Sunday, March 31, 2013

Intro to Linguistics: Morphology

In our previous Intro to Linguistics posts, we've covered phonetics (the study of speech sounds) and phonology (the study of how sounds are combined to create meaning). Today, we'll be looking at another field of linguistics, morphology.

Morphology is the study of the structure of words and how they are formed. To give you an idea of what morphology is all about, we'll start out with a list of key terms.

morpheme - The smallest unit of linguistic meaning or function. Words can be made up of one or many morphemes. Depending on how they attach to each other, morphemes can be either free or bound.

A happy cat awaiting some attention.
free morpheme - These morphemes can be words on their own. For example, cat and happy are free morphemes.

bound morpheme - These morphemes are always bound to words and cannot be words by themselves.

affix - Affixes are bound morphemes attached to a stem or root. They have different names based on where they're attached to another morpheme. Prefixes attach to the beginning, suffixes attach to the end, infixes are found in the middle of a morpheme, and circumfixes attach both before and after. 

This is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of morphology. The morpheme that remains when all affixes are removed is called a root. For example, happy is the root of the word happily

Morphemes that create a new stem or word are referred to as derivational morphemes. They often change the grammatical category of a word. In the word happily, the suffix -ly converts happy from an adjective into an adverb. 

Inflectional morphemes, on the other hand, add grammatical information such as case, number, person, gender and tense to the word. In the word cats, the suffix -s indicates number, while in played, the suffix -ed indicates the past tense. Not too tricky, right? There's much more to morphology, but we'll keep it short and simple for today.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Language of Medicine: National Doctors' Day

In the US, today is National Doctors' Day and though we know very little about medicine, we like to think we know quite a bit about language.

A few weeks ago we had a look at binomial nomenclature and how convention dictated that when it came to naming life, Greek and Latin were the languages of choice. The same can be said for medicine as frankly every science has a bit of a love affair with the classical languages.

E. coli magnified 10,000 times.
When it comes to bacteria, Greek is the preferred language. One of the most commonly known bacteria, Escherichia coli, or simply E. coli, takes its name from Greek. Genes, however, are a lot more complicated when it comes to naming.

The Terminologia Anatomica (TA) is the naming convention used when it comes to the human body. It has a good number of rules, as well as 16 subsections ranging from general anatomy to bones, joints, muscles, and various systems of the human body.

Prior to the Terminologia Anatomica there was the Nomina Anatomica (NA), another set of international standards used until the TA usurped it. Prior to the NA pretty much everything was named following vernacular translations from Greek and Latin leaving around 50,000 terms, which was clearly far too many.

The NA addressed this issue by setting up standards for nomenclature. After the NA was applied, the number of terms was reduced to 5,528, which is obviously much easier to work with on an international level.

Once the TA was set up in 1998, it was adopted as the international standard. Since the TA is only available in three languages many places still use the NA since the TA is not available in their mother tongue.

Friday, March 29, 2013

The Worst Use of Foreign Languages in Songs

Though the charts across the world tend to be dominated by songs in English, every so often an English-speaking artist decides that their mother tongue is not good enough for a hit. We've got a list of a few of the most horrendous abominations to foreign languages we can think of...

ABBA - Voulez-Vous

We find it difficult to fault ABBA when it comes to music. The '70s are long gone and, thankfully, so is the attire. Though Swedish, ABBA's mastery of the English language is well-documented throughout their discography. Their mastery of French, however, is not. Don't get us started on Chiquitita...

Probably a stone's throw from the real Lady Marmalade's home.
The French Quarter, New Orleans.
Labelle - Lady Marmalade

"Voulez-vous coucher avec moi (ce soir)?" is the "only" French expression most English speakers seem to know when they're trying to be funny. Not only is the phrase horrendously pronounced throughout the song, but it has also led to many others thinking it's an accurate representation of the French language.

The Beatles - Michelle

The world's most famous band are under fire for their French ability. They certainly did some other horrendous things, linguistically speaking. We're not going to mention the stuff they did entirely in German... 

Manic Street Preachers - La Tristesse Durera

"That's not how it's pronounced!"
No strangers to being pretentious, the Manics have made a career from political controversy and making sure everyone knows that they're smarter than them when it comes to politics. When it comes to screaming Vincent van Gogh's last words, lead singer James Dean Bradfield gets a 0 out of 10.

U2 - Vertigo

The UK and Ireland have the lowest levels of bilingualism in Europe, with the UK having a worse record when it comes to foreign languages, except in this case. If Bono's flying the flag for a multilingual Ireland he's failing miserably. "Uno, dos, tres, catorce" is a horrendous error that U2 fans will defend as being intentional. Nice try! Bono should have studied harder in Spanish class.

This list is by no means exhaustive, so if you have any more to add or disagree with us, tell us in the comments below.

We've added a few more examples of the worst use of foreign languages in songs.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Malay Loanwords

Recently, we've looked at some great words that English has borrowed from African languages, Czech, and Hawaiian. Today it's time to look at loanwords from Malay, an Austronesian macrolanguage whose varieties are spoken in Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, and Brunei.

Amok - When someone is completely out of control, we sometimes say they've "run amok". It comes from the Malay word amuk which means "attacking furiously".

The Palm Cockatoo is native to Australia.
Bamboo - It is thought that this popular plant gets its name from the Malay term samambu. It later became bambu in Portuguese and bamboe in Dutch before its arrival into the English lexicon.

Cockatoo - These distinctive birds with a flashy crest on their head get their name from the Malay word kakatua and are closely related to parrots.

Compound - This word, when used in reference to an enclosed group of buildings, comes from the Malay term kampong, meaning "village".

Cootie - This childish term came to English from kutu, the Malay word for "lice". It was first used in the English language by British soldiers during World War I who used it as slang for the nasty insects. Eventually, the term lost its meaning and simply became a term for an imaginary disease that children attribute to friends who are "different", often of the opposite gender. Luckily, cooties can be "cured" with the "cootie shot", a rhyme combined with tracing circles and dots on the "infected" child's arm.

He's just hanging out, eating a coconut.
Gecko - These awesome chirping lizards get their name from the Malay term gekoq, which is supposedly a good imitation of its natural cry.

Orangutan - These hairy tree-dwelling apes get their name from the Malay words orang ("person") and utan ("forest"), combined to mean "person of forest". The term was originally used in reference to members of indigenous forest tribes on the Sunda Islands in Southeast Asia, but some silly Europeans misunderstood the Malaysian people and assumed they were speaking about the apes that also resided there.

Satay/Sate - Who doesn't like grilled meat on a stick? These skewers with spicy sauce are a typical Malaysian dish known as satai in their native language.

If there are any we've missed, feel free to put them in the comments below. Just make sure you include a definition!

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Debunking Language Stereotypes: Spanish

In the last of our series on debunking the language stereotypes of EFIGS languages, we're covering Spanish.

A while ago we explained why Spaniards lisp, but there's more to Spanish than just that. Just like the stereotypes behind Italian and French, the Spanish language does not feature the phoneme for the letter "i" as in English. This means native Spanish speakers often struggle with the pronunciation of words such as bit, fit, hit and the rude one that rhymes with those words.

The Spanish countryside near Medellín, Extremadura.
Spanish, much like French and Italian, features a silent "h". The language does, however, feature an approximate sound which is used for the letter "j", /x/. It sounds a lot more like clearing your throat, which will often come across when native Spanish speakers attempt to say English words beginning with "h".

In certain dialects of Spanish, the sound for the letter "y" can also pose problems. There is no perfect approximation since the phoneme for the letter "y" as in the English word "yes" is /j/. Spanish has both /ʝ/, which sounds more like a blend between a "y" and a "j" sound, as well as /ʎ/, which sounds more more like an English letter "y".

There are also only five vowel sounds in Spanish. English, depending on how you count vowels and whether you speak American English or British English, can feature nearly twenty vowel phonemes. Imagine how difficult it would be to have to learn almost 15 new vowel sounds in order to speak a new language!

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Intro to Linguistics: Phonology

Last week we began our new Intro to Linguistics series which will provide a brief explanation of each of the major fields of linguistics. We looked at phonetics in our first instalment, and today we'll be covering the other sound-based field, phonology.

Phonology is the branch of linguistics that deals with the use of speech sounds to encode meaning in linguistic items. To put it simply, phonetics studies how you physically make the sounds, while phonology tries to explain the patterns those sounds make and how they can be combined to create meaning.

The field of phonology analyzes several different aspects of speech sounds, so we thought we'd start out listing some key terms you should be familiar with.

Phonemes - These basic units of a language's phonology are joined together to create meaningful units such as words. They're the smallest part of a word that can cause a change in meaning.

Here's Spot hiding in the poppies.
Minimal pairs - When two words differ in only one phoneme yet have different meanings, they form a minimal pair. For example, "mill" [mɪl] and "miss" [mɪs] differ phonetically only in their final consonant and have different meanings. This means that [l] and [s] are a minimal pair. If you can't find a minimal pair for two sounds, then they are likely variations of the same phoneme, also known as...

Allophones - This is when two or more sounds make up the same phoneme. Sounds strange, right? If you're an English speaker, you may be surprised to find out that there are two allophones for the phoneme /p/. In IPA, the word "spot" is written [spot], while "pot" is written [pʰot]. That little 'h' shows it's an aspirated sound, which means that you let out a puff of air when you say it. If you think we're making it up, hold your hand in front of your mouth while you say both words. If you say them correctly, you'll feel a tiny burst of air after you pronounce the 'p' in "pot" but not when you say it in "spot". While you'd probably notice if someone said "spot" using [pʰ], it wouldn't change the meaning of the word, so they aren't considered distinct phonemes.

Allomorphs - These occur when a unit of meaning, or morpheme, can change in sound without changing the meaning. In English, the past tense suffix "-ed" is pronounced in multiple ways, from /t/ in "fished" to /ɪd/ in "hunted" and so on. 

Many other topics are covered within the field of phonology. The study of phonotactics deals with the limits on which sounds can be used in which positions in languages, and how they can be combined. For example, the phonological rules for English don't allow for a word to start with /mp/, but the combination can go at the end of a word such as "jump". Prosody is also studied, and refers to the rhythm, stress, and intonation of speech, as well as emphasis, irony, and our favorite, sarcasm.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Language Profile: Kannada

This week, we're taking a look at Kannada, not to be confused with the world's second largest country, Canada. Kannada is a member of the Dravidian language family. It boasts nearly 38 million native speakers, making it the 8th most spoken official language in India. It is primarily spoken in the southwestern Indian state of Karnataka. Kannada is one of a long list of official regional languages in India.

In 2008, the language also received the distinction of being made one of five official classical languages of India, alongside Tamil, Sanskrit, Telugu, and Malayalam. A center for the study of classical Kannada was then established in Mysore, the second-largest city in Karnataka, in 2011 in order to promote and aid in language-related research.

Mysore Palace in the Indian state of Karnataka.
It is thought that Kannada and Tamil once formed their own branch of the Dravidian language family. Sometime around the 5th century B.C., they split into two independent languages. However, Kannada, along with most other Dravidian languages, was also heavily influenced by Sanskrit in terms of vocabulary, grammar, and phonology, while Tamil was not.

There are approximately 20 dialects of Kannada that are mainly influenced by the region and culture of the speakers. These dialects are mainly spoken though, while written Kannada is fairly consistent throughout the state of Karnataka.

The Kannada alphabet is an abugida that is written from left to right. Interestingly, it was heavily influenced by stone carving, which is why most of its characters are round with straight strokes. Kannada script has 49 letters that are divided into three groups: 34 consonants known as vyanjana, 13 vowels known as swara, and two other letters known as yagavaahaka. These two letters are called anusvara (ಅಂ) and visarga (ಅಃ), and are considered to be something in between a consonant and a vowel. The alphabet is almost perfectly phonetic, which is a definite plus for anyone wanting to learn the language!

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Hawaiian Loanwords

Aloha! As of late, we've been exploring the history of some of the many loanwords that have become a part of the English language. We've looked at vocabulary from Africa, Scandinavia, and the Czech Republic. Today it's all about partying in the sunshine with a few Hawaiian loanwords.

Aloha - If you only know one word in Hawaiian, this is undoubtedly the one. The greeting literally means "love", but only its use as "hello" and "goodbye" has made its way into English usage.

We aren't surfers, but we imagine this is something
a big kahuna could probably do.
Kahuna - Any surfers out there know that a big kahuna is slang for a "god of surfing". The word originally comes from an identical Hawaiian word which means "doctor", "sorcerer", and even "priest"!

Lei - Planning to visit Hawaii? When you tell friends of your plans, be prepared for someone to jokingly ask if you're going to get lei'd. As you likely know, a lei is a garland of flowers worn around the neck or atop the head.

Luau - This typical Hawaiian feast gets its name from lu'au, meaning "young taro tops", with taro being a popular root vegetable that is often consumed at the feasts.

Ohana - You're right, ohana isn't often used in English conversation. We just had to include it in tribute to all the tears shed while watching a furry blue alien say that "ohana means family" in the animated movie Lilo & Stitch.

Puka - Remember how in the 90s all the cool kids wore those little shell necklaces? Puka means "hole" in Hawaiian, so it's only natural that those round shells with holes in the center are named "puka shells".

Taboo - This word comes from the Hawaiian term kapu, meaning "prohibition, sacred, holy".

Could this boy with a lei
and ukulele be any cuter?
Ukulele - A combination of the Hawaiian words uku ("flea") and lele ("to jump, leap"), it literally means "leaping flea". That sounds like a crazy etymology for a musical instrument, but the naming actually refers to the rapid finger motions necessary in order to play it!

Wiki - The first collaborative, user-editable website was named WikiWikiWeb by a programmer who had recently visited Hawaii. While on his trip, he learned that wiki meant "fast", and thus the name was born. Now there are specialized wikis galore, as well as the one and only Wikipedia, which has a page for just about anything you could ever want to learn about.

Do you know of any Hawaiian loanwords that we may have missed? Add them, along with a definition, in the comments below.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Swearing: How Words Become Offensive

We all know of them. Some of us say them more than others and some of us are more offended than others. How do certain words, which are nothing more than a combination of letters and phonemes, get to a point where people find them repulsive, loathsome and downright unmentionable?

Initially, most curse words had religious origins. The concept of blasphemy exists in almost every religion and when it comes to disrespecting things, deities would top the list. It was such a big deal that in the UK it was punishable by death, at least until 1697.

A sign prohibiting swearing along
the boardwalk in Virginia Beach, Virginia. 
After blasphemy comes the issue of offence. Words that are considered offensive are usually those that debase someone or something. Although curse words account for less than 1% of the English vocabulary, their use and existence is of particular interest to researchers.

The reaction to curses is largely based on the individual. Some believe that they should never be uttered, while others think they are acceptable under certain circumstances. There are also those that believe that they're nothing more than phonemes and that selecting some combinations as offensive and others as inoffensive is completely ridiculous.

We believe that context plays a huge part in how offensive words are. We rarely take offense to casual swearing in cinema, music or television and as a representation of particular cultures and natural speech. We appreciate that some may take offence to words and where possible, we attempt to avoid them, unless we feel their use is appropriate or improves the sentence.

Frequently cursing can make a speaker appear to have a lower intellect and can reflect badly on them. A large vocabulary is often associated with intelligence, so if you don't want to look a fool, try using words other than the F-word, the S-word and the ever-dreaded C-word. There are even books full of alternatives if you're short on ideas.

There are a vast number of words in the English language, so why you'd need to insert profanity every other word is beyond us. Certain circumstances, such as standing on a plug with no shoes on, definitely warrant the use of whichever word you feel is appropriate. Just try not to say it in front of children since they repeat everything!

Friday, March 22, 2013

Debunking Language Stereotypes: German

Having covered the language stereotypes of English, French and Italian, today we are turning our attention to German.

Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Germany.
Much like French and Italian, German does not feature our beloved /θ/ (as in think and thing). As a result, English words that feature this phoneme are usually approximated by less-experienced native German speakers when they attempt to speak English. The sounds of the letters "z" and "s" are often used as their approximates.

Another stumbling block for speakers of the language is the letter "w". In German, this is pronounced much like the letter "v" in English, much to the ridicule of German speakers the world over.

It's also incredibly natural for Germans to needlessly capitalise words when writing in English. However, most English speakers seem to have a blatant disregard for correct capitalisation, at least on the internet, so this can often go relatively unnoticed. This seemingly random capitalisation is actually due to the fact that every noun in the German language is capitalised. Obviously it's a very hard habit to break when learning another language!

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Czech Loanwords

Czech it out! We've already taken a look at nature-themed Scandinavian loanwords and food-related African loanwords that have made it into the English language. Obviously, it's time to look at the etymology of English terms for beer, dancing, and explosives courtesy of the Czech language.

Two of the competing Budweisers sitting side by side.
In Europe, the American lager is generally sold as Bud.
Budweiser - Beer has been brewed in the Bohemian town of Budweis (now known as the Czech town České Budějovice) since the 13th century, where it earned the name Budweiser, courtesy of German naming conventions. The town was even home to the imperial brewery for the Holy Roman Emperor for a while due to the high quality of its beer. In the present day, the Budweiser name is claimed by three beer companies: two in the town itself, as well as the American company that created its "Budweiser" beer based on the original.

Dollar - This term is used to refer to the official currency of many countries, including the U.S., Canada, and Australia. It gets its name from Jachymovsky Tolar, which referred to silver coins minted in the town of Jáchymov, a town located in what is now the Czech Republic. Eventually, versions of the term tolar began to be used in reference to similar coins around the world, such as daler in Norwegian and Talar in Polish.

Kolache - This fruit-filled pastry was originally a typical wedding dessert in central Europe, and is now quite popular in Czech-American communities in the Midwestern United States. Its name comes from the Czech term koláč, which is also said to mean "a small cookie" in Macedonian.

Pilsner - Just as Budweiser was named after the town of Budweis, this type of pale lager gets its name from another Bohemian town, Pilsen. Now known as Plzeň in the Czech Republic, this town was the place where the pilsner was first brewed, and in turn gets its name from the Old Czech word plz, meaning "damp, moist".

Polka - This upbeat music and accompanying lively dance come from the Czech word polka meaning "Polish woman". If only we knew why...

A scene from R.U.R. with three original robots on the right. 
Robot - You might be surprised to see "robot" on this list! It turns out that the word was invented in 1920 for use in a science fiction play called R.U.R., which stood for Rossum's Universal Robots. The play took place in a factory that produces artificial people who can be mistaken for humans, now generally referred to as "androids". In any case, the writer started out by referring to them as laboři, from the Latin word labor, but was unhappy with the name. He asked his brother for advice, who suggested using roboti instead. It came from the Czech words robotnik ("slave") and robota ("forced labor, drudgery"). The word as we know it was used in the English translation of the play.

Semtex - If you like spy shows, amateur terrorism or just blowing stuff up, you've probably heard this word before. It's the name of a general-purpose plastic explosive that has been used by everyone from contractors demolishing buildings to terrorists hoping to cause horrific damage without being detected. Its name comes from Semtín, the Czech suburb where it was first produced, combined with the word explosive.

If you know any Czech loanwords that we didn't include, add them below in the comments. Don't forget to include a definition!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Intro to Linguistics: Phonetics

We often reference the various fields of linguistics, so we thought we should finally take some time to briefly explain what each of them encompasses. In the coming weeks, we'll be discussing the main fields our new Intro to Linguistics series.

We'll be starting the series with phonetics. Phonetics is the branch of linguistics that studies the physical properties of speech sounds. In general, phoneticians don't focus on the meaning of the sounds, as that is considered a part of phonology, which we'll discuss next time. Instead, phonetics is all about the sounds you make, how you make them, and how they are received by a listener.


There are three basic areas of study in the field of phonetics. They include articulatory phonetics, acoustic phonetics, and auditory phonetics.

This kudu has ears made for
hearing all kinds of sounds!
Articulatory phonetics 

This is the study of how speech is produced. It focuses on the position, shape, and movement of your articulators, or speech organs, such as the lips, tongue, and vocal folds. If you're interested in seeing how the sounds in American English, German, or Spanish are articulated, then you should definitely check out this flash animation project by the University of Iowa, go Hawkeyes!

Acoustic phonetics 

Just as you might guess, this is the study of the transmission of speech from speaker to listener. It focuses on the properties of sound waves such as frequency, amplitude, and harmonic structure. This is where physics and linguistics overlap so if you're interested in both you should definitely consider further study into this field.

Auditory phonetics 

It's all about the reception of speech sounds by the listener through the use of the auditory system, or hearing. The recognition and categorization of sounds as well as the role of the brain in listening are also studied. It's basically where linguistics meets biology and psychology.

So how do linguists refer to these sounds when each language uses different symbols (such as letters) to represent the same sounds? They use the International Phonetic Alphabet (better known as the IPA) to transcribe the sounds, of course! Every last documented speech sound has its very own symbol.

The field of phonetics has many practical applications in everyday life. It plays a large part in speech recognition, which we've discussed in the past. More interestingly, forensic phonetics uses the science of speech for legal purposes. Forensic phoneticians are able to analyze audio samples and uncover information about a speaker's social and regional background, which could potentially help to locate a criminal suspect. They can also help to distinguish between different speakers, as well as assess whether or not something in a police transcription was misheard. Sometimes, a linguist can even be a better sleuth than a real detective!

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Top Language Universities: Asia

We've covered the top language universities in the US, the UK, Canada, Australia and Europe and now it's Asia's turn. If you're looking to head east (or stay where you are if you're from Asia), these universities offer something a little different from all the western (culturally, not as in cowboys) institutions.

Needless to say, there are a lot of people in Beijing.
Beijing Foreign Studies University, China

Unsurprisingly based in Beijing, the Beijing Foreign Studies University does exactly what it says on the tin. It's the first foreign language university in China and is operated by the state, which is hardly a shock if you have the faintest idea how communism works...

It boasts a range of 54 taught languages so odds are that you'll find the language (or languages) that you want to study.

Fudan University, China

As one of China's most prestigious universities, you'd expect Fudan University to make this list. There's a good focus on exchange programmes with a network of over 200 institutions offering students the chance to spend some time there.

Tokyo University of Science, Japan

Despite its obvious focus on science, the Tokyo University of Science offers an expansive liberal arts programme including English as well as other foreign languages. Of course, the focus is on English as the vehicular language in the sciences.

Kyoto University, Japan

Japan's second oldest university is highly rated in Japan, Asia and the world, so there's no doubt that it makes our list. English, German and French are the languages with the most focus though courses such as Linguistic Science and Foreign Language Acquisition and Education can give students a broader experience with languages.

Tokyo, Japan
Waseda University, Japan

Waseda University, though spread across several campuses, is based in Japan's capital city, Tokyo. Many of its courses have their curriculum available in English as well as Japanese, so if your skills in Japan's mother tongue are lacking you still shouldn't rule out Waseda.

When it comes to languages, a good range is on offer. English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Chinese and Korean are all available to study.

Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, South Korea

As if the name didn't give it away, the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies is one of the places to go if you want to study languages. A massive range of 45 languages are taught. It includes every language you'd expect, and some of the less commonly taught ones, too!

National Chengchi University, Taiwan

Our only entry from Taiwan happens to sit quite highly on our list of Asian universities. The university offers over 500 courses in English if you only speak the one language, not that we encourage monolingualism!

The exchange programme is also quite extensive, so whether you want to get your whole degree from the university or just spend a semester there, the National Chengchi University could be the right choice for you.

Korea University, South Korea

As one of the oldest universities in South Korea, Korea University comes highly recommended for its language courses. The College of Liberal Arts offers English, French, German, Spanish, Russian, Chinese and Japanese. There are also courses available in linguistics and classical Chinese.

Seoul, South Korea
Seoul National University, South Korea

Seoul National University offers all the language combinations you'd expect from a top-rated institution. Available languages include English, French, German, Spanish, Russian, Chinese and obviously Korean. If you prefer a broader view of languages, then linguistics is also available for study.

Peking University, China

Peking University in China's capital tops our list of language universities in Asia but also ranks very highly on the global level. Becoming the best language university in Asia doesn't just happen by magic, and the large range of languages available is a testament to the high level of language focus offered by the institution.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Language Profile: Malayalam

This week's language profile is on Malayalam, an official regional language of India with 35.9 million native speakers. It is a member of the Dravidian language family, and was originally a dialect of the Tamil language. Much of its lexicon derives from Sanskrit, though most of these words are generally used only in formal literary contexts.

Sunrise near Thiruvananthapuram, the capital of Kerala.
The name of the language likely comes from the Malayalam and Tamil words mala meaning "hill" and elam meaning "region". The term Malayalam was originally used in reference to the hilly region where the language was spoken. The language itself was called Malayanma until sometime in the 19th century, when people got lazy and decided to use the same name for the region and the language.

The Malayalam language is primarily spoken in the Indian state of Kerala on the country's southwest coast. It was originally a local dialect of Tamil, the language now spoken in the bordering state of Tamil Nadu, but gained recognition as a separate language sometime around the 10th century. It's also an official language in Lakshadweep and Puducherry, which are part of the Union Territories of India.

The language boasts many distinct dialects which exist for regional, social, and even occupational reasons. Several dialects of Malayalam have been influenced by the religion of their speakers. The dialects spoken in Christian communities show elements from Latin, Greek, Portuguese, and English. Muslim dialects are more influenced by Arabic and Urdu, while Jewish dialects have many Hebrew, Syriac, and Ladino loanwords. There's also a dialect principally spoken by fishermen!

"Malayalam" written in Malayalam script.
Malayalam script is an abugida and has the largest number of letters among Indian languages, with 52 letters that combine to make 578 characters. This large inventory of symbols includes letters that represent all the sounds used in all other Dravidian languages as well as Sanskrit! While that probably sounds like a nightmare to learn, it should make it considerably easier for Malayalam native speakers to learn other Indian languages since they should already be familiar with all the sounds.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Irish and Saint Patrick's Day

Dia duit! Although we have a language profile once each week, we decided that the best way to select languages would be by starting with the language with the most native speakers and working our way down the list. This means that we may never get to some minority languages and that's just wrong!

Since today is St. Patrick's Day, one of the most popular, if not the most popular saint's day in the world, we're going to take a brief look at the holiday itself as well as the Irish language. Thanks to Guinness and the popularity of being Irish, the day is celebrated worldwide and, in particular, in the US.

In Chicago they go so far as to dye the Chicago River green!
It's clear Americans are very fond of their heritage and those who have the tiniest bit of "Irish blood" in them love to use this fact as an excuse for alcoholism on the 17th of March each year, though celebrations are often moved to another day when it falls on Sunday, such as this year.

Though St. Patrick's Day is technically a religious holiday, it has long since been observed thus and most consider it an excuse to pretend to be Irish and get drunk on Guinness or anything they than colour green, the Chicago River included.

Something that isn't too often observed, much to our disappointment, is the promotion of the Irish language! Many Irish descendants are happy to drink their Guinness, wear green and generally make a mess of things. They are not, however, very interested in celebrating a huge part of Irish culture, the language.

Irish is one of the oldest languages in Europe and has around 133,000 native speakers, most of which, unsurprisingly, live in Ireland. It's the official language of Ireland and is recognised as a minority language in the UK, mainly thanks to Northern Ireland's inclusion as part of the union.

Despite its small number of native speakers, Irish is also recognised as an official language of the EU. The translation of EU documentation into Irish has an estimated cost of €3.5 million which we would imagine is probably the most expensive per capita.

So today or tomorrow when you don your green attire and raise your glass to celebrate Irish culture and heritage, don't forget the language! Sláinte!

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Debunking Language Stereotypes: Italian

On our mission to clear up some misconceptions when it comes to languages, we've already debunked the myths behind English and French. We're progressing nicely through all the languages which are considered the "important" European languages, EFIGS, and have now reached Italian.

Italians are probably sick to death of "it's a me, Mario!", and who can blame them? In English, the letter "i" is often /ɪ / (as in sit) whereas in Italian, the letter is pronounced /i/, (as in seat). This issue is not exclusive to Italian as the / sound is not often found in Romance languages.

Pizza al taglio, a Roman specialty meaning "pizza by the slice".
Italian does not feature the same sound for the letter "r" either. In Italian the letter is often trilled or rolled, and thus does not resemble English pronunciation. This problem with the English letter "r" also occurred when debunking French language stereotypes.

Another shared problem with French is the "th" sound, as in think. This can cause problems for native speakers of Italian due to an absence of the phoneme in their mother tongue.

An advert for Dolmio in the UK featured a stereotypical Italian accent, complete with puppets and the tag line "When'sa your Dolmio day". This "sa" that is often put on the end of words when impersonating Italian is due to the stress patterns of the language. In English, stress often occurs towards the beginning of words, either the first or second syllable. In Italian, stress tends to occur on the penultimate syllable, giving Italian its melodic and almost musical delivery.

Next time you're thinking of impersonating the Italian accent, remember why it's the way it is!

Friday, March 15, 2013

Meat Our Favourite Horse Idioms

Thanks to terrible manufacturing practices and excessive media coverage, the horse meat scandal seems to be all the rage. Across the Channel, the French are surely laughing their chausettes off at the ensuing panic as the British fear eating the meat of an animal that, in their eyes, is better suited for racing and making glue.

Given the importance of horses throughout history for trade and transport as well as racing, they feature in many idioms and expressions of the English language and today, our dear readers, we will be explaining a few of our favourites.

To Beat/Flog A Dead Horse

To be utterly pointless. The horse is already dead, after all.

E.g. Worrying about the contents of Findus' lasagnas is like flogging a dead horse.

This horse has probably taken to the snowy fields to
avoid becoming some unsuspecting Brit's next meal.
...From The Horse's Mouth

To hear a piece of information from the horse's mouth is to get your information from someone  directly involved or highly knowledgeable.

E.g. "How do you know what's in Ikea's meatballs?"
"I know because I heard it from the horse's mouth!"

Hold Your Horses

To slow down, wait, or hold on for a moment. 

E.g. "Hold your horses! Don't eat that meat before you check where it came from!"

A Horse Of A Different Color

When something is a horse of a different color, it's something that causes a break from preconceived notions. The saying was made famous in the film The Wizard of Oz, in which a horse that pulled Dorothy around in a carriage periodically changed colors. It was actually several horses whose hair was dyed with colored gelatin powder, but we digress.

E.g. "These delicious hamburgers are made from horse meat instead of beef? Why that's a horse of a different color!"

This is obviously not the real Trojan horse.
It's actually the model used in the Brad Pitt film Troy.
Trojan Horse

Beware of Greeks bearing gifts, unless you're at a Greek wedding, of course. The story of Greeks hiding in a giant wooden horse masquerading as a giant gift has come to be the epitome of something appearing to have the best intentions but then turning out to be a trap.

E.g. The various horse meat products involved in this scandal are Trojan horses hiding behind the "beef" label.

...Could Eat A Horse

To be very hungry. In some cultures eating an entire horse is considered quite the feat and as a result having the appetite to devour one indicates you're serious when saying you're more than a bit peckish.

E.g. All that talk of lasagne and meatballs has made me so hungry I could eat a horse.

Did we leave out your favourite horse pun or idiom? Let us know in the comments.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

African Loanwords: Part 2

Today we're continuing on from yesterday's look at African loanwords. This time African wildlife is well represented, with a few more food and music terms thrown in for good measure. 

chimpanzee - Our closest living relative gets its name from Tshiluba, a Bantu language spoken in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which uses the term kivili-chimpenze to refer to the animal as well as apes in general.

banjo - If you're a fan of bluegrass music then you've certainly heard of this instrument. Its name likely comes from a similar stringed instrument called mbanza in at least some of the over 500 Bantu languages.

They probably look so glum because they accidentally
killed Simba's father, the king of the Pride Lands.
gnu - Did you know that "gnu" and "wildebeest" refer to the same animal? We didn't! Wildebeest is Dutch for "wild beast" and Afrikaans for "wild cattle". Gnu, however, may come from a variety of African sources including the Khoisan languages spoken by the San indigenous people (also known as Bushmen, though use of this term is controversial). Their terms for the animal include gnou and !nu: (the ! and : symbols refer to clicks).

goober - While not commonly used anymore, some Americans used to refer to peanuts as "goobers". Nowadays, the term is mainly used to describe a silly or foolish person, generally in an endearing way. It likely comes from the Kongo and Kimbundu term nguba, meaning "peanut". 

gumbo - As we mentioned in Part 1, okra is one of the key ingredients in this typical Louisiana French dish. It came to English via the two Mbundu languages, which use the word ngombo to mean "okra"!

impala - This antelope that's expert at leaping gets its name from the Zulu language's word that means "gazelle". 

Don't you just want to give him a hug?
okapi - If you've never seen one of these, you're missing out on quite a sight! An okapi is described as a short-necked giraffe with a reddish brown coat and zebra stripes on its legs. These awesome animals live in the rainforests of the Congo and get their name from a term in the Mvuba language spoken in the area.

marimba - This xylophone-like instrument's name has its origins in Kimbundu and Swahili.

zombie - Last, but certainly not least, we have the pop culture fad of the decade, zombies. The word almost certainly comes from a Bantu language, such as the Kongo word zumbi meaning "fetish" and the Kimbundu term nzambi meaning "god". The word supposedly started out as the name of a god, and later came to refer to reanimated corpses due to its use in voodoo terminology. Either way, they're scary and they want to eat your flesh.

Are there any words we've missed. Feel free to put them in the comments below. Remember to include a definition, too!

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

African Loanwords: Part 1

If you're interested in learning about the history of the lexicon of the English language, then loanwords are the place to look. We've already covered Japanese and Scandinavian loanwords, and today we're going to take a look at some words that have come to our fair language from African languages.

banana - The distinctly shaped yellow fruit gets its name from the word banaana in the Wolof language, spoken in Senegal, the Gambia, and Mauritania. The word came to English through Spanish or Portuguese, likely when the plant was introduced to the New World in the early 1500s.

A Tongan farmer and his gigantic yams.
They can grow to be 1.5 m long and 70 kg!
yam - If you're from the United States or Canada, you may think that "yam" is another name for "sweet potato". You'd be wrong, as the two similar-looking vegetables come from different scientific families. In any case, yams are delicious, and almost undoubtedly get their name from one (or possibly many) West African languages.

cola - The word cola originally was used to named a genus of trees in West Africa that bear the kola nut, which is used to add caffeine and flavor to soft drinks. The term likely comes from kola in the Temne language of Sierra Leone, or kolo from Mandingo, which is spoken throughout West Africa.

jukebox - In the early 1900s, the southeastern U.S. was home to many juke joints. These roadside cafés mainly run by African Americans featured music, dancing, drinking, and gambling. The word juke came from Gullah, an English-based creole, where it originally meant "wicked, disorderly". It likely originated as dzug, meaning "unsavory" in the Wolof and Bambara languages. Clearly drinking and dancing were not looked upon favorably back in the day! The -box suffix was added to refer to the music-playing machines that were frequently found in juke joints.

mambo - Although this music and dance style was created in Cuba, it got its name from the Kongo language that was spoken by Central African slaves taken to the island. In Kongo, the word is said to mean "conversation with the Gods". What a great name for a dance!

If we were crude, we might make a joke about how both of
today's photos are of phallic-looking vegetables.
okra - If you like crunchy seed pods, then okra is the food for you. It's most often found in gumbo, a Louisiana dish that combines stock, meat, vegetables and of course okra, served over rice. The word likely came from the Igbo language of Nigeria, which uses the term ọkụrụ for the plant.

tote - If you're anything like us, your house is probably full of free tote bags, sturdy cloth bags with handles that are handy for carrying just about everything. It turns out that using tote as a synonym for carry appeared in English around the late 1600s and came from a West African language. Similar words include tota meaning "pick up" in Kongo and tuta, which means "carry" in both Kimbundu and Swahili.

We'll have more African loanwords tomorrow, including terms related to the animal kingdom!

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Are Military Translators Capitalising On Conflict?

Recently we read an article stating that the translation industry has grown significantly since the Second World War due to conflict and inflated military budgets, we forget where so if you find it, tell us below in the comments. Like most people, we find war quite abhorrent and as linguists, find linking the success of the translation industry to global conflict quite disturbing.

We like to think of ourselves as logical, rational people so we decided we'd look into how true this statement is. So let's delve deeper into this topic.

What is it good for? Absolutely nothing!
We covered the morality and neutrality of interpreters a long time ago and know that translators follow the same code of ethics. The transferral between languages is the task that translators undertake and they cannot be blamed for translating documents that are eventually used for war.

Translators, like most people, earn their living by their trade and their duty is to ensure that their source material is accurately translated into the target language. The content of the source material is fairly arbitrary as, after all, the translator did not write it. They certainly are responsible for the content in the translation, but only as a faithful reproduction of the original in the target language.

Of course, we support translators who follow their moral code by refusing to translate racist, bigoted or downright horrible propaganda, but in the military this is rarely the case as speculation cannot win a battle. Only cold, hard facts can do that and if they want to earn some money translating them, we wish them all the best.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Language Profile: Ukrainian

This week's language profile is on Ukrainian, a Slavic language with 37 million native speakers. It's the official language of Ukraine, as well as an official language in Transnistria, a breakaway republic recognized by most countries as a part of Moldova. Ukrainian is also an official regional language in Moldova and Romania, as well as a recognized minority language in the Czech Republic.

Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, at night.
The Ukrainian language has had a very complex history. Around the 17th century, Ukrainian and Russian had evolved enough differences to require translators, which is a fairly obvious linguistic indication that the two were no longer the same united Slavic language they'd once been.

However, Ukrainian culture, specifically the language, was heavily persecuted by the Russian Empire, and later the USSR, over the years. There were occasional brief periods in which the language was allowed to flourish, but throughout most of the past 200 years Russian was heavily favored in the region. Even in the 1960s when Ukrainian parents were permitted to choose the language their children were instructed in at school, most chose Russian because they believed their children would not be successful in life if they didn't speak Russian. At other times, Ukrainian was outright banned, and one Russian minister even claimed in the 1800s that Ukrainian, then referred to as "Little Russian", had never and would never be a separate language.

The Bay of Laspi on Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula.
In some parts of Ukraine, Russian is still the dominant language, though Ukrainian has had a great resurgence over the past few decades. Since its independence in 1991, Ukraine's official language has been Ukrainian. The language has also been promoted by the government, especially in schools, media, and commerce. Despite a majority of Ukrainians calling it their "native language" as of 2001, a large percentage of Ukrainians said they mostly spoke Russian at home. Perhaps in a few more decades it will be the main spoken language in the country if it continues to be supported by the government.

The language is written using the Ukrainian alphabet, which is a Cyrillic script. When Stalin was in power, the Ukrainian alphabet was reformed in order to be more similar to Russian. The letter "Ghe", written ґ, was even banned! Despite its absence since 1933, it did return to its rightful place in the alphabet in 1990. 

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Mum's The Word: The Etymology of Mother's Day

Today is Mother's Day, or Mothering Sunday in the UK. The holiday falls on 12th May in the US. As we celebrate those who gave us life and went through the agony of birthing us followed by the agony of raising us, we look at the terminology surrounding one half of our parenting team, or our whole parenting team in some cases, our mothers.

Many countries across Europe celebrate the holiday in May, but we write in English and have grown up in English-speaking countries so our coverage of the holiday is going to be very Anglocentric.

The least you could do for your mother today
is give her some flowers or a card!
Of course the expression Mother's Day requires no explanation, what interests us more is the etymology of mother and all the other words we use to address her.

The word mother came from the Old English word modor which, of course, means female parent. It has its origins in Proto-Germanic languages as well as other related languages such as Anglo-Saxon and Frisian.

Many Indo-European languages feature a ma root when it comes to thinking up pet names for their mothers. Latin used mamma, just like Russian. French has maman and German prefers Muhme.

In English, pet names can vary from mum and mam in British English to the more commonly heard mom in American English. All have their roots in mamma, although mum is occasionally used as a variant of madam or ma'am as well.

The word maternal comes from the Old French maternel which came from the Vulgar Latin maternalis. The Latin for mother is mater, which was supposedly based on babies babbling the sound ma added with the suffix -ter which is used for kinship in Latin.

Semantically speaking, mother holds the connotation of life-giving with expressions such as mother nature and perhaps even mother tongue.

Don't forget that, at least for today, mum's the word.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Debunking Language Stereotypes: French

Having unravelled the nonsense behind stereotypes in the English language, we now direct our attention to other languages across Europe. Having so many cultures and languages in such close proximity always leads to stereotypes, and occasionally even tension. Europe does have a rich history in conflict, after all.

We've done "E" (referring to English, not the drug) in EFIGS, so we thought it would make sense to continue with the next letter in the series, "F".

We thought we'd be understated for once
and just show some French baguettes
instead of a mustachioed man in a beret and
striped shirt holding them whilst smoking.
We all know the stereotypes when it comes to the French people. What interests us are the stereotypes connected to the French language. In our experience, the most noticeable and the most frequently impersonated is "ze" as a replacement for "the". This is a common stereotype and, unfortunately for native French speakers, bears true. French does not have the phonemes /θ/ or /ð/, which represent the sound of the letters "th" in words such as mathematics and weather respectively. As a result, French speakers tend to approximate the sound with the phoneme /z/, which in English is used for the letter "z" in words such as zoo.

The French language also does not feature the phoneme /r/ which in is used for the letter "r" in American English. Due to the non-rhotic nature of many accents in British English, it isn't always used for "r" in the UK. The French use the phoneme /ʁ/ for the letter "r" and as a result are unfamiliar with the letter's English pronunciation.

It should also be noted that the use of the definite article (le, la, les) in French is far more common than use of the is in English. As a result, French speakers may occasionally unnecessarily add the to sentences, in the same way that native English speakers will tend to omit the definite article when they speak French. Nobody's perfect, after all.