Why “Mom” Sounds the Same in Most Major Languages

In almost every language on Earth, no matter how distantly related, the word for mother is more or less a variation of “ma” or “mama”; this is one of the few instances of a word being near-universal across distinct cultures.

It is hypothesized that this is because these are some of the earliest sounds that infants make, and thus every culture associated them with the mother. Russian linguist Roman Jakobson proposed that infants make these sounds nasally while nursing.

Read more about this fascinating phenomenon at The Atlantic

Latin American Attitudes to the U.S.

The United States’ relationship with Latin American has long been a fraught one, not least because the country historically regarded the entire hemisphere as being under its sphere of influence, subject to military interventions, orchestrated coups, and support for dictators.

But as The Economist reports, since the mid-1990s, following the end of the Cold War — and with it, most U.S. meddling — as well as the sweep of democracy and economic growth across most of the region, sentiments have warmed up quite a bit. Continue reading

Eurasia’s Oldest Words

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It is hard to imagine that the world’s many distinct and disparate languages, such as those highlighted above, share a common ancestor. But a new study reported in Foreign Policy  has ostensibly identified several words shared by at least three major Eurasian language families.

In research published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Mark Pagel, Quentin D. Atkinson, Andreea S. Calude, and Andrew Meade attempt to identify words shared between Eurasia’s major language families — implying that they may be relics of an older common tongue. Most words have a “half life,” meaning there’s 50 percent chance they’ll be replaced by a new noncognate word every 2,000 to 4,000 words. But some words — particularly numerals, pronouns, and adverbs — tend to last longer.

Using a database of hypothesized ancestor words, the authors looked for words related by sound within the language groups in the map above. (An example: The Latin pater is obviously related to the English father.)  They found “188 word-meanings for which one or more proto-words had been reconstructued for at least three language families”.

Among the shared words are the following:

  • Thou
  • I
  • Not
  • That
  • We
  • To give
  • Who
  • This
  • What
  • Man/male
  • Ye
  • Old
  • Mother
  • To hear
  • Hand
  • Fire
  • To pull
  • Black
  • To flow
  • Bark
  • Ashes
  • To Spit
  • Worm

The researchers have concluded that these common words prove the existing of linguistic “superfamily” that evolved from a common ancestor around 15,000 years ago. Interesting stuff.

Still Life: Vase with Pink Roses

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Source: Wikimedia Commons

Still Life: Vase with Pink Roses by Vincent van Gogh. It was painted in 1890 while Van Gogh was preparing to leave the asylum in Saint-Rémy for the quiet town of Auvers-sur-Oise.

As his departure neared, he became increasingly optimistic about his future, as reflected in his choice of subject and colors: Van Gogh had a love for flowers of all kinds, and tended to paint them in his brighter moments. Vivid colors similarly reflected a more positive mood. Continue reading

The Globalized Origin of Thanksgiving

I know this post is a bit late contextually — sorry, I’ve had a busy holiday! — but I think it is an interesting enough point to explore at any given time.

Globalization and Thanksgiving are not two topics most people think to put together. But as Farok J. Contractor points out in a piece in Quartz, the context of the event — which loosely commemorates the success and survival of the early English settlers who laid the foundations of the United States — is indelibly tied to a newly emerging international order of mass migration, trade, and cultural transfusion across continents. Continue reading

Video: The Rise of Megacities and the Era of “Connectography”

Humanity’s rapid and unprecedented rate of urbanization and connectivity is leading to the emergence of a truly globalized society. Goods and services, social relations, cultural products, ideas and values, and people themselves are transcending political and geographic boundaries like never before.

Needless to say, this trend is impacting every facet of human life, portending a future in which existing national borders — the kind we’re accustomed to seeing in every map of the world — fail to capture a new pan-human community. Indeed, the nation-state as we take for granted today may not exist at all.

Granted, such claims come with plenty of caveats. The world still far from abandoning the forces of nationalism, religious extremism, ethnic chauvinism, and basic parochialism, to say nothing of the technical challenges that remains; arguably, such sentiments have only grown stronger in some parts of the world in recent years.

In any case, there is no denying that whatever challenges or reversals lie ahead, the world is not what it once was, and today’s concept of a nation-state dominated international order is longer adequate for capturing the reality of our global society. Parag Khanna brings this to light with an interesting new TED Talk that explores the emergence of megacities and the subsequent erosion of geographic and political barriers — a dramatic shift he refers to as “connectography”. Check out the twenty minute video below, or read the transcript here. Continue reading

Africa’s Troubling Borders

One of the key reasons why the African continent seems perennially rife with tribal, ethnic, and religious conflict — more so within countries than between them — harkens back to borders imposed upon the diverse peoples of Africa by European colonials. Even a casual glance of a political map of Africa show how odd and idiosyncratic many of its borders are.

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Continue reading

Beyond the Presidency

Remember that no matter who becomes president of the U.S., there is more to our political system than the person occupying the Oval Office. While the executive branch is indeed important and powerful, the federal system allocates a lot of power to Congress and the states: governors, attorney generals, state representatives, judges, etc. — as well as city and county officials — all play crucial roles in our lives.

Many of the great changes in history — the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, the Civil Rights movement — first emerged and succeeded at the local and state levels. These are the incubators in which new policies and ideas are tested. These are where many nationally prominent politicians and reformers often get their start. Continue reading

The Peasant Wedding

Today’s featured picture on Wikipedia — which represent the highest quality and most valuable images publically available on the site — is a personal favorite of mine: The Peasant Wedding, a Renaissance-era oil painting by Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder. (The Flemish people live primarily in the Flanders region of what is now Belgium.)

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What I love most about this painting is its slice-of-life subject matter: at a time when most well-known paintings were of merchants, aristocrats, or religious figures and events, Bruegel’s trademark was depicting various aspects of peasant life in the 16th century. (Indeed, he was known as the “Peasant-Bruegel” for his unconventional, though still often symbolic portrayal of the common person.)

You can read more about the painting, including speculation as to who the groom is, here. (The bride is sitting in front of the green textile hanging on the wall, right below what has been identified as a paper crown.)