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!


Being a Linguist

I Could Do THAT?!?! Jobs that Linguists Do

I’m going to try something a little different this week, and I’d love to hear some feedback on whether or not to make this a more regular type of post:

I found an interview with the linguist who created several languages for the Game of Thrones television series, and aside from being an interesting article for both language nerds (like myself) and GoT fans (heck yes!) I thought it was a great example of different jobs that linguists can do.

For this kind of work, where the task is to create an entire language–vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation guides–it’s pretty obvious to see how linguistic training would be useful. I’d like to find even more examples where the linguistic connection might not be quite so obvious.

So if you’d like to see the occasional post where I highlight an example of the wide variety of work that linguists can do, let me know in the comments, and I’ll happily make it a more regular feature!

In the meantime, I encourage you to check out the Career Linguist Website and Blog of Dr. Anna Marie Trester, the Program Director of the MLC (Master of Arts in Language and Communication) at Georgetown University. She has several wonderful career-related resources!

Cognitive Linguistics

Is it the Sound or is it the Smile?

Do the sounds of certain words affect on our emotional state? It looks like the answer may be yes.

Recently, a psychologist and a phoneticist conducted experiments to test whether certain sounds can have a positive or negative effect on a person’s mood. Long story short, they found that the [i:] sound had a generally positive effect on a person’s mood, while the [o:] sound had a generally negative effect.** When I read this, it reminded me of the linguistic concept of sound symbolism.

I first learned about the concept of sound symbolism—where certain sounds are thought to have certain connotations and therefore influence how we react to them—while writing a paper on a well-known advertising slogan. I was attempting to demonstrate how linguistic awareness could help when coming up with new product names or marketing copy, and I discovered that research had been done on this concept of sound symbolism. (I’ve included a citation for the article I referenced most heavily at the end of the post, for anyone who wants to read up in more detail.)

But for these two sounds in particular, I thought the stronger case (rather than sound symbolism) was made by the section of the experiment that focused on stimulating the muscle groups required to make these sounds, and then measuring the effect on emotional state. This is primarily because the muscles used to make the [i:] sound are very much like those used to smile, where the muscles used to make the [o:] sound were the opposite, and as with other body language studies, the physical can have a marked impact on the mental and emotional. This is why body language experts like Amy Cuddy recommend adopting a powerful body stance, even when you don’t feel powerful—because “faking it” very often leads to “making it.”

What do you think? Do you think that sound symbolism has a leg to stand on as a concept? Or are actions speaking louder than words?


**Sidenote: I’m using the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) symbols for the “i” and “o” sounds, although the original article didn’t. I’m making an educated guess based on the pictures included in the article.

The reason for this disclaimer is because the author of the article used the word “like” as an example of the “i” sound, which doesn’t match the IPA symbol for [i] OR the facial expression (which looks like a smile). In fact, the IPA symbol for the “i” in the word “like” would be the dipthong [aI].

So I’m not 100% positive that the “i” and “o” sounds they tested are in fact a match for the IPA symbols I’m using. However that’s my educated guess—let me know if you agree or disagree in the comments!


Also, here’s that citation I mentioned above:

Klink, Richard R. 2000. Creating brand names with meaning: The use of sound symbolism. Marketing Letters 11 (1): 5-20.


Language in Advertising, Uncategorized

“Bossy” Doesn’t Mean “You’re a Boss” and Other Ways Language, Gender, and Society Intersect

Like many kids, I relied on school-provided transportation and someone to watch me until my parents came home from work. But rather than using standard yellow busses, my small, Catholic grade school used maroon vans. And rather than day care, my grandparents took turns caring for my brother and me (Mondays and Tuesdays with my father’s mother, Wednesday through Friday with my mother’s parents). At the beginning of each school year it was a few weeks before the bus drivers learned our routine and dropped us off at the right house, but occasionally they would forget, and we’d speak up and let them know which house was expecting us. The regular drivers were used to this.

One day when I was in the 5th grade, we had a substitute driver who didn’t know our routine. When I realized that she might drop us off at the wrong house, I spoke up. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but the driver thought I was being disrespectful, and told me not to be “sassy” towards her. I’ve never forgotten it, because I remember being so shocked that she would say that; my tone was not rude and I was speaking up because I knew it was unlikely that she was familiar with our non-standard arrangement. My shock gave way to embarrassment and silent outrage–to me her response was completely unjustified, and I was a child who hated injustice of any kind (still rather true as an adult, as a matter of fact).

I think that’s why the two articles below touched such a nerve. They both have to deal with women and language. I’ve talked a little bit about language and gender in a previous post, mostly about work by linguists that describe how certain ways of speaking are not masculine or feminine automatically, but rather index a certain cultural idea, which then indexes the understanding of masculine or feminine in that culture (example: tag questions like “that’s right, isn’t it?” can index uncertainty—or accommodation—which can index femininity in certain cultures). But this post is more about how certain words have different meanings when applied to women than to men, and how women are treated (and thought of) differently than men when contributing to conversations.

Let’s start with a video. This was making the social media rounds a while back, but it definitely applies here:


It’s an ad for Pantene, sure, but more importantly it shows how men and women are subjected to a double standard: they have different labels attached to their behavior, even when the behavior is exactly the same. Personal grooming is “neat” (male) or “vain” (female); working late is “dedicated” (male) or “selfish” (female). And strong leadership goes from being a “boss” to being “bossy.” Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, would like to ban the word “bossy,” meaning she’d like to change the way the American culture applies it in a negative way to describe girls who display leadership attributes. Our language use is a powerful means of socialization, and applying negative connotations to words directed at girls who like to lead can have consequences well into adulthood. Even now, I wonder if my preference for sitting back and listening before speaking is mostly due to my introverted nature or my socialized nurturing.

Which is why I enjoyed this next article by Soraya Chemaly. Ms. Chemaly suggests 10 simple words, in 3 simple phrases, that women could use when they feel their contributions to a conversation are being overlooked, and especially when they’re being interrupted.

I feel like I have to say that being interrupted is not always a bad thing. Yes, it can be used to take the floor away from another speaker, but sometimes this is just a temporary shift. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: conversations are tricky, and involve constant negotiating. If someone is unclear about something someone else is saying, they may interrupt in order to get some clarity. Interrupting someone can also be a way of showing interest, although if this is the conversational style of only one person, or only a few out of a group, this way of showing interest can easily be misunderstood.

But this article talks about interruptions with an added layer of condescension or implied sexism: where the importance or acceptance of what’s been said is treated differently based on the gender of the speaker. Much like the Pantene ad and the “ban bossy” article, the point is that society has different ways of interpreting behavior and speech based on gender. It’s taught, not inherent, which means it can be re-framed and changed. And it can start with just 10 simple words.

Framing, Language and Business, Second Language Experiences

Multilingualism–It Makes Good Business Sense

Today I found a whole slew of articles discussing language in the business world, primarily focusing on the challenges of engaging with customers around the world, or opening offices in multiple countries. Since I couldn’t pick just one topic to focus on, I thought I’d give links to them all (plus a semi-related bonus link at the end) with some commentary.

To start off, I found a press release about SDL’s Language Cloud, which as I understand it, offers companies a combination of “human, machine, and specialist machine (?) translation” services, so that they can connect with customers in the local language. I found this video on SDL’s site, which helped me better understand the goals of this new platform. At one point, the video mentions that not only was the website translated into the local language(s), product reviews were translated as well. And then I started wondering: there’s no mention of what this cloud platform does when it comes to translating things like idiomatic expressions. For things like website copy, it’s likely that the phrasing is run past a native speaker (at least, I’m assuming this would be done, otherwise you might end up with some amusing, yet technically correct phrases like some of those found here). But product reviews may not get this same treatment, and if you’ve ever used something like the “see translation” feature on a Facebook post, you know that the translations are sometimes confusing or unclear).

Next, I found some articles that talk about being an employee for a multi-national company. The first one is a somewhat basic argument for why it’s a good idea for relocating employees to learn the local language(s). They make a case for why it makes good business sense (along with simply being practical for daily living), as well as why employees might be resistant to learning a new language and what companies can do to encourage or reward those employees who do attempt to learn.

One of the reasons they give for why employees don’t learn the local language(s) is that they mistakenly believe that everyone speaks English. I wonder if this is primarily targeted at businesses that are moving from the U.S. to other countries. My own experiences traveling to European countries have taught me that many people don’t automatically assume that everyone they encounter speaks their language—they try the locally dominant language first (if they know it), and then any other language they can speak. Living on a continent with so much linguistic diversity will do that.

Finally, I found a blog post with tips for presenting in a foreign language (i.e. without an interpreter or translation software). I’ve had personal experience with this and I can honestly say it was one of the most nerve-racking times of my life, not because of the presentation, but because of the Q&A afterwards. I was lucky that I was able to choose the presentation topic, which meant I would probably know the answers to any questions, and I simply had to focus on understand the question itself, to be able to answer it successfully. Still, I agree with the suggestions put forth by the blog, and would only add that sometimes it’s best to act confident and “fake it ‘til you make it.”


[As promised, here’s the bonus link, which I liked because it talks about reframing how you think about your business—from mentally referring to your company a verb rather than a noun—can help you appreciate its complexity and ever-changing nature]