M is for Maori

MMaori belongs to the Eastern Polynesian branch of the Austronesian language family. It is spoken by the Maori (the indigenous people of New Zealand) and has been an official language of New Zealand since 1987. Until the late 18th century it was the only language, closely related to Tahitian and Hawai’ian.

After the arrival of British settlers in New Zealand, English became the dominant language and only English was allowed to be spoken in school. Children who spoke Maori were punished. By the 1980s only about 20% of the Maori people spoke Te Reo as the language is known in Maori. Te Reo (short for Te Reo Maori) means “the language”.

From the 1980s there have been efforts to save the language from extinction, but it is still vulnerable and appears on the UNESCO endangered languages list.

One of the ways to protect the language was the setting up of “language nests” known as Kohanga Reo which is an immersion program for pre-school children where they socialise with older generations who are fluent speakers.

If you’d like to find out more about Maori and few words, there’s an interesting free course at Open2Study. You may also like this list of words.

Related posts:  L is for Latvian and Lithuanian     N is for……

L is for Latvian and Lithuanian

LThese two languages are the only two surviving languages of the Baltic subdivision of Proto-Indo-European. They are also believed to be the ones which are closest, linguistically speaking, to PIE, retaining many of its features. Although they probably started out as dialects of each other, they now have very different vocabularies and are not mutually intelligible. Both languages use the Latin alphabet.

Latvian is spoken by approximately 1.3 million native speakers and a further 700,000 people speak it as a second language. Lithuanian has about 3 ½ million speakers.

Related posts: K is for Korean and Kickapoo    M is for….

K is for Korean and Kickapoo

Like Basque and Japanese, Korean is a language isolate. It has about 70 million speakers in North and South Korea, and a further 5 million or so in NE China, parts of Japan, and small communities in Russia and the USA.

Until the 15th century Korean used Chinese characters for writing, and only the elite were able to read and write. In the 15th century the monarch, King Sejong, invented a new writing system which was more alphabetic, and this made writing more accessible to people.

Known as Hangul, the system consists of 24 symbols, representing vowel and consonant sounds which are written in a “box” approximately the same size as a Chinese character. Each “box” has a consonant-vowel-consonant symbol, written roughly left to right, top to bottom.

It has a subject-object-verb sentence structure and includes many basic words from old Chinese as well as an increasing number of borrowings from English.

Kickapoo, also written Kikapú, is not a well-known language – in fact it has only about 250 speakers, making it in danger of extinction – but it has such a great name I simply had to include it in my A-Z!

It belongs to the Algonquin family of languages. It originated in the Great Lakes area in North America, but is now almost extinct in the USA and most of its speakers live in Mexico. The language used to include “whistle speech” where each sound could be represented by whistle, but this aspect of the language has now died out from the lack of use.

Whistle languages were mostly used by hunters and herders, so that they could communicate without frightening the animals. The limitations of whistle sounds meant that many sentences were ambiguous, making this aspect of the language only useful in certain circumstances.

Sadly I can’t point you in the direction of a Kickapoo course, but if you fancy learning some Korean, have a look at FutureLearn.

Related posts: J is for Japanese     L is for…….

J is for Japanese

Like Basque, Japanese is known as a language isolate, which means that it does not belong to a language family. There have been attempts by linguists to link it to other languages, such as Korean, but there are not enough cognates between Japanese and any other language to prove a relationship between them.

Spoken almost exclusively in Japan (about 99% of its native speakers live there), Japanese has approximately 125 million speakers.

It has a roughly subject-object-verb sentence structure, with the verb going at the end of the sentence. Adjectives go before the noun like in English.

The first written evidence of Japanese dates to the 8th century. It now has 3 writing systems which are all used simultaneously:

  • Kanji: these are the characters which they imported from the Chinese writing system. They are used for a lot of the basic words in Japanese.
  • Hiragana: this is used for writing Japanese words that have no kanji form, and also for writing suffixes, etc.
  • Katakana: this is used for loan words – phonetic transcriptions of foreign words.

Japanese can be written horizontally, reading from left to right, or vertically, reading from top to bottom, right to left.

Related posts: I is for invented languages     K is for Korean and Kickapoo

I is for Invented Languages

This post was written by my lovely husband, Ian Braisby – Blue Badge Guide. I hope everyone finds this as interesting to read as I did.

The latest figures suggest that there are 6909 languages in the world, and many more have died out in the past hundred to two hundred years.  That’s a lot of languages!  They are what we call “living languages”, which means they have developed over time and are used by people as their primary means of communication throughout their lives.  People who are born and grow up in areas where they are spoken learn them as their native language.

But there are also invented languages – entire languages deliberately created by people for specific purposes.  Essentially, these languages fall into two categories, namely those that have been developed for people with different native languages to communicate and those invented for use in fiction.

Let’s start by looking at languages developed to aid communication.  The 19th Century was when there was most interest in the concept of a global language.  This was a time of almost constant conflict between great powers in Europe, with far fewer opportunities for travel and understanding foreign cultures than we enjoy today.  Some people strongly believed that one way to ease international tension and emphasise the common experiences and humanity of people in different countries was to have a shared means of communication.  Since choosing the existing language of one particular country would in itself cause controversy, conflict and resentment, the idea emerged of creating a new language that everyone would be able to learn in addition to their native tongue.

One of the first serious attempts was Volapuk, which was proposed in 1879. Initially it proved popular, with language learning clubs springing up across the globe.  But within around 15 years its significance had faded, mainly due to arguments between leading figures in the Volapuk movement about specific elements of the language and its usage.

Volapuk’s position as the leading artificial language was taken over by Esperanto.  Initially created by Polish doctor L.L. Zamenhof, it quickly became popular and remains the most widely spoken and understood language of its type to this day.  An estimated 2 million people have some understanding of Esperanto and there are even some people (children of Esperanto-speaking parents) who claim it as a native language.  Zamenhof’s intention was for the language to improve communication and understanding between nations, and to that end he devised a language that would be easy to learn, with standard vocabulary and a logical, simple grammar with few irregularities and exceptions.  Despite its popularity, and even attempts to have it included as an official language of the League of Nations after World War 1, Esperanto never made the step to becoming a genuine international means of communication.  Ultimately, it was unable to supersede existing national languages, with their centuries of history and psychological links to national identity.  As a result, learning Esperanto became predominantly an academic exercise or an interesting hobby for language enthusiasts.

The examples of Volapuk and Esperanto show that attempts to invent languages in the real world have largely been based on a desire to bring people closer together.  But what of the many languages that have been created in fiction?  What purpose do they serve?  We can understand this best by looking at some famous examples.

Probably the most famous creator of fictional languages is J.R.R. Tolkien.  Indeed, since most of the well-known invented languages in fiction can be found within the fantasy and science fiction genres, it is not unrealistic to say that Tolkien set the trend for all the later writers.  The key fact to remember about Tolkien is that he was primarily a linguist – his academic career was in linguistics and languages were his obsession throughout his life from an early age.  So he had a profound understanding of how languages worked.  Initially, the languages he created (early forms of what became known as Elvish) were purely an intellectual exercise on his part.  But because he was a linguist he recognised something that the inventors of real-world languages like Volapuk and Esperanto had failed to consider – namely that languages do not exist in a vacuum and do not just appear fully formed and then remain the same.  They have a context.  So Tolkien began to construct a context for his languages – people to speak them, an environment that the languages describe, a history that shapes them, mythologies and stories for the languages to recount, and events that cause them to evolve.  Everything that Tolkien would write, his whole imaginary world of Middle Earth and the races who inhabit it, was originally conceived as a context for his languages.  The way Tolkien used languages, linking their appearance and feel to the culture and character of the people who speak them, was the model for invented languages in fiction since he was writing.

For all writers, Tolkien included, their invented languages serve a crucial purpose in their storytelling, namely to add realism and background.  Everyone knows that people from different places and cultures speak different languages.  When a story takes place in the real world, writers are not so concerned with emphasising this – they can write a French or Chinese person’s dialogue in English as the reader instinctively knows that the character would actually be speaking their native language.  People have an idea of where the characters come from and what their culture is like.  Fantasy and science fiction writers have a different challenge.  They are often describing invented worlds so they need to provide much more information about their characters and their origins, as well as finding ways to differentiate races and cultures.  Invented languages are one of the key ways they do this, as they add crucial authenticity to the fictional world created.  They also reflect the different cultural traits the writer wants to assign to these races – look at how many times in books (or films) a warlike race will have a guttural language, while people with a more intellectual or even magical culture speak in a much more lyrical way.  For example, contrast the Dothraki and High Valyrian languages created by George R.R. Martin for his Song of Ice and Fire Series (and the TV adaptation Game of Thrones).

Adaptation of books into films and the making of original films has brought an added dimension to the invented languages, as they have to be spoken by actors, not just written on the page.  Many fantasy and sci-fi films employ specialist language creators and consultants to ensure that the finished production is as authentic as possible (and of course to coach the actors!).  They often need to expand the small amounts of language created by the original author and, following Tolkien’s example, go far beyond what is actually needed on screen to end up with entire new languages with grammar, vocabulary and cultural context.  For some fans of films, learning some of these languages is a way to immerse themselves even more in the fictional world.  Fans of Star Trek, for example, can sign up to numerous Klingon language courses or even buy grammar books and dictionaries.

Whether Lord of the Rings, A Clockwork Orange, Star Trek, Game of Thrones, Avatar or many more, invented languages play a key role in fiction, especially the fantasy and sci-fi genres.  They add realism to imaginary worlds and peoples, as well as providing extra interest and fascination for readers and fans.  It is certainly fair to say that the use of invented languages in fiction has been far more successful than in the real world.  And the purpose they serve so effectively in fiction emphasises precisely why real world experiments have tended to fail, namely that languages are bound up with history, culture and identity.  No matter how humanitarian the principle and intent, it could be argued that inventing a single language without those influences is always doomed to be unsuccessful.

Related posts: H is for Hawai’ian    J is for Japanese