Friday, February 5, 2016

Podcasts for Language Lovers: Lexicon Valley

Since podcasts seem to have taken over the world of modern media, it seemed fitting that we take some time to look at great podcasts for language lovers. Today we're going to focus on our favorite language-related podcast: Slate's "Lexicon Valley".

First, in case you've somehow managed to avoid learning what a podcast is over the past few years, here's how Oxford Dictionaries defines the term: "a digital audio file made available on the Internet for downloading to a computer or portable media player, typically available as a series, new instalments of which can be received by subscribers automatically." In terms of etymology, the word is a portmanteau of iPod and broadcast, further showcasing Apple's dominance (at least linguistically) when it comes to portable media players.

Death Valley National Park in California
Getting back to our original topic, if you love all things related to linguistics and language, then we highly recommend checking out an episode or two (or all 78 and counting!) of Slate's "Lexicon Valley", which is hosted by Bob Garfield and Mike Vuolo. According to its iTunes description, "Lexicon Valley is a podcast about language, from pet peeves, syntax, and etymology to neurolinguistics and the death of languages."

There are several things we love about "Lexicon Valley". First of all, most episodes are 20 to 30 minutes in length, which makes them perfect to listen to on a daily commute or when your brain needs a quick break from work. We also love the fact that the hosts are able to keep the discussion lively and interesting, and that they focus on a wide variety of topics. You'd think that over 27 minutes of audio discussing the phrase "between you and I" would be incredibly boring, but they've somehow managed to make it fascinating and fun.

We haven't had the chance to listen to many of the most recent episodes, so it is possible that the quality has declined, but we definitely enjoyed listening to their earliest episodes, which covered such diverse topics as the history of "ain't", grammatical gender, and language extinction. In any case, we'd love to know what you think of the podcast, which you can listen to on their website or download from any number of other podcast sources.

Do you know of any other podcasts dedicated to language or linguistics that we should listen to? Let us know in the comments below!

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Languages in the News: January 2016

Since we've already reached the end of January, today we're taking a look back at some of the best news stories and articles from the past month.

Can You Really Sum Up a Whole Year in One Word?

Unsurprisingly, our first bit of language news came in the form of a look back at 2015. This article from The Guardian looked at the terms from the English language that defined 2015. It's definitely recommended if you're interested in the ever-changing lexicon of the English language. You can read it here.

The 1967 Revolution That Allowed Swedes to Finally Call Each Other “You”

This article that was featured on Slate covered a fascinating language shift that made Swedish much more informal. If you're familiar with languages that have formal pronouns, you'll definitely want to read this article on the Swedish language. You can do so here.

Food Culture Gives Rise To New 'Eatymology'

American public radio website NPR told us how foodies and our fondness for food are helping create new English words that describe our culinary obsessions, particularly in the United States. If you're interested in the latest food lingo, you can read NPR's article here.

Sorry, grammar nerds. The singular ‘they’ has been declared Word of the Year.

This article from the Washington Post looks at how English grammar has changed, particularly in terms of personal pronouns. When there was increasing demand for a gender-neutral pronoun, the English language answered the call. If you'd like to learn more, you can read the article here.

How did the months get their names?

The Oxford Dictionary's blog started the year by looking at the months that define our years. As expected, they covered the etymology from January through December in a blog post that told us the roots of all the weird words we use to describe almost every lunar cycle of the year. If you're interested, you can read the post here.

Are there any other language articles you enjoyed in January? Please tell us and our readers about them in the comments below.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Country Profile: The Languages of Finland

In last week's country profile, we looked at the languages of Denmark, the southernmost country in Scandinavia. Today we're going to check out the linguistic diversity of Finland, which may or may not be included in Scandinavia depending on who you ask. In any case, everyone does agree that both Denmark and Finland are Nordic countries, a group that also includes Norway, Sweden, and Iceland.

Suomenlinna, a sea fortress on six islands in Helsinki, Finland.
The Official Languages

Finland has two official languages: Finnish and Swedish. Given the name of the country, it should come as no surprise that the most popular of these languages is Finnish, which is the native language of over 90% of the country's population. Swedish, on the other hand, is the native language of about 5% of Finns.

Finnish is a particularly interesting language because it is a member of the Uralic language family, which means that it is related to Hungarian and Estonian. Swedish, like the other Scandinavian languages, is a Germanic language that descended from Old Norse. While it was the primary language used by the government until the late 1800s, it has since been largely replaced by Finnish. However, both official languages are required subjects in Finnish schools.

Recognized Languages

The Finnish government has also officially recognized the rights of speakers of several other languages used in the country. Three of these are Sami languages which are spoken by the Sami people, Europe's northernmost indigenous group: North Sami, Inari Sami, and Skolt Sami. North Sami is the most widely spoken Sami language, and has about 1,700 native speakers in Finland. Inari Sami and Skolt Sami are both endangered languages, with only about 300 native speakers in Finland.

Karelian pasties, generally filled with
rice, can be found throughout Finland.
The final two recognized languages are Romani and Karelian. There are about 10,000 native speakers of Finnish Kalo Romani in Finland, primarily members of Romani groups that immigrated to Finland from Scotland and England in the 16th century. Finland is also home to approximately 10,000 native speakers of the Karelian language, a Uralic language that is primarily spoken in a region of Russia that borders Finland.

Other Languages

One final language used as a native language by a significant portion of Finland's population is Estonian. There are over 30,000 native speakers of Estonian in Finland, yet another Uralic language that is related to Finnish.

In terms of foreign languages, the most popular choices are English and German. Over 60% of Finns speak English, while over 15% speak German. Since a significant percentage of the Finnish population speaks Swedish, they are also able to understand Norwegian and Danish, since both languages are mutually intelligible with Swedish to varying degrees.

Friday, January 29, 2016

The Ridiculousness of Censorship

As someone who is fascinated by language and communication, I've never been a huge fan of censorship. There are many reasons that people oppose or support censorship, depending on the situation, but my main problem with it is that it can cause communication to be less effective.

In this post, I'm not referring to the censorship of official documents for security reasons, or the censorship of journalistic pieces in order to protect the identities of sources. Instead, I'm focusing on the censorship of media like television, film, and music.

For example, why is it necessary to censor "swear words" on U.S. television? The most common explanation is that it's done to "protect the ears of innocent children" who may be watching. The thing is, we're not trying to eradicate these supposedly sinister words from the English language, so kids just end up learning them elsewhere.

The most ridiculous example of censorship I've seen in recent weeks was this clip from The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, a late-night talk show. (You can stop watching at :45 if you're only interested in the censorship-related aspects of the clip, though I recommend watching the entire clip to learn some silly phrases in French too.)


I would love to know the reasoning behind the censorship of this clip. There are just so many levels of ridiculousness to it! First of all, the conversation is about language, specifically how the idiom "break a leg", which is used to wish a performer good luck in English, is expressed in French. By bleeping French actress Marion Cotillard when she uses the French word merde and its English counterpart, shit, the censors have rendered the entire conversation unintelligible. I can only imagine that The Late Show's editors chose to include the clip in order to demonstrate the ridiculousness of television censorship. Otherwise, how do you explain this exchange?

Colbert: "In French, you say, instead of break a leg, you say..."
Cotillard: "We say *****, which means ****."

This also raises tons of other questions. Why are French words being censored? For that matter, why is shit being censored, given the fact that the show is on late at night when the young children who we're supposedly trying to protect from swear words should already be asleep?

In addition, the censors clearly didn't consider the context of the situation, since Marion Cotillard was not using shit as an obscenity - she was using it to make a linguistic explanation. As they continue talking, she explains that the use of merde dates back to times when having a lot of horse shit in front of your theater meant that your show was popular, yet the word shit is once again bleeped, despite being used to refer to excrement from a horse.

Does it drive you crazy when you watch television or listen to music and suddenly have no idea what's going on because of censorship, or do you think it's good that things are censored? Feel free to share your opinion in the comments.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Countable and Uncountable Nouns in the English Language

When it comes to nouns in the English language, they can be divided into two groups: those that we call countable, and those that we call uncountable. There are a number of ways to distinguish between the two. To start, let's look at what I believe is the simpler of the two to understand, countable nouns.

Countable Nouns

Most nouns are countable, which means that as the name suggests, they can be counted. This means that we can say there are one, two, or however many of them. For example, we can say "one cat" or "two cats".

Since these nouns can be counted, they can have both a singular and a plural form. Usually in English, the plural form is made by adding -s to the end of the noun. Of course, there are many exceptions to this rule. Since countable nouns can have both singular and plural forms, they can also be used with verbs that are conjugated in both the singular and plural forms.

This is one orange cat.
For example, we can say both "there is one cat in the house" and "there are two cats in the house". In addition to using numbers, we can say "there is a cat in the house" or "there are some cats in the house," with some being used exclusively with the plural of countable nouns.

When there are a lot of a countable noun, you have to use many and never use much. For example, "there are many cats in this house" instead of "there are much cats in this house". You can also say "there are a lot of cats in this house".

The main points of countable nouns:
  • Can be singular or plural.
  • Can be used with both singular and plural verb conjugations.
  • Can use a/an in singular.
  • Can use some in plural.
  • Many not much.
Uncountable Nouns

When you talk about uncountable nouns, things get a little bit more difficult. Uncountable nouns cannot be counted. Uncountable nouns usually include things like liquids, gases, and powders. For example, water, air, and sugar.

Since they can't be counted, you cannot have two, three, etc., of uncountable nouns. They also don't have plural forms, which means that you cannot use plural verb conjugations with them. For example, we can say "there is air in the room" but never "there are air in the room".

Here is some sugar or four types of sugar.
You also can't use a or an as an article with uncountable nouns. This means you can't say "I would like a sugar". Instead, you have to say "I would like some sugar".

You can never use many with uncountable nouns. However, you can use much, but only when using the negative. For example, "there isn't much sugar in this tea". When using the positive, you have to say "there is a lot of sugar in this tea."

Uncountable nouns:
  • Always paired with singular verb conjugations.
  • Always use some rather than a/an.
  • Use much in the negative.
  • Use a lot of or lots of in the positive.
Uncountable nouns can always be made countable by adding a countable noun. For example, water is uncountable but a bottle of water is countable, since bottle is countable.

Have any lingering questions about countable or uncountable nouns? We'll be happy to answer them in the comments below!

Monday, January 25, 2016

Country Profile: The Languages of Denmark

So far in 2016, we've looked at the linguistic diversity of Sierra Leone, Nicaragua, and Kyrgyzstan. Since we've already focused on countries in Africa, Central America, and Asia, today we're going to check out a European country: Denmark.

The Official Languages

The de facto official language of the southernmost country in Scandinavia is Danish, a Germanic language. Over 5.3 million Danes, which encompasses the vast majority of the country's population, speak Danish as a native language.

Faroese stamps from 1983.
However, Denmark's government also officially recognizes three other languages: Faroese, Greenlandic, and German. Faroese is a Germanic language that is primarily spoken in the Faroe Islands, an archipelago between Norway and Iceland that is a constituent country of the Kingdom of Denmark. There are about 66,000 native speakers of Faroese worldwide, almost exclusively within the Kingdom of Denmark.

Greenlandic, on the other hand, is an Inuit language that is primarily spoken in Greenland, the other autonomous constituent country of the Kingdom of Denmark. Greenland is the world's largest island, yet is the least densely populated country in the world due to its tiny population of about 55,000 people. The majority of Greenland's population speaks Greenlandic, but many also speak Danish, which plays an important role in government and education. However, in recent years there have been efforts to promote greater use of the Greenlandic language instead of Danish, which is a colonial language.

Then there's German, which is recognized as a minority language in the southernmost region of Denmark. This area, which was part of Germany until the end of World War I, is home to approximately 25,000 native German speakers. However, German is also the second most popular foreign language in Denmark, with nearly half of the population speaking it as a second language.

Foreign Languages

While these four languages are the primary native languages used in Denmark and its constituent countries, two foreign languages deserve a mention: English and Swedish. English is spoken as a second language by over 85% of the country's population, while Swedish is spoken as a second language by over 10% of Danes.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Film Club: Oscars 2016

One of the biggest news stories in the United States lately has been the controversy surrounding the lack of diversity in this year's Oscar nominations for acting. That said, other Oscar categories have honored diverse productions from all over the world with nominations this year, including several nominees in the two documentary categories which you can learn more about here.

In any case, there's one category that is always diverse by definition: the award for "Best Foreign Language Film". Today we're going to take a look at the five nominees, which hail from Europe, South America, and the Middle East.

Son of Saul - Hungary

If you read our recent post on the Golden Globe nominees for "Best Foreign Language Film", then you might recall that Son of Saul was the first Hungarian film ever to win a Golden Globe. Saul fia, as it's known in Hungarian, tells the sad tale of a Hungarian-Jewish prisoner working in the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II.

A few mustangs, free-roaming horses in the Americas.
Mustang - France

Another nominee you might recognize is Mustang, a Turkish-language film that was also nominated for a Golden Globe. It focuses on the story of five orphaned sisters in a Turkish village trying to find whatever freedom they can in their conservative society.

Embrace of the Serpent - Colombia

The final three films weren't nominated for Golden Globes, but that doesn't make them any less wonderful. Embrace of the Serpent, which goes by the title El abrazo de la serpiente in Spanish, tells two stories set in 1909 and 1940 that revolve around Karamakate, an Amazonian shaman who helps Western scientists in search of a sacred plant. Interestingly, the film was inspired by the field diaries of two scientists who worked in the Amazon.

Theeb - Jordan

Jordan's first-ever Oscar nominee is Theeb, an Arabic-language film. It tells the story of a Bedouin boy named Theeb who is asked to lead a British officer on a dangerous journey through the desert in order to reach to a location of strategic importance during World War I. One of the most amazing aspects of the film is the fact that almost all of the actors in it are non-professional actors who had never been involved in a film before.

A War - Denmark

The final nominee for this year's foreign language film Oscar is A War, also known as Krigen in Danish. Unsurprisingly, it too is a war story, though it focuses on a more timely tale of a Danish military company in Afghanistan. It also features non-professional actors, since all of the soldiers in the film that are not main characters are played by actual Danish soldiers who served in Afghanistan.

Since all of these films are so recent, it might be difficult to find them at your local cinema. While you wait for them to be available in your area, on DVD, or online, we recommend checking out last year's nominees, including Ida, the winning entry from Poland. We'll have to wait until February 28th to find out who wins this year's Oscar!