Category: language evolution (page 1 of 3)

Episode 265: Universal Grammar 2 (featuring Dan Everett and Lynne Murphy)

The biggest idea in linguistics is back on the table.

Is there such a thing as the Universal Grammar? Do you have to have a human brain to learn language, or is learning a language just like learning anything else? And are one man’s insights into Amazonian languages sufficient to demolish this theoretical edifice?

Linguists Dan Everett and Lynne Murphy talk to Daniel, Ben, and Kylie on this episode of Talk the Talk.

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Promo with Dylan Websdane

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Interview with Dan Everett 2016-10-07 (complete)

Cutting Room Floor 265: Universal Grammar 2

265: Universal Grammar 2 (featuring Dan Everett and Lynne Murphy) [128kbps] (for everyone)

Show notes

Warning: Bad linguistics alert

‘Th’ sound to vanish from English language by 2066 because of multiculturalism, say linguists

Here’s how the English language could sound incredibly different in 50 years

Our accents are under threat: dialects may die as computers strip the beauty from language

It’s the end of the frog and toad for regional slang, says report


Better linguistics alert

Researchers are using an app to crowdsource how the English language has changed

How do you say ‘scone’? English regional accents decline as ‘southern’ accent becomes widespread

How London has killed off elements of local dialects across England – in seven maps–ZJxofkDwH7Z

New Scientist: The Electric Kool-Aid language test

Dan Everett: Who’s afraid of the big bad Wolfe? Apparently everyone.

Trump recorded having extremely lewd conversation about women in 2005

A banner day for profanity

An Oxford linguist on the dangers of dismissing comments about sexual assault as “locker-room talk”

“Locker room” language encourages rape culture, even if it stays private

Lynne Murphy on Twitter: @lynneguist

Lynne’s blog: Separated by a Common Language

Linguistics explains why Trump sounds racist when he says “the” African Americans

Everything that was said at the second Donald Trump vs. Hillary Clinton debate, highlighted

“open mic” and “on the mic”

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Episode 252: The Tower of Babel

Is there anything to the story of the Tower of Babel?

It’s a legend about why human languages are so different. So was there really only one human language a long time ago? Maybe — but how does this match up with the biblical account of the confounding of tongues?

Linguist Daniel Midgley puts an end to the confusion on this episode of Talk the Talk.

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Promo with Kylie Sturgess

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Show notes

All 72 New Unicode 9 Emoji, Definitively Ranked From Most Exciting To Most Meh

Apple releases animated emoji sticker packs for iOS 10 Messages

Apple, Facebook and Google ban rifle emoji from Olympics update

Rifle emoji blocked from phones ‘after pressure from Apple’

Here’s The Reason Why There Will Be No Rifle Emoji

What happened to the rifle emoji?

Could an emoji death threat land you in jail?

RationalWiki: Tower of Babel

Skeptics Annotated Bible: Genesis 11

Focus On Tower of Babel

The Wrathful Dispersion Controversy: A Canadian Perspective

Yes, people do believe this.
Gallup: “Twenty-eight percent of Americans believe the Bible is the actual word of God and that it should be taken literally.”

Grain of salt alert for the next two articles!

The Tower of Babel Account: A Linguistic Consideration

Answers in Genesis: Was the Dispersion at Babel a Real Event?

The Canterbury Tales (in Middle English)

There are more things in prehistory than are dreamt of in our urheimat

Ussher Chronology

Can the Ussher Chronology Be Trusted?


Makapansgat pebble


I’m all ears: fossils reveal human ancestors’ hearing abilities

2-million-year-old fossils reveal hearing abilities of early humans

babel moon landings

Recovery Connection: Drunkorexia

‘Drunkorexia’ phenomena prominent in young Australian women, research finds

The scary trend sweeping across Australian universities

The Butterfly Foundation — Support for Australians experiencing eating disorders

Government of Western Australia — Drug and Alcohol Office

Bill Nye visited a Noah’s Ark he doesn’t believe should exist

Kan Ham’s Blog: Bill Nye Visits the Ark Encounter

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Episode 219: Eggcorns

Have you heard of eggcorns?

They’re off-quoted sayings that sometimes reel their ugly heads, and some might just leave you curled up in the feeble position.

Are they wrong? That might be a bit of a mute point. But can you tell the difference between an eggcorn and the real thing?

Linguist Daniel Midgley discusses them in one foul swoop on this episode of Talk the Talk.

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Promo with Kylie Sturgess

Show notes

Google Ngram Viewer: “There is plenty of, There are plenty of
There’s Three Variants: Paper presented at LSA 2015 by Bonnie Krejci and Katherine Hilton, Stanford University (PDF)

To Find Meteorites, Listen to the Legends of Australian Aborigines

Australian Aboriginal Stories of Ancient Sea-Level Rise Preserved for 13,000 Years

Revealed: how Indigenous Australian storytelling accurately records sea level rises 7,000 years ago

Eggcorn: The Invented Word That Describes Invented Words

This Is What ‘Eggcorns’ Are (and Why They’re Jar-Droppingly Good)

Eggcorns? Here, here!

‘Eggcorns’: The Gaffes That Spread Like Wildflowers

Google’s Ngram Viewer


“A real tro*per”

trooper vs. trouper

“exasperating the situation”



Which one swooped? Fowl, foul or fell? (Aside from the obvious.)

the “bud” of someone’s jokes

nip in the “butt”

coming down the “pike”

“buck” naked

Bu?? Naked

Butt To Buck, Start To Stark, Or Vice Versa?

Duc* tape

Hear, hear,_hear

Is It Straitjacket Or Straightjacket?

“straight” jacket is more common in books.

People emit a ‘germ cloud’ of bacteria as unique as a fingerprint, study finds

Congressman grabs pope’s water glass, takes a sip

Science Has Bad News for Guys With Man Buns

Science says the glorified man bun is a dangerous trend

#FreeKaren: Australians mock anti-radicalisation booklet

#freekaren: Govt’s school handout slammed for linking West Aust shark cull protest to radicalisation

Kevin Rudd: To the Good Burghers of Griffith

burgher (n.)

Etymology of borough, -burg, bourgeois, burglar

Eggcorn: bi-election

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Episode 217: Homo naledi and Language

The human family got a new branch this week with the appearance of Homo naledi, a new species of human.

But did they have language? And how can we tell from a lot of old bones?

It’s early yet, but linguist Daniel Midgley puts the pieces together on this episode of Talk the Talk.

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Promo with Jane Hebiton

Show notes

A New Hampshire university’s language guide says students should avoid using the word ‘American’

University president offended by bias-free language guide

Lawmakers May Punish A University For Being Too Politically Correct

Jonathan Turley: University of Tennessee Considers Adopting Gender Neutral Pronouns Like “Ze,” “Hir,” and “Xyr” To Avoid Discrimination

Dennis Baron: The gender-neutral pronoun: after 150 years still an epic fail

Some notes on singular ‘they’

Are gender-neutral pronouns the wave of the future?

Gender-neutral pronouns: The big list

Study: Sperm whales speak in ‘clan dialects’

Sperm Whales’ Language Reveals Hints of Culture

Science says sperm whales live in clans and learn a ‘language’

Homo naledi: Unanswered questions about the newest human species

Homo naledi: New species of human ancestor discovered in South Africa

New species of human relative, Homo naledi, found in underground graveyard in Cradle of Humankind in South Africa

This Face Changes the Human Story. But How?

New, Tiny-Brained Human Found in South African Cave

Burial, as early as 300,000 years ago

Oxford Dictionaries Online: The quarterly update

Online Etymology Dictionary: Spill

Online Etymology Dictionary: Oust

Tony Abbott #PutYourOnionsOut: How the internet reacted

#putoutyouronions on Twitter


Vale Adrian Frutiger, master of the Univers

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Episode 213: Short and Sweet

Is there anything that all human languages have in common?

With all the diversity in the world’s languages, a true universal is hard to find. But new research has unearthed a principle involving the distances between words, and this discovery has revived a long-standing debate.

Linguist Daniel Midgley keeps it short and sweet on this episode of Talk the Talk.

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Promo with Kylie Sturgess

Show notes

Marmoset ‘conversations’ may give clues to evolution of human language

Related to PharaohKatt’s post: some of my favourite linguistic developments

Know Your Meme: Doge

Know Your Meme: Son, I Am Disappoint


Follow Dog Solutions. It funny

NatGeo: Bonobo “Baby Talk” Reveals Roots of Human Language

Guardian: Bonobos have mastered the art of babytalk, new research shows

Daily Mail: Bonobos speak like HUMAN BABIES: Apes use high-pitched ‘peeps’ just like infants learning to talk

Scientific American: Bonobo Peeps May Be Necessary Language Precursors

MIT Linguists Say Human Languages Might Be Predictable

The paper: Large-scale evidence of dependency length minimization in 37 languages

MIT Study Suggests a Universal Property of Language

All languages have evolved to have this in common

More about language universals (PDF)

Klittra wins the vote in Sweden as the new word for female masturbation. Don’t be surprised if English adopts it.

— Wordability (@WordabilityHugh) June 23, 2015

Jezebel: Add the Word ‘Klittra’ to Your Sexual Dictionary

Guardian: Sweden invents a word for girls’ genitals equivalent to ‘willy’ for boys

Swedish children’s TV dancing genitals cartoon sparks parental outcry

English remix of Swedish ‘genitals’ song released

Inevitable dance remix

Where does on the dole come from?

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Episode 201: The First Language

What was the first language, and what was it like?

Does it still exist? And out of all the languages on earth today, which one is the oldest?

These are tricky questions, and linguists have tricky answers. Linguist Daniel Midgley goes back to basics on this episode of Talk the Talk.

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Promo with Jane Hebiton

Show notes

What Part of “No, Totally” Don’t You Understand?

No, Yes, Definitely: On The Rise Of ‘No, Totally’ As Linguistic Quirk

How to Say ‘Yes’ (by Not Saying ‘Yes’)

People in Northern Sweden have the world’s weirdest way of saying ‘yes’

Russian-language version of Apple personal assistant Siri gives ‘homophobic’ responses to questions about gay people

“In Soviet Russia Siri questions you”

Until yesterday, Russian Siri was giving out homophobic replies

Apple fixes ‘homophobic’ Russian Siri: ‘This emotion should be considered negative’

Russia’s Apple monument dismantled after Tim Cook comes out as gay

Barbara Klein Moss: The Search For The First Language
A good rundown of ideas about early language

Another one: The first chapter of God’s Sacred Tongue: Hebrew and the American Imagination by Shalom L. Goldman

There was some idle talk about making Hebrew the official language of the USA.

The Ten Lost Tribes

Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, borrowed the Hebrew origin story for his work of fiction, The Book of Mormon.

Smith also speculated that the Ten Lost Tribes lived at the North Pole. In a kind of hollow.

This ties right into the ‘Hollow Earth’ theory that was also going around at the time. Smith picked up on a lot of stuff that was going around.

RationalWiki: Sanskrit is not the first language

Nutty stuff from The Vedic Foundation: Sanskrit was the first language, and it’s never changed. Warning: crackpottery.

MIT Press Release: The rapid rise of human language

The paper: The precedence of syntax in the rapid emergence of human language in evolution as defined by the integration hypothesis

New paper suggests speech developed in a now-familiar form

Early humans did not mumble and grunt: Language ‘developed rapidly’

The authors think it all comes down to Merge.
We Got Merge: Noam Chomsky on the Cognitive Function that Made Language Evolve

Linguist List, Ask a Linguist: What’s the oldest language?

Percy Sledge: Soul singer’s link to cricket’s sledging

World Wide Words: Sledging

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Episode 198: The Geography of Sound (featuring Caleb Everett)

Does climate affect language?

A linguist has found that tone languages appear in regions of high humidity. But the idea that human speech adapts to the environment is not a popular one. So what’s going on?

Daniel Midgley speaks with the author Caleb Everett on this episode of Talk the Talk.

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Show notes

App That Aims To Make Books ‘Squeaky Clean’ Draws Ire From Edited Writers

Authors: end to censored versions of books is ‘victory for the world of dirt’

Clean Reader: The app that censors rude words from ebooks

Jennifer Porter: “My Clean Reader App Experience” Hilarious!

Some languages don’t have syllables: Larry Hyman on the universality of the syllable

The idea of syllables doesn’t work with some Native American languages
The Languages of Native North America
Salish Languages and Linguistics: Theoretical and Descriptive Perspectives

Linguists didn’t accept Everett’s first attempt on this theme. See “Ejectives, High Altitudes, and Grandiose Linguistic Hypotheses”

Everett pressed the point: “A return to ejectives at high altitude”,5

Long article with lots of background: “Correlational Studies in Typological and Historical Linguistics”

Everett’s new paper: “Climate, vocal folds, and tonal languages: Connecting the physiological and geographic dots”

Everett talks about the paper

Post in Replicated Typo: “Tone and Humidity”

Other linguists aren’t convinced. Here’s the interview with Ben Zimmer and Geoffrey Nunberg.

You can look at the data for tone in the World Atlas of Linguistic Structures. Lots of other data, too.

Sweden will make a gender-neutral pronoun official by adding it to the dictionary


About every dictionary in the world has ‘whale’ as one syllable.
Hey, look, Em: it’s even got “hwayl”.

The ‘prayer hands’ emoji changed in the latest iPhone update and people are freaking out

Emojipedia: Person With Folded Hands

Gawker: No, the Praying Hands Emoji Is Not a “High Five”

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Episode 185: Listener Questions

We get questions from our many listeners. And we have answers.

Do the languages of the world form a continuous chain? And isn’t it possible that language influences thought by the words we use?

Linguist Daniel Midgley tells all on this episode of Talk the Talk.

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Promo with James Hall

Show notes

A team from Stanford has made improvements on the ‘image description’ task.

A gentle introduction

Facebook currently employs 100,000 people in the Philippines to detect and delete porn and beheadings.

There are discontinuities in the world language chain. See them here:

What is a Sprachbund?

Gleaned from here:

Oxford’s word of the year: Vape

Watchwords: ‘Vaping’ is a word that’s likely to last

Show tunes

‘Photo Jenny’ by Belle and Sebastian
from the album Lazy Line Painter Jane

‘My Little Japanese Cigarette Case’ by Spoon
from the album Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga

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Episode 179: Onomatopoeia

Boom, crash, and beep.

These words are onomatopoeic; they sound kind of like the thing they describe. Onomatopoeia has contributed to our vocabulary in some unexpected ways, and may have even helped get language started in the first place. But does it work in all languages? And why doesn’t the word onomatopeia sound like the thing?

Linguist Daniel Midgley makes a splash on this episode of Talk the Talk.

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Promo with Kylie Sturgess

Show notes

#scallopwar: One tweet was enough to set it off.

So are they potato scallops, or potato cakes? Or fritters? It depends.

Why scallop anyway? Because of the shape.

Other Australian words with variation in them

Indonesian cave paintings some of earliest human art, Australian-led study finds

At 40 KYA (thousand years ago), this beats the Lascaux caves on 17 KYA

A list with some onomatopoeic words

But there are others you wouldn’t expect

including ‘cliché’

Search for ‘imitative’ in the Online Etymological Dictionary, and you’ll find a lot more.

Fun: Animal noises in different languages

And more for Korean

Onomatopoeia was an early contender for how language got started.

Ding-Dong, Pooh-Pooh, Bow-Wow and Ta-Ta

Sound Symbolism in the Languages of Australia

How Sound Symbolism Is Processed in the Brain: A Study on Japanese Mimetic Words


And a whole lot more

Show tunes

‘Boom Boom’ by Trio
from the album Trio and Error
In English

In German

‘Suit’ by Boom! Bap! Pow!
from the album So Heavy

Photos from “Dinner with Daniel and Ben” at the Classroom in North Perth



Episode 178: Village Sign Languages

Linguists are discovering signed languages in unexpected places.

Created where there are high rates of congenital deafness, these village sign languages are challenging traditional ideas about how humans do language. What can they teach us about language and the mind?

Linguist Daniel Midgley sees the signs on this episode of Talk the Talk.

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Promo with Chris Wheeldon

Show notes

Nefertiti Menoe on “Speaking White”

‘My Language Diary’ with Ciarán Ó Braonáin

It’s common for signed languages to spring up when there’s a high rate of deafness.

Nicaraguan Sign Language allowed linguists to watch the birth of a language. It started in the 70s, and became more complex as people added to it.

Students broke signs down into discrete units.

That’s one of the things about human languages.’s_design_features

Why did NSL start to resemble other languages? Some linguists thought there was a bioprogram or a Universal Grammar that all languages adhere to

but linguists are now starting to think that languages resemble each other because all human language users need to do the same things with language.

Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language is another village sign language.

And Chatino

Iltyem-iltyem: Sign languages in Central Australia

About the new website for Indigenous signs

Video of the language Kata Kolok in Bali

‘We celebrated when we found out about Molly’s deafness,’ says Lichy. ‘Being deaf is not about being disabled, or medically incomplete – it’s about being part of a linguistic minority. We’re proud, not of the medical aspect of deafness, but of the language we use and the community we live in.’

Cochlear implants are controversial among the Deaf community

The Ebola virus got its nickname from the Ebola River where it was found.

HIV started in Kinshasa

Nearby, there’s a place called Isle of Plagues.

Advice from the BBC on how to avoid the virus

“10,000 Americans worried about contracting Ebola will die this year in car accidents instead. Because, math.”

Show tunes

‘Hands’ by Ms John Soda
from the album Notes and the Like

‘Hands’ by Four Tet
from the album Rounds

Show transcript

BEN: Linguists are discovering signed languages in unexpected places. Created where there are high rates of congenital deafness, these village sign languages are challenging traditional ideas about how humans do language. What can they teach us about language and the mind? Linguist Daniel Midgley sees the signs on this episode of Talk the Talk.


DANIEL: Nice to have you back.

BEN: Ah, it’s good to be back. Thank you for allowing me, Daniel and listeners, to get out of Dodge for a week. It was really nice.

DANIEL: Oh, where’d you go?

BEN: I went farming.

DANIEL: I didn’t realise that was something you could go and do.

BEN: I don’t think it’s a thing many people go and do, but sometimes when I’m bored of being, like, urban,


BEN: I go to a friend’s farm, and I rock up and I’m like, “So what are we doing today?” and he’s like, “Oh, we’ve got to pull some fences out today,”

DANIEL: Or hoeing.

BEN: …and I’ll be like “Cool,” and we’ll pull some fences out. “What are we doing tomorrow?” “Oh, we’ve got to get a mob of sheep in to shear,” “Okay, cool, let’s do that.” And then I just go do that for a week and it makes me feel really good about life.

DANIEL: Wow, I guess it’s one of those things where, if you watch things grow, it’s very relaxing.

BEN: It’s also one of the — in my opinion — the closest Australia gets to a genuine regional dialect.

DANIEL: Oh, that’s interesting. What did you notice about language?

BEN: Well, just… most people say, and I agree with this, that Australia doesn’t have the thing that America has and that England has, which is proper regional accents.


BEN: Because we developed in a time post-telegraph and instantaneous communication, so we never really had a really good bed for furthering — you know — this branching evolution of accent.

DANIEL: Right. Not by place, anyway.

BEN: Exactly.

DANIEL: But we do have, not dialects, but sociolects.

BEN: We certainly do. But I think the closest we get to a regionally-based one is the fact that if you go to the country pretty much anywhere in Australia, and you listen to farmer-folk talk, or just regional people, you do have… put it this way: When I’m sitting on the back of the ute, in four hours of work, we might exchange maybe… maybe six sentences.


BEN: And it’ll be things like “Oh, get the gate?” “Yeah, no worries.”


BEN: Done.

DANIEL: The laconic, taciturn country folk.

BEN: Yeah, in mumble.


BEN: Anyway, I had a great time, but I’m also stoked to be back. What’s going on in the world of linguistics? What have I missed out on?

DANIEL: There’s been a debate about speaking white.

BEN: Speaking white?

DANIEL: This comes to us from Cieràn from the blog My Language Diary — Thanks for alerting us to this. Bit of a video from Nefertiti Menoe, a… can I call her a vlogger? I think I can.

BEN: A vlogger? Yeah, that’s a thing.

DANIEL: Yeah. Now we know that black English speakers talk in a variety of ways, and she’s someone who speaks Standard English, like a lot of white people do. Not all. And she’s finding herself criticised at times by black English speakers. Let’s just have a listen.

VIDEO: There’s no such thing as talking white or you know you’re talking… you’re speaking white. It’s actually called “speaking fluently”. Speaking your language correctly. Um… I don’t know why we’ve gotten to a place where as a culture, as a race, if you sound as though you have more than a fifth grade education it’s a bad thing.

BEN: Interesting.

DANIEL: What do you get off of that? Any thoughts?

BEN: Um… part of my brain says there IS such a thing as speaking white, first of all.


BEN: At least to the view of a person brought up in a lot of African-American America.


BEN: Right? So, to a lot of members of that community, there is categorically a thing as speaking white, because to them, there’s a bunch of white folk who speak a certain way.

DANIEL: I don’t think we can get away from that.

BEN: Right? So, from the perspective of that, yes.

DANIEL: So we can’t say that there’s no such thing as talking white.

BEN: However…

DANIEL: However…

BEN: I don’t think that what is being described as talking white in that video is necessarily beholden only to white folk.


BEN: Because once it is, there is the troubling overlap that Nefertiti is getting at, which is that it is speaking properly, and it is speaking in an educated way, and if you say that that is speaking white…

DANIEL: …what are you saying?

BEN: You’re saying that white people are the smart people, and of course we know that is absurd.


BEN: Right? So it troubles me that there is a connection. Although I think it does need to be admitted that what she’s saying is not that to speak white is to be smart. She’s rejecting that such a thing is…

DANIEL: She’s rejecting the idea that it’s the exclusive domain of white people.

BEN: Exactly. And so with that I agree.

DANIEL: But this also sits very uncomfortably at the nexus of language variety, and standardisation…

BEN: And classism…

DANIEL: …and language identity, and whole bunch of issues here. And I say it’s uncomfortable because it reminds me of how people are discriminated against for their language use.

BEN: Yes. Definitely.

DANIEL: And how speakers of non-standard varieties are kind of stuck making choices between using the prestige variety of language, which in this case is Standard English, and then solidarity with the folks that they know.

BEN: Right, ’cause we’ve said before on the show on a bunch of occasions that language does a bunch of things, and one of those things is creating a sense of belonging.


BEN: And so if you do not get that from your language, then you’re missing out. So you’re being forced to make a choice to drop some of these components — or not.


BEN: So one component that you might drop might be to lower your register and thus not speak with prestige, and thus you would incur penalties because you would lose certain aspects of what language can get for you.

DANIEL: And on the other hand if you’re going for the prestige variety, then you know, people look at you like “Who do you think YOU are?” You know how we talk about slut-shaming. I’d like to call this speech-shaming.

BEN: Ooo, yeah, I like that. I could get behind that phrase.

DANIEL: And it could cut both ways.

BEN: Yeah!

DANIEL: I think there should be less speech-shaming. But listen to what she’s saying about what Standard English means to her. It means achievement, education, and she’s standing up for those things, and that’s cool. But what I want to do, and I think what we try to do here on the show is take a crowbar and crack open a crack between the standard variety of English and the good things.

BEN: Yes.

DANIEL: But in general, I think you should be yourself, you should cultivate an awareness of the norms in different speech situations, you should use language in a way that gets you what you want, and just remember that it’s normal for people to speak differently from each other, so let’s have a little less speech-shaming out there. By the way, thanks for that, Cieràn.

BEN: Now that we’ve knit together all the various components and fissures of all linguistics ever, what’s the topic of conversation this week?

DANIEL: We’re talking about village sign languages. Now, linguists are interested in language, and that includes signed languages like Auslan, American Sign Language, British Sign Language, and lots of others.

BEN: However…

DANIEL: It wasn’t always considered that they were real languages.

BEN: Not only that, but it’s not… I think a lot of people hear about “sign language”, and they think “Deaf people”.

DANIEL: Right.

BEN: But it’s not just that. That’s one of the major evolutions or manifestations of signed language, but it’s not. It’s categorically not just for Deaf people.

DANIEL: Well, that’s really interesting that you should mention that, because one thing that I’m noticing over and over again is that there are these places — usually remote places, or places where people have been stigmatised — where there’s a lot of endogamous marriages; where they marry members of their own group.

BEN: Mhm.

DANIEL: And then because of that, some genetic stuff builds up, and one possible result is deafness.

BEN: Right.

DANIEL: Okay, now in some places, it’s up to, like, maybe 4 percent of everyone is Deaf, as opposed to, like, one tenth of one percent in Australia.

BEN: Right.

DANIEL: That’s pretty high.

BEN: Yeah, yeah, for sure.

DANIEL: And what happens when it gets to about that tipping point, 4 percent, and this happens in place after place that I looked at, a couple of things happen. First of all, the percent of people that are speaking the signed language jumps to, like, 55 or 60 percent.

BEN: Which doesn’t tally mathematically.

DANIEL: Yeah. It’s only, you know, 4 percent of the population is Deaf, but so many more are speaking, or signing, the signed language, which is really interesting. And also the Deaf people don’t seem to be marginalised; people say things like, “Oh, he’s not handicapped; he’s just Deaf.”

BEN: Right. Okay, interesting.

DANIEL: Yeah! So, that seems to be the case with a lot of these languages.

BEN: What’s always fascinated me about the, sort of, manifestation of signed language within another language is that in a lot of Indigenous and tribal contexts, it is an augmentation of their existing language. So unlike, say, Auslan, which was built, which was, you know, sort of like, deliberately created to replace a language…


BEN: …for those who lacked…

DANIEL: and is like the only way that they have of speaking in some cases…

BEN: …these are very much more an augmentation, aren’t they? They’re like a thing that bolts onto the side of the spaceship, and now you’ve got a rail gun! or whatever.

DANIEL: It can be the only way of speaking, but it can also be an adjunct. We’ll see in the second half a few Australian Aboriginal languages where the signed versions travel along with the spoken version.

BEN: Right.

DANIEL: But first, I want to get into the first one that I ever heard of, and it’s Nicaraguan Sign Language.

BEN: As in, the first sign language other than “sign” sign language?

DANIEL: Well, first sign language in a foreign language I ever heard of, and the one that I think is probably the most recent.

BEN: Now, I’ve actually spent a little bit of time in Nicaragua, and…

DANIEL: You’re such a globetrotter.

BEN: I know. And like a lot of post-colonial places, when we say Nicaragua, we actually mean a collection of peoples. So, my question to you is: when you say Nicaraguan Sign Language, what do you mean? Who are you talking about?

DANIEL: Okay. Well, in the 1970s, the Nicaraguan government opened up a school for Deaf kids.

BEN: Mhm.

DANIEL: And they hadn’t been taught any particular sign language that was in the area, but they would use signs that they had sort of constructed with their parents at home.

BEN: Which, at this point it’s probably important to note, is incredibly common.

DANIEL: Oh, yeah.

BEN: Sign language — I’ve spoken to people who work in sign language schools, and they say dialects can be created in schools. Like it’s so much more fractious than spoken language. It can splinter off really really quickly, and you develop these little… And it happens at the home level. So they were doing it at home and then they brought it into the school.

DANIEL: Well, that is exactly what happened. They were teaching the kids to lip-read spoken Spanish.

BEN: Mhm.

DANIEL: They weren’t teaching them any sort of sign.

BEN: Right.

DANIEL: But the kids spontaneously created a sign all themselves. And this is known as Nicaraguan Sign.

BEN: Interesting. So unlike Auslan and some of the American Sign Languages, there was absolutely no effort on the part of any bureaucratic anyone to construct anything.

DANIEL: Well, that’s kind of how signed languages are, actually. They are languages that grow in the wild, just like natural spoken languages.

BEN: But they need to be coalesced, surely.


BEN: Standardised.

DANIEL: …and because they were in a community of these kids who were Deaf, it really did happen very fast, and linguists were able to see how it started and grew. In the 70s, it started. There was like the first generation of signers, who then graduated.

BEN: Yep.

DANIEL: By the time we got to the 80s, Nicaraguan Sign had changed.

BEN: Right.

DANIEL: But there’s the interesting part. It had changed in a way that made it more like other human spoken languages. Other natural languages.

BEN: Is this like the evolution from a pidgin to a creole?

DANIEL: It’s exactly like the evolution from a pidgin to a creole.

BEN: Oh, wow! That’s really interesting! So they brought grammar.

DANIEL: Basically, yes. We know that pidgins when they start off, they’re fairly simple, but then…

BEN: I’ve got wood, you’ve got this, it’s a utility language.

DANIEL: But when the second generation of speakers comes up, and it’s their only language, they have to beef it up, and they start doing stuff like the second generation of Nicaraguan Sign kids did.

BEN: Wow.

DANIEL: They started adding subject-verb agreement — like you know, “Daniel goes” versus “Daniel go”.

BEN: Right.

DANIEL: You know, in English, you have to have the ‘s’ there. Well, they started doing that. There hadn’t been any of that before. And there was also something interesting: discreteness.

BEN: Discreteness?

DANIEL: Now let me explain this. If you had to make a sign for “rolling down the hill”, what sort of sign would you make?

BEN: Uh, probably something — I’ll describe it, because sign language doesn’t travel very well — probably my… sort of… like a gesture from my body in a tumbling motion away from me?

DANIEL: Yeah, that’s right, and that would mean “rolling down the hill”.

BEN: Right.

DANIEL: Okay. That’s how it was in the first generation of Nicaraguan Sign.

BEN: Right…

DANIEL: By the time it got to the second or third generation of Nicaraguan Sign, they started to do something different. They started taking that whole idea: “rolling down the hill”, and they started splitting it up.

BEN: Mmm. So there’s ‘rolling’, there’s ‘hill’, there’s ‘down’…

DANIEL: Yeah. What they would actually do is they would do “roll-down-roll”. They would have a separate word for the motion, the ‘rolling’; the direction, which is ‘down’; and then they would add another thing ‘roll’ at the end to mean: this is a continuous sort of thing.

BEN: Ohh, roll.

DANIEL: But what an interesting thing to do!

BEN: Yeah, yeah, yeah!

DANIEL: That’s the kind of thing that we do in language, especially spoken language. We take small chunks, and we sort of build them up, and reuse them in ways that make it easier — first of all, we don’t have to memorise 10,000 signs.

BEN: Yep.

DANIEL: We can get more mileage out of the ones that we’ve got. Now the Nicaraguan Sign started to look a little bit like a lot of other natural languages, starting to do the same thing. And so linguists looked at that and said “Aha! The Universal Grammar!” You remember that, right?

BEN: [Laughs] Yeah.

DANIEL: The idea that there’s a grammar that’s born in our brains…

BEN: There’s grammar in us.

DANIEL: Yeah, and all human languages obey the rules.

BEN: [Hippy impersonation] You, me… everybody, man, it’s just grammar like in us.

DANIEL: But it’s possible that it’s not really the case. It could be a case of convergent evolution.

BEN: Right.

DANIEL: That people use language to do the same things, and this applies a bit of pressure to do things in a way that makes sense, and that’s easy to remember and to interpret.

BEN: And it’s also worth remembering that this series of signs didn’t evolve in a vacuum; it evolved surrounded by other people using languages.

DANIEL: That’s right. People start with a repertoire, which can then be expanded when using it with other people. So language grows out of social interaction.

BEN: Mmm.

DANIEL: It’s not necessarily, you know, a bioprogram; it could just be that things make sense to us if we do them a certain way and it’s easy, and the language grows out of the communications that we have every day.

BEN: I like the idea that as — linguists have basically — a certain school of linguistics has gotten to the point where [voice faintly reminiscent of Lumpy Space Princess from “Adventure Time”, who sounds like a petulant teenager] “Look, dudes. Every time two people get together, they negotiate meaning, and it’s just always the same, all right? It’s not internal grammar, it’s just how we do it.”

DANIEL: [same accent, but worse] “So obvious.” Here’s one that I just found out about. This is Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language. It’s been going on for about 70 years in the Al-Sayyid Bedouin tribe in the Negev desert of southern Israel.

BEN: Mhm.

DANIEL: Loads of Deaf people, again about 4 percent. This one evolved among Deaf people, but it’s a little bit different. Remember how I said that for Nicaraguan Sign, they tended to break their signs into smaller chunks that they could reuse?

BEN: Right.

DANIEL: And combine. Well, speakers of Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign haven’t done this.

BEN: So they just… they must have a massive repertoire of signs to convey all these different ideas.

DANIEL: That’s right. It’s possible that they will do this; they just haven’t yet. They also haven’t done anything with subject-verb agreement, but that’s okay ’cause lots of languages don’t. Even English does this in a limited way.

BEN: Ah.

DANIEL: But there’s a lot of variability and, you know, sometimes they might not do the things that we would expect human languages to do. But they do provide a bit of evidence about how humans do language. They start out simple, but then they get beefed up as the languages have to take on more of a functional load. And they do resemble all human languages, probably because all humans need to do kind of the same things with language.

BEN: [Lumpy Space Princess voice] “It’s just all the same.”

DANIEL: “It’s so obvious.”

BEN: “Goll, you guys.” Now that we’ve negotiated that meaning together, why don’t we break on a track.

DANIEL: How about “Hands” by Ms John Soda?

BEN: You’re listening to RTRfm 92.1, the Sound Alternative. You’re tuned in to Talk the Talk, our weekly exploration of matters linguistic. My name is Ben, Daniel’s across the desk, and we will be back right after this.


DANIEL: Ms John Soda with “Hands”, on RTRfm 92.1.

BEN: And if you’re just tuning in, you have caught “Talk the Talk”, where we look into things of a linguistic nature. And you might be thinking to yourself, “Ah, linguistics. That’s the stuff that comes from your mouth.” Well, you’d be wrong!

DANIEL: Because it can also come from your hands, and even other parts of your body. For example, Kata Kolok, a village sign in Indonesia. Now this is one where the villagers share a belief in Batara Kolok, a deaf god. Isn’t that interesting?

BEN: That is interesting.

DANIEL: There’s some video, which I will link to on our blog,, a guy doing some signs, and it really does seem to be — it uses hands and facial gestures and all kinds of things.

BEN: Huh!

DANIEL: Kinda dancey, actually.

BEN: There you go. Is it the sign language version of speaking in tongues? Is he just going crazy?

DANIEL: Well, it’s still photographs, so you have to get what you can from it.

BEN: Right.

DANIEL: But still, it looks pretty active. Interesting thing about Kata Kolok is that it doesn’t use ‘right’ and ‘left’; it uses ‘east’ and ‘west’.

BEN: At all times?

DANIEL: Yeah, they use… like you’d say, you know, “Watch out, there’s a spider on your west leg.”

BEN: Woah.

DANIEL: Yeah, how about that.

BEN: But what if you’re facing north-south?

DANIEL: Well, then…

BEN: What if my body’s lined up with the north-south meridian?


BEN: I’d be like “What do you mean? What do you mean!? You’ve got to be MORE SPECIFIC!”

DANIEL: No, no, it’s okay; you can use ‘north’ and ‘south’, too.

BEN: Oh, okay.

DANIEL: They just don’t use ‘left’ and ‘right’. Yeah, so this is a village sign language. In places where there’s a lot of congenital deafness, these things sort of spring up.

BEN: Well, it needs to be asked then: What about Australian Indigenous languages? Because a) very very isolated from both one another and the wider world, b) unfortunately, quite a high level, I believe, of congenital deafness.

DANIEL: Well, this is actually kind of exciting. There’s a new website where you can check out signs used by Aboriginal Australians.

BEN: Cool.

DANIEL: It’s the first on-line dictionary of sign languages used by indigenous communities across Central Australia. The website is called Iltyem-Iltyem, which is an Anmatyerr word meaning ‘signalling with hands, or using handsigns’. It’s the project of Dr Jennifer Green of the University of Melbourne, and it covers languages like Anmatyerr — speakers come from Ti Tree in the Northern Territory — and also speakers of Ngaanyatjarra in the Western Desert. Now this is interesting because sign is used because of deafness sometimes, but it’s also used for other reasons. For example, even if you’re a hearing person, you might use it in cases of hunting, which makes sense, right?

BEN: Well, I immediately think of that really cool hand signal thing that people in the military have when they can’t have the baddies hearing them, and they’re like [flurry of signalling noises] and they’re like “Panzer tanks! Over there! Go!”

DANIEL: It’s also good when you’re a long way away from someone, which makes sense.

BEN: Yep, like semaphore flags back in the day.

DANIEL: Exactly, another military thing.

BEN: Mhm.

DANIEL: And also, now this works as an avoidance vocabulary. Now we’ve talked a little bit about avoidance vocabulary before.

BEN: Ooo, yeah, so this is when you can’t say — like, I can’t remember — I think it might have been in Arnhem Land, there was a people who couldn’t speak that names of certain people who had passed away, and so they had to avoid those words.

DANIEL: That’s right. Well, this is kind of like that. In certain formal situations, you use a certain register where the vocabulary is underspecified. So you wouldn’t say something like ‘hit’ or ‘kill’ or ‘cut’. You’d use a general sort of word for all those things that means ‘make bad’. Instead of, “Kill that guy”, you’d be like…

BEN: [laughs] I feel like we need to do that for English.

DANIEL: Yeah: “Whack him!” No: “Make him bad.”

BEN: Make him bad.

DANIEL: Make bad that guy.

BEN: That sounds even more ominous, somehow.

DANIEL: Isn’t it just?

BEN: Because now your imagination is left to decide the worst way to make something bad.

DANIEL: That’s right! Well, this is like that, except instead of avoiding certain words, you just avoid words altogether and use the sign.

BEN: Ah! Interesting. And now, is it always a negative connotation, or can sometimes it be a thing of such… like, say, a religious or spiritual thing that is so important that it can’t be spoken with mere mortal mouths and it must be signed instead? Like is it both sides, or is it just bad things?

DANIEL: It’s both of those things, and it’s also kind of like respect. You’re not specifying what you mean, you’re not clubbing the other person over the head with your meaning. You’re just sort of putting it out there generally, vaguely, and trusting that they’ll be smart enough to know what you mean.

BEN: Not like us barbarians, who discretely explain every measure of meaning all the time. God!

DANIEL: All the specificity! There’s just too much.

BEN: It’s the worst!

DANIEL: If you want to check out the videos, you can go to

BEN: Now, we know that to say “Aboriginal language” is wrong…

DANIEL: It’s not one thing.

BEN: Because it’s not one thing, there’s many many many many many languages. Is the same true for sign languages? Are the borders the same, or do the signs travel a bit further than the spoken language? For instance, you said Iltyem-Iltyem deals with two different language groups in the middle of Australia. Are they shared signs, for the most part?

DANIEL: They are in some cases because of language contact, but in some cases not. And I don’t know very much about this. I did notice on the website that in the various (what we call) languages, Iltyem-Iltyem, which means ‘speaking with your hands’, that term looks kind of the same from language to language.

BEN: Right.

DANIEL: Remember that the boundaries might be totally different, though. People who use different spoken languages can use the same sign language. Like, take for example the varieties of English. We’ve got spoken American English, spoken British English, spoken Australian English. We can all pretty much understand each other, with some variations. Right?

BEN: Right, unless I try to order something in the South of America, and then I have to repeat myself several times.

DANIEL: Yes, you do. But BSL, ASL, and Auslan — the signed versions – not highly mutually intelligible.

BEN: No. And I always — until someone explained to me why that was, which we were talking about in the first half, and the fact that when things… sign language is very easy to make different, to create its own lexicon, so to speak, I always thought that was so wack, I was like “Why?! Why would you make it different? It’s so dumb!” If nothing else…

DANIEL: Why would someone sit down and make them all different like that?

BEN: My brain went further: Why wouldn’t you create this tool for all Deaf people? Pan-cultural sign language.

DANIEL: World sign!

BEN: But…

DANIEL: And the reason is because nobody made these languages.

BEN: Yep.

DANIEL: Nobody sat down and made English; nobody sits down and makes these languages; they grow. Just like a plant or something.

BEN: So a lot of Indigenous languages: under threat.

DANIEL: A lot of signed languages are under threat.

BEN: Noo! I didn’t want to hear that!

DANIEL: Just like all kinds of languages. You know, the ones we’ve seen — and there will be links on our blog post to this — but you know, languages in Israel, languages in Thailand, languages in the Americas, languages in Mexico — they’re all growing up, but they are kind of under threat.

BEN: Now, are they more under threat because [derpy voice] linguists don’t think they’re real language?

DANIEL: Oh, no! Goodness, no, I think we would find broad agreement among linguists that sign languages are languages.

BEN: So that was old-school thinking?

DANIEL: Yeah, nobody thinks that. I’ll tell you why they are under threat. First of all, because minority languages are just under threat generally.

BEN: Same reason as the other ones. One.

DANIEL: Yeah. Another thing, though, is because of greater mobility. People move around a lot more these days, which means more mixing. More mixing means more genetic diversity, and that means less congenital deafness.

BEN: Now I’ve also heard from, again, my friend who works in this industry, who said that in younger generations of the hearing-challenged, sign language is kind of a little bit under threat anyway because of the spread of very fast communication tools, a.k.a.: a lot of the kids at this person’s school struggle to learn because they have this device in their pocket that they can just super quickly type out communication with, and they don’t see as much benefit as prior generations for whom it was the only way to communicate.

DANIEL: New technology is having an impact on signed languages. It’s intended to assist Deaf people, but it’s having the effect of knocking the language out, and I’m thinking cochlear implants, which convey a bit of hearing to someone.

BEN: Mmm. God, talk about, like good with the bad. You’re like, YES! This amazing thing that’s just changing Deaf people’s lives. Oh, no! A language is dying!

DANIEL: It’s a touchy issue for people who really feel strongly — I mean, think about how strongly we feel about our languages. Language and identity is a really big deal. And the Deaf community really does want to hold on to its languages. I value that too! I think that’s a really great thing. But on the other hand, more people hearing is good too…

BEN: Is really positive!

DANIEL: So, boy, you know…

BEN: [laughs] I like how — if you were in the studio with me, you’d see that Daniel didn’t say that second part ironically.


BEN: ‘Cause he’s got a linguist brain, he’s like, “I guess that’s also good…?”

DANIEL: I mean, Deaf speakers are… there are some Deaf speakers who try to have a Deaf child.

BEN: Rr?!?… Okay.

DANIEL: They explicitly want to have a Deaf child.

BEN: Mind blown. Can you back up a second and explain that one?

DANIEL: Because they want their culture to be perpetuated.

BEN: Wow.

DANIEL: Because Deaf culture is culture, and Deaf culture is not just a culture; it also has a language associated with it.

BEN: Yep.

DANIEL: Which makes it, you know, more culturey.

BEN: Sense of belonging, yep.

DANIEL: And then other people say, “Wait a minute, but isn’t it a good thing to not have a disability?” And they would say, “It’s not really a disability.”

BEN: Wow.

DANIEL: Right?

BEN: That is a heavy, sticky, swampy mess.

DANIEL: “It’s kind of ableist of you, isn’t it?”

BEN: Wow.

DANIEL: Then the other people say, “Yeah, well, you know, if you’re having that child so that it can be a member of your special club…” you know what I mean?

BEN: Woah, okay, I’m going to apply the brakes here!

DANIEL: But we go down this road, and — you remember how touchy it was talking about talking white.

BEN: Mmm.

DANIEL: This is really touchy, too.

BEN: I can imagine, yeah. Fully.

DANIEL: What these village sign languages can show us is that language is something humans really take to like ducks to water. They spring up when there’s a need for them, and when they do, humans tend to do language in the same kinds of ways as each other, because certain ways of doing language make sense to human brains, and get the job done.

BEN: The thing I was about to say, which I pulled myself up on because it was a little bit ridiculous, but also not: if you are “listening”, and you are hearing impaired — which it probably isn’t a thing, but I know that there are great resources for people to have things like what you and I do here on the podcast available to them — on a long shot, if there’s someone out there who is hearing impaired, or you know someone who’s hearing impaired that you can ask about this, I’d love to hear what you have to say about what that world is like.

DANIEL: We would love to hear about it. Why don’t you hit us up on Twitter @talkrtr, send us an email: I’m gonna transcribe this show so that it’s gonna be available to people.

BEN: BAM. Look at that. Go you.

DANIEL: Doin’ it. So hit us up, let us know, is this as touchy as I’m making out? Am I portraying one side or the other wrongly? Please let us know.

BEN: With that, what new, fantastic addition to the language of the world have you brought to my feet? I hope it’s good; I’ve taken a week off! You’ve had two weeks to prepare something amazing. What is it?

DANIEL: I don’t think you’re going to be pleased.

BEN: I rarely am.

DANIEL: The Word of the Week is Ebola! Could be the Word of the Year.

BEN: Yeah.

DANIEL: Do you know why it’s called that? Why is Ebola called Ebola?

BEN: I don’t know. The only thing it makes me think of is bolas, that weapon of the two weights with the string in between them?

DANIEL: Oh, makes me think of bolo ties. Nope, it’s named after the Ebola River, where the virus was found in 1976.

BEN: In the Congo, yeah?

DANIEL: In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, justa short distance from Kinshasa, which we now know is where HIV originated.

BEN: Ooo!

DANIEL: What a charming place.

BEN: Yeah, that part of the world has got it tough!

DANIEL: Yeah. Many people are terrified of the Ebola virus, but avoiding it’s easy according to these common-sense tips from the BBC:
• Wash your hands frequently
• If someone has ebola, don’t touch them
• Avoid dead bodies
• No bushmeat — especially do not eat fruitbats. They seem to have a lot of Ebola in them.
• And also, do not panic. And do not use natural remedies.
Now I think those pieces of advice are probably intended for people in Africa, don’t you think?

BEN: Mmm. Well, I think there are some people in our culture who could use them as well. Not for Ebola, because we don’t have that, but…

DANIEL: Those are always good ideas.

BEN: Yeah, as a general rule for life.

DANIEL: Don’t eat bats.

BEN: Don’t eat bats.

DANIEL: Wash your hands.

BEN: Wash your hands. Don’t touch dead people.

DANIEL: Avoid dead bodies. Alex Wild on Twitter points out: 1 in 4 Americans worry about Ebola. Car crashes kill 40,000 Americans per year. That means “10,000 Americans worried about contracting Ebola will die this year in car accidents instead. Because, math.”

BEN: Well, at least they will have died from something that they’re not afraid of.

DANIEL: But maybe we should be.

BEN: Yay!

DANIEL: Good old human brains and our estimation of risk.

BEN: Yeah, it’s a funny one, isn’t it? Well, with that, why don’t we finish the show. What are we going to listen to?

DANIEL: We’re going to do another song called “Hands”. This one’s by Four Tet.

BEN: As always, you’ve been listening to “Talk the Talk”. Ben Ainslie’s my name, Daniel Midgley is the guy who sits across the desk from me, and if you want to hear a longer, more luxurious version of the podcast, then you can do that at our blog page.

DANIEL: It’s You make it sound so sumptuous.

BEN: It is! It’s sensual.


BEN: Mmm. Otherwise, you can tune back in at the same time next week here on RTRfm, everyone’s favourite community station. Until then, toodle-oo.

DANIEL: Bye for now.


[After the sign-off]

BEN: [clears throat] Something in my throat.

DANIEL: It’s a larynx!

BEN: [exaggerated comic laugher]

DANIEL: That’s a linguistics joke there.

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