Thursday, 18 January 2018

The Origins of Human Language: One of the Hardest Problems in Science

Ancient Origins 

How human language began has been a question pestering researchers for centuries. One of the biggest issues with this topic is that empirical evidence is still lacking despite our great advances in technology. This lack of concrete evidence even once led to the prohibition of any future debates regarding the origins of communication by the Linguistic Society of Paris. Despite the obstacles, a number of researchers including psychologists, anthropologists, archaeologists, and linguists continue on studying the topic. The results of the numerous studies on early communication can be divided into two major categories of communication: vocalizations and gestures. Here the focus is on vocalization.

Our Hyoid Bones and Complex Brains: Part of What Helps Us Do More than Chatter Like Chimps

As spoken language is by nature impermanent, the best empirical evidence for this field of thought is the hyoid bone. This bone as it appears and functions in modern homo sapiens is only believed to be found in our predecessors, Homo heidelbergensis, as of 300,000 years ago and in our prehistoric "cousins" the Neanderthals.  Nevertheless, the appearance of the Kebara 2 hyoid in both species does not definitively prove that they were set to use speech or complex language.

That being said, the hyoid bone is believed by many researchers to be the foundation of speech for humans and without our specifically shape hyoid bones in exactly the right place, functioning alongside a precisely descended larynx, it is believed that we would sound much like chimpanzees.
Thus, we had a nicely complex and precise throat anatomy, but alongside this part of the anatomy we also had to have sufficiently complex brains to have something to talk about. Researchers believe that our ancient ancestors had, what Noam Chomsky calls the LAD (Language Acquisition Device), the ability to learn language and to use it in a creative way. This creativity can be evinced by the art created some 300,000 to 700,000 years ago by our Paleolithic predecessors.

Hardware  and Software in place: Ready To Begin?

Combining these two ideas, perhaps our human ancestors were all set to begin speaking (or at least making well-constructed sounds with a thought-out purpose) around 300,000 years ago. Despite this, most vocal theories say the date was much later - only 100,000 years ago when there was an increase in brain volume as well. This is a summary of the natural evolutionary acquisition of language.

Opposed to the evolutionary point of view, there is also debate on if the language was a divine gift, or perhaps a conscious invention by early humans. Both of these theories are based on the complexity of human language.

Apart from trying to pinpoint the date, continuity, and provider of the first spoken word, another very important question which scholars have tried to explain is: What did the early ancestors say?

The Early Theories on Vocal Language Origins:  La-la, Bow-wow...

There are six principal theories that were made between the late 1800s to the early 1900s which were meant to explain the origins of the words used in vocal language. They have humorous nicknames attached which provide a hint into the idea behind the theory.

1. The Bow-Wow Theory: This theory suggests that the first words were onomatopoeic (words that use sounds associated with objects/actions they refer too) - such as hiss, bang and splash. The Bow-Wow theory has been discredited by the fact that many "onomatopoeic" words are different across languages, not really derived from natural sounds, and recently created.

2. The Ding-Dong Theory: is a theory that harmony with the natural environment created the need for language, and sound and meaning are innately connected through nature. While it is true that there are some examples of "sound symbolism" (fl- words in English associated with light and quick), studies have not been able to prove an innate connection between a sound and a word's meaning.

3. The Pooh-Pooh Theory: Suggests that language began with interjections (expressions such as "Ow!" "Oh!" "Ha!"). One problem with this theory is that it can be said that many animals make these/similar sounds yet they do not create other words. Another issue with the Pooh-Pooh theory is found in the lack of interjections currently found in most modern languages. 

4. The Yo-He-Ho Theory: This is a theory based on the grunts and groans people make when doing heavy physical labor. While these sounds can be related to some of the rhythm of some language, it does not really explain the origins of most words.

5. The La-La Theory: Is an idea that vocal language came about through play, song, and love. A counterpoint is that the theory does not explain words that are less emotional.

6. The Ta-Ta Theory: believes that words arose from a desire to imitate gestures via the use of the tongue and mouth. For example, ta-ta would be a tongue waving goodbye. An obvious difficulty in this theory would be that many gestures could not be reproduced solely by the mouth and tongue.

Despite their drawbacks, most of these theories are still taught today as a starting point for research into the area of human speech.

Read more: Ancient Origins

Sunday, 7 January 2018

Scandinavian Translations: If You Want to Capture New Markets, Having Your Website or Online Store Only in English Is Not Enough.

Danish translation agency
Denmark, Copenhagen. Danish language. Scandinavian and Baltic translation.  Credit: Storyblocks

Exports of products and services to other countries is what your business needs. If you want to capture new markets, having your website or online store only in English is not enough.

According to market research, an online store or website in client's native language has a significant impact on buyer's choice. Roughly 75% online store customers give preference to the seller who provides product and service description in customer's native language.
So if you want to expand your product or service market, start with website localization in the language used on your potential market. However, do not forget to ensure customer service in their native language.
Saves money
We have over 25 years of experience in website localization in Nordic and Baltic languages. Our clients will also save money as we use CAT (Computer Assisted Translation) tools that create a translation memory and terminology database so you will not pay twice for phrases that repeat 100% and will pay less for those somewhat similar to the translated ones. Terminology database will also ensure terminology consistency and search engine optimization.
Our translators are human beings instead of machines as machine translation such as Google cannot understand the context, idioms, jokes and other nuances, therefore, nothing has been able to beat professional translators so far. The leading global and local scale companies still localize their content only with human translation.
We recently localized Swedish hairdresser equipment and product wholesaler website in all Scandinavian languages - Their turnover saw increases in growth!
Find more information on website translation and our work flow on our website.

Friday, 5 January 2018

Swedish Language: a Gender-Neutral Pronoun in a Natural Gender Language

Swedish Translation services
Stockholm, Sweden. Swedish language. Translation from and into Swedish language.Credit: Baltic Media
The implementation of the gender-fair language is often associated with negative reactions and hostile attacks on people who propose a change. This was also the case in Sweden in 2012 when a third gender-neutral pronoun hen was proposed as an addition to the already existing Swedish pronouns for she (hon) and he (han). The pronoun hen can be used both generically when gender is unknown or irrelevant, and as a transgender pronoun for people who categorize themselves outside the gender dichotomy. In this article, we review the process from 2012 to 2015. 
No other language has so far added a third gender-neutral pronoun, existing parallel with two gendered pronouns, that actually have reached the broader population of language users. This makes the situation in Sweden unique. 
We present data on attitudes toward hen during the past 4 years and analyze how time is associated with the attitudes in the process of introducing hen to the Swedish language. In 2012 the majority of the Swedish population was negative to the word, but already in 2014 there was a significant shift in more positive attitudes. Time was one of the strongest predictors of attitudes also when other relevant factors were controlled for. 
The actual use of the word also increased, although to a lesser extent than the attitudes shifted. We conclude that new words challenging the binary gender system evoke hostile and negative reactions, but also that attitudes can normalize rather quickly. We see this finding very positive and hope it could motivate language amendments and initiatives for gender-fair language, although the first responses may be negative.
Language is seen as an important tool for determining gender, i.e., if something is being perceived as feminine or masculine (Boroditsky et al., 2003Stahlberg et al., 2007), where gender most often imposes a dichotomy (Ansara and Hegarty, 2014). This implies that language also could be used as a tool for establishing gender-equality and to challenge gender perceptions. In Western culture and languages, actions toward gender-fair languages have primarily focused on making women more salient and reducing the so-called male bias (for a review, see: Stahlberg et al., 2007). For example, in the seventies, the feminist movement questioned the use of a generic masculine pronoun to refer to people in general (Moulton et al., 1978MacKay, 1980Phillips, 1981Murdock and Forsyth, 1985).
The literature describes two types of gender-fair language: “balancing/feminization’ and ‘neutralization.’ Feminization implies the use of gender-appropriate forms, and is more often used in languages with grammatical gender (e.g., German, French), for example by adding feminine versions to masculine titles (e.g., Lehrer/Lehrerinnen for masculine and feminine teachers; Stahlberg et al., 20012007). Neutralization is more commonly employed in so called ‘natural gender languages’ (e.g., English, Swedish, Norwegian), and implies that gender-neutral forms are preferred over gendered forms. Examples are using the word parents instead of mum and dad, and humankind instead of mankind (at least in official records).
In Swedish, a recent action was to introduce the gender-neutral third person pronoun, hen, as a complement to the Swedish words for she (hon) and he (han) (Ledin and Lyngfelt, 2013Milles, 2013Bäck et al., 2015). In current time the word first appeared in 2012, figuring in a children’s book. In July 2014, it was announced that hen should be included in 2015th edition of The Swedish Academy Glossary (SAOL) constituting the (unofficial) norm of the Swedish language (Benaissa, 2014Fahl, 2014), after what had been a long, sometimes offensive and heated debate in the media. No other language has so far added a third gender-neutral pronoun that actually has reached the broader population of language users, which makes the situation in Sweden unique. This article presents a review of the process on how hen became implemented, including the arguments that were put forward from opponents and proponents, respectively. We present data on attitudes toward hen during the recent 4 years and study how time is associated with the attitudes and actual use of the word.
The word hen is very similar to, and pronounced as, the Finnish gender-neutral pronoun hän with the same meaning, i.e., describing any person no matter their gender – although the language of Sweden’s cultural neighbor Finland belongs to the language group without gendered third-person pronouns (Stahlberg et al., 2007Prewitt-Freilino et al., 2012). Even though the debate about hen took off in 2012, the word was first mentioned as early as in the 1960’s (Milles, 2013), when linguists proposed that a gender-neutral pronoun would be a more rational choice in comparison to a generic he or using double forms (i.e., he and/or she). However, these discussions were more of an academic nature limited to small linguistic communities and did not reach a broader public (Milles, 2013). In the beginning of the 21st century people in LGBT-communities (Lesbian-, Gay-, Bi-, Trans-) began to use hen, both for people outside the gender dichotomy and as a way of diminishing the salience of gender. A similar movement has been found in the English language, among linguists and among transgender communities, where more than 80 different forms of gender-neutral pronouns have been proposed. Today, one trend in English is to use gender-neutral pronouns such as zie and hir (Baron, 1986Ansara and Hegarty, 2014Love, 2014), although these words have not been very widespread outside the LGBT-communities (Crawford and Fox, 2007).

Marie Gustafsson Sendén,1,* Emma A. Bäck,2 and Anna Lindqvist3

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

English influence on Sweden's words of the year

The Swedish Language Council has announced the word of the year – or rather 38 words of the year - for 2017. Fake news, dabbing, and #metoo are just some of the words that made the cut.
Radio Sweden spoke with Anders Svensson from Språktidningen, the Language Magazine, which partners with the Swedish Language Council to come up with the list every year. He said that many of this year’s words were taken from English.
“There is a debate in Sweden every now and then that English is a threat and that English is growing at the expense of Swedish,” Svensson said.
This list shows that English is, of course, a very influential language. But this list also shows that we have loan words from other languages as well from Japanese, from German, and from Spanish.”

Sunday, 24 December 2017

‘Merry Christmas’ in European languages

The following map shows how to say (or rather write) the equivalent of “Merry Christmas” in European languages. The colouring corresponds to etymological relations between the translations of the word Christmas (i.e. not to language families and not to relations between other parts of the phrase).
This leads to a few unexpected results. Even though Romanian and Hungarian are completely unrelated languages, the words karácsony and Crăciun come from a common root (either Proto-Slavic *korčiti or Latin creātiōnem).
The IrishWelsh and Scottish Gaelic words are all borrowed from Romance languages and are related to French Noël. The same holds true for the Turkish expression, which is directly borrowed from French.
Something quite unusual happens in Czech and Slovak. The word Vánoce resp. Vianoce is derived from German Weihnachten by retaining the “Weih” part (which comes from an old Germanic expression meaning “holy”) and replacing nachten (“nights”) by the Czech/Slovak translation, “noce”. However, the word “noce” itself comes from the same Proto-Indo-European root as German “Nachten” (and English “nights”), so the Czech/Slovak and German expressions are essentially etymologically equivalent.
Here are the same phrases as above as a text so that you can copy-paste them:
AlbanianGëzuar Krishtlindjet
BasqueEguberri on
Belarusianз Калядамі or з Божым Нараджэннем
BretonNedeleg laouen
BulgarianВесела Коледа or Честито Рождество Христово
CatalanBon Nadal
CroatianSretan Božić
CzechVeselé Vánoce
Danish God jul or Glædelig jul
DutchVrolijk Kerstfeest
EnglishMerry Christmas or Happy Christmas
EstonianHäid jõule
FinnishHyvää joulua
GalicianBo Nadal
GermanFröhliche Weihnachten or Frohe Weihnachten
GreekΚαλά Χριστούγεννα
HungarianBoldog karácsonyt
IcelandicGleðileg jól
IrishNollaig Shona + Dhuit (singular) or Daoibh (plural)
ItalianBuon Natale
LatvianPriecīgus Ziemassvētkus
LithuanianLinksmų Kalėdų
LuxembourgishSchéine Chrëschtdag
MacedonianСреќен Божиќ or Христос се роди
Malteseil-Milied it-Tajjeb
Norwegian: God jul
Northern SamiBuorre juovla
RomanianCrăciun fericit
OccitanBon Nadal
PolishWesołych Świąt (Bożego Narodzenia)
Portuguese: Feliz Natal
Russianс Рождеством (Христовым)
Scottish GaelicNollaig Chridheil
SerbianSrećan Božić or Hristos se rodi
SardinianBona Pasca de Nadale
SlovakVeselé Vianoce
SloveneVesel božič
Spanish: Feliz Navidad
SwedishGod jul
Ukrainianз Різдвом (Христовим)
WelshNadolig Llawen


Friday, 1 December 2017

The languages that take the most (and least) time to learn, per the US Foreign Service

Learning a new language takes time. But according to US diplomatic training guides, there are many languages that Americans should be able to learn in under a year.
The map below shows how long it takes to learn almost 70 different languages, estimated by the Foreign Service Institute, which teaches these languages to would-be or current diplomats.

Countries on the map are colored according to how much time it takes to learn the local language: The darker-colored the country, the longer it takes.
The CIA Factbook was used to identify a dominant language for each country. Countries with no clear dominant language, like multilingual Mozambique, or where the FSI doesn’t teach the dominant language, appear gray.
FSI language-learning categories are numbered like hurricanes—higher number, scarier language. The darkest countries on the map represent Category 4 languages, those that take the longest for Americans to learn: Arabic, Cantonese, Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, and Korean. FSI literature refers to these as “super-hard languages.”
After that are 50 merely “hard” Category-3 languages, including Czech, Hindi, Russian, and Thai. The final two categories include languages that are more closely related to English. (See the full table of languages below.)
The numbers of weeks in that map represent the amount of time a learner with no experience of a language will need to get to “3/3 proficiency,” meaning a three out of five for speaking/reading. A zero, the FSI writes, indicates “only a cursory level knowledge of the language,” while five shows a “highly articulate, well-educated, native-speaker proficiency.” As of last year, there were over 4,200 staffers in the FSI with at least this 3/3 level of proficiency, in “about 70 languages,” according to a recent report(pdf).
One thing to note here. These estimates, like 24 weeks for Spanish, assume the learner is in one of the FSI’s intensive courses. For the hardest languages, like Chinese, the course may even include several months of immersive study abroad. What’s more, the FSI sets out to hire smart, worldly people, and its estimates assume the student has “very good or better aptitude for classroom learning of foreign languages.” So the idea that it “takes 44 weeks to learn Finnish” is not very meaningful to most people.

There is no absolute answer to which language is the “easiest” or “most difficult,” because every learner is different. A native English speaker will have a harder time learning Italian than a native Spanish speaker, since the two Romance languages are closely related. And some people find pronunciation in a tonal language like Vietnamese difficult, while others adapt easily. The FSI difficulty measurements are also a bit confusing based on the “speak/read” requirement. Mandarin grammar is not nearly as complicated as that of some European languages, but the complexity of the Chinese writing system puts it in the highest category.

The map does show, though, a general trend of increasing the difficulty the farther American English-speakers get from the United States—starting with Europe and South America and continuing to Western Asia and East Asia—with obvious exceptions like Australia and the relative ease of Indonesian compared to Japanese or Chinese. The map also shows how much easier colonialism has made things for speakers of Western languages.
Here is the full list of FSI languages, and their difficulty rankings:
Haitian creole

Source: Quartz