How Many Languages?

Hyperbolic Vaulted Dome Inside Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. By Gaudi.
Hyperbolic Vaulted Dome Inside Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. By Gaudi.

How many languages do you know? Well, I’ve got one down pretty well, that being the one in which you are reading. Then there’s some Spanish that I know, which comes in handy once in a while (and I know how to order eggs over easy if I need to,) I also know some German, er, Deutsch. And even, this surprises even me, some French beyond what a tourists needs to get by in France. And just now I’m studying Portugese.

My friends Leslie and Andrew are, you know if you follow this blog, circumnavigating the planet in a 30-foot sailboat. Yesterday Leslie and I were texting, and the conversation turned to language. Leslie told me that she thinks that she and Andrew should invent a code based upon the 25 words they know in who knows how many different languages. Wouldn’t that be cool?¬†Nobody would ever know what you said to each other! That, and the fact that studying foreign languages has become sort of a hobby of mine, led me to think about the effect of knowing a foreign language on writing in English.

For one thing, I have a book, which may never see the light of day for various reasons, but it exists, which includes some Spanish dialogue. And, it’s accurate. So, there’s that. But mostly, I don’t use foreign words (beyond the sixty percent French infestation into English, that is.) So how do foreign languages help? I can think of a couple or more ways.

First, things like the subjunctive, or any of the multifarious perfect tenses. (My favorite example being Yul Brenner as the King of Siam saying, “I am thinking that your Moses shall have been a fool!” You tell ’em, Yul!) Before my first formal Spanish course, I had managed to get all through public school and not know what the heck subjunctive and perfect tense even were. Because, in English, if you really don’t want to use them, you don’t really have to. Besides, some times they’re so easy that you don’t even notice. I think this shall still have been the case all along when you read this sentence.

Second, as English actually is about sixty percent Romance language, learning a 99 percent, or even 90 percent Romance language can help in understanding quite a few English words. And it can certainly help with English spelling if one studies both a Romance language (Spanish is the easiest, so far as I know) and German. Take the word¬†thief, for instance. You know how to pronounce it and you know what it means. In German, you pronounce it exactly the same way and it means just what you think it does. Same with belief, grief, and (ahem) brief. The (ahem) is because only lawyers use brief the way it’s used in German. That is, it’s a letter. A lawyer might write a letter to the court (brief) in order to plead a case. In fact, they all do, and all the time. For the rest of us, the meaning of “sum it up as fast as possible” prevails. You know, be brief. (Be careful, though. Chief, for instance, has shortened itself to Chef in German. There again, though, you see where the meaning of “in charge of the kitchen” comes from. The Chef is, in fact, the chief.)

That “or when sounded as “A” thing? French. Neighbo(u)r. Unless you mean the word “their,” which is a possessive used about “them,” which of course opens up a whole can of spelling worms, so we’ll pretend we don’t know about it. In German, “ie” is pronounced like a long E. This also explains some seemingly odd spellings in English. But most of the spelling rules you learned? Such as adding an e to the end of a word makes the vowel long, or the second vowel in a row makes the first vowel long? French. Pure French. But our syntax? Pure German. Talk like Yoda we do not so much is the only significant difference in syntax between English and German. You’ll notice that the preceding sentence makes perfectly good sense, except that nobody would say it that way. Except if they’re speaking German.

Well, I find knowing a few other languages, at least a bit of them, makes English easier to deal with. After all, our mother tongue is basically German with a boat load of French dumped onto it, spelled however the heck it works out in translation.

And they say that English is difficult!