Around the web – June 2021

I’ve been working with a new office buddy this month, but what about you, do you work alone or with company? Anyway here are the most popular news articles, blog posts, and stories about language and translation for June.

The winner of the2021 International Booker Prize At Night All Blood Is Black is about a Senegalese soldier fighting for France in World War I (Credit: Corbis via Getty Images)

Fifty Sounds by Polly Barton recounts her experiences in Japan (Picture: Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP via Getty Images)

The new Quebec language reform bill may boost demand for Canadian French translation

There are a million different ways to be bilingual
(Gerd Altmann/Pixabay, CC BY-SA)

A Sateré-Mawé leader gathers caferana, a native plant of the Amazon rainforest used as a medicinal herb (Photograph: Ricardo Oliveira/AFP/Getty)

Elsewhere on the blog

Around the web – May 2021

Here are May’s news articles, blog posts, and stories about language and translation.

  • Advocacy group Red T – along with many other organisations such as FIT, AIIC, ITI, and SFT – sent an open letter to the NATO Secretary General asking that evacuation plans be implemented for the latter’s locally engaged Afghan interpreters
  • How did “woke” become a slur? Its word history is complex

The complex history of the polarizing buzzword. (Photo Credit: @iheartcreative via Twenty20)

Some languages slice up the messy reality of life differently from your own

Hit or miss

When people share a space, their collective experience can sprout its own vocabulary, known as a familect.

Bodice: the word that launched a thousand romance novel covers

Homer has been given a fresh reading. (Photograph: De Agostini/Getty Images)

Elsewhere on the blog

Language puzzles

I recently finished The Language Lover’s Puzzle Book by Alex Bellos, a fascinating book that combines languages and puzzles, celebrating the diversity of the world’s languages through conundrums and brainteasers involving wordplay, logical deduction, and decipherment skills. It’s divided into ten chapters of ten questions each, with every chapter being based on a different theme such as language and technology, ancient codes, words for family and relatives, different alphabets, invented languages, etc.

Each chapter starts with some multiple-choice questions as a warm-up, then you are given just enough information to elucidate the puzzles (if you can’t solve them or want some help, explanations and answers are at the back of the book). While some are tougher than others, surprisingly I found that getting to grips with things such as Egyptian hieroglyphics and braille was easier than I would have expected. I also found interesting the background and context that Bellos provides in between puzzles. In fact, here are a few tidbits that I learned while reading working my way through the book (if you’re thinking of buying it, don’t worry, none of this information gives the solutions!):

  • In the late Middle Ages, Europe had three competing number notations: Roman numerals, “Arabic” numerals, and a secret system used by Cistercian monks. Arabic numerals came out on top because they included a symbol for zero, making arithmetic easier, however the description of these numerals as Arabic is misleading as the notation originated in India, around the 5th century AD
  • Cistercian monks, who for a thousand years until 1975 were prohibited from verbal communication, developed and used their own sign language. Their word for England consists of three signs: drink+tea+land!

Signs from above

  • Cuneiform was first used in ancient Babylonia, and gradually developed from a pictographic style 5000 years ago (think ancient emojis) to what is called “late Assyrian” circa 650 BC. The earliest major work in world literature, The Epic of Gilgamesh was written in cuneiform, and there are so many surviving tablets and fragments in cuneiform (about a million in total) that many are still awaiting their first read by Assyriologists
  • While writing was invented independently in Sumer, China, Central America, (and maybe other places too), the alphabet was invented only once, by the Phoenicians, and all the other alphabets of the world are descended from it. The Phoenicians were merchant traders whose major export was a reddish-purple dye from the secretion of a sea snail, and their name comes from the Greek word for ‘purple’. Extracting this dye involved tens of thousands of snails and substantial labour, meaning only the rich could afford it, which is why purple became associated with royalty

Painting The Discovery of Purple by Hercules’s Dog by Theodoor van Thulden, c. 1636

  • The Phoenician alphabet only contained consonants (22 of them), so the Ancient Greek alphabet is often considered the first ‘true’ alphabet, as both consonants and vowels were treated equally. Adapted by the Romans, the Latin alphabet (which we still use today) has become the most-used alphabet in the world.
  • Celtic languages, which became extinct in mainland Europe by the 6th century AD but survived in the outskirts of the British Isles, have seen their spellings change to reflect pronunciation. (If the same were to happen in e.g. US English, Americans would write “goddit?” and “whaddever”!)
  • The symbol for Bluetooth is a merger of two runes symbolising the initials of 10th century Danish King Harald Bluetooth. The name “Bluetooth” was proposed in 1997 by an Intel mobile computing engineer who was then reading a historical novel about Bluetooth, and whose success in connecting ancient Norse peoples was seen as an appropriate metaphor for connecting electronic devices
  • Both Jacob Grimm and J.R.R. Tolkien started their careers as historical linguists rather than authors. In fact, Tolkien said the point of his fictional universes was to enhance his fictional languages, rather than vice versa
  • In the 1830s a Frenchman invented a language called Solresol made up entirely of do, re, mi, fa, sol, la and si, which are the French words for the seven musical notes of the tonal scale

The seven conventional notes, colors, syllables, numerals, and glyphs used to convey solresol phonemes.

  • The mother of telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell was deaf, and so his father devised a phonetic alphabet to help deaf people pronounce spoken language more accurately (although it never caught on)
  • In the early 19th century a Cherokee silversmith called Sequoyah invented his own writing system, despite not being able to read. He saw European settlers communicate via the written page, and referred to their correspondence as “talking leaves”. His system had a unifying effect on the Cherokee tribe, and led to them becoming literate faster than their white neighbours. Sequoyah became world-famous, and an Austrian botanist paid him tribute by naming a genus of giant redwood trees after him: sequoias

Me in a sequoia forest in Northern California

  • You’ve probably heard of the WWII Navajo code-talkers, but did you know that the Native American language Choctaw was used to encrypt messages during the First World War? (The reason Navajo was used is apparently because other Native American communities had been overrun with German linguistics students over the previous two decades)
  • As there are no family surnames in Iceland, all lists of personal names (e.g. phone directory, author references in bibliographies, the national registry) are ordered alphabetically by first name
  • About half of the world’s people have an Indo-European language as their native tongue; two-thirds of the 2.3 billion who speak English speak it as a second language
  • The longest written work in world literature is the Sureq Galigo, an epic poem transcribed in Lontara, a hard-to-decipher Indonesian script originally written on palm leaves. Lontara takes its name from the type of tree that provides the leaves used

Sureq Galigo manuscript

  • While there are 160 Aboriginal languages in Australia, only the 13 languages that are currently spoken by children have a chance of surviving to the end of this century. Aboriginal rules of social organisation are so complex that mathematicians, as well as linguists and anthropologists, study them
  • Did you know that the world’s largest language family, in terms of the number of languages it contains, is Niger-Congo? It is made up of about 1,500 languages spoken across sub-Saharan Africa
  • Portugal uses a labelling system code called ColorADD to help colour-blind people with everyday tasks. Developed by a Portuguese graphic designer, it uses six basic shapes in black and white to describe up to fifty colours

ColorADD code signs and colour combinations

  • The inventor of the green and white “running man” exit sign, Japanese graphic designer Yukio Ota, is most proud of another invention, the Lovers’ Communication System or LoCoS, a pictorial language

The “running man” exit sign designed by Yukio Ota in 1979

  • “Abkhaz” is the only word in English that begins in an ‘a’ and ends in a ‘z’ that is not a place name. However it is the name of a language that has 60 consonants and just two vowels: one of the highest consonant to vowels ratios in the world, if not the highest
  • The Caucasus mountain range alone is home to about fifty native languages from seven different language families, and two alphabets that are used nowhere else in the world; Armenian and Georgian
  • The candlefish (a type of fish common off the Pacific Northwest coast) gets its English name because, when dried, the fish is so oily it can be burned like a candle
  • In most of the world’s languages, the terms for intercardinals (southeast, northeast, northwest, southwest) are combinations of the words for the cardinal points. However for a handful of languages such as Maltese, Estonian and Finnish, there is no etymological connection to the cardinals. As part of the Semitic language family, Maltese is the only Arabic language written in the Latin alphabet (and the only Arabic language that is an official language of the European Union)

Maltese compass rose

If you’d like to try your hand at some of the puzzles, a few are in this Guardian article.

Baldur, the Norse god of peace and light and spring. Deciphering Europe’s oldest runic alphabet is not as difficult as you might think. (Photograph: Ivy Close Images/Alamy)

By the way, if the writer’s surname seems familiar, it’s because I’ve previously blogged about two of his language and numbers books here, and also because he’s the son of well-known translator and academic David Bellos (whose language book Is that a Fish in Your Ear? I blogged about here).


Elsewhere on the blog:


Around the web – April 2021

Did you know that April is the month that the UN celebrates Language Days for three of its six official languages: Chinese, Spanish and English. Anyway, here are more of the month’s news articles, blog posts, and stories about translation and language.

Many words that define human beings by their crimes and punishments are dehumanizing

Shining a light on CPD (image by Colin Behrens)

A British-style, three-letter word for a vaccination shot has proved irksome to many Americans (Illustration: James Yang)

Your kid’s slang isn’t as bad as you think. New research indicates it can have learning benefits for children. (Photograph by SDI Productions/Getty Images)

“I cannot detach my name from people laughing at me, calling me a bitch, letting me know that I’m the punch line of my own joke” (Illustration by Nhung Lê)

Elsewhere on the blog

Around the web – March 2021

The month of March is chock-a-block with special days: the Ides of MarchInternational Francophonie Day, St Patrick’s Day, St David’s Day, the vernal/autumnal equinox, Pi Day, and this year the Hindu festival of Holi also fell in March. Anyway here are some more of this month’s articles and stories about language and translation.

March 14 is a day when people like to indulge in pie

Do you know what a “propaganda-condom” is?

Women use emojis more than men and generally understand their meanings better, researchers say. (Illustration: Max Benwell)

      • Lastly, another news story that dominated the last week of March was the supertanker stuck in the Suez Canal. Here’s a look at what the “Suez Canal” is called in various European and Middle Eastern languages


Elsewhere on the blog

Around the web – February 2021

February 21st was International Mother Language Day, and February 25th saw me celebrate 27 years since I created the company that would later become Smart Translate! Anywhere, here are this month’s most popular articles and stories about translation and language.

  • How do you define what a professional translator is? A recent court case in Poland – involving a translation agency and an author who realised most of his book “translation” was PEMT – led judges to attempt a definition.
  • In this article, Nataly Kelly says linguistic skills are merely the entry point for translators, and that people skills are what make the world’s best translators stand out from the pack.

What are the skills that differentiate the world’s best translators?

There are very few opportunities in life to have it both ways; semicolons are the rare instance in which you can.

Shrove Tuesday, Mardi Gras, Ash Wednesday, Lent: what do they all mean?

  • If you’re a translator and on Facebook you may well have come across (or be one of the 4200 members of) the “Foodie Translators” group. Here colleague Claire Cox talks about how it’s helping us get through the pandemic.
  • More about food: have you ever wondered what a pie chart is called in other languages?
  • Finally, and still on the subject of food (!): why context is everything. Facebook recently censored a chat about a Black Country local dish, mistaking “faggot” (a type of meatball) for a homophobic slur.

Facebook has apologised after censoring a discussion of a traditional Black Country dish

Elsewhere on the blog:

Around the Web – January 2021

Here are January’s most popular news stories and blog articles about language and translation.

(Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay)

  • Tim Gutteridge was interviewed by BookBlast® Diary about why he decided to get into literary translation, and the similarities and differences between literary and non-literary translation.
  • Lynne Murphy took a look at the different things that “fudge” and “leave” mean to speakers of US and UK English

Classic (British) fudge

Tom Roa has already translated “Alice in Wonderland” and hopes to finish “The Hobbit” in a year.

This cake is moist, not damp. (Tom McCorkle for The Washington Post; food styling by Lisa Cherkasky for The Washington Post)

The fabulous aliases of the woodlouse revealed


Elsewhere on the blog:

Around the Web – December 2020

Here are December‘s most popular news stories and blog articles about language and translation.

French actresses who collaborated on the book “Noire n’est pas mon metier” (Black is not my job) pose at the 71st Cannes Film Festival in 2018.

  • Which words did readers of Lynne Murphy’s Separated by a Common Language blog designate as the 2020 US-to-UK and UK-to-US words of the year?
  • The Nazis eliminated Jewish names from the German spelling alphabet. Now the names are to return, at least symbolically

Could you spell that please? The phonetic alphabet makes it easier

  • Is the expression ‘Just Deserts’ or ‘Just Desserts’? And what does it mean?

‘Just desserts’ is popular, but it’s not right

When was writing invented?

Elsewhere on the blog:

Most popular tweets of 2020

Here, in ascending order, are the ten most popular* tweets about language and translation that I shared during 2020 on my @Smart_Translate Twitter account:

10. Beauty & Violence: Sophie Hughes on translating Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season

9.  Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales have been published in Scots, translated by writers including Val McDermid

8.  The meaning of ‘Just Deserts/Just Desserts’

7.  Un lexique éclectique de Le Monde diplomatique qui collectionne des problèmes dont la solution n’est pas mentionnée dans les dictionnaires usuels

6.  What does ‘Zhuzh’ mean (and why is it so hard to spell)?

5. On pourrait croire qu’il est facile de traduire l’un des incipits les plus connus de la littérature française, « Aujourd’hui, maman est morte »

4. Cameroon’s language barriers: Linguistic divides underpin conflict and poor translation is now hampering the country’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic

3. Eastern Parlance: delightful Asian words with no straightforward English equivalent

2. Les leçons linguistiques de la crise du coronavirus

  1. And the winning tweet: Cambridge Words Dictionary has announced its Word of the Year for 2020

Interestingly three of the tweets are in French (which is a higher proportion than the number of tweets I send in French), two of them being from Slate France. And of the seven others, two are from the Grammar Girl blog.

Do you have a favourite article published in 2020 that you’d like to share? Don’t hesitate to mention it in the comments below.

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