Archive for May, 2010

Oxford Uni and the One Word Exam

Posted on May 30th, 2010by Michelle
In Education, English, Words | Leave a Comment »

A quirky admissions exam that asked candidates to write an essay based on a single word has been scrapped by an Oxford University college.

All Souls College had offered the exam since 1932, along with more traditional tests. Applicants would discover the word in the exam and have three hours to somehow produce a coherent essay.

It’s described as the “hardest exam in the world”, but surely spinning an essay out of a single word can’t be that difficult?

The horrifying thing about Essay is not how difficult it is, but how simple. You turn over the plain blank sheet of A4 paper, and there is a single word on it; you have nothing else to write about for the next three hours….

The Essay is an exceptional test of intelligence. Ask someone when the Battle of Hastings took place, and they’ll either get it right or wrong. Ask them, “How did Athens run the Laurium silver mines?” – as I was asked in my ancient history Finals – and the answer is still pretty specific. But ask someone – or don’t even ask them, just state to someone – a single word, and there’s infinite room for genius, or stupidity, to expand within the word’s parameters. (Source: The Telegraph)

Here’s a word for you to ponder on: language.

Endangered Languages and Lost Knowledge

Posted on May 27th, 2010by Michelle
In Culture, Research | Leave a Comment »

A couple of weeks ago I posted about a book by Daniel Everett called Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes.

Coincidentally I just came across a post on the Omniglot blog sharing a video in which Everett talks about the Pirahã language, amongst other things. It’s called Endangered Languages and Lost Knowledge, and can be found below as well as here. Enjoy!

Google Goggles helps you translate

Posted on May 20th, 2010by Michelle
In English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Technology, Translation | Leave a Comment »

goggles_translationA cool new application from Google will soon be able to help you translate from written words.

Google Goggles users can point their phone at a word or phrase they wish to have translated, and then fine-tune their onscreen selection to a smaller area. Using the phone’s camera, the application will recognise the language and give you an option to translate it. This makes the application perfect for globetrotters – whether you need a menu or sign translated, you can do so without the hassle of searching through a guide book or dictionary.

The application can only translate languages based on the Latin alphabet such as English, French, Italian, German and Spanish at the moment, but once the text is captured it can be quickly translated to other languages. Google are apparently confident that other languages, including Chinese, Arabic and Hindi will soon be added to the app.

Whilst the app is free, you’ll need a mobile device running Android 1.6 or higher. I’ll definitely be giving this a try on my trip to Italy next month!

Internet language revolution is here!

Posted on May 18th, 2010by Michelle
In Arabic, English, Events, Technology | Leave a Comment »

Last November I posted about the internet regulator Icann approving the use of different alphabets, ending the dominance of Latin-based alphabets such as English. The new web addresses were expected in 2010, and at the start of May the new domains became available for use!

Previously web addresses could be written partly in different scripts, but the ‘country code’ (e.g. had to be written in a Latin script. The change means that the entire address can be written in, for example, Arabic, with Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates the first to do so.

Unfortunately, not all computer users will be able to use the new domain names immediately as they may not have the correct fonts installed.

“You may see a mangled string of letters and numbers, and perhaps some percent signs or a couple of “xn--”s mixed into the address bar,” said Mr Davies. “Or it may not work at all.”…

“Computers never come with the complete set of fonts that will allow it to show every possible IDN [internationalised domain names] in the world.

“Often this is fixed by downloading additional language packs for the missing languages, or specifically finding and installing fonts that support the wanted languages.” (Source: BBC News)

The country codes:
Egypt: مصر (Egypt)
Saudi Arabia: السعودية (AlSaudiah)
United Arab Emirates: امارات (Emarat)

Source: Icann

Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes!

Posted on May 16th, 2010by Michelle
In Culture, Indigenous languages, Research | 1 Comment »

don't sleepFollowing on from my last post about books on language, I’ve just finished reading Daniel Everett’s Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes.

Everett was a Christian missionary who intended to convert a small tribe of Amazonians called the Pirahã. The book traces a large part of his life as he lives with the Pirahã tribe and learns their language.

The book is split into two sections, with the first half focussing on Pirahã life and Everett’s experiences of living with them, and the second half on linguistic theory. Whilst for me it sometimes got a bit too technical in the second half, it’s well worth the effort to learn about the conclusions Everett has come to about the impact of culture on language, something that is not just applicable to the Pirahã, but all of us.

Has anyone else read the book? What did you think?

Books on language

Posted on May 14th, 2010by Michelle
In Creoles, Culture, Words | Leave a Comment »

For those that are interested in languages and would like to delve deeper than these blog posts, there’s an interesting article in The Economist about the best books on language.

Robert Lane Greene recommends a number of books on varying topics, with readers invited to add their own suggestions. Mine would be Derek Bickerton’s Bastard Tongues – Bickerton is a linguist who is particularly interested in Creoles. His research into them has taken him to some very interesting places and the tales of his journeys are just as interesting as the linguistic insights and conclusions he draws.

Anyone got a favourite book on languages they would like to share?

Latin for beginners

Posted on May 7th, 2010by Michelle
In Culture, Language acquisition, Latin | 1 Comment »

Latin. Cogito ergo sum. Carpe Diem. Semper Fidelis.

You may know a couple of these phrases and be able to trot them out at an appropriate moment. But for the most part, Latin seems a little, well, irrelevant.

If you’re learning a Romance language though (Spanish, French, etc), Latin is not irrelevant. It is the basis of these languages. Many words in the English language are also based on Latin. So a little understanding of it may be of use. If you’re not learning these languages but are interested in history, law, classics and a number of other areas, Latin can also be helpful.

This short course from the National Archives is a beginners guide to Latin used in documents from 1086 to 1733, when Latin was the official language of documents written in England. No previous knowledge is required and interestingly, you can learn from historical documents such as the Domesday Book. So in the process of picking up some Latin, you will also learn some history. It’s only 12 tutorials long, so why not give it a go?


Posted on May 5th, 2010by Michelle
In Slang, Technology, Words | Leave a Comment »

If you’ve ever made up your own word and wished people all over the world would start saying it, perhaps this article will be of use.

It tracks the rise of ‘yaka-wow’, a mis-transcription of “yuck and wow” by a writer for the Times, a British newspaper. Apparently, within a day the word had gone viral and now has 95,000 hits on Google. Originating in an interview with the neuroscientist Baroness Greenfield, yaka-wow has spawned a Twitter stream and Facebook page. Why do people love the word so much?

“The main reason we’ve all been saying yaka-wow is simply because it is a cool word. It should be used more. Try saying it yourself out loud, yaka-wow, yaka-wow. Doesn’t it just make you mouth happy,” posted Alice Bell, a science communication lecturer at Imperial College London. (Source: The Times)

Honestly, I’m wondering how come so many people read an interview with a neuroscientist in the first place?