Linguistics, Languages, Dialects, Accents, and more

Magical Deductions ⚡☂: "Will I be Arrested if I End a Sentence with a Preposition?"

Before the science of language, linguistics, schools and universities taught what is known as ‘prescriptive grammar.’ Prescriptive grammar is not grammar (the rules of spoken language) at all but a list of “do’s and don’ts” prescribing the way those in or striving for the upper class should talk. Because all upper-class private schools of the time emphasized, if not required Latin, ‘good’ grammar was presumed to be grammar that emulated Latin grammar.

The problem is, English is not Latin, an insight lost on prescriptivists. Latin has cases and every Latin preposition is associated with a case. For example, the word for “wine” in Latin is vinum. However, the prepositional phrase corresponding to “in wine” is in vino (as in ‘in vino veritas’; ‘wine brings out the truth’) ending on the Ablative case marker, -o, because in was associated with the Ablative case. So the suffix of vin-o identifies the noun vin-um as the object of the preposition in and not the object of any other preposition in the sentence; in short, they go together.

Because sentences usually contain several prepositional phrases like this (e.g., “A relative of the fruit fly was doing something like the backstroke in the wine on the table in the library.”), it is important to keep up with which noun goes with which preposition. The easiest way to do that is by a rule that prepositions are never separated from their object noun (or noun phrase if the noun is modified by adjectives). Latin has that rule.

Believing that Latin grammar represents grammatical perfection and unintimidated by the onerous task of molding English in the image of Latin, prescriptive grammarians proscribed the use of prepositions anywhere other than immediately before their object noun. For example, one should not say “the prescriptivist John clashed with,” but rather “the prescriptivist with whom John clashed,” not “the rule John laughed at,” but “the rule at which John laughed.”

The fact of the matter is, however, English simply does not have case endings on nouns that are objects of prepositions, so the reason for keeping prepositions and their object nouns together is wholly irrelevant to English. You may keep them together or not. You’ll never spend a night in jail either way. However, because of the upper-class bias in the rule’s history, its use now makes you sound pretentious.

(Source:, via magicaldeductions-deactivated20)

This just goes to show how varied a tonal language can be!

This just goes to show how varied a tonal language can be!

(via nolanmoblo)

Ancient world dictionary finished-- after 90 years.

It was a monumental project with modest beginnings: a small group of scholars and some index cards. The plan was to explore a long-dead language that would reveal an ancient world of chariots and concubines, royal decrees and diaries — and omens that came from the heavens and sheep livers.

(Source: shuraiya)

Here is a video of Eddie Izzard trying to buy a cow in Friesland by speaking Old English.

(Source:, via vagrant)

Evolution of Language Takes Unexpected Turn

It’s widely thought that human language evolved in universally similar ways, following trajectories common across place and culture, and possibly reflecting common linguistic structures in our brains. But a massive, millennium-spanning analysis of humanity’s major language families suggests otherwise.

Instead, language seems to have evolved along varied, complicated paths, guided less by neurological settings than cultural circumstance. If our minds do shape the evolution of language, it’s likely at levels deeper and more nuanced than many researchers anticipated.

“It’s terribly important to understand human cognition, and how the human mind is put together,” said Michael Dunn, an evolutionary linguist at Germany’s Max Planck Institute and co-author of the new study, published April 14 in Nature. The findings “do not support simple ideas of the mind as a computer, with a language processor plugged in. They support much-more complex ideas of how language arises.”

How languages have emerged and changed through human history is a subject of ongoing fascination. Language is, after all, the greatest of all social tools: It’s what lets people share and cooperate, divide labor, make plans, preserve knowledge, tell stories. In short, it lets humans be sophisticated social creatures.


One school of thought, pioneered by linguist Noam Chomsky, holds that language is a product of dedicated mechanisms in the human brain. These can be imagined as a series of switches, each corresponding to particular forms of grammar and syntax and structure.

The findings ‘do not support simple ideas of the mind as a computer, with a language processor plugged in.’

Such a system would account for why, of the nearly infinite number of languages that are possible — imagine, for instance, a language in which verb conjugation changes randomly; it is possible — relatively few actually exist. Our brains have adapted to contain a limited, universal set of switches.

A limited set of linguistic universals is exactly what was described by the late, great comparative linguist Joseph Greenberg, who empirically tabulated features common to language. He made no claims as to neurological origin, but the essential claim overlapped with Chomsky’s: Language has universals.

If you speak a subject-verb-object language, one in which “I kick the ball,” then you likely use prepositions — “over the fence.” If you speak a subject-object-verb language, one in which “I the ball kicked,” then you almost certainly use postpositions — “the fence over.” And so on.

“What both these views predict is that languages should evolve according to the same set of rules,” said Dunn. “No matter what the language, no matter what the family, if there are two features of language that are somehow linked together structurally, they should be linked together the same way in all languages.”

That’s what Dunn, along with University of Auckland (New Zealand) computational linguist Russell Gray, set out to test.

Unlike earlier linguists, however, Dunn and Gray had access to powerful computational tools that, when set to work on sets of data, calculate the most likely relationships between the data. Such tools are well known in evolutionary biology, where they’re used to create trees of descent from genetic readings, but they can be applied to most anything that changes over time, including language.

In the new study, Dunn and Gray’s team created evolutionary trees for eight word-order features in humanity’s best-described language groups — Austronesian, Indo-European, Bantu and Uto-Aztecan. Together they contain more than one-third of humanity’s 7,000 languages, and span thousands of years. If there are universal trends, say Dunn and Gray, they should be visible, with each language family evolving along similar lines.

That’s not what they found.

“Each language family is evolving according to its own set of rules. Some were similar, but none were the same,” said Dunn. “There is much more diversity, in terms of evolutionary processes, than anybody ever expected.”

In one representative example of divergence (diagram above), both Austronesian and Indo-European languages that linked prepositions and object-verb structures (“over the fence, ball kicked) tended to evolve preposition and verb-object structures (“over the fence, kicked ball.”) That’s exactly what universalism would predict.

But when Austronesian and Indo-European languages both started from postposition, verb-object arrangements (“the fence over, kicked ball”), they ended up in different places. Austronesian tended towards preposition, verb-object (“over the fence, kicked ball”) but Indo-European tended towards postposition, object-verb (“the fence over, ball kicked.”)

Such differences might be eye-glazing to people unaccustomed to diagramming sentences, but the upshot is that the two language families took opposite trajectories. Many other comparisons followed suit. “The things specific to language families trumped any kind of universals we could look for,” said Dunn.

“We see that there isn’t any sort of rigid” progression of changes, said University of Reading (England) evolutionary linguist Mark Pagel, who wasn’t involved in the study. “There seems to be quite a lot of fluidity. That leads me to believe this isn’t something where you’re throwing a lot of parameter switches.”

‘What languages have in common is to be found at a much deeper level. They must emerge from more-general cognitive capacities.’

Instead of a simple set of brain switches steering language evolution, cultural circumstance played a role. Changes were the product of chance, or perhaps fulfilled as-yet-unknown needs. For whatever reason, “the fence over, ball kicked” might have been especially useful to Indo-European speakers, but not Austronesians.

There is, however, still room for universals, said Pagel. After all, even if culture and circumstance shapes language evolution, it’s still working with a limited set of possibilities. Of the six possible combinations of subject, verb and object, for example, just two — “I kicked the ball” and “I the ball kicked” — are found in more than 90 percent of all languages, with Yoda-style “Kicked I the ball” exceedingly rare. People do seem to prefer some structures.

“What languages have in common is to be found at a much deeper level. They must emerge from more-general cognitive capacities,” said Dunn.

What those capacities may be is a new frontier for investigation. As for Dunn, his team next plans to conduct similar analyses on other features of language, searching for further evolutionary differences or those deeper levels of universality.

“This can be applied to every level of language structure,” he said.

I'm not sure how I feel about this: Study finds 'mother of all languages'

The study suggests that between 50,000 and 70,000 years ago humans spoke in a single dialect that proved the catalyst for human civilisation.

The report by Dr Quentin Atkinson from The University of Auckland in New Zealand is based on phonemes - distinct sounds such as vowels and consonants that make up language.

He analysed the number of phonemes found in 504 world languages, and hypothesized that languages with the most phonemes were the oldest. Also, the dialects furthest away from the ‘mother tongue’ were found to be less complicated.

The study found that some of Africa’s languages (which feature clicks) have over a 100 phonemes, while Hawaiian - spoken on the furthest point on the migration route out of Africa, only has 13. In short, the further away from Africa you get, the fewer phonemes are found.

Effectively then, Dr. Atkinson argues that the sub-Saharan region of Africa is the cradle of all human language.

This fits with what scientists call the ‘Out of Africa’ theory - that early humans evolved only in this region, then migrated to the rest of the world around 70,000- 50,000 years ago, the period mentioned in the study.

"It was the catalyst that spurred the human expansion that we all are a product of," Dr. Atkinson told the Wall Street Journal.

During this time there were sudden, dramatic advances in human behavior, with our ancestors creating cave art and making sophisticated hunting tools out of bone. Experts argue that these advances were the result of language, which prompted more abstract thinking.

The study also suggests that while language began to be spread throughout the world during this period, humans may have actually begun communicating verbally over many years earlier.

Professor Robin Dunbar, an anthropologist at Oxford University told The Mail that based on this study, the origin of language could now be pushed back to between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago.

'Umming' and 'ahhing' parents help their babies learn to speak?



'Umming' and 'ahhing' is often seen as a weakness. In fact, such hesitations could be key to learning to speak.

A study found that toddlers use their parents ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’ as a signal that an important word is to follow - and open their ears for what comes next.

So, while adults may find listening to umming and ahhing irritating, children use the stumbles to help them work out which of the hundreds of new words they hear each day need to be committed to memory.

Learning process: Toddlers use their parents ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’ as a signal that an important word is to follow - and open their ears for what comes next

The researchers studied three groups of children between the ages of 18 and 30 months.

Each child sat on his or her parent’s lap in front of a computer screen showing pictures of familiar items, like a ball or a book, and picture of a made-up item like a ‘dax’ or a ‘gorp’.

The youngsters then listened as voice talked about the objects. When the voice started umming and ahhing the children instinctively looked at the made-up image much more often than the familiar image - suggesting it had suddenly  become important to them.

Researcher Celeste Kidd, of the University of Rochester in New York, said: ‘We’re not advocating that parents add disfluencies to their speech, but I think it’s nice for them to know that using these verbal pauses is okay - the  “uhs” and “ums” are informative.’

Richard Aslin, a professor of brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester and one of the study’s authors, said toddlers have a lot of information to process while they listen to an adult speak, including many words that they have never heard before.

If a child’s brain waits until a new word is spoken and then tries to figure out what it means after the fact, it becomes a much more difficult to do.

Dr Aslin added: ‘The more predictions a listener can make about what is being communicated, the more efficiently the listener can understand it.’

But while ums and ahs may be beneficial, educational DVDs may do more harm than good.

One study found that children who watched educational DVDs between the ages of seven and 16 months knew fewer words and phrases then their peers.

Each hour they watched per day equated to six fewer words in their vocabulary.

Another study found that children learnt more from listening to their parents.

Experts warn that by sitting in front of the TV youngsters miss out on playing with their parents and other children and with their toys.

It is also possible that the flashing lights and quick scene changes found in TV programmes over-simulate the developing brain.

(Source: seedsofsound)