Talking Baby Talk

This week I’m talking with Dr. Ailís Cournane of The University of Toronto. We are discussing first language acquisition, or FLA. We spoke about the way babies and infants acquire their mother tongue(s), the first language(s) they learn, and how they go about doing that.

Have you ever wondered if your infant understands your baby-talk? Whether you could raise a perfectly trilingual child? Or if it matters that your kid can’t remember that we don’t say “gooses” or “meeses”?”. Understanding how our children acquire language through FLA is the first step in answering some of these questions. Even if you don’t have a child, you were one once, so let’s find out what the kid in us thinks about how we all learned our first language

Like so many aspects of child rearing, having one’s own child tends to make people feel like experts on how babies develop. When it comes to first language acquisition, we can turn to researchers like Doctor Cournane to help understand out the science behind how our babies develop, and what kind of universal truths actually exist. Even if you don’t have a child, you were one once, so let’s find out what the kid in us thinks about how we all learned our first language.

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[Child version of me being encouraged to speak by being given macaroni…still works 24 years later]

Michael Iannozzi : What first got you interested in studying first-language acquisition?

Ailís Cournane : I originally worked on language change, and I continually saw reference to the role of the child learner in driving language change [Language change is the way language evolves over time, which usually means over generations]. Children are thought to reanalyse the language when they learn and build their own [internal and subconscious] mental grammar. However, despite seeing that theory everywhere, and it being widely accepted, no one had explored it sufficiently in how languages change. So I got into child language because I’m interested in change. Development and change have much in common.

MI : How is first-language acquisition defined?

AC : FLA [First-Language Acquisition] describes the process and properties of the language of infants/toddlers/young children as they acquire their mother tongue(s). The child begins with no language (but with the capacity for language!), and with social input from speakers around her, she gradually builds her language(s). I say “language(s)” because many infants are exposed to more than one language, so they acquire these simultaneously.

MI : How is the learning of a first language different from the learning of second language?

AC : There are a few important differences. Firstly, with FLA there is no other language in place. If you are a child acquiring English you are building your first language using just your language capacity and exposure to older speakers. For Second Language Acquisition [SLA] you already have a language in place! So when you learn English as a teenager, for example, you learn it in relation to your mother tongue (say, Mandarin). The English you learn as an L2 competes in some ways with the Mandarin you learned first [An L2 is someone’s 2nd language. The one they acquired second]. Secondly, SLA appears to require more motivation and explicit learning (classes, drills, forcing yourself to practice with native speakers, etc.) than FLA. SLA also seems to show less defined milestones (or stages) than FLA.

MI : Who are the main sources of input for an infant’s first language [L1] acquisition?

AC : The primary caregivers are the main source of input during infancy and early childhood. Very early on, when most infants are relying heavily on their mother, the maternal input is usually strongest. Older siblings also play a role early on in development. Once the child attends daycare or preschool the peer-group begins to play a larger role.

MI : From whom does a child learn their accent?

AC : Well, at first a child – especially an oldest or only child – models their language on their primary caregivers’ language, from who they are hearing most of their language input. However, children very quickly adapt to their peer-group as soon as they enter daycare or elementary school. This is why people with immigrant parents do not share their parents’ accent, but instead sound like their peers. For example, my parents are from Ireland, but my brothers and I grew up in Montreal. We have Canadian English accents with the features expected of Montreal Anglophones. We occasionally have some Irish influence in our language, but we sound much, much, more like our peers than our parents.

MI : Are the parts of a child’s language (accent, grammar, pronunciation, etc.) learned separately/from different sources, or is it all learned concurrently?

AC : Concurrently, however, the focus or main concentration of developmental changes may be in different areas at different times. For example, since words are made up of several sounds the infant needs to begin to crack the sound system of a language before they can really grasp words (let alone complex words or sentences). That said, sounds are contained in words so the child is also necessarily learning about words when they are focusing on sound development. There are very complex interactions at work.

MI : As children learn their first language, they all make some mistakes, what do they tell us about how the children are learning to speak?

AC : I like to call mistakes or errors “divergent” or “creative” analyses, because these analyses are productive and systematic and emerge from aspects of how the child is learning [Meaning the mistakes a child makes like calling geese, “gooses”, or moose “meese”, make sense even though they aren’t correct. In other words, the mistakes are patterned, and can be explained].

They only seem like mistakes when we compare them to adult grammar norms, but they aren’t actually mistakes, they’re (for example) the child uncovering rules of the language and applying those rules (sometimes to exceptions). For example, children sometimesover-apply the regular past tense (-ed) to irregular past tense (e.g., goed for went, or eated for ate). This shows that the child understands how to productively form a past tense in English – that’s a big achievement, and shows pattern recognitions and the ability to generalize a rule.

MI : Are the mistakes a child makes in speaking all the same “kind” of mistake? Is a mispronunciation the same “kind of mistake” as eated or goed?

AC : Not necessarily. Mispronunciation, for example, can have either or both physiological (muscle-control, shape of the developing vocal tract, coordination, etc.) and cognitive (understanding of the sound system of the language, planning, etc.) causes.

Omissions of grammatical words (e.g., saying wan go, leaving out the pronoun “I” and the “to” infinitive marker, I wanna go), and what these mistakes mean, are notoriously debated. Does the child omit them because they’re not salient in the sound signal of the language [Is the child not hearing the other parts?]? Or because they are more grammatically complex and abstract? Or because they can be omitted pragmatically (i.e. they’re not necessary to be understood when speech happens in context, as most daily speech does, especially for a child)? Or some combination of these? [It is pretty clear what “want eat” means coming from an infant at supper, even if grammatically it isn’t “correct”]

MI : Is there an “order” to the way children learn a language? Do they learn certain parts first and last?

AC : Yes. Some of this order is logically determined – sentences are made up of words and words are made up of sounds, so you can’t jump right to learning sentences if you haven’t figured out something about the sound system of the language you are learning. Thus, simplifying somewhat, the infant’s first task is to break into the sound system of the speech around them (or the gestural system of the sign language around them). Part of learning the sound patterns in a language is learning where word boundaries are in the stream of speech. Our speech is a continuous acoustic stream with no boundaries, but our mental grammar knows where to put boundaries [This is often why, when we hear a language we aren’t familiar with, we think they are speaking quickly. Because we can’t hear where words end].

We learned to do this as infants by solving what is called the “segmentation problem”. This problem refers to how the child learns where in the continuous stream one word ends and the next begins. Current research mostly argues that children rely heavily, or solely, on monitoring transitional probabilities between sounds. Sounds that frequently pattern together in the speech stream are thought to pattern together as words. Only by having some understanding of the phonology of the language, e.g. which sounds pattern together and how, can the child progress to associating meanings to words and learning how words can be combined together into complex words and sentences.

MI : Is that order the same across languages? What are the differences in children who learn different first languages?

AC : Yes, as far as we know the order is remarkably similar across diverse languages. The infant, unlike someone trying to learn a second language, has no knowledge of any previous language, so much of what constrains development is determined by how the child learns, and if the child has any learning or language impairments. The child must figure out the sound system, word forms and word-patterns, word meanings, grammatical rules (syntax), etc. The task is broadly the same one, despite the language that is being acquired varying. American Sign Language, despite being in a different mode (gestural-visual, rather than oral-aural), is known to be very similar in development to spoken languages when we consider milestones – babbling, first words, first word combinations (early sentences), overgeneralization of rules, etc. That said, most languages have not been sufficiently studied in development, the focus has been primarily on Western European languages and other prominent/widely-spoke languages (e.g., Japanese, Mandarin).

MI : How do adults/parents/caregivers change their speech when talking with children/infants?

AC : Caregivers often use what is called “Child Directed Speech”, or CDS. This is also called Infant-Directed Speech or Motherese. CDS has distinct phonetic features – it is higher pitch than the speaker’s regular voice, stress patterns are exaggerated, and vowels are held for a longer duration. These phonetic features are perceived as having a “happy affect”. Infants and young children respond preferentially to happy affect.

There is also some evidence that adults simplify their word choices to represent basic-level categories, for example, a mother might call a tiger a “kitty” when talking to her young child. Further, there is also some evidence that adults might simplify the sentences containing words the child is poised to learn. For example, a father might say “You want water?” to his 1-year old rather than, “Do you want a glass of water?”. Adults are thought to subconsciously complexify their child-directed language as the child grows linguistically.

MI : Is this change helpful for the learning children?

AC : It seems to be helpful, but not necessary. There are cross-cultural differences in the ways adults, and particularly caregivers, interact with children. We know that CDS is something that infants and young children respond to, and it may help exaggerate word boundaries and other features of the speech stream and thus help with learning words, but helping is different from being necessary. Most of our research has been conducted on children learning a language in western societies in recent times, so it is fair to say that it this point we know more about this learning situation than all other extant learning situations.

MI : Do different children learn their first language differently?

AC : Yes. There is variation across children, but this needs to be viewed as secondary to very robust trends and similarities. Thus, there is more that is the same about how children learn their first language than there is that differs. With that in mind, let’s talk about what varies.

First, children may have a disorder that affects language development (e.g., Down Syndrome, Autism, Williams Syndrome), or they may have a hearing impairment that impairs their access to spoken language (but not to sign language if they are exposed to a sign language). Then, even among children who are considered typically-developing with respect to language, the time course of development varies. Some children reach milestones much earlier than others, all within the normal range. For example, some children will use their first words by 10 months of age, while others may not use their first words until 24 months old. This is comparable to how some children start walking at 9 months while others start walking at 18 months. Language delay is only diagnosed in children over age 4 because children can vary widely in early development without any cause for alarm.

The child’s personality also affects development. Some children will be quiet and cautious, while others will be quite loquacious. The nature of linguistic interaction with caregivers matters as well. Some studies have shown that socioeconomic status (SES) is a significant factor in vocabulary and syntactic development. Families in the US were followed and their speech analysed; caregivers of lower socioeconomic status were less likely to ask their young children open ended questions (e.g. “What are you drawing?”) and more likely to address young children with yes/no questions (e.g., “Are you drawing?”), and more likely to use prohibitive language (e.g., “Don’t…”) compared to higher SES caregivers. Children from higher SES families on average had larger vocabularies, and reached syntactic development milestones somewhat earlier.

MI : How does a child change the language of their parents?

AC : My research directly addresses this, but it is an area that has previously received a lot of theoretical attention, but very little data-driven research. In other words, many researchers think children play a role in how languages change, but it’s unclear from real-world research whether that is true or not. We know that teenagers are “early adopters”, and most likely to embrace and spread language changes (think about, for example, use of quotative “be like” as in “He was like, ‘thank you’”), however do these new variants in the language emerge from child-language innovations?

I look at this question for modal expressions (words that express possibility: must, can, might, maybe, probably, etc). Children do appear to make analyses that are compatible with how languages change over time. However, compatible is not necessarily causal, so stay tuned!

MI : Does your research affect the way you now speak with children?

AC : I don’t think so, except perhaps that I’m more and more comfortable with lots of different children the more I work with kids. That said, working on child language definitely affects how I listen to children! I love talking to children not just for the content of what they say, but for the linguistic form of what they say.

MI : What is your favourite part of studying the way children learn languages?

AC : The linguistic creativity! They are using their developing language to live their wee lives, and they make many creative sentences when they try to express themselves. The problem itself is fascinating and complex – how does a language-less infant go from that pre-linguistic stage to becoming a fully-linguistic adult? Language is complex and systematic, and it is so easy to take it for granted. When you have to explicitly think about what the little language learner is doing you are regularly struck by how marvellous it is that humans can learn language at all.

twinsoonies

[My mum and her twin sister sharing sandbox gossip]

A great thank you to Ailís Cournane for taking us back in time, and teaching us how we once learned language.

One of the great advantages of studying linguistics, or language more broadly, is that you are constantly amazed at the complexities of language, and how subconsciously and effortlessly you are able to handle that complexity.

The fact that the little child version of me was able to learn “Tractor” as one of my first words, is quite remarkable. Infant Michael was able to find out where the word began and ended (with a “t” sound and an “r” sound), pick out the sounds in between, and attach that collection of sounds to a massive machine my grampa drove through the field with me, and then produce those sounds without being asked when I saw it the next week. Not bad work considering I still struggle after 10 years to use dont correctly in French.

 

Take care eh,

 

Michael Iannozzi

 

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Don’t Say That, It Makes You Sound Like A Girl

LeAnn Brown is a recent PhD graduate from the University of Toronto, a sessional instructor at the University of Calgary, and a research assistant for the University of Manitoba. She studies how gender, sexual orientation, and personal traits are all manifested (or if they are manifested) in people’s speech, and how that shapes power in our society.

This is one of a two-part interview with LeAnn. This week we are discussing how women have traditionally had their speech stigmatized as a proxy for criticizing women in general.

In two weeks our next post will focus on LGBTQ issues.

The research LeAnn Brown does, and that she cites, reflect critical biases in our society. By better understanding these issues, we can work to address and overcome them.

[Men and women have compared and contrasted their ways of speaking since we started speaking]

[People judge how others speak, and often gender plays a role in those judgements]

Michael Iannozzi : What first got you interested in studying the way power, gender, and sexual orientation shape language use?

LeAnn Brown : As an undergrad I heard a little about “genderlects” – this idea that women and men speak differently. I wondered how easily trans gender individuals would be able to acquire a new genderlect and that became the focus of my masters project and some of my PhD research. Looking at cis (i.e., non-trans) and trans gender issues brings up all kinds of questions about power and sexual orientation, so my interest in all these issues evolved out of this first basic question.

MI : How do you define power in a conversation between two people?

LB : There are many different definitions of and kinds of power. A good starting point definition is that you have power if you have access to prestige, status, wealth and opportunities. When we are talking about language and broad social factors such as gender, sexual orientation, race/ethnicity, and class, we’re talking about who has the power to set the norms within a society. English-speaking Canadian society today is for the most part a product of white, English-speaking, Christian, able-bodied, heterosexual, cis gender populations, and therefore is predominantly led in most areas (political, religious, educational, justice systems) by white, English-speaking, Christian, able-bodied, heterosexual men. Not only do they have access to prestige, status, wealth and opportunities, but they also control who else has access. Challenging this kind of power requires social movements – for example, the US Civil Rights movement, the Women’s Movement, challenges to anti-discrimination in the workplace for members of the LGBTQ communities.

All of this is in the background when two people have a conversation, but their own social realities and the context, including the purpose of the conversation, also affects the power relationship. These things are not static as the context or purpose can change along with the power balance. So there is no simple one-off answer to this question.

MI : How does gender play into the weighing of power, and has that changed in the last decade/few years?

LB : In terms of Canadian society, women now have more access to power in social realms than they did historically, but there are still power inequities. I don’t think most people would dispute this given the prevalence of domestic violence against women, the higher proportions of women (and children) living in poverty, gender based pay gaps, and the lack of women in government as compared to men. Language reflects this.

For example, if we look at the history of how the English language was talked about, we find that it was assumed to be the arena of men. The writer Thomas Hardy noted that “[i]t is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in a language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs.” Men were assumed to be standard speakers and writers, using the “correct” grammar and pronunciation. Of course, this did not include all men — only white, native English speaking, educated men. For example, in Jespersen’s 1922 book on English grammar he had specific chapters to talk about the speech of non-standard speakers, like “foreigners” and women. When you are in power, you can decide what is “normal” or “standard” and what is not normal or non-standard (read substandard). This keeps you in your place and everyone else in their place.

Yet research by Labov in the late 1960s and 1970s in the US revealed interesting results that didn’t support this view of language. He found that English speaking women, across race and class lines, produced more standard forms than did their male counterparts. He also found that women tend to be the language innovators, keeping the language alive and vibrant, by participating in, for example, new syntactic forms, new lexical items, and new vowel shifts initially at greater rates than their male counterparts. This is Labov’s famous “Gender Paradox”.

MI : What do these findings reflect about our preconceptions and expectations?

LB : These kinds of results are important because they indicate a big disconnect between what specific speaker groups produce and what specific listener groups think others produce. That is, we have stereotypes about groups of speakers that are not based on actual linguistic output and this holds for gender as well as other social factors.

It was Robin Lakoff’s work in the early 1970s that truly focused on the question of “genderlects” (i.e., language differences by gender). Her work has been downplayed as it was based on her own intuitions as a white academic, rather than through studies of actual people in everyday life, but she is an important figure in my opinion for a couple of reasons. First, she clearly identified the limitations of the work, but also acknowledges that these language differences are primarily about differences in power. Women’s language reflected powerlessness and men’s reflected power, so it’s not inherently about gender roles but about the power each gender role is allocated in the societal scheme. Second, she identified specific variables that women tended to use in her experience. These variables were then picked up and used by later researchers in their own quantitative research. For example, hedges (e.g., sort of, kind of, I guess), fillers (e.g., you know, like), and tag questions (e.g., You’re going, aren’t you?).

Later studies (e.g., Shuy, 1993) looking at court hearing transcripts supports Lakoff’s first point. In court, when a witness and a lawyer or a judge converse there is a clear power difference: the witness is the least powerful person in the conversation. Many of the linguistic cues Lakoff identified as part of women’s language — the use of hedges and fillers for example — are found in witness speech, regardless of their gender. Interestingly, Shuy’s research suggests that the use of these less powerful linguistic devices leads to the speaker being disbelieved, and this has consequences in terms of legal outcomes and sentencing.

MI : What are some examples of the way features of “women’s speech” are viewed negatively?

LB : What is interesting to me is whether a variable is stigmatized because it is non-standard or because it is used by women. Uptalk is a great example. Simply put, uptalk makes a statement take on a questioning intonation and in North America it is often thought to be used exclusively by young women (innovators!). Lakoff also noted uptalk in women’s language as expressing hesitancy and the need for reassurance. Uptalk is interesting because it is something everyone seems to notice. In North American English, uptalk is strongly associated with young women and as negatively making the speaker appear unsure or inept.

For example, I had a young woman explain to me during a workshop that she had been explicitly told in her university business program to never ever use uptalk as it would damage her credibility and professional image. There are many popular online articles and YouTube videos on presentation skills that address the horrors of uptalk.

Interestingly, a small study of Ontario speakers (Shokeir, 2008) found that while women used uptalk much more than men did, it was not exclusive to women, and it was not exclusive to younger women. Everyone is using it, women more so than men, but older women were using it at similar rates as the younger women. Shokeir (2008) further found that for men, uptalk was connected to negatives such as uncertainty, but for women it reflected positive attributes like friendliness.

In terms of power, is uptalk negatively viewed because it is associated with a lack of power or the speaker sounds uncertain, or because it is considered to be something used by young women? Does the ban on uptalk in business classes reflect a culture that values power or devalues friendliness, or devalues women in general? Will uptalk be used in Canada by women and men, and/or will Canadian men change their associations of uptalk into something more positive? That’s something to keep on the radar. This is a good example of who gets to set the standard and how new things that don’t fit the standard are not viewed positively until more people (i.e., those with more social prestige) use it.

MI : Why do you think this kind of “policing” of language is so popular?

LB : Language is often an “acceptable” way of othering people. Criticisms of language use are the framework to continue to produce and justify prejudice and discrimination. There are great examples of this on YouTube videos that attack young women (and I would assume other groups traditionally discriminated against). When you look at the video content it isn’t about the language use, it’s about misogyny, couched in terms of language use. Ironically, the very language use being attacked is often used by the critic.

So for example, in one video I presented at a workshop a young man mimicked a young woman he allegedly disliked because of the way she speaks. He did this by using like excessively. But he uses like excessively in his own speech too. The video content makes clear that this young man found this woman he was mimicking (and women who speak like her) “morally wanting” yet he chose to explicitly attack her speech rather than her moral character.

[I am made and remade continually. Different people draw different words from me. - V. Woolf]

[I am made and remade continually. Different people draw different words from me. – V. Woolf]

A big thank you to LeAnn Brown for sharing her research and knowledge with the blog.

Recently there has been a lot of discussion surrounding “vocal fry”: the creaking or croaky sound a voice can make often at the end of a sentence. It has been criticized in same way as HRT. However, also like HRT, it has been found to not only be used by women (not even close), but it is hardly a new phenomenon.

Certain aspects of language can be (rightly or wrongly) associated with particular groups, and is often used to discredit and criticize them. However, there is a diversity in the way we use and abuse language that does not reflect who we are as people.

You can find stories surrounding the vocal fry kerfuffle here:

http://www.npr.org/2015/07/23/425608745/from-upspeak-to-vocal-fry-are-we-policing-young-womens-voices

https://soundcloud.com/panoplyexcerpts/the-vocal-fry-guys

https://debuk.wordpress.com/2015/07/26/a-response-to-naomi-wolf/

http://nymag.com/thecut/2015/07/can-we-just-like-get-over-the-way-women-talk.html

http://www.thestar.com/life/2015/08/04/women-say-they-vocal-fry-because-they-want-to.html

Thank you very much.

Take care eh,

Michael Iannozzi

Putting Learning to Good Use

It’s likely that every frustrated student has at some point thought “when am I ever going to use this? This week’s post is an example of how students put what they learned to real use in a way that benefitted a community, and an entire language.

In 2012, a group of students from a University of Toronto undergraduate class on language revitalization took what they learned in the classroom, and shared their knowledge with language activists. They decided to work on the Ojibwe language with the help of Revival Program Coordinator Alan Corbiere. Ojibwe is a polysynthetic indigenous language, meaning that that different parts can join together in one word, which means words can look big and intimidating to English-speakers. For example, “He listens to the other one” could be expressed as a single, large word (obizindawaan).

I was lucky to speak with Paulina Lyskawa, a graduate student at the University of Toronto, about the project her and her classmates worked on, and continue to work on, with the help of Professor Alana Johns. The result of the project was a website of traditional Ojibwe stories called Baadwewedamojig that have been transcribed and translated, some for the first time in a century.

[A recording of the story of Nenabosho from the Baadwewedamojig website]

 

Michael Iannozzi : To start, what is Ojibwe?

Paulina Lyskawa : Ojibwe, or Anishinaabemowin, is one of the First Nations languages spoken in Canada and the US.

MI : How many speakers are there?

PL : It depends how you count of course. We have found that people are very shy to report that they speak any Ojibwe because they think they are not proficient enough, whereas in fact, we thought that they can carry a conversation quite easily. The crucial thing is that Ojibwe is doing relatively well compared to other indigenous languages of North America; perhaps because there has been a lot of effort into its revitalization. So we see that it has been worthwhile and we want to contribute a bit more.

MI : What does it looks like, and what does it sound like?

PL : We quickly learned not to be intimidated by these long, long words and soon we started intuitively, and often correctly, breaking them down into their appropriate. It was crucial for two reasons – if for some reason we wanted to double-check the meaning in the Ojibwe People’s Dictionary, we had a better chance to do it by root.

MI : Are there related languages spoken currently?

PL : Ojibwe is an Algonquian language, so it is closely related to Cree as well as Mi’kmaq, Blackfoot and many others.

MI : Now turning to you, what first got you interested in the study of Ojibwe?

PL : It started with the course LIN 458 (Revitalizing Languages). The course shows that various indigenous languages around the world face similar problems. We hear a lot of stories in the media like “The last speaker of X died.” But they rarely dig deeper into the story of what had been happening to this language before it came to the verge of extinction. Alternatively, we hear stories about communities that are successful in their attempts to bring the language back like the exemplar case of Māori or Hawaiian, but we don’t realize how much effort it entailed, and that the same methods cannot always be replicated 1:1 in another language.

I, before taking this course, didn’t know much about the problems of indigenous languages in Canada, because I didn’t grow up here. So I learned A LOT.

MI : And your project “Baadwewedamojig”, how was it built?

PL : The class started with documentaries and academic literature on language revitalization – why languages become endangered, whether there is any sense in preserving or revitalizing them, and, if yes, how to go about it. From early on, we were thinking of what final group project we could come up with to put our newly acquired knowledge to use. Then, Prof. Alana Johns met Alan Corbiere, a scholar and an Anishinaabe from M’Chigeeng First Nation. He came up with the idea of how to utilize the skills of Linguistics major students in a project that he started some time before.

MI : What are the Baadwewedamojig project’s goals?

PL : He showed us a collection of Ojibwe stories transcribed by a linguist, William Jones, at the beginning of the 20th century. It is quite important knowing the fact that while the culture of story-telling is very rich, it is mainly oral. Imagine, what an amount of work and expertise Jones showed by listening to various stories told by at least two different speakers, and being able to transcribe it phonetically. Nevertheless, it is hardly of any use for Ojibwe speakers nowadays, because the kind of phonetic ‘code’ Jones used is bizarre and not familiar to linguists nowadays. So first, a sub-team of students came up with a systematic key to decipher these transcriptions based on Alan Corbiere’s previous transliterations of a few stories and we added to it as we went along. Alan, being the only person on our team who actually spoke Ojibwe, had to proofread everything and sometimes consult more proficient speakers.

MI : What is the role of the linguist and what is the role of the community elders in a project like this?

PL : I really liked that the idea came directly from Alan, the member of the community rather than us, which would have felt like non-speakers imposing our opinion that their language needs our help. And particularly, despite the fact that very few people knew any words in Ojibwe, we were still able to help! I was so proud that my linguistic knowledge could be applied in such a cool and important project.

MI : In a class of linguistics students, what was the main challenge to working on this project?

PL : It was pretty straightforward to have it as a class project where every student had an assigned story to “translate” the text from Jones’ code to the new spelling system. After the course ended, we knew that abandoning the project at this point would be contradict the idea to get truly involved. So a few of us, Robin McLeod, Annita Chow, Richard Gananathan and I, decided to keep transliterating, and to think of how to make these resources useful to Ojibwe speakers. There were some trivial problems like how to find time for the project outside everyone’s busy schedules. Moreover, we faced other issues like how to make it available to the wide public. Then came a student of computer sciences who constructed a great, easy-to-navigate website where the stories are published. Finally, a big dilemma we faced is that some stories are traditionally supposed to be told only during certain seasons, thus are we violating the cultural norms by making them available all year round? [This is a problem almost all archives face, and our post about cultural licences touches on this tricky issue]

MI : And what was the main advantage?

PL : Alan Corbiere filled us with his enthusiasm, and he is such a dedicated person we really feel that we did a good job. Working under the supervision of Alan, as well as Prof. Johns, was great because they are absolute experts in this field.

MI : What are the advantages of modern technology and the internet in building tools for a language?

PL : The stories are a great teaching tool. Each one is easily accessible in three different formats: first, each sentence in Ojibwe can be immediately followed by a translation in English, which is great for less proficient speakers or for careful language analysis; second, a column of Ojibwe text next to an English one for more advanced speakers; as well as an Ojibwe-only version, for example for cultural teaching to speakers of all levels. Furthermore, some stories are available in two versions – classic and Manitoulin Island dialect. Finally, increasingly, more stories are now available with sound files recorded by a native speaker.

MI : From a purely technological point-of-view, what have been some of the challenges (in terms of hardware and software) in building this website?

PL : Technology is transient. Take CDs for example, not every computer has a CD reader nowadays, let alone some other older technologies like tapes or floppy disks. Similarly with software, once a program is outdated, some file formats may not be easily opened. So as a long-term goal, we have to stay on top of things, and if our website keeps being used, it will need to be updated accordingly to new technology. As a short-term goal, we had to keep in mind that some people will leave the project and new ones may join, so all the procedures had to be transparent.

MI : On the website I see that there is a decision to include audio, why is it important to have audio files? And how does this impact interactions with the website?

PL : Having a spoken component gives another dimension to language learning. I can imagine that for self-study, it is an essential piece. For example, many of the students we asked reported that they do study from home – they may not have Ojibwe classes offered in their neighbourhood or perhaps they prefer to do it in their own free time. Every English as a Second Language textbook has audio with it so why not Ojibwe?

MI : If someone wants to learn Ojibwe, what do you feel is the best approach, and how should someone get started?

PL : I know it is easier to say than actually do. I started learning some indigenous languages myself and as soon as I took a break, it all went away immediately. Similarly, for many foreign languages; however, with many of those the resources are much more plentiful. It is very, very, very hard, so good motivation and commitment is the key.

MI : What has been your favourite part of being involved in the project?

PL : The stories are absolutely hilarious. One can easily imagine the main character, Nanabushu actually going through all the adventures. Just read it!

An example of the writing system that had to be updated.

An example of the writing system (on the left) that had to be updated.

A sincere thank you to Paulina Lyskawa and the whole LIN 458 class of 2012. In this linked article, Paulina I think brilliantly summarizes the project and all work that involves peoples or communities, “It’s crucial that if we linguists study languages to develop our own field, at the same time we give back to the people behind these languages”.

She is absolutely right. When people share their homes, community, and language with a researcher, they absolutely must be sure that the community is treated fairly throughout, and that the linguist’s skills and findings are used to benefit the community as much as possible.

 

Take care eh,

 

Michael Iannozzi

Studying 5000-Year Old Words

This week’s interview is with Shayna Gardiner, a PhD student at the University of Toronto. She is the linguist studying ancient Egyptian. Her work brings together the work of centuries of archaeologists, historians, and Egyptologists, to look at the language these people used.

As a fair warning this interview is terminology-heavy, and it is not the easiest of subjects to follow. What Shayna is doing is not simple—not that any of the people we’ve profiled do easy work, but in order to gain a better understanding of what she does, and what she’s studying, there are terms and concepts that may not be immediately clear to people outside the field (myself included).

As Shayna mentions in the interview, everyone has a period in their childhood where they are obsessed with Ancient Egypt, and some never grow out of it. I’m one of those people. Growing up I was always fascinated, and I think my mum has a large role to play in that. She has always been keenly interested in Ancient Egypt, and when I was a kid, we would watch all the documentaries that came on TV about Ancient Egypt, and at used-book sales we would buy all the ones we could find on Ancient Egypt. I really hope this post is accessible not just to linguists, but also anyone who finds Ancient Egypt interesting, my mum included.

 

The Edwin Smith Papyrus showing the Hieratic writing system. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The Edwin Smith Papyrus showing the Hieratic writing system. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Michael Iannozzi : So I suppose, to start, how do you study Ancient Egyptian?

Shayna Gardiner : There are lots of ways to study it; in Egyptology, the usual way is to learn about a given text – what kind of text it is, what time it was written (and what was going on in Egypt during that time period, and how you can tell the text is from that time period), and what it tells us about the society. That kind of thing.

SG : In linguistics, we can study Egyptian the same way we study any other language: we can solve language puzzles by figuring out how the structure works in terms of what kinds of sentences we can see in Egyptian, such as its word order. We can also study the specific words to a certain extent, but you come to an impasse: Egyptian writing doesn’t include vowels – it only makes use of consonants like Arabic and Hebrew – so there’s no way to really know what vowels went where for sure.

SG : Additionally, we can also study variation and language change in Egyptian – since it was written for a few thousand years, it’s possible to get texts from many different points in time and compare them to each other to learn about which aspects of Egyptian have changed over time, and in what ways they do so [Change is how the use of “thanks” has changed over decades and centuries]. Likewise, since there is such a variety of text types – Egyptians wrote fairy tales, histories, literature, medical texts, mathematical texts, and magical spells – and in different cities, we can learn about how Egyptian changed over its written history. We can study variation in Egyptian essentially the same way we would in a modern language.

MI : During what time span was it spoken?

SG : Egyptian is actually the longest continually-attested language in the world. Its written form began c. 3200BC, and it’s assumed to have been spoken for at least several thousand years before writing was invented. Egyptian goes through five different stages from its emergence in writing to its death: Old Egyptian, Middle Egyptian, Late Egyptian, Demotic, and Coptic. Coptic was spoken until the 17th/18th century AD, and even now it’s still used by the Coptic Church the way Latin is used by the Roman Catholic Church.

MI : Where does your data come from, geographically?

SG : The data for my project come from all over Egypt: in ancient times the country was divided into two parts: Upper Egypt in the south, and Lower Egypt in the north. I have text samples from both sections of the empire, which encompasses modern-day Egypt and modern-day Sudan, all along the Nile Valley. I also have texts from Nubia, which was located just south of Upper Egypt – also in modern-day Sudan – and was occasionally part of the Egyptian empire as well (though never of its own volition).

MI : How many writers do you draw from?

SG : I don’t know; most texts do not include the name of the scribe who wrote them (though some do!). Additionally, many types of text, such as letters, would be dictated to the scribe by whomever he was writing for. This means that we would not be able to make any accurate conclusions about speakers, unfortunately. Sometimes working with ancient data isn’t as straightforward as with modern languages!

MI : What kinds of written materials are there?

SG : Tons of different kinds! Egyptians wrote on a lot of things: temple and tomb walls, stone slabs, potshards, pieces of cloth, and papyrus are some of the more common writing surfaces. In terms of text types, there are letters (in varying degrees of formality), autobiographical texts, religious texts, magical texts, wisdom texts (i.e. teaching people how to behave properly in society), literature, poetry, mathematical texts, and medical texts, just to name a few.

MI : What are the most formal and informal types of texts?

SG : So generally speaking, letters are the most vernacular [casual] of the text types that I work with – those would be the least formal, but there are varying degrees of formality within them: when you’re writing to a king, you’re going to be more formal than when you’re writing to a friend or family member. Letters to the dead, then, are the least formal because you’re just writing a letter to your dead relative as if they were still alive, either just telling them about your life, or asking them to use their newfound spirit-world powers to help you out in the mortal realm.

MI : How many people in sociolinguistics study ancient Egyptian?

SG : Only me so far! But I hope that number will grow as time goes on – I think it’s very much a worthwhile pursuit.

MI : Has it been an advantage to work at a university that has an Egyptology department?

SG : Definitely. The fact that U of T has such a fantastic linguistics program is only half the reason I wanted to do my PhD here – the other half is the fact that U of T has Canada’s only Egyptology department. I’ve been taking Egyptian classes and working with the professors and students in the Egyptology department throughout my studies here, and it’s been tremendously helpful and such an enriching experience to be able to learn about ancient Egypt – it gives a much deeper understanding of the language when you also know about the culture and the history of the places it’s spoken.

MI : Now turning to you, what first got you interested in the study of Ancient Egyptian?

SG : I actually don’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in Egyptology – I think every kid has that phase where they want to be a palaeontologist and/or archaeologist and/or Egyptologist. I went to museums a lot when I was little, and I was always interested in the Egypt sections. Eventually I thought, “Well maybe I can just study this!” And then I did.

MI : How important is it to work with Egyptologists for your work?

SG : It’s so important to get feedback from Egyptologists on my work because there’s already a massive amount of research that’s been done over the last two hundred years by Egyptologists, and I don’t necessarily know where to look for that information. For example, I use Egyptological theories about Egyptian to base my predictions on – I would have no hypotheses to test if I didn’t read Egyptology articles! Additionally, it’s much easier to study Egyptian if you actually know how to read and write Egyptian and have learned the language – the best way to do that is by working with and learning from Egyptologists!

MI : Could your research have been done 20 years ago? What technological advances were required?

SG : No. There is no way this research could have been conducted without the corpus that I’m using – the ROM has plenty of texts, yes, but nowhere near the 1.1 million words that the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae has [Corpus just means the “body” of writings she is using. A corpus is like a database that contains very specific information—in this case Egyptian writing that has been transcribed]. The corpus is very new; 20 years ago the internet barely existed, and a corpus like this would never have been free in the years before the internet, if it even existed at all.

MI : What do you hope the impact of your research is?

SG : I’m not going to say impact because I don’t know that it will affect the world or anything. But the importance of studying the linguistics of ancient Egyptian in general is manifold. Applying the methods used to analyze the structures of modern languages to their ancient counterparts is extremely useful for discovering relationships between modern languages, and for providing valuable insight into the evolution of language (I think, anyway!). This research also gives us greater knowledge of ancient languages, and it follows from this that we also gain a deeper understanding of material written in such languages and of the ancient people who used them. Ancient Egypt is one of very few cultures for which we can test hypotheses about language evolution over the course of thousands of years, and it will allow us to test modern linguistic theory against ancient data to discover whether language universals are universal across time.

MI : Most sociolinguists work on projects that span a decade, or maybe a century; with your work covering millennia, what are some advantages, and what are some difficulties?

SG : I’ve already spoken about the advantages, but I’ll add one more here: the change over time in what I’m studying is extremely slow, spanning 1000+ years and still not ever reaching completion. This is really important because if we looked at any given period of say, 500 years, it would look like what we are studying in Egyptian was not undergoing change. This is really important in terms of how we look at modern variables, and reminds us that what seems to be stable variation may actually be a very slow change in progress [Here she means that some things about the way we speak can appear to be unchanging; however, if you look on a long enough time span there will be changes that don’t appear over a shorter period. For example, if you were to look at the use of “hello” over the last several decades, it would appear to be very common; however, if you go back to the 19th century, it was far less common and even non-existent before the 1830s].

As for the disadvantages, well, for modern data it’s much easier to get tokens from every possible category, whereas with ancient data there will always be gaps [Tokens are examples of the thing being researched. For example, if you were studying how often people say “like”, each use of “like” would be a token. A category would be, for example, each age group, or gender, or city. So if you were looking at “like” you’d want to have tokens from many different people, and the people should be different in terms of age, gender, and city. In Shayna’s context she means it is hard with her data because the author often isn’t given, and gender, age, and city are difficult to ascertain]. Likewise we can’t necessarily be sure what exact year each text was written in, or what exact city it’s from, how old the speaker (or writer, in this case) is, or what gender they are (though it’s unlikely to be a woman). We can’t be as specific in these things as we could be with modern languages.

MI : How does the changes in cultural behaviours and beliefs get reflected in the writings you see?

SG : It’s so interesting! You can see the differences in a lot of ways: for example, in the Old Kingdom the kings were seen as very aloof and majestic and regal, but the Middle Kingdom is separated from the Old Kingdom by a civil war. The Middle Kingdom kings have realized that being aloof doesn’t really work, so the texts that talk about kingship are very different, and the king gets described as caring and interested in the lives of his people. At the end of the Middle Kingdom, Egypt is invaded and Lower Egypt is taken over by foreign rulers, so the period after that shows the newly-restored kings describing how powerful they are and how many foreign rulers they’ve conquered.

MI : Do you think this work could be done without someone being deeply interested and having an understanding of ancient Egypt as a culture?

SG : No. I mean, yes, technically, one could get the data and do the stats without understanding those things. But I honestly don’t think any linguist is as good a linguist as they can be if they don’t have at least some understanding of the culture that uses the language they’re studying.

MI : If you could go back to ancient Egypt, what is the one think you’d like to see done, or hear spoken about the most?

SG : I’d love to learn how scribes actually write! The handwriting is so beautiful but I want to see how it gets to that point, and what tools are used in the process. I would also really love to see a live performance of some of the literary works I’ve read. And nothing would beat just a nice chat with the average Egyptian.

MI : What has been your favourite part of being involved in the research?

SG : Wow, I don’t think I could pick just one thing! I really love Egyptian, so anything I can do to work on it is going to be amazing to me!

The famous Rosetta Stone that allowed for the translation and understanding of Hieroglyphics

The famous Rosetta Stone that allowed for the translation and understanding of Hieroglyphics

A sincere thank you to Shayna Gardiner for shedding light on such a fascinating research subject. I know this week hasn’t really been about a “Canadian Language”, which is two-thirds of the Museum’s title, but she’s a Canadian linguist studying something I think almost everyone has been intrigued by.

 

Take care eh,

 

Michael