Friday, November 30, 2012

10 Things To Learn Before Going Abroad

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

Budget airlines are getting ridiculous.

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

1. Greetings

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

2. Asking for things

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

3. Numbers 1-1000

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

4. How are you?

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

5. Directions

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

Don't get lost...

6. Food and Drink

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

7. Checking In

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

8. Time and Date 

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

9. Transport

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

Make sure you know how you're getting around.

10. Emergencies

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

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

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Generic Trademarks

A generic trademark is a brand name (or trademark) that has become the general name for an entire type of product or service over time. If you've read our recent posts on metonymy and synecdoche, then you'll notice that some generic trademarks qualify as synecdoches, and therefore also metonyms!

Generic trademarks occur when a trademark "erodes" over time. This occurs most frequently when a company creates something that is unlike anything else in existence. However, it can also happen when the thing is so popular or revolutionary that it overshadows all other similar products. Most companies try to prevent trademark erosion if possible. In the 1990s, Nintendo experienced trademark erosion when their name was being used to refer to any game console, which obviously wasn't to their financial benefit. With effort, Nintendo successfully convinced people to refer to the general product as a game console once again.

This is not called a Nintendo. 

However, there are also many cases of trademarks that did fail in their efforts and eventually succumbed to what is known as genericide. If your brand becomes too generic, then your trademark status can be revoked. We're sure it causes all sorts of nightmarish legal problems for companies, but we're more interested in the words that are involved. We've listed a few interesting generic trademarks below... you might be surprised to find out that some of them were once brand names!

Aspirin and Heroin - These names for acetylsalicylic acid and diacetylmorphine were created by Bayer. The name for heroin was actually derived from the Greek hero due to the drug's "heroic" effects on its users.

Cellophane - DuPont trademarked this term for cellulose film, which is used to package foods due to its moisture-proofing.

Escalator - The Otis Elevator Company trademarked this name for a new machine used to transport people between floors. It's also interesting to note that the verb to escalate was derived from the machine's name and not the other way around!

Petrol - Though this word is obviously a shortened form of the word petroleum, it was in fact trademarked by a British wholesaler in the 1800s.

Thermos - Remember that insulated plastic container that kept your soup hot until lunchtime as a kid? You know, the one that matched your super cool lunchbox with your favorite cartoon characters on it. Well, it turns out that the original term for such a product was a vacuum flask!

Too bad for Harry Truman that they didn't have awesome
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles lunchboxes in the 1890s...

Unlike the words above, there are tons of other protected trademarks that are often used as generic terms, but haven't officially lost their trademark status yet. These terms can then be considered a type of synecdoche, since their specific trademark is being used to refer to the general class of things it belongs to. Here are some of our favorites:

AstroTurf - This specific type of artificial turf was created by the Monsanto Company. It was called "ChemGrass" at first, but was changed to the much cooler-sounding AstroTurf following its famous use in the Houston Astrodome stadium.

Band-Aid (U.S.) and Elastoplast (UK) - These brand names are commonly used on both sides of the pond instead of the generic and frankly boring term adhesive bandage.

Biro - Often heard in the UK and Australia, this name for a ballpoint pen is derived from the name of its inventor, László Bíró.

Coke - In some parts of the Southern U.S. people refer to any soft drink by this name. Imagine the following conversation: "What would you like to drink?" "I'll have a Coke." "What kind?" "Oh, I guess I'll have a Mountain Dew." Seems crazy to us, but to each their own...

Dumpster - We're not kidding with this one... it turns out that this mobile waste container was actually trademarked in 1963 by the Dempster Brothers, who combined the word "dump" with their last name. Really. 

Durex - Trademarked by two different companies on opposite sides of the world, it can refer to either adhesive tape in Brazil and Australia, or condoms in the UK and Spain. Brazilians probably get some funny looks in Spanish stationery stores when they ask for Durex...

Google - We should all know that Google is just one of many internet search engines, but it seems to have captured the devotion of the masses... so much so that "to google" has become a commonly used verb, even when you're using Bing.

Hoover - While it is still known by the generic vacuum cleaner in the U.S., this word is widely used in the UK both as a noun and as a verb, as in "I really ought to hoover the carpet, it's filthy!"

Unfortunately, hoovering isn't a popular dance
 craze named after J. Edgar Hoover.

Jacuzzi - Originally an Italian brand of hot tub or whirlpool bath.

Kleenex - This brand of facial tissue is used generically throughout the world, including in the U.S., France, Canada and Spain.

Muzak - If you've ever been to the top of a skyscraper, you probably heard some elevator music. An American company called Muzak Holdings has been creating this inoffensive background music to retail stores and other companies since the 1930s, and eventually their name stuck.

Philadelphia - In some countries, cream cheese is referred to as Philadelphia. Trademarked by Kraft Foods, the brand was named for the Pennsylvania city known for producing this particular cheese product.

Ping Pong - Yes, really. Ping Pong is actually trademarked by game manufacturer Parker Brothers. Most official events require that this sport be called by its generic name, table tennis.

See? We weren't making it up.

Rollerblade - A trademarked brand of inline skates. Who knew?

Scotch tape (U.S.) and Sellotape (UK) - Two different brands of clear adhesive tape, but both are almost always used instead of the generic in each of these countries.

Styrofoam - Apparently Brits call it polystyrene, but Americans and Canadians prefer to use the brand name.

Super Glue - We're absolutely shocked that cyanoacrylate adhesive isn't used more often when referring to this handy household product. (Just don't glue your fingers together!)

Taser - This electroshock weapon or stun gun was named by a nerdy NASA researcher who had loved the book Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle as a child. It just so happens that the main character of the book has a rifle that shoots electricity. The NASA researcher was inspired later in life to create such a weapon, which he named the Taser, as in "Thomas A. Swift's Electric Rifle".

Moral of our story: Reading a book
can change your life and inspire you
to invent new weaponry!

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Why Don't You Just Use Google Translate?

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

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

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

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


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

Well done Google...

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

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Kickin' It - The Many Uses of "Kick"

Have you ever stopped to realize just how many different ways the word kick is used in the English language? The other day we did, and thought that we ought to take a moment to explore the word and some of its many uses in slang and idioms.

First off, let's look at the word itself. It came to English in the 14th century, and was probably a loan word from the Old Norse words kikna ("to sink at the knees") and keikja ("to bend backwards"). It was originally used in reference to hooved animals delivering strikes with their hind legs. We imagine farmers were in need of a good term for what was happening to them when they got too fresh with the dairy cows...

Don't mess with Bessie. She'll kick you where it hurts.

We'll look to the Concise Oxford English Dictionary for our definitions of kick. In its verb form, it is defined as "to strike or propel forcibly with the foot". As a noun, they go with "an instance of kicking"... obviously they're hoping you've read the verb definition first!

However, kick is used in a multitude of other ways in the English language. Many of them are idioms, which are expressions that use words figuratively, with a meaning distinct from its normal literal meaning. The definitions above give us the literal meaning of kick, but some of its figurative usages are much more interesting and fun to use. We've compiled a list of some of the best ones below.

to kick back - Relax. "Let's just kick back and watch the game on the sofa tonight."

to kick in - To become activated or come into effect. "I wish my medication would kick in and get rid of my headache!"

to kick someone out - What you do when you tell someone to leave dismissively. For example, rowdy fans occasionally get kicked out of sports events when they behave too inappropriately.

We imagine tennis fans don't have this problem very often.

to kick off - What the rowdy fans do after they've been kicked out: they get angry.

to kick up a fuss / stink - The angry fans then complain loudly to show their annoyance and make a nuisance of themselves... mistakenly thinking it will get them let back in.

to kick oneself - Being annoyed with yourself, or feeling regretful. How the angry fans may feel after hearing they missed the end of the "game of the century" due to their antics.

to get a kick out of - To enjoy something!

to get your kicks - This also means to enjoy something, most famously used in the song "(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66", which has been recorded by many artists since 1946, including Nat King Cole, Depeche Mode, Aerosmith, The Rolling Stones, Chuck Berry, and even John Mayer in the film Cars.

a kick in the teeth - A significant disappointment or setback.

We wouldn't want to kick these teeth!

to have a kick to it - This refers to the taste of food or drinks. Usually a strong or spicy flavor, or alternatively a high alcohol content!

to kick a habit - To break a habit or stop doing something addictive, usually in reference to smoking, doing drugs, or drinking.

to kick someone's ass - To fight someone (and win).

kickass - A slang term for cool or awesome. As in "I went to a kickass party last night!"

a kick in the guts - If someone receives one of these figurative kicks, it deals a severe blow to their spirits.

kicks - A slang term for shoes. You've probably heard it in the popular song "Pumped Up Kicks" by Foster the People.

We've saved kick the bucket, an idiom meaning "die", for last. It's hard to translate idioms, and this one is no exception. Translating idioms literally often leaves you with a bunch of nonsense. However, languages often have analogous idioms that convey the same meaning, only with completely different words. They may sound funny to us, but they're just as odd as the idea that kicking a bucket can mean dying. Here are a few translations of kick the bucket and their literal translations into English:

Danish - at stille træskoene "to take off the clogs"
Dutch - het loodje leggen "to lay the piece of lead"
French - manger des pissenlits par la racine "to eat dandelions by the root"
German - den Löffel abgeben "to give the spoon away"
Norwegian - å parkere tøflene "to park the slippers"
Portuguese - bater as botas "to beat the boots"
Spanish - estirar la pata "to stretch one's leg"
Swedish - trilla av pinnen "to fall off the stick"

We hope you got a kick out of today's post!

Monday, November 26, 2012

Language Profile: Lahnda

According to the Ethnologue, Lahnda is a macrolanguage. A macrolanguage is a group of related languages whose speakers share a common identity, though their languages are often not mutually intelligible. In this case, the Lahnda languages are mainly used in Pakistan, with over 78 million native speakers.

There are several Lahnda languages, so we'll give a bit of information on each of them.

Hindko is the sixth main regional language of Pakistan, with about 3 million native speakers. The Hindko language has two main dialects: Northern and Southern. It is most often spoken as a household language in rural areas. The first Hindko dictionary was published in 2008 by the Gandhara Hindko Board, which works to preserve and promote the language in addition to being a cultural and social welfare organization. The dictionary contains about 30,000 words.

Khetrani has about 4,000 native speakers. It is mainly spoken in the Pakistani province of Balochistan.

This is Quetta, the capital of Balochistan province, Pakistan.

Potwari (aka Pothohari), with over 49,000 native speakers, is mainly spoken on the Pothohar Plateau of northeastern Pakistan. The language has several dialects, including Pahari, Potwari, Chibhali, Poonchi and Mirpuri. It has a long tradition of sung poetry, often accompanied by sitar (a stringed instrument), tabla (a type of drum), harmonium (a reed organ), and dholak (another type of drum).

This is the Mankiala Stupa, a religious site on the Pothohar
Plateau where Buddha is said to have sacrificed some
of his body parts to feed hungry tiger cubs!

Mirpur Punjabi is spoken in the Punjab region of eastern Pakistan and northern India. It is closely related to Western Punjabi (which we'll get to in a moment), and has over a million native speakers.

Western Punjabi is the most spoken native language in Pakistan, with over 60 million native speakers. Pop and folk songs in Western Punjabi are often very popular, and an increasing number of Pakistani students are choosing to study Punjabi literature. Some linguists consider Western Punjabi and Eastern Punjabi (spoken in India) to be dialects of one language called, you guessed it, Punjabi! 

This is the Badshahi Mosque in Lahore, capital
of the Punjab province of Pakistan.

Saraiki is the fourth most widely spoken language in Pakistan, with nearly 14 million native speakers. It is mainly spoken in the southern part of the Punjab province. Historically, Saraiki was a spoken language, and was used for centuries as a lingua franca in the Indus Valley. A standard written version of Saraiki was first developed after the founding of Pakistan in 1947. It was once considered by some linguists to be a dialect of Punjabi. However, it is said to be more lexically similar to Sindhi than to Punjabi.

We would like to note that these linguistic classifications are sometimes disputed depending on who you speak to... some linguists disagree with the idea of all these languages being referred to as Lahnda languages, others prefer to think of them as dialects of the same language, and some would include Gujarati as a Lahnda language. As always, we side with the Ethnologue, though it is always possible that they're wrong. We just love to learn about languages, even if they are a complicated mess at times!

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Religion And The Spread Of Language

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

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

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

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

They don't fit so well into hotel drawers.

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

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

The Latin alphabet is starting to look pretty boring now.

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

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Learning Languages With Video Games

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

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

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

'Aint no school like...

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

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

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

Friday, November 23, 2012

What Is A Synecdoche?

According to most linguists, a synecdoche is a a type of metonym.

A very commonly used synecdoche is Holland. Many native English speakers use the word Holland to refer to the Netherlands. However, Holland technically refers to one region of the country, not the entirety of the Netherlands. This type of synecdoche is known as a pars pro toto, which is Latin for "a part for the whole".

Big Ben is a good example of a synecdoche as well. The smug bastards among us will be happy to point out that Big Ben is actually the bell. What most people call Big Ben is no more than the clock tower, its real name being Elizabeth Tower.

That giant bell in the middle is the real Big Ben!

There are several types of synecdoche which we've listed below with our favorite examples.

Pars pro toto - Using part of something to refer to the whole thing.
  • England and Great Britain are often used by foreigners to refer to the United Kingdom. England is a country that's a part of the UK. It is located on the island of Great Britain, along with other UK countries Wales and Scotland. Northern Ireland is also a part of the UK, but is not located on the island of Great Britian. Got it?
  • "All hands on deck!" Workers are valuable to their employers for more than just their hands, surely!

Totum pro parte - This is the opposite of pars pro toto; the whole is used to refer to part of the thing.
  • The Internet is often used to mean the "World Wide Web". The Internet is a system of connected computer networks, while the "World Wide Web" is a network of connected documents that you can access via the Internet, to put it very simply!
  • American technically refers to any person living in the Americas, but almost always refers to things or people from the United States of America when used in English. We imagine this synecdoche came about because United Statian is such an awkward-sounding word. 
  • The verb to drink can mean "to consume a liquid", but it often used in reference to the consumption of a specific type of beverage. If you've ever said "I drank too much last night," we imagine you weren't talking about milk. 
This guy probably wasn't drinking water last night.

A general class name used to mean a specific member of that class
  • Calling the Bible "the good book" is a prime example... there are plenty of other good books around! 

A specific class name used to refer to a general class of things
  • There are many examples of trademarked names being used to refer to a generic product. Coke is used around the world to refer to any type of cola. When American children scrape their knees, they ask their parents for a Band-Aid, which is a brand of adhesive bandage.
  • People often call any kind of insect or arachnid a bug, though it technically only refers to a specific order of insects that have a proboscis to suck in liquids!
  • In the United States, people occasionally will say they require your John Hancock on a document. What they're asking for is your signature. John Hancock was likely the first one to sign the Declaration of Independence, and he signed it with flair.
Somebody spent a lot of time practicing his John Hancock...

The material something is made of used to refer to the thing
  • Glasses were originally called "spectacles". That's not because they're spectacular!
  • If you've ever heard someone talk about "tickling the ivories", they're trying to sound clever while talking about playing the piano. Piano keys used to be made of ivory, but now they're almost always plastic.
  • Americans often refer to their cutlery as silverware, although it's mostly made of stainless steel nowadays.
  • A hipster might say "Check out my new threads!" when bragging about their new clothing.
If they show you these threads, they're
clearly not the best conversationalist.

  • Rubber is a particularly fun synecdoche. In American English it's a slang term for a condom, but in British English it is the object used to remove pencil markings on paper (an "eraser" to Americans). This can lead to awkward laughter from an American sharing a classroom with a Brit.

A container is used to refer to its contents
  • In the U.S., you often hear news stories that start with "Today, The White House announced plans to...". Obviously, the building itself hasn't started talking! It's just a faster way to say things.
  • When someone goes to buy a keg for their party, they're generally purchasing a keg full of beer.

You probably use synecdoches every day without even noticing... now you know!

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Giving Thanks For Native American Languages

In celebration of Thanksgiving in the United States (October 8th in Canada), we're going to focus on native North American languages. In particular, we'll look at Wampanoag, the language of the Native Americans present at the so-called "First Thanksgiving".

No turkeys were harmed in the making of this blog.
We said "the so-called First Thanksgiving" because it wasn't really the first Thanksgiving at all... feasts to thank God for a plentiful harvest had been celebrated for quite some time before 1621 by Europeans. However, 1621 marks the year of the Thanksgiving that every American child is taught about as they trace their hands and add feathers, feet, and a face in an attempt to draw something that resembles a turkey. According to legend, this particular Thanksgiving feast lasted three days and was shared by Pilgrims (colonists who left England seeking religious freedom) and members of the Wampanoag tribe, who had taught the Pilgrims how to catch eels and grow corn in order to survive their first winter.

We're very glad that the centerpiece to a traditional
Thanksgiving meal is turkey and not eel! 

The Wampanoag language was a member of the Algonquian language family. It was spoken by the aforementioned Wampanoag tribe, who lived in the area around what is now Boston, Massachusetts. Wampanoag (also known as Massachusett, the name of a nearby nation) was one of the first Native American languages learned by English colonists, who even translated the Bible into the language. Despite the fact that they did this in order to convert them to Christianity, it did serve at least one good purpose... it helped Wampanog become one of the best documented Native American languages.

Those of you with a keen eye for detail may have noticed we've used the past tense to refer to Wampanog, which is an extinct language. However, it may not be for long! In 1993, a linguist named Jessie "Little Doe" Baird started a movement to revive the language. Reviving a language that's been extinct since the mid-1800s... sounds crazy, right?

It's a huge undertaking, but quite an exciting one. The Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project is a joint effort among various Wampanoag groups to revive the language with the hope that one day their community will once again speak the language of their ancestors. So far, they've managed to compile a dictionary with over 11,000 words, develop curriculum for teaching and learning the language, and even mention a child who is the first native speaker of the language since the 1800s. Perhaps in another twenty years, the language will be alive and flourishing once again! (We'd love to classify it as a living language now, but we don't dare to disagree with Ethnologue.)

If you're as interested in Wampanoag as we are, you should definitely check out the Language Reclamation Project's site, especially the "Fun with Words" page, which provides some words in English that come from the language. Our favorite is "skunk", derived from sukôk, which literally means "ejects body fluid". 

They'd be so darn cute if they didn't always stink up the place!
The Americas were home to thousands of languages before Europeans came and colonized the continent. Here's a map that attempts to show the geographic distribution of indigenous languages in North America before contact with European colonists.

Each color represents a different language family.
Grey areas denote language isolates and unclassified languages.

North America was especially linguistically diverse, but sadly, most of the indigenous languages on this map are critically endangered, if not already extinct. So today, we're giving thanks for the languages that have survived (like Navajo, with over 150,000 speakers) as well as those like Wampanoag that just may come back to life through the extraordinary efforts of people who love their ancestral language. Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

November 21: World Hello Day

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

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

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

No! We're promoting peace!

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

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

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

We hope you put this list to good use today!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

French: Dangerous Liaisons

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

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

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

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

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

If we break it down we have the following:

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 19, 2012

Language Profile: Javanese

With over 80 million native speakers, Javanese is the native language of the world's most populous island, Java. The largest island of the Indonesian archipelago, Java is home to over 60 percent of the Indonesian population as well as its capital city, Jakarta. It was once the center of Hindu-Buddhist empires, as well as an important part of the colonial Dutch East Indies.

Insert obligatory coffee joke here.

Javanese is a member of the Austronesian language family, which connects it to Indonesian, the official language of Indonesia that is often used by Javanese speakers for business and other official purposes. The language has three main dialect groups: Central, Eastern, and Western Javanese. The dialects are all mutually intelligible (as they should be in order to be considered dialects!), and differ mainly in pronunciation, along with occasional vocabulary differences.

It is also considered by some to be a classical language of the world due to its literary tradition that spans over twelve centuries. The earliest found written evidence of Javanese is from the early 9th century. Its vocabulary was considerably influenced by Sanskrit, and the names of many Javanese people are derived from Sanskrit roots. Though it's not an official language, it is taught in schools and used in mass media... though there aren't any newspapers written in Javanese. But really, who reads newspapers anymore?

Java is a volcanic island. This is the Dieng Volcanic
Complex... some of these volcanoes emit toxic gas! No joke.

As with other Austronesian languages, Javanese uses three different registers for speaking in different social situations. Each of the registers has its own vocabulary, grammar, and prosody (a term for speech rhythm, stress and intonation). Here's a brief description of each of them:

Ngoko - This is the informal register, which is used between friends and close relatives. It's also used to speak to people of lower status than you... such as a boss talking to an employee.

Madya - From the Sanskrit word madhya meaning "middle", this is an intermediate register used with strangers. When you don't know which register you should be using, you choose this one.

Krama - This is the most formal style of speech. It's used when speaking to someone of higher status, as well as in public speeches and announcements. 

Java is traditionally written in Javanese script... not to be confused with the programming languages Java and JavaScript! It's an abugida, and each of the twenty letters represent a syllable that contains one consonant plus the inherent vowel a. Diacritics are used to indicate different vowel sounds when necessary.

This is the Javanese alphabet in Javanese script.

What's especially interesting about Javanese script is that its alphabet forms a pangram, or sentence in which  every letter of the alphabet is used at least once. The commonly known pangram for English is "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog." However, the Javanese alphabet read in order forms a poem, which translated reads: "There were two messengers, they had animosity, they were equally powerful in fight, here are the corpses." It's a story told as part of the mythology of Javanese civilization. Not many writing systems can boast an alphabet that recites a poem of mythical origins!

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Music And Language

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


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

The Ear

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

The Brain

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

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

A Written System

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

The Words

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 17, 2012

November 17: International Students' Day

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

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

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

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

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

The bloke who inspired ERASMUS.

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

Friday, November 16, 2012

What Is Metonymy?

What is metonymy? It's when you refer to something not by its name, but instead by something very closely related to it. Hollywood is an example. How many times have you heard someone say Hollywood in reference to the American cinema industry? It's far more common than you think, and we reckon you probably use a metonym at least once a day... unless you have no friends.

The word metonymy comes from Greek, a combination of meta ("other") and onoma ("name"). There are several general types of relationships between words in which metonymy is found. These include:

Containment - When one thing contains (or holds) another thing. An example is the word book, which originally just meant a group of pages bound together at one side, but is now used to refer the works of literature it often contains.

Tools / Instruments - Sometimes tools are used to refer to the job they help do or the person who does them. The term jigsaw puzzle is a metonym because it uses jigsaw, the tool that was originally used to cut the interlocking pieces, to describe the type of puzzle.

Synecdoche - When a part of something is used to refer to the whole thing. For example, some people slangily refer to their entire vehicle as their wheels... as in "Nice wheels, bro!"

These are some classic wheels... what's cooler than a sidecar?

Toponyms - Toponym is just a fancy term for "place name". Sometimes toponyms are used to refer to the industries that are located there. As we mentioned earlier, Hollywood is an example since it is often used to refer to the American entertainment industry.

There are plenty of interesting metonyms out there, so here are some of our favorites.

arm - We hope you know what human limb this refers to, but it is also used metonymically to refer to throwing ability.

Nice arm!

Bollywood - Similar to Hollywood... it's a district of Mumbai, which is the center of the Hindi-language film industry.

china - We're talking about Chinese porcelain, which eventually became known by the same name as the country it comes from.

The Crown - This word for a monarch's headwear is also used to refer to the British monarchy.

damages - Originally defined as "destructive effects", it also refers to the money paid in compensation for such effects.

microwave - The appliance is technically called a "microwave oven", but people often just call it by the name of the electromagnetic waves it uses in order to cook things.

Scotland Yard - The original headquarters for London's Metropolitan Police, it also refers to the police themselves.

You can tell it's not Old Scotland Yard because it says so.

Silicon Valley - The term was originally coined to refer to a California valley full of silicon chip manufacturers, but eventually high-tech businesses surrounded the location. Now it's used to refer to the American high-tech sector.

toilet - In some places, toilet is used to refer to the room where the appliance of the same name resides.

tongue - The tongue is an important speech muscle, so it's only natural that it became another word for language!

This cat prefers to use its tongue to lick its whiskers...
and when you're not looking, its anus.

Wall Street - This street in New York City is considered the financial center of the U.S., hence its use to refer to American financial markets in general.

The White House - Often used to refer to its inhabitants, the U.S. President and his staff.

word - A unit of language. Used metonymically in phrases such as "I give you my word..." and "May I have a word with you?" to refer to a promise and a conversation, respectively. Word!

We'll have more metonymy for you next week in our post dedicated to synecdoches!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Crowdsourcing Translation: Power To The People?

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

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

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

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

Crowdvoting works almost everywhere, except Florida.

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Endonyms And Exonyms: When In Roma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We're not going back to calling it perfume!

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