Wednesday, June 29, 2016

What Does Brexit Mean for the English Language?

Last Thursday, the United Kingdom headed to the polls to decide whether or not the country wanted to remain part of the European Union. In the end, in a very close referendum, 51.9% of voters were in favour of leaving the EU.

There are plenty of ramifications for the UK, politically, economically, etc. However, one thing that is concerning to us at The Lingua File is the fact that English may take a dramatic step down on a political scale. Of course, English is an official language in Ireland, so it will retain its official status within the EU. However, the population of Ireland is around 4.5 million, while the UK is home to around 65 million people. There's no way that this giant loss of native speakers is not going to affect EU policy.

The EU is going to make an example of the UK when negotiations formally begin, since few member states want to make leaving the EU look favourable, for fear of losing more members. In that event, English as an official language will seem fairly insignificant.

I can't imagine that English will be affected on a global scale. The language is the lingua franca in many countries around the world, but within the institutions of the EU, it will lose a huge amount of clout when the UK leaves.

Regardless of what the EU chooses to do about the working languages within the union, the language situation within the UK is worrying. The EU has heavily promoted language learning within the UK, and with the country moving away from Europe politically, it certainly makes me concerned for the already worrying state of language learning within the country. If just over half of the British population has decided they're better off without Europe, they may also think they're better off without their languages.

Is Brexit good or bad for language learning within the UK? Has it changed the English language's status within Europe? Tell us what you think in the comments below.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Country Profile: The Languages of Armenia

Last week we checked out the linguistic landscape of Panama, which is home to languages like Spanish, Ngäbere, and Emberá. This week, we're going to learn a bit about the languages spoken in Armenia, a small country bordering Turkey.

The Official Language

Lake Sevan, the largest body of water in Armenia.
Armenia's one and only official language is Armenian, a fascinating language that is an independent branch of the Indo-European language family. It is also unique because it has its very own writing system, the Armenian alphabet, which was developed back in the 400s.

Over 2.9 million Armenians speak Armenian as their native language, which equals the vast majority of the country's population. While Russian was once the country's dominant language due to its membership in the Soviet Union, over the past few decades, Armenian has come to be the most widely used language in terms of education, business, and government. However, Russian still remains important as a foreign language, with most Armenians having some knowledge of the language.

Other Languages

The Ethnologue lists five more native languages that are used in Armenia: Azerbaijani, Kurdish, Assyrian Neo-Aramaic, Erzya, and Lomavren. Azerbaijani, a Turkic language spoken in neighboring Azerbaijan, is the native language of approximately 161,000 Armenians. Another prominent language is Kurdish, which is spoken by about 45,000 people in Armenia, primarily members of the Yazidi ethnic group.

Armenia is also home to approximately 3,500 native speakers of Assyrian Neo-Aramaic. It is a variety of Aramaic, which served as an important lingua franca in the Middle East at various points throughout history. There are also approximately 500 native speakers of Erzya, a Uralic language that is primarily spoken in Russia.

Finally, there are about 50 remaining native speakers of Lomavren, which is used by the Lom ethnic group. It is actually a mixed language, combining aspects of Armenian and Romani.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Go, Play, or Do: Verbs for Hobbies, Sports, and Activities in the English Language

In English, there are three verbs that we love to use when we talk about our hobbies. These verbs are to go, to play, and to do. How we use these verbs is very simple, and today we're going to tell you what you need to know in order to use them correctly.


The verb "go" is arguably the simplest of our three verbs to use. If you have an activity that ends in -ing, you should use go. For example, fishing, swimming, hiking.

Don't forget to conjugate go when you use it. For example:

On Saturdays, I go fishing.
Yesterday, I went swimming.
Have you ever gone hiking?

However, as always in English, there are a few exceptions to this rule. Boxing (as a combat sport), takes the verb do, which we'll see soon.


Most competitive team sports, especially those with a goal, net, basket, or a system for scoring points, use the verb to play. This also includes games and video games.

Here are a few examples: football, basketball, hockey, video games.

Let's look at some examples:

John likes to play football.
We played video games all weekend.
Do you play hockey?

You can "do" this crossword but you can't "play" it.

We use the verb to do with activities like martial arts, combat sports, exercises, and puzzles. Examples include karate, push-ups, crosswords.

Here you can see the verb to do being used:

She's done karate since she was 6.
Did you do last week's crossword?
I did a lot of push-ups yesterday.

And that's it! That's how we use some of the English language's most important verbs when we talk about hobbies, sports, and activities.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Country Profile: The Languages of Panama

Our last several country profiles have looked at countries on the eastern side of the Atlantic, including Mauritania, Moldova, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Oman, so today we'll be switching things up by focusing on the languages of Panama, which is located on the other side of the ocean.

The Official Language

It should come as no surprise that the sole official language of Panama is Spanish. This Romance language, which is spoken throughout the vast majority of the Americas, is the native language of nearly 3 million Panamanians. In addition, over 500,000 more Panamanians use it as a second language, as it is the country's most important language in terms of government, business and education.

Other Languages

While Spanish certainly dominates Panama's linguistic landscape, the country is actually home to a number of other languages. Panama's most spoken indigenous language is Ngäbere, also known as Guaymí, which is a member of the Chibchan language family. There are nearly 170,000 native speakers of Ngäbere in Panama, as well as a few thousand in neighboring Costa Rica.

Panama City, the capital of Panama.
Although it's not technically a language, Panamanian Creole English is also spoken by a significant number of Panamanians. This dialect of Jamaican Creole English, which contains elements from English, Spanish, and Ngäbere, is spoken by nearly 270,000 people in Panama.

Other indigenous languages include Kuna, Buglere, Emberá, and Woun Meu. Kuna and Buglere are both Chibchan languages like Ngäbere. There are over 57,000 native speakers of Kuna in Panama, primarily residing on the San Blas Islands, as well as in the cities of Panama City and Colón. Buglere, a language of the Ngäbe indigenous group, is spoken by about 18,000 Panamanians.

Emberá, on the other hand, is a dialect continuum within the small family of Chocoan languages. Its various dialects are spoken by over 20,000 people in southeastern Panama, as well as many more in northwestern Colombia. Another Chocoan language spoken in both Panama and Colombia is Woun Meu, also known as Wounaan, which is spoken by nearly 7,000 people.

There are still several other languages left to mention. One of the more surprising entries on the list is Hakka Chinese, a major group of varieties of Chinese spoken all over the world. There are over 6,000 native speakers of Hakka Chinese in Panama. The country is also home to over 3,000 native speakers of Teribe, a Chibchan language spoken in northwestern Panama.

Finally, there are two languages with an unknown number of speakers in Panama. First, there's Epena, a Chocoan language with a few thousand speakers in Colombia and Ecuador. Panama is also home to an unknown number of speakers of Yiddish, a Germanic language.

Monday, June 20, 2016

She Said, He Said: Reported Speech in the English Language

In the English language, when you want to tell someone something that you've heard, especially a quotation, you might need to use reported speech. It's used when someone tells you something, and then you need to tell a third person what the other person said earlier.

This is fairly simple in English, as long as you know your tenses. For example, if John says "I like pizza" to me, I say "John told me (that) he liked pizza". When I tell another person about my conversation with John, I change the tense.

In the example, John used the present simple tense. Let's look at that first.

Present Simple - Past Simple

If somebody says something in the present simple, I report it in the past simple. John says "I like pizza". Therefore, John said (that) he liked pizza. The pronoun has to be changed because I am talking about John, so the I has to change to he in reported speech.

Present Continuous - Past Continuous

If somebody says something using the present continuous tense, you can report it in the past continuous.

For example:

John: "I am eating a pizza"

John said (that) he was eating a pizza"

Will/Won't - Would/Wouldn't

When somebody uses the modal will/won't, you should report it using would/wouldn't.

For example:

John: "I will eat a pizza."

John said (that) he would eat a pizza.

Can/Can't - Could/Couldn't

When John uses can/can't, I report his speech using could/couldn't.

For example:

John: "I can order pizza."

John said (that) he could order pizza.

These aren't all the tenses we use in English, but they are some of the most common ones. We hope this has been helpful!

Friday, June 17, 2016

Political Linguistics: Should "Bigly" Be Used More?

As we've mentioned before, it's nearly impossible to escape the non-stop coverage of the upcoming U.S. presidential election, especially when you live in the United States like I do. While it can get incredibly annoying (and depressing), there's always the occasional news story related to language that piques my interest.

Back in November, we looked at Donald Trump's use of the word "loser", and pondered whether such insults were appropriate for a presidential candidate. This week, however, he has taken the internet by storm by repeatedly using a new word he seemingly created just for his campaign: "bigly".

While he has been mocked in just about every publication for the slip, it turns out that he technically didn't invent the word, since it's an archaic term.

Generally when we invent words, it's to fill a lexical gap, since we don't already have a word to describe whatever it is that the word describes. In the case of "bigly", there are a number of synonyms that can be used instead, since the "-ly" suffix in English can be added to many English adjectives to turn them into adverbs. Examples include tremendously, greatly, enormously, hugely, and exceptionally.

So, should "bigly" now be adopted into mainstream usage since a prominent businessman and presidential hopeful dominating news coverage around the world has started saying it? Given a large number of better alternatives, I'd say no.

However, if you disagree, and feel like "bigly" deserves to generally accepted as an English word instead of being used mockingly by the news media, let us know why in the comments below!

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Country Profile: The Languages of Mauritania

Last week we looked at the linguistic diversity of Moldova, and the week before our focus was on Bosnia and Herzegovina. This week, we'll be moving from Europe to Africa, with a look at the languages of Mauritania.

The Official Language

The sole official language of Mauritania is Modern Standard Arabic, the standard literary form of Arabic used all over the world. In terms of spoken language, most Mauritanians use Hassaniyya Arabic, a variety that is also used in Algeria, Morocco, Mali, and other areas of northwestern Africa. However, Mauritania has more native speakers of Hassaniyya Arabic than any other country, with over 3 million Mauritanians using the language.

While it doesn't have official status, French is also an extremely important language in Mauritania. Since the country was under French colonial rule until 1960, the French language gained importance in society. It is still widely used throughout the country, with about 5,000 native speakers and around 700,000 non-native speakers, plus many more Mauritanians who have some understanding of the language.

The Richat Structure, a fascinating geological feature in the
Sahara desert in Mauritania that can be viewed from space.
Recognized National Languages

Mauritania's constitution also recognizes four national languages: Arabic, Pulaar, Soninke, and Wolof. The three final languages all belong to the Niger-Congo language family. Pulaar is the most used of the three, with over 230,000 native speakers. It is followed by Soninke, which is the native language of about 180,000 Mauritanians. Last but not least, there's Wolof, which is used by approximately 15,000 Mauritanians.

Other Languages

Finally, there's Zenaga, a Berber language used in both Mauritania and neighboring Senegal. While it was once one of the most important languages in the country, it has slowly been replaced by Hassaniyya Arabic. Today, there are only thought to be around 200 remaining native speakers.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Euro 2016 and the Embarrassing Etymology of "Hooligan"

One of my favourite things in life is football, and a large portion of my time revolves around the sport. Obviously, language is also one of my favourite things. I am fond of the way language evolves and adapts, and how people and languages interact, which can result in languages borrowing words from one another.

We've done plenty of posts in the past looking at loanwords making their way into the English vernacular, but today I'd like to look at one word that has made its way into a number of other languages thanks to the deplorable behaviour of football fans. I'm of course referring to the word "hooligan".

The term is currently used in English to refer to someone who commits violent acts such as vandalism and assault, particularly as part of a group of sports fans and, above all (at least in the UK), football fans.

There are several competing ideas as to the etymology of this word. One idea is that it was the name of a fictional family in a song in the late 19th century. The name caught on, and just as the surname "Einstein" has become synonymous with intelligence, "Hooligan" became synonymous with causing trouble.

There is also the idea that it came from a gang in London known as the Hooligans (also O'Hooligans), who committed a murder in 1894. When the story was published in a newspaper, it became the first written record of the word, which later appeared in stories by Arthur Conan Doyle and H. G. Wells.

Though from a later date, there is also the idea that an Irish bouncer and thief by the name of Patrick Hoolihan or Hooligan may have led to the term's popularity.

Whatever the origins of the word, it has since become synonymous with sports. The wave of hooliganism that spread throughout England in the 1970s and 1980s popularised the term in other languages as well, especially following the Heysel Stadium Disaster where 39 people were killed. Following the tragedy, English clubs were banned (originally indefinitely) from European competitions.

I've seen the term as a loanword in various other languages around Europe. Over the weekend, the covers of a number of French newspapers were using the term to describe the deplorable behaviour of some of the English fans in Marseille for Euro 2016 this week.

While I don't like hearing the word used in a foreign language, especially in reference to English fans, it saddens me to think that the shocking actions of certain people, who have more interest in fighting than football, are perpetuating the use of the word across Europe.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Get It Right: Weather And Whether

It has been nearly a year since we've added to our "Get It Right" series in which we correct common spelling and grammar mistakes, so today we're going to dedicate a post to one of the worst spelling mistakes in English: confusing the words "weather" and "whether".

This one should be easy since "weather" is used so much more frequently, and yet we often see people mixing up these two words. So without further ado, here are the key differences between the two words.


Weather is the state of the atmosphere, or the word for the conditions you find when you go outside. Since it's such an important part of human life that can greatly affect our activities, it's often one of the first words that is taught to language learners. In most circumstances we use it as a noun, as in "the weather is sunny today".


Whether, on the other hand, is a conjunction. It is used to express doubt or a choice between options. For example, you could say "I can't decide whether to eat ice cream or cookies for dessert".

Seems easy enough, right? The only situation in which we can really understand people mixing the two up is when using them in the same sentence, since that could be a bit confusing. That said, these explanations should hopefully help you keep them straight, even when you're writing "I'll be going to the barbecue whether the weather is sunny or rainy"!

Is there an English spelling or grammar mistake we haven't covered before that simply drives you crazy? Let us know in the comments and we might cover it in a future post!

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Why Isn't The Word "Internaut" More Popular?

Did you know that there's actually an English word that you can use instead of saying "internet users" or "people online"? That word is internaut, a portmanteau of "Internet" and "astronaut" which the Oxford Dictionaries define as "a user of the Internet, especially a habitual or skilled one".

However, despite the fact that this 1990s creation would be very handy in everyday use, it seems not to have gained popularity in the English language. In fact, I've never heard anyone use the word internaut in English, be it in writing or in spoken language. I only learned of its existence today because I was thinking about the Spanish word internauta, which I recently encountered in a translation.

I first learned the word internauta when I studied abroad in Spain in college. Despite never having seen the word before, it was immediately obvious what it meant, and I remember wondering at the time why we didn't have an English equivalent. It wasn't an obscure word either, as it was frequently used on television to encourage people to visit a program's website, vote for a performer in a competition, and do any number of other online activities. It also wasn't uncommon to hear a TV host say that they were going to answer questions from internautas throughout the show.

When I recently encountered the word again in a translation, I ended up just using "internet users", but I wished there was a better equivalent in English. While internaut may have made it into the dictionary, I definitely don't think it's used often enough to make it an acceptable choice in most translations.

One alternative would be the slang word surfer, although it doesn't seem to be nearly as popular as it once was. There's also the added problem that the word's standard definition refers to someone who surfs waves, not the internet.

In any case, if you ever need to say "internet users" in Spanish or Portuguese, keep in mind that you can always use the word internautas! A few other Romance languages use equivalents of this word as well, including internautes in French and Catalan, and internauti in Italian.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Country Profile: The Languages of Moldova

In recent weeks, we've had country profiles covering the languages of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Oman. Today, we're moving on to the small landlocked country of Moldova, which is located in eastern Europe.

The Official Languages

The main official language of Moldova is Romanian, the fifth most spoken Romance language in the world. Over 75% of the country's population speaks Romanian as their native language, which amounts to over 2.5 million people.

Căpriana Monastery in Căpriana, Moldova.
However, not everyone agrees on the name of this official language, since some prefer to call it Moldovan instead of Romanian. From 1994 to 2013, the government referred to the country's official language as Moldovan, but since 2013, it has returned to the name Romanian once again.

In addition to Romanian, Moldova's government recognizes three official minority languages: Russian, Ukrainian, and Gagauz. Of these three languages, Russian is undoubtedly the most important due to its widespread use as a working language as well as being the native language of over 380,000 Moldovans. In the past, it was also taught in many schools as the primary foreign language, but in recent years, schools have shifted to English instead.

Ukrainian, which is a Slavic language like Russian, is the second most spoken minority language, with over 180,000 native speakers in Moldova. Finally, there's Gagauz, which is officially recognized in the autonomous region of Gagauzia. Moldova is home to approximately 138,000 native speakers of this Turkic language which is related to Azerbaijani and Turkish.

Other Languages

There are still a few more languages left to mention when it comes to Moldova's linguistic landscape. First, there's Bulgarian, a Slavic language which is the native language of over 50,000 Moldovans. It's followed by Balkan Romani, a group of dialects of the Romani language, which are used by over 12,000 people in Moldova. Finally, the Ethnologue mentions that Moldova is home to some Yiddish speakers, though it doesn't provide an exact number.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Rules and Advice: Using "Must" and "Should" in the English Language

When using the English language, there are two important words you can use to either suggest something or say something is obligatory.

When you would like to make a suggestion (or give advice), you can use the word should, and its negative form shouldn't.

When you want to express that something is obligatory, imperative, or a rule, you can use the word must, and its negative form mustn't. Today we're going to look at how to form sentences using these words.

Should & Shouldn't

You can use "should" in the affirmative like this:

Subject + should + infinitive (without "to")

For example: "You should study before an exam."

In this case, the speaker is saying that they think it is a good idea to study before an exam.

You can also use it in the negative like this:

Even though it is really delicious...
Subject + shouldn't + infinitive (without "to")

For example: "You shouldn't eat lots of chocolate every day."

In this example, the speaker thinks that eating lots of chocolate every day is a bad idea. Don't eat lots of chocolate!

Must & Mustn't

Must and mustn't are used similarly to should and shouldn't, but are much stronger. Sentences are formed in exactly the same way.

Subject + must + infinitive (without "to")

For example: "You must have a driving licence to drive a car."

In this example, it is obligatory to have a driving licence.

The negative works in the same way:

Subject + mustn't + infinitive (without "to")

For example: "You mustn't drink and drive".

It is illegal to drink and drive. Therefore this is something you cannot do.


Both must and should form questions in the same way, too.

Must/Should + subject + infinitive (without "to")

If you are asking for advice, for example: "Should I go to the party?"

Or if you are asking about a rule or something obligatory: "Must I do my homework?"

And that's it! We hope our advice will help you when you need to give advice or orders in the English language!

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Languages in the News: April and May 2016

There have been lots of fascinating news articles related to language and linguistics over the past two months, so today we thought we'd take a look at our favorites, which cover everything from Shakespeare to Klingon.

50 Shades of Shakespeare: How The Bard Used Food As Racy Code

In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare used the word "goose"
(in reference to the bird's meat) to mean "prostitute".
You might have noticed that the internet was blanketed in news stories about Shakespeare throughout April and May. That's because many news organizations were taking the opportunity to mark the 400th anniversary of his death. One of our favorite pieces was this NPR article that examined how Shakespeare linked foods with sexuality in his writing.

If that sounds a bit too racy for you, The Washington Post had a unique article that discussed how Shakespeare's works have influenced the English language. If you have some free time, you can even try a challenge: identifying the 30 Shakespearean words and phrases that they hid in the article. We also recommend this interesting article on Shakespeare's "noggin-busting compounds" by Slate's Lexicon Valley blog.

The Ultimate Latin Dictionary: After 122 Years, Still At Work On The Letter 'N'

We've always imagined that working on a dictionary is a long, difficult task, but this NPR article on the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae demonstrated just how hard it can be. Apparently, this incredibly comprehensive Latin dictionary project first started in 1894, and it's still nowhere near completion. The job includes documenting every single use of every Latin word, going as far back as the 6th century BC!

UW undergraduate team wins $10,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize for gloves that translate sign language

This was definitely one of the coolest news articles we've seen in a while: two University of Washington students created a pair of gloves that can recognize words and phrases in American Sign Language and translate them into spoken language! While it would obviously be great if everyone just learned sign language, that's unlikely to happen, so this device could be incredibly useful in helping deaf people communicate with those who don't know sign language.

Lost In Translation: Study Finds Interpretation Of Emojis Can Vary Widely

As emojis have become increasingly popular, lots of people have claimed that they are even better than language because they're universally understood. However, this NPR article on a University of Minnesota study shows that this is definitely not the case. In fact, significant percentages of people disagree as to the sentiment of certain emojis (positive, negative or neutral). It's also worth keeping in mind that certain emojis are rendered differently on different devices, which can occasionally lead to awkward situations.

A satellite image of Cape Cod, Massachusetts
Five Lost Languages Rediscovered in Massachusetts

If you're a history buff, you might be interested in reading this article, which discusses new linguistic research showing that Native Americans in central Massachusetts spoke not one, but instead five or more different languages. Even more interestingly, this could mean that there are many other Native American languages waiting to be uncovered!

Does Klingon belong to everyone? "It's a language - the whole point is to use it!"

Finally, we've got this Salon article on a lawsuit related to a fan film's use of Klingon. Apparently, Paramount Pictures believes that the language belongs to the studio since it was invented by linguist Marc Okrand for use in the third Star Trek film. The article features an interview with a linguist who has created languages for Game of Thrones and other films and TV shows, and addresses whether or not a language can truly be owned by anyone.

Did we leave out an article that you believe merits a mention? Let us know in the comments!