Kiowa Sign Language.

Jennifer Graber reports for OUPBlog:

In 1890, a strange letter with “hieroglyphic script” arrived at Pennsylvania’s Carlisle Indian Industrial School. It was sent from a reservation in the Oklahoma Territory to a Kiowa student named Belo Cozad. Cozad, who did not read or write in English, was able to understand the letter’s contents—namely, its symbols that offered an update about his family. The letter provided news about relatives’ health and employment, as well as details about religious practice on the reservation.

While Belo Cozad understood the letter, Americans working at the school did not. Neither did reservation officials who saw the letter once Cozad returned to Oklahoma. Anthropologists working there sent a copy to the Smithsonian’s Bureau of Ethnology, where a staff member set out to understand it. Interviewed back on the reservation, Cozad provided “translations” of the letter. The anthropologists concluded that several Kiowas, though hardly all, knew this writing system. […]

The marks on Cozad’s letter mimicked the signs for individual words. A circle followed by four loops signifies four brothers. Three horizontal lines stand for the number three. A box with vertical lines, followed by a swooping downward and then upward line, means that someone has been buried in a grave. Together, the signs tell Cozad that he no longer had four brothers, but only three. One had recently died and been buried.

With this letter, Cozad’s family took an old form, Plains Indian Sign Language, and adapted it for their new situation. With the hope of reaching their kin in boarding school, they had put signs onto paper and placed it in the US mail.

The images at the link are well worth viewing. (Kiowa previously on LH.)

Jigsaw Segmentation and the Vatican Archives.

When I saw the title of Sam Kean’s Atlantic article “Artificial Intelligence Is Cracking Open the Vatican’s Secret Archives” I groaned inwardly, assuming it was the usual excessive hype for what was probably a banal story. But no, it’s really something (though I still jib at the term “artificial intelligence”). It starts out with the fact that the Vatican Secret Archives is “one of the grandest historical collections in the world,” with 53 linear miles of shelving, but also “one of the most useless”:

Of those 53 miles, just a few millimeters’ worth of pages have been scanned and made available online. Even fewer pages have been transcribed into computer text and made searchable. If you want to peruse anything else, you have to apply for special access, schlep all the way to Rome, and go through every page by hand.

But a new project could change all that. Known as In Codice Ratio, it uses a combination of artificial intelligence and optical-character-recognition (OCR) software to scour these neglected texts and make their transcripts available for the very first time. If successful, the technology could also open up untold numbers of other documents at historical archives around the world.

Kean describes the difficulty of using OCR on handwritten text, then says:

In Codice Ratio sidesteps these problems through a new approach to handwritten OCR. The four main scientists behind the project—Paolo Merialdo, Donatella Firmani, and Elena Nieddu at Roma Tre University, and Marco Maiorino at the VSA—skirt Sayre’s paradox with an innovation called jigsaw segmentation. This process, as the team recently outlined in a paper, breaks words down not into letters but something closer to individual pen strokes. The OCR does this by dividing each word into a series of vertical and horizontal bands and looking for local minimums—the thinner portions, where there’s less ink (or really, fewer pixels). The software then carves the letters at these joints. The end result is a series of jigsaw pieces

The details are fascinating (the process involved help from high schoolers), but I’ll let you discover them at the link; the possibilities are exhilarating:

Like all artificial intelligence, the software will improve over time, as it digests more text. Even more exciting, the general strategy of In Codice Ratio—jigsaw segmentation, plus crowdsourced training of the software—could easily be adapted to read texts in other languages. This could potentially do for handwritten documents what Google Books did for printed matter: open up letters, journals, diaries, and other papers to researchers around the world, making it far easier to both read these documents and search for relevant material.

Thanks, jack!

Searching for Contents in Alutiiq.

Alisha Drabek, “an Alutiiq language advocate, writer, and artist living on Kodiak Island, Alaska,” writes about her experience with the Alutiiq language; the first paragraph is evocative:

Surrounded by the Gulf of Alaska, the sea’s contents have fed and clothed my Alutiiq community both literally and figuratively for millennia. Ripples from my ancestors’ worldview course through my mind when I think of the Alutiiq word for “sea” or “ocean”—imaq. It is the same word for “a liquid contained inside” and “contents.” I first felt a deeper awareness of the Alutiiq worldview through this root word, which resurfaces in many remarkable ways. The root word appears in the phrases Imartuq—“It is full”—and Imaituq—“It is empty”; and again in Imasuugtua—“I feel depressed or sad” or “down-hearted” or “having a sinking feel of foreboding.” Literally, the word for “I am sad” translates in English as “I am searching for my contents.” The metaphorical wisdom of my ancestors regularly surprises and inspires me.

I’m posting it both because of its specificity (although we’re used to seeing this kind of thing about better-known languages, Alutiiq is new to me) and in hopes that someone who is familiar with the Yup’ik languages might be able to address the morphology involved and say whether, for instance, imaq is really one word or two being poetically conflated. Thanks, Trevor!

Expressive Millennial English.

Rachel Thompson writes for Mashable about that well-worn topic, Millennials and How They Do Things. But she quotes actual linguists, so I thought I’d pass on some excerpts:

Dr Lauren Fonteyn, English Linguistics lecturer at University of Manchester, told Mashable “something exciting” is happening with the way that millennials write, and it goes far, far beyond our proclivity to use acronyms and “like.”

Fonteyn says millennials are “breaking the constraints” of written English to “be as expressive as you can be in spoken language.” This new variant of written English strives to convey what body language, and tone and volume of voice can achieve in spoken English.

Fonteyn says that on a superficial level, we can see millennials stripping anything unnecessary from their writing, like the removal of abbreviation markers in “dont,” “cant,” “im” and in acronyms like tf, ur, bc, idk, and lol. In a world where most of our conversations take place online, millennials are using a number of written devices to convey things that could typically only be communicated by cadence, volume, or even body language.

One such device is “atypical capitalisation” […]

Dr Ruth Page, senior lecturer in Applied Linguistics at Birmingham University, says that frequently the “personal pronoun (‘I’) is in the lower case (‘i’)” which is sometimes used to “play down the person’s sense of self.” […]

Millennials’ use—or rather, misuse—of punctuation is where things really start to get creative. Page says research shows how “non-standard use of punctuation can reflect ‘tone of voice’ or what linguists would call ‘paralinguistic’ meaning.” She says that an example of this is using a period (a.k.a. a full stop) at the end of a sentence to “indicate that you are cross.” […]

For millennials who conduct so many of their conversations online, this creativity with written English allows us to express things that we would have previously only been conveyed through volume, cadence, tone, or body language. But, Fonteyn thinks it “goes beyond that as well,” with things like the trademark symbol.

“When TM is added to a phrase, it ADDS something you can’t do in a regular conversation,” says Fonteyn. “I don’t think this originates in speech, because I don’t think anyone actually says “the point TM.”

Thanks, jack!

Hey! I Know What That Means!

Lucy Ferriss writes for Lingua Franca about her students’ experience with French after four months of a study-abroad program which “does not require that students have studied the language before they arrive, and most of the courses are taught in English”:

Now, on the face of it, this method seems bizarre. Imagine a group of Italian undergraduates coming to New York for a semester to study, and taking all their classes in Italian. The difference, of course, is that English is taught in all Western European countries, beginning at a young age. In the United States, we start teaching foreign languages later, and we teach them with far less urgency than our European counterparts — in large measure because, as native English speakers, we don’t feel we “need” another language. Because study-abroad programs want to encourage students to experience a different culture, they are loath to set a language bar that excludes eager but untaught learners.

The responses from the students are very interesting; here are a few:
[Read more…]

Two Spaces Are Better Than One.

Avi Selk reports in a (cleverly formatted) article in the Washington Post on a study by Rebecca L. Johnson, Becky Bui, and Lindsay L. Schmitt that settles an old question once and for all:

“Typing two spaces after a period is totally, completely, utterly, and inarguably wrong,” Farhad Manjoo wrote in Slate in 2011. “You can have my double space when you pry it from my cold, dead hands,” Megan McArdle wrote in the Atlantic the same year. (And yes, she double-spaced it.)

This schism has actually existed throughout most of typed history, the writer and type enthusiast James Felici once observed (in a single-spaced essay). […]

Enter three psychology researchers from Skidmore College, who decided it’s time for modern science to sort this out once and for all.

“Professionals and amateurs in a variety of fields have passionately argued for either one or two spaces following this punctuation mark,” they wrote in a paper published last week in the journal Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics. […]

And the verdict was: two spaces after the period is better. It makes reading slightly easier. Congratulations, Yale University professor Nicholas A. Christakis. Sorry, Lifehacker.

OK, I was just kidding, I know perfectly well this won’t settle anything once and for all; for proof, see the long and contentious MetaFilter thread. You single-spacers aren’t going to change your ways any more than we double-space-forever types are. I’m posting this to give aid and comfort to my beleaguered cohorts: SCIENCE is on our side. (Thanks, Eric!)


My local NPR station was just playing Gustav Holst’s Second Suite in F for Military Band (I’m always surprised it’s by Holst, because it sounds more like Percy Grainger or somebody, and I always turn up the volume when it gets to “Swansea Town” because what a great tune!); I looked it up and discovered (no doubt not for the first time) that one of the tunes he used is called “Glorishears,” which struck me as an odd name, so I looked that up. Apparently it’s also called “Glorishear” and “Glorisher,” and this site says:

The term glorishears is from the Cromwellian Protectorate (?); it is a condensation of “The Glorious Years.” The tune was specified for several ballads, says Paul Burgess, most titled “The Glorious Years of …(regent or monarch).” From the village of Bampton, Oxfordshrire, in England’s Cotswolds.

I have to heartily second that question mark — barring hard evidence which doesn’t seem to exist, it sounds like the folkiest of folk etymologies. But you never know, so I’m tossing it out there in case anyone has something to say about it.

Felatun Bey and Rakım Efendi.

Kaya Genç writes about one of those famous untranslated works that has finally been translated:

When a Turkish literary scholar announced in the 1980s that he was the “socialist Ahmet Midhat Efendi,” many intellectuals voiced their surprise at this left-wing writer’s unabashed sympathy for a traditionalist novelist of the late nineteenth century. One of the most productive writers of Ottoman literature, Midhat Efendi single-handedly set the fundamentals of Turkish journalism and the Turkish novel. He was also one of Sultan Abdülhamid II’s favorite writers and for a long time, Ahmet Midhat Efendi’s perceived conservatism made him an unattractive figure to Western publishers, until this year when a U.S. publisher, Syracuse University Press, published “Felatun Bey and Rakım Efendi: An Ottoman Novel.” Translated by Melih Levi and Monica M. Ringer, this slim, 166-page book has a beautiful design. […]

[Read more…]

Hedwig Klein and Wehr’s Arabic Dictionary.

Via Bulbul’s Facebook post, a heartbreaking story by Stefan Buchen that describes the fate of young Hedwig Klein, a Jewish native of Hamburg who tried to use her expertise in Arabic to escape her fate and managed to do so for a while by working on the Nazi scholar Hans Wehr’s Arabic dictionary, which was originally intended as a resource for translating Mein Kampf. I won’t try to summarize the story, which I encourage you to click through and read; I’ll just quote the postwar sequel:

And Hans Wehr? After the war, he was called to appear before a denazification commission. On 20 July 1947, he wrote in his defence that “I managed to save a Jewish academic colleague, Dr Klein from Hamburg, from transportation to Theresienstadt [sic] in 1941, by requesting that the Gestapo release her for work supposedly important to the war effort, on the Arabic dictionary.” The words are taken from his denazification file. Wehr was classed as a “Mitlaufer” (follower); he was ordered to pay 36.40 deutschmarks by way of “atonement” and the legal costs associated with his case.

His dictionary, which was supposed to help with the translation of “Mein Kampf”, was not published before the end of the war. It came out in 1952. In the foreword, Wehr thanks “Dr H. Klein”, among others, for her help. He fails to mention what happened to her. Today the “Wehr”, as the “Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic” is known, is the most-used Arabic dictionary in the world. The German 5th edition was printed in 2011.

But even this latest tome reveals nothing more about “Dr H. Klein”. When I enquired, the Harrassowitz publishing company told me that a new edition was in the pipeline. The publishers said they would ask the current editor whether he could insert a note “about the undoubtedly tragic fate of Dr Klein.”

As I commented on the Facebook post, “I’ve used Wehr for decades and had no idea.” (The relevant sentence from the Introduction to my third edition of Wehr-Cowan [no relation, presumably]: “The author wishes to express his gratitude for such contributions to Prof. Werner Caskel, Dr. Hans Kindermann, Dr. Hedwig Klein, Dr. Kurt Munzel, Prof. Annemarie Schimmel, Dr. Richard Schmidt, and especially to Prof. Wolfram von Soden, who contributed a large amount of excellent material.”)

The Iraqi Translation Project.

Paul Braterman writes for The Conversation about an admirable project:

In early August, I wrote a piece for The Conversation on how to present evolution in the face of politically motivated misdirection. As a result, I found myself translated into Arabic, invited to comment on the Iraqi situation, befriended on Facebook by numerous people from Iraq, including battle-ravaged Mosul, as well as other Arabic-speaking countries. Then I was contacted by the Iraqi Translation Project, who have since translated several of my pieces into Arabic.

The Iraqi Translation Project (ITP) is one of several similar projects that have sprung up in recent years […]. ITP started in 2013. Its materials are archived on its website, and accessible through Facebook, where it has over 140,000 followers, and on YouTube. The closely related Arabic-language Real Science, founded in 2011, also has its own website (now bilingual) and Facebook page. […]

The longer-term ambition is to set up a professional translation project that will inspire young Arabic-speakers to play their full role in today’s world. […] So far, ITP has translated over 2,000 articles, 60 documentaries and 150 videos. Topics cover a wide range of subjects, from Sumerian civilisation, gravity waves and political secularism, to female philosophers and interbreeding of modern humans with Neanderthals and Denisovans.

This kind of thing gives me hope that maybe the world isn’t going entirely to hell. Thanks, Trevor!