Monday, December 31, 2012

2012: Year In Review

We've been having some fun looking at Facebook Stories and seeing what the world has been talking about most this past year. Since Facebook is American, they've dedicated several sections to the past year in the U.S., including memes, songs, books, movies, events and almost everything in between. We're having a look at the most talked about things from several countries around the world.

Australia: One Direction

It seems the Aussies can't get enough of the English-Irish pop group. They've also been fond of reality TV, the London 2012 Olympics and the globally-famous mummy porn, 50 Shades of Grey.

Here's 9 shades...
you'll have to get the book for the rest!

Canada: The Hunger Games

The Canadians spent the year talking about The Hunger Games, the box-office smash featured in the Top 10 for most countries. They also enjoyed The Avengers and the TV series The Walking Dead and a few films and books that were also popular in Australia. Mitt Romney also made an appearance on their list.

France: François Hollande

Given that France could be said to have invented modern politics, it's no surprise that their new president, François Hollande, would feature at the top of the list. Sports were on the tip of everyone's tongues as Chelsea Football Club, FC Bayern Munchen and Swedish footballer, Zlatan Ibrahimovic all featured in the list.

Germany: BVB

BVB, or Borussia Dortmund was on most Germans' lips for 2012, as were FC Bayern Munich, Chelsea Football Club and Cristiano Ronaldo. Reality TV star Daniele Negroni was also being talked up by the Germans.

Europeans sure love their football!

Italy: Terremoto (Earthquake)

The earthquakes in northern Italy in May and June were the main talking points of the year for most Italians. There was widespread destruction across the affected areas, including 26 deaths. Technocrat Mario Monti came in second and the same football teams from the Champions' League final, Chelsea and Bayern Munich pop up too. Footballers Mario Balotelli and Gianluigi Buffon were popular as well.

Spain: Trabajo (Work)

Spain's year was dominated by the economic crisis. Trabajo, meaning "work" was the most talked about topic and huelga, meaning "strike" was second. The rest of the list mentions Rajoy (the current prime minister of Spain) and the crisis económica (economic crisis). The Spanish national football team, La Roja, the Eurocopa (Euro 2012), Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo all also feature.

United Kingdom: London 2012 Olympics

The Brits were banging on about their Olympics all year, and Usain Bolt was an often mentioned athlete. The Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II was also talked about, as was 50 Shades of Grey and box-office smash The Avengers.

Part of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee celebrations.

United States: Barack Obama and the Presidential Election

There was plenty to talk about in the United States this year, but the top story was the seemingly never-ending presidential election. Barack Obama was the most talked about politician and public figure, and lucky for him all that buzz helped secure him a win. Like their northern neighbours, Americans became obsessed with The Hunger Games, as they devoured the books and headed to cinemas to see the first film. Instagram became a favourite tech tool that is no longer just used by hipsters, and the meme TBH (to be honest) was often seen at the end of opinionated posts. Americans also became fanatics of the band Fun., whose song We Are Young (feat. Janelle Monáe) was #1 in the charts for six weeks and was heard everywhere from Super Bowl commercials to being covered on the show Glee.

Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Word of the Year 2012

Over the past few weeks, the news has been full of end-of-the-year lists. Several groups have come out with their choice for word of the year 2012, so today we're going to take a look at some the current and previous winners and what they say about our use of language.

Oxford Dictionaries UK
The Oxford Dictionaries have different words of the year for each side of the pond, undoubtedly due to the extensive lexical differences between British and American English. The British Word of the Year is omnishambles. It's a new term created by the writers of the political satire The Thick of It which combines the Latin prefix omni- meaning "all" and the English word shambles, meaning "a situation of total disorder". An omnishambles generally refers to a string of blunders and mistakes due to mismanagement. Soon after its use on the television program, it was used by British politicians. It has also led to the creation of similar words such as Romneyshambles, which describes American presidential candidate Mitt Romney's doubts that the London Olympics would be successful, and omnivoreshambles, in reference to a proposed badger cull.

Poor, innocent badger.

Previous winners include 2005's sudoku, which rose to prominence as it took over the spot next to the crossword puzzle in newspapers as a relaxing game to do while you sip a cup of tea, and 2007's carbon footprint, which refers to the total amount of greenhouse gas emissions a person, event, or object creates.

Oxford Dictionaries USA
This year, they decided to bestow the honor upon GIF. If you don't use the computer for much more than checking your email, you probably don't know that a GIF file is "a compressed file format for images that  can be used to create simple, looping animations".If you still don't know what we're talking about, you can always check out these GIFs from the London Olympics. However, the word of the year was not a noun, but instead a verb form of GIF meaning "to create a GIF file".

Previous winners include 2009's unfriend, which undoubtedly appeared in the dictionary due to its constant use in reference to Facebook, and 2006's carbon-neutral which describes the ecological movement to keep your carbon emissions to a minimum and even work to offset them by planting trees or using solar power. 

This American dictionary chooses their Word of the Year based on the frequency that words are looked up in their online version. This year, they chose two winners: socialism and capitalism. During the American presidential election, these words were thrown around quite a bit, despite the fact that many Americans do not know their precise definitions. At least this proves that some took the initiative to learn what they meant! Socialism was used especially often by conservative groups as an attack on Barack Obama's policies, to the point that many became convinced that it and communism are the same, which is not at all true.

Socialism also worried conservatives
in Britain in 1909.

Previous winners include 2008's bailout and 2006's truthiness, a term coined by political satirist Stephen Colbert which he defines as "truth that comes from the gut, not books". The American Dialect Society also defines it as "the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true". It was often used in reference to former U.S. President George W. Bush.
This website chose bluster, which meant "to wander or stray" in Old English. Nowadays, it means "to roar and be tumultuous, as wind" as well as "noisy, empty threats or protests; inflated talk". It was chosen in reference to all the political blustering going on this year, especially in the U.S. Congress, which can't seem to get anything done.

This person seems to be caught riding
in a blustery snowstorm.

Last year's winner was tergiversate, which is quite a mouthful! It means "to repeatedly change one's attitude or opinions with respect to a cause, subject, etc.; to equivocate", which they felt summed up the year well.

American Dialect Society
Every year, this group takes nominations for the Word of the Year, which is then voted on in the beginning of January by their members, who include linguists, grammarians, etymologists, writers, professors, and scholars. This year's candidates are likely to include selfie, a photo you take of yourself (usually so you can upload it onto Facebook or Twitter), and malarkey, an Irish-American word meaning "nonsense" that has regained popularity due to its use by American Vice President Joe Biden. We'll just have to wait and see what the winner is!

If you think you have a better Word of the Year, let us know in the comments below!

Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Easiest Languages To Learn

If you're hoping to learn another language and you're lazy, busy or just don't want to overexert yourself, we have a list of a few of the languages considered to be the easiest for speakers of English to learn.


Often rated as the easiest language for any English speaker, Dutch enjoys a lexicon with many similarities to English. These Germanic languages share a large number of cognates, and unlike the French, the Dutch haven't resisted the adoption of English words, which makes your job that much easier! They also share similar stress and intonation patterns as well as sound systems. Best of all, Dutch is said to have simple and consistent spelling rules, unlike our ridiculous language. Just think about the English words knife and through.


Some argue that Norwegian is much easier for English speakers to learn than other Germanic languages. It also has many lexical similarities. Its grammar is easier to learn, plus its word order is more similar to that of English than Dutch or German, for example. Norwegian is also full of words that are not quite the same, but with a bit of creative thought you can uncover their meaning. A great example is snikskytter. Try saying it out loud, and you might find that it sounds a bit like "sneakshooter"... and what is the English word for a person who shoots sneakily? An assassin. Fun, right?

Learning Norwegian will also give you an excuse
to visit Norway and see its beautiful fjords!


Since the Normans came to Britain and started throwing their words all over the place, English has taken on board many words of either Latin or French origin. The shared lexicon means that a good number of French words will already be familiar to English speakers. Especially if you like food.


Dutch's cousin in Africa is supposedly very easy for English speakers. Both Dutch and Afrikaans share a good number of similarities with English. In fact, the sentence "my pen was in my hand" is written exactly the same in Afrikaans and means exactly the same thing. It is, of course, pronounced differently.

There's no gender in Afrikaans either, so that makes it a little easier than Romance languages.


Fans of Rolf Harris will enjoy the "say what you see" approach to the orthography of Spanish. Rarely does a word not sound how it looks. If you learn how to say each letter, you can pretty much say every word you come across. It makes it very easy for understanding people when they speak Spanish as well, with the added bonus that you'll immediately be able to spell any word they say and jot it into a notebook to look up or use later.

Drinking sangria will make the learning process
much more enjoyable as well!

If you haven't worked it out, there's a pattern here. The more similar a language is to your native tongue (in this case English), the easier it is to learn. Stick with any language similar to your own and you're on for an easy ride. If English is your native tongue, your best bet is to learn either a Germanic language (such as Dutch, Norwegian, Danish, Swedish, and German) or a Romance language (such as Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, and Romanian). English speakers are lucky to have so many options given the great number of similarities shared between Germanic and Romance languages in the past!

Friday, December 28, 2012

Franco and Linguistic Fascism

It's probably safe to say that Francisco Franco wasn't a very nice man. His oppression of linguistic freedom in Spain wasn't the worst thing he did, but we do write a blog about languages so it's obvious what we'll be focusing on today.

Franco was a dictator and, like most dictators,
did some very bad things.

Despite being from Galicia, where both Galician and Spanish are spoken, Franco's hatred of the minority languages in Spain stemmed from a paranoia that the minorities would shatter his idea of a unified Spain and could communicate under his nose.

The Second Spanish Republic had recognised Catalan, Basque and Galician, but Franco abolished the statutes in favour of Spanish (or Castilian), which became the only official language of Spain. Under Franco, schooling and the media were always in Spanish. The minority languages became even more threatened as the number of speakers they had dropped.

The red area is where Spanish is currently spoken.
Other colours indicate the minority languages of Spain.

The Basque language was threatened and could have been extinct by now had Franco's regime continued in Spain. Towards the end of his tenure as dictator "by the grace of God", the minority languages were almost never spoken in large towns and cities and were severely under threat in smaller settlements such as villages.

Under Franco, Spaniards would be punished if found to be not speaking in Spanish. In Catalonia,some citizens would speak Catalan in their homes although it was punishable under law. However, Catalan was rarely spoken in the streets, at least not whilst under the watchful eyes of Franco's men.

The Falangist movement can be considered
to be different from fascism.

The effects of Franco's regime are still visible in Spain and the minority languages are still in a state of revival. Fortunately, neither Catalan nor Galician are considered to be endangered, while Basque is only considered to be vulnerable according to UNESCO. They would, however, be faring much better had it not been for Franco, his regime and the heavily-centralised and monolingual policies he enacted.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Best Word Game Apps

Yesterday we told you about some of the best language games. Today we've got a list of some of the best language games for your smartphone, tablet or whatever. Get on the App store, marketplace or equivalent and check some of these out.

Words With Friends/Word Jax (Windows Phone)

If you are familiar with Scrabble, then you know how to play Words With Friends. The multi-platform app is available on Facebook (for when you should be working), iPhone and Android. We recommend it for anyone who likes Scrabble but has friends that don't have the same phone...

Word Scramble/Wordament (Windows Phone)

The classic game of Boggle digitally available for Windows Phone and other platforms. Slide your finger around to make words from a grid. No problem.

It's like this, only portable and
easy to discreetly play at work!

Hangman Free

The original classroom game now available for smartphones. You know the rules and how to play. Plus, you can avoid a disagreement on whether or not drawing the base of the gallows counts as a life lost or not.


Mahjong plus Scrabble? More or less. Remove the tiles in order to spell words. Really simple but incredibly addictive. Phone ran out of battery from playing too much? There are also versions available for the PC, Nintendo DS and Wii so you'll probably never be too far from this twist on the Chinese classic.

If you don't understand this we don't recommend WordJong.


This game combines two challenges in one - you're solving clues and guessing a quote at the same time. This acrostic puzzle has two parts: on one side you get regular crossword clues you must solve, but each blank is numbered. The numbers correspond to a letter in the quote on the other side. It's definitely a challenge, but if you get stuck with the clues you can always try to work out words in the quote, or vice versa.

If you know of any other great word or language games, we'd love to try them out! Feel free to leave your suggestions in the comments below.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Language Games You Wanted For Christmas

Even though you're probably hungover, bloated or both, there are a few things you probably wish you had done differently over the holidays. We have a few of the games you wish you had played rather than eating that extra piece of turkey...


When it doesn't descend into an argument, this is a great game. Players move around the board based on the number of words their partner can guess in a given time period. They must describe the words without saying a part of the word or spelling the word. A great way to test your linguistic capabilities.


The original language board game. Scrabble tests your abilities with letters and lexicon. Now with the addition of 2-letter words, people can get annoyed by your use of za and qi.


A bit like Scrabble, but not exactly the same. In Bananagrams you have to make words using all the tiles you have in a form similar to a crossword. Every time a player has used all their tiles everyone takes an extra tile. The player who finishes when there are no spare tiles left is declared the winner. Humorous banana puns included.


You should know this game. You know how many letters are in the word. You guess a letter. Every time you get it wrong you lose a "life" and error by error you build the gallows to hang yourself. Of course there are plastic versions of this game but it can be played with a paper and pen.


Dice with letters? Boggle is another game involving anagrams. Shake up the dice and see how many words you can find in a given time period. The longer the better.

Pass The Bomb

How are you with suffixes, prefixes or just words in general? In Pass the Bomb you are given a combination of letters that must be in either the beginning, the end or in any part of a word. Start the bomb and you can only pass it on once you've thought of a word. If the bomb blows up in your hands... unlucky.


Maybe your patience was stretched thin by your family. If so, crosswords are the ultimate solo sport. Sit down, relax, grab a pen and train your brain with general knowledge combined with word placement.


You're given a list of 12 categories and a starting letter. A timer is started for 3 minutes, and you have to come up with a word that starts with the chosen letter that fits in each category. You don't get any points if someone has the same word as you, so you better come up with creative answers that nobody else has thought of if you want to win!


Probably easier than the other options but a classic for school-kids. A grid of letters with words hidden somewhere in them. Simple.

Word Ladder/Word Golf

Start with one word. Answer a question. The answer to the next question will be almost identical to the previous, except one letter has changed. CART becomes DART becomes MART becomes MARK. Get it? Good.

Now get back to recovering from the Yuletide excess.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Merry Christmas!

We'd like to extend a merry Christmas greeting to all of our readers. As you open your presents, have some good food and drinks, and before the inevitable fighting with your family begins we'll quickly tell you about the origins of the word Christmas.

It came from the Old English for "Christ's Mass", Crīstesmæsse, which in turn gave us Cristemasse in Middle English. For all those that like a good "humbug" over the use of Xmas, you should know that using X as an abbreviation for Christ has been around since around 1551, when the word X'temmas was used.

The French word Noël came from Latin (as did most French words) and referred to "birth", or natalis in Latin. Other European languages such as Spanish, Portuguese and Italian all make references to birth as well. Spanish has Navidad, the Portuguese use Natal, and the Italian language gives us Natale.

Now get back to your family and enjoy that turkey!

Monday, December 24, 2012

Language Profile: French

Bonjour! This week's language profile is on French, the "language of love". French is a Romance language (perhaps that's where the "love" comes in) with over 67 million native speakers. By 2050, it is expected that there will be 650 million French speakers in the world, which would make up about 7% of the world's population!

French is an official language in 29 countries. You might already know that it's an official language in France, Switzerland, Belgium, Monaco, Canada and Haiti. However, the majority of the world's French speakers live in Africa. There are 31 francophone (that means "French-speaking") countries in Africa... clearly the French did well in their colonization efforts. African countries with French as an official language include Rwanda, Cameroon, Ivory Coast (or Côte d'Ivoire, as you may know it), Madagascar, Burkina Faso, Seychelles, and the always fun to pronounce Djibouti. Take a look at the map of Francophone countries below to get an idea of where it is spoken and its status in each area.

Dark blue - main language. Blue - official language.
Light blue - second language. Green - minority language.

From the 17th to the mid-20th century, French was the most important diplomatic language in the world. English came along to oust it from the position, but it is still used as a primary language of many important global organizations, including NATO, the International Olympic Committee, the World Trade Organization, Médecins Sans Frontières (aka Doctors Without Borders), the Red Cross, and last but certainly not least, the Eurovision Song Contest.

Without Eurovision, the world may never have known
the joy of Swedish pop group ABBA. This photo
is from a Japanese production of Mamma Mia!.

Since French is spoken over such a vast geographical area, it's not surprising that it boasts a multitude of distinct dialects. Québécois French is the most commonly spoken dialect in Canada, though there are other dialects such as Acadian French used in the country. There are many varieties of African French, since each region has different pronunciation quirks and local vocabulary from the influence of other languages in the area. There are also dialects specific to Louisiana, India, the Caribbean, Switzerland and Polynesia. Obviously, the dialects of French deserve a post of their own at some future date.

The French language has so many dialects!

French is written using Latin script, with the addition of four diacritics that are used on vowels, as well the cedilla which specifies the pronunciation of the consonant 'c'. Here's a quick overview:

l'accent aigu (the acute accent) - changes pronunciation of the letter 'e' from the normal /ə/ to /e/, as in école, meaning "school".

l'accent grave (the grave accent) - changes pronunciation of the letter 'e' from /ə/ to /ɛ/, as in the second 'e' in élève, meaning "student".

l'accent circonflexe (the circumflex) - shows that 'ê' is pronounced /ɛ/ as in forêt, meaning "forest". It also signifies that 'ô' is pronounced /o/ and 'â' is pronounced /ɑ/.

le tréma (the diaeresis) - shows that a vowel is pronounced separately from a preceding vowel and does not produce a schwa sound as in Noël, meaning "Christmas".

la cédille (the cedilla) - shows that the letter 'c' should be pronounced with the "soft" /s/ sound. The cedilla is only found on 'c' in front of "hard" vowels 'a', 'o' and 'u', where it would normally be pronounced /k/. Français, meaning "French" is a prime example of use of the cedilla.

It wouldn't be a post on French
without a photo of La Tour Eiffel.

The language also uses elision, the act of dropping a final vowel before another word that begins with a vowel. The missing vowel is then replaced with an apostrophe, as in j'ai "I have", which is from adding ai, a conjugation of avoir, to the word je, meaning I. French is fond of such grammatical structures that make the language sound more natural and beautiful. Another is liaison, which requires pronunciation of a word-final consonant before a vowel sound.

However, if there's one thing that differentiates French from other languages, it's probably the 'r' sound, which is a nightmare for people learning it as a second language. I was once told by a Spanish teacher that the Spanish 'r' sounds like a cat purring, while the French 'r' sounds like a cat hacking up a hairball. The sound is usually identified as the voiced uvular fricative [ʁ]. It's no surprise that it's difficult for native English speakers, since we have no uvular sounds in our phonological inventory. In order to produce the sound, you need to vibrate your vocal chords and have turbulent air flow while you articulate the sound with the very back of your tongue by your uvula. Sounds difficult, non?

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Shibboleths and Linguistic Persecution, Part 2

In yesterday's post, we learned about shibboleths and their linguistic history. Today we have several more historical moments to share that use specific words as linguistic tests designed to ferret out the enemy.

This ferret is saddened by the use of language as a tool of war.

War of the Spanish Succession

This war in the early 1700s started because of a king who would never produce an heir, which might have led to the unification of the Spanish and French kingdoms. Apparently, much of Europe didn't like that idea. In any case, Spain was divided on the issue, so the very odd phrase setze jutges d'un jutjat mengen fetge d'un penjat ("sixteen judges from a court eat the liver of a hanged man") was used to distinguish Spaniards from Catalans. Spaniards were unable to pronounce the voiced affricate consonant [d͡ʒ] which makes the 'j' sound as in '"judge". Nowadays, this cannibalistic sentence is merely used as a fun tongue-twister.

Is this judge thinking about eating human liver
for dinner? We certainly hope not!

Finnish Civil War

The Finnish word for "one" was used by the White Guard to distinguish Russians from Finns. People suspected of being Russian fighters were asked to say yksi. Anyone who pronounced the word [juksi] was immediately shot... including members of the White Guard who didn't use the required pronunciation. Oops.

Sumgait Pogrom

In February of 1988, Azeri mobs formed across the town of Sumgait, Azerbaijan. The mobs targeted ethnic Armenians, and sometimes identified them using the shibboleth fundukh, the Azeri word for "hazelnut". If they pronounced the initial 'f' as [p], they were assumed to be Armenians and either attacked or killed.

Can you imagine being killed over your pronunciation
of the word "hazelnut"? We can't. 

Bruges Matins / Brugse Metten

On the night of May 18, 1302, the Flemish militia in Bruges, Belgium massacred their French occupiers. The militia went to houses where they knew French troops were living, woke up every man, and forced them to repeat schild en vriend, meaning "shield and friend". The Dutch phrase was difficult for the French to pronounce, and every Frenchman who failed was immediately stabbed. About 2,000 men were killed in their nightgowns that night.

Sicilian Vespers

The Sicilian Vespers was a rebellion that started on Easter of 1282 in Sicily. The Sicilians weren't fond of the French king, and used the shibboleth ciciri meaning "chickpeas". The Italian 'c' pronounced [t͡ʃ] and 'r' were difficult for the French to pronounce. The Sicilians were victorious and over 3,000 French people were killed within six weeks.

I vespri siciliani, scena 3 by Italian painter Francesco Hayez.

World War II: 5 Shibboleths Used To Identify German Soldiers

1. The Dutch had the Germans pronounce the word scheveningen. The sequence 'sch' in Dutch requires the use of [s] and then [x], while in German, it is pronounced as [ʃ], as in "shh!". The Dutch used this shibboleth to identify Nazi spies in their country. 

2. Allied patrols in the Netherlands also used Nijmegen, the name of the oldest city in the country, to distinguish between German soldiers and Dutch natives. Most Germans had problems pronouncing the 'ij', while others would merely use the German name for the city, Nimwegen.

3. British forces may have used the word squirrel as a password in hopes that any German infiltrators would slip up and pronounce it "sqvirrel". 

"Squirrel" in German is Hörnchen.

4. English-speaking Allied forces often used words containing the letter 'w' as passwords and countersigns. On D-Day, when two men dressed as Allied soldiers met, the first would utter the challenge word "flash", to which an ally would respond "thunder". The second person would then challenge the first by waiting for the countersign welcome, which was came out more like "velcome" when pronounced by a German.

5. Germans pretending to be American soldiers also tended to give themselves away by using British English vocabulary such as lorry instead of "truck" or petrol instead of "gasoline". They probably learned quickly that all English is not the same...

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Shibboleths and Linguistic Persecution: Part 1

The vast majority of the time, language is used for communication. This is essential to everyday life and in most cases causes no harm (unless you're constantly lying and manipulating people with your words, in which case shame on you). However, we are sad to say that language can sometimes be used for evil.

So what's a shibboleth, you ask? It's a word or sound that a person may not pronounce correctly according to those familiar with it. Over the ages, various groups have used such words to identify "outsiders" that did not belong to their group. For example, if you couldn't place someone's English-based accent, you could ask them to pronounce the word Edinburgh. If they pronounced the silent 'g' then you'd know they're definitely not from Scotland! Shibboleths haven't always been used to help solve linguistic curiosities, however. They've been used by political groups to systematically identify people who are different, often so that they can be killed.

In Edinburgh, don't pronounce the 'g' if you want to blend in!

The term shibboleth comes from Hebrew, literally meaning either "the part of a plant containing the grains" or "stream, torrent". However, its usage as a linguistic term comes from its use in a story from the Book of Judges in the Bible. A group called the Ephraimites suffered a military defeat by the Gileadites. Soon after, the survivors began attempting to cross the Jordan River in order to reach safety at home. The Gileadites blocked their path and demanded that each man pronounce the word "shibboleth". If they could not pronounce it correctly and said "sibboleth" instead, they were killed. According to the story, forty-two thousand Ephraimites could not make the 'sh' sound.

The Jordan River, the site of a biblical massacre.

Sadly, there are quite a few examples of shibboleths being used as a linguistic test to decide whether or not someone is the enemy and therefore should be killed. Not only is it a terrible use of language, but it also makes you wonder how many people who weren't "outsiders" were killed just because they didn't use the normal pronunciation of their group. Here are a few of the most famous shibboleths used for linguistic persecution.

The Parsley Massacre

In October of 1937, Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo ordered the massacre of Haitians living along the Dominican-Haitian border. When Dominican soldiers encountered someone they suspected to be Haitian, they would hold up a spring of parsley and ask what it was. If they knew that the word was perejil in Spanish and pronounced it with a trilled 'r' then they were allowed to live. If they pronounced the 'r' as a uvular approximant as in Haitian Creole and French, they were executed. About 20,000 were killed.

Parsley, or perejil to Trujillo.

Latin American Wars of Independence

The name Francisco was used by Colombian rebels to tell Latin Americans apart from Spaniards. Anyone who pronounced the first 'c' with [θ] as in European Spanish was thrown into the Magdalena River to die.

The Great Kantō Earthquake 

On September 1, 1923 a ten-minute long earthquake shook the Japanese Kantō plain, killing over 100,000 people. The government declared martial law and rumors started that Koreans were taking advantage of the disaster by committing crimes, including poisoning wells. Many were unaware that cloudy well water can be a side effect of a large earthquake and believed the rumors. Vigilantes began setting up roadblocks and testing citizens with various shibboleths such as gagigugego. Japanese people people pronounced the initial 'g' as [g] and the others as [ŋ], while Koreans pronounced them as [k] and [g]. Those who failed the test were deported, beaten or killed. The Japanese Army tried to warn civilians against attacking Koreans with little success. There has never been a definitive death toll, but up to a thousand people are thought to have been killed, many of them Chinese, as well as Japanese speakers of regional dialects.

Destruction caused by the earthquake in Yokohama, Japan.

We'll have the stories of more shibboleths for you tomorrow in Part 2!

Friday, December 21, 2012

Misinterpretation: Why The World Isn't Ending

As anyone who has ever translated anything will know, misreading and misinterpreting information can lead to the loss of the entire meaning of a sentence. Even if you're not an interpreter or translator you should know that sometimes your words can be misunderstood. "That's not what I meant" is heard far too often.

Language has a wonderful ability to mean several things at once. However, if you have misunderstood the message or misinterpreted its meaning it can have dire consequences. Take the Mayan Calendar for example. Suddenly a lot of people believe it's the end of the world. We find it hard to believe that anyone is actually taking this seriously, but they are.

The Aztec Sun Stone. Often wrongly used to represent the Maya.

The Maya did little more than make a calendar... ironically, a calendar that far surpassed their time on this earth. Check the calendar on your phone or computer. It probably goes past a date that you expect to reach as a living being. Just because your phone only goes up to 2999 doesn't mean that the world ends then. It simply means that its designers didn't believe you'd have much use for a calendar beyond that date.

The Maya happened to do the same. They made a calendar and it ended today, thanks to a conversion from their system of dates to the Gregorian calendar. If we'd made the calendar in stone we'd probably have given up well before today's date.

Of course, this information has been misread. There is little information to suggest the Maya believed the world would end today. The only information given is what date it is and what date the calendar ends. Nothing more, nothing less.

Let's hope that nobody finds this calendar and thinks
the Italians believe the world ends at the end of 2012.

The records left by the Maya have been distorted and open to interpretation and, more importantly, misinterpretation. Even if the Maya believed that at the end of the cycle on their calendar the world would end, it doesn't necessarily in any way, shape or form, mean that they were right. People used to believe the world was flat. Even before Columbus people knew the world was round. All they told Columbus is that the distance to India heading west was significantly greater than what he believed it was, and they were right.

There are actually Mayan records in existence that refer to dates after today. Clearly not all Mayans were obsessed with the 21st December 2012. There's even a reference to 21 October 4772 AD (coincidentally my birthday, not that I'll be around to see it... unless I live to 2785 years old...) which is well after today's date.

Few know what the 13th b'ak'tun (the end of a Mayan long cycle) indicated. The Maya definitely preferred history to prophecy and had little to no mention of being able to predict the future. Even if they said they could, would you believe them?

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Dubbing Or Subtitling?

Say you want to watch a film in a foreign language. If you speak the language then you don't have a problem. If you don't, then what is the best way to make sure that the film doesn't lose anything when its viewers don't speak the language?

There are three options to ensure that the viewer can understand the film. The first is to learn the language (we previously gave you 10 reasons to do this), but most people can't do this for just one film. Our second option is to replace the audio from the dialogue with rerecorded dialogue in the target language, known as dubbing. The third option is to have all dialogue translated and show the transcript at the same time as the original audio, known as subtitling. We're going to ignore the first option to focus on the latter two: dubbing and subtitling.


What are the drawbacks of dubbing? Older kung fu films are famous for their bad dubbing. Is it really bad dubbing, though? Given the vast differences between English and Mandarin Chinese it's always going to be difficult for sentences to sound natural and take the same length of time to execute in either language. This means that characters will either appear to be talking when they're not or viewers will hear characters talking even though their mouths aren't moving.

The work of the original cast loses something as well. We're hardly experts on drama but we're fairly certain that an actor's performance includes both their dialogue and their movements. If you mix dialogue from one actor with the movements of another there will always be something lost.

Maybe the largest issue we have with dubbing is the language. When a film is dubbed there will be little to no evidence of the original language. We'd like to think occasionally scriptwriters think of phonaesthetics (the inherent beauty of certain words and phrases) when they write a scene. This also disappears when a film is dubbed.


One of the most common reasons we hear for not watching a foreign film is that people are generally annoyed by subtitles. Reading and watching a film are two different things, and certain people believe that the two should never meet.

Subtitling forces the viewer to read throughout the whole film and a lot of people hate this. Subtitles have to take up part of the screen and if there is not space above or below the film, as in letterbox formats, the subtitles have to take up space amongst the visuals of a film. This either will cover certain visual aspects of the film or make the viewer look away from a certain area of the screen.

A map of world film translation standards.
Dark blue is dubbing for children only, otherwise subtitling.
Purple is dubbing in all cases except non-children's films. Red is all dubbing. 

Neither solution is ideal and where dubbing can be preferential in certain films, such as animated films where the movements of a character's mouth are not as distinct as that of a real human, we believe that subtitling wins out overall. Subtitling, though distracting from the visuals, leaves the foreign language to be heard and as we love languages, is preferential to us.

The foreign language skills in countries where subtitling is favoured over dubbing seem to far surpass that of countries where the opposite is true. If subtitling can help people become familiar with a foreign language and learn then it will always be our preferred method.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Get It Right: Uninterested And Disinterested

People frequently make mistakes when deciding between usage of disinterested and uninterested. More often than not we hear people using disinterested in place of uninterested, and rarely the other way round. We've taken the opportunity to tell you why when you say disinterested you actually mean uninterested and vice-versa.


Does something bore you to tears? Do you have absolutely no interest in it? Then it's uninterested you're thinking of. When you couldn't care less. That's when to use uninterested.

As cool as it looks, you'd probably still be
uninterested in watching this paint dry.


Though the dis- prefix is often used for antonyms, disinterested is not the opposite of interested. If you are not interested in something, that does not make you disinterested. Disinterested is being impartial and having no bias.

If this is still too difficult for you, disinterested can be thought of as meaning impartial, unbiased or even uninvested. Uninterested can be thought of as indifferent, as in not caring.

If you're ever unfortunate enough to end up in a bar brawl, then pray the police dealing with your case are disinterested and not uninterested!

It doesn't matter how cool your car is.
A good policeman is always disinterested.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Turing Test And Synthesizing Language

We were playing on Cleverbot the other day and it got us thinking about how complex language really is. We've already mentioned that recognising speech is near impossible and translating it with a machine or programme is nigh on impossible.

If you try out the website for yourself, you'll probably quickly realise that it's a machine (including the disclaimer that says so) and that it can't really communicate. It definitely tries...

So why is it so difficult? The Turing Test is a method used to gauge how authentically a machine or AI can replicate the behaviours of a human and Cleverbot is trying to pass this test. If the user cannot distinguish it from the natural behaviour of a human it can be said to have passed the test.

One of the permutations of the Turing Test.

If you type a message into a terminal you should be able to tell if the invisible person on the other end of your conversation is a man or a machine. If you cannot, then the AI has done its job in pretending to be human.

Of course, this method also depends on the human gauging whether or not the answers are coming from a machine. If you showed someone Siri in the early ages of the telephone they would have been more inclined to think it was an operator sending the information since they wouldn't have been familiar with search engines or speech recognition software. In the modern era we expect these things, so the Turing Test has become significantly more difficult.

Even simple commands that can be recognised such as "call person x" or the rendering of speech into text would baffle the Victorians. We wouldn't advise showing a caveman your smartphone immediately after he's been thawed from the ice, either.

A flaw with the test is that when it comes to man versus machine, a non-native speaker of a language could be misdiagnosed with displaying all the hallmarks of a machine due to their irregular usage of vocabulary on unnatural sentence structures.

Language is a complex structure and, just like your favourite song, even if you know all the words it doesn't guarantee that you'll be any good at it. It becomes even more complicated when the communication is bilateral. You have to take in information, process it, find the correct information, find the correct words, put them in the correct order and execute this all in either the written or spoken form. Even when technology seems to be able to do it all, it can often fall short of being comparable to the real thing.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Language Profile: Marathi

Today we're looking at Marathi, yet another of the world's most spoken languages hailing from India (see our previous posts on Hindi, Bengali and Telugu). Marathi is an Indo-Aryan language with 68.1 million native speakers in India, mainly concentrated in the western Indian state of Maharashtra and its neighboring states.

Some scholars say that there are over 40 distinguishable dialects of Marathi. The differences between these dialects are mainly lexical and phonological, and usually occur because of contact between Marathi and another language used in the area. Despite the high number of dialects, there is a good degree of mutual intelligibility among all Marathi speakers. Standard Marathi is also used and is mainly based on the dialects used by the media and academics.

Pune, the second largest city in the Indian state of
Maharashtra, where the Mula and Mutha rivers converge.

Marathi is descended from Maharashtri, an ancient Indian language related to Sanskrit. Maharashtri was a literary language used to write poetry. Its grammar diverged from Sanskrit's in order to allow the language to fit different poetic meters.

The Marathi language gained popularity over a thousand years ago due to its adoption as the literary language of a ruling dynasty and a couple of religious sects. Grammar standardization first occurred during the British colonial period due to the influence of Christian missionaries... we've never heard of that happening before! The first newspaper in Marathi was published in 1835, and the language has since flourished due to its popular dramas, musicals and poetry since the late 19th century.

The skyline of Mumbai, the capital of Maharashtra
 and the most populous city in India. 

There are currently three different writing systems used to write Marathi: Devanagari, Modi and Latin script. From the 13th century to the mid-20th century, the language was mainly written in Modi, a cursive script based on Devanagari. Modi was developed as a faster and less complicated way to write the language, with simplified characters that were easier to write without lifting the pen, though they may have been more difficult to read. It was mainly a handwritten script, but is currently regaining popularity with young speakers.

Since 1950, Marathi has mainly been written using Devanagari script, an abugida which is also used to write Hindi. However, the Marathi Devanagari alphabet does require the use of additional letters. It also uses Western punctuation.

"Marathi" written in Devanagari script (left) and Modi script (right).

The language is also written in Latin script online due to the difficulty of displaying Devanagari on computers. There are no standardized spelling rules for the Latin script though, so it probably leads to confusion from time to time!

Several government organizations promote and regulate the Marathi language. One of the most important is the Maharashtra Sahitya Parishad, a literary institution founded in 1906 to further Marathi language and literature.

Due to its contact with many other languages over the centuries, it has a diverse vocabulary. About half of the words in Marathi are borrowed or derived from Sanskrit, as well as words taken from other Indian Dravidian languages. You can also find the occasional word from Persian, Arabic, English and Portuguese in its lexicon!

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Language Games: Allspråket, Mattenenglisch & Louchébem

In yesterday's post we discussed language games or argots, specifically the English-based Pig Latin. Today, we're taking a look at other language games from around the world.

Language games can be grouped together by their base language or shared characteristics. For example, there are several language games similar to the aforementioned Pig Latin. There is a Swedish equivalent called Allspråket with nearly the same rules, except it uses the suffix "-all" instead of Pig Latin's "-ay".

Mattenenglisch is another argot similar to Pig Latin. It originated in a working class neighborhood in Bern, Switzerland known as the Matte. Mattenenglisch was used by the community as a way to communicate without police comprehension, and was heavily influenced by Yiddish as well as other language varieties. Despite "englisch" in its name, it has nothing to do with English, and is an argot based on the Bernese dialect of German spoken on the Swiss plateau.

One of many bridges across the Aar River in Bern.

The rules of Mattenenglisch are as follows:

Words that begin with consonants - the initial consonant or consonant cluster is moved to the end of the word; "ee" is added at the end; the first vowel is changed to "i".
"Mueter" (mother) - Ieter-mee
"Schnure" (mouth) - Ire-schnee

Words that begin with vowels - "ee" is added ("hee" if the word ends in a vowel); the first vowel is changed to "i".
Änglish (English) - Inglisch-ee
Öpfu (apple) - Ipfu-hee

Mmm... fresh Ipfu-hee pie!

The French language game known as Louchébem is also similar in structure to Pig Latin. Louchébem was a slang created by French butchers starting in the mid-19th century. It's still used in some parts of the French meat industry, and a few of its terms have made it into mainstream usage as well. One such word is loufoque or its shortened form louf, meaning "crazy".

As in the other games we've mentioned, Louchébem moves the initial consonant to the end of the word. A variety of suffixes such as "esse", "oc", "muche", and "em" are then added to the word, plus an initial "l". Here are some examples:

"boucher" (butcher) - louchébem
"l'argot" (slang) - largomuche
"fou" (crazy) - loufoque; louf
"garçon" (boy/waiter) - larçonguesse
"pardon" (excuse me) - lardonpem
"sac" (bag) - lacsé

Allspråket, Mattenenglisch, Louchébem and Pig Latin are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of language games! We'll just have to leave English-based Cockney rhyming slang and French verlan for another day...

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Language Games: Pig Latin

If you're a native English speaker, you probably had a phase during primary school when you and your friends spoke Pig Latin to each other incessantly. You were actually experimenting with a language game or argot, though most of the adults around just thought you were trying to drive them insane with your gibberish.

Is this not the happiest pig you've ever seen?
He has no idea he's about to become sausages...

Language games are systems of speech manipulation with the intention of making language incomprehensible to those who don't know the system. While they're primarily used by children for amusement and to disguise conversations, they have also been created by other groups (such as criminals) as a form of secret communication.

Another term for language game is argot, the French/Spanish/Catalan word for "slang". Argots are versions of existing languages with modified vocabulary. They're not characterized as distinct languages no matter how different they may sound because they follow all the same grammatical rules and merely manipulate a language's vocabulary instead of creating their own terms. So what's the most famous language game? Igpay Atinlay, or Pig Latin to you monoglots out there.

An adorable new member of the genus Sus.

Believe it or not, Pig Latin has been around for at least a few hundred years! There are supposedly even historical records that show that Thomas Jefferson wrote letters to his friends in Pig Latin. If you're like us, you're probably curious as to the origins of this game's name. Around the time of Shakespeare (if not earlier), nonsensical wordplay became popular. People started to call this manipulated language false Latin. Over several centuries, it became dog Latin, then dog Greek and pig Greek. All of these terms were used in reference to language that sounded like Latin but was not. Apparently, by the mid-1800s, children had developed an argot that was called hog-Latin, which became pig Latin just a few years later. Finally, the perfect animal/classical language combination had been found!

We're disappointed they never tried out Penguin Sanskrit.

Here are the modern rules for Pig Latin, in case you need a refresher:

Words that begin with consonants - the initial consonant or consonant cluster is moved to the end of the word; "ay" is added.
"happy" = appy-hay
"language" = anguage-lay

Words that begin with vowels or silent consonants - the initial vowel is removed (or moved to the end of the word); "ay" or "way" is added.
"another" = nother-way or nother-ay
"about" = bout-way or bout-away

Compound words - each component word is changed separately.
"birdhouse" = ird-bay ouse-hay

A few of the more popular Pig Latin terms have even made it into American English slang. We're not sure how common upid-stay or am-scray are, but ix-nay is definitely a recognizable part of the American lexicon.

Check back tomorrow when we'll have more language games.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Spoonerisms And The Weight Of Rages

Whether you've heard the term spoonerism or not, you've almost undoubtedly uttered one or two in your lifetime. A spoonerism is when corresponding consonants, vowels, or morphemes are switched within a phrase. Imagine you've come home drenched in sweat from the gym, and your roommate tells you to "go and shake a tower". Their mix-up of the initial sounds in take and shower has created a spoonerism, whether it was due to some clever wordplay or a simple speech error.

You could always bake a tath instead. 

If this is the first you've ever heard of spoonerisms, you're probably wondering where the term came from. It does not, in fact, have anything whatsoever to do with spoons. Its history is far more interesting than that! It turns out that from 1844 until 1930, there lived a man named William Archibald Spooner.

This is a caricature of Spooner from 1898.

Spooner was an intelligent man who almost spent his entire life at the University of Oxford, first as a student, then as a lecturer, tutor and dean. He was a well-respected member of the academic community that was known for being a kind man. However, he had a tendency to make speech errors... and after a few particularly amusing ones, his colleagues decided began to call his linguistic gaffes "Spoonerisms".

We're sure he accomplished far more interesting and important things in his life, but it seems that his legacy lies in a term named after him because of his tendency to muddle words. There are many phrases attributed to him, but there is only one substantiated Spoonerism according to The Oxford Dictonary of Quotations: "The weight of rages will press hard upon the employer". While it reportedly annoyed him at first (and rightly so... we wouldn't want everyone hanging about waiting for us to make an amusing error!), it appears that he did eventually come to terms with his linguistic legacy and found the humor in his slip-ups. 

There are many other quotations attributed to Spooner, but most of them were likely uttered by his students or colleagues. Nevertheless, here are some of our favorite "original" spoonerisms...

"He was killed by a blushing crow." 

"The Lord is a shoving leopard."

Watching over his flock with a keen eye...

"It is kisstomary to cuss the bride."

"Let us glaze our arses to the queer old Dean." (Two spoonerisms in one sentence! You might need to say it aloud in your best approximation of an English accent in order to decipher them.)

Here's a hint as to what he meant to say.

While the original spoonerisms were speech errors, they've also become a popular type of wordplay. Some examples of intentional spoonerisms for humorous effect include "I'd rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy", and a children's book by Shel Silverstein entitled Runny Babbit: A Billy Sook.

They're also used as a linguistic loophole to avoid being censored for profanity. This can be found on everything from sweatshirts proclaiming "Muck Fichigan!" to music albums such as Suck Fony by Wheatus and Farstucker by Lords of Acid. We're sure you could think up plenty more of this kind of spoonerism on your own.

An American professor has suggested that the term spoonerism should only be used to describe sound-swapping between the onsets of syllables. When the nuclei or codas swap, he has suggested the use of the terms kniferism and forkerism. We think we'll just stick with spoonerism. After all, the term's name has nothing to do with eating utensils.

Remember, spoonerisms are named after
William Archibald Spooner, not spoons!

If you have any humorous spoonerisms of your own, please share them with us in the comments! We'd hike to lear them!