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The Year in Language News: An Undefinitive Smattering from 2010

As the end of a year approaches, you can always count on two seasonal mainstays: gross amounts of food and gross amounts of lists. The prior usually come in differing shapes, flavors, and textures, while the latter mostly always resemble each other thematically. You’ve probably read at least one ‘Best Of’, or ‘Most Important’, or ‘Top 10’, list already this week.

The Year in Language News: An Undefinitive Smattering from 2010 certainly fits the bill as a year-end list, but we don’t intend it to be a post about the most important or influential language news from the past year. We simply selected stories we felt were interesting — stories that may or may not reflect the complicated world we lived and communicated in during 2010. Happy New Year!


It turns out that the more common and popular a language, the simpler its construction. Researchers found interesting relationships between the demographic properties of a language — such as its population and global spread — and the grammatical complexity of those languages to facilitate its survival.

Read more:
Language Structure Is Partly Determined by Social Structure


The tragic and catastrophic Haiti earthquake occurred during the second week of 2010. Almost immediately an international community gathered to offer aid. Thousands of medical workers, computer programmers, and translators and interpreters organized for specialized relief efforts. In February, Carnegie Mellon publicly released data on Haitian Creole to hasten development of translation tools. ALTA Language Services played it’s own part, recording a free Haitian Creole Emergency Medical Phrase Pronunciation Guide.

Read more:
Data on Haitian Creole Released Hasten Development of Translation Tools
ALTA’s Haitian Creole In Translation: Medical Phrase Pronunciation Guide


Can songbirds offer insights about the vocal learning processes of humans? Researchers discovered that the Australian zebra finch learns to sing in virtually the same way human infants learn to speak: by imitating a parent.

Read more:
Tweet: Scientists decode songbird’s genome


April witnessed one of the worst human-made disasters in US history. On April 20, the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded, killing 11 men, putting thousands out of work, and eventually spilling more than 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Among the workers affected were Vietnamese fishers who spoke little or no English.

Read more:
Many Vietnamese fishers isolated by language from oil spill aid

Do you remember the controversy surrounding gubernatorial candidate Tim James earlier this April? James’ unsuccessful campaign focused on making multilingual license exams a thing of the past in Alabama.

Read more:
Alabama Gov. Candidate Tim James: “We Speak English. If You Want to Live Here, Learn It”
Read the Beyond Words commentary and watch the advertisement:
Speaking Other Languages in Alabama


Common sense might tell you that computer automated translation programs might not be best suited to translate prescriptions, but pharmacies had to learn the lesson the hard way. A report by the Chicago Tribune in May showed that as many as half of translated prescriptions may be incorrect.

Read more:
Translated prescriptions often wrong: Half of automated Spanish versions have errors

The small farming community of Jackson, New York, passed a law designating English as the town’s official written and spoken language. The town currently has only 1700 people and is 96% white. Suffice it to say, civil liberties groups in New York have been protesting the law since its inception.

Read more:
Small New York Town Makes English the Law


Aside from actually watching soccer during this year’s World Cup, linguistically-inclined audiences had much to potentially learn or be amused by during the festivities. Among the language news surrounding the World Cup was a campaign by the South African government to teach its citizens their multilingual national anthem.

Read more:
South Africans urged to learn national anthem
Listen to the Beyond Words Podcast on the World Cup in South Africa:
Beyond Words Podcast: Episode 7


What began almost three years ago in New Jersey as a routine driving while impaired conviction, slowly escalated into a state Supreme Court case and a rallying cry for both advocates and opponents of increased language assistance for immigrants across the nation. In the end, the Supreme Court of the State of New Jersey ruled that officers must provide instructions in suspects’ native languages.

Read more:
N.J. Supreme Court rules police must explain breath-test requirement in language DWI suspect understands
Read the Beyond Words commentary on the case:
The Law, Language, and Linguaphobia: New Jersey’s DWI Language Ruling


Designating English as an official language in towns across the United States was a running story throughout 2010. Shortly after Lino Lakes became the first city in Minnesota to adopt English as its official language, Minnesota’s governor proposed a similar statewide measure.

Read more:
Pawlenty: State should consider English-only measure


A whistleblower at an Ohio-based contractor claimed that more than a quarter of interpreters hired by the US army in Afghanistan might not be proficient in Afghanistan’s languages. Can you say “lawsuit” in Pashto?

Read more:
Whistleblower Claims Many U.S. Interpreters Can’t Speak Afghan Languages


Languages can simultaneously serve to unify a country while also marginalizing segments of a population. In October, Tibetan students organized after rumors circulated that the Chinese government would limit the use of Tibetan in schools.

Read more:
Tibetan students in China protest over language policy


To the dismay of many linguaphiles and Coffee Partyists alike, the editors at the Oxford American Dictionary named “refudiate” the word of the year. In case you don’t remember, Sarah Palin tweeted the word earlier this year, leaving her Twitter followers confused as to whether she meant “refute” or “repudiate.”

Read the Beyond Words commentary on Refudiate-Gate 2010:
Language and Politics: Palin Refudiates Critics
Read about the Oxford American Dictionary selection:
OUP USA 2010 Word of the Year: Refudiate


Have you ever found yourself imitating another person’s accent or speech style in conversation? A recent study suggests that imitating someone who speaks with a regional or foreign accent may actually help you understand them better.

Read more:
Imitating Someone’s Accent Makes It Easier to Understand Them

Do you think we left out any newsworthy language-related events or research? Leave a comment below:

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