Talkin’ About Talk

The scripts for the Talkin’ About Talk radio programs have been removed from the website of the College of Charleston. I’ve captured them from the Internet Archive, so these links may take a little extra time to load. You can listen here or on iTunesU. Descriptions and links below. A new edition of the book will be out at the end of April.  See it on Amazon.

What’s Special About Language?

Author: Robert Rodman

Hello and welcome to Talking’ About Talk. Members of the United States Senate have proposed 2005 as the Year of Languages in America. And this is the first in a series of programs to celebrate the year. So let’s take a moment to think about language, a gift we ordinarily take for granted.
How Many Languages are There?

Author: Paul Lewis

How many languages are there? Well, I’m afraid that’s one of those “it all depends” questions: how you answer it depends on what we call a language, and deciding what is and what isn’t a language isn’t as easy as you’d think.
What was the First Language?

Author: Barry Hilton

Let’s try a simple answer first: Over the past several hundred years, American English “spun off” from English in Britain and became a separate way of speaking. English itself “spun off” from a language that was an ancestor of today’s German. Just about all of the several thousand languages in the world came into being through this kind of splitting and re-splitting.
Do all Languages Come from the Same Source?

Author: Allan Bomhard

Have you ever studied German? Or Spanish, or French? If you have, you were probably grateful for cognates, foreign words that sound and look like English words with related meanings. In German, your parents are your Mutter and your Vater. In Spanish, they’re your madre and padre. In French, they’re your mère and père.
Why Should Americans Learn Languages?

Author: Marty Abbott and Steve Ackley

I’ve been astonished to hear what people as far apart as Denmark and Hong Kong have told me as a joke that seems to span the world. It goes like this: What do you call someone who speaks lots of languages? Answer: multilingual. And someone who speaks two languages: bilingual. And some who speaks just one language? An American. Not funny. But it has a ring of truth.
Where did English Come From?

Author: John Algeo

Well, English did come from the same ancestor as German, but there’s a lot more to the story. In the fifth century, Celts lived in the British Isles. But warfare among them became so fierce that one local king asked for help from Germanic tribes living in southern Denmark and northern Germany. He got more than he bargained for: the tribes came as allies, but they liked the island so much they decided to take it over.
Whatever Happened to Esperanto?

Author: Rick Rickerson

Have you ever thought to yourself ‘wouldn’t it be wonderful if everyone in the world spoke the same language?’ or wouldn’t it be almost as good if everyone could speak their own language at home but agreee to learn the same second language for international communication? What if there were languages that did not belong to any one country; a language so easy you could learn it quickly, like a few weeks or months.
Is British English Superior to Ours?

Author: Orin Hargraves

Suppose you had the chance to record a sample of human language for aliens to listen to. What language would you choose? You don’t have to make that choice, because someone has already done it: when the Voyager Space Probes were launched in 1977, they carried recordings of short greetings in 55 human languages — including English — for the benefit of otherworldly beings. But what sort of English did they record?
Do All Southerners Have the Same Dialect?

Author: Walt Wolfram

No dialect in the U.S. is more noticed — and commented on — than Southern English. This is where a person totes things, but carries friends to see a show. And where else do we cut on the lights and mash the button in the elevator? To quote the title of a recent book on Southern terms, “Y’all is Spoken Here”. Nothing is more Southern than its speech.
Is there a Language Crisis in America?

Author: Catherine Ingold

Yes, there’s a language crisis in the U.S. We need language qualifications for REAL jobs that have tremendous importance to the country. Because of concerns about terrorism, shortages in defense and intelligence have received the most attention. But they aren’t the only needs: the globalization of business has radically increased demand for people who can move information from one language to another. Every new Windows release or American movie has to meet the language expectations of markets in other countries. And other country’s products need to meet ours. You wouldn’t be happy if instructions for the radio in your BMW were only in German. Or if the help wizard in your computer understood only Japanese.
What Does it Take to Learn a Language Well?

Author: Nina Garrett

I often hear people say: “I had 4 semesters of Language X — but I can’t speak a word.” That’s a very common problem. In fact, it may be that most people who study a language have the same experience. So what’s going on? The implication seems to be that we’re not very smart, or we’re bad at learning languages or we had poor teachers. But probably none of that is true.
What’s the History of Language Study in the US?

Author: June Phillips

Hmmm. The first language taught to anyone in America was… Algonquian. New arrivals from England learned native American languages so they could survive in a foreign land. The goal: communication. But something happened to language teaching along the way. We built schools. And when we, as good Europeans, started teaching languages in the schools, we wanted the best of European tradition. So before the 1800’s, learning a language in America meant learning Ancient Greek or Latin — and often both.
Should We be Learning Arabic?

Author: Jerry Lampe

Arabic is all around us these days. On news broadcasts we hear words like mujahideen, intifada and Al-Qaida (or is it Al-Kayda?). Middle-Eastern foods like hummus and falafel are gourmet goodies. And, if you look closely you’ll see small ads in Arabic script — for some reason often on the sports page — seeking people who can read and speak the language.
Is Sign Language a Universal Language?

Author: Leila Monahan

There are two widespread myths about sign languages. One is that they aren’t languages at all and the second is that signs are a universal language. That any signer can understand all signers anywhere in the world. Both ideas are false.
Are Dialects Dying in the US?

Author: Walt Wolfram

Here are four people, from four parts of the country, saying the same word:

boht... baht... baot... buaht.

So how do you pronounce the vowel in the word spelled B-O-U-G-H-T? Do you pronounce it in one of these ways — or in a different way?
Why Do Languages Change?

Author: John McWhorter

Have you ever left a Shakespeare performance feeling worn out from trying to understand what the characters were saying? It wasn’t just because Shakespeare’s English is poetic, but because the English that Shakespeare knew was, in many ways, a different language from ours. When Juliet asked “Wherefore art thou Romeo?” she wasn’t asking where Romeo was — after all, he’s right there under the balcony! Wherefore meant why. But we no longer have that word because languages shed words all the time. And they also take on new ones, like blog.
Is Pidgin English just Bad English?

Author: John Lipski

How una dé? Uskain nius? These two greetings, the first from Nigeria and the second from Cameroon, both mean roughly “Hi, what’s happening?” Both use words from English, but combine them in new ways. It’s like when we greet someone by saying “long time no see,” or when we invite a friend to come have a “look-see” or use “no can do” when something’s not possible. When we do that, we’re no longer speaking English.
Was German Almost the Language of America?

Author: Nancy Nenno

The official language of America was almost — German? A few months ago I heard a businessman say that to a group of language teachers, and it’s not the first time I’ve heard it. It’s not true, but the myth about it never seems to die. According to the legend, German would have become our official language in 1795, except for a single vote in the U.S. House of Representatives.
How do Babies Learn to Talk?

Author: Roberta Golinkoff and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek

“Goo goo gaa gaa” might be what you think is the beginning of how babies learn to talk, but you’d be wrong! Language learning starts well before babies utter their first words or babbles. Once babies can hear, they respond to sounds. There’s no question that babies in the womb jump in response to noises, such as fireworks. Even before they’re born, they eavesdrop on their mother’s conversations. They don’t recognize words, but they recognize their mother’s speech patterns. At first, language is only like a melody for them, but they enter the world prepared to learn any of the world’s 7,000 languages.
Can Monolingualism be Cured?

Author: Katherine Sprang

When was the last time you studied a foreign language? Some of us think about that experience with pleasure; others think of it as something like root canal. If you’re over 16 and trying to learn a new language — or thinking about learning one (and I hope you are) — remember that adults learn second languages in ways very different from children. Children learn language as part of learning about the world. It’s the child’s full-time job for the first few years of life. But it’s fun and exciting. No studying necessary, and no homework!
Why is Chinese so hard to learn?

Author: Barry Hilton

If you ask professional linguists a question like that, most will probably say that every language is complex in some ways and simple in others, and that they average out to around the same level of complexity. But that’s probably not the kind of answer you’re looking for. If we rephrase the question, though, and ask which language is hardest for native English speakers to learn, well, yes, a pretty good case can be made for the group of closely related languages we call “Chinese”. Let’s look at some of the reasons.
Should we teach languages in elementary schools?

Author: Gladys Lipton

I recently got a note from a mother whose daughter’s school had a program of teaching Chinese and Spanish to grade schoolers. Will it result in linguistic confusion, she asked? It’s a good question, but it’s not a worry. Children under the age of 10 are absolutely hardwired to learn languages. In many other countries they learn three or four, often at the same time — with no ill effects.
Where did writing come from?

Author: Peter T. Daniels

There are dozens of writing systems in the world, in a bewildering variety. They’re written from left to right or right to left and even from top to bottom. Their symbols come in all shapes and sizes. Unlike spoken language, which started many thousands of years before writing and whose origins are cloudy, we have a very good idea of how and when writing began. Because fragments of some of the earliest writing still exist, carved on rocks, we can trace its evolution through time.
What causes foreign accents?

Author: Steven Weinberger

Foreign accents have been around for a long time. The Old Testament tells us how the Gileadites destroyed the infiltrating army of their enemy: They set up roadblocks and made each man who approached them say the Gileadite word “Shibboleth”. The Ephraimites couldn’t pronounce the “s-h” sound. And when they said “sibboleth”— the Gileadites killed them on the spot.
How do you keep languages in a museum?

Author: Amelia C. Murdoch

Yes, America, as of 1997 there is such a place, located in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. It’s not yet open to the public, but the National Museum of Language is gradually taking shape. What a unique institution! A museum dedicated entirely to the subject of language. Everyone visits museums — to see (and sometimes touch) physical objects like airplanes, paintings, bleached bones and antique coins. But language? Language is mainly sounds, and words and books, and they’re in libraries. What’ll you do in a language museum? And why?
How many native American languages are there?

Author: Marianne Mithun

A surprising number of people think there’s just one language native to the U.S.: “Indian”. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Should we be studying Russian?

Author: Benjamin Rifkin

A colleague of mine who’s a professor of Russian, tells me that whenever he’s on an plane he likes to read Russian mystery novels. Typically, the person sitting next to him sees that he’s reading something with unusual letters, and says something like:
Why do Linguists love Icelandic?

Author: Pardee Lowe Jr.

It’s too bad that pop singer Bjork does most of her songs in English rather than her native tongue. Icelandic is a really interesting language with sounds not heard in most of the other major languages of the world.
How are language and thought related?

Author: Geoffrey Pullum

A surprising number of the things people say about thinking are actually expressed as claims about language:
How are Dictionaries Made?

Author: Erin McKean

Language is forever morphing. It’s hard to know the exact shape of a language because it has so many faces — and it’s a moving target. But for a few fleeting moments, it can be captured in a dictionary. Those of us who love language owe a lot to lexicographers, the unsung researchers who make dictionaries, and know that within months their product will in some respect… be out of date.
Where did Cajun come from?

Author: Robyn Holman

Did you know that French was once the language of everyday life in Louisiana? Remember that it was French territory until we bought it from Napoleon in 1803, and Louisiana is still the place in the U.S. where French is spoken the most. According to the 2000 census, over a million people claim French ancestry there, with around 200,000 saying they speak some type of French at home.
Is there a right way to use language?

Author: Dennis Preston

The US has no shortage of linguistic gatekeepers. Language pundits warn in the press, on the air, and even on the inside of matchbook covers that, if we don’t clean up our linguistic acts, the doors of opportunity will be closed. Fear of not saying things the “right” way causes some of us to break out in a sweat when choosing whether to say “between you and me” or “between you and I.”
Is Spanish in the US to stay?

Author: Maria Carreira

Spanish in the United States is an amazing story. The U.S. is now the fifth largest Spanish-speaking country in the world. New York has as many Puerto Ricans as San Juan, the capital of Puerto Rico. Miami is the second-largest Cuban city; Los Angeles the second largest Mexican city.
What’s the difference between dialect and language?

Author: Tucker Childs

Strange as it may seem, there’s no really good way to distinguish between a “language” and a “dialect.” Because they’re not objective, scientific terms. People use the words “dialect” and “language” to mean different things. “Language” can often refer to your own linguistic variety and “dialect” to the variety spoken by someone else, usually someone thought of as inferior.
Is Japanese related to Chinese?

Author: Blaine Erickson

The less it has in common with your native tongue, the more difficult another language seems. By that measure, Japanese is one of the harder languages for English speakers to learn.
Are Spanish and Portuguese really the same language?

Author: Ana Maria Carvalho

Well, if Portuguese and Spanish aren’t varieties of the same language, they’re surely sister languages, and very close sisters at that. If we define dialects as speech varieties that are mutually understood, we can say they are, in fact, dialects of the same language. It’s not uncommon to find a speaker of say, Brazilian Portuguese, talking to an Argentinean at an airport: each speaking his own language, both understanding each other, with just occasional need to stop now and then to clarify the meaning of a word. They communicate very well most of the time, as long as they avoid using slang or talking too fast.
What’s the language of Africa?

Author: Donald Osborn

“Say something in African.” That’s something you might hear from a college freshman, talking to an African exchange student. But, of course there is no single “African language.” By one count there are over 2000 distinctly separate tongues on the continent. Some are spoken by very small groups of people, maybe in only one village; others are spoken by millions. The thing to remember is that Africa, especially south of the Sahara, is one of the most multilingual regions in the world.
Can you use language to solve a crime?

Author: Robert Rodman

People who work with languages do a lot of things you probably never thought of. Think about this scenario:
How good is machine translation?

Author: David Savignac

When the computer was invented, one of the first things people thought about was how you might use it to translate foreign languages. But early efforts at machine translation… fizzled. And in the late 60s and early 70s the effort was almost completely abandoned. You’ve probably heard the funny mis-translation stories: “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak” translated as the “The whisky is strong but the meat is rotten.” Or the term for a device known as a “hydraulic ram” being translated as “water goat.” Machines can indeed translate languages, but the Holy Grail for humans who use them — “fully automated high quality machine translation” — is still elusive. What’s the problem here?
What does it take to be an interpreter?

Author: Kevin Hendzel

I’m always impressed when I see someone standing behind the President, interpreting a foreign visitor’s comments into his ear. What talent it takes to translate one language into another — listening and speaking at the same time! You can’t pick up a dictionary. And you can’t just spit out words like a robot. The interpreter’s job is to convey meaning. And since a lot of meaning is expressed by tone of voice or the nuance of words and phrases, his job is far more than translating word for word.
Who speaks what languages in the US?

Author: David Goldberg

It always strikes me as peculiar, that the U.S. is often described as a monolingual English-speaking place, when tens of millions of people in the country speak so many other languages. Did you know that people in Idaho speak over three dozen languages other than English? That over 86,000 people speak Polish in Chicago? Or that almost half of New York City’s residents don’t speak English at home?
Do you have to go abroad to learn a language?

Author: Sheri Spaine Long

Are you one of those language learners who loves to be plunked into an ongoing stream of talk, soaking it up, mimicking what you hear, unruffled if you don’t understand what’s being said? Or are you someone who needs more structure, who wants to know what each word means before you try it out, frustrated when waves of incomprehensible speech wash over you.
What does language have to do with national security?

Author: Michael Erard

You may not have thought about it before, but knowledge of languages is always a part of national security. Think of how many people in America and western Europe learned Russian and other languages during the Cold War. Wherever there’s international tension, there are language needs. Because, if you want to know what the other side is up to, you have to know what he’s saying, or thinking. And language is the key.
How many languages is it possible for a person to speak?

Author: Michael Erard

Scientists have long studied how language abilities can be impaired. We know, for example, how a stroke or auto accident can injure areas of the brain that are important for speech. But we don’t know enough about exceptionally strong language ability — about the upper limits of language learning.
Is there such a thing as too much language learning?

Author: Henk Haarmann

Have you ever been faced with uncomfortable amounts of new or complicated information, and said something like: “I feel my head’s going to explode”? Well, I don’t want to blow anybody’s head up, but we have been encouraging listeners and their children to learn new languages. So, in case you detect cerebral pressure building, let me offer some words of comfort about the magnificent flexibility of the human brain.
What does it mean to be bilingual?

Author: Dora Johnson

If you speak just one language, you probably think that’s pretty normal, and that people who speak more than one are an exception, or at least a minority. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Three quarters of the people in the world, including many in the U.S., are bilingual or multilingual. It’s monolinguals who are a minority breed.
Why do languages die?

Author: Christopher Moseley

Unh, this isn’t a happy subject. For those of us who love languages, it’s terrible to see that they’re dying at a very rapid rate. About half the world’s languages have fewer than 10,000 speakers — about enough to fill a small-town football stadium.
Can threatened or dying languages be revived?

Author: Akira Yamamoto

There’s a difference, of course, between a language that’s extinct and one that’s threatened. Hittite, once the language of a great empire, is as dead as the sabre-toothed tiger. Many of the world’s languages today are like the rare and beautiful whooping cranes–hanging on by the skin of their teeth.
Does anybody here speak Klingon?

Author: Christopher Moseley

With roughly seven thousand languages already in the world, what possesses people to make up new ones? If the motive is idealistic, to create a single language to unite mankind in mutual understanding, there may be a flaw in that reasoning. Some of the bloodiest conflicts in history have been fought among people who speak the same language. Think of Vietnam or, for that matter, the American civil war!
Is language important enough to fight about?

Author: Paul B. Garrett

The idea of fighting over language might seem strange, but it’s all too common. Like religion, language can move people to take up arms against those who have a different one. That’s because language is such an important part of identity.
Can you make a living loving languages?

Author: Frederick jackson

Let’s say you really enjoy languages. At some time in your life — in school, the military, the Peace Corps or while traveling abroad — you found that learning how a language works — and using it — was really fun.
What don’t we know about language?

Author: Rick Rickerson

Actually, there’s a lot we don’t know about language. Although it’s been with us for tens of thousands of years, we’ve studied it scientifically for a relatively short time. So what do we still need to know?