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,, 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

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’.

English – a public health hazard?

Schermafdruk 2020-05-30 10.24.28Might the incidence of Covid-19 in this place or that depend to some degree on the main language spoken there? A reader from Italy asked me this a few days ago. Being a polyglot, he had first come up with the idea himself; it was then reinforced by a Japanese video that has been making the rounds. This shows how the English aspirated /p/ sound causes an eruption of breath, potentially sending loads of viruses into the air in front of the speaker. So are some languages, including English, more conducive to infection than others?

Apparently, my correspondent is not the only one who’s been wondering about this. In John McWhorter’s most recent Lexicon Valley podcast, he addresses the same issue in response to questions from listeners.

Interestingly, even though John and I agree on the answer – which is, roughly, ‘no’ –, we approach the issue very differently. He points out that while, yes, Japan has been hit much less by the pandemic than the US and the UK, the pattern elsewhere in the world is not what you would expect on the basis of these linguistic differences. Spain has been severely affected, even though Spanish pronunciation doesn’t have any characteristics one would expect in a ‘contagious’ language. And in the Middle East, Iran has been an epicentre of Covid-19 while Iraq hasn’t, even though Iraqi Arabic would appear to be a much more effective spreader of viruses, given its inventory of phonemes.

My take on the question was as follows: ‘These linguistic differences might conceivably play a minor role. However, languages and the cultures in which they are spoken differ in many respects. Even if we only look at personal communication, I think there are differences in: typical loudness; typical amount of speech; typical physical distance between speakers; and typical frequency of touching each other.

And that’s without mentioning other differences between societies, for instance in time spent outdoors (which is safer) versus indoors (riskier), in average health, in willingness to heed governmental advice, in hand-washing habits, in availability of sanitation, in numbers of foreign visitors, in climate, in use of public transport, and so on and so forth.’

Of course I hope that all of you will stay healthy. But I think you can safely continue to speak English, if that’s what you do. No need to learn Japanese.

Welcome back to Indo-Europe

PoolsIt’s happened again. In spite of good resolutions, and before even making a full recovery from the previous bout, I’ve contracted a new language.

For over two years, I suffered from Vietnamese. That was for – my idea of – a good cause: the writing of a book, Babel. The experience was instructive and fascinating, but not rewarding in any practical sense. In reading, I never got beyond picture books for toddlers. My chats in Vietnamese were few, and it’s probably an overstatement to call them chats – or Vietnamese. Early last year, I beat the virus and began my recovery.

A few months later, the Polish publisher of Babel invited me to Warsaw and Cracow for some interviews. I went, I liked the places, I loved the people I met and I discovered how near they all are: if I walk out my door at 7 in the morning, I can set foot on a railway platform at Warszawa Centralna or Kraków Główny the very same evening, and still have time for a drink. How was I to resist these temptations? Once more, the language learning virus overcame my weak immune system, aka better judgement.

They say that Polish is a hard nut to crack. Or rather: we say so, the speakers of Western European languages. And it’s not a groundless claim either. Polish nouns have three genders (sexes that is, but without the organs or the fun). So does German, but German has only four cases, whereas Polish has almost twice as many: seven. And while it may not have as many verbal forms as French or Spanish, the catch is that no single verb can be said to be entirely regular – they always have something unpredictable about them. Call it a mystique. Or, if you’re more like me, call it fuckedupness obnoxiousness. Continue reading

A prize for Babel!

On Saturday 5 October, I was honoured to win the Onze Taal/ANV Language Book Prize 2019. The prize-giving ceremony took place during the biennial conference of Onze Taal, an NGO dedicated to the Dutch language. The award is endowed with 3,000 euros and comes with a certificate and a caricature by well-known cartoon artist Tom Janssen.

The same video with subtitles in Dutch can be seen here.

A professor at boiling point

Sri_Lanka_-_Sri_Lankan_Tamils_2012My invitation to the readers of Babel and Lingua to let me know what they think has produced a steady stream of emails, most of them interesting and many heart-warming. Occasionally, however, the effect is chilling, and here’s an example.

The Babel chapter about Tamil is mostly about India, but it also touches on Sri Lanka, which has a sizeable Tamil-speaking minority. Since independence in 1948, relations between the two major ethnic and linguistic groups, the Sinhalese and the Tamils, have been tense at best and frequently violent. While tension and violence can never be exclusively blamed on one side, Sinhalese nationalism and suppression of Tamil rights did much to ignite the powder keg into civil war – a powder keg created by the British colonial administration, I should add. Continue reading

John McWhorter: ‘When I learn something I want to share it’

John answering a question2

During the interview

Why is it important for a linguist to engage with a general audience? If languages go extinct, why is that a loss people should care about?

These are two of the questions that I asked Professor John McWhorter on Skype. We had this conversation right after John interviewed me for his Lexicon Valley podcast, which you can find here.

Podcast: Africa’s relaxed multilingualism

ABChapter 12 of Babel, which is about Swahili, discusses how Africans think nothing of mastering several languages. Many people speak at least three: their mother tongue, their region’s or country’s lingua franca and the official language of administration and education, usually French, English, Portuguese or Arabic. The chapter has been particularly well received by many readers.

The podcast America the Bilingual has dedicated its latest episode to the subject. It greatly enriches my own story by interviewing several people from East and West Africa about the how, what and why of their multilingualism. The show is 12 minutes long, and I highly recommend it. Click on the round red-and-white play button below and enjoy!