Previous: The Surprising Stories of Sesame Street - Mental Floss Scatterbrained
Next: The Behind the Scenes Secrets of Shopping Malls - Mental Floss Scatterbrained



View count:105,942
Last sync:2024-05-16 16:30
On today's episode of Scatterbrained, we're talking about language! We travel to Monrovia, Liberia where we meet an infamous polyglot who may not know how to speak over fifty languages after all. Then we remind you of some easy-to-forget English rules, like when to use who vs. whom and the true definition of irony. We figure out how to get a word in the dictionary. Then you learn little-known words that describe language. Finally, we head to James Cameron's world of Pandora to get the backstory on Na'vi in the film Avatar.

Subscribe for new episodes of Scatterbrained every other Wednesday!

Follow our hosts on Twitter:
John Green: @johngreen
Amanda Suk: @sukiestyles
Becca Scott: @thebeccascott
Elliott Morgan: @elliottcmorgan
Dani Fernandez: @msdanifernandez
Mike Rugnetta: @mikerugnetta

Store: (enter promo code: "YoutubeFlossers" for 15% off!)
Hi welcome to mental floss video today we're gonna talk about language everything from Bhutanese to Navi and I'm not kidding about that let's get started.

A polyglot is someone who has mastered multiple languages and one famous polyglot is Ziad Fazah who allegedly knows over 50 languages he was born in 1954 in Monrovia, Liberia. According to one source he learned almost all of those languages while he was a teenager picking up three to four every three months.

He has since written books about language in, get this, various languages because if ya got it, flaunt it. During the 1990s Fazah's name appeared in the Guinness Book of World Records for the number of languages he knew. That is no longer the case.

Back then he apparently knew somewhere between 54 and 56 the number lately some sources claim is up to 59. Just to give you a sense of what that means according to The Economist an english-speaking adult knows the meaning of about thirty thousand words but to be fluent in a foreign language someone might know one-tenth of that. That would give Ziad a vocabulary of like one hundred and seventy seven thousand total words.

That's a lot. If you're getting skeptical your instincts are totally correct. Many people started to find holes in Fazah's supposed knowledge over the years.

Like the bloggers ardent agnostic noticed that on the back of one of phases books he listed Dzongkha and Bhutanese as languages he knows but those are synonyms so his counting one has to there. But he really got busted on the Chilean show viva el lunes in 1997. People asked him questions in multiple languages he was supposed to know including Finnish,.

Chinese, and Greek. He answered some incorrectly others got answers in the wrong language. He contends that the TV show tricked him and edited his answers but no matter what it was a disaster.

You might be wondering how many languages can one person actually speak. Well, it's complicated. There's not really a good test for this kind of thing except for putting a person on a Chilean talk show.

And there are many historical legends of polyglots that now seem unrealistic. One of the more modern examples though is Dr. Kenneth Hale who passed away in 2001.

According to his New York Times obituary he'd mastered over 50 languages. What am i doing with my life?! Certain grammar and vocabulary rules can just feel impossible to remember so we're gonna do a quick refresher for you.

But it's important to note here that language is constantly changing especially informal language so a lot of these are formal rules that sometimes fade away. But we're gonna talk about that too. All right let's start with who and whom.

You should use who when you're talking about the subject of a sentence like in the question "who did this?" who is clearly the subject. And whom is the object of a verb or a preposition so you'd say "for whom do I vote?" or" whom do I vote for?" if you want to end a sentence with a preposition which by the way I think is fine. Also with quantifiers like "all of" or "many of" those should come before whom not who.

If you want to check to make sure you're doing this right you should be able to substitute who with he and whom with him or her. But this is a perfect example of a pretty formal rule that doesn't always apply like we don't often say "whom" out loud you're more likely to hear "who" or even "that" but for formal writing you may want to know the difference if only because it's nice to know the rules when breaking them. Moving on, lay or lie.

Oh I mean, I still can't do lay or lie. Okay, they're both present tense. You use lay when a *subject* is putting down an object like I the subject lay down my Suicide Squad blu-ray *object* it just isn't as good on DVD you miss some of the details of Harley Quinn's makeup.

Lie is when the subject is the thing in the horizontal position like "I just watched Suicide Squad and now I need to lie down to try to process all of the metaphorical resonances." The past tense of lay is laid. The past tense of lie unhelpfully is lay. Then there are the past participles which are respectively laid and lain.

Really, it's just cruel. Okay let's move on to "whether" vs "if". This is another one that doesn't apply often in casual language but formally you want to use if when you have a conditional sentence.

So that would be something like "Watch Suicide Squad if you want to see the best movie of 2014." What's that? it came out in 2016? Years are so long now! You should use whether when you're trying to state that there are two options like "Kylie didn't know whether Kendall or Kourtney would call but she knew one of them would call because they always do." There are two clear possibilities there.

Compare that to "Kylie didn't know if Kendall or Kourtney would call" that sentence leaves three options open. Kendall will call. Kourtney will call.

Or neither will call which seems very unlikely. Whether is also often used after prepositions, before infinitive verbs, and to start clauses. The definition of irony has been annoying everyone for years so let's talk about it.

There are a few different types of irony but the one that probably gives us the most trouble is situational irony. That's when someone's intended result gets a reversal like a famous example of this is at the end of The Wizard of Oz after a long journey they all learned that they had what they were seeking all along like Dorothy was already able to get home. That is the formal meaning so there are a lot of people who say that irony is not a coincidence or a paradox and that that Alanis Morissette song is full of things that aren't ironic which is the only irony in it.

But according to Merriam-Webster people have been using the term imprecisely for almost 100 years at least. So using it to mean coincidence isn't necessarily wrong it's just a more modern usage. "That" and "which" is a very controversial one but the AP style guide says to use that for clauses that are essential to the meaning of a sentence and which if the clause is adding more information but isn't essential. Here's how I do it.

If I think to myself I would like there to be a comma there I use which and otherwise I use that. An example "Kristen Stewart received an MTV Movie Award comma which she dropped." The which clause is adding information but it isn't changing the meaning. Whereas "All of the MTV Movie Awards that have been dropped are dented" wouldn't be true without the "that have been dropped" part.

But that rule isn't super strict either like I would argue that you can also say "Kristen Stewart received an MTV Movie Award that she dropped" if you don't feel like using a comma. I will however defer on this issue to merriam-webster which claims that for non-restrictive clauses you should definitely use which but for restrictive ones you can make a stylistic choice and use either which or that. As that previous list showed you language is constantly changing including words so what is the route word needs to take in order to get into the dictionary?

After it's coined people start to use the word in conversation as well as writing. Usage spreads from there. Lexicographers are the people paying attention to that proliferation.

They're the ones who write and edit dictionaries so a merriam-webster lexicographer will notice words in popular websites books journals and even comic strips. And they're not just looking for new words they're also looking for new spellings and meanings of older words. Oxford English Dictionary's have over 250 specialists who do similar research.

Their reading program of recruited readers has been around since 1857. My, how has language changed since then. But things are probably a little easier now lexicographers will typically put words into a searchable database alongside the context of how it's being used as well as the source but eventually these huge databases need to get narrowed down into a dictionary length book.

That's when some more specific criteria comes in. The three criteria that merriam-webster cites are frequent use, widespread use, and meaningful use. Someone called a definer makes that decision which is then looked over by more high-ranking teammates but after that the word is in!

Get me a definer! I got some words I can add to the dictionary! Oxford English used to wait two to three years before putting it in a print dictionary to make sure a word and its meaning were sustainable.

Nowadays words and meanings can become really important and well-known even quicker than that. Let's do a quick list of some little-known terms for language related phenomena. An acrolect is a specific type of dialect. it's the most prestigious version of a language or the closest you can get to speaking it in the languages standard.

When every letter of an alphabet fits into one sentence or phrase that's a pangram or hollow alphabetic sentence. Pangram came from Greek words meaning all and letter. A lipogram is usually a longer phrase and it's one in which the writer has intentionally left out one or more letters.

Ghost words appear in the dictionary but they haven't actually been used or established. Often this is because the people writing the dictionary made a mistake at some point and then it kept getting republished. Crutch words are ones like actually, basically, and like.

They're filler words or phrases that we use for emphasis or to give ourselves a little break to figure out the rest of the sentence. Uuuuum, everyone has a favorite. You use a pidgin when you're trying to communicate with someone who doesn't speak the same language as you.

It's usually a simple amalgamation of two languages. merriam-webster cites an example from National Geographic "many cats and their human companions seem to develop a pidgin language in order to communicate better." Morphology is a field of study in linguistics. It looks at how words are formed primarily focused on things like inflection and language structure. There's also morphology and biology but that's different.

Another subject in linguistics is phonology which is all about how speech and sound are organized in language. And contronyms are words that can mean their exact opposite. Left can mean you're gone or you're the only one remaining.

Now knowing all of the complicated facets of the English language maybe you want to create your own. That's what James Cameron enlisted Dr. Paul Frommer to do leading up to the filming of Avatar.

Yeah, we're talking about Na'vi. Hey, listen. I just want you to have a game plan in case Mr.

Cameron approaches you to invent a language for his next film. You're welcome. Dr.

Frommer has a PhD in linguistics and was a professor at University of Southern. California. James Cameron wanted him to design an entire language for the characters in his fil.m Cameron had already created about 30 words which Frommer said had kind of a Polynesian vibe.

From there Frommer needed to decide on rules for new sounds and phrases in Na'vi. He came up with 1,000 words in the four years he worked on the film's language up to 2009. According to Frommer there are three ways to come up with new vocabulary words.

One: make 'em up.

Two: take them from other languages which is uncommon in Na'vi. Or

Three: combine parts already in the language. The Na'vi word for computer is the words for metallic and brain combined for instance. A couple other distinguishing features of Na'vi: no voiced stops which means no B, D, or hard G. Also the ejectives K, P, and T are each followed by an X.

To make that sound you have to basically produce a big breath. And of course because the Na'vi have four fingers per hand their number system is base-8 rather than base ten like ours. I know it is a surprising amount of work for a film that used Papyrus as its subtitle font.

As for the future of Na'vi Frommer has said "there's a translation of Hamlet into Klingon so if Na'vi ever achieved anything close to that I'd be absolutely delighted." There are people who are translating the Bible into Na'vi so who knows. Thanks for watching Mental Floss video which is made with the help of all of these nice people. Please subscribe to our channel if you'd like to see more scatterbrained videos and don't forget to be awesome!