Tag Archives: science

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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Asking how languages work

If you hear scientists say something like “We don’t understand much about the climate on Jupiter” or “We don’t know why electrons behave in a particular way”, then that kind of ignorance seems reasonable. Jupiter is a huge planet, it’s far away, and it’s an inanimate object that can’t answer questions about itself. Same for electrons, except they are really small, presenting different problems.

But what about language sciences? Suppose a linguist says “we don’t really understand how determiners work in Salish” or “we don’t understand quantification in Hmong”. What does that mean? It doesn’t sound like a difficult problem to solve. It’s not like studying Jupiter or electrons. Dealing with languages means dealing with people. Can’t you just ask them how their language works? The short answer:

No.
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