Thursday, January 31, 2013

United States of Languages: Midwest, Part 2

As we continue on our linguistic journey through the US there's still a ton of Midwestern states left to cover. We'll be following on from yesterday's look at the linguistic diversity of the Midwest with the remaining states in the Midwest. Let's get to it!


Busch Stadium, home of St. Louis Cardinals baseball.
The "Show-Me State" is named after the Missouri River which runs through the region, which was in turn named after the Missouri Indian tribe. The indigenous group was known as the ouemessourita, which meant "those who have dugout canoes". There's still no agreement on the proper pronunciation of the name though, even within the state itself. The main disputes involve the pronunciation of the two i's in the word and generally come down to "Missour-ee" versus "Missour-uh". (Definitely "Missour-ee".)

Almost all Missourians speak English. Just over 2% of the population speaks Spanish, mainly in communities in the St. Louis and Kansas City areas. Missouri is also home to Missouri French, a nearly extinct French dialect. Its few remaining speakers, mainly elderly, are descendants of early French settlers that refer to themselves as Créoles. While the dialect is not likely to survive, it was once widely spoken in the area and was one of three major French dialects used in the United States.

North Dakota

Despite being one of the larger states, it has one of the smallest populations, with only 700,000 citizens. Most settlers who came to North Dakota were farmers looking to make a life from the land. The majority came from Great Britain, Germany, and Scandinavia. They had some great land to grow crops on, but starting in the 1920s, the population began to decrease, especially due to young people moving away. Nowadays, 2.5% of the population speaks German at home and a few Norwegian words have been adopted by North Dakotans over the years as well. 

North Dakota is also home to a few Native American tribes, including the Sioux. The Sioux language, also known as Dakota and Lakota, is spoken by an estimated 33,000 people in the U.S. and Canada and is the fifth most spoken indigenous language in the two countries. However, the number of speakers is decreasing over time as young people begin to prefer to speak English instead of their tribal language. 

The Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota. All the detail
is corn and other grains and is redesigned once a year.
South Dakota

Pretty much everything we said about North Dakota applies to South Dakota, though it has a slightly larger population than its northern neighbor. South Dakota has the third-highest proportion of Native Americans in the United States. It's also home to more speakers of the Sioux language due its large Indian reservations. Sadly, most of these tribes are impoverished and don't always get the help they need from the government.

South Dakota also has the largest population of Hutterites in the United States. Hutterites are a religious group that believe in absolute pacifism and a "community of goods", meaning that all property in the colony is owned by everyone. Like the Amish, the Hutterites have their own dialect of German called Hutterite German or Hutterisch. The group also uses standard German for religious activities and English in school.


Often considered to be one of the most boring U.S. states to drive across (along with Kansas) since it's prairie as far as the eye can see, Nebraska means "flat water" in the language of the Otoe tribe. The "flat water" refers to the Platte River, which flows across the middle of the state. 

There are several indigenous tribes still living in the area, including the Omaha and the Ponca. The two groups share a Siouan language called Omaha-Ponca, though they speak different dialects, and as usual, claim that their linguistic differences are enough to consider them to be different languages. Either way, the language is nearly extinct, with fewer than 100 speakers. 

Dorothy Gale is from The Wizard of Oz, of course!

Dorothy Gale's home state isn't as linguistically diverse as many others, but there are some speakers of languages besides English. Most recent immigrants have come from Mexico, and 5.5% of the population speaks Spanish. There are also small communities of Vietnamese and Chinese speakers in the state. A few Native American tribes live in the state as well, but their languages are all extremely endangered. 


The "Land of 10,000 Lakes" is named for the Dakota word for "sky-tinted water". Those seem like pretty flattering names to us! The English spoken in Minnesota is the typical Northern accent, but generally differs from other areas with its bits of Scandinavian intonation. Sometimes Minnesotans raise or lower their pitch in ways that other Americans find odd, especially when pronouncing the name of their state. 

Nearly 3% of Minnesotans speak Spanish, while almost 1% speak the Hmong language. There are also several Native American tribes living in the state, most of which speak Ojibwe, also known as Chippewa. If all the Ojibwe dialects throughout the U.S. and Canada are combined, there are over 50,000 speakers of the language. 


We've clearly left the best Midwestern state for last. The Hawkeye State takes its name from the Ioway people, a Native American tribe that inhabited the state when European settlers first arrived. The state is home to the Iowa caucuses which give its citizens the first opportunity to determine the presidential candidates in each election, as well as one of the finest State Fairs in the country, which gives its citizens access to farm animals, art projects, life-size cows sculpted from butter, and the finest in deep-fried delicacies. 

American Gothic by Grant Wood shows
the artist's idea of who would live in
this real house in rural Iowa.
Spanish is spoken by about 3% of Iowans, followed by about 17,000 German speakers. Many of these German speakers are Amish or Mennonite, and speak dialects known as Amana German and Pennsylvania Dutch.

The indigenous Meskwaki language is also spoken by the Meskwaki Indians in the state. Most of its speakers are elderly, but the tribe is making an effort to revive the language. The tribal school provides bilingual education for the children, and the Meskwaki Sewing Project pairs older women who speak the language with younger non-speakers to teach them to sew traditional clothing and practice their language. 

The majority of Iowans speak English in an accent that is classified as "General American", which is the accent that is used in most American movies, television, and music. If you want to learn to speak as close to standard American English as you can get, then visit Iowa!

Next week we'll be looking at the linguistic diversity of the South, y'all!

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

United States of Languages: Midwest, Part 1

Last week we introduced you to the linguistic diversity of the New England and Mid-Atlantic states. This week, we'll be spending our time in the American heartland covering the Midwest, which isn't even in the west!


It's not just famous for cheese, though we do uphold that if you're not lactose intolerant, cheese is definitely one of the greatest foods imaginable. It does nothing but improve food. Where would the mighty burger be without cheese? We digress...

Mmmm... cheeseburger.
Wisconsin was central to the Bennett Law controversy in the late 1800s. The law, which was passed in 1889, stipulated that English be the vehicular language for education for all subjects in Wisconsin. The German-Americans in the state were strongly against the law. Luckily for them, the law was repealed a couple years later and they were once again free to have German language schools if they desired.

The state has been incredibly diverse since its founding. Over the years, it has been chosen as the home of French fur traders, Cornish miners, and Norwegian farmers, among others. More recently, large Mexican and Hmong populations have moved to the area. Many of these groups still have members who speak their native or ancestral language at home instead of English. Spanish is spoken by 3.4% of Wisconsinites (also affectionately known as "Cheeseheads"), while 1% speak German and .6% speak Hmong. There are also many French and Polish speakers in the state.

English spoken in Wisconsin is a typical Northern accent, similar to that of people in the New England states. However, there are a few words particular to the area. One such word is bubbler, meaning "drinking fountain", which can also be heard in other parts of the Midwest but is not commonly used elsewhere.


The Hoosier State takes its name from the "Land of the Indians", owing to its large number of "Indians", or Native Americans to the more politically correct among us. Unfortunately, most of these indigenous inhabitants were forced to move from the state in the 1800s, so there are few speakers of their languages in the area. Today, the state is more like the "Land Without Indians", with only a few small settlements that are generally unrecognized by the government. 

The Hoosier nickname has its origins as a derogatory term that people from the South used to refer to "country bumpkins", but they've clearly come to embrace it since it's their official state demonym instead of Indianians. Admittedly, "Indianians" is a bit of an awkward name to pronounce.

The linguistic composition of the state isn't quite as diverse as some of the other Midwestern states. The main language is of course English, with just over 3% of the population speaking Spanish. Languages such as Chinese and German are also spoken by small minorities.

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

We know, it looks like a giant mitten, Upper Peninsula excluded. Over 6% of Michiganders are foreign-born... perhaps the mitten waved to them from the map and enticed them to brave the cold winters! In any case, Michigan has the largest Dutch, Finnish and Macedonian populations in the country. There's also a large Arab community, with immigrants from places such as Lebanon and Yemen. Many came to the state in the 1920s to work in the automobile industry.

As usual, Spanish is the second most popular language in the state, with 2.7% of the population speaking it at home. Arabic comes in second, with .8%, followed by German and Polish. There are also good numbers of Tagalog and Vietnamese speakers.

In case you were wondering, the name Michigan comes from Ojibwa, a Native American language. Their word mishigamaa, meaning "large water" or "large lake" was used by the French when naming the state, which is obviously apt given that it borders four of the five Great Lakes!


The Buckeye State is linguistically similar to its neighbor, Indiana. Only 4.1% of its population is foreign born, though more of these immigrants are from Asia as opposed to the more common Europe or South America. The majority of people in Ohio speak English, but Spanish, Italian, Russian, and Hungarian speakers can be found, among other languages.

English spoken in the state varies depending on where you are. People near Lake Erie tend to speak like New Yorkers, while rural Ohioans speak like Pennsylvanians, and southern citizens speak more like they do in the South.

Willis Tower, formerly the Sears Tower,
the tallest building in the United States.

Much of the linguistic diversity of Illinois is due to Chicago, the third most populous state in the U.S., whose metropolitan area contains 65% of Illinoisans. Nearly 14% of the population in the state is foreign-born, with people coming from nearly everywhere on the globe. Only four-fifths of Illinois citizens speak English at home. More than one in ten speak Spanish, while 1.6% speak Polish. However, especially in Chicago, you're likely to find small populations who speak any number of other languages, from Urdu to Gujarati.

Illinois English draws from the states around it, and so it is a mix between the Northern and Midwest accents, which admittedly are not so different from each other. It all comes down to pronunciation of vowels and a few lexical curiosities here and there, but in general Illinoisans are thought to have a higher /æ/ pronunciation than other areas. They're occasionally mocked by people from other states when they pronounce words like "backpack" in a way that sounds particularly nasal and duck-like, unfortunately.

We've only covered half of the Midwest so far, so check back tomorrow for more!

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Top Language Universities: Canada

We've covered the top language universities in both the US and the UK now. So what about Canada? We didn't mean to leave out the Canucks and with the number of academic institutions they have in the top 100 for languages, we couldn't!

Without further ado, we present the top language universities of Canada!

The Butchart Gardens near Victoria
 look like a great place to study!
University of Victoria

Thanks to the Brits and Greenwich Mean Time, you can't study much farther west without being in the East. The university is only 50 years old, but don't let that put you off. The University of Victoria boasts an impressive language faculty and all this on an island!? It's also known for its mild climate and beautiful gardens. (Calm down Brits!) 

University of Calgary

If you head northwest from the University of Victoria, you'll find the University of Calgary just past the Canadian Rockies. It's also a "young" university,  but it has achieved high status as one of Canada's top research institutions. The university's Language Research Centre includes a database that holds recordings of every translation of the first Harry Potter book, from West Greenlandic to Ancient Greek. Apparently it's called Harrius Potter et Philosophi Lapis in Latin!

Queen's University also uses Herstmonceux Castle in
England as their international study centre!
Queen's University

In 1841, the Church of Scotland founded Queen's College in Kingston, Ontario with a royal charter from Queen Victoria. However, the institution has been secular since 1912, when its name was changed to Queen's University. Language course offerings include Mohawk, an indigenous language spoken by about 3,000 members of the Mohawk Nation in the U.S. and Canada. There's the occasional course on Inuit languages as well. Not many universities can offer that!

University of Alberta

Located in Edmonton, the University of Alberta was established in 1908 and can boast having been in the top five universities in Canada. Undergraduates can major in languages such as Polish and Italian, while graduate students can study for a MA or PhD in subjects such as Ukrainian folklore and Slavic linguistics. 

You can also visit the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.
York University

The third-largest university in Canada, York University is located in Toronto. It's home to top business and law schools, as well as being an important member of the Canadian Space Program, especially in relation to the exploration of Mars! If that doesn't sound cool enough to you, perhaps you'll be excited by one of the widest language selections available of any Canadian university. They even offer Jamaican Creole and Swahili.  

Université de Montréal

If you're a French speaker, the Université de Montréal in Québec might just be the perfect place for you. It's one of the largest research institutions in the Canada, even aiding in the Manhattan Project that produced the atomic bomb. That's long in the past though, so don't let it keep you from attending an excellent language school that offers courses in Japanese and German, among others. 

Could the campus be more beautiful?
University of British Columbia

If you've always wanted to live in Vancouver, the University of British Columbia can give you the chance. It's only 20 minutes away from downtown, plus it's close to beaches and the mountains. What more could you ask for? The language program also boasts a First Nations Languages Program which can give you an introduction to a number of indigenous languages such as Cree, as well as a course on endangered languages and their revitalization. 

The Jacques Cartier bridge across the Saint Lawrence River.
McGill University

Want to live in Montréal but not ready to do your degree in French? McGill University might be the place for you. Most instruction at this public institution is in English, though in most circumstances you can turn in your work in French if you'd prefer. They offer degrees in over 300 fields of study, so there are plenty of exciting things for you to try out if you like the idea of being a lifelong student. The Languages, Literatures, and Cultures department has lots to offer, including courses on Russian opera.

University of Toronto

Last but not least, we have the University of Toronto. Founded by a royal charter in 1827, it was originally known as King's College and controlled by the Church of England. It boasts some major scientific achievements, including the creation of insulin as an injection to treat diabetes, which got their team a Nobel Prize in 1923. But you want to know about the language offerings, right? There are plenty to choose from, including Bengali, Estonian, Ojibwa, Sanskrit, and Tibetan! 

Monday, January 28, 2013

Language Profile: Turkish

This week we're taking a look at Turkish, a member of the Oghuz branch of the Turkic language family with over 50.8 million native speakers. It's an official language of the island nation of Cyprus alongside Greek, as well as a regional official language in Kosovo. Of course, it is also the official language of Turkey, where over 90% of the population speaks the language.

The Turkish Angora cat is an ancient breed native to the
Ankara region of Turkey. You thought we'd take the
easy way out and slap in a photo of a turkey, didn't you?  
During the time of the Ottoman Empire (1299-1923), the literary and official language used in what is now Turkey was aptly called Ottoman Turkish. This language was a mixture of Turkish, Persian, and Arabic which was fairly unintelligible for the majority of society, especially the little-educated who tended to speak a "purer" vernacular form of the language. This vernacular formed the basis for what is known as the Turkish language today. Modern standard Turkish is most closely based on the dialect used in Istanbul (not Constantinople!).

There are many distinct accents and dialects of Turkish which are currently being researched by Turkish linguists at various universities. As usual, it's a bit tricky to decide exactly what differentiates a language from a dialect or even an accent.

Atatürk also had an awesome 'stache.
The Republic of Turkey was founded in 1923. Its first president was named Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. His last name meant "Father of the Turks" which the government clearly felt suited him, as he was forever after known only as Atatürk. In 1934, the Turkish parliament even made a point of declaring it forbidden for anyone else to ever be known by that name!

One of the main goals of Atatürk and his government was to modernize the new country. In 1932, the Turkish Language Association was founded. Its first task was to remove Arabic and Persian loanwords from the language and replace them with Turkish equivalents. They succeeded in removing hundreds of words, as well as reviving the use of some words from Old Turkish that hadn't been used in ages. The association is considered to be the official authority on the Turkish language and contributes to linguistic research on Turkish and related languages, as well as publishing the official Turkish dictionary. The most recent version of Güncel Türkçe Sözlük (literally "Great Turkish Dictionary") contained 616,767 entries.

Atatürk introducing the new alphabet.
Atatürk made Turkish script reform another top governmental priority. During imperial times, the language had been written in a Perso-Arabic script. This made it difficult to write many Turkish words, especially in the case of vowels. Turkish contains eight vowel sounds, while the Ottoman Turkish alphabet used only three. The solution was to start a language commission of linguists and academics to create a new alphabet, of course!

In 1928, Atatürk introduced the new Latin-based alphabet to the country, even taking it upon himself to tour the country teaching it to the public. Special schools were opened across the country to teach all citizens the new alphabet and within a few years, a majority of the population was literate. It was quite an achievement considering that when the country was first formed a mere 10% were literate. The president was so passionate about educating the people that he even helped to develop the textbook used to teach Turkish to schoolchildren.

Istanbul's Grand Bazaar
Due to the new Turkish alphabet, spelling of the language is mostly phonetic, with one letter per phoneme. That makes it easier to learn if you're looking for a language to add to your list. The alphabet is nearly the same as that of English, though it excludes q, x, and w. Instead, it adds the letters ç, ş, ğ, ı, ö, and ü, bringing it to a grand total of 29 letters. You've already learned the Turkish alphabet... you might as well learn to speak the language now too!

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Get It Right: Affect And Effect

It's been far too long since we've done a condescending post on correct usage of the English language (our last one was on further and farther back at the start of December!) and we felt it was time to do another.

Today we're looking at one of the simplest errors. If you know anything about words and their classification is makes this very easy.
No jokes about the gender of the driver, please!

Affect is a verb. It means something is doing something. Something affects something else. Since it's a verb it can be conjugated which means, in English, that it can have the -ed suffix in the past tense. There is no such word as effected.

For example: Drinking ten pints of strong continental lager seriously affects your ability to drive.

Effect is a noun. A noun, put simply, is a thing or a concept. If preceded by the or a then it's effect you need.

Example: The effects of drinking alcohol are detrimental to one's ability to drive.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Happy Birthday Edward Sapir!

Today, if you hadn't guessed by the title, is Edward Sapir's birthday. Unfortunately, he's dead. Fortunately, his legacy lives on the world of linguistics.

It's not a bad place to be educated.
Born to "German" parents, the place where he was born was actually in Prussia, which is now Poland. He moved to the U.S. where he studied Germanic linguistics at the University of Columbia, which is still one of the top language universities in the United States. It also allowed Jewish students in without any limitations, unlike other universities at the time.

His most important work included the classification of Native American languages. His work with Native American languages was even featured in the Encyclopædia Britannica. He took particular interest in the Athabaskan language family.

Sapir's other famous "work" included the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. Despite the name, Sapir never co-authored any work with Whorf and, in fact, never made a hypothesis. It's just a useful label put on to some of the work he did in terms of linguistic relativity, just like Whorf.

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis stipulated that the way people think, their cognitive processes, are affected by language. The idea that Inuits have several words for snow was an example used by Whorf to explain the hypothesis. It was, of course, found to be false.

Edward Sapir's work will be remembered for quite some time, not just amongst linguists, but also by everyone who wrongly quotes that "Inuits have hundreds of words for snow"!

Towards the end of his life Sapir was the head of Anthropology at Yale, where he continued to work on the relationship between anthropology and languages. Amazingly, few before him had thought that there'd be a link between the two!

He died in 1939 in New Haven, Connecticut.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Word Categories for Dummies

We often mention certain aspects of words and it only just occurred to us that we haven't ever explained what they are. Just in case you've been a little confused in the past, we've provided a little glossary of the classifications of words for you.

Time for another...

Nouns are things. Most things that can be preceded by the or a (which we'll get into later) are nouns. Examples include everyday things such as house, bed, cat and dog, as well as concepts such as love, hate, anger and envy, to name a few. If there's a name for something it's most likely a noun. Beer is a noun and we'll be using it in every example.

Example: "A beer."


If you remember covering verbs in school, you were probably told that verbs are doing words. Verbs are actions pretty much 100% of the time. They conjugate as well, meaning that their stem will change based on who or what is doing the action. The change in the verb means that we can explain things in the past, present and future, not to mention concepts such as the conditional and even subjunctive.

Example: "I like beer."

Personal pronouns

The personal pronouns in English include: I, you, he, she, it, we, you (plural), and they when they are the subject, meaning the thing that does the verb. If this isn't the case then you'll have to use me, you, himherit, us, you, and them when they are the object, the thing that is getting something done to it.

Example: "I hit him because he took my beer."

Things would be different in my pub!
Possessive pronouns

If someone or something owns something then you'll need the possessive pronoun. They include mine, yours, hishersits, ours, yours, and theirs.

Example: "The beer was mine."
Relative Pronouns

Relative pronouns join parts of sentences together. Words such as who, whom, whose, which, and that can all be relative pronouns. Put simply, when the latter part of a sentence requires one of those words, odds are that you have yourself a relative pronoun.

Example: "This is the beer which I drank."

Adjectives add qualities and details to nouns, they're describing words. If something is big or small, fat or thin then you've got yourself an adjective.

Example: "I love a cold beer!"

Adverbs work much in the same way as adjectives, except they add details to verbs. They explain how a verb is done. Many of them in English use the suffix -ly, so you can better explain how something was done.

Example: "I quickly drank my beer as the bar was closing."


Articles are a type of determiner and come in two forms, definite and indefinite. The definite article, the, implies that the listener or reader knows which thing you're talking about.

Example: "Where is the beer?"

The indefinite article is used when the listener or reader may not know which thing you are referring to, or it's not important.

Example: "I would like a beer."


Conjunctions work in a similar way to relative pronouns. They constitute "connecting words" and most of words you were told to never told to start a sentence with. Words such as and, but, for, or, yet, so, and nor are all conjunctions.

Example: "I drank a beer but I can still drive."

A preposition is a word that usually explains where something is in relation to something else. Words such as in, on, over and under are all prepositions. They can also refer to semantic concepts such as of and for.

Example: "My beer is in my hand."


Interjections are words for emotions and sentiments. Most of them are followed by an exclamation mark.

Example: "Wow! What a fantastic beer!"

Now get to the pub to show off
your new knowledge!

Determiners are an interesting classification of words. Their main function is to clarify or determine a noun or noun phrase. Examples include articles as well as possessives pronouns, both of which we mentioned before. So what aren't determiners?

Nouns and verbs are definitely not determiners. Determiners can be articles, possessives, demonstratives such as this and that, as well as quantifiers such as some, all, few and many.

Numbers both cardinal (one, two, three) and ordinal (first, second, third) are also considered determiners as they mention how many of a certain noun there are or what order they came in.

Example: "This beer is mine!"

The main criticism of word categories is that, as you have seen, it tends to pigeon-hole words into just one category. Many words can be many things, so is it productive to categorise them thus? What do you think? The comments are below if you have something to say...

Thursday, January 24, 2013

United States of Languages: Mid-Atlantic

Yesterday we took a look at the linguistic diversity of New England. Today, we continue our trip farther south to the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States.

The Statue of Liberty
New York

New York State is one of the most linguistically diverse areas in the whole United States. Naturally, the most populous city in the entire country, New York City, is one of the main reasons for this diversity. Nearby Ellis Island is known for its historical importance as the gateway for immigrants to enter the country in the late 1800s and early 1900s. All those immigrants heading into New York City to start a new life in search of the American Dream certainly helped contribute to the area's linguistic diversity. 

New York is home to the largest populations of people of Puerto Rican, Dominican, Italian and Jamaican descent. There are also very large groups whose ancestors came from Italy, Ireland, Germany, and French Canada. As of 2000, only 72% of New Yorkers spoke only English at home. The leaves over a quarter of the state's population speaking other native languages! The Spanish-speaking population is constantly growing, with over 13.6% speaking it at home. Over 2% of New Yorkers speak Chinese, while nearly as many use Italian at home. Chances are, if you think of a language at random, around half a percent of New Yorkers speak it... which is still quite a large number of people. The very long list of languages spoken in the state includes Polish, Korean, Greek, and Tagalog.

Another popular language is Yiddish, with .6% of the population speaking the Germanic language. Over 60% of American Yiddish speakers reside in New York. They've clearly left an impact on American English with the introduction of words such as chutzpah and mensch. Sadly, nowadays most speakers of the language are elderly, as younger generations tend to speak more English instead.

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania's second-largest city.

New York's southern neighbor is also linguistically diverse, albeit with far fewer people speaking languages besides English at home. Pennsylvania's second most popular language is Spanish, which is spoken by 3.1% of the population. There are around 70,000 Pennsylvanians who speak Italian and German as well. Another popular language is Vietnamese, with over 25,000 people speaking it at home.

Ever heard of Pennsylvania Dutch? Despite its misleading English name, Pennsylvania Dutch is actually a descendant of German, and refers to Deutsch, the German word for "German". It's a fine example of settlers sticking to their guns when it came to the language they spoke, and in some parts of Pennsylvania this dated form of German can still be heard. The Pennsylvania Dutch people, mainly German and Swiss immigrants, settled in the area in the 17th and 18th centuries. Their language is spoken in modern times by Old Order Amish and Mennonite communities. However, most people living in these religious communities are bilingual, and English is used more and more every year.

The New Jersey shore, without the natives.
New Jersey

Do you think you know about language in New Jersey? If you just said "Noo Joisey" in your head, shame on you! There is, of course, a Jersey accent and it is fairly distinct. Just don't let your opinion of the state be swayed by that horrible television show based around the Jersey Shore and the idea that the only redeeming quality of it that it is indeed by the sea and there's a possibility the cast may drown. New Jersey is actually the most densely populated state in the entire United States, with over 1,000 people per square mile. Most of them live in the areas closest to Philadelphia and New York City and commute each day to one of the two aforementioned states to work. 

New Jersey is exceptionally diverse. It boasts some of the largest populations of people of Peruvian, Cuban, Italian, Indian, Korean, Filipino, and Chinese descent in the entire country, in addition to having large Muslim and Jewish populations. Basically it's not packed with Christians of European descent, unlike many other parts of the country. There are many communities scattered throughout the state where languages besides English are spoken. The largest linguistic enclaves are home to speakers of Spanish, Italian, Polish, Gujarati, Hindi, Tagalog, Chinese, Korean, Telugu, Malayalam, Portuguese, Turkish, and Russian. There are plenty of other languages spoken by minorities in the state as well. 

Next week we'll be exploring the linguistic diversity of the Midwestern states!

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

United States of Languages: New England

While you may think of the United States of America as a country full of English speakers, there's actually quite a lot of linguistic diversity to be found. There are tons of little-known indigenous Native American languages, as well as the languages of all the various settlers who have come to the country over the past few hundred years. We'll be spending the next few weeks unearthing the linguistic secrets of the United States by region, starting with the Northeast. Our journey begins today with the New England states.

Acadia National Park, Maine

Right in the Northeast of the U.S. with Canada bordering to the north, Maine has the highest percentage of French speakers of any state. This is partly due to the large number of descendants of Quebecois immigrants who arrived towards the end of the 19th century. The French speakers are found in the north of the state and refer to themselves as Acadians. 5.28% of Maine residents speak French at home.

There were also large numbers of Irish, Italian and Polish settlers in the early part of the 20th century. However, less than a tenth of a percent speak the language of their ancestors rather than English.

The English found in Maine is considered a typical "Yankee" accent, and it is common that the final /r/ is absent from words, much like British English.

Maine also has a unique lexicon. What most Americans would call "pancakes" are referred to as "fritters" by the Mainers, which is what the people of Maine are called!

Fall colors in a New Hampshire forest.
New Hampshire

The linguistic diversity of the New Hampshire is quite similar to that of its northern neighbor, Maine. French is the second most-spoken language in the state, with 3.41% of New Hampshirites speaking it at home. Most of the French speakers are descendants of Québécois immigrants who worked in mills. The northernmost county in the state boasts one of the highest proportions of French speakers in the U.S., with 16% of its inhabitants speaking French at home.

The variety of English spoken in New Hampshire is a typically northern accent, with the same missing final /r/ as in Maine. Some New Hampshirites also use the term "eaves spouts" for "gutters".

Lake Champlain, Vermont

One of the least populous states (Washington, D.C. has a larger population!), Vermont is quite similar linguistically to Maine and New Hampshire, and similarly has one of the largest populations of people of French-Canadian ancestry. 2.54% of Vermonters speak French at home. Many of the state's inhabitants are of British ancestry as well, hence the large majority of English speakers. One lexical difference from its neighboring states is the tendency to refer to "gutters" as "eaves troughs". And no, our minds are not stuck in the gutter.

Massachusetts State House, Boston

Unlike Vermont, Massachusetts is full of people as the third most densely populated state. In 2008, the state had nearly one million foreign-born residents. The first large immigrant groups to settle in the state were the Irish in the 19th century. Québécois, Italian, and Polish settlers arrived later, and in the 20th century, most new immigrants came from Latin America, Africa, and Asia. The state is also home to many descendants of Portuguese immigrants who came from the Azores to work in the whaling and textile industries. 2.7% of Bay Staters, as citizens of Massachusetts are called, speak Portuguese at home.

The state is also home to the second largest Cambodian community in the country, with .4% of the state speaking some variety from the Mon-Khmer language family. In addition, the Wampanoag and Nipmuck tribes have various reservations across the state. Both tribes historically spoke the Massachusett language, which is also known as Wampanoag and is currently in the process of a revival movement.

The English spoken in the state is usually considered a typical northern accent, though the pronunciation of vowels somewhat differs in the Boston area. The /r/ also disappears after vowels as in other New England states.

Claiborne Pell Bridge in Newport, Rhode Island
Rhode Island

Despite being the smallest state, Rhode Island has the second highest population density in the country. Rhode Islanders are fairly typical for New England. There are significant populations of French and Portuguese speakers, but the second most-spoken language in this state is Spanish. The majority of  the 8.1% of Rhode Islanders who speak Spanish at home are of Dominican, Puerto Rican, and Guatemalan descent. Rhode Island is also home to large numbers of African immigrants, especially from Liberia, Cape Verde, Nigeria, and Ghana. Roughly half a percent of Rhode Islanders speak an African language at home.

Bear Mountain, Connecticut

If you guessed that the linguistic diversity of Connecticut is similar to that of its fellow New England states, you're right. However, as we've moved farther south, the number of French speakers has dropped dramatically. Only 1.3% of Connecticuters (don't ask us to pronounce that!) speak French at home. As in Rhode Island, Spanish is the second most-spoken language after English, with 8.4% speaking the language at home. English spoken in the state is once again considered a northern accent, though some speakers also use what is referred to as the "intrustive /r/", in which an /r/ is added as a link between two vowels, such as pronouncing swallow it as "swaller it".

We hope you've enjoyed our little linguistic tour of New England. We'll be covering the Mid-Atlantic region tomorrow! 

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Top Language Universities: UK

Last week we covered the top language universities in the US and now we're covering the top choices for students in Blighty. Who said Brits were no good at languages!?

Durham Castle
Durham University

Nestled away in the North East of England, Durham ranks as a top 100 university. The language programme, however, does not. It creeps in the top 10 for UK language universities but is actually considered just outside of the top 100 for the world. If you can brave the cold north, this may be the university for you.

University of York

Another beautiful historic city in the north of England. The University of York doesn't make the top 100 universities for the world, but it does when it comes to languages so we can forgive them. Those with a soft spot for history should definitely look in to York, especially if you like Vikings.

The Clifton suspension bridge.
University of Bristol

If the wonderful Bristolian accent hasn't already cemented your decision, the fact that only a few universities in the UK can boast a better language programme should. It should be noted that graffiti artist Banksy hails from Bristol and his works can be spotted around the city. If that's not your cup of tea, then there are plenty of historical sites and a pretty impressive bridge.

The University of Warwick

Although not technically in Warwick geographically speaking, the University of Warwick has become one of the UK's most well-respected academic institutions. The language course is no exception.

Manchester Cathedral
The University of Manchester

If you only know Manchester for its football teams then shame on you! Manchester boasts a well-respected university as well as a gorgeous cathedral. It's also home to the Gallagher brothers of Oasis fame, but don't let that put you off. Their music wasn't bad, though.

SOAS - School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London

If the name didn't give it away, this school is the place to go when it comes to African and Asian languages. It's also the only school of its type in the UK. It's not advised, however, if you're looking to study European languages.

UCL (University College London)

Don't let the name confuse you. UCL is a British university. University College London is one of the UK's most prestigious universities and has the language department to match. Overall, UCL outranks Oxford in the world rankings. If you think you can survive the hustle and bustle of the UK's capital, then this should definitely be one of your first choices.
Cockburn Street, Edinburgh
University of Edinburgh

The capital is where you'll find Scotland's best university when it comes to languages. For those lucky Scots that enjoy the advantages of no tuition fees, it would be silly to opt for the next two if you can get your degree for free!

University of Cambridge

You probably imagined that Cambridge would be high up on the list. Given that we haven't mentioned Oxford, then you can guess what's coming next. That said, it doesn't take anything away from the high quality of education provided at one of the UK's most prestigious universities. Cambridge can still boast finishing higher in the top 100 overall than their rivals at Oxford.

University of Oxford

While Cambridge may have the bragging rights when it comes to ranking the entire institution, Oxford is still the cream of the crop when it comes to language departments. Oxford should probably be the top pick for anyone wanting to study languages in the UK. If you can get in, that is.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Language Profile: Urdu

This week's language profile is on Urdu. It has approximately 60.6 million native speakers and is the national language and lingua franca of Pakistan, as well as an official regional language in India. It's a Hindustani language that is intelligible with Hindi.

Hindustani, or Hindi-Urdu, was originally the language of Hindus and Muslims in North India and Pakistan. In the late 1800s, the two religious groups decided they couldn't agree on the name of the language anymore, and it started to be called Hindi by Hindus (mainly in India) and Urdu by Muslims (mainly in Pakistan). Things got even more contentious when Urdu was made the national language of Pakistan, which upset Indians who believed the language should always be written in Devanagari script instead of the Perso-Arabic script used by Pakistanis.

This awesome animal is a markhor, the
national animal of Pakistan.
As usual, both religious groups believed they were right and the other was wrong. Instead of just agreeing to disagree on naming and happily using their respective dialects, they began to claim that Hindi and Urdu had always been separate languages, which is far from the truth. However, over the years the two standard dialects have diverged quite a bit from their shared Hindustani roots, to the extent that they are now often unintelligible in their formal registers.

Hindi and Urdu share many linguistics similarities, including syntax, morphology, and core vocabulary. The main thing that sets them apart is lexical differences in their respective formal registers. Urdu tends to have more loanwords from Arabic and Persian, while Hindi uses more from Sanskrit. They're also written using different scripts. However, most linguists agree that the differences between the two "languages' are sociolinguistic, or cultural differences. The colloquial registers used in everyday life by both Hindi and Urdu speakers are mutually intelligible. In fact, a purposely ambiguous colloquial variety referred to as Hindustani is often used in Bollywood films in order to target a wider audience in both countries.

Urdu was actually chosen as the lingua franca of Pakistan as a way to unite its people, who generally speak one of a number of regional indigenous languages. Urdu was selected in order to make sure that none of the Pakistani languages was given preference. It is usually learned as a second or third language by most Pakistanis, since their official language is English and most speak an indigenous language at home. This has lead to Urdu influencing the indigenous languages and vice versa.

"Urdu" written in Nastaʿlīq script.
Register is also important in the Urdu language, and the etymology of words is used to help decide how polite someone's speech is. It's like how in English, words of French origin are often considered to be more formal than those from Old English. You'd never say "let's commence eating" in an informal situation. You'd use the word start instead, unless you were just being silly. The same goes for Urdu. For example, there are two words meaning "water", پانی pānī and آب āb. Words of older Hindustani or Sanskrit origin such as pānī are used coloquially, whereas words of Persian or Arabic origin such as āb are used in formal situations.

The Urdu alphabet is written from right to left using the Nastaʿlīq script. It's based on the Persian alphabet, which is in turn based on the Arabic alphabet. This style of writing is apparently quite difficult to typeset, or form into a font, so Urdu newspapers were handwritten by calligraphers up to the late 1980s. We imagine that must have been quite an arduous job!

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Collocation: How Words Go Together

In linguistics, collocation refers to words that appear together more frequently than expected. It's how words go together, though not like "rama lama lama" as Grease would have us believe. Though rama and lama probably do exhibit collocation to a certain extent.

For native speakers of a language, the collocations are almost second nature. Most English speakers know that you make a decision rather than do a decision. The fact that "make" occurs more frequently with the word "decision" is a syntactic relation. Many speakers of languages that do not have a distinction between the words "do" and "make", such as French and Spanish, will often find themselves making this mistake, causing the English speakers with them to wince slightly at the inelegance of the phrasing.

It can also be used to make funky lines...
Collocation can be measured by brainy mathematicians using all sorts of crazy functions that we don't even want to fathom. Certain methods include using the log-likelihood, (it's not something you consider on your first visit to the toilet after a curry), as well as other statistical analysis methods.

You know when you're witnessing collocation, especially within the speech of a foreign speaker. It's the feeling every native speaker will get when they can't explain why a sentence is wrong but know that it just sounds wrong.

Even with all the mathematics behind finding collocation, all it takes is a sentence that feels awkward.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

January 19: Edgar Allan Poe's Birthday

Although he's dead and has been for some time, we're still celebrating Edgar Allan Poe's birthday today. He would be 204 today, and we think he deserves at least a post for his troubles.

If you were unable to subtract 204 from 2013, you should know that he was born in 1809 and only lived to age 40. He was born Boston, Massachusetts and briefly attended schools in Irvine, Chelsea and Stoke Newington in the United Kingdom before eventually settling with his foster family, the Allans, in Richmond, Virginia.

He spent about a year at the newly established University of Virginia studying ancient and modern languages, but ended up dropping out. As an 18 year-old (although he said he was 22), he enlisted in the army and served as a private at Fort Independence in Boston Harbor. His first book, Tamerlane and Other Poems, was released the same year. It was pretty much a horrendous failure, with only 50 copies published that few took notice of.

When he actually reached 22 his elder brother died, due in part to alcoholism. Poe focused on his writing and struggled, like many do, to make ends meet. After a few publications he was noticed by John P. Kennedy, who helped him in classic business style by introducing him to a few movers and shakers. This helped land him a job as the assistant editor for the Southern Literary Messenger in Richmond until he lost his job for being drunk.

They were kind of sweet, though. Virginia wrote
this acrostic poem for Edgar one Valentine's Day.
In a part of his life that should be brushed over, Poe, quite disgustingly, married his 13 year-old cousin, Virginia, in Baltimore. The ceremony was held in secret, though he did later marry her in public. He eventually got his job back at the Southern Literary Messenger and returned to Richmond.

He stayed at the Messenger until 1837, and afterwards published the majority of his works. His cousin-wife fell ill to tuberculosis and Poe, who was already fond of booze, started drinking more. Virginia died in 1842, which obviously didn't help Poe's drinking problem either.

Poe went out with a few other women following his wife's death but with little success. More often than not his drinking problem and erratic behaviour got in the way. Poe was eventually found in a bad state on 3rd October 1849. Supposedly delirious and calling out "Reynolds", he later died at Washington College. All records concerning the cause of his death have been lost, so it remains a mystery. 

While Edgar Allan Poe had quite an erratic life, he is most known for the mark he left upon literature. During his lifetime, he was known not as a writer but as one of the fiercest of literary critics. Later in his short life, he began to gain notoriety for his short stories and poetry. His works were dark, and many of his stories and poems dealt with death. He was one of the first Americans to write short stories, and is even credited by some, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (the writer of the Sherlock Holmes stories), to have invented the detective fiction genre.

An 1858 illustration for "The Raven"
done by John Tenniel. 
Two of his most famous works are "The Tell-Tale Heart" and "The Raven". The first is a short story in which the narrator tries to convince you that he's sane while describing a murder he has committed. Eventually, he begins to hear the beating of his victim's heart from under the floorboards. We won't spoil the details of the story for you if you haven't read it, but it's definitely an interesting read if you're not too squeamish. 

You may also know his narrative poem entitled "The Raven", especially if you're a fan of The Simpsons. It tells of an upset lover and a mysterious talking raven that appears and repeatedly utters the word "nevermore" to him. However, as we pointed out yesterday, there are no such things as talking birds. Most of Poe's stories were quite dark, and we can only imagine that had to do with his life. Nevertheless, he left an indelible mark on literature, especially the mystery genre. The Edgar Award is even given out each year by The Mystery Writers of America for distinguished work in the genre. Last year's winner was a British author named Mo Hayder, for her novel Gone.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Why Parrots Can't Talk

You've all seen them. Parrots are without a doubt the most devious "language users" on the planet. They mimic the sounds of language but lack the ability to speak.

"Be quiet when I'm talking!
What parrots do when they talk is nothing more than a parlour trick. They respond to cues and replicate sounds that, to humans, are very similar to speech.

When a parrot says "hello" it doesn't understand that it's greeting people. All it does is respond to whichever cue the trainer has designated as "hello" and responded, usually seeking a reward such as a cracker.

Parakeets and budgerigars (you know them as "budgies") are also known to be good at "talking". One budgie known as Puck held the Guinness World Record for largest vocabulary of any bird with 1,728 words. This is a larger vocabulary than the average reality TV viewer.

Amazon parrots, from the rainforest and not the online marketplace, have a reputation for being good at talking. Although several species of birds have the "equipment" necessary to replicate the sounds of speech, they unfortunately lack the brain capacity to understand languages.

"Could you throw me a fish? I'm hungry!"
However, animals do communicate and dolphins famously will chatter to one another and even to Megan Fox, if we are to believe a recent advertisement we saw. It will probably take millions of years of evolution before animals will communicate like we do, as all those with the brains lack the equipment, while those with the equipment lack the brains.

Chimpanzees have been taught to use sign language to communicate and a few have even become famous for it. Koko the gorilla is famous for her skills in sign language and understanding of words but, like most human males, may have used it to get people to show her their breasts.