Stories tagged linguistics


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


Some fingers: Some fingers down, more fingers up.
Some fingers: Some fingers down, more fingers up.Courtesy anna_t
Researchers from MIT have found that a tribe in remote northwestern Brazil has no words for specific numbers.

The language of the tribe, of which there are only about 300 members, seems to be unique in that it has no numbers. Counting was thought to have been innate in human cognition. Apparently that isn’t totally the case. Specific numbers weren’t useful to this culture, so they never developed them in their language.

Instead of specific numbers, the group, called the Piraha, has a couple of relative terms, translating to something like “some” and “more.” Piraha math classes, I assume, would be awesome.

Some + some = more (obviously)

Nothing + some = some (duh)

Nothing + more = some (interesting!)

More – some = some (probably)

Some – more = your mind blown (Whoa!)

Something very anthropologically and linguistically crazy is going on here. Something about how even though we think our thoughts shape language, language actually ends up shaping our thoughts. So if you come from a culture whose language has no concept of specific numbers, how does that shape your perception of the world?

Oh, if only I had been a better student.


The limestone caves of south China have recently coughed out the bizarre phrase “pygmy giant panda.”

Unsure of exactly what this could mean, the Chinese government has assembled an international team of linguists and philosophers to deconstruct the unusual message.

A local expert weighs in on the issue: Some segments of the panda population resent the association with "any kind of moron." (photo credit: drs2biz on flickr)

“It’s not as complicated as it might initially sound,” says Canadian linguist, Genny LeCroix. “When we began this project, there was the very real concern that ‘pygmy’ and ‘giant’ would simply cancel each other out, leaving just ‘panda,’ which might have been extremely unstable without any modifiers. That’s not the sort of thing you want hanging around in caves. It’s dangerous and confusing. Fortunately, a few lab tests revealed that we were dealing with a real object – bones, in fact – and not an actual oxymoron”

Ironically, discovery turned out to have much more significance to biology and natural history than linguistics. Two million years old, the bones belong to the skeleton of an animal extremely similar to the modern giant panda, only about half the size.

Wear patterns on the pygmy giant panda’s teeth, and muscle attachment locations on the skull, suggest that the extinct creature was adapted to eating bamboo shoots, just like its giant descendent. The giant panda is the world’s only known wholly vegetarian bear, and the evidence that this specialization extends back at least two million years shows that pandas have been “uniquely pandas” for a very long time.

The Chinese government, fearing a repeat of the “pygmy mammoth” situation on Wrangel Island, was thrilled at the news, and has commissioned an international team of experts to reconstruct what the pygmy giant panda must have looked like in life. Here’s a look at some of their early results:
A window to the past: Experts offer an accurate recreation of these ancient, noble creatures.    (photo credit: Xinhua)
A window to the past: Experts offer an accurate recreation of these ancient, noble creatures. (photo credit: Xinhua)

Something a little more straightforward.