One Step Closer To Native Web Addresses

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, aka ICANN, is one step closer to allowing the first Internet addresses written completely in non-Latin characters. Previously, in October, ICANN had voted to allow non-Latin web addresses. On January 21st, they approved the first four non-Latin top-level domains (extensions, like .com or .org, that appear at the end of a web address).

Domains were approved for the Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. That means that, for the first time ever, people in these countries will be able to access web sites using their native script alone, without having to try to figure out Latin characters that they don’t use in their daily lives.

According to an ICANN press release (pdf), domain names should be accessible worldwide by the middle of this year. In the news release, CANN CEO and President Rod Beckstrom commented that:

“These international names will now allow people to type entire domain names in their own language. This marks a pivotal moment in the history of Internet domain names.”

This is great news for Internet users in these four countries, but what about for Internet security? The Times Online recently ran an article that raised concerns about non-Latin domain names being used to facilitate phishing and other scams, since English-language browsers can  render non-Latin alphabets in Unicode script in a way that can make some letters in, for example, Cyrillic, appear identical to Latin letters even though they represent different sounds.  The example given in the Times article is “Paypal”- in browsers using Unicode script, the word “raural” written in Cyrillic script will look like “Paypal” written in Latin.

However, Mashable notes that since there is no way to mix Latin and other scripts in a single web address, this is probably not as big as a concern as it has been made out to be. Anyway, you already type your bank’s web address directly into your browser as opposed to clicking a link in your email, right? If you don’t, now might be a good time to start doing what you should have been doing all along to protect yourself.

Do Prairie Dogs Talk?

Prairie dogs are small, burrowing rodents native to the United States, where they are often treated as vermin by farmers and ranchers. However, scientists are now discovering that these ground squirrels may have some of the most sophisticated linguistic abilities in the animal kingdom, second only to humans (and possibly to dolphins.)

In the wild, prairie dogs are social animals and live in large colonies. They communicate with each other by sound, barking to warn their neighbors about approaching threats. According to the Telegraph, a team of scientists led by Professor Con Slobodchikoff of Northern Arizona University has discovered that these alarm calls do much more than merely alerting the colony of approaching danger-they also accurately describe the potential threat, including such details as the type of predator, its speed and even colour.

It’s not surprising that prairie dogs would use different calls for different predators. The Telegraph noted that the animals’ have different coping strategies, depending on the type of predator and its hunting techniques. What is surprising is that Professor Slobodchikoff and his team found that subtle variations in the calls were consistently produced in response to different stimuli. For example, he told the Telegraph:

“We found that for humans the barks described the size and shape, the colour of clothes and the speed of travel. So a human walking through the prairie dog town with a blue shirt produces a call that is subtly different from the same human wearing a yellow shirt. For domestic dogs the barks described the shape of the dog and the coat colour. This might be useful as even within species of predator, there will be different hunting techniques so the extra information can help them distinguish between individual predators.”

The scientists also found that, like humans, prairie dogs seem to acquire language over time. Young prairie dogs did not give specific alarm calls, but seemed to learn the language as they grew up.

Mel Gibson’s Next Movie to Be Shot In Old Norse

Mel Gibson is making a Viking movie. The movie doesn’t have a title yet, but William Monahan is writing the script, and it will star Leonardo DiCaprio. Oh, and the movie will be shot entirely in period languages. That means Leonardo DiCaprio will most likely deliver his lines in Old Norse or perhaps Old English (depending on whether he’s playing a Viking or an inhabitant of a town that is being pillaged by them).

Apparently, for Gibson, the idea of making a Viking movie in Old Norse isn’t a new idea. He told Collider.com that “The very first idea I ever had about making a film…my first thought about ever being a filmmaker was when I was sixteen years old and I wanted to make a Viking movie.  And I wanted to make it in Old Norse.”

Meanwhile, on CHUD.com, he explains the rationale behind using the languages of the period for the movie:

“I want a Viking to scare you,’ he said gleefully.’I don’t want a Viking to say, [Tony Curtis style] “I’m going to die with a sword in my hand.”  I don’t want to hear that.  It pulls the rug out from under you.  I want to see somebody who I have never seen before speaking low guttural German who scares the living shit out of me coming up to my house.  What is that like?  What would that have been like?’

Some of the movie will no doubt be in Old English, but don’t expect to be able to understand any of it without subtitles. To give you an idea of how different Old English is from the language we speak today, here’s a sample from Beowulf (via Wikipedia):

Hwæt! wē Gār-Dena in geār-dagum,
þeod-cyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.

In the modern English we know and love, that translates to:

Listen! We have heard of the glory of the Spear-Danes, of the kings of the people, in the days of yore, [and] how those princes did deeds of glory.

It will be interesting to see these ancient languages on the big screen.

Day Care Aims to Teach Cornish to Toddlers

Cornish toddlers can now learn the Cornish language through a Saturday day care program at Cornwall College in Camborne. The program teaches the tots language through play while their parents take an adult Cornish language class. So far, according to the BBC, seven children have been registered for the crèche, which is part of the Cornish for the Nursery Schools movement (Movyans Skolyow Meythrin in Cornish). The first lessons included some Cornish vocabulary as well as popular songs in Cornish.

Nursery school organizer Rhisiart Tal-e-bot told the BBC that:

“This is an idea which I have had for several years. This is about teaching parents how to bring up their children alongside our local heritage. There will also be classes run at the same time as the crèche so that adults can learn a little about the county.”

Cornish is a Brythonic Celtic language that used to be widely spoken in Cornwall.  In fact, according to Wikipedia, 39,000 people spoke Cornish in the 13th century. However, after that, use of the language began to decline in favour of English. Cornish ceased being used as a spoken language in the late 18th or 19th century; however, a movement to revive the language began in the early 20th century. Today, there are approximately 150 people in Cornwall who can speak it fluently. The language was recognized as a minority language by the government of the United Kingdom in 2002.

The nursery school is the first of its kind, so we will have to wait and see whether or not the movement takes off. Still, teaching children the language as early as possible, alongside English, is probably the best hope for a more widespread Cornish revival.

Tensions Rise in Malaysia over How to Translate the Word “God”

People tend to perceive debates over translation as dry, scholarly affairs, but sometimes, disagreements about how to translate a word can aggravate existing tensions between groups, even escalating violence.  This was especially evident in the country of Malaysia last week, where a dispute about how to translate the word “God” has sparked protests and led to the firebombing of three Christian churches.

According to the New York Times, the problems started when a Malaysian court ruled that Roman Catholics could use the word “Allah” in a Malay-language newspaper as a translation for “God.” Allah is, in fact, a direct translation of the word “God” into Arabic-according to Wikipedia, it is the standard Arabic word for God and is commonly used by both Arabic-speaking Christians and Jews as well as Muslims.

However, in Malaysia, some Muslims believe that the word “Allah” should be exclusive to Muslims. The New York Times quotes a protestor as saying :

“Allah is only for us. The Christians can use any word; we don’t care, but please don’t use the word Allah.”

The government agrees, and has appealed the court ruling allowing Roman Catholics to use it. The New York Times says that:

“Muslims [in Malaysia] have argued that the use of the word by other religions could confuse believers and tempt them to convert from Islam.”

So far, the protests have been small, with only a few hundred people in each gathering. Nobody has been hurt in the fire bombings, and the churches involved have sustained only minor damage. Still, tolerance is necessary for any two groups to live next to each other in peace.  Hopefully, whatever the final court ruling turns out to be, the situation in Malaysia calms down soon.

Google and IBM Tackle Ambitious Translation Projects

You may not realise it, but the internet sites you see when you surf the web are limited by the language you are surfing in. So, there’s always a part of the internet that you are shut out of.

Possibly, according to this article on CNN.com, not for long, both IBM and Google are currently working on ambitious translation projects. If successful, they will be able to create accurate, instantaneous translations of web content.

IBM’s project, called n.Fluent, automatically translates web pages. Users can enter in a URL to get the page translation, and site owners can install a translation web app onto their site that allows users to choose their language from a drop-down menu to have the page translated.

Of course, machine translations are still imperfect-a problem IBM is trying to rectify by crowd-sourcing the work, tapping its multilingual workforce to improve the translation software’s capabilities. The approach has helped IBM rapidly improve the quality of their translations, but David Lubensky, an IBM “real-time translation” specialist, told CNN that the company still faces challenges with this approach:

“There are two challenges. Firstly, getting a sustainable, enthusiastic community can be difficult. The goal is to have an ongoing interest, to make it part of the fabric.  The second issue is quality assurance of content; how useful is the feedback, how many mistakes do people make and how much impact will they have?”

Google’s project is similar, but naturally, the titans of search are also interested in translating search terms.  Google’s vice president Marissa Mayer explained the goal of her company’s translation tool to the Daily Telegraph:

“Imagine what it would be like if there was a tool built into the search engine which translated my search query into every language and then searched the entire world’s web sites.  And then invoked the translation software a second and third time — to not only then present the results in your native language, but then translated those sites in full when you clicked through.”

Although IBM’s project is aimed more at businesses and Google’s appears to be aimed more at consumers, both would go a long way toward opening up the entire internet to everyone. However, it’s unlikely that they will replace the services of an experienced translation company-if you are translating something important, you want a human being who understands the nuances of both languages to do it.

The English Language Goes Social

2009 was the year the English language officially went social, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

First, in November, the Oxford English Dictionary declared “unfriend” to be the “Word of the Year.” Now, Oxford English Press has released a new list of “Words of the Year,” several of which also come from the world of social networking.

According to the Telegraph, the list was compiled by dictionary expert Susie Dent for the Oxford English Press, and it definitely illustrates how much the rise of social networking sites is changing our language. Here’s a quick breakdown of the words that were drawn from social media and the Internet:

  • Tweetup: A gathering, organized via Twitter, where Twitter users meet in real life.
  • Hashtags: A way to track topics and conversations on Twitter by placing the hash sign (#) before the topic of the  post. Hashtags are often used to organize tweetups.
  • Tag cloud- A way to show readers what topics are the most important or most frequently discussed on a blog by arranging the tags in a loose cloud formation, with most frequently used tags larger than the others.
  • Slashdot effect: What happens when a larger, more popular website links to a smaller site, sending a flood of new traffic that causes the smaller site to slow down or crash.

It’s not just the Oxford English Dictionary, either. The Global Language Monitor’s Word of the Year from 2009 was “Twitter.”

In an article on the PC Monitor, Paul Payack, the President of the Global Language Monitor, explained the decision by saying, “In a year dominated by world-shaking political events, a pandemic, the after effects of a financial tsunami and the death of a revered pop icon, the word Twitter stands above all the other words.”

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