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Welcome to Wordwide FX's new enterprise!

Insight by WFX is a synthesis of our passion for languages and the financial markets. Here you will find technical and fundamental analyses from our clients, media partners and contributors in different languages, as well as discussions on languages and translation. And of course we will keep you updated on what is happening inside Wordwide FX Financial Translations. Hope you enjoy it! Greetings from the Wordwide FX team!


Language started 1.5m years earlier than previously thought as scientists say Homo Erectus were first to talk


By Wordwide FX Financial Translations

Via The Telegraph

By Sarah Knapton

In the beginning was the word. And it was first spoken by Homo Erectus, according to a controversial new theory.

Most paleontologists believe language emerged with the evolution of Homo Sapiens around 350,000 years ago.

But Daniel Everett, Professor of Global Studies, at Bentley University, Massachusetts, author of How Language Began, claims our earlier ancestors must have been able to talk to each other.

Prof Everett, claims that Homo Erectus, who lived from 1.8 million years ago, invented language and used it to hunt and build boats to colonise remote islands such as Flores in Indonesia and Crete, where fossils have been found even though there was never a land link with Africa.

Speaking at the AAAS annual meeting in Austin, Texas, he said: “Everybody talks about Homo Erectus as a stupid ape-like creature, which of course describes us just as well, and yet what I want to emphasize is that Erectus was the smartest creature that had ever walked the Earth.

“They had planning abilities. They made tools. But the most incredible tools that Erectus made were vessels for sailing the open ocean.

“Oceans were never a barrier to the travels of Erectus. They travelled all over the world. It was intentional they needed craft and they needed to take groups of twenty or so at least to get to those places.

“Erectus needed language when they were sailing to the island of Flores. They couldn’t have simply caught a ride on a floating log because then they would have been washed out to see when they hit the current. They needed to be able to paddle.

“And if they paddled they needed to be able to say ‘paddle there’ or ‘don’t paddle.’ You need communication with symbols not just grunts. They accomplished too much for this to simply be the sort of communication that we see in other species without symbols.”

Homo Erectus was the first member of our genus homo, and so was the first species of human.

It stood up to five feet 11 inches tall, and had the biggest brain of any land animal that had ever lived, around 950CC, roughly the size of European females today.

They had sophisticated settlements, with separate areas for processing plants and animals, as well as for living, sleeping and engaging in communal activities, Prof Everett told delegates.

There is also evidence that they had symbolic objects. A 250,000 year old carving of a woman was found in Berekhat Ram, Israel, 250,000 years ago.

“They certainly were not incapable of speech they just would have had a different speech,” said Prof Everett.

“Homo Erectus spoke and invented the Model T Ford of language. We speak the Tesla form, but their Model T form was not a proto-language it was a real language.

“Homo Erectus needs more respect, Homo Neanderthalis was born into a linguistic world. Homo Sapiens was born into a linguistic world. We just inherited what Homo Erectus had invented for us.” However Professor Chris Stringer from The Natural History Museum in London, was more skeptical about the clams.

“I don’t accept that, for example that Erectus must have had boats to get to Flores,” he said.

“Tsunamis could have moved early humans on rafts of vegetation. That said I think homo heidelbergensis (another early human who lived between 600,000 and 200,000 years ago) had a complex enough life to require speech, though not at a level of modern human language. With Erectus, I’m not so sure.”


Modern Hebrew: "To create a new language which is completely old"


By Wordwide FX Financial Translations

By Aysa Pereltsvag

Via Languages of the World

According to the official story, Hebrew has been “revived” in the late 19th century and early 20th century until it once again became the national language of Israel. But some scholars — such as Paul Wexler and Gil’ad Zuckermann — have challenged this narrative, proposing instead that Modern Hebrew is a new language with little or no roots in a Semitic past. So which is it, old or new?

A bit of historical background first. The “old”, Biblical (or Classical) Hebrew was spoken (yes, spoken!) some 3,500-3,000 years ago. The core of the Hebrew Bible, the Torah, traditionally believed to have been first recorded 3,300 years ago, is written in Biblical Hebrew (obviously, hence the name). This language is undoubtedly a member of the Semitic language family. It was a living, spoken language and it kept changing through time.

But for external reasons to do with the Bar Kohba war of 135 CE, exile and diaspora, Hebrew gradually became extinct as a spoken language around 200 CE. Yet, it continued to be used as a liturgical and written language for many centuries thereafter. It was used for prayer and to write books and documents in a variety of fields, including not just religion, but also law, business, philosophy, literature and medicine. Furthermore, it was spoken by Jewish traders as a second language, a lingua franca for communication between Jews from different lands (more on this below). But crucially, it was not spoken by anyone as a native language, a mother tongue. This is what makes us analyze it as a dead language. Whether Modern Hebrew was “revived from the dead” or “created from scratch”, it is now spoken by some 5 million people natively and serves as the national language of the State of Israel. It is now once again a living, spoken language and it keeps changing. So what exactly happened in those early “revival” years and how did Hebrew once again become a living language?

If we need to put a date on the beginning of the process of the Hebrew language “revival” (a term I will use for now), it must be October 13th 1881, when a man called Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and his friends agreed to exclusively speak Hebrew in their conversations. Thus, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda is usually credited with the feat of “reviving” Hebrew. Who was he and what did he do?

He was born Eliezer Yitzhak Perelman in 1858 in that part of the Russian Empire where Russians, Belarusians, Poles and Lithuanians lived side by side with a large Jewish population. At the age of three, he started learning in a xeder, a school for young children, where he learned Biblical Hebrew. By the time he was twelve, Ben-Yehuda was familiar with large portions of Torah, Mishna and Talmud. Hoping he would become a rabbi, his parents sent him to a yeshiva where he continued studying Torah and Biblical Hebrew. In addition to Biblical Hebrew, he studied Lithuanian, Yiddish, Hebrew and Aramaic, and in the following years, he also learned French, German and Russian (from his first wife, Deborah) and traveled to Dunaburg, Latvia and later to Paris for further education.

With the rise of Jewish nationalism in 19th century Europe, Ben-Yehuda was captivated by the innovative ideas of Zionism. While reading the Hebrew language newspaper HaShahar, he became acquainted with Zionism and other political ideas of the day. Among those ideas was the belief that one of the criteria needed to define a nation worthy of national rights was its use of a common language spoken by both the society and the individual. This made Ben-Yehuda conclude that the reviving the Hebrew language in the Land of Israel would unite all Jews worldwide. In fact, Ben-Yehuda regarded Hebrew and Zionism as one and the same, writing that

"The Hebrew langage can live only if we revive the nation and return it to the fatherland".

And so, in 1881, Ben-Yehuda moved to Palestine, then ruled by the Ottoman Empire, where he settled in Jerusalem and on October 13th made that fateful decision to speak only Hebrew, both in the home, with his wife Deborah, and outside the home as well, with his like-minded Hebrew-revivalist friends. Thus, he set out to achieve his self-proclaimed goal, which he later formulated as

"to create a new language which is completely old..."

To this end, Ben-Yehuda (who by then had adopted this Hebrew name) became a major figure in the establishment of the Committee of the Hebrew Language (Va’ad HaLaschon), later the Academy of the Hebrew Language, an organization that still exists today. It was also Ben-Yehuda who wrote the first Modern Hebrew dictionary and invented a word for it, milon (from mila ‘word’). Many of the words he coined have become part and parcel of the language but others — some 2,000 words — never caught on. His word for ‘tomato’, for instance, was badura, but Hebrew speakers today use the word agvania.

But these efforts would have had little effect if it were not for another fateful decision he and his wife have made: to speak only in Hebrew to their first-born son Ben-Zion (“the son of Zion”) Ben-Yehuda (born in 1882; later he will adopt the name Itamar Ben-Avi, “the son of my father”) and to the other four children to follow. He refused to let his son be exposed to other languages during childhood, so much so that it is said he once reprimanded his wife for singing a Russian lullaby to the child. As a result, Ben-Zion became the first native speaker of Modern Hebrew. According to the story, he started speaking only at the age of 4, and his first words were Lo l’hit’lachem ‘Don’t fight’ (was it in response to his parents quarreling over language use in the home?).

Soon, Ben-Yehuda was not the only one to speak to his children in Hebrew. The idea of Hebrew “revival” caught on: the first Hebrew schools were established; Hebrew increasingly became a spoken language of daily affairs; in 1922 it became an official language of British Palestine; and in 1925 it became the first “indigenous” language to be used as the medium of university instruction with the founding of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, my alma mater.

Ben-Yehuda’s tireless work to raise awareness and to fight his opponents (and they were many) made him a symbol of the Hebrew revival and a part of the contemporary Israeli self-narrative. Here’s how Cecil Roth summed up Ben-Yehuda’s contribution to the Hebrew language:

"Before Ben-Yehuda, Jews could speak Hebrew; after him, the did."

But as symbolic as Ben-Yehuda has become to the process of Hebrew’s return to regular usage, his role in this process of turning a dead but sacred language into a national language with millions of first language speakers should not be overestimated.

As research shows, in the fifty years preceding Ben-Yehuda’s arrival to Palestine and the start of the revival process, a version of spoken Hebrew already existed in the markets of Jerusalem. The Sephardic Jews who spoke Ladino or Arabic and the Ashkenazi Jews who spoke Yiddish needed a common language for commercial purposes, a lingua franca, and the most obvious choice was Hebrew. It should be noted that it was not a native tongue for anyone, but it was not a pidgin of the sort that would arise between English and Chinese traders or between Russian and Norwegian fishermen and merchants. It did not combine bits and pieces of simplified versions of two languages. Rather, it was a modified version of Hebrew that these people knew from their studies of ancient and medieval religious texts, their prayer books and other literature.

The connection to the Biblical Hebrew of yesteryear was perceived as strong enough to ruffle the feathers of the very religious Jews (the haredim): how dare these “revivalists” use a sacred language for mundane topics of everyday life?! They denounced Ben-Yehuda to the British mandate authorities. As a result, he was imprisonned, which didn’t do much good to his health or his spirit and must have precipitated his death from tuberculosis (from which he had suffered for many years) at the age of 64.

Below, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda while working on the Hebrew dictionary, 1912. The David B. Keidan Collection of Digital Images from the Central Zionist Archives (via Harvard University Library)



Stanford experts highlight link between language and race in new book


By Wordwide FX Financial Translations

Via Stanford News

By Alex Shashkvich

Language is one of the most important cultural means that people have for shaping their identity. A new field called raciolinguistics explores this relationship between language and race.

Anthropologist Samy Alim (photo below) argues that the relationship between race, language and racism plays such a key role in reflecting and defining the way human societies are structured that it deserves study as a separate field, which he calls raciolinguistics.

Anthropologist Samy Alim is one of the scholars establishing the discipline of raciolinguistics, the examination of how language and race shape each other. (Image credit: Courtesy H. Samy Alim)
Alim, a professor in the Stanford Graduate School of Education, examines the connection between language, race and power in a new book, co-edited with John Rickford and Arnetha Ball. The book, Raciolinguistics: How Language Shapes Our Ideas About Race, compiles recent scholarly research on different societies around the world.

Stanford News Service interviewed Alim, the book’s lead editor and director of the Center for Race, Ethnicity and Language, about the emerging field of raciolinguistics and his research.

You say that today more than ever, American society is hyperracial and hyperracializing. What do you mean by that and why do you think that is so?

When the U.S. elected its first black president eight years ago, some proclaimed the U.S. to be a “postracial” society, where race doesn’t matter. But every social indicator, from the income gap to incarceration rates and medical statistics on infant mortality, among others, paints a picture of a nation deeply structured and divided by race.

It is now nearly impossible to ignore social scientific research of all stripes, which demonstrates that, rather than postracial, American society is in fact hyperracial or hyperracializing. That is, we are constantly orienting to race while at the same time denying the overwhelming evidence that shows the myriad ways that American society is fundamentally structured by it.

When racist speech is prevalent in mainstream U.S. political arenas – such as the racializing words of President-elect Donald Trump and other Republicans in the 2016 presidential primary – the possibility for violence increases, as we’ve seen with the recent attacks on U.S. Muslims and Mexicans.

This type of language has breathed new life into white supremacist movements like the so-called “alt-right,” the term itself being a perfect example of how language can be used to obscure and sanitize what are overtly racist movements.

Can you give specific examples from your research that highlight this connection between language and identity?

I studied Barack Obama’s speech patterns and I’ve found that his speech changed depending on his audience. Because of prevailing racist, xenophobic and Islamophobic ideas about who he was, he had to speak in such a way that made as many people comfortable with him as possible.

Obama used a “black preacher style” to appeal to the African American community, linking himself to familiar black figures like Martin Luther King Jr. At the same time, he used “standard” English when he talked to more general audiences. But his “black preacher style” was not only important for the black electorate; he also alleviated some white American fears that he was “not American” and “not Christian.” He was caught between discriminatory discourses of race, language, citizenship and religion, and he needed to navigate between them in order to not be seen as “the African, Muslim boogeyman” that the far right made him out to be. Language and race work together here in very important ways.

I argue that Obama’s ability to switch between different linguistic varieties has been an advantage in his political career. His speech can be seen as an example of transgressive, transracial politics.

What do you believe is the biggest takeaway from the research compiled in this book?

As leading scholars argue in the book, language is often overlooked as one of the most important cultural means that we have for distinguishing ourselves from others. But rather than being fixed and predetermined, we argue that racial identities can shift across contexts and even in moment-to-moment interactions.

We use the knowledge gained from our studies to argue for a new kind of politics – a transgressive, transracial politics – that considers both the powerful ways that race is taken up by people of color in contexts of racial inequality and the ways that we challenge the very process of racial categorization itself. Race is both a social construct and an important social reality. So how do we develop a new politics around that in this current moment?

What is raciolinguistics and why was it important to establish this field?

Raciolinguistics examines how language shapes race and how race shapes language. It’s a field that grew out of a need to understand that there is a close relationship between race, racism and language and how these processes impact our lives across domains like politics and education.

Some linguists study language in a vacuum without theorizing race at all. On the other hand, race scholars that do think a lot about race oftentimes neglect the central role that language plays in processes of racialization.

So, in this book, we bring together cutting-edge, innovative scholars interested in explicating the increasingly vexed relationships between race, language and power in our rapidly changing world – from the U.S.-Mexico border to Brazil, Spain, South Africa, Israel and the United Kingdom.

What are your next steps for establishing raciolinguistics as a new field?

I founded the Stanford Center for Race, Ethnicity and Language (CREAL) in 2010 to help grow the field. It was the first and only center of its kind in the world. From there, in 2012, I served as founding director of the program in Race, Inequality and Language in Education (RILE), which now is one of the programs that receives the most applications in the Graduate School of Education.

There are several next steps, but the biggest two, for me, are these: I am now editing The Oxford Handbook of Language and Race with other leaders in the field, Jonathan Rosa, Angela Reyes and Mary Bucholtz. This is an explicit effort to build the field. Further, I have just begun editing a book series for Oxford University Press, Oxford Studies in Language and Race. Raciolinguistics is a collective effort, and scholars all over the country and the world are building it with us.

Below: Anthropologist Samy Alim is one of the scholars establishing the discipline of raciolinguistics, the examination of how language and race shape each other. (Image credit: Courtesy H. Samy Alim)


Trump says the press mangles his “beautiful flowing sentences.” We asked linguists to weigh in.


By Wordwide FX Financial Translations

This week, President-Elect Donald Trump canceled a much-anticipated press conference on his private business dealings, saying he was too busy nominating Cabinet members.

Despite repeatedly lambasting Hillary Clinton for not facing the press during the campaign, Trump has not held a press conference since July 27.

But now he has different excuse for avoiding interviews: The press mangles his “beautiful” sentences, and he has had enough of it, Trump told a crowd in West Allis, Wisconsin, at one of his Victory Tour rallies:

For the last month I decided not to do interviews, because they give interviews and they chop up your sentences and cut them short. You will have this beautiful flowing sentence where the back of the sentence reverts to the front and they cut the back of the sentence off, and I say I never said that. So, I said, you know what, I am not going to deal with them. They are very dishonest people, I said.
For those who covered Trump during this campaign, the comment gives some pause. Transcribing Trump off script can be a challenge — I can attest to this. When he’s speaking off the cuff, his rambling remarks can be full of digressions and hard-to-follow tangents. He often jumps to an entirely new thought before finishing his previous one.

Consider this Trump comment on the Iran nuclear deal during a campaign rally in South Carolina on July 21, 2015. Try to follow the train of thought here:

Look, having nuclear — my uncle was a great professor and scientist and engineer, Dr. John Trump at MIT; good genes, very good genes, okay, very smart, the Wharton School of Finance, very good, very smart — you know, if you’re a conservative Republican, if I were a liberal, if, like, okay, if I ran as a liberal Democrat, they would say I'm one of the smartest people anywhere in the world — it’s true! — but when you're a conservative Republican they try — oh, do they do a number — that’s why I always start off: Went to Wharton, was a good student, went there, went there, did this, built a fortune — you know I have to give my like credentials all the time, because we’re a little disadvantaged — but you look at the nuclear deal, the thing that really bothers me — it would have been so easy, and it’s not as important as these lives are (nuclear is powerful; my uncle explained that to me many, many years ago, the power and that was 35 years ago; he would explain the power of what's going to happen and he was right — who would have thought?), but when you look at what's going on with the four prisoners — now it used to be three, now it’s four — but when it was three and even now, I would have said it's all in the messenger; fellas, and it is fellas because, you know, they don't, they haven’t figured that the women are smarter right now than the men, so, you know, it’s gonna take them about another 150 years — but the Persians are great negotiators, the Iranians are great negotiators, so, and they, they just killed, they just killed us.
Trump’s simple message — "the Iran deal is bad for the United States" — was interrupted by musings on his uncle’s education, his own education, the power of nuclear energy, prisoners, the intelligence of women, and the negotiating prowess of Iranians, seemingly without rhyme or reason. Slate even called on the public to help diagram it.

"His speeches are full of non sequiturs," says Kristin Kobes Du Mez, a Calvin College historian who has done a comparative study of Trump and Clinton’s speaking styles. It’s a completely different style from nearly any other politician you normally see on a big stage.

During the campaign, I was curious if professional linguists and historians could help us figure out what makes Trump’s speaking style unique. There were lots of disagreements on this front, but one thing stood out: Trump’s speeches aren’t meant to be read or used for sound bites, which is probably why Trump is so frustrated with how he comes off in the media.

Rather, his seeming incoherence stems from the big difference between written and spoken language. Trump’s style of speaking has its roots in oral culture. He rallies people through impassioned, targeted conversation — even if it doesn’t always follow a clear arc.

Why Trump’s speeches are incomprehensible to some — and make perfect sense to others
Only a few of Trump’s big speeches have been scripted. At many of his rallies, he speaks off the cuff. We get a lot of fractured, unfinished sentences, moving quickly from thought to thought — what Trump calls a “beautiful flowing sentence.”

To some (or many), this style is completely incoherent. But clearly not everyone feels this way. Many people walked away from Trump’s rallies having understood — and believed — what he said.

It’s the difference between reading Trump’s remarks and listening to them in real time, University of Pennsylvania linguist Mark Liberman explained:

This apparent incoherence has two main causes: false starts and parentheticals. Both are effectively signaled in speaking — by prosody along with gesture, posture, and gaze — and therefore largely factored out by listeners. But in textual form the cues are gone, and we lose the thread.
In other words, Trump’s digressions and rambles — or, as he says, when “the back of the sentence reverts to the front” — are much easier to follow in person thanks to subtle cues.

His style of speaking is conversational, and may even stem from his New York City upbringing. As George Lakoff, a linguist at UC Berkeley, told me, "[The] thing about being a New Yorker is it is polite if you finish their sentences for them. It’s a natural part of conversation."

This may be why Trump’s sentences often seem, in transcript form, to trail off with no ending. "He knows his audience can finish his sentences for him," Lakoff says.

Watching Trump, it’s easy to see how this plays out. He makes vague implications with a raised eyebrow or a shrug, allowing his audience to reach their own conclusions. And that conversational style can be effective. It’s more intimate than a scripted speech. People walk away from Trump feeling as though he were casually talking to them, allowing them to finish his thoughts.

Yet to many linguists, Trump stands out for how often he deploys these conversational tics. "Trump's frequency of divergence is unusual," Liberman says. In other words, he goes off topic way more often than the average person in conversation.

Geoffrey Pullum, a linguist at the University of Edinburgh, argues that there’s more going on than just a conversational, I’ll-let-you-fill-in-the-gaps-style. Trump’s unorganized sentences and short snippets might suggest something about how his mind works. "His speech suggests a man with scattered thoughts, a short span of attention, and a lack of intellectual discipline and analytical skills," Pullum says.

More sophisticated thinkers and speakers (including many past presidents), Pullum argues, are able to use "hypotaxis — that is, embedding of clauses within clauses." Trump can’t seem to do that.

Pullum explains further: "When you say something like, 'While Congress shows no interest in doing X, I feel that the American people believe it is essential,' the clause ‘it is essential’ is inside the clause ‘the American people believe it is essential’ which is inside the clause ‘I feel that the American people believe it is essential,’ and so on. You get no such organized thoughts from Trump. It's bursts of noun phrases, self-interruptions, sudden departures from the theme, flashes of memory, odd side remarks. ... It's the disordered language of a person with a concentration problem."

Trump’s speeches can be appealing because he uses a lot of salesmen’s tricks
Lakoff has an explanation for why Trump’s style of speaking is so appealing to many. Many of Trump’s most famous catchphrases are actually versions of time-tested speech mechanisms that salesmen use. They’re powerful because they help shape our unconscious.

Take, for example, Trump’s frequent use of "Many people are saying..." or "Believe me" — often right after saying something that is baseless or untrue. This tends to sound more trustworthy to listeners than just outright stating the baseless claim, since Trump implies that he has direct experience with what he’s talking about. At a base level, Lakoff argues, people are more inclined to believe something that seems to have been shared.

And when Trump kept calling Clinton "crooked," or referring to terrorists as "radical Muslims," he strengthened the association through repetition. He also calls his supporters "folks," to show he is one of them (though many politicians employ this trick). Trump doesn’t repeat phrases and adjectives because he is stalling for time, Liberman says; for the most part, he’s providing emphasis and strengthening the association.

These are normal techniques, particularly in conversational speech. "Is he reading cognitive science? No. He has 50 years of experience as a salesman who doesn’t care who he is selling to," Lakoff says. On this account, Trump used similar methods in his QVC-style pitch of steaks and vodka as he does when he talks about his plan to stop ISIS.

"He has been doing this for a very long time as a salesman — that’s what he is best at," Lakoff says.

People understand Trump on an emotional level
Trump’s style proved to be successful — he beat out a highly competitive field of lifelong Republicans and a seasoned politician in Hillary Clinton. He's confident enough to address large crowds conversationally and ad-lib on stage.

That said, his rise can’t be attributed purely to his speaking style. It certainly has a lot to do with what he is actually saying. "If the content were different, I think it would come across as rambling and flabby and ineffective," Liberman says.

In other words, when Trump’s audience finishes his sentences for him, the blanks are filled with sentiments that resonate: fears of joblessness, worries about the United States losing its status as a major world power, concerns about foreign terrorist organizations. Trump validates their insecurities and justifies their anger. He connects on an emotional level, Du Mez says.

"For listeners who identify with Trump, there is little they need to do but claim what they’re entitled to," she says. "No need for sacrifice, for compromise, for complexity. He taps into fear and insecurity, but then enables his audience to express that fear through anger. And anger gives the illusion of empowerment."

That doesn’t mean it will translate to effective leadership, however. As much as the American people look for authenticity and spontaneity in a president, which Trump seems to have mastered, they are also known to value discipline.

"Leadership is hard; it needs discipline, concentration, and an ability to ignore what's irrelevant or needless or personal or silly," Pullum says. "There is no sign of it from Trump. This man talks honestly enough that you can see what he's like: He's an undisciplined narcissist who craves power but doesn't have the intellectual capacity to exercise it wisely."


Y’all, You’uns, Yinz, Youse: How Regional Dialects Are Fixing Standard English


By Wordwide FX Financial Translations

For reasons briefly outlined below, English lost the singular/plural distinction for the second person pronoun at some point in history and "you" is used either to refer to just one person or to a group of people. The different dialects of English have come up with different solutions, the most popular maybe being American English "you guys". In this article, Atlas Oscura author Dan Nosowitz argues that "you guys" is flawed and that it is the worse solution of them all. Let's see why.   

Via Atlas Oscura

By Dan Nosowitz

There is perhaps no greater argument that American English is a deeply flawed, infuriating, and difficult language than the simple phrase “you guys.”

“You guys” is the most common way Americans refer directly to a group of people; it is a de facto pronoun, duct-taped together. If you remember your high school linguistics, you might also remember that this pronoun would be the second-person plural. (First person is “I,” second person is “you,” third person is “he/she”.) The need for a pronoun to directly refer to a group of people is not a small one, or one that can simply be brushed aside; this is one of the most basic elements of language.

And American English is terrible at it. 

In “standard American English,” meaning, essentially, schoolroom English, the second person pronoun is “you,” for either singular or plural. Talking to your spouse? Use “you.” Talking to your spouse and his or her entire family, at the same time? Use…well, also use “you.” It is a huge, strange weakness in American English: when someone is talking to a group of people, we have no way of indicating whether the speaker is talking to only one person or the entire group. Peeking your head out from the kitchen at a dinner party and asking, “Hey, can you get me a drink?” is likely to score you a look of confusion. Who are you talking to, exactly?

“Why would we have one word for something as fundamental as singular and plural? That just screams ‘fix this,’” says Paul Reed, a linguist at the University of South Carolina who, as a native Southern linguist, spends a lot of time thinking about the second-person plural pronoun. “And dialect speakers have.” In place of any standardized second-person plural pronoun, English speakers around the world have been forced to scramble to make something up. You’ve heard the solutions: y’all, youse, you guys, yinz, you’uns.

These are widely seen as incorrect, or nonstandard. The most famous, of course, is y’all. So what’s the history of y’all? How did such an amateur linguistic fix become a pillar of everyday speech?

Ancestral varieties of English do, strangely, have words to distinguish between second-person singular and plural pronouns. Sara Malton, a professor at Canada’s Saint Mary’s University, has a great essay on the strange transition in pronouns from Old to Middle to Modern English. The basic history is thus: Old English, which would sound to modern ears more like German than English, did in fact have singular/plural distinctions.

Even crazier, they not only had basic one/many distinctions, but got even more granular: Old English had a third category, for dual pronouns, used for talking about or to a group of specifically two people. Old English’s nominative second person—nominative refers to the subject, like the “you” that is doing something—is þū. As for pronunciation: that first letter is pronounced with something dental (like a “t” or “th” or “d,” dental meaning a consonant that’s made with the tongue pressing against the teeth) followed by a high-back vowel (high-back referring to the position of the tongue within the mouth, like “oh” or “ooh” or “uh”).

For plural, the Old English version of “you” was , pronounced something like “yih.” And the dual form, which was completely thrown in the garbage by the transition to Middle English, was git, pronounced like “yit.”

Following the Norman Conquest in 1066, heavy influence from French speakers began to quickly change the nature of English, marking the move to Middle English. That dual form vanished, and the singular and plural forms changed. Within a couple of centuries, the dominant singular version of “you” was “thou,” and the plural was “ye.” Those each had their own families of related pronouns, like “thy” and “thine” and, interestingly, “you” and “your.” (The former is singular, the latter plural.)

Thou and ye is a perfectly fine arrangement of second-person pronouns, and we’d all be better off if they’d stuck around, but they didn’t. Nobody exactly knows why, but scholars have focused on the mid-17th century work of Shakespeare to help tell us how people were talking to each other and what pronouns they were using.

What changed around this point is that the singular/plural division between thou and ye became, we think, less important than the formal/informal divide. Thou became informal, and ye became formal. The general belief is that this change came from the French, thanks to the Norman Invasion: French has and had a firm formal/informal divide in its pronouns. “As is often the case in Middle English, English speakers like to say, ‘we have the French to blame,’” says Malton. If you remember your classroom French, you’ll remember the formal/informal pronouns: tu is informal, vous is formal.

Because of that rising influence of French, English began to show some formal/informal divide as well. We can see this in Shakespeare’s work, when he sometimes used it as a subtle dig: in Twelfth Night, Shakespeare has a noble refer to another noble with “thou,” which would have been a sign of slight but clever disrespect.

The formal/informal thing is also why “thou” makes so many appearances in the King James Bible, as in “thou shalt not (do anything).” “When you’re talking to God you want it to be this intimate thing, so that’s why the authors of the King James Bible used thou,” says Reed. But as Malton notes, this is really all just a guess; it’s not that clear that Shakespeare’s dialogue was really (or even meant to be) an accurate depiction of the way people really talked. Using it as a linguistic source has its difficulties! But we also don’t really have much better data, so.

By the beginning of the 18th century, “thou” began exiting the language completely. “Ye” stuck around, but changed slightly to become “you.” Nobody really knows how this happened; it’s possible that nobody really wanted to use any noun that was associated with the informal lower classes, and it’s possible that the colonization of North America, and subsequent desire for separation from England, led new Americans to spurn these social hierarchy language formations. There’s also the potential that the existence of the colonies, with suddenly possible upward social mobility, left little desire to use any informal pronoun at all.

“We all aspire to ‘you,’” says Malton. But that’s really all just guesswork based on how stuff turned out. All we know is that “thou” rapidly disappeared.

As the previously plural, formal “ye” became the universal “you,” English speakers worldwide became aware pretty quickly that losing a singular/plural distinction is…bad. So around the world, solutions began popping up.

“Y’all” is easily the most famous solution. Its provenance is unclear, but certainly it comes from the American South. The two possible ancestors of y’all are the Scots-Irish ye aw, which means “you all,” and the West African/Caribbean you all (a calque, or borrowed word, from England), which means, as you might expect, “you all.” Because these two phrases are basically the same, and because something was needed to fill that gap, and because both the Scots-Irish and the newly dumped African slaves both lived in the same region, eventually the two phrases were combined and shortened. Hence: y’all.

But y’all isn’t the only solution regional dialects have come up with. Reed grew up using “you’uns,” common in Appalachia, is a slight shortening of the Scottish “you ones.” “Ones,” in some forms of Scottish English, is a plural marker, like the American “guys,” so you can say “you ones” or “we ones.” 

“You’uns” gets even shorter just north of the Appalachians, where it’s been turned into “yinz” by the residents of Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania. Yinz, like y’all, has become a sort of emblem of the area from which it comes; Pittsburgh residents sometimes refer to themselves as Yinzers, to honor the unique pronoun native to their fine city.

A simpler version comes from the other side of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, and has also bled up to parts of New York City: “youse.” This is an understandable creation: you normally add the letter “s” to things to make them plural, right? And the word “you” needs to be plural. So, I don’t know, add an “s” to it. Youse.

Which brings us to the most popular and worst plural form: “you guys.” This solution has so, so many faults. For one thing, it’s gendered; taken by itself, “guy” refers to males, and it’s both inexact and distinctly sexist to use that word to apply to a group of people of any gender. It’s also just kind of awkward, the most transparently stapled-together solution to the second-person plural problem we have. “You, uh…guys. All the guys.” It’s informal in a way that feels, in many situations, entirely too casual. (The word “guy” in English seems to originate from the Gunpowder Plot, a failed assassination attempt, and one of its plotters, Guy Fawkes. Eventually, in England, “guy” came to refer to the effigies burned in remembrance on Guy Fawkes Night, and eventually to any male.) 

Elsewhere in the English-speaking world, solutions vary. “Ye,” somehow, actually persists in some parts of Ireland, as well as in the strangely cockney dialect of the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador. But it’s also changed; “ye” is now plural, and “you” is usually the singular.

In England, the most popular version is “you lot,” essentially the English version of the American “you guys,” and just as awkward. 

Though Quakers are stereotyped for their use of “plain speak,” which is said to include words like “thou” and “thee,” theoretically helping them to distinguish between singular and plural, in fact very few Quakers still actually use these words. Oh well. They’re good words.


Perhaps the most interesting thing about the second-person plural pronoun is what it tells us about the entire idea of “standardized” languages. Standard English doesn’t have a singular/plural distinction, and this is what’s taught in schools, drilled into our heads through newscasters and books and media. At the same time, it’s self-evidently a weakness; there is absolutely no advantage to lacking a second-person plural, and plenty of reasons to have one. 

Regional dialects around the world have filled in the gaps, with y’all and youse and yinz and you lot, but due to the weird tyranny of standardized language, these aren’t seen as clever solutions to a problem we all face: they’re seen as wrong. Incorrect. Maybe the speakers are perceived as dumb or uneducated.

Partly that’s due to stigmatization of the groups that created them.; “There’s always the underlying thought that something from the South might be somewhat lesser, or something from African-Americans might be somewhat lesser, because of the history of our nation,” says Reed. The same thing colors our national reaction to you’uns (it comes from poor rural areas), youse (poor urban areas) and yinz (Pittsburgh). 

And this is all ridiculous, if difficult to change. Y’all is not wrong or dumb; it’s a solution to a problem endemic to the “correct” dialect. “People that we would consider non-mainstream speakers kind of led the way,” says Reed. “They filled the gap that standard language, however we want to define it, left. And their language can be considered richer from that viewpoint.” Y’all is a beautiful word. It’s “you guys” that’s the problem.





Language is in the genes


By Wordwide FX Financial Translations

Via Max-Planck Gesellschaft 

By Prof. Dr. Simon E. Fisher. Max-Planck Institute for Psycholonguistics  , Nijmegen, Netherlands

It is accepted as a scientific fact that the prerequisite for the unique human aptitude for language and speech must be in the DNA of Homo sapiens. Yet a single “language gene” does not exist. Researchers in the Language and Genetics Department at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen are getting to the bottom of the genetic traces of the human ability to communicate.

Are you still studying this one gene? Shouldn't you be finished with it by now?” Every now and then, Simon Fisher encounters this puzzled enquiry from his parents. When telling this story, the Max Planck Director and Head of the Language and Genetics Department at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen has to laugh. To him, it’s obvious that he’s a long way from letting go of this gene, even 15 years after his great coup. After all, the secret behind FOXP2, the gene that the media described as “the language gene” in 2001, is still far from being resolved –- just like the genetic background to the unique human talent for communication. “We can be sure that the basis for language and speech lies partly in the genome”, says Fisher. “But it was clear from the outset that a single gene cannot explain this outstanding ability.”

But let’s start at the beginning. In the 1990s, Simon Fisher, who was then still at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics at Oxford University, worked with his colleagues to examine the genetic material of a unique British family. The so called “KE family” came to the attention of the scientific community when it was noted that many members, across several generations, suffered from serious speech impairments. The affected individuals experienced difficulties in clearly articulating certain sounds, but also had problems with many aspects of language, including sentence construction and grammar, although their overall intelligence seemed normal.

Following years of meticulous and detailed work, Fisher and his colleagues managed to genetically narrow down the family's problem. “This was before the first Human Genome had been fully sequenced, when the search for the genetic causes of certain phenomena was still very time- and labour-intensive”, says the Max Planck researcher. Finally, they found the problematic area in the genome: they discovered that a single letter of DNA is modified in one gene – FOXP2 – in those affected by this speech disorder. This leads to modification of an amino acid building block in the protein that the FOXP2 gene makes, damaging the way it works and disrupting the language development of the people who carry it.

However, FOXP2 is not a uniquely human gene. It is widely distributed among vertebrates, for example it can be found in non-human primates, rodents, birds, and even in reptiles and fish. And it is most active in comparable regions of the brain in many different animals. In-depth studies on various species suggest that the gene has important roles to play in the networking of brain cells, i.e. in how they connect up with each other and how these connections change during learning. Songbirds, for example, need FOXP2 to be able to learn to sing – in a sense, they need it to be able to communicate. Mice, on the other hand, need the gene when they learn to make sequences of movements.

Moreover, FOXP2 is highly conserved, meaning that the gene makes a very similar protein in species that are distantly related. This indicates that it must be an ancient gene. For instance, humans and mice differ only in three amino acids. Interestingly, Svante Pääbo at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, working in cooperation with Fisher in 2002, discovered that two of these amino acid differences happened in human evolution after our lineage separated from that of chimpanzees. Subsequent work by Pääbo's team showed that Neanderthal FOXP2 made an identical protein to that found in the modern human. This is in line with a growing appreciation that – contrary to earlier assumptions – our extinct cousins may have already had some speech abilities. Perhaps one of the crucial genetic foundation stones for language and speech was laid early in evolutionary history: after the separation of humans from chimpanzees but before the emergence of Neanderthals, thus at least 300,000 to 400,000 years ago.

Speech and language impairments cannot be traced back to one single modified gene

But is the key to our unique ability to communicate actually present in the human version of FOXP2? Presumably not – at least not only there. There are countless individuals who have difficulties with speech and language whose FOXP2 gene in their genetic make-up is faultless. As Fisher's more recent work with new DNA sequencing techniques shows, this can sometimes be due to damage to a gene other than FOXP2. However, in most cases, the issue is so complex that it cannot be traced back to only a single modified gene. That applies even more to the diversity of speech and language abilities in the general population.

“We can view this diversity as a multifactorial phenomenon, similar to body size, blood pressure or weight”, says Fisher. This means that an entire array of genes determine how well an individual can speak – in the same way that numerous genes affect how tall or heavy an individual is or how susceptible a person is to having high or low blood pressure. Individual genes therefore do not necessarily need to be mutated. In fact, the issue centres on polymorphisms, as they are known: variants in the genome, which often affect only one single DNA letter and which are widely distributed in the population. A single polymorphism usually doesn’t have a major effect by itself. Instead, several of them act together and lead to some people growing very tall, for example, while others remain small.

A very similar principle can be envisaged when it comes to language - as here, too, there is variation from one person to another. Some people are particularly eloquent or find it easy to learn other languages, while others find it difficult to articulate clearly or can only formulate and understand simple sentences. Of course, there are environmental factors influencing individual speech and language abilities. ”But we know that variation in language skills is also highly heritable, meaning that it is strongly influenced by genetic make-up”, explains Fisher. ”"In contrast to our colleagues who study size, weight or blood pressure, we face a very specific challenge. We are dealing with phenomena that aren't easily measurable.” While anyone who has a folding rule can take his or her physical measurements, the gradations between “good speech” and “poor speech” can be difficult to define. In addition, because the effects of polymorphisms are small, scientists need to measure their traits of interest in very large cohorts of people, preferably thousands of individuals.

“This means that we could indeed hunt for polymorphisms in the genome, something that is very easy to do with modern molecular biology methods”, says Fisher. “But we can’t yet reliably interpret their effects on language.” With this in mind, the scientist is currently working with colleagues from other Departments at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics to more clearly define the various skills that underlie aspects of speech and language and make them easier to measure in a standardised way, for example by using online or app-based testing. This could one day lead to a better understanding of the many small effects of various gene variants on language and speech.

Thus, it’s not a matter of finding “the” language gene but of decoding the genetic and neurobiological networks underlying speech and language. Polymorphisms have a role to play here. They are, as it were, the tiny adjusting screws that determine the fine-tuning of linguistic ability. But there are also key areas in each network that determine whether the interaction works in principle or whether individual areas, or even the entire network, are malfunctioning. And that is ultimately leading Fisher and his colleagues at the Max Planck Institute in Nijmegen back to FOXP2.

Orchestra of language and speech

As is now known, FOXP2 is a “transcription factor”. As such, it regulates the activity of up to 1,000 genes. This can be imagined as an orchestra in which the conductor controls the interaction and thus combines the cacophony of chaotically blaring instruments into the harmonious melodiousness of a collective piece of music. And it is clear that in the FOXP2 orchestra there are some musicians who are more connected to language and speech than others – at least in humans.

Fisher and his team have therefore applied themselves to trawling the extensive network of genes coordinated by FOXP2 to search for those that are most relevant to speech and language, and study their functions in the brain. For instance, in their earliest forays into this area they already struck it lucky: with a gene known as CNTNAP2, which is switched off directly by FOXP2. Defects in this gene correlate with speech problems and autism. And, CNTNAP2 is particularly active during the development of the brain and affects neural connections, especially in the neural networks that play a role in language and speech.

In the meantime, the researchers in the Department of Language and Genetics have their eyes on even more interesting candidate genes. But once again, it is clear: until the extensive network that is coordinated by FOXP2 in its role as orchestra conductor is grasped and understood, a great deal of work remains to be done. It is therefore very likely that the gene that Fisher has been researching for more than 15 years will continue to occupy his attention for a long time to come.