Friday, July 29, 2016

Languages in the News: July 2016

July has been quite a month for language news. Today we thought we'd look at some of the best language related stories from this month. Let's get straight to it!

Right at the start of the month, Forbes posted an interesting article on Facebook on how it shows posts in the user's language. A fascinating read, you can read the full article here.

The Conversation explored the massive benefits of learning another language, particularly in terms of happiness. You can check out their article on the secrets of happiness through language learning here.

Calgary, Canada, the area that originally was
and still is the home of the Tsuut'ína Nation.
Meanwhile, in the UK, The Guardian was looking at how cathedrals around the UK were teaching Latin and it was far more popular than expected. Feel free to look at the article here.

Canadian media was looking at the languages of the Tsuut'ina Nation, and how native speakers of the language were targeting youth in order to promote the language. Read the article here.

On FiveThirtyEight, there was an interesting article on emojis and how companies are looking at the best ways to merge language and emoji. Check out the article on making your messages more interesting here.

Towards the end of the month, we were back with The Guardian looking at the Stroop Test and how to try out your own psychological testing at home. If you feel like testing your friends and family with language-related psychological testing, check out the article here.

That's our news for this month! If you have any stories we missed, feel free to share them in the comments below!

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Metathesis: Mixing Up Sounds

Not just an overpriced pizza chain.
Some words just always seem to get mixed up. I've always struggled to say "dominoes"; it always comes out as "donimoes", with the "m" and "n" getting swapped about. When this happens, it is known as metathesis (which is hardly the easiest word to say, anyway) and refers to when the sounds (phonemes) or syllables in a word are swapped about, in particular in speech.

There are various types of metathesis, depending on the proximity of the swap. When sounds are side-by-side, this is known as adjacent metathesis; when they're not, it's nonadjacent metathesis. Certain words in English are actually a result of metathesis.

Ever wonder why we say "three" but then "thirteen" and not "threeteen"? This is because of metathesis. The same is true as for why the cardinal number is "three" but the ordinal number is "third". Imagine if it was "threed"!

If you're familiar with Scrabble's 2-letter word list, you've probably seen "ax". This word is both an alternate spelling of "axe" and the pre-metathesis version of the word "ask". Originally, the word was always "ax", but due to metathesis, it became "ask".

You might have also heard "ax" in vernacular versions of English. This is because in those dialects, the sounds never really changed. Certain sounds are more likely to produce metathesis, such as nasal sounds (like in my "dominoes" example).

As you may have guessed, metathesis is not an English word, nor is it unique to English. Metathesis affects pretty much every language. If you're learning French, you might be familiar with verlan, the common slang that reverses the syllables in words. In fact, the word verlan comes from a metathesis of the French for "the inverse" (l'envers); literally the inverse of inverse!

Friday, July 22, 2016

The Language of Pokémon

Pokémon has been dominating the news recently. Older readers probably remember the phenomenon surrounding the franchise in the late '90s with the TV show, trading card game, and first generation of video games that got tonnes of people obsessed with catching them all. Now, after years of steady global popularity, it looks like the franchise has struck gold with the "Pokémon GO" app.

Now I'd like to look at some of the interesting linguistic features of Pokémon. Firstly, the name:

Pokémon, portmanteau

For those not familiar with the franchise, it's Japanese. However, the name isn't really Japanese, it's a portmanteau of English words that Japanese borrowed. In Japanese, the franchise is called "Poketto Monsutā" from the English "Pocket Monster". The Japanese was then shortened and merged to make "Pokémon".

Taking Pokémon around the world

Aside from the stories, the battling, and trading, the fact that Pokémon went global gave rise to some very interesting translations. Today I'd like to look at some of the best Pokémon from the first generation (also featured in Pokémon GO), and some of the most interesting translations used.


Scyther is a bug/flying type Pokémon, and looks like a praying mantis with scythe-like blades for arms. In Japanese it was called strike, but the French name is awesome! It combines the French for insect (insecte) and the gardening tool pruning shears (sécateur), to make "Insecateur".


Alakazam has an amazing name, since it's the third of three evolutions, the first and second being "Abra" and "Kadabra"... get it? Abra, Kadabra, Alakazam.


Almost everywhere in the world, this Pokémon is a portmanteau of two monsters from Japanese monster movies, Gyaos and Rodan. However, for the French translation, they decided to go with Léviator, from Leviathan. Pretty cool, right?


The fire-type dog is a portmanteau of arcane and canine in English. However, in Japanese it is actually called Windie, due to its speed. Clearly that wouldn't have sounded right and needed to be changed.


The name of this ghost-type Pokémon in Japanese was taken from the German word doppelgänger. In most countries, it goes by Gengar. However, the French translation went above and beyond when they combined the words for ectoplasm and plasma to call it Ectoplasma.


The dragon-type Pokémon has a cool name in both French and German. In French, it combines the Latin word for "dragon" and the French for "colossal", giving the name Dracolosse. I reckon German wins this localisation battle with Dragoran, from the words for "dragon" and the verb "to riot", randalieren.


In English, this water-type Pokémon's name is a portmanteau of "blast" and "tortoise". Everywhere but France kept it the same, with France opting for a portmanteau of the French for "turtle" and "tank", to give Tortank.


The most popular of the original 150 Pokémon. This dragon-like fire/flying-type Pokémon is not only awesome in appearance, but its name in most localised languages is awesome. Of course, English is a combination of "char" and "lizard". In French it's Dracofeu, from "dragon" in Latin and "fire" in French. German wins this round with a combination of "ember", "dragon", and "rocket", giving us Glurak. Regardless, you probably want this Pokémon in your team.

Now get out there and catch them all!

Friday, July 15, 2016

Why Bad Translation Is Bad for Business

I was reading an article on the BBC today about how Iranian state media isn't happy about some English-language clothing and claims it to be offensive. If you're interested in the story, you can find the article here. This got me thinking about some of the awful English I've seen on clothes around the world.

Whenever I find myself outside of the UK or English-speaking countries, I can't help but giggle to myself when I see someone wearing clothing with terrible or poorly translated English on it. If you'd like to amuse yourself with nonsense English, a quick internet search will reveal plenty of brilliant nonsense that people unknowingly sport on their t-shirts as they leave the house. One of my personal favourites is "The pig is full of many many cats", whatever that's supposed to mean.

This phenomenon extends far beyond clothing, though. There are also examples of bad English tattoos, which are far more unfortunate than a dodgy translation on a t-shirt (and a lot more painful to get rid of). The internet is a also great resource for finding them, including (but not limited to): "I'm awsome", "beliefe in dreams", and "What didn't killed me, made me stronger".

These examples are unfortunate for some, but not really a problem. However, bad translation has become a problem in South Korea, where the government has had to set up a task force dealing with horrendous menu translations. Food experts and language experts are helping create better restaurant translations in English, Chinese, and Japanese. There's another good article from the BBC about it here.

If you're buying or making a cheap t-shirt, you probably don't care about hiring a professional to translate or proofread it before it goes into production. If you're getting a tattoo on a drunken night out, you're probably beyond the point of thinking twice about the spelling, grammar, and punctuation that's going to be put permanently on your body.

Good translations can sell good products.
What really gets me, when it comes to restaurants, hotels, and plenty of other businesses, is how little some seem to care about their translations. I've seen so many horrendous restaurant menus (in some very good restaurants, too) that could have been translated perfectly, but weren't.

Maybe it's to save some money. Maybe there's someone at your restaurant who's pretty good at a foreign language, so why don't you get them to translate your menu? That's a huge mistake! Restaurant menus, in terms of words, are generally quite short and simple for a professional translator.

These kinds of documents are a piece of cake for a qualified professional native translator, especially one who lives or has lived in your country, is familiar with the cuisine, and will create a better and tastier-sounding menu than Google Translate or a staff member who's okay when it comes to chatting to foreign customers.

The same goes for all documentation across all businesses. When someone visits your business, whether in person or online, you don't want a poor translation representing you. In a busy market, customers will stop at places where they know what they're getting, not places where they're confused as to what's on offer. Is it really worth running that risk with nonsensical translations?

I certainly don't think so, and I'm fairly certain our fellow language lovers will agree with me. To deliver a proper message in a foreign language, you need a real translator!

What are some of the worst translations you've ever seen? Did it put you off doing business with them? Tell us about your terrible or hilarious experiences in the comments below!

Friday, July 8, 2016

Ashamed of an Accent: Linguistic Insecurity

Languages are as varied and interesting as the people who speak them. Every language has plenty of different accents, and depending on the culture or place where languages are spoken, some are considered more "correct" or "standard".

This must mean that some dialects, accents, and ways of speaking a language are considered to be inferior. The idea that a certain way of speaking is considered inferior can lead to something known as linguistic insecurity.

Linguistic insecurity is when a speaker adjusts the way they use their language due to feeling anxious (either consciously or subconsciously) about the way they use their language. This can manifest in a number of ways, depending on which elements of language are considered to be non-standard.

One way to alleviate this anxiety is to shift registers. Speakers with linguistic insecurity sometimes will speak in a higher register than they would normally, often by using a formal register. This can also lead to hypercorrection. This is when the speaker, in an attempt to correct their language, applies a "rule" where they don't really have to.

As a speaker of Geordie (the dialect of Northern English spoken around Tyneside), I have been guilty of hypercorrection. For example, in my dialect, I would usually pronounce the end of the word "master" like the letter "a" in "hat". However, when adopting a more standard dialect, I have found myself altering the pronunciation in the word "pizza" and correcting the "a" to the sound of "er" and pronouncing it like "pizzer".

So who does linguistic insecurity affect? As you can imagine, it tends to be those who speak a variant of the language which is considered to not be the standard. Studies have shown that those of lower socioeconomic classes also tend to be more susceptible to linguistic insecurity, but not the very lowest classes. The lower middle classes tend to exhibit high levels of linguistic insecurity.

Linguistic insecurity isn't an issue if you're toiling in the fields.
So why the lower middle classes? It is thought that since the lower middle classes are stuck between the lower and upper classes, they are exposed to the speech patterns of the lower classes, but also consider the attitudes and speech patterns of the upper classes to be correct. Studies tend to show that the second tier of socioeconomic classes (especially those who aspire to be a member of the top tier) show greater levels of linguistic insecurity.

Studies also show that linguistic insecurity affects more women than men. Of course, linguistic insecurity is a very personal thing, too. I personally love the varied nature of languages and can sometimes be very stubborn and refuse to bow to linguistic prescriptivism when it comes to how I talk. However, some days, like most people, I just want to fit in and find myself speaking in a way that would probably embarrass my friends back home!

Do you use a non-standard dialect of your language? Have you ever felt anxious about the way you speak? Tell us about your experiences in the comments below!

Monday, July 4, 2016

Harvard Sentences: Making Every Phoneme Count

Have you ever gone to a concert and heard the sound engineer say "one two, one two"? If you're wondering why this is, it's because the word "two" is characterised by the silibant (hissing) sound. This allows them to test low and high frequency sounds and adjust the levels accordingly.

While this works for a concert and the audio levels for music, since the focus is on pitch variances and the overall mixing of the song, when it comes to communication, the simple "one two, one two" won't work. In this case, you should consider using Harvard Sentences.

Harvard Sentences are sentences that make use of common English phonemes in the same frequency that they tend to appear in normal sentences, thus making them representative of the language. It won't surprise you to know that they were developed at Harvard, either!

During the Second World War, scholars were working tirelessly on the intelligibility of radio communications. During this time, understanding radio messages was of the utmost importance. From this research, the representative Harvard Sentences were created (as well as the NATO Alphabet).

To test the quality of radio communications, researchers at Harvard developed a list of representative sentences. These sample phrases were later published by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) in their list of Recommended Practices for Speech Quality Measurements.

The published list includes 720 different Harvard Sentences, arranged into 72 lists of 10 (you can find the lists here). These sentences are still used today to test a variety of different technologies, from walkie-talkies and radios to mobile phones and Voice over IP, like Skype.

These sentences have helped develop plenty of communication technologies since the mid-1960s and continue to be used today, despite many of them sounding a bit silly!