This page is just an invitation to explore some interesting topics in the area of languages:
Biting the Wax Tadpole
I read this little book about languages a few years ago—a truly fascinating and fun read! You can take a look at it on Amazon (I'm not endorsing Amazon as the place to buy it; it's just a convenient webpage where you can find out more about the book if you want). The title of the book refers to one of the possible meanings with which the brand name "Coca Cola" can be rendered into Mandarin Chinese.
When people live and work together but share no common language, they create a pidgin—a mix of words thrown together with no grammar. When their children communicate, while still living in that same place, they create a creole—a language that uses those words and gives them a grammatical system. The interesting thing is that creoles all around the world share basically the same grammar, regardless of what languages they were derived from. This suggests that we are "hard-wired" with a specific grammatical system to which we revert if we have no grammar in our acquired language. This interview of Derek Bickerton on the radio program To Best of Our Knowledge (from March 2008) gives a great introduction to this subject.
Origin of Languages
In the field of genetics, scientists have a general principle that the closer you get to the origin of a given life form, the more genetically diverse it will be in that area. Researchers applied the same principle to languages. They did a study on the phonemes of the world's languages, and found that the area with greatest diversity in phonemes is Sub-Saharan Africa. This is not a big surprise, since that's where people originally came from. But it does suggest that language developed long before people spread outward from the continent. This episode of BBC's Science in Action (from 14 April 2011) is worth listening to.
Imagine writing in English with totally logical spelling, using a beautiful flowing script. And imagine that this beautiful script also requires less effort to write, fewer penstrokes, than conventional writing. The playwright George Bernard Shaw left in his will a provision to fund the creation of better, more logical way to write the English language. After his death, designer Ronald Kingsley Read won the contest and in 1960 released a new script for this purpose, which he named the Shavian Alphabet. Then after years of correspondence with Shavian users around the world, he released an improved version of the alphabet in 1966 called Quikscript.
An amazing episode of the radio program Radiolab, this tells about how scientists are studying animal communication—specifically, the calls of Diana monkeys and of prairie dogs that warn each other very specifically about potential dangers: for example, conveying something like, "Hey, look out! Here comes a large human in blue." From October 2010.
This story, another Radiolab episode, is about language: how the mind functions with and without it, how a sign language was invented by schoolchildren in Nicaragua, and the fact that Shakespeare coined an incredible number of words that are in common use in English today. This page has both the audio of the program and a written transcript of it.