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.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Language's Biggest Challenge: How Do You Define Left and Right?

I was watching an old episode of QI (a fascinating show for those who haven't seen it) when the question of defining left and right to an alien species came up. The general consensus is that you cannot define left and right due to the relative nature of the concepts. Surely, that can't be right. Right?

The reason these concepts are so difficult to define is because they are relative. Put simply, you can't really have left or right without having some reference point.

If you search the definition of "left" on Google, you'll be met with:

"on, towards, or relating to the side of a human body or of a thing which is to the west when the person or thing is facing north."

Google defines right as:

"on, towards, or relating to the side of a human body or of a thing which is to the east when the person or thing is facing north."

A compass provides a fine example of cardinal directions.
How would you define left and right without a compass? These concepts only really exist on a planet with a magnetic field where a system of cardinal directions can be defined...

While left and right are seemingly simple for most of us to understand, around 15% of people seem to struggle with left and right, suffering from a condition known as "Left-Right Confusion".

Can you really blame those who can't tell the difference? The terms are so useless in practice that "my right" is only "your right" when we're facing the same direction. This makes left and right egocentric directions, as their definition is based on the self.

While both up and down are also egocentric, thanks to gravity, their definitions are often universally understood. This is thanks to everyday life, where gravity is almost always found to be pulling us back to our home planet, Earth.

The relative nature of these terms means that in geometry and physics, left and right aren't even bothered with. The Cartesian coordinate system puts matters into numbers, which is often preferred by the hard sciences, rather than the subjectivity preferred by human languages.

However, there are a number of languages and communication systems that don't use the concept of relative direction like left and right. The Guugu Yimithirr Language, which is natively spoken by around 100 aboriginal Australians, seemingly has no time for egocentric directions, preferring a system of cardinal directions to describe the location of objects.

While I feel like I know more about directions, both egocentric and cardinal, I certainly wouldn't feel confident giving directions to aliens. How would you describe left and right? Tell us in the comments below.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Remembering September 11: How One Day Changed the Way We Speak

As anyone with a calendar will know, yesterday was September 11. Thirteen years have passed since the terrorist attacks by al-Qaeda on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington D.C., and for many, the memories are still fresh in their minds.

Like most catastrophic events, September 11th led to a huge number of cultural changes in the United States and across the world. There were obvious changes, like how air travel security measures changed drastically seemingly overnight. It wasn't just air travel that changed however, as governments kept busy introducing new legislation to reduce the chances of a similar attack happening in the future. One cultural change that isn't as obvious has been the changes to the English language since 2001, which have been quite astounding.

Many new terms were added to the language just after the attacks, though their origins aren't as obvious now due to the passage of time. Over the years, the American Dialect Society has monitored the use of the English language in North America. It is a useful resource to learn more about how the vast majority of Americans use their mother tongue. We've put together a few of the important and lasting terms we feel were rarely uttered before those tragic events.

One World Trade Center, a new skyscraper
located near where the Twin Towers fell.

It was noted that just a year after the event, "9/11" (said as "nine-eleven") was considered the expression most likely to last. It's fairly safe to say that over a decade later, 9/11 is one of the most enduring expressions since the event. In fact, while the constituent elements of the term preexisted, these two numbers refer to a specific set of events that occurred on September 11, 2001 in most contexts and almost never signify anything else.

Pre- and Post-9/11

The events of 9/11 were considered so important in English-speaking circles that the date now acts as a divider between two eras, at least in the minds of many people.


While not a neologism, al-Qaeda, the name of the organisation who was eventually revealed to be responsible for the attacks, was a popular topic of conversation at the time and is now known to most people. 

Sadly, a number of people took the Arabic origins of the word "القاعدة" as an indication that Arabic speakers and Muslims were either terrorists or hated the United States, despite the fact that there are plenty of terrorists who aren't Arabic-speaking Muslims, as well as people who hate the United States and are neither terrorists, Muslim, nor speakers of Arabic.


The United States Department for Homeland Security (DHS) was formed in 2002 following the events of 9/11 as a response to them.

Ground Zero

Although the term "ground zero" existed "pre-9/11" (See what we did there?), when the term is capitalised and rendered as "Ground Zero", it almost always is in reference to the World Trade Center site where the Twin Towers were attacked.


While not necessarily a term from 9/11, IED, short for Improvised Explosive Device, is a term used by the US Army in Afghanistan and Iraq to refer to a type of bomb.


The Transportation Safety Administration, known by the acronym TSA, was a federal agency formed post-9/11 that was one of the key changes to airport security. Their visibility to anyone travelling by plane in the United States means the term has quickly entered the lexicon of American English.

The Linguistic Legacy

While some of the terms that were used after 9/11 have fallen out of favour and have even been forgotten, we should never forget those who needlessly lost their lives on that day, in subsequent conflicts, and in conflicts every day throughout the world.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Country Profile: The Languages of China

Exactly two years ago, we started a regular series of language profiles. Now we're replacing it with a new series in a very similar vein, country profiles. While the language profiles covered one particular language, the new country profiles will be a look at the linguistic makeup of one country in particular.

When we did language profiles, we worked our way through a list, starting with the language with the most native speakers. As we certainly missed a few of the world's many languages, we'll still occasionally do language profiles, just not weekly as we have been doing.

This week marks the first of our country profiles. We're starting with the languages spoken in the world's most populous country, China. After that, we'll work our way around the world, making sure to skip the places we've already covered during their national holidays.

The flag of the People's Republic of China
The Languages of China

Almost one fifth of the world's population lives in China, and Mandarin Chinese is spoken by around 840,000,000 people as a native language. Mandarin has de facto status as the national language.

However, with around 1.3 billion people in a single country, there are certainly more languages than just Chinese. In fact, China has 8 official languages: Standard Chinese, Cantonese, English, Portuguese, Uyghur, Tibetan, Zhuang, and Mongolian.

Sino-Tibetan Languages

Since the Sino-Tibetan languages are indigenous to most of what makes up modern-day China, you can expect plenty of these languages to be spoken in the country. Aside from Mandarin, Cantonese is also another Sino-Tibetan language with official status.

Cantonese is natively spoken by around 62,000,000 people in the world. In China, Cantonese is an official language in Hong Kong and Macau and used by the local governments in these places.

Unsurprisingly, Tibetan is spoken in the Tibet Autonomous Region. The language is spoken by over one million people and is written using a Brahmic script, a type of abugida.

Indo-European Languages

You may have spotted a couple of Indo-European languages in the list of official languages in China. These are the lasting heritage of European colonialism in China.

The English language has official language status in Hong Kong, which was a British colony for 156 years until it was handed back to China in 1997. Likewise, the Portuguese language is spoken as an official language in Macau, which was a Portuguese colony between 1557 and 1999, making it both the first and last European colony in China.

Turkic Languages

The Uyghur language is spoken around the world by up to 11 million people. Within China, it is principally spoken in Xinjiang, where it has official status.

Mongolian Languages

The Mongolian language is natively spoken by nearly 6 million people in the world. In addition to being the official language of Mongolia, it is also an official language of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region in China.

Tai-Kadai Languages

The Zhuang languages are the last of China's 8 official languages. In total, around 16 million people speak one of the Zhuang languages in the south of China. However, the languages are not mutually intelligible to one another and in some cases are more related to another language from the Tai language family than each other. Perhaps they should be reclassified.

Other Languages

"Surely there are more than 8 languages spoken in China?", we hear you ask. You are right. In fact, there are apparently nearly 300 languages spoken in China, far too many for one post.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Code Talkers: How Speaking a Minority Language Helped Win the Great War

On Wednesday, we were looking at the Navajo language and it got us thinking about the Navajo code talkers used during the Second World War. While the Navajo code talkers are probably the most famous, there were plenty of other code talkers who spoke other languages.

A code talker, for those who don't know, is someone who uses their language to transmit secret messages during wars. If you're trying to transmit information during a war, especially by radio, you do not want your enemy to know what you're saying. In order to ensure your message is only understood by those you want to understand it, you will probably use a code.

Encoded information is certainly one way to ensure that only the intended recipient understands your message, since a code is essentially a language that is only understood by a particular group of people. During the First and Second World Wars, the United States realised that there was a group of people who spoke languages that only they understood, the Native Americans.

Native American Code Talkers

Sequoyah may have invented the Cherokee
syllabary, but it was the spoken language that
was most useful.
The first code talkers spoke Cherokee, the Iroquoian language spoken by the Cherokee people. In fact, the Cherokee code talkers were present at the Second Battle of the Somme, helping to transmit encoded messages. 

The discovery of Native American languages as a means to transmit encoded messages was more of an accident than a genius military plan. It was noticed by the US Army during WWI that the enemy couldn't understand the Cherokee troops.

While the Cherokee code talkers were the first, they were certainly not the only Native American code talkers. The Choctaw Indians from Oklahoma used their language to transmit messages during the Great War.

Since code talkers were so successful during the First World War, Hitler sent a group of around thirty anthropologists to the United States in order to learn Native American languages before WWII had even started. However, not everything turned out as he planned. We'll be back on Monday with the full story. Join us then.

Read The Fascinating Story of the Navajo Code Talkers