Hi, hoi, hola, hej


Did you get here through LINGO (aka Sprachen)? Be welcome, dear reader! Have a leisurely look around the blogOr did you end up here without reading LINGO? Feel equally welcome. But if you’re even remotely interested in languages, do yourself a favour and get your hands on it.

On these pages, I publish stuff that has not made it into Lingo and will not make it into my next book, Babel. The posts are somehow too personal, chatty, specialised, untimely or otherwise ill-suited. In a word, the blog is (even) more of a playground than my books are. Enjoy it, and feel free to share your thoughts about language, linguistics and Lingo.

To navigate the blogposts, use the menu on the right. To check out reviews, my next book and all the translations available, see the above menu – auch auf Deutsch, en español también!


5+1 on both sides of the Channel

5-1English verbs are strange, for a European language. In the present tense, nearly all forms are the same: I see, you see, we see, you (guys) see and they see. But just when you start thinking that the present tense is a conjugation-free zone, you get the shock of she·he·it sees, with an s tacked on. Not much of a surprise perhaps, because it’s a pretty basic fact about English grammar, but still: if you didn’t know it already, you wouldn’t see it coming.

This type of conjugation is exceptional. Most European languages are much more ornate in this department – check out Spanish or Czech, if you want to see more typical examples. The Scandinavian languages, on the other hand, so close to English in several ways, have gone one better. In Danish, for instance, all six forms are identical: the verb se (see) conjugates, or rather doesn’t, as jeg ser, du ser, hun·han ser, vi ser, I ser, de ser.

But if English is strange here, it’s not unique. At least one other European language also has five identical forms and one that’s different, and it’s a language you are not unlikely to have at least some familiarity with: French. Or to be more exact: everyday spoken French.

Written French looks like a typical European language, similar to Spanish and their common ancestor, Latin, with lots of verbal endings. Let’s take the word for ‘see’ again: je vois, tu vois, elle·il voit, nous voyons, vous voyez, elles·ils voient. That’s five different forms; only vois does double duty. But in spoken French, you will typically hear this: /je voi/, /tu voi/, /el·i voi/, /on voi/, /vou voyé/, /el·i voi/. Voilà: only the second person pronoun vous, which is plural, polite or both, commands a different form compared to the other five. Colloquial French, like standard English, has a 5+1 conjugation pattern.

Not always, granted. It isn’t true for all verbs, it’s not always true when the verb is followed by a vowel and even in informal French, the form nous voyons (pronounced /voyon/) can still be used for ‘we see’, alongside on voit (/on voi/). But if you want to summarise what French verbs are like in the present tense (and in the imparfait or past tense as well), ‘5+1’ is a fair approximation. Which is a far cry from what French grammar books would have us believe.

By the way, if you know of another language, European or not, that in its written standard or in some colloquial form has a 5+1 conjugation paradigm (or 6+1, 7+1 et cetera), please do let me know!

Around the world in eight publishers (and counting)

I haven’t blogged for a while. First, I was too busy finishing my book, Babel. Then, exhausted, I took a few weeks off (one of which I spent polishing up my French).

Babel DEFMeanwhile, good news kept coming in. I already knew that Babel was going to be published by Profile (UK), Grove Atlantic (US) and Athenaeum (Netherlands). Then three publishers who bought Lingo also decided to buy Babel: Pax (Norway), Turner (Spain) and Azbooka-Atticus (Russia). While I was very pleased by that, I was nothing short of delighted by the news that a Chinese and a Taiwanese publisher (Shanghai Dook and Faces Publishing) are going to bring out the book in two different Mandarin versions, one in simplified, the other in traditional characters.

My wife suggested it would be fun to make a map showing the countries where Babel is coming out, so here it is. May it require many updates!

wereldkaart - met BABEL


Who’s that language? (2)

TrollGroupHere are some responses. I’ll add more as they come in.

To me, English is my grandparent, French is my tutor, Korean is my hero, Japanese is a good friend, and Chinese is a kindly elder.
Felicity Parry

How true: some languages represent my dysfunctional childhood dreams, others friendly strangers.

As a native English speaker, I struggle to express my feelings. Portuguese, however, unlocks the inner fugue and gives me the ability to express my thoughts, hopes, and dreams more fluidly. Phrases are more vibrant like “dropped the ball” vs “trampled my cake”.
Eileen Doherty Souza

Italian is my warm and comfy slippers, English my functional and trusty everyday tool, French my romantic love, German my nemesis, Spanish a distant cousin, Japanese an inscrutable and unapproachable stranger, and Russian a passing acquaintance I wish I could get to know better.
Anna Rempe

Vietnamese is my loving mum, German is my ex, Spanish and Catalan is the laundry I must do every week, Turkish is the handsome guy across the gym that I want to talk to…
Phạm Bảo Thanh Huyền

To me, my Italian language is like a musically gifted mother; the ancient Latin and Greek I learnt at school and I still fondly remember are one a wise, reassuring Grandfather, the other his elder, less familiar brother.
English is a friend, an amusing, ever interesting friend, while French is my mother’s elegant cousin: I visit her every now and then. As for German, he is a serious, complicated uncle, one I didn’t really get to to know. Spanish is that funny neighbour who always makes me laugh because he reminds me of my Venetian dialect!
Federica Zanetti

Italian for me is all the women in my life. German is the grandfather I never knew. Spanish is a guy I met in a bar.
And with the abandonment of the EU by the UK, maybe English should represent the father who leaves his family without keeping his promises, i.e. a deadbeat dad. Well, that isn’t personal, but I think that it’s valid!
Bill DeFelice (native English-speaker)

El español es mi corazón (los sueños, las primeras lecturas, los amigos y la familia); el alemán es mi intelecto (precisión, carácter, contenido y forma); el francés es el vecino admirado; el inglés es la llave que abre todas las puertas; el italiano es la pura diversión y el amor por la lengua; el neerlandés es mi nuevo desafío. El portugués es la promesa.
Todas estas lenguas son mi vida: mi hobby pero también mi herramienta de trabajo.

To me, English is a lover, Spanish is the funniest friend who I’d never get bored with, and German is a teacher who picked on me – I still see its worth, but I don’t have a good relationship with it, so I tend to avoid it as much as I can!
Ilaria Bailo (native Italian-speaker)

Who’s that language (for you)?

TrollGroupIn my life, languages are characters, with different roles and personalities. I’m sure that this reflects my particular experiences with each of them more than anything else, but it is how I perceive them.

What’s English to me? A smart and funny colleague, though unfortunately a bit self-obsessed. German is a close pal, Spanish a kind and valued neighbour. Dutch is my lover, Limburgish my Mum. French and I largely ignore one another, as if we never met. With all others – half-forgotten, known only by sight or complete strangers – I am on nodding terms at best.

How is this for you? I would love to know your associations and connotations with the languages you speak, or have tried to learn. Are they characters, as they are for me? Colours perhaps? Tools, tastes, textures? Or perhaps you have no idea what I’m talking about – that too would be interesting to know.

I’m looking forward to hearing from you! I will publish the answers I receive in a new blogpost. If you understand Dutch (or don’t mind reading a machine translation), you can find more answers here.

Vietnamese (10): No such thing as Britain


I wonder what it’s called in Vietnamese.

The difference between England, Great Britain, the United Kingdom and the British Isles is one of the great semantic challenges of – what shall I even call it? The English-speaking part of Northwestern Europe, let’s say.

If it’s a semantic challenge in English, the language of the natives, imagine what it’s like in translation, especially in languages spoken far away. In Vietnamese for instance. This has several different names for nearby nations such as the Chinese and Koreans, but no separate word for ‘Britain’. All it has is Anh for ‘England’ (or ‘English’), and the meaning of this one syllable has had to be stretched to near-breaking point in order to express all the political subtleties.

The results are remarkable:

  • Great Britain: Đảo Anh – ‘English island’.
    Well, England occupies over 60 percent of the island. But are the Welsh and Scots going to like it?
  • Great Britain, alternative translation: Đại Anh – ‘Great England’.
    This may cause even worse blood among the two junior partners. ‘Great England’, forsooth! The Vietnamese too consider this second best, but that’s because the same name also refers to Daying County in China.
    Strangely, Brittany – Little Britain, basically – does have a Vietnamese name of its own: the French colonisers have taught the Vietnamese to call the French region ‘Bretagne’.
  • United Kingdom (UK): Vương quốc Liên hiệp Anh và Bắc Ireland – ‘United Kingdom of England and Northern Ireland’.
    This is tricky. Shouldn’t that be ‘United Kingdom of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland’? A bit on the long side though. For now, at any rate. Or perhaps just ‘United Kingdom’, Vương quốc Liên hiệp? I’m not sure why, but a Google search suggests this is never used. Perhaps there are some other ‘united kingdoms’ in East Asian history?
  • British Isles: Quần Đảo Anh – ‘English Group of Islands’ or ‘English Archipelago’.
    Ireland has long disliked being subsumed under the term ‘British Isles’; being considered part of the ‘English Isles’ will go down no better there, I suspect.

Finally, you may wonder about the terminology for American English versus British English. The Vietnamese are well aware of the difference. They label the language (tiếng) of the New World Anh Mỹ, the other… Anh Anh.

Vietnamese (9): Back from Hanoi


Turtle Tower (Tháp Rùa) in Hoàn Kiếm Lake, central Hanoi

For three wonderful weeks, I’ve explored a few neighbourhoods of Hanoi, tasted local cuisine, enjoyed the balmy weather, met several lovely people – and studied the Vietnamese language. Studied hard, and loved almost every moment of it. Yes, the food was distinctive and delightful, but one can only spend so much time eating. That left me loads of time for other delights: those feeding my linguistic hunger, which borders on the insatiable.

‘So can you chat with the Vietnamese now?’ The answer is simple and disappointing: no, or as close to no as makes no difference. I can definitely read a lot more than before, I may be able to express a few more things than I used to, but when it comes to listening – an essential ingredient of any chat – I remain an embarrassing underachiever. Continue reading

Vietnamese (8): My first micro conversation

VVictories, however minor, are good for the morale. So I was very pleased this morning when I found I fully understood the short message sent to me by Huyền, my Vietnamese teacher (not in picture). That is to say, I knew ten of the eleven words (plus the emoji) and I could guess the other one. Guessing words from context is a common thing to do, even in your mother tongue sometimes, so I don’t consider that to be a stain.

Of course, I’d read and understood sentences before, but this was the first time someone actually communicated something to me in Vietnamese, and I got it; this was about something approaching real life, a micro conversation if you like.

Her message was in reply to my recommending a book (which I did in English, though the book is in German). She wrote back,

Cảm ơn bác vì quyển sách hay. Cháu sẽ đọc nó 😀

that is, ‘Thank you for the interesting book. I will read it :D’ My sparkling repartee was không sao – ‘don’t mention it’, ‘you’re welcome’. Still, I would say that under a lenient definition, that qualifies as a genuine dialogue in Vietnamese, with the required two participants.

Next stop: understanding simple spoken sentences. Huyền is trying those on me too, but with spectacularly little success so far.


You can find the other blogposts about my adventures in Vietnamese here.

Vietnamese (7): How one language can help another

DDR-VNI discovered something amazing during last night’s lesson with Huyền, my Vietnamese teacher. We were discussing my pronunciation of the sound written as ư, which I’m not familiar with from other languages. I have trouble vocalising the ư in a way that’s clearly and consistently different from the common or garden u (/u/, as in boot). Several sources, including Huyền herself, had suggested all kinds of tips and tricks for ‘placing’ the vowel properly in my mouth, such as these: Continue reading

Is half the world economy ours?

2146_lgEnglish is often called the world language, and not without reason, yet outside the Anglosphere and parts of Europe, it’s only spoken by an elite. Which makes me wonder: what proportion of world GDP accrues to the minority of the world population that speaks good English?

The question immediately runs into an operationalisational quagmire. Or to put it in language that does not contain the abstract suffix ‘ation’ twice in one word: it’s practically impossible to determine how many people speak English, and there’s bound to be no data whatsoever linking the number of English speakers in each country to their slice of the national pie. However, this need not stop us making a rough and ready estimate. I’ve tried to do just that, and my provisional and highly questionable ballpark statistic would be that 10% of the world population accounts for half of global GDP.

But some linguistically-minded economist, or vice versa, may have come up with something slightly more reliable. Do any of you know of such an effort? I’d love to hear about it!