110 New Languages at Google Translate.

Google announces:

Google Translate breaks down language barriers to help people connect and better understand the world around them. We’re always applying the latest technologies so more people can access this tool: In 2022, we added 24 new languages using Zero-Shot Machine Translation, where a machine learning model learns to translate into another language without ever seeing an example. And we announced the 1,000 Languages Initiative, a commitment to build AI models that will support the 1,000 most spoken languages around the world. Now, we’re using AI to expand the variety of languages we support. Thanks to our PaLM 2 large language model, we’re rolling out 110 new languages to Google Translate, our largest expansion ever.

From Cantonese to Qʼeqchiʼ, these new languages represent more than 614 million speakers, opening up translations for around 8% of the world’s population. Some are major world languages with over 100 million speakers. Others are spoken by small communities of Indigenous people, and a few have almost no native speakers but active revitalization efforts. About a quarter of the new languages come from Africa, representing our largest expansion of African languages to date, including Fon, Kikongo, Luo, Ga, Swati, Venda and Wolof.

Fon in the news again! But what stood out to me was the inclusion of NKo in the further list of newly supported languages; I had thought it was an alphabet (as discussed here in 2011), but apparently it’s also a language:

NKo (ߒߞߏ) is a standardized unified koiné form of several Manding languages written in the NKo alphabet. It is used in Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso and some other West African countries, primarily, but not exclusively, in written form, whereas in speech the different varieties of Manding are used: Maninka, Bambara, Dyula and others.

It is a literary register with a prescriptive grammar known as kángbɛ (“clear language”) codified by Solomana Kante, with the màninkamóri variety, spoken in Kante’s native Kankan region, serving as the mediating compromise dialect.

Thanks, Martin!


I’ve started reading Juan Filloy’s Caterva, one of my birthday gifts (incidentally, does anyone know the origin of the odd-looking surname Filloy?), and in the googling that inevitably accompanies my reading of such a wide-ranging book (I’ve had, for example, to read up on the Uruguayan Civil Wars) I came across the following passage from Jason A. Bartles’ ArteletrA: The Sixties in Latin America and the Politics of Going Unnoticed (Purdue University Press, 2021; free download at that link):

Karcino is a collection of Filloy’s palindromes, ranging from
two to seventeen words long, that he wrote throughout his life.
In the final section, titled “ArteletrA,” Filloy even composes
poems from his palindromes. He offers the following examples
in different languages: “Never eveN”; “Roba saboR”; “Amor
¿bromA?”; “Madam adaM”; “Bon snoB”; “Luz azuL”; and
“Amo idiomA,” among many others (74–75). Filloy prefers to
write them in capital letters to draw attention to them, since in
some cases, a seemingly simple, yet unimportant, phrase might
go unnoticed as a palindrome, such as “Acaso hubo búhos
acÁ” (81). Some can be read as poetic aphorisms, as in the case
of a seventeenth-century palindrome by John Taylor that Filloy
references: “Lewd did i live & evil i did dweL” (49). Others may
appear to be nothing more than quotidian language: “Dennis
and edna sinneD”; or “Never odd or eveN” (49). Or as in one
of Filloy’s Spanish-language palindromes: “Eufemia, jaime fue …
¡Eufemia, jaime fue!” (101).

Yet, others tend to catch one’s attention, begging to be noticed
as the ingenious constructions they are. I have selected just three

Es re-mal eros en eso: relamersE (105).
Aca, carolo adonis, amo la paloma … si no da olor a cacA
Ada, gorda drogada, di los nocivos a corola clay.
y, al calor ocaso, vi consolidada gorda drogadA (195)

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Deborah Cole writes in the Guardian (archived) about the humorous side of the Awful German Language:

German has provided some of the most jaw-straining single words in the history of human language. Fußbodenschleifmaschinenverleih (rental shop for floor-sanding machines), anyone? Not to mention
Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz, a late lamented state law for labelling meat. […]

Now German, the primary vernacular of about 100 million Europeans, is turning its prickly peculiarities into an asset with an embrace of Zungenbrecher (literally, tongue-breakers) that have touched off a global comeback of the wordplay, even among people who do not speak the language. Its biggest star is Bodo Wartke, 47, a Berlin-based cabaret performer, playwright and pianist who has a remarkable gift of the gab. His songs – intricate rap tales spun out from existing German tongue-twisters and set to infectious beats – have garnered tens of millions of TikTok and YouTube views, beginning with Der dicke Dach­decker, about an overweight roofer, and culminating in Barbaras Rhabarberbar (Barbara’s Rhubarb Bar) parts I and II.

In those monster hits, Wartke and musical partner, Marti Fischer, tell the story “once upon a time” of a bar owner named Barbara who enchants all who try her rhubarb cake, including a group of bushy-bearded, beer-swilling barbarians who bring their barber back to try a bite. A sequel released last month sees the successful Barbara hire help to meet the mounting demand: a “smart, charming and well-read” bisexual woman named Bärbel. The two fall in love, get married with barbecuing barbarians in attendance and rhubarb cake on the menu. Months later, a child is born and then raised in the bar by Barbara, Bärbel and the doting barbarians. In other words, a Rhabarber-Barbara-Bar-Barbarenbartbarbier-Bierbar-Baby. […]

The author Gerhard Henschel, whose book Zungenbrecher looked at the universal appeal of tongue-twisters, said a “high level of difficulty” determined the best performances. But even failure to pull one off without stumbling rarely triggered schadenfreude, he said. “On the other hand a perfectly articulated tongue-twister can get a big laugh.” Wartke said he loves that sense of “relief” in the audience when he performs live and on point, a kind of catharsis familiar from the theatre. His next step toward tongue-twister world domination will be an English-language collaboration with Fischer, spinning a yarn from the classic Three Swiss witches watch three Swatch watches.

Click for clips and links. Thanks, Trevor!

Nabokov’s Invitation.

I finished Приглашение на казнь (Invitation to a Beheading) a few days ago and have been trying to figure out what to say about it ever since. It’s one of Nabokov’s more highly regarded novels; Brian Boyd (his biographer) calls it “the second of Nabokov’s masterpieces,” and I’ve been looking forward to reading it for years. But I wish I’d read it back when I was a whole-hearted Nabokovian, enjoying his style and thoughts uncomplicatedly and wishing I could write like that. Now, although of course I still appreciate the brilliant prose, I find myself mulishly resisting the novel itself and how it seems to be rhetorically dragging me to the mystical water and forcing me to drink. Because the whole point of the book, as of much of Nabokov, is that there is a потусторонний (‘on-the-other-side [of this world]’) life where nobody dies — or at least none of the truly elite, those who despise poshlust and appreciate butterflies and mystical coincidences. The hero, Cincinnatus, may have his head chopped off in the fake world he finds himself living in, but his real self survives and strides triumphantly away from the executioner’s platform, watching as all the pasteboard houses and people around him shrink and collapse. But this, even though I can sympathize with its origins in the young Nabokov’s horror and disbelief at his father’s accidental assassination, strikes me as a quintessentially adolescent worldview: “I and a few like me, who see what’s truly important in life, are so far beyond all these pathetic bourgeois people who despise us!” Obviously I know that’s not all there is to VVN — in many of his works there’s a deep and loving concern for “ordinary” people — but it’s there, and it’s an aristocratic thing, and too many artsy types affect aristocratic attitudes so they don’t have to feel like losers in this materialistic world, and the whole complex makes me grumpy. I mean, I’m pretty sure Nabokov would have turned up his nose at my whole family, with their Reader’s Digest subscriptions and lite-classical records and lack of sufficient appreciation for the Finer Things™, and it gets my back up. But after this he wrote Дар (The Gift), which is great without reservation, so I’ll dip into that and cheer myself up.

By the way, I was delighted when I got to “Mali è trano t’amesti!”; I wrote about Gennady Barabtarlo’s brilliant solution to the riddle back in 2019. And I was puzzled by the rendering in the translation (which VVN supervised) of the last line of ch. XVII:

– Вас недоставало, – сухо сказал м-сье Пьер.
“Nobody missed you,” M’sieur Pierre said dryly.

The Russian means the exact opposite: “You were missed.” Did Nabokov decide on the change or simply not notice the error?

Birthday Loot 2024.

It’s been a full day, with visits and phone calls and chicken curry and hazelnut torte, and now it’s at an end and I’m about to totter off to bed, so I’ll just list the many fine presents I got and let you decide which if any are particularly Hattic.

Last Year at Marienbad by Alain Resnais
Silent Ozu: Three Family Comedies by Yasujiro Ozu
Late Ozu by Yasujiro Ozu
Godard Cinema by Jean-Luc Godard
Kaddish by Steve Brand
Bob le flambeur by Jean-Pierre Melville
Touchez pas au grisbi by Jacques Becker
Kin-dza-dza by Georgi Daneliya (see this LH post)
The Chinese Feast by Tsui Hark

Station Eleven: A Novel by Emily St. John Mandel
The Fifty-Year Mission: The Next 25 Years by Mark A. Altman
Caterva by Juan Filloy (see this LH post)

I thank you all in advance for your birthday wishes, and I bid you a fond good night!

Peter Brown on Languages.

Peter Brown is a longtime fave of mine (see, e.g., this 2015 post and my Year in Reading essay from that year), so I was pleased to see his interview with Nawal Arjini in the NYRB newsletter (archived); the whole thing is worth your while, but I’ll excerpt this particularly Hatworthy bit:

I travel because it always surprises me. Places and monuments, works of art and landscapes are never quite what one imagines them to be. Nor are people. Some of the languages useful for my research abroad are what we call “dead” languages: Latin, Greek, classical Hebrew, Coptic, Ge’ez (Ethiopic), etc. These are keys to entire past civilizations. But even in the modern world, languages are a reminder that all societies have their own surprises. To attempt to read and use languages other than one’s own, even if only a few phrases, is a mark of respect for the otherness of other people. For this reason, I have always encouraged my students of late antiquity to learn not only the classical languages but the languages in which modern scholarship has been conducted, so that they realize that historical research is a worldwide matter, and that it is many centuries old—like a great symphony that has been playing for centuries.

Preach, brother! …Oh, all right, just a couple more bits:
[Read more…]

Building a Database for Fongbe.

We talked recently about the Fon language, known as Fongbe, and when I ran across the Knowledge 4 All project Building a database for Fongbe language in Africa, I thought it was interesting enough to post:

This dataset is part of a 3-4 month Fellowship Program within the AI4D – African Language Program, which was conceptualized as part of a roadmap to work towards better integration of African languages on digital platforms, in aid of lowering the barrier of entry for African participation in the digital economy. This particular dataset is being developed through a process covering a variety of languages and NLP tasks, in particular Machine Translation of Fongbe. […]

The standardized Fongbe language is part of the Fongbe cluster of languages inside the Eastern Gbe languages. In that cluster, there are other languages like Goun, Maxi, Weme, Kpase which share a lot of vocabulary with the Fongbe language. Standard Fongbe is the primary target of language planning efforts in Benin, although separate efforts exist for Goun, Gen, and other languages of the country. To date, there are about 53 different dialects of the Fon language spoken throughout Benin.

Fongbe holds a special place in the socio economic scene in Benin. It’s the most used language in markets, health care centers, social gatherings, churches, banks, etc.. Most of the ads and some programs on National Television are in Fongbe. French used to be the only language of education in Benin, but in the second decade of the twenty first century, the government is experimenting with teaching some subjects in Benin schools in the country’s local languages, among them Fongbe.

I hope it turns out to be useful (note to DE: it’s not done by those people you can’t stand).


I recently discovered you could subscribe to Jonathon Green’s Substack Mister Slang; I did so forthwith and have not regretted it. The latest post, K is For…, features “the many terms for lavatory (or as they say in those areas of society unblessed by the late Mitford Sisters, the toilet) in the slang vocabulary,” beginning with the one I’ve used for my post title:

As befits so vital an amenity, the khazi is but one of a number of allied spellings: carsey, carsi, cawsy, karzi, karzie, karzy, kazi and kharzi, which show, among other things, yet another example of what happens when one attempts to set down on paper that which usually appears but between the lips. But if the adventures of Sir Sydney, Private Widdle, Bungdit In, Major Shorthouse and of course the Khazi himself are not canonical, what, quite frankly is life worth? so for our purposes, khazi it is.

Based on Italian casa, a house, it arrived via Polari, the language of the stage (and latterly the camper end of homosexuality) in the mid-19th century. It is one of a number of available definitions: others include a brothel, a thieves’ den, a pub and simply a house. And the khazi, figuratively, can describe any messy or otherwise unappealing place. Casa is also the root of the earlier (from the 17th century) case, which again offers us a selection of sheltering roofs: a house, a shop or warehouse, a brothel (or case-house, owned by a case-keeper and wherein works the case-fro or case-vrow – from German frau) a ‘thieves; kitchen’, and, of course, a lavatory. To crack a case is to break into a house (quite the opposite of Plod’s variation) while to go case or case-o (or have a case) with are to live with someone, or, in an era that pre-dated the modern call-girl, to work as a genteel prostitute, from a flat, rather than walking the streets.

He goes on to discuss ajax and related terms like jakes, bog or boghouse, crap and craphouse, dunny, loo, and other terms; it’s all good reading. I was pleased to see a nicely filled out OED entry (revised 2016):

slang (chiefly British).

1. A house. Occasionally: spec. (a) a brothel; (b) a public house. Now rare.
1846 The former was the multibona casey for the swell donnas.
‘Lord Chief Baron’, Swell’s Night Guide (new edition) 33

2.a. A toilet, a lavatory.
1932 Everyone commenting unfavourably on the smell—poufy, like a cahsy, mucking drain.
G. S. Moncrieff, Café Bar xx. 236

2.b. A place regarded as unpleasant or in poor condition.
1934 Get out o’ Southend just as soon as you can. Of all the bloomin’ carsies I’ve ever struck this ‘ere takes some beating.
P. Allingham, Cheapjack iv. 37

And yes, the OED agrees it’s from Italian casa, “probably originally in Polari slang.”

Corinthian Spirit.

In a NYT soccer story today (archived) I hit this paragraph and was puzzled:

With temperatures pushing north of 30 degrees, both sides could have been content for a score draw, passing it nicely around the back, but they went for it instead. It was a little error-strewn, but extremely entertaining. So what brought it all together? A desire to avoid France in the last 16 and enter the “weaker” side of the knockout bracket? The Corinthian spirit? Slovakia and Romania put on an attacking feast. Purely for the love of the game.

What was “the Corinthian spirit”? A quick mental review of my knowledge of Corinth ancient and modern brought no useful results, so I turned to Google, and Wikipedia explained all:

Corinthian Football Club was an English amateur football club based in London between 1882 and 1939. Above all, the club is credited with having popularised football around the world, having promoted sportsmanship and fair play, and having championed the ideals of amateurism.

The club was famed for its ethos of “sportsmanship, fair play, [and] playing for the love of the game”. Corinthian Spirit, still understood as the highest standard of sportsmanship, is often associated with the side. This spirit was famously summed up in their attitude to penalties; “As far as they were concerned, a gentleman would never commit a deliberate foul on an opponent. So, if a penalty was awarded against the Corinthians, their goalkeeper would stand aside, lean languidly on the goalpost and watch the ball being kicked into his own net. If the Corinthians themselves won a penalty, their captain took a short run-up and gave the ball a jolly good whack, chipping it over the crossbar.” Among others, Real Madrid were inspired to adopt Corinthian’s white strip, while Sport Club Corinthians Paulista in Brazil and Zejtun Corinthians in Malta adopted their name.

I am in awe, and I presume soccer fans of the day were as well, since the phrase has survived the club that inspired it by almost a century, at least in the memory of Carl Anka (the sportswriter). Is this still a familiar term to the general footie-loving public?

Trendy Baby Names.

A dozen years ago I posted about fashions in given names; now I present Daniel Wolfe and Andrew Van Dam’s WaPo storyThe mysterious tyranny of trendy baby names” (archived):

In America, how you spell your name says a lot about when you were born.

Take “Ashley,” for instance. Ashly, Ashley and Ashleigh each mark distinct eras — not just for the Ashleys of the world, but also for the various spellings themselves.

What is it about how we spell a name — specifically, how we choose to spell the end of a name — that makes for a trend? Laura Wattenberg, author of “The Baby Names Wizard” and creator of Namerology.com, a website devoted to the art and science of names, has been examining that question. […]

As Wattenberg has watched names rise and fall in popularity over the past 20 years, she said she’s seen the invisible hand of name endings wield surprising influence — especially as Americans have abandoned the use of ancestral names for new family members. While expectant parents want their child’s name to stand out and be memorable, Wattenberg said, they also typically want it to fit within the boundaries of some unacknowledged — but unmistakable! — social convention. […]

As Wattenberg and I examined the data together, a startling discovery came into focus: Back in the 1970s, singular names grew so popular that they became trends unto themselves. But “it just doesn’t work that way anymore,” Wattenberg said. Nowadays, trends are defined by many different names with similar suffixes.

Consider the awe-inspiring “Jason” curve. […] Jason begat Mason, Jackson, Grayson, Carson and a whole family of other “-son” names that together make up a major 21st-century trend for baby boys. […]

Wattenberg finds “an incredible irony” in this. People think they’re choosing something totally unique, but they do it in a way that winds up moving with the zeitgeist. As a result, names have actually gotten less distinctive over time, with nearly half of all baby names now following identifiable suffix trends — a phenomenon Wattenberg calls “lockstep individualism.”

Visit the link for details and a bunch of graphs. (Via MeFi.)