Language Research, Recommended Reading

Updates on Previous Posts!

Recently a family member shared some passages from a book about Tolkien
(J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century by Tom Shippey) that talked about how he considered himself a “philologist” or someone who studies language in written historical sources (thanks, Wikipedia!). Although I haven’t read The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings books, I am familiar with the fact that language plays a HUGE role in Tolkien’s works.

Then I found a few articles and links to pages that talked about Dothraki and Klingon—two languages created for works of fiction. I’ve already written about Dothraki in a post, but these new findings were too interesting to keep them to myself. So I’ve decided that this week’s post will be about some recent updates on past posts.

As I mentioned above, I found two great links that talk about Dothraki (and one also talks about Klingon).
The first is from Wired: How the Klingon and Dothraki Languages Conquered Hollywood. The link is about a podcast episode, where you can listen to a discussion with Lawrence M. Schoen, who is the director of the Klingon Language Institute, and David J. Peterson, co-founder of the Language Creation Society and the linguist who created Dothraki and Valyrian for the Game of Thrones TV series. Or you can just read the highlights of the podcast in the article.

The second link is a video of Peterson, along with a few other actors,  performing examples of Dothraki  to promote the new Dothraki language course offered by Living Language. I love the part where Peterson discusses what kind of conversations he thinks would occur during a boring day for a Dothraki horse lord.

Then there’s the link that offers another theory on the nationality of the ISIS member featured in a propaganda video. I’m not sure why “Inside Edition” decided to contact Phillip Carter, a linguistics professor at Florida International University, but since this article offers perspective on the ongoing investigation I first talked about in this post, I though I would share it. The article is short, but if you’re in a real hurry, the short version of Carter’s theory is: the terrorist is either Canadian-born or Canadian-educated.

Finally, here’s an update on an older post about the efforts of Jessie Little Doe Baird, a linguist at MIT, to revive the Wôpanâak language. Unfortunately, the charter school planned by the “Wôpanâak Reclamation Project (WLRP) was not one of five charter schools approved by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to advance to the next stage of the 2014-2015 charter school application process.” But as the article mentions, the WLRP can review the feedback they received on their proposal, make changes that will strengthen their case, and then decide if they want to resubmit a proposal next year.

Since seeing the PBS special on Baird’s efforts to revive Wampanoag culture and recreate a language that hasn’t had any native speakers in several generations, I’ve been interested in the project. I hope that this decision not to approve the charter school doesn’t deter the WLRP from their goal.

Linguistic Stereotypes, Recommended Reading

The Way You Sound Can Be Used Against You

I’ve moved around a lot since leaving home for college, and in the course of innumerable introductions and casual chats inevitably someone will ask me where I’m from. When I tell people I grew up in Western New York, the response is usually one of the following:

From people who don’t know where that is, I’ll be asked,

“Is that close to New York City?”

(No, it’s not. It’s as far as you can be from NYC and still be in NY. It’s practically Canada)

From people who DO know where that is, I’ll hear,

“But you don’t have a Buffalo accent.”

(By which they mean my speech doesn’t have the characteristics of the Inland North accent that is broadly found in the Great Lakes region.)

I know I’ve written about accents before (here and here), but they’re a rather rich source of interesting stories. Case in point, I found two great articles this week about accents—the first is an argument for how all accents are valid and beautiful, and the second involves the much more serious topic of using language-based judgments to determine a person’s right to asylum.

As I mentioned at the start of this post, I’ve lived in several places, including two major cities, Chicago and Washington, D.C., and I have friends that live in or near most of the major cities along the east coast. So when I saw the bracket at the beginning of the article  responding to Gawker’s “America’s Ugliest Accent” tournament, I was dismayed to see not only Chicago, but NY, Boston, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, New Orleans and LA (along with 9 others) listed as having ugly accents.

Luckily this blog post (which was picked up by, which is where I found the link) against this tournament, “What’s Wrong with Gawker’s Tournament,” written by Josef Fruehwald—a University of Edinburgh lecturer with a PhD in Sociolinguistics—presented a lovely case for why this tournament is ridiculous. Fruehwald points out that accents are routinely used as a means of discrimination, or at least as the basis of gross categorizations that equate speaking style with demographics like education, income, and race. Aside from making people feel bad about their speaking style, the Gawker bracket is (perhaps inadvertently?) promoting linguistic stereotypes.

And the idea of stereotypes, or at least preconceived ideas of how people should sound, comes into play in the second article I found, “Language as a Passport,” which mentions how, in cases where paper documentation isn’t available, a person’s language can be used in determining whether they should be granted asylum in another country.

The long-held assumption that a person’s nationality can be determined by their speech (the article sites the biblical example that gave rise to the word shibboleth) meets with some strong contradictory evidence from instances of children being raised in a different speech environment from their “native” one. The article does mention that the Language Analysis for the Determination of Origin process can’t definitively provide nationality, but can only, “indicate the predominant country or region of socialization of an asylum seeker.” When asylum seekers find themselves faced with hurdles like this, it’s important to remember that language and speech are not fixed features, but can change based on a variety of factors at many points throughout someone’s life.

The way we speak is just one part of our identity—it can tie us together or it can separate us into groups based on things like geography or ancestry. It’s one thing to use it as conversation starter around a table in a college dining hall, and another to use it as the basis for prejudice.


**Update: The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has written an article about the Gawker tournament, with comments from linguist Dr. Barbara Johnstone. You can check it out here. It also mentions that Dr. Josef Fruewald’s response to the tournament was originally a blog post that was picked up by, so I’ve made some minor adjustments in the post to reflect this.**

Language Research, Social Network Analysis

How the Twitterverse is Contributing to Language Research

I recently joined Twitter. I am beyond fashionably late to this party, but Twitter has been on my linguistics radar for several years, thanks to the fact that many researchers have used tweets as data sets to study various aspects of language change and use.

Personally, I love the idea of hashtags as meta-commentary or as a type of paralinguistic cue (#SorryNotSorry comes to mind), but I’ve also listened to presentations where hashtags were used to track the spread of breaking news, as well as how it was possible to tell the trending hashtags that evolved organically versus the hashtags that were purposefully created (like those shown at the bottom of your TV screen during your favorite television series)—for the organically evolved, there are differences in wording or spelling, where as created hashtags tend to all spring up at the same time and in the same format.

But one of the big draws is the sheer amount of data that Twitter can provide. Searching a hashtag brings up thousands of tweets, and it’s here that language researchers are looking for insights. Since August I’ve come across two articles about a study that turned to Twitter to investigate Spanish dialects and discovered the existence of two “superdialects” whose usage doesn’t depend on geographic region. Rather, one dialect appears to be used more often in cities, and the other in rural areas. You can read the first article I found, from the MIT Technology Review here, and/or a more recent write-up of the same article I found on here.

Another way that researchers are using tweets as data are to reveal the overall mood of Twitter users on different days of the week and at different times throughout the day. This Buzzfeed article has some fun color-coded (if a little confusing) charts showing just that. The study uses specific search phrases like “feeling happy” or “hungover.” And with a huge data set culled from these search terms, their findings are probably reliable….to a point.

But as we all know, the words we use aren’t always meant literally. The lack of paralinguistic cues like facial expressions, body positioning, and tone of voice in online communication, combined with the 140 character limit, means that taking a phrase out of context isn’t going to reveal a foolproof data set of mood indicators. The sentiment analysis of tweets and Facebook posts are a big challenge to computational linguists—just think of how many meanings the word “like” can have online, or how much difficulty Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory has with recognizing sarcasm, and you have an idea of the possible pitfalls.

Does anyone else have examples of Twitter being used as a data source for research?

If you’re on Twitter—let me know! I’m always looking for cool people to follow. And if you want to return the favor, you can follow me at @l_g_johnson


As a bonus, yesterday was National Punctuation Day! Check out this fun Mental Floss article about lesser-known punctuation—I think it pairs well with the above section on paralinguistic cues. They’re like less colorful emojis!

Being a Linguist, Forensic Linguistics, Language in the News

Part 2 of I Could Do THAT?!?! Jobs that Linguists Do

It’s time for another example of the different kinds of work that linguists can do. The background of this example involves the terrorist group known as the Islamic State and the murder of US journalist, James Foley, which unfortunately has shown to be the first in a string of violent beheadings. This post is about the role that a linguist is playing in helping to identify the IS representative in the video depicting the murder of Mr. Foley.

Dr. Claire Hardaker, a lecturer at Lancaster University (in the UK), was asked by British and US security services to use her linguistics training to try to help identify the masked man in the video based on his speech. She was also asked to analyze an email sent to Mr. Foley’s family. Her analysis suggests that the speaker is most likely a native speaker of British English, and from the south of England. Furthermore, that whoever wrote the email is also a native English speaker, due to their use of creative metaphors, dependent clauses, and proper use of the possessive form.

This type of analysis falls under the category of “Forensic Linguistics,” i.e. language and the law, and covers everything from analyzing written threats or ransom notes to incidences of possible trademark infringement.

Forensic linguistics is a fascinating field. I’ve always been drawn to criminal investigative work (it was my fervent wish to be an FBI agent for a long time), so when I saw that an entire course on this topic was being offered my first semester, I eagerly signed up. At some point during the first few weeks of class, we were told the following story to demonstrate the kind of work forensic linguists do:

Roger Shuy, a sociolinguist (and emeritus linguistics professor at Georgetown University) was asked to analyze a ransom note from a kidnapping. The note featured several misspellings and the phrase “Put it in the green trash kan on the devil strip at corner 18th and Carlson.” Realizing that “devil strip” is an uncommon way to describe the strip of grass between the sidewalk and the street, Shuy referred to the Dictionary of American Regional English and discovered that that phrase’s use was limited to the area around Akron, Ohio. Shuy shared his findings with the police, who already had a suspect who hailed from that geographic region. When they confronted the suspect with Shuy’s analysis, the suspect confessed to the kidnapping.

A longer version of this story can be found here–Linguistic Profiling from “Do You Speak American.” I also encourage you to check out the website of Roger Shuy.

While this example is rather satisfying from a crime-solving point of view, I want to point out that when you’re dealing with language it’s rarely that straightforward. With this type of forensic linguistic work it’s very difficult to provide definitive answers regarding things like threat assessment or authorship.

But due to their unique perspective and training, linguists can help law enforcement officials, judges, attorneys, and juries better understand evidence or arguments, such as the likelihood that two similar trademarks will be confused by consumers or the reliability of ear-witness accounts (like an eye-witness, except ear-witnesses have heard rather than seen something of possible interest).

If you’d like to learn more about forensic linguistics, I encourage you to check out some of the links above. And if you’re still curious, leave a comment below—I’m happy to answer questions, give more examples, or offer suggested reading!


Language and the Brain, Psychology of Language

Language and Your Brain

Back when I was living in Chicago and I first learned about the field of linguistics, I knew that before I committed myself to started a graduate program I needed to do a sort of ‘test run.’ Luckily, the School of Continuing Studies at Northwestern University was offering a course in the Psychology of Language. We discussed a wide range of topics, from language acquisition, to how people are able to comprehend language, to how language can be affected by injury or illness, and (most interestingly) how the brain can respond and adapt.

Sometimes, when certain parts of the brain are damaged due to a stroke or trauma, the result is some kind of aphasia. People with aphasia can have difficulty understanding written or spoken words, or they’re unable to find the words to express what they’re thinking (anomia). There was a fairly recent example of this in the Showtime series Masters of Sex. Dr. Lillian DePaul (Julianne Nicholson), diagnosed with cervical cancer that has spread and begun to impair her cognitive function, would occasionally use the wrong word without realizing it or would struggle to find a word. Unfortunately for the fictional Dr. DePaul, her condition wouldn’t improve. But there are people who’ve suffered from an illness or injury who are able to recover, even if that recovery takes months or years.

And as remarkable as it is for the brain to find ways to compensate for these kinds of unfortunate circumstances, there are times when the brain’s response is something unexpected. There are documented cases of people suffering some kind of brain damage and waking up speaking with an accent, like a woman from Illinois who was anaesthetized for a dental procedure and woke up speaking with an accent that blends English, Irish, and “a bit of other European accents” (how’s that for a vague description?). Or even more remarkable, this man who woke up from a coma being able to speak fluent Mandarin, when he only had high school level proficiency prior to the accident that put him in the coma.

To learn more about aphasia, check out the National Aphasia Association at

Bilingual, Second Language Acquisition, Second Language Experiences

No More Excuses: Language Learning Made Easy

I’ve made it my mission with this blog to point out that there’s more to linguistics than speaking multiple languages. But lately I’ve come across several articles about language learning, including some really cool new (and free!) apps that were designed to make learning another language easier than ever.

First, though, I want to reiterate some benefits of learning another language. There’s a great deal of evidence out there that being multilingual changes your brain in positive several ways, and recent research even suggests that learning a new language can expand your mind, both figuratively and literally.

Language is about understanding and expressing ideas and concepts; as you increase your access to different words and cultural ideas, it becomes easier to find the right word or expression that can most closely share the idea you have in your head with another independent mind. Plus, learning the different ways that ideas can be expressed makes you realize that there are many ways to say the same thing, and that there’s no “right” way to express yourself, as long as you’re able to communicate your ideas. And, of course, there’s that great quote from Nelson Mandela that, for me, hits the nail on the head as far as why I love linguistics:

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart” 

There are many ways to learn another language: immersion is an amazing (if occasionally disconcerting–in a good way) experience, if that option is available to you. If not, there are plenty of classes out there at places like Multilingual Chicago, Language Trainers USA, or private tutors. If you live in a major city, you might find something like the Polyglot Bar, where people gather to practice different languages and meet like-minded language learners.

For those of you without access to these kinds of resources, fear not! There are many other options available at a variety of price points. The most well known is the Rosetta Stone software, but lately there’s been an explosion of smart phone apps available for little to no cost. Although I haven’t tried any of these…yet…I was drawn to this article about the creator of Duolingo, primarily because they talk about their user experience research: they employ A/B testing to figure out which lessons in which orders are the most effective for language learning, and then update lessons to incorporate those changes. As a firm believer in giving back to communities that provide researchers with data, I love hearing of these kinds of applications.

So forget your excuses and go learn another language–your brain will thank you for it!

What other thoughts would you add about language learning? Has anyone used any of these software programs or apps? If so, feel free to add in your two cents or a review in the comments below!

Language in the News, Second Language Experiences

Finding the Humor in Language: A Pun Example

Humor is a tricky thing. Language-related or –dependent humor is even trickier. It relies on understanding the double meanings of words, or using pronunciations in a novel, unexpected way. Here’s a fairly classic example:

Knock Knock.

Who’s there?


Lettuce who?

Lettuce in, we’re cold!

If you search for “knock knock jokes for kids” you’ll see many examples of these types of jokes, where there’s misdirection in the pronunciation (i.e. lettuce sounding like “let us”). I’m betting their popularity with young children has to do with this new concept that words and sounds can mean something other than the obvious.

There are many examples of this type of linguistic-based humor, but understanding the joke can be tricky if you’re less than fluent, not only in the language, but the culture as well. In an article from The Guardian about language and humor (Warning: this article contains some strong/NSFW language), there’s quite a discussion about humor in different languages, and how working jokes into a classroom lesson, or acknowledging unintentional humor due to mispronunciations, can be a chance to enhance language learning. Jokes can be used to lighten the mood when students are frustrated, or it can point out certain words, phrases, or sounds that can be tricky if mispronounced or misunderstood and help to reinforce the lesson. And when a language learner gets the joke, it can be a strong positive reinforcement of their hard work.

My own experiences with language-related humor come from a group project I did for my Intro to Linguistics course. My partner and I recreated an experiment where bilingual speakers of varying abilities were asked to read puns on a screen and click through to the next one when they understood the punchline. We had several interesting findings. But first, we had to get creative in figuring out how to conduct the actual experiment. Although there are plenty of computer programs that can run these types of tests, we had neither the access nor the time to figure out how to use them. So we improvised and used the timings feature on Powerpoint. We would meet with our volunteer test takers (friends, fellow students—our subject pool was the very definition of a “sample of convenience” and was discussed as such in our final report), set up the presentation and timings feature, describe the experiment, and let them proceed through the 30 or so pun examples.

What we discovered was that our test takers took the most time figuring out puns where the first half of the pun set up a joke one way, but the second half (the punchline) was only understood if the first half of the pun meant something different. I’ll give you an example:

Two men walk into a bar. The third one ducks.

Understanding the joke means that the reader has to shift their understanding of the phrase “walk into a bar” from “entering a place that sells alcohol” to “move in a way that they hit a metal rod that is perpendicular to their body.” Since the first line is also a common way to set up a joke (at least in American English), the “getting” the humor comes from being able to quickly adjust one mental picture to another, based on multiple meanings of the word “bar.” Our test takers who did not identify themselves as native English speakers took longer to process these types of puns, since it required time to mentally activate the different meanings of words until the one that gave sense to the joke was hit upon.

It seems that jokes and humor are among the most difficult aspects of language to learn, since they require a level of cultural comprehension and nuance that goes beyond knowing the vocabulary and pronunciation. But as The Guardian article concludes, there’s always physical humor. Just don’t hurt yourself as you slip on that banana peel.


On an unrelated note, I’ve recently updated my work samples to include an animated video I created to describe what linguists do for a younger audience. Feel free to let me know what you thought, about the video or today’s blog post, in the comments below!

Bilingual, Language and Movies, Recommended Reading

Outlander: a Multilingual Performance example

I am a huge Outlander fan. Ever since a friend and fellow actor loaned me her copy of the first book of the series, so I had something to read offstage during the run of Hamlet (the rock version), I’ve been absolutely hooked. If you aren’t familiar, it’s an epic story of a woman named Claire who accidentally travels through time in Scotland, and meets her soul mate, Jamie. Recently, Starz premiered a new series based on the book (also called Outlander), and so far they’ve done a great job bringing this story and these characters to life. Part of bringing the time period and location (1740s Scotland) to life onscreen is through the use of Gaelic. While the main character, Claire, is English, many of the people she encounters speak and understand Gaelic.

For the actors, this means mastering several words and phrases in an unfamiliar tongue. In an article about Sam Heughan, who plays Jamie, there’s a brief discussion about how the language is handled in the show, particularly the mention that the Gaelic won’t be translated via subtitles as a dramatic device to tune us in to Claire’s feeling of being outside her comfort zone. But what about the actors? In this great post from Anna at the Language Trainers Blog, she talks about several actors who’ve learned lines in unfamiliar languages and done an amazing job, dramatically (she mentions the performance of Samira Wiley in Orange is the New Black, who learned German for her character’s flashback episode). As anyone who’s ever performed in another language, or even Shakespeare, will tell you: it’s not enough to say the words—you have to understand the intent behind the words to convey the deeper message.

The author goes on to talk about actors who are bilingual in real life, and how the different languages can affect how the actors approach their roles. Much like how language can affect decision-making based on logic versus intuition, at least one bilingual actor (Javier Bardem) has said that he connects in an emotional way with one language (Spanish), and in a mental way with another (English).

So the next time you see a movie or tv show where there are scenes in different languages, take a second to do some online sleuthing to find out if the actor is bilingual. Who knows—it may win you a round of trivia someday!


Being a Linguist, Language in the News, Recommended Reading

When “Meaningless Words” is a Misnomer

Earlier this month, Mark Liberman, a linguist at the University of Pennsylvania, decided to look at “um” versus “uh” usage along gender lines. His post is interesting, if a tad bit technical. Luckily, Melissa Dahl at wrote a piece, “Dudes Say ‘Uh’; Ladies Say ‘Um'” which nicely summarizes the findings. I encourage you to check out the article, but here’s a quick TL;DR summary:

Woman tend to use ‘um’ 22% more than men, and men tend use ‘uh’ 250% more than women (nope, that’s not a typo). Also, men tend to use ‘um’ or ‘uh’ 38% more than women in general, and overall older people (men and women) use ‘uh’ or ‘um’  less often.

As a bonus, one of my grad school professors, Deborah Tannen, gets in on the conversation when Ms. Dahl contacted her for possible explanations for what these findings might mean. She’s careful to point out that since this study was based on a database of words and therefore doesn’t take the context of each of these usages into account, we can’t really do more than speculate. But she does say that the explanation offered by one commenter on the original post does sound plausible:

that “men use /uh/ as a place-holder. Women use /um/ as a backchannel indicating, “that’s interesting, I’m thinking about it.”


Some linguistic research (including some of Dr. Tannen’s own work) has examined how men and women use these filler words to accomplish different tasks in conversation, either to prevent someone from interrupting by making a noise to hold the floor (place-holding), or providing feedback that demonstrates attention and understanding (backchannel).

This story was also picked up by the Washington Post who, in addition to mentioning the original UPenn blog post and the story, tie in some other research done by the University of Texas at Austin that studied the use of not only ‘uh’ and ‘um’ (filled pauses) but also ‘I mean,’ ‘you know,’ and ‘like’ (discourse markers). According to the abstract of their paper, they found that while the filled pauses seemed to be used by both genders and all ages “at comparable rates,” the “discourse markers…were more common among women, younger participants, and more conscientious people.” (I’ll be adding the full article to my ever-growing reading list).

For linguists every word, every sound, every instance of rising inflection at the end of a sentence, has the potential to reveal something interesting about human communication. These linguistic choices can be elusive, ever-changing, unconscious, or deliberate, but they can rarely, if ever, be called meaningless.


Language in the News, Names, Recommended Reading

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles–an example of preferred adjective order in English

My inner nerd is really going to make an appearance in this post.

The other day, I caught a short preview of the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie. Since I was an impressionable child when “TMNT” first appeared, I’m rather attached to the original concepts, both the cartoon version and the movies. Kids who watched TMNT picked their turtle soul mates without the help of a Buzzfeed quiz (mine was Donatello). We had the action figures. You get the picture.

But there was something in this particular preview that caught the attention of the linguistics nerd part of my brain. Here’s the preview, via YouTube, and the part I’m talking about starts at :10 seconds. There’s a short transcript below the video…


April O’Neil (Megan Fox): “Ninja…Mutant…Turtle…Teenagers?”

Donatello (Jeremy Howard): “Well when you put it like that it sounds ridiculous.”


Clearly a joke, since the basic concept of the main characters is bizarre no matter how you describe them. But it struck me as true that there’s something more fluid about saying Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I was concerned that maybe that’s a result of being introduced to the name when I was young. But then I found a article that talks about the preferred order of adjectives in English.

To summarize: while in English, it’s not incorrect to use adjectives in any particular order, there does seem to be a preference, and some linguists have broken these adjectives down into regions. Here they are in order:

General Opinion or Quality

Specific Opinion or Quality







One professor emeritus of linguistics and philosophy, Barbara Partee, also “observes that the modifiers most likely to sit right next to nouns are the ones most inclined to serve as nouns in different contexts.”


So when we take      Teenage   Mutant     Ninja                                           Turtles,

We have                      Age             Origin*      Noun in other context        Plural Noun


The joke version         Ninja         Mutant     Turtle       Teenagers

We have                         Noun         Origin       Noun         Plural Noun


It seems that the official name is a better fit, according to the suggested explanation for adjective preference. And phonetically, the official name is easier to pronounce, due to the separation of the two T’s by the M and N, in the same order as they appear in the alphabet, and with the tongue in same place to first make the N and then the T sound. If you say it out loud slowly, you’ll see what I mean.

Of course, the joke version in the preview is an example of how the language can intentionally be changed, which according to the article can require more cognitive focus. At the very least it makes us pay close attention to the phrasing, and at the most it can change the whole meaning of the phrase.

Who knew seven seconds of a movie preview could say so much about word order?


*Not sure if “Mutant” should be considered a Specific Quality (in which case it’s out of order) or Origin—weigh in by leaving a comment below!