Very Good Lives

Earlier this week, Little, Brown Book Group announced they would be publishing an illustrated version of J. K. Rowling’s 2008 speech during a Harvard University commencement where she talked about the benefits of failure.

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Sales from the book, called VERY GOOD LIVES, will benefit Rowling’s charity called Lumos which aims to transform the lives of disadvantaged children. Similarly, it will also go toward providing financial aid to students at Harvard.

You can watch the original speech here, claimed by many to be one of the most memorable speeches in Harvard history. The book is bound to be just as riveting!

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Endangered Language

Distribution of language families and isolates...

Distribution of language families and isolates north of Mexico at first contact. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Most of us probably never think about the language we speak, unless we’re visiting another country and find it difficult to communicate.  But what if you spoke a language that had slowly died out with all of the people who ever knew it, until you were the only person who could still speak it?

 

Even worse…what if there was someone else who also knew the language, but refused to speak to you?

 

This isn’t such an improbable scenario.  In Mexico, for example,  there are many indigenous languages that are slowly fading away as the population ages.  One such language is called Ayapaneco—spoken in the town of Apaya, Mexico for generations. Unfortunately, the language is about to disappear as only two men still speak it…and they refuse to talk to each other.  Linguists have stepped in and are trying to convince the men to converse with each other so that the vocabulary, diction and accent may be recorded and studied, in hopes of preserving it. But the men just don’t seem to get along.

 

It’s not clear why the men refuse to talk to each other…maybe a feud or maybe they just don’t have a lot in common…but if no one is able to get them chatting, Ayapaneco is just one of many languages that will probably disappear in this generation. There are probably similar languages in the area, as is common with indigenous peoples, and linguists might be able to piece together some aspects in order to preserve parts of it. But it would be much easier if they had a little help, of course.

 

One might argue that the English language has evolved and changed so much through generations (and is still changing), that it might be hardly recognizable to someone who spoke it 500 years ago, let’s say. The advent of computers and the use of spell check and short forms and the like has certainly changed the written form. Could massive changes to the spoken word be far behind? Could it be that someday, someone will be lamenting over the loss of English?  It seems unlikely, I know, but it makes you stop and think about communication and language in a new way when you hear stories like this.  You can read more on the story of the Mexican village and the men who are willing to let their language die out, right here.

 

Would YOU refuse to talk to someone if you were the only two people who knew a language?

 

I drop the G. What do you do?

I’m guilty of it everyday, I’ll admit it.  And once, I even tried to make the correction a New Year’s resolution.  But it didn’t work.  I still drop the G’s.  I’m talking about words that end in “–ing”.  Is it part of the Lanark County accent?  I don’t know (I’d like to think I don’t have one), but it seems that phonetic shortcuts are the norm in daily conversation, and they most go unnoticed.


I came across an article in Science News by Rachel Ehrenberg that really got me thinking, not just about how we talk, but what is happening to our language today in general.  The article claims that the norm today is reducing words by dropping syllables or letters or even completely dropping words in full sentences. When talking casually, people routinely streamline what they say and as long as others understand what is being said, it is perfectly acceptable. In fact, most of the speech we communicate in is not careful speech at all.  This causes problems for speech recognition programs and also for people trying to learn English as a second language.

So what exactly is happening? Studies done at the Douglass Phonetics Lab at the University of Arizona in Tucson revealed that the new speech isn’t lazy, it’s just more efficient.  For example,  when a speaker said the phrase “We were supposed to see it yesterday, but I felt really bad”, the word “yesterday” shrank considerably to something that sounded like “yesh-ee”.  (Personally, I don’t get this, but it’s possible that language-reduction like this is also location based.  The norm in one place might not be the same someplace else.)

It made me think about how kids today text and type messages in email etc., using short forms and symbols.  Is this also a natural part of our speech reduction as a generation of people?  And does this happen in other languages?  The study didn’t say, but it would be interesting to know. You can read more of Ehrenberg’s article right here. The fun part of this link is that you can listen to actual clips from their studies to hear the speech reductions.

What is your speech reduction?