Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Learn a Language with the Ikea Catalogue

Last week an Ikea catalogue made its way into the pile of unsolicited post that enters through our letterbox every day. As we went through the seemingly endless pages of utilitarian minimalist furniture, we started pondering what the product names meant, if anything.

I imagined that if the names of the products were in any language, it would be Swedish due to the company's origin. However, it should be noted that Ikea's headquarters are located in Leiden, Netherlands. Since my knowledge of Swedish is fairly limited, simply reading that catalogue was never going to give me the answer to my question.

A typical Ikea kitchen layout.
While it is rare that anyone would ever find the answer to anything in a catalogue, I remembered that I live in a wonderful era where almost everything is at my fingertips and a quick bit of delving into the internet would answer my question. This may seem very foolish to anyone in Sweden or anyone who speaks Swedish, but to me it was the culmination of years of infrequent pondering and terrible Swedish impressions every time I bought flat-pack furniture.

My efforts, though as minimalist as the furniture itself, yielded results. It turned out that all of Ikea's products are indeed real words, rather than foreign-sounding pseudo-language, such as Häagen-Dazs, which is supposed to sound Danish.

In addition to being actual words, all of Ikea's products follow a nomenclature, or naming convention, that is designed to ensure that products belonging to certain groups are all named after certain types of words.

Swedish, Norwegian, Finnish, and Danish place names are each allocated to three different groups of product types while the names of Scandinavian lakes, rivers, and bays are used for another group with garden furniture being named after Sweden's islands.

"That's all well and good, but I don't want a geography lesson, I want to learn Swedish!"

Don't worry! Ikea's ranges of bookcases are all the Swedish words for various occupations and the kitchen ranges are often grammatical terms, ideal if you are a prescriptivist. Chairs and desks and fabrics and curtains are men's and women's names respectively, and lighting products are all named after a wide range of terminology from music to the sciences as well as the months of the year and the seasons.

You can learn the names of precious stones and minerals from the bedding and cushions and even mathematics in Swedish from curtain accessories. While we're certainly not saying you'll become fluent in Swedish by walking around their one-way stores and eating meatballs, you should remember next time you find yourself replacing a bookcase that you can expand your Swedish vocabulary while arguing with your other half in Ikea.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Afghan Independence Day: The Languages of Afghanistan

Yesterday, 19 August, marked Afghan Independence Day. In honour of this day, today we'll be looking at the history leading up to the event and the languages spoken in this Asian country. Although the holiday celebrates the signing of the Anglo-Afghan Treaty, the treaty was not actually signed on 19 August nor did it grant Afghanistan independence.

Band-e Amir National Park, Afghanistan
The Anglo-Afghan Treaty marked the end of the Third Anglo-Afghan War and was an armistice between the UK and Afghanistan despite Afghanistan never being part of the British Empire. It was signed on 8 August and agreed that Afghanistan was to be recognised by the UK as independent, despite already being so. The treaty, also known as the Treaty of Rawalpandi, also agreed that British India, which was part of the British Empire, would go no further than the Khyber Pass.

Afghanistan has since celebrated its "independence" each 19 August, but who are we to tell them to celebrate it on a different day? Instead, we thought we'd celebrate the country's linguistic diversity.

Afghanistan grants two languages official status, Pashto and Dari. Pashto, also known as Afghani, belongs to the Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European language family. It is natively spoken by around 60% of the population of Afghanistan and its official status is constitutionally equal to that of Dari. There are somewhere between 40 and 60 million speakers of Pashto worldwide, with just under 9 million native speakers in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan's second official language, Dari, is widely considered to be a dialect of Persian. Dari is only spoken by a fifth of the country's population, though it is also thought to be the native language of just under 10 million people around the world.

The flag of Afghanistan
While we've said that Afghanistan only has two official languages, the third and fourth most common languages and the other languages spoken in the country are considered the third official language in certain circumstances. In fact, the constitution of Afghanistan states that the Turkic languages and a number of other languages spoken in the country are to be considered official languages in areas where they are spoken by the majority.

This constitutional peculiarity means that the third official language of Afghanistan (in certain areas) is Uzbek, Turkmen, Balochi, Pashayi, Nuristani and Pamiri. The Uzbek language is natively spoken by 14% of the population, whilst Turkmen is spoken by closer to 2.5% of those in Afghanistan.

Finally, it should be noted that Afghanistan has a high degree of multilingualism with a large percentage of the population speaking more than one of the country's official languages, something that we certainly find worth celebrating!

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Worst Uses of English in Songs

While I am very much in favour of multilingualism and believe that everyone should at least learn a second language, I do feel there is a time and place for multilingualism. Quite some time ago, we put together a list of the songs in English that almost ruined other languages for us, before adding a few more to that list.

It may surprise you that it is not just English speakers who are making these linguistic faux-pas. Today we've created a list of artists that should have either stuck to their mother tongues or spent a little longer studying both grammar and pronunciation when it comes to English. While I could easily mention any of the Eurovision entries from this year, I've instead decided to throw together 5 songs that I actually like but certainly should have never had any English in them.

Robert Ramirez - Sick of Love

I first heard this song in Spain a few years ago, and while it was often played in clubs, it fortunately never seemed to make its way to English-speaking audiences (at least not the UK or the US). I can only imagine that its lack of popularity in English-speaking countries is due to its horrendous butchering of the English language. While I'm certainly not saying this is the only song to have nonsensical lyrics, it tops off its lyrical nonsense by mispronouncing a large number of English words including "sugar" and "evil".

Discobitch - C'est Beau La Bourgoisie

I have a love-hate relationship with this one. While Discobitch's franglais electro track was the anthem of my Erasmus year, it always hurt my ears to hear the incorrect conjugation of "grow" in the line "and all the piles of money that grows next to you". You could argue that it is conjugated with "money" but that would make even less sense. Also, repeating "I'm a bitch", while somewhat funny the first time, becomes very crude and childish come the fiftieth time.

Nozomi Sasaki featuring Astro - Kamu To Funyan

This song is everything you would expect from J-Pop and more. While throwing seemingly random English words into songs is common practice in Japan, I can't bring myself to enjoy the sugar-crack-coffee-infused mayhem without cringing at "lucky let's working" with "working" being pronounced like "walking". In addition, there's also the needless addition of "everyday", "all day", "happy end", and "peace of life", to name a few pointless English words that are as welcome as dog in a cat shelter.

Psy - Gangnam Style

Don't think that I'm only singling out J-Pop for its obsession with random English words. K-Pop is just as guilty, including the worldwide YouTube sensation "Gangnam Style", which has English right there in the title. "Hey, sexy lady" is certainly the main offender for this song that could have simply been entirely in Korean. However, I'm not sure it would have been anywhere near as popular if it was only in Korean as the random English is part of its appeal for English listeners.

Sak Noel - Loca People

It's the complete lack of necessity of the English in this one that really irritates me. Admittedly, when I first heard it, I knew it had to be a foreign artist and due to being very, very drunk at the time, still thought it was the greatest piece of music ever written. I'm not a stickler for profanity either, so it doesn't bother me that the word "fuck" is used almost non-stop for the hook. It's the awful pronunciation of the dialogue that's annoying. However, as there is pretty much a 50-50 split between the English and the Spanish in this one, you could argue that it's a candidate for the both the worst use of English and a foreign language in a song.

While I certainly promote learning a language and disparage mocking those who are, I think it's completely different when an artist adds the English language to a song, often not for artistic reasons, but rather in order to increase its potential global popularity. It would be nice just to live in a world where music could be globally popular without any English in it.

Are there any foreign language songs that you think should never have included English lyrics? What do you think of the songs on our list? Do you agree or disagree? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below!

Friday, August 8, 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: The Problem with Talking Apes

This week, I finally got around to watching the 2011 film Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which led me to take a rare trip to the cinema where I saw Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. It should be noted that I am going to talk about certain specifics of both films, so here is the obligatory spoiler alert!

I imagine that if you haven't bothered to see the first film in this series yet you won't mind me explaining a bit. If you read the original French sci-fi novel La Planète des Singes or saw the 1968 film Planet of the Apes, then you should know that it tells the story of a whole planet of talking apes.

I was always a fan of the original film (though I'm not as fond of the 2001 remake starring Mark Wahlberg), and I certainly enjoyed the two newest films. However, the major issue I had as a language lover was not the fact that the apes could communicate, but that they could speak.

Could this adorable ape really destroy humanity?
In Rise of the Planet of the Apes the protagonist ape, Caesar (named for the Shakespeare play based on the Roman emperor), was born from a gene-altered ape in a lab and raised by James Franco's character, Dr. Will Rodman. Rodman was attempting to develop a cure for Alzheimer's disease in order to help cure his father. Eventually, his results are promising and in the absence of the disease, the cognitive abilities of the apes are augmented.

This leads to Caesar being smarter than your average ape, becoming a master of chess and learning more sign language than an average ape would. Sadly, the virus that administers the experimental cure turns out to be deadly to humans. Following a mass escape by the intelligent apes, the film ends with the message that the disease is spreading across the globe and killing many humans. At the start of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, we find ourselves in a world where humanity has all but disappeared and the small ape civilisation is a thriving peaceful tribe in a forest near San Francisco.

We heard Caesar utter monosyllabic expressions at the end of the first film, which we are to assume he can make due to his heightened intelligence. Even though it is fairly common knowledge that apes lack the anatomy to make such sounds, I let that go since it is a film, after all.

However, the element of the films that really bugged me was the rate of the apes' language acquisition. At the end of the first film, Caesar yelled "no" and referred to himself in the third person, telling Rodman that "Caesar is home". Yet early into the sequel, Caesar confronts the humans and delivers a mission statement to them, declaring in a simplified, and somewhat broken English, that the apes do not wish for war but will defend themselves if the humans set foot near their home.

Despite the events of the film covering a few days, or a week at the most, the rate of language acquisition is astounding, especially given that the apes appeared to have learnt little to no spoken language in the ten years between the events of the two films. All of a sudden, they have started to master the English language within a week.

That said, perhaps the apes' slow development of spoken language was due to the ten-year absence of any human interaction. Using this argument, once they began to interact with humans again, they started picking it up fairly quickly thanks to their intelligence.

What did you think of the film? Is the apes' rate of language acquisition ridiculous, fair, or perfect? Or did it not bother you at all? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Pacenotes and the Obscure Code of Rally Driving

Recently I've been playing far too much PlayStation, the game Gran Turismo in particular. For those who don't know, Gran Turismo is a racing game that dubs itself "the real driving simulator". One of the numerous ways it does this is by including a number of motorsport disciplines. One such discipline included is rallying, or rally racing.

A rally car taking a hairpin turn
If you haven't seen rally racing in real life, it's somewhat spectacular. Unlike other types of motorsports, rallying does not take place on a purpose-built circuit. Instead, drivers take modified road-legal cars from point A to point B on a series of public or private roads. The courses for rally driving are often in more rural areas, supposedly because this is far more interesting than watching cars drive through tightly-packed urban areas. Rather than having all the competing cars on the track simultaneously, the cars take turns, setting off from the start point at separate times with the intention of reaching the finish in the shortest possible time.

Another element that differentiates rallying from other motorsports is the presence of a second person in the car. While the route that drivers have to take is generally marked out for the drivers, the driver is given instructions, known as pacenotes, by their co-driver. These instructions, rather than being directions, e.g. which turn to take, the co-driver tells the driver the severity of the turn, the quality of the road, and any other useful information that will help the driver get from the start to the finish in the shortest possible time.

Those who've ever tried to navigate on a family holiday know that giving the driver directions will almost always result in a huge argument. So how do you do that hurtling down a narrow gravel road at 100 miles per hour? The answer is quite simple: quickly.

To the untrained eye and ear, the language used by co-pilots is pretty confusing. Even the written form of this language is little more than single letters, numbers, and the occasional symbol, all in shorthand.

When spoken, the pacenotes sound like little more than sound bites of seemingly random words and numbers. Rather than waste time with the various complications of grammar, the language used in rally pacenotes is there for the transmission of information in the quickest possible way.

It should also be noted that while there are general systems used in pacenotes, every driver and co-driver team will have their own nuances and personal lingo that they use in the car. English also retains a de facto status for pacenotes even though each team will read them in whichever language or languages feel most comfortable to them.

Find out more about the co-driver's role and hear an example of pacenotes in action in this video: