The Evolution of Language

As this article on Forbes.com demonstrated, language is never static. It is constantly changing and evolving. But why? Why the English we speak is today different in so many ways from the English our grandparents spoke? Or the English Shakespeare spoke and wrote in?

Language evolves for a number of different reasons. One common reason is to accommodate new concepts or technology. For example, the word “Internet” didn’t exist a hundred years ago because there was no need for it. The word “touchscreen” didn’t exist until we figured out how to make computer and cell phone screens that could sense and respond to human touch.

Language also changes when the commonly understood meanings of words change over time. Sometimes, these changes happen when a new language “need” is created, but sometimes, people just abuse and twist the meaning of words until the “incorrect” word or meaning becomes the “correct” one.

The article referenced above gives several interesting examples. For example, take the word “empower.” Empower used to be strictly legal term, meaning “to give legal authority or power to.” However, over time, talk shows and self-help gurus have twisted the word so that it is commonly understood as “to make someone feel powerful.”

Another interesting example of this phenomenon is the word “literally.” Once upon a time, if you were to say something like “These guys are literally killing me,” you would mean that people were really, seriously trying to kill you-perhaps with a knife. Now, you might just mean that they are seriously giving you a hard time. When used this way, “literally” takes over the meaning of its antonym, “figuratively.” Confusing, isn’t it?

That’s why when you have material translated into another language, it is important to choose knowledgeable translators who are aware of both the “textbook meanings” of different words and the way those words are understood in common use.

Quebec’s Controversial Video Game Language Laws

A recent law passed in Quebec forbids the sale of English only games if a French translation exists or will be released at some point.

Not many games are officially translated into French (or many other languages) and I doubt that gamers will want to wait for them as many games are released in English long before they are translated.

This could be the end of the road for games shops in Quebec as gamers turn to the internet to snap up the latest releases. The goal of the new law is to protect and promote the French language. It will be even harder for local game stores to compete with the internet giants such as Amazon.com which these laws can’t touch.

More and more companies are starting to release translated games, especially for consoles such as the Nintendo DS as many of the games have high text content unlike action games on the Sony Playstation 3 and X-box 360 for example. Although the process of translating a whole game into a different language can be expensive and after translation it must then be thoroughly tested again as code may need to be changed in line with the new text for the game to work correctly.

Games should be available in your choice of language and a professional translation company can help game companies achieve this within budget and on time.

Unfortunately for Canadian games shops the new law is bad news and it won’t be long until these small time stores die a sad and painful death and the internet giants take over.

St. Georges Day

St. George is the patron saint of England. The 23rd April was named as St. George’s day in 1222, he has always been incredibly popular character although perhaps has been slightly forgotten over the years. He is patron saint not only of England but also of Aragon, Catalonia, Georgia, Lithuania, Palestine, Portugal, Germany and Greece; and of Moscow, Istanbul, Genoa and Venice (second to Saint Mark).

St. George is best known for slaying a dragon to save a fair maiden although there is no concrete evidence so it is believed that it is a myth, a story told to illustrate St. George’s greatness. There is however evidence that St George was a true martyr who suffered greatly in Lydda before the time of Constaintine. He was an officer in the Roman army; he gave all his possessions away to the poor at the start of the persecution and then confessed to his Christian faith. He refused to sacrifice to the gods and because of this he suffered horrific torture lasting for around 7 years until he was eventually beheaded.

It is a little unclear as to how St. George became patron saint of England. He has been recognised here from around the eight century.

In 1348, King Edward III introduced the battle cry “St. George for England” and later founded the Order of the Garter, with St. George as its patron. He’s popularly identified with England and English ideals of honour, bravery and gallantry – but actually he wasn’t English at all. He’s also patron saint of soldiers, archers, cavalry and chivalry, farmers and field workers, riders and saddlers, and he helps those suffering from leprosy, plague and syphilis. In recent years he has been adopted as patron saint of Scouts as well.

It is traditional to wear a red rose in your button hole on St. Georges Day in England. The celebration of St. Georges Day has become more popular in recent years with many promotions and parades going on throughout England.

Sydney School Revives Lost Aboriginal Language

A school in Sydney, Australia is teaching its students Dharug.

What’s so unusual about this foreign language offering? According to an article on Voice of America news, Dharug is an aboriginal language that was once one of the main Aboriginal dialects and was spoken where the city of Sydney stands today. However, it disappeared after British settlers colonized Australia. Chifley College’s Dunheved campus is leading an effort to revive it by teaching to students of both aboriginal and non-indigenous students.

Given the amount of time that has passed since Dharug was used in everyday conversation, experts say that reviving it completely will probably require borrowing words to creating new vocabulary to describe all the new technologies and situations that have become common place since the language disappeared.

Also, Aboriginal languages are not easy to learn. John Hobson, a professor who teaches the languages at Sydney University, describes them as being somewhere in between Japanese and Latin in terms of complexity. However, the students at Chifley College’s Dunheved campus seem to be doing a good job picking up Dharug. Richard Green, the Dharug instructor, told Voice of America, “We’ve already reclaimed it, that’s why there is so much interest. People are already speaking it. They speak our language from here, so when you walk in the school of a morning you hear ‘warami’- hello, good to see you. ”

By preserving and teaching the language, the school is able to pass on a piece of local history to the students. Steve Dargin, a student, told VOA he liked learning the language because “It’s good especially for the blackfellas. You get to talk about your own culture and all that. Learn more stuff, speak it out of school.”

China to Issue Revised List of Simplified Characters

According to this report on the Window of China website, China plans to issue a new list of simplified characters for written Chinese. According to Wang Ning, the vice director of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ Institute of Linguistics, the changes will be minor and are meant to reduce confusion between characters and make them easier to learn. 

China began simplifying the characters used for written language in 1956. Although Taiwan, Hong and Macao retained the traditional characters, the rest of the mainland adopted stripped-down versions of the characters that took fewer strokes and less time to write. In 1986, China’s State Language Commission attempted to to standardize written Chinese by putting out an official list of 2,235 simplified Chinese characters. 

However, for some characters, the simplification process proved to be counterproductive. According to Wang Ning, “Over-simplification of some characters actually made them even harder to understand in some cases, which is the problem we are trying to address here.” Some Chinese would like to scrap the simplified characters entirely and go back to the older, more complicated traditional characters. They feel that the simplified characters are not artistic and that preserving the “old way” of writing is an integral part of preserving Chinese culture. 

Fortunately for the billions of Chinese people who never learned the old system, that is not likely to happen. In the article referenced above, Wang Ning said,  “Switching back to traditional Chinese characters means billions of Chinese would have to relearn their mother language. I don’t think there is any need to switch back to traditional Chinese characters, nor to make the current ones even simpler. Our top priority is to improve and standardize the simplified Chinese characters.” 

Most Chinese citizens born after 1956 are probably quite relieved to hear that. After all, can you imagine having to learn how to write in the Old English alphabet?

Bloglingua says, make sure your translation company knows about this planned change to the Chinese Translation rules before undertaking any projects. 

Ebay Offer Translation Services to Japanese Vendors

Ebay have announced that they will be offering a translation service to Japanese sellers who want to list products on its English-language service which they hope will encourage cross border trade.

The service will cause a slight delay in adding an item to the site but is relatively simple. Sellers will be able to type a product description in Japanese and it will be translated within 24 hours into English.

This is an excellent tool for Ebay. Ebay is unique in that it has a global appeal. Breaking down the language barrier can only improve its service and I am sure more languages will be added in the future.

International sales on Ebay more than doubled last year to $4.6 billion and now accounts for 54% of their total revenue.

A Chinese interface is already available for Ebay. Global Link Software allows sellers to list and manage products across 21 Ebay sites.

The Japanese service can also be used to translate buyer’s questions from English into Japanese and then translate the reply back again.

Explanations on how to list a product will be available in Japanese on a new website.

Ebay’s Japanese site is http://www.sekaimon.com/

Postmaster Loses Job after Foreign Language Ban

Bloglingua previously reported the news about the Postmaster from Nottingham who refused to serve some customers as they were unable to communicate in English.

Mr Kumarasiri was moved to new post office, on his request. He has now been told by the agency which employed him that his contract will not be renewed.

The BBC reported Mr Kumarasiri as saying, “I was forced out by a small minority of people who don’t want to integrate into society.”

Mr Kumarasiri claims that he has been threatened by people in the community and the local Muslim leaders began a petition against him. Polish migrants have reportedly also been boycotting the store as well.

The Post Office has said that the postal service they provide is for everyone and they are very concerned about the impact this incident may have on trade. The Post Office is part of Royal Mail which has been a constitution in the United Kingdom (UK) for many years. Despite its recent money troubles the company continues to operate providing a service for everyone in the UK.

What about tourists?

When we go on holiday we expect people to give us a bit of slack with the local language and be polite and helpful.

It seems obvious though when reading Mr Kumarasiri’s argument that he was specifically referring to people who have moved to the UK from abroad to live. His frustration is that he worked hard to take on the British way of life and he wishes those coming to the UK these days would give the country the same respect.

Learn another Language for Free

Would you like to learn another language? Have you spent the past few years talking about how you “really should sign up for a class?” Sometimes, it’s hard to find the time for continuing education.

Software programs like Mango and Rosetta Stone provide flexibility for people with busy schedules, but they are not cheap. However, free, convenient language learning programs are available through the magic of the Internet.

Here’s a round-up of some of the many places online where you can learn a language for free.

Open Culture has a list of free language learning resources on the Internet. These freebies include lessons in Spanish, Arabic, Irish, Hindi and even Luxembourgish. In all, 37 different languages are covered. The resources are mainly podcasts available from I-Tunes. Many of them provide only basic conversational instruction, but some are more in-depth.

The BBC website also has a great page with resources for beginner and intermediate-level speakers of several different languages from around the world. If you’d like to learn French, German or Italian, the BBC offers an email correspondence course with an assessment at the end. Audio and video courses are available for French, Spanish, Greek, Italian, German Portuguese and Chinese. You can also learn how to speak Welsh, Gaelic or Irish.

At MIT’s website, you can help yourself to free courses in Chinese, French, German and Spanish. Also, you can put the language you are learning into its cultural context by taking courses about foreign language literature and about different cultures. For the language learning classes, most or all of the reading material has been converted to PDF and is available as a free download. For literature courses, you do have to buy the textbooks.

If you live in the United States, you should also check out your local library’s website. Many public libraries provide free access to language courses from Mango or Rosetta Stone if you have a library card.

Internet access is also free at all United Kingdom libraries where you can research for information on learning languages. Your local librarian will be happy to help you get started.

Dictionary of American Regional English Just Released

The Dictionary of American Regional English has just been completed and is now available to the general public. Why would you need another dictionary, you may ask?

The Dictionary of American Regional English is not a normal dictionary at all. 50 years in the making, it is a compilation of all the different regional dialects that Americans use in daily conversation.

This book would be especially useful for anyone planning a road trip across the country, but it’s also just plain interesting to see how English has mutated in different regions of the country.

The difference in speech between regions goes far beyond “y’all” (a southern word that’s basically a shortened version of “you all” and is used when directly addressing more than one person) and “youse guys” (same thing, only up north).

The ContraCosta Times has a review of the book that excerpts some of the more interesting pieces of dialect. For example, did you know that in Utah, a sow bug is called a “tabernacle?” or that in some parts of Appalachia, a “stool” is an invitation to a party?

One can only imagine the confusion that would ensue if someone from another part of the country heard a group of mountain folk talking about “passing out stools.” In Oklahoma, a dust storm is rather poetically called “Oklahoma rain.”

Earlier versions of the dictionary have also been used to track down criminals based on the dialect used in their letters and to decipher the speech of former President Bill Clinton, whose “folksy” speech sometimes required interpretation for those not born in Arkansas.

The former president once left a roomful of reporters scratching their heads in confusion after he told them that an Air Force official didn’t know him “from Adam’s off ox.” In Arkansas, according to the book review, an “off ox” is “one of two oxen in a team.”

Lost in Translation: 2 Cuban Pitchers

In the World Baseball Classic, an error in translation caused the Cuban baseball team to lose two of its top relief pitchers for their game against Mexico on Monday, March 16th.

According to the New York Times, in the World Baseball Classic, the official rules are always in English. However, an ‘unofficial’ Spanish translation was provided to the teams from Mexico and Cuba. Unfortunately, whoever translated the Spanish version made a minor error that demonstrates how important accuracy in translation can be.

According to the rules, relievers are not allowed to pitch the day after they throw thirty or more pitches. In Spanish, “30 or more” is translated as “trienta o mas.” The translator translated the phrase as “mas que trienta,” which means “more than thirty.”

Based on the translation, the Cuban coach pulled his two best relief pitchers out of Sunday’s game against Japan after they had each thrown exactly 30 pitches.

The goal was to keep the pitchers available for the game against Mexico on Monday, since they would have exactly 30 pitches, not “more than 30 pitches.” However, since the English document is the ‘official’ document, the two pitchers were disqualified.

Gene Orza, the World Baseball Classic player’s union’s chief operation officer, offered this assessment of the situation:

“It was a mistranslation — a mistranslation of what in English are very clear rules,” Orza said. “It’s a very unfortunate situation. But the English rules are the controlling document. We feel terribly that in trying to do a good thing something bad happened.”

“They were clearly very unhappy with the situation, but they did understand it,” Orza said of the Cuban officials. “I am eternally grateful for the class that Cuba showed. I think it’s fair to say we will endeavour to have an official Spanish rules document prepared for next time.” -New York Times

This may have actually worked out to Cuba’s benefit, since those pitchers had some extra rest before Wednesday’s elimination game. However, it wasn’t enough-Cuba played Japan again and lost.