How to Speak: Watch the Lecture on Effective Communication That Became an MIT Tradition for Over 40 Years

In his legendary MIT lecture “How to Speak,” professor Patrick Winston opens with a story about seeing Olympic gymnast Mary Lou Retton at a Celebrity Ski Weekend. It was immediately clear to him that he was the better skier, but not because he had more innate athletic ability than an Olympic gold medalist, but because he had more knowledge and practice. These, Winston says, are the key qualities we need to become better communicators. Inherent talent helps, he says, but “notice that the T is very small. What really matters is what you know.”

What some of us know about communicating effectively could fill a greeting card, but it’s hardly our fault, says Winston. Schools that send students into the world without the ability to speak and write well are as criminally liable as officers who send soldiers into battle without weapons. For over 40 years, Winston has been trying to remedy the situation with his “How to Speak” lecture, offered every January,” notes MIT, “usually to overflow crowds.” It became “so popular, in fact, that the annual talk had to be limited to the first 300 participants.”

Now it’s available online, in both video and transcript form, in the talk’s final form from 2018 (it evolved quite a bit over the decades). Professor Winston passed away last year, but his wisdom lives on. Rather than present us with a dry theory of rhetoric and composition, the onetime director of the MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory offers “a few heuristic rules” distilled from “praxis in communication approaches that incorporate Neurolinguistics, Linguistics, Paleoanthropology, Cognitive Science and Computer Science,” writes Minnie Kasyoka.

Winston’s research on “creating machines with the same thought patterns as humans” led him to the following conclusions about effective speaking and writing—observations that have borne themselves out in the careers of thousands of public speakers, job seekers, and professionals of every kind. Many of his heuristics contradict decades of folk opinion on public speaking, as well as contemporary technological trends. For one thing, he says, avoid opening with a joke.

People still settling into their seats will be too distracted to pay attention and you won’t get the laugh. Instead, open with an analogy or a story, like his Mary Lou Retton gambit, then tell people, directly, what they’re going to get from your talk. Then tell them again. And again. “It’s a good idea to cycle on the subject,” says Winston. “Go around it. Go round it again. Go round it again.” It’s not that we should assume our audience is unintelligent, but rather that “at any given moment, about 20%” of them “will be fogged out no matter what the lecture is.” It’s just how the human mind works, shifting attention all over the place.

Like all great works on effective communication, Winston’s talk illustrates his methods as it explains them: he fills the lecture with memorable images—like “building a fence” around his idea to distinguish it from other similar ideas. He continues to use interesting little stories to make things concrete, like an anecdote about a Serbian nun who was offended by him putting his hands behind his back. This is offered in service of his lengthy defense of the blackboard, contra PowerPoint, as the ultimate visual aid. “Now, you have something to do with your hands.”

The talk is relaxed, humorous, and informative, and not a step-by-step method. As Winston says, you can dip in and out of the copious advice he presents, taking rules you think might work best for your particular style of communication and your communication needs. We should all, he emphasizes, hone our own way of speaking and writing. But, “while he never explicitly stresses the ultimate need for rhetorical devices,” Kasyoka points out, he demonstrates that they are imperative.

Professor Winston masterfully uses persuasive techniques to hammer on this point. For example, the use of anadiplosis, that is the repetition of a clause in a sentence for emphasis, is very manifest in this snippet from his talk: “Your careers will be determined largely by how well you speak, by how well you write, and by the quality of your ideas… in that order.” 

How do we learn to use rhetoric as effectively as Winston? We listen to and read effective rhetoric like his. Do so in the video lecture at the top and on the “How to Speak” course page, which has transcripts for download and additional resources for further study.

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

An Animated Introduction to Noam Chomsky’s Groundbreaking Linguistic Theories

Most people who know Noam Chomsky know him equally as a giant in academic linguistics and a longtime leftist dissident and political commentator. Only a committed few, however, read much of his work in either—or both—fields. He is one of those thinkers whose major concepts enter the discourse unmoored from their original context. Phrases like “universal grammar” and “manufactured consent” tend to pop up in all kinds of places without reference to Chomsky’s meanings.

If you simply haven’t got the time to read Chomsky (and let’s face it, there’s a lot going on in the world these days), you might familiarize yourself with his media theory in an amusing video here. For an entry into Chomsky’s work in linguistics, see the brief animated TED-Ed video above. The explainer revisits the Chomskyian revolution of 1957, when he articulated his ideas about the universal properties of language in his first book, Syntactic Structures.

Chomsky, the video says, explored the questions, “are there universal grammar rules and are they hardwired into our brains?” He did not invent the concept of “universal grammar”—the idea can be found in the 13th century writing of Roger Bacon—but Chomsky’s specific meaning of the term applies uniquely to language acquisition. Rather than suggesting that language exists as an abstract universal property, Chomsky argued that its basic structure, shared across the world, derives from structures in the brain that take shape in infancy.

Humans physically evolved to acquire and use language in strikingly similar ways that accord with universally observable and applicable rules, Chomsky argued. As the lesson points out, a claim this broad requires a mountain of evidence. At the time, many languages around the world had not been sufficiently studied or recorded. Since Chomsky’s initial arguments, ideas about linguistic similarities have been significantly revised.

Several critics have argued that no amount of data can ever produce “universal” rules. After decades of critique, Chomsky revised his theories, explaining them in different terms as “Principles and Parameters” that govern languages. He has further simplified and specified, proposing one universal criterion: “Recursion.” All languages, he argues, can nest ideas inside other ideas.

Recursion, too, has been forcefully challenged by the study of an Amazonian language that shows none of the characteristics Chomsky globally outlined. The other part of Chomsky’s theory of universal grammar—the idea that the brain develops innate, isolated language-making faculties—has also been refuted by neuroscientists, who have not found evidence of any such specific structures.

Why, then, is Chomsky still so critically important to linguistics, cognitive science, and other fields of study? For one thing, his work encouraged the study of languages that had been neglected and ignored. The debates Chomsky generated pushed the field forward, and broke the spell of the Behaviorism that dominated the human sciences into the mid-20th century. Even where he was wrong, or overconfident, his work remains an essential reference for the kind of thinking that revolutionized linguistics and brain science.

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

Peruvian Singer & Rapper, Renata Flores, Helps Preserve Quechua with Viral Hits on YouTube

Ten years ago, a study by David Harmon and Jonathan Loh showed that in 30 years’ time, the world had seen a twenty percent decline in linguistic diversity. Indigenous languages and local dialects have continued to dwindle, in the U.S. and around the globe. “There are a lot of pressures in the world that are enticing or even forcing people to switch from generally smaller, more geographically restricted languages, to larger languages,” Harmon told National Geographic, “especially global languages like Mandarin Chinese, English, or Spanish.”

This pressure has been exerted on indigenous languages for centuries. Yet hundreds have survived, including Quechua, a family of languages descended from the Inca, and spoken by almost 4 million people in Peru alone. With many more speakers in Bolivia, Argentina, and elsewhere, it is Latin America’s most widely spoken Indigenous language.

It may seem to be thriving, but Quechua speakers are widely treated with contempt in Peru, though they make up roughly 13% of the population. They are the country’s poor and ignored. Quechua has been grossly understudied in academia and until recently has had almost no major media presence.

The language’s absence from centers of power has made it less accessible to newer generations—whose parents would not teach them Quechua for fear of stigmatizing them—and more likely to die out without intervention. It became “synonymous with discrimination” and “social rejection,” says Hugo Coya, director of a recent Peruvian news program entirely in Quechua. Coya aims to change that, as does Peruvian scholar Roxana Quispe Collantes, who defended the first Quechua doctoral thesis last year. Their work will surely have significant impact, but perhaps not nearly as much as the debut of a 14-year-old Peruvian singer and rapper, Renata Flores, who had a viral hit five years ago with her Quechua cover of Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel” (top).

Flores, now 19, has followed up with a string of songs in Quechua that have “brought huge success,” writes Vice, “millions of views on YouTube; features and interviews in Peruvian media and foreign press like The Clinic, Telemundo, El Paid, AJ+ Español, CNN, and BBC; fans in Bolivia, Ecuador, Chile, Argentina, Guatemala, Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, Puerto Rico, Mexico, the United States, Spain, Italy, China, Algeria, and counting. And with it, Flores is challenging the very way people value languages, especially indigenous ones.” Her music may speak the language of a specific region, but does so in a global idiom, combining “trap, hip-hop, and electronic influences with Andean instruments.”

Flores’ success in bringing such widespread attention to Quechua shows another major cultural shift of the past few years. Internet culture, once assumed to be ephemeral and of little lasting value, has become the coin of the realm, as academic humanities struggle, political institutions implode, and journalism fails. The joke so often goes that historians of the future will have to fill textbooks (or interactive virtual reality lessons) with tweets, posts, and memes. Viral YouTube stars like Flores are also making history, their videos primary documents of how a language that is marginalized in its home country reached out and found millions of fans around the world.

“The message conveyed to Quechua speakers” by most treatments of their culture in Peru, “is that their identities are part of the region’s past,” writes Julie Turkewitz in a New York Times profile of Flores. Harmon makes a similar connection: “there is a strong possibility that we’ll lose languages that people are using as their main vehicle of expression, which they may regard as one of the linchpins of their self-identity.” When national narratives, media, and education relegate a contemporary language to a pre-colonial past, it tells millions of people they essentially don’t exist in the modern world. Flores, who grew up with Quechua, counters that message with style.

Flores and other Quechua singers not only reaffirm their cultural identity, but they put their language in conversation with contemporary pop music and political concerns. Taking on “female power, government corruption, war and international pop culture polemics,” writes Turkewitz, Flores continues a legacy her one-time musician parents helped launch decades earlier, a Quechua-language blue-rock movement called Uchpa. Now her family helps her record her own songs in their music school. But like most young artists she began with covers. See her play a Quechua version of “House of the Rising Sun” as a 14-year-old contest winner, further up; see her very first concert, at the same age, in her hometown of Ayacucho, below. And see what she’s been up to since then in the videos above and on her YouTube channel.

via NYTimes

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

One of the Earliest Known Uses of the “F-word” Discovered: It Appears in a 1568 Anthology Compiled During a Plague

“Wan fukkit funling”: as an insult, these words would today land a minor blow at most. Not so in Scotland of the early 16th century, in which William Dunbar and Walter Kennedy, two of the land’s well-known poets, faced off before the court of King James IV in a contest of rhyme. The event is memorialized in the poem “The Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedie,” one of 400 anthologized in what’s known as the Bannatyne Manuscript. Compiled in 1568 by an Edinburgh merchant named George Bannatyne, stuck at home while a plague swept his city — a condition many can relate to these days — it now enjoys pride of place at the National Library of Scotland as a cultural treasure, not least because it contains what may be the oldest recorded use of the F-word.

The Bannatyne Manuscript and “wan fukkit funling” (whose appearance you can see in the image at the top of the post, in the sixth line from the bottom) play an important part in the new BBC Scotland documentary Scotland – Contains Strong Language. The hour-long program, writes The Scotsman‘s Brian Ferguson, “sees actress, singer and theatre-maker Cora Bissett trace the nation’s long love affair with swearing and insults, despite the long-standing efforts of religious leaders to condemn it as a sin.” Ferguson quotes Bissett describing the importance of this particular “flyting” (“the 16th century equivalent of a rap battle”) as follows: “When Kennedy addresses Dunbar, there is the earliest surviving record of the word ‘f***’ in the world.”

“In the poem, Dunbar makes fun of Kennedy’s Highland dialect, for instance, as well as his personal appearance, and he suggests his opponent enjoys sexual intercourse with horses,” writes Ars Technica’s Jennifer Ouellette. “Kennedy retaliates with attacks on Dunbar’s diminutive stature and lack of bowel control, suggesting his rival gets his inspiration from drinking ‘frogspawn’ from the waters of a rural pond.” All highly amusing, to be sure, but given how few of us English-speakers will immediately recognize in “wan fukkit funling” the curse with which we’ve grown so intimately familiar, does this really count as an example of usage in English?

‘To me, that looks more like Scots than Middle English,” writes Boing Boing’s Thom Dunn, “although both languages were derived from Olde English.” (He also reminds us not to confuse Scots with the separate language of Scottish Gaelic.) Medieval historian Kristin Uscinski writes in to Ars Technica to point out a certain “Roger F$#%-by-the-Navel who appears in some court records from 1310-11” — previously featured, of course, here on Open Culture. Historians and linguists will surely continue doing their own kind of battle to determine what counts as the first true F-word, making more discoveries about the English language’s heritage of swearing along the way. One thing is certain: if any nation has made a rich use of that heritage, it’s Scotland.

via BoingBoing

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, 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, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Discover the Disappearing Turkish Language That is Whistled, Not Spoken

We so often privilege individuals as the primary drivers of innovation. But what if technology is also self-organizing, developing as an evolutionary response to the environment? If we think of whistled language as a kind of technology, we have an excellent example of this self-organizing principle in the 42 documented whistled languages around the world.

As we noted in a previous post, reports of whistled languages go back hundreds of years in cultures that would have had no contact with each other: Oaxaca, Mexico, northern Africa’s Atlas Mountains, the Brazilian Amazon, northern Laos, and the Canary Islands.

These are “places with steep terrain or dense forests,” writes Michelle Nijhuis at The New Yorker, “where it might otherwise be hard to communicate at a distance.” Such is the case in the village of Kuşköy, in “the remote mountains of northern Turkey,” notes Great Big Story:

“For three centuries” farmers there “have communicated great distances by whistling. It’s a language called kuş dili that is still used to this day, though fewer people are learning it in the age of the cell phone.” Also called “bird language” by locals, “for obvious reasons,” this system of vocal telephony, like all other examples, is based on actual speech. Nijhuis explains:

Kuşköy’s version [of whistled language] adapts standard Turkish syllables into piercing tones that can be heard from more than half a mile away. The phrase “Do you have fresh bread?,” which in Turkish is “Taze ekmek var mı?,” becomes, in bird language, six separate whistles made with the tongue, teeth, and fingers.

The method may be avian, but the messages are human, albeit in simplified language for ease of transmission. In the video above Muazzez Köçek, Kuşköy’s best whistler, shows how she translates Turkish vocabulary into melodies—turning words into music, an act of coding without a computer.

That this bio-technological feat arose spontaneously to solve the same problem the world over shows how us how humans collectively problem-solve. But of course, individualism has its advantages. Despite the huge amount of data they gather on us, modern communications technologies have met one particular human need.

In Kuşköy, “bird language is rapidly disappearing from daily life,” writes Nijhuis. “In a small town filled with nosy neighbors, texting affords a level of privacy that whistling never did.”

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

What Shakespeare’s English Sounded Like, and How We Know It

A common joke has Americans overawed by people with British accents. It’s funny because it’s partly true; Yanks can grant undue authority to people who sound like Sir David Attenborough or Benedict Cumberbatch. But in these cases, what we generically call a British accent should more accurately be referred to as “Received Pronunciation” (or RP), the speech of BBC presenters and educated Brits from certain middle- and upper-class areas in Southern England. (If you like Received Pronunciation, you’re going to love “posh” Upper RP.) Received Pronunciation is only one of many British accents, as comedian Siobhan Thompson shows, most of which we’re unlikely to hear narrating nature documentaries.

RP is also sometimes called “the Shakespeare accent,” for its association with famous thespians like John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier, or Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart. But as we’ve previously noted in a post on the work of linguist David Crystal and his son, actor Ben Crystal, the English of Shakespeare’s day sounded nothing like what we typically hear on stage and screen.

What linguists call “Original Pronunciation” (OP), the actual Shakespeare accent, had a flavor all its own, likely combining, to our modern ears, “flecks of nearly every regional U.K. English accent,” as Ben Crystal tells NPR, “and indeed American and in fact Australian, too.”

You can see the Crystals explain and demonstrate the accent in the video above, and make sense of many Shakespearean puns that only work in OP. And in the animated video at the top of the post, get a whirlwind tour from Chaucer’s Middle English to Shakespeare’s Early Modern variety. Along the way, you’ll learn why the spelling of English words—both American and British—is so confusing and irregular. (“Knight,” for example, which makes no sense when pronounced as nite, was once pronounced much more phonetically.) The range of regional accents produced a bedlam of variant spellings, which took a few hundred years to standardize during some intense spelling debates.

You’ll get an introduction to the first English printer, William Caxton, and the “Great Vowel Shift” which changed the language’s sound dramatically over the course of a couple hundred years. Once we get to Shakespeare and his “Original Pronunciation,” we can see how rhymes that don’t scan for us sounded just right to Elizabethan ears. These lost rhymes provide a significant clue for linguists who reconstruct OP, as does meter and the survival of older pronunciations in certain dialects.

When the Crystals brought their reconstruction of Shakespeare’s English to the stage in hugely popular productions at the Globe Theatre, members of the audience all heard something slightly different—their many different dialects reflected back at them. Listen for all the various kinds of English above in Ben Crystal’s recitation of Hamlet’s “to be, or not to be” speech in Original Pronunciation.

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

Hear What Shakespeare Sounded Like in the Original Pronunciation

What did Shakespeare’s English sound like to Shakespeare? To his audience? And how can we know such a thing as the phonetic character of the language spoken 400 years ago? These questions and more are addressed in the video above, which profiles a very popular experiment at London’s Globe Theatre, the 1994 reconstruction of Shakespeare’s theatrical home. As linguist David Crystal explains, the theater’s purpose has always been to recapture as much as possible the original look and feel of a Shakespearean production—costuming, music, movement, etc. But until recently, the Globe felt that attempting a play in the original pronunciation would alienate audiences. The opposite proved to be true, and people clamored for more. Above, Crystal and his son, actor Ben Crystal, demonstrate to us what certain Shakespearean passages would have sounded like to their first audiences, and in so doing draw out some subtle wordplay that gets lost on modern tongues.

Shakespeare’s English is called by scholars Early Modern English (not, as many students say, “Old English,” an entirely different, and much older language). Crystal dates his Shakespearean early modern to around 1600. (In his excellent textbook on the subject, linguist Charles Barber bookends the period roughly between 1500 and 1700.) David Crystal cites three important kinds of evidence that guide us toward recovering early modern’s original pronunciation (or “OP”).

1. Observations made by people writing on the language at the time, commenting on how words sounded, which words rhyme, etc. Shakespeare contemporary Ben Jonson tells us, for example, that speakers of English in his time and place pronounced the “R” (a feature known as “rhoticity”). Since, as Crystal points out, the language was evolving rapidly, and there wasn’t only one kind of OP, there is a great deal of contemporary commentary on this evolution, which early modern writers like Jonson had the chance to observe firsthand.

2. Spellings. Unlike today’s very frustrating tension between spelling and pronunciation, Early Modern English tended to be much more phonetic and words were pronounced much more like they were spelled, or vice versa (though spelling was very irregular, a clue to the wide variety of regional accents).

3. Rhymes and puns which only work in OP. The Crystals demonstrate the important pun between “loins” and “lines” (as in genealogical lines) in Romeo and Juliet, which is completely lost in so-called “Received Pronunciation” (or “proper” British English). Two-thirds of Shakespeare’s sonnets, the father and son team claim, have rhymes that only work in OP.

Not everyone agrees on what Shakespeare’s OP might have sounded like. Eminent Shakespeare director Trevor Nunn claims that it might have sounded more like American English does today, suggesting that the language that migrated across the pond retained more Elizabethan characteristics than the one that stayed home.

You can hear an example of this kind of OP in the recording from Romeo and Juliet above. Shakespeare scholar John Barton suggests that OP would have sounded more like modern Irish, Yorkshire, and West Country pronunciations, an accent that the Crystals seem to favor in their interpretations of OP and is much more evident in the reading from Macbeth below (both audio examples are from a CD curated by Ben Crystal).

Whatever the conjecture, scholars tend to use the same set of criteria David Crystal outlines. I recall my own experience with Early Modern English pronunciation in an intensive graduate course on the history of the English language. Hearing a class of amateur linguists read familiar Shakespeare passages in what we perceived as OP—using our phonological knowledge and David Crystal’s criteria—had exactly the effect Ben Crystal described in an NPR interview:

If there’s something about this accent, rather than it being difficult or more difficult for people to understand … it has flecks of nearly every regional U.K. English accent, and indeed American and in fact Australian, too. It’s a sound that makes people — it reminds people of the accent of their home — and so they tend to listen more with their heart than their head.

In other words, despite the strangeness of the accent, the language can sometimes feel more immediate, more universal, and more of the moment, even, than the sometimes stilted, pretentious ways of reading Shakespeare in the accent of a modern London stage actor or BBC news anchor.

For more on this subject, don’t miss this related post: Hear What Hamlet, Richard III & King Lear Sounded Like in Shakespeare’s Original Pronunciation.

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

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