Monday, March 20, 2017

The Great Vowel Shift: One Reason Why English Spelling is Weird

Whether you're an English native speaker or just learning the language, you must've noticed that English spelling is absolutely mad at times. Why doesn't meat rhyme with great, for example?

One reason for this is something known as the Great Vowel Shift, which took place between the mid-14th century until the end of the 15th century.


If you spoke English in the 1300s, bite sounded like beat does today. The word meet sounded like martboot like boat, and boat sounded a bit like bought. In fact, during the Great Vowel Shift, every long vowel in Middle English changed its pronunciation.


Pronunciation tends to change over time in  most languages without causing too many problems. However, around the time of the Great Vowel Shift, the printing press had made its way to England and was in the process of standardising English spelling.

Some English spelling follows how words were pronounced in Old and Middle English and wasn't really changed to keep up with Modern English. Though some, such as room, no longer uses its Middle English spelling, roum.

At a time when people finally decided how words should be spelled, the language underwent a significant pronunciation change.

Think of it as getting your passport photo taken and then immediately shaving off all your hair (or growing it, if you're bald)!

Monday, March 13, 2017

Mezzofanti: A Master of Languages

Wednesday marks the date when Giuseppe Caspar Mezzofanti died. He was famous for being one of the world's most prolific polyglots, supposedly mastering dozens of languages during his lifetime.

Mezzofanti was born in Bologna on 19 September 1774. As a child he learnt Greek and Latin words he overheard from a priest's lessons. When the priest found out, he put Mezzofanti into a religious school and later exposure to Spanish-speaking priests helped him learn Spanish. During that time he managed to master his Greek and Latin as well as pick up Arabic, Hebrew, German, French, and a few other languages.

Upon completing his studies, he became the professor of Arabic at Bologna University and was ordained as a priest. When he lost his job for not swearing his allegiance to the Cisalpine Republic, he started tutoring rich families.

When the Austrians arrived in Bologna to drive out Napoleon, Mezzofanti learnt Hungarian, Polish, Czech, and Russian from the soldiers at the hospital where he worked.

Supposedly he taught himself a language overnight when he found out that two criminals needed confession. He continued to learn different languages and eventually spoke nearly 40 languages fluently. He was also familiar with many other languages.

While the rumour mill and hearsay may have exaggerated stories of Mezzofanti, any language learner should appreciate that he managed to learn a lot about foreign languages without ever leaving his country!

Monday, March 6, 2017

Languages Online: The Best of February 2017

Usually at the start of the month we do "languages in the news". However, since there is so much fantastic language content online, we're now calling it "Languages Online". Let's get started with the best stuff from February.

Cambridge University Press had a fascinating article on "uptalk", what it is, what it's for, and why we use it. If you'd like to read more about "uptalk", you can read the Cambridge article here.

The Guardian's website had an infuriating article on the office jargon we love to hate. If you have enough bandwidth, you can read the article here. There was also an interesting article on Eight words that reveal the sexism at the heart of the English language.

The Independent brought us interesting insights into "alternative facts" and the malleability of meaning in languages. If you'd like to read more on the subject, click here.

As usual, Fluent In 3 Months (FI3M) had plenty of great articles. Some of our favourites from Benny included articles on excuses languages learners makecommon Skype language exchange mistakes, and German words we need in English.

There were also articles on FI3M from other writers on subjects including: how to improve your writingtop tips and reasons to learn Italian, and how to create a language hacker's cheat sheet.

Finally, Eurolinguiste brought us plenty of great blog posts. We particularly enjoyed Shannon's article on getting the most out of your language lessons and the hard truth, there are no shortcuts to learning a language!

Did you read any interesting content on languages last month? If so, share them with us in the comments below!

Monday, February 27, 2017

Which Languages Win the Most Oscars?

Since last night was the Oscars, we're having a look at how different languages and countries have performed in the Academy Awards' "Best Foreign Language Film" category over the years. Scroll down to have a look through our infographic.



Which foreign language films has the Academy overlooked? Is there a particular language you feel should have been nominated more? Tell us your thoughts and give us some foreign language film recommendations in the comments below!

Monday, February 20, 2017

Onomatopoeia and Cool Ways to Describe Sounds


Onomatopoeia is one of my favourite things in language. Aside from being a great word in itself, onomatopoeia are words that sound like the noise they describe. For example, the word miaow (to English speakers) sounds like the noise a cat makes. In fact, a lot of animal sounds in English are onomatopoeia. Bees buzz, dogs woof, and frogs ribbit, for example.

Remember the Batman series in the 1960s with Adam West? They used them all the time to hide impacts during "fight" scenes!

English a rather rich language. However, if you're writing a comic book, you can't use too much space elaborately describing sound effects like an author would in a novel! This is when describing sounds gets really interesting.

While you may be familiar with some classic "sound effects" like bang, pow, and blam, you mightn't have imagined sounds like thwipp, when Spiderman launches a string of web, or snikt, when Wolverine's claws pop out.

Mlem, mlem, mlem!
Words like schlik can be used to describe metal on metal when sharpening knives, for example. Mlem describes a tongue (usually a cat's) lapping up water whereas blep describes sticking your tongue out!

A dog wagging its tail could be described as fwip fwip fwip and your heartbeat as lub-dub-lub-dub. While we usually knock on a door, what noise does a door make when it closes? How about wumpth? Pretty good, right?

In addition to these creative uses of letters and phonemes, comic artists will also ensure that the words look like the sounds they're supposed to represent. How do they do this? With font, size, and colouring.

Are there any cool sounds from comics that I missed? Feel free to add them in the comments and tell what they're describing!

Monday, February 13, 2017

Polysemy and Homonymy: Words and their Meanings

I find words and all their different meanings really interesting. Whenever looking a word up in the dictionary, there is rarely just one explanation or definition. Sometimes all the meanings are similar and sometimes the meanings seem to have absolutely nothing in common. In linguistics, these meanings can be classified as either polysemy and homonymy.

Similar Meanings

Polysemy is when a word has a variety of different meanings that are etymologically related. Consider the word soft, for example. In Old English it meant "gentle" and "mild-natured". This etymology led "soft" being used to describe pillows, voices, drinks, and even people.

The word man is another example of polysemy. We can use the word to either describe the entire human race, "Man, not beast", to specify a male, "Man, not woman", or specify an adult "Man, not boy".

Different Meanings

When a word is written the same but has various different and unrelated meanings, we call this homonymy. You may have heard of homonyms before as words with different meanings but that are written the same.

For example, what does bow mean? This word has different meanings and pronunciations. When pronounced as /bəʊ/ (to rhyme with "low"), it refers to the device used to play a violin, or the thing used to fire an arrow, or a type of knot in a ribbon or shoelace.

When the word is pronounced as /baʊ/ (rhyming with "how"), it can either mean to lower your head or bend your body as a sign of respect or to thank an audience after a show. It can also be a noun that refers to the front part of a ship.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Sound Symbolism and Why Spiky Sounds Spiky

If you're familiar with onomatopoeia, you'll know that words like bang, splash, and beep all imitate the sounds they refer to. Do you think spiky sounds spikier than fluffy? If so, this could be due to a phenomenon known as sound symbolism.

Sound symbolism suggests that the sounds are used in certain words because the phonemes themselves carry meaning and it there are often groups words with similar meanings, similar spelling, or letters or phonemes in common.

For example, a lot of words referring to housing in English begin with the letter "h". Home, house, hut, hovel, habitat, etc. Of course, this doesn't necessarily occur in other languages. Maybe we create a word and then create similar words to describe similar things.

When these groups of words with similar sounds and meanings occur, it is known as clustering. This will occur differently across different languages but related languages tend to share similar clusters.

Which is kiki and which is bouba?
It has also been shown that we apply certain meanings to fictional words based on how they sound. An experiment conducted in the Canary Islands (with Spanish speakers) showed participants two shapes, a jagged one and a rounded one. Participants were then asked which one was takete and baluba. The results indicated that most said that takete was jagged and baluba was rounded.

When this experiment was repeated with English speakers and Tamil speakers with the words kiki and bouba, the result were pretty astonishing. 95 to 98% of participants put kiki with the jagged shape and bouba with the round one!

This suggested that we don't just give words meaning then use similar sounds to describe similar things but that we create words in a non-arbitrary way based on our perceptions of sounds. This became known as the bouba/kiki effect.

What do you think? Do sounds carry meaning before we create words or do we give words meaning first and then decide to use similar sounds to describe similar things? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below!