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 life 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 experienced the multi-coloured majesty that is a setting sun or the arching rays of colours that make up a rainbow.

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

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

No matter how hard you tried to put together an explanation 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.

We live in a world with colour. Our eyes 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.

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 your mind and their’s are processing the event in very different ways. While they may experience the same music at the same concert it is actually completely different. It is subjective. 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. Due to the fact that 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 is being 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.

Language of the Day: Pitjantjatjara

Carclew group shot_MEDPitjantjatjara is a dialect of the Western Desert Language found in the Central Desert region of Australia. The Western Desert Language itself is comprised of a variety of distinct dialects many of which are viewed as separate languages because of the vast differences that exist between the many dialects. The closest dialects to Pitjantjatjara are either the Yankunytjatjara dialect or the Ngaanyatjarra dialect.

The Western Desert language grouping became so diverse because of the large expanse of desert which the people populate. The groups who speak one of the many dialects would have done so without much of any contact with other tribes allowing the many dialects to grow and flourish. This lack of influence from one dialect to the next resulted in what can be seen in the area now; many unique dialects that are unintelligible from one another.

Today Pitjantjatjara is spoken by nearly 4000 people spread across the north-western area of the Central Desert. These people are broken into small groups most of whom are monolingual. While the people have given up their nomadic hunter and gather lifestyle they have retained their language and their culture.

A Pill to Learn a Language

Person Taking a Pill

How do you learn new things?

If you were to try and learn something new, let’s say a language how would you go about doing so? You could read a book or listen to people speak the language or you could formulate any number of other learning strategies. But at the end of the day you may not learn that language unless you are learning it in a style that best suits you.

People learn things differently and these different learning styles can be broken into 7 different groupings which describe your individual optimal learning situation. Listed below are the seven styles.

The Seven Learning Styles:

  1. Visual (spatial): You prefer using pictures, images, and spatial understanding.
  2. Aural (auditory-musical): You prefer using sound and music.
  3. Verbal (linguistic): You prefer using words, both in speech and writing.
  4. Physical (kinesthetic): You prefer using your body, hands and sense of touch.
  5. Logical (mathematical): You prefer using logic, reasoning and systems.
  6. Social (interpersonal): You prefer to learn in groups or with other people.
  7. Solitary (intrapersonal): You prefer to work alone and use self-study.

Try and think about which one you are and maybe it will help you to create a strategy that fits your learning style the next time you want to learn something new.

But will learning always require the use of these seven groupings or will there be a new way to learn things?

In a recent Ted Talk, the founder of the MIT Media Lab Nicholas Negroponte discussed his personal journey in science and technology and how over the years he has made predictions as to what the future may hold in store for us in terms of technological advances. Almost all of which have come to fruition. During the talk he came to the thought provoking realization that he has lived in the future. He has seen things advance to new points that were unheard of a decade earlier and only a dream in the minds of many.

Unlike one of those raving people on the street with a billboard yelling at people passing by with the prediction of the coming end of days, Negroponte has used his extensive understanding of human development and technology to accurately predict technological breakthroughs. From the boom of touch screens and e-commerce to Google Maps and many others, he foresaw these things taking shape before they became a reality.

But at the end of his speech when asked what his current prediction for the future is, Nicholas Negroponte had this to say:

“My prediction is that we’ll be able to ingest information. You’re going to swallow a pill and know English. You’re going to swallow a pill and know Shakespeare.” He then continued on to describe how it would work, “And the way to do it is through the bloodstream. So once it’s in your bloodstream, it basically goes through and gets into the brain…and the different pieces get deposited in the right places.”

Well that would make life a very different place now wouldn’t it? Whenever you want to learn something new or have the need for new knowledge you just pop a pill and the information is there in your brain ready for you to talk about. No more trivia night or Trivial Pursuit.

But is this possible? As accurate as Nicholas Negroponte’s predictions have been in the past is this one a little too farfetched?

It actually may not be as farfetched as you may initially think.

In the journal Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience a study was published by a team of researchers that hinted at the early possibilities of such a pill. While this pill did not allow for people to learn a specific skill it did allow for people who took the pill to learn more effectively by reverting parts of the brain back to when it a more elastic state such as when we were children.

As children we all could learn things rapidly and could pick up new languages and other massive undertakings without much consideration or effort because our brains were like sponges. We could take in information and process it and our brain would digest it all and organize it so it could be used. This is one of the reasons why many parents try to teach toddlers how to speak a second language.

The pill effectively allowed the brain to take on this sponge like nature which allows for better learning. But do not get too excited yet as these pills as of now are used for the treatment of behavioural issues and have just recently been discovered to have this side effect. It could be a while before a pill that safety increases learning capabilities is on the market and available to the public.

But even after such a pill is on the market it is still not what Negroponte has suggested will take shape in terms of pills allowing for a transference of a specific set of knowledge or skill. So how would it actually work then?

The answer is nanobots.

Nanorobitcs is a technology field that has emerged over the past dozen years with the emergence of new technologies that allow us to operate with smaller and more powerful computers. The field revolves are around the usage of tiny robots that are about the size of a nanometer, hence the name. But these robots are not the only scientific advancement that would be necessary in order for this to work because not only would we need to have the nanobots enter our brain through the blood stream they also need to know where to go and how to input the information that you ingested in order for it to be usable.

That is where psychology and neuroscience will come into play. What these fields will do is allow us to better understand the brain and human consciousness. We are already learning amazing things about the brain each day. With scientists dedicated to better understanding our brains and what makes us tick it is just a matter of time before we know the things necessary to reverse engineer the brain or in this case, learn a new language by taking a pill.

What we will need to see in order for this to become a reality is these two fields blending together and using the understandings of one and the advancements of the other to create little robots that go into our brains and have the wherewithal to go into the right places in our brains and deposit the information that we had ingested.

As you may guess, this is no simple task, but with all that Negroponte has gotten right in the past how much should we doubt his prediction?

What do you think about Nicholas Negroponte’s prediction? And what would you learn first if such a pill was on the market today? Please let us know in box below.

And once again, thanks for reading.

The Future of the English Language

future-city_1819612b-460x288It is a bright and sunny day as you ride the hover train to the space elevator which shoots up into the sky like something out of Jack and the Giant Beanstalk. Resting at the top is a space station which funnels the space ships that are constantly arriving and departing. The ships can come from any number of human colonize that have been set up on other planets or they could be returning from an exploration mission some from far off galaxy. As you take the space elevator up into the sky you see the massive super cities that cover earth’s surface, their giant buildings loom into the sky and make the cities seem closer than they actually are. But, you quickly lose sight of the cities as you pass through a layer of clouds and start to enter space. Normally there would be a loss of gravity at this point but with the artificial gravity machines almost anywhere can simulate the gravity of earth. The elevator slows to a halt and the artificial intelligence beams up from a side dock  and tells you that you have arrived and that you are to head to hanger 8 for your deep space mission.

It is the year 2114.  And you are on your way to an adventure.

Like the little story above and the tons of other science fiction stories that populate book stores there have been a great many ideas as to what the world will look like in 100 years. We could very well be living on other planets or have come into contact with alien life. Something that seems impossible today may be taken for granted in future days in the same way we take the technological inventions like the internet for granted.

Back in the year 1870 a novel was released by a French author named Jules Verne, the title “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea”. The book was about people aboard a craft which could go underwater for extended periods of time allowing for deep sea adventures.  “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” was known as a Science Fiction novel when it first was released but now it looks more like an adventure story because engine driven submarines have been around for over a 100 years and are no longer a thing of the imagination.

When the Jules Verne classic was first translated over to English it was wrought with mistakes and errors. But, this version stood as the standard English edition for almost 100 years before it was finally fixed in the 1960s to better represent the original and to also update the English language.

While the original English edition did need fixing because of the translation errors (one reason why getting a certified translator is important) it was essential to update the English language that was used because the language had changed so much in a 100 years. So this begs the question, what will the English language look like in 100 years?

In 100 years from now when we are driving our hover cars or having them drive themselves (thank you Google) will be speaking the same English we speak today or will it sound like gibberish in the way that old English sounds to us today? The obvious answer is that it will not be the same language we know today, but let’s go further.

The American author Mark Twain had his own answer to our question In “A Plan for the Improvement of English Spelling”

“For example, in Year 1 that useless letter “c” would be dropped to be replased either by “k” or “s”, and likewise “x” would no longer be part of the alphabet. The only kase in which “c” would be retained would be the “ch” formation, which will be dealt with later. Year 2 might reform “w” spelling, so that “which” and “one” would take the same konsonant, wile Year 3 might well abolish “y” replasing it with “i” and Iear 4 might fiks the “g/j” anomali wonse and for all. Jenerally, then, the improvement would kontinue iear bai iear with Iear 5 doing awai with useless double konsonants, and Iears 6-12 or so modifaiing vowlz and the rimeining voist and unvoist konsonants. Bai Iear 15 or sou, it wud fainali bi posibl tu meik ius ov thi ridandant letez “c”, “y” and “x” — bai now jast a memori in the maindz ov ould doderez — tu riplais “ch”, “sh”, and “th” rispektivli. Fainali, xen, aafte sam 20 iers ov orxogrefkl riform, wi wud hev a lojikl, kohirnt speling in ius xrewawt xe Ingliy-spiking werld.”

While his prediction is interesting it is more on the humorous side then on the possible forecast side. This is because the way the English language will change is not necessarily related to the way it is currently structured but rather who will speak it.

Since 2010 the number of native English speakers has been the minority of English speakers in the world with the majority of people speaking English know it as a second language. This trend of people learning English as a second language will continue as countries start implementing English classes at a younger and young age which they are already doing in many countries. This will have such a profound impact that experts estimate that by 2020 roughly 15% of the people who speak English will call it their native tongue.

With the emergence of English as the world’s second language what we will start to see is new English dialects popping up that reflect the native language of the speakers. The language will then diverge from having one set of grammatical rules to having a number of different rules and as this continues the language will start to separate into multiple different languages, which are incomprehensible from one another.

So when we reach the future of space elevators and flying cars the question should not be what will the English language look like but rather how many different languages will it become and what will they all look and sound like. But that is something that is almost impossible to answer because of the crowed sourced nature of the language. Every 98 minutes a new English word is invented and with it adapting to its new surroundings it is almost a certainty that if  we were to talk to someone from the future we would have a hard time understanding one another.

But in that lays the beauty of human language. It grows and adapts as the people who speak it change. It takes on a history of its own and represents not only just symbols or words but a people and their cultural journey.

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

Do We Think in Words?

Molecular ThoughtsIn the known universe it is estimated that there are around a septillion stars which in numerical form looks like this: 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 and if we cut that number in half then we get the number of connections in our brain. Yes that is a lot of connections. The Human Brain is a mighty almost magic like piece of equipment that weighs in at around 3 pounds and is lit up with around 100 billion neurons. It takes a measly 12 watts to run the brain, a fifth of the power that is needed in order to run a standard lightbulb.

It is incredible efficient and incredible complex.

The brain is the source of our thoughts and it operates our whole body safety from within the confines of our skull. It is pulsing with activity because of the massive amount of processes that it undertakes on a second by second basis such as creating emotional responses to things we encounter while also allowing us to think about what we are going to make our family for dinner.

Although there is so much the brain is doing much of what it does is done under the radar and without our having to actively think about it, for example keeping our heart beating and our eyes blinking. We do not think about doing those things they are just done for us.

But there are still lots of things that we do actively think about and conceptualize throughout the day as we interact with the world around us. On average we have about 60,000 thoughts per day. Some thoughts are large while others are dismissed almost immediately.  But for all of these thoughts entering our mind are we thinking them in words and language?

Take a second to think about something. It can be any kind of thought. Now when you are thinking what do the thoughts seem to be within your mind? Are they words and language or something else? You probably would think words because that is how they appear to be within our minds, but when it comes to our thoughts we are actually thinking in ideas and meanings also called semantics. Semantics are the relationship between symbols and their intended meaning, in this case the words and their meaning.

But how do we know we don’t think in words?

If you think about a baby or another non-language creature like animals they both have higher thought and can perform tasks but neither has language at its disposal so they cannot be thinking in words. Their thoughts would be ideas which are not represented by words like ours because they do not have that faculty.

This can also go further by looking at the origins of language. Language itself has not always been in existence but was rather made and designed in order to facilitate communicate and interaction. Therefore, our long lost brethren would have needed thought processing separate from language in order to create and build a language from the ground up like they did.

From the moment we wake to the moment we sleep and everywhere in between our brains are putting on a light show with all the neurons and synapses firing away in the different parts of our brains. We are always thinking but not in words or in language but in ideas and semantics. These ideas help us do incredible things like imagine and then build what we imagine into reality. The brain is a magic and somewhat mysterious place but now we know a little more about it.

Thanks for reading this week’s post! What do you think is the most amazing fact about the brain? If you have any other comments or ideas for future topics please comment in the box below.

The Origin of Language: One or Many?

Visionary-Origin-of-LanguagTokyo, Japan is the largest city in the world boasting a population of 37 million. Just taking a look at pictures of the mega city is overwhelming. With its massive sky scrapers, intertwined highways and all the city lights that make it visible from space it’s a wonder in human growth and invention. It really shows you how far we have come.

If you walk through the streets of one of these mega cities or any city for that matter you will see and hear many different things. But one thing remains constant among all the world’s cities no matter which culture you are a part of or place you reside.


You can hear it in the mouths of the citizens or blaring out of radio on a passing car. You can see it on billboards, t-shirts and pieces of newspaper which have been taken on a ride via the wind. It is everywhere and it comes in so many different forms.

There are so many different languages that are spread throughout the world and all of them have their own unique attributes that make them different. Some languages are verbal, others are written and some are just gestures made with the hands and arms.

Where did all these languages come from?

Is the origin of languages similar to a lone tree where they all started from a single source and moved up towards the sky where they branched off in multitude, forming branches off of branches with some branches dying off from not enough nutrients while others flourished? More commonly called monogenesis.

Or was it more like multiple trees that sprouted up close to one another and as they grew, branches on one tree would affect another while others remained distant and distinct? Or called polygenesis.

Before we go right to the answer we need to understand language change which can be explained with the children’s game called telephone.

the game works like this: A number of children sit around a circle and one of them decides on a message which is relatively long. The child then whispers their message into the ear of the person on their left who in turn whispers the message to the person on their left, and so on. The message is passed from one person to the next until the message comes back to where it started and is then said out loud followed by the original message. Normally the message has become distorted and holds little resemblance to its original meaning.

Now imagine that each child sitting around the circle is a generation and the message is their language. It is spoken and taught from one generation to the next but with each new generation it changes and evolves. With each passing generation the language becomes more obscure from what originally was.

It’s time to go back, all the way to the start where languages are thought to have been conceived. The theories for where languages started are broken into five different theories with some being more legitimate then others. The Yo-He-Ho Theory states that our first words were created as a result from the sounds we make performing heavy physical labor. From the moo of the cow to the splash of water the Bow-Wow theory suggests that originally language began with people imitating the sounds they heard from beats and birds. If you ever hurt yourself you know the “Ouch!” sound, the Pooh-Pooh theory says that our first words started as the responses to pain and other emotions. You can tell from the name of the La-La theory that is proposes that we were singing creatures and so our words reflected that nature. The Ding-Dong Theory states that all things have a unique natural quality and that is where human words were developed.

But we have a problem, because the previous theories and all theories related to what happened after language was first conceived are undocumented territory with little or no evidence to support any theories. While these theories seem to be good explanations for the origin of languages there is not enough evidence to prove much of anything near the beginning of language so they remain theories and little else.

We are stuck in the unknown.

But not all is lost. In recent years academics from many different disciplines are coming together to answer this question. Maybe we will see an answer in the next couple years or maybe we won’t. But, what is guaranteed is that once we get an answer it will give incredible insight into human development and evolution.

Thanks for reading this week’s post. What do you think about the origin of human language? Do you think it came from one source or many different sources? Let us know in the comments below.