Our Cool Human Languages

I am fascinated how languages work, how they fit together, and how our brains interpret language.

Realizing that the vast majority of humanity throughout history was illiterate, I feel extremely fortunate that I can read a page of English pretty much in a few seconds just by glancing over it.

Language is like telepathy. The writer, at some time in the past, had a thought and wrote that thought down. Now, I and millions of others can reconstruct that exact thought in our heads and gain experience from it.

The thoughts are real. They can make me joyous, or sad. Thoughts can make me cry. Thoughts can scare me, depress me, or enlighten me. And the thoughts are communicated by scribbles on pages, and even the scribbles, and how they are arranged, are meaningful to us, and utterly nonsensical to others.

Try this out:

Mörður hét maður er kallaður var gígja. Hann var sonur    Sighvats hins rauða. Hann bjó á Velli á Rangárvöllum. Hann    var ríkur höfðingi og málafylgjumaður mikill og svo mikill    lögmaður að engir þóttu löglegir dómar dæmdir nema hann væri    við. Hann átti dóttur eina er Unnur hét. Hún var væn kona og    kurteis og vel að sér og þótti sá bestur kostur á    Rangárvöllum.

Nú víkur sögunni vestur til Breiðafjarðardala. Maður er    nefndur Höskuldur. Hann var Dala-Kollsson. Móðir hans hét    Þorgerður og var dóttir Þorsteins hins rauða, Ólafssonar hins    hvíta, Ingjaldssonar, Helgasonar. Móðir Ingjalds var Þóra,    dóttir Sigurðar orms í auga, Ragnarssonar loðbrókar. Unnur    hin djúpúðga var móðir Þorsteins rauðs, dóttir Ketils    flatnefs, Bjarnarsonar bunu. Höskuldur bjó á Höskuldsstöðum í    Laxárdal.

Hrútur hét bróðir hans. Hann bjó á Hrútsstöðum. Hann var    sammæður við Höskuld. Faðir hans var Herjólfur. Hrútur var    vænn maður, mikill og sterkur, vígur vel og hógvær í skapi,    manna vitrastur, hagráður við vini sína en tillagagóður hinna    stærri mála

If you have never heard or seen Icelandic, you will not have any idea what this is about, it might as well be — Greek. Icelandic is actually a very beautiful-sounding language. It is very different from any other I have heard. Unfortunately, there are not many places where you can hear Icelandic, other than in Iceland. How is that for a reason for a visit to a very exotic, and cold, island?

Looking at this Icelandic text above makes is realize what it would be like to be illiterate – except we still have some letters that we recognize and can “sound out.”

How about this text below?


This is meaningful to a lot of people in the world – yet, to me, it’s completely unintelligible. I have no idea what I even posted here. This is what – to me – it feels like to be illiterate.

You might have seen how Japanese, who contrary to popular belief generally do not know much English, like to put English words on clothing to make them look exotic.

How would you like to run around with a shirt on that says “BRAKE” or “condensation?”

Try to google “Japanese t-shirts with English” and crack up. Here is one more:

Japanese Shirt

This must look really cool to Japanese, and we English speakers are completely befuddled.

Of course, this can get really, really bad. How would you like to let your little boy run around with this t-shirt on?


Here is a Japanese shopping window. Their English marketing “consultant” thought it was a good idea to adorn their window with this message:


Of course, before we laugh too much about other cultures and their misuse of the English language, let’s take a look at some of these Chinese characters that so many Americans like to tattoo on their bodies. Here is a random sampling:


I get a special kick out of the left bottom one, where three of the characters are backwards. And I have always wanted to walk around with a sign proclaiming that I was a “meanie crime poet.”

The American eye has no idea, yet it must look utterly ridiculous to the Chinese. Here is a link with these and many more hilarious examples.

I have studied Japanese and learned the basic concepts of Kanji writing. So I can tell if a character is authentic, I would generally be able to determine if it was written backwards, and I can recognize a good many of them, or some of their components. It’s easier to learn than it would seem.

There are approximately 6,800 different languages in the world, and linguists estimate that 50 to 90 percent of them will be extinct within a hundred years. And of 6,800 languages, most of us – kind of know one.


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