Monthly Archives: March 2014

Like My Blog? You’ll Probably Like These Too.

Via Gretchen McCulloch’s blog, All Things Linguistic

This week, I decided that I would share with you some other great language blogs where I draw inspiration and information. And if you have any other linguistics blogs that you follow, feel free to share them in the comments or on the Facebook page.

Language Log

This is the Bible of linguistics blogs. With an all-star (in the linguistics world, anyway) cast of contributors, especially the ultra-prolific Mark Liberman, this blog covers a lot of ground in the field of linguistics, and is frequently cited by major news outlets. The content is widely varied, from jargon-filled posts for professional linguists to discussions of current events like Rachel Jeantel’s testimony in the Trayvon Martin case, to fascinating, bizarre topics like xenoglossy (the sudden “ability” to speak a language you have never learned). The blog is written in a (mostly) accessible way, so you should take a look.

All Things Linguistic

I’ve mentioned this blog before, but its virtues bear repeating. While Language Log is run by veteran linguists, most of them having been in academia for decades, All Things Linguistic is a language blog that appeals to a younger audience. The blog is written by Gretchen McCulloch, a grad student at McGill. She weaves together popular culture and linguistic knowledge in an engaging blog that addresses important topics like the grammar of the doge meme and John Travolta’s “Adele Dazeem” slip-up. She has especially been targeted by news outlets for her knowledge of internet language. Her posts are so popular and have such broad appeal that she has been asked to do guest blog posts for the Toast and has been interviewed on the BBC and CBC.

Anne Curzan on Lingua Franca

Anne Curzan is another linguist who has achieved some public visibility. Her blog entries on Lingua Franca, the language blog of The Chronicle of Higher Education cover a number of interesting topics. She is always on the lookout for new language forms, on the internet or otherwise. She often writes on the topic of prescriptivism (for a refresher on what that is, you can check out my post about it) and language and gender (which you may have noticed is one of my pet topics as well). She also has a wonderful short radio program on Michigan Public Radio (Michigan’s NPR station) called That’s What They Say, which you can listen to online or download as a podcast via iTunes.

Do you have a favorite linguistics blog? Please tell us about it!

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What Languages Sound Like to Foreigners

Recently, a video has gone viral of a young Finnish woman speaking gibberish that sounds like what certain languages sound like to foreigners. If you watch the video below, you can see that although some of them aren’t perfect, many of the languages she imitates sound remarkably realistic.


How is it that you can make yourself sound like you’re speaking a language, when you aren’t using any of the words of that language? The bulk of this type of performance is based on phonology, the patterning of sounds in a language. First of all, a Youtuber must know all or most of the sounds of the language they are imitating. If they choose to imitate English, they must know that English contains several “unusual” sounds, like our “r.” To make the gibberish really sound like English (as opposed to another language), they should use that sound a lot — the more usage of those distinctive sounds, the better.

Not only does the Youtuber have to know the inventory of sounds for a language, but they must also know what sounds can go together. For example, in English there are many sounds you cannot use in combination, either at the beginning of a word, the middle of a word, or the end of a word. You cannot start a word with a combination of the sound “k” (as in “car”) and the sound “th” (as in “three”). So a word like “kthar” is not acceptable, even as a gibberish word for English. The sounds “m” (as in “mother”) and “p” (as in “police”) cannot occur at the beginning of a word like “mpal”, but are considered totally fine in words like “bump” or “clump.” Some combinations cannot occur anywhere, such as “s” (as in “sun”) followed by “b” (as in “bump”); therefore, “tisb” would not be a good word to use. A word like “beemp” or “snorl”, however, would be perfectly fine.

In Japanese, where the phonological rules are different, a word like “beemp” would not be okay, even though Japanese also has the sounds “b”, “ee”, “m” and “p.” Syllables of Japanese cannot end in a consonant cluster like that. To imitate a Japanese word, you’d need to use what linguists call “open syllables,” which are syllables that do not end in a consonant. The only consonants that are allowed to end a syllable in Japanese are “m” and “n”. Think of every Japanese word you know; they will all follow this rule. Sudoku, karate, samurai, sensei. In addition, Japanese words do not allow consonant clusters like English does. You can see how this plays out in English loanwords in Japanese. A Japanese word for a labor strike, from English strike, becomes sutoraiki, inserting vowels so that it becomes a “good” Japanese word. So a good fake Japanese word would be something like “panaku,” whereas a word like “stranum” would not be a good word for Japanese, but would be perfectly fine in English.

I am not suggesting that the people who do these videos know about all these steps consciously. I would guess that in reality, they learn to do the fake language by doing what we all do naturally, as language learners: listen and imitate. Even professional linguists sometimes have trouble determining what phonological rules are at play in a language. However, in order to put on a convincing linguistic performance, a rudimentary knowledge of phonological rules for a given language is necessary.

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Is the Moon Male or Female?

One of the most interesting and most hotly debated theories in the field of linguistics is called the “Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis,” or “linguistic relativity.” The idea is simple: the language you speak affects the way you think. Here’s an example from Whorf’s “Science and Linguistics” paper, where Hopi and Eskimo are compared to English. In some areas, English has more words than Hopi, like the “flying things” category in the first panel, but for others we have fewer, as in the example for water on the bottom panel. This is partially because culture affects our language — for example, people living in traditional Hopi culture may not have been using planes as often as English speakers (this article was published in 1940), and therefore there was really no need to denote a plane, a pilot, and a dragonfly with separate words. Conversely, the difference between bodies of water and drinking water could have been more important to their everyday lives.

The idea that language affects your thoughts is somewhat controversial in linguistics. Most linguists would agree that language does change the speaker’s thought process, at least in a small way. However, it seems unlikely that language shapes our thought too strongly. Imagine if one language has, due to its structure, concepts that are totally foreign to another language. One could imagine that the task of translation between the two languages would be very difficult, almost impossible.

There’s a pretty good chance that most of my readers have studied either Spanish, French, or German, because they are so common in our high schools. If you’re a native English speaker, you probably struggled a lot with grammatical gender, both with the memorization aspect and the conceptual aspect. How can a trashcan and a planet be female? How can a CD be considered male? (Bonus points to readers who can guess which of the three languages I took based on that information alone.) A professor of mine once told me she had seen French and German speakers argue until they were blue in the face about whether the moon was “really” male or female. While to an English speaker grammatical gender is just a pain for high school students, speakers of these languages really do form gendered ideologies about inanimate objects.

There are several studies that confirm that speakers of languages with grammatical gender really think of these inanimate objects as literally masculine or feminine. In one study by Boroditsky et al., German and Spanish speakers were asked, in English (to ensure that they were asked in a gender-neutral way), to remember proper names assigned to inanimate objects, i.e. a pencil could be named Patrick. Half of the nouns they were asked about were given names consistent with their grammatical gender — if a pencil was masculine, for example, then Patrick would be consistent. As predicted, speakers were much more likely to remember the names of the objects if their names were consistent with grammatical gender.

In another study by the same people, native speakers of German and Spanish were asked to give the first three adjectives (in English) that came to mind when asked about 24 inanimate objects. The results were very clear: masculine objects were described with “masculine” nouns and feminine objects were described in very “feminine” ways. For the word key, which is masculine in German, German speakers described it as hard, heavy, jagged, and serrated. Spanish speakers, on the other hand, have a feminine key, and they described it as little, lovely, intricate, and golden. For the word bridge, the grammatical genders were switched. Here the Germans described bridges as slender, elegant, pretty, and fragile. Spanish speakers, by contrast, called bridges strong, big, dangerous, sturdy, and towering.

In a separate study by Julie Boland and Robin Queen of the University of Michigan, participants listened to names of objects (in German) spoken by both male and female native speakers. Listeners were then asked to respond, as quickly as possible, with the gender of the speaker (not the noun). Listeners were significantly faster if the gender of the speaker matched the gender of the noun.

As you can see, there is some merit to the idea that language shapes thought, at least in the case of grammatical gender. We can tell that it makes a difference in how listeners think of their nouns, from something as explicit as the gendered descriptions of inanimate objects, to something as subtle as reaction time in identifying the gender of a speaker.

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