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.

I scored 6/8. How did you do?


Translating Mandela

It probably comes as no surprise to most Europeans that Nelson Mandela wished for his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, to be translated into several African languages. It seems the obvious way of making the book accessible to all as well as acknowledging minority languages and the diversity of communities sharing the country of South Africa. But reading an article by Antjie Krog, translator of Long Walk to Freedom into Afrikaans, I was surprised to discover an opposite perspective:

“An important barometer of the power of a language is the number of texts translated into it, so imagine my surprise when I received a request to translate Nelson Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, from English into Afrikaans, my mother-tongue, spoken by only 13.5 percent of the South African population.

“I was informed that Mandela wanted it to be translated into Zulu, Xhosa, Afrikaans and Northern Sotho. Why? I wondered. The translation of the Bible into our indigenous languages was frowned upon as a form of colonisation: a way for Western values to gain entry into the traditional heart of the indigenous communities. But as we came to know the man, this request was vintage Mandela.”

As a European translator, I see translation as a vehicle for mutual understanding, the sharing ideas and international peace. Coming across such a view was both striking and humbling.

Antjie Krog

Antjie Krog

Photo: (credit: Philippe Matsas)

Oh Noooo…

There is no shortage of political or diplomatic incidents in international archives caused by mistranslations, often due to false friends. Some blunders, however, are comical rather than harmful.

One such example is cited in John Coleman-Holmes’s book Mâcher du Coton. As a Spanish speaker once started to address the delegates of a conference by saying “Please excuse me, I have a cold”, the French side suddenly burst into laughter. Curious as to the cause of this hubbub, the rest of the delegation tuned into the French channel, looking towards the interpreters’ booths. In a lapse of concentration, the Spanish-to-French interpreter had translated “Estoy constipado, perdónadme” as “Excuse me, I’m constipated”.

Mistakes (and painful embarrassment) happen to us all…

embarrassed bunnyPhotos:

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


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.


Extinct Languages are Cool

In the 19th and 20th century, Manx was perceived by its speakers as useless to find a job beyond the Isle of Man and was progressively seen as backwards. The lack of popularity of Manx at home and the new urgency then felt to speak English led the language to a sharp decline until UNESCO recorded the language as extinct in the 1990s. The Manx government has since invested much in its revival, and with great success.

In this BBC article and video, it is interesting to note that new comers to the isle embrace the revival of Manx as much as, if not more than, the locals themselves, and that they too feel that it reinforced a sense of belonging to the place.

Some parents have also enrolled their children to the bilingual school as an opportunity to develop their general linguistic skills, which should help them learn other languages later on. The best news of all is that the children enjoy learning it and like to use Manx as a secret language with their friends, making the parents want to learn the language too to understand what their children are plotting. One teenager also said that she liked the idea of helping to keep the language alive – a thought that reveals an unusual level of awareness and an unexpected sense of responsibility from someone so young.

Maybe introducing foreign languages to young children as secret codes to be shared with friends, and to teenagers as use-it-or-lose-it treasures is a good approach to motivate them to study languages.

Similarly, Silbo Gomero, a whistling language from La Gomera, a Canary Island, has become a compulsory subject in local schools. As a long-distance communication tool through a little accessible landscape of deep ravines and valleys, this could also prove more reliable than mobile phone reception.

Update (01/03/13): The BBC TV programme Friends and Heroes has been translated into Manx and will start in that language this Spring. It will be the first children’s programme in Manx.

Isle of ManPhoto:

Art Without Pictures

With visual representation being considered an attempt to compete with Allah’s power of creation, the ornamentation of the Koran was restricted to plants and abstract designs only. Calligraphy therefore took centre stage to bring beauty to the page. Through the dissemination of the Koranic texts, calligraphy in the 8th or 9th century became a form of art in itself as well as a key aspect of the Islamic art tradition. In the Middle Ages, calligraphic expertise was even deemed a princely virtue.

The Koran being the direct revelation of Allah’s words, the accuracy and clarity of the written word were of the highest importance. However, since Arabic script only records consonants, dots and diacritic marks were introduced in Koranic manuscripts as vowels to ensure the correct reading and identification of words and to facilitate the pronunciation.

With centuries of mutual influence shared with the Far East and the West, the depicting of people and animals gradually became acceptable in secular context, although 3D effects such as shadows were not. However, the second half of the 20th century saw a major endeavour towards a revival of the Islamic art tradition and calligraphy regained prominence as a characteristic element of the Islamic visual culture. Arabic letters have since been transformed into a modern visual language through various styles: purely calligraphic compositions, combination of calligraphy and figurative motifs or even complete abstract use of individual elements of scripts.

Today, artists create their own calligraphic style and many combine it with other abstract elements, using the visual aspect of the written word to symbolise what other cultures picture more directly and figuratively. The strong return of letters and words from the Islamic tradition has thus created a leit-motif through past and present in the Islamic culture.

Photos: Bottle and table taken at the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery,,,

The Invincible Celtic Spirit

Where there is a strong cultural identity, the related language dies hard. And the Celtic culture seems “indomitable” (see Asterix books). Despite having been pushed to the edge of Western Europe centuries ago and banned as minority languages, Celtic languages are still alive and, when given the slightest opportunity, kick back with a vengeance.

Despite the French Revolution’s attempt at eradicating all regional languages in the name of “equality”, Breton is one of the few that have survived to this day. In 1950, about 1 million could still speak Breton, including 100,000 monolinguals. Since then, the numbers have dwindled and Breton is now classified as “severely endangered” by UNESCO, but this has only triggered a sense of urgency and prompted efforts to preserve the language: some universities offer the possibility of doing a degree in Breton and more parents have placed their children in bilingual schools in recent years. As for the culture, the strong, determined and proud Celtic spirit shows no sign of relinquishing, as the many events, celebrations and Fest Noz testify.

In Scotland, although the School Establishment Act of 1616 banished Gaelic, the 2001 census revealed that 60,000 people could still speak it. Then the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005, which made Gaelic an official language of the country, granting it “equal respect” with English, sparked a keen revival: in 2008, BBC Alba was launched; there has been a surge in demand for Gaelic speakers, translators and teachers; the creation of learning materials for students of the language is a developing market; and the new requirement for making provision for Gaelic has created new jobs. The focus is now on bringing Gaelic up to date with today’s lexical needs.

In the 1990’s, a couple of acts provided that Welsh and English be treated equally in the public sector in Wales, and last year the Welsh Language Measure 2011 gave the Welsh language official status. It is estimated that just over 20% of the Welsh population can speak the language today. Time will tell what this new official status brings to Wales, but the strength of the Celtic genes should not be underestimated.


Visual Language

Just as we cannot help but notice a human form anywhere, we cannot ignore written words either. Our attention is naturally drawn to and focuses on letters. For this reason, language can be used as a powerful tool by visual artists.

In context, words create boundaries around concepts, whereas out of context, they open up to different interpretations – they make us stop and wonder. Unlike adverts that bombard us with snappy slogans and clichés anchored in a materialistic, predictable reality, art can use language in the most abstract forms. Rather than defining concepts and restricting our thoughts, words become concepts themselves. As in Magritte’s The Treachery of Images (1928), language becomes a key part of the art work and challenges us to look at things differently.

Artists may also play with words to poke our imagination and push us out of our mental rut. For instance, the connection between the words in La Brea/Art Tips/Rat Spit/Tar Pits (1972) by Bruce Nauman may not be immediately apparent, but as we notice that three pairs of words are anagrams of each other and learn that ‘La Brea’ is the Spanish for tar pit, we start to appreciate the linguistic fun of the work. In the case of The Final End (1992) by Edward Ruscha, the shy words “The End”, blurred and hidden behind tall grass, lack the assertiveness of the double assertion of the title, the tautology of which is in itself enigmatic: how many ends can there be?

Language as abstract material leaves us wondering, offering no answers, encouraging us to go beyond our usual mental boundaries.

Photos: , my own, Tate

English, the ‘International’ Language – but for how long?

The ‘supremacy’ of English in the world of trade is a good excuse for native English-speakers not to learn another language. Let’s face it, why bother when you can go abroad and everyone there speaks English? The British don’t seem to be born linguists anyway, do they? And so on and so forth… We’ve all heard it and we’ve heard it all.

This complacency costs the UK £7.3bn each year in lost trade, which former Treasury Economic Adviser James Foreman-Peck calls “the tax on trade”. 75% of the UK trade takes place with countries where English is not the first language. (English is the first language for 6% of the world population only.) As Willy Brandt says, “If I’m selling to you, I speak your language. If I’m buying, dann müssen Sie Deutsch sprechen.”

Last year, the EU recruited for 308 jobs in Brussels, needless to say with language skills as a must. Only 1.5% of the applicants were British; 7 were successful. Can we expect to have an influence on the EU if we do not have a stronger presence in its offices?

Being insular isolates us culturally, economically and politically, and with the BRIC countries growing fast, the days of the English language’s ‘supremacy’ are counted.