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.
English 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!
What 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
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
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
To me, ‘many more’ sounds silly. It reeks of inkhorn grammar, prescribed by some logical-minded schoolmaster who reasoned that if we say ‘many books’ we should also say ‘many more books’ rather than ‘much more books’. I’ve dutifully internalised the rule, but even after many years of obedience in speech and writing, it doesn’t feel quite right.
And I’ve just figured out why. Continue reading
The study of languages has long been prone to nonsense. Why is linguistics such a magnet for dilettantes and crackpots?
Ah, for the days of fact-free linguistics! The pre-scientific era may have produced a lot of codswallop and hogwash, but how entertaining it is to look back upon. Scholars erred in ways that few modern linguists ever would. Today, their field of study is a respectable social science, exacting in its methods, broad in its scope and generous in its harvest. Without phoneticians, computers wouldn’t be able to process spoken English. Without sociolinguists, prejudice against dialects and non-Western languages would still be rife – or rather, rifer still. Forensic linguists help solve crimes, clinical linguists treat people with language impairments, historical linguists shed light on language change and even on prehistoric culture and migration – the list goes on and on. As in other disciplines, pertinent questions and rigorous methods to answer them have been at the root of success.
When natural philosophy began to slowly develop into physics and other natural sciences, learned speculation in the human domain did not immediately follow suit. But it too gradually developed into what we now call the social sciences, and the study of language was one of the earliest adopters of the new methods. Its practitioners would pore over ancient texts written in long-dead languages and long-forgotten scripts, and compare them ever more systematically. This led to a breakthrough in the late 18th century, when there emerged new ideas about the historical origins of modern languages. Most of these ideas have stood the test of time.
But the budding discipline did not merely come up with new answers, it also changed the questions. Scholars of yore, when reflecting upon language, would wonder things like: Which of the contemporary languages was spoken by the first man? Which one is superior to the rest? And which of the human tongues deserves the label ‘divine’? Modern linguists will not touch those with a ten-foot pole. The oldest language is unknowable, but it was certainly different from anything spoken today. The ‘best’ language is impossible to define in any meaningful way. And as for ‘divine’ – the very word is meaningless in relation to languages, except in a cultural sense.
Not so in the olden days. Indeed, the answers seemed pretty obvious to many thinkers, if only thanks to that most anti-scientific habit of mind known as ethnocentrism. To the ancient Greeks, determining the world’s most excellent language was a perfect no-brainer: it could only be theirs. Continue reading →