An Interactive Map of the 2,000+ Sounds Humans Use to Communicate Without Words: Grunts, Sobs, Sighs, Laughs & More

When did language begin? The question is not an easy one to answer. There are no records of the event. “Languages don’t leave fossils," notes the Linguistic Society of America, "and fossil skulls only tell us the overall shape and size of hominid brains, not what the brains could do.” The scant evidence from evolutionary biology does not tell us when early humans first began to use language, only that they could 100,000 years or so ago.

However, the question also depends on what we mean by language. Before the linguistic technologies of grammar and syntax, hominids, like other mammals today and a good number of non-mammals too, had a wordless language that communicated more directly, and more honestly, than any of the thousands of ways to string syllables into sentences.




That language still exists, of course, and those who understand it know when someone is afraid, relieved, frustrated, angry, confused, surprised, embarrassed, or awed, no matter what that someone says. It is a language of feeling—of sighs, grunts, rumbles, moans, whistles, sniffs, laughs, sobs, and so forth. Researchers call them “vocal bursts” and as any long-suffering married couple can tell you, they communicate a whole range of specific feelings.

“Emotional expressions,” says UC Berkeley psychology graduate student Alan Cowen, “color our social interactions with spirited declarations of our inner feeling that are difficult to fake, and that our friends, co-workers and loved ones rely on to decipher our true commitments.“ Cowen and his colleagues devised a study to test the range of emotion vocal bursts can carry.

The researchers asked 56 people, reports Discover magazine, “some professional actors and some not, to react to different emotional scenarios” in recordings. Next, they played the recordings for over a 1,000 people, who rated “the vocalizations based on the emotions and tone (positive or negative) they thought the clips conveyed.”

The researchers found that “vocal bursts convey at least 24 distinct kinds of emotions.” They plotted those feelings on a colorful interactive map, publicly available online. "The team says it could be useful in helping robotic devices better pin down human emotions,” Discover writes. “It could also be handy in clinical settings, helping patients who struggle with emotional processing.” The study only recorded vocalizations from English speakers, and "the results would undoubtedly vary if people from other countries or who spoke other languages were surveyed.”

But this limitation does not undermine another implication of the study: that human language consists of far more than just words, and that vocal bursts, which we likely share with a wide swath of the animal kingdom, are not only, perhaps, an original language but also one that continues to communicate the things we can’t or won’t say to each other. Read the study here and see the interactive vocal burst map here.

via MetaFilter

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

“Tsundoku,” the Japanese Word for the New Books That Pile Up on Our Shelves, Should Enter the English Language


There are some words out there that are brilliantly evocative and at the same time impossible to fully translate. Yiddish has the word shlimazl, which basically means a perpetually unlucky person. German has the word Backpfeifengesicht, which roughly means a face that is badly in need of a fist. And then there’s the Japanese word tsundoku, which perfectly describes the state of my apartment. It means buying books and letting them pile up unread.

The word dates back to the very beginning of modern Japan, the Meiji era (1868-1912) and has its origins in a pun. Tsundoku, which literally means reading pile, is written in Japanese as 積ん読. Tsunde oku means to let something pile up and is written 積んでおく. Some wag around the turn of the century swapped out that oku (おく) in tsunde oku for doku (読) – meaning to read. Then since tsunde doku is hard to say, the word got mushed together to form tsundoku.




As with other Japanese words like karaoke, tsunami, and otaku, I think it’s high time that tsundoku enter the English language. Now if only we can figure out a word to describe unread ebooks that languish on your Kindle. E-tsundoku? Tsunkindle? Visit our collection of Free eBooks and contemplate the matter for a while.

The illustration above was made when Redditor Wemedge asked his daughter to illustrate the word “Tsundoku,” and she did not disappoint.

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in July 2014.

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Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow. And check out his art blog Veeptopus.

How to Write in Cuneiform, the Oldest Writing System in the World: A Short, Charming Introduction

Teaching child visitors how to write their names using an unfamiliar or antique alphabet is a favorite activity of museum educators, but Dr. Irving Finkel, a cuneiform expert who specializes in ancient Mesopotamian medicine and magic, has grander designs.

His employer, the British Museum, has over 130,000 tablets spanning Mesopotamia’s Early Dynastic period to the Neo-Babylonian Empire “just waiting for young scholars to come devote themselves to (the) monkish work” of deciphering them.




Writing one’s name might well prove to be a gateway, and Dr. Finkel has a vested interest in lining up some new recruits.

The museum’s Department of the Middle East has an open access policy, with a study room where researchers can get up close and personal with a vast collection of cuneiform tablets from Mesopotamia and surrounding regions.

But let’s not put the ox before the cart.

As the extremely personable Dr. Finkel shows Matt Gray and Tom Scott of Matt and Tom’s Park Bench, above, cuneiform consists of three components—upright, horizontal and diagonal—made by pressing the edge of a reed stylus, or popsicle stick if you prefer, into a clay tablet.

The mechanical process seems fairly easy to get the hang of, but mastering the oldest writing system in the world will take you around six years of dedicated study. Like Japan’s kanji alphabet, the oldest writing system in the world is syllabic. Properly written out, these syllables join up into a flowing calligraphy that your average, educated Babylonian would be able to read at a glance.

Even if you have no plans to rustle up a popsicle stick and some Play-Doh, it’s worth sticking with the video to the end to hear Dr. Finkel tell how a chance encounter with some naturally occurring cuneiform inspired him to write a horror novel, which is now available for purchase, following a successful Kickstarter campaign.

Begin your cuneiform studies with Irving Finkel’s Cuneiform: Ancient Scripts.

via Mental Floss

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Her solo show Nurse!, in which one of Shakespeare’s best loved female characters hits the lecture circuit to set the record straight premieres in June at The Tank in New York City. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Watch Ta-Nehisi Coates Speak French Before & After Attending Middlebury’s Immersion Program

The many fans of Ta-Nehisi Coates, longtime Atlantic correspondent and author of books like The Beautiful Struggle and Between the World and Me (not to mention his more recent role as a writer of Black Panther comics), know a thing or two about the trials and tribulations he went through to become one of America's best-known public intellectuals, but fewer of them know how intense a battle he's waged, over the past few years, on the side: that of mastering the French language in his 30s and 40s.

"I'm taking an hour a week to try to teach myself French," Coates wrote on his blog at The Atlantic in the summer of 2011, explaining that his wife "went to Paris five years ago and loved it. She wants me to go back with her, and I want to go. But I refuse to do so until I have a rudimentary understanding of the language. This isn't about impressing the French — I expect my accent to mocked — it's about how I interpret the world. Language is a big part of it." After starting to dig into the Foreign Service Institute's French materials (available free in our language-learning collection), he crossed out the word week in "an hour a week" to replace it with day, already sensing, no doubt, the unexpected demands this particular language would make on him.




"'Et alors' is similar to our 'So what?' But 'Et Alors' doesn't simply sound different, it feels different, it carries another connotation, another music," he wrote in an early 2012 follow-up. "I don't know if that means anything to people who don't write professionally, but for me it means a ton." It seems only right, he concluded, "that a writer should explore languages and try to spend time with as many as he or she can. That I should arrive at such an obvious conclusion at this late date is humbling." And so he pressed steadfastly on, memorizing French vocabulary words and grammatical structures, taking classes, meeting with a tutor, and after receiving his first passport at the age of 37, studying and practicing in real Francophone places like Paris and Switzerland.

Coates stepped up to a higher level of French skill — and a much higher level of French challenge — when he signed up for Middlebury College's seven-week French immersion program, throwing himself into an environment of much younger and "fiercer" classmates without the possibility of leaning on his native language. When he sat down for the four-minute video interview at the top of the post before shipping out to Middlebury, he later revealed, "there were several moments when I didn't even understand the question." No such problems when he sat for another short conversation after the seven weeks, captured in the video just above: "What changed most at Middlebury, for me, was not in how I talked, but how I heard."

Though Middlebury clearly helped push him forward, Coates doesn't seem to consider participation in such a program a requirement for even the ambitious French learner. Maintaining the right attitude, however, is non-negotiable: "I expect to suck for awhile. Then I expect to slowly get better. The point is neither mastery, nor fluency. The point is hard study — the repeated application of a principle until the eyes and ears bleed a little." Grappling with French has taught him, among other life lessons he's written about, "that it is much better to focus on process, than outcomes. The question isn't 'When will I master the subjunctive?' It's 'Did I put in my hour of study today?'"

How you feel about your process of study, Coates emphasizes, "it is as important as any objective reality. Hopelessness feeds the fatigue that leads the student to quit. It is not the study of language that is hard, so much as the 'feeling' that your present level is who you are and who you will always be. I remember returning from France at the end of the summer of 2013, and being convinced that I had some kind of brain injury which prevented me from hearing French vowel sounds. But the real enemy was not any injury so much as the 'feeling' of despair. That is why I ignore all the research about children and their language advantage. I don't want to hear it. I just don't care."

After less than a year of studying French, Coates found, his brain had begun to "hunger for that feeling of stupidity" that comes from less-than-satisfactory comprehension. "There is absolutely nothing in this world like the feeling of sucking at something and then improving at it," he wrote in a more recent reflection on his ongoing (and now surely lifelong) engagement with French. "Everyone should do it every ten years or so."

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Speaking in Whistles: The Whistled Language of Oaxaca, Mexico

Whistled language is a rare form of communication that can be mostly found in locations with isolating features such as scattered settlements or mountainous terrain. This documentary above shows how Dr. Mark Sicoli, Assistant Professor of Linguistics at Georgetown University, conducts field studies among speakers of a Chinantec language, who live in the mountainous region of northern Oaxaca in Mexico. The Summer Institute of Linguistics in Mexico has recorded and transcribed a whistled conversation in Sochiapam Chinantec between two men in different fields. The result can be seen and heard here.

The most thoroughly-researched whistled language however is Silbo Gomero, the language of the island of La Gomera (Canary Islands). In 2009, it was inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The UNESCO website has a good description of this whistled language with photos and a video. Having almost died out, the language is now taught once more in schools.

Note: This post first appeared on our site back in 2013.

Would you like to support the mission of Open Culture? Please consider making a donation to our site. It's hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best free cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere.

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By profession, Matthias Rascher teaches English and History at a High School in northern Bavaria, Germany. In his free time he scours the web for good links and posts the best finds on Twitter.

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What Are the Most Effective Strategies for Learning a Foreign Language?: Six TED Talks Provide the Answers

Earlier this week we featured the Foreign Service Institute's list of languages ranked by how long they take to learn. Now that you have a sense of the relative life investment required to learn the tongue or tongues of your choice, how about a few words of advice on how to start? Or perhaps we'd do better, before the how, to consider the why. "A lot of us start with the wrong motivation to learn a language," says Benny Lewis in his TED Talk "Hacking Language Learning." Those motivations include "just to pass an exam, to improve our career prospects, or in my case for superficial reasons, to impress people."

Real language learning, on the other hand, comes from passion for a language, for "the literature and the movies and being able to read in the language, and of course, to use it with people." But Lewis, who now brands himself as "The Irish Polyglot," says he got a late start on language-learning, convinced up until his early twenties that he simply couldn't do it.




He cites five flimsy defenses he once used, and so many others still do, for their monolingualism: lack of a "language gene or talent," being "too old to learn a second language," not having the resources to "travel to the country right now," and not wanting to "frustrate native speakers" by using the language before attaining fluency.

None of these, however, seem to have occurred to Tim Doner, who went viral at sixteen years with a video wherein he spoke twenty languages that he taught himself. He discusses that experience, and the fascinations and techniques that got him to that point and now well past it, in his talk "Breaking the Language Barrier." At first put off by the drudgery of French classes in school, he only began to grasp the nature of language itself, as a kind of system breakable into masterable rules, when he began studying Latin.

Wanting to understand more about the conflict between Israel and Palestine, Doner decided to find his way into the subject through Hebrew, and specifically through rap music recorded in it. Using language study as a means of dealing with his insomnia, he discovered techniques to expand into other linguistic realms, such as the method of loci (i.e., remembering words by associating them with places), learning vocabulary in batches of similar sounds rather than similar meanings, and seeking out the foreign-language learners and speakers all around him — a relatively easy task for a New Yorker like Doner, but applicable nearly everywhere.

In "How to Learn Any Language in Six Months," Chris Lonsdale delivers, and with a passion bordering on fury, a set of useful principles like "Focus on language content that is relevant to you," "Use your new language as a tool to communicate from day one," "When you first understand the message, you will unconsciously acquire the language." This resonates with the advice offered by the much more laid-back Sid Efromovich in "Five Techniques to Speak any Language," including an encouragement to "get things wrong and make mistakes," a suggestion to "find a stickler" to help you identify and correct those mistakes, and a strategy for overcoming the pronunciation-hindering limitations of the "database" of sounds long established in your brain by your native language.

Your native language, in fact, will play the role of your most aggressive and persistent enemy in the struggle to learn a foreign one — especially if your native language is as widely used, to one degree or another, as English. And so Scott Young and Vat Jaiswal, in their talk "One Simple Method to Learn Any Language," propose an absolute "no-English rule." You can get results using it with a conversation partner in your homeland, while traveling for the purpose of language-learning, and especially if you've relocated to another country permanently.

With the rule in place, you'll avoid the sorry fate of one fellow Young and Jaiswal know, "an American businessman who went to Korea, married a Korean women, had children in Korea, lived in Korea for twenty years, and still couldn't have a decent conversation in Korean." As an American living in Korea myself, I had to laugh at that: I could name at least three dozen long-term Western expatriates I've met in that very same situation. In my case, I spent a few years developing self-study habits for Korean and a couple other languages while still in America, and so didn't have to implement them on the fly after moving here.

Even so, I still must constantly refine my language-learning strategy, incorporating routines like those laid out by English polyglot Matthew Youlden in "How to Speak any Language Easily": seeking out exploitable similarities between the languages I know and the ones I want to know better, say, or finding sources of constant "passive" linguistic input. Personally, I like to listen to podcasts not just in foreign languages, but that teach one foreign language through another. And just as English-learners get good listening practice out of TED Talks like these, I seek them out in other languages: Korean, Japanese, Spanish, or wherever good old linguistic passion leads me next.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

A Map Showing How Much Time It Takes to Learn Foreign Languages: From Easiest to Hardest

Do you want to speak more languages? Sure, as Sally Struthers used to say so often, we all do. But the requirements of attaining proficiency in any foreign tongue, no doubt unlike those correspondence courses pitched by that All in the Family star turned daytime TV icon, can seem frustratingly demanding and unclear. But thanks to the research efforts of the Foreign Service Institute, the center of foreign-language training for the United States government for the past 70 years, you can get a sense of how much time it takes, as a native or native-level English speaker, to master any of a host of languages spoken all across the world.

The map above visualizes the languages of Europe (at least those deemed diplomatically important enough to be taught at the FSI), coloring them according the average time commitment they require of an English speaker. In pink, we have the English-speaking countries. The red countries speak Category I languages, those most closely related to English and thus learnable in 575 to 600 hours of study: the traditional high-school foreign languages of Spanish and French, for instance, or the less commonly taught but just about as easily learnable Portuguese and Italian. If you'd like a little more challenge, why not try your hand at German, whose 750 hours of study puts it in Category II — quite literally, a category of its own?




In total, the FSI ranks languages into six categories of difficulty, including English's Category 0. The higher up the scale you go, the less recognizable the languages might look to an English-speaking monoglot. Category III contains no European languages at all (though it does contain Indonesian, widely regarded as one of the objectively easiest languages to learn). Category IV offers a huge variety of languages from Amharic to Czech to Nepali to Tagalog, each demanding 44 weeks (or 1100 hours) of study. Then, at the very summit of the linguistic mountain, we find the switched-up grammar, highly unfamiliar scripts, and potentially mystifying cultural assumptions of Category V, "languages which are exceptionally difficult for native English speakers."

To that most formidable group belong Arabic, Chinese both Mandarin and Cantonese, Korean, and — this with an asterisk meaning "usually more difficult than other languages in the same category" — Japanese. Now if, like me, you consider studying foreign languages one of your main pursuits, you know that possessing a genuine interest in a language — in its mechanics, in its ongoing evolution, in the cultures that created it and the cultures it in turn creates — can do wonders to get you through even the most aggravating difficulties on the long journey to commanding it. Then again, I'm also a native English speaker who chose to move to Korea, where I study not just the Category-V Korean but the Category-V* Japanese through Korean; you might want to take with a grain of salt the words, in any language, of so obvious a masochist.

You'll find the full Foreign Service Institute language difficulty ranking list below. No matter which category you'd like to take on, you can get a start at our Free Foreign Language Lessons collection, many of whose materials come produced by the FSI itself.

Category I: 23-24 weeks (575-600 hours)
Languages closely related to English
Afrikaans
Danish
Dutch
French
Italian
Norwegian
Portuguese
Romanian
Spanish
Swedish
Category II: 30 weeks (750 hours)
Languages similar to English
German
Category III: 36 weeks (900 hours)
Languages with linguistic and/or cultural differences from English
Indonesian
Malaysian
Swahili
Category IV: 44 weeks (1100 hours)
Languages with significant linguistic and/or cultural differences from English
Albanian
Amharic
Armenian
Azerbaijani
Bengali
Bosnian
Bulgarian
Burmese
Croatian
Czech
*Estonian
*Finnish
*Georgian
Greek
Hebrew
Hindi
*Hungarian
Icelandic
Khmer
Lao
Latvian
Lithuanian
Macedonian
*Mongolian
Nepali
Pashto
Persian (Dari, Farsi, Tajik)
Polish
Russian
Serbian
Sinhala
Slovak
Slovenian
Tagalog
*Thai
Turkish
Ukrainian
Urdu
Uzbek
*Vietnamese
Xhosa
Zulu
Category V: 88 weeks (2200 hours)
Languages which are exceptionally difficult for native English speakers
Arabic
Cantonese (Chinese)
Mandarin (Chinese)
*Japanese
Korean
* Usually more difficult than other languages in the same category.

via Big Think

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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