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Of Interest:

Feathery Names

We note an essay in the forthcoming New York Times Book Review discussing the tradition of authors using a ‘nom de plume,’ the reasons they may do so, and the interesting complications that may ensue.

These days, with anonymity quickly being relegated to the pre-web days, the essay points out that multiple online personas are hardly a rarity, but are most often used to bolster or attack someone’s reputation. Very different from the much older and once more commonly held view that pseudonyms exist primarily for 1) women writing as men; 2) writers with a secret to hide; or 3) otherwise well-regarded individuals “slumming it” in genre writing.

Turning to Japanese...

The New York Times reports today on recent academic investigations on the origins of Japanese and the Japanese people. The findings suggest a much later arrival of the language than commonly held, and thus that the indigenous Jomon hunter-gatherer culture, whose presence has been dated to 30,000 years ago, were not the immediate forebears of the Japanese of today. Instead, the study seems to indicate the Yayoi people brought the language that became Japanese with them when they brought their agricultural “wet rice” culture to the Japanese islands from the Korean peninsula about 2,200 years ago.

We have some reservations concerning the fact that the lead researcher is not an historical linguist, and that the methodology relies on something called
Bayesian phylogeny and computer-generated charts of language relation later sampled for statistical relevance. We can see a lot of potential problems here, but some professionals in the field - with far more knowledge of the actual work done than we have - are lauding the findings and suggesting it fits with previously known facts about the culture and settlement activity in the area.

The internal and sociopolitical repercussions amongst the famously insular Japanese will be something to watch.

Could it be? Naaah...

Some news in the unusually dusty and arcane field of historical linguistics today, as an article in Science Magazine posits evidence of a single origin point for all of human language, as well as a time frame. Without getting into the academic and political considerations, this is a controversial position to take. However, from what we’ve read about the article, we’re skeptical.

Aside from the obvious impossibility of proving anything about spoken communications that may have occurred tens of thousands of years before anything like a record of a language exists, we note that the crux of the argument relies on an [admittedly clever] count of phonemic inventories - allowable sounds in a given language - across a geographic swath ranging from Southwest Africa to the Pacific Island, it apparently only looks at a sample size of 500 languages. As linguists generally place the number of living languages across the globe at somewhere between five and seven thousand, we see red flags at the conclusions being drawn from the size of the sample...

We’d love to hear the arguments, and welcome more technical questions form the readership. We’ll be following this one pretty closely...