Why is it called a turkey if the bird is from North America, not the country of Turkey?
(Prefer a video version of this post? Watch here!)
Well it turns out it is from Turkey—sort of. Guinea fowl from Madagascar were imported into Europe through the Ottoman Empire, so most Europeans called the bird a Turkey bird, and later just turkey.
When Europeans encountered turkeys in North America, they classified them as a type of guinea fowl, and used the same name. Over time, the meaning of the word turkey narrowed to refer to just the North American bird.
Similarly, during the colonial era corn was sometimes called turkey wheat, because it too was also imported through the Ottoman Empire.
During classical antiquity the semi-precious stone lapis lazuli was mined in a place called Lāžvard around modern Afghanistan. That’s also the name of the stone in Classical Persian (لاجورد). It comes from the Proto-Indo-European root *ǵʰelh₃- ‘to gleam, to shine’ + Proto-Iranian *varta- ‘stone’.
(Watch a video version of this post below!)
Other words that come from *ǵʰelh₃- include gold, yellow, felon, glow, and cholera!
Medieval Greek and Medieval Latin borrowed this word as λαζούριον (lazoúrion) and lazurius respectively. Latin added the word lapis ‘stone’, yielding the phrase lapis lazulī, which English later borrowed.
Now for the plot twist:
Arabic borrowed the word lāžvard as لَازَوَرْد (lāzward), but when Old Spanish borrowed it from Arabic, speakers interpreted the initial /l/ sound as the definite article el ‘the’, and so the word became azur, which led to the Modern Spanish azul ‘blue’! It was also borrowed into English (through French) as azure.
So azure and lapis lazuli share a common etymology!
Curious about linguistics but not sure where you can learn more? The Linguistics Starter Pack is for you! This is a curated list of my top recommendations for getting started in linguistics. Most of the items on this list are popular science books, aimed at a general audience, and written in a non-technical way. I’ve also included a few highly accessible introductory textbooks if you’re looking for something more structured instead.
Note: The links on this page are Amazon affiliate links, which means I get a small commission from any book you buy through these links (at no additional cost to you).
If there’s one book on this list you should read to introduce yourself to linguistics, it’s this one. Consisting of short, bite-sized chapters each focused on a different myth, this book dispels some of the most common misconceptions about language and linguistics. The book is almost a quarter-century old, but remains one of the best places to start learning about linguistics.
A collection of tiny essays answering some of the most common questions about language and linguistics. This book is a more up-to-date take on Language myths (see above), except the style is more FAQ than myth-busting. This third edition is sponsored by the Linguistic Society of America because of the great impact that the first two editions had on educating the broader public about linguistics.
Hands down the best introductory linguistics textbook on the market. Extremely easy to read, and covers a variety of topics not typically included in other introductory linguistics textbooks. It also includes a number of language profiles, illustrating the rich diversity of languages in the world. The chapters are written mostly by the linguistics faculty at the University of California, Santa Barbara, one of the top linguistics departments in the world. Proceeds from the book help fund fieldwork with endangered languages.
How does language influence the way we think and see the world? This book is a brilliant journey into the relationship between language and thought, covering everything from how color terms shape our perception of those colors to how grammatical gender shapes the way we categorize people and things in a surprisingly captivating writing style.
A long-overdue introduction to language and the mind for a general audience, this book explains how humans bring to bear a huge array of cognitive skills to make language possible, debunking the idea that language is an instinct and that we all possess a Universal Grammar. Written by the foremost scholar on cognitive linguistics, this book is perhaps one of the most important popular science books published this century. Think of this book like a non-technical introduction to cognitive linguistics.
This book showcases the incredible diversity of ways that Indigenous languages work, and highlights just how much of this diversity and indigenous knowledge is being lost as more and more languages stop being spoken. The book covers topics like Indigenous ways of telling time, spatial orientation, and number systems, while serving as a poignant introduction to linguistic diversity and language endangerment.
An enthralling introduction to how languages change over time, and how languages develop their incredible grammatical complexity, evolving from rudimentary utterances like “man throw spear” to the beautifully intricate Turkish sehirlilestiremediklerimizdensiniz ‘you are one of those whom we couldn’t turn into a town dweller’. This is the second book on this list by author Guy Deutscher (see Through the language glass, above), and for good reason, because his writing style makes his books impossible to put down. Think of this book like a non-technical introduction to historical linguistics.
A history of the world told not by tracing the development of civilizations and empires, but by following the growth of the world’s major languages. Ostler weaves together a fascinating narrative that gives a fresh perspective on history. This book is a must-read for any history buff.
Want to get your hands dirty with some actual problem sets in linguistics? This is the book for you. Half textbook, half workbook, Language files is one of the most widely-adopted textbooks for introductory linguistics courses, packed with problem sets illustrating each concept in the book.
If you’re interested in learning about specific languages and language families, this is the book for you. It introduces the field of linguistics by taking you on a tour of the world’s languages. This is one of the most unique textbooks in linguistics, and a lot of fun to read.
A survey of the incredibly diverse ways that languages work. This is the most technical / advanced book on the list, but is the ultimate guide to the grammars of the world’s languages. This is a great reference to keep on hand when reading other books and articles about linguistics.
I’m a huge fan of the movie Arrival, in which a linguist saves the world by cracking an alien language and in so doing gains the ability to perceive the future. What I love about the movie is how accurately it portrays the process of linguistic fieldwork. Unfortunately, it also perpetuates one of the biggest myths in linguistics: the idea that language influences how we think about time.
This is an example of linguistic determinism (often called the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis), which claims that language shapes thought. Here’s an example from TikTok of what I mean:
This creator gives the example of an Australian Aboriginal group which talks about direction using absolute directions (north, south, east, west) rather than relative directions (left, right, front, back), implying that their language gives them a constant and intuitive knowledge of cardinal directions.
But language is shaped by how speakers use it. In language, form follows function. Languages with absolute directional reckoning evolve because the people in that community were consistently attentive to—and therefore often needed to talk about—absolute directions.
When I lived in Kenya, I spent a few weeks in a rural village called Bodo on the coast, which had no running water or electricity. I remember sitting on the stoop of our compound with my homestay mother, and realized I had forgotten my watch inside the house. Without thinking I asked, “What time is it?” The moment the words left my mouth I knew it was a dumb question, because nobody really uses watches or clocks there. Instead they paid attention to how many hours of daylight into the day they were. So imagine my surprise when my homestay mother jumps to her feet, walks into the middle of the street, looks up at the sun, then down at her shadow, then at the sun and her shadow again, and then turns to me and says, “It’s three o’clock.” I ran inside and checked my watch, and sure enough it was 2:54.
Now, Swahili is like English when it comes to talking about directions. We talk about directions in relation to ourselves, using terms like left and right. This is called relative directional reckoning. But there are many languages in the world—including the Australian Aboriginal language mentioned in the TikTok video above—that talk about directions in absolute terms, using words like east and west. This is called absolute directional reckoning. And yet, even though Swahili uses relative directional reckoning like English, speakers of Swahili in certain rural areas know exactly what direction anything is at any given point in time, because they’re so intimately familiar with their local surroundings.
This isn’t a case of language influencing the way we think. It’s the other way around. It’s a case where a language has evolved to reflect the social norm of constantly being attentive to the local environment. Languages become extremely efficient at conveying information that speakers need to talk about regularly. If you live in a community where you’re regularly talking absolute directions, then you might expect that over time the language will develop refined ways of talking about absolute directions. An excellent book that describes the different ways that languages talk about time or direction is When languages die: The extinction of the world’s languages and the erosion of human knowledge. It talks about all the intimate local ethnographic wisdom that is lost when a languages dies, like local directional systems and ways of telling time. It also happens to be one of my all time favorite popular linguistics books! Definitely give it a look.
The study of animal communication and cognition has flourished in recent decades, with researchers learning all sorts of astonishing things about the cognitive capabilities of everything from dolphins to elephants to octopuses to primates.
This page is a curated list of some great books about animal communication and cognition! I’ll keep this page up to date with any new books I come across, so you can always refer back to it!
🌟 Starred titles are ones that I personally highly recommend!
Note: The links on this page are Amazon affiliate links, which means I get a small commission from any book you buy through these links (at no additional cost to you).
An introductory text focused on trying to understand just what animals know about the world, and what they know about the mental states of humans and other animals. Chapter 6 looks at communication specifically.
Griffin argues that some animals are consciously thinking beings who are self-aware, looking at a variety of evidence from tool use to communication. Chapters 9 and 10 examine communication specifically.
Cheney & Seyfarth have spent years designing groundbreaking experiments aimed at understanding just how much baboons know about the world and about each other. This book summarizes decades of research and paints a picture of the mental world of baboons, including how and what they communicate to each other.
Weaving decades of field observations with exciting new discoveries about the brain, Carl Safina’s landmark book offers an intimate view of animal behavior to challenge the fixed boundary between humans and nonhuman animals.
Whales, dolphins, and porpoises are some of the smartest creatures on earth. This book looks at just how much they know, and how they communicate. Each chapter is coauthored with different leading scientists in the field.
What if animals and humans could speak to one another? Tom Mustill—the nature documentarian who went viral when a thirty‑ton humpback whale breached onto his kayak—asks this question in his thrilling investigation into whale science and animal communication, looking at cutting-edge research on how animals communicate.
This is one of the most unexpectedly fascinating popular science books I’ve read. You wouldn’t think that cephalopods like octopuses and cuttlefish would be a particularly interesting topic, but these creatures show some surprisingly advanced cognitive traits. Their nervous systems are so drastically different from ours that they may have an entirely different form of consciousness.
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The cat in the video clip below is Russell. Russell is one of the many animals on TikTok who use audio buttons to communicate with their owners. (Check out the list of TikTok creators with animal buttons at the end of this post!)
In the video, we see Russell press the button for ‘help’, and then lead his owner to a toy ball that has snapped off its string. Russell seems to understand the meaning of the world ‘help’!
But is this language?
Linguists often talk about the design features of language—the things that set human language apart from animal communication. An important one of these features is called displacement—the ability to talk about things that aren’t in our immediate surroundings or present experience.
The animals using buttons to communicate on TikTok show some signs of displacement. They have buttons for names of people, for other animals, or for their favorite toy, and they’ll use the buttons to refer to those things even when they’re not around.
Another design feature of language is called duality—the ability to combine smaller units of meaning into new words and phrases. We see potential evidence of this happening with animals too! In the video below, a dog named Parker hears an ambulance go by and presses buttons for ‘squeaker’ and then ‘car’.
Is Parker combining buttons to create the novel expression ‘squeaker car’? Or is he simply randomly pressing buttons that are related to what he’s experiencing at that moment?
Another feature sometimes thought to be unique to language is prevarication—the ability to make false or meaningless statements (in other words, the ability to lie or make things up). We know that animals can and often do deceive each other, but are they able to express false statements or made-up ideas with their audio buttons? Consider what happens in the following video between two dogs:
In this video, the dog named Otter presses the button for ‘outside’, prompting the owner to take both the dogs outside. The moment the second dog, Bunny, leaves his bone, however, Otter runs over and grabs the bone, and shows no interest in going outside. Was this a clever ploy to draw Bunny away from his bone? Or was the outcome an unplanned but fortuitous accident?
These behaviors have caught the attention of researchers interested in animal communication. In fact, one popular set of “Augmentative Interspecies Communication (AIC) Devices” (i.e., audio buttons) called Fluent Pet was developed by Ph.D. Leo Trottier during grad school precisely so that he and other researchers could investigate the communicative capabilities of pets. The research team is collecting video data from pet owners—including some of the very same videos posted on TikTok—for analysis in their research.
So what do you think? Are these animals communicating? And is this language?
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The other day I posted about how English still has vestiges of a base-12 counting system, shown in part by the fact that hundred used to refer to 120 rather than 100. Many, many people commented on this asking why it didn’t mean 144 (12×12) instead of 120.
The reason for this is that Old English speakers were influenced by both the base-12 system of their Germanic ancestors, and the base-10 system that was used in writing, and was borrowed from the Roman empire and Catholic church.
It’s not at all uncommon for languages to have mixed systems like this. French, for example, shows vestiges of a base-20 system for numbers from 60–80 (e.g. soixante-dix ’70’ is literally ‘sixty-ten’ and quatre-vingt ’80’ is literally ‘four-twenty’). Languages will often have a pivot at a smaller number, using that smaller number as a base until reaching the base. Igbo (a Niger-Congo language spoken in Nigeria), for example, is base 20, but uses base 10 for numbers smaller than twenty. Here’s the Igbo word for 32, literally ‘twenty and ten and two’:
The Somali language is a member of the Cushitic language family spoken in the Horn of Africa. This talk is about Northern Somali in particular, which has become something of a standard. It’s also a tonal language, meaning that differences in pitch change the meaning of the word. Somali has two tones: high (H) and low (L). When writing Somali in a Latin writing system, H tones are indicated with an acute accent over the vowel: <á>.
One of the ways Somali uses tone is to mark grammatical gender. In the following examples, a H tone on the ultimate (last) vowel of the word indicates that the noun is grammatically feminine, while a tone on the penultimate (second to last) vowel indicates that the noun is grammatically masculine. (Technically these rules apply to moras rather than vowels. Short vowels have 1 mora, long vowels have 2.)
‘boy / girl’
‘young camel’ (M / F)
‘donkey’ (M / F)
Historically, there were two rules about tones in Somali:
The H tone always occurs on the ultimate or penultimate mora. This means that tone in Somali nouns is demarcative—it demarcates the ends of words.
There may only be one H tone per word. When the number of tones per unit is limited in some way, we call this a cumulative tone system.
Another way Somali uses tone is to indicate grammatical differences such progressive aspect or negation. (Aspect is a technical term for the temporal structure of an event. Events can be repetitive, continuative, habitual, punctual, progressive, etc.) In the following examples, you can see how different tonal patterns are associated with certain grammatical differences. The progressive examples in (c) and (d), for instance, have a H tone on the stem cún- ‘eat’, while the other examples do not. (See the List of Abbreviations for explanations of the abbreviations.)
Did you notice a problem with these examples, however? They don’t obey the two tone rules listed above! Example (3) has a H tone at the left edge of word (violating Rule 1), and Example (4) has two H tones (violating Rule 2).
How did this happen? Why did the tone rules change? Kaldhol & Stausland Johsen propose that the system changed when certain two-word constructions became merged into one word over time, a process known as univerbation. (Note: Univerbation means two words becoming one, not necessarily two verbs becoming one. The Latin word verbum meant ‘word’, not ‘verb’.)
Here’s how Kaldhol & Stausland Johsen explain it: Somali originally had a verb hay meaning ‘have’. You could use it in phrases like cúni hayaa (literally ‘I have eat’) to mean ‘I am eating’. Over time, however, the two words became fused into cúnayaa, and speakers reanalyzed the -ay part as a suffix indicating progressive aspect. This process where full words get reanalyzed as grammatical affixes is called grammaticalization. The result is that the H tone that was originally on the first word now got stuck in the middle of the word rather than the end, so speakers just started to associate that H tone with progressive aspect. Now, the progressive aspect suffix -ay adds a H tone to the mora before it. When an affix adds a tone to something beside it, this is called a floating tone.
This same process of grammaticalization also resulted in cases where two H tones occur on the same word. The negative suffix in Somali is -ó with a H tone. When the word hayó ‘I do not have’ fused with cúni ‘eat’, the result was cúnayó ‘I am not eating’, with two H tones.
Kaldhol & Stausland Johsen give a number of other examples and pieces of evidence supporting their proposal. Overall, this was an interesting, well-presented talk with a clear and simple point, nicely illustrating one way that morphological tone arises over time. Thank you Nina Hagen and Sverre!
Note: This post is my best attempt at representing this research faithfully and in a concise way, but I cannot always guarantee its accuracy, since this is neither my research nor my area of expertise. My goal here is simply to spotlight research I find interesting! Please contact the original researchers with any questions about this research.
A beautiful and engaging coffee table book of 122 dialect maps showing how different regions of the U.S. say different things. A wonderful illustration of dialect diversity in the United States, this book is sure to spark great conversations. A must-have for any language lover.
Ever notice that people from different areas of the United States have other ways of saying certain things? They might say pop where you say soda, or pronounce the word caramel as /ˈkɑɹ.məl/ with two syllables where you say /ˈkɛɹ.ə.mɛl/ with three syllables. Speaking American: How y’all, youse, and you guys talk: A visual guide is about exactly these kinds of differences. The book is a collection of 122 beautiful heat maps of dialect features across the United States, with a number of other fun features as well. It’s the perfect coffee table book, guaranteed to spur all sorts of discussion about dialect and pronunciation.
Here’s the map for words used for fizzy drinks:
And here’s the map of how people pronounce caramel:
Some other fun but controversial words you’ll find include pecan, the 2nd person plural pronoun (you guys, y’all, you, you all, yins, yous, youse), kitty-corner vs. catty-korner, aunt, and whether you pronounce cot and caught with different vowels (25% of American English speakers pronounce them with different vowels, kɔt vs. kɑt, while 75% pronounce them the same way).
There are two reasons in particular I love this book: First, it’s a beautiful demonstration of the fact that there’s no single “correct” way to speak American English. The United States has a wonderfully diverse linguistic landscape, and this book showcases it. Everybody speaks with an accent, no matter where they’re from. Some dialects are given more social prestige than others, this is true; but linguistically speaking, all dialects are equal. Vocabulary and pronunciation rules vary from one region to another, but these are merely differences, not deficiencies.
Second, this book is a wonderful illustration of the linguistic diversity of American English! There’s even a heat map showing the percentage of the percentage of people who speak Spanish at home. It’s hard not appreciate the remarkable diversity of language when you encounter all the different ways of saying things in this book, many of which you’ll have never encountered before.
One of my favorite things to do with house guests is pull out this book and get their take on the various terms it covers. Do you say highway, freeway, expressway, or thruway? Do you call them fireflies or lightning bugs? I was astonished to find that even my younger sibling and I – only 3.5 years apart – differed on about a third of the items even though we were raised in the same household, simply because my family moved states just after they were born. Speaking American makes for the perfect coffee table book for this reason!
Another fun feature of this book is the “How to pretend you’re from…” sections sprinkled throughout. If you lace up your gym shoes to ride the L or drive on the expressway, for example, chances are overwhelmingly good that you’re from Chicago.
Katz even disaggregates the data at some points to give a more detailed perspective by word or region. Below is the map for the word crayons, but in the following map you can see that these hot spots are really more a matter of statistical tendency rather than absolute differences. In some cases Katz even shows how usage varies from one New York City borough to another!
As a linguist, I also really appreciate the diachronic (historical) perspective in several maps. For example, more and more Americans have started to pronounce cot and caught the same way over time, as this set of maps shows:
My only criticism of the book is that the pronunciations are written in using folk / naïve phonetic spellings like pih-kahn instead of the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) like pɪˈkɑn. Since Josh Katz is a statistician and trying to make the book maximally accessible to a general audience, this is an understandable tradeoff, though frustrating. The more that the general public is exposed to the IPA, the more familiar and recognizable it’ll become.
Overall, Speaking American is one of my favorite coffee table books—a must-have for any language lover.