Monday, October 17, 2016

Are Tomatoes Fruits or Vegetables? Or Both?

When you buy produce at my supermarket, you have to weigh it yourself. I always struggle to find the tomatoes on the scales because the first thing you have to do is choose "fruit" or "vegetable". At the supermarket it's a vegetable, but I remember my father telling me it was a fruit (he's a horticulturalist).

Can it be both? The tomato isn't the problem, it's the terms "fruits" and "vegetables". When the tomato is classified as a fruit, we're considering it as "fruit" in the botanical sense. All botanists agree that the tomato is the fruit of the tomato plant. That's great if you want to grow them in the garden, but terrible once you take them into the kitchen.

The poor old tomato looks pretty lonely in this diagram.
Have you ever eaten a fruit salad with tomatoes in it? Probably not. This is because in terms of taste, tomatoes don't go very well with other fruits.

When cooking, classifying plants by their botanical function is fairly pointless. However, if you classify them according to their culinary function, you'll end up with better meals. This is how the tomato gets classified as a vegetable, along with a number of other botanical fruits that don't taste very good with their fellow fruits.

Additionally, in the US, the tomato is legally classified as a vegetable. In the late 19th century, an importer in New York argued that he was exempt from paying import duty on "foreign vegetables" because his tomatoes were fruits. While "botanically" correct, the Supreme Court didn't favour his smart-arsery and declared the fruit a vegetable for legal purposes.

So, is a tomato a fruit or a vegetable? If you're a botanist, it's a fruit. If you're a chef, it's a vegetable. And if you're a lawyer, it's also a vegetable. Don't even get us started on cucumbers!

Monday, October 10, 2016

Languages in the News: September 2016

Today we're looking back at all the language headlines from September that caught our eye. Let's get straight to it.

There was an interesting article on NPR's website highlighting an interview with John McWhorter where he spoke about the English language's "interesting little wrinkles". You can read the full article here.

The Guardian looked at Miriwoong, an endangered language found in Australia. Today the language is only spoken by a few elders after decades of decline. You can read all about Miriwoong here.

We're obviously huge fans of languages at The Lingua File, and it's always great to hear good news about them. published an article at the start of the month reporting how learning a new language can make you smarter. You can learn about being smarter here.

A language in Corsica was causing controversy this month, and DW reported on it. Nationalists on the French island have demanded that the language have an equal status to that of French. Read about the controversy here.

Slate's Lexicon Valley, one of our favourite blogs, had an interesting story in which Merriam-Webster's Twitter account responded to the author's comments about how "chill" the dictionary was in a sassy and humorous way. Check out the tale here.

Scientific American was looking at how alternative views are replacing Noam Chomsky's work on language learning and universal grammar. Read about it here.

These days it's rare to hear good news about the Syrian refugee crisis. However, four local authorities in Scotland are piloting an English language scheme for Syrian refugees. Read the BBC's story here.

John Rentoul wrote about autological words (words that describe themselves) in The Independent. See some of his favourites and most interesting ones here. had an amusing article on how bloody difficult English must be to learn as a second language. You can see some frustratingly fabulous examples here.

The Telegraph covered the story on recording dolphins having a conversation. That's right. Dolphins were having a good old chinwag. Read about it here.

The Conversation said language could be our "most impressive technological invention". We'd have to agree with them! If you'd like to know why, read the article here.

As we all know, Latin's a "dead" language. Seeker covered how this language actually ended up dead. See for yourself here.

The Irish Times had a great article about Benny Lewis (you may know him from his site and his ongoing quest to learn languages in just three months. Read his story here.

And last but not least, The Financial Times looked at how learning English (as the world's lingua franca) isn't always a good thing. Read about some of the problems here.

That's it for this week. Don't forget to share interesting language stories and articles in the comments below.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Book Club: Words on the Move by John McWhorter

Since I love learning about the intricacies of language and enjoy reading books, it seems only natural that I would love to read books about language. However, many books about language end up being tedious and boring due to an overabundance of technical terminology, or simply feel like an endless list of word-related facts.

Luckily, neither of these things is true of Words on the Move: Why English Won't - and Can't - Sit Still (Like, Literally) by linguist John McWhorter. In this new book, he expertly describes how and why language is constantly changing, and why that's actually a good thing, supported by an arsenal of well-chosen, amusing examples.

Butterflies also always seem to be on the move!
For example, in the first chapter he discusses how words are constantly becoming more personal, in ways that fall into four categories that make up the handy acronym FACE: factuality, acknowledgment, counterexpectation, and easing. While this may initially sound like it would lead to overly technical explanations, McWhorter instead delves into each category by looking at the evolution of individual terms like literally, you know, -ass (as in big-ass) and LOL.

Many of these terms would normally be discounted by English speakers as being unimportant, and perhaps even be considered to have no meaning. However, McWhorter's amusing descriptions show how incredibly meaningful they can be in communication. By the end of the first chapter, my entire perspective on the use of terms like literally had been completely changed. I'm also quite curious to see if I will no longer be annoyed by hearing "improper" use of literally, or whether I'll start using more emoticons now that I've taken more time to consider their usefulness in communication.

Subsequent chapters are equally interesting, such as the second chapter's discussion of how words "ooze" from meaning to meaning based on common implications instead of drifting aimlessly, as we often think. One of my favorite excerpts of the book was the description of how merry, pretzel and bra all evolved from the same source, which seems completely unbelievable.

Other facets of the constantly shifting linguistic landscape covered in the book include the grammaticalization of words (such as how the word like became the suffix -ly), how vowels are on the move just like words, and how new words are created. If you love languages as much as we do here at The Lingua File, then I'm sure you'll find at least one section that captures your attention.

Have you read Words on the Move? If so, let us know what you thought of it in the comments below! If you know of any other great language-related books, feel free to provide your recommendations as well.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Retronyms: Renaming the Past

Languages evolve over time. The words we use change, as does the way we use them. Today I'd like to take a look at retronyms, which are created when we rename something from the past because something newer is now the most common usage of a particular word. Here are a few of the most common reasons for and examples of retronyms.


A reel-to-reel. It was originally known as a tape recorder,
until modern tape recorders came about.
Technology is often responsible for the creation of retronyms. Nowadays almost everything is digital, while previous technology was analogue (without the ue if you're from the US). Before digital technologies, things like clocks and watches were just that, clocks and watches. Now, with the advent of digital clocks and watches, it is common to say an analogue clock or an analogue watch in order to differentiate.

Before email, we simply had mail. Now, you might hear people refer to the sending of letters, cards, and packages as snail mail (as it is much slower than email).

As automatic systems became increasingly common, use of the term manual became necessary. In the UK, most of the cars we drive are manual, but in the US, cars are often automatic, making the distinction necessary.

Landline phones were just phones before we had mobile phones. With smartphones becoming more and more common, are we going to start calling older models dumbphones?


The way we refer to media changes as we develop newer technologies. For example, all films used to have no sound. Once films had sound, those without became silent films or silent movies.

Now that films are almost always in colour, a lot of older films are said to be black and white. Likewise, what was once just animation is often called traditional animation to differentiate it from computer animation.


Anything with a sequel or later numbered version often gets a retronym. For example, the first Star Wars film was originally called just Star Wars. Now it's Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, as Star Wars became the title for the entire series.

Other examples include video consoles and computers. The original PlayStation is often referred to as the PlayStation 1 or PS1 to differentiate it from the three subsequent versions released, numbered 2, 3, and 4, obviously.


Newer versions of things often mean we call the first version the classic version. Remember Coca-Cola's failed attempt at New Coke? Me neither. However, when the company's new version of Coca-Cola failed, they were forced to bring back the old version, which became Coca-Cola Classic or Classic Coke.

Historical Events

I remember studying World War I and World War II in school. However, for the poor souls living through the first of these tragic events, it was just referred to as The Great War, it only became the First World War after we continued to make the same mistakes again. Let's pray there's never a third.


In the UK, we speak British English. Previously, this was known simply as English until it became necessary to differentiate between British, American, and other varieties of English.

These are just a few examples of retronyms. Which are your favourites? Can you think of any possible future examples, such as non-virtual reality, for example? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below.

Monday, September 19, 2016

How Translation Is Like A Puzzle

Just over a year ago, I wrote a post about why I believe translation is a fascinating career. In it, I primarily focused on how my translation career has given me the opportunity to constantly learn about new topics that I never would have learned about otherwise, as well as add diverse terminology to my personal lexicon, related to everything from Mediterranean fish species to industrial machinery.

Last week, I suddenly realized another reason I love translating: sometimes, it's like doing a puzzle! I've always been a puzzle fanatic, from jigsaw puzzles to crossword puzzles. There's something so satisfying about taking different pieces and fitting them together to create a new whole.

In many situations, translations are straightforward, and choosing the right words to convey the source text in the target language is quite simple. However, in some cases, such as a large translation I worked on last week, they can be a bit of a puzzle.

There are many reasons why the translation I was working on last week felt like a puzzle. First of all, the document I was translating was for a translation agency instead of the actual client. While you can often rely on getting additional context from a direct client, it's much more difficult when working through an agency. In this particular case, there was no way for me or the agency to reach out to the document's writer for more information, so I had to do a bit of detective work during the translation process.

As I've mentioned in the past, sometimes the little things can be the most difficult in translation, including grammatical aspects like gender. In this case, I was dealing with a report that referred to people either by their last names or by simply using third-person singular verb conjugations. This posed an issue because Spanish doesn't require the use of the words él and ella ("he" and "she") before conjugated verbs.

While I could have used the neutral singular "they" instead, it would have made the report much harder to read. In some cases, I found a stray él or ella with a name that allowed me to determine whether the person was female or male, so I could use phrases like "she said" and "he noticed" instead of using the singular "they". In other circumstances, the person's full name would be mentioned, but then I'd have to figure out what gender corresponded to their name.

Luckily, Spanish naming customs are helpful in that respect. Not only do Spanish speakers tend to choose from a much narrower list of names than English speakers, but they are also fairly gender-specific. From a translator's standpoint, that's incredibly helpful, as you can feel fairly confident it's accurate to refer to someone named María as "she", and José as "he". However, there were still a few stray names that I had to research online in order to determine the correct gender pronoun to use.

Another thing that made this translation like a puzzle was the fact that since I couldn't contact the original writer, I had to try to put myself in their place and see things from their perspective. In a sense, I was acting like a detective, trying to decipher their meaning. Certain sections of the report were clearly written for an audience with far more context than me, so I had to simply do my best by filling in a tentative translation while guessing their meaning. Luckily, as I worked my way through the document, additional details filled in the contextual gaps, so I was able to go back and make those tentative translations more accurate.

In the end, after a week's worth of detective work searching for the right words and the right meanings, I was able to fit all the pieces together. While the topic wasn't exactly fascinating, I still found it fun because it was a challenge, just like a good jigsaw puzzle. Sometimes when you do a translation, you might have to accept that a few pieces will be missing from the final product, but hopefully you'll manage to get enough of them together to convey the full picture.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Punctuation Can Be the Dog's Bollocks

We all know that punctuation is pretty damn important. It helps us organise ideas in our language when writing, express ideas with delivery that would otherwise be lost (such as shouting or asking a question), create lists, show possession and make contractions, to name a few.

Punctuation can dramatically change sentences, and is incredibly important in many cases. Don't believe me? Consider reading Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss.

In the past, we've looked at many of the different types of punctuation that we can use. Today, I'd like to look at a lesser-known type of punctuation (mainly because I like languages and can be very immature), which has fallen out of use but should definitely make a comeback.

If you're familiar with British English slang, "the dog's bollocks" means "the best". However, in this case I'm talking about a type of punctuation with the same name.

So, what did dog's bollocks look like? Either ":-" or ":—". Clearly, given the name, I'm not the only one in the world who thinks this sort of looks like something else. I don't think the "dog" part is really necessary though.

What did we use dog's bollocks for? To indicate a long pause (or should that be paws?). If you're reading silently or in your head, this probably isn't too much of an issue, but when you're reading something aloud, you could do with a few dog's bollocks for good measure.

If you're interested in seeing some examples of dog's bollocks, look no further than the U.S. Declaration of Independence, which features nine shining instances of dog's bollocks.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Languages in the News: August 2016

Today we're looking back at all the language news that made the headlines throughout the month of August.

With the Olympic Games taking place from the 5th to the 21st of the month, it's hardly surprising that August was full of news stories about the games. The Providence Journal reported that American TV network NBC attempted to have the opening ceremony's official language changed from Portuguese to English in order to boost viewership. You can read the full article here.

Once the games started, organisers praised the multicultural South African women's football team's efforts of working through their language barriers. Read about their multilingual efforts here.

The beautiful Emerald Isle.
The Irish Times brought us news from Tajikistan, where journalists are being fined for using words that authorities deem "incomprehensible" in order to protect their official languages from contamination by foreign words. The article also covers ways of protecting Irish in Ireland, as well as covering how the Académie Française deals with foreign words making their way into French. Read all about it here.

The Guardian looked at Hawaii Sign Language (HSL), a language which was only discovered in 2013, has around 30 native speakers, and is not very well documented. HSL is in trouble, and Ross Perlin's in-depth article about the language can be read here.

Lauren Collins of The New Yorker spoke at length about love and languages. If you're a romantic at heart, you may enjoy her fascinating piece about learning language for your heart as well as your mind. You can enjoy the article here.

The Oxford Dictionary's blog, in keeping with all the sporting events going on in the Olympic Games, shared some of the words commonly used when talking about long-distance running. You can expand your vocabulary by reading the article here.

It may look like a planet, but it isn't.
Quartz was full of praise for the upcoming science fiction film Arrival, which features a linguist who is trying to communicate with an alien species as its protagonist (finally!). Read the article about the film here.

CBS reported that the Voynich Manuscript, which is in an unknown language, was to be published in order to give the public a chance at deciphering it. However, at nearly $10,000 a copy, this isn't a task for amateurs. Read the article here.

On NPR's website, Leah Donella discussed the terminology that was, is, and could be used when discussing people with multiple backgrounds, how the terms came about, and how it feels when these terms are used. Read all about the topic here.

If you have any other interesting news articles on languages, feel free to share them in the comments below. We'll try to share the best ones on our social media!