Is the sky really blue? It depends on what language you speak

What color is the sky? What about the ocean? Or the grass? These may seem like simple questions with easy answers. The sky is blue. So is the ocean. Grass is green. Bananas are yellow.

If you speak English, this is all very obvious. But what if you speak a different language? Your answers to these kinds of questions may change in surprising ways — and not just because the words you use sound different. 

In Kyrgyzstan, a country in Central Asia, a traditional song opens with a line about mountains touching the blue sky. The Kyrgyz word kok (pronounced like cook) means blue. Yet people also walk through kok grass. “We use kok for green color,” says Albina Ibraimova, a former English teacher in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyz has another word for green, but it’s not as common.

Like many Kyrgyz people, Ibraimova also speaks Russian. In Russian, the sky is goluboy (GOL-uh-boy). That means “blue.” However, Russians would not call the ocean goluboy. That color is siniy (SEE-nee). Goluboy and siniy are usually translated as light blue and dark blue. But to a Russian speaker they are as different as pink and red are to someone who speaks English.

All people share the same type of brain with senses that work the same way. The human eye contains light-detecting cells called rods and cones. Three different types of cones capture a vast rainbow of around 1 million different hues. In rare cases, a person may have fewer types of cones than usual. That causes color-blindness. There are also reports of an even rarer condition that adds a fourth type of cone. These people may see many more colors than the rest of us.

Unless you have one of these rare conditions, it doesn’t matter if you speak Kyrgyz, Russian or English. You’ll see the same shade of sky. You just might name and categorize that color differently than someone who speaks another language. You may similarly name and categorize smells, sounds, directions, family relationships and other experiences differently. Why? And what’s going on in the brain when it encounters familiar or unfamiliar categories? Researchers who study languages, psychology and the brain are on the case. 

Read more: Science News for Students

Researchers reconstruct major branches in the tree of language

The diversity of human languages can be likened to branches on a tree. If you’re reading this in English, you’re on a branch that traces back to a common ancestor with Scots, which traces back to a more distant ancestor that split off into German and Dutch. Moving further in, there’s the European branch that gave rise to Germanic; Celtic; Albanian; the Slavic languages; the Romance languages like Italian and Spanish; Armenian; Baltic; and Hellenic Greek. Before this branch, and some 5,000 years into human history, there’s Indo-European—a major proto-language that split into the European branch on one side, and on the other, the Indo-Iranian ancestor of modern Persian, Nepali, Bengali, Hindi, and many more.

One of the defining goals of historical linguistics is to map the ancestry of modern languages as far back as it will go—perhaps, some linguists hope, to a single common ancestor that would constitute the trunk of the metaphorical tree. But while many thrilling connections have been suggested based on systemic comparisons of data from most of the world’s languages, much of the work, which goes back as early as the 1800s, has been prone to error. Linguists are still debating over the internal structure of such well-established families as Indo-European, and over the very existence of chronologically deeper and larger families.

To test which branches hold up under the weight of scrutiny, a team of researchers associated with the Evolution of Human Languages program is using a novel technique to comb through the data and to reconstruct major branches in the linguistic tree. In two recent papers, they examine the ~5,000-year-old Indo-European family, which has been well studied, and a more tenuous, older branch known as the Altaic macrofamily, which is thought to connect the linguistic ancestors of such distant languages as Turkish, Mongolian, Korean, and Japanese.

“The deeper you want to go back in time, the less you can rely on classic methods of language comparison to find meaningful correlates,” says co-author George Starostin, an Santa Fe Institute external professor based at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. He explains that one of the major challenges when comparing across languages is distinguishing between words that have similar sounds and meanings because they might descend from a common ancestor, from those that are similar because their cultures borrowed terms from each other in the more recent past.

“We have to get to the deepest layer of language to identify its ancestry because the outer layers, they are contaminated. They get easily corrupted by replacements and borrowings,” he says.

To tap into the core layers of language, Starostin’s team starts with an established list of core, universal concepts from the human experience. It includes meanings like “rock,” “fire,” “cloud,” “two,” “hand,” and “human,” amongst 110 total concepts. Working from this list, the researchers then use classic methods of linguistic reconstruction to come up with a number of word shapes which they then match with specific meanings from the list. The approach, dubbed “onomasiological reconstruction,” notably differs from traditional approaches to comparative linguistics because it focuses on finding which words were used to express a given meaning in the proto-language, rather than on reconstructing phonetic shapes of those words and associating them with a vague cloud of meanings.

Their latest re-classification of the Indo-European family, which applies the onomasiological principle and was published in the journal Linguistics, confirmed well-documented genealogies in the literature. Similar research on the Eurasian Altaic language group, whose proto-language dates back an estimated 8,000 years, confirmed a positive signal of a relationship between most major branches of Altaic—Turkic, Mongolic, Tungusic, and Japanese. However, it failed to reproduce a previously published relationship between Korean and the other languages in the Altaic grouping. This could either mean that the new criteria were too strict or (less likely) that previous groupings were incorrect.

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This new app from Google is designed to preserve the words of fading languages

For many reasons, including globalization and cultural assimilation, a handful of languages, such as English, Spanish, and Mandarin, are dominating the world’s linguistic landscape—and that often comes at the expense of older and less popular dialects, which slowly fade out. It’s estimated that a language goes extinct every 14 days; almost half of the world’s 6,000 to 7,000 languages are endangered. UNESCO has a scale for threatened languages, called the Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, where tongues range from vulnerable to critically endangered (the rung on the scale right before “extinct”).

This modern-day reality creates a distressing sense of loss for many people who understandably want to preserve their cultural heritage and keep their family traditions from fading into obsolescence. That’s why Google Arts & Culture is deploying its machine-learning tech to allow anyone in the world to easily find words for common objects in 10 of these endangered languages. Through image detection technology, and partnerships with language preservation groups around the world, the project is curating an ever-expanding glossary of words, to be a source of hope for those with attachments to a historic culture, or of fun for those who simply want to learn about a new language.

The free app is part of Google Arts & Culture’s mission to “democratize access to the world’s arts and culture,” says Chance Coughenour, the Google division’s head of preservation, which it does with the help of 2,500 partners in 80 countries. The division first started by digitizing pieces of museum art for public online access, and it’s now branched into using its tech to help preserve “intangible heritage,” or “the ephemeral part of heritage that is at risk of being lost or endangered,” Coughenour says.

Users can pull up the app, called Woolaroo, on their mobile browsers and take a photo of any object, or a scene containing several objects. Google’s Cloud Vision API, its image recognition system that’s used for such programs as Google Lens, analyzes the photo based on its machine learning data from having processed millions of images, explains Ian Pattison, head of retail engineering at Google Cloud U.K. The app will generate suggestions for each object in a photo—along with the translation for that word in the chosen language, plus an audio pronunciation of that word.

Read more: Fast Company

Pace of prehistoric human innovation could be revealed by ‘linguistic thermometer’

Multi-disciplinary researchers at The University of Manchester have helped develop a powerful physics-based tool to map the pace of language development and human innovation over thousands of years – even stretching into pre-history before records were kept.

Tobias Galla, a professor in theoretical physics, and Dr Ricardo Bermúdez-Otero, a specialist in historical linguistics, from The University of Manchester, have come together as part of an international team to share their diverse expertise to develop the new model, revealed in a paper entitled ‘Geospatial distributions reflect temperatures of linguistic feature’ authored by Henri Kauhanen, Deepthi Gopal, Tobias Galla and Ricardo Bermúdez-Otero, and published by the journal Science Advances.

Professor Galla has applied statistical physics – usually used to map atoms or nanoparticles – to help build a mathematically-based model that responds to the evolutionary dynamics of language. Essentially, the forces that drive language change can operate across thousands of years and leave a measurable “geospatial signature”, determining how languages of different types are distributed over the surface of the Earth.

Read more: EurekAlert!

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 explained in the previous article, linguists are generally also concerned with the very loss of languages themselves. This is because we study languages in a scientific fashion, just like animals, fungi, neutrons and tectonic plates are studied by other scientists.

Language is an everyday miracle

Language is in fact a remarkable phenomenon: by producing sequences of sounds with your mouth (or by using gestures in the case of sign languages), you can declare your love for someone, explain quantum theory or order a drone strike.

Language is an everyday miracle, as the Danish linguist Hans Arndt called it, and this miracle is exclusive to humans: while some animals like whales, chimps and bees exhibit a fairly complex form of communication, no bee will ever be able to signal to another bee that a movie they saw yesterday didn’t quite live up to their expectations.

Only humans do this, and — barring physiological disorders — all humans do this. Linguists study why we have language, how language works, what the limits of linguistic variation are and how language develops.

If linguists are to advance our collective knowledge of language as a uniquely human phenomenon, we need to learn about as many languages as possible. You can never get a good understanding of what language actually is if you only compare a handful of them.

If we based everything we know about language on, say, English, Danish, and German, we would miss so many insights about the structural flexibility and diversity of language as a global phenomenon.

Read more: Science Nordic

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. Each time, I noticed that the language of the conversation would change from an indigenous language to something they knew I could understand, Bislama or English. I was amazed by the ease with which the meeting’s participants switched between languages, but I was even more astonished by the number of different indigenous languages.

Thirty people had gathered for the workshop on this island in the South Pacific, and all except for me came from the island, called Makelua, in the nation of Vanuatu. They lived in 16 different communities and spoke 16 distinct languages.

In many cases, you could stand at the edge of one village and see the outskirts of the next community. Yet the residents of each village spoke completely different languages. According to recent work by my colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, this island, just 100 km long and 20 km wide, is home to speakers of perhaps 40 different indigenous languages. Why so many?

We could ask this same question of the entire globe. People don’t speak one universal language, or even a handful. Instead, today our species collectively speaks over 7,000 distinct languages.

And these languages are not spread randomly across the planet. For example, far more languages are found in tropical regions than in the temperate zones. The tropical island of New Guinea is home to over 900 languages. Russia, 20 times larger, has 105 indigenous languages. Even within the tropics, language diversity varies widely. For example, the 250,000 people who live on Vanuatu’s 80 islands speak 110 different languages, but in Bangladesh, a population 600 times greater speaks only 41 languages.

Why is it that humans speak so many languages? And why are they so unevenly spread across the planet? As it turns out, we have few clear answers to these fundamental questions about how humanity communicates.

Some ideas, but little evidence

Most people can easily brainstorm possible answers to these intriguing questions. They hypothesize that language diversity must be about history, cultural differences, mountains, or oceans dividing populations, or old squabbles writ large—“we hated them, so we don’t talk to them.”

The questions also seem like they should be fundamental to many academic disciplines—linguistics, anthropology, human geography. But, starting in 2010, when our diverse team of researchers from six different disciplines and eight different countries began to review what was known, we were shocked that only a dozen previous studies had been done, including one we ourselves completed on language diversity in the Pacific.

These prior efforts all examined the degree to which different environmental, social, and geographic variables correlated with the number of languages found in a given location. The results varied a lot from one study to another, and no clear patterns emerged. The studies also ran up against many methodological challenges, the biggest of which centered on the old statistical adage–correlation does not equal causation.

We wanted to know the exact steps that led to so many languages forming in certain places and so few in others. But previous work provided few robust theories on the specific processes involved, and the methods used did not get us any closer to understanding the causes of language diversity patterns.

For example, previous studies pointed out that at lower latitudes languages are often spoken across smaller areas than at higher latitudes. You can fit more languages into a given area the closer you get to the equator. But this result does not tell us much about the processes that create language diversity. Just because a group of people crosses an imaginary latitudinal line on the map doesn’t mean they’ll automatically divide into two different populations speaking two different languages. Latitude might be correlated with language diversity, but it certainly did not create it.

Read more: Quartz

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 called Bininj Kunwok and another called Yolngu-Matha, and Burarra, Ndjébbana and Na-kara, Kunbarlang, Iwaidja, Torres Strait Creole, and English.

None of these languages, except English, is spoken by more than a few thousand people. Several, such as Ndjébbana and Mawng, are spoken by groups numbering in the hundreds. For all these individuals to understand one another, one might expect South Goulburn to be an island of polyglots, or a place where residents have hashed out a pidgin to share, like a sort of linguistic stone soup. Rather, they just talk to one another in their own language or languages, which they can do because everyone else understands some or all of the languages but doesn’t speak them.

This arrangement, which linguists call “receptive multilingualism,” shows up all around the world. In some places, it’s accidental. Many English-speaking Anglos who live in U.S. border states, for instance, can read and comprehend quite a bit of Spanish from being exposed to it. And countless immigrant children learn to speak the language of their host country while retaining the ability to understand their parents’ languages. In other places, receptive multilingualism is a work-around for temporary situations. But at Warruwi Community, it plays a special role.

Ruth Singer, a linguist at the Wellsprings of Linguistic Diversity Project of the Australian National University, realized this by chance, and wrote about receptive multilingualism at Warruwi Community recently in the journal Language and Communication. In 2006, for one of her trips for fieldwork on South Goulburn, Singer and her husband had a Toyota truck shipped from Darwin by boat. Though the island’s not very big, there aren’t many cars, so having one is a social lubricant. Singer and her husband became friends with a local married couple, Nancy Ngalmindjalmag and Richard Dhangalangal, who had a boat and trailer but no car, and the two couples ended up going fishing and hunting, and digging up turtle eggs on the beach. That’s when Singer noticed that Nancy always spoke to Richard in Mawng, but Richard always replied in Yolngu-Matha, even though Nancy also spoke fluent Yolngu-Matha.

“Once I started to work on multilingualism and tuned my ear into how people were using different languages,” Singer wrote in an email, “I began to hear receptive-multilingualism conversations all over Warruwi, like between two men working on fixing a fence, or between two people at the shop.”

There are a variety of explanations for this, Singer says. In the case of her married friends, Richard didn’t speak Mawng, because he wasn’t originally from Warruwi Community. If he did so, it might be perceived as a challenge to rules that exclude outsiders from claiming certain rights. Also, Yolngu-Matha has more speakers, and those speakers tend to be less multilingual than speakers of smaller languages.

Read more: The Atlantic

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? Even the air, crisp and ridiculously fresh in that distinctively Swiss way, felt somehow changed.

I walked for a while, befuddled. I was still in Switzerland, that much I knew. I had not crossed any international border. Then I glanced at a street sign, and I knew. I had unknowingly crossed the Röstigraben, the amusing term for the invisible line separating German- and French-speaking Switzerland.

Röstigraben means literally ‘rösti ditch’ or ‘rösti trench’ (in French, it’s rideau de rösti, or rösti curtain). The term dates to World War I, when Switzerland’s loyalties were divided along linguistic lines. Rösti is a traditional Swiss-German meal consisting of pan-fried potatoes, and, well, more potatoes, sometimes with bacon, onion and cheese. Geographically, the Röstigraben roughly follows the Saane river (Sarine in French). You won’t find it on any map, though. It is a border of the mind, albeit one imprinted on the Swiss mind from a young age.

Like other types of borders, the Röstigraben is not crossed lightly or unwittingly, except by foreigners like myself. Nearly half of all German-speaking Swiss cross the divide only once a year, and 15% have never crossed it, according to a recent survey conducted by the research institute Sotomo on behalf of telecommunications company Swisscom. Crossing the Röstigraben “seems more like temporarily emigrating to a dangerous place, where you will not understand what people say,” Swiss non-profit executive Manuela Bianchi, told me, only half joking.

Her story is typically Swiss, which is to say not typical at all. With an Italian-speaking father and a German-speaking mother, she grew up speaking both languages at home, adding French, as well as English, at school. Yes, Switzerland’s multilingualism can be burdensome at times – most food products list the ingredients in three languages – but overall she considers it “a wonderful blessing”. Multilingualism is to Switzerland what politeness is to the British or style to the Italians: a deep source of national pride. It is, though, in typical Swiss fashion, an understated pride. It is considered ‘un-Swiss’ to brag about one’s linguistic abilities, or anything else for that matter.

Read more: BBC Travel

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: Bedford. They were there to open a new ‘chapter’ of their non-profit organisation at Bedford School. It would be the first of its kind in Europe.

Wikitongues is a young company (founded in 2014), powered by an ever-expanding volunteer base that seeks to envelope the globe in its all-encompassing embrace. While we were talking in Bedford the news came through that three more recruits had come on board, from three different points in Kazakhstan.

The brief is to provide a refuge, a safe space, a home, for all the world’s languages. Especially, but not only, the endangered ones. Wikitongues volunteers are building an exhaustive database of audiovisual testimony, but Daniel and Kristen, and fellow co-founder Freddie (Federico Andrade) are as much activists as archivists. They are less interested in preserving dead languages for the academic interest of posterity than in protecting and growing living ones, and helping to sustain the communities that speak them.

Increasingly, Wikitongues is motivated by educational imperatives. Daniel and Kristen want people even younger than they are (mid-20s) to appreciate the vital importance of linguistic diversity. The next day they would be teaching Català and Kiswahili to the Bedford boys and opening their minds to a host of possibilities. Contrary to the idea that post-Brexit Britain is going to be strictly monolingual, they stress the truth that the United Kingdom, and in particular the south of England, is already one of the most linguistically diverse places on earth

Read more: The Independent

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 the best-known approaches is the “one-parent-one-language” strategy (OPOL). Each parent uses one language when communicating with their child, so their offspring learn both languages simultaneously.

OPOL emphasises consistency – sticking to one language each – as key to its approach. But this creates the myth that mixing languages should always be avoided. My recent study, part of a new wave of multilingualism studies, would suggest this received wisdom is just that: a myth.

My research looked at Japanese-British families living in the UK with pre and early school-age children who were following a more-or-less strict OPOL language policy. I was particularly interested in examining the impact of OPOL in the family home – how does this unique language environment affect the way children use languages?

Most of the Japanese mothers who participated in my research were fluent in Japanese and English, while the fathers possessed an elementary grasp of Japanese. This made English the primary language of communication between the parents and outside the home. For this reason, the mothers were careful to carve out additional space for more sustained Japanese language learning with their children. In other words, this dedicated space for communicating in Japanese (the minority language) was time children would spend exclusively with their mother. This seemed to create a connection between “Japanese language” and “motherhood” in the children’s perception.

This link became apparent in how children used Japanese as a means of emotional bonding with their mother and adopted a much broader behavioural “repertoire” than usually associated with language. For example, switching to Japanese could sometimes serve as a method to appease mum when she seemed unhappy. At other times, refusing to communicate in Japanese was a useful means of defiance, even when the dispute was not related to language.

Language can never be a neutral communication tool. How it is used at home and beyond – socially, at school, in the workplace – brings additional connotations and meanings which are used consciously or unconsciously in communication.

Read more: The Conversation

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, Hokkaido, is a member of the Ainu, an indigenous group from northern Japan. The story of this small community is one of erasure instigated by the state. In the late nineteenth century, the Meiji government sought a unified, cohesive vision of Japan; the very existence of the Ainu and other indigenous groups threatened Japan’s national myth of homogeneity. In 1899, the government passed an act now known as the Former Natives Protection Law, which stripped the Ainu of their identity: names were changed, language was curbed, and they were forced to give up hunting and gathering and begin farming on poor land.

As long as humans have formed shared identities around ethnicity, religion, race, language, and culture, those identities have been subject to erasure, from colonialism to war to economic globalization to linguistic homogenization to environmental change. Just look to the island nations of Tuvalu and Kiribati, preparing to sink beneath the sea, or to Greenland, preparing for its ice to melt away.

In the previous episode, we explored how asylum seekers struggle to define their identities, caught in limbo between their home countries and their adopted ones. Governments define official, legitimized forms of national identities, the structures into which new arrivals should be integrated. But these same structures are applied to groups who have long resided within countries’ borders—or, in the case of many colonized nations, predated the groups that currently hold power. How can a given group retain a sovereign identity within those national constructs?

The map of the world has never remained static. Right now, there are secessionist movements from Scotland to Kurdistan, each with their own particular historical origins and degrees of success. The ways and forms in which groups assert themselves might differ, but what unites them all is a clear sense of communal identity: one that demands to be seen, heard, and acknowledged as legitimate.

Read more: Quartz

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 prohibited at worst. English is the language of the classroom – this is despite the fact that the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is clear that children from linguistic minorities should not be “denied the right” to use their own languages.

In my recent research, I found there was often a lot of fear associated with the use of “home” languages among the typically white, monolingual demographic of the teaching profession.

In my study, which looks at educator’s attitudes towards multilingualism, one teacher I spoke with explained how she likes children to respond to the register in whatever language they choose, but anything more than this is frowned upon.

She also spoke about what she called “the inappropriateness of language” – claiming that children only use other languages when they want to be rude or exclude others.

Not encouraged

This teacher is not alone in thinking classrooms should be exclusively English speaking – and it isn’t just the case in the UK. Researchers have observed prohibition of the home languages of children in France, where the thought of using any language other than French in the classroom was likened to “anarchy”. In Greece, Albanian speaking children are told that “here, we speak this language [Greek] that we all understand”.

Part of the problem, is most likely down to the fact that losing control of aspects of the learning process can be challenging for teachers. And it can take a significant investment of resources (both funding and time) to gain enough confidence to allow for other languages in your classroom.

Read more: The Conversation