Friday, November 30, 2012

10 Things To Learn Before Going Abroad

Going on holiday? With the tremendous number of cheap flights available (at least in Europe) there's little reason not to go to obscure places. We often browse the internet just to see where the cheapest place to go is.

Budget airlines are getting ridiculous.

So what if you've found some cheap flights to Poland? Are you going to just go along for the weekend, shout at everyone in English, and hope they understand? We recommend that you take the time to do a bit of research. Find out what language or languages are spoken where you're going and learn the ten following things:

1. Greetings

Learn to say hello, goodbye, good morning, good evening and good night. You can't start or end a conversation without them.

2. Asking for things

The phrases Can I have or I would like are obligatory in most situations... at least if you want something! It can be used in bars, restaurants and shops.

3. Numbers 1-1000

This sounds like a big task but if you manage to learn the numbers 1-20, you usually only have to learn the remaining decades, the word for hundred and the word for thousand. If you're going somewhere where the currency is always in large quantities (yen in Japan, for example) you will be needing these higher numbers.

4. How are you?

It's always nice to ask people how they are. People are always happier if you ask how they are in their own language, so learn how to ask and respond to these questions. You'll probably need one expression and the words for good and bad.

5. Directions

You probably don't know where everything is and sometimes even a map won't do... especially if you're venturing off the beaten path. Learn the names of important buildings, transport hubs, hospitals and of course, the best drinking spots. Then learn left, right, straight ahead and a few ordinal numbers; first, second and third should do.

Don't get lost...

6. Food and Drink

Learn the names of everyday items such as milk, bread, cheese and even some of your favourite things, or even better, learn the names of some local specialty dishes and beverages.

7. Checking In

Unless you're some sort of vagabond you'll probably have a hotel or hostel. Make sure you know how to say you have a reservation.

8. Time and Date 

With hotels, transport and events you'll need to know when things are happening. Learn the days of the week, months and how to tell the time.

9. Transport

Unless you're an avid hiker, you're probably going to be using transport at some point. At least from the airport, getting to where you're going you'll probably need to get a train, bus or even taxi. Make sure you know what they're called and learn how to tell them where you want to go.

Make sure you know how you're getting around.

10. Emergencies

Learn a couple of emergency expressions. Hopefully you'll never need them, but it's better to be safe than sorry. Learn a few key phrases about injuries, illnesses and crimes too.

Don't worry about making mistakes. Few people will expect you to have mastered their language if you're going along for a couple of days. Plus, you may even find you enjoy the language and decide to learn some more!

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Why Don't You Just Use Google Translate?

One question always makes us cringe: "Why don't you just use Google Translate?" It pains every bilingual, trilingual or polyglot on the planet. So why don't we just use Google Translate? Because it's shit, pardon our French. Why? Because it's a program. It can't think.

The translations are terrible because the program can't understand anything beyond the words. Context, register and tone are all lost. Each word is translated based on some fancy maths (algorithms or something) that works out how frequently words are used together and picks what it thinks is the best option.

If you've got a typo things become even worse. Humans are pretty good at working out when words shouldn't be there. That's because they understand the sentence. If we wrote though instead of thought it wouldn't be picked up by the program since both are correct spellings of words. There's no semantics involved with Google Translate. Only words that are "related" to other words in other languages.

For example, the word fan can refer to people who support or like something or the device used to circulate air. Many, if not most, languages have two distinct words for these two concepts. Google Translate will have to pick one. In Spanish there are a couple options... it could choose aficionado for the people and ventilador for the machine.


In the sentence "There are a lot of fans on the ceiling," the online translator still picks aficionado, although most humans would know from context that we're probably not talking about people, as the machines tend to be installed in the ceiling. Not Google... it sees the words and guesses.

Well done Google...

We're not offering a simple solution to this modern age dilemma. However, you should be proud that your brain is powerful enough to deduce things like this. The amount of processing power required to calculate these things is immense. If you remember our post on speech recognition, we already know that people are definitely smarter than machines. Don't worry about a Matrix-esque uprising any time soon!

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Religion And The Spread Of Language

Some people believe one thing. Some people believe another. When groups of people believe the same thing, they suddenly start speaking the same language.

This isn't some miracle. If you have organised religion, you usually end up reading from the scripture in the language it's written in. There are translations of course, but what really gets languages spreading is when they're adopted as an official language of the religion.

Funnily enough, having a different religion has been as good a reason as any for invading new places throughout history. The invaders teach them about their religion, and in turn help make a language official, since oppressors rarely decide to let the natives speak their own language.

Judaism and Hebrew, Catholicism and Latin, and Islam and Arabic. Each of these religions has a strong affiliation with a particular language. The Torah being in Hebrew helped Jews spread Hebrew across the world. Yiddish (a Germanic language with Hebrew influences) was once primarily used by Jews in Germany, but has spread across the Atlantic to North America, where some of its words have made their way into standard usage in American English. It took a lot of chutzpah to pull that off!

They don't fit so well into hotel drawers.

Catholicism had Mass in Latin for many centuries. Rome's conquest of most of the known world helped spread the language, and it continued to live long after the collapse of the Roman Empire. Why? Every priest across the world was conducting Mass in Latin. It's considered a dead language now, but it's still spoken in the Vatican and the Pope has even taken measures to promote it.

Look at the spread of Arabic from the Middle East to Africa. An empire helped this on its way, but convincing people that this was the right way to live your life certainly helped Arabic, the language of the Qur'an, get a foothold in Muslim areas of the world. Now Arabic spreads across such a large area that from one end to another the language is not mutually intelligible. The one thing in common is the Arabic used in the Qur'an.

The Latin alphabet is starting to look pretty boring now.

Whether you love or hate religion, it can spread languages and bring groups of people together. Religions can help certain languages to survive or even thrive. They're fine by us as long as they're not spreading hatred and prejudice, but encouraging linguistic awesomeness instead.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Learning Languages With Video Games

Sometimes you need to unwind after a long day trapped in an office. People do this in various ways... watching TV or a film, listening to music or reading a book. Others prefer getting elbow-deep in warfare and running around underground stations shooting people with AK-47s. Or even just killing hookers and going on a joyride.

"Where are they going with this? Is there any way you can learn anything from this arthritis-inducing button-mashing in front of the TV?" The short answer is yes.

How is living an alternate life as a mafia boss or an SAS soldier going to help people to learn languages? Well, people are generally more actively involved with what they're doing whilst playing video games than they are when listening to music or watching a film. The games require interaction. You have to pay more attention in order to do well, and in turn, you learn more.

'Aint no school like...

We're not saying every game is going to make you fluent in a foreign language, but there's something for everyone. There is a vast selection of games available, from arranging tetriminos (the blocks in Tetris) to killing people in horrific ways. Whereas a movie plays on whether or not the viewer has understood the plot, a game does not advance in this way. Your skills are tested and if you have not understood a question, the instructions, or the plot, you will not be able to advance to the next level, complete a mission or progress in your game. Video games frequently test the user and make you prove to them that you're capable. What other medium does that?

"Ninten" apparently means "leave luck to heaven".
You've learnt something from games already.

On top of that, learning through playing games is fun. There is a wealth of educational games, and although they're nowhere near as fun as some of the top titles, they can still provide some amusement. If you enjoy something, you inevitably learn more because you're more passionate about it. We'd highly recommend playing RPGs as they're heavily story-based and tend to include a lot of dialogue and text. Perfect for practising language. Plus, you can pretend you're a wizard.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

November 21: World Hello Day

It's been a while, but we're back with another obscure holiday. Today is World Hello Day. What's that, you ask?

World Hello Day promotes peace by encouraging people to greet each other to show that communication is better than force in terms of settling conflicts. All you have to do is greet ten people or more. It's that simple.

The holiday was created by a couple of American guys in response to the Yom Kippur War (aka the October War) between various Arab states and Israel in 1973. This year marks the 39th annual World Hello Day, which is now celebrated around the world by people in over 180 countries! Many people take the opportunity to write to their country's leaders to encourage them to promote peace.

No! We're promoting peace!

The best way to learn about other cultures is to communicate with people from places that are new to you. In honour of World Hello Day, here's a list of words for "hello" in various languages, from A to Z! The countries in parentheses are the places where each language has the most native speakers.

Our machine translator says "Hello".
Say "Hello" back and promote peace.

Azerbaijani (Azerbaijan) - Salam
Basque (Spain) - Kaixo
Choctaw (United States) - Halito 
Danish (Denmark) - Hej
Estonian (Estonia) - Tere 
Friulian (Italy) - Mandi
Greenlandic (Greenland) - Aluu
Hausa (Niger) - Sannu
Irish (Ireland) - Dia dhuit
Japanese (Japan) - Konnichiwa
Kurdish (Turkey) - Silaw 
Limburgish (The Netherlands) - Hallo 
Māori (New Zealand) - Kia ora
Norwegian (Norway) - Hei
Ojibwe (Canada) - Boozhoo
Polish (Poland) - Cześć
Quechua (Peru) - Rimaykullayki 
Romanian (Romania) - Salut
Samoan (Samoa) - Talofa 
Tetum (Indonesia) - Ola
Ukrainian (Ukraine) - Вiтaю
Vietnamese (Vietnam) - Chào anh
Wolof (Senegal) - Na nga def
Yucatec Maya (Mexico) - Ba'ax ka wa'alik?
Zulu (South Africa) - Sawubona

We hope you put this list to good use today!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

French: Dangerous Liaisons

If you know French, you know that for some crazy reason you rarely pronounce the end of a word. Non? Exactly.

But French can't just keep things simple like that... sometimes you do say the end of a word, when you have an awkward vowel sound at the beginning of the next word. This is called liaison. Even then, not 100% of these cases are obligatory.

"I hate studying French!
How could my life get worse!?"

Take the word for "and", et. For some reason this little blighter doesn't like to liaise. Its school reports often cite "does not play well with others".

Think of asking for the time: Quelle heure est-il?

If we break it down we have the following:

quelle = "which"
heure = "hour", in reference to the time
est = "is" from the verb être, to be. Usually pronounced like "ey"/"eh".
il = "he/it" We always would remember he being God for a bit of fun.

Which hour is it? In a world of terrible translations, that is what the question means. Thank God we're looking at liaisons and not translation.

"Quelle heure est... forget it! I'll just find a clock!"

So what about this magical "t" sound? Well the French don't like their beautiful language to be butchered by horrible sound combinations such as a double vowel without a glide, so they pronounce the final sound of "est" and combine it with the start of "il". Try saying "quelle heure est il?"... pronounced "ey eel". They're right! "Quelle heure est-il?", roughly pronounced "eh-teel", does sound much better. English does the same with the words a and an. Just try saying a elephant. Not only does it sound horrible, but it makes you look like an idiot. Especially if you're reading this in a library and have just blurted out "a elephant".

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Music And Language

Here at The Lingua File we love music, and we also love language, obviously. Music and language are more closely linked than you may first think. We're about to tell you how:


All spoken language is made up of sounds. We're vibrating air and causing areas of compression and decompression. Music is exactly the same thing. Compression and decompression of air.

The Ear

If both language and music are sounds, then the ear is the principal organ for being aware of either language or music. Of course, language isn't limited to sounds and the ear. Sign language works entirely with gestures and visuals, and writing works without any sound.

The Brain

With music and language both being sounds that are processed by the ear, then they must share some processes in the brain. Not only are they both processed by our ears and their corresponding neurons, they also are stored using common systems. The brain stores the underlying rules of both music and language, melodies and semantics, in the same system using the temporal lobes. The arbitrary information, however, is stored in independent systems for each.

Even though it uses the alphabet it goes from C to C...

A Written System

Both language and music feature systems in order to represent themselves visually. Languages have writing systems such as alphabets, abjads, abugidas, and logographic or syllabic systems. Music has sheet music, complete with staves, notation, key signatures, tempo, directions and anything else you might need in order to play the piece (instruments and/or orchestra not included).

The Words

Everything in the world is related to language in some way. We require a lexicon in order to name things, such as objects and abstract concepts. You'll find in music that most of these are Italian. Why? Put simply, Italians love music.

Here are twelve (the number of semitones in an octave) of our favourite musical terms and their origins:

A Capella: The meaning has altered slightly, but the idea of there being a group of people without instrument remains. From Italian for "in the style of the church/chapel".
Bass: From the Italian Basso, meaning low.
Cadenza: A solo part, usually improvised and ornamental. From Italian for "cadence".
Diminuendo: Getting quieter. It's the Italian word for "decreasing".
Encore: To be played again. From the French (for a change) word for "more" or "again".
Flat: Half a tone lower and finally an English word.
Geschwind: From German meaning "quickly".
Ma non troppo: This is perhaps the vaguest instruction ever, from the Italian for "but not too much". Use when asking for ice cream. (Though honestly, can one ever have too much ice cream?)
Presto: Very quickly. From Italian.
Quasi: From Latin and Italian for "almost".
Tutti: Italian for "all". When put with "frutti" you have a good bit of ice cream.
Wolno: From Polish, to be played loose or slowly.

You've just learnt the most important phrase
in Italian: "Tutti frutti, ma non troppo."

Saturday, November 17, 2012

November 17: International Students' Day

There's no way to write a blog on languages and not say anything about students. Most of us have studied languages at some point, and we know a lot of our readers studied languages at university and beyond.

International Students' Day is actually an internationally recognised day for students, not necessarily in reference to international students. That said, many universities recognise it as an opportunity to celebrate multiculturalism, which is fine by us as the real origins are a little too dark for a Saturday.

If you're studying in a university such as this, then you're probably a student.

If we take the day as originally intended, we'll be celebrating students in general. We'd love for most people to have the opportunity to study at university, since many people we've spoken to recommend the experience and consider it the best part of their life. Most who had the opportunity to study abroad will cite it as their favourite part. That's where we're tying in the international aspect of today.

One of the most commonly known means of studying abroad, at least in Europe, is ERASMUS (EuRopean Community Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students)... talk about a laboured acronym! We can safely say that most participants of ERASMUS loved their time abroad and the opportunity to see another culture and learn another language. It's a shame that the programme has seen better days. We hope that politicians will appreciate the value of the programme and continue to promote international exchange amongst students.

The bloke who inspired ERASMUS.

In honour of the day of students we'll be spending it sitting on beanbag chairs, smoking weed and not going to class! We'll also be ordering Domino's Pizza and watching L'Auberge Espagnole, a French-language film about a group of ERASMUS students. We highly recommend you watch it if you've ever been on ERASMUS or any other study abroad programme.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Crowdsourcing Translation: Power To The People?

Crowdsourcing is becoming more and more common nowadays. With the increased importance of the internet, this was almost inevitable. What exactly is crowdsourcing?

Crowdsourcing is a method of outsourcing a task to a large, almost infinite, number of people. An open-ended invitation is sent out to an unknown group who then work on a solution to a problem. Usually anyone can provide a solution and the best solutions are chosen via a rating system or peer assessment methods.

Do you reckon you'd get a good translation from these guys?
Probably not.

Crowdsourcing can be used for translation too. Why not? If you have something that needs translating why not present it to every translator you can and get them to do it? It's cheap since the translators are not usually paid. Everyone pitches in a suggested translation and then the community votes on the best translation, known as crowdvoting.

Crowdvoting works almost everywhere, except Florida.

There are several key issues with using crowdsourcing for translation purposes. Firstly, there is little to no quality control. If only under-qualified translators are submitting and voting on translations, then the end result will most likely be a poor and inaccurate translation. Secondly, if all translations are done as individual parts, there will be no consistency amongst translations, as several parts of a single sentence could be translated by multiple individuals.

Furthermore, there is nothing to stop malicious entries. If you are familiar with the internet you know that it's full of lunatics. Occasionally, an incorrect translation can slip through the cracks when one person writes something "funny" and a group of internet nutjobs decide it would be amusing to vote this through as a suggestion. Think Wikipedia.

Sometimes crowdsourcing can be very powerful. Wikipedia is a fine example of what can be achieved if you find a good community of passionate people. Of course, you can't cite Wikipedia for academic purposes and it hasn't always got the quality of Encyclopaedia Britannica, but it's an excellent resource for killing time and learning about things you never thought you'd even read about. We love a good Wiki link-hopping session!

It's no Wikipedia! It probably doesn't even have an entry on memes!

Can crowdsourcing translation work? Is it a replacement for qualified paid professionals? We think not, but given the economy, sometimes a poor translation is better than no translation.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Endonyms And Exonyms: When In Roma

Did you spend your summer in Rome or Roma? Paris or Paree? Why are there different names for places? You wouldn't translate your own name... unless you're a pretentious arse, of course!

This is the Piazza Venezia in Roma. Or is it Venice Square in Rome?

In linguistics we have endonyms and exonyms. If you recall high school chemistry you may remember endothermic and exothermic. Endo being inner and exo being outer. If not, you've just learnt something!

So an endonym is an "inner name" (the -onym being "name" or "word"... the second o is omitted for simplicity), it's what the locals call a place. An exonym is the opposite, the "outer name", as it is known to foreigners, outsiders or in different languages. A simple example is England. In England it's called England, obviously, but in France it's called Angleterre. Countries generally have several exonyms.

This is England when it really was Angleterre...
land of the Angles.

If your hometown has an exonym, you should consider yourself lucky. It suggests that the place was important enough for foreign people to talk about it and create their own word for it. French to English examples of exonyms include: Londres (London), Edimbourg (Edinburgh).

We have exonyms in English for Rome (Roma), Seville (Sevilla) and Munich (München) as well as many, many others.

Proximity appears to help create exonyms. French has a lot of exonyms for places in Spain. Barcelone (Barcelona) is in Catalogne (Catalonia, which is Catalunya in Catalan and Cataluña in Spanish). Lisboa is Lisbon in English. Due to pronunciation differences, many French places are spelt differently in Spanish. Whereas Tolosa for Toulouse comes from the original endonym in Occitan.

Endonyms and exonyms are not necessarily restricted to languages. Monolingual examples include Blighty as an endonym for England. It's not commonly used by Americans, Australians, Canadians, South Africans or pretty much anyone else who speaks English.

Our personal favourite, the Toon, is a nickname commonly used by residents of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne (also known as Geordies) for both their hometown and football team. Although technically a nickname, it's used so frequently as the proper noun by the locals that it could and should be considered an endonym.

Some exonyms are similar to their corresponding endonyms, due to a simple case of being misheard or butchered. Sometimes they are translations of the meaning of the word, such as United Kingdom being Royaume Uni in French, and sometimes, in the unfortunate case of Germany, they're seemingly unrelated.

We're not going back to calling it perfume!

Germany (Deutschland in German) only really has similarities in Dutch and a few other Germanic languages. Across the Romance languages, however, it's known as Allemagne in French, Alemania in Spanish, Germania in Italian and Alemanha in Portuguese. At least Germans can take solace in the fact that they've probably been called far worse!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Remembrance Sunday: The Language Of War, Part 1

As we remember those who lost their lives in WWI, we're having a look at some of the words that made their way into the English language during that time. Just like technology, language advances significantly during war. We hope that those of you in the Commonwealth are wearing your handmade poppy!

This boy has the right idea with his poppy and wreath.

Here are some of our favourites that came about during the grimness of war. They're definitely better than the mopey poetry though!

Not the card but the title given to someone who is good at something. The term came from aviators during the war for someone who had shot down 10 planes. Though the French l'ace only counted for 5 planes. They must have lower standards...

From the French verb barrer, to stop, the word came from tir de barrage in reference to the devastating artillery fire that would, in fact, stop anyone in their tracks.

Nobody really knows where this word came from. Apparently it was from Type B-limp instead of Type A-rigid due to the way it is constructed. Either way, you can't have a name for something until you invent it, and a lot of things get invented during wartime.

The Hindenburg is in fact not a blimp, but an airship...
obviously it's the Type-A rigid we referred to!

The word bunker had existed before WWI, but was reserved for use on a golf course. It acquired a new usage which referred to the underground fortifications used as shelter from bombs and other attacks.

It was from the word camoufler in French, which was actually a slang word used in Paris to mean hide. The Parisians have much better slang now. The navy called it "dazzle-painting" apparently, which sounds more like something drag-queens do before a show.

Chew the fat
During the war, this term was used to refer to sulky, grumbling conversations between bored soldiers, perhaps because of the cloths soaked in animal fat that they often chewed on to pass the time. In recent times however, it has come to refer to friendly idle chatter!

Quite redundantly the D in D-Day refers to day. For military operations, D stood for day and H stood for hour. So you'd have D-Day and H-Hour. They used the letter when the actual time and date were top secret.

The concept that dogs fight one another is as old as time. The idea that aerial combat was similar has only been around since the First World War, since the technology was not available prior to then.

This is a photo of the condensation trails left by British
and German aircraft after a dogfight during the Battle of Britain.

It went from meaning ragged clothing to useless things. Useless things naturally led itself to refer to shells that didn't explode during the war.

Another word that changed meaning in the war. Originally referring to throwing something down, during the war it came to mean to discard, get rid of, abandon, etc.

This slang term for German people was in use before the war, but gained widespread usage during it. Apparently during the First World War a lot of people were talking about the Germans...

Suggested as being an acronym for port out, starboard home to refer to the best way to commandeer a boat so that your richer passengers stay in the shade. The word also had other meanings such as money or dandy and currently seems to derive meaning from both.

The word strafe came from the German word for punish as overheard by troops opposing them. It's always been some form of attack, but it took another World War before it came to have its more specific meaning of shooting up ground locations from low flying aircraft.

Again a word that got a new meaning during the war, we're familiar with the older meaning, fuel container. The newest weapon on the market apparently looked like benzene tanks. The name stuck.

Well, we wonder where this could have came from! Unsurprisingly, a tonne of trench related words came about during the war. The word trench itself came from French. (Apologies for the rhyme.) The old French word trenche referred to a ditch or a slice.

Trench coat
What do you call a coat you wear in the trenches? This compound noun explains it all.

Doesn't he look classy in his trench coat?

Trench foot
If your foot goes funny from being in the gross environment of the cold, wet trenches you continue putting together compound nouns with the word trench in them to describe your symptoms.

Trench mouth
The same idea as trench foot, only it's your mouth that shows the grotesque symptoms of infection.

This term was used in wartime to refer to the starting time for a military option. Now we use it as the start time for just about anything!

Tomorrow we'll have more war terms in Part 2 for Veterans Day, the American equivalent of Remembrance Day. It's technically on November 11th as well, but it's generally celebrated on the nearest Monday to that date...  we'll try not to mention American tardiness in reference to war...

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Do We Need Conjugations?

It may sound fairly ridiculous, but do languages actually need conjugations?

Look at it this way: conjugations change the meaning of verbs. They tell us about who or what is carrying out the action and when it happened. If you're familiar with the six pronouns (three for singular, three for plural, each with first, second and third person forms), then you probably know they are the following in English:
  1. I
  2. You
  3. He/She/It
  4. We
  5. You (plural, often pluralised in interesting ways to avoid confusion, e.g. yous, y'all, you guys, etc.)
  6. They
For each of those you need a different form of a verb, known as a conjugation. In English, however, there are only usually two or three options. Many languages feature unique conjugations for each one!

Take the verb to run:

I run, you run, he/she/it runs, we run, you run, they run.

Regular verbs start with a stem. These are stem cells.

We have the forms run and runs and a lot of verbs follow this pattern in English. Simply add an s to the stem, the stem being run. We know who is doing the running thanks to the pronoun and the conjugation. Could we use one or the other? In Spanish, each of the six conjugations are distinct, so the pronoun becomes irrelevant. You will often find Spanish speakers dropping the pronoun and using the verb independently of its verb. This couldn't be done in English since for most verbs five of the conjugations are identical.

We're not saying Spaniards are lazy... but they don't bother with
personal pronouns and this one doesn't even run around the pitch.
Could we remove the conjugations since most of the understood meaning is from the pronouns? Probably.

I be, you be, he/she/it be, we be, you be, they be? Sounds a bit weird, doesn't it? Though it wouldn't if everyone spoke like that. We could do one or another. Create six distinct conjugations for each verb in each tense, or have auxiliary verbs to indicate tense and use pronouns to clarify.

Auxiliary verbs are added to the main verb to change its meaning. Take the future tense in English with the verb to run: "I will run". We know this is an event in the future thanks to use of "will"... the word, not meaning the "faculty to initiate action".

I will exercise... tomorrow.

We reckon that a perfect language (no languages are perfect, by the way, not even constructed languages) would feature one system or the other... conjugations without pronouns, or a pronoun and auxiliary verb system. It would definitely be easier for everyone, especially foreign learners since you'd need around half the vocabulary to indicate tenses and explain situations. Don't you think?

Friday, November 9, 2012

Why Ask A Rhetorical Question?

We imagine most people have asked a rhetorical question at some point in their life. A rhetorical question, in fact, has little, if anything, to do with rhetoric. Following the media shit-storm that was the US election, we're glad it's all over.

A rhetorical question is merely a statement posed in the form of a question. It's often wrongly referenced as a question with no answer when it is in fact a question that does not require an answer. Of course, the question has an answer... it's just unwanted or irrelevant. Who knew?

"What's the meaning of life?" is a question
with no answer, but it isn't rhetorical!

Leaving excuses to throw in as many rhetorical questions as possible aside, why do we ask them? Rhetorical questions are perhaps the most British way to make a statement. Avoiding exactly what you're trying to say is a staple of the Northern-European-Island-Dwellers and they sure love it! Simply put, to utilise the non-direct nature of a question without making an intended, and possibly offensive, statement.

There are negative rhetorical questions, such as: "Can't you do anything right?" which infers that they can't do anything right, but it's not as strong as saying "You don't do anything right!". Given that they work exceptionally with irony and sarcasm, why wouldn't they be great for the Brits?

"Who the bloody hell do you think
you're talking to?"

When writing rhetorical questions, should you punctuate? The general consensus is that even though it's not a traditional question, you should always include the question mark "?" as you would with any other question. That said, there is in fact a lesser known punctuation mark know as the percontation point (or the rhetorical question mark for those of us who can't be bothered to learn the word "percontation") and was proposed as early as the 1580s. Though, as with other uncommon types of punctuation, it's probably not worth using since nobody is familiar with it.

Percontation mark?

So why ask a rhetorical question? We'll leave that up to you. It's your language. We'd advise that if you want to be clear about something, then avoid them. However, if you like having a bit of fun with your language, give them a go! Why not?

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Trolling For Hits: Deceptive Headlines

In a move that would have the plain language cause turning in its grave (if it was dead and not just a concept), it seems that news sources and other websites love a bit of trolling.

Using this image entitles you to be a dick on the internet.

The idea that news sources use misleading headlines to boost their hits was brought to our attention by the current affairs and humour website The Gabbler (definitely check it out!), which suggested that even the most reputable sources are using this dirty tactic in order to get more hits and in turn, more money.

We remember seeing a local newspaper article saying that "Brangelina" were coming to town. It turned out that the article was referring to them "in films" and that a new cinema was being constructed. It's fairly annoying to have given a site a hit just because you've been deceived, but if you look at most "headlines" you'll see it's the way the internet works and the same can be said for print too.

If you've ever read Hello!, OK! or any other publication that features a general salutation proceeded by an exclamation mark, shame on you. You should know better! However, their headlines are clear... they correspond directly to the shit that's in the article.

However, seemingly reputable sources regularly use misleading headlines to get people to read their articles. They're usually well written, but they're based on fact and probably don't garner as much attention as so require a little sprucing up. 

So many things to read... how to choose?
By the most interesting headlines, of course!

So here are the two options for every journo:

Clear headlines

They may appear dull and possibly deter readership.  It's a fine line and we feel the right answer depends solely on the material. For newspapers and facts, clear language is key. The BBC's news site normally has decent headlines but we must admit they've fooled us a few times.

Creative headlines:

"Creative" headlines seem more interesting than the article really is and in turn increase readership. As long as the article isn't posing as fact, what's the problem? They won't be the first people to have tricked you so they can earn some money and you won't be paying anything. Language can be creative and beautiful, and it should be enjoyed.


Which side wins in the end? Are we sticklers for thinking that language should be matter of fact? Or can news be creative? The best headlines grab your attention. If clicking on a link or picking up the newspaper is encouraged by an intriguing headline is it such a bad thing? They do earn money from doing it... and they won't be sharing that money with you despite having tricked you. At least you can take solace in the fact that they have encouraged people to read!

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Election Day: Campaign Slogans

As Americans go to the polls (excluding the goody-two-shoes that voted early) how have things unfolded so far? How much has language been involved up to this point?

Would Obama have been president if he wasn't such a great public speaker? We think not. Would Mitt Romney have been Republican head honcho if he couldn't string a sentence together? Never! Republicans know better, now...

This probably wouldn't have got him his second term.
At least not without Florida.

The debates had people wondering who would be the next president of the United States. They were important, sure, but whilst all that was going on the campaigns were running ad after ad after ad after ad. What were they saying, what was their message and how important is that message?

For all the waffle going on in the adverts, "Candidate A does this but Candidate B does this, vote Candidate A", the thing that ties them all together is the campaign slogan. Today, we're taking a look at some of the better slogans throughout the years. And we mean years!

"We Polked you in '44, We shall Pierce you in '52"

The campaign slogan for Franklin Pierce all the way back in 1852 features a fantastic pun, and going from "polk" to "pierce" is pretty delicious.

"Who but Hoover?"

Herbert Hoover's 1928 campaign has a lovely bit of alliteration and is pretty catchy.

"I like Ike"

It may sound like a child forming an opinion, but Eisenhower's 1952 campaign was catchy, it rhymed and it got him into office. He didn't even need a marketing team to come up with it... the American people popularized it themselves!

"It's the economy, stupid!"

Ah, Clinton. Could you be any more '90s in your slogan? Not! Derisive slogans had always been commonplace and this was no exception. Bill Clinton's '92 slogan was aimed at George Bush's unkept "no new taxes" promise.

"A Safer World and a More Hopeful America"

3 years after 9/11 the people didn't need rhyme schemes or alliteration. They needed words that would pull on their heartstrings, that were relevant to them and that echoed the feelings of the people. This poignant sentiment got Dubya his second term and convinced people to look past the unnecessary wars he'd started throughout his first term.

"Change We Can Believe In"

America's first black president made some big promises and delivered a campaign slogan to go with it. Nothing more than 5 affirmative words. Do Americans still believe it? We'll find out later today, hopefully!

Was it change? Or just the same old politics?

Friday, November 2, 2012

Politics Week: Speech Writing

Sometimes you want to rule the country, sometimes the world. If you want to do it democratically then you're going to need a speechwriter. Your own words just won't cut the mustard!

Your words won't cut this mustard either!

What does a speechwriter do? Write speeches, obviously. There's more to it than that, though. Political speeches aren't expected to be as eloquent as Shakespeare, but we highly doubt anyone would be elected into office nowadays without the help of carefully selected words, meticulously constructed sentences and organised paragraphs.

The speechwriter will have to write drafts for their clients and, much like a copywriter, accept criticism and be willing to redo and redraft their work. The difference is that they're writing with the aim of their words being spoken rather than being read. They have to be aware of the speaker's speech tendencies. They'll need to avoid sounds that the speaker is uncomfortable saying as well.

The speechwriter is anonymous, of course. They can't take credit for writing a speech since it could undermine the person who is reciting it. We are, after all, listening to them and not the speechwriter. A speechwriter works in a very similar capacity to a ghostwriter... they accept little to no credit for their work and write speeches in such a way that they appear to have been written by their client. They're unsung heroes of the writing world!

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Movember And The Origins Of "Moustache"

We love the idea of growing an awesome moustache for a good cause, at least on men. Sorry bearded ladies! You've got to admit though, moustache (or mustache for yanks) is a pretty weird word.

Lunatic, artist and moustache aficionado
Salvador Dalí

Where did it come from? It's actually from Ancient Greek, then Italian, then French and eventually made its way into English. It started as the Greek word for "upper lip", ended up in Italian as mostaccio (possibly from the Latin mustaceum), then into French as moustache before Webster got his hands on the word and changed it to mustache because he hated either the French, the English or even both.

Confused? Here it is simply:

μύσταξ - Greek
Mustaceum - Latin
Mostaccio - Italian
Moustache - French
Moustache/Mustache - British/American English

Dutch has an interesting slang name for a moustache in the form of de befborstel, a tool to stimulate the clitoris. Though of course moustaches have other uses such as soup-strainers (or tea-strainers, whatever your preference).

If you're not familiar with Movember it's what happens to November when you grow a 'tache for prostate cancer and other men's health issues. You can find out more on and if you haven't started yet, here are the rules (also available here):

One: Once registered at, each mo bro must begin the 1st of Movember with a clean shaven face.

Two: For the entire month of Movember each mo bro must grow and groom a moustache.

Three: There is to be no joining of the mo to your side burns. (That’s considered a beard.)

Four: There is to be no joining of the handlebars to your chin. (That’s considered a goatee.)

Five: Each mo bro must conduct himself like a true country gentleman.

Tomás González always conducts
himself like a true country gent!