I was settling in to watch the first Formula 1 race of the year, the long-delayed Austrian Grand Prix, when Sky Sports’ commentator and former F1 driver Martin Brundle said something about how he had a little “coronaspeck,” the new German word for that extra little belly fat that we all have because we’ve been sitting around so much.  I’ve got some of that too.  Shared experiences like the current pandemic always give rise to new words and expressions, and I think the Germans have outdone themselves with this word.  The BBC website defines coronaspeck not as belly fat, but rather “stress eating amid stay-at-home orders.”  I guess maybe it’s both the overeating and its resultant expanded waistline.  

The BBC has listed several other words that have been invented recently.  They refer to “the ubiquitous WHF,” which I’d never heard of (I think it’s “Working From Home,” probably a British usage or else I just missed it) and PPE, or Personal Protective Equipment, which we say here in the U.S.  They report that in Spanish there are two words that can refer to people who don’t wear masks, socially distance, and so forth: “covidiota” (a covidiot – it sounds better in Spanish) and “coronaburro” (comparing such a person to a burro, or donkey).  We’re used to “zoombombing” (joining a Zoom video conference uninvited, especially with nefarious intentions), “doomscrolling” (incessantly reading bad news on the internet), and even one I’ve mentioned before without realizing it, “stay-at-home orders,” which is self-explanatory.  Apparently, this term is not used worldwide; in Malaysia it’s “movement control order” and in the Philippines it’s “enhanced community quarantine.” I wonder if the Philippine government came up with that one.  It doesn’t sound like something that the average person on the street would say.

So here we all are, trying to do social distancing, which isn’t social at all.  It’s physical.  In the process, we look at our computers too much, and now optometrists are getting worried that we’re going to have eye problems.  The people who are really going to have a hard time are the ones who engage in “quaranstreaming,” or streaming videos for hours on end when they’re in quarantine.  Or “quaz” as Australians say, short for quarantine.  They use “sanny” a lot in Australia too; that’s sanitizer.  If you’re quarantining, you can have a “quarantini” while you “quarantine and chill.”  More than anything, you shouldn’t engage in “öffnungsdiskussionorgien,” the German word defined by the BBC as orgies of discussion related to reopening policies – literally “opening discussion orgy.”

As it happens, there’s no orgy of discussion here with my job at a small college in Iowa.  We’ll be fully open for the fall semester.  Our federal government in Washington has decided that all ESL programs have to have face-to-face instruction, so I’ll be putting on a mask and fogging up my glasses along with everyone else next month.  I wonder if there’s a word for that?

Languages of Mexico

In my previous column, I brought up the question of how many languages there are in the world these days, and I wasn’t able to answer the question very well because there really isn’t an answer.  It’s hard to distinguish between a language and a dialect, and besides, there aren’t linguists all over everywhere to study a question like this.  Usually what is determined to be a “language” is whatever the politicians in power decide it is.

Take Mexico, for example.  The Mexican government recognizes 69 languages, 68 plus Spanish.  Spanish is everywhere, and it’s used in government correspondence, so you could think of it as the de facto “official” language.  Except that the government doesn’t have a real official language; it recognizes 62 languages as being “co-official.”  The country’s original languages were around thousands of years before the Spanish came to Mexico, and so the government recognizes these indigenous languages as being an important part of the country’s culture and heritage.  Here are the top ten languages of Mexico along with the number of speakers as of August 12, 2019, according to  Nahuatl (1,376,026), Yucatec Maya (759,000), Mixtec (423,216), Zapotec (410,901), Tzeltal Maya (371,730), Tzotzil Maya (329,937), Otomí (239,850), Totonac (230,930), Mazatec (206,559), and Ch’ol (185,299). 

There are a couple of things I notice right away when I look at these data.  First of all, the numbers are staggering.  Most of us don’t realize just how many people speak these indigenous languages.  We’ve lived a sheltered existence here in the U.S., one where we all speak the same language and we never really need to learn another one.  These people speak the languages of their ancestors at home, and they’ll use Spanish when they need to for work or school.  The second thing is the similarity of the names.  The Mayan influence is obvious in this top ten, and you get more of these similar-sounding language names throughout the data.  

That’s not to say that all 68 of the languages on the government’s list are spoken by thousands of people.  A few are spoken by only a few hundred, or there are so few speakers that the last native speakers might have already died out.  For example, there are only 27 speakers of Aguacatec listed on this website, and the data are almost a year old.  Many of these people, if not all, will be older, so some may have died in the past year.  The children might not want to speak it anymore because the jobs are off in the city, and even if they know it, they might chop off the endings of words or do other things to simplify it, so they don’t speak the full version of the language anymore even if they really can communicate in the language.  Often when languages get down to the last few speakers, a linguist will show up and try to document the language, recording it for posterity before it dies out altogether.  Unfortunately, often the linguist ends up documenting a simplified version of the language that’s really not the language in its original glory.  Languages tend to simplify over time, so in a sense they wither away before they die.  It’s sad because if you can understand these indigenous languages, it’s like you have a window through to another way of life, a different way of understanding the world and everything in it.

This topic has interested me for years because over 30 years ago I worked in San Diego County, California with an organization that documented farmworkers who needed work permits.  They didn’t always understand my Spanish, which wasn’t surprising, but they also had some trouble understanding the native Spanish speakers from Mexico who were working with us.  Many of the farmworkers were from southern Mexico and spoke what we called “Mixteca,” which is another name for Mixtec, the third-most frequently spoken indigenous language on the list.  They only spoke Spanish as a second language.  I guess they had to learn some English words and phrases too when they were at work near San Diego.  They were far more accomplished linguists than I’ll ever be.

What is Language?

Whenever you study something in depth, even the simplest concepts get complicated. When it comes to language, especially language acquisition, it means you have to distinguish between the spoken language and the writing system.

Children learn language. We all know that. But children typically dont learn writing on their own. They dont just start writing one day, like babies first learn individual words, then they put two words together, then they say longer sequences of words. We have to teach them how to read the words on the page, how the letters correspond to the sounds they already know. Thats phonics, and schools didnt teach as much of that in the seventies, but its making a comeback because it works. When you learn rules like that, we usually call that language learningand not acquisitionbecause acquisition is natural. Its like children do. Its what adults do when they learn to talk, not just to learn grammar rules. Writing is different somehow. Its a representation of language – either how it is, or how it used to be, or how I think it should be. Its related to language, but its not really language. Its learned differently. So you have to learn to read and write, but you acquire language. We should never assume that adults studying a language can acquire that language at the same rate that they can learn to write. Or read, for that matter. Whats more, something like ninety-five percent of the worlds languages dont even have a fully-developed writing system. Theyre languages, but the students never have to study phonics or tell the teacher what the topic sentence of paragraph three is. Thats more evidence that writing isnt an integral part of language.

There are a lot of languages that dont have writing systems – thousands, in fact. Indigenous languages flourish in all parts of the globe. This raises an obvious question: How many languages are there in the world? The honest answer is that nobody knows. Estimates vary, but the number 6,000 comes up a lot. It could be 7,000 though. Or 10,000. The reason we dont know is that you have to decide how to distinguish between languages, or what the boundary is between them. Generally, people say that if you cant understand what someone is talking about, then youre speaking different languages. If you can understand it with difficulty, then youre speaking different dialects. So imagine that youre off in a remote part of the world, and there are five villages lined up in a row only a few miles apart. Youre in the one on the left, and everyone understands each other because youre all speaking the same language. You can understand everyone in the second village, but theyre a little odd. Their pronunciation might differ somewhat, and their words and grammar seem a little off, but you can always get the point. Theyre speaking a different dialect, you could say. Now then, the people in the second village understand the people from the third village and their dialect, but youre from the first village, so you have a lot of trouble with it. The third village understands the fourth, and the fourth understands the fifth. But one day you need to travel to the fifth village, so you set out walking, and you encounter people from the second, third, and fourth villages on the way, and it gets harder and harder to understand people until by the time you get to the fifth village, you cant understand a word. Its obvious that you speak a different language than they do, but where do you draw the line between languages? Is it when you really only understand the topic theyre talking about, like maybe in the fourth village? But the fourth and the fifth understand each other perfectly well. You see the problem?

Like I said, even the simplest concepts get complicated sometimes.

Music and Language Acquisition

Ive always noticed how people who play music are pretty good at conversation in a foreign language. I first caught on to this when the music school students at Indiana University could really talk up a storm in my English classes back in the 1990s. They usually couldnt put a subject and verb together in writing, but still! They were amazing with how they could talk. Since then, Ive wondered what the connection was between music and language, and if maybe studying music helped with language acquisition.

It turns out that it probably does. Theres plenty of research now that shows how music students have already trained their ears for everything involving sound, and thats what language is. The general concept that Ive seen is that music and language are both located in the same spot in the brain, so if youve already developed that spot for music, then its all ready to go when you learn to speak language. You just activate those same neurons for a different purpose. It makes sense, and now language teachers even include music in their lessons to try to help their students along.

So music helps people learn language better. I can accept that, at least for many people. But what if the opposite is true? What if someone had never studied music at all, but had studied language? Would such a person have an easier time of learning to play an instrument, for example? Someone like me? A couple of years ago, I bought a keyboard and started memorizing what the notes in sheet music were and how the notes on the printed page corresponded to the keys, and I have to say that this memorization seemed very easy, like Id done it before. I dont really know if language study made my memory work better for music or not, but some sort of memorization practice in my past had helped. Thats the good news. Unfortunately, thats about all the advantage I got out of my language experience. When I started to hit the keys, I maybe benefited from how much Id typed in my life, but trying to hit those keys was a completely new experience for me. I even felt something in my brain get activated that Id never felt before. I was sitting at the keyboard trying to remember what key to hit, and I felt something tug at the back of my head at the lower left, like it had never done any heavy lifting before. Ive been struggling with this keyboard off and on ever since. I dont think language study helped me at all.

So are music and language in the same part of the brain? Well, yes and no. Id say that music covers more territory than language. Music is like a big circle in the brain, and language is a smaller circle within music. In other words, if youve studied music, youve got language acquisition covered, but if youve only studied language, youve got more to learn yet. Youve got neurons that still arent up to full speed. Its a theory anyway. Thats what I feel in my head.


The word of the year so far is definitely zoom.The word has meant different things through the years. In the 1970s, Zoom was the name of a companion show to Sesame Street on public television, one of the early shows from the Childrens Television Workshop. It wasnt very good, as I recall. Zoom can also mean to get a close up shot of something, like when you zero in on a location on a map or make the text Im typing bigger. It can mean to go fast or even to outer space. Or now, nearly always, its the computer teleconferencing program that were all using. I have to use it for my classes, and businesses are Zooming for their meetings. Its apparently easy to hack into, a process known as Zoom bombing,which involves joining a meeting uninvited and sending lurid images or whatever you want; the University of Southern California has had this problem. The word is even getting into puns, like Chuck Todds the other day: These days, you have to be in the Zoom where something happened.Zoom, not room. That Chuck Todds clever.

So here we are, in the middle of a pandemic, and were getting to know some new terms. There are phrases that are supposed to stick in our minds and get us to behave properly, like the one thats sometimes projected during New York Governor Andrew Cuomos daily coronavirus press conferences: Stay home. Stop the spread. Save lives.Its easy to remember Stay Stop Save.Weve got contact-tracing,which involves finding the people that infected patients have been close to and isolating them because theyre likely carriers. Patients are now intubated,meaning theyve had a tube stuck into them. I guess I should have figured that one out for myself, but I didnt. One of the earliest usages we all learned in this crisis involved PPE,for personal protective equipment – the face masks, gowns, and everything else that health care workers need when they deal with the public. Were all potential carriers of this virus, so they have to protect themselves. Id feel guilty if I got sick, I mean in a normal way, and I needed a doctor. Id have to call, and then Id go to the clinic, and then theyd be all dressed up and Id feel even worse because Id made them do that because PPE is in such short supply.

Even so, you also get an odd notice now and then that seems out of another era. Unity Point Health in Peosta sent me a note saying, in part: This letter is a reminder that your Cholesterol test is due. These are FASTING labs (nothing to eat or drink for 12 hours prior to testing except water or black coffee). Labs can be drawn in the Peosta Clinic lab (by appointment or walk in) or at Finley Hospitals lab (walk in only).They cant be serious, I figure. Some computer spit out that notice, but a nurse signed it! In the middle of a pandemic! I guess I could just walk in with this letter any day of the week!

Other people are more sensible. The county auditors office raised the assessed value of my house, which may or may not be sensible, but they dont want me coming into the office. Its closed. I can call if I want to. And the same office, I think, sent a notice about voting in the June primary here in Iowa, saying, Due to concerns of COVID-19 and crowd control, we are recommending that all voters vote by mail-in absentee. We DO NOT recommend or encourage voting at the polls on Election Day. We urge you to protect yourself and our election workers by voting at home.

Most of these notices use bold font for the most essential information, and Ive preserved their usage here. I wonder if a lot of people only read the bold parts?

Novel Coronavirus

Yes, we have a novelcoronavirus, a new one in other words, one unlike any of the other coronaviruses that weve had in recent years. Funny how Id never heard of coronaviruses before this outbreak started. Im hearing a lot of different English these days, like how this virus is COVID-19 – the number means 2019,the year it was discovered – or maybe thats the name of the disease, not the virus? Im still confused. All I know is that were in a pandemic(panmeans all; demicmeans people, so all the world has a pandemic – its bigger than an epidemic), we need to practice social distancing(at least six feet away from everyone else) and if were feeling a little sick, we need to self-isolateand avoid crowds of people because hospitals need to have all their capacityfor new cases, and if we dont take these measures, we wont flatten the curve,which means that there will be too many people getting sick at the same time, and the hospitals will be overwhelmed. Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York had a good analogy the other day: He said if everyone got sick at once, it would be like a big wave, a tidal wave, crashing on shore and swamping hospitals. We need to make the wave smaller, hes saying. So were not having meetings of more than, well, first it was 250 people, then 100 (I think), then 50, and now the White House is saying ten people. So big public events are canceled, including sporting events, and you know youve got a big problem when the United States cancels sports for a month or two. Now thats serious!

All right, so weve got a novel virus, and, well, speaking of novels, it just so happens that only a couple of months ago I read Sarah Pinskers 2019 novel entitled A Song for a New Day (New York: Berkley), and in it she described the world of the not-too-distant future in which people are not allowed to congregate in groups of more than ten because of terror attacks. The lead character, Luce, is a musician who wants to perform live music, but thats illegal, but shes a few years older so she does it anyway because thats how music should be! And then theres another character named Rosemary whos young enough that she barely remembers the time before,when people lived together and hugged and didnt all live in virtual reality, or hoodspace,as its known, the time afterwhen everyone has always bought everything from Superwally and had it delivered by drone. The two characters have met, and now the young one is trying to learn how to live together in real space with real people, and shes starting to figure it out. Heres how shes surviving (Kindle location 3890):

She developed a routine. She drank coffee at the bookstore each morning, pulling up her Hoodie and pretending to work while watching the half dozen other customers, trying to figure out what kinds of jobs people might bring people to work at a coffee shop instead of their homes. Not Superwally customer service, even if some had the jawbone implants that let you chat subvocally; Superwally mandated their uniforms and dedicated space. Writers, students, tech. She wondered why youd choose to work in the company of one to nineteen strangers instead of the comfort of your home.

Except, as the days went on, she started to get it. She liked how the woman behind the counter, Sadie, greeted her by name after the first week. Her latte art changed from a question mark to a fuzzy branch which Rosemary thought might be her namesake herb. She was still getting used to sitting at tables without isolation booths, inches away from other customers, but she liked recognizing the others in the room, and the feeling that they were slogging through the same kind of day, even if she was pretending.

Were going to be isolating a lot more in the next couple of months, but I hope we never lose our sense of community. I like slogging through life with others.


So youre going to study a new language. Good for you! Youve got a lot to learn – all those words, and the sound system, and strange ways of saying things. Speaking of which, if your new language happens to be Basque, you might have some extra work to do. Youre going to deal with one of the most interesting bits of grammar that Ive ever seen.

Its called ergativity, and in order to understand it, you have to throw out all of your old ideas about how subjects and objects work in sentences. In Indo-European languages like most of the western world speaks, you have subject pronouns and object pronouns, so if youve got a sentence like I hesitate,you say Iand not mebecause Iis the subject of the sentence. The verb is intransitive, but that doesnt matter that much. If youre saying I called her,that just means that Iis still the subject, but you say herbecause thats the object of the transitive verb. That seems normal enough to us, but in Basque, you say something like I hesitatebut then Me called she.The reason, according to Gaston Dorrens Lingo: Around Europe in Sixty Languages (New York, Atlantic Monthly Press, 2015), is that youre not dealing with subjects and objects anymore; youre thinking about agents and patients, agents being the doers of the action, and patients being the recipients. The patients always get the same case marking on the nouns, the ergative, while the agents get the absolutive. In Dorrens example, Me called shecomes out this way because she is the patient. So far, so good. But then whats really odd for us is that if were using (in our translation) what looks like a subject pronoun for shein that sentence, then why is it that in the other sentence, I hesitate,were not saying meinstead? The reason is that hesitating, in the Basque mindset, is something that happens to someone. Idont actually hesitate, in other words. Its more like, Something hesitates to me.This is the part that will trip you up. You have to think differently. This reminds me a little of Spanish, where you dont say I like somethingbut rather Something likes itself to me,or however Me gusta …” comes out in translation. I learned some reasonably good Spanish in Costa Rica in 1985, and I never really thought about it that much. For that matter, if youre learning case endings, youll do fine if you dont think of them as case endings; just think of the meanings, and so what if you stick suffixes on the ends of nouns like in Latin? I had that experience in Hungary in 1995-96, and it wasnt a big problem. Its just odd though.

English has a dozen or so verbs that are classified as ergative.You can say He opened the dooror The door opened; in both examples its clear that someone opened the door, but the patient can be used as the subject of the sentence without using any trick passive constructions, like The man was bitten by the dog.It typically involves a change from one state to another, as in The sunshine melted the iceand The ice melted.Dorren uses The glass brokeas his example; its clear that the glass likely didnt break itself. You can say My pencil brokeor The water is boilingor The dinner is cookingif you want to. I may have even discovered a new ergative verb the other day when I was flipping around the channels and I heard Chuck Todd of MSNBC say something like, The Chuck Toddcast drops on Wednesday.Some engineer or other drops the aptly-named podcast, but thats not how he said it. Its much cooler his way.

My Hen Ken’s Zen Lessons

In my column entitled Where the Wild Ones Roveof September 13, 2017, I sent you a few of my favorite excerpts from Michael Sudlows book entitled Exercises in American English Pronunciation (Salt Lake City: Excellence in Education, 1986). Since my last column got a little serious, I thought Id give you something on the lighter side. Heres page 65 of the book, or part of it anyway. Its listed under the heading Vowel Review and Practice.

Exercise #1: A black cat which sat on a hat on a mat slapped at a fat rat that dashed for the hat. That fat rat is a nasty brat!said the cat. As the rat spat on the cats back, the cat smashed the rat and slapped him in a vat of wax with a zap!

Ouch! Thats a vengeful cat. Heres another:

Exercise #2: Ben met a friend with a hen named Ken. Ben said to his friend, When will you send your hen to the den again?The friend said to Ben, When my hen Kens Zen lessons end. If you lend me ten yen as a friend, Ken will send you a pen when he sees men again.

So okay, weve got rats that spit and deep hens. I sure hope these lessons are helping students learn their vowel sounds.

Exercise #3: This thin pin will stick in my chin or in a tin of mint ginger. If the mint is thick, it will stick in a Bic and do a trick that will make you grin like Rin Tin Tin. If you flick this Bic with a thick grin, it will stick like a tick in a tin.

Remember when we used to flick Bics? I wonder if theyre still called that. And as we all know, Rin Tin Tin had one of the widest grins in show business.

Exercise #4: A sloppy robber mobbed my pop atop a hot dog shop. A mod cop trotted to the top of the shop with a hot dog and a crop of slop and dropped a knot on the robbers tot. I saw you stop that robber,sobbed Pop. But the cop stopped on a glob of moss and dropped his hot dog.

I feel sorry for the cop from the Mod Squad because of the hot dog drop, but Im still working out the bit about dropping a knot on the robbers tot. So the robber had his child with him, and the cop plopped a few drops of slop on the unwary tot? That sounds mean. Maybe Im not so sure Im sorry for this cop. Okay, one more:

Exercise #5: Buddys dumb duck runs with a gun when he is stumped by a sub in the mud. Buddys fun comes when the duck stumbles in the muddy tub and is clubbed by a cub with a gun. But mutts under the pub rub nuts with mud to hunt the fuzz of King Tuts rubber duck.

Now then, were getting a little crazy, arent we? That one makes even less sense than the last one. Its time for me to flee with glee to see whats on TV. See you later, alligator!

Language Soup

Language is like soup. Okay, here I go again. This might take a bit of explanation.

People think of language as being a lot of separate skills that add up, and the more skills you have the better you speak. Theres a lot of grammar involved, and you need to know how to pronounce the words, and you have to understand people when they talk to you, etc. The reality, as I see it anyway, is that you can learn separate skills and still not be very proficient in the language because there are just too many skills, and the skills all interact with one another. If you look at the back of any grammar book, there will be an index with a list of grammar topics, and there might be a couple hundred of them. Some will be fairly simple and others will be harder, more for advanced learners, but theyre all there in the index. Theyre all listed as separate competencies, and these little bits of knowledge end up being what we test when we evaluate someones language skills. Theyre the outcomes,in modern parlance. Whats incredible is that language isnt just grammar; its a myriad of other things too, and everything interacts with everything else.

So here comes the soup analogy. If language is like soup, make it chicken vegetable for whatever reason, the individual competencies are like the little chicken cube or the mushroom fragment or that clear, greenish sliced vegetable whatever-it-is that floats around on top. You can know all about how to make the chicken bits, and you can even test these outcomesto make sure someones soup is progressing nicely, but youre not testing the whole soup. What about the broth? Something has to hold the whole soup together. Thats where everything thats not testable comes in, everything from the tone of voice to what we say and when, and how we take turns in the language, and even how far we should stand from each other. Its all language. Its all part of the soup. So youve got a frustrated language teacher here whos supposed to teach outcomes,but if I spend a lot of time doing that, I ignore everything else that makes the soup taste good.

All right, so this is my latest diatribe against language testing. Its doesnt recognize language for what it really is – a big, beautiful mess. We think were testing someones language proficiency when we only test the mushroom and the chicken and a couple of other things, but were not: Were testing individual elements of the soup which correlate with the learners proficiency. More advanced soups have more ingredients in them, so theres more that we can test, but we never get around to testing the whole soup. We cant. There would be thousands of things to test, and not just the grammar. Speaking of which – grammar, I mean – thats the really frustrating part. Grammar is like a foundation of a house. Without it, the house would fall down, but the foundation isnt the whole house. Oh my. Im really letting loose today, arent I? Im an ESL teacher, and Im not very fit for the job. Maybe theres another job out there that would be better for me?

Im hungry.