Monday, July 27, 2015

Country Profile: The Languages of Zambia

One month ago we took a look at the languages of Malawi, a tiny country located in southern Africa. Today we're turning our linguistic microscope to Zambia, a landlocked country which it borders to the east.

The Official Language

The sole official language of Zambia is English, which is due to its British colonial history. During its time under British rule starting in the late 1800s, the area now known as Zambia was called Northern Rhodesia, while neighboring Zimbabwe was called Southern Rhodesia. In 1964, Northern Rhodesia gained its independence and was renamed the Republic of Zambia, which pays tribute to the Zambezi River that flows through the country.

While English is the primary language used in business and education, it is not the native language of most Zambians. In fact, only about 100,000 Zambians speak English as a native language. However, the language retains its prestige and importance since nearly 2 million Zambians speaks it as a second language.

Victoria Falls, one of the largest waterfalls in the world,
located on the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe.
Indigenous Languages

Zambia is also home to over 40 indigenous languages. All of the country's most important indigenous languages are Bantu languages, including Bemba, Chichewa, Tonga, Lozi, Lunda, Kaonde, and Luvale, which all boast large numbers of speakers and are used by local media.

The two most spoken indigenous languages in Zambia are Bemba and Chichewa. Bemba is an important lingua franca with nearly 4 million native speakers which is often used in education and for other official purposes. Chichewa, also known as Chewa or Nyanja, has over 2 million native speakers in Zambia. It is also used in Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Malawi, where it is one of two official languages.

Another notable Bantu language is Tonga, which has over 1.3 million native speakers and is also spoken in neighboring Zimbabwe. The Lozi language is spoken by approximately 600,000 members of the Lozi ethnic group in southwestern Zambia, while Lunda is used by around 225,000 Zambians and is also spoken in Angola. Finally, there's Kaonde, which is also spoken in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and has around 200,000 native speakers, and Luvale, which boasts 170,000 speakers. There are dozens of other fascinating Zambian languages with smaller numbers of speakers, but unfortunately we just don't have time for them all.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Language Learning: Cognates and False Friends

If you've ever taken foreign language classes before, you've probably learned about cognates, every language learner's best friend. Cognates are words in two different languages that share an etymological origin, and therefore usually contain some of the same sounds, which make them much easier to learn than other new vocabulary.

Most language teachers teach their students that cognates are terms that are identical or nearly identical, such as the English word "air" and the Spanish term aire. However, most linguists would point out that many cognates aren't identical, such as "star" and its Spanish equivalent estrella.

Regardless of how you choose to define the word cognate, knowing which terms in your language are nearly identical to those of the foreign language you're learning can be incredibly useful. If you've always wanted to learn a language but are afraid it will be too difficult, a great place to start is by learning a language that has a large amount of vocabulary in common with your own. For example, many English speakers find learning Romance languages such as Spanish and French easier than learning Chinese or Arabic because so much of the English lexicon is of Latin origin.

That said, one of the most important things a language learner can do is memorize the false cognates and false friends that pertain to the language they're learning. These linguistic tricksters are pairs of words that are identical or nearly identical, which lead people to believe that they have shared origins (in the case of false cognates) or shared meanings (in the case of false friends).

Learn your false cognates and false friends...
or risk the wrath of this lion.
When native English speakers learn a language like Spanish that has so many cognates with their own language, it's only natural that they would occasionally guess a term they don't know by modifying an English word to sound more like a Spanish term. However, this can be a very risky endeavor due to the existence of false friends.

In a best-case scenario, you might get lucky when guessing that atractivo is the Spanish word for "attractive". On the other hand, you could also try to tell a friend that you're "embarrassed" by using the word embarazada in Spanish. Once your friends have stopped laughing or congratulating you depending on your age and gender, you'll have even more reason to be embarrassed, since you've just used a false friend which actually means "pregnant".

If there are any native English speakers out there learning Spanish right now, we have a few more false cognates and false friends you might want to learn. The Spanish term éxito means "success", while a fábrica is a "factory" and sopa is "soup". You also probably shouldn't say you want to eat a pie since that means "foot". Finally, if you need to say the word "preservative" for some reason, don't use preservativo, as it means "condom".

Have you had any embarrassing situations with false cognates and false friends in the past? Let us know in the comments below.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Marvelling at the Minnesotan Accent

I'm not a huge film fan; an hour and a half is usually too long to keep my attention. However, a few months ago I started watching Fargo, the 1996 Coen brothers film. Unfortunately, I had only watched 30 minutes before I had to do something else and forgot to go back to it.

On Monday, I finally returned to the film, re-watching the first 30 minutes and inevitably watching the rest. Before I knew it, Netflix was suggesting that I watch the TV series of the same name that aired last year. I had already received tonnes of recommendations from friends, so after enjoying the film, I was straight onto the series and binge-watched four episodes. While both feature black comedy, which I love, they also sparked my interest in Minnesotan English, which I'll just fondly call Minnesotan from now on.

A beautiful view of the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
My interest in Minnesotan was actually piqued during a visit to the Twin Cities (Minneapolis and Saint Paul) in the spring of 2012, when I fell in love with the accent. This led me to find out more about this unique and fascinating accent and where it came from.

While native Minnesotans may tell me that different accents and dialects can be found across the state, today I'd like to just discuss the accent in a general sense, without over-complicating things but still trying to gain sufficient insights into what it's all about.

Many of the accent's qualities are similar to those of most other English-language accents found throughout North America, but it's the accent's differences that I find so interesting. These differences include monophthongization, a process whereby phonemes that are regularly pronounced as diphthongs become a singular and "pure" vowel.

It's widely believed that many of the accent's traits originate from the area's historic immigration patterns, which have had a lasting influence on many accents in North American English. Many of the people currently living in Minnesota are descendants of Scandinavian and Germanic peoples, notably speakers of Norwegian and German. While this is certainly plausible, it has also been suggested that British accents might be responsible for some traits, as similar effects have been noted in Canadian English.

A postcard picture of the Second Fort Snelling Bridge, Minnesota.
There have also been suggestions that there are traces of a pitch accent in Minnesotan. A pitch accent uses different pitches for certain syllables in order to distinguish words. This is a trait that is also shared with a number of Scandinavian languages, particularly Norwegian and Swedish.

The main issue with pinpointing the origins behind the accent is a lack of information. Early settlers didn't spend a whole lot of time making records for the purpose of linguistic analysis since they were probably too preoccupied with surviving the area's trying winters and making sure that their crops didn't die.

While I've heard accounts that the accents in Fargo (both the film and series) are heavily exaggerated, I could still happily listen to them all day. I've also heard that the intense friendliness is exaggerated, though my experiences in Minnesota and the Midwest certainly don't support this.

How do you feel about the Minnesotan accent? Do you love it or hate it? Is there another US accent that you prefer? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Country Profile: The Languages of Cambodia

This spring, we took a look at the many fascinating languages spoken in Nepal and Malaysia. This week we're returning our focus to Southeast Asia with a discussion of the linguistic diversity of Cambodia, which is home to nearly two dozen languages.

The Official Language

Cambodia's sole official language is Khmer, which is also known as Cambodian. Khmer holds the title of second most spoken Austro-Asiatic language in the world after Vietnamese. There are nearly 13 million native speakers of Khmer in Cambodia, as well as another million non-native speakers, which comprise the vast majority of the country's population when combined.

The Silver Pagoda at the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh,
which is the royal residence of the King of Cambodia.
Other Languages

While Khmer is undoubtedly the most dominant language in Cambodia, there are still several other languages with large numbers of speakers. The second most spoken language in Cambodia is Cham, an Austronesian language with approximately 200,000 native speakers. It is spoken by members of the Cham ethnic group that live throughout Southeast Asia, primarily in Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, and China.

Cham is followed in number of speakers by several Austro-Asiatic languages, namely Vietnamese, Mnong, Tampuan, and Brao. Vietnamese, the official language of neighboring Vietnam, is spoken by approximately 70,000 Cambodians, while Mnong and Tampuan both have between 30,000 and 40,000 native speakers. Brao, on the other hand, has only 9,000 native speakers, but this number doesn't include speakers of closely related language varieties such as Kru'ng and Kavet that are also used in Cambodia.

The Jarai, Lao, and Thai languages are also used by small numbers of Cambodians. Jarai is an Austronesian language spoken by the Jarai people in Cambodia and Vietnam, while Lao and Thai are the official languages of Laos and Thailand respectively.

Finally, there are the educational languages of French and English. French is often used in Cambodian schools and universities, and is also occasionally used by the government due to Cambodia's history of French colonial rule until 1953. However, English has been gaining popularity as an educational language in recent years due to increased tourism in the country.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Using the Bible to Learn about Translation

While I'm not particularly religious, I do acknowledge the hugely important role religion has played in language. In fact, one of our earliest posts looked at the lasting impression of religion on language.

Some of the most impressive curse words in many languages come from the dominating religion in the country's native language. For example, it seems most, if not all, of the curse words in Spanish are blasphemes, and I'm very fond of how some of the worst words you can say in Québécois French refer to items located in a church.

However, cursing aside, religion has informed language and linguistics to a great degree. While I could go on and on about every religion in the world, today I'll be focusing on Christianity, its prayers, and its holy text, the Bible, and what it has offered to the academic discipline of academia.

The patron saint of translation, St. Jerome, was a famous translator. His work in translation focused almost entirely on translation of scripture. Of course, St. Jerome wasn't the only person translating the Bible, which was originally in Hebrew and Aramaic. It is now fully available in over 500 languages, with parts of it available in thousands of languages.

Thanks to the entire Bible being translated into hundreds of languages, it works as an instructive parallel text that allows us to better understand the differences between languages, their various families, and even the translation methods used.

When there are several different translations of the Bible in the same language, we can compare them in order to ascertain which translation method was used. In fact, the concept of equivalence in translation was devised by Eugene Nida, who had used the Bible as the object of his studies.

He used the adjectives dynamic and formal to describe different types of equivalence. In the case of formal equivalence, he described a process whereby the translator strictly follows the structure of the source text rather than rendering the text in the most natural way.

The other end of the spectrum is dynamic equivalence, whereby the translator employs more creative freedom in order to render the translation as a more authentic-sounding text in the target language. Of course, when the text is translated in this way, it runs the risk of losing some of the nuances and details that were in the source text.

You can consider these methods in the same way as recording a cover version of a song. You can either record the song exactly like the original, or you can perform it in your own style. If you imagine your own style is the target language and the original style is the source language, then you're starting to understand dynamic and formal equivalence.

A handwritten version of the Bible in Latin.
In English alone there have been plenty of different translations of the Bible. Some have used formal equivalence and others have used dynamic equivalence. Of course, no translation is fully dynamic or formal. In fact, certain parts can adhere to one strategy while other parts adhere to another. The important thing is what you are trying to communicate.

For example, if you were translating the Bible in order to ensure that all of its teachings will be followed to the letter, you would prefer a formal approach. This would mean that not a single detail would be lost. However, you could argue that speakers of the target language might find the reading unnatural, jarring, and not particularly accessible.

If your job as a translator was to ensure that the maximum number of people were exposed to Christianity and an accessible version of the Bible was available, you would look for a dynamic approach. This would mean that you probably wouldn't be able to directly quote scripture, and its teachings would be vaguer and display a degree of the translator's own interpretation.

You can hardly say which approach is correct as it all really depends on what the goal of the translation is. Nevertheless, scripture can provide a fantastic resource for understanding how you can approach translation. It's certainly more than just knowing two languages!

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Googlewhacking and Collocations on the Web

While the internet is definitely commonplace nowadays for the majority of the developed world, it's often amusing to think back to the earlier days of the internet. When I was in primary school we had to take a school trip to the local library to see the internet. This endeavour involved walking with your "buddy" and holding hands.

The technology in this data suite is far more advanced than
the clunky beige PC that first showed me the internet.
When we arrived, a solitary PC with a dial-up connection was used to showcase a number of the amazing features of the world wide web.

We were shown a very early example of (from 1997, to be precise) and the local weather forecast, which disappointingly but expectedly told us that north-eastern England would be rainy throughout the upcoming week.

Needless to say, we were not very impressed with two features that we could easily get from our TVs instead. The search engine, however, really sparked our imaginations.

We were told that if we typed something, the computer would show us what we were looking for. Fast forward a few years and IT lessons in secondary school were an interesting affair.

The school had just had broadband installed and every single student in the class had their own terminal with a "high-speed" internet connection, which helped us to spend the whole lesson doing anything but the work we were supposed to be doing.

One unproductive time-wasting technique we enjoyed was Googlewhacking. For those too young to remember a time before "Google" was a verb, it was possible in the last decade to search using only two English words and receive the message "no results found" from Google's search engine. Finding no results with a two-word search query was the goal of Googlewhacking.

This phenomenon (which seems impossible today) was probably due to there being fewer webpages and the fact that Google was yet to have crawled and indexed the web to the extent it has today. With that said, I do believe that it can tell us about how we use language, which I personally find very interesting.

If you are familiar with collocations, certain words naturally go together more frequently than they do with others. I often use Google as a quick and easy way to check how frequently certain words are used together (there are also more advanced search tools to do this as well). You can gauge one expression over another simply in terms of results by using quotation marks when you search.

Googlewhacking (though we didn't know at the time) gave us the opposite of collocations, words that seemingly never go together. As you were not permitted to use quotation marks, Google's results indicated that those particular combinations of words could not be found alongside one another, or even in the same sentence, paragraph, or webpage. Saying the results aloud would quickly tell your brain how rare these combinations were.

The latest examples of Googlewhacks (from 2008) on the now defunct included "ambidextrous scallywags", "illuminatus ombudsman", "squirreling dervishes", and "assonant octosyllable". Any native speaker will note that these are rarely used words and even rarer combinations of them.

Nowadays Googlewhacking is pretty impossible as Google tries to suggest what you were trying to say and you rarely get a page saying there are no results (especially with a two-word phrase). However, as has a similar concept which they labelled a "statistically improbable phrase" by using data from indexed books in order to find out which words are rarely put together in the books they sell, you could always try Googlewhacking on Amazon and hope that your results only yield one result. Though I doubt it'd ever be as fun as Googlewhacking.

Did you ever Googlewhack in the past? What are some of the weirdest examples you can remember? Tell us about your experiences in the comments below.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Country Profile: The Languages of Mali

A few weeks ago we checked out the languages spoken in Malawi, but this week we're moving on to the similar-sounding country named Mali. Both countries are located in Africa, but on opposite sides of the continent: Malawi is in southeastern Africa, while Mali is much farther north in West Africa.

The Official Language

The sole official language of Mali, the eighth largest country in Africa, is French. Despite being the country's official language, it is the native language of only about 9,000 Malians. However, it is widely used as a second language throughout the country, which has over 1 million non-native French speakers.

Two pages from the historical Timbuktu Manuscripts
that have been preserved in Timbuktu, Mali for centuries.
National Languages

Mali also has an impressive thirteen national languages, all of which are indigenous to the country. The most important of these languages is undoubtedly Bamanankan, also known as Bamabara, which is thought to be used by approximately 80% of Malians. There are around 4 million native speakers of the Bamanankan language in Mali, and it is also often learned as a second language due to its use as a lingua franca.

Bamanankan is a member of the Niger-Congo language family, as are most of the other national languages. This includes Maasina Fulfulde, the language of the Fula people, which has approximately 1 million native speakers, as well as Mamara Sénoufo and Soninke, which both have around 700,000 native speakers.

The rest of the country's national languages that belong to the Niger-Congo language family are Kita Maninkakan, Koyraboro Senni Songhay, Syenara Sénoufo, Xaasongaxango, Tieyaxo Bozo, Bomu, and Toro So Dogon. Most of these languages have names that we can't even begin to guess how to pronounce, while all of them have under 500,000 native speakers.

The last two national languages of Mali are Tamasheq and Hasanya Arabic. Tamasheq is a Berber language with approximately 250,000 native speakers in Mali that is also spoken in Burkina Faso. Hasanya Arabic, on the other hand, is a member of the Semitic language family, and is a variety of Arabic that was originally spoken by Bedouin tribes.

Other Languages

In addition to the the 14 aforementioned languages, Mali is home to another 52 languages, which makes a grand total of 66 living languages! We certainly don't have time to look at them all, but one of the most prominent languages is Jula, which is the native language of 50,000 Malians and is used as a second language by nearly 300,000 more. It is an important trade and business language, and is also spoken in nearby Burkina Faso and Côte d'Ivoire.