Monday, September 15, 2014

Country Profile: The Languages of Indonesia

Last week we started a new series of Country Profiles with a look at the linguistic makeup of China. Today we're continuing on our new journey, this time exploring the many languages spoken in Indonesia.

To say that Indonesia is a linguistically diverse country is a bit of an understatement. According to Ethnologue, Indonesia is home to over 700 living languages. We imagine that this is partly due to the fact that the country is composed of 13,466 islands, which undoubtedly create pockets of linguistic isolation due to their geography. It goes without saying that we're not going to mention every single language spoken in Indonesia today, but we will try to provide a good overview.

The Top Four

The sole official language of Indonesia is Indonesian, one of two standardized varieties of Malay. It is an Austronesian language just like the majority of the other languages spoken in Indonesia. Despite being used in all official contexts as well as education and the media, Indonesia is primarily spoken as a second language.

Instead, the majority of Indonesians speak Austronesian languages such as Javanese, Sunda, and Madurese as their native language. Javanese is the native language of Java, the most populous island in the entire world, and is spoken by over 80 million people. Sunda, also known as Sundanese, is primarily spoken in West Java, the western side of the island, while Madurese is spoken on the eastern side of the island as well as Madura Island.

This map of Indonesian ethnic groups provides insight into
how this country has such a diverse linguistic makeup!
Austronesian Languages

It should come as no surprise that the majority of the languages spoken in Indonesia are members of the Austronesian language family since its members primarily originated in Southeast Asia and other areas of the Pacific. Some of the most-spoken Austronesian languages in Indonesia besides our top four include Minangkabau, Bugis, Banjar, Aceh, and Bali, which all boast over 3 million native speakers.

West Papuan Languages

Indonesia is also home to a few West Papuan languages, which are spoken in eastern Indonesia and on the island of New Guinea. The Ternate and Tidore languages are spoken on the Maluku Islands that feature their respective names.

Other Indigenous Languages

There are dozens of other indigenous languages spoken throughout Indonesia which are extremely difficult to classify. Some linguists group a large number of the languages spoken on the island of New Guinea and surrounding islands together as Trans-New Guinea languages, but others, such as Ethnologue, believe that they should be kept in individual language families.

Some of these controversial language groups include the Mairasi languages, the Lakes Plain languages, and the Senagi languages. Indonesia is also home to dozens of endangered languages that are quickly approaching extinction, sadly.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Remembering September 11: How One Day Changed the Way We Speak

As anyone with a calendar will know, yesterday was September 11. Thirteen years have passed since the terrorist attacks by al-Qaeda on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington D.C., and for many, the memories are still fresh in their minds.

Like most catastrophic events, September 11th led to a huge number of cultural changes in the United States and across the world. There were obvious changes, like how air travel security measures changed drastically seemingly overnight. It wasn't just air travel that changed however, as governments kept busy introducing new legislation to reduce the chances of a similar attack happening in the future. One cultural change that isn't as obvious has been the changes to the English language since 2001, which have been quite astounding.

Many new terms were added to the language just after the attacks, though their origins aren't as obvious now due to the passage of time. Over the years, the American Dialect Society has monitored the use of the English language in North America. It is a useful resource to learn more about how the vast majority of Americans use their mother tongue. We've put together a few of the important and lasting terms we feel were rarely uttered before those tragic events.

One World Trade Center, a new skyscraper
located near where the Twin Towers fell.

It was noted that just a year after the event, "9/11" (said as "nine-eleven") was considered the expression most likely to last. It's fairly safe to say that over a decade later, 9/11 is one of the most enduring expressions since the event. In fact, while the constituent elements of the term preexisted, these two numbers refer to a specific set of events that occurred on September 11, 2001 in most contexts and almost never signify anything else.

Pre- and Post-9/11

The events of 9/11 were considered so important in English-speaking circles that the date now acts as a divider between two eras, at least in the minds of many people.


While not a neologism, al-Qaeda, the name of the organisation who was eventually revealed to be responsible for the attacks, was a popular topic of conversation at the time and is now known to most people. 

Sadly, a number of people took the Arabic origins of the word "القاعدة" as an indication that Arabic speakers and Muslims were either terrorists or hated the United States, despite the fact that there are plenty of terrorists who aren't Arabic-speaking Muslims, as well as people who hate the United States and are neither terrorists, Muslim, nor speakers of Arabic.


The United States Department for Homeland Security (DHS) was formed in 2002 following the events of 9/11 as a response to them.

Ground Zero

Although the term "ground zero" existed "pre-9/11" (See what we did there?), when the term is capitalised and rendered as "Ground Zero", it almost always is in reference to the World Trade Center site where the Twin Towers were attacked.


While not necessarily a term from 9/11, IED, short for Improvised Explosive Device, is a term used by the US Army in Afghanistan and Iraq to refer to a type of bomb.


The Transportation Safety Administration, known by the acronym TSA, was a federal agency formed post-9/11 that was one of the key changes to airport security. Their visibility to anyone travelling by plane in the United States means the term has quickly entered the lexicon of American English.

The Linguistic Legacy

While some of the terms that were used after 9/11 have fallen out of favour and have even been forgotten, we should never forget those who needlessly lost their lives on that day, in subsequent conflicts, and in conflicts every day throughout the world.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Country Profile: The Languages of China

Exactly two years ago, we started a regular series of language profiles. Now we're replacing it with a new series in a very similar vein, country profiles. While the language profiles covered one particular language, the new country profiles will be a look at the linguistic makeup of one country in particular.

When we did language profiles, we worked our way through a list, starting with the language with the most native speakers. As we certainly missed a few of the world's many languages, we'll still occasionally do language profiles, just not weekly as we have been doing.

This week marks the first of our country profiles. We're starting with the languages spoken in the world's most populous country, China. After that, we'll work our way around the world, making sure to skip the places we've already covered during their national holidays.

The flag of the People's Republic of China
The Languages of China

Almost one fifth of the world's population lives in China, and Mandarin Chinese is spoken by around 840,000,000 people as a native language. Mandarin has de facto status as the national language.

However, with around 1.3 billion people in a single country, there are certainly more languages than just Chinese. In fact, China has 8 official languages: Standard Chinese, Cantonese, English, Portuguese, Uyghur, Tibetan, Zhuang, and Mongolian.

Sino-Tibetan Languages

Since the Sino-Tibetan languages are indigenous to most of what makes up modern-day China, you can expect plenty of these languages to be spoken in the country. Aside from Mandarin, Cantonese is also another Sino-Tibetan language with official status.

Cantonese is natively spoken by around 62,000,000 people in the world. In China, Cantonese is an official language in Hong Kong and Macau and used by the local governments in these places.

Unsurprisingly, Tibetan is spoken in the Tibet Autonomous Region. The language is spoken by over one million people and is written using a Brahmic script, a type of abugida.

Indo-European Languages

You may have spotted a couple of Indo-European languages in the list of official languages in China. These are the lasting heritage of European colonialism in China.

The English language has official language status in Hong Kong, which was a British colony for 156 years until it was handed back to China in 1997. Likewise, the Portuguese language is spoken as an official language in Macau, which was a Portuguese colony between 1557 and 1999, making it both the first and last European colony in China.

Turkic Languages

The Uyghur language is spoken around the world by up to 11 million people. Within China, it is principally spoken in Xinjiang, where it has official status.

Mongolian Languages

The Mongolian language is natively spoken by nearly 6 million people in the world. In addition to being the official language of Mongolia, it is also an official language of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region in China.

Tai-Kadai Languages

The Zhuang languages are the last of China's 8 official languages. In total, around 16 million people speak one of the Zhuang languages in the south of China. However, the languages are not mutually intelligible to one another and in some cases are more related to another language from the Tai language family than each other. Perhaps they should be reclassified.

Other Languages

"Surely there are more than 8 languages spoken in China?", we hear you ask. You are right. In fact, there are apparently nearly 300 languages spoken in China, far too many for one post.

Monday, September 8, 2014

The Fascinating Story of the Navajo Code Talkers

Today we're finally going to tell you the fascinating story of the Navajo code talkers that we promised last week in our posts on the Navajo language and the use of code talkers during WWI.

As we mentioned last week, a code talker is a person who uses their little-known language to transmit secret messages in wartime. Many Native American language speakers were used as code talkers, but the most famous group was the Navajo code talkers who played a key role in WWII. 

The idea to use Navajo for code talking was first proposed by Philip Johnston, who had learned the language growing up in the Navajo Nation as the son of a missionary. He believed that it could be useful to the military because it was an unwritten language which was not mutually intelligible enough with related languages to be easily deciphered. 

Navajo code talkers in Saipan in 1944
Once a group of Navajo speakers was recruited by the military, it was decided that the easiest way to convey messages using the language would be to create a code by encrypting Navajo using letter and word substitution methods. Training exercises were so successful that the military eventually recruited 200 Navajos, and a codebook was created to help teach the code to new recruits.

Throughout the war, the code talkers played an instrumental role by sending and receiving messages, especially in the Pacific battles, providing essential information to the Allies. They were so successful that Navajo code talkers were also used in the Korean War as well as the Vietnam War. However, the most interesting fact of all about the Navajo code is that it is the only spoken military code that has never been deciphered to this day.

If you're interested in learning more about the Navajo code talkers, there are plenty of online resources out there. We recommend taking a look at this website, which provides extensive information on the code talkers, including several fascinating interviews with real-life code talkers who served in World War II.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Code Talkers: How Speaking a Minority Language Helped Win the Great War

On Wednesday, we were looking at the Navajo language and it got us thinking about the Navajo code talkers used during the Second World War. While the Navajo code talkers are probably the most famous, there were plenty of other code talkers who spoke other languages.

A code talker, for those who don't know, is someone who uses their language to transmit secret messages during wars. If you're trying to transmit information during a war, especially by radio, you do not want your enemy to know what you're saying. In order to ensure your message is only understood by those you want to understand it, you will probably use a code.

Encoded information is certainly one way to ensure that only the intended recipient understands your message, since a code is essentially a language that is only understood by a particular group of people. During the First and Second World Wars, the United States realised that there was a group of people who spoke languages that only they understood, the Native Americans.

Native American Code Talkers

Sequoyah may have invented the Cherokee
syllabary, but it was the spoken language that
was most useful.
The first code talkers spoke Cherokee, the Iroquoian language spoken by the Cherokee people. In fact, the Cherokee code talkers were present at the Second Battle of the Somme, helping to transmit encoded messages. 

The discovery of Native American languages as a means to transmit encoded messages was more of an accident than a genius military plan. It was noticed by the US Army during WWI that the enemy couldn't understand the Cherokee troops.

While the Cherokee code talkers were the first, they were certainly not the only Native American code talkers. The Choctaw Indians from Oklahoma used their language to transmit messages during the Great War.

Since code talkers were so successful during the First World War, Hitler sent a group of around thirty anthropologists to the United States in order to learn Native American languages before WWII had even started. However, not everything turned out as he planned. We'll be back on Monday with the full story. Join us then.

Read The Fascinating Story of the Navajo Code Talkers

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Language Profile: Navajo

This week we're taking look at the Navajo language, a member of the Na-Dené language family. It is primarily spoken by the Navajo, the largest Native American tribe in the United States. Most of its approximately 170,000 speakers live in the southwestern states of Arizona and New Mexico.

A beautiful hand-woven Navajo blanket
Navajo is the most widely spoken Native American language in the United States. While it is somewhat threatened by the importance placed on speaking English in the United States, the Navajo Nation has worked hard over the past several decades to ensure that children are provided with education and immersion programs in the Navajo language. At the higher education level, a local tribal community college offers an associate's degree in Navajo, while Arizona State University offers courses in the language.

The Navajo language is also used in media such as radio broadcasting. It was also recently used in film when Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope was translated into Navajo in 2013. This was an especially important event because it was the first major film ever to be translated into a Native American language. 

One of the most interesting things about the Navajo language pertains to its use during World War II by code talkers. Starting in World War I, the U.S. government hired Native Americans who spoke little-known languages to transmit messages for them using codes based on their languages as a form of secret communication. While Cherokee and Choctaw code talkers were used during WWI and other indigenous languages such as Comanche, Meskwaki, Basque, and Seminole were also used during WWII, the Navajo remain the group most commonly associated with the term, which we'll be looking at in more depth in the near future.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Persian Loanwords: Part 2

On Friday, we looked into the history of several Persian terms for foods, plants, and animals that have made their way into English over the centuries. Today we're continuing on with a few more interesting Persian loanwords, such as "serendipity".

Bronze - The third best metal, at least when it comes to the Olympics, gets its name from the Persian word birinj. Throughout the ages, it became bronzium in Latin, bronzo in Italian, and finally bronze in French before reaching English.

Caravan - This term started out as karwan in Persian, meaning "group of travelers", often used in reference to groups traveling through the desert or along the Silk Road. In later years, it became caravana in Latin and caravane in French.

In Persia, chess was originally called chatrang.
Check and checkmate - Both of these important chess terms are thought to have originated in the Persian language, which is quite apt given that the game itself was first popularized in Persia around the 6th or 7th century. "Check" was shah, literally meaning "king", while "checkmate" was shah mat, which literally meant something akin to "the king is left helpless". They eventually evolved into the Old French terms eschequier and eschec mat before reaching English.

Cummerbund - This fun word for an interesting clothing accessory worn around the waist comes from the combination of the Persian words kamar, meaning "waist" and band, meaning "something that ties". It came into use in the English language via Hindi in the early 1600s.

Magic - After originating as the Persian word magush, it evolved into magike in Greek, followed by the similar terms magice and magique in Latin and French respectively.

Mogul - This word comes from the Persian word mughal, meaning "powerful person", which was originally used in reference to leaders of the Mughal Empire.

Pajamas - One of our favorite types of clothing gets its name from paejamah, which literally means "leg clothing" in Persian.

Serendipity - Our final Persian loanword was coined in the mid-18th century by a man named Horace Walpole, who said that his inspiration was the Persian fairy tale The Three Princes of Serendip because the princes often made great discoveries by accident, which thanks to him we would now call "serendipity".

Did we leave out your favorite Persian loanword? If so, let us know in the comments, and please include a definition!