An m hidden in plain sight

M.jpgYou 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’.

*****

Thanks to John McWhorter for pointing out the origin of am’s m-ending in his latest Lexicon Valley podcast.

Around the world in 15 publishers (so far)

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Babel is on a translating spree! This week, early March 2019, I learnt about the fifteenth separate edition, in the twelfth language: German. C.H. Beck of Munich have acquired the rights. I have several of their books on my linguistics shelves, so I’m pretty sure I’ll feel at home there.

Wow. Thanks to Profile Books and Andrew Nurnberg Associates, who make such a great job of selling the translation rights, I can now feel like a one-man multinational. Here’s an updated map of the Babel campaign:

wereldkaart - met BABEL - groot Europa

Learn one language, get one free

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.

endinburgh

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

Catalan or Spanish: Deciding which language to speak in Barcelona

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.

Alex Rawlings

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…

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Spoken tomahtoes, sung tomaytoes

tomaytoMy 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.)

Or so I thought. Continue reading

The Table of Babel

 

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I’m much more comfortable writing than cooking. But a new book being released calls for a celebration, and that implies food. 

Binnenkomst 2TaartWhen 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

Table – Around the World in 20 Cuisines

IMG_1292Two 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

Dialects, a fossil and nothing in between

W&VN.jpgIn 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.)

Number one was by Siôn Williams, who wrote that my aside about Welsh “is indeed true“, and continued: Continue reading

‘English’, „German”, « French » and «Spanish»

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!

aanhaling