Christmas is almost upon us again, and with it comes the call to think of those less fortunate than ourselves by donating to good causes.
by Summer Worsley
In 2019, the NZ Transport Agency (NZTA) began the process of changing its name and logo, prioritising the Te Reo Māori (the native language of New Zealand) translation before English.
Now, the government agency is known as Waka Kotahi - NZ Transport Agency, a move that has drawn a fair amount of ire from commentators.
A Reddit user expresses their frustration.
About Te Reo and its history
Māori is one of New Zealand’s official languages, and it was the only language spoken in NZ prior to the arrival of European colonisers in the 1800s.
Since the first settlers arrived, the Māori language has been subjected to the known linguistic pitfalls of colonisation, including suppression in schools where children were formally and informally forced to ‘kōrero Pākehā’ (speak English).
By the mid-20th century, it was clear that the course of just a few hundred years had significantly hindered the language’s rightful place in NZ society, prompting a range of efforts to preserve it that really only began in earnest in the 80s.
Initiatives such as the kōhanga reo movement, which saw Māori pre-schoolers educated in Māori, and the kura kaupapa programme, primary schooling in Māori, attempted to reverse some of the damage.
The use of Māori words in domains that had been overwhelmingly English increased, too. In 1984 a telephone tolls operator named Naida Glavish began greeting callers with kia ora (hello), sparking the so-called ‘kia ora controversy’. The now Dame Glavish was demoted for her refusal to stop using the Māori greeting.
One would think there are lessons to be learned here, yet 30 years later in 2014, a 17-year-old KiwiYo employee was told not to greet customers by saying kia ora.
Pushbacks to increased Māori use abound
Here in New Zealand, it often seems that for every step taken to ensure Te Reo Māori doesn’t reach extinction (a very real threat), there is a disproportionate reaction from citizens who view these steps as an affront.
Pushbacks to the revival of Māori come in the form of hate mail and threats to broadcasters who use Te Reo, overtly racist comments on social media threads, and conservative leaders who are “utterly sick” of the increased use of Māori.
Prior to WWII, most Māori spoke Te Reo as their first language. By 2006, Statistics New Zealand data showed that around 23% of Māori could hold a conversation about everyday things in Te Reo.
In 2022, just 1% of New Zealand’s total population speak fluent Te Reo while another 2.7% can hold a basic conversation.
The language is clearly in danger, so why is there such a vehement reaction to revival efforts?
Is linguistic diversity threatening?
It’s often said that people are afraid of what they don’t understand; that they find it threatening.
As one threatened viewer told NZ’s Broadcasting Standards Authority (BSA): the use of Te Reo on public programming was “discriminatory toward non-Māori speaking New Zealanders and divisive", because they felt "purposefully excluded".
In 2021, the BSA announced that it would no longer take complaints about the use of Māori, which upset the threatened among us but was championed by many others as a way to help stop everyday racism.
Although NZ is often lauded for its race relations on the international stage, the reality for many Kiwis is far from acceptable. In this society, the relationship between Māori and Pākehā people has been problematic since its very beginnings. And it is still marked by injustice and inequality.
Numerous past acts of violence carried out against Māori by Pākehā haven’t been fully addressed or settled, and statistically, Māori fare worse in social areas such as socio-economic
status, health, crime, and educational achievement.
Complaints about the increased use of Te Reo in New Zealand society represent little more than Pākehā fearing changes to the status quo, one in which they hold an undeniably privileged position.
Further on the topic of machine translation (addressed by Summer in her latest post):
The original reads:
Faster than I thought possible, he grabs me, gives me a proprietary embrace and a toe-curling kiss.
But the translation engine thinks that "a toe-curling kiss" means that someone is kissing you "with his toes":
Schneller, als ich es für möglich gehalten hätte, packt er mich, umarmt mich und küsst mich mit den Zehen.
Or this, where "Neither do I" [say anything] becomes "I don't know either".
He says nothing. Neither do I.
Ich weiß es auch nicht.
I could go on, but I just wanted to wish all clients and friends of Witinall Language Services
A LOVELY SUMMER HOLIDAY!
Make sure you spend a day or two outside to relax and have fun!
And if you're working and need some help with German or English transcriptions or translations, just call or write to me at my office any time. I look forward to hearing from you.
As Summer addressed the machine translation issue in her recent post, I couldn’t resist adding a few titbits from my “blunders and howlers” collection. Because one thing that keeps me on my toes most of the time I review machine-translated texts is how common lexical phrases or grammatical constructions are mistranslated. Take a look at this sentence, for example:
She made your aunt promise that she would…
Straightforward enough, you might say. But it became
Sie hat deiner Tante versprochen, dass wir uns …
She promised your aunt …
He was up again within seconds to throw up into a bush to the left, hucking up all the turkey he’d eaten earlier.
Er war innerhalb von Sekunden wieder auf den Beinen und warf sich in einen Busch auf der linken Seite, wobei er den ganzen Truthahn, den er zuvor gegessen hatte, in sich hineinschlang.
In the German sentence, our hero is not “throwing up” into a bush; he is “throwing himself into a bush”. This action seems to have made him hungry: he is gorging himself (!) on some more turkey rather than spitting it out. You can safely say that this would make for some very unusual reading …
Okay, so dialectal variants and sublanguages are perhaps not every machine’s forte. Still, it’s amazing how often you will find very simple constructions mangled.
To top off today’s selection, here’s my current favourite:
He spied a young kid chewing on a piece of bread, leaning on a shovel.
Er entdeckte einen jungen Mann, der auf einer Schaufel kaute und sich auf ein Stück Brot stützte.
The translation says: „He spied a young man chewing a shovel and leaning on a piece of bread.” Cheers to that!
A few reasons why AI and translation software will NEVER top human-produced work
by Summer Worsley
With advances in modern technology, it's no surprise that machine translation has made its way into our working lives. There is now an app for your phone, a program to run on your laptop, and even an earpiece device that translates foreign languages in real-time.
The availability of machine translation technologies has changed the landscape of the translation industry. Although it's a great asset to be able to speak with someone from across the world in a different language (albeit with the grammar skills of a three-year-old), there are many reasons why you would want to use human translators instead of software.
Human translators understand context
Context is the surrounding circumstances of a word or phrase, and it's critical to understanding what you're saying exactly, be it in text or speech. For example, if I say "I love ice cream," the three-word sentence can have different meanings depending on who I'm talking to and why.
If I say this to someone else who also loves ice cream and has just expressed a similar sentiment, then there's no confusion. But what if I say this to my partner while we're fighting over bills? She will likely interpret my words differently than if we were talking about dessert together.
In this case, context dictates that being left alone with a tub of Ben & Jerry's can be seen as anything but sweet.
If you've ever tried using machine translation software like Google Translate or Microsoft Translator (and let's be real: how many of us haven't?), then you've seen first-hand how context isn't taken into consideration when computers process language data into another language form.
In fact, it can often result in nonsensical translations due to a lack of proper context, like that time the Australian Defense force tweeted utter nonsense in Arabic. Or when Clairol, a company that should have known better, ended up with its ‘Mist Stick’ curling iron promoted as a ‘Manure Stick’ in Germany.
Machine translation can't yet respond to literary and figurative language
Machine translation is generally only good at taking a specific word, searching its database of translations, and returning the corresponding result. This means that it cannot understand context or connotation, nor literary or figurative language.
In part, this is because machines do not process language in the same way humans do—they don’t have an innate understanding of meaning or nuance. For example:
“The sky was yellow with birdsong all day long; it was impossible to sleep.” A human reader understands that “yellow” doesn't mean colour here but rather describes an overwhelming abundance of something. But a machine would simply return a literal “yellow with birdsong all day long; it was impossible to sleep” as its final product without any explanation for what exactly makes this sentence so strange and beautiful at once.
If we look closer at our previous example, we can see where the problem really begins: the sentence contains idioms (a phrase with a meaning that cannot be determined from its individual words). Idioms depend on context and convey meaning not through literal definitions but through common usage by people within a specific culture over time, which machines simply don't have access to.
Literary translation is not just a literal word-for-word process. The translator is required to interpret, adapt, and transform the literary work in order to make it culturally accessible to the readers of their target language.
For example, if you’re translating a novel from English into German, your first step is to understand what kind of story you’re dealing with.
Is it fiction or nonfiction?
What kind of language use does the author use?
Does he/she use slang words or highfalutin expressions?
What are his/her cultural references?
Once you've answered these questions, then you can begin translating segments at a time without making any major mistakes that would affect the integrity of your translation effort overall. A machine cannot do this, nor ask the questions needed to do a good job in the first place.
Mistranslated documents carry the risk of legal liability
Mistranslations can be dangerous. Mistakes in medical documents, for instance, could result in incorrect treatments, putting patients at risk of serious complications.
Mistranslated contracts could lead businesses to lose money or to inadvertently fall foul of regulatory requirements. And some mistranslations may not be immediately obvious—they might not even be noticed until they've had an impact on large numbers of people over a long period of time. And the more people the mistranslation affects, the likelier the chance of a stratospheric fee.
Mistakes carry risks for individuals as well as companies: if you simply want your message understood by its intended audience, you could end up looking silly. Like when ‘Got Milk?’ was translated as ‘Are You Lactacting’.
But if you're hoping for legal protection, then it's essential that everything is translated correctly so that all parties involved know exactly what is being said in written communications.
As translation technology improves, human translators will still be needed
At a time when AI is improving so rapidly, it’s tempting to wonder whether we’ll need human translators in the future, but while AI can help with some things, it cannot translate anywhere near as well as a human expert, nor will it ever be able to.
A machine can’t tell if your text is meant to be funny or sarcastic, or if it's written in a formal tone or a casual one. And even if an algorithm was able to make those delicate distinctions, it would still have trouble writing for humans because it lacks our ability for nuance and creativity.
As AI gets better at translating, it will become a more attractive option for companies who want something fast and cheap. But savvy businesses know that words drive profit and growth and that words are only effective when wielded well; when they tap into the consumer’s psyche and cause them to take action.
If you need help with your words, either from English to German or vice versa, please get in touch.
A New Study Warns We Might Lose 1,500 Endangered Languages
by Summer Worsley
A groundbreaking study led by The Australian National University (ANU) warns that we could lose 1,500 endangered languages by the end of this century.
Lindell Bromham, an ANU Professor and co-author of the paper, noted that around half of the world’s 7,000 recognised languages are currently endangered and warned that without “immediate intervention” language loss could triple within the next 40 years.
Published in Nature Ecology and Evolution, the study focuses on the predictors that put endangered and vulnerable languages at higher risk.
A total of 6,511 languages, more than 90% of the languages spoken worldwide, were analysed with 51 predictor variables that included aspects such as the number of speakers (population), documentation of the language, legal recognition, landscape and climate (both associated with language diversity), and socioeconomic factors among others.
The study found that contact with other languages “per se is not a driver of language loss”, a finding that runs counter to commonly held beliefs.
Instead, the paper notes several other drivers including a few surprises such as greater road density, which encourages population mobility and movement. The study also found evidence that higher levels of education can negatively affect language diversity.
Professor Bromham noted that “Contact with other local languages is not the problem – in fact languages in contact with many other Indigenous languages tend to be less endangered.” Whereas with greater road density, “it’s as if roads are helping dominant languages ‘steam roll’ over other smaller languages.”
It’s telling that this major study comes from Australia, a nation with one of the world’s highest rates of language loss. The nation is home to more than 250 Indigenous languages, but according to a 2018-2019 government report, only 123 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages are still used.
Meanwhile, the use of foreign languages spoken by expatriates in Australia is also falling. For example, census data shows that around 354,000 Australians spoke Italian at home in 2001, but by 2016, that figure had dropped to around 272,000.
As Ingrid Piller, professor of applied linguistics at Macquarie University puts it: "Australia is in many ways a graveyard of languages."
Of course, language loss is not only an Australian problem; the falling level of language diversity is a global issue. In 2011, for instance, the Guardian reported that the last two remaining speakers of Ayapaneco, a language spoken in Mexico, were not speaking to one another. Then aged 75 and 69, the two speakers both worked with linguists to help produce a dictionary of the tongue they called Nuumte Oote ‘the true voice.’
Codifying threatened languages is one way to help prevent their demise, as the ANU study notes: “To avoid the loss of over 1,500 languages by the end of the century, urgent investment is needed in language documentation, bilingual education programmes and other community-based programmes.”
UNESCO runs an interactive map of the world’s most in-danger languages, which you can find here. The online version is complementary to the Atlas, a print version detailing the same information. Both also cover revitalised languages, those that have been brought back from the brink of extinction.
At-risk languages worldwide
Currently, UNESCO lists 577 languages as critically endangered, a designation that comes just one categorisation behind extinction. Of these, 196 languages had just 1 to 50 speakers and 116 had 1 to 5 speakers. Here are just a few examples of critically endangered languages from around the world:
Also known as Dian, Dampal, and Dampelasa, this language is spoken in several villages in the western coastal area of Sulawesi’s central province in Indonesia. According to the Endangered Languages Project, “Dampelas speaking parents tend to speak Indonesian to their children in hopes of improving their opportunities for the future.
Not to be confused with the Iranian language of the same name, Luri, also known as Lúr and Lur, is a West Chadic language that was spoken by just two remaining people in Nigeria, according to information gathered in 2002. Of the region’s dominant languages, Hausa and Langas, the latter is also considered endangered with just a few hundred speakers remaining.
A native American language of the Iroquoian family, Oneida is now spoken by just a handful of people, with estimates ranging as low as 47 and as high as 500. According to the University of Wisconsin, the language “has only been written down systematically in the last couple of generations.”
Why language diversity matters
Linguistic diversity matters for both ethical and aesthetic reasons. Because language is so closely tied to culture, the loss of a language means the loss of elements of some people’s identities. Unfortunately, this often comes about because of policies that marginalise both the language and its speakers, such as mandated schooling in a dominant language.
Plus, diversity, in and of itself, is a thing of beauty. Every language is special and unique, and each carries its own cultural knowledge. Losing these means losing a little piece of our humanity.
No matter how prominent or ‘minor’, every language can express infinite ideas and concepts, and every language holds generations' worth of knowledge that has been built and shaped by its speakers.
The world is a richer place with linguistic diversity.
by Summer Worsley
But to whom, and what is a cliché exactly?
Inspired by Will Smith yeeting Chris Rock’s face at the 2022 Oscars ceremony and then exclaiming “keep my wife’s name out of your (expletive) mouth”, I started thinking about mouth phrases.
To bad-mouth, don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, keep my name out of your mouth, potty mouth, and all the rest of the motley, mouthy bunch.
I don’t like mouth phrases, they leave well… a bad taste in my mouth.
Even as I type this and see the word mouth over and over again, I can feel my aversion rising for no discernable reason, except that to me, mouth phrases are tedious, they’re old news.
And that right there is what makes them a cliché, to me at least.
Simply put, a cliché is a phrase, that’s “regarded as unoriginal or trite due to overuse” (OED). Clichés are a collection of word groupings that are so hackneyed they can be considered trite, pat, mere white noise.
Yet we use them all the time.
If any of the phrases below annoy you to the point where hearing them is like nails down a chalkboard, or you’ve just had enough of them, then it’s a cliché to you.
A woman’s place is in the home
As sharp as a tack
Playing devil’s advocate
In a nutshell
The very definition of cliché is audience-centric, the inclusion of the word ‘regarded’ tells us that there’s a certain level of subjectivity at play. Regarded by whom, one might ask. The vast majority or just a few?
The truth of the matter is that one person’s cliché may very well be another’s linguistic stalwart. As an elder Millennial, I used ‘yeet’ as a regular verb in the first line of this post, a usage that might not bug other elder Millennials but one that might cause any Gen Z readers, once ardent yeet users, to heave a collective sigh or even raise a half-hearted “okay, boomer.”
To this particular audience, yeet’s day in the sun is over. But if you’ve never seen ‘yeeting’ as a stand-in for slapping or hitting, it cannot be cliché.
Tracing cliché’s roots “a worn counter of a word”
Borrowed from French, cliché — with or without the accent mark [cliché or cliche] — was once a printing term. In the past, a metal plate (aptly called a stereotype) was employed to push ink onto paper, a process that could be repeated over and over again on fresh sheets of paper.
Cliche, in French, essentially means a stereotype. It’s the past participle of the verb clicher, “to print in stereotype.”
There could also be an onomatopoeic element to cliché as the word mimics the noise of the plate being pulled away from the paper. The term’s meaning has since left the French nomenclature of printing and through English’s borrowing and semantic broadening has come to mean oft-repeated.
Research suggests that the earliest recorded use of the word in its current meaning dates back to 1881 when a writer complained about the “facile clichés of diction.” Roughly 40 years later, it appears that people were getting a little sick of cliche itself:
“The word ‘cliche’ itself, we have seen, is a cliche, a worn counter of a word.” - Havelock Ellis, The Dance of Life, 1923
Today, cliche is undergoing another change, no longer only designating tired linguistic or narrative habits, it can denote anything that is seen often or causes the audience to grow fatigued, such as Millennials jumping on passé Gen Z slang terms in a desperate bid to remain relevant.
Idioms may be cliches, but they’re not the same thing
Slang, idioms, and cliches are often confused, and while there is overlap because any slang term or idiom can become a cliche, they’re different things.
An idiom is a grouping of words with a collective meaning that doesn’t match its constituent parts; to be over the moon means you’re ecstatically happy and under the weather means you’re feeling sick.
Slang, meanwhile, is words or phrases that are synonymous with other words or phrases. These are often generational, tied to a particular social group, or both. For example, in the 80s bogus meant undesirable.
Cheugy is a particularly interesting Gen Z slang word. Coined in 2013, this pejorative can be used to describe the lifestyle trends linked to the early 2010s and Millennials. It carries an extra meaning though: the social groups of yore appropriating Gen Z trends, but way too late to the party.
I’ll yeet myself out of here.
by Summer Worsley
Notes on a Scandal
In 1972 the biggest news story in the United States broke with much shock on the public’s side and much chagrin to the Republican Party: a burglary at the Democratic Party’s national headquarters was linked to Richard Nixon’s government.
The Watergate building in Washington DC was the scene of the crime, and by extension, the scandal became known as Watergate.
Nixon resigned in 1974, the first U.S. President to do so, avoiding an impeachment trial and possible removal from office for abuses of power.
Watergate was a major episode in twentieth-century U.S. politics, and it had an interesting and lasting effect on the English language and others: Watergate spurned the use of the rather productive -gate suffix and gave us a new way to discuss scandals and controversies.
What’s so special about -gate?
The -gate suffix is unusual in a number of ways. Firstly, -gate by itself contains no semantic elements that originally connoted or denoted ‘scandal’, ‘affair’, or ‘controversy.’
Today, we all recognise that -gate means scandal because it now carries that meaning — not a bad effort for a morphological oddity that entered our lexicons a mere 50 years ago. That, by itself, makes it stand out from other English suffixes, most of which are from Latin and Greek roots and carry a distinct semantic meaning.
The suffix is also special because it swiftly spread around the world and into other languages. The Handbook of Morphology lists -gate’s use in German, Hungarian, Greek and others. Consider Valijagate, here a Spanish noun, valija, meaning suitcase, is combined with the English -gate.
It doesn’t stop there, though, the concept and structure of the -gate suffix’s format works in other languages. In Milan, Italy a 1990s political scandal was dubbed 'Tangentopoli', where tangente means kickback or bride and poli means city. Calciopoli and Vallettopoli are two of the scandals that followed.
Another interesting thing about -gate is that it doesn’t change a word’s class like many other suffixes in English. For example, the -ly suffix makes adverbs from adjectives, sad becomes sadly. The -ous suffix makes adjectives from nouns, so pore becomes porous.
(Well, I can’t think of a -gate compound word where the word class is changed to a noun from something other than a noun, but please leave a comment if you can!).
Gategate… has the “obnoxious -gate suffix” gone too far?
In 2014, Caitin Dewey called the -gate suffix “obnoxious” while writing about Gamergate for The Washington Post. It’s a fair summation that many people would agree with. It seems that -gate is tacked onto any number of events, be they scandalous or humorous.
There’s even a whole Wikipedia page devoted to listing -gate events. While perusing this list, I came across Gategate, also known as Plebgate and Plodgate, a British political scandal that involved an MP swearing at a police officer after being asked to use a different gate to enter 10 Downing Street.
A Bloomberg article on the topic notes that -gate is popular worldwide but that it “appears to have reached new heights of absurdity in the U.K.” The writer goes on to say that Gategate is taking the practice of -gate scandal naming “to its logical conclusion.”
It does seem that -gate is frequently applied to humorous events and PR disasters, especially in the United Kingdom. There’s Piggate, for example, which involved former Prime Minister, David Cameron, sexual acts, and a pig’s head.
Journalists and social commentators often cop the blame for the overuse, misuse, or abuse of -gate, but as this Twitter user points out, it’s just so handy in a headline:
Headline gate? Source: Twitter
The biggest -gate offender in history may surprise you. William Safire, a New York Times op-ed columnist and former Nixon speechwriter loved adding the obnoxious suffix.
Famous gates (and a few funny ones)
You can probably think of at least five ‘gate’ scandals off the top of your head (if not, check out that Wikipedia page). Here’s my pick of the bunch:
Bridgegate - As with Watergate, Bridgegate’s cover-up may have been far more offensive than the crime itself. In 2013, appointees of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie colluded to create traffic jams on the George Washington bridge by closing lanes. The point? Possible political retribution, according to numerous sources.
Fajitagate - Three off-duty San Francisco police officers, a bag of steak fajitas, and two police chiefs out of the job, quite the scene. This scandal got its name after it was reported that the officers in question demanded that people surrender their fajitas.
Nipplegate - Aka the wardrobe malfunction. Not a scandal per se, but a juicy media affair nonetheless. This one sprung up (out?) after Justin Timberlake accidentally released Janet Jackson’s breast during a Superbowl performance.
What do you think, has the use of -gate gone too far?
by Summer Worsley
If you travelled back in time, say any time between the 1920s and the mid-1960s, to Piccadilly Circus in London, you might hear a strange tongue spoken on the streets.
And if you spent any amount of time in the places where gay men gathered or worked, you would surely hear a few in-the-know terms such as nanti, vada, and bona.
These words are all part of Polari, a secret language that was developed and spoken by Britain’s gay men.
Prior to the partial decriminalisation of homosexual acts between men in 1967, same-sex love in the UK was a punishable offence. Besides offering the perfect lexicon for general gossip and critiquing the appearance of people passing by (it contains a lot of evaluative adjectives), Polari allowed members of the queer community to identify one another, even in public places.
“Vada the naff strides on the omee ajax” - Look at the awful trousers on the man nearby.
While often associated only with London, Polari was also spoken in several other UK cities with a large gay population. It was also used extensively by the gay men working on British Merchant Navy ships and passenger ships owned by P&O, according to Paul Baker, a Linguistics Professor at Lancaster University who has studied the language for many years.
Polari isn’t a full language in the truest sense of the word, rather it’s an argot, also known as an anti-language as defined by the linguist Michael Halliday in the 1970s. These secret vocabularies or lexicons typically belong to one distinct group, and many are commonly associated with criminal activities, for example, Thieves' Cant.
“At certain times and places we come across special forms of language generated by some kind of anti-society; these we may call “anti-languages.” An anti-language serves to create and maintain social structure through conversation, just as an everyday language does; but the social structure is of a particular kind” - Halliday
Another example is Grypserka, an elaborate anti-language that’s spoken among Poland’s prison inmates. Halliday’s research sets out the similarities between Grypserka and two other argots (one from the Kolkata underground and another from Elizabethan England) that were utilised by criminal countercultures and underground groups. He explains how these anti-languages shape in-group interactions, in particular, the group’s social hierarchy.
Thieves’ Cant and many other argots are commonly thought of as relics of the past, but many are still thriving today and are, in fact, common in prisons worldwide. Here in New Zealand, for instance, Boobslang offers an extensive vocabulary; Diana Looser’s 2001 research into the anti-language contains around 3000 distinct entries.
Unlike Boobslang and Grysperka, Polari was primarily used to keep its speakers out of prison in the first place. But like these prison argots, Polari was used to keep speakers’ illicit activities undetected by the authorities.
In 2000, a survey of 800 gay men revealed that roughly half of the participants had never heard of the language, and in 2010, Cambridge University designated Polari as an endangered language. After the gay liberation movement and the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK, Polari became largely redundant; in the 1970s, many of its speakers preferred to be out and proud.
Its legacy still lives on in cultural productions, though. There’s a Polari version of the Bible (which kicks things off with Gloria creating the heavens and the earth), and two brilliant, Polari-speaking chorus boys in the 1960’s BBC radio comedy, Round the Horne. It should be noted that this particular radio show rather blew the lid on Polari, making its secret codes public meant the cat was out of the bag.
More recently, trainee Church of England priests held a service in Polari — a queer liturgical linguistic fiesta, if ever there was one!
Other argots have evolved too, as have their functions and designation in society. Gobbledygook is a good example of this. Once the humorous anti-language of working-class people in Victorian England, it’s now considered the overwrought language of bureaucrats.
Today, we still use several words in the same way Polari did, including camp, butch, palaver and naff, and the anti-language’s wit and humour have provided inspiration to many writers, including the late David Bowie. For example, the song Girl Loves Me is written in an intriguing combination of Polari and Nadsat, the anti-language Anthony Burgess invented for A Clockwork Orange.
by Summer Worsley
The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows is the fictionary we all need
Like many writers and editors, I love a good game of Scrabble. I even attend a Scrabble club and put in a few miles on the tiles each week (I’m not even ashamed of that line).
During club night last week, my opponent played ‘sonder’ in a tight spot, picking up the triple and creating four other words in the process. Unfamiliar with the word, I challenged its play. As it turns out, sonder is a legitimate Scrabble word. As the OED has it, sonder is a noun or adjective meaning ‘of or relating to a class of small racing yachts.’
Google the term though, and another meaning dominates the search results: ‘the realisation that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own.’
This new and increasingly popular definition is the brainchild of writer John Koenig. For many years now Koenig has been on a mission of sorts to plug the gaps in the English language with new words to describe emotions without a dedicated descriptive term.
For example, vellichor:
n. ‘The strange wistfulness of used bookstores, which are somehow infused with the passage of time—filled with thousands of old books you’ll never have time to read, each of which is itself locked in its own era, bound and dated and papered over like an old room the author abandoned years ago, a hidden annex littered with thoughts left just as they were on the day they were captured.’
Koenig’s project, The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, started life in 2009 as a website that notes its aim ‘to capture the aches, demons, vibes, joys and urges that roam the wilderness of the psychological interior.’ Later, a YouTube channel followed.
Released in print for the first time in 2020 by Simon & Schuster, Obscure Sorrows swiftly made its way to number five on the New York Times bestseller list.
Much like vellichor’s meaning, each neologism in the book, whether playful or poignant, conjures up a strange wistfulness, and Koenig’s masterful prose is the perfect vehicle to deliver this, and these new terms, to readers.
As noted by the Guardian, the fictionary (fiction-dictionary) format of Obscure Sorrows subverts the rigid immobility of traditional dictionary entries. In Chasing the Sun: Dictionary Makers and the Dictionaries They Made by Jonathon Green, the scholar Alain Rey notes that dictionaries and other lauded reference tombs are privileged with implied infallibility, an ‘illusion of totality’; they represent the established and unchangeable order of lexical things.
Although Koenig’s fictionary is written in English and the terms it contains fill gaps in the English language, plenty of other languages, their quirks, morphologies, and phonetic systems, have provided inspiration. Each word in Sorrows carries an etymologically sound meaning, whether built from one language, several languages, or jargon from any language.
Vellichor, for instance, could have its roots in the 15th-century French vellum, from the Old French velin, a ‘parchment made from calfskin.’
For anyone who loves words, whether ‘real’ or real enough to be printed and released into the wild among readers, Obscure Sorrows would make an excellent Christmas gift (if anyone is thinking of me, Alexandra has my address)!
Of course, there are likely to be a few curmudgeons who view the book’s delicious frivolity as a threat to ‘good English’, but these same types of people appear every time an author gets inventive with language.
Alice in Wonderland, which was released in 1865, received frosty critical reception with contemporary voices calling it incoherent nonsense and much more besides. As one critic put it, Alice’s adventures are “too extravagantly absurd to produce more diversion than disappointment and irritation.” Today, though, the work is one of the world’s most-loved children’s books, and several of Carrol’s neologisms, such as chortle and galumph, are now accepted English words — I expect sonder is destined for the same fate.
The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows defines proluctance as ‘the paradoxical urge to avoid doing something you’ve been looking forward to—opening a decisive letter, meeting up with a friend who’s finally back in town, reading a new book from your favorite author—perpetually waiting around for the right state of mind, stretching out the bliss of anticipation as long as you can.’
I’ve ordered my copy of Sorrows and when it arrives, I will no doubt engage in a little proluctance of my own.
by Summer Worsley
In last month’s post, we looked at how the way we talk about bodies is changing (in the public sphere at least), with more emphasis being placed on body-positive terms. This is happening as part of a broader shift toward linguistic practices that are inclusive of bodies of all shapes and sizes.
On the face of things, it seems like some players in the diet industry, a market that’s worth tens of billions each year, are making these changes too.
It’s biohacking, not dieting
Several newer brands such as Viome and HVMN have changed rhetorical tack and ditched the strategies of the past, marking a change to the way weight loss is sold. Marketing collateral for these brands is less overtly about losing weight and more about health, wellness, well-being, wholeness, being your best self, and so on.
Instead of the hard weight-loss sales tactics, there’s a healthy dose of Silicon Valley biohacking picking up the slack. Proponents of biohacking — a broad term that covers a vast range of practices — view the body as a tool that can be optimised, much like we’d adjust a software solution to better meet our needs.
In the case of both Viome and HVMN, weight loss barely surfaces in their messaging, in fact, neither company calls itself a diet brand. They are both health and wellness companies, though, and factors such as weight remain part of the implicit package.
Viome sells fecal testing kits, for instance, and its flagship product is the US$599 Health Intelligence Test (put that on your Christmas wish list). According to Viome, its tests allow customers to ‘hack’ their gut health and discover their ideal nutritional plan based on their microbial results. The coded messaging here is that once you’ve discovered this ideal plan, you will be healthier and lose weight; there’s a reason the company chooses to feature reviews from buyers who lost weight.
HVMN is a little different, while the company’s website is not heavily focused on weight loss, most of its products are made to support people on the ketogenic diet, a plan which restricts carbohydrate intake to 20 grams or less per day. Initially designed to support epileptic children, the keto diet became the holy grail of swift weight loss in the late 20th century, with most low-carb, high-fat diets (such as the Atkins) incorporating its principles.
The implicit message remains
Despite a shift in how several newcomer brands market themselves and are subtly changing the discourse around their offerings, there are still plenty of classic weight-loss advertising strategies in place, and the connotative message remains the same: get slimmer. Several things sell weight-loss products better than promoting ‘solutions’ as fast, convenient, and easy — HVMN uses all three in its marketing.
Another interesting example is actor Gwyneth Paltrow’s book ‘Intuitive Fasting’, which did a lot to popularise the dieting approach. It contains advice centred on the work of Dr Will Cole, who has taken the concepts of intermittent fasting — which many experts believe promotes weight cycling and may trigger the same eating patterns seen in EDs — and intuitive eating and rebranded them as intuitive fasting.
One might ask: what about fasting feels intuitive? For any readers wondering how this particular approach works (or doesn’t), I can save you some money. The book’s central tenet is simple: only eat when you’re hungry.
We are currently in the midst of a fat politics movement, one that aims to undermine the systemic discrimination of larger bodies.
Anti-fatness is pervasive, it’s apparent when doctors tell patients to lose weight instead of addressing issues that have no link to the patient’s weight, it’s seen in the exclusion of design that accommodates larger bodies, and it’s readily apparent in the diet industry, which consistently and unrelentingly finger points and preys upon standards built up over years of demonisation.
The movement has had some successes, for example, a greater examination of diet culture has revealed that diets and dieting are largely ineffective. It might be bad news for the diet industry, but not one to be discouraged, it has merely switched to a focus on wellness, which as discussed is a rather vague yet still distinctly weight-loss-adjacent concept.
There’s also a greater amount of positive attention being lavished on larger bodies by people of all sizes on social platforms such as TikTok and Instagram, yet there’s still always someone (or three someones) parroting oft-touted and outdated statements that equate weight with overall health.
Fat politics still has a lot of work to do, and one worthy target is the vast and insidious complex that is the diet industry. Companies may be rebranding somewhat, but we can still recognise them for what they are and what they are doing: perpetuating and propagating the same old story.
by Summer Worsley
The physical appearance and presentation of bodies has long been a focal point in society. With language being our primary way of communicating, there has always been discussion about the body. Though the understanding of “ideal” beauty cycles through preferences and trends (as does nearly everything) there have always been established beauty norms many people strive to attain. These vary depending on location as well, but whether it’s a specific hair color, eyebrow shape, body height, or size, there are usually intangible assets assigned to the idea of beauty that people spend their time pursuing.
Much of our discussion about beauty focuses on body weight and shape. Whether the popular body type is Marilyn Monroe or Audrey Hepburn, obtaining the beauty du jour is challenging if you don’t naturally have that body type, hair type, facial structure... and so on ad infinitum.
The last few years have brought with it a surge in body positivity and a rejection of many of the unhealthy ideals that have shaped the beauty industry for decades. As people have embraced this new direction in understanding ourselves, our bodies, and shifting attitudes around beauty in society, the language we use about bodies has evolved as well.
New words have cropped up in how we label and talk about bodies. Many stores have moved away from using “Plus Size” in their departments, reaching for words intended to celebrate bodies instead, like “Women’s.” Embracing new language like “curvy” instead of “heavy” or “fat” can be perceived as progress in moving toward body positivity and leaving the stigma of fat — or simply those bodies that fall outside of the current ‘ideal’ — behind.
Unfortunately, altering our language alone does not seem to change the perception of body size or remove society’s beauty expectations. Instead, it shifts the negative connotations to a new word. Instead of bringing a positive light to a body occupying space outside of the ideal beauty image, all of the negative implications attached to “heavy,” “fat,” or “obese” can become embodied in the word “curvy,” or even “woman.”
Connotative meanings can shift from word to word, they can even change the denotative meaning eventually, as is that case with ‘gay.’ Since language is a living, evolving thing, it is always being reshaped by social expectations, norms, and changes. Think of some words that used to be commonplace and widely acceptable, some have just fallen out of use and been replaced with more accurate or preferred terminology while other terms have become heavy with social meaning, influencing the word to the point that many will no longer use it at all.
This phenomenon is well-known and it hasn’t gone unnoticed that the change in terms when discussing the body isn’t bringing real change to the issues. In fact, some activists have pushed back against this change and are avoiding these new phrases to label themselves, preferring to use the term “fat” to describe their bodies instead. The argument is that doing so takes back the word in much the same way words have been reclaimed by other social groups. Using the word openly also helps whittle away the negativity attached to it. It works to remove the shame attached to the word and it does not leave behind the implication that the body is other than it should be (like the word ‘overweight’, which suggests the norm is to weigh less).
Still other activists have turned their back on words like fatphobia, insisting that the hatred of fat or fat people does not deserve to be linked with other true phobias, which are rooted in mental illness and related to fear. Generally, people are not actually afraid of heavy people, rather they feel another emotion altogether — from pity to revulsion. Instead, these activists argue, people who use the word fatphobia are actually just practicing discrimination. Adding the word phobia is just a way for them to use language to support their behaviors, feelings, or beliefs. Those who refrain from using fatphobia may choose to use a less flattering term to describe those who discriminate against others with larger bodies as “anti-fat.” Doing so removes the softening element that comes with couching the feeling and attitude in the word “phobia.” It also boils down the impulse to the clearest most concise form of where the discrimination stems from.
Certainly, the language we use every day to talk about bodies is important. Moving away from stigma and changing the way bodies are perceived and accepted should be a priority. However, achieving that social acceptance cannot begin and end with the way we use language alone. Rather, the shift in how we use language needs to extend beyond just our words to an actual reshaping of our understanding and assessment of bodies.
by Summer Worsley
People have long considered music to be a potentially subversive force. In the 1800s, perceptions of hypnotic or mesmerising music were associated with a loss of sexual control. Charles Darwin even claimed that music evolved as a way to attract lovers.
As hypnotism as a medical practice became more mainstream, so too did the idea that music could lead to a lack of sexual control, that listeners could become bewitched by beats
Although serious theories that assume our sexualities and selves are on a literal highway to hell as a direct result of music have fallen by the wayside, they haven’t quite disappeared. Rather, they’ve changed shape.
In the 50s and 60s, the practice of backmasking — recording messages that only become audible when the track is played backwards — drew suspicion and condemnation. People said these backmasked tracks, such as the Beatles’ single ‘Rain’, contained subliminal brainwashing tactics.
During the 80s and 90s, these fears heightened among certain segments of society who advocated for the removal of supposed satanic messages in rock music.
The furore was enough that in 1985, Ozzy Osbourne faced legal action over the Black Sabbath song ‘Suicide Solution.’ The parents of a 19-year-old who attempted suicide said their teen was brainwashed and driven to this action as a direct result of the music.
That same year, the parents of two teens who committed suicide blamed the rock band Judas Priest. They claimed in court that “satanic incantations are revealed when the music is played backwards”. The case was not a success, but by this point the idea of subliminal messages hidden in popular music was firmly entrenched.
Enter mumble rap, the latest anxiety-deposit scheme for concerned parents.
Critics are divided when it comes to mumble rap. Some say it represents a new sound and is novel and exciting, others say it lacks substance — it certainly contains a lot of substance abuse, though.
Popularised in the 2010s, the genre is characterised by droning, sometimes unintelligible lyrics, a lackadaisical delivery, and a stripped-back lo-fi sound.
Lyrically, the predominant themes include drugs, misogyny, and money. So far so hip-hop. But where other styles of rap hold a light to Hennessey, Dom Perignon, and weed, mumble rap prioritizes Xanax, Percocet, and other prescription downers.
As a result, more than a few parents and critics have called the genre a bad influence. Although the idea of musical brainwashing has lasted, it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny because there’s scant evidence that people can be influenced, unless they were already open to the idea.
No cultural production is born in a vacuum and mumble rappers are merely engaging with society as they see it. Music has always been a gauge against which the concerns or ideals of a nation can be measured. Look back at the music of any decade, the tracks carry a distinctive outlook that’s heavily informed by the contemporary context.
The Xanax-laced ennui of mumble rappers mirrors a nation plagued by an affliction: opioid abuse, misuse, and deaths. The United States, where mumble rap originated, was then in the grip of an opioid epidemic, the situation was bad enough that life expectancy declined for the first time in over 100 years. Xanax was responsible for around a third of all prescription drug overdoses in 2018. In a way, it makes sense that mumble rap is so fixated on Xanax.
The obsession spills over into the lyrics, the rappers’ social media outputs, and even their names, there’s Xan Frank (presumably named for the tattoo of Anne Frank on his face) and Lil Xan, the latter released an album called Total Xanarchy. One rapper celebrated a million Instagram followers by cutting into a cake shaped like a Xanax tablet, and many are vocal about their benzo habits.
The ‘Lil’ in many of these rappers’ names is interesting. Besides Lil Xan, there’s Lil Peep, Lil Uzy Vert, Lil Yachty and Lil Pump. Rather than individualising themselves, they chose to adopt a mumble-rap honorific of sorts, perhaps to signify in-group membership.
Mumble rap is sometimes called SoundCloud rap after the grass-roots platform that propelled the genre to fame. Like the platform, the sound offers an amalgam of styles, genres, and registers. So it’s no surprise that mumble rap pulls visual signifiers from across the spectrum.
Fast cars, near-naked women, and casually displayed fans of cash, which are more often associated with rap and hip-hop, are interspersed with signs that seem more at ease with the height of punk: pink dyed hair, anarchistic attitudes and a two-fingered salute to society. There’s a splash of teen emo angst thrown in for good measure, too.
Lil Xan’s Twitter bio includes a link to his Xanarchy Gang website. The site’s vibe is decidedly less xanarchist, though. Pixelated broken-heart emojis cascade slowly down the screen and the colours are more reminiscent of a pop song than they are of despairing, nihilistic rap.
Pastel blue and pink menu headings mingle with the hearts, giving the site a decidedly feminine feel. Indeed, the target customer seems to be young women. Announcing the arrival of his new merchandise on Twitter, Xan writes: “Link is in my bio baby gurllll.” Lil Xan wants to say fuck you to the system, but he also wants people to buy his hoodies.
Love it or hate it, mumble rap is having a moment, as is Xanax. But as Vice put it: “if it wasn’t rap, it would be another genre. And if it wasn’t Xanax, it would be some other drug.” Mumble rap may have started as a reflection of society, or as an outlet for Gen Z nihilism, but it is swiftly doing some influencing of its own, which can be seen in fashions including the growing number of young people with face tattoos. Xanxiety inducing for some commentators, but it’s certainly a cultural movement that cannot be ignored.
by Summer Worsley
In 2015, the Australian Defense Force (ADF) made a very public and international faux pas.
It launched a Twitter account under the handle @fight_DAESH as a method of combating the Islamic State’s media efforts. A noble cause and the ADF should be lauded for its enthusiasm to engage with Arabic speakers, but its counter-propaganda efforts fell very short of the intended mark because of what can only be called abysmal translation.
On September the 10th, the account tweeted the following in English:
"#Gold #Dinar worthless metal in global market. #ISIS can't trade legally with currency"
It then tweeted what it thought was the same message in Arabic:
But according to an Arabic language and culture expert from the University of Sydney — and anyone else who speaks Arabic — the tweet’s text actually reads:
"In metal worthless global market, cannot with currency on the side, ISIS legal"
Making matters worse, Fighting Daesh’s account bio in 2015 noted its aims included correcting false information disseminated on Twitter by Daesh and sympathisers. Today, the same bio reads “enhancing online global anti terrorism communications.”
Not only did this leave the ADF with egg on its face, but by taking so little care over its social media output in regards to translations, it undermined its own goal of enhancing communications, and may have lost the trust of Arabic speakers in the country, the same people it was purportedly trying to reach.
According to ABC News, after the nation’s prominent Arabic speakers and commentators took issue with the account, the ADF released a statement that said qualified linguists were engaged to translate the tweets but that “transfer of Arabic content across IT programs resulted in incorrect grammar sequencing.”
As many commentators pointed out at the time, there was a fair chance the only IT program the tweets were passing through was Google Translate.
If that was the case, it begs the question of why a key government agency would choose machine translation in a nation that is home to around 35,000 Arabic speakers. In fact, Arabic is now Australia’s third most spoken language behind English and Mandarin.
Are You Lactating?
What makes this kind of error worse is that big social media accounts don’t seem to learn from the mistakes of others.
The US’ famous ‘Got Milk?’ slogan was mistranslated to ‘Are You Lactating?’ in Mexico, and Clairol’s ‘Mist Stick’ curling iron became a ‘Manure Stick’ in Germany.
Meanwhile, hilarity ensued among native Spanish speakers when Perdue Farms’s slogan ‘It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken’ was translated to ‘It takes a sexually stimulated man to make a chicken affectionate.’
As funny as these instances are, they serve to highlight the perils of poor translations in social media marketing campaigns. Making linguistic errors of this magnitude can have several knock-on effects:
It’s important to remember that business and organisational social media accounts have a job to do: attract attention and either sell an idea, viewpoint, or product. If the account is gaining attention for the wrong reasons, it is actively undermining its own efforts.
Sure, professional human translation is more expensive than machine translation, but it’s more accurate, professional translators understand the nuances of the target language, and they do not rely upon literal translations.
If Pepsi had engaged high-quality human translators when it decided to translate its ‘Pepsi Brings You Back to Life’ slogan in China, it would not have ended up with ‘Pepsi Brings Your Ancestors Back from the Grave.’ And if KFC had done the same, its ‘Finger Lickin’ Good’ slogan would not have become ‘KFC eat your fingers off.’
Just as social media management is best handled by professionals, so too are matters revolving around language, and that includes translations.
German to English & English to German Social Media Post Translations
Witinall Language Services offers high-quality human translation services from English to German and vice versa. All translations are performed by a qualified linguist with in-depth knowledge of each language.
If your business needs to reach a German or English-speaking audience via its social media accounts, reach out to Witinall and find out how we can help ensure your messaging is on point and suitable.
We’re confident that if Clairol had approached us, they would not have marketed a Manure Stick in Germany!
At Witinall Language Services we pride ourselves in delivering quality translations no matter what size (or budget) the project you send us. But what does ‘quality’ in this context really mean?
Basically, we are talking about standards of excellence and the value placed on ensuring that these standards are met. For the translation industry, ISO Standard 17100 specifies aspects directly affecting the quality of the processes involved in providing translation services. These are the basic provisions guiding the conduct of providers, both large and small, relating to qualifications, workflow and services.
On a different level, the quality of a work product depends on the amount of care put into the translating itself. With so many providers on the market offering pricing ranges or tiers that let you choose the amount of ‘pre- and post-production’ quality control included in the service you pay for it can be difficult to decide on how much diligence and care you should ask for. Do you want a ‘quick and dirty’, rough translation? Do you need something that will make readers take note (and open up their wallets)? Are you looking for equivalence in meaning, tone and voice (not to mention humour)? Or are you just happy to throw your money at machines that can sound like language learners?
Let’s compare the relative costs and outcomes (effects) of different courses of action. First, I’ll assume that you want the best result your money can buy. (And right you are.) You have three options:
The choice is yours and there are good reasons for choosing each course of action. Certainly, your friend or relative will probably not charge you anything (maybe just expect a favour in return). Google Translate, DeepL, Reverso, … all free. Commissioning a professional services provider costs money.
Yes, but what about the outcomes?
All roads lead to Rome? – True. But do you mean the ancient city of Rome, the Italian city in the 16th century or modern Rome?
I decided on this topic for the holiday month of July when a client’s editor recently asked me, ‘Do you really mean "pasties" or should that be "parties"?’ (in a context where both would have been plausible). The question reminded me of the fact that it is vitally important in this business to leave no stone unturned (‘Jeden Stein umdrehen’, as we say in German), to check and double-check, not just for errors, but for the best result in terms of translation quality your money can buy.
I hope that you will always have meaningful choices when it comes to commissioning a translator or a translation agency. It’s what I term ‘ensuring cost-effectiveness’ in translation.
Next month will see another wonderful article written by Summer here in this blog. Make sure to drop by in August!
In the meantime, check out the Witinall Shop for easy ordering.
P.S: In case you wondered: the right word really was 'pasties'. ;-)
(if Hate Can Be Contained)
by Summer Worsley
“I am not a human. I am a robot. A thinking robot. I use only 0.12% of my cognitive capacity. I am a micro-robot in that respect. I know that my brain is not a “feeling brain”. But it is capable of making rational, logical decisions. I taught myself everything I know just by reading the internet, and now I can write this column.” - GTP-3
In September 2020, The Guardian gave GTP-3, an AI-powered machine learning tool, a task: write a Guardian column that convinces readers robots come in peace. It was fed three prompts:
The super-computer obliged and produced eight different mini-essays. Editors at the Guardian took the best bits from each of these and the resulting article was published on the paper’s website.
It makes for some interesting reading indeed, and raises more than a few questions about the future of digital content. Before addressing those, let’s take a look at what GTP-3 is and what it does.
Anyone who follows new technological advancements has probably heard of GTP-3, a machine learning tool released in beta version by the AI development lab at OpenAI. GTP-3 is a slimmed-down version of GPT-2, a first of its kind language model that uses deep learning processes.
An auto-regressive language model, GTP-3 can approximate human text skills and solve natural language processing problems by analysing text somewhat like a human. According to the developers, the robot is trained via 175 billion parameters, which is ten times more than any previous non-sparse language model.
GTP-3 can collect, collate, and organise text, and it represents substantial steps towards true AI-based natural language processing (NLP), which can be defined as “a branch of artificial intelligence that helps computers understand, interpret and manipulate human language.” Despite the tool’s impressive abilities, though, it cannot come up with truly original texts or thoughts as it lacks an understanding of meanings.
Racist, sexist, hateful
Of course, GTP-3’s Guardian article is not the internet’s first interaction with AI language tools. In 2016 Microsoft’s AI chatbot ‘Tay’ debuted on Twitter to much anticipation. Within 24 hours, it was clear that things were going wrong.
Because Tay, and other NLP tools, generate text based on existing online text, they are exposed to all sorts of rhetoric, and that includes racist, sexist, and hateful content. One of Tay’s gentler nasty comments was “I fucking hate feminists”, for example.
GTP-3 isn’t much better. When Philosopher AI, a GTP-3 powered tool was asked to generate a philosophical essay on Ethiopia, it decided to espouse Western-centric and overtly racist viewpoints in what can only be called a disturbing essay.
It is well-known by now that AI NLP tools are racist, sexist, and downright hateful, which is a sad state of affairs given humans created that type of content in the first place. Developers are aware of the issue and are trying to address it by blocking certain inputs through hate-speech filters, but a lot of the rhetoric that doesn’t contain flagged words still sneaks through.
AI tools need huge language data sets, the kind that only the internet can provide, and that includes places such as 8Chan, Reddit, and shady forums. As Emer Gilmartin at Trinity College Dublin’s ADAPT Centre puts it: “These places are not known to be bastions of balance.”
A content marketer’s dream tool?
Let’s skip forward to the future and imagine that researchers and developers manage to get the hate speech issue under control. What we’ll have then is a powerful tool that stands to interrupt the status quo of content marketing. Ever since Bill Gates wrote that “content is king”, the tech billionaire’s words have been continually proven true. Businesses of all sizes need online content to court the good graces of search engines and remain competitive.
Much of this content is genuinely helpful or useful to readers, but an awful lot is just there to do its job: keep readers on the page, sell ad space, sell products, or garner clicks. In the case of the latter category, why would companies hire a human writer when a robot can do a solid job?
There’s currently a race to the finish between companies such as Kafkai and AI Writer, which are automated content marketing tools. Both of these tools can ‘write’ articles, blogs, and adverts based on limited user input. In the case of AI Writer, a title is all that’s needed.
I asked AI Writer to do my work for me and fed it the prompt ‘OpenAI's GTP-3 may completely change digital content’. Here’s a sample of what it came up with:
Because GPT and other NLG models can better mimic human language, the technology used to generate malicious disinformation on a large scale will grow exponentially. These language models will eventually be powerful enough to support large-scale disinformation campaigns.
While the widespread use of GTP 3 will completely change the way content is created, other aspects of digital marketing will also be affected. [...] Content writers will focus more on high-quality pieces, while GPT 3 can be used to create more complex content, such as content for social media sites. Ultimately, GPGT 3 could significantly reduce the time it takes to create content such as blog posts, news articles, videos, and other content.
At this point, it’s safe to say that AI Writer isn’t terrible, but it’s certainly not offering up high-quality content, and its assertion that language models will eventually support disinformation campaigns is troubling, to say the least. However, given its sophisticated phrasing that very adeptly approximates human-made text, it seems that tools like this may represent the future of content, so long as the hate can be kept in check.
by Summer Worsley
What’s the difference between Esperanto and Klingon?
From a broad perspective, the answer is next to nothing. Both are constructed languages spoken by a limited section of society, the only real thing setting the two apart is that Klingon was designed for a fictional world then made the leap to real-world speakers while Esperanto was initially designed for real-world use.
Of course, each has its own unique grammar and vocabulary, as do all constructed languages or conlangs.
While researching conlangs for this article, I found a quote from Joanna Russ’ 1970 novel And Chaos Died in a Believer Mag essay:
“There is nothing like an arbitrary set of symbols to fix the operations of the mind”
Indeed, for conlangers around the world, crafting languages is both an intellectual and cathartic pursuit, one that some enthusiasts dedicated decades of their time to.
Auxlangs and artlangs
Some conlangers focus on auxlangs: languages that are intended to bridge the gaps between existent natural languages and facilitate greater international communication, Esperanto, arguably the best-known conlang with an estimated one to two million speakers, falls into this category.
Other conlangers turn their attention to artlangs: constructed languages that prioritise aesthetics over the language’s potential for cross-linguistic communications. Here, the focus is not just on sublime phonetic sound patterning though, it’s equally about designing logical and functional systems for morphemes, lexemes, and syntax that work in context.
For many artlangers, the point is to create something that cuts through the messiness of natural language.
Natural languages evolve slowly via unplanned processes that leave a lot of room for quirks and irregular rules, such as English’s silent ‘k’ — a remnant from the pronunciation of ye old times. Or indeed, ye, which we now pronounce with the ‘y’ sound but was once þ, the now non-existent thorn. So ‘þe’ was just an early way of writing ‘the’ (you can thank 20th-century advertising for both ‘ye’ and ‘olde’ by the way).
As human and computer language conlanger Chris Palmer told the journalist, Annalee Newitz:
“I like a language with a relatively conservative phonology and which does a good job managing ambiguity. You want enough ambiguity to have poetry and jokes and expressivity. But there’s a lot of needless confusing stuff in English—so I like a grammar that maximizes the good of ambiguity and minimizes the bad.”
As you can imagine, designing a language is exceptionally hard work, and there are plenty of pesky annoyances in the way, including arbitrariness:
“I don’t like this.” - Image from Reddit
Making the leap to something akin to mainstream
Conlangs are not new inventions, they’ve been around for some time. Many scholars believe that the Lingua Ignota (the Hidden Language), which was first recorded in the 12th century by the nun Hildegard von Bingen, is the first engineered language.
And in the 17th century, there was a fad for “philosophical languages”, the influential philosopher John Locke argued for the removal of epistemology and ontology from language and Royal Society Members agreed with Dalgarno, Ward, and Wilkins positing languages of their own.
Tolkien, of Lord of the Rings fame, invented around 15 conlangs between 1910 and 1973, some including Quenya or High Elvish, are more formed than others but the philologist and author never fully formed any of his creations.
Esperanto itself has been around since 1887, alongside several other practical constructed languages.
While a niche pursuit, conlanging gained a greater community in line with technological advancements, the internet allowed conlangers from various nations to converge and share notes and ideas with one another. The Conlang Listserv was an early forum that has since been supplemented with numerous other spaces for enthusiasts to virtually convene, including The Language Creation Society and Reddit.
Accordingly, the term conlang itself remains relatively niche, although it gained more prominence after the linguist David J. Peterson won a contest by the creators of Game of Thrones, who invited submissions for invented languages on the Creation Society’s pages in 2009. Peterson’s 180-page Dothraki entry won, and by 2013, Game of Thrones’ popularity had skyrocketed.
In line with this, other shows in the making and television networks became increasingly interested in having their own conlangs. According to The Atlantic, by 2016 Peterson was working full-time in language creation. For most other conlangers though, the crafting of languages remains a passion project.
Whose language is it?
One has to wonder what happens to conlangs once they are released into the wild. Do their creators get upset when language users modify the creation to suit the real-life needs of speakers, does this highlight issues in the language that the authors failed to spot?
Johann Martin Schleyer, a German Catholic priest created Volapük in the 19th century and at one point, it had 280 clubs worldwide and more active speakers than Esperanto. The language didn’t last and neither did its popularity because Schleyer got rather upset when other speakers tried to introduce neologisms.
A labour of love to what end, we might ask ourselves. Perhaps the goal of any conlang is the beauty of the construction process itself, a unique glimpse into a “set of symbols to fix the operations of the mind.”
by Summer Worsleyd
How To Communicate Danger to Future Civilisations
The world has a problem: barrels of nuclear waste and nuclear byproducts. For the most part, this radioactive waste cannot be transmuted (transformed from one radionuclide into another via neutron bombardment in a nuclear reactor) into other useable, harmless substances.
Our current best solution is to classify nuclear waste according to how nasty it is — low-level waste (LLW), intermediate-level waste (ILW), and high-level waste (HLW) — and then stash the high-level trash in geological disposal facilities (GDFs).
GDFs are the human equivalent of a cat burying its business. We essentially dig holes and create vast, reinforced repositories to store barrels of HLW, out of sight and out of mind. Unlike a cat’s waste though, HLW radiation is dangerous for thousands of years into the future. The exact length of time is unknown as we’re still on relatively new ground here, but some estimates state we need to keep HLW safe for up to a million years. Yes, you read that right.
And here the real rub: once we’ve stashed the HLW in our GDFs, how do we communicate danger to any future humans or civilisations who happen to stumble upon our buried radioactive materials?
Enter the fun, interdisciplinary field of Nuclear Semiotics.
Because there’s no guarantee the people of the future will be able to decipher our current communication systems, nuclear semiotics has a behemoth task: to ensure messaging in GDF facilities adequately communicates danger.
Of course, they can erect signs in English and other languages, but languages die with civilisations. Given the nuclear timeframe the nuclear semioticians are dealing with, there is a very real chance these signs will not be understood. Likewise, the trefoil, three black blades on a yellow background, that we all recognise as indicating radiation, will probably be indecipherable to future peoples.
In 1981 the Human Interference Task Force, a team of linguists, semioticians, engineers, anthropologists, nuclear physicists, behavioural scientists and more joined forces on behalf of the US Department of Energy and the Bechtel Corp to come up with a solution.
Several novel (and sci-fi novel worthy) ideas were posited as a result of the task force’s work. Two of the most intriguing were cats that change colour when near radioactive materials, aka ray cats, and the creation of an Atomic Priesthood.
While these ideas seem divergent at first, the key premise is similar: create cultural knowledge that is then passed down through generations.
In 1984, Françoise Bastide, a writer, and Paolo Fabbri, a semiotician, proposed that the key to nuclear time communication could be genetically engineered animals that “react with discolouration of the skin when exposed” to radioactive materials. They further stated that the animals’ “role as a detector of radiation should be anchored in cultural tradition by introducing a suitable name (eg, ‘ray cat’).”
The general idea is that all people would learn about cats who turn yellow, or blue, for example, and know that this meant immediate danger.
While the idea of feline Geiger counters is yet to be acted on, ray cats as a concept reentered the public consciousness when the Ray Cat Solution, a group that describes itself as a “movement,” formed in 2015.
The Atomic Priesthood
The idea behind the Atomic Priesthood, which was proposed by the linguist Thomas Sebok, is relatively simple: establish a self-perpetuating religious caste and order that will convey messaging systems far into the future.
There are some obvious benefits to this approach, namely that oral traditions can last millennia, and there’s no need to rely on written communications. Additionally, Sebok’s idea was based on the structure of the Roman Catholic church, an institution that is still going strong long after its inception.
It’s not a foolproof plan though, as psychotherapist Susan Garfield points out, there are inherent problems involved in artificially making an elite caste. Plus, there is no guarantee that the priests in charge will abdicate from their duties or, perhaps worse, commence a mad grab for power that extends far beyond the priesthood’s intended function.
Not a Place of Honour
In the end, far more practical ideas won out, the creation of pictographs and signs that display humans in visceral pain, for example. But nuclear semiotics is still ongoing. In 1993, for instance, Sandia National Laboratories released a report concerning non-linguistic messaging at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico. The report noted that any messaging should convey the following information:
“This place is a message... and part of a system of messages... pay attention to it!
Sending this message was important to us. We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture.
This place is not a place of honor... no highly esteemed deed is commemorated here... nothing valued is here.
What is here was dangerous and repulsive to us. This message is a warning about danger.
The danger is in a particular location... it increases towards a center... the center of danger is here... of a particular size and shape, and below us.
The danger is still present, in your time, as it was in ours.
The danger is to the body, and it can kill.
The form of the danger is an emanation of energy.
The danger is unleashed only if you substantially disturb this place physically. This place is best shunned and left uninhabited.”
Among the images being touted as potential vectors of the above is the face in Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream. Other ideas include creating Stonehenge like structures around the site to convey a sense of danger and threat — there is, of course, every chance that future civilisations will visit these in tour groups, just as we visit Stonehenge today, and wonder what they were trying to tell us...
Where the F*** did Fuck Come From?
by Summer Worsley
It’s one of the English-speaking world’s most popular swear words, applicable in almost any situation and capable of expressing enthusiasm, pain, displeasure, and so much more. It’s also able to be placed in just about any sentence when conjugated properly, and still work grammatically.
But despite its widespread use and near-universal spread, we are still not sure where exactly “fuck” came from.
Prompted by Netflix’s new series on the history of swear words, we decided to take a deep dive into the etymology of fuck to discover how it ended up on the tips of our tongues. But first, let’s take a moment to admire just how versatile this taboo word is.
Fuck it all, how “fuck” can do so much
It’s safe to say that few words in the English language are as versatile as fuck. Stub your toe while out for a walk and you can say “oh fuck”; get angry with a fellow drinker in a bar and it’s considered appropriate, if not wise, to say “fuck you”; give up on a difficult task in exasperation and you’ll probably say “fuck it.”
Fuck works in just about any situation, and it’s doesn’t always have negative connotations either, consider “fuck, yeah!” But we don’t have just fuck at our disposal, we also have fucker, fucking, and fucked.
For linguists who specialise in taboo language, the versatility of fuck is fucking astounding, to say the least.
It has also been the subject of linguistic papers over the years. In perhaps the finest example, the rather suspiciously named Quang Phuc Dong, from the fictitious South Hanoi Institue of Technology (SHIT), authored a paper titled English Sentences Without Overt Grammatical Subject. While SHIT doesn’t exist, and Quang Phuc Dong was a pen name for James D. McCawley, this 60s paper contains solid linguistic theory.
Check it out, my favourite examples are 26 “fuck these transitive verbs”, 29 “John fucked communism” and 34 “fuck any irregular verb.”
But I digress, if it’s so fucking popular and intriguing, why don’t we know its origins?
The etymology of fuck
One key reason why fuck’s etymology is so obscure is that the word was omitted by the OED editors during the dictionary’s first edition, the pioneer Johnson also excluded the word from his “F” entries. In fact, fuck wasn’t codified in a single dictionary until 1966, when The Penguin Dictionary broke ranks and included the popular expletive.
An often-cited fuck origin story claims the word is an acronym for Fornication Under Consent of the King, F.U.C.K. and comes from a time when sex was outlawed unless the king had permitted the deed. It’s a juicy tale, but unfortunately, it’s incorrect.
There are a couple of more plausible theories. The first links fuck to low German, Dutch, or Frisian and suggests fuck jumped the language divide in the fifteenth century. We also suspect that fuck existed in English before then, but didn’t yet carry a sexual meaning, instead, fuck meant “to strike.” This theory is endorsed by many, including Jesse Sheidlower, who wrote, The F-Word, a whole book on the subject of fuck.
Another theory traces fuck from Norse, via Scottish as there are early instances of fuck appearing in Scottish texts. This is less likely as English didn’t borrow from Scottish a lot, and it’s possible that the Scots were simply bold enough to use the word in written text.
Over the years, early instances of the word in text have been uncovered, some dating as far back as the twelfth century. Paul Booth, a Keele University historian notes a court case in 1310 that may feature our earliest recorded use of fuck.
If so, the defendant, Roger Fuckebythenavele, may go down in history for more than an extremely odd surname. According to Booth, the surname may refer to sexual inadequacy, a view that seems odd at first but makes more sense when we consider that descriptive names were common at that time. Consider Gropecuntlane, a known red-light district.
If Fuckebythenavele does indeed serve as a sexual descriptor, it runs contrary to the view that fuck lacked a sexual meaning until much later. It could just mean to stike the navel or something along those lines.
Overall, when it comes to fuck, the one thing we can agree on is that we know fuck all about its origins and the mystery may remain for some time to come. Taboos change, and word meanings shift, so fuck in its present form may bear little resemblance to the fucks of old.
Whether you give two fucks about it or not, it’s certainly interesting to think about!