Man Wakes Up From Coma Speaking New Language: The media’s love of xenoglossy

© genialbaron - Fotolia.comEvery couple years, there’s a story in the news that goes something like this: Man (or woman) wakes up from coma speaking previously unknown foreign language.

Most recently, this is the story that’s been making headlines: Australian Man Awakes From Coma Speaking Fluent Mandarin. It turns out this Australian man isn’t alone, either. He’s in good company with:

So what gives?  Can a brain injury really result in new foreign language skills?

Speaking in tongues?
Believe it or not, there’s a word for suddenly speaking in a language that’s previously unknown to someone under normal conditions: xenoglossy. Traditionally, this has applied to saints or mystics speaking ancient, archaic languages used in religious scriptures (sort of like Therese Neumann von Konnersreuth …that’s a story for another time). But the modern-day miracle of xenoglossy is one that the media typically attributes to the mysteries of science and the complex nature of the brain.

Indeed, the brain is a fascinating thing — and these are all rather remarkable stories about how the brain acquires language.  But what stands out across all these cases are two common threads: 1.) The people lost the ability to speak their native language after a physical trauma, and 2.) They had some exposure to a secondary language that the brain thrust into primary use. As the doctor of the Australian Mandarin-speaker posited:

‘Mahon’s English “circuits were damaged,” so when he woke up his “Mandarin circuits got engaged” like they never had before.’

Unfortunately, this means there isn’t really such a thing a foreign language syndrome (that is, acquiring entirely new language skills as a result of a brain injury). That one appears to be a wishful overstatement by the media — because, hey, the idea of xenoglossy is pretty cool. But the idea that you can temporarily ‘forget’ your native language and be forced to rely on another language stored in the deep recesses of your brain is still pretty incredible. And perhaps that’s why we get the slightly hyperbolic “Man Awakes From Coma Speaking New Language” story every few years.

Bonus tip: There is such a thing as foreign accent syndrome, or a pattern of speech that results from severe medical conditions such as a stroke or head trauma (a famous example of this is George Michael, who woke up from a coma with a temporary new accent). But once again, although the news media typically ascribe a specific regional accent (i.e. American woman suddenly starts speaking with British accent), the speakers apparently develop non-specific, random changes to their speech pattern that only resembles familiar accents. Fascinating, nonetheless.

It’s time to rethink how we use the word “Sherpa”

© Byelikova Oksana

On April 18, sixteen Nepalese guides, known to us as Sherpas, were swallowed by an avalanche on Mt. Everest that “looked like a big snake coming down the mountain.” All are now presumed dead, making it the single deadliest accident on Everest.

The tragedy has brought to light the complex, dangerous nature of the Sherpas’ livelihood. Outside magazine senior editor Grayson Schaffer recently put it this way: “Sherpas are Everest’s workforce—the literal backbone of the climbing industry there …Without the hard work of the Sherpa porters, it would be largely impossible for Americans and Europeans with slightly above-average physiology, and well above-average disposable income, to scale the world’s tallest mountain.”

Schaffer also notes that: “No service industry in the world so frequently kills and maims its workers for the benefit of paying clients.” It was only a matter of time before they demanded better working conditions, fair pay, and insurance in the event of the unthinkable. It turns out, that time is now – and one of the things coming to light is that what it means to be a “Sherpa” is widely misunderstood.

The mythology of the mountaineers
The Sherpa as trusty guide and porter entered the Western imagination when Edmund Hillary became the first man to reach the top of Mount Everest, along with guide Tenzing Norgay, in 1953. But even this relationship was fraught with controversy over who allegedly reached the summit first. (Was it Hillary or Norgay? Who was the mountaineer with more skill?)

After Norgay’s famous ascent, the word “Sherpa” suddenly became synonymous with “porter” or “guide” in the context of climbing Everest. (Many mistakenly assumed that Sherpa was actually Tibetan for “guide.”) In fact, Sherpa comes from the Tibetan word sharpa, which means “inhabitant of an eastern country.” Today, the word refers to “a member of a Himalayan people living on the borders of Nepal and Tibet.”

In other words, Sherpa isn’t an occupation – it’s an ethnic group. And as one Sherpa who went to college in New Zealand poignantly wrote, to be Sherpa means being part of a bizarre model minority in the West (and apparently, being asked how much weight you can carry up a mountain):

“Uncharitably, I imagined them imagining themselves as conquering heroes, assisted by a legion of Sherpa faithful ready – and cheerful – to lay down sweat and lives in service for arduous, but ultimately noble and glorious, personal successes. Still, it is undeniable that, in “post”-colonial democracies where ethnic minorities carry the burden of insidious and vicious prejudices at every turn, Sherpas are fortunate. Everyone loves us, everyone trusts us, and everyone wants their own collectable one of us.”

This image of the cheery, willing and able Sherpa is compounded by the notion that climbing is literally in their blood, which has adapted over time to have an ‘oxygen affinity’ that makes living at higher altitudes possible. As a result, the Sherpa has come to be seen as part of the landscape, or a given part of the Everest experience. This translates to the idea that climbing isn’t just a job – it’s a calling. It’s who they are.

Anytime work is seen this way – as something that a particular group is expected to do because of who they are – it’s immediately undervalued (Why pay them money for something that’s simply part of their identity, right?) Not to mention, it’s pretty problematic to rigidly associate specific jobs with an entire group of people – after a while, this starts to sound uncomfortably like a caste system.

When we view Sherpas as an ethnic group in a poor country performing extremely dangerous work to make a living (rather than as cheerful porters effortlessly scaling mountains), it suddenly makes sense why there is a movement to “Reclaim Sherpa” from the “misappropriation and commodification” of the term by Western brands and companies. (No, kicking ass at marketing does not make you a Sherpa.)

With that in mind, it’s time to separate the word “Sherpa” from a romanticized notion of conquering Everest and create a culture where Sherpas don’t have to choose between their lives or their livelihood.

Word Nerd News: California bill defines ‘hot dog’; The NYT insults Scotland; Washington state gets rid of sexist language

© elfivetrov - Fotolia.comCalifornia bill seeks to define ‘hot dog’

NPR reported on a recent California bill that, among other things, defines a hot dog as: “a whole, cured, cooked sausage that is skinless or stuffed in casing, that may be known as a frankfurter, frank, furter, wiener, red hot, Vienna, bologna, garlic bologna, or knockwurst, and that may be served in a bun or roll.” Sounds about right to me.

But why are legislators defining tasty meat treats, you ask? Well, the bill is actually about the California food code and this particular definition is being pushed by health inspectors who want to emphasize that hot dogs should be cured or pre-cooked. That means “street vendors who reheat them are held to different health standards than restaurants.”

The New York Times accidentally insults Scotland

Andy Murray  clinched the Wimbledon title on Sunday, making him the first British person (as in from Great Britain — including Scotland and Ireland) to win the title in 77 years. Despite the pressure placed on him from, well, just about everyone in Great Britain, he played the tournament of his life. Even coach Ivan Lendl couldn’t help but smile.

The New York Times heralded Murray’s win with this headline: “After 77 Years, Murray and England Rule” (they since changed England to Britain). This touched a nerve and set off a fury on Twitter because Murray is Scottish. And if you ask Scottish people, Scotland is not England. They are two separate entities that are both part of Great Britain.

Washington state removes all gender-biased language from the books

Reuters reported that earlier this month, Washington (my former home state with strong female political leadership) became the fourth state to officially remove gender-biased language from the law, joining Florida, North Carolina, and Illinois. This means that 40,000 words in state statutes have been changed to reflect more gender-neutral language.

What exactly does this look like? Well, ‘penmanship’ is now ‘handwriting,’ ‘fisherman’ is now ‘fisher’, and ‘his’ is now ‘his and hers’, to name a few.  Lawmakers said this ended up being a much bigger project than they envisioned, but their hope is that removing sexism from official language is a first step towards combatting it in our daily lives.

Does Your Dictionary Have an Opinion? Defining marriage, global warming, and gun control

© Robert Pernell -
If there’s one thing we’ve learned watching the political circus here in the U.S., it’s that the battle over social issues is often a war of words. Does ‘marriage’ have to be between a man and a woman? Should it be ‘global warming’ or ‘climate change’? Is ‘gun control’ about regulating or eliminating gun ownership?

It’s no doubt that these have come to be loaded terms in our society, which makes the act of defining them for a dictionary a delicate task. Is there a way to capture the full meaning of a word without stepping on any sensitive political toes? Well, let’s look at how three definitive online dictionaries — Merriam-Webster, the Oxford English Dictionary, and the American Heritage Dictionary — handle gay marriage, global warming, and gun control.

Merriam-Webster(1) : the state of being united to a person of the opposite sex as husband or wife in a consensual and contractual relationship recognized by law (2) : the state of being united to a person of the same sex in a relationship like that of a traditional marriage <same-sex marriage>

Oxford Dictionary(1) : the formal union of a man and a woman, typically recognized by law, by which they become husband and wife (2) : the state of being married (3) : (in some jurisdictions) a formal union between partners of the same sex

American Heritage Dictionary(1) : the legal union of a man and woman as husband and wife, and in some jurisdictions, between two persons of the same sex, usually entailing legal obligations of each person to the other

The verdict? Well, all three dictionaries include same-sex marriage as part of their definitions of marriage. The American Heritage Dictionary includes same-sex marriage in its primary definition rather than as a secondary bullet point. But it qualifies it with “in some jurisdictions,” as does the Oxford Dictionary — the definitions focus largely on legality. The Merriam-Webster dictionary seems to take the strongest position that same-sex marriage IS marriage, although it also creates a distinction from traditional marriage. But if language is any indicator, times and attitudes are changing.

Global Warming
Merriam-Webster: an increase in the earth’s atmospheric and oceanic temperatures widely predicted to occur due to an increase in the greenhouse effect resulting especially from pollution

Oxford Dictionary: a gradual increase in the overall temperature of the earth’s atmosphere generally attributed to the greenhouse effect caused by increased levels of carbon dioxide, CFCs, and other pollutants

American Heritage Dictionary: an increase in the average temperature of the earth’s atmosphere, especially a sustained increase sufficient to cause climatic change

Interestingly, the American Heritage Dictionary steers clear of the controversial ‘why’ of global warming: Is it a man-made problem? Merriam-Webster’s definition is bolder, stating that global warming is a “widely predicted” phenomenon, “resulting especially from pollution.” But this definition suggests that global warming is something that’s likely to happen in the future, rather than something that’s already happening… The Oxford Dictionary definition takes the strongest position here, noting that the greenhouse effect is real, man-made, and “generally” believed to be the cause of global warming.

Gun Control
Merriam-Webster: regulation of the selling, owning, and use of guns

Oxford Dictionary: no exact results found for ‘gun control’

American Heritage Dictionary: regulation restricting or limiting the sale and possession of handguns and rifles in an effort to reduce violent crime

Merriam-Webster’s definition is short and sweet — gun control is about regulating guns, plain and simple. The Oxford Dictionary, on the other hand, doesn’t even define gun control (perhaps because in Britain, there is no powerful gun lobby and handguns and automatic weapons have been “effectively banned“). In this case, American Heritage’s definition provides the most context, connecting gun control to an effort to reduce violent crime caused by certain kinds of weapons.

So there you have it. This exercise isn’t meant to sing the praise of any single dictionary or try and point out potential bias — rather, it’s to show that cultural, editorial, and perhaps even subconscious factors all play a role in how definitions get written for dictionaries. It doesn’t mean that any of these definitions are right or wrong — on the contrary, they illustrate that language isn’t black and white. It’s always changing and adjusting, as we humans struggle to define the words that define us.

Why do we sing ‘Auld Lang Syne’ to end one year and kick off the next?

Nouvel an horloge à 2013Well, since the world didn’t end on December 21st, we can officially celebrate the start of another new year. (I’m sure you’re breathing a sigh of relief.)

But when it comes to having an array of catchy tunes to help celebrate the season, New Year’s is the ugly stepchild of Christmas. It gets secondary, parenthetical billing in “We Wish You a Merry Christmas (and a Happy New Year),” and the other song or two we associate with the holiday — like “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” — are decidedly melancholy.

Still, nothing reminds us of the fleeting nature of time and the importance of long-standing friendships like the song that gets drunkenly belted out at raucous New Year’s parties around the English-speaking world: “Auld Lang Syne.” We sing it with gusto every year, but what does it mean and how did it become the go-to ballad of New Year’s Eve?

“Auld lang syne” simply means “times long past,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, although the American Merriam-Webster gives it a cheerier spin by defining it as “the good old times.” The phrase was popularized by Robert Burns’ version of “Auld Lang Syne” in 1788, though the melody is much older, stemming from traditional Scottish folk music. This little ditty became an American standard in the 1930s thanks to bandleader Guy Lombardo, the man who owned New Year’s Eve long before Dick Clark.

If you’ve ever sung the lyrics to “Auld Lang Syne” and thought to yourself, “What the heck am I singing?” or “Why is this so freaking depressing?” you’re not alone. Here are the words that we use to welcome the new year (the full version of the song is much longer):

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and days of auld lang syne?

For auld lang syne, my dear,
for auld lang syne.
We’ll take a cup of kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

This is the most well-known portion of the English translation of this song — so if you find this confusing, don’t even try to sing the rest of the song with its pint-stowps and running around the braes. But I think it’s time to put that famous question from “When Harry Met Sally” to rest:

Harry: [about Auld Lang Syne] What does this song mean? My whole life, I don’t know what this song means. I mean, ‘Should old acquaintance be forgot’? Does that mean that we should forget old acquaintances, or does it mean if we happened to forget them, we should remember them, which is not possible because we already forgot?

Sally: Well, maybe it just means that we should remember that we forgot them or something. Anyway, it’s about old friends.

It turns out, neither of them are quite right. “Should auld acquaintance be forgot?” is actually a rhetorical question that’s meant to make you reflect: Should we forget our old friends and loved ones? Should we forget the good times gone by? The obvious answer, which goes unspoken, is no. And that becomes more apparent with the rest of the lyrics, which are largely about buying pints for friends (along with some dining and frolicking).

Who wants to forget friends like that? So tonight, when you belt out “Auld Lang Syne,” impress your friends with the fact that really, they’re just asking a rhetorical question (since I’m sure it’ll just come up naturally, of course). Happy new year!