Monthly Archives: January 2014

Myths About Women’s Language

One thing that really grinds linguists’ gears is the constant, nonstop perpetuation of language myths by popular media. As in other sciences, linguistic untruths continually get written up and given a sense of authority by journalists who don’t know the first thing about the topic they’re writing about.

This type of reporting is especially irksome when journalists write about language and gender, because a LOT of the reporting reinforces existing gender stereotypes. This is the case especially in psychology and neuroscience reporting, but it also happens frequently in linguistics. Part of this is because there is a bias in being published as a scientist; no one is interested in a study that says “women and men are actually pretty similar.” This principle also goes for popular media, which is one of the reasons why the following three myths about the way women speak are so pervasive.

Myth #1: Women talk more than men do

When I read claims about the differences between men and women, I like to ask myself a couple of questions. As a rule of thumb, here are two good ones to ask yourself: 1) does this claim have anything directly to do with the anatomical (ahem) differences between men and women? and 2) does this claim conform to existing stereotypes about women? If the answer to the first question is “no,” then you have some reason to be skeptical — there’s a claim that the differences are biological, but there may be no direct evidence for such a claim. If the answer to the second question is “yes,” then there may be a motive for the journalist to support the status quo.

In the case of this particular myth, the answer to the first question is “no”, meaning we have some reason to be skeptical. In the case of the second question, I believe that this claim reinforces stereotypes about women. The idea that women talk more than men is nothing new. There are many proverbs about women talking a lot, and generally the underlying message is the following: women talk too much. The implication is that women should be quieter than their husbands. Some of these proverbs are hundreds of years old, and the current trend in popular linguistics and popular psychology books are only continuing the tradition.

The truth is that in many different social situations, men actually talk more often. This has been studied in “expert” talk shows, large-classroom style discussions with questions asked, and male-female face-to-face discussions. Only when the topic was very feminine-oriented (i.e. pattern sewing), did women speak more often. When women do speak, they are much more likely than men to do what linguists call “backchanneling,” which is a general term for things like “uh huh” and “mhm” and head-nodding that a listener does to show the speaker they are listening and to encourage them to continue. Next time you’re in a restaurant and you happen to be sitting near a (heterosexual) couple on a date, do a little eavesdropping. You might be surprised to hear who does most of the talking.

Why do we have these very strong, persistent misconceptions about how much women talk? One reason is the fact that women are what linguists call “marked.” “Marked” speakers are ones that are considered exceptions, and can sometimes get more attention when they do something. Men (and indeed, most privileged groups) are considered “unmarked.” Ask a friend to think about the following sentence: “The mail carrier brought the mail to our house.” Chances are, they pictured a white man doing the carrying, although the sentence does not specify the gender of the mail carrier. And you probably just pictured the friend in this scenario being male. Only when there are strong gendered assumptions about certain words (for example, “the nurse” or “the secretary”) are we more likely to picture an unspecified person as being a woman.

When women speak, they are noticed more often. In a subtle, insidious way, people notice when women speak because they may not think that women should be speaking. These feelings may not be conscious. Even many people who claim to be interested in gender equality might still feel this way. Reading an article, they may think “Oh yeah, my Aunt Martha talks way more than her husband Jeff!” Perhaps Aunt Martha is a topic of ridicule in the family, while Uncle Bill talks a lot and no one notices. Because Uncle Bill is male, he has the advantage of being unmarked, and therefore “normal”.

Myth #2: Women are better communicators than men

Let’s see how it fares on our questions: 1) This research has nothing to do with actual anatomical differences between men and women and 2) I’d say again, yes, this finding supports the status quo. This myth serves the purpose of putting women back in their rightful place: in a supportive, relationship-oriented role. On the one hand, it’s something of a consolation prize by those who want to seem progressive while enforcing restrictive gender stereotypes: men are better at leading, at science, at a lot of things that make them just perfect for high-paying careers in industry and politics. But you know what women are good at? Communicating. Intuiting. Emoting. Knowing what to say and when to say it, in order to keep the peace. They’re good at supporting those men. Men get to be interested in their own development, whereas women are other-oriented. It’s science. Sorry, ladies.

The problem (well, one of the problems) with this is that it’s hard to establish what it means to be “good” at communication. One way that neuroscience is used to defend gender differences is through the discussion of hormones. If you can prove that hormones are involved in a social behavior, you could make an argument that there is a biological basis for differences between men and women. One study linked the act of communication to the increased production of the hormone oxytocin in women. Journalists cite the fact that oxytocin is the hormone responsible for love and pleasure; the implication is that women enjoy communication more than men do, presumably because it is easier for them as women. Oxytocin has been linked to those feelings, and is generally considered responsible for women’s attachment to their babies directly after birth. However, as Mark Liberman of Language Log pointed out, the article failed to mention that the study also stated that oxytocin in the marriage context tended to signal relationship distress, meaning that the women could associate communication with a stormy period in their marriage. To quote Dr. Liberman: “Oops.”

Even if there were no directly conflicting information in the very articles cited by the neuroscience-defending-sexism brigade, the very idea of using hormones as evidence has been criticized by some. For example, neuroscientist Cordelia Fine has critiqued the hasty conclusions neuroscientists make based on the assumption that (prenatal) hormones are linked to brain structure and behavior. Neuroscience is a fairly new field, and there isn’t much information about how brain structure affects behavior, or how hormones affect that brain structure. Even the measurements used to measure prenatal testosterone, for example, are fraught with flaws — most methods have not been proven to be valid, and yet are cited as evidence of difference between men and women. One popular method for measuring testosterone is the digit ratio between the forefinger and the index finger. Although men tend to have longer ring fingers than their index fingers, and women tend to have equal length, there are many exceptions to this rule and no direct link has been established between testosterone and digit ratio. If we can’t even agree on how to accurately measure hormones, I think we have a lot of room to be skeptical of claims made on the basis of hormones alone.

Myth #3: Women use “like”, vocal fry, uptalk, and other “Valley Girl” characteristics more than men do

If you’ve noticed a pattern here, this has the same answers to the questions as the other two myths. From a linguist’s perspective, there is absolutely nothing wrong with “like”, uptalk, vocal fry, and “Valley Girl” speech in general. These characteristics are used in media to show that a character is like, a total airhead. Through our stereotypes, these have become linguistic proxies for identifying a teenage girl, and are usually used to show that teenage girls are not very bright.

But here’s the thing. Teenage girls are not the only people who use “like”, vocal fry, uptalk, etc. It is true that there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that most linguistic changes are led by women, so all of these features did originate with young women. However, in 2014, young women are definitely not the only people using them any longer. “Like” is used by older people as well, though not to the same extent. Not only that, but men are actually using “like” more often. Uptalk is becoming much more common among men as well.

Vocal fry is considered a more recent phenomenon among women, and one that has had its fair share of vilification lately. It actually used to be associated with men in studies from the 1980s. While several recent studies have associated the feature with women in informal interviews, even more recent work (alright, mine) in Michigan has found that women and men don’t differ in their usage of vocal fry in informal situations. (Women did use more vocal fry in more formal speech.) The conclusion? Perhaps there’s a regional difference between Michigan and the other places where the studies were done (Washington DC and California) or maybe men are catching up to women in their usage of this feature, as they did with uptalk and “like.”

Creaky Voice in Michigan

Results for individual speakers (“creaky voice” = vocal fry)

If you’re interested in hearing more about language and gender, or just the perpetuation of myths about the differences between men and women, I would highly recommend checking out The Myth of Mars and Venus by Deborah Cameron and Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference by Cordelia Fine.

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Does Your Accent Determine Your Friends?

If you’ve read the About section of my blog, you may have noticed that one of my main goals for the blog is to highlight interesting research and describe it in a way that non-linguists can understand. I have previously alluded to some research, for example, in the sound symbolism post. Today, however, I will dedicate the entire post to Dr. Katherine Kinzler’s 2009 paper, “Accent Trumps Race in Guiding Children’s Social Preferences.” If this post interests you, you may want to take a look at my previous post on language discrimination.

In previous literature, psychologists have already established that children care a lot about gender, race, and age in choosing friends. Children who are the same (or close) in these areas are more likely to become friends than children who differ in a category. For example, a white female child of age 6 would prefer another white female child of age 6.

Dr. Kinzler, of the University of Chicago Psychology Department, wanted to see whether language was a factor as well. She came up with simple experiments that tested for whether children would want to be friends with children who both spoke a foreign language (which the children in the study did not understand) and used foreign-accented speech (which they did).

For Experiment 1, children were asked whether they would rather be friends with a white boy who spoke American English or a white boy who spoke French. Unsurprisingly, they chose to be friends with the child who spoke English. When choosing a friend, it is certainly advantageous to be able to understand that friend.

Experiment 1

In Experiment 2, children were asked to choose between a boy who spoke French and a boy who spoke English with a French accent. When the children were asked whether they understood the French speaker or the French-accented speaker, the children overwhelmingly chose the French-accented speaker. However, when asked whether they would rather be friends with the French speaker or the accented speaker, the kids didn’t really care. If you speak with a French accent, you might as well be speaking actual French.

For Experiment 3, children were asked whether they would rather be friends with an African-American girl who spoke English with an American accent or a white girl who spoke English with a French accent. When race was pitted against accent, accent was chosen to be more important to the children than race in choosing friends; this is surprising, because race is considered to be very important to children in choosing friends, according to previous literature.

Experiment 3

For Experiment 4, children were asked whether they would rather be friends with a white boy with an American accent or a white boy with a French accent. Children chose to be friends with the boy with the American accent as opposed to the child with the French accent. Again, this isn’t too surprising, as it agrees with the general “more like me is good” attitude established by the previous research.

Experiment 4

Although race, gender, and age are robust factors in children’s friendship preferences, language seems to be important as well. Language and accent, as it turns out, are quite literally shibboleths for friendship among children. This means that, even for young children, language is a notable part of their lives. They therefore can, and do, discriminate on the basis of language. In fact, for these young children, language discrimination is more likely than racial discrimination. How much does this affect the social relationships we build? When you look back on your childhood friendships, did your friends talk like you?

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When Language Mimics Life

Language is fairly incredible, when you think about it. One system, based on anatomical possibilities within the vocal tract or the sign space, is able to express literally anything we need it to express. We may wish simply to say “I walk,” meaning that the speaker engages in a very simple motion in the present time, easily demonstrated. However, we can also discuss more complex topics, everything from foreign policy to literature to general relativity.

One reason for this vast range of uses is what linguists call “arbitrariness.” Arbitrariness is language’s ability to use a series of sounds to represent a word with no direct connection to the meaning of the word the sounds represent. For example, when you think of a furry, four-legged animal that barks, you may associate the word “dog” with that animal. There is nothing in the sounds “d”, “o”, or “g” that has anything to do with the dog. This can be demonstrated with the variety of sounds used to describe that same animal, even within a related language family: dog, chien, perro, hund. This difference between sound and meaning allows language to be flexible. Can you imagine how difficult it would be to explain an abstract concept like time if the sounds of the language had to have some connection to the meaning of the words they represent?

While most of the phonetic makeup of a word is arbitrarily determined, there is some degree of non-arbitrariness in language. The classic example is onomatopoeiae, when words sound like what they mean. Think of comic book words: boom! crash! zoink! But there are also many other types of non-arbitrariness, or “sound symbolism” (or “iconicity” or “phonosemantics”) in language. When you begin to dig into the research on the subject, you find some pretty cool things.


Comic via Cyanide and Happiness

In some cases, sound symbolism is based on the physical aspects of how the sound is produced. Take the sound “ee” as in “peek.” Say it out loud and notice how big your mouth is. It’s pretty small, right? The tongue is near the front of the mouth, and the mouth does not open very far. Your lips stretch back a little bit, in a smile, which is why people are asked to say “cheese” when taking a picture (try to smile while saying “oops”; it can’t be done, at least, not attractively). Compare saying “peek” to “ahh.” In “ahh” your mouth is much more open, which is why doctors ask you to say it when they check your throat.

The physical smallness of the sound “ee” when it is produced is important for sound symbolism. Cross-linguistically (in many different, unrelated languages), the sound “ee” is used to denote smallness, or something endearing. Think of English words like teeny weeny, or adding -ie to words to make them cuter, i.e. “doggie.” The Spanish suffixes -ito and -ita work in the same way. Hermanita is the more intimate form of hermana, which means sister. Hungarian has the suffixes -i and -csi to make a name cuter, which use the same vowel sound.

Another example of sound symbolism relying on physical production of the sound is called the “Bouba/Kiki Experiment.” The Bouba/Kiki Experiment is one of the most well-known psychological experiments in language. The task was fairly simple. Subjects were shown a picture of two objects (see below), one in a spiky shape and one a more Nickelodeon-style curvy blob. They were given two words : “bouba” and “kiki,” and they were asked to label the two objects with those words. Overwhelmingly, the word “bouba” was assigned to the curvier blob and the word “kiki” was assigned to the spikier blob. This result has been replicated with several different, unrelated languages. Why is it that this effect is so robust? One of the explanations is that the round blob more closely matches the shape of the mouth for “bouba,” where the lips are rounded, whereas the narrow spiky blob matches the narrow, angular way the mouth opens for “kiki.” Even as I write this, I have a little bit of discomfort writing the words “spiky blob,” because the word “blob” seems too rounded to represent the kiki shape.

Bouba Kiki

Another form of sound symbolism is the combination of sounds resulting in words with certain meanings at better-than-chance rates. For example, think of words that start with gl-: glitter, gleam, glow, glimmer. All of those words have something to do with reflected light. Sometimes, the same consonant cluster can be different for different people. Br- is strongly gendered, for example, with very stereotypically female roles in words relating to feeding and taking care of people, as in bread, braise, breast-feed, etc. and for men this is where we find words like brute and brawn. A really lovely, extensive list of these types of words is available here through John Lawler’s website.

sn- words

Taken from John Lawler’s “The Data Fetishist’s Guide to Assonance Coherence”

There are some people who even think all words contain sound symbolism in one form or another. While that may be a little extreme, I think it’s clear that there are definitely strong forces of non-arbitrariness at work. However, keep in mind that even with a clearly sound-symbolic word, there can be interlinguistic differences. See the comic below, and the many lovely illustrations of linguistic differences on a wide variety of topics on James Chapman’s website.

Animal Onomatopoeia

Drawing from James Chapman’s website

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Constructed Languages


This is a little bit of a weird topic for a blog with the tagline “a blog about language in the ‘real world’,” but today I’m going to talk about constructed languages. I was inspired by a post about Parseltongue (from the Harry Potter series) from Gretchen McCulloch’s wonderful blog, All Things Linguistic. She reblogged it from someone else, but I wanted to advertise both of them here because a) Gretchen’s blog is very interesting; and b) she gave me a lot of great advice for starting this blog.

I haven’t seen the Harry Potter movies for a while, so I only remember Parseltongue being some vague hissing, but it was developed very carefully as a “real” constructed language, taking into account real snake physiology. For example, snake lips aren’t as pliable as human lips, so sounds like “b” and “w” are hard to make, as well as vowels like “o” like “boat” and “u” like “boot”.

I like constructed languages for a couple of reasons. First of all, I think it’s really great that people can be so creative with linguistics. Constructed languages provide a very public venue for non-linguists to appreciate linguistics. It also gives me a bit of faith in humanity, specifically human integrity; because really they could be speaking nonsense (a la the Great Dictator) and 95% of people wouldn’t care. But more often than not, they put the effort in to make a linguistically possible language, even for Parseltongue.

Following this theme of constructed languages, I will now discuss two of the most well-known constructed languages: Elvish and Klingon. Entire books have been written about them (like this and this), but I’m going to focus on some of the major points.



J.R.R. Tolkien was actually an academic linguist, mainly studying the history of the English language. However, he is far more well-known for writing The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings series. One of the reasons Tolkien wrote these books was to use the languages he had constructed. He wrote in a letter in 1956 saying that Esperanto and other constructed languages “are dead, far deader than ancient unused languages, because their authors never invented any Esperanto legends.” While you could certainly make the argument that these constructed languages have not fared any better than Esperanto, they do have a very dedicated following among certain niche groups. The Elvish Language Fellowship (E.L.F.), for example, publishes two print journals about the subject.

As a historical linguist (a linguist who studies the history and long-term changes in language), J.R.R. Tolkien was extremely detailed in developing the way that the Elvish languages evolved. So much so that when I was an undergraduate, the historical linguistics research group I was in dedicated an entire meeting to sound change in Elvish. In fact, Elvish is not a single language, but an entire family of languages, like the Romance languages. In general, when people talk about “Elvish,” they are talking about Quenya.

Elvish family tree


Quenya’s sounds were based mainly on Latin. The words are put together in a style linguists call “agglutinative,” which means that smaller particles of words form larger words. English is not a great example for an agglutinative language, but it does act like one occassionally. For example, the word “unbelievable,” has three separate parts: “un-believe-able.” The parts between the dashes are called “morphemes,” and in agglutinative languages nouns, verbs and other parts of speech are morphemes which form one long word, often containing a whole sentence. The agglutinative structure of Quenya is based on the agglutinative structures of Finnish.

The writing system (Tengwar) is more like the Semitic systems where the consonant is written out and the vowel is a symbol above the larger consonant letter. So for example,  in English a word like “book” would be written “bk” with an accent symbolizing the “oo” vowel. The general shape of the letter is different depending on where it is pronounced in the mouth.

The first paragraph of the Declaration of Human Rights in English using the Tengwar writing system.


Klingon Hamlet

Yes, this really exists.


Klingon first appeared in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, where there were four lines of Klingon. However, the full version of the language did not appear until the next film, for which director Leonard Nimoy commissioned Mark Okrand to create a full language. Mark Okrand has a PhD in Linguistics from UC Berkeley, where he worked on Native American languages. You can see Dr. Okrand discuss it himself in this video.


In some ways, things were already decided for the author. Klingon names and some short sentences had to be part of the language because they were used in previous films. Aside from these restrictions, Okrand deliberately designed Klingon to seem “alien”. He created a sound inventory with relatively uncommon sounds like retroflexes (used in Indian languages) and uvulars (used in Arabic). He also chose an unusual word-order: object-verb-subject. In English, this would become “them like I”. In most languages, subjects come before the object (closer to “I like them” or “I them like”).”

He also made prefixes for some pronouns (modelled after some languages in the Himalayas) that contained information about both the object and the subject. For example, “vI”+verb means that I do something to you. If you want to say you perform that same verb to me, it would be “qa”+verb.

There are many, many resources on the internet for these languages, and hundreds of others, on the internet; I encourage you to explore them!


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Word of the Year Part 2


Group selfie, or “grelfie.”

The results are in! The Word of the Year is “because”, as in “because internet,” or “because science.”  I will discuss the reasoning that was presented later in the post but first I want

The basic rules are as follows: everyone votes for their favorite choice in each category. Then, the votes are tallied, and if two words are at all close, those two words are voted on again. I will list all of the options by category, their respective numbers of votes, and then the number of votes for the second round of voting. Before each vote, there is some time allotted for speeches made in favor or against a certain word. As I mentioned in the last post, some words are not so much new as they have come into new usage in the past year. For their definitions (as defined by linguists at the conference), they are posted at the American Dialect Society website here.

Most Useful

Preliminary voting

Because + noun: 64

Selfie: 37

Slash (as a conjunction): 51

Struggle bus: 32

Final votes

Because + noun: 117

Slash: 79

Most Creative

Preliminary voting

Bitcoin: 4

Catfish: 62

Doge (the general style, not the specific word): 70

Robo Sapiens: 51

Final votes

Catfish: 94

Doge: 88

Most Unnecessary

Cronut: 18

Sharknado: 162

Stack-ranking: 11

Most Outrageous

Preliminary voting

Fatberg: 26

Revenge porn: 46

Shmeat: 17

Thigh gap: 43

Underbutt: 54

Final votes

Revenge porn: 75

Underbutt: 110

Most Euphemistic

Demised: 16

Least untruthful: 121

Slimdown: 72

Most Likely to Succeed

Binge-watch: 117

Drone: 19

Glasshole: 21

Obamacare: 51

Least Likely to Succeed:

Birthmas: 19

Harlem shake: 19

Thanksgivukkah: so many that they decided not to count

Most Productive (a new category for this year)

Preliminary voting

-coin: 0

-(el)fie: 39

-shaming: 98

-splaining: 49

-spo: 1

Final votes

-shaming: 132

-splaining: 68

Finally, the overall Word of the Year votes were the following:

Because + noun: 127

Slash: 21

Twerk: 7

Obamacare: 39

Selfie: 20

Although I personally voted for “selfie” for the Word of the Year, “because + noun” is a choice that had broad appeal with both the public and linguists. It has become widely publicized through such large media outlets as the Atlantic and the CBC, and the usage among internet users has gone up tremendously since linguists started noticing the phenomenon a year ago. One of the speeches made in favor of “because+noun” as the Word of the Year mentioned that, while individual words like “selfie” will always exist as candidates for the honor, we don’t often get to vote on a new grammatical item. That is, while there will always be a new word like “selfie”, we as speakers don’t generally change sentence structure all that often.

I realized after all the voting that I missed one that should have been mentioned, which was “feel,” meaning “feelings”. If you follow internet culture, you may have noticed that a common sentence was “I know that feel, bro,” or “so many feels.” While I don’t  think it would have changed the outcome, it should have at least been mentioned.

Since this is a topic which has broad appeal with the general public, I would love to hear back from those of you who read the blog about what you think of our decisions. What would you have voted for? Do you think we missed anything?

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Word of the Year Part 1


I’m at the Linguistic Society of America Annual Meeting in Minneapolis right now, and one of the most eagerly anticipated events of the conference, for linguists and non-linguists alike, is fast approaching: the Word of the Year vote. A room full-to-bursting (in my experience) with professional linguists votes on the word that we decide was the most important linguistic innovation of the year. We also vote on the following categories for a word: most useful, most creative, most unnecessary, most euphemistic, most likely to succeed, and least likely to succeed, plus a grammatical innovation category (for example, -spo meaning “inspiration”, as in fitspo, thinspo). The official nomination meeting was last night, but there will be opportunities for more nominations during the vote itself. There are many good contenders for the different categories, but some words which you may recognize were brought up frequently: “selfie”, “twerk,” and “Sharknado,” as well as the general doge style I mentioned in my post before Christmas. There is always lively debate about these topics — for example, some linguists have brought up that certain populations have used the word “twerk” for over 20 years; does it really merit mentioning at a Word of the Year meeting just because it recently got appropriated by Miley Cyrus? However, older words with newer usages have been successful in previous Word of the Year votes. Last year, the Word of the Year was “hashtag,” which was in circulation before last year, but just now was being used in spoken speech rather than merely as a way to tag tweets with their topics.

I’ll update tomorrow with the results and a summary of the discussions that ensued.

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Fun Facts about Sign Language

Just a couple of announcements before I get to the body of this post. First of all, Happy New Year! While the New Year can be exciting for everyone, linguists get a special treat every year around this time: the Linguistic Society of America’s Annual Meeting, the biggest conference in the field of Linguistics. I’ll be going this year, so you can expect an extra post or two this week – at the very least, I’ll report on the American Dialect Society’s Word of the Year! I’ll go back to my normal posting schedule (once a week on Wednesdays) afterwards.


NSF in American Sign Language

Since I discussed the sign language community of South Africa recently, I thought it might be a fun idea to share some facts about sign language that hearing people may not know. I will preface by saying I am by no means an expert on the subject. I can count the number of signs I know on one hand. However, it is incredibly common for a person to go through a linguistics education and absorb information about languages without even being able to ask for directions to the bathroom in said languages.

So, without further ado, I present to you: the facts.

Fun Facts about Signed Languages

1. There is not just one “sign language.” That may seem obvious — why would deaf people in Russia and the US sign the same language? However, you may not know that sign language is very distinct from spoken language, and the fact that people in two countries may speak the same spoken language does not guarantee that their signed languages are what linguists call “mutually intelligible” with one another. Languages are mutually intelligible if a speaker of one can understand the other, and vice versa. In fact, due to its unique history, American Sign Language (ASL) is actually closer to French Sign Language than to British Sign Language.

2. In the case of American Sign Language, the “listener” focuses on the face, not the hands. Facial expressions take the place of rhythm and intonation (what linguists call “prosody”), and in many cases ASL speakers will mouth the words in English while signing them. Signing occurs in the space around the face, as well as below the face in front of the torso. There is a tendency for signs that occur around the face to be “small”: they are made with one hand, and if there is a corresponding motion that motion tends to be restricted in area. By contrast, signs made further down in front of the torso tend to be double-handed signs, with more boisterous motion.

3. Pronouns (I, you, him, her, etc.)  are not signs, but motions. For example, in the ASL sentence “I give you,” , “I’ and “you” are not really individual signs, but instead a signer would form the sign for “give,” indicating that “I” give to “you” by moving the “give” sign forward from themselves in the direction of the person they are signing to. If the sentence changed to “you give me,” they would simply reverse the direction of the motion.

4. Having just read Fun Fact #3, you may be wondering about how they handle referring to people who are not in the room. If an ASL speaker wants to talk about their friend Lucy, but Lucy is not in the room, she will point to a space in the room, and assign that space the value of “Lucy” (via “fingerspelling” using hand symbols to represent individual letters). In order to use pronouns (so they don’t continually have to spell “Lucy” to discuss Lucy), they will indicate that space in the same way they could indicate “I” and “you” in the example from #3.

5. ASL speakers have signs equivalent to spoken English “um” and “uh.”

6. For linguists, sign language tells us much about language and communication in general. All spoken languages  have the same physiological constraints of the vocal tract. Signed languages do not have those same constraints, but instead signers must communicate with an entirely different set of physiological restrictions, which are in turn common to all signed languages. When you look beyond the physiological similarities between the systems, comparing signed language and spoken language can tell you a lot about the cognitive and psychological aspects of language.

Do you have any other fun facts about sign language? Put them in the comments below or on my Facebook page.

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