Sometimes I wonder if I should have become a linguist.

As a kid, I used to look at the labels on hairdryers and pillows or study instruction manuals. It’s not just because I liked words, but because I liked the words in different languages. The relationships between languages have always intrigued me. At hotels, I stared at the multilingual welcome packet and tried to identify the languages. This one was French because of the accents and all of the apostrophes. This one was German because it looked like oddly-spelled English. This was Russian because of the backwards R’s. This one is Chinese because it’s blocky, and that one’s Japanese because it’s more curved. Once, I found out that this was the basic gist of a type of job in the FBI, and part of my little imagination dreamed about what that life would be like.

By college, the interest in languages led me to a History of the English Language class. While it showed me that transcribing spoken sounds into the International Phonetic Alphabet is hard (but not so bad if you have two linguist majors in your group), it also showed that all languages do have relationships that my younger self never could have imagined. After all, have you ever seen the words for 1-10 in a variety of languages from around the world? The similarities are incredible (and if I ever find that handout, I’ll give some examples).

While my knowledge of languages I’ve never studied isn’t as great as my seven-year-old self wanted to believe, it hasn’t quenched my interest in other languages. Or the International Phonetic Alphabet, which is literally one of the most incredible things I’ve ever played with. (It’s right up there with the German Enigma Machine.)

For a great site that actually demonstrates the sounds each symbol represents, check this out.

Do you enjoy studying other languages? Have you ever studied linguistics?


2 responses to “Xenoglossia

  • Anthony Lee Collins

    I’ve never studied linguistics, but I am I interested in language. I used to sit next to a guy at work who was very knowledgeable about the history of language and we had many interesting conversations. He not only knew which English words came from Latin, for example, but how they had made their way from one language to the other. (I used to stump him with words from 20th century pop culture though — once I really had him straining to figure out the origin of “paparazzi, which is the name of a character from a movie :-) )

    Your mention of the International Phonetic Alphabet reminds me of a story (I’ll try to keep it short). I took a bus from Ohio to New York once, and I ended up sitting next to a girl who had been part of an experiment with the IPA. Growing up, she had been taught how to read and write in the IPA, and the idea had been that she (and her class — it wasn’t just her) would be able to “switch over” to regular spelling as they got older. This experiment was a failure, and she was left functionally illiterate. She did her best in school (she was an A student in math), but English spelling was very hard for her to learn because it’s often illogical, and her brain had been trained that spelling was logical.

    We got along really well, and in other circumstances I would have asked for her address to stay in touch, but of course there was no way we could become pen pals.

  • SB (Bryna) Roberts

    Oh, goodness. I can definitely see how learning to read and write in IPA and then switch over to regular English spelling would be a nearly impossible feat. Sounds like a fascinating conversation!

    On an interesting side note, my professor used to go to local schools to talk about English’s history in an attempt to help make spelling less frustrating. (After all, it feels a little better to have all those silent letters in “knight” when you know that they actually were all said at one time and that language becomes more lax as time goes on, which explains why we don’t say them anymore.)

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