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Language barriers: Can a concept exist without words to describe it?

TAKE heart, those of you who struggled with maths at school. It seems that words for exact numbers do not exist in all languages. And if someone has no word for a number, he may have no notion of what that number means.

The Pirahã, a group of hunter-gatherers who live along the banks of the Maici River in Brazil, use a system of counting called “one-two-many”. In this, the word for “one” translates to “roughly one” (similar to “one or two” in English), the word for “two” means “a slightly larger amount than one” (similar to “a few” in English), and the word for “many” means “a much larger amount”. In a paper just published in Science,

Peter Gordon of Columbia University uses his study of the Pirahã and their counting system to try to answer a tricky linguistic question. This question was posed by Benjamin Lee Whorf in the 1930s. Whorf studied Hopi, an Amerindian language very different from the Eurasian languages that had hitherto been the subject of academic linguistics.

His work led him to suggest that language not only influences thought but, more strongly, that it determines thought. While there is no dispute that language influences what people think about, evidence suggesting it determines thought is inconclusive. For example, in 1972, Eleanor Rosch and Karl Heider investigated the colour-naming abilities of the Dani people of Indonesia. The Dani have words for only two colours: black and white. But Dr Rosch and Dr Heider found that, even so, Dani could distinguish and comprehend other colours. That does not support the deterministic version of the Whorf hypothesis.

While recognising that there are such things as colours for which you have no name is certainly a cognitive leap, it may not be a good test of Whorf's ideas. Colours, after all, are out there everywhere. Numbers, by contrast, are abstract, so may be a better test. Dr Gordon therefore spent a month with the Pirahã and elicited the help of seven of them to see how far their grasp of numbers extended.

Using objects with which the participants were familiar (sticks, nuts and—perhaps surprisingly—small batteries), he asked his subjects to perform a variety of tasks designed to measure their ability to count. Most of these tests involved the participant matching the number and layout of a group of objects that Dr Gordon had arranged on a table.

The tests began simply, with a row of, say, seven evenly spaced batteries. Gradually, they got more complicated. The more complicated tests included tasks such as matching numbers of unevenly spaced objects, replicating the number of objects from memory, and copying a number of straight lines from a drawing.

In the tests that involved matching the number and layout of objects they could see, participants were pretty good when faced with two or three items, but found it harder to cope as the number of items rose. Once it was beyond eight, they were getting it right only three-quarters of the time. The only exception was in those tests that used unevenly spaced objects—an arrangement that can be perceived as a group of clusters. Here, performance fell off when the number of objects was six, but shot up again when it was between seven and ten. Dr Gordon suggests that the participants used a “chunking” strategy, counting the clusters and the numbers of objects within each cluster separately.

Things were worse when the participants had to remember the number of objects in a layout and replicate it “blind”, rather than matching a layout they could see. In this case the success rate dropped to zero when the number of items became, in terms of their language, “many”.

And line drawing produced the worst results of all—though that could have had as much to do with the fact that drawing is not part of Pirahã culture as it did with the difficulties of numerical abstraction. Indeed, Dr Gordon described the task of reproducing straight lines as being accomplished only with “heavy sighs and groans”.

The Pirahã are a people who have steadfastly resisted assimilation into mainstream Brazilian culture. Their commerce takes the form of barter, with no need to exchange money. Exact numbers do not exist in their language simply because there is no need for them. And in this case, what you do not need, you do not have. At least in the field of maths, it seems, Whorf was right.

(Source: The Economist)

Thinking In A Foreign Language Leads To Better Decisions: Study

Researchers at the University of Chicago have found that thinking in a foreign language leads to more rational decisions making, Eurekalert reported. The study, titled "The Foreign Language Effect: Thinking in a Foreign Tongue Reduces Decision Biases", appears in the current issue of Psychological Science.

According to the study's co-author, Sayuri Hayakawa, this is in large part because people can't disassociate their native tongues from their emotions, which confuses logical thinking. On the contrary, the lack of emotional connection with a foreign language allows for a more rational thought process.

"An emotional reaction could lead to decisions that are motivated more by fear than by hope, even when the odds are highly favorable," said Hayakawa, a University of Chicago graduate student.

In one experiment, the team tested University of Chicago students who were native English speakers and had gained Spanish proficiency through college courses. From previous research, Hayakawa and co-author Sun Gyu An knew that people are naturally risk-averse, often forgoing numerous opportunities despite how advantageous they could end up being. Through this study, they discovered this characteristic was drastically reduced when decision making was done in Spanish.

For example, one of the tests done involved risk-taking in a coin toss. Participants received $15, of which they could contribute $1 to a coin toss bet. If they won the bet, they received $1.50; if they lost the coin toss, they'd lose the original $1. Statistically, if the participants risked all 15 bets, they would gain money because of the 50/50 chance of the coin toss itself.

Despite this statistic rationality, when the students were challenged in English, they accepted the bet 54 percent of the time. When challenged in Spanish, they accepted the bet 71 percent of the time.

Ultimately, they concluded, as more countries and people across the world start to participate in a global economy and, consequentially, begin to learn foreign languages, more rational and favorable (read: risky) decisions will be made.

"People who routinely make decisions in a foreign language might be less biased in their savings, investment and retirement decisions, as they show less myopic loss aversion," the authors wrote. "Over a long time horizon, this might very well be beneficial."


(Source: Huffington Post)

Book Review: The Joyful Side of Translation

The theory of translation is very rarely — how to put this? — comical. Its mode is elegy, and severe admonishment. In the 20th century, its great figures were Vladimir Nabokov, in exile from Soviet Russia, attacking libertines like Robert Lowell for their infidelities to the literal sense; or Walter Benjamin, Jewish in a proto-Nazi Berlin, describing the Task of the Translator as an impossible ideal of exegesis. You can never, so runs the elegiac argument, precisely reproduce a line of poetry in another language. Poetry! You can hardly even translate “maman.” . . . And this elegiac argument has its elegiac myth: the Tower of Babel, where the world’s multiplicity of languages is seen as mankind’s punishment — condemned to the howlers, the faux amis, the foreign menu apps. Whereas the ideal linguistic state would be the lost universal language of Eden.

It’s rarely flippant, or joyful — the theory of translation.

David Bellos’s new book on translation at first sidesteps this philosophy. He describes the dragomans of Ottoman Turkey, the invention of simultaneous translation at the Nuremberg trials, news wires, the speech bubbles of Astérix, Bergman subtitles. . . . He offers an anthropology of translation acts. But through this anthropology a much grander project emerges. The old theories were elegiac, stately; they were very much severe. Bellos is practical, and sprightly. He is unseduced by elegy. And this is because he is on to something new.

Bellos is a professor of French and comparative literature at Princeton University, and also the director of the Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication there (at which, I should add, I once spoke). But to me he’s more interesting as the translator of two peculiarly great and problematic novelists: the Frenchman Georges Perec, whose work is characterized by a manic concern for form, and the Albanian Ismail Kadare, whose work Bellos translates not from the original Albanian, but from French translations supervised by Kadare. Bellos’s twin experience with these novelists is, I think, at the root of his new book, for these experiences with translation prove two things: It’s still possible to find adequate equivalents for even manically formal prose; and it’s also possible to find such equivalents via a language that is not a work’s original. Whereas according to the sad and orthodox theories of translation, neither of these truths should be true.

At one point, Bellos quotes with rightful pride a small instance of his own inventiveness. In Perec’s novel “Life: A User’s Manual,” a character walks through a Parisian arcade, stopping to look at the “humorous visiting cards in a joke-shop window.” In Perec’s original French, one of these cards is: “Adolf Hitler/Fourreur.” A fourreur is a furrier, but Perec’s joke-shop joke is that it also resembles the French pronunciation of Führer. So Bellos, in his English version, rightly translates “fourreur” not as “furrier,” but like this: “Adolf Hitler/German Lieder.” Bellos’s new multiphonic pun is a travesty, no doubt about it — and it’s also the most precise translation possible.

The conclusions that this paradox demands are, let’s say, bewildering for the old-fashioned reader. We’re used to thinking that each person speaks an individual language — his mother tongue — and that this mother tongue is a discrete entity, with a vocabulary manipulated by a fixed grammar. But this picture, Bellos argues, doesn’t match the everyday shifts of our multiple languages, nor the mess of our language use. Bellos’s deep philosophical enemy is what he calls “nomenclaturism,” “the notion that words are essentially names” — a notion that has been magnified in our modern era of writing: a conspiracy of lexicographers. It annoys him because this misconception is often used to support the idea that translation is impossible, since all languages largely consist of words with no single comprehensive equivalent in other languages. But, Bellos writes: “A simple term such as ‘head,’ for example, can’t be counted as the ‘name’ of any particular thing. It figures in all kinds of expressions.” And while no single word in French, say, will cover all the connotations of the word “head,” its meaning “in any particular usage can easily be represented in another language.”

The misconception, however, has a very long history. Ever since St. Jerome translated the Bible into Latin, discussion of translation has dissolved into the ineffable — the famous idea that each language creates an essentially different mental world, and so all translations are doomed to philosophical inadequacy. In Bellos’s new proposal, translation instead “presupposes . . . the irrelevance of the ineffable to acts of communication.” Zigzagging through case studies of missionary Bibles or cold war language machines, Bellos calmly removes this old idea of the ineffable, and its unfortunate effects.

It’s often said, for instance, that a translation can’t ever be an adequate substitute for the original. But a translation, Bellos writes, isn’t trying to be the same as the original, but to be like it. Which is why the usual conceptual duo of translation — fidelity, and the literal — is too clumsy. These ideas just derive from the misplaced anxiety that a translation is trying to be a substitute. Adolf Hitler/Fourreur! A translation into English as “furrier” would be literally accurate; it would, however, be an inadequate likeness.

In literature, there’s a related subset of this anxiety: the idea that style — since it establishes such an intricate relationship between form and content — makes a work of art untranslatable. But again, this melancholy is melodramatic. It will always be possible in a translation to find new relationships between sound and sense that are equivalently interesting, if not phonetically identical. Style, like a joke, just needs the talented discovery of equivalents. “Finding a match for a joke and a match for a style,” Bellos writes, “are both instances of a more general ability that may best be called a pattern-matching skill.”

Translation, Bellos proposes in a dryly explosive statement, rather than providing a substitute instead “provides for some community an acceptable match for an utterance made in a foreign tongue.” What makes a match acceptable will vary according to that community’s idea of what aspects of an utterance need to be matched by its translation. After all, “no translation can be expected to be like its source in more than a few selected ways.” So a translation can’t be right or wrong “in the manner of a school quiz or a bank statement. A translation is more like a portrait in oils.” In a translation, as any art form, the search is for an equivalent sign.

And for the inhabitants of London or Los Angeles, this dismantling of the myths around translation has peculiar implications. As Bellos points out, those born as English speakers are now a minority of English speakers: most speak it as a ­second language. English is the world’s biggest interlanguage.

So two futures, I think, can be drawn from this dazzlingly inventive book, and they are gratifyingly large. The first is for every English speaker. Google Translate, no doubt about it, is a device with an exuberant future. It’s already so successful because, unlike previous machine translators, but like other Google inventions, it’s a pattern recognition machine. It analyzes the corpus of existing translations, and finds statistical matches. The implications of this still haven’t, I think, been adequately explored: from world newspapers, to world novels. . . . And it made me imagine a second prospect — confined to a smaller, hypersubset of English speakers, the novelists. I am an English-speaking novelist, after all. There was no reason, I argued to myself, that translations of fiction couldn’t be made far more extensively in and out of languages that are not a work’s original. Yes, I started to cherish a future history of the novel that would be recklessly international. In other words: there’d be nothing wrong, I kept thinking, with making translation more joyful.

(Source: The New York Times)

Google fights to save 3,054 dying languages

Will you be any worse off the moment humans cease to speak in Aragonese? How about Navajo, or Ojibwa? Or Koro, a language only just discovered in a tiny corner of northeast India?


No, you probably wouldn't, not in that moment. But humanity would be. Science, art and culture would be. If, as the phrase goes, another language equals another soul, then some 3,054 souls -- 50% of the world's total languages -- are set to die out by 2100. Kindle Espanol: Amazon launches Spanish-language ebook store


If there is hope, it lies in the world's centers of information -- such as Google. The search giant's philanthropic arm,, has launched the Endangered Language project, a website devoted to preserving those ancient tongues that are now only spoken by a few thousand of us. How technology is speeding up humanitarian response


The site, launched early Thursday, features videos and an interactive map. The curious can click on any one of the dots that hang over each country (including a suprising number in the U.S.), each representing a whole language.


You can hear the heartbreaking, beautiful sound of Koro being sung, or read 18th-century manuscripts written in a nearly-dead Native American tongue.


"Documenting the 3,000+ languages that are on the verge of extinction is an important step in preserving cultural diversity," write project managers Clara Rivera Rodriguez and Jason Rissman. 5 startups infusing social good with innovation


The idea is to unite a lot of smaller preservation efforts under the banner.


"By bridging independent efforts from around the world we hope to make an important advancement in confronting language endangerment," said Rodriguez and Rissman. "We hope you'll join us."


Check out the project's video on


(Source: CNN)

WEA to Form Independent Review Panel on Wycliffe and SIL Bible Translation

In the light of certain controversies about Bible translation, the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA), as a respected and trusted global evangelical association, has been asked to form a panel to independently review Wycliffe and SIL International’s translation of “God the Father” and the “Son of God.”

“Rejoicing that many Christians globally do not have to learn Hebrew or Greek to read God’s Word and wishing to strengthen Evangelical unity on the basis of God’s Word, the WEA has agreed to facilitate an independent external audit of Wycliffe and SIL International’s practice of the translation of “God the Father” and the “Son of God”,” said Dr. Geoff Tunnicliffe, Secretary General of the WEA.

Wycliffe Global Alliance and SIL International as organizations dedicated to the accurate translation of God’s Word are committed to applying this review’s recommendations. The panel’s mandate includes reviewing SIL’s translation practices; setting boundaries for theologically acceptable translation methodology particularly in Muslim contexts; and suggesting how to practically implement these recommendations.

Facilitated by the WEA, this transparent and independent review will be conducted by a global panel of respected Evangelical theologians, biblical scholars, translators, linguists and missiologists, and will include representation of national believers from countries with majority Muslim populations and mature followers of Christ from Muslim backgrounds.

Reports throughout the process, as well as the final report, will be sent to Wycliffe and SIL International. The intention is that the panel’s final report will be delivered by the end of the year 2012.

(Source: WEA Press Release)


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