Thursday, February 28, 2013

Rise of the Machines: Computational Linguistics

We've said before that Google Translate isn't very good, and it isn't. The main problem is that when we compare it to human translators, it's proven to be horrendous. However, the science behind it, known as computational linguistics, is very impressive.

If you've ever tried programming you know it's not the easiest subject. Programming languages follow a strict syntax that can rarely be broken. With natural languages you can make a mistake and be understood, whereas computers refuse to allow the user such liberties.

When you combine programming with the field of linguistics you end up with what we call computational linguistics. Its function is to model human, or natural, languages, often with the use of crazy mathematics and programming.

Computational linguistics, like most technology, came about due to political paranoia during the 1950s. When the United States became aware that it had made some foreign enemies, it decided that messages needed to be translated into English, rather than learn another language. How times have changed...

Even this is more advanced than the
machine they tried to translate with.
The initial research was done using text, as speech recognition poses its own problems. Unsurprisingly, what really interested the Americans was the Russians. They needed scientific journals translated from Russian to English, and en masse.

As you can imagine given the state of current machine translation, sixty years ago the technology was even less advanced. So much so that the scientists were required to reassess the whole field. Word for word translation would barely make any sense, and once they knew that grammar, syntax, lexicon, and morphology were essential to producing high-quality and accurate translations, they had ultimately given themselves significantly more work.

What started as research into using machines to monitor the Russians has since developed into the study of what makes languages work and how to synthesize them. Though  machine translation can be easily criticised, you cannot take away some of the phenomenal work that goes on in computational linguistics departments across the world as they endeavour to map, model and analyse our favourite thing in the world, languages.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Naming Life in Greek and Latin

If you've ever studied any of the sciences, you've likely noticed that most words in science are of Greek or Latin origin. This is especially true in biology, where a system exists for naming things in Latin.

Most sciences have borrowed their names from either Greek or Latin and biology is no exception. The word βιος (bios) in Ancient Greek means "life" and λογος (logos) means "the study of", which gives us "the study of life". Even the word etymology came from the Ancient Greek ἐτυμολογία (etumologia).

As you probably know, there are billions of living things on this planet, though not so many on the other planets in our Solar System. When it comes to naming them, numbers, as most linguists will agree, are too boring. So what can you do? Create a system.

What an impressive pinus erectus...
Actual name Pinus ponderosa.
Binomial Nomenclature

Binomial nomenclature, the convention used to name pretty much every living thing using only two words, is not only common in Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner cartoons but in real life too. Before binomial nomenclature, species were named using polynomial nomenclature, which used many words for naming things. It was useful for descriptions but not great at getting a point across quickly. The binomial system was simpler and gave things a unique identifier instead of giving too much information about them.

There were so many wonderful benefits to only using two words. Firstly, it's cheaper to print the names (if you're on a budget) and it also makes everything a lot easier to remember. It also helps maintain a standard across the world. It would be great if everyone could speak every language, but this isn't the case and scientists know it.

Though Latin and Classical Greek are the preferred languages when it comes to naming animals, there are a few exceptions. Big-headed scientists occasionally break the rules and name something after themselves or even put jokes in them, though don't expect them to be side-splittingly funny, they are biologists after all! Needless to say, Rubus cockburnianus is a strong contender for our favourite.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Why You Can't Learn A Language At Home

As featured in our list of great places to learn languages, there is where you have to go if you want to learn languages. Though many well-read scholars will try to argue that they can learn everything they'll ever need from books and the internet, they're wrong. Here's why:

Sometimes there are no words for it.
Culture and language are inextricably bound. A language develops with a culture. As our favourite linguistic anecdote, courtesy of Edward Sapir, explained: Eskimos have thousands of words for snow. As incorrect as this is, you can understand the point he was trying to make. You can't take the culture out of a language, just as you can't take the cheese out of a cheeseburger.

Concepts exist in languages due to both culture and history. History certainly shapes a language. The English language is interesting because for many years, England was Europe's whipping boy that was conquered, almost on a daily basis, by other civilisations. Then, following years of being Europe's bitch, England got sick of it and decided to take the English language on tour and create a global empire.

The same can be said for Spanish, which thanks to some eager sailors, pretty much spans the entire continent of South America, with the exception of Brazil, where they speak Portuguese. The French language was spread in the same way. Aeons ago we did a post on how European colonialism affected the spread of languages, which shows that you can spread a language very quickly if you have a big army.

Would you really want to stay at home?
There are certain things you can't learn entirely from a book. Life lessons, how to satisfy a woman sexually and how to speak a foreign language. Granted, you can supplement your language learning by reading their literature, watching their films and listening to their music, but you can never truly understand the language if you've never met the people, lived their life and immersed yourself in their culture.

There are so many nuances in languages that are nearly impossible to explain without having seen the things they refer to first-hand. Even between British English and American English there are many lexical differences due to the difference in cultures. Most Brits are unfamiliar with strip malls in the same way that many Americans are a little confused if someone lives in a semi-detached house.

The day-to-day language is rarely covered in books. How many Spaniards know that WhatsApp got its name from "what's up?", the colloquial expression? If you really want to know the language that people are ashamed to write down, you have to go into the streets, frequent the bars and get involved with the culture that shares a bed with the language you want to learn.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Language Profile: Bhojpuri

If you've been paying attention to our weekly language profiles, you've probably noticed that India is home to many languages. Not only is it linguistically diverse, but its native languages are also some of the most spoken languages in the world. That's why we're covering Bhojpuri this week and several more Indian languages in the weeks to come, while languages you're more likely to have heard of (such as Dutch and Thai) will be featured in a few months' time. 

The Taj Mahal, located in the Bhojpuri-speaking
Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.
Bhojpuri is one of the ten most spoken languages in India, a list that includes Hindi, Bengali, Telugu, Marathi, Tamil, Urdu, and Gujarati. Despite its large number of speakers, Bhojpuri is not one of the over twenty officially recognized regional languages of India. In fact, it's the most spoken unofficial language in the country, with 38.5 million native speakers. There has been a significant movement by Bhojpuri language activists and media to gain recognition by the government, but so far the most they have received is a promise from a government official in 2012 that it will soon be included in the Constitution.

The Bhojpuri language is not only spoken in India. It's also an official regional language in Nepal, where it is spoken by about 6% of the population. There are also large Bhojpuri-speaking populations in Guyana, Suriname, Fiji, and Mauritius. Local varieties of Bhojpuri are spoken in these countries because in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many Indians were taken by colonizers to work as indentured servants on plantations. This was mainly due to the fact that they could no longer use African slaves as workers because of the abolition of slavery. 

Mount Everest, the highest mountain on Earth, in Nepal.
Although Bhojpuri is often considered to be a dialect of Hindi by non-speakers in India, Ethnologue considers them to be closely related languages, so we'll stick with them. The language was quite influential during the process of development of Hindi as the official language of India, since many prominent Indian writers at the time were Bhojpuri speakers. However, Bhojpuri literature is most known for its folklore, especially its poems and folk music. 

As seems to be common with Indian languages, Bhojpuri has used several distinct writing systems over the years. Before the 1880s, the language was written in Nastaʿlīq script, a Perso-Arabic script still used to write Urdu. The Kaithi script was also used for a time, and was used only by a specific caste of Indians known as Kayastha whose occupation was to record official documents. Currently, the language is written almost exclusively in the Devanagari script that is commonly associated with Hindi. There is plenty of media to be found in Bhojpuri as well, including magazines, newspapers, and television channels!

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Film Club: Oscars 2013

Tonight is Oscar night, the biggest night of the year in Hollywood. We're concluding our look at the top foreign films this awards season with an overview of the nominees for Best Foreign Language Film.

You know the famous gold Oscar statuette?
It's modeled after this guy, Mexican director
Emilio Fernández, who was convinced to
pose nude as the model. Really.
Amour - Austria

If we had to choose tonight's winner, Amour would be our choice. This French-language film tells the story of an elderly couple who must deal with the effects of the wife's stroke on their lives and marriage. It has already won the award for Best Film not in the English Language at the BAFTAs, as well as Best Film at the Césars this year. Even more notable is that the film is also nominated in the Best Picture category, as it is only the ninth non-English language nominated film in the award's history. The last film to be nominated in both categories was Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in 2000. Although it would be great if Amour took both awards, we're not holding our breath.

War Witch (Rebelle) - Canada

Mainly filmed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, War Witch tells the story of a 12 year-old girl named Komona who is abducted from her village and forced to become a child soldier. The French-language film is also nominated for Best Motion Picture at the upcoming Canadian Screen Awards, while the young actress playing Komona has already won Best Actress at last year's Tribeca Film Festival in New York.

No - Chile

If any film is going to beat Amour, it's likely to be Chile's first ever nominee, No. This Spanish-language film tells the story of the 1988 Chilean national referendum on whether or not dictator Augusto Pinochet would stay in power. The main character, René, dedicates himself to the "No" campaign to remove Pinochet as part of an advertising team that hopes to convince voters through the use of upbeat films. So why do we think it might convince the Oscar voters and secure a win? Three words: Gael García Bernal.

Queen Caroline Mathilde of Denmark,
painted by Francis Cotes.
A Royal Affair (En kongelig affære) - Denmark

The Danish film A Royal Affair is set in the court of mentally ill King Christian VII of Denmark in the 18th century. It tells the story of the romance between Queen Caroline Mathilde and her husband's advisor and physician. The pair work together to reform Danish society while having their affair. We haven't seen the film yet, but suffice it to say that things didn't end well for the physician in real life.

Kon-Tiki - Norway

Our final film, Kon-Tiki, is also a historical drama. It tells the story of the 1947 Kon-Tiki expedition, in which Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl built a raft of the same name out of balsa wood and used it to sail across the Pacific Ocean from Peru to Polynesia. Most anthropologists at the time disagreed with his theory that people from South America could have settled in Polynesia in pre-Columbian times, so he set out to prove them wrong. He and his crew sailed for over 100 days, but we'll leave you to watch the film or read about his expedition to find out what happened! The film is in both English and Norwegian.

The Academy Awards are shown in over 100 countries, so tune in tonight if you want to find out who wins! 

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Mourning Ferdinand de Saussure

He could also grow an amazing moustache.
100 years ago yesterday, a relatively unknown man died. The man was not unknown, however, in the field of linguistics. Ferdinand de Saussure was considered one of, if not the greatest linguists of the 20th century and his work changed the way languages are thought of.

Ferdinand de Saussure was born in Geneva, Switzerland in 1857. He was a talented man who studied Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, and various other courses which would lead him into graduate work at the University of Leipzig.

He wrote his doctoral thesis on Sanskrit in Berlin, and after receiving his doctorate in Leipzig he moved to Paris where he taught for eleven years. A professorship in Geneva saw him return to his hometown. In 1907, Saussure began teaching his Course on General Linguistics.

His work on general linguistics was second to none at the time and although the field of linguistics has progressed enough to make his work rather outdated, the field would be nowhere near where it is today without him.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Film Club: Césars 2013

We're now knee-deep into awards season and only days away from the Oscars, but before we get to the Academy Awards we have to pay a visit to France's Césars, so expect a lot of films in French!

Best Film

Versailles is nice when it's not being invaded by revolutionaries.
Farewell, My Queen (Les Adieux à la reine)

The French drama tells the tale of a young servant, Sidonie, who refuses to abandon Queen Marie Antoinette as the French Revolution reaches the Palace of Versailles.


The French-language film Amour has already won a BAFTA and is looking to add a few more awards to its trophy cabinet at both the Césars and the Oscars this weekend.

Camille Rewinds (Camille redouble)

The drama follows the story of Camille, a woman in the midst of a divorce who wakes from a drunken night to find herself a teenager in high school in the '80s once again. She attempts to change the course of her life and avoid her future husband, but things are never that easy.

In The House (Dans la maison)

Nominated for a GoyaIn The House eventually lost out to Untouchable. It is based on the Spanish play The Boy in the Last Row by Juan Mayorga. Perhaps it will fare better tonight!

Rust and Bone (De rouille et d'os)

A film that has been getting lots of nominations, including both the BAFTAs and the Goyas. We really needn't say more. The protagonist moves to France with his son and falls in love with a killer whale trainer.

Holy Motors

A drama about a man who transcends multiple realities and lives is garnering a lot of positive praise and may very well be rewarded with a César this evening. There's not much more we can say about it except that you should probably watch it!

What's in a name (Le Prénom)

A comedy about the naming of a child. Yes, you're not mistaken... in France, comedies can get the nod for awards, even when they're about the naming of a child. The word prénom is French for "first name". What's more, the child in question isn't even born yet!

Best Foreign Film

We've covered the French and French-language films, so what are the opinions in France when it comes to films from around the world?

One of the rarest sentiments to ever be expressed on a sign.
Argo - United States

Ben Affleck's political thriller about the "Canadian Caper" has gained widespread approval and has been nominated for seven Oscars. It has already won the BAFTA for Best Film and a couple of Golden Globes. Could it add a couple of Césars to the trophy case as well?

Bullhead (Rundskop) - Belgium

This Dutch-language film is centred on the story of a young cattle farmer from Limburg. He's encouraged by a vet to make an unusual deal with a West-Flemish beef (and possibly horse-meat) trader. Everything goes awry following the murder of a policeman.

The film was nominated at last year's Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film but eventually lost to A Separation.

Laurence Anyways - Canada

The Franco-Canadian film Laurence Anyways covers the story of Fred (who happens to be a woman) and Laurence (who happens to be a man who wants to be a woman). As the film is Québécois, it will be no surprise that this is film is in French.

Oslo, August 31st (Oslo, 31. august) - Norway

This Norwegian drama covers a day in the life of Anders, a recovering drug addict, as he encounters people from his past. Ironically, the events of the film take place on August 30th. The film was also on the shortlist of Norway's submissions for the Oscars.

The Angels' Share - United Kingdom

The story of a Glaswegian man on community service who attempts to turn his life around following a visit to a whisky distillery has received favourable reviews and earned director Ken Loach the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival.

He may be king but his missus
is shagging another bloke.
A Royal Affair (En kongelig affære) - Denmark

The historical drama has already been nominated for a Golden Globe, where it lost to Amour, as well as being nominated for an Academy Award.

The film covers the story of Christian VII of Denmark and the romance between his Queen and the royal physician Struensee. The 1935 film The Dictator, not to be confused with the Sacha Baron Cohen film of the same name, covered the same events as A Royal Affair.

Our Children (À perdre la raison) - Belgium

The Belgian drama has already won Émilie Dequenne the Un Certain Regard Award for Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival. Though it didn't make the shortlist for the Academy Awards, it has been nominated for Best Foreign Film at the Césars. It covers the true story of a woman who killed her five children.

As we approach the end of awards season, we can look forward to the Academy Awards on Sunday night before we have to wait another year to find out what is considered good according to the upper echelons of cinematic society.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

February 21: International Mother Language Day

Today is International Mother Language Day, which is celebrated on the 21st of February each year in order to promote cultural and linguistic diversity as well as multilingualism. The event was first announced by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1999, and has been celebrated every year since.

Shaheed Minar, or "Martyr Monument" in Dhaka,
dedicated to those killed during the
 Bengali Language Movement demonstrations in 1952.
International Mother Language Day is actually the internationally recognized name of Language Movement Day, which has been observed in Bangladesh since the 1950s. The day originally commemorated the date in 1952 when peaceful student demonstrators supporting the recognition of Bengali as the official language were killed by police in Dhaka. Due to their deaths, the Bengali Language Movement gained momentum across the country, and the language was given official status by 1956. To this day, the date is a public holiday in Bangladesh, while UNESCO uses the day to honor those who were killed through the promotion of multiculturalism and multilingualism worldwide.

Each year has a distinct theme such as "Multilingual Education", which was used in 2007. This year's theme is "The Book", and encourages people to go out and read works written in a local or lesser resourced language. UNESCO wants you to read anything from books to poems to newspapers in order to help make people more aware of the status of minority languages. If you speak or read an under-appreciated local language, use your skills today! If you don't, you can always take the opportunity to learn about local languages near you or cultures that you'd like to learn more about. 

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Get It Right: Spelling

One of the most annoying things for language enthusiasts is the misspelling of words. We often come across (not accross) a large number of errors, especially when it comes to handwritten notes. Thanks to spell checkers, many people don't make time for spelling things correctly and assume that no matter where they go, they can hope to see a squiggly red line when they need to review the spelling of a word.

This isn't a problem if you're using a computer, but if you don't know how to spell you will definitely (not definately) look like a fool. Bad spelling is basically (not basicly) the best way to show other people that you have a limited knowledge (not knowlege) of the English language. We've lost count of the number of emails sent to us by colleagues (not collegues) that are almost completely (not completly) misspelt.

This sign makes us want to cry.
If you actually care about languages, it can be embarrassing (not embarassing) to see the squiggly red line, the computer's way of telling you that you cannot be trusted to use your own language. If you do struggle with spelling, there are many mnemonic devices you can use to help you.

The word "necessary" (not neccessary) can be easily remembered if you recall that a shirt has one collar (one instance of the letter c) and two sleeves (two instances of the letter s). It's even easier to remember if you're actually wearing a shirt.

Unfortunately (not unfortunatly), this tendency won't change until (not untill) people begin to understand the importance of correct spelling and stop relying on spell checkers. If you couldn't tell, this issue really (not realy) annoys us.

All the underlined words (excluding links, of course) are featured in Oxford Dictionaries' list of common misspellings.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Learning Languages with Social Media

One of the best ways to learn a language is to speak it. So what do you do when there's nobody around to talk to? If, like us, you spend most of your life in front of a computer, you should consider getting on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ or any of the other social media sites and start communicating.

Long before the aforementioned social media websites existed there was instant messaging. Services such as MSN Messenger and AIM enabled us to talk with our friends from anywhere in the world, as long as they had a modem and a good tolerance level for high-pitched squealing noises anything was possible. As its popularity and reach grew, the internet quickly became one of the great places to learn languages.

You can learn a language from the comfort
of your home, no pants required. 
Practising languages is tantamount to your success in learning a new language. You can study as much as you want but as we've found, if you don't use the language it becomes very easy to forget everything you've learnt. Instant messaging can help you practice your writing, but also requires quicker comprehension in order to formulate a response. You don't need to be as quick as if you were actually speaking to someone, but you need to be faster than if you were writing a letter or an email, which makes it a perfect middle ground for those wanting to exercise their language skills.

Now that the popularity of instant messaging is on the decline, its space has been taken up by social media, most of which come equipped with a chat function. If you have friends that speak a language you'd like to learn, communicate with them. Send them some messages in their language and get learning. If you're not sure how to say something then look it up, just not on Google Translate, and keep going.

As well as chatting or tweeting to your friends, look for groups, forums or other places where language learners want to get together to practice and learn languages. There are thousands of communities for language aficionados on-line so you have no excuse not to be doing it!

Monday, February 18, 2013

Language Profile: Malay

This week's language profile is on Malay, an Austronesian macrolanguage with 39.1 million native speakers. As we've mentioned before in reference to Chinese, Arabic, and the Lahnda languages of India, a macrolanguage is a group of languages that share enough similarities to be considered varieties of one language. However, the member languages are often considered to be separate languages, usually due to political and cultural differences. 

The Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, Brunei.
The two standard varieties of Malay are called Malay (to make things simpler, we'll refer to it by its other name, Malaysian) and Indonesian. We'll get to Indonesian in the weeks to come. Malaysian is used in Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei as an official language. It has 10.3 million native speakers, which is the most of any of the Malay languages. 

Malay's origins can be found on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, where it has been used for centuries. Increased trade throughout the Malay Archipelago (you might know the area by its colonial name, the "East Indies"), led to the spread of Islam throughout the islands and the rise of Muslim kingdoms, which often used Malay as their lingua franca. Its importance in the region hasn't faded away since then.

Despite some estimates stating that up to 80% of Indonesian and Malaysian words are cognates, the differences between the two varieties are mainly lexical. This is mostly due to the the fact that Indonesia and Malaysia were under different rule during the colonial period. At the time, Indonesia was known as the Dutch East Indies, and its vocabulary was therefore more influenced by the Dutch language. Malaysia, on the other hand, was under British rule, and therefore was more influenced by the English language. 

The Ke Lok Si Buddhist temple in Penang, Malaysia.
Before the 20th century, Malay was generally written using Jawi, an Arabic-based alphabet. Nowadays, it's most commonly written using a Latin-based alphabet called Rumi, which is also the official script used in Malaysia. Interestingly, the romanization of the script was done in distinct ways in Malaysia and Indonesia. This was again due to the influence of colonizers. For example, the letter w was called we in Indonesia, similar to Dutch. In Malaysia, it was known as dabel yu, which is clearly reminiscent of the English equivalent. 

As usual, there are linguistic disputes as to how the various varieties of Malay should be classified. In general, Malaysians are said to support the idea that Malaysian and Indonesian are two varieties of the one Malay language, while Indonesians prefer to say that they're separate but related languages. However, everyone involved, including those in Brunei, seems to agree that mutual intelligibility is a good thing, and have worked to impose standard rules of language that apply to all the varieties of Malay, however you may classify them. Sounds like a reasonable way to do things!

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Film Club: Goyas 2013

Tonight is the Goyas, Spain's foremost film awards ceremony. Given that we love foreign language films, we thought we'd take you through a few of the must-see Spanish language nominees from across the globe as well as a look at the nominees for Best European Film.

Best Spanish Language Foreign Film

The Goya Award is a small bronze bust of
Spanish painter Francisco de Goya, seen above.
7 Boxes (7 Cajas) - Paraguay

This Paraguayan film about a driver who receives a mysterious job offer to transport 7 boxes with unknown contents across a market has received positive reviews. Paraguay has a very small film industry, so its great success in the country as well as South America and the rest of the world has been quite exciting for Paraguayans.

After Lucia (Después de Lucía- Mexico

Having already won the Un Certain Regard accolade at the Cannes Film Festival, the Mexican film After Lucia was also put forward as Mexico's entry for the Best Foreign Language Oscar but has not made the shortlist.

The film looks at the relationship between a father and daughter as they move to Mexico City following the loss of the girl's mother. The girl, Alejandra, is subsequently bullied in her new school.

Clandestine Childhood (Infancia clandestina) - Argentina

This Argentine drama follows the story of a married couple in the Montonerosa leftist urban guerilla group. It is told from the perspective of their son as they take part in Argentina's Dirty War.

Clandestine Childhood was also entered for the Oscars but failed to make the shortlist.

Juan of the Dead (Juan de los Muertos) - Cuba

Not to be confused with the British zombie comedy Shaun of the Dead, Juan of the Dead is the tale of an entrepreneurial loser who sets up his own zombie killing business after a breakout of the living dead in Cuba.

Best European Film

Orcas are beautiful, but they are
called killer whales for a reason.
Rust and Bone (De rouille et d'os) - France, Belgium

As you would have seen when we covered the BAFTAs, Rust and Bone is the story of a Belgian man who gains custody of his relatively unfamiliar son and moves to France, where he falls in love with a killer whale trainer who ends up having an accident at work.

In the House (Dans la Maison) - France

In the House is based on the Spanish play The Boy in the Last Row. It tells the story of a teenager who charms his way into the house of a classmate and writes about his experiences for school assignments. His teacher rediscovers his love of his work due to the boy's talent, not knowing that the intriguing yet troubling stories are of real events.

Untouchable (Intouchables) - France

Despite our recommendation, Untouchable did not win the foreign language category in the BAFTAs. The film retells the story of an unlikely friendship between a rich, paralysed white man and an unemployed black man who becomes his caregiver.

Shame - United Kingdom

It's always interesting to consider an English language film as a "foreign" film and even more interesting given the controversial subject matter of Shame. The film covers the life of a sex addict and is packed full of explicit sexual scenes, drug use and other things you wouldn't want to watch with your mother.

The film has received many accolades and we expect it will do better outside of the UK, in places with a less prudish attitude towards sex and pornography.

With awards season in full swing, the Césars in France and the Academy Awards are in exactly one week's time. We'll be keeping a close eye on all the winners and respectful losers in the world of cinema.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

United States of Languages: Pacific West

As we reach our final destinations on our linguistic trip across the U.S., we find ourselves in the Pacific West, having run out of country to explore.

Mt. McKinley is the highest point in North America.

Known as the "Last Frontier", Alaska is famous for its huskies, snow, and unfortunately, Sarah Palin. The largest state in the U.S. doesn't border any other states and is neatly tucked away from the rest of the country off the northwest edge of Canada. Most of the population, around 85%, speak only English at home, while indigenous languages belonging to the Eskimo-Aleut and Na-Dene language families are spoken by over 5% of Alaskans. 

Spanish, like in most states, features as one of the most-spoken languages with almost two speakers for every one speaker of the fourth most common language in Alaska, Tagalog.


Named for the first U.S. President, Washington state is home to significant Asian American populations. The Seattle area is home to large Chinese and Japanese-speaking communities, as well as a large Indian community. The state also has a large Spanish-speaking community that comprises nearly 6% of the state's population. 

Washington is also home to several indigenous tribes, though most of their native languages are endangered. One such language is Quileute, a member of the Chimakuan language family. If the name sounds familiar, it's probably because you know too much about the popular Twilight book series, in which several characters are members of the Quileute tribe. Though the language is only spoken by a few elders, the tribal school is making attempts to teach the language to a new generation. It is an interesting language, especially because of its unique lack of nasal consonants, which are found in almost all other world languages. Hopefully, it will be preserved by the tribe, and not merely by teenagers who decide to learn it in hopes of "becoming a werewolf" like a certain constantly shirtless movie character. 

Crater Lake, Oregon.

This heavily-forested state is often known for its natural beauty, both inland and along the Pacific coast. Nearly 90% of Oregonians speak English, with Spanish being the second most-spoken language with nearly 7% of the population. There are also small numbers of German, Vietnamese, and Russian speakers. 

Historically, the state was home to many indigenous groups that spoken dozens of distinct languages, but most now speak English. Some native tribes do still use traditional languages though, such as the tribes of the Grand Ronde community, who are currently using native immersion programs to teach their children Chinuk Wawa, a pidgin used as a trade language in the area starting in the 1800s. They hope that this will help preserve the endangered language for generations to come. 


The "Golden State" is another state famed for the high levels of Spanish spoken. Just look at place names such as Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco and Sacramento, and you will see that historically, California is one of America's most Hispanic locations. Nearly 28% of Californians speak Spanish at home, a number which is constantly on the rise. Only 58% of California residents speak English at home, which shows just how linguistically diverse the state is. Chinese and Tagalog each boast over 2% of the state's population, followed by Vietnamese, Korean, and Armenian.

Historically, the state was one of the most linguistically diverse parts of the world due to the multitude of indigenous languages spoken in the area. However, most of these 70 or so languages are either extinct of endangered.

English has been the official language of California since 1986, though many local governments do still make an effort to provide information in other languages. A prime example of this is the California Department of Motor Vehicles, which is said to provide the written driver's license exam in over 30 languages.
Kahakuloa Head on the island of Maui, Hawaii.


By no means your typical American state, Hawaii has both English and Hawaiian as its official languages and features the Union Jack as part of its flag. Roughly three quarters of the population speak English and the rest is divided amongst Pacific Island languages, Tagalog, Japanese, Chinese, Spanish and Korean.

Though immigration has effectively reduced the number of Hawaiian native speakers, the heritage remains in the place names. Visitors, particularly tourists, are encouraged to use the language, if only a couple words, such as aloha and ukulele.

We hope you've enjoyed this series as much as we have!

Friday, February 15, 2013

United States of Languages: Mountain West

As we approach the final leg of our linguistic trip across the United States, we're in the region designated as the Mountain West. Unsurprisingly, we find ourselves in an area with a large number of mountains that is located in the West, unlike the awkward Midwest which is not in the West.

Shoshone Falls, Idaho.

If you're an American, the odds are pretty good that you've eaten a potato from the "Potato State", since nearly a third of American potatoes are grown there. English is spoken by over 90% of Idahoans, and Spanish is the second language of the state with nearly 7% of the population.

Like most states we have encountered on our trip, there is a small number of French and German speakers in Idaho, accounting for less than 1% of the population combined. Boise, the state's capital, is also home to the largest Basque community in the United States. Most of these Basque Americans are descendants of immigrants who came from the Basque regions of Spain and France in the late 1800s. They continue to preserve cultural traditions such as festivals and dances, and many also learn to speak the Basque language. 


The name Montana came from the Spanish for word for "mountain", montaña. Spanish settlers often ensured that place names would leave little to doubt, and in this case the state obviously features mountains. Despite being one of the geographically largest states, it's one of the smallest in terms of population. Its economy is focused around the land, specifically ranching, farming, and mining. In terms of languages, Montana is one of the most Anglocentric states with nearly 95% of the population speaking English. Only 1.5% of the population speaks Spanish and German, while Native American languages and French combined only account for around 3%. 


Wyoming is another large state with a very small population. In fact, it has a lower population density than every other U.S. state, excluding Alaska. There are even more people living in Washington, D.C. than in the entire state of Wyoming! Its economy is based on mineral production and tourism, mainly due to Yellowstone National Park, the world's first national park. Given how sparsely populated the state is, it may not be a surprise to learn that the vast majority of Wyomingites speak English. About 4% speak Spanish at home, while half a percent speak German. 

The Las Vegas Strip... look closely
and you'll see the "Eiffel Tower"!

If its Spanish name is anything to go by, then Nevada is the snowy state. Clearly the settlers weren't thinking of Las Vegas when they named it, given that most the state is a desert. Instead, they focused on the snow-capped mountains on the edge of the state, which they called the Sierra Nevada. 

Unlike Montana and Wyoming, the state is quite diverse, both ethnically and linguistically. Over two-thirds of the state's population lives in the area around Las Vegas. Most recent immigrants to the state have come to the Las Vegas area to work in the tourism industry, specifically from Mexico, China, Japan, Korea, and India. The city is now home to one of the largest Asian American communities in the entire country. 

Only 77% of Nevadans speak primarily English, with over 16% speaking Spanish at home. Tagalog, spoken by the large Filipino population, comes in third. Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Thai are also all spoken by large numbers of Nevadans. As in Idaho, there is also a group of Nevadans of Basque ancestry, some of whom speak the language.


Named for the Ute tribe, The "Beehive State" is the most religiously homogeneous state, with over 60% of its residents being Mormons. This influences everyday life in the vast majority of the state, from politics to lifestyles. Most Utahns (don't ask us to pronounce it) speak English, though over 7% primarily speak Spanish. German and Navajo, a Native American language, account for about 1% of the state's residents combined. The language of the Ute tribe is also spoken by a small number of its members.

Bridal Veil Falls, Colorado.

Colorado literally means colored in Spanish, and was originally used by Spanish explorers to name the Colorado River due to its red silt. Eventually, the new state got the same name as the river that runs through it. The state is known for its beautiful landscape that has a bit of everything: forests, mountains, deserts, plains, canyons, and rivers. Nature lovers around the U.S. often head to the state to enjoy its scenic views. 

About 85% of Coloradans speak English, with over 10% using Spanish instead. German comes in third, with nearly 1% of the state's population. French, Vietnamese, and Korean are also spoken by some residents, and some members of the aforementioned Ute tribe may also speak their language in the state.


We've now reached the home of the Grand Canyon, which is home to the largest number of speakers of Native American languages in the contiguous states. The state boasts over 85,000 Navajo speakers, as well as more than 10,000 speakers of the Apache language. About a quarter of Arizona's land is used as the home of several indigenous tribes, including the Navajo, Hopi, Apache, Zuni, and Pima tribes.  

Due to its position as a border state, Arizona is also home to a large immigrant population, with nearly 20% of Arizonans speaking Spanish. Historically, the state was sparsely populated because of its desert location, but in recent years the population has boomed, which has led to problems such as water shortages. 

New Mexico

The linguistic diversity of New Mexico is fairly similar to that of its neighboring state, Arizona. It is also home to one of the largest populations of indigenous people, with several Navajo and Pueblo tribes. Just over 4% of New Mexicans speak Navajo, while another 1.6% speak other Native American languages. The state is also home to many Spanish-speaking immigrants, mainly from Mexico. Nearly 30% of New Mexicans speak Spanish at home, giving the state the largest percentage of Spanish speakers in the entire country.

We're happy to note that New Mexico is also supportive of language diversity. It officially promotes language diversity throughout the state, encouraging students and adults to become bilingual. In 2008, the state was also the first to adopt a Navajo textbook to be used in public schools.

Tomorrow, we'll finish up our series with a look at the linguistic diversity of the Pacific West. California, here we come!

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Valentine's Day: The Origins of "Love"

The singletons among us are not going to like today's post as it's all about love, or lurve as the late Barry White would call it.

The English word love came from the Proto-Germanic lubo which shares its roots with German word liebe. The amour in French, amore in Italian and amor in both Spanish and Portuguese all came from either amorem or amor in Latin.

If you don't have someone to share the day with,
it just means all the more chocolate for you!
The English word amorous, of course, has its roots in the identically spelled old French word that later became amoureux, which itself came from the late Latin amorosum. If you are feeling a little amorous, perhaps you should check out the world's sexiest accents to get your motor running.

Many of the words for love in the past have shared connotations with emotional love as well as the more primal and entertaining carnal love. Sex, however, initially came from the Latin sexus which literally meant "the state of being either male or female". Given that the word intercourse isn't particularly sexy, it tends to be dropped from sexual intercourse and shortened to leave us with just sex.

If you are lonely this Valentine's Day, it may be worth noting that some time ago we actually showed you how register and the formality of language can help you find love, at least in the carnal sense. Happy Valentine's Day!

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

How Correct Pronunciation Can Make You Sound Pretentious

For those who speak more than one language or are monolingual but culturally aware, saying foreign words can sometimes lead to tricky situations. What do you do when you know the word is foreign? Do you pronounce it with full authenticity and seem pretentious, or do you pronounce it like the locals and die a little inside? Today we're hoping to come up with a solution.

Le Grand Foyer at Palas Garnier, used by the Paris Opera.
Authentic Pronunciation

For polyglots, this should always be the only option. You'll never get good at a language if you don't pronounce the words correctly and if you do, this will probably spill over into your mother tongue. That said, should you pronounce Paris as if it's an English word and say the last letter, or do you go all-out with a legitimate paree complete with guttural r sounds? We believe that you should consider Paris, as pronounced by the English, as the exonym for the French Paris and stick with the common usage.

Local Pronunciation

There are many words that have existed in the language for so long that we should consider them as English even though they were originally taken from another language. You wouldn't say station like the French do, would you? You'd sound ridiculous.

When it comes to brand names, this shouldn't be a problem. You should always just go with however it's said on the advertisements. It's a quick and easy solution. Except when it comes to Hyundai, which is "hun-day" in the US and "hi-un-die" in the UK, though the marketing in both countries reflects these nuances. 
You probably don't want to pop
an entire one of these into your mouth!
The Solution

We think the real solution is to work proactively. You can't change the way people speak because you'll look like a dick if you do. If you know a new term is a loanword, then make sure you get it right before it becomes commonplace and has been butchered beyond all recognition. It's probably too late however, for jalapeños. Perhaps the best we can do is pronounce each word slightly more authentically until people forget the old, and definitely wrong, way to say it.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Mardi Gras, Carnival and Pancake Day

In many Christian countries, today is Mardi Gras, Shrove Tuesday, Pancake Day or the final day of Carnival. Since Lent, the forty day period of fasting and penitence, starts tomorrow, it seems like a great idea to use up everything you can't consume during that time. Most festivities involve indulging in a variety of rich foods that are usually quite fatty or sugary.

It's good to have a mask in hand in case
you get up to all kinds of mischief.
Lent is the period in which Jesus fasted in the desert for forty days, and Christians love doing things just like their lord and savior. For the forty days of Lent, they too try to avoid extravagant foods, parties and generally things that are fun. However, the final days before it starts can sometimes be the cause of the biggest celebrations of the year. If you have to give up everything fun for a while, you want to make sure you enjoy yourself as much as possible beforehand, obviously!

Perhaps the most famous of these celebrations is known as Carnaval, Carnivale or Carnival. The famous festival in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil features extravagant parades and a huge level of partying. In Portuguese, which is spoken in Brazil, it's called Carnaval.

The word Carnaval has an interesting story, though there is some dispute as to where it really comes from. Some believe that it comes from the Italian carne levarae, meaning "to remove meat", since meat is considered inappropriate to consume during Lent.

Others believe that Latin carne vale was the origin of the word. It means "a farewell to meat". It's also a plausible origin, since you may as well say goodbye to meat because as a Christian you shouldn't be eating it.

A third possibility comes from the Latin carrus navalis, an alternative name for the Navigium Isidis, the ship of Isis. The festival included a parade of people with masks following an elaborate wooden boat on land, of course. It's believed that this paved the way for parade floats, which much like the model of the Navigium Isidis, are rarely seen floating.

Mmmm... delicious pancakes.
In Britain, the name for today is Pancake Day. Like all other rich foods consumed before Lent, pancakes are a staple of the UK. The official name in English is Shrove Tuesday, with shrove coming from the English verb shrive, meaning "to obtain absolution for one's sins through confession and doing penance". However, Pancake Day will be heard on the lips of most Brits because pancakes are far more delicious!

The French name for today is Mardi Gras, which literally means Fat Tuesday for the same reasons that the British eat pancakes. Due to the popularity of Mardi Gras celebrations in New Orleans and the large French and Creole-speaking populations there, the name is also popular throughout the U.S. and Canada.

However, the best name of all for the day may be one of the least known. In Iceland, today is known as Sprengidagur, which is celebrated by eating salted meat and peas. Maybe not the most exciting foods, but the name translates to "Bursting Day"... can it get any better than that?

Monday, February 11, 2013

Language Profile: Polish

This week's language profile is on Polish, a member of the Slavic language family. It's the official language of Poland, with 40 million native speakers. Polish is also officially recognized as a regional language in Ukraine and as a minority language in the Czech Republic. It's the second most-spoken Slavic language after Russian.

Łazienki Palace in Warsaw.
Polish is written using the Polish alphabet, a Latin-based script. The Polish alphabet doesn't include q, v, and x, but does have some additional letters. These letters are created using four types of diacritics. The kreska is similar in appearance to an acute accent, and is used to write ć, ń, ó, ś, and ź. The kropka, or overdot, is used to write ż. The ogonek, or little tail, is found on the bottom of ą and ę, and the stroke is used to write the letter ł.

Poland is one of the least linguistically diverse European countries, as nearly 97% of Poles call Polish their native tongue. This is partly due to the flight and expulsion of both Germans and Ukrainians from Poland in the mid-1940s at the end of World War II.

There are three main dialects of the Polish language. Greater Polish is spoken in the area around the city of Poznań in west-central Poland. Lesser Polish is spoken in the southern part of the country, where the city of Kraków is located. The third dialect, Masovian, is spoken in east-central Poland, which is where Warsaw, the country's capital, is located.

Wawel Cathedral in Kraków.
There are also many regional dialects of Polish, as well as a couple languages that were formerly considered dialects of the Polish language. The Silesian language is the second most-spoken language in Poland with over 500,000 speakers. There has been discussion of it being recognized as a regional language, but the Polish government has not yet made this official. The Kashubian language comes in third place, with 106,000 native speakers in Poland. It is the only official regional language in Poland, and is taught in schools and used in some media.

The Polish language contains loanwords from many languages, though these foreign words are often adapted with new spellings. Source languages include English ("inauguration" - inauguracja), Czech, Italian (cavolfiore "cauliflower" - kalafior), French (meuble "furniture" - meble), German, Hungarian, and Turkish. Latin was also a great influence on the language due to its use as an official language of the Kingdom of Poland for many years. Polish has also influenced other languages including Dutch and Afrikaans, as well as German, mainly through culinary loanwords.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Film Club: BAFTAs 2013

At The Lingua File we like a good film, good being the main word. We obviously love languages too, so for this year's BAFTA (British Academy Film and Television Arts) Awards, we're most interested in the Best Film not in the English Language category. Without further ado, here are the nominees:

Amour - Austria

Amour is off to a great start this awards season after winning "Best Foreign Language Film" at the Golden Globes and the coveted Palme d'Or, the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival. It tells the story two retired music teachers, an elderly couple named Anne and Georges. Anne has a stroke that paralyzes one side of her body, and the film focuses on the aftermath of this event and how it affects the couple's love for each other.

The valuable painting to be stolen in
Headhunters is by Peter Paul Rubens,
who also painted Equestrian
Portrait of the Duke of Lerma
Headhunters (Hodejegerne) - Norway

Headhunters tells the story of Roger Brown, a successful corporate recruiter. In order to pay for his expensive lifestyle with his trophy wife, he lives a double life as an art thief. When he finds out that one of his recruits owns a valuable painting, he decides to steal it, which puts his job, his marriage, and even his life at risk.

The Hunt (Jagten) - Denmark

The Hunt is set in a Danish village at Christmas and tells the story of Lucas, a nursery school teacher who is getting over a rough divorce. Life is just starting to improve for him when a child tells a random lie that sends his life spiraling out of control. The false words lead to sexual abuse allegations and a community witch-hunt as he becomes the target of mass hysteria. Clearly this film shows just how influential language can be, whether truthful or not.

Rust and Bone (De rouille et d'os) - Belgium/France

Rust and Bone tells the story of Ali, a Belgian man who has just been put in charge of a young son who he barely knows. He moves to the south of France to live with his sister, who helps him with the child. Ali finds a job as a nightclub bouncer, where he meets Stephanie (played by lovely French actress Marion Cotillard), a killer whale trainer. She soon suffers a horrible accident at work, and the next time they meet she has changed, both physically and emotionally. The films portrays their lives as they gradually intertwine and fall in love.

Paragliding looks fun, yet also terrifying and dangerous.
Untouchable (Intouchables) - France

Untouchable is based on the true story of two very different men that form a friendship. Philippe is a quadriplegic aristocrat who was injured in a paragliding accident. He hires Driss, an ex-convict, to be his caretaker. Hijinks ensue, and they develop a great friendship based on humour and honesty.

It tends to be quite tricky for a layperson to guess which way our cinematic superiors will go when making their selections. We wouldn't like to try and guess a winner, but if we did have to put money on it, we'd go with Untouchable since we have a soft spot for France and the film seems to have had more coverage than the other nominees. We'll find out who wins tonight!