Sunday, December 30, 2018

--- Language Resources ---

If people go by their experiences in school, "Language" is probably thought of as vocabulary, grammar, and. maybe, literature. Foreign languages would be included in all that. But there is a lot more to it than that. Those communications classes - those are language, too. How about etymology? That's one of my favorites. I almost enjoy being criticized for saying "Call a spade a spade," so I can explain where the phrase comes from and why it has absolutely nothing to do with race. Or, when I say that "It's all balled up," and some one looks at me like I said something dirty.

That's one of my favorites. When people relied on horses to get around, they would often ride, or take their carriages out on a snowy day and the snow would get packed under the horses hooves into tight snowballs, causing them to fall down.

Likewise, "to suck" derives from the beat generation when, if you were a good trumpeter, you "really blew" but, of course, the opposite was to "really suck."

There's more to why a particular person said /that/ than choice of words. Sigmund Freud actually did first describe the Freudian slip - saying something you really mean without intending to go quite that far. There is certainly a psychology of language.

And language is composed of signs. Words are signs, but people don't always associate all those other signs as language - but it is. Semiotics is the study of signs. There is  much more to language than people usually think and much of the most fascinating parts are often ignored.

Why does the English "father", the German "fader",  and the Italian and Spanish "padre" sound so much alike; and why doesn't the Russian "otets" and Aramean "hayry" follow suit?

Why do Americans gesture with the first finger and thumb of one hand in a circle to indicate that things are alright, and why will that get you into trouble in other parts of the world? Our nonverbal language is also language.

I mentioned two of my favorite authors of linguistics in the blog, "Language and me". You might also want to check out Desmond Morris' Peoplewatching. And if you want to check out the languages of other folks - horses, dogs, cats - he's also written Dogwatching, Catwatching, Horsewatching, and Animalwatching.

"Foreign language" is a relative term. German may be foreign to an English speaking person but not to a German speaker. English is a foreign language to many people in the world. Ironically, though, English is a langua franca, so it is understood by many people whose first language isn't English. I learned German in college because, at that time, a lot of research in psychology (my field) was published in German. There are a lot of reasons to pick up another language, but one is just that it's fun to do so.

If you want to devote a significant part of your time to the serious study of language, you will certainly need a reference library and you couldn't do much better than the online MIT reference library (

And if you want to pick up a new language, check out MIT's OpenCourseWare offerings in foreign languages. For supplemental study, fun, and games, look at the Digital Dialects page ( and the BBC's languages page (

If you want to delve into sign languages, there are many resources for American Sign Language on the web. I recommend the excellent AMSLAN dictionary at Signing Savvy (

I'll be looking into a lot of language while I try to learn Spanish this year. Maybe you'll get bit by the language bug.

Is there a foreign language you have always been wanting to pick up? Just keep in mind, the longer you wait, the harder it is to learn it. Don't let the opportunity slip by.

Walk around town and pay attention to what people  say. Do some of the phrases they use seem odd to you? When you really think about it, do many of the phrases you use seem odd to you? Why do people say those things?!? Most dictionaries have the etymologies of the words - explanations of where the words come from. You can usually find the origins of phrases on the Internet.

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