Language in the News

Linguistics in the News (Thursday Thoughts, March 15th 2012)

Sorry for the lateness of this post. My husband’s current show (he’s a professional stage manager) opened last night, so I was busy watching Sunset Boulevard, followed by the opening night party (and a late night diner trip!)

Throughout the week, I try to scout out stories that I think will be interesting to share here, and this week I found two!

The first is about a polyglot, or someone who speaks many languages. One of the common misconceptions about linguists is that we are all polyglots. Speaking for myself here, as much as I wish I were bilingual (or trilingual), I actually became interested in linguistics because a lot of what we study is similar to the work I was doing for my theatre career.

Part of what performers do before the first rehearsal is to analyze their scripts, trying to figure out their character’s motivations. One of the possible areas of study for linguists is discourse analysis, where instead of a pre-existing script, we analyze actual conversations. So when I began my coursework, this was one area that wasn’t completely foreign to me.

Anyways, back to the article. From the New York Times, Adventures of a Teenage Polyglot, is about a 16 year old boy who was so interested in languages that he took it upon himself to learn several on his own, including Hebrew, Russian, Italian, Pashto, Dutch (and the list goes on). Recently, he’s found an online community of similarly minded people. The article also discuss a few theories by neurolinguists as to why some people have an aptitude for, or seek out the opportunity to learn, multiple languages. One theory is that a testosterone spike in utero contributes to brain asymmetry. Whatever the reason, it’s an interesting read for both the scientific aspect AND as a glimpse into the lives of some serious language learners.

The second article is related to my post about the book Dreaming in Chinese, in which the author, Deborah Fallows, talks about how the Chinese language contains sound combinations that change meaning depending on the inflection used when the words are pronounced. She also briefly mentions how some people use this phenomenon to write stories, poems, or online content that can appear innocuous but actually are politically charged or subversive (according to the Chinese government) when you take into account one of the other potential pronunciations of the actual words being used.

In Watch Your Language (In China, They Really Do!), which is also from the NY Times, this idea is covered in greater detail, and includes a few “underground terms” and their double meanings. It’s a great example of the power of language, how it can be manipulated, and how even the phrase “mild collision” can be seen as dangerous!

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