Monsters Unchained!

American Trivia Quizzes

Read “Lederer on Language” every Saturday in the San Diego Union Tribune and on this site. Dr. Lederer and Caroline McCullagh’s American Trivia quizzes currently appear on the front page every day.

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Welcome to the website woven for wordaholics, logolepts, and verbivores. Carnivores eat meat; herbivores eat plants and vegetables; verbivores devour words. If you are heels over head (as well as head over heels) in love with words, tarry here a while to graze or, perhaps, feast on the English language. Ours is the only language in which you drive in a parkway and park in a driveway and your nose can run and your feet can smell.

After English, the most commonly spoken language in the continental United States is overwhelmingly Spanish. The only exceptions are French in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and Louisiana, and German in North Dakota.

If we remove both English and Spanish from the mix, a much more varied lineup consisting of 11 European, Asian, Native American and (in Michigan) Arabic languages comes into focus.

What do you think is the most spoken language in California, after English and Spanish? The answer reposes at the end of this column.

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In 1914, the five most popular names for girl babies were Mary, Helen, Dorothy, Margaret and Ruth. Now, 100 years later, none of these names remains among the top 10: Sophia, Emma, Olivia, Isabella, Ava, Mia, Emily, Abigail, Madison and Elizabeth. A century ago, the most popular names for boy babies were John, William, James, Robert and Joseph. Today, only William survives among the top 10: Noah, Liam, Jacob, Mason, William, Ethan, Michael, Alexander, Jayden and Daniel.

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Recent research shows that brain development is stimulated by continuous verbal interaction between children and their parents or caregivers. Even before the age of 2, children in talkative, reading, singing and playful families know significantly more words than children in families with fewer verbal behaviors.

So to teach your children well: Don’t run out and buy those CDs, videos and flash cards that are hyped to boost verbal skills. Just talk to your baby — early and a lot and in sentences as long as you wish. Talk, read, sing and play with them even before they themselves can gurgle a single word. You’ll build their speaking, reading and writing vocabularies one word at a time.

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Linguists have identified a language called Motherese. It’s how mothers speak to their children and their pets. Mothers talk to their babies in a distinctive high pitch, exaggerate the emotional quality of their voices and draw out the sounding of vowels. These intuitive behaviors apparently impart lessons on how to acquire a native language.

Dog and cat owners also use a high pitch and amplify emotional intonations, but they don’t stretch out their vowels. Mothers exhibit none of these acoustic signatures when talking with other adults.

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Sept. 24 ushered in the Jewish New Year 5775. Note that like a letter palindrome, the four numbers read the same forward and backward. I call such a pattern a “calindrome.”

Hebrew, by the way, is the only example in world history of a dead language, surviving only liturgically, being revived as a national language. Hebrew had not been spoken natively by anyone for centuries. Today it is the native tongue of millions.

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The winner of the U.S. Open in tennis this past September was Croatian Marin Cilic. As a rabid fan of tennis and language play, I was rooting for all 6 feet, 6 inches of him because his last name is a palindrome, a word that reads the same forward and backward. And when that name is capitalized throughout as CILIC, it is composed entirely of Roman numerals.

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Next month, my local Scripps Ranch Library will showcase the talents of pianist Anna Savvas. I’ve never heard her play, but I’m already a fan because both her first and last names are perfect palindromes. By the way, the preferred American pronunciation for what Anna Savvas does is pee-AN-ist.

Answer: Tagalog, spoken by many Filipinos.

Please send your questions and comments about language to richard.lederer@utsandiego.com