Findings, music, and occasional reflections by Paul Woodward

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Hand gestures point towards the origins of language

There are few one-offs in life on Earth – rarely can a single species boast a trait or ability that no other possesses. But human language is one such oddity. Our ability to use subtle combinations of sounds produced by our vocal cords to create words and sentences, which when combined with grammatical rules, convey complex ideas.  There were attempts in the 1950s to teach chimpanzees to ‘speak’ some words,

The ‘warspeak’ permeating everyday language puts us all in the trenches

It’s a linguistic battlefield out there. Complot/ By Robert Myers, Alfred University In a manifesto posted online shortly before he went on to massacre 22 people at an El Paso Walmart, Patrick Crusius cited the “invasion” of Texas by Hispanics. In doing so, he echoed President Trump’s rhetoric of an illegal immigrant “invasion.” Think about what this word choice communicates: It signals an enemy that must be beaten back, repelled

Farming may have helped introduce ‘f’ and ‘v’ sounds to language 12,000 years ago

The Atlantic reports: Thousands of years ago, small groups of humans across the globe began to transition from hunting and gathering their food to raising and planting it instead. They milked cattle, milled grains to make soft bread, and used new inventions like pottery to preserve meat and vegetables. And once they did that, they could start spicing up their speech by throwing some f and v sounds into the

We taught bees a simple number language – and they got it

Maybe the differences between human and non-human animals are not as great as we might previously have thought. from By Scarlett Howard, Université de Toulouse III – Paul Sabatier; Adrian Dyer, RMIT University, and Andrew Greentree, RMIT University Most children learn that written numbers represent quantities in pre-school or junior primary school. Now our new study shows that honeybees too can learn to match symbols and numerosities, much like

Green monkeys borrow vervet monkeys’ eagle warning call when threatened by drones reports: Some 40 years ago, scientists discovered that East African vervet monkeys (Chlorocebus pygerythrus) produce distinct alarm calls when they encounter their three main predators: leopards, snakes and eagles. Their cousins in West Africa, green monkeys (Chlorocebus sabaeus), are also known to cry out at the sight of leopard and snakes, but for some unknown reason, they don’t seem to emit a unique call for birds of prey. A

The English word that hasn’t changed in sound or meaning in 8,000 years

Sevindj Nurkiyazova writes: “One of my favorite words is lox,” says Gregory Guy, a professor of linguistics at New York University. There is hardly a more quintessential New York food than a lox bagel—a century-old popular appetizing store, Russ & Daughters, calls it “The Classic.” But Guy, who has lived in the city for the past 17 years, is passionate about lox for a different reason. “The pronunciation in the

Why speech is a human innovation

By Tom Siegfried Except for various cartoon characters, the Geico Gecko and Mr. Ed, animals can’t speak. Yet they have a lot to say to scientists trying to figure out the origins of human language. Speaking isn’t the only avenue for language. After all, linguistic messaging can be transmitted by hand signals. Or handwriting. Or texting. But speech is the original and most basic mode of human communication. So understanding

Do you see what I see?

Nicola Jones writes: In a Candoshi village in the heart of Peru, anthropologist Alexandre Surrallés puts a small colored chip on a table and asks, “Ini tamaara?” (“How is it?” or “What is it like?”). What Surrallés would like to ask is, “What color is this?” But the Candoshi, a tribe of some 3,000 people living on the upper banks of the Amazon River, don’t have a word for the

The rise of farming altered our bite and changed how people talk

Science News reports: Humankind’s gift of gab is not set in stone, and farming could help to explain why. Over the last 6,000 years or so, farming societies increasingly have substituted processed dairy and grain products for tougher-to-chew game meat and wild plants common in hunter-gatherer diets. Switching to those diets of softer, processed foods altered people’s jaw structure over time, rendering certain sounds like “f” and “v” easier to

A Danish word the world needs to combat stress: Pyt

Instead of overreacting to minor slights, it’s healthier to just say, ‘pyt.’ Ezume Images/ By Marie Helweg-Larsen, Dickinson College Danes are some of the happiest people in the world, and they also happen to have a lot of cool words for ways to be happy. You may have heard about “hygge,” which has been the subject of countless books, articles and commercials. Often mistranslated to mean “cozy,” it really describes

Could ‘ideophones’ unlock the secrets of humans’ first utterances?

David Robson writes: If you don’t speak Japanese but would like, momentarily, to feel like a linguistic genius, take a look at the following words. Try to guess their meaning from the two available options: 1. nurunuru (a) dry or (b) slimy? 2. pikapika (a) bright or (b) dark? 3. wakuwaku (a) excited or (b) bored? 4. iraira (a) happy or (b) angry? 5. guzuguzu (a) moving quickly or (b)

The value of well-crafted language

Greg Laden writes: Twenty five centuries ago, long before the start of the common era, the written record about the spoken language began. The ancient Greeks were not likely the first to study speech and communication, and they certainly were not the first to write stuff down, but among the early writers, they were probably the first to write about how we construct messages and stories with words. Joe Rom’s

How the loss of Native American languages affects our understanding of the natural world

Dance is a unique way of passing on cultural stories to a younger generation. Aaron Hawkins/, CC BY-ND By Rosalyn R. LaPier, The University of Montana Alaska has a “linguistic emergency,” according to the Alaskan Gov. Bill Walker. A report warned earlier this year that all of the state’s 20 Native American languages might cease to exist by the end of this century, if the state did not act. American

Does language spring from the things it describes?

Mark Vernon writes: In conversation at the Hay Festival in Wales this May, the English poet Simon Armitage made an arresting observation. Discussing the nature of language and why it is so good at capturing the experience of being alive, he said: ‘My feeling is that a lot of the language that we use, and the best language for poetry, comes directly out of the land.’ Armitage was placing himself

As many languages die out, new languages also emerge

Peter Bakker writes: In Italy they speak Italian. In Germany they speak German, and in Denmark, Danish. If this was true for all other countries, there would be 193 languages spoken today. But in reality, there are many more: 8,475 according to, where linguists map languages from around the world. In fact few countries speak just one or two languages natively, such as Iceland and Denmark. Besides their mother

Living in ignorance about our ignorance

Kaidi Wu and David Dunning write: In 1806, entrepreneur Frederic Tudor sailed to the island of Martinique with a precious cargo. He had harvested ice from frozen Massachusetts rivers and expected to make a tidy profit selling it to tropical customers. There was only one problem: the islanders had never seen ice. They had never experienced a cold drink, never tasted a pint of ice cream. Refrigeration was not a