Languages

How to talk about English in English

In the first nine pages of Henry Hitchings' The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English, words can see. (They are "witnesses.") They are containers (with fossils in them). Language is a combination of earth and artifact. (It allows us to do archeology.) It is both abstract and communal. (It is a "social energy.") English is an object of trade. (It was "imported.") It is an animal. (It has a "pedigree.") It is a human professional. (It has a "career.") It is a space ("a place of strange meetings"). English vocabulary is a building (it has architecture), and English has sex, lots of it—it's not just "promiscuous"; it's a "whore"... Slate.


Human uniqueness is not what it used to be

Ever since Galileo argued that the sun was the center of the solar system, the idea of Earth as the universal hub has been the classic example of scientific arrogance. It's certainly a foolproof example of the way humans consider themselves the rule by which everything else should be measured, but when we use it, there's a sense that we don't make that kind of mistake anymore. Yet even today scientists are swayed by the notion that humans stand at the center of the biological universe, especially when it comes to what we care about most: our minds.


The rise and rise of Indo-European

The first and most intimate affiliations we have are the genetic ties we share with our family and the language we speak. In the first case, the links are pretty straightforward. Without exception, everyone is created by two parents, who each had two parents, who themselves had two parents, and on and on, so that behind every reader of this review, thousands of mothers and fathers fan out and multiply in a completely predictable way.

Linguistic inheritance, by contrast, is a story of irreducible patterns and historical contingencies... NYT Book Review.


Unconscious translation

Scientist argue about whether speaking in a second language unconsciously invokes the first. Now UK researchers have shown that reading or hearing words in a second language creates the same brain activity for bilinguals that reading the word in their native languages does. This is evidence, they say, that bilinguals automatically and unconsciously translate their second language into their first. PNAS.


Native speakers prefer... native speech

The tendency to favor your own social group over others emerges before you've learned anything about current disputes or historical conflict, before you've even learned how to talk. Children show strong early preferences for people speaking their native language, say researchers at Harvard and the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique. They suggest this linguistic favoritism may underlie conflict between social groups.
    In a series of experiments, the team showed that even before infants produce, or they say, comprehend speech, they prefer to look at speakers of their native language over speakers of a different language, and they prefer to take toys from speakers of their native language. Additionally when five-year-old native English speakers were shown photographs of two children and played a recording of either an English or a French speaker, they said they'd choose the child who spoke their native language as a friend. A similar experiment showed that children prefer other children who have their native accent over children who speak their native language but with a foreign accent.
    These findings are not exactly surprising. Would anyone expect anything else? Still, the researchers hope that understanding how the foundations of social conflict develop may help contribute to their solutions. PNAS. Press links to come.


Seeing voices

In the last five years a lot of evidence has emerged about the abilities of babies, and indeed the abilities of monkeys, to make subtle judgments about language. For example, human babies and tamarin monkeys can tell one language from another based upon its rhythm. I'm just catching up on the last month's news that babies are also adept at distinguishing foreign languages, like English and French, just by looking at the way a speaker's face moves. This miraculous ability exists between four- and six-months of age and it fades away between six- and eight-months, unless the baby lives in a bilingual household Science News, Science.


Small Genetic Differences, Big Language Effects

Two variants of the genes ASPM and Microcephalin may make it easier to learn tone languages. If you have the tone-versions, as do most speakers of Chinese (and other languages such as those found in South East Asia and sub-Saharan Africa), you may be more adept at learning languages that distinguish words with pitch as opposed to those that don't. This is the first time it's been shown that possessing a particular form of gene, let alone two, may impact the way we learn language.  The dogma has always been that we are all born with precisely the same genetic program which builds exactly the same neural equipment for language. The Times, Scientific American, PNAS.