Friday, November 27, 2015

Introducing English Auxiliaries...

In the English language, there are a number of auxiliary verbs. These so-called "verbs" are often incredibly useful when used in tandem with other verbs. However, they are also often useless without another verb.

Unsurprisingly, most English learners struggle with this strange concept, To make matters worse, linguists also struggle to agree on what auxiliaries are and what they do. Auxiliaries often support other verbs, giving meaning to them without having any real meaning of their own.

Auxiliaries support verbs, just like the
Eiffel Tower's legs support its platforms. 
When verbs are like this, they act as a crutch to other verbs. They coexist. Auxiliaries can rarely be used in isolation, while the verbs they aid would have little or no meaning without their auxiliaries.

So auxiliaries sound really useful, right? You could say that in some cases, but it's difficult to tell some auxiliary verbs apart from their counterparts. Verbs such as be and have are often used as both auxiliaries and verbs in their own right. This means that those learning English can struggle to differentiate their functions.

Auxiliaries can also cause confusion when they're used in contractions. While use of the apostrophe is very common in English, there are other languages which rarely use it. This often leads non-native speakers to confuse certain auxiliaries. For example, take "he's"; it can mean both "he has" and "he is". This is definitely not helpful to people trying to learn the English language.

Auxiliaries can also be used to explain modality. However, it's probably better that we don't start discussing that minefield today...

We'll be back on Monday with more information on auxiliary verbs in English!

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The Impossible Task of Standardising English

English is a very popular language around the world. Many people speak it natively and many others learn it as a foreign language. However, native speakers can't agree on a single correct way to speak it, so those learning the language are stuck with either choosing which version to learn or being forced to learn one in particular.

There are many variants of English around the world. English is different from continent to continent and from country to country, and there are often different standard versions of English for each. When a language has multiple standard versions like this, it is said to be pluricentric. There are only a few languages in the world that are monocentric, with just one standard version.

If you're learning English, you will probably agree that it would be easier to learn if there weren't so many ways to spell words and say certain things. Is there a way to have a single standard version of English? Here are a few of my thoughts:

Could we use a regulatory body?

English is one of the few languages without a regulatory body that attempts to standardise the language. However, if you have seen the efforts by the Académie française to stop the rise of anglicisms in French, then you know that they often struggle to control languages. I don't think this would bring about a standardisation of the language.

There's nothing wrong with variation!
Could we at least standardise spelling?

English spelling almost became standardised once dictionaries came about. However, this was only on a national level. If you learnt American English spelling, you might have found my use of "standardise" rather than "standardize" quite odd. That said, when people can't be bothered with spelling words correctly, they'll spell them whichever way they like, as long as they can be understood.

The internet and text messaging are fine examples that show why spelling probably won't be standardised. Native speakers rarely write text messages to one another with completely correct spelling, punctuation, and grammar.

Do we even want a standard version of English?

It may be a bit confusing at first for English learners to see that most words can be written in a number of ways, that there isn't ever one correct way to say something, and that native speakers rarely agree about such things, but I also think it's incredibly fun to talk about! I would go so far as to say that we should celebrate the language in all its variety! Even if it is sometimes at the expense of understanding...

Do you have any ideas on how we could create a standard version of English? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Turkic Languages: From Ainu to Western Yugur, Part 2

On Friday we started to look at the Turkic language family, but there were just so many interesting languages to cover that we needed more than one day to talk about them all! Without further ado, here are the rest of the Turkic languages, including Ainu and Western Yugur.

The Karluk Languages

There are only five members of the Southeastern Turkic language group, also known as the Karluk languages. The most prominent member of this group is Uzbek, which has 27 million native speakers in Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and other Central Asian countries.

Uzbek is followed in number of speakers by Uyghur, which is spoken by about 10 million people in China. The three remaining members of this group are also used in China. There are about 70,000 Salar speakers, 6,000 Ainu speakers, and around 100 speakers of Ili Turki in China, which may unfortunately become extinct in the coming years.

The Siberian Languages

The Katun River in the Altai Republic of Russia.
It should come as no surprise that almost all of the Siberian languages, also known as the Northeastern Turkic languages, are used in Russia. You probably haven't heard of any of these languages before since they're all minority languages with relatively small numbers of native speakers.

Yakut and Tuvan are the two most spoken Siberian languages, Yakut with 450,000 native speakers and Tuvan with 250,000. There are also about 50,000 native speakers of the Altai language in Russia, which has two main varieties: Northern Altai and Southern Altai. Russia is also home to about 40,000 speakers of the Khakas language, 2,000 Shor speakers, 1,000 Dolgan speakers, and under 100 speakers of both Karagas and Chulym.

Last but not least, there's the one and only Siberian language used in China: Western Yugur. It is the native language of about 4,000 people in the Gansu province,

Khalaj and Chuvash

The final two languages, which constitute their very own branches of the Turkic language family, are Khalaj and Chuvash. There are over 40,000 native speakers of Khalaj in Iran. Chuvash, on the other hand, is spoken in Russia by over 1 million people.

Part 1 | Part 2

Friday, November 20, 2015

Turkic Languages: From Ainu to Western Yugur, Part 1

Just one month ago we dedicated a post to the Celtic languages, a small yet fascinating language family that includes Welsh, Breton, and Irish. Today we thought we'd look at a significantly larger language family that is used throughout Europe and Asia: the Turkic languages.

There are between 30 and 40 Turkic languages, depending on whether you classify certain varieties as languages or dialects. While linguistic classification is always a tricky thing, it is generally accepted that these languages can be divided into six branches, which is how we're going to look at them today and next Monday.

The Oghuz Languages

Ertuğrul Gazi Mosque in Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan.
There are seven Oghuz languages, also known as the Southwestern Turkic languages. This group includes Turkish, the world's most spoken Turkic language. There are over 70 million native speakers of Turkish in the world, with the majority of them residing in Turkey. This represents over a third of the world's total speakers of Turkic languages!

The next largest Oghuz languages are Azerbaijani and Turkmen. There are about 25 million native speakers of Azerbaijani's two major varieties: North Azerbaijani, which is spoken in Azerbaijan, and South Azerbaijani, which is used in Iran. Turkmen, on the other hand, has about 7.5 million native speakers worldwide, including nearly 3.5 million in Turkmenistan, where it is the official language.

The four final Oghuz languages are Qashqai, Khorosani Turkish, Balkan Gagauz Turkish, and Gagauz. The first two languages are primarily spoken in Iran, with about 1.5 million speakers of Qashqai and 400,000 speakers of Khorosani Turkish. Balkan Gagauz Turkish is used by over 300,000 people in Turkey, while over 100,000 people in Moldova speak Gagauz.

The Kipchak Languages

The Northwestern Turkic languages, also known as the Kipchak languages, are the largest branch of the Turkic language family. In terms of speakers, the most important language that belongs to this group is Kazakh, which boasts over 12 million native speakers. It is primarily spoken in Kazakhstan, where it is an official language. Kyrgyz, an official language of Kyrgyzstan, earns the second spot in this language group, with about 4 million native speakers.

Several of the Kipchak languages are primarily spoken in Russia. It is home to over 5 million native speakers of the Tatar language, as well as 1.2 million speakers of Bashkir, which has official status in the Republic of Bashkortostan. Four other Kipchak languages used in Russia are Kumyk, Karachay-Balkar, Siberian Tatar, and Nogai, which all have under 400,000 native speakers.

Kipchak languages are also spoken in Ukraine, Georgia, and Uzbekistan. There are about 400,000 native speakers of Crimean Tatar in Ukraine, while the Urum language is spoken by about 190,000 people in Georgia and Ukraine. Uzbekistan, on the other hand, is home to about 400,000 native speakers of the Karakalpak language.

Finally, there are two endangered languages used by Jewish ethnic groups that have been heavily influenced by Hebrew. There are thought to be around 200 Krimchak speakers in Ukraine, as well as about 50 Karaim speakers in Lithuania.

Check back on Monday to learn about rest of the Turkic languages, including the Karluk and Siberian branches of this language family!

Part 1 | Part 2

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Musings on "Loser", Donald Trump's Favorite Insult

If you live in the United States and listen to, watch, or read the news regularly, then you've probably been hearing the word "loser" a lot lately. Whether you've been closely following the news regarding next year's presidential election or doing your hardest to avoid it since it's months and months away, there's no escaping the fact that Donald Trump uses the word "loser" as an insult constantly.

We're not interested in discussing political issues here, but we do find his use of the term linguistically fascinating. We can't recall any other prominent presidential candidate in recent history who was so fond of such insults, can you? It's worth mentioning that while "loser" does seem to be his favorite, he's also known to frequently use the words "moron" and "dummy", among others.

His penchant for insults has wormed its way into countless news stories over the past several months. It has even reached the point where the word "loser" is now synonymous with Donald Trump. He uses the term to describe pretty much everyone (as shown in this piece in The Washington Post), which never fails to make it into news stories since it's somewhat unusual for American politicians to use such a generic insult. Sure, they insult each other, but they generally use more specific attacks based on political views or perceived character flaws instead of using childish terms like "loser".

The word "loser" may seem childish to me because I remember hearing it all the time when I was a child in the '90s. Back then, people used this popular hand gesture instead of bothering to say the word. It even got its own anthem, the song "Loser" by Beck, complete with dubiously pronounced Spanish in the chorus. However, I hadn't heard this insult in years until it starting flying out of Donald Trump's mouth constantly. I'm sure kids do still call each other losers from time to time, but I bet they also have more recent slang words that they use more frequently.

According to the Oxford Dictionaries, a loser is "a person or thing that loses or has lost something", "a person who accepts defeat with good or bad grace", "a person or thing that is put at a disadvantage by a particular situation or course of action", or informally, " a person who fails frequently or is generally unsuccessful in life".

However, none of these definitions really describe Donald Trump's use of the term, which means it's time to turn to the Urban Dictionary. As usual, its user-submitted definitions are not always accurate or politically correct, but a few do get the idea across. This includes the third most popular definition, which says it is a word used by certain people "to make them feel better about themselves while laughing at the misfortunes of many people...".

What do you think of the word "loser" and Donald Trump's use of it? Can you think of other recent prominent figures who used similar language? Let us know in the comments below.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Country Profile: The Languages of Serbia

In last week's country profile we learned about the languages of the most linguistically diverse country in the world, Papua New Guinea. This week we're shifting our focus to Serbia, a small landlocked country in Southeast Europe. While Papua New Guinea boasts over 800 languages, Serbia is home to just 15 living languages, though they are still quite interesting.

The Official Language

Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, as seen from the ISS.
Serbia's sole official language is Serbian, which is one of the four standardized varieties of Serbo-Croatian. This member of the Slavic language family is the native language of approximately 6.6 million Serbians.

One unique feature of Serbian is the fact that it is the only digraphic European language, which means that it is written using more than one writing system. Serbian is written using both Latin and Cyrillic scripts, though Cyrillic is the official script of the government. Most Serbians know how to write the language using both systems, and neither is heavily favored over the other. In fact, some major media outlets in the country use Cyrillic script, while others use Latin script!

Recognized Minority Languages

Serbia's government also officially recognizes several other minority languages: Albanian, Hungarian, Romanian, Bosnian, Croatian, Slovak, Bulgarian, and Rusyn. The most prominent of these languages is Albanian, which constitutes its very own branch of the Indo-European language family. It is the native language of approximately 1.6 million Serbians.

Albanian is followed by Hungarian and Romanian, two other non-Slavic languages, in terms of native speakers. Hungarian, a member of the Uralic language family that includes Estonian and Finnish, is used by nearly 300,000 Serbians. Romanian, on the other hand, is a Romance language, and has about 200,000 native speakers.

The next two spots go to Croatian and Bosnian, two other standardized varieties of Serbo-Croatian, which are spoken by over 100,000 people in Serbia. Slovak is the native language of about 80,000 Serbians, while Bulgarian is used by about 60,000 Serbians. There's also Rusyn, which is sometimes considered to be a dialect of Ukrainian instead of a distinct language, which is spoken by about 30,000 Serbians.

The Iron Gates of the Danube, a gorge that forms
part of the border between Serbia and Romania.
Other Languages

Finally, we have five more languages used in Serbia that don't have any official recognition: Romano-Serbian, Balkan Romani, Czech, Sinte Romani, and Aromanian. Romano-Serbian, which is spoken by over 170,000 Serbians, is a mixed language that combines elements of Serbian and Romani. It exists due to the fact that Serbia is home to numerous speakers of two varieties of the Romani language: about 120,000 Balkan Romani speakers and over 30,000 Sinte Romani speakers.

The last two languages are Czech, a Slavic language used by about 40,000 people in Serbia, and Aromanian, which is spoken by about 15,000 Serbians. Spoken by the Aromanian or Vlach ethnic group, it is a Romance language that is closely related to Romanian.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Why You Should Never Ask a Translator to Work for Free

I sincerely hope that you read the title of this post and said to yourself, "Why would anyone ever ask a translator to work for free? Surely they deserve to be paid a fair wage for their work just like any other professional!". However, the sad fact is that many people don't treat translators, as well as many other types of creative professionals, as if their skills are valuable.

My inspiration for today's post was the following video by an advertising agency called Zulu Alpha Kilo, which perfectly demonstrates how ridiculous and unfair it is to ask a creative professional for free work.

If you don't work in translation, design, copywriting, or any of the many other creative fields, then you might not be aware of how frequently this happens. As someone who is relatively new to the translation industry, I encounter this issue frequently. In the past, prospective clients have asked me for everything from free sample translations to providing them with discounted rates in exchange for the promise of them sending me "lots of work".

It's usually pretty easy to tell from the prospective client's language whether they're trying to take advantage of you. If you're contacted by a client whose job posting simply says "Translate 1500 words Spanish to English" without any other details, then it's definitely a good idea to be wary. If they don't even care enough to tell you what type of text you're translating, then they probably aren't willing to pay much.

However, when you're first starting out as a translator and don't have much in terms of a portfolio to demonstrate your skills, it can sometimes be beneficial to do a short free sample. In my first few months as a freelance translator, a few of my biggest jobs came from clients who originally asked me to translate a small excerpt of their documents for free. That said, you should set up your own strict set of rules for what types of samples you are willing to do. I generally don't mind translating a short paragraph for prospective clients with technical texts, but if they ask for anything that will take more than a few minutes of my time, I carefully consider it before saying yes.

For example, one of my first clients needed to have a technical document translated, and wanted to be sure that I could provide them with an accurate translation. Since I hadn't done any related work in the past that I could submit to demonstrate my skills, I translated the 200-word excerpt for them for free, and ended up being hired for the project (as well as later projects). Obviously there was no guarantee that they would hire me, but I felt it was worth my time to do the sample since the full document contained 4,800 words. Since they did hire me, I was also eventually paid for the sample since it was included in the word count of the project.

Butterflies might provide pollination services for free,
but translators shouldn't have to provide their services for free.
That said, there is a big difference between translating a short excerpt for a project that requires special skills or technical knowledge and doing an entire translation for free. Luckily, this has been asked of me less often as of late, but occasionally I do still get requests to do a first translation for free with the promise of more work in the future. I obviously always say no.

Translators are also often asked to provide discounted rates for the promise of long-term work relationships, which is almost as bad as asking someone to work for free. You wouldn't ask your doctor for a discount because you've been going to them for years, so why would you ask a translator for a discount when they'll be putting in the same amount of effort and providing you with the same services as always?

Sometimes it's hard to say no to prospective clients, especially for freelancers that are just starting out in creative industries, but we have to remember that our skills do have value. I usually take the time to explain to clients in search of free work that I need to make a living just like everyone else, and that my professional skills do have a value. It may not always get me the job, but I do hope that it at least makes them stop and think about what they're really asking of me.