BSL Dialects Fading Away

British Sign Language (BSL) is used by approximately 125,000 deaf adults and 20,000 children in the UK.  But they don’t all sign the same way. Just as spoken English varies depending on where you are, British Sign Language has regional dialects of its own.  Sometimes, BSL signers from different regions of the UK have to stop and compare completely different signs for the same word!

Signs can even vary between different towns and cities. For example, Manchester has its own unique system of number signs.

Now, however, the BBC reports these sign language dialects are fading away. A recent study of 250 BSL users from across the UK found that younger signers were using fewer of these unique regional signs.

The lead researcher behind the study, Dr Kearsy Cormier, explained her findings to the BBC:

“Some regional signs appear to be in decline, as younger people are using them less, with some rarely used at all. The variation is at the level of vocabulary rather than accent or grammar, and similar examples in English would be plimsolls, daps, sannies, gutties, or pumps for canvas shoes.

There are several possible reasons for the decline. First, prior to the 1940’s, deaf children in British schools were encouraged to lip read and finger spell rather than to sign. BSL was taught “unofficially,” person-to-person, in schools for the deaf. So there was a lot of room for regional signs to spring up, as students at each school signed a little bit differently.

Since the 1970’s, BSL has increasingly been taught as a subject and used as a language of instruction for deaf students, and so it has become more standardized.

Also, many schools for the deaf have closed as resources are now available to mainstream deaf students and allow them to learn alongside their hearing peers.

Third, media such as television is increasingly available in BSL, further contributing to the trend of standardization.

Finally, people move around more than they used to.  So, there is less opportunity for deaf children to grow up signing a regional dialect.

Should the decline of regional sign language dialects be viewed as a tragedy, or as part of a natural language evolution? It depends on who you ask.

Charlie Swinbourne, editor of the Limping Chicken, a popular blog aimed at the deaf and hard of hearing, waxed nostalgic about the different sign language dialects to the BBC:

“Regional variation is something that is part of the richness of the culture and how the language has developed and it is a special thing. When signs start disappearing, or people get older or stop using them, there is a sense of who will keep those variations alive? You feel like it could all change quite quickly and there are people who do try to keep it alive.”

Meanwhile, Paul Redfern, from the British Deaf Association considers it part of the natural evolution of the language:

“The vast majority of people probably don’t really think about it, because it is language, and it is a living language, it is not dead or frozen, and languages change and languages reflect what is happening to you in a contemporary sense.”

What do you think?

10 Surprising Words The English Language Borrowed

We English speakers like to pretend that English is the center of the universe, but do you know how many of the words we use every day were borrowed from other languages?

According to, if you open up an English dictionary, approximately 80 percent of the words inside were originally borrowed from another language. Latin and French are the most important sources of loanwords. Latin is the largest source of loanwords overall, but French is the most significant source of new loanwords.

Some loanwords are easy to spot, like “entrepreneur.” Others have become so embedded in the English language that you might be surprised to learn they were borrowed. Here are some examples:

1. Leg : If English hadn’t borrowed the Old Norse “leggr,” we might still call our lower limbs “shanks.”

2. Skin: “Skin” comes from Old Norse, too. The Anglo-Saxon synonym is “hide.”

3. Sky, from an Old Norse word meaning “cloud,” replaced the Anglo-Saxon “heofon” around 1300.

4. They, their and them: These pronouns come from the Old Norse “þeir,”  and replace older the older plural pronouns hie, hire and heora.

5. Science comes to English directly from Old French. French, in turn, borrowed the word from the Latin “scientia,” meaning “knowledge.”

6. War: According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, “war” comes from the Old North French word “werre.” Prior to this borrowing, “Old English had many poetic words for “war” (wig, guð, heaðo, hild, all common in personal names), but the usual one to translate Latin bellum was gewin “struggle, strife.”

7. Person: “Person” is another English word with both Latin and French origins. It comes from the Old French “persone,” which is itself a French borrowing of the Latin “persona.” 

8. Cockroach: This ubiquitous pest gets its English name from the Spanish “cucaracha.” Cucaracha became “cockroach” through a process called “folk etymology,” where people began to replace the elements of the unfamiliar Spanish word with bits of English that sounded more familiar.

9. Very: The blandest adjective ever comes to us from the Old French “verai,” which meant “”true, truthful, sincere; right, just, legal.”

10. Alcohol is actually an Arabic word.  So, how did we end up borrowing the term for liquor from a culture that doesn’t even drink?  According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word comes from the old Arabic word for eyeliner, “al-kuhul.” In those days, “kohl” was made of finely powdered antimony produced by the chemical process of sublimation:

“Powdered cosmetic” was the earliest sense in English; definition broadened 1670s to “any sublimated substance, the pure spirit of anything,” including liquids.”

Which English words were you surprised to find out had been borrowed? Let us know in the comments!

The Yurok Language is Supposed to Be Dead

The Yurok Native American tribe has lived in northwestern California along the Pacific coast for centuries. Unlike many  Native American tribes, they still occupy a portion of their original territory and maintain many of their cultural traditions.  Like all tribes, however, their language is in danger.

The Yurok language was supposed to be extinct by now. Decades ago, linguists were predicting it would die out around 2010, along with the last generation that grew up speaking it. In  fact, the last native speaker, Archie Thompson, died last year.

However, Yurok has been making something of a comeback in recent years with aid from an unlikely corner: the local public school system. The New York Times reports that the language is taught as a foreign language in four California public high schools and two elementary schools. The classes are not restricted to Yurok tribe members.

According to Yurok teacher Carole Lewis, this is by design. She told the New York Times:

“The generation before me had an advisory group, and they said, ‘We want to teach the Yurok language to anybody who wants to learn it,’ because they were in a place where our language was disappearing off the face of the earth.”

In previous generations, Native American children were punished, often harshly, for speaking their language in school. So, this is a nice reversal.  Rick Jordan, the principal of Eureka High School, told the New York Times:

“A hundred years ago, it was our organizations that were beating the language out of folks, and now we’re trying to re-instill it — a little piece of something that’s much bigger than us.”

Yurok is now the most widely taught Native American language in the state of California. Want to hear what it sounds like? Listen to this recording of a traditional story from the University of California, Berkeley.

Photo Credit: Attribution Some rights reserved by Michael Fraley

No French Translation Needed for Brand Names in Quebec

The Quebec government has long been known for its stringent attempts to preserve the province’s French character. The Office québécois de la langue française has a controversial history of policing businesses of all sizes.  Inspectors with the Quebec “language police” issue tickets and fines for unauthorized use of English on signs, menus and the like.

In 2011, bothered by the impact of English language signs from multinational corporations on Quebec’s linguistic landscape, the OQLF began encouraging these companies to translate their brand names. In 2012, they began threatening to sanction companies that refused to at least add a generic French business term to their signs, such as “les cafés” for a coffee shop. So, a group of retailers including Best Buy, Costco, The Gap, Old Navy, Guess, Walmart and Curves sued to have the scope of the law clarified.

Now, a Canadian judge has ruled that under current Quebec law, the government lacks the power to impose sanctions on brands that refuse to translate their English brand names or to add French to their signs.

In an opinion quoted in the  National Post, Justice Yergeau wrote

“It is up to the Quebec legislator to show the way if he feels Quebec’s French linguistic face is suffering from a wave, a breaker even, of English trademarks on public signage and to impose, by legislation if necessary, the solutions he considers adequate.”

Lawyer Brent Tyler told CTV Montreal that he expected the government to appeal, but he doesn’t seem to think they have much of a case:

“I was a little amazed when the Office first came up with this interpretation. The OQLF argues that a company name is the equivalent of a trademark and that’s not the case…The OQLF took the position that a French description was not required and then, without changing the law or regulations, suddenly changed their position to say that it is required.”

Photo Credit: AttributionShare Alike Some rights reserved by MPD01605

Who Should Win This Sign Language Rap Battle?

Jimmy Kimmel may have made history on Tuesday, when he hosted what was billed as the “first ever (probably last ever) sign language rap battle” on his show, Jimmy Kimmel Live!

A sign language rap battle? How does that work?

Kimmel invited three of the most well-known and experienced live music American Sign Language interpreters to interpret for his audience. Holly Maniatty, Joann Benfield and Amber Galloway Gallego have interpreted for a long list of musical performers including Eminem, Lady Gaga, Lil Wayne and Snoop.

The interpreters took turns interpreting a live performance of “Black and Yellow” by Wiz Khalifa.

ASL interpreting at concerts has grown in visibility over the past few years, fueled in part by videos of the interpreters enthusiastically performing for their audience.  Their interpretations have captured the attention of hearing and deaf fans alike, and of the artists themselves. In 2013, rapper Killer Mike told Slate the way Holly Maniatty interprets is “[A}n art form; that’s more than just a technical skill.” Watch the video, and you’ll see why.

Another great moment in ASL interpreting came after the rap battle. Asked if he usually has a sign language interpreter onstage, Khalifa responded “Yeah, sometimes I get like pretty stoned, I can’t remember the words.” As it turns out, you don’t have to know ASL to understand the sign for “marijuana.” To quote Holly Maniatty, “It’s pretty universal.”

After the performance, the rapper was assigned the difficult task of choosing a winner. He took the easy way out and chose all three.  Who do you think should have won?

German Language Laws Divide Spouses

According to the Goethe Institute, six percent of all couples living in Germany are bi-national; that is, one partner is from another country.

However, strict German language laws create obstacles for these couples, often making it impossible for them to live together in Germany even after they’ve been legally married.

The laws require foreign spouses to pass a German language test to join their partners in Germany. No test, no visa. Recently, one couple kept apart by the law spoke to the Associated Press about their situation.

Michael Guhle and Thi An Nguyen had a fairy tale romance. They met in her small Vietnamese fishing village when Guhle was on vacation. They married in Vietnam in 2007. Their plans to live together in Germany were on hold for years while the new Mrs. Guhle tried to pass the German competency test.

Michael Guhle explained to the AP:

 “I thought marrying the person you love and living together was a human right. Apparently this is not the case in Germany.”

The German government claims the laws are there to protect potentially vulnerable immigrants. A spokesman from Germany’s Interior Ministry told the AP that the laws help prevent forced marriages. He also claimed they help new immigrant spouses to integrate into German society.

 “If an immigrant doesn’t have to start from scratch but already knows how to communicate, he will be more motivated to successfully work on his integration after he has received his visa.”

On the other hand, opponents claim the laws effectively discriminate based on social class. According to Hiltrud Stoecker-Zafari, the head of the national Association of Binational Couples and Partners:

“Well-educated people who can afford the language classes won’t have any problems meeting the language requirements quickly — but not the others. Therefore we think: This country obviously wants to send out the message that financially weak and not well-qualified spouses should not even come here.”

The law is set to be challenged in the European Court of Justice this month. Meanwhile, six years later, Mr. and Mrs. Guhle finally got their fairy-tale ending, when a German court agreed to allow her to immigrate. How stringent do you think language requirements should be for foreign spouses?

Photo Credit: AttributionShare Alike Some rights reserved by Grand Velas Riviera Maya

Multilingual design and translation documents

Multilingual design

Working with a single language is relatively straightforward so long as you are familiar with its nuances & rules. When dealing with multiple languages though, great care and attention to detail must be employed to ensure that each language is given its due. Every Language has its own unique combination of factors in style, script or reading direction.

Whenever undertaking any kind of multilingual design, a clear understanding of what typesetting a foreign language involves is imperative. If you were to compare Chinese and German to English for example, you would see that German words appear much longer and the Chinese, much, much shorter.  Even at this basic level, text length alone can have a dramatic effect on a translated documents’ design.

Text length is just one basic aspect of many which has to be considered while designing a multilingual document. The next thing to take into account is the direction of which a language is read. In Latin based languages, sentences are read from left to right where as other languages like Arabic, Hebrew and Urdu are read from right to left. This variation has a significant impact on a documents layout, which generally needs to be completely flipped. For a multipage document, this can mean the back becomes the front and vice versa.

Another factor that designers need to be aware of is that not all languages use a standard font. For instance, Western European languages generally employ Latin or Roman script whereas Greek, Russian, Indian, Middle Eastern and Asian languages use completely different character sets.  These are just some of the fundamental differences designers need to consider when working with foreign languages…

  • Text length
  • Word order
  • Reading direction
  • Character sets

Aside from just the technical implications, designers also need to be sympathetic to several cultural concerns. Colours and images may have significantly different connotations when viewed in different regions, which can range from benign to severe depending on the target audience. Depending on the document, this can require a significant redesign to ensure any potential culture shock is avoided.


English is a Crazy Language

When you speak it every day, you tend to take it for granted, but the English language is actually kind of crazy. In fact, a video reminding us of all the ways in which its sanity could be called into question recently went viral on YouTube. Here it is, for your viewing pleasure:

A few gems from the video (all excerpts from Richard Krogh’s poem “The English Lesson”):

“If you speak of a box, then the plural is ‘boxes.’ But the plural of ‘ox’ should be ‘oxen,’ not ‘oxes.'”

” One is a goose, two are called ‘geese.’ Yet the plural of ‘moose’ should never be ‘meese.'”

“We talk of a brother and also of brethren, but though we say ‘mother,’ we never say ‘methren.'”

“I take it you already know/ Of tough and bough and cough and dough?”

“Watch out for meat and great and threat/ (they rhyme with suite and straight and debt).”

Why is English so weird?

Wikipedia notes that “In general, English spelling does not reflect the sound changes in the pronunciation of the language that have occurred since the late fifteenth century.”

For example, once upon a time, tough, bough, cough, and dough were all pronounced the same. However, the pronunciations naturally shifted over the years. The spelling, on the other hand, did not.

In fact, it seems like the only “spelling reforms” that ever stuck in English were the reforms that had the effect of making things more confusing. Take “debt,” for instance. Originally, it was spelled “dette.” Apparently the “b” crept in there when people began trying to tie it to the Latin word “debitum,” from which it was believed to be descended.

What about the irregular plurals? Many of them go back to the days of Old English. For example, “oxen” and “brethren” come from Old English weak declension, while “geese” is from Old English consonantal declension.

Crazy, isn’t it?

British School to Teach English as a Second Language

Earlier this year, a report showed that in 1 out of 9 British schools, English is no longer the language spoken at home for the majority of students.

Now, in a proposal that’s sure to get people talking, a secondary school in Leeds has announced that they plan to teach English as though it were a foreign language to everyone – even students born and raised in Britain.

City of Leeds School’s student body is quite diverse, including 55 different nationalities. Students’ families come from all over the world, with some of the largest groups being Pakistani, Czech Roma and Traveller. According to the Yorkshire Post, less than a quarter of the students have English as a first language.

The school is rated as “requires improvement” by Ofsted, though that’s not entirely unexpected considering the challenges faced by its pupils.

Head teacher Georgiana Sale explained the problems faced by the school to the Yorkshire Post:

“Many of our pupils are not only new to English but they are not even literate in their own language. In some cases we are the first people to put a pen in their hand…Around half of our children are new to the country within four years. It is generally thought it takes five years to properly learn a language and that is when you have total immersion it. A lot of our children don’t have that because it is not being spoken at home.”

But what about the English students? Apparently, having parents who speak English doesn’t guarantee that a student will speak English well enough to excel on the GCSE exams. So, the instructions will aim to help these pupils improve in spelling and grammar. Ms. Sale told the Telegraph,

“The demands on the formality of language and the standards of spelling and grammar in GCSE exams are getting higher and higher. The level of language written and talked by the vast majority of our native English speakers would not be high enough to get A grades…It won’t be taught like you or I learned French. It’s going to be differentiated according to what they need and a lot of my children need to be taught English as a language.”

What do you think of this plan?

Photo credit: Attribution Some rights reserved by James Sarmiento

Elia ND Riga

Come see me present at EliaND Riga

I will be presenting at EliaND in Riga (Latvia) later on this month.

The topic I’ve chosen to talk about is ‘Running a Growing Company’. It builds on the topic I spoke about at memoQfest last year and consolidates a lot of my learnings from the Business Growth Program (at Cranfield Uni), Growth Accelerator, the last 18 months being a CEO and as far back as my own MBA.

Just putting the finishing touches to my slides together now. Here’s a quick look. Yes I am still using Greiner’s Curve (because its awesome and explains exactly the issues we face in growing LSPs). I do have some new models you’ve not seen.

Greiners Curve

My slot is 10.30 > 11.40 on the 24th April. Hope to see you there.


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