Wednesday, December 31, 2014

When Actors Dub Themselves

Around Christmas I always seem to watch a lot of films. To be honest, I'm not much of a film fan. My friends and family are lucky if they can convince me to go to the cinema twice in a year since I used to work in one and generally detest the experience. However, I don't mind staying in and watching a film.

One of the films I decided to watch this holiday season was Guardians of the Galaxy, the Marvel comedy released this summer that featured a rag-tag bunch of space villains who through a series of (un)fortunate events end up being far more important to the safety of the galaxy than they would like to be. While I won't say the film is a cinematic masterpiece, I certainly enjoyed it and had a good giggle while doing so. As usual, after the film I researched the actors, directors, and additional information about the film online and came across the following clip, which I knew I had to watch.

Aside from the seemingly odd "je s'appelle Groot" that the French dub opted for, the main thing that struck me about this video was that Vin Diesel voiced the character (who says nothing more than "I am Groot" throughout the film) in a number of languages.

This reminded me of Danny DeVito in The Lorax back in 2012. While you could argue that DeVito hardly mastered the languages he provided the dubbing for, you should still commend him for having the confidence to do it.

Even though the featurette claims this is the first time an actor has provided the dubs for all the languages in which a film was released, I do know that Antonio Banderas provided the English, Spanish (Castilian and Latin American versions), Italian, and Catalan voices for the unrelentingly-adorable Puss in Boots character from the Shrek and eponymous franchises.

So what about live-action films? After a bit more research, I discovered that Christoph Waltz provided dubbing for both the French and German versions of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, as well as the fact that it is common practice for actors whose first language isn't English to voice themselves in their native tongue.

While Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings is thought to be a polyglot, Viggo Mortensen, who played him in the movies, also speaks multiple languages. The Danish American actor speaks English, Danish, and Spanish and has provided voices for dubs in all three languages as well as featuring in a number of Spanish-language films.

Thanks to the language skills attained in her French-speaking prep school, Jodie Foster, a native English speaker, has lent her voice to many of her own films for the French dubbing. Helena Bonham Carter, who also speaks French fluently, has acted in French-speaking roles as well as providing her own dubbing.

Penelope Cruz went one better than the dubbers when she played the same character in both the Spanish-language film Abre los ojos as well as its American remake Vanilla Sky. I'm not sure whether or not she provided the corresponding English and Spanish dubbing for each version, though...

The "vanilla sky" in Vanilla Sky was
reminiscent of a Monet painting.
Do you know of any other actors who dub themselves into foreign languages? What do you think of those who do? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below!

Monday, December 29, 2014

Country Profile: The Languages of Burma

A couple of weeks ago in our country profile, we explored the linguistic diversity of Thailand. Today, we're heading back to Asia for a look at the neighboring country of Burma, also known as Myanmar.

The Official Language

The country's sole official language is Burmese, a member of the Sino-Tibetan language family. Burmese is spoken by approximately 32 million people, over half of the country's population of approximately 52 million.

Botataung Pagoda in Yangon, Burma
Other Languages

While Burma only has one official language, it is home to approximately 100 other languages. While none of them have official status, some have large numbers of native speakers. 

Several Sino-Tibetan languages besides Burmese are spoken in Burma. The Jingpho language is spoken by approximately 900,000 people, while Rakhine, considered by some to be a dialect of Burmese, is spoken by around 800,000 people. Akha and Lahu, two other Sino-Tibetan languages, each have around 200,000 speakers as well.

Two Austro-Asiatic languages spoken in Burma are Mon and Wa. The Wa language, spoken by the Wa people of Burma and China, is spoken by around 400,000 people in Burma.

Finally, one of the most spoken languages in Burma is Shan, a member of the Tai-Kadai language family. Shan is a tonal language related to Thai that is spoken by the Shan people, and boasts 3.2 million speakers in the country.

Friday, December 26, 2014

December 26: The Possible Origins of Boxing Day

Here in the UK, today is known as Boxing Day. The term is also used in a number of other countries including Australia, Canada, Guyana, Jamaica, Kenya, Hong Kong, New Zealand, and South Africa.

In other English-speaking Christian countries, the day is also referred to as St. Stephen's Day, which is obviously a religious holiday named for the man commonly known as the Church's first martyr. In fact, as a Greek-speaking saint, Stephen comes from the Greek term Στέφανος (Stephanos), which means crown.

While the etymology of St. Stephen's Day is far too obvious to be of any interest to us, we are interested in why we'd refer to this particular date as something as odd as Boxing Day.

Research seems to indicate that the boxing in Boxing Day sadly has nothing to do with the sport. Instead, the word refers to the container. It's said that on this day tradespeople would receive their gifts in the form of a Christmas Box.

It is also thought that due to the common practice in Europe of donating to the poor, the name is a reference to the alms boxes that were common in churches throughout the Middle Ages.

On this date in the UK, more items are returned to shops than any other day of the year. Even though this doesn't affect the name, it seems that the tradition of putting stuff into boxes is continuing even today. Hopefully your Christmas presents were to your liking and you won't be taking anything back to the shops today. Take care!

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Merry Christmas from The Lingua File!

We'd like to wish everyone involved with The Lingua File, from readers to guest post writers, a very Merry Christmas this year! Thank you all for your support, including comments, likes, and shares. We feel very fortunate to be involved with such a great linguistic community. 

We'll be back on Friday with a new post. If you're looking for a festive-themed linguistic post to read today, you can always look back at our etymology of the word "Christmas" from two years ago. Happy Holidays!

Monday, December 22, 2014

Country Profile: The Languages of Italy

In today's country profile, we're going to be looking at the linguistic diversity of Italy, one of the most populous countries in Europe. While Italy is often known for its excellent cuisine and fascinating history, it is also home to a diverse array of languages, many of which belong to the Romance language family.

The Official Language

It should come as no surprise that the official language of Italy is Italian. The country is home to approximately 60 million native speakers of the language, which has many regional dialects. However, it is worth noting that some of these so-called Italian dialects are actually distinct Romance languages, and are referred to as dialects primarily for political reasons.

Recognized Minority Languages

In 1999, the Italian government officially recognized 12 languages as minority languages of Italy. Seven of these languages are Romance languages: Catalan, French, Franco-Provençal, Friulian, Ladin, Occitan, and Sardinian. The other five languages are German, Albanian, Greek, Slovene, and Croatian. Most of these languages have fewer than 100,000 speakers in Italy, and therefore make up a very small percentage of the country's population of 60 million people. However, there are approximately 225,000 speakers of German and 300,000 of Friulian, which is spoken primarily in Italy's Friuli region.

Rialto Bridge, Venice
Recognized Regional Languages

As we mentioned earlier, the linguistic classification of some of the Romance varieties in Italy can be quite confusing, as they are generally called dialects of the Italian language despite being distinct languages. Many of these varieties are recognized as regional languages in certain regions of the country. 

For example, Piedmontese is spoken by over 1 million Italians in the Piedmont region, while Sassarese and Gallurese are spoken in Sardinia. Venetian, spoken by nearly 5 million Italians, is also recognized by the region of Veneto.

There are also some German varieties that are recognized in parts of northeastern Italy. These include Cimbrian and Mòcheno, which are thought to be related to Bavarian varieties of German.

Other Languages

While it may seem like we've already mentioned quite a few languages, many more are spoken throughout Italy. There are plenty of other Romance varieties with disputed classifications, as well as numerous foreign languages that have been brought to the country due to immigration. These foreign languages include Arabic, Spanish, Ukrainian, Hindi, Polish, and Tamil.

Friday, December 19, 2014

The Plight of the Mockingjay: Translating Film Titles

Throughout our recent trip around Europe, we were frequently reminded of our interest in translation, particularly in relation to film titles. As we slowly made our way from the Netherlands to Spain, we encountered numerous film posters in various European languages. However, the one promotional poster we saw everywhere was for the latest addition to The Hunger Games series. We found the translation of its title in various European languages particularly fascinating, so today we've decided to look into a few of the many ways it was translated worldwide.

For those of you who don't know what film I'm referring to, it's The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1, which is based on and named after the final book in the extremely popular series The Hunger Games, written by Suzanne Collins.

A mockingbird, or sinsonte in Spanish.
If you haven't read the books, then you might be wondering what on earth a "mockingjay" is. (Don't worry, no spoilers!) It is a fictional bird in the novel which is said to be a cross between a mockingbird and a "jabberjay", a fictional bird that can memorize and repeat human conversations.

While in Spain, we saw posters for Los juegos del hambre: Sinsajo - Parte 1 everywhere, and I kept wondering what the term sinsajo meant since I'd never seen it before. After doing some research upon my return home, I discovered that the Spanish translator had actually translated the fictional term "mockingjay"! They arrived at the word sinsajo by combining sinsonte and arrendajo, the Spanish words for "mockingbird" and "blue jay". Without doubt, this is my favorite foreign title for the film since the translator took the initiative to create a new term just as Collins had instead of merely borrowing the term "mockingjay" into Spanish.

However, most other translators seemed to take a different route to translating the title. The French, Italian, and Portuguese titles all refer not to the fictional bird, but instead to a "revolt" or "rebellion". The English title, Mockingjay, refers to the symbolism of the mockingjay as a sign of rebellion, so this decision does make sense... it is just a far more direct reference to the plot of the book/film than the more subtle original title.

In French, the film is known as Hunger Games: La révolte - 1ère partie, in Portuguese it is called The Hunger Games: A Revolta - Parte 1, and in Italian it is named Hunger Games: Il canto della rivolta - Parte I. Interestingly, while the French and Portuguese versions translate literally as "The Revolt" or "The Rebellion", the Italian version is slightly more complex and creative, referring to the "call" or "song" of said rebellion.

If any other translators can provide insight into other interesting translations of this film's title (some foreign titles for the film can be found here), please let us know! We'd also love to hear about other film titles you know of that have been translated into other languages in a particularly fascinating way.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Get It Right: e.g. and i.e.

As part of our ongoing "Get It Right" series, today we'll be covering the use of two abbreviations, e.g. and i.e.. While they are not words, but rather abbreviations, we still notice them being used incorrectly more often than we'd like to admit.


In fact, the abbreviation e.g. is not even an abbreviation of English words. It actually stands for the Latin phrase exemplī grātiā. In this instance, grātiā roughly translates as "for the sake", while exemplī is in the genetive case and means "of example". Therefore e.g. means "for the sake of example" or simply "for example".

If you always remember that e.g. means "for example", then you should never have any problems using it. If you haven't given an example, then you're not using it correctly.


This second abbreviations is also from Latin and is short for id est, which means "that is". While it is often incorrectly used in an identical way to e.g., it is meant to be used for elaboration rather than giving an example or a list of examples. You should use i.e. when you're rephrasing your sentence or clarifying your point.

Are there any common mistakes in English that really get on your nerves? Tell us about them in the comments below and we'll try to cover them in an upcoming "Get It Right" post. Thanks for reading!

Monday, December 15, 2014

Country Profile: The Languages of Thailand

Last week, we looked at the linguistic diversity of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This week we're returning to Asia, with our focus devoted to the many fascinating languages of Thailand.

The Official Language

The sole official language of Thailand is Thai, a member of the Tai-Kadai language family. Thai is spoken by the majority of the population of Thailand, and is the primary language used by the government and in education.

Minority Languages

Wat Chaiwatthanaram, a Buddhist temple in Thailand.
Despite having just one official language, Thailand is home to many other minority languages. The Isan dialects of Lao, the official language of neighboring Laos, are spoken by many Thai people in northeastern Thailand. Isan dialects differ from the Lao language spoken in Laos because they tend to incorporate many elements of the Thai language, such as vocabulary and grammar.

Another important minority language in Thailand is Yawi, a dialect of Malay, an Austronesian language spoken in Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia. It is primarily spoken by the Thai Malay ethnic group.

Other minority languages spoken in Thailand include the Karen languages, a group of tonal languages that belong to the Sino-Tibetan language family, and Khmer, the official language of Cambodia. The Karen languages are spoken by the Karen people near Thailand's border with Burma, while Khmer, an Austro-Asiatic language, is mainly spoken in regions bordering Cambodia. Varieties of the Chinese language are also spoken by the many ethnic Chinese people living in Thailand.

There are many more languages spoken in Thailand, we just don't have time to discuss them all. They include Austro-Asiatic languages such as Mon and Vietnamese, Austronesian languages like the Cham language, and Hmong, the language of the Hmong people.

Friday, December 12, 2014

December 12: The Day that Killed Three Linguists

Today, December 12, marks the date that three different linguists died (albeit in separate years). John Pell, Bedřich Hrozný, and Yechezkel Kutscher all died on this date in 1685, 1952, and 1971 respectively. Today we're paying homage to each of these linguists and taking a brief look back at their lives and work.

New Court, Trinity College, Cambridge
John Pell

The first of our three linguists is John Pell, who was born on March 1, 1611. While Pell is certainly more famous for his work as a mathematician, he started his academic career as a linguist at Trinity College, Cambridge, at just 13 years old. Pell put forward a proposal for a universal language in 1638.

His most famous contribution to mathematics was arguably his namesake equation, "Pell's Equation". He also taught the mathematician Johann Rahn, who is said to have created the obelus or ÷, better known as the division symbol. Some also credit Pell with its creation.

Bedřich Hrozný

The second of our three linguists to die on this day was Bedřich Hrozný, who died in 1952. Hrozný was born on May 6, 1879 in the Austro-Hungarian town of Lysá nad Labem, which is in the modern-day Czech Republic. Hrozný completed his education in Vienna and became most famous for his study of eastern societies and languages, known as Oriental studies.

One of his most fascinating works was with the cuneiform writing system used in a number of the languages he studied, including Akkadian, Sumerian, and Old Persian. He also deciphered the Hittite language, spoken by the Hittites, whose empire occupied what is now Turkey, Syria, and Lebanon over 3,000 years ago.

The Dead Sea Scrolls in the Qumran Caves
Yechezkel Kutscher

The last of our three linguists is Yechezkel Kutscher. Kutscher was born in Slovakia on June 1, 1909, and spent his life studying Hebrew. His academic studies took place in his hometown of Topoľčany and in Frankfurt.

He then moved to Mandatory Palestine, where he continued his studies in a couple of religious academic institutions before passing on his knowledge as a teacher in both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

Kutscher studied Hebrew linguistics in Jerusalem before lecturing at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. As an academic he conducted research into the ancient Mishnaic Hebrew script, which included looking at the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Why I Love French, the French, and France

While my time spent in Italy was far too short, I was incredibly happy to return to France, the country that gave rise to my love of languages. Sure, the overnight train from Venice to Paris was fairly appalling (it was the Thello, if you're wondering), but waking up in the "city of lights" successfully eradicated any ill feeling about the poor night's sleep I'd had.

Even though during my earlier years I'd been given no choice about the language I got to study, by the time I was able to make a choice about it at age 14, I was certain that French was a subject that I wanted to continue, even to degree level.

France is a great country to visit, and I can easily say from experience that it's even better to live there. When I was visiting Paris, I had the luxury of spending time with a few natives. This meant that I was able to enjoy the real side of Paris, away from the huge number of tourists that make Paris one of the most visited cities in the world.

Enjoying great food and great drinks (at a reasonable price, no less) while having the privilege to speak one of the most beautiful and sexiest languages on the planet with a native speaker is always an absolute dream come true.

Of course, spending time in Paris was incredible. However, I was far more interested in heading to southern France, Avignon to be precise, where I'd spent my Erasmus year. Although it's not for everyone, I love the Avignonnais accent and was delighted to hear it again after over half a decade of being separated from my second hometown.

Despite Parisians often being criticised for their demeanour, I couldn't complain about their behaviour during my time there, and I already knew that the locals in Avignon are incredibly amicable from my previous time there.

Of course, I can't learn French again. However, if you have been giving it some thought, you shouldn't delay any further. French is widely taught across the world and holds an important level of prestige amongst a number of international bodies including the UN and the EU. If the job prospects aren't enough to convince you, then you should consider that French just sounds awesome!

Monday, December 8, 2014

Country Profile: Languages of the Democratic Republic of the Congo

In this week's country profile, we're focusing on the languages of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Democratic Republic of the Congo (which we'll refer to as "the DRC" to make things easier) is the second largest country in Africa, and is home to over 77 million people who speak a total of over 200 different languages.

The Official Language

The official language of the DRC is French, the most important of the country's two former colonial languages, the other being Dutch. French was selected as the country's official language because it was considered to be a neutral language that would not favor any of the indigenous ethnic groups.

The DRC has the second largest Francophone population in the world after France, with approximately 28 million speakers. The language is widely used in areas of life such as secondary education, and is also an important lingua franca used to facilitate communication between the speakers of the DRC's four national languages.

A lava lake that existed for decades at Mount Nyiragongo,
a volcano in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The National Languages

There are four official national languages in the DRC: Lingala, Kikongo, Tshiluba, and Swahili. All four are Bantu languages, which is a branch of the Niger-Congo language family. Most children in the DRC are educated in the Bantu language native to their region in primary school, and then switch to the French language for further instruction.

Lingala is primarily spoken in northwestern areas of the DRC, as well as much of the neighboring Republic of the Congo. It has approximately 5.5 million native speakers worldwide, with around 7 million people in the DRC speaking it as a second language.

Kikongo, also known as Kongo, is also widely spoken by people residing in the tropical forests of west central Africa. Kituba, a creole based on Kikongo, is used throughout the region as an important lingua franca, especially in urban areas. The Swahili language is another important lingua franca in this region, as well as throughout larger sections of Africa. Finally, there is Tshiluba, which has around 6 million native speakers, primarily in the Kasai region of the DRC.

Other Languages

Several other languages are spoken in the DRC by smaller numbers of speakers. Most of these are Bantu languages such as Mongo, Nande, Chokwe, Lunda, Budza, Tetela, and Kilega. The Lendu and Mangbetu languages also have some speakers residing in the DRC, and are thought to be members of the Nilo-Saharan language family.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Get It Right: Rite, Right, and Write

For those of you who speak English natively or at a very high level, this post may seem almost pointless. However, for those learning English, and a few of you who are a bit fast and loose with your spelling, this is a very important lesson.

If you've read our other Get It Right posts, you´re probably aware that we're slowly but surely working our way through some of the most common mistakes made in the English language. Today we're looking at three homophones: rite, right, and write.


We'll start with the most obscure of the three: rite. The term has a number of definitions, mostly pertaining to religious uses. As a type of religious act, the word made its way into Middle English from the Latin term ritus. In addition to its religious connotations, its meaning has also expanded to include social customs and other secular practices such as "funeral rites".


In addition to being the opposite direction of left, right can act as a noun, adjective, adverb, and noun. Generally speaking, the term can either refer to the direction, that which is morally approved or correct, an entitlement to do something, or to correct something.

Before pens, feathers were used to write.

The last of our three homophones today is write, the verb for marking the letters or characters of a language onto a surface. It is also used to describe the act of arranging words, as an author would do with a book, even if they aren't physically writing and are instead using a computer or even dictating their story to someone who is.


As a little treat and to make matters more confusing, we also have wright, a term that is very occasionally used in Scotland and Northern England. The term refers to someone who makes something for a living, particularly a carpenter or a joiner. However, you´re more likely to recognise the word as a common surname.

Well, we hope you've learned something today. If there are any terms you often struggle with in the English language, tell us about them in the comments and we'll try to get around to helping you get it right!

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Why I Love Italian, Italians, and Italy

Continuing on from our discussion of Germany, its locals, and its language, today we're looking at the same stuff, but in Italy. While our travels didn't take us directly to Italy from Germany, we are going to skip talking about Croatia and Slovenia for now as it'll us take much longer to do these lesser-known cultures justice in the form of a post.

Venice is certainly beautiful, but it's only a small part of Italy.
Even though our time in Italy was brief, it's easy to gain a fondness for the nation, its people, and its language. Sadly, Venice was the only Italian destination on our itinerary. Fortunately, Venice was the destination on the itinerary. I've been to Italy before, so I hope Italians don't think I'm basing my entire opinion of them on one city.

The weather in Venice is certainly preferable to that of the UK. However, I try not to consider a country's geographical position in my opinion of it. That said, it's hard for a Brit not to enjoy a November day without needing a coat.

It would be silly of me to write a post on Italy without mentioning the amazing food. Sure, Venice can be expensive, but the food across the length and breadth of Italy is fantastic. It's hard to argue with the cuisine of a country that includes pizza, pasta, and gelato.

Food and weather is all well and good, but what really makes Italy is the people. I obviously haven't met every Italian in the world, but many of the Italians I've met throughout my life have been friendly, passionate, and enthusiastic.

Great people, great cuisine, great weather, and a great country are just the base of my opinion. The delicious topping is definitely the language. While Italian is not as widely spoken as Spanish, Portuguese, or French, it can easily be argued to be the "favourite son" of Latin, and easily one of my favourite languages to listen to.

While my Italian is certainly terrible, I can't help but enjoy listening to it. You don't learn to speak Italian, you learn to sing. The melody of Italian is one of the most wonderful things in the world and if you already know a Romance language, what are you waiting for? I know I can't get enough of it!

Throughout my trip I've been rediscovering a love for a number of languages. Upon my return I'm going to set about learning them. Do you speak Italian? Or do you prefer Dutch or German? Which do you think I should learn? Leave your thoughts in the comments below! Grazie!

Monday, December 1, 2014

Country Profile: The Languages of Turkey

Last week we looked into the diverse linguistic landscape of Iran, one of the largest countries in the Middle East. Today we're turning our focus to its neighboring country of Turkey, which is located at the crossroads of Europe and Asia. It has a population of over 75 million people who speak a number of distinct languages.

The Official Language

It should come as no surprise that the sole official language of Turkey is Turkish. Turkish is a member of the Turkic language family, and is the native language of approximately 85% of the Turkish population. The country's constitution also mandates that it is the only language that can be taught as a native language in Turkish schools.

Mount Nemrut in southeastern Turkey is home to a fascinating
collection of statues that date back to the 1st century BC.
Minority Languages

Turkey is also home to speakers of many other minority and immigrant languages. Kurmanji, also known as Northern Kurdish, is spoken by approximately 12% of the country's population. It is the most commonly spoken dialect of the Kurdish language, which is also used in Iran, Iraq, and Syria.

The Laz language is natively spoken by around 20,000 people in Turkey. It is a member of the Kartvelian language family which includes three other closely-related languages, including Georgian. Two other prominent minority languages in Turkey are Arabic and Zazaki. Arabic is the most spoken Semitic language in the world, while Zazaki is an Iranian language with approximately 1.5 million speakers worldwide.

Immigrant Languages

Turkey, like many other countries, is also home to many immigrants who continue to speak their native languages. Three of the most spoken immigrant languages in Turkey are Albanian, Bosnian, and Bulgarian. Albanian comprises its very own independent branch of the Indo-European language family, while Bosnian and Bulgarian are Slavic languages. Bulgarian is also the official language of Bulgaria, while Bosnian is a standard variety of Serbo-Croatian that is the official language of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Get It Right: Compliment and Complement

A couple of weeks ago, we explained how to correctly use the English words "capital" and "capitol". Today we're continuing our linguistic quest to prevent unnecessary spelling mistakes with a look at two more words that start with the letter 'c', compliment and complement, which are confused far more often than they should be. However, it is somewhat understandable given that they came from the Latin word complementum.


When used as a noun, compliment refers to "an expression of praise or admiration". For example, it's generally a compliment when someone tells you that they like your new haircut. The term is also used as a verb to refer to the act of using such an expression, as in "John complimented Mary on her graduation from medical school".


The addition of bacon complements a cheeseburger.
The term complement can also be used as both a noun and a verb. It's usually used to refer to something that helps to improve or enhance something else, as in "red wine is the perfect complement to beef".

It's also used, albeit less frequently, to refer to a quantity necessary to make a group complete, as in "the company has a full complement of staff".

The term complement is also used in linguistics and grammar to refer to a word that is necessary to "complete" the meaning of a phrase or sentence. For example, in the sentence "She devoured the hamburger", the hamburger is the object complement of the verb devoured. The presence of the hamburger is essential to the completion of the sentence because the verb devour requires an object. If it didn't, then we could just say "She devoured" without it sounding horribly wrong.

In any case, if you just remember that compliments are things that are said (or written), then you should always know which of these two terms to use.

Have we still not covered your biggest pet peeve when it comes to English spelling and grammar mistakes? Let us know in the comments and we'll try to address it in the future!

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Language Profile: Aramaic

In our last post on the languages of Iran, we briefly mentioned Assyrian Neo-Aramaic, a member of the Aramaic language family. The Aramaic languages are part of the Semitic language family that includes languages such as Hebrew, Arabic, and Amharic. They are particularly interesting due to their historical importance and long written history.

The earliest written evidence of Aramaic dates back to the 10th century BC. Aramaic was an important lingua franca throughout the Middle East for several centuries. It was used by the Neo-Assyrian, Neo-Babylonian, and Achaemenid Empires, as well as being the language of Syriac Christianity. The Talmud, an important Jewish text, was also written in Aramaic, which is thought to be the language used by Jesus since it was the everyday language in Judea at the time. After centuries of linguistic dominance in the region, Aramaic was eventually replaced by the Arabic language.

This book was written in the 11th century using Syriac script,
which descended from the Aramaic alphabet. 
Due to the long history of Aramaic, it should come as no surprise that it evolved into numerous varieties, most of them distinct enough to be classified as separate languages. There are only a few remaining spoken varieties of Aramaic, which all have small numbers of speakers. These include the aforementioned Assyrian Neo-Aramaic language spoken in Iran, Iraq, and Syria, and Chaldean Neo-Aramaic, also spoken in Iraq. There are also some remaining speakers of Judeo-Aramaic varieties in Israel.

Aramaic is written using the Aramaic alphabet, which is the basis of most modern writing systems used in the Middle East. Two of the most widely used alphabets based on Aramaic's alphabet are Hebrew and Arabic, fellow Semitic languages.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Country Profile: The Languages of Iran

In today's post we're focusing on the linguistic diversity of Iran, historically known as Persia. Iran is one of the largest countries in the Middle East and is known for being one of the oldest centers of civilization in the world. It is also quite linguistically diverse, so let's get started!

The Official Language

The sole official language of Iran is Persian, a member of the Iranian language family. Persian is spoken by the majority of Iran's population. It is also an official language in the countries of Afghanistan and Tajikistan, whose varieties of Persian are known as Dari and Tajik respectively.

Minority Languages

Despite the official status of Persian, many other languages are used throughout Iran by large numbers of speakers. In order to simplify things, we're going to discuss them according to their language families.

The Lut Desert in Iran
Iranian Languages

Gilaki and Mazanderani are two closely-related members of the Iranian language family that are spoken by approximately 3 million people in Iran. The Kurdish language, on the other hand, is spoken by approximately 10% of the Iranian population, mostly in Kurdistan Province. 

Luri is also spoken by a relatively large percentage of Iran's population, and is thought by some linguists to be part of a dialect continuum that connects the Persian and Kurdish languages. Finally, the Balochi language is spoken by around 2% of Iranians, primarily those residing in southeastern Iran.

Turkic Languages

Azerbaijani, also known as Azeri, is spoken by nearly one-fifth of Iran's population. It is a member of the Turkic language family and is the official language of the neighboring country of Azerbaijan. Turkmen, the official language of Turkmenistan, is also spoken by over 1 million people in Iran, primarily in the country's northeastern regions that border Turkmenistan.

Semitic Languages

Assyrian Neo-Aramaic, a member of the Semitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic language family spoken in Iran, is one of the many Aramaic languages. Aramaic languages are particularly fascinating due to their written existence that dates back over 3,000 years as well as their use by several empires and religious throughout the ages, which we'll look at sometime in the future. The Hebrew and Arabic languages are also both spoken by approximately 2% of Iranians.

Other Languages

Two final languages that are spoken by large numbers of Iranians yet don't fit into any of the other language groups are Georgian and Armenian. Georgian is a member of the Kartvelian language family, while Armenian comprises its own indpendent branch of the Indo-European language family. Both are spoken by approximately 2% of Iran's population.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Why I Love German, Germans, and Germany

After recently visiting the Netherlands and becoming rather fond of the country, its people, and its language as part of an ongoing railway trek around Europe, I made my way to Germany. 

My first destination in Germany was Hamburg, which I got to with relative ease despite an absence of national rail services that day due to a strike. As a Brit this amused me greatly since we're always complaining about the lacklustre rail service in our country.

I've only been fortunate enough to visit Germany once before during a previous Europe-wide expedition over half a decade ago when I visited Berlin for two nights. Despite being turned away from a club without any given reason, I enjoyed my time there. Armed with nothing but a phrasebook, I did my utmost to remember the year of German I took when I was 14 years old.

German is not one of my spoken languages and the amount I learnt in school accounts for little more than simple greetings, numbers, and how to ask for directions. Despite this, using the same outdated phrasebook and the internet, I managed to find the missing vocabulary I needed in most situations.

Much like in the Netherlands, I was lucky enough to enjoy some local hospitality. After making my way to Münster via Bremen, I sampled some fantastic German baked goods and beers, of course. From there it was a long but pleasant train journey to Munich, where I was told to prepare for a very different (in a good way) variety of German.

While making the mistake of overindulging in one of Munich's most popular pursuits, drinking, I was treated very kindly by everyone I met, who were more than willing to humour me as I attempted to speak their language, patiently listening as I horrendously butchered it.

I'll admit that I don't learn languages very well from reading verb tables, and as a result find myself eavesdropping on anyone and everyone in public spaces. Thanks to this seemingly rude practice, I'd like to debunk the myth that German is an aggressive and harsh-sounding language. While admittedly not as melodic as Italian, perhaps, I found the phonemes to be rather soothing.

I was also fascinated by the prevalence of compound nouns in German. While I had also noticed this in Dutch, in German it seemed so much more mind-boggling, perhaps due to the diacritic marks used, and therefore more interesting.

Now I'm not sure whether to learn Dutch or German upon my return home. Have you learnt or do you speak either of these languages? If so, make your case for which one I should focus on in the comments below.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Language Profile: Egyptian

Earlier this week in our country profile on Egypt, we made a brief mention of the Egyptian language. It is one of the oldest recorded languages in existence, with written evidence dating back as far as the year 3300 BC. It also comprises its own branch of the Afro-Asiatic language family, which also includes Semitic languages such as Arabic and Hebrew.

The Egyptian language has had a long and fascinating history over the centuries. The name Ancient Egyptian generally refers to the Egyptian language before 2600 BC, after which point it passed through stages that are now known as Old, Middle, and Late Egyptian, which was used through 700 BC. These earliest stages of the Egyptian language were written using both hieroglyphs and hieratic.

The Papyrus of Ani featuring cursive hieroglyphs, created around 1250 BC. 
The oldest preserved texts in Egyptian are generally those written on stone using hieroglyphs. Egyptian hieroglyphs consist of three types of glyphs: phonetic glyphs that represent phonemes, logograms that represent morphemes and words, and determinatives or semagrams, which are symbols that help the reader to determine the exact meaning of the other two types of glyphs. While Egyptian hieroglyphs were unreadable throughout most of modern history, they were eventually deciphered in the early 1800s. This was done primarily through the use of the Rosetta Stone, which featured text written in Egyptian hieroglyphs, classic Greek, and Demotic, which we will get to in a moment.

A close-up of the cursive hieroglyphs
from The Papyrus of Ani
Hieratic, the other writing system we mentioned, was a cursive writing system that was primarily used for important documents. Unfortunately, examples of hieratic script were not preserved as easily throughout history since hieratic was usually written on papyrus, a paper-like material made from the papyrus plant.

Around the 7th century BC, the language became what is now known as Demotic. Demotic script was derived from forms of hieratic, and was generally used for similar official purposes. It was used through the 5th century AD, around which time Coptic, the final stage of the Egyptian language, came into existence. Both Demotic and Coptic scripts were used as a means of simplifying the complex hieroglyph-based Egyptian writing system for the ever-increasing number of speakers.

Coptic was spoken in Egypt until the 17th century and was written using the Coptic alphabet, which consists of the Greek alphabet with letters borrowed from Demotic. Around the 7th century, Arabic became the most popular language for official purposes, and Coptic was eventually replaced as the national language of Egypt by Egyptian Arabic, which is still used today. However, unlike the earlier forms of the Egyptian language which are no longer used, Coptic survives as a liturgical language of the Coptic Orthodox and Coptic Catholic churches.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Country Profile: The Languages of Egypt

This week our country profile is going to focus on the languages of Egypt, a fascinating country that first became a nation state in the 10th millennium BC. Egypt is especially interesting from a linguistic standpoint because of its past and present linguistic history. Today we'll be taking a look at the many modern languages spoken in the country. 

The Official Language

As is true of many other Islamic countries, Modern Standard Arabic is the official language of Egypt. Modern Standard Arabic is the standardized variety of the Arabic language that is used throughout the Middle East and North Africa. It is also known as Literary Arabic since it is the most common written form of Arabic. 

The Pyramids of Giza, one of Egypt's most famous landmarks.
The National Language

The national language of Egypt is Egyptian Arabic, the spoken variety of Arabic used in Egypt. While Modern Standard Arabic is used in most forms of media such as television, Egyptian Arabic is occasionally found in written form in so-called "vernacular" literature such as novels and poems created for the average Egyptian, as well as in popular songs and some newspapers. Egyptian Arabic is spoken by 68% of the Egyptian population and is the native language of 54 million people, making it the most spoken variety of the Arabic language in the world. It is also thought to be the most widely understood variety of Arabic throughout Arabic-speaking countries, primarily due to the widespread popularity of Egyptian films. 

Other Varieties of Arabic

Egypt is also home to speakers of three other varieties of Arabic. Approximately 29% of Egyptians speak Sa'idi Arabic, primarily in the southernmost regions of the country. Despite this variety of Arabic having very low prestige in Egypt compared to Modern Standard Arabic and Egyptian Arabic, it is still spoken by a considerable proportion of the country.

The two other varieties of Arabic used in the country are Eastern Egyptian Bedawi Arabic and Sudanese Arabic. Eastern Egyptian Bedawi Arabic, which is understandably shortened to the name Bedawi, is spoken by around 1.6% of the population in eastern Egypt as well as Jordan, Israel, Syria, and the Palestinian territories. Sudanese Arabic, unsurprisingly, is the spoken variety of Arabic used in the neighboring country of Sudan. It is also spoken by about 0.6% of the Egyptian population.

Other Languages

A few other notable languages spoken by minority groups in Egypt are Domari, Nobiin, Beja, and Siwi. Domari is an Indo-Aryan language used by the Dom ethnic group that is widely dispersed throughout North Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, and India. Nobiin, on the other hand, is a Nilo-Saharan language that is natively spoken by nearly 500,000 people in southern Egypt and northern Sudan belonging to the Nubian ethnic group.

Additionally, Beja and Siwi are two Afro-Asiatic languages spoken in Egypt. Beja is primarily spoken by members of the Beja ethnic group that lives between the Nile River and the Red Sea. Siwi is a Berber language spoken by thousands of people near Egypt's border with Libya.

Egypt was also home to the fascinating Egyptian language of Ancient Egypt which later evolved into the Demotic and Coptic languages, but we'll save that discussion for another day.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Why I Love Dutch, the Dutch, and the Netherlands

Until recently, I was never a huge fan of Amsterdam and hadn't really visited anywhere else in the Netherlands (with the exception of the Efteling theme park), so I'd never really had an experience to write home about.

I'd visited Amsterdam with my parents when I was at an age when I still thought girls were disgusting. This meant that during an accidental trip into the red-light district (which is right by a beautiful church I was visiting), the view of scantily-clad prostitutes in the window made me cry.

On a later trip around Europe I ended up partaking in a small amount of Amsterdam's other popular pursuit, cannabis, and the ensuing paranoia coupled with again accidentally finding the red-light district led to a wholly unpleasant time.

As they say, the third time's the charm, and upon my arrival in Amsterdam, the first destination in a trip around Europe, I was adamant that I was going to enjoy myself and change my poor opinion of the city and, by extension, the country. I made sure to find the beautiful parts of the city and subsequently the beautiful people of the Netherlands.

Even though I was hoping to learn some Dutch and had quickly consulted a couple of web pages on the matter, when I stumbled with the longer words and seemingly endless number of vocalic phonemes, the locals were all very friendly while they put me to shame with their flawless mastery of my mother tongue.

From Amsterdam, I headed eastwards to the city of Zwolle to meet a good friend and exceptional English teacher. In Zwolle I was treated to the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of the city, as well as travelling on a typically-Dutch bicycle that was kindly provided for me.

The Netherlands, and Zwolle in particular, is a wonderful place for cyclists and while it seemed odd to me that nobody wears a helmet when cycling, it became abundantly clear that with all the cycle paths, cyclist-friendly road layouts, and drivers that are very familiar with being surrounded by bikes, there was little danger of ever encountering any trouble.

I was lucky enough to be able to sit in on a couple of English lessons at the school where my friend taught and was left completely astounded by the level of English on display. The older children were discussing Jewish-American Literature and not only providing exceptional insight into the passages they had read, but doing so in impeccable English.

So it might be pretty clear that I think the Netherlands is a wonderful place, since the people were friendly and happy to converse with us in English without being upset that my Dutch is abysmal. While I don't speak Dutch and the words I know could be written on a postage stamp, I love the look, feel, and sound of the language.

One particular highlight was sitting in on a lesson on English accents. As a special guest, I was allowed to provide a sample of my finest Geordie. The children then had to ascertain, given my accent, where I came from. Sadly, they were more familiar with the accents of those on the reality tv show Geordie Shore (which I was shocked to find the Netherlands is also subjected to) than a typical Geordie accent, and struggled to pinpoint my city of origin. Nevertheless, it was an incredibly fun and eye-opening experience, putting my foreign language education in the United Kingdom to shame.

The Dutch Language

Since large portions of my time in the Netherlands were spent speaking English, I did my best to learn as much as I could about the language from native speakers while trying to pick up as much vocabulary as possible from every example of the written language.

While the phonetic differences between Dutch and English are vast, the language is similar enough to English to make my ears hone in on speech. This left me confused as my brain clearly felt it could understand the language but never quite managed.

While other languages have left their mark on the Dutch language, you can certainly tell that English and Dutch are cousins as many words have shared roots that become apparent when you hear or read them.

Despite struggling with the pronunciation of countless phonemes, I would certainly recommend learning Dutch. While you could argue that it may not vastly increase your career prospects, I found the language both beautiful and fascinating, and am very keen to learn more.

My only criticism of the whole experience is that any English speaker may find it hard to have an entire conversation in Dutch with the natives. I got the impression from the Dutch people I met that they are not only masters of English, but also very keen to use their foreign language skills. I'm sure once I reach the level of basic communication I will enjoy many wonderful conversations in Dutch, if I could just get a chance to practice!

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Get It Right: Capital and Capitol

Today we have a new addition to our Get It Right series, in which we try to help eliminate unnecessary mistakes in the English language. This time we're focusing on the words capital and capitol, which are often confused by native and non-native speakers alike. Hopefully our explanation will ensure that you're never left wondering if you've chosen the correct term again!


The word capital originated as the Latin word capitalis before making its way into English via Old French. It has multiple definitions as both a noun and an adjective, which only adds to the confusion regarding its usage.

The most popular usage of capital is likely when it refers to the administrative center of a country or seat of government. For example, London is the capital of England. The word can also be used to refer to a place associated with a certain thing, such as the Italian city of Milan being considered a "fashion capital".

The United States Capitol's columns have beautiful capitals.
The term capital can also be used in various ways to refer to wealth, often in the form of money or assets which can be used for investment purposes. If you're more interested in architectural terms than business jargon, then you should also know that the broader section at the top of a pillar or column is also called a capital.

It is also used as both a noun and an adjective to refer to uppercase letters, so we could say that this sentence begins with a "capital I". Finally, capital is used in terms such as "capital punishment" and "capital offense" to refer to the death penalty.


The word capitol, on the other hand, has just one definition. It refers only to the building where a legislature meets, such as the United States Capitol which sits on Washington D.C.'s Capitol Hill. Unsurprisingly, capitol also originated in Latin, though it was a distinct term: capitolium.

While we suppose it does make sense to have separate words for the city that is the administrative center and the building (generally located in the city) where all the administrative decisions are made, they could have at least used terms that weren't quite so similar!

In any case, unless you often find yourself talking about legislative buildings, you're almost always going to want to use the word capital.

Is there another common English spelling or grammar mistake that you wish we'd address? Let us know in the comments below.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Country Profile: The Languages of Ethiopia

Just one month ago we looked into the linguistic makeup of Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa. Today we're turning our attention to another African nation, Ethiopia, which is the most populous landlocked country in the world. It is located in the northeast African peninsula known as the Horn of Africa and boasts a population of just over 87 million people.

The Official Language

The sole official language of Ethiopia is Amharic. It is a member of the Semitic language family and is the second most spoken Semitic language in the world after Arabic. Amharic has been an important language used by the government of Ethiopia for centuries.

The Most Spoken Language

Despite Amharic's long-standing status as the official language of Ethiopia, it is not actually the most spoken language in the country. That honor falls to Oromo, a member of the Cushitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic language family. Oromo is spoken by approximately 34% of the Ethiopian population, while Amharic's usage is a slightly smaller 30%. 

Historically, the use of Oromo in print or broadcast media was quite limited. However, the Ethiopian government has implemented literacy efforts in recent years that feature published materials and radio broadcasts in Oromo. It has also been used as a language of instruction in some schools during the past two decades. 

The Semien Mountains of northern Ethiopia
Other Languages

If two-thirds of the Ethiopian population speak Amharic and Oromo, then what does the rest of the population speak? It turns out that Ethiopia is quite linguistically diverse due to its ethnic diversity, and is therefore home to approximately 90 languages which principally fall into two categories: Afro-Asiatic and Nilo-Saharan languages.

Afro-Asiatic Languages

The third most spoken language in Ethiopia is Somali, one of the official languages of neighboring Somalia. Somali is spoken by approximately 4.6 million Ethiopians, which amounts to 6% of the population. It is followed by the Tigrinya language, which has slightly fewer speakers. This Semitic language is primarily spoken in northern Ethiopia and parts of neighboring Eritrea.

Sidamo, the language of the Sidama people of southern Ethiopia, is spoken by nearly 5% of the population. Wolaytta language speakers comprise another 2% of the Ethiopian population. Their language is distinctive because of its frequent use of proverbs in daily speech. The Gurage and Afar languages are also each spoken by around 2% of the population.

Nilo-Saharan Languages

While the vast majority of Ethiopians speak Afro-Asiatic languages, several Nilo-Saharan languages are also used in the country. These include Nuer and Anuak, which are also spoken in the relatively new country of South Sudan which gained its independence in 2011. Other Nilo-Saharan languages only spoken in Ethiopia include Nyangatom, Me'en, Majang, and Mursi, whose numbers of speakers all range in the thousands. 

Friday, November 7, 2014

Online Linguistic Resources: The Ethnologue

Over the past two years that we've worked on The Lingua File, we've made several references to the Ethnologue as a source of information. While some of you may already have already heard of it (or took the time to Google it), we've decided to take some time today to look into this wonderful linguistic resource. 

The Ethnologue is a reference work that strives to catalog all of the living languages in the world. It was founded by Richard S. Pittman and created as a collaborative project with his work colleagues at SIL International, a Christian linguistic service organization, as well as other linguists around the world. Its first edition, published in 1951, consisted of ten pages that focused on 46 languages. While it was originally published every few years in book format, it has recently become primarily a web-based publication. Currently, you can view its seventeenth edition online at, where it provides information on an impressive 7,106 living languages.

The Ethnologue can introduce you to fascinating languages you've never heard of,
just as Wikipedia introduces you to interesting animal species like the liger.
Ethnologue: Languages of the World is highly regarded by linguists and language lovers alike due to its comprehensive information on world languages. Say, for example, that you'd like to learn more about the Swedish language. If you search "Swedish" on the Ethnologue website, you'll find an entire page dedicated to information on the language. The first fact you learn is that it's a "language of Sweden". Keep reading, and you'll learn about alternate names for Swedish (like "Svenska"), the number and locations of its speakers, as well as its status and dialects.

Another great feature of the site is that it provides information about the various languages spoken in specific countries. On the aforementioned page for Swedish, you can click on a hyperlink on the word "Sweden" which takes you to a linguistic overview of the country. It includes everything from official languages, immigrant languages, and literacy rates to the official status of various languages within the country. 

If you're fascinated by languages and are one of those people (like us) who occasionally finds themselves having spent hours reading linked Wikipedia pages, then the Ethnologue may keep you entertained for quite some time. Luckily, it is written in a very dry, factual way since its information is all displayed from a database, so you might not lose too much time to this fascinating reference material if you're not looking for something in particular.

We highly recommend that you take a look at the Ethnologue since it is an excellent linguistic resource. In addition to providing information on individual languages and countries, it also looks at language families, features interesting language maps, and so much more.