The way we see things

On Polyglottery: A conversation with Alexander Arguelles

January 24, 2012 by Glyph Admin

Part 3 in the 3-part series “Chimps, Fingertips and Polyglottery: 3 Takes on Language Acquisition. Read part one here and part two here.

The following article is based on a conversation I had with polyglot and scholar, Alexander Arguelles, in the fall of 2011. I am indebted to Mr. Arguelles for his willingness to share with me his personal and professional perspective on language learning. Many thanks, Alexander!

Laura Nelson: “So, Mr. Arguelles, please tell me a few things about you that I won’t be able to find doing an Internet search.”

Alexander Arguelles: [chuckles] “Well, I don’t just live and breathe languages; I have a life outside of language study.”

You may, however, doubt his claim of having a life outside of language study if you take a look at the YouTube video, “A polyglot’s daily linguistic workout,” featuring Mr. Arguelles. How could he possibly dedicate time to any other activities given the rigorous, daily – if self-imposed – requirements of the scholarly pursuit of polyglottery? Not to mention holding down a full-time job as a language specialist at SEAMEO [Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization] – a teachers’ training institute in Singapore.


But neither his sincerity nor his accomplishments can be doubted. With a B.A. from Columbia and a PhD. from the University of Chicago, Prof. Arguelles has published 9 texts on language topics ranging from Old Norse sagas to Korean Zen legends to a French/German/English dictionary. His accessibility to both students and like-minded language aficionados is downright infectious, his unconventional and innovative language-learning techniques stimulating.

AA: “I’m married and have 2 sons. I swim and/or run every day. I play the flute. And the didgeridoo.” 

As our conversation was happening on Skype, Mr. Arguelles was generous enough to agree to play the didgeridoo for me. The sound quality was excellent and the music hauntingly beautiful. He adds, “And I’m a vegetarian.”

If polyglottery were a religious institution, Alexander Arguelles would surely be canonized in his own lifetime. I’m not sure if there is a saint of language study, but I am pretty sure that Hermes (the Greek god of languages) would have loved to have Arguelles as an assistant!

But what IS polyglottery anyway?

Polyglottery is considered a misspelled word by my version of Microsoft Word, but Word has “no spelling suggestions”.  Yahoo’s spell checker also considers the word a misspelling, but at least offers me what it thinks are useful suggestions: polygraphs, polygamous, polygonal, polymerization, or polynucleotide, perhaps? On the iPhone, English, Italian and Spanish language spell-checkers may be at a loss (“no replacements found”), but the French version proposes two: polyglotte and polyglottes. Now we’re getting somewhere!

I asked Arguelles, the polyglot who after all coined the term, to define it in relation to three other terms: multilingualism, polyglotism and polyliteracy.

AA: “Polyglottery is the passionate study of languages, for the love of language study; polyliteracy is scholarly language knowledge one develops through conscious study, especially through reading. Multilingualism can be defined as the state of acquiring multiple languages as a natural condition, of exposure in childhood. Polyglotism would be perhaps the broadest term, and can be defined as knowing multiple languages, no matter the means by which they were acquired.”

Merriam-Webster defines polyglotism as “the use of many languages: the ability to speak many languages” and cites 1882 as the year of its first known use.

How many languages does Prof. Arguelles know? This is a question he “dreads” according to his website (2), which is dedicated to helping others in their pursuit of polyglottery. A native English speaker, he studied French, German, Latin, Greek and Sanskrit at Columbia University. At the University of Chicago, he studied Old Norse.

But a look at the list of languages Arguelles is able to read gives us a partial answer: a vast array of European languages, modern and ancient, and I’m including Esperanto and Afrikaans; Arabic; Korean; Persian; Hindi; Sanskrit.

Inspiring or depressing? I haven’t decided yet...

I asked Arguelles if he felt help from new technological resources would herald a new age of accomplished polyglots. Can internet-based language-learning programs like or language apps like Lexicon improve language learning?

AA: “We’ll need to wait and see.”

I gleaned from Arguelles that the tools themselves are important, but not as important as true desire and “serious, concentrated, focused study”. And resourcefulness. When he was studying Russian in St. Petersburg in 2001, listening materials for language learners were limited, so he came up with the idea of going to the library for the blind where they had just what he needed: books on tape.

Though new technologies may not change the number of polyliterates in the world, easier access to new technology resources should – hopefully! – make it easier for a larger percentage of citizens across the globe to acquire a working knowledge of multiple languages. And having some ability to understand, converse, read and write in several languages is itself a worthy pursuit. U.S. citizens need to be particularly pro-active in the pursuit of language study; we have been the butt of a linguistic joke for decades:

Q: What’s someone who knows 3 languages called?

A: Trilingual.

Q: What’s someone who knows 2 languages called?

A: Bilingual.

Q: What’s someone who knows 1 language called?

A: American.

This is a well-earned stereotype, I am sorry to confirm, but the combination of increasing global interdependence and decreasing U.S. world dominance may provide the impetus needed to make the above joke obsolete. Monolingual Americans will simply have to learn other languages to remain competitive.

Mr. Arguelles’ children (9 and 7) are half American, half Korean, and have obviously had early exposure to foreign languages that most Americans have not.

LN: “You are American and your wife is Korean, so I assume your children are at least bilingual. Are they learning other languages as well?”

AA: “Actually, yes, they are bilingual but not in the languages you would logically assume. I was working in Lebanon when my youngest was born and my oldest was 2, so their early schooling was in French and Arabic. I only speak French with them and their schooling here in Singapore is in English and Chinese. So, their English is slightly better than their French and they have a passive understanding of Korean as my wife mostly speaks English with them. They speak French between themselves, and have done Spanish immersion programs…”

Get all that?

LN: “And what do you and your wife speak to each other?”

AA: “Mostly English in the home these days, but still Korean when we are out alone, and we also revert to Korean when we don’t want the children to understand exactly what we’re talking about.”

Arguelles’ children may or may not follow in his footsteps and pursue polyglottery with the enthusiasm and determination of their father. Regardless, they will be well versed in multiple languages thanks to the framework he has provided, a particularly healthy position to be in early in the 21st century.

Inspiring or depressing? I’ve decided now: definitely inspiring, the way another’s passion, drive and success often are.  With a little diligence, the right tools, and guidance from experts in the field like Prof. Arguelles, the rest of us aspiring polyliterates or polyglots should be able to attain our own personal linguistic goals as well – however modest these may be…

For a closer look at Alexander Arguelles’ autodidactic technics (the Shadowing Technique and the Scriptorium Technique), please see



(2)[ ] 

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New Glyph Shirts!

December 28, 2011 by Glyph Admin

By now, quite a few of you are aware of our new shirts. You may have seen them on Glyph employees or Glyph friends and family. Or you may have gotten one in the mail.

Since the cat is out of the bag (so to speak), we thought we'd tell you a little bit about our new shirts.

Glyph & Shirt

Although maligned by grammar school teachers when used to start a sentence, the conjunction “and” is one of the most useful words in any language. Want to finish a list? Try “and.” Tired of using “also”? Try “and.” Want to connect grammatically coordinate words, phrases or clauses? Try “and.” 

The Ampersand (&) is a ligature of the letters of the Latin word “et” for “and” and is equally useful for scribes in a hurry.

We’ve taken this conjunction and painstakingly translated it into over 150 languages – from Afrikaans to Zulu, with Amharic, Inuktitut, Nyanja and Telugu thrown in for good measure.

Designed by Glyph and printed on a shirt made from organic cotton or organic cotton and recycled polyester.

Want one of our shirts? Keep an eye on our facebook and twitter for chances to get one of your very own!

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Coca-Cola-zation: Localization the Chinese way

December 16, 2011 by Glyph Admin

The most ubiquitous soft drink in the world, Coca-Cola, has enjoyed over 100 years of popularity virtually all over the globe. Even the Bushmen in the 1981 film “The Gods Must Be Crazy” were not too remotely located to encounter Coca-Cola. Their introduction to the brand was not through Coca-Cola’s global marketing campaign, but, unfortunately, through the littering of a Western pilot who negligently tossed his empty bottle out of the window of a small aircraft...

In most countries where it has landed, though, Coca-Cola has entered local cultures as a beverage, and pronunciation of the brand name has entered local languages as is, as an imported foreign word. When an English word such as Coca-Cola* enters a language with a non-Roman script, it is generally transliterated into the appropriate writing system, with the closest approximation to the original sounds as possible. For example, in the Korean the writing system, hangeul, Coca- Cola is  코카콜라 which is a very close approximation of the original sounds.  

The process for adapting foreign words into Chinese, however, has not been so straightforward.

Chinese characters are also known as sinographs and the writing system is referred to as sinography. A character, or sinograph, represents a concept as well as a sound, so English to Chinese translation, transliteration and localization need to be undertaken with care; even rendering an international product brand name into the Chinese language is an art.

Back to Coca-Cola…

In Chinese, the sounds for Coca-Cola have been maintained but, more importantly, an idea has been conveyed. In Chinese, Coca-Cola is 可口可乐 (pin yin: Kě kǒu kě lè, which might sound like kuh koh kuh luh to those unfamiliar with pin yin transcription):  可 is to be able to do something, 口 means mouth,  乐 means enjoyable. Coca-Cola, then, can roughly be literally back-translated to “Good-Mouth-Good-Enjoyable” or more descriptively, “delicious happiness”, as it appears in English on Chinese language Coca-Cola cans. In other words, “yummy!”

Place names can likewise be graced with poetic detail in Chinese translation. Seattle, for instance, becomes 西雅图 (Xī yǎ tú –  or she ya too):  西 western, 雅 upstanding, 图 picture. Makes me sit up a little taller just thinking about the Chinese version of the city I call home…

Starbucks ShanghaiWhile we’re in Seattle, let’s visit some local companies. First, Boeing 波音 (Bō yīn): 波 means wave (including ocean, sonic or radio waves) and 音 means tone or sound. And now onto the somewhat less elegantly described Starbucks 星巴克  (Xīng bā kè – or shing ba kuh) 星 means star and 巴克 simply represents the approximate pronunciation of 'bucks.'

Which, in fact, may eventually be the rule instead of the exception: as China continues to open to the rest of the world, and more and more imported foreign words continue to need to be absorbed, the task of “coca-cola-izing” each new term will grow much more difficult and the art may die out. Pragmatism may mean that a preference for pronunciation over meaning eventually wins out over the cultural-linguistic commitment to combine both. Proper names, such as the current American president’s, are an example of that trend: the sinographs as they are used to represent the name Obama 奥巴马 (Ào bā mǎ), have no meaning beyond their sounds in the context of their juxtaposition to one another.

A Coca-Cola advertising campaign in English claims that Coke is “the real thing.” In Chinese, on the other hand, Coke’s arch rival, Pepsi, becomes 百事可乐 (Bǎi shì kě lè): 百 one hundred, or many, 事 things or situations, in this case interpreted as “moments of happiness” by the Pepsi-Cola company. “Delicious happiness” versus “A hundred moments of happiness”: a kind of linguistic taste test? The choice is yours!

*Although this brand name originates as an American English word, according to online etymology sources, coca ultimately comes from a Quechua word, borrowed perhaps from another South American language, and cola is a Latinized form of a word of West African origin.

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Do you think the way you speak?

December 14, 2011 by Bobb Drake

Language is the uniquely-human means of communication – we use words in a structured pattern to relay information to one another. While different combinations of words across different languages can relay the same message, could the differences among languages also affect how we perceive the information? Does or can language, alone, shape the way we think? Follow us through several examples in which language influences thought.

On the Cape York Peninsula near the northernmost point of Australia is a small aboriginal community – the research team of Dr. Lera Boroditsky, assistant professor of psychology, neuroscience, and symbolic systems at Stanford University, spent some time studying an aboriginal community called Pormpuraaw and its Kuuk Thaayorre culture – a culture with no terms or conceptualization for "left," "right," "front" or "back." Everything is described in reference to cardinal direction. Appropriate phrasings might be, “Look at that dingo to your North-northwest!” or “Pass the fish Southeast.” This requires each person to constantly have an excellent sense of direction, as a highly developed sixth sense for those born and raised in the region.

Even more fascinating is their conceptualization of time. When asked to place photographs of an aging man in chronological order, most English speakers would place young-to-old from left to right, in reference to the direction in which they read. Similarly, those who speak Hebrew would place the photos right to left. Mandarin speakers reference time vertically – they placed the youngest photo farthest from the body and the chronology came inward. This came up in a different piece of Boroditsky's research, found here (PDF).

Kuuk Thaayorre does a combination of all of these methods, but not for the same reasoning. A person's arrangement of the photos depended on the direction in which they were seated – always putting youngest to the east and oldest to the west, the way the sun rises and sets. When facing east, the person used a vertical formation with the youngest photo farthest away from the body. When facing north, he or she arranged young to old from right to left. Our time in Pormpuraaw has concluded for this leg of the trip. We must now be on our way to the colder climates of Russia. Grab your passport and Ushanka, and let us be on our way.

In addition to directions and chronology, the assigned gender of a term can affect its perception within a culture. In many languages (notably, Romance and Slavic languages), certain words and objects are assigned “genders” or classifications (read an interesting archive discussion on WordReference forums). For example, the Russian term for bed is feminine and terms that qualify the word "bed" would therefore be feminine. Likewise, the word for “chair” is masculine, and every adjective and pronoun associated with that chair would also require a masculine word ending.

As evidence that these classifications may affect thought process, a staggering majority of paintings personifying Death will match the gender assignment of the word “death” in the artist's native language. In Russian, death is feminine (and even has a name – Baba Yaga, "Baba" meaning old woman and "Yaga" meaning hag). Russian painters more frequently depict death as a woman. In German however, death is masculine, resulting in mostly male personifications. (As a matter of fact, I could use some authentic gummi bears. Gummibären are a German creation. For good measure we will also bring some Spanish friends along. Let’s go...)

Could this same gender perception apply to everyday objects? When asking a German speaker to describe a key, a masculine word, you may receive answers such as heavy, jagged or hard. Although English does not distinctly classify words as masculine and feminine, these descriptors suggest masculinity. Ask the same question to a Spanish speaker for whom “key” is a feminine word, you might receive such answers as slender, elegant, and fragile. Is how you speak also how you think? A debatable argument that we will leave to your own thought process. No matter what language it may be in. We here at Glyph hope you enjoyed the tour!

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We’ve moved!

November 08, 2011 by Glyph Admin

It's official: Glyph has a new home. We recently moved to the Atrium Building at S. 123 Wall Street, just on the north side of the railroad tracks and upstairs from Europa Pizzaria & Bakery here in Spokane.

For weeks, all signs pointed to Yes: Anagram Manager researching potential office spaces, L10n Tamer taking everybody with him for a tour, all of us becoming very attached to a new building that has a ton of natural light and a trainside patio. It had some of us (I won't say who...) calling it "our new office" before the paperwork was complete. And then to cap it all off, a mystery man came in to do a moving quote.

The upstairs was at one point a clothing shop or a couturier (more information later) and the previous site of Magic Lantern Theater. (Read an Inlander story from 2007) The improvisational comedy troupe ComedySportz occupied that upstairs office space for two and a half years. Most of the building was built in 1900 while the loading dock (to the train) was added in 1930, according to Spokane County assessor records.

Downstairs, across the hall from the Italian restaurant with the great pastry chef, a man named Jerry Thrift owns and operates a small used/new bookshop called Monkeyboy Books.

Glyph's previous office space here is on the second floor in the historic Bennett Block at Main and Howard, directly above Mizuna. We also used a "basement" that actually occurs in-between the first and second story of the building – a space we've filled with documents, old install discs, baking tins, t-shirts, Elvis trinkets... 

UPDATE: Check out our facebook page for photos of the new office!

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Cin Cin! British sailors, Italians and a delightful misunderstanding of Chinese

October 24, 2011 by Glyph Admin

Cin cin! (pronounced cheen cheen) is used much like “Cheers!” in English when toasting, and it is an expression that has attained global recognition.

But a lot of people speculate about its origins (Read a travel forum discussion). Many English speakers consider the word to come from Italian, though some sources cite the usage of cin cin to be international and used “primarily in Italy and Libya.” The expression also made it into an Italian vermouth advertisement (near the end, in this case).

Various etymological explanations are in circulation; for instance, cin cin is said to be an onomatopoeia representing the sound of glasses touching. (Cin cin is also the sound of mice, according to this massive chart of foreign-language animal sounds).

Perhaps cin cin came to Italy via Portuguese sailors traveling back from the Orient, although certainly not from Japan because in the Japanese language, the expression pronounced “cheen cheen” [writtenちんちん ] is a childlike way of referring to the penis, according to a glossary entry near the bottom of this list. Any Italians toasting their Japanese counterparts with "Cin cin!" have probably brought many confused – then bemused – smiles to the faces of the Japanese folks present. “What exactly are we toasting to again?”

The most likely scenario is that it did come from the Orient, but specifically China – and even more specifically, ports where 18th-century British sailors frequently spoke Cantonese. The phrase, written as 請請 in traditional Chinese characters or 请请 in the simplified, is roughly pronounced ch'ing-ch'ing and means “please, please,” much as the Italian “prego, prego!” sometimes means “Please, go ahead!” Go ahead and drink, eat, etc. Perhaps non-Chinese speakers took it to mean “Cheers!”

Many Italians today consider its origin onomatopoeic, and it is possible that the sailors did as well. The pleasant, light sound of clinking glasses during a toast does seem like a perfect aural accompaniment: the eyes are satisfied looking at the drink in hand and the dinner guests; holding and sipping from the glass satisfies the sense of touch; the taste of the beverage pleases the tongue and the aroma pleases the nose. In the space of a few seconds, all five senses are engaged in a joyous shared endeavor. 

Today, the well-wishing intent behind the saying is clear, regardless of its nebulous, pidgin Anglo-Italo-Luso-Sino origins. Cin cin!

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VOX IN VIA: The Word On The Street

September 16, 2011 by Bobb Drake

Among the many marvels of Rome, one of the most remarkable – and least remarked – is the fact that the Latin language has been in continuous use there for at least 2,500 years. The following specimen – a commemorative plaque of a type frequent in Rome – furnishes a good example of both the difficulties and the riches to be encountered in the study of Rome’s Latin inscriptions. A glance suffices to render the difficulties instantly apparent: Aside from the fact that it is composed in Latin, only five words of twenty are written out in full; the rest are either abbreviations or symbols for numerals:

an sal m vd
tiberis sereno
aere ad hoc ―
sig crevit non
decembr alex
vi p m an iii

In addition to its abbreviations the inscription includes a ‘nesting’ ligature that can’t easily be represented typographically (the C in the word HOC is inscribed within the O). Expressed in full, the text reads:

Anno salutis millesimo quadringentesimo nonagesimo quinto, Tiberis sereno aere ad hoc signum crevit Nonis Decembris Alexandri sexti Pontificis Maximi anno tertio.

‘In the one-thousand four-hundred ninety-fifth year of Salvation under clear skies,  the Tiber rose to this mark, on the Nones of December, in the third year of Alexander the Sixth, Supreme Pontiff.’

Points of linguistic interest include the way in which Latin expresses dates: the Christian year is given in ordinal numbers (the one-thousand four-hundred ninety-fifth year). It is interesting to compare this style with our English equivalent 1495 (‘fourteen ninety-five’) – so immediately comprehensible yet so resistant to grammatical analysis. As for the day of the month, the inscription shows a hybrid of classical and medieval conventions. The ancient Romans cited dates with reference to three ‘cardinal’ days of the month – the Kalends, Nones and Ides; in December, the Nones corresponded to the fifth day of the month. The Romans would have cited this date as Nonis Decembribus (‘on the December Nones’ – the name of the month is an adjective in grammatical agreement with the word Nonis). The medieval convention, on the other hand, was like the English: to assign a number to each day of the month and to treat the names of the months as nouns. In a medieval inscription, consequently, it would usual to find this date expressed: Quinto die Decembris (‘on the fifth day of December’). In our present case, the ancient and medieval styles are combined: Nonis is classical while Decembris – a possessive form – is medieval; the formula reads: ‘On the Nones of December’.

The plaque on which the inscription appears is mounted on the façade of the church of Sant’Eustachio, located near the Pantheon. It serves as a reminder that through the many centuries before the Tiber embankments were built, the whole of Rome’s historical center was subject to periodic flooding on a scale comparable to the catastrophe on the Gulf Coast of the United States during Hurricane Katrina: we know, for example, that the catastrophic floods of 1530 and 1557 each caused some 3,000 deaths. As for Pope Alexander VI: he was the notorious Rodrigo de Borja y Borja – a Spanish cardinal who Italianized his name as Borgia. Before his election, he fathered four children on his Roman mistress, Vanozza Cattanei: Juan, Jofré, Lucrecia and César – the latter more familiar as Cesare Borgia, inspiration for Machiavelli’s Prince. Vanozza, for her part, went on to manage a very successful inn in a building just off Campo de’ Fiori: her bourgeois family arms – audaciously quartered with those of the aristocratic Borgia! – are still to be seen on a small cartouche mounted on the facade. Indeed, her very interesting epitaph survives to be read in the Basilica of San Marco … but that’s a story for another time.

Tyler Lansford is a co-owner of Glyph Language Services. He teaches Latin and Greek at the University of Colorado and maintains a blog on the Latin inscriptions of Rome (

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It’s all part of the game

August 17, 2011 by Glyph Admin

Traditionally, translators have faced two primary choices when adapting a work from its original language into another: a literal, word-for-word fidelity to the text, or alternately, an interpretation that conveys the meaning beyond the actual words.

There are pros and cons to both choices, and good translators will lean more towards one approach or the other, depending on the piece they are translating. For example, a technical document such as a BMW car maintenance manual would require a highly precise, literal version of the German in an English translation. On the other hand, a poem by the 14th-century poet Petrarch which rhymes in Italian would surely benefit from an English translation that stays true to the connotations of the sonnet – rather than be constrained by its literal meaning.

Enter the global phenomenon of the video game and its localization. Now what?

In the gaming world, the unique purpose of language is not communication; it is to aid the players in furthering their progress through the game. In fact, language is often almost or completely absent; for example, in Amanita Design’s game Machinarium, as its Wikipedia entry points out:

Machinarium is notable in that it contains no dialogue,
spoken or written, and apart from a few tutorial prompts
on the first screen, is devoid of language entirely.”

Watch the video game trailer here.

When this game does use language, its usefulness as a communications tool is often quite limited. Communication within this game consists of a player's use of the keyboard, mouse and eyes. The game uses non-speech sounds (music and sound effects) and non-textual visual symbols (thought bubbles, pictographs) to interact with the player. Any of the game's written or spoken language might be more accurately viewed as an aesthetic element, as opposed to a vital communicative component. Appropriately placed linguistic elements can enhance or detract from a player’s enjoyment of this game, but generally speaking, they cannot help or hinder a player’s understanding of the game's nuances or the player's ultimate success.

In-game use of language is often essentially a fashion accessory, but it is still bound to the culture in which it was created. That’s why neither a traditional translation model – literal (form-based) versus free (meaning-based) – would seem to work very well. A literal translation would often be unintelligible, while a meaning-based translation would take too long to convey and/or be culturally irrelevant.

Enter the localization process and the concept of transcreation.

Often used in the field of global marketing and advertising, transcreation can be thought of as the melding of translation, re-creation and localization.

So how is a transcreator’s job different from a translator’s? Where games are concerned, an excellent rendition of a game’s ambience and feeling is key. This requires more than a literal or content-based translation. Cultural savvy and creative license are essential.

A case study conducted by professors Mangiron & O'Hagan (1) of the localized American version of the Japanese game Final Fantasy, shows the extent of translation freedom used in localization in various areas, one of which they call “contextualisation by addition.” It is easy to see why this type of translation/localization might be better termed transcreation. Their example of contextualization by addition follows, in which a male character, Leblanc, is speaking to a female character named Yuna who belongs to the opposition, the Gullwings. Leblanc uses wordplay to make fun of this opposition:

Original Japanese

Localised American version

[Leblanc: Hm, I can tell.]

[That sphere is dud.]

Leblanc: It’s obvious to a trained eye?

That sphere’s just a dud. 
Perfect for the Dullwings.

“…the phrase 'perfect for the Dullwings' was deliberately inserted by the translators... This addition, which is also a play on words, helps to make explicit the adversarial relationship between Leblanc and Yuna, drawing a smile on the players' face and hopefully engaging them more in the game with the inclusion of this amusing touch. A more literal translation of the original dialogue is provided in square brackets.” (1)

(left) Leblanc speaks out against the Vast Dullwing Conspiracy (2)  

The primary purpose of playing a game is, of course, to have fun! In order for a video game to be entertaining, a player must be engrossed in play and transported to a fantasy world that has a unique environment and feeling – in which the play is challenging and stimulating.

In the realm of video game localization, the communicative value of language is perhaps on par with choices in colors or music. However, visual elements and non-speech sounds in video games do not require a transformation to be cross-culturally understood.

As long as the gaming sector grows – which it shows all signs of continuing to do – and as long as part of the pleasure of game play includes wordplay; translators, localization specialists and transcreators can all look forward to plenty of work in the field in the foreseeable future!

(1) “Game Localisation: Unleashing Imagination with 'Restricted' Translation “, by Carmen Mangiron and Minako O'Hagan, Dublin City University, Ireland, from

(2) image from RPGamer, Jeremy, the Duke of Otterland

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Cultural-linguistic connections: Arabic roots in 3 European Languages

July 12, 2011 by Glyph Admin

Most native English speakers are aware of the Latin and Greek roots of many of our words. Though structurally speaking a Germanic language, in a linguistically happy consequence of the French invasion of England in 1066, a.k.a. the Norman Conquest, the English language would dramatically change. The adoption of French vocabulary would eventually double the actual number of English words, making it the arguably most lexically rich language in the world today. It is through this French connection that much, though not all, of English lexicon containing Latin and Greek language roots comes.  

However, French and other Romance languages do not include vocabulary derived solely from Latin or Greek. Let’s look at another major cultural-linguistic contributor to the French, Spanish and English languages: Arabic.

What’s interesting about many of the words having Arabic roots is that most English speakers have no idea of their origins. Spanish is the European language containing the largest number of words traceable to Arabic (1000- 5000, according to many sources), thanks to another happy linguistic consequence—that of the Moorish invasion of the Iberian peninsula in 711, a.k.a. the Umayyad Conquest.

Sometimes the Arabic roots of words in Western European languages have taken on an entirely different meaning; for example, alcohol comes from the Arabic language الكُحول al-kuHuul, meaning “kohl,” a fine metallic powder used as a cosmetic to darken the area around the eyes.

Sometimes the words came into Spanish, French and English through Turkish; صفّة suffa, bench in Arabic, gave us “sofa”.

Sometimes the Arabic words are themselves derived from Persian (بازهر   bāzahr, “bezoar” – medical, veterinary term, indigestible material, often a hairball – from Persian pâdzahr) or Greek (الإكسير al-'iksīr, from the Greek xērion plus “al” from the Arabic, now “elixir” in the major European languages). Sometimes there is a traceable link from the Arabic language to Sanskrit, e.g. نارنج nāranj, orange, from Sanskrit  नारङ्ग  (nāraga) = orange, and sometimes the words are hard to trace.

Because so much cultural and linguistic exchange has gone on for so many centuries amongst Indo-Mediterranean peoples, it is not surprising to find that even today we share many common words. Below is a very partial list of close “linguistic cousins” in 3 major European languages and in Arabic.

Enjoy looking for more global interconnectivity – lexical, cultural and otherwise! 





la alcoba




el álgebra




el almanaque




la alquimia;
la química

la chimie







la cifra

le chiffre

cipher; [numeral]




[poor guy; miser]


el asesino




el arroz

du riz



el almacén

le magasin
le magazine

magazine; [store, warehouse]










azure [blue]



el azafrán

le safran



el azúcar

le sucre



el albaricoque




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From the CEO, Language Factoids, Etymology

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Is there any Feminization in the French Language?

March 18, 2011 by Bobb Drake

Upon my return from one of my first trips to France in the early 1980s, I became enthralled with Simone de Beauvoir.  I poured over Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, later The Second Sex.  It wasn’t so much that she was a feminist – that dirty f-word; I was interested because she was like me:  in her young life, she had quarrels with her parents, she questioned her upbringing and her social status and, early on, she had grand aspirations of becoming a writer.  She was even still alive then, so each step I took on the cobblestones around Montparnasse and St. Germain des Prés, I swore I felt her presence.

For a while, in my late teens, I played at being her.  I read that she was impolite; I mimicked her brusqueness.  I became attracted to short men, musing that each boyfriend was another incarnation of Jean-Paul Sartre.  I took up reading and writing in cafés, while smoking, with a detached look of ennui.

At the same time, the Second Wave of American feminism hit me.  Without any Beauvoir panache, I pushed my father into the kitchen to help my mother.  “Don’t just sit there and drink your wine!”  I barked.  I stopped shaving my legs as well as randomly smiling to please men.  I paraded around the house protesting against Male Supremacy.  I declared my right to have sex out of wedlock.  

Much later I realized it was really independence, respect and self-assuredness I longed for – all of which don’t come as an overnight result of a political demonstration.  As a young adult, I toyed with the idea of becoming a journalist but eventually ceded, in my education and career, to my affinity for French – and Beauvoir – and became a French language instructor and translator.  Yet, as much as I adore the literature, the language, and the people who speak it, its very nature often gnaws at my feminist sensibility.

For example, a reasonable question I encounter from my modern-minded students, both high school and university, is: what is the French equivalent to “Ms.”?  I am forced to enter into a protracted explanation that, in fact, there is none, because the French use only either “Mademoiselle” or “Madame.”   The problem arises with the connotation of each of these appellations.  A throwback to the “old days,” like its English counterpart “Miss,”  “Mademoiselle” circumscribed that part of the female population that was a) unmarried and b) presumably virginal.  “Madame,” on the other hand, was reserved for married women, like “Mrs.,” and presumably deflowered.  The feminist question, of course, becomes, what business is it of anyone to know the marital status and/or sexual activity of women, whereas a single “Monsieur” (“Mr.”) evades both questions for men?  In any event, with the advent of the post-war women’s movement, most French people err on the side of caution and use “Madame.”  And that’s what, finally, I tell my students.  But the archaic and sexist distinction – and lack of a suitable replacement – remains.

While most people hold the notion that the French language is romantic and sexy – even, in the spirit of the French Revolution, egalitarian –, many of its words are rooted, from Latin, in a longstanding male-dominated tradition and thus create problems in the present day. 

Names for certain high-level professions in French are notoriously exclusively male.  To date, there exists no female equivalent for médecin (doctor), professeur (teacher/professor), écrivain (writer) – at least not one approved by the Académie Française.  In French-speaking Canada, it may be noted, feminized words like “écrivaine” are de rigueur.  As expected, many positions, presumably requiring less education and being more “acceptable” for both genders throughout modern history, have two forms, such as ouvrier/ouvrière (worker), fermier/fermière (farmer), caissier/caissière (cashier), serveur/serveuse (waiter/waitress), acteur/actrice (actor/actress), etc.  Nonetheless, many of these pairs pose a nuance in meaning:  I know personally, for instance, I’d rather be called a traducteur (translator, m.) than a traductrice (translator, f.) because to me traductrice sounds almost like the (female) assistant of a traducteur, a diminution, an apprentice of some kind, not a serious, qualified translator.

Progressive thinkers have tried to adjust the male-only professions by either changing the article from “le” (masculine) to “la” (feminine) or reconstructing the word on their own:  I have seen women writers call themselves écrivaine when that word is not yet officially accepted, and my female professors at French university were referred to as “la professeur.”  In government, instead of simply “la ministre” for a female minister of state, the French, in their infinite backward progressivism, have instituted “Madame le ministre,” convoluting rather than rectifying the issue.  A mini semantic revolution ensues, in any event, just to be accurate!  In recent years, however, Le Monde and other French newspapers of records have taken to using “la ministre,” as, under Sarkozy, there are more female ministres than in past French history.

A simple gender switch does not always solve the problem, often serving only to trivialize the woman’s role.  Homme de lettres, for instance, is a name for a serious literary man, where femme de lettres, its apparent equivalent, ends up sounding like the literary man’s mistress, hardly a literary person in her own right.  This lopsided differentiation is exacerbated by the relationship of the very basic words homme and femme.  In French homme mean only “man,” while femme means either “woman” or “wife,” depending on context.  This age-old distinction – or lack thereof – has prompted many feminist-minded French folk of late to choose to use the more neutral époux/épouse (male/female spouse) in place of mari (husband) and femme (wife and woman).

For all you French speakers, try to come up with other examples – I’m sure you will!  As for me, I’m still grappling with the disconnect between the worldly importance of French women like Simone de Beauvoir, on the one hand, and the antiquated French meaning and usage of femme and écrivain on the other.  

Claudia Brown is a French-English Translator and French Instructor, Washington, D.C.

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Linguistics, From the CEO

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