Friday, June 26, 2015

"Do the Dew" and Yod-Coalescence

Dew, one of the most common subjects for macro lenses.
I was watching television the other day when I spotted an advert for Mountain Dew, a beverage that I tend to avoid like the plague as I have no interest in carbonated beverages except when using them as mixers with strong spirits. However, this post isn't about my intense dislike for adding gases to liquids, it's about the advertising slogan that Mountain Dew was using.

American readers will undoubtedly be familiar with Mountain Dew and their "Do the Dew" slogan. However, the one thing they seemingly overlooked was how British people pronounce "dew". The words "do" and "dew" are both pronounced /duː/ across the United States, while many accents across the British Isles differentiate between the two words, pronouncing "do" as /duː/ and "dew" as /dʒuː/.

This pronunciation of "dew" in various accents of British English makes it a homophone with the words "due" and "Jew", which rendered their "do the dew" slogan as a homophone for Semitic fornication when I first heard it. While I don't find this suggestion offensive, I certainly wasn't thinking of Mountain Dew when reading the tagline.

Lawn over dew.
While this is just an unfortunate coincidence of the differences between British and American English, linguists have obviously looked into this phenomenon, which goes by the name yod-coalescence.

Yod-coalescence is the term given when a particular set of sounds undergoes a process of sound change known as palatalisation, whereby a palatal or palatalised consonant occurs. This can happen when the pronunciation of two words together sounds different to when they are pronounced in isolation, while yod-coalescence refers to when the sounds [dj], [tj], [sj] and [zj] end up becoming [dʒ], [tʃ], [ʃ], and [ʒ]. This makes the British pronunciation of "Tuesday" sound like "chews day" to Americans, while it sounds like Americans say "twos day" to British ears.

Friday, June 19, 2015

How We Describe Languages

The proverbial ouroboros, the cyclical snake eating its own tail.
Languages are fascinating. If they weren't, I wouldn't have spent years learning about them and then writing about them. However, an odd thought popped into my head the other day. Without languages, I wouldn't be able to talk about languages, nor would I have anything to talk about. While we could sit and debate the ouroboros nature of language and thought for years (which people have already done and it's fascinating!), I would rather look at which words in English are commonly used when talking about language to see how we like to refer to this wonderful phenomenon.

I reckoned the best place to start would be with the words that commonly collocate with the word "language" in English in order to see if there were any patterns related to which words we use to talk about the fact that we talk.

Time and Place

When we describe languages, we are seemingly very interested in the time and place occupied by a language. We have to describe when the language was being spoken and whether it is still being spoken today. When discuss whether a language is still commonly used today, we either speak of a dead or a living language.

In the case of dead languages, we like to describe them according to the historical period in which they were used, calling them either ancient or classical languages, for example. Of course, languages that are living are often called modern languages.

Where a language is spoken is also key. Languages, like peoples, can be indigenous to an area since people like to bring their languages with them when they migrate. Sadly, the term "indigenous" is often used to describe languages that are endangered due to replacement by more prestigious languages in their areas.


How much a language is used seems to be another common trend when referring to languages. We can talk about international and national languages, or on the other end of the scale, minority languages.

Use in terms of speakers isn't the only way we talk about languages and their speakers. We also like to know how information is being communicated. We can talk about spoken language, written language, and, in the event of corporeal communications, body language.

Situation and Context

In addition where and when languages are used, we're clearly interested in the situation and context in which languages are used. Some of the most common collocations include formal and informal language. The discussion of domain is also very common, such as referring to flowery, literary, and poetic language. Unfortunately, other commonly mentioned contexts include racist and sexist language, unless we're often condemning them.

Bad Language

Bad, crude, offensive, obscene, offensive, and strong language are all used regularly in English and make up some of the most common collocations. It seems that as much as we hate bad language, we can't stop talking about it.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Uselessness of Back-Translations

A back-translation (BT) is when a translation or target text (TT) is translated back into its original source language (SL). When the back-translation is completed, it is then compared to the original source text (ST) in an attempt to gauge the quality of the translation, which I believe is incredibly stupid. While it's true that gauging the quality of translations is very difficult, I don't believe for one second that BTs are a viable way to do it.

The idea of BTs is based on a premise similar to that of mathematics, but is foolishly founded on the concept of a number of assumed exact equivalents between languages, be they lexical, syntactic, semantic, etc.

In maths, the equals sign indicates that the equations on either side of the symbol are the same. However, even this logic seems to be flawed, since if you imagine that numbers are words, you could easily say 7 = 7, but also that 7 = 6 + 1 or 7 = 5 + 2, etc.

If you can express sums in multiple ways, you can certainly express almost any sentiment in plenty of different ways. This is the problem I have with back-translations, as they assume that there is only ever one "correct" way to translate any given phrase and translating it back should yield exactly the same results.

Another issue I have with BTs is the assumption that discrepancies between the BT and the ST are due to mistakes by the first translator and issues in the TT. Comparing the ST and BT to one another completely ignores the TT and therefore the entire work of the first translator, as the BT is simply a derivative work of the BT.

Valet parking wasn't really necessary 100 years ago.
Imagine you give your car to a valet to park it while you have a meal. Later, when you collect your car, a different valet is driving your car and the car has a huge scratch down the side of it. Who scratched your car?

If you use the logic of BTs, the first valet definitely damaged your car as it has changed since you left it. However, without seeing the car's journey to and from the parking space, there's no way of telling who caused the damage.

What do you think of BTs? Is there a better way to gauge translations? Tell us your opinion in the comments below!

Friday, June 12, 2015

Putting Up With Phrasal Verbs

Many native English speakers have probably never considered or even heard of the term phrasal verb, much like the many other nuances of languages that native speakers don't give a second thought. However, it's these nuances that learners of a language can struggle with, and in my experience, phrasal verbs are a pain in the proverbial arse of many people trying to learn English. So what exactly are they?

As you should know, verbs make things happen. However, they're quite awkward for language learners since you often need to learn a whole host of things just to use them correctly. In order to use a verb in English, you first need to learn the grammatical person, which usually dictates who is the active participant of the verb.

Once you know who the verb's about, you need to know when it took place and its grammatical tense. Sometimes the tense doesn't indicate time exactly, but we won't get bogged down in that just now.

This nebula is only slightly more complex than phrasal verbs.
So you think you've got verbs all mastered? Not quite! In English, phrasal verbs can change the entire meaning of a verb just by adding a word or two. For example, looking is not the same as looking for or looking after. The first indicates viewing or watching, while the second indicates searching, and the third indicates being responsible for something.

It's sort of crazy that sitting down and sitting up are different things in English (with the first referring to taking a seat and the second to adjusting your posture). How can putting be completely different if you put up with rather than put out (and take care with the latter!).

The thing about phrasal verbs is that the words they're composed of cannot work in isolation: you need the verb and either a preposition (words that usually indicate a place or time) or a particle (a word that requires the other word to have any meaning).

Despite phrasal verbs being useless in isolation, they also are incredibly versatile when used. The order of the words that make up phrasal verbs is not entirely fixed, meaning that they might not always appear in the order that you learned them. In fact, the phrasal verb "to put up with" is famous for being used awkwardly in order to avoid ending a sentence with a preposition. While the quote isn't really from Winston Churchill, I still enjoy this syntactic monstrosity:

"This is the sort of English up with which I will not put."
- Not Winston Churchill

This flexibility is the kind of awkwardness that non-native speakers find horrendously difficult to wrap their heads around, and who could blame them? It's absolutely ridiculous!

Are you learning English as a foreign language? What do you think of phrasal verbs? What is your favourite phrasal verb? Tell us about your experiences in the comments below.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Prestige: The "Best" Way to Speak Languages

As a native English speaker, it always amuses me when I travel abroad and come across bars, clubs, and restaurants that use English names as a gimmick to appear fashionable. That said, I've also noticed French being paraded around the UK to make places sound cool.

When businesses use languages in this way, they're trying to make more money by having a cool image. But does a language have an image? We'll leave marketers give you their spiel about various demographics and how they relate to your brand image. We're far more interested in the linguistic side of things.

The root of this phenomenon in linguistics (sociolinguistics to be precise) is prestige. Just like certain restaurants, bars, and clubs, languages can also be prestigious. Depending on your culture, some languages can hold more prestige than others. It's also been found to be true that most cultures afford the highest prestige to the languages spoken by the most prestigious parts of their society. This means that if you're part of a prestigious group, odds are your language is also quite prestigious.

Money seems to bring prestige with it.
Interestingly, in addition to languages, dialects within languages (and dialect continuums, of course) are also subject to prestige. Much like with languages, the most prestigious dialects tend to be those spoken by the members of the society with the most prestige. It seems that prestige often goes hand in hand with wealth and political power.

It is thought that prestige dialects are related to, and the cause of standardized dialects. Standardized dialects are the dialects of a language that are considered to be the easiest to understand by most speakers of the language. For languages with a regulatory body, the standardized dialects are usually regulated by these academies.

That said, there's nothing that inherently makes prestige dialects or prestigious languages the "best" way to speak. In fact, it may even be beneficial to speak less prestigious dialects in certain situations. One example of this is the Geordie dialect of English which is spoken in my hometown. While it is likely considered to be one of the least prestigious dialects in England, it is often labelled as the "friendliest", which is why marketing of all kinds, from television adverts to telemarketing, features the voices of Geordies. There are undoubtedly countless other examples around the world that demonstrate how a non-prestige dialect may be more beneficial in certain situations, so if you don't speak the most prestigious dialect of your area, don't worry!

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Opa! - Interjections, Exclamations, and Ejaculations

If you've visited Greece or have done anything remotely Greek in the past, you're probably familiar with the expression "opa!" (or "Ώπα" in its native writing system). I recently spent some time pondering the meaning behind the word and discussing it at length with a number of people who all struggled to explain exactly what it means. Everyone seemed to know when to use it and the general sentiment it was expressing, but nobody could really pinpoint a definition.

When I looked the word up online, Urban Dictionary provided the following definition: "A word that Greek people use for no apparent reason at all". While this definition amused me, it certainly didn't help me at all.

Mount Ida in Crete, Greece. The kind of landscape that helps
inspire interjections as positive as "opa!".
It turns out that "opa!" is both an interjection and an exclamation. Interjections are used to express an emotion or feeling on behalf of the speaker and are often exclamations (since emotion has that kind of nature). However, not every interjection is an exclamation. For example, filler words such as uhm and er are also considered interjections. Interjections generally have no syntactic relationship to other words.

Exclamations are emphatic interjections and strongly express emotions. Thanks to the existence of the exclamation mark "!", exclamations are generally very easy to spot when written. In speech, the volume of the utterance tends to give them away.

In linguistics, a short exclamation such as "opa!" is actually known as an ejaculation. Sadly, this is a very difficult linguistic term to safely search for on the internet since Google's algorithm tends to provide a very different type of results to the linguistic ones I was looking for.

The difference between exclamations and ejaculations is that ejaculations don't usually need to follow the grammatical rules of a language and are used independent of clauses and sentences. However, there are some ejaculations that do make use of grammatical elements, which are known as either clausal exclamations (if they contain a subject and verb) or phrasal exclamations (if they contain other grammatical elements of speech).

Another Greek landscape to make you exclaim "wow!".
Some English ejaculations can express a wide range of emotions. The exclamation "ouch!" denotes pain, while "yay!", "woohoo!", and "hooray!" are used in celebration, just like "opa!" in Greek. "Wow!" can indicate amazement and wonder, while "phew!" is used to express relief.

If you're interested in ejaculations, exclamations, and interjections, I would highly recommend checking out the wonderful work of James Chapman on his Tumblr. You might also be interested in our recent post on whimsical interjections like "Good gravy!".

Do you speak a language other than English? If so, what are your favourite interjections, exclamations, and ejaculations in your language? Tell us in the comments below and don't forget to provide an explanation!