Monday, November 09, 2009

Linguistically Speaking

I've been spending a lot of time in the kitchen lately, cooking this and baking that, and while I do, I've been listening to History of the English Language. It's a lecture series by John McWhorter, an American linguist currently at Columbia University. The series title is a bit of a misnomer as it is in fact more of a broad survey of language and linguistics. McWhorter is an engaging speaker, the topic one of interest to me. I'm currently listening to lecture #21 of 36, which is about language mixing, specifically grammar, and draws from examples like the impact of Dravidian sentence structure (subject-object-verb) of South India on the Indo-European languages of the North, and Media Lengua of Equador, which combines Spanish vocabulary with a Quechua grammatical system.

McWhorter is not a prescriptive grammarian, rather he sees language as a living, breathing, evolving thing, and he is emphatic in distinguishing between the spoken and written forms. Most of the several thousand languages around today still exist only orally. The written versions are a different, fairly recent phenomenon altogether.

Last week's NY Times Book Review has an essay on recent changes to the Japanese language brought on by the ubiquity of cellphones, blogging, email, etc. Some changes include the classically vertical language becoming horizontal and people losing the ability to hand-write complex characters (think spellcheck). And of course there is the relentless infiltration of Engrish words (often creatively used) into the vocabulary.

The impact of cell phones goes way beyond texting (of which young Japanese were surely early adopters,) with something called keitai shousetsu 携帯小説, or cell phone novels. These are actual novels and short stories meant to be read on mobile phones. Earlier this year I read Miura Shion's Mukashi no Hanashi むかしのはなし, in which it is revealed, at the end of the first in a series of interlinked stories, that the narrator has typed this story on his cell phone. At the time, I found that absurd, but according to this essay, five of the top ten best-selling books in Japan in 2007 were written on cell phones. Huh?


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