Monday, November 28, 2005


Kaori Shoji's latest Bilingual column in the Japan Times is fun. She talks about how the word mottainai has been rejuvenated:

Actually, a lot of Japanese seem to be channeling the wisdom of their grandmothers and/or equivalents lately as the word mottainai (that suggests something shouldn't be thrown away or wasted) is uttered up and down the nation like some newly coined, exotic phrase, instead of one of the most oft-repeated words in the Japanese vocabulary. Generations of Japanese had been screaming mottainai for many centuries, threatening blindness, sudden death of a parent, plague and other heavenly punishments for wasting anything, ANYTHING at all.

... And now mottainai is totally acceptable, even fashionable. The instigator, of course, was 2004 Nobel Prize winner Prof. Wangari Maathai, who earlier this year linked the word mottainai to her Green Belt Movement.

Just for fun I looked up もったいない on the WWWJDIC Server, and found these definitions:

  1. 勿体; 物体 【もったい】 (n) (1) superior airs; air of importance; (2) overemphasis
  2. 勿体ない(P); 勿体無い; 物体ない; 物体無い 【もったいない】 (adj) (uk) too good; more than one deserves; wasteful; sacrilegious; unworthy of
  3. 勿体ぶる; 勿体振る 【もったいぶる】 (v5r) to put on airs; to assume importance

and example sentences like 時間がもったいない, it's a waste of time.


Posted at 15:15 PST  Link

Saturday, November 26, 2005


The British company Dot mobile is offering a new service - sending condensed versions of classic literature to students' cell phones. Really, really condensed, as in text messaging. Hamlet's famous question becomes "2b? Nt2b? = ???", and here is Pride and Prejudice in its entirety:

5SistrsWntngHsbnds.NwMenInTwn-Bingly&Darcy Fit&Loadd. BigSisJaneFals4B,2ndSisLizH8sDCozHesProud. SlimySoljrWikamSysDHsShadyPast. TrnsOutHesActulyARlyNysGuy&RlyFancysLiz. SheDecydsSheLyksHim.Evry1GtsMaryd.

Translation: Five sisters wanting husbands. There are two new men in town—Bingley and Darcy. They are handsome and wealthy. Big sister Jane falls for Bingley but second sister Elizabeth hates Darcy because he’s proud. Slimy soldier Wickham says that Darcy has a shady past. It turns out that he's actually a really nice guy and really fancies Elizabeth. She decides that she likes him. Everyone gets married.

Yikes! And look what they did to Paradise Lost...

This kind of "disemvowelled" text reminds me of those ads you used to see a long time ago in the back of magazines, that started out f u cn rd ths, u cn something or other. I did a Google Book Search and found this info in the 1990 book The Essential Feature: Writing for Magazines and Newspapers:

The inventors of Speedwriting ("f u cn rd ths, u cn gt a gd jb") noticed that most English words are intelligible if you leave out the vowels... Many words and syllables can be reduced to a single letter or symbol. Here are a few that work well:

vof; have; very
tit; to; their; there
nin; on; not; no
Nnothing; none

Want to speedread The Hobbit? Here you go:

Posted at 20:35 PST  Link

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Kamusi Project

An article in the Hartford Courant led me to the website of the Internet Living Swahili Dictionary. Yale researcher Martin Benjamin has been working for more than 10 years on his Kamusi Project, "an effort to document and produce a comprehensive guide to Swahili using the Internet." You've got to admire the man's dedication - he ran a marathon to raise money to continue the project.

The pages I found most interesting are the grammar notes, an online lookup dictionary, and the downloadable Russian-Swahili and Swahili-Russian dictionaries. There's also a discussion forum where you can ask for translations of phrases in English or Swahili. Bahati njema!

Posted at 19:00 PST  Link

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Tower of Bible Translations

I've been having fun with a site posted by languagehat called The Unbound Bible, where you can search the Bible and bring up parallel texts of translations in more than 50 languages. For example, here are some verses from the Old Testament story of the tower of Babel in English, French, Icelandic, Russian, and Maori:

Genesis chapter 11, American Standard Version:
1. And the whole earth was of one language and of one speech.
5. And Jehovah came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded.
8. So Jehovah scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off building the city.
9. Therefore was the name of it called Babel; because Jehovah did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did Jehovah scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.

French (French Jerusalem Bible):
1. Tout le monde se servait d'une même langue et des mêmes mots.
5. Or Yahvé descendit pour voir la ville et la tour que les hommes avaient bâties.
8. Yahvé les dispersa de là sur toute la face de la terre et ils cessèrent de bâtir la ville.
9. Aussi la nomma-t-on Babel, car c'est là que Yahvé confondit le langage de tous les habitants de la terre et c'est de là qu'il les dispersa sur toute la face de la terre.

1. Öll jörðin hafði eitt tungumál og ein og sömu orð.
5. Þá steig Drottinn niður til þess að sjá borgina og turninn, sem mannanna synir voru að byggja.
8. Og Drottinn tvístraði þeim þaðan út um alla jörðina, svo að þeir urðu af að láta að byggja borgina.
9. Þess vegna heitir hún Babel, því að þar ruglaði Drottinn tungumál allrar jarðarinnar, og þaðan tvístraði hann þeim um alla jörðina.

Russian (1825 Makarij translation, in old orthography):
1. Вся земля говорила однимъ языкомъ и однимъ нарјчіемъ.
5. Но Іегова сошелъ посмотрјть городъ и башню, которые строили сыны человјческіе.
8. Тогда Іегова разсјялъ ихъ оттуда по всей землј; и они перестали строить городъ.
9. Посему дано имя ему Вавилонъ; ибо тамъ смјшалъ Іегова языкъ всей земли, и оттуда разсјялъ ихъ Іегова но всей землј.

1. Na kotahi tonu te reo o te whenua katoa, rite tonu ano nga korero.
5. Na ka heke iho a Ihowa kia kite i te pa me te pourewa, i hanga nei e nga tama a te tangata.
8. Na whakamararatia atu ana ratou i reira e Ihowa ki runga ki te mata o te whenua katoa: a mahue ake i a ratou te hanga i te pa.
9. Na kona i huaina ai to reira ingoa ko Papera; no te mea i whakapoauautia e Ihowa i reira te reo o te whenua katoa: no reira ano hoki te whakamararatanga a Ihowa i a ratou ki te mata o te whenua katoa.

It's interesting to compare translations of passages in traditional vs. simplified Chinese characters, Scots Gaelic vs. Manx Gaelic, or even Romany vs. Romanian. A few languages that I wish they had are Japanese, Hindi, and Ojibwe.

All of which gives me an idea for Yet Another project that I don't have time for: The Hobbit Unbound. Or an even more ambitious project, Tolkien Unbound. The mind reels!

Posted at 17:10 PST  Link

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Simplified Chinese Considered Harmful

Pei Pei Champion is on a one-woman campaign to save traditional Chinese characters:

Chairman Mao wanted to eliminate the Chinese characters, viewing them as part of the "old culture" that he sought to break away from.

"The Chinese language does not belong to anyone. It does not belong to China. This beautiful language belongs to the world. No one has the right to change it.

"Chinese characters have three levels of meaning—pictographic (as in the character actually looks similar to the concept it is describing), ideographic (as in the different elements of the character have their own inherent meaning), and phonetic (as in the character has pronounceable elements)."

The Chinese language has developed this depth of meaning through 5,000 years of refinement. Pei Pei says, "the simplified language destroys the meaning, the spirit, and the tradition of Chinese."

Mrs. Champion has developed a new system for learning Chinese, Champion Chinese, which she claims can teach students the Bo Po Mo pronunciation symbols in two hours instead of the standard 55 used in classrooms.

"Chinese is not as hard to learn as people think. They are just teaching it wrong."

Tell that to all those new students of Chinese.

Posted at 11:15 PST  Link

Friday, November 18, 2005

Learn Icelandic in a Week

Sound impossible? Not if you're an autistic savant named Daniel Tammet, apparently.

While many savants struggle with language and comprehension (skills associated primarily with the left hemisphere), they often have amazing skills in mathematics and memory (primarily right hemisphere skills). Typically, savants have a limited vocabulary, but there is nothing limited about Tammet's vocabulary.

Tammet is creating his own language, strongly influenced by the vowel and image-rich languages of northern Europe. (He already speaks French, German, Spanish, Lithuanian, Icelandic and Esperanto.) The vocabulary of his language - "Mänti", meaning a type of tree - reflects the relationships between different things. The word "ema", for instance, translates as "mother", and "ela" is what a mother creates: "life". "Päike" is "sun", and "päive" is what the sun creates: "day". Tammet hopes to launch Mänti in academic circles later this year, his own personal exploration of the power of words and their inter-relationship.

An ABC news article claims that

He has done lots of amazing things — like learning Icelandic, one of the world's most difficult languages, in just seven days.

I had a little trouble with this statement. First, the seven days thing. Other articles say "two weeks", "6 days", and my favorite, "15 hours". But it seems that he did actually learn enough Icelandic in a week of intensive tutoring to appear on Icelandic television and answer questions. See this forum for a discussion of the British documentary that presented this.

Secondly, is Icelandic really so difficult? A brief search turned up these candidates for "most difficult language": Chinese, Japanese, Polish, Finnish, Basque, and English. Sorry, Icelandic! I'm sure you're very difficult, with many complicated inflections and all, but I don't think you're the winner of this contest.

Tammet has a website for online language learning, which offers courses using a "fluid thinking" approach, that "helps connect us all to our rich ancestral legacy of first-hand, experiential learning". He makes it all sound so easy...

Posted at 10:30 PST  Link

Monday, November 14, 2005

Language courses

I keep reading news articles about how students in the US are flocking to Chinese classes, like the one in this morning's San Jose Mercury News. Good luck to them, I say. But before they get too far into it, perhaps they should read this first.

Meanwhile in Mongolia, they're choosing English over Russian or Chinese. But theirs is a lofty goal:

Mr. Tsagaan spins an optimistic vision of Mongolia's bilingual future if he can lure English teachers. "If we combine our academic knowledge with the English language, we can do outsourcing here, just like Bangalore," he said.

Posted at 09:35 PST  Link

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Hatena Antenna

I was obsessing over my meager hit count when I noticed that it took a jump overnight. Success and fame at last! But it turned out that 30% of those hits were logged by Hatena Antenna, a Japanese spider that checks websites to see if they've been updated. I looked up はてな in a couple of Japanese dictionaries, and got these definitions: Oh dear!; Dear me!; Good gracious!; and Let's see; the last one being what you say while you're looking something up. I like the first one best.

Hatena Antenna offers quite a repertory of services: link aggregation and ranking à la, blogs, searching, and usage graphs. Amazon Japan even has a handbook on how to use Hatena's blogging software. What can I say? ようこそはてなのユーザ!

Posted at 15:45 PST  Link

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Thumbs up for Maori

I read this article in about the desperate need for predictive texting software for the Maori language, and it gave me an idea for Yet Another project: Endangered Language of the Month. Guess what the first featured language will be? Coming soon to a website near you...

Posted at 09:05 PST  Link

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Chinese Spam

We don't see much spam here in Neko-lan, because the mighty Barracuda gobbles it up before it reaches our mailboxes. But occasionally a bit of krill slips past those silicon jaws, and so it was the other day when the spouse mentioned that he had received a piece of spam in Chinese. Seeing spam in fascinating characters triggered the What's it say reflex, so I ran some of them through the top online translators, Babel Fish, Google, SYSTRAN, and WorldLingo.

The translations generated by Babel Fish and SYSTRAN were almost identical, which makes sense since the BF site displays a "Powered by SYSTRAN" sticker. Overall I thought WorldLingo did the best job, if only because it was the only translator that didn't leave a single character untranslated. Here are some of the results. Read them and weep, or whatever.

  • Subject: 百万礼包火急征集品牌名称、徽标
  • Million 礼包 火急 collections brand name, emblem sign (BF, SYSTRAN)
  • Million rituals packages 火急 collect the brand name, the emblem sign (Google)
  • Million gift parcels urgent collections brand name, emblem sign (WorldLingo)

  • 若有相同稿件,以投稿时间先后为准。快快行动!
  • If has the same manuscript, take submits a piece of writing for publication the time successively as. Acts in a big hurry! (SYSTRAN)
  • if has the same manuscript, take submits a piece of writing for publication the time successively as. Moves in a big hurry! (BF, Google, WorldLingo)

  • 活动设:特等奖1名,一等奖3名,勤快奖100名,幸运奖10名。
  • The activity supposes: Top grade prize 1, first award 3, diligent prize 100, lucky prize 10. (Google)
  • The activity supposes: 特等奖 1, first award 3, diligent prize 100, lucky prize 10. (SYSTRAN)
  • The activity supposes: Special award 1, first award 3, diligent prize 100, lucky prize 10. (WorldLingo)

  • 现金重奖,唾手可得。只要参与,就有收获。
  • Cash generous prize, extremely easy to obtain. So long as participates, has the harvest. (Google)
  • The cash rewards generously, extremely easy to obtain. So long as participation, has the harvest. (SYSTRAN, WorldLingo)
And if anyone is interested in replying to this fine offer, tough. It's in the bit bucket.

Posted at 09:50 PST  Link

Sunday, November 6, 2005

Romany translation of the Koran

A famous Bosnian singer has translated the Koran into Romany, the language of the Roma people. Radio Free Europe reports:

Muharem Serbezovski, a Bosnian Roma singer of Macedonian origin, today presented his translation of the Koran from Arabic into Romany in Sarajevo.

This is the first-ever printed copy of the Koran in that language.

Serbezovski took seven years to complete his translation, and its presentation was timed to coincide with the Eid el-Fitr holiday -- known locally as Ramazanski Bajram -- that marks the end of Ramadan.

Romany is an interesting language. Despite its name, it is not Romanian but originated in northern India (think Sanskrit!) and belongs to the Indo-Aryan branch of Indo-European languages. There are at least seven dialects of Romany; the new translation is presumably in Balkan Romany. Radio Praha claims that "Roma from different parts of the world are able to understand one another," but I wonder. According to the Dictionary of Languages,

There is a big difference between the dialects that still have a recognisably Romani structure, and those that have adopted the grammar of the surrounding language while still using some Romani words. Linguists call these para-Romani languages.

An example of this is the creole spoken in Spain called Caló or Romanó-kaló; you can read about it (in Spanish) by going to this page and following the links under "Rroma Language".

Posted at 18:20 PST  Link

Thursday, November 3, 2005

C'est la meme chose

The latest blog meme involves typing "[your name] needs" into Google and watching fun sentences appear. So I tried it with French, and that was très divertissant:

  • Mary a besoin de votre aide pour défendre sa cause.
    Mary needs your help to defend her case.
  • Mary a besoin d’espace. et de personnel enseignant.
    Mary needs space, and teaching personnel.
  • Mary ayant besoin de la force vitale d'une jeune vierge pour se régénérer...
    Mary needing the vital power of a young virgin to revive herself...
  • Est-ce que Mary a besoin du placard ? ... Non, Mary n'a pas besoin du placard.
    (from French Listening Comprehension)
Russian was even better:
  1. Мэри нужно делать кесарево сечение
  2. Мэри нужно срочно разгадать эту зловещую загадку, ведь теперь всё ее мрачные желания исполняются самым жестоким и непредсказуемым образом.
  3. Мэри нужно колечко с изумрудом, Мэри завидно, что у ее соседки есть миксер, а у нее нет!
  4. Мэри нужно было показать, насколько просто у себя дома проводить собеседования с людьми с целью их рекрутирования.
  1. Mary needs a Caesarean section
  2. Mary needs to solve this sinister riddle quickly, because now all her dark wishes are coming true in the most cruel and unexpected fashion.
  3. Mary needs an emerald ring. Mary is envious because her neighbors have a mixer and she doesn't!
  4. Mary needed to be shown how simple it was to conduct interviews with people in her own home with the goal of recruiting them.
And what does Joe need?

Posted at 22:15 PST  Link

Tuesday, November 1, 2005


If you like reading the latest news about language, translation, and linguistics, check out Inttranews, the News site for Linguists, available in two flavors, English and French. All it lacks is an RSS feed...

Posted at 22:45 PST  Link