Archive for the ‘Historic’ Category

Story of English in 100 words

Posted on October 29th, 2011by Michelle
In Culture, English, Historic, Words | 1 Comment »

Linguist David Crystal set himself a difficult challenge – covering the history of English in just 100 words. He met the challenge and the proof is in his latest book – The Story of English in 100 Words.

In an interesting article in the Telegraph, Crystal explains what his 100 words tell us about the origins and evolution of English:

At any one time language is a kaleidoscope of styles, genres and dialects. The story of English has to show these differences too. In particular, the words we use when we speak are not the same as those we use when we write. It’s the colloquial words which tend to be neglected, and so in my list along with dialect and debt we find doobry and dilly-dally. And I include words that represent a history of debate over usage, such as ain’t and disinterested, as well as words that tell the story of regional dialects, such as brock, egg and wee. Far more people speak a non-standard variety of English than speak standard English, and their story must also be told. (Source: Telegraph)

Some of the words on his list include the earliest example of a written English word – roe from the 5th Century; matrix, from the 16th Century, and ain’t, which dates back to the 18th Century. It looks like a fascinating read.

Neanderthals were right-handed

Posted on May 8th, 2011by Michelle
In Historic, Research | Leave a Comment »

In news to confirm the superiority of us right-handers (joke!), a new study says that our Neanderthal ancestors were “mostly right-handed”.

According to an article on MSNBC:

The trait of right-handedness is commonly believed to be a sign of the development of another uniquely human trait — language.

“We are right-handed because the left side of the brain controls the right side of the body, and the left side of brain is where language is processed,” study researcher David Frayer, of the University of Kansas, told LiveScience. “This is important because it tells us that they were brain lateralized just like we are, and they probably had a language capacity.”

The conclusion was reached after looking at an odd place – front teeth. Apparently ancient homo sapiens used their front teeth to help process animal hides, with their hands stretching out the hides and using tools to work it. The tool would accidentally scratch the front tooth, and the marks this made can show which hand was used to hold the tool (thus showing which hand was preferred).

According to some researchers, the discovery shows that language probably existed more than 500,000 years ago.

Word of Mouth radio series

Posted on December 22nd, 2010by Michelle
In Culture, English, Historic | Leave a Comment »

Since we’re nearly at Christmas and hopefully lots of readers will be getting a nice long holiday, I thought I’d draw your attention to a new series of radio shows on languages.

On BBC Radio 4 over the next couple of weeks the series, titled Word of Mouth, will explore “the world of words and the ways in which we use them”. The first programme was about the Evolving English exhibition at the British Library, and was broadcast last night but is repeated on the 27th December. One of the guests on the show will be David Crystal, who I posted about yesterday as one of the Guardian’s Heroes of the Year.

Michael Rosen, the presenter of the series, also has an accompanying article on the BBC News site. It aims to give a brief history of the English language. An excerpt from the article:

Slowly, another international language emerged, spoken by diplomats, scientists, artists, business people and many more. Benefiting from the legacy of the British Empire, and the rise in influence of the most powerful member of that Empire – the USA – English (or kinds of English) is being spoken all over the globe.

In truth, they speak what the linguist David Crystal calls “Englishes”, though some ways of talking are what have been called “creoles”, “pidgins” and “patois”. I was watching an Austrian pop music channel recently and the comments and ads were in an Anglo-German Creole whose core was German, but which was full of “go to it”, “cool”, “be there” and the like.

Most of this has gone on without direction from governments. The technologies of telephones, radio, TV, records, CDs, mobile phones and the internet have enabled most people in the world to get access to each other’s language in a matter of moments.

Through these channels, millions of young people across the world have grown to like the sounds produced by English-speaking bands. Sub-titled films from Hollywood have given millions of non-English speakers the chance to imitate James Cagney, Marilyn Monroe, Robert De Niro and Harrison Ford.

Medieval names

Posted on August 5th, 2010by Michelle
In Culture, English, Historic, Words | Leave a Comment »

William, Robert, Henry, Alice. All good, solid English names.

Actually, the names have their origins in the Norman invasion of England. The Battle of 1066 and William the Conqueror will be familiar, but not many realise the impact of the invasion on the English language – names introduced over 1,000 years ago are still popular today.

As these French-speaking, wine-drinking, castle-building conquerors swiftly took over England and intermarried with Anglo-Saxon women, it was not just newborns named in their honour.

“The ruling elite set the fashion and soon William was the most common male name in England, even among peasants. A lot of people changed their names because they wanted to pass in polite society – they didn’t want to be mistaken for a peasant, marked out with an Anglo-Saxon name.”

Look at baby name league tables today, and the Old English name of Harold languishes far below the French-derived Henry in popularity. William, meanwhile, was the second most popular name for boys 200 years ago, the most popular 100 years ago and has held its place in the top 10 in England and Wales since 2000. (Source: BBC News)

The use of surnames also has origins in the invasion:

It soon became necessary to distinguish between all these Williams and Roberts, and so the Norman tradition of surnames was adopted. As well as family names derived from one’s occupation, surnames with the prefix Fitz date from Norman times.

“Fitz comes from the French ‘fils’, meaning ‘son of’. So Fitzsimmons once meant ‘son of Simon’ and Fitzgerald ‘son of Gerald,” says Prof Bartlett, whose own first name Robert is solidly Norman in origin.

What are the origins of your name?

Unlocking languages through maths

Posted on April 27th, 2010by Michelle
In Culture, Hieroglyphics, Historic | Leave a Comment »

Pict symbolsResearchers at the University of Essex in England have unlocked the secrets of ancient symbols – using mathematics.

Through statistical analysis, they found that the symbols on Pictish inscriptions in stone were likely to represent a written language, according to this article.

The team devised a new method of analysing the symbols by comparing them to known texts from the history, and whilst they still do not know what the writing means, they suspect the stones are memorials for the dead. The Picts were a Scottish Iron Age society dating from the fourth to the ninth centuries AD.

The research could help unlock other scripts, and perhaps even animal communication.

The writing on the (cave) wall

Posted on February 28th, 2010by Michelle
In Culture, Hieroglyphics, Historic, Research | Leave a Comment »

Chauvet cave artIncredible article in New Scientist this week, about prehistoric symbols discovered in caves in southern France.

Whilst artwork on the cave walls has been studied intensively, new research has shown that previously-ignored ‘doodles’ could be evidence of a primitive precursor to writing. A postgraduate student at the University of Victoria, Canada, built a database of signs from caves all over France and the results were striking – signs drawn in the same style, appeared at numerous different sites, which could indicate the beginnings of a simple language system. The earliest recorded pictograph writing systems are thought to date to 5,000 years ago, but this discovery may change current thought.

..One of the most intriguing facts to emerge from von Petzinger’s work is that more than three-quarters of the symbols were present in the very earliest sites, from over 30,000 years ago.

“I was really surprised to discover this,” says von Petzinger. If the creative explosion occurred 30,000 to 40,000 years ago, she would have expected to see evidence of symbols being invented and discarded at this early stage, with a long period of time passing before a recognisable system emerged. Instead, it appears that by 30,000 years ago a set of symbols was already well established.

That suggests we might need to rethink our ideas about prehistoric people, von Petzinger says. “This incredible diversity and continuity of use suggests that the symbolic revolution may have occurred before the arrival of the first modern humans in Europe.” If she is right, it would push back the date of the creative explosion by tens of thousands of years.

Read the rest of the article here.

An internet language revolution

Posted on November 18th, 2009by Michelle
In Arabic, Chinese, Cyrillic, English, Historic, Technology | 1 Comment »

Chinese keyboardI take it for granted that most of the content I want to view on the web will be in my native language, English, and I merely have to type the website’s name into my browser to navigate to the site.

For speakers of languages with non-Latin based writing systems (including Arabic, Cyrillic and Chinese), this is not the case. To navigate to websites, they need to type in characters such as the ones you see here. And for those unfamiliar with Latin letters, this proves a hindrance to accessing content.

Last month, however, the internet regulator Icann (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) approved the use of different alphabets, ending the dominance of Latin alphabets such as English.

It’s been hailed as a big move which can increase accessibility to the web, especially among those unfamiliar with Latin letters:

The impact will vary by location, with more remote countries seeing the biggest expansion. Rod Beckstrom, Icann’s president, called the step “a historic move toward the internationalisation of the internet … We just made the internet much more accessible to millions of people in regions such as Asia, the Middle East and Russia.” (Source:

With the first official international web addresses expected in 2010, you could perhaps be logging on to 语言-博物院.com soon!

Happy Hangul Day!

Posted on October 9th, 2009by Michelle
In Alphabet, Culture, Events, Historic | 1 Comment »

HangulToday in South Korea is Hangul Day, or Korean Alphabet Day.

The day celebrates the invention and proclamation of hangul, the native Korean alphabet. The Koreans are the only people in the world to celebrate their alphabet, and are justifiably proud of it!

Hangul was devised by King Sejong the Great, and revealed in 1446. Previous to this, there was no written Korean alphabet, and the few elite that could write relied on modified Chinese characters.

Hangul Day has been commemorated on various days since, but October 9th was marked as the official national holiday in 1945, after the creation of the South Korean government. Although it no longer retains its status as a holiday, October 9th is still a national commemoration day in South Korea.

Originally consisting of 28 letters, modern Hangul now has 24, 14 consonants and 10 vowels. The letters are combined together into syllable blocks. Korean can be written in horizontal lines running from left to right, or in vertical columns running from top to bottom and right to left. The alphabet represents all the sounds of Korean and is reportedly easy to learn!

Moldovan or Romanian?

Posted on September 30th, 2009by Michelle
In Culture, Historic, Moldovan, Romanian | Leave a Comment »

MoldovaA report today states that Moldova‘s government is planning to declare Romanian the national language.

The Moldovan Prime Minister states that “Moldovan people speak in Romanian like Americans speak in English. The national language can be renamed in the future from Moldovan to Romanian”.

In Bucharest, however, they disagree, saying that Moldovan is not identical to Romanian and is one of the dialects of Romanian language. The argument over this difference has been raging at least since the tiny country became independent in 1991. At this point the official language was declared as Moldovan, and there has been dispute ever since.

This is an important issue as language is a big part of identity, and indeed there is some discussion over what constitutes a Moldovan identity, with a large proportion of the population holding one or more citizenship.

What would the effect be if Moldovans no longer had a language named after themselves? Would they feel less ‘Moldovan’? A census in 2004 found that 60% of Moldovans thought of their language as Moldovan, whilst only 16% considered it Romanian. There is a similar issue in Montenegro, part of the former Yugoslavia, where some people speak and consider themselves Serbian.

What would you think if your national language was to be renamed? Would it affect your sense of identity?

The Rosetta Project

Posted on August 20th, 2009by Michelle
In Culture, Historic, Indigenous languages | 2 Comments »

Rosetta ProjectIn the last post, I looked at what the Rosetta Stone is and its importance to languages.

This importance is highlighted in The Rosetta Project, named after the Stone –

a global collaboration of language specialists and native speakers working to build a publicly accessible digital library of human languages

This incredible project is working to preserve all languages across the globe, and document them before they are lost. This is no mean feat as linguists predict that as much as 90% of linguistic diversity may be lost in the next century. As the project’s website puts it so eloquently:

Language is both an embodiment of human culture, as well as the primary means of its maintenance and transmission. When languages are lost, the transmission of traditional culture is often abruptly severed meaning the loss of cultural diversity is tightly connected to loss of linguistic diversity.

Almost 2 years ago now, the Eyak language was lost in Alaska with the death of its last remaining speaker, Chief Marie. Around the same time, concerns were being raised about the fate of Wichita, spoken by people in west central Oklahoma. It seems that the Americans have less to be concerned about than the Australians, however – an Ethnologue list reveals a catalogue of indigenous languages that that are nearly extinct.

So, how can you help? Well, perhaps by taking up a language that is close to extinction. Or, you could donate to the Rosetta Project and help them continue to document our diversity.