Loanwords: Good or Bad?

In many languages, words from other languages are frequently borrowed to supply words for meanings that either don’t already exist or the words that do exist are not sufficient. Other times, they borrow them for convenience or no real reason at all. In this post, I’m going to talk about the place of loanwords in languages.

English speakers, you may not realize it, but English has tons of words borrowed from other languages. The majority of our technical and specialized vocabulary is borrowed from Latin and Greek. Take the word “logic”, from the Greek logos (reason). Or “regal”, related to the Latin regis (king). There are other words that we are less aware of, due to their normalized pronunciations or common use. A common mistake is that loanwords are typically used only in specialized or very proper versions of a language. In English, the word for the meat of a cow, “beef” is from Norman French, bœuf, which was adopted to distinguish it from the animal in Old English, cu (cow). Less obvious borrowings include jungle” from Hindi जंगली (jangli), meaning “forest”, or “algebra”, from the Arabic الجبر (al-jabr), meaning “the reunion of broken parts”.

These words have become very normal for English speakers to say, and we hardly think about it anymore, since the origin of a word almost never has any consequence on social dynamics in English. However, in other languages, loanwords have a very consciously felt function and can be sensitive depending on how they are used.

An easy example that I’ve brought up before is Hindi-Urdu. The two main dialects of this language, Hindi and Urdu, are distinguished primarily by how much people use Perso-Arabic loanwords. Urdu in India is regarded as a poetic form of Hindi, and is heavily associated with Muslims, which can range from being good to bad, depending on the politics and sensibilities of a particular person. Urdu uses a lot of words borrowed from Farsi and Arabic. In Hindi, there are comparatively fewer, and borrows primarily from Sanskrit and English. For example, both Hindi and Urdu speakers will say gāḍi for “car”. (I’m using IAST since the scripts are different for Hindi and Urdu.) However, when saying “welcome”, Hindi speakers will say svāgat, whereas Urdu speakers will say ḥuś āmdīd. The use of Urdu versus Hindi has generated great controversy as to whether they’re different languages and questions over the social dynamic with respect to what kind of Hindi-Urdu they use.

Another dichotomy of loanwords that exists in nearly all subcontinental languages is the use of English loanwords. This usually happens in expat communities, among the children of expats who may not speak the language as well as their parents. As a Kannada speaker who lives in America, I don’t use the proper Kannada words for some thing because I either don’t know them or they’re really long and clunky to use. For example, I’m more likely to say “statistics” in English with an Indian accent (yes very stereotypical I know), but the proper word is ಸಂಖ್ಯಾಸಂಗ್ರಹಣ (sankhyāsangrahaṇa). My grandparents often advocate the use of pure Kannada because they think it’s more important to preserve the language in its original form than “corrupt” it with foreign words. But even Kannada borrows from Farsi and Arabic, so it’s questionable as to why those words are more acceptable than English. In many Indian expat communities, the use of English loanwords can be seen as a mark of not knowing the mother tongue as well (which very well may be true). To be honest, this is usually the opinion of the older generation, especially in India.

It’s unclear whether using loanwords is good or bad, especially when we don’t have words for things. I think that ideally, we should use the pure version of a language, but as is often the case, we don’t know the language that well. It would be better to teach the pure version, but as for practice of the language, we should let it take its course.

I hope you found this article informative and interesting! Please feel free to comment or share this article.

Progress on Kannada Duolingo

I recently completed a preliminary version of the Kannada Duolingo course by creating a course on Memrise. If you don’t know, Duolingo is a language learning site and application available on computers, iOS, and Android. Duolingo provides free language instruction to anyone who has a computer or a smartphone. This is a revolutionary service, since it is extremely accessible and democratic. The courses rely contributors from around the world to improve and revise the courses, using a cloud-based system. Naturally, they do screen contributors for genuine knowledge of the language in question and commitment. Now, there are already a few courses on Duolingo that teach minority or at least non-mainstream languages, including Welsh, Irish, Romanian, and Polish. Duolingo’s service is an important tool for ethnic groups around the world to preserve their languages and inform the world. However, because Duolingo is not working on languages that require learners to learn a new script to read the language, languages like Chinese, Japanese, and Hindi are significantly delayed. Duolingo also relies on its employees’ internal knowledge of the languages. I am pushing for Duolingo to create a course for Kannada, so as to preserve the language of the Kannada-speaking community, particularly in expatriate communities.

Memrise is another useful service for language learners, and has a simple but very accessible way for people to write their own courses. The Kannada learning course that I wrote and recorded is up and running already! You can check it out here: http://www.memrise.com/course/990976/learn-kannada-3/

I’m considering putting up the full text as a textbook at some point, but I’m having some people review at the moment. Please keep an eye out!

Did You Know? – Perso-Arabic Loans in Kannada

In my research on more advanced words in Kannada, I discovered there is a significant inventory of Perso-Arabic words. These words are primarily used by Muslim Kannada speakers, who are primarily centered in Northern Karnataka, in cities such as in Mysore and Dharwad.

I was kind of surprised to learn that there was effectively a Kannada-based equivalent of Urdu, which is a variety of the Hindi-Urdu continuum of languages that borrows heavily from Arabic and Farsi. Kannada’s “Urdu” has no formal name, as the minority of Muslims who speak Kannada are unlikely to use their particular variety of Kannada in public spaces. Most Muslims in Dharwar and Mysore speak Urdu as their first language, picking up Kannada as a second language. Despite this, Kannada has developed a strategy to write Perso-Arabic words in the Kannada script. Only two such letters are currently accepted in standard orthography: ಕ಼ (qa) and ಫ಼ (fa).

When I write in Kannada, I use the two dots to mark Perso-Arabic sounds that are not a part of the standard system. This means ಜ with two dots underneath would be pronounced “za” and ಖ with two dots would be “ḥa”. Interestingly, there is actually a protocol of how specific Nastaliq letters are converted into Kannada, and then pronounced in Muslim Kannada and Common (or Standard) Kannada:

Nastaliq [IPA] -> Muslim Kannada [IPA] (two dots) -> Common Kannada [IPA] (no dots)

ف [f] -> ಫ಼ [f] -> ಪ/ಫ [p/pʰ]

ص [ṣ] -> ಷ [ṣ] -> ಷ [ʂ]

ق [q] -> ಕ಼ [q] -> ಕ [k]

ز [z] -> ಜ [z] -> ಜ [j]

ث [θ] -> ಥ [θ] -> ಥ [tʰ]

و [w] -> ವ [w] -> ವ [v]

خ [χ] -> ಖ [χ] -> ಖ [kʰ]

غ [ɣ] -> ಘ [ɣ] -> ಘ [gʰ]

ذ [ð] -> ಧ [ð] -> ಧ [dʰ]

آ [ɒ] -> ಔ [ɒ] -> ಔ [au]

ه [h] -> ಃ [h] -> ಃ [ø]

To give an example, let’s take the following sentence: “I write the information with a pen.”

Muslim Kannada: ನಾನು ಈ ಇಜಾಫ಼ೆಯನ್ನ ಕ಼ಲಮುವಿನ್ದ ಬರೆಯುತ್ತೇನೆ. – Nānu ī ijāfeyanna qalamuvinda bareyuttēne.

Common Kannada: ನಾನು ಈ ಮಾಹಿತಿಯನ್ನ ಲೇಖನಿಯಿಂದ ಬರೆಯುತ್ತೇನೆ. – Nānu ī māhitiyanna lēkhaniyinda bareyuttēne.

Common Kannada (pronouncing Muslim Kannada): ನಾನು ಈ ಇಜಾಫೆಯನ್ನ ಕಲಮುವಿಂದ ಬರೆಯುತ್ತೇನೆ. – Nānu ī ijāpheyanna kalamuvinda bareyuttēne.

As you might be able to tell, the words for “information” and “pen” are very different, and come from different sources. It is also very clear that a Common Kannada reading of the Muslim Kannada sentence will sound stilted (though it assumes that the speaker is operating strictly within the sound inventory of Common Kannada). Not to mention that Spoken Kannada would sound completely different, no matter who’s talking.

I hope you found this article interesting, and I encourage you follow this blog and share it with others.

A Duolingo Course in the Works

Sorry for not having posted in so long! I’ve been very busy with studying and schoolwork in general, so I haven’t been the blog as much as I should. As I mentioned in a previous post, I thought it would be a great idea to create a Duolingo Course for minority languages. As it happens, for the past two months, I’ve been writing a Kannada Duolingo course curriculum, and I recently finished the first draft of it. Hopefully, the beta will be up sometime this year, assuming we can get clearance to actually start the course.

For those of you who do not know, Kannada is a South Indian Dravidian language, related to Telugu, Malayalam, and Tamil. It is spoken in the state of Karnataka, India as an official language alongside Hindi and English. The primary focus of this course is not for Indians living in India, but rather expatriate families living abroad. When I was growing up, there were very few opportunities to learn my mother tongue aside from my parents. Many parents wish to impart their mother tongue to their children that grow up in the United States, and try to send them to classes that will help them learn. However, sometimes, the only classes available are non-secular (as was the case in my area), to which some Indian parents would rather not send their children. My effort to create a Kannada Duolingo course is to provide a secular alternative to provide Kannada language education to Kannadiga Americans as well as other Kannadigas born outside of India.

I can’t exactly reveal all the details, but I would greatly appreciate it if you can share this post so that it reaches a lot of people, including interested contributors to the course! If you want to contribute to the Kannada Duolingo course, apply to be a moderator at https://incubator.duolingo.com/, by clicking “Contribute to a Course”. This way, we can speed along this project. It is unfortunate that the staff of Duolingo have actually stated: “the reason [they] don’t teach a lot of Asian languages is we are now sticking to languages that don’t require explaining a whole new alphabet”, said Gina Gotthilf. Also, “The choice of languages being added to the incubator depends on a lot of factors including Duolingo’s internal knowledge of them”according to the Duolingo wiki. I can assume that Kannada will be more easily done, since Hindi is already in the incubator, and they are teaching the alphabet. I highly encourage the Kannada Kootas of the United States to come together and increase demand for the creation of a course for our mother tongue. I’m currently in New York City, but my home is in the Bay Area of California, so if any of the Kootas are interested in contacting me, I’ll be in one of those two areas. To contact me, you can use the “Contact Me” tab at the top of the page.

I will be trying to write more posts soon, so please keep reading! Don’t forget to share this post wherever you can!

Duolingo: Hope for Minority Languages?

Recently, I had a conversation with one of my friends about the reason some languages die out or fade into obscurity among certain populations. In the United States, many children of immigrants do not grow up speaking the language of their parents. This can be attributed to a variety of reasons, including a fear of persecution, a desire for the children to have better competence in English, or the idea that the mother tongue is “useless”. I’m not going to discuss these reasons at length; that’s for another post. The topic at hand is the use of Duolingo to teach children languages. It has a reasonably entertaining interface with which children can interact and learn. A few different non-mainstream languages are already on Duolingo, including Polish, Norwegian, and Turkish.

Duolingo’s presence as a language-learning application has great significance for those attempting to protect minority languages. The Incubator function allows open source contributions to develop courses that people can use to learn. If motivated and enabled speakers of, say, Quechua, we’re so inclined, they might be able to build a course. As mentioned in Ineptitude’s post on Duolingo and Conlangs, there is nothing to stop contributors so long as there is demand and people willing to build these courses. For the purposes of reviving and protecting languages, this is a great tool, because many children across the world are leading lives more and more integrated with technology. By introducing children to Duolingo from an early age, people can promote language literacy and proficiency in children greatly. For immigrant parents, it could mean the difference between their children being disconnected from or more in touch with their culture. 

I am actually planning to discuss such a project with my regional Kannada Koota, which is a sort of convention or organization for Kannada speakers in the United States. Their mission is to preserve and promote the Kannada language. If young Kannadiga Americans are able to learn Kannada through an entertaining app that fits in well with their lifestyle, it will be highly beneficial to the preservation of our language abroad.

Minority languages without writing systems or formalized traditions are often said to be disadvantaged by the advancement of technology, but that doesn’t have to be true if people are motivated to protect and preserve them. If you have any thoughts on this, please share them in the comments.

Duolingo and Conlangs: Some Brief Thoughts

Recently I was having a conversation with Rizael regarding Duolingo having a course for Klingon in their incubator. He shared the opinion that it was useless and took away from Duolingo’s purpose of teaching people languages in order to foster worldwide communication. He also went on to state the opinion that the Esperanto course had no particular place on Duolingo either, as so few people use Esperanto anyway. While I don’t disagree that learning these languages may not necessarily be worth one’s time from a utility standpoint, I do think that proponents of these languages have every right to have a Duolingo course.

We can consider this from the angle that Duolingo is nothing more than a platform for language courses. In other words, it’s not the people at Duolingo itself who build the courses, but individuals and groups who wish to promote their languages. Duolingo’s Incubator actually has an application to submit a language, and as far as I can tell, puts courses in the incubator as per popular demand and availability of users who can contribute to the course. It’s for that reason that a course for Irish Gaelic has been released, and a course for Welsh is in the works, despite these languages not necessarily being “useful” in the traditional sense: very few people actively speak either language. Therefore, I see no real problem in Duolingo merely hosting courses for Klingon and Esperanto, as there is clearly a subset of the population who wishes to promote and learn these languages, and it in no way takes away from the development of courses for natural language. While I don’t necessarily believe it is worth speaking a constructed language, those who speak a language have every right to use and promote it in the ways they see fit.

What do all of you think? Post your thoughts in the comments below.

“Language as a Human Right”

I recently wrote an article for NYU’s Journal of Human Rights, which you can read here: http://issuu.com/nyuhumanus/docs/jhr_fall_2015_complete/36. If you’re interested in reading it, the topic concerns the legitimacy of language as a human right. I hope you find it interesting and edifying!

Listening to Wang Lee Hom (王力宏) to Study Chinese

As I’m continuing to study Chinese, I’ve gotten into listening to Chinese-language music in order to accustom myself to the pronunciation and the sound of the language. Granted, it might be a stylized or exaggerated pronunciation sometimes, but it’s still a good tool. I listen to mostly Wang Lee Hom (王力宏), though I have two songs by Jay Chou (周杰倫). I’m not a huge fan of Jay Chou, because of his strange voice quality.

As for Wang Lee Hom, I really like his songs and the meanings of the lyrics are fairly accessible, even to me, a person outside the culture. Some songs I recently got and liked include 就是現在 (jiù shì xiànzài – “Now Is the Time”) and 你的愛 (nĭ de ài – “Your Love”).

You might think that the reason I encourage people to listen to music in their target language is for acquiring vocabulary. That’s partly true, since you’re being exposed to new words. But more than that, music, especially popular music, is an excellent window into the culture. Popular music incorporates concepts, contexts, and thought processes that naturally occur in the language, and is a part of understanding culture as much as food or art.

For example, some of the titles and lyrics of Wang Lee Hom’s songs include references to Chinese proverbs and poetry. The song, 天翻地覆 (tiān fān dì fù) translates to “heaven and earth overturned”, which is a paraphrase of poetry and has acquired the meaning of “snafu” or “everything turned upside down”. Think of it as a kind of acronym. This use of a reference to a classical art form is likely something that most Chinese speakers appreciate, and it is likely understood as a clever usage. Such things give insight into the way cultures and languages think.

This post was kind of short, but it was just a little thing I was thinking about, so I decided to write about it. In other news, I’m going to be trying to start up my YouTube channel again and make videos, which may be difficult, given all my work at university and lack of a real space to make my videos. Please check it out and also purchase my language guides to help Akshayapatra Foundation feed underprivileged Indian school children! Your purchase is going toward a good cause!

My Chinese Learning Progress!

So, as you may or may not know, I’ve been learning Mandarin Chinese for the last six months. I’m making slow but steady progress, thanks to my Mandarin-speaking friends at NYU! They all speak Taiwanese Mandarin, so I’m getting used to that more than Mainland or Standard Mandarin. I also practice traditional Chinese instead of simplified, since kanji in Japanese are largely in their traditional forms, which will make learning Japanese later on easier for me. For those who don’t know, simplified is exactly what you think it is: simpler versions of certain characters to expedite writing. Traditional is still used in Hong Kong and Taiwan, as well as in calligraphy and writing that is meant to look aesthetically more appealing.

In this post, I’m going to list the characters that I know so far, so that you can use this list if you so desire. I’ve been learning them in sets of 5-8 characters per set, which may or may not consist of related words. My general rule is that I practice a word (not just characters!) enough times to fill out three lines until I feel that I’ve memorized the word. To test myself, before I start a new set on a blank page, I write out the sets of my characters, labeling them by number. Once I finish writing them all out, I then write the pīnyīn as well as the meaning. Another thing I do is write out mini-conversations to help practice using the words in context, and I ask my friends to look over them.

So here are my first eight sets: (First is traditional and then simplified)

Set 1:

時間/时间 – shíjān – time
點(鍾)/点(钟) – … o’clock (ex. 八點(鐘)/点(钟) = 8 o’clock); you don’t have to say 鍾/钟
半 – bàn – half, partly, halfway; there is a similar character 伴 that means “to accompany”
刻 – kè – quarter
分鐘/分钟 – fēnzhōng – minute (again, you don’t have to say 鍾/钟)

Set 2:

剛才/刚才 – gāngcái – (just) now
小時/小间 – xiăoshí – hour (“little time”)
應該/应该 – yīnggāi – should/must/ought
秒 – miăo – second
現在/现在 – xiànzài – now

Set 3:

呢 – ne – additive particle (“What about you?”; That’s the kind of situation where this would be attached to the pronoun)
老師/老师 – lăoshī – teacher
謝謝/谢谢 – xièxie – thank you
沒/没 – mĕi – negative particle (for 有 and 過/过)
有 – yŏu – to have/exist
(要/想) – (yào/xiăng) – to want/intend to (direct/polite); these are different words for the same idea, but not traditional versus simplified

Set 4:

幾/几 – jĭ – how many (can be substituted with 多少 (duōshào); needs to be used with a measure word, like 個/个)
前天 – qiántiān – day before yesterday
作天 – zuótiān – yesterday
上學/上学 – to attend (a school)
走 – zŏu – to walk/general verb of motion (very easy to confuse with 去 (), which means “to go”)
再見/再见 – zàijiàn – goodbye

Set 5:

早上 – zăoshàng –  early morning
上午 – shàngwŭ – late morning
中午 – zhōngwŭ – noon
下午 – xiàwŭ – afternoon
晚上 – wănshàng – evening

Set 6:

去年 – qùnián – last year (“gone year”)
今年 – jīnniān – this year
明年 – míngnián – next year
上個/上个 – shàngge – last…
上次 – shàngcì – last time
這個/这个 – zhège – this
下個/下个 – xiàge – next…

Set 7:

喝 – hē – to drink
吃 – chī – to eat
飯/饭 – fàn – meal/food (attach at front 早, 午, or 晚 to make “breakfast”, “lunch”, or “dinner”)
咖啡 – kāfēi – coffee
茶 – chá – tea

Set 8:

(號/号)/日 – hào/rì – date
星期 – xīngqī – week (add to end number 1-6 for Monday through Saturday; add 天 for Sunday)
月 – yuè – month (add number 1-12 before for January through December)
零 – líng – zero
都 – dōu – all/even
生日 – shēngrì – birthday

I hope you find this post useful for your own Chinese studies, and please don’t forget to share this on Facebook and Tumblr!