Friday, August 29, 2014

Persian Loanwords: Part 1

In the past we've looked into the origins of various loanwords that have made their way into English from languages such as Portuguese, Dutch, and Quechua. Over the next few days we'll be turning our focus to some of our favorite Persian loanwords, starting with some fascinating terms for foods, animals, and flowers.

Candy and sugar - Two of the most irresistible foods in existence get their name from the Persian language. The word "sugar" came to English via the French term sucre, which originated as the Arabic word sukkar and Persian shakar. Its popular crystallized form also made its way into English via French, but originated as the word qand in Persian.

Caviar - One of the most famous luxury foods in the world, this fish egg "delicacy" came to English via the French world caviar. It originated as the Persian term khaviyar before making its way into Turkish as khaviar and Italian as caviaro before finally reaching French.

A beautiful golden jackal enjoying a nice howl.
Jackal - These small canines get their name from the Persian term shaghal, which literally translates as "the howler". We're sure you can guess how they got that name.

Jasmine - This distinctive plant is known for its beautiful fragrance. Its name comes from the Persian word yasmin via the French jasmin.

Lemon and orange - The names for both of these popular citrus fruits originated in the Persian language. The Persian word limun was at one time a generic term for all citrus fruits, while narang is one of the earliest recorded words for "orange". It later became arancia in Italian and orange in French before reaching English. 

Lilac - This beautiful flowering plant gets its name from the Persian word lilak, which was related to the term nilak, meaning "bluish". It eventually became the familiar word lilac in Spanish and French before being borrowed by English.

Tiger - The largest of all cat species gets its name from the Old Persian word tigra, meaning "sharp" or "pointed", which we imagine is a reference to its teeth. The name for this fascinating animal eventually became the Greek and Latin term tigris before reaching French as tigre.

Tulip - Our final word for the day is "tulip", a flower often associated with the Dutch. While the word made its way into English via the Dutch or German terms tulpe, it actually originated as the Persian word dulband, meaning "turban". Some believe this is because the flower resembles a turban, while others attribute the use of the term for the flower as an early translation error, as it was once quite fashionable to wear tulips on turbans during the reign of the Ottoman Empire.

We'll be back with more Persian loanwords on Monday!

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.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Language Profile: Basque

This week we're taking a brief look at Basque, a language spoken in parts of Spain and France. Unlike most other world languages, it is a language isolate, something we have discussed at length in a previous post. Language isolates such as Basque and Korean are thought to have no relationship with other languages, and therefore comprise their very own language family. 

The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Basque Country, Spain
Basque is spoken by the Basque people, an ethnic group that lives in the Basque Country, a region in northeast Spain and southwest France. In Spain, the Basque language is recognized as an official language in the autonomous communities of the Basque Country and Navarre alongside Spanish. However, the language has no official status in France. 

The lexicon of Basque contains many words borrowed from Romance languages spoken in the region throughout the centuries, including Latin, Spanish, and Occitan. The language is written using the Basque alphabet, a Latin-based alphabet that includes the letters ñ and ç

A standardized version of Basque known as Euskara Batua is the most commonly used variety of the language. It was developed in the 1960s by Euskaltzaindia, the Basque language academy which regulates the language. It is used throughout the Basque Country in schools as well as in forms of media such as television, radio, and print publications. 

Friday, August 22, 2014

Deciphering the Meaning Behind Chips, Crisps, and Fries

Since it's Fry-day, we thought that today we'd take a look at the incredibly confusing English terminology for two popular potato-based foods. While many native English speakers know that what Americans call "chips" are called "crisps" in Britain, we doubt that most people are aware of the full extent of linguistic confusion created by the terms for various fried potato products throughout the various English speaking countries.

We think the simplest way to explain the different usages of chips, crisps, and fries in various countries is with the aid of some mouthwatering photos.

In the United States, these are called chips, or more specifically, potato chips. They have been called by this name since the late 1800s, which is when they first started showing up in restaurants. These terms are also used in Canada and Australia, as well as parts of South Africa and New Zealand.

However, in the United Kingdom and Ireland, these delicious snacks are called crisps.

This is where things get more confusing. In the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand, these thicker fried potatoes are called chips. Yes, chips. 

There isn't one clear-cut name for this product in the United States and Canada, however. In general, these would be considered a type of fries such as hand-cut fries or steak fries. If they're cut a specific way and the skins are left on, then they're sometimes called potato wedges

Finally, these are known as fries or french fries just about everywhere. Technically, the group of English speakers who call the second photo "chips" may refer to these as "chips" as well. However, you can rest assured that they will know what you are saying if you ask for some fries, largely thanks to McDonalds' spread across the globe.

Some of you with keen eyes may have noticed that in Australia and New Zealand, both thin fried potatoes and thick fried potatoes (photos 1 and 2) are called chips. We learned this fascinating fact first-hand a few weeks ago when an Australian friend asked us to buy him some "chips" from the supermarket and we had to ask for clarification since we didn't know where Australia stands in the chip/crisp debate. Apparently this doesn't cause too many issues since you can usually tell from context which fried potato product someone is referring to, but there is a linguistic solution: in some cases, they call the thick fried potatoes hot chips.

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!

Monday, August 18, 2014

Language Profile: Cherokee

This week we're taking a look at Cherokee, a member of the Iroquoian language family. Cherokee is spoken by the Cherokee people, a Native American tribe that primarily lives in the U.S. states of Oklahoma and North Carolina.

A stop sign featuring Cherokee with
transliteration into Latin script below.
Unlike many indigenous languages in North America that are at risk for extinction due to dwindling numbers of speakers and few written records, Cherokee is considered to be one of the healthiest indigenous languages. One of the reasons for Cherokee's success is the large number of publications in the language, including a Cherokee dictionary and grammar book and the Cherokee Phoenix, the first newspaper published in a Native American language in the United States.

The language has somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 speakers of all ages due to renewed interest in the language by Cherokee youths. It is also thought to be one of only a few Native American languages that has an increasing number of speakers, primarily due to recent language revitalization efforts.

Cherokee was solely a spoken language until the early 1800s. In 1821, Sequoyah, a Cherokee silversmith, created the Cherokee syllabary. This is especially interesting because this made Sequoyah the first member of a pre-literate group to have independently created their own effective writing system. Many other indigenous languages in the Americas have writing systems that were created by Christian missionaries in order to help with their conversion efforts. As a result of the Cherokee Nation's adoption of the syllabary, the Cherokee quickly achieved high literacy rates within their communities.

Each symbol in the 85 character syllabary represents a syllable instead of a phoneme. Some Cherokee symbols resemble letters from Latin, Greek, and Cyrillic scripts, but they don't have the same sounds. For example, the symbol W in Cherokee represents the sound /la/, while D represents /a/.

Friday, August 15, 2014

From Dogfooding to Synergy: Corporate Buzzwords

Just over a year ago, we looked at some of the most interesting terms used in wine jargon. You might recall that jargon is a term that refers to technical terminology that is associated with a specific activity, social group, or occupation. Jargon is everywhere around you, whether you realize it or not. Doctors often use medical jargon like myocardial infarction instead of saying "heart attack", while lawyers use all sorts of interesting Latin terms in what is often referred to as "legalese".

Today we're going to look at the meanings behind several corporate buzzwords. You've probably heard some of these business-related terms before, but do you actually know what they mean?

Analytics is a process in which data is analyzed for meaningful patterns through the use of statistics, research, and computer programming. Businesses are very interested in analytics because it can help them to predict and improve how their business performs.

A ballpark figure is just another term for a good approximation. Sometime around the 1950s, people started saying things like "give me a ballpark figure" to mean that they wanted an estimate that was almost exactly correct. It is thought to have first been used by atomic scientists who may have used it to refer to the area within which a missile would hit the earth.

The key to a successful business is synergy.
A newer buzzword is dogfooding, a shortening of the phrase eating your own dog food. While this sounds fairly disgusting, it merely conveys the idea that a company should use its own product or service in order to validate its quality, capabilities, and more generally, its existence. We saw this term come to life on a recent episode of Dragons' Den, a BBC show in which entrepreneurs make business pitches for financial investment from a panel of rich investors. Two young men were selling an all-natural dog food, and one of the investors asked them to eat some. So they did.

Another relatively recent business term is hyperlocal. It is often used in reference to data and interactions that focus on the residents of a well-defined community. For example, there may be a hyperlocal magazine in your area which focuses on providing information about the events going on in your community.

At some point in your life, you've probably been told to think outside the box. You likely know that this means you should think about things creatively, in different or unconventional ways. However, you might not know that the "box" in question is probably the famous "nine dots puzzle". It's the puzzle in which you're given nine dots laid out in a 3 x 3 grid and told to connect them without lifting your pen or tracing over the same line more than once.

If companies could only use one buzzword, they'd probably choose synergy. It comes from the Greek word synergia which means "working together". The merger of two companies is called corporate synergy, which generally results financial benefits for the merged company. The term is also often used in marketing, where it can refer to the use of studies, research, and information campaigns that promote the sale of products. However, it is also often used as a meaningless buzzword to make you think the person in charge knows what they're doing.

Have we missed your favorite (or least favorite) corporate buzzword? Let us know in the comments below, and please include a definition!

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!

Monday, August 11, 2014

Language Profile: Scottish Gaelic

Today we're taking a look at Scottish Gaelic, a Celtic language that is thought to have evolved from Old Irish. It is primarily spoken in Scotland, specifically in the Outer Hebrides, a group of islands off the coast of mainland Scotland. There is also a small number of speakers of the language in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia, which means "New Scotland" in Latin.

Scottish Gaelic is not an official language of the United Kingdom, but it is a recognized regional language of both Scotland and the UK. It is spoken by approximately 57,000 people in Scotland, which amounts to just over 1% of the country's population. It is sometimes referred to as "Gaelic" by speakers. However, this can lead to confusion, as Gaelic is also a name used to refer to the Irish language. It should also not be confused with Scots, a Germanic language related to the English language.

Rest and Be Thankful, a scenic overlook in Scotland
The lexicon of Scottish Gaelic is primarily of Celtic origin, though it does also contain some loanwords from Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and French. It is written in a Latin-based alphabet that contains 18 of the letters used to write the English language. In addition, it uses grave and acute accents on vowels.

In recent years, the Scottish Parliament has acted in order to promote the use of Scottish Gaelic throughout the country for official purposes. In recent years, it has made an agreement so that Scottish Gaelic can be used as a formal means of communication within European Union institutions despite it not having official EU language status.

While Scottish Gaelic is not widely used in Scotland, the language does benefit from some public exposure. The BBC has both a television channel and a radio station that broadcast in the language, and the ITV network also produces programming in the language for its Scottish stations. The language can also seen on bilingual road signs and advertisements throughout the country, primarily in regions with large numbers of Scottish Gaelic speakers. 

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:

Monday, August 4, 2014

Language Profile: Icelandic

This week we're taking a look at Icelandic, the official language of Iceland. It is a member of the North Germanic branch of the Germanic language family alongside Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish. While the vast majority of its approximately 330,000 speakers live in Iceland, there are also several thousand speakers of the language living in Denmark, Canada, and the United States.

Icelandic is a fairly conservative language, meaning that it has not changed much throughout its history. Most people who can speak Icelandic today can still read and understand many of the old Icelandic sagas written several hundred years ago. Such a task would be much more difficult for English speakers attempting to read texts from the same era in Old English due to the many changes in English over the centuries. 

The Great Geysir, a geyser in Iceland's Haukadalur valley
The Icelandic lexicon primarily comes from Old Norse, though it does contain some loanwords from Scandinavian languages. In modern times, the language's linguistic purity has been maintained by creating new words through the use of Icelandic derivatives instead of borrowing words from other languages. For example, the word for "electricity" in Icelandic is rafmagn, which literally translates as "amber power".

The Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies, founded by the Icelandic government, is tasked with studying the language and preserving its medieval manuscripts. It is named after Árni Magnússon, a 17th and 18th century Icelandic scholar who collected manuscripts. Some of the oldest texts written in Icelandic date back to the 1100s and include poetic works.

The language is written using the Icelandic alphabet, which is very similar to the English alphabet. However, it does include two letters that are no longer used in English: "eth", represented by ð and "thorn", represented by þ.

Friday, August 1, 2014

The Homogeneity of American English

As an American living in the UK over the past year, I've been constantly reminded of just how homogeneous American English is. I cannot tell you how many times I have been asked what "type of accent" I have, and how it differs from other accents spoken in my part of the United States. As I love talking about language, the question doesn't bother me. It just feels like an odd question, because American English is so incredibly similar across the vast expanse of land that makes up the United States.

The UK is quite small compared to the United States. It's about the size of Oregon. Yet linguistically, it is incredibly diverse. I certainly can't name all of the accents, or dialects if you prefer, of British English, but there are tons of them. In the area around Newcastle upon Tyne, people speak with a Geordie accent, which is distinguishable from the Mackem accent spoken by people from Sunderland. These two cities are 15 miles apart. 

The Old Capitol in Iowa City, Iowa
To an American, this seems completely ridiculous. It takes half an hour to reach a different dialect area in the UK. To do the same from my home in Iowa, I'd probably have to drive for closer to half a day. Sure, there are some small regional vocabulary and pronunciation differences in the United States, but nothing on the scale of accents in the UK. The UK varieties are so different that they have commonly-used names, like Geordie, Mackem, Brummie, Cockney, Scouse, Yorkshire, Manc, and on and on.

In the United States, I can discern a Southern accent from a New England accent, but that doesn't really provide much geographic information as to where the speaker is from. I doubt most Americans could discern the difference between a Southern accent from South Carolina and one from Texas, even though they're separated by over 1,000 miles. Yet in Britain, many people can tell, with quite good accuracy, what small geographic area a person is from.

I speak with what has been dubbed the "General American" accent due to its lack of regional characteristics, which is heard across the world in American television and film. When people ask me what accent I speak with, I never know how to respond. I usually end up having to explain that I sound like pretty much everyone else in the United States. 

It's almost a game in Britain when you meet someone to see if you can figure out where they're from based on their accent. I am absolutely fascinated by the immense diversity of dialects in the UK, but at the same time, I can't help but think that it's also kind of nice that my accent is so "boring" and widespread. It makes life just a tiny bit more exciting, to know that the person I've just met has no idea where I'm from based on how I speak. Instead of playing the British dialect game, Americans just have to ask "Where are you from?", and only then do I get to enjoy the endless jokes about potatoes (that's Idaho) and living in a "flyover state"...