Archive for Quizzes

Mystery Language

Can anyone determine what language this woman is speaking?

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

If the flash player doesn't work for you, try the HTML5 audio version:

Comments (45)

Mutual intelligibility


Assuming no prior, formal study of or contact with the opposite language in a given pair (i.e., one is coming at these languages completely cold), roughly what degree (percentage) of intelligibility would exist between the spoken forms of the languages in the list below?  Naturally, you are not expected to comment on all of these pairs, but knowledgeable assessment of any of the pairs would be both valuable and appreciated.  Feel free to add any other pairs not listed, or to combine a language from any of the given pairs with a language from any other pair.  Unless otherwise noted, the languages listed are the national standards.  If the name of a city or region is given, the reference is to the language spoken in that area.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (186)

Unknown Language #7: update

In "Unknown Language #7", I described the case of a woman in a refugee center in Kathmandu, Nepal who spoke in an unidentifiable tongue and who wrote in an odd mixture of languages and scripts.  The post generated a large number of comments (173 at last count), with a tremendous amount of helpful information and analysis being shared by Language Log readers.

Now I have just heard from Son Ha Dinh, who first brought this case to my attention, that — with the help of Language Log readers and the diligent efforts of his colleagues — the identity of the woman has been determined.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (9)

Unknown Language #7

The attached materials came to me from the UN refugee office in Damak city, Jhapa district, in the far southeast of Nepal. There is a sound recording of a female refugee and a sample of her writing in which she employs at least two different scripts, Roman letters and another that looks like some syllabaries of South China I've seen.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (173)

Me Old China

Michael Robinson was looking through this Flickr group dedicated to photos of Chinese restaurants outside China, "Chinese Restaurant Worldwide Documentation Project", which includes around 17,000 photographs, when he came upon this photo that was taken on December 23, 2012 in The Lanes, Brighton, England, GB:

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (42)

Japanese postcard puzzle

In "Postcard language puzzle", Mark Liberman enlisted the aid of Language Log readers in deciphering the writing on two old postcards mailed from Mallorca in 1912-1913. The result was a swift and stunning success, an amazing demonstration of spontaneous online collaboration of linguists spread across the globe.

Now, Bruce Balden has sent in an even older postcard with a most intriguing illustration inspired by the Jamestown Exhibition of 1907:

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (32)

Postcard language puzzle

From reader JM:

I recently acquired these two vintage postcards from a seller in Mallorca. They are 100 years old, mailed from Mallorca in 1912-1913, and still in excellent condition. They were bought in a flea market in Mallorca and were originally advertised as being in Esperanto, which is how they came to my friend's attention (we are both Esperanto hobbyists). However, we quickly determined that they are not in fact in Esperanto, and all attempts to identify the language have thus far failed. We have ruled out many of the obvious candidates (Spanish, Mallorquín, Catalán, Basque), as well as some more exotic possibilities (Croatian, Hungarian, Hawaiian, etc. etc.)

The more we scrutinized them, the more mysterious they became, and finally I decided to buy them. At this point, we don't know if they are in a real language, or if they are some kind of cipher, or even a fake. But why would someone go to the trouble – this isn't the Voynich manuscript we're talking about here.

Here's what we have determined so far. They were both sent from Palmas, Mallorca, to a man named Juan Planas (a very common name in Mallorca). He was the second officer on a Spanish steamer named Florentina. One was mailed to the ship while it was in Cartagena, Spain (addressed in Spanish), and the other to the ship docked in London (addressed in English). They are dated in Spanish, but the rest of the message is in an unknown language. When the writer ran out of room, they turned the card upside down and finished off the message at the top. They are signed "Le."

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (69)


In a comment on "Versing" (6/19/2012), Tony from Toronto asserted that "versus and verses are quite distinct when written and when pronounced". I expressed skepticism about differences in pronunciation, in the form of a half-serious offer of a wager. Bob Ladd warned me that I might lose, at least with respect to some British speakers.

For most North American varieties, at least, I believe that my bet would be a fairly safe one. This is not to deny that facultative disambiguation might be possible, or even that there might be distributional differences in normal productions (among other things, due to the rather different phrasal distribution of the two words). But a pre-literate child in North America is likely to hear pronunciations in which "Thunder versus Heat" and "Thunder verses Heat" are essentially indistinguishable.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (37)

Proto-Indo-European in Prometheus?

Reader K.D., who earlier alerted us to a case of hieroglyphic prescriptivism, has sent in this fascinating note:

In the recent Ridley Scott Alien-prequel Prometheus Proto-Indo-European plays a small but significant role.  I won't go into too much detail in case you don't want it spoiled for you, but in an early scene one character is learning the language via a high-tech language tape, and recites part of Schleicher's fable.  Much later, in a pivotal scene, the same character speaks a language which is not named, and for which no translation is given; I'm fairly certain based on the earlier set-up and the actor's intonation and accent in the two scenes that it is intended to be PIE.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (102)

Try your hand at Linguistics Olympiad problems

Ben Piché writes:

We here at the at 2011 IOL have uploaded the problems that our participants are currently working on. I have to say, they are rather challenging! Anybody who is interested can download these problems from our website and compete with our linguists in real time. We'll upload the solutions on Friday.

Give it a shot! This is the World Cup of linguistics!

Comments (16)

2011 Linguistics Olympiad getting underway

Ben Piché has written to let us know that the 2011 International Linguistics Olympiad, hosted this year by the USA, at CMU in Pittsburgh, is getting underway. Ben, one of our UMass linguistics alumni, is presiding over the admissions desk at the IOL (note the international word-order). Ben writes:

We're still setting up here on campus, and the competition hasn't formally begun yet, but we're hard at work scheduling programs and activities for the participants. We hope that this will be the best IOL yet!

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (3)

Another polysemy quiz

What is the link between (a) denigrating, (b) ceasing to hold in one's hand, (c) making written notes, and (d) euthanasia?

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (6)

A concept cluster quiz

What do the following concepts have in common lexically? (1) understanding; (2) judging; (3) experiencing; (4) finding out; (5) dating; (6) consulting; (7) visiting; (8) ensuring; (9) escorting; and (10) sending away?

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (22)