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The Way We Talk

According to the Bible, the World's huge variety of languages began at the Tower of Babel. There may be as many as 9,000 languages and dialects in use. At least another 1,000 languages, such as ancient Egyptian, are known, but no longer used.

Babies First Words
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.

Play Languages
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.

Back 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".

In 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'.

How Many Words
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 dictionaries—has 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 fraction—usually fewer than 10,000 words in all.

Divided By A Common Language
Dialects 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.

Take 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 1000 years.

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 shorthand—still widely used in Britain and Europe—was 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 instance—an oblique line—is 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.

The Pitman 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'.

Upside-Down Down Under
Boys undergoing initiation rites among the Walpiri tribe of Australian Aborigines learn to speak a special upside-down language. Called Tjiliwirri—meaning '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'.

Family Language
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 brothers 'husband'.

The Sounds of Language
The 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 vowel—usually 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 Ubykh—has 80. By contrast, several languages make do with fewer than ten consonants—among them Mohawk, an American Indian language, which has only seven.

Alphabets—in which each symbol stands for a single sound—are a far more economical method of representing a language than syllabaries of pictographic scripts—in 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 letters—nearly three times as many as English. The shortest alphabet is Rotokas, from the Soloman Islands; it has only 11 letters.

Click Languages
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.

Other 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.

Whistle Languages
The Mazateco Indians of Mexico can hold a complete conversation—just 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 word.

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.

Europe's 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.

A 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.

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