Universally Translating in Space

“The Babel fish is small, yellow, leech-like – and probably the oddest thing in the universe. It feeds on brain wave energy, absorbing all unconscious frequencies and then excreting telepathically a matrix formed from the conscious frequencies and nerve signals picked up from the speech centres of the brain, the practical upshot of which is that if you stick one in your ear, you can instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language: the speech you hear decodes the brain wave matrix.”

The anatomy of a Babel fish

In other words, the Babel fish from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy translates the subconscious of the speaker into language the listener understands. It’s just one example of a universal translator in science fiction, where they’re often used by writers to get around the languages and dialect part of world building, but it’s personally one of my favorites. Unlike a mysterious box, device, or computer program, such as those used in Star Trek or Men in Black, which translates from speech to speech, the Babel fish doesn’t try to be realistic by today’s standards and thereby avoids many of the problems that make real time translators so difficult, if not impossible.

It didn’t take long after computers came into existence that researchers began trying to use them for machine translation. “This will be easy!”, they thought, conceptualizing simple word to word translation systems, and not realizing the maze of a problem they were getting themselves into. We have made a lot of progress in the decades since then, and some machine translators, such as google’s, can produce some passable translations between certain languages. (To the students reading this, they still won’t trick your language teacher, so don’t try.) Even so, there is a long way to go between where we are and universal translators, especially real time ones. Besides the typical major problems in MT such as idioms, word order, sparsity of data, and dealing with morphology in general, real time translators will have to process information they don’t have yet. Differences in sentence structure and word order between languages mean that a delay in speech to speech translation is inevitable, which makes realistic translators in movies/tv feel a bit too clunky.

This is why I’m such a fan of the Babel fish, and the Tardis’ translation matrix from Doctor Who for that matter, which also uses a type of telepathic field. They get around a lot of the issues we run into in MT simply by taking advantage of worldbuilding. Does it take some suspension of disbelief to accept a telepathic fish you stick in your ear which excretes translated speech? Sure, but it fits right in with the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’s universe and style, and instead of being just close enough to the truth to be irritating, it’s just crazy enough to think, hey, that just might work!

Thanks for reading! The Linguist List depends on donations from readers like you to continue providing resources and updates in the world of linguistics as well as to help fund the graduate students who run it. Please consider donating to our Fund Drive so that we can continue posting content for you.

Thanks again!

Your Linguist List team

Linguistics in the Adriatic

Hello again Linguist Listers,

Sorry to keep you waiting. It turns out that Monday was the American Holiday: Labor Day. Our first post in the geoling series will be from our beloved moderator, Dr. Malgorzata Cavar. Without further ado, here is the piece:

View of the Adriatic Coast from Kotor bay in Montenegro

Imagine you spend some nice time on the Adriatic coast and want to take a break from sailing, diving, kite surfing or perhaps rather from eating the specialties of the local cuisine. You think there is nothing for a linguist here? A short look at Geoling proves this wrong. There are a couple of universities with linguistic programs – in Padova, Nova Gorica, Trieste and Zadar. And just this summer… In July the conference “Perspectives on Linguistic Diversity” took place at the University of Rijeka. If we drive a little east, to Banja Luka, Aug 10 was the last day of the EGG summer school (Eastern Generative Grammar), a summer school with over 20 years of tradition. In September, the University of Pula hosts International Symposium: Japanese Language Learning for New Generations, and at the University of Rijeka there is the meeting of the European Society for Philosophy & Psychology. Also in September, The Summer School of the Società Italiana di Glottologia will be held at the University of Udine and you can continue with the annual convention of Società Italiana di Glottologia in October in Macerata. If you are in Venice in October you can stop by the Language, Gender and HaTe Speech conference. Next year in May a conference on E-Dictionaries and E-Lexicography will meet in Zagreb at the Institute of Croatian Language and Linguistics. And in summer next year, morphologists will meet in Slovenia and phonologists – in Italy… Go and check out your travel destination on GeoLing today.


– Dr. M. Cavar and the LINGUIST List Team

Vacationing, the Linguistic Way

Cape Town, South Africa

Hello Linguist Listers,

The summer, along with our fund drive premiums, has come to an end. However, it’s never too early (or late) to begin planning your next vacation and as fellow linguists what better way to take a vacation than to visit a beautiful locale that just so happens to be rich with “linguistic opportunities.” Considering these facts, one might ask “How can I find such a place?” Well, our geoling service is perfect for the job. Not only does it provide an intuitive map view of the world but it also allows you to filter events based on what you’re interested in: summer schools, conferences, internships, or even jobs if you are interested in a longer term stay. On Monday, we will begin posting a few examples of these places for your enjoyment. In the meantime, have a great weekend!


– The LINGUIST List Team

Linguistics and Pop-Culture: Atlantis: The Lost Empire

Hello LINGUIST List readers and subscribers!

Following this year’s Fund Drive theme we’re going to take a look at the movie Atlantis: The Lost Empire, an animated Disney movie from 2001. This movie was one of my all time favorites as a child, I even had a Barbie of the main character. In this movie Milo James Thatch, voiced by Micheal J. Fox, is a linguist and cartographer at the Smithsonian Institute. He believes that he can find The Shepherd’s Journal, which is an ancient manuscript that contains directions to Atlantis. It is safe to say that this movie is likely the first time I ever heard of linguistics and maybe watching this movie as much as I did primed me to be a linguist. Atlantis: The Lost Empire was briefly mentioned by our editor Sarah Robinson in her awesome ConLangs series here on our blog because this movie contains a ConLang: Atlantean.

This movie starts out with Atlantean dialogue with English subtitles, the scene is the destruction of the city and what the citizens do to preserve what they can of Atlantis resulting in it being hidden from the rest of the world. After the opening scene we see Milo, who while at work dwells in the boiler room (I feel like this is par for the course for a linguist, yeah?), describing a translation error of an Old Norse text. Milo is criticized for his research on Atlantean and is not taken seriously, which leads to him being hired to go on an expedition to find the city of Atlantis. The person who hires Milo exclaims that the crew is complete except that they need an expert in gibberish, aka Atlantean. Does this feel familiar anyone?

Here we see Milo, in his boiler room office, correcting his translation error about where The Shepherd’s Journal is located from ‘Ireland’ to ‘Iceland’. It turns out that it was located in Iceland.

Atlantean script is prevalent throughout the movie. Until the expedition crew gets to Atlantis, the script is mainly seen in The Shepherd’s Journal, which was found by the expedition crew on a previous expedition. Upon arriving in Atlantis, Milo discovers that Atlanteans can speak multiple languages and he hypothesizes that Atlantean must be based on a root dialect like The Tower of Babel. Milo explains the grammatical system of Atlantean by saying:

…if you deconstruct Latin, you overlaid it with some Sumerian, throw in a dash of Thessalonian you’d be getting close to their grammatical structure.”

Here is Milo Thatch studiously looking over The Shepherd’s Journal.


It turns out that Milo is the only one who can read Atlantean because the knowledge of how to read Atlantean was lost in The Great Flood that ruined city. Milo helps the main Atlantean character Kida, voiced by Cree Summer, translate ancient Atlantean murals throughout the city to help return Atlantis to its former glory. Not only can Milo read and translate Atlantean, on the fly I might add, but he can also speak it. When speaking with Kida in Atlantean he asks how is accent is, which I’m sure every linguist reading this has done with a native speaker. The addition of this small detail was very much appreciated. For those interested, she said Milo’s accent was “boorish, provincial, and you speak it through your nose”.

The Atlantean language developed for this movie was created by Marc Okrand, who is also responsible for the creation of Klingon. Okrand created Atlantean by including a large inventory of Indo-European words and Atlantean can be described as being highly agglutinative. Inspiration for Atlantean was drwn from Sumerian and North American languages. Atlantean is based on historical reconstructions and is inspired by the fantasy of Atlantis: The Lost Empire. There are two main fictional principles surrounding the creation of the Atlantean language: Atlantean is intended to be a “Tower of Babel language”/”root dialect” of all languages, and Atlantean has existed without change since before 100,000 B.C., which is the First or Second age of Atlantis.

The writing system for Atlantean was created by John Emerson with the help of Marc Okrand and draws its inspiration from ancient alphabetical scripts, Semitic being the main inspiration. There is no capitalization or punctuation in Atlantean, and the character for ‘a’ was created with the intention of being a map of the city. Atlantean is also written using the boustrophedon writing system, so lines are written and read left to right for the first line, and then right to left for the following line, and then back to left to right, etc.

Here is the Atlantean alphabet with some IPA and their numerals.

Since Milo, mentioned the grammatical system of Atlantean I will also mention it briefly. The word order in Atlantean is strictly SOV. Adjectives and nouns that are of genitive case follow the nouns that they modify. Postpositions are the only type of adpositions present in Atlantean. Modal verbs follow the verbs they modify and also take on all personal and aspectual suffixes. In contrast, adverbs come before the verbs they modify. An interrogative particle is also utilized in Atlantean; however, the formation of questions does not affect the word order.

All-in-all, Milo can be chalked up to being considered one of the movie linguist archetypes. He seemed to be more of a translator than a linguist, but the film is still delightful and there were some additions, like the question of the accent that were appreciated as a linguist. Some of the things about Atlantean mentioned in this movie, like that the language has existed without change since 100,000 B.C. is very unrealistic even if this society has existed in isolation since 100,000 B.C. If you haven’t seen Atlantis: The Lost Empire I highly recommend it.

Here at The LINGUIST List we are dedicated to providing you, our readers and subscribers, with knowledge of all things linguistic. This year’s fund drive theme is geared towards discussing how our field is portrayed in media and pop-culture. Thanks to our donors and users we are able to continue to providing you all with information on all things linguistic. Please consider donating here to ensure that we can continue to provide this service to all of you. Thank you!


– The LL Team

(Sources: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atlantis%3A_The_Lost_Empirehttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atlantean_language)

Last Chance for LINGUIST List Fund Drive Premiums!


Have you got your custom LINGUIST List memorabilia?

Women’s Map T-shirt, available at the $150 tier

Did you know that the LINGUIST List offers custom items ranging from stickers to laptop cases? These items are special and limited time tokens of appreciation we offer as a “thank you” to our donors! Depending on donation amount, different tiers of premium are available. Donate $20, and you can snag yourself a stack of sweet LL Logo stickers for your personal items. Readers and Linguists who donate $100 or more can choose a t-shirt or a mousepad, with even cooler shirts and tote bags available to those who donate greater amounts—the solid white LL logo laptop case is available at the $250 tier.

tote bag, available at the $120 tier

These premiums are optional “thank you” tokens from us, not items for sale. It’s our way of letting you know how much we appreciate your support!

So that we can start packing up and sending out premiums to those who have donated so far, we’ve decided to close down premium options this Saturday, August 11. Now’s your last chance to get in on that sweet LL memorabilia—donate here, and select a premium from the dropdown list, if you want to express your love of the global linguistics community with stickers, t-shirts, tote bags, or any of our other sharp-looking options!

White LL Logo Laptop Sleeve, available at the $250 tier

Thanks for all the years of support!

All the best,

–The LL Team

Kraina Lingwistyki

Drodzy lingwiści!

Polska jest bez wątpienia krajem językoznawców. Nieco ponad 150 osób w naszej bazie danych zarejestrowało swój profil, używając adresu w Polsce. Na naszej liście znajduje się 16 programów studiów językoznawczych i 35 instytucji zajmujących się w Polsce językiem i językoznawstwem, które przynajmniej raz umieściły ogłoszenie na LINGUIST List. LINGUIST List opublikowała od swojego początku 618 ogłoszeń o konferencjach językoznawczych w Polsce, w samym roku 2018 –  już 63. Łódź, Kołobrzeg, Kraków, Szklarska Poręba, Białystok, Szczyrk, Poznań, Katowice, Krosno, Krotoszyn, Warszawa, Lublin, Zielona Góra, Konin, Rzeszów, Wrocław, Piła, Dąbrowa Górnicza, Bielsko-Biała gościły w zeszłym roku językoznawców, niektóre z tych miast – wielokrotnie. Z radością informujemy o tej ożywionej działalności.

Czytelnicy w Polsce stanowią poważny procent wszystkich naszych użytkowników, więc zwracam się o pomoc po polsku. LINGUIST List w dużej mierze musi się sama utrzymywać – tylko dwóch z siedmiu (w tej chwili) redaktorów otrzymuje wynagrodzenie z funduszy naszego uniwersytetu, moderatorzy to wolontariusze, natomiast reszta działalności utrzymywana jest z darowizn i z tego, co wypracujemy. Dochód uzyskujemy z ogłoszeń o pracy i od wydawców, którzy poprzez LINGUIST List informują nas o nowych publikacjach w językoznawstwie, oraz z reklam. Jeśli chcemy jednak utrzymać kontrolę nad treściami, które publikujemy, nie możemy polegać wyłącznie na dochodzie z płatnych ogłoszeń. Z drugiej strony nie chcemy pobierać opłat za dostęp od czytelników, bo uważamy, że każdy ma prawo do informacji potrzebnej do rozwoju zawodowego i brak zasobów finansowych nie powinien być powodem wykluczenia ze wspólnoty akademickiej. Co nam pozostaje, to prosić o wsparcie tych, którzy mogą sobie na to pozwolić. Mamy rocznie prawie 3 miliony wizyt na naszej stronie internetowej (http://linguistlist.org)  (ponad  1,5 miliona indywidualnych czytelników). Prawie 75,000 ludzi śledzi LINGUIST List na Facebooku, Twitterze, Google+ i LinkedIn. Jeśli każdy użytkownik LINGUIST List, który może sobie na to pozwolić, wsparłby nas pięcioma dolarami,  szybko zebralibyśmy sumę potrzebną na to, żeby funkcjonować do następnej wiosny bez groźby, że w międzyczasie staniemy się niewypłacalni. Jeśli zależy Wam na tym, żeby LINGUIST List kontynuowała swoja działalność, bardzo prosimy o pomoc.

Z wyrazami szacunku i serdecznymi pozdrowieniami z upalnego Bloomington (IN)

– Małgosia Cavar

Checkpoint Complete!

Hello Linguist Listers,

Happy Tuesday and thank you for helping us get past the 80% checkpoint!

We’re currently sitting at 80.49% of our total goal and are hoping to make it to the next checkpoint: 90%. In total we still need $7804.63 but only $3804.63 to reach the next checkpoint. These numbers may seem a bit hefty but donations as small $3 and 5$ help move us closer to our goal and, in turn, closer to some new updates we have in the pipeline for all of you in the linguistics community. If you haven’t already, you should go back and check out our linguistics and pop culture posts as well. We have some good reads!

As usual, thanks for taking the time to keep up with all of us here at The LINGUIST List!

The LINGUIST List Team

Letters from Lwin

Dear LINGUIST List subscribers,

Min Ga La Ba! I am Lwin Moe, a former programmer at LINGUIST List. I am currently writing this letter from my hometown in Burma (also known as Myanmar) with some limited Internet access to humbly ask for your continued support of LINGUIST List: https://funddrive.linguistlist.org/

As some of you might have noticed, I am no longer working for LINGUIST List even though I am sometimes helping Peace (our student programmer) remotely (with not-so-great Internet access in my hometown). I just want to let you know that I miss working for LL.

During the past 5 years or so, Damir and I migrated and upgraded our old server technology to current and more up-to-date setup with a limited personnel (mostly the two of us flexing our muscles). It was a lot of work since our crew was a lot smaller than a decade or so ago. But we did it.

I would like to plead with you to continue the support so that the new crew can continue upgrading the outdated web interface with the new one, and more user-friendly submission form.

In the next few weeks, I will be moving to Canada for a new chapter of my life. I wish the readers and LINGUIST List all the best in the coming years!

And please do not forget to support!

Thank you,
Lwin Moe

New Look, Same Great Content

Hello LINGUIST Listers!

As you may have noticed, our issues now have a new look and feel! The web development team has been hard at work these past few months converting all of our issues from the old, vintage style to a much cleaner and modern layout, and yesterday we finally rolled out the new issue generator to ensure all future postings use this new layout! You can check these out for yourselves by clicking on any of our issues here. The new layout style also means that issues are mobile-friendly and easier to read!

For our more tech-minded readers, you may also be interested to hear that our new layout also incorporates the latest standards for html tagging. This means that in the future, cataloguing and organizing issues will be much easier to automate. In other words, searching our site will be that much easier!

As always, we at the LINGUIST List are committed to serving and distributing high quality, relevant linguistic knowledge from around the world. All our issues are still being edited and posted by the same great team of LINGUIST List student editors.


Linguistically yours,
The LINGUIST List Team

The 80% Checkpoint

Hello again Linguist List Subscribers!

Thanks for stopping in to check out our blog. We’re still hovering around the 80% mark but we need your help to get over this bit of a hump. Our exact completion percentage is 79.26%. To reach 80% we only need $297.17. Please help us out by donating what you can (kudos to anyone who donates that exact amount). We are still working hard on improving the website for all of you so you can look forward to some cool new features in the near future!

If you can’t donate directly then consider using Amazon Smile. When you use Amazon Smile to shop online, Amazon donates a portion of your purchase to the eLinguistics Foundation, the non-profit behind the LINGUIST List. This helps us out and doesn’t cost you a thing. You can check out Amazon Smile here.


The LINGUIST List Team