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…


There are many fields that use language distinct from that of everyday speech. Science and especially law use specialised styles and terminologies; poetry, and literature more broadly, experiment with new language or draw from the past. Cultural allusions can fossilise language that has long passed out of daily life.

This linguistic attitude is most potent in religion. The divine is, of course, outside the scope of our daily lives. It is usually associated with some amount of sacred ritual not subject to casual change. …


It is an old jibe in the UK, especially among Euroskeptics, that Belgium is not a real country. It was formed in response to complicated geopolitical exigencies in 1830, mashing together French-speaking Walloons with Catholic Dutch-speaking Flemings who wanted to secede from the Netherlands. The name comes from an ancient Roman province, itself named for a long-extinct Celtic tribe. The first king was a German prince chosen specifically because he would be neutral (both between the language communities and among the great powers), but it quickly became pretty obvious that French was the dominant language of the new state.

But…


Hi all,

Hope you’re having an exciting Monday. I just wanted to add a note to explain the change of name on my profile. I opened this account when I was at university, and chose the pseudonym John Mandeville in honour of a medieval ancestor. To be honest I didn’t think many people would read my language musings, but I decided if I ever got up to a hundred followers I would switch to my real name.

Everything I’ve mentioned about my own background is true. I graduated two years ago (I started this when I was at Oxford but…


When Cangjie created writing, Heaven rained millet and the ghosts wailed all night…

So goes the legend of the man who invented Chinese characters. The true story is (probably) more prosaic, but Heaven could have chosen a worse time to take notice. Spoken language is hard-wired into the human brain, but that is by no means true of writing. As late as 1950 most people worldwide were illiterate, and around 15% still are today. Most cultures became literate only through contact or force, and some still are not today. In all of human history, it has developed in only five…


For almost all of recorded history, seas of sand and salt water cut most of Africa off from the wider world. North of the great desert, however, the situation is completely otherwise.

North Africa has always been intimately integrated with the Near East and the Mediterranean. The native languages of the region hail from the ancient Afroasiatic family. Early prominent members included Ancient Egyptian and Punic, the language of Carthage. They are notable in their own rights, but the Egyptians and Phoenicians (the forefathers of Carthage) also cast a massive shadow over all of linguistics for having developed the alphabet.

Sam Quillen

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

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