Interview en français

cdn_f_flag_thumbJe suis le ‘linguiste du mois d’octobre 2017’ sur le site
Le mot juste en anglais. Lisez l’interview en français
ou la version originale anglaise.

us_uk_flag_thumbI’ve been interviewed by the website Le mot juste en
. The text has been translated into French;
you can also read the English original.


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


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’


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

Vietnamese (6): a bit of ngôn ngữ học

ngThe pronunciation of Vietnamese is hard for several reasons. Every syllable carries one of six tones, indicated by five special accents (à, ả, ã, á, ạ) that turn Vietnamese writing into equal parts text and score. The numerous different vowels and diphthongs are no piece of cake either. To give just one example: the language has a shorter and a longer ‘uh’ sound (spelt as â and ơ respectively).

But while these things look intimidating right from the start, something unexpectedly treacherous lurks behind the seemingly innocuous letter combination ng. As in English and other Germanic languages, this pair stands for the sound heard in sing and singer; the phonetic symbol is ŋ. In Vietnamese, however, this sound can also appear at the beginning of a word, as in ngai for ‘throne’. We don’t do that in English, or any other European language that I’m aware of for that matter. As a result, it’s surprisingly difficult for us, or for me at any rate, to distinguish words beginning with ng from those beginning with n. And since ngai and nai (‘deer’) have different meanings, ignoring the difference is not an option. Continue reading

Vietnamese (5): travel!

Panorama_of_HanoiDid you think I had stopped learning Vietnamese? I can’t blame you, for I thought so too. But I’ve managed to rekindle the dying flame with a bold plan: I’m going to visit Vietnam. That’ll teach me! (Hopefully in the literal rather than the idiomatic sense of the phrase.) I haven’t booked the tickets yet, but the idea is to spend three weeks in Hanoi next spring. And that perspective has already given me just the motivation I needed to go back to my books. Or rather, go back to one and start on another. Continue reading

Less of the many and more much, please

IMG_0731To 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

Linguistic gibberish

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 →

Free Norwegian!

pdf(Klikk her for norsk.)
The Norwegian quality daily newspaper
Klassekampen has published an opinion piece about the Norwegian language that I wrote for them. Below, you’ll find my English original. Click here for the translation by Eivind Myklebust.

klassekampen1One of the remarkable and likable things about the Norwegian language is how dialects are used even in formal situations. In most other countries, that is highly unusual. I’m a dialect-speaker myself, yet much of the time I speak standard Dutch, a language I learnt in school. The situation is similar in nearly all other European countries.

Another remarkable, but less likable thing about Norwegian is its split into two official written standards, Bokmål and Nynorsk. To me as an outsider, that looks like a tremendous waste of school-children’s time and tax-payers’ money. (How much time and money exactly seems to be a taboo question; I haven’t found any research quantifying the waste.) The two standards also make Norwegian troublesome for newcomers and outsiders. I can read a fair bit of one (Bokmål, as it happens), but I find the other hard to decipher. Continue reading

Tonal tongue, keen ears?

Thai phone booth‘It seems with a tonal language you can talk in a much lower volume than in European non-tonal languages. In the days before cell phones, in Bangkok, one of the noisiest cities of the world probably, there were phone booths where I could observe Thais chatting away, even on a cacophonous sidewalk on Sukhumvit Road.

When I tried to use the same phone booth in English, I had to shout at the top of my lungs. Maybe tones reduce the importance of the words’ other characteristics, like their phonetic contours.’

I received this interesting observation from a well-travelled American reader, Bill DeFelice. Could it be true that other phonetic features than tone are somewhat less vital in tonal languages, thereby allowing the speaker to reduce the volume? Or can his observation be explained in some other way? Perhaps Thai people are used to speaking at a lower volume, say for cultural reasons, and this habit may have honed their skill for picking up a signal amidst much noise. Or perhaps the Thai language has more redundancy than English, so that missing part of the signal is less fatal for understanding.

Or perhaps none of these ideas makes any sense at all – I’m speculating wildly here. But Bill observed what he observed, and we’re both curious what might be behind it. Suggestions, anyone?

Update: I’m told by linguist Mark Dingemanse that in research comparing twelve languages, including five tonal ones, he did not find any differences between them relating to noise and frequency of misunderstandings. This suggests that Bill’s observation requires some other explanation.