First steps at language love

Time to get started again!
Time to get started again!

Last week I told you to do the minimum for language love; don’t try so hard.

Today, I want to give you some resources for how to start. Basic. Nothing complicated.

First, though, you have to do your research. You have to go on your ecolinguistic exploratory expedition to find out what people are speaking around you. What do you hear spoken? What do you see on signs, not the formal ones, but the hand-written signs taped to light posts and pinned to bulletin boards?

Now you have your language(s). Let’s begin.
Why loving language

National, immigrant, and tourist languages

Basque, Spanish, English at a ticket vending machine. Note that a single word of English appears.
In Spain, I noticed a three-tier system of languages. I believe that we find this system often in Europe, but less so in the US. Nevertheless, the system shows up in the US especially since much of it is based in economics.

We must focus on a particular place in order to define these languages.

Here are the three basic levels:

  1. Local languages. These are the languages that find their home in the area in question.
  2. Immigrant languages. When people come from the area of another local language to live in a new area permanently, they bring their language with them. They may crystalize as a distinct community in the new area.
  3. Tourist languages. Some people come for a short time, ready to spend money on specific goods and services, such as souvenirs and museum tickets. Many of them may speak other languages.

In Spain I’ve noticed these levels play out in a particular way.
Ecolinguism in Spain

Immoral polyglot or ecolinguist

How does your choice of language affect other communities?
How does your choice of language affect other communities?

Many languages are struggling to survive. Each bears something to offer humanity, but a deluge of powerful, imperical languages push them towards extinction as children ignore the language of their forefathers and embrace the modern language of the world around them.

Polyglots wield the power to stave off this tide—if they choose carefully the languages they study. While the morality of polyglottery is rarely discussed, polyglots’ choice of language affects communities of people trying to hold on to a history and a tradition. We must choose based not on what merely looks and sounds nice personally, but on what will preserve the dignity of language communities, and the diversity of languages—an ecolinguist preserving the lingua-sphere.
More about ecolinguism

Who do we want to be like? Writing can unite

How we portray ourselves says something important about who we want to be
How we portray ourselves says something important about who we want to be

People tend to match their language and mannerisms with the group they want to fit in with. Small children like to imitate their parents, for example. We can change alignment, too. Once small kids become teenagers, they try to do everything in a way different from their parents. Their language goes from imitating their parents to matching their peers. Grown people also change behavior in different social settings. Wives roll their eyes when they see their husbands horsing around with their high school friends. “At least they (mostly) don’t act like this at home!” they think to themselves. (Fortunately, we know what’s acceptable there.) Through speech and mannerisms, humans fit themselves in with the most significant group at a given time and place.

Societies shift their alignment, too. While they may see themselves akin to one group at one time, a change in worldview can bring them into sync with another group. Russian society, aligned with the West in the 18th and 19th centuries, to the extent that some aristocrats spoke French but not Russian. They rejected the West in the October Revolution in the early 20th century. In the late 20th century, it aspired to similar ideals as the West, expressed by the new advertising slogan, “Новое поколение выбирает Пепси!” “A new generation chooses Pepsi!” In the early 21st century, it moved away from the West again in struggles over the status of independent journalism and the imprisonment of Pussy Riot. Each move reveals a shift towards or against an ideology associated with the West.

Language reveals such shifts, as well, and look different depending on how the society imagines itself. The penetration of technology into people’s lives changes how they speak. Whatever native language an Indian speaks, the words “IT,” “End User,” or “Tech Support,” all come out in English. At the same time, L’Académie française, the French Academy, replaces foreign neologisms in order to preserve the French language and culture. For example, “bookmark” would be “le marque-page”. The Academy seeks to make the French language the most basic reference in communication, as opposed to another standard, such as English.

Last post, I discussed how alphabets can be used to divide.  In this post, I will show how writing systems unite.  A seemingly superficial change in a language, the script or alphabet, reveals how a society wants to align itself. I’ve collected a few examples that show changes in writing systems, which move in a new cultural direction, unify multiple cultures, and assimilate to an occupying force. While a language may or may not change, a society can use the form of writing to express affinity with another culture or to unite disparate groups with a single culture.

Moving towards the West

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk

For most of its history Turkish was written with the Arabic alphabet. In the early 20th century, however, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk initiated a vast reform to modernize and, many ways, westernize. Educational reform comprised a large part of the reform, which included moving communication from the Arabic to the Latin alphabet. The reasons were complex. The facts here come from the article, “Atatürk’s Reforms.”

One reason was that the Arabic script was not well-equiped to depict the complex vowels of Turkish as well as the Latin script. In addition, Atatürk wanted to purify the Turkish language of foreign words, especially from Arabic and Persian. The Arabic script was better equipped to depict Arabic words. Since Atatürk wanted to make the language more Turkish and less Arabic, the change of script suited both desires.

Technology also influenced Atatürk’s decision. The 19th century technologies of the telegraph and moveable-type printing press demonstrated the weakness of using the Arabic alphabet. They were designed to work with the Latin alphabet; you could not communicate a message in the Arabic script with a telegraph, for example. For Turkish ideas to be expressed broadly and quickly, the alphabet had to match that of current communication technologies.

This part of the educational reform displayed a symbolic unification with the West among the other reforms. By sharing this aspect of literacy, Turkey identified and aligned with the West over the mother of Turkish literacy, the Arab East.

Writing unites peoples

Chinese benefits from an international alphabet. The writing system is used across the country as the standard, even among the scores of languages and dialects spoken in its territory. The written language maps most closely, however, to the standard Mandarin dialect, though it does not match it precisely.

Other languages in China use other writing systems, but only for their own language. Cantonese, for example, uses a form of writing that more resembles the spoken form.  Uyghur currently uses four scripts, none of which resembles Chinese writing.  Dungan, which is a dialect resembling Mandarin, uses the Cyrillic alphabet. Other languages aren’t writing at all.

The written Chinese language, nevertheless, achieved unity among a diversity of peoples and languages in its vast territory. International communication, that is, among the many peoples of China, can take place because everyone is taught the same written language. Remnants of earlier Chinese imperial power can be seen in Japanese and Korean writing, which began with Chinese writing. They moved away from Chinese writing to different extents, as they formed their own national identity, but the common Chinese roots of writing show the early international influence of this writing system. Chinese writing offers a way of communicating easily among speakers of many languages, centered on the Mandarin-based power structure.

Assimilating and flourishing

The Coptic Alphabet

Most people are familiar with the ancient Egyptian language as written in hieroglyphics on, for example, the great pyramids. The language and its writing went through more than one stage of evolution. As the Rosetta Stone illustrates, formal hieroglyphic writing was superceded by a handwritten, cursive style. After many centuries of development, the later form of the language is called “Coptic.” (Three different dialects exist, but that is not relevant for this post.) The language started being written with Greek letters, starting in the 1st century BCE after the Greeks took control of the country in the 4th-3rd centuries BCE. Information comes from the article, “Coptic Language.”

Beyond the writing system, Egypt was becoming heavily influenced by Greek culture. Greek Alexandrian literature was some of the most important writing in pre-Christian times, and held on to this influence after the early adoption of Christianity in that city. The Coptic language was also an important literary language for many centuries, and it was promoted by students of Greek rhetoric. As Christianity blossomed in Greek-dominated lands, Coptic flourished. Many hagiographa were written in Coptic, as were many of the famous gnostic writings of the Nag Hammadi library.

As Greek culture came to dominate Coptic culture, Greek writing became more important. The Coptic language itself remained strong, but the strong influence of Greece is apparent in the alphabet, the vehicle of Egyptian literature.

Determining alignment

Turkey plugged into the benefits of the progressive West and turned away from the East by shifting to the Latin alphabet. Chinese united different nations under one written form of language. Coptic entered into a new cultural millieu by adopting the alphabet of their Greek conquerers. An alphabet symbolizes unity, even if the languages remain mutually incomprehensible.

Who do you want to read your writing? How do you make sure they read what you have to say? How do you make sure your people can read what they have to say? After answering these questions, cultures tend to align themselves with a particular form of writing, even if the language stays the same. Even though an alphabet expresses no linguistic meaning on its own, it manifests cultural solidarity, like food or clothing does.

Not just what we express, but how we express it says something about who we are and who we aspire to be. As intelligent human beings, we must be aware of our speech and behavior and who it aligns us with. By choosing carefully our form of expression, we can make ourselves closer to who we want to be.

Photo credit: SodanieChea / / CC BY

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Why Somali is harder than your language

English: A young Somali man.
A young Somali man. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Recently I was discussing with @JaredRomey about an article he posted, “9 hard languages for English speakers.”  I replied that I don’t know why Somali never makes it onto those lists; they tend to be the same list: Chinese, Arabic, etc.  Jared suggested I blog about why Somali deserves to be on the list.  He suggested 5 reasons why it’s hard–I came up with 7, but I’m only a beginner.


In difficulty, Somali can stand its ground against the hardest languages.  Yet the Foreign Service Institute puts Somali in category 2, where 3 is the hardest.  Category 2 includes Farsi and 3 includes Arabic.  I’ve studied both, and I don’t see how this is so; Somali seems to be way harder than Farsi and of at least the same level of difficulty as Arabic.  If you drew a Venn  diagram of languages and their hardest aspects, Somali would overlap with a lot of them.  While Mandarin and Somali have tones, Mandarin has no case.  While German and Somali have case, German has fairly simple sounds.  While Arabic and Somali have difficult sounds, Arabic has a consistent writing system.  Plus Somali does some odd things with prepositions you’ll have to read about, below.  Somali is a doosy–but the challenge is made lighter by the joy of Somalis hearing their language spoken by a foreigner.


For a bit of background: Somali belongs to the Afro-Asiatic language family, in the Cushitic branch.  More famous branches of this family are Semitic, to which Arabic and Hebrew belong, and Egyptian, which includes the language of the ancient Pharaohs.  Some overlap with Arabic, then, is natural.


  1. Three (four?) writing systems.  When Somali was originally written down in the Arabic script in the 13th century (Wadaad script).  In 1920, another script was invented that somewhat resembled the Ethiopian writing system (Osmanya script).  A more minor script was invented in 1930, called the Borama script.  The official script since 1972 has been a Latin-based alphabet (Somali alphabet).
  2. All the hard sounds of Arabic.  The guttural sounds that foreigners have trouble with in Arabic–they’re all in Somali.  The emphatic ha, the ayin, the qaf, the raspy kha–they’re all there.  (They’re spelled x, c, q, and kh, respectively.)  Additionally, Somali distinguishes between short and long vowels, like in Arabic, and other languages like Japanese and Finnish.  So my friends correct me if I say “si” rather than “sii.”  Finally, they have a retroflex “d” (spelled dh) like in Indian languages.
  3. Some of the tones of Mandarin.  Most have heard of the four different tones of Mandarin: high, low, falling, and rising.  Somali only has two, high and low, but they can sound different depending on the environment they are found in.  They change the meaning of the word, too!  “Boy” is ínan, and “girl” is inán; “dog” is éy and “dogs” is eý.
  4. Irregular plurals like German or Arabic.  A Somali noun forms its plural according to a pattern that is not predictable from its singular, and Somali has 7 or so patterns.  This concept may sound familiar to German- or Arabic-speakers.  Unlike English, which almost always forms its plural with “-(e)s,” Somali has no “regular” plural suffix.  So the plural of áf  “language,” flattens the tone and repeats the last syllable: afaf.  For some nouns, a suffix is used, so hoóyo “mother” goes to hoyoóyin, and áabbe goes to aabayaal (also note the tone shift).  Finally, words may shift gender as they go from singular to plural.
  5. Prepositions–unlike anything.  Somali prepositions don’t resemble any language I know.  They’re a challenge, so I’ll explain as well as I can based largely on this academic source and this textbook.  They are divided into prepositions and “deictic particles.”  They have four prepositions, roughly “to”, “in”, “from”, and “with”.  “Deictic particles” indicate activity relative to the speaker; the four Somali deictic particles indicate toward the speaker, away from the speaker, toward each other, or away from each other.  One may need to use both a preposition and a deictic particle.  Somali tends to place these items in front of the verb, not the noun.
    For example, “I pulled the man out of the well with a rope” is nínkíi bàan cèelka xádhig kagá sóo saaray.  The last five words literally mean, “well-the rope with-from towards_me I-raised.”  Similarly, “they used to give us news about it” is way inoogá warrámi jireen, literally, “They us-to-about news gave.”  They could have thrown a soo in there, too, right after inoogá.  It seems to me they cluster all the prepositions together.  In the first example, “from” goes with “well” and “with” goes with “rope,” but both stick by the verb.  In the second, “to” goes with “us” and “about” goes with the unspoken “it.”  Unscrambling in real time what preposition goes with what is beyond my level right now.
  6. Cases–like Greek or German.  Somali has four cases, but not the ones you may know from, say German or Greek.  They are absolutive, subject, genitive, and vocative.  Absolutive is used when it is by itself, and subject if there is another noun in the sentence.  Genitive, like in other languages, indicates possession, and vocative is used in directly addressing someone or something.  Like the plural, they are marked with a suffix or tone change, depending on the class of the noun.  In addition, like in German and Greek, the absolutive and subject are marked on the article, as well.  However, Somali also has different articles depending on whether the noun was mentioned before or not (similar to English “a” and “the”).
  7. Poetry.  Somalis are known for their love of poetry.  Richard Burton noted in the 19th century the widespread recitation and performance of poetry among Somalis.  When Somali is spoken it is peppered with poetic allusion, proverbs, and alliteration.  The uninitiated cannot understand the depth of the language without a deep knowledge and appreciation of the poetry.


Before you feel discouraged, let me tell you that Somalis love to hear their language spoken by foreigners.  Some non-Somalis have become YouTube sensations by simply interviewing in Somali.  When you try to learn the language, you will receive tons of help.  Somalis love their language, and their love is infectious.  Enjoy taking on this challenge of learning Somali and all the new, friendly people you will recruit to help your efforts and entertain with your enthusiasm.



Community Languages in Schools

Source: University of Minnesota Extension.

I recently read this suggestion about starting a language program at your local school.  It starts by describing how learning a language increases academic achievement overall.  Then it suggests looking for teachers.  Significantly, the article suggests finding a teacher first, then choosing a language.  This approach helps redirect the divisive question of what language to teach.  Finally, the site addresses how to fund and structure your program.  Sadly, the government grant it suggests for funding was ended for 2012.

I was inspired and I took the plunge at my daughter’s middle school.  I decided to work with the school to expand the language program.  Presently, the school has Spanish and French for seventh and eighth grade, and not for sixth.  French is not common in the district, and Chinese is growing in interest.

Contrary to the above website, I started with picking a language: I suggested the Somali language.  I wanted to incorporate the ideas I have for community language education (See this earlier post.)  Our metropolitan area has the largest Somali population (~60,000) in the US, the second largest in North America.  Moreover, our suburban district includes a fair number of Somali families, as well.  So I met with the principal about adding Somali as a language option for the students.

Presenting another model of language-learning motivated my suggestion for Somali rather than, say, German (a more commonly taught language) or Mandarin (a more “up and coming” language).  The places that consistently produce multilingual people share native language knowledge among speakers of various languages.  In Singapore, for example, everyone speaks at least some Tamil, Mandarin, and English.  They might also speak some Cantonese and Malaysian.  In Mumbai, people will often speak at least some Hindi and some English, along with at least one other language.  This contrasts with the US where a non-Hispanic resident of Texas probably can’t ask in Spanish where the bus stop is.  A wall exists between English speakers in the US that does not exist among speakers of various languages in other countries.  I want to breach that wall.

Our city holds a huge cache of knowledge, even in the school itself, that community-based language-learning can mine.  I want to learn from my fellow Twin Cities residents and bring in Somali teachers.  Anyone can go to the grocery store, the mall, or the park and find speakers of Somali.  But no one is using these situations for learning.  The school principal I talked to related how several years ago, many Russian students came through the school, and Russian resources for them and their families were in short supply.  I said, “What a pity!  Those kids could have been teaching Russian to all the other kids.”  We missed an opportunity.  Often we consider ELL kids deficient.  If we realized instead that they possess rare, specialized knowledge, they could teach us and we would all be better off.  I don’t want to miss this new opportunity in Somali.

At the moment, I am looking for a Somali teacher.  So many people speak Somali, yet so few know how to teach the language to foreigners.  In the process I may have stumbled upon another project: teaching folks how to teach their native language so that we can have the tools we need to mine these resources.  One site I’ve found helpful for training teachers is “Where are your keys?” which uses any knowledge of a language for teaching.

Any suggestions how I can find Somali teachers, or train native speakers to teach their native language?  Thank you!  Also, have you started a language program in your school?  How did you do it?  Any suggestions?