Tag Archives: Linguistics

Language sounds may not be arbitrary

28 Dec

When I teach about language development, I have always told my students that the sounds of language are arbitrary. The fact that the same animal can be “dog” in English and “inu” in Japanese, shows that the sound systems of different languages are just historic accidents.

Well, maybe not. A study published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that there may be certain fundamental similarities between certain words across languages:

It is widely assumed that one of the fundamental properties of spoken language is the arbitrary relation between sound and meaning. Some exceptions in the form of nonarbitrary associations have been documented in linguistics, cognitive science, and anthropology, but these studies only involved small subsets of the 6,000+ languages spoken in the world today. By analyzing word lists covering nearly two-thirds of the world’s languages, we demonstrate that a considerable proportion of 100 basic vocabulary items carry strong associations with specific kinds of human speech sounds, occurring persistently across continents and linguistic lineages (linguistic families or isolates). Prominently among these relations, we find property words (“small” and i, “full” and p or b) and body part terms (“tongue” and l, “nose” and n). The areal and historical distribution of these associations suggests that they often emerge independently rather than being inherited or borrowed. Our results therefore have important implications for the language sciences, given that nonarbitrary associations have been proposed to play a critical role in the emergence of cross-modal mappings, the acquisition of language, and the evolution of our species’ unique communication system.

One possible explanation for these similarities is that they are survivals from prot0-world, the hypothetical first human language. But note that the authors argue against this:

The areal and historical distribution of these associations suggests that they often emerge independently rather than being inherited or borrowed

The Cseh method of Esperanto instruction

7 Jun

I have been reading Wendy Heller’s biography of Lidia Zamenhof. She was the daughter of Ludwik Zamenhof. the founder of Esperanto.

On page 88 I came across a description of the Cseh method of Esperanto teaching. Founded by Andrei Cseh, a Romanian Catholic priest, the Cseh method was designed to teach Esperanto to large groups of people without textbooks. The instruction was delivered in Esperanto and involved question and response. It is claimed that this was a highly efficient and effective method for Esperanto instruction.

I was pleased to find this video of Andrei Cesh demonstrating his method:

 

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Sanskrit taught in British schools

21 Mar

An interesting video from a few years ago about a program to teach Sanskrit in British schools:

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Linguist makes the case for vocabulary tests at spelling bees

21 Sep

Linguist John McWhorter makes the case for adding a vocabulary component to spelling bees.

I like this observation:

“loving your language means a command of its vocabulary beyond the level of the everyday.”

Here is McWhorter on the history of the plural word:

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