Thursday, February 28, 2013

Rise of the Machines: Computational Linguistics

We've said before that Google Translate isn't very good, and it isn't. The main problem is that when we compare it to human translators, it's proven to be horrendous. However, the science behind it, known as computational linguistics, is very impressive.

If you've ever tried programming you know it's not the easiest subject. Programming languages follow a strict syntax that can rarely be broken. With natural languages you can make a mistake and be understood, whereas computers refuse to allow the user such liberties.

When you combine programming with the field of linguistics you end up with what we call computational linguistics. Its function is to model human, or natural, languages, often with the use of crazy mathematics and programming.

Computational linguistics, like most technology, came about due to political paranoia during the 1950s. When the United States became aware that it had made some foreign enemies, it decided that messages needed to be translated into English, rather than learn another language. How times have changed...

Even this is more advanced than the
machine they tried to translate with.
The initial research was done using text, as speech recognition poses its own problems. Unsurprisingly, what really interested the Americans was the Russians. They needed scientific journals translated from Russian to English, and en masse.

As you can imagine given the state of current machine translation, sixty years ago the technology was even less advanced. So much so that the scientists were required to reassess the whole field. Word for word translation would barely make any sense, and once they knew that grammar, syntax, lexicon, and morphology were essential to producing high-quality and accurate translations, they had ultimately given themselves significantly more work.

What started as research into using machines to monitor the Russians has since developed into the study of what makes languages work and how to synthesize them. Though  machine translation can be easily criticised, you cannot take away some of the phenomenal work that goes on in computational linguistics departments across the world as they endeavour to map, model and analyse our favourite thing in the world, languages.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Naming Life in Greek and Latin

If you've ever studied any of the sciences, you've likely noticed that most words in science are of Greek or Latin origin. This is especially true in biology, where a system exists for naming things in Latin.

Most sciences have borrowed their names from either Greek or Latin and biology is no exception. The word βιος (bios) in Ancient Greek means "life" and λογος (logos) means "the study of", which gives us "the study of life". Even the word etymology came from the Ancient Greek ἐτυμολογία (etumologia).

As you probably know, there are billions of living things on this planet, though not so many on the other planets in our Solar System. When it comes to naming them, numbers, as most linguists will agree, are too boring. So what can you do? Create a system.

What an impressive pinus erectus...
Actual name Pinus ponderosa.
Binomial Nomenclature

Binomial nomenclature, the convention used to name pretty much every living thing using only two words, is not only common in Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner cartoons but in real life too. Before binomial nomenclature, species were named using polynomial nomenclature, which used many words for naming things. It was useful for descriptions but not great at getting a point across quickly. The binomial system was simpler and gave things a unique identifier instead of giving too much information about them.

There were so many wonderful benefits to only using two words. Firstly, it's cheaper to print the names (if you're on a budget) and it also makes everything a lot easier to remember. It also helps maintain a standard across the world. It would be great if everyone could speak every language, but this isn't the case and scientists know it.

Though Latin and Classical Greek are the preferred languages when it comes to naming animals, there are a few exceptions. Big-headed scientists occasionally break the rules and name something after themselves or even put jokes in them, though don't expect them to be side-splittingly funny, they are biologists after all! Needless to say, Rubus cockburnianus is a strong contender for our favourite.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Why You Can't Learn A Language At Home

As featured in our list of great places to learn languages, there is where you have to go if you want to learn languages. Though many well-read scholars will try to argue that they can learn everything they'll ever need from books and the internet, they're wrong. Here's why:

Sometimes there are no words for it.
Culture and language are inextricably bound. A language develops with a culture. As our favourite linguistic anecdote, courtesy of Edward Sapir, explained: Eskimos have thousands of words for snow. As incorrect as this is, you can understand the point he was trying to make. You can't take the culture out of a language, just as you can't take the cheese out of a cheeseburger.

Concepts exist in languages due to both culture and history. History certainly shapes a language. The English language is interesting because for many years, England was Europe's whipping boy that was conquered, almost on a daily basis, by other civilisations. Then, following years of being Europe's bitch, England got sick of it and decided to take the English language on tour and create a global empire.

The same can be said for Spanish, which thanks to some eager sailors, pretty much spans the entire continent of South America, with the exception of Brazil, where they speak Portuguese. The French language was spread in the same way. Aeons ago we did a post on how European colonialism affected the spread of languages, which shows that you can spread a language very quickly if you have a big army.

Would you really want to stay at home?
There are certain things you can't learn entirely from a book. Life lessons, how to satisfy a woman sexually and how to speak a foreign language. Granted, you can supplement your language learning by reading their literature, watching their films and listening to their music, but you can never truly understand the language if you've never met the people, lived their life and immersed yourself in their culture.

There are so many nuances in languages that are nearly impossible to explain without having seen the things they refer to first-hand. Even between British English and American English there are many lexical differences due to the difference in cultures. Most Brits are unfamiliar with strip malls in the same way that many Americans are a little confused if someone lives in a semi-detached house.

The day-to-day language is rarely covered in books. How many Spaniards know that WhatsApp got its name from "what's up?", the colloquial expression? If you really want to know the language that people are ashamed to write down, you have to go into the streets, frequent the bars and get involved with the culture that shares a bed with the language you want to learn.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Mourning Ferdinand de Saussure

He could also grow an amazing moustache.
100 years ago yesterday, a relatively unknown man died. The man was not unknown, however, in the field of linguistics. Ferdinand de Saussure was considered one of, if not the greatest linguists of the 20th century and his work changed the way languages are thought of.

Ferdinand de Saussure was born in Geneva, Switzerland in 1857. He was a talented man who studied Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, and various other courses which would lead him into graduate work at the University of Leipzig.

He wrote his doctoral thesis on Sanskrit in Berlin, and after receiving his doctorate in Leipzig he moved to Paris where he taught for eleven years. A professorship in Geneva saw him return to his hometown. In 1907, Saussure began teaching his Course on General Linguistics.

His work on general linguistics was second to none at the time and although the field of linguistics has progressed enough to make his work rather outdated, the field would be nowhere near where it is today without him.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Film Club: Césars 2013

We're now knee-deep into awards season and only days away from the Oscars, but before we get to the Academy Awards we have to pay a visit to France's Césars, so expect a lot of films in French!

Best Film

Versailles is nice when it's not being invaded by revolutionaries.
Farewell, My Queen (Les Adieux à la reine)

The French drama tells the tale of a young servant, Sidonie, who refuses to abandon Queen Marie Antoinette as the French Revolution reaches the Palace of Versailles.


The French-language film Amour has already won a BAFTA and is looking to add a few more awards to its trophy cabinet at both the Césars and the Oscars this weekend.

Camille Rewinds (Camille redouble)

The drama follows the story of Camille, a woman in the midst of a divorce who wakes from a drunken night to find herself a teenager in high school in the '80s once again. She attempts to change the course of her life and avoid her future husband, but things are never that easy.

In The House (Dans la maison)

Nominated for a GoyaIn The House eventually lost out to Untouchable. It is based on the Spanish play The Boy in the Last Row by Juan Mayorga. Perhaps it will fare better tonight!

Rust and Bone (De rouille et d'os)

A film that has been getting lots of nominations, including both the BAFTAs and the Goyas. We really needn't say more. The protagonist moves to France with his son and falls in love with a killer whale trainer.

Holy Motors

A drama about a man who transcends multiple realities and lives is garnering a lot of positive praise and may very well be rewarded with a César this evening. There's not much more we can say about it except that you should probably watch it!

What's in a name (Le Prénom)

A comedy about the naming of a child. Yes, you're not mistaken... in France, comedies can get the nod for awards, even when they're about the naming of a child. The word prénom is French for "first name". What's more, the child in question isn't even born yet!

Best Foreign Film

We've covered the French and French-language films, so what are the opinions in France when it comes to films from around the world?

One of the rarest sentiments to ever be expressed on a sign.
Argo - United States

Ben Affleck's political thriller about the "Canadian Caper" has gained widespread approval and has been nominated for seven Oscars. It has already won the BAFTA for Best Film and a couple of Golden Globes. Could it add a couple of Césars to the trophy case as well?

Bullhead (Rundskop) - Belgium

This Dutch-language film is centred on the story of a young cattle farmer from Limburg. He's encouraged by a vet to make an unusual deal with a West-Flemish beef (and possibly horse-meat) trader. Everything goes awry following the murder of a policeman.

The film was nominated at last year's Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film but eventually lost to A Separation.

Laurence Anyways - Canada

The Franco-Canadian film Laurence Anyways covers the story of Fred (who happens to be a woman) and Laurence (who happens to be a man who wants to be a woman). As the film is Québécois, it will be no surprise that this is film is in French.

Oslo, August 31st (Oslo, 31. august) - Norway

This Norwegian drama covers a day in the life of Anders, a recovering drug addict, as he encounters people from his past. Ironically, the events of the film take place on August 30th. The film was also on the shortlist of Norway's submissions for the Oscars.

The Angels' Share - United Kingdom

The story of a Glaswegian man on community service who attempts to turn his life around following a visit to a whisky distillery has received favourable reviews and earned director Ken Loach the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival.

He may be king but his missus
is shagging another bloke.
A Royal Affair (En kongelig affære) - Denmark

The historical drama has already been nominated for a Golden Globe, where it lost to Amour, as well as being nominated for an Academy Award.

The film covers the story of Christian VII of Denmark and the romance between his Queen and the royal physician Struensee. The 1935 film The Dictator, not to be confused with the Sacha Baron Cohen film of the same name, covered the same events as A Royal Affair.

Our Children (À perdre la raison) - Belgium

The Belgian drama has already won Émilie Dequenne the Un Certain Regard Award for Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival. Though it didn't make the shortlist for the Academy Awards, it has been nominated for Best Foreign Film at the Césars. It covers the true story of a woman who killed her five children.

As we approach the end of awards season, we can look forward to the Academy Awards on Sunday night before we have to wait another year to find out what is considered good according to the upper echelons of cinematic society.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Get It Right: Spelling

One of the most annoying things for language enthusiasts is the misspelling of words. We often come across (not accross) a large number of errors, especially when it comes to handwritten notes. Thanks to spell checkers, many people don't make time for spelling things correctly and assume that no matter where they go, they can hope to see a squiggly red line when they need to review the spelling of a word.

This isn't a problem if you're using a computer, but if you don't know how to spell you will definitely (not definately) look like a fool. Bad spelling is basically (not basicly) the best way to show other people that you have a limited knowledge (not knowlege) of the English language. We've lost count of the number of emails sent to us by colleagues (not collegues) that are almost completely (not completly) misspelt.

This sign makes us want to cry.
If you actually care about languages, it can be embarrassing (not embarassing) to see the squiggly red line, the computer's way of telling you that you cannot be trusted to use your own language. If you do struggle with spelling, there are many mnemonic devices you can use to help you.

The word "necessary" (not neccessary) can be easily remembered if you recall that a shirt has one collar (one instance of the letter c) and two sleeves (two instances of the letter s). It's even easier to remember if you're actually wearing a shirt.

Unfortunately (not unfortunatly), this tendency won't change until (not untill) people begin to understand the importance of correct spelling and stop relying on spell checkers. If you couldn't tell, this issue really (not realy) annoys us.

All the underlined words (excluding links, of course) are featured in Oxford Dictionaries' list of common misspellings.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Learning Languages with Social Media

One of the best ways to learn a language is to speak it. So what do you do when there's nobody around to talk to? If, like us, you spend most of your life in front of a computer, you should consider getting on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ or any of the other social media sites and start communicating.

Long before the aforementioned social media websites existed there was instant messaging. Services such as MSN Messenger and AIM enabled us to talk with our friends from anywhere in the world, as long as they had a modem and a good tolerance level for high-pitched squealing noises anything was possible. As its popularity and reach grew, the internet quickly became one of the great places to learn languages.

You can learn a language from the comfort
of your home, no pants required. 
Practising languages is tantamount to your success in learning a new language. You can study as much as you want but as we've found, if you don't use the language it becomes very easy to forget everything you've learnt. Instant messaging can help you practice your writing, but also requires quicker comprehension in order to formulate a response. You don't need to be as quick as if you were actually speaking to someone, but you need to be faster than if you were writing a letter or an email, which makes it a perfect middle ground for those wanting to exercise their language skills.

Now that the popularity of instant messaging is on the decline, its space has been taken up by social media, most of which come equipped with a chat function. If you have friends that speak a language you'd like to learn, communicate with them. Send them some messages in their language and get learning. If you're not sure how to say something then look it up, just not on Google Translate, and keep going.

As well as chatting or tweeting to your friends, look for groups, forums or other places where language learners want to get together to practice and learn languages. There are thousands of communities for language aficionados on-line so you have no excuse not to be doing it!

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Film Club: Goyas 2013

Tonight is the Goyas, Spain's foremost film awards ceremony. Given that we love foreign language films, we thought we'd take you through a few of the must-see Spanish language nominees from across the globe as well as a look at the nominees for Best European Film.

Best Spanish Language Foreign Film

The Goya Award is a small bronze bust of
Spanish painter Francisco de Goya, seen above.
7 Boxes (7 Cajas) - Paraguay

This Paraguayan film about a driver who receives a mysterious job offer to transport 7 boxes with unknown contents across a market has received positive reviews. Paraguay has a very small film industry, so its great success in the country as well as South America and the rest of the world has been quite exciting for Paraguayans.

After Lucia (Después de Lucía- Mexico

Having already won the Un Certain Regard accolade at the Cannes Film Festival, the Mexican film After Lucia was also put forward as Mexico's entry for the Best Foreign Language Oscar but has not made the shortlist.

The film looks at the relationship between a father and daughter as they move to Mexico City following the loss of the girl's mother. The girl, Alejandra, is subsequently bullied in her new school.

Clandestine Childhood (Infancia clandestina) - Argentina

This Argentine drama follows the story of a married couple in the Montonerosa leftist urban guerilla group. It is told from the perspective of their son as they take part in Argentina's Dirty War.

Clandestine Childhood was also entered for the Oscars but failed to make the shortlist.

Juan of the Dead (Juan de los Muertos) - Cuba

Not to be confused with the British zombie comedy Shaun of the Dead, Juan of the Dead is the tale of an entrepreneurial loser who sets up his own zombie killing business after a breakout of the living dead in Cuba.

Best European Film

Orcas are beautiful, but they are
called killer whales for a reason.
Rust and Bone (De rouille et d'os) - France, Belgium

As you would have seen when we covered the BAFTAs, Rust and Bone is the story of a Belgian man who gains custody of his relatively unfamiliar son and moves to France, where he falls in love with a killer whale trainer who ends up having an accident at work.

In the House (Dans la Maison) - France

In the House is based on the Spanish play The Boy in the Last Row. It tells the story of a teenager who charms his way into the house of a classmate and writes about his experiences for school assignments. His teacher rediscovers his love of his work due to the boy's talent, not knowing that the intriguing yet troubling stories are of real events.

Untouchable (Intouchables) - France

Despite our recommendation, Untouchable did not win the foreign language category in the BAFTAs. The film retells the story of an unlikely friendship between a rich, paralysed white man and an unemployed black man who becomes his caregiver.

Shame - United Kingdom

It's always interesting to consider an English language film as a "foreign" film and even more interesting given the controversial subject matter of Shame. The film covers the life of a sex addict and is packed full of explicit sexual scenes, drug use and other things you wouldn't want to watch with your mother.

The film has received many accolades and we expect it will do better outside of the UK, in places with a less prudish attitude towards sex and pornography.

With awards season in full swing, the Césars in France and the Academy Awards are in exactly one week's time. We'll be keeping a close eye on all the winners and respectful losers in the world of cinema.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Valentine's Day: The Origins of "Love"

The singletons among us are not going to like today's post as it's all about love, or lurve as the late Barry White would call it.

The English word love came from the Proto-Germanic lubo which shares its roots with German word liebe. The amour in French, amore in Italian and amor in both Spanish and Portuguese all came from either amorem or amor in Latin.

If you don't have someone to share the day with,
it just means all the more chocolate for you!
The English word amorous, of course, has its roots in the identically spelled old French word that later became amoureux, which itself came from the late Latin amorosum. If you are feeling a little amorous, perhaps you should check out the world's sexiest accents to get your motor running.

Many of the words for love in the past have shared connotations with emotional love as well as the more primal and entertaining carnal love. Sex, however, initially came from the Latin sexus which literally meant "the state of being either male or female". Given that the word intercourse isn't particularly sexy, it tends to be dropped from sexual intercourse and shortened to leave us with just sex.

If you are lonely this Valentine's Day, it may be worth noting that some time ago we actually showed you how register and the formality of language can help you find love, at least in the carnal sense. Happy Valentine's Day!

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

How Correct Pronunciation Can Make You Sound Pretentious

For those who speak more than one language or are monolingual but culturally aware, saying foreign words can sometimes lead to tricky situations. What do you do when you know the word is foreign? Do you pronounce it with full authenticity and seem pretentious, or do you pronounce it like the locals and die a little inside? Today we're hoping to come up with a solution.

Le Grand Foyer at Palas Garnier, used by the Paris Opera.
Authentic Pronunciation

For polyglots, this should always be the only option. You'll never get good at a language if you don't pronounce the words correctly and if you do, this will probably spill over into your mother tongue. That said, should you pronounce Paris as if it's an English word and say the last letter, or do you go all-out with a legitimate paree complete with guttural r sounds? We believe that you should consider Paris, as pronounced by the English, as the exonym for the French Paris and stick with the common usage.

Local Pronunciation

There are many words that have existed in the language for so long that we should consider them as English even though they were originally taken from another language. You wouldn't say station like the French do, would you? You'd sound ridiculous.

When it comes to brand names, this shouldn't be a problem. You should always just go with however it's said on the advertisements. It's a quick and easy solution. Except when it comes to Hyundai, which is "hun-day" in the US and "hi-un-die" in the UK, though the marketing in both countries reflects these nuances. 
You probably don't want to pop
an entire one of these into your mouth!
The Solution

We think the real solution is to work proactively. You can't change the way people speak because you'll look like a dick if you do. If you know a new term is a loanword, then make sure you get it right before it becomes commonplace and has been butchered beyond all recognition. It's probably too late however, for jalapeños. Perhaps the best we can do is pronounce each word slightly more authentically until people forget the old, and definitely wrong, way to say it.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Film Club: BAFTAs 2013

At The Lingua File we like a good film, good being the main word. We obviously love languages too, so for this year's BAFTA (British Academy Film and Television Arts) Awards, we're most interested in the Best Film not in the English Language category. Without further ado, here are the nominees:

Amour - Austria

Amour is off to a great start this awards season after winning "Best Foreign Language Film" at the Golden Globes and the coveted Palme d'Or, the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival. It tells the story two retired music teachers, an elderly couple named Anne and Georges. Anne has a stroke that paralyzes one side of her body, and the film focuses on the aftermath of this event and how it affects the couple's love for each other.

The valuable painting to be stolen in
Headhunters is by Peter Paul Rubens,
who also painted Equestrian
Portrait of the Duke of Lerma
Headhunters (Hodejegerne) - Norway

Headhunters tells the story of Roger Brown, a successful corporate recruiter. In order to pay for his expensive lifestyle with his trophy wife, he lives a double life as an art thief. When he finds out that one of his recruits owns a valuable painting, he decides to steal it, which puts his job, his marriage, and even his life at risk.

The Hunt (Jagten) - Denmark

The Hunt is set in a Danish village at Christmas and tells the story of Lucas, a nursery school teacher who is getting over a rough divorce. Life is just starting to improve for him when a child tells a random lie that sends his life spiraling out of control. The false words lead to sexual abuse allegations and a community witch-hunt as he becomes the target of mass hysteria. Clearly this film shows just how influential language can be, whether truthful or not.

Rust and Bone (De rouille et d'os) - Belgium/France

Rust and Bone tells the story of Ali, a Belgian man who has just been put in charge of a young son who he barely knows. He moves to the south of France to live with his sister, who helps him with the child. Ali finds a job as a nightclub bouncer, where he meets Stephanie (played by lovely French actress Marion Cotillard), a killer whale trainer. She soon suffers a horrible accident at work, and the next time they meet she has changed, both physically and emotionally. The films portrays their lives as they gradually intertwine and fall in love.

Paragliding looks fun, yet also terrifying and dangerous.
Untouchable (Intouchables) - France

Untouchable is based on the true story of two very different men that form a friendship. Philippe is a quadriplegic aristocrat who was injured in a paragliding accident. He hires Driss, an ex-convict, to be his caretaker. Hijinks ensue, and they develop a great friendship based on humour and honesty.

It tends to be quite tricky for a layperson to guess which way our cinematic superiors will go when making their selections. We wouldn't like to try and guess a winner, but if we did have to put money on it, we'd go with Untouchable since we have a soft spot for France and the film seems to have had more coverage than the other nominees. We'll find out who wins tonight!

Saturday, February 9, 2013

February 9: UK National Libraries Day

Over the past week schools, colleges, workplaces and universities in the UK have been busy promoting and preparing for today, National Libraries Day. Due to the economic decline in the UK, funding for libraries has been slashed in recent years. Some libraries have been forced to close, while others have been fortunate enough to stay in operation thanks to the tireless efforts of volunteers.

Manchester Central Library
We previously mentioned that libraries are the one of the great places to learn languages and should be celebrated. They provide books for free, what more could you ask for?

Given that today is a Saturday, you should pop in to your local library. You can read and even browse in modern libraries, so what are you waiting for? Many libraries have cafés now too, so you could even have a coffee and get comfortable with a good book.

Many libraries around the UK are having special events today, so who knows what fun you might stumble upon in your local library! You can find a list of the events on the National Libraries Day website. From the few we've looked at, you could get the chance meet Winnie the Pooh, take part in a library quiz, taste international cuisine, peruse a book sale, discuss graphic novels, participate in a singalong, or play with adorable animals. A few of those are probably intended for children, but we're sure you could join in on the fun too.

How's your New Year's resolution going? Have you studied as much of that language you said you would? Maybe you should make sure you're keeping your promise and get studying at the library. Okay, so maybe it's not as exciting as the pub, but we reckon the library is a great place to go and you shouldn't really go to the pub before noon anyway!

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Top Language Universities: Australia

In an ideal world we'd cover every country, but since this blog is in English we've been working through English-speaking countries. We've already shown you the top language universities in the UK, U.S. and Canada so now we're on to our final English-speaking country in the series, Australia.

Macquarie University

Macquarie in New South Wales has a good number of language courses. Aside from the usual suspects, you can also find Croatian studies, which is rare. There's also the opportunity to study Japanese and Chinese, which is fairly common across Australian universities.

Wollongong, New South Wales.
University of Wollongong

Aside from the fantastic name, the University of Wollongong also boasts some of the best tuition in Australia. Japanese, Mandarin and Indonesian feature alongside European languages to offer a good selection for prospective language students.

The University of Western Australia

The University of Western Australia (UWA), though limited in its selection of languages offered, is one of Australia's best language universities. The university focuses on European language studies and if you're interested in French, German or Italian, UWA could be the place for you.

The University of New South Wales

The University of New South Wales in Kensington, Sydney offers all the language courses you'd expect to get. The lack of more alternative courses is a little disappointing, however. That said, they are one of the top institutions in Australia and are clearly good at the languages they do offer.

Monash University

Monash University in Melbourne offers a good range of languages including Hebrew, Indonesian and Ukrainian. It's good to see institutions that don't just offer EFIGS (English, French, Italian, German and Spanish) and have branched out to lesser-known languages.
The main quad at the University of Sydney.
The University of Sydney

Though most people wrongly think that Sydney is the capital of Australia, the university there is one of the top institutions in the world and offers the widest range of language studies in Australia. As well as the usual selection of languages offered, you can also study Aramaic, Hebrew, Indonesian, Pali and Sanskrit. There's not many places in Australia that offer all of those.

The University of Melbourne

The University of Melbourne in, you've guessed it, Melbourne, is highly recommended for language learning and covers all the popular language combinations such as the main European languages, French, Italian, German and Spanish as well as Russian and even Swedish!

Parliament House, Canberra.
Australian National University

The Australian National University (ANU) based in Canberra tops our list. It would have to since it's the national university. The university offers a huge range of language courses from classics such as Latin and Ancient Greek to modern languages from Europe and across Asia, including Japanese, Korean and Chinese.

If you're Australian or just want to study languages down under, then ANU is the place to be.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Super Bowl XLV: Language Inspired by (American) Football

It's that time of year again. If you're not American, then you probably won't know what all the fuss is about or why you should even care. The Super Bowl is one of the biggest sporting events of the year, and it's big bucks for the advertisers involved in a spectacle that involves a lot of guys chasing an egg-shaped "ball" which they rarely touch with their foot.

It's really popular in the US... not so much elsewhere.
Between the "commercials", some guys play football. We've heard that the foot in football refers to the length of the ball rather than the interaction between the body part and the ball.

For those who have no idea what's going on and why the referee is dancing so much, we've got a few definitions of words particular to this sport.

Within the U.S. and Canada, the sport is of course referred to simply as football, whereas in English-speaking countries where another type of football is more popular, the sport tends to be called American football. This is true in the UK where football refers to what Americans call "soccer", as well as in Ireland where football can refer to either soccer or Gaelic football. Australia has Australian (or Aussie) rules football, which bears little resemblance to any of the previously mentioned sports, but let's not muddy the waters.

Without going into the rules too much, the objective of (American) football is to score more points than the opposing team. There are 11 players on each team. In play, the team with the ball is referred to as the offense, while the team without possession is the defense.

The offense has four opportunities known as downs, to progress ten yards with the ball. They're called downs because in rugby football, or simply rugby, the players could consent to stoppage of play once held by the opposition by saying "held", with the opposing player agreeing to this by saying "have it down". All the British frivolities have been removed for the catchier and more American "down".

You'll see the downs counted based on how many downs have transpired and how much distance is left to cover the minimum requirement of ten yards. 1st & 10 would indicate the first down and that there are ten yards to cover, which is always the case. 2nd & 5 would indicate that it's the second down and the team has five yards to cover. If they are less than ten yards from the goal line the number will be replaced with goal, so 1st & Goal, for example.

Beware of pickpockets.
During their stint with the ball, the offense is trying to reach the end zone, obviously named for being the zone at the end of the field. Once there, they can score a touchdown simply by being in the end zone. In rugby this would be called a try. Although the tradition of placing the ball down no longer applies, it's still a touchdown.

They can also score points by kicking the ball through the posts. This is known as a field goal since it's a goal scored from the field, duh!

Perhaps the most important term to be acquainted with is scrimmage. This refers to an imaginary line that is parallel to either end of the field and represents the divide between the two teams. When they line up to start each play, you can imagine the line of scrimmage running between them. It's very similar to the rugby word scrum, which is short for scrummage which comes from skirmish.

So as the Ravens take on the 49ers, if you still have no idea what's going on you can take solace in the fact that it's only once a year and the ads usually are pretty good.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

How Polytheism Shaped Our Week

Back in the day, there was a god for everything. Greeks and Romans had gods for every occasion, including a god for every day of the week. The same rings true for Norse and Viking religion. Obviously, monotheistic religions did not. However, we do already know that religion helped spread the use of certain languages.

Thanks to this multitude of gods we have our days of the week. This is true of most Indo-European languages. Most of these gods corresponded to things witnessed in the sky, namely planets and stars, and from this, we have our week.

We'll start the old-fashioned way, with Sunday.

The Sun

It doesn't take a genius to work out that Sunday was named after, you've guessed it, the Sun. The biggest and brightest thing in our sky lends its name to what is now part of the weekend and for Christians, a holy day.

The day was initially dies Sōlis in Latin, but for Romance languages such as French, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish, it was changed to the Lord's day, which is dies Dominica in Latin.

In German and English however, it remained the day of the sun: Sonntag in German and Sunday in English.


You can't really honour the Sun without honouring the Moon. From our little world it's the second biggest thing in the sky, and though not responsible for the night, is often semantically related to it since we rarely can see it during the day when the Sun is out. Or in the UK, when the moon isn't.

Mōnandæg was the Old English for it and German still keeps Montag. Romance languages follow the Latin root of dies Lūnae with examples such as lundi (French), lunedì (Italian) and lunes (Spanish). Portuguese by this point has grown weary of the gods and instead just counts the days, segunda-feira being the word for Monday.


In Latin it was dies Martis, and we're talking about Mars, the god of war, which probably should have been reserved for "hump day". The Germanic roots of the day come from the god Týr, the god of law, justice and the sky.

The French have mardi, made famous by mardi gras in English-speaking cultures, especially in New Orleans. The Spanish have martes, the Italians use martedì, and the Portuguese just call it terça-feira, with terça meaning third.


Definitely the hardest day of the week to spell in English. We've even overheard people saying "wed nes day" when writing it out. The day is named after Woden in English, but the Germans opted for something far more efficient by calling it Mittwoch, which literally means midweek.

The Latin is dies Mercuriī, so of course French, Italian and Spanish followed suit and kept their days honouring the god Mercury. Portuguese, however, counts Wednesday as "Day Four".

Tor's Fight with the Giants,
by M.E. Winge, 1872

Named in English after Thor, the god, not the comic book character (though the character is also a god). It's literally Thor's day and in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, this tradition is still honoured. Just imagine a Geordie saying Thursday...

It's Jupiter who we should be praying to if we're following the Greco-Roman way of thinking. The Latin dies Jovis shaped the words used in most Romance languages, with the obvious exception of Portuguese.


The day isn't named after the ever-fantastic and witty Stephen Fry, though we think it should be. It's named after either the goddess Freya from Norse mythology or Frige, an Anglo-Saxon goddess, though little is known about the latter.
The Romans opted to name their day after a goddess as well. Venus formed the basis of the Latin dies Veneris and, as you can guess, Portuguese just had to be different.

Saturn Cutting off Cupid's Wings with a Scythe
by Ivan Akimov, 1802

There's a nice little overlap to bring us back full-circle to where we almost started. Saturday in English and the Romance languages honours the god Saturn in the final day of the week... even Portuguese! Clearly Saturn is the best god and planet if everyone can agree on honouring him with the best day of the week. God we love Saturdays!

We also mentioned that Portuguese liked to count the days between Monday and Friday, just like anyone who works in an office. It's not the only language that does this. Ecclesiastical Latin did, which is where Portuguese got the idea. Arabic also does it.

Friday, February 1, 2013

How Google Became a Verb

Many years ago, at least in terms of the internet, a couple of college students at Stanford (which is one of our top language universities in the U.S.) made something that helped change the way people both browse and speak. Their product, or perhaps service, was Google.

Without Google, finding things on the internet
is like finding a needle in a haystack.
As you surely know, Google is a search engine. Its primary function is to direct web users to the appropriate web page based on their search criteria. From its birth as a company all those years ago in 1998, Google has gone from strength to strength. From its humble origins as a white page with a text box, which hasn't changed much over the years, the corporation now includes cloud computing, email and even our much-loathed Google Translate.

The name for Google came from the word googol, which is the number 10100, written as a one followed by one hundred zeros. Making it a pretty big number obviously is supposed to indicate the prowess of the search engine's capabilities.

The word Google as the name for the company has existed since its inception, but as a verb the first known occurrence came in an email from co-founder Larry Page on 8 July 1998 in which he said "have fun and keep Googling!". Despite the company trying desperately to stop people using the word in this manner, they have only themselves to blame.

It's unlikely "google" was
featured in this dictionary.
The American Dialect Society chose it as their most useful word of 2002, and it was even mentioned in an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer way back when.

In popular media it's used more and more frequently, and Google have taken steps to avoid its overuse since they fear it may become a generic trademark. They encourage people to use the verb to google (note the lowercase "g") only when referring specifically to Google's own search engine.

In many dictionaries, Google refers to the company or product, and google refers to the verb meaning "to search for on the internet", whether you use Google or not. So you can google on Google, but you can google using other search engines too!

With the world getting better-connected every day, we can only expect more words like this to find their way into the lexicon. We've heard people using Facebook as a verb too.

Have you heard any good internet neologisms? Tell us about them in the comments below!