20 Things You Didn't Know About... Language

The one that dominates the Internet, the ones we learn in the womb, and the ones that are whistles

By Dean Christopher|Friday, January 21, 2011
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The voice box sits lower in the throat in humans than it does in other primates, giving us a uniquely large resonating system. That’s why we alone are able to make the wide range of sounds needed for speech

That also explains Mariah Carey, Barry White, and Robin Williams.

Unfortunately, the placement of our voice box means we can’t breathe and swallow at the same time, as other animals can (choke).

Fortunately, the human voice box doesn’t drop until about 9 months, which allows infants to breathe while nursing.

Still the one: Mandarin is the long-standing champ among world languages with 845 million native speakers, about 2.5 times as many as English.

But more than 70 percent of all the home pages on the Internet are in English, and more online users speak English than any other language, making it the world’s lingua franca (assuming you consider brb, omg, g2g, and rofl English).

Hey, the world will never change—right? English is mandatory for every student in China, starting in third grade. But in America, only 3 percent of elementary schools and 4 percent of secondary schools even offer Chinese.

Many science-related English words starting with the letters al—including algebra, alkaline, and algorithm—are derived from Arabic, in which the prefix al just means “the.”

This is a legacy of the medieval era, when ancient Greek and Roman knowledge was largely lost in Europe but preserved and advanced among scholars in the Islamic world.

10  Modern technology is making everything smaller, even our words. “Bits of eight” shrank to become byte, “modulate/demodulate” became modem, “picture cell” became pixel, and of course “web log” became blog.

11  At the other end, the longest word recognized by the Oxford English Dictionary is pneumono­ultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis, a lung disease caused by inhaling volcanic silicon dust.

12  Grüss dich, Dunkelheit, mein alter Freund. Three- to five-day-olds born into French-speaking families tend to cry with the rising intonation characteristic of French; babies with German-speaking parents cry with falling tones, much like spoken German. Infants may start learning language in the womb, it seems.

13  The neural equipment for language development then seems to ripen between birth and age 3. People deprived of language before puberty (due to isolation or abuse, for instance) might later learn a limited supply of words, but they never develop the ability to make meaningful sentences.

14  Other clues about language processing come from damaged brains. People who have sustained an injury to a region called Broca’s area have trouble producing even short phrases, indicating it is critical to speech.

15  And damage to the brain’s superior temporal gyrus can lead to Wernicke’s aphasia. Patients sound as if they are speaking normally, but what they say makes no sense.

16  In old Westerns, Native Americans often made a sound like “ugh.” This wasn’t a commentary on the plots; it was a naive attempt to reproduce the sound of the glottal stop of many Native American languages, produced by briefly closing the vocal cords during speech.

17  !Say !What? When the Dutch encountered Africa’s Nama people, whose language includes clicking sounds, they dubbed them Hottentots, Dutch for “stuttering.”

18  Really foreign sounds: Spanish Silbo, a whistle language, has only four vowel and four consonant sounds. Audible for miles, it resembles bird calls and is indigenous to—where else?—the Canary Islands.

19  Indian Sign Language is the world’s most widespread silent language, with some 2.7 million users. 20. Another sound of silence: More than one-third of the world’s 6,800 spoken languages are endangered. According to UNESCO, about 200 tongues now have fewer than 10 surviving speakers.

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