7.10.15: Words, Words, Words

Jul 10, 2015
Logan Shannon / NHPR

Today’s show is all about words –written, spoken, or spelled – starting with the emotional, and surprisingly partisan debate over whether to continue teaching cursive. Later in the show we’ll explore the art of inventing new words and languages. And, how do you spell stereotype? We’ll discuss the Scripps National Spelling Bee, which has been won by an Indian American student every year since 2007.

As new contenders join the 2016 presidential race, the flood of stump speeches and political spin can be overwhelming. On today’s show we’ll talk to a comedy writer who has mastered the art of translating deliberately deceptive double-speak: from politics, to real-estate, to food.

Plus, we’ll hear about a class action lawsuit against blue moon, charging that the self-described “artfully crafted” brew is not really a craft beer.

Matthew Stinson via flickr Creative Commons| /

With thousands of empty luxury apartments in china’s new cities, desperate measures are being taken to lure buyers. On today’s show we’ll explore the booming business of renting foreigners as props to give these ghostly city centers an air of international glamor.    

Also today, America’s population will certainly look different in 2050, but what will it sound like? A linguist suggests that to find out, you should listen to young women.

m01229 via flickr Creative Commons /

Last week, the New Hampshire supreme court unanimously upheld the death sentence for Michael Addison, who was convicted in the slaying of a Manchester police officer. On today’s show we’ll look at the bipartisan politics of the death penalty, and why fewer Americans – both Democrat and Republican – support it.

Plus, nearly 60,000 books have covered the Civil War that ended 150 years ago this month. We’ll speak to an illustrator about his new graphic novel that goes for a human-scale history from the ground up.

While emojis have become a universal cellular language, the origin of the modern-day hieroglyphic is actually rooted in Japan. Inspired by Manga, or Japanese comics, designer Shigetaka Kurita created the early blueprint of the modern-day emoji as a way to motivate Japanese teens to buy pagers in the late-nineties. 

Since then emojis have become a fixture of digital communication. While some decry emoji-culture as a linguistic fast track to the erosion of language, some intellectual and artistic circles are welcoming emoticons with open arms.

Neologisms For The Modern World

Apr 21, 2015

In her new book, That Should Be A Word: A Language Lover’s Guide To Choregasms, Povertunity, Brattling, And Other Much-Needed Terms For The Modern World, author Lizzie Skurnick has compiled a mini-dictionary that finally puts a word to the activity of doing a Google search to find the closest bathroom: Loogling.

DVIDSHUB via flickr Creative Commons /

Disasters in developing nations bring out the better angels of foreign governments and world citizens, but not all aid, or media coverage, is distributed equally. On today’s show we discover why the world’s worst disasters don’t always get the most aid.

Then, if you’ve ever binge-watched a show until you feel sick, you may be suffering from: “shoverdose”.  Check your phone obsessively? Well, you may be “figital”. Later in the show, the joys of made-up words.

Sara Plourde / NHPR

Invented Languages: Klingon and Beyond

“I wanted to start teaching this course because I wanted a way to engage students in linguistics without having to actually teach them linguistics.  I wanted a kind of pop-culture back road into linguistics.  Also I’m a huge Star Trek fan.”

Why Do So Few Americans Learn A Second Language?

Sep 28, 2014
Foreign Language @ TNCC / Flickr/CC

Even as the world becomes more globalized, and most Americans agree that learning a second language is desirable, the majority never do learn a second language beyond the requisite couple years of high school. Today we’ll look at some of the arguments for moving toward a more multilingual society, and some of the barriers to achieving that.


8.14.14: All About Language

Aug 14, 2014
Taylor Quimby

Prove it, learned behavior, survival of the fittest, organic produce… scientific terminology is part of our common language, but are we using the terms correctly? Today is all about language: starting with our frequent misuse of scientific terms. Plus, France’s government is banning English words like ‘fast-food’ and ‘hashtag’ in the name of cultural preservation…we find out why the words are unlikely to disappear from the vernacular anytime soon. And, deaf Americans who work in science have a unique challenge – helping to develop a scientific vocabulary for sign language.

Listen to the full show and Read more for individual segments.

Simon Shek via Flickr CC

During the Depression, the face of hunger was easy to spot: gaunt, worn, and hollow-eyed. Today’s malnourished are tougher to spot. We’ll get a close up of the new face of American hunger. Plus, over 46 million Americans are on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. The average daily benefit per person per day is four dollars. We’ll find out what living on a SNAP budget really looks like. And, how is America’s sweet tooth may be rooted in Prohibition?

Listen to the full show and Read more for individual segments.

gargudojr via Flickr Creative Commons

With more than a quarter of the players born outside the US, professional baseball is the UN of American pro sports. We take a look at a position crucial to a team’s success:  the interpreter…and how the job requires more than mere translation. Plus, France’s government is banning English words like ‘fast-food’ and ‘hashtag’ in the name of cultural preservation…we find out why the words are unlikely to disappear from the vernacular anytime soon. And, Sue Miller speaks about her new book, The Arsonist.

Listen to the full show and Read more for individual segments.

various brennemans via Flickr Creative Commons

Prove it, innate, survival of the fittest, organic… scientific terminology is part of our everyday language, but are we using the terms correctly? Today we’re testing the theory of misusing scientific terms. And, with the state breaking ground on a new women’s prison next month, we’ll consider whether the specific needs of female inmates can be addressed by re-thinking prison design. Then, mental illness creates a stigma that is almost impossible to erase, even for sports celebrities. We wonder: why isn’t Delonte West in the NBA?

Listen to the full show and Read more for individual segments.

Rebecca Lavoie for NHPR

In German, there's an expression for kicking through piles of leaves, and for the conviction that all large houses must have secret passages. In other words, Germans have expressions for things we don't, and they're pretty great. Just think about the ones we've adopted without thought, like 'Wanderlust.' 

Author Ben Schott’s Miscellanies  and annual almanacs have sold millions and been translated into more than a dozen languages. Now, he’s completed a compendium of compounds to describe the inexpressible. It’s called Schottenfreude: German Words for the Human Condition.

zolierdos via Flickr Creative Commons

Language evolves. Try reading Chaucer or Shakespeare, or even watching an early 20th-century movie and listen for the words or expressions that have grown obsolete and others that take on new meanings or popularity. You may not refer to a bar-fight as a ‘brannigan,’ for example, but you might say, “‘hang out’ with a friend” …that last phrase was invented way back in the eighteen forties. Linguist and author Arika Okrent compiled a list of words that are much older than they sound for “The Week,” and she told us a little more about them.

Thalita Carvalho via Flickr Creative Commons

Last week, author J.K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame was uncovered as true author behind The Cuckoo’s Calling, a mystery novel written under the pen-name Robert Galbraith. Signed first editions of the book are now selling for over six thousand dollars, a testament to the value of a name. The reporters at the Sunday Times who broke the Rowling story consulted several academics whose methods of determining authorship relied heavily on software they had developed for that very purpose.

teachernz via flickr Creative Commons

For four decades, Dr. Gerald Cohen has pored over documents, texts and pop culture to study etymology--the history and origins of words and how their meanings change over time. Working with the world’s top language historians, Dr. Cohen publishes “Comments on Etymology,” a journal of the peculiar origins of words and phrases like ‘brainstorm’ and ‘hot dog’. The journal cannot be found online, or even at university libraries…its circulation is under one hundred, and it’s published on paper. Gerald Cohen is professor in the Department of Arts, Languages and Philosophy at the Missouri University of Science and Technology.

(Photo by thedamnmushroom via Flickr Creative Commons)

Part 1: The Rise of the Brogrammer

Produced by Jonathan Lynch

In the 1980s classic comedy revenge of the nerds, there was a clear cut boundary between the titular nerds and the preppy, popular frat boys that sought to humiliate them. A recent culture trend in Silicon Valley is looking to completely upend that convention by fusing the two. A new breed of software engineers is on the horizon, and they are just as likely to fine tune code as they are to lift weights and party on the weekend.

It’s a fiction writer’s job to create authentic worlds  and suspend disbelief. One of the more time-consuming techniques in their toolbox? Inventing new languages – like the two forms of elvish used throughout J.R.R Tolkien's the Lord of the Rings. Michael Adams is a professor of English at Indiana

For Japanese Linguist, A Long And Lonely Schlep

Apr 16, 2012

A smattering of Yiddish words has crept into the American vernacular: Non-Jews go for a nosh or schmooze over cocktails. Yet the language itself, once spoken by millions of Jews, is now in retreat.

But you don't have to be Jewish to love Yiddish. In Japan, a linguist has toiled quietly for decades to compile the world's first Yiddish-Japanese dictionary — the first time the Jewish language has been translated into a non-European language other than Hebrew.

There are some 7,000 spoken languages in the world, and linguists project that as many as half may disappear by the end of the century. That works out to one language going extinct about every two weeks. Now, digital technology is coming to the rescue of some of those ancient tongues.

Members of the Native American Siletz tribe in Oregon say their native language, also called "Siletz," "is as old as time itself." But today, you can count the number of fluent speakers on one hand. Siletz Tribal Council Vice Chairman Bud Lane is one of them.

The vast majority of the 175 indigenous languages still spoken in the United States are on the verge of extinction.

Linguist Elizabeth Little spent two years driving all over the country looking for the few remaining pockets where those languages are still spoken — from the scores of Native American tongues, to the Creole of Louisiana. The resulting book is Trip of the Tongue: Cross-Country Travels in Search of America's Lost Languages.

This weekend the New Hampshire State Spelling Bee takes place in Concord; NHPR is a sponsor of the event, in which the Granite State’s top spellers hope to make short work of long words the rest of us would probably trip over.

Evan Hahn via Flickr Creative Commons

Produced by Avishay Artsy

We all have our linguistic pet peeves. I, for one, bristle when I hear “literally” to describe things that aren’t literal at all. I admit, I was an English major, and still grieve a little inside when people use “was” for the conditional tense instead of “were.” A painter and writer living in Los Angeles is campaigning against a far less arcane peeve: the overuse of “awesome”. 

Photo by: Darwin Bell

The English language is remarkable for the richness of its vocabulary. The revised Oxford English Dictionary includes over 600,000 words, however English is the only language that has, or needs, a thesaurus. There are twice as many words in common use in English than in French. Nonetheless, sometimes English words fail us -- at least when it comes to love. Our guest has compiled an illuminating top-ten list of foreign words describing nuances of love and relationships.