#@&*! – The Linguistics of Profanity

Warning: As you may have guessed from the title, this post will include foul language.The profanities in this post will be used in a rather clinical way and without any intention to offend, but I understand that not everyone wants to have uncensored profanity visible on their screens, whether due to kids reading, work, or personal sensibilities. 

If you’re like me and started learning foreign languages as a preteen, the first things you may have tried to learn after hello, how are you, or “the pig is eating bread” (if you’re using Duolingo) were a few choice four-letter words. Swearing, oaths, obscenities, and the like are a cross-cultural, cross-linguistics phenomenon; according to the linguist Magnus Ljung (2011), profanities share common features across languages:

Taboo meaning/subject matter – think about the swear words we use in English and what they tend to refer to: sex (fuck and its derivatives, dick, prick, tits, twat), bodily functions (shit), religion (damn/goddamn, hell), or a person’s intrinsic qualities such as race or ethnicity.

Interestingly enough, many languages, including English, Russian, Mandarin Chinese, and Spanish, have grand traditions of profanities and insults centered around one’s mother. Yo momma, indeed.

Emotive meaning (Ljung 2011, ix) – Ljung (2011) says, in concurrence with other linguistics, that we assign non-literal meanings to profanities. While this is certainly true, I disagree with the idea that non-literal meaning must be a criterion to define a word or phrase as profanity. We can use “shit” to refer to literal excrement, for instance. That said, when we use the word “shit” as opposed to excrement, manure, poop, caca, number two, et cetera, it indicates our social and emotional context: perhaps anger, or comfort with our interlocutor to the point of using informal, impolite language without consequence.

Specific Functions – Related to Emotive meaning, swearing has clearly denoted functions in communication. Profanity is an emotional exclamation (“Dammit!”), an unfriendly or hostile way to address someone (“Go fuck yourself!”), or a way to emphasize an utterance (“Un-be-fucking-lievable”).

Formulaicity – According to Ljung (2011), profanities can only be plugged into sentences in certain ways and have a lot of grammatical constraints – they are often fixed phrases. Though I personally wonder if this can vary in some languages more than others.

Just as in any linguistic phenomenon, we choose swear words from our linguistic repertoires based on social and emotional context. When we choose whether or not to swear, we’re making judgments on what is or isn’t offensive or taboo in a given context (and whether or not we want to offend or say something taboo). This, of course, varies from culture to culture. For example, I remember a YouTube reviewer of bad movies who found it funny and odd that a German animated film marketed for children used the phrase “what the hell is going on here?” — hell is not as taboo in certain countries as it often is in American English.

We may choose to swear because we feel that it wouldn’t be offensive (saying “what the hell” in a children’s movie aimed at a market with fewer hang-ups about religion-related swearing) or because we want to offend and transgress (take your pick for examples). Of course, that takes us into the sticky territory of what actually is or isn’t offensive. Ljung’s (2011) list of general trends (sex, bodily functions, race/ethnicity/gender, religion) is helpful, but as we saw in the “what the hell” example, your offensive mileage may vary.

This dovetails with my earlier point about Emotive meaning and how positive and negative emotions can spur one to swear — I think I might call this positive swearing and negative swearing, though I’m sure that there are other names for this sort of thing that people far smarter than I have come up with and written about at length. Positive swearing is the use of profanity to indicate familiarity or intimacy, and certainty that one is not offending or transgressing social boundaries. Negative swearing is the use of profanity to violate a social norm, or to indicate contempt or anger. In both cases, profanity is a way to denote a lack of concern for social distance or propriety in a given context.

Profanity is, just like T-V distinction, language choice, or use of slang, a way to establish and define relationships. More broadly, like any linguistic phenomenon, profanity is a collection and culmination of a series of choices, both conscious and unconscious.



Ljung, M. (2011). Swearing: A Cross-Cultural Linguistic Study. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.



Codeswitching, language use, and social distance in Anna Karenina

I can’t believe that I’m coming back to the US next week. Where did the time go? It’s been an absolutely amazing ride living in London, but it will be nice to come back to the land of elevators, bathrooms, car trunks, pants (as external leg garments), and cookies. Since books add to luggage weight, I’m going paperless until I’m back in the USA, and being the utter cheapskate that I am, I’ve decided to get my Dead White Men literary canon fix by plowing through some of the free selections on iBooks; my latest undertaking is Anna Karenina.

I’ve been very pleasantly surprised by how much I’ve enjoyed Anna Karenina; I think it’s not least because of how central language use is as a theme. As was common among the elite of the time, the Russian aristocrats in the world of Anna Karenina are multilingual, often speaking English and French in addition to Russian. The characters frequently switch languages at the drop of a hat, and most interestingly, choose languages from their linguistic repertoires based on what they want to convey to the person whom they are speaking to. Nowhere is this more apparent than in a private encounter between Anna and her lover, Count Vronsky, when Vronsky speaks to Anna in French “to avoid using the stiff Russian plural form, so impossibly frigid between them, and the dangerously intimate singular” (Tolstoy 1877, p. 537).

I talked in my last post about languages expressing politeness and social distance in very different ways; when these expressions don’t exactly align with what needs to be conveyed, multilingual people can draw from their linguistic repertoires to find the best/most expedient way of expressing both the spirit of their message and their relationship with their interlocutor — Vronsky’s interaction with Anna is a great example of the pragmatics of codeswitching.

Like politeness and formality, one of the key things codeswitching hinges on is mutual understanding. Not just knowing the language — what an awkward interaction it would be if Vronsky tried to whisper sweet nothings to Anna in French only to find that she couldn’t understand him — but knowing why the language was chosen. We can safely assume that Anna knows that Vronsky is trying to bridge the gulf of social distance between them, but cannot come too close, and thus uses (I assume) the vous form in French to establish the desired level of intimacy.

I think I found this moment in Anna Karenina particularly interesting because it reminded me of a study I analyzed for one of my classes: in this study by Albakry and Ofori (2011), researchers went to Catholic churches around Accra, Ghana and analyzed the languages clergy and parishioners used — English is the official language of Ghana, but Ghanaians speak a variety of indigenous languages, most notably Ewe, Twi, Fante, and Ga. Albakry and Ofori (2011) observed how Ghanaian churchgoers, like Vronsky, used their linguistic repertoires strategically to establish relationships and social boundaries. At one point, a priest at a church with parishioners of mixed English proficiency delivered an announcement first in English, translated it into Fante, but said a final utterance, “if I forget anyone, please let me know”, only in English — indicating that he was only addressing churchgoers who understood enough English (educated and of a higher socioeconomic status than those who would only speak Fante). Albakry and Ofori (2011) found similar patterns in other interactions at the churches they studied, where people would switch languages to indicate that they were addressing a different group. It’s worlds away from 19th century Russian high society, but the phenomenon is similar: picking languages from a repertoire to indicate social distance or rapport.

Albakry and Ofori (2011) surmise that codeswitching is at least in part motivated by a speaker’s need to reach and relate to different audiences; it’s evident that codeswitching is a carefully calculated communication strategy, whether you’re a Russian count trying to DTR or a Ghanaian priest addressing different linguistic groups at your church.



Albakry, M. and Ofori, D. (2011). Ghanaian English and code-switching in Catholic Churches. World Englishes, 30(4), pp. 515-532. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-971X.2011.01726.x/epdf.

Tolstoy, L. (1877). Anna Karenina. eBook.

The Unbearable Politeness of Being: Formality and Politeness in Language

Dear Ms. Smith,

Hi Jackie,

Hey gurl heeyyyy

These are just a few of the ways I greet people when I use written communication online. I opened with these greetings as a way to illustrate how we use different levels of formality and politeness in our speech. Like everything else in language, politeness and formality are all about context and relationships. I would never greet a supervisor at work with “hey gurl heyyyyy”, but a close friend wouldn’t bat an eye if I greeted her (or him) that way. By the same token, I’m pretty sure my friends would think something was amiss if I started writing emails to them that began with “Dear Mr. Thompson” instead of “Hey Bob”. We tweak our politeness styles and methods based on the relationships we have with people.

One thing that I find fascinating about politeness from a linguistic perspective is how much or little it is encoded into different languages. English as it is spoken today doesn’t have that much politeness encoded into the structure of the language. We have to display it through choosing certain words and methods of address. By contrast, Japanese has a fairly complex system of honorifics and pronouns to indicate your relationship with the person with whom you are interacting.

Usually when we talk about the ways politeness is encoded in languages, we start treading into Sapir-Whorf territory — this is the idea that language shapes your thought processes and ways of interacting with the world. You hear it all the time; if you’re a fan of Game of Thrones, you’ll recall Jorah Mormont telling Daenerys Targaryen that there is “no word for ‘thank you’ in Dothraki”, indicating that the Dothraki are not a genteel sort of people. When we talk about Sapir-Whorf/language = thought or culture or worldview, Coulmas (2013) gives a good example: English no longer has a T-V distinction (we used to use thee/thou, but don’t anymore); German has one (du and Sie) with fairly strict rules about when and with whom to use it. Does that mean that German-speaking countries are less egalitarian than English-speaking countries? Leaving economic and social debates aside, probably not.

There are a lot of people who completely disavow the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis; I understand why, since all too often it can veer into stereotypes and oversimplifications. However, I don’t think it’s completely wrong or off-base, just easy to overstate. The way politeness is encoded in a language does influence expression and indicates social distance. When the way you conjugate a verb, greet a person, or ask a question reveals the relationship you have with someone, that’s bound to influence culture.

When I was a kid, I thought being polite was just a way to get brownie points (or literally brownies) from adults; I didn’t understand why I had to say “May I please have a brownie?” when “I WANT A BROWNIE!” got the message across just fine. Now as a linguistics student, I see how politeness in language is used to establish, reinforce, or sometimes change relationships with the people you interact with. Politeness and the various levels of it are ways to signal how we want an interaction to play out, and both parties need to read those signals correctly for communication to be successful. Here, I think, is where culture comes into play. What might seem stiff and overly formal to one person may be another person’s way of saying “I really respect you and want to establish the boundaries of our professional relationship”. What seems overly friendly and familiar to one person may be another person’s way of saying “I want to make you feel welcome and part of the team, and I’ll do that by talking to you like I’d talk to my social equals”.

What do you think about politeness in the way you communicate? How do you modulate or change the levels of politeness you use in your interaction with others?


Coulmas, F. (2013) ‘Standard and dialect: Social stratification as a factor of
linguistic choice’ in Sociolinguistics: the study of speakers’ choices. 2nd ed. (Chapter 2, pages 19-43) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press



Ideal-logues: Language Promotion Institutes and the Problem of Representation

One topic that’s quite central to my dissertation is the growth of China’s Confucius Institute as a facilitator and arbiter of Mandarin Chinese education worldwide. The Confucius Institute launched in 2004 with a pilot program in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and has grown rapidly since. As of 2014, there were 610 Confucius Institutes (that’s not counting Confucius Classroom programs) worldwide. The Confucius Institute also administers the most popular assessment of Mandarin proficiency, the Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (HSK), organizes cultural activities, and hosts exchange programs and language competitions.

There has been some hand-wringing, especially in the West, of the Confucius Institute’s ties to the Chinese government (its parent organization, Hanban, is under the aegis of the Chinese Ministry of Education) and its rather naked ambition to advance Chinese soft power. While I certainly have my criticisms of the Chinese government and many of its policies and stances, I pose this question: how is the Confucius Institute any different from the British Council, Alliance Française, Instituto Cervantes, Goethe Institute, Dante Alighieri Society, or the Japan Foundation? Indeed, on its website, the Confucius Institute states that it was inspired by similar cultural promotion organizations in Europe (including those I just listed — notice that the majority of these organizations are named for a literary or philosophical figure that made defining contributions to the country’s culture).

As you’ve probably guessed, this has sent me down a bit of a rabbit hole about language and cultural promotion organizations. What exactly is a cultural promotion organization? Many countries seek to encourage tourism and awareness of their culture, and encourage people to learn their national language — these efforts will in turn (so the thinking goes) promote a positive image of the country and yield economic and political benefits on the world stage.

One of the primary problems with a lot of these state-sponsored cultural and linguistic promotion organizations is how they present their national language(s) and culture(s). Oftentimes, there’s no (s). You will not see many Cantonese, Yi, or Tibetan courses on offer at a Confucius Institute. The Alliance Française scarcely mentions minority languages like Breton and Corsican. The English you will learn from the British Council will be a very specific sort of English. Some of this is, to be fair, a matter of practicality. Learners who are just starting out or people who may not have a specific plan to travel to a specific place where a minority language or variety is spoken might do best learning the “standard” variety of the national language (though what gets to be the “standard” is a whole other big, hairy, imperialistic beast). Qualified teachers of certain languages or varieties may be difficult to come by. Even still, when national identity and image are tied so inextricably to language, omission of minority languages and varieties from cultural and educational programming speaks volumes.

In the case of the Confucius Institute (since that’s the one I know the most about, seeing as it’s a big part of my dissertation and I’ve gone to quite a lot of London-based Confucius Institute events), the Institute generally promotes Mandarin Chinese to the exclusion of other Chinese languages (see my other posts about why “Chinese” is a very imprecise term for the many languages spoken by ethnic Chinese people), and a very specific version of Chinese culture. The researchers Zhu Hua and Li Wei (2014) (also, side note, Li Wei is in my department! He’s really cool!) conducted a study of Confucius Institutes in the UK, and found that the Chinese culture the Confucius Institute promotes is often at odds with the diverse experiences and expressions of Chinese cultureS, especially among diaspora communities (and I go into this in my dissertation a lot, incidentally).

Another issue they explore is the fact that many teachers who work for Confucius Institute are very young and have grown up in a far more Westernized China, making them unfamiliar with many of the “authentic” traditional cultural practices they are supposed to teach, much to the consternation or amusement of diaspora Chinese students, who often grew up with more exposure to traditional Chinese culture, even if they could not speak any Chinese language — though many speak other varieties, such as Hokkien or Cantonese (Zhu Hua and Li Wei 2014).

This problem of authenticity is not unique to the Confucius Institute. On the Alliance Française London website, the About Us page advertises a “truly authentic French experience”. Just like the phrase “standard language”, this raises the question: what is “authentically” French? What cultures of the Francophonie are “authentically” French culture? Is a Corsican, Occitan, or Basque speaker “authentically” French? It’s especially important to consider this question as France grapples with how to integrate new immigrant populations, who often come from former French imperial possessions. How do they fit into the image of an “authentic” France?

Now, don’t get me wrong, I think that these institutions can be great resources for language learning, cultural event programs, tourism promotion (so many sessions at the Confucius Institute’s Chinese Language Exchange made me miss China a lot!), and opportunities to interact with native speakers. But especially in the era of globalization and trying to move forward from imperialism and colonialism (well, trying), we need to be aware of the politics of representation, and endeavor to make these institutions more inclusive, reflecting the wonderful diversity of the countries, cultures, and languages they promote. I’m honestly not sure of the best way to move away from the paradigms of “standard-ness” and “authenticity” as they tend to be used in cultural and linguistic promotion organizations, but I guess brainstorming possibilities is all part of the fun of being a linguistics student.





Alliance Française London. (2015). Accessed 1 August 2016. Available from: http://www.alliancefrancaise.london/about-Alliance-Francaise-de-Londres.php

Hanban. (2014). About Confucius Institutes. Accessed 1 August 2016. Available from: http://english.hanban.org/node_10971.htm

Hua, Z. and Li Wei. (2014). Geopolitics and the Changing Hierarchies of the Chinese Language: Implications for Policy and Practice of Chinese Language Teaching in Britain. Modern Language Journal, 98(1), pp. 326-339.

The Wonderful World of Writing Systems

In my last post, I talked pretty extensively about the Ge’ez script, the writing system of Amharic, the majority language of Ethiopia. During my research, I became very interested in the many writing systems that world languages use — both the mechanics of how we match sounds to symbols and the politics of creating a writing system for a language (yes, it gets surprisingly political). For this article, I’ll be using Omniglot’s overviews of writing systems as my primary resource. If you get addicted to reading all of their articles about different languages…welcome to my life.

Let’s start our overview of different writing systems with the Abugida (alphasyllabary) system I discussed in my post about Amharic. The basic principle of Abugida writing systems, as I mentioned in my last post, is that a single symbol represents a syllable (for example, “ba”), and modifications to the symbol change the vowel sound (so a modification to the “ba” symbol can make it “be” or “bu”). We talked about Ge’ez in the last post, so let’s use that as an example. If you follow this link to Omniglot, you can see a chart of Ge’ez letters and how they are modified to represent different consonant + vowel combinations.

The Abugida system is also used in many South and Southeast Asian languages. It’s also been used for some languages in the past, but has fallen out of use for a variety of reasons. For instance, Tagalog or Filipino has an Abugida script developed from other systems used around South and Southeast Asia, but today, it’s mostly written using the Latin alphabet. The history of the different writing systems used for Tagalog can tell you a lot about the history of the Philippines and what groups of people gained and lost power and influence there. To tide you over until my giant post about languages in the Philippines, here’s a picture of what the letters of the Tagalog abugida look like without modifications to indicate a vowel sound different from “a”:

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Remember how I mentioned the politics of creating a writing system? Well, a lot of languages use or adapt writing systems from other languages (often ones that dominated them socially and politically), and sometimes, this isn’t the best fit — from a mechanical or a political standpoint. To remedy this, some speakers of these languages will take up the quite daunting task of creating a new writing system. The most famous example of this in history is probably the creation of Hangul, the writing system used for Korean.

Before the development of Hangul, Korean was written using Chinese characters. One of the obvious problems this presented was that Chinese and Korean are very, very different from each other. There are a lot of sounds in Korean that simply don’t exist in Chinese, and the two languages have completely different grammatical and lexical structures. Trying to map Korean onto Chinese characters was awkward and unwieldy, and literacy rates were very low because of the difficulty of learning Chinese characters. So, in the 15th century CE, the polymath King Sejong took it upon himself to create a new writing system that would better suit the Korean language and make it easier for ordinary Korean people to read and write. His system, which is still in use today, is called Hangul. If you’ve seen Korean writing and you’re not familiar with the language, you might think that it looks difficult to learn, but King Sejong’s advisor said, “a wise man can master it in a morning, and even a stupid person can learn it in ten days” (Handel 2016, p. 1). Going by that, I think I’d give myself three-ish days to learn it.

My Hangul skills are not great (maybe I am pretty stupid by King Sejong’s advisor’s standards), but I can’t deny that it’s a very intuitive system. It’s helpful to think of Hangul as “sound-stacks”. Each block you see is a stack of the sounds that make up a syllable. Here’s one example:


The text above says “Gangnam” (as in Gangnam Style). The first “stack” is Gang, the second is Nam. Let’s look at Gang. ㄱ represents the G sound, and ㅏ, as you can probably now deduce, is A. The circle at the bottom, when it occupies the spot where G is now, indicates that there’s no initial consonant. At the bottom (end of the syllable), it’s an NG sound.

According to Professor Z. Handel from the University of Washington (2016), Korean is arranged in these stacks because it made the transition from Chinese characters to Hangul easier — if you needed or wanted to use both in a sentence, the Hangul “blocks” could mix seamlessly with Chinese characters and look aesthetically pleasing. Today, however, Chinese characters are very rarely used in Korean writing, especially for everyday stuff. But the way of writing Korean as blocks/stacks endures to this day. Since starting out as King Sejong’s project 600 years ago, Hangul has become an emblem of Korea’s unique language, culture, and identity.

Another example of a writing system invented by a single person as a way to assert and expand a cultural and linguistic identity is the Cherokee Syllabary. Eventually I may do a more in-depth post about indigenous languages in North America, but for now, my very brief introduction will be to say that for a very long time, Native American languages were actively suppressed, and many were primarily oral, making it all too easy for them to die out as youths — potential learners — were taken away to residential schools or foster homes, where they were forced to speak only English. As a result of these practices, many indigenous languages of North America have gone extinct, or are moribund with only a few elderly speakers, who may not be proficient.

The Cherokee Syllabary was devised by a silversmith named Sequoyah in 1821. Like King Sejong, his goal was to create a simple, effective writing system that would improve literacy and encourage the flow and exchange of ideas in his language. However, unlike Korean at the time of King Sejong, Cherokee had no writing system at all in the 19th century. Many of his compatriots were initially skeptical; his first student was his six-year-old daughter, since most adults were unwilling to learn the writing system. But that skepticism soon dissipated; Sequoyah’s writing system was adopted as the official writing system of the Cherokee Nation in 1825. The Cherokee Syllabary is in use today in Cherokee-language media, literature, textbooks, and signage.

Endeavors to create new writing systems didn’t stop with Sejong or Sequoyah. On Omniglot, you can find many people who are trying to improve existing writing systems, divorce their languages from colonial or imperial influence by creating a new writing system, or create writing systems for primarily oral languages. Finding the best way to put a language on paper is a lot harder than it looks, but when a system works, it can help a language survive and thrive.


Cherokee Syllabary. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cherokee_syllabary.

Ager, Simon. (2016). Ge’ez (Ethiopic). Omniglot. http://www.omniglot.com/writing/ethiopic.htm.

Ager, Simon. (2016). Tagalog. Omniglot. http://www.omniglot.com/writing/tagalog.htm.

Handel, Z. (2016). Learn to Read Korean: An Introduction to the Hangul Alphabet. Presented at the 7th Int. Particle Accelerator Conf. (IPAC’16), Busan, Korea, May 2016. http://accelconf.web.cern.ch/AccelConf/ipac2016/papers/thea01.pdf.

Sequoyah. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sequoyah.

Language Profiles Part 2: Amharic

I guess these profiles are going in a quasi-alphabetical order! Last week, I wrote about some cool features of Arabic; today, I’m going to talk about another grade “A” language: Amharic.

You may not have heard too much Amharic in your daily life (unless you know people with ties to Ethiopia or Eritrea), and unlike Arabic, there aren’t very many Amharic loanwords or influences in English, but here’s one instance where you may have heard it:

Towards the end of the video, you can hear the singer The Weeknd (né Abel Tesfaye) singing in Amharic, which is, in fact, his first language. The Weeknd/Abel Tesfaye was born in Canada to Ethiopian immigrant parents, and grew up speaking Amharic with his grandmother. Tesfaye has been credited with introducing Amharic and Ethiopian musical styles to a wider audience, and is held up as an occasionally controversial (he’s best known for very sexually charged songs) but ultimately positive and prominent representation of the East African diaspora. You might say that The Weeknd made Amharic cool, but as you’ll soon see, it’s been cool for centuries.

Amharic is the majority language of Ethiopia, spoken by about 25 million Ethiopians as a mother tongue, and is spoken by many members of the Ethiopian and Eritrean diaspora communities in Canada, the United States, the UK, and elsewhere. It is written in the Ge’ez script (which I talked about in the post about liturgical languages), and has multiple dialects; the standard, like many languages, is based on the speech in and around the national capital, which is Addis Ababa.

If you’ve ever walked past or gone to an Ethiopian restaurant or seen some of those amazing illuminated manuscripts I mentioned in my last post, you might have seen written Amharic (the Ge’ez script). It’s a very unique and fascinating writing system. If you still don’t know what it looks like, here’s a sample taken from Wikipedia’s page on Amharic — the typewritten lyrics of the Ethiopian national anthem:


Ethiopian anthem (since_1992) in amharic
Photo Credit: Wikipedia (wikipedia.org/Amharic)

The kind of writing system that Amharic uses is called an Abugida (in fact, the word “Abugida” is just the first four letters of the script). Each symbol is a consonant plus a vowel, and diacritics modify the symbol to make different consonant + vowel syllables. So one symbol might represent the sound “ha”, and changing certain parts of the symbol will change the sound to “ho” or “hu”. Other Abugida writing systems include Burmese, Thai, Lao, Tibetan, Bengali, Devanagari (a script used to write Hindi and many other South Asian languages), and some indigenous languages of North America, such as Cree and Inuktitut. I find it very interesting that, if Omniglot is entirely correct, Ge’ez script is one of very few Abugida systems (that is still in use today) used outside of Southeast/South Asia and North America. The only other African Abugida I could find on Omniglot was a relatively recent Abugida system developed in Malawi.

If you’re familiar with Semitic languages like Arabic and Hebrew, you might pick up a few (though not many) similar words in Amharic, since it is in the same language family (but a more distant cousin). Compare the Amharic bet (house) to the Hebrew bayit and the Arabic bayt. Still, as you heard in the video of The Weeknd’s performance, Amharic sounds very different from its Semitic cousins, and it’s definitely not mutually intelligible with them. It’s a language all its own.

Amharic’s literary and musical traditions, unique writing system, and ties to one of the oldest civilizations/independent countries on earth make it a language you’ll want to learn for more than a Weeknd.

I sincerely apologize for that horrible pun, but I just couldn’t resist.


Amharic. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amharic

Ager, Simon. (2016). Ge’ez Script. Omniglot. http://www.omniglot.com/writing/ethiopic.htm

Ager, Simon. (2016). Syllabic Alphabets. Omniglot. http://www.omniglot.com/writing/syllabic.htm

Giorgis, Hannah. (2015). The Weeknd’s East African Roots. Pitchfork. http://pitchfork.com/thepitch/793-the-weeknds-east-african-roots/

Heavenly Words: Liturgical or Sacred Languages

My language learning journey actually started with a liturgical language. From age three until age thirteen, I attended Jewish preschool (only until I started kindergarten, just to clarify) and extracurricular Hebrew School, where I learned to chant and, to a certain extent, read and understand Biblical Hebrew. Even though I didn’t start learning another foreign language until I was eleven (when I started to learn Spanish), I had a sense that learning a liturgical language was different from learning, say, French or German. Yes, we’d learn what the words we sang and read meant, but we weren’t learning to make very many sentences of our own. The language was, now that I think about it, “set”. If you refer back to an older post of mine, it was almost like a series of chunks than something mutable and fluid. This isn’t an indictment or criticism of Biblical Hebrew, of course; its set-in-stone nature is a reflection of its current function in the world today: a special language we use to communicate with the divine (not really with each other) and express a communal identity. Many other liturgical languages have this function, though this blog post would be very short and boring if everything was that simple.

What is a liturgical language? A liturgical language can actually encompass a lot of different things. It may be an ancient or more archaic version of a language used for everyday speech (Classical Arabic, Biblical Hebrew, Koine Greek, Church Latin in the period when Latin was used as a spoken language, Classical Tibetan), or it may be a language that is no longer used at all in everyday speech, or used very sparingly or by a minority population (Pali, Sanskrit, Syriac, Ge’ez). Even religious texts, rites, and traditions that use vernacular languages do not generally use vernacular languages in the way they are used for general communication. Even the English-language King James Bible uses more formal (though interestingly enough, God is addressed with “thou”, which is equivalent to “tu” in Spanish or French) language than you’d hear out on the street.

The common thread among liturgical languages is their difference from the way we normally communicate and express ourselves. Religious speech is special, and is an example of the ways we separate religious rituals from our daily lives: using liturgical languages for rites, prayers, inscriptions, study or Scripture is not unlike setting aside Friday, Saturday, or Sunday for prayer and family time, or taking off shoes before entering a place of worship, or making a celebratory feast different from all other nights — why is this language different from our other languages?

One important feature of this distinctness is that in many cases, those who want to read and understand a liturgical language need special training or status to do so. I needed to attend extracurricular classes to be able to read and chant Biblical Hebrew. Madrassahs teach young Muslims how to read and interpret the Arabic of the Quran. Many Buddhists from monastic traditions must study Pali or Sanskrit in order to understand the mantras and sacred texts. In the Western Christian tradition, seminaries and divinity schools offer classes in Ancient Greek, Biblical Hebrew, and Latin for aspiring members of the clergy. An ordinary person with no special training may be able to say a mantra, chant a prayer, or sing a song, but might not necessarily understand it. Not only are liturgical languages a form of speech separated from the everyday, but they are a separate and special form of knowledge. And as the old saying goes, knowledge is power.

So ingrained is this need to separate the sacred from the profane or preserve the legitimacy or exclusivity of the clergy, that attempts to reform liturgical languages or use vernacular languages for religious rites are often extremely controversial. Martin Luther and other Protestant reformers triggered deep religious divides when they stated that rites should be held and Scripture should be written in languages that ordinary people could understand. The wave of reforms in the Vatican in the 1960s (Vatican II) has caused schisms in the Catholic Church that remain to this day — one of the most contentious schisms pertains to Masses in the vernacular rather than Latin. Some adherents to Ultra-Orthodox sects of Judaism refuse to learn Modern Hebrew (spoken as an everyday language in Israel) because they believe that Hebrew should remain a purely sacred language; they generally speak Yiddish for everyday communication.

So far, I’ve focused a lot on liturgical languages in Western traditions of Abrahamic religions, but let’s take a look at the ways liturgical languages are used outside of Europe and North America and by non-Abrahamic religions.

In my effort to break out of my East Asia specialty and learn about the rest of the world, I’ve become quite interested in Ethiopia, particularly its religious, cultural, and linguistic history. In Ethiopian Orthodoxy, the liturgical language is Ge’ez. Ge’ez was historically the language of the royal elite in Ethiopia, and survives today as the liturgical language of many Ethiopian Christian and Jewish sects. Its script is also used to write the two main spoken languages of Ethiopia: Amharic and Tigrinya. The Wikipedia article on Ge’ez compares the language to Medieval Latin — its primary functions were/are courtly and ecclesiastical.  And speaking of Medieval times, some of the oldest illuminated manuscripts in the world were written in Ge’ez; one that was studied in 2010 may be the oldest ever.

One thing I find especially interesting about Ge’ez is that it’s used as a liturgical language in several religions. Now, this is not unique to some extent — after all, English, various forms/derivatives of German, Arabic, and Sanskrit (among others) are used in or associated with multiple religions. Ge’ez is used as a liturgical language by (per Wikipedia) the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, the Ethiopian Catholic Church, and Beta Israel, the Ethiopian Jewish community.

Moving into South/Southeast/East Asia (again), Sanskrit is a liturgical language with a unique history and widespread influence. Like Ge’ez, Sanskrit is sometimes compared to Latin (and incidentally, it’s an Indo-European language, so Latin and Sanskrit are distant cousins, if you will). Sanskrit’s name means “refined speech”, and is used in the religious and philosophical texts of Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism, and Buddhism. You’ve probably heard some Sanskrit words if you’ve ever practiced yoga or learned about Buddhist or Hindu religious practices. It is also a root language for many modern languages in South Asia, such as Hindi and Telugu; in addition, there is currently a movement in India to revive Sanskrit as a spoken language; in the 2001 census, about 14,000 Indians listed Sanskrit as their mother tongue.

Sanskrit’s influence on one of India’s co-official languages, Hindi, also reveals a great deal about religious divisions in South Asia. Hindi and Urdu, two major South Asian languages, are very, very similar — some would argue that they are the same language. However, Hindi’s vocabulary and script come from Sanskrit, while Urdu’s vocabulary and script come from Persian and Arabic. Now, this doesn’t mean that only Hindus speak Hindi and only Muslims speak Urdu, but the differences between Hindi and Urdu are rooted in the influences from liturgical languages. If you’re really interested in this, I highly recommend LangFocus’s video on the subject (in fact, watch all of his videos because he’s really informative and does great work).

Even if you’re not religious, knowing the impact liturgical languages have had on our civilizations and societies gives you great insights on sociolinguistics, history, etymology, language and culture, and language and politics. What do you think the continued role of liturgical languages should be in our society? How do you think the roles they have will evolve as languages evolve due to globalization and mass media?


Census of India. (2001). Statement 5: Comparative Speakers’ Strength of Scheduled Languages – 1971, 1981, 1991, AND 2001. https://web.archive.org/web/20090411183701/http://www.censusindia.gov.in/Census_Data_2001/Census_Data_Online/Language/Statement5.htm

“Ge’ez” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ge%27ez_language

Roberts, Laura. (2010) Manuscript found in Ethiopian monastery could be world’s oldest illustrated Christian work. The Telegraph. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-news/7872496/Manuscript-found-in-Ethiopian-monastery-could-be-worlds-oldest-illustrated-Christian-work.html

“Sanskrit” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sanskrit


Language Profiles Part 1: Arabic

I’ve decided that it would be fun to do some posts detailing interesting facts about different languages around the world. Since I’m currently at the Complete Novice stage of learning Arabic, I figure a good way to continue motivating myself is to write about why it’s such a fascinating and important language.

Arabic is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world with over 420 million speakers, and millions of Muslims around the world who do not use it for everyday communication use it and know it as a liturgical language. It is an official language in 19 countries. As the language of a global religion and numerous empires, its influence — whether on writing systems, vocabulary, or grammar — is visible in many other languages, including (but certainly not limited to) Persian/Farsi, Urdu, Swahili, Ottoman Turkish, Spanish, and English. Have you ever wrapped yourself up in gauze while doing some algebra and drinking alcohol on a safari? Then you were speaking Arabic (and Swahili that was directly influenced by Arabic)!

There are a lot of cool things about Arabic, but the most interesting thing I have learned so far is about Arabic’s phonology. Do you wonder why no one seems to know how to spell the name of the deceased Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi/Gadhafi/Qaddafi/Qadhafi? That’s because Arabic has a lot of sounds that simply don’t exist in English, and it has many distinct sounds that can be indistinguishable to an unfamiliar ear. For instance, the letters  ه  and ح  are written in English as /ha/ and /a/, respectively. The second is a more…emphatic h sound — I like to use the English word “hey” to illustrate the difference for my own purposes: the first is pronounced the way you’d say “hey!” to greet someone. The h is soft and doesn’t take much effort to say. The second is pronounced like when you say “HEY!” angrily; the h has much more breath behind it. When I first started out and was using Memrise to learn the alphabet, it was incredibly frustrating to hear the audio of some guy saying “ha” over and over and continually picking the wrong h letter because I couldn’t tell if the “ha” was more or less breathy. These tiny distinctions can make Arabic transliteration very difficult, since you lose a lot of the intricacies of pronunciation by assigning multiple sounds to one Latin letter. And a lack of consensus on which Latin letter to use leads to things like the many ways to spell Muammar Gaddafi’s name.

In addition, transliteration runs into trouble because of Arabic’s many, many varieties and dialects. As I’ve mentioned in my post about Arabic vs. Chinese vs. Romance languages, Arabic is more like an umbrella for many mutually unintelligible languages and dialects. Some of the main varieties include Egyptian Arabic (which many non-Egyptian Arabic speakers understand due to the ubiquity of Egyptian-produced Arabic popular media), Levantine Arabic (spoken in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine/Israel [I’m just putting both to avoid as much controversy as I can on this particular issue]), Moroccan Darija, Maghrebi Arabic (spoken in North Africa), Gulf Arabic (spoken in Oman, the UAE, Qatar, and parts of Saudi Arabia), and Iraqi Arabic, not to mention Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) and Classical Arabic, which is used in the Quran. Words are often pronounced very differently across varieties, so what might be a Q or K sound in one variety may be a hard G in another — hence why Muammar Gaddafi’s name can be spelled or pronounced in so many ways.

Another interesting thing about Arabic that I researched is how it grapples with its status as both a language for everyday communication and a liturgical language. Now, like Modern Hebrew and Liturgical Hebrew, there are definite differences between the kind of Arabic you’d use to talk to your friends or write a newspaper article, and the kind of Arabic (Classical Arabic) you’d use to recite prayers or the Quran. However, because of the many, many varieties of Arabic and the massive linguistic diversity of the worldwide Muslim community, or Ummah (about 1 billion strong, though that counts a lot of Arabic speakers), both Modern Standard Arabic and Classical Arabic are sometimes seen as emblems of a Pan-Arab or Pan-Islamic identity. In addition, because Arabic is the language of prayer and scripture for billions of Muslims around the globe, there is reluctance in some circles to modernize it and accommodate for modern and technical terminology. According to the researchers Almansour and Payne (2014), the highly conservative Wahhabi Muslim leaders of Saudi Arabia fear that language reforms could threaten the integrity of a language considered sacred by millions of people.

An earlier study (Haq and Smadi 1996) indicates that the reluctance to modernize vernacular Arabic led to a sentiment among Saudi students that English was more modern and urbane than Arabic, but Arabic was a language of identity and a mark of ethnic, religious, and national pride. However, these two studies only examined the situation in Saudi Arabia; they are not representative of Arabic language planning policies and social perceptions of Arabic in the rest of the Arabic-speaking world. I’ll go down those myriad research rabbit holes once I finish my dissertation.

My technical knowledge of Arabic is still very limited (I’ve just mastered how to write simple words like “the book” and “the chicken”), but I already find it a fascinating language with plenty of challenges for an English speaker and a learner of languages with fairly simple grammar (oh, how I miss the days of never conjugating anything in Mandarin), and chock full of interesting history and culture to explore. I hope that as my studies progress, I’ll have lots more to say about this great language.


Alosh, M. (2005). Using Arabic: A Guide to Contemporary Usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Almansour, M. and Payne, M. (2014). Foreign Language Planning in Saudi Arabia: Beyond English. Current Issues in Language Planning, 15(3), pp. 327-342.

Haq, F. A.-A. A. and Smadi, O. (1996). Spread of English and Westernization in Saudi Arabia. World Englishes, 15, pp. 307–317. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-971X.1996.tb00117.x

Ridout, Scott. (2014). Complete List of Arabic Speaking Countries 2014. IstiZada Arabic and Middle East Marketing Solutions. Accessed 13 March 2016. Available from:  http://istizada.com/complete-list-of-arabic-speaking-countries-2014/.


Multilingual Disney and the Challenges of Dubbing

This piece is an expansion on an article by Professor Elias Muhanna which was featured in The New Yorker.

The snow glows white on the mountain tonight, not a footprint to be seen/une royaume de solitude, ma place est là pour toujours/der Wind er heult so wie der Sturm ganz tief in mir…

So begins one of the most popular Disney videos on YouTube: Let It Go sung in 25 languages by different voice actresses and singers from around the world. It’s a truly impressive video that shows the global reach of Disney or, if you’re a bit more cynical, that parents from Budapest to Brasilia must endure this ear-worm of a song. Here’s the video if you want to take a listen:

Besides showcasing Disney’s international success and influence (as well as the singers’ lovely voices), the video also illustrates the tricky business of dubbing. When Disney dubs a film into a foreign language, it must convey what the characters are saying or singing in the same amount of time and lip-flaps allotted for English (you’ll notice that a lot of musical numbers in animated films don’t have too many close-ups of the characters’ faces), stay within the meter of the songs, and appeal to the cultural quirks and humor of the target audience. No easy task for one language; try doing it 25 times or more.

In Elias Muhanna’s piece, he highlights one particular challenge: which variety of a language to use for a dub. As you see in the video, Disney recorded two versions of Portuguese (Brazilian and European), French (Quebecois and European), and Spanish (Latin American and Castilian). I know they also recorded two versions of Mandarin (Taiwanese and Mainland). However, for Arabic, Disney chose to use just one variety: Modern Standard. Per Muhanna, this makes the song sound very archaic — more like Shakespearean verse than pithy ear-worm lyrics by the composers of The Book of Mormon. I agree with Muhanna’s argument that Disney should consider dubbing its films in multiple varieties of Arabic; if we can acknowledge that kids in Madrid and Mexico City speak (and sing) differently from each other, why can’t we acknowledge the same for kids in Damascus and Doha?

But the challenges don’t stop there. How do you translate culturally-specific elements, like accents, jokes, and cultural mores? In The Little Mermaid, Sebastian the Crab (who speaks with a West Indian accent) is tormented by a chef whose French accent wouldn’t sound out of place on a parapet ready to launch a cow at a witless King Arthur. How do you convey this in French? Simple, make the chef’s over-the-top accent Italian. In Aladdin, translators had to grapple with how to translate Robin Williams’ mile-a-minute, pop culture-heavy humor (which was accompanied by visual gags — a further constraint for the translators). In a non-singing example, the makers of the Pixar film Inside Out created different animations of one scene — in which the emotion Disgust prevents the main human character, Riley, from eating broccoli — to accommodate different cultures’ ideas of yucky vegetables. Japanese kids love broccoli (cue a thousand American parents asking little Johnny why he can’t be more like the kids in Japan), so in the Japanese dub of Inside Out, Riley turns up her nose at bell peppers.

You also have cultural mores that are trickier to navigate than childhood vegetable preferences. The 1996 Disney film The Hunchback of Notre Dame deals fairly directly with religious themes, disability, racism, and other quite controversial topics. The Arabic dub (incidentally, it’s in Egyptian Arabic, not Modern Standard) of the villain’s song, Hellfire, substitutes “ya-raby” (my lord/my God) for “Maria” so as to avoid potential insensitivity towards stricter interpretations of monotheism. In Japan, the title of the film was changed to The Bells of Notre Dame due to the taboo nature of the word “hunchback” in Japanese.

Although a writer dubbing an animated film has a lot of restrictions to work with, there’s still room for a lot of creativity and ingenuity. One of my favorite examples also comes from a dub of The Hunchback of Notre Dame; in the French version (linked below), Quasimodo sings,

A mon tour, faire un tour, alentour de ma tour…rien qu’un jour, un jour, en bas!

Direct English translation: To take my turn, to take a tour, around my tower, just one day, one day, down below!

Original English lyrics: Won’t resent, won’t despair, old and bent, I won’t care…I’ll have spent one day out there!

I think both versions’ lyrics are great, but the French dub gets extra points for working in a clever 3-way wordplay that still conveys the same emotion and character motivation as the original English.

Many language teachers will tell you that watching movies and listening to music in your target language is a great way to learn and practice, and get a feel for the culture; what better way to do that than by watching a Disney movie in your target language? As you can tell from all the challenges of dubbing, not only will you be able to improve your listening (especially because the plots are generally easy to follow and you’ll already have some idea of what’s going on), but you can learn a lot about the popular and traditional cultures associated with your target language. Give it a try! Go on YouTube and look up your favorite Disney song in a language you study, want to study, might study at some point, or just admire.

Out There (Rien Qu’un Jour/Just One Day) in French:

And just as a bonus to show how hard it is to translate Robin Williams into other languages — Friend Like Me (No Hay un Genio tan Genial/There’s No Genie as Great) in Spanish: