Friday, October 24, 2014

United Nations Day: The Languages of the UN

Today, October 24, marks the date that the Charter of the United Nations came into effect. While it hardly makes for a riveting read (you can read it here if you must), what it does in practice is far more astounding, since it acts as the treaty that founded the UN.

The flag of the UN
The treaty itself was signed on 26 June 1945 at the San Francisco War Memorial and Performing Arts Center. When it was signed, Poland was the only of the 51 founding nations not present,  eventually signing the treaty a couple of months later.

The five permanent members of the Security Council (P5) at the time, the Republic of China, France, the UK, the US, and the USSR, ratified the charter alongside a number of other nations. While it may seem odd to mention the P5, their importance will become evident as we look at the official languages of the UN.

When the charter was made, it was written in five languages: Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish. It wasn't until the first General Assembly that the five official languages and working languages of the UN were decided. Initially, English and French were decided upon as the working languages.

Spanish was added as a working language in 1948, making the three languages the status quo for the General Assembly until 1968, when Russian was added as the fourth working language. By this point, four of the five official languages were in use as working languages. Chinese was then made a working language in 1973, making all five original official languages also working languages.

Arabic was added as both an official and a working language in 1973. The official language status of Arabic only extended to the General Assembly and its "main committees", as opposed to the five other languages, which held official status throughout all committees. For the first three years after Arabic became an official language, the Arab nations of the UN were expected to fund the procedures required enact this change.

After seven years as an official language for the General Assembly and its main committees, Arabic's official status was extended to all subcommittees in 1980. Three years later, all six languages were adopted as the official languages of the Security Council.

Currently, there are a number of additional languages vying for official language status. In 2009, the president of Bangladesh suggested that Bengali be an official language of the UN. Esperanto has also been suggested, despite its relatively small number of speakers.

Hindi and Portuguese have also been suggested since they are both widely-spoken languages. The Secretary-General of the UN and the Turkish Prime Minister have also suggested that Turkish become one of the official languages.

Do you think the UN uses the right languages? Which languages do you think should become official languages of the UN? Tell us in the comments below.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Country Profile: The Languages of Japan

Today we'll be focusing on the linguistic makeup of Japan, a country in the Pacific Ocean composed of an impressive 6,852 islands. Over 400 of these islands are inhabited by Japan's population of approximately 126 million people. Despite the country's massive population being spread across so many islands, it is not as linguistically diverse as one would think.

The Great Wave off Kanagawa, an 1830s ukiyo-e woodblock print by Japanese
artist Hokusai that is one of the most famous pieces of art in the world.
The National Language

While Japan does not have an official language, it does have a national language. Unsurprisingly, this language is Japanese, which is spoken by approximately 99% of the country's population. This is primarily because Japan is a relatively homogeneous society when it comes to culture and language, with over 98% of the population being ethnic Japanese.

The Ryukyuan Languages

Despite the prevalence of Japanese, there are other languages spoken in Japan. The Ryukyuan languages, six in all, are indigenous to Japan's southern Ryukyu Islands. The number of speakers of these languages is unknown, though they are all believed to be endangered. While the Japanese government considers them to be dialects of Japanese, linguists have shown that they are not mutually intelligible with each other or with Japanese, and therefore are separate languages in the same language family.

Ainu, The Minority Language

The Ainu language is considered a minority language in Japan. Sadly, it is nearly extinct, with only a handful of elderly speakers remaining on Hokkaido, Japan's second largest island. However, there have been recent education efforts to help revitalize the language and some people are now learning Ainu as a second language.

Immigrant Languages

A small percentage of the Japanese population is comprised of immigrants who speak their native language despite the dominance of Japanese in the country. The two main immigrant languages in Japan are Korean and Chinese, which together are spoken by approximately 0.9% of the Japanese population.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Celebrating the Linguistic Life of Richard Francis Burton

On this day in 1890, Richard Francis Burton's fascinating life came to an end. Today we've decided to honour the man with a post about his life and his work as both a linguist and translator. While the stories of linguists and translators are often fascinating to us, few have led a more interesting and exciting life than Richard Francis Burton.

The hyperpolyglot himself in his later years.
Burton was born on 19 March 1821 in Torquay, England. However, a relatively small amount of his time was spent in his hometown since his family travelled often when he was a child. He spent a good number of his very early years in Tours, France after his family moved there in 1825. Burton later returned to England to attend a prep school in Surrey.

As his family travelled across Europe, generally between the United Kingdom, France, and Italy, Burton's love for languages led to him learning a considerable number of them. Starting with primarily Romance languages, he learnt French, Italian, Latin, and Neapolitan. He also learnt some Romani following a supposed affair with a gypsy woman, as well as learning Arabic during his time at school.

Having enlisted in the East India Company's army, Burton shipped out to India where he mastered a number of the local languages, including Hindustani, Gujarati, Punjabi, Sindhi, Saraiki and Marathi, not to mention improving upon his Arabic and adding Persian to his rapidly-growing list of languages. He also owned a group of monkeys which he attempted to communicate with, earning him much ridicule from his fellow soldiers.

Eventually, a sense of adventure compelled Burton to undertake a pilgrimage to Mecca, earning him widespread fame. However, Burton was undercover during the pilgrimage. While he had extensively researched and improved upon his Arabic, he pretended to be Pashtun in order to help explain why he spoke the way he did.

Burton was an active participant in the Crimean War after he rejoined the army. After an alleged mutiny in which Burton was mentioned during the subsequent enquiry, he spent time exploring Africa.

After several stints exploring Africa, Burton's later years were spent in diplomatic and academic roles. He spent time in Brazil, Damascus, and Trieste, to name a few places. He also continued to travel and write before undertaking the translations that earned him significant recognition.

Sir Richard Francis Burton translated the Kama Sutra, which generated considerable controversy at the time. He also translated The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night, which is often known as Arabian Nights. By the time Burton died, he had mastered somewhere between 25 and 40 languages, depending on how you count them, making him more than worthy of our respect.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Hatsune Miku: Virtual Vocals and Synthetic Singing

During a recent Facebook scrolling session, an odd link popped up on my news feed. It was this video of a musical performance on the Late Show with David Letterman.

You don't need to be the most observant person in the world to realise that the performer, Hatsune Miku, or 初音ミク, as her name is written in Japanese, is not a real person. Hatsune Miku is not the first virtual performer; other popular virtual acts include Alvin and the Chipmunks, The Archies, and Gorillaz. However, Hatsune Miku can do something that other acts can't do: sing.

You may think that her high-pitched singing is not as good as the sped-up singing of Alvin, Simon, and Theodore, and you may be right. However, the Chipmunks, much like other virtual acts, had their music and their vocals pre-recorded. Hatsune Miku's vocals are synthesised using Yamaha's VOCALOID2 and VOCALOID3 vocal synthesisers.

If you're familiar with Japanese, you may recognise the components of Hatsune Miku's name. In fact, the name translates as "the first sound from the future", with Hatsu (初) meaning "first", Ne (音) meaning "sound", and Miku (ミク) meaning "future".

Sapporo, Japan, the hometown of Hatsune Miku.
While 16 year-old Hatsune Miku could be said to be from Sapporo, the technology that allows her to sing was conceived of in Spain as part of a research project at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona.

Hatsune Miku's voice isn't purely synthesised and is in fact generated from phonemes prerecorded by Japanese voice actress Saki Fujita. Initially, only Japanese phonemes were recorded, before learning English (from Saki Fujita's recordings) for a later release. This allows her to sing in both languages, albeit with a Japanese accent when she sings in English.

The process that allows for the manipulation of the phonemes into song is known as concatenative synthesis. Using this process, sound samples (known as units) can be manipulated. This allows the user to modify a range of qualities, including the unit's length, pitch, and timbre.

Since anyone who owns the software can synthesise speech and vocals, Hatsune Miku is "technically" the performer of thousands of songs. She's not alone, though. There are also other virtual performers available with different language combinations such as Spanish and Chinese. Other languages can also be approximated using preexisting phonemes, with differing levels of success.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Country Profile: The Languages of Bangladesh

This week we're turning our attention to Bangladesh, one of the most densely populated countries in the world. This South Asian country is home to over 160 million people, making it the eighth most populous country despite its small geographic size.

The Official Language

The official language of Bangladesh is Bengali, an Indo-Aryan language which is the native language of over 98% of the country's population. The English language is also widely used in Bangladesh, though it does not have official status in the country. However, it is used in many important areas of daily life including education, government, media, business, and law. English has been an important language in Bangladesh since the country's colonial era as part of the British Empire. Some consider it to be a de facto co-official language of Bangladesh due to its widespread use in the country.

While Bengali, also known as Bangla, is the native language of the vast majority of the Bangladeshi population, the country is also home to various minority languages. These can be divided into four language families: Indic languages, Tibeto-Burman languages, Austro-Asiatic languages, and Dravidian languages.

A beautiful Buddhist temple in Rangamati, Bangladesh.
Indo-Aryan Languages

Several Indo-Aryan languages and language varieties are spoken by Bangladeshis. The Assamese language, primarily spoken in India, is sometimes considered to be part of a dialect continuum with Bengali, though most linguists believe it to be a completely separate language. Another important indigenous language is Chakma, which is closely related to both Assamese and Bengali and is spoken by around 300,000 people in the southeast of Bangladesh.

Tibeto-Burman Languages

Bangladesh is also home to several Tibeto-Burman languages which are primarily spoken in the country's mountainous areas. These indigenous languages include several of the Chin languages, also known as the Kukish languages, Garo, and Megam. Garo, also spoken in neighboring India, has approximately 1 million native speakers throughout the world, and is closely related to the Megam language.

Austro-Asiatic Languages

A few Austro-Asiatic languages are spoken by indigenous groups in eastern and northern Bangladesh. The Khasi language, spoken by the Khasi people, is known for its rich folklore which provides stories that explain the meaning behind its words for natural features, plants, and animals. Other Austro-Asiatic languages include Koda, which is endangered due to its dwindling number of speakers, and Mundari, which is spoken by just over 1 million people in India, Nepal, and Bangladesh.

Dravidian Languages

Finally, we've reached the Dravidian language family. The western region of Bangladesh is home to two Dravidian languages, Kurukh and Sauria Paharia. Kurukh is an indigenous language that boasts approximately 2 million native speakers, while Sauria Paharia, spoken by a tribe of the same name, has under 100,000 native speakers.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Inside the Geordie Dialect: Part 3

Last week we took an in-depth look at the Geordie dialect of English which is spoken in the North East region of England. We began on Wednesday with a brief description and history of Geordie, and continued on Friday with a look at some basic Geordie vocabulary. Today we'll be concluding our short series with more fascinating verbs, nouns, and adjectives that will help you larn to speak like a Geordie in no time.


While most verbs in Geordie are identical to those of other English dialects, there are some differences. Instead of saying "to go", Geordies say gan, so it makes sense that "going" is instead gannin. Children, or bairns if you recall our last post, don't "whine", they whinge. One of the most distinctive Geordie verbs is hoy, which is used for "throw". Frequently used contractions are also different in Geordie. Cannit means "can't", while dinna and divvint both mean "don't".


Clearly Geordies are often in need of a term for "idiot" or "fool", since there are three words we've found with this meaning: dafty, divvy, and mug. If you're "nosy" they'll say that you're nebby. Finally, if you're short on money or "broke", as is often said, then you're skint.

However, the most important Geordie adjective is undoubtedly canny. It means both nice and good, but that doesn't express the full sentiment behind the word. According to The New Geordie Dictionary edited by Frank Graham, it is "The most common and most beautiful word in our dialect. We cannot better Heslop's description: 'An embodiment of all that is kindly, good, and gentle. The highest compliment that can be paid to any person is to say that he or she is canny.'"

Nouns and Phrases

If you're in a pub and someone orders "broon", meaning "brown", they're asking for Newcastle Brown Ale, a popular beer that was originally brewed in Newcastle. Oddly enough, it is considered to be a premium imported beer outside of the UK that is popular with young people, while inside the country it is not very highly regarded.

Scran is a popular Geordie term for "food", while the word tab means "cigarette". If someone tells you to "have a deeks", they're asking you to take a look at something.  Clarts means "mud", while the term hadaway means "go away". Geordies may also tell you that "shy bairns get nowt", a popular saying which basically means that if you don't speak up for yersel ("yourself"), then you won't get what you want.

We'll conclude our Geordie lexical lesson with the word craic (pronounced "crack"), which is also used in the Irish language as well as other British dialects. The term can be used in a number of ways in reference to fun, being in good company, or just conversation itself. For example, a common conversation starter among Geordies is "What's the craic?", which is equivalent to asking "What's up?". You can also say that a person has "good craic" if they're a good conversationalist. If you're interested in learning about its many other uses, you might want to check out Urban Dictionary's entry for "craic".

If you want to put all the Geordie terms you've learned over the past week to the test, then listen to the Geordie version of the Carly Rae Jepsen song "Call Me Maybe" above done by the duo May Arcade. (They've also helpfully transcribed their lyrics in the video description on YouTube if you're interested!) What do you think of the Geordie version of this popular song? Let us know in the comments below.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Friday, October 10, 2014

Inside the Geordie Dialect: Part 2

On Wednesday, we introduced you to the history and origins of the Geordie dialect, which is spoken in the Tyneside area of North East England. Today we'll be taking a closer look at some of the fascinating vocabulary that sets Geordie apart from other British dialects. If you're interested in speaking English with what is often considered to be one of the most attractive UK accents, then pay close attention!

The bridges over the river Tyne.
One of the first things people learn when studying a new language (or dialect, in this case), is how to greet people. Geordies often do this by saying "Alreet?". The word itself means "alright", but you can respond in a variety of ways, including saying "Alreet" back, or simply responding "Aye", which means "yes". 

Another way to say "yes" is "Whey aye", (pronounced "why eye") as a way of saying "of course". If you want to say "no", you'll be needing either nee or na. If you're disagreeing with something or responding to a question, it's "na". However, "no way" is "nee way", and if you've used all of something, for example milk, you'd say there's "nee milk". 

"Nothing" is nowt, while "anything" is owt. A "child" is a bairn and a gadgie is a "guy". Lad and lass are used for "boy" and "girl". If you're looking for a term of endearment for a woman or child, you can use the term pet. Don't worry, it isn't referring to the adorable domesticated animals we keep at home, but is instead a shortened form of the word "petal", as in "flower petal", which is quite sweet when you think about it.

Speaking of "home", it's yem or hyem depending on how you decide to spell in Geordie which doesn't have any sort of standard written form. To many Geordies, the Toon is home, a term that technically means "town" but almost always refers specifically to the city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

There's plenty more Geordie for you to larn, so check back on Monday for the conclusion of our look at the dialect and its fascinating lexicon.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3