Sunday, September 30, 2012

September 30 - International Translation Day

Today is International Translation Day, better known to some as the feast day of St. Jerome, at least among those fond of bread, wine, fish and carpentry.

A totally true and entirely factual history of St. Jerome:

St. Jerome was a Roman translator in the late 4th century. He is best known for having translated the Bible into Latin. As a young man, he enjoyed the typical university lifestyle and felt pretty bad about it. He decided to turn his life around by going to church and was inspired that his religion needed to be translated so he could harass people in shopping centres and airports.

"God! I'm so hungover, best translate the Bible..."

He decided to have a bit of an extended gap year and travel for a bit, going to Jerusalem and a monastery in Bethlehem, whilst funded by his Roman sugar momma, Paula.

Jerome (or J-Dog to his bros) was adamant that the languages he was translating from made for better Bibles than the most popular edition of the time and, as per usual, Christians were incredibly open-minded and didn't have any problems with Jerome's decision to go against the status quo.

Despite being the patron saint of translators, there is a lot of doubt surrounding Jerome's abilities in several of the languages he claimed to speak. It would be worrying to think that the Bible had been mistranslated and that it wasn't true...

You're not a real translator unless you have lions in your office.

Regardless of whether or not Jerome was a good translator, a bad translator, or simply a player with a fondness for travelling, he is the patron saint of translators and shares his day with that of all translators across the world. We know them as the awesome people who work out what stuff means in different languages and have been instrumental in linking cultures and bringing the world to our doorsteps.

Here's to you, you magnificent linguists!

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Languages In South Africa

South Africa is perhaps one of the most linguistically diverse countries in the world. The African continent has a huge number of languages, actually...

South Africa has 11 official languages. The five most common languages feature in the national anthem (having a stanza each), likely making it one of the hardest anthems to learn. However, it was a welcome change to hear it at the Olympics instead of The Star Spangled Banner or March of the Volunteers, the anthems of the USA and China respectively.

If we steer clear of some of the cultural issues that have plagued South Africa over the years and concentrate solely on language we find ourselves in a true linguistic melting pot. In that respect, the country earns itself the title of the Rainbow Nation, which was coined by none other than The Lingua File's favourite South African Archbishop, Desmond Tutu.

South Africa's flag, adopted in 1994, is apparently symbolic of something.

The official languages of South Africa are Afrikaans, English, Ndebele, Northern Sotho, Sotho, Swazi, Tswana, Tsonga, Venda, Xhosa and Zulu. Afrikaans and English are Germanic languages, while the other nine are Bantu languages.

The "Rainbow Nation" in glorious linguistic technicolour.

The languages of South Africa have fairly distinct geographic areas in which they are used. From a European point of view it's not uncommon to expect this amount of linguistic diversity across such distances, but you have to consider that this is one country.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Ask A Stupid Question Day: Why Don't They Just Learn English?

Another obscure holiday is upon us today. It's Ask A Stupid Question Day! We've heard it all before from most Anglophones, usually those travelling.

We feel that if you ask a stupid question, then you should get a stupid answer.

Why don't they just learn English?

If you are an English speaker you should consider yourself very lucky that no matter where you go you'll probably be able to find someone who can help you in your language (Scotland excluded). It doesn't take much to learn a few phrases when visiting a foreign country. Even please and thank you can go a long way in somebody's mother tongue.

"Could you take our photo, por favor? Gracias!"

The expectation that everyone should learn to speak English is part of the reason most nations rate English speakers among the worst tourists... find a full list here.

You'll find Australia (16th), Ireland (14th), Canada (11th), the UK (10th) and the U.S. (1st) among the countries that are home to the world's worst tourists. Okay... so it's not all down to the language barrier and an expectation of the entire world to speak English. A good number of those countries are famous for having a drinking culture (we'll not name names) and generally getting quite rowdy abroad.

If you are from one of these countries you wouldn't be as annoying to the locals if you were slurring in their language rather than just shouting at them in English whilst you drink the bar dry.

Apothecary or bar? Sometimes booze is the best medicine!

You may think "I'm not like that", and perhaps you're right. You probably like languages like we do, and feel sorry for those that don't. A lot of people do speak English, but while many of them may speak it poorly, they probably speak English better than you speak their language.

On the other hand, they should learn English... so they can read this blog!

Thursday, September 27, 2012

All Your Base: The Importance Of Good Localisation


Localisation, in the gaming industry, is the cultural adaptation and translation of products for sale and use in other markets. It can include translation for use in different countries where other languages are spoken, as well as in areas where the same language is spoken in a different dialect with different idioms (think US vs UK English).

One of the most prominent examples of a bad localisation process comes from the classic game Zero Wing. The game was decent, but it was made famous when rediscovered in 1999 and the English version of the intro spread like wildfire across cyberspace.

The terrible captioning that started it all.

Thus the "All Your Base" meme was born. Although amusing, the main problem was that when the game was made, the importance of high-quality translation and localisation was being overlooked. This resulted in some of the most horrific English you've ever seen.

Nowadays, the gaming industry is big money and games are created worldwide. However, without localisation it's difficult (perhaps impossible) to sell products globally.

Perhaps some of the best games... best localisation, perhaps not.

Once a game is localised, there's still another problem to tackle. Can you translate its cultural setting? Many games now feature detailed narratives. You can translate all the text properly, but can you really localise sentiments felt in one part of the world that may not be felt in another part? The Modern Warfare series probably isn't very popular in the Middle East. You can spend hours playing a Japanese game and still never really understand why any of the characters did what they did.

Although Mario still sells well in Italy...

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

September 26 - European Day of Languages

We like obscure holidays at The Lingua File, and there are few more important to us than the European Day of Languages. In an ideal world every day would be a day of languages... or a Saturday, but sadly, this is not the case.

The purpose of this holiday is to promote the linguistic diversity of Europe and to encourage people to recognize and learn new languages. We think that's a great idea. Politicians got something right!

Despite the linguistic and cultural diversity of Europe, the continent itself is home to only 3% of the world's languages. That definitely takes it out of the running to be the most multilingual continent. However, we can say that Europe does well in terms of cultural diversity. In comparison with North America, the cultural diversity of Europe is pretty astonishing.

This is the linguistic diversity of Europe. It's definitely better than that of Antarctica...
In North America, it's fairly uncommon to get on a train in one place and end up in a different country, let alone somewhere they speak a different language. However, in Europe you can hop on a train in Portugal in the morning, travel through Spain, and end your travels in France (assuming that the Spanish train system hasn't let you down) all in one very long day! Just in that one day, you would have had the opportunity to speak Portuguese, Spanish, Catalan, and French. If you continued your journey through Europe, this linguistic diversity would go on and on and on.

There's much more to European languages than just EFIGS (English, French, Italian, German and Spanish). Europe is home to a multitude of languages (over 200!), many of which you've probably never heard of. So enjoy your European Day of Languages, and take some time to investigate the linguistic diversity that Europe offers as a continent. Make sure you use it as an excuse to eat some good food and drink some fantastic booze too!
Cheers! Živjeli! Kippis! На здравје! Saúde! Iechyd da! 
That's just a small sample of European languages... English, Bosnian, Finnish, Macedonian, Portuguese and Welsh!

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Technology Understanding Languages: Don't Be Siri!

So you've got a new smartphone and you'd rather tell it what to do whilst it's in your hand than touch the screen. You probably decide to use its speech recognition software. Then, you tell it to make an imaginary appointment in your calendar... and it does!

"I'm sorry, I can't do that Dave."

How does it understand language? Well... it doesn't. It simulates it pretty well, that's all. It deciphers which phonemes have been said and puts them together in the most probable order.

If you speak a language, understanding words is quite simple. Your brain should be many times more powerful than the average smartphone. IBM simulated an apparent 4.5% of the human brain with a supercomputer, requiring 147,456 processors. That's the equivalent of your brain after a night of vodka and that's still pretty impressive.

It's very difficult to separate individual sounds with just one input. Because of that, some horrific mind-numbing mathematics is involved. To put it simply, the software hears audio and then guesses at the most probable phoneme you may have said. It does this by ruling out impossible combinations or very rare occurrences.

First, the hardware on your smartphone converts the analogue information into digital information. Computers like 1s and 0s.

The software cleans up the digital data, then removes background noise and frequencies beyond our range of hearing. The information is divided into very small sections (hundredths of a second) and sampled by the software in order to process the phonemes.

Can you decipher this? Didn't think so...



The phonemes are processed by means of probability. The most likely phonemes are considered first, but if they're followed by unlikely phonemes or expressions, they are disregarded and replaced with the more likely alternative.

An example of a stumbling block for speech recognition would be the following:

"Real eyes realise real lies".

Its output could easily be realise repeated three times. So a speech recognition program would probably get this wrong. There are so many examples that could be wrong, so how does it occasionally get it right?

"Where are you?" could be "wear are you?" - we know it couldn't be, but a computer doesn't. The only way to stop this being mistaken is to have included likely and unlikely word combinations. The best method is to pick the most likely option, but that can be difficult if you don't know what any of the words mean.

The phone has as much chance of understanding you as any member of the opposite sex, but that doesn't mean you can do those sorts of things with it, even though it does vibrate.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Language Profile: English

English, the native language of The Lingua File, is the third most spoken native language in the world. However, it's almost surely the most widely spoken language in terms of total speakers. English spread out across the globe from its island homeland thanks to the British Empire, which used it as a lingua franca (a bridge language that allows people with different native languages to communicate) in its many colonies. We'd list all the countries where English is the official language but that would take ages, so here's a handy map instead.

All these countries use English as an official or de facto official language.
Note all those green dots in the oceans... island nations seem to love English!
It did come from an island after all.
Due to its widespread use, many people consider English to be the lingua franca of the modern era. It is an official language of the United Nations and the International Olympic Committee (with French), as well as the official language of maritime and aeronautical communication. For example, all air traffic controllers are expected to have a certain level of competence in English. It makes sense that we'd need to use one language up in the sky... think of the chaos of flying a plane otherwise!

French pilots have to begrudgingly ask in English to land at
Heathrow. This never ceases to amuse British Air Traffic Control.

English is a West Germanic language, along with German, Dutch, Afrikaans, the Frisian languages of the Netherlands and Yiddish. Most interestingly, English is a pluricentric language, meaning it has several standard written and spoken forms. Unlike Spanish and French, English has no regulatory bodies to decide which forms of English are "correct", so we take it upon ourselves to argue over who is right. There are so many dialects that linguists have had to divide them into geographical groups: British Isles dialects, American dialects, and Australasian dialects!

In the end, there is no way to decide if one dialect is superior to another, and why try? We should enjoy the linguistic diversity of English, and all the fun it provides us with as we mock our fellow English speakers in pathetic attempts at their native accents! The Irish probably haven't said "top of the morning" in over 200 years, yet it just won't die.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

History: The Rosetta Stone

If you've ever watched the British television channel Dave you may be familiar with the company of the same name: they offer language-learning software and have some terrible commercials that make you feel racist. Two Asian girls with American accents speaking Spanish poorly... "estamos estudiendo español"... you'd think they'd have checked them for proper pronunciation!

What we're talking about today is The Rosetta Stone. An actual stone. The reason this stone is so important is because it is one of the oldest and best examples of translation to have lasted from ancient times. The stone has the same text (more or less) written in three different languages: Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, Demotic, and Ancient Greek. Over time, scholars were eventually able to decipher Ancient Egyptian (which hadn't been understood since before the fall of the Roman Empire) by using the stone.

Check out this sexy slab of granite.

The Rosetta Stone was rediscovered in 1799 by some French soldiers sent on an expedition by Napoleon. Through a series of events we won't go into (that undoubtedly upset the French!), it ended up in the British Museum in London by 1802, where it remains to this day. Several copies of the inscriptions were made and studied by scholars around the world for years, and eventually, the translated Ancient Greek and Demotic led to the deciphering of hieroglyphs in the mid-1800s.

We highly advise if you are as crazy about linguistics as we are, that you get to the British Museum to get stoned, Rosetta Stone-d, (not that we care either way... it's your life, we're not your parents). It's definitely our favorite stone. Our other favorites include Stonehenge, The Rolling Stones and Stone Phillips.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Elvish: What You Tolkien About?

In honour of Hobbit Day (it's a real day, look it up!), we're discussing fictional constructed languages, or conlangs to those in the know. In particular, we're looking at J. R. R. Tolkien's creation of Elvish, its many derivatives, and other languages.

First of all, how do you go about creating a fictional language? You can't just speak gibberish. There are certain qualities of speech that humans recognise as language and certain traits that readers, viewers or listeners can attribute to other languages.

Someone who knew the value a fictional language could add to a fictional universe was none other than Tolkien. In fact, Tolkien stated that he created the languages first and the stories eventually grew from there. His discovery of Finnish (people were already aware of Finnish, it was more of a personal discovery) helped reignite his passion for conlangs.

The "One Ring" is actually inscribed with "Black Speech" in Elvish script.

Tolkien created several languages, not just for the Elves, but also for several other races featured in Middle-earth. He was actually a philologist by trade. Philology combines the disciplines of literary studies, history and linguistics.

He probably doesn't speak any forms of Elvish.
Tolkien was clearly very talented and knew how to make a good conlang. If his stories came from the languages then no further evidence is really required. Making your own language is not as easy as spouting nonsense, since you're required to create the lexicon, grammar, phonology and syntax just for it to work. Not something that we'll be doing on a Saturday!

Regarding yesterday's post (available here, or below if you're not lazy and prefer to read on) on ghoti being pronounced like fish: we thought we'd mention that the Klingon for fish is ghotI, being one of the saddest, yet brilliant linguistic in-jokes ever.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Spelling Issues: Ghoti-ing For Answers

If you're not familiar with the word ghoti you may be surprised to know that it's pronounced exactly the same as fish, or not at all.

We're not clowning around.
If you'd like to pronounce it /ˈfɪʃ/ (fish) then you need only follow these simple rules:

The gh is pronounced the same as in tough, the o is pronounced the same as in women and the ti is pronounced as in station. It's an example of the irregularities we come across daily in English. The e in English is pronounced like i for some reason...

If you'd like the word to be entirely silent, then you can follow these rules for pronunciation:

Consider the gh to be as in through, the o as in people, and the t as in ballet and the i as in business.

Native speakers may think we're being pedantic, but learners of English will be all too familiar with how frustrating and nonsensical spelling in English can be! This is because of the orthography of English. Orthography is the relationship between the English alphabet and the sounds letters are supposed to represent. The reason there are so many exceptions to the rules is due to the complex history of the English language.

Given the number of exceptions in terms of spelling. You could probably spell any word any way you want. Stupid Ongliti! (English). If you're familiar with British place names you may be aware places like Loughborough (/ˈlʌfbərə/ or lʌfbrə/), Edinburgh (/ˈɛdɪnbʌrə/), Alnwick (/ˈænɨk/) or Berwick-Upon-Tweed (/ˈbɛrɨk əpɒn ˈtwd/) and many, many more, are some excellent examples of English orthography, or lack thereof.

Berwick-Upon-Tweed. It's a lot easier to get a train there if you can pronounce it.

Though if you've ever studied French you could probably do the same. That's a challenge for another deigh. OK... we'll stop.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Get It Right: Where, Wear, Ware, Were And We're

We always say that everyone should know the difference. As we've found out, not everyone does know the difference. If they did, we'd have nothing to write about.

Another of our pet peeves is using the wrong spelling for certain homophones (no gay jokes this week). What becomes even more annoying is when they're not even homophones (OK, so three of these are, and the other two may be depending on your accent). We'll carefully run through them in groups:

Where, wear and ware have the same pronunciation for most people, so you can see how they could be easily confused if somebody said them in isolation. However, if you're writing them, you have no excuse for getting them wrong.

Where - Places and stuff.


Wear - You do this with clothes and fancy hats. Just not in the bath... well...  maybe fancy bath hats.

Damn! Those are some fancy bath hats!


Ware - Goods and commodities. Stuff people make. Ever wonder why department stores call it the menswear and homeware/housewares? You can't wear a table.

The other two words, were and we're, don't usually sound similar or like the three above. Yet we feel they should be mentioned, because for some reason, we see people writing them interchangeably with the other words.

Were - Generally referring to things in the past. The way things were.

We're - This is a contraction of we and are making we're. You see how this happens? We + Are = We're. It's all so simple! It's in the present tense.

How are we now? We're fine.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

September 19 - International Talk Like A Pirate Day

Ahoy!

Avast ye landlubbers! Today be International Talk Like A Pirate Day!

So perhaps it's not your favourite holiday. Even if it's not, talking like a pirate can be a lot of fun. So how do you talk like a pirate?

Those who don't take part will be sent to Davy Jones' locker!

If you're trying to talk like a pirate, you're probably thinking about the way they speak in movies. Obviously, not every pirate was English (though clearly the best ones were!) and not every pirate would speak with that accent.

The familiar accent is, typically, an archaic version of a Cornwall accent. Traditionally the best pirates and pasties came from Cornwall and therefore, so did their accent. In popular culture, most pirates speak with a West Country accent that is occasionally blended with Old English. The West Country influence is made particularly obvious by their pronunciation of the letter R or the sound /ɹ/.

The red areas are halfway towards speaking like pirates.

Usually in British English the "r" sound is not pronounced when coupled with a vowel, so ar, er, ir, or, ur, will all be pronounced like vowels rather than consonants. The West Country (South West England) is an exception to this rule and has helped shape the accent we know and love.

It's not just the accent that shapes the way pirates talk, they clearly have a rich and varied lexicon. The words they use tend not to be commonly heard amongst those on dry land. When was the last time you exclaimed shiver me timbers? Gave somebody the old heave ho? Or even just bought something with pieces of eight? We're going to say exactly one year ago...

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Suits You, Sir: The Formality Of Language

There's a well-known saying that "good manners cost nothing, but can mean everything". Does this apply to language? Of course! In certain situations, you have to address people in a specific way if you don't want to risk offending or confusing them. In sociolinguistics this is referred to as register.

Register comes into play in many settings. You've probably seen a group of teens smoking outside a shop before, waiting for someone older to buy them some booze. Do you think they'd talk to their parents like that? Probably not...

Register affects the way words are said (phonetics) and the choice of words (vocabulary or lexicon). You probably wouldn't say ain't or goin' in a job interview, nor would you speak like the Queen with your friends.

"Now only if I could remember which one I poisoned..."
The issue with classifying registers is that there is no definite line between one register and another. One of the most commonly used classification systems utilises five distinct registers. They range from the most formal, frozen, to the most casual, intimate.

The five registers in this model are:

Frozen: In this register you can't even change the words. Imagine a passage in the Bible, just about every utterance in the Catholic Church (Amen...) and wedding vows (unless you're a romantic and have written your own).

Formal: You'll be using correct grammar, correct word usage and will be uninterrupted. Think of introductions and speeches.

Consultative: A posh chat. Think about a dinner party, eating lots of tiny foods you can't pronounce. You won't be able to drink your body weight in booze here. It's probably for the best, as you're expected to be polite, just as you would be speaking to a doctor, a teacher, or someone in a position of power.

Casual: Chatting in a bar? Had a few? Then this is the register for you. Expect interruptions, colloquialisms and probably slurring.

Intimate: This is the kind of register you can use behind closed doors. The words don't really matter by this point. It's not what you're saying, it's the way you're saying it. Private vocabulary and non-verbal messages...

Of course, you only get to use the intimate register if after those few drinks you end up meeting someone. You'll probably have to first pretend you're not seeing double before you can run through the registers and get to the whole reason you speak a language... to communicate with prospective sexual partners.

We wish job interviews were like this.
Thank God for your good fortunes  - Frozen
Introduce yourself - Formal
Quickly get through the small-talk - Consultative
Start flirting - Casual
End up by getting... Intimate

Congratulations!

Monday, September 17, 2012

Language Profile: Spanish

Spanish, the second most spoken language in the world (in terms of native speakers), evolved from Latin around the ninth century. Since Spain's conquest of the New World, Spanish has dominated the Western Hemisphere, making it the most widely understood language in the Americas. It is the official language of 21 countries, including most of Central and South America, several Caribbean island nations, and Spain, obviously!

Spanish is also quickly gaining speakers in the United States. 37 million Americans report that Spanish is the language they speak at home, and it is also the most widely-taught foreign language in U.S. schools. Will Spanish one day overtake English as the primary language in the United States? Only time will tell...

Maybe someday all Americans will know more Spanish than just "Yo quiero Taco Bell"!

Spanish is often considered easier to learn than other languages given its lovely phonetic structure. There's rarely any doubt how to pronounce things as letters usually represent only one sound. If only English was so kind! However, it does have its difficulties as well. Verb conjugation can be a nightmare, especially with many of the most commonly used verbs being irregular, and memorizing six verb forms per tense could give anyone anxiety, except the Spanish, who have never suffered from anxiety. Except when they run out of sangria.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Why Don't Guys Study Languages?

Why are language classes dominated by women? Normally the arguments consist of languages being a girly subject in school, that women are better suited to learn languages or that women simply like a good chat. The low number of males opting to study languages in schools and universities is worrying.

In most foreign language classes across the world there tend to be more girls than boys. If that isn't a huge incentive for guys to take up a foreign language we're not sure what is. Without trying to be crude, if lads can't encourage themselves to learn languages for the usual reasons: personal growth, employability, travelling, etc., then they should coerce themselves with the fact that if they want to meet a load of women, studying foreign languages is definitely a great way to do it.

The one on the right is for girls, apparently...

This year, the Shanghai International Studies University opted to admit men with lower grades in order to encourage more men to study. Even though the men probably aren't as smart as the women (let's be honest - when it comes to foreign languages they rarely are), we bet they're having a great time throughout their... uhm... let's just say studies.

Though we've said that men will likely meet more ladies in their studies, we haven't mentioned the increased pulling potential just by speaking another language. There are around 365 million native English speakers, and we can assume half of them are women. If you learn Spanish, which has around 387 million native speakers, you have potentially doubled the amount of women you can strike out with. It's too complicated to work out how many of those speakers are underage - just don't go there, and how many of them are hideously ugly - don't go there either!

All we're saying is, men should learn more languages. It not for themselves, then for their junk.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

European Colonialism: Spreading Languages

When the New World was colonised by several European nations, they brought their languages with them. It would be silly to ignore the fact that English and Spanish are so widely spoken due to their histories of having vast empires. There's a good reason that they speak Portuguese in Brazil too.

It wasn't just the Americas that were subject to having languages thrust upon them. There's a large presence of French in Africa too, as well as English in India, Hong Kong and Australia.

However, the 19th century wasn't the start of languages being forced upon people. Latin was present across Europe as the lingua franca (that's a Latin expression right there!) thanks to the expansive Roman Empire. Latin's influence in Europe shaped the languages that a very large number of people in the world speak today.

We've heard they also made good salad.

This can be seen if you look at the presence of regional language families across the world:

Romance languages are in dark blue and Germanic languages are in red.

Once you look at the map with Indo-European languages classified together it starts to paint a very different picture.



Of course, it wasn't just colonialism and invasions that shaped the linguistic world. Religion has played a huge part too, but it's the weekend and we're not opening that can of worms just yet!

Friday, September 14, 2012

Get It Right: There, Their And They're

Despite each having its own distinct spelling, meaning and usage, people continually confuse these three words. Most people can explain the differences, and yet keep making the same mistakes. Are people too lazy to use their own language correctly?

Three words, three meanings.

We'll quickly explain how to tell the difference:


There:

In, at or to a place. Are you talking about a place? Then it's "there" you want to talk about. You can also use "there" as an exclamation. So there!

Their:

This is when something belongs to "them". If you're talking about owning something or "having" something, this is the time to think of "their". It's possessive...

They're:

Why have an apostrophe? It's a contraction of "they" and "are" because English is a lazy language. If you get it wrong frequently consider pronouncing separately until you can wear your big-boy pants and attempt to use contractions.

These three words are classed as homophones as they are pronounced the same in most dialects.

Not that type of homophone!

Words that are written the same are homographs. There, their and they're are written differently and are therefore heterographs. They're not interchangeable and frankly we should stop putting so many homos and heteros in the same post before we get into trouble.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Programming: Languages For Nerds

Perhaps you didn't know that yesterday was Programmers' Day (we're annoyed we missed it too!). It would have been today if it wasn't for the leap year (It falls on the 256th day of the year, since 28 = 256, which is 100000000 in binary, those crazy programmers!). This day will never be as popular as Christmas but we thought it would be good to go through the etymology of a few languages... programming languages!

Even though they're not languages in the traditional sense you can see that they do share a lot in common with spoken languages. Programming languages have syntax, meaning words have to be in a certain order in order for the expression to make sense.

As well as syntax, programming languages also have another component known as semantics. Semantics includes all the meanings of the language.

Clearly there's some joke here we're missing...

The similarities don't stop there! If you're familiar with the imperative tense then you can probably work out what imperative programming entails just from the terminology. It doesn't involve screaming "work you intolerable bastard!" when it crashes.

As with all words, the names of programming languages have their own origins. They range from the incredibly dull BASIC (Beginners All-Purpose Symbolic Instruction Code) to perhaps our favourite Python, named for the comedic troupe Monty Python. The knights who say 01001110 01101001 probably wouldn't be as funny.

Perhaps the most obscure of these languages would have to be LOLCODE, which is built purposely to throw in as many references to a certain type of internet cat as possible.

They can program computers now.

We didn't say they were all great...

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Accent: What's It All Aboot?

Despite speaking the same language (in most countries), you may often find that your fellow countrymen are able to tell where you're from. How? Probably by your accent, or by the fact you're sporting your favourite team's colours and throwing bottles of your local brew.

The characteristics of speech are influenced by environment, so considering that we learn languages in our infancy, it's not surprising that people speak like their peers. In the UK you can find a large variety of accents. If you're accent-savvy, you can usually pinpoint someone's origin to the nearest major city.

Usually, the difference between two accents of the same language comes down to the pronunciation of vowel sounds. Think of the classic song "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off"... "you say tomato (/təˈmeɪtoʊ/ or tə-MAY-toh), I say tomato (/təˈmɑːtoʊ/ or tə-MAH-toh)".

If you speak with any kind of an accent this is irrelevant.

The main problem I've encountered with accents is their ability to remind the listener of certain stereotypes, which is creatively known as accent stereotyping. It's difficult to hear a Southern American accent without thinking that someone is a redneck, especially for Brits who often only hear the accent spoken by cowboys and incestuous gun-wielding lunatics. This, obviously, is not true for everyone who speaks like this.

Apparently "Scotland" is an accent now.

Unfortunately, not everyone will be open-minded when they hear certain accents and you may be victim of accent discrimination. However, it is fair to say that if you do have an accent, you should consider softening it for foreign speakers and even those who may not be familiar with it. After they are familiar with it, you can get drunk, speak naturally and blow their minds with your exotic use of their mother tongue.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Should We Protect Languages As They Are?

The discussion of language protection policies always leads to interesting debates. For those who love languages, it's easy to say that all languages should be protected. Others prefer a laissez-faire approach and say languages should be treated like living organisms and allowed to evolve naturally.

Certain languages have regulatory bodies, such as the Real Academia Española (Spanish) and the Académie Française (French), amongst many others. English, despite its apparent dominance has no regulatory body and as a result several variations exist... UK and US English, anyone?

The people here decide whether or not you've passed your Spanish test.


Of course, all languages have geographical variants. A regulatory body could settle arguments between the residents of the many English-speaking countries as to who speaks the language correctly. However, there are more reasons to have regulatory bodies than just settling arguments on YouTube.

French in Québec (or Québécois) is an interesting example of seemingly parallel language protection and evolution. If you talk to the Office québécois de la langue française you would think they're completely against the influence of the surrounding English language. However, if you chat with the French-speaking locals (and you will have a lot of fun if you do) you will quickly realise that they're not as against using loanwords as one would expect. It's a good example for seeing how protected language can coexist with an ever-changing language.

Arrêts are becoming a serious problem on Canadian roads.

One of the main reasons to protect languages in their current state is that you could maintain clarity in terms of historical texts, literature, music and the arts. That way everyone in future generations will be able to enjoy them, instead of only the scholars who study "Old Modern English", or whatever they decide to call it. You can't prevent people from speaking as they like in everyday life, but there's nothing to stop them from learning a "standard" English (or French, Italian, German, Spanish, etc...) in the classroom.

When we do have cool robot friends in the future, I'd like to be able to watch Star Wars with them, wouldn't you?
 

Monday, September 10, 2012

Language Profile: Mandarin Chinese

Mandarin Chinese has nearly a billion native speakers, more than any other language in the world. That amounts to over 14% of the world's (but probably not worlds') population!

Mandarin's actually a group of related dialects of the Chinese language mostly spoken in northern and south-western China, but a standardized form of Mandarin is the official language of China, Taiwan and Singapore. However, the regional varieties of Mandarin are sometimes so different that speakers of different dialects may not be able to understand each other at all! (Perhaps in English we could only truly observe this phenomenon between a Scot and a Texan...)

If you come from the dark green area you probably speak Mandarin.

Many Westerners find Mandarin Chinese very difficult to learn since it's a tonal language. We modify our intonation in English constantly to convey context, emotions, meaning, and even to allude to sarcasm (at least in the US!), but English is not a tonal language. Every syllable in tonal languages like Mandarin has an appropriate tone... if your pitch raises while uttering that syllable it can mean something vastly different to when your pitch lowers.

For example, take the syllable ma in Mandarin. It can mean mom, hemp, horse, and scold depending on your tone. We can all imagine how catastrophic it would be if you said "We had great fun riding your mom when we visited you in the country."

Never tell anyone that you mounted their Mom in the Rockies.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Latinisation: Do As The Romans Do?

For most speakers of European languages, use of the Latin alphabet is second nature. We sing the song, practice writing the letters and see it almost everywhere. For those in other parts of the world, the symbols that form the written basis of most of our languages have just as much meaning linguistically as a Rorschack test.

Random pattern or best-selling novel? Freud would say "genitals".

The Latin alphabet is everywhere. The widespread coverage of European languages and especially EFIGS (English, French, Italian, German, Spanish) has helped to promote the use of the alphabet across the world.

Why don't Greek footballers have their names in Greek on their shirts?

"What do you mean I can't have Παπαδόπουλος on the back!?"

The internet, technology, and the relatively small number of characters have facilitated the spread of the Latin alphabet, especially through English and its lack of diacritics (loanwords excluded).

An early Chinese keyboard. Operated by a team of ten giants.

A-to-Z works on the World Wide Web and fits nicely onto a numerical keypad for writing texts. As we start to type more and write less the system we use will become more important. Will there be only one? The answer is as easy as ABC... sorry.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Sexism In Languages: Do We Need Genders?

So several languages have "genders" and if like myself you're a native English speaker and had to study French or Spanish in school (there are others, but I didn't study them in school) you are familiar with genders.

Masculine and feminine nouns? Do they have any purpose?

Since most readers will happily use "the" and "a" without even thinking about having alternatives the idea of apparently arbitrary variants will seem like a pretty dumb idea.

Of course "masculine" and "feminine" don't mean that nouns have any masculine or feminine qualities (normally with the exception of "man" and "woman"). For some reason we have to remember which one is which and it can be pretty annoying.

"Le" or "la" table. Who cares? Can I put my drink on it?

It can be infuriating learning a language with genders and embarrassing when you make mistakes. Before you claim that Spanish or French is "the hardest language to learn", think about the poor folk that have to endure all the grammatical "exceptions" in English that have made it a complete nightmare for students.

Perhaps those who speak languages that use gender will think this is all fairly pointless. Those who grew up speaking English have no idea why adjectives should "agree" and why there should be two (in some cases three) variants for every noun.

In French, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese "problem" is masculine... I feel most women would agree.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Loanwords: Whose Word Is It Anyway?

One of the great things about languages is that they adapt. They change with the times. If you think about the last 20 years there are so many words that didn't exist but due to ever-advancing technology we've had to make up some words

I imagine you're reading this because you're a language "aficionado" or perhaps even a "connoisseur". Maybe loanwords are easier than making up your own words for something.

The interesting thing about English is its vocabulary. English is a Germanic language as I'm sure you all know. Yet, more than half of the words are of either French or Latin origin. This is hardly surprising once you consider that for the last 2000 years England was a popular destination for anyone looking to conquer places. Romans, Jutes, Angles, Saxons, Normans all had a turn at raping and pillaging as well as telling the locals how to speak.

Has English forgotten its roots?

Once the lexicon had been bastardised beyond all recognition, a thirst for blood, money, power and better food meant the British Empire took English all over the world. It was then given to the Americans who in turn churned out blockbuster films, global pop stars and sent back some hamburgers, only after asking the Germans what they should call their new sandwich. English went worldwide and its global influence meant a large number of people had to grow up trying to learn it.

Nobody decides whether or not to have loanwords, as long as people hear them, use them and pass them on they'll only become more and more common in the global society. Thanks to television, radio and especially the internet, languages are always getting new words, if not necessarily from their own languages.

Even though they are called "loan" words, just like library books, you don't really have to give them back.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Get It Right: Two, Too Or To

For those who like to get their grammar correct, the misuse of to, too and two is perhaps too much to handle.

If you know how they're used then you can pat yourself on the back, you're part of an ever-decreasing group. If not, why? We're going to explain the differences:

Two: It's a number, if your age is more than this you should know.

Too: Very, excessive, to a higher degree than desirable. If this is too difficult then you're an idiot (if you're not a native speaker then you are forgiven).

To: This is the only one left, use it when it's neither of the above!


To, two, too or Tutu? By now you should know.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

In The News: Are There Separatist Languages?

Montréal, Québec: The victory rally for the Parti Québecois was cut short when a gunman opened fire, killing one and wounding another.

Just after the event the mass-media was scrambling for information.

Currently the facts aren't particularly clear. The important facts, one dead, one wounded are confirmed by most news sources.

Certain facts, however, are open to interpretation... literally. Upon reading CBC I was informed, when arrested, the suspect said in French, "the English are waking up", making me think "les anglais se réveillent" were his actual words.

When I made my way to the BBC (usually my preferred site for news) I was told he had said, "the English are rising" leaving me to reconsider my initial opinion. Perhaps he said "les anglais se lèvent". Anyone who had studied French in high school would probably be familiar with both verbs and how easy it is to confuse them.

When I returned to the French language site, Radio-Canada, I was told his words were either: "les Anglais se réveillent" or "les anglais sont arrivés" [The English have arrived]. If it was the first option then CBC got it right, if not, why had nobody mentioned this? How could three different news sources give me three different answers?

"Les anglais se réveillent" or "les anglais sont arrivés"?
I also started thinking about how two languages (English and French) have shaped this event and indeed the political landscape of Canada.

The Parti Québécois is seeking to make Québec an indepedent nation. Most of Québec is Francophone, although there are large numbers of English speakers as well.

Language is often a major argument for Québécois independence

The gunman was reported to be speaking accented French (we can assume they are referring to a non-native accent, i.e., English-speaking Canadian) and talking about "the English". I doubt he is referring to the English (people from England) but rather the English-speaking people in Québec.

The large number of separatist movements spearheaded by groups who do not speak the main/official language of a country is no coincidence. Language, culture and history are all connected and it's very difficult for a group of people to associate themselves with only one without the other two.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Blogging About Languages

What to do? What to do?

The first post will always be the most difficult. Before embarking on a journey you have to know where you're going... if you don't you're a fool.

I hope to put everything (and I mean everything) I can about languages into this blog. They're fantastically fascinating things, I'll briefly tell you a few reasons why...

Language and history are intertwined. There's a reason most of the English words for food are of French origin. Why do I write in English and not Latin?

Language reflects culture. Why do Eskimos have so many words for snow? They don't, but you understand the point I'm trying to make...

Language is science. How do you define something without words? Well... with pictures obviously... but words do help.

There's so many more reasons but I said I'd be brief.

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