Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Annoying Internet Terms That Shouldn't Be in Spoken Language

I love internet culture and arguably spend most of my time on the internet. It is a truly wonderful thing: at times it's a vibrant, beautiful ecosystem of ideas being exchanged, while at others it's like a dank puddle of murky water. Either way, I love it.

What I don't love about the internet is how some of its language encroaches into spoken language. I'm happy for the language to exist online and consider it almost as its own register. However, when the internet's weird lingo starts entering my ears and not my eyes, that's when I get annoyed. Here are a few of my biggest bugbears (or pet peeves to Americans) when it comes to online language that make me come close to losing my cool.

NASA astronaut Michael Gernhardt embodying "YOLO" in 1995
when dot-coms were just becoming household names.
Because

The term "because" is a bit of a funny one since I have no objection to the common usage of "because". However, the internet has given rise to the construction of "because" plus a noun. For example, "I can talk this way because language". I reckon it's a quick way to make most language purists' blood boil!

.com

Saying something is something.com is just downright stupid. My fury over this stems fully from the fact that saying "dot com" at the end of a word is not only already horrendously dated by about 20 years, it's also the kind of thing that uncool dads say when trying to be cool.

Fail

I wish people would stop using the verb "fail" when they are actually referring to a "failure", which is a noun. I also get fairly annoyed at the overuse of "epic" to describe said "fails". It's now used so often it's been demoted to the status of "moderate". This term is also often combined with the next one.

Hashtag

I like Twitter and understand why we have hashtags. In fact, I'm very happy to use them. Placing the "number sign" (#) before a word can help other users find content related to the word they've marked or to indicate the content is part of a particular conversation.

Using the term as a prefix irritates me beyond belief. Unless you're explaining a particular hashtag, saying hashtag is completely redundant.

LOL

LOL (an acronym for "laugh out loud") has been making the rounds online since people became too lazy to type out the onomatopaeia for laughter or explain that they found something humorous. As funny as it is when parents think "LOL" stands for "lots of love", there's nothing I find funny about using LOL in speech.

I find it annoying enough when people say "that's so funny" without actually laughing. Imagine how enraged I get when someone says "lol" in speech despite it being abundantly clear that they're not laughing out loud!

YOLO

I definitely agree that people should live life to the fullest. However, as a lover of Romance languages and Latin, I wish carpe diem was used instead of this acronym for "you only live once".

You can live your life with "YOLO" as a motto. Just please don't say it to me. Leave it on the internet, where it belongs. Thanks!

What internet terms do you wish people wouldn't vocalise? Tell us in the comments below.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Country Profile: The Languages of Guatemala

Somehow we've managed to never have done a country profile on a Central American country before, so we thought we should rectify that problem. Today we'll be looking at the linguistic diversity of Guatemala, the most populous country in Central America!

The Official Language

Guatemala City, the beautiful capital of Guatemala.
As is true of many other countries in the Americas, the sole official language of Guatemala is Spanish. The Spanish language was first brought to the area during the Spanish conquest in the 16th century, and is still spoken by over 90% of Guatemalans.

Before the Spanish took over much of the continent, a large geographical area that extended from Mexico through Guatemala to El Salvador was the home of the Mayan civilization. As a result, Guatemala is also home to 25 indigenous languages, most of which belong to the Mayan language family.

Indigenous Languages

After Spanish, all of the most spoken languages in Guatemala are Mayan languages. The most prominent Mayan language in the country is K'iche', which boasts approximately 1 million native speakers and is used in schools and on the radio. It is followed by Q'eqchi' and Kaqchikel, which are both closely related to K'iche'. Q'eqchi' is spoken by about 800,000 Guatemalans, while Kaqchikel is used by nearly 500,000 people. The Mam language, which is from a different branch of the Mayan language family, has around 500,000 native speakers as well.

There are several other Mayan languages that are spoken by between 50,000 and 100,000 Guatemalans. We certainly don't know how to properly pronounce their names, but they are: Poqomchi', Tz'utujil, Achi, Q'anjob'al, and Ixil. Finally, there's the Garifuna language, which has around 16,000 native speakers. Spoken near the Caribbean coastline, it is the only member of the Arawakan language family that is spoken in Guatemala.

Friday, June 26, 2015

"Do the Dew" and Yod-Coalescence

Dew, one of the most common subjects for macro lenses.
I was watching television the other day when I spotted an advert for Mountain Dew, a beverage that I tend to avoid like the plague as I have no interest in carbonated beverages except when using them as mixers with strong spirits. However, this post isn't about my intense dislike for adding gases to liquids, it's about the advertising slogan that Mountain Dew was using.

American readers will undoubtedly be familiar with Mountain Dew and their "Do the Dew" slogan. However, the one thing they seemingly overlooked was how British people pronounce "dew". The words "do" and "dew" are both pronounced /duː/ across the United States, while many accents across the British Isles differentiate between the two words, pronouncing "do" as /duː/ and "dew" as /dʒuː/.

This pronunciation of "dew" in various accents of British English makes it a homophone with the words "due" and "Jew", which rendered their "do the dew" slogan as a homophone for Semitic fornication when I first heard it. While I don't find this suggestion offensive, I certainly wasn't thinking of Mountain Dew when reading the tagline.

Lawn over dew.
While this is just an unfortunate coincidence of the differences between British and American English, linguists have obviously looked into this phenomenon, which goes by the name yod-coalescence.

Yod-coalescence is the term given when a particular set of sounds undergoes a process of sound change known as palatalisation, whereby a palatal or palatalised consonant occurs. This can happen when the pronunciation of two words together sounds different to when they are pronounced in isolation, while yod-coalescence refers to when the sounds [dj], [tj], [sj] and [zj] end up becoming [dʒ], [tʃ], [ʃ], and [ʒ]. This makes the British pronunciation of "Tuesday" sound like "chews day" to Americans, while it sounds like Americans say "twos day" to British ears.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Slavic Languages: From Belarusian to Ukrainian

Back in May, we took a couple of days to explore the fascinating Germanic and Romance language families. Today we thought we'd continue learning about the world's languages with a look at the Slavic languages, which include several of the most spoken languages in Europe.

You've undoubtedly heard of languages like Russian and Polish before, but you might be surprised to learn that there are actually 19 Slavic languages in total. Let's take a brief look at all of them!

Veliki Vrh, Slovenia
East Slavic Languages

The Slavic language family is generally divided into three groups: East, West, and South. The East Slavic languages have the most native speakers, primarily because the group includes Russian, which has around 150 million native speakers. It is the most spoken Slavic language, as well as the eighth most spoken language in the world.

The second most prominent language in this group is Ukrainian, which is the third most spoken Slavic language. It is closely related to Rusyn, also known as Ruthenian, which is one of those tricky language varieties that some linguists consider to be a language and others consider to be a dialect, in this case a dialect of Ukrainian. Either way, there are about 600,000 native speakers of Rusyn, primarily in Slovakia, Serbia, Poland and Ukraine.

The final member of this group is Belarusian, the official language of Belarus. Interestingly, all four of these languages are primarily written in Cyrillic script, which is certainly not the case with many other Slavic languages.

West Slavic Languages

The West Slavic languages are often divided even further into three groups: Czech-Slovak, Lechitic, and Sorbian languages. We bet you can guess the two languages in the Czech-Slovak group. They are of course Czech and Slovak, which are so closely related that they are largely mutually intelligible.

A street sign in both German and Sorbian.
The Lechitic languages include Polish, the second most spoken Slavic language. It is joined by Kashubian and Silesian, which are both recognized as minority languages in Poland. Both languages are so closely related to Polish that they are often considered to be dialects of the language.

Then there are the Sorbian languages, Upper Sorbian and Lower Sorbian. Sadly, both of these languages, which are spoken in Germany, are in decline. There are approximately 13,000 speakers of Upper Sorbian and about 6,000 remaining Lower Sorbian speakers.

South Slavic Languages

Finally, we've reached the South Slavic languages, which are geographically separated from all of the other Slavic languages by areas where German, Hungarian, and Romanian are primarily spoken.

There are two living languages that belong to the East branch of this group: Macedonian and Bulgarian. As usual, they are so closely related that linguists like to dispute as to whether they are even separate languages.

Last but not least, there are the languages that belong to the West branch: Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian, Slovene, and Slavomolisano. The first three are standardized forms of the macrolanguage known as Serbo-Croatian, which are official languages in their respective countries. There's also Slovene, the official language of Slovenia, which has over 2 million native speakers, and Slavomolisano. Slavomolisano is a language spoken in Italy by descendants of Croatian refugees. Unfortunately, the language is dying with less than 1,000 speakers, but it is still taught in schools.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Country Profile: The Languages of Malawi

For the third week in a row, we're exploring the linguistic diversity of an African country. Last week we investigated the languages of Niger, and today we're moving southeast to the tiny nation of Malawi, one of the smallest countries on the continent.

The Official Languages

Lake Malawi, which covers nearly a third of the country's area.
The official languages of Malawi are English, which remains important due to its history as a British colony, and Chichewa, an indigenous language also known as Chewa or Nyanja. Chichewa is the most spoken language in Malawi, where it is the native language of about half of the country's population. English, on the other hand, is more often used as a second language, particularly in areas such as government and media.

Other Languages

Unlike many other African countries, Malawi's linguistic landscape doesn't feature hundreds of languages. In fact, Ethnologue lists just 16 languages in Malawi, many of which have very few speakers, which is why today's country profile is shorter than usual. A few of the most notable languages include Tumbuka, Yao, Malawi Lomwe, Nyakyusa-Ngonde, and Malawi Sena, all of which are Bantu languages.

The Tumbuka and Yao languages both boast over 2 million native speakers, followed by Malawi Lomwe with 850,000 speakers, which is spoken in southeastern Malawi. In northern Malawi, the Nyakyusa-Ngonde language is used by around 300,000 people, while Malawi Sena is spoken by a similar percentage of the population in southern Malawi. There are also small numbers of Malawians who speak Afrikaans and Zulu, two important languages in nearby South Africa.

Friday, June 19, 2015

How We Describe Languages

The proverbial ouroboros, the cyclical snake eating its own tail.
Languages are fascinating. If they weren't, I wouldn't have spent years learning about them and then writing about them. However, an odd thought popped into my head the other day. Without languages, I wouldn't be able to talk about languages, nor would I have anything to talk about. While we could sit and debate the ouroboros nature of language and thought for years (which people have already done and it's fascinating!), I would rather look at which words in English are commonly used when talking about language to see how we like to refer to this wonderful phenomenon.

I reckoned the best place to start would be with the words that commonly collocate with the word "language" in English in order to see if there were any patterns related to which words we use to talk about the fact that we talk.

Time and Place

When we describe languages, we are seemingly very interested in the time and place occupied by a language. We have to describe when the language was being spoken and whether it is still being spoken today. When discuss whether a language is still commonly used today, we either speak of a dead or a living language.

In the case of dead languages, we like to describe them according to the historical period in which they were used, calling them either ancient or classical languages, for example. Of course, languages that are living are often called modern languages.

Where a language is spoken is also key. Languages, like peoples, can be indigenous to an area since people like to bring their languages with them when they migrate. Sadly, the term "indigenous" is often used to describe languages that are endangered due to replacement by more prestigious languages in their areas.

Use

How much a language is used seems to be another common trend when referring to languages. We can talk about international and national languages, or on the other end of the scale, minority languages.

Use in terms of speakers isn't the only way we talk about languages and their speakers. We also like to know how information is being communicated. We can talk about spoken language, written language, and, in the event of corporeal communications, body language.

Situation and Context

In addition where and when languages are used, we're clearly interested in the situation and context in which languages are used. Some of the most common collocations include formal and informal language. The discussion of domain is also very common, such as referring to flowery, literary, and poetic language. Unfortunately, other commonly mentioned contexts include racist and sexist language, unless we're often condemning them.

Bad Language

Bad, crude, offensive, obscene, offensive, and strong language are all used regularly in English and make up some of the most common collocations. It seems that as much as we hate bad language, we can't stop talking about it.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Uselessness of Back-Translations

A back-translation (BT) is when a translation or target text (TT) is translated back into its original source language (SL). When the back-translation is completed, it is then compared to the original source text (ST) in an attempt to gauge the quality of the translation, which I believe is incredibly stupid. While it's true that gauging the quality of translations is very difficult, I don't believe for one second that BTs are a viable way to do it.

The idea of BTs is based on a premise similar to that of mathematics, but is foolishly founded on the concept of a number of assumed exact equivalents between languages, be they lexical, syntactic, semantic, etc.

In maths, the equals sign indicates that the equations on either side of the symbol are the same. However, even this logic seems to be flawed, since if you imagine that numbers are words, you could easily say 7 = 7, but also that 7 = 6 + 1 or 7 = 5 + 2, etc.

If you can express sums in multiple ways, you can certainly express almost any sentiment in plenty of different ways. This is the problem I have with back-translations, as they assume that there is only ever one "correct" way to translate any given phrase and translating it back should yield exactly the same results.

Another issue I have with BTs is the assumption that discrepancies between the BT and the ST are due to mistakes by the first translator and issues in the TT. Comparing the ST and BT to one another completely ignores the TT and therefore the entire work of the first translator, as the BT is simply a derivative work of the BT.

Valet parking wasn't really necessary 100 years ago.
Imagine you give your car to a valet to park it while you have a meal. Later, when you collect your car, a different valet is driving your car and the car has a huge scratch down the side of it. Who scratched your car?

If you use the logic of BTs, the first valet definitely damaged your car as it has changed since you left it. However, without seeing the car's journey to and from the parking space, there's no way of telling who caused the damage.

What do you think of BTs? Is there a better way to gauge translations? Tell us your opinion in the comments below!