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 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.
I haven’t blogged for a while. First, I was too busy finishing my book, Babel. Then, exhausted, I took a few weeks off (one of which I spent polishing up my French).
Meanwhile, good news kept coming in. I already knew that Babel was going to be published by Profile (UK), Grove Atlantic (US) and Athenaeum (Netherlands). Then three publishers who bought Lingo also decided to buy Babel: Pax (Norway), Turner (Spain) and Azbooka-Atticus (Russia). While I was very pleased by that, I was nothing short of delighted by the news that a Chinese and a Taiwanese publisher (Shanghai Dook and Faces Publishing) are going to bring out the book in two different Mandarin versions, one in simplified, the other in traditional characters.
My wife suggested it would be fun to make a map showing the countries where Babel is coming out, so here it is. May it require many updates!