Sep 12 2009

The hidden power of Wikipedia’s interlanguage links

by at 11:36 am

For anyone who’s dealt with other languages in a casual (or academic) way, you’re probably aware of the standard tools: Babelfish (no longer at AltaVista?), Google Translate, and the invaluable, which includes forum discussions of words and phrases.

These are great for deciphering the occasional e-mail. But there’s another, somewhat unexpected tool out there which I’ve found invaluable on an almost daily basis. Around the second time last year that we cooked something called topinambour I decided I should head over to its French Wikipedia page and then follow the little link on the left sidebar to its English Wikipedia page. So I did, and I discovered that … topinambour = Jerusalem artichoke?! Mind blown.

oyster mushrooms gills by frankenstoen on Flickr

The same thing would have happened if at any point I’d looked up this mushroom we keep buying at the market, pleurotes. According to the hidden information in the link structure of multilingual Wikipedia they’re just … oyster mushrooms! (we actually discovered this when I brought them home from a farmer’s market in Chicago this summer and Jackie said, “look pleurotes!” and I said, “nono, oyster”)

Final example: I informed a doctor yesterday that a painkiller that’s super common here, paracétamol, doesn’t exist in the United States. She could not believe it, as it’s just as common here as Tylenol is in the U.S. “Nope,” I explained, “maybe you’ve heard of Tylenol? Acetaminophen?” “Never heard of it,” she said. The punchline, of course, is that as you can see from Wikipedia in French and English they’re in fact the same drug.

One mystery remains, however: I’m still at a loss as to the French terms for nutritional yeast and brewer’s yeast.

Postscript: just did some Googling. Apparently they’re called interlanguage links and they’re a subject of academic research (of course): Scale-free topology of the interlanguage links in Wikipedia by Łukasz Bolikowski.

2 responses so far

2 Responses to “The hidden power of Wikipedia’s interlanguage links”

  1. Kathyon 13 Sep 2009 at 8:34 pm

    Interlanguage links–so totally cool. Thanks for posting. Names of fish, mushrooms, and medicines all cause problems.

  2. Sethon 13 Sep 2009 at 9:17 pm


    Now if someone can tell me what a wedge cushion is called in French or German, that’d be great.

    Also, we bought mushrooms at the market yesterday, but totally forgot their name in French. So that’s useful.

    Also, also … Bergkäse?

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