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14 Language Facts from the U.S. Census Bureau

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Since 1890, the U.S. Census has asked various questions about the languages people speak. Until 1980, the questions were sometimes confusing and they were directed only to those who didn’t speak any English or were born in a foreign country. With the 1980 census, a three-part question was adopted that applied to everyone, giving a more complete picture of language in the U.S. The first part of the question asks if a person speaks a language other than English at home. If the answer to the first part is yes, the second part asks what the other language is. The third part asks how well the person speaks English: “very well,” “well,” “not well,” or “not at all.”

The language questions are now asked every year on the American Community Survey. This month, the Census Bureau released its report on the 2011 survey. Here are 14 interesting facts about language in the U.S. 

1. Over 300 languages are spoken in the U.S. For purposes of analysis they are categorized into 39 groups (e.g., Slavic languages besides Russian, Polish, and Serbo-Croatian are under “Other Slavic Languages.” Indian languages besides Hindi, Gujarati, and Urdu are under “Other Indic Languages.”)

2. Of the population 5 years and older, 21 percent speak another language at home. Of those, 62 percent speak Spanish. Of those Spanish speakers, 56 percent speak English “very well.”

3. From 2005 to 2011 the percentage of Spanish speakers increased, while those who spoke English less than “very well” decreased. There are more Spanish speakers, and also more Spanish speakers who are fluent in English.

4. While the language with the biggest increase in numbers of speakers since 1980 is Spanish, Vietnamese has had the biggest percentage increase. There are now almost 7 times the number of Vietnamese speakers there were in 1980.

5. There were other large increases over the same period for Russian, Persian, Chinese, Korean, and Tagalog.

6. At the same time, the number of Italian, Yiddish, Polish, German, and Greek speakers decreased.

7. The last 10 years saw a doubling of the number of Hindi speakers, speakers of “Other Indic Languages” (such as Punjabi, Bengali, and Marathi), speakers of “Other Asian” Languages” (such as Malayalam, Telugu, and Tamil), and speakers of African Languages (such as Amharic, Ibo, Yoruba, and Swahili).

8. Unsurprisingly, those who are young and born here are more likely to speak English “very well.”

9. The metro area with the highest percentage speaking another language is Laredo, Texas.

10. In metro areas with high numbers of speakers of other languages, Spanish is usually the biggest non-English language, except in San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA and Honolulu where the category of “Asian and Pacific Island Language” is bigger, and Farmington, NM where Navajo is biggest.

11. The state with the lowest percentage of those who speak another language is West Virginia (2 percent). The highest is California (44 percent).

12. A full breakdown by individual language (rather than by the 39 categories) is available for the 2006-2008 survey period. It estimates that there are 173 speakers of Gilbertese, 707 speakers of Luxombourgian, and 1649 speakers of Basque.

13. There are an estimated 117,547 speakers of Pennsylvania Dutch, 38,494 of whom speak English less than “very well.”

14. There are over 1000 speakers of the Pacific island language Samoan in Alaska. 

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How Do You Stress the Word: THANKSgiving or ThanksGIVing?
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Here’s something else to stress about for Thanksgiving: where to put the stress in the word Thanksgiving.

If you’re from California, Iowa, or Delaware, you probably say ThanksGIVing, with the primary stress on the second syllable. If you’re from Georgia, Tennessee, or the Texas Panhandle, you probably say THANKSgiving, with the primary stress on the first syllable.

This north-south divide on syllable stress is found for other words like umbrella, guitar, insurance, and pecan. However, those words are borrowed from other languages (Italian, Spanish, French). Sometimes, in the borrowing process, competing stress patterns settle into regional differences. Just as some borrowed words get first syllable stress in the South and second syllable stress in the North, French words like garage and ballet get first syllable stress in the UK and second syllable stress in the U.S.

Thanksgiving, however, is an English word through and through. And if it behaved like a normal English word, it would have stress on the first syllable. Consider other words with the same noun-gerund structure just like it: SEAfaring, BAbysitting, HANDwriting, BULLfighting, BIRDwatching, HOMEcoming, ALMSgiving. The stress is always up front, on the noun. Why, in Thanksgiving alone, would stress shift to the GIVE?

The shift to the ThanksGIVing pronunciation is a bit of a mystery. Linguist John McWhorter has suggested that the loss of the stress on thanks has to do with a change in our concept of the holiday, that we “don’t truly think about Thanksgiving as being about thankfulness anymore.” This kind of thing can happen when a word takes on a new, more abstract sense. When we use outgoing for mail that is literally going out, we are likely to stress the OUT. When we use it as a description of someone’s personality ("She's so outgoing!"), the stress might show up on the GO. Stress can shift with meaning.

But the stress shift might not be solely connected to the entrenchment of our turkey-eating rituals. The thanksGIVing stress pattern seems to have pre-dated the institution of the American holiday, according to an analysis of the meter of English poems by Mark Liberman at Language Log. ThanksGIVing has been around at least since the 17th century. However you say it, there is precedent to back you up. And room enough to focus on both the thanks and the giving.

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Designer Reimagines the Spanish Alphabet With Only 19 Letters
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According to designer José de la O, the Spanish alphabet is too crowded. Letters like B and V and S and Z are hard to tell apart when spoken out loud, which makes for a language that's "confusing, complicated, and unpractical," per his design agency's website. His solution is Nueva Qwerty. As Co.Design reports, the "speculative alphabet" combines redundant letters into single characters, leaving 19 letters total.

In place of the letters missing from the original 27-letter Spanish alphabet are five new symbols. The S slot, for example, is occupied by one letter that does the job of C, Z, and S. Q, K, and C have been merged into a single character, as have I and Y. The design of each glyph borrows elements from each of the letters it represents, making the new alphabet easy for Spanish-speakers to learn, its designer says.

Speculative Spanish alphabet.
José de la O

By streamlining the Spanish alphabet, de la O claims he's made it easier to read, write, and type. But the convenience factor may not be enough to win over some Spanish scholars: When the Royal Spanish Academy cut just two letters (CH and LL) from the Spanish alphabet in 2010, their decision was met with outrage.

José de la O has already envisioned how his alphabet might function in the real world, Photoshopping it onto storefronts and newspapers. He also showcased the letters in two new fonts. You can install New Times New Roman and Futurysma onto your computer after downloading it here.

[h/t Co.Design]

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