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Algonquian Linguistic Atlas

Fun With the Interactive Algonquian Language Map

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Algonquian Linguistic Atlas

There was once a linguistic landscape of incredible diversity in North America. While the continent of Europe has three main language families—Romance, Germanic, and Slavic—Native American languages can be grouped into about 30 language families. One of the largest, with languages that at one time covered an area reaching all the way from New England to the Rocky Mountains, is the Algonquian family. Algonquian languages are still spoken in Canada and the northern U.S. Two of them—Cree and Ojibwa—are estimated to have over 50,000 speakers. But even the healthiest native languages need active support to ensure their survival.

The goal of the Algonquian Linguistic Atlas is “to make sure that the beautiful Algonquian languages and the cultures they embody will be heard and spoken by many more generations to come.” It isn’t just a repository of words and stories though. It is organized in a way that lets you explore the similarities and differences between the languages, and see how they are distributed by place.

On the upper right of the map are two pulldown menus that let you choose a particular word from a range of categories (family members, days of the week, numbers…) or even whole sentences (“Did your son see that canoe?” “You guys eat those apples now.”) Then you can click a pin on the map to see what that word or phrase is in different Algonquian languages.

For example, here are some words for “one”:

Plains Cree: piyak
Swampy Cree: pēyik
East Cree: paayikw
Métis Cree/Michif (A mix of Cree and French): en or pêyak
Algonquin: pejig
Innu: peikw
Nishnaabemwin: bezhig
Mi’kmaw: ne’wt

Looking at these words in groups gets you to start asking the kinds of questions linguists like to ask when researching the history of languages. Can these all be traced back to a common proto-word? Why did p become b in Nishnaabemwin? Why is Mi’kmaw so different? The answers are clues to the mixing and movement of people over centuries.

At the bottom of the map, the “Classroom” button brings up simple worksheets for learning to spot sound differences. The whole site is a simple, clear and fascinating way to get in touch with the linguistic history of our continent. Learn and enjoy here.

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ANTTI T. NISSINEN, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
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Big Questions
Why Does Japan Have Blue Traffic Lights Instead of Green?
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ANTTI T. NISSINEN, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In Japan, a game of Red Light, Green Light might be more like Red Light, Blue Light. Because of a linguistic quirk of Japanese, some of the country’s street lights feature "go" signals that are distinctly more blue than green, as Atlas Obscura alerts us, making the country an outlier in international road design.

Different languages refer to colors very differently. For instance, some languages, like Russian and Japanese, have different words for light blue and dark blue, treating them as two distinct colors. And some languages lump colors English speakers see as distinct together under the same umbrella, using the same word for green and blue, for instance. Again, Japanese is one of those languages. While there are now separate terms for blue and green, in Old Japanese, the word ao was used for both colors—what English-speaking scholars label grue.

In modern Japanese, ao refers to blue, while the word midori means green, but you can see the overlap culturally, including at traffic intersections. Officially, the “go” color in traffic lights is called ao, even though traffic lights used to be a regular green, Reader’s Digest says. This posed a linguistic conundrum: How can bureaucrats call the lights ao in official literature if they're really midori?

Since it was written in 1968, dozens of countries around the world have signed the Vienna Convention on Road Signs and Signals, an international treaty aimed at standardizing traffic signals. Japan hasn’t signed (neither has the U.S.), but the country has nevertheless moved toward more internationalized signals.

They ended up splitting the difference between international law and linguists' outcry. Since 1973, the Japanese government has decreed that traffic lights should be green—but that they be the bluest shade of green. They can still qualify as ao, but they're also green enough to mean go to foreigners. But, as Atlas Obscura points out, when drivers take their licensing test, they have to go through a vision test that includes the ability to distinguish between red, yellow, and blue—not green.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Using Words Like 'Really' A Lot Could Mean You're Really Stressed
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Are you feeling really exhausted? Or have you noticed that it's incredibly hot out today?

If you recognize the adverbs above as appearing frequently in your own speech, it could be a sign that you're stressed. At least, those are the findings in a recent study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. As Nature reports, researchers found that peppering our speech with "function words" is a pretty accurate indicator of our anxiety levels.

Function words differ from verbs and nouns in that they don't mean much on their own and mostly serve to clarify the words around them. Included in this group are pronouns, adverbs, and adjectives. A team of American researchers suspected that people use these words more frequently when they're stressed, so to test their hypothesis, they hooked up recording devices to 143 volunteers.

After transcribing and analyzing audio clips recorded periodically over the course of two days, the researchers compared subjects' speech patterns to the gene expressions of certain white blood cells in their bodies that are susceptible to stress. They found that people exhibiting the biological symptoms of stress talked less overall, but when they did speak up they were more likely to use words like really and incredibly.

They also preferred the pronouns me and mine over them and their, possibly indicating their self-absorbed world view when under pressure. The appearance of these trends predicted stress in the volunteers' genes more accurately than their own self-assessments. As study co-author Matthias Mehl told Nature, this could be a reason for doctors to "listen beyond the content" of the symptoms their patients report and pay greater attention "to the way it is expressed" in the future.

One reason function words are such a great indicator of stress is that we often insert them into our sentences unconsciously, while our choice of words like nouns and verbs is more deliberate. Anxiety isn't the only thing that influences our speech without us realizing it. Hearing ideas we agree with also has a way of shaping our syntax.

[h/t Nature]

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