The beauty of the German language

The Hottentotten tribe used to chase kangaroos (Beutelratten) and to keep them in cages (Kotter) with bars (Lattengitter) to keep an eye on them. The cages are called Lattengitterkotter and the caught kangaroo in a cage is a Lattengitterkotterbeutelratte. A cage for a kangaroo is a Beutelrattenlattengitterkotter.
Once upon a time, a mother of the Hottentotten tribe (Hottentottermutter) was killed. She had a fool son (Trottel), so she was a Hottentottentrottelmutter. The killer (Attentäter) is a Hottentottentrottelmutterattentäter. The police caught the killer and put him in a Beutelrattenlattengitterkotter, but he escaped. So the searching started. A knight from the tribe caught the killer and brought him to the leader. He says:
- I caught the Attentäter!
- Really? - asks the leader.
- Yes! The Lattengitterkotterbeutelrattenattentäter - replies the knight.
- Which one?
- I think he’s the Hottentottentrottelmutterattentäter.
- The one who’s escaped from the Beutelrattenlattengitterkotter? - asks the leader, impatient for the imprecision of the knight.
- Yes, yes! - replies the knight.
- You should have said earlier that he was the Hottentottentrottelmutterlattengitterkotterbeutelrattenattentäter!

Informal Posters is a research project by the Digital Fabulists studying the context, used language, politics, tone and semiotics of informal signage.

This gallery is a collection of informal signs collected for use as the primary resource for this analysis. 

This collection of signs and posters will be familiar to anyone who has worked in a shared office space. I’ve submitted a few from around my office, including this nice fluro number from the photocopy room.

One thing that becomes apparent when browsing the collection is that there are some fairly consistent discourse stance strategies going on in these signs. Styalistically we see a lot of capitalisation, highlighting and san serif fonts. Linguistically, there are lots of imperatives verbs, with some hedging via pleases and thankyous. The tone of these signs is important - they have to convey a message that their creator thinks is serious enough to warrant a notification, but in a way that will most effectively encourage people to go along with the request. It will be interesting to see what patterns emerge as their collection grows.

You can submit signs and posters that you see to the digital fabulists via their website.

Vyvan Evans (the author of the book The Language Myth) threatened another linguist with libel for criticism of his book. This is unbelievable coming from an academic, and goes against everything that academics (should) stand for in terms of academic freedom and scientific inquiry.

Edit: credit to for originally bringing this to my attention!

for real though, internet english is STAGGERINGLY multi-modal. the problem with communicating via writing is that you lose certain dimensions of spoken conversation, like intonation, facial expression, body language, pauses and fillers etc, but there’s been so many linguistic innovations to maintain richness in communication, like

  • emojis/emoticons
  • use of capslock and purposefully creating/not fixing typos to convey excitement, or likewise not capitalizing anything
  • use of punctuation (or lack thereof) to indicate /emphasis/ or ~irony~ or apathy
  • reaction images and memes
  • use of familiar songs in tumblr text posts or vines etc
  • variational spellings like you/u or true/tru
  • bolding, italics, strikethrough, font size, line breaks, etc
  • (using parentheses to whisper)
  • tags as commentary, also the body of commonly used/commonly mocked hashtags

like i could go ON and ON about the things that internet language users have created to get around the difficulties of non-verbal communication, like ??? what other dialects can do all that and change that much in 30 years????

Dammit, people, if you’re going to write a Canadian character, you can’t just throw “eh” in wherever. It’s not a verbal tic - it has a very specific semantic role.

In brief, “eh” does one of two things:

  • Turn an imperative into a request. e.g., “Pass me that wrench, eh?”
  • Turn a statement into a question. e.g., “Cold out there, eh?”

In the latter case, there are several situations where it’s commonly used:

  1. The speaker is not sure that the statement she’s just made is correct, and is asking the listener to confirm. e.g., “That’s about forty kilometers West of here, eh?”
  2. The speaker is checking that the listener is still interested and wishes for her to continue, but does not expect any specific response. e.g., “So then this freakin’ moose shows up, eh?”
  3. The speaker is being sarcastic. e.g., “You really thought that one through, eh?”

When used in this way, “eh” is roughly equivalent to appending “isn’t it?” (“doesn’t it?”, “didn’t you?”, etc.) to the end of a sentence; interestingly, it also functions very much like the Japanese “ne”, which has a nearly identical effect when appended to a statement.

Now you know.

New rule! Anyone who objects to singular ‘they’ on the basis of logic or grammar has to avoid singular 'you’ as well. Thou'rt welcome.

Stan Carey, Twitter, 3rd Feb 2015  


Every time a new round of “they is not singular” nonsense comes around I’m reminded of this excellent suggestion from Stan Carey. You can also read recent and, excellent discussions of the never-dying peeve from John McIntyre, Anne Curzan and Ben Zimmer.

Learning Jewish Languages

So, Jewish languages other than Hebrew are all endangered, and even Hebrew many of us don’t speak. So, in honor of Preservation Day, I’ve gathered a bunch of language resources, and hopefully we’ll be able to learn our heritage languages more easily, as well as Hebrew, both biblical for the Torah, and modern for trips (or flight, as necessary) to Israel.

I’ll start with a request for help from the people who DO know these languages: the website duolingo has both Yiddish and Hebrew projects that need people to help them work.  It seems like a very effective language learning site, and it would help us preserve our languages.  And if someone capable of doing so started up a Ladino project, or any of the various Judeo-Arabic languages (I apologize, I know basically nothing about them) it would be great!

Next up is My Language Exchange.  This is a very versatile site that seems mostly to be about matching up people learning each others’ languages as pen pals.  There’s a little bit more structure, but it’s only available for the biggest languages.  However, and this is a BIG plus, it has people who speak Hebrew, Yiddish and Ladino all, and I’ve had trouble finding any websites that even acknowledge Ladino.

Ancient Hebrew

So, for all that I know nothing about Judeo-Arabic and little about Ladino, Ancient/Biblical Hebrew is pretty mysterious to me.  I never went to Hebrew school, so anything here is good.  Right now, the only thing I have is a couple of posts from an old, abandoned tumblr (to an extent, it’s been replaced by tumblrs like littlegoythings, returnofthejudai and jewish-privilege)

So, here’s a post about how Hebrew was written and pronounced in ancient times compared to today, and another on German’s influence on Hebrew pronunciation, that might fit better in the next section.

Modern Hebrew

Now, Modern Hebrew, being the language of an actual, geopolitically important country is the easiest to find resources for.  In addition to Rosetta Stone, which is quite expensive (though my Dad swears by it, in six months he’s reading Israeli newspapers) there’s a free site run by them, Live Mocha, which includes Hebrew.

Thanks to all the resources available, Hebrew language learning resources have already been collected.  A couple of places that do that are Omniglot, Fluent Forever, and Ecott.  And then there’s the online parts of the Hebrew programs at UT Austin and Yale.

And then there’s Surface Languages and Transparent, for just straight up language learning.


And now, into the Diaspora! There are tons of Diaspora languages, but not all of them have their own names.  The biggest one, though, is Judeo-German, better known now as Yiddish.  It’s been a very active language, and had a cultural golden age in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  

The Yiddish Academy collects Yiddish resources that will be helpful whatever path to learning the language you take.  For learning, there’s some traditional web courses at eTeacherYiddish, Surface Languages and Transparent.

And then, of course, there’s YiddishPop! I haven’t looked in detail at it, but YiddishPop seems to be all about learning Yiddish in a fun online environmentm, with lots of games and stuff.


Ladino, unfortunately, doesn’t have nearly the support that Hebrew and Yiddish do.  Fortunately, while I was looking for resources, @concentratedridiculousness responded to me and made a nice big post about Ladino, though most of the resources aren’t online.

Cherokee language faces extinction

There are less than 250 native Cherokee speakers left. Just a few years ago, that number was at 500. The decline is happening so fast, it would be easy for Cherokee linguists to despair, but they haven’t. They won’t. Instead, they have been working tirelessly to reclaim the Cherokee language. Language and culture are one…

Cherokee language faces extinction was originally published on CisternYard Media

The signs as linguists
  • Aries:semiotician
  • Taurus:computational linguist
  • Gemini:phonetician
  • Cancer:morphologist
  • Leo:historical linguist
  • Virgo:acquisitionist
  • Libra:syntactician
  • Scorpio:field linguist
  • Sagittarius:semanticist
  • Capricorn:psycholinguist
  • Aquarius:sociolinguist
  • Pisces:phonologist

“Stop interrupting me.”

“I just said that.”

“No explanation needed.”


10 Words Every Girl Should Learn by Soraya Chemaly

In fifth grade, I won the school courtesy prize. In other words, I won an award for being polite. My brother, on the other hand, was considered the class comedian. We were very typically socialized as a “young lady” and a “boy being a boy.” Globally, childhood politeness lessons are gender asymmetrical. We socialize girls to take turns, listen more carefully, not curse and resist interrupting in ways we do not expect boys to. Put another way, we generally teach girls subservient habits and boys to exercise dominance.

I routinely find myself in mixed-gender environments (life) where men interrupt me. Now that I’ve decided to try and keep track, just out of curiosity, it’s quite amazing how often it happens. It’s particularly pronounced when other men are around.

This irksome reality goes along with another – men who make no eye contact. For example, a waiter who only directs information and questions to men at a table, or the man last week who simply pretended I wasn’t part of a circle of five people (I was the only woman). We’d never met before and barely exchanged 10 words, so it couldn’t have been my not-so-shrinking-violet opinions.

These two ways of establishing dominance in conversation, frequently based on gender, go hand-in-hand with this last one: A woman, speaking clearly and out loud, can say something that no one appears to hear, only to have a man repeat it minutes, maybe seconds later, to accolades and group discussion.

After I wrote about the gender confidence gap recently, of the 10 items on a list, the one that resonated the most was the issue of whose speech is considered important. In sympathetic response to what I wrote, a person on Twitter sent me a cartoon in which one woman and five men sit around a conference table. The caption reads, “That’s an excellent suggestion, Miss Triggs. Perhaps one of the men here would like to make it.” I don’t think there is a woman alive who has not had this happen.

The cartoon may seem funny, until you realize exactly how often it seriously happens. And – as in the cases of Elizabeth Warren or say, Brooksley Born – how broadly consequential the impact can be. When you add race and class to the equation the incidence of this marginalization is even higher.

This suppressing of women’s voices, in case you are trying to figure out what Miss Triggs was wearing or drinking or might have said to provoke this response, is what sexism sounds like.

These behaviors, the interrupting and the over-talking, also happen as the result of difference in status, but gender rules. For example, male doctors invariably interrupt patients when they speak, especially female patients, but patients rarely interrupt doctors in return. Unless the doctor is a woman. When that is the case, she interrupts far less and is herself interrupted more. This is also true of senior managers in the workplace. Male bosses are not frequently talked over or stopped by those working for them, especially if they are women; however, female bosses are routinely interrupted by their male subordinates.

This preference for what men have to say, supported by men and women both, is a variant on “mansplaining.” The word came out of an article by writer Rebecca Solnit, who explained that the tendency some men have to grant their own speech greater import than a perfectly competent woman’s is not a universal male trait, but the “intersection between overconfidence and cluelessness where some portion of that gender gets stuck.”

Solnit’s tipping point experience really did take the cake. She was talking to a man at a cocktail party when he asked her what she did. She replied that she wrote books and she described her most recent one, River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West. The man interrupted her soon after she said the word Muybridge and asked, “And have you heard about the very important Muybridge book that came out this year?” He then waxed on, based on his reading of a review of the book, not even the book itself, until finally, a friend said, “That’s her book.” He ignored that friend (also a woman) and she had to say it more than three times before “he went ashen” and walked away. If you are not a woman, ask any woman you know what this is like, because it is not fun and happens to all of us.

In the wake of Larry Summers’ “women can’t do math” controversy several years ago, scientist Ben Barres wrote publicly about his experiences, first as a woman and later in life, as a male. As a female student at MIT, Barbara Barres was told by a professor after solving a particularly difficult math problem, “Your boyfriend must have solved it for you.” Several years after, as Ben Barres, he gave a well-received scientific speech and he overhead a member of the audience say, “His work is much better than his sister’s.”

Most notably, he concluded that one of the major benefits of being male was that he could now “even complete a whole sentence without being interrupted by a man.”

I’ve had teenage boys, irritatingly but hysterically, excuse what they think is “lack of understanding” to [my] “youthful indiscretion.” Last week as I sat in a cafe, a man in his 60s stopped to ask me what I was writing. I told him I was writing a book about gender and media and he said, “I went to a conference where someone talked about that a few years ago. I read a paper about it a few years ago. Did you know that car manufacturers use slightly denigrating images of women to sell cars? I’d be happy to help you.” After I suggested, smiling cheerily, that the images were beyond denigrating and definitively injurious to women’s dignity, free speech and parity in culture, he drifted off.

It’s not hard to fathom why so many men tend to assume they are great and that what they have to say is more legitimate. It starts in childhood and never ends. Parents interrupt girls twice as often and hold them to stricter politeness norms. Teachers engage boys, who correctly see disruptive speech as a marker of dominant masculinity, more often and more dynamically than girls.

As adults, women’s speech is granted less authority and credibility. We aren’t thought of as able critics or as funny. Men speak more, more often, and longer than women in mixed groups (classrooms, boardrooms, legislative bodies, expert media commentary and, for obvious reasons religious institutions.) Indeed, in male-dominated problem solving groups including boards, committees and legislatures, men speak 75% more than women, with negative effects on decisions reached. That’s why, as researchers summed up, “Having a seat at the table is not the same as having a voice.”

Even in movies and television, male actors engage in more disruptive speech and garner twice as much speaking and screen time as their female peers. This is by no means limited by history or to old media but is replicated online. Listserve topics introduced by men have a much higher rate of response and on Twitter, people retweet men two times as often as women.

These linguistic patterns are consequential in many ways, not the least of which is the way that they result in unjust courtroom dynamics, where adversarial speech governs proceedings and gendered expression results in women’s testimonies being interrupted, discounted and portrayed as not credible according to masculinized speech norms. Courtrooms also show exactly how credibility and status, women’s being lower, are also doubly affected by race. If Black women testifying in court adopt what is often categorized as “[white] women’s language,” they are considered less credible. However, if they are more assertive, white jurors find them “rude, hostile, out of control, and, hence [again], less credible.” Silence might be an approach taken by women to adapt to the double bind, but silence doesn’t help when you’re testifying.

The best part though is that we are socialized to think women talk more. Listener bias results in most people thinking that women are hogging the floor when men are actually dominating. Linguists have concluded that much of what is popularly understood about women and men being from different planets, verbally, confuses “women’s language” with “powerless language.”

There are, of course, exceptions that illustrate the role that gender (and not biological sex) plays. For example, I have a very funny child who regularly engages in simultaneous speech, disruptively interrupts and randomly changes topics. If you read a script of one of our typical conversations, you would probably guess the child is a boy based on the fact that these speech habits are what we think of as “masculine.” The child is a girl, however. She’s more comfortable with overt displays of assertiveness and confidence than the average girl speaker. It’s hard to balance making sure she keeps her confidence with teaching her to be polite. However, excessive politeness norms for girls, expected to set an example for boys, have real impact on women who are, as we constantly hear, supposed to override their childhood socialization and learn to talk like men to succeed (learn to negotiate, demand higher pay, etc.).

The first time I ran this post, I kid you not, the first response I got was from a Twitter user, a man, who, without a shred of self-awareness, asked, “What would you say if a man said those things to you mid-conversation?”

Socialized male speech dominance is a significant issue, not just in school, but everywhere. If you doubt me, sit quietly and keep track of speech dynamics at your own dinner table, workplace, classroom. In the school bus, the sidelines of fields, in places of worship. It’s significant and consequential.

People often ask me what to teach girls or what they themselves can do to challenge sexism when they see it. “What can I do if I encounter sexism? It’s hard to say anything, especially at school.” In general, I’m loath to take the approach that girls should be responsible for the world’s responses to them, but I say to them, practice these words, every day:

“Stop interrupting me,”

“I just said that,” and

“No explanation needed.”

It will do both boys and girls a world of good. And no small number of adults, as well.

The signs as untranslatable words

Aries: Fernweh (German) - To feel homesick for a place you’ve never been to.
Taurus: Shlimazl (Yiddish) - A chronically unlucky person.
Gemini: Rire dans sa barbe (French) - To laugh into your beard quietly whilst thinking about something that happened in the past.
Cancer: Aware (Japanese) - The bittersweetness of a brief fading moment of transcendent beauty.
Leo: Gattara (Italian) - A woman, often old and lonely who dedicates herself to stray cats.
Virgo: Won (Korean) - Reluctance on a person’s part to let go of an illusion or dream.
Libra: Wabi-Sabi (Japanese) - Accepting beauty in the natural cycle of growth and decay.
Scorpio: Backpfeifengesicht (German) - A face dearly in need of a fist.
Sagittarius: Age-otori (Japanese) - To look worse after a haircut.
Capricorn: Kjæreste (Norwegian) - Gender neutral term for boyfriend or girlfriend.
Aquarius: Saudade (Portuguese) - The feeling of longing for something or someone that you love and which is lost. 
Pisces: Mamihlapinatapei (Yagan) - A wordless yet meaningful look shared between two people who desire to initiate something but are both reluctant to start.