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Until recently, issuing a death threat required some effort. Today, anyone with a phone or computer can make a threat—or receive one. The result is a “golden age” for the dark realm of personal threats. Forensic linguist Tanya Karoli Christensen and forensic psychologist Lisa Warren help us trace the history of death threats from eloquently penned …
 
If Latin is dead, why is it easy to find meetups of people speaking it? Why are a group of scholars and lexicographers working on what has become a century-spanning Latin dictionary project? Former Latin student Cristina Quinn challenges Patrick Cox to seek answers to these these and more questions about the supposedly dead language that it all aro…
 
Ellen Jovin belongs that rare breed of human with a passion for grammar. You will too if you spend a few minutes with her, your grammar anxiety melting away in minutes. That's what happens when apostrophe-challenged Patrick meets Ellen at her Grammar Table in New York's Central Park. There, Ellen fields questions from passers-by about commas, semic…
 
Steve Jobs' last words were: "Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow." Oscar Wilde went with: "Either that wallpaper goes, or I do." (At least, that's how the story goes.) But the way most of us part company with language at the end of our lives is more halting and gradual. Even when a dying loved one is unable to speak clearly, other forms of communication often …
 
How do you keep your language alive while also protecting the health of elders? That's been the quandary facing Ojibwe educators during the pandemic. As native speakers, Ojibwe elders were the primary teachers of the language, but they were also the most vulnerable to COVID. Leah Lemm of Minnesota's Mille Lacs Ojibwe band tells us how she and other…
 
For centuries, Russians have dismissed the Ukrainian language as "Little Russian," its speakers as simple-minded peasants. The Kremlin has sporadically and unsuccessfully tried to suppress the language. Now Russia's invasion of Ukraine has driven even some Russian-speaking Ukrainians to switch to Ukrainian. We trace the defiant rise of this languag…
 
Kavita Pillay recently moved to Helsinki with her Finnish husband and half-Finnish daughter. While husband and daughter effortlessly embraced their new linguistic surroundings, Kavita...didn't. In this episode, she seeks guidance from other immigrants with varying degrees of Finnish mastery. Among them, an opera singer who finds melody in verb conj…
 
We can't always find words to describe our emotions—not in English, at least. In this episode, Saleem Reshamwala asks friends who speak other languages to share their favorite emotion words and phrases. He also seeks guidance from psychologist Ashley Ruba, and Tim Lomas, author of Happiness Found in Translation: A Glossary of Joy from Around the Wo…
 
For hundreds of years, people living in Louisiana's bayou country have spoken French. But rising sea levels are submerging entire communities, forcing people to abandon their homes. As native French speakers move away, will the language survive in this most French of American states? We hitch a ride to the bayou with linguist Nathalie Dajko. Music …
 
They're not in American dictionaries yet, but the terms, 'punching up' and 'punching down' are on the lips of many comedians. With the help of linguist and journalist Ben Zimmer and British comedian Richard Herring, we trace the migration of these words from sports to cable news to comedy. Along the way, we catch up with the history of performers a…
 
In this episode, we tell the inspiring, heartbreaking story of Radio Haiti. For several decades, the station broadcast not just in French, spoken by Haiti's elite, but also in Kreyòl, spoken by rich and poor alike. The Kreyòl-language programs communicated directly with the rural poor—the 'outside people'—popularizing issues of inequity and corrupt…
 
Does your grandmother call a chest of drawers a dresser? Or a bureau? Or perhaps a chiffonier? Over the years and across regions, Americans have favored many different words for furniture—and much else. Since 1929, the Linguistic Atlas Project has been documenting these lexical changes. We tell the story of the Project, from its early days of inter…
 
If you’ve ever set boundaries, taken up a gratitude practice or manifested, you’re already well-versed in the language of self-help. Over its long history, self-help has acquired its own lexicon, often repurposing words along the way. Nowadays, the flavor is American but that wasn't always the case. We delve into the past and present of self-help l…
 
Why do so many of us laugh at a word like 'poop' but not at, say, 'treadmill'? Is it all down to their meaning? Or are we also responding to the sound of these words? Psycholinguist Chris Westbury set out to discover the answer. Assisted by an inventive computer, Westbury and colleagues dreamed up a bunch of non-words (like "snunkoople"), and teste…
 
When Julie Sedivy was four, her Czech family emigrated to Canada. In this episode we hear how Julie became estranged from her native Czech, only to rediscover it after the death of her father. Julie Sedivy's linguistic memoir is Memory Speaks: On Losing and Reclaiming Language and Self. Photo (courtesy Julie Sedivy) shows Julie, center, and two sib…
 
Is it easier to sing than speak in another language? Artist Wen-hao Tien is putting that idea to the test. She has invited friends from around the world to teach her a song in their mother tongue. Patrick listens in on a few of the lessons and also teaches Wen-hao one of his favorite (punky) […]The World in Words
 
Some people have origin stories. Pardis Mahdavi has a hyphenation story. Her Iranian family was the target of a hate crime in Minnesota. She was stripped of her citizenship in Iran. Eventually she embraced the hyphen between the words ‘Iranian’ and ‘American’ as her identity: two cultures within one person. But what exactly is the […]…
 
In our upcoming season, we’ll have stories on people who have “lost” their mother tongue, the language of self help, why certain sounds make us laugh, and much more. The first episode drops December 15. Subtitle is a production of Quiet Juice and the Linguistic Society of America. Music by Organized Chaos. Photo by Nola […]…
 
Gwich’in is among Alaska’s most threatened languages. but Princess Daazhraii Johnson is determined to change that. Her mother, she says, was of “that boarding school generation that was hit for speaking Gwich’in.” Today, more Gwich’in people are learning their language, and kids are exposed to it by shows like PBS’ Molly of Denali. In this […]…
 
Who writes the fortunes in fortune cookies? Why are so many of them not really fortunes at all? Why did some fortunes turn ominous for a while? (“After today, you shall have a deeper understanding of both good and evil.”) And who was behind the theft of countless fortunes? Lidia Jean Kott has the answers to […]…
 
With the Scripps National Spelling Bee back after a Covid-enforced year off, we conduct our very own spelling quiz. Also, Kavita Pillay offers her take on why Indian American kids perform so well in spelling bees. And author and self-described “crummy" speller David Wolman tells us why he wrote a history of English spelling and the many attempts to…
 
The German word “Volk” usually translates as “people,” but it means a whole lot more than that. In 1989 as Germans tore down the Berlin Wall, they chanted, “Wir sind das Volk!” (“We are the people!”) Today, though, “Volk” no longer unites Germans. Some understand it to mean everyone living in Germany. Others define it […]…
 
In 2012, a children’s book in Sweden sparked a nationwide debate— not about the book’s content but a three-letter word used by the main character. Hen was a relatively new, gender-neutral pronoun which challenged Swedish grammar norms. The use of hen tapped into a conversation the country was already having about gender and equality. Can the introd…
 
If you’re under the impression that encyclopedias and dictionaries in the West were always organized from A to Z, think again. We have chosen to classify knowledge in many ways, each reflecting the values of the age. Patrick Cox speaks with Judith Flanders, author of A Place for Everything: The Curious History of Alphabetical Order about the centur…
 
Japan is an ethnically homogenous nation where everyone speaks Japanese, right? Not exactly. Other groups including the Ainu also have called Japan home, perhaps for longer than the Japanese themselves. Today, the Ainu language is spoken by only a handful of people. One of them, Russian-born linguist Anna Bugaeva, takes Patrick Cox to meet Ainu spe…
 
Will technology make Braille obsolete as the primary reading tool for blind people? Will talking apps and audiobooks win out over embossed dots? Braille has been written off before; each time it has come back stronger. We trace Braille from its beginnings in Napoleon’s France, through the “War of the Dots” in the early 20th century to the age of th…
 
You may not have heard of Frisian, but it’s spoken by about 500,000 people. Once upon a time, an older form of the language was barely distinct from Old English. We take you to the Dutch province of Friesland to hear why people there care so deeply about their mother tongue. Texting, social media, music and theater are all giving Frisian a new leas…
 
Digital consultant Ivanka Majic was such an early user of Twitter that she was able to snag the handle @Ivanka. Which was great, until the rise of another Ivanka caused confusion. Many Twitter users— including the other Ivanka’s father— mistook one for the other. In this archive episode, Ivanka Majic tells the story of her brush with fame, and how …
 
In our upcoming season, we have stories on notorious names, the future of Braille, a history of alphabetical order and much more. Look out the first episode with Patrick and Kavita on March 17. Subtitle is produced by Quiet Juice and the Linguistic Society of America. Music by Blue Dot Sessions. Photo by Patrick Cox. Patrick’s dog, Louis, is workin…
 
Here’s a guest episode from our friends at A Better Life?, a podcast from Feet in 2 Worlds about the immigrant experience in the time of COVID-19. The episode follows two US-based immigrants. Heeja, born in South Korea, and Elsa, born in Mexico, both wrestle with the same question: “Should I stay or should I go?” Music in this episode by Fareed Saj…
 
Tina Tobey was born and raised in Texas. She’s used to non-Texans expecting her to know all about oil-drilling and ranching. And of course to speak “like a Texan.” While she barely meets those expectations, Tina has come to realize that she speaks more Texas English than she thought. Also in this episode: how difficult is it to win an accent bias l…
 
Why doesn’t Ciku Theuri sound Black? Her friends wanted to know. Eventually, she wanted to know. Ciku tells the story of how she came to speak the way she does—and how others, from Ohio to Kenya, perceive her speech. (Spoiler alert: she does sound Black.) Also in this episode: why many Americans choose the voices of Black celebrities for their digi…
 
Verónica Zaragovia lives in Miami but she was born in Colombia. Although she has a Colombian passport, her Spanish doesn’t sound Colombian— at least that’s what people tell her. During a recent stay in Bogotá, she decided to change that: she took lessons in Colombian Spanish. Along the way, she gained a new understanding of how language and identit…
 
We are how we speak, right? Well, it’s complicated— enough so to spend Subtitle’s next four episodes on this question. We’ll tell the stories of a diverse collection of people, tracing how each came to speak the way they do. Along the way, we’ll ask: Is speech a good barometer of identity? Does anyone truly speak authentically? Why are we so judgme…
 
In 1986, Nicaraguan officials invited American linguist Judy Shepard-Kegl to observe a group of Deaf children. The kids were using an unrecognizable signing system. Over the following years, Shepard-Kegl and other linguists found themselves uniquely placed to observe what they came to realize was the emergence of a new language. Today, Nicaraguan S…
 
Finland has been named the happiest country in the world. So why is sisu the word that best describes Finns? Associated with war and endurance, sisu means stoic perseverance against almost insurmountable odds. But this small, cold nation is changing, as is the meaning of sisu. In these tumultuous times, this short Finnish word may have something to…
 
In unsettled times, we reach for metaphors. They help us make sense of the nonsensical—or at least that’s what we tell ourselves. In this episode, we hear from linguist Elena Simino, editor of a crowd-sourced publication called the Metaphor Menu intended for people with cancer. She assesses the merits of coronavirus metaphors, from battlefield clic…
 
Joe Wong is a brilliant bilingual comedian. In the US, he does standup. In his native China he hosts a popular TV game show. Recently his comedy has become more political: he is confronting US racial tensions head-on. In quarantine, Joe is writing a book, cooking for his son (to his son’s dismay), and decrying virus-related anti-Asian hate crimes. …
 
Bilingual comedian Joanna Hausmann (pictured with her mother Ana Julia Jatar-Hausmann) is sitting out the lockdown at her Venezuelan parents’ New England home. She tells us of her love of outdated Venezuelan slang; also about parenting her parents (in both Spanish and English); and how the restrictions of quarantine are unleashing her creative inst…
 
In this episode, we talk with American medical student Esther Kim (pictured). She’s trying to overcome her suspicion of people with a particular accent, one that she’s come to associate with racist taunts. The COVID-19 wave of anti-Asian harassment has made things worse. Also, Stanford professor Seema Yasmin tells us why pandemics bring out the lan…
 
We can’t travel. We can’t hug or visit loved ones. But we can talk our way through this pandemic — and we’re doing just that, in most of the world’s languages. In this episode we hear from Kavita Pillay’s mother, who tells a story from her childhood in southern India. And a filmmaker in New York talks about her home quarantine activity, translating…
 
Hassnae Bouazza was born in Morocco. She didn’t speak a word of Dutch when she immigrated to the Netherlands, though today it’s effectively her mother tongue. The Dutch government now insists that would-be immigrants like Bouazza pass a Dutch language “entrance exam.” Are Dutch officials using language to keep “undesirables” out? Or is speaking the…
 
If there are extraterrestrials out there, what kind of messages might they be sending us? How might we decipher those messages? And should we hit reply? Image by Mike Licht via Flickr Creative Commons. Music by Million Eyes, From Now On, Heath Cantu, Christian Andersen, Podington Bear.The World in Words
 
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina displaced tens of thousands of New Orleanians. Many never returned to the city. Others have since moved in, bringing with them different languages and dialects. Some locals now wonder if they have lost ‘ownership’ of New Orleans English. Has the linguistic footprint of one of America’s most historically rich and diverse c…
 
In folklore and fiction there’s a rich tradition of trees that talk, from Greek mythology to The Wizard of Oz. But that’s make-believe, right? Well, maybe. Many ecologists now believe that trees are in constant communication with their surroundings. Linguists may roll their eyes at claims of ‘talk,’ or ‘language.’ But observing how trees interact h…
 
Susanna Zaraysky with a printout of her brain scan. Susanna Zaraysky, speaker of nine languages, is one of those people who seem able to pick up French or Portuguese almost overnight. In reality, it’s not so effortless—but is she cognitively predisposed to attaining fluency in so many languages? We follow her to an MIT lab where researchers put her…
 
Stereotypes about Mormon missionaries tend to overshadow their great success in foreign language learning. Why is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints so skilled at teaching languages? We hear from missionaries, teachers and scholars, in Utah and Finland. Photo by Kavita Pillay. Music by Blue Dot Sessions, Booker and the Yeomans and Podi…
 
There’s a new language class on offer at Harvard. Gullah Geechee is a creole language developed by enslaved Africans and still spoken today. As far as anyone knows, it’s the first time it’s been taught anywhere. Sunn M’Cheaux — native speaker turned Harvard instructor — tells his story and the story of Gullah Geechee, a language that is as African …
 
‘Real’ or ’synthetic’? ‘Authentic’ or ‘lab-grown’? ‘Bloodstained’ or ‘green’? The highly-regulated words that describe diamonds define their narrative — and maybe even their value. We take you to New York’s Diamond District to meet some of its most engaging characters as they struggle to come to terms with the new lexicon of diamonds. Music in this…
 
Are you repelled by certain words? Do you get that fingernails-on-chalkboard feeling when someone says ‘moist,’ ‘dollop’ or ‘fascia’? In this week’s episode Kavita Pillay, who has some word aversions of her own, seeks answers from linguists who study this phenomenon. Music in the podcast by Podington Bear, Kikoru and Blue Dot Sessions. Photo by Sau…
 
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