Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Independence Day: The Languages of Vanuatu

Today marks Independence Day for the tiny Pacific island nation of Vanuatu. There are several reasons why we love Vanuatu: the name is fun to say, it's always one of the prize-winning answers on the BBC's quiz show "Pointless", and we could look at photos of those beautiful islands all day. However, the main reason we love the world's 162nd largest country is because of its linguistic diversity.

Vanuatu has three official languages, two of which are not indigenous. English and French retain official language status in the country due to its  colonial history. Even though the first Europeans to arrive in Vanuatu were Portuguese explorers, it was the British and the French who were most interested in controlling Vanuatu. The two European nations were so interested in Vanuatu that they agreed to collaboratively control it from 1906 until 1980 when Vanuatu gained its independence from both the UK and France.

The flag of Vanuatu
While I love both the English and French languages, their official status in Vanuatu is a sad reminder of both countries' colonial pasts. The presence of English has also led to the creation of Bislama, the country's third official language, which is a creole language and the most common second language across Vanuatu.

Bislama is spoken natively by around 10,000 of the 265,000 people on the islands of Vanuatu, though there are 100,000 speakers of it as a second language. 95% of Bislama's lexicon is of English origin with a few words of French origin and the remainder made up from Oceanic languages.

Vanuatu as a nation has the highest density of languages per capita of any nation in the world. The nation has such a high density of languages that no country, other than Papua New Guinea, even comes close.

In fact, Vanuatu is home to over 100 indigenous languages and all of them belong to the Oceanic language family. Since the Oceanic language family is only made up of around 450 languages, more than in 1 in 5 Oceanic languages are spoken in Vanuatu.

While we won't go into the details of every language, but what we can say is that the largest of the languages is spoken by around 11,500 people and the smallest of them are going extinct. The decline in the other languages is partly due to the use of Bislama, whose growth is said to be responsible for the decline of indigenous languages. In the ten years between 1999 and 2009, the percentage of people in Vanuatu who speak indigenous languages natively dropped from 73.1% to 63.2%.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

How Recent is the Expression "Where Are You?"

We heard an interesting fact the other day. It suggested that other than in reference to one's immediate vicinity, nobody would have ever used the expression "Where are you?" prior to the invention of mobile communications such as radio transmission, mobile phones, or the internet.

The logic behind this is that if you were to write somebody a letter you would require an address. If you had somebody's address, would you need to ask them where they were? I think not. Before mobile telephones, you would usually call a fixed line, meaning that you also already knew where somebody was.

Did this device really spawn the phrase "Where are you?"
This supposed fact is probably not true, as communications prior to mobile phones did not guarantee that the sender of the message would know where somebody was, for example. Imagine sending a message to a soldier on the front lines, you would probably ask where they were after asking if they were alive and safe.

Another similar and more probable suggestion is that before answering machines were invented, nobody had uttered "Sorry, I'm not here right now".

While we do not believe that throughout all of human existence these expressions were never uttered, we do believe that their usage was significantly lower prior to the advent of mobile communication.

We did a quick search for the earliest recorded instance of "Where are you?" and found an example in the biblical book of Genesis, albeit a translation. I guess you'd be hard-pressed to find an earlier example, at least if you believe the Old Testament.

Can anyone actually prove this "fact" for us? Share your thoughts, proofs, or just ideas, in the comments below. 

Friday, July 18, 2014

Celebrating the Life of Roman Jakobson

Today marks the date of the death of Roman Jakobson. While Jakobson died back in 1982, his linguistic legacy still lives on as he was one of the most important linguists of the 20th century, especially in the field of structural linguistics, in which he conducted some of his most important work. Rather than dwell of the death of the man, we thought we'd take the time to honour his life, which is almost as interesting as his work.

The man himself, Roman Osipovich Jakobson
Jakobson was born in Moscow on 11 October, 1896 to a wealthy family. He is said to have been interested in languages from a very young age, and his passion for languages led to him studying in Moscow University's Lazarev Institute of Oriental Languages.

Despite his love for languages, Jakobson was very vocal in his condemnation of sound in films and was ironically critical of the newly emerging "talkies". He completed his master's degree in Moscow in 1918.

In 1920, just two years after his master's graduation, Jakobson fled Russia to settle in Prague, Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic) to complete his doctoral studies before being awarded his PhD from Charles University, Prague. Further political upheaval in 1939 forced Jakobson to again flee his country of residence. This time he made his way to Copenhagen, Denmark in March of that year.

Less than six months after arriving in Copenhagen, Jakobson left to escape the German occupation of the area and headed to Norway. The following year he fled Norway for Sweden before the fear of German occupation forced him to leave Sweden for New York City.

In New York City, Jakobson taught at The New School and was part of a prominent group of scholars, all of whom had fled the occupied areas of Eastern Europe, particularly Czechoslovakia. Jakobson met Claude Lévi-Strauss at the École libre des hautes études, which led to the two collaborating.

After a close brush with repatriation, Jakobson was allowed to remain in the US before moving to Harvard University in 1949. Jakobson remained at Harvard until retiring in 1967. He died in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1982.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Film Club: Les Intouchables

It was long overdue, but I finally got around to watching the highly-recommended French film Les Intouchables this weekend. The film was known as The Intouchables in the US and Untouchable in the UK, supposedly to avoid having the same name as the 1987 film The Untouchables. While it has been out for nearly two years, I sadly never made the time to watch it, despite fervent recommendations from my French friends. That said, I couldn't be happier that I finally did.

Following its release in 2011, the film was a huge hit at the French box office, becoming its second biggest box office hit after Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis, which I would also highly recommend. However, the film is the highest-grossing French film shot in the French language since 1994.

The main premise of the film is somewhat based on the true story of Philippe Pozzo di Borgo and Abdel Sellou, his French-Algerian carer. If you've seen the film poster, DVD case, or the opening scene of the film, you may have noted that the directors decided that the caregiver would be played by Omar Sy, who is not French-Algerian but rather a French-Senegalese actor.

Whether or not you're disappointed by the lack of a French-Algerian lead, anyone who sees the film would have to admit that Sy does a great job alongside François Cluzet, who plays Philippe, an incredibly wealthy disabled man who employs Driss (Sy) as his caregiver.

While the premise is incredibly simple, the execution is what really caught my eye. We've seen plenty of films that show two people becoming unlikely friends despite their vastly different backgrounds. Les Intouchables seems comfortably familiar whilst throwing a few unexpected curve balls in the process.

Without giving too much away, the film is very funny, even for those who don't speak French. The English subtitling (at least the UK version) could easily be enjoyed by anyone who doesn't speak the French language, despite a few cultural changes that were a bit irksome. In one case, a reference to French unionist José Bové is changed to refer to Queen frontman Freddie Mercury, which is understandable as I can't imagine that many British viewers would be familiar with Bové.

Even though Les Intouchables never made any waves at the Oscars, it has quickly risen to the status of being one of my favourite French-language films, simply due to the way it manages to find a great balance between humour and emotion, leaving my sides sore from laughing and my face sore from the huge smile of uncontrollable happiness it left on my face.

In more worrying news, there may be an English remake on the cards. Hopefully it won't be as bad as Dinner for Schmucks, which managed to butcher the French classic comedy Le Dîner de Cons.

Friday, July 11, 2014

World Population Day: The Demographics of Languages

Today is another obscure holiday, World Population Day. July 11, which marks World Population Day, was selected by the United Nations Development Program to raise awareness of population issues and, supposedly, work towards fixing them through global action.

In honour of this day, we thought we'd look at the populations of languages, and, as I love charts, figures, and graphs, attempt to show you a few facts and figures about world languages in a colourful, visual, and interesting way.

Please be patient while the infographic loads.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Our Favourite Terminology From Video Games

Today marks a huge date in the video gaming industry: it is the original release date of Donkey Kong, which featured the first ever appearance of Mario. The game's protagonist was initially called Jumpman, but was later renamed Mario before becoming Super Mario in 1985. While today isn't Mario's official birthday, we're still celebrating this important day in video gaming history with some of our favourite video gaming terminology.

Backwards Compatibility

This term is fairly self-explanatory. In order for a piece of software (the game) to work with the hardware (either a games console or computer), the two have to be compatible.

When it comes to video game consoles, it is often expected (and fervently demanded) that when a manufacturer creates a new console, the games for the previous console work with the newer console.


While beta is the second letter in the Greek alphabet that makes up the "bet" in "alphabet", in video gaming, beta refers to the second part of the testing phase when a game or piece of software is not ready for general release but all the features have been completed.

The term originated at IBM, who would conduct three test phases on their software, initially called A, B, and C. IBM actually dropped the terminology once it gained widespread usage. Though some readers may be familiar with the term beta test, IBM never used the term and instead called it a field test.


While the term "boss" comes from the Dutch term baas and first made its way into English in the 17th century, the use of the term in video gaming has a completely different meaning. Although bosses are usually in charge of their workers, bosses in video games are in fact difficult enemies that are usually stronger than the standard enemies faced.

Boss battles or boss fights often mark the end or completion of a particular section of a game and come in all shapes and sizes.

Two Commodore 64 cartridges

A casing, often made of plastic, that games were distributed on. Though now only used in portable gaming consoles, they were the staple of games during the 90s and would be inserted into a slot on a games console in order to be played.


Cutscenes in games are not scenes that were removed from the final version, but rather a scene in which the characters are animated, often to advance the plot, but cannot be controlled by the character.


Demo, which is derived from the term demonstration, is a sample version of a game. They are often made with the goal of encouraging players to purchase the full version of the game.


While language lovers will think of conjugating when they hear this term, first-person refers to the viewpoint of a game in which the player sees through the eyes of the character they are playing. First-person makes up the FP in FPS, with the S standing for "shooter".

Full Motion Video

Full motion videos, or FMVs, are pre-rendered videos that are played as a video file within the game. Much like cutscenes, full motion videos are often used to further the plot and the player cannot control them.


A device used for controlling games that is almost identical to the device used to pilot aircraft. If you love games as much as I do, then you will understand how apt the name is. They may have fallen out of favour for most game consoles but they still have a special place in my heart.


A pixel is the smallest complete element that makes up a digital display. The term comes from picture and element.


Sandbox refers to a style of play in video games. Rather than have the player complete linear objectives, they can often explore the game's environment without having to complete any objectives if they do not desire to do so.


Much like first-person, third-person refers to the viewpoint. In third-person games, the player can see the character that they are controlling.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Canada Day: Celebrating Canadian English

Yesterday was Canada Day, when Canadians the world over celebrate their motherland. Canada Day officially marks the date when the British North America Act of 1867 united three colonies into the Dominion of Canada.

Nowadays, the British North America Act of 1867 is known as the Constitution Act in Canada, though it retains its original name in the UK. It's known as the Constitution Act is due to the fact that a decent portion of Canada's constitution was formed by the act.

While the celebrations certainly looked like a lot of fun, the thing we're really interested in is the main language spoken in Canada. Last year we looked at the languages of Canada, while this year we will examine only one, the English language.

The variety of English spoken in Canada, Canadian English, is often overlooked and ignored. For years this variation of the English language was considered to be nothing more than either a variety or dialect of American English.

Much like American English, Canadian English has been shaped by immigration patterns. Canadian English was initially shaped by immigration from the United States following the War of Independence. Those who had supported the British Empire fled to the areas in the north that were still under British control.

A huge number of people moved to Canada from the British Isles after the Napoleonic Wars right up until the Constitution Act of 1867. While over a million people made their way to Canada from England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, scholars still believe those who entered Canada from the US left a more lasting impression on Canadian English, at least in terms of accents, explaining why Canadians sound more like those from the US than those from the UK, Australia, or New Zealand.

Canadian English is particularly interesting in the way it spells words. While American English was quick to remove the letter "u" from any word that barely pronounced it, Canadian English stayed true to the same rules as British English and still technically spells "colour" and "favour" the same way as the Brits. That said, the influence of American media has muddied the waters of Canadian English and some Canadians almost seem uncertain of whether or not they should use the letter "u" in the same way as the Brits.

Even though the Canadians share the British opinion concerning the letter "u", Canadian English, just like American English, prefers the -ize suffix over the -ise suffix which is popular in British spelling. Though -ize is the popular choice in Canada, they technically don't spell it the same, at least not if you ask them, as Canadians refer to the last letter of the alphabet as zed, and not as zee, like Americans do.

All that said, our favourite thing about Canadian English has to be the audible question mark, which is pronounced by some as "eh". Even if you didn't celebrate Canada Day, you can still celebrate Canadian English, which is definitely different to all the other varieties of English.