travels led to the writing of several books, and he was appointed to the Chair of Finnish Literature at the University of Helsinki thanks to his work preserving Finland's oral traditions.

He worked on the the Finnish-Swedish dictionary between 1866 and 1880, compiling over 200,000 entries in the process. Thanks to his experience with Finnish poetry he was considered a respected figure when it came to the Finnish language. Many of his translations had never been seen before and he coined many of the translations seen in the dictionary. Lönnrot also coined a number of neologisms when it came to scientific terminology with Latin or Greek roots.

Lönnrot's work with Finnish language is the second reason Wednesday was the celebration of the Finnish language. The work conducted by both Agricola and Lönnrot has been incredibly influential in the history of the Finnish language, and that is why Finland celebrated both of these great men in their efforts to preserve their mother tongue.

Part 1 | Part 2

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Day of the Finnish Language: Part 1

As today is the Day of the Finnish Language, we thought we'd celebrate some of the interesting facts surrounding this Uralic language. First of all, on this day Finns have at least two good reasons to celebrate their language. The first reason is that today is celebrates the life of Mikael Agricola, the man who helped formalise literary Finnish and is credited as its de facto founder and sometimes called the "father of literary Finnish".

Mikael Agricola was also known Michael Olaui, Mikkel Olofsson, and Mikael Olavinpoika if you are referring to him in Finnish. He was a sixteenth-century clergyman who was born in Uusimaa, Finland, though Finland was actually part of Sweden at the time. From a young age his teachers noticed he was good with languages and it is suggested that he was a bilingual child that spoke both Swedish and Finnish. Owing to his abilities with languages, his teachers decided to send him to a Latin school in Vyborg, Russia, where he also trained to become a priest.

The man himself.
During his time in academia, he took the name Agricola, meaning "farmer" after the vocation of his father, as was the style at the time. Agricola then went to Turku, Finland in 1528 where he became the scribe for the bishop there.

After being ordained as a priest in 1531, Agricola was then sent to study in Wittenberg, Germany by the bishop of Turku. He focused his efforts on the Greek language, as the prominent language of the bible, and in 1537, he began translating the New Testament into Finnish.

He returned to Turku in 1539 and became a rector. Following the death of a bishop in 1554, Agricola was consecrated as an Ordinarius by Gustav Vasa, the king of Sweden, meaning that Agricola was effectively the bishop in all but title.

In 1557 Agricola was part of a delegation that headed to Russia to negotiate the end of the Russo-Swedish War. Though the negotiations were concluded and put into effect on 2 April 1557, on the way back Agricola fell ill and died in Uusikirkko, then part of Finland, though now part of Russia.

Since the date of Agricola's birth is unknown, the day of his death and his status as the "father of literary Finnish" is one of the reasons that today is the Day of the Finnish Language. We'll be back on Friday with the other reason. See you then!

Part 1 | Part 2

Friday, April 4, 2014

Independence Day: The Languages of Senegal

As today is the day Senegal gained political independence from France, we thought we'd take a look at some of the fascinating languages spoken in the former French colony. On this day in 1959, Senegal and the French Sudan became the Mali Federation, which was eventually given full independence from France on 20 June 1960. However, this is the day celebrated in Senegal so we will respect the Senegalese custom.

The flag of Senegal, which was adopted once the country
gained full independence from France.
As Senegal is a former French colony, you can expect that French is spoken here. However, French is far from the most commonly spoken language in Senegal. Though French is the one and only "official language" in Senegal and is used administratively, it is only understood by anywhere between 15% and 20% of Senegalese men and as little as 1% to 2% of all Senegalese women.

In fact, only 10% of the population of Senegal are true French native speakers, meaning that the remaining 90% of the country must speak some other language. This statement is entirely true, making Senegal a haven for linguistic diversity.

The most widely spoken language in Senegal is actually Wolof, which with nearly 4 million speakers in Senegal is spoken by nearly 40% of the population. The Wolof language is a Niger-Congo language and is regulated by CLAD, the Centre de linguistique appliquée de Dakar. The Wolof language holds regional language status in Senegal.

Soninke has around 2.1 million speakers in the world and aside from Senegal, it is spoken in Mali, the Ivory Coast, Gambia, Mauritania, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, and Ghana. While it is not the official language of Senegal, it is recognised as a regional language.

The Serer language also holds regional language status in Senegal. Much like Wolof, it is regulated by the CLAD where the standard form is known as Serer-Sine, or Serer Proper.

Another Niger-Congo language spoken in Senegal is Pulaar, where it is locally known as Haalpulaar'en. Pulaar is also spoken in Mauritania, Gambia, and western Mali. Pulaar is one of the many names for the Fula language, depending on who you are speaking to. Fula, much like the other languages we have seen, holds regional language status in Senegal.

Mandinka has nearly 700,000 speakers in Senegal and is yet another Niger-Congo language. There a total 1.3 million speakers of Mandinka in the world and though Mandinka is principally a tonal language, in Senegal it is non-tonal and instead uses a pitch accent. The language is written using both Latin and Arabic scripts.

The Niger-Congo language of Jola-Fonyi is spoken by around 340,000 people in Senegal, principally in the Casamance region. There are around 410,000 total speakers of Jola-Fonyi in the world. Jola-Fonyi is one of the principal dialects of Jola which are not mutually intelligible. Jola has regional language status in Senegal.

After Jola-Fonyi, Mandjak is the next most spoken Niger-Congo language in Senegal with 310,000 speakers worldwide and 105,000 speakers in Senegal itself. Balanta-Ganja has around half a million speakers in the world and 82,800 speakers in Senegal. The Noon language family is mainly spoken in the Thiès region by nearly 33,000 people.

The Mankanya language has 29,200 speakers in Senegal. There are nearly 75,000 speakers of the language worldwide with the other speakers principally residing in Guinea-Bissau and Gambia.

Why are we so interested in how many people speak each of these languages? Because all of these languages have more speakers than the L1 and L2 speakers of French combined. Yet French is still the official language of Senegal. We're not saying that French should have its official status removed, but it seems to us that Senegal, while it recognises Wolof, Soninka, Serer, Fula, Maninka, and Jola, as regional languages, continues to conduct its affairs in a language spoken by a minority of the people dating back to European colonialism.