5 Languages Your TV Program Should Have Subtitles In

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    Render illustration of computer keyboard with the print 'Subtitles' on a green button

    There are thousands of languages spoken around the world, about 7,000, to be more precise. Despite the massive amount of languages spoken around the world, most of them are nowhere near common.

    About half of the world, over 3.5 billion people, speak either Mandarin, English, Hindi, or Spanish. A vast majority of the world speaks only one or two languages.

    Whether you’re monolingual, bilingual, or even multilingual, you’ll still be unfamiliar with most languages. A modern solution to this is to use subtitles, which allow us to appreciate the natural sound and intricacies of a language or dialect while also understanding what’s being said.

    The bad news is that most programs, both on TV and online, only offer a few options for subtitles. We’ll talk about some of the languages that should be covered by subtitles in this article.

    Scripts, Languages, and The Bizarre History of the Latin Alphabet

    Many of the top languages in the world are based on Latin or Ancient Germanic.

    Most of Europe was once ruled by the Roman Empire, where Latin was the official language. As the empire expanded, various groups of people, such as merchants and clergy, were forced to learn Latin to communicate with other professionals from Rome.

    The Catholic Church, born under the Roman Empire, conducted its early worship in Latin. The Roman Empire fell, but Christianity didn’t, and as it spread across Europe, other cultures were exposed to Latin-speaking priests and monks.

    From Europe, colonialist nations spread their languages and ideologies around the world. This is why much of the West speak Latin-based languages.

    The reason we’re talking about this is that it’s a unique situation. Exploration, conquest, colonialism have all happened before, but never on this scale.

    China is another example since Chinese characters are also used in Japanese, Korean, and traditional Vietnamese writings. However, entirely different writing systems are used in Russia and India, which both border China.

    1. Mandarin Chinese

    On the subject of China, there aren’t as many Chinese subtitles as one would think, considering it’s one of the most common languages in the world.

    To a certain extent, this is understandable. Being based on a different alphabet and even a different writing system would make it more complicated to translate.

    English is written using an alphabetic system, meaning that each symbol is a letter, and the various letters are combined to make words. Mandarin Chinese uses a logographic writing system.

    A logographic writing system is one where symbols represent a mixture of syllables and abstract ideas. One of the best examples of this is the Chinese word mah, which we’ve spelled phonetically.

    From a Western standpoint, mah isn’t a word so much as it is a concept. The most accurate English translation would probably be a question mark. Its function in Mandarin is almost identical to that of the question mark in English; it’s written at the end of the word to show that someone is asking a question.

    Though the writing systems are quite different, it seems like a major oversight not to provide subtitles in Mandarin.

    2. Hindi

    Another major language many companies don’t offer subtitles in is Hindi. Like Chinese, Hindi is one of the most popular languages in the entire world.

    Hindi is spoken by a large swath of northern India and is the native language of over 400 million people. Unlike English and Chinese, Hindi isn’t spoken throughout its country of origin.

    Over 1 billion people in India, which means that less than half of the country speaks Hindi. The rest of the country may speak any of the 21 other official languages of India.

    Much like Mandarin, Hindi would be difficult to translate into or from English because they use a different writing system. In the case of Hindi, the writing system is syllabic.

    As the name implies, Hindi’s ‘alphabet’ is based on sounds and syllables. Letters are often a combination of a consonant and a vowel.

    Indians are one of the top demographics on Youtube, but not Netflix. Adding subtitles in Hindi may bring more customers flocking to the streaming service. The good news is that there are live subtitle translation services that can be used on any show or Livestream you’re hosting.

    3. Standard Arabic

    Standard Arabic is spoken by over 250 million people across the world. There are over 20 different dialects of Arabic throughout the Middle East, but Standard Arabic is by far the most common.

    In terms of writing, Arabic looks like something between East Asian/Indian writing systems and Western writing systems. This may come as no surprise given that the Middle East is right between Europe and East Asia.

    Arabic doesn’t just look like a mesh of Eastern and Western influences, though. It also functions like a mix between the two. Like the Latin-based system European languages use, Arabic is based on a form of alphabet.

    Where Arabic differs is the structure of the alphabet. In the Arabic system, known as abjad, consonants form the backbone of writing.

    Vowels are often not written at all. Instead, they are implied most of the time. The exception is long vowels, which are written.

    Another thing that makes Arabic unique is that there are symbols for short vowels, even though they’re unnecessary, and a double letter symbol. This keeps you from writing the same letter twice, which seems like something that should’ve occurred in many other languages.

    4. Russian

    Why Russian isn’t a common option for movie subtitles is very confusing. The Russian language uses a Cyrillic alphabet, which draws clear inspiration from the Latin alphabet that other European languages use.

    Much of East Europe, but Russia in particular, occupies a strange place in the Western imagination. Sprawling across both Europe and Asia, many in the West view Russia as an outsider and treat it as such.

    This is a tragedy because Russia is just as fascinating and admirable as any other nation or culture. Russian is also the 8th largest language globally, with over a quarter of a billion speakers.

    As with the other languages on this list, not offering resources like subtitles in various popular languages means you risk alienating people. Hundreds of millions of people are too big of a market to ignore.

    The Cyrillic script also has a fascinating history. It comes from the Glagolitic script. First created by Byzantine monks, it was based on Greek rather than Latin and incorporated several local features.

    Sometime in the 800s CE, this script was replaced by Cyrillic writing, an updated version introduced by the Bulgarians. After the Bulgarians adopted it for their church, nearby nations followed suit. Soon, much of the Balkans were writing in Old Church Slavonic, a written language based on early Cyrillic script.

    This script grew into written languages for many nations in the region.

    5. Urdu

    Urdu is a language spoken by over 170 million people and is one of the official languages of Pakistan, along with English. One of the first things you’ll notice about written Urdu is that it looks very similar to Arabic.

    The truth is that Urdu has more similarities to Hindi in terms of structure. The script is similar to Arabic, but that’s where the similarities seem to end.

    Hindi and Urdu come from the same roots and share many similarities that many people prefer to think of them as a single language. Both are variants of Hindustani, which was spoken while India and Pakistan were both under British rule.

    The result is that the languages are mutually intelligible. If an Indian and a Pakistani were to meet, each could speak their native language and understand each other quite well.

    This concept doesn’t exist in English because no existing language is mutually intelligible to English. An English speaker would listen to most Romance and Germanic languages and understand a few words, but not enough to hold a conversation.

    As far as languages go, this isn’t all that common. Chinese is one of the most baffling examples of this. Chinese has 7 main forms, with Mandarin being the largest.

    Care to guess how many are mutually intelligible? The answer is not a single one of them.

    Languages That Shows and Movies Should Offer Subtitles in, But Often Don’t

    From a realistic standpoint, it isn’t possible to provide subtitles in every language. This would be understandable if dying, isolated, or otherwise uncommon languages were left out, but companies are leaving out the top languages in the world.

    We’ve discussed some of these amazing languages in this article, but there are thousands of languages in the world. Needless to say, we had to leave a few out.

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