Did you get here through LINGO? Be welcome, dear reader! Have a leisurely look around the blog, and be sure to check out the app. Or 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. The posts are somehow too specialised, personal, chatty, untimely or in some other way 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.
The scribbles on the right are not just doodles, a badly drawn rough sea or an attempt by a 5-year-old to emulate grown-ups’ fascinating handwriting. A real adult has written a real word here: minimum.
Even if you had figured that out for yourself, you’ll agree it’s not easily legible. That’s due to a shortcoming in our alphabet: the similarity between hand-written i, n, u and m. In many words confusion is never far away, which is why monks, clerks and other writers have come up with all sorts of clever tricks.
- First and most obviously: dotting the i’s. That seems self-evident now, proverbial even, like crossing the t’s, but at one point it must have been a brilliant new idea, given that the old Romans didn’t do it (just like the person who wrote minimum, but that was negligence). With capitals, we still don’t, wrongly assuming that there’s no risk of confusion there. I for one think that Io, one of Jupiter’s moons, had better be spelled İo.
- In non-classical Latin, the second of two i’s was often given a tail, first in hand-writing, then also in print. This title page of a 18th-century book by one Blasius Altimarus, is a case in point: see the words Blasii, regii and consiliarii. In Dutch, where double i was frequent, ij then proceeded to develop into a separate letter, which explains why the name of the country’s largest lake is spelled IJsselmeer, not Ijsselmeer.
- In English, the letter combination um was considered troublesome in short words. To fix the problem, writers did what English writers do best: dream up a few more irregular spellings. Two of these have survived to our day: come and some. Which makes you wonder, why not gome for gum? The answer is that gome was common too, but printers managed to suppress this rather less frequent word in the days when they were trying (with limited success) to clean up English spelling. Should we give it another try now? Better not, perhaps. Turning some into sum would be confusing, as it has acquired a different meaning. Changing the spelling come into cum would be as great an idea as changing pawn shop into porn shop.
- In Norwegian, m is the only consonant that is not doubled at the end of a word when the preceding vowel is short. I’m not sure if the rule was introduced to prevent confusion, but I’m sure it does.
- In German, the u is often written as ŭ, to emphasise the difference with n. In the pre-war Kurrent type of writing, this stroke above the vowel was compulsory, because there was even less of a difference between u and n than in modern handwriting.
- When in 1928 Turkish got its own Latin alphabet, a dotless i (ı) was introduced, with a sound value different from the kitchen or garden i. The Alphabet Commission ‘never stopped to ask themselves what the dot was doing there in the first place,’ as the Turkologist Geoffrey Lewis wryly observed. The result of adding another n’ish and u’ish letter was, of course, more confusion. To solve their self-inflicted problem, the commission suggested that the ı be written as ĭ. Turkey’s president Atatürk, the driving force behind the new alphabet, did exactly this, as well as writing ŭ for u, German-style. Nowadays, the habit is obsolete and the Turks just try to live with ı.
There are bound to be other spelling rules and writing habits that somehow originated in the visual similarity of the handwritten i, n, u and m, or perhaps other letters. If you are are aware of any, please let me know!
Traduttore traditore, usually translated as ‘the translator is a betrayer’, is probably the only Italian expression in my active vocabulary. And other than dictionaries and suchlike, Umberto Eco’s La ricerca della lingua perfetta must be the only Italian book on my shelves. So there is something peculiarly congruous about my discovering, earlier today, a disconcerting translation error in that book.
On page 98 and 99 of the English-language edition, In Search Of the Perfect Language, I came across a passage claiming that for the German reformer Martin Luther, ‘German was the language closest to God.’ Statements of that sort can easily be found about Hebrew, Arabic, Tamil, Korean and some other languages, possibly including German. Yet flowing from Luther’s quill, it somehow seemed out of character. Continue reading
Plurals and singulars are not hewn in stone. Plurals, especially those of foreign extraction, are regularly mistaken for singulars, and – sometimes – vice versa.
The word stamina, for instance, was really the Latin plural of the word stamen (a term you may remember from biology class, albeit in a very different meaning), but has in English long been a singular. The same has happened with agenda and, more recently, data. It is happening under our eyes with phenomena. People get worked up about it, but there’s nothing new under the sun. Even the respectable opera was once a plural, and only became a singular because Italians couldn’t be bothered with Latin grammar – and why should they? Continue reading
Grammatical irregularities in a foreign language can drive you nuts, but grammatical regularities are worse – when you expected them to be irregular, that is.
English is a second language to me, and I dutifully learnt 38 years ago that most verbs are turned into questions require the auxiliary to do: ‘Where do you live?’ rather than the Shakespearean-sounding ‘Where live you?’ But this is not not true for to be: ‘Where are you?’ is fine.
So far, so good. Until the other day, when on the Wait But Why blog (much recommended) I came across this question: ‘How do you be a good person?’
Excuse me?! Continue reading
Earlier this year, I was interviewed in the comfort of my home by Patrick Cox (see photo), a British-American radio journalist who specialises in language. I’d enjoyed dozens of his World in Words shows as podcasts, partly because they are so interesting, partly because I like Patrick’s friendly and intelligent style and his pleasant voice (and trust me, I’m not saying this about all interviewers). World in Words is probably the language podcast that I like best, with Lexicon Valley an excellent second.
Yesterday, he sent me a note saying that the episode featuring me has been put online. Listening to myself talk is among my least favourite things (here’s why), but I think Patrick has managed to make me sound fairly coherent – there’s skill for you. Here‘s the link, and if you scroll down a bit, you’ll see the contents of the podcast listed: nearly 15 minutes of Dorren talking about multilingualism and me (well, he asked) and even singing a song. The other 15 minutes are about Klingon.
Enjoy, and do let me know what you think (but please, break it gently).
In classical antiquity, Europe’s major written languages were Latin and Greek. Why is it that the former is long extinct, while the latter is still spoken?
In point of fact, neither has died, but both have changed. That’s normal, given that natural languages never remain constant very long. Over the centuries, Latin has acquired new names, whereas Greek hasn’t. Continue reading
In the past few weeks, I’ve been on a couple of radio shows, and even on regional TV. I enjoy doing this: it produces a pleasant state of sharpened mental alertness, I am asked questions that I’m capable of answering and it stimulates book sales, which helps me make a living.
But hearing or seeing the recordings is something I abhor. And it’s not vanity about my voice or appearance, believe me: I’ve got used to what I sound and look like. What bugs me is the spontaneous and unedited nature of the lines I blurt out on these occasions. As a writer, I wouldn’t dream of imposing a first draft on innocent bystanders. An unfinished text is an ugly thing, full of banal statements, non sequiturs, clunky transitions, typos, needless repetitions. All these horrors somehow manage to keep under the radar while I’m writing the first rough draft. Continue reading
Under the headline ‘The language barrier is about to fall’, Alec Ross in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal makes a strong claim: ‘In 10 years, a small earpiece will whisper what is being said to you in your native language nearly simultaneously as a foreign language is being spoken.’ So the Babelfish will finally spread from the Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy to the real world.
But I think Ross is wrong, for four reasons.
1. The prediction has been around for over half a century without coming true. Machine translation is one of the holy grails of technological development, up there with nuclear fusion (with electricity ‘to cheap to meter’, a promise from 1954) and autonomous cars – I remember how I first heard about those in my 1970s primary school, and the idea wasn’t new even then. Of course, none of this disproves Ross’s claim, but it does justify a certain scepticism. Continue reading
Geography may not be fate, but Fate certainly knows her geography. And when she wanted to inculcate me with a keen interest in languages, she took great geographical pains to achieve it, starting as far back as the 1930s.
In that decade, my father was born in the Dutch city of Enschede (the red dot marked 1 on the map – click to enlarge), a mere five kilometres from the German border. He grew up speaking not only the national language but also the region’s Low Saxon dialect of the Low German language. He went on to become a French teacher, dabbling in Spanish on the side. Having moved to the south of the country, he then learnt another regional language, Limburgish, about which more in a minute. Finally, he also became fluent, though not grammatically perfect, in German, so much so that later in life, when his other languages were temporarily wiped out by a stroke, he would only speak German. From a linguistic perspective, Fate did an excellent job with him. Continue reading