Friday, November 21, 2014

Why I Love German, Germans, and Germany

After recently visiting the Netherlands and becoming rather fond of the country, its people, and its language as part of an ongoing railway trek around Europe, I made my way to Germany. 

My first destination in Germany was Hamburg, which I got to with relative ease despite an absence of national rail services that day due to a strike. As a Brit this amused me greatly since we're always complaining about the lacklustre rail service in our country.

I've only been fortunate enough to visit Germany once before during a previous Europe-wide expedition over half a decade ago when I visited Berlin for two nights. Despite being turned away from a club without any given reason, I enjoyed my time there. Armed with nothing but a phrasebook, I did my utmost to remember the year of German I took when I was 14 years old.

German is not one of my spoken languages and the amount I learnt in school accounts for little more than simple greetings, numbers, and how to ask for directions. Despite this, using the same outdated phrasebook and the internet, I managed to find the missing vocabulary I needed in most situations.

Much like in the Netherlands, I was lucky enough to enjoy some local hospitality. After making my way to M√ľnster via Bremen, I sampled some fantastic German baked goods and beers, of course. From there it was a long but pleasant train journey to Munich, where I was told to prepare for a very different (in a good way) variety of German.

While making the mistake of overindulging in one of Munich's most popular pursuits, drinking, I was treated very kindly by everyone I met, who were more than willing to humour me as I attempted to speak their language, patiently listening as I horrendously butchered it.

I'll admit that I don't learn languages very well from reading verb tables, and as a result find myself eavesdropping on anyone and everyone in public spaces. Thanks to this seemingly rude practice, I'd like to debunk the myth that German is an aggressive and harsh-sounding language. While admittedly not as melodic as Italian, perhaps, I found the phonemes to be rather soothing.

I was also fascinated by the prevalence of compound nouns in German. While I had also noticed this in Dutch, in German it seemed so much more mind-boggling, perhaps due to the diacritic marks used, and therefore more interesting.

Now I'm not sure whether to learn Dutch or German upon my return home. Have you learnt or do you speak either of these languages? If so, make your case for which one I should focus on in the comments below.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Language Profile: Egyptian

Earlier this week in our country profile on Egypt, we made a brief mention of the Egyptian language. It is one of the oldest recorded languages in existence, with written evidence dating back as far as the year 3300 BC. It also comprises its own branch of the Afro-Asiatic language family, which also includes Semitic languages such as Arabic and Hebrew.

The Egyptian language has had a long and fascinating history over the centuries. The name Ancient Egyptian generally refers to the Egyptian language before 2600 BC, after which point it passed through stages that are now known as Old, Middle, and Late Egyptian, which was used through 700 BC. These earliest stages of the Egyptian language were written using both hieroglyphs and hieratic.

The Papyrus of Ani featuring cursive hieroglyphs, created around 1250 BC. 
The oldest preserved texts in Egyptian are generally those written on stone using hieroglyphs. Egyptian hieroglyphs consist of three types of glyphs: phonetic glyphs that represent phonemes, logograms that represent morphemes and words, and determinatives or semagrams, which are symbols that help the reader to determine the exact meaning of the other two types of glyphs. While Egyptian hieroglyphs were unreadable throughout most of modern history, they were eventually deciphered in the early 1800s. This was done primarily through the use of the Rosetta Stone, which featured text written in Egyptian hieroglyphs, classic Greek, and Demotic, which we will get to in a moment.

A close-up of the cursive hieroglyphs
from The Papyrus of Ani
Hieratic, the other writing system we mentioned, was a cursive writing system that was primarily used for important documents. Unfortunately, examples of hieratic script were not preserved as easily throughout history since hieratic was usually written on papyrus, a paper-like material made from the papyrus plant.

Around the 7th century BC, the language became what is now known as Demotic. Demotic script was derived from forms of hieratic, and was generally used for similar official purposes. It was used through the 5th century AD, around which time Coptic, the final stage of the Egyptian language, came into existence. Both Demotic and Coptic scripts were used as a means of simplifying the complex hieroglyph-based Egyptian writing system for the ever-increasing number of speakers.

Coptic was spoken in Egypt until the 17th century and was written using the Coptic alphabet, which consists of the Greek alphabet with letters borrowed from Demotic. Around the 7th century, Arabic became the most popular language for official purposes, and Coptic was eventually replaced as the national language of Egypt by Egyptian Arabic, which is still used today. However, unlike the earlier forms of the Egyptian language which are no longer used, Coptic survives as a liturgical language of the Coptic Orthodox and Coptic Catholic churches.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Country Profile: The Languages of Egypt

This week our country profile is going to focus on the languages of Egypt, a fascinating country that first became a nation state in the 10th millennium BC. Egypt is especially interesting from a linguistic standpoint because of its past and present linguistic history. Today we'll be taking a look at the many modern languages spoken in the country. 

The Official Language

As is true of many other Islamic countries, Modern Standard Arabic is the official language of Egypt. Modern Standard Arabic is the standardized variety of the Arabic language that is used throughout the Middle East and North Africa. It is also known as Literary Arabic since it is the most common written form of Arabic. 

The Pyramids of Giza, one of Egypt's most famous landmarks.
The National Language

The national language of Egypt is Egyptian Arabic, the spoken variety of Arabic used in Egypt. While Modern Standard Arabic is used in most forms of media such as television, Egyptian Arabic is occasionally found in written form in so-called "vernacular" literature such as novels and poems created for the average Egyptian, as well as in popular songs and some newspapers. Egyptian Arabic is spoken by 68% of the Egyptian population and is the native language of 54 million people, making it the most spoken variety of the Arabic language in the world. It is also thought to be the most widely understood variety of Arabic throughout Arabic-speaking countries, primarily due to the widespread popularity of Egyptian films. 

Other Varieties of Arabic

Egypt is also home to speakers of three other varieties of Arabic. Approximately 29% of Egyptians speak Sa'idi Arabic, primarily in the southernmost regions of the country. Despite this variety of Arabic having very low prestige in Egypt compared to Modern Standard Arabic and Egyptian Arabic, it is still spoken by a considerable proportion of the country.

The two other varieties of Arabic used in the country are Eastern Egyptian Bedawi Arabic and Sudanese Arabic. Eastern Egyptian Bedawi Arabic, which is understandably shortened to the name Bedawi, is spoken by around 1.6% of the population in eastern Egypt as well as Jordan, Israel, Syria, and the Palestinian territories. Sudanese Arabic, unsurprisingly, is the spoken variety of Arabic used in the neighboring country of Sudan. It is also spoken by about 0.6% of the Egyptian population.

Other Languages

A few other notable languages spoken by minority groups in Egypt are Domari, Nobiin, Beja, and Siwi. Domari is an Indo-Aryan language used by the Dom ethnic group that is widely dispersed throughout North Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, and India. Nobiin, on the other hand, is a Nilo-Saharan language that is natively spoken by nearly 500,000 people in southern Egypt and northern Sudan belonging to the Nubian ethnic group.

Additionally, Beja and Siwi are two Afro-Asiatic languages spoken in Egypt. Beja is primarily spoken by members of the Beja ethnic group that lives between the Nile River and the Red Sea. Siwi is a Berber language spoken by thousands of people near Egypt's border with Libya.

Egypt was also home to the fascinating Egyptian language of Ancient Egypt which later evolved into the Demotic and Coptic languages, but we'll save that discussion for another day.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Why I Love Dutch, the Dutch, and the Netherlands

Until recently, I was never a huge fan of Amsterdam and hadn't really visited anywhere else in the Netherlands (with the exception of the Efteling theme park), so I'd never really had an experience to write home about.

I'd visited Amsterdam with my parents when I was at an age when I still thought girls were disgusting. This meant that during an accidental trip into the red-light district (which is right by a beautiful church I was visiting), the view of scantily-clad prostitutes in the window made me cry.

On a later trip around Europe I ended up partaking in a small amount of Amsterdam's other popular pursuit, cannabis, and the ensuing paranoia coupled with again accidentally finding the red-light district led to a wholly unpleasant time.

As they say, the third time's the charm, and upon my arrival in Amsterdam, the first destination in a trip around Europe, I was adamant that I was going to enjoy myself and change my poor opinion of the city and, by extension, the country. I made sure to find the beautiful parts of the city and subsequently the beautiful people of the Netherlands.

Even though I was hoping to learn some Dutch and had quickly consulted a couple of web pages on the matter, when I stumbled with the longer words and seemingly endless number of vocalic phonemes, the locals were all very friendly while they put me to shame with their flawless mastery of my mother tongue.

From Amsterdam, I headed eastwards to the city of Zwolle to meet a good friend and exceptional English teacher. In Zwolle I was treated to the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of the city, as well as travelling on a typically-Dutch bicycle that was kindly provided for me.

The Netherlands, and Zwolle in particular, is a wonderful place for cyclists and while it seemed odd to me that nobody wears a helmet when cycling, it became abundantly clear that with all the cycle paths, cyclist-friendly road layouts, and drivers that are very familiar with being surrounded by bikes, there was little danger of ever encountering any trouble.

I was lucky enough to be able to sit in on a couple of English lessons at the school where my friend taught and was left completely astounded by the level of English on display. The older children were discussing Jewish-American Literature and not only providing exceptional insight into the passages they had read, but doing so in impeccable English.

So it might be pretty clear that I think the Netherlands is a wonderful place, since the people were friendly and happy to converse with us in English without being upset that my Dutch is abysmal. While I don't speak Dutch and the words I know could be written on a postage stamp, I love the look, feel, and sound of the language.

One particular highlight was sitting in on a lesson on English accents. As a special guest, I was allowed to provide a sample of my finest Geordie. The children then had to ascertain, given my accent, where I came from. Sadly, they were more familiar with the accents of those on the reality tv show Geordie Shore (which I was shocked to find the Netherlands is also subjected to) than a typical Geordie accent, and struggled to pinpoint my city of origin. Nevertheless, it was an incredibly fun and eye-opening experience, putting my foreign language education in the United Kingdom to shame.

The Dutch Language

Since large portions of my time in the Netherlands were spent speaking English, I did my best to learn as much as I could about the language from native speakers while trying to pick up as much vocabulary as possible from every example of the written language.

While the phonetic differences between Dutch and English are vast, the language is similar enough to English to make my ears hone in on speech. This left me confused as my brain clearly felt it could understand the language but never quite managed.

While other languages have left their mark on the Dutch language, you can certainly tell that English and Dutch are cousins as many words have shared roots that become apparent when you hear or read them.

Despite struggling with the pronunciation of countless phonemes, I would certainly recommend learning Dutch. While you could argue that it may not vastly increase your career prospects, I found the language both beautiful and fascinating, and am very keen to learn more.

My only criticism of the whole experience is that any English speaker may find it hard to have an entire conversation in Dutch with the natives. I got the impression from the Dutch people I met that they are not only masters of English, but also very keen to use their foreign language skills. I'm sure once I reach the level of basic communication I will enjoy many wonderful conversations in Dutch, if I could just get a chance to practice!

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Get It Right: Capital and Capitol

Today we have a new addition to our Get It Right series, in which we try to help eliminate unnecessary mistakes in the English language. This time we're focusing on the words capital and capitol, which are often confused by native and non-native speakers alike. Hopefully our explanation will ensure that you're never left wondering if you've chosen the correct term again!


The word capital originated as the Latin word capitalis before making its way into English via Old French. It has multiple definitions as both a noun and an adjective, which only adds to the confusion regarding its usage.

The most popular usage of capital is likely when it refers to the administrative center of a country or seat of government. For example, London is the capital of England. The word can also be used to refer to a place associated with a certain thing, such as the Italian city of Milan being considered a "fashion capital".

The United States Capitol's columns have beautiful capitals.
The term capital can also be used in various ways to refer to wealth, often in the form of money or assets which can be used for investment purposes. If you're more interested in architectural terms than business jargon, then you should also know that the broader section at the top of a pillar or column is also called a capital.

It is also used as both a noun and an adjective to refer to uppercase letters, so we could say that this sentence begins with a "capital I". Finally, capital is used in terms such as "capital punishment" and "capital offense" to refer to the death penalty.


The word capitol, on the other hand, has just one definition. It refers only to the building where a legislature meets, such as the United States Capitol which sits on Washington D.C.'s Capitol Hill. Unsurprisingly, capitol also originated in Latin, though it was a distinct term: capitolium.

While we suppose it does make sense to have separate words for the city that is the administrative center and the building (generally located in the city) where all the administrative decisions are made, they could have at least used terms that weren't quite so similar!

In any case, unless you often find yourself talking about legislative buildings, you're almost always going to want to use the word capital.

Is there another common English spelling or grammar mistake that you wish we'd address? Let us know in the comments below.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Country Profile: The Languages of Ethiopia

Just one month ago we looked into the linguistic makeup of Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa. Today we're turning our attention to another African nation, Ethiopia, which is the most populous landlocked country in the world. It is located in the northeast African peninsula known as the Horn of Africa and boasts a population of just over 87 million people.

The Official Language

The sole official language of Ethiopia is Amharic. It is a member of the Semitic language family and is the second most spoken Semitic language in the world after Arabic. Amharic has been an important language used by the government of Ethiopia for centuries.

The Most Spoken Language

Despite Amharic's long-standing status as the official language of Ethiopia, it is not actually the most spoken language in the country. That honor falls to Oromo, a member of the Cushitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic language family. Oromo is spoken by approximately 34% of the Ethiopian population, while Amharic's usage is a slightly smaller 30%. 

Historically, the use of Oromo in print or broadcast media was quite limited. However, the Ethiopian government has implemented literacy efforts in recent years that feature published materials and radio broadcasts in Oromo. It has also been used as a language of instruction in some schools during the past two decades. 

The Semien Mountains of northern Ethiopia
Other Languages

If two-thirds of the Ethiopian population speak Amharic and Oromo, then what does the rest of the population speak? It turns out that Ethiopia is quite linguistically diverse due to its ethnic diversity, and is therefore home to approximately 90 languages which principally fall into two categories: Afro-Asiatic and Nilo-Saharan languages.

Afro-Asiatic Languages

The third most spoken language in Ethiopia is Somali, one of the official languages of neighboring Somalia. Somali is spoken by approximately 4.6 million Ethiopians, which amounts to 6% of the population. It is followed by the Tigrinya language, which has slightly fewer speakers. This Semitic language is primarily spoken in northern Ethiopia and parts of neighboring Eritrea.

Sidamo, the language of the Sidama people of southern Ethiopia, is spoken by nearly 5% of the population. Wolaytta language speakers comprise another 2% of the Ethiopian population. Their language is distinctive because of its frequent use of proverbs in daily speech. The Gurage and Afar languages are also each spoken by around 2% of the population.

Nilo-Saharan Languages

While the vast majority of Ethiopians speak Afro-Asiatic languages, several Nilo-Saharan languages are also used in the country. These include Nuer and Anuak, which are also spoken in the relatively new country of South Sudan which gained its independence in 2011. Other Nilo-Saharan languages only spoken in Ethiopia include Nyangatom, Me'en, Majang, and Mursi, whose numbers of speakers all range in the thousands. 

Friday, November 7, 2014

Online Linguistic Resources: The Ethnologue

Over the past two years that we've worked on The Lingua File, we've made several references to the Ethnologue as a source of information. While some of you may already have already heard of it (or took the time to Google it), we've decided to take some time today to look into this wonderful linguistic resource. 

The Ethnologue is a reference work that strives to catalog all of the living languages in the world. It was founded by Richard S. Pittman and created as a collaborative project with his work colleagues at SIL International, a Christian linguistic service organization, as well as other linguists around the world. Its first edition, published in 1951, consisted of ten pages that focused on 46 languages. While it was originally published every few years in book format, it has recently become primarily a web-based publication. Currently, you can view its seventeenth edition online at, where it provides information on an impressive 7,106 living languages.

The Ethnologue can introduce you to fascinating languages you've never heard of,
just as Wikipedia introduces you to interesting animal species like the liger.
Ethnologue: Languages of the World is highly regarded by linguists and language lovers alike due to its comprehensive information on world languages. Say, for example, that you'd like to learn more about the Swedish language. If you search "Swedish" on the Ethnologue website, you'll find an entire page dedicated to information on the language. The first fact you learn is that it's a "language of Sweden". Keep reading, and you'll learn about alternate names for Swedish (like "Svenska"), the number and locations of its speakers, as well as its status and dialects.

Another great feature of the site is that it provides information about the various languages spoken in specific countries. On the aforementioned page for Swedish, you can click on a hyperlink on the word "Sweden" which takes you to a linguistic overview of the country. It includes everything from official languages, immigrant languages, and literacy rates to the official status of various languages within the country. 

If you're fascinated by languages and are one of those people (like us) who occasionally finds themselves having spent hours reading linked Wikipedia pages, then the Ethnologue may keep you entertained for quite some time. Luckily, it is written in a very dry, factual way since its information is all displayed from a database, so you might not lose too much time to this fascinating reference material if you're not looking for something in particular.

We highly recommend that you take a look at the Ethnologue since it is an excellent linguistic resource. In addition to providing information on individual languages and countries, it also looks at language families, features interesting language maps, and so much more.