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.**

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!


Language in the News, Language on TV, Recommended Reading

How do we Know if an Apology is Sincere?

This week I’ve been thinking about apologies. It started when I looked at Facebook’s “Trending” list the other day, and saw Jonah Hill on The Tonight Show apologizing for using an offensive term when a member of the paparazzi angered him. If you haven’t seen it, you can watch it below:



As I watched the clip, I started thinking about public apologies. My first reaction to the video was that this was something Mr. Hill thought was difficult, but necessary, and that his words, his tone, and his body language all made me feel he was being sincere. Many people who commented on the clip agreed, although there was the occasional dissenter (as there always is).

Being linguistically trained, I started to wonder why exactly I believed he was sincere. I thought of a few specific moments:

  • At the beginning, Mr. Hill tells the story of the incident in a clear and succinct way, which implies that he’s thought about what he wants to say and has planned it. But at around the 1:00 mark, he pauses, says, “I think that,” stops talking briefly, says, “Sorry, I think that” and pauses again. He also pauses at several other points later in the clip. These pauses and repetitions are more conversational in tone, rather than part of a carefully planned speech, and imply “spontaneous and heartfelt” rather than “planned and calculated.”
  • At 1:56, Mr. Hill lifts his eyes directly to the camera to address those watching the show on TV (or the computer). About 15 seconds later, he looks at the camera to say, “Use me as an example of what not to do.” For most of the clip he avoids looking up at the camera, and so this deliberate shift seems significant.

But these are just my quick thoughts, based on what I know about body language, repetition, and pauses in general. Wouldn’t it be great if a linguist looked at apologies in greater depth?

As if in answer to my thoughts, today I discovered that a linguist has in fact done this very thing! Edwin Battistella, a linguistics professor at Southern Oregon University, has written a book titled Sorry About That, which looks at the language of public apologies, based on many hours of reading transcripts (and other written documents) and watching YouTube videos very much like the one I talk about above.

I’m adding this book to my reading list, and will discuss it in a future blog post. And FYI: the article states that this book is “written in layman’s terms” because the author, “really like(s) the idea of professors writing for the general public, as well as for one another…” which is an idea I wholeheartedly agree with!

Language and Theatre, Recommended Reading, Second Language Experiences

Eddie Izzard and the Ultimate Audience Design Challenge

If you’ve ever seen a Q&A interview where they ask, “Name a performer you’d drop everything to see,” my answer to that is, hands down, Eddie Izzard. I’ve seen him perform his comedy act live and many times on video (and even briefly met him at a signing in Chicago), and the brilliance of his performances blows me away every time.

One of my favorite bits is from his show “Dressed to Kill,” when he does an entire bit in French. I highly recommend you watch it (I’ve included a link), because it is hilarious AND, if you’ve been following my blog, you’ll be able to appreciate it like a linguist. He uses intertextuality and gesture during the French bit about showers and the President of Burundi to reference back to an earlier bit in English (he uses repetition quite a bit throughout his performance), so everyone gets the joke, even if they don’t speak French.

The other day, in an article in the Boston Globe, Izzard has revealed that he’s recently been taking a new show on tour and performing in the native (or dominant) language of the area he’s visiting. So far he’s done shows in English, French, and German, and wants to move on to Spanish, Russian, and Arabic.

Since he’s not fluent in all of these languages, he’s had to script the show completely (i.e. no improv), with the help of his brother, Mike Izzard, who happens to be a linguist (just one more reason to love those Izzards!). But in performance, he (Eddie Izzard) has found that certain phrases, particularly those that rely on wordplay, need to be changed in each language because their meaning doesn’t really translate.

This is the ultimate example of audience design: adjusting what you say to have the maximum impact and best chance of being understood as you (the speaker) intended it. We do this all the time, although not necessarily to large audiences of people who speak a different language, but the concept is the same. And like Izzard, when what we say doesn’t get the response we expected, we change it to try something new.


*I was going to add a paragraph about how this applies to marketing, but techcommgeekmom wrote a nice piece covering this topic. I encourage you to read it here.

Recommended Reading

For Those of You Experiencing Post-Olympic Russian Withdrawl

Here’s a fun article from Mental Floss discussing a Russian view of what it’s like to visit America. I love finding articles written from a different viewpoint looking in on my own culture, because it often reveals differences that I never would have realized were important.

And here are my added two cents, both linguistic and personal:

On Number 2: “On Talking to American Women

I find it interesting that the word “gallant” is used, since it generally has a positive connotation (synonyms include chivalrous, gentlemanly, honorable, attentive, and respectful). The suggestion is to not be “excessively gallant” because it can be negatively interpreted by American women (I’m assuming that interpretation is condescension). I think it’s fascinating when a positive word is used to describe a negative context, because it requires further explanation; the word itself isn’t enough.

On Number 3: “ On Socializing with Americans”

I love the differences in conversational styles discussed here, where Americans are described as getting to the point of a phone call more quickly, and prefer drawn out closings, where Russians are the opposite. It also makes me curious to know how face-to-face exchanges are different in Russia.

(And on a completely personal note: it always bugs me when people in movies are talking on the phone, and then they hang up without so much as a “bye.” I always wonder how they don’t know they haven’t been disconnected!?!? Apparently, they’re just doing ending the phone call the Russian way).

Under this section is a fun paragraph about how “Russian conversational patterns often sound harsh to Americans.” Why is it fun? Because it points out how cultural norms can affect interpretation without being aware of any difference or problem. Even paralinguistic cues like facial expressions can add to misinterpretations (see Number 4: “On American Optimism”).

Language in the News, Recommended Reading

Sometimes You Just Need Some Grief Bacon

There was quite a response when the OED named ‘selfie’ as the 2013 word of the year. There was the usual flurry of indignation over how the Internet is ruining the English language, which, if you regularly read my blog, you know I don’t agree with. Like many of the linguists I know, I find language change to be both interesting and exhilarating. Linguists realize that language always has changed, and hopefully always will.

Sometimes words are created (like saying ‘lol’ instead of each individual letter, L-O-L) or given new tenses (like adding –ing to ‘friend’ to describe the act of connecting to someone on Facebook). Sometimes English borrows words wholesale from other languages (Schadenfreude, anyone?).

Which brings me to today’s main topic: Words for things or states of being that exist in other languages, but that don’t exist in English. My earlier use of  ‘Schadenfreude’ is an example of this concept. In English, we can say ‘taking pleasure in another’s pain or suffering’ but we can’t say it using just one word. But people who speak German can—just as they can say ‘Kummerspeck’ to describe weight gained due to emotional eating. The best part? ‘Kummerspeck’ literally translates to ‘grief bacon’!

I encourage you to check out this fabulous list of words, compiled by Mental Floss, and to ponder why speakers of Georgian are lucky enough to have a single word to describe “the day after tomorrow” when English uses four, or why speakers of Italian felt the need to find a word to specifically describe those who are “addicted to the UV glow of tanning salons.” And then start getting creative! Maybe together, we can finally make ‘fetch’ happen!

Language in the News, Recommended Reading

Is ‘Huh?’ a Universal Word? These Guys Think So

There’s been recent work by linguists into the idea of ‘huh’ being a universal word. This is actually a pretty big deal, linguistically speaking.

First, because the authors argue that ‘huh’ is in fact a word and not something innate, like laughter, because it is subtly different in all the languages they looked at and it appeared to be learned (i.e., babies don’t do it, but children who’ve mastered grammatical concepts around the age of 5 use it perfectly).

And second, because saying that something is universal across languages is a bold statement. There are around 6,000 or so languages in the world, so there’s a LOT of room for variety. Universals, at least in my experience, tend to be things like: all languages have a way of dealing with conversational problems that arise in the moment. The ways of indicating and fixing these problems often depends on the language and possibly the culture of the speakers, but in this paper, the authors argue that ‘huh’ might be a universal indicator of conversational trouble.

The authors have a great synopsis of their paper, along with some sound examples of ‘huh’ in several of the languages they studied, as well as a link to the full paper. I haven’t read the full paper yet, but it’s definitely intriguing and they offer explanations of both their methods and their reasoning.

One bit of food for thought, for those of you who will check out the links above: in the synopsis under “Data Collection,” the authors mention that in the moments of ‘other-initiated repair’ in conversation, the ‘repair solution’ offered was “usually…[a repetition] of the thing they said before (though often with slight revisions).” I’d want to know if there was any difference in the “huh”—either phonetically, or in paralinguistic cues like facial expression, that occurred with straight repetitions versus slight revisions. Why? Because a straight repetition indicates that the speaker believed the listener hadn’t heard what was said, where a slight revision could indicate either not hearing or not understanding.

For example: if we’re in a crowded bar, and I said, “she’s done with her drink,” and you said “huh?” I could either repeat “she’s done with her drink” OR I could change it slightly to “Carol’s done with her drink” (meaning I thought that she was ambiguous), or “she’s finished her drink” (meaning I thought the word “done” was problematic for some reason). And if I made those interpretations, was it something in the way you said “huh” or looked when you said “huh” that led me to that conclusion? And is that pattern universal too?




Credit where credit’s due: this paper and website were brought to my attention by the Multilingual Chicago blog, which I started reading after last week’s post.