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The Confusing Words for Small Number Sets

question-mark-faceTechnology has taken hold of our lives and it is not letting go.

To some this statement may seem post-apocalyptical or at least a sign of when the robots rise up, laying siege to our society and eventually taking over our world, playing out the plot of the countless robot movies on the world stage. But, more rationally speaking this is not the case. We have been using technology ever since we became what we call man.

The application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes is the definition of technology and as one can tell it is both very broad and vague. In other words all we can really say about technology is that it is the application of knowledge for practical purposes.

Technology started out as fire and the wheel but has now turned into cell phones loaded with apps and the internet. These advances have done a great many things for society but one new thing that has come into the fold is the idea of the quantified self.

The quantified self is the utilization of large amounts of aggregate data for the purposes of understanding ourselves in a numerical fashion. This practice gives us a new insight into ourselves that would not be otherwise available without us having to waste our day away recording all the information by hand. With devices like fitness bands and mobile apps which allow users to see numerical representations of their lives, individuals can both understand themselves in a different light and then compare themselves for the purpose of self-improvement.

At the end of the day you could take a look at your app and see you have walked this many steps, taken in this many calories, burned this many calories and so on. The result is a list of information on your life and who you are. Taking all that information over a year in order to find your daily average could be incredibly insightful as you would see what your average day is like in comparison to someone else’s average day, the countries average, or the world’s average over an entire year. Or you could go further and quantify all of your actions for your entire life and see how many steps you took in a lifetime.

This whole process of knowing exact numbers for representing our lives is handy to say the least and far easier than tracking it mentally or on paper which more than likely would turn into generalizations and guesses for  most people. The internal dialog would probably turn into something like this:

“We only had a couple French fries at lunch today”

“You know that a couple means 2 or 3, right?”

“Well we had a few then”

“So 5? We only had 5 fries? Or is it less than that?”

“Well it wasn’t many”

As you can see there is much more value in exact numbers than range values, it’s easier to understand a specific number rather than a range. But what are the actual definitions for words like couple, few, handful, several, some and many?

Word Range
A Couple 2-3
A Few More than a couple less than some
Some More than a few less than several
Several More than some less than many
Many More than several, large quantity
A Handful Quantity that fills the hand


While it would be nice to have exact numerical representations for each of these words the language has made them variable words which only represent as much as you want them to at the time when they are used. For the most part they could all be used to present three of something at any given time, which in of itself is perplexing.

Now imagine if we had no definitive numbers and only variable words like the ones we just went over?

It just so happens that there is a tribe in the Amazon called the Pirahã which has this exact element in their language system. They have no way of differentiating between certain number sets because the words they have are built around variable number words.

In 2008 Michael Frank published a set of experiments with the tribe.

For the first one he gathered groups of spool and placed them in ascending order from 1 to 10 and asked the Pirahã members to label each group. The single spool was given a unique word, another word was used to label the groups from 2 to 3 and then groups from 4 to 10 were all given the same word.

A second experiment was done in the opposite fashion; Pirahã members were asked to label the spool groups from 10 to 1 rather than 1 to 10. Surprisingly the same three words were used but this time to represent different things. This time the spools from 1 to 5 were all labeled using the word that had previously been reserved for a single spool, the spool groups from 6 to 8 were labeled using the middle value word and 9-10 were all given the large value descriptive.

In some ways this seems alien because we are so used to having exact values for specific quantities but the Pirahã tribe only represents things as small, medium or large. With all the languages in the world it is always fascinating to find a language that is so different than the rest of the world. While we find our general number set descriptors as confusing and clunky for the Pirahã tribe that is all they know.

Language of the Day: Trinidadian Creole English

Carnaval-Trinidad-and-Tobago-©-kids.britannica.com_Let’s take a journey…

It’s warm but there is a nice salty breeze blowing. There are the usual signs of the tropics: sun kissed skin, palm trees and sandy beaches are all around; this is a place that you would visit on a vacation. The water is warm and it is that clear light blue that can only be found in the waves of the Caribbean. There is a multitude of islands speckling the waters but we find ourselves focused on two which sit at the precipice of the North Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Paria.

Our toes are covered in the sand of Trinidad and Tobago and it is here, on these two islands in the Caribbean that we find Trinidadian Creole English. The language is based off of English which was brought over from the colonials during the colonization of the Americas. While there are differences to English, Trinidadian Creole English is very similar to its parent language.

Since it was established the language has flourished becoming the de facto language of national identity for the people of Trinidad and Tobago. With 1,000,000 speakers the language is in safe hands and is a part of the greater continent of English which has spread its reach around the world.

Thanks for joining us on this journey in language.

Language of the Day: Iaai

vilvil_dancingLet’s take a journey…

Like the moon at most times during its cycle the island is in the shape of a crescent. Surrounded by sandy white beaches that drift into the Pacific Ocean this picturesque island is just a small piece of a larger group of islands. The lush green of vegetation covers the ground which stretches for 50 Km in length and 7 Km in width.

We are on Ouvéa Island which is one of the Loyalty Islands, in the archipelago of New Caledonia and it is on this small island that is in overseas territory of France that we find the speakers of Iaai. Coming from the Loyalty Island line of the Austronesian family Iaai is a well-documented language with a number of publications on the linguistic elements of the language.

Ouvéa Island is the home of one other language, Fagauvea which is significantly different than Iaai even though the two languages have been in contact with one another for many years. With around 4000 speakers Iaai is considered a threatened language but with schools now dedicated to teaching the language and other preventative measures in place the language is well on its way to preservation.

Thanks for joining us on this journey in language.


Language of the Day: Goundo

Let’s take a journey…

The heat of the Sahara Desert lays to the south but it is not where we find ourselves. There is no place for sand in the Sudanian Savanah which is covered in the light green of grasses and shrubs. Within these grasses thrives many different animals, including many species of birds, reptiles and large mammals. There are also a number of rivers which flow through leading their way to the north where they empty into Lake Chad.

We are in southern Chad and while there may be a great many animals populating this grassy region there is also many different people who speak a many different languages. One of these languages is Goundo. Extending from the Niger-Congo family of languages, Goundo is a fleeting language.

While Goundo is similar to Besmé and Kim, other languages spoken within the area, its people have ceased teaching it to the youth. With only 30 speakers remaining, all whom are in the later stages of life, the language is on its last legs. Because of the proximity to other languages younger people have switched over to either Kabalai or Nancere, more prominent languages in the area.

The language is on its last legs and it will soon join the many other languages that have fallen out of use, it is a sad tale and one we have seen many times. But if not this language it will be another.

Thanks for joining us on this journey in language.

Language of the Day: Waris

WarisLet’s take a journey…

Born out of a collision between the Indo-Australian Plate and the Pacific plate, the snow-capped Maoke Mountains range from the west to the east, its ten peaks reaching up 4000 metres into the sky. As the mountains slowly fall away into grassy and river infested hills they become lowlands which are blanketed in the lush greens of an ancient rainforest and pocked with low lying swamps.

It is in West Papua that we find ourselves, the home of Waris. From the family grouping Border comes the language of West Papua and Papua New Guinea. It is similar to the Imonda and people who speak the language can understand people who speak Waris and visa-versa. While it is also similar to Amanab the two languages are unintelligible.

Waris is spoken by 4000 people and is taught at an educational level in the places where it is spoken. The people who speak it may be small in number but they are passing the language torch on to their youth and because of that the language is growing in numbers.

Thanks for joining us on this journey in language.


The Explanatory Gap

hard-problem-by-jolyon-trosciankoImagine a world where everything is in black and white. From the green grass to the blue sky to the many colours of people that surround you, all of it and everything else just a shade somewhere between black and white. You are a person that has just landed in this place of grey and you are the only one who has experienced a world of colour. None of the people around you has ever seen the multi-coloured majesty that is a setting sun or the changing arching rays of colours that make up a rainbow. They have seen all of these things but only in scales of grey.

Now imagine trying to explain to one of these people what colour is…

How would you do it? Do you even think you could?

Not to be a negative Nelly but I doubt it.

No matter how much you tried to put together words to explain colours you would fail to find words that are not exact representations of the colour itself. We can explain a chair to someone who has never seen one by explaining its features and its purpose but we cannot find the same words that aptly describe a colour. Something is just red or blue. It can be a version of that colour by being lighter or darker but beyond that we rely on the visual cue itself and our past experiences to understand it.

As we live in a world with colour our eyes and other senses are constantly taking in colours and other information that is around us and then processing it. Storing all the data up and building neural pathways based on the information and our experiences with it. This is how we learn and how we grow and it all happens in our own minds.

Say you are a experiencing some event with a group of friends, for example a concert. Even though you may be sitting side by side having a similar view and experiencing the exact same event their own mind are processing the event based on their own individual subjective experience. While they may experience the same music and concert that you are it is actually completely different. Each person at the concert is having their own experience and this individual instance of subjective, conscious experience that everyone is having is called qualia.

Qualia itself relates to the experience and how our perceptions of it are individual. Because I cannot think the same way you the reader are thinking I cannot know how you view things or how you process them. I can only know my own mind and my own experiences and memories. But this doesn’t entirely segregate us from others and their mindsets. Using language we can communicate enough information to someone else to help them understand what you experienced.

But have you ever tried to explain something and found that there were no words to describe it?

Well then you have experienced the explanatory gap. If we go back to the example of explaining colours to someone who only sees black and white we would experience the explanatory gap.

The explanatory gap also comes into play when you are at the hospital and a nurse asks how much pain you are feeling. Try as you might there is no way of really explaining the pain other than by describing its location, whether it is throbbing or not and how it started, even when asked to rate the pain on a scale of 1-10 is absurd as a 10 for me could be a 6 for you. Pain is completely subjective and based on my own experiences and because of that there are no words that can transfer my experience, or qualia, over to the nurse.

But why is it that we cannot explain these things, what makes the explanatory gap occur?

There are a couple different explanations.

On the one hand it could be that there are words for that experience allowing us to describe the experience at hand but we are unaware of them, and if we pieced enough of these words together we could fill in the puzzle and create a perfect explanation letting someone else understand what we experienced.

This could be a possibility because, as we have previously discussed in “How Big is our Mental Vocabulary”, in the English language there are roughly 1.5 million words but the the average adult only has a mental vocabulary of around 30,000 words, only 2% of the entire Language. Therefore there could be a magic combination of words that do explain what we are feeling but we just lack the language skills.

Although, on the other hand there could plainly be a disconnect between the words we have and the emotions and other things that we are experiencing. While our language allows us to explain a great many things there could be limits to what we can put words to. There could be no way for us to really describe what a colour looks like to someone who has never seen one or tell a nurse about our pain. Our minds and our words may not line up past a certain point.

While this option is bleak and pessimistic it also means that there are things left for the individual. It would be nice to be able to explain anything to your best friend or your family but there is a beauty in the human experience and part of that comes from self-experience; grappling with life and learning without any books or guidelines or anyway to tell someone how past a certain point. What it does is leave room for the personal.

But when it comes down it, we just don’t know why the explanatory gap exists or if there is a way to breach it.

In some ways this shows us some of the follies of our language but it also shows us how much we rely on language for everything we do. While I may not be able to let someone experience an event that I just experienced I can explain to them what happened and tell them a story that resembles what happened. Using the literary tools we do have we can piece words after one another in seemingly limitless possibilities and when that is combined with the human imagination we can get pretty close to explaining many of life’s intricacies and nuances.

Words may fail us sometimes but more often than naught they are opening our eyes and our imaginations to things we could never experience.

Language of the Day: Kurdish, Northern

7794-Kurdish-350x252.4Let’s take a journey…

The air you breathe is arid and the sun beats down making the ground hot to the touch and your skin warm. The land is mostly covered in light brown sand which comes together in dunes which look like the frozen waves of a great sea. The sand sways with the passing wind which picks up grains as it dances through the desert carrying its passengers from the Mediterranean in the west to India and central Asia in the east. While there is not much water there are a number of lakes speckling the land and a couple major rivers which twist and turn their way through the sands.

It is on the banks of these major rivers, namely the Aras, the Tigris and Euphrates, where more habitable lands are found, where agriculture can flourish and irrigation is possible. And it is because of this that the speakers of Northern Kurdish made their homes in the Middle East. The people are spread across Azerbaijan, Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan but are mostly routed in Turkey in the north east of the Middle East.

Northern Kurdish comes from the general Indo-European language family and the Kurdish subset of the family. It is the most spoken form of Kurdish and is also called Kurmanji and Bahdini depending on where you are. Northern Kurdish is closely related to other Iranian languages like Persian due to the historical closeness of the speakers.

There have been many books written in Northern Kurdish and it is taught in many schools throughout the regions where it is spoken. There are 20 million speakers of the language worldwide with 3 million of those being monolingual. Although Northern Kurdish is currently in decline in Turkey where about 15 million speakers reside, all in all the language is in good standing and is continually taught in schools and has a number of publications made in the language.

Even though the land of the Middle East may be harsh and sand covered there are many people with many different languages residing there and Northern Kurdish is one of them.

Thanks for joining us on this journey in language.

Language of the Day: Maasai

Maasai_people-image-5Let’s take a journey…

To the west rests Lake Victoria the second largest fresh water lake in the world, named after Queen Victoria who was the presiding Queen of England when it was discovered. To the east, where the sun rises signalling a new day is the great Indian Ocean whose waters touch the shores of Australia, Africa and Asia. The land between the fresh water lake to the west and the ocean to the east is filled with dense forests and mountains. Along this line rises the monstrous Mount Kilimanjaro who peaks at around six thousand metres above sea level.

It is in the forested and mountainous region along the border of Kenya and Tanzania that we find the Maasai people whose language shares their namesake. The Maasai language is a Maa language which comes from the Nilo-Saharan language family and is similar to Samburu, Chamus and Parakuyu.

The number of speakers has more than doubled since 1989, with the estimate at that time being around 400,000, while currently the number is around 850,000. Although the Kenyan government has tried to amalgamate the traditional semi-nomadic Maasai people into the modern Kenyan society they have been unsuccessful. The Massai people have been steadfast in their dedication to their culture, history and customs.

Even though the land is arid where it is flat and forested where it is not these people have remained true to their customs and have preserved their way of life and their language. Since 1989 the number of speakers has doubled and there are no signs that we will see any kind of decline in its growth. Maasai will be around for many years to come.

Thanks for joining us on this journey in language.

Language of the Day: Ede Ije

6990050643_fc218391a6_zLet’s take a journey…

From the Niger River on its northern border all the way down to where it meets the Atlantic Ocean the land is a mixture of coastal plains, marshy lagoons, and Guinean forest-savanna mosaic-covered plateaus and valleys. Stuck in the middle of Togo and Nigeria this small mostly tropical African country has little to no elevation until the northern border and is sparsely populated.

We are in the country of Benin and it is within the country’s thorny scrub covered and baobab tree dotted Savana region that we find the speakers of Ede Ije. Spoken by fifty thousand people Ede Ije is a part of the Niger-Congo language family and is closely related to the Yoruba language which is also spoken within the area.

With each generation the language grows and is passed on. It is spoken by all groups of people and as the agriculture of the people becoming more stable the population will increase pushing the language upwards and onwards. While there is a large population of French speakers in Benin they have had little impact on diminishing the loyalty to Ede Ije.

It is a safe and vigorously used language and unlike many other languages that are within the confines of Africa it is stable.

Thanks for joining us on this journey in language.

The Dethroning of Awesome


Lists. We love them and we see them everywhere. Just scrolling through your social media feeds you will come across a multitude of them from “top ten new shows to watch” to “five ways to dress better for the fall”. They are a great way to organize things and are universally understood due to the simple sequential numbering system. They also play into our need for tidbits of information by telling us right from the get-go how much information is contained within the story or link which also gives us an immediate notion of how much attention and time the story will demand from us.

While we always wished to gain new knowledge the internet has given us a new medium which allows for a virtually limitless supply of information that is available instantaneously. In sense we have become the Sesame Street character the Cookie Monster but instead of cookies we want information to devour and we want it in neat little packets right now.

Given all that, it is only natural that there is a list published at the end of every year listing the most overused words. The entries range from newer words such as selfie to older words such as passion and it is here that we find the word awesome.

At first glance this entry seems to make complete sense as we hear and see it everywhere. “That’s awesome” is just a regular run of the mill expression nowadays, but when you think about it, does it make any sense that it is used that much?

The definition of the word awesome is supposed to be interrelated to something that leaves us in awe which in of itself means a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder. So are we all just having years which are on the verge of fear and wonder which would make the use of the word fitting? Or is it that we have come to use the word in a lesser situation and to represent something of a different nature?

As you can probably tell it is the latter of the two.

We have come to use the word awesome in a less than awesome sense and more in a cool sense. And just like the word cool which used to mean something along the lines of calm or cold, we have expropriated the meaning to represent “great” but in a colloquial way.

The thing is we hijack the meaning of words all the time as we are constantly redefining the way language is used and what words mean through the organic evolution of language. Listed below are three examples.

3 words we use differently than what they actually mean.

1. Incredible

What we think it means: Amazing; extraordinary

Its original meaning: Not credible; unbelievable

2. Great

What we think it means: Very good

Its original meaning: Very large; of unusual size; remarkable.

3. Terrific

What we think it means: Very good

Its original meaning: Frightening; terrifying

If you take some time to think about many of the words that you say and use on a daily basis you would probably be surprised by how many of them are defined differently than how you are using them. But that does not mean we are using them wrong.

Languages evolve and change so it follows suit that word usage will change from one generation to the next. But this is not true in all cases as we can still use words wrong even though they are evolving into something different.

Going back to our discussion about the word awesome, it should be noted that this word used to reign as a supreme, penultimate sensation. Something awesome was something heavenly to the point of it creating fear. While most words can change meanings without any associated problems the adjectives that are reserved for the extremities cause issues when they are used incorrectly.

If you are to think of a circular spectrum of adjectives, normal would fall at its center and all the other words would radiate out in different directions until you hit the words on the extremity of the spectrum. Words like infinite, extreme and awesome would be at these end points with no other words following them. That is because by definition these words have no greater level. By our misrepresenting them we take away their power and their gravity but leave our vocabulary with no replacements for the void we have created.

So if you experience something is it really awesome or is it is just good? Or how would you describe something that is truly awesome once you have experienced it? The same questions could be asked for the usage of the words extreme and infinite and numerous others. We could make up new words but then we would fall into the same trap we are in now.

To help us all out the article “Awesome: The most overused word in English” has put together a list of alternatives to awesome and while this will not fix the dethroning of words we are currently responsible for it will help to curtail it. And it’s in all in a list.

35 Alternatives to Awesome

  1. Amazing
  2. Astonishing
  3. Beautiful
  4. Breathtaking
  5. Brilliant
  6. Clever
  7. Dazzling
  8. Exciting
  9. Excellent
  10. Exceptional
  11. Fabulous
  12. Fantastic
  13. Great
  14. Heart-stopping
  15. Humbling
  16. Impressive
  17. Incredible
  18. Ingenious
  19. Magnificent
  20. Majestic
  21. Marvelous
  22. Mind-blowing
  23. Momentous
  24. Moving
  25. Out of this world
  26. Outstanding
  27. Overwhelming
  28. Remarkable
  29. Righteous
  30. Spectacular
  31. Staggering
  32. Striking
  33. Stunning
  34. Wonderful
  35. Wondrous

Do you have any other suggestions? Let us know in the comments below.

And once again, thanks for reading.

Language of the Day: Acholi

ACHOLI-DANCELet’s take a journey…

Down to a place to a place where the White Nile snakes its way from the northern border down to the southern border, segmenting the tropical forest and swamp covered land in half. The borders of Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, the Congo, and the Central African Republic enclose this newly minted country within the confines of Central Africa. This country is new, having only gained its independence in 2011 from its northern neighbour, Sudan.

We are in the swamps of South Sudan and it is here that we find the language of Acholi primarily being spoken. Acholi is a Western Nilotic language which is a part of the Nilo-Saharan language classification. It is a language of many different names as it is spoken by many different tribes within the country and these tribes are growing in number and spreading the language. With this growth the language has developed a number of different dialects including Dhopaluo and Nyakwai along with a number of others.

The current population of speakers sits around one million two hundred thousand and is growing. Today it has spread into a number of other countries such as Uganda and Kenya. Furthermore, with the separation of South Sudan from Sudan the people who speak the language will have more stability then what used to be the case.

Acholi also has a rich past with one of the most successful African literary works, The Song of Lawino being originally published in the language. The 1966 epic poem penned by Okot p’Bitek describes the destruction of African society and culture during its colonization by Europeans. It was soon translated into many other languages and is viewed not only as an incredibly important work but as culturally iconic of the entirety of Africa.

Acholi will rise as Africa does and will continue to grow and spread across central Africa in the years to come. The people who speak it are proud and will remain loyal to the history that the language embodies and because of that it will not be going anywhere but up.

Thank you for joining us on this journey in language.

Language of the Day: Sãotomense

6327087780_bf85dc90b9_zLet’s take a journey…

The weekend may be over but we are heading out to a tropical island. Rising mountains with streaming rivers cover the central part of the island and are surrounded by with shores which are covered in the light coloured sand that is warm to the touch all year around. To the east are the waters of the Gulf of Guinea shortly followed by western Africa and right at the southern tip of the island lays the equator meaning that the island basks in the heat of the sun from January to December.

We find ourselves on the island of São Tomé and Príncipe a place founded by Portuguese explorers in the fifteenth century who named the then unhabituated island after Saint Thomas. It is here that we find the language of Sãotomense and the people who speak it.

Sãotomense, also known as Forro is a Portuguese based Creole language which is separate from the Portuguese dialect which is also spoken in the area. The language is spoken by around seventy thousand people and is used in social groups of middle aged and older people, with the youth having switched to the Portuguse dialect, São Tomean Portuguese.

The culture and language are a unique fusion of African and Portuguese and are rich in history and even though the youth have started switching to a new language the Sãotomense language and culture is still preserved and very much still intact.

Thanks for joining us on this journey in language.

Language of the Day: Kaba Naa, Sara

KabaNSaraLet’s take a journey…

From north to south we see a duality of environments. In the north lays the sweeping sands of the desert, a place that sees little rain and moisture and to the south the ground is covered in the greens of plant life, it is fertile and habitable. In the central area we see a transition area as the desert moves into the fertile lands to the south this is the area where Lake Chad begins, the namesake for the country we find ourselves in.

We are in Chad a landlocked country of Central Africa and the home to the speakers of the Kaba Naa, Sara language. Kaba Naa, Sara is one of five languages from the line of Bongo–Bagirmi which come from the Central Sudanic language family. The languages in the grouping are spread across a number of countries in Central and Northern Africa.

The people who speak the languages make their home in the south western area of Chad which is where Lake Chad lays. The Lake itself grows and shrinks relative to the seasons and the weather and its size has varied greatly over the years. Unlike the variability of Lake Chad the Kaba Naa, Sara language has seen constant growth for many years.

The language is spoken by nearly forty thousand people spread across the area and is the primary language of the people. It is taught from generation to generation and there is no threat of it declining. Kaba Naa, Sara is a developing and growing language and will only become more prominent in the years to come.

In a time when many languages are going in the opposite direction of Kaba Naa, Sara it is nice to see a story of a language that is small but flourishing.

Thanks for joining us on this journey in language.

Language of the Day: Wayoró

indios_2007Let’s take a journey…

The landscape may be covered in the patchwork of farms but it used to be filled with trees wider than you or I can hug. Leaves would spread out from the branches of these trees creating a dark green canopy above and as the rain fell, as it did more often than naught, it would be caught by this canopy. The air is humid and the wide Madeira River snakes its way through the state along with numerous other rivers.

We are in the Rondônia province of Brazil and even though this place is a part of the Rainforests of the Amazon it is hardly reminiscent of the designation any more. The province is one of the largest areas that have been deforested in the Amazon and not only has this damaged habitats for a great many species of plants and animals, it has also affected the way of life of all the native tribes who reside in the area.

There are great many native groups who call the Amazon home and they have been there for countless generations, some are still undiscovered. These tribes thrive in an environment that many of us would be hard pressed to survive one night in. There are many dangers that come with living in such a place but the tribes have learned how to live in the Amazon and that is where they call home. One such tribe is the speakers of Wayoró.

The language of Wayoró is a part of the Tuparí branch of the Tupian grouping. The language is spoken by seventy people when it was last documented. Akin to many of the native people who call the Amazon home the Wayoró people have slowly been pushed from their homes as the Amazon has been developed. Today the language is estimated to be on the verge of extinction with very few speakers remaining. The people may still live on but their language will soon be lost. A story told far too often.

Thanks for joining us on this journey in language.

What is a Conlang?

e1Each weekday on this very blog page we cover one of the world’s six thousand five hundred languages. We discuss the current state of the language, who are the speakers of the language and where they live. But with how many languages there are it would take approximately thirty one years for us to get through all the world’s languages. It’s safe to say, we have quite a bit of content to get through.

But in thirty one years a lot will have changed and there will also be far less languages to talk about.

It is estimated that every fourteen days a language dies. In thirty one years we will have lost eight hundred and eight languages, reducing the total by twelve percent. It would be conceited for us to say that this would affect our content because it is a sad day when we lose a language. As we have previously discussed languages give us many insights into the world and are a key aspect of our business.

But what about language creation?

A constructed language is called a conlang and its name comes from the combination of the two words which define it. Unlike something like Pig Latin (a reorganization of the letters in English words) a conlang is a full embodied language. For all intents and purposes it is a real language.

But what makes a language real?

To this we look to the elements of language. From German to Afrikaans or any other language for that matter there are five linguistic elements which define a language and make it unique from all the other languages.

The Five Linguistic Elements:

  1. Phonology: the sound and system of a language
  2. Morphology: the structure of words
  3. Syntax: the structure of sentences
  4. Semantics: the meaning in language
  5. Pragmatics: the appropriate use of language in different contexts

But more than those things there is also a little thing called grammar: how words are put together in order to make sentences. In order to actually put together this blog post I cannot just know English words I have to know where they belong and how they fit together in order to create the intended meaning. I could know every word in the English languages and I could still not know how or what I am saying.

Natural languages also evolve over time as they are passed down from generation to generation and adapted to fit the current times. Take English for example. If you compare Old English and the English that is used today there is a stark contrast between the two languages and that is just a difference of a couple hundred years. Furthermore, as we have discussed in previous posts, with new technologies comes new words. Try to think about having a conversation with someone prior the invention of the internet and you will see how much our language has changed in the span of a couple decades.

With all of that in mind it would almost seem momentous to create a language from scratch. And yet some people have done just that.

The Lord of the Rings is a staple of the fantasy genre and is world renowned. The trilogy has spawned a series of movies and a group of fans whose dedication can only be rivaled with that of Star Trek. But there is a commonality between these two franchises and that is that they both have a conlang.

For the world of Lord of the Rings, J.R.R Tolkien developed the language of the elves. He put together not only a master list of words and grammatical rules but also different dialects which developed over time as the people who spoke the language separated and their languages changed. For Star trek fans there is Klingon which has been developed in a similar fashion.

Although Tolkien did a superb job of developing the Elvish language it itself cannot be spoken unlike Klingon which has been developed enough to speak in conversation.

Conlangs are also gaining popularity and have gained a lot of steam since the release of Avatar and Game of Thrones. Many television shows are now hiring conlangs, professional language designers to build languages from the ground up for their worlds. These languages are developed not randomly but to match the people who speak it and therefore end up as unique as any other language.

But conlangs are not just in the realms of fantasy. In Europe, the language Esperanto which has about two million speakers is a constructed language. While it originally took its routes from a number of different natural languages Esperanto is constructed and its speakers represent the World’s largest contingent of conlang speakers. The language was first published in a book by L. L. Zamenhof in 1887 but it is the most prominent conlang success story.

Over the years there have been numerous attempts to create a conlang which can be called the perfect human language. But to this day none of them have taken off. The only conlang to really take off is Esperanto and it is limited.

Conlangs may not be able to replace the depth and history that goes along with a natural language which has been built up over many years and evolved to suit the people who speak it but it will be interesting to see how many new languages pop up in thirty one years. By then we may even end up writing a language of the day piece on a language that does not even exist today. That would be interesting.

What do you think? Could a conlang have the potential to take off? Let me know in the comment section below.

And once again, thanks for reading.

Language of the Day: Lushootseed

Skagit_ViHilbert03Let’s take a journey…

To a place where two boarders meet and where mountains ranges run high into sky covered in the dark lush green of pine and fir trees until the mountains reach the heights where white snows cap their tops like white toques.

Here on the western boarder of the United States and Canada where Washington State meets British Columbia is where we used to find the people who speak Lushootseed. The Lushootseed language and its brother Twana are a part of the Southern Coastal Salish subgroup of the Salishan family of languages. While the language used to be spoken by Puget region Sound peoples the language has entered the later stages of its life cycle.

The last time the language was researched was back in the 1990s and at that time the language had less than 60 speakers, most of whom were elders. But even though it is more than likely that the language has lost the last of its native speakers there was a major effort in the perseveration of the language. Today there are revitalization efforts in place to bring back the language, with many classes being offered to teach the language and an annual conference on the language held at Seattle University. There is also a website where you can download Lushootseed lesson books.

With so many groups coming together to make sure that the light never fades from the Lushootseed language it can safely be assumed that it will not be lost.

Thanks for joining us on this journey in language.

Language of the Day: Marangis

heroLet’s take a journey…

We find ourselves in a place whose shores are lapped by the waters of the Bismarck Sea and whose mountains stretch up into the clouds some of which have the potential to erupt shooting fire and ash into the sky. These volcanoes have created many interesting geologic features such as black sand beaches and crater lakes. The region also has a great many islands of various sizes freckling the waters of the Bismarck and rain forests.

This is the Madang Province of Papua New Guinea and it is where we find the speakers of the Marangis language. Marangis is a part of the Ramu family which has 30 members all of which are found in Papua New Guinea. While it is commonly known as Marangis it is sometimes called Watam. It is a language closely related to Bosmun because of its unusual plural markers.

While the language only boasts a population of speakers in the 600s it is doing quite well because of the devotion of its speakers to passing it on to their youth. The people themselves can be found in the mainland area of the Madang Province and also in a number of islands along the coast.

While there are many stories of languages dying out this is a joyful story of a people who are proud of their language and who have built a stable home for themselves and their language.

Thanks for joining us on this journey in language.

Language of the Day: El Molo

tumblr_mxccfn4up51qdjbb7o1_1280Let’s take a journey into Africa and through the Eastern Province of Kenya.

In the arid air of the region we find the Chalbi Desert nestled next to Lake Turkana, the largest desert lake in the world. Located in the province is also the river Ewaso Ng’iro and Mount Kenya, whose heights stretch 5200 meters in the sky, making it taller than any other geographic feature in Kenya and granting it the designation of a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Hidden within the northern portion of the Eastern Province’s Lake Turkana is what remains of the speakers of the El Molo language. The language itself is routed in the Cushitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic family. Today, However, there is little documentation and data currently available on the number of speakers remaining. What is known is that the language is on the verge of extinction if it has not already become extinct.

As the years progressed the El Molo tribes within the area have moved around eventually joining other tribes such as the Nilotic who speak one of the Nilo-Saharan languages and also have different customs. These amalgamations have caused not only the loss of much of the El Molo language but also of the cultural customs as the El Molo people have adopted the customs of the Nilotic people or whatever other tribe they join with rather than maintain their own.

While this has painted a bleak picture for the El Molo people and there way of life there is still many historical sites which have been preserved to remember a way of life that may soon no longer exist. It may not be the same as the real thing but it is far better than the alternative which is the fate that many other languages have found. And for the optimistic out there, with little documentation on the current standing of the language comes hope that out there may be tribes of speakers of the language still thriving and on their own. There is always hope even if it is only a sliver.

Thank you for joining us on this journey in languages.

How Many Words Do You Know?

wordsThere is an old adage that says, ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’. The saying means that the older you get the less you are able to learn and yet it could not be further from the truth.

From the moment we are born we are learning and taking in information. Right now, in this very second while you are reading these words you are taking in new information and (hopefully) learning something new. This does not depend on your age or any other factor, the only determinant is that you are reading and using your mental lexicon which is like your personal dictionary to put meaning to each word and sentence.

Sometimes when reading you may come across words such as anathema (a cursed, detested person) or harangue (a ranting speech) which you have never come across before. These words are meaningless until you look them up and save the word’s meaning, what it sounds like and how it is spelled. This is the information that is stored in your mental lexicon.

But how many words do we actually have situated within our mental lexicon ready for use in talking with someone or when writing?

According to the Economist, who took aggregate data from a vocabulary testing website, most adult native English speakers have a mental vocabulary of twenty to thirty-five thousand words. At the age of eight it is estimated that we have a vocabulary of ten thousand words while at age four we already know four thousand words. For non-native speakers the average vocabulary is around four thousand five hundred words unless they live abroad in an English speaking country then that number increases to ten thousand.

Although these numbers pale In comparison to Shakespeare as he used more than thirty thousand different words in his written works and is estimated to have had a working knowledge of around sixty-six thousand words. More than two times that of the average native English speaker.

With those averages in mind it is astounding that there are more than five hundred thousand words in a standard English dictionary with a further one million words floating around the English language that are undocumented but in use. It would require nineteen people with vocabularies that have no overlap to complete an English dictionary and you would have to add another thirty-eight people to complete the entire language. Simply put there are a lot of English words.

Given that, how many words do we use day-to-day?

There are two answers to this question. First, how many total words are spoken and second, how many unique words are spoken.

To answer the first part of the question (how many total words are spoken) we look to the results of a recent study which found that on average people speak just over sixteen thousand words in any given day. That is just shy of seven hundred words per hour and just over eleven words a minute. But that is based on being awake for twenty-four hours. If we were to take off eight hours for sleep those numbers jump to a thousand words per hour and seventeen words per minute.

Now onto the second part of the question (how many unique words are spoken).  We now turn to a book entitled ‘The Reading Teachers Book of Lists’ which stated that around three thousand is the number of unique words we use on the average day. If we do some math what we find is that we only use eleven percent of our active vocabulary in each day. Most of the words that we know lay unused just awaiting their moment to shine.

Despite the fact that we are fast talkers, given that we use seventeen words per minute while awake, in a lot of our days we do not actually use that many different words. Only nineteen percent of the words we speak are previously unused words from that day while the other eighty-one percent are a repetition of previously used words.

What then is the purpose of all those other words filling up your mental dictionary?

While you may not personally say them or write them down you may need them to read an article or a book or understand something that someone else is saying. Or maybe this is just a sign that we all need to be more colourful in our language and try to spice up our conversations with words like anathema or harangue. With a plethora of delightful words to select from the question shouldn’t be why but why not.

Thanks for reading this week’s blog post and visit us every Wednesday for a new post.

Want to test the vastness of your mental lexicon? Check out this site and then let us know your score in the comment section below.

Language of the Day: Yupik, Naukan

Archangel_reindeer3If you were to go to the most northeastern point of Asia you would have to venture up into northern Russia where the Chukchi Sea lays to the north, the Bearing Sea to the south and the Bearing Straight would lay in the east. You would find yourself in the Chukchi Peninsula and it is here that we find the speakers of the Yupik, Naukan language.

Spoken by nearly 500 people this language finds itself on the verge of extinction. Currently the language is spoken by people above the age of 40 and is not spoken by the youth of the people.

The language itself is one of four languages that are part of the Yupik language grouping with the others being Central Siberian Yupik, Central Alaskan Yup’ik, Alutiiq, and Sirenik. The people who speak the language are indigenous people of Siberia who have resided in the Chukchi Peninsula for nearly 2000 years.