Monday, December 5, 2016

Languages in the News: November 2016

It's that time again when we bring you the best language news stories from last month. Let's get straight to it with a story from Slate about the US presidential election. Thanks to Americans going to the polls, American English has some new vocabulary including the verb early vote. You can read about how this election changed language here.

There was a lot of love within the language community for Arrival, a sci-fi film about linguists who have to find a way to communicate with aliens who show up on Earth. NPR was full of praise for the film and its focus on language. Read what they had to say here.

Earth looks like a fine place to visit.
The Washington Post (WP) looked at Arrival from the effect it had on the profile of linguists. While we've always believed linguists were cool, WP reckoned that the film helped to raise the profile of linguists and make them "almost cool". Read all about these almost-cool linguists here.

Business Insider focused on the film's accuracy and portrayal of linguists at work. In an interview with Jessica Coon, the linguist who consulted on the film, they discuss how the work and practices of linguists were very accurately represented. Of course, there were still a few falsehoods that Hollywood let slip in the name of entertainment. Read about them here.

With the end of the year rolling in, you can expect plenty "of the year" articles and stories to start popping up. Oxford Dictionary's Word of the Year was already decided in November and the BBC ran the story. Learn more about the word of the year here.

With the Word of the Year decided, it's hardly surprising that Oxford Dictionaries provided their own articles on it. There was one article we found particularly interesting about the other words considered for the word of the year. You can check them out here.

The New York Times gave us a fascinating article on Catalan in Italy. The language is under threat in Alghero, on the island of Sicily, where it is still spoken, despite very few efforts from the Italy to protect it. Read about these unsual struggles here

Our last great language news stories both come from NPR. In one story, they explained how California decided after nearly two decades to reintroduce bilingual education which you can read about here. In another related story, you can also read about the benefits of bilingual education on the brain here.

If there were any interesting stories we missed, feel free to tell us about them in the comments below.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Misnomers: Words We Know Are Wrong

Misnomers are the reason we drive on a parkway and park on a driveway. While native speakers know what they mean, misnomers can be pretty misleading for non-native speakers. So how did we end up with misnomers if we know they're wrong?

Time makes fools of us all.

Over time, misnomers will be created thanks to words changing meaning or keeping an old name that should no longer apply. Language can be pretty stubborn at times and people even more so!

Take tin foil for example. It used to be made out of tin but they've been making it out of aluminium since the second world war. Similarly, a tin can does use tin but calling it a tin-plated steel can would be more accurate.

If you chew your pencil, you needn't worry about lead poisoning. The inside of a pencil obviously isn't made of lead the metal. It's made from graphite, which we used to think was lead ore, and the name stuck.

Be kind, rewind!
Modern technology is creating plenty of misnomers. You still dial phone numbers even though most phones don't even have a dial on them. While you can't physically pick up or hang up modern phones, we still say we do it anyway!

We can still rewind DVDs, Blu-rays, CDs, and songs despite not having any reels or tape to wind!

A part is greater than the sum of its whole.

Misnomers also arise due to something called pars pro toto (a part for the whole. This is when a smaller or constituent part of something is used to name the whole thing. This happens a lot with the names of places.

The best example is probably Holland. The term is used to describe The Netherlands when it is actually just a region within the country.

The same happens with England or Great Britain being used to talk about the United Kingdom, which is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Island, if you were wondering.

Speaking of England, if you've ever visited Big Ben in London, you probably visited the Elizabeth Tower. Big Ben refers to the bell within the tower and isn't even the bell's official name! It's called The Great Bell.

Good enough for me!

Some misnomers seem downright mad. Put a guinea pig next to a pig and it won't take a genius to tell that they aren't pigs. It's pretty clear that starfish and jellyfish aren't fish. At least they do look like stars and jelly, though.

Neither peanuts nor coconuts are nuts. They're legumes and fruits! Are you going to stop eating them because of that? I doubt it!

Monday, November 21, 2016

Anglish: The English Language at its "Purest"

The English language has been on one hell of a journey. It's a Germanic language, but it's got plenty of loanwords from other languages. Over half of the vocabulary comes from French, Latin, and Greek. But what if it didn't? What if the only words we used came from Germanic and Anglo-Saxon roots?

This is how we get Anglish, English but without any "foreign" words. Sometimes it's also called Root English, as it's English going back to its roots. The thing is, Anglish can't be elegent, it can only be swanky. So how did we get here?

Some Greek and Latin words entered Old English thanks to Christianity and the Norman invasion in the 11th Century meant the upper echelons of society spoke French, giving words with French roots more prestige than their Anglo-Saxon equivalents.

This didn't become an issue until the 16th and 17th centuries when Middle English was becoming Modern English. Some writers at the time borrowed words with Latin roots, since Latin was used in academia, in order to sound fancy. Other writers hated the pointlessness of using words that already had perfectly adequate English equivalents with Anglo-Saxon roots.

Of course, some of the words borrowed into English around this time are still commonly used, like dismiss, celebrate, encyclopedia, commit, capacity and ingenious. Others disappeared from use as quickly as they were introduced, such as expede.

A fine specimen for birdlorists.
In the 19th Century, the writer William Barnes went so far as to create his own Anglo-Saxon words as counterparts to the commonly used Latin ones. Barnes preferred using the word birdlore to ornithology and was much more bendsome (flexible) in his use of a pure English language. Overkill, perhaps?

George Orwell wasn't a fan of writers using Latin words either. In fact, he went so far to say that "Bad writers [...] are haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones".

Personally, I don't think we need to avoid all Latin and Greek words, the English language has some beautiful words thanks to these languages (and their derivatives). However, I don't automatically think you're fancy because you use Latin words, there's nothing wrong with Anglo-Saxon and Germanic words, either!

What do you think? Shall we keep English "pure" or do you like our elegant Latin and Greek words? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Speaking to Aliens: The Arecibo Message

On 16th November 1974, a radio message was sent with the objective of being received by aliens. Of course, it would be fairly foolish to send the message in any of our terrestrial languages. So what is the best way to communicate with aliens?

Making it Decipherable

When we transmit communications terrestrially, the transmitters and receivers know how to decode the information. When sending a message to either many or zero alien civilisations, you can't assume they'd use any of the established systems we have here on earth.

Instead, the Arecibo Message alternated its frequency and communicated in binary, a series of either "on" or "off" signals. The message consisted of 1,679 binary signals.

If, like me, you're not a mathematician, that number probably means nothing to you. However, 1,679 is known as a semiprime, meaning that it is the product two prime numbers (numbers only divisible by themselves and one).

The number 1,679 can only be divided by 73 or 23 to give an answer that is a whole number (giving the other number as the result). This means the 1,679 signals can only be arranged rectangular image measuring 23x73 or 73x23.

If you arrange the message as 23x73, it doesn't look like anything and is nonsensical. However, if you arrange it 73x23, the message will display a simple message that aims to tell aliens who we are and what we're all about in the simplest way possible.

Keeping it Short and Simple

The Arecibo Radio Telescope
Since the transmission lasted less than three minutes, there wasn't really much time to tell the whole story of the human race. Instead, the information to transmit was carefully selected in order to "hi" in the most effective way possible:

The decimal system (the numbers from one to ten) was included.

Then the atomic number of the elements that make up our DNA, hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and phosphorous.

Nucleotides, the molecules that make up our DNA, were then included. With this information,

They then gave them our double-helix structure. At this rate, the aliens basically have a snapshot of our genetic makeup. I guess if they were advanced enough, they could build their own versions of us, if they cared enough.

In case there were any doubts, an image of a stick figure was also included in order to show the aliens where our limbs and head go.

M13, the message's destination.
Since they knew who we were, and supposedly the general area of where the message was coming from, a small map of our solar system was also included which pointed out that we reside on the third planet from the sun.

Finally, a representation of the Arecibo radio telescope was included which signs off the message.

Waiting for an Answer

The Arecibo message will take 25,000 years to reach its destination. If aliens receive and decipher the message, and decide to message back immediately, it'll take another 25,000 years for us to get the answer. I wouldn't wait by the phone and nor will anyone at the Arecibo radio telescope.

In fact, the message was always thought of as a bit of a long shot and only really sent in order to show off what the Arecibo radio telescope was capable of! With that said, I still reckon communicating with alien life is an interesting idea and hope you also did!

Monday, November 7, 2016

Languages in the News: October 2016

With the US election taking place tomorrow, you'll have noticed that it has dominated the headlines, especially last month. However, there were still plenty of interesting news stories on languages and today we're bringing you some of favourites. Let's get to it.

The Guardian discussed which words are considered offensive on television and other media. If you'd like to read about offensive words, check out the story here. Later in the month, they also told us about 10 words that changed meaning as well as the word of the year.

TechCrunch brought us the news that Google has implemented neural machine translation. Read about how this type of machine translation is almost as good as human translation here.

Mashable had an interesting story on My Grandmother's Lingo, an interactive animation to help teach an endangered language. Read about the animation here.

Some news outlets in the UK decided to claim that immigration would be to blame for changes in the English language over the next 50 years. The Conversation debunked these claims and likened them to an outdated way of thinking about languages. Read the full article here.

Quartz had an article on articles and Donald Trump sounding racist (not for the first time). Why did his use of "the" when referring to African Americans make him sound racist? You can find the answer in the article here.

Brexit is still making the headlines in the UK. The BBC was reporting on claims from MPs that Brexit could result in a nationwide language crisis.

USA Today was looking at the current president, rather than the hopefuls being elected tomorrow. The article had ratings of Obama's abilities in various languages (or lack thereof in French). Read about them here.

Following the presidential debate in which Trump said "bad hombres", Merriam Webster received a huge spike in searches for both hombres and ombre. Read their story on it (and the differences between the two words) here.

Elsewhere Oxford Dictionaries' blog was discussing some awesome Japanese words that should be in the English language. Read about them here. They also had a fascinating articles olesser-known letters of the English alphabet.
n some of the

Those are our favourites from this month. Are there any important language news stories we missed or that you think we should have mentioned? Tell us about them in the comments below.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Esquivalience: Fighting Copyright Infringement with Language

If you've ever needed to know the meaning of a word, you probably looked in a dictionary. More often than not, it probably didn't matter which dictionary you looked in, they're all the same right?

In most ways, all dictionaries are very similar. They do have the very same objective, after all. They have to list the most common words in a given language and provide said words with a definition. With this very specific goal, it's not surprising that the end result can be very similar.

Similar but not the same. Dictionaries being similar is explainable. If they're the same, somebody's probably copied your dictionary. It's very difficult to go page-by-page through the dictionary trying to prove your dictionary has been copied. Verifying that every page and every word is the same is a tricky and lengthy process.

You'd have to be pretty eagle-eyed to catch a fake word in
the dictionary.
So how do you stop people copying you? You plant a trap for the counterfeiters. Since nobody really reads the dictionary in order to verify all the words are genuinely used, you can place a false entry without arousing too much suspicion. Just like hiding a needle in a haystack.

The New Oxford American Dictionary featured one such trap. Within the dictionary they placed the word esquivalience. The word's definition was "the willful avoidance of one's official responsibilities". Since the word doesn't exist, if it appears in another dictionary, they could be sure that people were copying their dictionary and could take the appropriate legal action.

The website dictionary.com fell into their trap. Additionally, they didn't even cite the correct dictionary they'd copied it from. They said it was from Webster's. What happens if we start using esquivalience? I guess they'll just have to hide another fake word in the dictionary.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Are We Different People in Different Languages?

I love using foreign languages to speak to new people, to learn about different cultures, and to look at the world through a different set of eyes. Littwengstein said "the limits of my language mean the limits of my world". Does that mean different languages occupy different worlds, and if so, am I a different person in each of them?

There's a Persian proverb that states "a new language is a new life", and a Czech one which says "those who know many languages live as many lives as the languages they know". Are these just fancy metaphors or is there more to it than that?

Broca's area, where languages live.
Studies dating back to the '60s show that we respond differently according to the language we're speaking. In one such study, when respondents were asked to create a story from an illustration, the language used altered the general themes of the story. Similar results were achieved when participants were told to finish sentences.

These experiments were just the beginning and were fairly subjective. Later studies showed that language could affect how outgoing you are and the way you behave. Does this mean that certain languages promote assertiveness while others discourage it? Or is it a cultural thing, since different languages usually exist within different cultures?

It's very difficult to separate language and culture. I would imagine (and hope) that you behave differently in a job interview than out at night in the pub. When you speak different languages, you often do so in vastly different social situations too.

If you speak one language with your parents and another with your friends, perhaps you're more respectful in one, while outgoing and relaxed in another. If you work in one language but "play" in another, surely this also affects your behaviour.

More recent studies seem to show that while we aren't completely different people, our personalities do change depending on the situation, who we're with, and which language we're speaking. We sort of develop alter egos, further supporting the idea that multilinguals are indeed superheroes!

Do different languages change your personality or not? Tell us what you think in the comments below!