21 May 2012

what's in a language's name?

a few weeks ago we held the 7th edition of the Semantics of Semantics of Under-Represented Languages in the Americas conference at Cornell. we had a great bunch of speakers, working on a wide range of languages. besides the variety, i was very interested in the way that languages were represented in the program. issues of identity and linguistic and cultural preservation are of major concern for most native communities. as a result, there's a trend towards using speakers' preferred name for their language. frequently this is an endonym — the name of the language in the language itself.

i decided to compile a list of all the languages represented in talks and posters and see how far this trend has gone. i was a little surprised how few endonyms there were, although some of them jump off the page. in the list below, the name on the left is how the language appeared in the program; on the right is an alternate name. endonyms are italicized.

YucatecMàaya t'àan
TseltalBatźil Ḱop
NavajoDiné bizaad
Yauyos Quechua           ------
Nez PerceNiimiipuutímt

aside from Blackfoot and Nez Perce, the SULA linguists didn't use any names that clearly came from Euro-Americans naming other peoples or languages. (i'm fairly sure that in these two cases, the Euro names have been claimed by the associated groups, and are considered standard and non-deprecating.) there are some such names that seem over the line for 21st century use. when constructing a LING 101 phonology problem set once, we had to turn to Wikipedia to find a less awful-sounding name for Swampy Cree; the endonym is Omaškêkowak.

nevertheless, just shy of half of the presenters used the endonym for their language of study. some of them are on beyond tongue twisters for native English speakers (i'm looking at you, Nɬeʔkepmxcín). some seem downright otherworldly. i'm considering using a selection of these in an exercise for my freshman seminar on constructed languages. if i give my students an unannotated list of language names, and ask which are natural languages (not telling them that they all are), i wonder which ones they will peg as constructed? i feel like Q'aanjob'al may trick them along the lines of space opera, and the all caps neo-orthography of SENĆOŦEN and the very non-English consonant clusters of Lnuismk could be a trap too.

keep in mind that this is not limited to Native American languages. much more familiar languages have strange endonyms that could trip up even well-educated English speakers. some examples would be Euskara, Suomi, and Cymraeg. (those are Basque, Finnish, and Welsh, respectively. all European languages, all of which i didn't know the endonyms for until after i became a linguist). the question is whether they would just be unfamiliar, or actually make people believe they were constructed. i'm not teaching my course again until next spring, but when i do i'll report back with results. if anyone else wants to try something similar in the meantime, i'd be interested in hearing how it goes.