How to translate astrophysical phenomena into the Blackfoot language

Corey Gray is an astrophysicist, and the lead operator at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) at the California Institute of Technology in Washington State. He's also a member of the Blackfoot nation through his mother, Sharon Yellowfly. Yellowfly grew up in Alberta, Canada, where she lived through brutal state-run boarding schools designed to assimilate indigenous peoples and beat their native languages out of them.

As a result, Gray himself did not grow up speaking Siksika (the language of the Blackfoot people). But in 2015, when he realized that his field was on the verge of a breakthrough in proving the existence of the Einstein-theorized gravitational waves, he saw an opportunity. As NPR explained at the time:

People from around the world were involved in the discovery. So before it was publicly announced, colleagues started translating the press release into about 20 major languages, such as Russian, French and Spanish.

"I thought, 'Whoa, wouldn't it be just really cool if we could get this translated into an indigenous language?' " Gray recalls.

Gray recruited his mother to help in the translation — which you can see above — but it wasn't entirely easy:

She had to create new words for weighty scientific terms such as Einstein's general theory of relativity. That one she translated into a word, "bisaatsinsiimaan," that means Einstein's "beautiful plantings."

Gravitational waves became "they stick together waves," or "Abuduuxbiisii o?bigimskAAsts."

Other words, such as "black hole" could be directly translated using the Blackfoot, or Siksika, words for "black" and "hole," or "sigooxgiya."

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Church of England refuses to allow foreign language on a gravestone, calling it a "political statement"

Margaret Keane was born in Westmeath, in the Republic of Ireland, and later moved to Coventry in the United Kingdom, where her and her husband raised six children. Throughout her life, Margaret remained active in the Gaelic Athletic Association, and after she passed away in 2018 at the age 73, her family wanted a gravestone that paid tribute to her proud Irish heritage.

Margaret belonged to the Church of England, and was to be buried at St. Giles Church in Exhall. But her family received some pushback when they proposed a plot with a Celtic cross, which the diocesan advisory committee denied for being too large. The committee suggested that the family simply add an inscription of a Celtic cross to the headstone.

The Keane family agreed to the compromise. But the Church of England pushed back again when they saw the planned inscription on the cross: "In ár gcroíthe go deo," which means, "In our hearts forever" in the Irish language. This didn't seem particularly radical, especially as there are already Welsh inscriptions in the same cemetery. But once again, the diocesan advisory committee denied the family's headstone proposal. "Given the passions and feelings connected with the use of Irish Gaelic," said a Church judge who is also a local government judge, "There is a sad risk that the phrase would be regarded as some form of slogan or that its inclusion without translation would of itself be seen as a political statement."

After yet another appeal, the judge agreed to allow the Irish words only if they're accompanied by an English translation. Read the rest

Inside the effort to save an indigenous Pacific Island language that the US tried to destroy

The United States "liberated" Guam and the Marianas Islands from 1898 during the Spanish-American War. As is usually the case with American Liberation, this meant further colonization, conversion into military outposts, and a forced re-education of the native Chamorros. To be fair, those indigenous inhabitants had already endured some 300 years of Spanish colonialism by then. By the time the US showed up, most Chammoros spoke in Spanish. But they also had their own language, called CHamoru.

But, as the Guardian tells it, the imperialist force that famously boasts about its firm belief in the freedom of speech (from a country that doesn't even have an official language) tried to stomp out the language at all costs:

The US navy banned CHamoru in 1917 “except for official interpreting”. The naval administration even burned CHamoru-English dictionaries.

It wasn’t until the mid-1970s that the ban on speaking CHamoru in schools was lifted, says Michael Bevacqua, a CHamoru language educator on Guam. Until then, schoolchildren who spoke CHamoru were punished, and their parents were sometimes even fined.

[…]

A decade ago, the US census estimated there were about 25,827 CHamoru speakers on Guam, just 2,394 of whom were under the age of 18, and only 14,176 CHamoru speakers in the rest of the island chain.

Robert Underwood, the former president of the University of Guam, says most of the fluent speakers are likely to be over the age of 50.

“In another 20 to 30 years there may not be any real first-language speakers of CHamoru,” he says.

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A fascinating map of the most spoken languages in every US state besides English and Spanish

The United States has never had a single "official" language. While English is broadly accepted accepted as the common tongue and typically used in schooling as well as government documents, it doesn't necessarily have to be that way. Spanish is also used frequently across the country — but there are a lot more languages than that at play throughout the States.

Andy Kiersz and Ivan De Luce at Business Insider crunched some data based on the individual-level responses from the 2017 American Community Survey  assembled and published by the Minnesota Population Center's Integrated Public Use Microdata Series program, to find out what other languages are most commonly used in the United States.

There are a lot of thought-provoking takeaways from the data as presented here. Some things may seem obvious — there's a lot of French, of course, particularly in Louisiana and the states that border eastern Canada. While I didn't know that Tagalog was as popular in California and Nevada until now, I can't say I'm surprised. The abundance of Haitian Creole in Florida makes sense, too, but its presence in Delaware is much more interesting. As someone with an interest in indigenous tongues after colonization, it's somewhat comforting to see that Ilocano, Aleut-Eskimo, and Dakota/Lakota/Nakota/Sioux languages are all still hanging on. Read the rest

The colonialism behind fantasy's vaguely Irish Elves

Motherfoclóir is a delightful podcast about language and linguistics as they relate to Ireland ("foclóir" being the Irish word for "dictionary," and thus completely unrelated to that homophonic English-language word you're surely thinking of, c'mon). While that might seem like a niche topic outside of the Emerald Isle herself, a recent episode tackled something that's surely on everyone's mind: those fantastical pointy-eared aristocrats known only as elves.

Specifically, it's a conversation with Irish writer Orla Ní Dhúill, whose blog about elves, Irishness, and colonialism gained a lot of traction among fantasy fans across the globe.

Growing up as a nerdy Irish-American kid, I always understood there to be something vaguely Gael-ish about elves. Even though I didn't know why. Even though I knew it didn't make sense. Even though I knew that Tolkien himself was not particularly fond of the Irish (the language, at least, if not the people). Was it because they used an cló gaelach, the insular font so often associated with Irish Gaelic? Even in my later adolescence, as I wasted my measly weekend job wages on Warhammer 40K, I couldn't help but notice the inherent Irishness in the names and terms of the mystical Eldar alien race who are basically space elves anyway (spoiler: it turns out the Eldar language is, in fact, mostly just bastardized lines from Irish Gaelic proverbs).

The podcast episode is full of insightful exchanges on language and colonialism between Ní Dhúill and host Peader Kavanagh. You can listen below, or on your preferred podcasting platform. Read the rest

Tibetan man gets five years in prison for speaking about his native language

For the crime of talking to a western media outlet about his native tongue, Tashi Wangchuk has been sentenced to prison.

Back in 2015, Mr. Tashi spoke to the New York Times about his concerns that Tibetans were in danger of losing their native language. It was a problem that had been brewing for a while. Tibet declared independence from the much larger nation in 1913. They had their culture, their Dalai Lama and their territory. Things were good… for around 36 years. In 1949, Mao Zedong got China all hot and horny for Communism. Looking to regain the lands that they felt belonged to them, for political and defensive reasons, The People’s Republic of China invaded Tibet in 1950, invaded Tibet, scourging the nation’s culture, language and beliefs in an effort to bring it into line with China’s political doctrine.

China’s never relented its stranglehold on Tibet’s politics but, over time, it did come to allow a certain amount of levity for ethnic minorities, not just in Tibet, but in other Chinese territories (both traditionally recognized or taken by force). Diversity in custom and language were begrudgingly tolerated. In 1984, China went so far as to protect the right to the preservation of language and culture, so long as it didn’t get in the way of their political agenda, under the law. So, when Mr. Tashi chatted with The Grey Lady, he assumed that he and the Chinese government would be cool.

He couldn’t have been more wrong.

The most recent iteration of the Central People’s Government holds a more assimilationist approach to governance: One people, one language, yadda yadda. Read the rest