Taino: a dead language rises from the ashes

Today is the day when many bloggers write posts commemorating Columbus Day.  Even more write pieces celebrating the Native American contribution to the New World.   I was leaving my “Columbus had a Norwegian Map” slogan on a comment thread as my own ethnic Scandinavian take on the holiday when I came across a comment about the first edition of a Taino dictionary.


According to the message: “Taínos come from the Guaraní tribes from South America which migrated to the Caribbean islands.” Looking further, wikipedia informs us that Taino is one of the dead languages of the maritime branch of northern Maipurean family of South American languages and includes the dialects Baicawa in Hispaniola (now Haiti), Cayaba in Hispanola and the Keyes, Cubaba in Cuba and Hispanola, Eyeri in Boriquen (now Puerto Rico), and Lucayo in the Bahamas.

So Taino is a dead language–and now it has a dictionary?  Looking further, the dictionary seems to be the project of Puerto Ricans who have preserved some of their language in the mountainous regions of their country.  Why am I not surprised.

Last week I read somewhere that you don’t really know a language until you write a dictionary of it. How do you write a dictionary, I thought? That might be interesting to try. Then I forgot all about it until this week when some language buffs were buzzing about whether the ideal Chinese dictionary could be compiled with a donation of a million dollars from Bill Gates, or if it would take $50 million. So much for my hypothetical dictionary, I thought.

But take a look at these Tainos.  They don’t know a dictionary takes a million dollars and a bunch of impossible credentials.   They don’t even know their language is dead.  They just went ahead and did it. I kind of like these Taino folks, whoever they are.

Oh, and they have dance music.

Arabic language: “Tasmeem” computer script uses the secrets of calligraphy

When I signed up for Google feedreader, I also subscribed to a couple of language websites. They tend to be peopled by linguists with their own special esoteric sense of humor and a penchant for delving into the arcane aspects of medieval Irish or Russian literature. But every time I think about removing the feed to simplify my display, I get caught up in whatever they are saying and forget to delete it.

This week they surprised me by talking about Arabic.

I was always taught that Arabic letters have four forms depending on whether they are in a word: at the beginning, middle, end, or standing alone. Thomas Milo, the inventor of the Arabic computer script Tasmeem, just made writing Arabic letters even more difficult. Above is an exhibition in Amsterdam using the computer script to write the Corsi Aya from the Koran. Below he shows how the letter “ha” can be written in various forms depending on what form of the letter is used and what letters are attached to it.

If you have ever been puzzled by Arabic calligraphy, much less the handwriting of ordinary Arabs, this is absolutely fascinating. There is also a powerpoint presentation of Milo with audio describing the challenges in making the script into a computer language. A few minutes into the presentation is Milo’s not-to-be-missed overview of the history of the Arabic script with the original letter order–he describes it as being originally a “numerical” alphabet.

If that isn’t enough, Languagehat this week has discovered that the word “barrio” meaning “Spanish-speaking neighborhood” comes into the English language from Arabic through the intermediate stage of Spanish. Probably something they forgot to sweep out after the Reconquista. There are supposed to be some one hundred English words derived from Arabic. The only other one I know about is “potato”–Spanish “patata”, Arabic “batata” البطاطا.