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Language

Languages allow us to express ourselves, create change, and share knowledge with people around the world and across time. Our Harvard experts look at the history, power, and science behind these systems of communication.

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Explore Harvard's language programs

Why words matter

  • Language of addiction

    When confronting addiction, the power of language is important to keep in mind, specialists say.

  • Fat shaming harms health

    Students are acquiring the tools to help change the conversation around weight and health.

  • Respecting pronouns

    What are the best ways to share and respect pronouns, at work and beyond?

  • Inclusive language

    Students are working to jump-start conversations on the importance of inclusive language in the sciences as part of the ongoing fight for transgender rights.

  • Changes to our writing

    Researchers found that when people use predictive text systems—programs that suggest words or phrases—their writing becomes more succinct, more predictable, and less colorful.

  • Accurate naming

    In 2020, the Entomological Society of America voted to remove “gypsy moth” and “gypsy ant” from a list of common names used to refer to insects.

Preserving languages

Linguist and Radcliffe Fellow Roberto Zariquiey explores the challenges and joys of studying a language that has very few speakers, and how the conversation around “dying” languages should be reframed.

Learn more about Roberto’s work


Inupiaq

Today, there are 100-150 primary speakers of Inupiaq, an Alaska Native language, but Joan Naviyuk Kane has taken up her grandmother’s fight to teach the language.

Explore Joan’s work

Strings with knots hanging from a hoop

An example of a khipu

Incan khipus

Harvard researchers are using advanced pattern identification techniques to decipher khipus, knotted cord devices used for Inca record keeping, which may help decode the ancient language of the Incas.

Yuchi

When Richard Grounds began his work there were fewer than two dozen fluent, first-language speakers of Yuchi, but that’s all changing thanks to his Euchee/Yuchi Language Project.

Quechua

Américo Mendoza-Mori, director of Harvard’s Latinx Studies Working Group, co-founded The Quechua Alliance, a coalition that hosts annual gatherings to promote Quechua and Andean culture throughout the U.S.

Gullah

Gullah, or Geechee, was created by enslaved people brought from West Africa to Charleston, S.C., who needed a common language to communicate. It allowed them to speak freely, by way of encoded speech, in the presence of those holding them in bondage.

Many common words or phrases are rooted in the Gullah language: yam (sweet potato), bubba (brother), gumbo (okra), kumbaya (come by here).

Explore Sunn m’Cheaux’s work

Nahuatl

Nahuatl was the lingua franca of the Aztecs, who ruled Mexico between the 14th and 16th centuries. It is still spoken by nearly 1.5 million Mexicans and has a growing Harvard study group dedicated to it called Nahuatl Notequixpoyohuan or “My Nahuatl Friends.”

Griko

Griko, a language of Greek origins spoken in Salento—part of the “heel” of Italy’s boot—was deemed by the Italian government to be a “language of the backward past” until 1999, when a national law recognized Griko among 12 “historical linguistic minorities” in Italy.

Naxi

One of the last widely used pictographic languages in the world, the written language of the Dongba, an ethnic minority in southwest China, is being digitized by Harvard-Yenching Library and shared with scholars in China to preserve records of the customs, religious practices, and daily life of the Naxi people.

pictographs on parchment

A Naxi manuscript

Life with multiple languages

Researchers are finding benefits to learning a new language, and ways to support young students who are learning English as a second language.


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