Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Baltic Languages: From Latgalian to Prussian

Since we're fascinated by the intricate ways that the world's many languages are connected, we occasionally like to take a closer look at a specific language family. In previous posts, we've explored the Celtic, Uralic, Slavic, Germanic, and Romance language families.

Today we'll be focusing on the Baltic language family, which contains four languages according to the Ethnologue. However, some linguists would argue that there are actually only two Baltic languages! Since it's such a small family, we'll just look at all four potential members individually, from largest to smallest.


Lithuanian is the largest Baltic language, with nearly 3 million native speakers. It is the sole official language of Lithuania, a small European country bordering the Baltic Sea.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this language is the fact that it has retained many linguistic features that other Indo-European languages have dropped over time, which leads linguists to believe that it may be the most conservative living Indo-European language. These unique traits make Lithuanian especially helpful to linguists who are trying to reconstruct the common ancestor of all Indo-European languages, which is called Proto-Indo-European (PIE).


Cape Kolka, Latvia
The second largest Baltic language is Latvian, which has about 1.5 million native speakers. It is the sole official language of Latvia, which is directly north of Lithuania along the Baltic Sea.

There are three main dialects of Latvian used in specific areas of the country. The Livonian dialect is used in the northwest, while the Middle dialect, which Standard Latvian is based on, is used in central and southwestern Latvia. In eastern Latvia, the High dialect is preferred. A standard form used in this area is known as Latgalian, which may or may not be a distinct language, depending on who you ask.


While the Ethnologue lists Latgalian as a language, some linguists argue that it is merely a dialect of Latvian, and therefore count only Lithuanian and Latvian as Baltic languages. In any case, Latgalian is a standardized variety that is protected by Latvia's laws. It is spoken by about 200,000 people in Latgale, the easternmost region of Latvia.


Our final potential Baltic language is Prussian, which is often known as Old Prussian in order to avoid confusion with German dialects such as Low Prussian and High Prussian. Prussian belongs to the Western branch of the Baltic languages, which are all considered to be extinct. However, while Prussian became extinct in the early 18th century, there have been recent efforts to revive it.

Today, there are approximately 50 speakers of the language in Poland, Lithuania, and Russia, though none of them are native speakers. The revival efforts have also led to some interesting projects, including a translation of The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and attempts to create games, dictionaries, and music in the language.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Country Profile: The Languages of the Republic of the Congo

In our most recent country profiles, we've looked at the languages of Ireland, Costa Rica, and the Central African Republic. This week, we're going to take a look at the linguistic diversity of the Republic of the Congo, which shouldn't be confused with the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which borders it to the east and south.

Official Languages

Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of the Congo,
and the Congo River as seen from space.
The sole official language of the Republic of the Congo is French, a former colonial language that is still widely used throughout the country. While only around 28,000 people in the country speak French as a native language, over 2.5 million use it as a second language.

The Republic of the Congo also officially recognizes two national languages: Kituba and Lingala. Kituba is an important lingua franca that is spoken by over 1 million people, mainly throughout southern parts of the country. Lingala, on the other hand, is primarily used in northern areas, and is spoken by about 90,000 people. Both belong to the large group of Bantu languages spoken throughout Africa.

Other Languages

The linguistic landscape of the Republic of the Congo is incredibly diverse since it is home to over 60 languages, almost all of which are Bantu languages. In terms of number of speakers, the closely related Teke languages are some of the most spoken indigenous languages in the country. There are over 700,000 Teke speakers, including over 95,000 native speakers of Teke-Tsaayi, over 49,000 Teke-Tege speakers, nearly 40,000 Teke-Kukuya speakers, and over 14,000 Teke-Tyee speakers, among other varieties.

The Republic of the Congo is also home to over 100,000 native speakers of three more Bantu languages: Suundi, Beembe, and Mbosi. There are also about 90,000 native speakers of Ngbaka Ma'bo, a Ubangian language, as well as Laari, a Bantu language that is most often known as Kongo or Kikongo.

There are dozens more languages that are used by anywhere between 1,000 and 60,000 native speakers in the Republic of the Congo. This includes the Fang language, which is one of the most important languages in neighboring Gabon, and Bomwali, which is also spoken in neighboring Cameroon. If you'd like to see the full list, we recommend checking out the country's language statistics on the Ethnologue website.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Translating Culture and Cultural Phenomena

Religious imagery plays a huge part in
Semana Santa.
This week, in Spain at least, is Semana Santa (Holy Week). If you've never seen the spectacle before, it's incredibly impressive. I'm currently in Málaga in southern Spain, where the festivities are quite vibrant and inexplicable. That's why today I thought it'd be useful to look at translating culture and cultural phenomena.

When it comes to translating cultural phenomena, things can get quite tricky for a translator. As such things are usually unique to a region, country, or even language, a direct translation probably won't exist because the thing itself neither exists in the target culture nor the target language. That's when creative translation practices can come in handy.

Is your audience familiar with the practice?

Before you start translating, you should think about who is going to read your text. For example, if I was writing an English-language article for British expats who live in Spain, I could just leave cultural terms in the original Spanish. This is because the readers would likely be familiar with the Spanish terminology, despite preferring to read articles in English.

What if your audience isn't familiar with the practice?

Say your target audience is unfamiliar with Spanish culture. In this case, I would have a bit more work to do. I can't really invent words for the terminology, as the practices don't exist in English-speaking culture. In this case, I would have to be more creative. For example, rather than trying to find a vague term to describe a specific cultural idea, I might need to keep the word as it is, but add a brief description to the sentence.

Semana Santa celebrations in Sevilla, Spain.
Is it really OK to not translate a word?

Of course it is. Languages borrow words from other languages all the time. In fact, we've done plenty of posts on loanwords that have made their way into the English language. Sometimes, as a translator, the words just don't exist in the target language. In this case, you may have to just keep them in the source language and explain them in the target language. If your audience understands the culture as it was described in the source text, then you've done your job. Well done!

Is there a specific cultural phenomenon that you've found hard to translate? What was the most complicated cultural element you've translated? Tell us about your experiences in the comments below.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Translating Proper Nouns and Names

Over the past week, we've looked at how translating numbers and money as well as dates and times can depend on the language or region you're dealing with. Today, we're going to focus on something even trickier: translating proper nouns and names!

In case you aren't already aware, proper nouns refer to a specific person, place or thing. For example, Paris is a proper noun since it refers to a specific city, while Neptune is a proper noun that refers to a specific planet. In English, proper nouns are generally easy to identify because they're capitalized no matter where they are located in a sentence, unlike most other nouns.

Here are several different types of proper nouns that often cause problems in translations:

Names of People

The exterior of Seville Cathedral, which is thought to contain
the remains of famous explorer Christopher Columbus.
It should come as no surprise that when it comes to the names of people, the general rule is to keep them exactly the same in both languages, or as close to the original as possible when dealing with different writing systems. This applies whether you're dealing with a text that mentions a political figure like Barack Obama, a famous musician like Madonna, or your mother.

That said, there are some exceptions, especially when it comes to older historical figures. One great example of this is explorer Christopher Columbus, who is known as Cristóbal Colón in Spanish, Cristoforo Colombo in Italian, and Christophe Colomb in French, to name just a few of the variations.

A couple of other examples include Genghis Khan (Gengis Kan in Spanish), Julius Caesar (Jules César in French) and Aristotle (Aristoteles in German).

Names of Places and Landmarks

Place and landmark names can often be a bit trickier. When it comes to smaller places that aren't well-known, it's fairly safe to assume that there isn't a standard translation for the foreign language you're translating into. However, large cities, famous locations, and countries often do have standard translations in other languages. A few examples include London (Londres in Spanish), Germany (Deutschland in German), and the Statue of Liberty (Statue de la Liberté in French).

If you want to see even more examples of differing place names, check out our post from way back in 2012 that covered all kinds of interesting endonyms and exonyms.

Names of International Organizations

When it comes to international organizations, there are often standard or official translations of their names for various languages. A quick Google search, a look at the organization's official website, or even Wikipedia can usually help you when your translation contains such a name.

A couple of popular examples include Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières in French) and the United Nations (Organización de las Naciones Unidas in Spanish).

Names of Companies and Products

Most company and product names are going to be the same no matter which language you're using since having one unique name that is universally used is important for marketing purposes. That's why it's so easy to order a Coca-Cola no matter what country you're in, even if you don't speak the language!

Monday, March 21, 2016

Translating Numbers and Money Around the World

Last Wednesday, we looked at the differences between different time and date formats around the world and how, as a translator, it's important to get them right depending on the language you're using. Today I thought we could continue with numbers, since it's not just words that are affected by translation.


When it comes to numbers, it's important to understand the "scale" commonly used in that particular language or region.

For example, in English, a "billion" can be two different numbers, depending on whether you are using the long scale or the short scale. As it's more common in the English-speaking world, I'll talk about the short scale first.

The Short Scale

In the short scale, you have thousand, million, billion, and trillion, and each of these is 1,000 times bigger than the last.

Using the short scale, a billion (1,000,000,000) is a thousand million. A trillion (1,000,000,000,000) is a thousand billion. Put simply, each new term has three more 0s after it.

The Long Scale

In the long scale, each term is a million times bigger than the last. Hence a million remains 1,000,000, but a billion is now 1,000,000,000,000.

The long scale is fairly common throughout Europe (with the exception of the UK). You can spot the long scale by its use of words similar to "milliard" (1,000,000,000) and "billiard" (known as a quadrillion in the short scale).

The long scale was previously commonplace in British English, whereas the short scale was used in American English. However, both varieties now generally use the short scale.

Writing or Representing Numbers

Of course, there's also the little matter of typing out those numbers. In my examples, I used the practice common in British English, separating each set of three digits with a comma, starting from the end of the number.

Then there's the matter of decimal places. In English, it's usual to separate decimals with a full stop (or period in American English). This means one half is written 0.5 when using decimals.

However, if you speak another language, you might be familiar with a system that works the other way round. So a million can be written either 1,000,000 or 1.000.000, depending on where you're from and the language you speak. This also means that one half can be written 0.5 or 0,5 depending on the system you're using. Make sure you take care!


Money talks, and if you make a mistake with it in your translation, there'll only be bad things to say about you. This is when knowing the practices related to writing numbers becomes very important. Aside from making sure you are using the right scale and the correct separators, there's also the issue of currency names, and how they should be written.

For example, here in the UK we have the pound sterling, also known as pounds or GBP. One pound can be divided into one hundred pence. One pound and fifty pence is therefore written as £1.50, placing the symbol at the front and separating the subunits of the currency with a point.

However, if you're using Euros, you tend to see the symbol written as the separator. Therefore if we had one euro and fifty cents, it could be written 1€50.

Make sure you're aware of best practices when it comes to numbers and money, because they make the world go round!

Friday, March 18, 2016

Country Profile: The Languages of Ireland

Since yesterday was Saint Patrick's Day, the religious and cultural holiday celebrating the patron saint of Ireland, it seems only fitting that we take a look at the languages spoken there today. To avoid confusion, we should point out that we're focusing on the Republic of Ireland and not Northern Ireland (a constituent country of the UK that encompasses the northernmost areas of the island of Ireland).

The Official Languages

The Campanile of Trinity College, Dublin
The Republic of Ireland has two official languages: Irish and English. While the vast majority of Irish people speak English as a native language, the Irish language has the added benefit of being the country's only national language due to its cultural and historical importance. This fascinating Celtic language, also known as Gaelic or Irish Gaelic, actually originated in Ireland, unlike English. Today, the country is home to about 140,000 native Irish speakers, as well as around 1 million non-native speakers. 

English, on the other hand, was first introduced to the island during the Norman invasion in the 12th century, though it didn't become widely spoken until Ireland fell under English rule during the Tudor conquest in the 16th century. Over the decades, English became increasingly important, and has been the country's dominant language since the early 19th century. Over 90% of Irish people speak English as a native language, while nearly 300,000 more speak it as a second language.

That said, Irish and English are both widely used throughout the Republic of Ireland. In addition to both languages being taught in schools, there are also Irish-language television and radio stations, as well as newspapers and magazines. In recent years, there have also been widespread efforts to help revive the Irish language and promote its use throughout the country.

Other Languages

The Ethnologue lists just two other languages that are used in Ireland: Scots and Shelta. If you read our post on Germanic languages, you may recall that Scots is a Germanic language that is so closely related to English that linguists can't decide whether it's a distinct language or a variety. In any case, Ireland is home to approximately 10,000 native speakers of Ulster Scots, the dialects of Scots used in the province of Ulster.

Finally, there are thought to be about 6,000 native speakers of Shelta, which is used by the Irish Travellers ethnic group. Technically, it's a cant instead of a language, since it is a unique mixture of English and Irish grammar, syntax, and vocabulary that was designed so that it couldn't be understood by outsiders.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Translating Dates and Times Around the World

If you're familiar with the internet or live in the United States, you may have heard that Monday was Pi Day. If you're not familiar with Pi Day, it takes place each 14th March in celebration of the mathematical constant pi (π). This date was chosen since it corresponds to the first three digits of pi as written using the US date format (3/14).

However, if you're from a country that doesn't write dates as they do in the US, Pi Day doesn't make much sense. When it comes to translation and learning languages, knowing how numbers are represented can be very important. Since we've just been talking about Pi Day, let's look at dates first.

Standardised times and dates are imperative in aviation.
Date Formats

When you write the date, the format may change depending on the language or region. The US uses a Month/Day/Year format, which means today's date would be written 3/16/2016 in full.

As a UK native, I am much more familiar with a Day/Month/Year format, which shows today as 16/3/2016.

In certain regions and languages, it is also acceptable to write the date starting with the year, then the month, then the day. That would make today's date look like 2016/3/16.

In addition to the order of the numbers, there are also the separators to consider. Thus far I have only used slashes (/), but depending on the region, dots (.), hyphens (-), and spaces can also be used.

Time Formats

When it comes to time, the two most common formats are the 12-hour clock and the 24-hour clock. As the name suggests, the 12-hour clock only includes the numbers from 1 to 12, with the numbers repeating after midday and midnight. The 24-hour clock goes from midnight to midnight without the numbers for the hours repeating.

There are very few languages that use the 24-hour clock when speaking. In English, you don't say "fifteen o'clock". When it is spoken, it's usually what is called "military time", whereby the entire time is said without separators like "fifteen hundred hours", meaning "1500", or "3 o'clock in the afternoon".

However, in French, for example, the 24-hour clock is referred to when speaking, alleviating the need to ever really refer to the time of the day.

In Translation

With all these different formats, it is very important when translating to be familiar with the conventions of the language and even the region you're translating for. Making a mistake with the dates and times in a text could make you look unprofessional and make the text ambiguous, confusing, or in a worst-case scenario, useless.

These practices can be hugely important when it comes to things such as contracts or medical records. In fact, a mistake on a medical record could result in patients being given treatment at the wrong time of day or even on the wrong date!

Monday, March 14, 2016

Country Profile: The Languages of Costa Rica

Last week we checked out the incredible linguistic diversity of the Central African Republic. Today, we're moving across the Atlantic to focus on Costa Rica, which may not be home to nearly as many languages, but is equally interesting.

The Official Language

Just like many other Latin American countries, the sole official language of Costa Rica is Spanish, which was introduced to the area during Spanish colonization in the 1500s. Nearly 4.5 million Costa Ricans are native Spanish speakers, which encompasses the vast majority of the country's population. In addition, most of those who have a different native language still use Spanish as a second language.

Other Languages

The ruins of Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de la Limpia Concepción,
one of the oldest churches in Costa Rica.
The second most spoken language in Costa Rica is Limón Creole English, an English-based creole. Also known as Mekatelyu, it is a dialect of Jamaican Creole English that was first used in the country by Jamaican migrant workers. There are currently about 55,000 speakers in Costa Rica, primarily in Limón Province.

Costa Rica is also home to several indigenous languages, all of which belong to the Chibchan language family. The most prominent of these languages are the closely related Cabécar and Bribri languages, which have 11,000 and 7,000 speakers respectively. There are also nearly 3,000 speakers of the Ngäbere language in Costa Rica. It is also known by the name Guaymí, and is spoken in neighboring Panama as well.

There are three more Chibchan languages that are spoken in Costa Rica, albeit in very small numbers. First, there's the language called Maléku Jaíka or Guatuso, which has about 750 speakers. It is followed in number of speakers by Teribe, which is nearly extinct in Costa Rica since it only has about 100 speakers. However, it is also used by a couple thousand people in Panama. Finally, there's Boruca, which is also nearly extinct. There were about 140 speakers left as of 2011, but unfortunately very few of them were fluent in the language.

The Ethnologue also lists one Germanic language in Costa Rica: Plautdietsch. As we mentioned last December in our post on Paraguay, it is the language of the Russian Mennonites, a group who founded settlements all over Latin America in the early 1900s. There are currently about 2,000 speakers of Plautdietsch in Costa Rica.

Friday, March 11, 2016

6 Tips for Freelance Translators Using Upwork, Part 2

On Wednesday, I shared my top two tips for using Upwork as a freelance translator. Today I've got four more tips, which will hopefully be of use to any new translators out there.

3. Don't waste your time applying to jobs without detailed descriptions.

There's a difference between job postings that are "short and sweet" and those that provide little to no information. It is not uncommon to find jobs on Upwork called "Spanish to English translation" with a description that merely reads "550 words". If the client doesn't care enough to tell you basic details like what type of text you'll be translating, you can be pretty sure that they're not going to pay you a decent wage.

Just keep your eye on the prize, like athlete
Jesse Owens at the 1936 Summer Olympics.
4. Be wary of clients who ask you to send information via email instead of through Upwork.

While there's nothing wrong with discussing project details via email or Skype if that's easier for a client, some people out there use this technique to try to convince you to do the job off of the platform. In addition to being against Upwork's terms of use (since they obviously want to earn their fees), this also defeats the purpose of using a freelancing platform, which provides you some peace of mind when it comes to payment, and also provides help when it comes to disputes.

5. Don't forget to factor in Upwork's 10% service fee when bidding on projects.

This is one of the few things that they make really easy. When you apply for a fixed-price job, you'll see two boxes: a total price including the 10% fee, and the amount you'll make. However, if you've agreed to break a job up into smaller milestones, it's important to make sure that the client factors that additional 10% into the cost for the individual milestones. Unfortunately, only the client can set up the milestones, but you do have the ability to change the final amount when you submit work for approval.

6. Only apply to jobs you're actually interested in doing.

With thousands of jobs to choose from, it's easy to just apply to everything. However, unless you've decided to pay for a membership plan that gives you more "Connects" (virtual tokens that allow you to apply for jobs) than normal, you should try to save them for jobs that you're actually interested in doing. It's natural for freelance translators to have busy periods and slow periods, but when a slow period comes around, you shouldn't waste your time (or prospective clients') by applying to jobs that you don't really want or are beyond your skill level.

If there are any other Upwork users out there with advice for freelance translators who are new to the freelancing platform, feel free to share your thoughts or advice below! We're also happy to answer any questions you may have.

Part 1 | Part 2

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

6 Tips for Freelance Translators Using Upwork, Part 1

Getting started as a freelance translator can be really tough, especially when you're trying to do it as a full-time job. When friends and acquaintances find out about my chosen career, their response is usually some variation of "That sounds really interesting... but how do you find work??".

There are actually tons of options when it comes to finding translation work, including creating a profile on a translation network like, advertising your services on your own professional website, or contacting translation agencies. In addition to using all of these techniques over the past two years, I've also regularly applied to jobs on Upwork, one of many freelancing platforms you can find online.

While the platform itself can be frustrating at times and it can be difficult to get your first job, I've found it to be a valuable resource for finding new clients. However, it does take time to learn how to make the most of the platform, which is why I'll be sharing some tips based on my personal experience with Upwork in the next two posts.

If you want to get paid, keep these tips in mind!
1. Never start working for a client before you've accepted a contract.

This might seem obvious, but when you're just starting out and anxiously awaiting your first job, it's easy to let "little things" slide. While there are certainly professional clients to be found on Upwork, there are also quite a few people out there who are just looking for cheap (or free) labor. Luckily I never fell for this trap, but I have been in a situation where a prospective client sent me documents to translate and agreed to payment terms via the messaging system, but then refused to set up the actual contract.

2. With fixed-price jobs, never start working before the project is funded.

Most translators work based on per-word rates instead of hourly rates, so setting up contracts as fixed-price jobs is generally the best fit. However, this means that you need to make sure that the client has funded the project (or first milestone, if you're breaking it up into smaller sections) before you start working. This takes some of the uncertainty out of the payment process, because it means that Upwork has verified that they have the funds for the project and has the money waiting and ready to be released once you've submitted the work (subject to client approval). This shouldn't be an issue, but again, there are some people out there who will try to take advantage of you by setting up a contract and then not funding it, which is much harder to dispute.

Check back on Friday for four more tips on using Upwork as a freelance translator!

Part 1 | Part 2

Monday, March 7, 2016

Country Profile: The Languages of the Central African Republic

So far this year, most of the counties we've looked at have been home to relatively few languages. That's why this week we'll be taking a look at the linguistic diversity of the Central African Republic, a country whose location is right in its name, and is home to dozens of languages!

The Official Languages

The Central African Republic has two official languages: French and Sango. The French language was first introduced to the area in the late 1800s when it came under French colonial rule. When the country gained its independence from France in 1960, the French language retained its linguistic importance. It is still used to this day, particularly for writing and in formal situations. While there are only about 9,000 native French speakers in the country, there are over 1.3 million Central Africans who speak it as a second language.

Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic,
as viewed from the International Space Station.
Sango, on the other hand, is the native language of approximately 350,000 Central Africans. It is also the country's most important lingua franca, which is clear when you consider the fact that 4.6 million Central Africans speak it as a second language. That's nearly everyone in the entire country!

One of the interesting things about Sango is that it is thought to be a creole that developed from the Ngbandi language, which is primarily spoken in neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo. However, some linguists believe that it was never a creole. No matter how it developed, it has been the national language of the Central African Republic since the 1960s, and has shared official status with French since the 1990s.

Other Languages

When you start to look at the other languages used in the Central African Republic, things get crazy. It is home to dozens of indigenous languages used by anywhere between 15 and 200,000 native speakers. The vast majority of these languages belong to the Ubangian language family, which includes Sango. There are also some languages that belong to the Bantu and Bongo-Bagirmi language families. However, many of these languages have not been intensively studied by linguists, so it's not uncommon for there to be disagreements as to how they should be classified.

The most spoken indigenous languages in the Central African Republic are three of the dozen or so Gbaya languages, which are all spoken by over 200,000 people in the western part of the country. The Mandja language, which is closely related to the Gbaya languages, is also used by over 200,000 Central Africans. There are also over 100,000 native speakers of four of the Banda languages, as well as the Bhogoto, Fulfulde, and Yakoma languages.

Other indigenous languages with considerable numbers of speakers are Suma, Nzakara, Mbati, Zande, Kabba, Pana, Ngbaka Ma'bo, Kare, and Gbanu. All nine languages boast over 50,000 native speakers. We could go on and on listing the country's languages all day, but unfortunately there isn't much information on them. If you're interested in seeing the rest, we recommend visiting the Ethnologue entry for the Central African Republic.

We'll end today's post with one final language, Bodo. When this Bantu language was last encountered in the country back in 1996, there were only 15 remaining speakers, so it may be extinct at this point.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Emoticons and Emoji: How Pictures Are Worth A Thousand Words

Love them or loathe them, emoticons are becoming more and more commonplace in language, and not just for casual conversations between friends on Facebook or WhatsApp. Due to the immense popularity of mobile phones, texting, the internet, and messaging as forms of communication, emoticons, and now emojis, are now almost universally used.

While some of the purists among us may believe that most languages are diverse and varied enough not to need them, emoticons and emojis are everywhere. One use that particularly struck me was when I saw that the BBC had started using them more frequently in their posts on Facebook.

Today I'd like to talk about why emoticons and emoji are so useful in language, and the role they play in communication.

Texts and messages are short and instant forms of communication. Originally, all text messages were written using a traditional phone keypad instead of the keyboard featured on modern smartphones. Since you had to type letters by pressing a number key multiple times, texting could take quite a while.

When it comes to language, if there's a way to make something easier, we tend to do it. Not only were we trying to save time, but we were also trying to save money. The last thing you'd want to do is have your text (which had a limited number of characters) become two texts, costing you double.

SMS language was created as people tried to use fewer characters without any loss in meaning, which is how letters and numbers like "b", "c", "r", "u", "y", "2", and "4", began to be used to refer to the words "be", "see", "are", "you", "why", "to", and "for", respectively.

The Oxford Dictionary's "Word of the Year" in 2015.
The tone of texts can also be very ambiguous, so you can see how punctuation resembling a face could help set the mood of a message without having to write several long texts, which would take more time and money.

From characters looking like faces, we got emoji, a Japanese term that combines e, meaning "picture", and moji, meaning "character". Once emojis were included on Apple's iPhone, their popularity snowballed. Soon after, they were added to Android phones, and have now become a massive cultural phenomenon.

In fact, the Oxford Dictionary made an emoji their word of the year. The "Face with Tears of Joy" got the award in 2015, and is the most popular emoji.

What do you think of emoji and emoticons? Are they useful for communication? Or are they abominations on our once-beautiful languages? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Celebrating "Super Tuesday": The Etymology of "Super" and Its Synonyms

Whether or not you live in the United States, if you follow the news, you've probably heard that yesterday was "Super Tuesday", a date when primary elections were held in several states as part of the excruciatingly long process of choosing presidential candidates. We've had enough of politics lately, but the term "Super Tuesday", which dates back to the 1970s, did get us thinking about the etymology of "super". That's why today we're looking at the origins of "super" and many of its synonyms, including "fantastic" and "wonderful".

Super - This word comes from an identical Latin word meaning "above, over, beyond". It was first used to mean "excellent" in the 1830s. Unsurprisingly, it is related to superb, which comes from the Latin superbus.

The Karkonosze Mountains in Poland
look like a marvelous place to visit.
Marvelous - As merveillos in Old French, this term referred to "causing wonder", but has been used in a more generic sense since the 1920s.

Wonderful - Derived from the Old English term wunderfoll, this term was originally used to refer to something that caused wonder or surprise. Nowadays, it's primarily used in a generic way to refer to something excellent.

Excellent - After starting out as excellentem in Latin, this word became excellent in Old French, which we still use today.

Magnificent - Old French also gave us the word magnificent in the mid-15th century, which was derived from the Latin term magnificentior.

Fantastic - Related to the word fantasy, this word came to English via the Greek term phantastikos, Latin fantasticus, and finally Middle French fantastique in the 14th century. It originally referred to things "existing only in imagination", but since the 1930s has been used as a synonym for "wonderful" and the many other words we're looking at today.

Amazing - This one comes from the Old English term amasian, meaning "causing wonder and amazement". It has been used in its generic sense since the early 1700s.

Great - If you prefer English terms of Germanic origin, you'll be pleased to hear that great has several cognates in Germanic languages, including groot in Dutch, groß in German, and grut in West Frisian. While it is still used to refer to things that are "big" and "tall", it has also been used as a synonym for "excellent" since the late 1840s.

Terrific - Oddly enough, terrific originally meant "frightening", and came from the Latin term terrificus, which means "causing terror or fear". While the closely related term terrible kept these negative connotations, terrific somehow inverted its meaning to mean "excellent" starting in the late 1880s.

This white peacock has awesome plumage.
Awesome - While some people still use this word in its original sense to refer to something "awe-inspiring", since the 1980s, it has most frequently been used to refer to something "very good". It is derived from the word awe, which made its way into English via a Germanic language, perhaps the Old Norse term agi, meaning "fright".

Fabulous - Last but not least, we have fabulous, which made its way into English via Latin fabulosus. While it originally meant "mythical" due to its connections to the term fable, it has been used to mean "incredible" since around 1600, and in the 1950s finally became used in an even more generic way.