A Blog About Language

Sept. 29 2014 1:34 PM

Free "Tudoring" and a Moist Owlet: The 5 Different T Sounds in English

To the untrained ear, the letter t would seem pretty straightforward. Except for the embarrassment of pronouncing an occasional silent one—when, say, you chanced to read buffet or croquet before hearing them aloud—you probably haven't thought much about t since the days of Sesame Street. As a consonant, after all, t isn't like those slippery vowels, which can stand for some half dozen sounds apiece, and even when it’s joined by h to make a new sound (well, two), "th" still feels satisfyingly consistent. But what if I told you there were fully five different sounds that t can make in English, depending on which dialect you speak?

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Sept. 26 2014 1:36 PM

THIS. What's So Exciting About a Pronoun?

Earlier this year, bloggers at Gawker left behind internet slang for a formal style more in line with the New York Times than gossip blogs. As Gawker attempts to redefine itself as a publishing authority, its new editorial guidelines have adapted to explicitly forbid the language that Gawker’s readers recognize as an identifying component of its brand. One banned term stood out amid the roster of internet slang, which included OMGWTF, and amazeballs: the standalone this.

What could be so controversial about this, your everyday, run-of-the-mill pronoun?

Sept. 25 2014 2:01 PM

The QWERTY Keyboard Is Everywhere. What's Next? 

Apple has just released an update for iOS 8, the operating system that runs on iPhones and iPads, and they’re supporting 3rd party keyboards for the first time in iOS history. Perhaps that's partly why I’m a little bit keyboard-obsessed right now: Over the last week, I have typed on 11 different devices: an old iPhone, a new iPhone, an iPad, two laptops, a desktop, a Kindle Fire, a Kindle Paperwhite, a TiVo, a Surface, and an old-school typewriter.

Every device apart from the TiVO uses a QWERTY keyboard layout by default. But why are we even using the QWERTY keyboard in the first place, and what can trends in computational linguistics tell us about the future of inputting text into machines?

Sept. 23 2014 1:51 PM

Sunshine, Baseball, and Etch A Sketch: How Politicians Use Analogies 

In the summer of 1940, with England in retreat from mainland Europe and Belgium and France falling under the Nazi shadow, Winston Churchill addressed the British people. "Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war," he said. "If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age."

The speech, one of Churchill’s best, radiates emotional force. In his new book Shortcut: How Analogies Reveal Connections, Spark Innovation, and Sell Our Greatest Ideas, former Clinton speechwriter John Pollack helps explain why. It wasn’t just that the moral solemnity of the moment heightened Churchill’s words, Pollack argues. The Prime Minister’s skillful use of analogy tapped into an entire root system of neural connections around the concepts of up, down, light, and dark. Without noticing it, listeners came to associate an English victory with the positive notions of illumination and high ground. Defeat meant sinking down, not just into dust but into darkness—a benighted age in which the country’s most brilliant values were snuffed like candles.

Sept. 22 2014 1:22 PM

Is Arabic Really Just One Language? 

All language-learners face the difficulties of regional variations or dialects. Usually, it takes the form of an odd word or turn of phrase or a peculiar pronunciation. For most languages, incomprehension is only momentary, and the similarity—what linguists often refer to as the mutual intelligibility—between the standard language taught to foreigners and the regional speech pattern is maintained. For a language such as French, only the most extreme cases of dialectical differences, such as between Parisian and Québécois or Cajun, pose considerable difficulties for both learners and native speakers of dialects close to the standard. For other languages, however, differences between dialects are so great as to make most dialects other than the standard totally incomprehensible to learners. Arabic is one such 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?

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.