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.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

an untitled first post

I'll admit it, if I hadn't done so before: I'm obsessed with languages. I wake up in the middle of the night and can't go back to sleep before I've thoroughly analysed, say, what little I know of Tuvaluan grammar. I love meeting Kurdish people to then see whether they speak Kurmanji or Sorani (or Zazaki, for that matter). And before my honeybunny's grandmother was dispatched off to a retirement home, we'd regularly chat up in Dutch and Frisian. That's just me and I can't help it.

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.