The linguistic relativity of up and down

In this article, I am going to give a nice and simple example of how learning a new language causes you to start perceiving the world differently. By doing so I will provide support for the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (in its weak form), which is a hypothesis that claims that the language you speak predetermines, to some extent, how you think. I will demonstrate this on my favourite toy language, Irish. Continue reading


English as a programming language

Hello from 1980!The first programming language I ever learned was called BASIC. This is ancient history now but back when I was a kid, BASIC was the gateway drug for any aspiring computer geek. As a programming language, BASIC was quite, well, basic – it consisted of a small number of keywords like DATA, READ, LET and PRINT (yes, you were supposed to write them in uppercase), you had to number your lines (which you were recommended to do in increments of 10 so you could insert additional lines later) and I’m not sure if it could even do loops. If it could, it probably had to be done with the GOTO command followed by a line number, which even back then had the elegance of a bucket of sludge. Continue reading

Three plus one things to know about grammar

I don’t always reblog stuff from elsewhere, but when I do, it’s for a good reason. This article from Language Log (‘Reference to humans with this and that’ by Geoffrey K. Pullum) deserves to be reblogged because it neatly illustrates three interrelated points about grammar which, in my opinion, every self-respecting linguist should either agree with or be able to argue coherently against. Continue reading

How to hurt people with machine translation

A story flashed through the media in Ireland recently that caught my linguistic-technological interest. The newspaper Irish Independent published an interview on 1 February 2012 with a Polish immigrant called Magda (not her real name) who is receiving unemployment benefit in Ireland – which she is perfectly entitled to on account of being an EU citizen. Magda is presented in the interview as a shameless freeloader; somebody who has come to Ireland only to claim unemployed benefits. At one stage, she is reported to describe her unemployed life in Ireland as a ‘Hawaiian massage’.

It turned out later that this interview was a mistranslation into English from an original interview in Polish published in the newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza. Nowhere in the original text does Magda describe her life in Ireland as a Hawaiian massage. What she actually says is that she has taken a course in Hawaiian massage and is planning to open a massage business. She also says that she has a problem with being unemployed, hates living at the state’s expense and wants to get out of that situation. Continue reading

Seven Languages in Seven Weeks

If you are a programmer, you are probably too busy to read books about programming, especially those that are not directly job-related. But if you have time to read at least one such book this year, you will not make a mistake if you pick Seven Languages in Seven Weeks by Bruce A. Tate, published by The Pragmatic Bookshelf.

This book is a drive-by introduction to the following seven programming languages: Ruby, Io, Prolog, Scala, Erlang, Clojure, Haskell (in this order). If you’re like me and your entire programming career has been in a “classical” object-oriented programming language like Java or C#, then these languages are ones you may have heard of, but don’t really have a clear idea what they’re all about. This book will change that. But it is not a textbook and it will not turn you into a proficient user of either of the seven language. It reads more like a novel with code examples. For each language, it shows you its main typological properties and explains how it’s different from others. Each chapter even includes a mini-interview with a person who knows the language well, often the language’s creator himself (yes, himself: sadly, it seems that programming language design is a man-only affair). Continue reading

How not to order a beer around the world

This is a beautiful poster I spotted recently in a bar in north Dublin. It’s titled How to order a beer around the world and features phrases one can use in various languages to, well, order a beer. Combining my keen interest in languages with my even keener interest in beer, it drew me to itself like a lamp draws a moth.

I have a million comments to make about this poster. But before I do, let us understand what it is for. Contrary to what its title might suggest, its purpose is not to teach you how to order a beer correctly in various languages. Its purpose is more to entertain and amuse than to inform. It belongs in a genre of what I call decorational multilingualism (more about that later). So let us not expect much of it. Continue reading