Sunday, February 14, 2016

Gravitational waves and lexical diffusion

Recently, the detection of gravitational waves made headlines all over the world. These waves were only hypothesised a century ago, and have literally never been consciously experienced by a human being before. Apart from a few physics fans, most people had (still have?) never heard of them. That means that, this month, millions of people all over the world are learning, for the first time, how to say "gravitational waves" in their own language, entirely as a result of media coverage. For the official languages of First World countries, determining how to say "gravitational waves" was simply a matter of looking it up in a dictionary, or consulting a physicist; the groundwork had been laid long since for terms such as the following (morphemes separated by dots). In most European languages, even the term for "gravity" and/or "gravitational" had been borrowed wholesale from Latin, and all that had needed doing was to translate "wave" and add appropriate inflectional morphology: Of course, Latin is not the only classical language; Japanese, for one, had opted to coin a term out of morphemes borrowed from Chinese:
  • Japanese: 重力波 (jū.ryoku.ha; weight-force-wave)
In the Third World, the naming problem is a little less straightforward. There are plenty of physicists speaking Arabic, for example, but it cannot even automatically be assumed that an Arabic-speaking physicist will be capable of talking about physics in Arabic; many not only work but even teach in a foreign language. Nevertheless, the mere fact of a language being extensively used in media and teaching guarantees that it already contains expressions for "gravity" and "gravitational", not to speak of "wave", and makes it probable that they had already been combined, as in the following expressions: For languages not lucky enough to enjoy official status, the issue poses more difficulties. The BBC's Hausa service heroically managed to coin or find a term for "gravitational waves" in Hausa - a language with no specific word for "wave" - but one wonders how physicists, to say nothing of ordinary speakers, feel about it... What about Berber? Well, in principle the relevant words have been coined, probably more than once. If we go with Mazed's (2003) Amawal amatu n tfizikt tatrart, "gravitational waves" should be timdeswalin tizayzayanin. You may not be unduly surprised to hear that this gets zero hits on Google. There are dictionaries of proposed terminology for Tamazight (pan-Berber), but there are no fully Berber-language newspapers, and nobody teaching physics in Berber. Very likely the Berber-language radio/TV stations have spoken about this news, but if so, my experience of Algeria's Radio 2 suggests that they probably just switched into French to express it - and if they did use the neologisms, chances are virtually none of their listeners understood them.

What about Siwi, or Korandje? Come on - who are we kidding? If a speaker of either wanted to speak about gravitational waves, they would simply use the Arabic term (or possibly the French or English one). Nothing in the structure of these languages prevents them from coining the terminology for this - but the fact that these languages have no media or educational system of their own, and are spoken by communities too small to include any professional physicists, makes it extremely unlikely that their speakers will do so, and even less likely that any such coinages will be successful.

The moral is obvious: for a language's speakers to effectively be able to talk about the full range of topics associated with the modern world without resorting to code-switching or nonce borrowing, they need mass schooling and mass media in that language.

Which brings me to another recent news item: it appears that Morocco's Minister of Education, Rachid Belmokhtar, plans to start teaching scientific and technical subjects in French, even in secondary school (1 2). The most obvious disadvantage of such a policy is that it makes it impossible for students doing badly in French to understand these subjects, thus reducing even further their already limited chances. But its implications for Standard Arabic in Morocco bear considering too: this decision condemns an important part of its vocabulary to local oblivion.


John Cowan said...

This reminds me of Robbins Burling's remark that Garo (a Sino-Tibetan language spoken by about a million people in parts of India and Bangladesh) had a larger vocabulary than English, because in addition to native words its lexicon contains, at least potentially, every English word, and indeed every Bengali word as well. When he was doing field work there in the 1960s, the question of artificial satellites came up, and he was asked why they did not fall down. He naturally used the word grebiti in his explanation, and although it was not a Garo word before, after he used it, it was.

PhoeniX said...

Interestingly the Japanese word despite being Chinese elements only, appears to have been calqued on German or Dutch (which is not uncommon in Japanese scientific terminology): zwaartekracht I.e. heaviness power

David Marjanović said...

Indeed I'm a bit surprised nobody says *Schwerkraftwellen. Gravitation on its own is rather rare in German usage.

David Marjanović said...

Google does find 4,530 hits. Gravitationswellen has 1,410,000, however.

Tom Dawkes said...

I recall hearing a BBC Radio 4 programme 3 or 4 years ago - it may have been in the Word of Mouth series, but I'm not sure of that - which discussed as a case study the situation of Swedish scientists and science teaching in Sweden. Most Swedish scientists will have a good command of at least written English and will use this in their research, with perhaps the bulk of their sources also in English, and in their publications. This is perceived as having several effects in relation to Swedish language maintenance and development. Using a foreign language imposes a certain barrier on the writer, who cannot necessarily achieve perfect fluency in the second language. (A particular example of variable competence in a non-scientific area is the large series of publications on language by Lincom Europa, in which texts by non-English authors commonly have unidiomatic and awkward modes of expression.) Researching almost exclusively in a foreign language inhibits development of a native medium and lexicon for the discipline, which in turn hinders the development of higher-level teaching and study materials, which in turn encourages further intrusion of English as the medium of study, teaching and research.

Moubarik said...

The Berber language has many words for "wave, undulation", and they're not coined neologisms, but authentic words, some with their own verbs.

In Mohamed Chafik's Arabic Berber Dictionary he cites these Berber words:

- "the wave" (الموجة) = taṭṭanga (plu.: tiṭṭangiwin), talɣemt (plu.: tileɣmin), tayyuɣt (plu.: tiyyaɣ).

- "undulation, waviness (in the light or the air)" (التموج، في الضوء أو الهواء) = anewnew (plu.: inewniwen).

- "undulation, vibration, wave (in the sound)" (التموج، في الصوت) = tasmammayt (plu.: tismammayin), anegneg (plu.: inegnigen).

- "earth waves (wave-like shapes of earth)" (التموجات، في الأرض وتضاريسها) = isebdiren, imuglen.

- "sea waves, rippling, wave formation in sea" (التموج، في البحر) = anduddu (plu.: indudduten).

- gravity (الجاذبية، الثقالة) = aẓẓog, tiẓẓayt

So Berber offers many choices for the translation of "gravitational waves".

One possible translation would be:

"gravitational waves" = tiṭṭangiwin taẓẓoganin.


"gravitaional undulations" = inegnigen aẓẓoganen

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

Phoenix/David: I hadn't noticed the German/Dutch connection for the Japanese word, but now you point it out, that does make sense.

Tom: True, and not too simple to solve...

Moubarik: Thanks for a very informative comment! I should have checked Chafik myself, but I didn't have the book handy at that moment. I'm guessing talɣemt is from Tuareg, because Hausa uses the same expression - a wave there is a "water-camel". But have you come across any actual Berber-language media talking about gravitational waves? If so, do you remember what they used in practice?

petre said...

Who wants to say "gravitional wave" in Berber anyway? Who do they think they're kidding? Let them say it in Arabic or French or English. As if!

petre said...

More practically, how are you on augmentatives in Arabic? Is there a cute way of saying "bisousâtres grossissimes"? Not altogether cute in the original, I acknowledge.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

I trust that's a joke, but if it isn't, you should be aware that Tizi-Ouzou consistently has the highest bac pass rates in Algeria, and that there already exist math books in Kabyle with translations of things like Pythagoras' Theorem. As for "bisousâtres grossissimes", it's already an astonishingly ugly expression in French (to my non-native ear), and I don't think it would gain anything in translation even if Arabic had a more productive augmentative formation than it does.

David Marjanović said...

Not altogether cute in the original, I acknowledge.

It does sound rather slobbery...