Monday, February 20, 2017

Onomatopoeia and Cool Ways to Describe Sounds

Onomatopoeia is one of my favourite things in language. Aside from being a great word in itself, onomatopoeia are words that sound like the noise they describe. For example, the word miaow (to English speakers) sounds like the noise a cat makes. In fact, a lot of animal sounds in English are onomatopoeia. Bees buzz, dogs woof, and frogs ribbit, for example.

Remember the Batman series in the 1960s with Adam West? They used them all the time to hide impacts during "fight" scenes!

English a rather rich language. However, if you're writing a comic book, you can't use too much space elaborately describing sound effects like an author would in a novel! This is when describing sounds gets really interesting.

While you may be familiar with some classic "sound effects" like bang, pow, and blam, you mightn't have imagined sounds like thwipp, when Spiderman launches a string of web, or snikt, when Wolverine's claws pop out.

Mlem, mlem, mlem!
Words like schlik can be used to describe metal on metal when sharpening knives, for example. Mlem describes a tongue (usually a cat's) lapping up water whereas blep describes sticking your tongue out!

A dog wagging its tail could be described as fwip fwip fwip and your heartbeat as lub-dub-lub-dub. While we usually knock on a door, what noise does a door make when it closes? How about wumpth? Pretty good, right?

In addition to these creative uses of letters and phonemes, comic artists will also ensure that the words look like the sounds they're supposed to represent. How do they do this? With font, size, and colouring.

Are there any cool sounds from comics that I missed? Feel free to add them in the comments and tell what they're describing!

Monday, February 13, 2017

Polysemy and Homonymy: Words and their Meanings

I find words and all their different meanings really interesting. Whenever looking a word up in the dictionary, there is rarely just one explanation or definition. Sometimes all the meanings are similar and sometimes the meanings seem to have absolutely nothing in common. In linguistics, these meanings can be classified as either polysemy and homonymy.

Similar Meanings

Polysemy is when a word has a variety of different meanings that are etymologically related. Consider the word soft, for example. In Old English it meant "gentle" and "mild-natured". This etymology led "soft" being used to describe pillows, voices, drinks, and even people.

The word man is another example of polysemy. We can use the word to either describe the entire human race, "Man, not beast", to specify a male, "Man, not woman", or specify an adult "Man, not boy".

Different Meanings

When a word is written the same but has various different and unrelated meanings, we call this homonymy. You may have heard of homonyms before as words with different meanings but that are written the same.

For example, what does bow mean? This word has different meanings and pronunciations. When pronounced as /bəʊ/ (to rhyme with "low"), it refers to the device used to play a violin, or the thing used to fire an arrow, or a type of knot in a ribbon or shoelace.

When the word is pronounced as /baʊ/ (rhyming with "how"), it can either mean to lower your head or bend your body as a sign of respect or to thank an audience after a show. It can also be a noun that refers to the front part of a ship.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Sound Symbolism and Why Spiky Sounds Spiky

If you're familiar with onomatopoeia, you'll know that words like bang, splash, and beep all imitate the sounds they refer to. Do you think spiky sounds spikier than fluffy? If so, this could be due to a phenomenon known as sound symbolism.

Sound symbolism suggests that the sounds are used in certain words because the phonemes themselves carry meaning and it there are often groups words with similar meanings, similar spelling, or letters or phonemes in common.

For example, a lot of words referring to housing in English begin with the letter "h". Home, house, hut, hovel, habitat, etc. Of course, this doesn't necessarily occur in other languages. Maybe we create a word and then create similar words to describe similar things.

When these groups of words with similar sounds and meanings occur, it is known as clustering. This will occur differently across different languages but related languages tend to share similar clusters.

Which is kiki and which is bouba?
It has also been shown that we apply certain meanings to fictional words based on how they sound. An experiment conducted in the Canary Islands (with Spanish speakers) showed participants two shapes, a jagged one and a rounded one. Participants were then asked which one was takete and baluba. The results indicated that most said that takete was jagged and baluba was rounded.

When this experiment was repeated with English speakers and Tamil speakers with the words kiki and bouba, the result were pretty astonishing. 95 to 98% of participants put kiki with the jagged shape and bouba with the round one!

This suggested that we don't just give words meaning then use similar sounds to describe similar things but that we create words in a non-arbitrary way based on our perceptions of sounds. This became known as the bouba/kiki effect.

What do you think? Do sounds carry meaning before we create words or do we give words meaning first and then decide to use similar sounds to describe similar things? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below!

Monday, January 30, 2017

Languages in the News: January 2017

As it's the end of the month, it's time to look back at some of the best language stories from around the web.

Our first two articles are from the Oxford Dictionaries blog. There was a fascinating article on how current languages affect dead languages, which you can read here.

The second article from Oxford was on mistakes made by those learning English as a foreign language. If you're looking for ways to improve your English and avoid some of these mistakes, read the article here.

Our next stories are from The Guardian. The first is a fascinating podcast on universal grammar which you can listen to here.

There was also an interesting piece on some English words that you either really hate or use all the time. For Justin Myers' list of words that he thinks should be banned, click here.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Did you really think we'd get to the end of the month without a story about the new US president? Vox reported on a linguistic analysis of how President Trump speaks during press conferences. If you want a better understanding of his speeches, read the article here.

Atlas Obscura had a fantastic article on Canadians and the word "eh". If you'd like to find out what "eh" does, why Canadians use it, and where it comes from, you should read the article here.

The BBC also brought us an article on how babies can remember their birth language. If you'd like to find out more, you can read the story here.

The last two articles we loved were from Fluent in 3 Months. You should definitely check out some excellent reasons to get involved with the German language here. Finally, there was a great article about spies and languages! If you ever wondered how spies get so good at an accent so that nobody knows they're foreign, read the article here.

Was their any other language content this month that we missed? Tell us about them in the comments below!

Monday, January 23, 2017

Why You Need Specialized Court Interpreters by Lucy Justina

Interpreters mediate conversations between two people speaking in different languages. They have to have a thorough command of both languages and understand what is being said. They also have to quickly communicate the same idea to the other person and carefully choose the right set of words.
Interpreters are quite different from translators as they work in real time and don't get the chance to review their output! 

Interpreters are needed for many different situations. However, you may need a specialized interpreter for specific jobs. Here are some essentials for any court interpreter: 

Language Skills

This is the minimum requirement for any interpreter. A knowledge of both languages and some general vocabulary. In addition to the general vocabulary, court interpreters also require an understanding of the vocabulary used in court. Any deviation from the true legal meaning could pose a huge problem in the court proceedings.

Court interpreters also have to conduct sight interpretation. This is in when legal documents written in one language are read out by the interpreter in another language. 


A lot of confidential information is disclosed during legal proceedings. This means that court interpreters are required to observe a strict code of confidentiality. Interpreters shouldn't ever disclose any of the confidential information they hear in the court outside of it.


The documents and words spoken in the courtroom are very important. Interpreters should interpret accurately, clearly, and never expand or reduce content as they see fit. Wrongly or partially-interpreted content can hugely affect the outcome of the proceedings.

It is the interpreter’s duty to convey exactly what is being said and not read between the lines. This is  only only if they remain detached from both the parties involved in the case. In order to offer unbiased interpretation, the interpreter should avoid meeting with the parties before or during the proceedings. They shouldn't even consider the ruling of the case.


Since a court interpreter's job can be very different from that of a regular interpreter, it's essential that they complete the appropriate training and are certified. There are court certifications, training accredited by judicial bodies, and many institutes that offer both training and certification for court interpreters. Court interpreters must be both qualified and certified.

A court interpreter needs to know much more than just the two languages they interpret. Finding the right one will make your life so much easier.

Lucy is a freelance blogger. She likes learning by doing new things and sharing her knowledge through blogs.

Monday, January 16, 2017

5 Unusual Ways to Learn a Language

Most people know the traditional ways to learn a language like studying grammar and practising speaking either with natives or in a classroom environment. However, there are plenty of other ways to learn languages that you might be overlooking. Here are a few of my favourites.

1: Change The Language on Your Devices

Nowadays it's very common to have mobile phones and computers. If you have one of these devices, you should definitely make sure that your phone or computer are in the language that you're learning.

Wine bottles always have some
text on the label. Now you have
an excuse!
2: Always Read the Label

If you've moved to the target country and are going for full immersion, don't forget that almost everything you buy is an opportunity for exposure to the language.

3: Eavesdrop

While it's not very polite, if you hear anybody speaking the language you're trying to learn, you should probably try to listen to them. If you're confident, it might be your opportunity to even strike up a conversation.

4: Subtitles

You should already be watching as much TV as possible in your target language. However, if you can't find programming in the target language, you should at least get the subtitles in your target language.

5: Play Games

Either video games or board games are great for learning foreign languages. Focus on role-playing games which tend to have either a lot of text or dialogue and rely on you understanding information in order to progress. You can also try playing social board games, such as werewolf, which involve a lot of speaking.

Do you know of any unusual ways to learn a language? Tell us your ideas in the comments below.

Monday, January 9, 2017

5 Tips for Learning a Language in 2017

When it comes to bucket lists and new year's resolutions, learning a language is one of the most common. We're already over a week into 2017 and perhaps you're starting to struggle with your resolution of learning a new language. Whether this is your first attempt at learning a foreign language or you just feel like learning another, these tips should help make 2017 a success!

1: Want to learn the language

If you can, pick a language that you find interesting. Think long and hard about why you want to learn the language. If you have no interest in the language you're learning, you'll end up fighting an uphill battle. Learn about where the language is spoken, its culture, and the people who speak it, this should help you become interested in learning the language.

Libraries have internet access... and books.
2: Practise reading

There are plenty of online resources, webpages, and retailers where you can get reading material in almost any language in the world. Find articles and literature in your target language and get reading! Remember that there are also tonnes of online dictionaries and forums of other language learners for when you get stuck.

3: Train your ears

Fully immerse yourself in your target language by listening to it as often as possible. Living in a country where the language is spoken is a great way to do this. However, it's not often feasible for people to move to learn a new language. Instead, try listening to the radio, podcasts, music, or audio books in your target language either while at home or on the go.

4: Find people who speak the language and talk to them

This is probably the most beneficial of our resolutions. However, it's also probably the difficult to achieve. If you live in a fairly large city, you might be able to find speakers of the language, teachers, or classes. Otherwise, use the internet to reach out to speakers or teachers of the language you want to learn.

5: Set achievable goals

If this is your first time learning another language, don't expect to be speaking like a native any time soon. Everyone learns a language differently and progresses at different rates. Get to know how quickly you learn and work to your strengths. Try something simple that you can do when you begin and when you get into your rhythm you can begin to challenge yourself.

I hope learning a language in 2017 is going well! If you have any other suggestions, feel free to add them to the comments below!