English – a public health hazard?

Schermafdruk 2020-05-30 10.24.28Might the incidence of Covid-19 in this place or that depend to some degree on the main language spoken there? A reader from Italy asked me this a few days ago. Being a polyglot, he had first come up with the idea himself; it was then reinforced by a Japanese video that has been making the rounds. This shows how the English aspirated /p/ sound causes an eruption of breath, potentially sending loads of viruses into the air in front of the speaker. So are some languages, including English, more conducive to infection than others?

Apparently, my correspondent is not the only one who’s been wondering about this. In John McWhorter’s most recent Lexicon Valley podcast, he addresses the same issue in response to questions from listeners.

Interestingly, even though John and I agree on the answer – which is, roughly, ‘no’ –, we approach the issue very differently. He points out that while, yes, Japan has been hit much less by the pandemic than the US and the UK, the pattern elsewhere in the world is not what you would expect on the basis of these linguistic differences. Spain has been severely affected, even though Spanish pronunciation doesn’t have any characteristics one would expect in a ‘contagious’ language. And in the Middle East, Iran has been an epicentre of Covid-19 while Iraq hasn’t, even though Iraqi Arabic would appear to be a much more effective spreader of viruses, given its inventory of phonemes.

My take on the question was as follows: ‘These linguistic differences might conceivably play a minor role. However, languages and the cultures in which they are spoken differ in many respects. Even if we only look at personal communication, I think there are differences in: typical loudness; typical amount of speech; typical physical distance between speakers; and typical frequency of touching each other.

And that’s without mentioning other differences between societies, for instance in time spent outdoors (which is safer) versus indoors (riskier), in average health, in willingness to heed governmental advice, in hand-washing habits, in availability of sanitation, in numbers of foreign visitors, in climate, in use of public transport, and so on and so forth.’

Of course I hope that all of you will stay healthy. But I think you can safely continue to speak English, if that’s what you do. No need to learn Japanese.

Ptime in ptranslation

Both minute and second owe their existence as words to one famous book from Classical Antiquity. Yet their etymologies are a surprising mix, with not only Greek and Latin but also Arabic ingredients. How come?


A 16th-century engraving of Ptolemy

Let’s start with the book: it’s called the Almagest and was written in the second century CE by the mathematician and astronomer Claudius Ptolemy, a Greek in Roman Egypt. In it, he did what scholars had been doing for ages: divide the circle into 360 degrees, each degree into sixty minutes and each minute into sixty seconds.* But ‘minute’ and ‘second’ were not the words he used, for they did not yet exist. What he wrote was ‘first sixtieth’ (prota heksēkosta) and ‘second sixtieth’ (deutera heksēkosta), which in a freer translation might come out as ‘one sixtieth of the first order’ and ‘one sixtieth of the second order’. Continue reading