Archive for June, 2010

Oranguatan dictionary

Posted on June 30th, 2010by Michelle
In Culture, Research | Leave a Comment »

Think dictionaries are just for homo sapiens?

Think again.

Researchers from St Andrews University have been hard at work creating a kind of ape dictionary. Orangutans at Durrell Wildlife Trust in Jersey have been the subjects of the research, and have apparently been very useful.

The senior keeper at Durrell, Gordon Hunt, told BBC Jersey the research had proved very helpful as it confirmed what they had already seen happening.

Gordon said: “We see anecdotal stuff every day but it is difficult for us to convince people that they are actually talking to each other.

“This is the start of the ape dictionary, what researchers do is confirm what is seen in a scientific manner.

“We see a lot of actions, a lot of gestures and we are anthropomorphising those into what we think they are
“Researchers are statistically analysing these and coming up with pretty much the same theory.” (Source: BBC News)

You may soon be seeing a new OED (Orangutan English Dictionary) next to the original (Oxford English Dictionary)!

English – the biggest vocabulary?

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

There’s an interesting post on The Economist’s Johnson blog looking into the debate about which language has the biggest vocabulary.

Stephen Fry apparently claimed English has the largest vocabulary by a “long, long, long, long way”. Is he right? Skipping to the end of the post (although it’s definitely worth a read):

…If I had to give a short answer to the question “does English have the biggest vocabulary?,” I’d say “Who cares?” English is a rich and beautiful language, not least because England has been conquered by Vikings and Normans, and has happily been open to foreign influence through its history. We know more of its wonderful rare words because English has been written for over a thousand years, and its many dialects are well described. That’s good enough for me. We shouldn’t need it to have the biggest vocabulary—which can’t be defined in any sensible way—to enjoy it.

I have to agree with the writer – enjoy your native language, and any new ones you’re lucky enough to pick up. You’ll constantly learn and discover new words and phrases, so who cares about the statistics?

A Dickens of a job*

Posted on June 18th, 2010by Michelle
In English, Slang, Translation | Leave a Comment »

Dickens has been translated into street slang, by the author who re-wrote Shakepeare’s plays in text-speak.

The ‘translator’ Martin Baum, has modified 16 Dickens novels into stories nine or ten pages long, including changing the immortal line from Oliver Twist – “Please Sir, I want some more” – into “Oi mate, gimme some more”.

He said:

“There are many people who love and understand great literature but many more who don’t. My book is the bait to draw them in and get them interested in some wonderful stories.” ( Source: The Australian)

Hmm, seems like a gimmick to me. Perhaps I’m biased though, as I have an aversion to Dickens’ work!

* I’m not quite sure where this phrase comes from, but my mum uses it a lot. It seems to mean that the required outcome of a task will be hard to achieve – “I had a dickens of job trying to pull up those roots.” Anyone know the origin?

More South Africanisms

Posted on June 14th, 2010by Michelle
In Culture, Language acquisition, Slang | Leave a Comment »

England haven’t yet been kicked out of the World Cup (despite the shameful draw with the USA) so to celebrate, why not learn some more South African slang?

Last week I brought you such gems as ‘chips! Chips!’ – now it’s time for some more useful terms:

BLIKSEM (BLUK-SEM): If you’re in a pub and you accidentally spill a beer belonging to a man with a thick neck, he may say: “Do you want me to bliksem you?” Don’t respond. Just run. Run for your life. It’s the Afrikaans word for hit or strike or punch.

That could definitely come in handy.

DINGES (DING-US): An indeterminate, nondescript thing or term for an object whose name you’ve momentarily forgotten. Like this: “Please pass me my dinges there.” “What?” “My dinges. I want to blow it.” “You mean your vuvuzela?” “Yes, my vuvuzela.”

Dinges seems to me like the South African version of ‘thing’ or ‘thingy’ in English. As in: “Please pass me my thing there.” “What?” “My thingy. I want to blow it.” “You mean your vuvuzela?” “Yes, my vuvuzela.”

ROBOT: When you’re asking for directions and someone says: “Left at the third robot,” it is not because our streets are overrun with menacing cyborgs made by Japanese scientists. No. A robot is simply our word for traffic light.

(Source: Times Live)

World Cup Language

Posted on June 10th, 2010by Michelle
In Afrikaans, English, Hints and Tips, Slang | 2 Comments »

With the football World Cup starting tomorrow, it’s time to take a look at some South African slang.

The slang is taken from South Africa’s 11 different languages, which all have constitutionally guaranteed equal status. These languages reflect the diversity of the country, and are:


In addition a number of other languages are spoken including Khoi, Nama and San languages, sign language, and some indigenous creoles and pidgins.

Here are some examples of slang – I particularly like ‘chips! Chips!’:

Babbelas (bub-a-lars). Hangover – usually rather a bad one. From the isiZulu word for hangover isibhabhalazi. “Hello, hello. Great party last night. How’s your head? Are you a bit babbelas?”

Bra (brah) or bru. Nothing to do with underwear at all, but an informal term for “my friend” or “mate”, deriving from “brother”. ‘He’s my bra but that team he supports is rubbish.” Bru stems from the Afrikaans for brother, broer.

Chips! Chips!. Nothing you’ll find in the kebab shop around the corner but an expression of alarm or warning. “Chips! Chips! He’s off-side”

(Source: The Guardian)

Live translation event

Posted on June 9th, 2010by Michelle
In Culture, English, Events, French, Translation, Words | Leave a Comment »

Over at the LanguageHat blog I saw a post about a live translation event taking place as part of the London Review Bookshop’s World Literature Weekend.

The challenge has been set by the francophone novelist Alain Mabanckou – two translators will offer up their translation of his short text, and then discuss and debate the differences with the author and each other. The idea is to bring out aspects of the text that aren’t normally paid attention to as well as paying attention to the process of translation itself.

Audience members will receive a copy of the French text as well as the two English translations to help them follow along.

The event is being held at the British Museum in London on Saturday 19th June. Definitely looks well worth attending!

Synonyms quiz

Posted on June 6th, 2010by Michelle
In Language acquisition, Words | 1 Comment »

A little fun for the afternoon – a quiz on synonyms from the Guardian.

Synonyms are words with identical or very similar meanings. If you’re writing an essay or letter and you’ve used a word too many times, the synonym option on your word processing package can be very useful. Some writers take the quest for different words a little too far though – a carrot as a “popular orange vegetable” is an example from the Guardian’s Mind Your Language blog.

Some useful resources on synonyms are (self-described as “the world’s most comprehensive synonyms resource”), which offers synonyms in English only, and Thesaurus, with synonyms in English, French, Italian, Spanish, German and Portuguese.

How to name a volcano

Posted on June 2nd, 2010by Michelle
In Etymology, Words | Leave a Comment »

Back in April I posted about how to pronounce Eyjafjallajoekull, the troublesome Icelandic volcano.

A friend sent me this amusing cartoon from The Oatmeal, so I thought I’d share.


*Oops, the image doesn’t seem display fully, so go check it out over on The Oatmeal’s website.