Who is Santa Claus?

Santa Claus is a familiar figure to children and adults across the world; a “jolly old elf” who rides through the night sky on a sleigh, bringing presents to all the good boys and girls. But who is Santa Claus, really? Where the does the legend come from?

The English name “Santa Claus” comes from the Dutch Sinterklaas. Sinterklaas, in turn, is derived from the Dutch translation of “Saint Nicholas.”

The real-life St. Nicholas was a Greek bishop who lived in what is now Turkey. He was known for giving giving gifts to the poor and protecting children. In fact, one story has him resurrecting children whom a psychopathic local butcher had made into meat pies, like an ancient version of Sweeney Todd. Read more

Ancient Roman Graffiti

5 Funny Inscriptions

You might think of graffiti as a modern urban problem, but rest assured, writing on walls is an ancient art. Our forebears liked to make their mark on a place just as much as we do. Perhaps even more so, considering that they often had to chip away at stone walls to do so.

Translating graffiti inscriptions can lead to some interesting insights into the people and the cultures that created them. When it comes to ancient Rome, for example, we primarily learn that the Romans had dirty, dirty, minds.  Here, via Pompeiana, are 5 funny inscriptions from the ancient Roman city of Pompeii, translated for your amusement: Read more

Speaking Dothraki

Now  more than ever, it seems like constructed languages have really taken off. Tolkein got the ball rolling with his elvish languages, Sindarin and Quenya, and Klingon has been showing up in some of the strangest places imaginable. Now, the success of HBO’s “Game of Thrones” series has fans trying to pick up another fantasy language: Dothraki.

The show is based on author George R. R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series. Most of the characters speak English. Not the Dothraki, though- their culture seems to have been modelled after  the Genghis Khan-era Mongols. In the text, there are just enough Dothraki words thrown in to make the scenes feel exotic.

For the TV series, HBO wanted a fully-formed language. So, they hired linguist David Peterson to create one. The Dothraki characters speak in Dothraki, and there are English subtitles. Read more


What language does the Internet speak? All languages, of course, but English much more so than others. Per Wikipedia, anywhere from 65 to 85 percent of the content on the World Wide Web today is written in English. That’s great for all of us English speakers, but what about the huge chunk of the world that doesn’t speak English? Their Internet experience is necessarily limited by their language skills. 

Luis von Ahn, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University, wants to change that equation by doing nothing less than translating the entire Internet.

Obviously, that’s a staggering prospect considering the sheer amount of content on the web. But according to Fox News, that’s the ambition behind Professor von Ahn’s new language-learning start-up Duolingo. Duolingo offers free language learning to everybody. Since the best way to learn is by doing, language learners on the service are simply assigned a few sentences to translate from the language they’re trying to learn into their native language. Each little snippet of text is from a real website. Duolingo then records the translation, compares it to other people’s translations of the same sentence and determines what the best translation for the sentence probably is. This is similar to the method used by Facebook to translate its website, though of course Duolingo’s project is much more ambitious in scope. Read more

18-century Code Cracked

Machine translation is probably not a good choice for your business. However, in the right hands it can be quite useful. A case in point: researchers from the University of Southern California and Uppsala University in Sweden just used a machine translation program described as being similar to Google Translate to crack an 18th-century cipher that has been bedevilling linguists for centuries.

The code, known as the Copiale Cipher, was used by an 18-century German secret society to protect their rituals and teachings. It has resisted attempts at translation since it was discovered at the end of the cold war. In other words, eat your heart out, Dan Brown!

To crack the code, the team first had to transcribe all of the symbols into a machine-readable format. Then, they let their computer analyse the document, looking at first for meaningful correlations amongst the Greek and Roman letters sprinkled throughout the text. Read more

UK Languages

Languages of the UK

Which languages are spoken in the UK?

Which languages are spoken in the UK? This is a question asked by many of our clients. Unfortunately there are no official figures on the subject which makes the question a difficult one to answer, and in turn raises the additional question of which languages to support when producing a campaign.

So, we have compiled the following research over a number of years to help various campaigns and public communication initiatives.

The research that we have done in this field has looked at the following areas to help us to answer the question of, which languages should I be translating for the UK home market?

  • The information gathered by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) in the Census 2001,
  • Which languages are supported when the Government translate for the home market, and,
  • The current social economic situation.

This page is a consolidation of the research that we have found on the subject and shows an insight into which languages are spoken in the UK. If you have any comments about this research please use the contact page on this website.

Census 2001

Census UK Languages

In an ideal world we would be able to get this information directly from the results of the Census in 2001, but the question ‘which language do you speak/understand best’ wasn’t included in the Census.

Perhaps this question wasn’t included because it is irrelevant if asked in a language that is not understood “ it is no use asking a Chinese speaker what language they speak in English. To pre-empt this, the Office of National Statistics (ONS) carried out their own research into what languages are spoken in the UK, this was done in partnership with Local Authorities in England and Wales.

After this data had been analysed the ONS provided linguistic support in the following languages for Census 2001.

  • Albanian/Kosovan, Arabic, Bengali, Chinese (Cantonese), Croatian, Farsi /Persian, French, German, Greek, Gujerati, Hindi, Italian, Japanese, Polish, Portuguese, Punjabi, Russian, Serbian, Somali, Spanish, Swahili, Turkish, Urdu and Vietnamese.

Additional Languages for 2008

Given the recent increase in economic migration from countries in Central Europe we would also add the following to the list.

  • Bulgarian, Czech, Estonian, Hungarian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Romanian, Slovak and Slovenian.

Consideration must also be made for the native languages of the UK such as, Welsh, Scottish Gaelic, Scots, Cornish, Irish and (of course) English.

And then cross referencing this against what languages are supported by the Central Office of Information (COI), we can conclude that the list of languages below will cover the vast majority of the current UK population.

  • Albanian/Kosovan, Arabic, Bengali, Bulgarian, Chinese, Cornish, Croatian, Czech, English, Estonian, Farsi /Persian, French, German, Greek, Gujerati, Hindi, Hungarian, Irish, Italian, Japanese, Latvian, Lithuanian, Polish, Portuguese, Punjabi, Romanian, Russian, Scots, Scottish Gaelic, Serbian, Slovak, Slovenian, Somali, Spanish, Swahili, Tamil, Turkish, Urdu, Vietnamese and Welsh.

While this information is very useful if a UK wide campaign is planned (or if budgets are not an issue), most projects will be specific to a particular region and therefore we need to know which communities are concentrated in which areas.

This information can be gained from looking at local populations and their country of birth. In other words what percentage of a local population is born abroad.

Born abroad

As the global economy accelerates, the flow of information, investment and industry across international borders means that people with different languages and cultures follow the opportunities this creates.

The UK is one of the strongest economies in Europe and has had years of low inflation, low unemployment, relatively low interest rates and the City of London is now one of the world’s major financial centres “ this all leads to an attractive proposition when attracting migrants.

This has lead to an increasingly culturally (and linguistically) diverse UK.

To illustrate this point the graph below shows the growth in the number of people that were not born the United Kingdom that are now currently residing here. The figures were part of a survey done by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPRR) entitled the New Immigrant Communities Study. It shows that there are 4.3 million people living in the UK (and consuming public services and products) that were not born here.

Languages spoken in the UK

Given that this figure has grown at 38% between the years of 1991-2001 we have assumed that this growth will continue (safe assumption given the new entrants in the EU). This played forward gives a figure of approx 6 million people living but not born in the UK in 2011, 10% of the UK population.

What languages where?

Looking at research provided by the BBC, the Institute for Public Policy Research and Sheffield University Social and Spatial Inequalities Research Group, we are able to give an overview of which groups of people live in which area and therefore an indication of the languages spoken in each region.

For instance, looking at the London region the data shows that (in 2001) 1.7m people living in London in 2001 were born outside of Britain. The following 10 countries and regions were the most common birth places of these 1.7m people, accounting for ~50% (the languages spoken there are provided in brackets).

  • India (Hindi, Punjabi, Bengali, Gujerati and Tamil (Although there are many others))
  • Caribbean (English, French, Spanish and Dutch)
  • South and East Africa (Afrikaans, Zulu, Xhosa, Amharic, Chichewa, Oromo and English)
  • Bangladesh (Bengali)
  • Nigeria (English is the official language but others include Yoruba, Igbo and Hausa)
  • Pakistan (Urdu, English and Pashto)
  • Kenya (Swahili and English)
  • Central and West Africa (Swahili, Kirundi, Yoruba and Hausa)
  • The Far East (Arabic, Farsi, Kurdish, Pashto and Sorani)
  • Sri Lanka (Tamil)

In total 25% of the city’s population was born abroad, this was 18% in 1991, an increase of 38%. This is not uniform all over the city with the largest percentage of born abroad residents residing in Wembley where 52% of people were born abroad (the most common places of birth being India, Caribbean and Sri Lanka). While the lowest was Upminster at 4% of the population (the most common places of birth being India, Africa and the Caribbean).

So, armed with this information you will be able to make better choices about what to translate and what languages to provide support for in your projects. When purchasing language services make sure that you use the pan Government agreement put in place by the OGC as this offers considerable savings and improved flexibility over previous agreements. More information can be found on this website.

If you have any comments about the research please do contact us, we welcome all feedback.

Universal Translator

“Universal translators” have fuelled science fiction plots for decades, and building such a device

has long been the Holy Grail for tech-oriented linguists. However, the prototypes that have appeared so far have used machine translation. Over the past few years, machine translation has  improved by leaps and bounds, but it’s still not precise enough to be relied upon for complex conversations.

That may soon change. A new start-up called Babelverse  has an incredibly ambitious goal: putting real-time, human-powered translation at the fingertips of everyone with a mobile device like a computer or smart phone.  Basically, the service connects you with an interpreter working remotely, and is supposed to cost about the same as placing a phone call. Babelverse can also set up interpreters for conferences, saving the expense of arranging for on-site interpreters. The conference industry is the main focus of their business at the moment, and the founders expect to leverage it to provide for further expansion. Read more

A Bounty on Engrish

Visitors to South Korea, take note. The Korea Tourism Organization (KTO) has set a bounty on the awkward, low-quality translations known as “Engrish.” These malapropisms are a prime source of amusement for tourists abroad in Asian countries (see The Top 10 Asian English Translation Failures for examples), but locals are generally somewhat embarrassed by their existence. Plus, when you’re a tourist trying to navigate a foreign country, mistranslations don’t help.

It’s understandable, then, that the KTO would make it a priority to improve the quality of translations available to tourists. What’s interesting is the way in which they are going about it. As CNNGo reports, from now until December 14th, you can go to the Visit Korea website and submit pictures of translation mistakes from any tourist site in South Korea. When you do, you’ll be entered to win the Korean equivalent of a $45 gift card, accepted anywhere credit cards are taken. Read more

Ojibwe Language Into Modern Day

The Ojibwe language is the fourth most common Native American language spoken in North America, with a total of approximately 56.531 speakers in the US and Canada. Even so, like most native languages, it is in some danger of dying out as most of the speakers are elderly.

However, steps are being taken to preserve the language. One effort, which is being led by University of Minnesota Duluth education professor Mary Hermes, involves creating a series of videos showing Ojibwe being used in casual, everyday situations, as it will have to be spoken if it is to survive and thrive in the future. Read more

Zambian Farmers

One of the most important aspects of language preservation is the ability to record the language in writing. However, many endangered languages lack an orthography, or writing system. UNESCO notes that “it is extremely difficult to estimate how many written and unwritten languages there are in the world, and there is no established source of information.” What is certain, however, is that languages that can’t be written down suffer from a competitive disadvantage, as may the people who speak them.

One such language was ciShanjo, spoken in Zambia’s Western province. Nancy Kula, a linguist at the University of Essex, told the BBC that the language “is very much under threat of extinction.”

Until recently, the lack of a writing system made it even more vulnerable, but that has changed as representatives of a ciShanjo-speaking village collaborated with linguist Paul Tench to devise and standardize a spelling system for their language. Read more

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