Mother Tongues

a journey through language


The Science of Swearing

Note: this post contains ~naughty~ words. If you have sensitive eyes, cover them now!

When I first started this blog (which is a university assignment), I was told “no swearing allowed.” This was deeply disappointing to me, because ya know, sometimes a swear word just fits perfectly. Take for example, the ever-non-PC Paul Henry, who recently let “clusterfuck” slip on live television:

Video via Nic Hudson on Youtube (thank you to my mother for alerting me to this incident and sending me the link)

Clearly, clusterfuck was the ~ideal~ word for this situation. It just fits so well.

So this post is all about swearing. Why do we do it and where do swear words come from?

But first…

…I’d like to clear up a common misconception. Some people disparage those who swear by claiming that cussing demonstrates a lack of intelligence and creativity.


This is quite simply a steaming rotten turd of an idea.

A recent study examined this preposterous hypothesis and found that those who know more swear words also have larger vocabularies in general.

They asked participants to rattle off as many profanities as they could in one minute. The study subjects came up with an impressive 533 “taboo” words including classics like shit and more obscure terms like cum dumpster.

Participants then listed as many animals as they could in one minute – this was used as a kinda proxy indicator of the subject’s overall verbal fluency (in addition to some standard vocab tests). A larger repertoire of curse words correlated with a generally larger vocabulary.

So there you have it. As Stephen Fry so eloquently put it,

“The sort of twee person who thinks swearing is in any way a sign of a lack of education or a lack of verbal interest is just fucking lunatic.”

Where do swear words come from?

The words we consider profane usually relate to taboo subjects: like sex (fuck) or body parts  (tits) and functions (shit). They can also include animal names, blasphemy or racial/gender slurs. To some extent, it is institutions of power or broad societal structures, like the media and religion, that define what constitutes a swear word.

“Swear words are the wild weeds of language – wiry and gleeful, flourishing on the edges of horticulture, for there, on the boundary, rejected language growls robust as weeds, like demented nettles sniggering with brambles and thistles making mischief with the grass.”

Jay Griffiths, from Wild: An Elemental Journey

But taboos change over time – which means our swear words do too. Back in the 1800s, all kinds of words we use regularly nowadays were considered scandalous. According to Bill Bryson in his book The Mother Tongue, when referring to a chicken, the words breast, thigh and leg were no-nos. Instead, you would say white meat, first joint and drumstick. Bulls weren’t bulls either – they were male animals or gentleman cows.


Gentleman cow

Luckily, those days of drastic sensitivity are behind us. Today, we have a range of swear words that vary from the mildly offensive (crap) to the extremely profane (cunt). On a side note, cunt hasn’t always been such a obscene word. It was imply a factual term for female genitalia. Hilariously, a common street name in Medieval England was Gropecunt Lane – presumably this indicated the location of the red-light district.


What about expletives in the brain? Turns out, swear words aren’t really words. They’re more like instinctive outbursts of emotion. Normal language is formed in Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area – but swearwords originate in the limbic system, the brain’s emotion centre. This leads us on to ask the question…

Why do we swear?

“Swearing is like using a horn in the car, which can be used to signify a number of emotions.”

-Timothy Jay, in The Utility and Ubiquity of Taboo Words


Swearing is beeping the car horn

We use swearwords to express anger, frustration or surprise. Take the word fuck as an example. Fuck is an underrated word in the English language – it’s incredibly versatile. I could say “fuck off” if I wish for you to leave. Or I could say “he’s just fucking around” to describe someone who is messing about in a casual manner. I could say “fuck this!” to express frustration and exasperation. Or I could say “fuck yeah!” to emphasise excitement.

Profanity can be used to insult people – and the inclusion of a swear word is especially rude and mean. (Don’t do it, guys!)

But swear words aren’t always bad. They are important for catharsis and anger management. In fact, one study found that swearing can increase pain tolerance. So the next time you stub your toe, feel free to vent with a good curse word or two.

Swearing also has positive roles in a social context. People that share a similar vocab, and who break taboos together, form bonds. Swear words can be used in storytelling, jokes or social commentary. We even use some swear words as terms of endearment in certain social situations (dickhead, bitch, good cunt).

This highlights how social context shapes the meaning – and offensiveness – of swearwords. If you’re at a business meeting, it’s probably not a great idea to sprinkle your speech with fucks and shits. But in less formal settings, in the company of people you’re comfortable with, you’re more likely to drop fucks like a trucker.

And we do swear quite a lot. The average person’s speech consists of 0.5-0.7% naughty words. To put this in context: we use personal pronouns (I, we, you) 1% of the time.

So now you know all about the science of swearing, and I hope I’ve convinced you that swearing isn’t all bad – in fact, sometimes it’s pretty fuckin’ good.


Do you know of any interesting taboo words or insults in other languages? Let me know in the comments!

I will be taking a break from Mother Tongues over the next few weeks – but stay tuned for more 🙂

Many thanks to Rebecca who lent me Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson. Rebecca blogs about earth science at Hot Spot – she has some amazing photos from her travels, check them out!



Distant Shores: Did Polynesians Reach the Americas?

There’s all kind of weird stories floating around about Vikings and Celts and Phoenicians sailing around the globe, reaching various distant lands. They’re mostly crackpot conspiracy theories with little supporting evidence.


Vikings meet Polynesians in the South Pacific? I don’t think so.

But recently I’ve stumbled across one tale of a voyage across vast seas that is defs mainstream-science, thanks to a comment left by the author of Librepost on my Endangered Tongues article:

“…if you really want to hear about an unknown language, try searching for MAPUNDUNGUN, which discoveries are showing may have a Polynesian connection (in South America).”

How intriguing! I had to know more about this linguistic mystery. So I had a chat with Prof. Lisa Matisoo-Smith, a professor of Biological Anthropology at the University of Otago, who studies the settlement, history and prehistory of the Pacific.

A Mapuche Connection?

The Mapuche are Indigenous people who live in Southern/Central Chile and Argentina. Their native tongue, Mapudungün, is a language isolate – that is, a language that doesn’t appear to be related to other languages. (See here for a post on language isolates).


Image via Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Mapudungün is considered endangered by the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger. It’s thought that while there are more than 1 million people with Mapuche heritage, there are only around 200,000 speakers. And politics isn’t helping the Mapudungün survival-sitch either – it’s not an official language of either Chile or Argentina, plus there’s an ongoing debate about which alphabet to use for written Mapudungün. Let’s hope everyone sorts their shit out for the sake of this mother tongue.

But anyway, what do the Mapuche and their language have to do with Polynesia, 10,000km away? Well, there’s evidence that Mapudungün has been influenced by a few other lingos: Quechua (another Indigenous South American language), Spanish and also Polynesian languages. Ooooohh! Did the Polynesians, who were master sailors and navigators, reach the distant shores of South America?

Linguistic Links


The word toki is found in both Mapuche and Polynesian languages – it is a potential loanword. Prof Matisoo-Smith explains:

“There’s similarities linguistically related to the toki, which means adze. In Mapuche, the chiefs will often wear a stone adze necklace called a toki kura. And toki in Polynesian languages also means adze. Māori chiefs or high ranking individuals would also wear a greenstone adze or a stone adze.”


A toki is a stone adze worn by chiefs in both Mapuche and Māori cultures

Pre-European toki have been found at archaeological sites in both Chile and Polynesia, and this combination of linguistic and ethnographic evidence suggests some sort of cultural exchange.

Canoe technology

It’s not just toki either – the Mapuche also have distinctly Polynesian boat technology: the sewn plank canoe.

“Most North American – like Northwest Coast – use dugout canoes and then in South America you’ve got things like rafts and reed boats. But the actual process of creating a canoe by sewing planks onto a hull is a Polynesian design and it’s found in two places in the Americas – one right around the Channel Islands, and one down in Southern Chile in the Chiloé and Mapuche area.”


The Chiloé Islands are depicted at the top of this image. Via Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The presence of this canoe technology in South America is a pretty credible clue hinting that Polynesians reached the western coast of South America. A UC Berkeley linguist, Kathryn Klar, has investigated this even further, by taking a good look at the words used in Chiloé Island languages associated with canoes.

Looking at the languages in this historically linguistically diverse region is pretty tricky. Many have since gone extinct, and the data that remains is from aaages ago.

In a language from this area, recorded in 1839 as “Patagonian,” we have

tă lĭnă and tă lĭnă cărrŏ

meaning ship and boat respectively. Klar reckons tă lĭnă comes from the Central East Polynesian word for “worked wood” (tumu rakau), while cărrŏ is the native Patagonian word for boat. So, this language borrowed a Polynesian word to differentiate sewn plank canoes from other watercrafts.

In “West Patagonian,” another Indigenous language recorded in Chiloé in 1917,


means West Patagonian canoe. Klar suggests this originates from a combination of Polynesian bases: tia meaning sew and loa meaning long.

“I’ve talked with a Chilean researcher who was working on Mapuche water rights and looking at the archaeological evidence for the canoe technology. So they’re finding these sewn plank canoes and they all date to about the time we would expect Polynesian contact to occur.”


A sewn plank canoe consists of planks of wood… you guessed it… sewn together

Controversial Kumara

The humble sweet potato that accompanies your Sunday roast may just seem like a tasty vegetable, but it’s also evidence of Polynesians reaching South America, picking up this humble root, and transporting it back and distributing it throughout the islands.


Attempted kumara cartoon

“The sweet potato, the kumara, is a root crop and is a familiar looking starch for Pacific people. They’ve been growing yams and taro, so they would have an understanding  of how to plant it and how to cook it – it’s a familiar type of food. That to me suggests some kind of a selection, ‘Oh we’ll take this, and we know how to preserve it and take it back, get it back home.'”

There’s also a linguistic connection between the Pacific kumara (and its variants) and the Quechuan word cumar, which is also used by Indigenous peoples on the coast of Ecuador.

It’s not just words…

…it’s also chicken genes. A Chilean archaeologist, José Miguel Ramírez-Aliaga, uncovered some chicken bones at an archaeological site in the Mapuche area which he believed were pre-Columbian. South America didn’t have chickens until they were introduced, and if they were pre-European contact, then who did introduce them..?

Ramírez-Aliaga got in touch with Matisoo-Smith, who was working on the spread of animals like rats and chickens throughout the Pacific. She analysed these chicken bones and radio-carbon dating showed that they were introduced at the latest by 1424 – definitely pre-European! Genetic evidence suggested these weren’t just any chickens either – these were Pacific chickens. This is excellent evidence for the presence of a few Polynesian visitors (and their chooks).


Polynesian chickens made it to the New World before Christopher Columbus

A few similar words and artefacts by themselves don’t mean much. It could simply be a case of coincidence. But the big picture of archaeological, ethnographic, linguistic and genetic evidence, with a dash of commonsense, makes a pretty compelling case for pre-Columbian contact.

“Most Pacific researchers would say that it is highly likely that Polynesians made contact with the Americas, just given the sailing trajectory that they were on. Consistently moving in that direction and you know why would they stop? They didn’t have maps or anything that said they’d gotten to the last island and they couldn’t go any further…”


Many thanks to Professor Lisa Matisoo-Smith.

Wanna get stuck into this topic? I found this book handy: Polynesians in America: Pre-Columbian Contacts with the New World, edited by Terry L. Jones.



Learning to Sign

This week in lil ol’ New Zealand, it’s New Zealand Sign Language Week. We’re celebrating ten years of NZSL being an official language of New Zealand (along with Māori and English).

So I set out to learn about NZSL. Exploring this unique window into Kiwi Deaf culture has been eye-opening and a tonne of fun. Here’s a few things I discovered 🙌

A hidden history

New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL) has a history of secrecy and stealth – because the people who used it were oppressed.

But let’s start at the beginning: people reckon British Sign Language came to New Zealand sometime during the 1800s. In 1880, a school for the Deaf was set up in Christchurch and it’s probably here that a uniquely Kiwi version of sign language began to develop.

Until 1979, Deaf children were not allowed to sign at school. All instruction was oral, and the Deaf community were told that signing in public wasn’t proper. Children who signed were punished. But still, they signed in secret, keeping NZSL alive.


NZSL is a “ninja” language – it had to be kept secret to stay alive. (You can even be a Sign Ninja today.) Butterflies are recognised as a powerful visual metaphor for Deafness because although they can’t hear, they are independent.

In the 1980s, the sign ban was lifted. But instead of their own sign language, Deaf students were taught to use the artificial Australasian Sign Language, a form of signed English. Many of these signs found their way into the vocab of NZ sign language users.

Around this time, research into New Zealand’s own unique sign language was set in motion. Dictionaries were compiled and research found that the sign language of Kiwis had grammar and vocabulary distinct from English. NZSL finally got the recognition it deserved: it is a legit language in its own right. From here, Deaf culture has flourished in NZ.

In 1993, NZSL was adopted for use in Deaf Education. A comprehensive dictionary was put together in 1998, and in 2006 NZSL became an official language of New Zealand. Today, it’s used by some 20,000 people everyday.

Stories from NZSL

I got in touch with a couple of friends to learn their sign language stories. I was blown away by their responses, which I’ve included below in full so you too can be moved and enlightened! Here’s what Josje and Georgia had to say:

When did you learn NZSL and why?

Josje: I learnt NZSL growing up because my mum is Deaf so it was very apparent in our household. People often ask me, “Oh, when and how did you learn sign language,” and the answer is pretty simple really. I relate it back to how my friends learnt English. They just sort of grew up around it and absorbed it because that was the norm. Its the same with me for NZSL, it was spoken in my household growing up, just like English so I learnt it through my mother and being surrounded by it.

Georgia: I learned NZSL in my first year at Victoria University (second year of Uni). It’s kind of a long story but one of my great friends from high school has a Deaf mum, whenever I would visit I would get such a buzz off learning signs from her, starting small with signs like pizza, party and cool story bro. I never got that buzz from my studies in Otago, so I thought I’ll learn NZSL as part of my studies to keep me interested and motivated. Otago doesn’t teach it so I moved to Wellington, transferring my papers and enrolling in Deaf Studies where I learnt to sign and I’ve never looked back.

What’s the best thing about NZSL and/or the Deaf community?

Josje: The best thing about NZSL is the fact that it is a communication tool. It is a language which connects us. People from different backgrounds, hearing and deaf people can communicate and connect in an amazing way – visually! I love how it is a visual language, a lot based around facial expressions and movement of the body – its beautiful!

Also another really awesome thing about it is that its not a literal translation of English or any language for that matter. NZSL has its OWN grammar and syntax which makes it unique and wholesome.

Georgia: There are so many great things about both, in terms of the language the best thing is how versatile it is to use, in silent situations where you otherwise couldn’t talk, you can subtlety sign and you can have conversations in bars where you otherwise can’t hear a thing except base, you can talk through windows and from far away – I’ve been at a traffic light and had conversations with people from class from across the road which was pretty awesome.

The best thing about the Deaf community is how they encouraged and welcomed me, they are always glad more people are learning NZSL. Now I have Deaf friends who are great people that I would otherwise never know.

Do you have a fave sign?

Josje: Yes my favourite sign is ‘weird’ because the sign itself is weird – its like the sign language version of onomatopoeia

Georgia: My favourite sign is probably ‘weird’ because it is what it says and you can make the greatest facial expression to express weird too.

Weird is signed with your dominant hand with your index, middle and ring finger (W shape) and goes across your chest, bending the fingers as you move across.


Weird in NZSL

Do you think knowing sign language has allowed you to be more creative / think differently / see the world in unique ways?

Josje: Absolutely, I think knowing sign language has definitely opened up creative doors for me. I am much more visual because of it. I have learnt the art of reading peoples expressions and body language and I am able to appreciate the small unique things that make sign language beautiful. It’s hard to explain, I think you have to learn it to understand!

Georgia: Yes, yes and yes! I definitely think differently about many aspects of my life, from small things about how I get people’s attention and the importance of eye contact, and also holistically in how I view the education system and all minorities – everyone just wants to be understood.

Do you have a sign name or do you always spell it out?

Josje: Yes, I have a sign name which my mum gave me. It is sort of tradition that only a deaf person can give you a sign name, and it always reflects a part of your personality, looks and mannerisms.

Georgia: I do have a sign name, it’s ridiculous, it’s the sign for ‘cool’. My friends mum, I call her Mumma Josje, gave it to me when I was in high school – she probably thought I’d never actually be a part of the community but it has stuck.

Sign names are given by Deaf people only and are something that represents you, for me it was because ‘cool’ was the word I used for everything, and I always remembered that, always saying this is cool, that’s cool, you’re cool, cool story bro etc etc.

When I first meet someone I always spell my name and introduce my sign name, often Deaf people ask the story when you meet them too.

What is one thing you wish more people knew about NZSL?

Josje: I wish more people knew that NZSL is an official language of New Zealand along with Māori and English. I wish more people knew that sign language is not a universal language, it is unique to each country just like spoken languages. I wish more people viewed NZSL as something beautiful and connecting, rather than what someone uses because of a ‘disability’. I wish more people knew the basic fundamentals and I hope that more schools introduce NZSL as an elective subject!

Georgia: There’s a few things, I wish they knew it was a 100% visual language, seems obvious but many people still walk in front of the conversation or turn the lights down, but for Deaf people they need the light to talk.

I wish people didn’t expect Deaf people to be able to lip read because its actually one of the hardest things to ever learn and even the best people can only can lip read 80% of what you’re saying if you’re looking directly at them.

Finally, I wish people weren’t intimidated it – so many people have said to me, “A Deaf person came into work and I was just in shock I wish I knew what to say to them.” Just smile and nod and look at them in the eyes when you’re communicating with them, and if you need their attention, get in their view and wave at them. If you don’t know NZSL, Deaf people will visually be able to read your body language so just be bold with your gestures.

Any advice for people wanting to learn NZSL?

Josje: Do some research into classes and courses in your area. There are loads of platforms you can learn from. Online, universities and community colleges offer courses and classes or reach out to the deaf community for private lessons! Ask my mum, she travels the country teaching it! Haha 🙂

Georgia: Do it! Get yourself into a class and go regularly, download the NZSL app and learn a sign a day, and when you’ve been to a few classes, I know it’s intimidating but get emerged in the Deaf community, go to a Deaf club event. Even if you just introduce yourself a few times, they will be welcoming and you’ll learn something more.


It’s loads of fun

NZSL, or any sign language, is in no way “simpler” than a spoken language. Sign languages develop organically with their own vocabulary and grammar that’s every bit as complex and quirky as any spoken tongue. Just like spoken languages, there are also regional dialects of NZSL – slight differences between the North and South Islands.

The only difference is: it’s all visual. And it’s not just hand gestures either – sign languages will use facial expressions and body language/position to communicate too.

For example, in NZSL, when you’re asking a yes or no question, you tilt your body slightly forward, hold the last sign a little longer and raise your eyebrows.

Structure is different in NZSL too – instead of “what is your name?” we would ask “your name what?” And yep, there’s none of those little words like the and is.

NZSL has signs for Māori concepts – but remember there’s no “English” sign language or “Māori” sign language. Sign languages don’t match spoken ones – they’re fully-fledged lingos in their own right, visual structures that emerge from the experience of Deaf people.

I’ve jumped in to try and learn a few signs this week. AND I HAD SO MUCH FUN. Seriously guys, NZSL is wicked. Here’s some resources if you’d like to give NZSL a go:

A handy tip: use the hand you write with (your dominant hand) to do the work!

Here are my attempts (sorry if I haven’t got them right!) (yes they’re mainly of food hehe)

Hello, my name is E-L-L-E-N

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Huge thanks to Josje and Georgia for helping me with this post – you’re awesome 🙂

Josje is an amazing artist – you can check out her work at Ramatree on her website or on Facebook.


Do you know a sign language? Let me know your sign language experience in the comments!



Lonely languages

Just like chimpanzees are related to humans, and lions are related to tigers, languages can also be related to each other.

Think of French and Spanish – they’re part of a language family called the Romance Languages.


Just as lions and tigers are related to one another, languages are also related to one another – like French and Spanish.


But there are some mysterious languages that aren’t related to any other known languages. They’re linguistic islands, cut off from the language-mainland. We call them language isolates.

Orphan Languages?

Language isolates are like orphans and only children – linguists have been unable to identify their parent lingos, and they don’t appear to have any sister languages. Each language isolate forms its own special language family with population=1.

Considering each language isolate to be its own little family, then there are around 350 language families in total. Of these, 37% or 129 are language isolates – that’s quite a few!

It is still possible that most languages on Earth evolved from a single common ancestor. Maybe these isolates did have relatives that have since disappeared or died out.

It’s important to note that language isolates are different to unclassified languages. Isolates remain, well, isolated – despite linguists’ extensive efforts to connect them with other languages. On the other hand, unclassified languages haven’t been studied well enough, or there isn’t enough data, for linguists to classify them. Some unclassified languages may well be isolates – but we don’t know yet.

Unsurprisingly, lots of language isolates are endangered. But there are a few that have absolutely boomed.

Let’s explore a few of these fascinating languages. Here’s a selection from around the world.


Spoken by 80 million people worldwide, Korean is by far the most successful language isolate. Or at least, most historical linguists consider Korean to be a language isolate – but the writing on the wall isn’t fixed.

Just like Proto-Indo-European is the ancestor of the Indo-European languages, linguists can trace the ancestry of Modern Korean back through Middle Korean and Old Korean to Proto-Korean. Along this path back through history, there are some hypothetical related lingos – like the Buyeo languages. These ancient relatives are now extinct, so ya know, for all intents and purposes, today’s Korean is all on its lonesome.

Or is it? Off the coast of the Korean mainland is an island called Jeju. Here, the locals speak the Jeju dialect of Korean, which is almost unintelligible to mainlanders. Some peeps reckon it’s different enough to qualify as its own language. In this case, Jeju and Korean could team up to form a Koreanic Language Fam.

The distinctive Korean alphabet hasn’t always been fixed either. For over 1,000 years, Korean was written with modified Chinese characters called hanja. These were tricky to get yo head around, so only the wealthy elite were literate.


Sejong the Great

Enter Sejong the Great: a Korean king in the 15th century, who wanted to establish a distinct Korean national identity. He oversaw the creation of the hangul alphabet, designed so that anyone could learn to read and write. It took several hundred years for hangul to take the throne, but by 1894 it was decreed ~the official~ alphabet.


Hanja (red) and hangul (blue) via Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)


Tucked away in the western Pyrenees, in a region straddling Spain and France, the Basque culture and language blossoms. Unlike Spanish and French, Basque is not an Indo-European language. In fact,  it probably existed before the arrival of the Indo-Europeans – perhaps as far back as the Stone Age. Basque is one of the few surviving pre-Indo-European languages. So cool hey!


The changing geographic distributions of languages in Southwestern Europe. Image via Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

There are more than 700,000 Basque speakers today, but there are a tonne of different forms. There’s five dialects, and these are further broken up into 11 subdialects and 24 other minor varieties. In the 1960s, a standard Basque – called Euskara – was created too.

Some linguists have suggested that the Basque dialects are becoming sufficiently different to classify them as separate languages. So, maybe Basque won’t be a language isolate in the future, as it splits off into different tongues in a Basque mini-family. Just goes to show how language is ever-evolving – and the line between “language” and “dialect” is kinda blurry.


The Basque country flag


The Hadza don’t farm and they don’t grow crops. They are the last hunter-gatherers in Africa. The Hazda oral history doesn’t describe originating anywhere except where they currently live – so perhaps they have been inhabiting north-central Tanzania since the dawn of humankind. Their way of life offers anthropologists a fascinating insight into how all of us humans once lived.


The Hadza are the last full-time hunter-gatherers in Africa.

The Hadza language features the click consonant that characterises many African languages. Despite this common element, Hazda is a language isolate. What’s more, this ancient language is positively thriving. Although it’s only spoken by around 1,000 people, it’s known by most Hadza children.

The Hadza live a timeless existence, and their language reflects this. They have words for “one” and “two,” but they have to borrow words from other languages (like Swahili) to count any higher.

The importance of hunting is also reflected in the Hadza language: there are different words for dead and living animals. When an animal is killed, it is referred to by a special “triumphal name.” For example, a lion is usually called “séseme” but if it has been successfully hunted, its triumphal name is “hubúhee.” (Wikipedia has a bunch more examples, if you’re interested.)


A living lion has a different name to a hunted lion in Hadza


Also known as Leco, this unwritten language isolate was once widely spoken along the slopes of the Andes, east of Lake Titicaca, in Bolivia.

For many years, Leko was considered to be extinct. But one linguist searched all the nooks and crannies in Bolivia, and came across a handful of people who could speak Leko.

These people, the final bastions of Leko, are now all aged over 60. Sadly, the language has not been taught to younger generations and it’s likely it will die out as the last speakers pass away.

Linguists are doing their best to learn as much as they can about the Leko language and culture, but gathering data is a tricky task. The Leko-situation is made more difficult because many hadn’t spoken this tongue in more than 40 years, and did not feel comfortable entering into spontaneous conversation with one another.

Leko is not alone – many hundreds of endangered languages face this same sorrowful fate.


The Tiwi Islands are found just off the Northern Coast of Australia, and are home to around 2.500 Tiwi Indigenous people. The Tiwi language is pretty different to mainland Aussie lingos, so much so it’s considered an isolate. Here’s a word (and its English translation) from the Traditional Tiwi language:


He came and stole my wild honey this morning while I was asleep


No, your eyes are not deceiving you. That one single word translates into that entire sentence in English. To get our heads around this tongue-(and-brain)-twister, we’ve gotta tackle morphemes.

Morphemes ain’t that character from The Matrix, nor is it that addictive painkilling drug. A morpheme is a “word-part” that carries a distinct meaning. It may be able to standalone (in which case, it is also a word) but some need to be combined with another morpheme.

Here’s an example: walk is both a morpheme and a word. -ed is a morpheme but it cannot stand on its own. But we can combine these two morphemes to make walked.

Tiwi is a polysynthetic language which means that its words are made up of lots of morphemes lumped together – just like the example above.

Since European contact, Tiwi has undergone a marked transformation. Modern Tiwi is a lot more isolating compared to the Traditional form – this basically means its structure is becoming more like English and less like the polysynthetic example above.

Traditional Tiwi is now generally confined to the elders, but Modern Tiwi is surviving fairly well amongst the younger generations.


Japanese used to be a language isolate. Buuuuut… now it’s not. I’ve included it here as an interesting example of the fluid nature of language classification.

The southernmost islands of the Japanese archipelago are called the Ryukyu Islands, and they’re home to ten distinct languages called the Ryukyuan languages. Historically, these have been considered dialects of Japanese, but in fact, they are mutually unintelligible with Standard Japanese and with each other. Together, the Ryukyuan languages and Japanese form the Japonic family.

I find it interesting to think about what “mutually unintelligible” means. For example, I can barely understand Scottish people, and yet they supposedly speak the same mother tongue (English) as me…

Video via Canal de JUSTVIRALVIDEOS4 on Youtube

Anyway, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly how many speakers of the Ryukyuan languages remain – but they are generally confined to the older generation. Several are listed as endangered on UNESCO’s Atlas of Languages in Danger.

That concludes our tour…

…around the world through language isolates. Of course there are many more – do you know a particularly interesting one? Let me know in the comments.

Language isolates add a lil somethin’ special and spicy to the Earth’s language soup. But just like scientists are constantly refining the tree of life, so too, our interconnected web of languages is reworked and rebuilt as we uncover more about our mother tongues.





Hotspots: Species Meet Languages in a Burst of Diversity

Scattered across the Earth, there are biodiversity hotspots – areas where Mother Nature flaunts her outrageous imagination like a peacock flaunts its magnificent tail. These places are hotbeds of evolution – not just for biological species, it turns out, but for languages too.


We’ve had an inkling of this language-species affair for a while. But it’s only in the last decade or so that we’ve quantified this connection.

Researchers collated information on where species live, and then mapped this against where languages are spoken. Using statistics, they found that high biodiversity does indeed correlate with high linguistic diversity.

F1.large (1)

(A) displays biodiversity hotspots around the world. (B) shows the geographic distribution of Indigenous languages. Reproduced from this paper.

They churned out some numbers for us to get a deeper sense of this link:

  • There are 35 biodiversity hotspots and five high biodiversity wilderness areas on Planet Earth – places like Amazonia, the island of New Guinea and the forests of Central Africa
  • These hotspots are home to 67% of all plants and 50% of all vertebrate animals (that’s A LOT)
  • They’re also home to 70% of the 6,900 languages spoken on Earth (whoa)
  • They used to cover around a quarter of all land on Earth – but this has dwindled down to just 8% (crap…)

Here are those numbers again, in visual form, if that’s more your thang:


But why?

Why should language richness and species diversity mirror each other like this?

As we’ve explored in previous posts, language and ecosystems are both complex adaptive systems. So it makes some kind of intuitive sense that they should behave similarly.

But let’s dig a lil deeper. What’s going on here?

Generally, tropical regions are both more biodiverse and linguistically diverse than desert and tundra areas. Perhaps, both types of diversity depend on similar environmental factors – like temperature and rainfall.

One possibility is that the abundance of natural resources in tropical environments reduces the need for groups to share and communicate with one another. So they don’t need a common language and the local lingos diversify as a result.

Maybe landscape barriers prevent communities from interacting and so different languages develop. After all, if a rugged mountain range separates you and your neighbours, you’re unlikely to pop over to say hello that often. Similarly, it is well-understood in biology that topographic barriers enable the evolution of species richness (this is a discipline called insular biogeography).


Topographic barriers may facilitate the diversification of both language and species.

It’s also possible that biodiversity sustains cultural diversity in a symbiotic relationship – the richness of one supports the other, and vice versa.

One kinda crazy-cool idea is that biodiversity provides a greater range of natural reservoirs for our imagination. We draw on our surrounding environment to construct metaphors that form the basis of our language. This enables different languages based on different metaphor-concepts to evolve. Language is infused with nature. Our culture is not purely a product of who we are – it’s also deeply rooted in our physical environment.

In turn, the metaphors used by many Indigenous cultures in biodiverse regions remind people that they cannot exploit their natural resources carelessly and endlessly. This allows high biodiversity to persist. What a beautiful cycle!

“For the forest people, nature is defended by culture. Many rules concerning hunting and the non-exploitative use of resources – blunt ecological truths – are encoded in myths and magic, tales and enchantments that make up a society’s culture.”

-Jay Griffiths, writer

It’s not simple…

It’s probably not just one of these explanations, but rather, some combination of them.

Take, for example, the rugged tropical jungles of New Guinea – home to a vast array of species, from birds of paradise to tree kangaroos. This island is also the habitat for nearly 1,000 distinct languages.


The island of New Guinea is home to some crazy animals – like tree kangaroos and birds of paradise. It’s also home to nearly 1,000 languages: “wiyo” means “hello” in Melpa and “wa” means “hello” in Dani.

Researchers zoomed in on this mother-tongue-menagerie to examine the language-species connection on a finer scale. Like previous global studies, they found a link. But the strength of this relationship depended on the scale you chose – the closer you zoomed in, the weaker the correlation.

This suggests that the link is multi-faceted – a complex brew of sociocultural and biogeographical factors.

In the case of New Guinea, the authors noted that the isolated, rugged highlands supported high biodiversity but low linguistic diversity, while the coastal lowlands were the opposite.

They suggested that lower malaria incidence in the inland regions allowed larger societies to form and language to diffuse among them. Meanwhile, elevated biodiversity was a result of the harsh terrain.

Madagascar is another interesting example. Its geographic isolation means it has a large proportion of endemic species (like lemurs and frogs). However it was only settled by humans around 2,000 years ago, meaning languages haven’t had much time to diversify.


Even though Madagascar is a biodiversity hotspot, it was only colonised by humans relatively recently, resulting in low linguistic diversity. The lemur says “how are you?” and the frog replies in Malagasy.

What this means for conservation

There are sad but thought-provoking parallels between species extinction and language loss. They are driven by similar phenomena: expanding human population, migration and globalisation. Some researchers have suggested that linguistic and biological conservationists should team up for even greater impact.

But the New Guinea study suggested that on a local level, threatened species and endangered languages do not necessarily overlap.

Nonetheless, conserving cultures is integral to saving nature. Indigenous people look after the land and so provide all of us with essential ecosystem services – clean air, pollination and fresh water. Their participation in conservation is vital – diversity ensures the future of humanity.

“When wild lands are lost, so is metaphor, allusion and the poetry that arises in the interplay of mind and nature.”

-Jay Griffiths, writer


If you’re interested in Indigenous cultures, nature and language, I highly recommend the book Wild: An Elemental Journey by Jay Griffiths.



Endangered tongues

You’ve probably heard of the plight of the orang-utans and cries to “save the whales” but have you heard of Ixcatec or Tharkarri?

They’re not cute and cuddly animals you can touch, but they’re still capable of living.

They’re the vanishing mind-music of people: critically endangered languages.

Ixcatec and Tharkarri are just two of the 2,465 languages included on UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger.  

Enveloped in silence

Languages can die out – just like plant and animal species can become extinct.

On an archipelago off the western coast of Canada, just 20 speakers of the Haida language remain – a mere fragment of the estimated 15,000 speakers at the time of European contact.


In the Haida language, guusuwàa means “someone who likes to gossip or talk a lot.”

In a tiny town called Tabasco in central Mexico, the Ayapaneco language persists in the minds of two elderly men – who, until recently, wouldn’t speak to each other due to a decades-old quarrel.

In 2008, Marie Smith Jones passed away and took the Native Alaskan Eyak language with her.


Marie Smith Jones was the last speaker of Eyak – iishuh means hello.

“What could be more lonely than to be enveloped in silence, to be the last of your people to speak your language, to have no way to pass on the wisdom of the ancestors or anticipate the promise of the children?”

– Wade Davis, Anthropologist

What makes a language endangered?

A language is considered endangered if it is likely to die out in the near future – it’s estimated that 50-90% of all languages will have been lost by the end of this century. Even languages that may seem healthy, with thousands of speakers like Navajo, can be vulnerable – if the younger generations aren’t learning it, it won’t survive.

Language extinction can be a gradual process. Usually, a community will find itself under pressure to assimilate into a more socially, politically and economically dominant culture. Sometimes, a group of people may be forcibly  separated from their language – for example, Haida children were forbidden from speaking their language until well into the 20th century.

If you’ve ever learnt a language and then stopped speaking it, you’ll know how words begin to fade from memory. A language must be practiced – spoken or written – to live. Otherwise it becomes a tip-of-the-tongue figment, sounds lost in muffling brain-fog.

Sometimes, extinction can be sudden – like the Palawa languages that were decimated during the genocide of the Aboriginal people in Tasmania, Australia.

Why should we care?

Perhaps you may be wondering: who cares? What’s the point in saving a language that’s only spoken by a few old people anyway?

I care. Some say that language loss is simply inevitable cultural change – but I think this ignores the tragic history of oppression suffered by speakers of these minority languages. I’m a great believer in the beauty of diversity – just as we value biodiversity amongst our flora and fauna, so too we should value cultural and linguistic diversity.

Some people argue that languages carry distinct ways of thinking. Experiments have shown that speakers of different languages do in fact display tiny differences in thinking processes. But linguists question whether these slight variations constitute wholly unique world-views.

Language is about people

But at it’s heart, language is about people. Language by itself may not shape our life-perspective, but culture does. Language is a powerful symbol of culture and identity. It’s how people pass down their stories and traditions, and how they interpret the world around them. It’s how they connect and form communities. People feel the loss of their language very deeply. As one Ojibwe elder said,

“Without the language, we are warm bodies without a spirit.”


There’s also a scientific argument for saving languages. Not only are languages fascinating to study in and of themselves, they are also infused with the vast, accumulated knowledge of the people who speak them. There is a growing realisation that Indigenous knowledge has much to offer modern science: from plant-derived medicines to information about past sea levels.

A landscape of living languages

So I think it’s great that linguists continue to compile dictionaries and analyse grammar and record oral histories and traditions.

But I also hope that some languages will be more than preserved specimens in a forgotten linguistic museum. Humanity deserves a colourful landscape of living languages.

I’ll leave you with the inspiring words of Wade Davis, a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence and anthropologist:

Video: “Dreams from Endangered Cultures” on Ted