A Blog About Language

Aug. 21 2014 1:11 PM

Do All Languages Derive from a Single Common Ancestor?

The Tower of Babel story is a fanciful attempt to account for a very real question: what was the first language and why are there now so many of them?

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Aug. 19 2014 2:02 PM

How Many Vowels Are There in English? (Hint: It's More Than AEIOUY.)

How many vowels does English have? Five, right? A, E, I, O, U. Oh, and sometimes Y. So, six? Actually, English has at least 14 different vowel sounds and, depending on the speaker and dialect, maybe more than 20.

What do I mean by this? Well, if we're talking about spelling, then, yeah, our alphabet has six vowels (maybe seven or eight if you count æ and œ as a single letters in words like archæology and fœtus). But spelling is just the representation of a vowel; even if a language has no written alphabet, it still has vowels. So then, what is a vowel?

We can think about whether a sound is or isn't a vowel in two ways: the production of the sound and the perception of the sound. Let's take a look at both of these options.

Aug. 18 2014 12:46 PM

Why It's Not So Unreasonable to Spell "Espresso" With an X

I know, enough already about Weird Al Yankovic’s "Word Crimes," but bear with me for one more comment on the music video that’s given language prescriptivism it’s its biggest shot in the arm since the glory days of Eats, Shoots & Leaves. Perhaps the weirdest of the 17 admonitions Weird Al crams into the song comes at about the halfway point, when he croons, "There’s no in espresso," over this image:

"Weirdest" because, compared with less-fewer, literally, could care less, and Weird Al’s other talking points, it would appear pretty narrow, not to say obscure. But there turns out be a fairly substantial body of commentary on the point, most of it echoing the video’s disapproval ofexpresso. Garner’s Modern American Usage has no doubt on the rightness of espresso and notes, "writers frequently get this wrong."

Aug. 15 2014 11:27 AM

Fadoodling and the Paphian Jig: 29 Historic Slang Terms for Sex

Lexicographer Jonathon Green's comprehensive historical dictionary of slang, Green's Dictionary of Slang, covers hundreds of years of jargon, cant, and naughty talk. He has created a series of online timelines (here and here) where the words too impolite, indecent, or risqué for the usual history books are arranged in the order they came into fashion.

Here are the most adorable terms for sexual intercourse from the last 600 or so years. Many of them have origins so obscure they hardly make sense at all, but that doesn't detract from their bawdy adorability in the slightest. When it comes to the ol' houghmagandy, a little mystery goes a long way.

Aug. 14 2014 1:41 PM

Boys Learn to Interrupt. Girls Learn to Shut Up.

A few weeks ago, I wrote in Slate about a study I conducted showing that men in tech interrupt more than women and women are interrupted constantly, but in corporate settings, women in executive levels are the biggest interrupters of all. Readers responded with both affirmation and questions. What happens in less formal, non-tech settings? What about different kinds of interruptions, since clarifying questions really aren't the same as total conversational hi-jacks? Above all, when are these patterns first learned? I wanted to begin to unpack that last question.

Aug. 12 2014 12:00 PM

Watch Robin Williams Converse With Koko the Gorilla and Be Charmed

In addition to many millions of humans, at least one other primate is likely mourning the loss of actor and comedian Robin Williams today. Koko, the gorilla who communicates in a modified version of American Sign Language and is said to understand even some spoken words, met Williams in 2004 when they filmed an ad campaign together to raise awareness of threats against gorillas. In the video below, Koko asks Williams to chase and tickle her, steals his sunglasses, and rummages through his wallet:

Aug. 11 2014 11:50 AM

How Reasonable Is the Ape Language in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes? Not Very.

When Rise of the Planet of the Apes came out in 2011, I pointed out (in "Caesar and the power of No") that Caesar produced exactly two utterances in spoken English: a hoarse cry of "No," and a single declarative clause at the end of the film, "Caesar is home." Naturally, I went out to see the sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, to report on the way the franchise was developing its view of how apes evolve language.

And... forgive me if this seems pedantic, but the film is supposed to be science fiction, and I have to say that as far as linguistics is concerned the science is crap.

Aug. 7 2014 12:41 PM

When Did We Start Caring About "Hopefully"? 250 Years of English Usage Advice

There’s a fair chance that at some point you’ve been told that you're using hopefully wrong: Purists insist that it can only mean "in a hopeful manner" and not "it is to be hoped that." But who are these purists, and when did people first start giving this advice? More generally, there's a lot of advice about English usage that we largely take for granted, from split infinitives to dangling participles, but where did anyone get these ideas in the first place?

Aug. 5 2014 1:45 PM

The Free Enclopaedia That Awbody Can Eedit: Scots Wikipedia Is No Joke

At first glance, the Scots Wikipedia page reads like a transcription of a person with a Scottish accent: "Walcome tae Wikipaedia, the free enclopaedia that awbody can eedit," it says. The main page's Newsins section includes info about the FIFA Warld Cup and a Featurt picture of a Ruddy Kingfisher from Kaeng Krachan Naitional Pairk in Thailand. If you type "scots wikipedia" into a Google search, the first autocomplete suggestion is "scots wikipedia joke," and a top hit is a Wikipedia talk page witha proposal for getting rid of Scots Wikipedia containing the following comment: "Joke project. Funny for a few minutes, but inappropriate use of resources."

But Scots is totally real, "not a joke," as pointed out by one of the Wikipedia editors, who overwhelmingly rejected the proposal. Their final verdict stated that the "proposer should educate him/herself in linguistic diversity," and included a link to the Wikipedia page for Scots.

Aug. 4 2014 11:28 AM

Does Novel Now Mean Any Book?

I was taken aback recently to pick up an (unnamed) magazine for which I'd written an article and see my brief bio begin with the words: "Ben Yagoda is a novelist. … " I am not a novelist, never have been, and have not (since the age of 15) even had any aspirations in that direction. When I looked into the possible reasons for the error, I came to understand that the person who wrote the bio wasn't misinformed or making stuff up, but rather took "novelist" to mean the same as "author," or, more specifically, "writer of books," and maybe even more specifically than that, "writer of more or less meritorious books."