Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Pleonasms: Déjà Vu All Over Again

Before reading this brief NPR article last week, we'd never heard of pleonasms before. Since we were curious about this linguistic term, we're dedicating today's post to exploring its meaning as well as its use in language.

The word pleonasm comes from the Greek term pleonasmos, which means "more" or "too much". In English, it refers to the use of more words than necessary to convey meaning. While you might think that using redundant speech would always be incorrect or unnecessary, pleonasms can also be used to help make language easier to understand.

These tigers have nothing to do with pleonasms...
we just really love cats of all shapes and sizes!
There are dozens of pleonasms that are so commonly used in the English-speaking world that you've probably never stopped to think about them. Two prime examples are "terms and conditions" and "null and void", which are often used in legal texts. Perhaps we don't often complain about this redundancy since we rarely take the time to actually read the terms and conditions...

If you want to focus on pleonasms from a linguistic standpoint, they generally fall into two categories: syntactic and semantic. Syntactic pleonasms are words that are not required for grammatical reasons. For example, in the phrase "I know that you love me", the word "that" is a pleonasm because it is unnecessary.

Other examples of syntactic pleonasms include multiple negation and multiple affirmation. While most people don't shudder to hear multiple affirmations such as "I do love you" (in which "do" is unnecessary, but can be used to add emphasis), many do have very strong feelings about multiple negation. Some people often use double negatives like "there ain't no other way", while others cringe to hear them.

However, the most interesting pleonasms are often semantic pleonasms, which are created by using redundant terms. If you're a native English speaker, you've undoubtedly used some semantic pleonasms before, while others may be at the top of your language pet peeves. Some of the most common semantic pleonasms in English include: "free gift", "tuna fish", and "different species".

Other common semantic pleonasms involve foreign terms and acronyms. For instance, several French terms have led to frequently used pleonasms, including "déjà vu all over again" and "please RSVP". However, the most famous pleonasms that drive people crazy are undoubtedly those that involve acronyms, such as "ATM machine", "PIN number", and "HIV virus". If you want to avoid the admonitions of friends who act like the grammar police, you can save yourself a lot of trouble by saying "ATM", "PIN", and "HIV" instead.

Did we leave out a pleonasm that you find helpful, or one that simply drives you crazy? Let us know about it in the comments below!

Monday, September 28, 2015

Country Profile: The Languages of Azerbaijan

Last week we focused on the linguistic diversity of Sweden, one of the northernmost countries in Europe. Today we're moving across the continent to the Caucasus region in order to explore the languages of Azerbaijan, one of the very few transcontinental countries that are located in both Europe and Asia.

The Official Languages

An Azerbaijani carpet, recognized by UNESCO
as a Masterpiece of Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
The sole official language of Azerbaijan is Azerbaijani, which is also known by the name Azeri. It is a member of the Turkic language family that is closely related to Turkish. In fact, it shares a high enough degree of mutual intelligibility with Turkish for some linguists to consider it to be a variety of Turkish instead of a distinct language. In any case, Azerbaijani is spoken by over 90% of the country's population.

There are two other languages that are widely used throughout Azerbaijan, though they do not have official status: Russian and English. There are nearly 500,000 native speakers of Russian in Azerbaijan, as well as many others who use it or English as a second language in education, business, and other areas of society.

Minority Languages

Azerbaijan is also home to several interesting minority languages, though many of them are vulnerable due to declining use in their already small communities. They include Talysh, Lezgi, Avar, Tat, Judeo-Tat, and Tsakhur. The most spoken of these languages is Talysh, a member of the Indo-Iranian language family that boasts approximately 800,000 native speakers in Azerbaijan.

The second most spoken minority language is Lezgi, also known as Lezgian. It is a member of the Northeast Caucasian language family, and is spoken by over 350,000 Azerbaijanis. Other Northeast Caucasian languages used in the country include Avar, which is spoken by about 40,000 people in northwestern Azerbaijan, and Tsakhur, which is used by about 13,000 Azerbaijanis.

There are also the related Tat and Judeo-Tat languages, which both belong to the Indo-Iranian language family. Tat is spoken by around 18,000 members of the Tat ethnic group, while Judeo-Tat, also known as Juhuri, is spoken by about 24,000 Azerbaijanis. Judeo-Tat is the language of the ethnic group known as the Mountain Jews or Caucasus Jews.

Finally, there are about 150,000 native speakers of the Armenian language in Azerbaijan. Most of them live in Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous area in southeastern Azerbaijan. However, while the area is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, it has its own government and is considered a de facto country since it declared its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Speaking to Non-Native Speakers

When you have an accent like mine (Geordie, from Newcastle), you have to accept that sometimes you won't be understood. When you speak to non-native speakers, you also have to understand that they may not understand everything. While I agree that there's no true correct way to speak any language, since accents and dialects are a large part of what I believe makes languages so interesting, you do sometimes have to make concessions and change how you speak in your own tongue to help them out.

Just as it's often not acceptable to speak very colloquially or swear in an interview in the UK, I do believe there are good ways and bad ways to speak to non-native speakers. I've seen people do it perfectly and, ashamedly, also terribly.

Firstly, just because somebody does not speak your language natively, does not mean in any way, shape, or form, that they are an idiot. In fact, learning a foreign language is mentally taxing, and it certainly takes a lot of smarts.

Be Calm

There are plenty of tourists and non-native speakers in London.
I've seen people get frustrated with non-native speakers for not immediately understanding what's being said. This is when people tend to be really rude to non-native speakers, speaking to them as if they're hard of hearing, incredibly slowly, with a tone of voice that screams "what the hell is wrong with you!?". It's not fair on them.

Strangely, in my experience I've most often seen this to be the case in parts of the world that heavily rely on international tourism, such as massive cities whose economy is booming thanks to the non-native speakers who just want to share in the culture, enjoy the sights and sounds of the place, and have a good time. I know living in big cities can be stressful, but it's no excuse to ruin somebody's holiday, especially when all they want to do is put their hard-earned pennies into your wallet.

They're learning a foreign language. They're not stupid. They're just another person and they deserve the same kind of respect you'd expect if you were trying to speak their language.

Give Them A Break

There are also those that prefer to give the non-native speaker absolutely no concession for their limited knowledge of their mother tongue. They will speak just as quickly and naturally as they would do with their friends.

Even if the non-native speaker is very good at the language, there's still a chance they'll make mistakes (which can be great if you read Wednesday's post). There's a huge difference between being accommodating by speaking more slowly, using simpler vocabulary, more common structures, and fewer idioms, and being a condescending dick, like in the previous example.

They're Human After All

I think the main point I'm making is that non-native speakers are just other people with hopes, dreams, and feelings. It may be easier to distance yourself from them because they don't speak your language, but don't! They deserve respect and all they want to do is talk to you because they love your language.

How have your experiences been as a non-native speaker speaking with natives? Good or bad? Or do you find yourself inexplicably condescending to non-native speakers in your mother tongue? Tell us about your experiences in the comments below!

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Why You Should Make Mistakes in a Foreign Language

Learning a foreign language is rarely a simple thing. You have to learn tonnes of new vocabulary and words that may hardly resemble anything you've ever seen before. Then there are false friends, the words that look or sound exactly like words in your own language, but have a completely different meaning.

Even then, when you learn a few words, the syntax may be completely different to the syntax in your own language. In this case, you have to train your brain to recognise this in order to make yourself understood and to understand what you read and hear.

Then there's the grammar. Some people can learn grammar with little effort. Then there are people like me, who even struggle with grammar of their mother tongue.

In addition to almost completely changing the way you think, you also have to learn how to pronounce all the phonemes in a language. Learning to use an authentic accent in a foreign language can be difficult if your mother tongue doesn't share many of its phonemes with those of your new language.

It's unlikely that you will gain all this knowledge and all of these skills overnight. Just like learning a musical instrument, there are going to be a few wrong notes here and there. That's not a problem.

Making mistakes and learning from them can be one of the most useful tools in your language learning arsenal. The worst thing you can do is not talk or practice your new language just because you're scared of making a mistake.

Sometimes mistakes can be embarrassing, but in my experience, most people that I've met have always been very understanding to those learning a language. In fact, some of the errors I've made in the past have been amusing, such as telling an older lady that I was horny when I meant to say that I was warm, and telling a friend that I had diarrhoea when I wanted to say a cold. I've never made either of these mistakes since.

So if you're learning a language, don't worry! Make mistakes and learn from them. The improvements you'll make will far outweigh any embarrassment you may suffer from making mistakes.

What's the worst mistake you've made in a foreign language? Tell us about your experiences in the comments below.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Country Profile: The Languages of Sweden

Over the last few months we've dedicated many of our country profiles to African countries due to their rich linguistic diversity. However, today we'll be looking at the languages of Sweden, a Scandinavian country that is the third largest country in the European Union by area.

The Official Language

Unsurprisingly, the official language of Sweden is Swedish, a Germanic language that is closely related to Norwegian and Danish. Swedish is also the native language of the vast majority of Sweden's population. However, despite its longstanding prominence in Swedish society, it was not actually declared the official language of Sweden until 2009.

The Scandinavian Peninsula, with Sweden in the
center, as seen from space in the winter of 2003.
The Recognized Minority Languages

When Sweden named Swedish its official language in 2009, it also gave official recognition to five minority languages: Finnish, Meänkieli, Sami, Romani, and Yiddish. The most spoken of these languages is Finnish, a Uralic language which is the native language of approximately 5% of the country's population. Most of these Finnish speakers are first- and second-generation immigrants.

Meänkieli and the Sami languages also belong to the Uralic language family. Meänkieli, which is the native language of around 50,000 people, is very closely related to Finnish. In fact, due to its mutual intelligibility with Finnish, some consider it to be a dialect instead of a distinct language. The Sami languages, on the other hand, are quite distinct from Finnish due to characteristics such as their many Germanic loanwords. There are several Sami languages, though the exact number varies depending on which linguist you ask.

Sweden is also home to approximately 10,000 native speakers of the various Romani languages. These Indo-Aryan languages are spoken by the Romani people, an ethnic group primarily dispersed throughout Europe and the Americas.

Finally, there's Yiddish, a Germanic language known for its distinctive mix of Hebrew, Aramaic and Slavic vocabulary. There are currently thought to be around 1,000 native Yiddish speakers in Sweden, though most of them are elderly.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Online Linguistic Resources: The CIA World Factbook

On this date in 1947, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was formed in the United States based on the provisions of the National Security Act of 1947. In honor of the founding of one of the world's most famous intelligence agencies, today we're going to take a look at The World Factbook, a reference resource that has been published by the CIA since 1962.

While The World Factbook was originally a classified resource book designed to be used by government officials, it has been made available to the public since 1975. Given its name, it should come as no surprise that it's full of facts about various countries around the world, primarily those related to subjects like demographics, government, people and society, transnational issues, and geography.

I first discovered The World Factbook in secondary school, when I saw it online and noticed that it was a very handy online resource when you needed information about foreign countries. In addition to being easily searchable, the information it contains is fairly reliable since it is a U.S. Government resource that has undoubtedly been fact-checked.

Clipperton Island, which has been uninhabited since 1945.
While it used to be updated yearly, it is now updated almost every week, which also makes it a great resource for students or those who are simply curious about the world. For example, the North Korea page was recently updated to reflect the country's new time zone, which now differs by half an hour from that of South Korea.

If you're interested in languages like us, you can read all about the languages of a specific country or territory in its "People and Society" section. Better still, you can view a list of all of the language information contained within The World Factbook on one page, in some cases complete with percentages of the population that speak the languages. It's not nearly as comprehensive as the Ethnologue when it comes to statistical information related to language use, but it is still a good resource if you only need basic information.

However, if you're interested in learning more about the world and the complex interactions between various countries, it's a fantastic resource. You can learn all kinds of random facts by simply reading bits and pieces of its many entries, from the appropriate demonym for people from Guinea-Bissau (Bissau-Guinean) to the percentage of the inhabitants of Jersey, a British Crown Dependency, that speak Portuguese (nearly 5%). For instance, I just spent a few minutes reading about a beautiful uninhabited island in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Mexico called Clipperton Island, which was named after an English pirate and has been an overseas territory of France since 1935.

Do you know of other great online linguistic resources besides the Ethnologue and The World Factbook? Let us know about them in the comments!

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Why the "Easiest" Terms Can Often Be the Hardest to Translate

One of the things that has most surprised me in my work as a translator is the fact that it's often basic vocabulary and tiny words that cause the most trouble. If you're doing a good job as a translator and paying close attention to detail, you will certainly have to ask your client for more insight into the text from time to time.

When a translator asks a client for clarification, it doesn't mean that they're bad at their job. In fact, it often means the opposite! The job of the translator is to convert the text into their native language in a way that accomplishes the client's goals. For example, the goal of a marketing text is generally to sell a product, while scientific texts often focus on conveying detailed information.

A donkey in Slovenia pondering linguistic ambiguity.
I've been working on lots of legal texts lately, and have been amused to notice that it's not the complex legal terminology that requires me to ask for further clarification, but instead tiny words in Spanish that can sometimes be ambiguous, especially when immersed in legalese.

In my experience, two of the worst Spanish words in terms of ambiguity are su and le. The term su is the third-person singular possessive adjective ("his"/"her"), while le is the third-person singular personal pronoun ("him/"her"). However, in many Spanish speaking countries they use the third-person singular as a way of formally addressing someone, which allows these terms to also mean "your" and "you" respectively.

While it certainly makes sense for legal professionals and their clients to address each other formally, if they don't also use the formal term for "you", usted (also written Ud.), elsewhere in the text, it's only natural to think that the text may be referring to some other person. Context can often help, but sometimes it can be so unclear that you simply have to reach out to your client and ask.

If you don't ask for help, you risk horribly mistranslating the entire text, which can have a large impact on something of a legal nature. There is a big difference between saying "I informed him" and "I informed you", and so on.

Basic vocabulary words can also cause problems from time to time when translating between Spanish and English. I've particularly noticed this in relation to terms for family members found in literary texts, such as hijos, padres, and hermanos. In Spanish, there is no specific neutral term that refers to "children", "parents", and "siblings". Instead, they use the plural of the corresponding masculine family members, which can also be translated as "sons", "fathers", and "brothers".

In some cases, the ambiguity of these terms doesn't matter at all because it is unnecessary to distinguish between genders, so you can use the neutral English terms. However, sometimes the genders of the people involved can matter, especially in a story. When a character is being introduced at the beginning of a story and it says that they have five hermanos, they could be referring to siblings of both genders or brothers. If you translated it as five "brothers", you could later learn that they actually have four sisters and a brother, which could subtly change how readers view the character.

This is why every detail matters to translators, no matter how small. If you ever do hire a translator and they ask for clarification regarding a term like this that seems simple or unimportant, keep in mind that they're actually hard at word deciphering each and every ambiguity that exists in your original text in order to ensure that they convey your ideas as accurately as possible.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Country Profile: The Languages of Benin

Last Monday we looked at the languages of Guinea, an African country that often gets confused with other countries around the world that have similar-sounding names. Today, we'll be turning our attention to another West African country, Benin, which is home to over 50 languages.

The Official Language

Just as in Guinea, the sole official language of Benin is French. As usual, the French language gained importance in this African country during the colonial era. In the early 1900s, the area that is now known as Benin was a French colony called French Dahomey. It gained independence from France in 1960, and eventually changed its name to Benin in 1975.

While French is the official language of Benin, it is generally not the native language of Beninese people. Instead, most people speak one of the country's many indigenous languages, which we'll get to in a moment. However, French is taught in Beninese schools, which is why a large percentage of the population speaks it as a second language.

A 1770 map of West Africa and the
Bight of Benin, which borders Benin.
Indigenous Languages

Two of the most important indigenous languages spoken in Benin are Fon and Yoruba, which are both members of the Niger-Congo language family. Fon, the language of the country's largest ethnic group, is the native language of approximately 1.4 million people in Benin. The Yoruba language, on the other hand, is spoken by nearly 500,000 Beninese people, in addition to having nearly 19 million native speakers in the neighboring country of Nigeria.

Other prominent languages in Benin include Hausa, Baatonum, Gen, and Aja. Hausa is one of the most spoken languages in Africa and is an important lingua franca throughout West Africa, with about 800,000 native speakers in Benin. It is a member of the Afro-Asiatic language family, unlike the rest of these languages, which belong to the Niger-Congo family.

Baatonum, the language of the Bariba people, is the native language of approximately 450,000 people in Benin. Both Gen and Aja are Gbe languages, a group of closely related languages that includes Fon. Many of the 20 or so Gbe languages are spoken by significant numbers of Beninese people, including Aja, with about 350,000 native speakers, and Gen, which has around 120,000.

Finally, there's Fulfulde and Yom, which are both spoken throughout West Africa. Fulfulde, also known as Fula or Fulani, is spoken by about 280,000 people in Benin, while Yom has around 300,000 speakers. Of course, there are a few dozen other languages used in Benin, but they are spoken by smaller percentages of the population and we simply don't have time to mention them all.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Why Things Get Lost in Translation

I often get asked for the equivalent of bon appétit (or its equivalents in other languages) in English. It's a question that I always struggle to really answer. I can say "enjoy your meal", but it doesn't really sound right to me because that's just something that we do. Some families and friends say grace before their meal, while others just drop the plates on the table and start shovelling in the food. So even though the sentiment can be vaguely expressed, it might not be very natural for everyone.

This is where culture plays an important role in translation. While words can express something linguistically, the ways different cultures do different things means that you may only rarely be able to really express what one culture says to another.

For example, greetings throughout the day can vary wildly throughout languages. English appears to have an expression for almost every part of the day: "good morning", "good afternoon", "good evening", and "good night".

In other languages it may not be that easy. Some languages may have the same number of greetings, but the times that are considered morning, afternoon, evening, and night may be somewhat different. Others may just differentiate between day, when the sun is out and shining (which it rarely does in England, anyway) and when it's dark.

These differences between cultures, how people consider things, and how they see the world around them, can be awkward to navigate when translating. Especially when things are classified differently, or contain sub-classifications that do not exist in your language.

I'm fairly certain this would be hibou.
French natives have told me that there is a world of difference between a chouette and a hibou, but as an English speaker, they all look like owls to me. The main difference between the two is that one (hibou) features aigrettes, which are a sort of distinctive head plumage, while the other (chouette) does not.

This means that if the distinction being made in French is very important, you can't just say "owl", as the information pertaining to the head plumage is being lost. However, if this distinction is not particularly important, you would probably omit a description of whether or not this bird has plumage, meaning that some information has been lost in translation.

Of course, this is hardly a dire situation when speaking casually or in a text that has nothing to do with the birds themselves. However, my main point is that the act of translation always carries some degree of loss or degradation, because the amount of information contained in every word, even those that are very similar, may contain slightly less information in the target language.

However, the contrary can always be true. It's also possible that the source word contains less information than the closest equivalent in the target language. That means the translation can end up with connotations that were never there in the first place.

There's a difference between something getting lost in translation because the language is incapable of expressing something in an identical way to the source and a translation that is just bad because the translator misunderstood the source text or expressed it poorly due to not having a good understanding of the target language.

The best way to avoid these losses is to learn the language and experience the culture so that you never have to worry about it. Otherwise, just make sure you have a good translator!

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Drizzle, Sprinkle, Mist: The Etymology of a Rainy Day

Sometimes it's hard to focus on anything but the dreary weather when it has been dark and rainy all day, so today we're going to try to make the best of it by exploring the etymology of various terms related to rain, including "mist", "pour", and my personal favorite, "drizzle".

Obviously, we should start our linguistic exploration with rain, a term likely to be of Germanic origin that first appeared in Old English as regn. However, it could actually date as far back as the Proto-Indo-European *reg, which means "wet" and is thought to be the source of the Latin verb rigare, which means "to wet".

A gloomy, misty day in Wayanad, India.
One of the strangest weather-related phrases in common usage is raining cats and dogs, which refers to heavy rainfall. Nobody knows for sure where the phrase came from, but we do know that it has been used since the 1730s!

If you prefer not to imagine furry pets falling from the sky, you might use terms like pouring or teeming to refer to heavy rainstorms. The verb pour is of unknown origins, though it might have come from Old French or Latin. It has been used as an adjective to refer to heavy rain since around 1600. Teeming, on the other hand, comes from the Old English term teman, which means "to abound, swarm, be prolific".

However, my favorite terms are fun-sounding words like drizzle, sprinkle, and mist, which all refer to light rain. Drizzle is thought to come from the Old English word dreosan, meaning "to fall", while mist comes from an identical Old English term. However, the original definition of "mist" was "dimness of the eyes", which could refer to tears obscuring your vision or things figuratively obscuring your mental clarity. Given the distinctive sound of the word sprinkle, you probably won't be surprised to learn that it came to English via the Middle Low German term sprenkle, meaning "spot, speck". It has been used to refer to light rain since the 1770s.

Finally, there are the more violent terms related to rain, such as storm, flood, and deluge. The first two terms both entered our lexicon from Old English, namely the terms storm and flōd. Deluge, on the other hand, comes from the Latin word diluvium, a synonym for "flood", which became deluge in Old French before being incorporated into the English language.

If we left our your favorite rain-related term, you might find it in this BBC piece from 2012 that discusses some of the many British words for rain. We highly recommend watching the video in which a weatherman uses several entertaining words for rain, including mizzling!

Monday, September 7, 2015

Country Profile: The Languages of Guinea

Last week we explored the linguistic landscape of Somalia, and today we're going to look at the languages of another African country, Guinea.

First though, we'd like to point out that we're talking about the West African country of Guinea, not the neighboring country of Guinea-Bissau (where they speak Portuguese) or the nearby countries of Equatorial Guinea (where Spanish is spoken) and Ghana (where English is used). It's also important not to confuse Guinea with Papua New Guinea, which is located across the world in Oceania, or Guyana and French Guiana, which can both be found in South America. Now that it's clear which country we're talking about, let's learn a bit about Guinea!

Conakry Grande Mosque
The Official Language

The sole official language of Guinea is French, a colonial language which has remained important in the country since its independence from France in 1958. French is used by the government and other official institutions, as well as in business and education. However, it is most often spoken as a second language instead of as a native language.

The National Languages

The government of Guinea has also recognized six indigenous languages as national languages: Fula, Maninka, Susu, Kissi, Kpelle, and Toma. All six of these languages belong to the Niger-Congo language family, and are used by significant percentages of the population.

Fula, an important language used throughout West Africa, is the native language of approximately 2.5 million Guineans. It is primarily spoken in the central parts of the country. There's also Maninka, a group of closely related language varieties and dialects spoken by the Malinké people. There are around 3 million speakers of Maninka in Guinea.

Susu is primarily spoken in the areas surrounding Conakry, the capital of Guinea, and is the native language of around 900,000 Guineans. There are also approximately 500,000 native speakers of the Kpelle language, which is also used in Liberia. Finally, there are about 300,000 Kissi speakers and over 200,000 speakers of the Toma language.

Other Languages

According to the Ethnologue, Guinea is the home of 37 living languages. Most of these languages belong to the Niger-Congo language family, and are used by very small numbers of Guineans. A few of these languages include Zialo, Lele, and Jahanka, which are all Niger-Congo languages that have between 20,000 and 30,000 native speakers in Guinea.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Language in Television: The Use of Russian in "The Americans"

As the end of summer quickly approaches, I've been spending my evenings watching The Americans, a television series that first debuted in 2013. If you haven't heard of this critically acclaimed show before, it's a period drama set in the 1980s that focuses on the lives of two undercover Soviet spies who appear to be living a typical American life in the suburbs with their two American-born children, when in fact they're involved in all kinds of dangerous KGB missions in order to help "Mother Russia" win the Cold War.

One of my favorite aspects of the show is the fact that its characters always seem to be speaking the language that they would naturally use in real life. In general, television shows designed for English-speaking audiences tend to avoid the use of foreign dialogue because it requires the use of subtitles. Supposedly, many viewers will simply refuse to watch such shows because they can't be bothered to read the subtitles (though who knows how true this statement actually is), so instead, most shows feature scenes in which characters speak English with terrible accents.

Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, two key
historical figures referenced in The Americans.
However, The Americans isn't like most shows, which I find fascinating. The two main characters, played by American actress Keri Russell and Welsh actor Matthew Rhys, always speak English, but it is made clear early in the series that they have been ordered never to speak Russian while living in the United States, ostensibly because this is something that an actual American would never do.

As the series progresses though, many scenes take place in the Rezidentura, the KGB office in the Soviet embassy. The characters in these scenes almost exclusively speak Russian to each other, which makes them seem much more authentic. Since most people watching the show probably don't know Russian, English subtitles are added to these scenes. I've been particularly impressed with how well they are done, especially since sentences are often broken up so that they have more of an impact.

I only know a handful of words in Russian, yet the depth of these scenes has sucked me into the story to the point that my favorite characters are the people working in the Rezidentura. It's also worth noting that almost all of the characters that regularly speak Russian in the series are native Russian speakers. On the rare occasion that television series and films do use characters that speak foreign languages, they often have a dialect coach train someone who doesn't speak the language instead of just hiring a native.

I certainly can't say that I've become an expert in the Russian language from watching The Americans, but I am slowly picking up the occasional word or two. I've also learned a bit about linguistic customs, since I was interested in the fact that the Russian-speaking characters always addressed each other using two names, such as Nina Sergeevna. After doing a bit of internet research, I learned that they were not using first and last names, but instead formally addressing each other by using the first name and the patronymic, a name based on the father's first name.

One final linguistic characteristic of the show that I've found interesting was a particular scene in which Keri Russell's character receives a cassette tape with a message in Russian from her mother. It was a particularly fascinating scene because there were no subtitles - if you don't know Russian, then you merely have to rely on Keri Russell's emotional responses in order to interpret what is being said. While she does eventually mention what was on the tape in a later scene, it did serve to show just how much information can be conveyed by facial expressions and movements.

Have you seen The Americans? What do you think of its use of Russian? Do you know of any other television series which feature characters that speak foreign languages and use subtitles? Let us know in the comments below.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Is Handwriting Dying?

The other day while I was listening to music on Spotify, my auditory enjoyment was interrupted by an advertisement for Bic pens that piqued my interest. It was all about the importance of handwriting and the various benefits it can have for your life, including better academic results. Obviously, Bic has a vested interest in extolling the benefits of handwriting - after all, if nobody is writing anymore, then they won't need to buy pens.

However, their cleverly named "Fight For Your Write" marketing campaign got me thinking about handwriting, and whether it is quickly becoming a thing of the past. I started to think about how often I actually write things by hand anymore, and realized that it is something I only rarely do. In the past several months, I've handwritten a few shopping lists, I've written messages in a couple of wedding and birthday cards, and on rare occasion, I've jotted down some notes on a pad of paper.

Here's what this post would look like handwritten.
The thing is, I imagine that I actually write far more often than the average person in today's technology-filled world. I usually carry a small pad of paper and a pen around in my purse in case I need to write something down when I'm out and about, but nowadays most people would just use their smartphone to do this.

As someone who grew up just as computers, the internet, and cellphones took over the world, it's hard to imagine life without handwriting, especially childhood. As a teenager, I remember my friends and I filling notebooks with stories and drawings and notes that we passed to each other between classes. I wonder if kids just text each other instead now.

I also remember how thrilling it was when we would get letters every month or so in French class from our pen pals across the ocean in France. We would marvel at how neat their handwriting was and how they wrote on graph paper, and were so excited to see the drawings and photos they included. I bet if they do things like this in schools today, they probably send emails.

Maybe I'm just old-fashioned, but I always feel like things that are handwritten seem more personal and special. It's especially exciting to get a letter from a friend in the mail nowadays, given how rare that is. It makes me sad to think that handwriting is quickly disappearing from our lives.

So, despite the fact that Bic is clearly just trying to sell more pens, I'm not annoyed anymore when their advertisement interrupts my music. I doubt that they're going to make much of a difference in terms of preventing smartphones and computers and all the other forms of technology out there from completely taking over the role of handwriting in the next few years, but it is kind of nice that they're trying... she says while typing this blog post on a laptop.

How's your handwriting? Do you prefer easy-to-read printed type or the personal touch of a handwritten note? Do you think handwriting is dying? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below!