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35: Putting sounds into syllables is like putting toppings on a burger

Sometimes a syllable is jam-packed with sounds, like the single-syllable word “strengths”. Other times, a syllable is as simple as a single vowel or consonant+vowel, like the two syllables in “a-ha!” It’s kind of like a burger: you might pack your burger with tons of toppings, or go as simple as a patty by itself on a plate, but certain combinations are more likely than others. For example, an open-face burger, with only the bottom half of the bun, is less weird than a burger with only the...


34: Emoji are Gesture Because Internet

Emoji make a lot of headlines, but what happens when you actually drill down into the data for how people integrate emoji into our everyday messages? It turns out that how we use emoji has a surprising number of similarities with how we use gesture. In this episode of Lingthusiasm, your hosts Lauren Gawne and Gretchen McCulloch get enthusiastic about emoji, and how gesture studies can bring us to a better understanding of these new digital pictures. We also talk about how we first came to...


33: Why spelling is hard — but also hard to change

Why does “gh” make different sounds in “though” “through” “laugh” “light” and “ghost”? Why is there a silent “k” at the beginning of words like “know” and “knight”? And which other languages also have interesting historical artefacts in their spelling systems? Spelling systems are kind of like homes – the longer you’ve lived in them, the more random boxes with leftover stuff you start accumulating. In this episode of Lingthusiasm, your hosts Lauren Gawne and Gretchen McCulloch get...


32: You heard about it but I was there - Evidentiality

Sometimes, you know something for sure. You were there. You witnessed it. And you want to make sure that anyone who hears about it from you knows that you’re a direct source. Other times, you weren’t there, but you still have news. Maybe you found it out from someone else, or you pieced together a couple pieces of indirect evidence. In that case, you don’t want to overcommit yourself. When you pass the information on, you want to qualify it with how you found out, in case it turns out not to...


31: Pop culture in Cook Islands Māori - Interview with Ake Nicholas

When a language is shifting from being spoken by a whole community to being spoken only by older people, it’s crucial to get the kids engaged with the language again. But kids don’t always appreciate the interests of their elders, especially when global popular culture seems more immediately exciting. One idea? Make stories from pop culture, featuring characters like Dumbledore and Batman, but in the local language. In this episode, your host Gretchen McCulloch interviews Dr Ake Nicholas, a...


30: Why do we gesture when we talk?

This episode is also available as a special video episode so you can see the gestures! Go to or to watch it! When you describe to someone a ball bouncing down a hill, one of the easiest ways to make it really clear just how much the ball bounced would be to gesture the way that it made its way downwards. You might even do the gesture even if you’re talking to the other person on the telephone and they can’t see you. No...


29: The verb is the coat rack that the rest of the sentence hangs on

Some sentences have a lot of words all relating to each other, while other sentences only have a few. The verb is the thing that makes the biggest difference: it’s what makes “I gave you the book” sound fine but “I rained you the book” sound weird. Or on the flip side, “it’s raining” is a perfectly reasonable description of a general raining event, but “it’s giving” doesn’t work so well as some sort of general giving event. How can we look for patterns in the ways that verbs influence the...


28: How languages influence each other - Hannah Gibson interview on Swahili, Rangi & Bantu languages

The Rift Valley area of central and northern Tanzania is the only area where languages from all four African language families are found (Bantu, Cushitic, Nilotic, and Khoisan). Languages in this area have been in contact with each other for a long time, especially in the minds of bi- and multilingual speakers, so it’s a really interesting place to learn more about why and how languages influence each other. In this episode, your host Lauren Gawne interviews Dr. Hannah Gibson, a Lecturer in...


27: Words for family relationships: Kinship terms

There are certain things that human societies, and therefore languages, have in common. We have the same basic inventory of body parts, which affect both the kinds of movements we can make to produce words and the names we have for our meat-selves. We’re all living on a watery ball of rock and fire, orbiting a large ball of gas. And we all arrived on this planet by means of other humans, and form societies to help each other stick around. Sometimes, we even bring into existence further tiny...


26: Why do C and G come in hard and soft versions? Palatalization

A letter stands for a sound. Or at least, it’s supposed to. Most of the time. Unless it’s C or G, which each stand for two different sounds in a whole bunch of languages. C can be soft, as in circus or acacia, or hard, as in the other C in circus or acacia. G can be hard, as in gif, or soft, as in gif. Why can C and G be hard or soft? And why don’t other letters come in hard and soft versions? In this episode of the podcast that’s enthusiastic about linguistics, your hosts Lauren Gawne and...


25: Every word is a real word

squishable, blobfish, aaarggghh, gubernatorial, apple lovers, ain’t, tronc, wug, toast, toast, toast, toast, toast. All of these are words that someone, somewhere has asserted aren’t real words – or maybe aren’t even words at all. But we don’t point at a chair or a tree and assert that it’s not a word. Of course it’s not! That would be absurd. So why, then, do people feel called to question the wordhood of actual words? In this episode of the funnest* podcast about linguistics, your hosts...


24: Making books and tools speak Chatino - Interview with Hilaria Cruz

As English speakers, we take for granted that we have lots of resources available in our language, from children’s books to dictionaries to automated tools like Siri and Google Translate. But for the majority of the world’s languages, this is not the case. In this episode, your host Gretchen McCulloch interviews Dr Hilaria Cruz, a linguist and native speaker of Chatino, an Indigenous language of Mexico which is spoken by over 40,000 people. Hilaria combines her work as an Assistant Professor...


23: When nothing means something

When we think about language, we generally think about things that are visible or audible: letters, sounds, signs, words, symbols, sentences. We don’t often think about the lack of anything. But little bits of silence or invisibility are found surprisingly often throughout our linguistic system, from the micro level of an individual sound or bit of meaning to the macro level of sentences and conversations. In this episode of the podcast that’s enthusiastic about linguistics, your hosts...


22: This, that and the other thing - Determiners

When linguists think about complicated words, we don’t think about rare, two-dollar words like “defenestration”. Instead, we think about the kinds of words that you use all the time without even thinking about it, like “the”. You might not already know that defenestration refers to throwing something out of a window, but once you find out, it’s easy to explain. But what does “the” mean? And, for that matter, what kind of a word even is “the”? If you think back to when you learned about nouns...


21: What words sound spiky across languages? Interview with Suzy Styles

Most of the time, a word is an arbitrary label: there’s no particular reason why a cat has to be associated with the particular string of sounds in the word “cat”, and indeed other languages have different words for the same animal. But sometimes it may not be so arbitrary. Take these two shapes: a sharp, spiky 🗯 and a soft, rounded 💭 and these two names: “bouba” and “kiki”. If you had to assign one name to each shape, which would you pick? (Here’s a pause to let you think about it.) If...


20: Speaking Canadian and Australian English in a British-American binary

Australian and Canadian English don’t sound much alike, but they have one big similarity: they’re both national varieties that tend to get overshadowed by their more famous siblings. In this episode of Lingthusiasm, your hosts Lauren Gawne and Gretchen McCulloch use Lynne Murphy’s new book The Prodigal Tongue as a guide to the sometimes prickly relationship between the globally dominant British and American varieties of English, give a mini history of English in our own countries, and...


19: Sentences with baggage - Presuppositions

What’s so weird if I say, “the present King of France is bald” or “I need to pick up my pet unicorn from the vet”? It seems like those sentences should be false: at least, they certainly can’t be true. But if you reply, “No, he isn’t” or “No, you don’t” it still feels unsatisfying: aren’t we still both assuming that France has a king and that I have a pet unicorn? In this episode of Lingthusiasm, your hosts Lauren Gawne and Gretchen McCulloch explore different kinds of meanings: sometimes...


18: Translating the untranslatable

Lists of ‘untranslatable’ words always come with... translations. So what do people really mean when they say a word is untranslatable? In this episode, your hosts Lauren Gawne and Gretchen McCulloch explore how how we translate different kinds of meaning. What makes words like schadenfreude, tsundoku, and hygge so compelling? Which parts of language are actually the most difficult to translate? What does it say about English speakers that we have a word for “tricking someone into watching a...


17: Vowel Gymnastics

Say, “aaaaaahhhh…..” Now try going smoothly from one vowel to another, without pausing: “aaaaaaaeeeeeeeiiiiiii”. Feel how your tongue moves in relation to the back of the roof of your mouth as you move from one vowel to the next. When you say “ahhhh” like at the dentist, your tongue is low and far back and your mouth is all the way open. If you say “cheeeeese” like in a photo, your tongue is higher up and further forward, and your mouth is more closed: it’s a lot harder for the dentist to...


16: Learning parts of words - Morphemes and the wug test

Here’s a strange little blue animal you’ve never seen before. It’s called a wug. Now here’s another one. There are two of them. There are two ___? You probably thought “wugs” – and even kids as young as 3 years old would agree with you. But how did you know this, if you’ve never heard the word “wug” before? What is it that you know, exactly, when you know how to add that -s? Now try saying two cat__ 🐈🐈, two dog__ 🐕🐕 and two horse__ 🐎🐎. Why did you end up with catssss but dogzzzz, and...