Dubner: Saiz is from Barcelona — Barthelona — and he’s an economist at MIT, where he teaches urban planning. On today’s show we’re asking about the return on investment of learning a foreign language and, wouldn’t you know it, Saiz has calculated exactly that. He tracked about 9,000 college graduates to see how a foreign language affected their wages.He was surprised by what he found.
Saiz: Yeah, unfortunately, and I have to say, of course, because I try to speak three, I was pretty disappointed, and actually we found a very, very small return. What we did find is that after controlling for a host of characteristics, and using, a lot of experimental research designs that are basically trying to compare people who are identical for everything except for the second language, we did tend to find a premium in the labor market of about 2 percent of wages. In other words, if you speak a second language, you can expect to earn, on average, and that’s across many, many different people, on average you can be expected to earn about 2 percent higher wages. To contextualize this, think about your income or your wage being about $30,000, then you would expect to earn about $600 more per year.
Dubner: Now that’s not nothing. There are a lot of things you can do that won’t increase your earnings by even 2 percent. But still, that’s not a huge premium. And, I hate to tell this to our young Spanish speakers back at the Little Red School House in New York, but there is a rank order in terms of how different foreign languages translate into higher earnings.
Saiz: We know that the lowest return is Spanish, where you get about 1.5 percent, and then French 2.7 percent, and then German 4 percent. So you know learning a second language is something that’s worth to do by itself, but as a financial decision, probably, if you’re focusing on financial returns, they’re relatively low, and you should focus on languages that are rarely spoken in the United States.
Dubner: So as Bryan Caplan sees it, learning a foreign language, especially in school, just may not be worth it. Unless — that foreign language is English. Remember what Albert Saiz told us? His study of college graduates found only a 2 percent wage premium for learning a foreign language. But those were American college graduates:
Saiz: I can tell you that there’s research in other countries. Actually the findings in the United States do contrast with what other people following the same methodology found in Turkey, in Russia and in Israel. In these three countries, actually speaking English, which would be the second language, was associated with a substantial return of around 10 to 20 percent. So it’s really I think English speaking countries where that effect is relatively low. And again I think the explanation is very clear. English is the lingua franca.
The New York Times Magazine piece is titled The Mammoth Cometh, but it’s more about the potential de-extinction of the passenger pigeon.
One mistake caught my eye:
The biologists would next introduce these living cells into a band-tailed-pigeon embryo. No hocus-pocus is involved here: You chop off the top of a pigeon egg, inject the passenger-pigeon cells inside and cover the hole with a material that looks like Saran wrap. The genetically engineered germ cells integrate into the embryo; into its gonads, to be specific. When the chick hatches, it should look and act like a band-tailed pigeon. But it will have a secret. If it is a male, it carries passenger-pigeon sperm; if it is a female, its eggs are passenger-pigeon eggs. These creatures — band-tailed pigeons on the outside and passenger pigeons on the inside — are called “chimeras” (from the Middle English for “wild fantasy”). Chimeras would be bred with one another in an effort to produce passenger pigeons. Novak hopes to observe the birth of his first passenger-pigeon chick by 2020, though he suspects 2025 is more likely.
Chimera is the name of an ancient Greek mythological beast — part lion, part goat, part serpent. (And all fire-breather.)
The title of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World refers to Miranda’s speech in Shakespeare’s The Tempest:
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t.
— William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act V, Scene I
Miranda was raised for most of her life on an isolated island, and the only people she ever knew were her father and his servants, an enslaved savage, and spirits, notably Ariel. When she sees other people for the first time, she is understandably overcome with excitement, and utters, among other praise, the famous line above.
However, what she is actually observing is not men acting in a refined or civilised manner, but rather drunken sailors staggering off the wreckage of their ship. Huxley employs the same irony when the “savage” John refers to what he sees as a “brave new world”.
So, how do you translate the title?
Translations of the title often allude to similar expressions used in domestic works of literature in an attempt to capture the same irony: the French edition of the work is entitled Le Meilleur des mondes (“The Best of All Worlds”), an allusion to an expression used by the philosopher Gottfried Leibniz and satirised in Candide, Ou l’Optimisme by Voltaire (1759).
A cartographer with an interest in etymology “started to exchange real names for rue names and the world became a strange romantic continent“:
The New Navel of the Moon. It’s so poetic, isn’t it? (And sure, maybe a bit anatomically confusing.) That’s the real meaning behind the state name New Mexico, and it’s one of many etymological gems uncovered by cartographers Stephan Hormes and Silke Peust while they were creating this U.S. map depicting the original, literal meanings behind the states and cities we know today.
Of course, most state names aren’t nearly as gorgeous as New Mexico’s moon navel. For every Idaho “Light on the Mountains,” there is a Missouri “Land of the People with Dugout Canoes.” Many states, of course, simply describe geography, which works out well for Mississippi “Land of the Great River” but a bit less elegantly for Washington “Marsh Farm Land.”
By the time poor children are 3, researchers believe they have heard on average about 30 million fewer words than children the same age from better-off families, setting back their vocabulary, cognitive development, and future reading skills before the first day of school. This disadvantage is “already almost irreversible,” says Kenneth Wong, a professor of education policy at Brown University.
I love the way correlation is treated as causation. How many different English words do affluent children with a nanny hear, by the way?
The Providence Talks project is spending its $5 million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies on a pedometer for words:
The device, a 2-ounce specialized recorder about the size of a deck of cards, maps the intensity of communication between parents and children. The infants and toddlers in Providence Talks will wear it twice a month, tucked into a custom-made vest, for 12 to 16 hours at a time. The recorder then plugs into a computer, where software automatically converts the audio files into charts that can be used by Meeting Street to coach the parents on how and when they might speak to their children more often.
As always, these things devolve into self-parody:
For years, we didn’t notice this inequality of vocabulary — or the extent of it — because it was a painstaking thing to measure before the advent of smarter recorders and software. A seminal study, published in 1995 by two child psychologists at the University of Kansas, Betty Hart and Todd Risley, manually identified the effect.
They spent two-and-a-half years studying 42 Kansas City families of varying incomes with children who were, at the start of the study, 7 to 9 months old. For an hour each month, Hart and Risley recorded and observed everything that took place in a home around a child. They ultimately spent four years transcribing and analyzing 1,300 hours of observation. Their results showed that children in families on welfare heard half as many words per hour as children of working-class parents, and a third as many as children of professional parents.
Over time, the children also came to mirror their parents in vocabulary and interactions. “When we listened to the children,” Hart and Risley wrote, “we seemed to hear their parents speaking.”
Really? No one noticed the difference in speech patterns between poor children and rich? And only now do we realize that children sound like their parents?
The goal is clear:
Suskind is eager to see this strategy, backed by more research, help more than a handful of families. Imagine, for example, if aggregated data from a project like this could help cities make the case for more library funding in neighborhoods where children do not hear as many words.
“We need this to succeed. We want this to succeed,” Suskind says of Providence Talks, whose advisory board she has joined. “If this can be shown to be effective on a larger scale, it would be a great thing.”
John Derbyshire shares one of his favorite quotes from Dr. Johnson, recorded by Boswell:
Says the sage: “My dear friend, clear your mind of cant. You may talk as other people do: you may say to a man, ‘Sir, I am your most humble servant.’ You are not his most humble servant….You tell a man, ‘I am sorry you had such bad weather the last day of your journey, and were so much wet.’ You don’t care six-pence whether he was wet or dry. You may talk in this manner; it is a mode of talking in society: but don’t think foolishly.”
The italics in that opening commandment are absolutely necessary, as the rest make clear. Johnson did not object to people speaking insincerely for the purpose of lubricating social exchanges. Most of us agree with him on this, and the few who don’t are annoying and unpersuasive.
What’s happened there is that Johnson’s word “cant” has been mistakenly read as, or deliberately transformed into “can’t” with an apostrophe, making it motivational: “Clear your mind of CAN’T!”
How hard is it to learn a language? It depends on how close it is to your native tongue. But is it possible to describe a language’s difficulty in the abstract?
English-speakers often point to a language like Latin or Ancient Greek. Next to them, in one important respect, English is easy. The distinction involves a language’s “inflectional morphology”, or the bits and pieces added to a noun or adjective or verb to make it match up with other pieces in a sentence. An English verb has a maximum of five forms (speak, speaks, speaking, spoke, spoken), whereas verbs in Spanish or Latin can take dozens of forms. An English noun usually has only two forms (singular and plural), whereas the Greek or Russian noun takes numerous forms showing grammatical gender, number and case.
This kind of inflection is not a terrible proxy for that slippery idea of “difficulty”. Where are the world’s hardest languages, then? Is English one of them? One study, by Gary Lupyan and Rick Dale in 2010, looked closely at inflection. It found that highly inflected languages tend to be spoken by a small number of speakers, and have few neighbours. But languages with big groups of speakers, or many neighbouring languages, systematically tend to have fewer inflections. Why is that? The hypothesis is that as a language spreads over centuries, it is learned by many non-natives (trading partners, conquered subjects and the like). Adults, learning a foreign language imperfectly, avoid using non-necessary endings. And many endings in any language are non-necessary, if other clues (like word order in a sentence) can be recruited to do the same things that word endings do — say, distinguishing the subject of a sentence from its direct object. As languages spread and grow, they are more likely to rely on clues like word order than on word-endings. So “big” languages are “simple”. Under this schema, English fits both criteria: relatively big and relatively simple.
Of course, what’s hard about English is its irregularity, especially when it comes to spelling and pronunciation.
“The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog,” may be the most famous pangram in English, but there are others:
- The five boxing wizards jump quickly. (31 letters)
- Pack my box with five dozen liquor jugs. (32 letters)
- A quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog. (33 letters)
- The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog. (35 letters)
- Pack my red box with five dozen quality jugs. (36 letters)
- The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dogs. (37 letters)
- Who packed five dozen old quart jars in my box? (37 letters)
- My girl wove six dozen plaid jackets before she quit. (43 letters)
- Few black taxis drive up major roads on quiet hazy nights. (47 letters)
- A quick movement of the enemy will jeopardize six gunboats. (49 letters)
You rarely see a “wend” without a “way.” You can wend your way through a crowd or down a hill, but no one wends to bed or to school. However, there was a time when English speakers would wend to all kinds of places. “Wend” was just another word for “go” in Old English. The past tense of “wend” was “went” and the past tense of “go” was “gaed.” People used both until the 15th century, when “go” became the preferred verb, except in the past tense where “went” hung on, leaving us with an outrageously irregular verb.
The “desert” from the phrase “just deserts” is not the dry and sandy kind, nor the sweet post-dinner kind. It comes from an Old French word for “deserve,” and it was used in English from the 13th century to mean “that which is deserved.” When you get your just deserts, you get your due. In some cases, that may mean you also get dessert, a word that comes from a later French borrowing.
If we see “eke” at all these days, it’s when we “eke out” a living, but it comes from an old verb meaning to add, supplement, or grow. It’s the same word that gave us “eke-name” for “additional name,” which later, through misanalysis of “an eke-name” became “nickname.”
“Sleight of hand” is one tricky phrase. “Sleight” is often miswritten as “slight” and for good reason. Not only does the expression convey an image of light, nimble fingers, which fits well with the smallness implied by “slight,” but an alternate expression for the concept is “legerdemain,” from the French léger de main,” literally, “light of hand.” “Sleight” comes from a different source, a Middle English word meaning “cunning” or “trickery.” It’s a wily little word that lives up to its name.
“Dint” comes from the oldest of Old English where it originally referred to a blow struck with a sword or other weapon. It came to stand for the whole idea of subduing by force, and is now fossilized in our expression “by dint of X” where X can stand for your charisma, hard work, smarts, or anything you can use to accomplish something else.
Nowadays we see this word in the expression “to run/ride roughshod” over somebody or something, meaning to tyrannize or treat harshly. It came about as a way to describe the 17th century version of snow tires. A “rough-shod” horse had its shoes attached with protruding nail heads in order to get a better grip on slippery roads. It was great for keeping the horse on its feet, but not so great for anyone the horse might step on.
The “fro” in “to and fro” is a fossilized remnant of a Northern English or Scottish way of pronouncing “from.” It was also part of other expressions that didn’t stick around, like “fro and till,” “to do fro” (to remove), and “of or fro” (for or against).
The “hue” of “hue and cry,” the expression for the noisy clamor of a crowd, is not the same “hue” as the term we use for color. The color one comes from the Old English word híew, for “appearance.” This hue comes from the Old French hu or heu, which was basically an onomatopoeia, like “hoot.”
The “kith” part of “kith and kin” came from an Old English word referring to knowledge or acquaintance. It also stood for native land or country, the place you were most familiar with. The expression “kith and kin” originally meant your country and your family, but later came to have the wider sense of friends and family.
When you leave someone “in the lurch,” you leave them in a jam, in a difficult position. But while getting left in the lurch may leave you staggering around and feeling off-balance, the “lurch” in this expression has a different origin than the staggery one. The balance-related lurch comes from nautical vocabulary, while the lurch you get left in comes from an old French backgammon-style game called lourche. Lurch became a general term for the situation of beating your opponent by a huge score. By extension it came to stand for the state of getting the better of someone or cheating them.
“Umbrage” comes from the Old French ombrage (shade, shadow), and it was once used to talk about actual shade from the sun. It took on various figurative meanings having to do with doubt and suspicion or the giving and taking of offense. To give umbrage was to offend someone, to “throw shade.” However, these days when we see the term “umbrage” at all, it is more likely to be because someone is taking, rather than giving it.
We might not know what a shrift is anymore, but we know we don’t want to get a short one. “Shrift” was a word for a confession, something it seems we might want to keep short, or a penance imposed by a priest, something we would definitely want to keep short. But the phrase “short shrift” came from the practice of allowing a little time for the condemned to make a confession before being executed. So in that context, shorter was not better.
(Hat tip to David Foster.)
Words and phrases have hinterlands, Theodore Dalrymple says:
In the late 1970s, people in Britain who received money from social security would say ‘I get my giro on Friday.’ (The giro was in effect a cheque.) Nowadays, however, they almost always say ‘I get paid on Friday.’
This new form of words is very revealing, and signifies (to adapt slightly a Gramscian formulation) the long march of dependence through the mentalities: for to get paid, in normal parlance, is to receive money in return for something that one has done for another person or entity. What is it, then, that they are paid for having done? The answer is and can only be: for having continued to exist since the receipt of the last money.
Let me add, lest I should be misunderstood, that I do not consider the position of people who are in this position of dependence to be enviable. Often not of the highest intelligence, they have been badly educated by the state and then supplied with, one might almost say contemptuously tossed, a bare material sufficiency; if they work they are scarcely better off than if they do not, for their labour is worth hardly more to any possible employer than the subventions they already receive. Their only luxury is time, oceans of it. It is not to be wondered at that they lack self-respect, that they self-destruct, that their choices are often of a fantastically unwise nature, for nothing much hangs on them except the most immediate consequences. They have seen the future, and it is more of the same.
My point, however, is that the language that they use is an important clue, or entry, into their mentality. In the 1970s, the term ‘I get my giro’ was a neutral description of a fact; it did not imply that the receipt of the giro was in return for anything. Thirty years later, continuing to exist, that is to say not having died, had become existentially equivalent (for people in this state of dependence) or even superior to going out to work and earning a living. Such a state of mind is not conducive to individual effort: the man who goes out to work five or six days a week and is no better off than such a person, but does so in the mere hope of bettering himself or even just to retain his self-respect, is more likely to be seen as a fool rather than a hero or someone worthy of imitation.
Perhaps it is inevitable that large-scale, de-industrialising societies will result in a class of people such as I have described, essentially paupers whose pauperisation is at a much higher standard of living than that of Victorian paupers because of the vast increase in our overall productivity and wealth; perhaps any alternative, for example a nearly complete absence of any form of subvention to the unemployed, would be worse (more than one opinion is possible on this subject, and it is almost always possible for situations to get worse as well as better).
What I think it illegitimate to doubt, however, is that there is a mentality of dependence brought about by the current system, at least in Britain; and that the things that they say — such as ‘I get paid on Friday,’ and I could cite other locutions — virtually proves it. Words and phrases have hinterlands.
How do you describe the Saturn V using only the thousand most commonly used words in the English language? First, you call it the Up Goer Five:
This anecdote raises the question, is “whom” history?
My 4 year old corrected my wife today. My wife used “whom” in a sentence (properly, mind you) and my daughter said “mama, sometimes you say a weird word, ‘whom’, when what you should be saying is ‘who’. ‘Whom’ is not a real word.”
The four-year-old is right, in a way:
What has my friend’s four-year-old learned? There’s a pronoun who. It’s a question word that can start sentences like “Who is that?” Adults also use it all the time in questions like “Who’d you invite over?” and “Who are you talking about?” It also can kick off a relative clause: “She’s the colleague who sits next to me,” and “She’s the colleague who I’ve started to become friends with.” In other words, the girl has heard revered, trusted adults (parents, teachers) using who as a subject, a direct object and an object of a preposition. Rule: who is used in all these roles.
And then comes this occasional weird variant. Every once in a while, mummy or daddy, for no obvious reason, uses whom in the exact same place they usually use who. Grown-ups are silly. They don’t let me cut my own hair, they insist on eating disgusting green plants, and they occasionally misspeak. Mommy, it’s who, not whom.
The thing is, the girl’s rule is right: who is used in all these roles. Geoffrey Pullum makes a distinction between Normal and Formal language, and most English-speakers today, when in Normal mode, steer clear of whom. We leave out the relative pronoun (That’s the friend I’m inviting to dinner) or just use who. Children are rarely exposed to Formal, and have little concept of register. Whom is just weird for them. A search of the Spoken category of the Corpus of Contemporary American English finds that I is about eight times more common than me—but who is 57 times more common than whom. It appears just 53 times out of every million words. That number would be even lower in the language used around a four-year-old. No wonder she might process it as a mere glitch in Mommy’s English.
My friend asked “language change in action?” Yes, probably, but his daughter is reflecting, not driving the change here. (Kids do drive all kinds of other changes, especially when they become teenagers and play with language self-consciously.) Here, she’s just seeing that hardly anyone uses whom. Our societies increasingly prize spontaneity, authenticity and “just talking” over polish and elaborate formality. In other words, Normal.
Since whom is becoming less common, many people can’t use it properly even when they are aiming for Formal. (A common mistake is using it in a subject role, for example: That’s the candidate whom I hope will win the election. Here, the mistake is in thinking that I hope turns who into an object. But the clause is really who will win the election, with I hope just an interpolation.) The unease over whom just makes people avoid it more.
I think whom has a long life left in it, though, for non-grammatical reasons. Educated people prize language, and the mastery of Formal. Their status at the top of the social heap is an incentive to treat the proper use of whom as a sign of intelligence, not just the Formal register. They do most of the edited and published writing we consume. And so whom will live in print for a good long time, even as many of those same people ignore it when they’re chatting at the proverbial water cooler.
Kids will go on reaching secondary school being taught, for the first time, how to use who‘s strange cousin. They will also be learning a meta-linguistic lesson: sometimes you don’t use the language that comes most naturally to you. And finally, when they have kids, they’ll start explaining the whole strange story to them in turn.
The noun Polack, in the contemporary English language, is a derogatory reference to a person of Polish descent. It is an Anglicisation of the Polish language word Polak, which means a Polish male person (feminine being Polka) with a neutral connotation. However, the English loanword “Polack” (note, the spelling difference which does not appear in Polish) is considered an ethnic slur in the US and the UK, and therefore is inherently insulting in nearly all modern usages.
The “correct” modern term is Pole — for now.
Despite mass communications, compulsory education, and increasing mobility, American dialects are diverging:
There are multiple examples of such divergence. But none is as dramatic, as baffling to linguists, and as mysteriously under the collective radar as what’s happening in the cities that ring the Great Lakes. From Syracuse, N.Y., in the east to Milwaukee in the west, 34 million Americans are revolutionizing the sound of English. Linguists first noted aspects of the change in the late 1960s. In 1972, three linguists, led by William Labov of the University of Pennsylvania, christened the phenomenon the Northern Cities Vowel Shift or, more simply, the Northern Cities Shift (NCS). What they observed may be the most important change in English pronunciation in centuries.
Some linguists believe that the NCS began with a simple change to the short a sound. When using words with that sound, speakers in the region began moving their tongues forward and up. This “tensing,” as linguists call it, produces a nasal-like sound that is the hallmark of the NCS dialect. Many speakers tense their short a so much that monosyllabic words like cat nearly take on a second syllable. The a sound begins to resemble the word yeah or the final two syllables of the word idea. “If that were the end of it,” Labov explains, “it wouldn’t be a problem, but a language is a set of connected items.” And so, he says, all the vowel sounds start to move around in “something like a game of musical chairs.”
This is called a chain shift, and it stems from a fundamental problem with short vowel sounds: Too many of them occupy too little phonological space, so they constantly jostle to defend their linguistic turf. As a result, a change in one vowel sound can force the rotation of some — or even all — of the others. That’s exactly what’s happening in the northern cities — with a twist. There’s a phenomenon in North American English that linguists refer to as the cot-caught merger. In some North American dialect regions — including Boston, the Western United States, and Canada — the two vowel phonemes in these and similar words are pronounced identically. But the Inland North dialect region, which includes the northern cities, maintains a distinction between them. Caught preserves a wha sound that differs noticeably from the short o of cot. And why not? Distancing the short o in cot from the wha of caught gives many English dialects an extra short vowel sound.
In the NCS region, that extra vowel sound is an integral part of the big shift. The tensing of the short a starts a domino effect. First, the short o rotates into the newly created short-a void. People in Detroit have a jab, not a job. (Or don’t have one, as the case these days may sadly be.) NCS speakers then slide the wha sound into the slot formerly occupied by short o. They now pronounce caught like people from Boston do, but they pronounce cot the way other people say cat. One link down the chain, but tilts toward bought, and further down the short e in words like bet starts to sound like but. The final link in this chain may be the short i of bit elbowing its way in the direction of bet, though its course isn’t entirely clear just yet.
The past, even the recent past, is a foreign country, and, as Mad Men reminds us, they speak a foreign language there:
It’s in business language, though, that Mad Men really shows its weaknesses. Modern boardroom language creeps in with striking regularity. Take the verb “leverage,” for example. Last season, Pete Campbell angrily reported that Philip Morris used Sterling-Cooper “to leverage a sweeter deal” from another agency. Leverage presumably sounded like a hard-nosed business term in the table read; but it comes from banking, and hard as it may be to remember, investment bankers did not always rule the roost of American business. Widespread use of “to leverage” metaphorically is a creation of Reagan’s America, not Kennedy’s. Don Draper and his peers in grey flannel suits looked out on a dull, relatively unimportant banking sector; for them, leverage meant debt as much as it meant power. Not only is the individual phrase wrong; so is the whole field of metaphor. Talking like an investment banker would have had approximately the allure of talking like an accountant.
Business vernacular seems to trip up the writers again and again. Draper’s new contract in season three includes a “signing bonus,” a phrase that was extremely rare outside of sports (the staid “bonus for signing” was far more common); Paul Kinsey is urged to “keep a low profile” at a meeting in 1963, a phrase that spread like wildfire only in 1969; and in season four Honda sets a series of rules to “even the playing field” in a competition, a phrase that (along with the more common “level the playing field”) seems to have entered the boardroom around 1977.
It’s not only business, though. There are scores of idioms that are strikingly modern. “Feel good about,” “match made in heaven,” “tough act to follow,” “make eye contact,” “fantasize about”; all are at least tenfold more common today than in Mad Men‘s times. Any of these individually might be perfectly plausible; but for “feel good about,” for example, to be said four separate times over the course of the show by several different characters is extraordinarily unlikely. Such flaws aren’t just anecdotal; shows and movies from the 1960s, written by writers with as sure a grasp of the spoken language as Weiner, have far fewer outliers from the print corpus than their modern imitators. The Twilight Zone, for example, doesn’t use “feel good about” once in over 100 episodes.
What seems to be the most ubiquitous mistake in Mad Men is so frequent as to be invisible: the phrase “I need to.” Modern scripts set in 1960s, including Mad Men, use it constantly: it’s about as frequent as everyday words like “good,” “between,” or “most.” But to say “I need to” so much is a surprisingly modern practice: books, television shows, and movies from the 1960s use it at least ten times less often, and many never use it all. Sixties dialogue written back then used “ought to” far more often than modern imitators do. I checked several movies and TV seasons from 1960 to 1965, and all use “ought to” more often than “need to”; every modern show I could find set in the ’60s does the reverse. Google Ngrams shows the trend clearly as well.