Language

The Seri Language: Recent Growth Against the Odds

The Seri Language: Recent Growth Against the Odds 2500 1667 Atomic Scribe

The Seri language is spoken by the Seri people in northwestern Mexico, in two small communities along the Gulf of California. It has no known related language, and a written alphabet was not published until the 1950s.

In contrast to most languages with few speakers, the Seri language has actually grown over the last century. While there were believed to be just 200 Seri people in the 1920s, as of 2015 it is estimated that there are between 600 and 1,000 native speakers.

No known language that exists still today is related to Seri, making it an isolated language. Some have theorized it is a part of the Hokan language family, though this has been rebuffed by scholars who see few links between the languages.

Language Complexity

The isolation has made Seri a fascinating language. It is comprised of 18 consonants and eight vowels, and it has a very large lexicon. Kinship, for example, has over 50 primary terms, making it one of the most extensive lexicons in any language in the world.

Another complexity is the use of plurals. Explained by Stephen A. Marlett in the Journal of the Southwest:

“Unlike languages that either do not have any indicator of number (some Zapotec languages in Oaxaca, for example), or just add the suffix –m to the noun (as some neighboring Uto-Aztecan languages in Sonora, such as Yaqui), or usually add –s (like English), Seri flourishes here. In fact, every noun and verb has to have its plural listed in the dictionary because one simply has to learn it.

In Seri, one could ask for a couple of dozen words at random and never see a common way for plurals to be formed. Verbs are similar in that they have different forms depending on whether the action was done by one person or more than one, and whether the action was repeated or not repeated (roughly speaking). And these forms display about the same kind of complexity as the nouns.”

Eclectic Serian Expressions

Seri also has some truly great expressions. From National Geographic, one such example is “Miixöni quih zó hant ano tiij?” which translates to “Where is your placenta buried?” The phrase is meant to ask where someone is from, as before hospital births the Seri people would bury the afterbirth in the ground and mark the burial spot, never forgetting where it lay.

Want to learn more about the Seri language? A good place to start is Marlett’s article, which looks at the phonology, morphology, syntax, and lexicon of the language.

6 Ways to Learn a Foreign Language

6 Ways to Learn a Foreign Language 2500 1667 Atomic Scribe

Have you ever tried to learn a language but given up out of frustration? Maybe you felt like you were the problem and that you just weren’t meant to master a foreign language. Well, you’re in the majority—most people find learning a language as an adult extremely difficult. But the good news is you aren’t the problem. It’s that you’re not not using the language learning method that works best for you.

More good news: you have lots of options to choose from. Just as we all learn differently in the classroom, we also need to try out new language learning methods until we find the one that best fits. Here are some examples of different methods you can try.

  1. Apps

  2. In-Person Classes

  3. Podcasts

  4. Online Games

  5. Rosetta Stone

  6. Government Resources

1. Apps

Perhaps the most popular language app available, Duolingo is playable both on your phone and computer to learn a variety of languages. It turns the learning process into a game, letting you earn points and nudging you when you haven’t played in a while. The app teaches vocabulary and grammar, but an interesting aspect is it also has the learner speak into the microphone to practice speaking the language. Oh, we forgot the best part: it’s free!

2. In-Person Classes

If you need structure and a classroom setting to learn, there are a multitude of classes to choose from. There are local college classes available, but it’s advised to search out your city and see what all is available. Don’t forget to also look at reviews of the schools or businesses on sites such as Yelp to see what previous students have to say.

3. Podcasts

Our favorite? Radio Lingua. This company provides free podcasts for learning languages when you have a little free time (say, on your coffee break), and then there is further materials available if you buy a premium membership. It’s a great tool for beginners who are in need of a slower pace and to learn the history behind the language you’re learning.

4. Online Games

Not that we ever slack off at work, but sometimes in the office you might catch one of us on BaBaDum. This site is great to use in conjunction with other learning tools, as it helps with vocabulary and pronunciation. The best part, however, might be the terrific illustrations!

BaBaDum in German.

5. Rosetta Stone

This may be our most controversial inclusion because some people hate Rosetta Stone and some people love it. It’s an expensive option, but it’s useful for many. The software really focuses on repetition to teach a language, which may suit certain learners. Our suggestion is to use the free trial to see if it fits your needs.

6. Government Resources

The U.S. Department of Defense maintains the Defense Language Institute to teach languages to service members, but they’ve also made a large amount of learning materials available online. There’s really a wealth of information on there, so make sure to take a look.

Another great resource is this site which has captured all of the Foreign Service Institute’s public domain language lessons. The BBC and other institutions also have free online resources available.

Learning a language doesn’t have to be scary. If one method isn’t working for you, move on to another until you find you perfect fit. Don’t give up!

Dialects of Sign Language: Black ASL

Dialects of Sign Language: Black ASL 2500 1667 Atomic Scribe

We’re all aware of the large number of dialects that make up our spoken languages around the world. But with many ignorant of the fact that separate forms of sign language exist in different countries, there’s even less education on the different dialects that populate specific sign language families.

Black ASL Origins

Take American Sign Language, for example. The Washington Post tells the story of Carolyn McCaskill, who in 1968 enrolled with nine other Deaf black students in a newly integrated school for the Deaf. From the Post:

“When the teacher got up to address the class, McCaskill was lost.

“I was dumbfounded,” McCaskill recalls through an interpreter. “I was like, ‘What in the world is going on?’ ”

The teacher’s quicksilver hand movements looked little like the sign language McCaskill had grown up using at home with her two deaf siblings and had practiced at the Alabama School for the Negro Deaf and Blind, just a few miles away. It wasn’t a simple matter of people at the new school using unfamiliar vocabulary; they made hand movements for everyday words that looked foreign to McCaskill and her fellow black students.”

Today we know that McCaskill grew up using what is now called Black American Sign Language. This form is known for using more two-handed signs than American Sign Language, with Black ASL featuring a higher location of signs (at the forehead level) and a larger space used compared to ASL.

Education Needed

Joseph Hill, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, explains and demonstrates the differences in ASL and Black ASL here:

Sign language is not universal. The different dialects need to be studied independently, just as one would study spoken languages. We can help spread this message by supporting education on the subject, such as the Black ASL Project. Another great resource is this interview conducted by the Chronicle of Higher Education with Joseph Hill, who hopes awareness will make sign language a bigger part of the linguistics community.

We Are Still Here: The Yuchi Language Project

We Are Still Here: The Yuchi Language Project 2500 1667 Atomic Scribe

Yuchi (Euchee) is a unique language spoken by the Yuchi people, who were forcibly relocated from Tennessee, Georgia and other neighboring states to Oklahoma in the 1800s. As of 2014, the number of first-language Yuchi speakers has dwindled to just four, and all of those speakers are above the age of 80.

A Unique Language

Yuchi is a fascinating language. It is not known to be related to any other language on the planet, and there was no written alphabet until the 1970s. There are 49 phonetic sounds (38 consonant sounds and 11 vowel sounds), which is twice the number of most Indigenous languages from the Southeast.

It also has different speeches for males and females, and today the number of first-language male speakers is down to only one. From Yuchi.org:

“The language more than has gender – in fact it is very nearly two different languages – a men’s speech and a women’s speech. The way something is said in these two variations is often quite different. Further, Yuchean not only has tenses, but it varies its structure according to whether a Yuchi is talking or a non-Yuchi is talking, preserving contexts of time and circumstance. All these variations can add a number of complicating layers to the grammar and the effort needed to master it.”

Efforts to Save Yuchi

The short documentary above is a beautiful look at how the community is attempting to keep the language alive by fully immersing young people in the language at the Euchee Language Project in Sapulpa, Oklahoma. Also of interest is their site dedicated to the non-profit, where you can donate, listen to audio and learn more about the Yuchi language.

“What we want, what we need in our communities, what our goal is, is to keep alive our languages so our young people will have breath-to breath knowledge of their traditions, of their ceremonies, of their medicines, of the stars.” – Dr. Richard Grounds
As they say, ÔnzO yUdjEha gO’wAdAnA-A n@wadOnô – “Our Yuchi language will not die.”