Friday, November 16, 2012

linguistics papers

My undergraduates have just finished writing term papers which were, to me, very interesting. They had three choices: 1) choose an uncommon or endangered language and write about it, 2) take a stand on whether "Spanglish" can be considered a language of its own, 3) investigate linguistic forensics and its application to a court case. About six jumped on #3, and it could be assumed that they are forensics majors; many of my students are. Only one took #2 (so far - in fact I have only received 34 out of about 40 papers); and the rest did endangered or obscure languages.

So let's talk about those. There were Native American languages and their programs to survive and teach their children; similarly, there was an Australian one. There were two on Ainu and some other Asian ones; there was also two papers on European languages, one in Poland and one in Belarus.

One was on Klingon, which was invented by a guy in response to enthusiastic reaction to Star Trek and a group of aliens who appear on it. The guy supposedly was less concerned about grammar than about other elements of the language, which he spelled out very carefully. Classes have been held in Klingon, and Hamlet was rewritten in Klingon. It has an enthusiastic fan base, but no group of native speakers. It has a tension between people who believe that only what the originator specified is valid, versus people who would experiment, change and adapt the language. It raises questions about whether it is a language, partly because interest in it is growing, and even maturing, yet it has restrictions on settling in to being a huge language.

Another paper was on Boontling, a language spoken in the small California town of Boonville. Apparently these rural people, in the late nineteenth century, started systematically making up new words and using them in place of English words, until their Boontling slang was indecipherable by outsiders; ultimately it became like a souvenir, glorified in YouTubes and in tourist literature. But the question is: did it ever have its own grammar, or was it just new words being plugged in systematically in places where English would have content words? My question really is whether it can be called its own language if it has used English grammar and phonology entirely, and simply replaced all the words. In the case of this language, there were generations of people who grew up within it, unclear about what common things (such a phone) were really called; however, these native speakers ended up with a huge vocabulary, more than with two separate languages.

A final question was about saving native languages, and Hawaiian came up as one that has significant attention put to saving it. Hawaiian is an interesting and unique language and attracted this attention partly because of that. The University of Hawaii set about teaching Hawaiian as a second language and soon built up a culture of non-native speakers who were very interested in perpetuating the language. Meanwhile a group of native Hawaiians holed up on one of the islands, where outsiders were prohibited and where they could successfully perpetuate the language and a culture. But the inevitable happened, or is happening: this culture survives only by being isolated. Its elders die; its young generation seek more action in the larger cities. Now, of the two populations who speak Hawaiian, it can be argued that the university one may be more vibrant, or, that due to lack of contact, the variations inevitably split from each other. And either group is just as likely to change anything in their variant, as we saw in English in colonial days. The set of changes that befall a language invariably create a different language, when and if they don't maintain contact.

I'll read these papers more carefully as soon as I can, and report back. I find it an interesting subject, and want to pursue it more.

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