Friday link dispatch 03

Today’s links still follow the endangered language theme with special emphasis on Alaska Native languages.

The first one is fun. Frozen Whitefish  is a rock band from Bethel (a town and Yup’ik village of 6500 off the road system in south-west Alaska close to the coast) that was features in the Discovery Channel series Flying Wild Alaska.  They sing in Central Yup’ik, so if you’re interested in learning the language, you may want to listen. And the link goes to their MySpace page, where you can listen to a number of quite well produced tracks. Here is a video, in somewhat lower sound quality, but still, charming (via the Alaska Daily News Rural Blog)

Frozen Whitefish performing Maani Alaskami live at the 2011 Alaska State Fair


The second one is serious and comes out of a gallery & workshop entitled “Living Our Cultures, Sharing Our Heritage: The First Peoples of Alaska” of the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center in Anchorage: Sharing the Dena’ina Language (via Talking Alaska):

Sharing the Dena'ina language - a language instruction video

The third one is a news report about how to preserve an endangered language: Living Languages reports on cumpulsory Ijaw in Bayelsa schools in Nigeria. Balyelsa is a state of Nigeria. Now not all of the 10 Ijoid languages may be endangered and I have no way of gauging the effectiveness and coverage of the Bayelsa school system. Still, the approach of making a declining local language compulsory is the winning formula if the basic conditions are united. I remember that when I was a teenager in the 80s, there was much sadness and nostalgia about the imminent death of Irish and Welsh, two Celtic languages and thereby preeminent vehicles of European culture. Well, no one does this any more. It makes me very happy to hear teenagers speak Irish among each other in the streetcars of Dublin, thereby escaping the danger of being overheard by old ladies like myself — the middle-aged being the generation with the lowest rate of competency in the language. As for Wales, I hear that the demand for Welsh instruction for adults is up significantly.

Friday link dispatch 02

Today we have two Inuit (Canadian) videos to complement the recent Alaska Native language/culture resources post.

Two school girls practicing Inuit throat singing (YouTube). There are many videos on the various video services that demonstrate this art form, which can be referred to by a variety of terms and is carried out typically by two women standing close to each other, face to face. I particularly liked this video because the young women are doing it casually between school classes:

Janet Aglukkaq and Kathy Keknek throat singing between their classes at Qiqirtaq Ilihakvik High School in Gjoa Haven, Nunavut.


Anirniq – (Breath), Winner Best Short Film at the Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival 2010 (Vimeo). A magical tale in Inuktitut with English subtitles about death, hunting, nature, and the belief that when we die, our soul goes into the living beings around us:

Aniriniq - Breath (Brüdder Productions, Canada, 2010)


Friday link dispatch 01

On one of my blogs, there used to be automatically generated link posts via The method was never very reliable, and I abandoned it as it was never updated from its rather basic functionality. In particular, every single link I saved on was re-posted (instead of, say, just the links marked with a “post-me” tag). But I miss the link roundups. So let’s bring them back.

How to choose appropriate terminology when writing a historical novel. Which of the following words would you expect were not being used at all in the early 19th century, or had a markedly different sense than in today’s English: manipulate, blink, looped, conversationalist, knowledgeable, traipsing? The writer Marie Robinette Kowal, author of (among other works), Glamour in Glass, which is set in 1815, presents her anachronism-busting method. It involves extracting a word list from Jane Austen’s oeuvre and looking up each non-Austen word in the OED.  (Via Language Hat.)

Earliest know uses of some (many) of the words of mathematics and earliest known uses of some mathematical symbols:

FRACTAL. According to Franceschetti (p. 357):

In the winter of 1975, while he was preparing the manuscript of his first book, Mandelbrot thought about a name for his shapes. Looking into his son’s Latin dictionary, he came across the adjective fractus, from the verb frangere, meaning “to break.” He decided to name his shapes “fractals.”

Fractal appears in 1975 in Les Objets fractals: Forme, hasard, et dimension by Benoit Mandelbrot (1924- ). The title was translated as Fractals: Form, Chance, and Dimension (1977).

These pages, which must have been around for some time, are the work of Jeff Miller. Full of historical, lexical and typographical information and rich in references.

Tai, Chen-To: A historical study of vector analysis. I’m reviewing some of the maths I knew 15 years ago (gracious, am I rusty!) and came across this 1995 paper (available as a PDF file),which is even geekier (and certainly more specialized) than the pages in the previous link. It presumes familiarity with the subject of vector analysis as taught to math, physics or engineering students in their first years and covers historical texts mostly from mathematics and electromagnetism with respect to the notation of the derivatives (gradient, divergence, curl), with or without the Nabla operator ∇ (also called del). The author is opinionated and also has a second text, A Survey of the Improper Uses of ∇ in Vector Analysis.

Personal names around the world. A short but useful page from the World Wide Web Consortium.

People who create web forms, databases, or ontologies are often unaware how different people’s names can be in other countries. They build their forms or databases in a way that assumes too much on the part of foreign users. This article will first introduce you to some of the different styles used for personal names, and then some of the possible implications for handling those on the Web.

(Hat tip: Pat Hall on Facebook.)

Alaska Native languages

So I live in Alaska now: circumstances change, and life remains endlessly fascinating. 1

For a new European expat in North America, Alaska is one of the more unusual places to land on. Compared to Texas, the second largest US state, it’s 2.5 times the size, but less than 3% of the population (about 700,000, half of them living in the Anchorage area). It has a variety of climates, most of them extreme, and endless environmental, geophysical and atmospheric phenomena rarely found elsewhere, from volcanoes, via the swampy tundra to the aurora borealis. Even many Americans seem to be unaware, or astonishingly dismissive, of the ways day-to-day life in Alaska is unlike any other place in the US.

One of many language-related features is that Alaska is the US state with the largest percentage (15%), if not absolute number, of inhabitants of Native American heritage. As far as language families are concerned, most Alaskan Native languages belong either to the Eskimo-Aleut (such as Iñupiaq, Central Yup’ik, Alutiiq etc.) or the Na-Dené (also Athabaskan-Eyak-Tlingit) family. Many of them, especially in the second group, are endangered (or worse).

Even though identical or related groups are involved, terminology both for people and languages is not uniform across the Alaskan/Canadian border. “Eskimo”, for example, is regarded as derogatory in Canada (and Greenland), and you’d most likely find references to Inuit peoples and (though this is a less universal term) Inuktitut for their languages, which may well be written in Inuktitut syllabics. In Alaska, while it seems appropriate to use the term somewhat self-consciously as an outsider, “Eskimo” is often found in self-descriptions and seen as useful as it is a general term covering distinct but related groups of people: “Iñupiat Eskimo”, “Yup’ik Eskimo”, though the second part’s optional: “I’m Iñupiaq and I count” was proudly written on some T-shirts for last year’s census. Oh, and as for pronunciation, I haven’t figured it out entirely, but “Iñupiaq/Iñupat” has three syllables and is stressed on the first.

My employer, the University of Alaska Fairbanks, pays attention to how it serves the educational needs of Native students and rural communities (overlapping but not identical categories), and also has a number of research interests, in particular through its Alaska Native Language Center.

The ANLC web site is worth digging around in. My favourite is the Native Peoples and Languages of Alaska map, first published by Michael Krauss in 1974 and recently (2011) updated. It can be ordered, and there is an interactive (zoomable) online version on the Alaskaskool web site (Alaska Native culture resources for kindergarten through high school teaching).

Now for learning an Alaska Native language, UAF of course offers classes (I’m tempted), but barring that, there are a number of sites that have “word of the day/week” features. Some, though currently inactive, may still be worth discovering (Athabascan word of the week, Iñupiaq Word of the Day, the Inupiatun language circle on Facebook). My favourite is the Alutiiq word of the week from the Alutiiq Museum on Kodiak Island, which I really want to go visit in person. There’s also an online shop with artwork as well as more Alutiiq language resources.

Last, blogs. Talking Alaska is a group blog on “topics related to Alaska Native languages, including language documentation, language revitalization, language activism, and language endangerment”. A recent interesting post, for example, approached the issue of whether to replace the (non-indigenous) term “Athabascan” with “Dene” (also: Dené), and why.

Via Talking Alaska I found Writing Raven, a Tlingit/Dena’ina Athabascan, and her blog Alaska Real. She has a three (1) part (2) series (3) on why it matters to keep Native languages alive and addresses a series of misinformed arguments against language revitalization. An excerpt:

For the most part, what happened to the Native languages of the Americas wasn’t a natural evolution. What happened was traumatic, invasive and left no room for real adaptation. […]
I had a great Tlingit teacher who talked to us about a common Tlingit expression I heard growing up. When someone says “Gunalcheesh” (thank you) – the response is often “Ho ho!” (you’re welcome.) I really did hear this often.
What a surprise to learn it didn’t mean what I think it meant over 20 years later! “Gunalcheesh ho ho” actually is one phrase, and is used to emphasize the thank you – like “Thank you VERY much.” There is no phrase commonly said, traditionally, to respond to thank you, as there is in English. But the “young kids” as she said (she meant my parents generation!) were changing this, and this new kind of word was emerging.
To a language, she said, this is a great thing. It shows the language is alive, and adapting. The “young kids” were choosing to change this on their own, because it suited the younger culture more, and it brought two languages together.

I love the story, and think she’s entirely right.


  1. Two countries and a blog or three ago there were France and Diacritiques, the bilingual language blog: rough around the edges, but well-liked and well-linked by a small number of interesting people. Then, in 2006, came a big jump to the UK, an employment in commercial software replaced freelancing and occasional teaching. It was a good step in many ways, but not for my blogging, and this place never took off. Now, as of six months ago (February 2011), another big jump: after 15 years I left European capitals behind and joined my partner to live outside Fairbanks, latitude 64.8, to go back to working in a scientific environment. This footnote is for the benefit of any old reader from 5 years ago who might be interested. There are no promises or big announcements: I dislike blogging-about-one’s-blogging, so the note ends here.