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?

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English Dialect Dictionary Online

May 1, 2016

Joseph Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary (EDD) is a monumental work by any standard. Published in six volumes from 1898–1905, with detailed entries across 4505 double-columned pages, it’s all the more impressive given that its author was largely self-taught and could not read until his mid-teens. (He described himself as ‘an idle man all my life’.)

joseph wright english dialect dictionaryAfter studying philology in Germany, Wright began his pioneering work in English dialectology, aiming in the EDD to include ‘the complete vocabulary of dialect words’ in use since 1700. The Oxford Companion to the English Language says ‘nothing of comparable breadth or depth of dialect scholarship has been published in Britain since’.

The EDD is available in various formats at the Internet Archive, but those hefty PDFs can be unwieldy. The good news – great news, for word lovers – is that the book has finally been digitised and is now free and ready to use ‘by all private people, researchers, students and amateurs’. Just accept the terms of use – respect the EDD Online’s special copyright – and away you go.

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Link love: language (66)

April 27, 2016

I haven’t done language links in a while, so I’ll share this set before it grows to an even more unwieldy size. The series is a sample of the links I share more regularly on Twitter, plus a few I haven’t. Happy reading.

Upside-down N.

A typeface made of trees.

How to make text look futuristic.

The language faculty that wasn’t.

The case for Black over African American.

A book known to the world only in translation.

Why does Britain have such bizarre place names?

Nouns that become verbs act as vivid linguistic shortcuts.

Gorillas compose happy songs that they hum during meals.

We don’t just see the world differently – we hear it differently too.

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Mergers and minimal pairs: a survey of accents

October 29, 2013

Warren Maguire, a linguist lecturing at the University of Edinburgh, has told me about a survey he’s conducting into accents of English in Britain and Ireland. It’s been running for a few years, and you can see some preliminary results mapped here.

Maguire is looking for more respondents, especially from Ireland, but you don’t have to be from Ireland or Britain to take part: though other varieties of English aren’t the main research focus, all information will be gratefully received. The more data, the better.

So if you have time, do answer the survey here. It’s not a test, and there are no wrong answers (so long as you’re honest!). It took me about 10 minutes, and it was fun. You’ll be given pairs or sets of words and asked if you pronounce them the same, or if they rhyme to you.

The survey is expected to be completed next year, and I’ll be keeping an eye out for the results.

Living with Herds: a vocalisation dictionary

May 30, 2013

This short observational film (9 min.) by Natasha Fijn, research fellow at the Australian National University, will appeal to anyone interested in animal behaviour, interspecies communication, or biology or anthropology generally.

Fijn describes it as “a visual dictionary showing how Mongolian herders vocalise to their herd animals, followed by the response of the herd animal(s)”:

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Folktale diffusion and ethnolinguistic variation

February 6, 2013

I’ve been stop-starting my way happily through Celtic Fairy Tales and More Celtic Fairy Tales, two late-19thC collections by the great Australian folklorist Joseph Jacobs, combined in a plump Senate paperback and handsomely illustrated by John D. Batten:

Celtic Fairy Tales, ed. by Joseph Jacobs, illustrated by John D Batten

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ETAOIN SRHLDCU, or: What are the most common words and letters in English?

January 7, 2013

Most of us know that ‘e’ is the most common letter in English and the is the most common word. Many are familiar with ETAOIN SHRDLU, the nonsense string that used to appear in print because of early-20thC printer design and now serves as shorthand for the most popular letters.

Beyond prevailing lore and trivia, we’re generally less certain about the English language’s most common words and letters. Different studies over the years have produced varying results, depending on the datasets and methods used.

Now Google’s director of research Peter Norvig has used the vast data from the Google Books corpus – over 743 billion words – to produce updated word- and letter-frequency tables. Here’s his letter count:

Peter Norvig - English language letter count frequency table

As you can see, it violates ETAOIN SHRDLU only slightly, becoming ETAOIN SRHLDCU.

The 50 most common words, in order of frequency, are: the, of, and, to, in, a, is, that, for, it, as, was, with, be, by, on, not, he, I, this, are, or, his, from, at, which, but, have, an, had, they, you, were, there, one, all, we, can, her, has, there, been, if, more, when, will, would, who, so, no.

Norvig also investigated the most common word lengths, sequences of letters (“n-grams”), letters in various positions in words, and much more. It’s a fascinating page – a feast for data fiends and word nerds alike. (And they are often alike.)