Friday, August 29, 2014

Persian Loanwords: Part 1

In the past we've looked into the origins of various loanwords that have made their way into English from languages such as Portuguese, Dutch, and Quechua. Over the next few days we'll be turning our focus to some of our favorite Persian loanwords, starting with some fascinating terms for foods, animals, and flowers.

Candy and sugar - Two of the most irresistible foods in existence get their name from the Persian language. The word "sugar" came to English via the French term sucre, which originated as the Arabic word sukkar and Persian shakar. Its popular crystallized form also made its way into English via French, but originated as the word qand in Persian.

Caviar - One of the most famous luxury foods in the world, this fish egg "delicacy" came to English via the French world caviar. It originated as the Persian term khaviyar before making its way into Turkish as khaviar and Italian as caviaro before finally reaching French.

A beautiful golden jackal enjoying a nice howl.
Jackal - These small canines get their name from the Persian term shaghal, which literally translates as "the howler". We're sure you can guess how they got that name.

Jasmine - This distinctive plant is known for its beautiful fragrance. Its name comes from the Persian word yasmin via the French jasmin.

Lemon and orange - The names for both of these popular citrus fruits originated in the Persian language. The Persian word limun was at one time a generic term for all citrus fruits, while narang is one of the earliest recorded words for "orange". It later became arancia in Italian and orange in French before reaching English. 

Lilac - This beautiful flowering plant gets its name from the Persian word lilak, which was related to the term nilak, meaning "bluish". It eventually became the familiar word lilac in Spanish and French before being borrowed by English.

Tiger - The largest of all cat species gets its name from the Old Persian word tigra, meaning "sharp" or "pointed", which we imagine is a reference to its teeth. The name for this fascinating animal eventually became the Greek and Latin term tigris before reaching French as tigre.

Tulip - Our final word for the day is "tulip", a flower often associated with the Dutch. While the word made its way into English via the Dutch or German terms tulpe, it actually originated as the Persian word dulband, meaning "turban". Some believe this is because the flower resembles a turban, while others attribute the use of the term for the flower as an early translation error, as it was once quite fashionable to wear tulips on turbans during the reign of the Ottoman Empire.

We'll be back with more Persian loanwords on Monday!

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Learn a Language with the Ikea Catalogue

Last week an Ikea catalogue made its way into the pile of unsolicited post that enters through our letterbox every day. As we went through the seemingly endless pages of utilitarian minimalist furniture, we started pondering what the product names meant, if anything.

I imagined that if the names of the products were in any language, it would be Swedish due to the company's origin. However, it should be noted that Ikea's headquarters are located in Leiden, Netherlands. Since my knowledge of Swedish is fairly limited, simply reading that catalogue was never going to give me the answer to my question.

A typical Ikea kitchen layout.
While it is rare that anyone would ever find the answer to anything in a catalogue, I remembered that I live in a wonderful era where almost everything is at my fingertips and a quick bit of delving into the internet would answer my question. This may seem very foolish to anyone in Sweden or anyone who speaks Swedish, but to me it was the culmination of years of infrequent pondering and terrible Swedish impressions every time I bought flat-pack furniture.

My efforts, though as minimalist as the furniture itself, yielded results. It turned out that all of Ikea's products are indeed real words, rather than foreign-sounding pseudo-language, such as Häagen-Dazs, which is supposed to sound Danish.

In addition to being actual words, all of Ikea's products follow a nomenclature, or naming convention, that is designed to ensure that products belonging to certain groups are all named after certain types of words.

Swedish, Norwegian, Finnish, and Danish place names are each allocated to three different groups of product types while the names of Scandinavian lakes, rivers, and bays are used for another group with garden furniture being named after Sweden's islands.

"That's all well and good, but I don't want a geography lesson, I want to learn Swedish!"

Don't worry! Ikea's ranges of bookcases are all the Swedish words for various occupations and the kitchen ranges are often grammatical terms, ideal if you are a prescriptivist. Chairs and desks and fabrics and curtains are men's and women's names respectively, and lighting products are all named after a wide range of terminology from music to the sciences as well as the months of the year and the seasons.

You can learn the names of precious stones and minerals from the bedding and cushions and even mathematics in Swedish from curtain accessories. While we're certainly not saying you'll become fluent in Swedish by walking around their one-way stores and eating meatballs, you should remember next time you find yourself replacing a bookcase that you can expand your Swedish vocabulary while arguing with your other half in Ikea.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Language Profile: Basque

This week we're taking a brief look at Basque, a language spoken in parts of Spain and France. Unlike most other world languages, it is a language isolate, something we have discussed at length in a previous post. Language isolates such as Basque and Korean are thought to have no relationship with other languages, and therefore comprise their very own language family. 

The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Basque Country, Spain
Basque is spoken by the Basque people, an ethnic group that lives in the Basque Country, a region in northeast Spain and southwest France. In Spain, the Basque language is recognized as an official language in the autonomous communities of the Basque Country and Navarre alongside Spanish. However, the language has no official status in France. 

The lexicon of Basque contains many words borrowed from Romance languages spoken in the region throughout the centuries, including Latin, Spanish, and Occitan. The language is written using the Basque alphabet, a Latin-based alphabet that includes the letters ñ and ç

A standardized version of Basque known as Euskara Batua is the most commonly used variety of the language. It was developed in the 1960s by Euskaltzaindia, the Basque language academy which regulates the language. It is used throughout the Basque Country in schools as well as in forms of media such as television, radio, and print publications. 

Friday, August 22, 2014

Deciphering the Meaning Behind Chips, Crisps, and Fries

Since it's Fry-day, we thought that today we'd take a look at the incredibly confusing English terminology for two popular potato-based foods. While many native English speakers know that what Americans call "chips" are called "crisps" in Britain, we doubt that most people are aware of the full extent of linguistic confusion created by the terms for various fried potato products throughout the various English speaking countries.

We think the simplest way to explain the different usages of chips, crisps, and fries in various countries is with the aid of some mouthwatering photos.


In the United States, these are called chips, or more specifically, potato chips. They have been called by this name since the late 1800s, which is when they first started showing up in restaurants. These terms are also used in Canada and Australia, as well as parts of South Africa and New Zealand.

However, in the United Kingdom and Ireland, these delicious snacks are called crisps.


This is where things get more confusing. In the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand, these thicker fried potatoes are called chips. Yes, chips. 

There isn't one clear-cut name for this product in the United States and Canada, however. In general, these would be considered a type of fries such as hand-cut fries or steak fries. If they're cut a specific way and the skins are left on, then they're sometimes called potato wedges


Finally, these are known as fries or french fries just about everywhere. Technically, the group of English speakers who call the second photo "chips" may refer to these as "chips" as well. However, you can rest assured that they will know what you are saying if you ask for some fries, largely thanks to McDonalds' spread across the globe.

Some of you with keen eyes may have noticed that in Australia and New Zealand, both thin fried potatoes and thick fried potatoes (photos 1 and 2) are called chips. We learned this fascinating fact first-hand a few weeks ago when an Australian friend asked us to buy him some "chips" from the supermarket and we had to ask for clarification since we didn't know where Australia stands in the chip/crisp debate. Apparently this doesn't cause too many issues since you can usually tell from context which fried potato product someone is referring to, but there is a linguistic solution: in some cases, they call the thick fried potatoes hot chips.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Afghan Independence Day: The Languages of Afghanistan

Yesterday, 19 August, marked Afghan Independence Day. In honour of this day, today we'll be looking at the history leading up to the event and the languages spoken in this Asian country. Although the holiday celebrates the signing of the Anglo-Afghan Treaty, the treaty was not actually signed on 19 August nor did it grant Afghanistan independence.

Band-e Amir National Park, Afghanistan
The Anglo-Afghan Treaty marked the end of the Third Anglo-Afghan War and was an armistice between the UK and Afghanistan despite Afghanistan never being part of the British Empire. It was signed on 8 August and agreed that Afghanistan was to be recognised by the UK as independent, despite already being so. The treaty, also known as the Treaty of Rawalpandi, also agreed that British India, which was part of the British Empire, would go no further than the Khyber Pass.

Afghanistan has since celebrated its "independence" each 19 August, but who are we to tell them to celebrate it on a different day? Instead, we thought we'd celebrate the country's linguistic diversity.

Afghanistan grants two languages official status, Pashto and Dari. Pashto, also known as Afghani, belongs to the Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European language family. It is natively spoken by around 60% of the population of Afghanistan and its official status is constitutionally equal to that of Dari. There are somewhere between 40 and 60 million speakers of Pashto worldwide, with just under 9 million native speakers in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan's second official language, Dari, is widely considered to be a dialect of Persian. Dari is only spoken by a fifth of the country's population, though it is also thought to be the native language of just under 10 million people around the world.

The flag of Afghanistan
While we've said that Afghanistan only has two official languages, the third and fourth most common languages and the other languages spoken in the country are considered the third official language in certain circumstances. In fact, the constitution of Afghanistan states that the Turkic languages and a number of other languages spoken in the country are to be considered official languages in areas where they are spoken by the majority.

This constitutional peculiarity means that the third official language of Afghanistan (in certain areas) is Uzbek, Turkmen, Balochi, Pashayi, Nuristani and Pamiri. The Uzbek language is natively spoken by 14% of the population, whilst Turkmen is spoken by closer to 2.5% of those in Afghanistan.

Finally, it should be noted that Afghanistan has a high degree of multilingualism with a large percentage of the population speaking more than one of the country's official languages, something that we certainly find worth celebrating!

Monday, August 18, 2014

Language Profile: Cherokee

This week we're taking a look at Cherokee, a member of the Iroquoian language family. Cherokee is spoken by the Cherokee people, a Native American tribe that primarily lives in the U.S. states of Oklahoma and North Carolina.

A stop sign featuring Cherokee with
transliteration into Latin script below.
Unlike many indigenous languages in North America that are at risk for extinction due to dwindling numbers of speakers and few written records, Cherokee is considered to be one of the healthiest indigenous languages. One of the reasons for Cherokee's success is the large number of publications in the language, including a Cherokee dictionary and grammar book and the Cherokee Phoenix, the first newspaper published in a Native American language in the United States.

The language has somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 speakers of all ages due to renewed interest in the language by Cherokee youths. It is also thought to be one of only a few Native American languages that has an increasing number of speakers, primarily due to recent language revitalization efforts.

Cherokee was solely a spoken language until the early 1800s. In 1821, Sequoyah, a Cherokee silversmith, created the Cherokee syllabary. This is especially interesting because this made Sequoyah the first member of a pre-literate group to have independently created their own effective writing system. Many other indigenous languages in the Americas have writing systems that were created by Christian missionaries in order to help with their conversion efforts. As a result of the Cherokee Nation's adoption of the syllabary, the Cherokee quickly achieved high literacy rates within their communities.

Each symbol in the 85 character syllabary represents a syllable instead of a phoneme. Some Cherokee symbols resemble letters from Latin, Greek, and Cyrillic scripts, but they don't have the same sounds. For example, the symbol W in Cherokee represents the sound /la/, while D represents /a/.

Friday, August 15, 2014

From Dogfooding to Synergy: Corporate Buzzwords

Just over a year ago, we looked at some of the most interesting terms used in wine jargon. You might recall that jargon is a term that refers to technical terminology that is associated with a specific activity, social group, or occupation. Jargon is everywhere around you, whether you realize it or not. Doctors often use medical jargon like myocardial infarction instead of saying "heart attack", while lawyers use all sorts of interesting Latin terms in what is often referred to as "legalese".

Today we're going to look at the meanings behind several corporate buzzwords. You've probably heard some of these business-related terms before, but do you actually know what they mean?

Analytics is a process in which data is analyzed for meaningful patterns through the use of statistics, research, and computer programming. Businesses are very interested in analytics because it can help them to predict and improve how their business performs.

A ballpark figure is just another term for a good approximation. Sometime around the 1950s, people started saying things like "give me a ballpark figure" to mean that they wanted an estimate that was almost exactly correct. It is thought to have first been used by atomic scientists who may have used it to refer to the area within which a missile would hit the earth.

The key to a successful business is synergy.
A newer buzzword is dogfooding, a shortening of the phrase eating your own dog food. While this sounds fairly disgusting, it merely conveys the idea that a company should use its own product or service in order to validate its quality, capabilities, and more generally, its existence. We saw this term come to life on a recent episode of Dragons' Den, a BBC show in which entrepreneurs make business pitches for financial investment from a panel of rich investors. Two young men were selling an all-natural dog food, and one of the investors asked them to eat some. So they did.

Another relatively recent business term is hyperlocal. It is often used in reference to data and interactions that focus on the residents of a well-defined community. For example, there may be a hyperlocal magazine in your area which focuses on providing information about the events going on in your community.

At some point in your life, you've probably been told to think outside the box. You likely know that this means you should think about things creatively, in different or unconventional ways. However, you might not know that the "box" in question is probably the famous "nine dots puzzle". It's the puzzle in which you're given nine dots laid out in a 3 x 3 grid and told to connect them without lifting your pen or tracing over the same line more than once.

If companies could only use one buzzword, they'd probably choose synergy. It comes from the Greek word synergia which means "working together". The merger of two companies is called corporate synergy, which generally results financial benefits for the merged company. The term is also often used in marketing, where it can refer to the use of studies, research, and information campaigns that promote the sale of products. However, it is also often used as a meaningless buzzword to make you think the person in charge knows what they're doing.

Have we missed your favorite (or least favorite) corporate buzzword? Let us know in the comments below, and please include a definition!