Around the web – February 2023

Here’s your February 2023 round-up of news, articles, and blog posts about language, translation and interpreting.

Standing out from the crowd

Lots of genuine etymologies are fascinating and entertaining

Sleep has a more powerful role in language-learning than was previously thought.

Illustration of Roman couple with Latin speech bubbles next to their heads

Instead of transitioning between Latin and English, spoken Latin keeps the cognition all in one language.

Large rock with printed words 'Yr Wyddfa' and 'Snowdon' printed on it

The Welsh name Yr Wyddfa is now used for the mountain instead of Snowdon by the national park authority

On a final note, if you haven’t already done so, do take a few minutes to answer both these surveys:

Further reading on the blog:

Around the web – January 2023

Here’s your first round-up of 2023 with news, articles, and blog posts about translation and language during January.

10 tips for anyone working while travelling or wanting to enjoy other elements of life

The CV scam is becoming less and less profitable to scammers

  • There’s been a lot of coverage recently about ChatGPT. In this article the OpenAI chatbot talks about what could go wrong with GPT3 translations
  • Why do we all need subtitles now? Apparently it’s not us — the dialogue in TV and movies has become harder to hear

Why we all need subtitles now

A copy of a Greek inscription, made by laying wet paper or plaster over carved stone to create a mirror-image impression

The library’s archives include audio, text and video

The cries of camel herders mean nothing to the untrained ear, but animals respond instantly, gathering to walk together across the Saudi desert

Have you ever called a chicken parmigiana a ‘chicken in pyjamas’?

Further reading on the blog:

Most popular tweets of 2022

Here, in ascending order, are the ten most popular* tweets about language and translation that I shared during 2022 on my @Smart_Translate Twitter account:

The transformation of UK English reflect changes in technology as well as society

Just one of 50 bad book covers

With Timothy Barton and Victoria Mendez in Brighton

Words about work and work culture

It’s interesting to note that with the exception of the winning tweet (which was about 5 times more popular than the second-placed tweet), most of these tweets were either humorous, covered UK and US English and the differences between them, or talked about slang and swearing.

* ‘most popular’ = top tweets (most engagement & impressions) according to Twitter Analytics.

For more about words and language in 2022 you might be interested in Google’s Year in Search: the top trending searches of the year, and “Extremely hardcore discourse: the words of the year that slipped under the radar” by The Guardian.


Around the web – December 2022

Here’s your monthly round-up of news, articles, and blog posts about translation and language for December 2022.

We need to talk about… money!

Plaque to Orbeliani Baths of Tbilisi in Georgia with a quote from Pushkin in Georgian and in Russian

“To get the bull down,” is to complete a last-minute rush of work ahead of the Christmas break. Fail to do that and you might end up a yuleshard, someone who leaves errands unfinished on Christmas Eve.’

The etymological origins of the word ‘daisy’ are truly delightful.

The Museum of Wonky English (MOWE) is the first institution in Japan dedicated to the art of mistranslations

Further reading on the blog:

Around the web – November 2022

Here’s your monthly round-up of news, articles, and blog posts about translation and language for November 2022.

The virus formerly known as monkeypox

The war in Ukraine, supposedly in defence of Russian culture, has been a disaster on its own terms

Gaslighting was WOTY 2022 for which dictionary publisher?

the Hand of Irulegi, the earliest known text in Basque script

Further reading on the blog:

Around the web – September and October 2022

Here’s your round-up of news, articles, and blog posts about language and translation for September and October 2022.

Fresco from Pompeii of Echo and Narcissus, with whom Jhumpa Lahiri, as a translator, feels a close affinity

Who translated The New York Times’ widely-read yeshiva report into Yiddish? It may undermine Hasidic leaders.

Death by Machine Translation?

In order to avoid raising suspicion the novel’s translators met and worked in a Uyghur tea shop

On a final note, for International Translation Day I was pleased to help shine a spotlight on my profession by being featured in a local newspaper.

Further reading:

Around the web – July & August 2022

Been away over the summer? Here’s your round-up of news, articles, and blog posts about language and translation for July and August.

What is “good” or “right” when it comes to language?

Mixing up the languages we speak can reveal surprising things about how our brains work.

Who made that word and why?
No matter how many words in a language, it seems that we always need just one more to explain ourselves.

Screenshot from ‘Horizon Worlds’, Meta’s new virtual reality game

  • Will naming heatwaves (i.e. the same system used for cyclones) change people’s perception and help save lives?
  • Here’s an interesting chat with the team responsible for the sensational, nearly no-holds-barred “Stranger Things 4” descriptive captions

Wet writhing and eldritch gurgling

  • On a fun final note, this “literature clock” instantly finds literary quotations based on the time of day (or night) you access the website

Further reading

20 things I learnt about 20 languages…

… from reading Gaston Dorren’s book Babel: Around the World in Twenty Languages. First published in 2018, this is the second book of language writer Dorren’s that I’ve read; you can see my blog post about the first one, Lingo – a language spotter’s guide to Europehere.

Chapter by chapter, Babel looks at the 20 most spoken languages in the world, which three quarters of the world’s population can speak at least one of. Dorren doesn’t just profile every language the same way, but takes us on a linguistic journey – from an English-language perspective – to discover an interesting aspect (script, grammar, phonology, or vocabulary) of each.

So here is one thing I learnt about each language, with the languages listed in the same order as the book, i.e. starting with the least spoken and ending with the biggest:

  • Vietnamese: I was familiar with Vietnamese script and the fact that up to 60% of Vietnamese vocabulary is of Chinese origin, but I was tickled to learn that the language would use different words for ‘how’ in the questions ‘how long is the snake?’ and ‘how scary is the snake?’ on the basis length can be measured precisely but scariness can’t!
  • Korean: having lived in Korea for three years, this is a language I have more than a passing acquaintance with (see my blog post here), but I never realised that it is a language with thousands of ideophones: words that evoke or depict ideas in sound imitation (and not just onomatopoeias).
  • Tamil: while many people extol their virtues of their own language, Tamil speakers consider their language sacred, divine even. This is a fairly recent development, following years of oppression, but has led to activists committing suicide in a bid to see the language flourish.

Tamil writing on a building in Chennai (photo from my trip to Tamil Nadu in March 2018)

  • Turkish: in 1928 President Atatürk replaced the language’s Ottoman Turkish alphabet (a Perso-Arabic script) with a tailor-made variety of the Latin alphabet which has 29 letters.
  • Javanese: this is the language in the book with the smallest home base in geographical terms, as it is only spoken on the eponymous island. It has a high-register style called krama, which absolutely must be used in all formal situations, such as in a law court, or between persons of lower status to those of higher status (age, seniority). Such ingrained over-politeness may be eventually be the undoing of the language.
  • Persian: has become a much simpler language to learn over the course of several millennia … partly thanks to itinerant construction workers who were brought in from other parts of the Persian Empire!
  • Punjabi: unusually for a South Asian language, Punjabi is tonal, although the linguistic jury is still out as to whether the language has two, three, or four tones, and many native speakers are not even aware their language is tonal.

Sign in Punjabi and Latin script at Southall train station, SW London

  • Japanese: women and men are expected to speak slightly different genderlects, i.e. language varieties based on gender, and translations are not exempt (e.g. Angelina Jolie speaking women’s language in a newspaper interview).
  • Swahili: as the only African language in the book, Dorren took the opportunity to look at the continent’s linguistic landscape as a whole, highlighting Africa’s ‘easy’ multilingualism. Swahili has at least twice, if not thrice as many speakers as the next most spoken language on the continent, and many intellectuals have made the case for it to become a continental lingua franca.
  • German: how ‘strange’ a language is German? In a statistical analysis of the linguistic features of 2,679 languages, German ranked at number 10 for ‘weirdness’. This is to do with its polar (yes-no) questions, /ng/ sound, rare consonants, expression of pronominal subjects, gender in pronouns, and complicated word order.

Map of the 25 “weirdest” languages of the world

  • French: the chapter concentrates on why French grammar and spelling are enforced so strictly, and Dorren suggests that French native speakers are unusual in having a widespread belief that they make a deplorably poor job of speaking their mother tongue.
  • Malay: spoken in Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei and the southern tip of Thailand, as well as in Malaysia. The writer points out that Indonesia has been fortunate to enjoy linguistic peace since independence in the late 1940s despite being the world’s second most multilingual country, largely due to successful and sensible language policies having been implemented by the country’s leaders.

In Indonesia “gang” means “alleyway” (loanword from Dutch)

  • Russian: did you know there’s a (n Indo-European language) family relationship between English and Russian? The two were mutually intelligible in 3000 BCE, and while fifty centuries since has created differences, there are definite similarities to look out for.
  • Portuguese: while Dutch and Portuguese were both colonial languages, the latter has spread much more widely due to its speakers being at the right places (e.g. Brazil) at the right times (e.g. during periods of migration). In this chapter, a subject dear to my heart also gets a mention:

Creole languages also emerged elsewhere in the world, some among enslaved Africans, others among ethnically mixed groups. Most of them are now nearly or entirely extinct, but in the Indian Ocean islands of Mauritius and Réunion they are alive and well. The creoles of Papua New Guinea and the Seychelles, called Tok Pisin and Seselwa, respectively, have even acquired official status, once more alongside European languages.

  • Bengali: an Indo-European language spoken by 275 million people mostly in Bangladesh and India. In the latter’s West Bengal state, a record-breaking nine different scripts are in use, including Bengali, Devanagari (used to write Hindi and Nepali), Perso-Arabic (for Urdu), and the Roman alphabet for English. Including ligatures, Bengali has a total of 331 characters!

Part of a poem written in Bengali and English by Bengali Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore

  • Arabic: as a vocabulary nerd I found this chapter one of the most interesting, as Dorren listed several dozen English words with Arabic etymologies. While some (e.g. algebra) were well known to me, many others (e.g. admiral, baobab, alchemy, carat, alkali, sash, tamarind, hazard etc) weren’t.
  • Hindi-Urdu: I never knew until reading Babel that Urdu and Hindi are actually two registers of the same language, with the same grammar, and are mutually intelligible despite some vocabulary differences. Hindi is written in the Devanagari script, while Urdu is written in the Perso-Arabic script.
  • Spanish: two verbs for ‘to be’, ser and estar, make Spanish difficult to master for non-native speakers.
  • Mandarin: approximately 98% of Chinese characters are not pictograms or ideograms, i.e. you cannot work out their meaning based on their resemblance to things in real life.
  • English: until now, the only language spoken on the moon has been English.

For the sake of brevity, I’ve purposely limited myself to just one item for each language, but there’s much more to learn in the book! I’ve also highly condensed what are some very detailed and interesting explanations. And while I read the book in English, it’s been translated into 15 other languages including Italian, Slovak, Greek and Norwegian.

Further reading:

Around the web – May & June 2022

In May I was away attending BP22 (in Lisbon), Wordfast Forward (in Montenegro) and ITI22 (in Brighton) and wasn’t able to do my monthly round-up. So I’m doubling up this month!

Ryanair plane taking off

Critics of Ryanair’s test pointed out that South Africa has 10 other official languages, apart from Afrikaans

  • Greenland has a rich vocabulary for ice & snow. But what happens to language when those natural phenomena start to disappear?

As Greenland’s iconic icebergs begin to melt as the planet warms, how will its people, and language, adapt?

Romany flag

Which English words are borrowed from Romany?

Is the internet changing how we talk about slang words?


Elsewhere on the blog:

Around the web – April 2022

Here’s your April round-up of the month’s most popular news stories, blog posts and articles about language and translation.

“Algospeak” is becoming increasingly common across the Internet as people seek to bypass content moderation filters on social media

Gender bias turns up in the way we think of the most neutral of words

Scotland’s newest animals get Gaelic names

Macrolepiota procera, the parasol mushroom. Fungi have vocabularies of around 50 words.

Elsewhere on the blog: