Language is only as divisive as you make it

It gives me no pleasure but the recent opinion in The Times by the highly respected journalist Magnus Linklater really deserves a response. In a handy 899 words, it shows all the blind spots of a majority establishment that simply does not see what the deal is with minority languages. I can see where this position is coming from (Russia is not the most progressive country for awareness of its minority languages among the majority population), but really, one expects better — not just as far as the policy proposals go (we can surely disagree on that) but even in terms of basic journalism.

The government has a plan for Gaelic, and you won't believe what it is

An important dimension that’s often missing from the debates about whether it’s worthwhile to support Gaelic or promote Scots in Scotland is why one would do such a thing in the first place. In today’s feverish political environment these things slide all too often into outright constitutional mudslinging or at least a debate that foregrounds the essential Scottishness of the country’s languages, either as a good thing or a bad thing.

Why Gaelic should belong to us all

Another day, another stooshie on Scottish Twitter. This time it’s Paul Kavanagh sharing some really lovely maps of Lowland areas with Gaelic placenames that he’s made. I'm drawing Gaelic maps cos Scotland has 2 national languages of its own, yet all our maps are in English. — Paul Kavanagh (@weegingerdug) September 26, 2016 Cue some really rather unenlightened comments with all the usual accusations and allegations (‘never spoken here’, ‘pushing it down our throats’, ‘dead language’, ‘spend it on hospitals instead’), and equally noisy pushback.

Scots not a language? They said that in Ukraine too

It seems that the Twitter mocking of the weekly Scots column in The National has assumed the quality of a ritual. There is a lot to be said about this (I said a bit when the whole thing just launched). Today’s post is on a fairly narrow topic: how the debate about whether Scots ‘is a language’ has a nice parallel in the history of the East Slavic languages Ukrainian and Belarusian.

Book review: Pam na fu Cymru

What follows is a short(ish) review of an excellently provocative new(ish) book by Simon Brooks, Pam na fu Cymru: Methiant cenedlaetholdeb Cymraeg (‘Why Wales wasn’t: The failure of Welsh nationalism’).1 It is, as the author notes, the second part of what may be deemed a trilogy, following from the no less interesting collection Pa beth yr aethoch chi allan i’w achub? (‘What did you go out to save?’), which also posed some rather less comfortable questions for the Welsh language (re)vitalization movement.

Teaching language in schools: beyond foreign languages

An excellent piece by Dani Garavelli in Scotland on Sunday on the state of modern foreign languages in Scottish schools includes a familiar litany of failings: a relatively early end of compulsory language study, staffing issues, teaching methods, differences between schools with more opportunities for pupils from more privileged backgrounds, and so on, and on, and on. One of the points strikes a bit closer to home for me: One [factor] is that our children are taught very little English grammar.

Irish isn’t ‘compromised’ — it just needs more support

There is a very interesting article now up on Slugger O’Toole, based around an interview with Dr Diarmuid Johnson: Do urban Gaeltachts produce a compromised Irish?. Go read it now — it’s well written and very well informed, especially if you compare it to the general level of debate around in the Irish language in Northern Ireland (as some — though by no means all — comments demonstrate). Full disclosure — I’m an admirer of Diarmuid Johnson, and I owe him a debt of gratitude for the kind assistance I received from him in the course of my own research in West Wales.

Making Emacs hold your hand: don't edit a TeX file when you don't mean to

As a user of LaTeX, R and Emacs, I naturally write up my research in .Rnw files, using knitr to produce .tex sources. With Emacs, this means I have access to both the awesome AUCTeX for writing LaTeX and the excellent ESS environment for the statistics at the same time. However, being the absent-minded academic that I am, I sometimes end up opening the woven .tex file instead of the .Rnw and make edits to that, which means it gets overwritten and lost the next time I run knitr. This is suboptimal, but of course Emacs allows us to fix it.

Why teach the kids Gaelic if you can teach them Mandarin?

This question, asked by the STV journalist Stephen Daisley, caused a bit of a stooshie on Twitter a couple of days back: Is there a strong, non-heritage case for spending taxpayers' money promoting Gaelic instead of thriving, globally-spoken languages? — Stephen Daisley (@JournoStephen) March 24, 2015 This is an important debate, and no points for guessing where I stand on this. I’m not going to rehearse why I think minority languages are important – check some of the replies for good ideas.

Humidity causes complex tones?

(Koen Sebregts points out that the title of my post is misleading, since the authors explicitly state they do not predict humidity to cause complex tones. I’ll leave it unchanged as a warning to myself.)

There is a new ‘geophonetics’ paper out at PNAS this morning Climate, vocal folds, and tonal languages: Connecting the physiological and geographic dots by Caleb Everett, Damián Blasi, and Seán Roberts. In a nutshell, the claim, as I understand it, is that since low humidity is inimical to precise manipulation of vocal folds, languages with ‘complex tone’ (understood as having a more than two-way pitch-based contrast) are unlikely to thrive in regions with low humidity (i.e. hot and arid, and all types of cold). This hypothesis appears to explain the areal patterns in the prevalence of tone.

This is my rather occasional blog for when I can’t fit something in 140 characters. It is mostly about language and programming and such.

About me

I’m Pavel Iosad, and I’m a Senior Lecturer in the department of Linguistics and English Language at the University of Edinburgh. ¶ You can always go to the start page to learn more.



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