Tonal tongue, keen ears?

Thai phone booth‘It seems with a tonal language you can talk in a much lower volume than in European non-tonal languages. In the days before cell phones, in Bangkok, one of the noisiest cities of the world probably, there were phone booths where I could observe Thais chatting away, even on a cacophonous sidewalk on Sukhumvit Road.

When I tried to use the same phone booth in English, I had to shout at the top of my lungs. Maybe tones reduce the importance of the words’ other characteristics, like their phonetic contours.’

I received this interesting observation from a well-travelled American reader, Bill DeFelice. Could it be true that other phonetic features than tone are somewhat less vital in tonal languages, thereby allowing the speaker to reduce the volume? Or can his observation be explained in some other way? Perhaps Thai people are used to speaking at a lower volume, say for cultural reasons, and this habit may have honed their skill for picking up a signal amidst much noise. Or perhaps the Thai language has more redundancy than English, so that missing part of the signal is less fatal for understanding.

Or perhaps none of these ideas makes any sense at all – I’m speculating wildly here. But Bill observed what he observed, and we’re both curious what might be behind it. Suggestions, anyone?

Update: I’m told by linguist Mark Dingemanse that in research comparing twelve languages, including five tonal ones, he did not find any differences between them relating to noise and frequency of misunderstandings. This suggests that Bill’s observation requires some other explanation. 


labonachipOne of the many tiny things that nanotechnologists have developed is a laboratory so small that a mere sliver of silicon can accommodate it. I don’t know what to admire more: this feat of engineering on the littlest imaginable scale or the succinct and graphic name they’ve coined for it, lab-on-a-chip (with lab-on-chip as a fairly common alternative).

But while the word is excellent, the plural is somewhat problematic. Opinions – or perhaps I should say intuitions – are divided between several options, and they nearly all make sense.

My own grammar gut tells me that lab-on-(a-)chip is a case like sister-in-law, tug-of-war and secretary-general. Unusually for English nouns, their main elements (known as heads) come first, which is why their plurals are sisters-in-law, tugs-of-war and secretaries-general. That strongly suggests that labs-on-(a-)chip would be the way to go. At just over 50%, this indeed is the most common form that a Google search turns up.

But hot on its heels, at 46%, is the alternative lab-on-(a-)chips. This seems odd at first sight, but on reflection, it has two important things going for it. Continue reading


Humans only get away with puns that are brilliant, but when reality tries its hand at them, we’re more indulgent.

I am shown around the office of my Spanish publisher in Madrid, and my hostess introduces me to someone I’ve exchanged many pleasant emails with, but never met in person: ‘This is Pilar.’ We hug lightly and peck each other on the cheek.
‘And here’, my hostess continues, ‘we have another Pilar.’ I look in the direction she’s pointing and see… no-one. What I do see is a pillar.
The fact is, pilar is Spanish for ‘pillar’. Is she poking fun at Pilar’s name? That seems a bit out of character. Is she introducing me to the pillar? Unthinkable.
To my relief, the puzzle is solved before I can embarrass myself. Something begins to stir from behind the pillar. Another female figure appears, hand outstretched: ‘Hi, nice to meet you.’


The Spanish translation of Lingo is now for sale in Spain. It will be available in Latin America in late April.

TEDx Talk: Grow Up, Learn Another Language

You may never have heard of Venlo, a medium-sized city in the southeast of the Netherlands, on the German border. The people of Venlo tend to be multilingual, speaking Dutch, German and English as well as their (and my) regional language, Limburgish. The city has gained unsought notoriety as the place where Geert Wilders, the leader of the country’s extreme right, was born and grew up.

Last November, a group of people from Venlo organised their third TEDx event and invited me to participate. I focused my talk on some of the effects of multilingualism: its benefits to the individual, but especially to society. Feel free to let me know what you think.

Vietnamese (4): Flipping the flashcards, fixing the accents

5185390904_5945498ba3_bIn just under four months of – ideally – daily practice, I’ve mastered some 300 Vietnamese words.

Or have I? When I see them on my flashcards, there’s a fair chance that I recognise them and can tell what they mean. But if you were to show me words that I haven’t studied, likely as not I would believe I recognised and understood many of those also. The trouble with Vietnamese is that so many of its words look so damn similar. The letter a alone has 18 varieties, counting all the possible single and double diacritics. But my European eyes will focus on the a as such and my European brain will remember only the bare and unadorned a. I have to force them to pay heed to the scribbles above it – and sometimes even below it, as in ạ, ặ and ậ. Continue reading

Hold your mother tongue

the5148231684_57fa0336c9It’s impossible to find a language in which the world can communicate across linguistic borders. For the time being, we make do with English, but that was a bad solution even before the two major Anglophone countries contracted Mad Voter Disease. The language gives a 6% minority of the world population an edge that leaves most of the other 94% impotent and frustrated. Continue reading

Politically correct spelling

canadaIn chapter 32 of Lingo, I describe – and poke fun at – the way Latvians and Lithuanians write foreign names. Basically, they spell every name as phonetically as possible and then tag on a case ending for good measure. The first US president is known as Džordžas Vašingtonas in Lithuanian, Džordžs Vašingtons in Latvian; the capital and state named after him are written as Vašingtonas in Lithuanian, Vašingtona in Latvian. In Lingo, I trace the history of this habit, once widespread across Europe, in a very general sort of way.  But at the time, I had no specific information as to why the Lithuanians and Latvians have maintained it, whereas most other language communities using the Latin script dropped it long ago.

Which is why I am grateful to a Lithuanian-American reader of Lingo, Joe Yčas, who recently sent me exactly that. Continue reading

Idioms and images


Some idioms are puzzling

As chance would have it, I was holidaying in Spain just when I had to read the galley proofs of the Spanish edition of Lingo, so I spent part of the time hearing and speaking one of my favourite languages and another part reading and writing it. It was while reading that I came across a translation that made me pause. The original says that Basque and the Indo-European languages are ‘worlds apart’. The translator, José C. Vales, rendered this as mundos independientes, ‘independent worlds’. Perfectly fine, I think: Basque is one world, Indo-European another, and they’re independent, separate – apart. Continue reading

Both inspiring and disgusting

mcwhorterI love Lexicon Valley, the podcast on linguistics. In a show from June, titled The tragedy of English spelling, John McWhorter (upper picture) interviewed Anatoly Liberman (lower picture). Let that line-up sink in for a second: both of them are not only highly regarded professionals, they’re also great popularisers of the science of language. As an admirer of both men, I was listening breathlessly.

And then, along comes this adorable passage. Continue reading

Dad’s polyglots – a recipe

cookbookA father recently sought my advice about the linguistic education of his two young children. Among the many friendly and interesting emails I get from readers of Lingo, this one really stood out, because his was a question I’d never given much thought to before. Our brief correspondence is reproduced below, anonymised, very lightly edited and, of course, with the father’s permission.


I just finished reading Lingo and wanted to extend my compliments. I’m recommending it to all my friends interested in languages. (I’m American, so unfortunately I can count all these folks on one hand).

I’d like to put a question to you. I have two children under the age of 5, and am interested in giving them the gift of a portfolio of languages while they’re still young enough to learn them very easily. But I want to choose wisely. Continue reading