Imagine you’re with a group of people who all share a common language, and some of the group may also speak another language. Is it rude for them to speak that language, knowing that some members of the group won’t understand them, and might feel excluded?
Let’s say the common language is English, and some of the group speak Spanish. If you were a monoglot English speaker, you might feel excluded / annoyed if some members of the group speak Spanish, a language you don’t understand.
Imagine if you worked in an office where everyone speaks Mandarin and English, but you only speak English. Would you tell them to speak exclusively in English all the time, or at least when you’re around?
If you were the boss, you might do so. This was in fact the situation where I worked in Taipei – the boss only spoke English, so we all spoke English with him, while we spoke a mixture of Mandarin, English and Taiwanese among ourselves.
How about if everybody in the group but you speaks a language like Catalan, Basque, Welsh or Irish, would you expect them all to switch to a more-widely spoken language, such as Spanish or English, so you can understand and/or feel included?
There have been cases of monoglot English-speaking managers in businesses in Wales and Ireland insisting that their staff speak to each other in English rather than Welsh or Irish. The managers want to understand what their staff are saying, and don’t want any non-Welsh or Irish-speaking customers to feel excluded.
At the Welsh music session I go to, we speak mainly Welsh and bits of English. For the native speakers of Welsh, it’s normal to speak their mother tongue, and for the fluent learners like me, it’s a great opportunity to practise the language. Some of the people who come to the session don’t speak Welsh, or are just starting to learn it. However, they don’t complain that they can’t understand, and don’t insist that we speak English.
When I hear someone speaking in a language I don’t know, my ears prick up and I try to guess what language it is and what they’re talking about. Sometimes I might even ask them what language they’re speaking. Other people might not react in this way, and may even feel intimidated / irritated if everyone around is speaking in foreign.
A Czech friend sent me a link to an interesting article (in Czech) about a mysterious inscription found on a rock in the village of Plougastel-Daoulas in Brittany in the northwest of France. Verisons of the article in English and French are also available.
The writing is in the Latin alphabet, but the language is unknown – people have suggested that it’s an old form of Breton or Basque.
Parts of the inscription are “ROC AR B … DRE AR GRIO SE EVELOH AR VIRIONES BAOAVEL… R I” and “OBBIIE: BRISBVILAR … FROIK … AL”, and there are two dates 1786 and 1787.
It looks most like a form of Breton to me, although the word VIRIONES looks more Gaulish.
A reward of €2,000 is being offered to anybody who can deciper this. If you take part, you have until November 2019 to submit your decipherment. The most plausible entry will receive the prize. You can contact firstname.lastname@example.org to register for the competition, find out more and to receive photos of the inscription.
In North America a moose is a large member of the deer family, also known by its Latin name alces alces. The word moose comes from Algonquian languages, such as the Naragansett moos or the Eastern Abenaki mos. These words are thought to come from moosu (“it strips”), from the Proto-Alonquian mo.swa.
The same animal is known as an elk in British English, and is called something similar in quite a few other European languages: elc in Welsh, Elch in German, elg in Icelandic, Danish and Norwegian, älg in Swedish, alce in Italian, Portuguese and Spanish, and alnis in Latvian [source].
The word elk refers to a different species of deer in North America, however, which is also known as the wapiti or cervus canadensis in Latin [source]. The name wapiti comes from the Cree or Shawnee waapiti (elk; white rump) [source].
In French a moose or elk is élan [eɪˈlɑːn], wapiti [wa.pi.ti] or orignal [ɔ.ʁi.ɲal]. Élan probably comes from Lativan [source]. Orignal refers to the Canadian moose and comes from the Basque word oreinak, plural of orein (deer) [source].
Moose is also a way to write mouse in Scots – it’s pronouned [mus], and features in the famous saying “there’s a moose loose aboot this hoose”, which comes from the song Hoots Mon by Harry Robinson [source].
So a moose is a moose, except when it’s an elk or a mouse.
Here’s a tune I wrote called The Loose Moose / Yr Elc Rhydd:
I got back from the Polyglot Gathering in Berlin late on Monday night. I travelled by train the whole way, which is a bit more expensive than the plane, and takes a few hours longer, but I prefer to travel this way, and you see more. The journey went smoothly, apart from the train from London, which was an hour late getting into Bangor. Fortunately I got a partial refund on my ticket. On the Eurostar I talked to a interesting lady from Vancouver, and on the train to Bangor I talked, mainly in Welsh, to a doctor from Felinheli.
This year’s Gathering was as much fun as previous years – it was my third. I arrived in Berlin quite late on Wednesday evening the day before it officially started, and missed out on most of the polyglot games that were going on in the afternoon and evening. Next year I might arrive a day or two before the start to give me a chance to explore more of Berlin – this year I spent most of my time in the venue and didn’t go exploring.
Over the next four days I learnt about many things, including Portuguese-based creoles, Greek, minimalism, Sardinian languages and dialects, why many language learners don’t acquire native-like accents, metaphors in native Canadian languages, language mentoring, how musical techniques can be applied to language learning, the stagecraft of multilingualism, and much more. I got to know old friends better, met lots of new ones, and I spoke lots of different languages. My talk on Manx went well, as did the introduction to Welsh that I helped with.
The talks were mainly in English, with some in French, Italian, German, Esperanto, Dutch, Spanish, Russian, Indonesian, and in various combinations of these.
Between us we polyglots speak quite a few different languages. The most common (i.e. those with quite a few speakers / learners) include English, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Catalan, Romanian, Esperanto, German, Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Russian, Czech, Slovak, Polish, Serbian, Greek, Finnish, Hungarian, Welsh, Irish, Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese, Korean, Indonesian, Malay, Arabic, Persian, Hebrew and Swahili. There were also speakers and learners of Wolof, Punjabi, Hindi, Marathi, Romani, Tamil, Latin, Scottish Gaelic, Manx, Cornish, Breton, Sardinian, Luxembourgish, Latvian, Lithuanian, Macedonian, Bulgarian, Slovenian, Albanian, Basque, Tagalog, Turkish, Navajo, Toki Pona, Klingon, and probably other languages.
I’m looking forward to the next polyglot event – the North American Polyglot Symposium in Montreal in July. I’ll be doing a talk on the origins of language there, so should get working on it.
Some things I learnt from the Gathering
There are many ways to learn languages, and no single way will work for everyone. Some like to focus on one language at a time until they have reached a level they are happy with, then move on to the next language; others like to study many different languages at the same time. Some learn grammar and vocabulary first, then learn to speak; others start using their languages straight away, or soon after they start studying. Some like to study on their own; others like to study in a class and/or with a private tutor. Some combine many of the above and more, to varying degrees – I certainly do.
From Malachi Rempen’s talk on cartooning, minimalism and language learning (Less is More: What Silly Doodles Can Teach Us About Fluency), I learnt that you can do a lot with a little. He showed how he can make his Itchy Feet character express a wide variety of emotions with just a few lines, and suggested that the same can be applied to languages – you can communicate even if you know only a little of a language. He also argued that fluency means different things to different people, and might not be the best thing to aim for.
Tim Keeley, professor of Cross-Cultural Management at Kyushu Sangyo University in Fukuoka, explained that the idea that only children can acquire native-like accents in foreign languages is wrong – the brain is flexible throughout live and you can learn to perceive and produce foreign sounds. However there are emotional barriers which stop many people from sounding ‘native’. When learning another language you can also take on or create a new identity, and those who are willing and able to do this are most likely to sound more like native speakers. You also shouldn’t worry about mimicking people. In fact that is a good way to acquire native-like pronunciation.
Michael Levi Harris, an actor and polyglot from New York, talked about parallels between learning a part and learning a language. He explained that actors tend to exaggerate speech and physical mannerisms when learning a part, then make them more subtle, and that language learners can try the same things – exaggerate the pronunciation, gestures, etc. until they become second nature, then tone them down. He also talked about taking on different identities when speaking different languages and with different accents. If you can find a native speaker of a language whose voice and mannerisms appeal to you, then you can create your character in that language based on them.
The extend to which you take on a new identity in a new language depends on how much you want to integrate into a new culture. If you want to be taken for a native, then you need to sound and act like them. Alternatively you could try sounding like a native, perhaps with a bit of a foreign accent, but not worry so much about acting like them. If you spend a lot of time in a different county interacting and observing the natives, you’re likely to pick up at least some of their behaviour anyway.
Fiel Sahir, an Indonesian-American musician and polyglot who currently lives in Germany, talked about applying musical techniques to language learning. He explained how practice is the key to music and language, but it has to be intelligent practice that focuses on areas that you find difficult. This might be particular passages in a piece of music, or particular tenses or noun declensions in a language. By focusing like this, you can make a lot of progress.
Focus is something that I find difficult sometimes. I can and do focus, but often get distracted. I was thinking about how I’ve been dabbling with a variety of languages recently and not making a lot of progress in any of them. So my plan is to focus on one, or two, languages for the next year – Russian and Czech – and learn as much as I can in them. I will keep my other languages ticking over, but not spend much time on them.
Recently I have acquired quite a few new language courses: as a sponsor of the Polyglot Conference in New York I received 10 new Colloquial language courses in Albanian, Bulgarian, Croatian, Czech, Estonian, Hungarian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Polish and Russian. I also bought a Glossika Russian course with the special offer given to conference participants, and bought a Basque course from Assimil with affiliate commission from Amazon France.
I learnt a little Hungarian many years ago, and am currently working on Czech and Russian, but haven’t studied any of the other languages before. I’d love to know at least the basics of all of them, though have no particular need or desire to learn them at the moment. Also, I already have courses in a number of languages that I have only glanced at so far – Arabic, Norwegian, Swedish, Scots and Cornish.
Do you sometimes get carried away with acquiring language courses and other materials?
Do you think you will get round to learn all those languages one day?
My trip to France last week with members of Bangor Community Choir and Coastal Voices choir from Abergele was fantastic, and though it was only five days, it felt much longer as we fitted so much into our time there.
We left Bangor at 6am on Wednesday morning and travelled to Birmingham airport by coach, picking people up in Abergele on the way. We flew from Birmingham to Bordeaux, then got another coach from there to Issor in the Barétous valley – a delightful place in the foothills of the Pyrenees. We stayed there for two nights in gîtes just outside the village of Issor which are owned by a member of the French choir we were visiting. Both nights we were there we had meals outside one of the gites, and members of the French choir came to join us, and there was much singing and merriment.
On the second day – Thursday – we visited a vineyard near Monein, part of the Jurançon wine region, and sampled their wine – at least the others did – I don’t drink, but was interested to see how the wine is made. We also visited Pau and Navarrenx, both of which are attractive and interesting towns, and of course we sang in each of these places.
Before I went to Pau I wasn’t sure how to pronounce it. Now I know that it’s pronounced /po/ in French, and /paw/ in Bearnese and Basque. The origins of the name are uncertain.
Navarrenx is pronounced /nabarēŋs/, and was known as Navarrensis in the 11th century. Since then there have been a number of versions of the name. In Bearnese it is known as Nabarrenx or Nabarrencx. This area was traditionally known as Lower Navarre (Nafarroa Beherea or Baxenabarre in Basque, Navarra Baisha in Bearnese, and Basse-Navarre in French) and was part of the Kingdom of Navarre until the 11th century. The name Navarre is thought to come either from the Basque word nabar (brownish, multicoloured, or from the Basque words naba (valley, plain) and herri (people, land) [source].
On Friday we popped over to Jaca in Spain going through the tunnel under the mountains on the way there, and coming back over the mountains. We spent a pleasant morning there, then headed back to France, stopping at Canfanc on the way to see the impressive railway station (see above). We had a picnic in a village whose name I don’t remember, then went up into the hills to Lescun, where we sang in the church and had a meal with the French choir and other local singers. Unfortunately it was too foggy to see the apparently spectacular views of the mountains. Coming down the mountain was quite an experience in the fog on a very windy road. We were driven by a member of the French choir, who knows the road well and is a very good driver, so we never felt unsafe.
On Saturday we explored Oloron-Sainte-Maire, particularly the old parts of the town, which are very picturesque, and learnt a bit about the local sports, such as various forms of Basque pelota, which has similarities to squash, and Bearnese quilles de neuf, a kind of skittles. We spent the afternoon wandering around and relaxing, and performed in the cathedral in the evening. The concert went really well. We had two encores and standing ovations, and raised over €2,000 for a charity that’s helping a village in Nepal to rebuild after the recent earthquake.
Then the French choir, le Chœur Sensible, did their set, which included songs in French, Bearnese, Basque, Zulu, English, Georgian, Spanish, Guadalopean Creole and other languages. Here are some recordings from the French choir’s set, made by Rod Armstrong:
Adieu foulard, adieu Madras – a song from Guadeloupe in the local creole language dating from 1769, attributed to François Claude de Bouillé1, who was governor of Guadeloupe from 1769 to 1771: more info.
Then we did our set, and we sang a few more songs together. I was hoping to record the whole of the concert, but unfortunately the batteries in my recorder didn’t last. Other people did record the concert, and I hope to get hold of those recordings soon.
We left Oloron on Sunday morning and returned to Abergele and Bangor via coach, plane and coach, arriving in Bangor just after 9pm. On the way we sang a song or two in most of the places where we stopped, including Bordeaux and Birmingham airports.
I spoke plenty of French during the trip, and a bit of Spanish when we were in Jaca. A few other members of our choirs speak French to varying degrees, and some speak Spanish. Most of the French choir know at least basic English, and some speak it very well. Some also speak Bearnese, Basque and/or Spanish, so we were able communicate with them without too much difficulty. Some of choir members from Wales started speaking English with outrageous French accents amongst ourselves, and this soon spread to the whole choir, much to our amusement.
Tomorrow I’m going to Oloron-Sainte-Maire in the south west of France with members of the Bangor Community Choir, and the Coastal Voices choir from Abergele. We’ll travel by coach to Birmingham aiport, fly to Bordeaux, and then continue by coach to Oloron. While we’re there we will visit interesting places around the area, such as Issor, Lucq-de-Béarn, Monein, Pau, Jaca (in Spain) and Lescun, and will probably sing in most of them. We’ll also perform in a concert with a local choir, la chœur sensible, in Sainte-Marie Cathedral on Saturday evening. This choir came to visit us in Wales last year and invited us to visit them this year, so this trip is a sort of choir exchange.
We will sing in a variety of languages, as usual, including English, Welsh, Zulu, Church Slavonic, Czech, Northern Ndebele, Xhosa, Croatian and Mingrelian, and we’ve learnt a French song especially for this trip – Belle qui tiens ma vie, pavane written in 1589.
This will be my first trip to France in 15 years, and my first time in this part of France. The region is known as Béarn, part of the department of Pyrénées-Atlantiques, and half the local people speak Béarnese, a dialect of Gascon, which is considered by some to be a variety of Occitan. When la chœur sensible visited us last year they sang a number of songs in Béarnese, which was interesting to hear. Béarn is also neighbour to the Basque provinces ofLabourd (Lapurdi), Lower Navarre (Basse-Navarre / Nafarroa Beherea), Soule (Zuberoa), and I think some members of la chœur sensible come from those provinces and speak Basque.
We’ll be back in Wales on Sunday (31st), so from tomorrow to Sunday I probably won’t have time to answer emails and work on Omniglot.
I thought that the word honcho as in head honcho (big leader / big cheese) came from Japanese. The OED and the Online Etymology Dictionary both say that it comes from the Japanese word 班長 (hanchō) or squad / team leader, and that it was borrowed by American servicemen in Japan and Korea in 1947-1953.
However, according to The Basque History of the World by Mark Kurlansky, which I’m reading at the moment, the word honcho is a version of the Basque word jauntxo /xaunʧo/, a wealthy. powerful, rural landowner – a word with a ironic, negative undertone. From jaun (sir / lord / god). This sounds kind of plausible, though I haven’t found any other sources which make the same claim.
The book is interesting and includes quite a few bits of Basque language, and even some recipes. It is also somewhat biased in favour of the Basques.
Today’s word, ortzikara, is Basque and means “time when a storm is brewing” or in Spanish “tiempo amenazado por la tormenta”. Do any other language have a single word to express this meaning?
This word comes from a book I’m reading at the moment – Mother Tongues – Travels through Tribal Europe, by Helena Drysdale, in which the author and her family travel through Europe visiting people who speak minority languages such as Basque, Occitan, Sami and Corsican.
Related words include ihortziri (thunder), tximista (lightning), truxu (light rain), euri (heavy rain), bisuts (torrential rain), zara-zara (heavy rain), ortzadar (rainbow), haize (wind), elur (snow) and bisutsa (light snow). In fact there seems to be quite a lot words in Basque for different kinds of weather.