What Does English Sound Like To A Foreigner?

Via Matador Abroad

Photo by lemasney

Even if you don’t speak a word of a language, chances are you can identify it based on the sounds you hear.
GLOTTAL STOPS, LILTS, PITCH – there’s a lot more to hearing a language than just the words. Do you speak German? If not, do you know when you hear someone speaking German? Probably so.

And what about English? More than once, I’ve attempted to hear English through the ears of a non-speaker by eavesdropping on a conversation and going into an almost meditative state, focusing on the sounds and not the words. It only lasts for a few seconds at a time.

This short film, entitled “Skwerl,” gives us an idea of what English sounds like. I have to applaud these actors for managing to get through this without laughing. Their “English-ish” language seems to be a mix of actual English words and sounds in a nonsensical order. (See if you can catch “Elton John” and “make the pope cream.”)


How Language Has Transformed Humanity | TED Talks

Biologist Mark Pagel shares an intriguing theory about why humans evolved our complex system of language. He suggests that language is a piece of “social technology” that allowed early human tribes to access a powerful new tool: cooperation.

Mark Pagel
Using biological evolution as a template, Mark Pagel wonders how languages evolve. Full bio and more links

Does Language Shape What We Think?

Via Scientific American

A new study looks at what happens when a language doesn’t have words for numbers

By Joshua Hartshorne  |  

My seventh-grade English teacher exhorted us to study vocabulary with the following: “We think in words. The more words you know, the more thoughts you can have.” This compound notion that language allows you to have ideas otherwise un-haveable, and that by extension people who own different words live in different conceptual worlds — called “Whorfianism” after its academic evangelist, Benjamin Lee Whorf — is so pervasive in modern thought as to be unremarkable.

Eskimos, as is commonly reported, have myriads of words for snow, affecting how they perceive frozen percipitation. A popular  book on English notes that, unlike English, “French and German can distinguish between knowledge that results from recognition … and knowledge that results from understanding.” Politicians try to win the rhetorical battle (“pro-life” vs. “anti-abortion”; “estate tax” vs. “death tax”) in order to gain the political  advantage.

For all its social success, Whorfianism has fared less well scientifically. Careful consideration of the examples above shows why. Try calling dry snow “dax” and wet snow “blicket,” and see if you notice a change in how you think about snow. I didn’t. The English book’s statement assumes that if you don’t have a word for something, you can’t talk about it … a claim that the sentence proves false. Finally, calling the law of October 26, 2001 the “USA Patriot Act” may have done as much to stain the word “patriot” as increase enthusiasm for the law.

Oh, and Eskimos don’t have all that many words for snow.

In fact, scientists have had so much difficulty demonstrating that language affects thought that in 1994 renown psychologist Steven Pinker called Whorfianism dead. Since then, Whorfianism has undergone a small resurgence. For instance, Lera Boroditsky and colleagues found that speakers of Russian, which treats light blue and dark blue as primary colors, are faster to categorize shades of blue.

While fascinating and important work, these and other similar results are a bit short of showing that “the more words you know, the more thoughts you can have.” The recent study that comes closest is an investigation of number.

Although number words and counting are a fixture of life in most cultures from the time we are old enough to play hide-and-go-seek, some languages have only a handful of number words. In a paper published in 2008, MIT cognitive neuroscientist Michael Frank and colleagues demonstrated that Pirahã, a language spoken by a small Amazonian community, has no number words at all. The research team simply asked Pirahã speakers to count different numbers of batteries, nuts and other common objects. Rather than having a word consistently used to describe “one X” a different word for “two Xs” and yet another word for “three Xs,” the Pirahã used hói to describe a small number of objects, hoí to describe a slightly larger number, and baágiso for an even larger number. Basically, these words mean “around one,” “some” and “many.”

The lack of number words had a profound and surprising effect on what the Pirahã could do. In a series of experiments, the researchers presented Pirahã participants with some number of spools of thread. The participants’ task was simply to give the researcher the same number of balloons. If the participants were allowed to line up the balloons next to the spools of thread one-by-one, they did fine. But if they weren’t allowed this crutch — for instance, if the spools of thread were dropped into a bucket one at a time, and then the participant had to produce the same number of balloons — they failed. Although they were generally able to stay in the ballpark — if a lot of spools went into the bucket, they produced a lot of balloons; a small number of spools, a small number of balloons — their responses were basically educated guesses.

Could it be that the Pirahã not understand the concept of “same amount”? That’s unlikely. When allowed to match the balloons to spools one-by-one, they succeeded in the task. Instead, it seems that they failed to give the same number of balloons only when they had to rely on memory.

This actually makes a lot of sense. Try to imagine exactly seventeen balloons in your head, but without counting them. It’s impossible. Decades of research have shown that people can tell the difference between one object and two or between three objects and four without counting, but such fine distinctions with larger numbers like seventeen versus eighteen requires counting. You wouldn’t match seventeen balloons to seventeen spools by sight alone. You would count the spools and then count out the same number of balloons.

But the Pirahã can’t count. They don’t have number words.

This suggests a different way of thinking about the influence of language on thought: words are very handy mnemonics. We may not be able to remember what seventeen spools looks like, but we can remember the word seventeen. In his landmark The Language of Thought, philosopher Jerry Fodor argued that many words work like acronyms. French students use the acronym bans to remember which adjectives go before nouns (“Beauty, Age, Number, Goodneess, and Size”). Similarly, sometimes its easier to remember a word (calculus, Estonia) than what the word stands for. We use the word, knowing that should it becomes necessary, we can search through our minds — or an encyclopedia — and pull up the relevant information (how to calculate an integral; Estonia’s population, capital and location on a map). Numbers, it seems, work the same way.

I don’t know whether my seventh-grade English teacher would be disappointed. Do more words mean more thoughts? Probably not. But more words do make it easier to remember those thoughts — and sometimes that’s just as important.


Joshua Hartshorne is a PhD student in the psychology of language at Harvard University. Participate in his experiments at coglanglab.org.

Language Appears to Shape Our Implicit Preferences

Via Harvard University

CAMBRIDGE, Mass., Nov. 3, 2010 – The language we speak may influence not only our thoughts, but our implicit preferences as well. That’s the finding of a study by psychologists at Harvard University, who found that bilingual individuals’ opinions of different ethnic groups were affected by the language in which they took a test examining their biases and predilections.

The paper appears in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

“Charlemagne is reputed to have said that to speak another language is to possess another soul,” says co-author Oludamini Ogunnaike, a graduate student at Harvard. “This study suggests that language is much more than a medium for expressing thoughts and feelings. Our work hints that language creates and shapes our thoughts and feelings as well.”

Implicit attitudes, positive or negative associations people may be unaware they possess, have been shown to predict behavior towards members of social groups. Recent research has shown that these attitudes are quite malleable, susceptible to factors such as the weather, popular culture – or, now, by the language people speak.

“Can we shift something as fundamental as what we like and dislike by changing the language in which our preferences are elicited?” asks co-author Mahzarin R. Banaji, the Richard Clarke Cabot Professor of Social Ethics at Harvard. “If the answer is yes, that gives more support to the idea that language is an important shaper of attitudes.”

Ogunnaike, Banaji, and Yarrow Dunham, now at the University of California, Merced, used the well-known Implicit Association Test (IAT), where participants rapidly categorize words that flash on a computer screen or are played through headphones. The test gives participants only a fraction of a second to categorize words, not enough to think about their answers.

“The IAT bypasses a large part of conscious cognition and taps into something we’re not aware of and can’t easily control,” Banaji says.

The researchers administered the IAT in two different settings: once in Morocco, with bilinguals in Arabic and French, and again in the U.S. with Latinos who speak both English and Spanish.

In Morocco, participants who took the IAT in Arabic showed greater preference for other Moroccans. When they took the test in French, that difference disappeared. Similarly, in the U.S., participants who took the test in Spanish showed a greater preference for other Hispanics. But again, in English, that preference disappeared.

“It was quite shocking to see that a person could take the same test, within a brief period of time, and show such different results,” Ogunnaike said. “It’s like asking your friend if he likes ice cream in English, and then turning around and asking him again in French and getting a different answer.”

In the Moroccan test, participants saw “Moroccan” names (such as Hassan or Fatimah) or “French” names (such as Jean or Marie) flash on a monitor, along with words that are “good” (such as happy or nice) or “bad” (such as hate or mean). Participants might press one key when they see a Moroccan name or a good word, and press another when they see a French name or a bad word. Then the key assignments are switched so that “Moroccan” and “bad” share the same key and “French” and “good” share the other.

Linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf first posited in the 1930s that language is so powerful that it can determine thought. Mainstream psychology has taken the more skeptical view that while language may affect thought processes, it doesn’t influence thought itself. This new study suggests that Whorf’s idea, when not caricatured, may generate interesting hypotheses that researchers can continue to test.

 “These results challenge our views of attitudes as stable,” Banaji says. “There still remain big questions about just how fixed or flexible they are, and language may provide a window through which we will learn about their nature.”

Ogunnaike, Dunham, and Banaji’s work was supported by Harvard’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs and the Mellon Mays Foundation.

The Top 100 Most Beautiful Words

Taken from Here.

These are the 100 most beautiful words in the English language:

Ailurophile A cat-lover.
Assemblage A gathering.
Becoming Attractive.
Beleaguer To exhaust with attacks.
Brood To think alone.
Bucolic In a lovely rural setting.
Bungalow A small, cozy cottage.
Chatoyant Like a cat’s eye.
Comely Attractive.
Conflate To blend together.
Cynosure A focal point of admiration.
Dalliance A brief love affair.
Demesne Dominion, territory.
Demure Shy and reserved.
Denouement The resolution of a mystery.
Desuetude Disuse.
Desultory Slow, sluggish.
Diaphanous Filmy.
Dissemble Deceive.
Dulcet Sweet, sugary.
Ebullience Bubbling enthusiasm.
Effervescent Bubbly.
Efflorescence Flowering, blooming.
Elision Dropping a sound or syllable in a word.
Elixir A good potion.
Eloquence Beauty and persuasion in speech.
Embrocation Rubbing on a lotion.
Emollient A softener.
Ephemeral Short-lived.
Epiphany A sudden revelation.
Erstwhile At one time, for a time.
Ethereal Gaseous, invisible but detectable.
Evanescent Vanishing quickly, lasting a very short time.
Evocative Suggestive.
Fetching Pretty.
Felicity Pleasantness.
Forbearance Withholding response to provocation.
Fugacious Fleeting.
Furtive Shifty, sneaky.
Gambol To skip or leap about joyfully.
Glamour Beauty.
Gossamer The finest piece of thread, a spider’s silk.
Halcyon Happy, sunny, care-free.
Harbinger Messenger with news of the future.
Imbrication Overlapping and forming a regular pattern.
Imbroglio An altercation or complicated situation.
Imbue To infuse, instill.
Incipient Beginning, in an early stage.
Ineffable Unutterable, inexpressible.
Ingénue A naïve young woman.
Inglenook A cozy nook by the hearth.
Insouciance Blithe nonchalance.
Inure To become jaded.
Labyrinthine Twisting and turning.
Lagniappe A special kind of gift.
Lagoon A small gulf or inlet.
Languor Listlessness, inactivity.
Lassitude Weariness, listlessness.
Leisure Free time.
Lilt To move musically or lively.
Lissome Slender and graceful.
Lithe Slender and flexible.
Love Deep affection.
Mellifluous Sweet sounding.
Moiety One of two equal parts.
Mondegreen A slip of the ear.
Murmurous Murmuring.
Nemesis An unconquerable archenemy.
Offing The sea between the horizon and the offshore.
Onomatopoeia A word that sounds like its meaning.
Opulent Lush, luxuriant.
Palimpsest A manuscript written over earlier ones.
Panacea A solution for all problems
Panoply A complete set.
Pastiche An art work combining materials from various sources.
Penumbra A half-shadow.
Petrichor The smell of earth after rain.
Plethora A large quantity.
Propinquity An inclination.
Pyrrhic Successful with heavy losses.
Quintessential Most essential.
Ratatouille A spicy French stew.
Ravel To knit or unknit.
Redolent Fragrant.
Riparian By the bank of a stream.
Ripple A very small wave.
Scintilla A spark or very small thing.
Sempiternal Eternal.
Seraglio Rich, luxurious oriental palace or harem.
Serendipity Finding something nice while looking for something else.
Summery Light, delicate or warm and sunny.
Sumptuous Lush, luxurious.
Surreptitious Secretive, sneaky.
Susquehanna A river in Pennsylvania.
Susurrous Whispering, hissing.
Talisman A good luck charm.
Tintinnabulation Tinkling.
Umbrella Protection from sun or rain.
Untoward Unseemly, inappropriate.
Vestigial In trace amounts.
Wafture Waving.
Wherewithal The means.
Woebegone Sorrowful, downcast.


Word of the Day: Callipygous


Adjective; Greek

callipygous (comparative more callipygous, superlative most callipygous)

  1. Having shapely, beautiful buttocks.

Sandra*-“Your just jealous of my callipygous”
Elliot*- (moment of silence) “what the…”

*names changed to protect the identity of individuals involved. 😉

Curious: “Bad” Words

I’ve realized that what this blog is missing are features and columns, so I’m gonna start one.   It’s called “Curious:” and they’ll be little blurbs about things I find interesting or confusing about our culture or humanity as a whole.

So in today’s installment of Curious:

Well, I was watching a very special Clone High yesterday and they bleeped “fuck”.  (I mean, yes, pretty much every show bleeps “fuck”) But it got me to thinking.  Language is just groupings of sounds that we attach meaning to, and a large enough group of people agree on what the meaning of those sounds are.  So, we’re all offended by the word “fuck” for some reason. BUT if you put a bleep there, we understand that the word is STILL “fuck!”  So isn’t that bleep just a synonym for “fuck”?  That bleep is also a sound.

Words do not have an innate power.  It’s the people who project meaning on arbitrary sounds that give the words power.

And cause I have crazy ADD I’m gonna go off on a tangent! I’m also curious about why almost all the swear words have to do with sexual intercourse or bodily functions.

Fuck, Shit, Piss, Asshole, Cunt…


EDIT: My friend Nina showed me a Louis CK bit I hadn’t seen before about how when a news-person says “N-word” on television it automatically makes you think …. the N-word!. LANGUAGE IS THE COMMUNICATION OF MEANING THROUGH SOUND!!! so if we understand that N-word means N-word!  Then aren’t they just getting away with saying the N-word on TV?