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How to learn a language

My journey to running a language media company has been a bit unorthodox. I studied Computer Science at University for years. I first got my Bachelors Degree, then worked as a programmer, then I went for my Masters Degree. After my Masters, I got a job as a programmer, but I got sick a few months in and was booked off work. After 2 weeks off away from work I decided that I was sick of programming and didn’t want to go back. So I resigned and tried to see what else I could do out in the world.

I did odd jobs for my parents and people that I knew. I made a program here and there. Working in my own time was a better experience than being stuck behind a desk. I discovered the online language community in late 2014 and realised that I really liked talking about language. I discovered translation work which brought in a bit of money, which was nice. As I explored the language space online I realised that there was so much out there, but also that there was a lot more stuff that could be done.

How did language first evolve?

It is a question that has intrigued us for as long as humanity has been around. Some ancient myths talk about gods bestowing the gift of words upon us. We are fascinated by this very complex thing that we do pretty much effortlessly. It is so effortless for us that we often don’t even realise how amazing it is. I think we, as humans, are always asking questions and trying to understand our world, and language is an essential part of the human experience.

People often wonder what it would be like to have telepathy. Well, no need to wonder. We have it already. We can communicate complex ideas just by making sounds, or as I am doing now, writing them down using a system designed for capturing spoken word on the page. It is no surprise to me that our ancestors must have come up with all sorts of explanations for how it must have come about.

But did it really just pop up out of nowhere? No, that doesn’t seem likely. As much as humanity might have a lofty opinion of its own place in the world, we are just as subject to the forces of nature as any other species. There must be an evolutionary reason for how languages ended up developing. I was watching a video about birds and how they evolved. Every living thing alive evolved from an older form. But looking at modern birds, you realise that if they evolved from older forms then that means that one of those older forms didn’t have wings. They didn’t just pop up out of nowhere already having wings. Evolution is a slow process that takes countless generations to end up at the situation we have today.

How online culture is continuing to affect the language we use every day

Symbols initially start out quite straight forward, like an arrow or a picture of a buffalo. Over time they can become more abstract, like a save disk icon or a thumbs up which require a bit more cultural background. Sometimes symbols can ascend to truly independent ideas that have taken on a life of their own.Meme culture likes to reference and self reference popular culture. A dumb button prompt in a Call of Duty game has become a stand out in internet culture. In the real world we have lots of gestures like a wave or a shrug to communicate attitudes. In the digital world memes can become the source of new ways to communicate, like the famous “F” inspired by Call of Duty.

Humans are always looking for ways to connect with the world around them and to communicate their thoughts and desires. There is no greater example of the infinite possibilities of language than the growth of “F” into a crucial and ever present member of our online expierences.

How are “frog” and “spring” related?

Proto Indo European is the grandfather or great grandfather of English (depending on how you count). This means that we can trace elements of Modern English all the way back to Proto Indo European which was spoken about 4000 BC.

Proto Indo European, like any language, had its own peculiarities. One of them was the “s-mobile” which refers to how the letter “s” sometimes just didn’t stay there in some words but did in others.

The s-mobile is indicated by a bracket around the letter s in words that have been reconstructed in Proto Indo European. We have to reconstruct them because no one wrote Proto Indo European down. We reconstruct words by looking at Modern Indo European languages like English, German, Spanish, Italian, Persian and Hindi and start finding connections between them.

English, German, Dutch, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Icelandic and a few others are part of the Germanic group of languages. They all descend from a language linguists call Proto Germanic.

If we don’t have direct evidence that a word existed then we say the word is reconstructed and we apply a star at the beginning. If a document exists that has the word in question in it, we say the word is attested.

The word for “bull” in Proto Indo European is *(s)táwros. Here we can see the star and the brackets. We know that the s was mobile because it appears in some descendant languages but not others.

The word *(s)táwros became “steer” in English, and “Stier” in German, but in Greek, the “s” wasn’t inherited, so we get “tauros”.

So what does this all have to do with spring and frog? Well, they are actually related because they both come from a Proto Indo European word with an s-mobile in it.

One last thing we need to know about to make sense of this. When Proto Indo European developed into Proto Germanic in Scandanavia, the sound “p” became “f”. But this did not affect other descendants of Proto Indo European. So for instance, it is “father” in English but “pater” in Latin.

But here is where things get weird (if s-mobile wasn’t weird enough already!). The sound change (also called a sound shift) of “p” becoming an “f” did not affect words that had the combination “sp”.

So in the Proto Indo European word *(s)preu (which means jump), when the “s” was present, the “p” stayed and turned into the word “spring”, but when the “s” wasn’t present, the “p” became a “f” and the word developed into the word “frog”. So “spring” and “frog” are what linguists called cognate which means they descend from the same source.

And now you can tell people that the frog is named after the fact that it jumps

How are “boon”, “ban”, “prophet” and “fame” related?

“boon” meaning “blessing, benefit” come from Old Norse “bón” where it meant “prayer” or “petition”. This word ultimately comes Proto Indo European *bʰeh₂- where it meant “to say”.

“ban” comes from Proto Germanic *bannaną where it meant “curse” or “forbid” and it too came from Proto Indo European *bʰeh₂-

“fame” comes from Old French “fame” where it meant “celebrity” or “renown”. This word came from Latin fāma where it meant “talk”, “rumour” or “reputation”. This word ultimately also came from Proto Indo European *bʰeh₂-

You may be wondering how “prophet” is related? Well, it came into English from Latin prophēta. But Latin got it from Ancient Greek προφήτης ‎(prophḗtēs) where it meant “one who speak for a god”. The “phḗ” part comes from “phēmí” which means “I say”, and you guessed it, that too comes from Proto Indo European *bʰeh₂-

All of these are examples of semantic shift, which means that words change meaning over time. “boon” now means “benefit”, but it used to mean “prayer” or “petition” which is usually something spoken.

“ban” is also derived from the Proto Indo European word “to speak” because when people were banned it usually was the result of spoken commands, as you can see in the Old English version of the word. “ban” comes from Old English “bannan” where it meant “to summon” or “to proclaim”.

“prophet” is someone who speaks for a god, so the speaking connection is clear there. “fame” is quite interesting because it started out just meaning “reputation” or “rumour”. Well, as people talk about someone, there reputation can grow, and as your reputation grows, you might eventually become famous.

Word connections are all around us, and these are but a few of them