Two days ago, without much fanfare or fireworks, my new book came out: Babel – Around the World in Twenty Languages. To celebrate, my wife and I will have a few friends over tomorrow for a theme dinner. All of Babel’s 20 languages will be represented on the menu. It will be the ultimate fusion experience, driven by a non-culinary work of non-fiction, prepared by non-chefs. Continue reading
In 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.)
Nearly 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
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!
English 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
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).
Meanwhile, 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!
Here 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.
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.
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!
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)
In 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.