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

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The Most Popular Second Languages in the World

So there is an app called Duolingo that is apparently one of the most popular language-learning services in the world. (I’ve heard of it but never knew much about it, let alone tried it.) With about 120 million users worldwide learning one of nineteen different languages, it seems to offer a pretty good sample size for determining which of the world’s languages are most popular to learn. That said, the company crunched numbers and discovered the following:

most-popular-duolingo

As is always the case with this sort of research, there are some caveats. As Quartz reports: Continue reading

The Decline of Foreign Languages in the U.S.

With English serving as the dominant lingua franca for everything from commerce to academia, Americans, as the world’s largest native Anglophones, are generally far less inclined to learn foreign languages than their European and Asian counterparts.

Indeed, as The Atlantic recently reported, cutting back on foreign language courses is not only a long-running — and steadily increasing — trend among elementary and middle schools, but it was even touted as a viable solution for freeing up time for more important lessons. Continue reading

How English Sounded Five Centuries Ago

As a reminder of English’s Germanic roots and profound French and Norse influence, enjoy the following reading of a 16th-century poem, spoken in the common language of the day, Middle English. (You can find a transcript here.)

You likely recognize certain words and pronunciations from modern English, as well as the distinctively sing-songy Nordic accent. It is pretty fascinating to hear firsthand how much the language has changed.

Via Encurious.

The English Language Explained in 25 Maps

If you want a comprehensive but easy-to-read guide to the world’s most widespread language, checkout this colorful article by Vox.com. For those who love visual data (especially maps) alongside dense but digestible factoids, it is a pretty good source, covering everything from English’s origin to how it is changing to this day.

I found this particular fact to be especially fascinating:

Here’s how the English language got started: After Roman troops withdrew from Britain in the early 5th century, three Germanic peoples — the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes — moved in and established kingdoms. They brought with them the Anglo-Saxon language, which combined with some Celtic and Latin words to create Old English. Old English was first spoken in the 5th century, and it looks incomprehensible to today’s English-speakers. To give you an idea of just how different it was, the language the Angles brought with them had three genders (masculine, feminine, and neutral). Still, though the gender of nouns has fallen away in English, 4,500 Anglo-Saxon words survive today. They make up only about 1 percent of the comprehensive Oxford English Dictionary, but nearly all of the most commonly used words that are the backbone of English. They include nouns like “day” and “year,” body parts such as “chest,” arm,” and “heart,” and some of the most basic verbs: “eat,” “kiss,” “love,” “think,” “become.” FDR’s sentence “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” uses only words of Anglo-Saxon origin.

And for both native and foreign speakers perplexed by some pronunciation contradictions — why “slaughter” and “laughter” sound so different despite having the same words — here is an interesting explanation.

If you think English spelling is confusing — why “head” sounds nothing like “heat,” or why “steak” doesn’t rhyme with “streak,” and “some” doesn’t rhyme with “home” — you can blame the Great Vowel Shift. Between roughly 1400 and 1700, the pronunciation of long vowels changed. “Mice” stopped being pronounced “meese.” “House” stopped being prounounced like “hoose.” Some words, particularly words with “ea,” kept their old pronounciation. (And Northern English dialects were less affected, one reason they still have a distinctive accent.) This shift is how Middle English became modern English. No one is sure why this dramatic shift occurred. But it’s a lot less dramatic when you consider it took 300 years. Shakespeare was as distant from Chaucer as we are from Thomas Jefferson.

Pretty neat stuff.

How Politeness Can Be Seen As Rudeness

Many outsiders, particularly from the West, tend find Chinese to be too direct and terse, interpreting this as rudeness. But as an article in The Atlantic reveals, the opposite is true: in China, too many pleasantries are seen as denoting a lack of familiarity and closeness (a sentiment that applies to other cultures as well, such as India).

…among good friends, the contrasts between the politesse of what you do and the bluntness of what you say can seem baffling. At a restaurant with friends, a delicate choreography will have one person carefully select a few choice morsels from the common bowl and place them on a neighbor’s plate. It is a small, perfect gesture. Another person will pour tea or beer for everyone else before even considering pouring his own. And then another will announce “Gei wǒ yan!”, literally “Give me salt!” with no sign of a please or thank you involved. I’m always taken a little aback and bite my tongue to stifle a “Say please!” after so many years of training children in Western table manners.

My Chinese friends say they notice that Westerners use lots of pleases (qǐng) and thank yous (xiexie) when speaking Chinese. And actually, they say, we use way too many of them for Chinese taste. A Chinese linguist, Kaidi Zhan, says that using a please, as in “Please pass the salt”, actually has the opposite effect of politeness here in China. The Chinese way of being polite to each other with words is to shorten the social distance between you. And saying please serves to insert a kind of buffer or space that says, in effect, that we need some formality between us here.

It makes some intuitive sense: compare how you interact with your closest loved ones versus distant relatives, acquaintances, or strangers. Though some cultures and societies are more imbued by this logic than others — hence the comparative dearth of niceties in their languages — the foundations of it seem intuitive.

This is important to keep in mind whenever you find your interactions with someone of another culture to be awkward or abrasive. It might simply be that they are coming from a totally different worldview shaped by language and custom. It might be an obvious point, especially in this increasingly globalized world, but it is still commonly overlooked.