Sunday, 3 April 2016

The Birth of a New Language

It’s not uncommon for linguists to discuss the importance of preserving endangered languages. Language is the vehicle in which a diverse and tremendous amount of human knowledge is transferred. Allowing languages to die without documenting them is like watching a massive library burn down right in front of our eyes while we're hand folded.

The beauty of language, however, is that it is dynamic. If one dies, others keep adapting and changing. People borrow and coin new words depending on their needs. But who would have thought that we’d witness the birth of a completely new language in the second half of the twentieth century? Well that’s exactly what happened in a tiny Australian village. Carmel O'Shannessy, a linguist from the University of Michigan has been studying this relatively newly born language since the early 2000s.

In this remote aboriginal Australian village, the younger generation has developed a language of its own! According to the news, this new language called Walpiri rampaku (or light Warlpiri) is only spoken by people under 35. O'Shannessy even suggests that in a few years this new language might threaten the survival of strong Warlpiri (which is the language spoken by the older generation in the village). 

A new language born in the 1970s? Who would have imagined! 

Check out Carmel O’Shannessy's profile for more details here.

Friday, 21 March 2014

The Harsusi language in Oman: another treasure slipping away?

Picture by Dr Andrew Spalton
Oman has yet to offer another linguistic treasure to the world- the Harsusi language. The language is spoken in Jiddat-Al Harasis in Al Wusta Governorate. I attended a talk organised by the Historical Association of Oman a few weeks ago about Harsusi. The talk was delivered by Domenyk Eades from the University of Salford in the UK. Harsusi is one of a few Modern South Arabian languages spoken in Oman along with Mehri and Jabbali and some others. It is a Semitic language and the UNESCO classifies it as being ‘definitely endangered’. According to the UNESCO there are about 3000 speakers but updated statistics suggest even fewer numbers today- hardly 600-1000 speakers. Harsusis are generally also speakers of Arabic. They’re Bedouins (nomads) and many of them, according to Eades, have only settled in villas in the year 2004. Before that, they were constantly travelling and were living a far from modern lifestyle.

The phonological inventory of the Harsusi language is unusual. Eades gave us an insight on some sounds of the language which could be biologically difficult to produce even by speakers of Arabic - a ‘cousin’ language. The sounds sounded so ancient to me that the idea of the language still being spoken until today is incredibly fascinating.

Eades and a group of other linguists from the UK are racing against time to document Harsusi and other Modern South Arabian languages spoken in Oman. As the numbers of speakers shrink at a rapid pace, we can only hope that the intricacies of the language are saved and the knowledge is passed on for the future generations. Having settled in the early 2000s only, one can only imagine that the knowledge and wisdom the Harsusis have is valuable and it would be a great loss to see it slip away without doing anything.

Friday, 28 December 2012

The Google Translate plague

Image credit to Webster University
One of the most frustrating things you face when you teach English is seeing students plagiarise. The irony, however, is that plagiarism might be underestimated as a technique when considering what happens in some classrooms. But first, let's stop and ask, what is plagiarism? What do you need to be able to plagiarise? Some skills are surely involved. One skill that comes to mind is the ability to use a search engine as a tool for research on a given topic. As minor as it may sound, it's still considered a skill. A plagiariser is usually expected to use the search engine for its primary purpose: to search for information. What skills are required in this action of searching? I would say at least, the ability to select (hopefully critically) information from a specific source and not the other. The plagiariser chooses that specific piece of writing over the other to 'steal' because they can see that perhaps it is the most relevant to their topic or the closest to their linguistic abilities. Even though they are misused, those are still skills. In other words, regardless of the obvious fact that this is still considered an academic offence, there is nevertheless, a certain level of critical thinking in the process.

What is happening in many English classrooms in Oman is beyond horrific, though. And I mean horrific in the sense that not much critical thinking is involved in their plagiarism style. If many of them are going to abuse academic integrity anyway, then to my horror, I at least wish that they'd do it with some element of critical thinking. At least, I might be relieved to know that their researching ability is alright and that they can actually critically select what they want to 'steal'.

Yet unsurprisingly, whenever there is a writing task in an English class, I see uneasy faces. It's not difficult to understand where their frustration comes from, since many public schools graduates that are enrolled in higher education are much below standard in both English and study skills. They struggle, and that's understandable. Yet the big challenge in many Omani classrooms is to get the students to feel motivated enough to work hard and submit a genuine piece of work regardless of the kind and number of mistakes in it. What many of them fail to realise, is that they're in a classroom to actually learn and not just gain points in a competition to go on to the next level. It may sound uneasy for some, but if we don't accept that we have gaps that need to be filled or rather amended, our education system would keep running out of breath while trying to catch up with the better educational systems around the world. Hence, we will never be satisfied with the standard of public schools graduates.

I started my post with a rather strange appreciation of the skills needed to plagiarise. The reason is because a lot of students do not even bother about all skills mentioned. So if they don't use those skills and they don't produce their authentic work, then what do they do? They simply go to this tool which was created for great purposes, none of which I am sure is to help students cheat: . They simply paste their Arabic text in there and get a ready made piece of writing in English.

The messily-translated chunks of language submitted can be outrageous but hilarious at the same time. And I say it's messy because as a machine translator it translates things literally in terms of meaning and discards any grammatical rules of the second language most of the time; it simply follows the word order of the translated language. The effect, my respected readers, can be speechless, as you realise. One student for instance, typed all the Arabic he wanted to express and clicked to translate it into English. Apparently the student wanted to translate the word 'feather' (singular) to English. Note that the Arabic word for feather and badminton (the sport) is the same. The student ended up submitting something that is along the lines of 'the badminton of the bird'...which is interesting if you think about it; but maybe in a fictional text rather than non-fictional prose?

I pause and take a deep breath while I mentally try to convince myself that these mistakes are interesting according to the descriptivist views of linguistics (it's a survival mechanism). Can it get any worse? Until this plague ends and this will only happen once treated from its very roots, I'll keep scribbling with my red pen on students' work a big O and a slash that crosses between two small circles to signify: 0%.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Vanishing voices = vanishing knowledge

One of the notable efforts in bringing the world's attention to dying languages is National Geographic's Vanishing Voices Project. What linguists are trying to do in this project is to highlight what the world would be missing if those languages are gone; for language is not merely sounds that make sense to a certain community. Instead, they could carry deep knowledge that can unlock scientific secrets. Interesting questions similar to the ones raised in the Vanishing Voices article comes to ones mind when thinking about the consequences of losing languages at this rapid pace:

Does each language have boxed up within it some irreplaceable beneficial knowledge? Are there aspects of cultures that won’t survive if they are translated into a dominant language? What unexpected insights are being lost to the world with the collapse of its linguistic variety?” (Rymer,NationalGeographic Magazine, July 2012).

Take the Jabbali language in the southern part of Oman for example. The wide plant vocabulary it carries only reflect its speakers wide knowledge of plants and their uses. If transferred wisely, this knowledge could prove useful in many ways. Plants were once part of the Jabbalis daily lifestyle; I'm not sure if this is still practised today but I do believe that the knowledge they've acquired from this contact remains to an extent and could be used before it 'vanishes'. Similarly, the speakers of Kamzari (also spelled 'Kumzari') in the northern part of Oman might have a lot to tell us about living by the sea.

This month's issue of National Geographic Magazine discusses three endangered languages; Tuvan, Aka, and Seri in Russia, India and Mexio, respectively. Tuvan was apparently saved from extinction and is no longer threatened. If this means anything, then it certainly means that efforts to save languages can be fruitful. Yet if nothing is done about 'vanishing voices' then I can't help but quote Harrison's last words in the following clip, “The transmission of knowledge [will be] disrupted”.

Monday, 6 February 2012

Kumar decides to sing in Arabic ...

During the last few decades, the discovery of oil in the Arabian Gulf paved the way for a booming economy since the 1970s. This economic boom resulted in a huge influx of immigrants from the Indian Subcontinent. Usually the main motivation for their immigration and leaving behind their families is to find a better living in these oil-rich states. There are around 17 million Asian immigrants in the GCC today working mainly in the labour force (Al-Jazeera, 2005).

Al-Jazeera produced an interesting documentary a few years ago (above) about this labour force and the possible future of the region. The word 'tsunami' in the title of the film suggests that it's meant to be a wake up call. The documentary suggests that one day it will be difficult to ignore the fact that the labour force is part of the GCC's society as they shape the demographics of the region and bring in their cultural and linguistic influences. While diversity adds to societies in general, in a place that has less readiness to accept all it's outcomes, it could cause major issues. The linguistic future of the region of course, is very important to consider as well because in the Arab World identity is often defined by language. However if any linguistic change is to take place then it is usually very slow and gradual. A shift from Arabic to pidgin in the GCC seems unlikely in the near future. Notice that the Indian-Qatari person in the documentary, who lived in Qatar for decades does not speak in pidgin. This is true for many others who have lived in the GCC long enough to affiliate with its culture. This suggests that Gulf pidgin is likely to be lost over time by its speakers as they acquire a more complex form of Arabic.

Labourers in the Gulf (from Alriyadh )
But what if speakers of pidgin began using it for more complex functions of language such as expressing through singing, would the society start accepting it more? Would it put an end to linguistic discrimination and gradually lead to a better linguistic understanding, or would they still insist that it's 'broken' Arabic? Perhaps if there is more input from pidgin, people might start thinking of it as a dialect one day. In my blog post about pidgins I mentioned Kumar, the Indian worker who wrote a poem in Gulf pidgin. If for a moment we take fictional Kumar to mean the collective Asian labour force in the GCC, then guess what? Kumar is no longer satisfied with his poetry talents, he's into singing now! Yes, Kumar decided to go further and sing a song in pidgin, which to many people it's still 'bad' Arabic.

Apparently there is a hit Indian song that has versions in different languages and one of them is Gulf pidgin. The theme of the song portrays Kumar as being treated unjustly by his sponsor. Indeed the song is to make a multilingual statement just like it was suggested by Gulf News. A statement in a language that is not native to him, means that a wider audience can understand the message he's trying to convey. And it could be an attempt to try and get his voice to the many sponsors in the GCC. Below is the song's video.

Having a song in Gulf pidgin means that the attitudes toward this language are likely to change. It could take long, but if Kumar gets more creative people will start to accept him eventually. Media is a powerful tool and this song portrays a labourer away from his 'typical' appearance but as a shiny-talented person who could qualify for Bollywood . This can change the way people perceive labourers and their language. When the poems were just written texts, it was up to the reader to come up with their own version of 'Kumar' and usually (I would imagine) it was a character that is stigmatised for its weak Arabic. If Kumar continues to perform in Gulf pidgin for generations then it could be a turning point in his life and certainly the life of Gulf pidgin; because as much as the labourers' language can be stigmatised, as much as Bollywood stars are marvelled at. Yes, Bollywood movies are very popular in this part of the world and Kumar knows it. Who knows what other talents he'd express in pidgin next?

Thursday, 12 January 2012

When Arabic Marries Greek: Cypriot Maronite Arabic

A marriage between two languages that leads to the birth of a new language is fascinating. The product of such a contact usually leads to an interesting cultural hybrid which is a reminder of the similarity between people who were once upon a time 'different'. When cultures assimilate and blend beautifully they give humanity yet another evidence of the possibility of coexistence. What I mean by contact here is not the kind of contact that I discussed in my previous blog post about pidgins which is based on a hierarchical relationship between master and slave/servant. Here, I mean a less hierarchical relationship between members of both communities.

Unsurprisingly, Arabic came in contact with many languages across the world. This goes back to the time when Arabic was a lingua franca during the Islamic Golden Age. While sometimes the product of contact is a load of loanwords, it is less common to see the birth of a new language as a product of language contact. However, one of the peculiar cases of Arabic being in contact led to the birth of a new language. It appears that there is a dialect of Greek Arabic, called Cypriot Maronite Arabic (CMA), spoken by the Maronite community in Cyprus who migrated from Lebanon during the 1100s. Only about 1300 speakers of CMA remain today mostly in the village of Kormakiti.

Tsiapera (1964) refers to this language as a 'dialect' of Lebanese Arabic. I prefer to use the term 'language' instead, because while Arabic speakers might find some words intelligible, the large Greek vocabulary along with the Latin and Turkish influences, could make CMA unintelligible by many Arabic speakers. However, it's not so difficult to understand the gist of what is being said in CMA if one is familiar with Levantine Arabic. Tsiapera also discusses the structure of the language at different linguistic levels and it appears to be similar to Arabic in some areas but also very similar to Greek in many other areas.

My attention was brought to this language when I listened to the BBC's report on CMA and other endangered languages in the Middle East, here.

Like many minority languages spoken around the world, CMA made it to the UNESCO's endangered languages list. The UNESCO classifies it as one of the severely endangered languages in the world. Unfortunately, this means that a whole culture is in danger of extinction. Once again a language is endangered  because linguistic diversity isn't as practical today. In the case of CMA, the language is being dominated by Greek because it's the language of the wider community. The following video is the first part of a series of videos which show the efforts of young members of the Maronite community in Cyprus to re-nourish the vitality of the language of their parents which they have not had the chance to acquire.

I must say how fascinating it is to hear bits of Arabic spoken in a Lebanese fashion in what seems to the 'Arabic ear' at first glance as a chaotic attempt to speak Arabic! It's as though this linguistic orchestra stands as a witness of a historical assimilation of cultures and identities. A portray of a truly beautiful linguistic mosaic.

Sunday, 25 December 2011

أنا مافي معلوم كلام واجد عربي

I'm sure the title sounds familiar to many readers. It's very common to hear this kind of language in this part of the world. I've often heard comments about the use of this language, and how “it ruins Arabic”. I've been told off by people from an older generation when I used it, they'd ask me in a criticising tone, “why do you speak to them in broken Arabic? You should speak to them normally so that they'd pick up proper language”. Before I knew what this language is all about, I used to reply to their comments with “I can't help it, really. I do it unconsciously”. The general attitude toward this language is, I feel, quite negative. People don't like to hear a distorted form of Arabic. But this 'distorted' form of Arabic is actually a language on its own, not Arabic. It's a pidgin language (pronounced like 'pigeon' as in the bird). There are many views on where the name 'pidgin' comes from, but I think the most popular view is that it comes from a Chinese mispronunciation of the English word 'business'. 
Another belief about the word 'pidgin' is associated with pigeons since at some point they were used to send messages hence in a way facilitate communication, just like pidgins.
Simply put, a pidgin is a simplified language that is born as a result of two languages being in contact for some time, and where there is no interlanguage common to both speakers, yet there is an urging need to communicate. This could be a result of limited relations between the speakers of the two languages; like sellers and buyers in the market for example or more typically relationships which involve power hierarchy such as the one between master and servant. The slave trade which took place during the 16th - 19th centuries was an important cause for the development of many pidgin languages which are based on the languages of the European colonisers. Slaves that were taken from their homelands to different parts of Europe did not speak the language of their European masters, nor did the Europeans speak any of the African languages spoken by the slaves. And there was no other common language between the two sides either. This situation provides typical ingredients for the birth of a pidgin.
Typically, the vocabulary of pidgin languages is a mixture of the host language (in this case a European language such as English) as well as the African languages of the slaves. The grammar however, would usually follow the structure of the African languages probably because it's the way the slaves were used to combine words and their lack of understanding of the grammatical system of the European language.
Some parts of the world where pidgins and creoles are spoken (from: APiCS

Pidgin languages are simplified in the sense that they are developed for the most basic communication needs. This means that many functions of language such as poetry, literature or news reporting cannot be expressed, or if they are used for such functions, they usually carry a humour effect. Also, because pidgins develop for functional reasons, they have no native speakers, they're born as a result of a pressing need to communicate. Some pidgins however, do develop complexity and are therefore able to function in more complex functions of language, just like non-simplified languages. They also become native languages to their speakers. When this happens, they are no longer called pidgin, instead they are called creoles. There are countries that recognise creoles as an official language such as Haiti and Papua New Guinea, which have Haitian Creole and Tok Pisin as one of their official languages, respectively.
In a place like Oman and certainly the Arabian Gulf, where nationals seem to reserve a lot of the manual work to a migrant labour force, a similar situation arises. Could the large number of Asian migrants be contributing to the linguistic situation in the region? Most labourers come from a poor background and many of them are not literate in their own mother tongue, let alone speak other languages like Arabic or English. They come to the country, usually leaving their families, to find a job that would provide them with a better living only to realise that they're facing a barrier that they have yet to overcome: the linguistic barrier. What happens in a situation like this? The Arabic speaking master cannot speak any Indian language, while the labourer cannot speak Arabic. There is no third language that they both understand to communicate in. This situation leads to the formation of a pidgin in order to facilitate communication. It probably starts as common sense or a mechanism of what I'll call 'linguistic survival' as in an instinctive need to survive in a communication in order to be able to function properly in a job or to gain a living. But with time, it becomes more of a trend, the trend becomes a habit, the habit becomes a norm and the norm stays until using it becomes almost unconscious. And I think this is the situation in Oman.
Most people don't realise that this is a language (I didn't before I studied linguistics). What doesn't help is that some dictionaries explain a pidgin as an 'artificial' language. I don't like the term 'artificial' here because it reminds me of machines and machine translation and perhaps computational linguistics, but not pidgin. I mean the situation of two cultures (hence languages) being in contact is very humanistic, how can it be artificial? 'Artificial' sounds as though it means that it's 'not natural', but what I see is the exact opposite: when two languages come in contact and when there is no way of conveying meaning in linguistic communication between the speakers of two languages, it is only 'natural' that a pidgin would be formed. Mixing some languages together or simplifying them does not make them artificial, I'd say. It may be a simplified form of language but it's still a language that has a structure, grammar, vocabulary and domains of use and important social factors that contribute to the identities of the people who use it. For example, I imagine that the below verses of poetry have a humour effect because this language is not meant to be used for this language function (poetry):

إسم أنا كومار عتيق    أخو أنا والله صديق 

بابا أنا شيبه كبير **** ماما أنا مريض كتير 

أخو أنا كلو صغير **** مافي فلوس أنا فقير 

عشره سنه شغل هنا **** مافي شوف أهلي أنا 

ممكن موت أنا هنا **** فكر مشغول تعبان أنا 

أتنين سنه مافي فلوس **** كفيل كلام بعدين يشوف 

والله هرام لازم فلوس   مسلم أنا مافي هندوس 

لازم أنا سفر رمضان **** إنسان أنا مافي هيوان

One reason why the above lines might sound awkward and maybe humourous is because pidgins are not developed enough to be used in complex language functions such as poetry. A lot of pidgin languages around the world have been negatively stereotyped and used for humour effects which could lead to discriminating its speakers and it seems like this is the case with Gulf pidgin discussed here. I once asked a Nigerian friend of mine if she speaks Nigerian pidgin, she said she does sometimes but quickly added “but that's not a language, that's just rotten English”. In the case of Indians or Asians in the Gulf, many of them are blamed for not speaking Arabic because such a situation hinders communication; as if it's the poor peoples' fault! The fact that they don't speak Arabic does not make them stupid or inferior and I believe it's unfair to blame them for thatThey have a language that they are competent in and proud of just like we are about our own languages. Such linguistic barriers should not be dealt with in a discriminating way.
Many enthusiasts about Arabic argue that this pidgin is a threat to the Arabic language, which they see as sacred because it is the language of the Holy Quran. I don't see that it's a threat for the simple reason that it's always been and will always be the case that there are hundreds of dialects of Arabic spoken around the Arab World, this has been the case for centuries yet it didn't affect the Holy Quran or the competence of Arabic speakers. So a pidgin that functions for basic communication only, shouldn't be a threat. I don't think this pidgin corrupts Arabic or that it's likely to develop into a creole because migrants don't seem to be using it with their children. English, French and Portuguese are some languages which form the basis for many pidgins and creoles around the world. They didn't corrupt the main languages even though they are widely used, much more than Gulf pidgin, did they? And anyway, what's 'corrupted' language? Who decides how people should speak? I think it's discriminating to think of pidgin speakers as being inferior just because they don't speak the language of the wider community fluently and happen to be poor. If someone insists on blaming the Asian labour force for 'corrupting their Arabic' and finds this as an excuse to discriminate them, I suggest they go pick up a trowel and do the gardening work in that roundabout instead, if they're very concerned!