Monday, September 29, 2014

Country Profile: The Languages of Pakistan

The flag of Pakistan
This week for our country profile we'll be looking at Pakistan. Home to 180 million people, it is the sixth largest nation in the world in terms of population. Due to its large population and diverse ethnic makeup, Pakistan is very linguistically diverse. Today we'll be having a look at some of the most interesting and prominent languages that make up the linguistic landscape of this Asian country on the Indian subcontinent.

Official Languages

Pakistan only has two nationwide official languages, Urdu and English. As a West Germanic language, English is obviously not a language native to this part of the world. Like many other places in the world, the English language is the remaining heritage of the British Empire's presence in Pakistan.

The English language is used in an official capacity in Pakistan's government as well as being the language that the constitution is written in. It is also used in education and by the social elite. However, despite its status, English is spoken by a very a small percentage of the population.

Pakistan's other official language is Urdu, a language that is natively spoken by around 70 million people around the world, though it is only spoken as a first language by around 8% of the population of Pakistan. The British Empire also played a part in encouraging the use of Urdu as a de facto language since they were keen on having a single language in use across the British Raj rather than the multitude of languages present in the area. Around 90% of Pakistan's population can speak Urdu to some degree.

Languages by Province

Since Pakistan is divided into four provinces as well as a capital region, each province has its own history, native peoples, and, often as a result of the former, its own language.

Punjabi

Even though Urdu and English are the country's official languages, Punjabi is the most spoken language in Pakistan according to the last census. There are 100 million speakers of Punjabi around the world with over 75 million in Pakistan. Unsurprisingly, most speakers of Punjabi can be found in Punjab, where three quarters of the population speak the language.

Pashto

Like Punjabi, there are more native speakers of Pashto in Pakistan than there are of the country's official language, Urdu. There are somewhere between 45 and 60 million native speakers of this language worldwide, 30 million of whom live in Pakistan. Despite there being so many speakers of Pashto in Pakistan, the language has no official status in the country. However, it is one of Afghanistan's two official languages and the principal language of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in Pakistan.

The beautiful Mohatta Palace, Karachi.
Sindhi

The Sindhi language is natively spoken by just under 15% of Pakistan's population and enjoys official status in the Sindh Province. Historically, the Sindhi language was spoken by the Sindhi people. Today, it is spoken by around 55 million people in Pakistan, with just under half of them being native speakers.

Balochi

The Balochi language is the sole provincial language in Pakistan that has fewer native speakers in Pakistan than Urdu. While only 4% of those in Pakistan speak Balochi, there are nearly 8 million native speakers of the language in the world. Most of them live in the province of Balochistan where the language enjoys an official language status.

Other Languages

A large number of regional languages are spoken in Pakistan in addition to the aforementioned official and provincial languages. While Pakistan's regional languages are only spoken by a small percentage of the country's population, many of these languages do have sizable communities of native speakers in terms of actual numbers. Brahui, for example, is spoken by less than 2% of Pakistan's population, though this equates to around 2 million people. However, the use of Brahui is in decline, putting the language in possible risk ofextinction. There are also many other languages in Pakistan that have just a handful of speakers and face this same fate in the near future.

Although Pakistan has official languages, provincial languages, and even regional languages in its hugely diverse linguistic landscape, there are a number of other languages that have somehow managed to squeeze their way into the everyday lives of those who reside in the country. Due to the prevalence of Islam in the area, Arabic is used in varying degrees by practising Muslims in the country, who account for somewhere between 95 and 98% of the population.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Baffling Baked Goods: Biscuits, Cookies, and Scones

Biscuits and honey - a delicious American side dish
Just one month ago, we dedicated a post to explaining the differences between the various potato-based products known as crisps, chips, and fries in the multiple varieties of the English language. Today we're going to look at a few more tricky English food terms, this time focusing on an even more popular food group, baked goods, which we have very briefly touched on in the past.

The food pictured to the right is called a biscuit if you are American. They're delicious small breads with a hard crust and soft interior often served as a side dish. They can be eaten plain, slathered with butter, drizzled in honey, or covered in gravy, as in the popular Southern dish "biscuits and gravy".

The closest British equivalent to this food is a scone, though they are made somewhat differently, and are often sweet, while American biscuits are generally a savory item. Americans also eat scones and call them "scones", so that makes things a bit less linguistically complicated. However, there is a long-standing dispute in the UK as to the correct pronunciation of this word, which rhymes with either "cone" or "con"...

Cheese and crackers (US) / biscuits (UK), a favorite snack
Now let's head back to the term biscuit. In the United Kingdom, it is not that lovely bread-like product pictured above. British biscuits are generally small baked products that come in various forms and can be either sweet or savory.

Savory biscuits are generally what Americans call a cracker, while sweet biscuits are called cookies across the pond. To make matters even more complicated, Brits use the terms cookie and cracker as well, but only to refer to very specific types of biscuits. It's enough to make a person go crazy!

Those learning English as a second language should not feel bad at all for finding these terms confusing, as they routinely cause linguistic confusion among native speakers. Just a few months ago, I (an American) wasn't feeling well and asked a (British) friend to buy me some "crackers" from the (UK) supermarket to help settle my stomach. They turned up with chocolate "biscuits", which I would call "cookies", because they were aware of the differences in terminology and assumed that we did not, in fact, use the same term for "cracker". In any case, all these foods are delicious, so there's really nothing to complain about if you end up with the wrong one someday!

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Country Profile: The Languages of Brazil

In our first two Country Profiles, we looked at some of the many languages spoken in China and Indonesia. Today we're turning our focus to the languages of Brazil, the largest country in South America in terms of both population and geographical area.

Portuguese

The sole official language of Brazil is Portuguese, which belongs to the same branch of Romance languages as Galician, which is spoken in the Spanish autonomous community of Galicia just north of Portugal. Portuguese is spoken by the vast majority of Brazil's over 200 million people, perhaps even by as much as 99% of the population.

Brazil is unique in the Americas due to its status as the only Portuguese-speaking country. The language is strongly linked with the nation's identity and culture, helping to distinguish it from its many neighboring Spanish-speaking countries.

The Amazon rainforest in Brazil.
Given the fact that the vast Atlantic Ocean separates Portugal, the birthplace of Portuguese, from Brazil, its former colony, it should come as no surprise that the language spoken in these countries is not identical. Brazilians speak Brazilian Portuguese, which primarily differs from European Portuguese in terms of phonology. The differences between the two varieties of Portuguese are comparable to the differences between American English and British English. There are also several lexical differences between the two varieties since Brazilian Portuguese has developed separately from European Portuguese since the colonial era, including some influences from indigenous and African languages.

Despite the dominance of the Portuguese language, approximately 210 languages are spoken in Brazil, including 180 indigenous languages. However, most of these languages have very small numbers of speakers.

Co-official Languages

In recent years, a few Brazilian states have given various minority languages co-official status. Both German and Pomeranian, a German dialect, are co-official languages in the southeastern state of Espírito Santo, while Riograndenser Hunsrückisch German has this status in Rio Grande do Sul, the country's southernmost state. Likewise, Talian, a dialect of Venetian (which belongs to a different branch of the Romance language family from Italian, despite claims that it is an Italian dialect), is a co-official language in both Rio Grande do Sul and Santa Catarina states.

A few Brazilian municipalities have also granted co-official status to indigenous languages. Guaraní, a member of the Tupian language family primarily spoken in Paraguay, is recognized in the nearby municipality of Tacuru. The city of São Gabriel da Cachoeira in northwestern Amazonas state has also officially recognized a few indigenous languages, including Nheengatu, another Tupian language.

Indigenous Languages

Most of Brazil's minority languages are indigenous languages such as Guaraní and Nheengatu. Some of the country's other prominent indigenous languages include Apalaí, a Cariban language, and Bororo, which is spoken by the Bororo people in the state of Mato Grosso. The Kaingang language is spoken by members of the southern Brazilian Kaingang ethnic group, while the Xavante language is used in approximately 170 villages in Mato Grosso. There are dozens more indigenous languages spoken by very small groups in Brazil, but unfortunately we just don't have the time to mention them all.

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Languages of Separatists in Europe: Part 2

On Friday following the results of the Scottish Referendum, we took a look at several languages spoken by separatist groups around Europe. We didn't find it very surprising that a large number of separatist groups in Europe speak a different language to the rest of the country. We concluded Friday's post with a look at the Netherlands so today we'll carry on through the alphabet with some of the separatist movements we find the most interesting.

Poland

The region of Silesia is located in both Poland and Germany. While the region's separatist movement wishes to unite the region as its own independent nation, the inhabitants of each country tend to speak the majority language of their respective nation, with the Silesians in Poland speaking Polish and those in Germany speaking German.

Bran Castle in Romania
Romania

There are a number of proposed independent areas of Romania. These areas tend to be inhabited by either ethnically Hungarian people or by Hungarian-speaking Romanians.

Russia

If you ever read our series on the languages of Russia, you will know that the world's largest country has plenty of indigenous languages. Since it also spans two continents, there are plenty of different groups in terms of ethnicity and the language they speak. 

Both Russian and Chechen are spoken in the region of Chechnya, which has its own movement to break away from Russia.

The region of Dagestan is also a special example because there are so many different languages being spoken there. There are calls for Dagestan, with the Ingushetia and Chechnya regions, to unite as a single independent region.

Serbia

The Republic of Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia in 2008. While the area was the site of horrible fighting between Serbs and Albanians during the late 1990s, the Republic of Kosovo has been recognised by a great number of countries across the world. It should be noted that the ethnically Albanian and Albanian-speakers in Kosovo were generally part of the separatist movement.

Spain

Spain, much like France, is home to a good number of separatist movements. Since Spain and France are neighbours, a number of these separatist movements exist across their borders.

We mentioned the Catalan separatist movement on Friday when we covered France. However, the majority of the breakaway nation can be found in northeast Spain, where the Catalan language has official language status in the autonomous region of Catalonia.

We also mentioned the Basque separatist movement in France. However, the movement's real stronghold is in the Spanish autonomous community of País Vasco, which while meaning "Basque Country" in Spanish, should not be confused with the entity that many Basque separatists consider to be the real Basque Country.

Seemingly the entire coastline of Spain is home to separatist movements, while the "Castillian" centre of the country seemingly feels Spanish. In the northwest, Galicia is home to the Galician language and its own separatist movement.

The Balearic Islands have small separatist movements as well, both as part of the Països Catalans and as a Majorcan sovereign state. The islands are home to a number of speakers of a Balearic variety of Catalan called Mallorquí in reference to the island.

There are a couple more European countries with separatist movements that we could cover, but we don't feel like touching the situation in Ukraine with a barge pole and we're saving the United Kingdom and Scotland for when the dust has settled.

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Languages of Separatists in Europe: Part 1

Yesterday Scotland went to the polls to vote on their independence from the United Kingdom. We don't write this blog to promote a political agenda, just the agenda that languages are awesome and we love them. Since there are plenty of separatist movements in Europe, we thought we'd take a look at which ones speak a language different to the prominent language or languages spoken in the country that they are seeking to separate from.

While we're trying to keep language and politics apart, you'll quickly see how difficult defining a language is when politics gets involved. For the most part, we have attempted to go with a linguistic consensus rather than a political one, but if we've slipped up and missed something, please tell us in the comments. We're not indicating that every speaker of these languages is a separatist either. Finally, we're only covering a few select separatist movement in Europe with languages that fascinate us.

Albania

Northern Epirus is part of a historical region that is currently part of Albania. The people in this region speak Greek, which as you can guess, is not the majority language of Albania. That title belongs to the Albanian language.

The canal in Brussels, a battleground for Belgium's two separatist groups.
Belgium

As you may know, Belgium has two main languages. 56% of the population speaks Dutch or Flemish, while 38% speak French. However, the "separatist" movements in Belgium have another element to them: some wish to join other countries.

The Walloons, the French-speaking inhabitants of Wallonia, have a movement to join with France or to make Wallonia its own state. On the other hand, the Flemish and Dutch-speaking inhabitants of Flanders wish to separate from Belgium and make Flanders its own state, with a small minority wishing for the region to become part of the Netherlands.

Cyprus

The separatist movement in Cyprus already has its own sovereign state, if you happen to be the Turkish government. The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus is primarily inhabited by the ethnically-Turkish peoples of the region and considers Turkish its official language. The region declared its independence from Cyprus in 1983, though Turkey was the only nation to recognise it.

Denmark

The Faroe Islands are inhabited by the Faroese people, who also happen to have their own language, Faroese. There are around 66,000 speakers of Faroese in the world, with nearly three quarters of them residing on the Faroe Islands.

France

It appears that almost every minority language spoken in France has its own separatist movement. The movement to make the Basque Country a sovereign nation is complicated as it is currently an international region that is part of both France and Spain. Of course, Basque, the language isolate, is the main language of this movement.

The separatist movement in Brittany has the Breton language, a Celtic language more closely related to Scottish Gaelic and Irish than the national language of France, French.

The official language of the Catalan separatism movement is Catalan, a Romance language. The proposed nation that unites Catalans in this group is made up of the Països Catalans, an international region in northeast Spain and southwest France, the Rousillon region in particular.

Germany

The Bavarians in Germany have a separatist movement to make the Freistaat Bayern its own sovereign state. The Bavarians also have a few dialects and languages of their own: Bavarian, Swabian, and East Franconian German.

East Frisia has ambitions of becoming its own nation. The native language of the region is Saterland Frisian, a language in decline with an estimated 1,000 native speakers.

Italy

There is a movement for independence on Italy's island of Sardinia. The island is home to the Sardinian language, which while being a Romance language, is incomprehensible to speakers of Italian.

Certain people in Veneto also feel the region would be better off if it was its own sovereign state. The Venetian language has around 2 million native speakers in Veneto, the surrounding regions, Slovenia, and Croatia.

Netherlands

Much like East Frisia in Germany, Frisia in the Netherlands has both a language and a separatist movement that seeks to make the region independent from the Netherlands. In addition to the Saterland Frisian language spoken in East Frisia, the Frisians in the Netherlands speak the other closely-related varieties of the Frisian language: North Frisian and West Frisian.

We'll be back after the weekend with more separatist movements and their languages. If there are any fascinating languages favored by European separatist groups that we missed, please tell us about them in the comments below.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Language's Biggest Challenge: How Do You Define Left and Right?

I was watching an old episode of QI (a fascinating show for those who haven't seen it) when the question of defining left and right to an alien species came up. The general consensus is that you cannot define left and right due to the relative nature of the concepts. Surely, that can't be right. Right?

The reason these concepts are so difficult to define is because they are relative. Put simply, you can't really have left or right without having some reference point.

If you search the definition of "left" on Google, you'll be met with:

"on, towards, or relating to the side of a human body or of a thing which is to the west when the person or thing is facing north."

Google defines right as:

"on, towards, or relating to the side of a human body or of a thing which is to the east when the person or thing is facing north."

A compass provides a fine example of cardinal directions.
How would you define left and right without a compass? These concepts only really exist on a planet with a magnetic field where a system of cardinal directions can be defined...

While left and right are seemingly simple for most of us to understand, around 15% of people seem to struggle with left and right, suffering from a condition known as "Left-Right Confusion".

Can you really blame those who can't tell the difference? The terms are so useless in practice that "my right" is only "your right" when we're facing the same direction. This makes left and right egocentric directions, as their definition is based on the self.

While both up and down are also egocentric, thanks to gravity, their definitions are often universally understood. This is thanks to everyday life, where gravity is almost always found to be pulling us back to our home planet, Earth.

The relative nature of these terms means that in geometry and physics, left and right aren't even bothered with. The Cartesian coordinate system puts matters into numbers, which is often preferred by the hard sciences, rather than the subjectivity preferred by human languages.

However, there are a number of languages and communication systems that don't use the concept of relative direction like left and right. The Guugu Yimithirr Language, which is natively spoken by around 100 aboriginal Australians, seemingly has no time for egocentric directions, preferring a system of cardinal directions to describe the location of objects.

While I feel like I know more about directions, both egocentric and cardinal, I certainly wouldn't feel confident giving directions to aliens. How would you describe left and right? Tell us in the comments below.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Country Profile: The Languages of Indonesia

Last week we started a new series of Country Profiles with a look at the linguistic makeup of China. Today we're continuing on our new journey, this time exploring the many languages spoken in Indonesia.

To say that Indonesia is a linguistically diverse country is a bit of an understatement. According to Ethnologue, Indonesia is home to over 700 living languages. We imagine that this is partly due to the fact that the country is composed of 13,466 islands, which undoubtedly create pockets of linguistic isolation due to their geography. It goes without saying that we're not going to mention every single language spoken in Indonesia today, but we will try to provide a good overview.

The Top Four

The sole official language of Indonesia is Indonesian, one of two standardized varieties of Malay. It is an Austronesian language just like the majority of the other languages spoken in Indonesia. Despite being used in all official contexts as well as education and the media, Indonesia is primarily spoken as a second language.

Instead, the majority of Indonesians speak Austronesian languages such as Javanese, Sunda, and Madurese as their native language. Javanese is the native language of Java, the most populous island in the entire world, and is spoken by over 80 million people. Sunda, also known as Sundanese, is primarily spoken in West Java, the western side of the island, while Madurese is spoken on the eastern side of the island as well as Madura Island.

This map of Indonesian ethnic groups provides insight into
how this country has such a diverse linguistic makeup!
Austronesian Languages

It should come as no surprise that the majority of the languages spoken in Indonesia are members of the Austronesian language family since its members primarily originated in Southeast Asia and other areas of the Pacific. Some of the most-spoken Austronesian languages in Indonesia besides our top four include Minangkabau, Bugis, Banjar, Aceh, and Bali, which all boast over 3 million native speakers.

West Papuan Languages

Indonesia is also home to a few West Papuan languages, which are spoken in eastern Indonesia and on the island of New Guinea. The Ternate and Tidore languages are spoken on the Maluku Islands that feature their respective names.

Other Indigenous Languages

There are dozens of other indigenous languages spoken throughout Indonesia which are extremely difficult to classify. Some linguists group a large number of the languages spoken on the island of New Guinea and surrounding islands together as Trans-New Guinea languages, but others, such as Ethnologue, believe that they should be kept in individual language families.

Some of these controversial language groups include the Mairasi languages, the Lakes Plain languages, and the Senagi languages. Indonesia is also home to dozens of endangered languages that are quickly approaching extinction, sadly.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Remembering September 11: How One Day Changed the Way We Speak

As anyone with a calendar will know, yesterday was September 11. Thirteen years have passed since the terrorist attacks by al-Qaeda on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington D.C., and for many, the memories are still fresh in their minds.

Like most catastrophic events, September 11th led to a huge number of cultural changes in the United States and across the world. There were obvious changes, like how air travel security measures changed drastically seemingly overnight. It wasn't just air travel that changed however, as governments kept busy introducing new legislation to reduce the chances of a similar attack happening in the future. One cultural change that isn't as obvious has been the changes to the English language since 2001, which have been quite astounding.

Many new terms were added to the language just after the attacks, though their origins aren't as obvious now due to the passage of time. Over the years, the American Dialect Society has monitored the use of the English language in North America. It is a useful resource to learn more about how the vast majority of Americans use their mother tongue. We've put together a few of the important and lasting terms we feel were rarely uttered before those tragic events.

One World Trade Center, a new skyscraper
located near where the Twin Towers fell.
9/11

It was noted that just a year after the event, "9/11" (said as "nine-eleven") was considered the expression most likely to last. It's fairly safe to say that over a decade later, 9/11 is one of the most enduring expressions since the event. In fact, while the constituent elements of the term preexisted, these two numbers refer to a specific set of events that occurred on September 11, 2001 in most contexts and almost never signify anything else.

Pre- and Post-9/11

The events of 9/11 were considered so important in English-speaking circles that the date now acts as a divider between two eras, at least in the minds of many people.

Al-Qaeda

While not a neologism, al-Qaeda, the name of the organisation who was eventually revealed to be responsible for the attacks, was a popular topic of conversation at the time and is now known to most people. 

Sadly, a number of people took the Arabic origins of the word "القاعدة" as an indication that Arabic speakers and Muslims were either terrorists or hated the United States, despite the fact that there are plenty of terrorists who aren't Arabic-speaking Muslims, as well as people who hate the United States and are neither terrorists, Muslim, nor speakers of Arabic.

DHS

The United States Department for Homeland Security (DHS) was formed in 2002 following the events of 9/11 as a response to them.

Ground Zero

Although the term "ground zero" existed "pre-9/11" (See what we did there?), when the term is capitalised and rendered as "Ground Zero", it almost always is in reference to the World Trade Center site where the Twin Towers were attacked.

IED

While not necessarily a term from 9/11, IED, short for Improvised Explosive Device, is a term used by the US Army in Afghanistan and Iraq to refer to a type of bomb.

TSA

The Transportation Safety Administration, known by the acronym TSA, was a federal agency formed post-9/11 that was one of the key changes to airport security. Their visibility to anyone travelling by plane in the United States means the term has quickly entered the lexicon of American English.

The Linguistic Legacy

While some of the terms that were used after 9/11 have fallen out of favour and have even been forgotten, we should never forget those who needlessly lost their lives on that day, in subsequent conflicts, and in conflicts every day throughout the world.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Country Profile: The Languages of China

Exactly two years ago, we started a regular series of language profiles. Now we're replacing it with a new series in a very similar vein, country profiles. While the language profiles covered one particular language, the new country profiles will be a look at the linguistic makeup of one country in particular.

When we did language profiles, we worked our way through a list, starting with the language with the most native speakers. As we certainly missed a few of the world's many languages, we'll still occasionally do language profiles, just not weekly as we have been doing.

This week marks the first of our country profiles. We're starting with the languages spoken in the world's most populous country, China. After that, we'll work our way around the world, making sure to skip the places we've already covered during their national holidays.

The flag of the People's Republic of China
The Languages of China

Almost one fifth of the world's population lives in China, and Mandarin Chinese is spoken by around 840,000,000 people as a native language. Mandarin has de facto status as the national language.

However, with around 1.3 billion people in a single country, there are certainly more languages than just Chinese. In fact, China has 8 official languages: Standard Chinese, Cantonese, English, Portuguese, Uyghur, Tibetan, Zhuang, and Mongolian.

Sino-Tibetan Languages

Since the Sino-Tibetan languages are indigenous to most of what makes up modern-day China, you can expect plenty of these languages to be spoken in the country. Aside from Mandarin, Cantonese is also another Sino-Tibetan language with official status.

Cantonese is natively spoken by around 62,000,000 people in the world. In China, Cantonese is an official language in Hong Kong and Macau and used by the local governments in these places.

Unsurprisingly, Tibetan is spoken in the Tibet Autonomous Region. The language is spoken by over one million people and is written using a Brahmic script, a type of abugida.

Indo-European Languages

You may have spotted a couple of Indo-European languages in the list of official languages in China. These are the lasting heritage of European colonialism in China.

The English language has official language status in Hong Kong, which was a British colony for 156 years until it was handed back to China in 1997. Likewise, the Portuguese language is spoken as an official language in Macau, which was a Portuguese colony between 1557 and 1999, making it both the first and last European colony in China.

Turkic Languages

The Uyghur language is spoken around the world by up to 11 million people. Within China, it is principally spoken in Xinjiang, where it has official status.

Mongolian Languages

The Mongolian language is natively spoken by nearly 6 million people in the world. In addition to being the official language of Mongolia, it is also an official language of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region in China.

Tai-Kadai Languages

The Zhuang languages are the last of China's 8 official languages. In total, around 16 million people speak one of the Zhuang languages in the south of China. However, the languages are not mutually intelligible to one another and in some cases are more related to another language from the Tai language family than each other. Perhaps they should be reclassified.

Other Languages

"Surely there are more than 8 languages spoken in China?", we hear you ask. You are right. In fact, there are apparently nearly 300 languages spoken in China, far too many for one post.

Monday, September 8, 2014

The Fascinating Story of the Navajo Code Talkers

Today we're finally going to tell you the fascinating story of the Navajo code talkers that we promised last week in our posts on the Navajo language and the use of code talkers during WWI.

As we mentioned last week, a code talker is a person who uses their little-known language to transmit secret messages in wartime. Many Native American language speakers were used as code talkers, but the most famous group was the Navajo code talkers who played a key role in WWII. 

The idea to use Navajo for code talking was first proposed by Philip Johnston, who had learned the language growing up in the Navajo Nation as the son of a missionary. He believed that it could be useful to the military because it was an unwritten language which was not mutually intelligible enough with related languages to be easily deciphered. 

Navajo code talkers in Saipan in 1944
Once a group of Navajo speakers was recruited by the military, it was decided that the easiest way to convey messages using the language would be to create a code by encrypting Navajo using letter and word substitution methods. Training exercises were so successful that the military eventually recruited 200 Navajos, and a codebook was created to help teach the code to new recruits.

Throughout the war, the code talkers played an instrumental role by sending and receiving messages, especially in the Pacific battles, providing essential information to the Allies. They were so successful that Navajo code talkers were also used in the Korean War as well as the Vietnam War. However, the most interesting fact of all about the Navajo code is that it is the only spoken military code that has never been deciphered to this day.

If you're interested in learning more about the Navajo code talkers, there are plenty of online resources out there. We recommend taking a look at this website, which provides extensive information on the code talkers, including several fascinating interviews with real-life code talkers who served in World War II.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Code Talkers: How Speaking a Minority Language Helped Win the Great War

On Wednesday, we were looking at the Navajo language and it got us thinking about the Navajo code talkers used during the Second World War. While the Navajo code talkers are probably the most famous, there were plenty of other code talkers who spoke other languages.

A code talker, for those who don't know, is someone who uses their language to transmit secret messages during wars. If you're trying to transmit information during a war, especially by radio, you do not want your enemy to know what you're saying. In order to ensure your message is only understood by those you want to understand it, you will probably use a code.

Encoded information is certainly one way to ensure that only the intended recipient understands your message, since a code is essentially a language that is only understood by a particular group of people. During the First and Second World Wars, the United States realised that there was a group of people who spoke languages that only they understood, the Native Americans.

Native American Code Talkers

Sequoyah may have invented the Cherokee
syllabary, but it was the spoken language that
was most useful.
The first code talkers spoke Cherokee, the Iroquoian language spoken by the Cherokee people. In fact, the Cherokee code talkers were present at the Second Battle of the Somme, helping to transmit encoded messages. 

The discovery of Native American languages as a means to transmit encoded messages was more of an accident than a genius military plan. It was noticed by the US Army during WWI that the enemy couldn't understand the Cherokee troops.

While the Cherokee code talkers were the first, they were certainly not the only Native American code talkers. The Choctaw Indians from Oklahoma used their language to transmit messages during the Great War.

Since code talkers were so successful during the First World War, Hitler sent a group of around thirty anthropologists to the United States in order to learn Native American languages before WWII had even started. However, not everything turned out as he planned. We'll be back on Monday with the full story. Join us then.

Read The Fascinating Story of the Navajo Code Talkers

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Language Profile: Navajo

This week we're taking look at the Navajo language, a member of the Na-Dené language family. It is primarily spoken by the Navajo, the largest Native American tribe in the United States. Most of its approximately 170,000 speakers live in the southwestern states of Arizona and New Mexico.

A beautiful hand-woven Navajo blanket
Navajo is the most widely spoken Native American language in the United States. While it is somewhat threatened by the importance placed on speaking English in the United States, the Navajo Nation has worked hard over the past several decades to ensure that children are provided with education and immersion programs in the Navajo language. At the higher education level, a local tribal community college offers an associate's degree in Navajo, while Arizona State University offers courses in the language.

The Navajo language is also used in media such as radio broadcasting. It was also recently used in film when Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope was translated into Navajo in 2013. This was an especially important event because it was the first major film ever to be translated into a Native American language. 

One of the most interesting things about the Navajo language pertains to its use during World War II by code talkers. Starting in World War I, the U.S. government hired Native Americans who spoke little-known languages to transmit messages for them using codes based on their languages as a form of secret communication. While Cherokee and Choctaw code talkers were used during WWI and other indigenous languages such as Comanche, Meskwaki, Basque, and Seminole were also used during WWII, the Navajo remain the group most commonly associated with the term, which we'll be looking at in more depth in the near future.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Persian Loanwords: Part 2

On Friday, we looked into the history of several Persian terms for foods, plants, and animals that have made their way into English over the centuries. Today we're continuing on with a few more interesting Persian loanwords, such as "serendipity".

Bronze - The third best metal, at least when it comes to the Olympics, gets its name from the Persian word birinj. Throughout the ages, it became bronzium in Latin, bronzo in Italian, and finally bronze in French before reaching English.

Caravan - This term started out as karwan in Persian, meaning "group of travelers", often used in reference to groups traveling through the desert or along the Silk Road. In later years, it became caravana in Latin and caravane in French.

In Persia, chess was originally called chatrang.
Check and checkmate - Both of these important chess terms are thought to have originated in the Persian language, which is quite apt given that the game itself was first popularized in Persia around the 6th or 7th century. "Check" was shah, literally meaning "king", while "checkmate" was shah mat, which literally meant something akin to "the king is left helpless". They eventually evolved into the Old French terms eschequier and eschec mat before reaching English.

Cummerbund - This fun word for an interesting clothing accessory worn around the waist comes from the combination of the Persian words kamar, meaning "waist" and band, meaning "something that ties". It came into use in the English language via Hindi in the early 1600s.

Magic - After originating as the Persian word magush, it evolved into magike in Greek, followed by the similar terms magice and magique in Latin and French respectively.

Mogul - This word comes from the Persian word mughal, meaning "powerful person", which was originally used in reference to leaders of the Mughal Empire.

Pajamas - One of our favorite types of clothing gets its name from paejamah, which literally means "leg clothing" in Persian.

Serendipity - Our final Persian loanword was coined in the mid-18th century by a man named Horace Walpole, who said that his inspiration was the Persian fairy tale The Three Princes of Serendip because the princes often made great discoveries by accident, which thanks to him we would now call "serendipity".

Did we leave out your favorite Persian loanword? If so, let us know in the comments, and please include a definition!