Stories tagged language


Those sassy whales
Those sassy whalesCourtesy Currier & Ives
Word on the street is that sperm whales may have individual names. I hope so, frankly, because I'm sick of calling them ... that.

Sperm whales, it seems, have calls that are unique to the region they live in. So whales in the Caribbean might have a different call than whales living in the South Pacific. But there are parts of sperm whale calls that are, on the surface, the same in whales around the world.

I say, "on the surface" not as some ocean-related pun, but because there's a part of the whale's call—five clicks at the beginning of a call—that seem to be totally unique to individual whales. All whales make the five clicks, but if you analyze the sound in detail, there are actually subtle variations in the sounds that are unique to the whale making them. Because it comes at the beginning of each phrase, or "coda string," and because the variations are perceptible from every direction (some whale calls sound different depending on how the listener is oriented to the caller), some scientists think that the clicks could represent the "names" of individual whales, who are identifying themselves as they call out.

Pretty neat, huh?

PS—"Pretty neat," but not completely neat, because I probably can't distinguish between the whales' clicks. Here, then, is a short list of names for any whales interested in adopting more standard monikers:
-Squid Blood
-Moby II
-Gentle Jeff

There are, like, dozens of other possible names. These are just the first to come to mind.


Pssst!: I think you would look just wonderful in a tiny hat! Also, watch out for ferrrets.
Pssst!: I think you would look just wonderful in a tiny hat! Also, watch out for ferrrets.Courtesy USFWS
According to a scientist at Northern Arizona University, prairie dogs may have the most complex non-human language. That means that this prairie dog (specifically, the Gunnison’s Prairie Dog) may linguistically exceed even dolphins, whales, non-human primates, and box turtles.

But I’ve watched prairie dogs before, and it doesn’t seem like they’ve got a lot going on. What do they even have to talk about?

My assumption would be that they mostly focus on how other prairie dogs would look dressed up in tiny clothes, and what sort of clothes they might wear, and if male prairie dogs would have to wear suits and female prairie dogs would have to wear dresses, or if any prairie dog would be allowed to wear a suit or a dress.

Apparently not.

The scientist, who has been studying prairie dogs for thirty years, says that the rodents have developed their sophisticated “bark” to warn the other members of their colonies about the specific details of approaching predators. The tiny sonic variations of each bark can contain information about what sort of animal is approaching, what color it is, and from which direction it’s coming.

Prairie dogs react to different predator species in different ways. For something like a coyote, they will retreat to the mouth of their burrows and stand up to watch the approaching animal. For a badger, on the other hand, they will “lie low to avoid detection.”

To test his hypothesis about the complexity of prairie dog barks, the scientist recorded barks associated with different predators in a variety of situations, and then observed the behavior of all the members of the colony after the bark was heard. He then replayed those recordings to other prairie dogs when there were no actual predators nearby, and found that they reacted in precisely the same way as the threatened animals.

It’s like if an axe murderer burst into a crowded gymnasium. Someone might shout, “Run! There’s an axe murderer at the door!” and everyone would run away from the door and try to get behind something axe-proof. If, then, you were to shout, “Run! There’s an axe murderer at the door!” into a crowded (but murderer-less) gymnasium, people might still run away from the door to get behind something axe-proof because of the specific information in the warning. It would be a different reaction than if you were to just scream, or if you shouted that acid was raining from the ceiling, or that the world’s biggest clown had was digging up through the floor.

It’s sort of the same with prairie dogs, really.

Fortran punch card: I remember punching out code on hundreds of these cards.
Fortran punch card: I remember punching out code on hundreds of these cards.Courtesy Arnold Reinhold
Oct 15, 1956, John W. Backus published a manual explaining a new way to program computers.

“John Backus and his Fortran project members almost single-handedly invented the ideas of both programming languages and (optimizing) compilers as we know them today." Wired

Instead of compiling complex machine code which tooks weeks, Fortran code could be written in hours and was much easier.
I was even able to learn Fortran back in the late 60's. It even satisfied my foreign language requirement!


Watch out for that F-bomb coming right at 'cha.
Watch out for that F-bomb coming right at 'cha.Courtesy wickenden
A new study shows that bad language could serve as a pain reliever. NeuroReport published the study, which measured how long college students could keep their hands submerged in cold water. Students had a choice to either swear repeatedly, or use a neutral word. And what do ya know, the cursing kids reported less pain and also managed to keep their hands immersed for an average of 40 seconds longer. Well what the @%$#?

Richard Stephens of Keele University in England says, "Swearing is such a common response to pain that there has to be an underlying reason why we do it.” His research has shown that we could benefit. He states, “"I would advise people, if they hurt themselves, to swear."

So how does swearing achieve physical relief? In the study, students’ heart rate rose when they swore, which suggests the fight-or-flight response in which the heart rate climbs so that we become less sensitive to pain. The structure that triggers this response, the the amygdala, was indeed activated during the study which means that unlike normal languages, expletives activate emotional centers in the right side of the brain.

Stephens cautions that the more you swear, the less emotionally potent the word becomes. So don’t be cursin’ left and right because you read it here. But hopefully, with scientific information to back it up, mothers will no longer feel the need to wash their kids’ mouths with soap.

I was reading my daily dose of science news over at Science Blogs and stumbled across some funny posts by Blake Stacey. While his posts were interesting, I was most intrigued by his bio, in which he refers to himself as a boffin. Wondering, "what's that?" I turned to my old pal Google and found that a boffin is English (read British) slang for scientist. It looks like the term has both been used affectionately and as an insult from time to time as us science nerds have fallen in an out of favor.


What can messages on your cell phone say about you? They can potentially reveal your age, gender or even your identity. Linguistic forensics is being increasingly used as an investigation tool and as evidence in court, including in cases where suspects claimed text messages as alibis. In a recent case, text messages from a missing woman’s phone were used in the conviction of her ex-boyfriend for her murder. Experts determined that the style of suspicious text messages from her phone pointed toward him as the author rather than her. They looked at, among several differences, her consistent use of the spelling “myself” versus the use of “meself” in the questioned texts.

Dr. Tim Grant is researching the linguistic analysis of text messaging and has developed a method to quantify stylistic differences between two texts. He also has put together a database of 7000 texts so far. He hopes his research will determine the base rate for specific texting features and show similarities among groups of individuals that frequently text each other. You can contribute your text messages to his research at a link in the article below.

Txt Crimes, Sex Crimes And Murder: The Science Of Forensic Linguistics


Sorry, sir: You may not understand it, but it understands you.
Sorry, sir: You may not understand it, but it understands you.Courtesy aNantaB
I think there’s a pretty good chance that the robots that control the Internet will censor this, so read fast, Buzzketeers.

Web 3.0, or as I like to call it, “Skynet,” is looming closer than ever today. It’s like a big old thunderhead, gray-black, full of lightning, and bearing down on us from above. Except when Skynet 3.0 gets here we aren’t getting wet, we’re getting turned into the freakin’ Borg. (Although we might also get wet, if there are real clouds around too.) And as cool as it would be to have a drill hand and a laser pointer taped to my head, I don’t think I could stand being any more pale. And so we must fight. For my sake.

This week the blossoming threat is taking the form of cleverer computers. Computers with huge, muscular, brick-breaking vocabularies. Computers that don’t just know all the words—they know what all the words mean. Computers like robotic English majors, except they can also do math and get jobs.

See, a “semantic map” has been developed for computers—a program that would allow a computer to “understand” words based on their tenses and contexts. A direct application of this technology would be in search engines; instead of being limited to searching for exact word matches, the program could look for something based on the meaning of your words. For instance, if I were to type “The terminator learns some bodacious new phrases” into Google’s search engine right now, I’d get a bunch of worthless nonsense returned to me. But with an engine that used a semantic map, I like to think that such a search would return to me with some clips from Terminator 2, in which John Connor is teaching the T101 some useful new phrases like “Hasta la vista,” and “hands off the merch, bro,” and “Cheese it! It’s the fuzz!” I could then post these clips on a science blog.

And that, incidentally, is the only positive scenario I could imagine coming from this technology. If I’m searching for, say, “sexy Easter bunny,” I just wants me some pictures of the Easter bunny in a speedo—I don’t want my computer to actually understand what’s wrong with me. And there’ll be no escaping their powerful understanding. Even this early semantic map is said to have a vocabulary 10 times the size of the average college graduate. That’s, like, super… not good.

There is still hope, however, so relax your little fret glands for a moment. I have a plan, and you already know my plan if you read the heading of this post: invent new words. But keep them to yourself—I wouldn’t underestimate Web 3.0 so much to think that it couldn’t figure out what was going on after a while. Also, be sure to change the definitions of already existing words, and change them often. It will be like linguistic guerilla warfare; a definition could pop up in one spot (word) fire off a couple shots, and then it would be gone, already looking for a new hiding place. Web 3.0 might send an air strike against this whole paragraph, but it won’t matter—by the time the missiles get here, the passage will mean something else entirely. My meaning will be setting up a new camp, hopefully in a stand of old swear words.

Are you with me, folks? I knew I could count on you! Progress won’t get us that easily!


A famous dog translator: David spent years speaking with his neighbor's dog, Harvey, without the aid of Hungarian computers. Fortunately, we can't all be like him.
A famous dog translator: David spent years speaking with his neighbor's dog, Harvey, without the aid of Hungarian computers. Fortunately, we can't all be like him.Courtesy Wikimedia commons
“Doctor, no! I need those!” “Kibbles and bits, kibbles and bits,” “It tasted great both times I ate it,” and “Rook out, Raggy!” All exclamations humanity has every right to expect from a dog. The canine linguistics community, however, has been left sorely disappointed by the recent bark translations of a team of Hungarian researchers.

The Hungarians, no doubt doing their best with the resources at hand, recorded and digitized over 6,000 barks of Hungarian sheepdogs, and fed them into a specially designed computer program. The computer was then able to correctly identify, 43 percent of the time, whether the dog was barking in a “fight,” “stranger,” “play,” “walk,” “alone,” or “ball” scenario, with “fight” and “stranger” most often yielding accurate results. The program was also able to correctly determine the individual dog barking 52 percent of the time.

Both of these statistics are much better than the average human translation of dog barking, although they pale in comparison to some of history’s more notable dog translators (Shaggy, The Son of Sam and Jack London, to name just a few). It is, certainly, an admirable start, and it has got me looking forward to the day when I can ask my brother’s dog just what’s so great about putting his nose right there, exactly.


Snow? Yeah, I’ve got a few words for snow...: Does environment influence language?  Not as much as you might think.
Snow? Yeah, I’ve got a few words for snow...: Does environment influence language? Not as much as you might think.Courtesy drp

After this week's storms, the people of Minnesota have developed many new words for snow -- most of which are unprintable on a family blog. But do the Eskimos, who live along the Arctic Ocean and deal with far more snow than we ever do, have an unusually large vocabulary to describe the fluffy white stuff?

Not really. Though the legend does have some basis in fact.

In the 1930s, anthropologists Benjamin Whorf and Edward Sapir argued that
language, thought and experience influenced one another. They believed that not only did a people’s environment shape their language (the “100 words for snow” idea), but that language also shaped environment – or, at least, the ways you could think about your environment. According to Whorf, the grammar and vocabulary of a people strongly influence how they see the world -- if you have no word for something, you can't really think about it.

Whorf did experiments which gave some support to the second part of the theory. But no one has been able to compile much evidence for the first part. Thus, most linguists today find the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis incomplete, and instead advance theories that the capacity for language is “hard-wired” into every human brain.

So, what about Eskimo words for “snow”? Well, that’s hard to answer, because Inuit languages (Inuit being the largest culture commonly referred to as "Eskimo") make extensive use of morphemes--“sub-words” that can be added to a root word to alter its meaning. Kind of like prefixes and suffixes in English.

Anyway, linguists have found about 15 Inuit root words relating to snow and snow phenomena, which is not that much different from the number of such words in English. But the use of morphemes in Inuit greatly increases the number of snow-related terms.

A good summary of the issue can be found here.

Want to hear what Inuktitut, a Canadian Inuit language, sounds like? Go here.

To learn more about life in the Arctic, check out our Object of the Month for December, a pair of Inuit snow goggles.


Playing with blocks helps young children develop language skills: Photo by chaim zvi from
Playing with blocks helps young children develop language skills: Photo by chaim zvi from

…building blocks. A new study shows that children who play with blocks develop greater language skills. The theory is that playing with the blocks forces children to think about what they’re doing, assigning names to the pieces, the structures and the activities.

I especially liked this line:

“[U]nstructured play with blocks stimulates thinking, memory and physical mastery of objects….”

Say, isn’t that what museum exhibits try to do?