Language Lens

A blog about life, discovery and culture through the lens of language and linguistics.

Archive for the category “Linguistics”

Spell “sardoodledom” please!

Spanish, like many of the other Romance languages, has a transparent spelling system, which means once you know how to say the basic letters, you can pronounce nearly anything.  It means that the letters will (almost) always be pronounced the same way.  If only English were this way!  Instead, it has strange letters popping up, like the “h” in spaghetti or the “b” in doubt, and don’t even get me started on the vowels!  Technology is making spelling less and less important to people as well, therefore “a lost art” if you will.   According to Mencap, a third of British adults struggle with spelling due to over-reliance on spell checks and technology, and for people over 18, one out of every five has difficulty spelling tricky words.

Should we all return to the spelling bee days?  Until learning that English has an “opaque”spelling system, also known as deep orthography, I assumed all elementary students participated in spelling bees, some spelling “e-s-c-u-e-l-a” while others spelled “s-c-h-o-o-l.”  But no!  English students need spelling bees because of the spelling issues, difficulties, and rarities.  As English speakers, we must study the spelling because we can’t guess based on solely how the word sounds!  This is why many consider English pronunciation difficult, as one doesn’t know how to say the word by reading it alone.  And it’s also why those regular verbs in the past can get so confused…

So, next time you want to ask your Catalan or Colombian friend about those dreaded spelling competitions, think twice!  They didn’t do it!  But you could ask a French, Arabic or Hebrew speaker perhaps…as their spelling system is like English–opaque and unclear! The question remains if videos like this appear in those languages and cultures!   Spell “sardoodledom” please!

Native Speakers as the Language Authority

Language is a living thing… constantly changing and transforming in the face of modern society.  Spanish, unlike English, has an authority or “regulatory body” which monitors the language and works to promote linguistic unity between different Spanish speaking regions: the Real Academia Española (RAE), Royal Spanish Academy in English. The RAE works to ensure a common standard in the language, following its founding charter: “… to ensure the changes that the Spanish language undergoes […] do not break the essential unity it enjoys throughout the Spanish-speaking world.”   Since English has no official regulatory body, some suggest the Queen is that authority or dictionaries like the Oxford English dictionary or the Merriam-Webster dictionary, but in the end, dictionaries are just a collection of words and language is so much more than that.

There are many more countries in the world that speak Spanish compared to English, however, there are many more English speakers in the world as it´s the most common second language to learn and is a lingua franca.  English as a lingua franca (ELF) has emerged as a way to explain communication in English between speakers with different first languages. One in every four English speakers in the world are native speakers, therefore the majority are speaking English as their second language!  Since English doesn´t have this authority like the RAE for Spanish, it will naturally be influenced by many people who speak it as only a second language and not even from just natives.  Singlish is an example: colloquial English spoken in Singapore.  Although English is an official language in Singapore, Singlish is a dialect with unique intonations and grammar stemming from the influence of other languages in the region, such as Malay and Chinese.  It is a regional variation of English–a dialect in other words–but it´s not the same as comparing US and British English as these come from Standard English and are not influenced by other languages in the case of Singlish.

Despite so many people in the world speaking English at a near native level, it is still the native speakers who are thought to have authority in this according to Barbara Seidlhofer in her article English as a lingua franca.  Seidlhofer says that, “there is still a tendency for native speakers to be regarded as custodians over what is acceptable usage.”  Perhaps the RAE equivalent in English are the native speakers themselves.

Despite RAE´s controls, there is a lot of creativity with new words in Spanish.  I love how you can make a verb for almost anything, like matear (as in to drink mate), boludear (to be/act as a “boludo” in Argentina), and my personal favorite: salpimentar (to salt and pepper your food.)  With the internet and technology, news words are constantly being added to the English vocabulary, and English has its own way of creating new words, such as by combining two ideas and/or concepts (like in the examples below) or to make a verb from a noun for the action, such as “to google.”  The following is a summary of some brilliant new terms that really reflect culture in the United States and/or in English speaking countries.  Some made me laugh a bit too!  For a full list of terms from the original article “25 brilliant words to add to your vocabulary”, go here.

afterclap askhole beerboarding cellfish chairdrobe chiptease destinesia dudevorce hiberdating internest nonversation textpectation

I have been back in the United States for about four months, and I can´t say that I have heard any of the following terms used, but I wouldn´t be surprised if I started hearing them, or if they are already used.  Who hasn´t bought a bag of chips and in the end it´s more air than chips?  And “chairdrobe” is great for me, as I have done this my entire life!

These terms are definitely better understood by native speakers, as they join together two words or two ideas to describe a new phenomena, which may not even exist in the same way in a different culture.  Furthermore, these words aren´t “real words” (yet) that one can find in a dictionary.  They are reflections of culture influencing language to create new words for new activities. New words come from new ways of life, and again, language is always changing and evolving, just like life around us.

Connecting meditation and language learning

I come to you almost two weeks after finishing my first meditation retreat.  This was for a technique called Vipassana, which is one of the most ancient forms of meditation from India.  Until about a year ago I had never heard of it, and until about two weeks ago I knew nothing about it.  I had tried several meditation techniques, never getting real direction and only getting frustrated in the process.  Maybe you relate.  Like everyone who starts, I was trying to stop my mind, but how can you do that really? And especially when you have a mind that will never seem to stop running? They say “mente a mil” in Spanish, literally the idea of your mind being at “speed one thousand.”

I am no expert and am pretty young in the meditation world honestly, but I now understand the point and have experienced some real results of my own.  Meditation can be practiced in many forms: in cleaning, drawing, focusing on breath, counting breath, scanning the body for sensations, the list goes on.  You are simply learning to observe your mind rather than stopping it, and each technique has a different approach on how to do it.  By observing, you become aware, and awareness is the first step to any kind of change.

Now I want to talk about language learning, and of course since this is a language blog!  A wise woman once taught me about this thing that happens when acquiring language.  First you become aware of a mistake you are making either on your own or with a teacher´s help. Then you get repeated correction from a teacher (and realize just how much you are making that mistake.) Thirdly, you start to correct yourself, and finally, the error is no longer an error and has been converted, corrected, transformed…however you want to call it.  There is something in linguistics called “fossilization” which is an error that has happened so much or was never learned correctly to begin with that it has “hardened” so to speak, leaving an imprint as a fossil does.  It´s a mistake that a student has made so many times that it has become part of their natural speech, for example.  In the world of meditation, you could call it taking root.

As I worked to find my bliss at the Vipassana retreat, I realized it wasn´t bliss at all really.  It was hard work sitting up for hours at a time and trying to focus.  I had some moments of bliss but there is nothing like the bliss of seeing some change in your life.   I “scanned my body” (and for anyone who has done it, you know what I mean) and throughout the week thoughts came to me, things I hadn´t thought about in years and others that came around and around again.  Some of these thought patterns we all have seem impossible to change, just like a fossilized mistake!

So I´m back to the real world, the hectic world that it is.  Those ten days in silence enjoying nature, finding inner peace, and searching for the right meditation position were blissful now that I compare it to the city noise.  Maybe it is  just that I´m back to the typical routine, and it feels intense because I had never calmed my mind like that before?  Why do we meditate really?  To find peace, tranquility…equanimity… equanimity… equanimity.  We do it to change our minds and to evolve, because you can evolve past the broken record that goes on and on in your head.  Awareness is the key to any kind of freedom, even freedom from language mistakes.  You too can correct and evolve past fossilized mistakes.  It just takes some work.

I had many days to sit and meditate and admittedly think about other things too.  One thing I thought about was this blog post in fact and the connection to fossilized mistakes and roots in our mind.  These things can change… it just takes some work.

meditation one

Happy Birthday Lengua Lens!

Language Lens started as a blog and later developed into something more: Lengua Lens.  One year ago today Lengua Lens was officially launched!  Thanks for your follows, interest and support this past year!

Happy Bday

Translation marketing blunders oh my! Part 1

I have a favorite class with students where we talk about cross cultural communication and share stories about language and/or cultural mishaps.  Something will inevitably happen when you are learning another language.  Working as a waitress once I remember telling a Spanish speaking table that I was pregnant instead of embarrassed.  It`s a common error to make and in the end just reason to laugh.  Don`t let the possibility of saying something wrong stop you from trying!

The stakes are higher in business, however, and translation and cultural awareness must be considered.  In international marketing, one of the most well-known translation blunders comes from car maker Chevy and their car the “Nova.”  In Spanish it literally translates to “It doesn`t go.”  It was obviously not the message Chevy wanted to portray for its car that is suppose to go, and go fast for that matter!  (See below for more clarification on this case.)

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Mistakes with cultural awareness without a doubt have happened and continue to happen, especially as the world becomes more global everyday.  Examples of that for another post!  Today`s post is a compilation of translation mistakes (in writing, not speaking) that led to unfavorable results in international markets.

1. The Chevy Nova isn`t the only English to Spanish (or vice versa) mistake that has occurred with cars.  In fact there have been many.  Here are three examples of model names that were unfit for the Spanish and Portuguese markets.

  • The Mazda Laputa literally translates in Spanish to the Mazda “whore” (la puta).
  • The Nissan Moco literally translates to the Nissan “bugger” (el moco).
  • The Mitsubishi Pajero is the Mitsubishi “wanker.”   The car was renamed as “Montero.”

2. Honda introduced their car the “Fitta” in Nordic countries in 2001, only to later to learn that it referred to a woman’s genitals in Swedish and Norwegian. In the end, they renamed it the “Honda Jazz.”

3. Gerber is America’s best-known baby food maker, but “gerber” can be translated as “to vomit” of all things in French. Evidently the name was not marketed in France.

4. In Germany, Clairol launched a curling iron called the “Mist Stick” and mist in German is slang for manure: the “manure stick.” Uh oh…

5. Sharwoods, a UK food manufacturer, spent £6 million on a campaign to launch its new ‘Bundh’ sauces only later to receive calls from numerous Punjabi speakers indicating that “bundh” sounded just like the Punjabi word for “arse”. Oops!

6. The Japanese company Matsushita Electric (now Panasonic) was promoting a new PC for internet users. They had created the new web browser and received license to use the cartoon character Woody Woodpecker as the interactive internet guide.  The day before launch, they realized the mistake and saved themselves a lot of embarrassment. The ads for the new product featured the following slogan: “Touch Woody – The Internet Pecker.”  “Woody” and “pecker” are both references to male genitals in English.

7. In the 1970`s, Wang Computers was an American computer company with the motto: “Wang Cares.”  Sounding a lot like “wankers,” British branches refused to use the motto.

8. “Traficante” is an Italian mineral water, but in Spanish translates to “drug dealer” or “trafficker.”  In 2006, it was purchased by Coca-Cola.

9. When Pope John Paul II visited Miami in 1987, a local T-shirt maker produced commemorative T-shirts for the Hispanic market “Vi la papa” without realizing that a simple article change in Spanish changed the meaning. The shirts literally read: “I saw the Potato” (“la Papa”), instead of “I saw the Pope” (“el Papa”).

10. The toothpaste and toothbrush company “Colgate” literally means “hang yourself” in the voseo form of Argentinian Spanish.

More on Chevy`s Nova: Despite being perhaps the most common example given in international marketing, the story of the Nova is actually a myth.  The car was sold with this name in Venezuela and Mexico, having quite successful sales in Venezuela in fact.

For a similar post but related to cultural blunders, go here!

Sources:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Find the Beat!

I remember how school changed for me after starting piano lessons; it all of a sudden got easier.  And then there were the really really smart kids who had great grades, scored high on all of the placement tests and were perhaps “smarter than the rest.” I noticed that many of them played an instrument, primarily the piano, and I remember thinking then that perhaps there was a correlation.

And absolutely there is a connection.  Nina Kraus, of the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern University in Illinois,  says, “when we play a musical instrument we are exercising and making important electrical connections, or pathways, in our brains.  This might even help our brains when we are trying to learn another language, or a new subject in school.”  In another study related to reading Nina argues that “kids who are poor readers have a lot of difficulty doing this motor task and following the beat…It seems that the same ingredients that are important for reading are strengthened with musical experience.  It may be that musical training, with its emphasis on rhythmic skills, can exercise the auditory-system, leading to less neural jitter and stronger sound-to-meaning associations that are so essential for learning to read,” she said.  This study adds to the emerging (and fascinating!) correlation between musical-rhythmic skills and performance in other areas related to language, such as non-verbal elements and kinaesthetic learning.

Another recent study with jazz musicians shows that the part of the brain that is activated while playing together is the same area that is related to syntax of a language – the order of words.  In the study, one musician would play four bars and the next would make up four bars in return, to compliment the previous sound.  They were improvizing  and having a “music-like conversation” really, which makes the connection to syntax so interesting.  The study showed that even as they were not playing and were waiting their turn simply listening to the sound of the other, “the brain wasn’t resting. The musicians were processing what they were hearing to come up with new sounds that were a good fit.”  This reminds me of when we are in a conversation and sometimes are thinking about what we are going to say in return rather than just listening to the other talk.  You know it´s happened to you too!

A lot of language learning success is related to being able to recognize and repeat patterns, and what else is full of patterns and rhythms – music.  The intonation of a language, not to be confused with pronunciation or accent, is an essential part of mastering a second language and has all to do with hearing rhythms and tones.  There are countless examples of music and its relation to language learning.  Whether you learn a second language by imitating rhythms and sounds or by listening to a song and learning the new language as a result, find the beat to help you in your language learning process!

Musical beats

Saudade

In Portuguese, the word “saudade” is when you miss someone or something constantly, and not just in the moment.  It´s possible to summarize the feeling in just one word: saudade.   “Estou sentindo saudade de voce.”

saudades de vc

Part of the fun when learning another language is discovering terms and words that don´t exist in your first language.  I can only speak for comparing Spanish and English, however, words like “friolenta/o” (adjective) and “pochoclera” (noun) are a few of my favorites.

  • Friolenta (Argentina) Friolera (Spain): When someone is sensitive to cold and gets cold easily. “Soy friolenta.
  • Pochoclera: Coming from “pochoclo” (popcorn), this is a light-hearted, fun movie that is suitable for eating popcorn. “Quiero mirar una pochoclera.”

As the previous post gave an example of aboriginal girls always knowing which direction was which, it came back to their language which doesn´t use words like left or right and uses compass points instead.  Germans have an expression for being alone in the woods “Waldeinsamkeit” simply because they have forests and have lived the experience; the term wouldn´t serve a culture who only knows the tropical rain forest.  Our words are all subject to the culture from which we grew up, somehow.  From a recent article in 9GAG, entitled “Untranslatable Words, shows a lot about different cultures,” eleven examples were given, each with a hint of culture associated with the term.  I hope you enjoy this as much as I did.

Saudade1

Saudade11Saudade10 Saudade9 Saudade8 Saudade7 Saudade6 Saudade5 Saudade4 Saudade3 Saudade2

How Language Seems To Shape One’s View Of The World

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*This is a fascinating article from the article of the same title by Alan Yu, from the health section of NPR.

Lera Boroditsky once did a simple experiment: She asked people to close their eyes and point southeast. A room of distinguished professors in the U.S. pointed in almost every possible direction, whereas 5-year-old Australian aboriginal girls always got it right.

She says the difference lies in language. Boroditsky, an associate professor of cognitive science at the University of California, San Diego, says the Australian aboriginal language doesn’t use words like left or right. It uses compass points, so they say things like “that girl to the east of you is my sister.”

If you want to learn another language and become fluent, you may have to change the way you behave in small but sometimes significant ways, specifically how you sort things into categories and what you notice.

Researchers are starting to study how those changes happen, says Aneta Pavlenko, a professor of applied linguistics at Temple University. She studies bilingualism and is the author of an upcoming book on this work.

If people speaking different languages need to group or observe things differently, then bilinguals ought to switch focus depending on the language they use. That’s exactly the case, according to Pavlenko.

For example, she says English distinguishes between cups and glasses, but in Russian, the difference between chashka (cup) and stakan (glass) is based on shape, not material.

Based on her research, she started teaching future language teachers how to help their English-speaking students group things in Russian. If English-speaking students of Russian had to sort cups and glasses into different piles, then re-sort into chashka and stakan, they should sort them differently. She says language teachers could do activities like this with their students instead of just memorizing words.

“They feel generally that this acknowledges something that they’ve long expected, long wanted to do but didn’t know how,” Pavlenko says. “They felt that it moved them forward, away from teaching pronunciation and doing the ‘repeat after me’ activities.”

Pavlenko points to research showing that if you’re hungry, you’ll pay more attention to food-related stimuli, and she says speaking another language fluently works the same way.

One’s native language could also affect memory, says Pavlenko. She points to novelist Vladimir Nabokov, who was fully trilingual in English, French and Russian. She says Nabokov wrote three memoirs: He published one in English, and when another publishing house asked for one in Russian, he accepted, thinking he would simply translate his first memoir.

“When Nabokov started translating it into Russian, he recalled a lot of things that he did not remember when he was writing it in English, and so in essence it became a somewhat different book,” Pavlenko says. “It came out in Russian and he felt that in order to represent his childhood properly to his American readership, he had to produce a new version. So the version of Nabokov’s autobiography we know now is actually a third attempt, where he had to recall more things in Russian and then re-translate them from Russian back into English.”

Boroditsky also studied the differences in what research subjects remembered when using English, which doesn’t always note the intent of an action, and Spanish, which does. This can lead to differences in how people remember what they saw, potentially important in eyewitness testimony, she says.

John McWhorter, a linguist at Columbia University, acknowledges such differences but says they don’t really matter. The experiments “show that there are these tiny differentials that you can find that seem to correlate with what language you speak,” McWhorter says. “Nothing has ever demonstrated that your language makes you process life in a different way. It just doesn’t work.”

He calls this “the language hoax,” which happens to be the title of his upcoming book.

As an example, he refers to modern speakers of a Mayan language, who also use directions that roughly correspond to compass points, rather than left or right. Researchers asked people, most of whom only knew this language, to do tasks like memorizing how a ball moved through a maze, which would have been easier had they thought about it in terms of left and right, rather than compass points. The participants were just as good at these tasks and sometimes better,leading the experimenters to conclude they were not constrained by their language.

Boroditsky disagrees. She says the counterexamples simply prove language isn’t the only factor affecting what we notice. Like studying to be a pilot or doctor, she says, learning to speak a different language fluently can also change us, and this means we can learn those changes, like learning any other skill.

“It’s like a very extensive training program,” Boroditsky says. “There’s nothing exotic about the effects that language has on cognition. It’s just the same that any learning has on cognition.

What is a Yankee really?

A Yankee is someone from New England.  It comes from the American Civil War times right?  And it´s the baseball team that always wins? Well, yes and no, because Yankee is so much more than that.  These would be a few common responses in the modern United States, but evidently Yankee can mean different things depending on where you are.  According to “Writing Gooder” blog, a Yankee is the following:

  • To foreigners, a Yankee is an American.
  • To Americans, a Yankee is a Northerner.
  • To Northerners, a Yankee is an Easterner.
  • To Easterners, a Yankee is a New Englander.
  • To a New Englanders, a Yankee is a Vermonter
  • And in Vermont, a Yankee is somebody who eats pie for breakfast.

A Yankee in Argentina (Yanqui) is what other countries call “gringos.” As the list above states, it is used to describe someone from the United States–anyone, and not just someone from the north.  Pronounced something like “Shunky” (and not to be confused with junkie), it is not used intentionally as a derogatory term, although it can happen and there are other alternatives that could be used in Spanish, such as “estadounidense” o “americano/a,” which will be mentioned in another blog post another time.  Some Argentine friends and English teachers recently told me that they thought the word was used incorrectly in Buenos Aires, as a more targeted definition would be for Americans from the northern states.  Knowing this, another Italian student recently asked me what a colleague from the US meant when she said she was a Yankee.  I told him the same, but his colleague was making a reference more to her political views than where she was from.  She was instead stating that she was not (a conservative Texan).  The word is highly confusing, even for Americans! So where did it come from?

yankee doodle flag

There are many theories about the origin of the word.  Evidently in New England, the prevalent theory is that it originated among a group of Native Americans who pronounced the word “English” as “yengis” or “yengeese,” which later was Anglicized to “Yankees.”  Linguists, however, have linked the word to Dutch origins, rather than being from Native American and English contact.  During the colonization of North America, the areas which are now New York, New Jersey, and Delaware were inhabited by the Dutch, which is why New York was originally called New Amsterdam.  The states of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut were inhabited by the English.  Naturally the two groups interacted often and eventually began to mix.  There are three  major arguments as to where the word Yankee came from based on this history.

1. Jan and Kees are common first names in the Dutch language, in use today and during colonization as well. The two names are sometimes combined into Jan Kees – this could have then developed into Yankee to describe English settlers moving into previously Dutch colonized areas.

2. The Dutch nickname Janneke (meaning “little John” or Johnny), would be Anglicized to Yankee, meaning converting it to a more English pronunciation and spelling in this case. This explanation believes that Yankee was used to describe Dutch-speaking American colonists, and by extension non-Dutch colonists.

3. The derogatory term John Cheese was often used to describe Dutch settlers, who were popular for their cheese production. The Dutch translation for John Cheese would be Jan Kaas; this could have also been Anglicized to Yankees and therefore be where the word originated.

The word Yankee has been very present during times of war.  Even before the American Revolution, British soldiers used the term Yankee to mock American soldiers. It was combined with the word “Doodle”, which was a derogatory term that meant “fool” or “simpleton,” to create the song Yankee Doodle which today ironically is a symbol of American pride.  I suppose that pride came from winning the war…  Later on during the Civil War, the Yankees were the hated opponents of the Confederates.  In World War I, the English began calling American soldiers, both Southerners and Northerners, Yankees, and it was then shortened to Yank and became popular in the United States.  Yankee and Yank were again popular designations for the American soldier in World War II. The term Yanqui is used in some Latin America countries to describe US citizens, often—especially after the Cuban Revolution— with a note of hostility.

Yankee doodle

Yankee Doodle by Archibald Willard

So there you go. How many of you associated the Dutch with this term used worldwide with such rich historical significance?  I certainly didn´t!

A New Perspective

“Speak a new language so that the world will be a new world.” ~Rumi

See the world from a new perspective

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