A Blog About Language

Sept. 19 2014 11:32 AM

Why Do Pirates Talk Like That?

Break out the "Arrrrr, me hearties!" because today is International Talk Like A Pirate Day! But where does our idea of pirate speech come from?

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Sept. 15 2014 1:34 PM

Why Does English Use "Iambic Pentameter" and Other Greek Poetic Terms?

If you paid any attention at all in high school English, you probably remember iambic pentameter, most likely from reading Shakespeare, and perhaps even other meters like trochaic tetrameter (the meter of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles theme song, among other things). And if you had an English teacher who was especially instructive in etymology, you may have learned that iambic pentameter takes its name from several Greek roots that translate roughly as “five metrical feet.” But wait. Greek and English meter don’t work in the same way, so how did we come to use Greek poetic terminology to describe English verse?

Sept. 10 2014 1:13 PM

Ikea's "Bookbook," Soy Milk vs. Milk-Milk, and Like-Liking. What's Going On?

Ikea has a new catalog ad that tries to sell you on the idea of a "bookbook." It's a clever parody of Apple ads, promoting the advantages of traditional books, like "328 high-definition pages" with "pre-installed content" and "no cables, not even a power cable!"

But what I'm really interested in is where they got the name for their technological marvel, the so-called bookbook: It turns out that the process that gives us "bookbook" is the same one that gives us "do you like him, or do you like-like him?" and "do you want soy milk, almond milk, or milk-milk?" It's called contrastive focus reduplication, and it's pretty interesting.

Sept. 9 2014 11:40 AM

Why Dangling Modifiers Aren't the Real Problem

There's been a little kerfuffle lately over danglers. Steven Pinker, who is a noted linguist, said in an article in The Guardian that some dangling modifiers are OK to use — in fact, according to him, they're not even ungrammatical.

What are dangling modifiers, or "danglers" for short, you ask? 

Sept. 8 2014 1:09 PM

One Planet, One Language: How Realistic Is Science Fiction Linguistics?

"You speak Romulan, Cadet?"
"All three dialects, sir." –Lt. Uhura, Star Trek, 2009.

Somewhere out in space, in the Beta quadrant of the Star Trek Universe, there's a planet called Romulus. It's a planet a bit bigger than Earth, and has about 18 billion people on it. But Earth, with a third as many people, has about 7,105 languages, while Romulus has just "three major dialects."

In fact, as you look at language-users in science fiction, from the Kzinti of Larry Niven's Known Spaceto the bugs of Starship Troopers to all the aliens in Star Wars and beyond, though they may command a vast space-faring empire across many cubic light years of territory and billions if not billions of billions of sapient speaking beings, they never seem to command more than a handful of languages. By contrast, on our lone watery rock in a measly little corner of the galaxy, we Earthlings have thousands of languages with perhaps tens of thousands of dialects. Looks like sci-fi writers have really screwed up, huh?

Well, maybe. Or maybe not. There are two ways we can look at this one planet, one language problem. And they might just save the integrity of both science fiction and linguistics.

Sept. 5 2014 11:35 AM

How Do You Rhyme in a Sign Language?

What's a childhood without nursery rhymes? And what's a nursery rhyme without, well, rhyme? Rhyme and rhythm in language are important parts of storytelling, especially for children, but how would you go about making the last part of the word sound the same if your words don't have sounds in them at all? In other words, can there be rhymes in ASL or other sign languages?

In the video below, Austin W. Andrews, an ASL storyteller also known as Awti, presents an engaging proposal for creating rhymes in ASL, using the example of "Hey Diddle Diddle."

Sept. 4 2014 10:54 AM

How to Call In Sick: 21 Complicated Terms for Minor Illnesses

Summer vacation is over, but if you don't want to go back to school or work quite yet, you may be tempted to call in sick instead. If you use these fancy medical terms for commonplace problems, you may not be learning what the teacher intended, but at least you'll be enhancing your vocabulary. 

Sept. 2 2014 10:39 AM

7 Ways to Fake-Pronounce Any Foreign Language

People who speak languages other than English are sometimes impressed by how well I and other linguists pronounce words or names in their language, even if we don't speak a word of it. But it’s not magic: Here are seven basic principles that linguists use to fake-pronounce foreign languages but that anyone can apply. They won't make you sound completely fluent, but you'll sound a lot better than the average English speaker.

Aug. 27 2014 10:02 AM

Why Isn’t “Arkansas” Pronounced Like “Kansas”?

Kansas and Arkansas aren't so far from each other on the map, but their names seem to want nothing to do with each other. Though they share all but two letters in common, Kansas comes out as "KANzis" and Arkansas as "ARkansaw." Why so different?

Aug. 26 2014 9:53 AM

When "North" Isn't Actually North: Geocentric Direction Systems

If you were traveling around Bali with a compass, you would find yourself confronted with a linguistic puzzle. The word kaja in Balinese is sometimes translated as meaning "north." And in South Bali, where most of the population lives, you would find that kaja does seem to mean exactly that. But as you travelled into the countryside, you would find villages where kaja seemed to mean "south," "east" or "west" instead.

The solution? Balinese direction terms have a different logic than English ones do. Balinese has what is called a geocentric directional system, based on geographic landmarks rather than points on a compass. Really, what the word kaja means is "uphill"—that is, "towards the biggest mountain in the area."