Friday, April 29, 2016

The Etymology of U.S. State Names, Part 2

On Wednesday, we started looking at the etymologies of all 50 U.S. state names. Since there are so many, we only made it from Alabama to Kentucky. Today we're continuing with another big bunch of state name origins, this time starting with the etymology of Louisiana.

Louisiana's name has French origins, which should come as no surprise. In fact, it's named after King Louis XIV of France, who was in power when a French explorer reached the area.

Maine has very mysterious origins, though some historians believe it gets its name from a former French province. Others believe it might just be a reference to the "mainland".

Maryland is named after Henrietta Maria of France, the wife of King Charles I of England, who was in power when it was first established as a colony.

Massachusetts, one of the best states in terms of spelling practice, is named after the Massachusett, one of the first Native American groups to encounter English colonists.

A beautifully sunny day on the coast of Lake Michigan.
Michigan is actually named after Lake Michigan, one of the four Great Lakes bordering it. The term itself came from Ojibwe, an indigenous language, and means "large water" or "large lake".

Minnesota gets its name from a body of water too, specifically the Minnesota River. The name is derived from a Dakota term that refers to its cloudy water.

Mississippi gets its name from the Mississippi River, which comes from an Ojibwe term meaning "great river".

Missouri is also named after a big river, the Missouri River, which was in turn named after the Missouri Native American tribe. The term itself actually comes from the Illiniwek, another Native American tribe in the region, and refers to their use of dugout canoes.

Montana is an easy one! It comes from the Spanish word montaña, meaning "mountain", which is very appropriate if you've ever visited the state.

Nebraska's name means "flat water", a reference to the Platte River, which is thought have originated as the French term rivière plate ("flat river"). Nebraska's name, on the other hand, comes from a Siouan language.

Nevada means "snowy" or "snow-covered" in Spanish, and was named after the Sierra Nevada mountain range.

"The Rock of Ages in the Big Room," a photograph taken at
Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico by famous
photographer Ansel Adams for the National Park Service.
New Hampshire and New Jersey are both named after locations in the United Kingdom. Hampshire is a county on the southern coast of England, while Jersey is the largest of the Channel Islands.

New Mexico is actually a translation of Nuevo México, the Spanish name for the area. The word Mexico, however, comes from the Nahuatl language, which was spoken by the Aztecs.

New York was named after the Duke of York, who eventually became King James II of England. The term York, however, is thought to have Celtic origins.

North Carolina is named after King Charles I of England, who you may recall is the husband of Maryland's namesake. Naturally, he had a colony named after him several years before she did...

North Dakota is derived from a Lakota term meaning "ally" or "friend", which was used to refer to the Dakota tribe.

We'll be back on Monday with the final group of states!

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Etymology of U.S. State Names, Part 1

The United States is often referred to as a "melting pot" of cultures since it is the product of immigration from countries all over the world. As a result, the U.S. is incredibly diverse and multicultural in terms of everything from food to religion.

Since our focus is on language, we thought we'd take a look at the etymologies of U.S. state names, which come from about a dozen different languages. To keep things simple, we'll start with Alabama and go through the states alphabetically.

Alabama is named after the Alabama people, a Native American group that originally lived in the area. Some historians think the word might have originated in Choctaw, a related indigenous language, while others believe it comes from the Alabama language.

Denali, formerly known as Mount McKinley, is the highest
mountain peak in North America. It is located in Alaska.
Alaska comes from an idiom for "mainland" in Aleut, the language of the Aleut indigenous group. The literal translation of the idiom is "the object to which the action of the sea is directed".

Arizona's name definitely made its way into English via the Spanish language, but its language of origin is unclear. Two potential candidates are O'odham, a Native American language, and Basque, a language isolate native to Spain and France.

Arkansas and Kansas are both derived from the same term in Kansa, an indigenous language used by the Kaw (or Kansa) tribe. Since both words made their way into English via French, it makes sense that the final 's' in Arkansas is silent, although there was enough disagreement regarding its pronunciation back in the 1880s that an official resolution was passed to settle the matter.

California and Colorado both originated in Spanish. California comes from the "Island of California", a fictional paradise separate from the mainland United States that was even included on maps in the 1500s and 1600s. Colorado, on the other hand, gets its name from colorado, meaning "ruddy" or "red", a reference to the Colorado River.

Connecticut's name comes from Mohegan, an Algonquin language, and refers to a "long tidal river".

Delaware was also named after a river, the Delaware River, which was named after Thomas West, 3rd Baron De La Warr. He was governor of the Colony of Virginia when European settlers first explored the river.

Florida was first discovered by the Spanish during Pascua Florida, a term that was used to refer to the Easter season. The word florida means "flowery".

Georgia was named after King George II of Great Britain, the current ruler when it was established as a colony.

Haleakalā, a volcano on the Hawaiian Island of Maui.
Hawaii's name comes from Hawaiian, the Austronesian language indigenous to the island. It may have been named for Hawai'iloa, who according to legend discovered and first settled the island.

Idaho is a bit of a mystery, but the term was likely created by a lobbyist named George M. Willing in the 1860s, who suggested using it for a new territory being organized in the area. For a while, he claimed it came from the indigenous Shoshone language, but later said that he'd invented it himself.

Illinois comes from the French name used for the Illiniwek, a group of Native American tribes that lived in the area.

Indiana is actually derived from Latin, meaning "Land of the Indians".

Iowa is named after the Ioway, a Native American tribe that once lived in the state.

Kansas shares its origins with Arkansas, which we mentioned above!

Kentucky's etymology is uncertain, but it most likely comes from an Iroquoian language. The name was first applied to the Kentucky River.

Since there are so many states to cover, we'll be back on Friday and the following Monday with more state name etymologies!

Monday, April 25, 2016

Country Profile: The Languages of Croatia

So far this April, we've looked at the languages of New Zealand, Georgia, and Liberia. Today we're ending the month with a look at the linguistic landscape of Croatia, a beautiful country in Eastern Europe.

The Official Languages

Croatia has just one official language, Croatian. As we've mentioned before, Croatian is one of four standard varieties of Serbo-Croatian, a Slavic language. It is mutually intelligible with the three other standard varieties, which are Serbian, Bosnian, and Montenegrin. Given its status, it should come as no surprise that Croatian is the country's most important language, and is the native language of over 95% of the population.

Minority Languages

St. Mark's Church in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia.
While most Croatians speak Croatian, several other languages are used by the country's various minority populations. These include Slavic languages, Romance languages, a Uralic language, and about 14,000 native speakers of Sinte Romani, a language used by the Romani people.

In addition to Croatian, seven other Slavic languages are spoken in Croatia: Serbian, Bosnian, Ukrainian, Slovene, Czech, Slovak, and Rusyn. Serbian is used by about 60,000 people, while Bosnian is spoken by around 16,000. There are also about 9,000 Slovene speakers, 6,000 Czech speakers, 3,000 Slovak speakers, and around 1,000 Ukrainian and Rusyn speakers.

In terms of Romance languages, there's Italian, Venetian, Istriot, and Istro-Romanian. Italian is the native language of about 18,000 Croatians, and is also widely used as a second language, with over 600,000 speakers. Venetian is also quite popular, with about 50,000 speakers. While Italy officially considers it to be a dialect of Italian, most linguists agree that it is a separate language.

Then there's Istriot and Istro-Romanian, which are both endangered languages spoken primarily in the region of Istria, which borders the Adriatic Sea. There are only about 400 remaining native speakers of Istriot, and about 300 remaining native speakers of Istro-Romanian.

Finally, there's the country's one and only Uralic language, Hungarian. It is spoken by about 10,000 people in Croatia.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Chatbots, AI, and Awaiting the Resurrection of Microsoft's Tay

Almost two years ago we dedicated a post to Eugene Goostman, a chatbot that had passed the Turing Test. At the time, we noted that the way the test was conducted seemed a little off and skewed. Nevertheless, we certainly thought that Eugene Goostman's achievements were worth celebrating.

This eagle was not pleased with Tay's behaviour.
Nearly a month ago on 23 March, Microsoft had a day from hell due to the complete debacle involving Tay, their new AI chatbot that took to Twitter and survived only 16 hours. In less than a day, users of the platform managed to corrupt the once innocent machine to a point where her tweets were so inflammatory that Microsoft had to close the AI's Twitter account.

Obviously, the Tay's "achievements" are a bit harder to celebrate than Eugene Goostman's. That said, while Microsoft's AI was spouting all sorts of racist and sexist messages, it was Twitter users who taught and raised it.

However, not all Twitter users are responsible for Tay's behaviour. In fact, Microsoft has used Chinese and Japanese chatbots for a couple of years now, and neither of them have caused any major problems. Maybe it's just that English speakers are worse when it comes to internet behaviour. Who knows?

Personally, I think that the internet should be given a second chance to try and raise its AI baby. However, I think Microsoft probably needs to ground Tay first and teach her a lesson. How did you react to Tay? Did you get over it? Would you like to see more experiments involving AI and chatbots on social media? Tell us your opinions in the comments below!

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Jiminy Jillikers and Semantic Satiation

There's a fantastic episode of The Simpsons called "Radioactive Man" in which a film adaptation of the superhero comic Radioactive Man is being made in the town of Springfield. In the episode, Bart's friend Milhouse is cast as Radioactive Man's sidekick, Fallout Boy.

The episode covers how Milhouse deals with being a movie star, and how it isn't as cool as he thought it would be. After being forced to record each scene multiple times and say Fallout Boy's catchphrase "jiminy jillikers" hundreds of times, Milhouse retorts, "making movies is so horribly repetitive; I've said 'jiminy jillikers!' so many times the words have lost all meaning!"

Try saying "flower" 100 times...
Of course, "jiminy jillikers" is a fictional expression and has no meaning. However, the phenomenon Milhouse is referring to is very real, and is called semantic satiation. This is when a word is repeated so many times that you no longer understand it to have any meaning, and instead just imagine the word as meaningless sounds, nonsense, gibberish, etc.

No matter what the word is, if you repeat it enough times, you'll eventually stop understanding it as a word and start hearing it as little more than the sounds (or phonemes) that constitute the word.

Normally when you repeat a word, your brain triggers the meaning of the word and you therefore understand it. However, when you quickly repeat a word again and again, you trigger a process known as reactive inhibition, which reduces the effectiveness of repeating the word, effectively rendering the process almost null and void. This means that rather than triggering the meaning of the word, you become almost immune to the process, and no meaning is triggered.

While this episode of The Simpsons plays on this idea by using a meaningless word as an example, it still helps explain the concept. You've surely experienced semantic satiation in your lifetime, and if you didn't know what it was before, now you do!

Monday, April 18, 2016

Country Profile: The Languages of Liberia

We started out last week by learning a bit about the languages of Georgia, a country located in the Caucasus Mountains that divides Europe from Asia. This week, we're heading southwest to learn about the linguistic diversity of Liberia, a fascinating country located in West Africa.

The Official Language

A beautiful lake in northwestern Liberia. 
The sole official language of Liberia is English, which is also the country's most important lingua franca. Unlike many other English-speaking countries in Africa that were colonized by Britain, Liberia developed from settlements created by a group called the American Colonization Society in the early 1800s. Most of the society's early members were slaveholders whose main goal was to "repatriate" free African Americans back to Africa in order to avoid slave revolts in the South. Throughout the 1800s, thousands of free African Americans were sent across the Atlantic to colonize Liberia, so English became the country's dominant language.

Today, most Liberians speak Liberian English, a term which actually includes several different varieties of English. These include Standard Liberian English, Caribbean English, an English-based creole called Merico, and the closely related Kru Pidgin English and Kreyol, two English-based pidgins that are grammatically different from Merico.

Other Languages

While all of these varieties of English dominate Liberia's linguistic landscape, it is also home to over 30 indigenous languages used by the native groups who lived in Liberia long before the arrival of colonists from the United States and the Caribbean. All of these languages belong to branches of the Niger-Congo language family.

The most spoken indigenous languages in Liberia are Kpelle, Bassa, Mano, Klao, Loma, Dan, and Kisi, which all have over 100,000 native speakers. Kpelle is spoken by over 700,000 people in Liberia, while Bassa has over 400,000 speakers.

There are many more languages used by smaller indigenous groups in the country. These include Kru languages such as Grebo, Krumen, Kuwaa, and Krahn, as well as Mande languages like Bandi, Maninka, and Manya. Finally, we'll mention Gola, which is its very own branch of the Niger-Congo family, and is spoken by nearly 100,000 Liberians.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Why English Words Are So Inventable

If there's one thing I love more than anything about the English language, it's its flexibility. While English is a Germanic language, a lot of its vocabulary comes from Latin and French. Furthermore, thanks to its history, it has borrowed plenty of words from languages all over the word and never thought about giving them back.

Aside from all that, English can be pretty chill when it comes to its rules. Many English speakers like to bend the rules, and sometimes when they break them completely it doesn't even matter (as long as you're not in the company of prescriptivists).

There are as many possibilities for English words as there are
stars in the sky.
However, today I want to talk about lexical flexibility, the ways new English words are invented, and how you can invent them yourself. Of course, other languages invent new words all the time too, but it's the ways in which English does it that I'll be focusing on today.

Those in the UK might remember the story of bouncebackability, a word that described a sport team's capacity to recover from a losing position or setback. The word's first use was attributed to Iain Dowie, former manager of the Crystal Palace football team. While he is believed to have just invented the word on the spot, if you're familiar with the English language and some of our lexical tropes, you can immediately work out its meaning.

I love these kinds of examples of English being used to its full potential. That's why today I thought I'd look at a few of the ways you can invent your own English words and still be understood.

Suffixing and Prefixing

Adding a suffix to a preexisting word is one of the best ways to create new words. The suffix -ise (and -ize in American English) is used to mean "render" or "make". For example, veganise would mean to make something vegan. You can also add the -y suffix to indicate that something has a certain quality. Even if the adjective doesn't exist, you can always create one by adding -y to the end of any noun.

Prefixes can work the same way. You can add prefixes like anti-, un-, in-, and im- to create negatives, or pre- or post- to mean "before" and "after", for example.


You can also create new verbs from nouns by treating them like regular English verbs. The most famous recent example is probably the verb to google. It may seem commonplace now, but you should remember that this is a relatively recent idea that only gained traction in the last decade.


Creating a portmanteau is also another way English likes to create new words. For example, you can put together fare and forecasting to make farecasting, the act of predicting the best time to buy plane tickets.

Some of my favourite modern examples are those for male beauty products, procedures, and cosmetics. Words like guyliner (a combination of guy and eyeliner), manscara (from man and mascara), and manscaping (from man and landscaping, which refers to how a male can trim or remove his hair or improve aesthetics).


Of course, you can also just put two words together, like awesome and sauce to make awesomesauce. The possibilities are endless!

What are some of your favourite neologisms that have come about from these kind of behaviours? Tell us about them in the comments below.