Hacio’r Iaith – what it is, why it is and what happened (monster post!)

A group of us did a free, open event in Aberystwyth on 30th January 2010 called Hacio’r Iaith. It was fun. I learned things. It was based on the BarCamp format. You can use the format to have a conference on any subject and many people do. Some people call it an unconference.

The reasons we organised an offline event should be obvious. A chance to shake hands and consume body aroma content, the only remaining experiences not yet available online.

Around 40 people came. That number seemed about right for a one-day event, I didn’t even get a chance to talk to everyone properly.

One of the main aims was to get people together to talk about shared interests, so on that basis it was almost bound to be a success after the second or third person said they’d come along. When you know people will get talking there is no need for anxiety, even if the wifi access goes down (it was fine actually), the food doesn’t arrive (it did and was splendid – thanks chefs and sponsors!) or the firewall doesn’t allow FTP access (unfortunately it didn’t, but that was a mere glitch and chance to learn something).

Keywords will be in bold here because this is getting long…

The offline component of the event is finished. For a few reasons it’s a pity you can’t access big chunks of the event now. You really had to be there maaan. Saying all that, it’s still open to an extent because we purposefully made it a hybrid of offline and online. Several web-based backchannels existed before and during the meet-up: the event wiki, the group blog, Twitter messages, videos on YouTube and photos/images on Flickr.

These backchannels persist afterwards, which increases the value of doing the event for years to come. That goes for potentially everyone on the web (especially now that Google Translate can get you the gist of the Welsh in several other languages).

These are some of the benefits of the social web. These benefits are seldom discussed by the mainstream media, incidentally!

I want other people to see all this stuff if they search for related things. I know there are other people who attended who want it to have an influence. On that note, not every problem is a problem of information. (That’s the second Neil Postman link in this post. Consider that chin thoroughly stroked.) But some problems are related to information. For instance, taking abundant information and converting it into something useful is something we can step up. It’s something that could benefit Wales, where I live and most of the attendees live.

I’d like to see more BarCamps, unconferences and so on happening in Wales. Incidentally that’s part of the reason why I’ve chosen to write this in English, to give the non-Welsh speaking people in Wales some access to the proceedings. And other people around the world who might be interested.

As far as I know, Hacio’r Iaith on Saturday was the first BarCamp-style event to be conducted in Cymraeg, the Welsh language. The subject matter? Web and technology as it relates to the Welsh language. Those things – language and subject matter – don’t necessarily follow. Naturally people discuss their language in their own language. But a group could organise a BarCamp about any subject and do it in the Welsh language. Absolutely any subject.

For nearly everyone who attended it’s their number one language for everything they do daily and has been for as long as they remember.

I can only talk about the sessions I attended. Everything is from my perspective!

The first session was about tools for Welsh learners, including a website and series of online lessons called Say Something In Welsh build with phpBB, an iPhone application called Learn Welsh and some ideas for mobile app “flashcards” suggested by a tutor. We talked about the conflicting difficulties of making apps available to all mobile users, even if they are web-based apps running on mobile. I asked Aran from Say Something In Welsh a question about open content and search engines. The site is a private “walled garden” for a number of reasons related to maintaining a community of learners, but it’s free to register to join. (UPDATE: See Aran’s comment below for more about this.)

I then stayed for the Metastwnsh podcast recording and live web stream. Metastwnsh is a web and technology blog with several contributors. There was some discussion of gadgets and some jokes. My favourite part was a discussion of how the language choice of our online posts and conversations can differ from that of our offline choice. In particular, Twitter was cited as an example of a tool which first language Welsh speakers sometimes opt to use in English, for many reasons – some understandable. It was suggested that perhaps in some cases they file it under an “English language part of their brain”, alluding to the possibility that bilingual people associate some spaces or platforms with specific languages. So the effect of the platform is not necessarily “neutral”, or doesn’t remain that way. (I’ve been building a list of Welsh speakers on Twitter, including learners. Every person who is on the list can see the list and access all the other members of the list. It’s a way of strengthening the network and thereby, potentially, the impulse to post in the Welsh language should people wish to do so. Linguistic diversity leads to other forms of diversity and improves the internet as a whole in my opinion.)

I popped next door to catch the very end of a presentation about Llen Natur, a website about wildlife and nature. It has a dictionary of species, maps and photos.

Free lunch was not something I had insisted on, especially as it increases the admin for such events. But Rhodri ap Dyfrig was convinced it was possible and fixed up catering and covered it with money from some of the sponsors. For me it was a valuable part of the event, meeting some very talented people I’d only previously known online.

It was my turn next – purely because I’d volunteered to speak, as had everyone. So the title was “FyWordPressCyntaf.com – does dim angen profiad o flaen llaw” (which translates as MyFirstWordPress.com – no previous experience necessary). I wanted to talk about WordPress as a blogging and general site CMS, downloadable from wordpress.org with no coding necessary. It gave me the chance to talk about free software (unambiguously rendered as meddalwedd rydd in Welsh, free software as in freedom) with a bit about how localised code and themes are available for Welsh (but, as I also added, we can always do with more). Unlike the audience, Welsh isn’t my first language so I had a job explaining some of the concepts. I achieved my main objective though, which was to get a bare bones installation of WordPress running to show how quick and easy it can be.

In hindsight it was a little ambitious to shoehorn the mash-up/hack session into the event plan. On the day I ended up putting my talk in the hack session, which came just to mean practical session. Even WordCamp, which I attended last year, was spread over two days – allowing space for team building, pre-planning and the hack session on the second day. At Hacio’r Iaith, I think the initiative and creativity of the attendees to do the hacks could have been there, as well as the capability. But in a day already packed with presentations and to some an unfamiliar format, it became too much to expect. Next time some more practical stuff would be good. I do think a dedicated hack event could work.

We had a quick discussion about making online how-to videos and what subjects to cover. There is plenty of room for how-to videos in Welsh, especially showing non-geeks and normal people how to get the best use of software and the web. The ideas we generated are available to take.

Finally I went to a session on the game Civilization IV and its unofficial Welsh translation, using game mods. Welsh translation of open source games like OpenTTD also came up. I’m not a big gamer but it gave me some ideas…

Video by Sioned Edwards

Çekoslovakyalilastiramadiklarimizdanmissiniz?

This article on “difficult languages” is The Economist at its absolute best.

My title above is Turkish and apparently means “Were you one of those people whom we could not make into a Czechoslovakian?”.

I especially liked the bit about different kinds of “we” in Kwaio, which is spoken in the Solomon Islands. We need something like that in English! That’s “we” as in all of us.

The suggested “hardest” language appears to be the result of some pretty extensive research. Let’s just say there is no mention of Welsh, nor should there be.

(Hat tip: languagehat.com)

Flags are not languages (Easyjet website is wrong)

Easyjet have recently changed their website. Now you get a language selection screen. So far so good I guess (for a website).

But unfortunately instead of just the names of languages, there are flags as well.

The flags on this page may look colourful, but having them there is WRONG.

I’m not being pedantic here. It is simply wrong.

If you don’t get the flag screen when you visit easyjet.com and you want to see it, it may be because of your browser’s language setting. (In Firefox for instance, go to Tools | Options | Content | Languages.)

Failing that, look for and delete a browser cookie that stores Easyjet’s language setting. (In Firefox for instance, go to Tools | Options | Privacy | Show Cookies then search for “easyjet”.)

Here’s a slightly dated but classic web page about flags and languages (summary: don’t).

I’m not going to point out every case of this, but when a big company does it then it’s closer to becoming a de facto standard. It has an influence on other people and companies. This isn’t a particular beef with Easyjet, it’s just a clear example of this problem. My patience here is flagging. Etc.

Google Translate is now instant. But still fun (and dangerous).

Google Translate has already accelerated my Welsh learning. It helps to decipher a daunting piece of text.

Now Google Translate is instant. They changed the interface slightly and it flashes up the equivalent translation as you type. Boy.

In other words you get the same flawed “translations”, now even faster!

Try it for Welsh to English.

Example phrases:
Dw i’n cyfieithu.
Defnyddia yn ofalus.
Gwlad beirdd a chantorion, enwogion o fri

I wish there were a proper online Welsh-to-English dictionary that did instant look-ups. It would take some of the friction out of reading difficult books. Just leave the laptop open, type a difficult word and get the meaning NOW.

Having to click is too slow a method because it breaks the flow of the book. Reaching for a dictionary is even worse. The look-up needs to be as near to the speed of thought as possible.
🙂

I say “proper dictionary” because Google still gets words wrong y’see. It’s based on statistical translation and uses the “most likely” translation based on a corpus of text equivalents in both languages. It also seems to have a limited vocabulary.

And a reminder…

Don’t use it for roadsigns! But you can use it to check the gist of a professional’s translation…

The origins of words, with Sioned Stryd-Cludydd

Mostly, what comes from the mouth of Janet Street-Porter is total bum gravy. This is no exception.

“We had a Welsh-speaking budgie. My mother missed Wales very much. I don’t feel Welsh at all. There’s no Welsh words for anything modern.”

Street-Porter is one of those people who enjoys a level of media coverage disproportionate to her level of ability or insight. (Incidentally people like this are certainly not worth protesting against, don’t waste your time. Maybe a quick throwaway blog post though…)

It did make me think how someone can really struggle if they attempt to pass comment on things they know very little about. And I figured, it’s at least a good chance for me to learn more Welsh words.

So if you have any good modern words, feel free to comment. And together let’s make a page on the INTERNET!

Modern means anything of, relating to, or characteristic of the present or the immediate past. But no use being ultra-strict about it.

Here are some modern Welsh words, each with an English translation.

ailgoedwigo (reafforestation)
ailgylchu (recycling)
amser real (real time)
biohinsoddeg (bioclimatology)
blogiwr (blogger)
chwyddo mewn (zoom in)
cludadwyedd data (data portability)
cnewyllyn (kernel)
cronfa ddata (database)
cyfalaf menter (venture capital)
cyfieithu peirianyddol (machine translation)
cywasgu data (data compression)
datganoli (devolution)
diagram Venn (Venn diagram)
dirwasgiad (recession)
gallu i ryngweithredu (interoperability)
gwefan (website)
meddalwedd (software)
porthiant RSS (RSS feed)
rhesymeg Boole (Boolean logic)
sebon dogfennol (docusoap)
siocled (chocolate)
system weithredu (operating system)
teledu (television)
tewdra (obesity)
troseddwr rhyfel (war criminal)
unben ffasgaidd (fascist dictator)
weldiad bĂ´n (butt weld)

You might sometimes notice the Latin root of some words. Welsh has incorporated words from Latin for many, many centuries, just as English has done with Latin, Greek and French. Seemingly “civilised” Welsh words, particularly certain legal concepts which might be assumed to derive from Latin, can often date from pre-Roman times. Read John Davies A History Of Wales!

Globalisation can sometimes result in many different languages all adopting the same, or a similar, word for something. I’m thinking of “chocolate” in different languages, as well as “blog”, “wiki” and so on.

I heard that teledu was the result of a magazine competition to find a suitable word when it was a new technology (is this true?). It’s based on darlledu (broadcast). Of course, the English word “television” was mocked when it emerged for being half-Greek and half-Latin. And I now mock modern attempts to coin English words like “staycation“, which just catch on anyway.

New Welsh words are frequently invented of course, just as English ones are.

Language is, in the words of George Orwell, “an instrument which we shape for our own purposes”.

Sources: Geiriadur BBC, Geiriadur Llanbedr, Termiadur

What is Hacio’r Iaith?

Hacio’r Iaith is a new and exciting event where we will explore how technology applies to, around and through the Welsh language. That means idea sharing, APIs, mash-ups, localisation, machine translation and so on. The event will be part hack day and part BarCamp (both are well established templates for events worldwide). There will be stuff for beginners as well as geeks. Our pencilled date for Hacio’r Iaith is Saturday 30th January 2010 in Aberystwyth, which is to be confirmed. (I’ll update this post if that changes.) Entry will be very cheap. In Welsh, “yr iaith” means “the language” and “Hacio’r Iaith” means “hack the language”.

Concise and succinct

Sometimes you have to prove things to yourself and this post is here to prove that is possible to be concise and succinct. I’m talking about blogging here but mainly about communication in general. OK, point made.

English words which look like their meaning

So when I was learning to write English, back in the eighties, I used to mix up the symbols b and d. It’s an easy mistake to make – they’re mirror images and I had 24 other squiggles to learn.

Somebody (pretty sure it was my sister or possibly a teacher) helpfully pointed out that the word bed looks like a bed. This was a useful mental reference at the time and remained a curiosity, after the letter confusion ceased to be a problem. Since those early struggles, I have become a happy user of the handwritten English language and have been known to use it on shopping lists, correspondence and tax forms. Yay!

The word bed definitely looks like a classic bed – it has vertical posts at either side and the letter e is the centre.

Much later on I discovered the musician eYe. If you’re a fan of experimental noise music, you’ll know him as a member of cult Japanese band Boredoms. The cool thing about the word eYe is it looks like a pair of eyes with the capital letter Y representing the bridge of the nose. (Cheers to Paul for bringing it to my attention.)

I don’t know if the resemblence between eYe and a pair of eyes is deliberate. But we do know that Boredoms are not your average band, musically and when it comes to novel ideas.

The members of Boredoms are well accustomed to words which resemble their meaning. Japanese has a pictorial writing system called kanji. It also has two writing systems which are not pictorial, but kanji is our favourite today.

Examples of other writing systems which are pictorial:
Chinese
Egyptian hieroglyphics
road signs
washing symbols on garment labels
symbolic buttons on media players.

I tried to think of other examples of this, the bed phenomenon. Here are the next ones I thought of.

I

CD

poo

If the person speaking is a human rather than an animal, machine or deity then I is totally valid. It looks like a human standing up. I prefer a lower-case i because it has a little bobbly head. But you can’t write that in polite company because for some reason I’ve never understood, the personal pronoun must be upper-case. Unlike “me” which can be all lower-case. Where’s e e cummings when you need him?

CD stands for compact disc. But it also stands for a circular shiny thing in our new quest for pictorial English. Obviously the font we choose will have some effect on its resemblence to a physical CD. Can we handle the vertical line down the middle of our CD word? It could be the multi-colour rainbow shiny reflective line. Or it could be part of the “onbody” design as it’s known. I know the letter combination CD isn’t a word but it often behaves like one. It’s on the list.

Poo might cause a problem. It’s valid when it looks like three blobs, the first of which has a streaky line running off it. But not all poos look like that, as any reader of reasonable bathroom experience will know. Let’s add it to our provisional list anyway. Not all beds look like the classic bed, so no use being too strict.

By now I was having some mild fun with this. Which other English words look like their meaning? At first I assumed there would be other people demanding immediate answers to this vital question, as I was. I ran a few Google searches involving “bed”, “words which look like their meaning” and other variations. Not much relevant came up but the original fact about bed. It’s very difficult to do a web search for something if you don’t know what to call it.

Most words in English don’t look like their meaning but there are a few that do. I compiled some lists when I originally starting thinking of this.

As I said earlier, there might be some prior research in this area, but I’m not aware of it. And since I like thinking of names for things, often just for my own use, I gave this subset of English a name. If you combine English and a hieroglyph, surely you get Engglyph.

English + glyph = Engglyph

The word is unique in as much as currently there are zero results for the word Engglyph on Google. It looks foreign, which is nice.

Unfortunately the word Engglyph is not a valid Engglyph word itself. Unlike English, which is! Does English look like its meaning? I think it does. In a linguistic sense, what could be more English than the word English? So English is Engglyph.

I poo English CD. At the moment Engglyph vocabulary is looking a bit limited. But it’s not intended as a useful, complete language.

Here are some more. These are all Engglyph, without a doubt.

Four

sixish

eightish

Four has some letters of unequal shape which nonetheless are four in number. The word four in all lower-case looks different but is equally valid.

It’s a similar thing for the words above with the suffix “ish” – which has to include the precise number too. For example, if I offered you sixish apples then it could actually be six apples. Take it up with a Greek philosopher if you don’t like it. Where’s Plato when you need him?

The following are kind of smug faced ones.

word

noun

letters

These three all relate to written language. I don’t want to dwell on them because this is already getting too meta. We ain’t here for no recursive brainache, we want the pleasing elegance of Engglyph.

All Engglyph words must be nouns.

They have to physically resemble the thing. They can’t be adjectives because adjectives are merely properties of nouns. If you’re interested in words which describe themselves, look up autological words.

That’s a different exercise to Engglyph. Although still a worthwhile and rewarding pursuit. 🙂

Incidentally there are some words which are both Engglyph and autological such as word.

But let’s get back to more examples:

LINES

BOOBs

sA W

look

eels

zig zag

jUg

I am starting to cheat with some of these, by allowing dangly extra bits and streaky lines.

So zig zag has got some zig zags in the zs – but it also has a bunch of extra letters. BOOBs has three pairs of boobs. Just saying. It also has a letter s which disrupts it somewhat. I should say that look is the noun not the verb, as in “a startled look”. The letter o is an eye and the l and k are like sides of a head.

Two household things with handles are the sA W and the jUg. The handles are sA and the g respectively. The j is the spout. After some cheating with capitalisation and spacing, they just about make the list.

There may be Engglyph-style words for other non-pictorial languages (such as your French, Somali, Malay, Welsh or your German). I may get back to you on that.

Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language”, 63 years on

Language is important.

Recently I found George Orwell’s seminal essay Politics and the English Language online, originally written in 1946. I’d heard of it before but never thought to track it down.

Here’s some of the intro:

Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible.

If you’ve ever enjoyed the Birtspeak section in Private Eye or wondered about just what our authorities and our local and national government(s) are really saying and not saying, do read the whole thing. Orwell does an excellent job of dismantling the slippery, cliched communications of our time, without the benefit of actually being alive right now. This is a real issue with real consequences and not just for pedants.

We had the perfect example last month. One way to judge UK chancellor Alistair Darling’s recent Budget would be to calculate its impact on your personal finances. (Disclosure: Darling has indirectly gifted me an approximate saving of ÂŁ71.61 next year according to the BBC’s budget calculator.)

But another way to judge the imaginativeness, the clarity and the originality of the ideas would be to look at the language Darling used. Lucy Kellaway in the Financial Times has examined the Budget speech and calculated a sharp increase in the use of cliched jargon words:

“Stakeholders”, “overarching”, “benchmarking” and “strategic” – all words recently banned by local authorities – were more in evidence this year than last.

It goes on. (In that sometimes annoying and self-defeating habit of newspapers, the entire column is produced verbatim on one web page without guidance – you have to skip past the first section to see it.)

As far as the English language is concerned, I’m always divided about the well meaning work of, say, the Plain English Campaign. Sometimes, more complex ideas do take more specialised words and longer sentences to describe. And often what I read of their earnest work strikes me as a bit precious or reductionist. For instance, from their site:

1. High-quality learning environments are a necessary precondition for facilitation and enhancement of the ongoing learning process.

2. Children need good schools if they are to learn properly.

Does the admittedly clumsy sentence 1 retain any of the full meaning it might have been intended to have when re-expressed as sentence 2, I wonder?