Republished Article from MOSAIC

This article first appeared on Mosaic and is republished here under a Creative Commons licence.

Studying an emerging sign language won’t kill it – so what are linguists scared of?

Emerging sign languages could reveal how all language evolved – but keeping these fragile languages isolated for research may mean the people who rely on them lose out.

Connie de Vos was sitting on her hands. It was 2006, her first stay in the Balinese village of Bengkala, and visitors had come every night to her house, sitting on the floor of the front patio, eating fruit- or durian-flavoured candies and drinking tea. About eight to ten people were there now, hands flitting in the shadows, chatting away in Kata Kolok, the local sign language: Where is the next ceremony? When is the next funeral? Who just died?

Kata Kolok was created in Bengkala about 120 years ago and has some special features, such as sticking out your tongue to add ‘no’ or ‘not’ to a verb. And unlike American Sign Language (ASL), in which people move their mouths silently as they sign, you also smack your lips gently, which creates a faint popping sound, to indicate that an action has finished…


Если я убегу от печали (Russian)

Если я убегу от печали,
вверх по горе к синему и к тебе,
ты поцелуешь мое мужество и поможешь нам
прогуляться вниз другую сторону, где
река играет наше странствие песню?

Давайте сделаем день всплеска
переполнен извилистой любовью.
If I run away from sadness,
up the mountain to the blue and to you
you will kiss my courage and help us
stroll down the other side where
the river plays our wandering song?

Let’s make a splash day
overflowing with twisting love.

Ukuba ndibalekela usizi (Xhosa)

Ukuba ndibalekela usizi,
nyukela entabeni ukuya esibhakabhakeni kunye nawe,
ngaba uya kumanga isibindi kwaye
ngaba uza kundinika isibindi sokuhamba
ngaphesheya komlambo esiwaziyo uya kudlala ingoma
yethu yokutshatisa uthando.

If I run away from grief,
go up the mountain to the sky with you,
will you be brave again
will you give me the courage to go
across the river we know will play
our song of flirting
[** translation varies depending on spacing. Sometimes it seems to be “our tendency to love love.*]

Between a Rock and a Hard Placemat

Erudition alas
has not given me a
speaking part in a
play on words, and alas

I’m caught between
a hard-on path
and a romance

between the snoberati
and the hoi polloi

rolling along the road between
the rock and running joke.

Give me my just desert
and dessert commercial path part,
filmed in the desert with cherries
and with camels who
know the way to the oasis.

The Flavors of Sore

Ice cream is usually a good bribe:
you can have all the ice cream you want.
However —

Conditions a sore point
jarring —

if you get your tonsils
taken out for a walk
to a jar, then
unlimited Ice Cream.

Bargains can be surprising.

Anesthesia doesn’t smell like
any flavor of Ice Cream, has
high pitch buzzing, disturbing
lights not like stars, voices
like dreams: there’s
a lot of bleeding…

waking in bed with no Ice Cream,
a bed pan to vomit blood into, and
it has no cherry flavor.

Ice cream is not always a good bribe
with a throat so sore it hurts to eat it.

Some fish dishes will ameliorate, however
if it comes from a jar: carp
whitefish, and pike.

These slippery things don’t come in cherry
or vanilla, or chocolate, but with
onions and bread crumbs, these

Gefilte fish in a jar packed with gel
swim down the throat without pain.

Wonder why it’s not said:
you can have all the gefilte fish you want
if you have your tonsils taken out for a swim.

As The Crow Flies

A long time ago, when I saw articles saying that the Maori language was the latest fashion in computer translation, I decided to try it out. It went mostly OK for a while until I asked for a translation of “Owl”. The first time “owl” translated to “kohuru”. Then I asked to translate “kohuru” back into English. It said “kohuru” meant “murder.” So I thought that since owls do kill mice and other creatures that it was some kind of metaphor. But I found other sources that said it was just wrong… Anyway, I decided to see if they finally fixed it. Now it’s milder but still weird. I’ve listed it this way:
1. English
2. purported Maori translation
3. The given Maori translated back to English

The owl can fly.
Ka rere te owi.
The race runs.
Ka oma te whakataetae.
The competition runs.

My owl has feathers.
He huruhuru taku hae.
My jealousy is hairy.
huruhuru — feathers
taku — my
hae — flag, jealous, envy
he — it is, mistake, wrong.
ruru — due, handshake, owl
An owl is a bird.
Ko te otereti he manu.
The ostrich is a bird.

The ostrich ate the owl.
Ko te ostrich i kai i te ruru.
The ostrich ate the shake.

It looks like it’s taking language samples and looking for patterns in what is discussed and what things are associated near each other. But there’s no logic or reasoning here. It seems to be death by association. Somewhere in the process, it might make sense to hire a few humans who are experts in a particular language. They seem to be using the most popular associations and correlations. It’s like the classic ice cream study. More ice cream is sold in the summer when more people are outside and are hot. There is also a higher crime rate. So one study concluded that ice cream increases the crime rate. So I suppose that this method would find that the word “ice cream” means “murder.”

одвратни црвени локви

За сега,
игнорирајте пушки, и
звуците на убиство.

Хаос и какафонија
се игрите на улицата.

Фантазирајте во текот на денот
но спиењето се крие ноќе,

Планирав да избегам:
тоа требаше да биде за неколку дена.
Красомила едноставно мораше да се скрие
малку подолго пред нашата авантура
далеку од градот, надевајќи се на дневна светлина.
Скриј драги, реков, почекај
додека не ја земам твојата рака.

Реков да Чекај:
Имам планови и
останете со Лилјана
се додека не биде безбедно да ја напуштите куќата.

Не сакам да верувам во вестите.
Тоа не може да биде тоа
Го напуштив Красомила во нашето соседство
мислејќи дека ќе има повеќе време

Болен сум. Ги гледам сирените и
Имам лошо чувство. Не јас.
Не сакам да го гледам ова.

Како може да биде Красомила?
Дали убавината крвави?

Црвената темнина лежи
на нашата слатка патека.
Полицијата опкружува коагулирачка крв,
одвратни црвени локви
и го примети мртвото тело.

Предупредување пластична лента, како хартија
задушува дневна светлина
и ракетите се обележани
со нумерирани докази картички.

Постојат вести камери насекаде,
и светли светла

Не можам да се доближам до местото на злосторството, бидејќи
постојат компликации.

Не постои начин да му кажете на светот
дека ја сакав

Преводот е опасен спорт

Here is a note on properly storing fish:
The aquarium was ruined. They kept the piranhas in the public pool temporarily. After the translator went for a swim, there was a pool of blood.
Еве ја белешката за правилно чување риби:
Аквариумот беше уништен. Привремено ги чуваат пираните во јавен базен. Откако преведувачот отиде на пливање, имаше крв.
Here’s the note for proper fish keeping:
The aquarium was destroyed. Temporarily keep piranhas in a public pool. After the translator went swimming, he had blood.

Apparently, someone drank the blood of the piranhas before anyone could get hurt.
Очигледно, некој пиел крв на пираните пред да може некој да се повреди.
Obviously, someone was drinking the piranhas before anyone could get hurt.