Beyond Words - Language Blog

5 Must-See TED Talks on Language

The 2010 Technology Entertainment Design conference wrapped up on February 13, in Long Beach, California, and the new talks are just now making it online. If you’re not familiar with the conferences, they started in 1984, and showcase some of the world’s most engaging thinkers in short talks about specific topics.

Before we have time enjoy all the new talks in search of the next great language moments at TED, we thought we could at least round up five of the most thoughtful, interesting, and entertaining talks from past TED conferences. The following talks approach the subject of language from diverse fields including linguistics, biology, and digital media.

1. Wade Davis on endangered cultures

National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, Wade Davis, discusses the erosion of the ethnosphere in this TED talk from 2007. He proposes that language loss may be the greatest indicator of weakening global cultural diversity. To use Davis’ own words, the experience of watching this talk might be like “being shot out of a rifle barrel lined with Baroque paintings and landing on a sea of electricity.” And even if it’s not that, it is definitely one of the most entertaining TED talks about language and culture currently available.

2. Erin McKean redefines the dictionary

Editor-in-chief of the American Heritage dictionary, Erin McKean, describes how the role of lexicogrophers is really to “fish” for new words rather than to “direct traffic” on questions of language. In this talk, McKean discusses the nature of the bound printed dictionary and how digital technologies can potentially improve upon the dictionary’s centuries-old form. If you enjoy what you see and hear, visit her online dictionary: Wordnik.

3. Steven Pinker on language and thought

Steven Pinker gives viewers a crash course in simple grammar and then proceeds to extrapolate on the not-so-simple topics of human intelligence, human language, and indirect human verbal communication. Most importantly, though, viewers get to hear Pinker tell jokes about guacamole.

4. Susan Savage-Rumbaugh on apes

Susan Savage-Rumbaugh comments on the nature-versus-nurture debates surrounding language development in animal species through her studies of the bonobo ape. Savage-Rumbaugh, a distinguished primatologist, shows TED viewers how bonobos may respond to language and learn language much like humans do.

5. James Geary, metaphorically speaking

James Geary, aphorist and author, speaks on the complex topic of the metaphor in spoken, written, and symbolic language. Watch as Geary shakes up ideas about the metaphor—possibly even giving viewers a new appreciation for Elvis Presley as a wordsmith.

Are there any TED talks about language and translation you thought we excluded? Let us know in the comments for this post.