Archive for February, 2011

French language “a hoax”

Posted on February 25th, 2011by Michelle
In French | 1 Comment »

An amusing article from NewsBiscuit (“the news before it happens”) has French President Nicolas Sarkozy admitting that the French language is “a one thousand year old hoax”.

Apparently French is complete gibberish and all French people really speak English, except in front of British people of course. From the article:

During a speech given in received pronunciation, the French President came clean, stating that it all started off as a joke during William the Conquerer’s invasion to make the aggressors seem a bit more exotic. “What was initially a prank snowballed and after a few years we realised we’d look silly revealing the truth, so we had to keep up the façade,” said the Premier. “In the company of any Brits we would try to make convincingly “French” sounds, a mixture of guttural grunts and rapid-fire syllables.

But as soon as we were on our own we’d all heave a huge sigh of relief and revert to English. We developed a heavy reliance on hand gestures to cover up when we ran out of likely noises, and the shrug was a particular boon if inspiration dried up. In the end we became quite the raconteurs, with an impressive array of supposed vocabulary. So what began as a game for the élites, became a hobby across all levels of society, and it shocked us that the Brits were so naïve as to not see through the charade.”

It’s certainly nice to poke some fun at languages for a change!

Vanishing voices

Posted on February 24th, 2011by Michelle
In Culture, Indigenous languages | Leave a Comment »

A fascinating video from Cambridge University shows some of the work of the World Oral Literature project.

The anthropologist Mark Turin discusses his work with speakers of Thangmi, spoken in eastern Nepal. Spoken by less than 20,000 people, the language had never been written down before. Children are learning only Nepali (the national language) in schools, so Thangmi has become endangered. Turin has produced a Thangmi-Nepali-English dictionary and has been working with the people for over a decade. He also does an excellent job of explaining why it’s important that endangered languages are documented and if possible, saved.

Watch the video below.


Posted on February 21st, 2011by Michelle
In English, Words | Leave a Comment »

We all use this one simple word many times every day, in many different contexts, without even thinking about it.

“Is that OK?”
“OK! That sounds great!”
“Oh, OK.”

But why do we use OK and not something else? According to Allan Metcalf, author of a new book on the history of OK, one reason is that it provides neutrality, “a way to affirm or to express agreement without having to offer an opinion”.

The use of OK used to be restricted to business contexts (o.k. meant that a document was “all correct”) and was associated by some people with illiteracy. Now however, it’s used by everyone in except in formal settings – speeches and reports for example. If you’re interested, it’s well worth reading the rest of the article by Metcalf over at BBC News.


Posted on February 17th, 2011by Michelle
In Culture, Research, Words | Leave a Comment »

A new study of word frequencies has found that certain words can shake the political blogosphere in a similar way to an earthquake.

The study, completed by researchers at the Medical University of Vienna, looked at 168 political blogs in the US and tracked spikes in the frequency of individual words. They noticed that some events trigger ‘reverberations’ and can cause social change.

The types of blogosphere responses took two forms, the researchers say. Some words suddenly spiked in popularity in response to a real-world event. Sarah Palin’s nomination as the Republican vice presidential candidate was the most dramatic example.

“Indeed, aftershocks of this event are still trembling and quivering through our society,” Klimek and colleagues wrote. Because these events are triggered from outside the blogosphere, the researchers called them “exogenous.”

Other words gradually grew in frequency and then died down, like the use of the word “inauguration” in the days before and after Barack Obama took office. Such events are called “endogenous” because they seem to arise within the blogosphere itself. (Source:

So what does this have to do with earthquakes? Well, apparently the ‘aftershocks’ of the increase in word frequency fit the equation of Omori’s law for the frequency of earthquake aftershocks.

It’s a pretty interesting concept, but as Duncan Watts says in the article, “it sort of can’t be true” as the analogy is between two unrelated phenomena.

What’s your most romantic line?

Posted on February 14th, 2011by Michelle
In Culture, English, Events | Leave a Comment »

Ah, Valentine’s Day. A day for romance, hearts, flowers and chocolates. A day for heartfelt proclamations of love.

Not all of us are good at the latter however, so here’s a little help. A poll of 2,000 Britons by Warner Home Video showed that a line from Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights is considered the most romantic in English literature. The line? “Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same.”

That’s not so easy to drop into conversation, so what of the others in the top ten?

2. “If you live to be a hundred, I want to live to be a hundred minus one day so I never have to live without you” – A A Milne

3.”But soft! What light through yonder window breaks? It is the east and Juliet is the sun” – Shakespeare “Romeo and Juliet”

4. “He was my North, my South, my East and West, My working week and my Sunday rest, My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song; I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong” – W.H. Auden

5. “You know you’re in love when you don’t want to fall asleep because reality is finally better than your dreams” – Dr. Seuss

6.” When you fall in love, it is a temporary madness. It erupts like an earthquake, and then it subsides. And when it subsides, you have to make a decision. You have to work out whether your roots are become so entwined together that it is inconceivable that you should ever part” – “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin”

7. “Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be” – Robert Browning

8.”For you see, each day I love you more. Today more than yesterday and less than tomorrow” – Rosemonde Gerard

9. “But to see her was to love her, love but her, and love her forever” – Robert Burns

10. “I hope before long to press you in my arms and shall shower on you a million burning kisses as under the Equator” – Napoleon Bonaparte’s 1796 dispatch to wife Josephine. (Source:

Yeah… maybe these are all best written rather than said.

What’s your favourite accent?

Posted on February 11th, 2011by Michelle
In Culture, dialects, Research | Leave a Comment »

Personally, I have a weakness for the French accent. There’s something about it that really gets me – whether the Frenchman is speaking in his native tongue or in English.

The Japanese, however, prefer the Glaswegian accent, according to new research. A survey by Northumbria University revealed that Japanese people learning English rate the accent tops in terms of social attractiveness.

Participants listened to six different accents and then rated them on a range of personality traits. The accents were from Alabama and Ohio (American), Glaswegian, Scottish standard English, moderately-accented Japanese English and heavily-accented Japanese English. Robert McKenzie, senior lecturer in sociolinguistics at Northumbria said:

“It seems to be that globalisation, and especially the resultant worldwide spread of English-language media, are influencing non-native perceptions of the qualities associated with various forms of spoken English.

“Of course, the findings do not mean that speakers of the Glasgow or Alabama vernaculars are necessarily any more socially attractive or less fluent than speakers of other English varieties.

“It is interesting, however, that English learners from a country as different as Japan should demonstrate such high levels of awareness of variations within the English language.” (Source: Press Association)

I’ve often found that people outside of the UK are unaware of the wide range of dialects we host, so this is heartening research. What’s your favourite accent?

Strange newspaper names

Posted on February 9th, 2011by Michelle
In Culture, English, Words | Leave a Comment »

Newspapers are a part of a lot of people’s daily lives – they’re how we know what’s going on in the world, whether you read them in print or online.

But have you ever thought about the name of the newspaper you’re reading? British national newspapers include The Mirror, The Sun, the Guardian and The Telegraph. Of these, perhaps only the Guardian (implying protection for the public against misinformation) and The Telegraph (a telegraph was a way to convey signals) make sense.

Someone at BBC News had their interest in newspaper names piqued by the launch of The Daily, the iPad-only new paper from NewsCorp. The list of strange newspaper names the public have submitted makes for interesting reading – here are some of my favourites:

2. My favourite is from a small town near the Missouri state capital, Linn. Their paper is the Unterrified Democrat.
Janet Breid, Columbia, Missouri, US

8. My favourite newspaper title is in Broken Hill, Australia – the Barrier Daily Truth. Could there be a better title for what a newspaper is supposed to do – tell the truth?
Roger Stonebanks, Victoria, Canada

23. The strangest newspaper name in Oxfordshire has to be the Banbury Cake. It’s bizarrely inappropriate, but wonderfully memorable. I can’t decide whether it’s the work of a complete lunatic or a marketing genius.
Anonymous, Oxfordshire, UK

The benefits of a second language

Posted on February 6th, 2011by Michelle
In French, Language acquisition, Spanish | Leave a Comment »

There’s an interesting opinion piece in The Observer today about the demise of the study of French in universities in the UK, and why this should not be allowed to happen.

A lot of the writer’s arguments could also be applied to other languages. French isn’t just spoken in France, it’s spoken in countries as far apart as Canada and Senegal – Spanish is an example of another language whose speakers are spread all over the world. So just as the French of Senegal won’t be the same of the French of Quebec, so the Spanish spoken in Spain isn’t the same as spoken in Peru – different cultures and different meanings.

I also like what Hussey has to say about the benefits of studying another language:

What studying French has really done for me is to provide me with a new mental landscape. French writing, from Voltaire to Sartre to Houellebecq, has a hard, confrontational edge to it, driven by big ideas, which does not exist in the same way in the English-speaking world. This is why French literature has appealed to English writers of a certain “outsider” stripe, from George Orwell to Will Self. This is a political phenomenon as much as anything else. For a working-class intellectual (which was how I rather cockily fancied myself as a student) to speak and understand French is to short-circuit many of the stupidities of class prejudice in the UK.

Studying another language not only enables you to connect with speakers of that language, it allows you to “access the world beyond the Anglosphere”. You may learn something new – you may start to see the world in a different way. So what are you waiting for?