Sign language mythbusters

Sign language mythbusters

We have all heard of sign languages. Most of us have seen people talking to each other using their hands and body movements instead of the voice: on the street, at a train station, or in a noisy café. We probably even felt a slight jolt of envy, thinking about how much easier it must be for them to communicate, when they are surrounded by loud music, laughter, and chatter. Curiously, however, very few people know what sign languages actually are. Unless you are a sign language user and/or a linguist, you probably have a lot of misconceptions about their nature. For this reason, linguists who write about sign languages, often begin their books with a discussion of myths and misconceptions. For example, Robin Battinson wrote a section on misconceptions about ASL, Trevor Johnston and Adam Schembri covered the same topic on the data of Australian Sign Language, Vadim Kimmelman and Svetlana Burkova discussed common mistakes in light of Russian Sign Language. Let us follow their example and bust a few myths!

Myth №1 There is only one sign language

Perhaps, the most mind-blowing thing about sign languages is that there is more than one. Indeed, if we never encountered sign languages in action, we most probably have a default assumption that there is one sign language, and everyone is using it. Why would you need more? Surely, at some point, someone came up with a list of signs for different objects and actions, and now all deaf and hard-of-hearing people use them.

“That Deaf Guy” comic by Matt & Kay Daigle

This is not true. Nowadays, we know about not one, not even ten, but one hundred and seventy different sign languages spread around the world. And it is very possible that there are other sign languages we are not even yet aware of. Check out the map from Glottolog, that provides a catalogue of the world’s languages:

Sign languages of the world

Each dot in this map represents a language with its own vocabulary and grammatical structure. The yellow dots are sign languages that developed in urban settings. The blue dots are so-called ‘rural’ sign languages that appeared in small village communities with a high rate of hereditary deafness. Finally, the rare red dots are ‘secondary sign languages’. These languages developed in hearing societies as a substitute for spoken languages in certain situations.

Yes, 170 sign languages is a much more modest amount than roughly 6500 spoken languages, but it is definitely more than one. Now, let’s reflect on what sign languages actually are.

Myth №2 Sign languages are a kind of pantomime

Who likes Charades? In this classic team game, you need to enact a title of a book or a movie without saying a single word. Some of these titles can be quite tricky. Have you ever tried to mime “Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back”? So, we put forward our best improvisation techniques and we create quite complicated sequences of body movements in order to express the idea we need.

Sign languages do the same thing, don’t they? They express different ideas with movements of the hands and other parts of the body. So, maybe sign languages and pantomime are in fact the same thing? Well, no, not really. You see, one very important feature of a pantomime is transparency. We are usually able to guess what is going on without anyone translating it for us. Sign languages are not so generous. Try to make sense of this short video in Russian Sign Language. I can even give you a hint: the title of this video is ‘Miracles of dog training’.

A short story ‘Miracles of dog training’ in Russian Sign Language

If you are not familiar with Russian Sign Language, you probably didn’t understand that an unlucky man, the main character of this tale, tried to teach his dog to bring him a stick. The dog didn’t quite grasp the concept and instead started bringing him umbrellas, which it would steal from unsuspecting passers-by.

Why is it so hard to understand a sign language? Let me answer this with a counterquestion: why we would expect it to be easy? Well, this assumption stems from the phenomenon called ‘iconicity’. A lot of signs in sign languages look like what they describe. For example, if you watch the video about the dog training again, you will easily find a sign for ‘holding a stick in a mouth’. A tricky thing about iconicity, however, is that it is evident once you know what the sign means. But can you guess a meaning of an iconic sign? Let’s give it a go! Here is a sign in Russian Sign Language. Can you guess what it means?

An iconic sign in Russian Sign Language

If you are done guessing, here is the answer. This sign means ‘empty’. Once we know this, it seems obvious that a person in this video imitates looking for something in an empty bag. But it is really hard to guess it beforehand.

Another reason for the non-transparency of sign languages is that, unlike pantomime improvised on the spot, sign languages have quite complex rules for forming sentences. Speaking of sentences, let’s bust another widespread myth that has to do with sign language structure.

Myth №3 Sign languages are spoken languages articulated with hands

Many people assume that sign languages are not independent languages, but instead are signed versions of spoken languages. For example, British, American and Australian Sign Languages are signed versions of English, French Sign Language is a version of French, Russian Sign Language is a version of Russian, and so on. From this point of view, if someone wanted to express a sentence in English with something other than their voice, they could write it down or sign in instead.

However, this is not the case. Many aspects of sign languages are completely unrelated to spoken languages that surround them. Trevor Johnston and Adam Schembri provide a good illustration of this using Australian Sign Language as an example. The English word light has several meanings, such as ‘not heavy’ (as in a light bag), ‘pale’ (as in a light colour), or ‘energy from the sun or lamp that allows us to see things’ (as in turn on the light). Although in English all these meanings are expressed with the same word, they would be translated to Australian Sign Language with three different signs.

Australian Sign Language translations for the English word “light”

Of course, this is not the only kind of difference between sign and spoken languages. Grammars are different too. Sign languages do not have articles, such as a and the in English, or case marking, like Russian Genitive or Dative. They don’t mark plurality and past tense with special endings. Instead, they have their own ways to express time and quantity related information. Many of them revolve around iconicity. But this is a topic for a different post. Stay tuned!

Are words all different? Or are they all the same?

Are words all different? Or are they all the same?

Imagine we have less than a life-time to describe the words of a given language. We might start from the view that each individual word is a treasure to be described in exquisite detail. Indeed, it is one of the achievements of our field that linguists have found and described gems like the following:

  • Archi (Dagestan) has the word t’uq’ˤ. which is a stone post inside an underground sheepfold, which supports the stone roof.
In Archi the t’uq’ˤ is the stone posts supporting the roof of a sheepfold (Photo credit: Dr. Marina Chumakina).
  • Soq (Papua New Guinea) has the verb s- ‘stay’, which is anti-irregular. While typical irregular verbs (like English go ∼ went) have unexpected forms but mean ‘the right thing’ (went means ‘go in the past’), the Soq verb s- ‘stay’ is the opposite of that. Its forms are unremarkable, but uniquely in the language, its present tense covers the time period of the English present (‘now’). All other verbs have a present tense (sometimes called ‘hodiernal’) which covers the period starting at nightfall yesterday and running through to and including ‘now’.
  • Krongo (Sudan) has the noun m-ùsí ‘sorcerer’, where the initial m- tells us it is singular. The plural is nú-kù-kk-ùs-óoní ‘sorcerers’ with no less than four plural markers, each of which is found independently with other nouns.
  • Russian skovorodá ‘frying pan’ seems remarkable only in that you have to wait for the last syllable to put the stress on the word. But in the plural, the stress moves forward three syllables: skóvorody ‘frying pans’, which makes it sound rather different.
  • English dust. Yes, even English has some star items. The humble verb dust is an example of ‘Gegensinn’, that is, it means its own opposite. We can dust a cake with icing sugar (that is, putting on particles), the opposite of dusting the furniture (removing particles).
    Dusting – even elephants love to do it!

    But there is a danger with this approach: we may well manage a few hundred items, and leave behind an unpublished dictionary. Or we may publish Volumes I-III (A-F), leaving the user stuck for words later in the alphabet: this happens particularly with larger projects, when grand intentions meet organizational and financial reality.

    The alternative approach is to start from the assumption that all words in a language are the same. We soon discover, of course, that this is not quite true. There are dramatic generalizations to be made: we may find, for instance, that many words can occur alone, and some cannot. More generally different classes of words have different properties of combination with others. That is, we specify part of speech information (verb, noun, and so on). Consistent with this, wholly or partly, we may find regularities such as some words distinguishing tense while others do not. And real dictionaries embody such regularities as defaults. If an English dictionary specifies that compute is a verb, it is taken as given that it will have a past tense, that the form will be computed, that this past tense will be compositional (we know that what it means is a combination of the lexical meaning of compute and the grammatical meaning of PAST). And when a default is overridden, the information is given in the dictionary entry. For example, the past tense of go is went (and only the form need be given, since our default assumption about what it means will hold good), or that binoculars is a noun but lacks a singular.

    I have described not one, but two straw men, though I have met real people who came close to these extremes. The point is that the interest of the linguistic gems we started with comes precisely from the way in which they stand out against the backdrop of the general picture. We know that there are general defaults – otherwise speakers and hearers would not cope. We expect singular and plural of a noun to be linked by a simple formula, rather than by a stress-shift that dramatically changes the way the noun sounds, as with Russian skovoroda ‘frying pan’. So in principle we can start from either end (words are all different or words are all the same), so long as we have the other horizon in view too.

    Don’t forget to destress when using a frying pan in Russian… But if you can’t take the heat, time to get out of the kitchen!

    Of course, real people tend to feel more comfortable working from one end or the other; lexicographers are, arguably, more interested in the differences and linguists more in the generalizations. And there are important movements within the field where dictionary-makers point out the need for much more detailed grammatical information about individual words, and conversely where linguists point out that the broad classes we often work with need to be broken down into rather finer detail.

    A saving grace in all this is the possibilities offered by online dictionaries. We can present some of the richness of words in new ways. For example, rather than trying to describe what the pillar that holds up the roof of an underground sheep fold looks like, we can give a picture. The online Archi dictionary does this. And it provides the sound file, so that users can hear what the word sounds like. Indeed they can hear all the basic forms needed to derive its large array of forms (its extensive paradigm). What if the system of sounds comprising the words has taken years of work to unravel? We want to hear the sounds and see the system. This is something – among other good things – that the new Nuer dictionary offers.

    Browsing in the Archi and Nuer dictionaries makes us marvel at how different those words are, one from another, and perhaps from ‘our’ words. And yet they are all the same too – they all use the same Archi and Nuer systems of sounds, and they fall into parts of speech which are interestingly comparable to ‘our’ parts of speech (verbs and nouns are distinct, and so on).

    It would need several lifetimes for anything approaching a ‘complete’ dictionary of Archi or Nuer. But there are plenty of surprises whichever perspective we take: the dictionary entries tell us about the amazing differences between languages, but the innocent little markers (like v. and n.), and the sets of forms given, point to the equally amazing sameness.

    If you enjoyed this post, why not check out our favourite untranslatable words from the languages we work on.

A “let’s circle back” guy

A “let’s circle back” guy

As everyone knows by now, for the foreseeable future we must all stay at home as much as possible to slow the spread of COVID-19 and reduce the burden on our health services – which has already been substantial, and will soon be enormous even in the best possible scenario.

This shift in the way we operate as a society will have a wide range of effects on our lives, which are already being noticed. Some of these were the kind of thing you might have thought of in advance – but others less so. For example, soon after the advice to work from home really started to bite in the US, a substantial thread developed on Twitter, all started off by the following tweet:

The thousands of responses that appeared within a few hours of this tweet shows how deeply it resonated: many people must have been through their own version of the same surprising experience, some of them presumably in the last few days. But what happened here, and why was it so surprising? And why, as a linguist, am I sitting at home and writing a blog post about it now?

This single tweet, which people found so easy to identify with, in fact brings together a number of issues that linguists are interested in. For one thing, it works as a clear illustration of a point that people intuitively appreciate, but which has endless ramifications: the language you use is never just an instrument for communicating your thoughts, but is also taken to say something important about your identity, whether you intend it to or not. If a guy uses the expression “let’s circle back”, meaning to return to an issue later, that makes him a “let’s circle back” guy – that is, a particular kind of person. In a jokey way, the tweeter is implying that she already had a mental category of ‘the kind of person who would say things like that’, and she takes it for granted that we do too. In this case, the surprise for Laura Norkin was in suddenly discovering that her own husband belonged in that pre-existing category: the way she tells it, hearing him use a specific turn of phrase counted as finding out important new information about who he is as a person, which she was not necessarily best pleased about.

Making a linguistic choice: a bilingual road sign in Wales

Since the mid-twentieth century, the field of sociolinguistics has drawn attention to the fact that this kind of thing is going on everywhere in language. Consciously or unconsciously, people are making linguistic choices all the time – whether that means choosing between two totally different languages, between two different expressions with the same meaning (do you circle back to something or just return to it?), or between two very slightly different pronunciations of the same word. Any of these choices might turn out to ‘say something’ about how you see yourself – or how other people see you. And the social meanings and values assigned to the different choices are likely to change over time: so understanding what is going on with one person’s use of language really requires you to understand what is going on right across the community, which is like an ecosystem full of co-existing language diversity. How do linguistic developments, and the social responses to them, propagate and interact in this ecosystem? That’s something that researchers work hard to find out.

The tweet also picks up on the importance of the situational context for the way people use language. Laura Norkin had never heard her husband use the offending expression before because it belongs to a particular register – meaning a variety of language which is characteristic of a particular sphere of activity. Circling back is characteristic of ‘full work mode’, something which had never previously needed to surface in the domestic setting.

Why do registers exist? Partly it must be to do with the fact that different people know different things: for example, lawyers can expect to be able to use technical legal terminology with their colleagues, but not with their clients, even if they are talking about all the same issues – because behind the terminology there lies a wealth of specialist knowledge. Similarly, anyone would modify their language when talking to a five-year-old as opposed to a fifty-year-old.

But this cannot be the whole story: it doesn’t help you to explain the difference between returning and circling back. Should we think of the business/marketing/management world, where terms like circling back are stereotypically used, as a mini community within the community, with its own ideas of what counts as normal linguistic practice? Or is everyone involved giving a signal that they take on a new, businesslike identity when they turn up to the office – even if these days that doesn’t involve leaving the house? Again, working out the relationship between the language aspect and the social aspect here makes an interesting challenge for linguistics.

The medical profession is well known for having its own technical register

But this was not just an anecdote about how unusual it is to be at home and yet hear terms that usually turn up at work. We can tell that “let’s circle back”, just like other commonly mocked corporate expressions such as “blue-sky thinking” or “push the envelope”, is something we are expected to dislike – but why? The existence of different registers is not generally thought of as a bad thing in itself. You could give the answer that this expression is overused, a cliché, and thus sounds ugly. But really, things must be the other way round: English abounds in commonly used expressions, and only the ones that ‘sound ugly’ get labelled as overused clichés. And there is nothing inherently worse about circle back than about re-turn – in fact, when you think about it, they are just minor variations on the same metaphor.

So what is really going on here? The popular reaction to circle back, and other things of that kind, seems to involve lots of factors at once. The expression is new enough that people still notice it; but it is not unusual enough to sound novel or imaginative. It is currently restricted to a particular kind of professional setting that most people never find themselves in; but it does not refer to a complex or specific enough concept to ‘deserve’ to exist as a technical term. And we do not tend to worry too much about making fun of the linguistic habits of people who have a relatively privileged position in society: certainly, teasing your husband by outing him as a “let’s circle back” guy is not really going to do him any harm.

Spelling it out like this helps to suggest just how much information we are factoring in whenever we react to the linguistic behaviour of the people around us – and this is something we do all the time, mostly without even noticing. We are social beings, and cannot help looking for the social message in the things people say, as well as the literal message: establishing this fact, and working out how to investigate it scientifically, has been one of the great overarching projects of modern linguistics. Right now, for everyone’s benefit, we need to learn how to be less sociable than ever. But as the tweet above suggests, people’s inbuilt sensitivity to language as a social code is not going to change any time soon.

Arabic based scripts

Arabic based scripts

Scripts spread like bad news. Look at the Latin script, which is the ultimate winner considering the hundreds, if not thousands of languages that use it today. Political power and religion have caused the Latin script to serve as the basis for this proliferation of written languages, first in Europe, and then almost everywhere else, including many languages that had no written tradition before the Western influence. The exceptions are the scripts that have a strong enough tradition that keeps them going.

However, the Latin script is not the only prevalent one. Wikipedia lists 95 languages that are using, or have actively used the Arabic script. In this post we will be looking at how they do it.

The way different languages use a script can vary significantly. Some can invent new versions of letters that express the peculiar sounds of a language, such as the long vowels in Hungarian: á, í, é, ó, ú, ő, ű. Others, like English, combine existing letters to do the same job, like th or ch. Some will get rid of the letters that are not useful enough. Next time you visit Turkey, look at the taxi signs.

A Turkish taksi

One way we could classify writing systems is how helpful they are, if someone intends to read them. Chinese is famously not very helpful. Even though some characters will give a hint on how to pronounce the word, or what it means, generally you have to learn thousands of characters, that refer to separate “words”. English is rather helpful in the sense that the letters generally help the reader figure out what sound is supposed to be pronounced. Not always, thouGH. Sometimes it is touGH to determine how to pronounce GH, for example. Is it /f/, /g/ or /nothing/? Learners have to learn the differences individually. The most helpful scripts represent a speech sound with a single letter consistently. Look at Turkish! Nobody needs an X if you have KS, that perfectly does the job at all times.

Arabic is similar to English in this classification, but in a completely different way. In order to understand what is going on, we must know what templatic morphology is. When creating new words, most languages add meaningful bits to the beginning, or to the end of a word. Or both, like in the case of my favorite Metallica song, the Un-forgive-n. We can say that English, in most cases, uses a word as a base for such operations. Arabic, on the other hand, uses two or three consonants, as a base. They are not words; they rather represent a broad concept. The schoolbook example is K-T-B, which represents the broad concept of writing. Arabic, then, adds things before, after and in between (i.e. applies the three consonants to a template). The templates also have meanings and thus narrow down the concept’s meaning to a word, that can actually be used in the language. There are only two rules when inserting the three consonants into a template: 1) Do not skip any consonant, and 2) keep their order. Let’s see a few examples, how these templates work. The capital letters are the base consonants, and the small letters fill in the template.

Template meaning K-T-B ‘write’ M-L-K ‘rule, possess’
place where happens maKTaBa ‘library’ maMLaKa ‘kingdom’
person who does it KāTiB ‘writer’ MāLiK ‘king’
passive (being done) maKTūB ‘written’ maMLūK ‘slave’

Long story short, templates are extremely important in Arabic. This is combined with the unfortunate fact that Arabic has lots of consonants and very few vowels, namely, /a/, /u/, and /i/. They all contrast long and short versions, that gives a total of six vowels. On the contrary, there are 28 consonants. Here is a really nice introduction to Arabic speech sounds.

The facts above have led to a writing system where vowels are so ‘underrated’ that they are basically not marked. In fact, the long vowels are marked, but by specific consonants, that may be pronounced as a consonant, or considered as a sign that marks a long vowel. To illustrate this, let’s see some Arabic words, the raw information you get from the letters you see, some possible pronunciations, just for fun, and how you actually need to pronounce them.

raw information [m] [w/ū] [r] [d]
possible pronunciation mawarad, mūrad, mawrad, miward, muwarrid, muwarad…
actual pronunciation mawrid
meaning supplies

raw information [m] [d] [y/ī] [n] [a]
possible pronunciation midayna, mudayna, madayna, mudīna, midīna, madīna…
actual pronunciation madīna
meaning city

Arabic has a way of signaling how a word should be pronounced exactly, but these additional signs above and below the main letters (diacritics) are only used in children’s reading books and in the Qur’ān. Nothing above and below the red lines actually appear in every-day texts or in handwriting.

Arabic script

In essence, instead of marking vowels with high precision, Arabic marks the consonants and in most cases, you can figure out the template as well. And if you know Arabic, then you know all the templates, so you don’t even really need those unmarked vowels.

The Arabic writing system fits the Arabic language really neatly, but what about other languages? Persian uses the Arabic script, but it has no templates. It is an Indo-European language with word formation rules that are very similar to the ones we find in European languages. So, how did they deal with this situation? Well, they did their best to mark vowels with a bit more precision. At the ends of words, Persian uses the letter /h/ to mark the vowels /e/ and /a/. The consonants that can signal the presence of a long consonant in Arabic, are used much more consistently, so when you see one, you can be almost sure that there is a long vowel. Apart from the vowel problem, Persian has also added a couple of consonants, that Arabic lacks, such as /p/, /g/ or /ch/.

Urdu is spoken mainly in Pakistan, and it is quite similar to Hindi, but let’s stick to the fact (there is a political debate), that it has retroflex consonants (the tip of the tongue curls backwards). Those are the speech sounds in many Indic languages that make them sound so recognizable. Urdu’s strategy is similar to what we saw in Persian, with the addition of the retroflex consonant. There is also an additional, second form of the letter h, that signals aspiration (the h-like sound after consonants, like in the words dharma, makhani or bhaji). The last addition is a differently shaped letter y, that marks /ay/ or /ey/, as opposed to a long /ī/. In Persian and Arabic, there is only one letter that represents these three sounds.

Urdu is also special in that the Urdu printed texts use a type of calligraphy, called Nasta’liq. This makes Urdu texts look very different from Arabic, but it is only a matter of fonts.

Arabic newspaper
Urdu newspaper

Lastly, let’s discuss a language that has completely reformed the Arabic script. Uyghur is a Turkic language spoken in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in Northwest China. As all Turkic languages, Uyghur has a large number of vowels and relatively few consonants. This makes the Arabic script a rather difficult choice for this language, unless some modifications are done. In the Uyghur script, every speech sound is represented in a consistent way, i.e. there is no ambiguity whatsoever. The set of consonants is essentially the same as in Persian, but there are nine additional letters that allow for a precise marking of vowels. For anybody else from the world of Arabic based scripts, the resulting text may appear somewhat weird. The following image illustrates how different this script is from the previous ones. The parts circled are the Uyghur innovations that would be incorrect in Arabic, Persian or in Urdu. Notice their proportion.

Uyghur script

The cherry on the cake is the Thaana script. It is used to write Dhivehi, an Indo-European language spoken in the Maldives. This script is based on Arabic, but in a unique way. Thaana started off as a secret script for sacred, religious texts. It was considered a way of encryption, and therefore the letters originate from Arabic letters, as well as Arabic numbers and Indic numbers (!). Imagine that you code a message that looks like this: 7q۳۶gt55۹۴. All speech sounds are precisely marked, as in Uyghur. Notice the vowel-marking diacritics above and below the main letters, and their similarity to the Arabic diacritics (in the picture above where the diacritics are separated with a red line). But of course, this script looks really different from the other ones we have seen.

Dhivehi newspaper

Linguists believe that only a handful of writing systems appeared independently around the world. Most languages had to adopt the script of another language, and due to different needs and strategies, we have ended up with a myriad of historically related, but still, different scripts. Linguists consider writing systems negligible, since they are just the representation of language, which we are truly interested in. I think, however, that the backgrounds of different scripts are amazing.

Eggcorns and mondegreens: a feast of misunderstandings

Eggcorns and mondegreens: a feast of misunderstandings

Have you ever felt that you needed to nip something in the butt, or had the misfortune to witness a damp squid? And what can Jimi Hendrix, Bon Jovi and Freddie Mercury tell us about language change?

Well, if you know Hendrix’s classic “Purple Haze”, you surely remember the moment where he interrupts his train of thought with the unexpected request, ‘Scuse me while I kiss this guy. Or perhaps you recall “Living on a Prayer”, where we hear that apparently It doesn’t make a difference if we’re naked or not. And who can forget the revelation, in “Bohemian Rhapsody”, that Beelzebub has a devil for a sideboard?

Wise words from Celine Dion

If you do remember these lyrics fondly, you are not alone – lots of people are familiar with these exact lines. There is just one problem, of course: none of those songs really say those things. Instead, the lyrics involved are ‘Scuse me while I kiss the sky; It doesn’t make a difference if we make it or not; and Beelzebub has a devil put aside for me. And yet thousands of English speakers the world over have had the experience of listening to “Purple Haze” and the others – and of misunderstanding the words, entirely independently, in exactly the same way.

Mishearings of this kind are common enough that they have been given a name of their own, mondegreens – a word invented by the American writer Sylvia Wright, who as a child heard a poem containing the following lines:

For they hae slain the Earl o’ Moray
And laid him on the green

and assumed that it listed not one but two victims – the unfortunate Earl himself, and “Lady Mondegreen”, a plausible character who happens not to feature in the real poem.

Why does this kind of thing happen? One reason has to do with the nature of spoken language. On the page, English sentences come pre-packaged into words, each of which is made up of distinct, easily-identified letters which look pretty much the same every time. But pronounced out loud, they are not like that! Instead, a continuous, mushy stream of noise makes its way into our ears, and it is up to our brains to work out what speech sounds are actually in there, where one word ends and the next one begins (think the-sky versus this-guy), and so on. Obviously this process is not exactly helped when there are rock guitars competing for your attention too.

Obama’s elf….. don’t wanna be… Obama’s elf… any more…

But another reason is that we are never ‘just listening’ passively. Instead, behind the scenes, our minds are busy trying to relate what we’re hearing to our existing knowledge – not only our linguistic knowledge, but our general knowledge about the world. For example, the common-sense knowledge that people tend to kiss other people, rather than intangible abstractions like the sky. This is obviously very useful most of the time, but in the “Purple Haze” case it leads us astray, because the more implausible meaning is the one that Jimi Hendrix intended.

What has this all got to do with language change? Well, the crucial point is that what I’ve just said – interpreting sounds is complicated, and to navigate the process we engage our common sense as well as our knowledge of the language – applies just as well to normal conversation as it does to song lyrics. We don’t always hear things perfectly, and even if we do, we have to square the things we’ve just heard with the things we already knew, which provide a guide for our interpretation but may sometimes take us in the wrong direction.

So if you hear someone referring to a really disappointing experience as a damp squib, but are not familiar with squib (an old-fashioned word for a firework), what is to stop you thinking that what you really heard was damp squid? A squid is, after all, a very damp creature, and not always something that people are hugely fond of. Similarly, the expression to nip in the bud makes sense if you latch on to the gardening metaphor it is based on – but if you don’t, well, nipping an undesirable thing in the butt does sound like a very effective way of getting rid of it. So, people who think the expressions really are damp squid and nip in the butt have made a mistake along the lines of “kiss this guy”; the difference is that here they may end up using the new versions in their own speech, and thus pass them on to other speakers. And the process doesn’t have to involve whole expressions: individual words are susceptible to it too, for example midriff becoming mid-rift or utmost becoming up-most.

It’s beautiful, but undeniably damp

Misinterpreted words and expressions like these, which have some kind of new internal logic of their own, are known as eggcorns. This is because egg-corn is exactly how some English speakers have reinterpreted the word acorn, on the basis that acorns are indeed egg-shaped seeds. And the development of a new eggcorn may not involve any mishearing at all, just reinterpretation of one word as another one that sounds exactly the same. Are you expected to toe the line or to tow the line? Are people given free rein or free reign? In each case the two expressions sound identical, and each brings with it some kind of coherent mental image. For the moment, toe the line and free rein are still considered to be the ‘correct’ versions of these idioms, but perhaps in the future that will no longer be the case.

As words and expressions are reinterpreted over time, the language changes little by little: in speech and in writing, people pass on their reinterpretations to one another, in a way which may eventually pass right through the language. The underlying factors producing eggcorns are the same as those producing mondegreens. But unlike the lyrics of “Purple Haze”, words and idioms don’t generally have a fixed author and don’t belong to anybody, meaning that if everyone started calling acorns eggcorns, then that just would be the correct word for them: the previous, now meaningless term acorn would be no more than a historical curiosity, and English as a whole would be very slightly different from how it is now.

So this is how we get from Jimi Hendrix to language change – via mondegreens and eggcorns. Have you spotted any eggcorns in the wild? And how likely do you think they are to catch on and become the new normal?

A narrow hope has fallen man, till Volapük shall reign

A narrow hope has fallen man, till Volapük shall reign

WHEN the tower of Babel looked up toward the sky.
Before the huge walls were complete,
They knew but one language, to which we apply,
The musical name “Volapuk.”

But a slight little trouble occurring one day,
They had to stop work, so to speak,
And drop all their tools and hurry away,
Because they forgot “Volapuk.”

And from that day to this men have been on the search.
For that long lost Volapuk
(Louis Eisenbeis, author of Come, swell the ranks of temperance)

Volapük may well have had the shortest lifespan of any known language, at least one that has had dictionaries and grammars devoted to it. It was the first serious attempt at an artificial ‘universal’ language. Devised in the 1880s by the German priest Johann Schleyer, it rapidly soared in popularity, attracting passionate followers the world over, but by the end of the century it was already being pronounced a dead language. Many factors probably led to its demise, not the least of which is that an artificial language is not a very good idea in the first place. And as artificial languages go, Volapük was as complicated as it was peculiar, nor could anyone ever even seem to agree on how it should be pronounced.

But although Volapük never really got off the ground in the real world, it did enjoy a shadowy life in fiction and as an object of idle speculation. So I offer here a virtual history of Volapük in a world that might have been, where we can sing with the poetA narrow hope has fallen man, till Volapük shall reign.

The language enjoys a robust future in Alvarado Fuller’s 1890 novel A.D. 2000. The main character is put in suspended animation by means of an ‘ozone machine’, and wakes up in (wait for it…) the year 2000, where he puts his knowledge of Volapük to good use, since it has become the common language of ‘civilized nations’.

The ozone machine

A practical step in that direction was proposed in Oskar Kausch’s monumental Die Sprachwissenschaft in der Briefmarkenkunde ‘Linguistics in Philately’ (1894), an exhaustive study of the linguistic aspects of stamp collecting. Kausch moots the use of Volapük in international address labels. Didn’t happen.

Volapük stamps from China

Looking at things from the other perspective, the futuristic satire El clavo ‘The Nail’ (1967) by the artist and author Eugenio Granell imagines Volapük as a language spoken in some tribal past, which may be an alternative reality to our present (or past or future for that matter?).

In Maurice Renard’s gruesome and sardonic L’homme truqué ‘The Counterfeit Man’ (1921), Volapük has been taken up as the language of mad scientists. A French soldier in WWI is blinded in battle, captured by the Germans but then shipped off to a castle somewhere in Eastern Europe where a mysterious group of Volapük-speaking scientists are performing ghastly experiments on human subjects. (Highly recommended.)

Extraterrestrials got into the act as well. In James Cowan’s Daybreak (1896), Moon dwellers fire off bombs to Earth filled, among other things, with Volapük texts, thereby successfully introducing the language. This conflicts somewhat with a report from an Illinois newspaper the following year, in which a Close Encounter of the Third kind was reported with a Volapük-speaking member of a Martian expeditionary force.

In the end, as always, it is Satan’s triumph. Or so reports a certain pseudonymous Doctor Bataille in Le Diable au XIX Siècle (1895). Sadly I have not been able to source the original, but as paraphrased in the following year by Arthur Edward Waite in Devil-Worship in France, he reports having discovered that the English had excavated caverns in Gibraltar to house workshops for the manufacture of Satanic idols. These are staffed by English convicts who

commonly communicate with each other in the language of Volapuk. The reason given is that this language has been adopted by the Spoeleic Rite, which I confess that I had not heard of previously, but I venture to think that the doctor has concealed the true reason, and that Volapuk has been thus chosen because it is a diabolical invention ; a universal language prevailed previously to the confusion of Babel, and the new language is an irreligious attempt to produce ordo ab chao by a return to unity of speech.

The stretchiness of Oceanic possessive classifiers

The stretchiness of Oceanic possessive classifiers

In many of the Oceanic languages, if you want to talk about someone’s tomatoes you have to use a special word that tells you how the owner of the tomatoes intends to use them. These special words – possessive classifiers – centre around culturally important interactions. You can’t simply say ‘his tomatoes’ but have to say something like ‘his tomato [which he will eat]’ or ‘his tomato [which is on his land]’.

Here’s a couple examples from Vatlongos, spoken in Vanuatu:

Tomato an ‘his tomato [to eat]’
Tomato san ‘his tomato [growing on his land]’
Tomato nan ‘his tomato [for other purposes]’

What’s really interesting is that as there are so many languages within Oceania– around 500 – there is lots of variation in how speakers use the classifiers with various possessions. Some languages are really stretchy, in that a possession can occur with many different classifiers as long as the speaker can think of a plausible situation or context – just like in Vatlongos above. Other languages are less stretchy and somewhat sticky, in that a possession can only ever occur with one classifier. So, in North Ambrym (Vanuatu), as we will see more of below, the word for tomato would only ever be edible regardless of differing contexts.

As part of our project on Optimal Categorisation we tested speakers from six different Oceanic languages on how sticky and stretchy their possessive classifiers are. We looked at Merei, Lewo, Vatlongos, North Ambrym (Vanuatu), Nêlêmwa and Iaai (New Caledonia). Each of these languages has a different possessive classifier inventory, from 2 (Merei) to 23 (Iaai). In order to test their stretchiness, we created video clips of people interacting with different objects and asked the speaker to describe what was happening with reference to the person’s possessions.

Intended context: ‘he is drinking his water’

Intended context: ‘he is washing with his water’

Some of the contexts we wanted to test were a bit strange as we wanted to see if speakers would use the classifiers in the same manner for both typical interactions (like the videos of drinking and washing with water above) and atypical interactions (like eating coffee or drinking raw eggs!). This way speakers would be confronted with strange situations that wouldn’t normally occur in their culture (or anyone’s culture for that matter – seriously who drinks raw eggs anyway?).

Some people do like to drink raw eggs!

A well-behaved possessive classifier system should allow the same word used for a possession to occur with a different classifier depending on the various contexts.

For brevity’s sake let’s just look at two languages from our sample – Lewo and North Ambrym – spoken on the neighbouring islands of Epi and Ambrym in Vanuatu. With very typical interactions like drinking water and washing with water the speakers of Lewo changed the classifier to match the interactional context. For drinking water, all 20 speakers tested used the drinkable classifier along with the word for water. Similarly, for washing with the water, the vast majority of speakers, 16 out of 20, used the general classifier along with the word for water. This is pretty much what we expect from a well-behaved classifier system where a drinking context evokes the drinkable classifier, and a more general context evokes a general classifier.

What about more atypical interactions? – let’s compare the videos of someone eating eggs (typical) and the video of the man drinking eggs (very atypical!). For the speakers of Lewo all 20 used the edible classifier when talking about someone eating eggs. For the drinking eggs context only 9 speakers used the drinkable classifier, with the rest either using an edible classifier or the general classifier.

The classifier system of Lewo works well for typical interactions (stretchy!), but not so well for atypical interaction (a little bit stretchy and a little bit sticky!).

Now let’s compare Vatlongos to North Ambrym. For both the typical interactions of drinking and washing with water our 23 North Ambrym speakers gave the drinkable classifier. What? This is not what we expected! We expected that there would be a shift to the general classifier for the video of the man washing with water. North Ambrym is not behaving like an exemplary classifier system – it is much stickier than Lewo’s system.

What about atypical interactions? For the video of the person eating eggs, all speakers used the edible classifier, as expected. For the atypical drinking of eggs, 21 out of 23 speakers gave the edible classifier too! So a very sticky result with speakers using the same classifier regardless of the contextual interaction.

So what do our results show? That the classifier system in Lewo functions more like a well-behaved classifier system than North Ambrym’s does. Lewo’s classifier system behaves well in typical everyday situations, but not so well in atypical situations where speakers must make judgements on the fly. North Ambrym however, doesn’t look at all like a well-behaved classifier system. On the stretchiness-stickiness scale, North Ambrym is much more on the sticky side than Lewo is.

Lost in Translationː the Morph team’s top 10 untranslatable words

Lost in Translationː the Morph team’s top 10 untranslatable words

To celebrate the end of UNESCOs International Year of Indigenous Languages we thought we would take a look at some of the Indigenous languages that we are researching and present some of our favourite words. Now these words just aren’t any old words, they are words that can’t be directly translated into English using a single word and must be translated using a rather long-winded explanation. Each of these words offer unique cultural insights into the speakers of these languages. We will be skipping across the continents to all the exciting places where we conduct our research…

South Sudan and Ethiopia
Our first stop on our world tour of untranslatable words is to South Sudan and Ethiopia where two closely related West Nilotic languages are spoken – Nuer and Reel. The Nuer tribe is one of the largest ethnic groups in South Sudan with around a million or so speakers. Whereas Reel is spoken by around 50,000 speakers from the Atwot tribe.

The Nuer and Atwot peoples are traditionally pastoralists. Cattle play an important role in every aspect of the traditional life. The Nuer and Atwot also rely to some extent on horticulture for their living. They lead a semi-nomadic life style determined by the availability of pasture grounds.

Speakers of Reel in Juba, South Sudan

1. tɛ́ɛt ‘to claim something back that was previously given out for good’

The Nuer verb tɛ́ɛt roughly translates as ‘to claim something back that was previously given out for good’. It is used in the situations when an item has been given to someone for good but then later the item is being recalled back. For example, it is customary to give cattle to the parents of a bride. If, for some reason, the couple wants to separate, the cattle have to be returned before the woman can go back to her parents.

2. wé̤eer ‘search by parting something’

The next word comes from Nuer’s neighbours – The Reel speaking Atwot tribe. The verb wé̤eer translates as ‘search by parting something’. This word is used when the searching involves moving apart items that sit together densely as, for example, maize or bushes.

è-wé̤eer				dṳ̂t	old.grass.PL
‘S/he is searching by parting old grass.’

Moving on to Central Asia and to the largest landlocked country in the world. Kazakh is the national language of Kazakhstan, though also spoken in Xinjiang province of China and in parts of Mongolia.

3. Tusau Keser ‘the cutting of the tether’

One of the first Kazakh rituals that a child goes through is Tusau Keser (Тұсау кесер) – which means ’the cutting of the tether’. When a young Kazakh starts to walk, their parents organize a party and the child’s legs are tied together with colourful threads. This colourful tether is then cut to welcome the child to the next stage of their life.

It is believed that if the Tusau Keser ceremony is not performed, the child will be unlucky or have problems walking in their adulthood. In some parts of Kazakhstan they tie the legs with the fatty intestines of a horse, which – in case you were wondering – represents wealth!

The Tusau Keser ceremony

The beginnings of this ceremony lie in the pastoral culture of the Kazakhs. The legs of young horses and sheep are tethered in order to tame them and only cut when they are old enough not to wonder away from the rest of the animals. Therefore, the day an animal’s tusau ‘tether’ is cut is meant to be the beginning of a new life stage.

4. Süyinshi ’be happy’
Süyinshi (сүйінші) literally means ’be happy’, but this word is used only in one specific situation. If something really great has happened to someone and they want to share the good news with their friends, they have to shout süyinshi before telling everyone the news. What’s great about this word is that when someone shouts süyinshi, the friends get to ask for any kind of present they want from the person shouting süyinshi. Normally this mini ritual starts with friends asking for houses, cars or livestock, and then ends up in the pub where the vodka is bought for the friends instead.

On the other side of the Caspian Sea in the Caucuses lies Dagestan where one of the SMG’s favourite languages lies – Archi. With only around 1300 speakers, Archi is considered an endangered language.

5. biční ‘lower corner of a sack or bag’

Not only are the Archi people famous for their lamb due to proximity of lush alpine pastures, but they also make rather beautiful bags called tus:əra. The lower corners of these handmade bags have a special term – biční. The corners of larger sacks, used for carrying grain, were the best place to hold on to upend and pour out the contents. The corners of the smaller bags are also embellished with rather beautiful tassles. What’s even more interesting about these corners is that one corner is called biční, but two corners are called boʒdo. Archi uses a different word form (known as a suppletive form) for the plural. This goes against the claim that suppletives are only used for frequently occurring words, with the lower corner of a bag probably not cropping up in many everyday conversations.

one biční, two boʒdo

These beautiful bags were originally used in everyday life, but nowadays they are reserved for traditional ceremonies. At wakes these bags are filled with traditional foods such as sweetmeats.

Skipping across to the South Pacific and to most linguistically dense place in the world – the archipelago of Vanuatu. The Oceanic language of North Ambrym, with around 5000 speakers, not only has interesting possessive classifiers but also a whole host of culturally specific and directly untranslatable words. The Ni-Vanuatu (people from Vanuatu) are self-sufficient farmers with plenty of land to grow yams, manioc, bananas and raise pigs.

6. fafar ‘to wipe your bottom on a tree trunk’

By far this is my favourite word from North Ambrym. if there are no suitable leaves around after doing your business in the bush it makes sense to use a tree trunk. Of course, not every tree trunk can be used for this sort of thing. Please avoid large and knobbly trunks – slender smooth trunks are advisable!

7. yangyangne ‘to shoot an arrow to follow its course in order to find a lost arrow’

Not paying attention when you were off shooting wild birds in the jungle with your arrows? Well shoot another one with the same power and in the same direction and make sure you pay attention this time and you may find your lost arrow. Bad golfers could probably use this trick to find their lost balls in the rough!

A bow and arrow from northern Ambrym

Now off to eastern Siberia and to the Tungisic language of Negidal which sadly only has a handful of speakers left.

8. un’i ‘be upset, get ill because someone ate in your presence and did not offer to share the food’


You should stay away from scrooges this Christmas as it would be a shame if someone ate a mouth-watering turkey roast with all the trimmings in front of you and did not offer you anyǃ Negidal speakers can also use this verb in other situations, not just for when people eat food in front of you. Un’I can be used for any unfulfilled desire which makes you ill, such as wanting to smoke a cigarette when there are none left or from wanting to see a close friend who is far away. The depression that you feel can be so great sometimes that it is said that you can die from it.

Seeing as Christmas is almost upon us what better place to end our untranslatable journey than in Lapland and the language of Skolt Saami. Skolt Saami is spoken in the far northeast of Finland with only around 300 speakers. Traditionally the Skolt Saami are reindeer herders, which is still important to this day. The Skolt Saami have many specific terms for their reindeer.

9. saʹmjaʹd ‘black reindeer’

The word sa’mja’d isn’t made up of the words for black and reindeer in the language and is a specific word that describes black reindeer. If you want to talk about reindeer in general then you would use puäʒʒ, and the word for black is čaʹppes.

10. čiõrmiǩ ‘one year old reindeer’

Only the strong survive in Lapland and there is even a special term for those strong young reindeer who make it through their first year.

With many words for the different types of reindeer we were hoping to find one that meant ‘reindeer with a red nose’, but sadly couldn’t find oneǃ

Merry Christmas from all of us at MORPHǃ

With thanks to Marina Chumakina, Tatiana Reed, Dávid Györfi, Tim Feist and Greville Corbett for their contributions.

Cushty Kazakh

Cushty Kazakh

With thousands of miles between the East End of London and the land of Kazakhs, cushty was the last word one expected to hear one warm spring afternoon in the streets of Astana (the capital of Kazakhstan, since renamed Nur-Sultan). The word cushty (meaning ‘great, very good, pleasing’) is usually associated with the Cockney dialect of the English language which originated in the East End of London.

Del Boy from Only Fools and Horses
Del Boy from Only Fools and Horses

Check out Del Boy’s Cockney sayings (Cushty from 4:04 to 4:41).

Cockney is still spoken in London now, and the word is often used to refer to anyone from London, although a true Cockney would disagree with that, and would proudly declare her East End origins. More specifically, a true ‘Bow-bell’ Cockney comes from the area within hearing distance of the church bells of St. Mary-le-Bow, Cheapside, London.

Due to its strong association with modern-day London, the word ‘Cockney’ might be perceived as being one with a fairly short history. This could not be further from the truth as its etymology goes back to a late Middle English 14th century word cokenay, which literally means a “cock’s egg” – a useless, small, and defective egg laid by a rooster (which does not actually produce eggs). This pejorative term was later used to denote a spoiled or pampered child, a milksop, and eventually came to mean a town resident who was seen as affected or puny.

The pronunciation of the Cockney dialect is thought to have been influenced by Essex and other dialects from the east of England, while the vocabulary contains many borrowings from Yiddish and Romany (cushty being one of those borrowings – we’ll get back to that in a bit!). One of the most prominent features of Cockney pronunciation is the glottalisation of the sound [t], which means that [t] is pronounced as a glottal stop: [ʔ]. Another interesting feature of Cockney pronunciation is called th-fronting, which means that the sounds usually induced by the letter combination th ([θ] as in ‘thanks’ and [ð] as in ‘there’ are replaced by the sounds [f] and [v]. These (and some other) phonological features characteristic of the Cockney dialect have now spread far and wide across London and other areas, partly thanks to the popularity of television shows like “Only Fools and Horses” and “EastEnders”.

As far as grammar is concerned, the Cockney dialect is distinguished by the use of me instead of my to indicate possession; heavy use of ain’t in place of am not, is not, are not, has not, have not; and the use of double negation which is ungrammatical in Standard British English: I ain’t saying nuffink to mean I am not saying anything.

Having borrowed words, Cockney also gave back generously, with derivatives from Cockney rhyming slang becoming a staple of the English vernacular. The rhyming slang tradition is believed to have started in the early to mid-19th century as a way for criminals and wheeler-dealers to code their speech beyond the understanding of police or ordinary folk. The code is constructed by way of rhyming a phrase with a common word, but only using the first word of that phrase to refer to the word. For example, the phrase apples and pears rhymes with the word stairs, so the first word of the phrase – apples – is then used to signify stairs: I’m going up the apples. Another popular and well-known example is dog and bone – telephone, so if a Cockney speaker asks to borrow your dog, do not rush to hand over your poodle!

Test your knowledge of Cockney rhyming slang!

Right, so did I encounter a Cockney walking down the field of wheat (street!) in Astana saying how cushty it was? Perhaps it was a Kazakh student who had recently returned from his studies in London and couldn’t quite switch back to Kazakh? No and no. It was a native speaker of Kazakh reacting in Kazakh to her interlocutor’s remark on the new book she’d purchased by saying күшті [kyʃ.tɨˈ] which sounds incredibly close to cushty [kʊˈʃ.ti]. The meanings of the words and contexts in which they can be used are remarkably similar too. The Kazakh күшті literally means ‘strong’, however, colloquially it is used to mean ‘wonderful, great, excellent’ – it really would not be out of place in any of Del Boy’s remarks in the YouTube video above! Surely, the two kushtis have to be related, right? Well…

Recall, that cushty is a borrowing from Romany (Indo-European) kushto/kushti, which, in turn, is known to have borrowed from Persian and Arabic. In the case of the Romany kushto/kushti, the borrowing could have been from the Persian khoši meaning ‘happiness’ or ‘pleasure’. It would have been very neat if this could be linked to the Kazakh күшті, however, there seems to be no connection there… Kazakh is a Turkic language and the etymology of күшті can be traced back to the Old Turkic root küč meaning ‘power’, which does not seem to have been borrowed from or connected with Persian. Certainly, had we been able to go back far enough, we might have found a common Indo-European-Turkic root in some Proto-Proto-Proto-Language. As things stand now, all we can do is admire what appears to be a wonderful coincidence, and enjoy the journeys on which a two-syllable word you’d overheard in the street might take you.

A picture is worth a thousand words: Choosing images for psycholinguistic research

A picture is worth a thousand words: Choosing images for psycholinguistic research

Linguists need to come up with different ways of testing our theories of how particular languages in the world function. We generally rely on two main methods of data collection – linguistic elicitation and corpus collection. With linguistic elicitation a linguist asks a speaker of a language: ‘How do you say “Monty Python is really funny” in your language?’ But can we be sure that what the speaker said is naturalistic and not just a word for word translation?

Linguists need naturalistic data and can also record stories and conversations to build up a representative sample of a language (a corpus). This however takes a lot of time, effort and dedication on the part of both the linguist and the community of speakers of a language. It might even be that – after years of toil – the particular construction that a linguist wants to look at is under-represented with a dearth of examples in the corpus.

Thankfully, there is a happy medium! We can combine cognitive psychological techniques and targeted linguistic elicitation, to create scenarios where speakers produce naturalistic responses. Of course, this technique brings with it another set of problems entirely.

Psycholinguistic experiments need to be carefully designed and can’t be made up on the fly in response to something a speaker of a language says to you; this is drastically different to standard linguistic elicitation where one can continually come up with new sentences to check, while in the middle of working with a speaker of a language.

In our current research on optimal categorisation we aim to find out how different nouns are assigned to different classifiers in a group of six related Oceanic languages spoken in Vanuatu and New Caledonia. Each language has a different inventory size of classifying particles — from two to 23 — which are used in possessive constructions, and categorise the possession in terms of its use or functionality.

Here are a few examples from the Iaai language, spoken in New Caledonia, which has the largest inventory of classifiers in our sample of languages:

(1a)	a-n			wââ	(b)	hanii-ny		wââ
        FOOD.CLASSIFIER-his	fish 		CATCH.CLASSIFIER-his	fish
        ‘his fish (to eat)		        ‘his fish (which he caught)’
(2a)	a-n			koko	(b)	noo-n			koko
	‘his yam (to eat)’			‘his yam plant’

We want to see whether or not a particular noun that refers to a particular entity can occur with different classifiers, like with the words for ‘fish’ and ‘yam’ in Iaai above. Also, how does a language with 23 classifiers function differently from a language with just two or three classifiers?

One way in which we can discover how the classifiers function in each language is to use a card sorting experiment. These experiments present speakers with entities in the form of pictures. Speakers are asked to sort them into different groups, first in a “free sort” where they can create groups on any basis they feel is relevant and important, and second, in a “structured sort” where they are asked to group entities according to which classifier they would use in a possessive construction. By doing this with lots of participants we can see individual speaker variation in language usage in one language and across languages and get a clear sense of if and how a language’s classifier system is influencing the way that speakers think about and process different entities.

Once we have decided on which nouns to test in a card sort experiment we have to find or make pictures that represent these images. Sadly I don’t have the artistic skills of Michelangelo and won’t be painting any masterpieces for the experiment! 

Choosing what type of image is trickier than it sounds as we are presented with an array of options.

First should we use simple line drawings of the images? The Noun Project has over 2 million small black and white line drawings. With such a choice of images we can find what we need. Here are some images of yams that I found on the site that we could use for our experiment.

These are great, and I know they are yams because I searched for images of yams on the website. But if I present these images to speakers I want them to tell me what they are. If the images aren’t instantly recognisable then participants will use different nouns to describe what they are seeing – is it a yam? A sweet potato? Manioc? Or some other entity? Actually, to tell you the truth, the third picture is actually a sweet potato! But it looks very similar to the first picture of a yam. Another problem is that these images can be quite abstract – and we can’t be sure that these symbolic representations of entities will be shared across different cultural and linguistic groups.

What about black and white pictures? – These are cheaper to print and easier to standardise. But we do not see the world in black and white and presenting entities as black and white pictures  may make it harder to identify  them, especially when the lightness of the background and the object of focus are similar. We need to be sure that the images we choose are easy to identify or else we can end up with problems of misidentification.

Another possibility is to remove the background of the image.  By doing this we can eliminate distractions and help the participant focus on the object in the image. However, the background is often key. Background information gives context that can influence how the speaker of a language perceives the entity in the image.

For instance, speakers may classify a fish that has been caught differently to a fish that is alive and swimming in the sea. The edible classifier is more likely with the former scenario, and a general classifier with the latter. But if we were to remove the background from both of these photos they would look strikingly similar! This leads us onto a very important question – what classifier would speakers of these languages use for a parrot if it was alive or dead?

So now we have decided to present images in colour and keep the background. But we must make sure that the background varies across different images. We don’t want participants to sort the entities into groups based on a colour or shape in the background or some other extraneous visual cue that may appear in several pictures!

For every psycholinguistic experiment that uses images there are multiple decisions that need to be made to figure out what type of image is required. The images we have chosen are specifically tailored to the nature of the languages we are studying to ensure that they are culturally relevant and thus identifiable.

For us, the pictures need to be realistic and represent the world around us — Sadly, we can’t take artistic licence with kangaroos and trampoline acts, as fun as that would be!