We know (as discussed in a previous post) that you don’t learn to make sentences by memorizing them. Rather, you pick up on general word order patterns—
Grammatical categories (categories like ‘noun’, ‘verb’, ‘adjective’, etc.) may seem mundane, but they actually bring tremendous power to human language.
How many sentences (actual or possible) are there in the English language? And of these, what’s the longest?
Here’s a handy cross-cultural tip: speakers of both Cantonese and Mandarin Chinese are often seriously freaked out by the number 4—to the point that hotels in Asia often ‘pretend’ not to have a fourth floor. Why? It’s because in both Cantonese and Mandarin the words for ‘four’ carry a strong echo of ‘death’. This post explains […]
‘Ostracism’ comes from an ancient Greek practice of formally voting people into exile. The story goes like this …
Assassin The word ‘assassin’ comes from the nickname for a sect of fanatical 13th century professional killers, based on their supposedly heavy use of hashish. The story goes like this…
To modern ears, ‘harbinger’ may sound like a character for Arnold Schwarzenegger to play: dark, foreboding, foretelling doom and destruction. But who were the real, original, harbingers? Well, it turns out harbinger was originally a job—a cross between being a road manager and serving as a knight’s herald. The story goes like this…
The ‘Wanna’ Puzzle In casual speech, English speakers commonly contract want to into wanna. This seems like it should be easy to explain: want+to=wanna, right? But in fact—as linguists often find when they study so-called ‘lazy’ or ‘sub-standard’ language—we actually use wanna in subtly complicated ways. Compare: (a) Contraction good: Who do you dance with? […]
You may be familiar with the phrase halcyon days, for ‘calm and happy times’. But what exactly is a halcyon? It turns out that halcyon days comes from a funny fact about Greek winter, combined with a story about a mythical bird…
The Question Biological cells, prison cells, terrorist cells, cell-phones, and even cellars—what’s with all the cells? In this post, we’ll explore the curious historical thread that connects all these ‘cell’ words. Phase 1: Monks in the Basement Cells were originally little rooms for monks. The word entered English like this: Cella was the Latin word […]
Canadians are famous for using the tag eh. But why? Other dialects—for example New Zealand English—also use forms of eh. And all dialects (including Canadian) use similar tags, like huh, right, or innit. So what makes Canadian eh so distinctive? Partly, it is because Canadians—or at least ‘hard-core’ Canadians—use eh in a particularly complex way: […]
Too Much in Love – Examples in Context The Puzzle: Verbs Gone Wild Auxiliary verbs are those little ‘pre-verbs’ that go before main verbs. English has a number of these, including: (i) be (e.g. John is eating.) (ii) have (e.g. John has eaten.) (iii) must […]
Shibboleth ‣ NOUN Shibboleth originally meant ear of corn in Ancient Hebrew. Today, because of a story in the bible, we use the word like this: For a test, based on distinctive pronunciation, of whether someone is in a particular ethnic or social group. More generally, for any practice, custom, or belief that serves to […]
bathos, bathetic ‣NOUN, ADJ Bathos: A descent from moving artistry to the ridiculous. Bathetic: To be full of bathos. Cf. pathos, pathetic ‘Bathos’ sounds like: BAY-thoss (IPA: ‘beθɑs, or British ‘beθɒs) Etymology Seeds of literary bitterness: In Ancient Greek, bathos (also sometimes transliterated as bathous) means depth. In 1727, the English poet (and not-very-nice-person) Alexander […]
pathos, pathetic ‣NOUN, ADJ Pathos: a quality that evokes sadness or pity. Pathetic: omg, like, such a loser. Cf. bathos, bathetic ‘Pathos’ sounds like: PAY-thoss (IPA: ‘peθɑs, or British ‘peθɒs) Etymology A divergence in connotation: In Ancient Greek pathos meant suffering. Modern English pathos and pathetic both come from that root (pathetic comes from a […]
avatar ‣ NOUN “Avatar” has three distinct (though historically connected) meanings: Literally: one of the physical embodiments of the Hindu god Vishnu (he could adopt various shapes); Figuratively: someone being such a good exemplar of a quality (e.g. goodness) that it’s like they’re the embodiment of that quality (e.g. “She’s an avatar of goodness”). On […]
The English Expletive Infix If you’re a native speaker of English you’ve probably heard (and maybe used) what linguists call the “expletive infix”—that’s when you insert an emphasizing “fuckin’” right inside of another word.
Manichaean ‣ ADJ Sounds like: man-ih-KEE-un (IPA: /mænəkiən) Etymology “Manichaen” originates with “Mani”, the name of a 3rd century Persian prophet. Mani was famous for founding his own religion, which the Romans called “Manichaeism”. Manichaeism was a fusion of Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, and Zoroastrianism—though claiming to go beyond all of these. A distinguishing feature of […]
Introduction It may seem strange to think that a people can turn against the sound /p/—yet this is precisely what a large group of German speakers did, hundreds of years ago.
Guest co-author: Dr. Yuwen Lai There are four completely different words ‘mao’ in Mandarin Chinese, corresponding to these four English words: ‘cat’ ‘Mao’, as in Chairman Mao (this is a common surname, and originally meant ‘animal fur’) ‘rivet’ ‘hat’ Each of these four ‘mao’s has the exact same