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

Eurasia’s Oldest Words

map_621

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.

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.

Happy Languages

It seems that most humans are inclined towards pessimism and negativity: look at how we enrapt by the awful occurrences we encounter day to day (from gossip to car accidents), or how sordid and scandalous news spreads like wildfire (especially when compared to more positive developments, which are more likely to get no reporting in the first place).

But a recent study suggests that contrary to popular belief, or indeed to our frequent reactions to negativity, our fundamental means of communication is rife with a “universal positivity bias”. As The Atlantic reports:

This bias was first posited in 1969, when a pair of psychologists wrote a paper called “The Pollyanna Hypothesis,” named for the fictional orphan girlwith a propensity to look on the bright side. The original study had high school boys, who belonged to different cultures and spoke different languages, do word association tasks, and then ranked whether the pairs were positive or negative. More often, they were positive.

In the new PNAS study, researchers analyzed texts from Google Books, Twitter, the New York Times, a Google Web Crawl, subtitles from movies and TV shows, and music lyrics. They measured how frequently words were used in each language (English, German, Chinese, Korean, French, Spanish, Brazilian Portuguese, Arabic, Russian, and Indonesian), and had native speakers rate how negative or positive they felt upon hearing those words.

In every language, on every platform, the median happiness score was higher than five—five being a totally neutral word—as seen in the chart below. The yellow is the “above-neutral” portion, and the blue is the “below-neutral.”

Below is the aforementioned chart. In total, over 100,000 words spanning ten languages were examined.

Given that these languages cover a large proportion of the world’s population (especially when you count non-native speakers), it is safe to say that most humans communicate in a language that leans towards positivity. Moreover, there are some nuances between languages:

Spanish and Portuguese were the most happy, in this study. For some languages, it really depended what kind of text the researchers were looking at—in English, music lyrics were significantly less positive than books, the New York Times, or even Twitter.

So all the languages studied tended to use happy words more often, but overall, languages also contained more happy than unhappy words. The researchers also measured “average word happiness” and found it to be high, regardless of how frequently those words were used in the text. So even lesser-used words were more often positive than negative.

As someone who is not a scientist, let alone linguist, I am not sure what to make of these results or their implications. The responses to the article seem skeptical or at least neutral, with one commentator pointing out something that also came to my mind:

The study does not cover words used in everyday interpersonal speech by everyday people, only the mere existence of the word types and writing, which is done by professional and political individuals to show off in one way or another. Maybe the study proves language bias accurately, but not the bias of language users in everyday life.

I would be curious to know how positive languages are when used in an everyday, colloquial context among average people. Were such a study possible, it would yield more comprehensive results. But given the recentness of this study, perhaps we can expect that in the future. For now, I am inclined to agree with the article’s conclusion:

“Words, which are the atoms of human language, present an emotional spectrum with a universal, self-similar positive bias,” the researchers write. While individual texts—books, songs, tweets—may skew negative, all in all, it looks like language is a positive tool.

What are your thoughts on this?

From Hygge to Wabi-Sabi

Among the many advantages of learning a language — aside from being able to tap into a whole other world of literature, media, and human knowledge — is the often underappreciated ability to pick up on ideas and philosophies that would otherwise be unknowable outside said language.

While many people see various languages as simply different ways of saying the same thing, almost every cultural and linguistic group has concepts that are so unique to them, they are untranslatable (except roughly, if even that).

It might be difficult to wrap one’s head around this fact, but there are all sorts of ideas, observations, and even emotions that are limited only to certain languages (never mind particular proverbs, idioms, and other sayings that exist only within certain linguistic and cultural contexts).

Nevertheless, it is very important to try to understand these conceptions, because their appeal and usefulness are universal regardless of their inedibility. Consider the following Danish concept of hygge, courtesy of Mother Nature Network (MNN), which lists several other unique concepts from around the world (including Germany, India, and Japan).

“Hygge is a deep sense of cosy that can originate from many different sources. Here is a good example from my life: a cloudy winter Sunday morning at the country house, fire in the stove and 20 candles lit to dispel the gloom. My husband, puppy and I curled up on our sheepskins wearing felt slippers, warm snuggly clothes and hands clasped around hot mugs of tea. A full day ahead with long walks on the cold beach, back for pancake lunch, reading, more snuggling, etc. This is a very hyggligt day.” Now that sounds do-able, doesn’t it?

Indeed, I am sure just about anyone from around the world could see the appeal to this approach.

Many of these concepts also reveal the unique geographic and historical contexts in which they were developed, such that while they can be appreciated elsewhere, they are clearly formed by specific circumstances and influences. For example, the (fun to pronounce) Norwegian idea of friluftsliv:

Friluftsliv translates directly from Norwegian as “free air life,” which doesn’t quite do it justice. Coined relatively recently, in 1859, it is the concept that being outside is good for human beings’ mind and spirit. “It is a term in Norway that is used often to describe a way of life that is spent exploring and appreciating nature,” Anna Stoltenberg, culture coordinator for Sons of Norway, a U.S.-based Norwegian heritage group, told MNN. Other than that, it’s not a strict definition: it can include sleeping outside, hiking, taking photographs or meditating, playing or dancing outside, for adults or kids. It doesn’t require any special equipment, includes all four seasons, and needn’t cost much money. Practicing friluftsliv could be as simple as making a commitment to walking in a natural area five days a week, or doing a day-long hike once a month.

Given Norway’s famously pristine natural environment, characterized by abundant forests, mountains, rivers, and fjords, it makes sense that over the centuries, they would develop such a conception; Japan, a similarly forested and mountainous country with a culturally-ingrained love of nature, developed a similar concept called shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing”, which denotes the idea “that spending time in the forest and natural areas is good preventative medicine” (which indeed modern science is starting to validate).

I encourage you to read the rest of the article to learn about other great ways to see the world and live life. While you are at it, check out this list of 11 other untranslatable words (also from MMN). There are single words to describe everything from “being alone in the woods” (waldeinsamkeit, German) to “the road-like reflection of the moon on the water (mangaia, Swedish).

Hat tip to social media buddy Brian Wolf for sharing this aricle.

Twenty words that once meant something very different

The interesting (and often hilarious) ways that language has changed. Some of these evolved meanings may some degree of sense (such as clue and flirt).

ideas.ted.com

Words change meaning all the time — and over time. Language historian Anne Curzan takes a closer look at this phenomenon, and shares some words that used to mean something totally different.

Words change meaning over time in ways that might surprise you. We sometimes notice words changing meaning under our noses (e.g., unique coming to mean “very unusual” rather than “one of a kind”) — and it can be disconcerting. How in the world are we all going to communicate effectively if we allow words to shift in meaning like that?

The good news: History tells us that we’ll be fine. Words have been changing meaning — sometimes radically — as long as there have been words and speakers to speak them. Here is just a small sampling of words you may not have realized didn’t always mean what they mean today.

  1. Nice: This word used to mean “silly, foolish…

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Why Do We Call Turkey, “Turkey”?

Of course, by “we” I mean English-speakers, and there are several theories, all of which seem plausible. From The Atlantic

The linguist Mario Pei theorized that more than five centuries ago, Turks from the commercial hub of Constantinople (which the Ottomans conquered in the mid-15th century) sold wild fowl from Guinea in West Africa to European markets, leading the English to refer to the bird as “turkey coc” or “turkey coq” (coq being French for “rooster”), and eventually “turkey” for short. When British settlers arrived in Massachusetts, they applied the same terms to the wild fowl they spotted in the New World, even though the birds were a different species than their African counterparts. The etymology expert Mark Forsyth, meanwhile, claims that Turkish traders brought guinea fowl to England from Madagascar, off the coast of southeast Africa, and that Spanish conquistadors then introduced American fowl to Europe, where they were conflated with the “turkeys” from Madagascar. Dan Jurafsky, another linguist, argues that Europeans imported guinea fowl from Ethiopia (which was sometimes mixed up with India) via the Mamluk Turks, and then confused the birds with North American fowl shipped across the Atlantic by the Portuguese.

It gets more interesting: the Turks called the turkey “hindi” because they thought it origined from India. The French had also called the bird “poulet d’Inde” (literally “chicken from India”), which has since been abbreviated to dinde, and similar terms exist in languages ranging from Polish to Hebrew to Catalan. The Dutch called it kalkoen, which means “hen from Calicut”, a major Indian city at the time. The Indians, for their part, called turkey “piru” or “peru” in some dialects, the latter being how the Portuguese refer to turkey. Malaysians call turkey “ayam blander” (“Dutch chicken”), while Cambodians opt for “moan barang” (“French chicken”).

Whatever its etymology, most people would call it delicious (although — not to put a damper on Thanksgiving — the modern turkey has unappetizingly deviated much from its original stock).