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Archive for the 'Foreign Languages' Category

French Pronunciation

Thursday, May 1st, 2014

Jan Collins raised a question today about French which all French learners (and some speakers) might be interested in:

“Can you please tell me when people stopped pronouncing final consonants in French? When I see the historical words I never know how they would have been spoken.”

In the Early Modern French Period, which began about 1700, French passed through an “open syllable” stage, when all syllables had to end on a vowel and could not end on a consonant. That is why those ending on consonant sounds, always are spelled with a “silent e”, e.g. l’homme, pronounced [lOm], because the [e] at one time was pronounced, and still is in some songs.

However, few words—only new ones—end on consonants that are pronounced; otherwise they are silent unless they appear before a word beginning with a vowel:

  • muet [mye] “mute”
  • nez [ne] “nose”
  • mot [mo] “word”

French opened all the syllables ending on nasal consonants, [n, m], by nasalizing the vowel. That is why French has nasal vowels, e.g. temps [tã] “time”, grand [gRã] “large”.

Tables of Differences

Wednesday, April 23rd, 2014

Prof. ir. Max Peeters recently brought up the following question:

I noticed that the word for butterfly is very different in almost all languages, but for table very similar (see table below), even Gaelic, Turkish, etc. Can you explain this?

 English  butterfly  table
 French  papillon  table
 German  Schmetterling  Tafel
 Dutch  vlinder  tafel
 Spanish  mariposa  tabla
 Italian  farfalla  tavolo
 Czech  motýl  tabulka
 Turkish  kelebek  tablo
 Polish  motyl  tabela
 Hungarian  pillangó  táblázat
 Irish  féileacán  tábla
 Latin  papilio  tabula

It is a matter of (1)  borrowing and (2) the two senses of table: one that you eat and work on and a presentation of data in a publication. Usually languages borrow table in the latter sense, since by the time people got around to data, they already had a word for table in the first sense. This is why the words for table in the second sense are so similar: they are all borrowed from Latin, the language of science in so many European languages.

So, the word in German for the first sense of table is Tisch, in Czech it is stůl, and in Spanish it is mesa—just as different as the words for “butterfly”.

Hope this helps.

Where does PIE ‘Nest’ Nest?

Thursday, November 14th, 2013

I received this very pleasant comment from Supriya Dey today:

“I absolutely enjoy the daily Dr Goodword feeds. Thank you.”

“For today’s word, I was wondering if nid in nidicolous is related to nir [neer]. which means “home” or “nest” in some Indian languages. The syllable col also means “lap” in Bengali, an Indian language. Any relations?”

I responded:

It depends on which Indian languages you are talking about. If they are Indo-European, like Bengali, Hindi, Marathi, and Oriya, the answer would be an unqualified “yes” for nir “nest”. They would not be included in the etymological sources that I use because little is known by Western European etymologists about Indo-Iranian languages. If you are talking about Dravidian languages, like Kanada, Telugu, Mayalayam, the answer would be “no”.

The word col “lap” presents more problems, however. Col- is the PIE root (if this is the root of Latin colere at all), which would have changed considerably in the past 5000 years. This root became carati, calati in Sanskrit and referred to movement. There are many questions surrounding this word even if it occurs in Bengali. As I say in the Good Word nidicolous: it takes some stretch of the imagination to take “rotate” to “inhabit”. The same would apply for “lap”. Taken together, the sound change problem and the semantic one, would probably exclude it from consideration.

I heard back from Supriya telling me that nir does, in fact, occur only in north Indian languages.

Nazis vs. the Socialists

Thursday, February 28th, 2013

I received considerable flak in reaction to my recent treatment of the word socialism, specifically my claim that the Nazis were enemies of the socialists. Several people pointed out that the word Nazi was short for National Socialists and that the Nazis were socialists. (I have since added a corrective note.)

In the 1930s socialism was very popular. Everyone in the industrialized world was joining socialist parties, socialist unions especially. Several nonsocialist parties added “socialist” to the name of their party in order to build membership. We should focus on the next word in the Nazi Party’s name: Nationalist, for the Nazi party grew out of the “far-right racist völkisch German nationalist movement and the violent anti-communist Freikorps paramilitary culture”, according to Wikipedia.

The fact of the matter is that the socialists and communists were even more popular after World War II, because the Nazis were just as focused on eliminating socialists and communists as they were on eliminating the Jewish population. But the socialists and communists fought back. They entered the underground and were known as “the resistance” and the “underground” in censored US war films.

But the Europeans knew who constituted the “resistance” and “underground”, so following the war, even more people joined the Social Democrats (Marx’s party), the Christian Socialists, and even the Communist Party, soon to be known as the Eurocommunists. Just before I retired in 2000, 60 French cities had communist mayors.

So, we shouldn’t judge a party by its name any more than we should judge a book by its cover.

Splunking with the Sono-thing

Thursday, July 7th, 2011

My wife and I recently took a pair of our grandchildren to visit one of the many large caves in Pennsylvania and was guided by a young girl who hoped to graduate from high school next year and go on to college.

Hopefully, she will take the opportunity to work on her vocabulary in her senior year. In explaining how bats can live in the cave when all the lights are out, she asserted that they possess “that sono-thing”. Close but no cigar.

She then told us that there were other rooms in the cave that are not open to the paying public. One was recently discovered by Penn State students as they were “splunking”. She then added, “Splunking is crawling around in a cave. Not everyone knows that word.” Indeed, I didn’t, though I use spelunking from time to time.

A year from now she will be voting.

Alumnus, Alumni, Alumna, Alumnae

Saturday, June 11th, 2011

Probably half the words in English were borrowed from Latin or its descendants, French, Italian, and Spanish. Today English is hardly recognizable for the Germanic language it is, cousin to German, Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish.

Originally, the plural forms of Latin nouns were borrowed along with the singular forms, so that the plural of abacus was abaci, of cactus, cacti. As time passed, however, that has changed in bewildering ways.

Abacuses and cactuses have all but totally replaced cacti and abaci, and foci is used as a plural of focus only in academic institutions. All dictionaries now list the plurals of callus and sinus as calluses and sinuses as the only options.

On the other side of the coin, most speakers don’t even know that agenda and media are, in historical fact, the plurals of agendum and medium. (Radio is one medium.) More and more I hear “a phenomena” presumably spoken by people who don’t know that the singular is phenomenon.

Gigi Marino, Editor of the Bucknell Magazine tells me she is weary of reading “I am an alumni” in letters to her office. The plural of the Latin word for “pupil”, alumnus, has not changed and is not even in the process of changing. The plural of this word is not optional but only alumni. It is the plural, not the singular. “I am an alumnus,” is the only way to express the singular sense of this word.

I suspect the reason for the plural of this word taking over the singular is the awkwardness of the expected change, alumni > alumnuses. No matter, the only plural for this word is alumni.

One final note. Not only did English borrow the Latin word for “pupil” as its word for “alumnus”, it borrowed the feminine forms: alumna and plural alumnae, pronounced [ahlumnee] to refer to female alums. Again, alumnae is the only plural form of alumna.

So, what if we are talking about several graduates, some men, some women? The general rule in Latin and all related languages is that in the general form covering both genders is the masculine. So alumni may refer to several male graduates or a mixture of male and female graduates. Also, if you are not sure whether the alum is male or female, alumnus is the general term to use. (This a grammatical rule that has nothing to do with sexism, by the way.)

May Day in Germany

Monday, May 2nd, 2011

In response to our Good Word May Day, Monika Freund sent me her remembrances of another European May Day custom that persisted to the late 50s:

On April 30 all the bachelors of a village came together in the local pub and auctioned all the girls off: the one who made the highest bid (later redeemed in beer) was allowed to set a May tree,  meaning, a young man who wanted to date a girl would decorate a young birch tree with ribbons and put it into the front garden of her parents’ home.

He was then allowed to come for Sunday Kaffeetafel all May. The girl who got the highest bid of all became “May Queen” and the highest bidder was “May King”. If a boy from a neighboring village wanted to set a tree, he had to buy himself a place at the pub event at the rate of four crates of beer.


Tahrir Square, Cairo

Friday, February 4th, 2011

Today’s Good Word is pandemonium, brought up by the current pandemonium on Tahrir Square in Cairo. While editing this word, Paul Ogden, my friend and editor in Israel, had these thoughts, which struck me as worthy of being shared.

Tahrir means “liberation” in Arabic. It’s related to Hebrew herut “freedom”, the original name of Menachem Begin’s party. Hebrew has another related word, shikhrur whose meaning lies somewhere between “independence” and “liberation”.

There is also a big Turkish newspaper called Hurriyet, a word no doubt adopted by the Ottomans from Arabic. Finally, there’s also a big Turkish newspaper called Cumhurryet, which means “Republic”. It was evidently also lifted from Arabic, because the full name of Libya is something like Jamhuuriya al-Libya. (C is pronoounced in Turkish as J in English and Libyan.)

Quadrigraph Sighting

Tuesday, November 23rd, 2010

Often writing systems lack a letter for a sound and that lacuna is covered by a digraph, two letters representing one sound, like English SH and CH. German has a trigraph, SCH which stands for the same single sound that Croatian, Czech, and Slovene represent with the one letter Š.

Danish seems to take the n-graph cake in this respect wasting FOUR letters for the same consonant sound with a quadrigraph. We find it in a few surnames like Schjødt where the first four letters represent the single sound that SH represents in English and Š in those Slavic languages that use the Latin alphabet.

The interesting thing about this quadrigraph is that it contains the digraphs for the same sound in several Indo-European languages using the Latin alphabet: CH in French, SH in English, SCH in German (a trigrph), and SJ, which is used in most Danish words.

SCHJ is the only quadrigraph I know of. I know some consider combinations with the GH digraph in English to be quadrigraphs, e.g. eight and though. These are not quadrigraphs, though, for they represent two sounds. Eight represents the sound [eyt] and though, [ðow], i.e. the two sounds of diphthongs, a vowel plus a reduced consonant. This is not the case in Danish. It is true, as I say, that the Danish quadrigraph occurs only in surnames like Schjeldal, Schjelderup, Schjødt, Schjønberg, and Schjønning but they are true quadrigraphs.

Does anyone out there speak a language that has another?

Shmon: Eight and Body Search

Saturday, May 8th, 2010

An old acquaintance, Daniel Razumov, sent me an interesting Russian word with an unexpected story. Here is the story he tells:

“I have very nice example of Russian word “shmon” (шмон)  ‘body search’ which is very similar to the Hebrew word “shmone” ( שמונה )  ‘eight’.  My friends and I thought the similarity odd but coincidental.”

“Then we discovered that in the Soviet GuLags there was a body search at eight ‘clock each morning, and since many Jewish people were serving time in those prisons due to their ‘wrong’ political perspective in those days, the Hebrew word ‘eight’ was transferred from Yiddish or Hebrew to Russian slang as a body search.”

The semantic drift of words can be absolutely fascinating but also tell us so much about our history, where we are coming from and where we are going.