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TOPIC: linguistics


The Problem With India's Violence Against Women Starts At The Linguistic Level

The clear lack of words, in Hindi and other Indian vernaculars, to describe feminine reproductive organs, feminine hygiene or women’s reproductive rights, says a lot about a country plagued by violence against women and rampant rape culture.

Have you — who do not read or write in the Indian vernaculars — ever wondered about the semantic problem faced when writing about sexual abuse in Hindi?

Working on a book on the reproductive health of India’s rural women a decade ago, I was taken aback by India's vernaculars’ near uniform lack of a clear terminology for feminine reproductive organs, feminine hygiene, or clinically graphic discussions on women’s reproductive rights and wrongs.

Like Hindi, in Marathi, Tamil, Kannada, Punjabi and Haryanvi, I was told the only commonly used terms for "sex" and "sexual pleasure", were available in a crude gutter language, straight out of all-male gatherings, street sex and our traditional country and pop songs, all of which celebrate male sexuality and see women as a sum total of their private parts.

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The Hardest Soft Power: How Moscow Forces The Russian Language On Occupied Ukraine

Russia's full-scale war against Ukraine goes well beyond the battlefield. Russia is trying to destroy Ukrainian identity by imposing the Russian language in occupied areas, as a prime weapon in Moscow's policy of "Russification."


KYIV — In all spheres of public life, where the enemy's boots have trodden, we will have to fight back against Kremlin myths, while dealing with the tragic consequences and the physical ruins of the attacks that have caused irreparable damage to the people of Ukraine.

In Crimea, Donetsk, and Luhansk, a new generation of forcibly Russianized Ukrainian youth has emerged over the past nine years. At the same time, cities and villages that were under temporary occupation suffered similar catastrophic losses.

For these and other reasons, which have damaged national interests, it is crucial to pay increased attention to the spheres of education, culture, and media in the de-occupied territories.

Experts point out that this process could be tragic for Ukraine, as the Kremlin has been doing everything it can to break the mental ties between the occupied territories and Kyiv since the first days of the occupation.

It all started with linguistic discrimination, bans, threats, and then the actual genocide of the Ukrainian people. A linguistic ban is one of the most significant humanitarian risks associated with Russian aggression.

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A Very Neapolitan Kind Of Halloween

Instead of going trick-or-treating, our Naples-based psychiatrist asks herself a dialectal question.

When someone wishes you “Happy Halloween," how should you respond?

“Same to you, andkitammuort!?”

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"You Ass Tulip!" - What Turkey's Creative Swearing Culture Can Teach Us

Profanity is a kind of national sport in Turkey. But it can also be risky business, sometimes leading to lawsuits or even death. One political scientist researching Turkey’s unique way of conjuring curse words explains what the country's inventive slurs reveal about its fears and prejudices.

ISTANBUL — “Take your mother and get lost!” That’s the literal translation of what Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the authoritarian Turkish president, once said to a farmer 15 years ago when the man complained about economic problems.

The Turkish people were shocked by his choice of words, but it was the farmer who was led away by police and later forced to make a televised apology. As he recently explained in a newspaper interview, he is still dealing with legal proceedings as a result of the incident because he is accused of insulting the president, not the other way round.

Erdogan’s behavior was certainly unusual for a head of state, but many Turks also saw it as honest and authentic. “In Turkey, working-class people often use rude words, which are seen as more straightforward and sincere,” explains Ahmet Özcan, a political scientist at Istanbul’s Boğaziçi University, who is currently working on a research project about Turkish slang.

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Michela Marzano

Can We Still Say "Merry Christmas"? An Italian Take On The Inclusive Language Debate

The European Commission's efforts to push for more inclusive language are important. But we should be careful and make sure we make room for differences.


ROME — In Italian, it's Buone feste or Buon Natale? "Happy holidays" or "Merry Christmas"? The controversy triggered over the European Commission's Union of Equality guidelines makes very little sense.

The EU does not prohibit anyone from using the word "Christmas." Such guidelines only serve to highlight the importance of language in preventing inequalities from being perpetuated or worsened.

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Marcus Lorenz

A Cold German Takedown Of Gender-Inclusive Language

There's a fundamental flaw in the case being made against certain grammatically gendered nouns.

BERLIN — Not too long ago, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung published the following sentence: "60.5 million citizens are eligible to vote in the German general election." It wasn't, perhaps, the most exciting sequence of words. But at least at first glance, there's also nothing particularly objectionable about the statement.

And yet, for one particular group, the sentence was highly offensive. Why? Because it contains the word "citizens," which in German is a masculine noun — and thus implies "men." So argue proponents of gender-inclusive language, who point to a whole array of psychological research.

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Yann Verdo

Syllable Counting And The Secret To The 'Speed' Of Languages

Recent studies from a French laboratory of linguistics reveal surprising aspects of human language that make it even more mysterious than it sounds.

LYON — We all know somebody who speaks with machine-gun speed, and we know others who speaks slowly, dragging a conversation on and on. And on ... Polyglot speakers will likely notice that the difference in the flow of speech not only varies among individuals, but also among languages as well. One need not read Murakami or Cervantes to know that Japanese and Spanish are spoken rather quickly.

These observations have led a team of linguists from the France-based Laboratory for Language Dynamics (University Lumière Lyon II) to ask an interesting question: Are languages that are spoken faster than others more efficient in transmitting information? Last month they published their findings in the journal Science Advances, and the results are quite extraordinary.

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Jo McGowan Chopra*

Language Battles In India: Benefits Of A Mother Tongue Education

The number of children studying in English in India increased 273% between 2003 and 2011. But there is also a push for Hindi over regional dialects. Child development should be the guide, not politics or status.

DEHRADUNOn Saturday, the kids who live upstairs from me got their "results."

"What are "results'?" Lakshi asked.

"How you did on your papers," her Mom explained.

Vijay — no surprise — was first in his class and his teacher's darling. "Such a smart boy," she said enthusiastically. "He knows all the answers." Lakshi, on the other hand, got a card full of red marks and zeroes and a rueful, disappointed teacher.

Lakshi attends school in English, but she speaks, thinks and dreams in Hindi. At home, she is confident, articulate and smart — the life of the party. At school, she is quiet, nervous and withdrawn, never quite sure what is going on.

Lakshi is not alone. Across India, battles are being waged around Hindi versus regional languages versus English as the medium of instruction in schools. Even recently, when the new ruling party in Karnataka proposed teaching in English in government schools, there was fierce opposition from all sections of society.

This is nothing new. The debate around the issue of the medium of instruction in India goes as far back as the 1880s. British Imperialists argued over how their economic and political objectives would be better served — English or native tongue? — while freedom fighters locked horns over which language would better serve the cause of national unity.

Of late, the issue has come down to nationalism and pride. Hindi has achieved the same ridiculous status here as English in Donald Trump's America: the language of the ruling class is the language of power and privilege and knowledge of it is as much a test of intelligence and worthiness as a mark of status.

As far as I know, no one has brought a child development focus to the debate. So let's go back to Lakshi. Let's look at this issue through her eyes.

When she visits me in the evening, wanting to help, we chat in Hindi with a few English words and phrases thrown in. I ask her to set the table and she knows exactly where everything is in our kitchen and exactly how it should all be laid out on the table — plates in the center, forks on the left, knives on the right, spoons to the right of the knives, glass positioned just over the tip of the knife. (These are all pre-reading skills, folks! Kids learn about order and matching when things are kept neatly in the right place, like with like; they learn about the difference between a lower-case "d" and a lower-case "b" by real life practice — the fork goes on the left, the knife on the right).

Classroom in Mangalore, India — Photo: Max Pixels

Lakshi helps whenever I make a cake — she can pour, divide, measure and subtract. Once that cake is baked and served, she knows who got the bigger piece and she can tell me in precise terms not only exactly how many slices are left but also how many people could get one (not as easy as it seems for kids trained in rote learning).

Lakshi is three. Her vocabulary is a joy, her math skills are amazing and her powers of observation remarkable. Her Hindi speaking has not hampered any of this.

But the school she attends is doing its best to stamp out her curiosity and creativity and make her feel stupid right out of the gate. The English language is one of its primary weapons.

The English used in most Indian schools simply does not allow for any real learning to take place.

According to the National University of Education, Planning and Administration, the number of children studying in English-medium schools in India increased by an astonishing 273% between 2003 and 2011. Their parents think they know exactly what they are doing and why: they believe that knowledge of English is key to job security and upward mobility, and they are convinced that their children's opportunities will increase in direct proportion to their English vocabularies.

They are right, but they are also totally wrong. Knowing English helps a lot in getting a good job, but only if that English is meaningful, accompanied by understanding and fundamental knowledge in all the other things children go to school to learn. The English used in most Indian schools simply does not allow for any real learning to take place.

The subject is complex and fascinating. Given India's linguistic diversity, the dream of a common language is quite powerful. And English seems to many the only solution. Yet the results so far are abysmal.

In the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), India scored 75th out of 77 countries. This is an overall indicator of how schools are performing and does not specifically implicate English as a culprit. PISA continues to rank countries around the world, but after its 2009 humiliation, India has refused to participate, citing cultural inappropriateness in the testing.

Keeping its head in the sand is one approach. But India's primary education is notorious for its rote learning, poorly trained teachers and lack of funding (India spends only 2.6% of its GDP on education; China spends 4.1 and Brazil is more than double India's at 5.7).

English as the language of instruction makes all of it worse — developmentally, it is a disaster. Consider school from the child's perspective. Like Lakshi, most kids are very young when they set off from home. For the first time in their lives, they have to cope in a strange environment for many hours with a large number of other children whom they do not know. They must sit still, be quiet and speak only on command. The teacher, who is also a stranger, expects children to master completely new concepts: reading and writing; addition and subtraction; photosynthesis; the difference between a city and state and country.

All in a foreign language!

Are we crazy? Other countries do not do this to their children. Go to China, France, Germany, the Netherlands or Spain — all countries where English is commonly mastered as a second language — and you will find primary education happening in the dominant language of the area. In 2016, the state of California voted by a large majority to restore bilingual education in its primary schools.

French classroom — Photo: Clio/GFDL

At the moment, only about 17% of Indian children are in English medium schools. Current trends suggest that this figure will rise exponentially in the coming decade (Bihar saw a rise of 4700% in just five years). If the Hindu nationalists of RSS have their way, however, the entire country will switch to Hindi, including those whose mother tongue is Kannada, Konkani or Gujarati.

While the research is clear that children learn best in their own mother tongues, there are other compelling arguments as well, particularly in India. Classrooms are only as good as their teachers — in India, in 2012, 91% of the teachers currently serving in both private and government schools were unable to pass a national eligibility test. With this level of incompetence, we still expect them to teach in a language they are likely weak in themselves.

Are we crazy? Other countries do not do this to their children.

I am American, and my Hindi is better than the average Indian teacher's English. Yet I would never presume to teach in Hindi. Teachers need to be ready to answer any question that might arise; they need to have stories to illustrate the concepts they are introducing, and if those do not work, they need to come up with something that does. Teaching is not about memorizing or reading out loud. It is complex, nuanced and constantly adapting.

The language of instruction should simply be a vehicle, an effortless flow of grammar and words which everyone absorbs without having to puzzle it through for meaning and definition. Science, math and literacy are hard enough as it is without adding so many layers of complexity. The country needs its next generation of leaders to master their fundas thoroughly so they can go on to practice medicine, build bridges, put in plumbing and design solar lighting systems. And children can learn second, third and fourth languages all in good time.

But that will happen only if those youngsters grow up loving language, not feeling threatened and judged by it. We need them to write poetry and songs and novels. We need them to feel proud of their mother tongues, not apologetic and ashamed as if their intelligence is based on how much English they know.

Lakshi and her friends are waiting expectantly. They are eager to learn and their brains are hard-wired just for that. Are we going to fail her and an entire generation of India's young citizens?

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Diletta Parlangeli

Italian Revisited, Pinocchio Translated Into Emoji Language

Researchers at the University Of Macerata used volunteers and online bots to help translated the 19th century children's classic.

MACERATA — In the first chapter of Carlo Collodi's children's classic The Adventures of Pinocchio, the carpenter Mastro Ciliegia notes that "this piece of wood" came just in the nick of time for him to make a table out of. Writing in 1873, Collodi could never have predicted that his own book — 144 years later — would be the prime material for someone else to fashion a new book. (And new language?)

Published last year by Apice Libri, Pinocchio in Emojitaliano is the first-ever Italian book written entirely in emojis. The book includes the original version in Italian, as well as an emoji glossary and grammar guide. While several other books have been "translated" into emojis in recent years, from Moby Dick to the Bible, Pinocchio is the first attempt to standardize an entire language using the emoticons. This new digital dialect is the result of a collaborative effort between an active Twitter community, university researchers, and a bot on the messaging app Telegram that helped build the emoji dictionary.

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Mexico And Its Multitude Of Disappearing Languages

MEXICO CITY — Mexico is one of the world's most linguistically diverse countries, but many of its indigenous tongues are in serious danger of extinction. And unless efforts are undertaken to preserve them, about 50 of those languages could disappear within the next 20 years, the Mexico City-based daily El Universal reports.

There are a staggering 364 different languages spoken in Mexico, about half of which are in no immediate danger of extinction. But there were more than 500 before the arrival of Spanish colonists in the late 15th century, and Mexico's linguistic diversity is still in grave danger. Mexico's National Institute of Indigenous Languages (INALI) suggests that 43 indigenous tongues are at "high risk" of disappearing with another 72 at "moderate risk."

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Jacques Savoy

How Big Data Helps Reveal Ghostwriters And Bust Plagiarists

Can we determine whether a certain writer actually penned a certain work? Using technological analysis, the answer is a reliable 'yes.'

ST. GALLEN — At the beginning of this year, the Swiss universities in St. Gallen and Bern denounced the student practice of using ghostwriters to pass off work as their own.

Though universities are not yet using sophisticated technological tools to analyze student papers, the issue raises a number of questions in a host of applications. How can we identify the author of a letter, an anonymous e-mail or a contested will? Are there ways to bust plagiarists? Can we determine whether the text was written by a woman or a man? Can we detect the presence of a sexual predator in a chat? In tackling such issues, computer algorithms can provide answers whose reliability varies from 70% to 95%, depending on the type of problem and its context. Some examples:

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Laura Lin

Lexicon Exports: 5 Chinese Words Going Global

BEIJING — Both the Internet and China’s mighty role as manufactured goods exporter have given new prominence to the Chinese language around the world. Here are 5 expressions from China already on the road to being exported themselves.

1.) The Beijing Youth Daily recently reported that a new Chinese buzzword, tu-hao, could be be included in next year’s Oxford English Dictionary.

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