A Norwegian smörgåsbord

norwegian_sign_cropped

Okay, “smörgåsbord” is a Swedish borrowing, but close enough. It’s appropriate for this post, which will be a buffet of miscellaneous facts about the Norwegian language.

I became interested in and started learning Norwegian because my brother has been living in Oslo for the past several years, where he is getting his Ph.D. in lichenology.[1] My family and I traveled to visit him last summer. To characterize the country in a few words, I’d say Norway is – more iconically – Vikings, fjords, trolls, nature, Norse mythology, and – more personally – lichens, stellar black coffee, gross sweet brown cheese, overly-restricted booze-purchasing hours, part of my paternal ancestry, and vampires.[2]

Heddal stavkirke (stave church), built in the early 13th century

So what’s cool about Norwegian?

Dialects

First (as I mentioned in one of the recent dialect posts), Norwegian forms a dialect continuum with Swedish and Danish, languages with which it is, to a greater or lesser extent, mutually intelligible. These are Scandinavian or North Germanic languages, along with Icelandic and Faroese. My brother, who now has a decent command of Norwegian, says he can understand Swedish relatively well too, although Danish is harder. Have a listen to differences between Danish and Norwegian in this video.

However, there are also a staggering number of Norwegian dialects spread across Norway. People claim it’s often harder to understand someone from a different part of the country (for example, Oslo inhabitants vs. speakers of trøndersk, a group of sub-dialects in north-central Trøndelag county) than it is to understand a Swede speaking Swedish. Wikipedia corroborates: “Variations in grammar, syntax, vocabulary, and pronunciation cut across geographical boundaries and can create a distinct dialect at the level of farm clusters. Dialects are in some cases so dissimilar as to be unintelligible to unfamiliar listeners.”

There are two official standard forms for the written language, even if there is no standard for spoken Norwegian (since local dialects rule in most situations). Bokmål (literally “book tongue”) is used in the majority of publications, and Nynorsk (“new Norwegian”) in under 10% of written communication.

Lexicon and Morphology

Onto smaller language-y bits: words and morphemes. Norwegian is super fun because it is prone to extensive compounding (like German), and these compounds often break down into etymologically amusing or charming pieces. By this I mean that the component words reveal interesting (but usually sensible) semantic relationships with the larger compound. Let me give you some examples:

Norwegian compound English word Individual morphemes
fruktkjøtt “pulp” frukt (“fruit”) + kjøtt (“meat”)  ⇒  “fruit meat”
matbit “snack” mat (“food”) + bit (“bite”)  ⇒  “food bite”
sommerfugl “butterfly” sommer (“summer”) + fugl (“bird”) ⇒  “summer bird”
morkake “placenta” mor (“mother”) + kake (“cake”)  ⇒  “mother cake”
verdensrommet “(outer) space” verden (“world”) + s (possessive) + romm (“room”) + et (“the”)  ⇒  “the room of the world”
skyehus “hospital” skye (“sick”) + hus (“house”)  ⇒  “sick house”
grønnsak “vegetable” grøn (“green”) + sak (“thing”)  ⇒  “green thing”
støvsuger “vacuum cleaner” støv (“dust”) + suger (“suck[er]”)  ⇒  “dust suck[er]”
flaggermus “bat” flagger (“flying”) + mus (“mouse”)  ⇒  “flying mouse”
piggsvin “hedgehog” pig (“spike”) + svin (“pig”)  ⇒  “spike pig”

Morphosyntax 

rommegraut_cropped


Rest stop on the road back to Oslo. Rømmegraut is the Nynorsk word for a traditional porridge – kind of like cream of wheat, but sweeter and topped with butter.

One facet of Norwegian morphosyntax that was novel to me is the structure of its determiners. In English, both definite (“the”) and indefinite (“a / an”) articles are independent words that always precede their noun or noun phrase. So we have:

“the house”          “the big blue house”
“a house”             “a big blue house”

The same is true for the Romance languages I know about (French, Spanish, Italian), the other Germanic language I’m familiar with (German)… and it is simply not relevant for the Asian languages I’ve dabbled in (Japanese, Cantonese) because they lack articles entirely.

In Norwegian (as well as in Swedish and Danish), indefinite articles are, familiarly, the independent words which precede the noun, while definite articles are actually suffixes, which attach to the end of the noun they modify. What’s more – if you place something in front of the noun, like an adjective or a number, there’s another set of determiners to use, called demonstratives (in English: this, that, these, those). These precede the noun phrase (adjective/number + noun), where the noun already contains its definite suffix. Again, a table might help illustrate:

Norwegian (Bokmål) determiners

Indefinite articles

Definite articles

Masc. singular

Fem. singular

Neuter singular

Masc. singular

Fem. singular

Neuter singular

en

ei

et

-en

-a

-et

en sykkel
“a bicycle”

ei jente
“a girl”

et hus
“a house”

bilen
“the car”

døra
“the door”

huset
“the house”

Demonstratives + noun phrase

den

den

det

den røde bilen
“the red car”

den røde døra
“the red door”

det røde huset
“the red house”

Because Norwegian and English are closely related in their linguistic genealogy, a native English speaker may have less trouble learning Norwegian than, say, Taa (also known as !Xóõ, a southern African language with possibly the largest phoneme inventory in the world, including dozens of clicks) – but as the determiner situation here demonstrates, it’s still no piece of bløtkake.

IMG_20180708_100933

View (!) from our rental house deck on Hardangerfjord

Phonology and Prosody

Norwegian is what’s called a pitch-accent language. There are roughly three categories of languages when it comes to stress and pitch. Here’s a super abridged breakdown [3]:

  1. Stress-accented languages

Stress (emphasis) is placed on a syllable in a word, or on a word in a phrase/sentence. This can create a difference in word meaning, but it doesn’t have to. Stress is a combination of loudness, length, and higher pitch.

  • Example languages: English, Czech, Finnish, Classical Arabic, Quechua, Italian
  • Example words/phrases [English]:
    • On a word in a sentence (no difference in meaning) – “I REALLY like your jacket”
    • On a syllable in a word (meaning difference) –

NOUNS vs. VERBS
REcord vs. reCORD
INcrease vs. inCREASE
PERmit vs. perMIT

  1. Pitch-accented languages

A syllable on a word/morpheme is accentuated by a particular pitch contour (instead of by stress). So only pitch is involved, not loudness or length. Distinct tonal patterns occur in words that otherwise look and sound the same, giving them different meanings.

  • Example languages: Norwegian, Swedish, Japanese, Turkish, Filipino, Yaqui (a Native American language)
  • Example words/phrases [Norwegian]:
    • Norwegian has two kinds of tonal accents or pitch patterns:

ACCENT 1 (ACUTE) and ACCENT 2 (GRAVE)

(Audio extracted from video by “Norwegian Teacher – Karin”)

hender – “hands” vs. hender – “happens”
ånden – “the spirit” vs. ånden – “the breath”
bønder – “farmer” vs. bønner – “beans”
været – “the weather” vs. være – “to be”

  1. Tonal languages

Each syllable of the language has an independent tone or pitch contour. Tones are used to distinguish between words (they create a difference in meaning between words that otherwise look and sound the same).

  • Example languages: Mandarin, Cantonese, Thai, Zulu, Navajo, Yucatec (a Mayan language)
  • Examples words/phrases [Mandarin]:
    • Tones combine with the syllable ma, resulting in different words:
  1. “mother” [high level tone]
  2. “hemp” [mid pitch rising to high pitch]
  3. “horse” [low with slight fall]
  4. “scold” [short, sharply falling tone]
  5. ma (an interrogative particle) [neutral, used on weak syllables]

 

The pitch-accent feature of Norwegian contributes to the language’s sing-song quality. Just listen to the melodiousness of Norway’s King Harald V as he gives a speech:

(Audio extracted from full NRK video)

Orthography

Norwegian writing uses the same Latin alphabet as English, except that it has three additional letters at the end – æ, ø, and å. I highly recommend insist that you watch this ridiculous video to hear how the vowels are pronounced, as well as be entertained in musically nerdy fashion. (Final note: Contrary to the video’s main argument, several letters – c, q, w, x, and z – are not actually used to spell Norwegian-native words, although they’re sometimes used in loan words. One could therefore quibble that they shouldn’t count towards the alphabet size…)

vowels_cropped

 

 

[1] If you want to ogle some gorgeous macrophotography of lichens, scope out his Instagram, https://www.instagram.com/lichens_of_norway/.

[2] The ancient stave churches for some reason reminded me of True Blood (plus three of the show’s main characters, Eric, Pam, and Godric, were Swedish and Norwegian); also I was coincidentally reading The Vampire Lestat while we were there… but NO I’m not generally obsessed with vampires.

[3] This subject gets really complex. There are a lot more subtleties and distinctions than I make above.

Career interviews: Linguistics Project Manager at a branding firm

working wugs_cropped

Wugs go to work

Something I’ve been planning to post occasionally are interviews with career linguists and related language folk – especially those working outside of academia. Yes, they (we) exist! Until recently these were rare birds, but lately the numbers are growing. I credit several factors: the growth of the discipline generally; the growth of technology industries trying to wrangle natural language; globalization; and (sadly), the increasing impracticality of landing a faculty position that pays a living wage, at least in the U.S.

Another (more popular!) language and linguistics blog has been running a job interview series over the last several years as well. I encourage you to also take a look over there: Superlinguo Linguist Job Interviews.

* * * * *

I met Noah on our team of linguists at Samsung Research America. For this interview, I asked him to talk about the job he had previous to Samsung – which was at Lexicon, a branding agency based in Northern California. Lexicon has come up with brand names for some of today’s most popular products, including Blackberry, Febreze, (Subaru) Outback, Dasani, Swiffer, Pentium, and ThermaCare.

noah

  1. What kind of work did you do at Lexicon?

I was a linguistics project manager, which basically meant that I coordinated with Lexicon’s network of linguists worldwide (85 countries with something like 50 or 60 languages represented). I basically sent them lists of names for real-time evaluation and also helped coordinate with another linguist in Quebec to prepare reports for deeper dives into particular names in order to ascertain particular issues a name might face in a target language or culture. Basically, you learn a lot of multilingual profanity doing this, and realize you shouldn’t name a company Zinda.

  1. Describe a typical day at that job.

It was a small company, so I wore whatever hats necessary. I prepared real-time and comprehensive reports, editing and working with the linguists to determine whether or not a given name that either a client had brought to us or one that we had brought would work well in a particular language, and also trying to read between the lines to figure out whether we should take a linguist’s comments at face value or do a little more digging and cross-checking, including interviews with native speakers. This was mostly done by our network, not in-house. But aside from the linguisty side, I also created names. Lots of names for lots of projects. Most of which didn’t actually make it through, but still it was a creative pursuit that stretched creativity. I also helped write a program to categorize and classify and try to ascertain good brand names using NLP [Natural Language Processing] techniques. Things like consonance, assonance, alliteration, etc. It was pretty helpful for going through our backlog of names and finding viable names to use going forward.

  1. How did your linguistics background inform that work?

Well, my fascination with language itself inherently got me the job and kept me entertained, though it would have easily, I think, been doable with some other kind of background. But creating a good name, actually looking into the science of sound symbolism, helping with a few linguistic studies. Pretty cool stuff.

  1. What did you enjoy most and/or least about the job?

I most enjoyed getting to see what kinds of things big clients were trying to market and create next. Some pretty cool things there, with an insider’s perspective as to what the market was going to look like in the future. Issues were managerial in nature, in combination with the claustrophobia that a small company can engender, but overall it was a very good way to get some experience in the field.

  1. What did you study in college and/or grad school?

Major: Linguistics. Minor: English. Minor: Business Administration (useless). Interest: everything else.

  1. What is your favorite linguistic phenomenon?

Splicing. Or whatever that thing was that we came up with as an inside joke that you should write a fake blogpost on.[1]

  1. (If you had the time) what language would you learn, and why?

ASL [American Sign Language]. As a monolingual, sign language has always fascinated me the most, oddly enough. Alas, those CSD [Communication Sciences and Disorders] students and their required classes.

  1. Do you have any advice for young people looking to pursue a career in linguistics?

Be overzealous, and marry linguistics to another discipline. In industry, you’ve got for the most part three choices: linguistics + [design, management, or computational]. Or astrobiology and linguistics if you happen to work with NASA. Might be cool. But yeah, linguistics is interdisciplinary by nature, so I assume everyone who studies it must enjoy the interplay of different subjects like I do. Oh, maybe start a computational linguistics club in undergrad when you don’t know anything about computational linguistics. It’ll make you learn, if nothing else.

 

 

[1] Noah sent me his responses long enough ago now that I cannot for the life of me remember what this was. Not that I would explain it even if I could remember, to preserve the opportunity of writing said fake blogpost. 😛

An upstream battle: Revitalizing Umónhon

TheOmahaSpeaking

I could spill a lot of ink (well, use a lot of pixels) writing about endangered languages, and the reasons why language revitalization, or at least preservation, is crucial. But I’ll spare you today, dear readers. I will say in summary that linguistic diversity is both culturally/anthropologically important, and significant to the study of human cognition. It’s culturally important because speakers of a particular language have stored within it their traditions, history, social norms, and scientific knowledge (e.g. medicine, botany); when their tongue dies, many key aspects of their cultural identity and world knowledge disappear. It’s important for studying the human cognitive capacity, because the more languages we can examine, the better informed are our conclusions on cross-linguistic universals and differences – conclusions which, in turn, help us understand how the mind works.

Today, instead of a lengthy psycho-socio-historical dissertation, I want to give a short  example of one currently endangered language and the revitalization efforts around it. This language is Umónhon, of the Omaha Tribe in Macy, Nebraska.

Here is a 2015 article in the Omaha World-Herald: Omaha Tribe members trying to revitalize an ‘endangered language’.

Highlights from the article:

  • The Omaha Tribe has more than 7,000 members.
  • Only twelve fluent speakers of Umónhon are left (and none of them are under age 70).
  • Umónhon means “upstream people” or “against the current” (this particular tribe traveled north up the Missouri River). Umónhon morphed into Omaha, the name given to them by white settlers.
  • People of the tribe spoke Umónhon widely until the mid-20th century, when boarding schools began forcing students to speak only English.
  • Recent educational efforts have been difficult. The language barely has a written form; there are no textbooks; funding to develop materials and programs is scarce; and interest and retention among young students is low.
  • While the tribe waits for further funding or help from other tribes, some parents are taking the initiative to teach their children Umónhon.

Since 2015, efforts have ramped up. Last year, the community held a language bootcamp.

And now there’s a new documentary out about the tribe’s language and culture. No info on the film’s release yet, but you can watch the trailer: “The Omaha Speaking”.

The Omaha may never go back to speaking Umónhon as extensively as they once did. Still, these achievements make my language gland tingle with hope.

 

Foreign accent syndrome and speech understanding

Maybe you’ve heard about people who, due to a stroke or accident, can no longer speak or understand speech normally. Aphasia is a condition where damage (usually from stroke or head trauma) to particular regions of the brain causes a person to lose specific language production and comprehension abilities. Aphasia studies are remarkable, and have taught us much about how language works inside the brain. Recently, however, I learned of a strange condition kind of similar to, but not as debilitating as aphasia: Foreign accent syndrome.

Here’s the article: The curious case of people who can’t stop speaking in foreign accents.

You should read the full piece, but a few highlights follow.

“Foreign accent syndrome (FAS for short) is a real thing, though it’s very rare — fewer than 200 cases diagnosed since it was first described in 1907. It may sound like it’s just a delusion or fantasy, but fewer than 10 percent of cases have a psychological basis (for example, related to schizophrenia). Nearly all of the rest are of neurological origin: They are caused by damage or impairment to a specific area of the brain.”

“The short explanation is that FAS (possibly excepting the few psychological cases) is a disorder of speech planning and execution.”

“Naturally, when we hear speech tweaked on one or several of those parameters, we associate it with an accent that has a similar feature set. And if we hear an accent that sounds somehow different but we’re not sure, we make our best guess at what it is. The less familiar we are with an accent, the less we’re likely to notice things that aren’t quite right about it: Many Americans can’t tell Australian accents from English ones even though people from England and Australia have no trouble telling the two apart. Researchers studying cases of FAS have sometimes tested samples of the speech with listeners who didn’t know its origin to see if they could identify where it was from, and, unsurprisingly, opinions varied considerably. But when they tested “controls” — samples of native speakers with unimpaired speech from several countries — listeners couldn’t always identify their accents accurately either.”

Videos of people with FAS:

Texan woman with “British English” accent
English woman with “Chinese” accent

What does the author mean by feature set in the quote above? Each language has its own unique set of phonemes or word-distinguishing units of sound (called its phonemic inventory). This set is pulled from a larger set of all possible speech sounds. We recognize different languages and accents by these feature sets. And yet, the FAS article had me thinking about our general ineptitude when it comes to identifying accents. Because the speech of the person with FAS in the first video is close enough to a British English accent from an American English point of view, we lump it in that category…while to a native British English speaker, they’re noticeably dissimilar. Even in our native accent, speech can be hard to disambiguate. The recent viral “Laurel/Yanny” debate is a good example.

“Laurel”/“Yanny” makes you wonder how we understand each other at all. I’d say that pragmatics, i.e. context, plays a vital role. When communication is stripped of context, it’s significantly more difficult to interpret. My current work has made this very clear to me. We’re listening to and transcribing 2-to-4-second audio clips of users’ commands (and other speech) to their smartphone voice assistants. Knowing the contexts of “voice assistant-directed speech” and “things one might want to do on their phone” helps some. But outside of that, because the sound clips are so short and we’re not actually there, interacting with the speaker, a part of the conversation – it’s often a challenge to resolve (i.e. accurately transcribe) certain categories of words. Proper nouns are especially tricky. Contacts’ names, product or app names, names of unfamiliar towns and musicians, et cetera.  If we were face-to-face with the speaker, we’d have the entire conversational, situational, and interpersonal background at our disposal, which helps resolve such unknowns.

Successful communication must rely on many factors. And language doesn’t exist in a vacuum.