Friday, May 31, 2013

American Culture: Traditions and Customs of the United States

American culture encompasses the customs and traditions of the United States, including language, religion, food and the arts. Nearly every region of the world has influenced American culture, as it is a country of immigrants, most notably the English who colonized the country beginning in the early 1600s. U.S. culture has also been shaped by the cultures of Native Americans, Latin Americans, Africans and Asians.

The United States is sometimes described as a "melting pot" in which different cultures have contributed their own distinct "flavors" to American culture. Just as cultures from around the world have influenced American culture, today American culture influences the world. The term Western culture often refers broadly to the cultures of the United States and Europe.

As the third largest country in the word with a population of more than 315 million, the United States is the most culturally diverse country in the world. The Northeast, South, Midwest, Southeast and Western regions of the United States all have distinct traditions and customs. Here is a brief overview of the culture of the United States.


There is no official language of the United States, although 31 of 50 states have made English their official language or given it exceptional status. More than 90 percent of the U.S. population speaks and understands at least some English, and most official business is conducted in English.

While almost every language in the world is spoken in the United States, Spanish, Chinese, French and German are among the most frequently spoken non-English languages. Each region of the United States, in particular the South, has its own spin on the language with unique pronunciations and phrases.


Nearly every known religion is practiced in the United States, which was founded on the basis of religious freedom. More than 75 percent of Americans identify themselves as Christians. About half are Protestant, about one-quarter are Catholic, and a small percentage are Mormon. After Christianity, Judaism is the second most-identified religious affiliation, at about 1.4 percent of the population. About 20 percent of the population has no religious affiliation.

American style

Clothing styles vary by region and climate, but the American style of dressing is predominantly casual. Denim, sneakers and cowboy hats and boots are some items of clothing that are closely associated with Americans. Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Michael Kors and Victoria Secret are some well-known American brands. American fashion is widely influenced by celebrities.

American food

American cuisine has been influenced by Europeans and Native Americans in its early history. Today, there are a number of foods that are commonly identified as American, such as hamburgers, hot dogs, potato chips, macaroni and cheese and meat loaf. "As American as apple pie" has come to mean something that is authentically American.

There are also styles of cooking and types of foods that are specific to a region. Southern-style cooking is often called American comfort food and includes dishes such as fried chicken, collard greens, black-eyed peas and corn bread. Tex-Mex, popular in Texas and the Southwest, is a blend of Spanish and Mexican cooking styles and includes items such as chili and burritos and relies heavily on shredded cheese and beans.


The United States is widely known around the world as a leader in mass media production, including television and movies. The television broadcasting industry took hold in the United States in the early 1950s and American television programs are shown around the world. The United States also has a vibrant movie industry, centered in Hollywood, and American movies are popular worldwide.

New York is home to Broadway and Americans have a rich theatrical history.

American folk art is an artistic style and is identified with quilts and other hand-crafted items.

American music is very diverse with many, many styles, including rhythm and blues, jazz, gospel, country and western, bluegrass, rock 'n' roll and hip hop.


The United States is a sports-minded country, with millions of fans who follow football, baseball, basketball and hockey, among other sports. The game of baseball, which was developed in colonial America and became an organized sport in the mid-1800s, is known as America’s favorite pastime, although its popularity has been eclipsed by football.

American holidays

Americans celebrate their independence from Britain on July 4. Memorial Day, celebrated on the last Monday in May, honors those who have died in military service. Labor Day, observed on the first Monday in September, celebrates country’s workforce. Thanksgiving, another distinctive American holiday, falls on the fourth Thursday in November and dates back to colonial times to celebrate the harvest. Presidents’ Day, marking the birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, is a federal holiday that occurs on the third Monday in February. The contributions of veterans are honored on Veterans’ Day, observed on Nov. 11. The contributions of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. are remembered on the third Monday in January.

Zimmermann, Kim Ann. 2013. “American Culture: Traditions and Customs of the United States”. Live Science. Posted: April 22, 2013. Available online:

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Stunning Astronomical Alignment Found at Peru Pyramid

An ancient astronomical alignment in southern Peru has been discovered by researchers between a pyramid, two stone lines and the setting sun during the winter solstice. During the solstice, hundreds of years ago, the three would have lined up to frame the pyramid in light.

The two stone lines, called geoglyphs, are located about 1.2 miles (2 kilometers) east-southeast from the pyramid. They run for about 1,640 feet (500 meters), and researchers say the lines were "positioned in such a way as to frame the pyramid as one descended down the valley from the highlands."

Using astronomical software and 3D modeling, the researchers determined that a remarkable event would have occurred during the time of the winter solstice.

"When viewed in 3D models, these lines appear to converge at a point beyond the horizon and frame not only the site of Cerro del Gentil [where the pyramid is], but also the setting sun during the time of the winter solstice," the research team wrote in a poster presentation given recently at the Society for American Archaeology annual meeting in Honolulu.

"Thus someone viewing the sunset from these lines during the winter solstice would have seen the sun setting directly behind, or sinking into, the adobe pyramid," they write. "Thus the pyramid and the linear geoglyph constitute part of a single architectural complex, with potential cosmological significance, that ritualized the entire pampa landscape." (The word "pampa" stands for plain.)

The flattop pyramid is 16 feet (5 m) high and was built sometime between 600 B.C. and 50 B.C., being reoccupied somewhere between A.D. 200 and 400. Finds near the pyramid include textiles, shells and ceramics. The stone lines were constructed at some point between 500 B.C. and A.D. 400.

Lines, settlements and pyramids

But this discovery is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Researchers have found about 50 of these stone lines so far in a flat, dry area near the pyramid. The longest of the lines runs for nearly a mile (about 1,500 m). These lines are straight and made out of rock, unlike the Nazca Lines in southern Peru which were etched into the earth by removing the topsoil and include depictions of animals and plants.

Interspersed with these lines, researchers have also found more than 200 cairns (rock piles). The biggest of these cairns is about 50 feet (15 m) in diameter. Cairns can be found throughout the world and sometimes contain human burials, the examples found here, however, do not.

The stone lines and cairns appear to be connected with nearby settlements and their pyramids. There are four ancient settlements close to them, two of which have large pyramids and one that has a mound. The settlements would have supported populations in the high hundreds or just over 1,000.

"Many of the lines do lead to the pyramids; most lead to within the area of the pyramid," said Charles Stanish, a professor at UCLA's Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, in an interview with LiveScience. "We did a statistical analysis, and it is statistically significant— it couldn't have been by random chance that they do cluster on these settlements," he said, noting that there are a few lines that don't lead to settlements.

Stanish said that the discovery of ancient lines leading to pyramids in Peru is important. "We have lines that run to pyramid complexes, and that's significant, because in the big Nazca pampa and in the Palpa pampa, we don't find that pattern as obvious." These two areas, Nazca and Palpa, contain lines, etched in earth, that depict various motifs, including animals and plants.

Future exploration

The team has only completed one field season at the site and will be heading back this summer to continue their work. They plan to excavate at the Cerro del Gentil pyramid and search for more stone lines.

"We're also going to do a systematic survey of a fairly large area to find all the other lines and all the other settlements and features," Stanish said. They also plan to dig test pits in structures associated with the lines to try to determine precisely when they were built.

One problem the team faces is that time is against them. "A lot of them [the stone lines] are being destroyed by construction," said Stanish, explaining that modern-day power and gas lines are being built in the area, jeopardizing the ancient stone lines that have stood for well over a millennia.

Jarus, Owen. 2013. “Stunning Astronomical Alignment Found at Peru Pyramid”. Live Science. Posted: May 6, 2013. Available online:

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Importance of the humble fig to humankind

Figs and fig trees are familiar to a wide cross-section of human society, both as a common food and for their spiritual importance. What is less well understood is the global nature of this association between figs and humans, which is maintained across species, continents and societies.

This relationship is explored by David Wilson of Ecology and Heritage Partners and Anna Wilson from the University of Melbourne in Australia in a paper published in the Springer journal Human Ecology. Using examples from around the world, the authors show that figs are a vital resource for humans, no matter which species are present in a region.

Spiritual connections

It is well known that figs are a recurring theme in religion: it is the first fruit tree mentioned in the Bible, and some traditions believe that it was the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. It was the tree under which Buddha received enlightenment.

Figs can also have powerful impacts on everyday life, both in a positive or negative fashion. For instance, Kikuyu women in Africa smear themselves with the sap of fig trees to ensure pregnancy. In Bolivia, soul-stealing spirits dwell in the canopy of figs and walking under, or felling, these trees can cause illness. In Papua New Guinea, figs are believed to be the haunt of evil spirits which would be released if they are felled.

A multitude of uses

Aside from their spiritual connections, figs provide a range of material uses, and the authors explore examples of these from around the world. The fig is an important food source for both humans and animals, in both fresh and dried form. Different species of fig bear fruit at different times, so in areas where there are a large variety of fig species, fruit can be available all year round. In addition to human uses, shoots and leaves of fig trees are used for animal fodder, which can sustain livestock through otherwise lean periods.

Cultural convergent evolution

In addition to being a food source, the bark and roots from fig trees are used for manufacturing items such as barkcloth, handicrafts, shields and buildings. The authors provide examples of barkcloth manufacture from Mexico, Uganda and Sulawesi. Despite the different fig species involved, the same method for making barkcloth has evolved three times – a remarkable demonstration of cultural convergent evolution. Figs are also a source of traditional medicine with sap being used to treat a variety of illnesses from intestinal upsets to heart problems and malaria. While the treatments vary between areas, the modes of preparation and administration are highly conserved.

Humans as a dispersal agent

Figs and fig trees have a seemingly inexhaustible list of qualities and uses. Despite populations being continents apart, there are consistent similarities in the ways in which the fig and its tree are valued. The authors hope to emphasize the global nature of this relationship. They also provide hints that figs may benefit from humans by providing two examples where figs have used humans as a dispersal agent. Ficus religiosa in south-east Asia is spread by Buddhists and all fig species in Fundong, Cameroon, have been introduced from elsewhere. Given the examples the authors provide, further work is likely to further uncover just how close the connection is between humans and figs.

Past Horizons. 2013. “Importance of the humble fig to humankind”. Past Horizons. Posted: May 4, 2013. Available online:

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

140 ancient burials unearthed in northern Vietnam

An archaeological dig led by Dr Marc Oxenham from The Australian National University’s School of Archaeology and Anthropology has uncovered possibly the earliest cemetery site in Southeast Asia.

More than 140 ancient burials including men, women, teenagers and children have been recovered from the site in the Thanh Hoa province in northern Vietnam.

Existed between 5,000 and 6,000 years ago

The burial site, known as Con Co Ngua, is believed to have existed sometime between 5,000 and 6,000 years ago. Rising sea levels helped preserve the site under a thick cap of marine clay.

“Archaeological cemeteries and living sites of such antiquity are all but unknown in the region, with only a handful of burials from a number of cave sites previously known,” Dr Oxenham said.

Buried in a squatting position

Most of the bodies from the site were buried in a squatting position with their hands clasped in their laps and chins resting on their knees. Further research revealed the bodies were most likely wrapped tightly prior to burial and placed in circular earth pits with perishable items such as cuts of meat from buffalo or deer.

“The significance of this discovery – apart from its great age, size, plethora of artefacts and amazing level of preservation – is that it represents a crucial period in the archaeology of Southeast Asia,” Dr Oxenham said.

“The discovery tells us that the Con Co Ngua people are likely descendants of the original colonisers of Southeast Asia and Australia. In fact, putting flesh back on their bones would reveal people that looked a lot like modern day indigenous Australians and Melanesians.

“It will now take an army of students and academics to decode the mysteries of the site and the people that once lived there.”

The two-month excavation was a joint venture between Dr Oxenham and the Institute of Archaeology, Vietnam, and was funded by the Australian Research Council.

Past Horizons. 2013. “140 ancient burials unearthed in northern Vietnam”. Past Horizons. Posted: May 1, 2013. Available online:

Monday, May 27, 2013

How We Decode 'Noisy' Language in Daily Life: How People Rationally Interpret Linguistic Input

Suppose you hear someone say, "The man gave the ice cream the child." Does that sentence seem plausible? Or do you assume it is missing a word? Such as: "The man gave the ice cream to the child."

A new study by MIT researchers indicates that when we process language, we often make these kinds of mental edits. Moreover, it suggests that we seem to use specific strategies for making sense of confusing information -- the "noise" interfering with the signal conveyed in language, as researchers think of it.

"Even at the sentence level of language, there is a potential loss of information over a noisy channel," says Edward Gibson, a professor in MIT's Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences (BCS) and Department of Linguistics and Philosophy.

Gibson and two co-authors detail the strategies at work in a new paper, "Rational integration of noisy evidence and prior semantic expectations in sentence interpretation," published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"As people are perceiving language in everyday life, they're proofreading, or proof-hearing, what they're getting," says Leon Bergen, a PhD student in BCS and a co-author of the study. "What we're getting is quantitative evidence about how exactly people are doing this proofreading. It's a well-calibrated process."

Asymmetrical strategies

The paper is based on a series of experiments the researchers conducted, using the Amazon Mechanical Turk survey system, in which subjects were presented with a series of sentences -- some evidently sensible, and others less so -- and asked to judge what those sentences meant.

A key finding is that given a sentence with only one apparent problem, people are more likely to think something is amiss than when presented with a sentence where two edits may be needed. In the latter case, people seem to assume instead that the sentence is not more thoroughly flawed, but has an alternate meaning entirely.

"The more deletions and the more insertions you make, the less likely it will be you infer that they meant something else," Gibson says. When readers have to make one such change to a sentence, as in the ice cream example above, they think the original version was correct about 50 percent of the time. But when people have to make two changes, they think the sentence is correct even more often, about 97 percent of the time.

Thus the sentence, "Onto the cat jumped a table," which might seem to make no sense, can be made plausible with two changes -- one deletion and one insertion -- so that it reads, "The cat jumped onto a table." And yet, almost all the time, people will not infer that those changes are needed, and assume the literal, surreal meaning is the one intended.

This finding interacts with another one from the study, that there is a systematic asymmetry between insertions and deletions on the part of listeners.

"People are much more likely to infer an alternative meaning based on a possible deletion than on a possible insertion," Gibson says.

Suppose you hear or read a sentence that says, "The businessman benefitted the tax law." Most people, it seems, will assume that sentence has a word missing from it -- "from," in this case -- and fix the sentence so that it now reads, "The businessman benefitted from the tax law." But people will less often think sentences containing an extra word, such as "The tax law benefitted from the businessman," are incorrect, implausible as they may seem.

Another strategy people use, the researchers found, is that when presented with an increasing proportion of seemingly nonsensical sentences, they actually infer lower amounts of "noise" in the language. That means people adapt when processing language: If every sentence in a longer sequence seems silly, people are reluctant to think all the statements must be wrong, and hunt for a meaning in those sentences. By contrast, they perceive greater amounts of noise when only the occasional sentence seems obviously wrong, because the mistakes so clearly stand out.

"People seem to be taking into account statistical information about the input that they're receiving to figure out what kinds of mistakes are most likely in different environments," Bergen says.

Reverse-engineering the message

Other scholars say the work helps illuminate the strategies people may use when they interpret language.

"I'm excited about the paper," says Roger Levy, a professor of linguistics at the University of California at San Diego who has done his own studies in the area of noise and language.

According to Levy, the paper posits "an elegant set of principles" explaining how humans edit the language they receive. "People are trying to reverse-engineer what the message is, to make sense of what they've heard or read," Levy says.

"Our sentence-comprehension mechanism is always involved in error correction, and most of the time we don't even notice it," he adds. "Otherwise, we wouldn't be able to operate effectively in the world. We'd get messed up every time anybody makes a mistake."

Science Daily. 2013. “How We Decode 'Noisy' Language in Daily Life: How People Rationally Interpret Linguistic Input”. Science Daily. Posted: April 29, 2013. Available online:

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Shaman petroglyph recorded in Veracruz

A set of petroglyphs including one which depicts a priest or “wise man” has been recorded by archaeologists from the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH). These rock cut images were found on the slopes of Cerro del Bonnet in the Mexican state of Veracruz.

The pecked stone petroglyphs are thought to be about 500 years old and were discovered in January 2013 by members of the local farming community.

The priest or shamanic figure measures 1.40 m high by 50 cm wide. He is represented with his eye closed and mouth open and wears a zoomorphic helmet with a cape and underskirt decorated with triangles, a girdle and ankle bracelets and an ear plug. Around him there are symbols related to divination and astronomical elements and near the top of the stone there are two concentric circles that could have held a chalchihuitl (precious green stone – Literally “Heart of the Earth”).

A constellation?

On a higher slab, lies a further though much cruder anthropomorphic figure (50 cm high by 20 cm wide) facing to the right. This time, depicted with mouth and eye open and also wearing an ear plug, the figure seems to be dancing as the máxtlatl (loincloth) lifts up at the front.

Unlike the shaman, this figure is schematically drawn. No hands are represented and the feet seem to be wearing shoes. It is possible that this figure represents a constellation rather than a human being.

Unknown meaning

One of the final elements on the petroglyph panels is a spiral whose terminal is intersected by a rough horizontal line which in turn is cut by a vertical line that divides into two lines ending in what has been suggested to represent a flower or leaf.

Although the iconographic style of the petroglyphs is not known in the Huasteca region, the symbols appear to be reinterpretations of known elements used by agricultural cultures, such as the zoomorphic helmet character which is reminiscent of the Teayo Castle sculptures, or the “Lord of Death” monolith discovered in the Las Flores Cinco Poblados.

“An important aspect to investigate is the location and function of all possible petroglyphs, because by observing the horizon and solar events it may represent a means of marking events in the agricultural year. “added archaeologist Maria Eugenia Maldonado.

“The study of petroglyphs in the region is still in it’s infancy, but becoming more important for understanding the cosmology and beliefs of the societies that inhabited this area. Such findings contribute to increasing knowledge of the cultural development of the Huasteca Veracruzana“, Maldonado concluded.

Past Horizons. 2013. “Shaman petroglyph recorded in Veracruz”. Past Horizons. Posted: April 24, 2013. Available online:

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Endangered African language explored

Children growing up in the Rufiji region along the coast of Tanzania are learning Swahili as their first language.

Consequently, their parents are expected to be the last generation to be fluent in the minority language Ndengeleko. A new doctoral thesis in African languages from the University of Gothenburg is the first, and maybe last, attempt ever to explore Ndengeleko grammatically.

More than 120 languages are spoken in Tanzania. Most are minority languages spoken by various ethnic groups in the country. Eva-Marie Ström, the author of the thesis, estimates that Ndengeleko, which belongs to the Bantu language family, is currently spoken by about 72 000 people.

'Although this is not an extremely low number in the context of minority languages, my conclusion is that Ndengeleko is indeed endangered and will most likely disappear within a few generations,' she says.

Ström's study is based on interviews and recordings and was carried out on-site with speakers of the language who are interested in preserving their knowledge for future generations.

'My research gives a good description of the phonology of the language, or of the sounds used. It turns out that it has a rather limited number of consonants and vowels. Moreover, some consonants have disappeared from some words over time, making combinations of vowels common.'

In Ndengeleko – as in other Bantu languages in Africa – morphemes are combined to form long words. Morphemes are the small building blocks of words, and they all have a meaning. Combinations of morphemes can appear differently in different words depending on which vowels and consonants are involved. A large part of the analysis concerned these complex processes.

Descriptions of languages are important in order to understand people's linguistic abilities and how languages evolve. Also, languages can reveal information about the people who speak them and how they approach life and the world around them.

'Traditional research on languages and cognition is still largely based on Western languages. My thesis contributes to our understanding of human languages,' says Ström, who is also hoping that her study will help strengthen the self-confidence and status of Ndengeleko speakers.

EurekAlert. 2013. “Endangered African language explored”. EurekAlert. Posted: April 23, 2013. Available online:

Friday, May 24, 2013

A formula that can calculate a person's speed by just looking at their footprints

Two Spanish scientists have designed an equation that provides a highly accurate estimate of an individual's speed based on stride length. They used data from professional athletes and walking and running experiments on a beach in order to come up with the equation. The result has applications in the study of fossil trackways of human footprints.

In the spring of 2008, 14 palaeontology students from the Complutense University of Madrid ran along a beach in Asturias (Spain) at the request of a planetary geologist who was a friend of their fieldwork director. Javier Ruiz, from the Complutense University of Madrid (Spain), and his colleague Angélica Torices, from the University of Alberta (Canada), just out of curiosity, wanted to check how accurately an individual's speed could be calculated based on their tracks.

The results, published in 2013 in the journal 'Ichnos', show that, without needing any other data such as leg length, they were able to achieve quite a high degree of accuracy, with a margin of error of 10 to 15%.

"For humans, we are able to calculate speed based on stride length alone with a very good degree of accuracy," Javier Ruiz told SINC.

The authors applied their formula to estimate the speed at which the humans were travelling who left the Pleistocene era fossil trackways found in the Willandra Lakes Region of Australia.

"A previous study had made a very elaborate calculation of their speed but the results were as high as if they had been professional athletes" Ruiz explained. His results show a reasonable sprint pace.

In order to come up with their equation, Ruiz and Torices compared the data obtained in the experiments with the students with data from professional athletes who compete in 100 and 400-metre races.

Up to now, the individual's leg length or at least an estimate of the length was required to calculate speed based on tracks. An equation formulated by the British zoologist Robert McNeil Alexander in 1976 was used which he based solely on data obtained from his children running.

Ruiz and Torices measured the speed and stride length of the students as they ran along the beach and applied Alexander's equation. "The data fit with the equation very well", Ruiz explained, "Alexander did a good job with very little statistical data but with a large mathematical basis and we have seen empirically that his equation is correct."

The speed of elite athletes

In the case of the athletes, the researchers had data on speed and stride length but not limb length, which led Ruiz to modify the equation so that this piece of data was not needed. "There was a very good degree of accuracy with the new equation with a 15% margin of error, even better than the equation that was generally used whose margin of error was 50%."

In addition, the calculation works perfectly well both whether the individuals are running or walking and this was very surprising according to Ruiz. "There is a little more variability in running but even so it works very well."

Despite that fact that the speed calculation is very accurate, Ruiz admits that it cannot be applied in an absolute and unequivocal manner but rather statistically. "Strangely, sometimes 400 and 100-metre athletes have the same stride length but run at different speeds. What the body does is try to optimise how energy is used at a given speed."

EurekAlert. 2013. “A formula that can calculate a person's speed by just looking at their footprints”. EurekAlert. Posted: April 22, 2013. Available online:

Thursday, May 23, 2013

66 Ancient Skeletons Found in Indonesian Cave

Talk about your archaeological jackpots: Researchers in Indonesia have reportedly discovered the 3,000-year-old remains of 66 people in a cave in Sumatra.

"Sixty-six is very strange," Truman Simanjuntak of Jakarta's National Research and Development Center for Archaeology said in a statement. He and his colleagues have never before found that many remains in a single cave, Simanjuntak added.

The cave is known as Harimaru or Tiger Cave, and also contains chicken, dog and pig remains. Thousands of years ago, the Tiger Cave and other limestone caverns nearby were occupied by Indonesia's first farmers. They used the caves to bury their dead, explaining the 3,000-year-old cemetery unearthed by Simanjuntak's team. The ancient farmers also manufactured tools in the caves.

And they apparently made art. Tiger Cave contains the first evidence of rock art from Sumatra, Simanjuntak said. And the cave is only partially excavated.

"There are still occupation traces deeper and deeper in the cave, where we have not excavated yet," he said. "So it means the cave is very promising."

The dates of the discoveries so far peg the cave's occupation to a time when the Earth's entire population was only about 50 million. The Zhou dynasty ruled China, and ancient Egypt's prosperous New Kingdom era, during which Tutankamun riegned, was nearing its end.

Though a first for Sumatra, the newly discovered rock art is brand-new by archaeological standards: The oldest rock art known is found in France and dates back 37,000 years.

Pappas, Stephanie. 2013. “66 Ancient Skeletons Found in Indonesian Cave”. Discovery News. Posted: April 22, 2013. Available online:

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

America's fabulously mongrel language is a model of immigration reform

Nativist efforts to force immigrants to learn 'proper English' are unintentionally hilarious: our very vernacular is a melting-pot

I must admit that I indulge in a private chuckle during the inevitable "English only" point of any immigration debate. It seems like almost every modern attempt at comprehensive immigration reform carries with it some caveat or stricture regarding the place of English and English-language proficiency.

Make no mistake: my laughter is not over learning English, but rather, the way that English is portrayed in these discussions. I'm particularly prone to a guffaw when the rhetoric soars to the lofty heights of "preserving and enhancing the role of the English language" in the US, as one amendment to the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006 put it.

My own view of English is informed by years in the trenches, writing dictionaries and taking the worm's-eye view of our language – and from down here, I can safely say that, contrary to the panicked squawking of linguistic doomsayers, English is not in need of any conservation or preservation. It is, in fact, flourishing. This is due, in part, to all the foreign words and phrases that English has borrowed and stolen over the centuries – including a substantial number of words brought by immigrants.

Take Spanish, a frequent target of American lexical jingoism: English has been borrowing words from Spanish – or its ancestor language, Old Spanish – since the 14th century. It's not surprising when you consider that Spain was one of the reigning world powers in the Middle Ages. During the 15th and 16th centuries, the Spanish managed to circumnavigate the globe, conquer half of the New World, and claim the Pacific Ocean. They gave the world Henry VIII's first (and most long-lived) wife, Catherine of Aragon. And they coughed up two Popes and an Antipope.

Our oldest Spanish "loanwords" give you a sense of just how much of the world Spain was conquering. "Armadillo", "iguana", "sarsaparilla", and "tobacco" describe new flora and fauna Spanish explorers found in North and South America. "Canary" flitted into English from the Spanish name for a group of islands off the coast of Africa. "Eskimo", while ultimately from an Algonquian language of western Canada, likely was introduced into English via Spanish.

Spanish influence doesn't end with the Renaissance: almost a quarter of the US was under Mexican or Spanish rule until the mid 1800s. If you grew up watching spaghetti Westerns or idolizing the Wild West as presented by Johns Wayne and Ford, then you are steeped in Spanish loanwords. Renegade caballeros on broncos, riding through the canyons of Colorado – if you dump the Spanish loanwords, you're left with "on, riding through the of".

Over the last 400 years, there have been movements to make English a "pure" language, and these movements have generally targeted foreign loanwords. Even lexicographers were not immune from lexical nationalism: Samuel Johnson, in writing his 1755 Dictionary of the English Language, omitted foreign words (like "skunk" and "hickory") that had gained currency in the English-speaking American colonies.

But such movements ignore a basic fact: English has been borrowing words from other languages since its infancy. The names for the days of the week are some of our oldest English words, and they honor the sun, the moon, and a handful of northern Germanic gods the Anglo-Saxons worshipped. But "Saturday", the beginning of our weekend, honors a Roman god in Saxon clothes: the Anglo-Saxon "sætern" means "Saturn" and was stolen outright from Latin.

And so it goes, throughout history. English takes Latin words and Old Norse words, then dips into French, Spanish, Arabic, Dutch, Bantu, Wolof – and that doesn't even bring us into the modern era of immigration, where loanwords from Yiddish, Modern Greek, Italian, German, Japanese, Farsi, Irish Gaelic, and other languages arrive.

At present, English has borrowed words from over 350 languages, and it shows no signs of stopping that behavior. Even our best efforts at isolationism are ignored by our shifty whore, English: in the same decade that the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in the US, effectively banning Chinese immigration into the States, "chop suey" and "tung" (as in the oil) entered the English language – from Chinese.

Language, like immigration, is complex and thoroughly untidy. While we may legislate immigration, we will never successfully legislate our sprawling, inclusive language. Any attempt to do so runs contrary to truly "preserving and enhancing the role of the English language".

Stamper, Kory. 2013. “America's fabulously mongrel language is a model of immigration reform”. The Guardian. Posted: April 21, 2013. Available online:

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Discriminated Groups Strategize to Avoid Prejudice

When they think they'll be discriminated against, people do their best to put on a good face for their group, new research finds.

An obese person, for example, might focus on dressing nicely to combat stereotypes of slovenliness. A black man, used to assumptions that he's violent, might smile more.

The new study reveals both that people are well aware of stereotypes and that they try to combat them. "People often think of prejudice as a simple, single phenomenon.

When they think they'll be discriminated against, people do their best to put on a good face for their group, new research finds.

An obese person, for example, might focus on dressing nicely to combat stereotypes of slovenliness. A black man, used to assumptions that he's violent, might smile more.

The new study reveals both that people are well aware of stereotypes and that they try to combat them. "People often think of prejudice as a simple, single phenomenon — general dislike for members of other groups — but recent research suggests that there are actually multiple, distinct types of prejudice," study researcher Rebecca Neel, a graduate student at Arizona State University, said in a statement. In other words, people don't just dislike overweight people, they stereotype them as sloppy and lacking in self-control.

Making an impression

Neel and her colleagues first recruited 75 college students, all self-identified as either overweight or not overweight. They were told they would answer questions about three random demographic groups; in fact, all the students were asked about Muslims, Mexican-Americans and obese people.

The students also were asked to envision meeting someone new and then to choose how they'd make a good impression from options such as arriving on time, wearing clean clothes, smiling and looking relaxed. Some students answered the group questions first so they'd have group-related stereotypes in mind when they got to the first-impressions' questions. Others completed the study the other way around.

The results showed that thinking about stereotyping changed people's behavior. Overweight students who'd first answered questions about obese people were more likely than other participants to rank "wearing clean clothes" as a very important way to make a good first impression. Normal-weight students and overweight students who hadn't been primted to think of stereotypes were more likely to prioritize arriving on time.

Strategic behavior

In a second study, researchers repeated the test with overweight men and black men. When prompted to think of stereotypes, overweight men ranked wearing clean clothes as the most important step toward making a good first impression. Black men, who are often stereotyped as violent and anti-social, prioritized smiling.

"Members of stigmatized groups may strategically change how they present themselves to others in anticipation of these different emotions," Neel said. She and her colleagues reported their findings April 2 in the journal Psychological Science.

Whereas many stereotypes are harmful, a few can be helpful — at least to some groups. A study released in September 2010 found that men told (untruthfully) that their gender is better at certain navigation tasks actually performed better at course-plotting tasks than men who weren't given that confidence boost. On the other hand, if someone is told their group is worse at a particular task (say, women in math), they'll perform worse, a phenomenon called stereotype threat.

Pappas, Stephanie. 2013. “Discriminated Groups Strategize to Avoid Prejudice”. Live Science. Posted: April 19, 2013. Available online:

Monday, May 20, 2013

Cross-cultural similarities in early adolescence

Concordia researcher compares development of self-esteem in Canadian and Colombian children

Acquiring self-esteem is an important part of a teenager's development. The way in which adolescents regard themselves can be instrumental in determining their achievement and social functioning. New research from Concordia University shows that the way in which adolescents think about themselves varies across cultural context.

To compare how teenagers assess their self-worth, William M. Bukowski, a psychology professor and director of the Centre for Research in Human Development, examined responses from children in Montreal and in Barranquilla — a city on the Caribbean coast of northern Colombia. The study revealed significant commonalities, and some differences in the factors that these children considered to be most important when they evaluated themselves. Bukowski is the second author on the study, which was recently published in the Journal of Research on Adolescence.

The researchers examined how particular facets of the children's context — their location, their socio-economic status, and significant cultural characteristics — might impact the parts of their lives they consider to be most important when determining self-worth. They studied the responses of 864 early adolescents (aged 9 to 11), 317 from Montreal and 547 from Barranquilla. The numbers of boys and girls, and the socio-economic classes they represented — upper-middle and lower-middle — were roughly equal.

One of the most significant observations was that the girls' scores on measures of self-worth tended to be higher. "Previous studies had found the opposite result, and this change may have to do with improvements in the status of women in recent years," says Bukowski.

Overall, the researchers found no differences between the participants from the two cities, which was somewhat of a surprise. There were, however, differences in each location between the children from upper- and lower-middle-class families.

"Children from upper-middle-class families were likely to consider social skills as the most important factor when evaluating themselves," says Bukowski. "If they felt they were popular or likeable, they were more likely to have high self-esteem. While they did consider their athletic and intellectual abilities, they seem to have understood that social skills are crucial for success among individuals of their class."

On the other hand, children from lower-middle-class families focused on evidence of their cognitive competence when assessing themselves to determine their self-worth. If they believed they were smart and successful at school, they were more likely to have healthy self-esteem. The study associates this trend with the emphasis on education as the key to self-improvement among members of this class.

This research provides valuable information for parents and teachers because it sheds light on the process by which children develop self-esteem. They look at aspects of their lives, determine how well they're doing, and allow this to determine their self-worth. They also pick up on signals from their environments about which aspects of their lives should be most important in this evaluation.

Therefore, adults can help children to conduct more accurate self-assessments by reminding them of things they do well, and by helping them to focus on evidence of their achievements.

EurekAlert. 2013. “Cross-cultural similarities in early adolescence”. EurekAlert. Posted: April 18, 2013. Available online:

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Oldest European Medieval Cookbook Found

A 12th-century manuscript contains the oldest known European Medieval food recipes, according to new research.

The recipes, which include both food and medical ointment concoctions, were compiled and written in Latin. Someone jotted them down at Durham Cathedral’s monastery in the year 1140.

It was essentially a health book, so the meals were meant to improve a person’s health or to cure certain afflictions. The other earliest known such recipes dated to 1290.

Many of the dishes sound like they would work on a modern restaurant menu. Faith Wallis, an expert in medical history and science based at McGill University, translated a few for Discovery News:

“For “hen in winter’: heat garlic, pepper and sage with water.”

“For ‘tiny little fish’: juice of coriander and garlic, mixed with pepper and garlic.”

For preserved ginger, it should kept in “pure water” and then “sliced lengthwise into very thin slices, and mixed thoroughly with prepared honey that has been cooked down to a sticky thickness and skimmed. It should be rubbed well in the honey with the hands, and left a whole day and night.”

Re – the “hen in winter” dish, Giles Gasper from Durham University’s Institute of Medieval and Early Modern Studies said, “We believe this recipe is simply a seasonal variation, using ingredients available in the colder months and specifying ‘hen’ rather than ‘chicken,’ meaning it was an older bird as it would be by that time of year.”

Gasper added, “The sauces typically feature parsley, sage, pepper, garlic, mustard and coriander, which I suspect may give them a Mediterranean feel when we recreate them. According to the text, one of the recipes comes from the Poitou region of what is now modern central western France. This shows the extent to which international travel and exchange of ideas took place within the medieval period. And what more evocative example of cultural exchange could there be than food?”

Gaspar and colleagues are recreating some of the dishes for a workshop to be held on April 25 at Blackfriars Restaurant in Newcastle, U.K. A lunch the following Saturday will feature the same dishes. The researchers are also putting together a translation of the cookbook under the title “Zinziber” (Latin for ginger).

While much of the food is still tasty to modern palates, not all of the medical cures would work today.

Gaspar explained, “Some of the medical recipes in this book seem to have stood the test of time, some emphatically haven’t! But we’re looking forward to finding out whether these newly-discovered food recipes have done so and whether they also possess what you might call a certain Je Ne Sais Quoi — or Quidditas, to use the Latin.”

Viegas, Jennifer. 2013. “Oldest European Medieval Cookbook Found”. Discovery News. Posted: April 17, 2013. Available online:

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Hoa Hakananai’a – Rapa Nui statue tells a new story

A team of archaeologists from the University of Southampton have used the latest in digital imaging technology to record and analyse carvings on the Rapa Nui (Easter Island) statue Hoa Hakananai’a.

James Miles, Hembo Pagi and Dr Graeme Earl from the Archaeological Computing Research Group at the University of Southampton teamed up with archaeologist Mike Pitts to examine the statue at the Wellcome Trust Gallery in the British Museum.

Dr Earl explains: “The Hoa Hakananai’a statue has rarely been studied at first hand by archaeologists, but developments in digital imaging technology have now allowed us to examine it in unprecedented detail.”

Hoa Hakananai’a was brought to England in 1869 by the crew of HMS Topaze and is traditionally said to have been carved around AD1200. Rapa Nui is home to around 1,000 similar statues, but Hoa Hakananai’a is of particular interest because of the intricate carvings on its back.

It is popularly believed that around AD1600 the Rapa Nui islanders faced an ecological crisis and stopped worshipping their iconic statues. They turned instead to a new birdman religion, or cult. This included a ritual based around collecting the first egg of migrating terns from a nearby islet, Motu Nui. The ‘winner’, whose representative swam to the islet and then back with the egg, was afforded sacred status for a year.

Hoa Hakananai’a survived this shift in religious beliefs by being placed in a stone hut and covered in carved ‘petroglyphs’, or rock engravings, depicting motifs from the birdman cult. As such, it may be representative of the transition from the cult of statues to the cult of the birdman.

The team from the University of Southampton examined Hoa Hakananai’a using two different techniques: Photogrammetric Modelling; which involved taking hundreds of photos from different angles to produce a fully textured computer model of the statue, capable of being rotated in 360 degrees; and Reflectance Transformation Imaging; a process which allows a virtual light source to be moved across the surface of a digital image of the statue, using the difference between light and shadow to highlight never-seen-before details.

James Miles, a PhD student at Southampton, comments: “Despite the wonders of modern technology, creating accurate, detailed geometric models of these kinds of complex surfaces remains a painstaking task. We have more work to do but the virtual versions already provide a more interactive way of studying Hoa Hakananai’a.”

Using these techniques, the team made some fascinating discoveries, perhaps the most significant being the apparently simple recognition that a carved bird beak is short and round, not long and pointed as previously described: this allowed the two birdmen on the back to be marked as male and female, unlocking a narrative story to the whole composition relating to Rapa Nui’s unique birdman cult. They also realised that the statue is one of the few on Easter Island that did not stand on a platform beside the shore. It is now believed to have always stood in the ground, where it was found, on top of a 300 metre cliff.

Pitts comments: “Study of the tapering base suggests that rather than being the result of thinning to make it fit into a pit, as often suggested, it is more likely part of the original boulder or outcrop from which it was carved. This may also explain why, as we now see it in the British Museum, it appears to lean slightly to the left – its uneven end resulted in its being incorrectly set into its 19th century plinth.”

Other observations from the digital imaging include:

  • When it was half-buried by soil and food debris, small designs known as komari, representing female genitalia, were carved on the back of the head.
  • At a later date, the whole of the back was covered with a scene showing a male chick leaving the nest, watched by its half-bird, half-human parents – the story at the heart of the birdman ceremony, recorded in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
  • A round beak on the right birdman in the scene described above. This can be read as a sign of female gender, and confirmation of the male / female bird ‘parents’. The female birdman is matched by the female komari on the right ear of the statue, and the male on the left by a paddle on the left ear – a symbol of male authority.
  • A rounded shape near the lower part of the right birdman, possibly the egg the male chick hatched from. Another possibility is the ring clutched in the two birdmen’s arms has been re-imagined as an egg.
  • Faint indications of fingers around the navel, which may have once been more prominent, but later removed. It’s hoped the imaging carried out by the University of Southampton’s Archaeological Computing Research Group will open new debate on the significance of the engravings of Hoa Hakananai’a.

    The photogrammetry model was created with Agisoft PhotoScan software and analysed in MeshLab; the RTIs were made and viewed with open source software produced by Universidade do Minho and Cultural Heritage Imaging, using equipment funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council.

    Past Horizons. 2013. “Hoa Hakananai’a – Rapa Nui statue tells a new story”. Past Horizons. Posted: April 12, 2013. Available online:

  • Friday, May 17, 2013

    Traditional owners protect their own cultural treasures

    A partnership involving Wajarri Traditional Owners and two archaeologists from the University of Western Australia is seeing sites of extraordinary cultural and archaeological significance investigated and documented in Western Australia’s remote Weld Range.

    Cultural importance of ochre mines

    The 60km-long range in the Murchison – about 600km north-east of Perth – is home to the National Heritage-listed Wilgie Mia and Little Wilgie ochre mines and known to contain at least 18 more sites of critical cultural importance.

    They include ecologically diverse hunting and camping grounds, waterholes, rock shelters, law grounds, specialist seed-gathering places, burial grounds, quarry sites, rock-art sites (often dominated by hand stencils of women and children) and stone arrangements, including one used to teach young boys undergoing initiation how to navigate by the stars.

    “These places present a rare insight into past lifeways, communication, trade and marriage networks as well as the underlying cosmology of a living culture,” archaeologist, Project Co-ordinator and UWA Masters student Viviene Brown said.

    Wajarri Traditional Owners have worked closely for several years with archaeologists from UWA’s Eureka Archaeological Research and Consulting Centre to gather site data but there is little official record so far of the cultural and archaeological treasures they have uncovered.

    Research Project Director Dr Vicky Winton said a key goal of the federally-funded Weld Range Web of Knowledge project was to produce a cultural heritage management plan for prospective land users to ensure a collective approach to heritage management rather than the current piecemeal approach. The project would also foster the archaeological recording and reporting skills of Wajarri Traditional Owners to enable them to secure better heritage outcomes.

    Engaged in active recording of cultural heritage

    “This is their heritage and they are deeply committed to its protection,” Ms Brown said.

    Wajarri Traditional Owner Colin Hamlett said the project was important for all Australians, particularly future generations.

    “When I was at school they were teaching us about other country’s culture and language, but people in Australia should be learning about Australia and the history of traditional Aboriginal people,” Mr Hamlett said. “We thank UWA’s Eureka group for making this possible.”

    UWA Eureka centre Director Professor Joe Dortch said he was excited to see the continuing partnership between the University and Wajarri Traditional Owners strengthened by the Federal Government’s Indigenous Heritage Program.

    “The Weld Range Web of Knowledge Project shows how archaeologists and traditional owners, by working closely together, can produce excellent results in both cultural heritage management and research.”

    The Indigenous Heritage Program – administered by the Federal Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities – has granted Ms Brown, Dr Winton and a core group of Wajarri Traditional Owners $229,800 over three years, including funding for three 11-day field trips.

    Past Horizons. 2013. “Traditional owners protect their own cultural treasures”. Past Horizons. Posted: April 11, 2013. Available online:

    Thursday, May 16, 2013

    Maya Long Count calendar and European calendar linked using carbon-14 dating

    The Maya are famous for their complex, intertwined calendric systems, and now one calendar, the Maya Long Count, is empirically calibrated to the modern European calendar, according to an international team of researchers.

    "The Long Count calendar fell into disuse before European contact in the Maya area," said Douglas J. Kennett, professor of environmental archaeology, Penn State.

    "Methods of tying the Long Count to the modern European calendar used known historical and astronomical events, but when looking at how climate affects the rise and fall of the Maya, I began to question how accurately the two calendars correlated using those methods."

    The researchers found that the new measurements mirrored the most popular method in use, the Goodman-Martinez-Thompson (GMT) correlation, initially put forth by Joseph Goodman in 1905 and subsequently modified by others. In the 1950s scientists tested this correlation using early radiocarbon dating, but the large error range left open the validity of GMT.

    "With only a few dissenting voices, the GMT correlation is widely accepted and used, but it must remain provisional without some form of independent corroboration," the researchers report in today's (April 11) issue of Scientific Reports.

    A combination of high-resolution accelerator mass spectrometry carbon-14 dates and a calibration using tree growth rates showed the GMT correlation is correct.

    The Long Count counts days from a mythological starting point. The date is comprised of five components that combine a multiplier times 144,000 days – Bak'tun, 7,200 days – K'atun, 360 days – Tun, 20 days – Winal, and 1 day – K'in separated, in standard notation, by dots.

    Archaeologists want to place the Long Count dates into the European calendar so there is an understanding of when things happened in the Maya world relative to historic events elsewhere. Correlation also allows the rich historical record of the Maya to be compared with other sources of environmental, climate and archaeological data calibrated using the European calendar.

    The samples came from an elaborately carved wooden lintel or ceiling from a temple in the ancient Maya city of Tikal, Guatemala, that carries a carving and dedication date in the Maya calendar. This same lintel was one of three analyzed in the previous carbon-14 study.

    Researchers measured tree growth by tracking annual changes in calcium uptake by the trees, which is greater during the rainy season.

    The amount of carbon-14 in the atmosphere is incorporated into a tree's incremental growth. Atmospheric carbon-14 changes through time, and during the Classic Maya period oscillated up and down.

    The researchers took four samples from the lintel and used annually fluctuating calcium concentrations evident in the incremental growth of the tree to determine the true time distance between each by counting the number of elapsed rainy seasons. The researchers used this information to fit the four radiocarbon dates to the wiggles in the calibration curve. Wiggle-matching the carbon-14 dates provided a more accurate age for linking the Maya and Long Count dates to the European calendars.

    These calculations were further complicated by known differences in the atmospheric radiocarbon content between northern and southern hemisphere.

    "The complication is that radiocarbon concentrations differ between the southern and northern hemisphere," said Kennett. "The Maya area lies on the boundary, and the atmosphere is a mixture of the southern and northern hemispheres that changes seasonally. We had to factor that into the analysis."

    The researchers results mirror the GMT European date correlations indicating that the GMT was on the right track for linking the Long Count and European calendars.

    Events recorded in various Maya locations "can now be harmonized with greater assurance to other environmental, climatic and archaeological datasets from this and adjacent regions and suggest that climate change played an important role in the development and demise of this complex civilization," the researchers wrote.

    EurekAlert. 2013. “Maya Long Count calendar and European calendar linked using carbon-14 dating”. EurekAlert. Posted: April 11, 2013. Available online:

    Wednesday, May 15, 2013

    Last desert nomads defy a raging sandstorm

    Image: Michele Palazzi, Gone with the Dust #02, 2012)

    The future of these children is as unclear as the stormy landscape they're playing in. Captured in the Gobi desert in Ömnögovi province in the south of Mongolia, the children are from one of the last families still to follow an ancient nomadic lifestyle.

    Titled Gone with the Dust #02, this photograph has won Michele Palazzi this year's Environmental Photographer of the Year Award. He received his £5000 prize yesterday at a ceremony at the Royal Geographical Society in London.

    Palazzi took the winning photograph during a sandstorm on his second day with the family last year: they agreed to let him live with them for awhile if he helped them look after their herd of camels. When the storm blew up, Palazzi says, the adults ran out of the tent to gather the camels, but the children took the chance to play in the wind.

    The photographer travelled to Mongolia to document the nomadic culture that is disappearing in the face of the country's rapid modernisation. In particular, the activities of foreign mining companies are threatening the nomads' way of life, for example by using up water they need to survive. The biggest business is coal mining, and dust from these mines covers pasture, making it hard to graze camels and horses. Making matters worse, a huge copper and gold mine is soon to open too. Many nomads have little choice but to move elsewhere or go to work in the mines themselves.

    An exhibition with a collection of the environmental, natural and social-themed photographs from the competition will be on display at the Royal Geographical Society until 3 May. It then moves to Grizedale Forest Visitor Centre in Cumbria, UK, from 25 May to 1 September, before going on show at the premises of the award's sponsors, the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management in London.

    Sekar, Sandhya. 2013. “Last desert nomads defy a raging sandstorm”. New Scientist. Posted: April 10, 2013. Available online:

    Tuesday, May 14, 2013

    Indian Culture: Traditions and Customs of India

    The culture of India is among the world's oldest, reaching back about 5,000 years. Many sources describe it as "Sa Prathama Sanskrati Vishvavara" — the first and the supreme culture in the world. India is a very diverse country, and different regions have their own distinct cultures. Language, religion, food and the arts are just some of the various aspects of Indian culture. Here is a brief overview of the culture of India.


    India has 28 states and seven territories, and each has at least one official language. While the national languages are Hindi and English, there are about 22 official languages and nearly 400 living languages spoken in various parts of the country. Most of the languages of India belong to two families, Aryan and Dravidian.


    India is identified as the birthplace of Hinduism and Buddhism. A huge majority — 84 percent — of the population identifies as Hindu. There are many variations of Hinduism, and four predominant sects — Shaiva, Vaishnava, Shakteya and Smarta.

    About 13 percent of Indians are Muslim, making it one of the largest Islamic nations in the world. Christians and Sikhs make up a small percentage of the population, and there are even fewer Buddhists and Jains.


    Indian cuisine boasts Arab, Turkish and European influences. It is known for its large assortment of dishes and its liberal use of herbs and spices. Cooking styles vary from region to region.

    Wheat, Basmati rice and pulses with chana (Bengal gram) are important staples of the Indian diet. The food is rich with curries and spices, including ginger, coriander, cardamom, turmeric, dried hot peppers, and cinnamon, among others. Chutneys — thick condiments and spreads made from assorted fruits and vegetables such as tamarind and tomatoes and mint, cilantro and other herbs — are used generously in Indian cooking.

    Many Hindus are vegetarians, but lamb and chicken are common in main dishes for non-vegetarians.

    Much of Indian food is eaten with fingers or bread used as utensils. There is a wide array of breads served with meals, including naan, a leavened, oven-baked flatbread, and bhatoora, a fried, fluffy flatbread common in North India and eaten with chickpea curry.


    The most well-known example of Indian architecture is the Taj Mahal, built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan to honor his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal. It combines elements from Islamic, Persian, Ottoman Turkish and Indian architectural styles. India also has many ancient temples.


    India is well known for its film industry, which is based in Mumbai and is often referred to as Bollywood. The country began as a major producer of movies in the 1930s. Today the films are known for their elaborate singing and dancing and Bollywood produces more films per year than Hollywood.

    Indian dance has a tradition of more than 2,000 years. The major classical dance traditions — Bharata Natyam, Kathak, Odissi, Manipuri, Kuchipudi, Mohiniattam and Kathakali — draw on themes from mythology and literature and have rigid presentation rules.


    Indian clothing is closely identified with the colorful silk saris worn by many of the country’s women. The traditional clothing for men is the dhoti, an unstitched piece of cloth about 5 yards long that is tied around the waist and legs. Men also wear a kurta, a loose shirt that is worn about knee-length. For special occasions, men wear a sherwani, which is a long coat that is buttoned up to the collar and down to the knees.

    Customs and celebrations

    The country celebrates Republic Day (Jan. 26), Independence Day (Aug. 15) and Mahatma Gandhi's Birthday (Oct. 2). There are also a number of Hindu festival that are celebrated, including Diwali, a five-day festival known as the festival of lights and marks a time of home-based family celebrations.

    Zimmermann, Kim Ann. 2013. “Indian Culture: Traditions and Customs of India”. Live Science. Posted: April 10, 2013. Available online:

    Monday, May 13, 2013

    Research holds revelations about an ancient society's water conservation, purification

    University of Cincinnati research at the ancient Maya site of Medicinal Trail in northwestern Belize is revealing how populations in more remote areas – the hinterland societies – built reservoirs to conserve water and turned to nature to purify their water supply. Jeffrey Brewer, a doctoral student in the University of Cincinnati's Department of Geography, will present his findings on April 11, at the Association of American Geographers' annual meeting in Los Angeles.

    Brewer's research, titled "Hinterland Hydrology: Mapping the Medicinal Trail Community, Northwest Belize," continues a UC exploration of the ancient Maya civilization that has spanned decades. The site for Brewer's research, which was primarily occupied during the Classic Period (AD 250-900), functioned as a rural architectural community on the periphery of the major ancient Maya site of La Milpa.

    Brewer says this smaller, remote settlement lacks the monumental architecture and population density typically associated with the major Maya sites, but shows similar, smaller-scale slopes, artificial terraces and water reservoirs that would have been utilized for farming and water management.

    Brewer 's discovery of artificial reservoirs – topographical depressions that were lined with clay to make a water-tight basin – addressed how the Maya conserved water from the heavy rainfall from December to spring, which got them through the region's extreme dry spells that stretched from summer to winter. "They also controlled the vegetation directly around these reservoirs at this hinterland settlement," says Brewer. "The types of lily pads and water-borne plants found within these basins helped naturally purify the water. They knew this, and they managed the vegetation by these water sources that were used for six months when there was virtually no rainfall."

    Without that system, Brewer says the smaller, more remote settlement would have been more dependent on the larger Maya sites that ran a larger water conservation system.

    Brewer has conducted research at the site since 2006, including spending two years of intensive surveying and mapping of the region. Future research on the project will involve the completion of computerized mapping of up to 2,000 points of topography – distances and elevations of the region in relation to water sources, population and structures. Brewer says he also wants to continue exploring the construction and management of these hinterland water systems and, if possible, gain a better understanding of what knowledge about them might have passed back and forth between settlements.

    Funding for the research project was supported by the Charles Phelps Taft Research Center in the McMicken College of Arts and Sciences and UC International.

    David M. Hyde, professor of anthropology at Western State Colorado University, was secondary researcher on the project.

    The Association of American Geographers (AAG) is a nonprofit scientific and educational society that is dedicated to the advancement of geography. The annual meeting features more than 6,000 presentations, posters, workshops and field trips by leading scholars, experts and researchers in the fields of geography, environmental science and sustainability.

    Brewer is presenting at a conference session that focuses on geospatial and geotechnical tools and methods that can be used to address questions of archaeological significance.

    EurekAlert. 2013. “Research holds revelations about an ancient society's water conservation, purification”. EurekAlert. Posted: April 9, 2013. Available online:

    Sunday, May 12, 2013

    Do you get what you pay for? It depends on your culture

    Consumers from less individualistic cultures are more likely to judge the quality of a product by its price, according to a new study in the Journal of Consumer Research.

    "Culture influences the tendency to use the price of a product to judge its quality. Although price-quality judgments are made by consumers across cultures, less individualistic consumers (Koreans, Japanese, Indians, Chinese) rely more on price to judge quality than do individualists (Americans, British, French, Canadians, Australians)," write authors Ashok K. Lalwani (Indiana University) and Sharon Shavitt (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign).

    Less individualistic consumers have a holistic thinking style and are therefore more likely to see things as interconnected and to find relationships between various product attributes. Individualists, in contrast, have an analytic thinking style and tend to focus on separating and distinguishing between product attributes and less on the relationships between them.

    In a series of studies, consumers were encouraged to think holistically (versus analytically). Those from less individualistic cultures were more likely to use price to judge the quality of products as diverse as paper towels, shaving cream, hand soap, bicycles, and watches.

    These findings help to identify viable target markets for companies with higher prices. Advertisements or in-store contests inviting consumers to focus on background images or to identify interconnections in a larger picture should make consumers think more holistically and rely more on price as a signal for quality.

    "Because less individualistic consumers are more likely to use the price of a product to infer its quality, they may represent a better prospective market for higher-priced brands, particularly when brands compete on the basis of quality. Although consumers around the world are responsive to deals and price-reductions, competing largely on the basis of lower price may be less effective for collectivistic markets, particularly when launching new brands or promoting brands whose prices are not well known," the authors conclude.

    EurekAlert. 2013. “Do you get what you pay for? It depends on your culture”. EurekAlert. Posted: April 9, 2013. Available online:

    Saturday, May 11, 2013

    Nunalleq: The Yupiit and the Arctic World

    Nunalleq: The Yupiit and the Arctic World shows the results of a partnership between a team of archaeologists from the University of Aberdeen, in north east Scotland and the Yup’ik village of Quinhagak in western Alaska.

    The coastline in Quinhagak is rapidly being washed away as a result of global warming. The Quinhagak community, fearing that its heritage would be lost, asked University of Aberdeen archaeologists to conduct a rescue dig. Within hours of starting digging, archaeologists located a prehistoric village site which was falling into the sea.

    The old village

    The site was named ‘Nunalleq’ by village elders, meaning ‘the old village’ in Yup’ik. Nunalleq is a winter village site dating from 1350-1650 AD. The permafrost has preserved tens of thousands of rarely seen artefacts from wood and other organic materials, and the collections ranks as one the largest and best-preserved ever recovered from the north.

    The exhibition’s curator and director of the archaeological excavation, Dr Rick Knecht, said: ‘This is an opportunity to break some new ground in terms of museum partnerships and outreach with indigenous communities in the north. We began this project at the village’s request because rising sea levels are eroding the sites and objects like entire masks were washing up on area beaches.’

    The Nunalleq dig was guided by traditional history, with Yup’ik culture bearers sharing their knowledge with the archaeologists to interpret the discoveries made on site, and archaeologists sharing their data about the site with the village.

    Star objects from Nunalleq include Yupi’k masks, intricately carved wooden dolls, and ivory carvings such as a tiny figurine of a palraiyuk: a monster from Yup’ik legend which was said to have lurked in rivers and lakes in ancient times.

    These new finds, on display for the first time, are shown together with material from the University of Aberdeen’s rich collection of ethnographic material from the Arctic, illustrating the day-to-day lifestyle, housing, diet, clothing, games and art of people in Alaska half a millennium ago.

    On temporary loan

    The material from Nunalleq is owned by the Qanirtuuq Corporation (owned and operated by the people of Quinhagak) and is on temporary loan to the University of Aberdeen. After the items from the archaeological dig have been conserved, catalogued and analyzed, they will return to Quinhagak with the intention of exhibiting them in the village.

    Past Horizons. 2013. “Nunalleq: The Yupiit and the Arctic World”. Past Horizons. Posted: april 9, 2013. Available online:

    Friday, May 10, 2013

    Ur Project confirms massive building complex in southern Iraq

    In what is now called Iraq some five thousand years ago some of the earliest civilisations were born. It is the land of great cities such as Ur and Babylon, home to the Sumerians, who are credited with one of the earliest formal scripts as well as organised and controlled urban living, and the later Babylonians, whose trading and military skills forged a mighty empire.

    Beneath the arid sands of Iraq

    Priceless information about mankind’s past still lies concealed beneath the landscape in the ‘tells’ – earth mounds – that are the remains of ancient towns and villages.

    Iraq has a proud tradition of valuing and researching this unique heritage, but war has taken its toll. The image of the country’s ancient heritage has now sadly become associated with looting and destruction. Local experts have been working in isolation, struggling to stop pillaging, with little opportunity to benefit from interaction with the global community. But the time has come, where at last it is becoming possible to move forwards once more.

    A new age of discovery

    The Ur Region Archaeology Project has put together a team of Iraqi and international expertise to begin a new age of discovery, using the latest techniques to unveil and interpret a shared heritage.

    The team, directed by Professor Stuart Campbell, Dr Jane Moon and Robert Killick, has already discovered a remarkable new structure. First spotted from satellite remote sensed images, the building complex is thought to be an administrative centre serving one of the world’s earliest cities.

    After carrying out geophysical survey and trial excavations at the site of Tell Khaiber the team confirmed that the size of the complex measured around 80 metres square – roughly the size of a football pitch. It is made up of an arrangement of rooms around a large courtyard and lies only 20km from Ur itself.

    The team contain the first British archaeologists to excavate in Southern Iraq since the late 1980s, working close to the ancient city of Ur, where Sir Leonard Woolley discovered the fabulous ‘Royal Tombs’ in the 1920s.

    Professor Campbell said: “This is a breathtaking find and we feel privileged to be the first to work at this important site. The surrounding countryside, now arid and desolate, was the birthplace of cities and of civilization about 5,000 years ago and home to the Sumerians and the later Babylonians.”

    One of the most striking finds at the site to date, is a clay plaque, 9cm high, showing a worshipper approaching a sacred place. He is wearing a long robe with fringe down the front opening.

    “It has been off-limits to international archaeologists for many decades so the opportunity of re-engaging with the study of the earliest cities is a truly exciting one,” said Professor Campbell.

    The team provisionally date the site to around 2,000 BC, the time of the sack of the city and the fall of the last Sumerian royal dynasty, based on the finds recovered and suggest the structure is probably connected to the administration of Ur.

    A wider study

    The team aim to analyse plant and animal remains found at the site to help reconstruct environmental and economic conditions in the region 4,000 years ago.

    Marshy conditions are thought to have prevailed, with the head of the Gulf being much further north, so that maritime trading was possible in order to obtain vital natural resources from India and the Arabian peninsula.

    Professor Campbell who has now returned from Iraq, added: “As well as offering unparalleled opportunities for redeveloping research in one of the most important areas of archaeology in the world, the project is also building partnerships with local practitioners and institutions.

    “The aim is to help rebuild capacity in archaeological expertise and heritage management, working alongside members of Iraq’s State Board for Antiquities and Heritage, and to address the 20-year isolation from the international community.”

    Past Horizons. 2013. “Ur Project confirms massive building complex in southern Iraq”. Past Horizons. Posted: April 8, 2013. Available online:

    Thursday, May 9, 2013

    First Tests of Old Patent Medicine Remedies from a Museum Collection

    What was in Dr. F. G. Johnson's French Female Pills and other scientifically untested elixirs, nostrums and other quack cures that were the only medicines available to sick people during the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries?

    Scientists provided a glimpse today based on an analysis of a museum collection of patent medicines used in turn-of-the-century America. It was part of the 245th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society, the world's largest scientific society, which is being held here this week.

    Mark Benvenuto, Ph.D., who headed the study, explained that hundreds of untested products were sold in stores, by mail order or in traveling medicine shows during the patent medicine era. The products were called "patent medicines" not because they had been granted a government patent, but from an unrelated term that originated in 17th century England.

    "This was an era long before the controlled clinical trials and federal regulations that ensure the safety and effectiveness of the medicines we take today," Benvenuto explained. "Many patent medicines had dangerous ingredients, not just potentially toxic substances like arsenic, mercury and lead, but cocaine, heroin and high concentrations of alcohol."

    The samples came from the collection of the Henry Ford Museum, in Dearborn, Mich. The museum houses artifacts celebrating American inventors of various items, including planes, cars, trains, machines, furniture and more. The 50 patent medicines in the analysis were among hundreds in the museum's Health Aids collection. The results of Benvenuto's study are on display at the museum.

    Undergraduate students working under Benvenuto's supervision performed the bulk of the research. Andrew Diefenbach, a senior and mechanical engineering major at the university, presented the group's research in a talk here today. He got involved in the project as a freshman in Benvenuto's general chemistry course. "I'm interested to see what other comments people have, and what kind of things they may have thought of that we haven't thought of so far that we can use to further the research," Diefenbach said.

    Some of the ingredients in the samples of old patent medicines, including calcium and zinc, actually could have been healthy and are mainstays in modern dietary supplements, said Benvenuto. He is with the University of Detroit Mercy. But others were clearly dangerous. Analysis of Dr. F. G. Johnson's French Female Pills, for instance, revealed iron, calcium and zinc. But the nostrum also contained lead, which is potentially toxic. Others contained mercury, another potentially toxic heavy metal, and arsenic.

    Benvenuto explained that the presence of heavy metals may have been due to contamination. On the other hand, there actually was a rationale for including some of them. Arsenic and mercury were mainstays for treatment of syphilis, for instance.

    Science Daily. 2013. “First Tests of Old Patent Medicine Remedies from a Museum Collection”. Science Daily. Posted: April 7, 2013. Available online:

    Wednesday, May 8, 2013

    The Bennachie colonists rise again

    Bennachie Landscapes’ project is helping bind together a community that surrounds the north east Scottish mountain of Bennachie. The archaeological investigations are being conducted by the University of Aberdeen along with the Bailies of Bennachie, a local community group.

    A people of dubious morals

    Described in accounts at the time as possessing dubious morals and backwards ways, the archaeological dig, aims to provide a more balanced assessment about how the community lived.

    The ‘commonty’ (common land) of Bennachie was settled by these people sometime between 1801 and the 1830s.

    “They weren’t popular with some people because they were effectively living rent-free on ground that was supposed to be communal”, said University of Aberdeen archaeologist Dr Jeff Oliver, who is coordinating the dig.

    “Accounts describe them as a marginal community ‘on the edge’ scratching a living from the slope of Bennachie – a harsh, nutrient impoverished landscape. Eventually they became associated with a story of resistance against the local lairds who eventually seized the commonty for themselves in 1859 using the courts in London. After this the colonists effectively became tenants.

    The first anecdotes of the colonists were told in Alexander Inkson McConnochie’s book, Bennachie, and in it the colonists were painted as a set of rather odd set of characters with dubious morals and backward ways.

    Dr Jeff Oliver continues,“Our working theory is they received a lot of bad press from some of the neighbouring locals – and all sorts of slanderous things were said about them, probably because they weren’t initially paying rent. However what may be more accurate is that they were very similar to other agricultural communities of the time and this study will help to provide a more nuanced assessment of this.”

    A growing respect

    Their dubious reputation slowly shifted to one of admiration and respect.

    “The Bennachie colonists are a particularly fascinating group because there is a reasonably good archive of information written by various historical commentators – but of course not by the settlers themselves – so working closely with our community collaborators is a big part of our work and we will be comparing the written accounts with what the archaeology reveals.” explained Oliver.

    The known story of Bennachie is short but fascinating, with the first colonists related to the Esson family, setting up home around 1800; by 1850 there were about 55 people. The colony broke down slowly after the commonty was divided in 1859 by the neighbouring estates.  The colony went to Leslie of Balquhain who charged rents and was responsible for evicting many tenants for refusing to pay rent. And there were apparently on-going tensions between the group and the surrounding estates. In one story the local henchman of the Balquhain estate are said to have come and burned one of the crofters out of his house.

    Most of the colonists were gone by the 1870s, with the notable exception of dyker George Esson, who lived on the hill until his death in the 1930s.

    A peoples past

    Working with the Bailies of Bennachie, the University of Aberdeen team is undertaking surveys and excavations of the colony site to provide a ‘micro history’ of life on the hill.

    “The conflict between tenants and landlords and people being removed from their land is an important theme in 18th and 19th century Scottish history,” explained Dr Oliver. “Our work at Bennachie provides an important and new connection to this because we know much less about these kinds of tensions within the northeast.

    The research is especially important because it is being carried out with the local community. An important part of the project is engaging members of the public who are passionate about history and about archaeology.

    What the group hope to achieve is to take archaeology out of the ivory tower and make it more accessible to others.

    Past Horizons. 2013. “The Bennachie colonists rise again”. Past Horizons. Posted: April 6, 2013. Available online:

    Tuesday, May 7, 2013

    Vikings flaunted foreign bling

    Viking women adorned themselves with what had been more everyday objects abroad. The women can be compared with today’s fashionistas.

    Many women today might like to signal status and taste with exorbitantly priced imported handbags or watches. Over a thousand years ago our ancestors were doing the same thing – with different items.

    Hanne Lovise Aannestad at the University of Oslo’s Museum of Cultural History is getting her doctorate on the subject of imported objects found in Viking graves in the 800s and early 900s.

    In those days it was trendy here in the North to take ordinary objects from distant lands and convert them into jewellery and decorations.

    “Look at this buckle, for instance,” says Aannestad, holding up a well-worn gold medallion from the 9th century excavated in Østfold County.

    “It depicts two animals and on the reverse side are the remnants of two fasteners. I think it was once a mounting for a horse harness. One of the fasteners is nearly worn right off, and as I interpret it the other is a secondary fastener which was added when this was remade into jewellery.”

    What once decorated a horse’s chest ended up gracing the breast of a Viking woman.

    “I think this was an intentional transformation. People felt it was important to signal membership in a social class that had access to things from abroad. This gave them status,” says Aannestad.

    Viking raids escalated in the 800s. The spoils poured into Scandinavia from the British Isles, the Continent and from the Baltic region.

    Participation in such voyages of trade and plunder gave status in a warrior society, which Norway was at the time.

    Status objects, then as now, served little purpose if nobody could see them.

    The jewellery that Aannestad has studied looks completely different than the traditional Norse trinkets, which are dominated by animal ornamentation and usually saucer shaped.

    Flashing their riches

    Several kinds of foreign objects have been found in Norwegian Viking graves. Some are intricate and costly, whereas others are more ordinary. The variety of items tell Aannestad about a society undergoing changes:

    “We find exquisite things in the graves of the elite, but also foreign items in the graves of people from other social standing,” she says.

    “I envisage this as a sign of an aspiring class, a class that flaunted their wealth if they had a chance to get hold of it.”

    A Swedish archaeologist called the farmer-tradesman of the Viking Age braggart farmers. The old aristocracy had a traditional foundation for power linked to agriculture and land, but then came a class of nouveau riche people travelling around, trading and plundering. The researcher thinks Viking raids provided a basis for greater social mobility.

    Christian objects on non-Christians

    Aannestad studies objects from South-eastern Norway.

    Many of these are Christian, probably taken from British monasteries raided by the Vikings. The large buckle Aannestad shows us was originally a Celtic cross which had probably been part of a larger altar decoration in a monastery or a church.

    In the heathen North crosses and relics were probably not used in the same way as in England or Ireland.

    “We find altar fittings, relic chests and holy books in heathen graves. I doubt that they were considered Christian objects. They were simply fine things that differed from the jewellery that people had previously,” says Aannestad.

    Were women even more influential than presumed?

    Aannestad has concentrated on jewellery in her analysis so far. So naturally she has studied women’s graves. Men were prone to be buried with foreign swords, spears, belt buckles and the like.

    More men than women are buried with imported objects to accompany them into the afterlife. But so many women were consigned to their graves with foreign riches that Aannestad wonders if society was less traditional than assumed.

    “A lot is unknown about the roles of women, particularly because the written sources we have are from the 1200s. By then we had already established traditions based on Christian ideology. The sources portray the women in the old sagas rather stereotypically – powerful and cunning noblewomen who urge their men into battle,” according to the archaeologist.

    “I think that this material indicates that the roles of women were more wide-ranging. One reason is that there are many rich graves of females at the trading town of Kaupang.”

    Aannestad says that weights and scales are rather common objects in women’s graves from this period. This means that they could have been directly involved in trade.

    Jakobsen, Hanne. 2013. “Vikings flaunted foreign bling”. Science Nordic. Posted: April 3, 2013. Available online:

    Monday, May 6, 2013

    Language by Mouth and by Hand

    Humans favor speech as the primary means of linguistic communication. Spoken languages are so common many think language and speech are one and the same. But the prevalence of sign languages suggests otherwise. Not only can Deaf communities generate language using manual gestures, but their languages share some of their design and neural mechanisms with spoken languages.

    New research by Northeastern University's Prof. Iris Berent further underscores the flexibility of human language and its robustness across both spoken and signed channels of communication.

    In a paper published in PLOS ONE, Prof. Berent and her team show that English speakers can learn to rapidly recognize key structures of American Sign Language (ASL), despite no previous familiarity with this language.

    Like spoken languages, signed languages construct words from meaningless syllables (akin to can-dy in English) and distinguish them from morphemes (meaningful units, similar to the English can-s). The research group examined whether non-signers might be able to discover this structure.

    In a series of experiments, Prof. Berent and her team (Amanda Dupuis, a graduate student at Northeastern University, and Dr. Diane Brentari of the University of Chicago) asked English speakers to identify syllables in novel ASL signs. Results showed that these non-signing adults quickly learned to identify the number of signed syllables (one vs. two), and they could even distinguish syllables from morphemes.

    Remarkably, however, people did not act as indiscriminate general-purpose learners. While they could easily learn to discern the structure of ASL signs, they were unable to do so when presented with signs that were equally complex, but violated the structure of ASL (as well as any known human language).

    The results suggest that participants extended their linguistic knowledge from spoken language to sign language. This finding is significant because it shows that linguistic principles are abstract, and they can apply to both speech and sign. Nonetheless, Dr. Berent explains, language is also constrained, as not all linguistic principles are equally learnable. "Our present results do not establish the origin of these limitations -- whether they only result from people's past experience with English, or from more general design properties of the language system. But regardless of source, language transcends speech, as people can extend their linguistic knowledge to a new modality."

    Science Daily. 2013. “Language by Mouth and by Hand”. Science Daily. Posted: April 3, 2013. Available online:

    Speaking a tonal language (such as Cantonese) primes the brain for musical training

    First strong evidence of bi-directional relationship between music and language

    Non-musicians who speak tonal languages may have a better ear for learning musical notes, according to Canadian researchers.

    Tonal languages, found mainly in Asia, Africa and South America, have an abundance of high and low pitch patterns as part of speech. In these languages, differences in pitch can alter the meaning of a word. Vietnamese, for example, has eleven different vowel sounds and six different tones. Cantonese also has an intricate six-tone system, while English has no tones.

    Researchers at Baycrest Health Sciences' Rotman Research Institute (RRI) in Toronto have found the strongest evidence yet that speaking a tonal language may improve how the brain hears music. While the findings may boost the egos of tonal language speakers who excel in musicianship, they are exciting neuroscientists for another reason: they represent the first strong evidence that music and language – which share overlapping brain structures – have bi-directional benefits!

    The findings are published today in PLOS ONE, an international, peer-reviewed open-access science journal.

    The benefits of music training for speech and language are already well documented (showing positive influences on speech perception and recognition, auditory working memory, aspects of verbal intelligence, and awareness of the sound structure of spoken words). The reverse – the benefits of language experience for learning music – has largely been unexplored until now.

    "For those who speak tonal languages, we believe their brain's auditory system is already enhanced to allow them to hear musical notes better and detect minute changes in pitch," said lead investigator Gavin Bidelman, who conducted the research as a post-doctoral fellow at Baycrest's RRI, supported by a GRAMMY Foundation® grant.

    "If you pick up an instrument, you may be able to acquire the skills faster to play that instrument because your brain has already built up these auditory perceptual advantages through speaking your native tonal language."

    But Bidelman, now assistant professor with the Institute for Intelligent Systems and School of Communication Science & Disorders at the University of Memphis, was quick to dispel the notion that people who speak tonal languages make better musicians. Musicianship requires much more than the sense of hearing and plenty of English-speaking musical icons will put that quick assumption to rest.

    That music and language – two key domains of human cognition – can influence each other offers exciting possibilities for devising new approaches to rehabilitation for people with speech and language deficits, said Bidelman.

    "If music and language are so intimately coupled, we may be able to design rehabilitation treatments that use musical training to help individuals improve speech-related functions that have been impaired due to age, aphasia or stroke," he suggested. Bidelman added that similar benefits might also work in the opposite direction. Musical listening skills could be improved by designing well-crafted speech and language training programs.

    The study

    Fifty-four healthy adults in their mid-20s were recruited for the study from the University of Toronto and Greater Toronto Area. They were divided into three groups: English-speaking trained musicians (instrumentalists) and Cantonese-speaking and English-speaking non-musicians. Wearing headphones in a sound-proof lab, participants were tested on their ability to discriminate complex musical notes. They were assessed on measures of auditory pitch acuity and music perception as well as general cognitive ability such as working memory and fluid intelligence (abstract reasoning, thinking quickly). While the musicians demonstrated superior performance on all auditory measures, the Cantonese non-musicians showed similar performance to musicians on music and cognitive behavioural tasks, testing 15 to 20 percent higher than that of the English-speaking non-musicians.

    Bidelman added that not all tonal languages may offer the music listening benefits seen with the Cantonese speakers in his study. Mandarin, for example, has more "curved" tones and the pitch patterns vary with time – which is different from how pitch occurs in music. Musical pitch resembles "stair step, level pitch patterns" which happen to share similarities with the Cantonese language, he explained.

    Bidelman's research team included Sylvain Moreno, senior scientist with Baycrest's RRI and lead scientist with the Baycrest Centre for Brain Fitness; and Stefanie Hutka, an RRI graduate student and PhD student in the Department of Psychology, University of Toronto.

    The GRAMMY Foundation, which supported the study, works in partnership with its founder The Recording Academy® to bring national attention to important issues such as the value and impact of music and arts education.

    EurekAlert. 2013. “Speaking a tonal language (such as Cantonese) primes the brain for musical training”. EurekAlert. Posted: April 2, 2013. Available online: