Learning language can be as fun as playing Magic: the Gathering!

3 years of All Things Linguistic

It’s my third blogiversary! Let’s celebrate by looking back at some of my favourite posts:  


Linguist Humour


Language activism

Linguistics and pop culture

Internet Language

Gender pronouns

Things about languages

Linguistics videos



Haven’t been with me this whole time? It’s okay – you can see the highlights of year one and year two right here

Where did the vowel space get its shape?

Quick answer: The jaw.

Slightly longer answer: The jaw is attached like a hinge, so it doesn’t drop straight down when you open your mouth. Moreover, your jaw is the part that’s moving, not the rest of your head. So, when your mouth opens, it’s like a door swinging open: it moves along a circular path relative to the immobile parts of your head.

Originally posted by gifsboom

But the vowel space isn’t rounded, it’s a trapezoid. This is due to the simplification of a complex shape to something easier to draw and conceptualize. Here’s a gif of how the tongue moves to create different mouth shapes that correspond to different vowels.

  • Close/High + Back = [u]
  • Mid + Back = [o] or [ɔ]
  • Open/Low + Back = [ɑ]
  • Open/Low + Front = [æ]
  • Mid + Front = [e] or [ɛ]
  • Close/High + Front = [i]

(Note: This isn’t showing all of the vowels of English, which is why I group some of the -High, -Low vowels together)

Back to school linguistics resources roundup

Taking (or teaching) an introductory linguistics class this semester? Here’s a handy resource post that you can save and come back to. Or, wish you could take intro linguistics? This might be the next best thing. 

General resources

Phonetics & Phonology 

Morphology & Syntax

Semantics & Pragmatics

Teaching resources 


Once you’ve taken a few linguistics courses, you may also want to consult how to explain linguistics to your friends and family, my linguistics jobs series, and my extensive archive of linguist humour. And hey – if you haven’t taken any linguistics but you’ve got an elective slot open, why not give it a try? 

Happy almost New Year!

I’m guessing language goals are going to be at the top of New Years Resolution lists of a lot of the tumblr polyglots, apsiring polyglots, and polyglot dreamers. I’ve come up with an idea to help give you that extra push to keep (or start) practicing your languages at least a little bit every day (‘cuz that’s the key to success, everyone!)

How will this work?

At UTC/GMT -5 hours every day during the month of January 2015, I will post a language-related prompt to get you listening, reading, writing, or speaking in your target language(s). (Some prompts may also include calls for resources or language-learning tips and tricks that I will periodically share.)

1. You complete the prompt and post it with the tags: #APNY2015 (A Polyglot New Year 2015) and #language(s) you posted in

For example, if you completed the prompt in Thai and Japanese, your post tags should be #APNY2015 #Japanese #Thai

2. This is where the community comes in! You can check the tags to help give corrections and feedback to people who have posted in your language! I will be giving corrections to people as well, but I can’t cover all the languages that you amazing people on here are learning and speaking, so we need everyone’s help!

You can browse the #APNY2015 tag or you can search specifically for posts that are in your language.

For example, if you speak German and are looking to help out some German learners, you can search in the tumblr search bar #APNY2015 #German to find posts from German learners for APNY2015.

External image

That way, you can see posts only from people who are completing that day’s APNY prompt in German.

So, the point of this is to give everyone an easy way to practice a little bit of language everyday and to foster our ever-growing and ever-more-supportive tumblinguist and polyglot community. Please reblog to give as many people as possible a chance to participate!

Happy Gregorian-calendar New Year!

P.S. - you can also participate on Facebook with hashtag #APNY2015

P.P.S - If you post a response to every prompt during the month of January, I’ll send you a little something special for being so dedicated to your learning! (Details to come)

How to explain linguistics to your friends and family this holiday season

This time of year often involves leaving the cozy sanctuary of your linguistics department where everyone knows what a wug is and spending quality time with your non-linguist friends and family. Who, bless ‘em, are often a little bit confused about linguistics. So I’ve compiled a list of common questions and some resources to help you answer them. And if you end up needing a break, check out the linguistmas tag and my extensive archive of linguist humour

What is linguistics exactly? 

Explaining what linguistics is using geology and biology analogies
Brain surgeon analogy
Car analogy
Botany analogy
Subfields of linguistics explained using toy metaphors

So, you’re a linguist? How many languages do you know? 

Why linguists hate being asked how many languages they know

Wow, linguistics, I guess I’d better watch my grammar around you, right?

8 myths about language and linguistics
On the interplay between copyediting and descriptivism
We each have an idiolect, and they’re all okay
How to have a conversation about language differences without being a prescriptivist

That’s not even in the dictionary! So many people are degrading language these days! 

Anne Curzan on what makes a word “real”
xkcd on kids and text abbreviations
Erin McKean, actual lexicographer, on what it means when a word isn’t in the dictionary
The kilogram model of language and what’s wrong with the America’s ugliest accent challenge
Language is open source

Don’t you just hate it when people say…?

In defence of “unnecessary” words
Every argument you’ll ever need for singular “they” (plus the Canadian government’s support of itwhy do we even have gendered pronouns, and a comparison with singular “you”)
In defence of hyperbolic “literally”
Vocal fry and can we stop hating on how young women talk?
When it comes to Rachel Jeantel, who’s really on trial here? 
Can we just, like, get over the way women talk?
Move over Shakespeare, teen girls are the real language disruptors
The problem with talking about “sounding gay”

____ isn’t a real language! 

Indigenous languages, literacy, and the myth of the “unwritten language”
What if we talked about monolingual White children the way we talk about low-income children of color?
Myth-busting about sign languages

A linguistics degree? What are you going to do with that?

A variety of options in the linguistics jobs series.

Tell me something interesting about linguistics! 

My go-to is the script in Explaining English plurals to non-linguists, but for a longer list of linguistic writing pitched at non-linguists try here for articles I’ve written, here for other blogs, or here for some of my top blog posts. To write your own, see advice for writing pop linguistics articles and how pop linguistics differs from teaching and pop science. Or go for linguistics videos or linguistically-relevant games

Rosey Billington recently shared a photo of this amazing biscuit map of Australian languages made by Katie Jepson at The University of Melbourne. This tasty and educational masterpiece is part of the annual LAL Postgrad Club Australia’s Biggest Morning Tea, a fundraiser for the Australian Cancer Council. Check out this AIATSIS map of Australia’s traditional languages to see what a great job she’s done.

Katie is a PhD candidate at The University of Melbourne. Her research currently focuses investigating prosody and intonation in Djambarrpuyŋu, a Yolŋu languages of North East Arnhem in the Northern Territory. On the regular maps we see this part of Australia doesn’t look like much, but Katie’s map wonderfully demonstrates the linguistic and cultural diversity of the big biscuity centre of Australia.

Katie mentioned that the Yolŋu area, which is represented by the yellowy orange blob in the top right point of the Northern Territory, really could be another 20 colours, depending on how strictly you define the varieties as languages or dialects. And all the languages on the AIATSIS map have the same kind of diversity.

From all reports the languages not only looked great, but tasted good too (the only language endangerment we are ok with is the danger they’ll be all eaten from this map).

You can see our pictures of the event from 2012 and 2013. You can donate to the LAL’s fund-raiser here.

Magic linguistics

If you have a native language with a very complex phonology, and you take polyjuice potion and switch bodies with someone with a native language with a very simple phonology, what would then happen with the speech?

If most information lies in an abstract system in the brain there would be no problems, right? The more marked sounds will flow smoothly.

But if the biomechanics in the anatomy of the mouth (yeah, tongue muscles) play a bigger role, it will be harder to pronounce the more marked sounds and you will get some kind of accent.


Why Some Languages Sound Faster Than Others

When you hear a language that you don’t speak, it usually sounds like it’s speeding by at an incomprehensible rate. Researchers from the Université de Lyon decided to find out once and for all why certain languages sound so much faster than others. For the study, 59 native speakers of English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Mandarin, Spanish, and Vietnamese, were instructed to read the following passage out loud in each of their native languages:

  • “Last night I opened the front door to let the cat out. It was such a beautiful night that I wandered down to the garden to get a breath of fresh air. Then I heard a click as the door closed behind me.”

Keep reading

That Way We’re All Writing Now

First we LOLed. Now we’re changing the way a sentence works

I talked to Clive Thompson for The Message about (nominalized) subordinate clauses and the rise of internet syntax. It was hard to pick just one part to excerpt though – you should probably just go read the whole thing here, which has lots more examples and also features commentary from Ben Zimmer. 

Grammatically speaking, what’s going on here is the rise of the “subordinate clause.” A subordinate clause isn’t a sentence on its own. As the name implies, it requires another sentence fragment to complete it, as with this example that McCulloch and I looked at on Yik Yak:

Usually you can quickly deduce what the missing part would be. Maybe it’s something like You, sadly, always know what to do when she’s holding a dog on her Tinder and you’re like, “cute dog.” Or maybe the full sentence that emerges in your head is more convoluted, like Nothing is more bittersweet than reflecting on the challenges of dating someone who is superficially attractive but owns a pomeranian and thus, you worry, has all sorts of dog/partner priority issues, which you can instantly intuit when you’re using a dating app and see someone when she’s holding a dog on her Tinder and you’re like, “cute dog.
The point is, it’s up to you imagine the rest of the utterance. It’s like the author is handing you a little puzzle. Subordinate-clause tweets and Yik-Yak postings seduce us into filling out that missing info, McCulloch says. “Our brain has to work a little bit harder to figure out what it’s referring to, and so making that connection is very satisfying. It’s like getting a joke. You have to draw that connection for yourself a little bit — but because you can do it, it works really well.”
A historic parallel? The crazy, long chapter headings in 19th-century novels, which often were also dependent clauses, inviting the reader to imagine the rest of the baroque narrative. “In Which Our Protagonist Meets A Dashing Stranger,” McCulloch jokes. “The ‘in which’ is doing a very similar thing.”
(Read the rest.)

Something that’s also occurred to me since the interview is the relationship between (nominalized) subordinate clauses and the gif-captioning tumblrs that were popular around 2012, like whatshouldwecallme and its themed variations. A classic early post, for example, has the subordinate clause caption “When my best friend and I decide we’re not going out” and the reaction gif of a really pleased-looking kid saying “I’ve got on my eating pants”. But at some point between then and now, the subordinate-clause-style caption and the reaction gif or image split ways. 

For reference, here’s a list of some older nominalizations: “that feel when…”, “my face when…”; and more current ones: “that feeling when…”, “that thing where…”, “that time when…”; and of course the non-nominalized form, which is just “when…”. Anyone else want to comment on historical and/or current internet syntax-y uses of subordinate clauses, nominalized or not, with or without reaction gifs? 

sms 1: just wondering what the plan is for lunch tomorrow?

sms 2: will b home c u tomorow


One of these text messages is from my sister, who is in her mid-twenties, and the other is from my 88 year old grandfather. It probably won’t be surprising to many that sms1 is from my sister and sms2 from my grandfather, even though he used to spend hours trying to improve my spelling.

My grandfather did some basic signals work during WW2 and has an entertaining variety of abbreviations that require some cryptic-crossword type skills to decipher. My sister, like many of her generation prefers standardised spelling and punctuation unless deliberately being playful (which often involves inputting more effort than using abbreviated or normal forms).

I was thinking about the inter-generational differences while reading this majestic Tumblr thread - it’s basically everything I love about the the Tumblinguistics community.

Why linguists need physics

In designing my lectures for the beginning of the semester, I realized it might not be clear to incoming students why they need to learn about wavelength and frequency and addition of waves to form complex waves. It’s not strictly necessary to study phonology, but without a basic background in the physics of sound, you end up being limited in your understanding of how the sounds are created (and which ones are even possible). Sure, there’s quite a lot of anatomy knowledge that contributes as well, but even with a fantastic understanding of the vocal tract’s shape and configuration, you’re still missing a major component.

So let’s back up a moment. The vocal tract.

Sound is generated by the vocal folds (marked with a black oval) when air pressure builds up underneath them and pushes against them so hard that they burst open. But since you’re pushing them together really hard, as soon as the pressure drops again, they snap back shut. This snapping action creates a noise, and when it happens very rapidly, it creates a buzzing sound.

Actually, this buzzing sound is very similar to the sound you make when you blow a raspberry. It’s the same mechanism, but with your lips pressed together instead of your vocal folds.

So where’s the physics? Well, we need to understand the shape of sound waves to understand why they sound the way they do. A simple wave (a sinusoidal wave) will sound like a simple, boring tone.

Originally posted by psychetronictonic

If you look at the wave created by blowing a raspberry, it looks really different.

The reason is that this buzz wave is composed of many, many sine waves, all overlapping and influencing each other. And it is physics that allows us to decompose the complex wave into something more interpretable.

Originally posted by televandalist

I’m not going to go into what a Fast Fourier Transform (FFT) is here, but it is basically the technique that figures out what all the simple waves are that are added together to get a complex wave.

The next place physics plays a big role is in the transformation of this buzzy sound from the vocal folds into a speech sound. This transformation happens when the buzzy wave passes through the long, complex tube of your throat, mouth, and nose.

Some components of the complex wave (certain frequencies) are amplified when they pass through an area of your vocal tract that is just the right length. You can think about this like two people swinging a jump rope. When they’re rotating their arms at the same pace, the jump rope goes around in big circles, like it’s supposed to. But if they’re out of sync, the rope collapses and turns into a slithery worm and makes it a very boring game. When a component of the wave is “in sync” with an area of the vocal tract, it gets louder, like the jump rope making full, big circles. But when a component is “out of sync”, it gets quieter, and doesn’t do much. This is how the vocal tract shapes our voice into speech.

Originally posted by diamants-bruts

But the question here is which components are amplified and which are damped (made quieter)? That is answerable by measuring the wavelengths of the components of the source noise and comparing them to the physical sizes of the spaces in the vocal tract. When a component wave fits snugly in a space (i.e., a whole number of wavelengths fit in the distance from one wall of the vocal tract to another), that is when you get amplification. Several of the regions of amplification (resonances) are useful in determining what vowel is being produced, for instance. And that is one way in which physics is useful when you’re studying speech sounds and linguistics.

The Common Thread Between Cyrillic, Latin, and Greek

The Venn diagram above reveals the 11 letters that are common to the Cyrillic, Latin, and Greek alphabets; Greek is on the left, Cyrillic is on the bottom, and Latin is on the right. Greek is considered to be the first “true” alphabet because it assigned letters to both vowels and consonants. Since Greek influenced much of Latin and Cyrillic, it is not surprising that there are still similar characters between the three alphabets — even thousands of years later.

(via ilove charts)