Babies begin to recognise elements of speech sounds
very shortly after birth, and to imitate the patterns of speech well before they
begin to form intelligible words. At the age of one month they begin to distinguish
between certain features of the spoken language that will later represent vowels
and consonants. In English, for example, the presence or absence of the vocal
cord vibration which distinguishes between pin and bin, to
and do, is picked up at this early age.
From about four months babies
can gauge the mood of an adult from their tone of voice. And at six months the
sounds they make begin to mimic the rhythm and intonation of adult speech. Soon
afterwards it is possible to tell English, French and Chinese children apart simply
on the basis of sound recordings of their unintelligible babblings.
Children all over the world devise their own 'secret'
play languages, mostly just for fun. But some scholars argue that these play languages
also have a serious role: in introducing changes into the languages of adults.
Two British researchers, Iona and Peter Ople, even suggested in a book published
in 1959 that some developments in language down the generations were due to innovations
first created by children at play. Records of these children's languages go back
only to the 19th century, because experts did not begin the study them until then.
But play languages are thought to have a far longer history. Three used in English
speaking countries are; back slang, pig Latin and eggy-peggy speech.
slang takes its name from the way words are said backwards, as in "Tup taht
koob yawa" (for 'Put that book away'). The colloquial English word 'yob',
for example, is back slang for 'boy'. A commoner version of back slang takes the
final sound and moves it to front of the word, adding an occasional consonant
for ease of pronunciation, as in "Teput tetha keboo yawa".
pig Latin, the first consonants are placed at the end of the word and 'ay' or
'e' added, as in 'Utpay atthay ookbay wayay'. If the word begins with a vowel
then the vowel is moved to the end of the word and the sound 'ya' is added. To
learn pig Latin, children need to understand the difference between vowels and
consonants, and have reasonable spelling skills to manage the manipulation of
letters. Eggy-peggy or 'aygo-paygo' speech is pronounced by inserting an extra
syllable as in 'Pegut thegat begook egaway'.
Precise estimates of the number of words in any language
are almost impossible. New words are constantly being added to living languages,
and old words are changing their meaning. The Merriam-Webster International
Dictionary one of the largest English dictionarieshas half a million
entries. But even this massive number is thought by linguistic scholars to represent
barely half the total words in the English language. There are hundreds of local
and international dialects in English for which no entries exist, and new words
are constantly appearing in such fields as literature and science. Even highly
educated people are likely to know less than 10 percent of the words in the total
vocabulary. And they are likely to make regular use in speech or writing of less
than 10 percent of that fractionusually fewer than 10,000 words in all.
Divided By A Common Language
in China vary so widely that they can be mutually unintelligible - as different
from each other as French, Italian and Spanish. But they share the same written
language, which is understood by literate Chinese all over the world, whatever
dialect they speak. Thus speakers of different dialects can communicate to each
other in writing. Chinese dialects fall into six main groups: Mandarin (in the
north): Wu: Min: Kan: Hslang: and Cantonese (in the south). The Mandarin dialect
is taught in schools all over China as the standard language.
a Letter, Julius
The Roman general Julius Caesar knew how to do
shorthand. He used a system which was invented by a scholar named Marcus Tullius
Tiro in 63 BC. Tiro devised a system to record the speeches of the orator Cicero.
Tiro's system is the first known complete shorthand, and it remained in use for
Several new shorthand systems were developed in the 17th century
but modern shorthand is a product of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Pitmans's
shorthandstill widely used in Britain and Europewas devised by Sir
Issac Pitman in 1837, and the commonest American system, Egress's shorthand, was
created in 1888 by J.R. Gregg. Both make use of straight lines, curves, dots and
dashes, though Pitman's also uses different thicknesses of strokes, to distinguish
between phonetically similar letters.
The symbol for 'p' for instancean
oblique lineis a lighter version of the symbol for 'b'. Several other systems,
among them Speechwriting, which was invented in the 1920s by an American named
Emma Dearborn, consist of abbreviations of the Roman alphabet.
system holds one world record for shorthand, and the Gregg system another. Nathan
Behrin set the current world record of 300 words per minute over 5 minutes and
350 words per minute over two minutes in New York in 1922. Morris Kligman, official
court reporter of the US Court House, New York has taken 50,000 words in 5 hours
(a sustained rate of 166 words per hour) using the Gregg system.
Just as American English has developed its own distinctive accent and vocabulary,
so Australian English has diverged from the language spoken in Britain. In particular,
Australians have developed a vivid set of verbal images: words and phrases often
known collectively as Strine, from a comic version of the Australian pronunciation
of the word 'Australian'.
There are over 5000 words or expressions distinctive
to the Australian continent. Some such as kangaroo, boomerang, and
bush telegraph are well known outside Australia as well. Others, less well
known, include lolly for 'sweet', and station for 'live stock farm'.
There is a lively collection of Australian slang words, such as sheila
for 'girl', crook for 'ill' or 'angry', drongo for 'fool', ocker
for 'an uncultured person' and wowser for 'killjoy'.
Boys undergoing initiation rites among the Walpiri tribe
of Australian Aborigines learn to speak a special upside-down language. Called
Tjiliwirrimeaning 'funny' or 'clown'it expresses every idea
as its opposite. Instead of saying, for example, 'You are tall', a boy speaking
Tjiliwirri would say 'I am short'. And instead of saying, 'Give me water',
he would say 'I withhold water from you'.
Among Australian Aborigines, many tribes have a special
language which is reserved for speaking to in-laws. In Djirbal, for example, spoken
in parts of north-east Queensland, the basic language is known as Guwal, but when
a man wants to speak to his mother-in-law he speaks a special language called
Dyalnguy In Guugu-Yimidhirr, spoken farther north, the men use a special language
for their brothers-in-law and fathers-in-law. Some tribes treat all their in-laws
in this way. Aboriginal words for members of the family are also quite different
from those used in Western languages. In some tribes, the word for 'father' is
also used for the father's brothers and cousins, or a wife may also call her husband's
The Sounds of Language
number of sounds varies enormously from language to language. In speech, English
generally has about 20 vowel sounds, but some languages have far more, or far
fewer. The largest numbers of vowel sounds are in languages of Southeast Asia.
Bru, a Vietnamese language, has 40 vowel sounds; and Sedang, also spoken in Vietnam,
has 55. However, many languages, including some from the Caucasus mountains of
southern Russia such as Abhaz and Adygh, have only one type of vowelusually
a kind of open 'a', as in the English word 'are'.
Spoken consonants, too, show
a wide range. English accents usually have 24; but many of the languages spoken
in the Caucasus have more than 70, and one Ubykhhas 80. By contrast, several
languages make do with fewer than ten consonantsamong them Mohawk, an American
Indian language, which has only seven.
which each symbol stands for a single soundare a far more economical method
of representing a language than syllabaries of pictographic scriptsin which
the symbols stand for complete syllables or words. But even within alphabets,
some are shorter than others. The world's longest alphabet is Cambodian; it has
74 lettersnearly three times as many as English. The shortest alphabet is
Rotokas, from the Soloman Islands; it has only 11 letters.
Some southern African languages have as many as 15 different
click consonants. Zulu, the most widespread language with clicks, has 3 million
speakers, but Bushman, Hottentot and Xhosa all use clicks as well.
sounds quite foreign to Indo-European languages also serve as consonants. One
of these, resembling the 'glug-glug' sound that children make to imitate a bath
emptying, is used in several West African languages.
The Mazateco Indians of Mexico can hold a complete conversationjust
by whistling. Mazateco 'whistled speech', which is used by only the men of the
tribe, is based on the tones and rhythms of the spoken language. By varying the
speed, pitch and intensity of the whistles, the men can deal with a wide range
of subjects. For example , a trader can strike a bargain with a customer, spelling
out in whistles exact details of quantity and price, without either side speaking
A similar language of whistles, called silbo, is used on
the Canary Island of La Gomera. The sounds carry so well across the valleys that
a speaker can be understood up to 8km (5 miles) away.
Odd Man Out
Basque is unique among the languages of Europe because
it has no known relatives. It is spoken by more than 500,000 people in the French
and Spanish Pyrenees, but bears no relationship to any other European language.
number of theories have been developed to explain Basque's linguistic independence.
Some experts see it as the last example of the language spoken in south-western
Europe before the Roman invasion. Some see a relationship between Basque and an
extinct Iberian language found on inscriptions along the Mediterranean coasts.
Others link it with the languages of North Africa, or with those of the Caucasus
region of southern Russia. No theory, however, has as yet, won universal support.