Wednesday, July 03, 2013

World's Weirdest Language Update

Uh-oh.  I was all amused by this whole thing until I saw this:

(Click to embiggen.)  You can access the full blog post here, but you have to register to view the site.  I'm generally unwilling to do that with unknown websites, but I went ahead and did it this time.  The article isn't that bad, but what the HELL is that picture supposed to be of?  Last time I was in Chalcatongo (which is in OAXACA, MEXICO!) people didn't exactly dress like that.  This looks a lot like they said, "hey, let's get a picture of some weird people to go along with the weird language!  (And all weird people are the same, right?)".

Part of the problem is that this was a linguist inside joke - "weird" is a positive attribute to us!  We revel in unusual structures.  But now it's escaped to the outside world, and I think there may be bad repercussions.

So, I'm starting to think this isn't so amusing.  I suppose I should respond, pointing out that the combination of the picture and the caption is not okay...  And I'm also starting to think I owe an apology to the speakers of Chalcatongo Mixtec.  Crap.


Matt said...

This is such a pervasive problem that it seems that it's time to come together and figure out a way to educate people — and not just for the sake of us linguists, but also for the sake of those who cooperate with us to help us understand their fascinating languages.

James Crippen said...

I will hazard a guess and say that the picture is of a couple of Chukchi ladies dressed up in traditional clothing for the camera. It’s a recent picture given the gal holding the coffee cup.

Anonymous said...

They're speakers of Nenets, which is mentioned in the article as the second-weirdest language. Here's the source:

So presumably the photo was intended to illustrate Nenets, rather than Chalcatongo Mixtex or 'some random people who speak a language we don't know anything about,' but nobody bothered to include a caption to that effect.

Anonymous said...

Let me get this straight? You use "weird" in a highly privileged way (in that you think you are in the position to assume what's normal and thus what's weird) based on your own privileged linguistic starting point--which I assume is English or another dominant European language spoken by white people with a long history of colonizing and marginalizing non-European, a.k.a. "weird" people--and you get upset that someone else picked up on your white privilege vibe and ran with it? NEWSFLASH: to white European-centric thinking, all other people are "foreign", "ethnic" and "other", and the more different they are from Eeuropean cultures, the more "weird" they are. So of course they arn't that indistinguishable from one another. It's all in that "other' category for the sake of *not being white*. If you don't want to feed into that European-centric ugliness that treats the vast majority of human beings and their non European languages and cultures like amusing toys to gawk at and fetishize, then don't call them marginalizing, belittling things like "weird." And don't rationalize it like "it is compliment when we linguists use it." Yeah, and when Paula Deen uses the n-word, it's a sign of endearment. Please.

- Cade (@lifepostpic)

Mr. Verb said...

Wow, Paula Deen? Seriously?

Actually, for linguists, 'weird' typically includes features like verb-initial word order, something that Mixtec shares with Celtic languages, or the double definiteness of some kinds of Scandinavian have or the complementizer agreement patterns found widely in German and Dutch dialects. I'm not sure who counts as whiter or more European than the Celts, Norwegian, Swedes, Germans and Dutch.

Joe said...

Well, it's not just that European languages have 'weird' features. The original article pretty clearly makes the point that English is pretty seriously 'weird' by the relevant criteria.

Charla said...