Wednesday, December 30, 2015

2015: The Best Of The Blog

2015 has been an interesting year, so we thought we'd end it by taking a look at our ten most popular posts from 2015, as well as the ten most popular posts we shared from around the web. Today we'll just be focusing on our own blog. Without further ado, here we go:

Top 10 Blog Posts

10: Breakfast, Brunch, and Brinner: A Guide to English Meals (July 3rd)

It seems that English-speaking nations love their food and have a multitude of interesting words for the meals throughout the day. We had a look at them back in July and it proved popular. You can read the full post here.

9: Localizing The Aisle: The Power of "Foreign Branding" (March 11th)

Making products sound foreign can make them more appealing. In March we discussed how languages were employed in marketing to sell products. You can read the full post here.

8: Why Translation is a Fascinating Career (August 28th)

In August we sang the praises of our chosen careers, and it looked like many of our readers agreed with us. You can read the full post here.

7: A Destruction of Cats: Collective Nouns of the Animal Kingdom (May 15th)

The intriguing collective nouns for animals from the English language proved very popular back in May and throughout the year. You can read the full post here.

6: Why There's No Such Thing as "Untranslatable" (April 22nd)

The internet is full of articles of the best "untranslatable" words from languages around the world. As professional translators, we think people need to rethink their use of this term. We explained why in April. You can read the full post here.

5: Romance Languages: From Aragonese to Zarphatic (May 1st)

It seems our readers love a bit of Romance languages. Our post from May covering one of the world's most important language families was one of the most popular of the year. You can read the full post here.

4: How French Gave English its Sophisticated Words (February 4th)

Towards the start of the year we covered the reasons behind many of English's most prestigious words being ultimately from the French language. You can read the full post here.

3: Why It's Hard to be a Translator and a Language Lover (May 29th)

In May we discussed the difficulties we were encountering as promoters of languages, learning languages, and translators, and wondered whether or not it was sustainable to encourage everyone to learn foreign languages even if it could result in us losing out on work. You can read the full post here.

2: Language Learning: Cognates and False Friends (July 24th)

Our second most popular post of the year came back in July when we discussed "false friends", words in a foreign language that look similar to those in your own, but can carry very different meanings. You can read the full post here.

1: Speech Tempo: What is the World's Fastest Language? (April 8)

Everybody's had that one complaint about people speaking too quickly when they're learning a foreign language. Back in April, we looked at a study that sought to work out if some languages are spoken more quickly than others. You can read the full post here.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Country Profile: The Languages of Libya

Last week we explored the linguistic makeup of Eritrea, and today we're going to look at the languages of Libya. Located in North Africa, Libya is one of the 20 largest countries in the world by area, and is also the fourth largest country in Africa.

The Official Language

As is true of many other countries in the region, the sole official language of Libya is Arabic, specifically Modern Standard Arabic. However, when it comes to spoken Arabic, the vast majority of Libyans speak Libyan Arabic, a variety of the language that is also used in music, television, and poetry. In fact, Libya is home to about 4 million native speakers of Libyan Arabic, which equals nearly two-thirds of the country's population.

Other Languages

The ruins of the ancient Greek city of Cyrene,
which is located in northeastern Libya.
While Libya is not as linguistically diverse as some nearby countries, it is still home to several other interesting languages. Five of them are Berber languages: Nafusi, Ghadamès, Awjila, Tamahaq, and Siwi. The most spoken of these languages is Nafusi, which is the native language of over 180,000 people who primarily reside in the Nafusa Mountains.

The next most prominent Berber languages are Tamahaq and Ghadamès. Tamahaq is natively spoken by about 17,000 Libyans in western Libya, while Ghadamès has about 10,000 native speakers. They are followed by Awjila, which is severely endangered and is thought to only have about 3,000 native speakers left. Finally, there's Siwi, which is primarily spoken in Egypt near the border with Libya, though some speakers also reside within Libya itself.

In addition to these five Berber languages, Libya is also home to a large number of speakers of Domari, an Indo-Aryan language. Its 33,000 native speakers in Libya are members of the Dom ethnic group, which can be found throughout the Middle East and North Africa.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Merry Christmas from The Lingua File!

Today we'd like to wish every single person who reads, shares, likes, comments on, and contributes to The Lingua File a very Merry Christmas! As always, we are greatly appreciative that there is such a wonderful community of language lovers out there who support us and share our love of languages.

We'll be back next week with more language-related posts! If you're interested in reading a festive linguistic post today, there's always the one we did on the etymology of the word "Christmas" a few years ago. Happy Holidays!

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Gift Ideas for Language Lovers

Since there are only a couple of days left until Christmas, today we thought we'd share some gift ideas for the language lover in your life, just in case you're still in need of a last-minute gift!

Cards from the Scrabble Slam! card game.
Board Games & Card Games

Board games are a great option for people of all ages, especially since they can be enjoyed with others. When it comes to gift ideas for language lovers, the king of all board games is undoubtedly Scrabble. However, given the game's widespread popularity, it's probably not a great idea to buy it for someone unless you know for sure that they don't already own it.

That said, there are tons of newer versions of the classic game that might be suitable, from deluxe editions with rotating boards for the true Scrabble addict to Scrabble Junior, which was designed especially for young children. You can also find portable versions of the game to take with you wherever you go, either as an electronic game or a card game.

Of course, there are tons of other great board games to choose from, including classics like Boggle and Upwords. If you love using letter tiles to create your own words but hate being confined by other players' moves and that pesky board, we'd also recommend Bananagrams. When it comes to card games, the list is nearly endless, but we also often hear good things about Quiddler.


Given the fact that we live in such a technology-focused society, it's only natural that there are dozens of wonderful language-related apps out there, from games like Words with Friends to language learning apps like Duolingo. While many are initially free, it's not uncommon for apps to require users to pay for additional content or special features, so you could always give your friend or family member a gift card that they can use in whichever online store they purchase their apps from. While gift cards aren't always considered to be the most thoughtful gift, if you know that the recipient is reluctant to pay for apps on their own, you can always tell them that you got it so they could buy that crossword puzzle app they've been eyeing for months.

Tools for Language Learning

The original Rosetta Stone.
If they've been talking about learning a new language for years but just haven't gotten around to it, or are planning a trip to a country where a foreign language is spoken, there are tons of useful things you can get them! If you know that your intended recipient is eager to learn a new language, you could always get them a dictionary, a DVD set for language learning such as Rosetta Stone, or all kinds of other handy reference books and workbooks to hone their skills.

For someone who just wants to learn a bit of the language for an upcoming trip, you could always consider buying them one of those pocket-sized language guides, or even make them one on your own if you're on a tight budget and already know the language!


Finally, it's rarely a bad choice to purchase a book for someone who loves languages. If they love to practice reading in a foreign language they know, you can always get them a popular book in that language, such as Don Quixote for a Spanish speaker. There are also tons of fascinating books out there about language itself, from the language of food to the history of the English language. Of course, books also give you millions of other options to choose from, depending on their interests!

Do you have any other gift ideas that you think are perfect for language lovers? Feel free to share them with us in the comments below!

Monday, December 21, 2015

Country Profile: The Languages of Eritrea

Last week's county profile focused on the languages of Jordan, and today we're moving south to Eritrea, a country in the Horn of Africa. In addition to being located in the same part of the world, both countries also happen to share a common language, Arabic.

The National Languages

A beautiful Italian cemetery in Asmara,
the capital of Eritrea.
Unlike many other countries around the world, the government of Eritrea doesn't recognize any official languages. In fact, its constitution states that all Eritrean languages are to be considered equal under the law, which we think is great!

However, there are a few languages that are so widely used throughout the country that they are sometimes referred to as Eritrea's national languages: Tigrinya, Arabic and English. The most spoken of these languages is Tigrinya, which is the native language of over 2.5 million Eritreans. Tigrinya is a member of the Afro-Asiatic language family, and is also spoken in neighboring Ethiopia.

Arabic and English, on the other hand, are most often used as second languages. Both play an important role in Eritrea's educational system, as well as other areas of daily life. In terms of varieties of Arabic, Modern Standard Arabic is primarily taught in schools. However, Eritrea is also home to some native Arabic speakers. Approximately 100,000 Eritreans speak Sudanese Arabic, while about 23,000 speak Hejazi Arabic, which is primarily spoken in Saudi Arabia.

Other Languages

Eritrea is also home to several other languages, most of which belong to the Afro-Asiatic and Nilo-Saharan language families. The most spoken of these languages is Tigre, an Afro-Asiatic language that is the native language of over 1 million Eritreans. It is followed by the Saho, Kunama, and Beja languages, which all have between 150,000 and 200,000 native speakers. Saho and Beja are also Afro-Asiatic languages, while Kunama is a Nilo-Saharan language spoken by the Kunama ethnic group.

The Bilen and Nara languages also have between 80,000 and 100,000 native speakers in Eritrea. Bilen is an Afro-Asiatic language spoken by an ethnic group of the same name, while Nara is a Nilo-Saharan language.

Finally, we should mention the Dahalik and Italian languages. Dahalik is an Afro-Asiatic language that is natively spoken by over 2,000 Eritreans, primarily on islands in the Dahlak Archipelago, which is located off the coast of Eritrea in the Red Sea. Italian, on the other hand, was introduced to the area in the late 1800s when it became an Italian colony. While the British eventually took control of Eritrea from Italy in the mid-1900s, there are still some native Italian speakers in the country, though the exact number is unknown.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Use Your Noodle: Food Idioms, Part 2

On Wednesday, we dedicated a post to food-related idioms such as "cheesed off" and "to bring home the bacon". Today we're going to look at the meanings of even more of these fascinating words and phrases, including "use your noodle".

to use your noodle - to think/use your brain ("Bill wasn't using his noodle when he decided to slice the cake with a chainsaw.")

Coffee definitely isn't my cup of tea.
as cool as a cucumber - calm or composed, even in difficult situations ("The officer diffusing the bomb was as cool as a cucumber.")

to milk - to take advantage of something or someone ("Carla really milked it when she sprained her ankle... she convinced her boss to let her work from home for an entire month!)

the cream of the crop - the best of a selection ("They only hire the cream of the crop at Google.")

cup of tea - something that someone likes or enjoys ("Listening to country music isn't my cup of tea.")

a piece of cake - something that is very easy ("This crossword puzzle is a piece of cake!")

in a nutshell - briefly ("In a nutshell, my answer is no.")

in a pickle - in trouble/a difficult situation ("Katie was in a pickle since she had agreed to go to two parties on the same night.")

couch potato - someone who is lazy/spends lots of time sitting and watching television ("Ever since I got Netflix, I've been a huge couch potato.")

to butter someone up - to flatter someone, usually in hopes of getting something in return ("The boy spent weeks buttering his mother up in hopes of getting an Xbox for Christmas.")

for peanuts - for very little money ("They wanted me to translate a 900-page book for peanuts!")

That's a lot of peas in a pod...
to go bananas - to go crazy/become overly excited ("The girl went bananas when she opened the gift box and found an adorable puppy inside.")

to spill the beans - to tell a secret ("Carl spilled the beans about the surprise party to the guest of honor.")

like two peas in a pod - to be very similar or close/intimate ("The twins are like two peas in a pod... they like all of the same things!")

Did we leave out your favorite food-related idiom? Leave it in the comments below, and don't forget to include a definition!

Part 1 | Part 2

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Use Your Noodle: Food Idioms, Part 1

While I was watching television the other day, I heard someone say that they were "cheesed off" about something. This got me thinking about all of the strange food-related idioms that exist in English. Not only are they incredibly confusing for non-native speakers in the process of learning English, but they can also be confusing for native speakers who may never have encountered that particular idiom before. That's why we're going to dedicate the next couple of posts to some of these weird food idioms, starting with all the ingredients you need for a delicious sandwich: cheese, bacon, egg, and bread!

The McGriddle, one of the world's most famous
bacon, egg and cheese sandwiches.
Cheese Idioms

cheesed off - annoyed/frustrated/irritated ("I'm cheesed off that my laptop battery just died.")

the big cheese - an important person/the boss ("The big cheese wants the quarterly reports on his desk in an hour.")

Cheese it! - Run away! ("The cops are coming, cheese it!")

to cut the cheese - pass gas/fart ("Who cut the cheese?")

Bacon Idioms

to save someone's bacon - to help someone/prevent something bad from happening to them ("You really saved my bacon by filing that report for me!)

to bring home the bacon - to earn a living to support your family ("Once I get a job, I'll be bringing home the bacon.")

Egg Idioms

a bad egg - a bad/untrustworthy person ("Susan is a bad egg... she's always getting into trouble!")

a good egg - a good/trustworthy person ("Bob is a good egg... he's always there for you when you need a friend.")

to egg someone on - to encourage someone to do something, often something foolish ("Stop egging him on, he'll end up getting hurt if he keeps climbing higher up the tree!")

A cute, yet ferocious kitten.
to have all your eggs in one basket - to depend on a single plan, usually in terms of income ("She has all of her eggs in one basket... she invested all of her savings in one tech stock, so if it plummets she'll have nothing left.")

to have egg on your face - to make yourself look foolish/embarrass yourself ("Peter has egg on his face after emailing his boss a kitten photo instead of the quarterly report.")

to walk on eggshells - to very carefully handle a situation ("Peter has been walking on eggshells with his boss ever since he sent that kitten photo.")

Bread Idioms

bread and butter - something that is central to your business or basic needs ("Translation work is my bread and butter, but I also provide editing services.)

a breadwinner - the main person who brings home the bacon ("I'm the family's breadwinner since I earn much more than my spouse.")

the greatest thing since sliced bread - a recent invention that has improved people's lives ("The internet is the greatest thing since sliced bread!")

Check back on Friday for even more crazy food idioms, including use your noodle!

Part 1 | Part 2

Monday, December 14, 2015

Country Profile: The Languages of Jordan

In recent weeks we've looked at the languages of Paraguay, Togo, and Serbia, but today we're moving on to the Middle Eastern kingdom of Jordan. In addition to being one of the richest and safest countries in the region, it has also become known for welcoming large numbers of refugees from nearby conflicts in recent years.

The Official Language

The sole official language of Jordan is Modern Standard Arabic, the standardized literary variety of Arabic that is used in numerous countries around the world. While this written variety of Arabic is widely used and taught in schools, most Jordanians speak Jordanian Arabic, which is one of several varieties spoken in the region that are also referred to as Levantine Arabic.

Other varieties of Arabic that are used in Jordan include Bedawi Arabic and Najdi Arabic. There are about 700,000 native speakers of Bedawi Arabic in Jordan, primarily members of the seminomadic Bedouin group. Najdi Arabic, on the other hand, is spoken by about 50,000 Jordanians, but is primarily used in the Najd region of Saudi Arabia.

Other Languages

The Monastery, the largest monument within the city of Petra,
which is Jordan's most famous archaeological site.
Jordan is also home to a small number of minority languages, specifically Kabardian, Adyghe, Armenian, Domari, and Chechen. The two most spoken languages in this group are the closely related Kabardian and Adyghe languages, which are both members of the Northwest Caucasian language family. There are over 50,000 native speakers of Kabardian and about 40,000 of Adyghe, both of which are written using Cyrillic script.

There are also about 8,000 Jordanians who speak Armenian, which constitutes its very own branch of the Indo-European language family. It is followed by Domari, the Indo-Aryan language spoken by nearly 5,000 members of the Dom ethnic group in Jordan. The country is also home to about 3,000 native speakers of Chechen, a language that belongs to the Northeast Caucasian language family.

Foreign Languages

Finally, when it comes to foreign languages, English, French, and German are all popular in Jordanian society. Of these three languages, English undoubtedly has the most prestige since it is widely used in areas that include banking, commerce, and education, especially at the university level. French and German are also often taught in Jordanian schools, and are generally considered to be elite languages. English and French are also frequently used for television and radio broadcasts in the country.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Three Tips for Living with a Host Family

In the past, we've dedicated several posts to language learning methods that include immersion, choral drillinglanguage camps, and flashcards. However, it just occurred to me today that we've left out one of my personal favorites: living with a host family!

If you're a student considering studying abroad for a semester or two, I highly recommend living with a host family. One of the best decisions I made when choosing from the large selection of study abroad programs my university offered in Spain was to choose a program in Sevilla that was committed to placing as many students as possible in host families. Living with a host family is an amazing opportunity, since it allows (or forces) you to immerse yourself in the foreign language and culture when you're not in class.

Plaza de España in Sevilla, Spain
Since so many students had chosen to study in Sevilla at the same time as I did, some of us had to be assigned to host families in pairs. In my case, a girl from my university (who I'd never met before) and myself were assigned to the home of a lovely widow in the Triana neighborhood who had been hosting American students for over a decade.

By the end of our 6-month stay with her, my Spanish had improved from being passable to near fluency, and I truly felt like I was saying goodbye to a second mother as I boarded the bus to the airport. However, the other girl's Spanish had hardly improved at all, and she didn't even bother to say goodbye to our host mom before heading to the airport on her own.

While I will never know for sure why we had such vastly different experiences, I think a lot of it can be attributed to the fact that I spent a lot of time interacting with our host mom, while the other girl would hide away in her room or go out with American friends. Based on the insights I gained from comparing our experiences, here are three key tips on how to make the most of living with a host family:

#1 - Talk to them! This probably seems obvious, but several students in my program, including my housemate, seemed to avoid talking to their host families at all costs. Not only is this a missed learning opportunity, but it's also rude - if someone opens their home to you, the least you can do is talk to them, even if you're not perfect at speaking their language. It might be difficult at first (it certainly was for me since my host mom had a very thick andaluz accent that I could barely understand), but with time and practice, you'll improve.

#2 - Do things with them! This is purposely vague because you could do any number of things with your host family, depending on their interests and hobbies. For example, if they love tennis and invite you to play with them, take the opportunity to join them (even if you're terrible). In my case, spending time with my host mom meant watching Operación Triunfo, a singing competition/reality show until 2 a.m. with her and talking about who our favorite contestants were. No matter what you do, as long as you're interacting with them, you're sure to improve your language skills.

Semana Santa in Sevilla, Spain
#3 - Ask them about their culture, and teach them about yours! There are undoubtedly tons of differences between your culture and theirs, and the best way to learn about them is to ask your host family. If you're there for a holiday, they'll almost certainly invite you to join in their traditions. Not only will you learn new vocabulary, but you'll also have a deeper appreciation for their culture. You can also share your cultural traditions with them. For example, my host family taught me all about the traditions surrounding the celebration of Semana Santa (Holy Week) in Sevilla and invited me to go with them to view the city's famous processions. In turn, I got to explain the concept of the Easter Bunny to them.

As long as you're willing to put in some effort to truly take advantage of this amazing opportunity you've been given, you'll more than likely end up wishing you could stay there just a little bit longer. Better still, you might end up with a second family on the other side of the world, just like I did!

Did you live with a host family while studying abroad? If so, let us know about your experiences in the comments below!

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Why Life's A Beach: Minimal Pairs in the English Language

When two words are written differently, have different meanings, but are pronounced the same, we call them homophones. When words have different meanings, but are pronounced almost the same with the exception of one phoneme, we call them minimal pairs.
Differentiating ship from sheep can be as
difficult as telling sheep apart.
Some of the most complicated minimal pairs for non-native speakers are those with similar-sounding (but not identical) vowels. While it is quite easy to differentiate between bat and cat, hearing the difference between feet and fit is much more difficult.

It's not just vowels that can be problematic. When consonants sound quite similar, like the letters b and p in English, you can often mishear or mispronounce them, like in the words tap and tab. The letters t and d can also be difficult to distinguish when speaking and listening to English, as in the words bat and bad, for example.

Making mistakes with minimal pairs is to be expected and it often doesn't get in the way of communication, which I believe to be the most important thing when learning a language. However, I can also imagine how it might be embarrassing if one of the words in the minimal pair is a curse word. The difference between beach and bitch and sheet and shit is a nightmare. Of course, there's also can't, which can unfortunately sound like a word I wouldn't dare to type.

Minimal pairs can also be very problematic if the differentiating phoneme doesn't exist in your language. This usually means that you will find it difficult to either hear the difference or to pronounce the difference when you're speaking.

Sadly, I don't think there's a quick fix to getting minimal pairs right other than practice. However, there are a number of useful resources and websites to help you along the way, such as, which is one of my personal favourites.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Country Profile: The Languages of Paraguay

It has been a couple of months since we've looked at the linguistic landscape of a country in the Americas, so today we're focusing on the languages of Paraguay, a landlocked country in the heart of South America.

The Official Languages

Paraguay has two official languages, Spanish and Guaraní, both of which are spoken by the vast majority of the country's population. Spanish is a Romance language that was first introduced to Paraguay during the colonial era, while Guaraní is an indigenous language that belongs to the Tupian language family.

The country's most popular language is Guaraní, which is the native language of over 4.5 million Paraguayans. In addition, most Paraguayans with a different mother tongue speak Guaraní as a second language. One of the most remarkable things about Guaraní is that it is the only indigenous language in the Americans to have a large population of non-indigenous speakers, since most other indigenous languages have seen significant declines in their use since the introduction of European languages like Spanish and Portuguese.

Spanish, on the other hand, is the native language of around 350,000 Paraguayans. However, it retains its importance due to the fact that it is also used as a second language by approximately 4 million people in Paraguay.

Other Languages

Saltos del Monday, a famous waterfall in Paraguay.
While most Paraguayans speak one or both of the country's official languages, Paraguay is actually home to about 20 other languages. While most of them are indigenous languages, the two most spoken minority languages in Paraguay actually belong to the Germanic language family! There are over 150,000 German speakers in Paraguay, primarily due to German immigration to the country over the past century.

The other Germanic language is Plautdietsch, which is sometimes considered a dialect of German instead of a distinct language. Plautdietsch is the language of the Russian Mennonites, a group of Mennonites named for their migration from Germany to Russia in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Eventually, settlements were founded in other countries around the world, which is how Plautdietsch made its way to Paraguay via immigration from Canada in the 1920s.

When it comes to indigenous languages, the most spoken languages besides Guaraní are Nivaclé, Enlhet, Enxet, Mbyá Guaraní, and Ava Guaraní. There are about 13,000 native speakers of Nivaclé, the language of the Nivaclé indigenous group in Paraguay. Enlhet and Enxet are both spoken by over 5,000 members of the Enxet people, who primarily live in the Gran Chaco region. There are also about 5,000 native speakers of Mbyá Guaraní and over 2,000 of Ava Guaraní, both of which are closely related to the Guaraní language. In fact, some linguists consider them to be dialects instead of separate languages.

The least spoken languages in Paraguay are Toba Qom, Manjui, Pai Tavytera, Ñandeva, and Guana. All of these languages have less than 1,000 native speakers, and most of them have threatened status due to the decline in their use. The Guana language fares worst of all, as it is near extinction with only a couple dozen native speakers remaining.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Pseudo-Anglicisms: Loanwords English Doesn't Need Back

A great bit of footing.
In the past, we've looked at loanwords that have made their way into English from many different languages, including Russian, Hawaiian, and Malay. Of course, plenty of languages have also borrowed English words with varying degrees of success. These words sometimes remain unchanged from the original English version and keep the same spelling and meaning. However, there are also loanwords that have nothing to do with their English incarnations, which are known as pseudo-anglicisms.

Today we're going to show you a few of our favourite words that went from English into another language and got a bit lost along the way.

If you speak German, you might be familiar with the world Air-Condition. While it's clear that this word means "air-conditioning", it still sounds very peculiar if you speak English as your first language. The same goes for shampooing in French, which is not a verb, but rather the noun for "shampoo".

French, just like Romanian, likes to use baskets to refer to trainers or sneakers, whereas Spanish and Portuguese borrowed the English word "tennis" and changed it to tenis and tênis respectively.

While basketball is quite popular, borrowing the word in its entirety is not. Several languages, including French, have taken "basket" to refer to the sport. Footing is also a popular pursuit in French, Italian and Spanish... Never heard of it? In English, we call it "jogging".

Some tents in a camping.
When you go camping, you stay in a campsite. If you go camping in a country that speaks Croatian, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Italian, Polish, Romanian, Russian, or Spanish, you stay in a camping. Do you want to park your car in a "car park" or a "parking lot"? In Arabic, Flemish, French, Swiss German, Greek, Italian, Polish, Russian, Serbo-Croatian, and Spanish, it can sometimes simply be called a parking.

The trend of adding the -ing suffix to English words doesn't end there. Lifting actually refers to a "facelift" in a number of different languages. Arabic, German, Polish, Serbo-Croatian, and Spanish also sometimes use marketing to refer to "advertising", which is of course related to marketing, but doesn't cover all types of marketing.

A number of a languages like to call a tuxedo or suit jacket a smoking. This comes from the English term "smoking jacket", but does away with the most important part for English speakers, with "smoking" developing its own meaning in its new language.

My last pseudo-anglicism is zapping, I absolutely love this word. It means channel-hopping or channel-surfing in Dutch, French, German, Greek, Italian, and Swedish and has given rise to a number of TV shows that replicate that very idea without you ever having to touch the remote!

What are your favourite pseudo-anglicisms? Are there any words from your language that English has borrowed in a nonsensical way? Tell us about them all in the comments below!

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Country Profile: The Languages of Togo

A couple of weeks ago in our last country profile, we looked at the languages of Serbia, a small European country. This week we're moving south to Togo, a small country nestled between Ghana and Benin in West Africa.

The Official Language

The sole official language of Togo is French, which was introduced to the area during the colonial period. As with many other African countries that eventually gained their independence from France, French remains an important language throughout the country, especially when it comes to government and commerce.

However, French is not the native language of many Togolese people. In fact, there are only a few thousand native French speakers in Togo, but approximately a third of the population uses it as a second language. It is also the most common written language in the country, since many of Togo's indigenous languages are rarely used for writing.

A postcard of the Palais de Justice in Lomé, Togo's capital, in 1928.
The National Languages

Since 1975, Togo has also had two national languages: Ewe and Kabiye. These two languages are the most spoken indigenous languages in Togo, and both belong to the Niger-Congo language family. There are over 800,000 native speakers of Ewe in Togo, primarily in the south, while the nearly 1 million Kabiye native speakers live primarily in the north.

Other Languages

Togo is also home to about 40 other languages, most of which belong to the Niger-Congo language family. There is not much linguistic information on most of these languages, but we do know approximately how many speakers they have.

The most spoken indigenous languages in Togo include Gen, Tem, Aja, Ntcham, Moba, Nawdm, Lama, Gourmanchéma and Ifè. All of these Niger-Congo languages have somewhere between 100,000 and 350,000 native speakers in Togo. On the other end of the spectrum, the least spoken indigenous languages are Adangbe, Biali, Mbelime, Wudu and Kusaal, which all have between 1,000 and 4,000 native speakers.

Monday, November 30, 2015

English Auxiliaries and Tenses

On Friday we introduced English auxiliary verbs and how they can alter meaning. They do this in a number of fascinating ways, but we'll only be looking at one of these today. There are several verbs that act as auxiliaries in order to alter tense in English, so we're going to take a look at a few of the most commonly used examples: be, have, and will.

Tenses are used to indicate time, just like this
famous clock in London, England.

The verb to be is used to create both the present progressive and past progressive tenses. For example, the sentences "I am doing my homework" and "I was doing my homework" both utilise conjugations of to be in order to indicate progressive tenses. In these examples, to be is used alongside the gerund of to do (doing) to indicate an ongoing action either in the past or the present.


The verb to have is used to indicate actions that are completed. For example, "I have done my homework" in the present perfect or "I had done my homework" in the past perfect. These can then be combined with to be to create perfect progressive tenses such as "I have been doing my homework" in the present perfect progressive or "I had been doing my homework" in the past perfect progressive.


As an auxiliary, will is always used to create future tenses. For example, "I will do my homework". Just like the other examples we saw, it can be combined to create other tenses such as the future perfect, as in "I will have done my homework" and the future continuous "I will be doing my homework".

Friday, November 27, 2015

Introducing English Auxiliaries...

In the English language, there are a number of auxiliary verbs. These so-called "verbs" are often incredibly useful when used in tandem with other verbs. However, they are also often useless without another verb.

Unsurprisingly, most English learners struggle with this strange concept, To make matters worse, linguists also struggle to agree on what auxiliaries are and what they do. Auxiliaries often support other verbs, giving meaning to them without having any real meaning of their own.

Auxiliaries support verbs, just like the
Eiffel Tower's legs support its platforms. 
When verbs are like this, they act as a crutch to other verbs. They coexist. Auxiliaries can rarely be used in isolation, while the verbs they aid would have little or no meaning without their auxiliaries.

So auxiliaries sound really useful, right? You could say that in some cases, but it's difficult to tell some auxiliary verbs apart from their counterparts. Verbs such as be and have are often used as both auxiliaries and verbs in their own right. This means that those learning English can struggle to differentiate their functions.

Auxiliaries can also cause confusion when they're used in contractions. While use of the apostrophe is very common in English, there are other languages which rarely use it. This often leads non-native speakers to confuse certain auxiliaries. For example, take "he's"; it can mean both "he has" and "he is". This is definitely not helpful to people trying to learn the English language.

Auxiliaries can also be used to explain modality. However, it's probably better that we don't start discussing that minefield today...

We'll be back on Monday with more information on auxiliary verbs in English!

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The Impossible Task of Standardising English

English is a very popular language around the world. Many people speak it natively and many others learn it as a foreign language. However, native speakers can't agree on a single correct way to speak it, so those learning the language are stuck with either choosing which version to learn or being forced to learn one in particular.

There are many variants of English around the world. English is different from continent to continent and from country to country, and there are often different standard versions of English for each. When a language has multiple standard versions like this, it is said to be pluricentric. There are only a few languages in the world that are monocentric, with just one standard version.

If you're learning English, you will probably agree that it would be easier to learn if there weren't so many ways to spell words and say certain things. Is there a way to have a single standard version of English? Here are a few of my thoughts:

Could we use a regulatory body?

English is one of the few languages without a regulatory body that attempts to standardise the language. However, if you have seen the efforts by the Académie française to stop the rise of anglicisms in French, then you know that they often struggle to control languages. I don't think this would bring about a standardisation of the language.

There's nothing wrong with variation!
Could we at least standardise spelling?

English spelling almost became standardised once dictionaries came about. However, this was only on a national level. If you learnt American English spelling, you might have found my use of "standardise" rather than "standardize" quite odd. That said, when people can't be bothered with spelling words correctly, they'll spell them whichever way they like, as long as they can be understood.

The internet and text messaging are fine examples that show why spelling probably won't be standardised. Native speakers rarely write text messages to one another with completely correct spelling, punctuation, and grammar.

Do we even want a standard version of English?

It may be a bit confusing at first for English learners to see that most words can be written in a number of ways, that there isn't ever one correct way to say something, and that native speakers rarely agree about such things, but I also think it's incredibly fun to talk about! I would go so far as to say that we should celebrate the language in all its variety! Even if it is sometimes at the expense of understanding...

Do you have any ideas on how we could create a standard version of English? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Turkic Languages: From Ainu to Western Yugur, Part 2

On Friday we started to look at the Turkic language family, but there were just so many interesting languages to cover that we needed more than one day to talk about them all! Without further ado, here are the rest of the Turkic languages, including Ainu and Western Yugur.

The Karluk Languages

There are only five members of the Southeastern Turkic language group, also known as the Karluk languages. The most prominent member of this group is Uzbek, which has 27 million native speakers in Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and other Central Asian countries.

Uzbek is followed in number of speakers by Uyghur, which is spoken by about 10 million people in China. The three remaining members of this group are also used in China. There are about 70,000 Salar speakers, 6,000 Ainu speakers, and around 100 speakers of Ili Turki in China, which may unfortunately become extinct in the coming years.

The Siberian Languages

The Katun River in the Altai Republic of Russia.
It should come as no surprise that almost all of the Siberian languages, also known as the Northeastern Turkic languages, are used in Russia. You probably haven't heard of any of these languages before since they're all minority languages with relatively small numbers of native speakers.

Yakut and Tuvan are the two most spoken Siberian languages, Yakut with 450,000 native speakers and Tuvan with 250,000. There are also about 50,000 native speakers of the Altai language in Russia, which has two main varieties: Northern Altai and Southern Altai. Russia is also home to about 40,000 speakers of the Khakas language, 2,000 Shor speakers, 1,000 Dolgan speakers, and under 100 speakers of both Karagas and Chulym.

Last but not least, there's the one and only Siberian language used in China: Western Yugur. It is the native language of about 4,000 people in the Gansu province,

Khalaj and Chuvash

The final two languages, which constitute their very own branches of the Turkic language family, are Khalaj and Chuvash. There are over 40,000 native speakers of Khalaj in Iran. Chuvash, on the other hand, is spoken in Russia by over 1 million people.

Part 1 | Part 2

Friday, November 20, 2015

Turkic Languages: From Ainu to Western Yugur, Part 1

Just one month ago we dedicated a post to the Celtic languages, a small yet fascinating language family that includes Welsh, Breton, and Irish. Today we thought we'd look at a significantly larger language family that is used throughout Europe and Asia: the Turkic languages.

There are between 30 and 40 Turkic languages, depending on whether you classify certain varieties as languages or dialects. While linguistic classification is always a tricky thing, it is generally accepted that these languages can be divided into six branches, which is how we're going to look at them today and next Monday.

The Oghuz Languages

Ertuğrul Gazi Mosque in Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan.
There are seven Oghuz languages, also known as the Southwestern Turkic languages. This group includes Turkish, the world's most spoken Turkic language. There are over 70 million native speakers of Turkish in the world, with the majority of them residing in Turkey. This represents over a third of the world's total speakers of Turkic languages!

The next largest Oghuz languages are Azerbaijani and Turkmen. There are about 25 million native speakers of Azerbaijani's two major varieties: North Azerbaijani, which is spoken in Azerbaijan, and South Azerbaijani, which is used in Iran. Turkmen, on the other hand, has about 7.5 million native speakers worldwide, including nearly 3.5 million in Turkmenistan, where it is the official language.

The four final Oghuz languages are Qashqai, Khorosani Turkish, Balkan Gagauz Turkish, and Gagauz. The first two languages are primarily spoken in Iran, with about 1.5 million speakers of Qashqai and 400,000 speakers of Khorosani Turkish. Balkan Gagauz Turkish is used by over 300,000 people in Turkey, while over 100,000 people in Moldova speak Gagauz.

The Kipchak Languages

The Northwestern Turkic languages, also known as the Kipchak languages, are the largest branch of the Turkic language family. In terms of speakers, the most important language that belongs to this group is Kazakh, which boasts over 12 million native speakers. It is primarily spoken in Kazakhstan, where it is an official language. Kyrgyz, an official language of Kyrgyzstan, earns the second spot in this language group, with about 4 million native speakers.

Several of the Kipchak languages are primarily spoken in Russia. It is home to over 5 million native speakers of the Tatar language, as well as 1.2 million speakers of Bashkir, which has official status in the Republic of Bashkortostan. Four other Kipchak languages used in Russia are Kumyk, Karachay-Balkar, Siberian Tatar, and Nogai, which all have under 400,000 native speakers.

Kipchak languages are also spoken in Ukraine, Georgia, and Uzbekistan. There are about 400,000 native speakers of Crimean Tatar in Ukraine, while the Urum language is spoken by about 190,000 people in Georgia and Ukraine. Uzbekistan, on the other hand, is home to about 400,000 native speakers of the Karakalpak language.

Finally, there are two endangered languages used by Jewish ethnic groups that have been heavily influenced by Hebrew. There are thought to be around 200 Krimchak speakers in Ukraine, as well as about 50 Karaim speakers in Lithuania.

Check back on Monday to learn about rest of the Turkic languages, including the Karluk and Siberian branches of this language family!

Part 1 | Part 2

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Musings on "Loser", Donald Trump's Favorite Insult

If you live in the United States and listen to, watch, or read the news regularly, then you've probably been hearing the word "loser" a lot lately. Whether you've been closely following the news regarding next year's presidential election or doing your hardest to avoid it since it's months and months away, there's no escaping the fact that Donald Trump uses the word "loser" as an insult constantly.

We're not interested in discussing political issues here, but we do find his use of the term linguistically fascinating. We can't recall any other prominent presidential candidate in recent history who was so fond of such insults, can you? It's worth mentioning that while "loser" does seem to be his favorite, he's also known to frequently use the words "moron" and "dummy", among others.

His penchant for insults has wormed its way into countless news stories over the past several months. It has even reached the point where the word "loser" is now synonymous with Donald Trump. He uses the term to describe pretty much everyone (as shown in this piece in The Washington Post), which never fails to make it into news stories since it's somewhat unusual for American politicians to use such a generic insult. Sure, they insult each other, but they generally use more specific attacks based on political views or perceived character flaws instead of using childish terms like "loser".

The word "loser" may seem childish to me because I remember hearing it all the time when I was a child in the '90s. Back then, people used this popular hand gesture instead of bothering to say the word. It even got its own anthem, the song "Loser" by Beck, complete with dubiously pronounced Spanish in the chorus. However, I hadn't heard this insult in years until it starting flying out of Donald Trump's mouth constantly. I'm sure kids do still call each other losers from time to time, but I bet they also have more recent slang words that they use more frequently.

According to the Oxford Dictionaries, a loser is "a person or thing that loses or has lost something", "a person who accepts defeat with good or bad grace", "a person or thing that is put at a disadvantage by a particular situation or course of action", or informally, " a person who fails frequently or is generally unsuccessful in life".

However, none of these definitions really describe Donald Trump's use of the term, which means it's time to turn to the Urban Dictionary. As usual, its user-submitted definitions are not always accurate or politically correct, but a few do get the idea across. This includes the third most popular definition, which says it is a word used by certain people "to make them feel better about themselves while laughing at the misfortunes of many people...".

What do you think of the word "loser" and Donald Trump's use of it? Can you think of other recent prominent figures who used similar language? Let us know in the comments below.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Country Profile: The Languages of Serbia

In last week's country profile we learned about the languages of the most linguistically diverse country in the world, Papua New Guinea. This week we're shifting our focus to Serbia, a small landlocked country in Southeast Europe. While Papua New Guinea boasts over 800 languages, Serbia is home to just 15 living languages, though they are still quite interesting.

The Official Language

Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, as seen from the ISS.
Serbia's sole official language is Serbian, which is one of the four standardized varieties of Serbo-Croatian. This member of the Slavic language family is the native language of approximately 6.6 million Serbians.

One unique feature of Serbian is the fact that it is the only digraphic European language, which means that it is written using more than one writing system. Serbian is written using both Latin and Cyrillic scripts, though Cyrillic is the official script of the government. Most Serbians know how to write the language using both systems, and neither is heavily favored over the other. In fact, some major media outlets in the country use Cyrillic script, while others use Latin script!

Recognized Minority Languages

Serbia's government also officially recognizes several other minority languages: Albanian, Hungarian, Romanian, Bosnian, Croatian, Slovak, Bulgarian, and Rusyn. The most prominent of these languages is Albanian, which constitutes its very own branch of the Indo-European language family. It is the native language of approximately 1.6 million Serbians.

Albanian is followed by Hungarian and Romanian, two other non-Slavic languages, in terms of native speakers. Hungarian, a member of the Uralic language family that includes Estonian and Finnish, is used by nearly 300,000 Serbians. Romanian, on the other hand, is a Romance language, and has about 200,000 native speakers.

The next two spots go to Croatian and Bosnian, two other standardized varieties of Serbo-Croatian, which are spoken by over 100,000 people in Serbia. Slovak is the native language of about 80,000 Serbians, while Bulgarian is used by about 60,000 Serbians. There's also Rusyn, which is sometimes considered to be a dialect of Ukrainian instead of a distinct language, which is spoken by about 30,000 Serbians.

The Iron Gates of the Danube, a gorge that forms
part of the border between Serbia and Romania.
Other Languages

Finally, we have five more languages used in Serbia that don't have any official recognition: Romano-Serbian, Balkan Romani, Czech, Sinte Romani, and Aromanian. Romano-Serbian, which is spoken by over 170,000 Serbians, is a mixed language that combines elements of Serbian and Romani. It exists due to the fact that Serbia is home to numerous speakers of two varieties of the Romani language: about 120,000 Balkan Romani speakers and over 30,000 Sinte Romani speakers.

The last two languages are Czech, a Slavic language used by about 40,000 people in Serbia, and Aromanian, which is spoken by about 15,000 Serbians. Spoken by the Aromanian or Vlach ethnic group, it is a Romance language that is closely related to Romanian.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Why You Should Never Ask a Translator to Work for Free

I sincerely hope that you read the title of this post and said to yourself, "Why would anyone ever ask a translator to work for free? Surely they deserve to be paid a fair wage for their work just like any other professional!". However, the sad fact is that many people don't treat translators, as well as many other types of creative professionals, as if their skills are valuable.

My inspiration for today's post was the following video by an advertising agency called Zulu Alpha Kilo, which perfectly demonstrates how ridiculous and unfair it is to ask a creative professional for free work.

If you don't work in translation, design, copywriting, or any of the many other creative fields, then you might not be aware of how frequently this happens. As someone who is relatively new to the translation industry, I encounter this issue frequently. In the past, prospective clients have asked me for everything from free sample translations to providing them with discounted rates in exchange for the promise of them sending me "lots of work".

It's usually pretty easy to tell from the prospective client's language whether they're trying to take advantage of you. If you're contacted by a client whose job posting simply says "Translate 1500 words Spanish to English" without any other details, then it's definitely a good idea to be wary. If they don't even care enough to tell you what type of text you're translating, then they probably aren't willing to pay much.

However, when you're first starting out as a translator and don't have much in terms of a portfolio to demonstrate your skills, it can sometimes be beneficial to do a short free sample. In my first few months as a freelance translator, a few of my biggest jobs came from clients who originally asked me to translate a small excerpt of their documents for free. That said, you should set up your own strict set of rules for what types of samples you are willing to do. I generally don't mind translating a short paragraph for prospective clients with technical texts, but if they ask for anything that will take more than a few minutes of my time, I carefully consider it before saying yes.

For example, one of my first clients needed to have a technical document translated, and wanted to be sure that I could provide them with an accurate translation. Since I hadn't done any related work in the past that I could submit to demonstrate my skills, I translated the 200-word excerpt for them for free, and ended up being hired for the project (as well as later projects). Obviously there was no guarantee that they would hire me, but I felt it was worth my time to do the sample since the full document contained 4,800 words. Since they did hire me, I was also eventually paid for the sample since it was included in the word count of the project.

Butterflies might provide pollination services for free,
but translators shouldn't have to provide their services for free.
That said, there is a big difference between translating a short excerpt for a project that requires special skills or technical knowledge and doing an entire translation for free. Luckily, this has been asked of me less often as of late, but occasionally I do still get requests to do a first translation for free with the promise of more work in the future. I obviously always say no.

Translators are also often asked to provide discounted rates for the promise of long-term work relationships, which is almost as bad as asking someone to work for free. You wouldn't ask your doctor for a discount because you've been going to them for years, so why would you ask a translator for a discount when they'll be putting in the same amount of effort and providing you with the same services as always?

Sometimes it's hard to say no to prospective clients, especially for freelancers that are just starting out in creative industries, but we have to remember that our skills do have value. I usually take the time to explain to clients in search of free work that I need to make a living just like everyone else, and that my professional skills do have a value. It may not always get me the job, but I do hope that it at least makes them stop and think about what they're really asking of me.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Etymological Investigations: Words Ending in "-ig"

We love learning about the origins of words here at The Lingua File, so today we're going to do some etymological sleuthing. Specifically, we're going to look at the etymology of words ending in "-ig".

While this may seem like a random group of words, I decided to focus on them because I recently found myself pondering why we use the word "sprig" when talking about plants like parsley and mistletoe. At the same time, I realized that the final "-ig" somehow makes it sound like a "happy" word to me. In fact, most "-ig" words seem to give off a positive, almost whimsical feeling, from "jig" and "zig" to "fig" and "pig", so today we're going to see whether they have similar origins.

Sprig - The origins of the word sprig are unknown, but it is thought to be related to the word spray, which is also used to refer to a small branch of a plant. Both words might have come from the Old English word spræc, which means "shoot, twig".

"Nap time is over, mom!"
Twig - While this is yet another word that refers to a small branch of a plant, we know that it comes from the Old English word twig, which is of Germanic origins. The Dutch word twijg and the German word Zweig are two of its cognates that evolved separately from Proto-Germanic.

Pig - It's not uncommon for animal terms to have mysterious origins, and pig is no exception. However, we do know that it has been used to insult people since the 1540s, and has been specifically used to insult police officers since the early 1800s.

Dig - The verb dig also has mysterious origins, though it might be related to the words ditch or dike. It may also have made its way into English from the Old French word diguer. In any case, we do know that the old slang usages of dig to refer to understanding something ("You dig?") or liking something ("I dig you") date all the way back to the 1930s.

Big - This everyday adjective was first used around 1300 in northern England to mean "powerful, strong", but its origins are unknown. It is thought to be related to the Norwegian word bugge, meaning "great man". Its usage in reference to size began in the late 1300s.

Zig - Interestingly, the word zigzag was originally used in English to refer to the layout of garden paths. It comes from an identical French term that dates back to the 1670s, but it wasn't shortened to the verb zig until the 1960s.

Fig - This tasty fruit gets its name from the Old French word figue. It evolved from the Latin word ficus, which is still used today as the genus of the over 800 species of plants that are known as "figs".

A stanhope gig, which was named after a British sportsman.
Jig - A "lively dance" by definition, the word jig is thought to be related to the Middle French word giguer, meaning "to dance". The usage of jig in reference to a trick, as in the old slang phrase "the jig is up", dates back to the 1700s.

Swig - Yet another mysterious "-ig" word, but it has been used to refer to "a hearty drink of liquor" since the 1600s.

Gig - Finally, we have gig, which was originally used in English to refer to both a two-wheeled horse-drawn carriage and a small boat in the late 1700s. It is thought to be related to the Middle English word ghyg and the Danish word gig, which both mean "spinning top", or various Germanic terms for "fiddle". It wasn't used to refer to a job or musical performance until the 1900s.