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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. 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 menu above – auch auf Deutsch, en español también!

Pilar

Humans only get away with puns that are brilliant, but when reality tries its hand at them, we’re more indulgent.

I am shown around the office of my Spanish publisher in Madrid, and my hostess introduces me to someone I’ve exchanged many pleasant emails with, but never met in person: ‘This is Pilar.’ We hug lightly and peck each other on the cheek.
‘And here’, my hostess continues, ‘we have another Pilar.’ I look in the direction she’s pointing and see… no-one. What I do see is a pillar.
The fact is, pilar is Spanish for ‘pillar’. Is she poking fun at Pilar’s name? That seems a bit out of character. Is she introducing me to the pillar? Unthinkable.
To my relief, the puzzle is solved before I can embarrass myself. Something begins to stir from behind the pillar. Another female figure appears, hand outstretched: ‘Hi, nice to meet you.’

****

The Spanish translation of Lingo is now for sale in Spain. It will be available in Latin America in late April.

TEDx Talk: Grow Up, Learn Another Language

You may never have heard of Venlo, a medium-sized city in the southeast of the Netherlands, on the German border. The people of Venlo tend to be multilingual, speaking Dutch, German and English as well as their (and my) regional language, Limburgish. The city has gained unsought notoriety as the place where Geert Wilders, the leader of the country’s extreme right, was born and grew up.

Last November, a group of people from Venlo organised their third TEDx event and invited me to participate. I focused my talk on some of the effects of multilingualism: its benefits to the individual, but especially to society. Feel free to let me know what you think.

Vietnamese (4): Flipping the flashcards, fixing the accents

5185390904_5945498ba3_bIn just under four months of – ideally – daily practice, I’ve mastered some 300 Vietnamese words.

Or have I? When I see them on my flashcards, there’s a fair chance that I recognise them and can tell what they mean. But if you were to show me words that I haven’t studied, likely as not I would believe I recognised and understood many of those also. The trouble with Vietnamese is that so many of its words look so damn similar. The letter a alone has 18 varieties, counting all the possible single and double diacritics. But my European eyes will focus on the a as such and my European brain will remember only the bare and unadorned a. I have to force them to pay heed to the scribbles above it – and sometimes even below it, as in ạ, ặ and ậ. Continue reading

Hold your mother tongue

the5148231684_57fa0336c9It’s impossible to find a language in which the world can communicate across linguistic borders. For the time being, we make do with English, but that was a bad solution even before the two major Anglophone countries contracted Mad Voter Disease. The language gives a 6% minority of the world population an edge that leaves most of the other 94% impotent and frustrated. Continue reading

Politically correct spelling

canadaIn chapter 32 of Lingo, I describe – and poke fun at – the way Latvians and Lithuanians write foreign names. Basically, they spell every name as phonetically as possible and then tag on a case ending for good measure. The first US president is known as Džordžas Vašingtonas in Lithuanian, Džordžs Vašingtons in Latvian; the capital and state named after him are written as Vašingtonas in Lithuanian, Vašingtona in Latvian. In Lingo, I trace the history of this habit, once widespread across Europe, in a very general sort of way.  But at the time, I had no specific information as to why the Lithuanians and Latvians have maintained it, whereas most other language communities using the Latin script dropped it long ago.

Which is why I am grateful to a Lithuanian-American reader of Lingo, Joe Yčas, who recently sent me exactly that. Continue reading

Vietnamese (3): What’s harder than the language

vietnam-1745819_960_720“How’s your Vietnamese coming along?” people ask me, for it’s the sort of outlandish hobby that gets remembered. The answer is: so-so, could be better. I’m struggling with two problems, and I’m pretty sure that many serial language learners are familiar with them.

One is keeping up the self-discipline. I found that not too hard when I was at school, easy when I was staying in Latin America and very easy, indeed irresistible, when I was in love with a German woman. Using Duolingo, with its computer game based psychological tricks, also used to help. But studying at home from a conventional book and CD, motivated mostly by my wish to write an article in a year’s time, I find the going somewhat hard. Continue reading

Idioms and images

worlds-apart2

Some idioms are puzzling

As chance would have it, I was holidaying in Spain just when I had to read the galley proofs of the Spanish edition of Lingo, so I spent part of the time hearing and speaking one of my favourite languages and another part reading and writing it. It was while reading that I came across a translation that made me pause. The original says that Basque and the Indo-European languages are ‘worlds apart’. The translator, José C. Vales, rendered this as mundos independientes, ‘independent worlds’. Perfectly fine, I think: Basque is one world, Indo-European another, and they’re independent, separate – apart. Continue reading

A gap year on Basque, thanks to Lingo

Guest blog by Lily Finnie (South West London, UK)

photo-of-meIn my last year of school, I was planning on doing an Extended Project Qualification, which is basically an extra qualification answering a question on any topic of your choice. At first I had no idea what I wanted to do it on. My initial idea was an investigation into sound symbolism, but after admitting defeat due to a severe lack of supportive information, I was back to square one.

 As it happened, I had just finished reading the book Lingo, which has a chapter on Basque. It made a question pop into my head: ‘Why is this language so weird?’ Having never heard of ergativity before and experiencing a rapidly increasing, reasonably obsessive interest in different language grammars, I decided to use my project as a way of delving into the world of Basque. And it was with that vague idea as my inspiration that I decided to undertake the project of answering the question, ‘How and why is Basque a linguistic isolate?’ Continue reading

How to be an Anglosplaining jerk

Alison Edwards, the linguist who translated my book Lingo into English, is a columnist and blogger that I much enjoy reading. Here’s her latest blogpost. As it was first published in a Dutch university magazine, she didn’t translate the book title at the end, so I will do it for you: The Discovery of Heaven. Or am I blundering into ‘Dutchsplanation’ here…?  

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll have heard the term mansplaining being bandied around; a portmanteau of the words man and explaining. It was inspired by a landmark essay by the Ameri…

Read the full post at How to be an Anglosplaining jerk

Both inspiring and disgusting

mcwhorterI love Lexicon Valley, the podcast on linguistics. In a show from June, titled The tragedy of English spelling, John McWhorter (upper picture) interviewed Anatoly Liberman (lower picture). Let that line-up sink in for a second: both of them are not only highly regarded professionals, they’re also great popularisers of the science of language. As an admirer of both men, I was listening breathlessly.

And then, along comes this adorable passage. Continue reading