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14 Language Facts from the U.S. Census Bureau

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Since 1890, the U.S. Census has asked various questions about the languages people speak. Until 1980, the questions were sometimes confusing and they were directed only to those who didn’t speak any English or were born in a foreign country. With the 1980 census, a three-part question was adopted that applied to everyone, giving a more complete picture of language in the U.S. The first part of the question asks if a person speaks a language other than English at home. If the answer to the first part is yes, the second part asks what the other language is. The third part asks how well the person speaks English: “very well,” “well,” “not well,” or “not at all.”

The language questions are now asked every year on the American Community Survey. This month, the Census Bureau released its report on the 2011 survey. Here are 14 interesting facts about language in the U.S. 

1. Over 300 languages are spoken in the U.S. For purposes of analysis they are categorized into 39 groups (e.g., Slavic languages besides Russian, Polish, and Serbo-Croatian are under “Other Slavic Languages.” Indian languages besides Hindi, Gujarati, and Urdu are under “Other Indic Languages.”)

2. Of the population 5 years and older, 21 percent speak another language at home. Of those, 62 percent speak Spanish. Of those Spanish speakers, 56 percent speak English “very well.”

3. From 2005 to 2011 the percentage of Spanish speakers increased, while those who spoke English less than “very well” decreased. There are more Spanish speakers, and also more Spanish speakers who are fluent in English.

4. While the language with the biggest increase in numbers of speakers since 1980 is Spanish, Vietnamese has had the biggest percentage increase. There are now almost 7 times the number of Vietnamese speakers there were in 1980.

5. There were other large increases over the same period for Russian, Persian, Chinese, Korean, and Tagalog.

6. At the same time, the number of Italian, Yiddish, Polish, German, and Greek speakers decreased.

7. The last 10 years saw a doubling of the number of Hindi speakers, speakers of “Other Indic Languages” (such as Punjabi, Bengali, and Marathi), speakers of “Other Asian” Languages” (such as Malayalam, Telugu, and Tamil), and speakers of African Languages (such as Amharic, Ibo, Yoruba, and Swahili).

8. Unsurprisingly, those who are young and born here are more likely to speak English “very well.”

9. The metro area with the highest percentage speaking another language is Laredo, Texas.

10. In metro areas with high numbers of speakers of other languages, Spanish is usually the biggest non-English language, except in San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA and Honolulu where the category of “Asian and Pacific Island Language” is bigger, and Farmington, NM where Navajo is biggest.

11. The state with the lowest percentage of those who speak another language is West Virginia (2 percent). The highest is California (44 percent).

12. A full breakdown by individual language (rather than by the 39 categories) is available for the 2006-2008 survey period. It estimates that there are 173 speakers of Gilbertese, 707 speakers of Luxombourgian, and 1649 speakers of Basque.

13. There are an estimated 117,547 speakers of Pennsylvania Dutch, 38,494 of whom speak English less than “very well.”

14. There are over 1000 speakers of the Pacific island language Samoan in Alaska. 

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25 Words That Are Their Own Opposites
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Here’s an ambiguous sentence for you: “Because of the agency’s oversight, the corporation’s behavior was sanctioned.” Does that mean, "Because the agency oversaw the company’s behavior, they imposed a penalty for some transgression," or does it mean, "Because the agency was inattentive, they overlooked the misbehavior and gave it their approval by default"? We’ve stumbled into the looking-glass world of contronyms—words that are their own antonyms.

1. Sanction (via French, from Latin sanctio(n-), from sancire ‘ratify,’) can mean "give official permission or approval for (an action)" or conversely, "impose a penalty on."

2. Oversight is the noun form of two verbs with contrary meanings, “oversee” and “overlook.” Oversee, from Old English ofersēon ("look at from above") means "supervise" (medieval Latin for the same thing: super-, "over" plus videre, "to see.") Overlook usually means the opposite: "to fail to see or observe; to pass over without noticing; to disregard, ignore."

3. Left can mean either remaining or departed. If the gentlemen have withdrawn to the drawing room for after-dinner cigars, who’s left? (The gentlemen have left and the ladies are left.)

4. Dust, along with the next two words, is a noun turned into a verb meaning either to add or to remove the thing in question. Only the context will tell you which it is. When you dust are you applying dust or removing it? It depends whether you’re dusting the crops or the furniture.

5. Seed can also go either way. If you seed the lawn you add seeds, but if you seed a tomato you remove them.

6. Stone is another verb to use with caution. You can stone some peaches, but please don’t stone your neighbor (even if he says he likes to get stoned).

7. Trim as a verb predates the noun, but it can also mean either adding or taking away. Arising from an Old English word meaning "to make firm or strong; to settle, arrange," trim came to mean "to prepare, make ready." Depending on who or what was being readied, it could mean either of two contradictory things: "to decorate something with ribbons, laces, or the like to give it a finished appearance" or "to cut off the outgrowths or irregularities of." And the context doesn’t always make it clear. If you’re trimming the tree are you using tinsel or a chain saw?

8. Cleave can be cleaved into two homographs, words with different origins that end up spelled the same. Cleave, meaning "to cling to or adhere," comes from an Old English word that took the forms cleofian, clifian, or clīfan. Cleave, with the contrary meaning "to split or sever (something)"—as you might do with a cleaver—comes from a different Old English word, clēofan. The past participle has taken various forms: cloven, which survives in the phrase “cloven hoof,” “cleft,” as in a “cleft palate” or “cleaved.”

9. Resign works as a contronym in writing. This time we have homographs, but not homophones. Resign, meaning "to quit," is spelled the same as resign, meaning "to sign up again," but it’s pronounced differently.

10. Fast can mean "moving rapidly," as in running fast, or "fixed, unmoving," as in holding fast. If colors are fast they will not run. The meaning "firm, steadfast" came first; the adverb took on the sense "strongly, vigorously," which evolved into "quickly," a meaning that spread to the adjective.

11. Off means "deactivated," as in to turn off, but also "activated," as in the alarm went off.

12. Weather can mean "to withstand or come safely through" (as in the company weathered the recession) or it can mean "to be worn away" (the rock was weathered).

13. Screen can mean to show (a movie) or to hide (an unsightly view).

14. Help means "assist," unless you can’t help doing something, when it means "prevent."

15. Clip can mean "to bind together" or "to separate." You clip sheets of paper to together or separate part of a page by clipping something out. Clip is a pair of homographs, words with different origins spelled the same. Old English clyppan, which means "to clasp with the arms, embrace, hug," led to our current meaning, "to hold together with a clasp." The other clip, "to cut or snip (a part) away," is from Old Norse klippa, which may come from the sound of a shears.

16. Continue usually means to persist in doing something, but as a legal term it means stop a proceeding temporarily.

17. Fight with can be interpreted three ways. “He fought with his mother-in-law” could mean "They argued," "They served together in the war," or "He used the old battle-ax as a weapon." (Thanks to linguistics professor Robert Hertz for this idea.)

18. Flog, meaning "to punish by caning or whipping," shows up in school slang of the 17th century, but now it can have the contrary meaning, "to promote persistently," as in “flogging a new book.” Perhaps that meaning arose from the sense "to urge (a horse, etc.) forward by whipping," which grew out of the earliest meaning.

19. Go means "to proceed," but also "give out or fail," i.e., “This car could really go until it started to go.”

20. Hold up can mean "to support" or "to hinder": “What a friend! When I’m struggling to get on my feet, he’s always there to hold me up.”

21. Out can mean "visible" or "invisible." For example, “It’s a good thing the full moon was out when the lights went out.”

22. Out of means "outside" or "inside": “I hardly get out of the house because I work out of my home.”

23. B**ch can derisively refer to a woman who is considered overly aggressive or domineering, or it can refer to someone passive or submissive.

24. Peer is a person of equal status (as in a jury of one’s peers), but some peers are more equal than others, like the members of the peerage, the British or Irish nobility.

25. Toss out could be either "to suggest" or "to discard": “I decided to toss out the idea.”

The contronym (also spelled “contranym”) goes by many names, including auto-antonym, antagonym, enantiodrome, self-antonym, antilogy and Janus word (from the Roman god of beginnings and endings, often depicted with two faces looking in opposite directions). Can’t get enough of them? The folks at Daily Writing Tips have rounded up even more.

This piece originally ran in 2015.

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Have You Heard? Trading Gossip Can Be Good for You
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Like picking your nose or re-using a dirty coffee cup, trading petty observations and suspicions about others is a function of life no one takes any particular pride in. You might have been told by parents not to say anything about someone "behind their back," and gossip often involves some degree of schadenfreude. In terms of keeping a positive outlook, there's not much to be said for chattering about whether someone got a facelift or if a divorce might be imminent.

Or is there? Ben Healy of The Atlantic recently aggregated compelling data that points to gossip having surprising benefits. When two people discuss negative feelings about a third, they tend to bond over the shared hostility more than if they were sharing pleasant thoughts about him or her. The badmouthing parties also tend to enjoy a sense of accomplishment by reflecting on their own positive traits compared to the failure of others. They might even take a "lesson" from an anecdote about someone's catastrophic life, using it as a cautionary tale. If the gossip has a positive slant, it might be used as inspiration to pursue self-improvement.

That's the other surprising thing about gossip: 96 percent of the time or more, it's not overly negative. Among adolescents, it's usually used to vent about frustrations or to create conversation in pursuit of a bonding experience.  

If gossip truly is good for the soul, most of us are in luck. Talking about an absentee third person is what accounts for two-thirds of all conversation.

[h/t Atlantic]

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