Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Thingamajigs and Doodads

Have you ever had a moment when you just couldn't think of the word for something? Usually it feels like the word is at the edge of your mind, evilly taunting you with the fact that you can't remember it. You could just trail off in your sentence as you search your mind for the word, but most often our brains help us out by remembering a placeholder name to fill in the gap so the sentence can continue on.

There are a multitude of types of placeholder names that exist in the English language. They can refer to anything from people to objects, and can be used to fill in for temporarily forgotten words or just be used when using the exact word isn't important. Today we're going to look at just a small sample of them in hopes that they'll come in handy someday, whether you're a native or non-native speaker of English.

English contains a plethora of placeholder names for objects such as thingamajig, thingy, thingumabob, whatchamacallit, and whatsit. The terms doodad, doohickey, and gizmo are also popular, though they are more often used in reference to a gadget of some kind. Most people choose to use only one or two of these terms due to personal preference and regional linguistic influences.

This puppy has forgotten what he wanted to say too!
There are tons of placeholder names for people in various situations. In legal proceedings, an unnamed person is generally known as John Doe or Jane Doe in the United States and Canada. In the UK, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand, Joe Bloggs and John Smith are used instead. If you can't think of the name of someone, you might call them Joe Schmo, and if it's a few men, you might say any Tom, Dick and Harry, whose names you might recognize as the three main male characters on the 1990s tv show 3rd Rock from the Sun.

If you're ever talking to someone and forget their name, it's probably best not to just call them "you". When you feel too awkward to ask someone their name (again) or are just friendly with them, you can sometimes use placeholder names instead. The list is seemingly endless: bro, sis, amigo, dude, dudette, dawg, shorty, buddy, and so on. However, you should be careful using these, as they could cause some awkward situations if you don't know the person well enough or they don't like such terms.

There are plenty of other placeholder names used in everyday speech. A bug is actually any insect or arthropod, while critter can be used for any animal, and varmint can be used for any obnoxious animal. Language that makes no sense to the listener can be called gobbledegook or gibberish, though as language enthusiasts we encourage you to only use these terms when you know the person is just not making any sense in English, as opposed to calling every foreign language "gibberish" just because you don't know it.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Language Profile: Slovak

This week, we're taking a brief look at Slovak, a member of the Slavic language family. Unsurprisingly, Slovak is the official language of Slovakia. It is also spoken in the Czech Republic, Serbia, Romania, the United States, and many other countries.

Kriváň, a beautiful mountain in Slovakia
Slovak is closely related to other Slavic languages, especially Czech. Due to their similarities, the two languages comprise a language continuum. Most dialects of Slovak and Czech are mutually intelligible, and standard Slovak is quite similar to literary Czech. However, there are many phonetic, grammatical, and lexical differences between Slovak and Czech. A prime example is the fact that the months of the year are of Latin origin in Slovak, while they are of Slavic origin in Czech.

The vocabulary of Slovak has been influenced by many languages over the years, including German, English, Latin, Hungarian, and Romanian. For example, the English word "weekend" was borrowed by Slovak, where it became víkend. German Farbe, meaning "color", is the nearly-identical farba in Slovak, while Hungarian teve ("camel") became Slovak t'ava. Words from Romanian include baci, the word for "shepherd", which became bača in the Slovak language.

Slovak is written using a Latin script. It also employs the use of four diacritics: the acute accent, the circumflex, the umlaut, and the caron, seen on letters such as č and ž in Slovak.

Friday, April 18, 2014

More on the Voice

On Wednesday, we celebrated World Voice Day. As a result of this obscure holiday, we looked at the vocal cords, which are found within the larynx and are arguably the most important part of the body when it comes to making the human voice.

That said, the vocal cords are fairly useless without the assistance of the lungs, which push air through the vocal cords, thereby vibrating them and making a sound. Of course, not every sound we make requires the lungs, at least not the variety of clicking sounds that are common in a large number of African languages.

Once air passes through our vocal cords and causes them to vibrate (or not in the case of unvoiced phonemes), it then passes into our mouths where our mouths and tongues act as filter. This filter changes how well certain frequencies of sound are omitted from the mouth.

Various mouth positions for vowel sounds.
Whilst the vocal cords dictate whether or not the phoneme is voiced or unvoiced, the mouth is mostly responsible for vowels, particularly in the English language. The tongue also plays a part in the formation of vowels, whilst the lips and teeth play a more important role in the production of consonants.

Unsurprisingly, for sounds like th in both "think" and "though" in which the tongue sits against the teeth, the phonemes are known as dental. For sounds like the letters f and v in English, they are known as labiodental as both the teeth and lips play a role in making the sounds.

When phonemes are made by placing the tongue on the alveolar ridge, the point in the mouth behind your upper incisors, the sounds are known as alveolar phonemes. When you use your voice to make a sound by pressing your tongue just behind this point, it's known as post-alveolar.

Palatal phonemes are made pressing the tongue against the palate, and velar phonemes are when the tongue is against the soft palate. Right at the back of the mouth pharyngeal phonemes are made against the pharynx and epiglottal phonemes against the epiglottis, but neither of these are present in the English language.

In addition to the vocal cords, mouth, tongue, lips, and teeth, the nose and nasal cavities can also play a part in the production of sounds. The sounds for the letters m and n are both produced nasally, which is why they are really difficult to say when you have a cold or blocked nose.

Although the vocal cords are pretty neat, the entire system that makes up our voices is incredible. We'll see you on Monday for our weekly language profile.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

April 16: World Voice Day

As we love celebrations here at The Lingua File, today we're celebrating one of the more important obscure holidays for language lovers, World Voice Day.

World Voice Day is an international holiday organised as part of an effort by both European and American otolaryngologists, more commonly known as ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialists. The goal of World Voice Day is to celebrate the huge importance of the human voice. In this vein, we thought we'd do our part and aim to establish what the human voice actually is.

A diagram including the vocal cords, because
an actual photo makes them look disgusting.
Most people have a vague understanding of the human voice. We all know that the voice is made using our vocal cords, which can be found in our throats. If you have ever seen Police Academy, and we're sorry if you have, then you will know that these vocal cords are capable of some amazing things.

The cords themselves are incredibly impressive. They differ in size between men and women, with men's vocal cords being longer than women's, which is why men generally have lower voices than women. Though the size difference accounts for the tonal range of men and women, the cords can alter the pitch within those ranges.

The muscles that operate the folds in the vocal cords are amongst the fastest in the body, allowing the vocal cords to change the quality of sound rapidly. It is this rapid movement that helps us to speak in our respective languages.

When the vocal cords get together with our lungs, mouths, and tongues, we can make an incredible range of noises. The difference between certain phonemes, such as voiced and unvoiced phonemes, is due to a phenomenon in the vocal cords known as abduction.

Abduction is when the vocal cords separate, rather than adduction, when they come together. If the act of abduction is sufficient enough to stop the vocal cords vibrating, the result is a voiceless phoneme, like the sound of the letter s in English, at least in most words. When the vocal cords are allowed to vibrate, the result is a voiced sound, like the letter z in English.

When the effect of adduction is strong enough to almost fully stop the vibrations, the result is a glottal stop. If you remember our post on the IPA, the system used to identify almost every phoneme used in human language, then you'll remember that the human voice is much more capable than reproducing all the sounds of just your language.

So we know the vocal cords are important, but what about the "voice"? We'll get to that on Friday. See you then!

Monday, April 14, 2014

Language Profile: Hebrew

Today we're taking a look at Hebrew, a member of the Semitic language family. It is an official language of Israel alongside Arabic. There are also over 200,000 Hebrew speakers in the United States. In addition, Hebrew is the liturgical language of Judaism. 

The Hebrew language has a long and interesting history. The earliest written examples of the language date all the way back to the 10th century BC, but by 200 AD it was no longer spoken in everyday life. For several centuries it lived on only through its religious use in Judaism, until it was revived in the 19th century to be used as a spoken and literary language once more. 

The Tel Aviv skyline at night.
The revitalization of Hebrew was a long process that included work such as translating 19th century literary works into Hebrew, as well as modernizing the lexicon. Many new words were created in Hebrew, while others were borrowed from European languages such as English, Russian, German and French. New terms were also adopted from the Arabic language. 

Modern Hebrew became an official language in British-ruled Palestine in 1921 alongside English and Arabic. It maintained its official status when Israel was created. 

In order to prevent English terminology from inundating the Hebrew language, the Academy of the Hebrew Language creates approximately 2,000 new Hebrew words each year to provide an alternative to English terms that have gained popularity. Hebrew has also influenced the English lexicon, which we addressed in a previous post.

It is written using the Hebrew alphabet, an abjad script with 22 letters that is written from right to left.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Day of the Finnish Language: Part 2

On Wednesday, we celebrated the Day of the Finnish Language with a look at Mikael Agricola, the Finnish clergyman who is considered to be the founder of literary Finnish. While the celebration of the day coincides with the death of Mikael Agricola, it also coincides with the birthday of Elias Lönnrot, a Finnish physician and philologist. We feel a birthday is a much better reason to celebrate than somebody's death.

Sammatti, Elias' birthplace.
Elias Lönnrot was born in 1802 in the Grand Duchy of Finland. He studied his first academic year in the very same place that Agricola was acting bishop. However, the fire of Turku destroyed the university, forcing Lönnrot to move to Helsinki and graduate from the newly established university there which replaced the one in Turku.

He studied medicine and became a district doctor in Kajaani, in eastern Finland. Sadly, he was the only doctor for a population of around 4,000 people who lived across the length and breadth of a wide geographical area.

While his work in medicine seems depressing, it was really his work in linguistics that earned Lönnrot his fame. Lönnrot loved the Finnish language and collected folk tales in the language. He was a founder of the Finnish Literature Society in 1831 and as a result received financial support for his work.

He often took leave from his work as a physician to tour areas of Finland, including Lapland (where Santa lives) and part of Russian Karelia. His travels led to the writing of several books, and he was appointed to the Chair of Finnish Literature at the University of Helsinki thanks to his work preserving Finland's oral traditions.

He worked on the the Finnish-Swedish dictionary between 1866 and 1880, compiling over 200,000 entries in the process. Thanks to his experience with Finnish poetry he was considered a respected figure when it came to the Finnish language. Many of his translations had never been seen before and he coined many of the translations seen in the dictionary. Lönnrot also coined a number of neologisms when it came to scientific terminology with Latin or Greek roots.

Lönnrot's work with Finnish language is the second reason Wednesday was the celebration of the Finnish language. The work conducted by both Agricola and Lönnrot has been incredibly influential in the history of the Finnish language, and that is why Finland celebrated both of these great men in their efforts to preserve their mother tongue.

Part 1 | Part 2

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Day of the Finnish Language: Part 1

As today is the Day of the Finnish Language, we thought we'd celebrate some of the interesting facts surrounding this Uralic language. First of all, on this day Finns have at least two good reasons to celebrate their language. The first reason is that today is celebrates the life of Mikael Agricola, the man who helped formalise literary Finnish and is credited as its de facto founder and sometimes called the "father of literary Finnish".

Mikael Agricola was also known Michael Olaui, Mikkel Olofsson, and Mikael Olavinpoika if you are referring to him in Finnish. He was a sixteenth-century clergyman who was born in Uusimaa, Finland, though Finland was actually part of Sweden at the time. From a young age his teachers noticed he was good with languages and it is suggested that he was a bilingual child that spoke both Swedish and Finnish. Owing to his abilities with languages, his teachers decided to send him to a Latin school in Vyborg, Russia, where he also trained to become a priest.

The man himself.
During his time in academia, he took the name Agricola, meaning "farmer" after the vocation of his father, as was the style at the time. Agricola then went to Turku, Finland in 1528 where he became the scribe for the bishop there.

After being ordained as a priest in 1531, Agricola was then sent to study in Wittenberg, Germany by the bishop of Turku. He focused his efforts on the Greek language, as the prominent language of the bible, and in 1537, he began translating the New Testament into Finnish.

He returned to Turku in 1539 and became a rector. Following the death of a bishop in 1554, Agricola was consecrated as an Ordinarius by Gustav Vasa, the king of Sweden, meaning that Agricola was effectively the bishop in all but title.

In 1557 Agricola was part of a delegation that headed to Russia to negotiate the end of the Russo-Swedish War. Though the negotiations were concluded and put into effect on 2 April 1557, on the way back Agricola fell ill and died in Uusikirkko, then part of Finland, though now part of Russia.

Since the date of Agricola's birth is unknown, the day of his death and his status as the "father of literary Finnish" is one of the reasons that today is the Day of the Finnish Language. We'll be back on Friday with the other reason. See you then!

Part 1 | Part 2