Friday, May 29, 2015

Why It's Hard to Be a Translator and a Language Lover

You might have guessed that we like languages here at The Lingua File. However, what you may not have known (though might have guessed), is that we are both freelance translators. 

Before going any further, I believe it's important to state that I am aware that being a translator requires much more than simply speaking two languages.

As a language lover, I want to share my passion for languages with everyone. I love sharing stories about the trials and tribulations of learning another language as well as the interesting facets and nuances of said languages.

My love of languages started with learning languages, which eventually set me on the path to studying translation, and in turn led me to become a freelance translator. As a freelance translator, all of my income is reliant on the fact that my clients do not have the language skills necessary to complete their own translations.

If you're familiar with translation work, you'll be aware that it's hardly the most lucrative of industries (though it's not the least either). In the UK, the average wage for authors, writers, and translators is around £26,000 per year. I believe this is rather low given that professional translators require near-native knowledge of at least two languages (which often requires in-country experience), impeccable cultural knowledge, between four and six years of higher education, and expertise in whatever field their translations may be in. For those living outside of the UK who would be quite happy earning this amount per year, do not forget that wages are related to the cost of living, which is rather high in the UK. But I digress...

One part of me would love for everyone to have the same passion for foreign languages as me and yearn to learn more of and about them. However, the other part worries about an increasing number of skilled linguists inevitably ending up in the translation industry, which would result in more competition (which is better for the consumer than the translator), lower wages, and make finding work more difficult. Do I really want everyone in the world to learn more languages, or do I want to protect my own financial interests?

Are you a translator (freelance or otherwise)? How do you strike the balance between loving languages and keeping your skills valued and sought after? Voice your opinion in the comments below.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Vote for The Lingua File!

Here at The Lingua File we love languages and talking about them (whether people are interested or not). It's great to have a fantastic following of fellow language lovers, and that's why we find it so easy to find the time to manage this blog, its social media, and keep writing regular posts.

However, today is a special exception where we won't be talking about languages, but rather taking part in some shameless self-promotion since we've been nominated in three different categories for the Top Language Lovers 2015 competition run by and lexiophiles.

To vote in our three categories, simply click the buttons below that were kindly provided to us by and select our name (or any of the others that you like, though obviously we'd prefer it if you voted for us).

To vote for us in the Language Learning Blogs category, just click the button below:

Vote the Top 100 Language Learning Blogs 2015

Or you can check out some of the other nominees and great language blogs here.

If you'd like to take the time to vote for us as one of the best Language Facebook Pages, you can use this button:

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You should also check out our Facebook page (and like us!) and take a look at the other great nominees in this category.

Finally, to vote for us as one of the best Language Twitter Accounts, use this button:

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You can also view our Twitter account and the other nominated accounts.

We'd also like to take this opportunity to extend our gratitude to all the wonderful people who interact with The Lingua File! As a reward for taking the time to read our message and vote for us, enjoy looking at these outrageously adorable kittens!

Monday, May 25, 2015

Country Profile: The Languages of Angola

This week we're going to take a brief look at the linguistic diversity of Angola, the seventh largest country in Africa. Angola is home to nearly 25 million people and is located in southern Africa, bordering the Atlantic Ocean.

The Official Language

Angola's one and only official language is Portuguese, which was first introduced to the area by Portuguese colonists in the late 15th century. Portuguese is the native language of between 30 and 40% of the country's population. It is also especially common for Portuguese to be the native language of young Angolans due to its high level of prestige.

While Portuguese is only the native language of about a third of the population, a high proportion of the population speaks it as a second language as well. In total, approximately 60% of Angolans speak Portuguese.

Miradouro da Lua, a beautiful area near Luanda, Angola.
Recognized National Languages

Soon after Angola gained independence from Portugal in 1975, it decided to recognize six Bantu languages as the country's national languages: Umbundu, Kimbundu, Kikongo, Cokwe, Kwanyama, and Ganguela.

The most spoken language in Angola is Umbundu, which has approximately 6 million native speakers. It is followed by the closely related Kimbundu language which has 4 million native speakers, many of which live near Luanda, the country's capital.

Kikongo, a Bantu language also spoken in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Republic of the Congo, is primarily spoken in the northernmost areas of the country. It has nearly 2 million native speakers. Both Cokwe and Kwanyama, also known as Oshiwambo, are spoken by over 400,000 Angolans. Finally, there's Ganguela, also known as Nkangala, which is part of a language continuum that includes numerous dialects or varieties spoken throughout the country.

Other Languages

According to Ethnologue, Angola is home to 37 living languages, so there are several languages that we haven't mentioned yet. Most of these languages are Bantu languages such as Lunda, Lucazi, Mbangala, and Nyaneka, which all have between 150,000 and 400,000 native speakers. However, there are also a few non-Bantu languages spoken by very small numbers of Angolans, including the !Kung and Khwe languages, both known for their use of clicks.

Friday, May 22, 2015

The Monaco Grand Prix and Language in Formula One

For motorsports fans like myself, this weekend is one of the biggest on the calendar: the Formula One World Championship is in Monaco for a big race on Sunday.

The streets of Monaco, home of the Grand Prix de Monaco.
The Monaco Grand Prix is arguably one of the most famous motorsports events in the world. Attended by millionaires and celebrities, it brings fast cars to the beautiful Cote d'Azur with all the glitz and glamour of Hollywood. It's a special part of the Formula One calendar since it takes place on the streets rather than a purpose-built motorsports circuit.

Of course, this wouldn't be a language blog if we weren't discussing language. Like many other sporting disciplines, Formula One has its own distinctive terms and language uses.

Since this weekend's race takes place in the principality of Monaco, whose official language is French, its official name is the Grand Prix de Monaco, or "Monaco Grand Prix" in English. While other languages have their own equivalent term for "Grand Prix", English has stuck with the French term (meaning "big prize") since France is undoubtedly the birthplace of the sport of motor racing. The word chicane, a type of s-shaped turn that is often used to slow down traffic, is actually from the French verb chicaner, which means "quibble" or "squabble".


As a highly technical and scientific sport, there are plenty of specialized racing terms floating around in common use. Since this terminology is often long and technical in nature, acronyms have become commonplace. DNF (Did Not Finish), DNQ (Did Not Qualify), DNS (Did Not Start), and DQ (Disqualified) regularly appear on timing sheets in place of lap times.

Of course, acronyms are also used in reference to technical parts of the cars. The Drag Reduction System (DRS) was introduced as part of an effort to increase the amount of overtaking, while the Kinetic Energy Recovery System (KERS) was introduced in 2008 in order to make the cars more ecological.

Radio Communication and Radio Ban

One use of language that particularly interests me in Formula One is radio communication. Since time is of the essence when drivers are hurtling around corners, radio communication needs to be short and clear. When drivers are required to change tyres (an impressive feat that is often completed in under three seconds), they will often receive a message to "box" or "box, box, box". In other motorsports the order "pit" is used, but in the past "box" was apparently easier to understand over the noise of the louder engines that were once used in the sport.

The first Monaco Grand Prix in 1929 was a much milder
affair than the spectacle you'll see this weekend.
Towards the end of 2014, season teams were told that the rule banning them from "coaching" their drivers over the radio would be more strictly enforced. I'll ignore the complicated ins and outs of what this supposed rule covers and instead discuss how, as recently as yesterday, we've seen attempts to avoid this rule using coded language.

During a practice session yesterday, British driver and current world champion Lewis Hamilton asked for feedback on how he'd managed the first turn of the circuit. The response from his team was that they couldn't possibly tell him (for fear of breaking the aforementioned rule). However, the following radio message from Hamilton was him asking his team how the weather was. The team replied telling Hamilton the weather was fine. It'll be interesting to see how these codes develop if the ban remains in effect, and whether or not it'll become as confusing as rally pacenotes.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Germanic Languages: From Achterhoeks to Zeeuws

At the beginning of the month we took an in-depth look at the wide world of Romance languages, which extends far beyond languages such as Spanish and French. It seems to have caught the interest of lots of language lovers out there, so today we thought we'd look at another fascinating language family, the Germanic languages.

The most spoken Germanic languages in the world are English and German, followed by Dutch and the Scandinavian languages. However, you might be surprised to find out that according to the Ethnologue, there are actually 48 distinct Germanic languages! Today we're going to try to look at as many of them as we possibly can.

North Germanic Languages

There are five North Germanic languages: Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Faroese, and Icelandic. These languages are also known as the Nordic languages or the Scandinavian languages. That said, some people don't include Faroese and Icelandic in the group of Scandinavian languages since Iceland and the Faroe Islands are not located in Scandinavia.

In any case, all of these languages are very closely related and share a high degree of mutual intelligibility. It is quite common for speakers of one of these languages to understand at least one of the others in the group, if not several of them.

A view of Edinburgh, Scotland from atop Calton Hill
Anglo-Frisian Languages

Another small branch of the Germanic language family tree consists of five languages known as the Anglo-Frisian languages: English, Scots, Frisian, North Frisian, and Saterland Frisian. One thing that makes this group stand apart from other Germanic languages is its palatalization of /k/, which is instead pronounced /tʃ/. This can be seen in words like cheese in English and tsiis in West Frisian, which contain the velar /k/ sound in German (Käse) and Dutch (kaas).

While you're undoubtedly familiar with English if you're reading this blog, you might not be familiar with the rest of these languages. Scots, which should not be confused with Scottish Gaelic, is so closely related to English that nobody can truly decide if it's a separate language or simply a distinct variety that evolved in Scotland. Then there are the Frisian languages: Frisian is spoken by over 450,000 people in the Netherlands, while North Frisian has about 10,000 speakers and Saterland Frisian has around 1,000 speakers, both in Germany.

High German Languages

The branch of High German languages consists of over a dozen languages closely related to German that are spoken in a very interesting array of countries. Germany is home to the largest number of these languages (or dialects, depending on your point of view), including standard German, Upper Saxon, Pfaelzisch, Swabian, Mainfränkisch, and Kölsch, which is spoken in and around Cologne.

Two High German languages, Lower Silesian and Wymysorys, are primarily spoken in Poland, though both are endangered. Luxembourg is also home to Luxembourgish, while Switzerland is home to Swiss German and Walser. There's also Limburgish, which is spoken in the Netherlands, while Bavarian is spoken throughout Austria and Bavaria and the closely related Cimbrian and Mócheno languages are both spoken in northeastern Italy.

The most interesting members of this group may be Pennsylvania German, Colonia Tovar German, and Hutterisch. Pennsylvania German is more commonly known by the name Pennsylvania Dutch in the United States, where it is spoken by over 100,000 people in Amish and Old Order Mennonite communities. Colonia Tovar German is also known as Alemán Coloniero, and is spoken in the Venezuelan town of Colonia Tovar, which was founded in the mid-1800s by German immigrants who turned the area into what is now known as "the Germany of the Caribbean". Finally, Hutterisch is spoken by nearly 30,000 members of the Hutterite group of Canada, an ethno-religious group similar to the Amish and Mennonites.

Hamburg Rathaus in Germany
Low Franconian Languages

The Ethnologue recognizes four languages in this group: Dutch, Afrikaans, Vlaams, and Zeeuws. Dutch is the official language of the Netherlands, while Afrikaans, its daughter language, is an official language in South Africa. Vlaams, also known as West Flemish, is primarily spoken in Belgium, while Zeeuws is used in certain areas of the Netherlands.

Low Saxon Languages

There are eleven Low Saxon languages, which are all spoken in the Netherlands or Germany with the exception of Plautdietsch, which is spoken by Russian Mennonite communities around the world. The other ten languages are Achterhoeks, Drents, Gronings, Sallands, East Frisian Low Saxon, Low Saxon, Stellingwerfs, Twents, Veluws, and Westphalien, most of which are often considered to be dialects instead of distinct languages.

Finally, there's Yiddish, which is hard to categorize within the other groups in the Germanic language family since it has such a mysterious linguistic history. It is thought to have evolved from Middle High German, though it has also been suggested that Yiddish might actually be a Slavic language with Germanic vocabulary!

Monday, May 18, 2015

Country Profile: The Languages of Romania

It's been quite a while since we've looked into the linguistic landscape of a European country. Back in February we looked at the languages of Poland, but today we're moving on to the nearby country of Romania, which is the seventh most populous nation in the European Union.

The Official Language

The official language of Romania is Romanian, the fifth most spoken Romance language in the world. It is the native language of approximately 85% of the country's population.

While Romania's government only recognizes one official language, it does respect the linguistic rights of minority groups. There are over a dozen minority languages used throughout the country, some of which are even used by local governments and schools. Let's take a look at them!

Minority Languages

There are over 1.4 million native speakers of Hungarian in Romania, which comprise the country's largest minority group. Hungarian is a member of the Uralic language family, and is the official language of the neighboring country of Hungary.

The Palace of Justice in Bucharest, Romania.
Romania's second largest minority group is the Romani people. There are estimated to be nearly 250,000 native speakers of the Romani language in the country, who speak dialects that include Balkan Romani, Vlax Romani, and Carpathian Romani.

Several Slavic languages are spoken in Romania as well: Ukrainian, Serbian, Slovak, Bulgarian, Czech, and Polish. There are over 50,000 native speakers of Ukrainian in Romania, as well as 27,000 Serbian speakers. The final four languages have under 20,000 native speakers.

Romania is also home to two Germanic languages and two Turkic languages. There is a large population of approximately 45,000 German speakers in the country, as well as about 1,000 Yiddish speakers. When it comes to Turkic languages, there are between 20,000 and 30,000 native speakers of both Turkish and Crimean Tatar.

Another prominent minority language is Aromanian, a Romance language that is closely related to Romanian. It is spoken by the Aromanian or Vlach ethnic group in countries throughout Europe that include Greece, Albania, Macedonia, Bulgaria, and Serbia. There are approximately 28,000 speakers of Aromanian, which can be distinguished from Romanian since its vocabulary contains more words of Greek origin and fewer words of Slavic origin. There are also around 2,000 native speakers of the Italian language residing in the country.

Finally, Romania is home to small numbers of native speakers of the Armenian, Greek, and Albanian languages. All three are particularly fascinating languages because they each comprise their own independent branch of the Indo-European language family.

Friday, May 15, 2015

A Destruction of Cats: Collective Nouns of the Animal Kingdom

If you take a close look at the term collective noun, you can probably guess its meaning. It's a linguistic term for a word that describes a collection of things. We use collective nouns all the time in everyday speech, most notably with the use of words like group and team. There are also many collective nouns you might not immediately think of, like skeleton (a collection of bones) and forest (a collection of trees). However, the most fascinating collective nouns of all are used in reference to the animal kingdom, and are known as terms of venery.

There are a few popular terms of venery that everyone is familiar with, such as a flock of birds and a herd of sheep. You might even have heard of a murder of crows before. However, most terms of venery are rarely read or spoken because they are so obscure. They generally originated centuries ago when hunting was a much more popular sport, especially within the upper classes. Nowadays we don't have much use for these terms, but some of the following terms are so amusing we're almost tempted to try to resurrect them somehow.

Fascinating Felines

We would have used a photo of a destruction of cats,
but we were afraid it would break the Internet.
Have you ever wondered what to call a group of cats? Unlike the boring pack of dogs, cats get tons of cool collective nouns: clowder, cluster, glaring, and pounce. The best of all is undoubtedly a destruction of cats though, which is used to refer to feral cats.

Larger felines that we generally don't keep as pets also have interesting collective nouns: leap of leopards, pride of lions, and ambush or streak of tigers.

There's even a special collective noun for the most adorable felines: a kindle of kittens. I'd take a cuddly kindle over a Kindle any day, wouldn't you?

Creepy Crawlies

Unsurprisingly, linguists have not been kind when it comes to naming insects and other "creepy crawlies", as we so lovingly call them. Prime examples are the terms scourge of mosquitoes, intrusion of cockroaches, and plague of locusts. Other interesting terms include army of caterpillars and the undoubtedly French escargatoire of snails.

However, the controversial butterfly, which people generally either love or fear (nobody ever suspects the butterfly), has two collective nouns that suit both sentiments: the fanciful flutter of butterflies, or the ominous swarm of butterflies. The term swarm is also used with lots of other disliked creatures, including eels, gnats, and grasshoppers.

Magnificent Mammals

There are tons of great collective nouns for mammals of all shapes and sizes. Some of the most aptly named groups include scurry of squirrels, skulk of foxes, and tower of giraffes. I don't know whether or not the adorable marsupials known as wombats are wise, but they are nevertheless called a wisdom of wombats.

Beautiful Birds

The list of collective nouns for birds is seemingly endless, as bird watching has continued to be a much more popular pastime than hunting over the centuries. There are tons of words for ducks, for example: bunch, paddling, and raft can all be used when they're on water, while skein, string, and team are reserved for those in flight, and waddling and plump can be used any time.

Several other birds have interesting collective nouns, such as the aptly named stand of flamingos and pandemonium of parrots. Birds of prey often get regal-sounding terms, such as convocation of eagles and parliament of owls. Finally, there's the sad term unkindness of ravens, which is nearly as bad as murder of crows.

Did we leave out your favorite collective noun for an animal? Let us know in the comments below.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Luck and Languages: Superstition Around the World

As today is the 13th, an unlucky number for some, I thought I'd delve a little deeper into how fortune and luck differs across languages. It seems that numbers play a huge role in superstition, and since there are plenty of countable objects that we deal with in everyday life, numbers seem to have made their way into the superstitions of almost every culture.

I won't get through them all today because almost anything can be considered lucky or unlucky, so I thought I'd just pick out a few of the most interesting numbers associated with luck.


Numbers are everywhere when it comes to fortune and misfortune. The number 4 is considered to be terribly unlucky in the Chinese culture and gives rise to tetraphobia. In Mandarin, Wu, Cantonese, Hakka, Min Nan, Japanese, and Korean, the pronunciation of the number 4 is very similar to the word for "death".

The luckiest garden ever.
Those aware of the superstitions related to the number 13 in Western cultures (which I'll get to shortly) will be familiar with the practice of avoiding specific numbers. In the cultures where the aforementioned languages are traditionally spoken, particularly South East Asia, the number (and even digit) 4 is avoided when possible, especially when numbering floors, doors, parking spaces, etc.

Despite 4's misfortune in Asia, in Irish and Celtic cultures, the four-leaf clover is said to be a sign of considerable fortune.


The number 7 is often considered to be very lucky, especially in prominent world religions. The Old Testament frequently references the  number 7, such as the creation of the world in 7 days in the Book of Genesis. In Judaism, the menorah has 7 branches, while in Islam, the earth is composed of 7 layers. Japanese mythology also features 7 lucky gods. The list goes on and on...


Just as the number 4 in Mandarin sounds like the word for "death", the number 8 also has a similar-sounding counterpart. However, unlike the number 4, the number 8 is considered to bring about good fortune. This is because the number 8 in Mandarin sounds like "fortune" or "prosper", following a rule can seemingly be applied to a whole host of numbers in Chinese.

The luckiness of the number 8 also dictates all kinds of behaviours by both people and companies, who love to use the digit "8" in any way they possibly can. For example, Sichuan Airlines paid a hefty sum for a phone number that consisted only of 8s, and the Opening Ceremony of the 2008 Olympic Games started on the 8th August at 8 p.m. local time.


In many English-speaking cultures, 13 is considered to be an unlucky number, so much so that it has its own phobia, triskaidekaphobia. The term itself, like most fears and phobias, is named using Greek words. There are a number of suggestions as to why 13 is considered to be unlucky, including the number of people at the Last Supper, the date of the arrest order for the Knights Templar, and the number of full moons in a year.

However, this superstition goes even further, especially in several Western cultures, if the 13th day of the calendar month coincides with a Friday, making the dreaded Friday the 13th.

Friday the 13th

It is suggested that Friday the 13th is considered to be unlucky due to the number's prominence in the story of Jesus: 13 people (12 disciples and Jesus himself) were at the Last Supper, plus the fact that Jesus was killed on the Friday. If you are inexplicably terrified of Friday the 13th, you may have paraskevidekatriaphobia.

Tuesday the 13th

While I grew up with the knowledge that Friday the 13th was an unfortunate day, if you grew up in a Spanish- or Greek-speaking culture or country, you'll probably consider Tuesday the 13th to be the unlucky day.

What numbers are considered lucky and unlucky in your language or culture? Tell us about them and the reasons why they're lucky or unlucky in the comments below!

Monday, May 11, 2015

Country Profile: The Languages of Côte d'Ivoire

One month ago, we took a look at the languages of Ghana, an English-speaking country in West Africa. Today we're going to explore the linguistic diversity of its neighbor to the west, Côte d'Ivoire, which you may know by the name "Ivory Coast".

The Official Language

If you're at all familiar with the French language, then one look at the name Côte d'Ivoire should give you a hint that French is an important language in the country. In fact, French is its sole official language and an essential lingua franca due to the country's long history as a French colony.

Back in the 15th and 16th centuries, French and Portuguese merchants renamed parts of Africa's west coast based on the important exports from each area. One of these areas was rich in ivory, so it was called Côte d'Ivoire by the French and Costa do Marfim by the Portuguese. 

A pair of pygmy hippos, an endangered species
that can be found in Côte d'Ivoire.
Since the name was so easily translated, English speakers began to call it "Ivory Coast", but after the country gained its independence from the French, it decided that it didn't want other governments to use the English version. For decades, the government has officially requested that the country be referred to by its official name, Côte d'Ivoire, but of course it's difficult to convince all of the English speakers in the world who know the country as "Ivory Coast" to switch to a French name that's more difficult to pronounce.

That said, most international groups do try to use the French name since the government refuses to recognize translations of the country's name in official dealings. If you've ever watched the Parade of Nations at the beginning of the Olympics then you might have noticed that the country's athletes generally march between those of Costa Rica and Croatia, despite the fact that your TV screen says "Ivory Coast" at the bottom.

In any case, it does seem like an odd linguistic issue to be so picky about! Pretty much every other country in the world accepts the fact that their name will be translated - it's not like you hear Germany complaining that everyone should call it Deutschland

Other Languages

Getting back to our original focus, Côte d'Ivoire is quite linguistically diverse. According to Ethnologue, it is home to over 70 indigenous languages, most of which belong to the Niger-Congo language family. Some of the most spoken indigenous languages in Côte d'Ivoire are Baoulé, Anyin, Jula, and Dan.

Baoulé boasts over 2 million native speakers in Côte d'Ivoire, while the closely related Anyin language has around 600,000 speakers. Jula, spoken by 1.5 million people in Côte d'Ivoire, is an important trade language in West Africa, and is also spoken in the countries of Burkina Faso and Mali. Both Jula and the Dan language, spoken by around 1.3 million people, are Mande languages, a branch of the Niger-Congo language family widely used throughout the region.

Friday, May 8, 2015

The Languages Behind US Place Names: Part 2

On Wednesday, I started a little linguistic journey looking at the languages that helped name places around the United States. Today I'll be looking at a few more languages that were used to name settlements, towns, and cities across the 50 states.


The Olentangy River Bridge, Columbus, Ohio
The European "discoverer" of the New World has lent his name to many things in the US. However, as an Italian working for the Spanish monarchy, Christopher Columbus probably never referred to himself using said name. His actual name was Cristoforo Colombo in Italian and Cristóbal Colón in Spanish. However, the Latinised version of his name came into popular use for naming states and cities in the US.

Take the D.C. in Washington D.C., for example. The D.C. stands for "District of Columbia", and "Columbia" is a New Latin term derived from Columbus' name. Of course, Columbus, Ohio, is also named directly after the man.


A number of settlers used Greek suffixes to name cities. Indianapolis, for example, uses the Greek suffix -polis (meaning "city") at the end of the state name of Indiana. However, Indiana takes the word India and adds the Latin suffix -ana, which designates a place name. This would confusingly make Indianapolis the "city of the place of Indians". Minneapolis is another populous example of this suffix in use.


The Angel Stadium, home to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
While Germanic settlers were common across the US, particularly the Midwest, Germany has had a more lasting effect on food in the States than place names. However, there are a few interesting place names that have taken the language as inspiration. As I mentioned on Wednesday, Charlotte, North Carolina, was named after the German-born British Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. I suppose that can count as both English and German.

In terms of other cities with German names, Anaheim, California takes its name from the Spanish word "Ana", from the Santa Ana river, combined with the German word "heim", an older German term often used in place names to mean "home".

There's also the city of Schaumburg, Illinois, which was originally called Sarah's Grove, until a meeting in 1850 when somebody slammed their fist on a table and screamed "Schaumburg schall et heiten!" (English: "It will be called Schaumburg!") and seemingly the name stuck!

That's all for now. Are there any languages that you think we missed? Tell us the city and the language that helped name it in the comments below.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The Languages Behind US Place Names: Part 1

For a variety of interesting reasons, place names around the world tend to tell a story, whether they were founded in triumphant fashion or just seemed to always be there! Today we're taking a look at the origins of US place names, which come from a variety of different languages due to the backgrounds of the various indigenous groups that lived there and the colonists who arrived later and chose names from their own languages.

A statue of Lincoln (who was not indigenous) in
Chicago, Illinois.
Indigenous Languages

Long before European colonists and settlers arrived in the United States with their native languages, the country's diverse landscapes were home to a wide variety of indigenous groups. Most of these groups spoke their own indigenous languages, which they naturally used to name important places. Many US states are named for the largest indigenous tribe that lived there or take the name that the indigenous people were using before they arrived, which were often adapted to read better in the languages spoken by the colonists. In fact, the names of more than half of the states in the US are thought to come from indigenous languages.

While plenty of cities around the US have names that originated in indigenous languages, the largest is Chicago, which comes from either the Miami-Illinois word shikaakwa (which means either "wild onion" or "wild garlic") or the Potawatomi word Gaa-zhigaagwanzhikaag.


It's hardly surprising that most place names in the US come from the English language since it's the most commonly spoken language in the country. In fact, many even duplicate place names from the UK due to the presence of British colonists early in the country's history. The largest US city, New York City, was named after the city of York in the UK. Before that, New York City was named New Amsterdam by Dutch settlers, but the British decided that wasn't right!

Houston, Texas is the second largest city in the US with a name of British origin. Though the city itself is named after General Sam Houston, his name comes from a town in Scotland. Houston actually means "Hugh's Town", so Houston is actually a place named after a guy who was named after a place!

Before the American Revolution, borrowing place names from the UK and using English suffixes was common. The suffixes of town, borough, and burgh (as well as their alternative spellings of ton, boro, and burg) were often used. If you've ever driven around the US, you know just how how popular these were.

A view of the expansive "City of Angels".

Spanish colonists and settlers have certainly left their mark on the Americas. The second most common language in the US has also been used to name the country's second largest city, LA. Of course, LA stands for Los Angeles, which is Spanish for The Angels, hence "City of Angels".

Other examples of Spanish place names in the US include San Antonio, San Diego, San Jose, and San Francisco, all of which are named after saints. In fact, most place names in the US starting with "San" are likely to be of Spanish origin.


Using French in US place names became common after the American Revolution. French place names were common in several areas, but the suffix -ville (meaning town or city) only became popular after the American Revolution, especially in the southern and western Appalachian regions of the US. Jacksonville, Florida, and Nashville, Tennessee are two of the largest cities to make use of this suffix.

Detroit is one of the largest cities in the US to have a fully French name. Detroit was originally détroit in French, which means "strait". There's also Charlotte, North Carolina, which sounds a bit French, but is actually named after the German-born British Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, who was married to King George III.

We think that's quite enough place name origins for one day. We'll be back on Friday with even more languages that inspired US place names! We look forward to seeing you then!

Monday, May 4, 2015

Country Profile: The Languages of Australia

This week we're taking a look at the incredible linguistic diversity of Australia, the sixth largest country in the world. It was once home to well over 300 indigenous languages, though sadly many of them have become extinct or severely threatened since the establishment of British settlements in Australia starting in the late 1700s.

The National Language

Unlike most other countries, Australia does not have any official languages. However, English is considered to be the de facto national language since it is the native language spoken by the majority of Australians. The English language was first introduced to the continent by the British in the late 18th century when they began to create penal colonies in Australia.

Over the centuries, Australian English has evolved from British English into a distinct variety that has its own unique characteristics, including differences in vocabulary, pronunciation, and spelling. Two notable characteristics of Australian English include the use of the term outback to refer to "remote areas" and the frequent use of mate for "friend", which is also found in some dialects of British English.

It's nearly impossible to write a blog post about Australia
without using a photo of an adorable baby koala...
Aboriginal Languages

It is thought that there were over 400 indigenous languages in existence prior to European contact with Australia. Sadly, very few of these languages, which are thought to have belonged to nearly 30 different language families, have survived over the centuries. According to Ethnologue, 177 Australian languages are extinct, 141 are dying, and 35 are in trouble.

That said, there are still a few indigenous languages in Australia with relatively healthy numbers of speakers. Another term used to refer to these languages and the ethnic groups that speak them is aboriginal, a word which means "indigenous", though in modern times it is most often used to specifically reference groups that are indigenous to Australia.

The most spoken Aboriginal languages include Arrernte, Kalaw Lagaw Ya, Tiwi, Walmajarri, and Warlpiri. Kalaw Lagaw Ya is especially interesting because it was an important lingua franca before colonization throughout parts of what is now Australia and Papua New Guinea. Another fascinating language is Tiwi, a language isolate, which is still being taught to children in hopes of preserving the language for future generations.

Immigrant Language

Australia also has many large immigrant populations that often speak their own native languages at home. Mandarin Chinese, Italian, Arabic, Cantonese, Greek, and Vietnamese are each spoken by approximately 1% of Australians.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Romance Languages: From Aragonese to Zarphatic

In case you aren't already aware, the Romance language family is composed of languages that evolved from Vulgar Latin between the 6th and 9th centuries. Latin had dominated much of Western Europe for centuries due to the spread of the Roman Empire, but when it collapsed, local varieties quickly developed their own quirks, allowing them to eventually become new languages.

If you asked the average person to name all of the Romance languages they could think of, you'd probably be met with an answer that included a few of the following languages: Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian, and Romanian. Language nerds might be able to add a few more languages, such as Catalan, Galician, or Sardinian. With that said, you might be surprised to learn that there are actually somewhere between 20 and 50 distinct languages within the Romance language family!

As we've mentioned in the past, linguistic classification is a tricky business, since most languages exist on a dialect continuum. Today we're going to go by the number provided by the Ethnologue, which lists 43 distinct Romance languages, and try to shed some light on some of the lesser-known languages.

The Big Five

There five most spoken Romance languages are Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, and Romanian. All five of these languages are official languages in their respective countries of origin. The first three languages are also important lingua francas due to their use in colonies throughout Africa, South America, and North America.

Part of Western Europe at night as seen from the ISS.
Paris is the bright spot in the center, while Milan is near the upper-right corner.
Ibero-Romance Languages

The aptly named Iberian languages are all of the Romance languages that developed on the Iberian Peninsula, which is home to the countries of Spain, Portugal, and Andorra. Aragonese, Asturian, Catalan, Galician, Aranese (a standardized variety of Occitan), and Spanish all have varying levels of official recognition in Spain. In Portugal, both Portuguese and Mirandese, which is closely related to Asturian, are recognized by the government.

Two Iberian languages spoken in the Spanish autonomous community of Extremadura are Extremaduran and Fala, which is closely related to Galician and Portuguese. Another fascinating member of this sub-group is Ladino, a language that is primarily spoken by Sephardic Jews. It evolved from Old Spanish with loanwords from languages like Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic.

Gallo-Romance Languages

The Gallo-Romance branch consists of the Romance languages native to France and northern Italy. Some of its most prominent languages are the Oïl languages, a dialect continuum that includes French, Picard, and Walloon, which are all spoken in both France and Belgium. It also includes Zarphatic, an extinct language that was spoken by Jews in France until the 14th century. 

The Rhaeto-Romance languages of Friulian, Ladin, and Romansh also belong on this branch of the Romance family tree. Friulian and Ladin (not to be confused with the aforementioned Ladino) are both spoken in Italy, while Romansh is an official language in Switzerland.

Finally, there are the Gallo-Italian languages, which include Piedmontese, Ligurian, Lombard, and sometimes Venetian, depending on who you ask. Unsurprisingly, all of these languages are spoken in Italy. Despite recognition by numerous linguists as being independent languages, the Italian government generally refers to all of them as dialects of the Italian language.

Italo-Romance Languages

It won't come as a surprise that this final branch of the Romance language that we're looking at today consists of languages native to Italy. It includes Italian, the country's official language, as well as the Sicilian and Neapolitan languages.

While we're stopping here, there are still several more languages that the Ethnologue considers to be a part of the Romance language family, though most of them are extinct or endangered. You can find the full list on the Romance page of the Ethnologue website.