Findings, music, and occasional reflections by Paul Woodward

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Language

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/Flickr.com, 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

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 the Child,” appeared when she was 84. Morrison published four novels, four children’s books, many

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 the brain is busy making predictions about the world such as what we will see

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 swallows nested on public buildings. In the countryside beyond, eagles and vultures soared overhead, while

DNA indicates how ancient migrations shaped South Asian languages and farming

Science News reports: A new DNA study of unprecedented size has unveiled ancient human movements that shaped the genetic makeup of present-day South Asians in complex ways. Those long-ago treks across vast grasslands and through mountain valleys may even have determined the types of languages still spoken in a region that includes what’s now India and Pakistan. The investigation addresses two controversial issues. First, who brought farming to South Asia?

Complex birdsongs help biologists piece together the evolution of lifelong learning

Vocal learning in birds is a lot like how people learn language. Alexandra Giese/Shutterstock.com By Cristina Robinson, Vanderbilt University; Kate Snyder, Vanderbilt University, and Nicole Creanza, Vanderbilt University Bonjour! Ni hao! Merhaba! If you move to a new country as an adult, you have to work much harder to get past that initial “hello” in the local language than if you’d moved as a child. Why does it take so

Perhaps meaning is more deeply embedded in words than we realize

Alexander Stern writes: In the film The Big Sleep (1946), the private eye Philip Marlowe (played by Humphrey Bogart) calls at the house of General Sternwood to discuss his two daughters. They sit in the greenhouse as the wealthy widower recounts an episode of blackmail involving his younger daughter. At one point, Marlowe interjects with an interested and knowing ‘hmm’. ‘What does that mean?’ Sternwood asks suspiciously. Marlowe lets out

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/Shutterstock.com 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 www.shutterstock.com 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

Smithsonian.com 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