arika okrent

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.

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

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.]

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
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! 

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.


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)

...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?

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

Arika Okrent has a nice list of holiday (ish) proclitics, including ‘tis, 'twas, and the not-terribly-festive y'all:

English likes to stick contractions on the end of words. “They have” becomes “they’ve,” “I will” becomes “I’ll,” and “do not” becomes “don’t.” The shortened parts of these words are called enclitics — they are a bit more independent than suffixes, but like suffixes, they attach to the ends of words. English also used to have a number of proclitics — shortened words that attach to the beginning of other words. Most proclitic words are now archaic or obsolete, but every December the neglected proclitics get their revenge, as a holiday avalanche of “'tis” rolls through town.

'Tis, a shortening of “it is,” has a Dickensian, Christmasy ring to it. For a time, it was far more common in writing than its counterpart “it’s.” The final shift from “'tis” to “it’s” took place in the middle of the 19th century, when Dickens was writing his novels. That was also when the lyrics to “Deck the Halls” were first published. “'Tis the season” is now so deeply embedded in our linguistic consciousness that the perfectly normal phrase “it’s the season” just sounds weird, like Mick Jagger singing “I can’t get any satisfaction.”

Another fun set are old-timey swear words, such as zounds (from God’s wounds), 'struth, and 'sblood. 

Clitics are a type of morpheme that is midway between a full word and an affix: they depend on another word but not as tightly as an affix. Just like we can have prefixes and suffixes, we can also have proclitics (before the word they lean on) and enclitics (after the word they lean on). Apparently there are also mesoclitics and endoclitics which are like the infixes of the clitic world, but they’re pretty rare. 

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.

First of all, it should be noted that there is no single language known as “Eskimo” (or Eskimoan or even Eskimo-ese). As linguist Arika Okrent points out, “Eskimo” is a loose term for the Inuit and Yupik peoples who live in the polar regions of Alaska, Canada, Greenland and Siberia. “They speak a variety of languages, the larger ones being Central Alaskan Yupik, West Greenlandic (Kalaallisut), and Inuktitut. There are multiple dialects of each.” Some have more words for snow than others, she adds.

So-shee? Sah-chee? So-chee?

You’ll be pleased to learn that English-speaking newscasters aren’t doing too bad of a job with the pronunciation of “Sochi” – fortunately, it’s a fairly easy word for anglophones.

Arika Okrent reassures us that the “ch” in “Sochi” is indeed pronounced as /tʃ/, the default pronunciation for “ch” in English, and that the two main anglicized pronunciations for the “o” are equally accurate approximations, if you can’t quite manage to say it like a Russian. Based on Arika’s article, I’m thinking this is somewhere between /ɔ/ and /ɑ/ or /ɒ/. 

The Wikipedia article, on the other hand, is giving me /ˈsot͡ɕɪ/, with a palatal* affricate (as in German ich) instead of /tʃ/ and the plain /o/ for the vowel (note that English-speakers normally produce a diphthong transcribed /oʊ/ or /ow/ when they think they are producing “oh”). You could still anglicize /t͡ɕ/ to /tʃ/, but that still seems more different than I’d expect: does anyone know if there are dialect differences perhaps? 

*EDIT: Thanks to the many people who corrected me on this. The German one is palatal and transcribed /ç/, while the Russian one is alveo-palatal and transcribed /ɕ/, and does sound very similar to /ʃ/ when combined with /t/ to make an affricate. Sorry! 

The Patented SpecGram 5 Minute Interview: Arika Okrent
  • The Patented SpecGram 5 Minute Interview: Arika Okrent
  • Trey Jones
  • Speculative Grammarian Podcast

A new SpecGram Podcast is out! The Patented SpecGram 5 Minute Interview: Arika Okrent. My guest today is Arika Okrent, linguist, author of In the Land of Invented Languages, fan of conlangs and, I think, conlangers, speaker of Klingon and Hungarian, signer of ASL, and contributor to Mental Floss and Slate’s Lexicon Valley, where she writes about conlangs, ASL, old fonts, and even makes a decent case for the use of “I could care less”. 

We’ve decided not to hold back on our interviews, but instead to release them as soon as possible. So, there’s also an update to Philip Resnik’s interview (now with outtakes!)

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