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Saturday, June 1, 2013

The Elephant Who Ate Peanuts Around the World!

photo by: C Aeschlimann
If you've stopped by this blog today, there's a very good chance that you're a foreign language enthusiast. Am I right?

If so, you might enjoy this little excerpt from the abstract of a 2003 study out of Standford U.

Have a look at this seemingly innocent sentence: "The elephant ate peanuts." Nothing really notable about this sentence, either in form or content, right?

Here's where it gets interesting, as least to the polyglot-ophiles. To say the sentence, "The elephant ate peanuts":

  • In ENGLISH, we must give the verb a tense.
  • In MANDARIN, the tense is optional, but cannot be included with the verb.
  • In TURKISH, the speaker must mark if the event was witnessed or is hearsay.
  • In RUSSIAN, the verb needs a tense, the elephant needs a gender (but only in past tense!),  and it must be stated whether all or only some of the peanuts were eaten.

And that's not even counting word order and article usage. Yikes! That poor elephant has a lot to keep track of as he travels around the globe, doesn't he? And I'm sure the world travelers out there know how he feels!

From "Sex, Syntax, and Semantics" by Boroditsky, Schmidt, Philipps


  1. I love your blog.....my kids are bilingual in Spanish, and we learned a bit of Russian when we traveled to Kazakhstan! Laura

    1. Russian... yikes! That's one I don't have the courage to attempt, but so neat that your family got a chance to try it out. Any language is a fun language, right?!!! So glad you stopped by, Laura!