I Want to Learn Indigenous Languages! How Do I Start?

Happy Indigenous Peoples’ Day!

I’m writing this article from Brooklyn, not far away from the Peace Corps HQ, a company that pioneered the study of indigenous languages throughout the Americas (although I don’t think they’ve published any materials for indigenous languages of the US specifically.)

You can see their extremely impressive and useful list of language-learning materials here (and this is probably more useful than most bookstore Language-Learning sections I’ve seen can hope to be): https://www.livelingua.com/project/#by-language

This may surprise you, but in many areas of the Americas indigenous languages are not only markers of cultural identity but also thriving more than you would expect.

Transparent Language Online actually has an indigenous language of LOUISIANA (Koasati) available in its offerings! As well as indigenous languages of Canada such as Ojibwe and Cree, and Lakota (and probably many others I forgot) from the United States (and I have it on good authority that there are more of them on the way.)

I love the fact that I live in a time in which the many painful legacies of colonialism have been confronted, and in particular Christopher Columbus’s moral shortcomings (putting it as lightly as I can).

Indigenous communities from throughout the American continents, all the way from the Inuit in the far north (I’m going to GREENLAND NEXT WEEK!) all the way down to the Mapuche in Southern Chile, now have tools to make their languages more powerful with an online presence. I think one thing that may be holding such prospects back is a self-defeating idea of “why would ANYONE use or need this?” But I think if more such publications were made possible, more people (even people who are complete outsiders to these indigenous communities) would find avenues to learn these languages, thereby creating a very positive “vicious circle”.

Okay, that was enough musing to open the article with, now let’s get to HOW to find resources for indigenous languages!

 

  • Omniglot

 

The A-Z Index of Languages on Omniglot is like window shopping. Languages will be provided with histories, scripts, samples, links for further study (usually) and lists of useful phrases (on some occasions)

Poke around this website in order to find what sort of indigenous languages (or any other) YOU would like to see in your life, and how to proceed.

A word of caution, however: there have been some times that I have literally been unable to learn languages due to a dearth of materials (Chuukese from the Federated States of Micronesia being the most potent example in recent memory). You may or may not encounter such a dearth, but you may also expect to be pleasantly surprised!

 

  • Transparent Language Online

 

With various libraries offering this service for free, you are welcome to explore many indigenous languages of the Americas with their fantastically useful sets of flashcards.

 

You can find a list of offering languages here:

https://home.transparent.com/transparent-language-online-available-languages?_ga=2.108520199.400276675.1507569656-1845425504.1451068801

 

On the desktop version, not only will you have all languages available but you’ll also be able to choose from MANY different modes of study for your cards, like matching, blank-filling, or even rattling all of the audio in the target language for your entire collection! (I tried this and I got bored after a few seconds).

 

The mobile version is more simplified with only flashcards being available (although it is nonetheless extremely useful on train rides, for example)

 

If there is one weakness, it is the fact that grammar explanations are usually lacking unless they are ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY (e.g. with Icelandic)

 

  • Your Bookstore / Your Library

 

I discovered the Quechua Lonely Planet Guide in the Columbia University Bookstore one fine day and I was enchanted by the very idea of speaking the language of the Incas (although there are many different regional variations thereof depending on where in the Andes you are).

 

I also found a book on Australian English and it actually had a guide section in the back about basic phrases in various Australian Aboriginal Languages! (Not enough to make one fluent or even reach A1, not by a long shot, but still interesting. If memory serves correctly, I don’t think the book is in print any more, but print-on-demand may provide you a save if you’re still seeking it…)

 

And, of course, Greenlandic, which I also discovered in a Lonely Planet Guide…one thing led to another and my dream to learn a language with ultra-mega-long words led to me designing a video game set in contemporary Greenland. Fancy that!

 

Still haven’t gotten around to speaking Quechua, although I’m going to shamelessly plug myself when I mention…

 

  • YouTube!

 

I originally discovered Guarani, an indigenous language of Paraguay and the surrounding countries, thanks to Duolingo (a resource not on this list because it offers just one indigenous language of the Americas with currently no plans to add other ones that I’m aware of).

I found online tutorials (in Spanish) on how to learn Basic Guarani. Somewhat unsatisfied with their level, I decided to…take it up a notch!

 

Found a Public Domain book on how to learn Guarani online and began filming the process bit-by-bit. Hey, you could do this with your other languages to and help raise awareness or just get feedback from fluent speakers or experienced learners!

As to where I got that book…

 

  • The LiveLingua Project

 

https://www.livelingua.com/project/#by-language

COME HERE KIDZ FREE BOOKZ!!!!1!!! (And by “free” I mean “legally free” not “pirated”!)

 

  • Religious Materials (for Christians)

 

Even if you’re not Christian yourself, you can use materials produced by missionaries in order to aid your journey. The Bible (sometimes both the Old and New Testaments) has been translated into more languages than any other in human history, keep in mind that the New Testament does tend to be translated more often by a small margin.

Also, the most dubbed-film in human history is The Jesus Film, and while it does remind me a lot of something I would watch in high school classes when the syllabi ran dry (I don’t really mean that as a genuine compliment, although my teachers there were great!), it can also be a very useful language-learning resource given how visually-oriented the plot and dialogue are.

The most translated website is that of the Jehovah’s Witnesses as well. Yes, more commonly translated than…

 

  • Wikipedia

 

Sadly in some indigenous languages (like Cree and Greenlandic) there is a lot of the “colonial” language used in the interface (that would be English and Danish respectively), but in many others the words are more complete, such as the Guarani Wikipedia (https://gn.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ape), the Quechua Wikipedia (https://qu.wikipedia.org/wiki/Qhapaq_p%27anqa) and “Huiquipedia (the Nahuatl Wikipedia) (https://nah.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cal%C4%ABxatl)

 

You can also find out how to contribute in some capacity even if you’re a beginner in the language! (There are a lot of times that I’ve seen articles that are literally three words long, and then this gem from the Bislama Wikipedia: https://bi.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seven [as of the time of writing, it just shows the number seven in a picture with the caption “Seven, namba 7”)

 

You’ll pick up a significant amount of useful vocabulary to discuss languages and cultures with these wikipedias if you look at the articles detailing these languages or countries respectively.

 

This is a list that is just going to keep growing

 

With accelerated growth of technology will come more opportunities for indigenous communities to proliferate the usage of their language as well as, perhaps, a more keen sense that “time is running out” if they perceive their traditions as threatened.

 

New resources are coming into the world every year and it seems that more and more people are open to the idea of learning indigenous languages, which I think we, as polyglots in general, should do.

 

We need to use our strong, cohesive identity and passion to heal the world. And where else to start by telling these small cultures that we care about them and want them to keep creating in their languages, many of which have been lost to us forever?

 

May this Indigenous People’s Day be a source of determination to you!

greenland asanninneq

 

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The Hardest Things about Learning English Creole Languages

As a teenager I constantly wondered if there were languages closer to English than any of the national languages of Europe I’ve heard were closely related (anything Scandinavian, Dutch, Romance Languages, Afrikaans [despite not really being European in a full sense] etc.)

Turns out they DO exist, not only in Scots but also with English Creole Languages, of which there are many spanning multiple continents. So far I’m fluent in five of them, and my Jamaican Patois book is in the mail (I’ve decided that I’ll be focusing only on Hungarian and Lao as far as new languages are concerned until I’m fluent in one of them, but it occurs to me that given how similar “Jamaican” is to Trinidadian Creole and Salone Krio, I may be inclined to make an exception for it because it wouldn’t be a source of active stress).

I really look forward to learning Jamaican Patois however much of a “snail ride” it is.

However, as much as I sometimes make it out to be that way in conversation, learning English Creole Languages isn’t always very easy.

There were unique challenges they presented that I haven’t seen in the other clusters of languages I’ve focused on (e.g. Scandinavian, Celtic, and soon Southeast Asian and Pacific!)

Let me tell you a bit more about them:

 

  • Slurring and Very Quick Speech is Common to Many Creole Languages

 

After all, Creoles are highly efficient!

Hopping from your phrasebooks or your textbooks (yes, textbooks exist for English Creole Languages, particularly for the Peace Corps) to the “real world” of that language is a difficult task.

The clear words that you saw on the page may be jumbled in ways you didn’t even think possible. Entire syllables will be left out and you’ll need to train yourself. At first it will be like “did you get the general idea?” but then you’ll learn to manage well enough.

The clearest versions of the Creoles tend to exist (1) on radio and TV (2) in materials for missionaries (who partner with native speakers in order to tell stories about Jesus or Biblical characters or what-have-you) and (3) governmental notices that have been localized (often developed countries assist with these productions, also using voice actors who are native speakers or fluent local speakers). These may act as a “gateway” to you understanding your dream creole in its full form the way the locals do.

I’ll give you one example: Solomon Islands Pijin uses “blong olketa” (belonging to them, belonging to all of them, of them, etc.) You may hear it pronounced as “blokta”. And that’s one example of hundreds.

  • Speakers of some Creole Languages often use Standard English On / Off in their speech, making it difficult to get a “consistent” stream of it in some areas of Creole-speaking countries.

 

Trinidadian Creole forms the future and past differently from English. There is also no such thing as a passive verb. (These are all things my book says). It’s close enough to English that some people, even Trinidadians, don’t even believe it is a separate language.

Despite that, especially among people who have specialized in medicine or engineering or something similar, you’ll hear a pattern in which they’ll hop between Standard English and their Creole without even thinking about it. This isn’t unique to English creoles and it is called “code switching”.

It may leave you confused. If I used too much English or too little English, what will happen? What sort of situations should I use this much English in? Will I come off as rude?

These are all questions you’ll get a “feel” for and there are so many right answers depending on the community in which you use these languages.

Much like with languages from countries in which English is commonly spoken (e.g. Swedish, Dutch) you’ll have to learn how to mirror how English loans and phrases are used in conversations. Imitating native speakers is your best bet (after all, that’s how we all learn our first language!)

And then, sometimes, you have the opposite problem…

 

  • Speakers of some Creole Languages often throw in words from their own native languages you may have never encountered before. This is especially common in music.

A non-existent problem on the radio and TV, this can be an issue in music especially (or if you’re overhearing conversations).

The Creoles of Melanesia and Africa are poised between the native languages and the European languages and have to dance delicately between them (the Carribean Creoles don’t have this dynamic, although they, like the African and Pacific English Creoles, are a fusion between the many languages that the African slaves spoke and understood but in a version that would be comprehensible to the slaveowners.)

Because of this, the people who write the comprehensive dictionaries (even if they’re native speakers of these languages themselves) can’t always keep up. My Yiddish teacher told me that Yiddish was like learning five languages in one (German, Hebrew, Polish, Russian and Ukrainian). These creoles are sometimes like learning many, many more of these in one (although their vocabulary loans are more lopsided towards English than Yiddish is towards German).

It’s not uncommon for songwriters singing in Melanesian creoles to hop into their native language or Standard English while singing their creoles in between. Here’s an example:

Related to that is…

  • Some speakers of Creole Languages may have their pronunciation altered due to the phonemes of their native language.

 

As a native English speaker, I have to be careful with my accent in speaking many other languages and I sometimes have to work on it a lot. If I don’t, it may cause a significant amount of discomfort in native speakers who may then be inclined to switch to English if they’re lazy enough (which, sadly enough, most people are).

But imagine if your native language is spoken by 2,000 people on your island somewhere in the Solomons. You will primarily use Solomon Islands Pijin and English to communicate with other people at home and abroad respectively. But you don’t really need to worry about perfecting your accent in Pijin because back from its earliest days on the plantations in Queensland people spoke it with whatever accent they used from their native language. That’s largely still the case (although there are people who speak these Creoles as their native language, Creoles by definition have to have large enough vocabulary to be a mother tongue of someone, that’s what makes them distinct from Pidgins).

The downside? You may hear some vowels, phonemes and individual words mutating in ways you didn’t even think possible. You may hear some basic phrases change into something that is only borderline recognizable to you. Some accents in these creoles can be so difficult that you may actually draw blanks during some areas of a conversation. But as long as you know how to respond with ease and / or get the context, that’s okay.

That’s an issue that primarily comes up when dealing with the spoken language (so when having conversations or watching artistic productions, on radio broadcasts these languages tend to be used as clearly as possible).

 

  • In Some Contexts, You May be Better Off Using English

 

Feel free to disagree with me on this one if your experience says otherwise.

Alas, there are some people in countries where Creoles are spoken that may look down on their local creoles as languages of the uneducated or peasants. In the case of the Caribbean creoles it could be that, depending on context, your attempts to speak their language may be construed as making fun of their accents.

Much like Yiddish was seen throughout a lot of its history as a language that was inferior to both German and the languages of the Bible and the Talmud (and sometimes seen as the language of “women and the uneducated”), in some areas this view of the Creole language can still be present. Interestingly in an age of mass language death this may be changing and there will no doubt be thousands of fluent speakers of these creoles who will be WILLING to practice with you.

Suffice it to say that, despite that, learning the local language is always a fantastic idea. Keep in mind that Standard English plays a role in each of the places where these Creoles are spoken – it’s not like it’s genuinely foreign to people who live in Jamaica or Vanuatu or Sierra Leone. Not at all.

The many languages of these places all play a different role, but the Creoles truly echo the local cultures in unison because, for a number of reasons, they ended up being the languages around which these countries would unify when they became independent. And they continue to play important roles (not a single one of the creoles I’ve mentioned here is endangered, although Trinidad and Tobago does also have this other French creole language that seems to be quite weak as of the time of writing).

2015-03-17 20.17.12

Here’s hoping you meet success in your journeys, wherever they take you!

September 2017 Weekend Trip Mini-Mission! (Improving Hungarian + Two Creoles!)

 This in: I’ll be headed to Buffalo, New York this weekend. This is the first time I’ll be back there since two years ago (roughly when I began my teaching career).

The one thing I associate the trip with is very long drives, and this time (given that I’m not going to be driving) I’ve decided to develop a routine to maximize language learning in passive car travel (active car travel, such as when you’re the driver, is another thing with significantly more limits, and it becomes a different animal depending on how many people you have with you, and also if they will tolerate you learning the language there or not.)

I decided that I’ll be filming my next polyglot video in Milwaukee, the only place that I have had consistent memories of since my…infancy.

As things stand, I intend to use the following languages in the video, probably for about thirty second each: English, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Tok Pisin, Hebrew, Spanish, German, Finnish, Breton, Pijin, Bislama, Icelandic, Irish, Krio, Polish, Hungarian, Palauan, Mossi / Moore, Greenlandic (Kalaallisut), Guarani, Lao, Kiribati / Gilbertese, Tongan, Trinidadian English Creole and Bileez Kriol.

I have about half of these in very good shape, and the other half I’ll probably only say very simple things. It is also likely that I’ll just do one with my fluent languages before the year is up in ADDITION to that.

This practice really isn’t entirely about that video, however (and I’m likely taking a week off beforehand so that I can hone my pronunciation to ideal heights. Also, I’m putting this out there, I’m going to be coming out with these videos regularly and I literally will not stop until one of them goes viral. I know that I may be subject to a lot of pain and criticism, but we need more global polyglots that genuinely go for rarer languages and we deserve to have be watched by millions. Tim Doner himself became a voice for languages like Hausa and some indigenous languages of Canada, and it would be great if I can do the same with my rarer languages. Words cannot capture how determined I am).

Anyhow, enough of me being lightly arrogant (or am I?)

Let’s detail my goals and my plan. I’ll be improving three languages this weekend: Hungarian, Trinidadian Creole and Bileez Kriol.

 

Hungarian

magyar

Probably the only language I’m working on right now that I want to be professionally fluent in. Sure, being professionally fluent in something like Breton or Gilbertese is cool, but Hungarian means a lot to me because it is one of my ancestral languages. My one living grandparent has memories of Hungarian being used in her family and I want to connect to that piece of my story before it is gone (note to the curious: she herself doesn’t speak Hungarian or understand it, I even wrote “Happy Birthday” on her Facebook wall in Hungarian and she didn’t even recognize the language until I told her.)

I’ve found Hungarian a relief because of the sheer amount of materials both for learners and native speakers. One thing I definitely could do is watch more animated films and cartoons in Hungarian and I really haven’t been doing that, instead focusing more on learning materials. Maybe that’s a bad sign.

Also, the Hungarian Duolingo course is very, very difficult (and I’ve heard even native speakers found it moderately painful to go through). I’m on Level 9 with one-third of the tree completed and I doubt I can complete the course without a notebook. What’s more, that voice is something I’m hearing in my nightmares already. (I’ll go on record saying that the Catalan voice is the worst that Duolingo has, period. It literally sounds like an alien parasite. My favorites among the courses are Vietnamese, Irish and Guarani, in that order)

Goal: Long-term, I want to be able to talk about my life, my job, the Kaverini games, language learning and my family. Short-term, I want to master cases, verbs and the most common 300 words in the language.

Where I am: I have the Colloquial Hungarian book and the audio for the book on my phone, I have an Anki deck of 3,000 Hungarian sentences that are surprisingly useful in demonstrating the grammar. I’ve plugged 17+ hours into Hungarian Mango Languages during my commute (you can play it on auto mode when is helpful if I’m on a crowded subway and I still want to learn things).  I also have a Memrise course with 3,000+ sentences in Hungarian and I’m about 800 sentences in.

In short, I have everything deployed and I’ve begun to see results. I’ve begun to have conversations with some non-native speakers of the language although sometimes I have to slow down.

I tried immersion (with Let’s Play Videos, etc.) and while I’m picking up some vocabulary with them I feel that I can only understand 15%. But the idea that I’m using the language of my ancestors that came to this country in the past 150 years gave me the same warm feeling when I was learning Yiddish, Swedish and Russian.

Tried finding Hungarian music I liked, so far haven’t found anything that clicked…

Plan: Part of me thinks “you’re doing a great job, just keep doing what you’re doing and you’ll be fluent in no time!” But I want to sprint further.

I don’t want to be “manageable”. I want to be great.

To that end, I need to change my routine.

In a car ride, I only have so many things (and made even more complicated by the fact that I tend to get ill when reading in a car).

Luckily, the book will never run out of electricity it doesn’t need.

But what exactly should I do with the book?

  • Study vowel harmony. This is important because I think I mess it up a little bit (For those unaware: Hungarian suffixes will change form depending on the vowel makeup of the word it is attached to. Hungarian uses suffixes to indicate “to”, “in”, “on”, “of”, etc. That’s called vowel harmony, and given how often Hungarian uses suffixes this is not something I can afford to screw up. In Finnish it came by more easily but in Hungarian there are some suffixes with two forms and others with three. Unless you’ve studied a language like this, this probably means absolutely nothing to you and so I’ll stop writing it at this point).
  • Study possessives. Possessives come in two forms in English. We have “my book” and “the book is mine”. Both of these exist in Hungarian. The “my book” is expressed with a suffix and “the book is mine” with a separate word. The possessive suffixes (e.g. letters you put at the end that make the word change meaning to say “this belongs to you / me / us / etc.”) are VERY important in Hungarian because without them, you can’t express any concept of “to have” clearly enough to have a conversation. (Hungarian has no “to have”, it just has “there is my book” instead of “I have a book”)
  • Study relative pronouns. These were an almighty pain in Finnish that I literally NEVER would have learned properly if it weren’t for immersion. For those of you who don’t know what a relative pronoun is: the book that is mine is good. (the “that” is a relative pronoun, saying that it is a pronoun relative to the other elements of the sentence). The only thing I can really say about relative pronouns in Hungarian right now is that I think that they tend to start with the letter “a” somehow.
  • Study transitive verbs. This is a big one. In English we say “I choose you” (totally not think about Pokémon here, I promise!) In Hungarian, the “you” bit is actually expressed to a suffix on the verb. I literally can’t converse without these, so I need ‘em.
  • On top of the book, I should go through the Anki deck and review as many sentences as I can. (I know some people don’t like “turbospeeding” through Anki decks, but with some languages like Tok Pisin I’ve done it with no problem. I’m also probably going to go on an Anki-binge with Hungarian shortly before my trip to Milwaukee, actually. That binge, if all goes according to plan, is more likely to be review).

 

 

Weaknesses to keep in mind: Sometimes my eyes get weakened from staring at screens too much, and sometimes I can’t manage reading in a vehicle for very long. I expect the latter point to be less of an issue if I am reading VERY small bits of information. I can always put the book down and rest. Or use it over the course of the weekend when I’m actually not in a vehicle.

 

 

 

Trinidadian Creole

t n t

I have one (1) book for this language, one that I got as a gift upon recovering from Lyme Disease and moving to Crown Heights in Brooklyn shortly thereafter.

Immersion in Trini Creole has been both easy and hard. Easy because I can understand a lot of it already, hard because Creole is often interspersed with Standard English very often among Trinidadians. (Again, keep in mind that there are those that don’t even consider it a separate language!)

Where am I?

I have excellent vocabulary except for the loan words from Indian Languages. I have a good although not great grasp of every grammatical concept and I understand how the grammar of Trini and English are different.

So what’s my plan?

  • When I have internet access, undergo immersion with Calypso music and Radio and PAY ATTENTION. What sort of verb forms are left out? What words are different from standard English? How do Trinidadians pronounce their vowels and consonants, in both Creole and Standard English?
  • Learn the Loan-Words from Indian Languages. Got a list of them in my book (the Kauderwelsch book which is literally the only learning-book for Trinidadian Creole I’ve ever encountered anywhere). I never heard of any of them before.
  • Master all aspects of grammar with a thorough review by reading out every sentence from your book in the “grammar” sections.

Combined with occasional speaking exercises, I think I could make very deep progress.

Unlike Hungarian, I’ll be using primarily book sources (or, more accurately, book source) for this rather than for a combination of digital and book sources.

 

Bileez Kriol

 Bileez

I literally have no good book for this and what I’m using now is…well…the Memrise course that I have in development (in which I’m writing all the sentences and words from the dictionary published by the Belize Creole Project [Bileez Kriol Projek]).

I’m going to literally have to be a detective and note general patterns in the sentences. Before I go, I should get the dictionary as a PDF on my phone and any other devices I’m taking with me.

Another thing I need to do is read things out loud in the course, otherwise my memory development isn’t going to be as honed.

Where do I stand now with Bileez Kriol? I know pronouns and a rusty form of verb conjugations, but that’s pretty much it. And I’m supposed to be speaking it on camera in less than a month. Great place I’m in!

But given how close it is to Trinidadian Creole, I expect to sprint much in the same way I’ve done with similar languages before (such as within the Scandinavian family and within the Melanesian Creole family).

I may need a notebook of sorts with this. Of all of the projects that I think will take the most effort to succeed this weekend, this one will be it.

Reading resources I found online: the Bileez Kriol Wikipedia Incubator, the Gospels in the language (I’ve only read Matthew and pieces of Mark in English in my college courses), my Memrise course, the dictionary.

And the one song that I’ve encountered so far in the language is probably not appropriate for younger audiences. (For the curious: just put “Belizean Music” in YouTube and see if something in the first few results catches your eye…)

The dictionary is probably going to be my best friend during this time.

 

I’ll let you know how it goes when the week is over.

Wish me luck!

The 5 Languages that Changed My Life the Most

Yes, I know, polyglots don’t play favorites. Or at least that’s what we say we should do. I’ve noticed with great consistency that polyglots get attached to certain sets of languages a lot more than the rest of the group.

For example: I have a greater affinity to Jewish, Nordic, Celtic and Pacific Languages than I do global languages like German, French or Spanish. I have friends that focus on Balkan languages, Central Asian languages, Official Languages of the UN, Germanic Languages, languages of East Asia, and too many other types to list.

Today I’ll write about the five languages (note that I do not say “language learning journeys”) that changed my life the most.

And if I were to write a post about “The five language learning JOURNEYS that changed my life the most”, that would result in something different. The reason? Because the processes you undertake during a journey is very different from the benefits you reap from it. These discuss the benefits.

 

  1. Krio

 

“Jared, I don’t want you to learn this language. It makes you sound like an idiot.”

That’s what someone said to me once about two years ago when I was discussing my parents’ journeys in Sierra Leone and the conversation turned to Krio and how to learn it.

Suffice it to say that I was not of that opinion in the slightest, aware of the fact that my parents needed interpreters at times when they were in up-country Sierra Leone.

Learning Krio truly enabled me to understand African-American culture in ways that I hadn’t before (this may surprise some of you that don’t know it, but the African-American culture in the US, the Afro-Caribbean Culture on the Islands [and places like Belize and Guyana], and the Krio culture of places like Sierra Leone and Liberia are actually linked to each other and have ties of solidarity and cultural mindsets).

Elements from Krio and its relatives from these three areas I mentioned entered American English not only in its informal registers but also its sentence structure. “Now that’s what I’m talking about!” is one such sentence that may have Krio influence, as a speaker of Krio would say  “na ya a deh tok!” And, of course, we haven’t even discussed jazz jive, which exhibits way too many elements from Krio as well as native African languages to list coherently

The proverbs and idioms are also extremely colorful (as they are in all languages in the world and Creole languages especially).

In listening to Salone Krio speakers on YouTube, they find themselves poised between many aspects of their identity that they describe in a heartfelt matter, including the Civil War in recent memory, the hope of the country moving forward, as well as the solidarity ties to their cultural cousins on the other side of the pond (and in the rest of Africa as well).

The people of Sierra Leone seem to carry an extraordinary fortitude that someone like me can’t possibly understand, and my parents also remarked on the collective cultural work ethic and willingness to hang on as something that continues to inspire them to this day!

Krio speakers in the past century or so have been emphatic in making their language a symbol of Sierra Leone as well as a language that wasn’t just seen as “broken” or “mislearned”. You can even access Google Search in Salone Krio as well! (google.sl and press “Krio”)

Also one of my favorite rappers, who lays down a lot of realities and pains of the developing world, Bone na Throat, is very much worth checking out! (He uses Krio and English, not also to mention his performances alongside guest stars from other parts of Africa).

 

  1. Modern Hebrew

 

I knew Ancient Hebrew as a child, and when I saw what happened to it as a result of one Eliezer ben-Yehuda and millions of determined people, I was stunned.

For one, my previous knowledge of English and Russian made it clear how much foreign influence was present in Modern Hebrew, right down to the verb structure.

But despite that, the charm of Hebrew that one can feel from reading the Hebrew Bible in the original is still kept very much intact. The verb system is not only kept in place but expanded upon to as to include words related to SMS and Facebook, among many other things.

(For those unaware: Semitic languages use a system in which a set of consonants form the basis for a verb stem. These letters, known as the root word or “shoresh” in Hebrew, will dance around in various forms that differ in terms of activity / passivity, as well as in verbs-turned-to-nouns. “l’kabel” is to accept, “kabbalah” is something accepted, which is not only the name for the Jewish mystical tradition [accepted from a divine source] but also a receipt you would get in an Israeli store).

Hebrew’s development found parallels in my own life story, in which my mannerisms and even my accent (not to mention my personality) changed as a result of hopping around the world. Jews hopped around the world as well, and Modern Hebrew, with its abundant influent from Slavic languages, English, French and many others, shows it, all while retaining its primeval charm.

 

  1. Greenlandic

 

A language with HUNDREDS of suffixes!  The hardest language I have attempted to date! And, then as well as now, my overall favorite language of them all!

Greenlandic, above all, was different. No other language I have studied (with the obvious exception of the closely-related Inuktitut) has worked in a similar manner.

It confounded me to no end. I had dreams of becoming fluent but no matter what, it seemed that understanding the radio or a lot of songs was always out of reach. And my writing abilities were in the trash (and sometimes they still are).

However, I decided that I was going to do SOMETHING. And the decision to do something , however small, with consistency—it edged me closer and closer to gaining a vocabulary that will probably serve me well during my trip to Greenland in October 2017.

What’s more, the culture I gained insight into actually inspired me to make my first video game, “Kaverini: Nuuk Adventures”. That’s not nothing!

I’d say more about it, but there’s only so much I can spoil for a product I haven’t released yet, right?

 

  1. Tok Pisin

 

Up until I studied Tok Pisin, the languages I had studied in my life had been tongues of the developed world. Tok Pisin changed all that, and in encountering it I felt that I had encountered a time capsule.

The world that was captured in the cultures of PNG felt stuck between the present and whatever our ancestors were before many forms of technology made (and continue to make) our genuinely human side closed off to us.

Tok Pisin taught me how to be a human again, how to think in a language that was minimalistic yet expressive, and also gave me access to a culture that knows all too well that we are poised on a precipice in which either our desire for profit or our humanity will win (the time is not too far off in which we cannot have both!)

It also showed me that, even if I never intend to visit “the country”, I can feel a great resonance with “the culture” from a distance, sometimes even stronger than for countries that I had actually visited once!

 

HONORABLE MENTIONS:

 

Irish

Ah yes, a language more commonly used by non-fluent speakers than by native speakers…or that’s how it seemed to me when I first encountered the way Irish is used on the internet.

Given how many non-natives were using it enthusiastically online and in speech, the many usages of the Irish language, from those who speak a handful of sentences to full-on TV shows and YouTube series, has captivated me. The Irish-Language sphere on the internet is one of enthusiasm and acceptance, one that many other language learning communities, endangered or not, should take note to emulate.

 

Trinidadian English Creole

 

My first language with no standardized writing system, it truly made me think about code switching more deeply than in any other language. Trinis will often shift between standard English and Trini Creole very quickly, and listening to informal radio programs with a substandard knowledge of the latter requires you to be on your toes.

What’s more, this was a language I chose in part because I live in Crown Heights (and I’m writing this article from there). I learned this language enough to have conversations in it, and suddenly my neighborhood came to life in a way I didn’t even think possible (although my knowledge of other Caribbean Creoles, such as Vincentian, Grenadian, or Jamaican, remain weak as of the time of writing).

 

Finnish

 

The language everyone tried to tell me was impossible. Finnish made me think about how distinct formal and informal language can be. The various “grammar games” that are played in Finnish’s more informal registers made it easy for me to switch from the colloquial variety to a formal one. A useful skill to have if you ever want to learn, let’s say, East Asian languages in great depth.

Finnish music can be heart-wrenching, but also some of the edgiest music I’ve ever heard, one that truly causes me to embrace my darkness and fuel it into my missions of peacemaking and bridge-building. The great pride that many Finnish speakers take in their culture and language is also something that profoundly affected me, and it made me realize that all cultures and languages have it—they just sometimes need more coaxing to get it out and fully expressed.

 

AND #1…

 

YIDDISH

 

I bet none of you is surprised at all right now, right?

Yiddish was the first language I became fluent in as an adult, and for the rest of my life it seems that I will be of the opinion that it is an excellent choice for the first language I definitively mastered. (That said, I’m still learning new things about it and at times, if I’m rusty on practice, I’ll slip up, but given that I do that in English too…I’m okay with that, I guess…)

Yiddish showed me that a language could be a community.

Yiddish showed me that a language could echo a culture in ways that reading from a guidebook or even holy texts just couldn’t.

Yiddish showed me that a language can serve for a depository of cultural memories, as “Yiddish-Taytsch” wandered off further East, picking up words along the way from Polish, Russian, Ukrainian, Hungarian, and many others. The people groups you encounter rub off on you (as an individual AND as a nation), and that became clear with the story of Yiddish.

What’s more, the enthusiasm of the Yiddishist community all throughout the world is, I have to say it, unmatched.

The songs and stories of the Old Country are coming back to life, even among non-Hasidic Jews.

Certainly there may be some light tension (or sometimes not-so-light tension) between the secular and religious Yiddish speakers, but hey, when it comes down to it, we’re all “Klal Yisroel” in a sense (even if you happen to be a gentile Yiddish speaker, I would say! The time wasn’t long ago in which even non-Jewish Yiddish speakers were honorary Jews, as well as non-Yiddish speaking Jews as an oddity)

Yiddish showed me what the true prize of fluency in a language is, and even when I wasn’t fluency, I was still getting plenty of prizes. Yiddish made me a better Jew and a better human being through its proverbs, songs and, above all, the community and friends that I’ve acquired through this fascinating tongue that will probably not only remain with me throughout my life, but  I hope to raise my children speaking it one day! (Of course they’ll have other languages, too!)

2015-07-06 11.22.31

What languages have changed your life and how? Let me know!

3 Ways in Which My Religious Education Has Helped Me, and another 3 in which it Hindered Me

I have many sides to myself that I show on this blog. One side that’s actually very important to me is the fact that I’m Jewish. I am pleased to say that in Jewish communities throughout the world that I am VERY far from the only one with a “global outlook” and a curiosity about other cultures, languages, peacemaking and bridge building.

However, my relationship with Judaism hasn’t always been very easy. During my preteen years as well as my early teen years (including all of high school), I was very religious and often had an extraordinary fear of a God that would punish me for every single minor infraction.

I used to be genuinely afraid of a lot of things, but suffice it to say that I’ve become someone different since then, and while my own beliefs about God and Judaism are just as confusing as the topics themselves, I think that I could make any all-powerful God anywhere very proud with the work I’m doing, not also to mention the fact that Jewish communities throughout the world already look to me as an inspiration (and not just because I’m a synagogue cantor).

That said, this was a topic that many of you have requested, and so allow me to tell you about how my religious background helped me and other ways in which it held me back.

Three bad, then three good:

  1. Religion made me afraid of the “real world” for a long time. Sometimes that fear still lingers. Sometimes it even causes me to “look down” on American popular culture in general.

 

During my time at my Orthodox Jewish Day school I was paradoxically taught all about the gentile world in my secular studies classes, all the while I was being instilled with a fear of gentiles, especially Europeans (and especially Eastern Europeans) as well as Muslims (regardless of where they were from).

Thankfully, thanks to the foresight of my parents I did not develop any prejudice in the slightest and I knew all the while that all human beings and cultures are worthy of expression, love and appreciation wherever they are.

However, one fear in which my family AND my Jewish Day School teachers were fairly united in was the fact that they were both fearful (and sometimes disdainful) of the American culture that lie outside of the world of the Jewish Day school.

I went to a high school not even knowing what a blowjob was and people outright refused to explain it to me because they thought it would offend me. I was afraid of talking to other people and my first week of high school I actively rebuffed other people’s desires to know me.

Looking back, it was genuinely frightening and I think I should be proud of myself of the truly global citizen I’ve learned to become.

But slight tinges of the disdain of the “tuma’a” (impurity) of the “treyfe Medine” (the Un-Kosher State, namely, the one with the fifty stars and stripes on its flags) still remain in my heart ever-so-slightly. I’m still fearful of many aspects of American culture, and I don’t have this reaction to any other culture anywhere.

Perhaps it might have also been strengthened by anti-Americanism I may have witnessed in other countries and rubbed off on my (Israel and Germany did have particularly strong strains of it, in my experience).

Thankfully I’m getting better by the day at being a more open-minded person and I feel that I actually have a long way to go on that journey!

 

  1. Religion made me unduly afraid of negative consequences and “screwing up”

 

And this fear was doubled by the insane amount of testing that exists in the American school system.

I was actually extraordinarily relieved to have got my MA and not continued with schooling, because the approval-seeking tendencies were just hurting me too much and genuinely made me afraid to express my opinions. These days, as a teacher myself, I try to help my students “recover” from the damage that our schools inflict on them—namely, that they instill a fear of learning into us rather than a love of learning.

As far as religion is concerned, I was afraid about everything. Picking up snowballs and pens on Shabbat would probably incur a divine wrath of sorts, and then some of my classmates tried to make me feel as though I would have to kill a sheep for each time I ever did that in my life once the Temple was rebuilt.

There was always the idea that I was not good enough and being human was not okay. The extraordinary prevalence of many, many rules, back when I first went to my mini-Yeshiva in 1999 or so, meant that I was always discovering new ways to screw up and commit transgressions.

What no one ever told me, however, was that a journey to holiness and fulfillment is actually found through “screw-ups”, and you can see this in literally all of the life stories of every character in the Hebrew Bible!

I encourage myself to screw up more often. I encourage my students to do so as well. After you’ve gotten all of the bad behaviors, bad drawings, bad writing out of your system, you’ll only know how to act / draw / write well from there on out.

 

  1. Religion made me feel guilty about having fun.

I really liked computer games when I was a preteen and I didn’t want any of my teachers or peers to find out. Back in those days Age of Empires was a very big hit and eventually other people would bring it into conversation and I would feel uneasy about it. And I haven’t even touched on the whole drama that ensued with Magic: the Gathering. Or, even worse (or better), male-female dynamics.

My teachers chided me against “filling my mind with garbage” (and I’m glad to be filling my mind with even more garbage and being called a champion and a hero because of it). And then this, too, was made worse by the school system because I was made to think that these hobbies just meant less time for the SAT.

But this brings us into another failure of education (which also seems to have strengthened all of the various negatives that my religious upbringing has given me), and that is the fact that it ignores the fact that “Trojan Horse learning” – trying to get people to learn without having them realizing it – is the most effective way.

Suffice it to say that religion also brought a number of extraordinary blessings to my life as well, and to my language learning journeys specifically (it goes without saying that all skills are linked, y’know?)

 

  1. Religious Education and Practice made me disciplined and focused on goals and results. It also taught me to have a firm sense of purpose.

 

This was actually extraordinarily helpful in regards to language learning and goal acquisition. Visualizing negatives actually really help with this, and the same way I had learned to visualize negatives in religious school (insult your siblings? No paradise for you!) I had learned to visualize negatives in my professional life.

If I don’t learn Krio well enough now, there may come a point in which my father’s stories from his time in Sierra Leone will be locked out from me forever. Maybe if I learn it well enough, I could actually use it as a conversation starter (even though he doesn’t speak it) and it could job memories about things he never thought about telling me before.

It also really helped me with visualizing positives.

If I do learn Swedish well enough, I can read the letters from my deceased family members. Not only that, but I will also be able to speak the language of my ancestors firmly and fluently in a way that would make both them and me proud.

If I do learn how to read and understand Hungarian, I will be able to partake of a culture that my grandmother’s family saw themselves as a part of. I would be able to read the prayer books of my hopeful ancestors that came to this country and turned to these books, with Hungarian on one side and Hebrew on the other, as a source of hope when the world was going to pieces.

I would be able to read both sides of books that enabled my own place in the world today.

I merely transferred the goal-oriented thinking from my religious sphere to my secular studies with extraordinary ease and I’ve been thankful for it ever since.

 

  1. It endowed me with the understanding that “You are not expected to finish the job, but you are not free to quit”

This is a quote from Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers). For those unaware, it is a small sliver of the Talmud (six chapters long) that is a collection of Jewish sayings from Late Antiquity. They, too, reflect a scribal culture that is partly influenced by the Persian Empire, then by Hellenism, then by the Eastern Roman Empire, and a lot of quotes from the book are indeed helpful with endowing you with a sense of purpose.

I should also take this time to thank the masterful authors of these texts. Ancient Wisdom is extraordinary and if you haven’t read a lot of collections of Ancient Wisdom (from anywhere in the world), I highly recommend you do so right now. Well…after you’re done reading this, that is…

In Pirkei Avot there is a sentence that says that you are not expected to finish the job but you are not free to quit it. This understanding was very helpful for skill acquisition, given that, no matter what you do, every educational experience you have ever had will be a part of you forever, and that you will never complete any task completely (even if it is learning your native language perfectly. Still a lot of things I have yet to learn about English, even though I speak it very well!)

 

  1. Religion enabled me to understand the fact that to understand a culture you have to understand practices and texts and engage with them very frequently.

 

This was essential for language learning and language learning’s more in-depth twin, cultural learning (which is a hundred times more difficult!)

Learning enough words in a language and even stringing them into sentences is one thing. Learning the culture to which it is attached is another thing, and unless you master the latter, the former is going to be stunted (although it is possible to speak it well, no doubt, even under those circumstances, but probably not to a fantastic degree).

I look at the languages I’ve learned the best. Yiddish brought with it a vast collection of cultural touchstones some of which have been as influential as far as Southeast Asia and Australia. Yiddish wasn’t just words on a page. It was Chelm and Hershele Ostropolyer and Avrom Sutzkever and Badkhonim (roughly explained: Town of Fools, Trickster Character in Yiddish Folktales and Theater, 20th-century poet who lost is one-day-old son in the Vilna Ghetto, and humoristic performers at Jewish weddings that were trained in making the bride cry).

Cultural literacy takes extraordinary work and in some cases there are native speakers that have gaps in it (like I do with American popular culture). That said, I’ve been in the reverse situation where I can name a lot of Finnish popular music artists and then got told by a Finnish native speaker that she didn’t listen to Finnish-language music at all (well, I don’t tend to listen to English-language music either, so I guess that makes two of us).

Yiddish and Finnish were far from the only ones, I bonded with the Solomon Islands with their radio and back when I was in college my knowledge of Russian popular music (which is still quite strong) made me friends. In New York, despite the fact that my Russian is significantly weaker than it was, it still makes me a lot of friends!

Learning Judaism to me wasn’t just about the commandments or the bagels or the Jewish Summer Camp I never attended. It was about the Talmud, contemporary Israeli literature, Borsht Belt Comedians, Mickey Katz and many others besides.

 

CONCLUSION

 

Putting it all into one sentence: religion made me fearful, but it also made me determined. I don’t exactly know what sort of life I would have if I were raised in a completely secular manner, but chances are I would be writing an article instead on “3 ways my secular upbringing helped me, and 3 ways that it hindered me”.

It is what it is. What’s there to say?

kegn dem shtrom

Against the Stream, then and always (2011)

All About Solomon Islands Pijin, or How I Learned a Language in Two Weeks

Would you believe me if I told you that I became conversational in a language in nearly two weeks? It happened, actually, and it was during Passover 2016 when I was “vacationing” at my parents’ house.

The language I mastered during that “holiday season”, as it were, was Solomon Islands Pijin, which is unique among the languages I speak by virtue of the fact that it was, until VERY recently, almost entirely a spoken language!

Yes, there are translations of the Bible into Pijin, but what really brought about a “writing revolution” in the Solomons was actually the advent of mobile phones.

(Something you should know about mobile phones in the developing world, and I saw this when I was in rural Myanmar as well: they are a LOT more common than you think they are! This is true even among very poor people).

You’re probably here wondering “Jared, why are you writing about this topic today rather than, let’s say, any other day?”

Well, you’ve probably guessed the pattern by now…today is July 7th, the Independence Day of the Solomon Islands—home to a culture of forward-looking and friendly people who also have been responsible for some of the most beautiful music I have ever heard in my life.

You’ve gotten this far and you probably want to know what Solomon Islands Pijin is. So let’s treat you to a sample, shall we?

Iso an Jekob

Okay, as an English-speaker you probably recognize a significant amount of words, but are probably genuinely confused with the most common words.

You’re probably wondering, “what is this and why does it exist?”

Well, allow me to share the story with you:

When British Colonizers came to Australia and Fiji, they set up plantations and then proceeded to “blackbird” locals from the nearby areas to work at the plantation. Blackbirding did involve forced kidnapping and other morally questionable methods (although there were instances of fair work being involved).

So you have people from a variety of areas—namely, Australia, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands—and they’re speaking a huge host of languages with each other but, for the sake of working for English-speakers, they need to find a way to communicate both with themselves and with their colonial masters.

Enter the Pidgin Languages, later to become creoles.

The variety of English that was created as a result of these plantation experiences was a Pidgin English, one that was used to communicate between the locals and the British who ran the plantations.

However, given as there was no formal language training for the workers, they made significant shortcuts in order to learn how to communicate as quickly as possible (you can probably guess from this that Creole Languages can be mastered in a very short time in comparison to other languages!)

The pidgins thereby developed were noted by the British as being highly efficient, although no doubt they were made fun of by English speakers very frequently (and, in some cases even today, continue to be).

Now the story continues with the pidgins turning into creoles.

The primary difference between a pidgin language and a creole language is that a creole is a pidgin that has acquired enough vocabulary to be someone’s native tongue. A pidgin language is just a fusion of various languages, usually with a base in a European tongue (Portuguese, French and English are the most common for creole languages) used to communicate, but its vocabulary does not have to be extensive the way a creole does.

Even so, creole languages usually have significantly smaller comprehensive vocabularies than many other languages (again, efficiency).

Now you’re probably wondering what this has to do with the Solomon Islands?

So when the plantations ceased to be, the various workers often found their way back home. But as a result of the experience in the plantations in which various ethnicities that had not been in contact with each other developed a means to talk with each other as a result of the pidgin, that language followed them home.

Not only that, it also transformed into creole languages and became widespread enough in places like Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, and the Torres Strait in order to become the primary method of communication in those countries.

This also became important because it enabled these countries to develop linguistic identities that were separate from European powers. This is the reason that Vanuatu’s national anthem is actually the only in the world that is written in an English Creole Language. Sandwiched between British and French influence and constantly pressured to “choose teams”, the Ni-Vanuatu national movement opted for its own team…namely, Bislama, one of the “children” of the plantation creoles.

So that you know, Tok Pisin in Papua New Guinea, Bislama in Vanuatu, Pijin in the Solomon Islands and Torres Strait Creole are siblings. There are also related creoles spoken by some aboriginal communities in mainland Australia, although they diverge from these four more substantially.

It makes sense, because barely a few centuries ago these were actually all the same language! But as a result of varying factors (due to [1] what local languages contributed to the creole spoken there and [2] which European powers exerted more influence), these languages are different.

Bislama has French loan words, Tok Pisin has German loan words, and Solomon Islands Pijin is comparatively lacking in both of these.

 

Okay, Why Should I Care? Are You Going to Tell me a Reason (or four) that I should learn it?

 

Yes, indeed!

For one, the Melanesian Creoles (that I’m not listing again for the umpteenth time) are very similar. Given that I studied Tok Pisin before studying Pijin it is no surprise that I became conversational, if not fluent, in record time.

Yes, there are differences, especially with the Pijin-trademarked question word, “waswe”, which goes at the beginning of sentences (probably a fusion of “which-what-where”, if you ask me). It also serves as a “why?” or a “what if?” or a “is it really?” or “do you think so?”. Pijin also relies more heavily on the f sound which does not appear as frequently in Tok Pisin (and a lot of Tok Pisin I’ve heard actually excludes it with noteworthy frequency).

Pijin and Bislama are sometimes even believed to be dialects of the same language (and some would even include Tok Pisin in this dynamic). No doubt they were, once upon a time, but I think that there are enough differences between them to actually separate them as genuine linguistic entities but that essay is a story for another time (or you could ask me in the comments!)

Pijin is an excellent moral choice for your next language, given that a lot of the struggles concerning countries that many people in the world don’t think about (as well as the developing country’s choice whether or not to partner up with developed countries for the sake of resource harvesting or economic development) will give you a truer insight into where the planet stands and where we should go from here.

What’s more, given that English is an official language of the Solomon Islands and is used in business writing as well as in the country’s national anthem, a lot of prospective language learners tend to overlook Pijin. This leaves the Pijin learners primarily in two camps (with exceptions like myself): (1) missionaries and (2) Peace Corps folks.

Your language choice can be morally motivated and it can make you a mini-ambassador for the countries and cultures that you may not represent on your passport but do represent in regards to which cultures you “tip your hat to”. We need more people who can share stories and cultural narratives from all over the world, rather than from the world’s most powerful states. And with Pijin’s similarity to English, you can become that ambassador in no time! (well…in some time…)

Solomon music is also the best I’ve heard from the developing world, period. Sharzy has become an international icon of sorts, and his music may seem uncannily familiar to you. What’s more, if you speak English, especially as a native language, you’ll be surprised how many Pijin songs you may come to understand with a few days’ practice, sometimes so well that you may even think yourself capable of transcribing them!

 

 

There are also a number of resources you can use to improve your understanding of Pijin (and your speaking of Pijin if you choose to “shadow” [repeat after the narrator bit-by-bit]). A lot of religious material for Christians has been published (and you know that “The Jesus Film”, which has been dubbed into over 1,000 languages [not a typo!] is probably going to get an article on this blog one of these days). While I am not Christian myself, I find this material helpful for understanding not only the processes of missionaries (then as well as now) but also concerning how Christianity is perceived and practiced in places like the Solomon Islands.

And another song just because I feel like it:

Another slice of videos you can watch include informational videos about diseases, economic development, science (especially environmental science) and more! Many of these are localized into Solomon Islands Pijin by organizations from Australia and beyond!

I bet “watch Claymation films in Solomon Islands Pijin” was probably not on your to-do list for today, but here this is anyhow:

Yes, there is radio and you can learn a lot about the many cultures of the Solomon Islands by listening to it, but be aware of the fact that, especially in Honiara (the capital) a lot of English is interspersed between Pijin, so you’ll get an “on-off” feeling at times. But even when Solomon Islanders speak English, you’ll be able to hone your pronunciation and may even learn how to speak English the way they do in Solomon!

A lot of ads and other programming are also available and Pijin and you’ll sometimes listen to them quite frequently on the radio! I’ve also heard fantastic things about Pijin-language storytelling (a true art in the Solomon Islands and in all of Melanesia in general), but I’ve had trouble finding links to Pijin stories so if you know of any, let me know!

Lastly, you can actually help! Pijin Wikipedia may happen if you contribute a handful of articles! Have a look at the progress here! (I think if a Wikipedia incubator reaches 50 articles, it gets launched! Maybe I should just write the remaining ones and get it over with as a “birthday present” to the country. Or maybe I have too many other classes to teach today…)

https://incubator.wikimedia.org/wiki/Wp/pis

Anyhow, after listening to all of the songs, watching the films, and having a good dosage of written Pijin, perhaps it doesn’t surprise you that I learned this language well enough to speak it convincingly within two weeks…or does it?

Happy Birthday, Solomon Islands!

solomon

 

How to Learn to Read the Hebrew Bible in the Original

Happy Fourth of July! Over the course of the past week I wondered to myself, “Lord (no pun intended), what topic would be REALLY good and/or suitable to discuss and post on American Independence Day?”

Yes, I could write about American English but often that may come to be a bit too predictable….

Instead, I have come to write about a topic that many of you have been BEGGING me for—namely, the Hebrew of the Scriptures!

I think that the Bible and the United States go very well tog…never mind that…

Anyhow, time to begin!

DSC00096 (2)

Antwerp, the home of the world’s oldest printing presses

A lot of people have told me throughout the years (people of all religions, mind you) that they would like to learn enough Hebrew in order to read the Bible. Another common question I get is “how similar (or different) are Hebrew as it is spoken in Israel today and Hebrew as it is used in the Scriptures and prayers?”

Excellent question!

  • Modern Hebrew has words from English (thanks to the British Mandate), French (thanks to it having been the international language in the days of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the father of Modern Hebrew) and Slavic Languages / Yiddish (given as that was the culture of many of the founding fathers of contemporary Israel). Biblical Hebrew has absolutely none of these.

 

However, one thing that may surprise you is the fact that there are loan words from other languages in Biblical Hebrew, although thanks to a millennia-long gap, post-colonialism and too many other factors to list, it’s not easy to detect all of them.

The culture of the Bible is one in which the Hebrews find themselves interacting with many, MANY other ethnicities. The sheer amount of them is staggering and nowadays I would venture that that sort of diversity of small mini-nations as described in the Bible would be found in places like Northern Australia, Melanesia and areas of Indonesia.

Obviously some of the big “players” would include the quilt of cultures of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Ethiopia, and the Eastern Mediterranean. As time goes on in the Bible, the array of mini-cultures starts to coalesce into global powers like Assyria, Egypt and Old Babylon. During the time of the “United Kingdom of Judah and Israel” (as my professor Wayne Horowitz used to call it), the union (a bit like a Poland-Lithuania or a Denmark-Norway, as it were) became a regional military power (as noted in the book of Samuel). This happened during the reigns of David and Solomon and the kingdoms split after Solomon’s death.

So what does this have to do with loanwords?

Hebrew is fairly purest at times, or so it seems…until you realize that the extent of loans or cognates from languages like Akkadian or Sumerian cannot be fully realized in their entirety.

One such Sumerian loanword in Hebrew is a word used to refer to the Divine Realm, “היכל” (Heykhal).

With knowledge of Akkadian, a lot of the Bible’s “hidden references” come to light, and we may never truly discover the full scope of it. (Jeremiah is said to have been able to read it, and that there are idiomatic and pattern parallels between his book of prophecy and those of prominent Akkadian language poets)

Planet Earth’s first great empire was Sumer, and then (much like Judah and Israel did later on), they coalesced into one kingdom, the Kingdom of Sumer and Akkad. Like the Israelites, the Akkadians were also Semites, while the Sumerians were not. The tension apparently did result in the union’s dissolution later on down the line.

It’s unsurprising, then, that loanwords from these languages ended up in Hebrew.

Later on in the age of the Talmud, the Mishnah (the “alpha” version of the Talmud, with the “beta” version, the Gemara, coming later on) uses loanwords from Greek and even some from Latin (note to those unaware: Greek was the American English of the Eastern Roman Empire). The same way that Dutch youth may use a lot of English, German and French loan words in their speech, the Tanaim of the Mishnah also used loans from other languages that they recognized.

I’ve come a long way since Jewish Day School, haven’t I?

In short: Modern Hebrew -> Contemporary European Influence, Biblical Hebrew -> Influence from the Languages of Antiquity, Talmudic Hebrew -> Influence from OTHER languages of Antiquity (and we still haven’t even touched on the Hebrew as used by Jewish poets throughout the Diaspora for millennia!)

 

  • Verb Structure is different.

 

Like Irish (which shares a LOT of uncanny similarities to Biblical Hebrew in terms of its grammatical setup, causing people to think that the Celts were the Lost Ten Tribes), Biblical Hebrew uses a “Verb-Subject-Object” sentence structure. When God speaks to Moses, the words translate to “he-spoke God to-Moses to-say”

Modern Hebrew resembles something closer to English, Yiddish or Slavic Languages in terms of its sentence structure. Translating word-by-word from Modern Hebrew into English is less of a hassle for this reason.

 

  • Pronunciation CAN be different (in Ashkenazi or Temani Spheres)

 

Jews from Yemen and Jews from Ashkenaz (Central-Eastern Europe), especially deeply religious ones, may use different pronunciation than what Israelis will use in conversation.

But Israelis of all stripes, however, will use the Sephardic pronunciation in using Modern Hebrew.

Here’s why:

Yiddish has Hebrew loan-words in it. These Hebrew words in Yiddish (that can sometimes be significantly detached from their Hebrew-language meanings in the most absurd ways, including being some of the rudest words in the language…) are pronounced using the Ashkenazi pronunciation.

In the early days of Zionism, Yiddish was seen as a Ghetto Language, something to be shed. As a result, the Hebrew pronunciation adopted was that of the Sephardi Jews, so as to become detached from the Old World culture. Oddly enough, Modern Hebrew took a lot of idioms of Ancient Hebrew origin from Yiddish back into its contemporary version (although obviously the meanings shifted yet again in some cases!)

What does this mean for you?

There’s an Orthodox Jewish community right across the street from where I’m writing this. Sometimes they play Hasidic pop songs sung in Ashkenazi-pronounced Hebrew. This means that, unless you’ve had particular training listening to that brand of Hebrew, it may be strange to you (like listening to versions of English that you may have never heard in your life for the first time!)

Some Biblical Hebrew classes will have you use the same Sephardic pronunciation that you use for Modern Hebrew. But in some cases you may need to get used to (or at least recognize) the  Ashkenazi or Temani variant depending on what sphere you’re in.

 

  • Forms of Hebrew used in Antiquity can be wildly inconsistent.

 

The Mishna uses modified plural endings for verbs. Some portions of the Bible show slightly-different grammatical patterns. And then this isn’t even touching on the “kri uktiv”, the idea that some words in the Bible are not pronounced as they are written!

(HOWEVER! Your editor will usually let you know in some way how to pronounce the word in the event of “kri uktiv”, which is just the Hebrew term for “read and written”. Oh, “kri uktiv” is Sephardic, and in Ashkenazi it would be “kri u’ksiv”. Fun).
Imagine having no one tell you this and then be expected to read texts with very little prior knowledge in Hebrew from the Five Books of Moses and the Mishna and the prayers. 10-year-old me was very confused indeed.

And that’s why I became a teacher to prevent other people from being so confused.

 

I want to Read the Bible in Hebrew. Where do I start and where should I put my resources? I’ve never studied a “dead language” before…HELP!

 

Jared Gimbel to the rescue!

You need to recognize a number of things first:

  • The building block of the narrative will be verbs. Verbs, like in Modern Hebrew and in other Semitic Languages, will be made out of “shorashim” (the Hebrew word for “roots”), in which there will be a set of three letters that will indicate a certain meaning. These shorashim are not limited to verbs, but also nouns or adjectives that are connected to that action as well.

Most Shorashim in the Bible will be three letters long, and a lot of them will appear very frequently in the bible, verbs like “to send”, “to call out”, “to say”, “to go”, “to return” will be featured regularly. Learn to recognize verbs like these, and let translations of the Hebrew Bible into the language of your choice guide you.

  • The names of characters will be different! The English names of Biblical Characters are taken from the Septuagint (the Greek Translation of the Hebrew Bible). The same is true with the names of the Biblical characters in European Languages or indigenous languages of places colonized by Europeans (the Americas, Africa, Oceania, among others)

In the case of English, you’ll note that the names changed by virtue of the restrictions that Greek had in regards to adopting sounds from Hebrew. Isaac is a Greek-ified version of the Hebrew “Yitzkhak” (and in Yiddish it came under Polish influence and became “Itsik”), and Jacob is a version of “Yaakov” (which is “Yankev” in Yiddish – again, under Polish influence).

Abraham, Isaac and Jacob become Avraham, Yitzkhak, and Yaakov in Hebrew, and Avrohom, Itzik and Yankev in Yiddish. This is SO MUCH FUN, RIGHT?!!?

Also the Bible features a LOT of place names (and people names) that are mentioned once and sometimes they’re almost never brought up again. One issue I’ve seen with students trying to read the Bible is that they may not be able to recognize when a proper name is, in fact, a proper name.

Again, using translations on the side (as long as you’re paying attention, which I’m sure you are) will help you hone your “sixth sense” as to what is a place-name and what is a person-name. Even more confusing: place-names and personal names can also MEAN THINGS!

(What’s more, some Biblical characters are actually named after incidents, including…you got it…Isaac and Jacob. These word games don’t translate into any other language! Aren’t you excited to learn this stuff?

  • Words will appear over and over again in the Bible. Recite aloud. The more you’ll encounter these words, the more you’ll come to recognize them.

Favorites would include “leemor” – “to say”, which is also used to indicate an indirect statement (in plain English this means the “that” in “I said that this blog is the best in the world”), “hineh” (behold!), any words relating to birth and death at all, as well as prepositional phrases, which provide the learner as much frustration in Hebrew as they do with almost any language I can think of that isn’t a Creole.

  • Context always helps.

The fact that you’ve probably heard most of the stories before will actually help you with any information that you may be blanking on, whether it be verb tenses, prepositional phrases, or even a shoresh!

Think about what the people in the story might be doing or saying, how much info you can piece together given what you have already.

You have an exciting journey ahead of you. You are going to be able to read the most influential piece of literature in human history. And believe me, it is a VERY fulfilling feeling to get to read the Masoretic text in the original. Your friends will be impressed…as will I!

Happy Fourth of July!

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