Monday, March 31, 2014

Language Profile: Mongolian

This week, we're looking at Mongolian in our language profile. Mongolian is the sole official language of Mongolia, where it is spoken by over 95% of the population. It is also recognized as official regional language in China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, which borders Mongolia. However, use of Mongolian in the area is currently declining due to the popularity of speaking Chinese instead.

Gandantegchinlen Monastery in Ulaanbaatar,
the capital of Mongolia.
Like Kazakh, Hungarian, and Xhosa, Mongolian is an agglutinative language, meaning it creates new words through the addition of affixes. In the case of Mongolian, this is mainly done through the use of suffixes.

Early loanwords included in the Mongolian lexicon came from languages including Sanskrit, Persian, and Arabic. More recent terminology has come from Russian, English, and Chinese. Russian loanwords include shokolad, the Russian word for "chocolate", while the English word "online" becomes onlain in Mongolian spelling.

Mongolian is written using two different writing systems. Since the 1940s, the official script used in Mongolia has been Mongolian Cyrillic script. However, in China, Mongolian is written using traditional Mongolian script, which was adapted in the 13th century from the script used to write Uyghur, a Turkic language spoken in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in northwest China.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Online Language Learning Resources: BBC Languages

As part of a new series here on The Lingua File, we'll be looking at the some of the language learning resources available on the web with a view to providing you with an unbiased and fair opinion of the best websites and places to learn a new language. To start things off we'll take a look at the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) and their language learning resource bbc.co.uk/languages.

On a personal note, we've used the BBC's languages service to learn languages before, German and Italian in particular. While the beginner classes may be too simple for a seasoned language learner, if you are trying to learn a language for fun with no strict goal in mind, BBC languages may be best suited to you.

A large number of languages are offered, however the amount of resources for each language can vary wildly. Whilst the most common languages have a wealth of resources, a large number of the 40-odd languages offered by the "Beeb" have nothing more than a few words and phrases to get you by if you're going on a trip to somewhere that speaks the language.

The BBC Languages homepage,
complete with disappointing message.
Another disappointing fact about BBC Languages is that it hasn't been updated for a while. One of the first things you'll meet when visiting the site is a huge off-putting message stipulating that the site hasn't been updated in a while but it has been left by the BBC for reference. If you want to start learning one of the languages with a multitude of resources, then you should be fine, but don't start on one of the languages with fewer resources unless you've already got another preferred resource to swap over to once you're finished with BBC Languages.

One of the main advantages of BBC Languages over other language learning resources is that it's free. On top of being free, it is also ad free, which while not an indicator of whether a language resource is good or not, it is something we don't like popping up all over the place, though we do understand that a lot of other language websites aren't funded by UK residents paying their TV license.

Despite its flaws, for the languages with a large number of courses, BBC Languages is certainly a good resource for learning a language casually, perhaps during a lunch or coffee break. We'd give it a 7/10. Good, but not great.

Do you know of any better language learning resources? Tell us about them in the comments below!

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Etymological Investigations: It's Time to Celebrate!

Here at The Lingua File we're fascinated with the history and origins of words, so today we're starting a new series of posts on etymological investigations. If you're not sure what all etymology entails, then be sure to check out our previous Intro to Linguistics post that looks into the meaning of etymology. Today, we're going to start our investigations with a look at the etymology of the word "party" and its various synonyms to help you come up with a clever name for your next celebration.

Party comes from the French term partie, which originally meant "portion" or "division". It was first used to refer to a general "social gathering for pleasure" in the early 1700s.

French also gives us the word soiree, or soirée if you're a stickler for correct spelling. It comes from soir, the French word for "evening", which makes perfect sense given that a soiree is usually a formal evening party.

Perhaps you're looking for a more informal term for party. If so, there are plenty to choose from. In the U.S., you might say you're having a get-together, a clear combination of the words get and together. On the other hand, you might say you're having a do if you're in the UK, a slang appropriation of the identical English verb.

If this is the type of party you're planning,
you should probably call it a rave.
If you're looking for a slightly more interesting-sounding word, shindig might be the term for you. Its origins aren't certain, but it has been suggested that it comes from the word shindy, meaning "a spree" or "merrymaking", or possibly the Scottish Gaelic term sìnteag, meaning "jump".

A party with a focus on Mexican or Spanish food might best be named a fiesta, which coincidentally is the Spanish word for "feast" or "party", originally from the Latin festum. It's also closely related to the French word fête, which would be great for a French-themed party.

Having a big party? It could be called a bash, which comes from the Old Norse verb basca, meaning "to strike or beat". It has been used as a slang word for a party since the early 1900s. If it's a wild party you're planning, you might want to call it a rave instead, which comes from the French verb raver, meaning "to show signs of madness or delirium".

Finally, we have jamboree. Though not often used, it's certainly a fun word to say. It has been around since the early 1900s when it was used by the Scouts to refer to a "rowdy, boisterous gathering", though its origins are unknown. 

Did we leave out your favorite celebration-related word? Let us know in the comments below.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Language Profile: Albanian

Today's language profile is a brief look at Albanian, the sole official language of Albania. It is also an official language in Kosovo alongside Serbian, and is an official regional language in Macedonia and Montenegro. The language also has many speakers in Bulgaria, Greece, and Italy.

The Albanian Riviera along the Ionian Sea coast.
Just like Armenian, which we looked at in last week's language profile, Albanian constitutes its very own branch of the Indo-European language family. The same can also be said of the Greek language.

Historical records show that Albanian was considered a distinct language as far back as the 14th century. However, the oldest known printed book in Albanian is Meshari, from 1555. It was a missal created by a Roman Catholic cleric for use by Christians in daily religious services.

Albanian has been written using various alphabets since the 15th century. In the earliest years of its writing, alphabet choice was closely linked with the religious beliefs of the writer. Catholics often used the Latin alphabet, while Greek Orthodox used the Greek alphabet and Muslims used an Arabic-based alphabet. Eventually, it was decided to make the use of a Latin-based script official, which is still used to this day.

Friday, March 21, 2014

A Brief History of the French Language

As yesterday was International Francophonie Day and UN French Language Day, we thought we'd take a look at the history of the French speaking world. While we covered the French language in its own language profile way back in 2012, we barely touched upon the history of a language that is often considered to be the most beautiful in the world and the "language of love".

Prior to the arrival of the Romans in what we know now as France, a Celtic language known as Gaulish was spoken by the Gauls, Celtic ancestors of the French. The Gauls are popular in France as a symbol of French national identity, especially in the popular comic Asterix, known in full in France as Astérix le Gaulois, referring directly to his Gaulish heritage.

Despite the plucky nature of the Gauls as shown in Asterix, they were indeed conquered by the Romans, along with the Belgae, the Iberians, and the Ligures. As they did everywhere they conquered, the Romans brought the Latin language with them. The arrival of Latin in Gaul marked a massive linguistic change in what we now know as France.

Like the other Romance languages, French is derived from Vulgar Latin, as opposed to Classical Latin. Vulgar Latin is a generic term for the sociolect of Latin that was spoken across the length and breadth of the Roman Empire.

France, the home of Modern French, as seen from space.
The arrival of the Franks, a Germanic tribe, in the 3rd century had a profound effect on what would later become Modern French. Add to that the Alemanni, Burgundians, and Visigoths, who arrived alongside the Franks drastically changing the vowel system and syntax of the language as it was spoken then.

Another important point of the history of the French language was the unification of Normandy and the Kingdom of France in the 13th century. This led to the addition of many words of Scandinavian origin to the lexicon of Old French via the Norman language.

Middle French was adopted by the Kingdom of France as the official language, replacing Latin and other regional languages including the Occitan and Oïl languages. By the 17th century, French literature was paving the way for French prescriptivism, establishing what is now known as Classical French and evolving into Modern French.

It was Modern French that would become a lasting legacy of French colonialism. While we won't go into the vast and complicated history of French colonialism, it's safe to say that it is the reason why French is spoken in so many countries around the world, particularly across Africa.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Language Profile: Armenian

This week we're taking a brief look at Armenian, a fascinating member of the Indo-European language family. In fact, Armenian is itself an independent branch of the Indo-European language family, and is of particular interest to linguists due to its distinctive phonological developments that differ from other branches of the family. In recent years, some similarities with Greek have been discovered, leading linguists to believe that the Greek language is its closest related living relative.

The National Gallery of Armenia in Yerevan, the capital.
Armenian is the official language of Armenia, and is also used as an official minority language in the Mediterranean island nation of Cyprus. There are two standardized literary forms of the language: Eastern and Western Armenian, which are mutually intelligible. Eastern Armenian is used in Armenia by the government, education, and media, while Western Armenian is primarily used outside of the country. The differences between the two forms are mainly phonological in nature.

In terms of its lexicon, Armenian shows some influence from other languages. These linguistic influences include Greek, Latin, Old French, Persian, Arabic, and Turkish.

The Armenian language is written using the Armenian alphabet, invented in the early 5th century by Mesrop Mashtots, a theologian and linguist. The oldest surviving text written in Armenian was also written by Mesrop Mashtots, and is a Bible translation from the 5th century.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Dutch Loanwords: Part 2

In Friday's post, we looked at several Dutch terms that have made their way into the English lexicon. Today we're continuing on with more great words from Dutch, including a few interesting animal names.

Aardvark - The name for these fascinating African mammals is a combination of the Dutch terms aard meaning "earth" and vark meaning "pig". The word originated in South Africa, where Afrikaans, the daughter language of Dutch, is spoken. It's called "earth-pig" because the animal tends to burrow in the earth.

Bazooka - This word has a fairly odd etymology. These portable rocket launchers first used by the U.S. Army were named for the bazooka, a type of brass musical instrument somewhat similar to a trombone used as a prop by an American comedian named Bob Burns in the 1930s. Apparently, that word, in turn, likely originated from the Dutch term bazuin, meaning "trumpet". Got that?

This meerkat doesn't look too slim...
Bumpkin - Defined as an "awkward country fellow", this word comes from the Dutch word bommekijn, meaning "little barrel". It's not exactly a kind thing to call a person in modern times, nor was it when it originated in Dutch, as it referred to Dutch people as "short and dumpy".

Elope - Running off to secretly marry? You might be interested to know that the word for what you're doing actually comes from the Dutch word ontlopen, meaning "run away".

Luck - Good luck is a great thing to have. It originated as gheluc meaning "happiness" and "good fortune" in Dutch before being shortened to simply be luc.

Meerkat - Undoubtedly one of the world's cutest animals, meerkat means "monkey" in Dutch, likely a combination of the words meer, meaning "lake" and kat, which you could probably guess is "cat".

Slim - Strangely enough, despite meaning "thin" or "slender" in English, the original Dutch word slim actually means "bad", "sly", or "crooked".

Are there any interesting Dutch loanwords that we left off our list? Let us know in the comments below, and please include a definition.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Dutch Loanwords: Part 1

In past months, we've explored the origins of some of the most interesting loanwords that have made it into the English language from languages including Portuguese and Irish. This week we'll be looking at several of our favorite Dutch loanwords, including some delicious food terms today.

Booze - This slang term for alcohol comes from the Middle Dutch word busen, which actually means "to drink heavily".

Coleslaw - Despite personally not being a fan of this popular side dish, it is interesting to know that it translates as koolsla, which literally means "cabbage salad" in Dutch. Kool means "cabbage", while sla is "salad".

Cookie - One of the best foods in existence, the cookie (sadly called "biscuit" by Brits) gets its name from the Dutch word koekje meaning "little cake". It's actually the diminutive form of koek, which unsurprisingly means "cake".

Some delicious-looking Liège waffles from Belgium.
Easel - This term certainly has an oddly interesting origin. It comes from the Dutch word ezel, which translates as "ass" (as in "donkey"). A painter's easel at the time was called a schildersezel, or "painter's donkey", apparently because loading a burden onto a donkey was comparable to propping up a canvas on a wooden stand.

Iceberg - Almost undoubtedly came to English via the Dutch world ijsberg, literally meaning "ice mountain".

Quack - We're not talking about the sound a duck makes, but the term used for a person who pretends to have medical skills. It came from Dutch quacksalver, "hawker of salve" which originated from a combination of quacken "to boast" and salven "to rub with ointment"

Snicker - Don't you agree that this is just a fun word to say? However, its origins aren't as fun, as it comes from the Dutch word snikken, meaning "to gasp, sob".

Waffle - We conclude with a food we can't imagine life without, whose name came directly from the Dutch word wafel.

We'll have even more great Dutch loanwords for you in Part 2 on Monday.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Hepburn Romanization: Transcribing Japanese for the West

As tomorrow is the birthday of James Curtis Hepburn, we thought we'd take a look at perhaps his biggest contribution to languages, Hepburn Romanization. However, first we'll tell you about the man himself.

Born in 1815 in Milton, Pennsylvania, Hepburn studied at Princeton, then earned his M.D. at the University of Pennsylvania before returning to Princeton to earn his Master's degree. He initially went to China as a medical missionary in 1840 and from 1843 to 1845 he worked on Amoy Island, again as a medical missionary until his wife's poor health forced his return to the US.

It wasn't until 1859 that Hepburn and his wife went to Kanagawa, Japan, where he would start studying the Japanese language. His research led to his focus on creating a Japanese-English dictionary, which he would complete in 1887.

The Japanese language is written using a variety of writing systems. Kanji is a system of logographic characters borrowed from the Chinese writing system, while the Hiragana and Katakana writing systems are syllabic.

Hepburn's most widely recognised work is his system for representing the Japanese language using the Latin alphabet. As you may know, despite many languages using the Latin alphabet, not every character in every language is pronounced the same. In fact, in many languages, not every character in the Latin alphabet has a single used phoneme. As Hepburn was American, it is understandable that Hepburn Romanization is based on English phonology.

While Hepburn Romanization helps English speakers pronounce words in the Japanese language, a competing system, Nihon-Shiki Romanization, was devised by Japanese physicist Aikitu Tanakadate. It was created with the goal of completely replacing the traditional Japanese writing systems and allowing Japan to compete with the West. If you have learned any Japanese recently, you will be aware that this did not happen.

Nihon-Shiki Romanization would be developed into Kunrei-Shiki Romanization and adopted by the Japanese government in 1937. However, Hepburn's original system is still commonly used today for a variety of applications and its use is permitted alongside Kunrei-Shiki Romanization by several Japanese governmental bodies. Many students learning Japanese as a foreign language still learn a modern variant of Hepburn's original system.

Are you learning Japanese? Have you used Hepburn Romanization in your studies or elsewhere? If so, tell us about your experiences in the comments below.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Language Profile: Ilokano

Today we're going to take a brief look at Ilokano, the third most-spoken language in the Philippines after Tagalog and Cebuano. Also spelled Ilocano, the language is a member of the Austronesian family of languages that includes Indonesian and Malay.

Lake Pinatubo on the Philippine island of Luzon
Ilokano boasts approximately 8 million native speakers. It is used as a lingua franca in the northern region of the Philippines and has been an official language in its La Union province since 2012. It is also used as a language of instruction for young children in primary school. There are also many Ilocano speakers living in the United States, as well as many other places across the globe, from Europe to the Middle East.

There are two dialects of Ilokano, which primarily differ in terms of vowels. The southern dialect uses one more vowel than the northern dialect, and each dialect has a distinct pronunciation of the letter e.

In terms of its lexicon, Ilokano contains many loanwords from Spanish, English, Arabic, and Sanskrit. The linguistic influence of Spanish is especially strong, and can be found in many words, including the Ilokano terms for the days of the week and the months of the year. These terms are taken directly from Spanish, with some minor spelling differences, such as the Spanish jueves ("Thursday") becoming huebes in Ilokano, and Spanish febrero ("February") becoming pebrero in Ilokano. The Ilokano language also uses two distinct number systems, one system borrowed from Spanish, and another native system.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Ukraine Crisis: Is Russia Right to Defend Russian Speakers in Crimea?

The Russian military occupation of Crimea has sparked an
international crisis. US president Obama reportedly spent
90 minutes speaking with Putin.
Following the Russian military "manoeuvres" in Ukraine, many questions were asked of Russia's president, Vladamir Putin. Putin has given several answers but the one that struck us as perhaps the oddest justification for the Russian military's presence in Ukraine was that Russia had an obligation to defend Russian speakers.

Can a country, a political entity, stake claim to a language? Whilst we are trying to be diplomatic and fair, it certainly doesn't appear to be something that a country can claim to defend. We don't feel that every Russian speaker is under the jurisdiction of the Russian Federation.

Though somewhat of a weak argument, the recent actions of the Russian government, who permitted Putin to occupy Crimea, could have been said to have been in the best interests of the Crimean people. The Russian Federation could be acting in the interest of the Russian ethnic majority, but not in the interest of the speakers of language. A similar reason was given when Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, which also was diplomatically avoided by the West.

The majority of people in Ukraine are ethnic Russians and
speakers of the Russian language.
If defending speakers of the Russian language is within the remit of the Russian Federation, then the task of defending speakers of the English language would fall to the US. France would have every right to re-occupy large areas of northern Africa and Québec and Mexico would have a clear claim to political dominance over Spanish speakers, at least when it comes to a "might makes right" mentality.

Though none of the aforementioned countries (or any country in the world) has a spotless record when it comes to foreign policy and military action, we can't remember any time in recent history when they've claimed to defend their mother tongues.

How do you feel about the recent events in Ukraine? Does Russia have the right to defend Russian speakers and ethnic Russians? Tell us in the comments below. 

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Languages in the News: February 2014

As we enter March we're looking back at some of the language news stories that were hitting the headlines in February, and the very end of January. While most headlines were dominated by news of the Sochi Winter Olympics, the month ended with the Washington Post covering an interesting story from the US claiming that a legislator in New Mexico wanted to count programming as a foreign language skill.

The Week ended the month with the story of how Netflix managed to alienate its deaf customers, through a variety of bad subtitling practice.

Is French important? The countries that make up this flag
would say so.
One of the most controversial series of language stories stemmed from a piece in The New York Times stating that the French government is a big advocate of French language programmes in New York. This led to an article in New Republic telling us to stop pretending that French is an important language, claiming that Spanish and Chinese are more important languages for New Yorkers to learn. While this may be true, it divided opinions due to its dismissive nature of French as an important language, rather than simply stating that the other two languages are more important.

Business Insider provided a rebuttal by giving us 7 reasons you should teach your children French, showing us that French isn't as unimportant as the New Republic article would have us believe.

The Guardian gave us an interesting article on untranslatable words, and though none of the words were technically untranslatable, the article was more focused on difficult to translate words. Elsewhere in The Guardian there were concerns at the drop in language students in UK universities, an ongoing problem that doesn't seem to show any signs of being rectified under the current government, but we'll leave politics for a politics blog.

The BBC asked the question whether English still borrows words at the start of the month and in mid-February was decoding the signs left my construction workers on pavements.

The Register explained an interesting issue surrounding Google Translate. It just so happens Google Translate is terrible because Google Translate is terrible. This is due to people using the machine translation for websites and other documents then publishing them online. This leads to Google using these translated documents as sources to train the programme, meaning that Google accepts these poor translations as real translations and effectively makes itself dumber.


The island of Ireland, the home of Irish.

The Economist explained the difference between a dialect and a language, after Hong Kong claimed Cantonese was not an official language but rather a dialect of Mandarin.

The Oxford Dictionaries Blog gave us the lexicon to understand freestyle skiing at the Sochi games and Buzzfeed, in a surprise turn, gave us a list, albeit a list of 21 Victorian slang words that we should be using.

The Smithsonian showed us that "huh?" is an almost universal utterance and a fascinating piece by Ben Faccini in Aeon explained why he wanted his children to be bilingual.

The Guardian was back at the end of the month and asked whether musicians are better language learners.

Aside from these news stories, we also discovered James Chapman's Tumblr, which includes many lovely drawing of onomatopoeia in various languages.

That's all the news we had for February, but if there are any we missed that you feel deserve a mention, tell us about them in the comments below.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Language Profile: Konkani

This week we're taking a look at Konkani, the official language of Goa, India's smallest state. Konkani is one of India's many official regional languages that belongs to the Indo-Aryan language family. It is also spoken in the Indian states of Karnataka, Maharashtra, and Kerala as a minority language. There are also many speakers of the language in countries such as Kenya, Uganda, Portugal, and Pakistan.

For quite some time, Konkani was considered by some to be a dialect of the Marathi language, but it was finally declared to be an independent language in 1975. In 1987, it became the official language of Goa, and was included in India's long list of officially recognized languages in 1992.

Dudhsagar Falls in Goa
The lexicon of Konkani includes loanwords from many languages, including Sanskrit, Turkish, Kannada, and Marathi. It contains many Arabic and Persian words due to Goa's status as a major center of trade, as well as a large Portuguese influence, primarily from religious terminology used by Catholics in the state.

Konkani speakers have a high degree of multilingualism, with nearly 75% of of Konkani speakers being bilingual in another language. The language is considered to be somewhat endangered due to its fragmentation into dialects, the lack of opportunities to study Konkani in schools, and the difficulty of uniting its speakers due to the use of multiple scripts.

The Konkani language is written in a number of different scripts. In Goa, the official script to use is Devanagari. Most Hindus in Goa use this script, while Catholics use a Latin-based script, and Muslims tend to use a Perso-Arabic script. In the state of Karnataka where Kannada is the official language, the Kannada script is used to write Konkani. Similarly, the language is often written in Malayalam script in the state of Kerala, where Malayalam is the official language.

However, in recent years speakers of Konkani have been working to preserve the language. One important development on this front was the creation of the World Konkani Centre, which works to preserve and develop Konkani language, art, and culture.