Tag Archives: Language

How complex are animal “languages”?

There’s a tremendous variety in the levels of intelligence and, alternately, cleverness, in various animals. This often translates directly to the complexity of their language. Same goes for pack behaviours: some are learned (e.g. lions hunting), some are purely instinctual (e.g. division of labour in termite nests).

And it’s important to realize that language is not limited to vocal elements. Body languages, smells/pheromones (particularly during mating seasons) and dances often contribute to communication between animals.

From available evidence it would appear that no form of animal communication comes anywhere near the complexity of human language.

Most insects don’t really communicate beyond the instinctual level. There’s no actual thought behind it, it’s just automatic. One of the more sophisticated communications is bees “dancing” the direction and distance of fields of flowers when they arrive at their hive.

Reptiles and amphibians have vocalizations that mostly announce their presence, although frogs can get into some pretty loud “hey this is my territory” duels during summer nights at the pond.

Fish are mostly instinct-type communicators. Some use visual signals and water pressure changes in schools, helping them to coordinate movement. A few vocalize. Squid and octopi can send visual signals to each other through changing the colour of their skin; some are thought to be as smart as dogs.

Birds are near the top of the list, with highly intelligent gray parrots being taught huge vocabularies of human words to the point where some can make their own sentences. As superb mimics, they have the advantage of being able to actually shape their communications to exactly match our own. Many other species have more limited vocabularies that they use among themselves, with word count ranging from a few basic calls for nighthawks to a high number of different coordinating communications for crows.

Then there’s mammals, and most use just basic words like wolf howls or happy barks to communicate. Some are even dedicated to crossing species; cats meow at humans but not so much when we’re not around. Cetaceans like dolphins and orcas and whales have very complex songs though, and a lot of fairly complex communication goes on between them. There’s a lot of non-verbal communication that happens in chimp tribes.

Wolves certainly do use communication to coordinate their actions. It’s not just vocal, but body language as well. They even appear to vote: if their leader wants to, say, go hunting, they might gather and then cast their votes by sneezing.

That’s a very sophisticated form of animal communication, but human language still knocks it clean out of the water. We can talk about abstract things, we can talk about things happening in different places or at different times, we can even talk about things that haven’t happened yet or may never happen at all. By contrast, animals appear only to be able to communicate things that are happening here and now.

Another feature of human language is that it is “open-ended” and “productive”. This means that although we only have a finite number of symbols (sounds and gestures that make up the language), we can talk about an infinite number of things, including things nobody has ever talked about before. Animals by contrast can only talk about a finite number of things: they can say, “I am hungry,” but they can’t say, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

There are claims – and they are very controversial claims – that primates can be taught to communicate with humans in ways that mimic human language. The most famous is Koko the gorilla, who has been taught American Sign Language. The researchers working with her claim that she can not only talk about things that happened in the past, she can even make up her own phrases (for example, signing “dirty bad toilet” as an insult). But some linguists are skeptical of these claims, saying that the signs Koko produces are so vague and poorly executed that you can’t tell what, if anything, they mean.

What is the correct use of semicolon?

Semi-colons are used to link two related clauses into a single sentence.

“I wanted to go to Wendy’s; she wanted Pizza Hut.”

Both of these can exist as separate sentences and it would be grammatically correct to write them as such. But you can link them using a semi-colon so that when they’re read outloud, there’s less of a pause like there would be if there’s two sentences.

Alternatively, they can be used in place of commas when writing a sentence containing a list that might get confusing if you just relied on commas to separate the list items:

“My role models are George Washington, the first president of the United States; Nikolai Tesla, a famous inventor; and my Uncle Stu, who beat cancer.”

If I had just used commas to separate the list items and the sub clauses, it could be read as though George Washington and “the first president of the United States” were separate items in the list.

How did the word “gross” end up with so many different meanings?

It all comes from the original meaning that was something like “big.”

But that sense of big was flexible.  So, in some usages it went from meaning big to meaning too big. That sense of too big came to refer also to the elements that made something up and to the thing itself. So a very fat person might be called a “gross” person, or a very coarse fabric might be “gross.” This became equated with being generally distasteful, vulgar, or disgusting.

In another direction it retained its sense of largeness without the negative connotation. That morphed into gross (as opposed to net) being the largest measurement of the object with nothing taken away. It also appears to have been used by the french as a term to denote a “big” dozen, which came to be the term for 12 dozen.

What is the origin of the word “buck” for dollar?

It is never easy to trace the etymology of the words we use every day, in any language. Some of the words would have fascinating stories to tell of their origin and others might seem to have originated out of nothing. If you are familiar with the American way of life, you would know that the U.S. dollar is commonly referred to as “buck”. Although the word is thrown around casually, few seem to be concerned about its origin. There had been attempts to ascribe the origin of the term to the racist history of the country, claiming that the term was used to mention young male slaves, though there is no plausible evidence.
The first U.S dollar was minted in 1792, following the Coinage Act. However, the available evidence traces the history of using “bucks” for denoting the dollars back to a practice before 18th century. In those days, the deerskin, or buckskin, was the prime medium of economic transactions, especially along the frontier areas. Those were the years of revolution, and money was hard to obtain. The buckskin was very valuable, and was used to represent the value of other things. They were exchanged for other commodities and people used the term buck to denote those skins. The buckskin featured prominently in the transactions with the Indians as well.
One of the earliest references to the use of bucks in terms of money can be found in a journal by Conrad Wieser during his travel through the present day Ohio, in which he mentions that someone was robbed of the value of 300 bucks. There is another reference from the same year, which mentions trading a cask of whiskey to native Indians, which is worth 5 bucks.
It is debatable whether a buck meant a single deerskin. Various observations have emerged, explaining that it was according to the quality of the skin. In the case of low quality deerskins, it took a few to form one buck. It seems that the skins of other animals were also in use, but deerskin was the most valuable. After the introduction of state currency, the use of buckskin as a medium of exchange gradually ceased to exist. However, the term buck stayed in popular culture, so did its association with the money.
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What does the word Amen mean? What is its origin?

Words are the building blocks of a language. When we study words, we hardly venture to think about its origin. Many words of any certain language have been adopted from other languages, due to difficulty in translation or for convenience. Such a word is Amen, which is present in many Western languages. Its use and meaning is almost the same in all languages that use it.
The word Amen is as common as ‘I’ or ‘you’ among Christians, Muslims and Jews. Amen came to English from Latin, to where it came from Greek, and the Greek got it from Hebrew or Aramaic. And it has expanded its presence in other romance languages and Arabic.
The word Amen doesn’t have an exact meaning in English. It is basically an expression, and changes meaning depending on the context. Amen actually first appeared in early texts of Judaism. It appears as a word for affirmation or declaration in the Hebrew bible as well as the New Testament. There are numerous theories and speculations regarding its Hebrew origin. The word is related to Hebrew verb aman, which means to be confirmed, be faithful or be supported. The Hebrew words for faith and truth, emuna and emet, are also believed to be related with the word amen.
There are other interesting beliefs as well. Some believe the word came from the Egyptian god Amun while a few oriental thinkers argue that the word was derived from the Sanskrit word Aum. However, these theories do not hold enough strength among the linguists.
Whatever its history is, Amen has a significant place in the three major religions in the world. In Christianity, the word is the ending note for every prayers and hymns. It appears a number of times in Bible. Jesus has used amen a few times to emphasize his words. Contrary to other places, he used it in the beginning of his sentences. Even before that, Jews had been using the word as a conclusion of prayer. With the evolution of community prayers and synagogues and churches, the use of amen became widespread. Amen is also used by Muslims, in its Arabic version, amin, at the end of dua (supplication) and as the agreement to others’ prayer.
In modern times, amen is used to express strong agreement to a thought or opinion. People often say ‘amen to that’ in this context. If you ask a believer though, he will tell you not to utter the word unless you have absolute conviction.

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Why sneakers are called sneakers?

Sneaker is a synonym for the athletic shoes, which are used in sports and for physical exercises. The footwear called sneakers are distinguished with a flexible sole made of rubber or any synthetic material, with an upper part made from leather or canvas. The word sneaker is more popular in northern United States. In Britain, they are commonly called trainers. They are also known as kicks, runners and takkies in various parts of the world.
It is interesting to note the difference in names for the shoes. While the names runners and trainers give you a general idea of the purpose of the footwear, the word sneakers can perplex many. The word sneak itself means to move stealthily. Originated from the archaic English word ‘snican’, it assumed the current meaning near the 15th century or so. People who often sneaked upon others, especially with bad intentions, were called sneaks.
The history of rubber-soled shoes traces back to 19th century. The rubber-soled shoes became popular in America after the invention of vulcanization and the industrial revolution. The first person to acquire a patent for the item was Humphrey O’Sullivan in 1899. The shoes were earlier called plimsolls. It became widely available, and the people who used to ‘sneak’ regularly started to use them. It included those with bad and good intentions alike.
Henry Nelson McKinney, an advertising agent who used to work for N. W. Ayer & Son, is often credited with the formation of the word sneakers. McKinney used the term in an advertisement in 1917, owing to the fact that the rubber sole made the shoe stealthy compared to others. However, the word was already well in use in the preceding century, as per many evidence. In 1887, the Boston Journal of Education used the word ‘sneakers’, referring it to be the name given to tennis shoes by young players. The name was probably originated due to the lack of sound the rubber soles produced on ground, compared to the considerable noise made by leather-soled shoes. The department store Jordan Marsh used the term sneakers in an advertisement for its rubber-soled shoes in 1889 as well. It has been said that the prisoners used to call warders sneaks since they wore rubber-soled shoes.
Sneakers are very popular now, not just with sportsmen. People wear it casually, during jogging and other physical exercises. Adidas, Puma, Reebok and Nike are some of the major brands of the sneakers.


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Why do Japanese write from top to bottom?

Classical Japanese
The scripts of East Asian languages such as Japanese and Chinese are considered the most complex in the world. The scripts of these languages are more of artwork rather than mere letters, which changes meanings according to the contexts, making themselves all the more difficult to grasp quickly.
Almost all of the languages are written horizontally; from left to right, and in a couple of cases, like Arabic, from right to left. However, the most peculiar thing about the Japanese language (also Chinese and Korean) is that it is traditionally written from top to bottom. Even though the emergence of science and technology and the influence of western culture have paved the way for horizontal writing to dominate, the ancient literature is continued to be written in the vertical mode.
It is really interesting to trace back the origin of the vertical writing. Most of the linguists believe that the vertical script originated according to the writing materials. The writing media of ancient Chinese were primarily bamboo sticks, animal bones and other wooden slips. The letters used to be written using a brush. It was long before the invention of paper. The bamboo slips were in existence from at least 12th century BC. Writing horizontally on the sticks would have caused the ink to run since the sticks are curved. The vertical writing got stuck then and continued to thrive until the gradual invasion of the western languages.
The horizontal writing system in Japanese is known as ‘Yokogaki’ whereas vertical writing is called ‘Tategaki.’ The Tategaki system was inspired from Chinese. The modern Japanese writing system is a combination of two character types. The first one, Kanji, is the collection of adopted Chinese characters. The next one, Kana, consists of a pair of syllabaries. Since these languages consist of mainly disconnected syllabic units, it is easy to write in vertical manner, with no difficulty of comprehension. The words are written vertically in columns, from top to bottom, and ordered from right to left. Every new column starts to the left of the preceding one. Also in the early times of paper, it was easy to write in vertical columns since it helped writing with a brush in the right hand while unrolling the paper scroll with the left hand.
Currently both writing styles exist side by side. The classical texts are written in vertical system while the modern materials are all written in horizontal style.

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Why is jaywalking called jaywalking?

People are often inclined to break silly rules, for a variety of reasons. It is most evident in the case of pedestrians on road, where they tend to ignore traffic regulations for convenience’s sake. It is to mention these people the word jaywalking is used. It is a term that is perhaps not quite popular outside the United States. It is actually a word used to denote a pedestrian crossing the road or street without any regard to the traffic rules. For example, a person is said to be jaywalking if he or she is crossing the road when there is explicitly stated that crossing road is prohibited in that particular area. The term only evolved in the early 20th century, with the introduction of automobiles. It had its first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1917. The promoters of automobile were instrumental in spreading the term widely, as they conceived the roads to be only for vehicles.
The origin of the word Jaywalking was in America. Contrary to a popular misconception, the term was not derived from the letter J, the shape of which jaywalkers were supposed to follow. Actually, jaywalker is a compound word, derived from ‘jay’ and ‘walk’. The term jay is a local slang used by the Americans to mention inexperienced, often stupid, persons. It was in use in late 19th century, mainly to denote the rural residents, who were considered by urban people to be rather dull and naive. With no great knowledge about the automobiles and not used to the traffic system in cities, these people were likely to get in front of a moving vehicle.
In 1910s and 1920s, the term took off as the result of the campaign by the motordom. By then, the roads were public places with right for everyone to walk, but with the increase in number of vehicles, accidents began to mount. It was to put the blame on the pedestrians for the accidents the ‘jaywalking’ campaign began. Motorists widely used the term jaywalker to ridicule inexperienced pedestrians. Even though protests rose against the derogatory reference, they failed to counter the campaign. The pedestrians even called the ridiculing drivers ‘jay-drivers’, but to no effect. Eventually it found its place in popular culture, with regular reference.
Jaywalking is perceived to be one of the major traffic problems in the United States. The newspapers often publish commentaries on the carelessness of the pedestrians in the areas with high motor vehicle density. The police department and others regularly run campaigns to discourage the practice of jaywalking.

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In what language do deaf people think?

We all think in our mother language, or the languages we speak, according to the circumstances. It is a spontaneous thing that we often tend to take no notice of. But what about the hearing-impaired people? In which language do the deaf think?
Scientists consider deafness to be much more serious than blindness. It is because we need some language to drive our thoughts and actions. One with no language training in childhood is likely to grow to be mentally impaired as well, even though their brains have no defects. A person needs some kind of inner language to make sense of things and compare the mental states. Otherwise, the things will continue to be too abstract to decipher.
According to various researches, the thinking process varies from deaf to deaf, according to their disability and training. It is widely accepted that humans can’t think without any form of language, at least at a common level. But there had been humans long before the evolution of languages. The first language to born was also the universal one, the sign language. The ancient people communicated through signs, and before that they should have had to think it to themselves. This must have been signs and symbols. Later sounds evolved and from then on the languages.
The widely accepted explanation is that the deaf think in sign language, assuming they have learned it in childhood. The people who are born deaf but have some vocal training can think sometimes in the language they have learned. But primarily, they think in sign language they have learned. We all hear some kind of inner voice when think something. Similar to that, the deaf people feel them signing in their heads when they think. Whereas we hear the sounds in our heads, they would see the signs. It is easy to pick up sign language, and people with enough practice in it can easily communicate with it just like the normal speakers do with languages. Research has found out that the brain of those who use sign language is differently set up from those who speak oral languages.
The most common of sign languages is the American Sign Language (ASL). There is a lot of debates going on over this subject, many proposing to teach the deaf only the spoken language. But scientists conclude that the deaf people who know only spoken language are far behind in comprehension than those who know sign language. Hence, a bilingual system has been practiced, where the hearing-impaired people learn a spoken language and the sign language.

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Which is the most unusual language in the world?

Most Europeans and Asians speak one of the Indo-European languages, such as German, Hindi and Russian. However, one language, Basque, which is spoken by people in north-eastern Spain and south-western France, isn’t related to any other tongue. (See map below.) Its origins are shrouded in mystery and some people have even suggested that it was spoken in the ‘lost continent of Atlantis’.

Region of Basque speaking people

It now seems likely that the ancestors of Basque, who belonged to an Upper Stone Age culture, settled in areas of present day Spain and France long before the Indo-Europeans. There is no doubt that Basque was once spoken over a wider region than it is today. But it was never the language of a major state. The first book in this language – though with a Latin title – was printed in 1545 and serious research on the language may be dated from that time.

Basque has constantly struggled for survival against the more widespread Spanish and French languages. From time to time, it was outlawed in official contexts, in schools and even in all public places. In spite of this, Basque now has about 6,50,000 fluent speakers. The estimate results from adding the number of speakers in Spain to the guessed number in France, where linguistic censuses are not taken. As many as 5,00,000 others know something of the language. The majority of Basque speakers are concentrated in a narrow area of approximately 10,000 square kilometers.

Additional reading:
Basque language (Wikipedia)
Basque Country (Wikipedia)

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