It is easy to forget today that, in spite of its troubled politics, Afghanistan really is a very pretty country.

Afghanistan is a complicated country. In the continual geopolitical furori that have thrust an unassuming, ruggedly beautiful land with few resources a thousand miles from any major capital into the global spotlight, it is easy to forget that it is notable for anything besides war.

But Afghanistan has a fascinating linguistic heritage, reflecting the diversity of Central Asia and holding a unique place in the patrimony of one of the world’s great languages. Modern Afghanistan’s two official languages, Dari and Pashto, are members of the Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European language family. …

Rifts between languages are often more political than linguistic, but in South India, they run far deeper. Bottomless, in fact: Dravidian languages are ancestrally unrelated to Indo-Aryan. The Hindi language is more closely related to English than it is to Telugu. (Sir Winston Churchill cited this as a basis for his claim that “India is a geographical term,” and not a nation; today, many Indian scholars contend that emphasizing linguistic division belies a long history of cultural and linguistic exchange.)

It is likely that Dravidians are the native people of the whole subcontinent. Evidence abounds, the strongest of which are…

Ask anyone what language they speak in a given major country, and it is typically not a hard question. Italians speak Italian, Swedes speak Swedish, and the Japanese speak Japanese. Most people know that Argentines speak Spanish, and it is broadly true that the language of China is Chinese.

But India, the second-largest nation on earth with big cultural influence and rapidly rising economic power, is different. Over its millennia of history, there was never a single national entity of “India.” Hundreds of empires foreign and domestic ruled fractions large and small of the subcontinent, until it was finally unified…

I am writing from the rugged coast of County Antrim in Northern Ireland, having spent the past week on a family holiday in Dublin and Donegal. Both of the latter areas are in the Republic of Ireland, but no signs, let alone passport inspections, mark the international border. Brexit negotiations have shoved the complicated, tetchy problems of Irish division into the international spotlight, but the only way a person on the ground can tell that there is any border at all is language.

Of course, everyone in Ireland, on both sides, speaks English. In the Republic, however, signage is bilingual…

Sectarian divisions between the two peoples who inhabit a certain strip of land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River have given rise to the most famous conflict in the world today. Participants and observers alike characterise the two sides in religious or national terms. But in a land where most people on both sides are of Middle Eastern origin, for practical purposes the most obvious shibboleth is often language.

The official language of Israel is Hebrew. Over 90% of Israeli Jews and 60% of Israeli Arabs (who make up a fifth of Israel’s citizens) speak it fluently. Many…

It is a common lament, both within the United States and abroad, that Americans lag far behind Europeans in foreign language skills. As far as stereotypes go, it is a pretty well-founded one. Most Americans do not even study a foreign language in school, and I know many who took French or Spanish for years and can barely hack a sentence together. This certainly has not always been the case- a century ago, America was probably one of the most polyglot nations in the world- so why is it now?

Of course, we must first acknowledge that as English speakers…

English’s eccentricities are widely known, but fewer people are aware that the entire Germanic group to which it belongs is something of an oddity. About a third of all Germanic words do not seem to have any relation to the rest of the Indo-European language family. Although early Germanic speakers lived in the heart of Europe and were in constant contact with Indo-European relatives, some features of their grammar and phonology, too, stray far from the mainstream followed by languages from Ireland to India.

Linguists from Jacob Grimm on have puzzled over how this came about, and proposed some outside-the-box…

Anglo-Saxons in their traditional tribal garb

Speakers of any language like to think that theirs is unique. Germans point out that their proclivity for ramming words together to form new compounds makes German uniquely adaptable. Their neighbours over the Rhine claim that French’s clear grammar and precise vocabulary make it the natural choice for the European Union. But everyone agrees that in many ways, English is particularly odd.

Most quirks can be traced to England’s turbulent early history. English is a Germanic language, but native speakers usually have an easier time learning French or Spanish than Dutch or German. Thanks to the massive influence of French…

Today, inhabitants of major cities, particularly in Europe and America, take linguistic diversity for granted. To some extent, this has been true for a long time. On the streets of imperial Rome or Ottoman Constantinople, one would have heard dozens of languages spoken. But for uniqueness of landscape, as well as influence on future linguistic development, no city in history matches Chang’an during its golden age as the capital of China’s Tang Dynasty.

At first blush, this may be surprising. China is famous for its homogeneity. I worked for a summer in Shenzhen, a metropolis of twelve million built on…

What if there were a language that was easy to learn, that people from all different backgrounds could converse in without any of the baggage that so often accompanies intercultural exchange? This is the question that occurred to L. L. Zamenhof, a Polish ophthalmologist who knew linguistic division as a ubiquitous daily struggle. Zamenhof lived in Białystock, then part of the Russian Empire, whose German, Jewish, Russian, and Polish inhabitants lived in separate worlds within the same city.

It is impossible to form a community without a common language, and people are usually loth to kowtow to their neighbours by…

Sam Quillen

Former linguistics student; current investment bank analyst who sometimes thinks about something other than spreadsheets

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