Linguistics 101

Do you like learning? Linguistics is a fascinating topic, as it is relevant to literally every human, and affects everything we think, say and do.

This lecture is a great introduction to linguistics, language abilities, and cognition.


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Modern English Is Evolving – and It’s Fun!

I recently came across this article about “abbreevs”, or abbreviations, and their growing prevalence in English. This article looks at the reasons why people abbreviate, the rules they subconsciously follow when doing so, and what it means for English speakers.

This is all very exciting for people who study languages, and how languages evolve with the cultures that speak them. Of course, totes-speak is not the first time that people have shortened words in English. As Jones points out, words like legit, delish and babe are abbreviations that happened decades or centuries ago.

The difference today is that millennials are doing this a lot more, and they’re doing it not primarily to be efficient, but to be expressive — to add dimension to words. It’s something to celebrate, Spradlin says.

“All the media coverage is like, ‘These girls are being silly and they’re ruining the language,’” she said. “But this is actually really creative — and it’s following all the rules of English.”

For the full article, click here.

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Worse Than the Quakes

Not to downplay the earthquakes that rocked this country 6 months ago, but guess what: something even worse is happening now. Since this is a political struggle rather than a natural disaster, the international media doesn’t seem to be very interested.

Some background: A new government
After the “people’s revolution” which overthrew the monarchy, this country waited for nearly a decade to finalize a constitution. In September, it was finally signed! We now have a new prime minister, as well as a new (female!) president, who acts as a figure head. This is very exciting news, and a progressive step, hopefully towards a more stable government.


Politicians shake hands at the signing of the constitution.

Not everyone is happy with the constitution. The Hindu party dislikes the clause making this a secular country. The Madeshi party, an ethnic group in the south, feels that the way state borders have been redrawn will make them powerless, removing their majority vote in the federal government. Since before the constitution was signed, they have been making their opinions known and threatening violence, a threat which has since been acted on, causing destruction of property and the death of police and civilians.

Borders closed
Due to the strikes that have now lasted for 2 months, the border with our neighbor to the south has been effectively closed. The blockade is unofficial, but it has effectively shut down our country. Relief has been sought through a contract with our neighbor to the north, but only a limited flow of supplies can came through the treacherous mountain roads that until recently were totally blocked by the earthquakes.

china nepal road

Roads like this one are not the most efficient way to supply a country of 30 million people.


Shortages of… everything
This country, because of its landlocked position and high mountain borders, relies heavily on its southern neighbor for, well, just about everything. 100% of petroleum, cooking gas, and airline fuel come to us overland, as well as other essentials, such as rice and milk, and nonessentials, such as diapers, trash bags, and popcorn. Roads are empty, hospitals lack necessary medicines, schools are closing because teachers cannot get there. 90% of restaurants are closed, busses are dangerously full, and factories are shutting down. Banks threaten to close, as they cannot stay secure without backup generator power, the tourist industry suffers, and many individuals in the city are forced to cook over fires on their rooftops, rain or shine.


Overcrowded busses are both uncomfortable and dangerous.

Over one month ago, it was determined that this crisis had already had a larger economic effect than the earthquakes last spring. As the crisis continues, people are beginning to lose heart. The biggest holiday season of the year came and went with little ado; besides lacking supplies to properly celebrate, most people are in survival mode, not in a celebratory mood. I have heard it said several times: after the earthquakes, there was hope as people helped each other. Now no one has supplies, and so no one is able to come to their fellow countrymen’s aid.


A typical line for petrol; most people have to wait several days for their turn at the pump.


Uncertain future
As the crisis seems to drag on and on, no one can guess how or when it will end. Cold winter temperatures loom ahead, and with them power outages that will increase to up to 20 hours per day. Earthquake victims in hard to reach areas still await supplies that are unlikely to come. As the blockage turns into a humanitarian crisis, we continue to do all we can: watch and wait.




More reading:
Why is the constitution controversial?
Why our southern neighbor cares

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Meet A Modern-Day Slave

Check out this great article about modern-day slavery, and meet a Nepali girl who was sold into sex slavery in India:

Meet a 21st-Century Slave (NY Times)

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Long Lines, Clear Skies

For the past two months, this country has been plagued with political unrest. The new constitution, finally signed after being in the works for nearly 8 years, was for some a relief. Others, however, are dissatisfied with certain points in the new constitution. Two major political parties are calling for an amendment, and their efforts have seen southern states plagued with strikes, curfews, and protests. Upwards of 40 people have been killed so far, including several children and several police.

This country has been called “the yam between the two boulders,” and recently the powerlessness of our location has become very apparent. Because roads through the mountainous north have been closed since the earthquakes that rocked this country 6 months ago, the only source of imported goods to this landlocked country is through its southern border. About two weeks ago, trucks entering the country through our southern neighbor have been held at the border. Everyone has their opinions about whose fault it is (click here to read more), but the fact remains that trucks with essential supplies are not entering the country.

Taxis wait to refuel. Private vehicles have not been allowed to refuel since September 30. Photo credit: the Guardian

Taxis wait to refuel. Private vehicles have not been allowed to refuel since September 30.
Photo credit: the Guardian

Our daily life has begun to change dramatically because of this political tug-of-war. While the stalemate between our current government, political activists, and the country to our south continues, supplies become scarcer and scarcer. Some reports claim that this shortage has had a larger effect on the economy than did the earthquakes (see this article).

Walking down the road gives one an eerie feeling. Very few private vehicles can be seen, as gasoline is now being rationed for public and emergency vehicles only. Near gas stations there are long lines of vehicles, waiting days for just a few gallons of gas. More and more businesses are closing, especially restaurants, due to the unavailability of cooking gas. Schools are beginning to close as well, as teachers are not able to make the commute to work without fuel for their vehicles. We seem to be teetering on the edge of a crisis.

But, as is usually the case, there are some small benefits to this time of hardship. Bicycle shops are thriving as more and more people are relying on human power. Bicycle deliverymen and rickshaw drivers are making more money than ever before. And the skies are clear, relieved of the pollution that daily plagues the people of this city.

EV for the win!

“No Gas, No Diesel, No Petrol, No Problem” These electric powered ‘tempos,’ basically tiny busses, are now the most reliable form of transport in our city.

Look for the silver lining, whene’er a cloud appears in the blue…

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A Day in the Life: A Picture Diary

In honor of having lived in Nepal for a year as of August 25, here is a series of pictures I took several months ago. They chronicle my life as it was when I lived with a Nepali family and was in full time language study. So many of these things feel normal to me now – things I never imagined before, and maybe things you’ve never imagined either…

Please allow me to present
A Day in the Life: A Picture Diary

Each morning, I would wake up to my sunny (and therefore warm) room. It was almost never this clean though…


I would get ready and often eat breakfast with my family. We even had Starbucks coffee from their friends in Thailand. Fancy!

After breakfast I would head to my room and get ready. This is the traditional kurta suruwal worn by Nepalis, complete with a tunic top, very comfy pants, and a scarf. I could get used to this!

After getting ready and spending some time prepping for my language class, I would hop on my bike and get going.

I lived down a huge hill from the neighborhood where my classes were, meaning I got a nice (painful, sweaty, asthmatic) bike ride each morning.
3 hill

At the top of the I had to cross Ring Road, a sometimes harrowing and nearly almost life threatening experience.
4 ring road 2

After 20 minutes on my bike, surviving the giant hill and crazy traffic, I would arrive at language class! My coworker was kind enough to allow me to meet our teacher at her house. Most houses in Kathmandu look like this; several stories with each being its own apartment, and surrounded by a wall and a gate.
5 house

Once inside, I would pass the typical symbols of worship to Hindu (and sometimes Buddhist) gods, asking for favor on the home.
5 doorway

Most houses also have small shrines like this one, where the woman of the family worships daily, often very early in the morning.

Take off your shoes!
One always removes one’s shoes when entering a house in Nepal. It’s both practical and cultural: feet are seen as unclean, and there are many rules surrounding them. Also, the roads are disgusting, and no one wants that dirt in their home.
6 shoes

My language teacher. Srijana is an amazing woman, and I am so grateful to have spent several months seeing her every day. She has seen me laughing, crying, and everywhere in between. We are now fast friends.
7 srijana

After two hours of language class, it was time to study. I would usually head to a cafe or to the office, and then spend several hours trying to remember everything Srijana had taught me, listening to recording we had made, as well as planning for future lessons.
8 lunch

Each day was a little different, sometimes including exciting outings with our Backpack orientation group. A large group of people joined our organization within a few months of each other, so we were all able to “get oriented” together. We met every week to talk about language learning, Nepali culture, and other exciting aspects of our new lives.
culture orientation week

Kathmandu has an excellent expat community, so I was also able to make new friends from many different walks of life. Although many are here with the same motivations, our desire to love Nepal is manifested in a myriad of interesting ways. I have met some really amazing people!
bisedhi 2

Each Tuesday night I attend a Bible study, and while I lived with my host family, this was a routine night that I spent away from them. It took us a while to figure out how to make sure I didn’t get locked out… coming home past 8:30pm is a foreign concept here!
newari food

After all this studying, meeting people, and always managing to fill up my day, I would head home. While I had to cross Ring Road again, the downhill ride was worth every painful minute of uphill earlier in the day! And if I came home at just the right time, I would get to see the orange sky behind the hills outside of central Kathmandu.
12 biking home

The tiny lane winds away from the main road to a quiet neighborhood, where stands…
12 walking home

Our very pink house!


After arriving home I would sometimes study more Nepali, or amuse myself with other activities.


Happily enough, my room got lots of sunshine, so it was nice and warm. However, due to the usual building construction methods, it’s more commonly colder inside the house than outside! I often wished I could spend my life like this:
cold inside

I didn’t have a closet, so it seemed like I was too often spending time recreating clothing organization systems.
home closet

I also had to be sure to charge any electronics that I wanted to use. Kathmandu has blackouts, but they are scheduled, so we are able to try to make use of electricity when it is available. Knowing when blackouts are coming: such luxury!
11 electricity

(There’s an app for that.)
11 schedule

My backup power system… I wasn’t very good at planning ahead, so used my solar lamp and solar charger pretty often.
11 solar

Another type of scheduling that I had to get used to was time zones! All told, the time difference between Nepal and the West coast of the US is pretty convenient: just 12 hours and 45 minutes. Until daylight savings time ends, that is.
time zones

After my afternoon activities, as dinnertime approached, I would often sit in the kitchen and watch Rupmati (my host mom) cook. I only once offered to help, and after she saw how slow I was at chopping garlic, my role was merely to keep her company. She’s a wiz in the kitchen! We sometimes ate the traditional dal bhat (rice with lentil soup & side dishes), but she loves to experiment, so we had lots more variety that most Nepali families. We even sometimes had burritos!
13 cooking dinner

After eating dinner with anywhere from 4 to 10 people, we would all sit around the living room, playing games (uno was a favourite) and drinking tea or hot Tang. Yes, hot Tang. It’s surprisingly good.
13 tea after dinner

The TV was often on, and I got to experience lots of interesting Hindi films and television! However, as winter drew on, it was less and less common for us to have electricity in the evenings. This meant either candlelit art projects,

or more commonly, people alternately conversing with each other and playing on various phones.
14 batti chaina

While living with my host family I learned about life in Nepal, learned to laugh at myself, and enjoyed myself immensely. They are very dear to me!
14 family

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Fighting, not Rebuilding

Unfortunately, the Nepali government has chosen to focus their efforts on signing the new constitution (which has been in the works for 8 years) before taking action to do earthquake relief. Now there are violent protests around the country.

Four months after quakes, Nepal fails to spend any of $4.1 billion donor money

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Survey Explained Simply

So, what exactly is my job? You probably know that I travel to villages and talk to people, and that I also spend lots of time in an office in front of a computer. But what do I really do? Sometimes it’s hard to explain things to people who have little or no exposure to the ins and outs of your field.

Many people (who are working in fields much more technical than mine) have encountered this challenge as well. One scientist and comic artist “took the elimination of jargon to an almost absurd degree” when he accepted the challenge to explain the inner-workings of the Saturn V moon rocket using only the 1,000 most common words in the English language. To see the whole of his brilliant comic about “the only flying space car that has taken anyone to another world,” you can visit his site.

up goer five preview

Inspired by this idea, someone created a little project called Up Goer Five, which takes any text and checks for simplicity of vocabulary – basically checks it against the “ten-hundred” most common words in the English language. This quickly became an interesting challenge for scientists, and someone compiled a blog of various descriptions of different fields. So I decided to take the challenge too. Here is my description of language survey as I see it.

Language Survey in Simple Terms:
People around the world talk lots of different ways. My job is to go to places where groups of people have ways of talking that no one else has. I ask them lots of questions and they listen to stories made by people who talk other ways that are almost the same. Then I go home and look at all the answers I wrote down, and I think hard about the answers. How different are the ways these people talk? Once I know the answer I tell my friends and other people about it. Now everyone can know how many different ways there are to talk! And now if people want to write down their talking and read their talking in books, then someone can help them do it in the best way.

What do you think? Besides being a good mental challenge and an interesting way to learn about other technical fields, doing this kind of linguistic manipulation can actually be very beneficial for the one doing it. Some might claim that it is just creating a different kind of linguistic complexity (i.e. using a greater number of simple words to explain something that could be explained equally well with fewer, more specialized words). However, taking the time to think through complex ideas can help you understand your own field, and help you to remember why it is exciting. As one scientist wrote, “I think this is a great vehicle for getting us to be thoughtful about the way we explain our work to each other and to non-scientists. …in the end, if it helps people to understand what science is all about, then that effort and those carefully chosen words are totally worthwhile.”

So I encourage you to take the challenge! Write about your work, or something that you love to do, or anything that you are knowledgeable or passionate about! You’ll be surprised how fun it is, and how much you learn about your work and yourself in the process.

Click here to explain something in Ten Hundred words. Then share your creation!

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Secret Vegetarian

Last year my roommate at CanIL called me a vegetarian.
My response: “What? You saw me eat a hamburger yesterday.”
Her response: “Then why do you buy vegetarian chili???”

Granted, she’s from Texas, so her idea of vegetarianism is slightly different from mine. Although this interaction was funny, her new name for me, “secret vegetarian” wasn’t all that inaccurate.

I stopped eating meat by accident. Maybe it was laziness. Maybe I was too thrifty to buy it. Maybe it was living in Portlandia – the land of vegans and amazing vegetarian restaurants. Maybe it was all of these things. But you know what? I didn’t really miss meat. I still ate it from time to time, but with less and less frequency.

Then I realized it was the best idea ever. So, turns out being a vegetarian is amazing for many reasons. First of all, veggies are way cheaper than meat. Also, they are much better for your body – did you know our digestive systems are pretty much identical to those of herbivores? I always notice a distinctive difference in how my body feels (and smells!) after eating lots of meat. Another benefit of vegetarianism is that it’s much better for the environment. Unless your meat is from a small, local farm, there is a massive impact on the environment because of transport of feed, supplies, and the meat itself, as well as other environmental effects of large farming. Finally, there’s the whole eating another sentient being thing… I’m not totally against it, but you have to admit that it’s sad to think of animals living horrible lives on giant farms, purely for the sake of your culinary enjoyment.

But enough of my preaching. Let’s get down to the real reason I’m writing this post. I have an announcement to make: I’m coming out of the closet. I’m no longer a secret vegetarian. This time it’s for real.

Now that I live overseas, it’s much harder for me to casually avoid meat. My “once every week or two” policy is much harder to execute. In this culture, a hostess honors you by serving you meat. How does one refuse that?? “Yes, thank you so much for killing your only chicken on my behalf, but I had some meat yesterday so I’ll have to politely reject your display of respect.” Nope, that’s not gonna fly. But you know what is totally accepted in most parts of this country? Vegetarianism.

So in considering this dilemma, I realized that there was a clear and easy solution. I’m finally ready to commit. I’m really a vegetarian now.

You might be wondering, “Is it hard?” Yes, actually, it is. Before I went 100% veg, I never craved meat. But now I’m experiencing the forbidden fruit effect – which means that I have to actually have some character and self-control in order to stick to my guns. That’s not something my generation does very well, but I’m doing my best.*

Wish me luck on my new venture! Maybe one day some of you will hop on the bandwagon with me and Bahadur the bull.  

 From Don’t Do As I Do  by Joy Stephens
*Full disclosure: one day after I had my “last meat,” I ordered a breakfast that came with a side of bacon, and I couldn’t let the bacon just sit there, so lonely on the plate. But after that I’ve been good. I swear. Oh, except for that goat lung. You can’t turn down a goat lung.

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A Change of Scenery

Today is “Nepal bandh,” which means many offices and businesses are closed as groups are protesting a recent trade agreement between India and China.

For me, this means I’m working from home today, and what a great day it is for it! I’ve set up on my porch, and this is my view from my new “office”:

Hard life, I know.

Some days I feel really frustrated with work, but today isn’t one of them. I’ve been working on some stuff for my new part-time role as “Contingency Officer” (sounds exciting, but it includes a lot of spreadsheets), and practicing some Nepali stuff I’ll need for survey fieldwork. I can hardly believe that I’ve come this far – last year I would have been hard pressed to believe I would ever be able to read this page and understand it!

It’s days like this that make life amazing and exciting. We all need those moments where we think to ourselves, “I can do this!”

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