Friday January 6, 2006

Name That Language

[This is The Tensor coming to you live from LSA 2006.  It's Linguistics News You Can Use!]

On the last leg of my flight today from Phoenix to Albuquerque, I was flying on a Boeing 737.  I noticed the sign above the exit said:

KELUAR
EXIT

My first thought was, "Oh, right.  It's the southwest U.S., so the signs are also in Spanish."  About three seconds later, it occurred to me that few (if any) Spanish words have a 'k' in them—the pronunciation I was hearing in my head would be spelled queluar, I believe—and even later I was able to dredge up from memory the actual Spanish word for 'exit', salida.  (And I didn't even take Spanish.)  So what's this keluar business, then?

Want more data?  The sign on the bathroom said:

DILARANG
MEROKOK DI
KAMAR KECIL

NO SMOKING
IN LAVATORY

Anybody know the answer without Googling for it?

[Don't read any further if you want to think about it.]

Here's how I approached the problem.  The language doesn't appear to have clusters, but it does have syllable codas including L and R (which are distinguished), as well as NG and K.  Both K and C appear in the writing system, too.  None of the words look terribly long, and DI might be some sort of particle meaning 'in'.  So the language (1) is written in the Latin alphabet, (2) has fairly simple syllable structure, but more than just CV(N), and (3) is possibly more isolating than agglutinating.  What's more, speakers of the language would have to constitute a large enough market to inspire Boeing to build airplanes labeled in it.

My three guesses, based on these tentative facts and my somewhat broad but very shallow knowledge of the world's languages, were: (1) Tagalog, (2) Indonesian, and (3) some West African language, although the lack of tone marks argued against that.

When I got to the hotel, two seconds with Google produced a probable answer: quite a few of the hits are in the .id top-level domain, and that's Indonesia.  The Xerox Language Identifier also says "Indonesian" for both signs.

All right—that was my second guess!  Not a bad bit of reasoning, if I do say so myself...which I just did.  [Oooo!  I think I just twisted my shoulder.]

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Comments

In fact, Indonesian is one of the few languages alongside English, Basque and Latin to be written almost entirely with a completely undecorated Latin alphabet. Some texts do use é to show when an e is not a schwa, but that is the only diacritic AFAIK.

Posted by: Anon at Jan 6, 2006 1:42:30 AM

Mystery #2 would be why you're seeing Indonesian on an airplane flying from Phoenix to Al-BBQ. No thing intended against that language (especially given that they use an undecorated Latin alphabet, always easiest for those with English keyboards), but it does seem *slightly* out of place, no?

Posted by: mike at Jan 6, 2006 7:35:32 AM

MMmmm All Barbeque....

Oh, you meant Albuquerque, didn't you? Nevermind...

Posted by: The Wife at Jan 6, 2006 2:25:48 PM

http://hsc.csu.edu.au/indonesian/beginners/topics/traveller/aware_words/Aware_useful_words.html

All the words you found are in this travel phrasebook. :)

Posted by: Rachel at Jan 6, 2006 9:14:27 PM

I guessed Malay, but that's essentially the same language, so I'm awarding myself the points. And I'm surprised you would have thought "some West African language" would be on signs in an airplane -- I'm reasonably sure signs on West African airlines are in English and French. (For one thing, I don't think there are any West African countries that are monolingual enough to put a single language on signs; for another, anyone flying on an airplane would know one or the other of the ex-colonial languages.)

Posted by: language hat at Jan 8, 2006 7:23:52 AM

And I'm surprised you would have thought "some West African language" would be on signs in an airplane

I was thinking of one of the languages of Nigeria (and the surrounding countries) like Hausa or Yoruba that have ~20 million speakers. I know hardly anything about their phonologies or writing systems, though—I was just casting about for other languages that might have enough speakers to justify having bilingual signs.

Posted by: The Tensor at Jan 8, 2006 10:52:06 AM