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Archive for the 'Foreign Languages' Category

Swahili vs. English

Wednesday, May 2nd, 2007

Kathleen McCune is a fascinating worman who spent several years in Africa where she met a Norwegian whom she married and moved with to Norway. She recently suggested berth as our Good Word and we struck up an e-conversation. Since she was familiar with Swahili, the official language of Tanzania, I asked her about some words that a Swahili speaker mentioned to me decades ago and I had all but forgotten.

The issue is the ignoring of grammatical markers in borrowing. I first met this phenomenon learning Russian, where jeans was borrowed as dzhins-y. The Y is the Russian plural marker, added because the English -S means nothing to Russian. Keksy from cakes is another example.

Swahili does exactly the opposite in several words it borrowed from English: it recognizes initial sounds as prefixes and changes them with case and number. Swahili nouns decline like Latin nouns but unlike Latin, Swahili uses prefixes rather than suffixes. So while “child” is mtoto, “children” is watoto, kikapu is “basket” while vikapu is “baskets”. Swahili has about 7 different pairs of prefixes like these corresponding to different noun classes, just as Latin has several declensions.

One of those classes contain nouns that begin on ma-. In the plural, the prefix is swapped for ba-. Now, Swahili borrowed martini from upper-class English, where R at the end of syllable gets no respect, so the Swahili word is matini. But if you need two of them, guess what you need: two ba-tini!

I love their word for traffic circle (round-about): kipi-lefti, also borrowed from the left-lane-driving British. The ki-class nouns take vi- for their plurals, so if you have to maneuver two traffic circles on your trip, you have maneuvered vipi-lefti.

But Kathleen came up with the funniest example of a Swahili borrowing from English. Students and politicians who go abroad are called (singular) mBenzi or waBenzi as a group when they return. This root is Benzes with the final S lopped off. These people are accorded this name because they are known mostly for bringing Mercedes-Benzes back with them and driving them when they return.

Yet Again on ‘How Many Words?’

Monday, January 15th, 2007

Last week I discussed the impossibility of even estimating the number of words in a language. Today I discovered an old (1998) CBC News article on the longest dictionary every written (click here) Consisisting of 40 volumes, it took 147 years to compile, edit, proof-read, and publish. It documents Dutch and Flemish (a dialect of Dutch) words dating back to 1500. By the time it was finished, it was already 29 years out of date.

This is an excellent example of the failure of dictionaries to account for all the words in a language. A dictionary is only someone’s sample of the words in a language. No matter how many people you put on the committee to compile a dictionary, you will only get those words the members of the committee have heard or read.

So why not do a Wiktionary, like the Wikipedia, allow everyone speaking the language to put in whatever they think is a good word, their opinion of its forms, part of speech, definitions, usage, etc? Forget editing and proofreading.

The result it then that of the Urban Dictionary with dozens of definitions for each word and the compilers arguing among themselves as to which is the correct one. Can you vote on which is correct? If the majority say that “ain’t” is a good word, is it then?

The best approach is to enjoy languages and the words in them, appreciate the creativity that brings more new words to the surface each day than any one person can master, and forget statistics. Language and statistics get along like oil and water.

Ghil’ad Zuckermann on ‘Israeli’ vs ‘Modern Hebrew’

Saturday, December 2nd, 2006

Paul Ogden contacted Dr. Ghil’ad Zuckermann and brought our comments on the Hebrew-Israeli issue to his attention. The remainder of this blog is Dr. Zuckermann’s response.

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose By any other word would smell as sweet…?”

Some people argue that the name is not important. In fact, folk taxonomy is widespread. On the one hand, tomatos for me are vegetables (rather than fruit); on the other, I often think of potatos as starch like rice (rather than as vegetables). There are many people who believe that a koala is a bear. Who knows, perhaps even the first zoologists who saw it might have thought so too?! However, we now know that it is a marsupial. Should we continue to call it a bear?

Well, we could, why should we care? But let us say that you are a zoologist. Would you continue to employ this folk taxonomy and define a koala as a bear? You could, but if you insist that it is a bear zoologically, you might not be taken too seriously by your colleagues or by *future* generations. Similarly, I use the term Israeli for the following reasons:

(1) The term is much more accurate than Hebrew. Why not put the facts straight? If we chop off bear from koala-bear, we end up with koala. If we chop off Hebrew from hybrid Israeli Hebrew, we end up with Israeli, a lovely, elegant name.

(2) It could help to get my message across more clearly (otherwise, laymen might not realize that what I am trying to say is that Israeli is not like Modern English or Modern Greek)

(3) It is convenient to use it when discussing differences between Israeli and Hebrew, for example ‘The Israeli meaning of this Hebrew word is.’

Advantages (2) and (3) demonstrate that the term serves as a tool. However, I am also aware of the fact that the term itself might draw redundant fire from people, who might not make an effort to understand my model. I urge people not to overlook my arguments just because they want to continue to call this lovely language Hebrew. It is of great importance to keep in mind that my research is not just about terminology. It has ‘meat’ too, adding substance to our knowledge of history, sociology and language. If you are convinced by my theory but dislike the name Israeli, I would still regard my Beit Leyvik series as successful.

Terror attacks notwithstanding, I went to a Tel Aviv café the other day for a meal. Seeing Greek salad on the menu, I decided to play a small trick on the waitress. ‘Excuse me, but why is it called Greek salad?’ (slikhá, lama korím lezè salát yevaní?), I enquired. Clearly in a hurry, and impatient with such obvious questions, she answered nonchalantly, and a little arrogantly: ‘Can’t you see that it has Bulgarian cheese in it?!’ (ma z’toméret, atà lo roé sheyésh bezè gviná bulgarít?!).

It took her four seconds to realise the beautiful paradox in her explanation. Words can often bear a paradoxical relationship to their meaning. Yet, despite these obvious sense-reference, de re – de dicto contradictions, people rarely think twice about how appropriate the signifier they are using really is.

You might want to adopt the Selbstgefühl view, according to which native speakers have the right to think whatever they want about their own language. I would be the first to agree with you. However, as a linguist, I need to SEEK the truth about language. I do not by any means think that my research delivers the ultimate truth. I might well be wrong, but I am certain that my model brings us closer to the complex reality of the emergence of Israeli.

Paul Ogden on Language Names and Age

Friday, December 1st, 2006

Paul Ogden responded to my comments about old and new languages in yesterday’s language blog. He is much better versed in Middle Eastern languages and knows as much if not more about the European ones.  Here is his take on the old versus new language issue.

“Any speaker of Modern Hebrew (Israeli) with only a little difficulty can read and understand the Hebrew bible, whereas today’s Athenian cannot read or understand Classical Greek literature. More so for today’s Teheranian reading and understanding the Persian of Cyrus because of the difference in alphabets.”

“But in the[se] . . . cases, there has been continuing development of the languages because each has continuously been a mother-tongue language. Hebrew development slowed to a crawl about 1,500 years ago at the end of the Talmudic period (it had ceased to be a mother-tongue language some 500 years earlier) and then just sputtered along until about 150 years ago. I say 150 years because it was about that time that the production of paper was mechanized, rapidly permitting low cost newspaper publication. Enhanced communication via newspapers gave moribund Hebrew a kick-start into the twentieth century, aided and abetted by its late nineteenth century revivers.”

“I think a good case can probably be made for Italian being Modern Latin. Grant Hutchinson and I had a lively exchange on this subject on the old Agora.”


How Much do Languages Change with Age?

Thursday, November 30th, 2006

Well, I’m back from Colorado and the enjoyment of my grandchildren crawling over my spawling body, which makes it down to the floor more easily than it comes back up from it. I arrived to find an e-mail from my good friend and editor of our daily Good Word, Paul Ogden, about Modern Hebrew which raises the point about the boundaries of language.  Paul wrote:

hebrew_language“I had the pleasure of attending two of four lectures by Ghil’ad Zuckermann [who] claims that the language spoken in Israel today should be called Israeli, rather than Modern Hebrew. This is because of a break of some two millennia in which virtually no Jews spoke Hebrew as a mother tongue, leading to a situation where the late 19th century European Jewish revivers of Hebrew could not help but project their Indo-European, and specifically Yiddish, biases into the language. He makes an interesting case, though I’m not convinced.”

My response was I am inclined to agree with Zuckermann although I cannot claim any detailed knowledge of the language(s) involved. I have received a dozen complaints from Iranians arguing that Farsi is, in fact, Modern Persian and should not be called Farsi. Persian has changed so much that even Middle Persian, spoken from the 3rd to 10th century, is generally given a distinctive name: Pahlavi. Well, Italian is just as likely Modern Latin as Farsi is Modern Persian (though in this case Spanish, Portuguese, and French have as strong a claim to that title).

In “A Language is a Dialect with an Army” I wrote about the difficulty of drawing a line between a strong dialect and a different language. This is the same problem that we face in drawing (or not drawing) a line between Old and Modern Hebrew: it is a matter of degree upon which no one agrees. If Modern Hebrew is 51% different from the Hebrew of the Bible, should we give it a different name? 75%, 99%?

No modern speaker of English can understand a word of “Old English” without taking a course in it. We are as likely to understand Dutch as Old English, yet we do not speak “American”, “Australian”, and “British” languages.

The decision to use a different name, however, is never a linguistic one. It is always a political or cultural one. Nations that like to be associated with their past tend to want to symbolize the continuity with a continuous name for the language. Most nations with ancient cultures do. Only when there is a grave conflict such as that between all the various dialects of Latin that developed into languages is the decision clear-cut. Fortunately, it is an issue that the adjectives “old” and “modern” resolve as easily as an entirely new name.

The Origin of the Names of the US States

Thursday, November 2nd, 2006

US FlagWell, after researching them for a month, I finally uploaded a first pass at an authoritative etymological glossary of the names of the US States. I call it a first pass because I am still finding books on the subject and former colleagues who specialize in the languages involved. However, I found some rather surprising sources for the first pass that are at odds with the informationi floating around the web in such resources as Answers.com, Infoplease, and Wikipedia.

The subject came up when someone within earshot expounded on knowing the meaning of the word Mississippi “The Father of Waters”. Could be but the meaning somehow struck me as odd. So, I googled “origin state names” and came up with a formidable list of lists containing the definitions or other origins of all the states in the US. I was horrified at the mistakes I could spot even though I am not a specialist in native languages. The most appalling aspect of these lists (there must be at least 50 out there) is that they are all practically identical! The ease brought by the Web to plagiarism had taken its toll.

My introduction of the list includes this: “The names of the places where we live reveal that, as the Europeans took over the lands of the native populations living in North America, they retained much of their beauty, beauty from their languages, many now long dead. Read below to see how the names of our states are memorials to lost native populations and a few European monarchs who “granted” Native American lands to European settlers.”

I have always cringed at the fact that, although I never see a native American, I bath every day in their languages. We must have absorbed every word in every native language into the nomenclature of this country. Since a major intent of our daily Good Word is to use words to pry into our history, loosen bits that enhance our understanding of ourselves, I thought that understanding how lexically dependent we are on native American words would contribute to that intent.

There are many interesting discoveries: the name Idaho seems to have been a nonsense word, Oklahoma means “red man” (can’t rid that state of all traces of its original owners), and Massachusetts, which everyone seems to think means “(people of) the big hill” more probably means “arrowhead hill”, according to the head linguists of the Smithsonian, a specialist in the now extinct Massachuset language. Anyway, take a look and let me know what you think.

Latin: An Undead Language

Monday, October 30th, 2006

When I was in high school a half century ago (!), the word was that studying Latin would help you learn other languages in the future. Latin was the language we chose when we couldn’t decide which to study. I was among the lucky one who chose it.

In fact, knowledge of that language only helps you learn other European languages but that turned out to be true. My knowledge of Latin has in fact been quite helpful in learning all the languages I have spoken over the years (5) and the 3-4 others that I read. All of them are European: Romance, Germanic, and Slavic.

Sceptics asked me why I was studying a dead language. The opponents of the idea that Latin helps with other languages were those who chose a currently useful one and considered Latin useful only for doctors and lawyers. Most, I am sure, thought that the dead language Latin would have been buried by now.

But it still lives. The North Andover, Massachusetts newspaper, Eagle, recently published an article about the surprising popularity of Latin in the local high school (click here). It caught my eye because it came out the same day that the BBC News carried a surprising piece on the popularity of Latin in Finland, where the government website has a Latin version click here. Googling Google brought up several other articles on the resurgence of this language, including this one on one of my favorite websites, Education World.

The Latin and its Romance descendants form the basis for Esperanto, an attempt at a common world language that did not favor one country. Latin at one time played this role from the Atlantic to the Middle East. Could it make a comeback? It seems to have come back from the dead.