Friday, June 27, 2014

Independence Day: The Languages of Djibouti

Today the nation of Djibouti celebrates its independence from France, so we thought we'd take a look at the linguistic makeup of the country. Djibouti can be found on the Horn of Africa and, like many African nations, was once colonised by France. However, on this day in 1977, Djibouti gained its independence from France. Although there are certainly remnants of France's influence on Djibouti, the country speaks much more than just the French language.

While French does hold official language status in Djibouti and the country's motto, "Unité, Égalité, Paix" ("Unity, Equality, Peace") is in French, it also grants official language status to Arabic. Having French and Arabic as official languages is hardly surprising given Djibouti's colonial past and the dominance of Islam within the nation, with Muslims accounting for 94% of the population.

Lake Assal, a crater lake in Djibouti
Linguistically speaking, the makeup of Djibouti is much more diverse. Neither French nor Arabic are the majority language in terms of native speakers, as the most-spoken language is actually Somali. Nearly 300,000 people in Djibouti speak the Afro-Asiatic language of Somali. As the total population of Djibouti is just 800,000, this means that nearly 4 in 10 people in this country speak Somali. The Somali language is also considered to be native to Djibouti.

Another of Djibouti's native languages is also the second largest in terms of native speakers in the nation. Afar, which is spoken by just under 100,000 people in Djibouti, is also an Afro-Asiatic language. Even though there are 1.4 million speakers of Afar in the world, Eritrea is the only nation to have granted it any sort of official language status, and recognises it as an official minority language.

The standardised form of Arabic is often used for official matters whilst the local variant of Arabic, known as Ta'izzi-Ideni Arabic (or Djibouti Arabic), is spoken by 36,000 people in Djibouti. In fact, the Omani Arabic dialect, which originated in the Oman mountains, is spoken by 38,000 people, making it more popular than the local variant.

Much like Arabic, the French language is used for official matters and for tuition. Outside of its official capacity, the French language is only spoken natively by around 10,000 people in Djibouti. 

A number of languages other than French and Omani Arabic have also made their way into use in Djibouti. Amharic, Greek, and Hindi are also spoken in this linguistically-diverse African nation.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Speaking Geordie or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Accent

Growing up I never realised I had an accent. Of course, everybody has an "accent" but for the sake of simplicity, when I say accent, I mean a non-standard accent. If you have ever ventured to the northeast of England, you will have noticed that very few people speak like they do on the BBC news.

When I was younger, I was surrounded by the natives of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, who proudly identify themselves as Geordies. As children learn a language by listening to those around them, I inevitably picked up the accent and never distinguished the difference between the varieties of English I heard on television from the delightful accent I was hearing at school from teachers and pupils alike.

I knew there were Geordie words because, when at home, my mam (I don't use mum or mom) wouldn't allow me to use Geordie words. I was told I'd "never get a job speaking like that". Oddly enough, swearing was fine as long as I only swore in the house, and never in anger towards someone. The only time I could use "proper" Geordie was when singing along to the local folk song, the Blaydon Races, which can only be sung in Geordie.

While I love the accent, I know there are people in this world who will automatically think you are stupid if you speak with a broad Geordie accent. Ironcially, I didn't realise how strong my English accent was until living abroad. During my ERASMUS year in France it became abundantly clear that I didn't have the same accent as the other Brits, Americans, Canadians and Australians.

Those from North America and Australia thought I just had a "British" accent. It was mainly the English who were very quick to point out anything I said that they perceived as "wrong". While the mocking was rarely malicious, I still attempted to standardise my accent and even considered investing in accent-softening, believing that if I wanted to be successful I'd have to talk like a Southerner.

It wasn't until I met a guy from Québec, Canada, and a girl from Andalucía, Spain, that I noticed that this problem is global. The French students would make fun of the Québecois for how he'd say things in French and if you have ever heard Andalusian Spanish, you know it is far from the traditional Spanish that is taught in school.

I was fascinated by their accents and their non-standard lexicon, and sought to learn to speak like them in French and Spanish. I stopped seeing my Geordie accent as a disadvantage and instead realised that while you can have standardised pronunciation and grammar, which evidently helps the largest number of people to understand you, you can also have a fantastic linguistic identity beyond that of your mother tongue. I know people won't always understand everything I say and when they don't, I am happy to explain and speak more clearly if they are having trouble. However, if they want to be dicks about it, I am happy to tell them exactly where to go...

Newcastle, the home and birthplace of one of the greatest English accents.

Have you been subjected to accent snobbery? Tell us your stories in the comments below.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

How Eugene Goostman Passed the Turing Test

As the headlines have been dominated by the World Cup recently, one of the news stories that fell by the wayside last week was the story of chatbot Eugene Goostman passing the Turing Test. If you aren't familiar with it, the Turing Test is a method for testing artificial intelligence posited by Alan Turing.

Alan Turing was a British mathematician who helped crack the Enigma code during World War II, in addition to being considered one of the most important pioneers of artificial intelligence. To simplify his test, Turing suggested that if a human participant could not tell whether simulated behaviour was that of an AI or a human, the AI will have passed the test.

While there are various ways to adjudicate the Turing Test, it is generally agreed that there are two main rules to follow when conducting the Turing Test:

1. The participant has five minutes to interact with the AI.

2. At least 30% of respondents must be fooled by the AI into thinking it is a real human.

The reason this news particularly interests us is because of how the test is conducted. Language is used as the primary indicator for participants as to whether or not they are speaking to an AI. In the most recent test, participants had a conversation with Eugene Goostman via typed chat. However, they were told that Eugene Goostman was a 13 year-old Ukrainian boy. As we said in our earlier post on the Turing Test, a human who does not speak English as their first language may be considered to be an AI by respondents.

The reverse can also be true. If participants are told that they are speaking to a 13 year-old Ukranian boy, they are likely to be more lenient when it comes to judging the responses of the AI, assuming that misunderstandings, odd answers, and incorrect grammar are all failings of the boy's age and mother tongue rather than that of the AI.

While we have no doubt that Eugene Goostman is an impressive piece of programming, we can't help but think that these results are exaggerated. Had people thought that they were talking to a native English speaker, would he have passed the Turing Test?

What do you think? Genuine AI or skewed results? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Etymological Investigations: Friday the 13th, Fears and Phobias

For some, the 13th day of the month occurring on a Friday strikes fear into their hearts. We thought today we'd look at the language of fears, phobias, and superstition. It should be noted, however, that the superstition of Friday the 13th is not a global phenomenon. In Spain, Tuesday the 13th is the unlucky day , while Italians consider Friday the 17th to be unlucky.

The day is undoubtedly the most feared day of the year in English-speaking cultures and studies have even be shown to prove this. However, as I believe superstition to be nonsense (until England play their World Cup matches), we're going to look at the language behind fears and phobias.

Phobia is obviously the best place to start, and this word comes from the Greek phobos, much like the moon. Though it originally referred to "flight" in Homer, it later evolved to refer to fear, panic, and terror. As a suffix, -phobia arrived in the English language from the French language, which had taken the suffix from Greek.

As the suffix is originally Greek and the English have a love-hate relationship with the French, phobias have generally followed a Greek naming convention. The following are some of the most common phobias and their origins.

We wouldn't be so cruel as to put a picture of an actual spider!

Despite the Greek naming conventions, the most common phobia in the world, arachnophobia, the fear of spiders, comes from the French word arachnide coupled with the Greek -phobia suffix. However, this is because the term was coined by a French biologist and he clearly didn't want to play by English rules.


The term ophidio is thought to have come from the Modern Latin term ophidia, which is technically a Latin neologism that was created just so taxonomists could name snakes in Latin following the naming convention they had decided upon. However, the term has its roots in the Greek term for snake, ophis. If you haven't guessed yet, it's the term for the fear of snakes.


The term acrophobia is the correct term for an irrational fear of heights, though it is likely that the idea of falling is more terrifying than the actual altitude. The Greek term akros, meaning "at the top" or "at the end" was used in conjunction with -phobia by Italian Dr. Andrea Verga to describe the condition that he himself suffered from. This phobia is often wrongly referred to as vertigo, which actually refers to dizziness and is a Latin term which comes from the verb vertere, meaning "to turn".


The fear of open spaces and difficult-to-escape situations comes from the Greek term agora, which, unsurprisingly, means "open spaces". Simple.


The term cyno in this phobia has its origins in the Greek term kynos, meaning canine. Despite the prevalence of dog ownership in a number of countries, cynophobia is still one of the most common fears.


While this prefix comes from the Latin term for the stars, another common name for the condition is brontophobia, from the Greek term bronte, meaning thunder. That's right, astraphobia is a fear of thunder and lightning.


The term for a fear of injections is unlikely to ease anyone's worries once they know the origins of the word. The Greek term trypano refers to a "borer", someone or something that pierces or bores into something. Sounds like a perfectly rational thing to fear.

The launch of the Space Shuttle Columbia,
which disintegrated during reentry.

The biggest burden pteromerhanophobes about to embark on long distance flights face isn't the risk of delays, it's the fear of flying. The ptero part of the fear is the Greek term for feather and pteron refers to a wing. The terms aerophobia and aviatophobia are both used as well, referring to aero (air) and Latin avis (bird). Some believe that this fear is caused by a multitude of fears, such as claustrophobia, the fear of enclosed spaces, acrophobia, and agoraphobia, as it is difficult to escape from a plane in flight.


Mysophobia is the fear of dirt, germs, and uncleanliness. Myso means "uncleanliness" in Greek and rounds out our most common phobias.


While not one of the most common phobias, we felt this one deserved a special mention. If you are aware of xenophobia, then you should know that xeno- comes from the Greek for "foreign". The glosso part is also Greek, meaning "tongue". Xenoglossophobia is the fear of foreign languages, which we certainly don't suffer from.

Do you have any interesting irrational fears or know anyone who does? Tell us about them and their etymology in the comments below.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Japanese Words that Shaped an English Subculture

Today is the last day of E3, the Electronic Entertainment Expo, and I've been loving it. While there wasn't a huge amount of Japanese cultural export at this year's event, it would be silly to ignore the huge cultural and linguistic influence Japan has had on video games and other media. The Japanese language even has a name for the geek and nerd subculture. The term otaku refers to those who have an obsession with a particular interest or hobby, particularly Japanese anime and manga. The otaku subculture is even referenced in the video game Metal Gear Solid, by Dr. Hal Emmerich, who identifies as an otaku and gives himself the codename "Otacon" as a tribute to his nerdy fondness for Japanese culture.

Of course, it would be foolish to assume that everyone who likes anime and manga automatically loves video games. However, in the interest of being topical, it isn't foolish to realise there is a substantial overlap between those who enjoy anime and manga and those who enjoy video games.

During the '80s, those who made an unfortunate choice may have enjoyed watching recorded anime on Betamax. While the term Betamax is of Japanese origin, it is a proprietary name invented in the dark recesses of a marketing meeting.

The otaku movement is considered to have been born at the same time as the anime boom following the popularity of anime shows such as Mobile Suit Gundam, which features fine examples of mecha (メカ), an abbreviation of the word "mechanical". Technically, as an abbreviation of mechanical, the term mecha is an abbreviation of an English loanword which has its own roots in Greek and Latin.

Of course, Japan's history with martial arts means that the word dojo is known by most people who watch anime and read manga. They are fully aware that if you are in a dojo, you should get ready to practice some martial arts, particularly judo.

This exchange of nerdiness in Japanese culture obviously lends itself to the internet. The word emoji comes from the Japanese for "picture", e, and moji, meaning "letter" or "character". It does seem that this word is becoming more popular than the term "emoticon", from the English words "emotion" and "icon".

When you have this cross-pollination of anime, Japanese culture, and the internet, you inevitably get the type of content the internet is rife with, porn. The term hentai refers to pornographic anime and while we won't include pictures, if you are really interested in finding out what it is, a quick search will yield more results than you ever wanted to see.

A word we keep hearing more and more in spoken English is the word kawaii. The Japanese term for "cute" is often used to describe Japanese things that are cute, but is increasingly used by gaijin (the Japanese term for foreigners) for non-Japanese things that are also cute.

A Japanese word that hasn't quite made its way into popular use is hikikomori. However, the Japanese term for shut-in, recluse, or someone who will attempt to avoid any type of social contact, is growing in popularity as sadly, the issue is becoming more and more common in contemporary Japan.

However, while I have painted a picture of a one-directional linguistic relationship with Japan, this is barely the case. There are also otaku words of English origin that have made their way into Japanese, such as fan fiction (ファン フィクション) and fan service, (ファンサービス), to give a couple examples.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Getting to Grips with the Words of the World Cup

As an Englishman, I am both incredibly excited and terrified for the impending World Cup. As a huge football fan I can't wait, but I do know it's not just football fans that get involved in the world's biggest sports competition. I've taken the liberty of putting together some of the must-know terminology for the World Cup in Brazil as well as a brief explanation of the game itself.

The Game

The first international football match was
played between England and Scotland.
Football is played on a pitch (UK) or field (US). The match (UK) or game (US), lasts 90 minutes, divided into two halves of 45 minutes. At the end of each half injury time is added to account for any time lost due to stoppages during the game, such as substitutions or injuries.

The Teams

Players: The objective of football, like many team sports, is to score more goals than the opposition. This is done with a team of eleven players. The first, and often shirt #1, is the goalkeeper, goalie, or keeper, the only player allowed to touch the ball with their hands or arms. Generally, the remaining players are categorised into the three sections of the pitch where they play. Defenders obviously play a defensive role and attempt to stop the other team from scoring goals with the help of the keeper. Midfielders spend a lot of their time in the middle of the pitch either assisting the defence or creating opportunities for the attackers or strikers, who play nearer the opposition's goal.

Substitutes: Each team in the World Cup brings a squad of 23 players and the remaining 12 players who are not playing sit on the bench, a term which also refers to the collective of players that can be substituted onto the pitch in place of another player.

The Rules

Fouls: Like a number of sports, the rules can be complicated. The main thing to know is that football is a contact sport, but not full-contact like rugby or American football. When a player impedes another or is guilty of dangerous play, a foul is given. Any foul committed outside of the penalty box will result in a free kick, whereby the impeded team will restart play from where the foul was committed.

Bookings and Cards: Players who commit a foul risk being booked. A booking is when the referee punishes the player by either brandishing a yellow or red card. A red card is issued for serious offences and the player must leave the pitch and cannot be replaced by a substitute. A yellow card acts as a warning to the player, and two yellow cards are equal to a red card and hold the same punishments as a red card.

Interesting Terms

The following are a few words that are commonly used in reference to football that may be confusing to those not familiar with the game.

Chip: A type of kick when the player lifts the ball into the air with the laced part of the boot rather than the side of the foot along the ground.

Clearance: In dangerous defensive situations, the players on the defending team will attempt to distance the ball from their own net and alleviate any offensive pressure from the other team.

Equaliser: The goal scored by the team with fewer goals in order to bring the score level, or equalise the score.

Extra time: When the scores are level at the end of both halves, the match will be played for another two halves of 15 minutes each.

FIFA: The International Federation of Association Football, though the acronym is from the French name. FIFA is the international governing body of football.

Friendly: A friendly match is played between two teams outside of a competition, often in order to practice in a competitive environment. Many of the teams participating in the World Cup will be conducting friendly matches prior to the competition itself.

Hack: A fantastic term referencing kicking the shins of another player but also used to refer to dirty, underhanded, and unfair challenges for the ball.

Nutmeg/meg: When the player in possession of the ball plays the ball between the legs of the opposition player, either while passing to another player on their own team or as they run around the opposition and retrieve the ball having passed the opposition player.

Offside: A rule of football that football fans consider simple but others do not. I am not going to attempt to describe it here. Let a friend attempt to describe it in the pub using various glasses of beer to represent the players on the pitch.

Shoot-out: If the score is level at the end of extra time, teams will take turns taking penalty kicks (PKs) or penalties. The teams take alternate penalties until a best-of-five winner is decided. If both teams are level after each taking five penalties, the penalties become sudden death, whereby the game will continue if the scores are level after each team has taken an additional penalty, or will end once one team scores and the other doesn't.

Soccer: The term for football in many places where a different type of football is played, such as the US, Canada, and Australia. 

Tackle: Tackles in football do not resemble tackles in rugby or American football. A tackle in football is retrieving the ball from the opposition player using the feet or legs.

The Upright: The upright refers to the vertical posts that attach to the horizontal crossbar.

We'll be watching the World Cup starting next Thursday. Who will you be supporting? Let us know in the comments.