Wednesday, December 31, 2014

When Actors Dub Themselves

Around Christmas I always seem to watch a lot of films. To be honest, I'm not much of a film fan. My friends and family are lucky if they can convince me to go to the cinema twice in a year since I used to work in one and generally detest the experience. However, I don't mind staying in and watching a film.

One of the films I decided to watch this holiday season was Guardians of the Galaxy, the Marvel comedy released this summer that featured a rag-tag bunch of space villains who through a series of (un)fortunate events end up being far more important to the safety of the galaxy than they would like to be. While I won't say the film is a cinematic masterpiece, I certainly enjoyed it and had a good giggle while doing so. As usual, after the film I researched the actors, directors, and additional information about the film online and came across the following clip, which I knew I had to watch.

Aside from the seemingly odd "je s'appelle Groot" that the French dub opted for, the main thing that struck me about this video was that Vin Diesel voiced the character (who says nothing more than "I am Groot" throughout the film) in a number of languages.

This reminded me of Danny DeVito in The Lorax back in 2012. While you could argue that DeVito hardly mastered the languages he provided the dubbing for, you should still commend him for having the confidence to do it.

Even though the featurette claims this is the first time an actor has provided the dubs for all the languages in which a film was released, I do know that Antonio Banderas provided the English, Spanish (Castilian and Latin American versions), Italian, and Catalan voices for the unrelentingly-adorable Puss in Boots character from the Shrek and eponymous franchises.

So what about live-action films? After a bit more research, I discovered that Christoph Waltz provided dubbing for both the French and German versions of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, as well as the fact that it is common practice for actors whose first language isn't English to voice themselves in their native tongue.

While Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings is thought to be a polyglot, Viggo Mortensen, who played him in the movies, also speaks multiple languages. The Danish American actor speaks English, Danish, and Spanish and has provided voices for dubs in all three languages as well as featuring in a number of Spanish-language films.

Thanks to the language skills attained in her French-speaking prep school, Jodie Foster, a native English speaker, has lent her voice to many of her own films for the French dubbing. Helena Bonham Carter, who also speaks French fluently, has acted in French-speaking roles as well as providing her own dubbing.

Penelope Cruz went one better than the dubbers when she played the same character in both the Spanish-language film Abre los ojos as well as its American remake Vanilla Sky. I'm not sure whether or not she provided the corresponding English and Spanish dubbing for each version, though...

The "vanilla sky" in Vanilla Sky was
reminiscent of a Monet painting.
Do you know of any other actors who dub themselves into foreign languages? What do you think of those who do? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below!

Friday, December 26, 2014

December 26: The Possible Origins of Boxing Day

Here in the UK, today is known as Boxing Day. The term is also used in a number of other countries including Australia, Canada, Guyana, Jamaica, Kenya, Hong Kong, New Zealand, and South Africa.

In other English-speaking Christian countries, the day is also referred to as St. Stephen's Day, which is obviously a religious holiday named for the man commonly known as the Church's first martyr. In fact, as a Greek-speaking saint, Stephen comes from the Greek term Στέφανος (Stephanos), which means crown.

While the etymology of St. Stephen's Day is far too obvious to be of any interest to us, we are interested in why we'd refer to this particular date as something as odd as Boxing Day.

Research seems to indicate that the boxing in Boxing Day sadly has nothing to do with the sport. Instead, the word refers to the container. It's said that on this day tradespeople would receive their gifts in the form of a Christmas Box.

It is also thought that due to the common practice in Europe of donating to the poor, the name is a reference to the alms boxes that were common in churches throughout the Middle Ages.

On this date in the UK, more items are returned to shops than any other day of the year. Even though this doesn't affect the name, it seems that the tradition of putting stuff into boxes is continuing even today. Hopefully your Christmas presents were to your liking and you won't be taking anything back to the shops today. Take care!

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Get It Right: e.g. and i.e.

As part of our ongoing "Get It Right" series, today we'll be covering the use of two abbreviations, e.g. and i.e.. While they are not words, but rather abbreviations, we still notice them being used incorrectly more often than we'd like to admit.


In fact, the abbreviation e.g. is not even an abbreviation of English words. It actually stands for the Latin phrase exemplī grātiā. In this instance, grātiā roughly translates as "for the sake", while exemplī is in the genetive case and means "of example". Therefore e.g. means "for the sake of example" or simply "for example".

If you always remember that e.g. means "for example", then you should never have any problems using it. If you haven't given an example, then you're not using it correctly.


This second abbreviations is also from Latin and is short for id est, which means "that is". While it is often incorrectly used in an identical way to e.g., it is meant to be used for elaboration rather than giving an example or a list of examples. You should use i.e. when you're rephrasing your sentence or clarifying your point.

Are there any common mistakes in English that really get on your nerves? Tell us about them in the comments below and we'll try to cover them in an upcoming "Get It Right" post. Thanks for reading!

Friday, December 12, 2014

December 12: The Day that Killed Three Linguists

Today, December 12, marks the date that three different linguists died (albeit in separate years). John Pell, Bedřich Hrozný, and Yechezkel Kutscher all died on this date in 1685, 1952, and 1971 respectively. Today we're paying homage to each of these linguists and taking a brief look back at their lives and work.

New Court, Trinity College, Cambridge
John Pell

The first of our three linguists is John Pell, who was born on March 1, 1611. While Pell is certainly more famous for his work as a mathematician, he started his academic career as a linguist at Trinity College, Cambridge, at just 13 years old. Pell put forward a proposal for a universal language in 1638.

His most famous contribution to mathematics was arguably his namesake equation, "Pell's Equation". He also taught the mathematician Johann Rahn, who is said to have created the obelus or ÷, better known as the division symbol. Some also credit Pell with its creation.

Bedřich Hrozný

The second of our three linguists to die on this day was Bedřich Hrozný, who died in 1952. Hrozný was born on May 6, 1879 in the Austro-Hungarian town of Lysá nad Labem, which is in the modern-day Czech Republic. Hrozný completed his education in Vienna and became most famous for his study of eastern societies and languages, known as Oriental studies.

One of his most fascinating works was with the cuneiform writing system used in a number of the languages he studied, including Akkadian, Sumerian, and Old Persian. He also deciphered the Hittite language, spoken by the Hittites, whose empire occupied what is now Turkey, Syria, and Lebanon over 3,000 years ago.

The Dead Sea Scrolls in the Qumran Caves
Yechezkel Kutscher

The last of our three linguists is Yechezkel Kutscher. Kutscher was born in Slovakia on June 1, 1909, and spent his life studying Hebrew. His academic studies took place in his hometown of Topoľčany and in Frankfurt.

He then moved to Mandatory Palestine, where he continued his studies in a couple of religious academic institutions before passing on his knowledge as a teacher in both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

Kutscher studied Hebrew linguistics in Jerusalem before lecturing at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. As an academic he conducted research into the ancient Mishnaic Hebrew script, which included looking at the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Why I Love French, the French, and France

While my time spent in Italy was far too short, I was incredibly happy to return to France, the country that gave rise to my love of languages. Sure, the overnight train from Venice to Paris was fairly appalling (it was the Thello, if you're wondering), but waking up in the "city of lights" successfully eradicated any ill feeling about the poor night's sleep I'd had.

Even though during my earlier years I'd been given no choice about the language I got to study, by the time I was able to make a choice about it at age 14, I was certain that French was a subject that I wanted to continue, even to degree level.

France is a great country to visit, and I can easily say from experience that it's even better to live there. When I was visiting Paris, I had the luxury of spending time with a few natives. This meant that I was able to enjoy the real side of Paris, away from the huge number of tourists that make Paris one of the most visited cities in the world.

Enjoying great food and great drinks (at a reasonable price, no less) while having the privilege to speak one of the most beautiful and sexiest languages on the planet with a native speaker is always an absolute dream come true.

Of course, spending time in Paris was incredible. However, I was far more interested in heading to southern France, Avignon to be precise, where I'd spent my Erasmus year. Although it's not for everyone, I love the Avignonnais accent and was delighted to hear it again after over half a decade of being separated from my second hometown.

Despite Parisians often being criticised for their demeanour, I couldn't complain about their behaviour during my time there, and I already knew that the locals in Avignon are incredibly amicable from my previous time there.

Of course, I can't learn French again. However, if you have been giving it some thought, you shouldn't delay any further. French is widely taught across the world and holds an important level of prestige amongst a number of international bodies including the UN and the EU. If the job prospects aren't enough to convince you, then you should consider that French just sounds awesome!

Friday, December 5, 2014

Get It Right: Rite, Right, and Write

For those of you who speak English natively or at a very high level, this post may seem almost pointless. However, for those learning English, and a few of you who are a bit fast and loose with your spelling, this is a very important lesson.

If you've read our other Get It Right posts, you´re probably aware that we're slowly but surely working our way through some of the most common mistakes made in the English language. Today we're looking at three homophones: rite, right, and write.


We'll start with the most obscure of the three: rite. The term has a number of definitions, mostly pertaining to religious uses. As a type of religious act, the word made its way into Middle English from the Latin term ritus. In addition to its religious connotations, its meaning has also expanded to include social customs and other secular practices such as "funeral rites".


In addition to being the opposite direction of left, right can act as a noun, adjective, adverb, and noun. Generally speaking, the term can either refer to the direction, that which is morally approved or correct, an entitlement to do something, or to correct something.

Before pens, feathers were used to write.

The last of our three homophones today is write, the verb for marking the letters or characters of a language onto a surface. It is also used to describe the act of arranging words, as an author would do with a book, even if they aren't physically writing and are instead using a computer or even dictating their story to someone who is.


As a little treat and to make matters more confusing, we also have wright, a term that is very occasionally used in Scotland and Northern England. The term refers to someone who makes something for a living, particularly a carpenter or a joiner. However, you´re more likely to recognise the word as a common surname.

Well, we hope you've learned something today. If there are any terms you often struggle with in the English language, tell us about them in the comments and we'll try to get around to helping you get it right!

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Why I Love Italian, Italians, and Italy

Continuing on from our discussion of Germany, its locals, and its language, today we're looking at the same stuff, but in Italy. While our travels didn't take us directly to Italy from Germany, we are going to skip talking about Croatia and Slovenia for now as it'll us take much longer to do these lesser-known cultures justice in the form of a post.

Venice is certainly beautiful, but it's only a small part of Italy.
Even though our time in Italy was brief, it's easy to gain a fondness for the nation, its people, and its language. Sadly, Venice was the only Italian destination on our itinerary. Fortunately, Venice was the destination on the itinerary. I've been to Italy before, so I hope Italians don't think I'm basing my entire opinion of them on one city.

The weather in Venice is certainly preferable to that of the UK. However, I try not to consider a country's geographical position in my opinion of it. That said, it's hard for a Brit not to enjoy a November day without needing a coat.

It would be silly of me to write a post on Italy without mentioning the amazing food. Sure, Venice can be expensive, but the food across the length and breadth of Italy is fantastic. It's hard to argue with the cuisine of a country that includes pizza, pasta, and gelato.

Food and weather is all well and good, but what really makes Italy is the people. I obviously haven't met every Italian in the world, but many of the Italians I've met throughout my life have been friendly, passionate, and enthusiastic.

Great people, great cuisine, great weather, and a great country are just the base of my opinion. The delicious topping is definitely the language. While Italian is not as widely spoken as Spanish, Portuguese, or French, it can easily be argued to be the "favourite son" of Latin, and easily one of my favourite languages to listen to.

While my Italian is certainly terrible, I can't help but enjoy listening to it. You don't learn to speak Italian, you learn to sing. The melody of Italian is one of the most wonderful things in the world and if you already know a Romance language, what are you waiting for? I know I can't get enough of it!

Throughout my trip I've been rediscovering a love for a number of languages. Upon my return I'm going to set about learning them. Do you speak Italian? Or do you prefer Dutch or German? Which do you think I should learn? Leave your thoughts in the comments below! Grazie!

Friday, November 21, 2014

Why I Love German, Germans, and Germany

After recently visiting the Netherlands and becoming rather fond of the country, its people, and its language as part of an ongoing railway trek around Europe, I made my way to Germany. 

My first destination in Germany was Hamburg, which I got to with relative ease despite an absence of national rail services that day due to a strike. As a Brit this amused me greatly since we're always complaining about the lacklustre rail service in our country.

I've only been fortunate enough to visit Germany once before during a previous Europe-wide expedition over half a decade ago when I visited Berlin for two nights. Despite being turned away from a club without any given reason, I enjoyed my time there. Armed with nothing but a phrasebook, I did my utmost to remember the year of German I took when I was 14 years old.

German is not one of my spoken languages and the amount I learnt in school accounts for little more than simple greetings, numbers, and how to ask for directions. Despite this, using the same outdated phrasebook and the internet, I managed to find the missing vocabulary I needed in most situations.

Much like in the Netherlands, I was lucky enough to enjoy some local hospitality. After making my way to Münster via Bremen, I sampled some fantastic German baked goods and beers, of course. From there it was a long but pleasant train journey to Munich, where I was told to prepare for a very different (in a good way) variety of German.

While making the mistake of overindulging in one of Munich's most popular pursuits, drinking, I was treated very kindly by everyone I met, who were more than willing to humour me as I attempted to speak their language, patiently listening as I horrendously butchered it.

I'll admit that I don't learn languages very well from reading verb tables, and as a result find myself eavesdropping on anyone and everyone in public spaces. Thanks to this seemingly rude practice, I'd like to debunk the myth that German is an aggressive and harsh-sounding language. While admittedly not as melodic as Italian, perhaps, I found the phonemes to be rather soothing.

I was also fascinated by the prevalence of compound nouns in German. While I had also noticed this in Dutch, in German it seemed so much more mind-boggling, perhaps due to the diacritic marks used, and therefore more interesting.

Now I'm not sure whether to learn Dutch or German upon my return home. Have you learnt or do you speak either of these languages? If so, make your case for which one I should focus on in the comments below.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Why I Love Dutch, the Dutch, and the Netherlands

Until recently, I was never a huge fan of Amsterdam and hadn't really visited anywhere else in the Netherlands (with the exception of the Efteling theme park), so I'd never really had an experience to write home about.

I'd visited Amsterdam with my parents when I was at an age when I still thought girls were disgusting. This meant that during an accidental trip into the red-light district (which is right by a beautiful church I was visiting), the view of scantily-clad prostitutes in the window made me cry.

On a later trip around Europe I ended up partaking in a small amount of Amsterdam's other popular pursuit, cannabis, and the ensuing paranoia coupled with again accidentally finding the red-light district led to a wholly unpleasant time.

As they say, the third time's the charm, and upon my arrival in Amsterdam, the first destination in a trip around Europe, I was adamant that I was going to enjoy myself and change my poor opinion of the city and, by extension, the country. I made sure to find the beautiful parts of the city and subsequently the beautiful people of the Netherlands.

Even though I was hoping to learn some Dutch and had quickly consulted a couple of web pages on the matter, when I stumbled with the longer words and seemingly endless number of vocalic phonemes, the locals were all very friendly while they put me to shame with their flawless mastery of my mother tongue.

From Amsterdam, I headed eastwards to the city of Zwolle to meet a good friend and exceptional English teacher. In Zwolle I was treated to the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of the city, as well as travelling on a typically-Dutch bicycle that was kindly provided for me.

The Netherlands, and Zwolle in particular, is a wonderful place for cyclists and while it seemed odd to me that nobody wears a helmet when cycling, it became abundantly clear that with all the cycle paths, cyclist-friendly road layouts, and drivers that are very familiar with being surrounded by bikes, there was little danger of ever encountering any trouble.

I was lucky enough to be able to sit in on a couple of English lessons at the school where my friend taught and was left completely astounded by the level of English on display. The older children were discussing Jewish-American Literature and not only providing exceptional insight into the passages they had read, but doing so in impeccable English.

So it might be pretty clear that I think the Netherlands is a wonderful place, since the people were friendly and happy to converse with us in English without being upset that my Dutch is abysmal. While I don't speak Dutch and the words I know could be written on a postage stamp, I love the look, feel, and sound of the language.

One particular highlight was sitting in on a lesson on English accents. As a special guest, I was allowed to provide a sample of my finest Geordie. The children then had to ascertain, given my accent, where I came from. Sadly, they were more familiar with the accents of those on the reality tv show Geordie Shore (which I was shocked to find the Netherlands is also subjected to) than a typical Geordie accent, and struggled to pinpoint my city of origin. Nevertheless, it was an incredibly fun and eye-opening experience, putting my foreign language education in the United Kingdom to shame.

The Dutch Language

Since large portions of my time in the Netherlands were spent speaking English, I did my best to learn as much as I could about the language from native speakers while trying to pick up as much vocabulary as possible from every example of the written language.

While the phonetic differences between Dutch and English are vast, the language is similar enough to English to make my ears hone in on speech. This left me confused as my brain clearly felt it could understand the language but never quite managed.

While other languages have left their mark on the Dutch language, you can certainly tell that English and Dutch are cousins as many words have shared roots that become apparent when you hear or read them.

Despite struggling with the pronunciation of countless phonemes, I would certainly recommend learning Dutch. While you could argue that it may not vastly increase your career prospects, I found the language both beautiful and fascinating, and am very keen to learn more.

My only criticism of the whole experience is that any English speaker may find it hard to have an entire conversation in Dutch with the natives. I got the impression from the Dutch people I met that they are not only masters of English, but also very keen to use their foreign language skills. I'm sure once I reach the level of basic communication I will enjoy many wonderful conversations in Dutch, if I could just get a chance to practice!

Monday, November 3, 2014

The Etymology of Colours: Part 3

Last Wednesday and Friday, we looked at the etymologies of the colours of the rainbow. Today we're back with a few colours that people often consider, at least in film and television, to not be worthy of the term "colour".


The darkest colour has had an interesting journey into the English language. While its origins are found in the Proto-Indo European (PIE) term *bhleg- which means "to burn, gleam, or flash", it inspired a number of related terms in other languages before its current incarnation in English.

The PIE word *bhleg- became the Proto-Germanic term *blakkaz meaning "burnt" and inspired the Old English term blæc, which gave us the term we use today, black. In addition to meaning "black", it also meant "ink" and "dark".


While grey is commonly considered a dull colour, its etymology is far from dull. The Proto-Germanic term for grey was *grewa-, which evolved into græg in Old English and grei in the Mercian dialect. The word's Proto-Germanic roots are also shared by terms in Dutch, German, Middle Dutch, Old High German, Old Frisian, and Old Norse.


While complete opposites, black and white are the oldest colour terms to have been used by humans. As a result, it's hardly surprising that the origins of white date back to PIE. The PIE term *kwid- also meant "to shine" in addition to referring to the colour. This meaning remained connected to the word as it evolved into the Old English term hwit, whose meanings of "clear", "fair", "bright", and "radiant" all point to its PIE origins.

With all the colours, hues, and shades in the world, we certainly haven't covered all the colours. If we've missed your favourite colour, please tell us its etymology in the comments below. We'll be back on Wednesday with this week's country profile.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Friday, October 31, 2014

The Etymology of Colours: Part 2

On Wednesday we looked at the origins of words we use for colours, focusing on the first three colours of the visible light spectrum: red, orange, and yellow. Today we'll be going through the remaining colours.


In Middle English and Old English, the colour green was grene. In Proto-Germanic *gronja- was the root of green, grass, and grow, as well as the root of the word for green in a number of other related languages such as Dutch, Danish, Old Frisian, Old High German, Old Norse, and Old Saxon.

Earlier, the term in Proto-Indo European (PIE) languages is thought to have been *ghre-, which means grow, since green is the colour of most vegetation.


The story of blue is fascinating. The word comes from the Old French term blo, which generally referred to a range of colours and shades including what we would now consider blues, greys, blonds, and other pale colours. The term is thought to have evolved from the Proto Germanic term *blæwaz, which gave rise to the term in a huge number of languages.

While in PIE languages the term for blue is fairly widespread, what really makes the colour fascinating is the lacunae it has left in other world languages. While in English the colours green and blue are fairly distinct, there are plenty of languages where the two colours are referred to by one term. Several languages in Asia, including Old Chinese, Old Japanese, Thai, and Vietnamese did not distinguish between the two and refer to a concept of a blue-green range that doesn't really exist in English.

The term for blue is thought to be a latecomer to the vocabularies of many languages since the dye is so difficult to make, while autumnal shades such as reds, oranges, and yellows were easier to make and therefore required terms sooner.


For many English speakers, designating the colour between blue and violet seems arbitrary and difficult to define. Its presence in the spectrum is thought to be a result of Sir Isaac Newton's superstition against the number six.

The colour chosen by Newton was none other than indigo, a term whose origins can be found in the Greek name for the colour dye which came from India. The Greek word indikon (ινδικόν) became indicum in Latin before inspiring indico in Spanish and endego in Portuguese, which are considered to be the root of the Dutch word indigo. The Dutch term entered the English language in the 16th century.


The last colour in the rainbow is violet. The term came from Old French by way of Latin where it was viola in reference to both the colour and the flower. It is thought to have come from a PIE language somewhere in the Mediterranean. During the 14th century, the term came to Middle English from the diminutive of the Old French viole.

After the weekend, we'll be back to look at the terms for some of the colours outside of the visible light spectrum.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Etymology of Colours: Part 1

Today we're taking a trip through the rainbow as we look at the etymology and origins of the names we use for colours. For simplicity, we're going to start today with the classic "rainbow" colours, which Sir Isaac Newton dubbed the spectrum, from the Latin for "apparition". The term later became used to reference the visible light split through a prism, another Latin word meaning "sawed", which originated as the Greek term prisma.


The first colour of the rainbow has origins in several languages and unfortunately can't be traced back to one single language. The word red was written as rēad in Old English. In fact, the British surname Reed is from the Old English for red, and is pronounced in a similar manner to how it was said before vowel shortening occurred in Middle English.

Before Old English, the word was rauthaz in Proto-Germanic, from rewdʰ, a Proto-Indo European (PIE) word. As a result of this origin, a large number of languages have similar words for the colour.


The word, colour, and fruit called orange, is often subject to a large degree of debate. While many people claim that it is one of the only words that rhymes with no other word, this is not actually true. The word sporange, a sac where spores are made, is one of the few words that rhyme with it that isn't a proper noun.

Rhyming aside, there is also a debate as to whether the fruit was named because of the colour or whether the colour was named after the fruit. Etymologists consider the colour to be named after the fruit since the word's origins are from the Sanskrit word for the tree. नारङ्ग or nāraṅga made its way into Persian as نارنگ, or nārang, before reaching European languages.

While the word nārang remained fairly true to its roots in a number of European languages, when it reached Old French it is thought to have lost its initial "n" due to rebracketing, whereby the initial "n" was thought to be part of the indefinite article "une" so that "une norenge" was heard as "une orenge".


Yellow has an interesting etymology that is similar to that of the colour red. Yellow's roots begin with PIE languages. The root of yellow in PIE has retained the same root as yell for several millennia, as both words originate from the PIE root gʰel-. This shared root has resulted in a number of European languages, particularly the Germanic languages, having similar words for yellow. The words for yellow in Dutch, East Frisian, German, Swedish, and West Frisian all have similar origins.

The term ended up in Proto-Germanic as gelwaz before it became geolu in Old English. This Old English term gave us the word we use today for yellow. However, it should be noted that in Middle English, the term also referred to colours and tones that we wouldn't consider yellow by today's standards, including a number of blue and grey colours.

We'll finish the remainder of the rainbow on Friday when we'll cover the colours with shorter wavelengths.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Friday, October 24, 2014

United Nations Day: The Languages of the UN

Today, October 24, marks the date that the Charter of the United Nations came into effect. While it hardly makes for a riveting read (you can read it here if you must), what it does in practice is far more astounding, since it acts as the treaty that founded the UN.

The flag of the UN
The treaty itself was signed on 26 June 1945 at the San Francisco War Memorial and Performing Arts Center. When it was signed, Poland was the only of the 51 founding nations not present,  eventually signing the treaty a couple of months later.

The five permanent members of the Security Council (P5) at the time, the Republic of China, France, the UK, the US, and the USSR, ratified the charter alongside a number of other nations. While it may seem odd to mention the P5, their importance will become evident as we look at the official languages of the UN.

When the charter was made, it was written in five languages: Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish. It wasn't until the first General Assembly that the five official languages and working languages of the UN were decided. Initially, English and French were decided upon as the working languages.

Spanish was added as a working language in 1948, making the three languages the status quo for the General Assembly until 1968, when Russian was added as the fourth working language. By this point, four of the five official languages were in use as working languages. Chinese was then made a working language in 1973, making all five original official languages also working languages.

Arabic was added as both an official and a working language in 1973. The official language status of Arabic only extended to the General Assembly and its "main committees", as opposed to the five other languages, which held official status throughout all committees. For the first three years after Arabic became an official language, the Arab nations of the UN were expected to fund the procedures required enact this change.

After seven years as an official language for the General Assembly and its main committees, Arabic's official status was extended to all subcommittees in 1980. Three years later, all six languages were adopted as the official languages of the Security Council.

Currently, there are a number of additional languages vying for official language status. In 2009, the president of Bangladesh suggested that Bengali be an official language of the UN. Esperanto has also been suggested, despite its relatively small number of speakers.

Hindi and Portuguese have also been suggested since they are both widely-spoken languages. The Secretary-General of the UN and the Turkish Prime Minister have also suggested that Turkish become one of the official languages.

Do you think the UN uses the right languages? Which languages do you think should become official languages of the UN? Tell us in the comments below.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Celebrating the Linguistic Life of Richard Francis Burton

On this day in 1890, Richard Francis Burton's fascinating life came to an end. Today we've decided to honour the man with a post about his life and his work as both a linguist and translator. While the stories of linguists and translators are often fascinating to us, few have led a more interesting and exciting life than Richard Francis Burton.

The hyperpolyglot himself in his later years.
Burton was born on 19 March 1821 in Torquay, England. However, a relatively small amount of his time was spent in his hometown since his family travelled often when he was a child. He spent a good number of his very early years in Tours, France after his family moved there in 1825. Burton later returned to England to attend a prep school in Surrey.

As his family travelled across Europe, generally between the United Kingdom, France, and Italy, Burton's love for languages led to him learning a considerable number of them. Starting with primarily Romance languages, he learnt French, Italian, Latin, and Neapolitan. He also learnt some Romani following a supposed affair with a gypsy woman, as well as learning Arabic during his time at school.

Having enlisted in the East India Company's army, Burton shipped out to India where he mastered a number of the local languages, including Hindustani, Gujarati, Punjabi, Sindhi, Saraiki and Marathi, not to mention improving upon his Arabic and adding Persian to his rapidly-growing list of languages. He also owned a group of monkeys which he attempted to communicate with, earning him much ridicule from his fellow soldiers.

Eventually, a sense of adventure compelled Burton to undertake a pilgrimage to Mecca, earning him widespread fame. However, Burton was undercover during the pilgrimage. While he had extensively researched and improved upon his Arabic, he pretended to be Pashtun in order to help explain why he spoke the way he did.

Burton was an active participant in the Crimean War after he rejoined the army. After an alleged mutiny in which Burton was mentioned during the subsequent enquiry, he spent time exploring Africa.

After several stints exploring Africa, Burton's later years were spent in diplomatic and academic roles. He spent time in Brazil, Damascus, and Trieste, to name a few places. He also continued to travel and write before undertaking the translations that earned him significant recognition.

Sir Richard Francis Burton translated the Kama Sutra, which generated considerable controversy at the time. He also translated The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night, which is often known as Arabian Nights. By the time Burton died, he had mastered somewhere between 25 and 40 languages, depending on how you count them, making him more than worthy of our respect.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Hatsune Miku: Virtual Vocals and Synthetic Singing

During a recent Facebook scrolling session, an odd link popped up on my news feed. It was this video of a musical performance on the Late Show with David Letterman.

You don't need to be the most observant person in the world to realise that the performer, Hatsune Miku, or 初音ミク, as her name is written in Japanese, is not a real person. Hatsune Miku is not the first virtual performer; other popular virtual acts include Alvin and the Chipmunks, The Archies, and Gorillaz. However, Hatsune Miku can do something that other acts can't do: sing.

You may think that her high-pitched singing is not as good as the sped-up singing of Alvin, Simon, and Theodore, and you may be right. However, the Chipmunks, much like other virtual acts, had their music and their vocals pre-recorded. Hatsune Miku's vocals are synthesised using Yamaha's VOCALOID2 and VOCALOID3 vocal synthesisers.

If you're familiar with Japanese, you may recognise the components of Hatsune Miku's name. In fact, the name translates as "the first sound from the future", with Hatsu (初) meaning "first", Ne (音) meaning "sound", and Miku (ミク) meaning "future".

Sapporo, Japan, the hometown of Hatsune Miku.
While 16 year-old Hatsune Miku could be said to be from Sapporo, the technology that allows her to sing was conceived of in Spain as part of a research project at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona.

Hatsune Miku's voice isn't purely synthesised and is in fact generated from phonemes prerecorded by Japanese voice actress Saki Fujita. Initially, only Japanese phonemes were recorded, before learning English (from Saki Fujita's recordings) for a later release. This allows her to sing in both languages, albeit with a Japanese accent when she sings in English.

The process that allows for the manipulation of the phonemes into song is known as concatenative synthesis. Using this process, sound samples (known as units) can be manipulated. This allows the user to modify a range of qualities, including the unit's length, pitch, and timbre.

Since anyone who owns the software can synthesise speech and vocals, Hatsune Miku is "technically" the performer of thousands of songs. She's not alone, though. There are also other virtual performers available with different language combinations such as Spanish and Chinese. Other languages can also be approximated using preexisting phonemes, with differing levels of success.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Localization and the Video Games Industry: Who Gets What?

Last weekend, Saturday to be precise, I was lucky enough to take a trip to London for this year's Eurogamer Expo, which now refers to itself as the cooler-sounding "EGX". As a self-confessed video game and language nerd, I am very interested in the translation and localization of video games and electronic entertainment.

When I was younger, I often didn't give a second thought to the fact that the video games I played were always either in English or provided an option to select English from a number of languages. As a kid I would often head into town to get a new game and immediately spend the entire trip home reading the blurb on the back and the instruction manual.

Growing up in the UK meant that the text on the box and in the instructions was either only in English or was in EFIGS (English, French, Italian, German, and Spanish), which are often deemed the "most important" languages in Europe. While some of the packaging featured other languages, the software often was only in English, with no other language options provided.

The discrepancy between the packaging and the software barely bothered me as a kid. However, as an adult I now realise that large corporations will only translate and localize games when there is a profitable market to be exploited. With all this in mind, I decided to quickly do some research into which languages and locales the video games industry favours.


Steam's search engine allows for the filtering of the online distribution service's catalogue by language. This past weekend there were 14,576 titles available on Steam, with around 90% of these available in English. Titles in the other EFIGS languages are widely available. 44% of titles are available in German and almost 42% are available in the French language. 37% and 35% of games are listed as being in Spanish and Italian respectively. 

These figures are hardly surprising if you just take a look at the usage notes for "EFIGS" on Wiktionary: "In software development, used to designate five widely used languages that software (notably video games) is often translated to."

It's very clear that games are not translated in the same proportions as there are speakers of a language. If this was the case, Simplified and Traditional Chinese combined would not account for only 4% of the games available through Steam. In fact, it's fairly obvious (and a little sad) that the proportions clearly line up with the relative size of the markets and their spoken languages.

Xbox Marketplace

It's not just the language you speak that may limit the number of games you can get. While I am lucky to speak English, I am also in the United Kingdom. However, that did little to console me when I found out that if you take a look through the Xbox 360 games available on the Xbox Marketplace, you are privy to a vastly different number of games depending on your locale.

The United States enjoyed the largest number of games available. At the time I checked, the UK's catalogue contained 76 fewer titles than the United States. That said, there were 1223 titles available in the US and the UK's catalogue contained 1147 games, making the difference minute.

While Steam showed a linguistic bias towards European languages, the Xbox Marketplace tends to favour markets in North America and Europe, where users have access to more titles than elsewhere in the world. For example, 1112 games were available in Spain while only 365 were available in Argentina, despite both countries being primarily Spanish-speaking. For some odd reason, Argentina also has half as many games available as other Spanish-speaking countries in South America, such as Chile (840), Colombia (861).

Much like on Steam, mainland China gets the short end of the stick, where a paltry 25 titles were available. However, 976 were available in Hong Kong. Undoubtedly this can partially be attributed to non-linguistic factors. In fact, the Hong Kong marketplace had more titles available than any other Asian locale.

Israel, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia all have access to between 300 and 400 games while in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), over 500 titles were available. Does this increase have anything to do with the fact that the UAE is home to the highest net migration rate in the world?

Is the difference between the number of games available in Europe and South America solely due to the size of their video game markets or are there political and economic reasons as well? Is the discrepancy just because some languages are easier to work with than others? If you happen to be an industry expert or deal with localization, I'd love to hear from you in the comments below.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Country Profile: The Languages of Pakistan

The flag of Pakistan
This week for our country profile we'll be looking at Pakistan. Home to 180 million people, it is the sixth largest nation in the world in terms of population. Due to its large population and diverse ethnic makeup, Pakistan is very linguistically diverse. Today we'll be having a look at some of the most interesting and prominent languages that make up the linguistic landscape of this Asian country on the Indian subcontinent.

Official Languages

Pakistan only has two nationwide official languages, Urdu and English. As a West Germanic language, English is obviously not a language native to this part of the world. Like many other places in the world, the English language is the remaining heritage of the British Empire's presence in Pakistan.

The English language is used in an official capacity in Pakistan's government as well as being the language that the constitution is written in. It is also used in education and by the social elite. However, despite its status, English is spoken by a very a small percentage of the population.

Pakistan's other official language is Urdu, a language that is natively spoken by around 70 million people around the world, though it is only spoken as a first language by around 8% of the population of Pakistan. The British Empire also played a part in encouraging the use of Urdu as a de facto language since they were keen on having a single language in use across the British Raj rather than the multitude of languages present in the area. Around 90% of Pakistan's population can speak Urdu to some degree.

Languages by Province

Since Pakistan is divided into four provinces as well as a capital region, each province has its own history, native peoples, and, often as a result of the former, its own language.


Even though Urdu and English are the country's official languages, Punjabi is the most spoken language in Pakistan according to the last census. There are 100 million speakers of Punjabi around the world with over 75 million in Pakistan. Unsurprisingly, most speakers of Punjabi can be found in Punjab, where three quarters of the population speak the language.


Like Punjabi, there are more native speakers of Pashto in Pakistan than there are of the country's official language, Urdu. There are somewhere between 45 and 60 million native speakers of this language worldwide, 30 million of whom live in Pakistan. Despite there being so many speakers of Pashto in Pakistan, the language has no official status in the country. However, it is one of Afghanistan's two official languages and the principal language of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in Pakistan.

The beautiful Mohatta Palace, Karachi.

The Sindhi language is natively spoken by just under 15% of Pakistan's population and enjoys official status in the Sindh Province. Historically, the Sindhi language was spoken by the Sindhi people. Today, it is spoken by around 55 million people in Pakistan, with just under half of them being native speakers.


The Balochi language is the sole provincial language in Pakistan that has fewer native speakers in Pakistan than Urdu. While only 4% of those in Pakistan speak Balochi, there are nearly 8 million native speakers of the language in the world. Most of them live in the province of Balochistan where the language enjoys an official language status.

Other Languages

A large number of regional languages are spoken in Pakistan in addition to the aforementioned official and provincial languages. While Pakistan's regional languages are only spoken by a small percentage of the country's population, many of these languages do have sizable communities of native speakers in terms of actual numbers. Brahui, for example, is spoken by less than 2% of Pakistan's population, though this equates to around 2 million people. However, the use of Brahui is in decline, putting the language in possible risk ofextinction. There are also many other languages in Pakistan that have just a handful of speakers and face this same fate in the near future.

Although Pakistan has official languages, provincial languages, and even regional languages in its hugely diverse linguistic landscape, there are a number of other languages that have somehow managed to squeeze their way into the everyday lives of those who reside in the country. Due to the prevalence of Islam in the area, Arabic is used in varying degrees by practising Muslims in the country, who account for somewhere between 95 and 98% of the population.

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Languages of Separatists in Europe: Part 2

On Friday following the results of the Scottish Referendum, we took a look at several languages spoken by separatist groups around Europe. We didn't find it very surprising that a large number of separatist groups in Europe speak a different language to the rest of the country. We concluded Friday's post with a look at the Netherlands so today we'll carry on through the alphabet with some of the separatist movements we find the most interesting.


The region of Silesia is located in both Poland and Germany. While the region's separatist movement wishes to unite the region as its own independent nation, the inhabitants of each country tend to speak the majority language of their respective nation, with the Silesians in Poland speaking Polish and those in Germany speaking German.

Bran Castle in Romania

There are a number of proposed independent areas of Romania. These areas tend to be inhabited by either ethnically Hungarian people or by Hungarian-speaking Romanians.


If you ever read our series on the languages of Russia, you will know that the world's largest country has plenty of indigenous languages. Since it also spans two continents, there are plenty of different groups in terms of ethnicity and the language they speak. 

Both Russian and Chechen are spoken in the region of Chechnya, which has its own movement to break away from Russia.

The region of Dagestan is also a special example because there are so many different languages being spoken there. There are calls for Dagestan, with the Ingushetia and Chechnya regions, to unite as a single independent region.


The Republic of Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia in 2008. While the area was the site of horrible fighting between Serbs and Albanians during the late 1990s, the Republic of Kosovo has been recognised by a great number of countries across the world. It should be noted that the ethnically Albanian and Albanian-speakers in Kosovo were generally part of the separatist movement.


Spain, much like France, is home to a good number of separatist movements. Since Spain and France are neighbours, a number of these separatist movements exist across their borders.

We mentioned the Catalan separatist movement on Friday when we covered France. However, the majority of the breakaway nation can be found in northeast Spain, where the Catalan language has official language status in the autonomous region of Catalonia.

We also mentioned the Basque separatist movement in France. However, the movement's real stronghold is in the Spanish autonomous community of País Vasco, which while meaning "Basque Country" in Spanish, should not be confused with the entity that many Basque separatists consider to be the real Basque Country.

Seemingly the entire coastline of Spain is home to separatist movements, while the "Castillian" centre of the country seemingly feels Spanish. In the northwest, Galicia is home to the Galician language and its own separatist movement.

The Balearic Islands have small separatist movements as well, both as part of the Països Catalans and as a Majorcan sovereign state. The islands are home to a number of speakers of a Balearic variety of Catalan called Mallorquí in reference to the island.

There are a couple more European countries with separatist movements that we could cover, but we don't feel like touching the situation in Ukraine with a barge pole and we're saving the United Kingdom and Scotland for when the dust has settled.

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Languages of Separatists in Europe: Part 1

Yesterday Scotland went to the polls to vote on their independence from the United Kingdom. We don't write this blog to promote a political agenda, just the agenda that languages are awesome and we love them. Since there are plenty of separatist movements in Europe, we thought we'd take a look at which ones speak a language different to the prominent language or languages spoken in the country that they are seeking to separate from.

While we're trying to keep language and politics apart, you'll quickly see how difficult defining a language is when politics gets involved. For the most part, we have attempted to go with a linguistic consensus rather than a political one, but if we've slipped up and missed something, please tell us in the comments. We're not indicating that every speaker of these languages is a separatist either. Finally, we're only covering a few select separatist movement in Europe with languages that fascinate us.


Northern Epirus is part of a historical region that is currently part of Albania. The people in this region speak Greek, which as you can guess, is not the majority language of Albania. That title belongs to the Albanian language.

The canal in Brussels, a battleground for Belgium's two separatist groups.

As you may know, Belgium has two main languages. 56% of the population speaks Dutch or Flemish, while 38% speak French. However, the "separatist" movements in Belgium have another element to them: some wish to join other countries.

The Walloons, the French-speaking inhabitants of Wallonia, have a movement to join with France or to make Wallonia its own state. On the other hand, the Flemish and Dutch-speaking inhabitants of Flanders wish to separate from Belgium and make Flanders its own state, with a small minority wishing for the region to become part of the Netherlands.


The separatist movement in Cyprus already has its own sovereign state, if you happen to be the Turkish government. The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus is primarily inhabited by the ethnically-Turkish peoples of the region and considers Turkish its official language. The region declared its independence from Cyprus in 1983, though Turkey was the only nation to recognise it.


The Faroe Islands are inhabited by the Faroese people, who also happen to have their own language, Faroese. There are around 66,000 speakers of Faroese in the world, with nearly three quarters of them residing on the Faroe Islands.


It appears that almost every minority language spoken in France has its own separatist movement. The movement to make the Basque Country a sovereign nation is complicated as it is currently an international region that is part of both France and Spain. Of course, Basque, the language isolate, is the main language of this movement.

The separatist movement in Brittany has the Breton language, a Celtic language more closely related to Scottish Gaelic and Irish than the national language of France, French.

The official language of the Catalan separatism movement is Catalan, a Romance language. The proposed nation that unites Catalans in this group is made up of the Països Catalans, an international region in northeast Spain and southwest France, the Rousillon region in particular.


The Bavarians in Germany have a separatist movement to make the Freistaat Bayern its own sovereign state. The Bavarians also have a few dialects and languages of their own: Bavarian, Swabian, and East Franconian German.

East Frisia has ambitions of becoming its own nation. The native language of the region is Saterland Frisian, a language in decline with an estimated 1,000 native speakers.


There is a movement for independence on Italy's island of Sardinia. The island is home to the Sardinian language, which while being a Romance language, is incomprehensible to speakers of Italian.

Certain people in Veneto also feel the region would be better off if it was its own sovereign state. The Venetian language has around 2 million native speakers in Veneto, the surrounding regions, Slovenia, and Croatia.


Much like East Frisia in Germany, Frisia in the Netherlands has both a language and a separatist movement that seeks to make the region independent from the Netherlands. In addition to the Saterland Frisian language spoken in East Frisia, the Frisians in the Netherlands speak the other closely-related varieties of the Frisian language: North Frisian and West Frisian.

We'll be back after the weekend with more separatist movements and their languages. If there are any fascinating languages favored by European separatist groups that we missed, please tell us about them in the comments below.