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Genuinely interesting stuff you learned at school/university/work

(215 Posts)
MrsHathaway Mon 25-Jul-16 11:26:14

At a tangent from an otherwise rather tedious thread, some of us started talking about the history of the English language.

I did a paper called something like History and Structure of the English Language at university and honestly it didn't feel at all like work. The complicated bits have faded into the dusty corners of my brain, but some interesting snippets have remained within easy grasp.

For example, you can see a lot of the geopolitical history of the British Isles in what we now call English. Very basic words like low numbers (two, three) and natural features (sun, land, water) have their roots in our very earliest history and have scarcely changed since the Stone Age. They're also very similar to their equivalents in languages local at the time - northern European languages like Swedish, German, etc.

Place names come in odd clumps too - there are areas in eg Yorkshire and the Highlands which have very Norse names, and often there will be a geographical boundary between Norse place names and Anglo Saxon place names, such as a wide river or mountain ridge.

French came next, with the Normans in the eleventh century. A lot of our food words come from that period, including beef, pork, salmon, etc.

As English eyes looked further and further overseas we started adding more exotic ingredients to our kitchens and words to our vocabularies. Tomatoes, chocolate!


We're often told that we won't use 90% of what we learn at school or even university, although we don't know which 90%. But I think it's almost always worth learning stuff for its own sake, if only because it's mildly interesting for one day or breaks the ice at one party where you happen to meet your soul mate.

So go on, what snippets have you retained from your years of formal education that are genuinely interesting in their own right? Can be a tiny thing or a major complicated theory, but it must be interesting - at least interesting enough for us to say "well, fancy that".

I'll leave you with this: in Japanese there was no word for "thank you". There were lots of ways of expressing gratitude, but no single expression in the European way. Then the Portuguese came, and suddenly the Japanese were trading with them. They used lots of hand gestures and gradually a kind of pidgin developed to allow them to communicate until there were enough on each side speaking the other's language. But one legacy from that time and that pidgin is a single-word "thank you" in Japanese: arigato. Which you'll notice is remarkably similar to the Portuguese obrigado.

PrincessFiorimonde Mon 25-Jul-16 11:42:21

I just saw your post and think it's an interesting point. I don't have time at the moment to give it the thought that's needed, but bumping for you while I have a think - hope someone a bit more on the ball than me responds in the meantime!

MrsHathaway Mon 25-Jul-16 12:02:16

Thanks Princess.

sashh Mon 25-Jul-16 13:03:40

Tok Pisin is a mix of English and other languages used in Papua New Guinea, it was developed from the local indigenous language and interactions with English speakers and some others.

It is now a language but has some wonderful phrases that are understandable to English users. Give these a go:

Mi nidim dokta

Mi manmeri bilong Briten

iklik box you pull him he cry you push him he cry

oldfella Pili-Pili him bilong Misis Kwin

MrsHathaway Mon 25-Jul-16 13:23:55

Tok Pisin is indeed fabulous.

I'll tell you about Nicaraguan Sign Language later.

LisaMed1 Mon 25-Jul-16 14:17:50

Nothing to add (thicko here) but place marking out of interest

FellOutOfBed2wice Mon 25-Jul-16 14:27:28

My mind has gone totally blank. Going to give this sine thought.

FellOutOfBed2wice Mon 25-Jul-16 14:27:45


sashh Mon 25-Jul-16 15:37:14

I'll tell you about Nicaraguan Sign Language later.

Oh you mean the language that spontaneously developed when Nicaragua opened it's fist school for the deaf after the US embargo forced the country to use audiotoxic antibiotics?

That will be fascinating.

MrsHathaway Mon 25-Jul-16 16:24:06

That's the chap - though purely from a sociolinguistic perspective as international relations baffles me.

But later. Am just back from holiday craft supplied shopping slash Rattata hunting and brain is custard.

MrsHathaway Mon 25-Jul-16 20:47:19

Right, Nicaragua!

In Nicaragua, as in much of the world full stop in fairness, deafness was seen as unfortunate and embarrassing. Deaf people stayed quietly at home within the extended family and couldn't really access anything ever.

Then suddenly a residential school for the deaf was established in 1977.

The children there used the very few signs they'd each used organically at home to make themselves understood. Over time their individual signs mutated into common signs (most natural sign language is very onomatopoeic, for want of a better word) and as a group they added more and more to their collective vocabulary.

It was still fairly rudimentary as languages go (classified as pidgin), but it was natural and useful and validating for all those children who had previously been the equivalent of the madman in the attic.

But what came next was mindblowing. As younger children joined the school, they quickly learned the entire vocabulary of the pidgin, then filled in the grammatical gaps.

What differentiates my speech from my toddler's is partly that he says "Peppa fall down" (with several consonants missing) and I say "Peppa has fallen down". The younger children similarly enriched the pidgin on the fly with markers for number and tense and person and so on. Details of how you do this in sign are a discussion for another day, but what is incredible is that they clearly had these concepts in their minds and were desperately trying to find a way to express them.

At this point most of the children could barely communicate with their teachers, who were using mainly Spanish (intending lipreading) and a little ASL fingerspelling. But they were talking to each other pretty much non stop.

Fortunately the teachers noticed, and in 1986 they invited MIT to come and observe. Linguists everywhere fell over in pure excitement at watching a language develop from basically nothing in under a decade.

EllieQ Mon 25-Jul-16 21:03:31

Post-glacial rebound is something I have remembered from geography classes. During the ice ages, the areas that had been covered by glaciers sunk due to the weight of the ice. When the glaciers melted, the land started to rise again (slowly, obviously).

This is still happening now - Scotland and northern England were covered by glaciers and are still rising, and southern England (not affected by glaciers) is actually slowly sinking.

wanderings Mon 25-Jul-16 21:08:43

That colour is a very small part of the "information" in a picture. A very large amount of what you see is the "black and white" information, with the colour added on, and picked up by separate detectors in your eyes.

Before digital TV, the black/white and colour information were encoded separately on to the TV signal (the colour needing far less space); this is how black and white TV's could still receive the colour broadcast.

Scarydinosaurs Mon 25-Jul-16 21:12:18

OP that is fascinating!

I loved almost everything I learned at college and uni. I love learning. I love being a teacher and learning new things to teach.

My favourite subject ever was Art History- lots of fascinating stories about beautiful and interesting artwork.

The best lesson I ever had was when my teacher did a 'whole history of the world in one lesson'. I learned so much, and it put things into context that I didn't even realise I didn't have the context. I've used things I learned in that lesson almost every year since.

sashh Mon 25-Jul-16 21:13:29

Just to add to MrsHathaway

Some of the linguists investigating were deaf sign language users, they had to be careful not to introduce their own signs (from whichever language) so that the development was left untainted by ASL, BSL or any other SL.

Also the comment in my other post.

If you remember in the 1970s the USA was embargoing Nicaragua - whilst supplying guns - but this meant Nicaragua could not get modern antibiotics. They had access to older drugs which were audiotoxic, ie had the side effect of causing deafness.

If you had a seriously ill child you had a choice of them dying or surviving but being deaf. So you had an explosion in deaf children.

Deafness from other causes was quite rare so these children were not part of a deaf community, they didn't have deaf relatives and nor did their parents.

MrsHathaway Mon 25-Jul-16 21:24:14

Thanks sashh.

Physics and geography are Not My Area so those snippets are of great interest too I always have to look up whether Nicaragua is in Africa or South America and I have forgotten again already.

Before I specialised in linguistics I sat quite a variety of MML-related papers, one of which was the fascinating C 20 German history paper, for which I attended a set of lectures about the economic history of Germany.

I learned that part of the problem with post-war Germany was that 1910 Germany had been an overwhelmingly agricultural economy (the number I remember is 90%) whereas 1920 Germany was heavily industrial and urban. So they basically had to go through a social Industrial Revolution at the same time as war recovery and with no public money available and having large areas of their new industrial centres occasionally occupied or confiscated by the French. No wonder the currency devalued one billion fold in the 1920s until they threw it down the toilet.

FellOutOfBed2wice Mon 25-Jul-16 21:48:48

I have given this some thought and I learnt a lot of cool stuff, now I get to actually thinking about it, but this one came to me while I was putting DD to bed. I learnt about it during A Level Fine Art and produced a project on distortion of realism around it... It's the Hockney-Falco Thesis and it centres around the use of lenses in art.

Wikipedia um it up as The Hockney–Falco thesis is a theory of art history, advanced by artist David Hockney and physicist Charles M. Falco. Both claimed that advances in realism and accuracy in the history of Western art since the Renaissance were primarily the result of optical instruments such as the camera obscura, camera lucida, and curved mirrors, rather than solely due to the development of artistic technique and skill.

Hockney write a book about it that is genuinely fascinating. The one that stands out in my memory most is the way Hockney argues that the mirror and chandelier in Van Eycks Arnolfini Portrait must have been painted using lenses. During the project I even made my own rudimentary lenses to test the theory. It made me a far more realistic painter!

The book Hockney wrote is called Secret Knowledge and there was a BBC documentary of the same name which is on YouTube here.

FellOutOfBed2wice Mon 25-Jul-16 21:50:20

Excuse the typos in my post. Am half asleep!

HarrietSchulenberg Mon 25-Jul-16 22:08:21

It's not quite as impressive or expansive as everyone else's, but my biggest impression from my English Language degree module was that in 1986 there were something like 350 dialects spoken just in Leeds alone.

From school I guess it was the knowledge that there are the same amount of oxygen molecules today as there were a billion years ago. The overall quantity is constant, it's the compounds they form that changes. My teacher told us that every time we breathed in, we'd take in at least one oxygen molecule that Jesus had breathed, but I rapidly worked out that this meant that I must inhaling at least one molecule that Bono had breathed. Made me a bit teenage giddy until someone pointed out that we were also breathing Hitler's oxygen and it all went downhill from there grin.

annandale Mon 25-Jul-16 22:15:59

Great thread.

We studied a particularly dull syllabus in Government and Politics - most of us chose it thinking we were going to do the comparative politics syllabus and learn all about the Kennedys - but in fact I found it fascinating. I particularly like that certainly at that time (30 years ago) Bills become Acts using Norman French. So for non financial bills, the final announcement that the Queen has signed or agreed the Bill into law as an Act is 'La Reine le veult' or 'The Queen wishes it' and for financial bills it's 'La Reine remercie ces bon sujets et aussi le veult' i.e. The Queen thanks her good subjects and also wishes it.

MrsHathaway Mon 25-Jul-16 23:11:16

Ooh super additions.

Appropriately, I am watching Judge John Deed <highbrow> and pondering the theatre of the law and what effect it has on due process.

HopeClearwater Mon 25-Jul-16 23:45:03

MrsHathaway there was a very interesting edition of Word of Mouth on Radio 4 in which they discussed the extreme age of some of our basic words. It may still be on iPlayer.
Great thread smile

HopeClearwater Mon 25-Jul-16 23:46:09

HarrietSchulenberg grin

notagiraffe Mon 25-Jul-16 23:58:58

I learned that the adolescent brain doesn't stop developing until the late twenties. Which explains why people love bungee jumping and muck up their love life and live life as if it was a drama etc throughout their twenties and then suddenly mature around 30. There's a lot of research going on around adolescent brain development right now and it's gripping.

ironrooster Mon 25-Jul-16 23:59:20

So funny you should mention Nicaraguan sign language as I think that's the single most interesting thing I learnt at uni!

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