Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Language Profile: Persian

This week we're taking a look at Persian, a member of the Iranian language family. Historically, it was an important lingua franca in certain parts of the Islamic world and was used by several Islamic dynasties. Famous Italian merchant traveler Marco Polo is even said to have spoken the language when he met with Kublai Khan. In the present day it is used as the liturgical language of Islam in Iran, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan.

The Fann Mountains of Tajikistan.
There are several dialects of Persian, including one specific to each of the countries in which it has official language status. Iran is home to Farsi, the most widely spoken dialect of the language. In Afghanistan, the language is known as Dari, and shares the position of official language alongside Pashto. Dari, however, is considered to be the country's lingua franca. Finally, a modern dialect of Persian known as Tajik or Tajiki is the official language of Tajikistan.

Despite each country using different dialects with distinct names, most speakers of the Persian language have a high level of mutual intelligibility no matter where they're from. There are naturally some small differences in pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary, but in the end their dialects are about as similar as British English and American English.

There is one large difference among the three countries as to how they use Persian though, and that is found in how they each write the language. In Iran and Afghanistan, the language is written using the Persian alphabet, which is an adapted form of the Arabic alphabet with four additional letters to represent the sounds [p], [t͡ʃ], [ʒ], and [g]. In Tajikistan, on the other hand, the language is written using the Tajik alphabet, which is a Cyrillic-based script!

Monday, April 29, 2013

Hindi Loanwords: Part 2

Yesterday, we looked at the etymology of several English words, including "cheetah" and "bangle". Today we're continuing our look at loanwords from Hindi, the most spoken language in India.

Guru - Though it is mainly used to refer to a "mentor" in the United States, this term means "teacher" or "priest" in Hindi. Translated literally it means "heavy", presumably because they are "heavy with knowledge". 

"In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight..."
Jungle - Generally defined as land covered with dense vegetation, its name comes to English from the Hindi word jangal meaning "wilderness". The Hindi word originated as jangala in Sanskrit, meaning "uncultivated land". 

Loot - Hopefully you don't often have use for this word, which comes from the Hindi word lut meaning "steal". It is also used to refer to stolen property in both languages. 

Punch - Our favorite Hindi loanword may have to be punch, as in everyone's favorite party drink. It comes from the Hindi word panch meaning "five". This seems like a pretty random name for a drink, but it turns out that the original drink was made using five ingredients: alcohol, sugar, lemon, water, and spices. You learn something new every day!

Shampoo - What would modern society do without this product that gives us luxurious, silky hair that glides perfectly through the air just as it's shown in all the advertisements? Its name comes from the Hindi term champo meaning "to massage", which certainly makes sense given the mantra "lather, rinse, repeat". 

Three typhoons over the Pacific Ocean.
Thug - This term comes from the Hindi word thag meaning "thief", though it made its way into English for more historical reasons. Over several hundred years, a gang of professional assassins in India were referred to as Thuggee. They often targeted travelers, who they would then rob and gruesomely murder in order to honor a Hindu goddess. When the British took control of India, they eventually drove the group out of existence. At the same time, the term passed into the English language, first to refer to the gang members, and eventually as a generic term for violent criminals.

Typhoon - These tropical cyclones get their name from the word tufan, which came to English from either Arabic or Hindi.

Do you know any other interesting loanwords from Hindi? Let us know in the comments below, and please include a definition!

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Hindi Loanwords: Part 1

In previous loanwords posts we've looked at English vocabulary from languages such as Tupí, Tamil, and Malay. Today and tomorrow, we'll be taking a look at some of the most interesting terms that have entered the English lexicon from Hindi, one of the top five most-spoken languages in the world.

For when you need to walk like an Egyptian...
Bangle - While these bracelets are worn as fashion accessories in many countries, they were originally traditional ornaments worn by women in India and Pakistan. Many brides wear as many glass bangles as possible, and when the last breaks, their honeymoon is considered to have come to an end. Their name comes from the Hindi term bangri.

Bungalow - These low, thatched houses with wide verandas get their name from the Hindi word bangla meaning "Bengali", or in this case, "house in the Bengal style". 

Chutney - If you've ever had Indian food, then you've surely seen chutney before. This wide range of condiments can be powdered or more similar to fruit preserves. Chutney is typically made by grinding ingredients using a mortar and pestle, so it makes sense that it gets its name from the Hindi word chatni meaning "to crush".

A cheetah stalking its prey.
Cheetah - These cats are the fastest land animal in existence, but they were named for their appearance, not their speed. Their English name came from the Hindi chita, which in turn evolved from the Sanskrit term chitraka, meaning "speckled".

Cot - Why sleep on the floor when you can use a portable bed instead? These handy pieces of furniture get their name from the Hindi word khat meaning "couch" or "hammock", which in turn came from the Sanskrit khatva.

Dinghy - If your cruise ship hits an iceberg and you don't want to end up like Jack in Titanic, you better hope that it's carrying enough dinghies for everyone! The word comes from the Hindi term dingi, meaning "small boat".

We'll have more Hindi loanwords to share in Part 2 tomorrow.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Get It Right: Who And Whom

Knock knock!
Who's there?
To who?
It's to whom, actually...

There's truth in this terrible joke. Despite not being commonly used, "whom" is not only a word, but a word that should be used. More often than not, the word who is used in place of whom. Today we'll be explaining the correct (and therefore best) way to use these troublesome words.

Owls don't follow the rule either!

Who is a pronoun and the subject of a verb. 

E.g. "Who brought all the beers?"

We can't say it much simpler than that.


Whom is almost identical to who, with the main exception that it is the object of the verb.

E.g. "He brought all the beers for whom?"

If you recall all the word categories then this shouldn't pose a problem. If you can replace the word with "I", "he", "she", "we" or "they", then you should be using the word "who". If you can replace it with "me", "him", "her", "us" or "them", then "whom" should definitely be used.

Of course there are very few people who still observe the rule and even fewer who are bothered by its misuse. If you are losing sleep over it, now you know!

Friday, April 26, 2013

Intro to Linguistics: Thematic Relations

In our previous Intro to Linguistics posts, we've looked at some of the major fields of study within linguistics, such as morphology, syntax, and phonetics. Today, we're taking a more in-depth look at one specific aspect of semantics (the study of linguistic meaning) called thematic relations.

Thematic relations are semantic descriptions of how the things described in a noun phrase work in relation to the action or state described by the verb phrase. It sounds complicated, but it's really just difficult to express in a simple definition. Hopefully, the following list of major thematic relations, their definitions, and examples  (in parentheses) will help make the picture clearer.

Did we forget to mention that Caroline
is a Rainbow Lorikeet?
An agent performs the action deliberately. (Lady Gaga put on the meat dress.)

An experiencer, on the other hand, experiences the verb phrase, either through their senses or emotionally. (Bob heard the birds chirping.)

A theme undergoes the action but doesn't change state. (Caroline grabbed the apple.)

A patient is nearly identical to a theme, except its state does change. (Caroline chewed the apple.)

An instrument is obviously the thing used to carry out an action. (The squirrel bit the acorn with its teeth.) 

A force or natural cause mindlessly carries out an action, since it has no mind! (Hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans.)

A location is where the action happens. (The cat slept in the basket.)

Time expresses, you guessed it, when the action occurs. (Sarah went to the swimming pool yesterday.)

A beneficiary receives the benefit of the action. (Maria made me a birthday cake.)

A monarch butterfly having a rest. 
The manner is the way that an action is carried out. (With great speed, the cat ran across the yard to escape the dog.)

The cause is what caused the action to occur. (William ate the cauliflower because he was hungry.)

The origin or source is where the action originated. (The butterfly began its migration from Mexico.)

As you can see, all these terms are fairly self-explanatory, and the list goes on and on. However, they are essential everyday terminology that help semanticians to analyze nouns in order to express the relationship between their meaning and the meaning of the verb in the sentence. It may sound boring, but we're sure you agree that it's important to know the meaning behind language!

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Language Learning Methods: Choral Drilling

Having already covered language immersion in our previous post on language learning methods, today we'll be covering a method that most will be very familiar with, choral drilling.

It's choral drilling.
The method is almost as old as time itself. Put simply, choral drilling involves repeating, almost ad nauseam, the words or phrases you are trying to learn. While most learners of English will remember having to repeat the conjugations of the verb to be, they can take solace in the fact that pretty much every learner has had to suffer through choral drilling at some point.

Rarely anyone's favourite activity, choral drilling methods have proven to be beneficial when it comes to learning conjugations and vocabulary. Nothing helps embed something into your memory like repeating it over and over and over and over...

When it comes to phrases, however, we wouldn't recommend choral drilling. It makes the learner inflexible and when you speak a language you can never expect the sentences to always be in the same order. Learning a language should be fun, don't make it a tedious endeavour by learning it the same way you'd learn the pledge of allegiance.

Use this method sparingly for new vocabulary, verbs and expressions. Just don't overdo it! There are so many better ways to learn languages.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Happy Birthday Benjamin Lee Whorf!

Since today is the 116th birthday of Benjamin Lee Whorf (he's not actually 116 as he's dead), we thought we'd pay homage to one of the great linguists of the 20th century. If you can subtract 116 from 2013 you will know that Whorf was born in 1897. What that sum will not tell you is that he was born in Winthrop, Massachusetts, where he also grew up.

Whorf was initially a fire prevention engineer, having graduated from MIT in 1918 with a degree in chemical engineering. It was his religious interests that first led him to studying linguistics. His analysis of Biblical texts eventually directed his focus towards the semantics and grammar of Biblical Hebrew.

Given that it borders the Atlantic, Whorf's hometown
of Winthrop, Massachusetts likely has a wharf.
Following his work with Biblical Hebrew, Whorf studied the Uto-Aztecan languages of Mexico and the Western United States. His work eventually culminated in applying for a grant to conduct a field study in Mexico, where he documented Nahuatl dialects.

After his time in Mexico, Whorf found himself heading to Yale and enrolling in a graduate programme. It was at Yale where he met Edward Sapir. Sapir would drastically change the way Whorf looked at linguistics. Eventually, they created the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, also known as the Whorf Hypothesis, which tells you who did most of the work!

The hypothesis of linguistic relativity, named in part as a pseudo-homage to Einstein's theory, explained that language affects the way you think and see the world around you. If this is true, which we like to think it is, then every language you don't know is limiting your ability to see the world around you! Get out there and learn some more!

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

St. George's Day: The Languages of England

St. George was also the bad-ass who killed dragons.
As today is St. George's Day, we thought we'd honour England's patron saint with a look at the languages of England. It goes without saying that England is home to English, but before the Angles, Saxons and Jutes made their way to the British Isles, other languages were spoken across the land. Let's jump straight in...

Aside from being famed for pirates and their accent, the Cornish in fact have their own language. The Cornish language, also known as Kernowek or Kernewek in Cornish, has somewhere between 500 and 3,500 speakers. The language is related to Welsh and Breton and evolved from the native language of the British Isles, Brythonic.

Though classified as an extinct language, Cornish has seen a good level of revival in the UK, forcing UNESCO to reconsider its classification back in 2010. Cornish belongs to the Celtic language family along with Irish, Scots Gaelic, Scots and the next of our languages, Manx.

The Manx language, found principally and almost exclusively on the Isle of Man, actually lost its last native speaker in 1974, but thanks to the efforts of some great linguaphiles, it has been revived. It's now classified as a revived language, though we prefer the term zombie language. Manx now has between 100 and 1,800 speakers.

The Coonceil ny Gaelgey (Manx Gaelic Council), the regulatory body responsible for the Manx language, was set up no less than eleven years after the extinction of the language. It's clearly doing a good job!

St. George's Day is also the saint day of Catalonia, as well as UNESCO World Book and Copyright day. World Book Day in the UK was celebrated back in March.

As the English get vaguely patriotic today, remember that despite their reputation, they're more than a group of monolingual savages!

Monday, April 22, 2013

Language Profile: Oriya

This week's language profile is on Oriya, an Indo-Aryan language with over 32 million native speakers. Oriya is an official regional language in the southeastern Indian state of Odisha, where it is spoken by over 75% of the population.

The Rajarani Temple in Bhubaneswar, the capital of Odisha.
It is known as the "love temple" due to its erotic carvings.
Recently, the government of Odisha has decided to officially change the name of the language to "Odia". However, it seems that most everyone else seems to have continued to use the name Oriya instead.

Unlike other Indian languages, Oriya has had little influence from Persian and Arabic. It also has several regional dialects which mainly exist due to lexical differences.

Written samples of Oriya have been found from as far back as the 7th century, including inscriptions in temples and on copper plates as well as manuscripts written on palm leaves. The language was first printed in the early 1800s when Christian missionaries helped the people to develop movable type for use with a printing press. This allowed for a literary revolution to take place. While handwritten Oriya at the time more closely resembled Bengali script, the type that was created had more in common with the Tamil and Telugu scripts.

Oriya is written using Oriya script, an abugida with 28 consonants and 6 vowels. Each consonant has an inherent vowel sound which can be changed using diacritics. The script has mostly rounded letters instead of the straight lines found in the closely related Devanagari script which is used to write Hindi.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Tupí Loanwords

In recent weeks, we've looked at loanwords that have made their way into the English language from various world languages including Tamil, Russian, and Malay. Today, we're taking a look at some vocabulary that finds its origins in the extinct Brazilian language known as Tupí.

Originally the native language of the Tupí indigenous group that lived mainly along the Atlantic coastline, Tupí eventually earned its status as the lingua franca of colonial Brazil, when it was widely used by both natives and European settlers. By the mid-1700s, it began to decline due to a push towards speaking Portuguese, though some isolated groups continued to speak the language for another century until its numbers finally dwindled to the point of extinction. Related languages still in use include Guaraní, an official language of Paraguay, and Nhengatu, a descendant of Tupí with a few thousand native speakers in Brazil.

Enough history, on to the loanwords!

Yes, it is a giant rodent. But it is admittedly kinda cute.
Cashew - This tasty nut gets its name from the Portuguese word caju, which was derived from its indigenous Tupí name, acajú.

Capybara - The world's largest rodent is a herbivore native to South America, so it's no surprise that its name is thought to come from the Tupí word ka'apiûara meaning "grass-eater".

Cougar - This large solitary cat is also known as "puma" and "mountain lion", depending on who you speak to. However, the name "cougar" comes from the French couguar via the archaic Portuguese çuçuarana, which was derived from a Tupí term, possibly susuarana.

Jaguar - These big cats are beautiful, but don't let that convince you that they're friendly. These fierce hunters can bite directly through the skull of their prey in order to pierce the brain and kill their next meal. Their name came from the Tupí word jaguara, which may have been used to denote any large beast of prey at the time.

Macaw - These large, colorful birds get their name from the Tupí word macavuana. It is thought that the Tupí people used the word to refer to the type of palm tree which the birds eat from as a source of fruit.

Petunia - A genus of 35 species of flowering plants whose name comes from Tupí petun via French, where it was used for a time to mean "tobacco plant". However, tobacco plants are closely related, but of the Nicotiana genus instead.

A jaguar delivering its deadly bite to the neck of a tapir.
Piranha - These terrifying fish get their name from either pira nya or pira'ya, Tupí terms that meant "scissors". Enough said.

Tapir - These odd animals are most closely related to horses and rhinos, and look like pigs with prehensile snouts. Their name came from Tupí tapira via the French tapir.

Toucan - Related to macaws, these other large, colorful South American birds get their name from the Tupí word tukana, which made its way to English from a Romance language, likely French toucan or Spanish tucán.

Do you know any other loanwords from Tupí? Let us know in the comments, and please include a definition!

Saturday, April 20, 2013

An Etymological Voyage Through The Solar System: Part 2

Following the first part of our etymological voyage through the Solar System yesterday, we're continuing our trip through the remaining planets.


The fourth planet from the sun and our best hope for survival after we've destroyed our current planet. Mars is named after the Roman god of war and protector of agriculture. Though Mars was based on the Greek god Ares, the more popular Latin name would make its way throughout history as the name of the planet. In many Romance languages such as French, Italian, and Spanish, Tuesday is Mars' day.


The largest planet in the Solar System takes its name from the king of the Roman gods. Iuppiter, as the Romans would have us spell it, was in charge of all the other gods and a sky god. The Romans considered him the equivalent to the Greek god Zeus.

Jupiter and its Galilean moons.
Jupiter's Galilean Moons

Jupiter has four moons with interesting names. Though astronomers initally attempted to develop a nomenclature for the moons using Roman numerals by calling them Jupiter I, Jupiter II, Jupiter III, etc, they ended up preferring to name them all after lovers of the Greek god Zeus.

Europa was a woman who would later become the Queen of Crete, Callisto was a nymph and Io was priestess who fell in love with Zeus.
Jupiter's largest moon, Ganymede, which is larger than both the Moon and Mercury, was named for the son of King Tros who was transported to heaven by Jupiter having taken on the form of an eagle. Ganymede is the only of Zeus' lovers to have not been female.


Saturn, or Saturnus in Latin, has both a planet and a day named after him. Saturn was the god of the Capitol, and some even considered Jupiter to be the son of Saturn.


The unfortunately named Uranus was originally called George's Star, or the Latin name Georgium Sidus after the then king of England, King George III. Several other names were proposed including Neptune, Neptune George III and Neptune Great Britain which were all ignored in favour of naming the planet after the Greek god Οὐρανός (Ouranus), adopting the Latin form, Uranus. We bet you didn't know that the Greeks worshipped Uranus!

Neptune loved a good trident, not to be
confused with a fork, which has 4 tines.

Neptune's discoverer, Urbain le Verrier, wished to name the planet after himself. Janus, the two-faced Roman god who had the month of January named after him, and Oceanus, the personification of the World Ocean, a river that surrounded the entire world, were also considered. Both of these names were rejected in favour of the name Neptune, after the Roman god of the seas and brother to both Jupiter and Pluto.


Though no longer a planet, as much as we want it to be, Pluto is the last destination on our trip. Once the smallest planet, Pluto is now classified as a dwarf planet and is named after the Greek god of the underworld, Πλούτων (Ploutos). Pluto was sometimes Hades and sometimes used as a nicer version of Hades since the ancient Greeks weren't too fond of him.

If you're wondering about the very odd family ties amongst some of the gods, it should be noted that the Ancient Greeks and Romans would often share gods or even assume that Greek gods exerted their power over Greece whilst the Roman gods would exert their power over Rome.

Friday, April 19, 2013

An Etymological Voyage Through The Solar System: Part 1

If you remember our post on polytheism and the days of the week, then you know that our day-to-day lives are dominated by Latin, Greek and Norse mythology. The same can be said for the night sky.

The route of our linguistic trip.
Traditionally, the shining objects in the night sky were so bright and wondrous that the only thing they could be were deities. Thus several of the brightest objects, which also tend to be the closest, were named as gods, which has stuck with us to this day. Today and tomorrow we'll be travelling through the linguistic past and etymology of the Solar System and the gods who share their names. Let's start at the centre with...

The Sun

The name for the brightest star in our sky, at least during the day, came from the Old English Sunne via the Germanic Pagan god, Sól or Sunna. The Latin name for the sun, Sol, is where we get the name Solar System.


The first planet in our solar system is named for the Roman god of the same name. Though Mercurius, to use his Latin name, was the guide for souls on their way to the underworld, he also dabbled in being the god of financial gain, poetry, eloquence, luck, fortune and thievery. A real jack-of-all-trades. Just watch him whizzing around the night sky. He certainly keeps himself busy.

There's a reason Venus is the goddess of beauty.

The goddess of love and the brightest object in the night sky, Venus was the epitome of beauty and pretty much the most powerful sex symbol in human history. She also represented fertility and prosperity, which anyone who has children will tell you are complete opposites.


Our home planet, also known as Terra and Gaia. The word earth in reference to the soil and ground is lower case but should remain capitalised as Earth when referring to the planet, at least in English. Terra, the Latin name for the planet, gives us derivatives such as terrestrial, which most of us should be, and extraterrestrial for those not from earth, as in our short mate with the glowing finger, E.T.

The name Gaia refers to the Greek goddess of the Earth and is often used when referring to the planet as a spiritual living being. If you're thinking about leaving the office, growing your hair and making flower necklaces, get ready to start hearing your new friends call the planet Gaia.

The Moon

A moon is technically a natural satellite, something that orbits a planet but wasn't put up there by us. The Moon is the closest object to Earth and thus, follows the same rules on capitalisation as Earth. In lower case, moon should refer to a natural satellite, while upper case Moon should refer to our moon, or Luna, as she is also called.

The word moon came from moone, which has its roots in the Old English word mōna. Its Latin name, Luna, gives us, much like the Sun and the Earth, the adjective lunar. The less common Ancient Greek word selenic, another adjective, may also be used. Selenic comes from the Ancient Greek name for the Moon, Selene, or Σελήνη when using the Greek alphabet.

Tomorrow we'll pick up where we left off as it's time for a rest stop. We've covered almost 250,000,000 km and we need to use the bathroom. Next stop, Mars!

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Equivalence: It's Just Not The Same

If you know a foreign language, then you've undoubtedly been prodded by a friend at some point to translate a phrase into the language. Much to everyone's annoyance, there is rarely a single correct answer to be given. When it comes to translation, equivalence is a hugely important element of the process.

Equivalence, put simply, is to what degree the translation replicates the qualities of the source language (SL) into the target language (TL). The translator's job is to ensure that the translation remains as faithful to the original as possible using any of the multiple ways to evaluate equivalence.

"Is someone talking about me in French?"
You could follow sense-for-sense translation and ensure that the meaning of an expression is maintained. In French, one can literally "speak of the wolf" (parle du loup), which is the equivalent of the English expression "speak of the devil". If you're learning French it would be useful to know the differences between the two expressions, but a word-for-word translation wouldn't retain the meaning of the phrase in the TL.

Translating literally, or word-for-word translation, though not often useful for professional translation, can serve a purpose, if not just for an explanation. However, word-for-word translation will often result in an unnatural sounding translation. Just as we would avoid replicating French syntax when translating into English, the same should be said of the reverse.

Equivalence goes far beyond sense-for-sense and word-for-word as in many parts of language there are the ideas of the strength of a word. The words big, large, huge, massive and enormous all share a similar meaning in terms of size, but it's vital that the translation conveys to what extent the ST conveyed the idea.

The same goes for emotional and cultural equivalence. At times, especially within literature, figurative expressions will require greater attention as the translator must put themselves within the mind of the writer and ensure that a reader in any language not only reads the same words, but also interprets the same sense to the same degree and exhibits the same emotional responses. Even the world's best translators will have to compromise every so often.

What are some of the most difficult linguistic compromises you've had to make when it came to equivalence? Tell us about them in the comments below.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Language Learning Methods: Immersion

In our first post in our series on language learning methods, we will be looking at immersion, the method in which students are taught entirely in the target language. This method comes highly recommended within the language learning community.

Being forced to speak, listen and interact only in the target language can certainly sound daunting at first. However, from personal experience we can vouch for the method of immersion, having both taught and been taught using this method. Though we do agree that immersion isn't for everyone.

Tony has clearly misunderstood "immersion".
Language immersion certainly has been shown to improve the level of students learning a foreign language, and most also display a higher level of confidence when it comes to speaking the language. Tests have shown that these students achieve higher scores in standardised tests when compared with students that have been taught using "traditional" methods.

While we could just sing the praises of the immersion method, it should be noted that some students will struggle with it and could actually learn less than they would using traditional methods. It is not advised for students who are scared to speak in the target language or are nervous about their language abilities. They may feel uncomfortable asking questions in the target language and even more uncomfortable reverting back to their mother tongue to ask for clarification, especially if it appears that all the other students are having no difficulty whatsoever.

It's important that teachers using the immersion method remain vigilant to spot students who are often silent in class. There are often two types of silent students: those who are unchallenged and have no problems learning languages, and those who are struggling but too shy or embarrassed to ask for help. Teachers need to find out which type of student they're dealing with, because if the their difficulties go unnoticed, language immersion will be all for nought.

Have you learned a foreign language through the immersion method, or used it to teach your students? We'd love to hear about your experiences and opinions on it in the comments below.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Copyright or Copywrong? Protecting Authors or Halting Progress?

Is copyright law protecting authors, writers and creators or just merely hindering human creativity?

Copyright is supposed to protect those who create something from a loss of revenue by stopping people from copying their stuff. Charles Dickens was hugely supportive of his works being protected since many people in the US were circulating copies of his works and he wasn't getting paid a penny for it.

Ironically the icon for copyright is not subject to copyright.
Before the invention of the printing press, creating works was such a time-intensive and costly procedure that duplicating works was rarely an issue. Initially, people weren't even certain whether ideas could be owned. Eventually it was decided that they could, and thus copyright was born. This began in the UK with the Licensing of the Press Act 1662 which protected the copying of materials such as books (referred to in the act as bookes) and other printed materials. The works were only protected for a meagre two years at the time. In 1710 the Statute of Anne, the first real semblance to a copyright law in the world, extended this protection of works to a total of 14 years.

There are two sides to this argument. Copyright protects authors and their work. The downside to work being protected is that it inhibits other creative people from adapting their own versions of the work. If creative works were protected ad infinitum many classic Disney films would have never been made. It certainly wasn't Walt who came up with the ideas for Cinderella, Pinocchio, Beauty and the Beast or even Sleeping Beauty, to name a few. The Disney corporation made most of its classics using ideas that had entered the public domain and were open to interpretation by anyone. Once Disney made their films, they then proceeded to copyright their versions of these "classic" stories and fairy tales.

Disney was certainly one of the biggest supporters of increasing the length of time that works were subject to copyright and with good reason. Walt died years ago, but the corporation still owns the rights to the works.

It's infuriating that Disney adapted works from the public domain and then pushed to have their own versions protected for as long as possible. Maybe we're just a little bitter that they're going to make more Star Wars films...

Monday, April 15, 2013

Language Profile: Burmese

This week's language profile is on Burmese, the official language of Burma. It boasts over 32 million native speakers and is a member of the Sino-Tibetan language family which also includes Chinese.

Temples in the plains of Bagan, Burma.
In 1989, the military government in control of the country decided to change the official English translation for both the name of the country and its official language to "Myanmar". Many countries still do not officially recognize this government and therefore don't recognize the name change, hence endless disputes as to which name is correct. We're sticking with Burmese today since the majority of sources we've seen, including the Ethnologue, use the name "Burmese". But enough politics already!

Like many other languages, Burmese uses two registers. The formal register is used for literature, journalism, government, and other formal circumstances. The colloquial register, on the other hand, is used for normal daily conversation. However, colloquial Burmese does use several levels of politeness based on the age and social status of speakers. The language also has some vocabulary terms that are reserved solely for the use of Buddhist monks.

The Burmese language has several dialects that differ in terms of vocabulary and pronunciation, though they are all mutually intelligible. Burmese has also been influenced by loanwords from several neighboring languages. Pali, the liturgical language of Theravada Buddhism, has contributed many words relating to religion and art, while vocabulary from English is usually related to technology. The Mon language, spoken in Burma and Thailand, has also given words relating to nature, food, architecture, and music to Burmese.

"Burmese alphabet" written in Burmese script.
Burmese is written using the Burmese alphabet, an abugida that is written from left to right. It has 33 letters used to indicate the initial consonant sounds in syllables, while vowels are represented by diacritics above, below, and on either side of the consonant characters. It's not required to leave spaces between words, but they're often added between clauses in modern times in order to make the language easier to read. Burmese was traditionally written on palm leaves, so its characters are rounded in order to avoid ripping the leaves apart with straight lines. Sounds like a smart idea to us!

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Tamil Loanwords

Lately we've been exploring words that have made their way into English from languages across the world, from Africa to Scandinavia and Russia to Hawaii. Today we're looking at loanwords from Tamil, the fifth most-spoken language in India, and an official language of Singapore and Sri Lanka. It's also one of the longest surviving classical languages in the world, with literature dating back over 2000 years.

Anaconda - We don't like snakes, and anacondas are no exception. They're among the world's largest snakes and grow to over 22 feet (6.6m) long! They're nonvenomous, but that doesn't mean they can't kill people. There are various theories as to the etymology of their name, but our favorite is that it comes from the Tamil term anaik-konda meaning "which killed an elephant", originally used to refer to a species of tree snake found in Sri Lanka. At some point, the term was wrongly applied to the aforementioned South American terrors.

A traditional Tamil catamaran.
Catamaran - This type of multihulled boat gets its name from the Tamil word kattumaram, a combination of the words kattu "tie up" and maram "wood". Traditional catamarans were made by tying logs of wood together. Modern catamarans are often used as ferries due to their speed, stability, and capacity.

Curry - A wide variety of dishes that tend to use lots of colorful spices, curry gets its name from the the Tamil word kari, meaning "sauce".

Ginger - This root, often used as a spice, gets its name from the Old Tamil words iṅci vēr meaning "ginger root". The term made its way into Greek, Latin, Old French, and finally Old English as gingifer before transforming into its modern-day spelling.

Pariah - This word originally referred specifically to the lower castes in India, known as the paraiyar, or "drummers". Members of these castes were given the responsibility to play the drums at festivals. Since the early 1800s, the term has also been used to refer to "social outcasts". It likely made its way to English via the Portuguese word paria

Patchouli - If you've ever used an air freshener or incense then you've likely smelled the strong scent of this plant from the mint family. It gets it name from the Tamil words pachchai "green" and ilai "leaf". 

Are we missing any of your favorite Tamil loanwords? Let us know in the comments, and please include a definition.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Portmanteaux: Get It Together

Sometimes a compound noun will work just fine. If this isn't the case, then a portmanteau may be the best option. When elements or parts of two or more words are combined into one word, the resulting word is a portmanteau. Coming from the French word for a type of suitcase, the portmanteau often features two compartments, just like its linguistic namesake.

Ironically, the word portmanteau in French is not used to refer to the linguistic melding of words to form new ones. Its current incarnation, porte-manteau, refers simply to a coat stand or coat hook.

If you're really adventurous you can always try out a sporf.
The spork is a portmanteau of spoon and fork. If you are lucky enough to have the time for it, brunch (breakfast plus lunch) is a great way to enjoy more food in the morning, but if you really want pancakes and cereal after six then brinner may be what you need. All these examples take the start of one word and combine it with the end of another.

The word moped, however, takes the start of its component words, motor and pedal, while motel combines motor and hotel, which blend around their shared /oʊt/ sounds.

If you are familiar with French or Spanish, then you will know the origins of au and al. In French, when à should be followed by le it instead changes to au, while in Spanish when a should be followed by el it changes to al. However, these words are different from our other examples since they are compulsory contractions due to the grammar rules of the two languages.

Recently we've heard some pretty good portmanteaux for male cosmetic products such as guyliner (eyeliner for guys) and manscara (mascara for men). With traditional gender roles clearly swapping over, perhaps it will soon be the woman who will be expected to be carrying her femidom (condom for females).

Know any other interesting portmanteaux? Let us know in the comments.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Linguistic Prescription: Rules Were Made To Be Broken

When it comes to language are you the good cop or the bad cop? Do you go by the book or play fast and loose with the rules? Today we're looking at the points for and against linguistic prescription, the idea that one way of speaking or using a language is superior to all others.

Rules are there for a reason...

You don't want to end up in a courtroom
because of your relaxed writing style!
Much like taking someone home at the end of the night, there's no point in trying anything without both parties coming to an agreement. If you don't have any rules then communication can become almost impossible.

Linguistic prescription also helps when it comes to specific types of writing. Having an authority when it comes to journalistic, medical or legal style can be helpful in avoiding confusion and, in the case of all three examples, legal action.

When clarity is a necessity, having a standard form of language and maintaining a strict set of rules is not only beneficial but indispensable.

Rules were made to be broken...

If language was held to one set of rules then everything would become bland. We wouldn't have our favourite accents, new words or irregular grammatical structures. We saw that excessive degrees of linguistic prescription, such as Orwell's Newspeak, could be used to harm free speech, though an extreme example. To a lesser extent it would certainly hurt literature, theatre and cinema.

The English language lacks, to some degree, linguistic prescription as there is no official governing body. This does give rise to arguments between speakers of British English and speakers of American English but as long as it's friendly banter and not bloodshed, we can live with it.

Most of us follow the rules when it comes to formal situations like academic essays or speeches, but leave them aside the rest of the time, whether at the pub or writing emails to friends. How do you use or disregard linguistic prescription in your everyday life? Let us know in the comments!

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Intro to Linguistics: Syntax

Today we'll be looking at syntax, the study of the rules of sentence formation. Check out our previous Intro to Linguistics posts on phonetics, phonology, morphology, and semantics to get up to speed on the other major fields of study within linguistics.

In addition to the aforementioned definition, syntax also refers to the part of mental grammar that represents a speaker's knowledge of sentences and their structures. Syntacticians research ways to describe languages through the use of sentence formation rules, as well as attempting to uncover general rules that apply to all languages.

A couple of cute kittens playing in a pot.
Another important aspect of the field is the division of words and morphemes into syntactic categories, which are also known as grammatical categories or parts of speech. If you were paying attention in school, you should definitely know most of these word categories such as nouns, adjectives, articles, and verbs. Expressions from the same category can usually be substituted for each other without loss of grammaticality.

The rules of syntax also specify the correct word order for languages. This word order is determined by looking at the order of the subject, the object, and the verb in each sentence. English is an SVO language, which can be seen in a sentence such as "The kittens play in the pot," for example. There's much more to syntax, so we'll go into more depth on aspects such as the complex study of word order typology another day.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Conlangs: Making Your Own Language

If you're as nerdy about languages as us, you've probably thought about or even tried to make your own language. If you're as useless at it as we were, you have undoubtedly failed. We spoke briefly about Elvish and Simlish in previous posts, but now we're getting down to the nitty-gritty of making your own language.

But does it sound right?
Creating a language is not an easy task to undertake. The vocabulary of the average speaker of the English language is estimated to be between 35,000 and 75,000 words. Do you really want to single-handedly undertake the task of creating that many words for your new language?

Even if you have the time to create the lexicon for your new language, in order to make your conlang accessible you will have to ensure a certain degree of neutrality. If you want speakers of other languages to adopt your conlang you can't make all your words sound too much like English, for example.

After you've completed the arduous task of creating the lexicon, even with a simple nomenclature that would enable you to create a few roots and let other words be created from them, you'll still have to work on the grammar. If you're looking for clarity and making your language easy to learn, you should try to avoid irregular structures, which are pretty unavoidable in naturally-occurring languages. Take a long, hard look at your syntax. What may be simple for a native speaker of French, Spanish or Italian may not be so simple for a native speaker of Mandarin, Japanese or Korean.

You could even make "shorthand" your writing system.
If you have managed to tackle the lexicon and grammar, you still have the phonetics to think about. How will the language sound? You'll need to make sure that the phonemes in your language occur in almost every other language in the world, or at least as many as possible.

If you were to cross-reference every sound produced in every language, you'd probably find very few, if any, that were found in even 90% of modern-day languages.

What about the look of your language? All the world's languages don't share the same writing system, and some don't even have one. Do you want to use an alphabet, abjad, or abugida? A syllabary or logographic writing system? You'll have to create the simplest writing system to ensure that the written form of your language is easy to adopt.

If you've made it this far, we salute you. We gave up by the first step and decided that the pub was always the better option.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Naming Conventions: What's In A Name?

In the beginning there were no words. Eventually, the human race got sick of not knowing what anyone was thinking about and started to name things. The origins of language are sketchy at best and since there was no language prior to it the records are even worse.

When is a sheep not a sheep?
When it's an adorable wittle wamb!
As society grew and languages developed many things ended up acquiring names. Unfortunately for those naming them, such as stars in the sky and species on the earth, there are a lot of things that need names. This usually poses little to no problem when everybody speaks the same language; English people know that a sheep is a sheep and the French know that this is a mouton. However, when these two groups meet and discuss the animal, they will find that the English people will assume that mutton, though related to mouton, is what the French speaker is talking about.

The best way to avoid this problem is to decide upon a naming convention, a set of rules by which everyone agrees things will be named. We've already covered a few nomenclatures, such as Binomial Nomenclature used in biology and medicine and the language of medicine, but felt naming conventions were too important to leave to just the biologists!

Once people can agree on the best way to name things, everything becomes a little easier. Though, as any diplomat knows, getting people to agree on things can be very difficult.

Thankfully, linguists usually agree that dead languages such as Latin and Ancient Greek are great for naming stuff. Both of these languages currently have little to no political affiliations (with the exception of Latin in the Vatican) or modern-day usage.

Obviously, the use of Latin and Ancient Greek are particularly eurocentric and favour users of Indo-European languages, which unfortunately may mean that whilst a native French speaker probably finds it quite easy to guess at what certain Latin terms mean, a native Mandarin or Japanese speaker will have greater difficulty.

Until somebody creates a widely-adopted and linguistically neutral constructed language (or conlang), naming conventions will always have their place within the sciences and technology.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Language Profile: Sunda

The Institute of Technology in Bandung, the largest
city in the Indonesian province of West Java. 
This week's language profile is on Sunda, an Austronesian language with 34 million native speakers. It is spoken by about 15% of the population of Indonesia. Sunda, also known as Sundanese, is an official regional language of West Java, Indonesia's most densely populated province. It is also spoken in Banten province, which was considered to be a part of West Java until 2000.

Sunda is thought to be most closely related to the Malay and Madurese languages. It is also more distantly related to Javanese, which is spoken in the central and eastern parts of the Indonesian island of Java. 

The Sunda language also has several regional dialects. The most-spoken dialect is Pringan, which is used to teach Sunda to schoolchildren from primary school until the start of high school in both the West Java and Banten provinces.

"Sunda" in Sundanese script.
Historically, Sunda was written using Sundanese script, which nowadays is used only by a select few in Indonesia. It was standardized in the 1990s, but has fallen out of use due to the popularity of using Latin script instead. The script looks quite unlike any others we've seen before... it appears to use lots of interesting 7's if we're being honest! 

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Clichés and Stereotypes: Hot Off The Press

You might be surprised to learn that the printing industry not only prints language for us to read, but is also to thank for originating terms in the English language. If it weren't for printers, we wouldn't refer to overused expressions as clichés and assumptions on the mannerisms of a group of people or way of doing things as stereotypes

Printing has come a long way since clichés and stereotypes.
A cliché is an expression or an idea that is so common and overused that we are all pretty much sick of it. The word, cliché, however, though obviously having its roots in the French language (the "é" tends to give it away), also has roots in the printing industry.

Cliché was an onomatopoeic word for the sound made by a stereotype, which was a metal plate made from movable type. Common combinations and expressions were often made into stereotypes in order to save time and money when printing rather than reorganising movable print. Cliché was the sound (at least in French) made by the molten metal when poured to make the stereotype.

In modern day usage, the word stereotype, referring to the presumed notions held in regards to certain things, originally was a synonym of cliché and was used interchangeably by those in the printing industry. Nowadays, obviously, they have distinct meanings and could hardly be considered synonyms.

It just goes to show that clichés and stereotypes are worth more than the paper they're printed on.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Intro to Linguistics: Semantics

In the past few weeks, we've begun to look at various fields of linguistics in our new Intro to Linguistics series. So far, we've covered phonetics (the study of speech sounds), phonology (the study of how sounds are combined to create meaning), and morphology (the study of word structure and formation). Today we'll be looking at the field of semantics, which deals with the study of linguistic meaning.

Semantics focuses on the relationships between words and phrases, as well as the rules for combining words in order to create phrases and sentences. There's a seemingly endless list of terms for various relationships between words, so we'll just list some of the most important and interesting ones below.

homonyms - These are words pronounced (and sometimes also spelled) the same. For example, the words left (opposite of right) and left (past tense of "leave") are homonyms.

Has this cat fallen in a pail or a bucket? Your choice.
synonyms - Words with the same or similar meanings, such as "pail" and "bucket". 

antonyms - These are words that are semantic opposites. For example, hot and cold are gradable antonyms because more of one is less of the other. Pairs like alive and dead are complementary antonyms, because the negation of one is the meaning of the other (not alive = dead). There are also relational antonyms, where the opposites only make sense in the context of the relationship between the two words. Sounds confusing, but it's just talking about word pairs like aunt and niece or teacher and student

hyponyms - Words that are a specific term within a more general category. For example, orange is a hyponym of color.

hypernyms - The opposite of hyponyms, meaning that color is the hypernym of orange.

metonyms - They're a figure of speech used when something is not called by its name, but instead by something associated with it. We've covered metonymy as well as two specific types of metonyms, synecdoche and generic trademarks, in recent months.

The study of semantics looks at thematic roles which tell the semantic relationship between verb and noun phrases in a sentences. It also deals with figures of speech such as metaphors and idioms. Another semantic term is anomaly, which refers to what happens when you break semantic rules and create nonsensical expressions. An example of a semantic anomaly would be the phrase "the cat sewed the milk". It's not ungrammatical, but it is nonsensical since milk cannot be sewn, nor can cats sew with their tiny adorable paws, as far as we know!