Linguistic Family Tree

Because I love art as much as I love languages, discovering the work of artists who take language as their subject is almost always a pleasure. This week a beautiful linguistic family tree cought my eye from a graphic artist who has an online comic called Stand Still Stay Silent. It’s a representation of the Indo-European and Uralic family tree. I can’t entirely vouch for the accurancy of the whole thing but the bits I know best look pretty good.

linguistic family tree


Languages of the world

I came across the Endonym Map project this week which is a basically a world map with the names of countries shown in their national language. One of the difficulties here, and something which the creators address, is precisely how to define the national language of a given country. When there are multiple official languages, then you have to rely on sometime-fuzzy statistics about the numbers of speakers of each language. In places like Africa this can be particularly confusing, and if you’re interested in the ins and outs of it GeoCurrent published an article on African endonyms in response to the project.

african endonyms

A big part of the map is shown in alphabets I can’t understant (perhaps a phonetic or direct translation of the country name would have been more useful?), so what really cought my attention was the accompanying table where you can clearly see how much European languages (mainly English, French and Spanish) dominate. It’s striking to see the residual effects of colonialism present to such an extent around the world. As the authors point out: “The most common official or national language in the world is English, with 86 countries or territories. These jurisdictions represent roughly one-third the number of total countries and approximately 30% of the planet’s land area.”

Add Spanish, French and Arabic to the mix and you cover 2/3 of the world’s national languages. This, remember, in a world where, by latest accounts, there are a total of 7,106 languages spoken. Of these, only around 300 are Indo-European (the branch that French, Spanish and English fall into). As for how we identify what a language is, and where we get this final (contested) count from, the Linguistic Society of America has a nice little introduction to the topic if you’re interested.

Another map I found this week seemed more encouraging vis-a-vis linguistic diversity. It was published by a site called and aimed to show the second most spoken native language in every country (rather than 2nd language learned). There are some noteworthy, migration-driven examples like Polish in the UK or Mandarin in Australia, but the non-European languages also get their chance to stand out in Africa – at least the sub-Saharan part:


If maps and statistics are your thing, then you should go and feast your eyes on which tracks the world’s living languages with charts and fun sections like their Language of the Day. Today, sticking with the African theme, it’s Ikwere from Nigeria.


Languages are many, but some expressions are universal, or so it seems. A recent study funded by no less than the European Research Council and the Max Planck Society for the Advancement of Science (money very usefully spent, as always), has established that no matter where you are in the world, you can probably interrupt someone with a well-placed ‘huh?’ and they’ll know what you mean. That’s based on a direct investigation into ten languages and data from about 30 in total.

The first part of their paper is spent determining that ‘huh?’ is universal, the second that it is a word. In support of this second claim, the researchers point out that ‘huh?’ is not an innate, non-lexical grunt-like noise, but rather a learned mechanism for quiclky and efficiently signalling a misunderstanding or hearing difficulty during a conversaiton. So here it is, ‘huh?’ in ten languages from across the globe (and a good way to get your round-the-world trip funded through a research grant).

The researchers also speculate that other “words” like ‘oh’, ‘um’ and ‘ah’ might also be quasi-universal, with little change in their use and pronunciation across cultures. Guess they’ll just have to apply for another grant from the European Research Coucil to investigate that hypothesis next summer.

I say curb strip, you say berm…

I had a linguistics professor who was rather obsessed with whether people said ‘soda’, ‘pop’ or ‘fizzy drink’, and how they pronounced their vowels. Coming from Scotland, he would occasionally make me repeat certain words over and over again to judge exactly what bizarre vowel I was pronouncing when I said ‘bird’. I found out that he used his time in Cambridge wisely, compiling this online survey of world Englishes, which I invite you to take. Moreover, someone else had so much time on their hands (or was possibly the professor’s poor PhD student),  that they compiled this survey data into visualisations of pronunciation in the US, devising an algorithm to estimate probability of pronunciation in each city.

You can easily spend a few hours browsing through this website and not only wonder at the 122 variations of English all across the US,  but also ask yourself such pertinent and soul-searching questions as: “can you call coleslaw ‘slaw’?”, “what word do you use for gawking at someone in a lustful way?” and “how many syllables are there in ‘mayonnaise’?”. Bonus Quiz: find out what “the devil is beating his wife” refers to in a few southern states.

Variations on English

I already wrote about the differences a Brit encounters in America and vice-versa, yet to leave it at that would be forgetting the numerous varieties of English that are spoken throughout not only the British Isles and the US, but all over the globe. Wikipedia tells me that there are something like 27 cases of Pidgin English and around 50 English-based Creole languages spread across every inhabited continent, not to mention all the geographic, social and ethnic variations we find form one village to the next in Standard English-speaking countries.

The most comprehensive collection of variation which I have come across is the Freiburg Institute’s eWAVE project (Electronic World Atlas of Varieties of English). They have so far mapped 235 different features, covering 13 domains of grammar, across 74 varieties of English. On their website you can browse by variety (e.g. Manx, Rural African American, Aboriginal, Nigerian Pidgin…), feature (e.g. absolute use of reflexives, double determiners, be as perfect auxiliary…), or informant (if you’re looking for the work of a particular person). Alternatively, if all these grammatical terms confuse the heck out of you, you can just have a look through the recorded sentences given as examples for each variety and marvel at the diversity on display.

Yale University has also begun a similar project but focused uniquely on micro-syntactic variations in North-American English (although they have also mapped a few variations in the UK). The ambition of the Yale Grammatical Diversity Project is to bring together research from the last decades, and if possible record not only the academic source for each piece of data, but also information about each recorded speaker such as age and ethnicity. You’ll find some unexpected examples in there like the ‘positive anymore’ in Arizona (“Men are wearing hats anymore.”, meaning “All men are now wearing hats, and they didn’t do so before”), or double modals (“Might should we have invited Jim?”, “I might just couldn’t see it.”). However, the number of phenomena mapped so far is limited and many recorded examples date back to research in the 60s and 70s which makes me question their relevance today.

Both of these projects are aimed at collecting and increasing research into language variation, and they are created to be used by people who don’t need explaining what a benefactive personal dative construction is. For mere mortals like us, there is another source of linguistic fun in the form of the British Library’s ‘Sounds Familiar? websiteHere you can click to hear recordings of English variation throughout the British Isles. It is handily divided into lexical, phonological, grammatical and social variation, and even those terms are carefully explained. They even have a section about language change and encourage people to record their own voice to add to the mapping and investigation of regional variation. Hats off to the British Library quite frankly.

And good luck sorting out Billinge:

Thanks go to Neil for the link (he’s from Lancashire and still couldn’t quite understand it), and for making me realise that there was a more incomprehensible dialect than Glaswegian. Neil has lately also been spending his time on rope-swings in the Bolivian rainforest, all in the name of linguistic research.