You know how things can stare you in the face and you still somehow manage to overlook them? As in that famous video where a big guy in a gorilla outfit escapes most viewers’ attention?
It’s happened to me in my book Babel, in chapter 8. The story is about what it actually means when we say that ‘Russian, like English and Latin, belongs to the Indo-European family’. How does this show in the actual language? The chapter includes a little table of verbal endings, including the first person singular, which is a dead give-away of Russian being Indo-European: Latin has -o or -m, Russian has -u or -m (the latter now rare, but common in the Slavic family). Germanic languages no longer have those particular endings, though Old German still had -o.
But the thing is: Germanic languages do still have that ending. Or rather, one does, in one verb. That may sound like a tiny remnant, but it’s some obscure word in some far-flung Faroese island dialect. Quite the contrary, I;m referring to the most common verb in the largest Germanic language, as big a verbal gorilla as one could wish for: it’s English’s to be. First person singular, present tense: am, more often than not reduced to its erstwhile ending, m.
In Proto-Indo-European the form was esmi, which begat Proto-Germanic izm(i), which begat Old English eom, which begat am. So there: it’s a direct cognate of the Latin and Russian words for ‘am’, which are sum and (the now archaic) jesm’.
Linguist Marc van Oostendorp is a professor of Dutch language and academic communication at Nijmegen, as well as a prolific writer pouring out high-quality popular books, columns, daily blog posts, frequent videos and more. He has just published a brief paper about linguistic outreach and popularisation in the Netherlands. With his permission, I am reproducing here substantial chunks of it for those of you who are interested in comparing the Dutch situation with that in your own country. Word of warning: unlike Marc’s popular writing, which is playful and lively, this academic piece is factual and dry, so don’t expect a juicy blog post. If you can’t get enough of it nonetheless, the full three-page text is available for download.Continue reading →
My Dutch-language book Taaltoerisme (2012) included a chapter about Limburgish, the regional language that ‘I was fed with the porridge spoon’, as the Dutch idiom goes – my mother tongue, that is to say. For the English-language edition of the book, titled Lingo (2014), Katy McMillan-van Overzee was kind enough to translate and radically localise it to reflect her own Scots-language Edinburgh childhood. In the end, however, the publisher and I settled on a different kind of chapter for Scots. Reading this interview with the Scots Scriever, Michael Dempster, and a Twitter exchange with Peter Blake led to the idea of publishing it here for the first time.
When I was growing up in central Edinburgh in the 1960s, the people on the TV spoke a different language from the one we spoke at home. But I still understood them. When I went to school I discovered that the language I was expected to speak was not the ‘home-grown’ variety but more akin to the BBC English of Listen with Mother. I don’t remember that being a problem. I just went with the flow.
Picardy Place roundabout, Edinburgh, late 1960s (source)
But how? How did I learn ‘English’ when I had communicated in Scots all my young life – with my friends, the local shopkeepers, my family … ? I have absolutely no idea. When I had to do it, I just did. Not perfectly of course, but certainly without inhibition. So did my sister, and all the other kids in the neighbourhood. Continue reading →
Alex Rawlings is a Barcelona-based polyglot who recently exited from Britain. If you want to peep into the mind and daily life of a person speaking a dozen or so languages, follow his blog. Here’s a repost of his latest story.
A few days before my big move to Barcelona, I found myself talking to my now ex-colleague, Jesús. It was late at night, and we were on the Gatwick Express, heading into Victoria on our way back from the Polyglot Conference in Slovenia. Jesús is from Valencia, and so he took a particular interest in my decision to move to Spain. He asked me if I already had any friends in Barcelona.
“Yes,” I said, quickly. “Lots of friends. So many people, from all over the world. I know all of them.” There was a pause, which I interrupted to re-emphasise: “I have lots of friends.”
“OK,” Jesús replied, cautiously. “Just that I know you know lots of people, but just in case you need anything, my sister’s been living in Barcelona for years now, and she lives very close to where you’re going to be, so if you…
Lindsay Williams ‘learns, teaches, blogs, vlogs, eats, sleeps and breathes everything language’, as she herself puts it. In a word: Lindsay does languages, and that’s the name of her website. Earlier this year, she went to Vietnam. She did interviews with some Vietnamese people (including one of my teachers) about their language, she spoke to me about my learning efforts, then made the following podcast and video.
Other episodes of Lindsay’s series of Language Stories are listed here.
You can read more about my Vietnamese adventures here.
My English has a Dutch flavour, especially in speech. I’m not much aware of it while I’m talking, but when I listen to my recorded voice (here for instance), I can hear the tell-tale signs. Scratch off that non-native layer, however, and you get something akin to British English. A deeply unhip variety that befits my greying temples, to be exact: something closer to traditional Received Pronunciation than to contemporary London speech.
However, some words are likely to come out in a more American way, probably depending on where I picked them up. I’m not trying awfully hard to be consistent, and if I say ‘din-asty’ and ‘add-dult’ one moment, ‘pry-vacy’ and ‘zeebra’ the next, so be it. Still, there are limits. My can’t never rhymes with rant, nor my dance with romance. I’m a ‘tomahto’ bloke, not a ‘tomayto’ guy. (Or rather ‘tomaydo’, as one commenter reminded me.)
I’m much more comfortable writing than cooking. But a new book being released calls for a celebration, and that implies food.
When Lingo came out in 2014, my wife threw a surprise party, with friends, relatives and a professor. She sang a song in my mother tongue, the publisher sent a congratulatory video and a friend baked a Lingo cake. Continue reading →
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 →