Tag Archives: Language

UNESCO Interactive Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger

This web-tool on the UNESCO website allows you to see the status of more than 2000 endangered languages around the world, along with the number of speakers. The search can be narrowed by country or ‘language vitality’. Extinct languages are also included in the database.  

You Spell Potato, I Spell Potatoe

If you read The New York Times, you’ve run across news of things happening in the Saudi Arabian city “Jidda.” If you get most of your news from the Associated Press, those same events happen in “Jiddah.” Should you subscribe to Reuters, the city is called “Jeddah.”

Imagine that times are still flush and you subscribe to all three services. Now imagine searching those sites for news of the only film festival in Saudi Arabia, which takes place in that city. What term should you search? And how many stories might you miss?

Most publications have stylebooks, either their own, or one of the majors: The Associated Press Stylebook, The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, or The Chicago Manual of Style. While the stylebooks disagree on many points, most of their differences do not impact readers’ efforts to seek information from any given publication.

But spelling does.

Because so much more copy is posted on Web sites than is printed in newspapers, and because so much less of that copy is edited or “processed” to reflect the publication’s style, the way words are spelled—particularly proper names—can vary widely, especially when being transliterated from a different alphabet. And because AP does not yet have the ability to transmit accents, sometimes even “common” words are rendered in a way that confuses their meaning. Accents make all the difference for example, between a “pate” (the top of the head), a “pâté” (a meat delicacy), and a “pâte” (a clay or flour paste).

Many search engines will return results based on spelling variants—a search on the Times site for the “Jidda Film Festival” returns, somewhat ironically, “Did you mean ‘Jeddah Film Festival’?”—but news sites have, on the whole, not incorporated that function.

So what to do?


Quartiers… de viande ou d’orange ?


D’ailleurs, à propos de “quartiers”, c’est le terme que nous avons lu encore une fois en corrigeant ce matin une lettre d’info’ destinée aux abonnés : “Que dit Le Monde ?” (y sont présentés l’essentiel des titres des articles que pourront lire les lecteurs un peu plus tard).

On lisait donc : “Le 14-Juillet dans les quartiers (nous nous sommes permis de remplacer par “cités”), rituel des violences ludiques”. Quartiers d’orange ? quartiers d’été ? quartiers de viande ? quartiers de lune ? quartiers de noblesse ? quartiers de chaussure ?

Quartiers a bel et bien détrôné cités pour parler de ces “zones sensibles”. Faudra-t-il bientôt dire “quartiers émotifs” pour bien faire la différence avec, par exemple, les quartiers parisiens du Marais et des Champs-Elysées, bien connus pour leur insensibilité ?

(en illustration : “Pièce de bœuf”, de Soutine, 1922)


Roasted aubergines with capers

* 2 aubergines
* 4 tbsp olive oil
* 30g Grana Padano, roughly chopped or coarsely grated
* 2 tbsp capers, rinsed and dried
* Handful fresh mint leaves

Click here for the recipe.


Caper (Capparis spinosa) – Origin and name etymology

Capers can today be found growing wild all over Medi­terranean, and are frequently cultivated (e.g., in France, Spain, Italy and Algeria; furthermore, Iran, Cyprus and Greece produce significant amounts); their origin is, though, supposed in the dry areas of Western or Central Asia.

Caper and its relatives in several European tongues can be traced back to Classical Latin capparis “caper”. Latin capparis, in turn, was borrowed from Greek kapparis [κάππαρις], whose origin (as that of the plant) is unknown but probably West or Central Asia. Another theory links kapparis to the name of the island Cyprus (Kypros [Κύπρος]), where capers grow abun­dantly.

Names of capers in most European languages share a common origin and are indeed quite similar, for example, Italian cappero, French câpre, Estonian kappar, Swedish kapris, Czech kapara, Russian kapersy [каперсы] and Greek kappari [κάππαρη]. In English, the word appeared first as capers, which was, however, later interpreted as a plural, and the new singular caper was backformed.

Spanish tápana and related names of the Western Mediterranean also derive from Latin capparis, although I do not understand the details. Provençal tapeno lies behind the name tapenade for a famous French appetizer


(Hat tip: Mary L. for pointing me to Gernot Katzer’s Spice Pages.)

10 Latin quotes for the underground


Mary Beard in TLS:

Last week it was reported that the drivers on the Piccadilly line would be adding some well chosen quotes to their announcements on the underground: “Hell is other people”, “Beauty will save the world” and other appropriate thoughts for a commuting journey.

Surely, with Boris as Mayor, there ought to be some real Latin among the anglophone platitudes. Indeed, a surprising number of the best known Latin quotes turn out to be surprisingly appropriate for the journey to work. In no particular order:

1. “perfer et obdura! dolor hic tibi proderit olim” — or “Be patient and put up with it; one day this pain will pay dividends”. That’s Ovid (Amores III, XIa) reflecting on the insults of his mistress — but fits well enough for the rush hour commute.

2 “quousque tandem abutere, Catilina, patientia nostra” — or “How long Catiline will you abuse our patience?”. The famous first line of Cicero’s first speech against Catiline, attacking the would-be revolutionary (or innocent stooge), Catiline. But you can substitute any adversary for Catiline.. ‘quousque tandem abutere, Boris, patientia nostra?”

3. “arma virumque cano” — or “Arms and the man I sing”. The most famous line in the whole of Latin poetry, the first line of the first book of Virgil’s Aeneid. Though Virgil didn’t exactly mean the arms of the man digging into your side, as you’re stuck in the tunnel between Covent Garden and Leicester Square.

More quotes

Street Smart: Urban Dictionary


Almost perversely, Urban Dictionary avoids most of the standard dictionary apparatus. You won’t find information about parts of speech, etymologies or even standard spellings in it. Its sensibility, in fact, borders on the illiterate, which must be a first for a dictionary. It’s also packed with redundancies and made-up entries. This chaos seems to please Aaron Peckham, the company’s founder and chief executive. “Wikipedia strives for its N.P.O.V. — its neutral point of view,” he told me by phone. “We’re the opposite of that. Every single word on here is written by someone with a point of view, with a personal experience of the word in the entry.”

Better, then, to accept at the outset that Urban Dictionary is not a lexicographical project at all. Its wheelhouse is sociolinguistics. It’s a quick way for 9-year-olds to learn without embarrassment what “T&A” is and an equally discreet way for boomers to study the nuances of “booty.” A ranking system means that the best definitions make it to the top of the list. Clunkers swiftly fall to the bottom.


Comment peut-on être persan ? (sujet d’actu pour le bac)


Cette phrase est une des plus célèbres de la littérature française, et nous la devons au baron de Montesquieu, dans ses Lettres persanes, roman épistolaire. Elle illustre l’étonnement de bourgeois parisiens devant la différence, devant des gens qui ne leur ressemblent pas : au XVIIIe siècle*, un Persan à Paris faisait presque l’effet que ferait un Martien aujourd’hui. Elle a servi de sujet à d’innombrables dissertations de philo ou de français. Près de trois cents ans après, elle revient comme en écho, avec la protestation “persistante”…

* Lettres Persanes (Broché) de Montesquieu (Auteur), Jean Starobinski (Sous la direction de)

N.Y. Times mines its data to identify words that readers find abstruse

If The New York Times ever strikes you as an abstruse glut of antediluvian perorations, if the newspaper’s profligacy of neologisms and shibboleths ever set off apoplectic paroxysms in you, if it all seems a bit recondite, here’s a reason to be sanguine: The Times has great data on the words that send readers in search of a dictionary.


English acquires its millionth word


“The Million Word milestone brings to notice the coming of age of English as the first truly global language”, said Paul J.J. Payack, president and chief word analyst of the Global Language Monitor.

The Global Language Monitor, however, accepts as a word any coinage that has gained sufficiently wide usage: this includes hybrid words in Chinglish (Chinese English), Hinglish (Hindi English), Spanglish (Spanish English), Hollywords (terms created by the film industry), computer jargon and words forged by the internet.

Appropriately enough, the 1,000,000th word accepted as genuine yesterday was “Web 2.0” which was defined as “the next generation of web products and services, coming soon to a browser near you”.

Three other terms narrowly lost out to “Web 2.0” in the race the million mark: “Jai Ho!” a Hinglish expression signifying a major accomplishment; “slumdog” (made popular by the film Slumdog Millionaire), meaning a child slum dweller, and “n00b”, a mixture of letters and zeros which is a mocking term for a newcomer in the online gamer community.

If the Global Language Monitor is right in its calculation, for every French word, there are now ten in English, or nearly-English.

Mr Payack and his colleagues use what they call a Predictive Quantities Indicator to assess whether a usage qualifies as a word: each contender is analysed according to depth (number of citations) and breadth (geographic extent of word usage), as well as the number of times a word has appeared in the global print and electronic media, the Internet, blogs, and social media such as Twitter and YouTube. Words need a minimum of 25,000 citations to qualify.

Purists, professional lexicographers and traditional Scrabble players are all likely to reject many of the words accepted by the Global Language Monitor.

Which language for Europe?

More than half of Europe’s citizens did not vote in the elections for the European Parliament, but the institution faces more challenges than those of credibility. One of the great challeges faced by the Parliament is the number of languages it uses: after the admission of Bulgaria and Romania these now total 23, practically one per European state. Etymologically, the word Parliament derives from a word actually meaning “speaking”, but if the members of Parliament speak 23 different languages, what kind of Parliament can this be?

It is odd and awkward in this day and age spending taxpayers’ money in order to entertain linguistic nationalism.

It is no easy task, even for the European Parliament, to find translators from Finnish to Greek, or from Portuguese to Bulgarian. However, Eurocracy is ingenious, and to reduce costs it uses double translation: those who speak less widely known languages are first translated into the principal languages (English, French or German) and then retranslated into all the other less common languages. One wonders how much the substance of the MPs speeches is altered by the second or third translation.