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To the brain, reading computer code is not the same as reading language

In some ways, learning to program a computer is similar to learning a new language. It requires learning new symbols and terms, which must be organized correctly to instruct the computer what to do. The computer code must also be clear enough that other programmers can read and understand it. In spite of those similarities, […]

Welcome back: the recovery of Australia’s Indigenous languages

Dharug* woman Jacinta Tobin is Buruberongal (belonging to the kangaroo, the people from around Richmond) and Canamadagal (belonging to the possum, the people from near Prospect). But growing up dyslexic in Emu Plains in the 1970s, she didn’t know the names of the western Sydney clan groups of her ancestors, or know they were “Dharug […]

Bringing a language back to life

With fewer and fewer fluent speakers of the Crow language, advocates for revitalizing it hope a free online dictionary can aid people already working to bolster their skills and make learning the language more accessible. On Thursday, a group of linguists, native Crow speakers and programmers launched the app after four years of work on […]

The next generation is bringing Australia’s ancient languages into the future

Before colonisation, over 250 First Nations languages were spoken in Australia. Now, just over 100 are still in use and 90 per cent are considered “endangered”. “Without your language, you’re nobody,” Ms Holden said. “Your language describes your country and your culture. That’s why it’s so important for us.” Ms Holden is one of a […]

The Inspiring Quest to Revive the Hawaiian Language

Pelehonuamea Suganuma and Kekoa Harman were bright-eyed high schoolers in Honolulu when they first crossed paths, in the 1990s. The two were paired for a performance—a ho‘ike, as such shows are known in Hawaiian. Both teenagers had a passion for hula and mele (Hawaiian songs and chants), and they liked performing at the school they’d […]

Losing elders to COVID-19 endangers Indigenous languages

Eliézer Puruborá, one of the last people to grow up speaking the Puruborá language, died of COVID-19 in Brazil earlier this year. His death at the age of 92 weakened the fragile hold his people have on their language. Indigenous languages in Brazil have been threatened since the Europeans arrived. Only 181 or so of […]

The Tale of One Tiny Songbird Is Amplifying an Ancient Mayan Language

Maria de Los Angeles Azuara couldn’t hold back tears when she heard two dozen children singing at a small school in the Mexican state of Chiapas. Guided by their music teacher, the elementary students performed a song they’d adapted about a new friend, a young Golden-cheeked Warbler named Chipilo who lived in the same mountains […]

How the pandemic has widened the opportunity to take translated literature to readers

The fear and uncertainty created by the deadly invisible pathogen permeated at first our public spaces and our physical boundaries and then, slowly but perceptibly, our homes, our conversations, our skins, our souls, and our hopes. For a while, it seemed as if survival was the only mother tongue in a country of more than […]

How the German language differed between East and West

One surefire way to tell whether somebody is an east or west German is to ask them what noise a duck makes. West Germans will typically say quak, quak, while east Germans will say nak nak nak. As far as the latter are concerned, it’s frogs that go quak, not ducks. The sound nak nak […]

Can online classes during the pandemic bring back an endangered language?

The pandemic has steered a lot of learning online, and language classes have been no exception. But learning an indigenous language with few native speakers left — such as Abenaki, spoken by Vermont’s original inhabitants — presents a unique challenge, and precarity is its own brand of pressure. Language teachers hope that lessons learned during […]

How does being bilingual affect your brain? It depends on how you use language

Depending on what you read, speaking more than one language may or may not make you smarter. These mixed messages are understandably confusing, and they’re due to the fact that nothing is quite as simple as it’s typically portrayed when it comes to neuroscience. We can’t give a simple “yes” or “no” to the question […]

Wizard battles and demon circles revealed in newly translated Christian texts

Have you ever heard the story of a wizard battle that supposedly took place when an early church was constructed? Or how about the story of a border guard who defied King Herod’s orders and spared Jesus’ life? Scholars have now translated these and other “apocryphal” Christian texts (stories not told in the canonical bible) […]

Subtle Ways Your Language Shapes the Way You Think

You spend almost all of your waking hours—and even some of your non-waking hours—using language. Even when you’re not talking with other people, you’re still running a monologue in your head much of the time. And you also frequently use language when you dream. Given the degree to which you use language not only for […]

Adding Words To The Dictionary Has Always Been A Slow Process. Then COVID-19 Hit

There’s been no shortage of criticism in recent week of everyone from business leaders to public officials to individual citizens, for not moving fast enough to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus. But one industry whose stock-in-trade is to work slowly is moving with unprecedented speed: The dictionary. Not every new word that makes […]

How COVID-19 is changing the English language

In April, the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary did something unusual. For the previous 20 years, they had issued quarterly updates to announce new words and meanings selected for inclusion. These updates have typically been made available in March, June, September and December. In the late spring, however, and again in July, the dictionary’s […]

A language generation program’s ability to write articles, produce code and compose poetry has wowed scientists

Seven years ago, my student and I at Penn State built a bot to write a Wikipedia article on Bengali Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore’s play “Chitra.” First it culled information about “Chitra” from the internet. Then it looked at existing Wikipedia entries to learn the structure for a standard Wikipedia article. Finally, it summarized the […]

Hindi might not be the national language – but it is growing rapidly across India

Is Hindi being imposed on the states of the Indian Union that don’t speak the language? For the past few weeks, a range of people living in South India have made this claim, arguing angrily that the Union government is forcing the Indo-Aryan language onto Dravidian-speaking states. On Monday, former Karnataka chief minister HD Kumaraswamy […]

Norway has been bilingual since the Middle Ages

The fact that Norwegians wrote with runes in the Viking Age and Middle Ages is well known. But how did it go when alphabetic writing arrived and we switched from runes to the letters we know today? New research on inscriptions with letters shows that the transition was far slower than many believe. “We find […]

The 360 stones which show off the earliest writing in Ireland

Ireland is well known for its rich literary tradition stretching back to the early medieval period. Dating from roughly the seventh century (although mainly surviving in later manuscript copies), our earliest texts contain diverse material in both Latin and Irish. However, there was writing in Ireland in the centuries prior to this. This was not […]

Viking Runes: The Historic Writing Systems of Northern Europe

Viking runes were not for everyday use. The Northmen’s history was told orally, and runes used only to record moments of great importance. Let’s dive deep into the fascinating world of the Viking alphabet. We’ve talked before about the many remaining runestones of Scandinavia. These magnificent monoliths with intricate imagery litter the landscape of Scandinavia. […]

Animated speaking: New cartoon focuses on Cherokee language

As a child growing up in Northeast Oklahoma, Betty Frogg grew up in a home learning to speak Cherokee first, then English. Frogg’s parents, Louise Ross Springwater and Lacy Christie, encouraged her to speak their native language at home, even as she became bilingual while attending the Seneca Indian School in Wyandotte, Oklahoma. Her father’s […]

Machine learning reveals role of culture in shaping meanings of words

What do we mean by the word beautiful? It depends not only on whom you ask, but in what language you ask them. According to a machine learning analysis of dozens of languages conducted at Princeton University, the meaning of words does not necessarily refer to an intrinsic, essential constant. Instead, it is significantly shaped […]

Scientists discover brain hack for language learning

WE ALL KNOW THAT YOU CAN’T TEACH AN OLD DOG NEW TRICKS, but what about an old human a new language? Previous research suggests that it’s much easier for young children to pick up a new language than it may be for their parents or even older siblings. A new study offers a solution to […]

How AI systems use Mad Libs to teach themselves grammar

Imagine you’re training a computer with a solid vocabulary and a basic knowledge about parts of speech. How would it understand this sentence: “The chef who ran to the store was out of food.” Did the chef run out of food? Did the store? Did the chef run the store that ran out of food? […]

Animals That Can Do Math Understand More Language Than We Think

It is often thought that humans are different from other animals in some fundamental way that makes us unique, or even more advanced than other species. These claims of human superiority are sometimes used to justify the ways we treat other animals, in the home, the lab or the factory farm. So, what is it […]

The English Word That Hasn’t Changed in Sound or Meaning in 8,000 Years

One of my favorite words is lox,” says Gregory Guy, a professor of linguistics at New York University. There is hardly a more quintessential New York food than a lox bagel—a century-old popular appetizing store, Russ & Daughters, calls it “The Classic.” But Guy, who has lived in the city for the past 17 years, […]

Quarantinis and covidiots: How language has changed during the pandemic

There’s no social distancing from the fact COVID-19 has changed the way we speak and communicate. University of Saskatchewan linguistics professor Veronika Makarova said new terms and phrases have made their way into language as a result of the pandemic. “Every time there is something new happening in our lives, the language reflects that,” Makarova […]

Languages will change significantly on interstellar flights

It’s a captivating idea: build an interstellar ark, fill it with people, flora, and fauna of every kind, and set your course for a distant star. The concept is not only science fiction gold, it’s been the subject of many scientific studies and proposals. By building a ship that can accommodate multiple generations of human […]

The drive to preserve the Lil’wat language

In mid-March, Valerie St-Arnaud and her husband Dave Leveille found themselves hurtling cross-country in a large, black RAM Promaster van during not just a snowstorm, but also a burgeoning pandemic. The couple had just purchased the van from Ontario and were in the process of bringing it back home to Pemberton. “We were at our […]

Central Europe’s Most Mysterious Language

Located between Bielsko-Biała and Oświęcim, Wilamowice may seem like a regular southern Polish town lost somewhere in the hilly landscape of the Lesser Poland region. Yet to some, Wilamowice may be the most fascinating place on the map of Europe – the linguistic map of Europe, that is. All of this is because of a […]

Why Some Words May Be More Memorable Than Others

Thousands of words, big and small, are crammed inside our memory banks just waiting to be swiftly withdrawn and strung into sentences. In a recent study of epilepsy patients and healthy volunteers, National Institutes of Health researchers found that our brains may withdraw some common words, like “pig,” “tank,” and “door,” much more often than […]

These gloves let you ‘hear’ sign language

An estimated half a million Americans with hearing impairments use American Sign Language (ASL) every day. But ASL has one shortcoming: While it allows people who are deaf to communicate with one another, it doesn’t enable dialogue between the hearing and the nonhearing. Researchers at UCLA have developed a promising solution. It’s a translation glove. […]

Students Assist with Mayan Language Revitalization Project

MIDDLEBURY, Vt. – “Saqarik!” (sah-kah-REEK!) “Good morning!” So began presentations to grade schoolers in Nahualá, Guatemala, given by four Middlebury students as part of a Mayan language revitalization project this past January. The project was led by Associate Professor of Luso-Hispanic Studies Brandon Baird. “The school kids would always laugh when they heard us speak […]

In Milpa Alta, people still speak the Aztec language

In the 1970s, before workers laid the asphalt that became a two-lane highway connecting Mexico City with Milpa Alta, the southernmost of the city’s 16 delegations, Javier Galicia-Silva’s grandmother would hike down the hills to Xochimilco each day at 04:00. From here she would take a chalupa (a large water taxi) along the ancient canals […]

How Did Human Language Evolve? Scientists Still Don’t Know

Humans have language and other animals don’t. That’s obvious, but how it happened is not. Since Darwin’s time, scientists have puzzled over the evolution of language. They can observe the present-day product: People today have the capacity for language, whether it be spoken, signed or written. And they can infer the starting state: The communication […]

Scientists make a spectacular discovery about the origin of language in the brain

Mammal brains, unlike bones, do not fossilize. This fact presents a conundrum for scientists trying to understand how we came to be how we are. For example, scientists have long argued over how humans became able to speak — if only they had an ancient brain to settle the debate! But with no time machine, […]

How Technology Helps Preserve Endangered Indigenous Languages

Of the 537 federally recognized Native American tribes, only 139 of them still have speakers of their native language, and more than 90% of those languages are at risk of becoming extinct by 2050. Languages carry tribal knowledge, culture, humor, conversation styles, spirituality, and traditions. When language speakers decrease dramatically and parts of the language […]

Can emojis be evidence in court? Forensic linguists are figuring it out

Emojis have become ubiquitous in text communication – messages are peppered with smiley faces, hearts and other graphic icons. They were first drawn by graphic designer Shigetaka Kurita, and generated by a Japanese communications firm called NTT DoCoMo in the late 1990s. Now they’re everywhere. But would you be quite so quick to insert an […]

Why Do Human Beings Speak so Many Languages?

The thatched roof held back the sun’s rays, but it could not keep the tropical heat at bay. As everyone at the research workshop headed outside for a break, small groups splintered off to gather in the shade of coconut trees and enjoy a breeze. I wandered from group to group, joining in the discussions. […]

Fight to revitalise Arabic language learning begins with children’s books

When Maitha Al Khayat was a young pupil, she often stood at the back of the classroom, during Arabic lessons, hoping she would not be chosen to read out loud. Now an acclaimed children’s book author, she said she struggled to stay engaged because the classes were overly focused on grammar and they studied books […]

A Unifying Yiddish Library in Tel Aviv’s Dilapidated Bus Station

It happened one night in 2006. The actor and singer Mendy Cahan, accompanied by two bitter and exhausted movers, parked a large van with a container in the parking lot of Tel Aviv’s New Central Bus Station. Cahan quietly opened the container, and the trio began to pull out large boxes sealed with duct tape. […]

Save the Words

The fight to keep indigenous languages alive, through speaking, software, and day care. Class starts with a prayer, but there’s no Jesus, no Muhammad, no saints or Abrahamic God. And no English. Reciting “Lavina’s Prayer” requires a handout that everyone falteringly reads from, guided by Joey Awonohopay, the director of the Menominee Language and Culture […]

The next chapter of Indigenous representation in video games

Carl Petersen is a member of the Oohe Nunpa (or Two Kettles) band of Lakota — a tribe indigenous to the North American Great Plains — and a 21-year-old self-proclaimed “Gen-Z/Millennial.” But his childhood wasn’t the always-online one you might expect. His first dial-up connection was to Rapid City, South Dakota, a town 180 miles […]

Keeping Coast Salish Languages Strong

Technology plays an important role in helping Hul’q’umi’num’ learners improve their fluency. Agnes Violet Sharon Seymour’s desire to learn Hul’q’umi’num’ stretches back to when she was a girl, listening to her father and uncle talk in the Coast Salish language. I wanted to be able to communicate and understand them,” she says. Seymour wants that […]

How the visual language of comics could have its roots in the ice age

Neil Cohn’s love of comic strips began in his family’s attic. In one of his earliest memories, he recalls his dad climbing the stairs and pulling down a box of 1960s Batman and Superman books that he had stashed away from his own childhood. To Cohn’s four-year-old self, it was as if they’d been imported […]

Card game celebrates pre-colonial Filipino script baybayin, and creator hopes to help inspire its revival

A young Philippine artist and freelance illustrator has created a card game she hopes will inspire her countrymen to help revive the written language used by their ancestors. Patricia Ramos hopes her simple game will teach players across the Philippines how to read the ancient writing system of baybayin, widely used before the Spanish invasion […]

Forensic linguists explore how emojis can be used as evidence in court

Emojis have become ubiquitous in text communication – messages are peppered with smiley faces, hearts and other graphic icons. They were first drawn by graphic designer Shigetaka Kurita, and generated by a Japanese communications firm called NTT DoCoMo in the late 1990s. Now they’re everywhere. But would you be quite so quick to insert an […]

Talking about the future of teaching Indigenous languages

The Auditor General’s report on education in the territory released in February painted a dismal picture of Indigenous language education. “After our audit in 2010, the department acknowledged its need to review its policy for Indigenous language and culture-based education. It completed this review in 2014, which found that its model was not leading to […]

Word nerds may be faster at learning to code than math whizzes

That’s because writing code also involves learning a second language, an ability to learn that language’s vocabulary and grammar, and how they work together to communicate ideas and intentions. Other cognitive functions tied to both areas, such as problem solving and the use of working memory, also play key roles. “Many barriers to programming, from […]

How a child’s first language includes more than words

This International Mother Language Day (Feb. 21), Canadians celebrated their multilingual heritage by recognizing flexible uses of languages. According to UNESCO, “Mother tongue or mother language refers to a child’s first language, the language learned in the home from older family members.” As a linguistic anthropologist who studies language use in diverse communities, I know […]

‘The kids soak it up’: How Aboriginal language transformed a school

Aboriginal elder Michael Kulka overheard a conversation between students that stopped him in his tracks while on a recent visit to the local primary school at Mossman, an hour north of Cairns in far north Queensland. It wasn’t the topic of the discussion that struck him, but the fact that the children were speaking in […]

Turkey’s endangered languages

Eighteen languages in Turkey are currently listed as endangered, vulnerable, or have become extinct, according to UNESCO. This is a result of decades of government policies that have not put other languages on an equal footing with Turkish, the first language of around 80 percent of the population. The history of forced Turkification targeting non-Turkish […]

Author hopes informal lesson book will help turn Indigenous language speakers into language teachers

An Ojibway language teacher and author is hoping that anyone who can speak an Indigenous language can use her new book to teach others. “It could be used by any group at all — Ojibway, Cree, Dene, Inuktitut — it’ll be applicable to any language in the world,” said Patricia Ningewance. Ningewance is from Lac […]

After ‘Parasite,’ Are Subtitles Still a One-Inch Barrier for Americans?

Last month, when Bong Joon Ho, the South Korean director of the film “Parasite,” accepted the Golden Globe for best foreign language film, he teased American moviegoers that a whole world of wonderful cinema awaited them beyond Hollywood. “Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing […]

Turkey’s language activists keep Armenian dialect alive in music, literature

His most recent album sung in Homshetsi can be taken as an SOS call, says Hikmet Akcicek. The tongue, a northwestern dialect of Western Armenian, is one of 15 endangered languages spoken in Turkey — and Akcicek’s band Vova means to keep it alive. The cover of the band’s July record, “Garmi Doc” (“Red Truck” […]

Why emojis and #hashtags should be part of language learning

Learning a language after one’s early childhood home language is often referred to as second language learning (despite the fact people may in fact be learning their third or fourth languages). In Canada, an officially bilingual country, both English and French are widely taught in superdiverse urban centres. Increasingly, a popular avenue for adult language […]

World’s largest linguistics database is getting too expensive for some researchers

It was 2015 when Gary Simons knew that something had to change. That was the year spare funds started to dry up at the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL), a Bible translation group that helped revolutionize the documentation of endangered languages in the mid–20th century. SIL’s budget had long supported Simons’s passion project: Ethnologue—or “the […]

3,700-Year-Old Babylonian Stone Tablet Gets Translated, Changes History

Dr. Daniel Mansfield and his team at the University of New South Wales in Australia have just made an incredible discovery. While studying a 3,700-year-old tablet from the ancient civilization of Babylon, they found evidence that the Babylonians were doing something astounding: trigonometry! Most historians have credited the Greeks with creating the study of triangles’ […]

How New Indigenous Languages Are Changing Australia

Before European colonization, as many as 300 languages were spoken on continental Australia, reflecting the cultural diversity among its original inhabitants. Today, only about 40 to 60 of these languages remain, with more than half of them no longer learned by any children. Yet the dynamic nature of language is giving some indigenous groups and […]

The Unknown Story of the Greeks Who Shaped the Latin Alphabet

The Latin alphabet is undoubtedly the world’s most recognizable form of written language, whose history goes back in time to the eras of ancient Greek and Roman dominance of the entire Western world. In its modern form, with its many variations and alterations, the Latin alphabet is officially used by an amazing 131 sovereign nations, […]

Can This Indigenous Language Thrive in a Digital Age?

On any given day, people throng the busy market in Concepción, Paraguay. Shoppers peruse the multicolored array of fruits and vegetables and occasionally pause to chat with the vendors or inquire about a price. Old women eye up potential buyers of yuyos, traditional medicinal herbs that they assure will cure any ailment, from hangovers to […]

The Language and Mind: In Which Language do you Think?

The Language and mind! The scientist “August Kekulé” was stuck in a big problem. The man spent a long time trying to imagine the chemical structure of gasoline, but he could not reach anything. Imagining the shape of petrol rings lined up seemed an incomprehensible issue. While he fell asleep, a dream drew his famous […]

Language Rights Are Human Rights: A Hope for a Future of Linguistic Diversity

Welcome to our language Taste The Sauce —Reesom Haile, Eritrean poet (translation by Charles Cantalupo) The interview was ending. I was anxious to get on with my day. But the interviewer had one last question for me: “So what is your hope for the future?” As I pondered the question, it occurred to me that […]

Reviving aboriginal language through literature and tech

A group of academics and indigenous language advocates are using technology and books to try to revive an endangered aboriginal language. Dr Hilary Smith is a linguist and author who has just launched a series of children’s books written in the aboriginal Gamilaraay language. She’s been working for the last four years in Gunnedah, north-east […]

The Realest Language

There are a lot of different kinds of books about language. Dictionaries record and define a word’s meanings; thesauri lay out its synonyms; and books on modern usage tell you how to string the word together with others to form sentences. There’s something culturally remarkable about language reference books: From etymology to slang to avoidable […]

Emotions Get Lost In Translation, A New Study Finds

Researchers find that different languages express emotions differently although they may be translated to the same word, implying the need for greater emphasis on communication in cultivating collaboration across global teams. Today more than ever we are living in a world where the distance between time and space has been made shortened due to the […]

Researchers map ancient language in West Australian outback

Amid widespread concern about the disappearance of Indigenous languages, the former Catholic mission of Balgo is located in a linguistic melting pot that is thriving after tens of thousands of years. Now, scientists want to map the local “lingua franca” called Kukatja, which is spoken more fluently than English by residents of all ages and […]

How to Resurrect Dying Languages

In the 1970s, the Hawaiian language seemed poised for extinction. Only about 2,000 native speakers remained, and most were over age 60. Then a dedicated group of advocates launched immersion schools, a Hawaiian radio program, and an island-wide movement to resuscitate the melodious language. Today more than 18,600 people speak Hawaiian as fluently as they […]

Can You Lose Your Native Language?

I’m sitting in my kitchen in London, trying to figure out a text message from my brother. He lives in our home country of Germany. We speak German to each other, a language that’s rich in quirky words, but I’ve never heard this one before: fremdschämen. ‘Stranger-ashamed’? I’m too proud to ask him what it […]

‘A way to keep our language alive’: How the Atikamekw Nation uses Wikipedia to promote its language

What started out as a high school computer science project has grown into the only active Wikipedia in Canada operating in an Indigenous language. Wikipetcia Atikamekw Nehiromowin includes over 1,000 articles, sound clips and photos representing life, history and culture of the three Atikamekw communities in Quebec. “They cover common words, the cities of Quebec, […]

The use of poetry in preserving endangered languages

Language is a powerful cultural and political tool which provides a major cultural unity in many countries. Poetry conceptualises and unites cultures and thoughts, manipulates ordinary language and in its effortless simplicity and diversity, touches minds and souls. A recent podcast by The Guardian explores the measures taken to preserve endangered languages globally through poetry, […]

How do you crack the code to a lost ancient script?

How do you go about deciphering the script of a wholly different language that was lost more than 3,000 years ago? Linguist and archaeologist Dr Brent Davis says it’s like walking out on a tightrope anchored at just one end and supported by nothing but thin air, hoping you find something to stop you from […]

5 Languages That Could Change the Way You See the World

I went to my neighbor’s house for something to eat yesterday. Think about this sentence. It’s pretty simple—English speakers would know precisely what it means. But what does it actually tell you—or, more to the point, what does it not tell you? It doesn’t specify facts like the subject’s gender or the neighbor’s, or what […]

Why words make language

From hieroglyphics to emojis, and grunts to gestures, humans have always used multiple modes to communicate, including language. If you’ve ever sent a text using emojis, which the recipient received and understood, then you’ve communicated in a new language code. Communication codes have been with us since the grunts of our ancestors developed in to […]

The Oxford English Dictionary, like the English language, is all about change

Samuel Johnson once said a dictionary should aim to “not form, but register” the language. Indeed, a dictionary should “not teach men how they should think,” he continued, “but relate how they have hitherto expressed their thoughts.” We tend to think of our dictionaries as tools of instruction; as books that set the standard, with […]

Smartphone keyboards designed for traditional languages at cutting edge of their survival

An international software firm developing smartphone keyboards specifically designed to write in traditional languages is helping people protect their language. The project, called Keyman, allows people to type in one of more than 600 different languages, most of which are majority languages. A majority language is one spoken by large groups of people such as […]

Invented Languages and the Science of the Mind

Hildegard von Bingen was something of a medieval genius. She founded and was Abbess of a convent at Rubensberg in Germany, she wrote ethereally beautiful music, she was an amazing artist (one of the first to draw the visual effects of migraines), and she invented her own language. The language she constructed, Lingua Ignota (Latin […]

Recognizing And Reviving Argentina’s Indigenous Languages

BUENOS AIRES — Argentina may be South America’s most Europeanized country, with Spanish, of course, as its official language, but it also has 36 recognized indigenous tongues (belonging to 38 peoples). That is the conclusion that researchers involved in a year-long project create the country’s first comprehensive language map presented earlier this month in Buenos […]

Why the language-ready brain is so complex

In a review article published in Science, Peter Hagoort, professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at Radboud University and director of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, argues for a new model of language, involving the interaction of multiple brain networks. This model is much more complex than the classical neurobiological model of language, which was largely […]

Here’s How Words Get Removed from the Dictionary

The dictionary isn’t forever. Here’s the lowdown on what happens to a word when its popularity starts to wane. You can’t call someone a frutescent snollygoster anymore—at least not officially. Those words have been deleted from the dictionary, so you’ll have to come up with alternate terms to describe a shrubby, unscrupulous politician. And those […]

Here’s How Words Get Added to the Dictionary

Just look it up—or look here to check out the dish on dictionaries that logophiles will love! (Logophile means word lover!) What’s the deal with new words? Where do they come from and how do they go from obscure to official? First, new words have to circulate in culture to make it into the dictionary. […]

Reclaiming a culture: How Indiana University is helping an indigenous community restore its endangered language

More than 2,000 hours of audio and video field recordings of vocabulary, interviews and storytelling from indigenous people reside in the collection of the American Indian Studies Research Institute at Indiana University. Now, some of these recordings are being put to use to help one indigenous community reclaim its endangered language and culture. The institute […]

Why larger communities create more systematic languages

The differences between the 6,800 or so languages that currently exist in the world are remarkable. From Cantonese, in which a speaker must perfect six different tones each of which change the meaning of a single word, to Georgian, in which verb endings vary not just according to the tense or plurality (as in English), […]

Gesture as language: why we point with a finger

Pointing at an object… in one sense you might say that this simple gesture doesn’t just replace a word, but that it is a word—perhaps the first word. We know that it and other such gestures play a fundamental role in human language, but until now, we have not known where these gestures come from. […]

Why Red Means Red in Almost Every Language

When Paul Kay, then an anthropology graduate student at Harvard University, arrived in Tahiti in 1959 to study island life, he expected to have a hard time learning the local words for colors. His field had long espoused a theory called linguistic relativity, which held that language shapes perception. Color was the “parade example,” Kay […]

Indigenous Languages Are in Danger of Going Extinct Around the World

Seven thousand indigenous languages are spoken around the world today, and four in 10 of them are in danger of going extinct, a recent United Nations study warned. After its release in August, U.N. experts called for a series of steps, including new laws and international commitments, to reverse what they described as the “historic […]

Why the language-ready brain is so complex

The capacity for language is distinctly human. It allows us to communicate, learn things, create culture, and think better. Because of its complexity, scientists have long struggled to understand the neurobiology of language. In the classical view, there are two major language areas in the left half of our brain. Broca’s area (in the frontal […]

Found in translation: How 57 different languages have interpreted Charlotte Brontë’s ‘Jane Eyre’

Translators are the unsung heroes of literature. Or, to be fair, largely unsung – they have a share in the International Booker Prize which recognises author and translator, who divide the 50,000-pound prize money and there is International Translation Day on September 30. It’s a chance to celebrate the small presses which publish translated novels […]

Stories etched in wax: Preservation project saves sounds of the past

Indiana University’s Media Digitization and Preservation Initiative met a major milestone this summer by completing its wax cylinder digitization project. Wax cylinders are antiquated audio recordings made of thin brown or black wax. They can be easily damaged just by the heat from your hands, and dropping one could destroy it. IU Libraries’ Archives of […]

Is this the birthplace of written Spanish?

After a short drive uphill from the small village of San Millán de la Cogolla, I found myself standing before the Suso monastery. Founded by the 6th-Century hermit monk St Millán, the monastery feels as if it belongs to another time and place. From this secluded spot surrounded by woodland, I had views of the […]

Sign languages emerge just like verbal languages do: Linguist

Sign languages emerge through a natural process in deaf communities just as verbal languages do, after a language community is formed, according to a linguist. “Sign languages are perceived as the translated language of verbal language, on the contrary, they are independent,” Zeynep Acan Aydin, a linguist at Hacettepe University, told Anadolu Agency, as the […]

Indigenous language puzzle receives missing piece after freak find buried in old book

Caroline Hughes, who researches the Ngunnawal language of the Canberra region, made the find during a workshop last week. The words, buried in a book held in Adelaide, were drawn to her attention by a relative she met while tracing her family history. “She mentioned to me in an email last week that she’d found […]

Why We Love to Learn Klingon: The Art of Constructed Languages

In 1996, linguist D’Armond Speers became notorious for attempting to raise his baby son Alec as the world’s first native speaker of Klingon, an invented language from the Star Trek universe. Speers eventually abandoned the experiment when his son showed a marked reluctance, at the tender age of five, to use the language, but that […]

Want to build a language from scratch? Start with the question who will speak it, and why

It’s well known that JRR Tolkien wrote the Lord of the Rings cycle to create people to speak the languages he had invented. But, in the television age, artificially created or invented languages – we call them conlangs – have been gaining increasing attention with the popularity of television series such as Star Trek and […]

Machines Might Not Mind Your Accent Anymore

For speech recognition systems, a change in the accent can be confusing. Words under the influence of local languages sound different and a typical homepod device can mistake an Asian speaking English or even something as native as a thick Irish accent. Deep Learning algorithms are the work horses behind these devices. The training data […]

How to build a ‘perfect’ language

It’s well known that JRR Tolkien wrote the Lord of the Rings cycle to create people to speak the languages he had invented. But, in the television age, artificially created or invented languages – we call them “conlangs” – have been gaining increasing attention with the popularity of television series such as Star Trek and […]

DNA indicates how ancient migrations shaped South Asian languages and farming

A new DNA study of unprecedented size has unveiled ancient human movements that shaped the genetic makeup of present-day South Asians in complex ways. Those long-ago treks across vast grasslands and through mountain valleys may even have determined the types of languages still spoken in a region that includes what’s now India and Pakistan. The […]

How the limits of the mind shape human language

When we speak, our sentences emerge as a flowing stream of sound. Unless we are really annoyed, We. Don’t. Speak. One. Word. At. A. Time. But this property of speech is not how language itself is organised. Sentences consist of words: discrete units of meaning and linguistic form that we can combine in myriad ways […]

Revitalizing Indigenous Languages Is Critical

Being fluent in a world language is a desirable skill in modern day society. However, some languages are suffering and in danger of extinction — namely those of the indigenous peoples. “There are between 6,000 and 7,000 world languages in the world today,” Brian Keane, rapporteur of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues said in […]

Welsh Wikipedia Gives Me Hope

If you say, “Alexa, faint o’r gloch yw hi?” the smart speaker will not understand that you are asking for the time of day. That’s because Welsh is not one of the eight languages currently supported by Amazon’s Alexa-enabled devices. Gareth Morlais, a Welsh language and digital media specialist for the Welsh government, has argued […]

Speaking in Tongues: From Elvish to Dothraki, the rise of invented languages

In the language spoken by the Dothraki on the violent and popular HBO show Game of Thrones, the word for cat is keli. Reasonable, you might think. The show is based on the books written by George R.R. Martin, surely he can come up with whatever words he likes for the animals living in a […]

Indigenous Women Are Publishing the First Maya Works in Over 400 Years

I’D STUMBLED UPON TALLER LEÑATEROS—the “Woodlanders Workshop”—completely by chance. I was walking aimlessly through the pastel-hued streets of San Cristobal de las Casas, trying to get a feel for what my guidebook had described as southern Mexico’s “most beautiful colonial city.” One particular street was quiet, dusty, and less colorful than the rest. But there […]

In 21st century, threats ‘from all sides’ for Latin America’s original languages

At school in Tecate in the 1950s, a city sitting on Mexico’s border with the United States, Josefina Meza was welcomed by a chorus of children’s chants in a language she did not understand. “Pinches indios, pinches indios,” her peers called out. At first, Meza thought they wanted to be her friends. But her brother […]

Meet The Startup Revolutionizing The Language Of Biology

London-based software platform Synthace is on a mission not just to digitize the lab, but to revolutionize the way biology is done with one simple idea: a universal language. Consider the automotive industry and its suite of tools that take an initial idea through to simulation, build and testing. After Autodesk was formed in 1982, […]

The US island that speaks Elizabethan English

I’d never been called a dingbatter until I went to Ocracoke for the first time. I’ve spent a good part of my life in North Carolina, but I’m still learning how to speak the ‘Hoi Toider’ brogue. The people here just have their own way of speaking: it’s like someone took Elizabethan English, sprinkled in […]

Machine learning has been used to automatically translate long-lost languages

In 1886, the British archaeologist Arthur Evans came across an ancient stone bearing a curious set of inscriptions in an unknown language. The stone came from the Mediterranean island of Crete, and Evans immediately traveled there to hunt for more evidence. He quickly found numerous stones and tablets bearing similar scripts and dated them from […]

The surprising story of the Basque language

A few steps from the entrance to the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, one of San Sebastian’s most visible landmarks with its sky-piercing gothic spire, lies a simple, two-faced earthen slab. In this corner of Spain’s Basque Country, it seems out of place: carved on one side with an Apostolic cross and on the other […]

Iceland is inventing a new vocabulary for a high-tech future

Every morning, Iceland’s language planners begin their day by taking off their shoes at the communal shoe rack in their office and slipping into pairs of soft clogs. As tourists begin to fill the alleyways of downtown Reykjavik with a faint babble of English, French, Chinese, and Italian, the language planners shuffle quietly back into […]

Ancestral languages are essential to Indigenous identities in Canada

Recent protests against the federal government’s approach to Indigenous language legislation is the latest manifestation of concern regarding the maintenance and flourishing of Indigenous languages and culture. Although these latest protests are centred around jurisdiction and funding, the fundamental issue for Indigenous peoples is support for an essential part of their identity. My work in […]

After 50 years of the Official Languages Act, what is the place of French in Canada?

To mark the 50th anniversary of the Official Languages Act and the International Day of La Francophonie on March 20, an Open Caucus was held at the Senate of Canada to reflect on the place of French in Canada. Professors Stéphanie Chouinard, Michael MacMillan and Benoît Pelletier addressed the following question: What is the place […]

Australia’s Ancient Language Shaped by Sharks

The tiger shark was having a really bad day. Other sharks and fish were picking on him and he was fed up. After fighting them, he met up with the hammerhead shark and some stingrays at Vanderlin Rocks in the waters of Australia’s Gulf of Carpentaria to speak of their woes before they set out […]

Coining New Words Key to Revitalizing Native American Languages

WASHINGTON — It was a thrilling find for a then-graduate student in linguistics: While conducting research in Jesuit archives in Quebec in 1999, Michael McCafferty discovered a previously unknown manuscript – a dictionary of the Myaamia-Illinois language, handwritten by a 17th century Jesuit missionary. Comprising some 22,000 entries, the manuscript has played a key role […]

How the world of fonts is making room for Indian languages

Peter Bilak likes to think of fonts as the voice of the text. They convey emotions and tone, just like voices—and just like voices, there are some fonts that are inherently better at communicating a message. Bilak knows this universe of fonts, with their adjunct emotions, intimately. In 2009, the Slovakian typeface designer had co-founded […]

The confusing way Mexicans tell time

When I first stepped foot on Mexican soil, I spoke relatively good Spanish. I was by no means fluent, but I could hold a conversation. So when I asked a local ice-cream seller in downtown Guadalajara when he expected a new delivery of chocolate ice cream, and he said ‘ahorita’, which directly translates to ‘right […]

Do You See What I See?

In a Candoshi village in the heart of Peru, anthropologist Alexandre Surrallés puts a small colored chip on a table and asks, “Ini tamaara?” (“How is it?” or “What is it like?”). What Surrallés would like to ask is, “What color is this?” But the Candoshi, a tribe of some 3,000 people living on the […]

Canadian film made in language spoken by just 20 people in the world

Plenty of films are somewhat incomprehensible, but a forthcoming movie is in a language that only about 20 people in the world can speak fluently. With subtitles, audiences will be able to understand a feature film titled SGaawaay K’uuna, translated as Edge of the Knife, which has its UK premiere in April. It is in […]

A change in our diets may have changed the way we speak

AS THE SAYING goes, we are what we eat—but does that aspect of our identity carry over to the languages we speak? In a new study in Science, a team of linguists at the University of Zurich uses biomechanics and linguistic evidence to make the case that the rise of agriculture thousands of years ago […]

Linguists need preservation of languages to study human language

In a recent article here at ScienceNordic, we argued that this year’s UN initiative International Year of Indigenous Languages is urgently needed in light of the global decline of minority and indigenous languages. In this article, we will delve into how and why we study these languages. Besides the human rights aspect of language extinction […]

There’s a Weird Similarity Between Chimp Communication And Human Language

Behind this sentence lies a solid bedrock of mathematics, one that has been shown to govern all human languages. Linguists have found the hoots and hollers, gestures and expressions used by chimpanzees obey some of the same basic principles, demonstrating the foundations of language have deep evolutionary roots. A study led by the University of […]

2019 is UN’s International Year of Indigenous Languages. And we need it to be

Today, 28th of January 2019, the International Year of Indigenous Languages (IYIL) will begin. And there are good reasons to spread awareness about the state of the world’s indigenous languages. As linguists, we are all too familiar with the depressing statistics surrounding indigenous languages. As is summarized on websites like Ethnologue, around 4,000 of the […]

Sign languages are fully-fledged, natural languages with their own dialects – they need protecting

We most often think of indigenous languages in the context of colonisation – languages used by people who originally inhabited regions that were later colonised. These are the languages that the UN had in mind when it stated a deep concern about the vast number of endangered indigenous languages. And rightly so. More than 2,400 […]

We still have no idea why humans speak over 7,000 languages

The thatched roof held back the sun’s rays, but it could not keep the tropical heat at bay. As everyone at the research workshop headed outside for a break, small groups splintered off to gather in the shade of coconut trees and enjoy a breeze. I wandered from group to group, joining in the discussions. […]

How an Edmonton-based designer is using fashion to revitalize Indigenous languages

EDMONTON—When Brandi Morin’s kohkum (Cree for grandmother) passed away, her aunties were cleaning her house and found pieces of paper scattered throughout that had short stories and memories on them in their mother’s handwriting. They found the elongated, cursive writings on scrap bits, papers, and even flyers. They compiled all her writings in a mini […]

Did Humans Speak Through Cave Art? Ancient Drawings and Language’s Origins

When and where did humans develop language? To find out, look deep inside caves, suggests an MIT professor. More precisely, some specific features of cave art may provide clues about how our symbolic, multifaceted language capabilities evolved, according to a new paper co-authored by MIT linguist Shigeru Miyagawa. A key to this idea is that […]

Linguistic variation in the Spanish-speaking world

In the modern and advanced world of the 21st century, a world that knows not only globalisation, but incredible advances in science, technology and media, in an era when everything is as easy as pressing a single button, we cannot help but ask ourselves: What would the effects of these developments be on interpersonal relations, […]

The Small Island Where 500 People Speak Nine Different Languages

On South Goulburn Island, a small, forested isle off Australia’s northern coast, a settlement called Warruwi Community consists of some 500 people who speak among themselves around nine different languages. This is one of the last places in Australia—and probably the world—where so many indigenous languages exist together. There’s the Mawng language, but also one […]

These Radio Stations are Reviving Indigenous Languages

In the struggle to preserve Indigenous languages, community radio stations have emerged as a key tool to help mother tongues that were crushed under the weight of colonialism flourish once again. What was once forbidden and punished by the Canadian government — the speaking of one’s own language — can be heard with a turn […]

Is the English language too powerful?

In 2016 I published the “Power Language Index”, a research note on the efficacy of languages. It was a systematic data-driven analysis using 20 indicators to compare the clout of the world’s languages. It tried to answer the question: which language best serves a person to engage in life from a global perspective? The index […]

On a Mission to Save Languages From Extinction

NEW YORK—There are 800 different languages spoken among New York’s 8.5 million residents, and unfortunately, that number may be decreasing. One man is on a mission to make sure the city and the world don’t lose their linguistic diversity. The UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger states that 230 languages have died since […]

How English words entered Arabic through the British empire in Iraq

The British “Mesopotamian Campaign” of the First World War took almost three years to get to Baghdad – and the occupying force faced many challenges once it arrived. In fact, Britain’s overwhelming predominance over Iraq from 1917 to 1947 was a time of rough and violent political and economic “communication”. But the large number of […]

What is killing Mexico’s rich indigenous languages?

“I speak the sounds of the people of the rain” – If you ask the Mixteco people about their first language, the reply is just one example of Mexico’s rich linguistic diversity. Yet linguists, artists and human rights defenders are warning that Mexico is becoming increasingly monotone – and that discrimination, as well as repressive […]

These People Have a Mind-Bending Way to Navigate

The door of Sivek’s house looks out on a rising slope. But when he walks away from the door toward the rear of the building, he is walking “uphill”—even though the floor is flat. That’s because in Sivek’s tongue, indoor space is defined by imaginary slopes that are totally distinct from the world outside. This […]

Can the language of the Vikings fight off the invasion of English?

“Coffee and kleina,” reads a large sign at a roadside coffee shop by one of the main roads in Reykjavik. Not so many years ago, such a billboard would simply have read: “Kaffi og kleina” – in the language of the Vikings, the official language of Iceland. It is a privilege of the few to […]

Millennial Aboriginal Australians Have Developed Their Own Language

Millennials, in a way, are a firmly bilingual group, thanks in no small part to “textspeak.” With the rise of Web 2.0 at the turn of 21st century, instant messaging slang and the bevy of acronyms that resulted have become a de facto marker of age, if not cool-factor. Down under, in the remote village […]

North America’s nearly forgotten language

Even before I saw the water, I heard the rumble. Sounding like a river or a waterfall, the noise was gently muffled by the sword ferns and step moss as it reverberated through the sky-scraping red cedars and Douglas firs. What I was hearing was not a river, and if I’d come along this trail […]

How the South Korean language was designed to unify

“Our husband is also a teacher,” my co-worker told me as she noisily slurped her soup. She was seated beside another colleague, who was slurping hers, too. I was confused. Had I misheard her? Were these women married to the same person? “She’s talking about her husband,” the second co-worker clarified, perhaps noticing my blank […]

Meet the Cultural Illuminati Guarding France’s Most Sacrosanct Asset: The French Language

When you’re known as “the immortals,” as are the 40 members of the Académie Française, it’s hard to take yourselves lightly. Over the course of five centuries, 732 of them have walked the earth and reigned as the guardians of France’s most sacrosanct asset: its language. A linguistic secret service, if you like, they project […]

The Little-known Language Spoken by Jews Across the Medieval Arab World

When it was suggested to Joshua Blau, at the start of his professional career, that he study the letters of Maimonides, there were those who warned him not to undertake the task. The three scholars who had previously begun dealing with the letters had died unnatural deaths. The first was found deceased at his desk […]

Maori Language, Once Shunned, Is Having a Renaissance in New Zealand

WELLINGTON, New Zealand — A teenage thrash metal band screams out Maori lyrics in its latest videos. A popular radio host is learning New Zealand’s indigenous language and sharing new vocabulary with his audience. And residents of Merivale Retirement Village in Christchurch are studying Maori, greeting one another in the language that had been unspoken […]

The language the French forbade

On a cold night winter’s night nine years ago, I made my way along icy cobblestone streets, a howling wind at my back, into the medieval town of Sarlat-la-Canéda in the Dordogne region of south-west France. This area is famous for its prehistoric caves, medieval castles and truffles – but I was here for another […]

Don’t assume language or dialect is locked to a particular place

In an age of globalisation with unprecedented levels of mobility and communication, the world is often described as a “global village”. But this metaphor has implications for how we understand the geographical place around us. There are clearly emotional meanings connected to the concept of place. An expression such as “do you want to come […]

The Mexican art of double entendre

As a Brit living in Mexico, I’ve discovered that many people are intrigued by whether or not I eat spicy food. I once had an entire conversation with a waiter in which he asked me where I was from, what language I spoke, where exactly England was, and finally ended with the question he was […]

Forensic linguistics gives victims and the wrongfully convicted the voices they deserve

“Most people take language for granted, but not you … You and I both appreciate the power and specificity of words.” This quote, taken from the recent Netflix series Manhunt: Unabomber, sums up nicely the notion that language is more powerful than many of us are aware of. Words impact how events and those who […]

Hidden meanings: Using artificial intelligence to translate ancient texts

The ancient world is full of mystery. Many mysteries, in fact. Many mysteries indeed. Who built the monolithic and megalithic structures found all over the world? Why did they build them? How did they build them? What technology did they use? And perhaps most importantly from the point of view answering all the other questions: […]

‘Untranslatable’ words tell us more about English speakers than other cultures

When the word “hygge” became popular outside Denmark a few years ago, it seemed the perfect way to express the feeling of wrapping yourself up in a crocheted blanket with a cosy jumper, a cup of tea and back-to-back episodes of The Bridge. But is it really only the Danes, with their cold Scandinavian evenings, […]

Can language slow down time?

What if the language you spoke caused you to perceive time differently? Does that sound like magic realism? Close: it’s economics. Some recent research papers published in economics journals – notably a 2013 paper by Keith Chen of Yale and a 2018 paper by three Australian economists – have proposed that languages that grammatically distinguish […]

Can these birds explain how language first evolved?

If you want a no-fuss, no-muss pet, consider the Bengalese finch. Dubbed the society finch for its friendliness, breeders often use it to foster unrelated chicks. But put the piebald songbird next to its wild ancestor, the white-rumped munia, and you can both see and hear the differences: The aggressive munia tends to be darker […]

Can £27m a year bring a language back from near death?

The feeling of walking barefoot across a beach in summer and the sun-warmed sand chafing my toes takes me the length of this sentence to describe. My great-great-grandfather, Angus Morrison, would have used one word: driùchcainn. That’s because, born and bred on the fringes of Western Europe, on Lewis, in the archipelago of the Outer […]

How Computers Parse the Ambiguity of Everyday Language

If you’re one of the 2.4 million Twitter followers of the Hamilton impresario Lin-Manuel Miranda, you’ve come to expect a delightful stream of observations, including tweets capturing conversations with his son Sebastian, now 3 years old. Earlier this month, Miranda offered one such exchange under the title, “S’MORES. A Real-Life One-Act Play.” Me: So that’s […]

How language shapes your thoughts – what researchers know

Words work as a glue, allowing us to group together different experiences under one label. This is especially true for concepts that we cannot see or touch. But we still don’t really understand how language works in shaping the meaning of these more abstract concepts, or how it allows us to group experiences together under […]

Welcome To The Era Of Big Translation

Despite the increasing ability to reach foreign customers, the lack of quality translation methods is still the most challenging aspect of global expansion. Currently, even using the most advanced software services are an expensive, complicated, and inaccurate process. The result is that too often, businesses sacrifice millions of dollars in profit because marketing to global […]

Explainer: how Tasmania’s Aboriginal people reclaimed a language, palawa kani

Truganini’s death in Hobart in May 1876 attracted worldwide attention. She was widely, but wrongly, believed to have been the last Aboriginal person to have survived the Tasmanian genocide. Her demise symbolised the devastating impacts of British imperialism on Indigenous peoples. Yet Tasmanian Aboriginal people continue to live on the Bass Strait Islands, in rural […]

How Deaf Children in Nicaragua Created a New Language

Of all the changes within Nicaragua to come out of the overthrow of the Somoza regime by the Sandinistas in 1979, perhaps the least anticipated was the birth of a new language. Nicaraguan Sign Language is the only language spontaneously created, without the influence of other languages, to have been recorded from its birth. And […]

Gurrumul and Indigenous languages offer windows into Australia’s past and present

There’s a scene towards the end of the film Gurrumul, directed by Paul Daniel Williams screening in cinemas now, that stays with me. Set in a record store, somewhere in the United States, we hear innocuous guitar strumming in the background as people obliviously browse albums. Then vocals. In an instant, everyone stops, puts down […]

Why no-one speaks Indonesia’s language

The woman stood in her roadside stall in a quiet neighbourhood in the Indonesian city of Yogyakarta, chopping tomatoes, beans and spinach, plus one red chilli. Mixing everything in a peanut sauce, she handed the salad, called lotek, to customers who puttered up on motorbikes and waited on blue plastic stools. She was curious about […]

Switzerland’s invisible linguistic borders

It was one of the shortest train rides I had ever taken: just 10 minutes and one stop from the Swiss city of Neuchâtel. Yet when I disembarked in the small municipality of Ins, everything seemed, somehow, different. At first, I couldn’t put my finger on it. Something about the architecture perhaps? People’s body language? […]

Cwtch: The hug invented by the Welsh

I’m a quarter Welsh. My darling grandmother grew up in the Rhondda Valley, a small mining town where her father was the school principal. She didn’t speak a lot of Welsh, other than to delight us by reciting the longest train station name in the world (Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch). I was always aware, though, of the word […]

Where Australians can’t understand English

Traveller’s Rest, the dusty farm where I spent a month climbing, lies 260km north of Cape Town in the bosom of South Africa’s rugged Cederberg ranges. The mountains tower majestically above fertile citrus farmland, forming a wall that keeps the rain – and most of the tourists – to the south. Beyond the barrier of […]

Broadcasts in a Native Language, Speaking to Every Corner of Peru

The language of soccer games is ripe with phrases, metaphors and clichés that reflect modern life: a coach who parks the bus, a midfielder who shoots rockets, a striker who scores with a bicycle kick. But at 11,000 feet in the Peruvian Andes, the vocabulary changes. That is where Luis Soto, who hosts a daily […]

How Wikitongues is saving world languages from linguicide

“In the next 80 years, 3,000 languages are expected to disappear.” That’s what it says on the homepage of the Wikitongues website. And then it adds: “We won’t let that happen.” Last week, ‘we’ was Daniel Bogre Udell, one of two original founders of Wikitongues, and Kristen Tcherneshoff, its volunteer-in-chief. The frontline of their fight: […]

A New Accent Is Developing in Southwest Kansas

Say you’re a young person living in Liberal, Kansas—a small town in the southwestern part of the state, home to about 20,000 people—and someone you know does something fun without you. “I told my friends from Liberal that I had gone to Vancouver to present some research,” says Trevin Garcia, who just graduated from Kansas […]

Why it’s okay for bilingual children to mix languages

Few would consider mastering more than one language a bad idea. In fact, research points to a number of cognitive, economic and academic advantages in being bilingual. Parents who speak different languages understand the family home is an important setting to learn both, and seek various ways to help their children thrive bilingually. One of […]

How Language Hijacked the Brain

I’m sitting in the sun on one of the first mild days of the spring, talking with a modern-day flintknapper about the origins of human language. His name is Neill Bovaird, and he’s neither an archaeologist nor a linguist, just a 38-year-old bearded guy with a smartphone in his pocket who uses Stone Age technology […]

Emotions shape the language we use, but second languages reveal a shortcut around them

A taxi driver recently cut me up on the motorway. Without hesitation, I machine-gunned a string of vulgarity at the poor man. What struck me was that every word that came out of my mouth was in Spanish. As a native speaker of English, having learned Spanish as an adult, English should have been the […]

How does the brain process speech? We now know the answer, and it’s fascinating

Neuroscientists have known that speech is processed in the auditory cortex for some time, along with some curious activity within the motor cortex. How this last cortex is involved though, has been something of a mystery, until now. A new study by two NYU scientists reveals one of the last holdouts to a process of […]

How AI is helping preserve Indigenous languages

Australia’s Indigenous population is rich in linguistic diversity, with over 300 languages spoken across different communities. Some of the languages can be as distinct as Japanese is to German. But many are at risk of becoming extinct because they are not widely accessible and have little presence in the digital space. Professor Janet Wiles is […]

Islands of Language Enter Virtual Reality

There are almost 7,000 human languages spoken around the world, but by the end of the century almost half could be extinct, existing only as preserved specimens in obscure databases. The survival, and even revival, of these endangered languages could well depend on these same databases, but only if they become a lot less obscure […]

Bringing back Languages from Scraps of Paper

In 1904 Daisy Bates, an Irish-Australian journalist and ethnographer, sent out a questionnaire to squatters, police, and other authorities across Western Australia asking them to record examples of the local Aboriginal language. Mrs Bates (1859-1951) was something of an eccentric – wearing full Edwardian outfits even when living in small tents in Aboriginal camps – […]

More than 2,000 of the world’s languages are dying out

As a child, Kanako Uzawa treasured her school vacations, when she traveled from Tokyo to her family farm in Nibutani, a remote village in northern Japan. “There were rice fields extending into the distance,” she says. “It was all very green with fresh air… It was paradise for kids.” Uzawa, who was born in Tomakomai, […]

It’s Important to Know Your ‘False Friends’ in English and French

People learning a second language might have heard of the expression “false friend.” This term is used to describe words in different languages that look alike, but have different meanings. Last month, we looked at examples of false friends in two languages, English and Spanish. Today we will tell you about another language — French […]

Why teachers shouldn’t be afraid of other languages being spoken in the classroom

More than 20% of all primary school and 16% of secondary school children in the UK speak languages other than English. And there are now more than 360 languages spoken in British classrooms. But more often than not, in mainstream schools in the UK, the “home languages” of children can be sidelined at best, and […]

Australia’s taste for translated literature is getting broader, and that’s a good thing

With today’s announcement of the winner of the Man Booker International Prize shortlist, translation again finds itself in the foreground of the literary landscape. This year’s shortlist includes novels translated from a diverse array of languages including Arabic (Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi), Hungarian (László Krasznahorkai’s The World Goes On) and Korean (The White […]

How Do Languages Evolve? This Game Is Finding The Answer!

A team of researchers led by Dr. Olivier Morin at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany have released a mobile app, the Color Game, designed to study how human languages evolve. Dr. Morin’s team identified a problem in how traditional language studies are conducted; participants are often given […]

OED looks for words used worldwide to reflect global nature of English

English has been spoken across the world for hundreds of years. And now the Oxford English Dictionary has launched a campaign to make sure its contents reflects the language’s global nature. The dictionary is looking to expand its entries by including more words from Anglophone countries outside the UK. Eleanor Maier, associate editor of the […]

Studying chimpanzee calls for clues about the origins of human language

Freud, Wilkie and the other chimpanzees peacefully fed and rested in the sun-dappled Tanzanian forest. Mzee Hilali stood next to me, writing notes on the chimpanzees’ behavior, as he had been doing for over 30 years as a field assistant for Jane Goodall’s long-term study at Gombe National Park. Suddenly, a strange, high-pitched call sounded […]

Climate Change Can Also Transform Language

Language bends and buckles under pressure of climate change. Take the adjective “glacial.” I recently came across an old draft of my PhD dissertation on which my advisor had scrawled the rebuke: ‘You’re proceeding at a glacial pace. You’re skating on thin ice.’ That was in 1988, the year that the climatologist James Hansen testified […]

Can genes change the way languages evolve?

Languages are dynamic. After just a few hundred years, the English of Chaucer looks bizarre to today’s readers. The factors that drive language changes are familiar. Interaction with other languages: Roman conquest spread the influence of Latin across Europe. Metaphor: The description of a circle as “round” came to refer to a “well-rounded” individual. New […]

To Communicate With Apes, We Must Do It On Their Terms

On August 24, 1661, Samuel Pepys, an administrator in England’s navy and famous diarist, took a break from work to go see a “strange creature” that had just arrived on a ship from West Africa. Most likely, it was a chimpanzee—the first Pepys had ever seen. As he wrote in his diary, the “great baboon” […]

The words that change what colours we see

The human eye can physically perceive millions of colours. But we don’t all recognise these colours in the same way. Some people can’t see differences in colours – so called colour blindness – due to a defect or absence of the cells in the retina that are sensitive to high levels of light: the cones. […]

Do words get removed from a dictionary when people stop using them?

The Second Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary is generally regarded as the single most comprehensive record of the English language to exist. Included in this work are many thousands of words considered completely “obsolete” by lexicographers. You see, in something of a Hotel California of linguistics, once a word has made it into the […]

Mamihlapinatapai: A lost languages untranslatable legacy

It was spring when I reached the end of the world. On that mid-September day it was cold and raining in the city of Ushuaia, Argentina, but the sky cleared as I trekked nearby Tierra del Fuego National Park, allowing the sun to reflect off crisp glacial waters and snow-covered mountains. In 1520, Portuguese explorer […]

Native Language Schools Are Taking Back Education

For more than 150 years, the Wôpanâak language was silent. With no fluent speakers alive, the language of the Mashpee Wampanoag people existed only in historical documents. It was by all measures extinct. But a recently established language school on the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s reservation in Massachusetts is working to bring back the language. The […]

Bringing a dying language back to life

It’s unlikely that many of his grade-school classmates would have predicted that Sunn m’Cheaux would grow up to be a Harvard instructor. “I remember being humiliated in elementary school, because I sounded different from the other kids. I was a Gullah-speaking kid in an English-speaking class. I was a fish out of water,” the artist, […]

The Race to Save the World’s Disappearing Languages

On a residential block at the border between Brooklyn and Queens, Gottscheer Hall appears like a mirage from 1945. Blue awnings advertise the space for weddings and events. Inside, an entryway is covered with the saccharin smiles of “Miss Gottschee” contestants from decades past. “Back then you had to know the language to compete,” says […]

Can Language Save Communities Under Threat From A Globalised World?

As a child, Kanako Uzawa treasured her school vacations, when she traveled from Tokyo to her family farm in Nibutani, a remote village in northern Japan. “There were rice fields extending into the distance,” she says. “It was all very green with fresh air… It was paradise for kids.” Uzawa, who was born in Tomakomai, […]

Saving an Endangered Language

Walk past Abernethy Hall Room 102 on any given Friday afternoon during the semester and you’ll likely hear sounds of an endangered language wafting through the halls. “Siyo.” (Hello.) “Osigwotsu?” (How are you?) “Osigwo.” (I am fine.) “Ihina?” (And you?) “Osda!” (Great!) It’s “AniKahwi,” Cherokee Coffee Hour, for students interested in learning to speak Cherokee. […]

Scientists Probe an Enduring Question: Can Language Shape Perception?

Picture a sunlit Grecian sea or the deep hues of Santorini’s rooftops. They’re both called “blue” in English. But to Greek speakers, the lighter hue is “ghalazio” and the darker color “ble.” When researchers showed native speakers of both languages squares of light and dark blue, they found the Greek speakers viewed the two colors […]

How America became a key market for foreign-language TV drama

Some say it was a Venezuelan terrorist who opened the door for foreign-language television in the US. Others credit a Colombian drug lord. Either way, Carlos, the multilingual 2010 miniseries screened in the US by Sundance TV, and Narcos, the English- and Spanish-language Netflix series that made its debut in 2015 — plus a growing […]

When Genetics and Linguistics Challenge the Winners’ Version of History

Two conquering empires and more than 500 years of colonial rule failed to erase the cultural and genetic traces of indigenous Peruvians, a new study finds. This runs contrary to historical accounts that depict a complete devastation of northern Peru’s ancient Chachapoya people by the Inca Empire. The Chachapoyas—sometimes referred to as “Warriors of the […]

Linguistic time capsule in South America sheds light on human migration

Tiny Suriname, the smallest country in South America, punches far above its weight in linguistic diversity. Many people speak Dutch, but if you visit, you’re also likely to hear Hindi, Javanese, a variety of indigenous languages, Portuguese, Cantonese, and possibly others. This real-world Babel, in a country of fewer than 600,000 people, is a relic […]

The decline of Chinantec whistled speech in Mexico

The small village of San Pedro Sochiapam, deep in the mountainous region of the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, is home to the Chinantec people. Here steep footpaths end at chicken coops and cornfields grow on mountainsides, while the villagers clear brush with machetes and children enjoy ice-cream cones from a stall near the town […]

The worldwide web of the Indo-European language family

In 1786, an English judge then resident in Calcutta, Sir William Jones delivered a speech to the members of the “Asiatick Society”, an institution that had been founded by him and a few other like-minded souls in January 1784 with a view to studying Asia and “whatever is performed by man or produced by nature […]

Preserving culture through language

About 20 percent of the world’s population speaks English, according the language learning app Babbel, so it would be hard to imagine the world without it. However, less common languages are facing the possibility of extinction as the number of speakers decreases. This is the case for Lamkang, a northeastern Indian language spoken mainly in […]

Tracking the spread of early hunter-gatherers through language

Scientists have further evidence that an ancient family of languages spread across most of the Australian continent over the last 6000 years, rapidly replacing pre-existing languages. But the puzzle remains as to why. An interdisciplinary team of researchers from the University of Auckland and Yale University in the United States have adapted computer models, initially […]

Your Speech Is Packed With Misunderstood, Unconscious Messages

Imagine standing up to give a speech in front of a critical audience. As you do your best to wax eloquent, someone in the room uses a clicker to conspicuously count your every stumble, hesitation, um and uh; once you’ve finished, this person loudly announces how many of these blemishes have marred your presentation. This […]

Help Build a Database of Ancient Graffiti from Pompeii and Herculaneum

When Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 CE, burying Pompeii and Herculaneum in fatal volcanic ash, the destructive process famously entombed the remains of residents and their material culture. It also, miraculously, preserved their social networks. Just as we DM each other or post to our friend’s Facebook pages today, residents of these ancient cities would […]

Hope for the Future: Alaskan Community Works to Revive Native Languages

Terri Burr hopped in her car, turning on the wipers to sweep the rain from her windshield. She began to drive and talk, barely looking down at the road she takes each morning to meet with her language mentor, John Reese, the 95-year-old, last fluent speaker of the native Alaskan language Shm’algyack in Ketchikan. Burr […]

How I discovered there are (at least) 14 different kinds of love by analysing the world’s languages

No emotion, surely, is as cherished and sought after as love. Yet on occasions such as Valentine’s day, we can often be misled into thinking that it consists solely in the swooning, star-crossed romance of falling deeply “in love”. But on reflection, love is far more complex. Indeed, arguably no word covers a wider range […]

New Evidence Fuels Debate over the Origin of Modern Languages

Five thousand years ago nomadic horseback riders from the Ukrainian steppe charged through Europe and parts of Asia. They brought with them a language that is the root of many of those spoken today—including English, Spanish, Hindi, Russian and Persian. That is the most widely accepted explanation for the origin of this ancient tongue, termed […]

How do you say “smartphone” in Lakota?

“Adorkable.” “Manspreading.” “Frenemies.” Coining new words to fit modern needs is a practice that goes back to the beginning of language; Shakespeare, for example, is said to have introduced somewhere from 1700 to 3200 new words. Peter Hill may not be Shakespeare, but he has cataloged around 3000 new words in the indigenous Lakota language. […]

Calls for national legislation to protect Indigenous languages in Australia

Craig Ritchie, CEO of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS), suggests Australia could follow in the footsteps of New Zealand, which introduced the Māori Language Act in 1987, thereby giving Māori official language status. “Under that, every government agency has an obligation to make sure that the work that they […]

These Sámi Women Are Trying to Keep Their Native Skolt Language Alive

Tiina Sanila-Aikio isn’t your everyday president. The 34-year-old is the head of the Sámi people in Finland, the only indigenous population recognized in the European Union. She is also the creator of the world’s first Skolt-language rock albums. Skolt is a Sámi language spoken by just 300 people. Although the Sámi population numbers at least […]

New paper links ancient drawings and the origins of language

When and where did humans develop language? To find out, look deep inside caves, suggests an MIT professor. More precisely, some specific features of cave art may provide clues about how our symbolic, multifaceted language capabilities evolved, according to a new paper co-authored by MIT linguist Shigeru Miyagawa. A key to this idea is that […]

How to decipher a 4,000-year-old tax return

One day in 1994 Richard Salomon, professor of Asian Languages and Literature at the University of Washington, received a small package in the mail. Inside were a number of blurry black and white photographs and an accompanying letter from the British Library asking if they might be of any interest. Salomon started looking at the […]

The Time the Oxford English Dictionary Forgot a Word

When the complete edition of what would become the Oxford English Dictionary debuted in 1928, it was lauded as a comprehensive collection of the English language, a glossary so vast—and so thorough—that no other reference book could ever exceed its detail or depth. In total, the project took seven decades to catalogue everything from A […]

Does artificial intelligence have a language problem?

Technology loves a bandwagon. The current one, fuelled by academic research, startups and attention from all the big names in technology and beyond, is artificial intelligence (AI). AI is commonly defined as the ability of a machine to perform tasks associated with intelligent beings. And that’s where our first problem with language appears. Intelligence is […]

Language Utilizes Ancient Brain Circuits That Predate Humans

A new paper by an international team of researchers presents strong evidence that language is learned using two general-purpose brain systems (declarative memory and procedural memory) that are evolutionarily ancient and not language specific. Contrary to popular belief, the researchers found that children learning their native language and adults learning a foreign language do not […]

The Japanese words for “space” could change your view of the world

When you are the first person to arrive in a meeting room, do you think of it as being empty or full? If you were raised in the West, a meeting room is made for people to meet. Therefore, if there are no people in that room, then of course it must be empty. As […]

Making history by saving it: UW groups keep indigenous languages alive

When Alyssa Johnston and members of her tribe speak to one another in Quinault, they are often moved to tears by the knowledge that, at the turn of the century, the language was all but dead. The last person who spoke fluent Quinault passed away in 1996. By using recordings of those who spoke the […]

Shor Cling To Way Of Life, Language In Siberia

A phone booth, that rarely works, is about the only sign of modern life to be found in Ust Anzas, a remote village in Siberia’s Kemerovo Oblast. The Shor, an ethnic Turkic minority, live in isolation here, nestled amid the Abakan Range mountains and seemingly endless forests along the shores of the Mras-Su River. Cut […]

The Incredible Linguistic Diversity of Tibet Is Disappearing

Tibet may be best known for its bounty of ancient Buddhist monasteries and stark natural beauty—but it’s also blessed with a vast diversity of languages. The Tibetan Plateau is home to more than a dozen distinct local tongues, many of which come with their own elaborate character systems. Unfortunately, thanks to the growth of internet […]

The battle to make French a “gender-neutral language” is emphasizing the country’s inherent sexism

That the French language remains so central to the culture here wouldn’t surprise most people outside the country. Still, having two teenagers in French middle school has taught me to appreciate how profoundly important it remains for people not just to master their language skills, but to perfect them. Whereas the practice of teaching grammar […]

Even if you’ve forgotten the language you spoke as a child, it still stays with you

Natasha Mumbi Nkonde tells me she’s “haunted” by what she sounded like as a child. Nkonde, who was born in Zambia in 1984 and moved to the UK when she was six, remembers speaking two different languages—Bemba and Nyanja. Naturally, she was forced to switch to English once she migrated to Britain. But it wasn’t […]

Swearing helps us battle pain – no matter what language we curse in

Swear words have many functions. They can be used for emphasis, for comedic effect, as a shared linguistic tool that strengthens social bonds and maintains relationships, or simply to cause offence and shock. They are words that can be emotionally electrifying. We can express utter horror, disdain, or just frustration through the utterance of a […]

African Schools Weigh Teaching in Local Languages

DAKAR — In Alieu Samb primary school, in a working-class section of Dakar, second-graders are learning to read in French. Like most children in Sub-Saharan Africa, they are taught in their country’s common colonial language rather than in their mother tongue. Linguistics professor Mbacke Diagne, of Dakar’s Cheikh Anta Diop University, wants to integrate local […]

‘Saluton!’: the surprise return of Esperanto

In the village of Barlaston, just outside Stoke-on-Trent, a strange language can be heard. It’s not the friendly Potteries dialect, but something that sounds a little like the lovechild of French and German. A Tudor house here is home to the Esperanto Association of Britain (EAB), which encourages people to learn the constructed language. Esperanto […]

Keepers of a lost culture

Beulah Timothy is a ghost of history. So is her brother, Richard Snake, and their childhood friend, Alma Burgoon. Their home is the Delaware Nation Reserve, 3,000 acres of rich farmland 150 miles southwest of Toronto. Small, well-kept homes surrounded by corn fields dot the reserve, which is crisscrossed by gravel roads and bordered by […]

Ol’ Man River – how gendered language shapes the way we see the world

But ol’ man river, He jes’ keeps rollin’ along! Is water male or female – and does it really matter? Unlike languages such as French, Spanish and German, English does not allocate gender to words. Although some things, ships and countries for example, often have feminine associations, there are no grammatical rules to make something […]

Artificial intelligence goes bilingual—without a dictionary

Automatic language translation has come a long way, thanks to neural networks—computer algorithms that take inspiration from the human brain. But training such networks requires an enormous amount of data: millions of sentence-by-sentence translations to demonstrate how a human would do it. Now, two new papers show that neural networks can learn to translate with […]

The world’s smallest language has only 100 words — and you can say almost anything

In Chinese, the word computer translates directly as electric brain. In Icelandic, a compass is a direction-shower, and a microscope a small-watcher. In Lakota, horse is literally dog of wonder. These neologisms demonstrate the cumulative quality of language, in which we use the known to describe the unknown. “It is by metaphor that language grows,” […]

The Rise and Fall of the English Sentence

An iconic sentence, this. But how did it ever make its way into the world? At 71 words, it is composed of eight separate clauses, each anchored by its own verb, nested within one another in various arrangements. The main clause (a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires …) hangs suspended above a […]

Historically, men translated the Odyssey. Here’s what happened when a woman took the job

The Odyssey is about a man. It says so right at the beginning — in Robert Fagles’s 1996 translation, for example, the poem opens with the line, “Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns.” In the course of the poem, that man plots his return home after fighting the […]

Humans learn complex grammatical patterns even in extremely challenging circumstances

A large-scale study of languages shows that the grammar of creoles – which emerged in multilingual situations of extreme social upheaval, like colonial slaveries – are composed from the grammars of other languages that preceded them rather than being innovated from scratch. The study, published today in Nature Human Behavior, analyzed a large number of […]

Alberta teacher races to save dying Indigenous language before time runs out

A teacher in northern Alberta is racing to piece together a dying Indigenous language before the last few people who speak it are gone. For the past two years, Victoria Wanihadie has travelled the Peace River area to find people who remember the Beaver culture and language. She jots down their memories and records the […]

Finding the Words for Hope: The Fight for Endangered Languages

“Iktsuarpok” is a word with no direct English translation. From Inuit, it best translates to “the frustration of waiting for someone to show up.” It is a word imbued with special meaning, and a word that may now be threatened. The Endangered Languages Project classifies the Inuit language as “vulnerable,” with only around 20,000 speakers. […]

The Randomness of Language Evolution

Joshua Plotkin’s dive into the evolution of language began with clarity—and also a lack of it. Today, if you wanted to talk about something that’s clear, you’d say that it has clarity. But if you were around in 1890, you would almost certainly have talked about its clearness. Plotkin first noticed this linguistic change while […]

Pennsylvania Dutch: A language that persisted

“Guder Mariye, liewe Kinner!” (Good morning, dear children!) I start most of my mornings with these four words. What’s most interesting about that statement is that I am an American. My family immigrated to the colony of Pennsylvania in the early 1700s and has been here ever since. Twelve generations later, we still speak the […]

Linguists digitise 1970s children’s storybooks to help preserve Indigenous languages

During this time, bilingual education programs were rolled out in remote schools throughout the Northern Territory, allowing schoolchildren to read and write in their native languages before transitioning to reading and writing in English. Thousands of unique, entry-level children’s books, often based on local stories and illustrated by local artists, were created in Indigenous languages. […]

Found in translation: USC scientists map brain responses to stories in three different languages

New brain research by USC scientists shows that reading stories is a universal experience that may result in people feeling greater empathy for each other, regardless of cultural origins and differences. And in what appears to be a first for neuroscience, USC researchers have found patterns of brain activation when people find meaning in stories, […]

Natural language processing will help humans and machines have more empathy

With the current breakneck pace of innovation, it may seem like technology is on an aggressive mission to solve all of humanity’s most pressing problems. And in some respects, we’re making great progress. We’ve broken tremendous ground in such areas as renewable energy, disease prevention, and disaster recovery. But when it comes to addressing important […]

Educators Try New Methods to Save American Indian Languages

The United States is home to 562 federally recognized American Indian Nations, each with its own language. Yet the number of Native Americans with the ability to speak their tribe’s language has decreased over the past century. Now, Indian Nations are trying different ways to expand the number of native speakers, and increase interest in […]

Carrying On His Great Grandfather’s Work, A Kansas Professor Helps Keep Their Language Alive

As a kid, Andrew McKenzie had an unusual affinity for languages. He took French in high school (because everyone else was taking Spanish). But that wasn’t enough. “I started to teach myself different languages, like Latin and Greek and Basque and Turkish,” he remembers. “I would drive into the city to a bookstore, and they’d […]

How This Native Educator Is Keeping A Tribal Language Alive

On the Omaha Native American reservation in northeastern Nebraska, one educator is working hard to keep the tribal language alive by helping kids to learn it in school. Vida Woodhull Stabler is the director of the Omaha (or “Umonhon” in the tribe’s language) culture center at Umonhon Nation Public Schools in Macy, Nebraska. She has […]

How Italians influenced a South American dialect

“Argentinian Spanish is sort of hard to understand,” said my sister as she plugged in a fan. It was hot and still in Buenos Aires and we were drinking lemonade on her balcony. I’d just flown into South America for the first time, and I hadn’t slept much on the plane. I was more concerned […]

Evolutionary biology can help us understand how language works

As a linguist I dread the question, “what do you do?”, because when I answer “I’m a linguist” the inevitable follow-up question is: “How many languages do you speak?” That, of course, is not the point. While learning languages is a wonderful thing to do, academic linguistics is the scientific study of language. What I […]

Robert Macfarlane on the enchanted childhood words technology has disrupted

In 2015, a published version of the first chapter in Robert Macfarlane’s last book, Landmarks, went viral. In it, the nature writer and academic talked about the deep, historic connections between language and landscape and mourned the loss of certain everyday words from the 2007 edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary. Acorn, bluebell, conker: all […]

Wisconsin School Works To Keep Native American Languages Alive Around The World

In Hayward, Wisconsin, a program is working to preserve Native American language and culture in the state and across the world. Waadookodaading Ojibwe Language Institute is an immersion school where the Ojibwe language isn’t only taught, it’s the language used to teach all core classes. Waadookodaading means “a place where people help each other,” and […]

Can translations save India’s endangered ‘mother tongues’?

In “Translation as Culture”, an article which theorises her work with Mahasweta Devi’s fiction, Gayatri Chakravorti Spivak writes of the irreducible emotional and ethical charge of translating from the mother tongue: “…translation in the narrow sense…is also a peculiar act of reparation – toward the language of the inside, a language in which we are […]

Languages don’t all have the same number of terms for colors – scientists have a new theory why

People with standard vision can see millions of distinct colors. But human language categorizes these into a small set of words. In an industrialized culture, most people get by with 11 color words: black, white, red, green, yellow, blue, brown, orange, pink, purple and gray. That’s what we have in American English. Maybe if you’re […]

With fewer fluent speakers, demand for teachers of Indigenous languages is on the rise

A trend toward “Indigenizing” programming in schools by bringing Indigenous culture and languages into the classroom has led to a demand for teachers who are fluent in Indigenous languages. But with the number of Indigenous language speakers on the decline, school divisions have had a hard time finding qualified and certified teachers. “We had some […]

In Singapore, Chinese Dialects Revive After Decades of Restrictions

The Tok and Teo families are a model of traditional harmony, with three generations gathered under one roof, enjoying each other’s company over slices of fruit and cups of tea on a Saturday afternoon in Singapore. There is only one problem: The youngest and oldest generations can barely communicate with each other. Lavell, 7, speaks […]

Indigenous dictionary may save the Miriwoong language from extinction

Miriwoong is considered critically endangered — on the brink of completely disappearing — but a group in the remote Kimberley is making sure that does not happen. The first official Miriwoong dictionary has been published by Mirima Dawang Woorlab-gerring (MDWg), a small language and cultural centre in Kununurra. “It’s the language of the land and […]

The Prospects for the Sum of All Human Knowledge in Wikipedia in Indigenous Languages

Historically, indigenous languages have not only been minimized but also marginalized, and this spans every domain, including cyberspace. This has limited the possibility of appreciating other communities, worldviews and traditions. Every indigenous language in the world is undergoing linguistic displacement and, consequently, disappearing. Although some remain active, their use is reserved for private spaces, forcing […]

Lost Languages Discovered in One of the World’s Oldest Continuously Run Libraries

Saint Catherine’s Monastery, a sacred Christian site nestled in the shadow of Mount Sinai, is home to one of the world’s oldest continuously used libraries. Thousands of manuscripts and books are kept there—some of which contain hidden treasures. Now, as Jeff Farrell reports for the Independent, a team of researchers is using new technology to […]

Inventor of Kryptonian aims to revitalize endangered languages

UBC-O’s Dr. Christine Schreyer — an associate professor teaching anthropology and linguistics — went to Krypton. At least, as close any of us will ever get. In 2011, Warner Brothers approached Schreyer to develop the Kryptonian language for Man of Steel. Schreyer began her journey quite young — she has wanted to be an anthropologist […]

Savoring the Spanish of My Youth, as the Language Marches On

ALBUQUERQUE — Something about the languages we speak fascinates me. Roaming around Latin America as a correspondent for more than a decade, I wrote about Palenquero, a Creole language kept alive by descendants of runaway slaves in northern Colombia; Sranan Tongo, Suriname’s lingua franca; Papiamentu, the vibrant language of Curaçao; and even learned how to […]

A New Life for Indigenous Languages in New York City

José Juarez jots down notes in the last minutes before going on air. On the other side of a foam-padded wall, his colleague Leobardo Ambrosio pushes the dials of a soundboard up and down, preparing for the two of them to take their indigenous mother tongues to the mics. Every Monday night, the duo hosts […]

Seven decades after Independence, many small languages in India face extinction threat

The last leg of the 15-km journey from Jalgaon Jamod in north Maharashtra to the tiny village of Sonbardi is arduous and nauseating, especially right after breakfast. A rattling autorickshaw speeding on a road with crater-like potholes makes us wish we were walking instead. As we get closer and the Satpura hill range on the […]

On Living, and Thinking, in Two Languages at Once

People ask me whether I think in French or in English now that I’ve lived in the US a while. I lie when I answer this. I say it depends on what I’m thinking about—English for work, French for family and curse words. This answer is usually welcomed as logical: a language for the intellect, […]

Do men and women really find different words funny? Here’s what the research says

Is the word “booty” really funnier than “ass”? And does the word “bondage” raise a laugh more than “giggle”? A new behaviour research study looks at the perceived funniness of individual English words, and finds that women and men consider different words amusing. But is this really the case? Women and men do often laugh […]

Why Do We Need To Save Dying Languages?

Languages Around The World While it may seem like only a handful of languages are used around the world, the reality is that a vast number are spoken by people in different countries and cultures. In fact, linguists suggest that around 6,500 languages are currently used for daily communication needs. Many of these are not […]

How the once-ridiculed word “finalize” slipped into mainstream American English

“I found the class really impactful.” “I have no bandwidth for this conversation.” “Can you ping me when you’re leaving the house?” Lovers of the English language cringe when they hear corporate speak seep into everyday conversation. But the jargon-ization of language, it seems, is inevitable. In the 1960s, the gatekeepers of American English worked […]

400 Indian Languages Face the Threat of Extinction: Study

Almost 10 percent of the world’s 4,000 languages that face the threat of extinction are spoken in India. Linguist Ganesh N Devy says that while English posed no real threat to major Indian languages, the most threatened languages are the ones spoken in the coastal areas of the country. Devy, chairman, People’s Linguistic Survey of […]

The Grimm Brothers’ Other Great Project Was Writing a Giant German Dictionary

In 1837, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, the brothers most well known for their eponymous collection of fairy tales, were kicked out of their home. They had been working as professors at the famous University of Göttingen, Germany, when the King of Hanover, who ruled the area, demanded they and other academics swear an oath of […]

Revitalising endangered languages

Languages are considered endangered when their last fluent speakers reach old age and when children are no longer learning it as their primary tongue. The UNESCO Atlas of World Languages in Danger reveals that 18 of the world’s 2,464 officially ‘endangered’ languages have just one living speaker (Bishuo, spoken in Cameroon, for instance). With the […]

Greece’s disappearing whistled language

Hidden deep in the south-east corner of the Greek island of Evia, above a twisting maze of ravines that tumbles toward the Aegean Sea, the tiny village of Antia clings to the slopes of Mount Ochi. There are no hotels or restaurants within 40km, and the tiny place is so remote that it doesn’t exist […]

Can virtual reality help save endangered Pacific languages?

The Pacific is the most linguistically rich region in the world, with Papua New Guinea alone being home to a staggering 850 languages. Yet experts fear that widespread language loss could be the future for the region. To draw attention to the issue, and to document more Pacific languages, Australian researchers are trialling a new […]

A Universal ‘Language’ of Arousal Connects Humans and the Animal Kingdom

Over a century ago, naturalist Charles Darwin observed that all humans, as well as other animals, exhibit and express emotion in remarkably similar ways. He theorized that vocal expressions of feelings date back to the earliest terrestrial species, hinting that all land animals — and birds too — share a basic, inherent understanding of each […]

Lost in translation: the Ancient books that we can’t decode

In 1908, archaeologist Luigi Pernier was poking around the ruins of an ancient palace in Crete when he unearthed a smallish clay disc that featured a series of mysterious symbols set in a spiral on both sides. Neither its layout, nor the symbols themselves, had been seen before – and neither have they been seen […]

The mysterious origins of Europe’s oldest language

From my car window, I watched Spain transform. From Madrid in the country’s centre to the coastal north, empty land and grazing cows turned to misty green mountains and a shimmering harbour full of boats. I had driven north before, but this was the first time I’d stopped in Getaria, a medieval fishing village with […]

These Scientists Think Local Climates Shaped the Evolution of Language

The thatched roof held back the sun’s rays, but it could not keep the tropical heat at bay. As everyone at the research workshop headed outside for a break, small groups splintered off to gather in the shade of coconut trees and enjoy a breeze. I wandered from group to group, joining in the discussions. […]

Reclaiming A Lost Tribal Language: How, and at What Cost?

Growing up, I spent summers going to the Turtle Project, which was a camp for Aquinnah Wampanoag kids run by our tribe. Aquinnah is a small town on the far end of Martha’s Vineyard. Every year the island swells with seasonal tourists flocking to its idyllic beaches and picturesque towns. Although I never considered myself […]

AI is inventing languages humans can’t understand. Should we stop it?

Bob: “I can can I I everything else.” Alice: “Balls have zero to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to.” To you and I, that passage looks like nonsense. But what if I told you this nonsense was the discussion of what might be the most […]

Glove turns sign language into text for real-time translation

Handwriting will never be the same again. A new glove developed at the University of California, San Diego, can convert the 26 letters of American Sign Language (ASL) into text on a smartphone or computer screen. Because it’s cheaper and more portable than other automatic sign language translators on the market, it could be a […]

A tiny Indian publisher is translating hidden gems of world literature for global readers

“It isn’t about size. Or the scale. It is about the choice. The instinct that allows you to take the risk to step outside the structures the world of corporate publishing has so magnificently set up. And publish books that in your opinion need to be read.” The mission statement of Seagull Books says it […]

When Did Colonial America Gain Linguistic Independence?

When did Americans start sounding funny to English ears? By the time the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, carefully composed in the richly-worded language of the day, did colonial Americans—who after all were British before they decided to switch to become American—really sound all that different from their counterparts in the mother country? […]

An ‘epic’ translation preserved in Portugal

Irony played its part when conquerors preserved the very language they attempted to destroy. The Konkani language reached its Zenith — of prose, grammar and vocabulary — in the 16th-17th century. The flourishing language had its literature, either oral or partly written on palm leafs, cloth, copper plate and stone before the advent of the […]

This Documentary Uncovers an Afro-Cuban Community Singing in an Almost Extinct African Language

They Are We tells a story that, were it not told by a University professor in the middle of a documentary, you’d swear couldn’t possibly be true. Emma Christopher, who’s written extensively on the Atlantic slave trade and teaches at the University of Sydney, found herself connecting a remote chiefdom in Sierra Leone with a […]

The Highbrow Struggles of Translating Modern Children’s Books Into Latin

According to conventional wisdom, Latin is a dead language. But a simple Amazon search shows that it still has a surprisingly active life—not just in medical and law terminology, but also in children’s books. After serving as the chief language of ancient Rome, and then as the language of scholars and holy men, Latin mostly […]

Cantonese isn’t dead yet, so stop writing its eulogy

When I decided to start studying Mandarin as a teenager, friends and family approved. China was enjoying explosive economic growth, so speaking the country’s lingua franca was sure to open doors. But when I moved to China after college, I ended up in one place where Mandarin doesn’t get you very far: Hong Kong. The […]

How a Secret Criminal Language Emerged From the Underworld

If you were a thief in 1700s England, and wanted to tell a fellow thief that you had spotted a naive rich man (“rum cully”) and you can’t wait to rob his house (“heave the booth”), but you don’t want some do-gooder to overhear and send you to the gallows (“nubbing cheat”)—how would you communicate […]

Authenticity in Alien Worlds: The Art of Creating Languages

Whether you’ve ever consciously thought about it or not, chances are you’re familiar with a constructed language. From Star Trek’s Klingon, to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Elvish, to Avatar’s Na’vi, to Dothraki and Valyrian in Game of Thrones, these fictional languages have lent a degree of authenticity to the worlds they occupy. According to Christine Schreyer, Associate […]

How do you translate classic literature for contemporary readers?

“The idea of the classic is invested in a particular model of history, one that allows for a perpetual tension between the enduring and the transient, and for the survival of the past in ways that are comprehensible even to a radically different present. This comprehensibility is not immediate or unmediated, but involves acts of […]

Understanding the amazing complexity of sign language

Most people are familiar with sign language, the system that deaf people use to communicate. What fewer may know is that there are many different sign languages around the world, just as there are many different spoken languages. So how does the grammar of sign language work? Unlike in spoken languages, in which grammar is […]

Mexican women lead initiatives to rescue native tongues

When Gabriela Badillo traveled to Mérida, Yucatán, more than a decade ago, she encountered children who were timid about speaking the Mayan language. As she later came to understand, fear and discrimination were factors that affected the home teaching and use of the region’s native tongue. “Children were a bit embarrassed to speak Mayan. … […]

Women writers’ work is getting lost in translation

Britain now has a record number of female MPs, more women are on company boards, and work is being done to encourage more women to take up science. Yet women still aren’t equal to men. And if we think in terms of intersectional feminism – the connections between different multi-layered facets of oppression such as […]

The rise of Hinglish: How the media created a new lingua franca for India’s elites

Dominated by the Congress, India’s Constituent Assembly usually witnessed little disagreement. There was one exception, however: language. It was the last major issue discussed by the Constituent Assembly and rocked the body. Should English or Hindi be India’s official language? Hindi plants a flag Like all questions of identity, the matter was really a cover […]

After Years Of Restraint, A Linguist Says ‘Yes!’ To The Exclamation Point

The only literary work about punctuation I’m aware of is an odd early story by Anton Chekhov called “The Exclamation Mark.” After getting into an argument with a colleague about punctuation, a school inspector named Yefim Perekladin asks his wife what an exclamation point is for. She tells him it signifies delight, indignation, joy and […]

The Great A.I. Awakening

Late one Friday night in early November, Jun Rekimoto, a distinguished professor of human-computer interaction at the University of Tokyo, was online preparing for a lecture when he began to notice some peculiar posts rolling in on social media. Apparently Google Translate, the company’s popular machine-translation service, had suddenly and almost immeasurably improved. Rekimoto visited […]

UCLA historian brings language of the Aztecs from ancient to contemporary times

The language of the Aztecs, Nahuatl, is undergoing a renaissance in Los Angeles, thanks in part to the efforts of a genial UCLA historian. Once the lingua franca of Mexico, Nahuatl [pronounced na’ wat] was eventually overtaken by Spanish. Today, the indigenous language is spoken only by 1.5 million people in Mexico, many of whom […]

Elon Musk and linguists say that AI is forcing us to confront the limits of human language

In analytic philosophy, any meaning can be expressed in language. In his book Expression and Meaning (1979), UC Berkeley philosopher John Searle calls this idea “the principle of expressibility, the principle that whatever can be meant can be said”. Moreover, in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921), Ludwig Wittgenstein suggests that “the limits of my language mean […]

Language alters our experience of time

It turns out, Hollywood got it half right. In the film Arrival, Amy Adams plays linguist Louise Banks who is trying to decipher an alien language. She discovers the way the aliens talk about time gives them the power to see into the future – so as Banks learns their language, she also begins to […]

We’d have a better chance of preserving Africa’s dying languages if we learned their history

In 2008, on his first visit to China and India after taking office as prime minister, Britain’s Gordon Brown announced a plan to promote the English language across the world. Brown said he launched a website that would develop the skills of 750,000 teachers, and help two billion people learn English by 2020. “English does […]

Prevented From Intermingling With Hindi By Language Police, Urdu Dies A Slow Death

In March, the Center told the Supreme Court that it was open to the suggestion of conducting NEET, a single window entrance test for admissions for MBBS and BDS courses, in the Urdu language from the next academic year. This has rekindled the debate on the present state and the future of Urdu language. Every […]

Saving languages

An entire community had cause to celebrate when 11 Six Nations Polytechnic students graduated with the first bachelor of arts degree in Ogwehoweh languages. “It’s been a long road to get here, involving countless people over many years of hard work, long hours of curriculum development, and not to mention weeks of studying by each […]

Lost in Translation: Proust and Scott Moncrieff

Although Charles Kenneth Scott Moncrieff’s translation of À la recherche du temps perdu is considered by many journalists and writers to be the best translation of any foreign work into the English language, his choice of Remembrance of Things Past as the general title alarmed the seriously ill Proust and misled generations of readers as […]

Saving ‘endangered’ languages in Malaysia

Their feet nimbly tapping out a whirl of steps, the children twirled and swirled to the lively music of Malaysia’s Portuguese Eurasian community. They earned oohs and ahhs and laughter as they cajoled the seated guests to join in the dancing at a recent cultural event in Kuala Lumpur. Made up of schoolchildren, the dance […]

Anthony Burgess’ Legendary Dictionary of Slang Lives

The reaction most readers have to beginning Anthony Burgess’ 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange is: What are half these words? That’s because much of the novel is written using Nadsat, a dystopian teenage subculture language fusing British rhyming slang and Russian that Burgess created for the book. But that wasn’t Burgess’ only foray into the […]

India’s Endangered Languages Need to Be Digitally Documented

Every two weeks, a language dies and with it, a wealth of knowledge forever. In India alone, there exist more than 780 languages. The rate at which languages are dying here is extremely high as over 220 languages have died in the last 50 years. In India, 197 languages are categorised as endangered. These are […]

Navajo school immerses tribal youth in Diné language and culture

“Béédaałniih: Diné bizaad bídahwiil’aah. Táadoo biligáana k’ehjí yádaalłti’í. Ahéhee’.” These are the first words that visitors see on a sign at the entrance of Tsé Hootsooí Diné Bi’ Olta’, an elementary immersion school that teaches the Navajo language to its 133 students on the capital of the Navajo Nation. In English, the sign means, “Remember: […]

Has Google made the first step toward general AI?

Artificial Intelligence (AI) has long been a theme of Sci-fi blockbusters, but as technology develops in 2017, the stuff of fiction is fast becoming a reality. As technology has made leaps and bounds in our lives, the presence of AI is something we are adapting to and incorporating in our everyday existence. A brief history […]

Instant Braille translator can fit in your hand

An all-woman team of six engineering undergraduate students at MIT has created an inexpensive, hand-held device prototype that provides real-time translation of printed text to Braille — which could greatly increase accessibility of written materials for the blind. Team Tactile was one of the winners of the Lemelson-MIT Student Prize this year for their creation, […]

Israeli woman invents new typeface combining Arabic and Hebrew to promote co-existence

Aravit, a new typeface which manages to merge Hebrew and Arabic letters together, is being billed as a language of peace – and it’s not hard to see why. Liron Lavi Turkenich, a 32-year-old Israeli graphic designer and researcher, was inspired to see if she could combine the two languages by the bilingual road markings […]

A Man Finds An Explosive Emotion Locked In A Word

In 1967, anthropologists Renato Rosaldo and his wife, Shelly, went to live with the llongot, an isolated tribe that lived in the rain forest in the Philippines. It wasn’t exactly an accident that this tribe was unstudied — it was known for beheading people. But Renato and Shelly were undeterred. As they immersed themselves in […]

How Language Led To The Artificial Intelligence Revolution

In 2013 I had a long interview with Peter Lee, corporate vice president of Microsoft Research, about advances in machine learning and neural networks and how language would be the focal point of artificial intelligence in the coming years. At the time the notion of artificial intelligence and machine learning seemed like a “blue sky” […]

Nigeria’s indigenous languages endangered, may go into extinction

The Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, has said the country’s indigenous languages are endangered and could go into extinction in no distant future if urgent steps are not taken to reverse the trend. In his address at the 2017 Annual Round Table on Cultural Orientation, jointly organized by the Federal Ministry of Information […]

Acoma Pueblo’s Emergency Push To Save Its Language

Acoma Pueblo is considered the oldest continually inhabited community in North America. And only about a hundred people or so still speak the Acoma Keres language. Many of those fluent speakers gathered earlier this month in Acoma to record their voices, saving words, concepts and culture. They’re hoping that someday soon, young people will speak […]

Who Needs a Perfect Language? It’s Already Perfectly Imperfect

Poets, historians, scientists, philosophers – we all seek to capture the world in a net of language. Yet it is the nature of nets to capture some things while letting others slip away. Our words turn experiences into objects, qualities and actions, and we can build these into a kind of structure, a tower reaching […]

Manchu, Once China’s Official Language, Could Lose Its Voice

Tao Qinglan can still speak her mother tongue, Manchu, but everything else has changed since she was born 72 years ago in Sanjiazi Village. She now lives with her Manchu daughter and Han son-in-law in a modern brick house, and they speak Mandarin at home. None of the houses in the village have preserved the […]

New Fighting in Ukraine’s Language War

“I have no desire to become a soldier in this war of words,” Ukraine’s best-known novelist Andrei Kurkov wrote in 2012. He was reacting to the furor over a law instituted by former president Viktor Yanukovych that elevated Russian to the status of a regional language in Ukraine. Kurkov writes mainly in Russian but was […]

Burton Watson, noted translator, remembered

Burton Watson, the foremost translator of Chinese classics and poetry into English and my co-translator of the anthology of Japanese poetry “From the Country of Eight Islands” (1981), died on April 1 in a hospital in Chiba. He was 91 years old. I knew Watson since the early 1970s, so allow me to call him […]

Baloch literature is the repository of love and romanticism

Sometimes it is argued that the only poetry written in Balochistan is about resistance. The term poetry of resistance is often associated with the poetry penned by Baloch writers. While the Baloch intellectual class oppose this hype, they recount how love and war have always gone side by side in Baloch history. It is not […]

The beautiful languages of the people who talk like birds

If you are ever lucky enough to visit the foothills of the Himalayas, you may hear a remarkable duet ringing through the forest. To the untrained ear, it might sound like musicians warming up a strange instrument. In reality, the enchanting melody is the sound of two lovers talking in a secret, whistled language. Joining […]

Is language as we know it still relevant for the digital age?

In analytic philosophy, any meaning can be expressed in language. In his book Expression and Meaning (1979), UC Berkeley philosopher John Searle calls this idea ‘the principle of expressibility, the principle that whatever can be meant can be said’. Moreover, in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921), Ludwig Wittgenstein suggests that ‘the limits of my language mean […]

Indigenous verse in national anthem considered to preserve Aboriginal languages

The NSW Government’s Aboriginal Affairs Department has been on a statewide roadshow consulting 14 different Indigenous communities on the draft Aboriginal Language Bill. The landmark legislation is the first of its kind and will set out to promote and protect Aboriginal languages as well as provide legal preservation. Places that have been consulted so far […]

Does your accent make you sound smarter?

They say you should always dress for success, but should that extend to the way you speak? We’re not adverse to dressing appropriately to make a good impression at work or for a social engagement, even if it means wearing clothes we wouldn’t normally choose to put on. Is changing your accent to get ahead […]

The Mysterious History of the Ellipsis, From Medieval Subpuncting to Irrational Numbers

The punctuation mark of the ellipsis is perhaps the most unusual mark in the English language, for punctuation marks are designed to convey meaning by indicating relationships between ideas, but the ellipsis does the exact opposite. It simply indicates that something has been omitted. Sometimes, this omission is poignant, as in J. Alfred Prufrock’s lament […]

A Rare Public Display of a 17th-Century Mayan Manuscript

When you take a close look at the flowery but meticulous lettering in the 17th-century book, you can see that many people wrote the script, at different times. The book includes everything from sermons to poems, and there’s a dedication to Pope Urban IV. The Libro de Sermones Varios en Lengua Quiche, from 1690, is […]

Understanding Languages with Physics and Math

A husband and wife scientist duo from Poland has developed a computer model that simulates how vocabulary exchanges occur between settlers and nomads. According to their results, published in the journal Physical Review E, the nomadic groups are more likely to adopt words from settlers than the other way around. The new model provides a […]

Regional-Language Films Power Indian Entertainment Industry’s Growth

A staggering 1,907 films in 41 languages were certified in India in the 2015-16 timeframe. The Hindi-language industry led the way with 340 films, followed by Tamil with 291, Telugu (275), Kannada (204), Marathi (181) and Malayalam (168). The Indian film industry grew overall by 3% in the financial year 2016-17, but domestic theatrical declined […]

How Movie Magic Could Help Translate for Deaf Students

The technology behind the cooking rats in Ratatouille and the dancing penguins in Happy Feet could help bridge stubborn academic gaps between deaf and hearing students. Researchers are using computer-animation techniques, such as motion-capture, to make life-like computer avatars that can reliably and naturally translate written and spoken words into sign language, whether it’s American […]

Science fiction’s new golden age in China: what it means to the authors, many female, leading the way

The science-fiction genre in China was little known before Liu Cixin was honoured with the Hugo Award for best novel in 2015 for The Three-Body Problem. The first book in Liu’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, it tells of an alien invasion during the Cultural Revolution and has sold more than a million copies in […]

Australian National University’s John Giacon wins Patji-Dawes Award for indigenous language efforts

John Giacon’s decades-long dedication to the revitalisation of indigenous languages has been a sometimes difficult but ultimately rewarding pursuit. The Australian National University lecturer and researcher’s work saw him recognised last week with the the Patji-Dawes Award – Australia’s top honour for language teaching. “I used to be a schoolteacher and I think this is […]

Galicia’s disputed Celtic heritage

Last month, the Galician parliament took time to celebrate. The region—a misty, rain-soaked province of Spain pinched between Portugal and the Atlantic—honoured the politicians who drafted the principles of Galician self-rule in 1978 with bagpipes and folk songs. Bagpipes are a surprisingly key part of cultural life and hint at the region’s distinctive Celtic heritage. […]

MIT Student Engineers Invented a Real-Time Text-To-Braille Translator

With just a few hours left to build a groundbreaking gadget, things weren’t going as smoothly as planned. Six young women, all undergrad engineering students at MIT, had established a lofty goal: to create the first-ever affordable device that immediately translates printed text into Braille. The idea could prove revolutionary for the blind community, transforming […]

Bad language: why being bilingual makes swearing easier

My dad had a liberal philosophy of childrearing, but he would always tell us off for swearing. As a result, I grew up feeling very uncomfortable using swearwords. Or, at least, so I thought – when I first moved to Scotland, I noticed that it was actually very easy to swear in English. Interestingly enough, […]

Linguistics Breakthrough Heralds Machine Translation for Thousands of Rare Languages

The best guess is that humans currently speak about 6,900 different languages. More than half the global population communicates using just a handful of them—Chinese, English, Hindi, Spanish, and Russian. Indeed, 95 percent of people communicate using just 100 languages. The other argots are much less common. Indeed, linguists estimate that about a third of […]

Why Tolkien’s fantastic imaginary languages have had more impact than Esperanto

JRR Tolkien began writing The Fall of Gondolin while on medical leave from the First World War, 100 years ago this month. It is the first story in what would become his legendarium – the mythology that underpins The Lord of the Rings. But behind the fiction was his interest in another epic act of […]

How number words may have changed us from zeroes to heroes

Imagine a world without numbers. Time and space would lose their meaning: telling time and counting the passing days, months and years would become impossible. Our ability to use numbers is essential for functioning in our quotidian here and now, from scheduling meetings to reading timetables and paying for groceries at the supermarket. But in […]

Native American Two Spirit Fights to Keep Tribe’s Language Alive

The ancestral home of DeLesslin “Roo” George-Warren’s tribe is along the banks of the Catawba River, near the modern border of North Carolina and South Carolina. Thousands of years before first contact with Europeans, they called themselves Ye Iswąˀ, or “people of the river.” When George-Warren pulled up to his sister’s house in Rock Hill, […]

University of Arizona works to protect endangered languages

UA faculty members are looking for ways to preserve and revitalize endangered languages in an effort to help students of minority cultures keep their heritage alive. The purpose is to break a cycle of knowledge loss that occurs when children enter schools and learn English, instead of their traditional languages. Nutritional science junior Liz Francisco’s […]

Online classes, modern textbooks helping revitalize Cherokee language

Recent research focusing on Native American languages and how they are taught is helping revitalize the Cherokee language, in part, through online courses and modern textbooks developed by the Cherokee Nation. Using these updated methods, the Cherokee Nation’s Cherokee Language Program continues to have a far-reaching impact, with up to 3,000 students taking online courses […]

The Brain Has Its Own “Autofill” Function for Speech

The world is an unpredictable place. But the brain has evolved a way to cope with the everyday uncertainties it encounters—it doesn’t present us with many of them, but instead resolves them as a realistic model of the world. The body’s central controller predicts every contingency, using its stored database of past experiences, to minimize […]

The Race to Create AI-Enabled, Natural-Language and Voice Interface Platforms

Did you ever stop to wonder: What is Amazon not doing with technology? These days, you’d be hard-pressed to answer that question, given the company’s incessant schedule for announcing updates and new products. The Seattle-based e-commerce giant is seemingly everywhere—whether it’s the latest cloud offerings in AWS, new entertainment shows on Prime, automated retail stores, […]

AI Systems Are Learning to Communicate With Humans

In the future, service robots equipped with artificial intelligence (AI) are bound to be a common sight. These bots will help people navigate crowded airports, serve meals, or even schedule meetings. As these AI systems become more integrated into daily life, it is vital to find an efficient way to communicate with them. It is […]

Icelandic is at risk of becoming an extinct language — and technology may be to blame

The people of Iceland, settled by Norsemen over 1,100 years ago, have developed a unique dialect based on Old Norse. Having preserved many ancient elements that are now lost to the rest of the Nordics, Icelandic (like the Sami language in northern Scandinavia) is distinct also because of its inseparable bond with life at the […]

Translators work to preserve languages, dialects and history

Translators play a vital role in saving the world’s languages, their work allowing 6,000 to 7,000 spoken tongues to exist, and 3,000 rare dialects to survive. “Without translation, there is no history of mankind,” said linguist Astrid Guillaume, of the Sorbonne University in Paris. “We know histories and cultures of the world only by way […]

Hebrew was the only language ever to be revived from extinction. There may soon be another

“All things must pass,” wrote Ian Roberts, a Cambridge University linguist, in a book published last year. “This is as true of you and me as it is of everything we know. It’s also true of languages: Avestan, Etruscan, Tocharian, Gothic, Cornish, Klamath, Yurok, Akkadian, Sumerian, Dyirbal. Gone.” There are 7,000 languages spoken in the […]

Iron Fist in 20 languages: How Netflix is powering up its streaming for mobile devices globally

As Netflix continues to produce billions of dollars’ worth of original content, it’s easy to forget that the company’s business model is firmly rooted in the delivery of digital content, served with as little friction as possible. For Los Gatos, California-based Netflix Inc., frequent improvements to how all of its content is delivered — both […]

How music is keeping one southern Italian dialect alive

The historic dialect of Southern Italy, spoken by the Griko people, is on the verge of extinction. However, it’s still alive – largely thanks to the music associated with it. Also known as Salentino-Calabrian Greek, Griko or Italiot Greek is an umbrella-term for two distinctive dialects: Griko, spoken in Salento, and Calabrian Greek, still present […]

The Rise of the Global Novelist

When Cities of Salt, an Arabic novel by Abdelrahman Munif, was published in translation in 1988, John Updike reviewed it for The New Yorker. “It is unfortunate,” Updike remarked, “given the epic potential of his topic, that Mr. Munif, a Saudi born in Jordan, appears to be—though he lives in France and received a Ph.D. […]

Uhura Was a Comms Officer: Why Linguistics Matter

There is a perceived rivalry within science—ask an engineer and they will say that user experience folk aren’t doing “real” science. Science tends to be thought of as only things like chemistry (and particular kinds, at that), biology, physics—science is equations on a chalkboard or beakers full of mysterious liquids. Especially in popular media, which […]

‘Anumeric’ people: What happens when a language has no words for numbers?

Numbers do not exist in all cultures. There are numberless hunter-gatherers embedded deep in Amazonia, living along branches of the world’s largest river tree. Instead of using words for precise quantities, these people rely exclusively on terms analogous to “a few” or “some.” In contrast, our own lives are governed by numbers. As you read […]

To save their dying language, the Arapaho turn to high-tech apps, old-school flash cards and a new generation

When Marlin Spoonhunter returned to the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming after decades working as an educator in Montana, he realized that something crucial, something elemental to his Northern Arapaho identity, had escaped him — the language. “When I’d hear older people talking, I didn’t know what they were saying,” says Spoonhunter, now president […]

Icelandic language at risk; robots, computers can’t grasp it

When an Icelander arrives at an office building and sees “Solarfri” posted, they need no further explanation for the empty premises: The word means “when staff get an unexpected afternoon off to enjoy good weather.” The people of this rugged North Atlantic island settled by Norsemen some 1,100 years ago have a unique dialect of […]

There’s A Japanese Word For People Who Buy More Books Than They Can Actually Read

Book hoarding is a well-documented habit. In fact, most literary types are pretty proud of the practice, steadfast in their desire to stuff shelves to maximum capacity. They’re not looking to stop hoarding, because parting with pieces of carefully curated piles is hard and stopping yourself from buying the next Strand staff pick is even […]

One Man’s Mission to Keep Aztecs’ Ancient Language Alive

There’s no dearth of culture and language in Southern California. The Census Bureau rates the 40 most common languages spoken by Americans — and 39 of them are spoken in L.A. At a church in Santa Ana, you’ll hear sounds that have resonated for thousands of years. Each Saturday morning, people gather to speak and […]

Reconciliation Is Canada Embracing Its Many Indigenous Languages

“I was angry at my grandparents for a long time.” Onowa McIvor grew up in northern Saskatchewan, where her grandparents feared prejudice against indigenous peoples and did everything they could to bury their Cree roots. They refused to teach the language to their children and grandchildren. McIvor felt robbed of her heritage. As McIvor learned […]

New twists on an old language: Efforts flourish to keep Cree alive

Mahti nehiyawetan — let’s speak Cree. Cree speakers believe the key to preserving the language is just that simple. Neal McLeod, author of 100 Days of Cree, says the language is at a pivotal point in history — it can either fade into obscurity like many other First Nations languages or see a resurgence. However, […]

World’s languages traced back to single African mother tongue

New research, published in the journal Science, suggests this single ancient language resulted in human civilization — a Diaspora — as well as advances in art and hunting tool technology, and laid the groundwork for all the world’s cultures. The research, by Quentin Atkinson from the University of Auckland in New Zealand, also found that […]

Do We Need a Word for Everything?

Imagine walking through a forest near dusk. It is peaceful and quiet; the setting sun paints streaks of light through tree trunks and across your path. The scene is familiar to anyone who’s ever taken a walk in the woods. Using one word, how would you describe the experience? You might defer to a string […]

Strategies to Strengthen the Pisbi and Potón Languages in El Salvador Through Community Engagement

Although the Nahuat language is widely used in the western part of El Salvador due to the efforts that have strengthened its continuity and use by the Nahua Pipil people, this is not the case for the indigenous languages of the Lenca and Kakawira peoples. The process initiated by the Salvadoran National Coordinating Indigenous Council […]

How To Resurrect a Lost Language

Decades ago, when David Costa first started to unravel the mystery of Myaamia, the language of the Miami tribe, it felt like hunting for an invisible iceberg. There are no sound recordings, no speakers of the language, no fellow linguists engaged in the same search—in short, nothing that could attract his attention in an obvious […]

Esperanto alive and well, 100 years after inventor’s death

Instead of a hello, the head of the Esperanto association in the Polish city of Bialystok opts for “saluton”, a sign that the universal language created by Ludwik Zamenhof is alive and well a century after the Jewish doctor’s death. “Zamenhof created Esperanto as a counterweight to national languages, which he believed divided people and […]

Borderless economy throws a lifeline to endangered Thai dialects

An ensemble of traditional musicians begins to play. The treble sound of the oboe gets louder. Drum rolls accompany a steady rhythm of cymbals. A male singer croons in an obscure dialect, “Oh, Ga Nobe Ting Tong …”. A group of four women clad in shiny eggshell-coloured silk blouses and red sarongs dance along. They […]

Amazon expands its literary horizons, making big imprint in translation niche

The literary translation community in the U.S. has a tradition of being highbrow, a carefully tended yet narrow reflection of the stirrings of global culture beyond the Anglosphere. Then Amazon.com jumped in, like a whale into a koi pond. Armed with financial might and an intimate, machine-learned knowledge of reader behavior, the e-commerce giant made […]

Last fluent Ngandi speaker works to pass on endangered Indigenous language

Grant Mathumba Thompson did not have a chance to learn Ngandi growing up, despite it being the language of his mother and grandparents. His great aunt Cherry Wulumirr Daniels has started teaching him Ngandi and other traditional languages, so they can run classes at the local school. “Knowing, learning the languages has saved my life […]

Scholar Who Documented Endangered Cambodian Indigenous Language Gains Recognition

The stoic professor taught Sanskrit and linguistics some 20 years ago to students who became Cambodia’s most accomplished linguists. He spent months in Cambodia’s most sparsely-populated province, over a period of years, to document one of the country’s minority languages, Bunong. Sylvain Vogel, a native French and German speaker who grew up in the Alsace-Lorraine […]

Cantonese, Putonghua or English? The language politics of Hong Kong’s school system

Education issues have rarely been out of the headlines in the 20 years since Hong Kong’s handover. Some of the scenes we have witnessed include primary students tearfully describing the pressure of drills and cramming to the Legislative Council and parents collecting signatures to abolish the Territory-wide System Assessment (TSA) tests. Add to that the […]

How Latino Players Are Helping Major League Baseball Learn Spanish

With the start of baseball season in sight, millions of Latino fans in the U.S., the Caribbean, and Latin America will be rooting for their favorite players, many of whom are transplants from places like Venezuela, Dominican Republic, and Cuba. But Spanish-speaking fans, millions of whom watch Spanish-language broadcasts of baseball games, will have little […]

Living with Sanskrit

The debate in relation to the inclusion of Sanskrit as a compulsory subject in the CBSE curriculum underlines the most obvious and egregious paradox, that an unusually rich and scientifically developed language has not able to retain its acceptance in the land of its origin. Another paradox, which has a more recent origin, is that […]

What the Evolution of Language in Humans Means for AI

In his new book, Agreement Beyond Phi, MIT linguist Shigeru Miyagawa explores the concept of universal languages by analyzing similarities between a range of languages. This is a topic in linguistics that gives a fresh take on the science of words and their construction, and Miyagawa is hopeful that his research and analysis will allow […]

Census shows we must rethink our approach to Irish and the Gaeltacht

The 2016 Census returns, published this week, contain bad news for the Irish language, with a decline across all significant categories: daily speakers of Irish outside the education system and knowledge of and use of Irish in the Gaeltacht. The fall in the Gaeltacht is particularly dramatic – an 11 per cent drop in daily […]

Indigenous Languages in El Salvador Reemerging After a Difficult Past

When speaking about indigenous languages in El Salvador, we have to take into account that there are three indigenous peoples in this country, Náhua Pipil, Lenca and Kakawira. They have their own characteristics, but they cooperate at the national level. The language that has been given the most attention is Nahuat, having a greater number […]

UK Linguist Andrew Byrd Creates Languages for National Geographic’s ‘Origins: The Journey of Humankind’

Throughout Andrew Byrd’s successful career in academia, he has pushed to understand ancient languages to a depth no one has before. His goal was to understand how languages spoken thousands of years ago actually sounded. That scholarly obsession has led Byrd, an assistant professor of linguistics at the University of Kentucky, to places and experiences […]

New Study of the Words “A” and “The” Sheds Light on Language Acquisition

And one more question: When kids start using language, how much of their know-how is intrinsic, and how much is acquired by listening to others speak? Now a study co-authored by an MIT professor uses a new approach to shed more light on this matter — a central issue in the area of language acquisition. […]

First Nations take to designing their own apps to preserve their languages and cultures

Byron Bates is meticulously adding more than 100 Cree words about medicine, pain and doctors into the mobile app he created, called ATC Cree. The app developer and Athabasca Tribal Council member built his app in an effort to maintain the languages of his community, made up of about 5,000 Cree and Dene people in […]

Four Ways Baseball Has Shaped the English Language

When it comes to everyday office conversation, baseball is not your best friend. What do I mean? Well, if you’re relying on clichés from the diamond, you’re likely to get eye rolls from a majority of your colleagues. In other words, if you explain that you’re going to pinch hit for somebody at a meeting […]

Native American Hand Talkers Fight to Keep Sign Language Alive

In early September 1930, the Blackfeet Nation of Montana hosted a historic Indian Sign Language Grand Council, gathering leaders of a dozen North American Nations and language groups. The three-day council held was organized by Hugh L. Scott, a 77-year-old U.S. Army General who had spent a good portion of his career in the American […]

From world language to analytical instrument

For a long time, Latin was considered the language of the powerful and learned. Not only was it the administrative language of Ancient Rome, but it also spread across the entire Mediterranean region all the way to Northern and Eastern Europe during the Roman Empire. Today, people still encounter Latin at grammar schools or in […]

How bilingualism in movies is changing our cultural perception

More and more, we’re seeing languages besides English prominently featured in blockbuster films. But does bilingualism have a positive impact, or reinforce age-old stereotypes? How does the use of language in movies change the way we think about people? The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that about 20% of the American population speaks a language other […]

How to revive Massachusetts’ first language

In a classroom on the main floor of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribal resources center, a dozen or so toddlers are speaking a language that until a few decades ago had no living speakers. This is the language of the Wampanoag Nation, the first language of Massachusetts. The fact that these children are learning it is […]

Hawaiian Language Revival Used as Model for Other Indigenous Languages

Advocates of endangered languages gathered at the University of Hawaii at Manoa this month for the fifth International Conference on Language Documentation and Conservation. The conference included a field study of Hawaiian medium language schools — public schools where the curriculum is taught entirely in Hawaiian — in Hilo, Hawaii, to see what lessons can […]

Will robots destroy human language?

As consumers interact with AI like Alexa, Siri and Cortana – not to mention brand chatbots – more and more, human language will change. That was the topic of conversation at a recent panel during Social Media Week that asked in part whether technology will corrupt language. AI is also changing our relationship with technology, […]

How you learned a second language influences the way your brain works

Over the past few years, you might have noticed a surfeit of articles covering current research on bilingualism. Some of them suggest that it sharpens the mind, while others are clearly intended to provoke more doubt than confidence, such as Maria Konnikova’s “Is Bilingualism Really an Advantage?” (2015) in The New Yorker. The pendulum swing […]

Preserving an Indigenous language? There’s an app for that

The Athabasca Tribal Council is launching a new mobile phone app that it hopes will help preserve the Cree language dialect of northeastern Alberta. The app is called ATC Cree. It translates 120 Cree words into English and plays audio of their pronunciations. Close to 450 words have been recorded and are expected to be […]

Mother Tongues matter amid English-language push in Asia

British Council Senior Adviser John Knagg calls it “the global, suicidal run to early English” – the penchant of many education systems to prioritize English at the expense of other non-dominant languages, often children’s mother tongues. It’s an issue that is particularly relevant in Southeast Asia, as countries belonging to the Association of Southeast Asian […]

Why words die

Biologists reckon that most species that have ever existed are extinct. That is true of words, too. Of the Oxford English Dictionary’s 231,000 entries, at least a fifth are obsolete. They range from “aa”, a stream or waterway (try that in Scrabble), to “zymome”, “that constituent of gluten which is insoluble in alcohol”. That is […]

Looking for new ways to revitalize Yukon’s Indigenous languages

Organizers at a gathering this week in Whitehorse say it’s time to find new ways to preserve First Nation languages. Yukon’s Indigenous languages are in critical decline and the Council of Yukon First Nations (CYFN) is looking for different approaches to a long-standing concern — how to ensure those languages survive. About 60 people gathered […]

Indian State Says It’ll Require Study of Sanskrit, Raising Eyebrows

The government of the northeastern Indian state of Assam announced this week that Sanskrit, the ancient Hindu language of the Brahmin priesthood, would now be mandatory for students in the upper grades of all public high schools. Wider teaching of Sanskrit has been championed by activists from the Bharatiya Janata Party and Hindu nationalists, who […]

The people behind India’s first sign language dictionary

Apart from a few clicks on computer keyboards and the routine shuffling of paper, it is very quiet at this office in the capital, Delhi. A group of 15 people here are working on the massive task of compiling more than 7,000 signs that deal with words used in academic, medical, legal, technical and routine […]

Ernesto Contreras On Creating an Indigenous Language for Sundance Winner ‘Sueño en Otro Idioma’

Spoken or otherwise, human beings exchange messages that range from practical to profound, but when the ability to express our curiosities, concerns, and desires is threatened by the lack of someone who can understand our words, that result is isolation. Imagine if only one other person in the world could fully comprehend what you need […]

Why Italians are Giving up Italian

As I stroll under the scorching sun in Nardò, a town in Puglia on the heel of Italy’s boot, I hear music from an open window. The melody sounds like the Lennon–McCartney classic “Yesterday,” but the lyrics are not in English — or Italian. Then I see a leaflet announcing courses in Neretino, a dialect […]

The fight is on to save Toronto’s endangered languages

From Harari, spoken in eastern Ethiopia, to Bukhori, spoken by Bukharan Jews in central Asia, an organization is looking to record Toronto’s linguistic diversity before it’s too late. Anastasia Riehl, co-director of the Endangered Language Alliance Toronto, spoke on CBC Radio’s Metro Morning about the race against time to capture and preserve the languages of […]

Speaking of the Ice Age

University of Virginia linguistic anthropologist Mark A. Sicoli and colleagues are applying the latest technology to an ancient mystery: how and when early humans inhabited the New World. Their new research, which uses “big data” techniques to analyze more than 100 linguistic features, suggests complex patterns of contact and migration among the early peoples who […]

Language Lessons Start in the Womb

New research is teasing out more of the profoundly miraculous process of language learning in babies. And it turns out that even more is going on prenatally than previously suspected. By looking at international adoptees — babies who were adopted soon after birth and who grow up hearing a different language than what they heard […]

Translation app helping to preserve endangered Indigenous Queensland languages

The Kayardild language became threatened when the Kaiadilt people, who traditionally inhabited Bentinck and Sweers Islands in Queensland’s Gulf of Carpentaria, were brought by missionaries to live on Mornington Island. Professor Nicholas Evans, director of the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language, has been leading the translation work. Together with […]

University of Toronto professors fight to save dying Indigenous languages

The Indigenous language Ryan DeCaire is fighting to save isn’t one he spoke regularly — or fluently — while growing up on Wahta Mohawk territory. “People [with Mohawk ancestry] are saying words like, ‘hello’, ‘goodbye’, 1,2,3′ but is that all there is?,” DeCaire asked himself. The questions spurred him to realize that the only people […]

One of the world’s oldest languages teaches hidden life lessons

If, a few millennia ago, you had been hunting a woolly mammoth, you would have discussed your plan of attack in a version of a language that is still alive today—though just barely. Ojibwe language expert James Vukelich (Kaagegaabaw) visited Stillwater Public Library in January to share some of that language with attendees of the […]

Peruvian government is working to keep its 47 indigenous languages alive

Amadeo Garcia and Pablo Andrade are the last speakers of their mother tongues. Garcia speaks the indigenous language Taushiro, while Andrade speaks Resigaro. The two indigenous languages are among 17 that are critically endangered in Peru. Indigenous languages belong to groups of people who are native to the land, as opposed to Spanish, which comes […]

Arrival, the movie: How linguistics saved the world

Imagine this: strange spacecraft, under alien command, hover in the sky in strategic locations around the globe. Little is known of their intent. National governments and international organizations struggle to determine what comes next. They marshal equipment, military hardware and a bevy of top researchers to scientifically analyze everything that can be known about the […]

From Klingon to Dothraki: Understanding invented languages

In Star Trek, hulking warriors speak Klingon. In Lord of the Rings, ancient forest dwellers talk in Elvish. And in Game of Thrones, nomadic tribes chatter in Dothraki. These made-up languages evoke fictional worlds. Now, fans can learn more about the magic behind all those invented words and phrases by immersing themselves in the history […]

How Silicon Valley is teaching language to machines

The dream of building computers or robots that communicate like humans has been with us for many decades now. And if market trends and investment levels are any guide, it’s something we would really like to have. MarketsandMarkets says the natural language processing (NLP) industry will be worth $16.07 billion by 2021, growing at a […]

Italian is under assault from rising number of Anglicisms, sloppy use of verbs and shrinking vocabulary, guardians of the language warn

The Italian language is under assault from a growing tide of English words, the abandoning of verb tenses and a shrinking vocabulary, and could be driven to extinction altogether, the head of the country’s most illustrious language institute has warned. The language of Dante and Petrarch is becoming vulgarised and made more simplistic as young […]

How ‘Dumpster Fire’ Became 2016’s Word of the Year

Think 2016 was a 🗑🔥? The nation’s top linguists agree. The American Dialect Society just named “dumpster fire”—and the two emoji that represent it—its Word of the Year. Why? Because, it says, the phrase best represents “the public discourse and preoccupations” of 2016. The society of linguists, grammarians, and wordy scholars has awarded the prize […]

Learning a Second Language Linked to Synesthesia

People with synesthesia experience the sensory world in a unique way — for example, they “taste” words or “hear” colors. Now, new research suggests that people who learn a second language but aren’t exposed to that second language very early in life are more likely to have this sensory-switching ability than those who are natively […]

Schools in Ecuador preserve ancestral language

A modern construction occupying around four hectares of land surrounded by brick houses, tractors and businesses of all kinds stands out between the farmlands and the snow-capped mountains of the Andes, at an altitude of 3200 metres. It is a community school, the full name of which is “Chibuleo Bilingual Intercultural Education Unit of the […]

This Is How Google Wants To Make The Internet Speak Everyone’s Language

JAKARTA, Indonesia — When Nurhaida Sirait-Go curses, she curses in her mother tongue. The 60-year-old grandmother does everything emphatically, and Bahasa, the official language of Indonesia, just doesn’t allow for the same fury of swearing as Batak, the language that Sirait-Go grew up speaking on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. “On Facebook, on Whatsapp, they […]

Why Is Speech Recognition Technology So Difficult to Perfect?

Why isn’t speech recognition software more accurate? This is an excellent question to start off an automatic speech recognition (ASR) interview. I would slightly rephrase the question as “Why is speech recognition hard?” The reasons are plenty and here is my take on the topic: An ASR is just like any other machine learning (ML) […]

There were only two speakers of this language left in the world, and one was murdered

It’s now up to a single 65-year-old man in the northern jungle of Peru to prevent a native Amazon language from disappearing forever. Like so many plants and animals in the Amazon, native languages are an endangered species. Last month, 67-year-old Rosa Andrade Ocagane, one of two people known to still speak the language resígaro, […]

The subtle art of translating foreign fiction

Last year, I decided to treat myself to a new copy of Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan, a novel I have loved ever since I first read it as a teenager, and whose dreamy opening line in its original translation from the French by Irene Ash – “A strange melancholy pervades me to which I […]

5 languages on the verge of extinction

Around the world, a spoken language vanishes every two weeks, according to statistics presented at a United Nations conference on indigenous languages. It seems hard to imagine that a group of people would suddenly stop speaking a certain language. But consider this: According to the U.N., most languages are spoken by very few people. About […]

Justin Trudeau’s proposed Indigenous languages act will need teeth to succeed

Last week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that the federal government would be proposing a Canadian Indigenous Languages Act. Few details are yet available about what this act might look like, but the Northwest Territories can perhaps shed some light on such language legislation because we have had an Official Languages Act here since 1984 […]

Milan’s beloved but endangered dialect

The 2015 World’s Fair, held in Milan, was an unexpected success. It showcased a sleek, self-confident city, all trendy architecture and eco-friendly design. How things have changed. In the 1960s, Milan was a grubby, electrifying place. Industry choked the streets, and petty crime was rife. Milan was also different linguistically. Singers belted out folk songs […]

Inuit delegation look to Wales for language preservation lessons

Jeela Palluq-Cloutier, executive director of the Nunavut Language Authority, and her 16 fellow travellers are Inuit — representatives from Nunavut, Labrador, northern Quebec and the Northwest Territories. They were invited to Wales by Prince Charles in order to try and learn how to save a dying language. “In some areas of Canada’s north, the Inuit […]

Last fluent Mandan speaker dies, puts language at risk

The death of Edwin Benson, of Twin Buttes on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in west-central North Dakota, who was the last living soul who could fluently speak Mandan could bring the possible extinction of a language that expressed the unique experiences and perceptions of a once-thriving tribe of Plains Indians. Benson died Friday at […]

North America’s native languages get higher education boost

Among the many institutions in North America that memorialise the native population is Miami University in Ohio, named after the Miami tribe that once spread from the state across vast sections of what is now the United States. It is an ironic tribute considering the treatment of the Miami people, who were attacked by whites […]

Wikipedia ‘facts’ depend on which language you read them in

Like Facebook and Twitter, Wikipedia could have its own filter bubbles. A new website lets you uncover geographical biases in Wikipedia articles by tracking down where editors of different languages source their information. Insert the URL of any Wikipedia page into Wikiwhere and the site’s algorithm trawls the web to find out where the references […]

Silbo Gomero – An ancient and fascinating ‘whistle language’ still survives on one of the Canary Islands, it’s used to talk across the island’s steep ravines

With the advent of the internet, communication technology has evolved to a point where you are just one click away from interacting with the world. Recently, however, we heard about a rather amazing part of the world where the locals use an ancient form of communication. In the rugged mountains of La Gomera, in the […]

The Perils of Machine Translation

Years ago, on a flight from Amsterdam to Boston, two American nuns seated to my right listened to a voluble young Dutchman who was out to discover the US. He asked the nuns where they were from. Alas, Framingham, Massachusetts was not on his itinerary, but, he noted, he had ‘shitloads of time and would […]

Study shows children learning Cherokee are part of ongoing language renewal

Cherokee has been one of a number of endangered Native American languages to see a renaissance in recent history. A group of University of Kansas researchers has co-authored a study demonstrating that the ways children learn and speak the language in a Cherokee immersion school are an ongoing process of renewal rather than a return […]

Chance to save ancient language

In a village in northern Cyprus, a community struggling to save its ancient language has seen a glimmer of hope in intensified efforts to reunify the divided island. Kormakitis was once the hub of Cyprus’s Maronite minority, descendants of Syrian and Lebanese Christians who spoke Sanna, a unique dialect of Arabic influenced by the Aramaic […]

The Evolution of ‘Like’

In our mouths or in print, in villages or in cities, in buildings or in caves, a language doesn’t sit still. It can’t. Language change has preceded apace even in places known for preserving a language in amber. You may have heard that Icelanders can still read the ancient sagas written almost a thousand years […]

Is that a word? 4 reasons why the English language is bigger than you think

Is YOLO a word? How about Oompa Loompa, ‘Merica, or freemium? In 2016, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) welcomed an additional 1,200 words (including the useful terms above) to the ever-expanding and highly confusing English language. But how do you really decide what should be considered a word? “Deciding what is a word is an […]

Venetians push for their dialect to be recognised as a language ahead of referendum on autonomy from Rome

Once a formidable trading power in the Mediterranean and beyond, Venice is seeking to regain some of its long-lost autonomy by having its distinctive dialect recognised as an official language. Known in its heyday as La Serenissima Repubblica- The Most Serene Republic – Venice and its surrounding region was independent for nearly 1,000 years, until […]

Palenquero: The identity behind a language in Colombia

San Basilio de Palenque, Colombia – A warm smile spreads across Juana’s face as she attempts to sell me a slice of Yucca cake, a sweetened pastry made with cassava, eggs and condensed milk. She and John Jairo, our tour guide, are talking to one another. Words roll off her tongue and her hands flail […]

A Native American Filmmaker Captures Her Father’s Language Before It Vanishes

A little girl clad in a pink, fringed Native American outfit with two long braids draping down over her shoulders spins around and around. Her face is one of focused concentration, totally oblivious to the audience watching her, as she steps in and out of the six hoops in her hands. This is Kayla Briët […]

Google Translate AI invents its own language to translate with

Google Translate is getting brainier. The online translation tool recently started using a neural network to translate between some of its most popular languages – and the system is now so clever it can do this for language pairs on which it has not been explicitly trained. To do this, it seems to have created […]

Indigenous lawmakers fear loss of languages

Mexico’s indigenous languages are at risk of being lost, warn several indigenous members of the Chamber of Deputies, who also see a major threat in persistent racism and discrimination against their culture by the greater Mexican society. Campeche Deputy Miguel Ángel Sulub is a native Maya speaker who believes that first languages should be taught […]

6 Potential Brain Benefits Of Bilingual Education

Brains, brains, brains. One thing we’ve learned at NPR Ed is that people are fascinated by brain research. And yet it can be hard to point to places where our education system is really making use of the latest neuroscience findings. But there is one happy nexus where research is meeting practice: Bilingual education. “In […]

Language trends run in mysterious 14-year cycles

The media tends to interpret culture in yearly cycles. Critics publish end-of-year best-of lists and Oxford Dictionaries just selected “post-truth” as its word of the year. But the words we use actually seem to operate on a 14-year cycle, an analysis has found. Marcelo Montemurro at the University of Manchester, UK, and Damián Zanette at […]

How to translate Shakespeare into American Sign Language

There are few lines in literature as memorable as “To be, or not to be—that is the question.” Uttered in the third act of “Hamlet”, the soliloquy offers a poignant examination of whether it is better to quietly bear the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” or to die, and “end the heartache”. The line […]

The Disappearing Dialect at the Heart of China’s Capital

BEIJING — To the untutored ear, the Beijing dialect can sound like someone talking with a mouthful of marbles, inspiring numerous parodies and viral videos. Its colorful vocabulary and distinctive pronunciation have inspired traditional performance arts such as cross-talk, a form of comic dialogue, and “kuaibanr,’’ storytelling accompanied by bamboo clappers. But the Beijing dialect […]

How the Swahili language took hold across Africa, and beyond

You may recognize this phrase. You may even find yourself humming an earworm of the same title from Disney’s “The Lion King.” “It means no worries” goes the song lyric. Disney fails to mention that “Hakuna matata” means “no worries” in Swahili. The language — known as Kiswahili in East Africa — has its roots […]

Arabic translators did far more than just preserve Greek philosophy

In European antiquity, philosophers largely wrote in Greek. Even after the Roman conquest of the Mediterranean and the demise of paganism, philosophy was strongly associated with Hellenic culture. The leading thinkers of the Roman world, such as Cicero and Seneca, were steeped in Greek literature; Cicero even went to Athens to pay homage to the […]

“Whistled Languages” Reveal How the Brain Processes Information

Before electronic communications became a ubiquitous part of people’s lives, rural villagers created whistled versions of their native languages to speak from hillside to hillside or even house to house. Herodotus mentioned whistled languages in the fourth book of his work The Histories, but until recently linguists had done little research on the sounds and […]

Italy’s Last Bastion of Catalan Language Struggles to Keep It Alive

ALGHERO, Italy — The first Catalans reached Sardinia in the 14th century, when troops sailed from the eastern coast of what is now Spain as part of an expansion into the Mediterranean. After an uprising slaughtered the forces garrisoned in this northern port on the island, King Peter IV expelled many of the locals. In […]

Reviving Indigenous languages – not as easy as it seems

The NSW government has announced it will propose legislation for protecting and reviving NSW Aboriginal languages. NSW Aboriginal languages are part of the heritage of NSW Aboriginal people, and part of Australia’s heritage. Recognising this should lead to greater understanding of the people and history of different parts of NSW, to greater respect for Aboriginal […]

The German Language of Fighting

When one thinks of swordsmanship, one typically thinks of the Japanese warrior, welding a katana, or perhaps a Celtic warrior swinging a broadsword. And empty-hand fighting is attributed to the British boxers or the French wrestlers. But in the Middle Ages, Germany surpassed itself as the European epicenter of knowledge in the martial arts. More […]

Language matters in science and mathematics – here’s why

What do you get when you cross a mafia mobster with a sociologist? An offer you can’t understand. It’s an old joke, and you could substitute “sociologist” with just about any other “ologist” – the broader point being that professions use language in ways that make it hard for outsiders to understand. So, do sociologists, […]

How different languages came up with words for colors

It is striking that English color words come from many sources. Some of the more exotic ones, like “vermilion” and “chartreuse,” were borrowed from French, and are named after the color of a particular item (a type of mercury and a liquor, respectively). But even our words “black” and “white” didn’t originate as color terms. […]

The Alphabet That Will Save a People From Disappearing

Twenty-six years ago, two brothers decided their native language needed a new alphabet. The scripts they’d been using to read and write their native Fulani, an African language spoken by at least 40 million people, weren’t working well. Fulani’s sounds were rendered imprecisely by the Arabic alphabet, the script most often used to write it; […]

Finland expresses its unique Nordic culture in emojis — and two get Unicode-approved!

Finland recently published its own set of cultural emojis, 49 in all. They were originally part of a Christmas calendar published by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs on ThisisFinland, a Finnish website. The emojis are all very special to Finns and celebrate their Nordic way of life. For example, if you’ve ever visited Finland, you’d […]

Stanford research explores novel perspectives on the evolution of Spanish

How has the Spanish language evolved in the hundreds of years it has been spoken on multiple continents? To answer the question, Cuauhtémoc García-García, a graduate student in Iberian and Latin American cultures, analyzed 900 years’ worth of texts in over a quarter of a million volumes. “I wanted to study language evolution through data […]

What’s A Woggin? A Bird, a Word, and a Linguistic Mystery

On December 20, 1792, the whaling ship Asia was making its way through the Desolation Islands, in the Indian Ocean, when the crew decided to stop for lunch. According to the log keeper, the meal was a great success: “At 1 PM Sent our Boat on Shore After Some refreshments,” he wrote. “She returned with […]

School uses robot to revive ancient language

A conference held last month, called the Australian Conference for Computers in Education, unveiled research into the impact of humanoid robots on students’ computational thinking. The aim of the study was to understand the impact of humanoid NAO robots on student learning, the integration of the robots into the curriculum and the pedagogical approaches that […]

The 5 Greatest Fictional Alien Languages

Fictional alien languages — like the one prominently featured in Arrival — are a big part of science fiction world building. One of the staples of creating a believable fictional world that’s different from our own is the careful consideration of what beings from other planets sound like and how they communicate. The alien language […]

Inside The Fight To Save The World’s Dying Languages

Kaji Sherpa remembers two key parts about his childhood in Nepal: Being responsible for looking after a herd of cows and having an excellent view of the highest mountain in the world. He would stare up at Mount Everest’s breathtaking expanse and the golden crown that was rumored to be sitting at its peak. “I […]

Democratizing the Oxford English Dictionary

The original Oxford English Dictionary, edited by the great lexicographer James Murray, was never meant to be a mere dictionary. Murray wanted to account for every sense of every word in standard English—an astonishingly ambitious aim, given the size and fluidity of the language. The OED’s originators, Murray observed in 1900, were seeking “not merely […]

People and nature blur in the world’s indigenous languages

Sharing experiences about the role of indigenous and local knowledge in restoring interrelations between people and nature was the focus of a Conservation Campus organised by IUCN’s People in Nature (PiN) initiative during the recent IUCN World Conservation Congress in Hawai’i, in collaboration with the Hawaiian non-profit organisation Kuaʻāina Ulu ʻAuamo (KUA). The event brought […]

Scientific language is becoming more informal

We are not supposed to use first-person pronouns, and contractions aren’t allowed. These rules also discourage unattended anaphoric pronouns and say that split infinitives should be rarely used. And to start a sentence with an initial conjunction is as bad as to include a listing expression, and so on. Exclamation marks are forbidden! The rules […]

Indigenous broadcasters from around world meet for talks

Tanya Orman is the channel manager for Australia’s National Indigenous Television, or NITV. And she is chairwoman of the World Indigenous Television Broadcasters Network, or WITBN. “And when we first established as a collective, we started to exchange content, and then that started to go into exchanging news and, now, having international co-productions. I’m really […]

Brain ‘reads’ sentence same way in 2 languages

When the brain “reads” or decodes a sentence in English or Portuguese, its neural activation patterns are the same, researchers report. Published in NeuroImage, the study is the first to show that different languages have similar neural signatures for describing events and scenes. By using a machine-learning algorithm, the research team was able to understand […]