Language quiz

Language quiz image

Here’s a recording in a mystery language.

Can you identify the language, and do you know where it’s spoken?

Language, Quiz questions 1 Comment


Did you know that the practice of putting spaces between words was started by Irish monks writing in Latin?

This is what I discovered from an episode of the Allusionist – apparently when Christianity arrived in Ireland in the 6th century and people started writing in Latin, they put spaces between the words to make texts easier to read. Before then writing in Ireland was done in the Ogham alphabet without spaces between words. So when they started using a different alphabet, the Latin or Roman alphabet, and a language that wasn’t their native one, they weren’t so sure where words began and ended and the spaces made this clear.

Ogham continued to be used to some extent until the 9th century and was used to write Latin, however the Latin alphabet eventually replaced it.

The version of the Latin alphabet used in Ireland until the mid-20th century was the Irish Uncial alphabet or An Cló Gaelach, which is still used for decorative purposes.

The practice of putting spaces between words spread to the rest of Europe over subsequent centuries.

Some languages, like Chinese and Thai, don’t bother with spaces, which can make them tricky to read.

English, Irish, Language, Latin, Writing 2 Comments

A not entirely uninteresting post

The title of this post is perhaps an example of litotes [laɪˈtəʊ.tiːz], a figure of speech that uses understatement, particularly double negatives, to make a positive statement [source]. Other examples include:

– I didn’t do too badly in the test
– It’s a bit chilly
– He’s not a bad guitarist

Litotes comes from the Ancient Greek λιτότης ‎(litótēs), from λιτός ‎(litós – simple) via the French litote (litotes, understatement) [source].

The antonym of litotes is hyperbole (overstatement), which comes, via Latin, from the Ancient Greek ὑπερβολή ‎(huperbolḗ – excess, exaggeration), from ὑπέρ ‎(hupér, -above) and βάλλω ‎(bállō – I throw) [source].

I make some use litotes (that’s an example), as do many British people. Is this common in other countries?

This post was inspired by an episode of The Allusionist, a podcast in which Helen Zaltzman discusses language, words and related topics.

English, Language, Words and phrases 2 Comments

Mother Tongues

Today we have a guest post by Tim Brookes.

Mother language in Bengali/Bangla Chakma, Marma and Mro

As many of you know, February 21st is International Mother Language Day.

The day is especially important to the nation of Bangladesh, where the right to speak their own language was a vital part of their move to gain independence from Pakistan. IMLD was born as a recognition of what are known as “language martyrs” — students who were massacred by the Pakistani Army in 1952 for protesting the right to speak their mother tongue.

The Endangered Alphabets Project is contributing to this global observance by returning to these roots. I’ve carved the phrase “mother language” in the four principal alphabets of Bangladesh: Bangla (the official national language), and Chakma, Marma and Mro, three endangered indigenous languages.

As always, the hardest part was tracking down the text. Bangla was easy; Marma also, thanks to my friend and colleague Maung Nyeu who is an ethnic Marma. Chakma came through Facebook via Suz Moriz (Bivuti Chakma), who created what is now the standard Chakma font.

Mro was the hardest, as it not only has the fewest speakers but they tend to live in more remote areas of the forested, upland Chittagong Hill Tracts. When I’ve worked on collaborative projects over the past three years that involved Mro, getting translations often took weeks, and it took an intermediary heading out to Mro villages on foot.

Facebook, which is in a sense part of the problem by not supporting most indigenous glyphs, was in this case also the solution, as it put me in touch with several members of the Mro community living outside the Hill Tracts, including Rengwan Mro and Elisha Pan Mro.

Facebook also put me in touch with Shanjidul Alam Seban Shaan, a community organizer living in Chittagong, who in turn recommended several art galleries and exhibition spaces in the city, and knew many of the founders and owners personally—a great quality for a community organizer!

The carving and painting took a little under three weeks, and this morning I took a very large, heavy package to the post office, where the clerk balanced it on a very small scale and squinted under it to read the shipping cost on his screen.

If all goes well, the package will reach Chittagong in 10 days or so, and will become part of the country’s celebrations on the 21st, on display at Bistaar, an arts complex in Chittagong.

My hope is that this carving will be my most public work yet, and will become a visual symbol of the diversity of languages and cultures not only in Bangladesh but all over the world. A graphic designer friend is using the image of the carving to create a poster for Mother Tongue Day, which I hope to have available as a free download on my site within a few days.

As I was working on the carving, I set up a Kickstarter to cover the costs of materials and shipping, and support was so great we broke the initial goal of $1,000 in barely 24 hours.

But here’s the thing: it was only at that point I realized what a good and important idea this was. And as donations keep coming in, it strikes me that with every additional dollar we’ll be able to plan follow-up Mother Tongue carvings for 2017.

I’d love to make a Mother Tongue carving for Indonesia and the Philippines, both of which have multiple minority alphabets–and what about the mother tongues of the indigenous peoples of North America! I can just see it, a vast slab of wood tipped up on end, with the phrase “mother tongue” carved in dozens of languages indigenous to North America: Cree, Cherokee, Navajo …

I’d have to start now.

Tim Brookes is founder of the Endangered Alphabets Project:

Language 2 Comments

Language quiz

Language quiz image

Here’s a recording in a mystery language.

Can you identify the language, and do you know where it’s spoken?

Language 10 Comments

When is an MBA a person?

An article I added to Omniglot today, The Most Valuable Languages for an MBA to Learn, uses “an MBA” to refer to a person with an MBA. I’ve also seen students referred to in a similar way: for example a student of French might be ‘a French Major’, and someone with a PhD in linguistics might be ‘a linguistics PhD’.

This usage appears to be common in American English, as far as I can tell, but sounds rather strange to my British ears.

Does this sound normal to you?

Are people with particular qualifications referred as ‘a [name of qualificaiton]’ in other languages?

English, Language 5 Comments

The Power of Procrastination

Are you a procrastinator? Do you find yourself doing all sorts of things to avoid doing something you have to do?

For example, when you should be revising for an exam you keep finding other things to do which you convince yourself are essential and have to be done right now, such as cleaning, putting your books/CDs/DVDs into alphabetical order, researching the origins of knitting, or whatever.

I certainly do this – at times I can be a prolific procrastinator. I try to study a bit of at least one language every day, for example, but often find excuses not to, and other things to do that seem more important. The kinds of things I do instead of studying include working on Omniglot, playing music, singing, writing tunes and songs, juggling, reading, shopping, gardening, and cleaning and tidying. I do enjoy discovering and exploring languages, but sometimes find the process of studying them a bit tedious.

Maybe if I set myself another task that I don’t really want to do or find difficult, such as setting up databases, then I would end up studying languages as an alternative displacement activity. That is, I could embrace the power of procrastination.

English, Language, Language learning 1 Comment

Language quiz

Language quiz image

Here’s a recording in a mystery language.

Can you identify the language, and do you know where it’s spoken?

Language, Quiz questions 8 Comments

Awakening forgotten languages

Last night at ukulele club there was a new member from Spain, and I talked a bit with her in Spanish. It’s a long time since I’ve studied any Spanish, and I rarely use it these days, so I thought I’d forgotten most of it, but I found that I can still have a basic conversation, even if I make mistakes. I had similar experiences with German in Berlin last year and the year before at the Polyglot Gathering – I could understand quite a bit and found that when I tried to speak it I could at least make myself understood.

At the moment I have no real need to awaken my Spanish or German, but if I do need them, I’ll try to find ways to bring them back.

How do you brush up, bring back, awaken or revive languages you have forgotten or not used for a long time?

English, German, Language, Language learning, Spanish 3 Comments

Totes amazesh!

According to an article I found the other day, some people on Twitter are playing with language in interesting ways and creating new abbreviations and words like tradge (tragic), bluebs (blueberries), emosh (emotional) and hilars (hilarious) and atrosh (atrocious).

This phenomenon has been dubbed totesing by the linguists Lauren Spradlin and Taylor Jones, who have collected and analyzed many examples of totesing and discovered that such abbreviations are not random. Instead they follow a definite pattern which involves removing the parts of words after their stressed syllables, but retaining a consonant or two after it. For example, subconsciously becomes subconsh and aphrodisiac becomes aphrodeez – the spelling is also altered some times.

The favorite intensifier is totes, from totally.

Some such abbreviations have been around for quite a while, others are new.

Here are a few I found on Twitter:

– You people are so totes adorbs when you’re watching a game.
– Hey guys it’s #nationalhugday! So we’re asking, ever received a totes awks hug?
– You got me. I’m totes jelz of guys too dumb to know supporting Trump should be a point of shame instead of pride.
– totes inapprops
– it’s gonna be a totes perf weekend

Do you use these kinds of words? Have you come across any interesting ones?

Are similar things being done to other languages?

English, Language 4 Comments
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