What does a language writer do?


Screenwriters write for the screen, ghostwriters write like (invisible) ghosts and sports writers write about sports. As a language writer, I write in language about language. Or rather: in languages (English and Dutch) about languages (dozens of ’em).

From history and politics to spelling, vocabulary and grammar: no matter how mundane or arcane the linguistic issue, I will deal with it in a way that both enlightens and entertains you – or so readers and reviewers across Europe, North America and Asia persistently maintain.

Lingo, my first bestseller, is about sixty European languages. They all have their own chapters, which are therefore short and sweet. (Here are some reviews.) Lingo has been published in twelve languages.

Babel, which has seen editions in seven scripts representing fifteen languages, is about the twenty most widely-spoken languages in the world. Since these stories are roughly three times as long as those in Lingo, Babel had appealed even more to language enthusiasts. (More reviews.)

Not a book but a board game, The League of the Lexicon was developed and written by Joshua Blackburn of Two Brothers. My contribution is the Global Edition, an expansion set consisting of 500 multiple-choice questions about languages other than English.

And then there’s my song Mother Tongue. Listen to it here.

After John, after jam

When you’re learning a new language, prepositions seem nice and easy at first. But after a while they prove to be pesky little buggers, keen on causing mischief. That’s certainly true for Polish, currently my favourite nuisance. One of its mischievous prepositions is po, followed by the locative case. Its most frequent meaning is ‘after’ – but what an ‘after’ it is sometimes!

In English, John’s wife becomes John’s widow after John’s death. Not so in Polish. Here, after John’s death, John’s wife becomes the ‘widow after John’: wdowa po Janie. One sees the logic: post-John, she’s a widow. But ‘widow after John’ would most definitely raise a lot of eyebrows in English. And not only in English: I don’t know of any Germanic or Romance language where a widow is said to be ‘after’ her dead spouse. Nor a widower – let’s not forget the bereft men.

It doesn’t take dying. Much less tragic events have the same effect of creating an aftertime, so to speak. Eating jam will do. Drinking beer will do. Even unboxing a pair of shoes is enough. I’ll explain.

A Polish ‘jar of jam’, filled with the sweet stuff, is very similar to an English one: słoik dżemu, in which słoik is a jar, dżem is how Polish spells ‘jam’ and the u-ending means ‘of’. But a ‘jam jar’ is a different matter. A jam jar no longer contains jam, it’s beyond jam – it’s after its jam phase. So there’s po again: słoik po dżemie, ‘jar after jam’. The same with beer bottles and shoe boxes: they’re ‘bottles after beer’ and ‘boxes after shoes’. (Just so you can verify: Butelki po piwie, pudełka po butach.) These are just examples, of course.

What I don’t know is how Poles call jars, bottles and boxes that are waiting to be filled with jam, beer and shoes. Jars for jam – słoiki na dżem? Of perhaps they follow the deep-rooted Slavic tendency to create special adjectives: jammy jars – słoiki dżemowe? My impression is that both constructions are not exactly wrong, but neither are they standard. I’m happy to bow to superior wisdom though. And I’m well aware that over 40 million people have such wisdom.

I’m also not sure how far this ‘after’ logic can be stretched. For instance, you’ve nearly reached the end of this blogpost. Does that make you a ‘reader after blog’ (czytelnik po blogu)? Makes sense to me. Not to the Poles, alas.


(Update) Days after publishing the above, I came across another case where Polish can use its word for ‘after’ in a way that English can’t: with the word ślad, ‘trace’. ‘The dog’s traces’ can be translated quite literally as ślady psa, but it’s also possible to say ślady po psie, ‘the traces after the dog’. I’m not sure if there’s a semantic nuance here; when there are two options, there often is.

Let me mnow your mnemonics!

To memorise new words in foreign languages, I use all kinds of tricks. I look for etymological relationships to more words I know, I stick Post-its to objects, I listen to songs that have the word in their chorus. But my number two favourite (etymology is number one) is the kind of mnemonic device known as ‘bridge for donkeys’ in German and Dutch: an artificial and often tenuous, but helpful connexion between the hard word and something familiar.

I’ll list some examples here, mostly in order to inspire you to remember your own mnemonics and share them with me. How have you memorised those hard words in French, Spanish, German, Russian, Mandarin or indeed English, if that’s your second language?

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Reading ‘Western European’ through a Dutch lens

I’ve just published a Dutch-language book titled Seven Languages in Seven Days. It teaches the Dutch-speaking reader how to understand written Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and West Frisian based on the languages they already know: their native Dutch, their (semi-)fluent English and their typically rusty school German and French. For them, I made the below video.

This book could also be written – rather than simply translated, since it will require quite an overhaul – for speakers of German and the Scandinavian languages. To make the video accessible for them, I’ve added English subtitles (machine-translated and lightly edited). But of course, if you’re a native speaker of yet another language, such as English, you’re still cordially invited to have a peek. Be welcome!

By the way, I’m delighted to say that the book has been very successful in the first three weeks of its life. Loads of media attention, extremely positive response from potential readers and even an official bestseller listing – my first ever in the Netherlands. There was even a great blogpost in English about it, written by my Portuguese language friend Marco Neves.

Chinese writing’s near death experience

“If the Chinese script is not abolished, China will certainly perish!” So said the literary author Lu Xun in the 1930s, and many in China agreed. History has proved him wrong, of course. How the country went from rags to first ruin, then riches has been the stuff of headlines for over a century. Yet far from being abolished, the script (known as hànzì) was successfully pressed into service for all sorts of modern technologies. In Kingdom of Characters, scholar Jing Tsu introduces us to a tumultuous century and a colourful cast of (human) characters.

In 1900, China was a great power in steep decline. European imperialism had played its usual shameful part, but there were other reasons for the country’s plight. Some of these problems were linguistic in nature. More than 80% of the population could neither read nor write, including most women. Nobody except officials spoke a standard language, and the numerous varieties of Chinese made communication beyond regional borders impossible. However, widespread illiteracy and the absence of a standard language were common in countries around the world and were living memories even in Europe. More peculiar was the fact that written Chinese reflected the state of the language as spoken 2,000 years ago rather than any of the modern vernaculars – imagine the French doing their correspondence in Latin. But the real trouble lay elsewhere: in the Chinese writing system itself.

Ancient, revered and the vehicle of a great civilisation, the character-based script had downsides that were becoming more and more pressing in a technological age. The main thing to understand is that it’s nothing like an alphabet. Alphabets typically consist of 20 to 40 letters that represent single sounds. Such a low number makes for convenient keyboards. It also keeps code sets for telegraphy (such as morse) and computers sweet and simple. Chinese characters, on the other hand, represent meaningful syllables, and there are many thousands. Quite a challenge, then, to build a mechanical typewriter, or to remember the correct morse code for each one. Moreover, the letters of an alphabet have a fixed sequence, and any user can rattle them off. Characters have no such order. And while workarounds were developed for the sake of dictionaries and catalogues they were error prone and time consuming.

Yet another linguistic problem was not inherent in the script, but annoying all the same: the lack of a standardised method for transliterating the characters into the Roman alphabet or other scripts. As a result, Chinese words, including names, could be rendered in many different ways: for example, the province we now know as Sichuan used to be spelt either Se-tchuen, Szechw’an or Ssu-ch’uan.Make no mistake: these were hard problems with far-reaching social and economic consequences. To make things worse, they had to be solved against the backdrop of a collapsing empire, a civil war, several foreign invasions, another civil war, Mao’s disastrous Great Leap Forward and his horrific Cultural Revolution. Yet solved they were, by a combination of ingenuity, determination and cultural pride, with the occasional admixture of diplomacy, power-play and a little luck.

This is where the author is at her best: she brings to life the individuals who gave their all to solve China’s problems with language technology, even as political and social turmoil was raging around them. She describes their long struggles with the beloved script, their hardships (jail, flight, hunger, technical glitches), their many defeats and the rare but rewarding triumph. She portrays Wang Zhao’s Chinese alphabet, ultimately surpassed by Zhang Taiyan’s alternative bopomofo system. She writes about several inventors of Chinese typewriters, none of them commercially successful, and the men who made it possible to send a cable in Chinese. There’s a cameo for long-lived Zhou Youguang, who co-invented pinyin, the modern system for writing Chinese in the Roman alphabet. And so it goes on, up to and including the full integration of Chinese into the digital ecosystem.

This focus on colourful individuals makes the book lively, but it’s not without its problems. The people we get to know best, those we keep company in their eureka moments and their long struggles, are often not the ones whose ideas end up prevailing. As a result, we get to know a lot more details about “also-ran” inventors and their inventions than about the ones who actually shaped modern China.

More unfulfilling still is that we don’t really come to understand all these fascinating innovations – not me, anyway. For a work on language technologies, the descriptions of the linguistic nuts and technological bolts are less than crystal clear. That is the main flaw in a book full of lovingly presented individual portraits and fact-filled stories.

Kingdom of Characters: A Tale of Language, Obsession, and Genius in Modern China is published by Allen Lane (£20).

This review was published in the Guardian on 22 January 2022.

An emperor, a painter and a gigolo walk into a bar…

… called L’Anglophonie.
‘Aren’t you Genghis Khan, love?’ the barmaid asks the first man.
‘I am’, he replies. ‘Except Genghis begins with a soft g. Jenghis rather than Ghenghis. Think of JU-lius Caesar, not Mahatma GAN-dhi. Pronounce it wrong one more time, you lowly servant, and I’ll massacre you along with your whole tribe.’
‘You’re one touchy fellow, Mr Khan. How about a little mood-lifter?’
The Mongol leader draws a dagger, thinks better of it, orders a bloody Mary and sinks into a brooding silence.

‘And you, aren’t you Vincent van Gogh?’ the barmaid asks the second man.
‘I’m Vincent all right, but my name isn’t Van Goff.’
‘Isn’t it? Aren’t you the sunflowers bloke? You must be pulling my leg! I can see you did something to your ear!’
The painter screws his face into a grimace. ‘That’s me all right. But my name’s Van Gogh. Rhymes with dog. Or with loch, if you can manage it.’
‘Are you sure? Not Van Goff? Nor Van Go?’
‘Arrg, don’t, mademoiselle, don’t! It makes my skin crawl. As a remedy, please pour me some green forgetfulness, I beg you.’ Upon seeing the barmaid’s puzzled expression, he adds in a whisper: ‘Absinthe.’

The woman turns to the third man. ‘And who may you be, love? There’s something of the artist and something of the conqueror about you too, but you come across more business-like. Am I right?’
‘My name’s Giles Gilmore’, the man answers rather stiffly. ‘You wouldn’t know my name. I’m a dancer. Ladies can enjoy my company for a fee. Now would you kindly pour me a gin, girl?’
‘Ah, how exciting,’ the barmaid beams with a gentle giggle. ‘So you’re a gigolo!’

And such is the state of culture in L’Anglophonie that the great and mighty get the G’s in their names mangled, but gigolo is pronounced correctly without a moment’s hesitation.

Something sharp in that sock

Etymology is like chocolate: dispensable but irresistible. Words hopping from one language to the next, shape-shifting, gaining new meanings…

Take our sharp. Or rather skarpo, the word used by the Goths (a Germanic people who neither built cathedrals nor dyed their hair black) for ‘sharp thing’ or ‘pointy thing’. In the Early Middle Ages, this was borrowed into Italian, where scarpa came to mean ‘shoe’. After all, most shoes are somewhat pointy, and mediaeval fashion sometimes prescribed them very pointy indeed. A common alternative was the diminutive scarpetta, which somehow sounds even pointier.

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The Intimate Stranger: Why I’m learning Polish – and liking it

A Polish metaphor, made in Denmark.

This article was written for, and first published at, culture.pl, a website about Polish culture.

I love family reunions. Most of my aunts, nephews and cousins are near-strangers to me, which makes them fascinating to meet: so unlike me, yet with all these familiar facial features, speaking styles and character quirks. All of me is there, scattered across many individuals, diluted by unrelated genes and altered by different life histories.

As with relatives, so with languages. With some lonely exceptions – such as Basque – they too have siblings and cousins. Dutch, my language of daily life, has lots of relatives, but I’m on speaking terms with just a few of them. I’m conversant with German and English, two more children from the same Germanic household; and also with two of aunty Latin’s offspring, Spanish and French. But most of the other relatives feel like strangers, even though they’re members of the same Indo-European ‘clan’: the Celtic dwarfs in the Wet West, Sanskrit’s descendants in far-away India, very old uncle Greek and many more – including the Slavics.

Yes, there’s no denying it, I’m afraid: the Slavics too feel like strangers. For as long as I can remember, they seemed to be hiding: during my youth, behind an iron curtain; later on, behind a shield of sibilant sounds and śťřangě сайнз and szczpełłings. But at some point, I began to suspect that I was missing out on an attractive bunch of relatives not so far away. Therefore, I tried to get up close and personal with them. First with Russian, the great star of Slavdom. But being a celebrity, she proved remote, uninviting and capricious. Then with Czech, who was humbler, yes, but also introverted and cheerless. For a while, I’d had enough of the Slavic family, and I explored the exoticism of Vietnamese. But that was like running into a solid stone wall. Covered in bruises, I returned, looked around and fell for Polish. I’ve been wooing her for over a year now.

Is Polish easy to conquer? Far from it. There’s a peculiar spelling system to be learned (though fortunately, it’s quite regular and Latin, not Cyrillic), there are loads of irregularities to be memorised, et cetera. But many of her foibles feel like family foibles. Foibles of our common extended family, I mean: not Slavic, but Indo-European. Instead of slamming into a wall, as with Vietnamese, I now saw a door, I could rattle its handle, even peek through its keyhole. Studying Polish is like trying to pick the lock.

So what are these features that make studying Polish appear like visiting a language-family reunion? Read the answer at culture.pl.

Stumbling on crappiness

Adam Smith

The philosopher and economist Adam Smith was ahead of his time in many ways I’m sure, but the following quote from his Theory of Moral Sentiments surprised me nonetheless:

… the beggar, who suns himself by the side of the motorway…

Britain was pretty precocious back then in all things industrial and technological of course. Even so, did it really build its first motorway as early as 1759 – well before the car was invented? And how did Smith manage to use a term that according to etymologists wasn’t coined until 1903?

In other words: what was going on here?

Crappy editing, that’s what. I read about the roadside beggar in Daniel Gilbert’s (excellent and funny) Stumbling on Happiness. But when I looked up the quote in the original work, I found that the word Smith actually used was highway. Nothing puzzling there: it has a venerable history going back all the way to Old English (heahweg).

So this must be what happened. Smith wrote the word highway. Gilbert copied the word highway. A. Knopf Publishers of New York published the word highway (I checked). But then Harper Press of London decided to make Gilbert, an American, toe the Commonwealth line, by not only changing every theater into theatre and every color into colour, but also substituting bonnet for every hood, pavement for every sidewalk – and apparently, motorway for every highway. In one fell swoop, searching and replacing without regard to context.

Now I’m looking forward to reading about ‘little red riding bonnet’ and ‘pride coming before the autumn’.

Have you read similar ‘trans-Atlantic translation’ errors? I’d love to hear!

Koran dankon, tradukistoj!

Saint Jerome as painted by Jan van Eyck. Note the lion, a typical translators’ pet.

Today is not only the feast of Saint Jerome, the Church Father who around 400 CE translated most of the Bible into then-colloquial Latin, but it’s also, for that very reason, International Translation Day.

By a beautiful coincidence, it’s on this very day that I’ve received an astonishing bit of news: Lingo, my 2014 book about European languages, is going to be published in a language that even in my wildest and most self-aggrandising secret dreams I wouldn’t have dared hope for; a language spoken by fewer people than live in Wales or Kansas, practically all of whom know yet another language that’s much more widespread. I’m referring to galego, Galician, the close relative of Portuguese that is at home in the Northwestern tip of Spain.

Though a Galician translator hasn’t – as far as I’m aware – been selected yet, this strikes me as an excellent occasion for honouring all the people – a full dozen of them – that have translated my books so far, nearly half of whom I’ve been fortunate enough to meet. Without them, all my books would still be strictly Dutch. Thanks to them, Lingo and Babel have travelled the world, and so have I in their wakes.

For that reason, I’d like to say (with a little help from an inferior non-human translator):
many thanks, Alison Edwards (Dutch to English);
vielen Dank, Juliane Cromme (German);
mille grazie, Carlo Capararo, Giuseppe Maugeri and Cristina Spinoglio (Italian);
非常感謝嚴麗娟 (Yán Lìjuān – Mandarin, traditional script);
tusen takk, Hedda Vormeland (Norwegian);
dziękuję bardzo, Anno Sak (her name is Anna; the o is a case ending);
большое спасибо, Наталья Шахова (Natalie Shahova, in her own spelling – Russian);
muchas gracias, José C. Vales (Spanish);
tack så mycket, Torun Lidfeldt Bager (Swedish);
cảm ơn rât nhiều, Hoàng Đức Long (Vietnamese).
Thanks also to the Arabic, Greek, Korean, Mandarin (simplified script), Romanian, Slovak and of course Galician translators whose names I do not yet know.

The title of this blogpost, in case you wondered, is in Esperanto. It seemed to me an appropriately neutral language to use in this context. Koran, by the way, is not derived from Korano, the holy book of Islam (which is mostly read in the original, not in translation), but means ‘heart-felt’.