10 passionate TED Talks about words and language

TED Talks about words: teddy bear with headphonesTED began in 1984 as a conference where Technology, Entertainment and Design converged. Today it covers a diverse range of topics in more than 100 languages. Not only are TED Talks videos entertaining, informative and thought provoking, but they’re also short (generally 18 minutes or less, with many under 10).

Not surprisingly, the TED Talks that appeal most to me are the ones about words and language. The presenters range from linguists, lexicographers and word nerds to comedians and mathematicians. But they all share one thing in common: a deep-rooted passion for words and the evolution of language.

So, without further ado, here are my top 10 TED Talks about words – listed in order of shortest to longest:

TED Talks about words

Talk nerdy to me

Communications teacher Melissa Marshall brings a clear message to all scientists: We’re fascinated by what you’re doing, so tell us about it – in a way we can understand. In just four minutes, she shares some really powerful tips on how to present complex scientific ideas to a non-scientist audience.

3 ways to speak English

Jamila Lyiscott is a self-declared “tri-tongued orator”. In this fast-paced spoken-word essay “Broken English”, she celebrates three distinct flavours of English ­– how she speaks with her friends, in the classroom and with her parents – and explains what it means to be “articulate”.

Go ahead, make up new words

In this fun, short talk, lexicographer Erin McKean encourages her youthful audience to create new words when the existing ones won’t quite do. She lists out six ways, including compounding, blending and ‘verbing’, to make new words in English in order to make language better at expressing what we actually mean.

Please, please, people. Let’s put the ‘awe’ back in ‘awesome’

Which of the following are awesome? Your sandwich or the Great Pyramids of Giza? A tennis match or the invention of the wheel? Comedian Jill Shargaa gives a hilarious presentation in which she urges us to save the word “awesome” for things that truly inspire awe.

Txtng is killing language. JK!!!

Does texting mean the decline of good writing skills? Linguist John McWhorter suggests that there’s actually much more to texting – both linguistically and culturally – than it seems. And it’s all good news

Who votes for new words? You do!

In this insightful TEDx Talk*, Mignon Fogarty – aka Grammar Girl – describes how language change is a natural, democratic and delightful process. She argues that wanting people to write well and embracing the fluid hodgepodge nature of our language are not mutually exclusive.

What we learned from 5 million books

Google Labs’ Ngram Viewer is a new tool that lets you search for words and ideas in a database of five million books from across centuries. In this entertaining statistical-based presentation, Erez Lieberman Aiden and Jean-Baptiste Michel show us how it works – and reveal a few surprising facts we can learn from 500 billion words.

What makes a word “real”?

In this highly engaging and fast-paced talk, language historian Anne Curzan argues that slang words like ‘hangry,’ ‘defriend’ and ‘adorkable’ fill crucial gaps in the English language – even if they don’t appear in the dictionary. After all, who actually decides which words make it into the hallowed pages and how do they make those choices?

If I should have a daughter…

In spoken word poet Sarah Kay’s endearing talk, she tells the story of her metamorphosis – from a wide-eyed teenager soaking in verse at a poetry club to a teacher connecting kids with the power of self-expression – and gives two powerful performances of “B” and “Hiroshima”.

Changing the world, one story at a time

During this TEDx Talk*, Joanne Harris, author of the critically acclaimed novels Chocolat and Blackberry Wine, discusses the creative and transformative power of words. She demonstrates this by sharing a personal account of how stories can – literally – change lives.

* TEDx Talks are filmed at independently organized TEDx events.

So, which are your favourite TED Talks about words?

(image courtesy of Dan via Freedigitalphotos.net)

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2 comments on “10 passionate TED Talks about words and language
  1. Really useful list Geraldine – I will bookmark it and add these talks to my ever-growing list of ones to watch. Never seem to find the time!

    • Thanks Joanna! I’m a relative latecomer to TED Talks but have watched some really good ones over recent months. I so admire anyone who can stand up in front of a large audience and talk eloquently about their chosen subject. Rather them than me…

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