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.

But if English is strange here, it’s not unique. At least one other European language also has five identical forms and one that’s different, and it’s a language you are not unlikely to have at least some familiarity with: French. Or to be more exact: everyday spoken French.

Written French looks like a typical European language, similar to Spanish and their common ancestor, Latin, with lots of verbal endings. Let’s take the word for ‘see’ again: je vois, tu vois, elle·il voit, nous voyons, vous voyez, elles·ils voient. That’s five different forms; only vois does double duty. But in spoken French, you will typically hear this: /je voi/, /tu voi/, /el·i voi/, /on voi/, /vou voyé/, /el·i voi/. Voilà: only the second person pronoun vous, which is plural, polite or both, commands a different form compared to the other five. Colloquial French, like standard English, has a 5+1 conjugation pattern.

Not always, granted. It isn’t true for all verbs, it’s not always true when the verb is followed by a vowel and even in informal French, the form nous voyons (pronounced /voyon/) can still be used for ‘we see’, alongside on voit (/on voi/). But if you want to summarise what French verbs are like in the present tense (and in the imparfait or past tense as well), ‘5+1’ is a fair approximation. Which is a far cry from what French grammar books would have us believe.

By the way, if you know of another language, European or not, that in its written standard or in some colloquial form has a 5+1 conjugation paradigm (or 6+1, 7+1 et cetera), please do let me know!

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.

Is half the world economy ours?

2146_lgEnglish is often called the world language, and not without reason, yet outside the Anglosphere and parts of Europe, it’s only spoken by an elite. Which makes me wonder: what proportion of world GDP accrues to the minority of the world population that speaks good English?

The question immediately runs into an operationalisational quagmire. Or to put it in language that does not contain the abstract suffix ‘ation’ twice in one word: it’s practically impossible to determine how many people speak English, and there’s bound to be no data whatsoever linking the number of English speakers in each country to their slice of the national pie. However, this need not stop us making a rough and ready estimate. I’ve tried to do just that, and my provisional and highly questionable ballpark statistic would be that 10% of the world population accounts for half of global GDP.

But some linguistically-minded economist, or vice versa, may have come up with something slightly more reliable. Do any of you know of such an effort? I’d love to hear about it!

Oh blast

Little-Bugger-Infant-RedWhat a pity! In Lingo, I claimed that “English has no loanwords from Bulgarian, with the debatable exception of the name of the Bulgarian currency, the lev, which literally means ‘lion’.”

I’ve just discovered that I missed one, and a very colourful one too: bugger. The invaluable Online Etymological Dictionary has this to say about it (I’ve edited the entry for clarity): Continue reading

Struggling with 한글

National-Hangeul-Museum-image2

The Hangul Museum in Seoul

To Romans like us, non-Roman scripts can be quite troublesome. Greek and Cyrillic I find manageable, for reasons that I’ve explained in Lingo, and so is Chinese thanks to pinyin, but most others are too complex for comfort. Now that I’m writing the Korean chapter of my next book, I’m having a brush with Hangul (or Hangeul). Even though all my sources are in English, not being able to read the Korean alphabet remains a handicap that rather tests my inventiveness.

One beautiful but somewhat troubling aspect of the script is that the letters are not placed on a line, but in a block. To the layperson’s eye, Korean looks like Chinese (though the differences are easy to spot once you know what to look out for). When Hangul was developed in the 15th century, Chinese characters had been in use for centuries in Korea, so it must have seemed only natural to make the new script look like them. The visual similarity was probably also intended to overcome the resistance of the traditionalists against the new-fangled way of writing. If so, the trick didn’t work, for Hangul wouldn’t triumph until the 20th century. Continue reading

Irish between ‘very old language’ and ‘1943 political construct’

IiI

In July, I visited a 1500-year-old Irish inscription.

Last week I had a Twitter discussion with writer and translator Seanán Ó Coistín, who in an opinion piece in The News Letter, a major newspaper in Northern Ireland, claimed that ‘the Irish language is almost a millennium older than English’. It irritated me and I responded, in the less than gentlemanly tone that Twitter from time to time brings out in me: ‘Can we PLEASE stop claiming that language X is older than language Y? Hardly ever makes sense.’

And it doesn’t. Languages, except the artificial ones such as Esperanto and Klingon, simply don’t have an age. The best we can do is distinguish stages and identify some historic and prehistoric milestones. Continue reading