False loans

Two weeks ago, the website Futility Closet reproduced a 1969 language puzzle that may be futile but certainly not uninteresting. It can only be solved if you know a thing or two about foreign languages. Personally, I managed to identify the languages 1, 3, and 5 correctly, while for 2, I was in doubt between two possibilities. I had no idea what number 4 might be (though of course, upon seeing the answer, it seemed obvious).

The puzzle inspired me to design one along the same lines myself.

1. choir, singer, sang, jars, skies, laid, fonder
2. tome, mire, red, alas, tender, molar
3. killing, love, hugger, pint, sent, sure
4. lass, first, handy, bat, bald, gift
5. babe, bosom, drag, drug, gore, sit, sat
6. wording, gerund, poets, pummel, onding, thee
7. lingo, tango, pica, apes, cassis, sedans

Find the answers here; the password required is loans.

Languages worth a visit

spraknyttIn its most recent issue, the Norwegian magazine Språknytt (Language News) published a short column that I wrote for them. You can find the Norwegian version here (in Nynorsk, to be exact). Highly unfortunately and somewhat to my annoyance, any reference to the Language Lover’s Guide to Europe app was suppressed. Well, anyway – it’s a beautiful magazine with friendly editors, and the publication did generate a modest amount of interest from Scandinavia for my app and books. 

Since my Norwegian is not fit to print (I did study it for a while, but that was eight years ago and I never used it much), I wrote the article in English. I’ll reproduce it here. Any differences between this and the printed version are not my doing. Here goes:

I like history and I enjoy art. Honestly. But why do travel guide writers think that this is all tourists are interested in? No matter what guidebook you grab, all towns are described in terms of history and art (and, increasingly, shopping). But hey, people are more varied than that! Some of us love motorcycles, some geology. And some oddballs will make a detour to visit linguistic attractions. If only we knew where to find them.

When I visited Norway some years ago, I came within easy reach of Ivar Aasen-tunet, but I only discovered this much later. On my way up and down through Denmark, I failed to visit the Jelling runestones. Maybe I didn’t read my guidebook carefully enough, but I can’t help feeling it didn’t do justice to Jelling’s linguistic prominence.

Of course, I enjoy travelling all the same, both for its own sake and to indulge in foreign languages. Whether in Norway or in Ireland, in Switzerland or in Greece, there is always plenty to learn, to half-understand, to marvel at, to puzzle about. Even in my native Netherlands, I’m ever on the lookout for smatterings of dialect, archaic inscriptions and cutting-edge language trends. Still, it would be a great help having a guide to direct me to the major linguistic attractions of our continent.

In the end, I realised I’d have to write it myself. And so I embarked on a great journey of exploration. A digital journey, that is, from one website to the next. And boy, did I find stuff.

Ivar Aasen-tunet, finally. Way more runestones than I knew existed, both in museums and out in the open. The Codex Argenteus in Uppsala, the oldest book in a Germanic language. An optical telegraph in Stockholm. Mysterious inscriptions in the wilderness of the Arctic North. The Ibsen Museum in Oslo. And more, much more.

Outside Scandinavia, there are language museums in Lithuania, Hungary, France, Germany, Ukraine and Austria. There’s an Alphabet Walk in Croatia and an open-air dictionary in Switzerland. There are numerous linguistic minorities in Italy, museums for lexicographers in Britain, Germany and Holland, whistled languages in three Southern European countries, medieval Nordic runes on a statue in Venice… In a word, there’s a whole world of linguistic treasures out there.

Frankly, I feel like Vasco da Gama upon finding the sea route to India. But unlike da Gama, who only told the Portuguese king about his discovery, I share the information through a mobile application. If you’re a language lover, may I be your guide to Europe?

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2013-04-13 16.22.19

For young word lovers, incipient linguaphiles and budding language buffs, there’s no fun like Fictionary, also known as Dictionary Game. You know how it goes: one player chooses an unusual word and copies out its meaning, while the others devise fictitious, but plausible definitions. Players who guess the correct meaning are awarded one point, as are those whose definition is thought to be correct by another player.
Being a reader of this blog, you’re likely to be good at it; indeed, chances are that you’ve already found people hesitant to play with you, for fear of being crushed. You may even have joined a group of advanced players (or ‘afictionarians’), made up of middle-aged word lovers, entrenched linguaphiles and seasoned language buffs, whose spare time revolves around Fictionary (unlike their office hours, which they spend surreptitiously solving cryptic crosswords).
If so, here’s a suggestion to take the game to the next level, which has a name of its own: Etymixionary. As the name suggests, it’s not unlike Fictionary, except that the players do not make up word meanings, but word origins. To give you an idea of the creativeness this elicits in the participants, I’ll quote five bogus definitions I recently heard.

Kingdom; also kingric (obsolete), kinrik (Scottish). Compound of kin ‘collective relatives’, best retained in the Scottish variety, and dumb (in kingdom) or rich (in kingric, kinrik). Originally a politically inspired slur, suggestive of nepotism, low intelligence and ill-gotten wealth, which was coined by petty noblemen who intended to cast an unfavourable light upon their feudal lord. It was neutralised when English monarchs adopted it as a synonym for realm, which it ultimately all but replaced.

Row (verb). Backformation of rode, past tense of ride, reanalysed as rowed. The phrase ‘he rode for Cambridge’ dates from the days when propelling a craft by oars was known as ‘riding’, an equine metaphor. *‘He rode for Oxford’ has not been attested. As the ford in the Thames initially hindered the passage of vessels of any description, the practice of rowing may have started there later. The bridge over the River Cam posed no such obstacle.

Admiral. From the Arabic al-emir al-ral meaning ‘the chief of the transport’. This transport consisting of a caravan of ‘ships of the desert’, the term was later transferred to the high commander of a fleet of sea ships. The form was influenced by admiration, which high commanders tended to set great store by.

Bugger. From Dutch bukker or Low German Bücker, both ‘male who bends down’. First attested in English in a maritime context. For the sound shift compare trigger, from Dutch trekker.

Manager. Compound of man (in the original meaning of ‘person of either sex’, as in mankind) and ager, agent noun from age ‘to become or make old’. Originally carried the suggestion of ‘making (workers) age before their time’. When premature senescence in employees became an understood thing, the negative connotation wore off.

Incidentally, one of the above definitions is not all that far off the mark. If you know which one, you’ll prove a redoubtable Etymixionarian.
Enjoy the game!

The not so true Story of Spanish

SoSAs a reader, I love to get lost in a book, but it takes a good author’s confident guidance to make it happen. Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow, I’m sorry to say, have failed in this respect. More than to anything else, The Story of Spanish appeals to a side of me that I rather dislike: the red-pen-wielding schoolteacher.

Chapter 1 starts out beautifully: ‘Three millennia ago, when Rome was still a swamp and Athens was barely strong enough to take on Troy …’ It’s the sort of style that bespeaks experience, and experience this husband-and-wife team have. Language journalists like myself, Barlow from Anglophone Canada, Nadeau from Quebec, they published The Story of French a few years ago. Both having studied Spanish, they now take on this most widely spoken of all Romance languages.

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Going there, done that

[Introduction: A Dutch society for language lovers called Onze Taal publishes a page-a-day calendar about (you guessed it) language. This year, the Thursday is my playground, and I use it to frolic around with European languages. Not coincidentally, they are also the subject of my book-to-be What Europeans Speak (When They Don’t Want You to Understand) - not that the information on the calendar overlaps with the book. Below, I will reproduce some of the items that appeared on the calendar in recent months. I use the term ‘reproduce’ loosely; not being a translator, I will just try to render approximately the same information in English. After all, this is my work, so I feel it’s mine to corrupt, too.]

In what language does a sentence consisting of the words ‘she’ ‘goes’ and ‘eat’ not refer to the future (as in ‘she’s going to eat’) but to a past event (as in ‘she has eaten’)? Is this in a. Basque, b. Catalan, c. Portuguese or d. Spanish?

In many European languages, including English, ‘go’ can be used as an auxiliary verb to express the near future. ‘Elle va manger’ in French and ‘Ella va a comer’ in Spanish both mean ‘She’s going to eat’.

But in Catalan, the language of eastern Spain, ‘go’ fulfils a very different role. In ‘Ella va menjar’, though the words translate literally as ‘she’, ‘goes’ and ‘eat’, their meaning is ‘she has eaten’. How the Catalans have come to attach this meaning to ‘go’ is hard to tell. Worldwide (or cross-linguistically, as scholars would have it, or from a comparative perspective – ugh), the use of ‘go’ to imply past tense is rare. The same phenomenon does occur, though, in some dialects of Spanish and Occitan. This can’t be a coincidence, since these dialects are spoken just next door to Catalan and are closely related to it.

Incidentally, informal Catalan also has a Spanish-style construction with an added preposition a: ‘Ella va a menjar’, which is future tense all right. What one letter can do.

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Bulgarian busybodies

Bulgarian is, unsurprisingly, the language of Bulgaria. Is it also the language of Macedonia?

Macedonia has one official national language: Macedonian. But Bulgarians claim this to be a Bulgarian dialect.

In the 19th century, the view that Macedonians spoke Bulgarian was all but universal (unless they spoke Greek of course, which is a different language altogether). It wasn’t until the 20th century that Macedonia, having become part of Yugoslavia, developed a separate language and literature. This didn’t occur spontaneously, but sprang from political motives: the Yugoslavs wanted Macedonian to resemble Bulgarian less than it had done so far. In practical terms, this implied that it was to become more like Serbo-Croatian, the majority language of Yugoslavia.

Even nowadays, Macedonians and Bulgarians have little trouble understanding each other’s languages. But the same is true for many other neighbouring peoples, such as the Czechs and the Slovaks, the Norwegians and the Swedes, and the Ukrainians, the Belarusians and the Russians. The mere fact that Macedonian and Bulgarian are mutually intelligible does in no way make Macedonian less legitimate a language. Bulgarians had better come to terms with that.

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The popular language press – a Germanic affair?

There are five popular magazines about language and linguistics in Europe that I’m aware of.

1178mAs a language writer based in the Netherlands, I myself am a regular contributor to Onze Taal (Our Language), the largest Dutch-language magazine of its sort, which is published ten times a year. It has a Belgian competitor, Over Taal (About Language), with a smaller readership, a lesser frequency (5 times a year) and, by the looks of it, a more modest budget. But truth be told, both make for great reading.

In Sweden, there is a similar publication titled Språktidningen (The Language Magazine), with eight issues a year. I haven’t seen the paper edition, but it has an excellent website and I love its motto, ‘In a word class of its own’. Germany has Deutsche Sprachwelt (German World of Language), a quarterly of – if I’m not mistaken – a  more purist bent. Onze Taal, Språktidningen and Deutsche Sprachwelt are all quite active on Twitter and I don’t hesitate to recommend following them, provided you understand the language they write in.

Last year, a new popular quarterly on linguistics, Babel, came out of Britain. I’ve only seen the first issue, which didn’t overly impress me, but it holds a lot of promise and I would definitely give it a fair crack of the whip and subscribe to it if only there was a digital edition. As it is, the postage makes it – to my Dutch mind anyway – disproportionately expensive.

Now that makes five language magazines intended for a non-specialist audience, and they’re all from the Germanic world, if I may use the term in this context. There is nothing in French, Spanish or Italian, no Polish publication, no Macedonian magazine, not a single Russian rag. Or to put it more accurately: none that I know of. But surely there must be? I mean, the huge Romance and Slavic chunks of this continent can’t be getting along without anything of this sort whatsoever?

So if you’ve come across something like Språktidningen or Babel in Portugal, Romania, Hungary, no matter where – could you please let me know? I’d be much obliged.

UPDATE: In Norway, the Språkråd (Language Council) publishes the quarterly Språknytt (Language News). Which does nothing, of course, to alleviate the dearth of popular language magazines outside the Germanic world.

In the mood for wormwood and vermouth

wormwo37-lThe following German words have different endings now, but historically speaking share a common suffix: Armut (poverty), Einöde (desert), Heimat (home, native land), Kleinod (piece of jewellery, gem) and Zierrat (ornament). In Old German, all these words had the suffix –uoti. Their etymologies are uncontroversial and can be found in the etymological dictionary of the leading lexicographical publisher in the German language area, Duden.

The same source states that the plant name Wermut (wormwood) used to be wermuota in Old German (and wermōd in Old English; wormwood is a folk etymology), but that its meaning and origin are obscure. According to the most up-to-date Dutch etymological dictionary, the first part may mean ‘bitter’ – the plant is known for its bitterness, and there are Celtic words for ‘bitter’ which may be related. (Later, in France, Wermut was used in a bitter drink named vermouth, which went on to become an international word.)

So if the Old German adjective arm (poor) could produce a noun Armut and the Old German adjective klein (now ‘small’, earlier ‘delicate, graceful’) a noun Kleinod, is it all that far-fetched to conjecture that an adjective meaning ‘bitter’ similarly may have produced a noun meaning ‘bitterness, something bitter’?

Good as it sounds, there’s probably nothing in it. The a of wermuota is different from the i in the -uoti suffix. There is also an Old German noun muot (modern meaning: courage, but related to English mood) which may muddle the picture. Like wormwood, Wermut may be an old folk etymology. So my suggestion is vulnerable on several grounds. And it’s true: amateurs such as myself usually get things wrong in etymology. But I couldn’t resist sharing the thought.