‘Oldest Hebrew script’ is found

From the Beeb: ‘Oldest Hebrew script’ is found.

Five lines of ancient script on a shard of pottery could be the oldest example of Hebrew writing ever discovered, an archaeologist in Israel says.

The shard was found by a teenage volunteer during a dig about 20km (12 miles) south-west of Jerusalem.

Experts at Hebrew University said dating showed it was written 3,000 years ago – about 1,000 years earlier than the Dead Sea Scrolls. [continue].

E-mail error ends up on road sign

From BBC Wales: E-mail error ends up on road sign.

When officials asked for the Welsh translation of a road sign, they thought the reply was what they needed.

Unfortunately, the e-mail response to Swansea council said in Welsh: "I am not in the office at the moment. Please send any work to be translated".

So that was what went up under the English version which barred lorries from a road near a supermarket. [continue, see photo]

Québecois accent may have its roots in royal courts

From csmonitor.com: Québecois: maligned accent may have its roots in royal courts.

Québec’s francophones have long been ridiculed by the Parisian French – the scholars, elites, and aesthetes from the ancestral homeland. They have deemed the Québecois accent an "abomination" of what they consider the most beautiful language.

They shouldn’t sneer.

The Québeckers’ much-maligned accent can be traced back to the 17th-century court of Louis XIV. At least that’s the argument put forth by a prominent Québec scholar, Laval University’s Jean-Denis Gendron, a retired linguist. "The Québecois accent is one from the noblesse of the time, it is a relaxed, natural accent," Professor Gendron, explains in the most recent issue of the journal, Québec Sciences. "It’s only much later that our accent came to be viewed as an abomination." [continue].

Mossenger: graffiti made of moss

I bet Anna Garforth has more fun making graffiti than anybody else; certainly she has more impressive results. For her Mossenger project (Mossenger part one, Mossenger part two) Anna made letters out of moss, then affixed them to a brick wall. She sprays the text with water to keep it alive.

Erasmuspc.com includes Anna’s explanation:

Being interested in public art and ecology, it led me to thinking about sustainable grafitti. I collected a common moss that grows well on brick walls and glued it to the wall using a mixture of natural (bio active) yoghurt and sugar.

I blogged about moss graffiti years ago, but that was the paint-on method. I suspect that Anna’s lettercutting approach allows for much more precision.

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Italians vote for ugliest English words

From The Telegraph: Italians vote for ugliest English words.

For years it was the French who worked themselves into a lather over their native tongue being infected by English.

Now it is their southern neighbours across the Alps who are wringing their hands at the growing incursion of Anglo-Saxon words and phrases into every day use.

From ‘il weekend’ to ‘lo stress’ and ‘le leadership’, Italians increasingly sprinkle their conversations with English terms, some of them comically mangled and bizarre sounding to a native English speaker.

‘Baby parking’, for example, is a strange conflation which means child care centre or nursery.

A ‘baby gang’, on the other hand, is a more sinister construct. It means a group of young criminals or hoodlums.

As with the French and their use of Franglais, Italians sometimes throw in English words to appear worldly and cosmopolitan, and at other times to describe things slightly alien to the Italian mindset, from ‘il fitness’ to ‘il full immersion training’.

But now a cultural guardian of the Italian language is saying ‘basta!’ – enough. [continue]

The secret code of diaries

From the BBC: The secret code of diaries.

The 300,000-word journal of Charles Wesley, the co-founder of the Methodist movement, which was written in an obscure shorthand, has been solved and the diary transcribed. It has taken nine years.

It appears that the shorthand was used not for speed, but for security. What was so important that it required the secrecy of a complex code?

(They tell you later on in the article.)

Wesley’s is not the only diary that has used a code, however, with everyone from Beatrix Potter to British prisoners of war using their secret diaries to express feelings that no-one else was meant to understand. [continue]

This kind of stuff fascinates me, partly because I’ve thought up a secret code system of my own, which I think would be awfully difficult for somebody to decode. Maybe one day I’ll develop it.

Sign language over cell phones

From the University of Washington: ‘Can you see me now?’ Sign language over cell phones comes to United States.

A group at the University of Washington has developed software that for the first time enables deaf and hard-of-hearing Americans to use sign language over a mobile phone. UW engineers got the phones working together this spring, and recently received a National Science Foundation grant for a 20-person field project that will begin next year in Seattle.

This is the first time two-way real-time video communication has been demonstrated over cell phones in the United States. Since posting a video of the working prototype on YouTube, deaf people around the country have been writing on a daily basis.

"A lot of people are excited about this," said principal investigator Eve Riskin, a UW professor of electrical engineering. (…)

For mobile communication, deaf people now communicate by cell phone using text messages. "But the point is you want to be able to communicate in your native language," Riskin said. "For deaf people that’s American Sign Language." [continue, see photo]

There’s more information here at Roland Piquepaille’s Technology Trends.

Fun for word-loving folk

Now first there’s the common words quiz. How many of the most common words in the English language can you list within five minutes? Go on now, we’ll wait here. I’ll even hold your beer for you.

Once you’re done with that, move on to the random sentence structure filler, which is more fun. The site explains what to do, and adds "It’s like Mad Libs… without the work!"

Ah, mad libs. Now that reminds me of a net classic from 1997, Spam Libs. Back in the day when spammers used their real email addresses, that technique led to some highly amusing results.

All of this is brought to you by stupidly high temperatures, which make innocent people surf the web instead of going outside the way they usually do.

An exercise in Ogham decipherment

This must be the most fascinating thing on the web today: A Throng of Fifty Warriors Routed by a Single Scholar: An Exercise in Ogham Decipherment.

The discovery of an Ogham stone during an episode of the cult British archaeology programme, Time Team, is something that I have been longing to blog about ever since I saw the first broadcast on January 14th last year. But the only images of the stone and its inscription available on the Time Team website are pitifully small and utterly useless, so I was unable to do anything meaningful … that is, until the programme was repeated last week, and thanks to 4oD (Channel 4’s TV and Film on Demand service) on Monday I was able to download the programme to my computer and take some good quality screen shots of the stone and its inscription.

The Ogham stone in question is a smallish slate slab (about 32cm x 20cm in size) that was found within the subsoil near a grave in Trench 2 of the Time Team excavation at the Speke Farm keeill (chapel) by the seventh fairway of the Mount Murray golf course five miles southwest of Douglas in the south of the Isle of Man. The keeill was built in about the early 11th century on the site of a Christian cemetary (with burials dating from as early as the late 6th century), which itself was on the site of a bronze age burial ground. [continue, see photos, be amazed.]

Young birds babble like babies

From discovery.com: Young Birds Babble Like Babies.

The happy babbling that entertains parents as their babies try to mimic speech turns out to have a parallel in the animal world.

Baby birds babble away before mastering their adult song, researchers report in Friday’s edition of the journal Science.

Michale S. Fee and colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology studied the brains of baby zebra finches as the little birds learned the unique song they would use as adults.

The baby birds practiced making sounds incessantly, the team reported.

"Birds start out by babbling, just as humans do," Fee said, while the adult bird produces a very precise pattern of sound. [continue]

School fights to revive native Canadian language

From Reuters: School fights to revive native Canadian language.

In a grey, shed-like building on the Six Nations of the Grand River reserve in southern Ontario, Esenogwas Jacobs is getting her kindergarten students ready to head home for the day.

"Gao dehswe," Jacobs says, calling her students to the door.

"Gyahde:dih," she adds, it’s time to go.

Her students answer with assertive "ehes."

No one speaks a word of English.

"I just use Cayuga with them," Jacobs said. "Mostly they can respond back in Cayuga, so it’s pretty cool." [continue]

Tracing slang to Ireland

From the New York Times: Humdinger of a Project: Tracing Slang to Ireland.

Growing up Irish in Queens and on Long Island, Daniel Cassidy was nicknamed Glom.

"I used to ask my mother, ‘Why Glom?’ and she’d say, ‘Because you’re always grabbing, always taking things,’" he said, imitating his mother’s accent and limited patience, shaped by a lifetime in Irish neighborhoods in New York City.

It was not exactly an etymological explanation, and Mr. Cassidy’s curiosity about the working-class Irish vernacular he grew up with kept growing. Some years back, leafing through a pocket Gaelic dictionary, he began looking for phonetic equivalents of the terms, which English dictionaries described as having "unknown origin."

"Glom" seemed to come from the Irish word "glam," meaning to grab or to snatch. He found the word "balbhán," meaning a silent person, and he surmised that it was why his quiet grandfather was called the similarly pronounced Boliver.

He began finding one word after another that seemed to derive from the strain of Gaelic spoken in Ireland, known as Irish. [continue]

The Jews invent vowels

From the Jerusalem Post: The Jews invent vowels.

"Roughly 3,000 years ago, in and around the area we now call Israel, a group of people who may have called themselves ivri, and whom we call variously ‘Hebrews,’ ‘Israelites,’ or more colloquially but less accurately ‘Jews,’ began an experiment in writing that would change the world."

That’s how I began the remarkable history that links the Jewish people to its historic language and identity. (In the Beginning: A Short History of the Hebrew Language; NYU Press 2004). As Jews pause in the calendrical cycle to celebrate the Torah, it seems particularly apt to take note of the fascinating story that lies behind this experiment, without which writing would never have become widespread, and without which the world would have no Torah scrolls, books, newspapers or e-mail.

The key is the vowels.

Those of us who read and write take the technology for granted. It was an alphabetic experiment 3,000 years ago in Jerusalem that made widespread literacy possible. Before we look at what happened there, we need to understand the background.

There are lots of ways to write words. Three systems that never made it predated the one that finally did. [continue]

The rise of Indian English

From The Telegraph: The rise of Indian English.

It has taken decades of struggle, but more than half a century after the British departed from India, standard English has finally followed.

Young and educated Indians regard the desire to speak English as it is spoken in England as a silly hang-up from a bygone era. Homegrown idiosyncrasies have worked their way into the mainstream to such an extent that only fanatical purists question their usage.

Now Penguin, the quintessentially British publishing house, has put the nearest thing to an official imprimatur on the result by producing a collection of some of the most colourful phrases in use — in effect a dictionary of what might be called "Indlish".

Its title, Entry From Backside Only, refers to a phrase commonly used on signposts to indicate the rear entrance of a building. Binoo John, the author, said young Indians had embraced the variant of the language as a charming offspring of the mingling of English and Hindi, rather than an embarrassing mongrel. [continue]

Preserving the language Of Jesus

From CBS News: Preserving The Language Of Jesus.

For thousands of years, a tiny Syrian village has kept a well-guarded treasure: the language of Jesus. Tucked away in the Qalamoun Mountains, just north of Damascus, Syria, is Malula — one of the last places on earth where Aramaic is still spoken.

Aramaic was a thriving language during the time of Jesus and his disciples. Many of the gospels were written in the Semitic language, along with sections of the Talmud and the Dead Sea Scrolls.

People who come to Malula take in a piece of history and hear in its purest tones the 3,000-year-old language closely related to Hebrew. For the religious here, keeping Aramaic alive is nothing less than a calling.

"Of course we are interested to maintain this language, because at the end, this is the language of Jesus Christ," says Father Toufic Eid of St. Sergius Church. [continue]

Bounty mutineers’ language preserved by UN

From the Telegraph: Bounty mutineers’ language preserved by UN.

A campaign to preserve a unique hybrid language spoken by the descendants of the Bounty mutineers on an isolated South Pacific island has been given a boost by the United Nations.

Norfolk Island’s blend of 18th-century English and Tahitian, known as Norf’k or Norfuk, will be featured by Unesco in the next edition of its Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger of Disappearing.

The language, one of the world’s rarest, is under threat because Norfolk Islanders are increasingly marrying outsiders and because of the influence of television and radio from neighbouring Australia and New Zealand.

The tiny subtropical island, which is part of Australia but maintains a fiercely separate identity, including a different flag and national anthem, is determined that the language should not become extinct. [continue]

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Lost language of Pitmatic gets its lexicon

From the Guardian: Lost language of Pitmatic gets its lexicon.

A dialect so dense that it held up social reforms has been rescued from obscurity by the publication of its first dictionary.

Thousands of terms used in Pitmatic, the oddly-named argot of north-east miners for more than 150 years, have been compiled through detailed research in archives and interviews with the last generation to talk of kips, corf-batters and arse-loops.

First recorded in Victorian newspapers, the language was part of the intense camaraderie of underground working which excluded even friendly outsiders such as the parliamentary commissioners pressing for better conditions in the pits in 1842.

"The barriers to our intercourse were formidable," they wrote in their report on encountering the Pitmatic dialect. "Numerous mining technicalities, northern provincialisms, peculiar intonation and accents and rapid and indistinct utterance rendered it essential for us to devote time to the study of these peculiarities ere we could translate and write the evidence."

The first Pitmatic dictionary, including pit recollections and analysis of the origins of the dialect’s words, [continue]

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Orangutans use ‘charades’ to talk

From the BBC: Orangutans use ‘charades’ to talk.

Orangutan communication resembles a game of charades, a study suggests.

Researchers from St Andrews University have shown that the animals intentionally modify or repeat their signals to get their messages across.

The scientists said they believed all great apes could have this capability, suggesting that the skill may have evolved millions of years ago. [continue]

Computer program can learn baby talk

From Reuters: Computer program can learn baby talk.

A computer program that learns to decode sounds from different languages in the same way that a baby does helps to shed new light on how people learn to talk, researchers said on Tuesday.

They said the finding casts doubt on theories that babies are born knowing all the possible sounds in all of the world’s languages.

"The debate in language acquisition is around the question of how much specific information about language is hard-wired into the brain of the infant and how much of the knowledge that infants acquire about language is something that can be explained by relatively general purpose learning systems," said James McClelland, a psychology professor at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California.

McClelland says his computer program supports the theory that babies systematically sort through sounds until they understand the structure of a language. [continue]

An abridged dictionary

From csmonitor.com: An abridged dictionary.

When I’m reading, I hate to stop to look up unfamiliar words. Fortunately, I don’t need to rely on a dictionary. I can figure out the meanings of words using my extraneous knowledge of English word roots, prefixes, and suffices.

I don’t need to look up "salacious," for instance, because I immediately recognize that it refers to specially discounted prices, as in, "The Fourth of July is a salacious holiday." I quickly see that "strident" means walking with long steps and that a "barista" is a female lawyer. My perfidious knowledge of the English language enables me to deduct the meaning of any unfamiliar word. For example: [continue]

India’s news calligraphers do it on deadline

From Wired: India’s News Calligraphers Do It on Deadline.

The Musalman is possibly the last handwritten newspaper in the world. Four professional calligraphers spend three hours on each page every single day to put out this daily paper.

While it’s a Muslim newspaper, it’s also a beacon of liberalism in South Asia, employing both women and non-Muslims. Two of the four katibs (calligraphers) are women and the chief reporter is Hindu. Indian royalty and poets often visit the paper to offer content and accolades. [continue]

This article includes 22 images, and you’ve just got to go see them. Wired has another article on this topic, too: A Handwritten Daily Paper in India Faces the Digital Future.

Sanskrit echoes around the world

From csmonitor.com: Sanskrit echoes around the world.

Deep inside the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on a Wednesday evening recently, a class of about a dozen students were speaking an arcane ancient tongue.

"It is time for exams, and I play every day," says one.

"Perhaps, you should study, too," counters another at the conversation table. The others laugh.

No, this isn’t Latin 101 — that would be easy. This is Sanskrit, a classical language that is the Indian equivalent of ancient Greek or Latin.

Today, spoken Sanskrit is enjoying a revival — both in India and among Indian expatriates in the United States. There is even evidence of Sanskrit emerging in American popular culture as more and more people roll out yoga mats at the local gym and greet one another with "Namaste." [continue]

Yorshire dialect in decline? It’s not as simple as that

From the Guardian: Yorshire dialect in decline? It’s not as simple as that.

Yorkshire is an idea, not a place — a notion that is too metaphysical for social scientists employed by the Heritage Lottery Fund to understand. So when — after months of research — they announce that, due to the internet and texting, Yorkshire dialect is dying out, the only appropriate response is: "Tha’ what?" That means: "I recognise the message that you wish to convey, but it is so improbable that I find it hard to accept." There has certainly not been a single Yorkshire dialect for a hundred years. Perhaps there never was one.

Take the word "blashy", cited by the research. It is just possible that, up in the Dales, they used it to mean bad weather as recently as a dozen years ago. But I doubt it. I am certain that the word is, and always has been, unknown in Hull, Sheffield, Bradford and most of the agricultural broad acres. The county is united by common values — the most noticeable of which is a feeling of superiority — not a common language. [continue]

Persians found new uses for old language

From the University of Chicago: Persians Found New Uses for Old Language.

For the first time, a text has been found in Old Persian language that shows the written language in use for practical recording and not only for royal display.

The text is inscribed on a damaged clay tablet from the Persepolis Fortification Archive, now at the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago. The tablet is an administrative record of the payout of at least 600 quarts of an as-yet unidentified commodity at five villages near Persepolis in about 500 B.C.

"Now we can see that Persians living in Persia at the high point of the Persian Empire wrote down ordinary day-to-day matters in Persian language and Persian script," said Gil Stein, Director of the Oriental Institute. "Odd as it seems, that comes as a surprise—a very big surprise."

Old Persian writing was the first of the [continue]

Thanks to Nancy of My Oyster for telling me about this story.