Chapter 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!
You know that game where you keep translating a sentence back and forth between two languages, until the original statement is only a vage memory? It also works with transcription between alphabets. I just came across a real-life example.
In 1991, Franz Viehböck was Austria’s first Raumfahrer (astronaut or, in this case, cosmonaut). A correct name tag was stuck on his clothing, along with a Cyrillic version: Фибёк. That’s not a bad approximation of the original pronunciation,
/ˈfiːbœk/, and probably based on official rules for German-to-Russian transcription.
Name tag, on display at the House of Austrian History in Vienna.
After his flight, Viehböck got an official certificate, or rather two: one in Russian, one in English. But while the former once again spells his name as фибёк, the latter displays an entirely new version of his name: Feeberk. Continue reading
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’.
Thanks to John McWhorter for pointing out the origin of am’s m-ending in his latest Lexicon Valley podcast.
New translation contracts keep coming in! This week, early June 2019, I learnt about the sixteenth separate edition, in the thirteenth language: Romanian. Niculescu of Bucharest have acquired the rights.
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:
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
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.)
Or so I thought. Continue reading
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.)
Number one was by Siôn Williams, who wrote that my aside about Welsh “is indeed true“, and continued: Continue reading