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Language Age
Posted: 16 January 2012 09:15 PM   [ Ignore ]
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http://www.abc.net.au/news/2012-01-17/20120117-indigenous-language-mobile-phone-app/3778252

Researchers are developing a mobile phone application in an effort to help save an ancient Aboriginal language that is close to being lost forever.

The language of Iwaidja is thousands of years old but on Croker Island in the Top End only about 150 people still speak it.

Iwaidja is one of about 50 known Aboriginal languages of Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory.

Bruce Birch from the Minjilang Endangered Languages Project has been working with locals to try to save it.

“It is one of Australia’s hundred or so highly endangered languages,” he said.

Using $100,000 of federal funding, a mobile phone application is being developed.

It will have 1,000 dictionary entries and almost 500 phrases.

“You will be be able to look up the word and touch the word and hear it,” Mr Birch said.

The application will be launched in May.

Mr Birch hopes it will keep the language alive for future generations and help visitors to the region better understand the local culture.

“The idea for the mobile phone app sprang from the need to use up-to-date technology to attract people,” he said.

He says it will help younger Indigenous people as well as non-Indigenous people who come into contact with Iwaidja speakers

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Interesting, but my question is actually about this:
“The language of Iwaidja is thousands of years old “
This seems a very bold claim. Aboriginal languages were unrecorded until some 230 years ago. Would there be any basis for making that claim?

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Posted: 17 January 2012 05:45 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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You’re not the only one to whom the same question immediately occurs.

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Posted: 17 January 2012 11:55 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Of course it’s thousands of years old, in exactly the same sense that English (or any other language) is thousands of years old.  To suppose otherwise would be to suppose that it magically appeared out of nowhere X number of years ago; one minute the locals were speaking Basque, or just grunting at each other, and the next—presto!  They’re speaking Iwaidja!  But the whole issue of how old languages are (and which is “the oldest") is inherently meaningless; all languages, so far as we know, are equally old, going back in unbroken succession to the first language spoken by humans, whenever that was.  (I’m leaving out of account artificial languages like Esperanto, obviously.) The reason it’s so hard for people to grasp this is that (being long and thoroughly accustomed to writing) we unconsciously equate writing with language, so that if a language hasn’t been written until recently we think it’s a young language.  A moment’s thought will show how silly that is.

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Posted: 17 January 2012 12:29 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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OTOH, there’s a sense in which English is only about 500 years old, in that Middle English is different enough to be regarded as a different language from that spoken today (and it it’s not different enough for you, Old English certainly is).  Since it is only in this sense that natural languages can reasonably be said to differ in age, it is the logical sense in which to take the claim of an age for a particular language.  And in this sense-- that the Iwaidja language has remained sufficiently unchanged so that its speakers thousands of years ago were speaking essentially the same language as those today, and that there could be mutual comprehension if they were somehow brought together--the claim seems a priori unlikely and certainly appears to be unsupported by evidence.

In other words, you can interpret the claim as meaningless, or as meaning something but unlikely to be true.  I think it is more reasonable to interpret it in the latter way.

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Posted: 17 January 2012 03:08 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Eh, six of one and half a dozen of the other, since they’re both silly, but I disagree—since no one could possibly know the history of Iwaidja, no one could claim (meaningfully, let alone plausibly) that it was unchanged for X years.  And in the sense in which English is only about 500 years old, any given language is only about 500 years old, since languages change at more or less the same rate.  Some do change more slowly, like Icelandic, but that just puts the date at which you have to consider it a “different language” a few centuries further back.  And since (to get back to the first point) the history of the vast majority of the world’s languages is unknowable beyond a few generations, it makes absolutely no sense to claim that Icelandic (or anything else) is “the oldest language,” since for all anyone knows Iwaidja or Burushaski or [pick your own random language with no written tradition] could have avoided major change for longer.  No, I’ll stick with my “inherently meaningless” call.

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Posted: 17 January 2012 03:54 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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since languages change at more or less the same rate

Generally true, but another exception is English during the Middle English period, which was a time of very rapid change. Also, there is evidence to suggest languages that are written change more slowly than those that are strictly oral--the presence of non-ephemeral literature tends to preserve older forms longer and serves to keep dialects from diverging too much.

there’s a sense in which English is only about 500 years old, in that Middle English is different enough to be regarded as a different language from that spoken today (and it it’s not different enough for you, Old English certainly is)

A lot depends on what samples of Middle English you use. A modern English speaker can pick up Chaucer and, with the help of a glossary for some of the definitions that have changed (e.g., aventure), can read it without undue difficulty or special instruction (perhaps slowly at first, but you get much faster with a bit of practice). Earlier works, which are closer to Old English, are much more difficult, as are works written in regional dialect, like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, although even that isn’t too unwieldy and a reader quickly picks up on the dialectal differences which are consistent, so once you twig to them they aren’t a problem.

Chaucer isn’t all that much more difficult than Shakespeare--provided you read Shakespeare with the original spelling. Shakespeare is usually printed with modern spelling, however, while Chaucer is not, which makes comparing the two a case of apples and oranges. Chaucer in modern spelling is pretty easy too.

[ Edited: 17 January 2012 03:58 PM by Dave Wilton ]
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Posted: 17 January 2012 04:28 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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"Of course it’s thousands of years old, in exactly the same sense that English (or any other language) is thousands of years old.”

English and most other languages are not thousands of years old. Language changes at such a rate that we do not generally identify the thousand year old ancestor of X as being the same language as X.

“ To suppose otherwise would be to suppose that it magically appeared out of nowhere X number of years ago; one minute the locals were speaking Basque, or just grunting at each other, and the next—presto!  They’re speaking Iwaidja!”

No, it would be to suppose that Iwaidja evolved at a rate similar to those of most other languages.

“ But the whole issue of how old languages are (and which is “the oldest") is inherently meaningless; all languages, so far as we know, are equally old, going back in unbroken succession to the first language spoken by humans, whenever that was.  (I’m leaving out of account artificial languages like Esperanto, obviously.) The reason it’s so hard for people to grasp this is that (being long and thoroughly accustomed to writing) we unconsciously equate writing with language, so that if a language hasn’t been written until recently we think it’s a young language.  A moment’s thought will show how silly that is. “

Really, LH, I’m not an imbecile, you don’t need to explain these very obvious things, and you seem to have completely missed the point. It is not hard to grasp that we all speak languages that have a chain of descent running thousands of years, but it is also easy to grasp that we don’t say that these languages are thousands of years old. English is maybe 1300 years old, if we’re generous. Yiddish is maybe 1000 years old, Serbian more like 800. I didn’t imply, and don’t suspect, that Iwaidja is younger than the languages that have been written for a long time: I would suspect that it is probably about the same age, and hence NOT thousands of years old.

There are some languages that are older, Greek I suppose, and we have documentary evidence of that. Given that Iwaidja wasn’t written until recently, we can _rule_ that _out_ as a possible explanation for the author claiming the language is thousands of years old, which is why I mentioned its brief written record.

I would call this a question comprehension fail on your part.

Is there any possible basis upon which the author could have said Iwaidja, like Greek, is thousands of years old, and not much much younger like most other languages? e.g. could they have judged this by making comparison with related languages etc.

(If the author meant that Iwaidja, like English, is descended from languages thousands of years old, then it is true of all languages and not even worth saying.)

EDIT: although there is obviously some subjectivity in the division between languages temporally as there is between contemporary languages, there remains the yardstick of mutual intelligibility (although it only works in one direction when you’re dealing with dead languages...) A native modern English speaker can understand English from 1600 pretty well, not so much from 1200, probably not at all from 800 unless they’ve been trained in that area. English is descended from PIE but it isn’t PIE, it’s not thousands of years old.

[ Edited: 17 January 2012 04:33 PM by OP Tipping ]
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Posted: 18 January 2012 03:28 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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The statement ‘The language of Iwaidja is thousands of years old’ is not presented as a direct quote by the man from the languages project. It’s presumably the journalist’s understanding of something s/he was told by him (whatever his specialism is – even he could be a social worker, not a linguist), probably further whittled down by the editor. Given what we all know about reporting of linguistic issues in the mainstream news media. press, it’s unfair to assume that anyone working on the project actually said that. Suppose for example that there’s a group of related aboriginal languages, of which Iwaidja is such a remote outlier that linguists hypothesise that it probably diverged from the main group more than a millennium ago. I can very easily imagine any such statement being relayed in the news item as ‘this language is thousands of years old’.

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Posted: 18 January 2012 03:47 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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Well that might well be the case. Certainly on http://www.iwaidja.org I can find no suggestion that the language is “ancient” or thousands of years old, indeed no reference at all to its age. Probably some work experience kid at ABC.net.au/news followed a thought bubble and fell out a window.

With regard to the news itself…
Is this iPhone app going to help preserve a language spoken by 150 people in a remote island in the Northern Territory? Could have printed quite a few books for $100000.

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Posted: 18 January 2012 05:47 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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Is this iPhone app going to help preserve a language spoken by 150 people in a remote island in the Northern Territory? Could have printed quite a few books for $100000.

The iPhone app is likely to die of obsolescence before the language does. I’m not saying an iPhone-based Iwaidja dictionary is a bad idea, but the idea that this small (1,500 entries) dictionary app available only on one platform might help preserve and save the language is just silly.

Given that linguistic researchers tend to be smart people, I’ll bet they know this. The iPhone app is probably only one aspect of the project. I’ll bet print and other forms of the dictionary are available as well.

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Posted: 18 January 2012 06:51 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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It just doesn’t cost that kind of money to write apps; kids do it when they should be doing their homework. I agree that the sum quoted is probably the entire Save-the-Iwaidja budget and the app is just the most quotable thing they’re doing. I can see the point of it; anything that makes the language seem fun and ‘cool’ to young Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in the region could help it a lot.

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Posted: 18 January 2012 08:56 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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There are some languages that are older, Greek I suppose, and we have documentary evidence of that. Given that Iwaidja wasn’t written until recently, we can _rule_ that _out_ as a possible explanation for the author claiming the language is thousands of years old, which is why I mentioned its brief written record.

I would call this a question comprehension fail on your part.

Is there any possible basis upon which the author could have said Iwaidja, like Greek, is thousands of years old, and not much much younger like most other languages?

I’m sorry you felt condescended to, but you still seem to be missing the point, so I’ll repeat it.  (I’m sorry that people feel I’m being condescending or talking down to them or somehow insulting them when I explain these things, so I’ll say once again that there is no personal attack or insult intended; it is important to me that linguistic concepts be understood, and I will explain them as often, and as variously, as I need to in order to get the message across.) Greek is not any older than any other language; it is simply attested earlier.  That’s what I mean about confusing language with writing.  The Greeks, of course, will tell you different; they like/need to believe, for nationalistic reasons, that Greek is very very ancient and (the crucial idiocy) that it has barely changed in thousands of years—that the ancient Greeks pronounced the language pretty much as it is pronounced today.  This is not unique to the Greeks, pretty much every language has speakers who insist on believing flattering absurdities about it ("[my language] is the most beautiful/logical/perfect language in the world!"), but since Greece has a written history of thousands of years, they get to make that particular idiotic but impressive claim.

Once again, Greek has changed over the millennia just like English and Iwaidja and everything else, and it makes no sense to ask how “old” any of them are.  You can pick your criteria for “difference” wherever you like (you can draw the line at Middle English, Old English, Common Germanic, whatever); it doesn’t matter, because all languages will still turn out to be essentially the same age, the age depending on where you choose to draw the line.  The whole question is meaningless.

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Posted: 18 January 2012 01:55 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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Classical Greek is almost as incomprehensible to a modern Greek who doesn’t know it, as Old English is to an English speaker who doesn’t know it.

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Posted: 18 January 2012 03:09 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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Well, it seems reasonably clear to me that the author of the article is asserting, or at least implying, that Iwaidja is “older” than most languages.  If the writer meant “Iwaidja is thousands of years old, like every other language on the flipping planet” then he/she did an astonishingly bad job of conveying that idea.  When the claim that the language is “thousands” of years old is coupled with the claim that the language is “ancient”, it is hard not to see the implication that there is something unusually old about that language.  If there is nothing remarkable about its age whatsoever, why bother to mention that it is “ancient” in one sentence and that it is “thousands of years old” in another?

So, depending on how you look at it, the writer seems to be suggesting EITHER that the language is unusually old, or that it has experienced an unusually low rate of change over the eons.  I doubt, though, that the writer really thought about the assertion enough to have broken it down in that fashion.  Since the more nuanced of the two notions above would be that it showed an unusually low rate of change, and since nothing about the article suggests that any nuanced thinking was employed regarding the “age” of the language, I think the writer was implying that it was unusually old. 

It seems like pretty much everybody who has posted on this thread doubts that the Iwaidja language is either unusually old or that it is unusually static.  Even Languagehat’s statement that the claim that a language is thousands of years old is “meaningless” seems premised on the idea that NO language is unusually old or young.  If no language is unusually old or young, then, logically, Iwaidja isn’t either.

It also seems telling that the save Iwaidja project web page says absolutely nothing about the language’s age - they presumably have both 1) experts who would be qualified to make that assertion if it is supportable, and 2) an incentive of sorts to make that assertion if it is true, since the “older” you can claim a language is, the more seeming historical value there would be in “saving” it, all other things being equal.

So, it appears the newspaper author pulled this out of thin air, probably because he thought it would make the article more interesting.  Which, in a way it did, in the sense that the claim seems so clearly unsupported and unsupportable that it is as hard to look away from it as it is to ignore a car accident.

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Posted: 18 January 2012 04:11 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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Greek is not any older than any other language; it is simply attested earlier.  That’s what I mean about confusing language with writing.  The Greeks, of course, will tell you different; they like/need to believe, for nationalistic reasons, that Greek is very very ancient and (the crucial idiocy) that it has barely changed in thousands of years—that the ancient Greeks pronounced the language pretty much as it is pronounced today.  This is not unique to the Greeks, pretty much every language has speakers who insist on believing flattering absurdities about it ("[my language] is the most beautiful/logical/perfect language in the world!"), but since Greece has a written history of thousands of years, they get to make that particular idiotic but impressive claim.

Once again, Greek has changed over the millennia just like English and Iwaidja and everything else, and it makes no sense to ask how “old” any of them are.  You can pick your criteria for “difference” wherever you like (you can draw the line at Middle English, Old English, Common Germanic, whatever); it doesn’t matter, because all languages will still turn out to be essentially the same age, the age depending on where you choose to draw the line.  The whole question is meaningless.

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I disagree that it is meaningless. It is fuzzy, but not meaningless.  It is not simply a matter of Greek being attested earlier, and it is not simply a matter of having a longer record. The Latinate languages are well attested back 2000 years and more, but Italian is not 2000 years old. Languages do not all change at the same rate. English is particular is a language that changed so rapidly after the Norman invasion that we can put a pretty good lid on backwards mutual intelligibility. Obviously partly this is a labelling issue but no one would say Greek has changed as much in the last 1200 years as English or Maltese have.

(I’m sorry that people feel I’m being condescending or talking down to them or somehow insulting them when I explain these things

LH, you misunderstood my point, , but moreover the statements can only be taken to mean that you think I am ignorant of extremely basic things. Nothing you “explained” in either of your posts would be unknown to anyone with even a fleeting interest of languages.

I think the author must have meant that the language was older than others: if all elephants are the same size, you don’t bother saying “an enormous elephant”. You say “enormous elephant” if your point is that this one is larger than the main.

Well, it seems reasonably clear to me that the author of the article is asserting, or at least implying, that Iwaidja is “older” than most languages.  If the writer meant “Iwaidja is thousands of years old, like every other language on the flipping planet” then he/she did an astonishingly bad job of conveying that idea.  When the claim that the language is “thousands” of years old is coupled with the claim that the language is “ancient”, it is hard not to see the implication that there is something unusually old about that language.  If there is nothing remarkable about its age whatsoever, why bother to mention that it is “ancient” in one sentence and that it is “thousands of years old” in another?

This.

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Posted: 18 January 2012 04:52 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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Well, it seems reasonably clear to me that the author of the article is asserting, or at least implying, that Iwaidja is “older” than most languages.  If the writer meant “Iwaidja is thousands of years old, like every other language on the flipping planet” then he/she did an astonishingly bad job of conveying that idea.  When the claim that the language is “thousands” of years old is coupled with the claim that the language is “ancient”, it is hard not to see the implication that there is something unusually old about that language.  If there is nothing remarkable about its age whatsoever, why bother to mention that it is “ancient” in one sentence and that it is “thousands of years old” in another?

I think you’re looking for scholarship in a place where it doesn’t exist.

As a marketer, I know a sales job when I see one. I would offer that the reason the author made claims about the age of the language has nothing to do with language and everything to do with selling the idea that this language is valuable and worthy of preserving. I would also offer that in my personal experience, reporters don’t let facts get in the way of a good story. It makes the story sound better if the language is ancient and that’s all that matters. The purpose of the story wasn’t to say anything meaningful about language, it was to convince people that this is a worthy project.

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