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    The Strange Physics of How Babies Talk

    Different arrangements of words can be likened to microstates in statistical mechanics—the total set of ways a system’s constituent particles can be configured.Photo illustration by Khomich Yauheni / Shutterstock Like all new parents, I must sound like a kook when I babble along with my 9-month-old daughter. That’s okay: It delights her. I sometimes ask […]

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    What Trump’s Simplified Language Means

    “There is a predictive relationship that speeches that are expressed using very simple basic language tend to precede very authoritarian acts like the use of executive orders.”Photograph by Gage Skidmore / Flickr Acouple years ago, I was surprised that a panel called “The Press and President Trump,” held at the Columbia Journalism School, didn’t broach […]

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    Does English Fulfill the Dream of a Universal Language?

    English adapts to the needs of people speaking it more than it shapes those people’s ideas or ideals.Photograph by kimberrywood / Shutterstock Hideo Kojima is the Japanese creator of the 2015 video game, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. He evidently chose “phantom pain” as a subtitle because he thought it captured the experience […]

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    The English Word That Hasn’t Changed in Sound or Meaning in 8,000 Years

    The word lox was one of the clues that eventually led linguists to discover who the Proto-Indo-Europeans were, and where they lived.Photograph by Helen Cook / Flickr One of my favorite words is lox,” says Gregory Guy, a professor of linguistics at New York University. There is hardly a more quintessential New York food than […]

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    The Hidden Link Between Morality and Language

    Tragedy can strike us any time, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make the best of it. When Frank’s dog was struck and killed by a car in front of his house, he grew curious what Fido might taste like. So he cooked him up and ate him for dinner. It was a harmless decision, […]

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    What Trump’s Simplified Language Means

    On the last weekend in April, I was surprised that a panel called “The Press and President Trump,” held at the Columbia Journalism School, didn’t broach the subject of mental illness. Just over a week earlier, at a psychiatry conference at Yale, a group of the attendees announced that Trump has a “dangerous mental illness.” […]

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    5 Languages That Could Change the Way You See the World

    I went to my neighbor’s house for something to eat yesterday. Think about this sentence. It’s pretty simple—English speakers would know precisely what it means. But what does it actually tell you—or, more to the point, what does it not tell you? It doesn’t specify facts like the subject’s gender or the neighbor’s, or what […]

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    The Scientist Who Helped Amy Adams Talk to Aliens in “Arrival”

    Earlier this year, when Amy Adams was in Montreal working on the sci-fi movie, Arrival, out today, she hung out with linguist Jessica Coon. In the film, Adams plays a linguist tasked by the United States government with deciphering a visiting aliens’ language. The film’s producers tapped Coon, an associate professor in the Department of Linguistics […]

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    Is Multilingual Rap Eroding Canada’s French Language?

    Recently a Quebec arts foundation required the Francophone rap group Dead Obies to give back an $18,000 grant they’d been awarded to record their newest album. The problem? A word count determined that the group had stirred too much English into their distinctive multilingual lyrics, falling short of the rule that 70 percent of the […]

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    The Word “Million” Didn’t Exist Until We Needed It

    I would cut off my right hand if you find it.” That was the guarantee retired Columbia history lecturer Jens Ulff-Møller made that there was no word for “million” in Old English, a medieval predecessor of the language you’re currently reading. Some Anglo-Saxon writers understood the idea of a million, and they had a term for it: a “thousand […]