“That’s All One Word?!!?” Learning Introductory Greenlandic

 

Before I begin, let me clarify by saying that yes, Greenlandic is a real language. Known also as “Kalaallisut” or “West Greenlandic”, it is an Inuit Language with Danish influence (and some English influence as well), spoken primarily in Greenland (obviously) but also by some in Denmark and, most assuredly, other places as well.

Greenlandic is best known for being a “polysynthetic language”, and the only indigenous language of the Americas that has sole official status in a country. (Can you guess which one? I thought so!)

For those of you to whom the term “polysynthetic language” doesn’t really mean anything, imagine something like Magnetic Poetry—in which you can assemble your own poems from magnet pieces of words.

Now imagine that, instead of assembling sentences or verses with words, that you assemble words from word pieces. That’s a polysynthetic language for you.

Let me demonstrate with something right out of Kauderwelsch’s “Greenlandic Word for Word”, which is in German, but this part is translated by yours truly:

 

Qaqqaliarniarpunga

Qaqqa/liar/niar/punga

Qaqqa(q) = Mountain

Liar- = travel, go on the road

Niar- = Intend

-punga = “I” Verb, intransitive

“I would like to wander around in the mountains”

 

If you guessed that this could sometimes result in really, really long words, you couldn’t have been more right. The idea of “this is why Germans don’t play Scrabble” is comparatively tame in comparison with what you will encounter on your Greenlandic journey:

Nalunaarasuartaatilioqatigiiffissualiulersaaleraluallaraminngooq

“It seems that they were well into the process of talking about founding an association for the establishment of a Telegraph Station”

(Courtesy of the Greenlandic House in Copenhagen)

My first encounter with the Greenlandic Language resulted due to my addiction to travel literature that came to manifest when I was in Stockholm. While visiting Connecticut, I went to the local library and looked at a guide to Iceland, Greenland, and the Faroe Islands. The language section hereby treated me to this gem:

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I didn’t know it at the time, but eventually that line about typewriters would become a running joke in my family, with some people calling Greenlandic “typewriter” or “the typewriter language”.

Reading through the word list, I was entranced—it would be fair to say that it was love at first sight. Within seconds I was dreaming that a day would come in which I would have conversations in this most exquisite language, and hopefully be able to call myself fluent.

Then I got the book out of the library and read almost all of it (especially the part on Greenland). Thereupon did I copy the Greenlandic glossary in the back and created Memrise’s first-ever Greenlandic course for English speakers (even before the Greenlandic category was established on that site, which it now is).

Finding some Greenlandic media was easy enough because a lot of it is in one place: knr.gl. There is news, radio, sports, movie reviews, movie trailers (mostly in English with Greenlandic subtitles), video game reviews, and, of course, children’s programming. KNR, which itself stands for “Kalaallit Nunaata Radioa” (literally, “The Radio of the Land of the Greenlanders”), truly gives you a good glimpse of a culture that many spend their whole lives never thinking about.

Greenland also has an extraordinarily noteworthy musical tradition which has, predictably, reached Denmark with often a lot more than modest success. Don’t expect to find a lot of these songs even in Danish translation, if you can even find the Greenlandic lyrics at all. I find Greenlandic music exciting, tense, modern, and extremely good at a wide range of expression techniques.

The responses I get when I tell people that I can speak a bit of Greenlandic—they are indeed interesting. Usually they fall in line with something like this:

 

“Greenlandic? Is that even a real language?”

“How many people speak it?”

“Is it Indo-European?”

 

And my personal favorite:

 

“How many people live in Greenland…like…three?”

 

In response to hearing it, either from me or, even rarer, from KNR or a song, I hear things like this:

 

“That doesn’t sound like anything I’ve ever heard before!”

“I’m not even going to try to repeat that…”

“WHAT?!!?”

 

And of course, when seeing written Greenlandic, I almost invariably get this (or the equivalent):

 

“That’s all one word?”

 

I had been learning Greenlandic somewhat non-seriously on-and-off up until about a few months ago, when my M.A. Thesis was largely complete and I also was on semester break. Afterwards I began pursuing it with more seriousness, despite many people wondering why I could be devoted to something that was, for them, so strange.

Now for some of my hang-ups with Greenlandic so far:

 

(1)    Resources are scarce. This really goes without saying, and this is coming from someone who reads Danish fairly/very well, depending on his mood. If you don’t have Danish in your language arsenal, you are even more out of luck. But given as all numbers in Greenlandic that are higher than 12 are borrowed from Danish, not also to mention much Greenlandic technical jargon (some terms have both a Greenlandic neologism and a Danish equivalent), you’ll be tempted to dive into that world sooner rather than later, and you Greenlandic journey will be that much easier because of it.

 

(2)    The “q” sound is something I still struggle with regularly. Its sound, to me, sounds like “Ah-k-huh-r” when slowed down a lot. Almost everyone who learns this language struggles with it, although there are also problems with the “rl/ll” sound, which is probably like “d-l-German ‘ch’” which slowed down. The single “l” smacks of “dl” in English, but the d is very slight.

 

Hopefully these approximations can ensure that you don’t struggle with these sounds as much as I did. If it makes you feel any better, there are only three real vowel sounds in Greenlandic: a, u, and i. The letters “o” and “e” are shifted formed of “u” and “i” that come about in the fusion of polysynthetic word components.

 

(3)    Spoken comprehension comes hard. Inuit languages are very different from almost anything you may have encountered (unless you have studied another Inuit Language—as you may know, Greenlandic is the most commonly spoken member of the family, the most commonly studied, and the one in least danger of extinction). Consistency and constant media exposure will be your friends here…as they would be with learning any language at all…

 

(4)    A directory of common suffixes does not yet exist for free—and I think every student of the language would require it. There are dictionaries to be found, without question, but with over 20,000 words in the most comprehensive ones, and almost no resources devoted to the “most common words” (or pieces), you may be out of luck in finding a quick way to find a list of words that will prove most useful to you. The Kauderwelsch Guide, mentioned above, is definitely as good as it gets.

The plus side is that there are cultural institutions in Greenland and in Denmark that would be more than willing to help you on your journey and answer, with a few internet searches, most of your questions about Greenlandic and Greenland.

It will be interesting for me to reflect on this piece as I continue on the journey (or give it up, which doesn’t seem likely at this point), but as for now, I am looking forward to the day in which all of Greenland’s musical glory and intriguing culture is a lot less of a mystery.

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Why Yiddish is Worth Your Time

Shulem-Aleikhem, Raboysai!

One thing I really like about the United States (and many other areas of North America) is the fact that I usually don’t have to explain what Yiddish is. But in Europe, with some exceptions such as Poland (where the language is widely studied), usually I find myself having to tell people what Yiddish is.

In Germany in particular I hear things like “it sounds like a dialect I can understand sometimes, but that I don’t speak”, “sounds Bavarian”, “sounds Bohemian”, and sometimes, “I had no clue it sounded so similar to German!”

Sometimes I also get “how many people speak it?” (one consistent question I get with a lot of my under-studied languages), and it is very difficult to place a decent estimate, even if you are UNESCO incarnate.

What is even more interesting is that, given how many people study the language, I find myself having more conversations in Yiddish in many unexpected places than in most of the other languages I speak.

I would venture a guess that the two most popularly studied endangered languages today would be Yiddish and Irish (the latter of which I haven’t studied yet, although I’ve tried several times and intend to try again…probably when Duolingo’s Irish course is finally out…).

Millions of students across the globe study Yiddish, even those with no connection to Germanic Languages or Jewish culture at all. If you need some encouragement for Yiddish learning, you’ve come to the right place:

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The extraordinary wealth of untranslated literature in the language means that you can potentially turn your interest in the Yiddish Language into something very lucrative indeed. Aaron Lansky, the legendary visionary behind the National Yiddish Book Center, often notes that well over 90% of Yiddish literature is not yet translated into English.

Who could uncover the next platinum ray of literary light that would emanate from this mysterious canon? Perhaps it could be you!

Yiddish’s similarity to English, in its sentence structure, vocabulary, and even some of its idioms—will be something that is more likely to come to you easily if you speak anything else in the Germanic Language family, especially English or any of the Scandinavian Languages. If you are American in particular, most Yiddish songs will make you think “I’ve heard that somewhere before!” and many Yiddishisms will carry more than just a whiff of familiarity.

The one thing that may make Yiddish difficult for you could be the Loshn-koydeshdike verter, the words from Hebrew and Aramaic, which carry historical pronunciation (each word has a unique pronunciation that must be learned separately). If you have ever spent time in an Orthodox Jewish environment, chances are you know a lot of these words already, even if you might know many of them with a more Sephardic-sounding pronunciation.

Despite these hang-ups, the idea that Yiddish is “easy” carries some weight. All prepositions take the Dative case (one primary difference between Yiddish and German)

However, the literary depths of the Yiddish Language will require many odd contexts to be learned, and some unexpected gems will surprise you in every which way. Be prepared to consult fellow translators or to outsource your confusions to Facebook in the oddest of cases. Yiddishists do this very frequently, as anyone who is connected to them on Social Networks will tell you!

All languages are not just ways of speaking (ask any polyglot at all!)—they are also ways of life. This holds true with Yiddish most spectacularly of all. As I heard from one of my professors, “The Yiddish Language is not a Politically Correct Language”

Another one told me “Google Translate supports all civilized languages, and even Yiddish, which isn’t so civilized” That’s a bit harsh—not civilized, definitely not. Attitude? Maybe. Edgy? Most definitely…but in a good way!

The German Language’s usage often seems tame in comparison to the no-holds-barred black humor utilized with a Yiddish soul. Some may deride it as the “language of the ghetto”, but once you learn Yiddish to a significant degree, your life is changed…

…the songs that you learn will stay with you—even if you can’t remember the tunes, the music will remain…

…it will make you more daring, it will heighten your emotional senses, it will give you a “cool” aura.

Most importantly, it will connect you with the soul of a people, one that has produced the most “densely populated” literary outpouring in all of human history, one that is begging for translators—and one that is asking for your support and your time…

A world with little worlds awaits! So what are you waiting for?

Why Learning Scandinavian Languages is Worth the Effort

“Why do you need to learn Swedish? Everyone speaks English here…”

That’s what a librarian at the Great Synagogue in Stockholm told me when I was doing research and told her that I was learning the language.

The irony of this statement is that I was, at that same moment, surrounded by books that were written in Swedish and Danish magazines that were obviously not going to translate themselves.

I’ve gotten a good deal of encouragement by my desire to study the Nordic Languages in detail (Nordic comes to include Finnish, whereas Scandinavian does not). Interestingly, I entered the “high gear” for this study while living in Germany (and after having been to Stockholm not once but twice!), and not while living in Scandinavia.

norden

Alongside some encouragement, I’ve also met some puzzled people who wonder why I don’t study something more “useful” like French or Chinese.

I have read too many Language blogs that haven’t addressed the ideas that I’ve come up with, so I’m going to have to write them here:

 

  1. “They All Speak English” is NOT true!

I, like many people, came to Stockholm during the first week expecting everyone to be fluent in English. To be fair, there were many people who spoke with extraordinary skill to the degree that I would have guessed they were Midwestern American rather than Swedish.

But now comes the bubble bursting: Yes, English is widely spoken, but not by all.

Some people are surprised when I tell them the fact that I encountered not one but TWO people who didn’t speak English in Stockholm (but who did speak Swedish)—and that was only during my first week! Both of them did not appear to be ethnically Swedish, but it should be known that if you are expecting everyone in Scandinavia to be fluent in English (or even to have some knowledge of it), expect to be disappointed.

I remember going to a big supermarket in a far-flung corner of the city. I remember asking something about asking a staff member where carrots could be found. He didn’t speak a word of English, despite numerous hand-gestures.

Only across the street from where I studied there was a newspaper store, with ice cream and other treats, and the owner didn’t speak any English at all, responding to me in Swedish which I did not yet understand.

By no means do I intend to detract from the very good English skills that I have heard. But what needs to be said is that “most” does NOT equal “all”

  1. You will speak closely related languages better

 

Many people do not understand how, thanks to the Norse Invaders, the surrounding languages were accordingly impacted. Knowing a Scandinavian Language will help you with English, German, and the West Germanic Language family as a whole, and even more so with the other two members of the Scandinavian trifecta.

 

You may also learn how to speak English with a Scandinavian accent, which is something that many people actually really like (and you are likely to sound smart while using it).

 

Reference points for remembering words in the other languages come more easily. If you speak English as your first language, the Scandinavian Languages will help demystify German and make it seem more “normal”. If you learn Danish, expect to learn secrets of English pronunciation that may get you mistaken for a native.

 

And once you have one of the three, the other two may come to you with little effort.

 

  1. The Scandinavian Languages enable you to study other languages that cannot be readily accessed only with English

 

If you want to learn any of the Sami Languages, it is necessary that you know Norwegian, Finnish, or Swedish—or preferably all three. If you want to find English-language resources for Sami Languages, you’re out of luck, although no doubt you will find something.

 

If you want to learn Greenlandic, know that every number higher than twelve is expressed exactly as it is in Danish, not also to mention many Danish import words in the language—more than English import words.

 

For learning both of these, English itself will not suffice, and neither will German. The technology and the databases are in other languages, the ones of which I’ve been talking about this whole time.

 

  1. The Signs are Not Translated, and it helps to be able to Pronounce Street Names Correctly

 

Never will I forget a student project in Copenhagen (featured in the Economist, I believe) in which there were non-Danish speakers who had such trouble pronouncing the main street names that they affixed machines nearby that would read the names out loud to them.

 

That was when I was entering my honeymoon phase with the Danish Language, and I figured, “my, wouldn’t that be useful?” Now, I know that I need no such thing. Yes, Danish pronunciation takes a while to get used to, but it is nowhere near the level of confusion that English pronunciation endows upon the average learner.

 

If you learn the languages, then you will remember street and place names more easily, and even if you ask for directions in English, if you can’t pronounce the names, you are most definitely out of luck.

 

  1. An extraordinary Confidence Builder for an English Speaker learning his/her first foreign language!

 

If you think that the Romance Languages will come easy to you—well, the Scandinavian trifecta offers simpler grammar and more English cognates than can be found in Spanish. The only real drawback can be the fact that the pronunciation and the rhythms can take some time to get used to (and this is true with Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish alike).

Swedish in particular has a perplexing “sj” sound that may require some adjustment time, and the Danish “stød” is purported to be the stuff of nightmares. Rest assured that you will unlock the mysteries of both with enough willpower, confidence and commitment, should you so desire.

In the event that you might be convinced that “they will just speak to me in English anyway”, try this:

Use complicated sentence structure, spice it up with some colloquialisms, and, of course, speak confidently and firmly. Sometimes you may need to make it clear that you have progressed beyond phrasebook material, but most of the time just speaking with fortitude will work.

Even in the worst case situations, you will definitely find friends who will be willing to help you and speak the languages you want.

If you are interested in any of the three (or all of them), there are so many ways to get started!

Endless television programs for kids have been dubbed into the Scandinavian Languages (don’t believe anyone who tells you otherwise!), and you can prepare for media exposure very quickly after a handful of exercises, worksheets, or textbook chapters.

Lycka till, allihopa! (SE)

Lykke til, alle sammen! (DK/NO)

The Tale of the American Accent

“You’re an American, and everybody knows it…”

“When I first met you, I thought that you were Dutch/Norwegian/German…”

For the past year and a half, I have had to live with two versions of myself: the one who was unmistakably American, and the one who most Americans (and many others besides) thought was a foreigner (and who were surprised to find out that I was born in the U.S and lived there for twenty years).

Being a native English speaker certainly has its advantages—the fact that, just by virtue of me writing in this language, more people are likely to read what I have to say (even in the world of Google Translate). It has enabled others to treat me with respect and to turn to me whenever they need editing, help, or even a slight suggestion for what word to use.

There are other times when I am so unspeakably frustrated with having been born an Anglophone that I would trade it for literally any other native language on earth. If I were born a Scandinavian, I figured, then I could be seen as having excellent English skills and know a host of other languages perfectly, as opposed to the American identity, conflated with an idea of refusing to speak anything but English:

 

“It’s a well-known fact that Americans are bad with Languages…”

“But you speak German so well! Where did you learn it?”

“Jared speaks very good Yiddish” (Me, thinking to myself: “No, I don’t…”)

 

Because of this prominent idea that Americans are monoglots, I sometimes feel self-conscious when making any single mistake.

German grammar scrambled?

Hebrew verb mix-up?

Lapsed into Danish during the Swedish conversation hour?

“Ah well, I’m an American, after all…no one really expects me to be good at these…”

And then there are the pangs of insufficiency whenever I tried to speak in the local language and get answered in English. A few months after my most recent vacation (Naples, in February 2014), I noticed that there is a simple way around this: using complicated sentence structure and sentences that are clearly not phrasebook material.

But before I realized that, getting answered in English, wherever it was (outside of Anglophone countries, that is), made my heart sink. “Why did I have the terrible misfortune of being born into a nation imagined for being naïve, stupid and unworldly?”, I figured.

Especially when speaking languages associated with people who speak very good English (my next post will be on the value of learning the Scandinavian Languages!), I realized that I had to cleverly disguise my accent somehow.

I asked my friends from some other countries (especially Spain and Italy) what they do for accent reduction. The answer I most commonly hear: I don’t do anything. Why? “Because people like my accent”, I hear.

And there are so many times I have heard that American-accented anything sounds awful.

But interestingly, there is an advantage to having the accent: for one, American English does have a wealth of phonetic sounds in ways that many other languages do not. The various influences of American English enable me to see how many languages contributed to its development.

Last, but not least, the surprise factor from people when I hear “that’s very unusual for an American to be able to speak like that” is always enough to make me smile.

Just like any identity allotted in life, my American accent sometimes hurts, and sometimes it can be a source of comfort.

And one thing I’ve learned about staying in Germany especially is the fact that Americans are very much not the only people who go abroad and never bother to learn the local language to any degree. People of all nationalities tend to do this.

It is high time that we also stop trying to pretend that Americans can’t learn about the world, much less its many languages, when all such an endeavor takes is wise use of time, commitment, and media exposure.

I look forward to the day when my case of American polyglottery becomes the rule rather than the exception.

What is A World with Little Worlds?

After nearly a half a year of authoring The Present Presence Blog, I have had so much fun writing for you that I have decided to start another project.

For those of you who might not know me yet, my name is Jared Gimbel and I am an American passport-holder who has lived in Israel, Poland, Sweden and Germany. When I have to have down-time, then I will make the best of it by ensuring that most of my leisure time is spent watching/playing things that are not in English.

My language journey, like those of all others, has been full of mistakes and confusions after which fulfillment and meaningful discoveries followed. Unlike many other polyglots that I have met, I often get comments like “why do you choose to focus on languages with not many speakers? (e.g. Hebrew, Danish).

Being the only member of my nuclear family who is fluent in a language other than English, I’ve realized that I have one thing that motivates me to undertake a project: being surrounded by people who think that it is uncool or not useful. By this same logic, I found it difficult to study languages that everyone was encouraging me to learn (unless it was absolutely necessary) and found it easier to study ones that people were actively discouraging me from learning.

My transition to full confident polyglottery occurred only earlier in 2014, however, although I was practicing my skills for two years until I truly unlocked the self-confidence that I needed to play the act fully.

I’ve had a fascination with language learning since I was a child, despite many attempts at discouragement from many people throughout my life. For most of my life I was fairly convinced that I was to be a monoglot forever (despite the fact that my Jewish education enabled me the ability to read Ancient Hebrew and translate prayers and holy texts with ease).

For most of my high school years, as well as my college years, I was convinced that I would never reach a decent communication level in any other language, and that I would remain the stereotypical American English speaker for all time.

But this changed because of two things: for one, the Yiddish Farm summer program gave me an initial boost of confidence, in speaking only Yiddish for three weeks. However, despite that, I was convinced that I wasn’t really that good at Yiddish, and that I wouldn’t get anywhere with it—that the countless Yiddish books I had seen in my life would forever be shut off from me, by virtue of me not learning it early enough in my life.

The second, more decisive, defeat of this too-old mythology came about when I was in Stockholm one time for a Shabbat dinner, someone told me that it was indeed possible for me to learn Swedish as an adult (even to a perfect level!), and that I was wrong to think that it would be impossible for me to learn any language beyond a certain age.

A lot of encouragement for potential language learners has already been written by many (Benny Lewis’ “Fluent in 3 Months” definitely being the best-known), and I am not going to say what others have said beyond what I need to. My job is to provide the stories and the experiences that only I can.

Ever since the realization that I could continue this process as an adult (which occurred, roughly, in February/March 2013), I have taken it upon myself to continuously improve my skills in languages I had learned previously (to various degrees), but also to learn many new ones in accordance with my interests, my passions, and my work.

Since this turnaround, I brought it upon myself to learn more about the world through the tongues of others. I have focused most passionately not only on Yiddish but on the Scandinavian Languages in particular, but not to the exclusion of many others.

Now I have decided to record my lingual journeys, past and present, with this blog.

My path in exploring other tongues, like so many other journeys, has been one of tripping, mistakes, public embarrassment, and self-consciousness, alongside mirth, fulfillment, confidence, and the warmest feelings known to mankind.

I will be as honest as I can about my feelings and my linguistic journeys and bring you all in my journeys to acquire new languages and delve deeper into those other languages that I know better.

I hope that this will encourage all of you to do the same, if you haven’t already.

Welcome!