Sunday, January 27, 2013

Get It Right: Affect And Effect

It's been far too long since we've done a condescending post on correct usage of the English language (our last one was on further and farther back at the start of December!) and we felt it was time to do another.

Today we're looking at one of the simplest errors. If you know anything about words and their classification is makes this very easy.
No jokes about the gender of the driver, please!

Affect is a verb. It means something is doing something. Something affects something else. Since it's a verb it can be conjugated which means, in English, that it can have the -ed suffix in the past tense. There is no such word as effected.

For example: Drinking ten pints of strong continental lager seriously affects your ability to drive.

Effect is a noun. A noun, put simply, is a thing or a concept. If preceded by the or a then it's effect you need.

Example: The effects of drinking alcohol are detrimental to one's ability to drive.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Happy Birthday Edward Sapir!

Today, if you hadn't guessed by the title, is Edward Sapir's birthday. Unfortunately, he's dead. Fortunately, his legacy lives on the world of linguistics.

It's not a bad place to be educated.
Born to "German" parents, the place where he was born was actually in Prussia, which is now Poland. He moved to the U.S. where he studied Germanic linguistics at the University of Columbia, which is still one of the top language universities in the United States. It also allowed Jewish students in without any limitations, unlike other universities at the time.

His most important work included the classification of Native American languages. His work with Native American languages was even featured in the Encyclopædia Britannica. He took particular interest in the Athabaskan language family.

Sapir's other famous "work" included the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. Despite the name, Sapir never co-authored any work with Whorf and, in fact, never made a hypothesis. It's just a useful label put on to some of the work he did in terms of linguistic relativity, just like Whorf.

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis stipulated that the way people think, their cognitive processes, are affected by language. The idea that Inuits have several words for snow was an example used by Whorf to explain the hypothesis. It was, of course, found to be false.

Edward Sapir's work will be remembered for quite some time, not just amongst linguists, but also by everyone who wrongly quotes that "Inuits have hundreds of words for snow"!

Towards the end of his life Sapir was the head of Anthropology at Yale, where he continued to work on the relationship between anthropology and languages. Amazingly, few before him had thought that there'd be a link between the two!

He died in 1939 in New Haven, Connecticut.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Word Categories for Dummies

We often mention certain aspects of words and it only just occurred to us that we haven't ever explained what they are. Just in case you've been a little confused in the past, we've provided a little glossary of the classifications of words for you.

Time for another...

Nouns are things. Most things that can be preceded by the or a (which we'll get into later) are nouns. Examples include everyday things such as house, bed, cat and dog, as well as concepts such as love, hate, anger and envy, to name a few. If there's a name for something it's most likely a noun. Beer is a noun and we'll be using it in every example.

Example: "A beer."


If you remember covering verbs in school, you were probably told that verbs are doing words. Verbs are actions pretty much 100% of the time. They conjugate as well, meaning that their stem will change based on who or what is doing the action. The change in the verb means that we can explain things in the past, present and future, not to mention concepts such as the conditional and even subjunctive.

Example: "I like beer."

Personal pronouns

The personal pronouns in English include: I, you, he, she, it, we, you (plural), and they when they are the subject, meaning the thing that does the verb. If this isn't the case then you'll have to use me, you, himherit, us, you, and them when they are the object, the thing that is getting something done to it.

Example: "I hit him because he took my beer."

Things would be different in my pub!
Possessive pronouns

If someone or something owns something then you'll need the possessive pronoun. They include mine, yours, hishersits, ours, yours, and theirs.

Example: "The beer was mine."
Relative Pronouns

Relative pronouns join parts of sentences together. Words such as who, whom, whose, which, and that can all be relative pronouns. Put simply, when the latter part of a sentence requires one of those words, odds are that you have yourself a relative pronoun.

Example: "This is the beer which I drank."

Adjectives add qualities and details to nouns, they're describing words. If something is big or small, fat or thin then you've got yourself an adjective.

Example: "I love a cold beer!"

Adverbs work much in the same way as adjectives, except they add details to verbs. They explain how a verb is done. Many of them in English use the suffix -ly, so you can better explain how something was done.

Example: "I quickly drank my beer as the bar was closing."


Articles are a type of determiner and come in two forms, definite and indefinite. The definite article, the, implies that the listener or reader knows which thing you're talking about.

Example: "Where is the beer?"

The indefinite article is used when the listener or reader may not know which thing you are referring to, or it's not important.

Example: "I would like a beer."


Conjunctions work in a similar way to relative pronouns. They constitute "connecting words" and most of words you were told to never told to start a sentence with. Words such as and, but, for, or, yet, so, and nor are all conjunctions.

Example: "I drank a beer but I can still drive."

A preposition is a word that usually explains where something is in relation to something else. Words such as in, on, over and under are all prepositions. They can also refer to semantic concepts such as of and for.

Example: "My beer is in my hand."


Interjections are words for emotions and sentiments. Most of them are followed by an exclamation mark.

Example: "Wow! What a fantastic beer!"

Now get to the pub to show off
your new knowledge!

Determiners are an interesting classification of words. Their main function is to clarify or determine a noun or noun phrase. Examples include articles as well as possessives pronouns, both of which we mentioned before. So what aren't determiners?

Nouns and verbs are definitely not determiners. Determiners can be articles, possessives, demonstratives such as this and that, as well as quantifiers such as some, all, few and many.

Numbers both cardinal (one, two, three) and ordinal (first, second, third) are also considered determiners as they mention how many of a certain noun there are or what order they came in.

Example: "This beer is mine!"

The main criticism of word categories is that, as you have seen, it tends to pigeon-hole words into just one category. Many words can be many things, so is it productive to categorise them thus? What do you think? The comments are below if you have something to say...

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Top Language Universities: UK

Last week we covered the top language universities in the US and now we're covering the top choices for students in Blighty. Who said Brits were no good at languages!?

Durham Castle
Durham University

Nestled away in the North East of England, Durham ranks as a top 100 university. The language programme, however, does not. It creeps in the top 10 for UK language universities but is actually considered just outside of the top 100 for the world. If you can brave the cold north, this may be the university for you.

University of York

Another beautiful historic city in the north of England. The University of York doesn't make the top 100 universities for the world, but it does when it comes to languages so we can forgive them. Those with a soft spot for history should definitely look in to York, especially if you like Vikings.

The Clifton suspension bridge.
University of Bristol

If the wonderful Bristolian accent hasn't already cemented your decision, the fact that only a few universities in the UK can boast a better language programme should. It should be noted that graffiti artist Banksy hails from Bristol and his works can be spotted around the city. If that's not your cup of tea, then there are plenty of historical sites and a pretty impressive bridge.

The University of Warwick

Although not technically in Warwick geographically speaking, the University of Warwick has become one of the UK's most well-respected academic institutions. The language course is no exception.

Manchester Cathedral
The University of Manchester

If you only know Manchester for its football teams then shame on you! Manchester boasts a well-respected university as well as a gorgeous cathedral. It's also home to the Gallagher brothers of Oasis fame, but don't let that put you off. Their music wasn't bad, though.

SOAS - School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London

If the name didn't give it away, this school is the place to go when it comes to African and Asian languages. It's also the only school of its type in the UK. It's not advised, however, if you're looking to study European languages.

UCL (University College London)

Don't let the name confuse you. UCL is a British university. University College London is one of the UK's most prestigious universities and has the language department to match. Overall, UCL outranks Oxford in the world rankings. If you think you can survive the hustle and bustle of the UK's capital, then this should definitely be one of your first choices.
Cockburn Street, Edinburgh
University of Edinburgh

The capital is where you'll find Scotland's best university when it comes to languages. For those lucky Scots that enjoy the advantages of no tuition fees, it would be silly to opt for the next two if you can get your degree for free!

University of Cambridge

You probably imagined that Cambridge would be high up on the list. Given that we haven't mentioned Oxford, then you can guess what's coming next. That said, it doesn't take anything away from the high quality of education provided at one of the UK's most prestigious universities. Cambridge can still boast finishing higher in the top 100 overall than their rivals at Oxford.

University of Oxford

While Cambridge may have the bragging rights when it comes to ranking the entire institution, Oxford is still the cream of the crop when it comes to language departments. Oxford should probably be the top pick for anyone wanting to study languages in the UK. If you can get in, that is.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Collocation: How Words Go Together

In linguistics, collocation refers to words that appear together more frequently than expected. It's how words go together, though not like "rama lama lama" as Grease would have us believe. Though rama and lama probably do exhibit collocation to a certain extent.

For native speakers of a language, the collocations are almost second nature. Most English speakers know that you make a decision rather than do a decision. The fact that "make" occurs more frequently with the word "decision" is a syntactic relation. Many speakers of languages that do not have a distinction between the words "do" and "make", such as French and Spanish, will often find themselves making this mistake, causing the English speakers with them to wince slightly at the inelegance of the phrasing.

It can also be used to make funky lines...
Collocation can be measured by brainy mathematicians using all sorts of crazy functions that we don't even want to fathom. Certain methods include using the log-likelihood, (it's not something you consider on your first visit to the toilet after a curry), as well as other statistical analysis methods.

You know when you're witnessing collocation, especially within the speech of a foreign speaker. It's the feeling every native speaker will get when they can't explain why a sentence is wrong but know that it just sounds wrong.

Even with all the mathematics behind finding collocation, all it takes is a sentence that feels awkward.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

January 19: Edgar Allan Poe's Birthday

Although he's dead and has been for some time, we're still celebrating Edgar Allan Poe's birthday today. He would be 204 today, and we think he deserves at least a post for his troubles.

If you were unable to subtract 204 from 2013, you should know that he was born in 1809 and only lived to age 40. He was born Boston, Massachusetts and briefly attended schools in Irvine, Chelsea and Stoke Newington in the United Kingdom before eventually settling with his foster family, the Allans, in Richmond, Virginia.

He spent about a year at the newly established University of Virginia studying ancient and modern languages, but ended up dropping out. As an 18 year-old (although he said he was 22), he enlisted in the army and served as a private at Fort Independence in Boston Harbor. His first book, Tamerlane and Other Poems, was released the same year. It was pretty much a horrendous failure, with only 50 copies published that few took notice of.

When he actually reached 22 his elder brother died, due in part to alcoholism. Poe focused on his writing and struggled, like many do, to make ends meet. After a few publications he was noticed by John P. Kennedy, who helped him in classic business style by introducing him to a few movers and shakers. This helped land him a job as the assistant editor for the Southern Literary Messenger in Richmond until he lost his job for being drunk.

They were kind of sweet, though. Virginia wrote
this acrostic poem for Edgar one Valentine's Day.
In a part of his life that should be brushed over, Poe, quite disgustingly, married his 13 year-old cousin, Virginia, in Baltimore. The ceremony was held in secret, though he did later marry her in public. He eventually got his job back at the Southern Literary Messenger and returned to Richmond.

He stayed at the Messenger until 1837, and afterwards published the majority of his works. His cousin-wife fell ill to tuberculosis and Poe, who was already fond of booze, started drinking more. Virginia died in 1842, which obviously didn't help Poe's drinking problem either.

Poe went out with a few other women following his wife's death but with little success. More often than not his drinking problem and erratic behaviour got in the way. Poe was eventually found in a bad state on 3rd October 1849. Supposedly delirious and calling out "Reynolds", he later died at Washington College. All records concerning the cause of his death have been lost, so it remains a mystery. 

While Edgar Allan Poe had quite an erratic life, he is most known for the mark he left upon literature. During his lifetime, he was known not as a writer but as one of the fiercest of literary critics. Later in his short life, he began to gain notoriety for his short stories and poetry. His works were dark, and many of his stories and poems dealt with death. He was one of the first Americans to write short stories, and is even credited by some, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (the writer of the Sherlock Holmes stories), to have invented the detective fiction genre.

An 1858 illustration for "The Raven"
done by John Tenniel. 
Two of his most famous works are "The Tell-Tale Heart" and "The Raven". The first is a short story in which the narrator tries to convince you that he's sane while describing a murder he has committed. Eventually, he begins to hear the beating of his victim's heart from under the floorboards. We won't spoil the details of the story for you if you haven't read it, but it's definitely an interesting read if you're not too squeamish. 

You may also know his narrative poem entitled "The Raven", especially if you're a fan of The Simpsons. It tells of an upset lover and a mysterious talking raven that appears and repeatedly utters the word "nevermore" to him. However, as we pointed out yesterday, there are no such things as talking birds. Most of Poe's stories were quite dark, and we can only imagine that had to do with his life. Nevertheless, he left an indelible mark on literature, especially the mystery genre. The Edgar Award is even given out each year by The Mystery Writers of America for distinguished work in the genre. Last year's winner was a British author named Mo Hayder, for her novel Gone.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Why Parrots Can't Talk

You've all seen them. Parrots are without a doubt the most devious "language users" on the planet. They mimic the sounds of language but lack the ability to speak.

"Be quiet when I'm talking!
What parrots do when they talk is nothing more than a parlour trick. They respond to cues and replicate sounds that, to humans, are very similar to speech.

When a parrot says "hello" it doesn't understand that it's greeting people. All it does is respond to whichever cue the trainer has designated as "hello" and responded, usually seeking a reward such as a cracker.

Parakeets and budgerigars (you know them as "budgies") are also known to be good at "talking". One budgie known as Puck held the Guinness World Record for largest vocabulary of any bird with 1,728 words. This is a larger vocabulary than the average reality TV viewer.

Amazon parrots, from the rainforest and not the online marketplace, have a reputation for being good at talking. Although several species of birds have the "equipment" necessary to replicate the sounds of speech, they unfortunately lack the brain capacity to understand languages.

"Could you throw me a fish? I'm hungry!"
However, animals do communicate and dolphins famously will chatter to one another and even to Megan Fox, if we are to believe a recent advertisement we saw. It will probably take millions of years of evolution before animals will communicate like we do, as all those with the brains lack the equipment, while those with the equipment lack the brains.

Chimpanzees have been taught to use sign language to communicate and a few have even become famous for it. Koko the gorilla is famous for her skills in sign language and understanding of words but, like most human males, may have used it to get people to show her their breasts.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Top Language Universities: USA

One of the great places to learn languages that we mentioned recently was universities. What if you're thinking about learning languages or even studying them? There are so many fantastic institutions to expand your mind, grow as a person and eventually master a language that we couldn't possibly have them all in one post. To make things simple we've included the institutions with the best language programmes in the United States.

A 1902 college poster for Columbia
depicting a typical student.
Columbia University 

Originally founded by royal charter of King George II of Great Britain as King's College, Columbia University is the first Ivy League school to show up on the list. The Ivies are known to be some of the best in the United States, as well as the most difficult to get into. They're often thought of as being only for the rich and elite, but they actually do provide quite a bit of funding to lower-income students who can prove their intelligence. There's a large price tag for admission, but Columbia is located on the island of Manhattan, so it might be worth it to live in the centre of New York City which is teeming with diversity and places to explore. 

Stanford University 

If you're interested in studying in Silicon Valley, then Stanford is the place for you. Its full name is actually Leland Stanford Junior University, created in honour of the only son of a former California governor who died of typhoid at age 15. Besides having a great language programme, they're also known for being one of the top universities in the world for computer science studies, and their graduates include the founders of Google, Hewlett-Packard, Yahoo! and Sun Microsystems.

The Wrigley Building in Chicago.
University of Chicago

This university is the only on our list located in the Midwest, the heart of the United States. Not only can you study modern languages in one of the largest cities in the U.S., but there are also courses available in extinct ancient languages such as Akkadian, used between the 29th and 8th centuries BC!

University of California, Berkeley (Cal)

California's best-rated university for languages is priced at about $20,000 for non-Californians, which comes to about half the price of the private universities on the East Coast. It's located along the San Francisco Bay, so you won't have to deal with the frigid winters you'd find in Chicago. You can also revel in its history as one of the centres of the hippie subculture movement in the mid-1960s. 

Princeton University

Though it doesn't rate quite as highly as Yale and Harvard, you can be assured of a high quality education in languages, which you might not expect to find in New Jersey. Its main university library is one of the largest in the world with nearly four million volumes, meaning there are plenty of foreign language books to assist in your studies.

An illustration of Yale and its chapel from 1786.
Yale University

This university hasn't been around as long as Yoda, who lived to 900 years, but is still the second best for modern languages in the U.S. and only fourth in the whole world (behind Oxford and Cambridge). It could also offer the right student the perfect start in Connecticut. If you're lucky, you might get invited into a secret society like Skull and Bones... two of its most famous former members are John Kerry and George W. Bush, who ran for president against each other in 2004. If we knew what they did at their meetings we'd tell you, but unfortunately it's a well-kept secret. 

Harvard University

Hardly surprising that one of the world's most famous educational institutions tops the list. It wouldn't be up there if the classes were terrible. The university was founded 140 years before the Declaration of Independence was written... would that make it a British university? The institution is famous the world over and with good reason.  If you're looking for language education, won't take anything but the best and you're made of money, then Harvard is the place to be. Nearly $40,000 per year in tuition alone could be too rich for some students' blood, though.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Bad Practices For Language Learning

We love how many paintings there are of people writing!
Yesterday we looked at some good practices for language learning. Today we'll be warning you of the things to watch out for and avoid, thus naming and shaming some of the bad practices when learning a new language.


It's very unlikely that the language you're learning sounds like your native language. Even in your own language, we doubt that everyone has the same accent, so why would someone in France speak with an English accent? Make sure you realise that words are unique and even if they look exactly like one in your own language, don't pronounce it the same!
Not knowing whether this is miles or
kilometres could land you in a lot of trouble.

Even if you think you know the language inside-out there's always something you might miss. Many of the Romance languages use a full stop (period) in numbers where an English speaker would use a comma. 1,000 in French and Spanish is 1.000 since their usage is different. Make sure you know all the conventions that come with the language.

Though not necessarily a linguistic feature of a language, knowing which measurement systems they use in the country is very important as well. Telling someone in France you stayed in a town fifty miles outside of Paris will mean nothing to them. For Americans, don't tell Spaniards that it's 70 degrees in the summer in Miami else they'll be scared of going.

Diacritics, commonly known as accents, can be very important in other languages. Just because English uses them very rarely does not mean that they're useless. In many languages that have diacritics, ignoring them can change the entire meaning of a sentence. In French the diacritics can change pronunciation or just the meaning of the word. Parle is not the same as parlé nor is sur the same as sûr.

Google Translate

We just can't say this enough! Machine translation is bad! Stop using it as a shortcut to actually learning a language! We even did a whole post on why you shouldn't use Google Translate!

Would it be rude to ask for a fork? Probably...

Part of learning a language is communicating with other people. If they don't like you, don't expect them to help you practice their language. Make sure you know whether or not you should be addressing someone formally or informally.

Japanese, for example, has a complicated system of honorifics that you shouldn't avoid. Being culturally aware is a great way to avoid making an arse of yourself (or ass if you're in the U.S.).


Just because you put words in a particular order in your language does not mean you can use that same order in another language. Word-for-word translations will often sound horrendous and may not even not make any sense. We remember someone saying "en mi padre's casa" in a Spanish class... we can assure you that everyone laughed derisively.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Good Practices For Language Learning

Learning a language is an extremely rewarding task. We've given you 10 reasons to learn another language as well as telling you the best languages to learn and the easiest languages to learn. If you haven't started learning by now we're not sure what to tell you.

What we're covering today is what you should be doing when you learn a language. General good practices to maximise your learning. So here goes...

Yo soy... tu eres...

It may sound obvious, but you can go to as many classes or through as many online activities as you want, but if you don't study you'll find everything you cover will just disappear into the ether. If you're no longer in school you should remember all those times you told yourself that you should have studied.

Your efforts will be rewarded once you've mastered all the conjugations and tenses in your new language. Never again will you forget that, for some reason, table is feminine. 


We don't mean reading the materials, as you should be doing that already. If you're learning a language, with the exception of sign language, there should be a wealth of material available to read in the target language. Try newspapers, books, comics, or websites. Almost anything that has the language in its written form will benefit your learning of the language. There are usually thousands of words written down that you'd never come across if you only speak or chat in your new language. Why do people who read tend to have larger vocabularies? Quite simply, they see more words.


Nothing will help you form sentences in a foreign language more than writing it. Unlike speaking, writing allows you to make mistakes. If you write something down in a foreign language you can always erase it and correct your mistakes. With speaking you can't un-say a word. Once it's said there's very little you can do about it. Use writing to practice sentence structure and spelling. This is particularly useful for languages which use writing systems dissimilar to your own.


Very rarely does a language not have a spoken form. Again, sign languages are the exception. Find anything you can to practice listening. That could mean finding foreign radio stations, of which there are plenty available on the internet; listening to foreign music, which allows you to find new bands that you'd have never heard on a chart radio station; or even just relaxing whilst you watch a foreign film. The more you listen the more you'll get out of the language. Even passively, you can learn a lot about a language just by hearing it.

"Get the beers in Michelle, I need to practice my Irish..."

You may meet people who have studied a language at a fancy university. Maybe they have a degree in French literature. They can conjugate verbs that haven't been used for hundreds of years and are familiar with archaic spellings. Can they hold down a conversation? Hell no!

We cannot stress enough how important speaking is. It's also a great excuse to meet people and even have a drink. Why not further your language skills whilst hanging out at a trendy coffee shop or drinking in a pub?

You can read as much as you like, but if you avoid a language's raison d’être then you've not only pulled half the fun out of learning it, but you won't be any good at it either. Never underestimate how important actually speaking the language is. Make sure your accent is as authentic as possible. Of course you'll probably never eradicate your own but there's a huge difference between being lazy and pronouncing every word as you would in your mother tongue and at least having a go at trying to get it right.

If you find a good balance among these five things you will learn your language far quicker than you'd expect. Make sure to work on your weaknesses as well as your strengths.

What do you reckon? Are there any other indispensable tricks and practices you know of that we've missed? If so, tell us below in the comments.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Our Favourite "Foreign" Characters

Following our discussion on foreign dialogue, we got to thinking about foreign characters, that is, characters that speak a language other than the main language of the show or film, or no language at all. Here are a few of our favourite characters that speak in a foreign language, a constructed or fictional language, or are indecipherable altogether.

Toshi (American Dad)

Friend to Steve Smith in the TV show, Steve's nerdy Japanese friend is always subtitled, though the characters often misunderstand or outright ignore what he's saying in favour of a racist joke. He is often imparting his wisdom to no avail. His sister on the show is fluent in English.

Imagine one of these capable of flight, only
made of rainbows and with a unicorn head.
Lady Rainicorn (Adventure Time)

The amazing sausage-dog-esque rainicorn from Adventure Time only speaks Korean. Why? Niki Yang, who lends her voice to the character, is Korean and also provides the voice for the games console BMO, or Beemo, who speaks in English with a Korean accent. You'd be a fool to start questioning the logic behind Adventure Time.

Dora (Dora The Explorer)

Dora doesn't really speak a foreign language all the time, but she is bilingual. She teaches kids how to speak Spanish. In the Spanish versions of the show her dialogue is changed so that she teaches kids English. We'll take this opportunity to say that we don't care much for Diego and think he's just copying Dora.

Jabba The Hutt (Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi)

Given the large number of languages spoken in the Star Wars universe, Jabba The Hutt has a voice and language to match his personality. Though he speaks a foreign language, all the characters around him seem to understand him half of the time, and in Return of the Jedi he had the assistance of C-3PO who acted as his interpreter.

Apparently American post boxes are
big Star Wars fans too!
R2-D2 (Star Wars)

One of the only characters to feature in all six Star Wars films, the three good ones and the three bad ones, and can be considered the narrator of the original trilogy. R2-D2 was the droid that communicated in nothing but beeps and whistles, while everything he said was inferred by C-3PO's responses. We're not sure why C-3PO never would answer R2-D2 in his own language...

Kenny (South Park)

It's entirely possible that Kenny from the TV show South Park speaks a foreign language. No one really knows for sure however, because nearly everything he says is unintelligible due to his signature orange hooded sweatshirt. We imagine that he keeps it tight around his face at all times to keep the cold mountain air away, but it also lends an air of mysteriousness to the language he uses. He's also living proof that tone of voice communicates just as much as the words themselves... that is, during the rare moments on the show when he is living!

Amy Wong (Futurama)

Another character in a TV show that infrequently utters things in a foreign language. Though the cursing exhibited by Amy in the early episodes of Futurama is actually poorly-spoken utterances of Cantonese, we prefer it to having no foreign language at all. Personal favourite Dr. Zoidberg occasionally says things in his own language, too.

Sooty and Sweep (The Sooty Show)

Sooty and Sweep (after his introduction in 1957) were two puppets from the long-running The Sooty Show. Sooty, the yellow and black puppet, was portrayed as entirely mute rather than foreign, except when communicating with his puppeteer. Sweep the dog only communicated in high-pitched squeaks, though other characters appeared to understand him.

Who are your favourite "foreign" characters? Are there any we have missed that deserve a mention? Tell us below in the comments.

Friday, January 11, 2013

The Best Way to Write Foreign Dialogue

They probably speak more Italian than Latin now.
Something that has frequently irritated us in media is the portrayal of foreign speakers. Sometimes a story calls for a foreign language. Other times the entire thing is set in a foreign land yet the actual language is ignored, which we imagine they call artistic license. We found the British TV show Rome very entertaining, but it was annoying that every single character in ancient Rome was speaking English. Of course this makes the show more accessible, but from a linguistic standpoint they should have really done the whole thing in Latin.

In the case of Rome, most of the characters have British accents. Don't let us go off on a tangent about the lack of American actors in the history and fantasy genres...

One of our pet peeves is when characters are given English dialogue with a stereotypical accent. War films are often guilty of this as German soldiers speak in English with one another, only with horrendous German accents. It's made even worse when the dialogue is sprinkled with words from the foreign language, which doesn't even come close to making it authentic. Throwing the occasional "Scheiße" into dialogue isn't fooling anybody.

Subtitles are great for karaoke too.
Our favourite method is having the dialogue in the foreign language, subtitled of course, as we outlined in our previous post on dubbing and subtitling. This method gives scenes more authenticity and enables us to enjoy foreign languages in their entirety. The computer game Assassin's Creed II was guilty of using English with bad accents to represent a foreign character. The protagonist, Ezio Auditore, is Italian but spent the entire game speaking like Super Mario. We were delighted to see that Assassin's Creed III, set in colonial America, features full scenes and sections of gameplay in the Native American language of the characters, complete with subtitles.

Our only complaint is that at it looked like the designers had confused Native American architecture with that of the Ewoks from the Star Wars franchise.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Divine Language

Yesterday we spoke about Adamic, the language handed to Adam by God. It has been suggested that Adamic is the Divine Language, but since this is not a certainty and it's much worse to piss off God than Adam, we decided that we needed to look at the Divine Language on its own.

The Divine Language is considered a proto-language despite the possibility that it doesn't exist. Classifying it further would be fairly redundant, although we have seen people do weirder things when encouraged by their beliefs. It would be fair to say that the Divine Language is definitely a language isolate since it can't possibly have any earthly relations. That is, assuming that heaven or any other godly realm is monolingual.

Mytikas, the highest point of Mount Olympus.
Many cultures have an idea of a divine language. It is usually required because in many religions God, or the gods, do not live on their own. Within Judaism and Christianity, God hangs out in heaven with angels, archangels and a whole host of staff, for lack of a better word. In Ancient Greek mythology there were several gods that would spend their time on Mount Olympus chatting to one another and occasionally mocking Hades who, despite modern depictions, wasn't all that bad. He was merely annoyed at his job as the manager of the underworld, which is far worse than any job in an office.

If we ignore the issue of whether or not God or gods exist, the idea of a divine language becomes even less likely if we consider that immortal omnipotent deities would have little to no need for using their mouths, tongues and vocal chords, if they even have any, to communicate. They would probably use a form of communication far beyond our comprehension.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Adamic: The Original Language

When we discussed a few theories on The Origin of Language, we only mentioned scientific theories proposed by scholars and linguists. Just as parents love their children, we love all languages, albeit not equally, and thought it would be interesting to discuss what we'll call a historical or mythological language.

There are no words to describe it.
At least there were no words.
Adamic is the language handed to Adam (from the Bible and Torah) from God. There are uncertainties as to whether or not Adamic is the same as God's language, known as the Divine Language. The Adamic language, obviously named after Adam, was the language used by Adam to name things in the Garden of Eden. Thanks to some fairly sexist content in ancient scripture, it is unknown whether Eve spoke this language.

Scholars are not certain as to whether or not the Adamic language was Hebrew, due to the names he gave Eve. We do know that Adam used his language to name Eve. It is prudent to note at this point that his female companion was not originally called Eve. The scripture was not in English, and she was in fact called Isha or Chava. As these names apparently only make sense in Hebrew, some assume that this was the language Adam was speaking.

Other groups, such as the Latter-day Saints (Mormons), believe that the Adamic language came directly from God and is a pure language not subject to change, as this would make it impure. Obviously humans cannot modify things from God since they are always considered pure and perfect. That said, God clearly had no idea of how amazing apple pies are. Given the option between an apple and an apple pie, anyone with their head screwed on knows that pies are probably worth eternal damnation.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Origin of Language

Language is all around us. However, it hasn't been around since the dawn of time or the formation of the planet, unless you're some kind of linguistic creationist. We don't believe language was created in seven days, and although a deity is all-powerful and probably doesn't have to worry about the expense of producing a dictionary, we have seen enough empirical evidence of change in languages over the ages to assume that they weren't always there.

Like the origins of life and the beginnings of the universe, the origin of language is a topic of much debate and speculation. So much debate, in fact, that for a period starting in 1866, discussion of the topic was banned by the Linguistic Society of Paris. Scholars adhered to this for almost a century since such discussions tended to be fruitless anyway.

The main complaint is that unlike the first uses of tools, primitive human settlements and the invention of the wheel, the arrival of spoken language does not leave behind fossils. The first semblance of words could have been uttered by cavemen and then instantly lost in the infinite vastness of the ether and the great beyond.

Some of the older theories concerning language origin are quite interesting. The linguist Max Müller proposed a few that ranged from copying animal noises (Bow-wow), noises from pain (Poo-poo), mimicry of the natural resonance of things (Ding-dong), and the synchronisation of sound with labour, known as Yo-he-ho. Yo-he-ho could have simply been called Hi-ho had Müller seen the film.

Language capabilities "on".
A few theories are present as to why languages developed. Some believe in the idea that languages literally sprang up from nowhere. American linguist Noam Chomsky proposed, in a cheeky nod to Darwin, the idea that a random evolutionary change occurred in the human brain that subsequently became an on switch for languages. He suggests that before this change the human brain did not have the capabilities for language, but this random mutation or change enabled them.

The origin of language has been touted as "the hardest problem in science". There are undoubtedly hundreds of mathematicians and physicists laughing at this idea right now, but given the huge number of potential theories and lack of consensus amongst scholars on the topic, we can certainly see how it could be the most difficult scientific problem!

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Great Places to Learn Languages

Many people want to learn languages and often have it on their to-do lists. Unfortunately, a lot of them never complete this dream and it is, in part, due to not knowing where to start. We've picked five fantastic places where you should go if you want to learn another language. If you're not wanting to learn a language, we suggest you read our 10 Reasons To Learn Another Language first.
Usually where your foreign language learning begins.

A lot of people forget that they probably learnt a foreign language at some point during school. If you're lucky enough to still have your youth and be in school, then make sure you're paying attention. Languages are invaluable skills and learning them whilst you're young will put you miles ahead of anyone trying once they've, well, let's just say matured.


Universities are giant centres of learning and great places to meet people. If you're going to university, you don't necessarily need to be studying a degree in languages in order to learn a language. Most universities have language classes as an option, so even if you're doing a different subject you can always add some language classes into your timetable. If not, ask! Most universities won't mind if you sit in on a class just to learn. Though they probably won't let you take the exam or give you credits for it if you're not paying.
If you can read, libraries are a great resource.

We can't call universities centres of learning and leave out libraries. Libraries are not only full of books, of which good libraries will have a lot, but probably full of many books on languages. On top of that, modern libraries have computers and you know what most computers are connected to now...

The Internet

You can find pretty much anything on the internet. Most things you find you never wanted to see, but amongst the spam and pornography there are millions of websites for learning languages, as well as communities and even social media (such as Facebook and Twitter) for language learners and enthusiasts. Get browsing!

Where is there? There is where the language is spoken. Our favourite way to learn languages is in a foreign country. Have a look around for opportunities for study or work in a country you're interested in. Don't forget the 10 Things To Learn Before Going Abroad and, before you know it, you'll be surrounded by the language. Once you're exposed to the language  almost every minute of every day and it'll be hard not to pick it up.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Devious Uses of Foreign Language Skills

Here at The Lingua File, we often promote learning foreign languages and using them for good. Communicating with other people, learning more about other cultures and even learning more about your own language are just a few of the great benefits of speaking a foreign language. What if you have ulterior motives or just a bit of a mean streak? We've compiled a list of a few naughty things you can do with your skills. Have your evil moustaches at the ready.
Avoiding People You Don't Want To Talk To

If you've ever been to any big cities, you know that there are tonnes of people around who feel the need to stop and hassle you for various reasons. Whether it's giving you flyers and other bits of rubbish that you don't want to carry, stopping you to talk about Jesus or convincing you to donate to a charity you've never heard of, using a foreign language can quickly help you distance yourself from those pesky marketers or religious lunatics. A quick "je ne comprend pas" or a "no entiendo" can work wonders in stopping those who only hinder you on your journey to the pub.

Bitching About Things

Sometimes you don't have anything nice to say, yet feel the need to say it anyway. If, for example, you exhibit a British level of politeness and don't want to say anything bad about a restaurant you're in, you could vent your disappointment in your foreign language without ever having to upset anyone. Does that dress actually make her bum look big? You'd be safer muttering it in Swahili than in her mother tongue. If asked, you can always say it means something poetic and beautiful.
Quiet cussing is perfectly acceptable.

There are few places in the world where a loud profanity won't go unnoticed. If you ensure that you swear in a foreign language avoiding obvious well-known expressions, you can probably get away with it. Screaming "joder" when you stub your toe is fairly acceptable in Manchester, just as shouting "bollocks" probably won't upset anyone in Madrid.

One-Night Stands

Even this one is a bit strong for us. However, if you're so inclined and you like the idea of never having them call you the next day, then think about pretending to be on holiday. Just make sure they don't live in your neighbourhood as you're bound to bump into them again and then you'll have some explaining to do.

Outing Racists

Not that bigots and racists should be allowed to hide. Finding them isn't necessarily evil but tricking them so that they reveal that they are errs on the side of devious. Using a foreign language can quickly help you find these people and let you know that you should never associate with them again.