Westerners are generally aware that in the distant past, Latin was Europe’s international language. It was succeeded by French, which ultimately ceded its place to English as the lingua franca of the entire world.

Many observe the meteoric rise of China and surmise that some day, maybe in the not-too-distant…


Island living is the life for me

The usual explanation for why Austronesian speakers left Taiwan around 1500 BC is population pressure. Over the following centuries, their descendants colonised what are now the Philippines and Indonesia; these include some very large, fertile islands, but settled life evidently left something to be desired.

From the early centuries of…


These fishermen’s ancestors somehow sailed farther than Columbus on boats little bigger than this one.

Scientists strive to be objective and rational, seeking truth through experiment and observation in a clean, unbiased setting. Unfortunately for linguists, the real world is not a laboratory. Languages seem never to behave the way you want them to.

However, there are enough languages out there, many very isolated, that…


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…


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. …


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…


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. …


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. …


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…


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. …

Sam Quillen

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

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