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.

Notes:

  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.

Welcome Unicode 6.0 and your crazy stable of symbols

Yesterday, the a new major version of the Unicode Standard was published in Unicode 6.0, a year after version 5.2 and more than four after the last major upgrade to 5.0.

There is of course a slew of new stuff in it, and I’m sure I’ll spend a good while digesting at least some of it. The most visible effect of a Unicode Standard revision are the new characters — 2,088 of them, bringing the total to 109,449. Most of them are added to the Supplementary Planes, outside the Basic Multilingual Plane, and therefore require surrogate pairs in UTF-16. (In other words, they are encoded in UTF-16 using two 16-bit code units, unlike the BMP characters, which use only one.)

But enough initialisms: what’s in it? New scripts for languages of course:  Brāhmī, an abugida — an alphasyllabary based on consonants with secondary but required vowel notation — which is a historical script from India and of interest to archaeologists and historical linguists; the Mandaic alphabet for a variant of Aramaic that has a classical (liturgical Christian) and a vernacular form used by small communities in Iran and Iraq; and Batak, another abugida used to write an Austronesian language spoken by millions of people in northern Sumatra. In addition, of course, numerous updates, additions and improvements to existing scripts.

More striking is the number of new symbols and pictograms, including entirely new blocks. Emoticons (including Western ones, emoji, and also for example U+1F648 SEE-NO-EVIL MONKEY, U+1F649 HEAR-NO-EVIL MONKEY and U+1F64A SPEAK-NO-EVIL MONKEY). Useful transport and map symbols. Alchemical symbols certain to be welcomed by historians and fortune-tellers. Playing cards. And the catch-all block “Miscellaneous Symbols And Pictographs”, which brings us hundreds of animals, vegetables, fruit, tools, office symbols, communication symbols etc. pp. down to stuff like U+1F4A9, useful if you need to represent a pile of dog poop in a comic-book style.

Some have joked the date was a-propos: in the US, it was National Coming-Out Day, so fittingly we now have U+1F46C and U+1F46D: TWO MEN HOLDING HANDS and TWO WOMEN HOLDING HANDS.

But to get those new characters on paper or screen, we need fonts. Unfortunately, fonts are often many versions behind, and usually only implement specific ranges or blocks of the standard, depending on the font’s purpose. I opened Google to search for what’s out there already, and thanks to Hacker News found an impressively up-to-date font called Symbola by George Douros, third from the top on this collection of fonts for Ancient scripts.

It downloaded and installed fine on my Mac (running OS X Snow Leopard), but the OS X Character Viewer application is clearly not updated (I ran System Update just to make sure I wasn’t missing anything): As the highlighted areas show, neither the character names nor the Unicode blocks are known to OS X just yet.

OS X Character Viewer with new Unicode 6.0 pictogram characters
OS X Character Viewer with new Unicode 6.0 pictogram characters

This doesn’t prevent us from using the font, though, but in the end, whether the characters are displayed depends on the application. My browser, unfortunately, seems to be stuck on Unicode 5.2. But still, here I bring you U+1F427 PENGUIN, in the hope it will automagically appear on this page as soon as the application stack has caught up:

🐧

Update: I can see it in Firefox! But not in Chrome or Safari, so it may be a Webkit problem.

Can you read 19th century txt spk?

@guardianstyle on Twitter points to an article by Mark Brown announcing what sounds like a wonderful exhibition the British Library is preparing: Evolving English: One Language, Many Voices (Nov 12, 2010 – Apr 3, 2011).  There’s even a second piece, by Alison Flood.

British Library exhibits are reputed to be large, well-made and almost over-abundant (I’ve only been to one, Taking Liberties, and it was of this style.) If the Guardian is to be believed, usage controversies get a large place in Evolving English, which makes it particularly relevant to this blog. The press has its favourite topics, and one is text-message style abbreviated writing — which is only the latest manifestation of a type of language play that is of course much older. Here is a 19th century example, from the first article:

There will be examples of the linguistic games people played, and a poem from Gleanings From the Harvest-Fields of Literature, published in 1867. In it, 130 years before the arrival of mobile phone texting, Charles C Bombaugh uses phrases such as “I wrote 2 U B 4″. Another verse reads: “He says he loves U 2 X S,/ U R virtuous and Y’s,/ In X L N C U X L/ All others in his i’s.”

I think that modern txt spk would spell XLNs. Also, note the apostrophes in “wise” and “eyes”.

Twitter’s American Airlines i18n mystery

In the Twitter client Tweetdeck, and on my Twitter page itself, I run a search for “i18n”: the frequently used abbreviated form of “internationalization” (or “internationalisation” in BrE). A while ago, I noticed that this search feed contained some odd posts that seemed to have nothing to do with the topic, but originated from accounts belonging to the company American Airlines or from other Twitter users retweeting such posts. Here is a sample screenshot from Tweetdeck:

Odd tweet out: American Airlines in the i18n Twitter search
Odd tweet out: American Airlines in the i18n Twitter search

While all the other tweets have to do with multi-lingual software in some sense, the highlighted one doesn’t. It comes from the user PointsAdvisor and re-posts an American Airlines special offer posted by the corporate account AAirwaves.

I noticed such posts about two weeks ago, both in Tweetdeck and on the Twitter web page, but was stumped until I clicked by chance (or rather, by mistake) on the shortened link inside one of these posts. The AAirwaves account uses the URL (better: URI) shortener Bit.ly, and Tweetdeck will show the original long URI for me to click on (it’s a configurable option, which helps prevent accessing malicious pages). Here is the Tweetdeck link preview for the link in the highlighted tweet above, using data from Bit.ly:

Tweetdeck link preview for AA link
Tweetdeck link preview for AA link

And highlighted, there’s the solution of the riddle: American Airlines uses in the URIs of www.aa.com a path segment (some text enclosed by / characters after the host name) that reads “i18n” — and the Twitter search picks up on this component.

Now on the one hand, this is quite bad URI design on the part of American Airlines, but what’s more interesting is that Twitter’s search engine resolves shortened links and includes the target URIs into the search. I didn’t expect this, as the shortened URIs are posted to Twitter as-is. It could be that the search inclusion is a by-product of resolving and storing the full links for security reasons: to protect against malicious code obscured by a link shortener.

In any event, the effect may be ephemeral. For the last two days, there haven’t been any new AA tweets in my “i18n” search feed on Tweetdeck (which uses the Twitter API). And on the Twitter page, they seem to have disappeared even from the history. I imagine that the Twitter people have to maintain a number of manually created rules to keep search feeds free of accidental spill-over.

This still does not even begin to address the problem of genuinely ambiguous search terms. Wikipedia lists over 20 senses for “FAI” for example, from Fairbanks International Airport to the French term for “ISP” via the Football Association of Ireland, but a Twitter search for the term is overrun by the extremely common Italian verb phrase “fai”. One thing we can expect is for Twitter and similar services to come up with prioritisation and disambiguation options, which, I’d expect, will introduce problems of their own.

Google’s h mystery

A few days ago, my friend Melinda Shore, who knows I’m interested in internationalization, sent me a screenshot from the search bar of her Safari browser. It is a drop-down list of search suggestions provided by Google just after typing the letter h:

Safari search bar Google suggestions
Safari search bar Google suggestions

The top suggestion is a mess:

  1. What does it mean?
  2. Why is it a legitimate search suggestion for the letter h? (If it is.)

Regarding 1., the search suggestion in Firefox is nearly identical, but I cannot reproduce the effect in Google’s own browser Chrome or on the search page directly. In the Safari example, we’re dealing with an odd mix of regular character strings (6.626068, 10, sup, -34), numeric HTML (or XML) entities (×) and raw Unicode-escaped characters that you might find in Python, C or Java source code (\u003C, \u003E). Let’s decode the second and third type of components:

  • \u003C and \u003E simply represent the Unicode code points U+003C and U+003E: the less-than and the greater-than signs < and >.
  • &#215; is U+00D7 MULTIPLICATION SIGN: ×

Putting it together, we get the already much more user-friendly form

6.626068 × 10<sup>-34

or, completing and resolving the HTML: 6.626068 × 10-34.

Once I realized this, my physics training kicked in and the answer to 2. became clearer – Planck’s constant, abbreviated as h,  has the value of 6.62606889 × 10-34 J s (or m2 kg / s). This is not the result of injecting broken text into the search engine results, but a feature of Google’s calculator. Typing “G” into the browser’s search bar also yields similar semi-numeric character salad, while the results for “c“, “e” or “pi” are much more legible.

Still, the entire story raises questions about intent and execution. This is not really an internationalization issue because the form of those physical and mathematical constants is largely invariant by convention. Yet, the tools of internationalization — HTML entities, Unicode code point escapes — have leaked into scientific character display, too. Internationalization is a user interface (usability, user experience) issue [1].

On the execution side, Google got it wrong on several counts, and Apple and Mozilla share some of the blame. Browser search bar drop-down lists don’t allow for superscripts and aren’t sophisticated enough to strip markup, so they display ugly raw HTML. Choosing a numeric entity instead of the character × probably led to its display breaking. And < and > are even in ASCII, so they should display fine, but probably security concerns and their status as reserved HTML characters led to the odd choice of escaping method. All in all, at least one decoding step was not carried out.

More fundamentally, should Google suggest “6.626068 × 10-34 m2 kg / s” when you type a lowercase h? There was a time in my life when I used Planck’s constant daily, and I do use Google’s handy calculator via my browser’s search bar for quick arithmetic and unit conversions. But I think just spitting out the value with no label is going a little too far, and will for more than 99% of users be entirely unexpected: too different from the genuinely useful (for Americans) “hotmail”, “hulu” and “home depot”. Especially considering that for most letters of the alphabet, you could possibly find a scientific constant, function or theorem that starts with it.

Though maybe it is a ploy to spread more science among the people.

[1] It is also a design issue. The two aren’t mutually exclusive.

Google search result for "h"
Google search result for "h" - very different from the broken suggestion

EDIT (2010-08-02): Commenters inside Facebook’s walled garden have remarked that if you actually take up the suggestion and search for it, you get to Planck’s constant. Currently this is partially right, but these things are constantly shifting: In my tests this morning, whether you use the Safari/Firefox  search field or Google’s search page directly, you get a mix of results, the first of which are people wondering about the odd string on SEO forums. A little further down you do get collections of scientific constants, but you have to attentively read the result. Right now, this post is (after less than 12h) number 7 on the results page. None of the pages looks like what you get if you do a Google search for “h” (and hit return) — which is nice and helpful.

Another commenter remarks that for her, the suggestion is now prefaced with “Planck’s constant”, which is a vast improvement.

S****ing with all these hookers

Over on Facebook, a friend posted a link to the article “Lotto lout Michael Carroll going back to being a binman after blowing £9.7m win”, in which the Daily Mail, a paper known for its even-handed quality reporting, is nearly falling over itself in breathless excitement over the story of a man who spent a £9.7 Mio lottery win in only 8 years. My friend commented: “One thing I’ll say is thank God the Daily Mail starred out the word “sleeping”. Unless it was something else…”. Here is the passage in question (including the surrounding paragraphs for context):

Daily Mail article asterisking out slumming (probably)
Daily Mail article asterisking out "slumming" (probably)

I rather do think it’s “something else”, given that “sleeping” (in the sense of “having sex”) appears without asterisks in just the previous paragraph.

Whenever I happen to open a copy of what is called the Red Tops here in the UK, the numerous words that are being camouflaged by asterisks surprise me anew. Once, it took me a minute or more staring at “b******s” to finally figure out the word was “bastards”.

As always when you make people work harder for understanding, it increases the salience of the object they have to put in all this effort for and thereby draws greater attention to it — as evidenced by my friend’s comment when posting the article. So this, rather then prudishness, may be the real reason the tabloid press is so fond of the asterisks of avoidance.

Votes on Facebook

The polling stations for the UK General Election 2010 have closed, the exit poll predicts a hung (some call it “balanced”) parliament, a loss of seats of the Liberal Democrats, and a Conservative party only a few seats away from a majority. The first MP has been announced — Sunderland South, a safe Labour seat, but with a swing to the the Conservative party that, if extrapolated to all of England, would probably translate into an outright Conservative majority. As-is, I’m listening to the usual speculations in the absence of hard data, about alliances of the Lib Dems with Labour, or maybe the Tories with the Northern Irish Democratic Unionists. It’ll be a long night.

Meanwhile, a different titbit. All day, my Facebook page has had this box right above my “Wall”:

The number on the right has been going up in real-time all day. It is the number of Facebook members that have hit the “I voted” button. This is, apparently, a Facebook feature that is switched on for users from a country during elections in that country, as I learnt after clicking on “What’s this?”.

The first interesting point about this is the figure. It’ll probably go up a little further during the evening, and I’ll be curious to see where it ends up. The number of registered voters is given in the press as 44 Mio. If the turnout ends up at about 75%, that means that 33 Mio. people will actually vote. Out of those, nearly 2 Mio. will not just be on Facebook, but engaged enough with this site (or product) to click on “I voted” on election day. That’s about 6%. Not at all negligible.

The second point that comes to mind is the surprise that I’m only discovering the feature today, even though it was visible to, and presumably being used by, friends of mine when there were elections in their countries. I may even have voted in at least one of those (the last German Bundestag election). It would be interesting if Facebook managed to publicise at least the results elections internationally through such a tool.

As for me, I clicked “I voted”, even though in reality I only voted in the local election that’s taking place today in my borough as well: Being an EU citizen, I am not allowed to vote for UK parliament. Strangely, if I were a UK resident from a Commonwealth country, it would be much harder to live and work here, but I would be allowed to vote.

So modern snakes eat dinosaur eggs?

From the article “Prehistoric snake gobbled-up dinosaur babies” by Jeremy Hance, which was published on mongabay.com on March 2, 2010:

A fossilized snake has been discovered inside a titanosaur nest in India, leading researchers to conclude that the snake fed on newly-hatched dinosaur babies, rather than their eggs like modern snakes.

The thought process is quite clear, though probably even in its long form simplistic:

  1. This prehistoric snake ate freshly hatched baby dinosaurs.
  2. Modern snakes evolved from prehistoric snakes.
  3. Birds evolved from dinosaurs (though there’s some fuzziness around the edges of this statement).
  4. Birds (and most reptiles) lay eggs.
  5. Modern snakes eat eggs.

But here, it got telescoped into an over-shortened version in which the pronoun “their [eggs]” carries the entire weight of referring, simultaneously  to  dinosaurs in the prehistoric case and (unnamed) birds in the modern case.