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Author Archive: "John McWhorter"

Did People Used to Develop Southern Accents As They Got Older?

Having recently decided to stop buying DVDs and give in to streaming, I currently don't have anything new to play on the DVD player for the TV I ride my exercise bike in front of. I have gone back, as a result, to my cherished Looney Tunes DVDs and am noticing something that has always struck me as charmingly odd.

Example: A Bugs Bunny cartoon of 1944, The Old Grey Hare, depicts Bugs and Elmer Fudd as old men going through their usual antics with canes, gray beards, spectacles, and the shakes. But these aren't the only traits indicating their having reached their twilight years. Bugs, as an oldster, talks in a hillbilly accent.

But Bugs Bunny as a young "man" spoke in a Brooklyn/Bronx patois. Why would he have shifted into a moonshine dialect as he got older?

This was no random occurrence chez the Looney Tunes crew. One sees this kind of thing again and again in pop culture of that era, with old people talking like the Beverly Hillbillies while the people around them use mainstream standard American.

In the old radio hit Fibber McGee and Molly, a cherished ...

Where Do Words Come From, Then?

If it's hard to imagine how more than a few words could have arisen by imitating things, as I blogged about here yesterday, then one question is where words do come from.

Where the first ones came from we may never know. But we know a lot about how new ones come from old ones, and some of the ways are not exactly intuitive. Since the counterintuitive is a lot of what makes linguistics fun, let's look at one of the ways.

We know that one way we make new words is with suffixes like –ment to make nouns: govern, government. But that alone is kind of boring. We don't feel like government is really "another word" compared to govern. It feels like a version of it, wearing a kind of hat.

But: Those suffixes don't always work. How would you make the verb recall into a noun? There's no recallment. That's where things go below the radar: You make recall into a noun by shifting the accent backwards and saying RE-call. The Schwarzenegger movie, for instance, was not called Total Re-CALL. Continue »

Did Language Start with Doing Imitations?

This article in New Scientist is making the rounds this week. It's about what linguists call sound symbolism — the fact that, to some extent, people spontaneously associate certain sounds with certain concepts. So: Most people presented with the nonsense words kiki and bouba, asked to say which is more likely to be spiky and which more likely to be round, will think of kiki as spiky and bouba as round.

That will surprise few of us; researchers suppose it must have something to do, at least in cases like these, with the way the sounds are formed with the mouth: Kiki involves sounds that make the tongue stop airflow for a spell. Bouba has those too, but also makes you shape your lips in a round way.

Some sounds seem to suggest different kinds of movement as well. Another experiment showed that people can even "feel" an animal name's meaning in a foreign language just by its "ring." The South American Huambisa tribe call one bird a chunchuíkit and one fish a máuts, and 98% of a group of American students ...

Something Fun about, Like, Xhosa

In honor of Nelson Mandela's birthday yesterday, I want to share one of my favorite things about his native language, Xhosa.

The factoid we usually hear about Xhosa is that it has click sounds, and it does. In the '70s this, was best known through the singing of Miriam Makeba. These days people below a certain age are more likely to know about click languages through the film The Gods Must Be Crazy or the Marvin character in early episodes of South Park (although in reality click languages are not spoken in Marvin's native Ethiopia).

However, there's something else about Xhosa that I have always found just as interesting. It's the word ithi, and it seems innocent enough at first: It means "like this." So, if indoda enkulu means "old man" and "when he walks" is xa ihambayo, then this sentence:

Indoda enkulu   ithi   ihambayo.


South Sudan and Lessons in Language

For my first post I'd like to tie together the impending publication of What Language Is with the birth two weekends ago of the world's newest nation, South Sudan. A country like this, full of languages unknown beyond where they are spoken and usually by small numbers of people, is an ideal demonstration of the main lesson of my book.

That is: Human language is always magnificently complex, even when unwritten. The world's 6,000 languages are composed not of a few "real" written languages and a bunch of underdeveloped "dialects," but 6,000 marvels, period.

One of the main languages of South Sudan, for example, is called Dinka. As languages of the area goes, it's a big one: It has about two and half million speakers. However, that's fewer people than live in Chicago, and the language is rarely committed to paper. It's an indigenous language, and one might suppose that it would not need to be as complex grammatically as, say, Russian or Greek.

And it doesn't (although we might ask why Russian and Greek "need" to be) — but it is as complex as them nevertheless. More, really — ...

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