How would you answer “Fit like ma loon?”

Me I stood and let my jaw drop, wondering what language it was. In fact it turned out the question was in English. Or at least the variant of it spoken in the north east of Scotland. I was asked the question when introducing myself to a family I was to stay with in a small town on the Spey Valley.

As a Scot myself, growing up in Ayrshire, I had become aware that there was lots of common language there that completely bamboozled English friends. But I hadn’t realised there was such a variation of vocabulary within Scotland itself. After all it is a very small nation which has two distinct languages – English and Gaelic. And while I had occasionally found some accents a bit difficult to get, I had never really had any trouble with understanding vocabulary.

Later in life when I got involved in the business of translation I began to see just how much these regional variations could matter. Spanish is spoken is Spain itself but also throughout a large part of South America. But that doesn’t mean that what makes sense in Madrid will be equally understood in Buenos Aires. Likewise with Portuguese. A Brazilian friend, who always thought he spoke perfect Portuguese, found himself struggling to be understood on holiday in the Algarve.

But I digress. Back to my predicament when meeting my landlady in the north east of Scotland. It turns out – as I came to realise during my stay there – that what I should have replied is:

“Nae sae bad quinie, fit like yasel?”

Or in plain English she asked me “How are you sir” and I should have replied “Not bad, how are you madam?”

Celebrating Languages across Europe on Friday

This Friday, 26 September, is European Day of Languages when people across the European Union are meant to get together to celebrate language and cultural diversity. The day is sponsored by the Council of Europe and in their words is designed to be:

• A Europe-wide celebration of all the world’s languages
• A day to kick-start language learning
• A chance to raise awareness about the value of language skills

The Day was first celebrated in 2001 and has grown every year since. And the recent expansion of the EU has seen languages such as Latvian, Lithuanian and Romanian added to the languages being celebrated.

And it is not only European languages. In my house what the day has meant is that my daughter, who normally has to wear a uniform to school, is going in dressed in a Punjabi national costume that her aunt brought her from a trip to India. And other girls will be wearing national costumes from across the globe celebrating the multi-cultural, multi-lingual nature of the school and London as a whole.

To help everyone celebrate European Day of Languages, here is a PDF guide to saying “hello” in all the EU’s native languages and some more besides.

Should Italian use English words?

No visitor to Italy can miss the stream of adverts using English phrases, or the now ubiquitous “il weekend”. Today, the BBC news site has a report on a study in Italy about the infiltration of English into Italian.

The study by the respected Dante Alighieri Society [website in Italian] shows that many feel it has gone too far. In fact, the authors call on Italians to reject what they dub “Anglitalianco”. How successful they will be remains to be seen, when even those stalwart defenders of their language, the French, have come to accept borrow words such as “le shopping”.

But the question that occurs to me is: how far should we “defend” a language? Language is a living thing, it grows and borrows quite naturally. English itself is littered with words borrowed from other languages and continues to adopt them. So is insisting on “fine settimana” instead of weekend resisting linguistic imperialism or being a stick in the mud? I don’t know the answer, but as so often with language, it’s a fascinating debate.

Signs of confusion

A newspaper snippet the other day set me thinking about the problems any copywriter or translator can face in getting a wording which is not only accurate but also pleases their client.

It seems Tesco have been having problems with the signs at their express checkouts which are deigned for customers with a small amount of shopping. They have long raised hackles among the grammatically pedantic with the sign’s wording of “10 items or less”. Some argued the signs should read “10 items or fewer” which, while it might be technically correct, sounds clumsy.

Tesco asked various English experts which was right but got contradictory advice. In the end they consulted the Plain English campaign who suggested “up to 10 items” – and this is what Tesco will be using in future.

Sadly, as many people have pointed out, this introduces a new confusion as to whether exactly 10 items is acceptable or not!

If experts in English grammar cannot agree on the wording for something so simple as a sign, it is little wonder matters get even more complicated when another language is involved. Translators often find clients changing their translation to something they feel happier with – regardless of whether the original translation was perfectly understandable or not.

The important point is to negotiate a wording that is clear and that both the author and reader take the same meaning from. The only way to do that is see translation and copywriting as a two way process, where communication is the key to refining a final wording.

Is the universal language of football enough?

The lead up to the Beijing Olympics over the past few weeks has meant that the start of the football season was quiet… well, relatively quiet. Being a Charlton fan, I tend to experience a combination of hope and fear as this time of year comes around. Our win against Swansea last week was great, despite the rain. Without dwelling on the Carling Cup, I just hope we can prove the doomsayers wrong and keep up our momentum in the league for the rest of the season. Come on you Reds!!
As Charlton now ply their trade in the Championship for a second season, us fans have had to make several mental adjustments. One of the things our relegation makes you realise is just how international the Premiership has become. The market for professional footballers must be one of the best-known examples of globalisation.
Over the past few decades there’s been a huge increase in foreign managers and foreign players (usually defined as those from outside of the UK and Ireland). Back in 1992, the first weekend of the Premiership saw just 11 foreign players starting on the field. Only 3 teams fielded more than one – Arsenal, Man Utd and Leeds (times really have changed!).
This increase has meant new challenges face both players and managers. Language barriers can be difficult to overcome. When Ranieri gave his first interview in English as the new manger of Chelsea in 2001, he admitted that being unable to speak the language had made a tough job “even tougher”.
There have certainly been some success stories. Since his appointment as manager in 1996, Arsene Wenger has led Arsenal to victories in both the Premiership and the FA cup, while coming painfully close in the Champions League. Likewise, Juande Ramos came to Spurs last season with supposedly only a basic grasp of English and yet pulled them up the table – pausing only to defeat Chelsea to seize the Carling Cup. The SPL hasn’t been immune either, even outside of the “big two”, with the likes of Finnish manager Paatelainen doing a workmanlike job at Hibs.
As a new season – with all its highs and lows – begins, the quality brought to UK football by this internationalisation is definitely enjoyable. The debate will no doubt continue to rage over whether it is a good thing, although few would argue we should follow the example of Malaysia’s total ban. The introduction of foreign players and mangers can certainly have a positive impact on a club, but even with the universal language of football, good communication is still necessary between nationalities both on and off the pitch.


Welcome to the newest addition to our WorldAccent website. In this blog, I intend to talk about more than just professional translation. Of course, as a director of a translation company I have plenty to say on that topic, both from a strategic and a day-to-day fundamentals point of view.

But I am also an adopted Londoner of some 30 years. I am frequently captivated by the variety of thriving communities within London, their history and intermingling of languages.

What’s more, here at WorldAccent we view language not as separate but as a part of the wider world. Our everyday experiences both shape and are shaped by the language we use, and I hope to reflect some of this wider picture.

Translation is the key to language, and language is something that I personally find fascinating. I never cease to be amazed by its sheer diversity. I am always impressed, not only by the methods employed to translate these languages by our professional translators, but by the rapid switching between languages in the office around me.

Welcome to my blog, optimistically entitled “Making Sense”. I hope to bring you something interesting and fresh, and I’m sure that’s possible – after all, language is never stagnant.