Topic List by Number
How do we capture the meaning of "may" or "can"? What kinds of linguistic math do we need to understand them? In this episode, we take a look at modality: where words like "must" fit in our meanings; how we consider many ways the world could be to account for their semantics; and how the same string of sounds can have a lot of flavours.
We can put whole clauses inside other phrases, but what does that do to their structure and their meaning? In this episode, we take a look at the syntax and semantics of relative clauses: how these clauses kind of look like adjectives; how using them creates islands from which words can't escape; and how moving things around in them throws semantic variables into the sentence setup.
How do verbs like "give" and "put" juggle more than one object? Is there an element that lets verbs cause things to happen? In this episode, we talk about splitting up the verb phrase: how our basic syntactic theory has a hard time with verbs with more than one object; how the syntax of causation shows us why we should expand our trees; and how once we break the phrase up, we can capture all sorts of facts, from two-object verbs to ambiguities.
What's the difference between "thinking" and "knowing"? What rules do we follow for adjusting our conversational worlds? In this episode, we delve into the semantics and pragmatics of presuppositions: which words come equipped with them, how presuppositions depend on the situation and our mental worlds, and what antipresuppositions can tell us about the mechanics of interpreting sentences.
How do sentences fit inside other sentences? Where can we put words like "that", "whether", and "if"? In this episode, we take a look at complementizer phrases: what exactly they are, how they account for embedded sentences and questions, and what they can let us do to capture word order in languages like German and Dutch.
What kinds of sentences do we hear from babies and toddlers? How much grammar can we find in their language use? In this episode, we take a look at child syntactic stages: what characteristics kids display as they progress from one to two to many words, whether their grammars are similar to those of adults, and how their linguistic interpretation may tell us more than just their speech.
What roles do nouns play in sentences? How can we figure out those roles when they get moved around? In this episode, we talk about case: how nouns get case, how it explains why some sentences are okay and others not, and how it can even help account for different word orders between languages.
How do we combine words to build full propositions? How do we account for what people believe, not just what's definitely true? In this episode, we talk about type theory: how we can define terms by how they relate to the world and each other, what the difference is between sense and reference, and how we can use possible worlds to work out what people believe.
How can we try to capture the commonalities and differences between linguistic sound systems? What makes one language sound different from another? In this episode, we take a look at Optimality Theory: how we can use constraints to describe how phonology behaves, how we rank which rules we care most about breaking, and how changing our priorities leads to totally different sound outcomes.
What basic properties do all human languages have in common? How might languages from other worlds differ? In this episode, we take a look at potential alien languages: how we can categorize them differently from how our languages work, how they could potentially make sounds and compose meanings, and how imaginative we may have to be to understand what other species might have to say to us.
How can we tell apart different sonorant consonants - your [n]s and [m]s, [l]s and [ɹ]s? What do their sound waves look like? In this episode, we take a look at the acoustics of nasal and approximant consonants: how opening up your nose influences your speech, how close some consonants are to being vowels, and why it can be hard for some people to tell apart the English l and r.
How do we show possession in our syntax? And what does that tell us about representing nouns in our trees? In this episode, we take a look at determiner phrases: why we need them on top of noun phrases, how they turn some of our ideas about syntax inside out, and what they let us display in trees that we couldn't before.
What knowledge do you start off with when you learn a third (or fourth, or fifth...) language? Do the languages you already have in your head help or interfere? In this episode, we talk about third language acquisition: whether you have to transfer from your first language, how you can build from the languages you already know, and what we still don't know about this new field.
What goes into making a sentence? How has our view of the sentence changed over time? In this episode, we look at the history of clauses: what our first conceptions of them were, how we came to view inflection as the key to the sentence, and why we then broke inflection down further and made tense central.
How do we put words together to build more complex noun phrases? What do the structures of sentences and noun phrases have in common? In this episode, we talk about compound nouns: what they look and sound like, how big we can make them, and how they can let us delve into some deeper questions about syntax.
How do we focus on crucial information in our conversations? What methods do we have for moving things into the center of discussion? In this episode, we talk about information structure: how we build up the common ground in discussion, what we do to bring up topics and signal our focus, and how different languages use varying strategies to bring new ideas to the fore.
Why can't we just use "ever" or "at all" in any sentence we want? What do we have to change about how a sentence works to let words like those in? In this episode, we talk about negative polarity items, or NPIs: when they can show up, why their name ismisleading, and how changing what a sentence entails changes everything for these little terms.
Why do so many words and sentences have multiple meanings? How do we deal with all of the overlaps? In this episode, we talk about ambiguity: where it comes from, how we deal with processing it, and how children pick meanings from the menu of semantic possibilities they're presented with.
How do we put our words together? What varieties of building blocks do we stack up to create bigger meanings? In this episode, we talk about derivational and inflectional morphology: what roles each of them play, how to tell them apart, and how differences in how we string them together can lead to ambiguity.
Why do different languages slot their words into sentences in different sequences? Do the subjects of sentences have to start off at the beginning of the sentence? In this episode, we talk about word order and the Verb Phrase-Internal Subject Hypothesis, or VPISH: how much variation in orders we see across languages, why having the subject start out lower down in the syntactic tree helps us capture these differences, and what other evidence we have that the subject might not start exactly where it appears.
How do we wade through hissing or silence to tell consonants apart? Which cues do we grab onto to get us on top of these sound waves? In this episode, we take a look at obstruent acoustics: how they differ from vowels or other sonorous sounds, how the way we make fricatives influences the way they sound to us, and how we latch onto lightning-quick changes to tell us what stop we just heard.
How can we capture the meanings of transitive sentences? How do we match our syntax trees to our semantics? In this episode, we talk about lambda calculus: why we need it to explain what our other semantic machinery can't, how to work out its math, and what it can show us about how words move around in sentences.
What kinds of words are off-limits in different languages? How deeply does profanity affect us? In this episode, we talk about taboo language and euphemisms: how they work, when we're allowed to use what, how psychologically deep they go, and why we can't run on the same euphemisms forever.
How much meaning is there just in sounds? How much are words alike across languages? In this episode, we talk about the arbitrariness of the sign: how our sounds don't have to connect to the meanings they do, how much cases like onomatopoeia serve as a counter to the random matching of words, and whether individual sounds or syllables carry their own semantic punch.
How do we know what questions we can ask? What keeps us from moving words around into whatever order we want? In this episode, we talk about syntactic islands: what they are, what rules can allow us to move some words across long distances in a sentence and not others, and what evidence we have from different languages to back these rules up.
How does our speech affect the world around us? How can we measure the changes that our words make? In this episode, we take a look at performative language: what you need for your words to work their magic, what different parts make up our speech acts, and how our word choices can change the way we perceive and remember events.
What kinds of mistakes do kids make in their sentences? Why do we see them leaving things out so much more often than putting things in wrong? In this episode, we talk about grammatical conservatism: what it means, some ways it shows up, and what it can tell us about language and how kids use it.
How can we describe the complexity of linguistic systems? Where does natural language fit in? In this episode, we talk about the Chomsky hierarchy: what it captures, what characterizes different kinds of grammars on the hierarchy, and whether we can find grammars that sit higher on the scale than human language.
How can we tell what words like "few" and "many" do in our sentences? What's the right way to represent these words in our minds? In this episode, we talk about generalized quantifier theory: what the math for quantifiers should look like, what properties natural language quantifiers seem to all share, and what that means for how kids can learn them.
How can we tell what's relevant when we try to work out what other people mean? What can experiments tell us about how much we'll consider when puzzling out meaning? In this episode, we talk about relevance theory: how it can help us more scientifically approach relevance in our discussions, how it interacts with the rest of our understanding of the rules of conversations, and how we can play with relevance in experiments to make people more or less likely to behave in logical ways.
How do different languages play with pitch to create differences in meaning? How do we tell where stress falls? In this episode, we look at stress and foot structure: how languages use tone, pitch, and stress; how we can build different kinds of feet; and how where we place our stress can change the way we emphasize our sounds.
What do our eyes do while we read written language? What can their movements tell us about our processing? In this episode, we look at eye tracking: how we can measure these small movements, what following how people read shows us about processing, and how even just studying how we look at pictures can unlock how our brains approach incoming words.
How do we work with the people we're talking with to make conversation flow smoothly? What tools can we use to show we're engaged? In this episode, we talk about common ground: how we build it, whether it differs for face-to-face vs. online communications, and how memes and new turns of phrase can help conversations and communities along.
How do we change our grammars when we pick up a new language? Is there a limit to how much we can shift? In this episode, we talk about parameter resetting in second language acquisition: how quickly we can change our transferred grammar, whether there's a difference in ability between children and adults, and whether there are some areas where we might be unable to adjust.
What did our languages sound like before we had written records? How can we work that out? In this episode, we talk about historical reconstruction of languages: what methods we can use to rebuild long-dead systems, what groupings of languages we can put together using these techniques, and if there’s a limit to how far back we can go.
How do we form sets of different elements? How do those collections contribute to meaning? In this episode, we talk about set theory: the basics of how it works, how it connects to adjectives, and how it informs the way we build up larger meanings from individual words.
How do some languages get to be so widespread? What happens to them once they're in such broad use? In this episode, we talk about lingua francas: where they come from, and how they grow. We also discuss a few different examples: English, Latin, Nahuatl, and Indonesian!
How do our throats work to make different kinds of sounds? What different settings for our vocal folds do we have? In this episode, we talk about phonation and glottal states: how air interacts with our anatomy to create waves, what settings we have besides voiced, voiceless, and closed completely, and how these other settings, breathy and creaky voice, are used across languages. And how they're all totally fine and cool!
How does a sentence's structure change when you swap one word for another? How can we know what those changes are? In this episode, we talk about raising and control verbs: what they are, how we can tell that they're different, and what they can tell us about how syntax works.
What might happen to language in the future? What changes can we foresee based on what we know now? In this episode, we look at predictions for the future of language: how the past tense in English may change, how many of the world's languages may go extinct, and whether we'll all end up with a global language.
What kind of logic can we find inside sentences? How do we calculate the meaning from what we hear? In this episode, we talk about predicate logic: why we need it, how it differs from sentential logic, and how we can combine it with quantifiers to capture the full meaning of our language.
How do programs figure out what we're saying? How have these programs changed over time? In this episode, we talk about speech recognition software: what sorts of information it pays attention to, how it's evolved over time, and why it's both gotten a lot better and still has a long way to go.
How do we build sentences based on what we see and hear? What approaches do we take to work out what's being said? In this episode, we talk about parsing strategies: why we need them, what they do for us, and how they can sometimes lead us to making weird interpretations.
Why do little kids make speech mistakes? What patterns can we find in their errors? In this episode, we talk about sound substitutions in child speech: why it happens, what varieties there are, and how many different varieties we can find even in a single word.
How do we create different kinds of sound waves when we only have one mouth? What properties do those speech waves have? In this episode, we talk about resonance and formants: how different parts of a speech wave can get amplified, how that relates to how we talk, and how the sounds of vowels are influenced by our tongue and lip setups.
What connections do we make when we encounter language? How long does it take us to spot these ties? In this episode, we talk about priming: what it is, how far those connections go, and why our minds aren't exploding with the complexity of the web we drag through our sentences all the time.
How much does logic structure our sentences, and what kind of logic should we use? In this week's episode, we talk about sentential logic: where it came from, how we connect things up systematically, and in what ways language looks like it moves away from pure logic.
When a kid makes a mistake in their language, does it help them fix it to correct the error? How do they deal with linguistic feedback? In this episode, we talk about negative evidence and child language acquisition: what it is, when we provide it, and how kids listen to it.
How do different languages arrange their meaningful pieces? How many meanings can they let one piece have? In this episode, we look at morphological typologies: how different languages link up their morphemes (or don't!), how they connect one or more meanings to a given sound, and how they can mix and match between different morpheme options.
How do we make sounds without using our lungs? What kinds of consonants can we gulp or pop out of our mouths? In this episode, we talk about non-pulmonic consonants: ejectives, implosives, and clicks. We look at how we make them, where we find them, and why some configurations for making these sounds are just impossible.
How do we know how to interpret our pronouns? What rules guide what meanings can go with what words? In this episode, we talk about binding theory: what a pronoun even is, where different pronouns can get their interpretation from, and what principles of syntax oversee our understanding of all the nouns we talk about.
How can we get at what kids know about language? What challenges do linguists face in working with children? In this episode, we take a look at child language experimentation: why it differs from adult testing, descriptions of a couple of types of experiments, and how we need to find the right test to get at exactly what's happening with kids.
Why do we sometimes hear things that aren't there? When does the way we process language leave cracks for illusions to appear? In this episode, we talk about phonological illusions: what varieties there are, the processing strategies that lead to them, and how sometimes, we even try interpreting sounds as language when they aren't linguistic at all.
How do we communicate with groups who don't speak the same language as us? What happens when kids start learning the linguistic systems we construct? In this episode, we talk about pidgins and creoles: what pidgins tend to have in common, how pidgins are like and not like natural languages, and what happens when kids take a pidgin and change it into something new.
What kinds of games do we play with language? What do we use those games for? In this episode, we talk about wordplay: what parts of language we play with, how the languages we speak influence the fun we can have, and how, sometimes, wordplay can be used for serious goals.
How do we learn new words? What guidelines do we follow for picking up new terms? In this episode, we take a look at vocabulary development: the difficulties in deciding what sounds go with what meanings, the assumptions we make to help us solve those challenges, and what kinds of morphemes get stored where. Hodor!
How do we puzzle out what meanings lie beyond our sentences? What different flavours of extra meanings are there? In this episode, we talk about implicatures, entailments, and presuppositions: how to define them, what the differences are between them, and how they enrich our understanding of the world.
How do we define what qualifies as a science? Does linguistics fit the definition? In this episode, we look at linguistics as a science: whether it fits the scientific method, how scientifically sound different parts of the field are, and why studying linguistics is a great tool for introducing people to how science works.
How do we deal with gender when we process language? Do we take it into consideration when we hear words and sentences? In this week's episode, we talk about gender and language processing: the different kinds of gender in language, how gender influences our ability to retrieve words from our mental dictionaries, and how our views on gender temporarily keep us from considering otherwise legitimate interpretations of sentences.
How does a word know what role it should play in a sentence? How can we match up our verbs and nouns so that everything makes sense? In this episode, we talk about theta roles: how they keep us from overstuffing or underfilling our sentences, the different kinds of roles there are, and how it keeps X' Theory from running out of control.
Do children have an easier time learning a second language than adults? What paths do kids travel for acquiring new languages? In this episode, we talk about child second language acquisition: how it differs from first language acquisition by babies, how it differs from adult second language acquisition, and from what ages we start seeing transfer effects from the first language showing up in little kids.
How long have we been writing? What sorts of character systems do we use? In this episode, we look at our written languages: where they came from, the varieties of systems that we developed, and how different alphabets have evolved over time.
How do our words change on their way out of our mouths? What kinds of rules cover their variation? In this week's episode, we talk about allomorphy: the way our morphemes change, the types of variation we find in their pronunciation, and the methods that allow us to decide what the underlying morpheme is.
How do we define vowel sounds? What are all the different vowels we can make? In this episode, we return to the International Phonetic Alphabet to look at vowels: what parameters we use to define them, what variation we see across languages, and some ways we can play with them to create more categories of sound.
How do the meanings of words change over time? In this episode, we look at semantic shift: how the senses of words drift over time, and how we can describe the different patterns we find across languages.
How much do languages have in common underneath? Are there some rules all languages follow? In this episode, we talk about the Principles and Parameters approach to Universal Grammar, and look at some principles that all languages obey, as well as some parameters that offer a choice between two options for your language.
What happens when we lose our ability to use language? What difficulties do we run into when studying language loss? In this episode, we look at aphasia, and particularly Broca's aphasia: what symptoms occur, why it's hard to make sweeping generalizations about what to expect, and what aphasia can tell us about how language works.
What elements move around when we make our sentences? Is it the same in all languages? In this episode, we look at syntactic movement: how we know that words move around, what remnants get left behind, and how we can use these phenomena to explain surface differences between languages.
Does our language determine how we can think, or can we think about things our language can't frame? In this episode, we talk about linguistic determinism: who came up with the hypothesis, what its implications are, and whether a stronger or weaker version best matches the facts.
What do we have to memorize for our language? How can we know if kids learn the same things as adults? In this episode, we talk about the wug test: why it's important, how it works, and what it shows us.
Where in our mouth do we pronounce our sounds? In what ways do we let the air escape? In this episode, we talk about places and manners or articulation: all the different places in the vocal tract we can make sounds, the different methods for restricting air flow that we use, and some of the variation we see between languages for making consonants.
How long have we been inventing languages? What can those languages look like? In this episode, we talk about constructed languages, or conlangs: their history, their populations, and what it means for something to be considered a language.
What steps does our brain go through when we encounter language, and how can we measure what those steps are? In this episode, we talk about event-related brain potentials (ERPs): the small electrical changes that we can see when the brain responds to stimuli. We also go over some of the basic steps in processing language that ERPs can show us, for sounds, meaning, and syntax.
How do we put together our words? What pieces are the most important, and where does everything go? In this episode, we talk about root morphemes and affixes: what the most meaningful bits are, all the different places we can put morphemes in and around each other, and some of the variation we see between languages.
How can we find out what babies know about language before they can tell us themselves? What methods can we use? In this episode, we look at some of the experimental techniques linguists use to get into those infant heads, and discuss some of the discoveries we've made about what's going on in there.
Where did English come from? How has it changed and evolved over time to become the powerhouse language it is today? In this episode, we talk about the history of English: what it looked like when it was more Germanic, how it became more French in Middle English, and the changes that happened to make it the Modern English we speak today.
How do we put together our syllables? Where do the consonants and vowels go inside our words? In this episode, we talk about syllable structure: how we fit the sounds together, how we decide what consonants go where, and how we know what makes words rhyme.
How does our first language influence learning new ones? What gets moved over from the old languages to the new? In this episode, we talk about transfer in second language acquisition: how we know that the foundation of our new language is the one we knew already, and what the effects are of having that old language knowledge around.
How can we track all of the sounds of language, exactly how we hear them? Why aren't our regular writing systems up to the challenge? In this episode, we talk about the International Phonetic Alphabet: what it is, why we need it, and how the charts are arranged. Plus, we made our own IPA charts!
What kinds of variation do we see in language? What does it mean for a linguistic system to be classified as a dialect or its very own capital-L Language? In this episode, we talk about linguistic variation: the ways in which dialects can differ, what underlies different grammars, and why every version of a language is okay.
What lies beneath the sentences that we say and hear? How do we know which words go together? In this episode, we talk about syntax: why we need it, and the trees that structure our words into meaningful phrases, using X' theory.
Where in the brain is language located, and how do we know? In this episode, we talk about neurolinguistics, the two main areas in the brain that are in charge of language, and two different neuroimaging techniques we use to look at where and when the brain does all its linguistic magic.
Why do people interpret the same sentence multiple ways? What is it about semantics that leads us to more than one meaning? We take on semantic scope, and talk about how the most innocent-seeming words in your sentence are fighting it out to bestow upon you an interpretation where they come out on top.
What are the parts of words that matter for meaning? They're not always as big as you might think. This week, we talk about morphemes, the smallest bits of meaning: how to find them, where to dig for them, and how different languages deal with them.
What happens when babies are exposed to more than one language at the same time? You might be worried about them getting confused, but we're here to talk about bilingualism, and how kids have no trouble working out how to build their two languages right. It turns out babies, as always, are linguistically amazing.
When we deal with language, how do we know what sounds we hear match up to what categories? And how do we know what sounds to make ourselves? In the follow-up to our phoneme episode, we takes on allophones, the speech sounds that are driven by rules, and that define the way we hear our linguistic world.
With all the sounds we can make with our mouths, how do we know which ones are important for our language? We take a look at phonemes, the basic sounds of language, and how we can identify them, how we tell them apart, and how our brains react to them.
When we're studying language, which rules are the rules that matter? We take a look at prescriptive and descriptive rules, and explains why the rules that tell you how you actually do something are more interesting and more scientific than the ones that tell you how you should do it.
Our conversations may not always behave entirely logically, but we still have rules to follow. In this episode, we talk about the Cooperative Principle and the different Conversational Maxims that give us the rails our interactions run down.
How do babies get so good at language so quickly? Because they already know a lot from the beginning about how language works. In this episode, we talk about Universal Grammar and evidence that babies are little language acquisition geniuses.