Conlanging as a Tool for Language Revival?

Hello everyone! It’s been a very long time, and I’m glad to finally be writing an article! I’ve been reading, seeing, and doing a lot recently, what with papers and student events. But, I have something pretty interesting this time around.

As you may remember from a few posts back, I’ve flip-flopped on my opinions about conlangs, or constructed languages. I originally felt that learning constructed languages was a waste of time. I felt that it detracted from time that could be spent on learning natural languages, especially ones in need of documentation and study. However, after working on a research project on Sankethi for the past few months, I’ve done some rethinking.

I’m currently in a Facebook group for discussion of constructed languages, and many of the members have an in-depth knowledge of linguistics. They’re very well-versed in how languages have changed over time, how change occurs, among other things. Their ability to generate usable paradigms for constructed languages, and build an organic structure from scratch is just amazing. I recently read up on efforts to reconstruct languages like Akkadian, the language of the Epic of Gilgamesh, and Proto-Indo-European, the postulated shared ancestor of many European and South Asian languages. There is currently a recording of the Epic of Gilgamesh in reconstructed Akkadian that you can hear online. The reconstruction of Proto-Indo-European has been in the works since the 19th century.

All of this has me thinking about how many minority languages like Sankethi have a fairly limited technical or literary lexicon. I once thought, “Oh, what if I wrote something in Sankethi and imported Tibetan, Chinese, or Korean words for fun? How would that sound?” It made me think that conlanging could potentially be a form  Of course, there are complications in this, such as ethnic/national tensions. A command of linguistic knowledge could be useful for constructing useful words to build the lexicon of languages without a developed written form. Or one could better introduce and naturalize words into a language.

These are just thoughts, and not a serious investigation into the actual possibility, since I don’t know enough. If you have thoughts on this, feel free to leave comments!

How to Translate Stuff into Chinese

Translation is an often tricky issue for many interpreters and translators. There are varying beliefs about how one should go about it, whether that be keeping the meaning, the style, or word choice. On one hand, keeping the meaning intact seems like the obvious choice, since it’s what most people are looking for, and it gets the job done. Translation is just conveying the meaning of a text in one language in another, right? It’s not that simple. The Chinese-American linguist Yuen Ren Chao (趙元任 – Zhào Yuánrèn) remarks that translation is a “multidimensional affair”, in his paper “Dimensions of Fidelity in Translation With Special Reference to Chinese” (Chao 109). In this paper, Chao discusses how translation is rarely a simple task.

Chao observes that “when you translate a text, it is always in a context, and when you translate something spoken, it is always spoken in a situation” (Chao 110). The context of any translation makes the work more difficult since it includes time, place, society, class, education, etc. This is especially true of a language such as Mandarin Chinese, which has changed considerably from its classical form, and of which many dialects exist.

With this in mind, it may then be better to preserve the overall structure and style. However, even this is difficult, since the stylistic choices of an author or speaker are not always evident. Chao argues that “fidelity”, or truthfulness, to the original text, is the mark of a good translation. But, as one might expect, even that is a complex topic. Keeping in with Chao’s theme, which is the art of translation into Chinese.

As some readers may already know, Chinese is a large family of interrelated but mutually unintelligible tonal languages (for the most part). However, they share a writing system consisting of ideographs, or symbols that represent ideas and words. In contrast to many other languages, it is not a simple affair to translate names, places, or novel technological concepts into Chinese. This is because the translator is limited to using the existing characters, and therefore existing syllables available to read those characters.

For example, the word “chocolate” cannot simply be rendered as “cho-co-late” with various tones. In Hindi, and other Indian languages, you can do something like that: चौकलिट (caukliṭ). In Chinese, what has been settled on is a kind of phonetic translation where the individual characters are interpreted only for their sound: 巧克力 (qiăokèlì).

Due to many people trying their hands at translating such words, there are words translated according to different methods, such as semantic translation, where the meaning is more relevant than the sound. This is the case for words such as “taxi” and “plane”, which are (出租车/出租車 – chū zū chē)and(飞机/飛機 – fēi jī), respectively. These roughly mean “rented vehicle” and “flying machine”, respectively. These are what Chao calls “functional translations” (Chao 115), which translate the concepts rather than the meanings of words of a text. Phonetic translation is comparatively rare, due to the clumsy nature of the resultant translations in speech.

An interesting aspect of this predicament in Chinese is that it raises the question of how new words come to be. Technically, all Chinese characters are composed of components called radicals, providing a sound, tone, or semantic element to the syllable. Sometimes, the meaning is not obvious, or the pronunciation is not obvious. But there is definitely a logic to the characters, one that is implicitly understood by native speakers/readers of Chinese. However, it requires a much more developed understanding of that logic to be able to create new characters from scratch.

Now, why would someone need to do that? Well, if you’ve read Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, you have read the whimsical poem known as the “Jabberwocky”. It is widely known for using words that sound like English but are not real words at all. This quality of a text is rarely seen, and difficult to translate, which Chao notes in his paper. It is to the point that Chao, who was a gifted polyglot, actually generates his own characters which adhere to the logic of Chinese characters, but are not coined words in and of themselves. This reflects the quality of word choice and stylistic decisions made by Carroll with words like “brillig” and “outgrabe”. To me, that’s pretty amazing, since I imagine you have to be very well read in Chinese to do that. I’ve uploaded a picture of the poem in Chinese below:

Citation: Chao, Yuen Ren. “Dimensions of Fidelity in Translation With Special Reference to Chinese.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, vol. 29, 1969, pp. 128.

While Chao used Gwoyeu Romatzyh, a system that he devised, I’ve done my best to produce a modern Pinyin version of the romanization of his translation below, in addition to the original Gwoyeu Romatzyh text.

Yeou ‘tian beirlii, nehshie hwojihjide toutz
Tzay weybial jiinj gorng jiinj berl
Hao nansell a, nehshie borogoutz,
yeou miade rhatz owdegerl

Yŏu (yī) tiān béi lĭ, nàxiē huójìjī de tōuzi
Zài wèibià’er jĭnzhe góng jĭnzhe
Hăo nánsì’er ā, nàxiē bōluógōuzi
Háiyŏu miēde rānzi òude gé’er

Feel free to correct me if something’s wrong! My primary difficulty was deciphering what miade was supposed to be, but my best guess is miēde, since according to Chao’s paper, the poem’s pronunciation falls within the Chinese phonemic inventory, and mia isn’t a valid syllable.

Anyway, with regards to translation in Chinese, you’ll find that nowadays, people go with a functional translation for the most part. It’s an interesting translation strategy, and makes being a Chinese interpreter or translator difficult. That said, you shouldn’t feel discouraged about learning Chinese! I hope this article was interesting and informative!

Also, other news: My Hindi guide has been updated and uploaded, so feel free to download it whenever you’d like!

Documenting a Language

About two months ago, my grandparents arrived from India to celebrate my graduation from high school, and with them, they brought me an opportunity to practice Kannada. However, more interesting than that, was that I found that my grandparents spoke yet another language, called Sankethi. Sankethi descends from Madurai Tamil, and the migration of many Tamilians from Sengottai and Madurai facilitated the formation of this language. Sankethi is spoken by two communities in Karnataka. The two varieties are Kaushika and Bettadpura, where Kaushika Sankethi has grown away from Tamil the most.

Due to the dearth of information on Sankethi on the internet, such as the rather sparse information given in the Wikipedia article, I decided to document Sankethi for linguistic purposes. From what I’ve seen, it is merely acknowledged that Sankethi exists. As it happens, my grandparents speak Kaushika Sankethi, and I have extended family members who speak Bettadpura Sankethi. Currently, I’m getting Kaushika Sankethi done. I’ve been recording lists of nouns, verbs, and particles, as well as verb forms. Granted, it might be incomplete, as I’m assuming that grammar is almost identical to that of Kannada and Tamil. In the future, I’d like to submit the document to a linguistics professional and see if it’s a valid set of information. I’m not going to post the full document at the moment, seeing as it’s incomplete and I’d like to proofread it a few times, once it’s nearing completion.

In my search for info on Sankethi, I also discovered that there exists a Dravidian language in Pakistan, called Brahui. It borrows heavily from Arabic and Persian vocabulary, to the point that I can’t even pick out what’s supposed to be Dravidian. The Brahui language seems like it would be interesting to research, so I’d like to study it in the future, if someone doesn’t beat me to it first! If you’re interested in hearing what it sounds like, there’s a video published by the Brahui Language Board, at the University of Balochistan: Oddly enough, it used to be written in the Arabic script, but now it is written in a modified Latin script, much like Vietnamese’s current form.

If you, a relative, or a friend speaks a language with little documentation, you should try to write down as much information as you can. Minority languages with little to standardization and smaller communities are much more susceptible to language death. Even if the language will die in the future, there is no wrong in trying to keep it alive. Giving up is what really kills a language. I am thankful that there is enough literature and information on Kannada that if I was so unable to teach my children, I could send them to a school where they could learn. However, some other languages, like Sankethi or Brahui, are not so fortunate.

I’ll be posting more updates on my research and I hope you found this interesting! Don’t forget to share this on Facebook and Tumblr!

The Right to Struggle and a Starter’s Kit for Language Protection

Recently, I had someone say to me, “Language is dynamic. To hold on to the past is simply being stubborn.” The conversation was about the pronunciation of various loanwords in English, but it brought up a completely different topic in my mind. There are many people in the world who think that working to promote a minority language is meaningless because it’s going to die anyway or that English is more important anyway. As much as I don’t like to admit it, language death is something we, those who seek to promote language survival and general study, must readily accept as a possibility. But that doesn’t mean a language should die lying down.

Language death is indeed preventable. At least, with a great deal of effort and support. Hebrew did it and Catalan has made a significant rebound in recent years with an upsurge in local support. Even Yucatec Maya shows signs of a return to a healthier state. But most importantly, you need to be realistic and ambitious at the same time. Never ever let other people tell you that the cause isn’t worth it. Just like nothing stopped major civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi, you have to be prepared to withstand anything and everything. I’m not saying I’m a pro at this or anything, but I’m fairly certain I can talk about what language advocate should aspire to do. Now, prepare for a crash course in how to start your very own campaign to protect a language!

1. Know the language. Or at least get started on it, anyway. You can’t possibly have a legitimate campaign without knowing the language. There are plenty of resources for all sorts of languages. Just look around on the internet. You should have at least a conversational command of the language to really get yourself and others moving.

2. Know your limits. And break some too. Everyone has their limitations and there are things we can’t do alone. Get your friends together to bring awareness to your work and what you want to do with. But you need to be ambitious as well. Try not to second-guess yourself about what’s right and wrong. Take risks and be willing to make mistakes.

3. Read up on other language revival efforts. It never hurts to learn from experts. Highly recommended histories to read are the revival of Hebrew, Catalan, and Basque, which all have very important lessons to be learned from.

4. Don’t restrict yourself to one place. You should be prepared to bring your advocacy anywhere and everywhere you go. A language can’t take back its place in the modern world if it doesn’t exist outside of its place of origin. People need to know about it too. The whole point is to give the language its presence in the world back. You can’t expect others to take your campaign seriously if they don’t know about it.

5. Consider other languages as well. (Two meanings to this one) a.)There is a very real possibility that the language that you choose to advocate has a “negative” history for certain people. Be considerate of other people’s feelings about it and don’t expect everyone to be your biggest fan or supporter. Don’t give people a reason (even if it’s not a rational or fair one) to hate on the language. For example, you’re obviously not going to advocate Welsh in certain parts of Britain, especially pro-English areas, because Welsh was formerly (and to some extent still is) associated with rebellion and public dissent. b.) If you’re really stuck on what language to promote, it’s not necessarily a bad thing to promote a language like Spanish. The United States does have a very large Spanish-speaking population, but advocacy for Spanish is different. It encourages people to reach out to a different demographic that has a very strong political presence in the country, and you might promote it because you feel that it is unfairly repressed or discouraged as an object of study.

6. Get other people involved. Like I’ve said at least a thousand times in other posts, language is a social experience. Encourage your friends to advocate the language with you. Find native speakers or people who come from that background. Obviously be polite about it, and explain that it’s for a good cause.

7. Finally: never get down yourself when you’re not making progress. Remember, bringing awareness to a language is hard work. It is very important you feel motivated, even when you’re aware that there is a chance that you will fail. But that’s a part of being an advocate. The failure of a language to survive brings awareness to it in death, in much the same way that when a person dies, people think about them much more once they’ve passed on. People don’t treasure what they have until it’s gone. But obviously, you should be trying to keep the language alive anyway!

And to the speakers of minority languages everywhere: Remember, it is your right to struggle. The right to your ethnic or linguistic background is as much a human and natural right as the freedoms of speech, expression, or religion, or anything else. To Americans (and hopefully the rest of the world), this should resonate. Our country is founded on the pursuit of happiness and treasuring of personal freedom to be who we want to be. Never let anyone tell you any different. Even if you die trying, the world will know you and the cause you fight for.

This was a bit of a more empowerment and encouragement piece, even though I haven’t written anything recently. Please remember to share this on Facebook and Tumblr!

My Article From Italki: “How You Can Speed Up Your Language Learning”

Here’s the article that I wrote for Italki, and in case you’re interested, you can check out my teacher profile here: Merry Christmas to you all!

Many language learners have a great deal of difficulty trying to memorize hundreds upon hundreds of vocabulary words from the lists in their textbooks. Teaching experts call this stage of learning rote. This means that the information is remembered, word for word, and the very definition is burned into your brain. However, this information, while retained, is not understood. The goal of learning a language is to understand words and what a person is trying to say. The stage of learning that the ideal language learner should aspire to is called application. Application suggests that you comprehend and correlate acquired knowledge with new material, draws conclusions, and synthesizes information independently.

To apply this to language learning, we need to show that languages can be correlated. If you look at the linguistic map below, you can see the gradations of Romance languages throughout Europe. Ibero-Romance languages (in green), such as Portuguese and Spanish, have certain characteristics that distinguish them from other Romance languages. However, Catalan, spoken in northeastern Spain, is a Gallo-Romance language. It shares many features with Spanish, as well as with Occitan (a language spoken in southwestern France, near the border with Spain) and French. Here, we see green fade into the blue areas in France, signifying the correlation between languages in that area. And we see this in the languages themselves, too. 

In Spanish, the word for “language” is la lengua, in Catalan it’s la llengua, and in French, it’s la langue. Ignoring the fact that they sound alike (because, as we’ll see, that is not a reliable guide) Even more curious is that all three also happen to mean “tongue.” And to top it off, they’re all feminine nouns! So, with these clues in mind, we can reasonably conclude that these words are cognates, words of common origin and of similar meaning.

So, you may be wondering, “What does this all mean?” Well, it’s the key to accelerating your learning! You may not realize it, but when you start learning a language, your brain instantly tries to link it to ideas and concepts you already know, to be able to store it more easily. The first mistake that some people make is assuming that they have to start completely from scratch in order to learn a new language. But that cheats you out of an incredibly easy way to learn! Your brain recognizes that two words may mean the same thing, but are from different languages. This separates the two words in your long-term storage, especially if they sound different. I myself used my knowledge of Spanish to expedite my Italian learning, and that helped immensely in getting all the vocabulary down.

In my guides to Italian, Portuguese, and Catalan, which you can download at, I make frequent mention of parallels between Spanish, Italian, French, and other languages to help speed up learning. This is very helpful in the analytical part of my teaching method. By helping my students correlate things they already know, the information is retained in the long-term, and it makes language learning easier and more fun. Learning a language should not be a drag and endless trudging through vocabulary lists.

If you know Portuguese, and you’re learning Italian, exploit it. Not only are words similar, languages often have very similar structures. For example, in Portuguese, the imperfect subjunctive of the verb ser looks incredibly similar to those of the Italian verb essere. Take the phrase, “As if it were a dream.” Como se fosse um sonho (Portuguese) and Come se fosse un sogno (Italian) sound nearly identical.

I know you might be thinking that if you try to correlate words all the time and find cognates, you’ll start mixing up languages altogether. But there are a couple of things that you can use to to work against this. First, is that your brain, as mentioned before, instantly recognizes the similarities as well as the differences. All that’s left for you to do is to practice the vocabulary in context. Second, is practicing languages at different times. The temporal separation helps your brain process the languages separately, and keep them from mixing with each other. Study Italian at night, and Spanish in the daytime.

I hope that this was helpful in providing a strategy for learning a language! Remember: many languages are related, so you should exploit any links that your target language has to one that you already know.


Romance Languages in Europe in 20 C. AD. 2009. Wikimedia Commons. By Fert. Web. 16 Nov. 2014. <>.

Romance languages in Europe in 20 c. AD by Koryakov Yuri Serg!o, (CC BY-SA 3.0)

“Romance languages in Europe in 20 c. AD” links to:

CC BY-SA 3.0 links to:

Language Trees!

In linguistics, the branchings and origins of different languages are often explained using a tree metaphor.  Here is a splendid, colored version of that tree that my friends sent me:

Minna Sundberg, the creator of this picture, has also written an interesting webcomic set in a Nordic post apocalyptic setting, called Stand Still. Stay Silent.

Sundberg also wrote this cool little comparison of words in the Nordic languages:

What Makes A Good Language Textbook?

In my experience, I’ve come across different textbooks for different languages, and I think there are some basic criteria that a good textbook needs to follow. These requirements are what I’m going to address in this post. Having written a language learning guide myself, and being a student who uses textbooks frequently, I should be able to cover this topic pretty adequately. Hopefully, you can use this list to assess whether a book is good enough for you, or if you’re writing one yourself!

1) Consider the audience of the book when writing it and assess the language when reading it. If the book in question is an AP or college-level book, chances are that it uses more technical language and goes more in-depth on certain topics. For example, in my Spanish class, we use Encuentros Maravillosos from Prentice Hall, by Abby Kanter, to cover Spanish literature at basic level, before going on to the AP level. The audience here is almost exclusively made up of high school students, as the language of the book is meant to prepare the student for an AP or college-level course. On the other hand, the Realidades series, which I had used in all my Spanish classes up until Spanish III, is oversimplified sometimes. There is a Realidades 4, but it is not considered good enough for a high school honors class. The language aims more at a younger class range, using largely nontechnical language, so as not to confuse learners who may not be able to understand higher level texts. For a non-school example, Complete Catalan: A Teach Yourself Guide, by Anna Poch Gasau and Alan Yates, I feel, is written almost exclusively in technical language. While I understand some amount of the technical language, it seems that this book is aimed at a wide audience, which may not include linguists or language-obsessed people such as me, who know what open and closed vowels are. The commonly used version of the preterite tense is called periphrastic! While this may be true, you can’t expect that the average person will know what that means, as it’s not even relevant for the purposes of the book. I also feel that it is kind of pompous in phrasing anyway, which is not good for helping people learn. Basically, a book can’t be too simple and can’t be too complex, otherwise the average audience isn’t going to get it. This tends to be a matter of preference when it comes to learning, because some people learn more with all the technical talk, but overall, the best approach is the semi-technical form.

2) What is the purpose of the book? Textbooks can vary in purpose from curriculum-based learning to learn new skills, to practicing current ones, to reviewing. A book focused on practice is basically a workbook or collection of readings and/or dialogues to use skills in context. A review textbook is a book that covers all the material that you should have learned to that point, to some standard, and the book may even be written entirely in the target language to facilitate review. Choose the way a book is structured wisely, depending on how you (the writer) want it to be used, or how you (the reader) want to learn, or what you need the book for. For example, Con Fantasia by Marcel Danesi, Michael Lettieri, and Salvatore Bancheri, is an AP-level review book for Italian. The book is written mostly in Italian, because it’s aimed at helping AP-level Italian students review material for the AP Exam, featuring comprehensive reviews of grammar, conventions, vocabulary, and idioms, and also has some readings for the student to use, as well as being accompanied by a workbook.

3) The text is organized meaningfully. When you’re learning a language, you should be learning vocabulary and grammar in a constructive manner, preferably in the way of themes. For example, if you’re learning vocabulary about vacationing and leisure time, that would be a good time to introduce the past tense(s). When you’re discussing purchases and sales, you should include info about structures concerning such things. Vocabulary, especially, needs to be organized in a pertinent way. Vocabulary should be related when given in lists. I can’t express how important this is, especially after starting to use Complete Catalan, which has the most disorganized vocabulary lists I’ve ever seen. They didn’t even bother to group words by topic, part of speech, or anything. So, organization is important!

I may or may not add some more to this post, but for now, this is my piece on this topic. Feel free to leave your comments!