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insight by wfx

Welcome to Wordwide FX's new enterprise!

Insight by WFX is a synthesis of our passion for languages and the financial markets. Here you will find technical and fundamental analyses from our clients, media partners and contributors in different languages, as well as discussions on languages and translation. And of course we will keep you updated on what is happening inside Wordwide FX Financial Translations. Hope you enjoy it! Greetings from the Wordwide FX team!

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10/06/2019

Barcelona's Casa de Canvi: The First Regulator in History

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By Wordwide FX Financial Translations

The first "regulator" in history was established in Barcelona in 1401. That year, a bank of exchange and of common and safe deposit was established under the authority of the municipal magistracy, that ended up working as a de facto regulator of commerce and bankers. The Casa de canvi ("house of exchange" in Catalan) was the first entity of this kind in Europe, as the Bank of St. George at Genoa was not established until 1407. In this kind of common bank communities and individuals kept commodities and cash in any currency and credit was given according to the value of each project.

The late 14th century and early 15th century was a time of crisis all around Europe. The plague had killed a big deal of population - Barcelona had 50.000 inhabitants in 1348 and c. 28.000 in 1400. The plague attacked a population that knew nothing of hygiene and sanitary conditions and that could not defend themselves from an unknown virus. The church blamed the Jewish population on grounds that they refused to adhere to the "true faith". Commerce, external and internal, was paralyzed. Thus the bank of exchange was born as a means to boost, regulate, and protect maritime commerce. 

The goals of the Taula de canvi were to fund trade initiatives that because of the hardships of the time did not have or could not find funding, and to regulate trade and control bankers that committed fraud or other offences. If such a thing happened, the responsible for the Casa de canvi smashed that banker's money-changing table with a hammer and the offender was taken to justice. It was at that time that the word "bankruptcy" (that literally means, "break a bank" - the word "bank" meant originally "bench", "table") became popular.

Below, Barcelona in the14th century. From George Braun and Frans Hogenberg, Civitates Orbis Terrarum (1572). Source, Viquipèdia.

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06/06/2019

Language of the Week: Hebrew, the Revived Language of the Ibri

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By Wordwide FX Financial Translations

Many people think that we linguists speak lots of languages. While this is not usually true, it is a fact that we are curious about all of them - that is certainly my case.

I took up Hebrew a while ago when I was a student at the University of Barcelona. This was my fisrt contact with a Semitic language, and I can say I really enjoyed it. My instructor, professor Jaime Vándor, who repretably passed away in 2014, fled from the Nazis in 1939 and seeked refuge in Hungary. In 1947, he was reunited with his father in Barcelona, together with his brother and their mother.

Hebrew, a West Semitic language, is the only living Canaanite language left. The name Ibri, from which the word Hebrew derives, was one of the name of the Israelite people. The script is derived from Paleo-Hebrew, the writing system used by Israelites in the historic kingdoms of Israel and Judah in the 10th century BCE, and the script as we know it today was already used in the 5th century BC. Hebrew is the only successful example of a revived dead language. By 200-400 AD is was almost extint, replaced by Aramaic and Greek, both lingua franca at that time, but it survived into the Middle Ages in Jewish liturgy, rabbinic literature, Jewish commerce and poetry. In the 19th century it was revived as a spoken and literary language. 

The responsible for the revival of Hebrew was Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (1858-1922). Born in Belarus, his first language was Russian, so his Hebrew was highly influenced by this language in grammar, lexicon, and style. This special circumstance was reflected in his work on the revival of Hebrew, which now has a "Slavic flavor", like professor Vandor used to say. 

Today, Hebrew is spoken by around 9 million people, 5 of which are native speakers, and it is the oficial language of Israel.

Photo below: Eliezer Ben-Yehuda in his desk in Jerusalem, 1912.

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23/05/2019

Language of the Week: Icelandic, Viking Speech Preserved

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By Wordwide FX Financial Translations

As a lover of Germanic languages and having had the chance to learn some German and Swedish, I've always been curious about Icelandic, the language of the North Atlandic island discovered and populated in the 7th century by Norsemen from different points of Scandinavia, most notably Flóki Vilgerðarson, one of the main characters of the TV show Vikings.  

With roughly 560.000 native speakers, Icelandinc (islenska) stands out among Scandinavian languages for being the closest to Old Norse, the speech of the Vikings. True, also Danish, Faroese, Norwegian, and Swedish, derive from Old Norse, but due to geogrgaphical isolation Icelandic has retained lots of features of their ancestor's speech, to the extent that Old Norse is also known among the linguistics community as "Old Icelandic" (even though, technically, Old Icelandic should be synonym with Old West Norse). The conservation of the language means that modern Icelanders are able to read the Eddas, the Sagas, and other classic Old Norse literary works created in the Viking period between the 10th and the 13th centuries. 

It is funny to think that modern Icelandic could be mutually intelligible with a language spoken so many centuries ago (at least partially, because although the written language remains quite close, the pronunciation is not the same), but it is no longer so with the other contemporary Scandinavian languages, not even with it's closest relative, Faroese.

The main difference between Icelandic and the other Scandinavian languages is that Icelandic keeps many grammatical features of other ancient Germanic languages, most notably the inflection system. While Norwegian, Danish, and Swedish have lost their inflections, Icelandic retains four cases: nominative, accusative, dative, and genitice. Also, like Old English (or modern German), nouns have 3 grammatical genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter. 

Icelandic has also retained with old letters that used to be used to write Old English and Old Norse, but that the other Germanic languages have dropped: Þ, þ (þorn, modern English "thorn") and Ð, ð (, anglicised as "eth" or "edh"), representing the voiceless and voiced "th" sounds (as in English thin and this), respectively. 

The good health of the Icelandic language is in charge of Ari Páll Krinstinsson, head of the Ari Magnússon institute for Icelandic studies (in the photo, below). Some people fear that, due to the low demography, Icelandic will die out soon. Jón Gnarr, the comedian who became the mayor of Rejkjavik, was quoted on The WOold in Words in 2015: "I think Icelandic is not going to last. Probably in this century we will adopt English as our language. I think it's unavoidable". Ari Magnússon also has the same fears: "English is everywhere, from the moment we wake up untill we die". The language is also closely linked to the feeling of Iceland as a nation: "If we lost the Icelandic language there will be no Icelandic nation", said poet Krinstinsson, a feelilng shared by speakers of many minority languages.  

 

 

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22/03/2019

"Lenten ys come with love to toune..."

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By Wordwide FX Financial Translations

Yesterday in the Northern hemisphere we waved so long to winter and welcomed spring. at least in countries using the astronomical and solar reckoning, because in others countries, like Sweden, the beginning of spring is defined as the first occasion when the average daytime temperature exceeds zero degrees for seven consecutive days, so typically spring comes later in the north than in the south.

In early medieval Engand the usual word for this season was "Lenten", a word that comes from the shortening of "lengthing days" and which Dutch still keeps ("lente"). The word "spring", that didn't catch on until the 16th century, is related to the verb "spring", which in English means "to move or jump suddenly" and in Swedish it means "to run" ("springa"). If you have ever felt that in this season everything seems to move faster, the Germanic languages had already captured this feeling from the very beginning.  

In Old English the word was "springan", meaning "to leap, burst forth, fly up; spread, grow", and further back, in the protolanguage shared by all Germanic tribes, the word was *sprengan (the asterisk means it is a reconstructed form), source also of Old Norse and Old Frisian springa, Middle Dutch springhen, Old High German springan, and German springen). We can even trace the origin to the times of Indoeuropean with the form *sprengh, meaning "to move, hasten, spring", source also of Sanskrit sprhayati "desires eagerly" and Greek sperkhesthai "to hurry".

In other languages, the season name is related to the word "fore" or "early", like in German Frühling (from Middle German vrueje, "early",) or in Swedish "vår" ("before", related to Dutch "voorjaar", literally "fore-year".

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05/06/2018

Old Norse and Old English: The languages in History Channel “Vikings”

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By Wordwide FX Financial Translations

I recently started watching History Channel Vikings for the second time. It is a good show, highly recommended, that tells the story of various famous Viking leaders more or less contemporary but often with an age gap that would have made impossible for them to share deeds and adventures. Ragnar Lothbrok, for instance, is a semi legendary figure thought to have died around 860, whereas Rollo, founder of Normandy, is a histotical leader that lived between 845 and 930. But I’m not going to speak about them here – there is plenty of information out there for those who wish to learn more. I’d like to speak a little about two aspects of the show that fascinate me as a linguist and as a lover of historical linguistics: the occasional use in the show of Anglo-Saxon (Old English) and Old Norse (among other languages that have been long gone), and the meaning of the names of some of the characters, some of which are still used nowadays but people are unaware of their origin (part II of this post).

The languages of the Germanic tribes

Around 100 AD, the Germanic tribes moved out of southern Scandinavia and northern Germany to adjacent lands. The Saxons and the Angles settled in Celtic Britain, controlled by romanized Briton tribes until the sixth century, the time when the historical King Arthur lived - if he ever did so (Arthur would have been a Briton chieftain uniting Celtic and Roman tribes to fight the Saxon invaders). Other tribes stayed in Scandinavia. All of these tribes spoke a language or dialects of a language that we call Proto-Germanic (or Common Germanic) and which was in turn diversified into several dialects. In the Northern countries it got to be Old Norse. In the Anglo-Saxon territories it got to be Old English. The Germanic tribes settling in the British Isles, who spoke basically the same language as their Scandinavian (and German) cousins, got relatively isolated, both socially and linguistically, for 200 years, until they got in touch again during the Viking era. In those 200 years, the two dialects of course underwent some changes (Old English is more syntactically like German than like Old Norse, although Modern English is more syntactically like Swedish than to German), but scholars believe they remained mutually intelligible to a great extent.

These are two main old languages we can hear on Vikings: Old Norse and Old English. Old Norse is the ancestor of the Scandinavian languages and Anglo-Saxon is the ancestor of English (this is a deliberate oversimplification, since how modern-day English got to be is a quite complex matter).

The Vikings and the Anglo-Saxons needed no interpreter to understand each other

So, Old English and Old Norse were cousin languages, but in the show we often see that the Vikings and the Anglo-Saxons need interpreters to communicate with each other. In Ragnar’s second journey to England, the Viking longships drift to the Wessex coast where they are met by a group of Anglo-Saxon soldiers. They try to speak to each other, but to no avail. How realistic is that? The mutual intelligibility of the two languages is a topic of study in historical linguistics and it is believed that differences between the two Common Germanic dialects (Old English in England and Old Norse in Scandinavia) derived from that 200 year isolation period would not have posed a problem of intelligibility. The literature of this period supplements these notions of mutual intelligibility. Therefore, even though linguistics (and specially historical linguistics) is not an exact science and there are obvious syntactic differences between the two languages, we believe that Ragnar Lothbrock and his Anglo-Saxon friend, the monk Athelstan, would have been able to speak to each other quite well.

As a testimonial from those times, the author of the thirteenth century Icelandic Gunnlaugs saga ormstungu makes a reference to the spoken English language in the time of Anglo-Saxon King Ethelred (986 – 1016 AD):

Ein var þá tungu á Englandi sem í Nóregi ok í Danmörku.
“One was the tongue in England as in Norway and in Denmark”

(Quote from Old English and Old Norse: An Inquiry into Intelligibility and Categorization Methdology. Master's Thesis by Eric Martin Gay. University of South Carolina - Columbia (2014).

 

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10/05/2018

Of ‘standard’ languages and ‘impure’ dialects

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By Wordwide FX Financial Translations

Via Livemint

Why a certain variant of the language came to be regarded as the ‘standard’ and why its variants were demoted to ‘dialect’ status is a product of history and politics

The socio-linguist and scholar Max Weinreich once said, “A shprach eez a deealekt mit an armee un flot”, which translates to, “A language is a dialect with an army and navy.” The original sentence is in Yiddish and, in that fact, lies a delicious irony. 

Yiddish originated during the ninth century in central Europe, providing the Ashkenazi Jewish community with a vernacular that was largely Germanic-based and incorporated elements from Hebrew and Aramaic (incidentally, Aramaic was Jesus Christ’s mother tongue). The influence of the Slavic languages (Russian, Polish, Czech, Slovak, Serbo-Croatian and others) and traces of the Romance languages (Spanish, Portuguese and others) is also discernible in this language. It also has a fairly extensive literature. 

The irony is that many remain unconvinced about the extent of the linguistic independence of Yiddish from the languages that it absorbed. It’s been said that Yiddish is actually just broken German and more of a linguistic mish-mash than a true language. In other words, according to some, Yiddish is itself a dialect…of German!

In popular telling, a dialect is viewed as something of a “lesser” language. When we speak of a dialect, we sometimes mean a mere spoken language (without a script) and sometimes, a variant of a standard language which, while resembling the standard, also has independent elements of its own that make it different from the standard language. 

In reality, language and dialect are ambiguous terms, terms that scholars have difficulty applying to specific situations. The ambiguity stems from the fact that why a certain variant of the language came to be regarded as the “standard” and why its variants were demoted to “dialect” status is a product of history and politics. It has little to do with any special features of the so-called “standard” language. 

Standardization is a process by which a language is codified and this involves the development of dictionaries, spelling forms, a grammar and possibly, a literature. It involves people reaching an agreement and developing a “model” language, a model that people aspire to achieve, even if they have not achieved it at the time of its creation. 

Standard English essentially developed from the language (actually, dialect) that was spoken in London, which is where the court moved to (from Winchester) after the Norman Conquest in 1066. This happened organically over the course of several centuries and, gradually, a standard English came to be accepted as the norm. The many variants of English like Cockney, Scots, Yorkshire English are compared to the standard and termed as dialects. 

In the case of French, the development of standard French was orchestrated by the government. In 1635, Cardinal Richelieu, the chief minister to King Louis XIII, established the Academie Francaise. Over the next few centuries, the Academie oversaw the creation of a standard French even as its many variants stubbornly defied the Academie’s attempts at standardization, well into the nineteenth century when centuries of language reform coupled with the iron hand of government-mandated language use rules ran the old dialects into the ground. Standard French was soon on its way. 

Among the more interesting attempts at standardization has been that of Turkish. The modern state of Turkey was formed in 1922 with Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk) as president. Atatürk then initiated a series of political, legal, religious, cultural, social, and economic policy changes to transform the new Republic of Turkey into a secular, modern nation state. The adoption of the Latin alphabet and the purging of foreign words was part of Atatürk’s programme of modernization. 

The Turkish Language Association (TDK) was established in 1932 and one of its tasks was to initiate language reform by replacing words of Arabic and Persian origin with Turkish equivalents. By banning the usage of imported words in the press, the association succeeded in removing several hundred foreign words from the language. Many words, newly derived from Turkic roots, were introduced to the language. Equally, Old Turkish words, which had not been used for centuries, were pressed back into active service. A new Turkish thus became the standard. 

Owing to this sudden change in the language, older and younger people in Turkey started to differ in their vocabularies. While the generations born before the 1940s tend to use the older terms of Arabic or Persian origin, the younger generations use new expressions. Atatürk himself, in a lengthy speech to the Parliament in 1927, used a style of Ottoman Turkish which has become unintelligible to later listeners and hence it has had to be “translated” three times into modern Turkish: first in 1963, again in 1986, and, most recently, in 1995.

In similar fashion, in the subcontinent, a Sanskritized Hindi and a Persianized Urdu were “created” from the Hindustani base that was the foundation for both languages. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, “Hindi” was willed into existence by Hindu zealots keen on a language purged of Muslim influences. The Hindustani that was spoken in the bazaars of north India was the vehicle chosen for this dream and was purged of its Arabo-Persian words, which were replaced with Sanskrit equivalents. This new creation was held up as standard Hindi. 

Other allied languages like Maithili, Bhojpuri, Braj and many others, many of which were centuries old and had extensive bodies of literature, were then cast as “dialects” of Hindi. The fantastic claim that such a Sanskritized Hindi is likely to have existed in the past before the Muslim invasions was made and the language thus endowed with a history that was nothing more than a purloining of the histories of its “dialects” and more than a dollop of imagination.

Parallely, Urdu was purged of “polluting” Hindu influences. Turkic, Arabic and Persian words were preferred to words from Indian languages and an acceptable Urdu was willed into existence much in the same fashion as an acceptable Hindi was. Both languages jostled for acceptance and legitimacy among their target audience and aspired for “purity” even as the common man continued—and continues to this day—to use what in effect must be rightly termed “Hindustani” (known as Hindi in India and Urdu in Pakistan). In effect, Sanskritized Hindi claims a history that isn’t really its own while Persianized Urdu, on the other hand, chooses not to dwell on that history much, choosing instead to look to Persian and Arabic as its forerunners.

To return to Yiddish, its lesser status was affirmed when the state of Israel chose the classical language of Hebrew to be its state language, ignoring the claims of Yiddish. When Israel was born in 1948, Yiddish did come to possess an army and navy, but lacked the “divinity” that Hebrew—the language of the Jewish scriptures—had. Hebrew, which was effectively a dead language when this decision was made, then underwent a spectacular revival and is now a widely spoken language in Israel. It is the only instance of a dead language that has undergone a complete revival.

A standard language is thus a product of many things. In the common telling, it has a hallowed status. In reality, its status is a mere accident. Armies, academies, the hand of god and other things are what take humble dialects to the dizzying heights of “standard” status.

 

Below,  Hebrew is the only instance of a dead language that has undergone a complete revival. Photo: iStock

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