Diversity, Language

Map of World’s Largest Languages

Ever wonder who would win a heavy weight championship between world languages?

Well here you have it. Alberto Lucas López designed a language map proportioned by number of native speakers. Turns out, of the world’s 7,102 known languages, more than half of us speak only 23 of them.

Map of World Languages

But there’s even more to the map than meets the eye. Each color also represents a region of the world.

World Language Regions

Interestingly, had López colored the map by languages’ region of origin, we’d be left with a much less colorful map: Every language listed comes from Europe, Asia, or the Middle East. On a map of language origin, the entire continents of North America, South America, Africa, and Australia wouldn’t even appear. Continue reading “Map of World’s Largest Languages”

Dialect, Language

When “No” Means “Yeah”: The Rise of “No Yeah”


It seems linguists are discovering what Midwesterners like myself have done for years. In a recent article for The New Yorker, Kathryn Schulz discusses the use of phrases like “No, totally” when you actually mean “Yes.” Here’s her example, from a conversation about modern art:

“MARON: They can look at any painting and go, “Eh.” They can look at a Rothko and go, “Hey, three colors.” And then you want to hit them.

DUNHAM: No, totally.”

See? Dunham does “totally” want to hit somebody. But she starts her sentence with “No.” If she would have said “No” on its own, the meaning would be completely different. So what’s going on here?

Schulz wonders if it’s just a younger-generation phenomenon:

“Dunham is twenty-eight years old, but the “No, totally!” phenomenon is not limited to her generation. It’s not even limited to “No, totally.” I first started noticing it when a fiftysomething acquaintance responded to a question I asked by saying, “Yup! No, very definitely.” That sent me looking for other examples, which turn out to be almost nonexistent in written English but increasingly abundant in speech. In 2001, the journalist Bernard Kalb told the White House correspondent Dana Milbank that it was the job of reporters to thoroughly investigate political candidates, to which Milbank responded, “Oh, no, yes, I agree with you there.” In 2012, Anderson Cooper, talking with the CNN senior political analyst Gloria Borger, referred to Newt Gingrich as “the guy who has come back from the dead multiple times.” Borger’s reply veered toward Molly Bloom terrain: “Yes, no, exactly, exactly, exactly.”
Continue reading “When “No” Means “Yeah”: The Rise of “No Yeah””


“Fortunately,” We Don’t Have Language Learners Here


Note: This post was co-written with two student teachers, who wished to keep their names and institutions anonymous.

Dear Veteran Teacher,

You may not remember, but earlier today, your new student teacher asked you how to make her lessons more accessible to diverse learners.

You dismissed that as largely unnecessary – at such a high-performing school as yours – and told her, “You’re fortunate, we have no English Language Learners here.”

You probably weren’t aware of what you said. Or what it meant.

I’m sure you’d never say, “You’re fortunate – we have no students of color here,” though you have very few.

You’d never say, “You’re fortunate – we have no students with special needs here,” though I don’t see them either.

So I’m wondering, how did such an unfortunate comment could roll so effortlessly and unabashedly off your tongue? Continue reading ““Fortunately,” We Don’t Have Language Learners Here”


Does Color Exist Without Language?

RainbowNo, this is not a post about #TheDress, but if you would have asked someone who lived a thousand years ago, they would have been firmly in the white and gold camp because blue didn’t exist yet. Why, you say? Because we had no word for it.

A recent article by Business Insider explored the work of William Gladstone and Lazarus Geiger. Gladstone’s wondered why Homer described sea as “wine dark” in the Odyssey rather than just plain “blue,” and went on to discover that there was no reference to the color blue in any ancient Greek text. Geiger followed up on his work and discovered that this phenomenon was not unique to the Greeks:

“[Geiger] studied Icelandic sagas, the Koran, ancient Chinese stories, and an ancient Hebrew version of the Bible. Of Hindu Vedic hymns, he wrote: “These hymns, of more than ten thousand lines, are brimming with descriptions of the heavens. Scarcely any subject is evoked more frequently. The sun and reddening dawn’s play of color, day and night, cloud and lightning, the air and ether, all these are unfolded before us, again and again… but there is one thing no one would ever learn from these ancient songs… and that is that the sky is blue. Continue reading “Does Color Exist Without Language?”

English, Literature

Does “English Class” Mean Reading Only English?

TranslateLast week’s posts were about the continued lack of race and gender diversity in the literary canon (Part I here and Part II here). Some noticed I left out a factor that is usually central to this blog: language. Don’t worry, I figured language could constitute an entire post of its own – so here you have it!

I was once at an AP English training in which the participants questioned the preponderance of British and American authors on the exam. The AP official replied that “an English exam necessitates texts originally written in English.”

For the moment, we will ignore that fact that this reply doesn’t address the issue, as there are tons of brilliant authors who write in English but are from countries outside the US/UK (Chinua Achebe, Arundhati Roy, etc.) because this perspective brings up an even larger question: Is the idea that we should predominantly read, teach, and value texts that were originally written in English a useful perspective for the 21st century?

(Now, of course, it would be fabulous if everyone could read in multiple languages, but as many can’t (e.g. myself), I’m mainly talking about works translating literature from other languages into English.)

In a globalized world, the argument that English class “necessitates texts Continue reading “Does “English Class” Mean Reading Only English?”


English Language Family Tree

Indo-European Language TreeOh man – this is a beautiful rendering of the Indo-European language family, stretching from English, to Russian, to Hindi–and also, like anything worth viewing on the internet, augmented by playful cats (full image below). Artist Minna Sundberg regretted that there wasn’t space to include hundreds of smaller linguistic offshoots, so the map is definitely not exhaustive, but still an impressive undertaking. Many who commented on the site didn’t seem to understand the concept of a language family, wondering why other significant languages were excluded (Arabic, Turkish, Tamil, etc.). Continue reading “English Language Family Tree”


When Kids’ Language Mistakes Make Sense

Toddler “Mommy – he hitted me!”

We once thought kids learned language by mimicking their parents (think B.F. Skinner and all that “tabula rasa/blank slate waiting to be filled” business). But then researchers (e.g. Pre-political-activist Noam Chomsky) started to look at kids’ “errors,” like the one above, and realized this didn’t tell the whole story….

In the sentence above, the child has never actually heard the word “hitted” from her parents or anyone else. Instead, she’s taking a rule she knows – that we put an “ed” at the end of past-tense words – and applying it to a new situation. In this case, since English is crazy and “hit” is an irregular verb, we’d call her sentence a “mistake” or, in linguistics, an “overgeneralization.” The point is, the kid is doing more than mimicking language here, she’s creating it herself. 

What’s even more amazing is that, in all likelihood, no one has ever sitted (I had to) down with her and explicitly explained the “ed” rule – she figured it out on her own. This is the part where you Continue reading “When Kids’ Language Mistakes Make Sense”


20 Words That Once Had Very Different Meanings

Four salt shakers in a table, with spilled salt

Do a web search of “Words people use incorrectly” and get ready to be barraged by a massive industry of self-proclaimed internet lexicographers.

Everything from “peruse” actually meaning “to examine carefully” (instead of to glance over) or “ultimate” really designating “the last thing on the list” (not the best). And don’t forget to takes sides on the “literally” debate – though be sure to grab a recent dictionary, because the definition of literally has literally changed – a shift that led Martha Gill of The Guardian to ask “Have we literally broken the English language?”

The answer is, “No.”

Words, after all, don’t exist out there somewhere in solid, objective forms for us to pluck off a tree and use. They’re essentially groups of sounds that we’ve collectively decided indicate a certain something. There’s no universal truth as to why our word for “dog” couldn’t just as well have been “sheep” other than the fact that… well… we call it a dog. And when enough time passes, we’ll probably be calling it something else (most likely “robo-pet”).

Which is why I enjoyed this list of of “20 words that once meant something very different” (full list below) gathered by language historian Anne Curzan. As the list illustrates, word meanings shift. As Curzan puts it, “History tells us that we’ll be fine. Words have been changing meaning — sometimes radically — as long as there have been words and speakers to speak them.” Continue reading “20 Words That Once Had Very Different Meanings”


What’s in a Name? Words Matter in War.

daesh“This is a terrorist group and not a state. . . the term Islamic State blurs the lines between Islam, Muslims, and Islamists.” President Obama made similar remarks saying, “ISIL is not Islamic . . . and [is] certainly not a state.””

These lines are from a recent article in the Boston Globe. The first quote is from French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, explaining why the French government will no longer use ISIS, ISIL, or IS to refer to the increasingly infamous terror organization, and will instead refer to them as “Daesh,” an acronym of the group’s full name in Arabic (which is al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham if you were curious).*

But it’s just a name. Does language matter that much?

George Orwell seemed to believe that it did, once writing that “… if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” 

Some say that “The Islamic State” is simply a harmless English translation of the group’s self-designated name. And it’s true that we have a long, rich history of “translating” a group’s name into English, even when it has little to do with what they actually call themselves (when’s the last time you’ve seen a map of Europe with Belgique bordering Deutschland?).

However, we haven’t actually followed this English-translation pattern when it comes to Middle Eastern terrorist organizations. If we did, the World Trade Center would have been attacked by “The Base” (Al-Qaeda), leading to a war to depose the notorious “Students” (Taliban). Continue reading “What’s in a Name? Words Matter in War.”

Dialect, Language


Jamila Lyiscott has been making the social media rounds with her spoken word piece, “3 Ways to Speak English.” It pretty much sums up my earlier posts on dialect in America (which you can read here and here).

The basic premise: Being “articulate” is not about your ability to use a particular dialect that’s arbitrarily considered to be “superior” or “standard.” Rather, being articulate means:

Continue reading ““Articulate””