Differently polite

I discovered the other day that in Chinese families it is considered impolite to say the equivalents of please and thank you, as this is seen as distancing yourself from other members of the family, so within a family such words are apparently rarely used. Is this correct? Does it vary between families?

Although I lived in Taiwan for more than five years, I never spent much time in family homes – I shared flats/apartments with locals and people from other countries – so I didn’t see enough of normal family life to notice the lack of pleases and thank yous.

To a British person the idea of not saying please and thank you in such circumstances seems bizarre and wrong, but it is just a different way of being polite.

Are there situations where you wouldn’t use please and thank you? If so, is this because they are considered distancing, as in the Chinese case, or just unnecessary?

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Chinese, English, Language 8 Comments

српски (Serbian)

Last week I started learning Serbian (српски) in preparation for the Polyglot Conference in Novi Sad in Serbia in October. Whenever I visit a country whose language I don’t already speak I learn at least the basics of their language, so I couldn’t go to Serbia without learning some Serbian.

I’m using online materials, such as Serbian Lessons and an app I download to my web tablet – any suggestions for other online resources would be welcome. I am listening to online Serbian radio most days as well.

I’ll be trying some of the language learning methods discussed in Gabriel Wyner’s book, Fluent Forever, which I started reading recently.

I will also be making little videos using the Serbian I’m learning. Here’s the first one:

If you speak Serbian and spot any mistakes in the dialogue or subtitles, please let me know.

English, Language, Language learning, Serbian 2 Comments

Language quiz

Here’s a recording in a mystery language.

Can you identify the language, and do you know where it’s spoken?

Language, Quiz questions 5 Comments

When is a language not a language?

One perennial problem in linguistics is how to decide whether a language is a language or dialect. In the fascinating book, Speak: A Short History of Languages, which I read recently, Tore Janson argues that a language can be considered a language when those who speak it decide that it is one, and they give it a name. This often happens when a language acquires a standard written form, and/or becomes the language of a state of other political entity.

He gives the example of Italian in the Chapter Did Dante Write in Italian?: Dante is said to be one of the first authors to write in Italian rather than Latin, however he didn’t see Latin and Italian as separate languages, but just different forms of the same language. Dante refers to Classical Latin as Grammatica (Grammar), the colloquial language of Italy as Latium vulgare (popular/vulgar Latin), and he calls the language he wrote in Latino (Latin). Italian only started to be called italiano or lingua italiana not long after Dante’s death.

Janson gives the another example of the Khoisan languages of South Africa, which have many different names. Speakers of these languages, when asked, might use the name of their area, tribe or some other name for their language – but generally don’t have a particular name for their form of speech. Several hundred names have been collected by linguists, and as a result nobody is quite sure how many Khoisan languages there are and how they are related to one another. None of these languages have a standard written form, and speakers rarely, if ever, write them.

English, Italian, Language, Latin, Linguistics 2 Comments

Brushing up languages

Last week in Scotland I tried to speak Scottish Gaelic as much as possible, and had a number of good conversations. At first though, I was adding quite a lot of Irish Gaelic into the mix, which works sometimes as the two languages are close, but not always. Last year I had a month between my visits to Ireland and Scotland, so had time to get my brain in Scottish Gaelic mode before going to Scotland. This year I only had a week, which wasn’t really enough. By the end of the week in Scotland my Scottish Gaelic was coming back.

Sometimes words that are spelt the same but pronounced differently in the two languages trip me up: for example man is fear, which is [fəuɾˠ] in Irish, and [fɛr] in Scottish Gaelic, which sounds like the Irish word for hay/grass, féar [feːɾˠ], which is feur [fiər/fjɔːrʲ] in Scottish Gaelic – not to be confused with fior (true, genuine, real) [fiər].

Do you need a while to brush up languages you don’t use very often? How do you go about it?

I generally listen and read a lot, and practise speaking to myself. Last year I also wrote something on my other blog every day in the language I was focusing on.

English, Irish, Language, Language learning, Scottish Gaelic 1 Comment

Language quiz

Here’s a recording in a mystery language.

Can you identify the language, and do you know where it’s spoken?

Language, Quiz questions 4 Comments

Waulking and Walking

My Gaelic Song course is going well and I’m really enjoying it. There are thirteen of us in the class – most are from Scotland or of Scottish origin, and there are also a few from other countries like the USA and Germany. Some speak Gaelic well, others know a bit, and those without any Gaelic are finding the pronunciation somewhat tricky.

One type of song we’ve learnt is the waulking song. The word waulking refers to the practise of fulling or milling tweed cloth, or pounding the cloth against a board with the hands or trampling it with the feet in order to shrink it and make it water proof. In Scotland, and among Scottish settlers in Nova Scotia, waulking was accompanied by rhythmic songs known as waulking songs (òrain luaidh) which helped people to coordinate their work. Traditionally it was women who did this work – men also did it in Nova Scotia – and one person would sing verses, and everybody who sing the vocables – nonsense syllables that fit the tune. The verses were often improvised.

There are some examples of waulking songs in the songs section of Omniglot.

The word waulking comes from the Old English word wealcan (to roll, toss); from the Proto-Germanic *walkaną (to twist, turn, move); from the Proto-Indo-European *wolg- < *wel- (to bend, twist, run, roll), which is also the root of walk, and of the Latin word valgus (bent, bow-legged).

English, Etymology, Language, Latin, Proto-Indo-European, Scottish Gaelic, Words and phrases Leave a comment

Language quiz

Here’s a recording in a mystery language.

Can you identify the language, and do you know where it’s spoken?

Language, Quiz questions 8 Comments

Sabhal Mòr Ostaig

I’m off to Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, the Gaelic college on the Isle of Skye, later today to do a course in Scottish Gaelic song (Òrain Ghàidhlig) with Christine Primrose. This is the third time I’ve done the course with Christine, and the fourth time I’ve been to the college – last year I was there later in August for a Gaelic song course with Mary-Ann Kennedy.

I’m looking forward to it very much as I love singing, especially in Gaelic, and will have plenty of opportunities to speak Gaelic, and maybe other languages, while I’m there. The place itself is also very beautiful with spectacular views across the Sound of Sleat.

A view of the Sabhal Mòr Ostaig campus

So I’m going to Glasgow by train today, staying there tonight, then continuing my journey by train up to Mallaig, and by ferry to Armadale, then I’ll walk or get a taxi to the college, depending on the weather.

English, Language, Music, Scottish Gaelic Leave a comment

Cigire or Cigydd? Cross-language confusion

Last week in Ireland on the last night of the course each class played some tunes, did a sketch, sang songs, and/or did some other party piece. One of the Irish language classes did a sketch about a bunch of unruly school kids whose class was being visited by an inspector, played by Paul Kavanagh, Irish Ambassador to China. When the inspector turned up and he introduced himself as a “cigire scoile” (school inspector), and I processed the word cig in cigire as the Welsh word for meat. So at first I thought he was the school butcher, which would be cigydd ysgol in Welsh, though that made no sense in the context. I soon realised that he was an inspector, but it took a while for my mind to accept that word cigire had nothing to do with meat.

Incidentally, the Irish word for butcher is búistéir or feolaire, and feoil is meat.

Do you ever suffer from cross-language confusion?

English, Irish, Language, Welsh 5 Comments