Category Archives: Language

What misspellings reveal about cultural evolution

Helena Miton writes: Something about me must remind people of a blind 17th-century poet. My last name, Miton, is French, yet people outside of France invariably misspell it as “Milton”—as in the famed English author, John Milton, of the epic poem Paradise Lost. It is not uncommon for people to misspell an unfamiliar name—yet 99… Read More »

Tools and voyages suggest Homo erectus invented language

Daniel Everett writes: What is the greatest human technological innovation? Fire? The wheel? Penicillin? Clothes? Google? None of these come close. As you read this, you are using the winning technology. The greatest tool in the world is language. Without it there would be no culture, no literature, no science, no history, no commercial enterprise… Read More »

Time for humans to learn what other animals are saying

Michelle Nijhuis writes: Bryony Lavery’s 2018 play Slime revolves around seven young interns at the Third Annual Slime Crisis Conference, which takes place at an unspecified time in a not-too-distant future. It is a multispecies gathering, convened in response to a toxic slime that is taking over the world’s oceans. The interns’ job is to… Read More »

There is no language instinct

Vyvyan Evans writes: Imagine you’re a traveller in a strange land. A local approaches you and starts jabbering away in an unfamiliar language. He seems earnest, and is pointing off somewhere. But you can’t decipher the words, no matter how hard you try. That’s pretty much the position of a young child when she first… Read More »

Trader Joe’s knows that petitions aren’t commandments

John McWhorter writes: Trader Joe’s has long given playful foreign versions of its name to certain international product lines: Trader José, Trader Giotto, Trader Ming, and so on. One could have guessed that amidst our racial reckoning (“the Great Awokening,” as Vox’s Matthew Yglesias calls it), these names would come under attack. This happened: A… Read More »

The roots of writing lie in hopes and dreams — not in bookkeeping

Michael Erard writes: Recent scholars of the history of writing describe what was first and foremost an administrative tool. According to their ‘administrative hypothesis’, writing was invented so that early states could track people, land and economic production, and elites could sustain their power. Along the way (their argument goes) writing became flexible enough, in… Read More »

Why language might be the optimal self regulating system

Lane Greene writes: Decades before the rise of social media, polarisation plagued discussions about language. By and large, it still does. Everyone who cares about the topic is officially required to take one of two stances. Either you smugly preen about the mistakes you find abhorrent – this makes you a so-called prescriptivist – or… Read More »

How much does our language determine behavior?

David Shariatmadari writes: It’s easier to prove or disprove a hypothesis in a well-defined area of experience that can be readily compared across languages. That’s why a lot of scholars interested in Benjamin Lee Whorf’s ideas focused their research on color. Because color is a physical property, determined by the wavelengths of light that are… Read More »

The anatomical ability to speak evolved millions of years before the rise of Homo sapiens

Baboons make sounds, but how does it relate to human speech? Creative Wrights/Shutterstock.com By Thomas R. Sawallis, University of Alabama and Louis-Jean Boë, Université Grenoble Alpes Sound doesn’t fossilize. Language doesn’t either. Even when writing systems have developed, they’ve represented full-fledged and functional languages. Rather than preserving the first baby steps toward language, they’re fully… Read More »

One skill that doesn’t deteriorate with age

Reading and writing can prevent cognitive decline. AJP/Shutterstock.com By Roger J. Kreuz, University of Memphis When Toni Morrison died on Aug. 5, the world lost one of its most influential literary voices. But Morrison wasn’t a literary wunderkind. “The Bluest Eye,” Morrison’s first novel, wasn’t published until she was 39. And her last, “God Help… Read More »

Where our minds go when words let us down

Kenneth S. Kosik writes: The drive to express ourselves can be joined with the sense that we cannot quite express ourselves fully, that language is inherently the limiting factor. Why should that be? Via a complex circuitry, the brain delivers motivation to the body as a motor command to execute its will. One view is… Read More »

How birds nested in our language and art

Jeremy Mynott writes: The Mediterranean world of 2,500 years ago would have looked and sounded very different. Nightingales sang in the suburbs of Athens and Rome; wrynecks, hoopoes, cuckoos and orioles lived within city limits, along with a teeming host of warblers, buntings and finches; kites and ravens scavenged the city streets; owls, swifts and… Read More »