Friday, August 26, 2016

It's So Fluffy! What Does "Fluffy" Mean If You Don't Speak English?

The other day I came across something sort of weird... the word "fluffy" isn't very universal. Sure, a lot of languages have similar words, but none are exactly the same. I currently live in Spain, and I've found that my Spanish-speaking friends who speak English understand it, while those who don't can't find a useful translation that really encompasses everything the English word means.

So what does it mean? If you look "fluffy" up in a dictionary, the first definition you might get is: "of, resembling, or covered with fluff".

You must admit, that's pretty useless if you don't know what "fluff" is.

Apparently, "fluff" is "soft fibres from fabrics such as wool or cotton which accumulate in small light clumps".

In English, clouds can be fluffy, clothing can be fluffy, and above all, soft toys can be fluffy. If you've ever seen the film Despicable Me (in English), you'll have seen, without a doubt, the best example of "fluffy" in use.

In the film, a young girl named Agnes sees a plush unicorn toy at a funfair and exclaims "It's so fluffy I'm gonna die!", a perfectly natural reaction to such an incredible and "fluffy" prize. Take a look at the following clip:

As you can see, you can check out this scene out in a multitude of languages. If you go straight to European Spanish, which started the whole debate, you'll see she uses the adjective blandito (soft), while the Mexican Spanish version uses hermoso (beautiful). Here's the European Spanish version for your viewing pleasure:

I'm not criticising the dubbing here, but just pointing out that maybe "fluffy" doesn't really exist or work well in Spanish. However, let's have a look at how they dealt with it in France...

The French version says C'est trop génial!, which is more or less "It's brilliant!", which completely ignores the plush and fluffy nature of the soft toy. However, it doesn't make the scene any less cute!

These aren't the only two examples. The Italian version uses morbido (soft) and the Portuguese version uses fofo (cute).

However, I don't think it's just a Romance language issue! For Danish, they chose to use nuttet (cute).

From the versions available, I reckon German comes the closest with the term flauschig, which apparently means "fleecy" (though I'm not a German expert). To me, that seems quite adequate when it comes to describing the unicorn, don't you think?

Finally, there's the Swedish version, for which I have no idea. I'd love to hear your thoughts on it. Here it is:

Apparently the word is fluffsi, or something like that. Is this accurate or a loanword?

When it comes to the word "fluffy", is it uniquely English or just a lacuna between English and Romance languages? Do you have a better translation in your own language? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below, especially Swedish speakers, since your dubbing has me bamboozled!

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Country Profile: The Languages of Latvia

In our last country profile, we looked at the languages of Botswana, a country in southern Africa with over two dozen native languages. This week we'll be focusing on Latvia, a Baltic state in northern Europe which is home to considerably fewer languages.

Gauja National Park in Latvia
The Official Language

Latvia's one and only official language is Latvian, which is the native language of nearly 1.5 million Latvians and a second language of another 500,000. It is a member of the Baltic language family, which only contains two living languages: Latvian and Lithuanian, which is the official language of neighboring Lithuania.

Another prominent language in Latvia is Russian, due to the country's complex history with the Soviet Union. Russian remains the country's most widely spoken minority language, with nearly 700,000 native speakers and almost 1.4 million second language speakers. In fact, it is so widely used that the country's government held a constitutional referendum in 2012 to determine whether it should be added as a second official language, but nearly 75% of the population voted against the proposal.

Other Languages

The Ethnologue lists four other languages that are used as native languages in Latvia: Latgalian, Baltic Romani, Yiddish and Liv. The most spoken of these four languages is Latgalian, which some linguists consider to merely be a dialect of Latvian, although it is a standardized variety that is protected by Latvian law. There are about 200,000 native speakers of Latgalian in Latgale, the easternmost region of the country.

Latvia is also home to about 8,000 native speakers of Baltic Romani, a group of Romani dialects spoken in the Baltic states, Poland and Russia. It is followed by Yiddish, the Germanic language with Hebrew and Slavic influences which is spoken by around 800 Latvians.

Last but not least, there's Livonian, which belongs to the Uralic language family. While the last native speaker died in 2013, there are still about 200 people who speak it as a second language. This means that instead of being classified as extinct, it's considered dormant, which is pretty fitting for a language also known as Liv.

Monday, August 22, 2016

The End of the Linguistic Relativity Rainbow

On Friday, we looked at linguistic relativity, scholars Berlin and Kay, and how languages exist in different stages according to how they name colours. To put it simply, their work showed that all humans understand colours in the same way, and that differentiation is not due to culture.

This was considered to be true because the ranges of colours in each language match up across languages. For example, in the Stage II languages we mentioned on Friday, the red they distinguished would fit within the same range of red shades across other languages.

The Munsell System that was used by Berlin and Kay.
This means that any given Stage II language should consider "red" to be within the same range as in other languages, regardless of stage, given that they distinguish the colour "red". This understanding of colour and language became known as the universalist view. All colour perception is inherent within humans, so no matter what language you speak, you generally distinguish colours across the same ranges on a physiological level.

The scholars Kessen, Bornstein, and Weiskopf tested this idea using babies, in order to see how they responded to different colours of light. This was done by measuring habituation, whereby you respond less to a given stimulus as you get used to it. For example, you might get a fright if you hear a sudden loud noise, but if you constantly hear sudden loud noises, you barely respond.

In their study, the babies responded more to what we'd think of as distinct colours, rather than different shades or hues of the same colour, just like adults would. This supported the idea that our understanding of colour is with us before language has an opportunity to affect how we think about colour.

Of course, if you're familiar with academia, you won't be surprised to find out that there are ideas challenging Berlin and Kay's work. Their methodology was later criticised by other scholars for being Eurocentric and Western.

While Berlin and Kay thought that the concept of colours was universal, their critics started to side with the ideas of Sapir and Whorf, saying that language does shape how we think. This side of the argument is known as the relativist view.

Russian Blues, geddit?
If we don't all see or understand colours the same way, how could we test this? An interesting test used native speakers of English and native speakers of Russian. In the Russian language, there are unique terms for what English would call dark blue (siniy) and light blue (goluboy).

English speakers were asked to match a reference colour to one of two choices. If they were what we think of as different colours, they could do it pretty quickly. If they weren't, it took them a little longer. This meant the Russian speakers were quicker at matching their two known blue colours than English speakers were. You can find the study here.

What's the conclusion? A lot of studies support the idea that all of us have the same inherent understanding of colours, and a lot of studies support the idea that languages affect how we understand colours. What's at the end of the linguistic relativity rainbow? Who knows? The debate rages on!

Friday, August 19, 2016

The Beginning of the Linguistic Relativity Rainbow

Linguistic relativity is based on the works of Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf, and describes how the language we speak can affect and shape the way we see the world and how we think.

While this is sometimes known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the hypothesis itself was not created by Sapir and Whorf, but rather by linguists Roger Brown and Eric Lenneberg. Brown and Lenneberg decided they would use colours to test Sapir and Whorf's ideas. Since then, colours and linguistic relativity have been the best of friends.

What is the difference between blue and green? If you speak English, or one of the languages that distinguishes between them, you're probably thinking that they are obviously different colours. However, if you speak a language that doesn't distinguish between them, there is no difference. When presented with what I call "green" and what I call "blue", you would probably describe these two blue-green colours based on whether they're a light, dark, rich, or pale blue-green, rather than providing unique colour terms for each.

How many colours are there in this ring?
With this in mind, today we'll be looking at the work of American scholars Brent Berlin and Paul Kay. These two worked with colours and languages and suggested that languages, in terms of the colours they distinguish, can be classified as being at a certain stage.

For example, in a language in Stage I, there are two distinct colour terms that describe either a dark-cool colour or a light-warm colour. You could consider these similar to, but not exactly the same as black and white in English. Every language has at least these two distinctions.

Languages in Stage II include three distinct colours: those from Stage I (the previous stage) and the colour red. Pretty simple, right? So let's have a look at all of Berlin and Kay's stages:

Stage I: Dark-cool and light-warm
Stage II: Red
Stage III: Green or yellow
Stage IV: Green and yellow
Stage V: Blue
Stage VI: Brown
Stage VII: Purple, pink, orange, or grey

Berlin and Kay stated that languages developed terms for certain colours in certain orders, and would not have distinctions for colours in the higher stages before distinguishing those in a lower stage.

This means, according to Berlin and Kay, that our blue-green issue from earlier would exist in all languages of Stage IV or lower (as a Stage V language would distinguish between them). This also means that any language that distinguishes brown from other colours already distinguishes blue from green.

That's just the start of our trip to the end of the linguistic relativity rainbow; we'll be back on Monday with more ways to consider how languages, and their users, name colours.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The Problem with Going to Cinemas in Other Countries

As you may have guessed from a few of my previous posts, I'm getting into subtitling and foreign media in a big way. In the past I've mentioned some of the problems with Netflix's subtitling and how well Crunchyroll subtitles anime. Today I'd like to talk about the problems with visiting the cinema when living in another country, like I do in Spain.

Last week I went to see Suicide Squad with my brother, who doesn't speak much Spanish. This meant that the best option was to watch the film with its original audio and Spanish subtitles.

However, there is one problem with this. We were watching the film in English, with Spanish subtitles, as English speakers. This meant that the subtitles were for Spanish speakers, and it's just a happy coincidence that the film was almost exclusively in the English language. Yet since we're English speakers, we could enjoy the dialogue since it was almost exclusively in English.


There are a few parts of the film in Spanish, as well as parts in what I believe was a fictional language. These parts were still only subtitled in Spanish like the rest of the film. This was obviously quite problematic for my brother, who was briefly out of the loop at a rather important moment in the story.

This made me realise that the original version wasn't really for us. The subtitles were for those with hearing difficulty or for people who hate dubbing. If you're watching the original version of a film because you speak the language of the original version, you're going to run into a few problems if the film features any languages you don't speak.

Ideally, I'd like to see the original versions of films shown as originals, complete with subtitles where appropriate. They could always have two sets of subtitles in these rare instances, especially when scenes are hugely important to the plot of the film! That said, they couldn't have saved the Suicide Squad...

Monday, August 15, 2016

Country Profile: The Languages of Botswana

A couple of weeks ago, we looked at the languages spoken in Lesotho. Today, we'll be exploring the linguistic landscape of Botswana, another landlocked country in southern Africa.

The Official Language

The sole official language of Botswana is English, which is a remnant of colonial times when the country was under British rule. However, English is not the country's most spoken language. It is only spoken as a native language by about 30,000 people in Botswana, while another 600,000 use it as a second language.

Other Languages

As it turns out, the most spoken language in Botswana is Setswana, also known as Tswana. Setswana is a Bantu language that is indigenous to the region. Over 1.25 million people in Botswana speak Setswana as their mother tongue, while another 150,000 use it as a second language.

The Okavango Delta in Botswana.
According to the Ethnologue, over two dozen other languages are spoken in Botswana. When it comes to Botswana's ten most spoken indigenous languages, including Setswana, nine are Bantu languages. Kalanga boasts over 150,000 native speakers, Kgalagadi has about 40,000, and there are also about 20,000 Mbukushu speakers. There are also between 11,000 and 15,000 native speakers of Birwa, Nambya, Lozi, Zezuru, and Herero.

In terms of Botswana's top indigenous languages, only one isn't a Bantu language. That language is Hai||om, a member of the Khoe language family, which is known for its clicks. There are over 30,000 Hai||om native speakers in Botswana.

In addition to Hai||om, there are several other Khoe languages spoken in Botswana. Naro, Shua and Tsoa all have over 2,000 native speakers, while languages like ||Ani, ||Gana, |Gwi, Khwe, Kua and Khoekhoe have between 200 and 2,000.

There are also a few more Bantu languages left to mention. Ndebele boasts about 8,000 native speakers, while Kuhane is used by 6,000, and Tswapong, Yeyi and Gciriku are used by between 2,000 and 5,000 people in Botswana.

The last four languages we'll be mentioning today are Afrikaans, Ju|'hoan, !Xóõ, and ‡Hua. You've probably heard of Afrikaans before, since it's a Germanic language closely related to Dutch that is one of the official languages of South Africa. Botswana is home to about 6,000 native Afrikaans speakers. There are also about 5,000 native speakers of Ju|'hoan, a member of the !Kung family, and another 2,000 speakers of !Xóõ, which is known for its impressive phoneme inventory. Last but not least, there are about 30 native speakers of ‡Hua, a nearly extinct language that is possibly related to the !Kung languages.

Friday, August 12, 2016

How Crunchyroll Gets Subtitling Right

Last year I wrote a post about the poor quality of subtitling on Netflix and am sorry to say that the same problems and frustrations continue to bug me. I've watched entire shows riddled with subtitles whose content is just nonsense.

It should read "And I even got that award off those feminists"
Netflix's subtitles for the British sitcom The IT Crowd were so awful that I can only imagine that they may have been automatically generated, not checked over, and subsequently just thrown onto the bottom of the screen.

YouTube should also get a special mention for subtitling quality. However, even though a lot of YouTube videos use automatically generated subtitles, the platform is kind enough to tell you they are and you don't have to pay a subscription for it like you do with Netflix.

However, the purpose of today's post isn't to name and shame bad subtitling (even though I just did), it's to praise Crunchyroll, a streaming service for anime, whose subtitles look like they were lovingly created and carefully implemented into shows.

If you don't watch anime, then you're probably not familiar with the platform Since all its shows are from Japan with Japanese audio, with the exception of a few dubs, a lot of subtitling goes on and they do it so well.

It's important to remember that Japanese uses a different writing system to English. One of my complaints with Netflix was that the Japanese text in scenes is often left untranslated. On Crunchyroll, not only are the subtitles placed over the Japanese text, but they also use same colouring as the original Japanese text, which makes everything clearer and makes the shows so much more enjoyable.

Crunchyroll's subtitling is exemplary of how to do it. Netflix should definitely take a page out of their book when it comes to subtitling all their programmes.