Category Archives: Linguistics

The man who can talk backwards

Just a few days ago I saw an amazing video about Kurt Quinn, a man who can talk backwards. When I say backwards, I don’t mean that he reverses the order of the words in a sentence, but he actually reverses the order of the sounds. He’s got a YouTube channel where you can see this in action, and I would recommend this video by Smarter Every Day which tests the limits of Quinn’s skill.

The Smarter Every Day (SED) video not only demonstrates Quinn’s skill, but also offers up a little bit of phonetic science to explain how it works. While I deeply appreciate SED’s attempt to describe phonetics, there are a few things missing from the explanation that I want to go over here. This should not be taken as a criticism of SED at all. What Quinn can do is highly unusual, and highly interesting, and I want to explore it further. Continue reading

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Short vowels and long vowels

English is traditionally described as having “long” and “short” vowels. Despite this terminology, the distinction has nothing to do with length. In fact, a long vowel is one where the pronunciation matches the name of the letter. For example, the “a” in “made” is a long-A, because it is pronounced like the name of the letter A. The “o” in “throne” is another example of a long vowel, this time a long-O. Short vowels, on the other hand, have unpredictable pronunciations. Despite the name, they are not short versions of the long vowels. They are actually completely different vowels with no relation at all to their long counterparts. The “a” in “mad”, or the “o” in “done”, are considered short vowels because their pronunciations do not match the names of the letters. Continue reading

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500 language lessons

In addition to this blog I have a Twitter account called LinguaDiem, where the goal is to post about as many languages as possible. I generally do one per day. I’ve had this going for about a year and a half now, and I recently hit a landmark of 500 languages. They are all listed over here. For this blog post, I wanted to talk about LinguaDiem, and a few things I learned from 500 languages.

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The IPA: Non-pulmonic consonants

nonpulmonic cons

The main consonant chart of the IPA was covered in two earlier parts (you can see the whole series up here). In this post, I’ll cover the smaller box below the main one. This is the one labelled “non-pulmonic consonants”.

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This paper on happy words makes me angry

There’s a new paper out in the Journal of Positive Psychology: “Towards a positive cross-cultural lexicography: Enriching our emotional landscape through 216 ‘untranslatable’ words pertaining to well-being”, by Dr. Tim Lomas, in the Department of Psychology, at the University of East London. I don’t read this journal regularly, and I only heard about it through a Huffington Post article.

As you can tell from the title, the paper is about so-called “untranslatable” words. These are words from other languages which are extremely precise in meaning, and difficult to render into English. There have been plenty of books published on the topic, and lots of websites exist too. If you just google the phrase “untranslatable words” you’ll see what I mean, and actually you’ll be doing the same amount of research as Lomas did for his paper. More on that later. Continue reading

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Fewer, less, and (un)countable nouns

The words less and fewer are a troublesome pair. There is a lot of variation in the way that people use them, but traditionalists insist that this is wrong and the two words are never interchangeable. What’s the difference? How does one decide which word to use? Let’s ask the grammar books: Continue reading

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Negatives, double negatives, and “hardly”

Some dialects of English have a feature known as the “double negative”. In these dialects, a negative sentence can contain more than one negative word. For example, a speaker of such a dialect might say “I didn’t see nobody” to express that nobody was seen.

Double negatives are widely perceived to be bad grammar, and virtually all traditional grammar books contain a section condemning them. The same reason is given every time: Continue reading

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