Languages are not inmutable

October, 20 2009 Leave a comment

People see languages as rigid, not mutable. This is a very Victorian concept that is as absolutely wrong as generally accepted.

The most evident fact that denies this precept is that most languages feature some degree of internal variability. Sometimes this is easy to appreciate. People from one city not necessaryly spokes the same way people from other nearby city does. This theme came out in a conversation I had some days ago. In that conversation, being there people from different cities, we suddenly started to debate how some words weren’t used for the same thing on our localities. In fact, I can tell about a funny story related to this. Some years ago, one friend of mine had some holidays in other city here, in Galicia, about 150 km south from where we resides (Same language here and there). So, this friend of mine went to a restaurant and he decided to have “xoubas” for lunch, he thought we was asking for squids. He wasn’t served a squids but some fish that we commonly refer to as “parrocha”. He was shocked so he asked and, for his surprise, he discovered he was served properly. In same that conversation it was told about two very closed small villages with two relevant phonological differences. It was argued that those differences might have developed because of one village having always depended upon fishing while the other had done so upon agriculture. It’s even common for big difference to exist inside the same city; take as an example cockney. But variability is not only limited to geographic variation. People may spoke in a different way depending on social background.

Then, it’s usually forgotten that languages have evolved through time. Indeed this is the main reason why though not speaking the same language we might understand other languages’ words or phrases. Italians understand quite easily Spanish and even Germans could understand some English. This is because those languages have a common origin. Latin evolved very fast once the Roman Empire fall and produced all romance languages, as it’s the case of Spanish and Italian. And if languages have evolved in the past it’s going to be the same in the future. Languages change because people made them change. Today’s English will have nothing to do with tomorrows English. I even dare to state that the moment one language stops changing it’s about to get extinct.

Finally, people communicate differently as they grow. Just as a baby has yet to acquire speech abilities, adults might improve vocabulary, use it grammar differently or even innovate. Young generations don’t use the language as older generations and in fact this is what makes languages change over time, evolve.

If you’ve been reading carefully you might notice that not necessarily languages are a defined entity. Sometimes is very difficult to stablish a limit between two languages. Languages are no more than a property of a speech community, a network odf speakers, which not necessarily is a closed community. I’ll write more about this in the future. For the moment, lets simply state that the Victorian way of conceiving language must die, and a Darwinian vision applied.

Categories: i18n, Random Toughts

5 y.o KDE user tips & tricks

August, 2 2009 14 comments

Kids never stop surprising me, really. And the other day I was simply amazed of how clever they are and how fast they learn.

I’ll introduce the story a bit. About 4 to 5 years ago I really got bored of dealing with Windows so I looked for alternatives. I found Linux and I happily migrated. As I’m the only computer geek at home, out of 8 people!, I progressively moved every computer at home to Linux with KDE. The rest of my family just moved with me and eventually loved the change. This is not to say that they haven’t had issues from time to time but they can always get help from me. With Windows it was just the same, so no change here. They felt the change was for good, they found KDE easier, prettier and less intrusive. Seriously. In fact right now the only Windows installation at home it’s my sister’s dual boot that has a Vista… and it’s there because I told my sister not to deleted it, just in case she might needed it. She really hates Vista (something I don’t). She wanted to have it deleted but I insisted (I completely deleted Vista 15 days after having bought the laptop, by the way).

So, the story is that my nephew, who’s 5 y.o right now, has been using Linux and Windows since always and can explain you what’s the difference between them and how to select one or the other in GRUB’s menu…. The first day he had computer classes at school teachers simply got amazed of his computer abilities. The kid asked – Teacher, don’t you use Linux here? – as he saw XP on the screens. I don’t even think the poor teacher knew what Linux was. As you can imagine, he can’t read yet. He knows the numbers and letters and he’s just started learning how to pronounce groups of letters (Galician and Spanish have regular orthographies so one grapheme nearly always equates to one phoneme). To brief up, very basic reading skills. While still a baby we’d let him play with mouse, then with two y.o we opened a web browser and have him playing simple games at BBC kids web page and so on. Progressively I taught him to switch on and off the PC and to select the OS in the GRUB menu (he couldn’t read but knew that windows was third), I taught him how to select a user and write the password in KDM (yes, his mother has passworded login😉 ) and how to open firefox (the fox ball, he calls it) and use bookmarks (which I set up for him). I think you get ti, he knows that kind if things. Some times he even tells me – hey, look what trick I know! – and changes the virtual desktop or something alike.

But the other day I just perceive how much his “computing” skills had advanced and how pathetic some people, that has been using computers since they had been invented, seem in comparison. He switch on the laptop as always, typed in the password, and went on to launch a web browser. He basically uses the laptop for playing flash games. He launched kickoff (yes, kickoff); for some mysterious reason he ignored Firefox, which is bookmarked as a favorite, move to the ‘recently used’ tab, looked for Opera and launched it. Then, he moved to the direction bar, or whatever you call it, pressed the button that shows the recently typed web pages (that small triangle) and scrolled through the list until the found the one he likes. I’ve no clue how he recognized the domain, by the way. (Shape recognition?). The page loaded and then he clicked in a game which triggered the opening of a background tab, to where he immediately moved to happily start playing. It is not that he knows how to do all that things individually, it’s that he has discovered them through use and now uses all them routinely without doubting about what he has to do next. Oh, he said Opera was better than Firefox for games🙂 . Don’t ask me why.

Besides that my nephew might be brighter than the average, to my head came all that futile debated about kickoff, how bad it was, people counting clicks and so on. It suites the need of my nephew and It’s just right for most of people. My experience is that average users don’t care about learning applications names and don’t even know or care about what applications are installed. It isn’t different if the user has gone to the university or not. Most user simply don’t care about anything computer related. The question type I’ve been made the most is ‘what do I use for …?’ and ‘where do I find my….?’. Kickoff does well at helping people finding applications and folders. I might not be a perfect tool but does the job well. I have the impression that users most opposed to changes are long term users that simply don’t want things to change because if they change they have to learn a new series of habits. But new users easily adapt, especially 5 y.o KDE users🙂 .

Categories: KDE, Linux, Random Toughts

The imperium of languages

July, 27 2009 Leave a comment

The less we know about something, the more we see it as simple. Or, alternatively, we tend to simplify things in order to be able to conceptualise them. I say this because people don’t usually think of other countries or regions as diverse but something culturally monolithic. This is specially true when we talk about languages.

Most of people have never realised how diverse this world is in terms of cultures and languages. For instance, unless you live there, you may understand China as a place where ethnic Chinese people live speaking one single language, Chinese. Nothing closest to the reality: China is home to at least 55 ethnic groups that speak about 58 different languages, some of them mutually intelligible.

But, what is even worst is that people don’t usually know about how diverse their own states are. Take as an example Spain. Beside Spanish, there’s this many languages (not dialects!): Galician, A fala, Asturian, Leonese, Extremaduran, Basque, Aragones, Aranese, Calo and Catalan. But if you ask any spanish how many languages exist in the country you’ll receive this answer -“4: Spanish, Galician, Basque and Catalan “-, at the most!.

A visit to ethnologue is a healthy thing. There you can find some statistics regarding languages in the world:

Area Living languages Number of speakers
Count Percent Count Percent Mean Median
Africa 2,110 30.5 726,453,403 12.2 344,291 25,200
Americas 993 14.4 50,496,321 0.8 50,852 2,300
Asia 2,322 33.6 3,622,771,264 60.8 1,560,194 11,100
Europe 234 3.4 1,553,360,941 26.1 6,638,295 201,500
Pacific 1,250 18.1 6,429,788 0.1 5,144 980

Totals
6,909 100.0 5,959,511,717 100.0 862,572 7,560

With 6909 languages known, each country is home to an average of 35 languages. We all have a lot to learn … about our own neighbours.

Categories: i18n, Random Toughts
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