Friday, October 31, 2014

The Etymology of Colours: Part 2

On Wednesday we looked at the origins of words we use for colours, focusing on the first three colours of the visible light spectrum: red, orange, and yellow. Today we'll be going through the remaining colours.


In Middle English and Old English, the colour green was grene. In Proto-Germanic *gronja- was the root of green, grass, and grow, as well as the root of the word for green in a number of other related languages such as Dutch, Danish, Old Frisian, Old High German, Old Norse, and Old Saxon.

Earlier, the term in Proto-Indo European (PIE) languages is thought to have been *ghre-, which means grow, since green is the colour of most vegetation.


The story of blue is fascinating. The word comes from the Old French term blo, which generally referred to a range of colours and shades including what we would now consider blues, greys, blonds, and other pale colours. The term is thought to have evolved from the Proto Germanic term *blæwaz, which gave rise to the term in a huge number of languages.

While in PIE languages the term for blue is fairly widespread, what really makes the colour fascinating is the lacunae it has left in other world languages. While in English the colours green and blue are fairly distinct, there are plenty of languages where the two colours are referred to by one term. Several languages in Asia, including Old Chinese, Old Japanese, Thai, and Vietnamese did not distinguish between the two and refer to a concept of a blue-green range that doesn't really exist in English.

The term for blue is thought to be a latecomer to the vocabularies of many languages since the dye is so difficult to make, while autumnal shades such as reds, oranges, and yellows were easier to make and therefore required terms sooner.


For many English speakers, designating the colour between blue and violet seems arbitrary and difficult to define. Its presence in the spectrum is thought to be a result of Sir Isaac Newton's superstition against the number six.

The colour chosen by Newton was none other than indigo, a term whose origins can be found in the Greek name for the colour dye which came from India. The Greek word indikon (ινδικόν) became indicum in Latin before inspiring indico in Spanish and endego in Portuguese, which are considered to be the root of the Dutch word indigo. The Dutch term entered the English language in the 16th century.


The last colour in the rainbow is violet. The term came from Old French by way of Latin where it was viola in reference to both the colour and the flower. It is thought to have come from a PIE language somewhere in the Mediterranean. During the 14th century, the term came to Middle English from the diminutive of the Old French viole.

After the weekend, we'll be back to look at the terms for some of the colours outside of the visible light spectrum.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Etymology of Colours: Part 1

Today we're taking a trip through the rainbow as we look at the etymology and origins of the names we use for colours. For simplicity, we're going to start today with the classic "rainbow" colours, which Sir Isaac Newton dubbed the spectrum, from the Latin for "apparition". The term later became used to reference the visible light split through a prism, another Latin word meaning "sawed", which originated as the Greek term prisma.


The first colour of the rainbow has origins in several languages and unfortunately can't be traced back to one single language. The word red was written as rēad in Old English. In fact, the British surname Reed is from the Old English for red, and is pronounced in a similar manner to how it was said before vowel shortening occurred in Middle English.

Before Old English, the word was rauthaz in Proto-Germanic, from rewdʰ, a Proto-Indo European (PIE) word. As a result of this origin, a large number of languages have similar words for the colour.


The word, colour, and fruit called orange, is often subject to a large degree of debate. While many people claim that it is one of the only words that rhymes with no other word, this is not actually true. The word sporange, a sac where spores are made, is one of the few words that rhyme with it that isn't a proper noun.

Rhyming aside, there is also a debate as to whether the fruit was named because of the colour or whether the colour was named after the fruit. Etymologists consider the colour to be named after the fruit since the word's origins are from the Sanskrit word for the tree. नारङ्ग or nāraṅga made its way into Persian as نارنگ, or nārang, before reaching European languages.

While the word nārang remained fairly true to its roots in a number of European languages, when it reached Old French it is thought to have lost its initial "n" due to rebracketing, whereby the initial "n" was thought to be part of the indefinite article "une" so that "une norenge" was heard as "une orenge".


Yellow has an interesting etymology that is similar to that of the colour red. Yellow's roots begin with PIE languages. The root of yellow in PIE has retained the same root as yell for several millennia, as both words originate from the PIE root gʰel-. This shared root has resulted in a number of European languages, particularly the Germanic languages, having similar words for yellow. The words for yellow in Dutch, East Frisian, German, Swedish, and West Frisian all have similar origins.

The term ended up in Proto-Germanic as gelwaz before it became geolu in Old English. This Old English term gave us the word we use today for yellow. However, it should be noted that in Middle English, the term also referred to colours and tones that we wouldn't consider yellow by today's standards, including a number of blue and grey colours.

We'll finish the remainder of the rainbow on Friday when we'll cover the colours with shorter wavelengths.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Monday, October 27, 2014

Country Profile: The Languages of the Philippines

Last Wednesday we looked into the languages of Japan, a country composed of 6,852 islands that is home to a surprisingly small number of languages despite its widespread geography. This week we're focusing on the Philippines, another Asian country located in the Pacific Ocean, which consists of 7,107 islands. Unlike Japan, the Philippines is incredibly linguistically diverse, with two official languages, 19 officially-recognized regional languages, and over 100 other indigenous languages.

The Official Languages

The official languages of the Philippines are Filipino and English. Filipino is a standard register of the Tagalog language that was created in order to provide the Philippines with a national language of its own heritage in contrast to the widespread use of its two former colonial languages, English and Spanish. For an in-depth look at the development of the Filipino language and its linguistic connections to Tagalog, check out our two-part language profile on Filipino and Tagalog.

Beautiful Matinloc Island in the Philippines.
The Regional Languages

The Philippines also has 19 officially-recognized regional languages. The most spoken language in the Philippines is Tagalog, an Austronesian language which has over 26 million native speakers. It is followed by the Cebuano and Ilokano languages, which have approximately 21 million and 7 million native speakers respectively, and are both used as a lingua franca in particular regions of the country.

The fourth most spoken language in the Philippines is Hiligaynon, also known as Ilonggo, which boasts around 7 million speakers. The Waray-Waray language comes in fifth place. While it is primarily used as a spoken language, religious books such as the Bible and the Book of Mormon have been printed in the language.

Chavacano is one of the most fascinating indigenous languages spoken in the Philippines. It is a Spanish-based creole that is over 400 years old, making it one of the oldest surviving creoles in the world and the only Spanish-based creole used in Asia. There are six distinct dialects of Chavacano that are spoken throughout the country. If you're interested in learning about other creoles, then check out our profiles on Haitian Creole and Jamaican Creole English.

If you've been counting, then you know that there are still 13 remaining regional languages to mention. All thirteen are Austronesian languages that are spoken in small regions of the Philippines. Kampampangan has approximately 2.9 million native speakers, and is followed by the Bikol and Pangasinan languages which both have over 2 million speakers. Kinaray-a, Manguindanao, Maranao, and Tausug are spoken by around 1 million people, Aklanon and Surigaonan are spoken by approximately 500,000 Filipinos, and Ibanag has around 300,000 native speakers. The Ivatan, Sambali, and Yakan languages have much smaller numbers of speakers that range somewhere in the thousands.

Other Languages

The Philippines is home around 170 languages, but we don't have the time to mention them all. The vast majority are Austronesian languages like most of the other languages we've mentioned today. Several foreign languages also have considerable numbers of speakers in the Philippines, including Arabic, which is primarily used by Muslims, and Spanish, which has historical importance as the country's former colonial language. Malay, Indonesian, Chinese, and Japanese also have significant numbers of speakers.

Friday, October 24, 2014

United Nations Day: The Languages of the UN

Today, October 24, marks the date that the Charter of the United Nations came into effect. While it hardly makes for a riveting read (you can read it here if you must), what it does in practice is far more astounding, since it acts as the treaty that founded the UN.

The flag of the UN
The treaty itself was signed on 26 June 1945 at the San Francisco War Memorial and Performing Arts Center. When it was signed, Poland was the only of the 51 founding nations not present,  eventually signing the treaty a couple of months later.

The five permanent members of the Security Council (P5) at the time, the Republic of China, France, the UK, the US, and the USSR, ratified the charter alongside a number of other nations. While it may seem odd to mention the P5, their importance will become evident as we look at the official languages of the UN.

When the charter was made, it was written in five languages: Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish. It wasn't until the first General Assembly that the five official languages and working languages of the UN were decided. Initially, English and French were decided upon as the working languages.

Spanish was added as a working language in 1948, making the three languages the status quo for the General Assembly until 1968, when Russian was added as the fourth working language. By this point, four of the five official languages were in use as working languages. Chinese was then made a working language in 1973, making all five original official languages also working languages.

Arabic was added as both an official and a working language in 1973. The official language status of Arabic only extended to the General Assembly and its "main committees", as opposed to the five other languages, which held official status throughout all committees. For the first three years after Arabic became an official language, the Arab nations of the UN were expected to fund the procedures required enact this change.

After seven years as an official language for the General Assembly and its main committees, Arabic's official status was extended to all subcommittees in 1980. Three years later, all six languages were adopted as the official languages of the Security Council.

Currently, there are a number of additional languages vying for official language status. In 2009, the president of Bangladesh suggested that Bengali be an official language of the UN. Esperanto has also been suggested, despite its relatively small number of speakers.

Hindi and Portuguese have also been suggested since they are both widely-spoken languages. The Secretary-General of the UN and the Turkish Prime Minister have also suggested that Turkish become one of the official languages.

Do you think the UN uses the right languages? Which languages do you think should become official languages of the UN? Tell us in the comments below.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Country Profile: The Languages of Japan

Today we'll be focusing on the linguistic makeup of Japan, a country in the Pacific Ocean composed of an impressive 6,852 islands. Over 400 of these islands are inhabited by Japan's population of approximately 126 million people. Despite the country's massive population being spread across so many islands, it is not as linguistically diverse as one would think.

The Great Wave off Kanagawa, an 1830s ukiyo-e woodblock print by Japanese
artist Hokusai that is one of the most famous pieces of art in the world.
The National Language

While Japan does not have an official language, it does have a national language. Unsurprisingly, this language is Japanese, which is spoken by approximately 99% of the country's population. This is primarily because Japan is a relatively homogeneous society when it comes to culture and language, with over 98% of the population being ethnic Japanese.

The Ryukyuan Languages

Despite the prevalence of Japanese, there are other languages spoken in Japan. The Ryukyuan languages, six in all, are indigenous to Japan's southern Ryukyu Islands. The number of speakers of these languages is unknown, though they are all believed to be endangered. While the Japanese government considers them to be dialects of Japanese, linguists have shown that they are not mutually intelligible with each other or with Japanese, and therefore are separate languages in the same language family.

Ainu, The Minority Language

The Ainu language is considered a minority language in Japan. Sadly, it is nearly extinct, with only a handful of elderly speakers remaining on Hokkaido, Japan's second largest island. However, there have been recent education efforts to help revitalize the language and some people are now learning Ainu as a second language.

Immigrant Languages

A small percentage of the Japanese population is comprised of immigrants who speak their native language despite the dominance of Japanese in the country. The two main immigrant languages in Japan are Korean and Chinese, which together are spoken by approximately 0.9% of the Japanese population.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Celebrating the Linguistic Life of Richard Francis Burton

On this day in 1890, Richard Francis Burton's fascinating life came to an end. Today we've decided to honour the man with a post about his life and his work as both a linguist and translator. While the stories of linguists and translators are often fascinating to us, few have led a more interesting and exciting life than Richard Francis Burton.

The hyperpolyglot himself in his later years.
Burton was born on 19 March 1821 in Torquay, England. However, a relatively small amount of his time was spent in his hometown since his family travelled often when he was a child. He spent a good number of his very early years in Tours, France after his family moved there in 1825. Burton later returned to England to attend a prep school in Surrey.

As his family travelled across Europe, generally between the United Kingdom, France, and Italy, Burton's love for languages led to him learning a considerable number of them. Starting with primarily Romance languages, he learnt French, Italian, Latin, and Neapolitan. He also learnt some Romani following a supposed affair with a gypsy woman, as well as learning Arabic during his time at school.

Having enlisted in the East India Company's army, Burton shipped out to India where he mastered a number of the local languages, including Hindustani, Gujarati, Punjabi, Sindhi, Saraiki and Marathi, not to mention improving upon his Arabic and adding Persian to his rapidly-growing list of languages. He also owned a group of monkeys which he attempted to communicate with, earning him much ridicule from his fellow soldiers.

Eventually, a sense of adventure compelled Burton to undertake a pilgrimage to Mecca, earning him widespread fame. However, Burton was undercover during the pilgrimage. While he had extensively researched and improved upon his Arabic, he pretended to be Pashtun in order to help explain why he spoke the way he did.

Burton was an active participant in the Crimean War after he rejoined the army. After an alleged mutiny in which Burton was mentioned during the subsequent enquiry, he spent time exploring Africa.

After several stints exploring Africa, Burton's later years were spent in diplomatic and academic roles. He spent time in Brazil, Damascus, and Trieste, to name a few places. He also continued to travel and write before undertaking the translations that earned him significant recognition.

Sir Richard Francis Burton translated the Kama Sutra, which generated considerable controversy at the time. He also translated The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night, which is often known as Arabian Nights. By the time Burton died, he had mastered somewhere between 25 and 40 languages, depending on how you count them, making him more than worthy of our respect.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Hatsune Miku: Virtual Vocals and Synthetic Singing

During a recent Facebook scrolling session, an odd link popped up on my news feed. It was this video of a musical performance on the Late Show with David Letterman.

You don't need to be the most observant person in the world to realise that the performer, Hatsune Miku, or 初音ミク, as her name is written in Japanese, is not a real person. Hatsune Miku is not the first virtual performer; other popular virtual acts include Alvin and the Chipmunks, The Archies, and Gorillaz. However, Hatsune Miku can do something that other acts can't do: sing.

You may think that her high-pitched singing is not as good as the sped-up singing of Alvin, Simon, and Theodore, and you may be right. However, the Chipmunks, much like other virtual acts, had their music and their vocals pre-recorded. Hatsune Miku's vocals are synthesised using Yamaha's VOCALOID2 and VOCALOID3 vocal synthesisers.

If you're familiar with Japanese, you may recognise the components of Hatsune Miku's name. In fact, the name translates as "the first sound from the future", with Hatsu (初) meaning "first", Ne (音) meaning "sound", and Miku (ミク) meaning "future".

Sapporo, Japan, the hometown of Hatsune Miku.
While 16 year-old Hatsune Miku could be said to be from Sapporo, the technology that allows her to sing was conceived of in Spain as part of a research project at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona.

Hatsune Miku's voice isn't purely synthesised and is in fact generated from phonemes prerecorded by Japanese voice actress Saki Fujita. Initially, only Japanese phonemes were recorded, before learning English (from Saki Fujita's recordings) for a later release. This allows her to sing in both languages, albeit with a Japanese accent when she sings in English.

The process that allows for the manipulation of the phonemes into song is known as concatenative synthesis. Using this process, sound samples (known as units) can be manipulated. This allows the user to modify a range of qualities, including the unit's length, pitch, and timbre.

Since anyone who owns the software can synthesise speech and vocals, Hatsune Miku is "technically" the performer of thousands of songs. She's not alone, though. There are also other virtual performers available with different language combinations such as Spanish and Chinese. Other languages can also be approximated using preexisting phonemes, with differing levels of success.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Country Profile: The Languages of Bangladesh

This week we're turning our attention to Bangladesh, one of the most densely populated countries in the world. This South Asian country is home to over 160 million people, making it the eighth most populous country despite its small geographic size.

The Official Language

The official language of Bangladesh is Bengali, an Indo-Aryan language which is the native language of over 98% of the country's population. The English language is also widely used in Bangladesh, though it does not have official status in the country. However, it is used in many important areas of daily life including education, government, media, business, and law. English has been an important language in Bangladesh since the country's colonial era as part of the British Empire. Some consider it to be a de facto co-official language of Bangladesh due to its widespread use in the country.

While Bengali, also known as Bangla, is the native language of the vast majority of the Bangladeshi population, the country is also home to various minority languages. These can be divided into four language families: Indic languages, Tibeto-Burman languages, Austro-Asiatic languages, and Dravidian languages.

A beautiful Buddhist temple in Rangamati, Bangladesh.
Indo-Aryan Languages

Several Indo-Aryan languages and language varieties are spoken by Bangladeshis. The Assamese language, primarily spoken in India, is sometimes considered to be part of a dialect continuum with Bengali, though most linguists believe it to be a completely separate language. Another important indigenous language is Chakma, which is closely related to both Assamese and Bengali and is spoken by around 300,000 people in the southeast of Bangladesh.

Tibeto-Burman Languages

Bangladesh is also home to several Tibeto-Burman languages which are primarily spoken in the country's mountainous areas. These indigenous languages include several of the Chin languages, also known as the Kukish languages, Garo, and Megam. Garo, also spoken in neighboring India, has approximately 1 million native speakers throughout the world, and is closely related to the Megam language.

Austro-Asiatic Languages

A few Austro-Asiatic languages are spoken by indigenous groups in eastern and northern Bangladesh. The Khasi language, spoken by the Khasi people, is known for its rich folklore which provides stories that explain the meaning behind its words for natural features, plants, and animals. Other Austro-Asiatic languages include Koda, which is endangered due to its dwindling number of speakers, and Mundari, which is spoken by just over 1 million people in India, Nepal, and Bangladesh.

Dravidian Languages

Finally, we've reached the Dravidian language family. The western region of Bangladesh is home to two Dravidian languages, Kurukh and Sauria Paharia. Kurukh is an indigenous language that boasts approximately 2 million native speakers, while Sauria Paharia, spoken by a tribe of the same name, has under 100,000 native speakers.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Inside the Geordie Dialect: Part 3

Last week we took an in-depth look at the Geordie dialect of English which is spoken in the North East region of England. We began on Wednesday with a brief description and history of Geordie, and continued on Friday with a look at some basic Geordie vocabulary. Today we'll be concluding our short series with more fascinating verbs, nouns, and adjectives that will help you larn to speak like a Geordie in no time.


While most verbs in Geordie are identical to those of other English dialects, there are some differences. Instead of saying "to go", Geordies say gan, so it makes sense that "going" is instead gannin. Children, or bairns if you recall our last post, don't "whine", they whinge. One of the most distinctive Geordie verbs is hoy, which is used for "throw". Frequently used contractions are also different in Geordie. Cannit means "can't", while dinna and divvint both mean "don't".


Clearly Geordies are often in need of a term for "idiot" or "fool", since there are three words we've found with this meaning: dafty, divvy, and mug. If you're "nosy" they'll say that you're nebby. Finally, if you're short on money or "broke", as is often said, then you're skint.

However, the most important Geordie adjective is undoubtedly canny. It means both nice and good, but that doesn't express the full sentiment behind the word. According to The New Geordie Dictionary edited by Frank Graham, it is "The most common and most beautiful word in our dialect. We cannot better Heslop's description: 'An embodiment of all that is kindly, good, and gentle. The highest compliment that can be paid to any person is to say that he or she is canny.'"

Nouns and Phrases

If you're in a pub and someone orders "broon", meaning "brown", they're asking for Newcastle Brown Ale, a popular beer that was originally brewed in Newcastle. Oddly enough, it is considered to be a premium imported beer outside of the UK that is popular with young people, while inside the country it is not very highly regarded.

Scran is a popular Geordie term for "food", while the word tab means "cigarette". If someone tells you to "have a deeks", they're asking you to take a look at something.  Clarts means "mud", while the term hadaway means "go away". Geordies may also tell you that "shy bairns get nowt", a popular saying which basically means that if you don't speak up for yersel ("yourself"), then you won't get what you want.

We'll conclude our Geordie lexical lesson with the word craic (pronounced "crack"), which is also used in the Irish language as well as other British dialects. The term can be used in a number of ways in reference to fun, being in good company, or just conversation itself. For example, a common conversation starter among Geordies is "What's the craic?", which is equivalent to asking "What's up?". You can also say that a person has "good craic" if they're a good conversationalist. If you're interested in learning about its many other uses, you might want to check out Urban Dictionary's entry for "craic".

If you want to put all the Geordie terms you've learned over the past week to the test, then listen to the Geordie version of the Carly Rae Jepsen song "Call Me Maybe" above done by the duo May Arcade. (They've also helpfully transcribed their lyrics in the video description on YouTube if you're interested!) What do you think of the Geordie version of this popular song? Let us know in the comments below.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Friday, October 10, 2014

Inside the Geordie Dialect: Part 2

On Wednesday, we introduced you to the history and origins of the Geordie dialect, which is spoken in the Tyneside area of North East England. Today we'll be taking a closer look at some of the fascinating vocabulary that sets Geordie apart from other British dialects. If you're interested in speaking English with what is often considered to be one of the most attractive UK accents, then pay close attention!

The bridges over the river Tyne.
One of the first things people learn when studying a new language (or dialect, in this case), is how to greet people. Geordies often do this by saying "Alreet?". The word itself means "alright", but you can respond in a variety of ways, including saying "Alreet" back, or simply responding "Aye", which means "yes". 

Another way to say "yes" is "Whey aye", (pronounced "why eye") as a way of saying "of course". If you want to say "no", you'll be needing either nee or na. If you're disagreeing with something or responding to a question, it's "na". However, "no way" is "nee way", and if you've used all of something, for example milk, you'd say there's "nee milk". 

"Nothing" is nowt, while "anything" is owt. A "child" is a bairn and a gadgie is a "guy". Lad and lass are used for "boy" and "girl". If you're looking for a term of endearment for a woman or child, you can use the term pet. Don't worry, it isn't referring to the adorable domesticated animals we keep at home, but is instead a shortened form of the word "petal", as in "flower petal", which is quite sweet when you think about it.

Speaking of "home", it's yem or hyem depending on how you decide to spell in Geordie which doesn't have any sort of standard written form. To many Geordies, the Toon is home, a term that technically means "town" but almost always refers specifically to the city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

There's plenty more Geordie for you to larn, so check back on Monday for the conclusion of our look at the dialect and its fascinating lexicon.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Inside the Geordie Dialect: Part 1

Unless you're from, have visited, or know someone from North East England, you've probably never heard of Geordie. Over the next several days we're going to look at some of the most fascinating aspects of the Geordie dialect of English

Geordie is native to the Tyneside area of the North East, which unsurprisingly consists of cities and towns located alongside the River Tyne such as Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Gateshead. The word "Geordie" is also used to refer to people from the Tyneside area. Nobody knows the exact origins of the name, but it is thought to be derived from the name George. It is thought to have referred to the men who worked in the region's coal mines, possibly in a derogatory manner, but eventually came to be used as an acceptable name for everyone in the region, particularly supporters of Newcastle United Football Club. 

The Millennium Bridge over the River Tyne which
connects Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Gateshead. 
Perhaps you're wondering how the Geordie dialect came to exist. It evolved from the dialects of Old English spoken in the area that are sometimes referred to as Northumbrian. Eventually, this part of the North East became linguistically distinct from other areas due to various invasions throughout the UK that did not affect the Tyneside area. For example, the invasion of the Vikings influenced dialects further south in regions such as Yorkshire, but not in Tyneside. The area was also protected from the influence of Scottish dialects due to being located south of most of the border battles. As a result, Geordie retains some words that can still be traced back to the Germanic Angles.

If you're not British, you'd probably imagine that Received Pronunciation, also known as "the Queen's English", is the most attractive dialect of English since it's the "standard" accent of the UK. However, informal polls often show that British people prefer the Geordie dialect, which is considered to be everything from "sexy" to "friendly" in comparison with other dialects. 

So what exactly makes the Geordie dialect distinct from other dialects of English? It has a few phonological differences from other dialects, but it principally comes down to its vocabulary. If you want to larn to speak Geordie, then check back on Friday when we'll look at some of the most distinctive Geordie words and phrases.

Part 1 | Part 2 Part 3

Monday, October 6, 2014

Country Profile: The Languages of Nigeria

Today we're looking at the linguistic diversity of Nigeria, the seventh most populous country in the world. Nigeria is the largest country in Africa by population due to its over 170 million people. The country is made up of hundreds of different ethnic groups, so it should come as no surprise that it is also home to hundreds of distinct languages.

The Official Language

The official language of Nigeria is English. It was chosen as the official language as a way of culturally and linguistically uniting the country following its independence from British rule in 1960. While English is often used in urban areas, the use of other indigenous languages is much more popular in rural areas. However, English is primarily used for business and educational purposes throughout the country.

Zuma Rock, a monolith near Abuja, the Nigeria capital.
The Major Languages

The three largest ethnic groups in Nigeria are the Hausa, Igbo, and Yoruba. Each has its own language of the same name. 

Hausa, the most spoken indigenous language in Nigeria, is a member of the Chadic branch of the Afro-Asiatic language family. It is a popular lingua franca used in West Africa, and is also often associated with Islam due to its use by Muslims throughout the region.

The Yoruba and Igbo languages, on the other hand, are members of the Niger-Congo language family. These three indigenous languages are all spoken by large numbers of Nigerians, particularly those living in rural areas.

Other Languages

Over 500 languages are spoken in Nigeria, so there's no way for us to mention them all. However, they can primarily be divided into two groups: Afro-Asiatic languages such as Hausa, and Niger-Congo languages like Yoruba and Igbo.

The Fula, Ibibio, and Edo languages are three important Niger-Congo languages used in Nigeria. Varieties of Fula, also known as Fulani, are spoken in Senegal, Nigeria, Guinea, Mali, and Niger. Ibibio is primarily spoken in the Nigerian state of Akwa Ibom, while Edo is spoken in the western Edo State.

Another popular language in Nigeria is Kanuri, which belongs to neither of these language families. Instead, it belongs to the Nilo-Saharan language family. It is spoken by approximately 4 million people in various African countries.

The ethnic groups represented by the aforementioned languages comprise the vast majority of the Nigerian population, though many other fascinating languages are spoken in the country. One such example is Cen Tuum, also known as Jalaa, a language of unknown linguistic origins. Sadly, it has very few remaining speakers and is nearing extinction.

Friday, October 3, 2014

A Multilingual International Hit: "Bailando" by Enrique Iglesias

Here at the Lingua File we're big fans of music, especially multilingual music. Over the past few weeks, we've been hearing a lot about the widespread international popularity of the song "Bailando" by Spanish artist Enrique Iglesias, so we thought we should give it a listen.

While "Bailando" certainly fits the stereotype of your everyday catchy pop song, we did enjoy listening to it, which certainly counts for something. However, we were most interested in the fact that it has been released in several different versions. There are currently four versions of "Bailando" being played on pop music radio stations throughout the world. It has reached high chart positions throughout the world, including the top spot on charts in Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Finland, Mexico, and Spain, as well as number 1 on two different U.S. Latin song charts.

First, there's the original Spanish version, which features Cuban artist Descemer Bueno and Cuban reggaeton group Gente D'Zona, who wrote the song together.

Enrique also released an "English" version in countries such as the United States, though it would really be more appropriate to call it the Spanglish version. In this version, Jamaican rapper Sean Paul is added to the mix. He raps in English, Gente D'Zona stick to Spanish, and Enrique sings a bit in both languages, including the Spanglish section when he sings lyrics such as "I wanna be contigo, and live contigo, and dance contigo". (In case you're wondering, "contigo" means "with you" in Spanish.)

Enrique Iglesias has been one of the world's biggest Latin music stars for well over a decade, often releasing songs in both English and Spanish. However, we were somewhat surprised to find out that he also released his latest hit in two different Portuguese versions, though it makes sense given his popularity in Portuguese-speaking markets.

The Brazilian Portuguese version features vocals by Brazilian singer Luan Santana. Instead of being performed solely in Portuguese, it consists of lyrics in what is sometimes called Portuñol, a mixture of Portuguese and Spanish. For example, the Spanish line "Ya no puedo más" is followed by the Portuguese "A nossa melodia tem calor".

However, what we found most interesting were the many differences between the two Portuguese versions of the song. The final version, created for Portugal, includes vocals by Portuguese singer Mickael Carreira. While it also contains alternating lines in Portuguese and Spanish, the Portuguese lyrics are often completely different from the Brazilian Portuguese version.

We certainly expected to hear differences in pronunciation as well as the occasional use of more appropriate regional terminology, yet we were surprised to see wildly different lyrics in some parts of the song. For example, the Brazilian version contains the line "Dois corpos no cio, um imenso vazio, esperando o amor", yet the same line in the Portuguese version is "A noite em que sinto teu corpo mexendo, subindo e baixando". While both convey a similarly "sexy" message, we are still curious to know why two different phrases were used. Our guess is that perhaps each of the featured artists came up with their own additional vocals.

Have you heard "Bailando" on the radio in your country? If so, what do you think of it? Let us know in the comments. 

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Localization and the Video Games Industry: Who Gets What?

Last weekend, Saturday to be precise, I was lucky enough to take a trip to London for this year's Eurogamer Expo, which now refers to itself as the cooler-sounding "EGX". As a self-confessed video game and language nerd, I am very interested in the translation and localization of video games and electronic entertainment.

When I was younger, I often didn't give a second thought to the fact that the video games I played were always either in English or provided an option to select English from a number of languages. As a kid I would often head into town to get a new game and immediately spend the entire trip home reading the blurb on the back and the instruction manual.

Growing up in the UK meant that the text on the box and in the instructions was either only in English or was in EFIGS (English, French, Italian, German, and Spanish), which are often deemed the "most important" languages in Europe. While some of the packaging featured other languages, the software often was only in English, with no other language options provided.

The discrepancy between the packaging and the software barely bothered me as a kid. However, as an adult I now realise that large corporations will only translate and localize games when there is a profitable market to be exploited. With all this in mind, I decided to quickly do some research into which languages and locales the video games industry favours.


Steam's search engine allows for the filtering of the online distribution service's catalogue by language. This past weekend there were 14,576 titles available on Steam, with around 90% of these available in English. Titles in the other EFIGS languages are widely available. 44% of titles are available in German and almost 42% are available in the French language. 37% and 35% of games are listed as being in Spanish and Italian respectively. 

These figures are hardly surprising if you just take a look at the usage notes for "EFIGS" on Wiktionary: "In software development, used to designate five widely used languages that software (notably video games) is often translated to."

It's very clear that games are not translated in the same proportions as there are speakers of a language. If this was the case, Simplified and Traditional Chinese combined would not account for only 4% of the games available through Steam. In fact, it's fairly obvious (and a little sad) that the proportions clearly line up with the relative size of the markets and their spoken languages.

Xbox Marketplace

It's not just the language you speak that may limit the number of games you can get. While I am lucky to speak English, I am also in the United Kingdom. However, that did little to console me when I found out that if you take a look through the Xbox 360 games available on the Xbox Marketplace, you are privy to a vastly different number of games depending on your locale.

The United States enjoyed the largest number of games available. At the time I checked, the UK's catalogue contained 76 fewer titles than the United States. That said, there were 1223 titles available in the US and the UK's catalogue contained 1147 games, making the difference minute.

While Steam showed a linguistic bias towards European languages, the Xbox Marketplace tends to favour markets in North America and Europe, where users have access to more titles than elsewhere in the world. For example, 1112 games were available in Spain while only 365 were available in Argentina, despite both countries being primarily Spanish-speaking. For some odd reason, Argentina also has half as many games available as other Spanish-speaking countries in South America, such as Chile (840), Colombia (861).

Much like on Steam, mainland China gets the short end of the stick, where a paltry 25 titles were available. However, 976 were available in Hong Kong. Undoubtedly this can partially be attributed to non-linguistic factors. In fact, the Hong Kong marketplace had more titles available than any other Asian locale.

Israel, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia all have access to between 300 and 400 games while in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), over 500 titles were available. Does this increase have anything to do with the fact that the UAE is home to the highest net migration rate in the world?

Is the difference between the number of games available in Europe and South America solely due to the size of their video game markets or are there political and economic reasons as well? Is the discrepancy just because some languages are easier to work with than others? If you happen to be an industry expert or deal with localization, I'd love to hear from you in the comments below.