London’s Languages, Mapped in Tweets

With more than 300 languages spoken, London is truly a diverse city. But what does that diversity look like on a map? To find out, two researchers from University College London used Twitter to visualize the city’s many languages via its tweets. You can see a screenshot of the result above, but I recommend clicking through to the original version on researcher James Chesire’s blog for a more detailed version.

Diversity aside, 92.5 percent of the tweets on the map are in English. Other common languages (in order of prominence) were Spanish, French, Turkish, Arabic and Portuguese.

After collecting the tweets, the researchers applied an algorithm derived from the one Google Chrome uses to identify the languages of the websites you encounter while surfing the web. The algorithm made short work of sorting the tweets by language. For some reason, though, it misclassified English-language with repetitive acronyms like “lololol” and “hahahaha” as belonging to the Philippine language of Tagalog. So, all “Tagalog” tweets had to be discarded.

Once that was done, the researchers were left with a set of geolocated tweets in 66 different languages. Color-coded and placed on a map, they create what James Chesire called a “paint-speckled effect” that showcases London’s linguistic diversity.

However, as researcher Ed Manley noted on his blog, London is actually even more diverse than the map indicates:

“In total, 92.5% of tweets are detected as English, far above existing estimations (60%) of English speakers in London. While languages you’d expect to score highly – such as Bengali and Somali – barely feature at all. Either people only tweet in English, or usage of Twitter varies significantly among language groups in London.”

Of course, a city’s Twitter users are by no means a representative sample of the population. On his blog, Chesire explains that the tweets they were able to map represent an even more selective data set, as “they only include people who have a good location (through GPS) and those who are connected to the internet.”

Even with those limitations in mind, the map is still quite fascinating. What do you think of it?

Kindle Paperwhite Now Speaks Japanese

After 5 years, Amazon has finally released its popular Kindle and the Kindle Store to the Japanese market. A Japanese version of the new Kindle Paperwhite is now available for pre-order in Japan, as are the Kindle Fire and Kindle Fire HD tablets.

Considering Japan’s reputation as voracious consumers of all things tech, why did Amazon wait so long? There are a couple of possibilities. TechCrunch’s Ingrid Lunden attributed the delay to hardware issues, such as the need for a keyboard with Japanese characters; the availability of Japanese-language content and the need to negotiate data agreements with local mobile carriers. Obviously, the switch from keyboards to touchscreens meant that hardware was no longer an obstacle.

However, PC Mag theorizes that Amazon simply believed that earlier versions of the Kindle wouldn’t have translated well. So, the company decided to wait until it had perfected its e-reader screen before introducing it to Japan. The earlier iterations of the Kindle were apparently good enough for the rest of us, but not for the Japanese:

“With a consumer base known for its 99 percent literacy rate, as well as a national passion regarding the way in which words are graphically presented (Japanese calligraphy) it’s no wonder Amazon waited years before diving into the market with a Kindle dedicated to the Japanese language.”

Either way, it was about time for Amazon to introduce its signature e-reader to Japan. In a company press release, Jeff Bezos said

“After twelve years of selling print books on, we are excited to offer the millions of customers the new Kindle Store, with the largest selection of the books people want to read, the largest selection of Oricon best sellers in books, bunko, and manga, and over 50,000 Japanese-language titles—all available to anyone with a Kindle Paperwhite, Kindle Fire, Android phone, Android tablet, iPhone, or iPad.”

Photo Credit: Attribution Some rights reserved by kodomut

Crowdsourcing an Ancient Script

Proto-Elamite was a writing system used 5,000 years ago by the proto-Elamite people, the oldest known civilization in Iran. Although it was written in clay tablets like cuneiform and probably inspired by the proto-Elamites’ Mesopotamian neighbors, the proto-Elamite script is quite different in appearance, consisting mainly of lines and circles. These differences, along with the lack of any bilingual tablets like the Rosetta stone, have kept proto-Elamite a mystery to scholars. As an added bonus, some of the tablets we do have appear to be riddled with errors caused by poorly educated scribes.

Now, Jacob Dahl of Oxford’s Wolfson College believes that with the help of new technology and crowdsourcing, the script may soon be a mystery no more. He told the BBC, “I think we are finally on the point of making a breakthrough” in understanding the script.

Dr. Dahl is using a machine called a Reflectance Transformation Imaging System to capture incredibly rich, incredibly detailed images of the Proto-Elamite tablets stored at the Louvre. These images are being made available to other scholars and the general public at the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative’s website.

The new, clearer images and easy access should make it easier for scholars from all over the world to have a go at translating the tablets. In a press release from Oxford, Dr. Dahl commented that

“The quality of the images captured is incredible. And it is important to remember that you cannot decipher a writing system without having reliable images because you will, for example, overlook differences barely visible to the naked eye which may have meaning. Consider for example not being able to distinguish the letter i from the letter t.”

Interestingly, scholars now believe that the proto-Elamite script used a syllabary (where different symbols represent different sounds) instead of a collection of pictographs (where the symbols represent objects). This may be one reason it’s so hard to translate, especially since we don’t know what the language it represents sounded like.

According to Dr, Dahl, if the tablets are deciphered, it would revolutionize our understanding of how writing developed:

“Half of the signs used in this way seem to have been invented ex novo for the sounds they represent – if this turns out to be the case, it would transform fundamentally how we understand early writing where phonetecism is believed to have been developed through the so-called rebus principle (a modern example would be for example “I see you”, written with the three signs ‘eye’, the ‘sea’, and a ‘ewe’).”

French Readers Devour "50 Shades of Grey" Translation

50 Shades of Grey may have effortlessly taken the English-speaking world by storm, but what about the French? The answer may surprise you.

After all, in the country that gave us the Marquis de Sade, you’d expect readers to have more discriminating tastes when it comes to sadomasochism. French literary critics most certainly did. Here’s a sampling of the book’s critical reception, from the Daily Mail:

  • ‘It exposes the cultural gulf between the Anglo-Saxon hypocrisy and the old authentic sado-masochism of the French.’ — Les Inrocks Magazine
  • ‘Some couples may say it has helped their sex lives by reading it, but it’s as close to literature as Whiskas cat food is to gastronomy.’ — L’Express

And one more from the Guardian:

  • “It’s 50 shades of boredom.” —

The critics in France must have been sorely disappointed by the reactions of their countrywomen, as according to the Daily Mail the translation has become “the fastest selling book in French history.”

Here’s how Isabelle Laffont, managing director of JC Lattès, the book’s French publisher, explained the book’s appeal to the Guardian:

“We have been pleasantly surprised by the way the book has been received. Everyone says it’s not literature, which is true, but we are promoting it as the story of love like you have never read before. For the first time this is a book that is erotic but also about love. Previous books have had the eroticism but have been rather brutal, but this is a love story. It’s a bit hot in places, but it’s not perverse and the heroine is not a victim.”

Other possible explanations:

  • Curiosity killed the cat. (If you’re curious and haven’t read it yet, this post from the Everywhereist might help you resist the urge.)
  • Sometimes, you don’t want fine champagne and brie….you just want to curl up on the couch with a bottle of cheap wine and a box of Twinkies. This would be the literary equivalent of doing just that.

Gangnam Style Translated into English

We know you wanted us to… so here’s the English translation for Gangnam Style.


Oppa is Gangnam style
Gangnam style  Read more

Arizona Election Date Lost in Translation

There are many situations in which it’s important to have a correct translation, but when you’re trying to help people access a basic constitutional right, it’s especially crucial to avoid errors.

That’s a why a tiny translation error on official paperwork given out in Spanish along with voter registration cards in Arizona is causing a stir in the United States. The US general election date is November 6th, but on the translated version of the Spanish handout, the date is given as “8 de noviembre,” or the 8th of November. Spanish-speaking voters relying on the paperwork would have showed up at the polls two days late, losing the opportunity to cast a ballot.

Fortunately, the error only affected a small number of voters in Maricopa County. The Department of Elections spokeswoman, Yvonne Reed, told ABC News no harm was intended:

“It’s an honest mistake. Between the time the voter [who caught the mistake] came in to our front counter to get her card and we were notified of the error, the mistake had been corrected.”

The Maricopa County Department of Elections also told ABC News that it believes less than 50 people were given the erroneous hand outs, as the error only affected Spanish-language documents given out over the counter. The vast majority of people have their voter registration cards and the associated documents mailed out to their home address.

Still, Charlotte Walker, the Maricopa County resident who first noticed the error, was concerned about its potential impact. She told ABC News:

“It could have a significant impact on the election outcome because they’d go to the polls on November 8th and they wouldn’t be open. They wouldn’t be able to cast their vote this year.”

Meanwhile, Lydia Guzman, a member of the League of United Latin American Citizens and a former employee of the election division of the Arizona secretary of state’s office, told Fox News Latino that the error was unacceptable:

“My concern is what about those disenfranchised voters, they do believe what’s in print , they do, that’s the important part…When its time to print they should have several sets of eyes on the ballot before it goes to print and that’s not what happened here. These kinds of errors are never acceptable.”

It’s hard to argue with that. The fact that the error was caught without affecting many people is a lucky break, indeed.
Image via Wikipedia


British Diplomats To Learn "Hinglish"

British diplomats stationed in India are being strongly encouraged to learn “Hinglish,” a hybrid of English, Hindi and other South Asian languages that has caught fire over the past decade and is now widespread throughout the country.

In a 2004 article on the rise of Hinglish, the Christian Science Monitor called it “a bridge between two cultures that has become an island of its own, a distinct hybrid culture for people who aspire to make it rich abroad without sacrificing the sassiness of the mother tongue.”

Since then, it’s basically become India’s preferred method of communication. English words and syntax mix freely with that of Hindi (and other local languages), often even in the same sentence, as Indians switch back and forth to use the language they feel will best help them get their point across.

The International Business Times quotes Abha Sinha, a professor of informational technology at the University of Toledo in Ohio, who wrote that Hinglish is now more common than either Hindi or English:

“Hindi language magazines and periodicals are harder to come by in the U.S. and the Hindi film industry now uses ‘Hinglish’; an amalgamation of Hindi and English. Communications with friends and relatives too has become Hinglish-ized!”

British diplomats used to be able to get by just knowing English, which has been the language of the Indian elite since colonial days. But now, local languages are not stigmatized, and there’s no taboo against introducing them even into predominantly English settings. If you don’t know the local lingo, you can easily miss half the conversation.

In an article in the Telegraph, a British high commission spokesman explained:

“The Foreign Office is placing increasing importance on the ability to transact business in foreign languages. English news channels often have a portion where people choose to express themselves in Hindi because it captures what they’re trying to say better than the English equivalent, so it’s increasingly important for British diplomats to be able to appreciate the nuances.”

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Dictionary Translates Language of the Everyday Ancient Egyptian

After almost four decades, scholars at the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute have finally finished their magnum opus: a dictionary of demotic Egyptian, the script used by commoners in ancient Egypt.

The elaborate hieroglyphs that adorn the tombs of the pharaohs were much too complicated to be suitable for everyday writing, so a more practical cursive script was developed alongside them. This eventually evolved into demotic Egyptian, used by everyday people to do things like record stories, write love letters, and draft contracts.

According to James Allen, an Egyptologist from Brown University, “there are more unpublished documents in Demotic than any other phase of ancient Egypt.” Now, it should be much easier for scholars to translate those documents. The final entries to the dictionary, which is free to use online, were published last month. It is expected to be released in book format in the future, for use in research libraries.

Gil Stein, the Oriental Institute’s director, told the New York Times that

“It’s really huge what a dictionary does for understanding an ancient society. This will lead to mastering texts from the Egyptians themselves, not their rulers, at a time the country was becoming absorbed increasingly into the Greco-Roman world.”

Other scholars agree. Prof. Friedhelm Hoffmann of the Institute for Egyptology at the University of Munich told

“I myself have been using the Chicago Demotic Dictionary since the first letters were published, not only for looking up words and but also finding their meaning.”

The dictionary has simplified the translation of things like marriage annuities, which show how Egyptian husbands were obliged to provide for their wives, as well as financial records like tax receipts, which were kept on broken pieces of pottery. It may also have assisted in the translation of this “cult fiction” story, which describes the hedonistic and sometimes salacious religious rites practiced by acolytes of the Egyptian goddess Mut.

It also highlights how Demotic Egyptian has lived on through the years in some surprising places. For example, the word “adobe” is derived from Demotic, as is the word “ebony.” According to the New York Times, the name “Susan” is actually Demotic in origin, too. It means “water-lily.”

Image via Wikipedia: This Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons image is from the user Chris 73 and is freely available at // under the creative commons cc-by-sa 3.0 license.

RIP, Cromarty Fisherfolk Dialect

Most people have never heard of the Cromarty Fisherfolk dialect. And now, it’s gone forever. Bobby Hogg, the last living speaker of the dialect, passed away last week. This unique dialect dies with him.

Cromarty is a small fishing community in Scotland with around 700 inhabitants, so the language was always vulnerable. As linguist Dr. Robert McColl Millar of Aberdeen University explained to the Daily Mail,

‘This was always going to be the danger of the Black Isle, as there were so few speakers even when it was healthy, when the fishing was still good. So Bobby Hogg’s passing is a very sad day. It was a very interesting dialect and was unlike any of the others.”

In the Daily Mail, Mr. Hogg himself described his memories of the community he grew up in and the language he grew up speaking:

“Our father was a fisherman and all his folk had been fishermen stretching way back. It was the same on our mother’s side too. When we were young, we talked differently in the fishertown to the rest of Cromarty. It wasn’t written down. It was an oral culture. We had this sort of patois, which I think had both Doric and Gaelic in it. There were words, a lot to do with the fishing, which nobody else could understand.”

According to a publication on the dialect from, at one time in Cromarty’s history, there were three different dialects: one for the farmers, one for the townspeople, and one for the fisherfolk.

To give you a feel for what’s been lost, here are some of the more interesting and evocative (in my opinion, at least) vocabulary words from the Cromarty Fisherfolk dialect:

  • ablach: odd-looking, awkward
  • belwar: layers of tangles
  • bronyach: poor creature
  • cosfeet, cosfit, cossetor cossits: starfish
  • carcle: to count, calculate
  • crockums or crockuns: refuse of fish livers after oil is extracted
  • droog-droogle: be engaged in wet, heavy work
  • foodge or fooge: to play truant
  • greenga or greengaw: slimy grass left after the tide has receded
  • lyeerin: green slime
  • tumblers: dolphins & harbour porpoises

Photo Credit: AttributionShare Alike Some rights reserved by brockvicky

International Translation Day 2012

Over the past weekend, we observed one of the world’s most underrated holidays: International Translation Day! Every year on September 30th, translators and interpreters across the globe gather to celebrate this important profession.

Why September 30th? That’s the feast day of St. Jerome, considered to be the patron saint of translators. Born in 347 AD,  Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus (aka St. Jerome) was responsible for most of the Vulgate, the most important Latin translation of the Bible.  Jerome took his translations from the most respected Greek texts and from the Hebrew Tanakh. It was a monumental task.

According to Wikipedia,

“[Jerome]  acquired a knowledge of Hebrew by studying with a Jew who converted to Christianity, and took the unusual position (for that time) that the Hebrew, and not the Septuagint, was the inspired text of the Old Testament…The later resurgence of Hebrew studies within Christianity owes much to him.”

Today,no matter what your faith,  International Translation Day is a day to reflect on the importance of translation, with meetings and symposiums on translation-related topics taking place in cities across the globe. Each year, the International Federation of Translators (FIT) sets a theme for the celebrations. 2012’s theme was “Translation as Intercultural Communication,” focusing on how translation can help build bridges between different cultures. As FIT put it in a press release:

“Facilitated by the major changes and shifts in the global economy, culture and information technology in the last three decades, we now have a radically altered linguistic, socio-political and cultural context for intercultural communication. If “to be or not to be … global” is hardly a question for people and nations in the contemporary era, then “to live or not to live … in translation” is no longer an option but a reality of our everyday life.”

Can you see why this is one of our favorite holidays?

Most excellent e-card via the Making Sense blog

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