The Language of the Ancient Etruscans

Etruscan was a relatively isolated language not connected with the Indo-European languages of Italy. By Mark CartwrightHistorian Introduction The language of the Etruscans, like the people themselves, has remained somewhat mysterious and has yet to be fully understood. The alphabet used a western Greek script, but the language has presented difficulties to scholars because it[…]

Learning a New Language Is Like an Illicit Love Affair

The truth is that entering an intimate relationship with a new language often colors everything. Learning a new language is a lot like entering a new relationship. Some will become fast friends. Others will hook their arms with calculus formulas and final-exam-worthy historical dates, and march right out of your memory on the last day[…]

When Did Colonial America Gain Linguistic Independence?

By the time the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, did colonial Americans still sound like their British counterparts? 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[…]

Primate Research Pushes Timeline for Speech Evolution Back by 27 Million Years

Researchers say it’s time to finally discard a decades-old theory about the origins of human language. Introduction Sound doesn’t fossilize. Language doesn’t either. Even when writing systems have developed, they’ve represented full-fledged and functional languages. Rather than preserving the first baby steps toward language, they’re fully formed, made up of words, sentences and grammar carried[…]

Three Recent Internet Language Trends

Which of these trends will stick around, and which are passing fads? Introduction Social media has created an entirely new linguistic ecosystem, with new words, phrases and features for expressing ourselves cropping up all the time. Last year, internet language expert Gretchen McCulloch – whose best-selling book “Because Internet” is its own noteworthy language event[…]

I Don’t Think That Word Means What You Think It Means

Words change their meaning over time, but it can be hard to keep up, especially when some words evolve to mean the opposite of their original definition. Kath & Kim’s Sharon Strezelecki, who tries hard to school US celebrity Kim Kardashian on the pronunciation of the word ‘nice’ in a TV advertising campaign, might be[…]

Bringing Back Aboriginal Languages from Scraps of Paper

Ethnographer Daisy Bates recorded many Aboriginal languages in the early 20th century, which would otherwise be lost today. Introduction 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[…]

Preserving Precious Indigenous Languages in Australia

Linguists are using new technology to return decades-old recordings of near-extinct languages to the communities where they were made. On the bonnet of a dust-covered four-wheel drive, linguists Ian Green and Rachel Nordlinger whip out a laptop to download a sound file onto a memory stick. The Indigenous man beside them is impatient. His family[…]

Talkin’ Like a Pirate? It Be a Linguistic Treasure Trove

No one in history has ever, based on their adopting a sea-going profession, talked like Robert Newton’s Long John Silver in Treasure Island. The people we think of when we talk about “pirates” would’ve talked mostly like the people they grew up around, just like the rest of us do. Many of them wouldn’t have[…]

How Language and Climate Connect

While we’re losing biological diversity, we’re also losing linguistic and cultural diversity at the same time. This is no coincidence. The world is getting uncomfortably warm. At present, much of Europe is suffering under a heat wave of record-breaking temperatures. It’s so hot that piles of manure are spontaneously combusting and setting off wildfires in Spain. Across the[…]

Noah Webster’s Civil War of Words over American English

Webster saw himself as a saviour of the American language. In the United States, the name Noah Webster (1758-1843) is synonymous with the word ‘dictionary’. But it is also synonymous with the idea of America, since his first unabridged American Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1828 when Webster was 70, blatantly stirred the young[…]

An Overview of Ancient Mesopotamian Languages

Remaining examples include religious, mathematical, musical and astronomical texts. Key Points The principal languages of ancient Mesopotamia were Sumerian, Akkadian (i.e. Babylonian + Assyrian), Amorite, and – later – Aramaic.  They have come down to us in the “cuneiform” (i.e. wedge-shaped) script, deciphered by Henry Rawlinson and other scholars in the 1850s.  The subject which[…]

Why Languages and Dialects Really Are Different Animals

It takes about a millennium for dialects to become languages. Simple questions often yield complex answers. For instance: what is the difference between a language and a dialect? If you ask this of a linguist, get comfortable. Despite the simplicity of the query, there are a lot of possible answers. You can see it firsthand[…]

The Phoenician Alphabet and Language

Phoenician is a Canaanite language closely related to Hebrew. Introduction Very little is known about the Canaanite language, except what can be gathered from the El-Amarna letters written by Canaanite kings to Pharaohs Amenhopis III (1402 – 1364 BCE) and Akhenaton (1364 – 1347 BCE). It appears that the Phoenician language, culture, and writing were[…]

A History of Language, Script, and Symbol in West Africa

West Africa is a place of great diversity – in language, in writing, in the hugely varied means of recording information and passing it on. By Dr. Marion Wallace (left) and Dr. Janet Topp Fargion (right)Wallace: Lead Curator, Africa CollectionsFargion: Lead Curator, World and Traditional MusicBritish Library Introduction West Africa is home to well over[…]

Why Americans Think British Words Are Silly and Adorable

Although brolly is British, bumbershoot is surprisingly American. Me: Hi English person: You mean you don’t have SNELLYDORF HUFFLEDAMS? WHERE DO YOU PUT YOUR BROOKENSHIRES? Me: Aight man have a good day                                                                                                   —@minifiliawarde Since 2011, University of Delaware professor Ben Yagoda has been writing Not One-Off Britishisms, a blog that tracks British turns of phrase that are infiltrating[…]

“Woe Unto Those Who Know Not How to Syllabificate”: The Languages of Medieval Law

Lawyers spoke their own language, even in the Middle Ages. When John of Salisbury (ca. 1115-1180) decried the dishonesty of lawyers in his Policraticus, he targeted the incomprehensibility of their legalese, complaining that “they snare simple men in nets of impenetrable jargon … ‘Woe unto those who know not how to syllabificate.’”[1] The sentiment expressed by John[…]

Linguistic Understanding and the Philosophy of Language

What is it to understand a language, hence others? By Dr. Paul TomassiFormer Professor of PhilosophyUniversity of Aberdeen Introduction Current understanding of the nature of language[1] owes much to two authors: Noam Chomsky and the later Wittgenstein. What is interesting is that the conceptions of language proposed by each appear to conflict. The key question[…]