Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Independence Day: The Languages of Vanuatu

Today marks Independence Day for the tiny Pacific island nation of Vanuatu. There are several reasons why we love Vanuatu: the name is fun to say, it's always one of the prize-winning answers on the BBC's quiz show "Pointless", and we could look at photos of those beautiful islands all day. However, the main reason we love the world's 162nd largest country is because of its linguistic diversity.

Vanuatu has three official languages, two of which are not indigenous. English and French retain official language status in the country due to its  colonial history. Even though the first Europeans to arrive in Vanuatu were Portuguese explorers, it was the British and the French who were most interested in controlling Vanuatu. The two European nations were so interested in Vanuatu that they agreed to collaboratively control it from 1906 until 1980 when Vanuatu gained its independence from both the UK and France.

The flag of Vanuatu
While I love both the English and French languages, their official status in Vanuatu is a sad reminder of both countries' colonial pasts. The presence of English has also led to the creation of Bislama, the country's third official language, which is a creole language and the most common second language across Vanuatu.

Bislama is spoken natively by around 10,000 of the 265,000 people on the islands of Vanuatu, though there are 100,000 speakers of it as a second language. 95% of Bislama's lexicon is of English origin with a few words of French origin and the remainder made up from Oceanic languages.

Vanuatu as a nation has the highest density of languages per capita of any nation in the world. The nation has such a high density of languages that no country, other than Papua New Guinea, even comes close.

In fact, Vanuatu is home to over 100 indigenous languages and all of them belong to the Oceanic language family. Since the Oceanic language family is only made up of around 450 languages, more than in 1 in 5 Oceanic languages are spoken in Vanuatu.

While we won't go into the details of every language, but what we can say is that the largest of the languages is spoken by around 11,500 people and the smallest of them are going extinct. The decline in the other languages is partly due to the use of Bislama, whose growth is said to be responsible for the decline of indigenous languages. In the ten years between 1999 and 2009, the percentage of people in Vanuatu who speak indigenous languages natively dropped from 73.1% to 63.2%.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Language Profile: Berber

Today we're taking a look at Berber, a group of closely related language varieties spoken in countries throughout North Africa. Berber constitutes its own branch of the Afro-Asiatic language family, which also includes the Oromo, Somali, and Hausa languages.

Berber varieties are spoken by large numbers of people in Algeria, Morocco, Libya, Tunisia, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mauritania, with smaller numbers of speakers in many other countries. Berber is also an official language of Morocco alongside Arabic, and is recognized as a national language in Algeria.

As with many languages, the varieties or dialects of Berber are difficult to classify. However, there are considered to be six major varieties of Berber, which we will briefly introduce to you today.

Tashelhit, also known as Shilha and Chleuh, is the most spoken variety of Berber. It is primarily spoken in Morocco, and is written in either Arabic script or the newer Tifinagh script, which is thought to be related to the ancient Phoenician alphabet.

The second most spoken variety of Berber is Kabyle, also known as Kabylian. It is primarily spoken by the Kabyle people, a Berber ethnic group that resides in Algeria.

Tamazight, also known as Central Atlas Tamazight, is also spoken in Morocco. It is officially written in the aforementioned Tifinagh script when it is taught in Moroccan schools.

A sign for Tiznit Province in Morocco. The Tifinagh script used to write the
Berber language can be seen between the Arabic and French languages. 
Yet another Berber variety spoken in Morocco is Riffian, which is spoken in the country's mountainous Rif region.

Shawiya, also spelled Chaouïa due to the regional influence of the French language, is spoken in Algeria. In recent years, it has started to be taught in some public schools in Algeria.

The final major variety is Tuareg, also known as Tamasheq. It may be a single language or a large group of closely related dialects, and is spoken across a many North African countries, including Mali, Algeria, Libya, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad.

There is plenty more to learn about this diverse language (or group of languages), which we'll have to save for another day!

Friday, July 25, 2014

The Moon System of Embossed Reading

A few days ago, we were enjoying an exhibit in the Scottish Parliament building when we came across an interesting new type of writing. The display we were viewing had text written in English and Scottish Gaelic, with Braille beneath it, and a new, mysterious writing system below the Braille. The symbols in the system were quite similar to Latin script, to the extent that you could nearly discern some of the words without looking at the English.

The Scottish Parliament display that piqued our interest.
We were intrigued by this script, debating what it could be. Given the simplicity of the symbols and the fact that they were raised, we came to the conclusion that it must be an alternate writing system for the blind. I thought that perhaps it was designed for people who had lost their sight sometime later in life after learning the alphabet, as the symbols were quite similar to the regular English alphabet. We decided to investigate upon returning home.

It turns out that the mysterious text we came across was the Moon System of Embossed Reading, which is indeed a writing system for the blind. It was created by an Englishman named Dr. William Moon, who lost his sight at age 21 after a terrible bout of scarlet fever. As a teacher of blind children, he came to the conclusion that learning other embossed writing systems like Braille was often difficult for his students, so he decided to create his own simpler system. Moon type was first introduced to the public in 1845, and is made up of raised curves, lines, and angles that are primarily based on Latin script. This makes the system incredibly useful to those who lose their sight later in life, just as I had suspected.

While the Moon system may not be as popular as Braille, it has been helpful to many people over the years. In fact, it can be used to help people who have recently lost their sight and are having trouble learning Braille, as they can gain confidence in their abilities to learn embossed writing through initial use of the Moon system. They can then eventually try to tackle the more difficult task of learning Braille.

Do you or someone you know use the Moon System of Embossed Reading? What do you think of it? Let us know in the comments below.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

How Recent is the Expression "Where Are You?"

We heard an interesting fact the other day. It suggested that other than in reference to one's immediate vicinity, nobody would have ever used the expression "Where are you?" prior to the invention of mobile communications such as radio transmission, mobile phones, or the internet.

The logic behind this is that if you were to write somebody a letter you would require an address. If you had somebody's address, would you need to ask them where they were? I think not. Before mobile telephones, you would usually call a fixed line, meaning that you also already knew where somebody was.

Did this device really spawn the phrase "Where are you?"
This supposed fact is probably not true, as communications prior to mobile phones did not guarantee that the sender of the message would know where somebody was, for example. Imagine sending a message to a soldier on the front lines, you would probably ask where they were after asking if they were alive and safe.

Another similar and more probable suggestion is that before answering machines were invented, nobody had uttered "Sorry, I'm not here right now".

While we do not believe that throughout all of human existence these expressions were never uttered, we do believe that their usage was significantly lower prior to the advent of mobile communication.

We did a quick search for the earliest recorded instance of "Where are you?" and found an example in the biblical book of Genesis, albeit a translation. I guess you'd be hard-pressed to find an earlier example, at least if you believe the Old Testament.

Can anyone actually prove this "fact" for us? Share your thoughts, proofs, or just ideas, in the comments below. 

Monday, July 21, 2014

Language Profile: Lithuanian

This week we're taking a look at Lithuanian, a member of the Baltic language family. It is the official language of Lithuania. Lithuanian is closely related to Latvian, the official language of neighboring Latvia, which is the only other living Baltic language. It is also spoken in Belarus, Latvia, Poland, and parts of Russia.

Curonian Spit sand dunes in Lithuania
Lithuanian is a particularly interesting language to linguists because it is thought to be the most conservative Indo-European language that is still spoken. It has kept many archaic features over the years that have fallen out of use in other languages, which makes it very important in terms of helping to reconstruct the Proto-Indo-European language. Due to these old features, the language contains many cognates to words in classical languages like Sanskrit and Latin that evolved from Proto-Indo-European.

One interesting feature of Lithuanian is its use of grammatical genders. Its nouns have two genders: masculine and feminine, while its adjectives, pronouns, participles, and numbers use three genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter.

In terms of its vocabulary, Lithuanian contains a number of loanwords from various languages. In the mid-1900s, most of its loanwords came from Polish, Belarusian, and German. In more recent years, they've primarily entered Lithuanian from Russian and English, especially technological terms such as kompiuteris for "computer" and faksas for "fax".

The Lithuanian alphabet has 32 letters, including letters such as č, ę, š, ū, and ž. It is written using a Latin-based alphabet with diacritics. 

Friday, July 18, 2014

Celebrating the Life of Roman Jakobson

Today marks the date of the death of Roman Jakobson. While Jakobson died back in 1982, his linguistic legacy still lives on as he was one of the most important linguists of the 20th century, especially in the field of structural linguistics, in which he conducted some of his most important work. Rather than dwell of the death of the man, we thought we'd take the time to honour his life, which is almost as interesting as his work.

The man himself, Roman Osipovich Jakobson
Jakobson was born in Moscow on 11 October, 1896 to a wealthy family. He is said to have been interested in languages from a very young age, and his passion for languages led to him studying in Moscow University's Lazarev Institute of Oriental Languages.

Despite his love for languages, Jakobson was very vocal in his condemnation of sound in films and was ironically critical of the newly emerging "talkies". He completed his master's degree in Moscow in 1918.

In 1920, just two years after his master's graduation, Jakobson fled Russia to settle in Prague, Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic) to complete his doctoral studies before being awarded his PhD from Charles University, Prague. Further political upheaval in 1939 forced Jakobson to again flee his country of residence. This time he made his way to Copenhagen, Denmark in March of that year.

Less than six months after arriving in Copenhagen, Jakobson left to escape the German occupation of the area and headed to Norway. The following year he fled Norway for Sweden before the fear of German occupation forced him to leave Sweden for New York City.

In New York City, Jakobson taught at The New School and was part of a prominent group of scholars, all of whom had fled the occupied areas of Eastern Europe, particularly Czechoslovakia. Jakobson met Claude Lévi-Strauss at the École libre des hautes études, which led to the two collaborating.

After a close brush with repatriation, Jakobson was allowed to remain in the US before moving to Harvard University in 1949. Jakobson remained at Harvard until retiring in 1967. He died in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1982.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Film Club: Les Intouchables

It was long overdue, but I finally got around to watching the highly-recommended French film Les Intouchables this weekend. The film was known as The Intouchables in the US and Untouchable in the UK, supposedly to avoid having the same name as the 1987 film The Untouchables. While it has been out for nearly two years, I sadly never made the time to watch it, despite fervent recommendations from my French friends. That said, I couldn't be happier that I finally did.

Following its release in 2011, the film was a huge hit at the French box office, becoming its second biggest box office hit after Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis, which I would also highly recommend. However, the film is the highest-grossing French film shot in the French language since 1994.

The main premise of the film is somewhat based on the true story of Philippe Pozzo di Borgo and Abdel Sellou, his French-Algerian carer. If you've seen the film poster, DVD case, or the opening scene of the film, you may have noted that the directors decided that the caregiver would be played by Omar Sy, who is not French-Algerian but rather a French-Senegalese actor.

Whether or not you're disappointed by the lack of a French-Algerian lead, anyone who sees the film would have to admit that Sy does a great job alongside François Cluzet, who plays Philippe, an incredibly wealthy disabled man who employs Driss (Sy) as his caregiver.

While the premise is incredibly simple, the execution is what really caught my eye. We've seen plenty of films that show two people becoming unlikely friends despite their vastly different backgrounds. Les Intouchables seems comfortably familiar whilst throwing a few unexpected curve balls in the process.

Without giving too much away, the film is very funny, even for those who don't speak French. The English subtitling (at least the UK version) could easily be enjoyed by anyone who doesn't speak the French language, despite a few cultural changes that were a bit irksome. In one case, a reference to French unionist José Bové is changed to refer to Queen frontman Freddie Mercury, which is understandable as I can't imagine that many British viewers would be familiar with Bové.

Even though Les Intouchables never made any waves at the Oscars, it has quickly risen to the status of being one of my favourite French-language films, simply due to the way it manages to find a great balance between humour and emotion, leaving my sides sore from laughing and my face sore from the huge smile of uncontrollable happiness it left on my face.

In more worrying news, there may be an English remake on the cards. Hopefully it won't be as bad as Dinner for Schmucks, which managed to butcher the French classic comedy Le Dîner de Cons.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Language Profile: Lao

This week we're taking a look at Lao, the official language of Laos. Also known as Laotian, the language is a member of the Tai-Kadai language family. It is closely related to Thai, the official language of neighboring Thailand. Some dialects of Lao are also widely spoken in Thailand, where they are generally called the Isan language instead of Lao.

Buddha Park near Vientiane, the capital of Laos
Lao has several interesting linguistic characteristics. Like the Thai language, Lao is a tonal language. It is also an analytic language, meaning it doesn't use suffixes or prefixes to show verb tense or other grammatical information. It is written using the Lao script, an abugida created sometime in the 14th century.

The lexicon of Lao is primarily composed of words that originated in the language itself. However, due to the prominence of Buddhism in the region, it does contain several terms from Pali, a dead language that was used in many early Buddhist scriptures.

The language has also been influenced by other languages used in the region including Thai and Khmer, and naturally has also influenced them in return. Lao also uses different registers depending on the formality of situations. Formal Lao tends to use more loanwords from Pali and Sanskrit, and also uses special pronouns and ending statements in order to indicate the formal register. 

Friday, July 11, 2014

World Population Day: The Demographics of Languages

Today is another obscure holiday, World Population Day. July 11, which marks World Population Day, was selected by the United Nations Development Program to raise awareness of population issues and, supposedly, work towards fixing them through global action.

In honour of this day, we thought we'd look at the populations of languages, and, as I love charts, figures, and graphs, attempt to show you a few facts and figures about world languages in a colourful, visual, and interesting way.

Please be patient while the infographic loads.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Our Favourite Terminology From Video Games

Today marks a huge date in the video gaming industry: it is the original release date of Donkey Kong, which featured the first ever appearance of Mario. The game's protagonist was initially called Jumpman, but was later renamed Mario before becoming Super Mario in 1985. While today isn't Mario's official birthday, we're still celebrating this important day in video gaming history with some of our favourite video gaming terminology.

Backwards Compatibility

This term is fairly self-explanatory. In order for a piece of software (the game) to work with the hardware (either a games console or computer), the two have to be compatible.

When it comes to video game consoles, it is often expected (and fervently demanded) that when a manufacturer creates a new console, the games for the previous console work with the newer console.


While beta is the second letter in the Greek alphabet that makes up the "bet" in "alphabet", in video gaming, beta refers to the second part of the testing phase when a game or piece of software is not ready for general release but all the features have been completed.

The term originated at IBM, who would conduct three test phases on their software, initially called A, B, and C. IBM actually dropped the terminology once it gained widespread usage. Though some readers may be familiar with the term beta test, IBM never used the term and instead called it a field test.


While the term "boss" comes from the Dutch term baas and first made its way into English in the 17th century, the use of the term in video gaming has a completely different meaning. Although bosses are usually in charge of their workers, bosses in video games are in fact difficult enemies that are usually stronger than the standard enemies faced.

Boss battles or boss fights often mark the end or completion of a particular section of a game and come in all shapes and sizes.

Two Commodore 64 cartridges

A casing, often made of plastic, that games were distributed on. Though now only used in portable gaming consoles, they were the staple of games during the 90s and would be inserted into a slot on a games console in order to be played.


Cutscenes in games are not scenes that were removed from the final version, but rather a scene in which the characters are animated, often to advance the plot, but cannot be controlled by the character.


Demo, which is derived from the term demonstration, is a sample version of a game. They are often made with the goal of encouraging players to purchase the full version of the game.


While language lovers will think of conjugating when they hear this term, first-person refers to the viewpoint of a game in which the player sees through the eyes of the character they are playing. First-person makes up the FP in FPS, with the S standing for "shooter".

Full Motion Video

Full motion videos, or FMVs, are pre-rendered videos that are played as a video file within the game. Much like cutscenes, full motion videos are often used to further the plot and the player cannot control them.


A device used for controlling games that is almost identical to the device used to pilot aircraft. If you love games as much as I do, then you will understand how apt the name is. They may have fallen out of favour for most game consoles but they still have a special place in my heart.


A pixel is the smallest complete element that makes up a digital display. The term comes from picture and element.


Sandbox refers to a style of play in video games. Rather than have the player complete linear objectives, they can often explore the game's environment without having to complete any objectives if they do not desire to do so.


Much like first-person, third-person refers to the viewpoint. In third-person games, the player can see the character that they are controlling.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Language Profile: Galician

Today we're taking a look at Galician, a Romance language spoken by approximately 3 million people in Spain. It shares official language status with Spanish in the autonomous community of Galicia, located in the northwest corner of the country, directly north of Portugal.

Ponte Vella footbridge in Ourense, Galicia, Spain
Galician is a member of the same branch of the Romance language family as Portuguese. The two languages are very closely related since they first began to evolve separately from a common ancestor sometime around the 13th century. Some linguists consider Galician and Portuguese to be part of a dialect continuum as distinct varieties of the same language. This view is shared by several different Galician language associations, who state that Galician is a variety of Portuguese in the same manner as Brazilian Portuguese is. However, they are generally regarded as separate languages for political and historical reasons since Galicia is part of Spain, and not Portugal. The Royal Galician Academy, which regulates the language, says it is independent from Portuguese, and many of the language's speakers agree. 

Whether or not Galician is a variety of Portuguese, the two languages do share many common characteristics, and are largely mutually intelligible. That said, there are numerous phonological and lexical differences between the two languages, and mutual intelligibility is not as good with Portuguese speakers from the southern part of Portugal.

The language has a rich cultural history, and was once famous for its tradition of songs, called cantigas, and poetry. Galician is the primary language of the Galician government. It is also used in primary and secondary schools throughout the region, with children taught in a bilingual environment involving both Galician and Spanish. In recent years, Spanish has surpassed Galician to become the most used language in Galicia's biggest cities, but Galician continues to be the primary language spoken in rural areas.

Friday, July 4, 2014

The Fourth of July: Superior American Terminology

In honor of the Fourth of July, the day that the United States celebrates its independence from Britain, we've decided to briefly discuss some of our favorite American English terms that we believe are better than their British English counterparts.

Bangs - While we do agree that fringe is an apt name for those tiny bits of hair that hang over your forehead, it's just so much more fun to call them bangs. Besides, fringe belongs on things like scarves and fancy pillows, not your head.

Eggplant and Zucchini - While these are two of my least favorite foods, I do prefer their American names to their British counterparts, aubergine and courgette respectively. Supposedly the British hate the French, yet they continue to use their terms for foods...

Definitely a ladybug, not a ladybird.
Gasoline - Sure, gas is derived from petroleum, but calling it petrol just seems too formal.

Ladybug - Why on earth do the British call these small spotted beetles ladybirds? Apparently they're technically not bugs, but they're certainly closer to what everyone thinks a bug is than they are to being birds!

Pacifier - This one makes much more sense in American English, as the pacifier literally pacifies the baby and gets it to stop crying. Calling this magical device a dummy seems oddly insulting.

Period - We're talking about the final dot at the end of sentences. It's much easier to call it a period than a full stop, don't you think?

Popsicle - Yes, in this case Americans have just made the Popsicle brand name into a generic trademark, but we find the word popsicle to be a much more creative term for these summer treats than the simplistic British ice lolly

Rutabaga - Undoubtedly one of the most fun-sounding names for a food that exists in English. The fact that Brits call them swedes is just weird, especially as it often leads to confusion as to whether Swedish people are being consumed with British dinners.

Trunk - We don't really understand why the back storage area of a car would be called the boot. Surely trunk makes more sense...

If you're interested in even more information on how the U.S. is linguistically independent from Britain, then check out our post from last year for more on everything from American spellings to verbs.

Do you have any Americanisms that you prefer to their British equivalents, if so, tell us about them in the comments below.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Canada Day: Celebrating Canadian English

Yesterday was Canada Day, when Canadians the world over celebrate their motherland. Canada Day officially marks the date when the British North America Act of 1867 united three colonies into the Dominion of Canada.

Nowadays, the British North America Act of 1867 is known as the Constitution Act in Canada, though it retains its original name in the UK. It's known as the Constitution Act is due to the fact that a decent portion of Canada's constitution was formed by the act.

While the celebrations certainly looked like a lot of fun, the thing we're really interested in is the main language spoken in Canada. Last year we looked at the languages of Canada, while this year we will examine only one, the English language.

The variety of English spoken in Canada, Canadian English, is often overlooked and ignored. For years this variation of the English language was considered to be nothing more than either a variety or dialect of American English.

Much like American English, Canadian English has been shaped by immigration patterns. Canadian English was initially shaped by immigration from the United States following the War of Independence. Those who had supported the British Empire fled to the areas in the north that were still under British control.

A huge number of people moved to Canada from the British Isles after the Napoleonic Wars right up until the Constitution Act of 1867. While over a million people made their way to Canada from England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, scholars still believe those who entered Canada from the US left a more lasting impression on Canadian English, at least in terms of accents, explaining why Canadians sound more like those from the US than those from the UK, Australia, or New Zealand.

Canadian English is particularly interesting in the way it spells words. While American English was quick to remove the letter "u" from any word that barely pronounced it, Canadian English stayed true to the same rules as British English and still technically spells "colour" and "favour" the same way as the Brits. That said, the influence of American media has muddied the waters of Canadian English and some Canadians almost seem uncertain of whether or not they should use the letter "u" in the same way as the Brits.

Even though the Canadians share the British opinion concerning the letter "u", Canadian English, just like American English, prefers the -ize suffix over the -ise suffix which is popular in British spelling. Though -ize is the popular choice in Canada, they technically don't spell it the same, at least not if you ask them, as Canadians refer to the last letter of the alphabet as zed, and not as zee, like Americans do.

All that said, our favourite thing about Canadian English has to be the audible question mark, which is pronounced by some as "eh". Even if you didn't celebrate Canada Day, you can still celebrate Canadian English, which is definitely different to all the other varieties of English.