Language and linguistics


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Death and the word; William conquers Harold and the English language. From Cotton Vitellius A XIII(1) f3v. Photo courtesy British Library

Essay/
Language and linguistics
English is not normal

No, English isn’t uniquely vibrant or mighty or adaptable. But it really is weirder than pretty much every other language

John McWhorter

Illustration by Matt Murphy

Essay/
Language and linguistics
Real talk

For decades, the idea of a language instinct has dominated linguistics. It is simple, powerful and completely wrong

Vyvyan Evans

Photo by Benjamin Couprie/Wikimedia. Color by Sanna Dullaway

Essay/
Language and linguistics
Absolute English

Science once communicated in a polyglot of tongues, but now English rules alone. How did this happen – and at what cost?

Michael D Gordin

The Aegean Sea. Photo by Krista Rossow/National Geographic

Essay/
Beauty and aesthetics
The sea was never blue

The Greek colour experience was made of movement and shimmer. Can we ever glimpse what they saw when gazing out to sea?

Maria Michela Sassi

Barry Falls/Heart Agency

Essay/
Language and linguistics
Naughty words

What makes swear words so offensive? It’s not their meaning or even their sound. Is language itself a red herring here?

Rebecca Roache

Photo by Gallery Stock

Essay/
Language and linguistics
See through words

The metaphor designer isn’t trying to make something beautiful. She wants to change your view on things. Here’s how

Michael Erard

Dan Everett and the Pirahã in 2009. Photo by Martin Schoeller/AUGUST

Essay/
Philosophy of language
Chomsky, Wolfe and me

I took on Noam Chomsky’s ideas about language and unleashed a decade of debate and ridicule. But is my argument wrong?

Daniel Everett

Photo by Brooke Anderson Photography/Getty

Essay/
Language and linguistics
Who decides what words mean

Bound by rules, yet constantly changing, language might be the ultimate self-regulating system, with nobody in charge

Lane Greene

Photo by Raghu Rai/Magnum Photos

Essay/
Travel
The parlance of pilots

High above London, Tokyo and Cairo, the language of the cockpit is technical, obscure, geeky – and irresistibly romantic

Mark Vanhoenacker

La Pia de Tolomei by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Spencer Museum of Art, Kansas. Photo by Wikimedia

Essay/
Stories and literature
Dark books

What’s more wholesome than reading? Yet books wield a dangerous power: the best erode self, infecting readers with ideas

Tara Isabella Burton

Glisten, glint, glimmer and glow. Photo by Albert Ceolan/DEA/Getty

Essay/
Philosophy of language
The way words mean

Words stand for things in the world, and they stand apart from it. Perhaps meaning is more sunken into words than we realise?

Alexander Stern

Photo by the Hulton Archive/Getty

Essay/
Language and linguistics
Talking gibberish

The study of languages has long been prone to nonsense. Why is linguistics such a magnet for dilettantes and crackpots?

Gaston Dorren

First-grader Angel Huerta reads a book during a guided reading group. Photo By Craig F. Walker/The Denver Post/Getty Images

Essay/
Language and linguistics
Talk the talk

A push for English to be the official language of the US has both a dark history and a regressive vision for the future

Eric C Miller

The grey wolf trio, Idaho, USA. Photo by Jim and Jamie Dutcher/National Geographic Creative

Essay/
Biology
The songs of the wolves

Wolves’ howls are eerie, beautiful and wild. But what are they actually saying to each other?

Holly Root-Gutteridge

A clay impression of a cylinder seal from Nippur, Iraq. Akkadian civilisation, 2330-2150 BCE. Photo By DEA/De Agostini/Getty

Essay/
The ancient world
The deep roots of writing

Was writing invented for accounting and administration or did it evolve from religious movements, sorcery and dreams?

Michael Erard

Nurunuru? Reiko Takahashi, 78, prepares seaweed that she collects from the sea at the Tomari Port on 12 March 2013 in Minamisanriku, Japan. Photo by Athit Perawongmetha/Getty

Essay/
Language and linguistics
Words as feelings

A special class of vivid, textural words defies linguistic theory: could ‘ideophones’ unlock the secrets of humans’ first utterances?

David Robson

Found in translation; a girl writes on the blackboard "C'est la rentrée". Photo by Denis Charlet/AFP/Getty

Essay/
Language and linguistics
Speaking in tongues

In a world that converses only in English, we’ll talk only of banal things: that’s why I want my children to be bilingual

Ben Faccini

Beatriz (L), 7, from Rio de Janeiro speaks with an indigenous girl at the Kari-Oca village as part of the ‘Rio+20’ United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. Photo by Ricardo Moraes/Reuters

Essay/
Language and linguistics
Is linguistics a science?

Much of linguistic theory is so abstract and dependent on theoretical apparatus that it might be impossible to explain

Arika Okrent

Scientists unveil a 1.8 million-year-old 'Dmanisi' skull discovered in the Dmanisi caves in modern-day Georgia. Photo by Valerie Kuypers/AFP/Getty Images

Essay/
Human evolution
Did Homo erectus speak?

Early hominins who sailed across oceans left indirect evidence that they might have been the first to use language

Daniel Everett

Katrina Esau, one of the last remaining speakers of a Khoisan language that was thought extinct nearly 40 years ago, teaches her native tongue to a group of school children in Upington, South Africa on 21 September 2015. Photo by Mujahid Safodien/AFP/Getty

Essay/
Philosophy of language
The death of languages

Endangered languages have sentimental value, it’s true, but are there good philosophical reasons to preserve them?

Rebecca Roache

The Harbinger of Autumn (1922) by Paul Klee, watercolour and graphite. Photo courtesy Yale University Art Gallery

Essay/
Language and linguistics
The say of the land

Is language produced by the mind? Romantic theory has it otherwise: words emerge from the cosmos, expressing its soul

Mark Vernon

Photo by Corbis

Essay/
Animals and humans
From Aesop to doge

The animal who speaks in a human voice is a figure of the most enduring imaginative power. What do we hope to hear?

Stassa Edwards