Linguists predict unknown words using language comparison

For a long time, historical linguists have been using the comparative method to reconstruct earlier states of languages that are not attested in written sources. The method consists of the detailed comparison of words in the related descendant languages and allows linguists to infer the ancient pronunciation of words which were never recorded in any form in great detail. That the method can also be used to infer how an undocumented word in a certain language would sound, provided that at least some information on that language, as well as information on related languages is available, has been known for a long time, but so far never explicitly tested.

Two researchers from SOAS University of London and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History have recently published a paper in the renowned international journal for historical linguistics, Diachronica. In the article, they describe the results of an experiment in which they applied the traditional comparative method to explicitly predict the pronunciation of words in eight Western Kho-Bwa linguistic varieties spoken in India. Belonging to the Trans-Himalayan family (also known as Sino-Tibetan and Tibeto-Burman language family), these varieties have not yet been described in much detail and many words had not yet been documented in field work. The scholars started their experiment with an existing etymological dataset of Western Kho-Bwa varieties that was collected during fieldwork in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh between 2012 and 2017. Within the dataset, the authors observed multiple gaps in which the word forms for certain concepts were missing.

“When conducting fieldwork, it is inevitable that you miss out on some words. It’s kind of annoying when you observe that afterwards, but in this case, we realized that this was the perfect opportunity to test how well the methods for linguistic reconstruction actually work,” says Tim Bodt, first author of the study.

Read more: EurekAlert!

A New Way to Trace the History of Sci-Fi’s Made-Up Words

One thing nerds like to argue about is what nerds are allowed to argue about. If you agree to stipulate that science fiction is often one of those things—and, hey, we could argue about that—then a problem to solve is the boundaries of that genre, the what-it-is and what-it-isn’t. That’s not straightforward. Finding the edges of science fiction is like taking a walk around a hypercube in zero-gee; you keep bumping into walls and falling into other dimensions. Reasonable people don’t even agree on when it started— FrankensteinThe Time Machine? Gilgamesh? A story where a ghost kills people is horror; what if a robot did it? What if the universe has robots and spaceships but also magic and destiny?

It does seem all but inarguably true about science fiction, though, that the genre radiates neologisms (new words) and neosemes (new concepts made of old words) like an overloading warp core emits plasma and neutrinos. Just to be clear, that’s a lot.

Don’t get mad, romance and mystery fans; you are great. But the point is, if you’re doing it right, science fiction packs in new concepts, even entirely new languages—Klingon, for example, and that inkblot thing the heptapods squirted in Arrival. (What’s that you say? Fantasy has Elvish and Dothraki, why am I leaving those out? Let’s take that to the comments.) It’s where writers need words—or, if need is too strong, maybe want—for rockets propelled by impossible technology, people who are also machines, guns that shoot light instead of bullets, and all sorts of other things that don’t exist and therefore don’t (yet) have names. “Naming things well—and I’m not purporting to be someone who does that—but as a reader it’s so satisfying, because it can be exposition without being expository,” says Charles Yu, occasional WIRED contributor and author of How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe and the National Book Award–winning Interior Chinatown. “And it’s so much fun too.”

That doesn’t mean it’s easy, of course. Those neologisms and neosemes exist within an individual story, but also in a larger conversation among every story, in a genre with fiercely loyal adherents. “The thing about making up new terminology—and this is a place that writers can fall down—is that, like anything else, it has to make sense not only within the universe that you’re building but also in the universe of the reader,” says John Scalzi, author of Old Man’s War and The Last Emperox, among other sci-fi works. “It has to be a term that is easily graspable, so they can put it into their lexicon and not have to think about it again, but at the same time it wants to be distinctive enough that when they see it they are reminded of you.”

Read more: Wired

‘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, who could have come up with a word for such a specific concept? And is it only the Swedes who could have needed the verb “fika” to describe chatting over a coffee?

The internet abounds with words that lack a single-word English equivalent. In order to be really lacking an English equivalent, it must be a single, indivisible unit of meaning, as phrases are infinitely productive and can be created on demand by combining different words. Take, for example, the claim by Adam Jacot de Boinod in I Never Knew There Was A Word For It, that Malay has a word for the gap between the teeth that English lacks: “gigi rongak”. Well, this appears to be a phrase, and it translates literally as the perfectly cromulent English phrase “tooth gap”.

In fact, English even has a single-word technical term for a gap between the teeth: “diastema”. Okay, that’s actually a Greek word, but it’s in use in English, so it’s also an English word. Does that matter?

Where we get our words from tells us something about our history. Take, for instance, Quechua – the language spoken by people indigenous to the Andes and the South American highlands. The Quechuan word for “book” is “liwru”, which comes from the Spanish word “libro”, because Spanish colonisers introduced written forms of language to the people they conquered. In fact, English does now have a word for “hygge” – it’s “hygge”.

Read more: The Conversation

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. But the distribution and density of these cells also varies across people with ‘normal vision’, causing us all to experience the same colour in slightly different ways.

Besides our individual biological make up, colour perception is less about seeing what is actually out there and more about how our brain interprets colours to create something meaningful. The perception of colour mainly occurs inside our heads and so is subjective – and prone to personal experience.

Take for instance people with synaesthesia, who are able to experience the perception of colour with letters and numbers. Synaesthesia is often described as a joining of the senses – where a person can see sounds or hear colours. But the colours they hear also differ from case to case.

Another example is the classic Adelson’s checker-shadow illusion. Here, although two marked squares are exactly the same colour, our brains don’t perceive them this way.

Since the day we were born we have learnt to categorise objects, colours, emotions, and pretty much everything meaningful using language. And although our eyes can perceive thousands of colours, the way we communicate about colour – and the way we use colour in our everyday lives – means we have to carve this huge variety up into identifiable, meaningful categories.

Read more: BBC

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 OED, it can never leave. Whether other dictionaries remove words or not varies from dictionary to dictionary, but major dictionaries who attempt to put out “complete” editions tend to follow suit in never removing words once they make it in. However, the much more common concise editions of all dictionaries do occasionally remove not just obsolete words, but sometimes quite common ones that simply don’t fit and are deemed less important to include than other words for various reasons.

Before we get to how a word becomes obsolete in the eyes of dictionary creators, it’s helpful to understand how a word enters the dictionary in the first place and what it means for a word to be there, with the latter being something of a common misconception.

While it’s very common for people to say something like, “It’s not in the dictionary, so it’s not a word”, this sentiment is rarely if ever, shared by professional word-nerds. One does not have to look hard to find editors at all of the major dictionaries specifically denouncing this popular notion. As co-founder of the phenomenal word reference site Wordnik and one-time chief editor of American Dictionaries at Oxford University Press, including editing the second edition of The New Oxford American Dictionary, Erin McKean, notes,

All words (aside from unintentional errors and malapropisms) are words at their birth. All you have to decide is whether the word in question is the right one for the job. Dictionaries don’t measure realness; they serve as rough proxies for the extent of a word’s use.

Or as noted in the FAQ section of Merriam-Webster’s website,

Most general English dictionaries are designed to include only those words that meet certain criteria of usage across wide areas and over extended periods of time. As a result, they may omit words that are still in the process of becoming established, those that are too highly specialized, or those that are so informal that they are rarely documented in professionally edited writing. The words left out are as real as those that gain entry; the former simply haven’t met the criteria for dictionary entry – at least not yet (newer ones may ultimately gain admission to the dictionary’s pages if they gain sufficient use).

Read more: Qrius

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 to Z, defining a total of 414,825 words. But in the eyes of its editor James Murray, the very first volume of the dictionary was something of an embarrassment: It was missing a word.

Looking back, it’s impressive that more words were not lost. Assembling the OED was a nightmare. Before the first volume—an installment consisting of words beginning with the letters A and B—was published in 1888, multiple editors had taken (and abandoned) the helm, and each regime change created new opportunities for mayhem. When James Murray took command in 1879, the Oxford English Dictionary could best be defined by the word disarray.

The irony of making this massive reference book was that it required millions upon millions of tiny, tiny pieces of paper. Every day, volunteers mailed in thousands of small strips of paper called “quotation slips.” On these slips, volunteers would copy a single sentence from a book, in hopes that this sentence could help illuminate a particular word’s meaning. (For example, the previous sentence might be a good example of the word illuminate. Volunteers would copy that sentence and mail it to Oxford’s editors, who would review it and compare the slip to others to highlight the word illuminate.)

The process helped Oxford’s editors study all of the shades of meaning expressed by a single word, but it was also tedious and messy. With thousands of slips pouring into the OED’s offices every day, things could often go wrong.

And they did.

Some papers were stuffed haphazardly into boxes or bags, where they gathered cobwebs and were forgotten. Words beginning with Pa went missing for 12 years, only to be recovered in County Cavan, Ireland, where somebody was using the papers as kindling. Slips for the letter G were nearly burned with somebody’s trash. In 1879, the entire letter H turned up in Italy. At one point, Murray opened a bag only to find a family of live mice chewing on the paperwork.

When Murray took over, he tried to right the ship. To better organize the project, he built a small building of corrugated iron called the “Scriptorium.” It resembled a sunken tool shed, but it was here—with the help of 1029 built-in pigeonholes—that Murray and his subeditors arranged, sorted, and filed more than a thousand incoming slips every day. Millions of quotations would pass through the Scriptorium, and hundreds of thousands of words would be neatly organized by Murray’s trusty team.

One word, however, slipped through the cracks.

Read more: Mental Floss

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 philosopher Henk Oosterling remarks, in the West, “a room is empty until someone enters.”

However, in the East, space is understood a bit differently. In Japan, spaces have meanings prior to any activity that happens within them. For example, as a space in Japanese culture is understood by how it shapes relationships, the same meeting room in Tokyo would appear full of symbols and instructions about how interactions can and should occur. In this way, a room is always filled with invisible structures, regardless of its occupants.

Instead of framing space as a relationship between objects and walls, the Japanese concept of space is about the relationships among people. By shifting this view, we can discover an interesting way of thinking about the spaces we make and use in everyday life—and the relationships that they create.

Japanese ideas of space

Western designers and architects have long found the Japanese concept of space fascinating, but there’s also a lot the rest of us can learn about different cultures and how they approach space as both a concept and a practice. Mitsuru Kodama, a professor at Nihon University, argues that Japanese concepts of space derive from two foundational traditions: Shinto (an indigenous spiritual tradition in Japan) and Buddhism (imported from mainland Asia).

From Shinto came the high value placed on harmony in relationships and a focus on the connections—spoken and unspoken—that tie people together. From Buddhism came the ideas of emptiness and selflessness. These concepts “entail not engaging in any fixed ideas or actions,” Kodama says. Even the word for person in Japanese, ningen, reflects differences in how interactions and identity are understood. The first part (nin) represents a human being, and the second (gen) stands for space, or in-between. The understanding of a person isn’t distinct and atomistic, but rather is made up of the connections and relationships that people form as they interact with each other.

Similarly, Japanese spaces tend to focus on structuring interactions, contingency, and connections to other people and to society. For example, traditional tea houses have doors that are narrow and low. This forces guests to lower their head and, historically, for samurai to leave their swords outside by the door. The doors serve to remind entrants of their relationship to the host (their lowered head) and to the broader culture (where weapons are not appropriate). In this way, they build spaces as extensions of culture and values, rather than as places where culture happens.

Read more: Quartz

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,” writes the psychologist Julian Jaynes. “The common reply to the question ‘What is it?’ is, when the reply is difficult or the experience unique, ‘Well, it is like —.’”

That metaphorical process is at the heart of Toki Pona, the world’s smallest language. While the Oxford English Dictionary contains a quarter of a million entries, and even Koko the gorilla communicates with over 1,000 gestures in American Sign Language, the total vocabulary of Toki Pona is a mere 123 words.

Yet, as the creator Sonja Lang and many other Toki Pona speakers insist, it is enough to express almost any idea. This economy of form is accomplished by reducing symbolic thought to its most basic elements, merging related concepts, and having single words perform multiple functions of speech.

In contrast to the hundreds or thousands of study hours required to attain fluency in other languages, a general consensus among Toki Pona speakers is that it takes about 30 hours to master. That ease of acquisition, many of them believe, makes it an ideal international auxiliary language—the realization of an ancient dream to return humanity to a pre-Babel unity. Toki Pona serves that function already for hundreds of enthusiasts connected via online communities in countries as diverse as Japan, Belgium, New Zealand, and Argentina.

In addition to making Toki Pona simple to learn, the language’s minimalist approach is also designed to change how its speakers think. The paucity of terms provokes a kind of creative circumlocution that requires careful attention to detail. An avoidance of set phrases keeps the process fluid. The result, according to Lang, is to immerse the speaker in the moment, in a state reminiscent of what Zen Buddhists call mindfulness.

Read more: Business Insider

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 had been omitted. “For blackberry, read BlackBerry,” wrote Macfarlane. “A basic literacy of landscape is falling away up and down the ages.”

His wonderful new poetry book for children, The Lost Words, is Macfarlane’s response to this vanishing language. It’s a collection of acrostic spell-poems, beautifully illustrated by Jackie Morris, each one devoted to a word removed from the OJD.

“The idea was that readers would feel a sense of walking into the book, like a landscape,” says Macfarlane. “We wanted to make a spell-book in two senses – in that children spelt these words but that there was also this great sense of enchantment; that old magic of speaking things aloud.”

I am walking through Wandlebury woods with Macfarlane in the English countryside near his Cambridgeshire home. As the sunlight breaks through huge yew trees, the author of such classic nature books as Mountains of the Mind and The Wild Places points out the large Iron Age ring-fort, a wide meadow rising into a chalk down, and the Roman road along which he walked in his bestselling book The Old Ways.

Wandlebury woods also features in Landmarks and is filled with children’s dens, a secret garden, and his own children – Will, four, Tom, 11, and 13-year-old Lily – love it here, too.

Read more: Financial Review

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 at some of the same words according to the study. There is the common view that slang words associated with sex and the bodily functions are hilarious. The words “booty”, “tit”, “booby” and “hooter” were rated as funnier than children’s abuse words such as “nitwit”, “twit” and “twerp”.

But men found lightly pornographic words, such as “bondage” and “orgy”, funnier than women – whereas women nominated words such as “giggle” and “humbug”. Giggle is a word stereotypically associated with girls and women, but not in a complimentary way: it conjures up the childlike image of girls in huddles laughing nastily about others, according to the Urban Dictionary (UD).

But “giggle” also has wider connotations. The UD says it can mean many things, including when a girl laughs mockingly at a man’s small penis and a slang term for cannabis. “Humbug” may have been picked because it has a nice old-fashioned sound or because it is used by older people, rather than for its current slang usage. The slang site Slang Define suggests that the phrase “Bah, humbug” has the more abusive meaning of, broadly: “Who gives a fuck!”

Read more: The Conversation

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 themselves into a frenzy over what they deemed a new blight on the language: the word “finalize.” “Finalize” was the “incentivize,” “impactful,” or “leverage” (as verb) of the 1960s, a piece of bureaucratic jargon and source of deep chagrin for language purists. “It’s business-letter English, meaning acceptable and undesirable,” sports writer Red Smith said of such jargon in 1969.

“Finalize” was a new verb that meant agreeing on the final terms of something, without actually finishing it. If two people “finalized” a divorce, it didn’t actually mean the divorce was over. “We finalized the vacation” didn’t mean a trip had taken place. In the 1960s, use of the neologism seemed to create dramatic eye rolls in pedants, the way “-ify” (“Can we list-ify this?”) or the construction “the x for y” (“Tinder for dogs”) might today.

Read more: Quartz

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 llongot culture, they began to learn the language. Simple words at first, then more nuanced ones that encompassed such things as love and anger. To Renaldo, all of the words were familiar except one.

Liget.

At first, he thought this word meant “energetic” or “productive.” But then liget exploded out of that definition into an emotional landscape he had never before encountered.

One evening, members of the tribe asked Renato if they could hear tape recordings of his conversations with the people he studied. The voice of a deeply loved and respected man who had recently died began to play.

The room fell silent. The men’s eyes narrowed and their lips curled, their faces turned into masks of rage.

They told Renato that hearing the tape made their hearts feel liget. It makes us want to take a head, they told him, over and over. It makes us want to take a man’s head and throw it.

Read more: NPR