Friday, May 31, 2013

The Pros And Cons Of Compulsory Language Learning

Far behind many of its European counterparts, the UK is finally getting ready for compulsory language education in its primary schools. As language enthusiasts, we obviously think this is a fantastic thing, but today we're trying to be diplomatic and present a fair and balanced argument for and against obligatory language learning.


The first photo taken of Earth, in 1968.
With the world becoming increasingly global and open, languages are a valuable skill. Particularly so in the UK, where monolingualism is rife amongst its youth, who are effectively the future of the nation. Since many other nations already have foreign languages in their curriculum from an early age, the British workforce of the future could be left lagging behind the other nations without it.

Speaking foreign languages has been shown to have huge benefits in terms of cognitive abilities, brain development and health. If today's youth aren't learning foreign languages for the economy, they should be learning it for their own development and the ability to lead richer lives.


There are a lot of key subjects that can be considered to be more important than languages. Literacy and numeracy are always at the forefront in terms of education, and whenever new classes are added to curriculum, the time used to teach these subjects must be taken from another subject. Of course, it needn't be maths and English that lose out to foreign languages, the sciences and the humanities can end up with their contact hours slashed. Is there a particular subject that can be removed?

Which subjects will have to lose out?

Art: Some may argue that art could be one of the first subjects to lose time to foreign languages. It is not a particularly academic subject, especially at the primary level, but could we really take away art, one of the most creative subjects available to young minds, and effectively destroy any creativity they are harbouring?

St. Catherine of Alexandria, by Raphael.
History: To some, history is incredibly interesting and worthwhile, to others it's incredibly boring. Fans of this subject will argue that you can't understand the present, make plans for the future, or have an awareness of world affairs without learning what came before.

Geography: Geography was never a particular favourite subject of ours. Sure, we enjoyed looking at atlases and cool places to visit, finding funny place names and wondering what languages they spoke there. We did not, however, enjoy looking at soil or measuring traffic flow on the local main road.

Science: For people as nerdy as we are, science will always be considered one of the coolest subjects. You start to learn about how everything around us works, from the atom all the way up to the universe and almost everything in between. Most primary schools tend to focus on science in general instead of specialized subjects such as physics, chemistry and biology, but it would be very difficult to cut since it is certainly a very academic subject.

Music: Music is another of the so-called artsy-fartsy subjects that are said to nurture young talent and creativity. Is it necessary to have both music and art, or could we perhaps lose one (or combine them) in order to have languages on the timetable?

Religious Education: Some places, such as France, consider themselves secular when it comes to education. Others do not. Some parents prefer to send their children to religious schools in order to provide them with both empirical learning and theological learning. In these cases, it's going to be very difficult to take RE off the syllabus.

IT: Perhaps back when some of you were in primary school this wasn't such a big deal. Now it is. Is there anyone out there who doesn't use a computer daily? 

What are your opinions on compulsory language learning? Have you ever worked in or attended a school that had it? If so, do you feel that other subjects suffered as a result? We'd love to hear your opinions and experiences below in the comments.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Nahuatl Loanwords: Part 2

Yesterday we began our look at Nahuatl loanwords with some plant and animal terminology. Today we'll be taking a look at a few more Nahuatl terms that made their way into English, this time focusing on some delicious foods.

A lovely assortment of guacamole,
avocado, and garnishes.
Avocado & Guacamole - In our opinion, no party is complete without tortilla chips and guacamole! The delicious greenish-yellow fruit gets its name from the Nahuatl term āhuacatl, which can mean both "avocado" and "testicle". Appropriately, our favorite dip was originally called āhuacamōlli, a combination of the aforementioned term and the Nahuatl mōlli, meaning "sauce". We assume that the original recipe was to make sauce from avocados, but one can never be sure given the bloody history of the Aztecs...

Cacao - The Nahuatl term cacahuatl refers to the beans of the cacao tree, which is native to the Americas. The beans themselves hold seeds, known as cacaua in Nahuatl, which are used to make both cocoa and chocolate!

Chocolate - Speaking of one of the world's most popular flavors, its name comes from the Nahuatl word xocolātl. The term is thought to be a combination of xocolia, meaning "to make bitter", and -atl, meaning "water", though it has recently been disputed by some linguists.

Chili Pepper & Chipotle - These spicy red peppers are named for the Nahuatl word chīlli, and are a great addition to just about any dish. When you combine the Nahuatl term poctli meaning "smoke" with it, you get chilpoctli, the smoke-dried jalapeños known as chipotles in English.

A leaf-wrapped tamale, ready to enjoy.
Tamale - If you've ever had real Mexican food, then we hope you've eaten a few of these. This Mesoamerican dish has been around for thousands of years, and consists of a corn-based dough filled with just about anything (meat, cheese, fruit, vegetables) and then steamed in corn husks or plantain leaves. The Nahuatl term tamal was used for this important portable food, which was often eaten by armies, hunters, and travelers alike.

Tomato - We'd like to know what Europeans ate before tomatoes were brought over from the Americas. They certainly weren't eating pizza or pasta with delicious tomato-based sauces! This essential fruit was originally named tomatl, from the Nahuatl term tomana "to swell", literally meaning "the swelling fruit".

If you've been paying attention over the last two days, you may have been wondering why most of the original Nahuatl terms end in -tl, -tli, or -li. This is, in fact, a suffix that the language uses to mark unpossessed singular nouns!

Did we forget your favorite Nahuatl loanword in English? Let us know in the comments, and please include a definition.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Nahuatl Loanwords: Part 1

A couple of weeks ago, we looked at some loanwords from Quechua, the language of the Inca Empire. Over the next two days, we'll be looking at loanwords from the language of another major pre-Columbian civilization, the Aztec Empire.

Artist Salvador Dalí and his pet ocelot Babou.
Nahuatl is still spoken by over a million people in Latin America, mainly in Mexico and El Salvador. During the Spanish conquest, many Nahuatl words for concepts new to Europeans were adopted by the Spaniards. Eventually, many of them also made their way into the English language. Today we'll be looking at some of our favorite Nahuatl plant and animal terminology.

Ocelot - We love felines, and these endangered wildcats are no exception. Their name comes from the Nahuatl word ocēlōtl, though the term was generally used in reference to their larger relative, the jaguar.

Peyote - This small, spineless cactus is known as peyōtl in Nahuatl, and is thought to refer to the plant as well as mean "caterpillar". The plant is known for its psychoactive properties and is primarily used within Native American tribes, where it is used to treat everything from childbirth pains to diabetes and blindness. It's also known to be helpful with psychedelic meditation.

Shack - Nobody knows for sure where the name for these small, sometimes "primitive", dwellings came from, but some linguists guess that it is derived from the Nahuatl term xacalli, meaning "grass/wooden hut".
This coyote pup couldn't be any cuter if he tried.

Coyote - Also known as "American jackals" and "prairie wolves", these canines get their name from the Nahuatl term coyotl, which can also mean "trickster"!

Mesquite - This term actually refers to a shrub from the pea family known as mizquitl in Nahuatl. Its wood burns slowly and produces a lot of heat, but is known for the distinctive flavor it infuses into barbecued meats. Mmm.

Tomorrow we'll finish our look at Nahuatl loanwords with some tasty food terminology.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Get It Right: Fewer And Less

There are many people we hear using fewer and less almost interchangeably. Before we get into the words themselves, there's a very interesting concept that you need to wrap your head around before you can even begin to work out which word it is that you should be using.

The use of these words hinges on whether or not an actual quantity of something is involved and whether or not that quantity can be counted. Unsurprisingly, the nouns that can be counted are known as countable and those that cannot are known as uncountable. Once you have worked out whether or not the noun is countable or uncountable, you should be able to distinguish between these two words.

This lake has less water than the Atlantic Ocean.

Fewer can only be used when a noun can be counted. If you can say that there are two of them then you are fine to use fewer. As a general rule of thumb, liquids tend not to be counted in integers, making them, more often than not, uncountable. You can have fewer apples but not less apples.


Since fewer is used for countable nouns, then less must be used for the uncountable. Can you have three waters? Technically yes, but only if you're ordering in a restaurant. Usually water is uncountable, so you can have less water. Likewise, you can have less sand but fewer grains of sand.

Less is also used when referring to abstract concepts. You can be less successful, less efficient and less affluent but never fewer successful, fewer efficient and fewer affluent. It sounds horrible just saying it. Odds are, if it doesn't sound wrong when you say fewer, then you are probably correct in using it.

Do you have any common grammatical mistakes you feel we should address? Tell us about them in the comments below.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Language Profile: Hausa

After months of language profiles, we've finally reached a truly African language! This week's language profile is on Hausa, a Chadic language of the Afro-Asiatic language family. It is officially recognized as a national language of Niger and a major language of Nigeria. It's also used as a lingua franca across much of West Africa, including the countries of Benin, Cameroon, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Sudan, and Togo.

Hausa has more native speakers than any African language and is the language of the Hausa people, one of the largest ethnic groups in West Africa. A majority of the Hausa are Muslims, so the language has also come to be used as a lingua franca of Muslims in non-Hausa regions. 

Abuja National Mosque in Nigeria's capital city, Abuja.
Hausa is also the most commonly spoken language in Nigeria, and is used as the language of instruction in primary schools in the northern part of the country. It can also be heard on radio and television broadcasts throughout Nigeria and Niger.

There are several dialects of Hausa to be found across West Africa, mainly because of the large geographic area the language has spread across. The Ghanaian dialect that is spoken in Ghana, Togo, and the Ivory Coast is fairly isolated from other dialects of Hausa, which has caused it to be more distinctive than other dialects. 

Non-native speakers also tend to use a significantly different pronunciation from native speakers. This is true with many languages, but it is especially common in Hausa due to the sounds it uses. Many difficult to pronounce consonants are changed by non-native speakers into phonemes they are familiar with, which often leads to confusion and difficulty distinguishing between words. Hausa is also a tonal language, which means that each vowel (a, e, i, o, u) can have either a low, high, or falling tone. However, most non-native speakers simply omit this linguistic characteristic!

The official writing system of Hausa is the Latin-based Boko alphabet, which was forced on the people by British colonizers in the 1930s. However, the language can also be written using Ajami, an Arabic-based alphabet that has been in use since the early 17th century. It is not commonly used since it has no standard system, but it is occasionally used by Muslims for religious purposes.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Geeky Linguistics, Part 2

In yesterday's post we introduced 1337 (pronounced "leet"), a convention whereby its users replace regular letters from the Latin alphabet for numerical characters in order to evade censorship and generally to be less n00b-like.

We didn't, however, cover some of the more interesting lexical elements of 1337. Adding the suffix -age to almost any word seems to make it a noun and -ness is used to convert adjectives into nouns.

Only a geek would do this to their car.
Of course, 1337 isn't the only way geeks can communicate. Many conlangs from television shows have become popular means for their fans to talk to one another. Klingon is very popular with fans of Star Trek, just as Elvish is with fans of Tolkien.

As with most conlangs, it's very difficult to measure and moderate speakers since there are no particular nations with native speakers of the language. This leaves conlangs with very low numbers of native and fluent speakers. Esperanto, the most successful conlang in the world, has fewer than 1,000 native speakers, so it follows that other conlangs from television, literature or cinema would have even fewer speakers.

Perhaps the nerdiest way to communicate would be via ASCII. The system is used to convert binary (the base-2 system that represents "on" and "off" in electronics) into our regular 26-character alphabet and beyond. Given that each letter is represented by seven bits, this would probably take far too long unless the data was transmitted at a very high speed, though it's essentially what we're doing right now.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Geek Pride Day: Geeky Linguistics, Part 1

Since today is "Geek Pride Day", which is from the Spanish Día del orgullo friki, we thought we'd start out by telling you about this wonderful day and the effect that geeks have had on the English language, not to mention many others!

If you've read The Hitchhiker's Guide to the
Galaxy, then you know what this is all about!
So why the 25th of May? Well, if you're geeky and old enough, you'll remember that today is the day Star Wars was released back in 1977. It's also when the first Towel Day was held, exactly two weeks following the death of Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. If you're a fan of the Discworld books, which we most certainly are, it is also the Glorious 25th of May. As if you need any more reasons to be geeky today, or any other day for that matter. 

One of our favourite elements of geek linguistics is 1337 (or Leet, to those less nerdily-inclined), the wonderful language of chat rooms, message boards and general online discussion for many years now. You can generally spot 1337 by its blatant disregard for the Latin alphabet and use of numbers in place of letters. The practice came around to avoid filters on chat rooms and message boards. Curse words would often be censored and sometimes, especially when someone disagrees with you on which Star Trek captain is better, you need an expletive to tell them exactly what you think of their dumb opinion. 1337 enabled uncensored communication across the information superhighway. 

The concept was fairly simple: replace certain letters with numbers. 1 is i or L, 2 is z, 3 is e or E, 4 us A, 5 is s, 6 is G, 7 is T, 8 is B, 9 is g, and 0 is o or O. This allowed users to avoid censorship and use words such as pr0n for "porn", and 1337 for "leet", short for "elite". 

The letter 'x' was often used to replace the combination 'ck', and -or replaced what would commonly be an -er suffix. This lead to words such as haxor for "hacker" and suxor for "sucker", as in someone who sucks. 

The letter 'z' became a popular suffix and was often added to suxor to make, obviously, suxorz. The word n00b was used to describe newbies, or the generally uninformed, because in internet nerd culture it is assumed that everyone knows everything about everything, and it is safe to insult newbies from behind a computer screen where one cannot be punched. Despite being language nerds, we feel this is probably enough geekiness for one day... read part 2.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Intro to Linguistics: Etymology

The average person who isn't obsessed with languages like us probably isn't familiar with many of the most important fields in linguistics, such as phonetics and semantics. However, nearly everyone has heard of etymology, which is an important part of the field of historical linguistics. We imagine this has to do with the natural fascination humans have with history in its many forms.

This map shows the etymology of U.S. state names,
specifically their languages of origin.
The word etymology comes from the Greek term etymon meaning "true sense" combined with the suffix -logia, meaning "study of". Therefore it comes as no surprise that it is the study of the history of words, specifically their origins and how their form and meaning have changed over the years. There are four main ways that etymologists study the origin of words.

First, they can use philological research, which is a fancy way of saying that they can learn more about languages with a long written history by studying their old texts. By looking at these sometimes ancient texts, they're able to learn about how each word was used and spelled at earlier points in the language's history.

Another option is the use of dialectological data, which allows linguists to uncover variations in word usage or spelling between dialects of the same language. For example, this type of research has allowed linguists to pinpoint exactly when words like favourite and colour in British English shifted to become favorite and color in American English

There's also comparative linguistics, in which linguists compare words in related languages. The comparative method can help to solidify connections between languages that are thought to pertain to the same language family, as well help to reconstruct information about languages that are too old to be directly studied.

Fields of heather, a plant belonging to the genus Erica.
Finally, etymologists can also make hypotheses about changes in the meanings of words over time, known as semantic change. These hypotheses are generally based on the knowledge the linguist has of similar changes in other languages. 

Etymology can also be used in reference to the origin of a particular word such as a name. For example, the etymology of Erica is that it is a feminine form of the name Eric, originally from Old Norse, that was first used in the 18th century and is also identical to the Latin word for "heather". If you're interested in learning about the etymology of your name, this site seems to have a wealth of information to offer!

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Cooking With Morphemes

In the linguistic field of morphology, a morpheme is the smallest unit of grammar. This is much like the atom in physics, at least until the discovery of subatomic particles. A morpheme cannot be broken down, at least not grammatically, into anything smaller.

There are two types of morphemes, free and bound morphemes. Free morphemes can operate independently and therefore, in effect, are words in their own right. Bound morphemes, unfortunately, cannot. However, in our opinion bound morphemes are far more interesting and deserve more of our attention.

Bound morphemes generally consist of affixes. Affixes are morphemes that attach themselves to words, hence bound. As part of a laboured analogy, we will be making a hamburger. If you're vegetarian you will just have to deal with it as today's post includes animal slaughter.

Those are some nice buns. 
You should already be familiar with at least two types of affix, prefix and suffix. If you don't know, a prefix is a morpheme that is attached at the beginning of a word and a suffix at the end.  Interestingly, the pre- in prefix is a prefix. Our prefix is the bottom half of our burger bun.

If a prefix is at the beginning then a suffix must be at the end. The s that appears at the end of plurals is considered a suffix since it alters the meaning of the noun, a free morpheme, by changing it from singular to plural. It's the bun lid, the top half of the bun, or the bit with sesame seeds on it... whatever you call the rounder half of a burger bun!

If the suffix appears at the end of the word but only joined by a measly hyphen, this is known as a suffixoid (the -oid is a suffix itself) or a semi-suffix. Imagine this as the horrible moment during consumption when the burger begins to slide away from its bun.

Affixes needn't go just at the beginning or the end of a word. They can even squeeze into the middle of a word. This is known as an infix. Although they are not very common in English, "abso-fucking-lutely" could be considered an example, albeit a rather crude one. In this example, the f-bomb counts as the burger meat, joining together our two word buns.

Look at that perfect cheese placement! Irresistible. 
A circumfix sits around the word, therefore operating much like the whole bun for our burger. Again, this is not common in English.

If the circumfix is the bun, then the interfix is again the meat. It joins two separate and unique stem words in beautiful unity. It's very similar to an infix except that in this case, the bun hasn't been sliced and you're using two complete uncut buns for your burger. Greedy!

There are a couple more things we could mention, but we're too preoccupied thinking about burgers at this point and are now on the hunt for a barbecue.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Get It Right: Lie And Lay

One of our biggest pet peeves is the almost blatant disregard of proper usage of the words lay and lie. Even native English speakers make this mistake, so let us lay down the rules.

Check the lie of the green and the lay of the land.

The word lie can be a verb, meaning either to be resting in a horizontal position or to tell inaccurate or false statements. It can also be a noun, referencing the position in which something lies, such as the lie of the green in a game of golf. The noun can also be the aforementioned inaccurate or false statement.

Example: I am going to lie down because I am tired.


Lay is not synonymous with lie, one cannot lay down in bed. You can lie down in bed. Lay means to place something down. When you lay down a body, it's usually because it's dead and is most certainly not getting back up. Lay as a noun refers to appearance, so you can talk about both the lie and the lay of the green, with the latter referring to its general appearance.
You wouldn't want to lay the table here.

Example: I am going to lay down some cutlery so we can eat dinner.

If you said that you were about to lay down in bed, you were lying about lying and if you can't lie down in your bed it's probably because the lie of the bed isn't right so you should check before you lay your bed down. Confused? No? Don't lie!

Do you have any other grammatical annoyances or pet peeves? Tell us about them in the comments below. We'll be sure to write about them if we haven't already!

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Why Can't We Talk To Animals?

Hamsters are not known for their linguistic abilities.
As humans, we enjoy the dizzying heights and supremacy of being the so-called superior beings of our planet. Some of the things that separate us from animals are our sentience, our culture, and our languages. That said, it certainly does not stop us from attempting to communicate with our furry friends.

When was the last time you found yourself talking to a dog, not just giving vocal orders but actually greeting them, asking how they are, or even just having a full conversation? Those with the restraint to not have full discussions with their pets will think of us as weird, but it's perfectly natural to humanise animals. Talking to plants apparently encourages them to grow. It's actually the vibrations that cause them to flourish rather than the quality of conversation that will make your prize-worthy turnips real contenders at the County Fair.

It's pretty clear that most animals can't understand the intricacies of our advanced communication, but it is certainly not black and white when it comes to whether or not animals can talk. Dogs don't really understand language, they understand tone. Much like when speaking with your girlfriend, it's not what you say, it's how you say it. They respond to tone and volume rather than distinguishing between phonemes, syntax and lexicon.

Cats have been shown to be able to learn commands and understand them, but since they are perhaps the most self-centred creatures on the planet, they often refuse to acknowledge anyone other than themselves.

Dolphins are also great in a military capacity.
Dolphins are said to communicate via a series of clicks and squawks, but deciphering their "language" has become difficult as they spend a lot of time underwater and are therefore hard to study.

Bees, much like art students, communicate solely through dance. They perform a series of motions in certain directions in order to define the location of pollen.

One scientist has spent years studying and decoding the noises of prairie dogs and the messages encoded in their chirps. Aside from being incredibly cute, it seems the little critters are more than capable of encoding information about potential threats, complete with descriptions and instructions on how to escape. It's hardly Shakespeare, but we may not be so highly elevated above these adorable little creatures.

It may not be a case of animals not having language, but rather us not speaking their language.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Language Profile: Filipino & Tagalog, Part 2

Yesterday, we began our weekly language profile with a look at the history of Filipino and Tagalog. Today we'll be focusing on the linguistic characteristics of these mutually intelligible varieties spoken in the Philippines. 

The Philippines has two official languages, Filipino and English. It also has 8 official regional languages, one of which is Tagalog. Tagalog is an Austronesian language related to Javanese and Malay. Its name comes from the word tagailog, which means "river dweller". 

A monument in the Malate district of Manila.
As we mentioned yesterday, Filipino was intended to be a new national language created after centuries of colonial rule. Tagalog was chosen as the basis of this language because it was the most widely spoken indigenous language in the country, had the most developed literary tradition, and was spoken in Manila, the political and economic capital of the country. Although aspects of other indigenous languages were supposed to be involved in the development of this language, at this point Filipino is merely a prestige register of Tagalog.

Due to prior Spanish and American rule over the islands, it is not surprising that both English and Spanish have made significant contributions to the lexicon of Tagalog. By some accounts, up to 40% of daily conversation in Tagalog is composed of Spanish vocabulary!

The language is generally written using the Filipino alphabet, which is the basic 26-letter Latin alphabet used by the English language. However, it includes two additional letters: the Spanish ñ and the Tagalog ng.

It is not uncommon to hear code-switching (switching between languages) in Philippine society, as well as see it on television and in print media. This code-switching is known by the portmanteau Taglish when it is Tagalog being spoken with the occasional English word thrown in. Englog, on the other hand, is the name given to English spoken with some Tagalog vocabulary.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Language Profile: Filipino & Tagalog, Part 1

In this week's language profile, we're taking a look at Filipino and Tagalog. We normally stick to one language per week, so we're providing a brief history lesson today to explain why it makes far more sense to discuss these two languages from the Philippines together.

Philip II of Spain was also the King of
Portugal, as well as King of England,
Ireland, and France by marriage!
The Philippines had been inhabited for at least a couple thousand years before Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan claimed the islands for Spain in 1521. In fact, the islands were soon after named for King Philip II of Spain. A few hundred years later, they were ceded to the U.S. for $20 million as part of the 1898 Treaty of Paris that ended the Spanish-American War. The country was under American control until it gained commonwealth status in 1935 and full independence in 1946.

Once the Philippines became a commonwealth, its leaders decided it needed its own national language, not the long-used Spanish and English of its colonizers. It was decided in 1937 that the indigenous language Tagalog would be the basis of this new national language, which would be called Pilipino. By 1987, the language was officially renamed Filipino in a new constitution, which also stated that as Filipino evolved, it should be developed and enriched by existing indigenous Philippine languages. Most people presumed this meant that the national language would be representative of all the country's ethnic groups as it was originally meant to be.

It's now over twenty years later, and by all accounts there is no discernible difference between Tagalog and Filipino. They have the same grammar, vocabulary, syntax... at best, linguists say they can be classified as distinct varieties of one language, with Filipino being a prestige register of Tagalog. There aren't any signs of new contributions to Filipino from any of the country's other indigenous languages, sadly.

Now that we've covered the history of these two varieties, we'll tell you all about the language itself in Part 2 tomorrow.

Read part 2.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Intro to Linguistics: Distinctive Features

A few weeks ago in our Intro to Linguistics series we introduced you to phonology. Today we're going to look at distinctive features, the most basic parts of phonological structure that can be analyzed.

There are four main categories of distinctive features which are each broken down to specify certain phonetic properties, usually noted with a + for their presence or a - for their absence. Basically, it's a way to describe individual phonemes based on how our bodies create the sounds. This is not a comprehensive list of all distinctive features since that would take ages and possibly bore you to tears, but these are some of the main features that are often focused on by phonologists.

Flamingos have distinctive features
too, namely their long legs and necks
and bright pink feathers!
Major Class Features

You'll be shocked to learn that major class features tell us the most important, or major, classes of sounds. The consonantal group of sounds are produced with constriction of your vocal tract. Sounds that are [+consonantal] as linguists would denote, shockingly include most consonants.

Sonorant sounds, on the other hand, are produced with vocal cord vibration. The sounds marked as [+sonorant] include all vowels, as well as glides like [w], liquids like [l], and nasals like [m] or [n].

There's another major class known as syllabic sounds. These function as the nucleus, or peak, of a syllable. All vowels are [+syllabic], while most consonants are [-syllabic], the exception being syllabic consonants, which likely exist just to make this just a bit more complicated!

Place Features

Our second group of features is a bit more straightforward. These aptly named features tell us the place of the sound's articulation. Sounds articulated with the lips like [b] and [m] are labial.

The coronal sounds are a much larger group produced by the tip of the tongue making contact with the teeth, the hard palate (that bony part on the roof of your mouth), or the alveolar ridge (those funny-feeling ridges in the front of the roof of your mouth).

Sounds articulated using the back of the tongue, known as the dorsum, are dorsal. They can then be further divided into high sounds which raise the dorsum, low sounds that move it to a low position in the mouth, back sounds that involve bunching your tongue up and pulling it back in your mouth, and tensesounds that are vowels involving a more "extreme" articulation. Common [+tense] sounds in English include [i] as in "feet" and [u] as in "boot".

Manner of Articulation Features

Here's a cute hedgehog to aid your learning process.
This group obviously tells us how sounds are articulated. Continuants use a continuous stream of air passing through your vocal tract, like [f]. Nasals like [m] or [n], however, are produced by air passing through your nasal tract. There are also lateral sounds like [l] in which the tongue rises to touch the top of your mouth, which then forces the air to move laterally around the sides of the tongue.

Laryngeal Features

Finally, we have laryngeal features which describe how the glottis is used in each sound. The glottis sounds scary, but really is just your vocal cords and the space between them. A voiced sound uses vocal cord vibration. There are also spread glottis sounds that involve the vocal folds being spread apart, while constricted glottis sounds involve them being held close together.

That's probably enough linguistics for today, don't you think?

Friday, May 17, 2013

Language Learning Methods: Flashcards

In our previous posts on language learning methods we've looked at immersion and choral drilling. Today, we're looking at another method that focuses more on the visual aspect of language education. 

When learning languages, despite there often being a lot to read and write, sometimes a picture and a solitary word can be just as effective. We can't oversell the benefits of using flashcards to teach younger learners as they are often a cheap, effective way to teach vocabulary and other short expressions.

We don't mean these flash memory cards!
That doesn't mean adults can't benefit from using flashcards, though they will probably be more embarrassed or shy about using them. If you can convince them, adult novice learners should use flashcards as a memory aid when learning new words.

Flashcards needn't be used just to match words and pictures. You can also use them to arrange sentences, classify words and illustrate various elements of grammar. Use various colours to represent different sentence elements or word types and build up rules from there.

You don't even need to buy flashcards. If you can draw, or even if you can't, you can make your own flashcards at home and even laminate them for next to nothing. They are a cheap and effective way to learn things.

There are drawbacks, of course. Overuse of flashcards can leave learners with a large vocabulary but no real means to string together sentences. Make sure the vocabulary learnt in the flashcards is then used in a real grammatical context in order to further the memorisation of the word and reinforce a semantic link in the learner's mind.

If you have any suggestions on the best ways to use flashcards, tell us about them in the comments below.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Quechua Loanwords

In previous posts we've looked at loanwords that have made it into English from languages including Tupí, an extinct indigenous language of Brazil. Today we'll be looking at loanwords from another indigenous language native to the Americas, Quechua. However, unlike Tupí, the Quechua language is alive and thriving as the most widely spoken indigenous language of the Americas with approximately 9 million native speakers. We've selected some of our favorite loanwords from the language that have made their way into the English lexicon over the years.

Cocaine - This drug, originally used as an anesthetic, is made from the coca plant. Known as kuka in Quechua, coca leaves have been chewed by indigenous groups in South America for centuries. Though it was once commonly used for medicinal purposes, now it's mainly just a recreational drug.

A majestic llama in front of Machu Picchu in Peru.
Llama - You'd be hard-pressed to find a South American animal that's cooler than the llama. These woolly pack animals get their name from the Quechua term llama that made its way to English via Spanish.

Guano - You may have heard this term before in reference to bat feces, but its name actually comes from the Quechua word huanu, which was used in reference to the dung of sea birds. Andean indigenous groups often collected the dung left by these birds on small islands along Peru's Pacific coast for use as fertilizer.

Condor - If you want to see an ugly bird, then these New World vultures are just the ticket. They are some of the largest flying land birds in the world though, which is fairly impressive despite their penchant for eating decaying animal flesh. Their name comes from the Quechua word cuntur, which later became cóndor in Spanish before reaching English.

Jerky - This tasty treat gets its name from the Quechua word ch'arki with the lovely definition of "dried flesh". Eventually, it passed into Spanish in the Americas as charqui, meaning "jerked meat", before eventually making its way into American English.

Puma concolor, also known as cougar or mountain lion. 
Puma - We love felines, so we were surprised to learn that this is actually a genus of big cats instead of a species! It turns out that the genus Puma includes both cougars (also known as mountain lions) as well as jaguarundis (also known as eyra cats), an awesome species we'd never seen before! The word comes from an identical Quechua term.

Inca - The name of the largest pre-Columbian empire in the Americas comes from an identical Quechua word meaning "lord, king". However, the Incas called their kingdom Tawantinsuyu, while the word Inca was reserved for reference to the ruling class only.

Quinoa - If you've never heard of quinoa before, then you're definitely not a "foodie". If there can be such a thing as a fad crop, then this grain-like plant whose seeds are used in dishes in a similar manner to rice definitely fits the bill. It's popular now, but it was once considered to be sacred by the Incas. Its name comes from the Quechua word kinwa.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Basque And The Lonely Life Of A Language Isolate

As we demonstrated the other day, languages often have families due to their shared roots. Some languages, however, do not. These loners are rebels without causes and though they are a headache for anyone who needs everything in neat little boxes, they are very interesting and unique.

What are these languages and how are they so distinct that we can't just throw them in with other languages? A few of the more widely spoken language isolates include Korean and Basque. It should be noted that an unclassified language is not the same as a language isolate, since language isolates are languages that have been shown to be unrelated rather than not having been classified as of yet.

City hall in Bilbao, the largest city of the Basque Country.
Having already covered Korean in a language profile, we thought we'd show you a little about a fascinating language isolate that isn't hidden away in the Amazon rainforest or spoken only by solitary tribes on a Pacific island. Basque is spoken in northern Spain, and sticks out like a sore thumb against the backdrop of Romance languages such as Spanish, Portuguese and French that are its almost immediate neighbours.

Though the Basque Country (País Vasco in Spanish and Euskadi in Basque) exists as an autonomous region of Spain, the true Basque region (Euskal Herria in Basque) is said to extend beyond and stretch as far as southwestern France. It is here where the Basque language, known natively as Euskara, is spoken by around 715,000 native speakers.

Despite the obvious link between the Basque language and Basque separatism, it should be noted that though the political organisation ETA obviously speaks Basque, it is by no means representative of the speakers of this fascinating and unique language nestled amongst historically Latin languages.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Get It Right: Apostrophes

Few punctuation marks cause as much trouble as the apostrophe. In English, the apostrophe serves several purposes, many of which are unknown to the general public.

These DVDs are waterproof... we hope!

The apostrophe is not used for plurals! Despite what you may see, things such as DVDs (note the correct pluralisation) should not be written as DVD's, unless it's possessive.


As we saw in our previous example, "DVD's" is actually possessive. When a noun becomes possessive we add an apostrophe before the s.

Example: I really enjoyed the DVD's extra features.

Nouns ending in s

Some nouns end in s. Usually one would add 's to the word to indicate the possessive. Here you have a choice. You may add an apostrophe without the letter s.

Example: James' house.

However, if you so wish you can add both.

Example: James's house.

This hungry chipmunk has contracted
a serious case of cuteness!
Personally, we prefer omitting the additional s but both are considered correct and rather than getting into a fight about it, you should just be consistent.


An apostrophe is used in when two words have contracted to form a new word. The combination of I and am contract to form I'm, for example. Combine it and is and you will get it's.

Example: I like the DVD, it's really good.

Its (not it's)

Even though the contraction of it and is uses an apostrophe, when you're talking about the possessive of the third person neutral, it, then you do not use an apostrophe.

Example: The DVD was a success thanks to its extra features.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Language Profile: Eastern Punjabi

Way back in November, we introduced you to the Lahnda macrolanguage of Pakistan. One of the many languages that belongs to the group of Lahnda languages is Western Punjabi, the most spoken native language in Pakistan. Today we'll be looking at Eastern Punjabi, which many believe is the same language, but in India. We're siding
The Harmandir Sahib or "Golden Temple" in Amritsar.
It is the holiest shrine in Sikhism.
with the Ethnologue as usual so we'll be treating them as separate languages, but that doesn't mean there isn't quite a bit of debate as to whether they're distinct dialects of one language or completely separate languages.

Eastern Punjabi is natively spoken by over 28 million people in India. It has recognition as an official regional language in the Indian states of Punjab and Haryana. It has multiple dialects, though all are highly mutually intelligible and mainly differ in lexicon.

Despite being considered different languages by some linguistics, many others combine Eastern and Western Punjabi and regard them as one language. Since there are so many shared characteristics between the two varieties, we'll now cover them while referring to the language simply as "Punjabi" to make things simpler.

"Punjabi" written in Gurmukhi,
Shahmukhi, and Devanagari.
The Punjabi language has become an increasingly important part of Bollywood cinema in recent years. It is not uncommon to hear Bollywood songs that are written in Punjabi. Punjabi pop and folk songs are also popular in both countries, and the study of Punjabi literature has gained the interest of many students.

Punjabi is written using three different writing systems. In Pakistan, it is written using Shahmukhi, a variant of the Perso-Arabic Nastaʿlīq script with four additional letters. In India, the language is usually written using the Gurmukhi script, which is an abugida. However, some Punjabi Hindus occasionally write the language using Devanagari, most commonly associated with Hindi.

For a final interesting fact, we were surprised to learn that Punjabi is actually the third most spoken language in Canada!

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Language Families And Dialect Continuums

Some languages are quite similar, while others couldn't be more different. More often than not, similar languages share a common ancestry and the languages that have many differences do not. When languages have a shared ancestry, a common root, or were initially the same language before diverging into different languages, they are said to be part of the same language family.

Like traditional human families, language families can be put into a family tree. Of course, speakers of related languages may not be genetically related. Almost every language belongs to a language family. However, there are certain languages that do not, and these are known as language isolates.

The five largest language families account for around 85% of the world's population and include Indo-European, Sino-Tibetan, Niger-Congo, Afroasiatic, and Austronesian languages.

Language family trees are just as beautiful.
Within each of these families there are branches and subdivisions. Both English and French are Indo-European languages, but English is a Germanic language like German, while French is a Romance language like Italian and Spanish.

For languages that are very similar, it isn't always possible to pigeonhole them in such a clear-cut way as to define them as a member of a particular language family's subdivision as we did with English and French. When this is the case, rather than use a tree model as we do with language families, we can use a dialect continuum, which classifies the languages more as a range than as separate entities.

When considering languages in this way, rather than saying Portuguese, Spanish, French and Italian are all Romance languages, we'd consider them all to be a part of a Romance language continuum, both linguistically and geographically. You can see this for yourself with a car and several days of driving, if you so wish.

Starting in the west with Portugal (home to Portuguese) and heading eastwards across Europe, you can begin to appreciate the language continuum as you pass through Spain, experiencing Galician, Asturian, Spanish and Catalan, to name a few. As you reach France, you can enjoy hearing French and Occitan before hearing Italian in Italy and Romansch in Switzerland.

Languages, as much as we can attempt to classify and organise them, are sometimes so dynamic, unique and uncontrollable, that whether we consider them part of a continuum or members of a family seems fairly arbitrary when we could just be enjoying them!

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Intro to Linguistics: Morphological Typology

Several weeks ago we gave you an introduction to morphology, the study of word formation and structure. Today we'll be looking at morphological typology, a system for classifying the world's languages based on how their morphemes are used. We'll begin by describing the two main morphological types: analytic languages and synthetic languages.

This cat is preparing its pen so it can
do some typological analysis with us.
Analytic Languages

These are also known as isolating languages because they're composed of isolated, or free, morphemes. Free morphemes can be words on their own, such as cat or happy. Languages that are purely analytic in structure don't use any prefixes or suffixes, ever. However, it's rare to find a language that is purely analytic or synthetic since most languages have characteristics of both. Morphological typology is like a spectrum in which languages fit in somewhere from analytic to polysynthetic (a subtype of synthetic languages we'll get to in a moment).

Mandarin Chinese and Vietnamese are good examples of analytic languages. The logographic writing systems of many languages used in Asia undoubtedly contribute to their analytic nature, since each symbol they write represents an entire word. English, on the other hand, is one of the most analytic Indo-European languages, but is still usually classified as a synthetic language.

Synthetic Languages

You've probably already guessed that synthetic languages differ from analytic languages because they do use affixes, also known as bound morphemes. There are three subtypes of synthetic languages which we'll now briefly describe.

Agglutination doesn't have anything to do with gluttony.
Agglutinating Languages: With these languages, morphemes within words are usually clearly recognizable in a way that makes it easy to tell where the morpheme boundaries are. Their affixes usually only have a single meaning. Turkish, Korean, Hungarian, Japanese, and Finnish are all in this group.

Fusional Languages: Similar to agglutinating languages, except that the morpheme boundaries are much more difficult to discern. Affixes are often fused with the stems, and can have multiple meanings. A prime example of a fusional language is Spanish, especially when it comes to verbs. In the word hablo "I speak", the -o morpheme tells us that we're dealing with a subject that is singular, first person, and in the present tense. It's difficult to find a morpheme that means "speak", however, since habl- is not a morpheme. Fusional languages can be tricky!

Polysynthetic Languages: These languages are undoubtedly some of the most difficult to learn. They often have verbs that can express the entirety of a typical sentence in English, which they do by incorporating nouns into verbs forms. For example, the Sora language of India has one word that means "I will catch a tiger". Many Native American languages are polysynthetic.

Friday, May 10, 2013

The EU And Its Languages: Part 2

Yesterday we saw a brief history of the EEC which later became the EU, the countries that formed it and the languages they brought with them. Today we'll be continuing our little history lesson with the Maastricht Treaty, the formation of the EU and countries that became members and brought their cultures and languages with them.

The Colonel Building in the
Dutch city of Maastricht. 
The Maastricht Treaty was signed in 1992 and formally created the European Union. Three years later Austria, Sweden and Finland all joined the club. Austria had little to no worries when it came to linguistic recognition as German had been a permanent fixture since the creation of the EEC. Sweden and Finland, however, led to Swedish and Finnish being added as official languages.

It would take another nine years before the EU would allow any more nations into the community, but when it did it would be the largest expansion to date. On May 1st of 2004, Cyprus, Malta, Slovenia joined, as well as seven former members of the Eastern Bloc: Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Slovakia. Czech, Estonian, Hungarian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Maltese, Polish, Slovak and Slovene all became official languages.

Three years later in 2007, Bulgaria and Romania became EU member states and Bulgarian and Romanian became official languages. Irish also finally gained its official status, no less than 14 years after Ireland joined the EU.

With five years having passed since the last the enlargement, Croatia is due to accede at some point this year and will no doubt bring with it its native language, Croatian.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

The EU And Its Languages: Part 1

Since today is Europe Day, the celebration of the EU and Europe, we felt it would be an apt time to celebrate our thirst for language knowledge. Today we'll be looking at how the political entity of the EU has affected languages over the last six decades.

The Treaty of Rome was signed in this room
in the Palazzo dei Conservatori.
Our story begins with the Treaty of Rome and the creation of the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1957. This helped create the earliest form of what can now be called the EU. The EEC wasn't actually the EU, but many consider it to be the precursor for it. Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands were the founding nations of the EEC.

If you're even vaguely culturally aware, you will notice that these six countries don't all speak the same language. Belgium's main languages include Flemish and French, while German is used in Germany, Italian in Italy, and French in France. It's also spoken in Luxembourg, where Flemish and Luxembourgish are also used, while Dutch and other languages we mentioned last week for Queen's Day are spoken in the Netherlands.

Four main languages from these countries were assigned official status. These were French, Italian, German and Dutch, three of which would later be considered by marketers as the most important languages in Europe, known as EFIGS (English, French, Italian, German and Spanish).

Charles de Gaulle clearly wasn't a fan
of his British neighbours.
It wasn't until 1973 that more nations joined the EEC. The United Kingdom, Ireland and Denmark were added to the roster despite previous vetoes from France's president, Charles de Gaulle. As if the British and the French needed more political tension!

With their accession came English and Danish as official languages. Ireland's native language, Irish, would not be added as an official language until New Year's Day 2007.

The early 80s brought with it horrendous fashion and a galvanised music scene (some of the best and worst music is from this decade), as well as newly democratic states in the Mediterranean such as Spain, Portugal and Greece, all of which lost their dictators in the 70s.

The common agricultural policy was too good for the Mediterranean states to turn down and membership put a huge seal of approval on the fledgling democracies. Spanish, Portuguese and Greek were all added to the ever-growing list of official languages.

Having already covered all the enlargements of the EEC, tomorrow we'll be covering the history following the Maastricht Treaty, which created what we now know as the EU.

Read Part 2.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

More Of The Worst Use Of Foreign Languages In Songs

A while ago we found five songs that deserved to be in the hall of shame for their atrocious use of a foreign language. We picked five songs that we felt merited the title of "The Worst Use of Foreign Languages in Songs" and felt we'd wrapped things up nicely.

Since then, we have had the misfortune of hearing even more horrendous examples and have had to extend our list to include a few more that get a big F grade for their use of foreign languages.

Samson and Delilah by Anthony Van Dyck
Muse - I Belong To You (Mon cœur s'ouvre à ta voix)

More attempts from the British rock trio to climb inside their own behinds with this one. If the French subtitle didn't do it for you, mon cœur s'ouvre à ta voix, taken from the opera Samson and Delilah, features an over-Anglicised pronunciation of "réponds". Clearly, the singer didn't study how the acute accent over the letter e, (é) should be pronounced in French. He should just keep his falsetto in English.

Styx - Mr. Roboto

Though only featuring one line of Japanese, Mr. Roboto uses it just enough to get really annoying. The words dōmo arigatō misutā Robotto, meaning "thank you very much Mr. Roboto", almost kill the Japanese language and managed to spawn horrendous catchphrases. Styx should study their hiragana, katagana and kanji writing systems before they attempt to speak more Japanese.

Lady Gaga - Bad Romance

Though je veux ton amour et je veux ta revanche is used only briefly in the song, it's just to make Lady Gaga a tiny bit more pretentious, if that was even possible. The outspoken and often controversial singer adds this to a long list of things she shouldn't ever have done. Meat dress, anyone? Also, her song "Alejandro" has a few bits of Spanish and code-switching, but we felt nothing says unnecessary pretentious and cringe-worthy language usage like the French language.

A nice champagne...
now all we need is salmon.
Franz Ferdinand - Darts of Pleasure

The Scottish indie band Franz Ferdinand get a special mention for their use of German in this song. The lyrics in question, which go "Ich heiße Superphantastisch! Ich trinke Schampus mit Lachsfisch! Ich heiße Su-per-phan-tas-tisch", roughly mean "My name is Super-Fantastic! I drink Champagne with salmon! My name is Super-Fantastic!". Need we say more? Despite their German (technically Austrian) band name, they score a big 0 for their ability in the language.

Even now the list isn't exhaustive. If you have any more examples, tell us about them in the comments below.