Dialects, a fossil and nothing in between

W&VN.jpgIn yesterday’s blogpost about Vietnamese, I wrote that the abyss between the formal written language and the informal spoken language is particularly wide, and that I had heard this claimed also about Welsh. In response to this latter observation I received two comments which deserve to be rescued from the obscurity of the comments section to the full light of a proper blogpost. (I’ve shortened them very slightly.)

Number one was by Siôn Williams, who wrote that my aside about Welsh “is indeed true“, and continued:

“Consider the following in descending levels of formality for ‘I am’ ( > ‘I’m’): yr wyf,  yr wyf i, rwyf, rwyf fi, rydw i, rwy i, dw i andw i. 

Then you have the ‘other’ verbs – which have two forms: the periphrastic form (with the auxiliary verb), which is preferred in speech, and the short written form, which is used in the formal literary language. Let’s take the verbal-noun (the ‘true’ form of the Welsh verb, as there is no infinitive), canu (‘singing’).

Canaf = I sing / I will sing (present-future tense)
Dw i’n canu = I sing / I am singing pPresent tense)

Canasent = They had sung (past perfect tense)
Maen nhw wedi canu = They are after singing ( = They had sung) (past perfect tense)

Native speakers (and learners) only ‘learn’ the short forms, almost like a second or foreign language, once they have mastered the periphrastic forms, which are more common in speech. 

Why is the formal (written) so different and difficult compared to the informal (spoken) language? Many reasons, I guess – including that the written forms hark back to the translation of the Bible in 1588 (making Wales officially a Protestant nation under Queen Elizabeth I of England) – a book which did so much in ensuring the language’s survival after the subordinating of it under the “Act of Union” of 1535. Further, and also as a result of this “Act of Union” and subsequent English and British State policy in imposing the English language and driving the Welsh language out of the classroom, subsequent generations of Welshpeople became illiterate in their mother tongue and could not write it. My great-grandmother (d. 1947) was illiterate all her life (in both Welsh and English; her will is signed with an X), and my own mother (b. 1925) has never felt at ease in writing or indeed reading Welsh – and will always look up English versions of forms etc. before she signs anything.

A good many of my compatriots then would not be able to ‘unpackage’ such forms as canasent (see above), yet would quite accurately and without as much as a blush be able to use the form mae nhw wedi canu in order to explain a concept of ‘a past-in-the past’ for 3rd person plural.

To this was added to by Iwan Standley, who wrote, “I think one of the reasons formal Welsh is still in use is that there are many dialects of informal Welsh, some with significant differences. I have a Swedish relative who’s learnt some Welsh, and she’s remarked that Norwegian, Swedish and Danish are far more similar to each other than the dialects of north and south Welsh are.

Historically this was because the regions of Wales are fairly isolated from each other due to the terrain. It’s really only been since the 1960s that a national Welsh-language press and media have arisen, and public bodies have started using Welsh in official documents; public affairs were conducted in English previously.

So the question they face is, which version should they use? They would obviously like to be widely-understood, but if they use an informal register it would mean picking a geographical dialect – which could be seen to be favouring one area over another (not a good look for a national public body).

So they generally play it safe and use a somewhat-fossilised formal language, which is seen as being neutral (because nobody speaks it) at the cost of being removed from everyone’s day-to-day language. This formal, literary Welsh has now become the ‘standard’ even though no-one actually speaks it. It’s a sort of lingua franca I suppose, but one that very few are entirely comfortable with – the example you give of perfectly intelligent people being unsure if they can write a letter sounds very familiar.

A brief look at Quora and Wikipedia suggests Vietnames also has several very different dialects. I wonder if their use of formal language is for the same reason, then?

That is a very good suggestion, because it’s perfectly correct that speakers of some dialects have trouble understanding each other. Only yesterday did I hear a story about a Vietnamese from the North who couldn’t make head nor tail of the information a hotel receptionist in the Central City of Huê was giving her. After asking five times to repeat what she had said, the guest gave up. Perhaps she should have asked her to write it down!

Vietnamese (11): fear of viết (writing)

foto Huyen 1Nearly every conversation with Huyền, my former (and, who knows, future) online Vietnamese teacher, throws up new linguistic surprises.

The other day, I asked her if she would mind translating a business letter into Vietnamese for me. She wouldn’t mind, she answered, but she wasn’t sure she could do it. Writing Vietnamese was not her strong suit.

I was absolutely gobsmacked. Here was a university-educated polyglot, an easy talker who runs her own successful little company – and she felt that writing her mother tongue, which she speaks every day with dozens of other native speakers, was not her strong suit? How on earth could that be? Continue reading

‘English’, „German”, « French » and «Spanish»

I’m not a big fan of the adjective ‘jaw-dropping’, but I actually caught my mandible falling just now. So there: here is a jaw-dropping map by Jakub Marian.

European languages are of course widely, often wildly different in many ways, from grammar and vocabulary to phonology and spelling. That’s what my book Lingo was all about. But somehow, I seem to have overlooked the matter of punctuation. Okay, the famous Spanish ¿ and ¡ get a look-in, but that’s about it. Nothing about commas, colons, semicolons, single versus double spaces and, singularly regrettable, nothing about quotation marks. And what a gap that is, I now know. I was aware that English, French and German tend to write these humble signs very differently, but I had no idea that Europe as a whole was such a fascinating jungle of punctuational diversity.

The picture here is just a detail; click on it, and you’ll get Marian’s map of the whole continent, with a few paragraphs of explanation. Enjoy!

aanhaling

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. Continue reading

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.
@Susanne_T123

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.
M.

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

INFVL2LI_400x400

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. It 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.