The Language Hoax: John McWhorter on linguistic relativity

April 12, 2017

Linguist, professor, and author John McWhorter has featured on Sentence first a few times before, in posts about texting, creoles, dialects, linguistic complexity, and book spine poems. He has written many books and countless articles about language, and has been hosting the excellent Lexicon Valley podcast for the last while.

In the video below, McWhorter talks about the ideas in his recent book The Language Hoax, the hoax being the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, aka linguistic determinism or relativity, depending on how strongly it’s believed to apply.* This is the appealing but mostly unfounded notion that our language shapes the world we experience. There’s a helpful summary of it here, and further discussion in this book review.

The subtitle of McWhorter’s talk, ‘Why the world looks the same in any language’, outlines his position. But he acknowledges there is wiggle room for weak versions of the hypothesis, whereby our perceptions can vary slightly because of our different native languages. It’s a fun and interesting talk, given at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico in 2016. It’s around 50 minutes long, and there’s a lively Q&A to finish.

Read the rest of this entry »


Kinship terms around the world

March 31, 2017

It’s often assumed that when babies say mama or papa (or similar) they are addressing or referring to their mother or father explicitly. Not so. In a 2012 post on mama/papa words around the world, I wrote:

Before I knew anything about language acquisition, I assumed that babies making these utterances were referring to their parents. But this interpretation is backwards: mama/papa words just happen to be the easiest word-like sounds for babies to make. The sounds came first – as experiments in vocalization – and parents adopted them as pet names for themselves.

These pet names, or nursery forms, in turn gave rise to our grown-up terms like mother and father – or rather, their ancient predecessors – according to Roman Jakobson’s 1959 paper ‘Why “Mama” and “Papa”?’ (PDF). The striking correspondence of nursery forms cross-lingually can be seen in a table from Larry Trask’s ‘Where do mama/papa words come from?’ (PDF):

The Great Language Muster is a project collecting data from hundreds of languages in an effort to update our knowledge of these and other kinship terms – how we address and refer to parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles. It’s being run by UCL linguistics professor Andrew Nevins, whose research assistant Evan DeFrancesco emailed me about it.

Read the rest of this entry »


Lingthusiasm: a new podcast about linguistics

January 2, 2017

Two of my favourite linguabloggers, Lauren Gawne of Superlinguo and Gretchen McCulloch of All Things Linguistic, have teamed up to create a podcast called Lingthusiasm – so named because they’re enthusiastic about linguistics. If you share this enthusiasm and interest, you’re sure to enjoy their new show.

lingthusiasm-linguistics-podcastSo far there are three episodes: on languages constructed to expedite world peace, and why they’re destined to fail; on the many types and functions of pronouns; and on the fine sci-fi film Arrival (2016), whose protagonist is a linguist encountering an alien language. At 30–35 minutes long, discussions stray into related topics without losing sight of the main current.

All the shows to date have been fun and illuminating, and I’m looking forward to hearing what they talk about next. Lauren and Gretchen know their stuff, have an easy rapport, and are skilled at pitching linguistic concepts to a general audience. I also like the mix of Australian and Canadian dialects.

You can tune in to Lingthusiasm on Tumblr, iTunes, Soundcloud, Facebook, YouTube, and so on, or you can use this RSS feed to download mp3s directly, as I’ve been doing. Happy listening!


Link love: language (68)

December 8, 2016

Before the year runs away from me – it’s about to sprint out of sight – I want to catch up here on the links I’ve been gathering (and in some cases tweeting) over the last few weeks. It’s the usual mix of articles, posts, podcasts, and pictures, all of a linguistic theme. Click at will.

Pseudo-anglicisms.

‘This is not your language.’

The etymology of slang – finally.

The art of editing (podcast, 39 min.).

The race to save Hawaii Sign Language.

What whistled speech tells us about the brain.

People with no language (hat tip to John Cowan).

Mr Slang – of GDoS fame – now has a podcast.

Read the rest of this entry »


Book review: Abby Kaplan: ‘Women Talk More than Men: And Other Myths about Language Explained’

August 14, 2016

Humans are highly prone to cognitive bias. We habitually make bad judgements and draw unreasonable inferences from the available facts. These tendencies lead to many myths that persist in popular culture, and our beliefs about language show the power, prevalence, and persistence of such myths.

We may believe, for instance, that dialects are substandard English, or that texting harms teenagers’ literacy, or that women talk more than men. This last myth gives the name to an excellent new book of popular linguistics by Abby Kaplan, a linguistics professor at University of Utah: Women Talk More than Men: And Other Myths about Language Explained. Cambridge University Press kindly sent me a copy for review.

The book has 11 chapters, one myth per chapter. Each is structured logically, like a textbook, starting with an overview of popular ideas about a topic, comparing them with what linguists have found, and finishing with a conclusion, summary, bibliography, and so on. The bulk comprises a careful case study aiming to resolve a key question: Can animals talk to us? Are some languages more beautiful than others?

Read the rest of this entry »


Oliver Sacks on echolalia in Tourette’s syndrome

July 8, 2015

One of the neurological case studies in Oliver Sacks’s remarkable book An Anthropologist on Mars (1995) involves Dr Carl Bennett, a surgeon in British Columbia who has Tourette’s syndrome. Sacks spends a lot of time with Bennett at home, work, and play, to learn more about the condition and how it affects his daily life.

Oliver Sacks - an anthropologist on mars - seven paradoxical tales - book coverPeople with Tourette’s are often depicted stereotypically as beset by elaborate physical twitching and involuntary swearing and the like, but this oversimplifies a very complex condition. In Bennett’s case the Tourette’s never affects his surgery, but outside of such contexts the compulsions of touching and vocalising do present to a striking degree.

Bennett’s Tourette vocalisations are not so much swears and other taboo expressions as ‘juicy’ phrases devoid of real meaning (at least in his use of them), uttered over and over again. To satisfy this urge, Bennett systematically collects odd names. One passage in the book describes how, after a calm bout of morning exercise – half an hour on an exercise bike, smoking a pipe, reading a medical book – Bennett’s echolalia returns in force:

he kept digging at his belly, which was trim, and muttering, ‘Fat, fat, fat . . . fat, fat, fat . . . fat, fat, fat,’ and then, puzzlingly, ‘Fat and a quarter tit.’ (Sometimes the ‘tit’ was left out.)

‘What does it mean?’ I asked.

Read the rest of this entry »


Chimpanzee pant-hooting, termiting, and gesture

June 28, 2015

Here are a few items of linguistic interest from In the Shadow of Man, Jane Goodall’s account of her pioneering study of chimpanzee behaviour in Tanzania in the 1960s. I featured In the Shadow of Man in a bookmash a couple of years ago, but that was before I had read it.

Jane van Lawick Goodall - in the shadow of man - book coverTo describe chimpanzees’ practice of fishing for termites (with a twig, vine, grass stem, straw, or finger), Goodall uses various conventional phrases, such as fishing for termites and termite-fishing, which seems the default. But she also verbs termite itself, just as we’ve long done with fish:

As the termite season wore on there could be no doubt that Flo’s older offspring were kidnaping Flint with the deliberate intent of getting their mother to stop, at least for the time being, her endless termiting. […]

Fifi, on the other hand, was a keen termite fisher, and when Flint, wanting to play with his sister, jumped onto her and scattered the insects from her grass stem, she was obviously irritated. Over and over she pushed him away roughly. Fifi still played with Flint frequently herself when she was not termiting . . .

Termites taste a little like cashew nuts, apparently:

Read the rest of this entry »