Latin Is Dead, but Not Extinct

No community has claimed Latin as its native tongue since the collapse of the empire that sowed its grammar and lexicon across the ancient world. For a language that officially died more than a thousand years ago, however, it clings to life with all the tenacity of a Roman legion.

From the Renaissance through the 18th century, Latin served as the lingua franca for a monumental wave of intellectual progress — to the extent that its hold on the scholarly world is apparent even today. In the courtroom, defendants challenge unlawful imprisonment by applying for habeas corpus. In the laboratory, scientists assign names like Homo sapiens to each newly discovered species. And many who attended high school in recent decades have memories (fond or otherwise) of parsing sentences by the Roman writers Seneca, Ovid and Cicero.

On the religious front, Latin rode out the Middle Ages in the mouths and pens of the Roman Catholic Church, which preserved it in its “ecclesiastical” form. This dialect remains an official language of Vatican City: the church still employs it in papal documents and Catholics there enjoy its solemn intonations at Sunday Mass.

Interwoven as Latin is with contemporary culture, its pulse seems steady (if a bit fainter than 1,500 years ago). In what sense, then, is it truly dead?

Read more: Discover Magazine

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 use linguistic analysis to uncover differences between psychedelic drug experiences

New research sheds light on the different types of subjective experiences produced by five different types of psychedelic substances. The study, published in Psychopharmacology, used computer algorithms to analyze thousands of anonymously published reports about the effects of psychedelic drugs.

A growing body of research indicates that psychedelic drugs like 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA) and psilocybin hold potential for the treatment of psychiatric conditions such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. While it is known that psychedelics induce profound changes in perception and consciousness, little research has quantified the different experiences associated with consuming these substances, especially in a naturalistic context.

“Though it has not been my main research focus previously, I was often fascinated by promising findings from studies examining psychedelic treatments for various mental disorders in patients who were unresponsive to standard treatments,” said study author Adrian Hase, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Fribourg.

The psychiatric research group I am now part of focuses on stress and psychopathology, but also conducts basic research into the effects of psychedelic substances. We often talk about the topic and one day came up with this idea of analyzing online experience reports to compare various psychedelic substances.”

The researchers used software called Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC) to analyze the content of 2,947 online reports from the Erowid experience vault. The sample included 971 reports about psilocybin-containing mushrooms, 671 reports about LSD, 312 reports about DMT, 163 reports about ketamine, 68 reports about ayahuasca, and 236 reports about antidepressant medication.

Read more: PsyPost

How Brains Seamlessly Switch Between Languages

Billions of people worldwide speak two or more languages. (Though the estimates vary, many sources assert that more than half of the planet is bilingual or multilingual.) One of the most common experiences for these individuals is a phenomenon that experts call “code switching,” or shifting from one language to another within a single conversation or even a sentence.

This month Sarah Frances Phillips, a linguist and graduate student at New York University, and her adviser Liina Pylkkänen published findings from brain imaging that underscore the ease with which these switches happen and reveal how the neurological patterns that support this behavior are very similar in monolingual people. The new study reveals how code switching—which some multilingual speakers worry is “cheating,” in contrast to sticking to just one language—is normal and natural. Phillips spoke with Mind Matters editor Daisy Yuhas about these findings and why some scientists believe bilingual speakers may have certain cognitive advantages.

Read more: Scientific American

Pas de souci! The French war on saying ‘no worries’

The quirks of the French language are an eternal puzzle for many foreign learners. But what students often don’t know is that they are also the matter of heated debates and controversies within France itself.

The evolution of the language and the variety of linguistic practices throughout society in France are commented upon with passion in the press, and governed by the famous Académie Française – the semi-official authority on the French language whose members, known as “immortals”, issue decrees on how it should be used.

Among the phenomena to which purists take much exception, probably none is more contentious than the now highly frequent use of “pas de souci!”, an expression mirroring the English “no problem!” or “no worries!”

The noun souci normally means worry, care or concern, but “pas de souci!” can be used in all sorts of contexts, including as an equivalent of English “all right” or even “you’re welcome”, to signify that the speaker has taken note of the other’s statement or expressed intention.

For instance, if I am sitting in a café and order a coffee, the waiter may answer “pas de souci!” to acknowledge my order. There is of course no concern or no worry at stake here.

Read more: The Conversation

The race to find India’s hidden languages

It was 2010 and Ganesh N Devy was concerned about the lack of comprehensive data on the languages of India. “The 1961 [Indian] census recognised 1,652 mother tongues,” says Devy, “but the 1971 census listed only 109. The discrepancy in numbers frustrated me a lot.”

So, Devy decided to find out what was going on himself.  

India is one of the most linguistically diverse countries in the world. K David Harrison, a linguist from Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, has labelled the country a “language hotspot“. This, according to Harrison, is a place with a high level of linguistic diversity and endangerment, as well as a low level of documentation.

As a professor of English at Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda in Gujarat, Devy has always had an interest in languages. He has founded a number of organisations for their study, documentation and preservation, including the Bhasha Research and Publication Centre in Baroda, the Adivasis Academy in Tejgadh, the DNT-Rights Action Group, among others.

As part of his work at the organisations, he used to go to villages where tribal populations lived and research them. He started noticing that these tribes have their own languages, which often do not get reported in the official government census.

“I had an intuition that the languages of communities with a very small number of people, communities that are economically deprived or communities that are nomadic are getting concealed in official statistics,” says Devy.

Devy felt that it would take a long, arduous process to document every language in India, so he stepped in to help. He launched the People’s Linguistic Survey of India (PLSI) in 2010, for which he put together a team of 3,000 volunteers from all over the country. Most of these volunteers weren’t researchers, but writers, school teachers, and other non-professional-linguists who possessed an intimacy with their mother tongue that was invaluable to Devy.

In a survey conducted during 2010-2013, Devy and his team recorded 780 languages and 68 scripts across the country. Devy says that nearly 100 languages could not be documented, either because of remoteness of the region or conflict, so the true number of languages in India continues to be hidden from us.

Read more: BBC

Color Linguistics Survey Finds Key Similarities Between Cultures

No language has words for all the blues of a wind-churned sea or the greens and golds of a wildflower meadow in late summer. Globally, different languages have divvied up the world of color using their own set of labels, from just a few to dozens.

The question of how humans have done this—ascribe a finite vocabulary to the multitude of perceivable colors—has been long studied, and consistent patterns have emerged, even across wildly divergent languages and cultures. Yet slight differences among languages persist, and what is less understood is how the differing communicative needs of local cultures drive those differences. Do some cultures need to talk about certain colors more than others, and how does that shape their language?

In a new study, researchers led by Colin Twomey, a postdoc in Penn’s MindCORE program, and Joshua Plotkin, a professor in the School of Arts & Sciences’ Biology Department, address these questions, developing an algorithm capable of inferring a culture’s communicative needs—the imperative to talk about certain colors—using previously collected data from 130 diverse languages.

Their findings underscore that, indeed, cultures across the globe differ in their need to communicate about certain colors. Linking almost all languages, however, is an emphasis on communicating about warm colors—reds and yellows—that are known to draw the human eye and that correspond with the colors of ripe fruits in primate diets.

The work, a collaboration that included Penn linguist Gareth Roberts and psychologist David Brainard, is published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“The fact that color vocabularies could be an efficient representation of the communicative needs of colors is an idea that’s been around for 20 years,” says Twomey. “It struck me that, OK, if this is our idea about how color vocabularies are formed, then we could go in reverse and ask, ‘Well, what would have been the communicative needs that would have been necessary for this vocabulary to arrive at its present form?’ It’s a hard problem, but I had an intuition that it was a solvable one.”

Read more: Technology Networks

Quechua language endures in Peru despite centuries of discrimination

Leila Ccaico walked slowly to the front of her class in a rural village in the Andes. Reluctantly, she faced her classmates, obeyed her teacher’s orders and started to sing softly in Quechua.

This is the first year that the sixth-grader has been taking reading and writing lessons in the Indigenous language she learned from her parents, one that has survived despite centuries of laws and discrimination that discouraged its use.

Halting efforts to revive and promote the language hit the spotlight last month when Peru’s newly appointed prime minister surprised the nation by delivering a speech in Quechua to Congress for the first time in Peru’s history.

Translation into Spanish was unavailable, angering politicians who couldn’t understand the speech — a fact that illustrated Quechua’s status as a second-class language in the South American country.

But the incident also raised hopes among Quechua speakers that Peru’s new government, led by a rural schoolteacher from an Indigenous region, will give their language more visibility and increase funding for bilingual education in villages where children are often reluctant to speak the ancient tongue.

“I feel strange speaking Quechua; it’s embarrassing” said 11-year-old Ccaico, whose name is pronounced something like “Hai-Ko” in English.

Talking in Spanish, she said that children who speak Quechua at her school get bullied and added that parents in her village don’t want children to learn the tongue because they think it will not help children when they move to the cities for work.

Ccaico, whose parents are alpaca herders, said she stopped speaking Quechua fluently at the age of 6. She said she she was visiting a city and started to speak in Quechua, but her older sister told her to stop because passersby would make fun of them.

It’s a situation commonly faced by Quechua speakers in South America, even though the language is used by an estimated 10 million people in the region — largely in Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia, all of which have made it an official language in recent decades.

Five hundred years ago, Quechua was the lingua franca of the Inca Empire, which stretched from what is now southern Colombia to central Chile.

But the language’s status began to decline following the Spanish conquest of Peru. Though Spanish authorities initially tolerated Quechua, they banned it following an Indigenous rebellion in 1781.

In 1975, a nationalist military government turned Quechua into an official language in Peru, along with Spanish. But legal recognition did not stop discrimination against Quechua speakers, who come mostly from poor and rural areas.

During the conflict between Peru’s government and the Shining Path guerrilla group in the 1980s and 1990s, some Indigenous people were tortured by the military and accused of being rebel collaborators merely for speaking Quechua, a truth commission found.

Thousands of Quechua-speaking women were enrolled in forced sterilization campaigns in Peru during the 1990-2000 government of Alberto Fujimori and were denied medical attention in their native language.

“We have suffered for 500 years. We walked slowly through hills and snowy peaks to arrive here in Congress, and have our voice heard” Prime Minister Guido Bellido said during his Quechua language speech on Aug 26.

Read more: NWA Online

Can Indigenous Language Comics Save a Mother Tongue?

Tlaloc is a tempestuous deity: provider and withholder. The god of rain, he looms large in the belief system of the Ñäñho people*, who reside in the seasonally parched plateau region of Central Mexico. In the heavens above, Tlaloc lives within a paradise of lush vegetation and endless water in clay pots. If only he’d share.

In recent years, a comic book, Ar Metlaloke(The Tlaloques Hunter), has reimagined Tlaloc’s domain with a twist. The comic weaves in a traditional story from the Mexican state of Querétaro about the spontaneous rainfalls of the mountain Pinal del Zamorano. In the creative adaptation, Tlaloc’s haven includes the Tlaloques, goblin-like helpers who are prone to pranks. They playfully break containers—crack!—and rain pours down unexpectedly onto the arid landscape around Zamorano.

The book is the first of its kind written in Hñäñho, the language of the Ñäñho people, as well as in Spanish and English. It represents a larger, ongoing effort to preserve the people’s culture, which is under threat as speakers decline and cultural bonds erode from centuries of colonial policies.

The language—sometimes called Otomi, from the Spanish name for the community—is imperiled. Today it is one of several regional dialects of a mother tongue with fewer than 300,000 speakers, a figure that’s been dropping for decades.

Limited written Hñäñho has been a challenge for preservation. When linguist Ewald Hekking began researching it 40 years ago, he recalls, “I’d heard there was a local language called Otomi, but I couldn’t find any books.”

Hekking, of the department of anthropology at the Autonomous University of Querétaro, has been working to address that absence ever since. The Dutch-born researcher helped translate the comic, and more recently, he co-authored an anthology of Ñäñho oral traditions and beliefs.

The hope is that telling Ñäñho cultural stories in a contemporary format can help preserve them, and the language, for generations to come.

Hñäñho is one of 68 ancestral tongues still spoken in Mexico, and the seventh largest by number of speakers. But many of these languages are endangered.

Read more: Sapiens

How We Extract Meaning From Language

Much has been said about the remarkable ability humans have to extract meaning from language. That ability is remarkable indeed. In a split second, we perceive a spoken or written word and immediately assign meaning to it while concatenating (stringing together) the various words in a sentence. At the end of the comprehension process, the whole sentence is greater than the sum of its parts.

It is an ability that almost comes naturally, at least for spoken words. Some 353,000 babies born today will understand some basic words about nine months from now. Around their first birthday, they will learn their first words, often words like “mummy” or “daddy.” Around their second birthday, they will be putting words together in their first sentences.

And if those first sentences don’t end up occurring around the second birthday, there is likely no reason for concern. Odds are that they will get there sooner or later and become the talkative creatures that we are. Almost any child, anywhere in the world, can learn how to understand and speak a language—one of the 6,500 languages in the world.

How Do We Acquire Language?

The big question cognitive scientists have been struggling with—linguists, psychologists, educators, anthropologists, philosophers, and AI researchers alike—is how language is acquired so naturally. A century of research has not provided a definitive answer. However, parts of an answer have been proposed.

Some researchers in the early part of the 20th century argued that language acquisition is not much more than verbal behavior training. Just like a pigeon learning to make a pirouette—step by step, when provided with some reward—children learn how to speak. Rather than an edible reward, the attention and praise from parents could be considered the perfect reinforcers for acquiring our remarkable language processing skills.

Other researchers in the 1950s vigorously rejected the idea that language is acquired through training. Language-learning children, they argued, are not pirouette-making pigeons. Instead, the language-learning child already has a “language mind” on its own. It does not start out with a blank slate, but instead has a built-in instinct for understanding and speaking. It is because of this preconditioned language acquisition device that children can acquire language so rapidly and effortlessly. Language acquisition is not nurture, they argue; it is nature.

The nature argument can also be found in a prominent explanation three decades after. The enthusiasm about the emergence of computers convinced some researchers that the human brain must also be like a computer. If computers and the human brain can both understand language, the brain must use the same computational architecture. Language acquisition was thus seen as a combination of nature and nurture. Nature provided the neural network architecture that could be trained on the nurturing linguistic input.

Over the last two decades, however, concerns have been raised about the analogy of the human mind as a computer, crunching linguistic symbols into other linguistic symbols. Instead, the argument went, meaning can only come from linking linguistic symbols to perceptual information. That is, language must be grounded to be meaningful.

The meaning for the word “dog” does not come from the fact that it may occur in the same sentence with “cat,” as a computer may compute. Instead, the meaning of the word comes from the fact that in the mind’s eye (and ear, nose, and hand), we can see the four-legged animal, mentally hear its barking, imagine its particular dog smell, and picture what it feels like to pet it. That is how language attains meaning.

Read more: Psychology Today

Why Are So Many Languages Dying Out?

Endangered vernaculars have been dying out at unprecedented rates since the 1960s. Invariably, they give way to one of the world’s more dominant languages such as Arabic, English, Mandarin or Spanish. Now, more than 40 percent of the world’s 7,000 or so languages are thought to be at risk of extinction, some with just a handful of elderly native speakers left.

“This isn’t a normal or stable flux,” says Anna Belew, outreach coordinator at the Endangered Languages Project, which seeks to support efforts to sustain endangered languages. “What we’re looking at is a mass-extinction event.” Out of the roughly 700 languages that are known to have fallen silent in all of human history, more than 30 percent have gone extinct at some point during the last 60 years.

Read more: Discover Magazine

Ancestors May Have Created ‘Iconic’ Sounds As Bridge To First Languages

The ‘missing link’ that helped our ancestors to begin communicating with each other through language may have been iconic sounds, rather than charades-like gestures — giving rise to the unique human power to coin new words describing the world around us, a new study reveals.

It was widely believed that, in order to get the first languages off the ground, our ancestors first needed a way to create novel signals that could be understood by others, relying on visual signs whose form directly resembled the intended meaning.

However, an international research team, led by experts from the University of Birmingham and the Leibniz-Centre General Linguistics (ZAS), Berlin, have discovered that iconic vocalisations can convey a much wider range of meanings more accurately than previously supposed.

The researchers tested whether people from different linguistic backgrounds could understand novel vocalizations for 30 different meanings common across languages and which might have been relevant in early language evolution.

These meanings spanned animate entities, including humans and animals (child, man, woman, tiger, snake, deer), inanimate entities (knife, fire, rock, water, meat, fruit), actions (gather, cook, hide, cut, hunt, eat, sleep), properties (dull, sharp, big, small, good, bad), quantifiers (one, many) and demonstratives (this, that).

The team published their findings in Scientific Reports, highlighting that the vocalizations produced by English speakers could be understood by listeners from a diverse range of cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Participants included speakers of 28 languages from 12 language families, including groups from oral cultures such as speakers of Palikur living in the Amazon forest and speakers of Daakie on the South Pacific island of Vanuatu. Listeners from each language were more accurate than chance at guessing the intended referent of the vocalizations for each of the meanings tested.

Read more: The Archaeology News Network