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Is there something you have always wanted to know about language? We might have an answer! On this page we answer questions about various aspects of language asked by people outside of the language researcher community.

Show or Hide answerWhy do some languages have a writing system that closely represents the way the language is actually spoken while other languages have a less clear writing system?
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No language has a spelling system (or orthography) which absolutely and completely represents the sounds of that language, but some are definitely better than others. Italian has a shallow orthography, which means that the spelling of the words represent the sounds of Italian quite well (although Sicilian, Sardinian, and Neapolitan Italian speakers may disagree), while English has a deep orthography, which means that spelling and pronunciation don't match so well.

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Italian is consistent for two main reasons. Firstly, the Accademia della Crusca was established in 1583 and has spent several centuries since regulating the Italian language; the existence of such an academy has enabled wide-ranging and effective spelling consistency. Secondly, Standard Italian only has five vowels; a, i, u, e, and o, which makes it much easier to distinguish between them on paper. Other examples of languages with five vowel systems are Spanish and Japanese, both of which also have shallow orthographies. Japanese is an interesting case; some words are written using the Japanese characters, which accurately represent the sound of the words, but other words are written with adapted Chinese characters, which represent the meaning of the words and don't represent the sound at all.

French has a deep orthography, but in one direction; while one sound can be written several different ways, there tends to be one specific way of pronouncing a particular vowel or combination of vowels. For example, the sound [o] can be written au, eau, or o, as in haut, oiseau, and mot; however, the spelling eau can only be pronounced as [o].

English, meanwhile, has a very deep orthography, and has happily resisted spelling reform for centuries (interestingly enough, this is not the case in the USA; Noah Webster's American Dictionary of the English Language introduced a successful modern spelling reform programme… or program). One obvious reason is the lack of a formal academy for the English language - English speakers are rather laissez-faire (certainly laissez-faire enough to use French to describe English speakers' attitudes towards English) - but there are several other reasons too.

Formed out of a melting pot of European languages - a dab of Latin and Greek here, a pinch of Celtic and French there, a fair old chunk of German, and a few handfuls of Norse - English has a long and complicated history. Some spelling irregularities in English reflect the original etymology of the words. The unpronounced b in doubt and debt harks back to their Latin roots, dubitare and debitum, while the pronunciation of ce- as "se-" in centre, certain, and celebrity is due to the influence of French (and send and sell are not "cend" and "cell" because they are Germanic in origin).

All languages change over time, but English had a particularly dramatic set of changes to the sound of its vowels in the middle ages known as the Great Vowel Shift. The early and middle phases of the Great Vowel Shift coincided with the invention of the printing press, which helped to freeze the English spelling system at that point; then, the sounds changed but the spellings didn't, meaning that Modern English spells many words the way they were pronounced 500 years ago. This means that the Shakespeare's plays were originally pronounced very differently from modern English, but the spelling is almost exactly the same. Moreover, the challenge of making the sounds of English match the spelling of English is harder because of the sheer number of vowels. Depending on their dialect, English speakers can have as many as 22 separate vowel sounds, but only the letters a, i, u, e, o, and y to represent them; it's no wonder that so many competing combinations of letters were created.

Deep orthography makes learning to read more difficult, as a native speaker and as a second language learner. Despite this, many people are resistant to spelling reform because the benefits may not make up for the loss of linguistic history. The English may love regularity when it comes to queuing and tea, but not when it comes to orthography.

Gwilym Lockwood  & Flora Vanlangendonck

See:

Original Pronunciation in Shakespeare: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gPlpphT7n9s

Show or Hide answerDo signers from different language backgrounds understand each other’s signs?
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When we tell people we investigate the sign languages of deaf people, or when people see us signing, they often ask us whether sign language is universal. The answer is that nearly every country is home to at least one national sign language which does not follow the structure of the dominant spoken language used in that country. So British Sign Language and American Sign Language in fact look really different. Chinese Sign Language and Sign Language of the Netherlands, for example, also have distinct vocabularies, deploy different fingerspelling systems, and have their own set of grammatical rules. At the same time, a Chinese and Dutch deaf person, who do not have any shared language, manage to bridge this language gap with relative ease when meeting for the first time.

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This kind of ad hoc communication is also known as cross-signing. In collaboration with the International Institute for Sign Languages and Deaf Studies - iSLanDS, we are conducting a study of how cross-signing emerges among signers of varying countries for the first time. The recordings include signers from countries such as South Korea, Uzbekistan, and Indonesia. Our initial findings are that the communicative success in these dialogues is linked to the interlocutors’ ability to accommodate to their communicative partner by using creative signs that are not found in their own sign languages. This linguistic creativity often capitalizes on the depictive properties of visual signs (e.g. gesturing a circle in the air to talk about a round object, or representing a man by indicating a moustache), but also on general principles of interaction, e.g. repeating a sign to request more information.

Cross-signing is distinct from International Sign, which is used at international deaf meetings such as the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD) congress or the Deaflympics. International Sign is strongly influenced by signs from American Sign Language and is usually used to present in front of international deaf audiences who are familiar with its lexicon. Cross-signing, on the other hand, emerges in interaction among signers without knowledge of each other's native sign languages.

by Connie de Vos, Kang-Suk Byun & Elizabeth Manrique

Suggestion for further reading:

Information on differences and commonalities between different sign languages, and between spoken and signed languages by the World Federation of the Deaf: (link)

Mesch, J. (2010). Perspectives on the Concept and Definition of International Sign. World Federation of the Deaf. (link)

Supalla, T., & Webb, R. (1995). The grammar of International Sign: A new look at pidgin languages. In K. Emory and J. Reilly (Eds.), Sign, Gesture and Space. (pp.333-352) Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Show or Hide answerIs body language universal?
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Our bodies constantly communicate in various ways. One form of bodily communication is what we traditionally consider as “body-language”. In the context of social interactions, our body expresses attitudes and emotions influenced by the dynamics of the interaction, interpersonal relations and personality (see also answer to the question "What is body language?"). These bodily messages are often considered to be transmitted unwittingly. Because of this, it would be difficult to teach a universal shorthand suitable for expressing the kind of things considered to be body language; however, at least within one culture, there seems to be a great deal of commonality in how individuals express attitudes and emotions through their body.

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Another form of bodily communication is the use of co-speech gesture. Co-speech gestures are movements of the hands, arms, and occasionally other body parts that interlocutors produce while talking. Importantly, co-speech gestures express meaning that is closely tied to the meaning communicated by the speech that they accompany, thus contrasting crucially with the kind of signals that constitute ‘body language’. Because speech and gesture are so tightly intertwined, co-speech gestures are only very rarely fully interpretable in the absence of speech. As such, co-speech gestures do not help communication much if interlocutors do not speak the same language. Further, co-speech gestures are shaped by the culture in which they are embedded (and therefore differ between cultures, at least to some extent), and there is no standard of form that applies to these gestures even within one culture; they are each person’s idiosyncratic creation at the moment of speaking (although there is overlap in how different people use gesture to represent meaning, there are also substantial differences). As such, co-speech gestures are the opposite of a universal nonverbal ‘code’ that could be used when interlocutors do not share a spoken language.

What people often tend to resort to when trying to communicate without a shared language are pantomimic gestures, or pantomimes. These gestures are highly iconic in nature (like some iconic co-speech gestures are), meaning that they map onto structures in the world around us. Even when produced while speaking, these gestures are designed to be understandable in the absence of speech. Without a shared spoken language, they are therefore more informative than co-speech gestures. As long as we share knowledge about the world around us - for instance about actions, objects, and their spatial relations - these gestures tend to be communicative, even if we don’t share the same language.

An important distinction has to be made between these pantomimic gestures that can communicate information in the absence of speech and sign languages. In contrast to pantomimes, sign languages of deaf communities are fully-fledged languages consisting of conventionalised meanings of individual manual forms and movements which equate to the components that constitute spoken language. There is not one universal sign language: different communities have different sign languages (Dutch, German, British, French or Turkish sign languages being a small number of examples).  

 by Judith Holler & David Peeters

Further reading:

Kendon, A. (2004). Gesture: Visible action as utterance. Cambridge University Press.(link)

McNeill, D. (1992). Hand and mind: What gestures reveal about thought. Chicago University press. (link book review)

Show or Hide answerWhy do we cry out 'ouch' when we're in pain?
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There are actually two questions hidden in this one. For a clear answer we can best treat them separately:

(1) Why do we cry when we are in sudden pain?

(2) Why do we say ‘ouch’ and not something else?

With regard to the first question, let’s start by noting that we’re not alone: a lot of other animals also cry when in pain. Why? Darwin, who wrote a book in 1872 about emotions in humans and animals, thought it had to do with the fact that most animals experience strong muscle contractions when they’re in pain — a ritualized version of quickly escaping a painful stimulus. Still, why should this be accompanied with an actual cry? Research has since shown that pain cries also have communicative functions in the animal kingdom: for example to alarm others that there is danger, to call for help, or to prompt caring behavior. That last function already starts in the first seconds of our life, when we cry and our mothers caringly take us in their arms. Human babies, and in fact the young of many mammals, are born with a small repertoire of instinctive cries. The pain cry in this repertoire is clearly recognizable: it has a sudden start, a high intensity and a relatively short duration. Here we already see the contours of our ‘ouch’. Which brings us to the second part of our question.

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Why do we say ‘ouch’ and not something else? Let us first take a more critical look at the question. Do we never shout anything different? Do we utter a neat ‘ouch’ when we hit our thumb with a hammer or could it also be ‘aaaah!’? In reality there is a lot of variation. Still, the variation is not endless: no one shouts out ‘bibibibi’ or ‘vuuuuu’ when in pain. Put differently, pain cries are variations on a theme — a theme that starts with an ‘aa’ sound because of the shape of our trachea when our mouth is wide open, and then sounds like ‘ow’ or ‘ouch’ when our mouth quickly returns to being closed. The word ‘ouch’ is a perfectly fine summary of this theme — and here we touch on an important function of language. Language helps us share experiences which are never exactly the same and yet can be categorised as similar. That is useful, because if we want to talk about “someone crying ouch” we don’t always need or want to imitate the cry. In that sense ‘ouch’ is more than just a pain cry: it is a proper word.

Does this all imply that ‘ouch’ may be the same in every language? Almost, but not quite, since each language will use its own inventory of sounds to describe a cry of pain. In German and Dutch it is ‘au’, in Israeli it is ‘oi’, and in Spanish it’s ‘ay’ — at least that is how Byington described it in 1942 in one of the first comparisons of these words.

Each of us is born with a repertoire of instinctive cries and then learns a language in addition to it. This enables us to do more than scream and cry: we can also talk about it. Which is a good thing, for otherwise this answer could not have been written. 

Originally written in Dutch by Mark Dingemanse and published in "Kennislink Vragenboek"
Translated by Katrien Segaert and Judith Holler

Show or Hide answerWhy do we need orthography?
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Imagine if someone told you to write a message to a friend using only number and punctuation symbols. Perhaps you could decide on a way to use these signs to express the sounds of your language. But if you wrote a message using your new ‘alphabet’, how would your friend be able to decode it? The two of you would need to have already agreed on a shared way to use numbers and punctuation signs to write words. That is, you would need to have designed a shared orthography.

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Image: JNo

Like a key to a code, an orthography is a standard way of linking the symbols of an alphabet (or other script) to the sounds of a language. Having an orthography means that speakers of the same language can communicate with each other using writing. The shapes of the symbols that we choose don’t matter - what is important is that we understand how those symbols (graphemes) represent the sounds (phonemes) that we use in our spoken language.

Even languages that use the same script have different sounds, and thus different orthographies. The Dutch and English orthographies use symbols of the Roman alphabet, and share many sound-grapheme correspondences - for example, the letters ‘l’ and the sounds ‘l’ in the English word light and the Dutch word licht are pretty much the same. However, the letter ‘g’ stands for a different sound in the English orthography (e.g., in good) than it does in the Dutch orthography (goed). Readers of Dutch or English need to know this in order to link the written word forms to the spoken forms.    

There are different ideas about what makes a ‘good’ orthography. General principles are that it should consistently represent all and only the distinctive sound contrasts in the language, with the fewest possible symbols and conventions. However, few established orthographies stick to this ideal - you only have to look at English spelling to realise that! Compare, for instance, the pronunciations of pint and print. Quirks and inconsistencies in orthographies can also have their own advantages, such as preserving historical information, highlighting cultural affiliations, and supporting dialect variation.

Written by Lila San Roque & Antje Meyer

More information:

Online encyclopedia of writing systems and languages (link)
The Endangered Alphabets Project (link)
Scriptsource: Writing systems, computers and people (link)

Show or Hide answerWill we all speak English one day?
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It is not unreasonable to expect that English will become the global language, as in many respects it already is; English is the language of the internet, English is the language of academia, English is the language of lots of mass media. Moreover, many languages are threatened with extinction; it is estimated that about half of the 7000 or so languages currently spoken will be extinct by 2100.

English dictionary from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Johnson_Folio_and_Abridged_dictionaries.JPG

Image: Jkarjalainen

However, while new technology means that people all over the world are exposed to English, it also means that there are new and exciting ways to help keep languages alive. Social media is perfect for showing language diversity; many people use English (or Mandarin, or Swahili, or Spanish, or other dominant languages) for professional and formal work while using their own native languages for conversations with friends and family. Until recently, many of these native languages were unwritten and unused outside the home, but the rise of text messaging and social media has revitalised these languages and made them relevant to younger speakers.

Another reason that English (or any other language) is unlikely to become the one global language is that people always use language as a means of emphasising their own identity. Even within English, there are various different types of English, and the usage of English can be a highly divisive issue. For example, native speakers of British English are very protective of their own style of English, and British hostility towards Americanisms (words or phrases which are particular to American English, like the American "oftentimes" as opposed to the British "often" and the American "I have gotten" as opposed to the British "I have got") can be surprisingly vitriolic. Language protection is always linked to identity; if you are living in the Netherlands you only have to look as far as Belgium to see how.

English might be a bit like a sandwich. Just because you can buy a sandwich almost anywhere in the world, people are not going to stop eating curry, lasagne, burritos, or stroopwafels...

 Written by Gwilym Lockwood & Katrien Segaert

Further reading: 

50 of the most noted examples of Americanisms (link)

About MPI

This is the MPI

The Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics is an institute of the German Max Planck Society. Our mission is to undertake basic research into the psychological,social and biological foundations of language. The goal is to understand how our minds and brains process language, how language interacts with other aspects of mind, and how we can learn languages of quite different types.

The institute is situated on the campus of the Radboud University. We participate in the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, and have particularly close ties to that institute's Centre for Cognitive Neuroimaging. We also participate in the Centre for Language Studies. A joint graduate school, the IMPRS in Language Sciences, links the Donders Institute, the CLS and the MPI.

 
Questions and Answers

whiet question mark on MPG green 124pt, stroke 2pt

This project was coordinated by:

Katrien Segaert 
Katerina Kucera
Judith Holler

Sean Roberts
Agnieszka Konopka
Gwilym Lockwood
Elma Hilbrink
Joost Rommers
Mark Dingemanse
Connie de Vos