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 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. 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. 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 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.