language

Journalist Jessica Grose is no stranger to criticism of her voice. When she was co-hosting the Slate podcast, the DoubleX Gabfest, she would receive emails complaining about her "upspeak" — a tendency to raise her voice at the end of sentences. Once an older man she was interviewing for an article in Businessweek told her that she sounded like his granddaughter.

"That was the first moment I felt [my voice] was hurting my career beyond just irritating a couple listeners," Grose tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross.

Kacper Pempel/Reuters

Nigel Richards has been winning Scrabble championships for decades. He’s been lauded as the best Scrabble player on Earth. And now he’s won another championship — in a language he doesn’t speak.

Two minutes into Present Tense, a short film made by three high school students in a fishing village in the East African island of Zanzibar, a set of subtitles lay out their mission:

Voices of Youth Keep Lushootseed Language Alive

Jun 24, 2015
Maria Martin teaches Lushootseed to preschoolers at the Tulalip Montessori School.
KUOW Photo/Ben Gauld

In Maria Martin's preschool classroom at the Tulalip Montessori School, the children were learning to count to 10. 

"Two!" they shouted.

But this lesson wasn't in English. "In Lushootseed!" Martin instructed her class.

"Saliʔ!" their tiny voices rang out.

In his Tucson, Ariz., backyard, 10-year-old Linken Kay throws a ball for his dog, Harley.

The dog speaks only English. But Linken was raised speaking another language.

"Li ŝatas salti en la naĝejo por preni la pilkon," Linken says.

What's that, now?

First-graders Daniel, left, and Josiah, are first-grade language buddies at White Center Heights Elementary in West Seattle. Their classroom instruction is in Spanish and English.
KUOW Photo/Liz Jones

Americans get a bad rap for speaking only English.

But increasingly, public schools are immersing students in a second language, usually Spanish or Chinese. The Highline school district, south of Seattle, has even set an ambitious goal for the class of 2026 to graduate fully bilingual and biliterate.

In American English, some slang words come and go. And some stay and stay.

"Yep. Nope. Very definitely."

Kathryn Schulz, a writer for The New Yorker, heard that seemingly-contradictory response to a question recently. And once she started listening for it, she heard it everywhere: people agreeing by saying "No, totally," or "No, definitely," or "No, for sure."

In a recent article, Schulz digs into what's behind this linguistic quirk. She found out that the English language used to have more options than just "yes" and "no."

Many East Asian cultures use zodiac animals to symbolize each New Year and predict a person's fortunes. But which animal represents 2015 is up for debate.

You may have seen goat, sheep or ram as the English translation for this year's animal according to the Chinese zodiac — yang, in Mandarin. All of them are correct, says Lala Zuo, a Chinese language and culture professor at the U.S. Naval Academy in Maryland.

"I don't think there's a wrong translation," she says. "I think there are various ways of translation. It really depends on the context."

Seahawks Legion of Boom members Jeremy Lane, Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman show off the trophy at the Super Bowl parade last January. The organization wans to trademark "boom" and the number 12.
Flickr Photo/Bernie Zimmermann (CC-BY-NC-ND)

Marcie Sillman talks with linguist Ben Zimmer about the Seattle Seahawks'  bid to trademark the number 12 and the word "boom."

A protester of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, holds up a sign reading "No justice, no peace" -- a popular slogan.
Flickr Photo/Shawn Semmler (CC-BY-NC-ND)

Marcie Sillman speaks with language journalist Ben Zimmer about the varied interpretations of the popular protest slogan, "No justice, no peace."

What was the top word of 2014?

Merriam-Webster Dictionary says it was "culture," based on increased frequency of use. "Of the top 10 words in the running for the honor, culture had a 15% year-over-year increase in look-ups on the dictionary company's website and in its app."

Sports. TV shows. Daily news. All grist for online arguments. (Not to mention culture, politics, race and feminism.)

Now, everyday people can communicate directly with people in news stories, celebrities and activists on social media. But not every conversation works on every platform. We're getting more sophisticated about choosing where we say things online.

Our blog was born in 2014, and I'll let you in on a little secret: We had a really hard time coming up with our name. (See: "Why Goats? Why Soda?")

But that naming struggle was nothing compared with figuring out what to call the parts of the world we cover. Third World? Developing world? Global south? Low- and middle-income countries?

We asked for nominations for "most misused word or phrase," and they came pouring in. Weekend Edition listeners and NPR.org readers have many gripes about the grammar gaffes they see and hear every day.

From nearly 450 story comments, 500 emails and more than 900 Facebook posts we received in December, we identified 275 separate nominees. Here's a top 10 countdown of the most frequently mentioned:

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