Language Guessing Game

For those who like sounds,  accents and/or languages and have 5 minutes for a bit of fun, here is a little game where you listen to eight short recordings and must guess what language it is from a choice of two or three each time.

http://greatlanguagegame.com/

I scored 6/8. How did you do?

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Cocorico!

The Gallic rooster is a mascot familiar to many, especially to the followers of team sports such as rugby or football. But why a rooster?

The answer is not quite clear, but it seems to revolve around a debate on the etymology of the name of Gaul. Some argue that ‘Gaul’ takes its root from the Greek Galatai or Galatae (milk-white, in an alleged reference to the Gauls’ skin), others defend that it stems from the Germanic term walha (foreigner, Romanized person), while another group supports that the Romans simply called this land Gallia or Galli.

If we accept the Latin origin, the idea of the Gallic rooster would come from a pun with the word gallus, i.e. rooster. The debate then continues as to whether the Romans used the pun to make fun of the Gauls, making an analogy with the loud and proud bird that did not compare to the Roman eagle, or whether the Gauls themselves thought of the pun and adopted the domestic animal as their emblem when the Roman Empire lost Gaul to the Franks in the late 5th century.

Bertie by Penelope TimmisPainting: Bertie by Penelope Timmis (www.bridgegategallery.co.uk)

How to Address your Mother-in-Law in Dyirbal

If the formal and informal ‘you’ forms of some languages seem like a minefield to the English speaker, Dyirbal, an Australian language from North Queensland extinct since about 1930, offers a challenge of another level yet.

Dyirbal comprised two separate sublanguages, each depending on who was present. A Dyalnuy, or “mother-in-law language”, was used in the presence of certain “taboo” relatives and a Guwal, or everyday language, was used in all other circumstances. Taboo relatives (parents- or children-in-law or a cross-cousins – i.e. a father’s sister’s or mother’s brother’s child – of the opposite sex) could not be approached or looked at, let alone spoken to directly. In the case of cross-cousins, the distinction was made so as to create a distance between people who might be interested in each other as spouses, which was forbidden. Thus the language signalled very clearly who was sexually available to whom.

While this may sound like a linguistic and cultural nightmare, the complexity of the social conventions and the key role that language plays are no less fascinating.

French is so Last Century!

A new bill was discussed at the French Assembly yesterday proposing to allow classes in universities to be taught in English to encourage foreign students to come and study in the Hexagone. The proposal is causing no small stir, with some claiming that such a law would turn the French language into an “ordinary language, or worse, a dead language” (Bernard Pivot).

The Constitution stipulates that, in the name of equality and access to the same education for all, education must be provided in French only. For the same reason, local minority languages have never been recognised by the State.

There are long-standing fears amongst the more conservative French nationals concerning the longevity of the Francophonie (French-speaking culture). Just like the British seem never to have recovered from the loss of their great empire, with some still sulking on the fence about Europe (to the amusement and/or annoyance of the rest of the Union as well as part of the British population itself), many French still cling on to the memory of the long-gone days when the ability to speak their language was considered a sign of refinement and erudition in many cultures across Europe and beyond (to the amusement and/or annoyance of rest of the French population).

In light of the polemic and in support of the proposal, the newspaper Libération published on Tuesday a front page entirely in English, advising in its article, “Let’s stop behaving like the last representatives of a Gaulish village under siege”.

If this new law is passed, i.e. not considered anti-constitutional, will it create a precedent for Breton, Alsatian, Basque and other languages to gain recognition at long last?

Asterix & ObelixCartoon by Uderzo

European Melting Pot Fun

Europe’s motto, “united in diversity”, is reflected not least by its 23 official languages and over 50 spoken languages if we include all regional languages, and the mix of cultures and exchange of vocabulary from one language to the others. But how much do you know about our European neighbours, the origin of some everyday words, food and other aspects of culture that have been adopted across borders?

Here is a little quiz… (You can do this quiz in another language by choosing any of the official European language from the top of the page.)

Happy Europe Day! (9th May)

26 European flags

photo: www.massey.ac.nz

Idiomatic Britishness

If you compile a list of idiomatic expressions from a given language and organise it by recurring themes, you will soon discover (or have confirmation of) some national obsessions. Here are a few British examples.

What a storm in a teacup! If making such a drama is his cup of tea, tea and sympathy are as useful as a chocolate teapot. I wouldn’t get involved in any of this for all the tea in China.

They make such an odd couple… He always complains of being under the weather and his perspective always seems to be that it never rains but it pours. When invited to a party, either he takes a rain check or he has to rain on everyone’s parade if present. She, however, is always as right as rain and happy to join the fun, come rain or shine.

One minute he’s stumped about this sticky wicket and the next he acts off his own bat without anyone knowing what he’s up to. This has now put the project on the back foot. It’s just not cricket, is it!

Chocolate teapotPhoto: teapotsteapotsteapots.blogspot.co.uk

Wordless Harmony

In 2008, 17-year-old Zuhal Sultan initiated the creation of the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq in spite of the Iraqi war and language barriers. The NYOI now gathers Kurdish, Arabic and English speakers, most of whom only speak their own language.

While the orchestra uses interpreters, there are still times when the members need to communicate directly. Since words only account for 5% of communication, the young musicians have honed other skills to understand their peers, observing their body language, paying careful attention to voices and pitches and of course listening acutely to each other’s instruments. Training relies heavily on the students learning the core music vocabulary, then getting by through gestures, pointing and singing.

Many Kurds and Arabs within the group are now learning Arabic and Kurdish respectively as a result, when they had hardly any experience of each other before.

The success of the NYOI in bringing young talents together against all odds proves that sometimes all you need is a willingness to communicate.

Photos: nationalarchives.gov.uk, vimeo.com

Hope or no Hope?

It is somewhat surprising, if not confusing, that Cape Despair in the Gulf of St Lawrence in Quebec be called Cape of Hope in French. Is it due to different experiences with a twist of irony, or to a mistranslation perhaps?

Breton explorer Jacques Cartier named the cape Cap d’Espoir (Cape of Hope), but the apparent similarity between the French “d’espoir” and English “despair” led to some confusion, with the result that the same spot is now called the opposite in English to what Cartier meant.

Cape Despair in French would be Cap Désespoir.

Cap d'Espoir lighthouse

Photo: Stéphane Gauthier

“International” Art English – but not Universal

Translating texts about art, especially those intended for the media, can be challenging, not just because of the specific terminology (as with any specialist area) but also because some texts can be as abstract as contemporary art itself. Art speak, or “International Art English” (IAE), is unmistakably elitist: you are meant to understand that the person talking or writing is an initiate – whether they genuinely are or not, and whether their use of IAE is apropos, is another matter.

Predictably, IAE relies heavily on French vocabulary – what better language to draw an aura of philosophical intellectualism from! – with long Latin words that express absolute concepts suitably detached from the mundane. Just like modern art, it’s conceptual. You get it and you’re part of the club, or you don’t and you’re not.

It would be a mistake, however, to think that everyone involved with the arts wallows in this abstruse language. Partisans of the grandiloquent clique are far outnumbered by those striving towards the democratisation of art. Many – if not most – of those working in the field are as aloof to IAE as anybody else, or use it, like some translators, simply because it is part of the job.

Having said that, we should be grateful to the IAE speakers, especially to the true art lovers amongst them who can afford to commission or buy art as, without them and their common posthumous donation of entire collections to the public, there would be very little art to see. As for me, I relish the challenge of getting my teeth into some seriously abstract text and re-creating an equally obscure translation whenever the chance presents itself.

Duchamp and his Fountain

Duchamp – anti-art attitude à la French

Photo: portlandart.net

Family Concepts

The rich vocabulary of a language in relation to a particular area of life evinces values specific to the culture. Interestingly, the notion of what is family is not as universal as we might expect.

The Wolof language in North West Africa reflects the importance of the community as almost equal to the family. In fact, the concepts of community and family are not as discrete to the Wolof as they are to the Westerner. The word ‘family’ could be translated by two different terms: mbokk includes people you are related to, care about and support (bokk means to share, have in common); njaboot refers to people you are responsible for, i.e. family, other people’s children or people you look after (boot means to carry on your back).

Conversely, while the definition of ‘family’ is clear and exclusive in Western cultures, words such as ‘cousin’ or ‘father’ would be rather vague to a Seri speaker. Seri, a Mexican language with 650 to 1,000 speakers, has over 50 words for kinship relationships. For instance, men and women use different words for ‘father’, and there are four words to designate a cousin, e.g. atcz is the daughter of a parent’s younger sibling and azaac is the daughter of a parent’s older sibling.

The matter-of-fact, and somewhat cold, Western family lexicon may be a reflection of how Western cultures have tended to be more interested in conquering the unknown world than caring for those at home.

Image: 123rf.com