Wednesday, April 16, 2014

April 16: World Voice Day

As we love celebrations here at The Lingua File, today we're celebrating one of the more important obscure holidays for language lovers, World Voice Day.

World Voice Day is an international holiday organised as part of an effort by both European and American otolaryngologists, more commonly known as ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialists. The goal of World Voice Day is to celebrate the huge importance of the human voice. In this vein, we thought we'd do our part and aim to establish what the human voice actually is.

A diagram including the vocal cords, because
an actual photo makes them look disgusting.
Most people have a vague understanding of the human voice. We all know that the voice is made using our vocal cords, which can be found in our throats. If you have ever seen Police Academy, and we're sorry if you have, then you will know that these vocal cords are capable of some amazing things.

The cords themselves are incredibly impressive. They differ in size between men and women, with men's vocal cords being longer than women's, which is why men generally have lower voices than women. Though the size difference accounts for the tonal range of men and women, the cords can alter the pitch within those ranges.

The muscles that operate the folds in the vocal cords are amongst the fastest in the body, allowing the vocal cords to change the quality of sound rapidly. It is this rapid movement that helps us to speak in our respective languages.

When the vocal cords get together with our lungs, mouths, and tongues, we can make an incredible range of noises. The difference between certain phonemes, such as voiced and unvoiced phonemes, is due to a phenomenon in the vocal cords known as abduction.

Abduction is when the vocal cords separate, rather than adduction, when they come together. If the act of abduction is sufficient enough to stop the vocal cords vibrating, the result is a voiceless phoneme, like the sound of the letter s in English, at least in most words. When the vocal cords are allowed to vibrate, the result is a voiced sound, like the letter z in English.

When the effect of adduction is strong enough to almost fully stop the vibrations, the result is a glottal stop. If you remember our post on the IPA, the system used to identify almost every phoneme used in human language, then you'll remember that the human voice is much more capable than reproducing all the sounds of just your language.

So we know the vocal cords are important, but what about the "voice"? We'll get to that on Friday. See you then!

Monday, April 14, 2014

Language Profile: Hebrew

Today we're taking a look at Hebrew, a member of the Semitic language family. It is an official language of Israel alongside Arabic. There are also over 200,000 Hebrew speakers in the United States. In addition, Hebrew is the liturgical language of Judaism. 

The Hebrew language has a long and interesting history. The earliest written examples of the language date all the way back to the 10th century BC, but by 200 AD it was no longer spoken in everyday life. For several centuries it lived on only through its religious use in Judaism, until it was revived in the 19th century to be used as a spoken and literary language once more. 

The Tel Aviv skyline at night.
The revitalization of Hebrew was a long process that included work such as translating 19th century literary works into Hebrew, as well as modernizing the lexicon. Many new words were created in Hebrew, while others were borrowed from European languages such as English, Russian, German and French. New terms were also adopted from the Arabic language. 

Modern Hebrew became an official language in British-ruled Palestine in 1921 alongside English and Arabic. It maintained its official status when Israel was created. 

In order to prevent English terminology from inundating the Hebrew language, the Academy of the Hebrew Language creates approximately 2,000 new Hebrew words each year to provide an alternative to English terms that have gained popularity. Hebrew has also influenced the English lexicon, which we addressed in a previous post.

It is written using the Hebrew alphabet, an abjad script with 22 letters that is written from right to left.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Day of the Finnish Language: Part 2

On Wednesday, we celebrated the Day of the Finnish Language with a look at Mikael Agricola, the Finnish clergyman who is considered to be the founder of literary Finnish. While the celebration of the day coincides with the death of Mikael Agricola, it also coincides with the birthday of Elias Lönnrot, a Finnish physician and philologist. We feel a birthday is a much better reason to celebrate than somebody's death.

Sammatti, Elias' birthplace.
Elias Lönnrot was born in 1802 in the Grand Duchy of Finland. He studied his first academic year in the very same place that Agricola was acting bishop. However, the fire of Turku destroyed the university, forcing Lönnrot to move to Helsinki and graduate from the newly established university there which replaced the one in Turku.

He studied medicine and became a district doctor in Kajaani, in eastern Finland. Sadly, he was the only doctor for a population of around 4,000 people who lived across the length and breadth of a wide geographical area.

While his work in medicine seems depressing, it was really his work in linguistics that earned Lönnrot his fame. Lönnrot loved the Finnish language and collected folk tales in the language. He was a founder of the Finnish Literature Society in 1831 and as a result received financial support for his work.

He often took leave from his work as a physician to tour areas of Finland, including Lapland (where Santa lives) and part of Russian Karelia. His travels led to the writing of several books, and he was appointed to the Chair of Finnish Literature at the University of Helsinki thanks to his work preserving Finland's oral traditions.

He worked on the the Finnish-Swedish dictionary between 1866 and 1880, compiling over 200,000 entries in the process. Thanks to his experience with Finnish poetry he was considered a respected figure when it came to the Finnish language. Many of his translations had never been seen before and he coined many of the translations seen in the dictionary. Lönnrot also coined a number of neologisms when it came to scientific terminology with Latin or Greek roots.

Lönnrot's work with Finnish language is the second reason Wednesday was the celebration of the Finnish language. The work conducted by both Agricola and Lönnrot has been incredibly influential in the history of the Finnish language, and that is why Finland celebrated both of these great men in their efforts to preserve their mother tongue.

Part 1 | Part 2

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Day of the Finnish Language: Part 1

As today is the Day of the Finnish Language, we thought we'd celebrate some of the interesting facts surrounding this Uralic language. First of all, on this day Finns have at least two good reasons to celebrate their language. The first reason is that today is celebrates the life of Mikael Agricola, the man who helped formalise literary Finnish and is credited as its de facto founder and sometimes called the "father of literary Finnish".

Mikael Agricola was also known Michael Olaui, Mikkel Olofsson, and Mikael Olavinpoika if you are referring to him in Finnish. He was a sixteenth-century clergyman who was born in Uusimaa, Finland, though Finland was actually part of Sweden at the time. From a young age his teachers noticed he was good with languages and it is suggested that he was a bilingual child that spoke both Swedish and Finnish. Owing to his abilities with languages, his teachers decided to send him to a Latin school in Vyborg, Russia, where he also trained to become a priest.

The man himself.
During his time in academia, he took the name Agricola, meaning "farmer" after the vocation of his father, as was the style at the time. Agricola then went to Turku, Finland in 1528 where he became the scribe for the bishop there.

After being ordained as a priest in 1531, Agricola was then sent to study in Wittenberg, Germany by the bishop of Turku. He focused his efforts on the Greek language, as the prominent language of the bible, and in 1537, he began translating the New Testament into Finnish.

He returned to Turku in 1539 and became a rector. Following the death of a bishop in 1554, Agricola was consecrated as an Ordinarius by Gustav Vasa, the king of Sweden, meaning that Agricola was effectively the bishop in all but title.

In 1557 Agricola was part of a delegation that headed to Russia to negotiate the end of the Russo-Swedish War. Though the negotiations were concluded and put into effect on 2 April 1557, on the way back Agricola fell ill and died in Uusikirkko, then part of Finland, though now part of Russia.

Since the date of Agricola's birth is unknown, the day of his death and his status as the "father of literary Finnish" is one of the reasons that today is the Day of the Finnish Language. We'll be back on Friday with the other reason. See you then!

Part 1 | Part 2

Monday, April 7, 2014

Language Profile: Danish

Today we're taking a quick look at Danish, a member of the Germanic language family. It is the de facto official language of Denmark, as there is no law in the country naming it the official language.

The Øresund bridge, which connects Copenhagen,
the Danish capital, to Sweden.
Danish is also widely used in Greenland, where it is spoken as the first language of about 20% of the population. It is also a popular second language in Greenland, and is often used in administrative and educational settings despite the country's official language being Greenlandic.

The Danish language is a descendant of Old Norse, and as such is closely related to several other Germanic languages. In particular, it is largely mutually intelligible with Norwegian and Swedish. Standard Danish, known as rigsdansk, is based on the dialects of the language spoken around Denmark's capital, Copenhagen.

Lexically speaking, most words in Danish are derived from Old Norse terms. After World War II, most loanwords into the language came from German and French. It is also interesting to note that Danish had a large influence on fellow Germanic language Old English back in medieval times. If you're interested in this influence, you might want to look at our previous posts on Scandinavian loanwords into the English language.

The Danish alphabet is the same as the English alphabet, except for the inclusion of three additional letters: 'æ', 'ø', and 'å'. Danish also contains quite a few vowel phonemes: 16 to be exact!

Friday, April 4, 2014

Independence Day: The Languages of Senegal

As today is the day Senegal gained political independence from France, we thought we'd take a look at some of the fascinating languages spoken in the former French colony. On this day in 1959, Senegal and the French Sudan became the Mali Federation, which was eventually given full independence from France on 20 June 1960. However, this is the day celebrated in Senegal so we will respect the Senegalese custom.

The flag of Senegal, which was adopted once the country
gained full independence from France.
As Senegal is a former French colony, you can expect that French is spoken here. However, French is far from the most commonly spoken language in Senegal. Though French is the one and only "official language" in Senegal and is used administratively, it is only understood by anywhere between 15% and 20% of Senegalese men and as little as 1% to 2% of all Senegalese women.

In fact, only 10% of the population of Senegal are true French native speakers, meaning that the remaining 90% of the country must speak some other language. This statement is entirely true, making Senegal a haven for linguistic diversity.

The most widely spoken language in Senegal is actually Wolof, which with nearly 4 million speakers in Senegal is spoken by nearly 40% of the population. The Wolof language is a Niger-Congo language and is regulated by CLAD, the Centre de linguistique appliquée de Dakar. The Wolof language holds regional language status in Senegal.

Soninke has around 2.1 million speakers in the world and aside from Senegal, it is spoken in Mali, the Ivory Coast, Gambia, Mauritania, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, and Ghana. While it is not the official language of Senegal, it is recognised as a regional language.

The Serer language also holds regional language status in Senegal. Much like Wolof, it is regulated by the CLAD where the standard form is known as Serer-Sine, or Serer Proper.

Another Niger-Congo language spoken in Senegal is Pulaar, where it is locally known as Haalpulaar'en. Pulaar is also spoken in Mauritania, Gambia, and western Mali. Pulaar is one of the many names for the Fula language, depending on who you are speaking to. Fula, much like the other languages we have seen, holds regional language status in Senegal.

Mandinka has nearly 700,000 speakers in Senegal and is yet another Niger-Congo language. There a total 1.3 million speakers of Mandinka in the world and though Mandinka is principally a tonal language, in Senegal it is non-tonal and instead uses a pitch accent. The language is written using both Latin and Arabic scripts.

The Niger-Congo language of Jola-Fonyi is spoken by around 340,000 people in Senegal, principally in the Casamance region. There are around 410,000 total speakers of Jola-Fonyi in the world. Jola-Fonyi is one of the principal dialects of Jola which are not mutually intelligible. Jola has regional language status in Senegal.

After Jola-Fonyi, Mandjak is the next most spoken Niger-Congo language in Senegal with 310,000 speakers worldwide and 105,000 speakers in Senegal itself. Balanta-Ganja has around half a million speakers in the world and 82,800 speakers in Senegal. The Noon language family is mainly spoken in the Thiès region by nearly 33,000 people.

The Mankanya language has 29,200 speakers in Senegal. There are nearly 75,000 speakers of the language worldwide with the other speakers principally residing in Guinea-Bissau and Gambia.

Why are we so interested in how many people speak each of these languages? Because all of these languages have more speakers than the L1 and L2 speakers of French combined. Yet French is still the official language of Senegal. We're not saying that French should have its official status removed, but it seems to us that Senegal, while it recognises Wolof, Soninka, Serer, Fula, Maninka, and Jola, as regional languages, continues to conduct its affairs in a language spoken by a minority of the people dating back to European colonialism.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Is Urban Dictionary Good for the English Language?

We imagine many of you out there have heard of Urban Dictionary and may have even used it before. For those of you who haven't, it's an internet dictionary that was founded in 1999 by Aaron Peckham, who at the time was a computer science major at California Polytechnic State University. Originally, the website was intended to be a source for information on slang terms, as well as cultural words and phrases. Basically, it was a home for all the words that you couldn't find in standard dictionaries. It's also crowdsourced, meaning anyone in the world can submit definitions. These are then approved for publishing by volunteer editors, and readers can also "up-vote" or "down-vote" definitions they agree or disagree with. 

While we were big fans of Urban Dictionary back when it first started since it helped us decipher all that new slang we were hearing the cool kids use, now we're not so sure how we feel about it. We're giving you our list of the good and the bad of Urban Dictionary, but we'll let you decide for yourself.

The Good

Whether you love or hating chewing gum, in some parts
of the world, it's known as "chuddie".
1. Urban Dictionary provides definitions for slang terms you would never find in traditional dictionaries. For example, "chuddie" is a British slang term for "chewing gum", but you'd never know that if you asked the Oxford English Dictonary.

2. The example sentences provided by users are often very helpful at giving you a sense of how the word is used. The top definition for "knackered" has four definitions, but also has a sentence for each that gives you a clear idea of when it's used.

3. Any term can be defined. Anything. Embarrassed to ask what something means because you're pretty sure it's of a sexual nature? Urban Dictionary is there to enlighten you (although we can't guarantee you'll like what you find). 

4. It's constantly updated with new terms. As someone doesn't often use the short abbreviations popularly used in text messages and Twitter, I recently found the need to look up "smh", which was suddenly in every friend's Facebook status. (It's "shaking my head", if you were wondering.)

The Bad

1. Crowdsourcing gone wild. It used to be that Urban Dictionary was primarily composed of actual slang terms and cultural references. Nowadays, it seems to be increasingly filled with more and more inside jokes. 

2. Any term can be defined. We're not prudes, but it does seem like there is an overwhelming majority of sexual terminology making it into the Urban Dictionary these days. We're not convinced they're all even terms people legitimately use and haven't just invented as a joke to show to their friends. A third of the "word of the day" posts from last week was sexual in nature. Surely we invent slang about other things too, no?

3. It's constantly updated with new terms. Maybe too constantly. Perhaps there are so many new entries on the site each day because they never get the chance to actually gain popularity in the real world before they're defined on Urban Dictionary. Sure, sometimes a new word is created by combining two existing words, but do we really need "neckbeard", "tex-sex", "broatmeal", or "sneizure"? Maybe you could fight for neckbeard, but combining "bro" with anything is bad enough, let alone adding it to "oatmeal".


We wouldn't want to live in a world without Urban Dictionary, since it has helped us out so many time in the past. That said, it could be improved with better editing, which is obviously a tall order given its massive size, even with crowdsourcing. We'd love to hear your opinion in the comments below. Let us know, do you think Urban Dictionary is good or bad?