Language fragments – language impressions

Something in my Caesar class got me to think. My prof was remarking on how the focus on canonical literature for Latin classes in school, that is, the classic Latin of Caesar, Cicero and their contemporaries, eventually led to a canonical vocabulary. Basically, those German scholars responsible for limiting the authors most students will ever read in Latin to a specific scope have written part of the language’s vocabulary out of canon.

Let me explain. Latin, like any language, has a basic vocabulary spanning things such as the most important verbs (e.g. esse – to be), nouns, etc. Then there’s specific vocabulary such as military terms, political terms or poetical terms. Now, it’s basically these three topics that most students of Latin will encounter during most of their studies – simply because those are the fields literature was written in, and those are the fields that Latin literature has survived to this day. So a student of Latin will have a wide vocabulary in these fields, but may be lacking in others.

Let’s contrast this to the learning of another, a “living” language, if you will (though I deny the claim of Latin being a “dead” language). When I learned French, for instance, I never aquired much military of political vocabulary. Naturally, the school curriculum’s vocabulary is more concerned with the areas of daily life, such as asking for the way, ordering a meal in a restaurant, etc. pp. Now, that is of course a sign of the times. We do not learn how to order a meal or ask for the way in Latin because it simply wouldn’t do us any good. We learn the vocabulary we need to acquire in order to translate the texts that are left to us.

Now I’ve heard it said by students that they find it interesting how many different words the Romans seemed to have for killing, weapons, warfare, etc. But is that actually true? Even in Ancient Rome, the military vocabulary probably did not constitute as great a part as the school curriculum’s vocabulary might have you believe. As such, one could get the wrong impression of the Latin language by how fixed it seems to be on certain areas, when in fact it’s just the curriculum that’s overly concerned with them.

The remnants of texts from earlier times are the only source we have of classical Latin. There is no unbroken line of native speakers, so we have only these texts to rely on. Now, let us consider for a moment that English would, at some point in the future, lose all native speakers, unlikely as that is (just pretend that the world is really going to end in 2012, and only the French will survive, or something). In the Apocalypse, all media containing the English language is lost. As society slowly rebuilds itself, it recovers only … Broadway musicals, for instance. I wonder how that would colour the perception of English.

Published in: on May 30, 2011 at 12:46 am  Leave a Comment  

Language trivia 001: What you did not know about…Irish!

Did you know why the Irish never (or rarely) say yes or no?

If you talk to Irish people regularly, you might have noticed (as this man did) that they often respond in what you might call a roundabout way, not clearly saying yes or no, but instead repeating the verb in question. It’s one of the many interesting peculiar features of Irish English (also called Hiberno-English). But do you know how it came to be?

The answer is simple: the original Irish language has no words for yes or  no. If you ask an Irishman/-woman a question such as An dtiocfaidh tu?” (“Will you come?”), he/she does not have an option that would correspond to English yes or no. Instead, he or she will use a socalled echo response by repeating the word in question. Thus, his answer might be “Tiocfad.” (“I will).

Even though in many languages such as English, French, and German the two little words yes and no (and respectively ja/nein as well as oui/non) are considered part of the basic vocabulary, there are quite a few languages that lack them. Another example of these would be Latin, which employs echo responses as well.

The more you know!

Published in: on May 29, 2011 at 11:24 pm  Leave a Comment  

Why multilingualism rules

Knowing more than one language is a great advantage. I could proclaim this as a fact, and I could also very well write a few thousand high, lofty words about how it sharpens your mind and builds character, etc.pp. I still might, in the future. But this post is a little different. I am aware that there are people who think that since they know English, and most of the world (or at least, most of the part they’re likely to ever interact with) speaks English, they should be fine. And you know what? They’re probably right, they’ll do just fine.

And after all, learning a foreign language is hard, right? I won’t argue that. It can be hard, and frustrating, and boring at times. Some grammar just happens to be incredibly dull. I am aware that learning a foreign language can be incredibly hard, and incredibly frustrating, depending on what language it is and how you’re going about learning it. Some people are better at it, some people struggle more. But it’s always an effort. What I will be trying to show you is that it can be worth that effort. So here are some situations you probably haven’t considered before: three situations in which you would wish you’d learned another language.

1. Win A Quiz Show – Latin or Greek

Let’s say you’re on “Who wants to be a millionaire”, or whatever quiz show runs in your country. You’re set to win a giant pile of cash if you could just answer one question. You’ve already used all your lifelines/jokers. The host asks you:

“What animal is considered part of the family of the canidae?”

A: Wolf,  B: Ant, C: Frog, or D: Crab.

Imagine you’ve never had a look at latin in your life, and you aren’t eaxactly a biologist either. Would you know that canidae is the biological family of wolves, foxes, dogs, etc.? Had you learned latin, you might have remembered the word “canis, -e”, or at least the saying “Cave canem” – beware the dog. In fact, a scientific study of the german version of “Who wants to be a millionaire” has shown that more than 20% of the questions could be solved easier or immediately through knowledge of Latin or Ancient Greek.


2.  Don’t be fooled – German

Listen to this song. Yeah. Sorry I made you do that. Does that sound German to you? Well, 85% of it isn’t. It’s Gibberish. Good thing you wouldn’t be so naive to try and actually use that to talk to a native speaker. Anyway, my point is this: anyone can make up words and claim they’re speaking another language. If you have a slight inkling of many languages, you won’t be fooled as easily.


3.  Enjoy art in its original form – English/German/Latin

It is extremely difficult to convey certain phrases, nuances and connotations from one language to another. More often than not, something is lost in translation. So why not enjoy the original form, if you can? If you’ve ever read Goethe’s Faust in English, let me assure you that the German version is about three times as good. There’s a saying that goes “A translation is like a woman – it can be either faithful or it can be beautiful”. I find that to be true (the part about the translation, not necessarily the part about women). If you translate Vergil’s Aeneid into English, you’ll almost certainly lose the verse structure or the hexameter. In order not to, you will have to make certain adjustments with wording, losing the precise meaning of the words. This phenomenon is not limited to literature, either. It’s considered supremely difficult to translate songs, for instance. I find that I detest most German versions of musicals that I love, but that were written in English. Another little bonus, one that is more valid for those who picked up English as a second language, though: if you speak the language a certain book or movie is released in, you’ll get it that much earlier. I don’t think I could have waited for the German translation of The Wise Man’s Fear, for instance.

That’s all I can think of for now. I’m sure I’ll pick up on this again later.


Published in: on May 28, 2011 at 9:07 pm  Comments (1)  

Welcome to Link to Language!

Hey guys and gals, and welcome to my new blog, Link to Language. This is where I tell you what most of this blog will be about, so you can decide whether to hit that back button very fast or maybe stay here for a while, and listen (yes, I know you’d actually be reading and not listening, but that’s how the quote goes, so bear with me). Anyway, this blog will basically function as a journal for all my random thoughts about language and anything remotely related to the subject – and I have many such thoughts. So many, in fact, that you could call  me a “fan” of languages, for lack of a better term.

While the concept of languages as a whole is a fascinating and very broad topic, there are some language that receive the main focus of my attention. First and foremost, those are German, English, and Latin, simply because the first is my mother language, and the other two the first and second foreign language I acquired, respectively. English and Latin are also two languages that will remain a focus of my life, as I am currently studying at Munich’s Ludwig-Maximilian-University to become a teacher for these two languages and for the subject of History. In addition, I am working at the University, helping to construct the Bahamas component of the International Corpus of English, or ICE Bahamas for shot.

Now, given that German is my mother language, you might be wondering why I’m writing this blog in English. The answer is very simple: I have an easier time expressing more complex thoughts in English than in German. This seems as strange to me as it might to you, but it’s a fact. It might be due to the amount of time I have spent reading, hearing, writing, speaking and even thinking English for the last five to six years. In fact, I tend to switch around English and German in my head depending on the situation. So even though I did not start learning English until I was around ten years old (and learned most of it by just delving into English books, of which I didn’t understand more than one sentence per page at first), I consider myself, for all intents and purposes, bilingual.

While I’m not fluent and familiar enough to think in them, there are a couple of languages other than the three above which I have some proficiency in. I still know enough French to get in and out of France without making an entire fool of myself, for instance, and I know enough Finnish to get by without starving or having to sleep on the street. Bits and scraps of Swedish, Japanese and Italian remain wedged firmly in my mind as well. And I’m in the process of learning Ancient Greek. So I have a pretty good basis covered when it comes to talking about languages.

Have no fear though, this is not a blog about grammar. I won’t be trying to teach you things such as latin word forms, Finnish pronounciation or the difference between can and could. Frankly, there are people that are much better suited to such endeavours than I am. I am more interested in the ways that knowledge about languages can help you in other areas of scholarly and daily life, how languages can affect each other, how they change and evolve, etc. So if you think that might interest you, why don’t you just stay a while and listen?*




*Gods help me, but I do love that quote. Sorry.

Published in: on May 28, 2011 at 7:09 pm  Leave a Comment