The forms of a language inevitably have repercussions upon the speaker, it is they which mould his face, his land, his habits, where he lives, what he eats. The foreigner learning Finnish distorts his own bodily features; he moves away from his original self, may indeed no longer recognize it. This does not happen studying other languages, because other languages are merely temporary scaffolding for meaning. Not so for Finnish: Finnish was not invented. The sounds of our language were around us, in nature, in the woods, in the pull of the sea, in the call of the wild, in the sound of the falling snow. All we did was to bring them together and bend them to our needs.
— Diego Marani, New Finnish Grammar
- Salon: Do you think the rise of Google Translate — and astonishing iPhone translation apps like Word Lens, which allows you to automatically translate signs on your phone — means people are going to stop learning other languages?
- David Bellos: That could happen in the way the generalization of the pocket calculator means my grandchildren don’t know how to do arithmetic. That would be a sad result. Obviously it removes the motivation for language learning for all sorts of minor, everyday trivial tasks. But I think that people in positions of responsibility in the educational system and in schools and public life should know full well that the existence of Google Translate in no way reduces the educational need and the utility of acquiring foreign languages. We should struggle ever harder so that some of the next generation have a proper understanding of a variety of other languages — not just French, but Chinese, Japanese or Arabic.
- Salon: In some parts of the world, foreign movies are dubbed over instead of subtitled. I remember watching dubbed TV shows and movies when I was a kid, and even then I thought it was very strange. In the U.S., we clearly prefer subtitles.
- David Bellos: Even among the countries of the European Union, there are very different traditions. When sound came into movies in the 1930s and the industry de-internationalized, different countries established traditions and expectations that remained quite firmly fixed. France, for example, dubs its foreign films — except for films considered as art — while in England and America that’s unheard of. The way America treats subtitles says a lot. In Germany and France and Italy, the people who produce the local versions of foreign movies, whether dubbing or subtitling, are respected professionals with a public profile. Here they are a completely obscure network of guys who do it for a few dollars an hour in a garret at night. And I’m hardly exaggerating actually. And these are some of the most difficult operations you can do with language.
- Salon: Does that suggest that Americans just don’t care about translation as an art form?
- David Bellos: Twenty years ago, if you were an academic and also a translator you never put your translations on your C.V. because they would count against you when it came to promotion time. Translation was seen as second-rate. But I think that is changing. I think there is much more respect now for translators in the academy and elsewhere.
- Stephanie Nikolopoulos: Are official languages or a universal language signs of social progress?
- Bob Holman: Nope. Not that I believe in Progress! I believe in Poetry, in free expression. Why vote for an official language except to force people to use that language? France has a national language, and that’s making the revival of Breton and Alsace just that much more difficult. Esperanto is a Utopian idea; I love it! But languages are not ideas; languages are physical and real as bodies. So learn Esperanto, learn ASL, learn Klingon—I’m learning Welsh. But the important thing is to speak to your children in all the languages you know—knowing Alsatian and French is no more difficult for a child than being monolingual. It will enrich their lives, and keep their culture/identity alive to help humans figure out how to live on earth. And it has the side effect of actually raising your IQ 14 points, according to a study in Alsace.
“…newborns tended to produce the intonation pattern most typical for their respective mother tongue. The crying patterns of the German infants mostly began loud and high and followed a falling curve while the French infants more often cried with a rising tone. This early sensitivity to features of intonation may later help the infants learn their mother tongue.”
I taught my dad a new word this week...
- Pappa: I have to WHAM the freezer today.
- Me: What?!?
- Pappa: WHAM!
- Me: (confused face)
- Pappa: (runs to get dictionary) No... THAW!
- Me: hahahahaha
- Så gullig.
My brother posted this site, TextFugu, on Twitter, which teaches you Japanese. They use this inSANE video.
Both site and ridiculous video highly recommended!
In Virginia Heffernan’s August 20th New York Times piece What ‘Fact-Checking’ Means Online, she relates,
“The day I became a fact-checker at The New Yorker, I received one set of red pencils and one set of No. 2 pencils… . The red pencils were for underlining passages on page proofs of articles that might contain checkable facts… . The No. 2’s came next. With them you would draw strike marks through words - and sometimes individual letters - that were confirmed with the help of reference books from the magazine’s library.”
What a “quaint old procedure,” as she later describes the now-outdated process. As a self-professed linguophile (which Urban Dictionary regrettably defines as “one who loves language so much that it becomes an irritation to all those in contact with said person”), it appeals to my interest in all things academic: books, notebooks, the meticulous world of copyediting. Not to mention the cuteness of school supplies - which, year after year, continue to tantalize me, and unfathomably so. (Cue ridiculous scene from chick flick “You’ve Got Mail” in which Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks drool over a bouquet of freshly sharpened No. 2 pencils.)
This interest is partly due, perhaps, to some of my childhood heroes, Cam Jansen and Harriet the Spy. In the first, Cam solves mysteries with the aid of her photographic memory. Whenever she wants to remember something, she closes her eyes and says “click” - a gesture which now seems ridiculously annoying, but which at the time caused pangs of jealousy! In the second, Harriet loses friends when they discover her notepad filled with juicy “observations” that would put Gossip Girl to shame. I’m sure I read the book, but it’s the image of Harriet from the 1996 Nickelodeon film that remains in my mind.
Played by a young Michelle Trachtenberg, Harriet is a clever girl with braided hair. She walks around notepad-in-hand, pencil neatly tucked behind her ear, waiting to uncover the next big story in her neighborhood. I found her bold and daring, and being a bit bossy myself (I can’t help it, I’m a Taurus!), I identified with her desire to uncover secrets and set things straight.
Whenever I came home from school beaming, it was over a 100% on a spelling test. For a kid in a turbulent world, it was a way to measure control. And it came with rewards. One time, after a series of good spelling tests, my mom came to pick me up from school with a parakeet in the trunk - my first real pet! The shame of mistakes was equally as manic - I remember skipping dinner to cry after my failure to include a “o” in Luxembourg. There was just something so awful about not knowing something so apparent to the rest of the world.
I have tried to trace my obsession with words back to my childhood, and it occurs to me that perhaps it has to do with the fact that English was my third language and is now my native tongue. With a Swedish father and Finnish mother, I was transplanted to Los Angeles at the age of four. Thinking it might slow me down, my mom opted not to put me in ESL (English as a Second Language). With no idea why no one could understand what I was saying, I engaged in full-immersion: I went to English pre-school, sat in front of Sesame Street and soaked in the flashing images and words until it somehow made sense. Now, English is my best language and I can’t imagine feeling about it the way I do about my varying levels of competency in Swedish, Italian, Spanish, or German - that I just can’t get it completely right.
Along with St. Lucia’s Day and Christmas on the 24th, I rejected Swedish and Finnish in the household. I wanted to be like everyone else - and it is perhaps this youthful overcompensation, this need for control, that led me to my perfectionism today.
For its obvious connotations, I dislike the term “Grammar Nazi” but there’s no other way to describe my fixation with proper spelling and punctuation. I can tolerate - and myself play with - creative punctuations. I am also not that GOOD at grammar. (“Is it equally AS manic, or equally manic?” I g-chat to friends who couldn’t care less.) But I will not date someone who mistakes “they’re” and “their” (not to mention theyre!). Friends berate me for it, but for me, it’s a non-negotiable. I can’t count the number of times I’ve started an interesting email correspondence with a love interest only to have it fizzle after a barrage of poorly spelled replies. (Maybe his right pinky spazzed out? Maybe his keyboard malfunctioned? Maybe he wrote it in the middle of the night?)
As an adult, good spelling and proper punctuation (though not as standard as they should be) go mostly unrewarded. As a copyeditor of my college’s art and lit mag I stayed up late correcting capitalization, and, two years later, comfily employed while my friends prayed every night for jobs, I edited resume after resume in an attempt to help them gain even an ounce of leverage in this dog-eat-dog recession job market. It is not a hope for recognition or reward that motivates me; there is no metaphorical parakeet I strive for. For other word-obsessed comrades I think you will agree with me - my need for perfection in this area is somehow ingrained in my very being.
I now freelance for art blogs with varying degrees of small staff size; none have paid fact-checkers and all expect their writers to have a high standard of writing. Each come with their own set of style guidelines, but most is just common sense. If I submit a typo-filled article to sites, these mistakes could go unnoticed and will reflect poorly on both me and the site. Although I don’t have a printer or a set of red and No. 2 pencils by my side, I don’t want to miss dinner due to a long, shame-filled cry session once the articles have gone live. I read, re-read, and re-read again.
I’ve been thinking a lot about words and language lately. One, because I’m moving to my homeland and have to switch from English. Two, because I babysit a 10-month-old who (when she’s not busy blowing spit bubbles) is figuring out how to make sounds.
A few semi-related realizations:
- Her easiest sounds are ma, da, buh, zja, nang, and wa. I’m working on kuh and la with her, and realizing that depending on one’s native language, these initial baby sounds must be all different.
Take barnyard animal sounds, for instance. In English, dogs says bow-wow or ruff-ruff — in Chinese they say wong wong (cats say meow in both, but that’s the only overlap, apparently). Cock-a-doodle-doo in Finnish is ki-kiri-kee. How utterly absurd that we associate animals with sounds they don’t quite make - and that a room full of Chinese highschoolers would fall apart laughing when the word “ribbit” is written on a chalkboard next to a picture of a frog.
Isn’t language acquisition fascinating?
I’m a huge fan of words that sound like what they mean - onomatopoeia for you fancypants grammer lovers. Bonk, whizz, and other comic-booky words, but also more sophisticates like ricochet and nonchalance. Needless to say, kids love these.
Intonation is everything. While geeking out with a fellow languophile last night, we were talking about intonations— I claimed that Swedish is the most melodic of Western languages, and he objected, saying that almost everyone must think that about their mother tongue. [Side note: mother tongue- such an interesting phrase!] I thought my claim was common knowledge; after talking to a Dane and a Norwegian last weekend we all agreed! The topic came up because said languophile was explaining four different intonations of “ma” in Chinese and how each meant very different things. I personally don’t like the way Chinese sounds - it’s too harsh and monosyllabic - but so is German, and I love the sound of that.
Fun non-cognates: Kala (Greek) what’s up Kala (Finnish) fish Kissa (Finnish) kitty-cat Kissa (Swedish) pee Fika (Swedish) afternoon coffee Fica (Italian) naughty word for female sex organ - also means “hot girl” with that connotation in mind.
Also on intonation: my mom is Finnish and occasionally pronounces words in such a lol-tastic way they’re unforgettable (and make great dinner party stories).
HAIRy-dee-TARRy = hereditary app-o-cal-YP-sie = apocalypse
- I’m really into untranslatable words. There’s a word in Swedish, busig, which means a mix of playful, naughty, mischievous, endearing, and cute. English doesn’t even begin to cover it. There’s also no word for “awkward” in Italian, and I spent a year in Florence telling my host family about situazioni delicati - delicate situations.
Should have been a linguist! (There’s still time!)