Saturday, November 10, 2007
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
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
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
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 http://www.popamericana.com/%21/Alphabet%20Evolution.gif 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
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
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
Saturday, August 18, 2007
People often ask me of the number of languages I speak. There's two difficult bits in this question. First, when do you really speak a language? Do you speak a language when you're able to order a coffee and comment on someone's physical appearance or do you only speak it when you're able to maintain a blog in it? Some people tend to use the number of words someone masters as a criterion, but that's not of much use, either: my father, for example, masters more than 3,000 words in German, Russian and Italian - all of them related to civil engineering and hence completely useless for ordering coffee.
The other subtle issue here is when a language differs from a dialect. Max Weinreich (a linguist I appreciate) said that "אַ שפּראַך איז אַ דיאַלעקט מיט אַן אַרמיי און פֿלאָט", or if you want that translated, "a language is a dialect with an army and navy", which sums up a part of the distinction. Duden, the standard German reference dictionary, classifies Yiddish as "German spoken by (mostly Eastern European) Jews". While Yiddish may have evolved out of German (and German speakers would understand a transliterated version of Weinreich's quote), it is a distinct language in its own right. More on the army/navy argument: the Turkish government claimed, for a pretty long time in the past century, that Kurdish was a dialect of Turkish, despite the fact that the two belong to linguistically diametrically opposed families - Kurdish is Indo-European, while Turkish is Altaic. John MacWhorter has, in his book titled The Power of Babel done the best he could have in the attempt to explain what sets languages apart from dialects, and it's a good, long read if you're interested.
To be frank, I don't see a point in differentiating languages and dialects. Whereas I master ("Standard High") German well enough to dream, think and spontaneously curse in it, I also do the same in Viennese, which is a variety of German (more accurately: "East Central" Bavarian). And I sometimes switch between the two in the very same situation, according to need and context. But whether I'm using two languages, or two dialects, or a language and a dialect ("thereof"?) is an issue not necessarily easily answered. The two are not always necessarily mutually intelligible (look at faces of bedazzled tourists from Germany buying wine in Austrian villages and you're likely to get the picture).
So, how many languages do I speak? The way I can write my blog in English, curse in German or flirt in Bosnian, I could to the same in 22 more languages (that I, not being a linguist, count as languages) and several other varieties. While I don't/can't necessarily think in them, I can also communicate (in speech and writing) in 14 other languages (or dialects or geographically distinct varieties of human speech), and that's about it. Journalists have, at times when I used to do interviews about languages and language learning, summed it up to write that "I speak" 38 languages, not counting my mother tongue triplet titled "Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian".
"Wow," people have said, "I didn't even know that there were that many languages in the world". In fact, there are. Many, many more. There are, says the Ethnologue, 6,912 living languages. And we may lose a good third of them before the century's over.
That's what this blog will be about - linguistic diversity. I won't necessarily always be versed in the languages I'll be writing about, but I'll write about them. There's no such thing as a boring language or a language not worth knowing. And chances are, you may even find it useful.