arika okrent
The Schwa Is the Laziest Sound in All of Human Speech

Arika Okrent explains schwas on Lexicon Valley

We all know that English spelling is rarely a good guide to pronunciation. One big reason for this is the prevalence of schwa in the spoken language. That’s why dictionaries and other written guides to pronunciation make use of a special symbol to represent the schwa sound. It looks like this: ǝ—an upside down e. But what is schwa anyway? Here are nine things to help you get to know this very important vowel.


A schwa is the ‘uh’ sound found in an unstressed syllable. For example, the first syllable in amazing (ǝ-MA-zing), the first syllable in tenacious (tǝ-NA-cious), the second syllable in replicate (RE-plǝ-cate), the second syllable in percolate (PER-cǝ-late), the first syllable in supply (sǝ –PLY), the first syllable in syringe (sǝ-RINGE). That’s a written A, E, I, O, U and even a Y coming out as schwa in the spoken version.

Schwas are very common in English (although they’re surprisingly difficult to play in IPA Scrabble, because they’re far more common in polysyllabic words). They’re less common in other languages, and are one of the things that contribute to non-native accents in both directions: English speakers tend to reduce vowels to schwa even when it’s unwarranted, and speakers of many other languages tend to pronounce too many full vowels. 

Because of how common and distinctively-shaped schwa is, it (along with wugs) have become a ubiquitous icon for linguistics. For example, there’s a schwa necklace, dozens of schwa mugs and t-shirts, and of course the publication Schwa Fire

The job of the linguist, like that of the biologist or the botanist, is not to tell us how nature should behave, or what its creations should look like, but to describe those creations in all their messy glory and try to figure out what they can teach us about life, the world, and, especially in the case of linguistics, the workings of the human mind.
—  Arika Okrent, In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build a Perfect Language
The job of the linguist, like that of the biologist or the botanist, is not to tell us how nature should behave, or what its creations should look like, but to describe those creations in all their messy glory and try to figure out what they can teach us about life, the world, and, especially in the case of linguistics, the workings of the human mind.
—  Arika Okrent, In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build A Perfect Language

In The Land Of Invented Languages by Arika Okrent

I’m what I would describe as an amateur language enthusiast. I’m no linguist, but I am enchanted and enthralled by languages and love learning them and learning about them. For anyone with similar interests, this book is perfect. It’s about artificial languages: their history, their methods, their ambitions, their flaws. I bought it because it was quoted in an academic paper I read about Klingon. But it is the polar opposite of an academic paper - hilarious, engaging, and easy to understand. It requires no previous knowledge of linguistic terminology. It…well, it speaks English. Literally anybody who can read well enough to play Pokemon can pick this book randomly off the shelf and enjoy the entire thing, which is a really great and rare quality in a book about such an academic niche. And I’m not kidding about hilarious; I laughed so loudly so often that people kept coming to check on me. Granted, I have a pretty dorky sense of humor. But the introduction is about how the author looks up swear words first thing every time she starts a new language. What could be more endearing? I was entertained and learning and enjoying both simultaneously and LOVING EVERY MINUTE OF IT.

If you can’t tell, I REALLY love this book. I already call it “my book” and my friends know what I’m talking about. I think absolutely everyone should read it, but especially people who enjoy language or just weird cultural things. I’m definitely going to read it again, probably several times.
The bizarre syntax of 'sexiest man alive'
Who talks like this?

Arika Okrent has a great article about what’s going on with the syntax of “sexiest man alive”. 

The Sexiest Man Blond? The Sexiest Man Canadian? …

Why is “alive” the only adjective that fits in this construction? Actually, there is a small set of other adjectives that also work here, and the thing they have in common is etymological history. Alive originated in the Old English phrase on life. It was a prepositional phrase, one that got reanalyzed along the way into a single word, an adjective.

The other phrases that underwent this change are on flote, an slæpe, and on waecnan. In their current forms, they work beautifully in the “Sexiest Man” construction. Really, some magazine should judge a winner for these categories too:

“Sexiest Man Afloat!”
“Sexiest Man Asleep!”
“Sexiest Man Awake!”

Adrift, formed on analogy with afloat also works, as do a few other words where the initial a- can be traced back to the meaning “on”: afire, aflame, ablaze

Do you like hot guys? Well, you’re gonna love the Sexiest Man Ablaze!

(Read the rest.) 

Another interesting property of a- adjectives that reminds us of their origins as prepositional phrases is that they can only be used in predicative, not attributive position. So you can say “the man is alive/afloat/asleep/awake/aflame” but not “*the alive/afloat/asleep/aflame man” (of course, you can express the same meaning with a gerundive adjective, as in “the living/floating/sleeping/flaming man”). 

Before you judge me as some kind of ‘anything goes’ language heathen, let me just say that I’m not against usage standards. I don’t violate them when I want to sound like an educated person, for the same reason I don’t wear a bikini to a funeral when I want to look like a respectful person. There are social conventions for the way we do lots of things, and it is to everyone’s benefit to be familiar with them. But logic ain’t got nothin’ to do with it.
—  Arika Okrent, In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build A Perfect Language

15 Awesome 19th Century Street Gang Names

by Arika Okrent

You may have heard of the Bowery Boys, a notorious New York street gang of the mid-19th century. But there were plenty of other gangs fighting it out for turf during that time, and some of them had pretty great names. Here are 15 street gangs you wouldn’t want to mess with, even if their names made you laugh.

[Follow this link to Mental Floss for the list of 15 street gang names.]

Our language can be seen as an ancient city: a maze of little streets and squares, of old and new houses, and of houses with additions from various periods; and this surrounded by a multitude of new boroughs with straight regular streets and uniform houses.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations

Good old Wittgenstein is one of my favorite philosophers. Wittgenstein laid the foundations for modern-day symbolic logic in his first, highly technical, logical, and rigid book, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

He saw language and reality as an isomorphism, “the limits of my language are the limits of my world,” he said, meaning that language reflected reality. So he was leaning towards Wilkins’s style with each word functioning as a name/symbol for something. 

Then he did all kinds of stuff for a bunch of years, like being a mean teacher and gardening and being exiled and stuff. AND THEN, he wrote Philosophical Investigations, in which he repudiated most of what he said in his first book.

He had come to see language as an organic thing that evolved. He compared it to an old city that grows and morphs over time. Old streets get paved over, new streets added, buildings torn down and additions built. 

Okrent reminded me of that metaphor when she said;

“The languages we speak were not created according to any plan or design. Who invented French? Who invented Portuguese? No one. They just happened. They arose…

This is the way all natural languages are born– organically, spontaneously.” (70)

Ahh, I love this stuff, I could just keep going and going!
An Introduction to Constructed Languages

An introduction to constructed languages, language creation communities, constructed language users, and type of constructed languages. Examples include Esperanto, Klingon, Tolkien’s Elvish, the Akana languages, and others.

These are the slides from a presentation about conlangs by Darin Arrick that was given at the LSA summer institute this past July. It’s a quick and interesting overview of what conlangs are, some famous conlangs, how creating languages can fit into linguistics (I’ve heard of some people who teach intro linguistics courses by having students each create their own conlang), and further resources.

For more detail, also check out the book In The Land of Invented Languages by Arika Okrent

Who invented French? Who invented Portuguese? No one. They just happened. They arose. Someone said something a certain way, someone else picked up on it, and someone else embellished. A tendency turned into a habit, and somewhere along the way a system came to be.

Arika Okrent, In The Land Of Invented Languages

An excellent explanation of why insisting someone follows the “rules” of grammar is absoutely ridiculous

...his own nation in his own little room...

The lyrics tell the story of a young person who feels completely alone, but then goes to an Esperanto congress and feels such friendship and connection to the world that his loneliness leaves him…until he is back in his own nation in his own little room. (131)

Normando, Okrent’s “Esperanto abassador,” here describes to her the meaning of the song “Sola” (Alone) that Kimo and Jean-Marc perform at an Esperanto conference in Havana. I misread the lyrics at first, assuming that the lonely young person in the song feels such connection to the world because of Esperanto that he is able to find “his own nation in his own little room.” When I reread the passage before typing it here, I noticed my error. I guess it is obvious though that “back in his nation” would mean much more to the young person who does not have the benefit of Web-enabled, constant, global communication. “Esperantoland” does not describe an actual land but an identity. Esperantoland worked from its origins for its small community because it could be accessed by anyone anywhere, and it was inclusive (particularly to the cranks). There is not a nation or culture or language that cannot now be accessed by anyone anywhere because of technological revolutions in global communication. Does this mean that localism is now wholly independent of geography? Are our identities constructed more from our physical local environs or from our own nations in our own little rooms? It seems that children spend as much time in their “own” nations as they do in their “real” communities–to which nation do they actually belong?

Okrent describes how during the Enlightenment thinkers saw Universal Language as something that would reveal a deep truth when it was discovered/created. Then as nationalism was privileged on the eve of WWI and became a threat to scattered peoples (like the Jews), language became a unifier–an instant form of community. Although young people will always continue to feel at times “completely alone,” it seems that today, with the technology that enables global communication speeding ahead of a potential universal language, people are more likely to create tools to aid understanding than to create a language itself. One example of such a tool is an app called World Lens that instantly translates foreign-language signs.

Perhaps as it becomes easier through technology to communicate, a language that incorporates popular aspects of different languages will organically emerge. That, or English will take over. Whatever the case, given the ease with which younger and younger people are able to figure out through technology how to understand the world and communicate with one another, it seems unlikely that someone will feel compelled to facilitate connection through the creation of a spoken language.

How will society change as identity-formation in youth depends less on physically localized culture?

Everybody loves Lydia Callis, one of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s American Sign Language interpreters, whose apparent expressiveness charmed the hearts of housebound New Yorkers who don’t usually watch the Mayor’s press briefings.

However, a lot of the online praise for Ms. Callis presumes that her “expressiveness” is something unique or unusual among ASL speakers. Luckily for us, smart people on the Internet unpack the complexities behind that impression. Let’s review:

  • Eric Baković: “The perception that we non-signers have that these hand movements and facial expressions are particularly ‘animated’ and 'expressive’ is precisely due to our lack of experience with them as linguistic features.”
  • Caitlin Wood: “Just as those of us who hear take cues from tone of voice and inflection, those who are Deaf (and there’s a big distinction between Deaf with a capital ‘D” and “deaf”) take cues from facial expression.”
  • Arika Okrent: “Signers are animated not because they are bubbly and energetic, but because sign language uses face and body movements as part of its grammar.”

We’d recommend reading each of these pieces in full, especially Okrent, who goes on to explain some of the sentence-level grammatical signaling in several press conference passages. Squee!

We know we have a few signers in our readership, so we’d love to get your opinions about the media’s and Internet’s reaction to Ms. Callis, as well as interpretation in general.

The job of the linguist, like that of the biologist or the botanist, is not to tell us how nature should behave, or what its creations should look like, but to describe those creations in all their messy glory and try to figure out what they can teach us about life, the world, and, especially in the case of linguistics, the workings of the human mind.

Twas the Night Before Christmas in ASL

Arika Okrent in The Week has some great commentary about this video (turn on captions by clicking the CC button at the bottom): 

Sheena McFeely is a deaf mom with a YouTube channel where she and her husband Manny Johnson teach signs with the help of their two adorable daughters, one deaf, one hearing, both native, fluent users of American Sign Language. She recently posted this wonderful video of Shaylee, who is deaf, signing a version of “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.”

You don’t have to know anything about sign language to be blown away by the sheer force of personality coming through in Shaylee’s performance. But with a little knowledge of how ASL works, you can also be amazed by the complexity of her linguistic and storytelling skills. Here are nine great moments from Shaylee’s video.

1. At 0:30, she signs a complex sentence with a topic-comment structure. She introduces a long noun phrase (“a mouse that was running about”), and says something about it (“is now still”). The topic noun phrase is indicated by her eyebrow raise. She lowers her eyebrows appropriately for the comment part. A big sentence for a little girl. (Read more)

Nuclear Waste and Language Evolution: 10,000 Years in the Future

“Over multiple generations, any sign, symbol, or picture that once conveyed meaning may become completely unrecognizable. This is a problem that was addressed by the semiotician Thomas Sebeok when, in the early 1980s, he was asked by the Office of Nuclear Waste Isolation to prepare a report on how best to encode a warning message on sites where nuclear waste had been buried. To ensure the safety of future generations, the message had to be interpretable for ten thousand years. He recommended extreme redundancy of encoding: the message should be printed in all known languages; there should be pictures, icons, and other relevant symbols; repositories around the world should store technical messages written in mathematical formulas (or perhaps, he suggests, in something like Lincos, Freudenthal’s self-teaching logical language). But even all of this redudancy, he noted, might prove worthless in ten thousand years.

The best way to make sure the message would get through to the future, he proposed, was to include a second "metamessage,” with a “plea and a warning” that every 250 years or so the information (including the “metamessage” itself) be re-encoded into whatever languages, symbols, and unknown-as-of-yet communicative devices were current at that time. Still the possibility would exist that the people of the future would ignore the plea, or forget to comply, so as added insurance he suggests the creation of a sort of folklore, perpetuated through rituals and legends, that would promote the development of a superstition or taboo about the dangerous sites. An “atomic priesthood,” a group of scientists entrusted with the true reasons for the danger, “would be charged with the added responsibility of seeing to it that our behest, as embodied in the cumulative sequence of metamessages, is to be heeded … with perhaps the veiled threat that to ignore the mandate would be tantamount to inviting some sort of supernatural retribution.” Even if the “priesthood” should forget the original reason for its existence, it is hoped that whatever kind of entity it should evolve into would maintain some sort of authority and sense of responsibility toward passing on the folklore.“

From "In the Land of Invented Languages,” by Arika Okrent

I’m reading this book and this passage just astounded me. The danger of nuclear waste to future generations is just something I’ve never thought about before, much less that someone was actually appointed to determine how to pass along the message to future societies. Isn’t it completely possible that in 10,000 years, English will be to future humans what Ancient Egyptian was to us; completely uninterpretable until the Rosetta Stone? Language evolution is an AMAZING thing to study.
A Language Based Only On Whistles
We are accustomed to hearing whistled pitch changes as intonation or melody, but in Silbo Gomero, they indicate vowels and consonants. Notice what happens to your tongue position when you alternate between the vowels ‘ee’ and ‘oo’ while trying to hold your lips still. It moves forward and up for ‘ee,’ and down and back for ‘oo.’ Now do that alternation while whistling. Your mouth is basically a slide whistle! Vowels are positions on the slide. In Silbo Gomero the highest pitched vowel is 'i' and the lowest is 'o' with the other vowels somewhere in between. At the French site Le Monde Siffle (The World Whistles), there is a cool test you can take to train yourself on the difference. Try it. Consonants are more complicated. They aren't particular tones, but movements to or from vowel tones. For example, for sounds normally produced with the tongue at the ridge behind the teeth (“coronal consonants”) like t, d, r, n, and l, the transition to a following vowel falls sharply from a very high starting point while for consonants with other places of articulation like p, b, f, and g it falls from a lower starting point.

I’ve seen whistled mentioned periodically, but never a description of how they actually work, so here’s from Arika Okrent on Mental FlossThe quiz is also worth trying – with these instructions, I did well on /i/ and /o/ but only at chance for /e/ and /a/, so if anyone figures out what the trick is for those two I’d be interested to hear it.