49 posts tagged language
English May Have Retained Words From an Ice Age Language
If you’ve ever cringed when your parents said “groovy,” you’ll know that spoken language can have a brief shelf life. But frequently used words can persist for generations, even millennia, and similar sounds and meanings often turn up in very different languages. The existence of these shared words, or cognates, has led some linguists to suggest that seemingly unrelated language families can be traced back to a common ancestor. Now, a new statistical approach suggests that peoples from Alaska to Europe may share a linguistic forebear dating as far back as the end of the Ice Age, about 15,000 years ago.
“Historical linguists study language evolution using cognates the way biologists use genes,” explains Mark Pagel, an evolutionary theorist at the University of Reading in the United Kingdom. For example, although about 50% of French and English words derive from a common ancestor (like “mere” and “mother,” for example), with English and German the rate is closer to 70%—indicating that while all three languages are related, English and German have a more recent common ancestor. In the same vein, while humans, chimpanzees, and gorillas have common genes, the fact that humans share almost 99% of their DNA with chimps suggests that these two primate lineages split apart more recently. (via English May Have Retained Words From an Ice Age Language | Wired Science | Wired.com)
More than 22 million text messages are sent across the world every day … many in truly terrible English. It’s the end of the world as we know it, many decry. The decline and fall of written language means the end for us all, right? Not so fast. Linguist John McWhorter has a great new theory on what’s really going on in modern texting. Far from being a scourge, texting is a linguistic miracle.
Spoken human language has been around for about 150,000 years, but it wasn’t until much later that written language came about; as he puts it: “If humanity has existed for 24 hours, writing came about at 11:07 pm.” This distinction is crucial what it comes to the so-called degradation of written language — because texting isn’t written language. It much more closely resembles the kind of language we’ve had for so many more years: spoken language.
When you write, you can do things you can’t do in speaking. McWhorter elocutes a passage from Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. It’s precise, detailed and crisp — and “no one would ever speak that way. At least not if they were interested in reproducing.” Casual speech is quite different: looser, telegraphic, less reflective. Texting ignores punctuation and capitalization, but does anyone think about these things when speaking?
Formal oration, a kind of speaking that sounds like writing, has always been common. But why not try to write like you speak? Now that we have incredibly fast technology to keep up with the pace of speech — mobile phones, rather than typewriters or handwriting — that’s actually possible. What is texting? McWhorter suggests: “fingered speech.”
Texting, like any language, has its own distinct rules and structures. Take the example of “lol.” “Lol” once meant “laughing out loud.” But anybody who texts today knows that these days it has a subtler meaning.
Consider the exchange:
Julie: lol, i know.
Susan: i just sent you an email.
Julie: lol, i see it.
Let’s be honest, there’s nothing funny about this. As McWhorter says, “lol” here acts as a marker of empathy and accomodation, what linguistics call pragmatic particles, and which exist in many languages.
McWhorter cites a passage from 1956 bemoaning the decline of language in young people … and then three more, all the way back to 63 AD: a pedant lamenting everyone’s terrible Latin. (That “terrible Latin” eventually became French.) As he says, “There are always people worried about the decline of language. Yet somehow the world keeps spinning.” There’s no need to worry, he says firmly. People are even benefiting from texting, from this entirely different language. Being fluent in spoken language, written language and writing-like-speaking language is an unconscious balancing act that allows each “speaker” to expand his or her linguistic repertoire.
So no scourge is imminent. McWhorter says, if he could fast-forward to 2033 — besides first checking to see if David Simon had written a sequel to The Wire — he would immediately want to see texts written by 16-year-old girls to see what’s become of this linguistic miracle.
Hints of Human Language Heard in Lip-Smacking Monkey Talk
Sounds made by a little-known monkey living in Ethiopia’s mountain grasslands may hint at the origins of human speech. Unlike most other primates, which communicate in strings of short, relatively flat-toned syllables, geladas possess uncannily human-like vocal tempos and undulations.
“When we first started working with geladas in 2006, we noticed sounds like people were talking around you,” said evolutionary biologist Thore Bergman of the University of Michigan. “Most primates only make a few sounds, but geladas produce a complex stream with a rhythm similar to language.”
Key to the gelada vocalizations, described today by Bergman in Current Biology, is the ability to smack their lips. Underlying that seemingly simple action is a rich synchrony of lips, tongue and the hyoid bone beneath them.
Earlier research on lip-smacking in macaque monkeys found it distinct from lip-moving while eating, and also noted an intriguing correspondence to the universal rhythms of human language.
Though the monkeys moved their lips without without actually vocalizing, the researchers speculated that lip-smacking could have been a precursor to human speech, setting a tempo for what would become the sonic foundations of language.
Bergman builds on that notion. He shows that geladas sometimes use lip-smacking to shape their calls, giving them a human language-like quality. Geladas were already known to possess an extremely rich vocal repertoire; lip-smacking adds to that richness.
An open question, said Bergman, is whether the lip-smacking vocalizations have some special significance. “We don’t know much about the function,” he said. “It will be interesting to see if the fact they produce these complex sounds allows them to communicate things other monkeys might not be able to.” (via Hints of Human Language Heard in Lip-Smacking Monkey Talk | Wired Science | Wired.com)
Does the language we speak determine how healthy and rich we will be? New research by Keith Chen of Yale Business School suggests so. The structure of languages affects our judgments and decisions about the future and this might have dramatic long-term consequences.
There has been a lot of research into how we deal with the future. For example, the famous marshmallow studies of Walter Mischel and colleagues showed that being able to resist temptation is predictive of future success. Four-year-old kids were given a marshmallow and were told that if they do not eat that marshmallow and wait for the experimenter to come back, they will get two marshmallows instead of one. Follow-up studies showed that the kids who were able to wait for the bigger future reward became more successful young adults.
LONG BEACH, California – All the handwringing by 7th-grade English teachers and parents over the tens of millions of grammatically challenged texts sent every day misses the point of what texting is, says John McWhorter, a linguistics professor at Columbia University. “Texting isn’t written language,” McWhorter told the audience at TED2013. “It much more closely resembles the kind of language we’ve had for so many more years: spoken language.”
Speech is the way we humans have communicated for about 150,000 years. Writing, while a useful artifice, is a relatively new invention. “If humanity has existed for 24 hours, writing came about at 11:07 p.m.,” McWhorter says.
At some point, the precision and detail of writing made its way into speech. Everyone from Cicero to Abraham Lincoln’s warm-up act at Gettysburg, Edward Everett, spoke as if they were writing. “It has nothing to do with casual speech,” McWhorter says. “It is formal.” Everett’s two-hour oration was a model of the oratory form, but was blown out of the water by Lincoln’s brief and far more human speech.
So if we can speak like we write, why not write like we speak — looser, telegraphic, and less reflective? For starters, we haven’t had the right tools. Pencils, typewriters, even computers were too slow to keep up with the pace of human speech, McWhorter argues. But the speed and convenience of the mobile phone could match it. (Though not part of McWhorter’s argument, it seems that the tool of the mobile phone plus the synchronous nature of texting – and instant messaging – also lends itself to a spoken, rather than written, form.) So if texting is not exactly writing, what is it? McWhorter suggests the descriptive (albeit awkward) “fingered speech.”
“It’s easy to think it represents some sort of decline,” McWhorter says. “We think something has gone wrong, but what is going on is a kind of emergent complexity.”
Could the language we speak skew our financial decision-making, and does the fact that you’re reading this in English make you less likely than a Mandarin speaker to save for your old age? It is a controversial theory which has been given some weight by new findings from a Yale University behavioural economist, Keith Chen. Prof Chen says his research proves that the grammar of the language we speak affects both our finances and our health. Bluntly, he says, if you speak English you are likely to save less for your old age, smoke more and get less exercise than if you speak a language like Mandarin, Yoruba or Malay. (via BBC News - Why speaking English can make you poor when you retire)
Backers of a universal alphabet say it will make pronunciation easy and foster international understanding. But can phonetic spelling systems really smooth the path to world peace?
You are in Vietnam and want a bowl of soup. You ask a local where you can get “pho”. After momentary confusion you are handed a book.
It’s the curse of phonetics. Pho was correct. But you failed to emphasise the vowel and so articulated in Vietnamese “copy” (of a book).
English has more pitfalls than most other languages. “Don’t desert me here in the desert” is a classic example of the heteronym, words spelt the same but pronounced differently. Bill Bryson remarked in his book Mother Tongue that there were nine separate pronunciations of hegemony.
What is SaypU?
- Phonetic alphabet for writing all languages - name stands for spell as you pronounce universally
- Uses 24 letters from Latin alphabet
- Adds a reverse e - ɘ or Ǝ - for the sound schwa
- Leaves out c (replaced with either k or s), q (k) and x (ks or gz)
Words and phrases are fundamental building blocks of language and culture, much as genes and cells are to the biology of life. And words are how we express ideas, so tracing their origin, development and spread is not merely an academic pursuit but a window into a society’s intellectual evolution.
Digital technology is changing both how words and ideas are created and proliferate, and how they are studied. Just last month, for example, the Library of Congress said its archive of public Twitter messages has reached 170 billion tweets and rising, by about 500 million tweets a day.
The Library of Congress archive, resulting from a deal struck with Twitter in 2010, is not yet open to researchers. But the plan is that it soon will be. In a white paper, the Library said that social media promises to be a rich resource that provides “a fuller picture of today’s cultural norms, dialogue, trends and events to inform scholarship, the legislative process, new works of authorship, education and other purposes.”