1) Arnold Zwicky has an interesting Language Log post about “conflicts between faithfulness (Faith: roughly, stick to the original) and well-formedness (WF: roughly, make things fit your system)”: for example, should the p in pH be capitalized if it begins a sentence? My answer: rewrite the sentence so it doesn’t come at the beginning, but I’m an editor. Unfortunately, Zwicky perpetuates the persistent myth that E.E. Cummings preferred his name spelled without periods and capital letters (see here and here for refutation).

2) John Emerson, a frequent and valued commenter, is selling some of his books at very reasonable prices: “China is my specialty, but I have some books in French, some books about the Mongolian language, and a number of beautiful, well-made Heritage Club books, mostly novels and classics, in good to like new condition.” See if there’s something that appeals to you

3) A story by Jen Ross in the San Francisco Chronicle describes the efforts of 16-year-old Chilean Joubert Yanten to keep his native tongue, Selk’nam, alive; it’s a member of the Chon family that Wikipedia says “went extinct in 2003” (and Ethnologue doesn’t seem to acknowledge at all calls Ona).

But learning a language when there is no one to speak it with is no small task. Yanten used dictionaries and audiocassettes of interviews and shamanic chants, recorded by Jesuit missionaries.

The teen leafs through the photocopied pages of a Selk’nam dictionary he borrowed from the library, which includes special sections on grammar and sentence structure. He explains that Selk’nam differs from Spanish in that the object comes at the beginning of a sentence, followed by the subject and the verb…

Besides Selk’nam and Spanish, he also speaks fluent Mapudungun – the language of Chile’s largest indigenous group – the Mapuche. He considers himself only semi-versed in the native languages of Onikenk, Haush, Kawesqar, and Quechua – not to mention English.

He’s also learning Yagan – a nearly extinct language from Chile’s far south. He’s been learning from its last living speaker, Christina Calderon, for three years, on the phone and by Internet messages. She has sent him recordings of songs and tribal stories. Yanten has also traveled to visit her in remote Tierra del Fuego, most recently on a trip financed by a Chilean television station.

Good for him. (Thanks for the link, Eve!)


  1. The Ethnologue lists Selknam under the name “Ona”: http://www.ethnologue.com/show_language.asp?code=ona

  2. Ah, thanks. I was misled because it had a different name and was located in a different country.

  3. Good for him! I wish there were more individuals like Joubert Yanten. We could start a full-blown organisation dedicated to saving endangered languages!

  4. If Ushanka isn’t being facetious, in fact there are a number of organizations dedicated to saving endangered languages.

  5. And I can only just keep two languages straight. (Inspired by Larry Trask, I joke that I’m sesquilingual most of the time.) I’m impressed and awed.
    The E.E. Cummings bit annoys me too – at this rate I’ll end up having to read him. But I’m not sure what the benefit is of reading works that break the conventions, when I’m not familiar with the conventions. I.e. I’ve never developed any fondness for poetry.
    As a chemist I’d never capitalise pH, but I don’t recall ever having used it at the beginning of a sentence anyway.

  6. Great to hear about young people getting involved in language preservation! However, the article could’ve used some better editing. It claims that When the Spaniards arrived in Chile, 11 languages were in widespread use: Quechua, Aymara, Rapanui, Chango, Kunza, Diaguita, Mapudungun, Chono, Kawesqar, Yagan and Selk’nam. Today, only the first three remain. However, Mapudungun is still spoken by over 400,000 people, and Kawesqar and Yagan still have living speakers, albeit few enough that the languages probably won’t survive another generation without massive support. The article later acknowledges that Mapudungun is the language of Chile’s largest indigenous group – the Mapuche and that Yagan still has one living speaker.

  7. Rapanui is the language of Easter Island, which while technically part of Chile, is highly incongruous within this list of South American languages. It’s Polynesian. Although it is still spoken and is certainly highly endangered by the encroachment of Spanish.

  8. James Crippen: Even worse, we’ve probably already lost Rongorongo. I can’t imagine it being deciphered any time soon.
    Bill Poser: I was not being facetious; I was genuinely unaware of any such organisations.

  9. mollymooly says

    pH is a legal word in Scrabble because it doesn’t *begin* with a capital. Question: can French scrabble players use lundi, novembre, anglais, etc?

  10. John Emerson says

    Thanks, Steve. My guess is I’ve gotten half a dozen orders from this post already.

  11. David Marjanović says

    Why exactly is Fischer’s decipherment of Rongorongo “wrongo, wrongo”? I’ve only seen the assertion, but no reasons were given in what I’ve read.

  12. David Marjanović says

    Is there such a thing as a French scrabble player? I mean, there almost certainly is, but the game is very rare outside of English-speaking countries.

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