Vietnamese (7): How one language can help another

DDR-VNI discovered something amazing during last night’s lesson with Huyền, my Vietnamese teacher. We were discussing my pronunciation of the sound written as ư, which I’m not familiar with from other languages. I have trouble vocalising the ư in a way that’s clearly and consistently different from the common or garden u (/u/, as in boot). Several sources, including Huyền herself, had suggested all kinds of tips and tricks for ‘placing’ the vowel properly in my mouth, such as these: Continue reading



minimumThe scribbles on the right are not just doodles, a badly drawn rough sea or an attempt by a 5-year-old to emulate grown-ups’ fascinating handwriting. A real adult has written a real word here: minimum.

Even if you had figured that out for yourself, you’ll agree it’s not easily legible. That’s due to a shortcoming in our alphabet: the similarity between hand-written i, n, u and m. In many words confusion is never far away, which is why monks, clerks and other writers have come up with all sorts of clever tricks. Continue reading

The importance of the German praying man

EcoTraduttore traditore, usually translated as ‘the translator is a betrayer’, is probably the only Italian expression in my active vocabulary. And other than dictionaries and suchlike, Umberto Eco’s La ricerca della lingua perfetta must be the only Italian book on my shelves. So there is something peculiarly congruous about my discovering, earlier today, a disconcerting translation error in that book.

LutherOn page 98 and 99 of the English-language edition, In Search Of the Perfect Language, I came across a passage claiming that for the German reformer Martin Luther, ‘German was the language closest to God.’ Statements of that sort can easily be found about Hebrew, Arabic, Tamil, Korean and some other languages, possibly including German. Yet flowing from Luther’s quill, it somehow seemed out of character. Continue reading

Getting high on status

highdeutsch.jpgWords changing their meanings are like plants growing: we never catch them at it, and afterwards we’re not even sure what they used to be like.

Take ‘High German’, or Hochdeutsch as the language calls itself. Centuries ago, the name simply meant ‘the German language as spoken in some of the more elevated regions’, roughly in the centre and south of what’s now Germany. Low German or Niederdeutsch, in contrast, was spoken in the plains near the North and Baltic Seas. Continue reading


loessWords crossing linguistic boundaries sometimes get mangled pretty badly. I’ve long known this, but I couldn’t help yelping ‘what?!’ the other day, when I heard a university lecturer, Craig Benjamin from Australia, pronounce as ‘lowess’ a word that in my book ought to sound more or less like ‘luss’.

Which is not to say that Benjamin was wrong.

The word under consideration was coined by a 19th-century German scientist, and it stands for a particular type of sediment deposited by wind. I would consider it an arcane geologic term, were it not for the fact that my Dutch home region of Limburg is covered in it. Its local name is Limburgian clay, but is is known to science as löss.

In German, two dots (diaeresis or umlaut) can always be replaced by an e after the character, so loess is a legitimate spelling for löss, with pronunciation unaffected. It was this ö-less variety that English adopted, back in 1833 – way before Motörhead and Häagen Dazs made dots look cool. And you guessed it: as soon as English incorporated loess, the original pronunciation took the back seat. It is now considered perfectly correct to say ‘lowess’, though ‘luss’ end even ‘less’ and (non-rhotic) ‘lurse’ are acceptable too.

Loess is common in China (see map), which was indeed the subject of Benjamin’s lecture. In Mandarin, the soil type is called huángtǔ (黃土), literally ‘yellow earth’. Perhaps English should have gone with that. When Chinese words get mangled, I don’t notice anyway.