Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Halloween: Scary Language

On this most terrifying night of the year (excluding the X Factor final), we're taking a look at scariness with some of our favourite scary words.

Spooky, eerie, ooze, creepy and ghoul all have double vowels. We're not sure whether or not doubling up on your vowels automatically makes things scary, but there's certainly a good number of words to support the idea.

All pumpkins are like this before they put on the fake tan.

What about costumes? Some of our favourites have some pretty interesting linguistic roots:

Ghost

Ghost originally meant spirit of man. As in his (or her, in order to be politically correct, which we always are!) life-force, being, etc. It has taken on other meanings nowadays.

The use of spook to refer to a ghost comes from Dutch usage in the United States, and the word wraith is of Scottish origins. French gave us phantom from the Greek phantasma, and poltergeist is actually just a "noisy ghost" in German.

Zombie

The terrifying walking dead came about from Haitian religious beliefs and voodoo. Nowadays zombies are quite trendy and a cult phenomenon. People take part in zombie walks and enjoy literature based on the ever impending zombie apocalypse.

Vampire

We're talking about real vampires, not the camp ones that sparkle. We remember when vampires used to suck blood and not just plain suck. The word vampire came about from French via German. As you may already know, vampires come from Transylvania. The word vampire, however, is more likely from Slavic languages, in particular Serbian. Although most Slavic languages have similar terminology for our blood-sucking sunlight-fearing emo-enthralling creatures of the night, the word can also be found in languages as far away as Polish, Ukranian and Belarusian.

Mummy

The original Egyptian monster. The word itself comes from, you guessed it, Arabic! The word was mūmiya (موميا) and literally meant "embalmed corpse". It found its way into Latin as mumia and eventually transformed into mummy and led to many terrible puns within in British culture (mummy being the equivalent of mommy for those unaware).

So what if we made a "mummy" pun!
Don't tut!

Frankenstein's Monster

Often incorrectly referred to as Frankenstein (who was in fact the doctor, not the monster), Frankenstein's Monster actually had no name, only a series of labels. For clarity we'll refer to him as Frankie.

It's a nightmare picking the right pair.

Since there can't really be an etymology for Frankie, we'll explain something else. One of Frankie's less-affectionate nicknames was "the wretch". Wretch originally referred to someone in exile, or famous warriors or heroes. The meaning was warped beyond recognition in English to eventually mean a despicable or contemptible person. Poor Frankie.

Happy Halloween!

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Politics Week: Debates

They say it takes a cunning linguist to mass-debate... so how did the candidates do in the American presidential debates? They've been battles of tongues rather than swords. OK, enough innuendos.

This is what they're fighting for. Not this tattered old flag.
Just to be in charge of every building that flies this flag.

Round 1:

The candidates, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and the incumbent President Barack Obama, squared off for the first time on October 3rd. Policies aside, it was considered a pretty horrible battering for the President. Romney knew his way around a question and was clear in his answers. The President was noted for his inability to speak clearly and answer questions on the spot... which surprised many, as he is generally known for being a skilled orator. Even worse, he spent most of the night staring at his podium instead of looking into the camera. We all know how non-verbal communication can be just as important as verbal communication...

Round 2:

The second debate fell on October 16th, and was done in the "town hall" style. Instead of the moderator asking the questions, they were posed by local undecided voters. The stakes were raised, and while Romney could probably rest a bit on his laurels having done so well in the previous debate, Obama was back and swinging at the GOP's hopeful for the title. However, the whole thing turned into a spectacle more akin to WWE than what one would expect from two people expecting to run the world's most powerful country for the next few years.

Round 3:

The final debate on October 22nd started with Mitt Romney speaking a mile a minute, barely pausing for breath. He seemed anxious to get every word possible out of his mouth... perhaps he felt as if this was his last chance to convince American voters that he was the right choice? Obama spoke calmly and with purpose, and clearly learned from his mistakes in the first debate... no more staring down and ignoring the questions. They did have several verbal sparring matches, talking over each other until nobody could understand a word either of them uttered.

Have the debates changed the outcome? An estimated 4 million early voters had already made their decision by the end of the third debate. Has the election already been decided?

Monday, October 29, 2012

Language Profile: Russian

This week we're taking a look at Russian, the most geographically widespread language of Eurasia. Russian is a Slavic language with over 144 million native speakers. It's an official language in Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and you guessed it... Russia! It's also a recognized regional language in Tajikistan, Moldova and Ukraine, and is one of the six official languages of the United Nations.

Russian is written in a form of Cyrillic script known as the Russian alphabet. It was developed in the 10th century, and consists of 33 letters. Cyrillic script is actually derived from Greek script and is named for Saint Cyril. Cyril and his brother Methodius were Greek missionaries who introduced written language to the area that is now known as Russia. They're said to have developed the Cyrillic alphabet as well as the scary-sounding Glagolitic alphabet (the oldest known Slavic alphabet) in their attempts to convince Slavs to convert to Christianity. Poor Methodius... his little brother got the language named after him, and he got nothing... well, except for being named a co-patron saint of Europe with his brother and another guy in 1980! 

Saints Cyril and Methodius holding a scroll
with the Cyrillic alphabet. The Methodiusic
alphabet just doesn't have the same ring to it.

The phonology of Russian can get to be a bit controversial if you ask how many vowels the language has! A group of linguists from St. Petersburg believe that the language has six vowels, and that the phoneme [ɨ] should be considered as a vowel distinct from [i]. However, most other linguists agree that Russian only has five vowels because the two phonemes are allophones, which are sounds used to pronounce a single phoneme. With allophones, you can generally predict which of the two sounds will be used based on the surrounding phonemes. Despite the fact that most linguists are in agreement that the language only has five vowel phonemes, most schools teach that there are six vowels. How confusing!

Russian isn't just an important language on Earth... it's also an official language in space! Well... aboard the International Space Station (ISS) anyway. Apparently, most NASA astronauts who are going to be working with Russian cosmonauts learn the Russian language for communication purposes while aboard the ISS. Sounds like a good reason to learn a language!

Междунаро́дная косми́ческая ста́нция (We're pretty sure
 that's how you write International Space Station in Russian...)

Sunday, October 28, 2012

What's In A Font?

More often than not, such as now, you read text rendered by a computer. The ways in which this text is rendered and styled are known as fonts. A font is a character set consisting of a single typeface.

There are two types of fonts: serifs and sans serifs. What are serifs? They're the little tails on letters that are supposed to make them easier to read. Times New Roman, anyone? Arial, on the other hand, is a sans serif font as the letters do not feature any of these strokes.

We're not talking about golf strokes!

There are proportional and monospaced fonts too. In monospaced fonts each character occupies an identical-sized space, whereas proportional fonts give each character a space relative to its size. Typewriters required monospaced fonts, but nowadays most people use computers that often employ proportional fonts, which people usually find to be easier on the eyes.

For those of you who are unaware, this terrifying machine is
a typewriter. People used them to type back in the old days...

Is it that important which font you use as long as it can be read? Yes! For example, don't write your CV (or résumé) in Comic Sans! It makes it look like a joke... albeit not a funny one. Fonts blend linguistics and design together, using written language as an art form.

Fonts can be important...so important that certain companies copyright and trademark them. They can even become synonymous with a brand. When Sony launched the PS3, it came under some criticism for its use of the "Spider-Man" font. Instead of creating a new font, it decided to simply use the font that its film division had created for the Spider-Man movies since it already had the legal rights to it. Apparently, they were afraid of getting into legal battles if their potential new font was too similar to someone else's!

As you can see, there's much more to fonts than meets the eye!

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Language In Business: Sounds Foreign?

Cultural identity is closely tied to language... so closely that marketers have long exploited this idea for personal gain. Pesky marketers!

Not everything you buy is from where you think is! We'll start with perhaps the most famous example of foreign branding: Häagen-Dazs ice cream. Sounds German, right? Or Scandanavian? You're miles off! The famous ice-cream brand was actually founded by Jewish-Polish immigrants in the US. Clearly Polish, Hebrew or just plain English didn't sound delicious enough! Danish doesn't have an umlaut or a "zs", though the name was an homage to Denmark's fantastic treatment of Jews during the Second World War, when thousands of Jews were helped to evade capture by the Nazis. The labels on the ice cream initially had a map of Denmark on them too.

Another example is women's athletic shoe brand Rykä. It looks Scandinavian too, but is actually an American brand! Perhaps they were trying to make the brand sound a bit more exotic... or simply thought that American women would prefer Scandinavinan-sounding shoes.



Imagine running in these Scandinavian shoes!

The Dolmio brand, currently running adverts that say "When'sa your Dolmio day?" is actually part of Masterfoods, from Australia. Most people probably wouldn't buy pasta sauce with the tagline "G'day! When's your Dolmio day, mate?". Italians are world-renowned experts in all things pasta-related, so it's natural that they chose an Italian-sounding name.

If anyone has been to Britain and seen a chav, then they probably know what a Berghaus is. For those who haven't, it's a mountaineering coat worn by poorly-behaved cretins, and occasionally, people climbing mountains. The brand is actually from the UK and was originally called LD Mountain Centre. They tried to translate "mountain" and "centre" into German and got "Berghaus".

For those of you who don't know what a chav is,
here's a decent example of how one dresses.

Finally, we have the Pret a Manger sandwich chain. Despite its French name, it is a British company. Someone thought it would be clever to use the French term prêt à porter (ready-to-wear) and substitute manger (to eat) for porter... thus perfectly describing their "ready to eat" food, while filling your mind with thoughts of elegant French cuisine.

Marketers are experts at manipulating language to make people succumb to the lure of exotic foreign branding. There's a reason most frozen pizza brands sound Italian... it makes you think of delicious homemade Italian pizza, when in reality their product tastes like cardboard. You know their tricks now, so don't be fooled!

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Worst Translations In Business

Yesterday we talked about copywriters, and today we're looking at selling your products abroad with some of our favourite examples of translation.

Does anyone remember the cleaning product Jif? If you don't, thank god you have your youth. Everyone else probably remembers it as the old name of Cif. A team of highly-skilled marketers had a few too many coffees and decided that Spaniards, amongst others, were not to fond of trying to say the word. However, listeners were happy to no longer be covered in spit.

The once-famous Marathon bar (at least in the UK and Ireland) was renamed Snickers because the word was more globally recognisable. You can't always just rename your products to be international, so sometimes individual names are required for languages or regions.

Snickers or Marathon... who cares? It's delicious!

You have to consider regional differences. Coca-Cola famously introduced an advert into an Arabic-speaking region with no text, just icons of a sad face, some Coca-Cola, and then a happy face. Obviously, the intended message was that "Coca-Cola makes you happy". However, they didn't think about the fact that Arabic reads right to left, which left the ad being read as happy face, Coca-Cola, and sad face. The ad was a resounding failure.

Colloquialisms are fantastic stumbling blocks for marketers as well. "Nothing sucks like an Electrolux" wasn't the best tagline for the Swedish vacuum manufacturer to place in advertisements in the United States. General Motors' Nova never did well in Latin America either, due to sounding like "no va", as in "doesn't go" in Spanish.

Toyota failed with their MR2 in France since the name in French sounds similar to "merde", meaning shit. The car did poorly, but Toyota are probably more concerned about recalls at the moment.

In the 1960s, "Come alive with the Pepsi generation" was wrongly translated as "Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave" for Chinese adverts. This was much to the delight of Coca-Cola... until they managed to name their product "Bite the wax tadpole" and "female horse stuffed with wax". They eventually worked on it and came up with "happiness in the mouth" after researching thousands of Chinese characters.

Is Pepsi okay? Uhm... maybe not.

With globalisation these errors are becoming less and less common as businesses become more aware of cultural differences. Nevertheless, sites like Engrish.com are a fine example that not everyone is paying for the professional assistant they require... and if they are, they're being ripped off!

If you're dining in a restaurant in Lisbon, Portugal, please try the "sawdust" as we'd love to know what it is! We didn't have the cojones to try it last time!

Before anyone complains, we know that some of these examples aren't necessarily true, but we bet you enjoyed them anyway! Many of them feature frequently in marketing textbooks so they're clearly of educational merit... we suppose.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Language In Business: Copywriting

Businessmen love money... who doesn't? It may be true that it doesn't bring happiness but we're always happier on payday than when we're counting our pennies at the supermarket.

This is what your time and effort is worth.


How do you get money? You could work. Work is quite simply doing something you don't want to do and being paid for it by someone so they don't have to do it themselves.

Maybe you had a killer idea and you created something that people will want. That's fantastic, but how do you get people to buy it?

You have to convince them. You're definitely not the first person to make something people want and probably not the first person to make the product you're hoping to sell. Perhaps you have one tool at your disposal that others have ignored: language. There's good money for those who can use their language (or languages) well, be it in the form of copywriting, translation or interpreting.

How important is good copy? A lot of small businesses will overlook a professional writer in order to save money... who could blame them, given the economy is thriving like worms in an aviary? The issue is that not everyone writes the same way, with the same message. A person who writes for their own business may leave out key information that their customers want to hear.

Who's going to write your copy... you? Dream on!

Many readers are put off and confused by pretentious language, complicated sentence structure and long-winded messages. Short and simple, right? The language needs to be prioritised to make sure the main selling points are clear and concise.

Then there's register (we talked about this a while ago, read the original post here). Are you communicating with your customers? Is the register appropriate to what you're selling? Would the Ritz have "Yo dude! Come to our totally awesome hotel!" on their brochure? Would a cheap and cheerful hostel need to read like Chaucer?

The words have to be picked carefully. Not every word has the same meaning for readers, just like awesome in the previous example. We doubt most people would think of the original meaning of the word rather than its contemporary usage.

Why is it "I'm lovin' it" and not "I'm enjoying it"? Think about the strength of the words and the message the company wants to convey. Whether it's crap meat or not, you'll likely be more inclined to buy a Big Mac rather than a Larger-Than-Usual Mac.
 

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Get It Right: Then And Than

If only we lived in a perfect world where people knew the difference between the letter a and the letter e (excluding Geordies who pronounce them the same)... the difference between these words is only one letter! How do people still get it wrong?

Then

Use it if something happened followed by something else. It indicates a continuation. "I learned how to speak properly, then people didn't think I was a moron."

It also is used to refer to a specific moment in time. "My stupidity was blatant then."

Sideburns were cool then.

Than

It's used for comparing or contrasting. "Now that I have learned how to speak properly, I feel smarter than before. People who use correct grammar are smarter than those who don't."

Think of it this way: You were using the words incorrectly, then you learned the correct way to use them and you felt better than before.

Mercury is smaller than Earth.

Sequential? Then. Comparative? Than.
 

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Language Profile: Portuguese

This week we're taking a look at Portuguese, the most spoken language in the Southern hemisphere. Portuguese is a Romance language with approximately 178 million native speakers. You probably already know that it's the official language of Portugal and Brazil. However, you might not know that it's also an official language in Mozambique, Angola, Guinea-Bissau, East Timor, Cape Verde, SãTomé and Príncipe, Equatorial Guinea and Macau (a special administrative region of China)!


Map of Portuguese geographic distribution.
Dark green: native language
Green: official and administrative language
Light green: cultural or secondary language
Yellow: Portuguese-based creole
Green squares: Portuguese-speaking minorities

Portuguese, like other Romance languages, is a descendant of Latin. Back when the Iberian Peninsula was under Roman rule (they called it Hispania), Portuguese was often the language used for lyric poetry. During the 15th and 16th centuries, the language spread around the world as the Portuguese colonized various regions of Asia, Africa and the Americas. It even became a lingua franca in the 16th century in parts of Africa and Asia, and was used for trade and communication between various European colonial officials.

While Portuguese has many lexical similarities with Spanish, it has a larger phonemic inventory that distances it from its neighboring language. Portuguese speakers generally have an easier time understanding Spanish than the reverse, likely because they're only having to deal with some of the phonemes they use every day, while Spanish speakers would be having to understand sounds that are not part of their language. It's also interesting to note that communication is better between monolingual speakers of these two languages in South America than on the Iberian Peninsula... we're guessing it has to do with the dialects spoken in both places.

One of the coolest things we've found out about Portuguese is that it has its own museum! The Museu da Língua Portuguesa is an interactive museum in São Paulo, Brazil that is designed to give a "living representation" of the Portuguese language by teaching about its history, origins, evolution, and linguistic connections to other languages.

The Museu da Língua Portuguesa is inside of
this beautiful train station in 
São Paulo, Brazil.

As language nerds, we'd love to check this museum out, especially the "word alley", where visitors can play a game in which they can move images that have word fragments on them and attempt to create complete words. Once you've come up with a real word, you get to learn about its origin and meaning!

Monday, October 22, 2012

October 22: International Stuttering Awareness Day

Since today is International Stuttering Awareness Day, we hoped to explain a little bit about the disorder.

Wear your ISAD
ribbon with pride!


For those who don't know, stuttering is a speech disorder that causes broken speech, pauses and elongations.

There's a huge degree of variation in those who stutter or stammer. The disorder can be anything from almost unnoticeable to an unavoidable constraint on their daily lives.

Those with a stutter don't always repeat sounds like Porky Pig (who was given a stutter because the original recording artist suffered from the condition), but sometimes will pause or remain silent as they are unable to produce the sounds at that exact moment.

There are three main effects of the condition: repetition, the repeating of certain sounds; prolongation, extending a sound; and blocks, in which the person freezes during speech, making no sounds at all.

Like most things linguistically, vowels are everything. The majority of sufferers struggle with vowels and semivowels (or glides).

Stuttering can be caused by a variety of factors but is often due to anxiety or stress. People who stutter don't normally have any physical problems with producing sounds, but instead a psychological issue.

Stress causes more than just stuttering.

There are over 3 million Americans stutter and have often been the subject of jokes. It can be a horrific ordeal for those who stutter severely, and has been known to affect a person's mood and even job prospects. It's not directly linked to a person's intelligence either. If you're ever having a conversation with someone and they stutter, you should be kind... it's not caused by stupidity, it's an involuntary action.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Loanwords: Turning Japanese

Despite being on the other side of the world, Japan has managed to affect the English language. Although the Vapors song "Turning Japanese" was wrongly thought to be about masturbation, the main point was that they were turning into something they didn't want to be, with the term Japanese being an arbitrary 3-syllable word.

Here are a few of our favourite Japanese words to have made their way into English.

Bonsai - That's those little trees. We wish there was inverse bonsai where you could grow humongous daisies.

Imagine a field of these, each one as big
as your head... you'd only need to buy
one flower on special occasions
in order to please your girlfriend!


Futon - The sofa thing you sleep on if you're staying at a friend's house after a party.

Haiku - A poem with three lines, consisting of 5 syllables, then 7, then 5.

Honcho - The boss-man has his name from Japanese too!

Kabuki - A style of traditional Japanese theatre.

Kamikaze - It means "divine wind" in Japanese... the Western usage doesn't really have the same sentiment.

Karaoke - What would a night of alcohol abuse be without the compulsion to sing to a room of strangers? Do-it-yourself music was a Japanese idea and we couldn't be more grateful!

Kimono - Japanese pyjamas. It's actually a type of robe...

Manga - To the English-speaking world, Japanese comics. To the Japanese it refers to any comic. It's a bit like saying salsa in reference to the sauce. In Spanish it just means sauce.

Origami - The art of folding paper. Perhaps one of the most infuriating pastimes. If you've ever tried to fold a sheet of paper into three and failed, origami is not for you.

Some people can even fold banknotes into cranes! 
We'd probably just pay them the ten quid to make one for us.

Tsunami - The natural disaster means "harbour wave" which is pretty apt when you think about it.

Tycoon - Originally "taikun" in Japanese meaning "great prince" and "high commander", but now applied to anyone who's made a load of money.

There's definitely a lot of great food from Japan too, which is why we've got words like sushi, miso, sake, sashimi, soy, tofu, ramen and wasabi.

They also gave us most of the martial arts we know of in the western world, judo, jujutsu, karate and sumo. Kung fu is from Chinese, if you're wondering.

If you think about it, the Land of the Rising Sun has given us some pretty excellent terms... and this is hardly a comprehensive list. Sayonara!

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Is It Autumn Or Fall?

A common argument that springs up this time of year is whether this season is autumn or fall. The British may be annoyed at the simplicity of the term used so widely across North America, but do they know that they once used the same word?

Are these autumn or fall leaves?
We'll say yellow leaves.

Yep! That's right, the old British word for the season was fall. As language does evolve and change then there's no reason that some words remain popular in some places and slide out of fashion in others. Some used fall and some used autumn. Those using fall swanned off to the Americas where they were sick of the posh-sounding word "autumn" and those fond of it decided that the motherland was the place to be.

The word autumn had been taken from the Old French word autompne, which is now automne in Modern French. The word fall came from various roots, all meaning to fall from a height. Previously, the word harvest was used everywhere, which would have prevented a lot of arguments had it stayed in fashion! It seems to be a significantly clearer term, though it is true that most people don't harvest their own food any more...

Look at this lovely vineyard. It's a shame that the
closest most people get to harvesting their own food
is opening the plastic packaging it comes in.

Of course, you can enjoy the autumnal colours of the season but not the fall-al colours. (Of course, colour is rarely used with fall.) Though not for much longer, unless you live in the Southern Hemisphere...

So which is right? Either and neither, don't get upset!

Friday, October 19, 2012

Can An Interpreter Be Honest?

What is the purpose of an interpreter? Quite simply to convert what is being said from one language into another. If the source lies, so must the interpreter. The duty of an interpreter is to make the finished product exactly the same.

There are several fields in which lying is tantamount to success. The exception with interpreters is that they're technically not lying. They are interpreting lies and neutrality is key to an interpreter's work.

Can an interpreter go rogue or become a linguistic vigilante and start interpreting things from bullshit to truth...? They could, although there are two moral scales running parallel to each other here.

Scales, geddit?

The linguistic morality:

Their duty as an interpreter means that they must provide the most accurate interpretation of what is being said. Not what is true. If they do not convey what is being said in the way that it is being said then they are not interpreting.

They are not there to pass judgement or put the world to rights. They are there to make sure Person A knows exactly what has been said by Person B.

The "real" morality:

Is it possible to interpret with true neutrality? It's a prickly situation. Could you stand up in court and repeat the lies of a known murderer into the target language without affecting you at all? Could you sit in a board room knowing you're facilitating a hostile business takeover that will put thousands out of work? It's not easy.

Perhaps not this prickly.

Is there a solution? Probably not. There will always be people who require the services of interpreters and it's the nature of the job. If you are an interpreter, at least you can take solace in the fact that you're not a banker who has thrown the world into ruin!

An interpreter can refuse work. Given the current economic situation could you afford to do that?

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Language or Dialect? Part 2

Yesterday, we started making the call on what qualifies as a language and what qualifies as a dialect... read the first part here. Here's our next group of contenders in: Language or Dialect?

Catalan v. Valencian

This is definitely a no-brainer for us. The main issue of language or dialect for these two comes from an inability to decide what to call the language. If you're Catalan you call your language Catalan, if you're Valencian you call your language Valencian.

They have long been considered the same language, but certain locals have difficulty admitting to it. The governing body of Valencian, the Acadèmia Valenciana de la Llengua, considers the two to be names for the same thing. The differences are minuscule, we're talking about pronunciation and lexicon.

The ideal solution would be to change the name altogether. Catalencian or Valalan don't really roll of the tongue though...

Ruling: Dialects of Catalan/Valencian, just call it whatever you like!

American English v. British English

Now we're just being silly. Historically a bit of a Ross and Rachel story.

"Hey, it's quite nice here... actually, let's not pay taxes. Screw you monarchy! We'll make our own country!" Britain and the U.S. were "on a break" when Webster got his hands on the English language and wrote his "English for dummies", better known as his spelling reform for American English.

This is Noah Webster. It's his fault that
Brits and Americans are constantly
 fighting over whose spellings are correct.

Color or colour? Favor or favour... perhaps marketing would have taken off much quicker in the UK if they had been able to maximise their savings on ink like the U.S. did. Doughnuts? It'd be half price if you spelt them donuts.

Despite the niggling pains that those who speak as though they have a mouth full of chewing gum (Americans) are speaking the same language as those who speak as though they have a mouth full of fruit (the British), both parties will have to kiss and make up and admit that those wearing baseball caps, shorts and a bum bag (fanny pack) are speaking the same language as those in football (soccer) shirts with a pint of beer in hand (uhm... do Americans have a word for beer?).

Ruling: Dialects of English, unfortunately...

English v. Scots

Calm down! We're talking about the English language and the Scots language! Not football or a referendum!

Scots does not refer to Scots Gaelic, which is a Celtic language, but the Germanic language, which is related to English. It has no official status in any country but does have status as a traditional language under the Scottish Parliament and a regional or minority language under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.

The debate comes down to whether it's just another type of English, just like Old EnglishMiddle English, etc. or a separate language. They're barely mutually intelligible, though the same is sometimes said of the Scottish Dialect. One problem though... we've considered American English to be the same language as British English. If Scots is a dialect of English, then Americans would have to be able to understand speakers of Scots. But can they? We think not.

Ruling: Different Languages

Americans don't really understand bagpipes
either... though does anyone, really?
In the end though, language and dialects are really identified by the speakers. Linguists and governments can say what they want, but they can't change the minds of the people who speak their language... or is it dialect?

Part 1 | Part 2

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Language or Dialect? Part 1

Someone once said "A language is a dialect with an army and navy". In terms of "grey areas", the various language v. dialect debates aren't up there with other dilemmas such as euthanasia, abortion or gay marriage... but they can be quite problematic.

Since we have a sick fondness for arguments, here are today's contenders in: Language or Dialect?

Afrikaans v. Dutch

They're used on opposite ends of the world. You can't get much further south than South Africa and if you do you'll probably lose your testicles to frostbite. The Netherlands on the other hand is in northern Europe. Geographically the places couldn't be much farther apart. Linguistically... not so much.

The Netherlands is also known for its tulips...
South Africa, not so much.

Afrikaans came from Dutch and took around 90-95% of its lexicon from it. A good argument for being a dialect is mutual intelligibility, which asks if two parties speaking their own languages can still understand one another.

Between Afrikaans and Dutch the answer is yes. It's apparently easier when it's written down. Afrikaans has been influenced by other sources (as if it could remain unscathed in the linguistic minefield of South Africa!) and also has a simplified spelling (American English, anyone?).

To avoid upsetting anyone, we could say they are languages in their own right. Even with their many similarities they lack a shared history, shared culture and other things we like to consider integral to a language.

Plus, if you have to keep asking "wat?" then it defeats the idea of them being the same language.

Ruling: Separate languages

Arabic and its many, many variations

If you read our post on Arabic, available here, you'll see that Arabic isn't technically a language. It's a group of similar languages considered dialects. Confused? Us too!

There are so many differences and so little mutual intelligibility between them we'd have to agree. Of course they're all held together by the Qur'an and Classical Arabic, so maybe they are just dialects. It's too much of a minefield to even attempt to get to the bottom of in just one post. What does the Ethnologue (our Bible, Torah, or even Qur'an) say?

Ruling according to Ethnologue: Macrolanguage, a language of languages.

Dutch v. Flemish

Dutch again? The Dutch can't decide whether it should be one language with many dialects or many languages. Given that even Belgium considers Dutch to be one of its official languages, with no mention of Flemish, we'll go with that. Thank God! This is getting ridiculous!

Ruling: Dialects of Dutch


We also consider Belgium to be awesome because
it provides us with delicious chocolates.

Galician v. Portuguese

Oh dear, oh dear! Where to begin with this one?

One may remember that there was once Galician-Portuguese, but then politics changed things. Spain got Galicia, and later Franco got Spain and minority languages throughout Spain were suppressed. Despite Franco being from Galicia...

Spain's influence over Galicia managed to change the way Galician is written. The phonology and vocabulary are different between the two. Mutual intelligibility between the two is good, at least in northern Portugal, though it's not so good once you get to central or southern Portugal. Galicians may not get to speak their language further afield just yet.

Linguistically, the two can often be considered variants of the same language, but given the huge political background it may be safer to call them languages. But when have we played it safe?

Ruling: Dialects of Portuguese, sorry Galicia!

Tomorrow we're discussing three more pairings in Part 2 of Language or Dialect?, so be sure to check it out!

Part 1 | Part 2

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Longest Word In English

There's some debate about the longest word in English. We're weighing up the competitors and putting an end to this once and for all!

Honorificabilitudinitatibus (27 letters)

This is the longest word published in Shakespeare. It's from Latin and means "the state of being able to achieve honours". It features in Love's Labour's Lost just once.

We think it shouldn't be considered as a candidate, given that it probably is uttered only infrequently by scholars, and likely only features in the work itself and in articles and publications referring to it as a candidate for longest word. Nice try... it's not even English!

Antidisestablishmentarianism (28 letters)

Probably the most commonly mentioned word when people think of the longest word in English. It can be classed as non-coined which always makes for a good candidate. For those who are of the ideology of being against the movement of disestablishment. The only undisputed word in our list.

Floccinaucinihilipilification (29 letters)

Always comes after antidisestablishmentarianism in a discussion. Who says it? Your friend who thinks they're really clever. Unfortunately smart-arse isn't a candidate here. What does it mean? It's a habit of describing something as useless, worthless or having no value.

Pseudopseudohypoparathyroidism (30 letters)

It's 30 letters long so it beats our previous candidates in length. However, it was first mentioned as pseudo-pseudohypoparathyroidism in 1952, which wouldn't make it longer than our previous examples since it was hyphenated. If you know what pseudohypoparathyroidism is, you will know that pseudopseudohypoparathyroidism is similar... hence pseudo... but pseudopseudo? Give us a break!

Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious (34 letters)

Our favourite British nanny coined this one and all you really need is the song. If you don't know the song we'd advise looking it up. An interesting film linguistically owing in part to Dick Van Dyke's atrocious "British" accent and its ability to warp British stereotypes across the pond for over half a century.

The umbrella, the only way to travel around London.
Especially during rush hour.

Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis (45 letters)

This is the longest word found in a dictionary, although it was coined in order to be the longest word, which we think is cheating. It's supposed to mean "'a lung disease caused by the inhalation of very fine silica dust, causing inflammation in the lungs" which is a little too far-fetched and specific for us to consider it to be a competitor for the crown.

Lopad...pterygon (183 letters)

One for the foodies out there. The full word is from Greek and refers to a dish, albeit a fictional dish. It holds the Guinness World Record for the longest word to appear in literature which gives it more credentials than most of our list. However, we feel it not being English or real should take it out of the running altogether.


Methionyl...isoleucine (189,819 letters)

If you're following the nomenclature of the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC), and then try to name the protein commonly known as Titin (because it's massive) you'll end up with this word. Most will disregard this as a contender for longest word as it's definitely technical and more of a rule or formula than an actual word.

This is Titin. It's definitely the size that counts.

Of course, after everything is said and done, we all know what the longest word in English is:

Smiles (>1 mile)

Common usage, published frequently, non-technical, unchallenged. I think we have a winner. If you're confused it's because there's a mile between each s.

Congratulations "smiles"!

Monday, October 15, 2012

Language Profile: Bengali

This week we're learning about Bengali, an Indo-Aryan language with over 180 million native speakers. Bengali (also known as Bangla) is the official language of Bangladesh. It's also an official regional language in parts of India. The national anthems of both countries are in Bengali, as well as India's national song. Bengali is native to the area known as Bengal, which oddly enough borders the Bay of Bengal and is home to Bengal tigers.

I'm a mundanely-named cat.

Bengali is written using you guessed it, Bengali script. Bengali script is an abugida (if you don't know what that is, check out last week's post on writing systems), and is written from left to right. Historically, Bengali script was used to write Sanskrit (the historical language of Hinduism), but was eventually modernized and standardized by a guy named Ishwar Chandra during the Bengal Renaissance of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The word "Bengali" in Bengali script.

The Bengali language has a significant political history. During the Bengal Renaissance, the Bengal region was transformed by British rule and became an intellectual and cultural center. Eventually, a political group called the Bengali Language Movement formed in hopes of convincing the current government to recognize Bengali as an official language for both governmental and educational use. On February 21st of 1952, student demonstrators supporting the movement were killed by police in Dhaka, causing civil unrest in the region for several years. In 1956, the government finally gave in and Bengali was given official status. In 1971, Bangladesh became an independent nation.

The memory of those terrible events in Dhaka led to the creation of International Mother Language Day by UNESCO in 1999. It is celebrated every February 21st as a tribute to those who were killed pursuing their right to use Bengali, as well as to promote linguistic and cultural diversity worldwide.

The unveiling ceremony of the International Mother Language
Day monument in Sydney, Australia.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Toy Story 3's Dubbing Dilemma

If you speak English, you've probably only seen dubbing in kung fu or anime films. Dubbing is the process of rerecording the original dialogue for a film or television show, usually into a different language for new audiences. It's more common than you'd think... we've just found out that Bob the Builder (the English children's show) is dubbed for American audiences. Apparently television executives believe that American children are incapable of understanding British accents. No wonder so many great British programmes are remade with American actors... from childhood, they're never given the chance to hear any accent but their own!

So imagine you're responsible for dubbing a film. What happens if a character in the film is already speaking the language you're dubbing into?

A good example of this dilemma is Toy Story 3. There's a large part of the film in which protagonist Buzz Lightyear is reset into "Spanish Mode". He speaks Spanish and acts typically Hispanic, complete with flamenco movements reminiscent of warm summer evenings spent drinking copious amounts of sangria.

Buzz Lightyear was dancing like this in the
film, if you don't know what flamenco is.

If you're dubbing the film into Spanish, what to do? In the South American dubs of the film, they gave Buzz a Castilian Spanish accent, which is typical in Spain. If you're South American, hearing someone speak with this accent would conjure up the Spanish stereotype, complete with flamenco, bullfighting and whatever other stereotypes you want to convey.

But what if you're a Spaniard? Hearing your own accent probably wouldn't make you think of tapas, bullfights and the rest. So what area is the most "Spanish" part of Spain? The decision was made to go with Andalucia, the southernmost region of Spain. Most things people consider to be typically Spanish are Andalusian. It's home to bullfight enthusiasts, free tapas with every drink, and of course, the Sevillana. The dance, not the girls of Sevilla... Seville to you monoglots! For shame!

We couldn't resist adding a photo of one of our
favourite tapas, croquetas!

Still, as is often the case with dubbing, bits of the film are lost in translation. While it was a clever fix to have Buzz speak in an Andalusian accent in the Spanish version, the scene simply doesn't have the same humour to it as the original version. We're not sure what more Pixar could have done though... had they chosen to switch Buzz to a completely different language (French, perhaps?) they'd have needed to redo the animation so that he did typically French things, like surrender! You can see clearly in this example that language, as varied and all-encompassing as it can seem, does have its limitations at times.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

October 13: International Plain Language Day


We've got a new obscure holiday for you to celebrate... today is the second ever celebration of International Plain Language Day!

What's plain language, you ask? To put it plainly, it's straightforward language that only uses necessary words. No technical jargon or endless sentences. Plain language gets the communication job done without any frills or nonsense that might confuse people.

There are entire organizations worldwide dedicated to the Plain Language Movement. Their main goal is to get rid of the unnecessary complexities in language used in public sectors such as business, law, government, and academia. Nearly everyone has been in a situation where they had difficulty understanding important paperwork... perhaps with tax forms or rental contracts. Even better, think of the annoying terms and conditions you have to accept in order to do just about anything technology-related nowadays. You know, the ones you never ever read... you're just focused on the song you want to download and check the box. For all you know, you might have just agreed to give your first-born child to Apple.

What an adorable face... too bad you didn't
read those endless terms and conditions.
If they'd been in plain language, you wouldn't have
unknowingly surrendered your baby to a corporation!

So why October 13th? Exactly two years ago, the Plain Writing Act of 2010 was signed into law by President Obama. It's a U.S. federal law that requires government agencies to use plain writing in all their documents, especially when giving information about public services. It's quite brilliant, really... plain language helps make things easily understandable to everyone, which is especially important in government since its function is to serve the people (or so they say...). We're as shocked as you are that the U.S. government has finally gotten something right!

Some might argue that the complexities of language are what makes it interesting, and that plain writing could take the fun out of it. However, we don't think that the Plain Language Movement is any threat to all the wonderful, exotic, and sometimes confusing intricacies of language. They're not suggesting that we require plain language in literature, science or education, for example. They just want to level the playing field so that as many people as possible can understand important documents. Everyone should be able to understand government documents, not just highly educated lawyers who are trained to decode (and create) endless pages of technical jargon!

If you want to try some plain writing out today, just remember KISS... keep it simple stupid!

Plain language: "Polly want a cracker?"
Overly complex language: " Does Polly have a hankering to
ingest a flat, crisp baked good made from flour dough?" 

Happy International Plain Language Day!

Friday, October 12, 2012

Conlangs: Simlish

If you've ever played any of The Sims games, you know that the characters have their own language and spend most of their time crying, setting fire to their kitchens, pissing their pants and sleeping with everyone in their neighbourhood.

We're talking about Sims, not SIMs!

So why do they have their own language? If you've played the game as long as we have (yes, we have no life) then you'll know that it's quite repetitive, just like real life. You get up, make some food, go to the toilet, shower, go to work, come home, set fire to your house, sleep with your neighbour, go to bed, and repeat ad nauseam. Imagine how you'd feel if you heard the same dialogue for each of those activities.

This is where a conlang (constructed language) comes into play. We can hear the characters talking without understanding them, which makes it perfect background noise. It sounds like people talking, so we can just assume they are interacting. Though if you've spent as much time playing as we have, you probably know most of this gibberish inside-out anyway.

Their language is called Simlish. Okay, so it's not the most original name, and it's nothing compared to the languages that conlang god J.R.R. Tolkien constructed... but they still put some time and effort into it. Simlish was created from messing about with fragmented versions of English, Fijian, Finnish, French, Latin, Tagalog and Ukranian.

It was a brilliant idea for them to create their own language instead of using an existing language in the game and then having to translate it for sale in other markets. Translating a game with as much dialogue as The Sims would have been incredibly expensive... and since the dialogue is little more than ambience, the accountant would most likely have refused to let them do it anyway!

Imagine all the costs associated with translating video games...
we're glad we're not accountants!

While most of the Simlish in the game is dialogue, it can also be found in the music the characters listen to. Since the Sims 2, instead of creating unique music the game creators have had famous musicians record new versions of their songs in Simlish. Artists from around the world including The Black Eyed Peas, Depeche Mode, Katy Perry, Nelly Furtado, Cansei de Ser Sexy and La Oreja de Van Gogh have recorded their songs in Simlish. We wonder what those recording sessions are like and what kind of linguistic preparations the artists have to undertake before doing this... it sounds like fun, though!
 

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Gay-Speak: Lavender Linguistics

Every person has an accent, be it similar to those around them or not. Accents can be a source of pride, shame, or simply a way to stand out from the crowd. In honour of National Coming Out Day we're looking at the linguistics behind the LGBT community and Polari slang in particular.

Sometimes you won't need this for people to know.


There are several aspects to Lavender Linguistics, so named for an apparent association of the colour lavender (it's a shade of purple for any blokes who refuse to admit they know colours) with the gay community.

Of course the lexicon of the gay community will be different as it would be amongst any social circle, and even within those circles there would be a variance in the lexicon.

Just like in criminal circles, amongst gay circles (which technically were illegal at one time), there used to be a requirement for cant slang. Cant is a jargon which attempts to mislead listeners who are not members of the group.

One of the most popular versions of this slang was Polari, which came from many sources, including sailors, circus staff (carnies), and actors with some Italian, Gypsy and Yiddish words thrown in for good measure.

Although Polari fell out of popular usage after the '60s, various studies later began to evaluate the speech of homosexuals.

Several reasons for that fabulous accent have been suggested. Amongst homosexual males, a desire to copy one's peers or identify themselves as a part of that group through speech is akin to people softening their accent in a formal setting.

It's been proposed that gay men speak "effeminately" in order to emulate women, thus distancing themselves from heterosexual males. Some have even suggested that gay men will make use of code-switching while speaking in order to gauge how gay somebody is. Of course, these are all theories and just as not everybody from a certain place speaks with a certain accent, not every homosexual will talk differently. You may not even be able to tell unless you have very good gaydar...

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Power Of Social Media On Languages

It wasn't too long ago that there was an article on the BBC (ah, the good ol' Beeb) that we found very interesting. It was about the tu form in French becoming very common in social media. Read the full article here.

For those not in the know, in French using the word tu (second person singular) rather than vous (second person plural) is considered very informal. However, it has become commonplace across social media.

Perhaps tu being shorter than vous contributes to this, especially in the case of social media sites such as Twitter that have character limits.

Of course, social media isn't usually considered the most formal setting. Even if you don't necessarily know a person, on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, etc it would be fine to use a colloquial register.

Colloquial language is fine. Manipulating their logo in any of the above ways is not.

You probably rarely write in full sentences. Would you start a text with "Dear..." and end with "yours sincerely"? We think not!

Text messages have also had a huge effect on the way people use language for some time now. If you've ever had a Pay-As-You-Go SIM card you know the importance of getting everything you need to say into that one text!

Those familiar with the internet before social media will remember that MSN Messenger, AIM and other IMCs (instant messaging clients) had people using BRB, OMG and the now world-famous LOL. Meaning "laugh out loud" and never "lots of love". We've all heard the horror stories of texts that read:

"Sorry to hear your father passed away. LOL"

Sorry for your loss. LOL

The point was made that French, German, Chinese and English users tend to use less formal language on social media sites. On the other hand, Japanese users show all sorts of formalities in their language use. Though if you're familiar with Japanese, you will know that it is rife with honorifics. If you used to watch the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (the brilliant original, not this CGI rubbish the kids have now) or any kung fu films, you will know the word Sensei. Other honorifics include -san -chan, -kun and many, many, many more!
 

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

A Rundown Of Writing Systems: Letters Explain

It's fairly obvious what the word writing system refers to, and you're probably familiar with one if you are able to read this. The letters that make up these sentences are part of an alphabet. However, there are several types of writing systems and not every one is technically an alphabet.

We're going to try and briefly explain each one...


Alphabet

If you didn't know that English is written with an alphabet then you have probably been living under a rock with your eyes closed, your fingers in your ears and screaming at the top of your lungs. Why is it an alphabet though?

The word "alphabet" comes from the first two letters of the Greek alphabet, alpha and beta. Apparently, they thought it would be stupid to call it an alphabeta. Alphabets represent phonemes, the sounds that make up words. That's how you know what each of these words sound like. Alphabets include the Latin Alphabet (this one), Cyrillic (the one used in Russian with all those cool-looking backwards Rs and stuff), Greek, Georgian and Armenian (as found in Greece, Georgia and Armenia, of course!).



Abjad

So what the hell is an abjad? Ever tried to read or speak Arabic? That uses an abjad. They're called abjads because of their first letters, 'alif, bā', jīm and dāl, but calling it an 'alifbā'jīmdāl didn't have the same ring to it.

Each letter represents a sound, although usually just consonants. So how do you know what the vowels sounds are? Good question! You don't. You'll just have to learn all the words and a series of vague rules... sorry.

Abjads were around before alphabets and tend to be written from right to left. They're the envy of every left-handed person in the western world. No smudging for lefties!

Only Chuck Norris could smudge this.
Abugida

An abugida can represent consonants with inherent vowels. This means that you know what the vowel is, either by way of diacritics, accents and squiggly lines, or spinning the letters around and all sorts of other crazy methods.

Think of Hindi, or for a fake version, any jar of curry from your local supermarket.

It's apparently a good read... if only we could read it.

Logographic or Syllabic

Chinese and Japanese are prime examples of languages with logographic writing systems. Their symbols represent a whole word. So you just learn entire words... not the letters. Imagine having to learn all those characters! They also have writing systems that are syllabic, which means they use symbols to represent a single syllable (often a consonant plus a vowel sound) . Interestingly, Japanese uses Chinese characters for its logographic alphabet, but they aren't mutually intelligible between speakers of the two languages. In Chinese and Japanese you can write from either top to bottom or left to right.


Don't tilt your head like a dog! It's meant to be like that.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Language Profile: Hindi

This week we're taking a look at Hindi, a language with over 180 million native speakers. Hindi is the official language of India. It is written using the Devanagari writing system, which is an abugida alphabet used in India and Nepal.

An abugida is a segmental writing system in which consonant-vowel sequences are written together as a unit. In Devanagari, each letter represents a consonant with an inherent schwa for a vowel. If a word requires a different vowel sound, the consonant has to either be modified with some extra squiggles or by the use of a different letter altogether. Sounds complicated!

This is "Hindi" in Devanagari script.

Hindi is a bit difficult for linguists to classify. Some say it is a language, while others consider it to be a register (variety used in specific social settings) of Hindi-Urdu, or Hindustani. Confused yet? Basically, Hindi and Urdu are both standardized forms of the same language... but Hindi has more Sanskrit influences, while Urdu has stronger Persian and Arabic influences. They are generally mutually intelligible, and have almost identical grammar rules, but they maintain enough differences in vocabulary and literature that some linguists maintain that they're distinct languages. We don't know who's right... but Ethnologue says it's they're distinct languages, so we'll stick with them for the moment.

Hindi is also one of the many languages that has its own government regulators. In this case, the Central Hindi Directorate is responsible for promoting the language and regulating its spelling, as well as the use of Devanagari script. Although to us, that sounds more like a top-secret spy organization than a group of linguists...