What Ancient Latin Sounded Like, And How We Know It

Latin is a language

As dead as dead can be

It killed the Romans long ago, 

And now it's killing me.

That famed ditty isn’t likely to resonate with many modern school children, but interest in ancient Rome remains fairly robust. 

We’ve come to accept that those stately ruins were once covered in graffiti.

We can recreate their meals from hors d’oevures (Boiled Eggs with Pine Nut Sauce) to dessert (Pear Patina).

Thermae Romae, a popular Japanese manga-cum-feature-film, took us inside Emperor Hadrian’s bathhouse.

But what did the Romans sound like?

Kirk DouglasSpartacus? Or Laurence Olivier’s Crassus?

The recent series Rome upheld the tradition of British accents.

Animator Josh Rudder of NativLang did a fair amount of digging in service of finding out What Latin Sounded Like, above.

(And he seems to have done so without the help of Derek Jarman’s NSFW Sebastiane, the only feature film to be filmed entirely in sermo vulgaris or vulgar Latin.)

Instead, he draws from ancient rhetorician Quintilian and Virgil’s’ poetic meter. Scroll backward through the romance languages, and you’ll see Germanic tribes trading with and fighting ancient Roman troops.

The result is not so much a reconstructive pronunciation guide as a linguistic detective story.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Her latest comic contrasts the birth of her second child with the uncensored gore of Game of Thrones. Follow her @AyunHalliday

Learn Ancient Greek in 64 Free Lessons: A Free Course from Brandeis & Harvard

Leonard Muellner (Professor Emeritus of Classical Studies at Brandeis University) and Belisi Gillespie (Phd candidate at UC Berkeley) have posted 64 videos on YouTube, which, when taken together, "present all the content covered in two semesters of a college-level Introduction to Ancient Greek course."

The textbook used is Hansen, Hardy, and Gerald Quinn. Greek. An Intensive Course. 2nd rev. ed. New York: Fordham University Press, 1992. And if you read the blurb that accompanies each video on YouTube, you'll find out 1) what material each video covers, and 2) what pages are being used in the Hansen & Quinn textbook.

Made available online by Harvard's Center for Hellenic Studies, the playlist of Ancient Greek lessons will be added to our collections, Learn 48 Languages Online for Free: Spanish, Chinese, English & More and 1,300 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

h/t sociophilosophy

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Free: Learn Foreign Languages in Your Car


Have a boring commute? A long road trip coming up? Consider using that time well and learning a language as you drive. While rummaging around on Spotify (download their free software here), we noticed that they give you free access to the multi-part collections: Learn Spanish in Your Car, Learn French in Your Car, Learn Mandarin in Your Car, Learn Italian in Your Car, Learn Russian in Your Car, and Learn German in Your Car.

Running 10-14 hours, the collections (usually retailing for $22.95 on Amazon) build in difficulty, moving from "Level 1" to "Level 2" to "Level 3." We've embedded the playlists below, and you can always find them listed in our collection, Learn 48 Languages Online for Free: Spanish, Chinese, English & More.







Follow Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and share intelligent media with your friends. Or better yet, sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

If you'd like to support Open Culture and our mission, please consider making a donation to our site. It's hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us provide the best free cultural and educational materials.

Becoming Bilingual Can Give Your Brain a Boost: What Recent Research Has to Say

From the time my daughter was born, my wife and I took her out to restaurants—not to annoy the other diners, mind you, she was usually very well behaved---but to expose her palate to as much variety as possible and socialize her early to new and unfamiliar environments. At one establishment, during her second year, another toddler her age approached us, her mother trailing behind. “Can we say hi?” the mother asked. We said, "of course." “What languages does your child speak?” the woman politely inquired.

We looked at each other, a little chagrined. Parents of young children often play subtle games of one-upsmanship, whether they mean to or not, and most parents fret over whether they’re offering their kids the richest learning experiences they can. At that moment we felt slightly inadequate. “She just knows the one language,” we mumbled, turning back to our menus after a few more pleasantries. I may have studied Latin for several years, learned to read a little French and Italian and speak enough Spanish for some halting small talk, but for all intents and purposes, we’re a monolingual household.

And according to current research on infant brain development, this may put our poor preschooler at a disadvantage to children who can greet her in two or more tongues. That’s not only because those children will grow up able to easily conduct business across countries and continents, but also because, Big Think reports, “a new study shows that babies raised in bilingual environments develop more cognitive skills like decision-making and problem-solving—before they can even speak.” The brains of bilingual (and trilingual, etc.) people “look and act differently,” the TED-Ed video at the top of the post claims, than those of the monolingual. (The New York Times puts things more bluntly: “Being bilingual, it turns out, makes you smarter.”)

Is this really so? Princeton University neuroscientist Sam Wang explains why it may be in the short Big Think video further up. Wang and other researchers have acquired their findings by conducting research on some of the most adorable scientific subjects ever. One study, conducted at the University of Washington, tested 16 babies—half from only English-speaking families and half from English- and Spanish-speaking households. As you can see in the video clip above, the tots were monitored via a magnetoencephalographic helmet designed specially for babies, as they listened to sounds specific to one or both languages.

Lead author of the study Naja Ferjan Ramirez writes, “results suggest that before they even start talking, babies raised in bilingual households are getting practice at tasks related to executive function.” Her co-author Patricia Kuhl elaborates:

Babies raised listening to two languages seem to stay 'open' to the sounds of novel languages longer than their monolingual peers, which is a good and highly adaptive thing for their brains to do.

The University of Washington researchers are but one team among several dozen who have drawn these kinds of conclusions about the benefits of growing up bilingual. Both The New York Times and The New Yorker survey and link to much of this research. The New Yorker also profiles a skeptical study by psychologist Angela de Bruin that undercuts some of the enthusiasm and possible overstatement of the benefits of bilingualism; and yet her research doesn’t deny that they exist. Whatever their degree, the question might arise for anxious parents like myself: Is there anything we can do to help our monolingual children catch up?

Never fear, they can still profit from exposure to other languages, though you may not speak them fluently at home. Big Think offers a couple pointers for raising a bilingual child, even if you’re not bilingual yourself.

Lots of foreign words make their way into English. You can point out foreign foods every time you have them, or watch a bilingual show with your child. As long as you expose them to the foreign words in a consistent way with the same context, they’ll reap the benefits.

Try using a Language Exchange community, where you and your child can speak another language with native speakers together. You’ll both reap the benefits with constant practice.

Every little bit of exposure helps, and no amount of language training will ever do any harm. “Basically,” writes Big Think, “there is no downside to being bilingual.” The earlier we start, the better, but there’s no reason not to engage with other languages at any age. We can help you do that here with our expansive collection of lessons in 48 languages. And to learn even more about bilingualism and its prevalence amidst rapidly changing demographics in the U.S. and around the world, see the University of Illinois Spanish linguistics professor Kim Potowski’s TEDx talk below, “No Child Left Monolingual.”

via Big Think

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

The New Yorker’s “Comma Queen” Mercifully Explains the Difference Between Who/Whom, Lay/Lie, Less/Fewer & Beyond

From The New Yorker comes "The Comma Queen" video series, which features Mary Norris talking about the finer points of language that come up again and again in our everyday writing. Some of it, no doubt, will come in handy.

Norris began working at The New Yorker in 1978, and has served as a copy editor/proofreader for much of that time. Suffice it to say, she can tell you some instructive things about language.

Above, we start you off with Norris explaining the difference "who" and "whom," and then "lay" and "lie." (Bob Dylan take note.) This other clip -- focusing on "less" v. "fewer" -- gets into a pet peeve of mine. By the way, did I use those dashes correctly in the previous sentence? Well, there's a video about that too.

You can watch all of the Comma Queen videos over at The New Yorker, or via this YouTube playlist.

And it's worth noting that Norris has a new book out called Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen.

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The Fascinating Whistled Languages of the Canary Islands, Turkey & Mexico (and What They Say About the Human Brain)

For some years now linguist Daniel Everett has challenged the orthodoxy of Noam Chomsky and other linguists who believe in an innate “universal grammar” that governs human language acquisition. A 2007 New Yorker profile described his work with a reclusive Amazonian tribe called the Piraha, among whom Everett found a language “unrelated to any other extant tongue… so confounding to non-natives that” until he arrived in the 70s, “no outsider had succeeded in mastering it.” And yet, for all its extraordinary differences, at least one particular feature of Piraha is shared by humans across the globe—“its speakers can dispense with their vowels and consonants altogether and sing, hum, or whistle conversations.”

In places as far flung as the Brazilian rainforest, mountainous Oaxaca, Mexico, the Canary Islands, and the Black Sea coast of Turkey, we find languages that sound more like the speech of birds than of humans. “Whistled languages,” writes Michelle Nijhuis in a recent New Yorker post, “have been around for centuries. Herodotus described communities in Ethiopia whose residents ‘spoke like bats,’ and reports of the whistled language that is still used in the Canary Islands date back more than six hundred years.”

In the short video from UNESCO at the top of the post, you can hear the whistled language of Canary Islanders. (See another short video from Time magazine here.) Called Silbo Gomero, the language “replicates the islanders’ habitual language (Castilian Spanish) with whistling,” replacing “each vowel or consonant with a whistling sound.” Spoken (so to speak) among a very large community of over 22,000 inhabitants and passed down formally in schools and ceremonies, Silbo Gomero shows no signs of disappearing. Other whistled languages have not fared as well. As you will see in the documentary above, when it comes to the whistled language of northern Oaxacan peoples in a mountainous region of Mexico, “only a few whistlers still practice their ancient tongue.” In a previous Open Culture post on this film, Matthias Rascher pointed us toward some scholarly efforts at preservation from the Summer Institute of Linguistics in Mexico, who recorded and transcribed a conversation between two native Oaxacan whistlers.

Whistled languages evolved for much the same reason as birdcalls—they enable their “speakers” to communicate across large distances. “Most of the forty-two examples that have been documented in recent times,” Nijhuis writes, “arose in places with steep terrain or dense forests—the Atlas Mountains, in northwest Africa; the highlands of northern Laos, the Brazilian Amazon—where it might otherwise be hard to communicate at a distance.” Such is the case for the Piraha, the Canary Islanders, the Oaxacan whistlers, and another group of whistlers in a mountainous region of Turkey. As Nijhuis documents in her post, these several thousand speakers have learned to transliterate Turkish into “loud, lilting whistles” that they call “bird language.” New Scientist brings us the example of whistled Turkish above (with subtitles), and you can hear more recorded examples at The New Yorker.

As with most whistled languages, the Turkish “bird language” makes use of similar structures—though not similar sounds—as human speech, making it a bit like semaphore or Morse code. As such, whistled languages are not likely to offer evidence against the idea of a universal grammar in the architecture of the brain. Yet according to biopsychologist Onur Güntürkün—who conducted a study on the Turkish whistlers published in the latest Current Biology—these languages can show us that “the organization of our brain, in terms of its asymmetrical structure, is not as fixed as we assume.”

Where we generally process language in the left hemisphere and “pitch, melody, and rhythm” in the right, Nijhuis describes how the whistled Turkish study suggests “that both hemispheres played significant roles” in comprehension. The opportunities to study whistled languages will diminish in the years to come, as cell phones take over their function and more of their speakers lose regional distinctiveness. But the work of Güntürkün and other biological researchers may have fascinating implications for linguists as well, creating further connections between speech and music—and perhaps even between the speech of humans and that of other animals.

via The New Yorker

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

Learn to Speak 48 Languages for Free: Everything from Arabic to Indonesian to Yiddish on One Page

Even by the standards of United States Presidents, Barack Obama has led a pretty unusual life. His early experiences included a childhood plunge into internationalism in the form of not just his Kenyan father but his Indonesian stepfather, to whose homeland the family moved when Obama was six years old. For the next four years, the young future Commander in Chief attended local schools in Jakarta, and the language he picked up then has stuck with him today. It certainly served him well when he returned to Indonesia as President to give the speech above, in which he talks about his love for that country and his belief in its importance to the future, speaking bits and pieces in Indonesian throughout — and drawing great applause each time.

If you want to be like Barry and meet with a similarly rapturous reception when next you give a public address in the Emerald of the Equator, start by learning the basics of the Indonesian language at our Free Foreign Language Lessons page. There, you'll find a wealth of podcasts like Learning Indonesian (iTunes), Indonesianpod101 (iTunes), and Indonesian Survival Phrases (iTunes). [Advanced learners might prefer tuning in to news-in-Indonesian podcasts from SBS (iTunes) and NHK World (iTunes) radio.] Indonesianpod101 even has a Youtube page with video lessons like the one just above.

Even if you don't plan on becoming President, you may still have plenty of reasons to learn Indonesian. With its familiar alphabet and simple grammar without tenses, gender forms, noun cases, and the like, it ranks as one of the very easiest languages in which to attain fluency. I know an American college professor in South Korea who constantly urges his students to study Indonesian, since it offers the "golden tip" of a wedge into the rest of Asia: master it, and you'll have built up momentum to learn the other, more complicated languages of the region, from Mandarin to Cantonese to Japanese and beyond — all of which you can also begin studying at, of course, our Free Language Lessons page.

If your linguistic interests slant toward Europe rather than Asia, don't worry, we've still got your back: our lists include learning resources for languages of that continent as major as Spanish, French, Italian, Russian, English, and German to niche languages like Catalan, Finnish, Hungarian, and Serbo-Croatian. If you notice we've missed any language you've harbored a burning desire to learn, drop us a line so we can start gathering podcasts, videos, and PDFs on it. In the meantime, surely the Free Language Lessons page offers you something to start on and get that incomparable feeling of breaking into a new language for the first time. Semoga beruntung, as we say in Jakarta!

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Colin Marshall writes on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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