Archive for March, 2010

Questions on invented languages

Posted on March 31st, 2010by Michelle
In Culture, Invented languages | Leave a Comment »

Having written a few posts about invented languages such as Na’vi and Klingon, I was interested to come across this post posing questions to two experts in the field.

One of the experts is the inventor of Na’vi, the language used in the movie Avatar, so there are a few questions posed about that, with interesting responses. Here’s a sample:

One thing that always strikes me about languages is that some of them (particularly) English are such kleptomaniacs: they steal liberally from other languages they come in contact with, but they frequently seem to have rules for how things are assimilated. Japanese has a positively Ellis Island-like knack for making borrowed words sound completely different and naturalized, while at the same time using an entirely separate character set to keep them segregated. English, on the other hand, has so many words of foreign origin that most speakers aren’t even aware of it. So I’m curious, then, about the “future” of the Na’vi language: how do you expect it to change as it bumps up against English and other languages and their alien vocabulary, sounds, and concepts? — John

Paul Frommer: On Pandora there are already some borrowings from English into Na’vi – English words the locals have adopted for alien objects and concepts that have been filtered through the Na’vi sound system. “Gunship” is kunsìp; “book” is puk; “badge” is pätsì. On the other hand, some words are developed from existing elements rather than borrowed: “human” is not yumìn but rather tawtute, which literally means “sky person.”

As you’ve noted, languages differ in their readiness to borrow foreign words. Among the Na’vi-enthusiast community that has exploded in the last couple of months, the sentiment seems to be against borrowings except as placeholders until suitable native expressions are coined. So “computer” and “lawyer” are not kompìyuter and loyer but rather eltu lefngap (metal brain) and, tentatively, pängkxoyu lekoren (one who discusses rules). I expect this preference to hold as Na’vi continues to develop, especially in view of the fact that the emerging community is not limited to English speakers. (Source: Schott’s Vocab Blog)

As you can see, the questions and answers are quite long and in-depth, so be sure you have a bit of time on your hands before starting to read. Enjoy!

Top 10 internet languages

Posted on March 28th, 2010by Michelle
In Arabic, Chinese, English, French, German, Japanese, Korean, Portugese, Research, Russian, Spanish, Technology | Leave a Comment »

Graph of Top 10 languagesThe internet is a great resource for language learning, but only if you can find the information you need.

Good news for English speakers and language learners as English is the language most used by internet users. According to research by Internet World Stats, English is the language used by almost 30% of users. This is quite closely followed by Chinese and then Spanish. Japanese, French, Portuguese, German, Arabic, Russian and Korean round out the top 10.

Keeping this in mind, try out this game to see if you can guess the world’s top 20 most spoken languages. I think the number one will surprise you!

Go tell that to your Dutch uncle

Posted on March 24th, 2010by Michelle
In English, Idioms, Words | Leave a Comment »

Visiting my grandparents recently, I was struck by a phrase my grandmother said frequently: “go tell that to your Dutch uncle”.

I’d never heard this before, and neither my grandfather or mother use the phrase or could tell me where it was from. A quick search doesn’t reveal anything of its origins. My grandmother used it jokingly when she thought someone was saying something fanciful or that she didn’t believe. I got the impression that the “Dutch uncle” was someone fictional, who would believe the stories you would tell.

A “Dutch uncle” is referenced here as “a term for a person who issues frank, harsh, and severe comments and criticism to educate, encourage, or admonish someone”, whereas here it is “a person who bluntly and sternly lectures or scolds someone, often with benevolent intent”. Perhaps my grandmother was using it more in the sense that the Dutch uncle was someone who would punish the story-teller for their lies.

My grandmother is in her eighties and from the West Country in England. Perhaps this is a regional idiom?

Can anyone shed any light on this strange phrase?

Obscure job titles

Posted on March 21st, 2010by Michelle
In English, Invented languages, Words | Leave a Comment »

Last week I posted about office jargon and how it can obscure simple meanings.

Going one step further, what if your job title was jargon and obscured what you really do?

A BBC article asked readers to submit their silliest job title, and here are some of the results:

3. My job title is a waste management and disposal technician. In other words, a bin man.
Alex, Newcastle upon Tyne

5. I had the rather uninspired job title of head of inspiration for a while. I failed to live up to it.
Gav, Sydney, Australia

7. Currently on secondment, my job title has changed from the all-purpose customer services administrator to direct debit and membership and professional development stock and credit administrator.
Martin, Bromley, Kent

16. My job title is worldwide marine asset financial analyst. But what it all comes down to is I’m an accountant.
Steve Scott, Rochester, Kent, UK

24. My job title for about a year was coordinator of interpretive teaching, which entailed taking school groups round a museum. Posh name for a tour guide, basically.
James Morris, London, UK

As the writer of this blog, I suppose I could describe myself as an ‘information management specialist’. It sounds much more important than ‘blogger’ or ‘writer’ but doesn’t make it clear what I really do. Having read these titles though, perhaps I should promote myself to ‘Head of Inspiration’!

French Language Day

Posted on March 19th, 2010by Michelle
In Culture, Events, French, UN Language Days | Leave a Comment »

FrenchOn February 21st I posted about International Mother Language Day, and mentioned that the UN was also launching a new initiative called UN Language Days.

Well, today is the first of those days, with the French language being celebrated.

“French, as a working language of the UN and one that is spoken on all continents, plays an important role in spreading the message of the United Nations in the world,” said Kiyo Akasaka, Under-Secretary-General for the Department of Public Information (DPI) and Coordinator for Multilingualism at the UN. (Source: UN)

Here are a few facts about French to help get you started with your celebration:

    Around 75 million people speak French as their mother tongue
    Apart from the UN, French is used as an official working language in many organisations – including Amnesty International, the International Olympic Committee, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the International Criminal Court
    There are 16 vowels in French

Afghan languages

Posted on March 17th, 2010by Michelle
In Dari, Language acquisition, Pashto, Translation | Leave a Comment »

Cpl Taff EdwardsMost of what we hear and see about Afghanistan is war-related. The Taliban, the troops, roadside bombs, insurgents.

So it’s heartening to hear about someone who is trying to make a difference by connecting with Afghan culture.

Corporal “Taff” Edwards, a Welsh soldier, has learned to speak Dari, one of the languages spoken in Afghanistan, so he can help train men serving in their National Army.

A Welsh and English speaker, Edwards decided to start learning Dari as he wanted to learn a useful skill that would take him to the war.

Cpl Edwards underwent intensive training to prepare him for the demands of being a linguist in a war zone, and he said it was difficult to pick up.

“The training involved a lot of classroom time. All the teachers were trying their utmost but it is a very difficult language to learn,” he added.

“One of the reasons is that nothing is produced in the language – there is no Dari dictionary, there is no literature. These guys have been fighting for so long, producing books and things hasn’t been high on their list of priorities.

“So all the resources that we try and find all come from Iran as Parsi is very similar, but it is not exactly the same.”

Cpl Edwards now hopes to study Pashto. (Source: BBC)

Pashto and Dari are the two official languages of Afghanistan. Pashto was declared the National Language but Dari is probably more widely used, according to a UN estimate. There are a number of minority languages also spoken, including Nuristani and Pashai, and many Afghanis are bilingual.

Let’s hope people like Cpl Edwards can help connect with Afghan people and help them find peace and stability so they can write down their languages and encourage people to visit this incredible country.

Expecting the moon on a stick

Posted on March 15th, 2010by Michelle
In Culture, English, Invented languages, Words | 2 Comments »

In January I wrote about the Business Sentence Generator, which spits out random sentences for use in corporate reports. Whilst the BSG was built for humour, a survey shows that it may not be far off the mark.

Office Angels compiled a list of office jargon from the last decade, and their top ten reads as follows:

‘We need the right pin numbers’ – ‘we need it to work’
‘A lighthouse on a cloudy night’ – coming up with a good/bright idea
‘I’m coming into this with an open kimono’ – throwing an idea out into the open but being open to criticism
‘Let’s touch base about this offline’ – ‘let’s meet up face-to-face’
‘Finger in the air figure’ – just an estimate
‘I think someone needs a bite of the realilty sandwich’ – someone needs to think a bit more practically
‘Let’s run that idea up the flagpole and see if it flies’ – simply trying out an idea
‘Let’s not try to build a chestnut fence to keep the sand-dunes in’ – face a problem head-on, rather than battling it unsuccessfully
‘Get all our ducks in a row’ – get everything in order
‘Expecting the moon on a stick’ – when clients have ridiculous expectations

These sentences seem fairly redundant – why not just say what you mean? Sporting metaphors seem increasingly common – one reason why I hate ‘touching base’. Let’s hope with the new decade we can ditch the jargon and communicate clearly with our coworkers – now that’s a lighthouse on a cloudy night!

YouTube subtitling

Posted on March 13th, 2010by Michelle
In Education, Language acquisition, Technology, Translation | Leave a Comment »

Closed captioning (subtitles) have recently been introduced to some videos on YouTube, which could potentially be a great language learning resource. The service is in beta mode at the moment – and apparently it needs a lot of work. From

Engadget first spotted how weird Apple’s iPad launch video got when the feature was activated — sometimes the text is so different from what’s being said that you wonder if Google is just having a laugh. “A high-res color display” becomes “a high risk going to split,” and when one of the designers says he doesn’t have to change himself to use the iPad, the captions make it sound like he very clearly does. If you were relying on these captions, it would be a very different commercial.

The captioning is machine-generated, so it seems the software has a ways to go before this becomes a reliable means of translation!

Food pronunciation

Posted on March 12th, 2010by Michelle
In Culture, Pronunciation, Words | Leave a Comment »

PhoA fun article from the Chicago Tribune, listing the top ten mispronounced foodie words. Their list:

1. Bruschetta (broo-SKEH-tah)
2. Gnocchi (NYOH-kee)
3. Gyro (YEER-oh)
4. Huitlacoche (wheet-lah-KOH-chay)
5. Pouilly-Fuisse (poo-yee fwee-SAY)
6. Mole (MOH-lay)
7. Paczki (POONCH-key)
8. Phở (fuh)
9. Prosciutto (proh-SHOO-toe)
10. Sake (SAH-kay)

A number of years ago I worked for a cinema chain and the most common food mispronunciation I heard was ‘jalapeno’ – said as it is written rather than the correct ‘ha-la-pen-yo’. Personally, I’ve struggled with phở, the Vietnamese soup, which is said something like ‘fur/fuh’. And also ‘crepes’ – ‘creps’ rather than ‘craypes’.

This mispronunciation usually stems from unfamiliarity with the word. It’s better to mispronounce it and get to taste the food than be too scared of getting it wrong and miss out on the experience though!

What food names are you unsure of? Have you ever been corrected on your food pronunciation?

Commonwealth Day

Posted on March 8th, 2010by Michelle
In Culture, English, Events, Hindi | Leave a Comment »

Commonwealth FlagToday is Commonwealth Day, so a good time to take a look at the languages of the Commonwealth I think!

Once known as Empire Day, Commonwealth Day celebrates the 54 countries that make up the Commonwealth of Nations. Most member countries are former British colonies, and so speak English as either a first or second language. About 30% of the world’s population live in the Commonwealth – that’s over 2 BILLION people.

Canada, Singapore, Australia and South Africa are some examples of Commonwealth countries which have developed their own version of English, whilst still preferring British spellings.

Brunei – Behasa Melayu; India – Hindi (official); Tonga – Tongan; Seychelles – Seselwa Creole and Malta – Maltese are examples of some other Commonwealth countries and their languages. India alone has hundreds of languages, although Hindi and English are the two official ones.

The Commonwealth Games are due to be held later this year in New Delhi, India, so I’m sure revisit the languages of the Commonwealth then!

Read the Commonwealth message from Her Majesty The Queen here.