Tag Archives: language

Know Thy Language

Nature Reclaiming a Picnic Area in the Eifel

The picture is sort of reflective of my topic this week. You could think of it as the German parts of English as they still exist. Crumbling in spots, mossy, but still some solid bits. So it is with English, the language of, well, me. And you, if you’re reading this. I have lately been studying French, which is what sixty percent of English actually amounts to. In the past I have also studied Spanish and German. Spanish is cognate with French, but not a significant ancestor of English. German and French are a different story. Here’s a condensed version.

A thousand years ago, German and English, (Anglisch) were the same language. (The Angles and Saxons were Germans.) And, to this day, English mostly uses German syntax. Which is why talk like Yoda if you want to, you can. In German, they call that “putting the most important idea up front in the sentence.” In English we call it “talking weird,” but we still understand it. English has lost virtually all of its noun and pronoun cases. Modern German hasn’t, but that’s another story. German, like many languages, has two forms of the pronoun for “you.” English has one, except in what is usually thought of as formal, or religious English, when we use Thee, Thy, and Thine. Oddly, those forms are not formal, but rather personal. In German somebody might speak of “dein Hand.” Shakespeare would have said, “thine hand.” Dein, thine, pretty similar. Even in Shakespeare’s day, the various forms of “dein,” such as “deine,” were gone. And after a while even the root word faded away. There are still a few groups of people using that personal pronoun, and it still appears in standard dictionaries, but mostly people just misunderstand how it should be used. The personal “you,” in German today, is Du. In French it is Tu. Maybe those two are just too close to the formal “you” not to be combined with it.

Formal “you” was used on authority figures, religious or secular, and people you didn’t know well. That’s why the bible uses “thine,” because supposedly we all have a personal relationship with a god. But to a king or a priest, you would have used “you” or “your lordship” or similar phrasing.

In 1066 French started moving in on English. By Shakespeare’s day it had taken over a lot of our more common vocabulary. Today, it’s difficult to say anything without using a French word. Anything ending in “tion,” for instance, is French. You may be sitting at a “table,” just like a French person might be. And the word on those eight-sided signs, the red ones? That’s a French word, too. In Latin it was “Estop,” and in France it is “Stop.” Only in Canada do they use “arret” on Stop signs. Well, it’s their country, but Stop is a French word. Oh, and that rule about putting an “e” on the end of a word to make the vowel long? That’s pure French.

French was the language of the (Franco)-English nobility, and even today, the more French form of a word seems to be unconsciously thought to be superior to a simpler form. Ironically, a good way to sound like you don’t know what you’re talking about, at least to someone who knows the language, is to use (utilize?) lots of fancy French words when some plain words, French or German, would sound better. Everything can be good between two people, or it can be copacetic. The difference? Trying to sound smarter than you are. (Unfortunately, such phrases have been soaked up by some jargons, so they get used more than they should be.)

As a writer, knowing the mixed history of English can help you to clarify what you’re trying to say. Rather than that old “I after E except after C” rule, that doesn’t work half the time, consider that in German, the letter combination “ei” always sounds like our long I — “eye”. Again, in German, the combination “ie” always sounds like our long E — “eee”. If it isn’t a German word, it’s a French word, and, if sounded as long a “ay”, it’s spelled ei. Originally, all French “ei” words were sounded as A. French “ie” words are borrowed from German, and, well, what do you know? “Aye.”

English is a great language. One of its best features is that there is no institution dedicated to “pure” English or even “proper spelling” as with other languages, most notably French. Now that you know a bit of the history of our fine language, you’ll be better able to manipulate it into the story you want to tell.

You’re welcome.
Wilkommen
de rien

A Few Words About Portuguese

Reading It is the Easy Part
Reading It is the Easy Part

When I was about seven, I think, my sister came up one day and said “uno y uno son dos.” She was studying Spanish, and decided, rightly so I imagine, that teaching somebody else was a great way to learn. I’ve been able to stumble badly in Spanish for years. Lately I’ve even been able to have some rudimentary conversations about normal topics (no “Norte America es un continente” for me bro!) Looking at the Portuguese carved into the Cabo da Roca monument, you’d think that it was a lot like Spanish. Well, you’d be wrong.

They’re both Romance languages. And some words are the same as they are in Spanish. Some look the same but aren’t, and some aren’t even close. Take chicken, for instance. The cooked kind. It’s “carne do frago.” What the heck is a frago? In old Iberian Celtic, it’s a chicken. Try asking for “carne do frago,” heck call it “de frago” in Spanish and all you’ll get is a blank look. ‘Cause, yeah, what the heck is a frago?

Pronunciation is very different as well. Take the word “banana.” in Spanish it’s “una banana” or “un banano.” Yes, banano. Dunno why. And “banana” is all long ah sounds, too. In Portuguese, it is “uma banana.” Go ahead and say that, just like you think it would sound if you saw that phrase lying around. You said “banana” like it was English, didn’t you? You know you did. And, here’s the thing, you were correct! Since almost forever, Portugal and Britain (first England) have been allies through thick and thin. After all, their chief rivals back in the days of good old imperialistic expansion were Spain and France. Oooo, they hated those guys! And I think that a lot of English habits rubbed off on the Portuguese. (I know that tea, as enjoyed traditionally in England, came from Portugal, so why not things going the other way?) Not only bananas, but other habits of pronunciation occur in both English and Portuguese. For example, Portuguese has a lot of susurration in it (look it up) and they leave off the sound of many final syllables. Here’s an example of a word that illustrates several of my points. I refer to the word, “pronto.”

Hey, you know that word! It means quickly, right? Uh, sure, in Spanish, and all you have to do is make both of those ‘o’s sound long and you’ve got it. We use it in English, at least in America, where we pronounce it like it was English, sort of like “prahnto.” Get it? Two things about that word in Portuguese. It doesn’t mean “quickly,” and it’s pronounced like the American version, less the final syllable. You know our word font? Sure, so you can pronounce pront, which is how a Portuguese pronounces the word “pronto,” which means “ready.” “Tens pronto?” Means “are you ready?” Tens, the word for “you are” if “you” is a friend, is pronounced, oh, heck, how do you think? You got all this? Tens pronto? Good.

Portuguese isn’t a difficult language, despite what people say. The verbs follow mostly Spanish conventions and the nouns mostly follow the French way of syntax. It is it’s own language, and that’s all. It seems to me that Portugal gets short shrift when Americans think of Europe. It’s really a very nice country. The least foreign feeling foreign country I’ve ever visited, and I include Canada. That may be good or bad, but it’s the case either way.

Okay, then, I think it’s time to get back to our travelogue, don’t you?

Adeus!

Next Post in this Series

Previous Post in this Series

Top o’ the Week to Ye

shamrock

On the day this post is released, I’m on my way to Dublin. Thence on to Lisbon for five days, then back to Dubllin. Which is by way of saying that there will be no post at all next week. And maybe not much of one this week, but you be the judge.

We held a successful garage sale over the weekend. Made well over $300. $400 if the guy shows up to buy the pool table who said he’d do that. This is the beginning of phase one of unburdening ourselves of stuff, so that we might retire to a far away land (in Europe) in five to ten years. The nice thing about being a writer is that you can do that activity from virtually anywhere. (People have published books from prison.) Our trip to Portugal is primarily to investigate whether we’d like to move there when the time comes. In preparation, I have learned at least six or seven words of Portuguese. Know something odd? Portuguese has, apparently, interacted with English at some point in history. Want to say ‘banana’ in that language. The article is uma (’cause banana is feminine) but the word ‘banana’ is pronounced just like any hick American would pronounce it. As a student of language, I find this fascinating. Also, the most commonly used article meaning “of,” de, is pronounced dee or just d(schwa). Odd stuff, language, and those Lusitanians are apparently just crazy about theirs.

So, anyway, don’t look for a post next week, although if the opportunity arises I’ll post something. But do check my Facebook feed, if you follow it, because I’m sure I’ll find some pictures to put out there.

And, if you follow me, thank you and obrigado.

O prazer é meu!

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!

 

Language! Or, Those Darn French!

Detail from the San Diego Model Railroad Museum
Detail from the San Diego Model Railroad Museum

If you’ve read a few of the things I’ve posted here, you may have noticed that I enjoy travel. One of the things I’ve found that helps make travel more enjoyable is learning some of the language of the place I am going to visit. Prior to visiting Cancun a few years ago I studied up on my Spanish. Prior to visiting Rome I learned enough Italian to become terribly confused, as it is too similar to Spanish for me to always tell them apart. (But I did learn to hear words, and was amazed that, in fact, Italians, at least Romans, tend to speak rather slowly.) Prior to visiting Germany last year I studied German. We are planning to visit England this Spring, so maybe I should study English? Since a writer is concerned with language (or else they’re not a very good writer) I find it interesting to see how languages other than English are put together and used. Here are a few observations from my time in other countries.

As I pointed out above, not knowing a language at least a little can lead you to some plainly wrong conclusions. Such as thinking that Italians speak very fast. Actually, every word ends in a vowel in that language, so it can be difficult to tell when one word ends and another begins. Also, most words have a lot more syllables than they need, so if you can’t hear the words, it sounds fast. French is special to me because it is the only language besides English that I started learning by immersion. I got off of a train in Calais at 4:30 in the morning. The train to Paris left at six. I needed coffee. I was hungry. To hell with what they think of my accent. I asked my companion how to say various things, and, eh voila, I got my coffee and pastry. To this day, French is the easiest foreign language for me to use, probably because I started learning it from the ground up.

Spanish, though, was my first. My sister was taking Spanish in college, and she taught simple Spanish words like numbers and other single-syllable things to my seven-year-old self, in order to help herself learn. Well, she still speaks some Spanish, and by cracky, I do too. Unfortunately, we can’t hide anything from her son, my nephew, because he speaks Spanish better than both of us put together. Lo siento, Ed.

As to German, it is common to think that German is the closest thing to English, and in some ways it is. However, more than half of our English vocabulary comes from French, as do our verdamt (get it?) spelling rules. A thousand years ago, English and German were the same language, more or less. Now, not so much. But some words are exactly the same in German. Words like active, relative, and the like, except that they’re spelled “activ” and “relativ.”

All of my three non-English languages do have something in common that English has lost: personal versus formal second person pronouns. That is, if you know somebody well, you use one word for “you” with them. Otherwise, you use a different word for “you.” But, hey, the personal “you” does exist in English, even though virtually nobody uses it any more. Oh really? Really! And thou dost know whereof I write, dost thou not? Sure, and if I hadn’t studied at least one other language, I would never know what that “biblical” or “Shakespearean” language was really all about. It comes, one way or another, from the German: Thou hast looks a whole lot like du hast, doesn’t it? Especially the “hast” part!

So I’d recommend studying another language if you want to write English. It really helps to understand how language is structured and used, which of course just what you’re trying to do when you write, fiction or non-fiction makes no difference. As Twain observed, The difference between the almost-right word and the right word is the difference between the lightening bug and the lightening! Oh, isn’t it, though?

I’d like to close with an observation about the French language. I used to say that the French didn’t know how to spell, because what they write doesn’t match what they say. However, in recently starting some formal studies, using Duolingo*, I have learned that in fact, I had that backwards. The French spell quite well. The verb conjugations and the various inflections are familiar, not at all unlike Spanish and Italian words. But what is pronounced is more of a sloppy creole of only vaguely comprehensible syllables, when they use syllables, that is. I read a theory that English is a creole, and maybe it is. And maybe we got that, along with a lot of our words, from the French. Merci boucoup, mes amis!

 

*Duolingo is a free online language course that I highly recommend to anyone wanting to learn a new way of speaking. Not quite as good as getting off a boat in the middle of the night in Calais, but close, very close.