All posts by Gordon Schoenfeld

I’m an alumni

“I’m an alumni.”

Really? How many of them are you? What was it like being a students?

The forms of this word don’t really have to be difficult. Of course, you could simplify everything and say “one alum, two alums,” but that’s cutting corners. And if you want to sound like an ignoramus, try using “one alum, two alum.”

But here are the true-to-Latin forms:

(or gender neutral)
Singular Alumnus Alumna
Plural Alumni Alumnae

Of course, you are free to do whatever you wish. If you freestyle, though: others might believe that you are no alumnus/alumna from anywhere.

Image source:

ASL, anyone?

As of a couple days ago, I had a random urge* to learn American Sign Language, also known as ‘ASL’. I think it’s really eye-opening to learn a language that is so different from – yet so similar to – spoken languages.

I stumbled on Rochelle Barlow‘s YouTube series Learn ASL in 31 Days, and I find it extremely helpful. Invest 5-10 minutes a day for a month, and you’ll be able to hold a basic conversation!

As for an English to ASL dictionary, I’ve found Handspeak to be the most helpful.

Please share your favorite resources by adding a comment, or by tweeting me back here:

*My inspiration wasn’t entirely out of nowhere… I was compelled by this video:

Hmong language: strange spellings central

The Hmong (pronounced roughly like ‘mung‘) language is spoken by the approximately 2.7 million Hmong people. They are native to southern China and Southeast Asia, but have a sizable diaspora population, particularly in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. Their language has about 8 tones, just as Mandarin Chinese has 4 and Thai has 5.

What’s particularly interesting to me is how the Hmong write their language: they use an adapted version of the Roman alphabet, but in a peculiar way. To mark each syllable with a tone, they add a letter at the end. This letter tag is not pronounced out, but rather just indicates the tone for the whole syllable.

Let’s look at these tone tags in a variety called Hmong Daw. Each of these examples is pronounced identically, except for the tone contour:

Tone Pronunciation Spelling
High ˥ /pɔ́/ ‘ball’ pob
Mid ˧ /pɔ/ ‘spleen’ po
Low ˩ /pɔ̀/ ‘thorn’ pos
High-falling ˥ /pɔ̂/ ‘female’ poj
Mid-rising ˧ /pɔ̌/ ‘to throw’ pov
Low checked (creaky) tone ˩
(phrase final: long low rising ˨)
/pɔ̰̀/ ‘to see’ pom
Mid-falling breathy tone ˧˩ /pɔ̤̂/ ‘grandmother’ pog

A poignant example is the name of the language itself. It is spelled “Hmong” in English, and pronounced accordingly, but the native spelling is “Hmoob”.

Sample sentence from the White Hmong variety:

Yam zoo tshaj plaws mas, nej yuav tsum mus nrhiav nug xyuas saib luag muaj kev pab hom dab tsi nyob ncig ib cheeb tsam ntawm nej.

(Translation: The best thing to do is for you to find people who live in your neighborhood who can help you with different things.)

For comparison: in romanized Chinese you can either put accent marks on top (e.g. rén mín bì) or put tone numbers after the syllable (e.g. ren2 min2 bi4).

Information source:
Image source:

What’s the native language of Ireland called?

Irish. Not Gaelic.

As you can see from reputable sources like Rosetta Stone and Ethnologue, that language is called Irish. Ask an Irish person and (s)he will confirm that.

So where did ‘Gaelic’ come from, you ask? ‘Gaelic’ is the Anglicized version of Irish’s name in Irish: Gaeilge. So when someone says “I got this cool bracelet with a poem written in Gaelic on it!!!!!!1” they are doing the equivalent of saying “I speak Español” or “I can read Ruskiy.”

Want to learn Irish? has Rosetta Stone, Pimsleur Approach, Living Language, and more specifically for the Irish language.

Image source:

Why do we shake our heads to mean ‘no’

Shaking one’s head left and right is understood as the sign for “no” in most human civilizations. There are a few exceptions where this is not the case (including some cultures in Southeastern Europe) but by and large, shaking one’s head means “no”.


If you spend time around babies, you might be able to intuit the answer.

Babies’ lives are pretty simple: almost everything they do revolves around eating, sleeping, and pooping. The second and third they can do at their own leisure, but eating requires communication to the caregiver about when to start and when to stop.

When the baby wants to refuse food, what does it do? The baby turns its head from side to side. It is this natural motion that has become near-universal for humans to show refusal or disagreement.

The More You Know

Image source: