Recently in the Languages Category


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Back in March, I watched an episode of the original Mission: Impossible TV series, which led me to look the show up on Wikipedia.

I was amused by the paragraph about vaguely Eastern-European-esque place names and words used in the series:

Although a Cold War subtext is present throughout the series, the actual Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union is rarely mentioned over the course of the series. [. . .] However, in the early years, [. . .] many of the targets appear to be leaders of fictional Slavic countries. Major named enemy countries include the “European People's Republic” and the “Eastern European Republic.” Additionally, real languages spoken in Eastern Europe are used. In the Season One episode “The Carriers,” one of the villains reads a book whose title is the (incorrect) Russian Na Voina (About War); police vehicles are often labelled as such with words such as “polii├žia” and “poIiia”; and a gas line or tank would be labelled “Gaz,” which is a Romanian translation. This “language,” referred to by the production team as “Gellerese” [after series creator/producer Bruce Geller], was invented specifically to be readable by non-speakers of Slavic languages. Their generous use of it was actually intended as a source of comic relief.


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Recently happened across the Kryptonian Language Project: “an ongoing effort to flesh out a full working language for the home planet of one of the most popular fictional characters in history, Superman.”

There's a wealth of information on the site, from notes on pre-Crisis vs post-Crisis Kandorian to discussions of the alphabet and grammar, to an English/Kryptonian dictionary. Oh, yes, and you can download a Kryptonian font.


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Y'all may have seen the Powerthirst video. (If you haven't, then the following probably won't make any sense.)

Well, now there's Powerlatin!!!


Indian English

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I continue to be intrigued by the differences between British/American English and Indian English.

I also wonder regularly if some of the grammatical problems I see in submissions written by South Asian writers are merely examples of Indian English. Some day, I should sit down and read more published South Asian writing to try and get a better feel for Indian English.

(I've read a few novels by South Asian authors, but not enough for a representative sample yet.)

See also: the online Dictionary of Indian English; 108 varieties of Indian English; a 2004 paper from Language in India on linguistic majority-minority relations in India; and a page of audio pronunciations of English words in New Delhi.

That last, btw, is from the extremely useful-looking Accents of English from around the world website. I hope to spend some time poking around there and listening to pronunciations in the future.

Spanish profanity


Recently happened across the Wikipedia article on Spanish profanity. The little I've read of it so far seems to be useful and interesting.

See also the articles on Portuguese profanity, Quebec French profanity, and Latin profanity among others.

Special English

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I had previously heard of Basic English, a proposed simplified English with an 850-word core vocabulary. (In case you're curious, a Basic English website has some examples.)

But I hadn't previously known that Basic English is just one example of a controlled natural language, a subset of a natural language "obtained by restricting the grammar and vocabulary in order to reduce or eliminate ambiguity and complexity."

And I also hadn't known about Special English, used by some Voice of America radio broadcasts to make them easier to understand by non-native English speakers. VOA has been broadcasting in Special English for almost forty years now.

Special English has a 1500-word core vocabulary. To quote the VOA site:

Special English writers use short, simple sentences that contain only one idea. They use active voice. They do not use idioms.

Special English broadcasters read at a slower pace, about two-thirds the speed of standard English. This helps people learning English hear each word clearly. It also helps people who are fluent English speakers understand complex subjects.

I think it's a neat idea, especially because these days VOA also posts corresponding written versions of the Special English broadcasts on their website, so listeners can compare the spoken and written versions, which a couple of listener letters on the abovelinked About page indicate can be helpful to people learning English.

I was working on various things while listening to music in the background, and the song "Marathon" came on, from the 1968 cast recording of Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. As Wikipedia puts it, the song is "a charming encapsulation of the United States in the 20th century (mentioning, among others, Charles Lindbergh and Sacco and Vanzetti)." (Lyrics)

I've been listening to this album since I was in high school or college, but it never occurred to me until now to wonder: why was a Belgian singer/songwriter in the 1960s writing a song about the American ideas of the various decades of the 20th century?

That seemed possible, but it also seemed possible that the original song was (for example) a European view of those decades, and that the translators had substituted corresponding cultural references.

So I went and checked. And I was startled and amused to learn that in fact the original song had nothing to do with the decades of the 20th century, nor with history or pop culture, American or otherwise.

It's called Les Flamandes (lyrics), and it's about why and how Flemish people dance at different ages/stages of life (or maybe specifically Flemish women, I'm not sure). (I gather that the background of the song is deeply imbedded in Belgian ethnicity-politics--one YouTube commenter says that Brel was making fun of people with negative attitudes toward the Flemish, for example--but that discussion is beyond the scope of this entry.)

The two songs' lyrics both feature dancing, and both cover a century or so, but beyond that there's no resemblance.

I'm always intrigued by translations that take big liberties, but I'm not sure I've ever seen a "translation" that so completely ignores the original; really, this is more like a filk, in the sense of a different set of lyrics to the same tune.

Multilingual 404

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Aaron H points to this cute multilingual file-not-found page. Not to be taken too seriously, especially the dialect versions in English and quasi-English.


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A piece of spam this morning led me indirectly (by way of a quotation) to Mark Twain's 1880 essay "The Awful German Language," an entertaining complaint about the difficulties of learning German, which apparently appeared as Appendix D from Twain's book A Tramp Abroad.

I was particularly amused by the section on German verb placement, which contains such lines as:

in a German newspaper they put their verb away over on the next page; and I have heard that sometimes after stringing along the exciting preliminaries and parentheses for a column or two, they get in a hurry and have to go to press without getting to the verb at all.

(He also mentions that in English, overuse of parentheses "is the mark and sign of an unpracticed writer or a cloudy intellect." To which I say, hmph.)

A couple of other bits I liked:

Personal pronouns and adjectives are a fruitful nuisance in this language, and should have been left out. For instance, the same sound, sie, means you, and it means she, and it means her, and it means it, and it means they, and it means them. Think of the ragged poverty of a language which has to make one word do the work of six--and a poor little weak thing of only three letters at that. But mainly, think of the exasperation of never knowing which of these meanings the speaker is trying to convey. This explains why, whenever a person says sie to me, I generally try to kill him, if a stranger.


I heard a Californian student in Heidelberg say, in one of his calmest moods, that he would rather decline two drinks than one German adjective.

And another sally against verb order, from the section toward the end about how to improve German:

You may load up with ever so good a Verb, but I notice that you never really bring down a subject with it at the present German range--you only cripple it. So I insist that this important part of speech should be brought forward to a position where it may be easily seen with the naked eye.

See also my entry from a few months back on Latin verb placement.

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