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December days: Languages 
2014-12-19 (Fri) 19:50
[personal profile] angelofthenorth asked me to write about languages. I've already written about programming languages this month, so while I do believe that natural languages and programming languages have important common properties and that it's worthwhile for PL designers to think about concepts from natural linguistics, I'll stick to natural languages here.

My native language is English, subtype Mid-Ulster English. When I moved to Cambridge I spent roughly the first year saying everything twice and the second time a bit slower, so I got fed up with that and consciously modified my accent to be closer to how people talk around here. I was never able to get some of the vowels quite right - saying "eight" like an English person remains beyond me, and for that matter it's only very recently that I managed to produce a credible version of the English pronunciation of "vowel" - and now I can't really quite do a Belfast accent any more either unless I have quite a bit of a run-up, so my accent remains stranded somewhere in the middle of the Irish Sea and just confuses everyone. Oh well. Dialect-wise I think I manage fairly standard British English nowadays except for the odd phrase that pops out and surprises people, although I've recently been trying to say "youse" more often in speech after decades of considering it outright ungrammatical because honestly it's just annoying that English doesn't have a standard easily-distinguished second-person plural pronoun and this is as good as any.

At school I learned French and German. I took French up to GCSE (age 16), and while I started German later I kept on with it up to A-level (age 18), and apparently had the second-top German A-level mark in Northern Ireland, so I must have done OK. At the point when I went on an exchange trip to Türingen (we never actually managed the other half of that exchange), my exchange partner was rather less confident in English than I was in German, so as a result we spent most of the time speaking German, which did absolute wonders for my fluency. By the end of that trip I was literally dreaming in non-trivial grammatically-correct German, because apparently I have a significant auditory track in my dreams when my brain is busy processing major language acquisition work. Neither my French nor my German has remained at anything like the level I had at school, since I haven't used them much, but I can still manage to be a pretty competent tourist in either (Swiss German is pretty tricky, though!), and if I have a while to practice and nobody's talking too quickly then I can manage basic conversational German. I'd love to have the time and brain-space to practice these more.

Otherwise: I'm a bit of a dilettante with languages, and I absolutely love picking up little bits and pieces when I travel places. I went to Hungary for a competition when I was 17, and had the time then to teach myself some minimal Hungarian before I left, though goodness me it's totally unfamiliar. I'm pretty sure that a language that uses "öt" to mean "five" is just trying to troll speakers of anything Latin-derived, and its use of vowel harmony was totally unfamiliar at the time. I picked up some Swedish a few years later during a brief relationship with a Swedish speaker, which I found rather easier due to correspondences with German though of course it's not quite the same language family and a lot of little details differ. Learning karate taught me some very minimal Japanese along the way, although I rather suspect that Japanese-as-used-in-an-English-dojo is not really the same as proper Japanese. ghoti was working on learning Norwegian at one point and I had a go at following along, helped considerably by it not being very much different from Swedish. When I went to Prague for work I stopped into the cathedral for Mass on Sunday, and if you're a Catholic then Mass makes an excellent Rosetta Stone for a core subset of the language because the basic liturgy is pretty much the same everywhere; ditto Bosnian when we were in Banja Luka. So I can at least recognise all of those and make a stab at translating very simple things out of them, but I've never gone to the effort of learning them properly.

More recently I've been making an effort to learn Irish, mostly out of pure academic interest although y'know one of my passports is written in Irish and it kind of seems like the sort of thing that culturally I ought to have some familiarity with. It's a fascinating language: western European in some very obvious ways (you can spot the Latin influences in things right down to the numbers: quattuor → ceathair isn't much of a leap), and yet syntactically totally different. To start with the word order is verb-subject-object, which is pretty rare (9% of languages, apparently). Many verbal forms that have their own verbs in all the other languages I'm familiar with are expressed using compound forms in Irish (e.g. "I have a bike" → "tá rothar agam", "it is a bike at me"). Combine those two things and practically every sentence in fiction winds up beginning with "bhí", "it was", which feels pretty strange at first. Verb conjugations are a mix of analytic (using separate words to convey the conjugation) and synthetic (using different endings), depending not only on number and person but also on dialect; lots of stuff about Irish has to talk about how things are different in Ulster, Munster, and Connacht Irish, and sometimes the Standard has selected a compromise. Speaking of endings, inflection doesn't always just involve changing the end of a word, but often the beginning too; for example, "a house" → "teach" (pronounced roughly "tyuch", with "ch" as in "loch"), "my house" → "mo theach", "in a house" → "i dteach", so even looking up words in a dictionary often requires having learned enough of the basic syntax to be able to work out what the first couple of letters of the stem are going to be.

I've stalled at Irish a little bit, but not so badly that I shouldn't be able to pick it up again now that I'm not ridiculously overworked, so I hope to work on it some more in the new year and maybe be able to post some more curiosities. I spent so much of growing up learning languages, and might easily have ended up being a linguist if things had gone a bit differently, that learning languages feels like an important part of who I am and I really want to do more of it.

What languages do you lot know, and what's interesting about them?

This post is part of my December days series. Please prompt me!
This entry was originally posted at http://cjwatson.dreamwidth.org/13179.html. Please comment there using OpenID.
2014-12-19 (Fri) 22:03 (UTC)
My native language is English, subtype Mid-Ulster English. When I moved to Cambridge I spent roughly the first year saying everything twice and the second time a bit slower, so I got fed up with that and consciously modified my accent to be closer to how people talk around here.

Oh yes, or alternatively, aye right.

Edited at 2014-12-19 22:04 (UTC)
2014-12-20 (Sat) 09:31 (UTC)
I really enjoyed this post :) And I very much agree with you on 'youse' - coming from West Lancs (and having been schooled in merseyside from age 11), and so being familiar with Scouse, it's always seemed natural to me.

I had a Lancashire accent when I was young (and I still do, depending who I'm speaking to), but before Cambridge I had to attend a summer school (for learning classical Greek) and came across a load of posh public school boys who very much gave me the impression (in a not-very-pleasant way!) that my accent was non standard (which, interestingly, hadn't occurred to me before). So I ended up toning it right down and incorporating lots more RP features into my accent, and now I think I sound weird :)

I know Latin and Greek, but they still never feel quite alive - like I read them but don't speak them. I studied Spanish at school through to A level and am rusty but can get it back if I need to, and I did a wee bit of German but really only enough to help me in a classificatory way (e.g. I can recognise cases, constructions, etc so can get to a point where I can read it OK, but conversation is a big no at the moment). I never did French at school but I read a lot of French for work, so again I'm in a weird position because I don't really know the conversation basics but I can read a complex article on ancient writing systems no problem.

I can read Italian and modern Greek but only with a lot of effort and the help of a dictionary. Italian I don't think I'll ever be able to speak because I know Spanish and they're so similar and yet so different that I feel they're mutually exclusive. Italian has also made some of the weirdest sound changes out of the Romance languages! With modern Greek I find that it's done some crazy semantic shifts so knowing ancient Greek helps less than I feel it should...

I feel I should make more of an effort with Celtic languages (by blood I'm about half Irish and maybe a quarter Welsh), but I haven't had a chance to put in the effort really. Incidentally, Celtic and Italic are very closely linked (sufficient to refer to them as an Italo-Celtic group). For "four" I would have said PIE *kwetr- > Proto-Italo-Celtic ??? > Lat. quattuor, Ir. ceathair.

I'd really like to learn Chinese and Japanese but no time!
2014-12-20 (Sat) 10:27 (UTC)
I completely forgot about Latin for some reason! I guess I was stuck in a living-languages track. I took GCSE Latin, and it remains useful in a grammatical and etymological substructure kind of way. (German and Latin were the two things that really made me aware of the grammar of languages; French didn't really do much for that because it's close enough to English in a number of important ways that a lot of that was just skated over in class.)

Even the minimal Irish I've learned is enough to let me puzzle out Scottish Gaelic conversations on Twitter without too much work and occasionally not even a dictionary (hi, khalinche!). I'd love to acquire enough spoken facility to find out how mutually-comprehensible they are in that mode as well. Welsh remains a bit of a mystery apart from spotting the odd distant cognate across the P/Q divide, though.
2014-12-20 (Sat) 21:48 (UTC) -
My grandparents came to the UK when I was four and they didn't speak much ENglish, despite having lived in the US from the late 1930s. They got the flat next door to us and I just picked up German easily. I did it at school too, and having the paths for language acquisitionm made it easier to learn French. I did those at university and Spanish in the first year, but then changed course. Although I'm fluent and my accentis good I still find declensions difficult. And gender of nouns.

I was not a good student in Spanish. We got to the levelof reading Cervantes in a year but I struggled. Then when I joined Capt Ex at sea a few years later I did Spanish via the Seafarers' Education Service. That didn't work very well either as I was lazy and there was noone to talk to. I do like talking when in other countries though and learned a bit of Hebrew when a volunteer for three months in Israel and a bit of Turkish when I had a Turkish boyfriend and spent time with his friends at university.

Then, in 2007, I retired to Spain and before that did a Spanish evening class and we did classes there too. I like to communicate so manage to speak, although I'm still not good after 2 years there. Our dogs are bilingual. They know lots of commands in Spanish and I seem to scream Spanish ones if in dire need of them to pay attention. They react better to Venga Acqui! than Here! And Molly knows Nada mas means no more of whatever.

The teacher training I did first was to teach English as a Second Language to Adults, ESOL, so I know how the mechanics of language learning works. It meant I was a critical student when I went to Spanish classes from 2007 onwards :).

As Capt Ex is Syrian born and his first language is Arabic I have had the experience of a room full of relatives speaking a language I don't understand. I did learn a few words of Arabic, and a few things are the same as Hebrew, but i should have learned more.

Now I am going deaf people with strong accents are sometimes difficult for me to understand, especially on the phone. Any interference with the sound like other noise, a quiet voice, poor diction or an accent makes it harder.
2014-12-21 (Sun) 11:27 (UTC)
The only language I'm any good at is English, which is a matter of some regret. I sound quite RP, as you know.

I have GCSEs in Latin, French, and Ancient Greek (the last of which was done in 2 years, and I enjoyed greatly); the classics made anatomy a little easier. I have also done odd bits of German (a year at school, then a course at the University language center). I try and pick up at least some of the local language before visiting places. Before we most recently went to Portugal, I did a 6-week teach-yourself course (which I LJd about at the time)., which proved moderately useful.
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