Friday, March 27, 2015

Honouring André Lefevere and his Work in Translation Studies

It was on this day in 1996 when André Alphons Lefevere, an acclaimed translation theorist, lost his battle with leukaemia and passed away. We thought we'd take this opportunity to honour his life and his contributions to the academic fields of comparative literature and Translation Studies. Lefevere was born in Belgium in 1945 and studied German Philology at the University of Ghent, Belgium, from 1964 to 1968. He then completed his PhD in 1972 at the University of Essex in the UK.

Translation Studies is often considered to split nicely into three different "turns": the linguistic turn, the cultural turn, and the sociological turn. When Lefevere started his career, the discipline was firmly rooted in the linguistic turn, and the work of many academics reflected this, even Lefevere's. However, taking Even-Zohar's Polysystem Theory and the Manipulation School as a starting point, Lefevere viewed the validity of translations by taking cultural factors and the roles played by the various actors in a system into account, making him one of the pioneering scholars of the cultural turn. In fact, it was through collaborations with Susan Bassnett that André Lefevere suggested that Translation Studies required a "cultural turn".

A beautiful metaphor for translation.
Lefevere considered the art (or is it a science?) of translation as "rewriting", a practice that he likened to the refraction of light. In this metaphor the source text is a beam of light, and the translator acts as a prism, bending and manipulating the source text so that different colours, or interpretations, can be seen.

He was influential in establishing Translation Studies as an independent discipline, spending his life as an academic who sought to bring theory and practice together. At the time of his death, he was working as a professor in the Department of Germanic Languages at the University of Texas.

While nearly two decades have passed since his death, his work and input will live on as a testament to his brilliance. To find out more about his work on Translation Studies, we recommend picking up one of the many books he wrote, especially his collaborations with Susan Bassnett.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Linguistic Controversy and an Arabic Pledge of Allegiance

This past week, one of the biggest news stories circulating in the United States has been the revelation that a school district in New York was forced to make a public apology after a student recited the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance in Arabic as part of the school's celebration of "National Foreign Language Week". For the full story, you can read these articles by the BBC and CNN.

If you're unfamiliar with the Pledge of Allegiance, it's basically a short statement of loyalty to the United States of America, as represented by the country's flag. Just like most other American children, I put my hand over my heart, faced the flag, and recited the pledge at the beginning of each school day between the ages of 5 and 12. I don't remember being taught it, but it's so ingrained in my memory that I'm pretty sure I'll be able to recite it until the day I die! I cannot tell you why we did this, because nobody ever told me, but it seems to be simply because it is considered an important American tradition. 

In the case of this particular school district, children apparently still recite the Pledge of Allegiance each day in high school as well. The foreign language department had the really clever idea to honor "National Foreign Language Week" by turning what is normally a boring routine into a learning experience by having a student read the pledge over the intercom system during the morning announcements in a different foreign language each day: Arabic, Italian, Spanish, Japanese, and French

Sadly, they never got past day one because students and parents complained, reportedly because they were offended because they had lost family members in Afghanistan or were Jewish. Which makes no sense at all, but does provide an impressive display of ignorance. 

Arabic is often considered a group of languages, or macrolanguage, because it is spoken across a huge number of countries and features a diverse range of dialects. Why should the use of a particular language ever offend anyone? The student wasn't reciting hateful speech, they were using one of the world's most spoken languages to recite a pledge to the United States of America, a melting pot of cultures. 

It is horrible that these families had lost family members due to the war in Afghanistan, but it doesn't make any sense that the Arabic language would offend them. Arabic is one of the least spoken languages in Afghanistan, with such a small number of speakers that it is considered "threatened" by the Ethnologue. But even if it had been the official language of Afghanistan, Arabic would not have killed their family members - the brutality of war did.

I have not found any article that explains the reasoning behind the Jewish families that complained. The only guess I can make is that they are equating Arabic with Islam and if so, are generalizing and stereotyping an entire religion and around a quarter of the world's population instead of considering that only a small minority of Muslims has ever harmed Jews, or anyone else for that matter.

If that is their argument, then we might as well get rid of all the Romance languages too, since they evolved from Latin, which was used by Christians who persecuted Jewish people long ago. A good portion of the English language is composed of words of French origin as well, so I guess we all better zip our lips, and quickly.

Sadlly, this is not even the first time this has happened! Other schools have gotten in trouble in the past when students recited the pledge in Spanish because it was "un-American", despite the fact that the United States has no official language.

In any case, the saddest thing of all is not the ignorance of those families who chose to complain about an opportunity for their children to learn about foreign languages and cultures. Instead, it is the fact that the school district apologized for trying to teach the children about the world. Schools should never have to apologize for introducing children to new concepts, new cultures, and new ways of thinking. A sound understanding of foreign languages and cultures will never spread hatred as quickly as sweeping generalizations and ignorance.

Do you agree or disagree - should the school have apologized? Tell us what you think in the comments below remembering to keep it respectful!

Monday, March 23, 2015

Country Profile: The Languages of Uzbekistan

Last Monday, we looked at the fascinating linguistic makeup of Peru. This week we're traveling to the other side of the world to learn about the languages of Uzbekistan, a large country in Central Asia.

The Official Language

The sole official language of Uzbekistan is Uzbek, a member of the Turkic language family. Uzbek is the native language of approximately 85% of the country's population. While it was formerly written using a Cyrillic script, it has been written using a Latin-based alphabet since 1992, soon after Uzbekistan gained its independence from the Soviet Union.

An illustration of a bazaar in Samarkand from the
1893 novel Claudius Bombarnac by Jules Verne.
The Recognized Language

Uzbekistan also officially recognizes Karakalpak, another Turkic language, in the autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan. It has approximately 407,000 native speakers, who primarily reside in this northwestern region of the country.

Other Languages

There are six other languages in Uzbekistan that have significant numbers of speakers: Russian, Tajik, Kazakh, Turkish, Crimean Tatar, and Bukharic.

According to the Ethnologue, the Russian language can be considered the "de facto national working language" of Uzbekistan. This is undoubtedly due to the importance of Russian which lingers from the country's recent past as part of the Soviet Union. Russian is the primary language of over 4 million speakers, which is approximately 14% of the country. It is used in government, business, and industries such as science and technology.

Tajik, the official language of neighboring Tajikistan, is spoken by over 1.2 million Uzbeks, which is around 5% of the population. It is primarily used in large cities such as Bukhara and Samarkand. It is followed in number of speakers by Kazakh, Turkish, and Crimean Tatar, which are all Turkic languages.

Over 800,000 people in Uzbekistan speak Kazakh, while nearly 200,000 speak the Turkish language. Crimean Tatar, which is also spoken in Turkey, Romania, and Bulgaria, has nearly 150,000 speakers. Finally, there is Bukharic, an Indo-European language related to Persian and Tajik, which has nearly 10,000 speakers in the country. It is the language of Bukharan Jews, and contains a large number of loanwords from Hebrew.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Conversations on the Plurality of Words

On Wednesday, we looked at some of the confusing irregular plurals in English that don't follow the normal rules that tell us how to make a noun plural. Today we're having a look at certain nouns that struggle with the concept of being plural altogether.

While it can be tricky when the plural form of a word doesn't play by the rules, don't underestimate how tricky words can be when they have no singular, no plural, or look like one and are actually the other!

Nouns That Are Often Singular

Sand is uncountable.
In order to make something plural, you usually have to be able to count it, since the plural in English consists of two or more of any given thing. This means that uncountable nouns are often singular in English. Liquids and gases usually fall into this category, because it's not easy to cut air or water into two airs and two waters. Of course, the exception to this rule is when you're ordering things in a restaurant, since you can order two waters, two milks, etc.

Intangible things are often uncountable, too. Love, passion, and happiness, for example, are often considered singular entities. However, when used in reference to a person or an object, you can easily have a number of loves or passions.

While you can't have certain quantities of uncountable nouns, there are sometimes plural forms of uncountable nouns; just don't expect to see them often!

Nouns That Are Always Plurals

Certain things always are considered plurals. These are often things that have two major elements. Take trousers, for example. In English, trousers are always plural, supposedly because they have two legs. The same goes for shorts, pants, knickers, boxers, tights, stockings, suspenders, braces, and almost any item of clothing that requires you to have two legs. This rule also counts when it comes to eyewear as glasses and spectacles do not have a singular form.

Tools like scissors, which require two blades in order to work, are also plural. This rule also applies to shears and clippers.

Singular Nouns That Look Like Plurals

Athletics takes place on a track like this.
A number of academic disciplines end with an "s" but are still referred to as singular nouns. For example, mathematics is the abstract science of number, quantity, and space. Of course, when shortened in American English, the term math doesn't look much like a plural. However, the British English term maths still looks like a plural.

Other examples include economics, physics, and sporting disciplines such as gymnastics and athletics. News is another example.

Singular Nouns That Are Sometimes Plural

In my experience, some nouns are only treated as plurals in British English (feel free to correct me if I'm wrong) and are definitely singular nouns when it comes to American English. They're all terms that refer to groups of people.

This really comes to my attention while watching sports. I have no issue with saying "the team are playing well" and would never replace the term "team" with the personal pronoun "it" as I refer to the members of a team as "they". This also comes into effect when referring to teams by their given names.

The same goes for other groups of people. The staff at the restaurant are friendly and the government are useless. The police were there to help and the audience have enjoyed the show. I'll stop giving examples now since I can sense the uncomfortable wincing from across the pond.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Beginner's Guide to Irregular English Plurals

Whether you're a native speaker or are just beginning to learn the English language, you've probably had at least one moment when you've wondered what the plural form of a particular word is. A prime example is "roof": when speaking, you know to pronounce a word that sounds like rooves, but in fact, the word you should write is "roofs", since "rooves" is considered to be archaic. Today we're going to introduce you to some of the many irregular English plurals. You might be surprised to find out that you've been getting a few of them wrong!

There are quite a few animals which require the use of the same term for both singular and plural. The most commonly cited examples are deer, sheep, fish, and moose. You can actually use fishes in certain contexts, such as when you're talking about multiple species of fish, but someone will probably correct you anyway. Speaking of fishes, most species, such as salmon and trout, follow the same rule. Other tricky animals include bison, buffalo, and squid.

There are a couple more odd animal plurals we can name: oxen and children. Long ago, someone decided it would be a good idea to have a few random words which became plural with the addition of the suffix -en. Another example is brethren, an archaic plural form of brother, which is still occasionally used by groups like religious fraternities.

There's an especially annoying group of plurals known as "apophonic plurals" or "mutated plurals", which originated when certain Germanic vowels in Old English changed long ago. A few of the resulting plurals that confuse children throughout their early years are:

mouse - mice     |     goose - geese     |     louse - lice     |     foot - feet     |     tooth - teeth

The yellow mongoose, which lives in Africa.
That said, mongoose becomes mongooses instead of "mongeese" because it's not related to the word goose - a mongoose is actually a small carnivore. Additionally, the plural of moose is not meese, as is often said jokingly, though it would make sense.

In terms of plurals, you probably can't find a more confusing term than person. Its plural is people, right? Kind of... except that you can use persons in certain formal contexts, plus there's the fact that occasionally people is used as a singular term, in which case you can then use its plural, peoples. I rest my case.

Finally, words of Latin and Greek origin can cause a lot of headaches when it comes to plurals. Here are some prime examples:

crisis - crises |     radius - radii      |     millennium - millennia     |     matrix - matrices     
octopus - octopuses     |     phenomenon - phenomena     |     platypus - platypuses

You might be surprised by octopuses and platypuses, because many native English speakers learned that the correct plurals were "octupi" and "platypi" when they grew up. Sadly, this is not true. You could use the technically correct and even more exciting sounding terms octopodes and platypodes as well, but only if you enjoy getting strange looks.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Country Profile: The Languages of Peru

This week we're back in South America, having looked at the languages of Argentina, Colombia, and Brazil in recent months. Today our focus is on Peru, a linguistically diverse country which has an incredibly inclusive language policy.

The Official Languages

Peru has a very interesting official language policy - its constitution recognizes Spanish as an official language, as well as Quechua, Aymara, and other indigenous languages in areas where they are predominant. Peru is home to over 90 languages, which means that it has way more official languages than we could cover in one post. Instead, we'll focus on the country's most prestigious and most spoken languages.

If Peru could only have one official language, it would likely be Spanish, which is spoken by over 80% of the country's population. It's used by the government, as well as in education, commerce, and the media.

Alpamayo, one of the most beautiful peaks in Peru.
Since Quechua and Aymara are the only other languages named in the constitution, it's pretty clear that they are both very important. Both are generally spoken in the Andean highlands and share some vocabulary, but linguists still haven't conclusively determined if they're related or not.

Quechua, spoken by about 13% of the population, is technically a family of languages, and in fact many of Peru's 90 other spoken languages belong to this family. In recent years there have been increased efforts to teach Quechua in public schools in some parts of the country. Aymara, on the other hand, has various dialects, though they are all mutually intelligible. It only has around 400,000 speakers in Peru, which is around 1% of the population.

Other Languages

As we said before, Peru has dozens of officially recognized indigenous languages which remain unnamed in the country's constitution. This is because the country is home to many indigenous groups, which primarily reside in the areas near the Andes and in the Amazon basin. With the exception of several Quechua languages, most of these languages have fewer than 50,000 speakers and very few monolingual speakers, which threatens their survival. Some of the most spoken languages that fall into this category include Aguaruna, Asháninka, and Shipibo-Conibo.

Friday, March 13, 2015

A Brief Tribute to Sir Terry Pratchett's Death

Yesterday I was incredibly saddened to be notified (via Twitter) of the death of one of my favourite authors, Sir Terry Pratchett. Pratchett was a fantasy writer most famous for his Discworld series. In honour of his great work, rather than present an obituary I thought I'd have a fond look back at both a character and a concept that he covered extensively: death.

Death in Discworld is based on this
Western depiction. He also rides
a horse which is named "Binky".
Throughout the series, death (or Death when referring to the character) is regularly mentioned. When personified, Death appears as a scythe-wielding skeleton in a robe. Aside from his love of cats and curries, his "voice" is one of the fascinating elements in the series.

Despite the wonderful descriptions of Death, he is rarely perceived by humans as they unsurprisingly don't want to see him. While I've used the masculine pronoun to refer to Death, in the books his gender is somewhat ambiguous. While English doesn't have gendered nouns, certain languages, such as French, require it, meaning that international versions of the Discworld books featuring the character have come up with some inventive ways to deal with his/her/its gender.

There is also a cultural issue when it comes to the representation of Death in Discworld. His appearance is based on a Western representation of death, which can make matters very confusing for cultures that have a different idea of Death's appearance.

One of my favourite elements of Death's representation in the Discworld books is his voice, if you could call it that. Anything uttered by Death always appears outside of any quotation marks and, like the tweet, is always represented in capital letters. However, rather than traditional capital letters, Death's voice uses what is known as "small caps", which (in my head at least) seem firm, authoritative, and delightfully dry, all without shouting. Take the following witty example:

That’s mortals for you, Death continued. They’ve only got a few years in this world and they spend them all in making things complicated for themselves.

If you haven't already, you should read the fantastic Reaper Man, a wonderfully funny story about Death working on a farm. When you do, you'll be rewarded with one of Pratchett's most relevant and pertinent sentiments, summing up life and death perfectly:

"no-one is finally dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away"

Rest in peace, Sir Terry Pratchett.