How to build a language

On 8th February U5 and sixth form linguists were joined by students from Winchester College and The Godolphin School at a talk given by Professor Ian Roberts from the Department of Linguistics at Cambridge University. His talk, entitled ‘how to build a language’ gave an insight into the differences and similarities between the world’s languages. It included such unexpected facts as that single words in Mohawk can contain the meaning of entire sentences; that only a tiny percentage of the world’s languages begin their sentences with the object (the subject-verb-object structure of English being the second most common structure after subject-object-verb); and that to a Martian, all human being would appear to be speaking different dialects of the same language. Afterwards the audience grilled Professor Roberts on issues such as whether animals can talk to each other – the answer is that they can communicate but this is not the same as having language – and given his research, which language does he think is easiest to learn – the answer seems to be that those with simple grammar often have other difficulties such as tones in Mandarin.

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