《经济学人》:你说什么语言?
日期:2011-09-14 10:31

(单词翻译:单击)

Linguistics
语言学

Say what?
你说什么?

To find new subjects of study, some linguists simply open their front doors
要寻找新的研究主题,一些语言学家只须打开前门

Sep 10th 2011 | NEW YORK | from the print edition

WHERE in the world is the largest number of different languages spoken? Most linguists would probably plump for New Guinea, an island that has 830 recognised tongues scattered around its isolated, jungle-covered valleys. But a place on the other side of the world runs it close. The five boroughs of New York City are reckoned to be home to speakers of around 800 languages, many of them close to extinction.

世界上哪一个地区使用的语言种类最多?大部分语言学家可能都会坚决地认为是新几内亚,在这个岛上,有830种已被认可的语言散布在丛林广布的偏远山谷中。但在地球的另一端,有一个地方的语言数目几乎能赶上新几内亚。纽约市的五个区被认为是约八百种语言使用者的聚居地,其中很多语种濒临灭绝。

New York is also home, of course, to a lot of academic linguists, and three of them have got together to create an organisation called the Endangered Language Alliance (ELA), which is ferreting out speakers of unusual tongues from the city’s huddled immigrant masses. The ELA, which was set up last year by Daniel Kaufman, Juliette Blevins and Bob Holman, has worked in detail on 12 languages since its inception. It has codified their grammars, their pronunciations and their word-formation patterns, as well as their songs and legends. Among the specimens in its collection are Garifuna, which is spoken by descendants of African slaves who made their homes on St Vincent after a shipwreck unexpectedly liberated them; Mamuju, from Sulawesi in Indonesia; Mahongwe, a language from Gabon; Shughni, from the Pamirian region of Tajikistan; and an unusual variant of a Mexican language called Totonac.

当然,纽约也有许多学术界的语言学家,其中有三人就已一起成立了名为濒危语言联盟的组织(简称ELA),该组织正从城市聚居在一起的移民百姓中搜寻出使用罕见语种的人。去年,丹尼尔•考夫曼、朱丽叶•布莱文思和鲍伯•霍尔曼成立了这个联盟。联盟自创始以来,已对12种语言进行了详细研究,并已将这些语言的语法、发音、构词法还有歌曲、传说等编纂成典。其作品集的语言样本包括:加利弗那语,即非洲奴隶的后代所使用的语言(从前一次海难意外地解放了他们,之后他们就在圣文森特安家);马穆朱语,源自印度尼西亚的苏拉威西岛;马宏威语,一种来自加蓬的语言;舒格尼语,源自塔吉克斯坦的帕米尔地区;还有一种墨西哥语的特别变体,名为托托纳克语。

Each volunteer speaker of a language of interest is first tested with what is known as a Swadesh list. This is a set of 207 high-frequency, slow-to-change words such as parts of the body, colours and basic verbs like eat, drink, sleep and kill. The Swadesh list is intended to ascertain an individual’s fluency before he is taken on. Once he has been accepted, Dr Kaufman and his colleagues start chipping away at the language’s phonology (the sounds of which it is composed) and its syntax (how its meaning is changed by the order of words and phrases). This sort of analysis is the bread and butter of linguistics.

首先,要用称为斯瓦迪士核心词表的列表为一种目标研究语言的每位志愿者进行测试。这是一组207个高频、变化缓慢的词汇,如身体部位、颜色和诸如吃、喝、睡或杀等基本动词。斯瓦迪士核心词表旨在于录用志愿者前先确定他的语言流利程度。一旦他被录用,考夫曼博士及其同事就开始不断研究那种语言的音位学(即组成这个体系的各种发音)和句法(其词汇和短语的次序如何改变意思)。这种分析是语言学中非常重要而且基础的一部分。

Every so often, though, the researchers come across a bit of jam. The Mahongwe word manono, for example, means “I like” when spoken soft and flat, and “I don’t like” when the first syllable is a tad sharper in tone. Similarly, mbaza could be either “chest” or “council house”. In both cases, the two words are nearly indistinguishable to an English speaker, but yield starkly different patterns when run through a spectrograph. Manono is a particular linguistic oddity, since it uses only tone to differentiate an affirmative from a negative—a phenomenon the ELA has since discovered applies to all verbs in Mahongwe.

不过,研究者们偶尔也会碰上一点困难。例如,马宏威语词汇manono,当用温和平缓的语调发音时,意思为“我喜欢”,而当第一个音节发音稍微尖锐时,意思却是“我不喜欢”。与此类似,mbaza可以是“胸膛”,也可以是“廉租房”。在以上两个例子里,对于一个说英语的人,这两个词都几乎无法分辨,但通过声谱仪处理后却能形成明显不同的图案。从语言学角度上看,Manono这个词是个独特的怪胎,因为它只用声调来区分肯定和否定——濒危语言联盟已经发现这个现象适用于马宏威语中所有的动词。

Such niceties are interesting to experts. But the ELA is attempting to understand more than just the nuts and bolts of languages. It is collecting stories and other verbal material specific to the cultures of the participants. One volunteer, for example, wants to write a storybook for children in her language (Shughni), and also a recipe book. That means creating a written form of the language, which the researchers do using what is known as the International Phonetic Alphabet.

专家们会觉得这些细节相当有趣。但是濒危语言联盟尝试理解的不仅仅是语言的基本要素。它还在收集参与者所属文化特有的故事和其他口语素材。例如,一位志愿者想用其语言(舒格尼语)写一本儿童故事书和一本菜谱。这意味着要创造那种语言的书面语体,而研究者们正在使用被称为国际音标的符号体系来完成这件事。

Many of Dr Kaufman’s better finds, he says, have come from “hanging out at street corners with a clipboard on Roosevelt Avenue”—a street (pictured above) in the borough of Queens that he describes as the “epicentre of the epicentre” of linguistic New York. How long it will remain so is moot. The world’s languages, which number about 6,900, are reckoned to be dying out at the rate of one a fortnight. The reason is precisely the sort of cultural mixing that New York epitomises. The value of learning any particular language is increased by the number of people who already speak it. Conversely, the value of a minority language is diminished as people abandon it. To those languages that hath, in other words, shall be given. From those that hath not, shall the last speakers soon be taken away.

考夫曼博士说,许多更为精妙的发现都是他带着一块剪贴版在罗斯福大道上街角处闲逛所得来的——这条街(见上图)位于皇后区,他说那里是纽约语言学上“中心的中心”。这种现象会持续多久?不得而知。全世界的语言多达6900多种,估计每两周就有一种语言会消失。原因恰是纽约这种典型的文化交融。任何一种语言,使用的人数能越多,学习这种语言的价值就越高。相反,少数人使用的语言会遭到人们抛弃,其价值便会随之降低。换言之,价值更高的那些语言将会有更多的人学习之。而价值较低的语言,其最后一批使用者也将会很快消失。

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重点单词
  • phoneticadj. 语音的,语音学的
  • diminishedadj. 减退了的;减弱的 v. 减少;削弱(dimin
  • analysisn. 分析,解析
  • isolatedadj. 分离的,孤立的
  • recipen. 食谱,秘诀,药方
  • intendedadj. 故意的,有意的;打算中的 n. 已订婚者 v.
  • linguisticadj. 语言的,语言学的
  • tonen. 音调,语气,品质,调子,色调 vt. 使更健壮,装
  • extinctionn. 消失,消减,废止
  • ascertainvt. 确定,探知,查明