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There’s not a student who hasn’t studied him and we all owe him major props for his contribution to both theatre and the English language itself, but what we don’t often think about is how the words of William Shakespeare were pronounced. Contrary to assumed belief that Shakespeare was to be pronounced in the haughtiest of accents an actor could muster, the original pronunciation is something a lot more akin to regional English varieties – especially ‘West Country’ accents. 

The globe started doing original productions of Shakespeare in 1994 with original instruments ,costumes and sets but remained hesitant to also work with the original pronunciation (known as OP). Finally in 2004, a performance of Romeo & Juliet in OP was done to grand acclaim and a large turnout.

In this incredibly engaging video interview with David Crystal  – a leading Linguist – and his son Ben Crystal, the pair discuss the secrets that reveal themselves when Shakespearean verse is performed in its original accent. During Shakespeare’s lifetime, the English language (now referred to as Early Modern English) was going through a rapid period of change.

For example, in earlier Shakespearean plays, the word ‘musician’ was pronounced /muːzɪsjæn/ (moo-zih-see-an) and then transformed to /muːzɪʃjæn/ ‘moo-zih-shee-an) and then finally arriving at the recognisable /muːzɪʃjæn ‘moo-zih-shan).

Hidden puns and rhymes that remain undetected in a Modern English accent emerge once you perform them in OP. For example, in Sonnet 116 ‘Let Me Not To The Marriage of True Minds’, there’s a couplet lov’d/prov’d that in Modern English are pronounced ‘loved’ and ‘proved’, with the vowel sounds having diverged from each other, which in OP are both pronounced with the vowel /ʌ/ meaning that ‘proved’ sounded like ‘loved’.

If this be error and upon me prov’d,

I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.

But if there was no way of recording all those centuries ago, how can we be certain in our estimates of original pronunciation? David Crystal lays out 3 sources of evidence;

Check out the full video by the Open University here

This topic is a great stepping stone into the enthralling world of language change and it’s something that would look great on a Linguistics or English Literature personal statement!

Thanks to artificial intelligence, the extraordinary powers of Dr.Dolittle may soon be imaginable for the rest of the world – at least if speaking to mice and other rodents is your ultimate goal. Scientists have developed an app called ‘DeepSqueak’ which analyses the speech patterns of our cheese loving friends.

‘DeepSqueak’ analyses the sounds of mice in order to understand the association between the variety of ‘squeaks’ and different mousey emotions and behaviours. Mice communicate at a pitch that is beyond the average human sense of hearing and so the app converts these high frequency audio signals into visual sonograms that can be interpreted and studied.

Scientists are learning that mice produce happy squeaks just before being given a sugary treat and when they are playing with others. The romantics of you will rejoice to hear that male mice also know how to woo their female counterparts with special squeaks of courtship.

Other than the incredible novelty of understanding the language of mice, there are some very important advantages of being able to make sense of squeaky sonograms. Language or communication is a gateway to the internal mind of any organism, and  scientists will be able to understand more clearly the effects of drugs and medications being tested on mice.

For those who are eager to try this out on their gerbil at home, you will soon be able to get ‘DeepSqueak’ on Github to take your relationship with your beloved pet to the next level.

Computer Scientists, Linguists and Biologists should definitely explore this interesting field of AI-assisted animal communication to really individuate yourself in your personal statement and at your interview.

It’s time to squeak your way to an Oxbridge offer! 

It has always been relatively common knowledge that, despite their far-reaching civilisation and impressive infrastructure, the Inca people had no written language. However, this may in fact not be true, as anthropologists are now close to discovering the secret of the Incas’ recorded language!

Colourful knotted cords called Khipu have long been known to be an Inca abacus or way of noting numbers. Recent research now shows that these tied strands may also be a way of recording myths, songs, battles and other information, such as taxes and tributes. Social scientists are narrowing down on the ‘Rosetta Stone’ to cracking the knotty code.

The majority of khipus that have survived to this day consist of a thin primary cord with multiple pendant cords hanging from them. It was the anthropologist Leland Locke that first noticed in the 1920s that the knots formed abacus-like beads whose height on the string denoted different numerical units.

Gary Urton, an anthropologist at Harvard, has a database of nearly one thousand khipus and has devoted twenty-five years to developing and digitising his collection. By 2012, Urton had come up with the hypothesis that the tying direction of the knots and the string colours and materials corresponded to the social statuses and names of people paying tribute. It was only in 2016, that Urton came across his Rosetta Stone, a Spanish census document recording tributes from a village called Recuay in Santa Valley, Peru. This document’s subject and date corresponded exactly to the discovery location and date of six of Urton’s khipus.

It was Sabine Hyland, of the University of St Andrews, after studying the khipus of San Juan de Collata that realised that the knots might be a syllabic writing system. Urton expanding on the findings of Hyland now believes the knots to be semasiographic – with knots acting as information signposts for an empire with multiple ethnicities and languages.

Linguistics and History applicants might like to further investigate the development of language in the Inca culture in preparation for their interviews.

Scientists have conducted an experiment to understand why people have such strong aversions to words like ‘moist’.

Linguistics applicants should be interested to know that there were three clear hypotheses as to why people have an aversion to words. The first was the sound of the word, the second, the word’s connotations and finally, social transmission of the idea that the word is disgusting. In the first point, scientists were trying to understand if it was the phonetics and rhythms of the word itself which had an internally structured element of ‘disgust’ – if words in and of themselves can cause repulsion.

Paul Thibodeau, a cognitive Psychologist from Oberlin College and researcher on this topic, asked people’s opinions on words like moist, as well as words linked to bodily function such as phlegm and puke. He then asked people’s opinions on words with a similar sound to moist, like foist, hoist and rejoiced. The study found that people averse to the word moist were much more averse to words related to bodily function than they were to similarly sounding words, suggesting the meaning behind moist is what gives rise to its unpopularity.

Additionally, the researchers found a social component, as was part of their initial hypotheses. Participants in the study watched two videos – one where people were saying the word moist without relation to a particular object, and the second of people using the word to describe cake. Overwhelmingly, people who watched the first video had much more disgust for the word. Modern Languages and English Literature applicants should consider how the social transmission of language throughout history has also transmitted the weight and context of those words; for example, why slang comes in and out of fashion.

In October 2017, Sergey Zheleznyak of Russia’s State Duma Committee on International Affairs spoke of “linguistic genocide”.  This was in reference to the Latvian government’s ruling to make Latvian the sole language of education within the country.  Zheleznyak saw this forcing of minorities into a national language as a breach of the “Europeans legal framework”, despite this exact process being currently enacted by his own government.

Last July, Putin spoke at the Council of Interethnic Relations in Mari El.  He stated his view that the Russian language “cannot be replaced with anything” and that no child should be forced to learn a language that is not native to them.  This supported the Kremlin’s abolishment of compulsory teaching of minority languages in ‘ethnic republics’.  This is part of a wider movement towards cultural homogenisation as Putin attempts to move away from the reasonably steady multiculturalism of the past twenty years.

Political support of minority identity has been put under pressure, such as checks that took place in Bashkortostan and Tatarstan that led to mass teacher firings making the topic highly politically sensitive.  Protests have followed but stringent laws on public protest have led to dissent moving online. 

The Democratic Congress of the Peoples of Russia has been formed to promote multiculturalism and federalism and the #StopLanguageGenocide has trended on Russian social media.  Online resistance has spread amongst a large part of the population and across different republics. 

Linguistics applicants can discover the differences between the local dialects of Russia and their role within their distinct cultures.  HSPS students can find more examples of resistance to cultural homogenisation.     

The idea of there being certain words that simply don’t exist in other languages, and correspondingly, concepts that simply cannot be understood, is a popular one. One common expression of this belief is the claim that the Inuit have many different words for ‘snow’, the implication being that because their culture is so connected to their sub-zero surroundings, they have multiple discrete concepts for something that we can only conceive in very broad terms. This has been disproved, however. The languages spoken by arctic peoples such as the Inuit or the Aleut are highly synthetic, meaning that they have on average a high morphene-to-word ratio. In other words, synthetic languages combine multiple concepts or pieces of information into one word. This is hardly unusual; most Indo-European languages are synthetic, although English and a few others are more analytical. Because of this, more than one concept can be contained within a word unit- for example, ‘fresh snow’ or ‘heavy snow’.

It seems as though we are fascinated by the idea of different cultures possessing exclusive concepts that we cannot access. This is linked to a specific school of thought. Linguistic relativism suggests that the language you speak has an impact on your cognition and worldview; this is also known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, after Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf. Although very frequently cited, it is just as frequently criticised and disputed. More broadly, linguistic relativism fits into an ideological progression from enlightenment thought to romantic thought and so on to the present day, with the romantics rejecting the enlightenment notion that language was dependent on, and secondary to, rational thought which reflected reality. Fast forward to 1942, we can see a dramatic reversal in Whorf’s claim that “thinking is most mysterious, and by far the greatest light upon it that we have is thrown by the study of language”.

It must be said that one feature of Whorf’s thought that is often misconstrued by critics is the fact that he was primarily interested in the effect of language on habitual thought. Hence the question is not “does my language possess the capacity to express this concept?” but rather, “does my language lead me to habitually think along the lines of this concept and behave accordingly?” Notably, his analogy of the ‘empty’ gasoline drum was intended to demonstrate that our typical use of the word ‘empty’ influences our behaviour and our underlying assumptions (even when the ‘empty’ drum contains flammable vapour); critics, however, often took him to mean that the English language is simply not capable of distinguishing between a drum filled with air and one filled with dangerous vapour. Perhaps, then, so-called “untranslatable” words should not be judged by whether the concept can physically be conveyed in another language, but rather whether its role in its native language has a discernible effect on habitual thought.

Applicants for Linguistics should be familiar with the concept of linguistic relativism and may like to read the key texts. What side of the argument are you on? Is thought really shaped by language?

Studies in the field of cultural psychology have suggested that Chinese people tend to express psychological distress in much more psychical ways than people from other cultures. In particular, psychologists now believe that certain clusters of physical symptoms often reported by Chinese people should be diagnosed as clinical depression and treated as such, even though these symptoms vary considerably from those reported by depressed individuals elsewhere in the world. An interesting historical example of this comes from the 1980s, when the Chinese Minister of Health told American Psychiatrist and Medical Anthropologist Arthur Kleinman that mental illness did not exist in China. Indeed, figures indicated that the depression rate in China was only 2.3%, compared to America’s 10.3%. However, a different illness known as neurasthenia was very common, with symptoms such as dizziness and chronic pain. After careful examination of 100 patients with neurasthenia, Kleinman concluded that the majority of them were actually suffering from depression.

This phenomenon whereby psychological disorders manifest physically is known as somatisation. In the past, these differences were attributed to the Chinese being a less sophisticated and emotionally immature people, incapable of “properly” expressing their feelings. Other researchers suggested that the Chinese language was incapable of conveying emotions, but this research was heavily biased in favour of the English language. Nevertheless, contemporary studies continue to find a greater degree of somatisation among Chinese people. For example, a 2001 study conducted at The University of New South Wales found that depressed Malaysian Chinese individuals were more likely to report physical symptoms than depressed Euro-Australian individuals. Likewise, a 2004 study at the Massachusetts General Hospital found that 76% of Chinese Americans diagnosed with depression reported physical complaints. The authors suggested that Chinese Americans on the whole do not see a low mood as something worthy of being reported to a doctor. However, other researchers are arguing that the actual lived experience of depression is culturally shaped, and that if depressed Chinese people report more headaches, for example, it’s because they do in fact experience more headaches.

Applicants for Psychology or Medicine might want to use this example to consider to what extent medical science and psychology can produce objective results. What are the implications of the idea that symptoms can vary significantly across cultures? Applicants for Anthropology may want to think more broadly about cultural differences, and students wishing to apply for Linguistics should consider the extent to which differences in language may play a role.

Last year, the Académie française (a council constituting the official authority on the French language) expressed disapproval at an emerging tendency to make French more gender-inclusive, claiming that this écriture inclusive is putting the language in “mortal danger”. The debate arose when the first primary school textbook featuring this gender-neutral language was published.

In the standard form of the language, the masculine trumps the feminine; hence an all-female group would be described in the feminine, but a mixed group—even if women are in the majority—would be described in the masculine. Moreover, some nouns for professions do not have a feminine form, even when the person in question is female; for example, until recently the current prime minister Edouard Philippe referred to women in his cabinet as “madame le minister”. Language reformers propose the inclusion of a “point médian” (middle dot) to indicate when a group is of mixed genders rather than using the masculine as default; for example a group of male and female musicians would be “musicien·ne·s”.

 They also advocate the feminisation of job titles for women in professions where the default is masculine—hence “une écrivaine”, “la présidente”. This is already more common in other francophone countries such as French-speaking Canada. Interestingly in English-speaking countries, the exact opposite trend can be noted also in the name of inclusivity and equality—take, for example, the trend of many actresses wishing to be referred to as “actors”. The Académie is not alone in opposing the change. The minister of education has accused it of complicating and degrading the language, and philosopher Raphaël Enthoven has compared it to the dystopian, brainwashing language of Orwell’s 1984.

However, supporters of l’écriture inclusive point out that feminine versions of professions which are now masculine as default were in fact common until they were removed from the dictionary in the 17th century. Professor of French Literature Elaine Viennot remarks that the grammatical rule of the masculine overriding the feminine was only solidified when it was argued that language ought to echo the social order; Nicholas Beauzée, for example, claimed that masculine noun forms were inherently “nobler” because of the superiority of men over women.

Applicants for Modern Languages or Linguistics should consider how language can change and evolve with a changing culture, and whether they think this should be encouraged or not. Students may also wish to think about the idea of Linguistic Determinism, a contested theory which argues that the language you speak shapes the way you think.

If you frequently answer questions with “huh?” chances are you’ve been disapprovingly told to say “pardon” instead. But what is the purpose of this little word, so often dismissed as rude or lazy? Until relatively recently, the field of linguistics has paid little attention to such words. But researchers at the Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, have shed some light on their importance. According to their research, “huh?” is in fact a universal word—perhaps the only one.

Mark Dingemanse and his colleagues worked with recordings of people speaking ten different languages. They found that all the languages had a word with a similar meaning to “huh?” (something indicating that clarification is required); interestingly, all the equivalent words also had a very similar form to “huh?”. In each language, the vowel seems to have evolved for ease and speed—none of the words found contained vowels which required moving the tongue (such as “ee” or “oo”). If a sound preceded the vowel, it was either an h or a glottal stop.

Where there is no shared ancestry at all or borrowing from other languages, the baseline linguistic assumption is that there is no reason for a word to be similar across languages. “Huh?” seems to be an exception to this principle. Following their original study, Dingemanse’s team analysed a further 21 languages and confirmed the similarities. Of course, people cry and laugh from birth regardless of what language they speak; some vocalisations do not have to be learnt and do not need a linguistic structure. But precisely because of this, these sounds are not considered to be words. “Huh?”, on the other hand, is not used by children until they start speaking. The form that the “huh?” equivalent takes depends on the structure of that particular language—hence in Russian, which has no “h” sound, this quizzical vocalisation is more like “ah?”

To explain why “huh?” is so similar across languages, Dingemase proposes an evolution-based theory, arguing that the current form of the word is the result of “selective pressures in its conversational environment.” In other words, unlike conventional words that designate a particular thing, “huh?” has evolved to be suited to its purpose; for example it is short, requires little effort in terms of the sounds used, and can easily be given an interrogative tone. Conversely, the word “table” is no more suited to describing a table than the word “ogleborg”. By a phenomenon known as convergent evolution, words very similar to “huh?” sprang into being in different languages because the conversational requirements were similar in each language. Dingemanse compares it to sharks and dolphins, who “arrived at the same body plan not because they share certain genes, but because they share an environment.”

Applicants for Linguistics should think about how the theory of evolution can be usefully drawn upon in the field of linguistics, and to what extent such comparisons hold true. They may wish to think about what aspects of human language are as yet neglected by research, and what aspects interest them in particular.

Quite when human language first came about is still something of a mystery. Nevertheless, most scholars agree that the faculty belongs to Homo sapiens alone (as no other animals can be said to have ‘language’ as we would define it), and that therefore language must have emerged between 200,000 and 50,000 years ago. Linguistic anthropologist Daniel Everett, however, has refuted this assumption, claiming that Homo erectus possessed the language faculty around 1.9 million years ago.

Previously, Noam Chomsky had proposed that a single genetic mutation 50,000 years ago led to human beings developing the ability to “merge”, which allows two linguistic units to be joined into one—for example, “the cat and the mouse” becoming “the cat eats the mouse”. This then allows for even more complex merging and changing of language units, which Chomsky calls “recursion”; this, in his opinion, is the core of the language faculty, and is exclusive to humans.

 But Everett argues that reversion is neither universal in human language nor sufficient for it. For example, he claims that an Amazonian tribe he had lived with and studied, the Pirahã, had no recursion. Rather, he places the development of language in a series of increasingly complex “signs”; from non-arbitrary, non-intentional “indices” such as a hoofprint proving that a horse has been present, to non-arbitrary but intentional “icons” such as the drawing of a hoofprint or a rock resembling a horse to represent a horse, to arbitrary, intentional “symbols” such as the word “horse”, which indicates a horse but sounds nothing like a horse. This system became ever more complex as language evolved. Hence Everett believes that when Homo erectus began using symbols one after the other in comprehensible patterns, this can be thought of as human language, even though they were not using recursion. If Everett is correct and language is much more ancient and primitive, human languages need not be as inherently similar to one another as previously thought, nor are humans necessarily as distinct from other animals as we had assumed.

Applicants for Linguistics may wish to familiarise themselves with different theories on the nature of human language. Which theory makes the most sense to you? What in your opinion is the essence of human language, and what separates it from mere animal communication? Students interested in evolutionary biology and applicants for Anthropology might also want to learn about the evolution of language.

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