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.