Monday, December 19, 2016

Collateral Adjectives in the English Language

English is an interesting language. About a third of its lexicon comes from Latin, a third from French, and a quarter from Germanic languages. It's these diverse origins that have helped cause a lot of collateral adjectives. But what are they?

A collateral adjective is an adjective whose origins are not derived from the noun it describes. For example, when we take about things related to our mouths, we talk about things being oral. This is because the word for "mouth" has Germanic roots while "oral" comes from Latin and etymologically are unrelated but semantically related.

An avian image.
When we talk about animals and food in English, animals are usually named using their Germanic and Anglo-Saxon roots and food is referred to using terms of Latin and French origins. A similar thing has occurred with animals and their adjectives. For example, the adjective for birds is avian and for cats we use feline. Dogs are canine and horses are equine. There are plenty of animal examples of collateral adjectives.

The same is also true for the body. In daily life, we prefer to refer to body parts with their Anglo-Saxon or Germanic names. However, medicine has often preferred using Latin or Greek terms. This means the adjective for brain is cerebral and for eyes we use optic. Ear is aural and heart is cardiac.

Science also preferred using Latin and Greek terms which means collateral adjectives are often used to describe phenomena found in science. For example, heat comes from Germanic, but its adjective thermal is Greek through and through.

Thanks to the English language's interesting history, there are tons of collateral adjectives. What are your favourite collateral adjectives? Tell us about them in the comments below.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Manners Cost Nothing: Being Polite in the English Language

English is a tricky language to master. In addition to irregular pronunciation and thousands of exceptions to every grammatical rule, you also have to navigate some of our weird customs, such as being polite.

So how can you be polite in English? Let's have a look at a couple of tricks you can use.

Would, Could, Should

We could go to the opera, instead.
In English it's better to avoid directly saying what you want. Rather than giving direct orders, you should make suggestions. There are some great ways to do this just by using different words in your sentences.

The words would, could, should are great for being polite. Instead of saying that you want something, say that you would like something. Rather than "I want to go to the cinema this Saturday", you could say "I would like to go to the cinema this Saturday".

You can also make suggestions using could. For example: "We could go to the cinema this Saturday".

Finally, you can use should to suggest things. In English, we use the word to imply a weak obligation and to give polite suggestions. For example: "We should go to the cinema this Saturday".

Avoid Negative Wording and Directly Disagreeing

You should avoid using negative words when you can. Instead, use a negative structure with positive words. Rather than "that's a bad idea", you could say "that's not a good idea". Directly disagreeing should also be avoided. "I don't really agree" should be used instead of "I disagree".

Of course, you don't always need to be this polite. Amongst trusted friends and colleagues, this level of politeness may be excessive. Being overly polite to close friends may be construed as fake and scheming.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Languages in the News: November 2016

It's that time again when we bring you the best language news stories from last month. Let's get straight to it with a story from Slate about the US presidential election. Thanks to Americans going to the polls, American English has some new vocabulary including the verb early vote. You can read about how this election changed language here.

There was a lot of love within the language community for Arrival, a sci-fi film about linguists who have to find a way to communicate with aliens who show up on Earth. NPR was full of praise for the film and its focus on language. Read what they had to say here.

Earth looks like a fine place to visit.
The Washington Post (WP) looked at Arrival from the effect it had on the profile of linguists. While we've always believed linguists were cool, WP reckoned that the film helped to raise the profile of linguists and make them "almost cool". Read all about these almost-cool linguists here.

Business Insider focused on the film's accuracy and portrayal of linguists at work. In an interview with Jessica Coon, the linguist who consulted on the film, they discuss how the work and practices of linguists were very accurately represented. Of course, there were still a few falsehoods that Hollywood let slip in the name of entertainment. Read about them here.

With the end of the year rolling in, you can expect plenty "of the year" articles and stories to start popping up. Oxford Dictionary's Word of the Year was already decided in November and the BBC ran the story. Learn more about the word of the year here.

With the Word of the Year decided, it's hardly surprising that Oxford Dictionaries provided their own articles on it. There was one article we found particularly interesting about the other words considered for the word of the year. You can check them out here.

The New York Times gave us a fascinating article on Catalan in Italy. The language is under threat in Alghero, on the island of Sicily, where it is still spoken, despite very few efforts from the Italy to protect it. Read about these unsual struggles here

Our last great language news stories both come from NPR. In one story, they explained how California decided after nearly two decades to reintroduce bilingual education which you can read about here. In another related story, you can also read about the benefits of bilingual education on the brain here.

If there were any interesting stories we missed, feel free to tell us about them in the comments below.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Misnomers: Words We Know Are Wrong

Misnomers are the reason we drive on a parkway and park on a driveway. While native speakers know what they mean, misnomers can be pretty misleading for non-native speakers. So how did we end up with misnomers if we know they're wrong?

Time makes fools of us all.

Over time, misnomers will be created thanks to words changing meaning or keeping an old name that should no longer apply. Language can be pretty stubborn at times and people even more so!

Take tin foil for example. It used to be made out of tin but they've been making it out of aluminium since the second world war. Similarly, a tin can does use tin but calling it a tin-plated steel can would be more accurate.

If you chew your pencil, you needn't worry about lead poisoning. The inside of a pencil obviously isn't made of lead the metal. It's made from graphite, which we used to think was lead ore, and the name stuck.

Be kind, rewind!
Modern technology is creating plenty of misnomers. You still dial phone numbers even though most phones don't even have a dial on them. While you can't physically pick up or hang up modern phones, we still say we do it anyway!

We can still rewind DVDs, Blu-rays, CDs, and songs despite not having any reels or tape to wind!

A part is greater than the sum of its whole.

Misnomers also arise due to something called pars pro toto (a part for the whole. This is when a smaller or constituent part of something is used to name the whole thing. This happens a lot with the names of places.

The best example is probably Holland. The term is used to describe The Netherlands when it is actually just a region within the country.

The same happens with England or Great Britain being used to talk about the United Kingdom, which is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Island, if you were wondering.

Speaking of England, if you've ever visited Big Ben in London, you probably visited the Elizabeth Tower. Big Ben refers to the bell within the tower and isn't even the bell's official name! It's called The Great Bell.

Good enough for me!

Some misnomers seem downright mad. Put a guinea pig next to a pig and it won't take a genius to tell that they aren't pigs. It's pretty clear that starfish and jellyfish aren't fish. At least they do look like stars and jelly, though.

Neither peanuts nor coconuts are nuts. They're legumes and fruits! Are you going to stop eating them because of that? I doubt it!

Monday, November 21, 2016

Anglish: The English Language at its "Purest"

The English language has been on one hell of a journey. It's a Germanic language, but it's got plenty of loanwords from other languages. Over half of the vocabulary comes from French, Latin, and Greek. But what if it didn't? What if the only words we used came from Germanic and Anglo-Saxon roots?

This is how we get Anglish, English but without any "foreign" words. Sometimes it's also called Root English, as it's English going back to its roots. The thing is, Anglish can't be elegent, it can only be swanky. So how did we get here?

Some Greek and Latin words entered Old English thanks to Christianity and the Norman invasion in the 11th Century meant the upper echelons of society spoke French, giving words with French roots more prestige than their Anglo-Saxon equivalents.

This didn't become an issue until the 16th and 17th centuries when Middle English was becoming Modern English. Some writers at the time borrowed words with Latin roots, since Latin was used in academia, in order to sound fancy. Other writers hated the pointlessness of using words that already had perfectly adequate English equivalents with Anglo-Saxon roots.

Of course, some of the words borrowed into English around this time are still commonly used, like dismiss, celebrate, encyclopedia, commit, capacity and ingenious. Others disappeared from use as quickly as they were introduced, such as expede.

A fine specimen for birdlorists.
In the 19th Century, the writer William Barnes went so far as to create his own Anglo-Saxon words as counterparts to the commonly used Latin ones. Barnes preferred using the word birdlore to ornithology and was much more bendsome (flexible) in his use of a pure English language. Overkill, perhaps?

George Orwell wasn't a fan of writers using Latin words either. In fact, he went so far to say that "Bad writers [...] are haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones".

Personally, I don't think we need to avoid all Latin and Greek words, the English language has some beautiful words thanks to these languages (and their derivatives). However, I don't automatically think you're fancy because you use Latin words, there's nothing wrong with Anglo-Saxon and Germanic words, either!

What do you think? Shall we keep English "pure" or do you like our elegant Latin and Greek words? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Speaking to Aliens: The Arecibo Message

On 16th November 1974, a radio message was sent with the objective of being received by aliens. Of course, it would be fairly foolish to send the message in any of our terrestrial languages. So what is the best way to communicate with aliens?

Making it Decipherable

When we transmit communications terrestrially, the transmitters and receivers know how to decode the information. When sending a message to either many or zero alien civilisations, you can't assume they'd use any of the established systems we have here on earth.

Instead, the Arecibo Message alternated its frequency and communicated in binary, a series of either "on" or "off" signals. The message consisted of 1,679 binary signals.

If, like me, you're not a mathematician, that number probably means nothing to you. However, 1,679 is known as a semiprime, meaning that it is the product two prime numbers (numbers only divisible by themselves and one).

The number 1,679 can only be divided by 73 or 23 to give an answer that is a whole number (giving the other number as the result). This means the 1,679 signals can only be arranged rectangular image measuring 23x73 or 73x23.

If you arrange the message as 23x73, it doesn't look like anything and is nonsensical. However, if you arrange it 73x23, the message will display a simple message that aims to tell aliens who we are and what we're all about in the simplest way possible.

Keeping it Short and Simple

The Arecibo Radio Telescope
Since the transmission lasted less than three minutes, there wasn't really much time to tell the whole story of the human race. Instead, the information to transmit was carefully selected in order to "hi" in the most effective way possible:

The decimal system (the numbers from one to ten) was included.

Then the atomic number of the elements that make up our DNA, hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and phosphorous.

Nucleotides, the molecules that make up our DNA, were then included. With this information,

They then gave them our double-helix structure. At this rate, the aliens basically have a snapshot of our genetic makeup. I guess if they were advanced enough, they could build their own versions of us, if they cared enough.

In case there were any doubts, an image of a stick figure was also included in order to show the aliens where our limbs and head go.

M13, the message's destination.
Since they knew who we were, and supposedly the general area of where the message was coming from, a small map of our solar system was also included which pointed out that we reside on the third planet from the sun.

Finally, a representation of the Arecibo radio telescope was included which signs off the message.

Waiting for an Answer

The Arecibo message will take 25,000 years to reach its destination. If aliens receive and decipher the message, and decide to message back immediately, it'll take another 25,000 years for us to get the answer. I wouldn't wait by the phone and nor will anyone at the Arecibo radio telescope.

In fact, the message was always thought of as a bit of a long shot and only really sent in order to show off what the Arecibo radio telescope was capable of! With that said, I still reckon communicating with alien life is an interesting idea and hope you also did!

Monday, November 7, 2016

Languages in the News: October 2016

With the US election taking place tomorrow, you'll have noticed that it has dominated the headlines, especially last month. However, there were still plenty of interesting news stories on languages and today we're bringing you some of favourites. Let's get to it.

The Guardian discussed which words are considered offensive on television and other media. If you'd like to read about offensive words, check out the story here. Later in the month, they also told us about 10 words that changed meaning as well as the word of the year.

TechCrunch brought us the news that Google has implemented neural machine translation. Read about how this type of machine translation is almost as good as human translation here.

Mashable had an interesting story on My Grandmother's Lingo, an interactive animation to help teach an endangered language. Read about the animation here.

Some news outlets in the UK decided to claim that immigration would be to blame for changes in the English language over the next 50 years. The Conversation debunked these claims and likened them to an outdated way of thinking about languages. Read the full article here.

Quartz had an article on articles and Donald Trump sounding racist (not for the first time). Why did his use of "the" when referring to African Americans make him sound racist? You can find the answer in the article here.

Brexit is still making the headlines in the UK. The BBC was reporting on claims from MPs that Brexit could result in a nationwide language crisis.

USA Today was looking at the current president, rather than the hopefuls being elected tomorrow. The article had ratings of Obama's abilities in various languages (or lack thereof in French). Read about them here.

Following the presidential debate in which Trump said "bad hombres", Merriam Webster received a huge spike in searches for both hombres and ombre. Read their story on it (and the differences between the two words) here.

Elsewhere Oxford Dictionaries' blog was discussing some awesome Japanese words that should be in the English language. Read about them here. They also had a fascinating articles olesser-known letters of the English alphabet.
n some of the

Those are our favourites from this month. Are there any important language news stories we missed or that you think we should have mentioned? Tell us about them in the comments below.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Esquivalience: Fighting Copyright Infringement with Language

If you've ever needed to know the meaning of a word, you probably looked in a dictionary. More often than not, it probably didn't matter which dictionary you looked in, they're all the same right?

In most ways, all dictionaries are very similar. They do have the very same objective, after all. They have to list the most common words in a given language and provide said words with a definition. With this very specific goal, it's not surprising that the end result can be very similar.

Similar but not the same. Dictionaries being similar is explainable. If they're the same, somebody's probably copied your dictionary. It's very difficult to go page-by-page through the dictionary trying to prove your dictionary has been copied. Verifying that every page and every word is the same is a tricky and lengthy process.

You'd have to be pretty eagle-eyed to catch a fake word in
the dictionary.
So how do you stop people copying you? You plant a trap for the counterfeiters. Since nobody really reads the dictionary in order to verify all the words are genuinely used, you can place a false entry without arousing too much suspicion. Just like hiding a needle in a haystack.

The New Oxford American Dictionary featured one such trap. Within the dictionary they placed the word esquivalience. The word's definition was "the willful avoidance of one's official responsibilities". Since the word doesn't exist, if it appears in another dictionary, they could be sure that people were copying their dictionary and could take the appropriate legal action.

The website dictionary.com fell into their trap. Additionally, they didn't even cite the correct dictionary they'd copied it from. They said it was from Webster's. What happens if we start using esquivalience? I guess they'll just have to hide another fake word in the dictionary.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Are We Different People in Different Languages?

I love using foreign languages to speak to new people, to learn about different cultures, and to look at the world through a different set of eyes. Littwengstein said "the limits of my language mean the limits of my world". Does that mean different languages occupy different worlds, and if so, am I a different person in each of them?

There's a Persian proverb that states "a new language is a new life", and a Czech one which says "those who know many languages live as many lives as the languages they know". Are these just fancy metaphors or is there more to it than that?

Broca's area, where languages live.
Studies dating back to the '60s show that we respond differently according to the language we're speaking. In one such study, when respondents were asked to create a story from an illustration, the language used altered the general themes of the story. Similar results were achieved when participants were told to finish sentences.

These experiments were just the beginning and were fairly subjective. Later studies showed that language could affect how outgoing you are and the way you behave. Does this mean that certain languages promote assertiveness while others discourage it? Or is it a cultural thing, since different languages usually exist within different cultures?

It's very difficult to separate language and culture. I would imagine (and hope) that you behave differently in a job interview than out at night in the pub. When you speak different languages, you often do so in vastly different social situations too.

If you speak one language with your parents and another with your friends, perhaps you're more respectful in one, while outgoing and relaxed in another. If you work in one language but "play" in another, surely this also affects your behaviour.

More recent studies seem to show that while we aren't completely different people, our personalities do change depending on the situation, who we're with, and which language we're speaking. We sort of develop alter egos, further supporting the idea that multilinguals are indeed superheroes!

Do different languages change your personality or not? Tell us what you think in the comments below!

Monday, October 17, 2016

Are Tomatoes Fruits or Vegetables? Or Both?

When you buy produce at my supermarket, you have to weigh it yourself. I always struggle to find the tomatoes on the scales because the first thing you have to do is choose "fruit" or "vegetable". At the supermarket it's a vegetable, but I remember my father telling me it was a fruit (he's a horticulturalist).

Can it be both? The tomato isn't the problem, it's the terms "fruits" and "vegetables". When the tomato is classified as a fruit, we're considering it as "fruit" in the botanical sense. All botanists agree that the tomato is the fruit of the tomato plant. That's great if you want to grow them in the garden, but terrible once you take them into the kitchen.

The poor old tomato looks pretty lonely in this diagram.
Have you ever eaten a fruit salad with tomatoes in it? Probably not. This is because in terms of taste, tomatoes don't go very well with other fruits.

When cooking, classifying plants by their botanical function is fairly pointless. However, if you classify them according to their culinary function, you'll end up with better meals. This is how the tomato gets classified as a vegetable, along with a number of other botanical fruits that don't taste very good with their fellow fruits.

Additionally, in the US, the tomato is legally classified as a vegetable. In the late 19th century, an importer in New York argued that he was exempt from paying import duty on "foreign vegetables" because his tomatoes were fruits. While "botanically" correct, the Supreme Court didn't favour his smart-arsery and declared the fruit a vegetable for legal purposes.

So, is a tomato a fruit or a vegetable? If you're a botanist, it's a fruit. If you're a chef, it's a vegetable. And if you're a lawyer, it's also a vegetable. Don't even get us started on cucumbers!

Monday, October 10, 2016

Languages in the News: September 2016

Today we're looking back at all the language headlines from September that caught our eye. Let's get straight to it.

There was an interesting article on NPR's website highlighting an interview with John McWhorter where he spoke about the English language's "interesting little wrinkles". You can read the full article here.

The Guardian looked at Miriwoong, an endangered language found in Australia. Today the language is only spoken by a few elders after decades of decline. You can read all about Miriwoong here.

We're obviously huge fans of languages at The Lingua File, and it's always great to hear good news about them. Bustle.com published an article at the start of the month reporting how learning a new language can make you smarter. You can learn about being smarter here.

A language in Corsica was causing controversy this month, and DW reported on it. Nationalists on the French island have demanded that the language have an equal status to that of French. Read about the controversy here.

Slate's Lexicon Valley, one of our favourite blogs, had an interesting story in which Merriam-Webster's Twitter account responded to the author's comments about how "chill" the dictionary was in a sassy and humorous way. Check out the tale here.

Scientific American was looking at how alternative views are replacing Noam Chomsky's work on language learning and universal grammar. Read about it here.

These days it's rare to hear good news about the Syrian refugee crisis. However, four local authorities in Scotland are piloting an English language scheme for Syrian refugees. Read the BBC's story here.

John Rentoul wrote about autological words (words that describe themselves) in The Independent. See some of his favourites and most interesting ones here.

News.com.au had an amusing article on how bloody difficult English must be to learn as a second language. You can see some frustratingly fabulous examples here.

The Telegraph covered the story on recording dolphins having a conversation. That's right. Dolphins were having a good old chinwag. Read about it here.

The Conversation said language could be our "most impressive technological invention". We'd have to agree with them! If you'd like to know why, read the article here.

As we all know, Latin's a "dead" language. Seeker covered how this language actually ended up dead. See for yourself here.

The Irish Times had a great article about Benny Lewis (you may know him from his site www.fluentin3months.com) and his ongoing quest to learn languages in just three months. Read his story here.

And last but not least, The Financial Times looked at how learning English (as the world's lingua franca) isn't always a good thing. Read about some of the problems here.

That's it for this week. Don't forget to share interesting language stories and articles in the comments below.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Book Club: Words on the Move by John McWhorter

Since I love learning about the intricacies of language and enjoy reading books, it seems only natural that I would love to read books about language. However, many books about language end up being tedious and boring due to an overabundance of technical terminology, or simply feel like an endless list of word-related facts.

Luckily, neither of these things is true of Words on the Move: Why English Won't - and Can't - Sit Still (Like, Literally) by linguist John McWhorter. In this new book, he expertly describes how and why language is constantly changing, and why that's actually a good thing, supported by an arsenal of well-chosen, amusing examples.

Butterflies also always seem to be on the move!
For example, in the first chapter he discusses how words are constantly becoming more personal, in ways that fall into four categories that make up the handy acronym FACE: factuality, acknowledgment, counterexpectation, and easing. While this may initially sound like it would lead to overly technical explanations, McWhorter instead delves into each category by looking at the evolution of individual terms like literally, you know, -ass (as in big-ass) and LOL.

Many of these terms would normally be discounted by English speakers as being unimportant, and perhaps even be considered to have no meaning. However, McWhorter's amusing descriptions show how incredibly meaningful they can be in communication. By the end of the first chapter, my entire perspective on the use of terms like literally had been completely changed. I'm also quite curious to see if I will no longer be annoyed by hearing "improper" use of literally, or whether I'll start using more emoticons now that I've taken more time to consider their usefulness in communication.

Subsequent chapters are equally interesting, such as the second chapter's discussion of how words "ooze" from meaning to meaning based on common implications instead of drifting aimlessly, as we often think. One of my favorite excerpts of the book was the description of how merry, pretzel and bra all evolved from the same source, which seems completely unbelievable.

Other facets of the constantly shifting linguistic landscape covered in the book include the grammaticalization of words (such as how the word like became the suffix -ly), how vowels are on the move just like words, and how new words are created. If you love languages as much as we do here at The Lingua File, then I'm sure you'll find at least one section that captures your attention.

Have you read Words on the Move? If so, let us know what you thought of it in the comments below! If you know of any other great language-related books, feel free to provide your recommendations as well.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Retronyms: Renaming the Past

Languages evolve over time. The words we use change, as does the way we use them. Today I'd like to take a look at retronyms, which are created when we rename something from the past because something newer is now the most common usage of a particular word. Here are a few of the most common reasons for and examples of retronyms.

Technology

A reel-to-reel. It was originally known as a tape recorder,
until modern tape recorders came about.
Technology is often responsible for the creation of retronyms. Nowadays almost everything is digital, while previous technology was analogue (without the ue if you're from the US). Before digital technologies, things like clocks and watches were just that, clocks and watches. Now, with the advent of digital clocks and watches, it is common to say an analogue clock or an analogue watch in order to differentiate.

Before email, we simply had mail. Now, you might hear people refer to the sending of letters, cards, and packages as snail mail (as it is much slower than email).

As automatic systems became increasingly common, use of the term manual became necessary. In the UK, most of the cars we drive are manual, but in the US, cars are often automatic, making the distinction necessary.

Landline phones were just phones before we had mobile phones. With smartphones becoming more and more common, are we going to start calling older models dumbphones?

Media

The way we refer to media changes as we develop newer technologies. For example, all films used to have no sound. Once films had sound, those without became silent films or silent movies.

Now that films are almost always in colour, a lot of older films are said to be black and white. Likewise, what was once just animation is often called traditional animation to differentiate it from computer animation.

Numbers

Anything with a sequel or later numbered version often gets a retronym. For example, the first Star Wars film was originally called just Star Wars. Now it's Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, as Star Wars became the title for the entire series.

Other examples include video consoles and computers. The original PlayStation is often referred to as the PlayStation 1 or PS1 to differentiate it from the three subsequent versions released, numbered 2, 3, and 4, obviously.

Classics

Newer versions of things often mean we call the first version the classic version. Remember Coca-Cola's failed attempt at New Coke? Me neither. However, when the company's new version of Coca-Cola failed, they were forced to bring back the old version, which became Coca-Cola Classic or Classic Coke.

Historical Events

I remember studying World War I and World War II in school. However, for the poor souls living through the first of these tragic events, it was just referred to as The Great War, it only became the First World War after we continued to make the same mistakes again. Let's pray there's never a third.

Languages

In the UK, we speak British English. Previously, this was known simply as English until it became necessary to differentiate between British, American, and other varieties of English.

These are just a few examples of retronyms. Which are your favourites? Can you think of any possible future examples, such as non-virtual reality, for example? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below.

Monday, September 19, 2016

How Translation Is Like A Puzzle

Just over a year ago, I wrote a post about why I believe translation is a fascinating career. In it, I primarily focused on how my translation career has given me the opportunity to constantly learn about new topics that I never would have learned about otherwise, as well as add diverse terminology to my personal lexicon, related to everything from Mediterranean fish species to industrial machinery.

Last week, I suddenly realized another reason I love translating: sometimes, it's like doing a puzzle! I've always been a puzzle fanatic, from jigsaw puzzles to crossword puzzles. There's something so satisfying about taking different pieces and fitting them together to create a new whole.

In many situations, translations are straightforward, and choosing the right words to convey the source text in the target language is quite simple. However, in some cases, such as a large translation I worked on last week, they can be a bit of a puzzle.

There are many reasons why the translation I was working on last week felt like a puzzle. First of all, the document I was translating was for a translation agency instead of the actual client. While you can often rely on getting additional context from a direct client, it's much more difficult when working through an agency. In this particular case, there was no way for me or the agency to reach out to the document's writer for more information, so I had to do a bit of detective work during the translation process.

As I've mentioned in the past, sometimes the little things can be the most difficult in translation, including grammatical aspects like gender. In this case, I was dealing with a report that referred to people either by their last names or by simply using third-person singular verb conjugations. This posed an issue because Spanish doesn't require the use of the words él and ella ("he" and "she") before conjugated verbs.

While I could have used the neutral singular "they" instead, it would have made the report much harder to read. In some cases, I found a stray él or ella with a name that allowed me to determine whether the person was female or male, so I could use phrases like "she said" and "he noticed" instead of using the singular "they". In other circumstances, the person's full name would be mentioned, but then I'd have to figure out what gender corresponded to their name.

Luckily, Spanish naming customs are helpful in that respect. Not only do Spanish speakers tend to choose from a much narrower list of names than English speakers, but they are also fairly gender-specific. From a translator's standpoint, that's incredibly helpful, as you can feel fairly confident it's accurate to refer to someone named María as "she", and José as "he". However, there were still a few stray names that I had to research online in order to determine the correct gender pronoun to use.

Another thing that made this translation like a puzzle was the fact that since I couldn't contact the original writer, I had to try to put myself in their place and see things from their perspective. In a sense, I was acting like a detective, trying to decipher their meaning. Certain sections of the report were clearly written for an audience with far more context than me, so I had to simply do my best by filling in a tentative translation while guessing their meaning. Luckily, as I worked my way through the document, additional details filled in the contextual gaps, so I was able to go back and make those tentative translations more accurate.

In the end, after a week's worth of detective work searching for the right words and the right meanings, I was able to fit all the pieces together. While the topic wasn't exactly fascinating, I still found it fun because it was a challenge, just like a good jigsaw puzzle. Sometimes when you do a translation, you might have to accept that a few pieces will be missing from the final product, but hopefully you'll manage to get enough of them together to convey the full picture.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Punctuation Can Be the Dog's Bollocks

We all know that punctuation is pretty damn important. It helps us organise ideas in our language when writing, express ideas with delivery that would otherwise be lost (such as shouting or asking a question), create lists, show possession and make contractions, to name a few.

Punctuation can dramatically change sentences, and is incredibly important in many cases. Don't believe me? Consider reading Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss.

In the past, we've looked at many of the different types of punctuation that we can use. Today, I'd like to look at a lesser-known type of punctuation (mainly because I like languages and can be very immature), which has fallen out of use but should definitely make a comeback.


If you're familiar with British English slang, "the dog's bollocks" means "the best". However, in this case I'm talking about a type of punctuation with the same name.

So, what did dog's bollocks look like? Either ":-" or ":—". Clearly, given the name, I'm not the only one in the world who thinks this sort of looks like something else. I don't think the "dog" part is really necessary though.

What did we use dog's bollocks for? To indicate a long pause (or should that be paws?). If you're reading silently or in your head, this probably isn't too much of an issue, but when you're reading something aloud, you could do with a few dog's bollocks for good measure.

If you're interested in seeing some examples of dog's bollocks, look no further than the U.S. Declaration of Independence, which features nine shining instances of dog's bollocks.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Languages in the News: August 2016

Today we're looking back at all the language news that made the headlines throughout the month of August.

With the Olympic Games taking place from the 5th to the 21st of the month, it's hardly surprising that August was full of news stories about the games. The Providence Journal reported that American TV network NBC attempted to have the opening ceremony's official language changed from Portuguese to English in order to boost viewership. You can read the full article here.

Once the games started, organisers praised the multicultural South African women's football team's efforts of working through their language barriers. Read about their multilingual efforts here.

The beautiful Emerald Isle.
The Irish Times brought us news from Tajikistan, where journalists are being fined for using words that authorities deem "incomprehensible" in order to protect their official languages from contamination by foreign words. The article also covers ways of protecting Irish in Ireland, as well as covering how the Académie Française deals with foreign words making their way into French. Read all about it here.

The Guardian looked at Hawaii Sign Language (HSL), a language which was only discovered in 2013, has around 30 native speakers, and is not very well documented. HSL is in trouble, and Ross Perlin's in-depth article about the language can be read here.

Lauren Collins of The New Yorker spoke at length about love and languages. If you're a romantic at heart, you may enjoy her fascinating piece about learning language for your heart as well as your mind. You can enjoy the article here.

The Oxford Dictionary's blog, in keeping with all the sporting events going on in the Olympic Games, shared some of the words commonly used when talking about long-distance running. You can expand your vocabulary by reading the article here.

It may look like a planet, but it isn't.
Quartz was full of praise for the upcoming science fiction film Arrival, which features a linguist who is trying to communicate with an alien species as its protagonist (finally!). Read the article about the film here.

CBS reported that the Voynich Manuscript, which is in an unknown language, was to be published in order to give the public a chance at deciphering it. However, at nearly $10,000 a copy, this isn't a task for amateurs. Read the article here.

On NPR's website, Leah Donella discussed the terminology that was, is, and could be used when discussing people with multiple backgrounds, how the terms came about, and how it feels when these terms are used. Read all about the topic here.

If you have any other interesting news articles on languages, feel free to share them in the comments below. We'll try to share the best ones on our social media!

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Weekly Articles from The Lingua File

Here at The Lingua File we love talking about language and we love writing our blog posts. Since paying the bills and doing our beloved jobs as translators takes up more than enough time, starting Monday, we'll be posting weekly.

Don't worry, though! The rest of the week you can check out our social media profiles for the other language news from around the web.

We'd like to thank all our readers and followers for their support over the years and for their ongoing support in the years to come! Keep loving languages!

Monday, August 29, 2016

Country Profile: The Languages of the Gambia

This month we've explored the languages of a diverse group of countries: Lesotho, Macedonia, Botswana, and Latvia. Today we're going to conclude this month's posts with a look at the languages spoken in the Gambia, the smallest country on mainland Africa.

The Official Language

As with many African countries, the sole official language of the Gambia is English, which was introduced during the colonial period. The Gambia gained its independence from the United Kingdom in 1965, but English has remained a key language.

However, it is only used as a native language by about 1,000 Gambians, while another 40,000 speak it as a second language. Given that the country's population is over 1.8 million people, English is clearly overshadowed by the Gambia's indigenous languages.

Other Languages

One interesting fact about the Gambia's indigenous languages is that they all belong to the Niger-Congo language family. The country's most spoken language is Mandinka, which is used by about 480,000 Gambians. It is a tonal language, and is written using both Latin and Arabic-based writing systems.

The Gambia River
The Gambia's number two language is Pulaar, which is spoken by about 260,000 people, followed by Wolof, which is used by another 220,000. Pulaar is one of the Fula languages used throughout Western and Central Africa, while Wolof is the most widely spoken language in Senegal, which surrounds most of the Gambia.

Another prominent language is Serahule, also known as Soninke. It belongs to the group of Niger-Congo languages known as Mande languages, and is the native language of approximately 166,000 Gambians. There are also about 56,000 native speakers of Jola-Fonyi, which is also used in Senegal, and 30,000 native speakers of Serer, the language of the Serer ethnic group.

The Ethnologue lists two more languages that are spoken in the Gambia, both of which happen to have more native speakers than English, the official language. There are about 20,000 native speakers of the Mandjak language, and 6,000 native speakers of Karon. Both Mandjak and Karon belong to a group known as the Bak languages.

Finally, it's worth noting that French and Arabic are widely used throughout the Gambia as second languages. In fact, in 2014 the country's president suggested that the official language should be switched to Arabic, as English is a colonial relic. However, no changes have been made official yet.

Friday, August 26, 2016

It's So Fluffy! What Does "Fluffy" Mean If You Don't Speak English?

The other day I came across something sort of weird... the word "fluffy" isn't very universal. Sure, a lot of languages have similar words, but none are exactly the same. I currently live in Spain, and I've found that my Spanish-speaking friends who speak English understand it, while those who don't can't find a useful translation that really encompasses everything the English word means.

So what does it mean? If you look "fluffy" up in a dictionary, the first definition you might get is: "of, resembling, or covered with fluff".

You must admit, that's pretty useless if you don't know what "fluff" is.

Apparently, "fluff" is "soft fibres from fabrics such as wool or cotton which accumulate in small light clumps".

In English, clouds can be fluffy, clothing can be fluffy, and above all, soft toys can be fluffy. If you've ever seen the film Despicable Me (in English), you'll have seen, without a doubt, the best example of "fluffy" in use.

In the film, a young girl named Agnes sees a plush unicorn toy at a funfair and exclaims "It's so fluffy I'm gonna die!", a perfectly natural reaction to such an incredible and "fluffy" prize. Take a look at the following clip:



As you can see, you can check out this scene out in a multitude of languages. If you go straight to European Spanish, which started the whole debate, you'll see she uses the adjective blandito (soft), while the Mexican Spanish version uses hermoso (beautiful). Here's the European Spanish version for your viewing pleasure:


I'm not criticising the dubbing here, but just pointing out that maybe "fluffy" doesn't really exist or work well in Spanish. However, let's have a look at how they dealt with it in France...

The French version says C'est trop génial!, which is more or less "It's brilliant!", which completely ignores the plush and fluffy nature of the soft toy. However, it doesn't make the scene any less cute!


These aren't the only two examples. The Italian version uses morbido (soft) and the Portuguese version uses fofo (cute).

However, I don't think it's just a Romance language issue! For Danish, they chose to use nuttet (cute).

From the versions available, I reckon German comes the closest with the term flauschig, which apparently means "fleecy" (though I'm not a German expert). To me, that seems quite adequate when it comes to describing the unicorn, don't you think?

Finally, there's the Swedish version, for which I have no idea. I'd love to hear your thoughts on it. Here it is:


Apparently the word is fluffsi, or something like that. Is this accurate or a loanword?

When it comes to the word "fluffy", is it uniquely English or just a lacuna between English and Romance languages? Do you have a better translation in your own language? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below, especially Swedish speakers, since your dubbing has me bamboozled!

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Country Profile: The Languages of Latvia

In our last country profile, we looked at the languages of Botswana, a country in southern Africa with over two dozen native languages. This week we'll be focusing on Latvia, a Baltic state in northern Europe which is home to considerably fewer languages.

Gauja National Park in Latvia
The Official Language

Latvia's one and only official language is Latvian, which is the native language of nearly 1.5 million Latvians and a second language of another 500,000. It is a member of the Baltic language family, which only contains two living languages: Latvian and Lithuanian, which is the official language of neighboring Lithuania.

Another prominent language in Latvia is Russian, due to the country's complex history with the Soviet Union. Russian remains the country's most widely spoken minority language, with nearly 700,000 native speakers and almost 1.4 million second language speakers. In fact, it is so widely used that the country's government held a constitutional referendum in 2012 to determine whether it should be added as a second official language, but nearly 75% of the population voted against the proposal.

Other Languages

The Ethnologue lists four other languages that are used as native languages in Latvia: Latgalian, Baltic Romani, Yiddish and Liv. The most spoken of these four languages is Latgalian, which some linguists consider to merely be a dialect of Latvian, although it is a standardized variety that is protected by Latvian law. There are about 200,000 native speakers of Latgalian in Latgale, the easternmost region of the country.

Latvia is also home to about 8,000 native speakers of Baltic Romani, a group of Romani dialects spoken in the Baltic states, Poland and Russia. It is followed by Yiddish, the Germanic language with Hebrew and Slavic influences which is spoken by around 800 Latvians.

Last but not least, there's Livonian, which belongs to the Uralic language family. While the last native speaker died in 2013, there are still about 200 people who speak it as a second language. This means that instead of being classified as extinct, it's considered dormant, which is pretty fitting for a language also known as Liv.

Monday, August 22, 2016

The End of the Linguistic Relativity Rainbow

On Friday, we looked at linguistic relativity, scholars Berlin and Kay, and how languages exist in different stages according to how they name colours. To put it simply, their work showed that all humans understand colours in the same way, and that differentiation is not due to culture.

This was considered to be true because the ranges of colours in each language match up across languages. For example, in the Stage II languages we mentioned on Friday, the red they distinguished would fit within the same range of red shades across other languages.

The Munsell System that was used by Berlin and Kay.
This means that any given Stage II language should consider "red" to be within the same range as in other languages, regardless of stage, given that they distinguish the colour "red". This understanding of colour and language became known as the universalist view. All colour perception is inherent within humans, so no matter what language you speak, you generally distinguish colours across the same ranges on a physiological level.

The scholars Kessen, Bornstein, and Weiskopf tested this idea using babies, in order to see how they responded to different colours of light. This was done by measuring habituation, whereby you respond less to a given stimulus as you get used to it. For example, you might get a fright if you hear a sudden loud noise, but if you constantly hear sudden loud noises, you barely respond.

In their study, the babies responded more to what we'd think of as distinct colours, rather than different shades or hues of the same colour, just like adults would. This supported the idea that our understanding of colour is with us before language has an opportunity to affect how we think about colour.

Of course, if you're familiar with academia, you won't be surprised to find out that there are ideas challenging Berlin and Kay's work. Their methodology was later criticised by other scholars for being Eurocentric and Western.

While Berlin and Kay thought that the concept of colours was universal, their critics started to side with the ideas of Sapir and Whorf, saying that language does shape how we think. This side of the argument is known as the relativist view.

Russian Blues, geddit?
If we don't all see or understand colours the same way, how could we test this? An interesting test used native speakers of English and native speakers of Russian. In the Russian language, there are unique terms for what English would call dark blue (siniy) and light blue (goluboy).

English speakers were asked to match a reference colour to one of two choices. If they were what we think of as different colours, they could do it pretty quickly. If they weren't, it took them a little longer. This meant the Russian speakers were quicker at matching their two known blue colours than English speakers were. You can find the study here.

What's the conclusion? A lot of studies support the idea that all of us have the same inherent understanding of colours, and a lot of studies support the idea that languages affect how we understand colours. What's at the end of the linguistic relativity rainbow? Who knows? The debate rages on!

Friday, August 19, 2016

The Beginning of the Linguistic Relativity Rainbow

Linguistic relativity is based on the works of Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf, and describes how the language we speak can affect and shape the way we see the world and how we think.

While this is sometimes known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the hypothesis itself was not created by Sapir and Whorf, but rather by linguists Roger Brown and Eric Lenneberg. Brown and Lenneberg decided they would use colours to test Sapir and Whorf's ideas. Since then, colours and linguistic relativity have been the best of friends.

What is the difference between blue and green? If you speak English, or one of the languages that distinguishes between them, you're probably thinking that they are obviously different colours. However, if you speak a language that doesn't distinguish between them, there is no difference. When presented with what I call "green" and what I call "blue", you would probably describe these two blue-green colours based on whether they're a light, dark, rich, or pale blue-green, rather than providing unique colour terms for each.

How many colours are there in this ring?
With this in mind, today we'll be looking at the work of American scholars Brent Berlin and Paul Kay. These two worked with colours and languages and suggested that languages, in terms of the colours they distinguish, can be classified as being at a certain stage.

For example, in a language in Stage I, there are two distinct colour terms that describe either a dark-cool colour or a light-warm colour. You could consider these similar to, but not exactly the same as black and white in English. Every language has at least these two distinctions.

Languages in Stage II include three distinct colours: those from Stage I (the previous stage) and the colour red. Pretty simple, right? So let's have a look at all of Berlin and Kay's stages:

Stage I: Dark-cool and light-warm
Stage II: Red
Stage III: Green or yellow
Stage IV: Green and yellow
Stage V: Blue
Stage VI: Brown
Stage VII: Purple, pink, orange, or grey

Berlin and Kay stated that languages developed terms for certain colours in certain orders, and would not have distinctions for colours in the higher stages before distinguishing those in a lower stage.

This means, according to Berlin and Kay, that our blue-green issue from earlier would exist in all languages of Stage IV or lower (as a Stage V language would distinguish between them). This also means that any language that distinguishes brown from other colours already distinguishes blue from green.

That's just the start of our trip to the end of the linguistic relativity rainbow; we'll be back on Monday with more ways to consider how languages, and their users, name colours.