Monday, May 4, 2015

Country Profile: The Languages of Australia

This week we're taking a look at the incredible linguistic diversity of Australia, the sixth largest country in the world. It was once home to well over 300 indigenous languages, though sadly many of them have become extinct or severely threatened since the establishment of British settlements in Australia starting in the late 1700s.

The National Language

Unlike most other countries, Australia does not have any official languages. However, English is considered to be the de facto national language since it is the native language spoken by the majority of Australians. The English language was first introduced to the continent by the British in the late 18th century when they began to create penal colonies in Australia.

Over the centuries, Australian English has evolved from British English into a distinct variety that has its own unique characteristics, including differences in vocabulary, pronunciation, and spelling. Two notable characteristics of Australian English include the use of the term outback to refer to "remote areas" and the frequent use of mate for "friend", which is also found in some dialects of British English.

It's nearly impossible to write a blog post about Australia
without using a photo of an adorable baby koala...
Aboriginal Languages

It is thought that there were over 400 indigenous languages in existence prior to European contact with Australia. Sadly, very few of these languages, which are thought to have belonged to nearly 30 different language families, have survived over the centuries. According to Ethnologue, 177 Australian languages are extinct, 141 are dying, and 35 are in trouble. 

That said, there are still a few indigenous languages in Australia with relatively healthy numbers of speakers. Another term used to refer to these languages and the ethnic groups that speak them is aboriginal, a word which means "indigenous", though in modern times it is most often used to specifically reference groups that are indigenous to Australia.

The most spoken Aboriginal languages include Arrernte, Kalaw Lagaw Ya, Tiwi, Walmajarri, and Warlpiri. Kalaw Lagaw Ya is especially interesting because it was an important lingua franca before colonization throughout parts of what is now Australia and Papua New Guinea. Another fascinating language is Tiwi, a language isolate, which is still being taught to children in hopes of preserving the language for future generations.

Immigrant Language

Australia also has many large immigrant populations that often speak their own native languages at home. Mandarin Chinese, Italian, Arabic, Cantonese, Greek, and Vietnamese are each spoken by approximately 1% of Australians.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Romance Languages: From Aragonese to Zarphatic

In case you aren't already aware, the Romance language family is composed of languages that evolved from Vulgar Latin between the 6th and 9th centuries. Latin had dominated much of Western Europe for centuries due to the spread of the Roman Empire, but when it collapsed, local varieties quickly developed their own quirks, allowing them to eventually become new languages.

If you asked the average person to name all of the Romance languages they could think of, you'd probably be met with an answer that included a few of the following languages: Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian, and Romanian. Language nerds might be able to add a few more languages, such as Catalan, Galician, or Sardinian. With that said, you might be surprised to learn that there are actually somewhere between 20 and 50 distinct languages within the Romance language family!

As we've mentioned in the past, linguistic classification is a tricky business, since most languages exist on a dialect continuum. Today we're going to go by the number provided by the Ethnologue, which lists 43 distinct Romance languages, and try to shed some light on some of the lesser-known languages.

The Big Five

There five most spoken Romance languages are Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, and Romanian. All five of these languages are official languages in their respective countries of origin. The first three languages are also important lingua francas due to their use in colonies throughout Africa, South America, and North America.

Part of Western Europe at night as seen from the ISS.
Paris is the bright spot in the center, while Milan is near the upper-right corner.
Ibero-Romance Languages

The aptly named Iberian languages are all of the Romance languages that developed on the Iberian Peninsula, which is home to the countries of Spain, Portugal, and Andorra. Aragonese, Asturian, Catalan, Galician, Aranese (a standardized variety of Occitan), and Spanish all have varying levels of official recognition in Spain. In Portugal, both Portuguese and Mirandese, which is closely related to Asturian, are recognized by the government.

Two Iberian languages spoken in the Spanish autonomous community of Extremadura are Extremaduran and Fala, which is closely related to Galician and Portuguese. Another fascinating member of this sub-group is Ladino, a language that is primarily spoken by Sephardic Jews. It evolved from Old Spanish with loanwords from languages like Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic.

Gallo-Romance Languages

The Gallo-Romance branch consists of the Romance languages native to France and northern Italy. Some of its most prominent languages are the Oïl languages, a dialect continuum that includes French, Picard, and Walloon, which are all spoken in both France and Belgium. It also includes Zarphatic, an extinct language that was spoken by Jews in France until the 14th century. 

The Rhaeto-Romance languages of Friulian, Ladin, and Romansh also belong on this branch of the Romance family tree. Friulian and Ladin (not to be confused with the aforementioned Ladino) are both spoken in Italy, while Romansh is an official language in Switzerland.

Finally, there are the Gallo-Italian languages, which include Piedmontese, Ligurian, Lombard, and sometimes Venetian, depending on who you ask. Unsurprisingly, all of these languages are spoken in Italy. Despite recognition by numerous linguists as being independent languages, the Italian government generally refers to all of them as dialects of the Italian language.

Italo-Romance Languages

It won't come as a surprise that this final branch of the Romance language that we're looking at today consists of languages native to Italy. It includes Italian, the country's official language, as well as the Sicilian and Neapolitan languages.

While we're stopping here, there are still several more languages that the Ethnologue considers to be a part of the Romance language family, though most of them are extinct or endangered. You can find the full list on the Romance page of the Ethnologue website.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Good Gravy! - A Look at Whimsical Interjections

Quite some time ago, we dedicated a post to defining word categories such as nouns, verbs, and adjectives. At the time, we made a brief mention of interjections, words that are used to express emotions or sentiments. You might also know them by the name exclamation, which is much simpler to remember since interjections are generally followed by an exclamation point when written.

No matter how familiar you are with the English language, you undoubtedly know several interjections, such as ugh, pardon, ahem, and oops. However, English and most other languages have hundreds of distinct interjections that express a wide range of emotions or can be used in certain situations. Today we thought we'd look at some of the most whimsical and curious interjections that can be found in the English language. Many of these are slang terms, so if you're a non-native speaker wanting to liven up your speech a bit, make sure you know if they're appropriate for the situation first!

Good gravy! - The vast majority of the time that someone says this, they're not talking about delicious gravy on the dinner table. This exclamation and its cousin, good golly, are both euphemisms for good God, which is generally used to express surprise or anger. Depending on your religious views, you might find the use of "Good God!" to be blasphemous, which is why the euphemism golly appeared on the linguistic scene sometime in the 18th century.

At some point, someone clearly decided that the euphemism golly wasn't far enough removed from religious blasphemy, which led to the popular use of good grief, and more recently, the somewhat ridiculous good gravy. I can't tell you why gravy was singled out for this honor, but it is a good thing to have on the dinner table.

Cheese and rice! - In a similar vein, cheese and rice is a euphemism for Jesus Christ, another interjection of surprise frequently considered to be blasphemous. Supposedly, this similar-sounding yet ridiculous term was chosen when a film was edited to be shown on television in the United States. That said, if you're really not worried about offending anyone, you could always go in the opposite direction and say Christ on a cracker instead... but we wouldn't advise it unless you know your audience well.

A beautiful Swan River Daisy, which is native to Australia.
Whoops-a-daisy! - For most English speakers, the natural interjection that is uttered when they make a mistake is either oops or its precursor, whoops, or perhaps the popular uh-oh. However, if you really want to stand out linguistically, you can always go for the lively whoops-a-daisy. Perhaps the cuteness of the term will even make people be nicer to you despite whatever error you've just made!

Bish bash bosh! / Bada bing bada boom! - Both of these terms can be used when you've completed something quickly or easily. Bish bash bosh is most often heard in the UK, while bada bing bada boom is more popular in the United States. The latter term may have originated from Italian Americans, and is most often said on TV and in films by members of the mafia, so if you're in the U.S. you might be better off sticking to an alternative like voila, from the French term voilà.

Fiddlesticks! - When you need to express your annoyance about something, you can always use this handy term instead of a long list of popular expletives.

Cowabunga, dude! - This term is great for those who want to talk like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or simply need a radical or tubular term to express their surprise or amazement at something. Sadly (or maybe not), it has fallen out of favor since its height in the early 1990s.

Did we leave out your favorite whimsical interjection? Let us know in the comments below, and please include information about where and how it's used!

    Monday, April 27, 2015

    Country Profile: The Languages of Mozambique

    In recent weeks we've looked at the languages of countries in northern and western Africa, namely Morocco and Ghana. Today we're moving on to southeastern Africa to the coastal country of Mozambique.

    The Official Language

    Mozambique has one official language, and that language is Portuguese. Between 1498 and 1975, the area that is now Mozambique was known as Portuguese Mozambique, which was an important Portuguese trading post. When Mozambique gained its independence from Portugal in 1975, it kept Portuguese as its official language, undoubtedly due to its long-term use throughout the country.

    Portuguese is the native language of approximately 50% of the population, and is especially important in the country's largest cities. However, several other languages are spoken throughout Mozambique, albeit in much smaller numbers.

    Ponta do Ouro, a beautiful cape in southern Mozambique.
    Bantu Languages

    While Portuguese may be the most important language in Mozambique, there are approximately 40 other languages spoken throughout the country. The vast majority of these indigenous languages belong to the Bantu language family.

    The most spoken indigenous language in Mozambique is Makhuwa, the language of the Makua people, which boasts over 3 million native speakers. Another prominent Bantu language is Tsonga, which has over 1.7 million native speakers in Mozambique. It is also spoken in the nearby countries of South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Swaziland.

    The Lomwe, Sena, and Tswa languages all have over 1 million native speakers, while the Ronga language has over 700,000 and the Nyanja language has nearly 600,000 speakers. Nyanja is also known by the name Chewa, and is an official language of Malawi. Finally, two other notable Bantu languages are Swahili and Zulu, which are used by small groups in Mozambique.

    Friday, April 24, 2015

    Language Learning: The Importance of a Name

    Can you imagine what life would be like without a name? If you think about it, naming things is an essential part of human life. In large part, language exists and evolves because we are constantly naming new things and concepts in order to more easily communicate with each other.

    Long ago, this naming tradition was applied to newborn babies, which is how we all get stuck with our given names at birth, whether we love them or hate them. It's certainly a handy way to distinguish one person from the hundreds of others we personally know. That said, a name can also provide us with a lot of possible information about someone, such as their place of birth or heritage, their family's religion, or even their parents' musical tastes. (I say "possible" information because you generally wouldn't expect a Mexican child to be named Vladimir or a Christian child to be named Mohammad, but it's certainly possible.) Many people also feel that their names are symbolic of who they are, to the point that some young adults legally change their names when they feel more like a "Katie" than a "Martha".

    Let's name this adorable Russian Blue cat "Andrei".
    So what does all of this have to do with language learning? Well, back when I was in high school, a few of my favorite foreign language teachers made us choose names at the beginning of each school year in hopes that it would help us feel more connected to the cultures that spoke the languages we were learning. 

    For French class, I chose the name Anaïs, which in addition to being a popular name in France, was the name of a kind French girl whose family I had lived with for a few days one summer. While I doubt that writing the name Anaïs on my homework and responding to the name in French class improved my French skills in any significant way, I will say that it did definitely make me feel more "French" sometimes. Having confidence is incredibly helpful when learning a language, so as silly as it seems, I do think that adopting a name relevant to the language you're learning can actually have some benefits.

    That said, I never chose a new name for Spanish class, instead preferring to use my given name, Erica, only pronounced with a Spanish accent. It certainly didn't have the same effect as using Anaïs in French class did, but at the very least it was a small attempt to immerse myself in the culture!

    If you're currently learning a foreign language, consider adopting a foreign name for learning purposes! It certainly can't hurt... perhaps you'll put more effort into your Italian studies if you pretend your name is Francesca, or improve your German pronunciation if you transform into Friedrich. You can even be silly with it - two students in my Spanish class chose the names Taco and Frijoles ("beans"), undoubtedly to the chagrin of our teacher, but both were active participants in class, which is essential when learning a language.

    Have you ever adopted a new name while learning a language or living in another country? Do you feel that it helped you to feel more connected to the culture? Let us know in the comments below.

    Wednesday, April 22, 2015

    Why There's No Such Thing As "Untranslatable"

    A lacuna is also a type of hole, as illustrated
    in this beautiful picture of shells.
    While celebrating the diversity of language is somewhat of a hobby of mine, I am also somewhat irritated by words (often on the internet) that are labelled as "untranslatable". It often seems that most of these untranslatables merely lack a direct linguistic or cultural equivalent, known as a lexical gap or lacuna.

    If you throw "untranslatable" into a search engine, you'll be met with plenty of listicles (a portmanteau of "list" and "article", if you were wondering) designed to provide light reading online, generate ad revenue, and provide you with an opportunity to kill some time. Every one of these will give a number of "untranslatable" words along with a description of what they mean.

    Translation is often so much more nuanced and complicated than throwing out a word-for-word equivalent and, in the case of these articles, an actual translation appears alongside the words that are supposedly untranslatable!

    Depending on your outlook, translation can come in almost any form. You may remember from our "Intro to Translation Studies" posts that scholars Vinay and Darbelnet categorised translation into a number of methods, some of which don't require you to have found an exact equivalent to have translated a term.

    It's also important to consider what you need the translation for. If these "untranslatable" words had appeared in a novel, for example, the translator would probably be unable to provide a dictionary-style definition as has been done in these articles. However, while translating them may be difficult, it would not be impossible for the best translators. Sometimes even the best translators cannot find an equivalent term or phrase, and might have to make use of footnotes to explain the term. However, whether you consider this to be a good or bad translation, the word has technically still been translated.

    With that all said, most of these lists are very fascinating and I enjoy reading them. I just wish they wouldn't call them "untranslatable"!

    What are your favourite hard-to-translate words that don't have a direct equivalent in English? Put them in the comments below and don't forget to provide the translation... if you can!

    Monday, April 20, 2015

    Country Profile: The Languages of Nepal

    A few weeks ago, we looked at some of the many languages spoken in Malaysia. Today, we're back in Asia with a look at the equally impressive linguistic diversity of Nepal, which is home to 120 living languages. 

    The Official Language

    Unsurprisingly, the official language of Nepal is Nepali, a member of the Indo-Aryan language family. Nepali is the native language of approximately half of Nepal's population, and is also an important lingua franca that allows speakers of the country's many regional languages to communicate.

    The Recognized Regional Languages

    While Nepal's constitution recognizes all native languages spoken in the country as "national languages" that can be used for official purposes, there are fourteen languages in particular that are recognized as regional languages.

    Momo, a popular Nepalese dumpling which is
    often eaten at lunchtime with dipping sauces.
    The most spoken languages that fall into this category are Nepali, Maithili, and Bhojpuri. All three are Indo-Aryan languages. There are nearly 4 million speakers of Maithili in Nepal, as well as over 1.5 million Bhojpuri speakers.

    Next on the list is Tharu, which is actually a group of languages spoken by the Tharu indigenous group. There are over 1 million speakers of its various languages. The same can also be said of both Tamang and Gurung, though of course they are spoken by their namesake indigenous groups instead of the Tharu people.

    The final recognized languages are Awadhi, Newar, Magar, Sherpa, Kiranti, Rai, and Limbu. Awadhi, which is also widely spoken in India, is the native language of around 500,000 Nepalis, while Newar and the two major dialects of Magar boast over 700,000 speakers. The Kiranti language family, which includes the languages of the Rai and Limbu groups, are also spoken by several hundred thousand Nepalis. 

    You may have noticed we left the Sherpa language for last - that's because it's particularly interesting. While many English speakers associate the term "sherpa" with mountaineering experts, it is technically the name of an ethnic group! 

    Sherpa is the language of the Sherpa ethnic group that lives high in the Himalayas, and who also happened to be incredibly helpful to the earliest explorers that wanted to climb Mount Everest. Over the years, their name has become a general term for any kind of guide. While many of the guides in the Himalayas today are ethnic Sherpas, some are not, so use of the term isn't technically correct. That said, those who are not do occasionally learn the Sherpa language, presumably to be able to better communicate with their peers.