Why Are There So Many Different Languages?

Chloe Effron/iStock
Chloe Effron/iStock

WHY? is our attempt to answer all the questions every little kid asks. Do you have a question? Send it to why@mentalfloss.com.

Did you know there are about 7000 languages in the world today? That’s a lot! Scientists who study languages are called linguists (LIN-gwists). They don’t know exactly when people began inventing words instead of just using a few sounds or body movements, like many animals do. But they know that human migration (my-GRAY-shun), moving from one place to another, played a big role in making so many languages. 

Over thousands of years, humans split off into groups that migrated in different directions. As that happened, one language could turn into many. People had to learn to live in very different places: hot deserts, freezing mountains, steamy rainforests. Each place had different kinds of weather, plants, and animals. Having new words to talk about these new things helped people adapt (change) to their new home and survive (live). After a while, new words and ways of living helped lead to totally new languages.

Once a group of people settled in a place, they were often isolated (apart) from other groups. When people didn’t mix much, their words didn’t either. On the other hand, people did sometimes learn and borrow some words from other groups. For example, people speaking different languages might meet to trade, or were forced to leave home and move closer to another group because of war. Over long periods of time, then, both things—isolation and a little mixing—helped create so many languages. 

Languages are related, just like family members are. Learn more in this video from TED-Ed. Watch with a grownup who can help you with some of the bigger words!


From Farts to Floozy: These Are the Funniest Words in English, According to Science

iStock.com/jeangill
iStock.com/jeangill

Fart. Booty. Tinkle. Weiner. We know these words have the ability to make otherwise mature individuals laugh, but how? And why? Is it their connotations to puerile activities? Is it the sound they make? And if an underlying structure can be found to explain why people find them humorous, can we then objectively determine a word funnier than bunghole?

Chris Westbury, a professor of psychology at the University of Alberta, believes we can. With co-author Geoff Hollis, Westbury recently published a paper ("Wriggly, Squiffy, Lummox, and Boobs: What Makes Some Words Funny?") online in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. The two analyzed an existing list of 4997 funny words compiled by the University of Warwick and assessed by 800 survey participants, whittling down the collection to the 200 words the people found funniest. Westbury wanted to see how a word's phonology (sound), spelling, and meaning influenced whether people found it amusing, as well as the effectiveness of incongruity theory—the idea that the more a word subverts expectations, the funnier it gets.

In an email to Mental Floss, Westbury said that a good example of incongruity theory is this video of an orangutan being duped by a magic trick. While he's not responding to a word, clearly he's tickled by the subversion of his own expectations:

With incongruity theory in mind, Westbury was able to generate various equations that attempted to predict whether a person would find a single word amusing. He separated the words into categories—insults, sexual references, party terms, animals, names for body parts, and profanity. Among those examined: gobble, boogie, chum, oink, burp, and turd.

Upchuck topped one chart, followed by bubby and boff, the latter a slang expression for sexual intercourse. Another equation found that slobbering, puking, and fuzz were reliable sources of amusement. Words with the letters j, k, and y also scored highly, and the vowel sound /u/ appeared in 20 percent of words the University of Warwick study deemed funny, like pubes, nude, and boobs.

In the future, Westbury hopes to examine word pairs for their ability to amuse. The smart money is on fart potato to break the top five.

[h/t Live Science]

15 Fun Phrases Popularized During Prohibition

Keystone/Getty Images
Keystone/Getty Images

Prohibition ended 85 years ago—on December 5, 1933—but the colorful colloquialisms it brought about will live on forever. Here are just a handful of them.

1. Blind pig

An illegal drinking establishment, a.k.a. a speakeasy, that attempted to evade police detection by charging patrons a fee to gaze upon some sort of exotic creature (i.e. a blind pig) and be given a complimentary cocktail upon entrance. Also known as a blind tiger.

2. Juice joint

Yet another term for an illegal drinking establishment.

3. Jake walk

A paralysis or loss of muscle control in the hands and feet, due to an overconsumption of Jamaican ginger, a.k.a. Jake, a legal substance with an alcoholic base. The numbness led sufferers to walk with a distinct gait that was also known as Jake leg or Jake foot.

4. Ombibulous

A term made up by writer H.L. Mencken to describe his love of alcohol; he noted, “I'm ombibulous. I drink every known alcoholic drink and enjoy them all.” Mencken was also fond of referring to bootleggers as booticians and is alleged to have invented the term boozehound.

5. Skid road

A precursor to the term “Skid Row,” a skid road was the place where loggers hauled their goods. During Prohibition, these “roads” became popular meeting places for bootleggers.

6. Brick of wine

Oenophiles looking to get their vino fix could do so by simply adding water to a dehydrated block of juice, which would become wine. (And you thought a box of wine was bad!)

7. Bathtub gin

A homemade—and often poorly made—gin that was preferably served in a bottle so tall that it could not be mixed with water from a sink tap, so was mixed in a bathtub instead. Though the phrase references gin specifically, it came to be used as a general term for any type of cheap homemade booze.

8. White lightning

The whiskey equivalent of bathtub gin; a highly potent, illegally made, and poor-quality spirit.

9. Teetotaler

A person who abstains from the consumption of alcohol. The phrase is believe to have originated within the Prohibition era’s temperance societies, where members would add a “T” to their signatures to indicate total abstinence (T+total-ers). 

10. Dry

A noun used in reference to a man or woman who is opposed to the legal sale of alcoholic beverages. Bureau of Prohibition agents were often referred to as Dry Agents (though corruption among this crew ran rampant). As an adjective, it describes a place where alcohol is not served. 

11. Wet

The opposite of dry, a wet is a person who is for the legal sale of alcoholic beverages or a place where liquor is in full supply.

12. Whale

A heavy drinker. 

13. Blotto

Extremely drunk, often to the point of unconsciousness.

14. Hooch

Low-quality liquor, usually whiskey. The term originated in the late 1800s as a shortened version of “Hoochinoo,” a distilled beverage from Alaska that became popular during the Klondike gold rush. The phrase came back into heavy use in the 1920s. 

15. Giggle water

An alcoholic beverage.

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