I work at a technology company, and we frequently use the term 'rathole' to describe a topic (generally one brought up in a meeting) that's a tangent. And when I say I we use it frequently, I mean the term came up five times today, including in the verb form: "I don't mean to rathole here, but [insert marginally germane discussion here]...." So it was a surprise to me that this term is not particularly well-known.

43 Folders has an article on ratholes, including an official Rathole Jingle (MP3), and this snippet from Wikipedia's entry on Ratholing:

Ratholing is a term used to describe a conversation or process that has deviated from its original productive purpose into a generally unproductive but long and winding detour that eventually comes to a dead end. The original discussion purpose may be to agree on a course of action. However, if one or more people rathole into a specific point of the discussion then the discussion stalls with no actionable outcome. This term is frequently used on the Macbreak Weekly podcast, resulting in the eventual creation of the “Rathole!” jingle[1] and subsequent full-length song.[2]

Terminology note: "RAT" is also the term for the Rock Abrasion Tool on the Mars rovers, which can dig holes in things. Makes for some interesting Google Image searching. See? That was kind of a rathole, just now.

So what about you -- do you rathole? Or do you "take it offline?" (Blech.)

25 Endangered Languages You Should Hear Before They Disappear

Irish isn't just a nationality or heritage—it’s also a language. Otherwise known as Gaelic, the language has less than 450,000 speakers, making it one of 2500 endangered languages around the world. By the turn of the century, at least half of the world’s spoken languages are expected to go extinct, according to UNESCO [PDF].

Financial services website GoCompare reached out to native speakers of 25 endangered languages and had them record a translation of a quote by Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini in their mother tongue. The phrase was “a different language is a different vision of life”—a reference to scientific evidence that language not only shapes the way we think and perceive the world around us, but also shapes our culture.

One of the languages featured in the project, the Australian indigenous language of Wiradjuri, is spoken by just 30 people. The continent was once home to 250 indigenous languages, but only 40 of those are still spoken. Wiradjuri is seeing something of a revival, though, and schools in several areas are now starting to teach the language.

Nawat, a language spoken in El Salvador, has just 200 speakers remaining. Also known as Pipil, the language evolved from Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. According to historian Laura Matthew of Marquette University, some Nahuatl speakers in El Salvador are too ashamed to speak their mother tongue in public because of prejudice that persists in the country. Matthew and others around the world have started projects in an effort to preserve important documents in endangered languages and encourage more people to learn about them.

Below is the full list of languages that were included in the project:

Aymara: Bolivia, Chile, Peru
Balti: India, Pakistan
Basque: Spain, France
Belarusian: Belarus, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Russia, Ukraine
Breton: France
Choctaw: USA
Cornish: England
Guaraní: Paraguay, Argentina, Brazil
Irish: Ireland
Kalmyk: Russia
Limburgian: Netherlands, Germany
Lombard: Italy, Switzerland
Nafusi: Libya
Nawat: El Salvador
North Frisian: Germany
North Sami: Finland, Norway, Sweden, Russia
Ojibwe: USA
Ossete: Georgia, Russia
Quechua: Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Argentina
Venetan: Italy, Croatia, Slovenia, Brazil, Mexico
Walloon: Belgium, France, Luxembourg
Welsh: Wales
West Frisian: Netherlands
Wichi: Argentina, Bolivia
Wiradjuri: Australia

Linguists Say We Might Be Able to Communicate With Aliens If We Ever Encounter Them

If humans ever encountered extraterrestrials, would we be able to communicate with them? That was the question posed by linguists from across the country, including famed scholar Noam Chomsky, during a workshop held in Los Angeles on May 26.

Organized by a scientific nonprofit called Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI), the one-day event entitled "Language in the Cosmos" brought together two camps that don't usually converge: linguists and space scientists. The event was held in conjunction with the National Space Society's annual International Space Development Conference, which featured the likes of theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson, Amazon CEO and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos, SpaceX's Tom Mueller, science fiction writer David Brin, and more.

Linguist Sheri Wells-Jensen, chair of the workshop, said in a statement that it's unlikely we'll ever come face to face with aliens or find ourselves in a "Star Trek universe where most of the aliens are humanoid and lots of them already have a 'universal translator.'" Still, scientists don't rule out the possibility of chatting with extraterrestrials via radio.

Chomsky, who's often regarded as the father of modern linguistics, was optimistic that extraterrestrial life forms—if they're out there—might observe the same “universal grammar” rules he believes serve as the foundation for all human languages. His theory of universal grammar posits that there's a genetic component to language, and the ability to acquire and comprehend language is innate. Chomsky argues that a random mutation caused early humans to make the “evolutionary jump” to language some 40,000 years ago through a process called Merge, which lets words be combined, according to New Scientist. (Not all linguists are convinced by Chomsky's theory.)

At the workshop, a presentation by Chomsky (of MIT), Ian Roberts (University of Cambridge), and Jeffrey Watumull (Oceanit) argued that "the overwhelming likelihood is that ET Universal Grammar would be also be based on Merge." They said grammar would probably not be the greatest barrier in communicating with aliens; rather, understanding their "externalization system," or whatever channel they're using to communicate, could be the greatest challenge.

Another presentation by Jeffrey Punske (Southern Illinois University) and Bridget Samuels (University of Southern California) drew a similar conclusion. Human languages have physical and biological constraints, some of which are grounded in physics, so it follows that extraterrestrial languages would be limited by the same laws of physics, the linguists said.

Douglas Vakoch, president of METI, said in a statement that these theories represent a "radical shift" for scientists working in the field, who have "scoffed at the idea of creating interstellar messages inspired by natural languages." Past radio messages sent out into space relied on math and science, in hopes that those principles are universal.


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