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What Makes a Word Profane?

George-CarlinLife is demanding, it may not always be but it has its moments, and from time to time that demand builds up and makes us feel stressed. This can because of too many things on the go or just something that needs to get done but you have been leaving on the backburner. There are many pervasive things that cause stress and then there are other things that are more individual, for some that is meeting the in-laws while for others it is doing a speech in front of a crowded room.

Generally speaking stress is exertion, mental or physical, that is overly demanding and if exposed to it for long periods of time can cause major health issues. HelpGuide.com says:

“Long-term exposure to stress can lead to serious health problems. Chronic stress disrupts nearly every system in your body. It can raise blood pressure, suppress the immune system, increase the risk of heart attack and stroke, contribute to infertility, and speed up the aging process.”

Now all of this may sound stressful in of itself and albeit it somewhat is, but did you know that swearing can relieve stress and pain?

In a study performed by researchers at Researchers at Keele University, in Staffordshire, England it was shown that swearing or using offensive phrases while under painful or stressful situations reduced the pain or stress the individual was feeling. This is because, the researchers hypothesised, swearing sets in a type of flight or flight response within the brain reducing the effect that the pain or stress has and allowing people to increase their tolerance level.

One researcher, Dr. Richard Stephens, described the study’s results and its connection to human language thusly: ”Swearing has been around for centuries and is an almost universal human linguistic phenomenon. It taps into emotional brain centres and appears to arise in the right brain, whereas most language production occurs in the left cerebral hemisphere of the brain. Our research shows one potential reason why swearing developed and why it persists.”

The relief one gets when using bad words is called Lalochezia and it comes from cathartic swearing. Cathartic swearing is the use of bad words for an emotional release of some kind and it is one of the five forms of swearing that were outlined by Stephen Pinker when discussing the topic of cursing in language in his book “The Stuff of Thought”.

Five Forms of Swearing:

  1. Abusive swearing – for abuse or intimidation or insulting of others. This is the usage that swearing is normally associated.
  2. Cathartic swearing – when something bad happens like coffee spilling, people curse. One evolutionary theory asserts it is meant to tell the audience that you’re undergoing a negative emotion.
  3. Dysphemistic swearing – Exact opposite of euphemism. Forces listener to think about negative or provocative matter. Using the wrong euphemism has a dysphemistic effect.
  4. Idiomatic swearing – swearing without really referring to the matter.. just using the words to arouse interest, to show off, and express to peers that the setting is informal.
  5. Emphatic swearing – to emphasize something with swearing.

Each type of swearing has its own purpose and is utilized to convey a specific meaning although some are more relevant and useful than others. Just like any other element of language it has its place within the language itself and is a recognized part of that language even if it is obscene and frowned upon.

It is because of this lack of social acceptance that swear words gain their power and their meaning. Every bad word has its socially accepted counterpart and yet we still need those words to convey a specific meaning which cannot be found in its counterpart.

How then does a word go from being a regular word that is used every day to something known as profanity?

This answer is different for every language as it is based in its history. For English it comes down to the original speakers of the language. During the infancy of the English language there were two major groups who were broken into classes. There was the Saxons who were in the lower class and talked with a Germanic language and then there was the upper class which was made up of Normans who spoke a Latin based language.

These two groups built the English language through their interactions and over time the two separate languages amalgamating into one. But while this was happening the two languages were still very much separate and because the lower class’ language was more Germanic in roots it gave birth to English words which were not as sophisticated and more guttural in nature. While on the other hand the words that came from the Latin roots, which were spoken by the ruling class, developed into more refined words which were treated as proper forms of their Germanic equivalents.

Both sides could develop a word that was defined in the very same way but because of its roots its connotation was established and denoted. Many if not all of the swear words we use today are the consequence of the separation of classes and come from the Germanic side of the fence while the words that represent the same thing but are socially acceptable are Latin in roots.

George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” is probably one of the most famous examples of swearing as it brings together seven of the most socially unacceptable words, but that was back in 1972 when you could be arrested for saying such words, which Carlin was when he performed the bit at Summerfest in Milwaukee. Today, most of those seven words can now be heard across all forms of media. On twitter alone, every second 22 of the words Carlin said could not be said on television are tweeted out into the world to frolic in all their glory.

Swearing is changing and evolving which makes logical sense as the English language itself evolves over time. The words we use today for swearing will more than likely change and we will more than likely see the rise of new swear words which do not exist in today’s language. We cannot say for certain whether or not a word will be viewed as profane in the future or what words will arise as profanities but one thing that is for certain is that swear words will always play an integral part in language.

Language of the Day: Andaman Creole Hindi

P2230088Let’s take a journey…

The waters of the Bay of Bengal surround this lush archipelago which rests off of the coast of India and Myanmar. There are 325 islands in the grouping and their shores are touches with the white sand of the tropics. The sun never ceases to bathe the land in heat and rains are usually uncommon leading to a dry warm air that is made pleasant by the moisture that coalesces with the wind as it sways across the Bay of Bengal and onto the many islands.

We are in Andaman Islands and it is across this large grouping of islands that we find the speakers of Andaman Creole Hindi. The language is a creolization of Hindustani, Bengali, and Malayalam and originally formed as a trade language as the three groups attempted to communicate with one another.

Throughout the many islands of Andaman Islands there resides around 10,000 speakers of the language and although many are spread out most of the speakers are multilingual; speaking Hindi with outsiders and Andaman Creole Hindi with their families and other locals. This has led the language to be taught to all children and allowing the language to flourish within the current population of speakers.

Thanks for joining us on this journey in language.

Language of the Day: Cornish

Falmouth marine bandLet’s take a journey…

There is a strong damp wind blowing from the west. It’s the breeze that rises from the waves of the Atlantic Ocean’s Celtic Sea and is salty and cold. This breeze shapes the land which comes to a point in the south where the Celtic Sea meets the English Channel. The high waves of these frigid unfriendly waters splash up on high cliffs which stand straight true leading to the spindly and rocky interior.

It is on the high cliffs overlooking the waves that we find the speakers of Cornish. We are in Cornwall which is the southern peninsula of England. Cornish is a Indo-European language and is sister languages of Welsh and Breton which descend from Common Brittonic.

The language was declared extinct for many years but the classification was removed in recent years as there has been a push to grow the language and revive it. It is unknown how many speakers actually exist but with Religious services held in Cornish, Evening classes, correspondence courses, summer camps, children’s play groups, residential courses and even a full time Cornish language nursery school being set up the language is rapidly growing.

It may be many years before there are a strong number of speakers of Cornish but with the language being spread to the youth the language is in the right place and has all the opportunities it needs to become a stable language.

Thanks for joining us on this journey in language.

Language of the Day: Chin, Chinbon

chin-people-myanmarLet’s take a journey…

There is rain falling from the low lying clouds. It falls it torrents and it is warm as it runs along your skin. Mountains spread in all directions but they are covered in dark green trees from valley to crest as they go from India and Bangladesh in the west to China, Loas and Thailand in the East. The Indian Ocean lays to the south past more emerald mountains. In the distance there are some mountains who wear hats of white as they stand above all those other mountains around them. They are giants and they make the others look like hills.

We are in Burma also known as Myanmar and it here in this mountainous country that we find the speakers of Chin, Chinbon. Also known as Chindwin Chin, Chinpon, Oo-pu, Sho, Tuishiip, Tuiship, Uppu, Ütbü; Chin, Chinbon is a language from the family of Sino-Tibetan. It is closely related to Asho Chin which is much larger language.

Chin, Chinbon has around 20,000 speakers and is taught to all the youth with most of its speakers being monolingual. It is a strong language with its speakers being from many different backgrounds as it has spread out across the Burmese mountains. The people who speak the language belong to a group of people called the Kukish which is a large of people who speak a language from the group from which Chin, Chinbon comes from.

Thanks for joining us on this journey in language.

The Confusing Words for Small Number Sets

question-mark-faceTechnology has taken hold of our lives and it is not letting go.

To some this statement may seem post-apocalyptical or at least a sign of when the robots rise up, laying siege to our society and eventually taking over our world, playing out the plot of the countless robot movies on the world stage. But, more rationally speaking this is not the case. We have been using technology ever since we became what we call man.

The application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes is the definition of technology and as one can tell it is both very broad and vague. In other words all we can really say about technology is that it is the application of knowledge for practical purposes.

Technology started out as fire and the wheel but has now turned into cell phones loaded with apps and the internet. These advances have done a great many things for society but one new thing that has come into the fold is the idea of the quantified self.

The quantified self is the utilization of large amounts of aggregate data for the purposes of understanding ourselves in a numerical fashion. This practice gives us a new insight into ourselves that would not be otherwise available without us having to waste our day away recording all the information by hand. With devices like fitness bands and mobile apps which allow users to see numerical representations of their lives, individuals can both understand themselves in a different light and then compare themselves for the purpose of self-improvement.

At the end of the day you could take a look at your app and see you have walked this many steps, taken in this many calories, burned this many calories and so on. The result is a list of information on your life and who you are. Taking all that information over a year in order to find your daily average could be incredibly insightful as you would see what your average day is like in comparison to someone else’s average day, the countries average, or the world’s average over an entire year. Or you could go further and quantify all of your actions for your entire life and see how many steps you took in a lifetime.

This whole process of knowing exact numbers for representing our lives is handy to say the least and far easier than tracking it mentally or on paper which more than likely would turn into generalizations and guesses for  most people. The internal dialog would probably turn into something like this:

“We only had a couple French fries at lunch today”

“You know that a couple means 2 or 3, right?”

“Well we had a few then”

“So 5? We only had 5 fries? Or is it less than that?”

“Well it wasn’t many”

As you can see there is much more value in exact numbers than range values, it’s easier to understand a specific number rather than a range. But what are the actual definitions for words like couple, few, handful, several, some and many?

Word Range
A Couple 2-3
A Few More than a couple less than some
Some More than a few less than several
Several More than some less than many
Many More than several, large quantity
A Handful Quantity that fills the hand

 

While it would be nice to have exact numerical representations for each of these words the language has made them variable words which only represent as much as you want them to at the time when they are used. For the most part they could all be used to present three of something at any given time, which in of itself is perplexing.

Now imagine if we had no definitive numbers and only variable words like the ones we just went over?

It just so happens that there is a tribe in the Amazon called the Pirahã which has this exact element in their language system. They have no way of differentiating between certain number sets because the words they have are built around variable number words.

In 2008 Michael Frank published a set of experiments with the tribe.

For the first one he gathered groups of spool and placed them in ascending order from 1 to 10 and asked the Pirahã members to label each group. The single spool was given a unique word, another word was used to label the groups from 2 to 3 and then groups from 4 to 10 were all given the same word.

A second experiment was done in the opposite fashion; Pirahã members were asked to label the spool groups from 10 to 1 rather than 1 to 10. Surprisingly the same three words were used but this time to represent different things. This time the spools from 1 to 5 were all labeled using the word that had previously been reserved for a single spool, the spool groups from 6 to 8 were labeled using the middle value word and 9-10 were all given the large value descriptive.

In some ways this seems alien because we are so used to having exact values for specific quantities but the Pirahã tribe only represents things as small, medium or large. With all the languages in the world it is always fascinating to find a language that is so different than the rest of the world. While we find our general number set descriptors as confusing and clunky for the Pirahã tribe that is all they know.

Language of the Day: Trinidadian Creole English

Carnaval-Trinidad-and-Tobago-©-kids.britannica.com_Let’s take a journey…

It’s warm but there is a nice salty breeze blowing. There are the usual signs of the tropics: sun kissed skin, palm trees and sandy beaches are all around; this is a place that you would visit on a vacation. The water is warm and it is that clear light blue that can only be found in the waves of the Caribbean. There is a multitude of islands speckling the waters but we find ourselves focused on two which sit at the precipice of the North Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Paria.

Our toes are covered in the sand of Trinidad and Tobago and it is here, on these two islands in the Caribbean that we find Trinidadian Creole English. The language is based off of English which was brought over from the colonials during the colonization of the Americas. While there are differences to English, Trinidadian Creole English is very similar to its parent language.

Since it was established the language has flourished becoming the de facto language of national identity for the people of Trinidad and Tobago. With 1,000,000 speakers the language is in safe hands and is a part of the greater continent of English which has spread its reach around the world.

Thanks for joining us on this journey in language.

Language of the Day: Iaai

vilvil_dancingLet’s take a journey…

Like the moon at most times during its cycle the island is in the shape of a crescent. Surrounded by sandy white beaches that drift into the Pacific Ocean this picturesque island is just a small piece of a larger group of islands. The lush green of vegetation covers the ground which stretches for 50 Km in length and 7 Km in width.

We are on Ouvéa Island which is one of the Loyalty Islands, in the archipelago of New Caledonia and it is on this small island that is in overseas territory of France that we find the speakers of Iaai. Coming from the Loyalty Island line of the Austronesian family Iaai is a well-documented language with a number of publications on the linguistic elements of the language.

Ouvéa Island is the home of one other language, Fagauvea which is significantly different than Iaai even though the two languages have been in contact with one another for many years. With around 4000 speakers Iaai is considered a threatened language but with schools now dedicated to teaching the language and other preventative measures in place the language is well on its way to preservation.

Thanks for joining us on this journey in language.

 

Language of the Day: Goundo

Let’s take a journey…

The heat of the Sahara Desert lays to the south but it is not where we find ourselves. There is no place for sand in the Sudanian Savanah which is covered in the light green of grasses and shrubs. Within these grasses thrives many different animals, including many species of birds, reptiles and large mammals. There are also a number of rivers which flow through leading their way to the north where they empty into Lake Chad.

We are in southern Chad and while there may be a great many animals populating this grassy region there is also many different people who speak a many different languages. One of these languages is Goundo. Extending from the Niger-Congo family of languages, Goundo is a fleeting language.

While Goundo is similar to Besmé and Kim, other languages spoken within the area, its people have ceased teaching it to the youth. With only 30 speakers remaining, all whom are in the later stages of life, the language is on its last legs. Because of the proximity to other languages younger people have switched over to either Kabalai or Nancere, more prominent languages in the area.

The language is on its last legs and it will soon join the many other languages that have fallen out of use, it is a sad tale and one we have seen many times. But if not this language it will be another.

Thanks for joining us on this journey in language.

Language of the Day: Waris

WarisLet’s take a journey…

Born out of a collision between the Indo-Australian Plate and the Pacific plate, the snow-capped Maoke Mountains range from the west to the east, its ten peaks reaching up 4000 metres into the sky. As the mountains slowly fall away into grassy and river infested hills they become lowlands which are blanketed in the lush greens of an ancient rainforest and pocked with low lying swamps.

It is in West Papua that we find ourselves, the home of Waris. From the family grouping Border comes the language of West Papua and Papua New Guinea. It is similar to the Imonda and people who speak the language can understand people who speak Waris and visa-versa. While it is also similar to Amanab the two languages are unintelligible.

Waris is spoken by 4000 people and is taught at an educational level in the places where it is spoken. The people who speak it may be small in number but they are passing the language torch on to their youth and because of that the language is growing in numbers.

Thanks for joining us on this journey in language.

 

The Explanatory Gap

hard-problem-by-jolyon-trosciankoImagine a world where everything is in black and white. From the green grass to the blue sky to the many colours of people that surround you, all of it and everything else just a shade somewhere between black and white. You are a person that has just landed in this place of grey and you are the only one who has experienced a world of colour. None of the people around you has ever seen the multi-coloured majesty that is a setting sun or the changing arching rays of colours that make up a rainbow. They have seen all of these things but only in scales of grey.

Now imagine trying to explain to one of these people what colour is…

How would you do it? Do you even think you could?

Not to be a negative Nelly but I doubt it.

No matter how much you tried to put together words to explain colours you would fail to find words that are not exact representations of the colour itself. We can explain a chair to someone who has never seen one by explaining its features and its purpose but we cannot find the same words that aptly describe a colour. Something is just red or blue. It can be a version of that colour by being lighter or darker but beyond that we rely on the visual cue itself and our past experiences to understand it.

As we live in a world with colour our eyes and other senses are constantly taking in colours and other information that is around us and then processing it. Storing all the data up and building neural pathways based on the information and our experiences with it. This is how we learn and how we grow and it all happens in our own minds.

Say you are a experiencing some event with a group of friends, for example a concert. Even though you may be sitting side by side having a similar view and experiencing the exact same event their own mind are processing the event based on their own individual subjective experience. While they may experience the same music and concert that you are it is actually completely different. Each person at the concert is having their own experience and this individual instance of subjective, conscious experience that everyone is having is called qualia.

Qualia itself relates to the experience and how our perceptions of it are individual. Because I cannot think the same way you the reader are thinking I cannot know how you view things or how you process them. I can only know my own mind and my own experiences and memories. But this doesn’t entirely segregate us from others and their mindsets. Using language we can communicate enough information to someone else to help them understand what you experienced.

But have you ever tried to explain something and found that there were no words to describe it?

Well then you have experienced the explanatory gap. If we go back to the example of explaining colours to someone who only sees black and white we would experience the explanatory gap.

The explanatory gap also comes into play when you are at the hospital and a nurse asks how much pain you are feeling. Try as you might there is no way of really explaining the pain other than by describing its location, whether it is throbbing or not and how it started, even when asked to rate the pain on a scale of 1-10 is absurd as a 10 for me could be a 6 for you. Pain is completely subjective and based on my own experiences and because of that there are no words that can transfer my experience, or qualia, over to the nurse.

But why is it that we cannot explain these things, what makes the explanatory gap occur?

There are a couple different explanations.

On the one hand it could be that there are words for that experience allowing us to describe the experience at hand but we are unaware of them, and if we pieced enough of these words together we could fill in the puzzle and create a perfect explanation letting someone else understand what we experienced.

This could be a possibility because, as we have previously discussed in “How Big is our Mental Vocabulary”, in the English language there are roughly 1.5 million words but the the average adult only has a mental vocabulary of around 30,000 words, only 2% of the entire Language. Therefore there could be a magic combination of words that do explain what we are feeling but we just lack the language skills.

Although, on the other hand there could plainly be a disconnect between the words we have and the emotions and other things that we are experiencing. While our language allows us to explain a great many things there could be limits to what we can put words to. There could be no way for us to really describe what a colour looks like to someone who has never seen one or tell a nurse about our pain. Our minds and our words may not line up past a certain point.

While this option is bleak and pessimistic it also means that there are things left for the individual. It would be nice to be able to explain anything to your best friend or your family but there is a beauty in the human experience and part of that comes from self-experience; grappling with life and learning without any books or guidelines or anyway to tell someone how past a certain point. What it does is leave room for the personal.

But when it comes down it, we just don’t know why the explanatory gap exists or if there is a way to breach it.

In some ways this shows us some of the follies of our language but it also shows us how much we rely on language for everything we do. While I may not be able to let someone experience an event that I just experienced I can explain to them what happened and tell them a story that resembles what happened. Using the literary tools we do have we can piece words after one another in seemingly limitless possibilities and when that is combined with the human imagination we can get pretty close to explaining many of life’s intricacies and nuances.

Words may fail us sometimes but more often than naught they are opening our eyes and our imaginations to things we could never experience.

Language of the Day: Kurdish, Northern

7794-Kurdish-350x252.4Let’s take a journey…

The air you breathe is arid and the sun beats down making the ground hot to the touch and your skin warm. The land is mostly covered in light brown sand which comes together in dunes which look like the frozen waves of a great sea. The sand sways with the passing wind which picks up grains as it dances through the desert carrying its passengers from the Mediterranean in the west to India and central Asia in the east. While there is not much water there are a number of lakes speckling the land and a couple major rivers which twist and turn their way through the sands.

It is on the banks of these major rivers, namely the Aras, the Tigris and Euphrates, where more habitable lands are found, where agriculture can flourish and irrigation is possible. And it is because of this that the speakers of Northern Kurdish made their homes in the Middle East. The people are spread across Azerbaijan, Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan but are mostly routed in Turkey in the north east of the Middle East.

Northern Kurdish comes from the general Indo-European language family and the Kurdish subset of the family. It is the most spoken form of Kurdish and is also called Kurmanji and Bahdini depending on where you are. Northern Kurdish is closely related to other Iranian languages like Persian due to the historical closeness of the speakers.

There have been many books written in Northern Kurdish and it is taught in many schools throughout the regions where it is spoken. There are 20 million speakers of the language worldwide with 3 million of those being monolingual. Although Northern Kurdish is currently in decline in Turkey where about 15 million speakers reside, all in all the language is in good standing and is continually taught in schools and has a number of publications made in the language.

Even though the land of the Middle East may be harsh and sand covered there are many people with many different languages residing there and Northern Kurdish is one of them.

Thanks for joining us on this journey in language.

Language of the Day: Maasai

Maasai_people-image-5Let’s take a journey…

To the west rests Lake Victoria the second largest fresh water lake in the world, named after Queen Victoria who was the presiding Queen of England when it was discovered. To the east, where the sun rises signalling a new day is the great Indian Ocean whose waters touch the shores of Australia, Africa and Asia. The land between the fresh water lake to the west and the ocean to the east is filled with dense forests and mountains. Along this line rises the monstrous Mount Kilimanjaro who peaks at around six thousand metres above sea level.

It is in the forested and mountainous region along the border of Kenya and Tanzania that we find the Maasai people whose language shares their namesake. The Maasai language is a Maa language which comes from the Nilo-Saharan language family and is similar to Samburu, Chamus and Parakuyu.

The number of speakers has more than doubled since 1989, with the estimate at that time being around 400,000, while currently the number is around 850,000. Although the Kenyan government has tried to amalgamate the traditional semi-nomadic Maasai people into the modern Kenyan society they have been unsuccessful. The Massai people have been steadfast in their dedication to their culture, history and customs.

Even though the land is arid where it is flat and forested where it is not these people have remained true to their customs and have preserved their way of life and their language. Since 1989 the number of speakers has doubled and there are no signs that we will see any kind of decline in its growth. Maasai will be around for many years to come.

Thanks for joining us on this journey in language.

Language of the Day: Ede Ije

6990050643_fc218391a6_zLet’s take a journey…

From the Niger River on its northern border all the way down to where it meets the Atlantic Ocean the land is a mixture of coastal plains, marshy lagoons, and Guinean forest-savanna mosaic-covered plateaus and valleys. Stuck in the middle of Togo and Nigeria this small mostly tropical African country has little to no elevation until the northern border and is sparsely populated.

We are in the country of Benin and it is within the country’s thorny scrub covered and baobab tree dotted Savana region that we find the speakers of Ede Ije. Spoken by fifty thousand people Ede Ije is a part of the Niger-Congo language family and is closely related to the Yoruba language which is also spoken within the area.

With each generation the language grows and is passed on. It is spoken by all groups of people and as the agriculture of the people becoming more stable the population will increase pushing the language upwards and onwards. While there is a large population of French speakers in Benin they have had little impact on diminishing the loyalty to Ede Ije.

It is a safe and vigorously used language and unlike many other languages that are within the confines of Africa it is stable.

Thanks for joining us on this journey in language.

The Dethroning of Awesome

awesome

Lists. We love them and we see them everywhere. Just scrolling through your social media feeds you will come across a multitude of them from “top ten new shows to watch” to “five ways to dress better for the fall”. They are a great way to organize things and are universally understood due to the simple sequential numbering system. They also play into our need for tidbits of information by telling us right from the get-go how much information is contained within the story or link which also gives us an immediate notion of how much attention and time the story will demand from us.

While we always wished to gain new knowledge the internet has given us a new medium which allows for a virtually limitless supply of information that is available instantaneously. In sense we have become the Sesame Street character the Cookie Monster but instead of cookies we want information to devour and we want it in neat little packets right now.

Given all that, it is only natural that there is a list published at the end of every year listing the most overused words. The entries range from newer words such as selfie to older words such as passion and it is here that we find the word awesome.

At first glance this entry seems to make complete sense as we hear and see it everywhere. “That’s awesome” is just a regular run of the mill expression nowadays, but when you think about it, does it make any sense that it is used that much?

The definition of the word awesome is supposed to be interrelated to something that leaves us in awe which in of itself means a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder. So are we all just having years which are on the verge of fear and wonder which would make the use of the word fitting? Or is it that we have come to use the word in a lesser situation and to represent something of a different nature?

As you can probably tell it is the latter of the two.

We have come to use the word awesome in a less than awesome sense and more in a cool sense. And just like the word cool which used to mean something along the lines of calm or cold, we have expropriated the meaning to represent “great” but in a colloquial way.

The thing is we hijack the meaning of words all the time as we are constantly redefining the way language is used and what words mean through the organic evolution of language. Listed below are three examples.

3 words we use differently than what they actually mean.

1. Incredible

What we think it means: Amazing; extraordinary

Its original meaning: Not credible; unbelievable

2. Great

What we think it means: Very good

Its original meaning: Very large; of unusual size; remarkable.

3. Terrific

What we think it means: Very good

Its original meaning: Frightening; terrifying

If you take some time to think about many of the words that you say and use on a daily basis you would probably be surprised by how many of them are defined differently than how you are using them. But that does not mean we are using them wrong.

Languages evolve and change so it follows suit that word usage will change from one generation to the next. But this is not true in all cases as we can still use words wrong even though they are evolving into something different.

Going back to our discussion about the word awesome, it should be noted that this word used to reign as a supreme, penultimate sensation. Something awesome was something heavenly to the point of it creating fear. While most words can change meanings without any associated problems the adjectives that are reserved for the extremities cause issues when they are used incorrectly.

If you are to think of a circular spectrum of adjectives, normal would fall at its center and all the other words would radiate out in different directions until you hit the words on the extremity of the spectrum. Words like infinite, extreme and awesome would be at these end points with no other words following them. That is because by definition these words have no greater level. By our misrepresenting them we take away their power and their gravity but leave our vocabulary with no replacements for the void we have created.

So if you experience something is it really awesome or is it is just good? Or how would you describe something that is truly awesome once you have experienced it? The same questions could be asked for the usage of the words extreme and infinite and numerous others. We could make up new words but then we would fall into the same trap we are in now.

To help us all out the article “Awesome: The most overused word in English” has put together a list of alternatives to awesome and while this will not fix the dethroning of words we are currently responsible for it will help to curtail it. And it’s in all in a list.

35 Alternatives to Awesome

  1. Amazing
  2. Astonishing
  3. Beautiful
  4. Breathtaking
  5. Brilliant
  6. Clever
  7. Dazzling
  8. Exciting
  9. Excellent
  10. Exceptional
  11. Fabulous
  12. Fantastic
  13. Great
  14. Heart-stopping
  15. Humbling
  16. Impressive
  17. Incredible
  18. Ingenious
  19. Magnificent
  20. Majestic
  21. Marvelous
  22. Mind-blowing
  23. Momentous
  24. Moving
  25. Out of this world
  26. Outstanding
  27. Overwhelming
  28. Remarkable
  29. Righteous
  30. Spectacular
  31. Staggering
  32. Striking
  33. Stunning
  34. Wonderful
  35. Wondrous

Do you have any other suggestions? Let us know in the comments below.

And once again, thanks for reading.

Language of the Day: Acholi

ACHOLI-DANCELet’s take a journey…

Down to a place to a place where the White Nile snakes its way from the northern border down to the southern border, segmenting the tropical forest and swamp covered land in half. The borders of Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, the Congo, and the Central African Republic enclose this newly minted country within the confines of Central Africa. This country is new, having only gained its independence in 2011 from its northern neighbour, Sudan.

We are in the swamps of South Sudan and it is here that we find the language of Acholi primarily being spoken. Acholi is a Western Nilotic language which is a part of the Nilo-Saharan language classification. It is a language of many different names as it is spoken by many different tribes within the country and these tribes are growing in number and spreading the language. With this growth the language has developed a number of different dialects including Dhopaluo and Nyakwai along with a number of others.

The current population of speakers sits around one million two hundred thousand and is growing. Today it has spread into a number of other countries such as Uganda and Kenya. Furthermore, with the separation of South Sudan from Sudan the people who speak the language will have more stability then what used to be the case.

Acholi also has a rich past with one of the most successful African literary works, The Song of Lawino being originally published in the language. The 1966 epic poem penned by Okot p’Bitek describes the destruction of African society and culture during its colonization by Europeans. It was soon translated into many other languages and is viewed not only as an incredibly important work but as culturally iconic of the entirety of Africa.

Acholi will rise as Africa does and will continue to grow and spread across central Africa in the years to come. The people who speak it are proud and will remain loyal to the history that the language embodies and because of that it will not be going anywhere but up.

Thank you for joining us on this journey in language.

Language of the Day: Sãotomense

6327087780_bf85dc90b9_zLet’s take a journey…

The weekend may be over but we are heading out to a tropical island. Rising mountains with streaming rivers cover the central part of the island and are surrounded by with shores which are covered in the light coloured sand that is warm to the touch all year around. To the east are the waters of the Gulf of Guinea shortly followed by western Africa and right at the southern tip of the island lays the equator meaning that the island basks in the heat of the sun from January to December.

We find ourselves on the island of São Tomé and Príncipe a place founded by Portuguese explorers in the fifteenth century who named the then unhabituated island after Saint Thomas. It is here that we find the language of Sãotomense and the people who speak it.

Sãotomense, also known as Forro is a Portuguese based Creole language which is separate from the Portuguese dialect which is also spoken in the area. The language is spoken by around seventy thousand people and is used in social groups of middle aged and older people, with the youth having switched to the Portuguse dialect, São Tomean Portuguese.

The culture and language are a unique fusion of African and Portuguese and are rich in history and even though the youth have started switching to a new language the Sãotomense language and culture is still preserved and very much still intact.

Thanks for joining us on this journey in language.

Language of the Day: Kaba Naa, Sara

KabaNSaraLet’s take a journey…

From north to south we see a duality of environments. In the north lays the sweeping sands of the desert, a place that sees little rain and moisture and to the south the ground is covered in the greens of plant life, it is fertile and habitable. In the central area we see a transition area as the desert moves into the fertile lands to the south this is the area where Lake Chad begins, the namesake for the country we find ourselves in.

We are in Chad a landlocked country of Central Africa and the home to the speakers of the Kaba Naa, Sara language. Kaba Naa, Sara is one of five languages from the line of Bongo–Bagirmi which come from the Central Sudanic language family. The languages in the grouping are spread across a number of countries in Central and Northern Africa.

The people who speak the languages make their home in the south western area of Chad which is where Lake Chad lays. The Lake itself grows and shrinks relative to the seasons and the weather and its size has varied greatly over the years. Unlike the variability of Lake Chad the Kaba Naa, Sara language has seen constant growth for many years.

The language is spoken by nearly forty thousand people spread across the area and is the primary language of the people. It is taught from generation to generation and there is no threat of it declining. Kaba Naa, Sara is a developing and growing language and will only become more prominent in the years to come.

In a time when many languages are going in the opposite direction of Kaba Naa, Sara it is nice to see a story of a language that is small but flourishing.

Thanks for joining us on this journey in language.

Language of the Day: Wayoró

indios_2007Let’s take a journey…

The landscape may be covered in the patchwork of farms but it used to be filled with trees wider than you or I can hug. Leaves would spread out from the branches of these trees creating a dark green canopy above and as the rain fell, as it did more often than naught, it would be caught by this canopy. The air is humid and the wide Madeira River snakes its way through the state along with numerous other rivers.

We are in the Rondônia province of Brazil and even though this place is a part of the Rainforests of the Amazon it is hardly reminiscent of the designation any more. The province is one of the largest areas that have been deforested in the Amazon and not only has this damaged habitats for a great many species of plants and animals, it has also affected the way of life of all the native tribes who reside in the area.

There are great many native groups who call the Amazon home and they have been there for countless generations, some are still undiscovered. These tribes thrive in an environment that many of us would be hard pressed to survive one night in. There are many dangers that come with living in such a place but the tribes have learned how to live in the Amazon and that is where they call home. One such tribe is the speakers of Wayoró.

The language of Wayoró is a part of the Tuparí branch of the Tupian grouping. The language is spoken by seventy people when it was last documented. Akin to many of the native people who call the Amazon home the Wayoró people have slowly been pushed from their homes as the Amazon has been developed. Today the language is estimated to be on the verge of extinction with very few speakers remaining. The people may still live on but their language will soon be lost. A story told far too often.

Thanks for joining us on this journey in language.

What is a Conlang?

e1Each weekday on this very blog page we cover one of the world’s six thousand five hundred languages. We discuss the current state of the language, who are the speakers of the language and where they live. But with how many languages there are it would take approximately thirty one years for us to get through all the world’s languages. It’s safe to say, we have quite a bit of content to get through.

But in thirty one years a lot will have changed and there will also be far less languages to talk about.

It is estimated that every fourteen days a language dies. In thirty one years we will have lost eight hundred and eight languages, reducing the total by twelve percent. It would be conceited for us to say that this would affect our content because it is a sad day when we lose a language. As we have previously discussed languages give us many insights into the world and are a key aspect of our business.

But what about language creation?

A constructed language is called a conlang and its name comes from the combination of the two words which define it. Unlike something like Pig Latin (a reorganization of the letters in English words) a conlang is a full embodied language. For all intents and purposes it is a real language.

But what makes a language real?

To this we look to the elements of language. From German to Afrikaans or any other language for that matter there are five linguistic elements which define a language and make it unique from all the other languages.

The Five Linguistic Elements:

  1. Phonology: the sound and system of a language
  2. Morphology: the structure of words
  3. Syntax: the structure of sentences
  4. Semantics: the meaning in language
  5. Pragmatics: the appropriate use of language in different contexts

But more than those things there is also a little thing called grammar: how words are put together in order to make sentences. In order to actually put together this blog post I cannot just know English words I have to know where they belong and how they fit together in order to create the intended meaning. I could know every word in the English languages and I could still not know how or what I am saying.

Natural languages also evolve over time as they are passed down from generation to generation and adapted to fit the current times. Take English for example. If you compare Old English and the English that is used today there is a stark contrast between the two languages and that is just a difference of a couple hundred years. Furthermore, as we have discussed in previous posts, with new technologies comes new words. Try to think about having a conversation with someone prior the invention of the internet and you will see how much our language has changed in the span of a couple decades.

With all of that in mind it would almost seem momentous to create a language from scratch. And yet some people have done just that.

The Lord of the Rings is a staple of the fantasy genre and is world renowned. The trilogy has spawned a series of movies and a group of fans whose dedication can only be rivaled with that of Star Trek. But there is a commonality between these two franchises and that is that they both have a conlang.

For the world of Lord of the Rings, J.R.R Tolkien developed the language of the elves. He put together not only a master list of words and grammatical rules but also different dialects which developed over time as the people who spoke the language separated and their languages changed. For Star trek fans there is Klingon which has been developed in a similar fashion.

Although Tolkien did a superb job of developing the Elvish language it itself cannot be spoken unlike Klingon which has been developed enough to speak in conversation.

Conlangs are also gaining popularity and have gained a lot of steam since the release of Avatar and Game of Thrones. Many television shows are now hiring conlangs, professional language designers to build languages from the ground up for their worlds. These languages are developed not randomly but to match the people who speak it and therefore end up as unique as any other language.

But conlangs are not just in the realms of fantasy. In Europe, the language Esperanto which has about two million speakers is a constructed language. While it originally took its routes from a number of different natural languages Esperanto is constructed and its speakers represent the World’s largest contingent of conlang speakers. The language was first published in a book by L. L. Zamenhof in 1887 but it is the most prominent conlang success story.

Over the years there have been numerous attempts to create a conlang which can be called the perfect human language. But to this day none of them have taken off. The only conlang to really take off is Esperanto and it is limited.

Conlangs may not be able to replace the depth and history that goes along with a natural language which has been built up over many years and evolved to suit the people who speak it but it will be interesting to see how many new languages pop up in thirty one years. By then we may even end up writing a language of the day piece on a language that does not even exist today. That would be interesting.

What do you think? Could a conlang have the potential to take off? Let me know in the comment section below.

And once again, thanks for reading.

Language of the Day: Lushootseed

Skagit_ViHilbert03Let’s take a journey…

To a place where two boarders meet and where mountains ranges run high into sky covered in the dark lush green of pine and fir trees until the mountains reach the heights where white snows cap their tops like white toques.

Here on the western boarder of the United States and Canada where Washington State meets British Columbia is where we used to find the people who speak Lushootseed. The Lushootseed language and its brother Twana are a part of the Southern Coastal Salish subgroup of the Salishan family of languages. While the language used to be spoken by Puget region Sound peoples the language has entered the later stages of its life cycle.

The last time the language was researched was back in the 1990s and at that time the language had less than 60 speakers, most of whom were elders. But even though it is more than likely that the language has lost the last of its native speakers there was a major effort in the perseveration of the language. Today there are revitalization efforts in place to bring back the language, with many classes being offered to teach the language and an annual conference on the language held at Seattle University. There is also a website where you can download Lushootseed lesson books.

With so many groups coming together to make sure that the light never fades from the Lushootseed language it can safely be assumed that it will not be lost.

Thanks for joining us on this journey in language.