March 18, 2014

Imgur (pronounced “imager”), a popular image-hosting social website, has a fun thread on translation errors and substitutions in speech.

It starts with a user saying his Russian wife asked for a roll of inches when she meant a tape measure, and the comments soon filled up with more in this vein: some poetic, some amusingly absurd, a few resulting from memory failure in the speaker’s own language.

I did not know the words for ‘ice cubes’ in German so asked for ‘very cold water with corners’ (from user slimydog)

My dutch neighbor called a [merry]-go-round a horse tornado. (disguisenburg)

I have referred to Muffins as bread mushrooms. (zinvader)

When I was learning English I could not remember the English for Reindeer, so I called it a Christmas Llama. (Unusualpretense)

When I was learning Swedish and making plans with friends, I kept telling them “Smells good!” when I meant “Sounds good!” (freegiant)

I went to say “a bee!” in Japanese but said “a jar of honey!” instead. (jlist)

Couldn’t remember “shower” in Spanish once, had to tell the maid my friend was “in falling water” (theblueshell)

My friend from France never said “Go Away”. Instead: “PUT AWAY YOUR FACE!” Its my favorite expression to this day <3

I know I’ve produced some howlers/classics of my own when I was learning languages, or trying to communicate in other countries, but none come to mind this evening. Got any to share? Smells good!


See the follow-up at All Things Linguistic, which has further examples in the post and comments, and queries the pronunciation of imgur.

The creole continuum

June 4, 2013

The much-loved “jive talk” scene from the comedy film Airplane! is an amusing if slightly improbable demonstration of how a single language – in this case English – can accommodate varieties so divergent as to be mutually incomprehensible.*

A more plausible form of the phenomenon appears in John McWhorter’s book The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language, in which the author recounts an incident that neatly depicts the existence of such varieties in a language, one perfectly transparent to him and the others increasingly unintelligible.

The dialects in question are Standard English and Guyanese creoles. McWhorter was at a conference when he entered an elevator with his dissertation advisor; another Guyanese man hopped in at the last minute:

They started out speaking Standard English, largely in deference to me, but as the elevator went up and their conversation became gradually warmer and more spontaneous, they started gliding into increasingly more creole layers of their speech repertoire. The higher we went, the less of their conversation I could grasp. I lost the first sentence above the fifth floor; by the tenth, all I knew was who they were talking about; by the eighteenth, all I knew was that something was really funny and that it probably wasn’t me. By the twenty-fifth floor, when we got out, they might as well have been speaking Turkish. Yet to them, they had never stopped speaking “English” – they had simply traveled along a continuum of creolized varieties of it leading away from the lone vanilla variety I grew up in.

What I like about this anecdote is the incremental but radical spontaneous morphing of the language, along with the readymade metaphor (an elevator) in which the continuous shift takes place.

Ethnologue’s page on Guyanese Creole English also notes the “continuum of variation from basilectal Creole to acrolectal English of the educated”.

* Sometimes this communicative shortfall hinges on a single word, as in the famous case of William Caxton’s egges/eyren.

Living with Herds: a vocalisation dictionary

May 30, 2013

This short observational film (9 min.) by Natasha Fijn, research fellow at the Australian National University, will appeal to anyone interested in animal behaviour, interspecies communication, or biology or anthropology generally.

Fijn describes it as “a visual dictionary showing how Mongolian herders vocalise to their herd animals, followed by the response of the herd animal(s)”:

Read the rest of this entry »

Link love: language (53)

May 7, 2013

To keep at bay the ever-present danger of running out of things to read on the internet, here’s a selection of language-related links I’ve enjoyed in recent weeks.

For hardboiled hacks and editors: Grammarnoir 5.

How pointing makes babies human.

Cucumber map of Europe.

Animated pop-up books.

Kán yu andastánd wot aim seiing?

A classical alphabet in rhyming form.

The genealogical etymology of scalawag.

Instead of awesome.


The psycholinguistics of CAPTCHAs.

Anzac, possie, furphy: words from Gallipoli.

Paper vs. screens: the reading brain in the digital age.

GloWbE, a new 1.9b word corpus of global web-based English.

Real rules vs. grammar myths (PDF).

Our many synonyms for death.

On newspapers’ use of illegal immigrants.

What’s the collective noun for collective nouns?

Language structure is partly determined by social structure.

Analysing elephant signals and gestures.

Copyediting principles.

Language, like immigration, is “thoroughly untidy”.

How Vesalius’s anatomical metaphors broke the mould in 1543.

Archive of the indigenous languages of Latin America.

Twitter language map of Melbourne.

Endless rewriting.

Killer Bs.


[Archived language links]

Centring around phonetic alphabets

March 11, 2013

Over at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, I’ve been writing about idioms and alphabets, specifically centre around and “SaypU”.

In Centring around a usage disagreement, I discuss the phrase centre around and the regular complaints that it’s somehow wrong or illogical:

Centre around has been in use for about a century and a half, and no one seemed to mind it until the 1920s. Then someone cried foul, or rather illogic, and since then many have found fault with its apparent contravention of mathematical propriety. Nowadays it’s a regular source of annoyance, some of it extreme: one reader said seeing it in an article sent her “screaming to Strunk and White”. I worry for her blood pressure.

Critics object that a centre is “technically a single point” (Bryan Garner’s Modern American Usage) and you can’t physically centre around something. But if centres were single points, city centres would be impossibly crowded.

The problem lies with the tension between mathematical logic and idiomatic usage. (You can guess which side I’m on.) I’m also interested in what motivates people to say centre around, and I touch on that later in the post.

Do you use the phrase, avoid it, like it, hate it, or have no strong feelings either way?


Next: Can shared alphabets foster peace? follows up on a recent BBC report about a new phonetic alphabet, SaypU, whose creator hopes it can make the world more peaceful and harmonious. Historically this is nothing unusual:

Moral and political aspirations have motivated inventors of languages and other communication systems for centuries. Esperanto is perhaps the most famous. Its creator, Ludwik Zamenhof, was an idealist who felt the “heavy sadness” of linguistic diversity and believed it was “the only, or at least the primary force which divides the human family into enemy parts”. So he created Esperanto to foster communication and understanding between people of different languages.

But would speaking the same language really make people more inclined to get on? . . . [T]here’s no reason to assume greater communicative overlap would engender significantly more kindness and mutual consideration among people.

The post looks briefly at whether the project measures up in practical terms, and throws the IPA and Douglas Adams into the mix.

For older articles, see my Macmillan Dictionary Blog archive.

The dramatic grammatic evolution of “LOL”

March 5, 2013

LOL, the poster child of txtspk and internet lingo, began as a handy abbreviation for laughing out loud (and sometimes lots of love). But it has come to symbolise a whole mode of discourse: LOLspeak is a quasi-dialect unto itself, albeit mainly the preserve of unwitting LOLcats.

Some people even say lol offline to indicate amusement without having to go to the trouble of laughing. (I’m sure these people laugh normally, too.) But there’s more to LOL than meets the eye. Anne Curzan writes at Lingua Franca that the meaning of LOL has changed – it often doesn’t mean laughing out loud. You might have noticed this.

Read the rest of this entry »

Link love: language (51)

February 21, 2013

A more-or-less-monthly roundup of links on language, grammar, usage, writing, linguistics and such things. Browse at will and click your fill.

Do animals have accents?

Irish language used in space.

Why tongue twisters are hard to say.

Digital Dütsch: the rise of Swiss German writing.

From corpus to dictionary: how lexicographers use databases.

A history of -ise vs. -ize.

If and when you say if and when.

Grammar rules and the persistence of ignorance.

Morality, dictionaries, and the Voice of Authority.

Men and women use uptalk differently.

The cyberpragmatics of bounding asterisks (*happy dance*).

Wet your whistle and whet your appetite.

How to write an academic introduction.

Laughter among deaf signers.

Why pick on adverbs?

The grammar of newspaper headlines.

When physicists do linguistics.

Is decimate the peeve to beat all peeves?

How not to test English language competence.

The Alphabet Man and his twig letters.

How did X and O come to represent affection?

Kick ass: a once-vulgar phrase goes mainstream.

Prepositions are not what they’re claimed to be.

Mother languages and identity in Zimbabwe.

Mapping languages in England and Wales.

Documenting Aramaic before it disappears.

On coherence in speech and its lack in academic writing.

Grammar badness makes cracking harder the long password.

The man who couldn’t speak – and how he revolutionized psychology.

Take A Minute To Watch The New Way We Make Web Headlines Now.


[language links archive]


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