Bridging ten millenia

Slate ran an article a few days ago on an interesting linguistic problem: how do we communicate with distant future generations?

The problem is simple enough: every country in the world that has the resources and the expertise to harness the power of the atom (whether to produce energy or to build bombs) is churning out radioactive waste. The stuff is toxic and not terribly useful, and ultimately, it all has to be sequestered somewhere. For now, we can tuck it away in secure places like Yucca Mountain and forget about it. No one is going to wander into the site, through the barbed wire and heavy signage, a century from now and inadvertently expose themselves to radiation.

But what if the encounter takes place not 100 years from now, but 1000 or 10,000? Assuming that any written symbols would still be intelligible at all, what could you possibly write that would unambiguously indicate danger?

The Department of Energy hired 13 linguists, scientists, and anthropologists to devise a conceptual plan for a 10,000-year marker system. The report  that came out of this project (Expert Judgment on Markers To Deter Inadvertent Human Intrusion Into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant) presents a plan that the author calls “as elaborate as it is futile”.

From the article:

The report’s proposed solution is a layered message—one that conveys not only that the site is dangerous but that there’s a legitimate (nonsuperstitious) reason to think so. It should also emphasize that there’s no buried treasure, just toxic trash. Here’s how the authors phrase the essential talking points: “[T]his place is not a place of honor … no highly esteemed deed is commemorated here.” Finally, the marker system should communicate that the danger—an emanation of energy—is unleashed only if you disturb the place physically, so it’s best left uninhabited.

As for the problem of actually getting these essentials across, the report proposes a system of redundancy—a fancy way of saying throw everything at the wall and hope that something sticks. Giant, jagged earthwork berms should surround the area. Dozens of granite message walls or kiosks, each 25 feet high, might present graphic images of human faces contorted with horror, terror, or pain (the inspiration here is Edvard Munch’s Scream) as well as text in English, Spanish, Russian, French, Chinese, Arabic, and Navajo explaining what’s buried. This variety of languages, as Charles Piller remarked in a 2006 Los Angeles Times story, turns the monoliths into quasi-Rosetta stones. Three rooms—one off-site but nearby, one centrally located, and one underground—would serve as information centers with more detailed explanations of nuclear waste and its hazards, maps showing the location of similar sites around the world, and star charts to help intruders calculate the year the site was sealed. According to 1994 estimates, the whole shebang would cost about $68 million, but that’s just a ballpark figure based on very incomplete data.

There is also talk of creating “artificial myths” around the sites to discourage future explorers:

In the early 1980s, the semiotician and linguist Thomas Sebeok wrote a paper for the U.S. Office of Nuclear Waste Management titled “Communication Measures To Bridge Ten Millennia,” which proposes a folkloric relay system to pass along information: “The legend-and-ritual, as now envisaged, would be tantamount to laying a ‘false trail,’ meaning that the uninitiated will be steered away from the hazardous site for reasons other than the scientific knowledge of the possibility of radiation and its implications; essentially, the reason would be accumulated superstition to shun a certain area permanently.” Sebeok further suggested a Dan Brown-like “atomic priesthood” of physicists, anthropologists, semioticians and the like who would preserve the “truth.”

Clearly, this approach has its problems, but so do all the other ones. So what should we do? The author closes by advocating a different plan: leave the sites blank and unmarked, and hope that the future takes care of itself.

The article is here.



_46672256_sub-afp226.jpgThis article from the BBC showcases a gadget that seems almost too good to be true: a pair of glasses that translates overheard speech and projects subtitles directly on to the viewer’s retina.

NEC said the Tele Scouter was intended to be a business tool that could aid sales staff who would have information about a client’s buying history beamed into their eye during a conversation.

But, it said, it could also be put to a more exotic use as a translation aid. In this scenario the microphone on the headset picks up the voices of both people in a conversation, pipes it through translation software and voice-to-text systems and then sends the translation back to the headset.

The article page also has an interview with translation technology Don DePalma, who comments that “they have a bit of the sense of the Borg from Star Trek”.


On a more down-to-earth note, the Wold Atlas of Language Structure is a very cool website:

WALS is a large database of structural (phonological, grammatical, lexical) properties of languages gathered from descriptive materials (such as reference grammars) by a team of more than 40 authors (many of them the leading authorities on the subject).

WALS consists of 141 maps with accompanying texts on diverse features (such as vowel inventory size, noun-genitive order, passive constructions, and “hand”/”arm” polysemy), each of which is the responsibility of a single author (or team of authors). Each map shows between 120 and 1370 languages, each language being represented by a symbol, and different symbols showing different values of the feature. Altogether 2,650 languages are shown on the maps, and more than 58,000 datapoints give information on features in particular languages.

WALS thus makes information on the structural diversity of the world’s languages available to a large audience, including interested nonlinguists as well as linguists who would not normally read grammars of exotic languages or specialized works by comparative linguists. Although endangered languages are not particularly emphasized, they are automatically foregrounded because of the large sample of languages represented on each map, where each language (independently of its number of speakers) is shown by a single symbol.


Finally, Ed Yong over at ScienceBlogs has a great new post about the FOXP2 gene and its role in the origins of language. Writing about the discovery of FOXP2 and its implications for the field, Ed says:

“It had long been suspected that language has some basis in genetics, but this was the first time that a specific gene had been implicated in a speech and language disorder. Overeager journalists quickly dubbed FOXP2 “the language gene” or the “grammar gene”. Noting that complex language is a characteristically human trait, some even speculated that FOXP2 might account for our unique position in the animal kingdom. Scientists were less gushing but equally excited – the discovery sparked a frenzy of research aiming to uncover the gene’s role.”

The real story, as you might expect, is significantly more complicated. Read more at Ed Yong’s blog.



SAIVUS is an online non-profit organization that teaches Native American languages currently spoken within the United States. Founded in 2008 by Mathias Bullerman, a student linguist at Rutgers University, it provides comprehensive grammar tutorials, word lists, practice exercises and other materials vital to modern language survival and health in order to help Native American people acquire and maintain speaking ability of their languages.

Mathias writes:

“I’ve always been very interested in American Indian and Polynesian languages, and unfortunately over half are expected to disappear within our lifetime. I really want to give something back to these languages that taught me so much, and one of the biggest factors contributing to their decline is a lack of quality educational materials.

For large languages like Navajo or Ojibwa there are plenty of workbooks
and dictionaries, and some other non-profit organizations and applied
linguists provide language materials to specific tribes. Rosetta Stone
offers internships in developing software for endangered languages, and
there is SSILA – Society for the Study of Indigenous Languages of the
– which aids linguistic research. Some universities offer classes
in indigenous languages, in fact if you want to learn Hawaiian you can
even enroll in an online course at the University of Hawaii.

Yet, whereas all of these options are very expensive, online tutorials
don’t cost a cent. Most people interested in learning indigenous languages
are native peoples who grew up speaking English and I feel like no one
should have to pay to learn their own language, especially since they are
the poorest ethnic group in America. Many sites direct you can go to where
you can go to learn indigenous languages, but aims to provide
actual tutorials. The web format is superior since it has no page limit,
wastes no paper, can be updated immediately, and best of all it can
support sound files and flash animations.

While SAIVUS’ tutorials are pedagogically oriented, they are of utmost
interest to theoretical linguists since they contain ample information on
phonology and bibliographies that list previous research. Within a year,
we hope to develop grammar lessons as well. The first S of SAIVUS stands
for Society, so if there are any other linguists out there who would be
interesting in helping the effort please contact me at Right now we’re concentrating on Hawaiian, Lakota,
Cherokee and Plains Indian Sign Language, which have the greatest
potential since they are popular and widely spoken, but eventually I hope
there will be language lessons for at least one language of every region
in the United States.


If anyone has written papers on these languages, I will publish them on
the site for free. You can put this on your CV – grad schools and
employers love to see publications and plus you’ll be getting your name
out there. It’s also a good way to make native speaker contacts if you’re
interested in doing fieldwork, or meet professors who have worked on these
languages; it gives you a reason to introduce yourself. There is also a
humanitarian component; ever since I posted a small Hawaiian pronunciation
lesson I’ve received several heartfelt emails from Hawaiians telling me
how much SAIVUS means to their people. That page alone got around 10,000
hits last month!”

For more information, news and FAQ about SAIVUS, visit their website.

Register now for the 30th Annual NYS TESOL Applied Linguistics Conference

Date & Time: Saturday, March 7, 2009, 8:00 am – 5:00 pm
Location: Teachers College, Columbia University

Theme: Second/Foreign Language Research: Information Technology,
Inquiry and Interaction

Plenary Speaker: Dr. John Liontas
“From Prescribing and Describing Linguistics to Analyzing Applied
Linguistics Research and Practice: A Multiplicity of Perspectives from
Language Teaching, Technology, and Idiomaticity”

The conference will feature:
– Concurrent presentations throughout the day
– Poster session
– Publisher’s exhibit
(Breakfast, lunch, and wine & cheese reception included)

*To pre-register, please download and complete the Pre-Registration Form (alconf2009_prereg2)*

Visit the NYS TESOL website. For questions or further information please contact Lan Ngo at

Below is a sample of the presentations:

Seyed Vahid Aryadoust & Dr. Christine Goh
National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore
Investigating the Construct Validity of the Listening Module of an International Standardized Proficiency Test

Of all IELTS modules, listening is the least-researched one. This
article reports on a study which investigated the construct validity
of the IELTS Listening from a specimen material. Using the Rasch and
factor analysis, the study discovers evidence detrimental to the
construct validity of the test. Implications for IELTS and second
language testing are also discussed.


Dr. Cynthia S. Wiseman, Dr. Maureen T. Matarese, & Joshua Belknap

Wikis in Language Learning

The presenters will showcase three ways in which wikis can scaffold
teaching and learning. The first approach highlights a
fully-interactive wiki website for teacher-student learning. The
second examines how literacy teachers foster collaborative learning
and writing through student-authored, publicly-available wiki-pages,
and the third presents wikis in a language lab setting.


Tara Tarpey
Teachers College, Columbia University
I’m Bad at Grammar: Self-Deprecation in Undergraduate Peer Tutoring
Using conversation analysis as a framework, this presentation explores
the nature of self-deprecation offered by tutees during undergraduate writing center
advising episodes. The data reveal that self-deprecations in peer tutoring are
not followed by the conditionally-relevant preferred action of disagreement. The
institutionality of the setting will be discussed in relation to this finding.


Vu Ho
Department of Linguistics, Georgetown University
Effect of Association Strategies on L2 Word Association Consistency
This vocabulary development project involved 40 subjects and investigated the
effectiveness of nine association strategies designed to help L2
learners associate foreign words more consistently. Results show that
subjects with training on these strategies performed
significantly better than those without. Furthermore, this desirable
effect could be sustained over time.


Mimi Blaber, Eric Newman, & Melinda Thomsen
CUNY Immersion Program, LaGuardia Community College
Free Software for Language Learners
Presenters will discuss two free computer applications used at
LaGuardia Community College for ESL students: Audacity®, an open
source software for recording and editing sounds and Second Life, an
Internet-based virtual world where students can travel, explore,
socialize, and communicate in a digital environment.

…and many more.