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Why Do Sign Language Interpreters Look So Animated?

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As New York City Mayor Bloomberg gave numerous televised addresses about the preparations the city was making for Hurricane Sandy, and then the storm’s aftermath, he was joined at the podium by a sign language interpreter, who immediately became a twitter darling. People watching the addresses tweeted that she was "amazing," "mesmerizing," "hypnotizing," and "AWESOME." Soon, her name was uncovered—Lydia Callis—and animated .gifs of her signing were posted. A couple of hours later, a tumblr was born. New York magazine called her "Hurricane Sandy's breakout star."

Callis was great, but not because she was so lively and animated. She was great because she was performing a seriously difficult mental task—simultaneously listening and translating on the spot—in a high-pressure, high-stakes situation. Sure, she was expressive, but that's because she was speaking a visual language. Signers are animated not because they are bubbly and energetic, but because sign language uses face and body movements as part of its grammar.

In American Sign Language, certain mouth and eye movements serve as adjectival or adverbial modifiers.

In this example, Bloomberg is explaining that things will get back to normal little by little. Callis is making the sign INCREASE, but her tight mouth and squinting eyes modify the verb to mean "increase in tiny increments." This facial expression can attach to various verbs to change their meaning to "a little bit."

Here, Bloomberg is urging people not to put out their garbage for collection because it will end up making a mess on the streets. Callis is making a sign for SPILL, while at the same time making what is known as the 'th' mouth adverbial. This mouth position modifies the verb to mean "sloppily done." If you attach it to WALK, WRITE, or DRIVE, it means "walk sloppily," "write messily," or "drive carelessly."

Movements of the head and eyebrows indicate sentence-level syntactic functions.

In this example, Bloomberg is warning people that the worst of the storm is coming. Callis signs WORST SOON HAPPEN. Her eyebrows are raised for WORST and SOON, then lowered for HAPPEN. This kind of eyebrow raise indicates topicalization, a common structure used by many languages. In topicalization, a component of a sentence is fronted, and then commented upon. A loose approximation of her sentence would be "Y'know the worst? Soon? It's gonna happen."

Bloomberg is urging people to use common sense and take the stairs instead of the elevator. Callis signs NEED GO-UP FLOOR USE STAIRS. During NEED GO-UP FLOOR her eyes are wide and her eyebrows raised. Then her eyebrows go down sharply and her eyes narrow for USE STAIRS. The wide-eyed eyebrow raise marks a conditional clause. It adds the sense of "if" to the portion it accompanies. The second clause is a serious command. She signs, "if you need to go up a floor, use the stairs."

Body position is used to indicate different discourse-level structures.

Here Bloomberg is urging people to check on road conditions before they go anywhere. He says, "The FDR may be open or closed." Callis signs OPEN while leaning to the left and CLOSED while leaning to the right. This shift in body position marks a contrastive structure. If Bloomberg were to continue making distinctions between the "open" and "closed" possibilities, she would use those same positions to maintain coherence while interpreting those other distinctions.

In this example, Bloomberg is saying that the worst will be over by tomorrow and that tomorrow when we look back "we'll certainly be on the other side of that curve." Callis signs DECREASE IMPROVE WEATHER POINT. On the first three signs she looks up and to her right. She turns back to the front on POINT.  Here her body shift marks the adoption of a role. She is being a hypothetical person saying "Ahhh, I see things are less intense, weather improving…" She then drops the role and turns forward to say (as Bloomberg does), "The point is, stay home."

Of course, some facial expressions in sign languages are just facial expressions.

Here, Bloomberg is responding to a reporter's question a little testily. Callis captures his bemused, impatient tone with her facial expression. In fact, Bloomberg captures it with his own facial expression. No one would call him animated, but he can also say a few things without words.

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Why Is 'Colonel' Spelled That Way?
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English spelling is bizarre. We know that. From the moment we learn about silent “e” in school, our innocent expectations that sound and spelling should neatly match up begin to fade away, and soon we accept that “eight” rhymes with “ate,” “of” rhymes with “love,” and “to” sounds like “too” sounds like “two.” If we do sometimes briefly pause to wonder at these eccentricities, we quickly resign ourselves to the fact that there must be reasons—stuff about history and etymology and sound changing over time. Whatever. English. LOL. Right? It is what it is.

But sometimes English takes it a step too far, does something so brazen and shameless we can’t just let it slide. That’s when we have to throw our shoulders back, put our hands on our hips and ask, point blank, what is the deal with the word “colonel”?

“Colonel” is pronounced just like “kernel.” How did this happen? From borrowing the same word from two different places. In the 1500s, English borrowed a bunch of military vocabulary from French, words like cavalerie, infanterie, citadelle, canon, and also, coronel. The French had borrowed them from the Italians, then the reigning experts in the art of war, but in doing so, had changed colonello to coronel.

Why did they do that? A common process called dissimilation—when two instances of the same sound occur close to each other in a word, people tend to change one of the instances to something else. Here, the first “l” was changed to “r.” The opposite process happened with the Latin word peregrinus (pilgrim), when the first “r” was changed to an “l” (now it’s peregrino in Spanish and Pellegrino in Italian. English inherited the “l” version in pilgrim.)

After the dissimilated French coronel made its way into English, late 16th century scholars started producing English translations of Italian military treatises. Under the influence of the originals, people started spelling it “colonel.” By the middle of the 17th century, the spelling had standardized to the “l” version, but the “r” pronunciation was still popular (it later lost a syllable, turning kor-o-nel to ker-nel). Both pronunciations were in play for a while, and adding to the confusion was the mistaken idea that “coronel” was etymologically related to “crown”—a colonel was sometimes translated as “crowner” in English. In fact, the root is colonna, Italian for column.

Meanwhile, French switched back to “colonel,” in both spelling and pronunciation. English throws its shoulders back, puts its hands on its hips and asks, how boring is that?

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Beyond “Buffalo buffalo”: 9 Other Repetitive Sentences From Around The World
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Famously, in English, it’s possible to form a perfectly grammatical sentence by repeating the word buffalo (and every so often the place name Buffalo) a total of eight times: Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo essentially means “buffalo from Buffalo, New York, who intimidate other buffalo from Buffalo, New York, are themselves intimidated by buffalo from Buffalo, New York.” But repetitive or so-called antanaclastic sentences and tongue twisters like these are by no means unique to English—here are a few in other languages that you might want to try.


This sentence works less well in print than Buffalo buffalo, of course, but it’s all but impenetrable when read aloud. In French, le ver vert va vers le verre vert means “the green worm goes towards the green glass,” but the words ver (worm), vert (green), vers (towards), and verre (glass) are all homophones pronounced “vair,” with a vowel similar to the E in “bet” or “pet.” In fact, work the French heraldic word for squirrel fur, vair, in there somewhere and you’d have five completely different interpretations of the same sound to deal with.


Eo can be interpreted as a verb (“I go”), an adverb ("there," "for that reason"), and an ablative pronoun (“with him” or “by him”) in Latin, each with an array of different shades of meaning. Put four of them in a row in the context cum eo eo eo eo quod eum amo, and you’ll have a sentence meaning “I am going there with him because I love him.”


An even more confusing Latin sentence is malo malo malo malo. On its own, malo can be a verb (meaning “I prefer,” or “I would rather”); an ablative form of the Latin word for an apple tree, malus (meaning “in an apple tree”); and two entirely different forms (essentially meaning “a bad man,” and “in trouble” or “in adversity”) of the adjective malus, meaning evil or wicked. Although the lengths of the vowels differ slightly when read aloud, put all that together and malo malo malo malo could be interpreted as “I would rather be in an apple tree than a wicked man in adversity.” (Given that the noun malus can also be used to mean “the mast of a ship,” however, this sentence could just as easily be interpreted as, “I would rather be a wicked man in an apple tree than a ship’s mast.”)


Far (pronounced “fah”) is the Danish word for father, while får (pronounced like “for”) can be used both as a noun meaning "sheep" and as a form of the Danish verb , meaning "to have." Far får får får? ultimately means “father, do sheep have sheep?”—to which the reply could come, får får ikke får, får får lam, meaning “sheep do not have sheep, sheep have lambs.”


Manx is the Celtic-origin language of the Isle of Man, which has close ties to Irish. In Manx, ee is both a pronoun (“she” or “it”) and a verb (“to eat”), a future tense form of which is eeee (“will eat”). Eight letter Es in a row ultimately can be divided up to mean “she will eat it.”


Como can be a preposition (“like,” “such as”), an adverb (“as,” “how”), a conjunction (“as”), and a verb (a form of comer, “to eat”) in Spanish, which makes it possible to string together dialogues like this: Como como? Como como como como! Which means “How do I eat? I eat like I eat!”

7. “Á Á A Á Á Á Á.” // ICELANDIC

Á is the Icelandic word for river; a form of the Icelandic word for ewe, ær; a preposition essentially meaning “on” or “in;” and a derivative of the Icelandic verb eiga, meaning “to have,” or “to possess.” Should a person named River be standing beside a river and simultaneously own a sheep standing in or at the same river, then that situation could theoretically be described using the sentence Á á á á á á á in Icelandic.


Thai is a tonal language that uses five different tones or patterns of pronunciation (rising, falling, high, low, and mid or flat) to differentiate between the meanings of otherwise seemingly identical syllables and words: glai, for instance, can mean both “near” and “far” in Thai, just depending on what tone pattern it’s given. Likewise, the Thai equivalent of the sentence “new wood doesn’t burn, does it?” is mai mai mai mai mai—which might seem identical written down, but each syllable would be given a different tone when read aloud.


Mandarin Chinese is another tonal language, the nuances of which were taken to an extreme level by Yuen Ren Chao, a Chinese-born American linguist and writer renowned for composing a bizarre poem entitled "The Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den." When written in its original Classical Chinese script, the poem appears as a string of different characters. But when transliterated into the Roman alphabet, every one of those characters is nothing more than the syllable shi:

Shíshì shīshì Shī Shì, shì shī, shì shí shí shī.
Shì shíshí shì shì shì shī.
Shí shí, shì shí shī shì shì.
Shì shí, shì Shī Shì shì shì.
Shì shì shì shí shī, shì shǐ shì, shǐ shì shí shī shìshì.
Shì shí shì shí shī shī, shì shíshì.
Shíshì shī, Shì shǐ shì shì shíshì.
Shíshì shì, Shì shǐ shì shí shì shí shī.
Shí shí, shǐ shí shì shí shī shī, shí shí shí shī shī.
Shì shì shì shì.

The only difference between each syllable is its intonation, which can be either flat (shī), rising (shí), falling (shì) or falling and rising (shǐ); you can hear the entire poem being read aloud here, along with its English translation.