Lovely February! This is Babbel On, our monthly roundup of articles for amateur linguists and language lovers.
A fact is a fact no matter what language it’s said in, or so we like to think. A recent study has found that bilinguals have a somewhat more flexible relationship with truth. The research was done on Welsh people who speak English as a second language. They were asked to rate English and Welsh statements about Welsh culture as either true or false. When the statements were positive, the subjects were more likely to rate them as true — even if they were false — no matter what language the statement was in. When the statements were in English and negative toward Welsh culture, however, the subjects were more likely to rate them false. If the negative statements were in Welsh, the participants were fair in judging whether they were true. Some reports claim that this proves people lie more in a second language, because the participants knowingly lied about the veracity of the statements. But perhaps a more accurate statement about these results is that people are defensive of their culture when foreigners make negative remarks.
The word “literally” has been under attack for many, many years now. People get very upset when someone uses it as an intensifier (“It’s so hot, I’m literally dying”) instead of sticking to its “traditional” use (“You’ve shot me, I’m literally dying”). The war has heated up once again thanks to Continental — a New York City bar famous for getting NYU kids drunk with a five shots for $12 special — posting a sign that says any patron who uses the word “literally” will be thrown out. The sign said “Stop Kardashianism now,” referring to the family that stars in Keeping Up with the Kardashians, even though the Kardashians were definitely not the first to use the word literally to mean “not literally.” Many have attacked the bar online, calling this rule sexist and pointing to the fact that the word “literally” is associated with young women’s speech. It doesn’t really matter what side of this debate you’re on, however, because the bar is literally shutting down on July 1.
For as long as I’ve been alive, French and Spanish classes have dominated the U.S. school system. The tides are turning now, however, because schools are getting rid of French and beginning to offer Chinese. The general trends in education show that schools are catching up with the current reality. This is most apparent in the dropping of Latin courses, which are not very helpful in the working world (no offense to Latin lovers). Spanish, being the second most-spoken language in the United States, is still the most popular language in schools.
In the aftermath of World War II, Korea was cut in half, creating the North and South Koreas that exist today. The Korean War at the beginning of the 1950s led to the Demilitarized Zone that exists between them. Over decades of isolation from each other, the two countries have grown apart. While both still speak Korean, Olympic athletes have found that the countries’ dialects seem to have diverged a bit. The Japan Times reports that when the North and South Korean women’s hockey teams started practicing together, they had trouble communicating. For example, while South Korean calls “skating” seu-ke-ee-ting, North Korean calls it apuro-jee-chee-gee. South Koreans call a t-push a tee-pu-sh, whereas the North Koreans refer to it as moonjeegee-eedong. South Korea’s language has been far more influenced by English terms than the North has, as is apparent with these two words. The sports authorities from South Korea have resorted to creating a list of term definitions so that the athletes can understand each other. On the global stage, the tensions between the two countries’ governments have shown no signs of cooling ahead of the Olympics.
You probably have a good idea what a lullaby is. It’s a quiet, soothing song that is usually played on a piano or a xylophone. Are lullabies alike around the world, though? The Natural History of Song, a project by Harvard students, argues that they are. By quizzing 750 people online using samples of 118 songs from 86 societies, the researchers found that people could reliably identify lullabies and dancing songs most of the time, though the subjects had a harder time figuring out which ones were healing and love songs. These results seem to suggest that some types of songs have universal commonalities, but the Harvard team is wary of making any conclusions from this study alone. The researchers’ work has also already drawn ire from ethnomusicologists who complain that this study oversimplifies cultural differences in song. The New York Times dives deeper into the controversy, and also features a quiz so you can test how well you’re able to identify song types.