I discovered an interesting Welsh expression today – maen nhw’n datws o’r un rhych (‘they’re potatoes from the same furrow’), which is one equivalent of saying that they are as thick as thieves, i.e. they are close friends. Other Welsh equivalents of this expression include maen nhw’n gryn lawiau (‘they’re pretty (?) hands’); maen nhw’n yng nghegau ei gilydd (‘they’re in mouths together’); and maen nhw’n drwyn wrth drwyn (‘they’re nose to nose’).
In French the equivalent of this phrase is comme larrons en foire (‘like thieves in (a) fair’) – the word larron is a old word for thief – the usual word is voleur.
The 2011 UK census found that Polish is the third most-spoken language in England and and Wales, after English and Welsh, and the second most-spoken language in England after English. According to a report in The Guardian, there are 546,000 speakers Polish in England and Wales, which is compared with the 562,000 people who report that they speak Welsh in Wales.
Statisticians who analysed data from the census found that in response to the question “what is your main language?” 104 different languages were listed, and 49 of them have 15,000 or more speakers. In England and Wales 8% of the population, or 4.2 million people, speak a language other than English as the main language. The most spoken languages after English, Welsh and Polish are Punjabi, Urdu, Bengali and Gujarati. There are also significant numbers of Arabic, French, Chinese and Portuguese speakers. Of the Chinese speakers, most list Hakka, Hunanese or other Sinitic languages as their main language, and fewer list Mandarin or Cantonese. There were found to be particularly concentrations of Gujarati speakers in Leicester, Cantonese and Mandarin speakers in Manchester, Lithuanian speakers in Boston in Lincolnshire, Punjabi speakers in Slough, and Somali speakers in Brent in northwest London.
So if you’re in the UK and considering learning a foreign language, Polish might be a good choice, or maybe another language that is widely spoken in the area where you live. In London you have a choice of over 100 languages in most boroughs.
Another article I found in The Guardian today talks about a primary school in Peterborough where 20 different languages are spoken among the pupils, but none of them speaks English as a mother tongue. The headmistress, who has worked in Pakistan and speaks Urdu, doesn’t see this as a problem but rather celebrates the diversity of the school and does everything possible to ensure that children do well. Many of the teaching assistants in the school are bilingual; new pupils are paired with older pupils who speak their language in a buddy system, and there are arrangements with other local schools where the pupils can learn alongside others who speak English as a native language.
I often meet people who say that they studied a language or two in school, but have since forgotten most of what they knew as they’ve had little need and few opportunities to speak the language(s). To some extent I’m in a similar position – since finishing school I have rarely spoken French or German, though I did spend three months working in France during my year off before going to university, and my ability in them atrophied. However, since I started going to a French conversation group a few years ago, I have regained my fluency in French – it came back quite quickly, and the polyglot conversation group I started this month gives me opportunities to use my German, which is starting to come back, after nearly 25 years of neglect.
Last week I was wondering why many people seem to find it hard to recover neglected languages they’re learnt in the past, even after only a few years. A friend suggested that my ability to do this might be because I’ve been actively learning languages more or less ever since I was 11 years old, and that by keeping the bits of my brain involved with learning and using foreign languages helps to keep all the languages in there at least partly active. I think there is something in this, as I remember reading about experiments in which bilingual individuals were put in brain scanners, which found that when the bilinguals were focused on one language – hearing it, reading it or speaking it – their other language was also active.
Another factor is how thoroughly you learnt a language in the first place – if you learnt it to a high level, then reviving it later is likely to be easier than if you only acquired a basic knowledge of it. For example I spent only a few months learning Italian and Portuguese on my own, quite a few years ago, and though I can still sort of read and understand them, I can only speak them to a very limited extent. I would need to start again with them really as my knowledge of them is shallow, so there’s not much to revive.
Have you studied languages in the past, neglected them for some time, then managed to revive them?
“International Mother Language Day has been observed every year since February 2000 to promote linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism. The date represents the day in 1952 when students demonstrating for recognition of their language, Bangla, as one of the two national languages of the then Pakistan, were shot and killed by police in Dhaka, the capital of what is now Bangladesh.”
The theme for this year is books for mother tongue education.
The subject of snails came up this week at the polyglot conversation group and I discovered that the Cornish word for snail is bulhorn /ˈbʊl.hɔɾn/ (pl. bulhornes), which I particularly like, and which conjures up images of bullhorn (megaphone) wielding snails.
We were also talking about slugs and didn’t know the Cornish or Welsh words for them. I suggested malwoden heb dŷ (“a snail without a house”) or malwoden digatref (“a homeless snail”) in Welsh, and bulhorn heb chy (“snail without a house”) was suggested for the Cornish version. I now know that a Welsh slug is a gwlithen or a malwen ddu (“black snail”) and that a Cornish slug is a gluthvelhwenn or a melhwenn. The gwlith and gluth in these words, which mean dew.
I later discovered that the German word for snail is Schnecke – isn’t that a great sound? Definitely a cellar door word for me. A German slug is a Nacktschnecke or “naked snail”.
The wel part comes from gwel (view, sight, vision), I think, and appears in such words as:
- gwelus = visible
- gwelet = to see, look
I find it interesting when new words like this are invented for modern inventions, rather than just borrowing international terms like television, telephone and radio. Other examples in Breton include pellgomz = telephone (“far talk”) and urzhiataer = computer (“order-er”). Such words may not be used in everyday speech, but I think it’s nice to know that they exist.
I went to a singing workshop in Porthmadog today and there I heard the interesting term harmony magpie, which is used to describe a someone who ends up singing like those around them, even if the others are singing a different part. The workshop leader recommended that any harmony magpies in the group should make sure that they surround themselves with people singing the same part, rather than going next to someone singing a different part, as they would most likely be drawn into the other part.
Afterwards I was thinking about this and thought about the way my speech tends to become like the speech of people I’m talking to, and thought that I might say that I am a bit of an accent/dialect/language/linguist magpie. I think the technical term for this phenomenon is linguistic accommodation. A linguistic magpie might also be used to describe someone who collects lots of bit of different languages, just like magpies reputedly collect shiny things to put in their nests.
Are you a linguistic magpie, or indeed a harmony magpie?
Today I found maps on the Guardian website which show the percentages of speakers of languages other than English in a number of major UK cities. It is based on data from the 2011 census and shows where the speakers are concentrated. For example, the main concentration of Bengali speakers is in East London around Mile End, while Arabic speaks are concentrated mainly along Edgeware Road. Meanwhile in Cardiff there are Polish speakers in most parts of the city with a particular concentration between Newport Road and Broadway.
This kind of map might be useful if you’re looking for people to practice your languages with.
Do you know if similar maps are available for other cities or countries?