Saturday, November 10, 2007

back to life

After two months - hey, there's a record! - of being offline due to conferences, sickness, research papers, websites and weddings all coming along (don't ask), I've finally managed to organize myself again and get back to doing this blog thing along the lines of whatever I've written so far. Since September, I've spoken Québecois French, Hebrew, Arabic, Yiddish, Kinyarwanda and Tibetan (the latter to His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama!), picked up a few chunks in Mohawk and had tons of thoughts I certainly want to share with you.

But now, it's bedtime (don't I always write my posts before bedtime?), and I'm calling it quits, happy to be back, or as they say in Bavaria, bis nåcha - 'til later!

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

language of the day: Hungarian

What probably motivates me most when learning languages, other than the languages themselves, are the coursebooks that present and teach them. The fact that I find language teachers quite annoying at times (nothing personal), and that classes are just not my cup of tea, implies that I'm literally up to my head in all sorts of 'teach yourself-in thirty days-easy introduction-beginners' sort of books. Which, for me, is one of the greatest joys of life, and I've spent countless hours at bookstores like Grant and Cutler in London, which is for hardcore language fans only, or Morawa in Vienna, which also has a stuffed language section.

One of my all-time favourites is a book called Lako i brzo mađarski ('Hungarian easily and quickly', or if you want a nicer translation, 'Easy and quick Hungarian'), which I had bought with pocket money ages ago, at a marketplace somewhere in Bosnia, and which is stunning from the very beginning. Here's an excerpt from the 'revolutionary' preface: “The ever-growing reality of the brotherhood and unity of our nations and nationalities, together with the growing conscience of their togetherness and the proper enactment of the equality of nations and nationalities in our self-governing socialist community and of their right to use their languages in the overall self-governing practice of policy and public life, are all elements that help grow mutual interest for languages and cultures such as Hungarian. If we add the constant progress in the relations between our country and the neighbouring People's Republic of Hungary, then it is clear that the number of our citizens excited about learning Hungarian is steadily growing”. And that's just the beginning. Lesson three already teaches you the word for 'first-class' (elsőrendű), lesson seven begins with Ma rendkivül forrón tűz a nap ('Today, the sun is shining unusually hot', approximately), in lesson nine comrade Fenyvesi (Fenyvesi elvtárs) visits an agricultural cooperative and in lesson thirteen you learn that Jugoszláv Dolgozó Nép Szocialista Szövetsége is Hungarian for 'Socialist Association of the Yugoslav Working People'. Plus it's all illustrated with black and white caricatures of men with huge, round stomachs and moustaches and women to match. I suppose you can understand how desperate and amused at the same time I was learning Hungarian at age 13. (I will probably have to blog a bit about languages and communism – it's an awfully broad subject, though.)

There's this idea of Hungarian – a magyar nyelv – being an extremely difficult language, but I'm not buying. Whereas it does come up with place names like Hódmezővásárhelykutasipuszta (which, to be precise, is a corruption of Hódmezővásárhely-Kutaspuszta, later known as Székkutas, by the German author Hugo Hartung whose most celebrated work speaks of a Hungarian girl named Piroska), and there is a bit of a feel to it that the Hungarians do try to put as much as they can into a single word, this still doesn't make it extremely difficult. Some 12 to 14 million people in Hungary and other places that were previously part thereof (such as in southern Slovakia, Transylvania and Vojvodina) call it their mother tongue, and its closer relatives include only two languages spoken in western Siberia, Khanty and Mansi. By virtue of common ancestors that have come from the Uralic mountains, it is also related to Finish, Estonian and the other Uralic languages.

Hungarian regular verbs have two conjugations in the present tense – one when followed by a definite direct object (Kérem ezt az almát – I want this apple) and one for the other lot (Kérek almát – I want an apple). Like the other Uralic languages, it has no construction for 'to have', but to say 'I have X' uses 'my X is to me' (Nekem van időm – I have time). It also has a bunch of 'cases', or rather suffixes used to describe the various positions a noun or an adjective or a pronoun take within a sentence; such as a házban – in the house; a házba – into the house; a házból – from the house.

Hungarians being the polite people they are, you'll hear jó napot which means 'good day/afternoon' pretty much everywhere and often extended to jó napot kivánok ('I wish a good day/afternoon'), whereas women (and older people) are still greeted with kézet csókolom ('I kiss the hand'). Goodbye is the somewhat bumpy viszontlátásra, often shortened to viszlát, and 'I love you' is szeretlek. Hungarians pronounce the 'sz' as the s in the English word 'sun', and their 's' as sh in the English word 'shoe'.And if you're looking for something to take back home with you, make it powdered red pepper (füszerpaprika).

The photo of the Hungarian-language tourist attractions sign from Budapest was taken by Molly E. Holzschlag and is used under a Creative Commons license. On Flickr, someone made a quite amusing comment about the photo: "Thank God they have pictures!"

Monday, September 10, 2007

just a quick entry

Ich bin wieder da! After my trip to Bosnia, I went on to Bejahad - the annual Jewish culture festival in Croatia, where I ended up speaking Hebrew, Yiddish, Turkish, French, German and English, next to my native tongue. I then went on to greet a pile of work in Vienna, only to go see a EURO 2008 qualifier match in Székesfehérvár (Stuhlweißenburg or Stoličný Belehrad, meaning the 'throne/stool white castle/town'), in Hungary, where Bosnia had lost 1-0 in a match that made me realize how supporting "some of the world's worst teams" - which I so often claim to do - involves a lot of living with desperate play and creepy losses.

Nevertheless, I ended up being the only person on the bus - in fact, on all the busses - that was capable of any level of decent Hungarian (which is, at times, a ridiculously complicated but extremely loveable language), so I went from my bus to other bus to police car to my bus to border police car to other bus to police station to my bus, involving some violent fans, endless stops and dodgy border crossings. But we made it and now - as I'm up and running - I'm back to this blog.

Viszontlátasra everyone - and do stay tuned.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

on alphabets, movies and being tired

I'll make this a brief post - it's been a long day, I'm exhausted and work's keeping me up - but I'm just back from having seen Auf der anderen Seite (aka The Edge of Heaven) by Turkish-German which is a remarkable and remarkably complex yet astonishing movie about six people whose paths cross without them even noticing. The dialogue is in Turkish, German and English - I've seen it with Bosnian subtitles so it's all been quite an event, too. Absolutely thumbs up and highly recommended!

Dino has stumbled upon an image on the web that he wanted to share with me, and I'm sharing it with all of you: it may not be painstakingly accurate but it's pretty interesting particularly if you find precise data unnecessary. Do take a look at in case you want to see how we went from Phoenician to Times New Roman.

So - off to bed now. Head ööd, everyone!

Friday, August 24, 2007

language of the day: Jèrriais

Remembering the usual language vs dialect dilemma, you can think of Jèrriais as either a language in its own right, or a dialect of the Norman language, or of the French language (which is an extreme few linguists would agree with) spoken in Jersey, in the Channel Islands. The last census said that there were only 113 people who spoke Jèrriais as a main language, and about 3,000 who spoke it in total – out of almost 90,000 people that live in Jersey. The Norman language is, like ("standard", you might add) French or Italian, a Romance language – meaning descended from Latin – and includes dialects spoken in Normandy, in France, as well as on the other Channel Islands.

Although only about 3% of the Island's population speak Jèrriais every day, there's reason for optimism: the census figure has indeed increased, particularly regarding children who speak it. There is government support for it and some signs in Jersey, as the one here, from Jersey Airport (from Wikipedia), are bilingual in English and Jèrriais. Jersey being a (British) Crown dependency, English is the main language on the island, having replaced French in the 19th century.

'Good morning/afternoon' is bouônjour and 'good evening' is bônsouair, whereas mèrcie is the word for 'thank you'. What distuingishes Jèrriais from other languages in the area is the voiced dental fricative (don't ask – just think of the 'th' in 'then'), as in extchûthez-mé, meaning 'excuse me', or bouôn annivèrsaithe, which means 'happy birthday'. You can hear these phrases at Les Pages Jèrriaises ('The Jèrriais Pages'), which have loads of information on the language.

(I'm off to bed, wishing you bouonne niet!)

Thursday, August 23, 2007

language of the day: Kinyarwanda

Today's language of the day comes from the Bantu group spoken in, roughly speaking, the southern half of Africa (if you imagine a line from the Nigerian coast to the Somalia/Kenya border, think below that line and you'll get the picture), and thus called because many of its languages use a stem similar to -ntu or -tu for “person” or “man” and ba- as a plural marker (hence bantu, meaning “people” or “men”). It's name is Kinyarwanda, virtually meaning “language of Rwanda”, and it is spoken by 7 million in Rwanda – virtually all of its population. A very similar and mutually intelligible language, Kirundi, is spoken in neighbouring Burundi by 4.6 million people. Rwanda is very close to the Equator but high enough in the hills to be known as 'the Land of the Thousand Hills', or in Kinyarwanda, Igihugu cy'imisozi igihumbi.

Kinyarwanda is a typical Bantu language, using prefixes, infixes and suffixes to change words in order to fit the context, so igitabo which means “book” becomes ibitabo to mean “books”.Umuntu muto, “little man”, turns intu abantu bato to mean “little men” (notice the 'bantu' bit). If -bon- is the stem to mean “to see”, then tuzabona means “we shall see” (made by tu-, indicating the “we”, -za- indicating the future, -bon- indicating the stem, as well as the suffix -a). Twabonye means “we saw”, while twabonaga is “we have seen”. Learning Kiynarwanda obviously takes a lot of learning when to use what prefix, infix or suffix.

Muraho is what you would say to greet people, although you can say Waramutse (in the morning) or Wiriwe (any other time of the day) to people you know. Murakoze is “thank you” - although it literally means “you have worked”. If you ever go to Rwanda to see the mountain gorillas, do know that a gorilla is called ingagi in Kinyarwanda.

[PS Edit: I asked native speaker and friend Shivon to look at the post and she spotted a typo, as well as the fact that I had confused my past simples with my present perfects. The bottomline of this: always ask a native speaker! Shivon, murakoze! Tuzabonana mu Rwanda cyangwa mu Glasgow]

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

language of the day: Samoan

Samoan is a language of the 1200+ strong Austronesian family which, amazingly, spans from Madagascar to Rapa Nui (Easter Island) in the Pacific - that's almost 9000 miles, if Google Earth is right! And although all these languages are quite different, the Samoan word for 'eight', valu, sounds much like the Malagasy word, valo, the word used by Tagalog in the Philippines, waló, or in Tetum, the language of East Timor, where it is ualu. And while Indonesian, the biggest Austronesian language, uses a wholly different word for the 'eight', delapan, its word for five is the same as in Samoan - lima. It is absolutely fascinating to see how far language similarities can go, even halfway around the world.

But back to Samoan. More than 350,000 people around the world speak the language, and most of them live in the Samoan Islands - which belong to the independent state of Samoa and the US territory of American Samoa, both of them having Samoan as an official language. Take a look at the photo from Wikimedia Commons of what sunset in Samoa looks like - and you'll get the picture. There's a sizeable community of Samoans living in New Zealand as well. Like its Polynesian siblings, Samoan has no words that end in consonants, and consonants are always followed by vowels. It uses an alphabet of 14 letters - the 5 vowels as well as f, g, l, m, n, p, s, t and v. That's why Veronica, who speaks the Samoan phrases on the Microsoft Encarta encyclopedia, actually says her name as Velonita (h, k and r do appear in words of foreign origin - kulimi is 'cream', for example). Samoans will often swap consonants in words when speaking informally, so that, according to Lonely Planet's South Pacific Phrasebook, Tātou nonofo i'inā - 'Let's sit there' - is spoken Kākou gogofo i'igā colloquially.

The all-rounder greeting is Tālofa (the macron indicates a long 'a'), fa'amolemole is 'please' and fa'afetai means 'thank you'. Samoan has separate words for a sibling of the same sex (uso) and for those of the opposite sex - a brother is tuagane and a sister is tuafafine. Mothers and fathers will also use different words when referring to their offspring. And given that you're never far from the ocean in Samoa, one word well worth knowing is matāfaga - the beach.