Friday, July 31, 2015

A Subjective Look at the Subjunctive

Don't get me wrong, I love languages: learning them, talking about them, and hearing them. However, there is one thing I just can't stand and it's the subjunctive. It's my pet peeve, my bugbear, and the proverbial thorn in my side. I avoid it like the plague even though I shouldn't.

Like most language fanatics, I do my fair share when learning and practising a language. I try to expand my vocabulary, learn the conjugations and even idioms, and use it regularly. That said, when it comes to the subjunctive, which is used in my two dominant foreign languages (French and Spanish), I awkwardly rephrase my sentences in order to avoid it. I just hate it!

Why do I hate it? Because it's not very common in English, and in the UK we barely learn anything about the structure of our mother tongue. I think it's just assumed that because we can talk and make ourselves understood that we should move straight on to Shakespeare and war poetry. In fact, I only started to learn about the structure of languages from studying foreign languages.

Welcome to Subjunctive Land. Just kidding, this is Venezuela.
So what is the subjunctive? When I was learning French it was simply called a "tense". While tenses refer to time, such as past, present, and future, and awkward combinations of those (the future perfect, for example), the subjunctive exists outside of time, in a place teachers like to call subjunctive land. It is technically a grammatical mood or mode, depending on where you learnt about it.

While subjunctive land isn't a real place, the name does somewhat help you to understand what the subjunctive is all about: things that aren't real. When you're using language to refer to factual things that have happened using simpler tenses such as the past, present, and future, you are using what is known as a realis mood. This can easily be remembered because it has the word real in it. The subjunctive takes place in the land of dreams and wishes, which is why it is an irrealis mood.

The reason I find the subjunctive awkward and confusing is because it's not as obvious in English, my mother tongue. While it definitely exists, English can be quite wonderful in its flagrant disregard for its own rules. Most people I know wouldn't even correct me, let alone realise, if I hadn't correctly used the subjunctive. However, in the other languages I've learnt, people will notice if you don't use it correctly.

The subjunctive occurs when you express a desire or a wish. Other times you'll need it when you start a sentence and find yourself creating a separate clause that couldn't exist without the first part of your sentence. This is known as a dependent or subordinate clause.

Not the kind of car you'd get an automatic gearbox in.
In English most conjugations are identical, with the third person singular being the obvious exception. In the English subjunctive mood, that third person singular either becomes the same as the present tense or the imperative tense (which are also often identical to one another). This minor change is so unnoticeable that you're barely aware of the subjunctive's existence and like conjugating, you rarely realise you've even done it.

For English speakers, I think it's a lot like learning to drive an automatic car and then having to drive a manual. In English it's all pretty much done for you and you never realise it's actually happening. Once you move to a manual car, you start to realise the changes you have to make when you try to do something different, like going faster. Sadly, I grew up learning a language where the subjunctive is almost automatic, and now I struggle to change the grammatical mood manually.

Are you a native English speaker who finds the subjunctive mood difficult? Or does your mother tongue have an obvious and complicated subjunctive mood? Tell us about your experiences in the comments below.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Marvelling at the Minnesotan Accent

I'm not a huge film fan; an hour and a half is usually too long to keep my attention. However, a few months ago I started watching Fargo, the 1996 Coen brothers film. Unfortunately, I had only watched 30 minutes before I had to do something else and forgot to go back to it.

On Monday, I finally returned to the film, re-watching the first 30 minutes and inevitably watching the rest. Before I knew it, Netflix was suggesting that I watch the TV series of the same name that aired last year. I had already received tonnes of recommendations from friends, so after enjoying the film, I was straight onto the series and binge-watched four episodes. While both feature black comedy, which I love, they also sparked my interest in Minnesotan English, which I'll just fondly call Minnesotan from now on.

A beautiful view of the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
My interest in Minnesotan was actually piqued during a visit to the Twin Cities (Minneapolis and Saint Paul) in the spring of 2012, when I fell in love with the accent. This led me to find out more about this unique and fascinating accent and where it came from.

While native Minnesotans may tell me that different accents and dialects can be found across the state, today I'd like to just discuss the accent in a general sense, without over-complicating things but still trying to gain sufficient insights into what it's all about.

Many of the accent's qualities are similar to those of most other English-language accents found throughout North America, but it's the accent's differences that I find so interesting. These differences include monophthongization, a process whereby phonemes that are regularly pronounced as diphthongs become a singular and "pure" vowel.

It's widely believed that many of the accent's traits originate from the area's historic immigration patterns, which have had a lasting influence on many accents in North American English. Many of the people currently living in Minnesota are descendants of Scandinavian and Germanic peoples, notably speakers of Norwegian and German. While this is certainly plausible, it has also been suggested that British accents might be responsible for some traits, as similar effects have been noted in Canadian English.

A postcard picture of the Second Fort Snelling Bridge, Minnesota.
There have also been suggestions that there are traces of a pitch accent in Minnesotan. A pitch accent uses different pitches for certain syllables in order to distinguish words. This is a trait that is also shared with a number of Scandinavian languages, particularly Norwegian and Swedish.

The main issue with pinpointing the origins behind the accent is a lack of information. Early settlers didn't spend a whole lot of time making records for the purpose of linguistic analysis since they were probably too preoccupied with surviving the area's trying winters and making sure that their crops didn't die.

While I've heard accounts that the accents in Fargo (both the film and series) are heavily exaggerated, I could still happily listen to them all day. I've also heard that the intense friendliness is exaggerated, though my experiences in Minnesota and the Midwest certainly don't support this.

How do you feel about the Minnesotan accent? Do you love it or hate it? Is there another US accent that you prefer? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Using the Bible to Learn about Translation

While I'm not particularly religious, I do acknowledge the hugely important role religion has played in language. In fact, one of our earliest posts looked at the lasting impression of religion on language.

Some of the most impressive curse words in many languages come from the dominating religion in the country's native language. For example, it seems most, if not all, of the curse words in Spanish are blasphemes, and I'm very fond of how some of the worst words you can say in Québécois French refer to items located in a church.

However, cursing aside, religion has informed language and linguistics to a great degree. While I could go on and on about every religion in the world, today I'll be focusing on Christianity, its prayers, and its holy text, the Bible, and what it has offered to the academic discipline of academia.

The patron saint of translation, St. Jerome, was a famous translator. His work in translation focused almost entirely on translation of scripture. Of course, St. Jerome wasn't the only person translating the Bible, which was originally in Hebrew and Aramaic. It is now fully available in over 500 languages, with parts of it available in thousands of languages.

Thanks to the entire Bible being translated into hundreds of languages, it works as an instructive parallel text that allows us to better understand the differences between languages, their various families, and even the translation methods used.

When there are several different translations of the Bible in the same language, we can compare them in order to ascertain which translation method was used. In fact, the concept of equivalence in translation was devised by Eugene Nida, who had used the Bible as the object of his studies.

He used the adjectives dynamic and formal to describe different types of equivalence. In the case of formal equivalence, he described a process whereby the translator strictly follows the structure of the source text rather than rendering the text in the most natural way.

The other end of the spectrum is dynamic equivalence, whereby the translator employs more creative freedom in order to render the translation as a more authentic-sounding text in the target language. Of course, when the text is translated in this way, it runs the risk of losing some of the nuances and details that were in the source text.

You can consider these methods in the same way as recording a cover version of a song. You can either record the song exactly like the original, or you can perform it in your own style. If you imagine your own style is the target language and the original style is the source language, then you're starting to understand dynamic and formal equivalence.

A handwritten version of the Bible in Latin.
In English alone there have been plenty of different translations of the Bible. Some have used formal equivalence and others have used dynamic equivalence. Of course, no translation is fully dynamic or formal. In fact, certain parts can adhere to one strategy while other parts adhere to another. The important thing is what you are trying to communicate.

For example, if you were translating the Bible in order to ensure that all of its teachings will be followed to the letter, you would prefer a formal approach. This would mean that not a single detail would be lost. However, you could argue that speakers of the target language might find the reading unnatural, jarring, and not particularly accessible.

If your job as a translator was to ensure that the maximum number of people were exposed to Christianity and an accessible version of the Bible was available, you would look for a dynamic approach. This would mean that you probably wouldn't be able to directly quote scripture, and its teachings would be vaguer and display a degree of the translator's own interpretation.

You can hardly say which approach is correct as it all really depends on what the goal of the translation is. Nevertheless, scripture can provide a fantastic resource for understanding how you can approach translation. It's certainly more than just knowing two languages!

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Googlewhacking and Collocations on the Web

While the internet is definitely commonplace nowadays for the majority of the developed world, it's often amusing to think back to the earlier days of the internet. When I was in primary school we had to take a school trip to the local library to see the internet. This endeavour involved walking with your "buddy" and holding hands.

The technology in this data suite is far more advanced than
the clunky beige PC that first showed me the internet.
When we arrived, a solitary PC with a dial-up connection was used to showcase a number of the amazing features of the world wide web.

We were shown a very early example of (from 1997, to be precise) and the local weather forecast, which disappointingly but expectedly told us that north-eastern England would be rainy throughout the upcoming week.

Needless to say, we were not very impressed with two features that we could easily get from our TVs instead. The search engine, however, really sparked our imaginations.

We were told that if we typed something, the computer would show us what we were looking for. Fast forward a few years and IT lessons in secondary school were an interesting affair.

The school had just had broadband installed and every single student in the class had their own terminal with a "high-speed" internet connection, which helped us to spend the whole lesson doing anything but the work we were supposed to be doing.

One unproductive time-wasting technique we enjoyed was Googlewhacking. For those too young to remember a time before "Google" was a verb, it was possible in the last decade to search using only two English words and receive the message "no results found" from Google's search engine. Finding no results with a two-word search query was the goal of Googlewhacking.

This phenomenon (which seems impossible today) was probably due to there being fewer webpages and the fact that Google was yet to have crawled and indexed the web to the extent it has today. With that said, I do believe that it can tell us about how we use language, which I personally find very interesting.

If you are familiar with collocations, certain words naturally go together more frequently than they do with others. I often use Google as a quick and easy way to check how frequently certain words are used together (there are also more advanced search tools to do this as well). You can gauge one expression over another simply in terms of results by using quotation marks when you search.

Googlewhacking (though we didn't know at the time) gave us the opposite of collocations, words that seemingly never go together. As you were not permitted to use quotation marks, Google's results indicated that those particular combinations of words could not be found alongside one another, or even in the same sentence, paragraph, or webpage. Saying the results aloud would quickly tell your brain how rare these combinations were.

The latest examples of Googlewhacks (from 2008) on the now defunct included "ambidextrous scallywags", "illuminatus ombudsman", "squirreling dervishes", and "assonant octosyllable". Any native speaker will note that these are rarely used words and even rarer combinations of them.

Nowadays Googlewhacking is pretty impossible as Google tries to suggest what you were trying to say and you rarely get a page saying there are no results (especially with a two-word phrase). However, as has a similar concept which they labelled a "statistically improbable phrase" by using data from indexed books in order to find out which words are rarely put together in the books they sell, you could always try Googlewhacking on Amazon and hope that your results only yield one result. Though I doubt it'd ever be as fun as Googlewhacking.

Did you ever Googlewhack in the past? What are some of the weirdest examples you can remember? Tell us about your experiences in the comments below.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Is It Worthwhile To Study Languages At University?

Just over a month ago, I discussed the dilemma of encouraging language learning while protecting my own livelihood as a translator. In the post, I mentioned that the average translator in the UK earns what I consider to be a disappointing amount considering that they master at least two languages, have a technical or business specialisation, and possess in-depth knowledge of the cultures of at least two countries.

This is the kind of statement that should hold a lot of weight for someone getting ready to go to university in a couple of months. Today, I'd like to revisit that particular point, extend it to all language-related jobs, and finally see whether studying languages is worthwhile. To do so, I'd like to draw on my own experiences as well as some information and statistics. Of course, this is a language blog and I'm a language fanatic so there will be some bias. In an attempt to provide a fair and balanced argument, I'm going to start with the negatives.

On a personal and negative note, I do genuinely believe that there are jobs out there that require language skills and do not adequately remunerate those with said skills. I can provide one such example from my own life experience.

A few years ago I spent a summer working in a data-entry centre that required knowledge of Spanish and several other languages at which I was paid the UK minimum wage for my troubles. By paying me minimum wage, my employer was effectively saying that my language skills were valueless or should be expected from any employee, which I hope you will agree is nonsense.

This is even more ridiculous given that the UK is famously the worst country in Europe terms of speaking foreign languages. Surely this should make my foreign language skills even more desirable in a country lacking the workforce to meet the demand for multilingualism.

Despite my personal anecdote, the demand for language jobs is definitely still there. You'll see facts floating around stating that the translation is one of the only recession-proof industries across the world. However, I've also definitely heard a fair few horror stories of translators being expected to work to impeccable standards, at incredible speeds, and for below a living wage. It wouldn't surprise me if this kind of behaviour was partly responsible for the decreasing numbers of students taking language degrees at universities in the UK.

On the one hand, UK language graduates had the third lowest employment rate of any discipline, according to a study published in 2013. However, the employment rate for all subjects only ranged from 84% to 95%, meaning there isn't a huge difference between the best and worst. On the other hand, UK language graduates were ranked sixth in terms of average salary earned. We live in a world where money talks, and this is the kind statement that's difficult to ignore.

Language learning can take you to plenty of places on this
beautiful blue marble we call home.
So far I've only been talking about studying languages from a financial viewpoint and in terms of employability and expected salary. However, languages have a value well beyond money. Learning languages opens doors and takes you places where you'll meet wonderful people that you wouldn't have otherwise met if you'd remained in a monolingual bubble. For me, you can't put a price on that!

The experiences I've enjoyed because of studying languages have been priceless and I have no doubt that there are plenty ahead of me. I'm so incredibly glad that I did study languages throughout school and at university.

In fact, even though I was terrible at languages at school, I still decided to study them at university because I loved them. When I started studying languages at university (Northumbria University, to be precise) I wasn't a model student and I wasn't particularly gifted at languages. It was only thanks to the wonderful lecturers whose love for languages far surpassed my own that I was given the opportunity to improve and develop my own language skills.

Finally, I feel the need to mention that the language department at Northumbria University (my alma mater) is under threat of closure. I feel anybody who had the support of lecturers anywhere near as wonderful as those at Northumbria would appreciate that this cannot be allowed to happen. I would be eternally grateful to each and every one of you if you could take the time to sign the following petition on to ensure that the UK doesn't lose a wonderful language department. You can also show your support on this Facebook page.

Do you think it's worthwhile to study languages at university? Have your studies brought you financial success or something even better? Tell us all about them in the comments below.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Annoying Internet Terms That Shouldn't Be in Spoken Language

I love internet culture and arguably spend most of my time on the internet. It is a truly wonderful thing: at times it's a vibrant, beautiful ecosystem of ideas being exchanged, while at others it's like a dank puddle of murky water. Either way, I love it.

What I don't love about the internet is how some of its language encroaches into spoken language. I'm happy for the language to exist online and consider it almost as its own register. However, when the internet's weird lingo starts entering my ears and not my eyes, that's when I get annoyed. Here are a few of my biggest bugbears (or pet peeves to Americans) when it comes to online language that make me come close to losing my cool.

NASA astronaut Michael Gernhardt embodying "YOLO" in 1995
when dot-coms were just becoming household names.

The term "because" is a bit of a funny one since I have no objection to the common usage of "because". However, the internet has given rise to the construction of "because" plus a noun. For example, "I can talk this way because language". I reckon it's a quick way to make most language purists' blood boil!


Saying something is is just downright stupid. My fury over this stems fully from the fact that saying "dot com" at the end of a word is not only already horrendously dated by about 20 years, it's also the kind of thing that uncool dads say when trying to be cool.


I wish people would stop using the verb "fail" when they are actually referring to a "failure", which is a noun. I also get fairly annoyed at the overuse of "epic" to describe said "fails". It's now used so often it's been demoted to the status of "moderate". This term is also often combined with the next one.


I like Twitter and understand why we have hashtags. In fact, I'm very happy to use them. Placing the "number sign" (#) before a word can help other users find content related to the word they've marked or to indicate the content is part of a particular conversation.

Using the term as a prefix irritates me beyond belief. Unless you're explaining a particular hashtag, saying hashtag is completely redundant.


LOL (an acronym for "laugh out loud") has been making the rounds online since people became too lazy to type out the onomatopaeia for laughter or explain that they found something humorous. As funny as it is when parents think "LOL" stands for "lots of love", there's nothing I find funny about using LOL in speech.

I find it annoying enough when people say "that's so funny" without actually laughing. Imagine how enraged I get when someone says "lol" in speech despite it being abundantly clear that they're not laughing out loud!


I definitely agree that people should live life to the fullest. However, as a lover of Romance languages and Latin, I wish carpe diem was used instead of this acronym for "you only live once".

You can live your life with "YOLO" as a motto. Just please don't say it to me. Leave it on the internet, where it belongs. Thanks!

What internet terms do you wish people wouldn't vocalise? Tell us in the comments below.