Word(l)y Wednesdays: We Didn’t Start the Fire

(Our language values)

With language being  such an unavoidable part of our lives, it gets very closely tied to our beliefs and values from other areas of our lives.

In 1976, a series of fires in a Chicago neighborhood killed more than 20 Spanish-speaking residents. One of the problems was that when the fire fighters arrived to help, they shouted instructions to the residents in English, but the residents couldn’t understand them and died. In response to the tragedy, Chicago launched a program to teach its firefighters a few emergency phrases in Spanish.

The public responded with outrage. Most negative feedback mentioned the responsibility of the Spanish-speaking residents to learn the major language of the country they lived in–a responsibility that shouldn’t be transferred to the firefighters. Others claimed that the negative response was just the expression of racism in the community, and that it didn’t have much to do with the language itself.

So who do you agree with more? Chicago’s bilingual initiative, or the public backlash?

Until I get more comfortable with putting polls in this thing, please leave a comment below:
Whose responsibility is it to make sure communication happens? The residents? The firefighters? Both? Neither?
Let me know what your values are.

A yellow and orange inferno with a black sky backdrop

(Our understanding of language) 

Language is cool–here’s an example:

You may be familiar with the word pyre as a synonym for fire, but did you know that the two words are linked by more than just definition? Pyre comes pretty directly from the Latin word pyra (“fire”), but fire comes from the Germanic language (which eventually branched off into Old English, German, Danish, and others).

But here’s the really cool part:  Jacob Grimm (of the Brothers Grimm), and before him a Danish guy named Rasmus Christian Rask, realized that there were a lot of Germanic-language words (including English, German, and Danish words) that were very similar to Romance-language words (from Latin: French, Spanish, Italian). So they did a lot more research, and this is what they found.

There was a pattern. The consonant sounds of the Germanic words had gotten what we might think of as “softer” in a lot of places. The sounds were still made at basically the same place in the mouth, but instead of a “plosive” sound [p, t] like in Latin, the Germanic word might have a “fricative” sound [f, th]. So instead of pyra, English gets fire, instead of pater, we get father, and so on.

It’s called Grimm’s Law, and it’s one of the very first examples of how looking at words and language with the critical eye of a scientist or philosopher can lead to a better understanding of something we all take for granted.


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