Tag Archives: #english

Does your Pain Feel Different in English and Spanish? (Psychology)

A new study out of the University of Miami suggests that the language a bilingual speaks can affect their pain, depending on the cultural associations they tie to each language.

We take for granted the fact that feelings such as love, happiness, or pain are described with different words and expressions across languages. But are these differences in the ways we express these feelings in different languages also tied to differences in the sensations themselves? Would a painful event like a stubbed toe or a bee sting hurt less if a bilingual chose to describe or think about it in Spanish as opposed to English?


These sorts of question were central to the development of a recent study by Morgan Gianola, University of Miami psychology graduate student, along with his advisor, Dr. Elizabeth Losin, director of the Social and Cultural Neuroscience lab at the University of Miami, and Dr. Maria Llabre, professor and associate chair of the Department of Psychology at the University of Miami. The study, entitled “Effects of Language Context and Cultural Identity on the Pain Experience of Spanish-English Bilinguals,” is published in the journal Affective Science and will appear as part of the journal’s special issue on “Language and Affect.”

The Social and Cultural Neuroscience lab uses experimental interactions among research participants to assess how social factors, like the language one speaks or the cultural identity they express, can influence pain responses and other clinically relevant behaviors. Gianola joined this lab to research how social environments and cultural learning can be relevant to perceptions as seemingly objective and inherent as pain.

In the study, 80 bilingual Hispanic/Latino participants from the University of Miami and Miami-Dade County communities visited the lab to participate in separate English and Spanish testing sessions; during both sessions, they received a pain-induction procedure, when an experimenter applied painful heat to their inner forearm. The primary difference between the two experimental visits was the language being spoken (English or Spanish), while the painful procedure itself did not change. Participants provided subjective ratings of their pain, and their physiological responses (i.e. their heart rate and palm sweating) were also monitored.

Gianola explained that this study was inspired by previous research in the field of “linguistic relativity,” which has shown differences between English and Spanish speakers in cognitive processes like memory for specific events or categorization of objects. These cognitive differences are also seen among bilinguals when they switch between English and Spanish contexts. Gianola hoped to clarify how such psychological differences across languages might also relate to changes in physical and emotional experiences, like pain.

“All of our participants identified as bicultural,” said Gianola. “After each experimental session, we had them fill out surveys about things like how often they use each language [English and Spanish] and how strongly they relate to and identify with both the Hispanic and U.S.-American sides of their cultural identity. The interesting thing we found was, rather than participants always showing higher pain ratings in Spanish, for example, they tended to report more intense pain and show larger physiological responses to pain when they spoke the language of their stronger cultural identity.”

According to the study findings, participants who engaged more with Hispanic culture showed higher pain when speaking Spanish, while more U.S.-American identified participants reported higher pain in English. People who were fairly balanced in their engagement with U.S.-American and Hispanic culture had pain outcomes that didn’t differ much across languages. The study also suggests that bodily responses to the pain played a larger role in determining pain ratings among more Hispanic oriented bilingual participants.

“This study highlights, first, that Hispanic/Latino communities are not monolithic, and that the factors affecting bilinguals’ psychological and physiological responses to pain can differ across individuals,” said Gianola. “We also see that language can influence such a seemingly basic perception as pain, but that the cultural associations people carry with them may dictate to what extent the language context makes a difference.”

Moving forward, the researchers are developing new experiments to further address the role language plays in influencing cognition and perception among bilinguals. As part of a dissertation project, Gianola plans to investigate the brain processes that contribute to the effects found in this most recent study.

References: Morgan Gianola et al, Effects of Language Context and Cultural Identity on the Pain Experience of Spanish–English Bilinguals, Affective Science (2020). DOI: 10.1007/s42761-020-00021-x

Provided by University of Miami

What Was The First English Word? (Language / Archeology)

What was the first English word? Because language disappears into the air as soon as it is spoken, it can be hard to tell when any particular language began. But if there are artifacts with writing left behind, we can get some idea of its beginnings. The earliest English word we have a record of was discovered during an archeological dig near Norwich, England in the early 1930s. It was written in an ancient runic script carved on the bone of a deer: “raihan.” But what does it mean?

Another reason it’s hard to say when a language began is that languages generally don’t just materialize out of nowhere but evolve from other, already-existing languages. When does Latin officially become French or Spanish or Italian? In the case of English, the question is when does an ancestor Germanic language become English? (Or for that matter, German, Dutch, or Norwegian?)

The most sensible thing to ask when looking for the first English word, then, is when did a Germanic language first come to the place where English would eventually develop and flourish?

The “raihan” bone was found in a cremation urn in a cemetery site in the village of Caistor St. Edmund. Archeologists now call it the Caistor astragalus (astragalus is an anatomical term for ankle bone), and it’s been dated to the early 5th century. Importantly, this was just before a major linguistic turning point in the history of English: the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons in Britain. Before the Anglo-Saxon invasions of 449 A.D., the people there spoke some sort of Celtic language mixed with Latin from the occupying Romans. The Anglo-Saxons brought their Germanic languages, which just a few hundred years later would become dominant across the area and take the form of Old English.

The bone appears to pre-date the Anglo-Saxons, but is in some sort of Germanic language. Who made this inscription? Members of a Germanic tribe that worked for the Romans? Warriors for hire? It’s still a mystery. But “raihan” is our first physical document of the beginning of English.

The meaning of the word “raihan” is also a bit of a mystery. The “n” at the end looks like a type of possessive ending that some Germanic languages had then. It could mean “Raiha’s,” as in “this belongs to Raiha.” Or it could be related to the root “rei,” which could either mean to cut or to color. It could also refer to the carver of the inscription, the one who polished and prepared the bone.

However, it’s most likely that the meaning is the animal the ankle bone comes from. In Old English, the word for roe-deer is “raha” or “raa.” “Raihan” is different, but not so different that it couldn’t have changed into “raha” over time.

What is it for? Another clue to the meaning of the word is the purpose of the bone. The urn in which it was found also contains a number of other smaller bones from sheep or goats. Taken together, they form a set of pieces or counters for playing a game. The use of small bones in games is an ancient and widespread practice. In fact, the game Jacks was once known as “Knucklebones.”

The roe-deer bone is larger, polished, and etched with a word. Perhaps it was the prize piece in a game, similar to the king in chess. Perhaps the person who fashioned the game pieces just wanted to label the bone with the name of its source. Though we can’t know exactly who wrote the word and why, we do, thanks to the luck of preservation and discovery, know the word.

How Can We Communicate With Humans Of The Future Without Using Language? (Language / Science)

We take for granted that trying to communicate with alien species could be challenging, but what about with our own species 10,000 years in the future? This is the problem faced by agencies charged with safely disposing of nuclear waste. This waste stays dangerous to humans for thousands of years, so in order to protect future humans, there must be some way of telling them to avoid sites where nuclear waste is stored.

There is no guarantee that any of the languages, symbols, or cultural references we have today will make any sense to the people of the future. So how can we make sure our warnings about the dangers of nuclear waste disposal sites will be heeded? In 1981, the U.S. Department of Energy convened a panel of experts for something called the Human Interference Task Force to study the problem and issue a report. They came up with various ideas for the 10,000-year communication task, all of which have drawbacks.

Why langauge won’t work? Language never stops changing. From generation to generation both the form and meanings of words shift in subtle ways that we hardly recognize while the changes are in progress, but after just a few hundred years are significant enough to keep us from understanding. Chaucer’s English, which is only 600 years old, can only be understood by people with special training. Linear A, a form of writing found on a tablet that is significantly less than 10,000 years old, has still not been deciphered.

The most useful approach to take with language on a marker to last 10,000 years into the future is extreme redundancy. The Rosetta Stone was deciphered because it had the same text in three different languages, one of which, Greek, was accessible to scholars. If the same message is written in many different languages and scripts, there is no guarantee that people of the future will know how to interpret them, but the chances of interpretation increase a little.

Why symbols won’t work? We do have some symbols that can transcend language; for example, numerals and mathematical symbols, and airport markers for customs, luggage, and restrooms. There are various international symbols for danger, and even a specific one for nuclear radiation. But they depend heavily on cultural conventions which may not exist even a century from now. Symbols must be interpreted within a context of what is already known or assumed, and we can’t predict what the background context will be in the future. Maybe a skull and crossbones will look enticing if it is interpreted as a marker for the tomb of an important person and may contain treasure.

Other ways to emphasize the idea of danger may backfire in a similar way. Having the area covered in an unnatural color or sharp spikes would work to call attention to it, and if humans of the future are anything like us, their curiosity will draw them toward what captures the attention.

In a report issued for the Office of Nuclear Waste Isolation in 1984, semiotician Thomas Sebeok recommended a strategy to bridge the linguistic and cultural changes that could render a message meaningless in 10,000 years; he proposed that the warning should contain within it a “metamessage” advising that every 250 years, it should be re-encoded into whatever the current communication strategies of the time are. But how can we make sure people of the future comply?

He thought the best chance of success was a created mythology: a folklore passed along through rituals and legends. It would be overseen by an “atomic priesthood” or group of scientists that knew the real dangers and would encourage the development of a deep cultural taboo and fear of dire consequences from non-compliance. Even if the reason for the atomic priesthood were to be forgotten and the legends and stories transform into something else, there was a chance a superstition and aura of danger would linger and offer some protection.

But this would still be no guarantee. We have no idea what the future will look like or how any messages we send will be interpreted. We can only go on the hunch that the people of the future will be, at least in some ways, like us.

These Are The Words That Make You Say ‘Um’ (Language /Neuroscience)

There’s a certain kind of word that slows you down more than any other — that is, it’s more likely that you’ll have to pause and use a filler word like “um” or “er” before your tongue finally comes up with the word you’re looking for. Let’s guess what kind of word it is. Hmm … maybe taxonomic classifications? Or maybe it’s the names of your in-laws and their extended family members? No, wait, it’s got to be the infield fly rule. Actually, the words that make our brains hit the brakes are some of the most common words of all.

It’s nouns. You know: people, places, and things. Probably the easiest part of speech to wrap your mind around — a whole lot easier than gerunds. What is it that makes words like “shirt,” “mug,” and “toffee apple” the speed bumps of language? Whatever it is, it’s true in English, Dutch, and various languages of the Amazon, Siberia, and the Kalahari desert. When a team led by Frank Seifart from the University of Amsterdam and Professor Balthasar Bickel from the University of Zurich examined native speakers of a broad range of languages, they were able to see that some patterns hold true across linguistic borders. They were listening for brief pauses and filler words, such as “um” or “uh,” and found that these tended to pile up before references to concrete objects and concepts.

Why would this be? The researchers believe that it’s because when you use a noun, it’s usually because you are introducing a new concept into the conversation. Unlike verbs and adjectives, nouns can be mediated by pronouns. That means that if you’ve already referred to the thing you’re talking about, you can often avoid mentioning it by either using a pronoun or avoiding it entirely. For example, you might say “My dog went outside and it played fetch,” or just “My dog went outside and played fetch.” When you actually use the noun “dog,” chances are that it’s the first time a dog is being brought up in this particular conversation. You’re more likely to have to reel in your conversational flow and slow down to redirect the topic when you’re using a noun than you are for any other part of speech. No wonder they slow us down.

It’s clear that the way that we use a word changes depending on what type of word it is. But there’s MRI evidence that the brain processes different parts of speech differently as well. In 2010, researchers from Spain and Germany taught participants several made-up words, split into nouns and verbs. Their task was to work out the meaning of each word from context alone — from the sentences “The girl got a jat for Christmas” and “The best man was so nervous he forgot the jat,” you can figure out that “jat” means “ring,” for example. As it turns out, unfamiliar nouns caused activity in the area of the brain most associated with visual and object processing, while strange verbs sparked something in the semantic, conceptual, and grammar-oriented areas. It all goes to show how there isn’t a “language” region of the brain — language is so essential that you’ve got a special place for every part of it.

Backformation Can Make You Invent New Words Without Realizing It (Psychology)

There are a number of ways new words come into English. We can put two words together to make a compound (“photobomb,” “humblebrag”), add endings onto existing words (“hotness”), shorten longer words (“bro”), or simply make them up (That’s so “fetch!”) But one of the most common ways for a new word to come into English is for people to assume it must already exist. The process is called backformation, and it reveals our natural tendency to expand on the patterns that structure vocabulary.

If you can “convalesce” and “acquiesce,” why not “adolesce”? If you can “compensate” and “speculate,” why not “conversate”? If a baker bakes, and an actor acts, what does a burglar do? People do sometimes use words like “adolesce,” “conversate,” and “burgle,” but these words usually get a laugh. They aren’t completely accepted as standard English, and despite the existence of their counterparts “adolescence,” “conversation,” and “burglar,” they seem somehow wrong.

But there are also plenty of words that are completely accepted that were created in the exact same way: by stripping the ending off a noun to reveal what should be the verb behind that noun. “Escalate” was not a verb until after the invention of the escalator. There was no verb “to curate” until centuries after the curator. Other backformed verbs include injure (from injury), reminisce (from reminiscence), and scavenge (from scavenger). There’s nothing funny or nonstandard about these verbs today. Backformation is a generally unremarkable process for vocabulary creation.

Though the most common pathway to a backformation is from noun to verb, sometimes adjectives are stripped of their endings to form new nouns or verbs. “Greed” was formed from “greedy” and “ditz” from “ditzy.” We can now “laze” around being “lazy.” What seems to be important in the success of a backformation is how identifiable the ending of a word is as an ending. When there’s an –y, or –ation, or –er, it’s easy to read as an addition to a root word, even when it isn’t. For example, the English word “cherry” comes from a misreading of the French borrowing “cherise” as “cherry” + “s.”

Misreadings don’t only occur with words borrowed from other languages, but also with English words transformed by historical changes. The verb “to grovel” was formed from a reading of groveling as “grovel” + “ing.” It was originally “groof” + “ling,” an adverb meaning “face down,” akin to “headlong” or “sidelong.” Pronunciation changes obscured the true root and ending and made the new reading not only possible but natural. It fit right into the extremely common verb+ing structure.

It’s also helpful to the success of a backformation if there isn’t a strong competitor for the word that results. “Grovel” evoked a more specific scenario than “abase oneself,” but the meanings of “conversate” or “sanitate” are already captured by “converse” and “sanitize.” Benefactors don’t “benefact” because they already “support,” “endow,” or “donate.” However, just because a competitor exists doesn’t mean a backformation can’t catch on. When “donate” itself was formed off of “donation,” sticklers complained that it was ridiculous gobbledygook for the much simpler “give.” But it turned out to be a useful expression for a very particular type of giving and has since been fully absorbed into the language.

There are many ways for us to exploit the resources of English to say what we want to say in a new way. Backformation is just another creative way to “liase,” “emote,” and “iridesce” with language.

This Is The Most Annoying Word In English Language (Psychology)


How does that word make you feel? As words go, it’s not a particularly beloved one. For nine years straight, “whatever” has been voted the most annoying word in the English language. Sorry, bratty teenagers.

One of the most exciting days for American English comes but only once a year: the day when the New Marist Institute of Public Opinion releases its poll results for the year’s most annoying words or phrases. Demonstrating commendable staying power, the word “whatever” ranked as the most annoying word or phrase used in casual conversation. And this “Clueless”–esque word held its less-than-coveted number-one spot for eleven years, from 2008 to 2019. (There hasn’t yet been a poll released for the most annoying word since then, but we’re holding out hope.)

In 2017 as compared to 2016, “whatever” was beginning to gain a bit more acceptability. The poll found that only 28 percent of respondents under the age of 45 voted for “whatever,” while it was the choice of 40 percent of respondents over 45. “It has been more than 20 years since ‘whatever’ first gained infamy in the movie ‘Clueless,'” Dr. Lee M. Miringoff, the Director of The Marist College Institute for Public Opinion, said in a statement. “While the word irks older Americans, those who are younger might not find ‘whatever’ to be so annoying.”

But what is it about “whatever” that really drives Americans bananas? Since 38 percent of the 1,005 people polled were most annoyed by the word “whatever,” it’s worth exploring. The Oxford Dictionary includes this informal definition: “Said as a response indicating a reluctance to discuss something, often implying indifference.” It’s the indifference bit that really grinds peoples’ gears.

Here are all the words and phrases that ranked for really getting a rise out of people in 2017:

• Whatever: 33%
• Fake news: 23%
• No offense, but: 20%
• Literally: 11%
• You know what I mean: 10%

For those keeping score at home, here were the words that annoyed the heck out of Americans in 2016:

• Whatever: 38%
• No offense, but: 20%
• You know, right?: 14%
• I can’t even: 14%
• Huge: 8%
• Unsure: 5%