In Defense of Learning an English Creole Language

Today is actually a Jewish holiday of sorts, although one with very few religious practices involved. Tu B’av (Jewish Love and Harvest Festival of Sorts, which literally translates to “the 15th of the month of Av”, using a numerical systems in which Hebrew numbers are stand-ins for letters way before the Arabic Numeral system came around) is one of the most auspicious days of the Jewish Calendar, the other being Yom Kippur.

Being generally confused as well as having some issues with illness I thought yesterday was actually that holiday and so I posted this picture to announce that, yes, I will be coming out with a New Polyglot Video, hopefully very soon. If not August, than definitely September.

victory is my destiny

No doubt there are going to be those that are fuming due to the lack of French / Chinese / Italian / Portuguese / Turkish / other global languages, but come on. Too many other polyglot videos featuring those languages exist. Let others have their turn.

And if other people want to downvote my videos just because of leaving out their favorite language or including a minority language and not theirs, then so be it. It just speaks to a greater issue of ruthless pragmatism and conformity in the online Polyglot community.

One of my big memories of the Polyglot Conference in 2015 was hearing a well-known Polyglot whose opinion I respect very much say that he wished that many of his peers would investigate Asian languages other than Mandarin Chinese in more depth. My decision to study Burmese beyond my trip was not only motivated by him (even though I’m not really focusing on it at the moment), but I also got inspired to learn another Asian Language, Lao, because I’m just…generally curious to learn more about the most bombed country in the history of humanity (true story!) Oh, and … uh… snippets of Vietnamese, Gujarati, Tamil, etc. on the side. But I suck at these. A lot.

Besides, I can communicate with some Thai people with Lao and I prefer smaller languages, something that you knew by now.

Gee, you really love reading my ramblings, don’t you?

So if you looked at the picture above, there were probably very few of you that could recognize every single country in it (by the way, that’s not footage from a future video, that’s just a teaser).

But out of the 27 or so countries featured, there are six (SIX!) English Creole Languages and seven if you include Standard American English.

Let me count them for you:

 

Vanuatu -> Bislama

Papua New Guinea -> Tok Pisin

Solomon Islands -> Pijin

Trinidad and Tobago -> Trinidad English Creole

Sierra Leone -> Krio (Salone Krio)

Belize -> Bileez Kriol (Belizean Creole)

 

I would have become my Bileez Kriol videos a few days ago but I got tied up with a guest in town as well as not getting good sleep and what-have-you. And I haven’t published a new video or a day or two…

By taking on minority languages in my video (such as Breton) as well as English Creoles (like the list above), I know that I will get some very harsh negative responses.

A lot of people feel genuinely threatened by online polyglots in general, and even MORE so if they actually commit themselves to “useless languages”.

And imagine if you’re very proud of your country and your language and your language is a global language, and then this guy comes along having chosen to neglect the study of YOUR language and chosen languages spoken by significantly fewer populations instead. You may feel CRUSHED.

And then there are those that insist that their Creole language is actually a dialect of a European language (and this is especially true in some Caribbean countries, note that I did not say “Carribean Island Countries”, because there are some Caribbean nations [e.g. Guyana] that are not islands).

I could have chosen to leave out Trinidadian English Creole (which I’ve been studying on-and-off for the past few months, even though I got the book in January 2016 as a “you don’t have Lyme Disease anymore!” give), but I’m including it even if it will subject me to ridicule and dislikes.

Here’s the reason why.

 

Creole Cultures Need Legitimacy and Love

 

Some have indeed acquired it, with Haitian Creole being the primary example. Walking around New York City you’ll see signs written in it, especially on public transport. Haitian Creole is also in Google Translate as well, not to mention countless of other avenues to learn it online (Haiti has a fascinating history that actually served to permanently change the face of colonialism and the Atlantic Slave Trade).

However, too often do I encounter with disgust that Creole Languages are “not real” and that people “should never consider learning them”. (in Francophone and Lusophone areas, I’ll have you know, this is overwhelmingly not the case, and sometimes I’ve encountered people who have learned French and Portuguese Creoles from France and Portugal respectively).

The disdain towards Creole Languages seems to be an English-speaking hangup that I’ve primarily encountered in North America (in Australia and New Zealand languages like Tok Pisin are actually highly valued on the job market, even though some of those jobs may get you sent to places where they are spoken with great regularity. True story!)

That being said, I do have some theories as to why some people may be inhibited in learning them and also why learning Creole Languages, for me, is a moral imperative:

For one, there is always the issue of “number of speakers”, which is just plain silly if used by itself. Attracted by the culture of Argentina? A great reason to learn Spanish.  Genuinely concerned by the way Chinese culture is misunderstood in your country? Mandarin may thing for you. “Lots of people speak it, therefore I should learn it”, is just flock-following. I’ve encountered too many people who explicitly list that reason for learning such a language and when they speak these languages, it comes off as stunted and non-genuine. As it should! Because the cultural connection is usually lacking!

And why learn African Languages from the former French colonies when just French will do? Well it seems that China’s language institutions are investing in African languages precisely so that they can have an edge in business against people who think like that.

English Creole languages are spoken in places where Standard English is the language of the government until you actually step inside any of the actual government meetings.

Oh, and my parents needed a Krio translator when they were in up-country Sierra Leone, so especially in the case of African and Pacific Creoles, knowing the standard language is only going to get you so far (even though in some cases it may be wiser to use Standard English, especially in some urban areas in countries like Papua New Guinea).

Another hangup is appropriate usage. Especially if you are a white person, you may be concerned that your speaking a Creole language may be construed as making fun of their culture. Well, appropriate usage can always be discussed with your friends from places like Salone, Melanesia or the Caribbean.

In the case of Papua New Guinea, speaking Tok Pisin with too much English influence and not-too-well can be construed as “Tok Masta”, which is considered highly condescending. And we haven’t even touched on some of the Caribbean Islands in which people see their Creole as a version of English so much so that they deny having any knowledge of a Creole language whatsoever (the situation in some communities like these is very, very odd, although I think Jamaica is a holdout, after all, did you know there is Wikipedia translated into Jamaican? Hey, I’m living in Crown Heights, I should probably order my Jamaican Patois book sooner rather than later. Perhaps after an important milestone, maybe, although I don’t think I’m including Jamaican in my upcoming video…)

Another thing to mention is “opportunities to use it”. Online, tons. Even for developing-world creoles. This is true even if you go onto news sites in places like Vanuatu and see a lot of the news written in English rather than in Bislama. Comments on the articles may not be in English, not also to mention snippets of Creole Languages that are used in articles that are otherwise written in Standard English.

Yet another hangup is yes, it has to be said, undercurrents of white supremacy. An idea that, somehow, the way that these people speak actually isn’t worth your time, even with a lot of black people in the United States feeling increasingly unsafe. And another idea that the language of Europe are more important and have more money attached to them than the languages of any of the places they colonized or languages that came into being because of colonialism (=Creoles).

I want to help people and cultures heal and understand each other. I arrived to Crown Heights and seeing the Trinbagonian flag everywhere (yes, Trinbagonian is a real word!), I took it upon myself to know my community better (after all, I knew plenty about the Chabad-Lubavitch community in Crown Heights prior to moving there!)

Am I going to get comments about usage of Creoles in my video? Most definitely. Some will be negative, no doubt, but I think that there will be many people from places like the Solomon Islands and Sierra Leone and Trinidad and Tobago that will appreciate the fact that I tipped my hat to their cultures when very, VERY few people (or perhaps almost not one) in the polyglot-video-making-world does that.

Already in my video series on YouTube I have caused people to rethink language learning (including many thank-you-notes).

I’m going to continue to do so for as long as I can.

Who knows? Maybe I’m the healing the world needs…maybe it’s you!

2015-03-17 20.17.12

How to Perfect your Accent in English

It isn’t often that I find myself writing about my native language! Actually, I think this is literally the FIRST time I’ve ever done that!

I’ve been an English-language tutor for nearly two years now, and one thing I’ve really noticed is that, thanks to my time in Poland at a reception desk (among many other jobs that included “Yiddish translator” and “guy who sings children’s songs for…well…children”), I’ve gained the uncanny ability to actually zone in on people’s English-language errors and peculiarities.

This article isn’t about grammar in the slightest (but if you’re curious I would think that the biggest mistakes made by far would actually be related to sentence structure and article usage [when do I use “a”? when do I use “the”?]).

Instead, I’m going to give you the keys to knowing how to perfect your accent. And English is tricky!

grand central

You, one day, knowing that your English skills are in the top 0.01% of all non-native speakers! 

Some languages, like Finnish or Hebrew, are pronounced the way they are written with mathematical precision!

English, especially the trickier American variety, is anything but that.

Without having to read any of my extended memoirs any more, let’s get into the details.

The most common pronunciation errors made by my students would include:

  • Not using the Schwa sound

American English has a very lazy sound indeed that a lot of languages don’t have. If you are a native speaker of American English, say the word “the” …note that it is a low sound that almost comes from your chin!

Instead, they will pronounce the words “the” and “thee” indentically. You don’t want to do that.

Unfortunately, the rules as to when to use the schwa sound are…well, there are no rules.

Because the schwa can literally be represented by a, e, i, o, u OR y!

Wikipedia, as of the time of writing, gives the following examples: about (first syllable), taken (last syllable), pencil (last syllable), memory (second syllable), supply (first syllable), sibyl (last syllable).

So what you need to do is two things:

  • Master the sound (the wikipedia article on Schwa that I just mentioned has a recording you can use!)
  • Find patterns in the way that it is used by English speakers and imitate them. If you find this hard to do, go to tatoeba.org and find English sentences read out loud by native speakers. In this way, you can learn to imitate a sentence exactly as a native speaker would! (Thanks to Ari in Beijing for this tip!)

 

  • English vowels, especially in “American”, are “Lazy”.

 

When I hear heavily accented English a lot of the time, and this is true for people from all continents, I usually hear a precision in the vowels.

In many types of accented English, the vowels are pronounced with emphasis and are strongly highlighted. You can do this and sound like a native speaker of American English…from the 1940’s, that is.

But contemporary English has a gliding quality to its vowels that almost none of the other languages that I have studied have.

American English uses a “legato” (and for those of you who speak Italian, note how differently an American would say the word versus the way an Italian would say it and you’ll illustrate my point exactly!). The vowels slither from one end of the mouth to the other. The primary focus of that back-and-forth swaying should be the back half of your tongue!

Instead, what many speakers do is that they pronounce the vowels statically. What this means is that the vowels, instead of moving throughout your mouth the way they do in “American”, stay put.

I don’t blame a lot of non-native speakers. Most languages in the world do this.

Those of you who know me in person know that my accent is a mixture of those from the many countries I’ve lived in. I have no problem putting on a flawless American accent, but it takes effort for me, because the lazy sounding of the vowel is something that, looking at it honestly, actually requires effort to execute.

Again, imitation of native speakers will assist you in learning how to do this. Pay attention to the small details of people’s speech (by the way, that’s what I did in my Learn Palauan Video Series that’s still ongoing). That way, you can pick up an accent.

What’s different from the way the native speaker is saying it in comparison to the way you would say it? Pay attention to EVERY. SMALL. DETAIL.

  • Not Pronouncing the R correctly

 

And this is especially  a problem from places like Thailand in which the L and the R sound are almost mixed (I bet you’re probably thinking about politically incorrect accent imitations from cartoons, aren’t you?)

One of my students practiced this sound by imitating my pronunciation of the phrase “rare occurrences”, which many non-native English speakers struggle with.

Your tongue should be curved upwards slightly, or flat, and then retreated. It should sound almost like a lazy dog’s growl (and I think it was a comment on Fluent in 3 Months or something like that that I took it from).

For those of you who speak the Beijing dialect of Mandarin, the phrase 好好 (or “very good” = Hǎohǎo) is actually pronounced something closer to having an “r” sound in the middle of it. That’s how I got native Mandarin speakers from Beijing to pronounce the R sound flawlessly. Surprisingly that r actually resembles the American R to an astonishing degree.

  • Having various pronunciation “ticks” from their native language seep in.

Now this is one that I considered omitting by virtue of the fact that there are some native speakers of English that do this (e.g. some Irish people don’t pronounce the “th” sound, Trinidadian native speakers of Standard English may pronounce the word “ask” as “aks”, etc. And no, this isn’t the time for me to get into a debate about whether or not the English Creoles of the Caribbean are separate languages or not. Post for another time!)

This can take extraordinary training and most people are satisfied with their English accent enough to the degree that they don’t deem it necessary.

Take Sweden, for example, a place with a very high rate of English proficiency. Despite that, you’ll hear people pronounce the “ch” sound like a “sh” sound, or the “j” sound like a “y” sound at times. (“A box of shocolates” … “you yust need to understand…”)

Thanks to my experience with Scandinavian tongues, I speak like that too, at times. (Keep in mind that many Swedish young people will throw in English phrases and sentences even when speaking Swedish among themselves).

You don’t understand the degree to which the things you expose yourself to can affect you. It’s very, very powerful.

These things can be trained away with effort, but given that a lot of people want a “good accent” and not a “they can’t tell the difference between me and an American” accent, a lot of people don’t go this far. But I think that the various English pronunciation ticks of many nationalities are well-documented and you just need to be aware enough to avoid them.

And sometimes speaking exercises and tongue twisters may train things away.

Again, maybe these ticks are actually something that you like (as conversation starters, for example). But I got news for you: you can easily turn such things like that “on” and “off”.

Some examples of these ticks:

  • Swedes, Norwegians, French people pronouncing “ch” as “sh”.
  • Polish and Portuguese speakers overusing nasal vowels in English.
  • Hungarians speaking English with the first-syllable-is-always-stressed rule (English does, as a general rule, do this, but not with the consistency of the Finno-Ugric Languages).
  • Greenlanders pronouncing the “ti” combination as “tsi” rather than “tea” (e.g. “Arctsic Winter Games”)

This is very much a perfectionist point. Which brings me to the one thing that almost ALL English learners struggle with.

  • Keeping the Inventory of Vowels from your Native Language

The most common roadblock for developing a good accent in English!

Your native language may have a set amount of vowels. English is almost certainly very likely to have more.

Often some speakers will just read and speak English using the vowels of their native language, rather than learning in detail the way that the English language uses vowels.

As an English native speaker, I have to be careful about my accent. If I don’t do a good job, I may get answered in English, especially if my accent impedes my understanding.

You, as an English learner, don’t really need to get worried about being answered in your native tongue when you try to speak English, and NOWHERE NEAR with as much consistency. This is especially true in English-speaking countries.

As a result, I’m not surprised by the fact that most people don’t want to hone their accent and only want to make it “borderline understandable”. And this is true even in places that score “very high” on English proficiency tests.

To some degree, I understand this because humans are, generally speaking, lazy creatures.

So what you’ll need to do is learn how to pronounce the vowels in English while successfully shutting out the sounds of your native tongue.

Imagine that you had no knowledge of your other languages in the slightest, and just needed to imitate the sounds based on what you heard, without overlaying the vowel sounds of your native language on it. That’s what you need to be doing.

Simply put: don’t read English vowels the way as if they were the same exact vowels in your native tongue. Use a new system.

 

BONUS: Another thing you could do to help you in English is…learn a little bit of another language!

 

I know, counter-intuitive, right? Especially in places where it is commonly believed “don’t learn too many languages because you can’t master them all. Focus on a handful of them!” (just wait till I and the rest of the polyglots get validated by furthered informational and memory technology! Hoo hah!)

But if you choose to do this, you’ll actually acquire skills from your other language to help you with English and everything that it entails.

You’ll also learn about how to approach learning from a different angle, and what makes English (and the process of learning English) different from whatever other languages you may be learning.

As a hyperpolyglot myself, I’ve honed the many processes of learning and maintaining my many other languages by means of collecting experiences on each journey and sharing them with each other.

This is one well-known fix that very, VERY few people try, but I highly recommend it if you haven’t done it already.

Granted, English may actually be your third, fourth, fifth, etc. language, in which case you just may need a little bit of thought, investigation and a few diary entries in order to see what you could do to fix it.

 

Yes, I have, on a handful of occasions, met non-bilingual folks whom I mistook for Americans because they spoke English so well (and my accent radar is EXTREMELY well-honed).

It. Is. Possible!

That. Person. Could. Be. YOU!

Have fun on the journey!

Important Lessons I Learned from a 3-week Journey through Sierra Leone Krio

Three weeks ago I set out on a journey to learn a language that was important for my family history: Krio, the English Creole of Sierra Leone. For those unaware, my parents worked there before I was born, and I often heard stories about “Salone” (pronounced “saal-loan”, two syllables) throughout my life.

Often my parents were fairly reluctant to open up about the full extent of what they experienced in Sierra Leone (they left shortly before the Civil War made famous by Blood Diamond, which my parents as well as many people from Salone were vexed by concerning the fairy tale / white savior elements, but on some level reluctantly satisfied that it did bring awareness about the Civil War to places like Hollywood).

I should start out by saying that I actually had two missions, one to improve Greenlandic (which was sadly not a success!) and another to learn Krio to whatever degree I could, giving myself 30 minutes a day.

If I didn’t allot myself to the 30 minutes a day, I actually said I would permanently delete this blog. So that really kept me to the commitment!

However, for Greenlandic (in which I was in no such “rush”, although I may be closer to the release of “Kaverini: Nuuk Adventures”), I made no such deal. Then I got handed a translation job last week that sucked out almost all of my time for a week and threw my study schedule for Greenlandic out the window completely.

However I cut it, my Greenlandic mission crashed.

But my Krio mission, perhaps because of my commitment, was a success! I had promised myself ever since 2014 that I would become conversational in it, and while I have a long way to go (I wouldn’t call myself fluent yet…), I would call myself proficient in spoken Krio!

Welcome to the club, Krio! You’re my first African language. Glad to have you with us on the show today. And on all other days.

salone

The lessons I picked up from having my Greenlandic goals thrown to the wayside are straightforward: I had a routine, but I burned out easily. Perhaps I should have been more fluid rather than with the rigid goals that I set (in which I would read a certain amount of something every single day, and then that lasted a week and a half and then I “wasn’t feeling up to it”).

That said, I think I discovered that my big weakness with written Greenlandic lies in the suffixes. More on the fascinating Greenlandic Language here (and I’ll likely write another piece about it on June 21st, the National Day of Greenland, and yes, it was picked because it is the longest day of the year!)

So, lessons I picked up during the Krio Journey:

  • Have a Fluid Routine, Especially if You are Otherwise Busy or Consider Yourself “Lazy”

I should have done this with Greenlandic. I should have said, “30 minutes of engaging with Greenlandic with new material, however you please, every day, no exceptions”.

The fact that I did that with Krio meant that I was capable of adjusting my routine towards whatever I wanted to do that day. Needed music? I could do that. Needed a grammar review? Yup. Wanted to read? All right then.

Surprisingly, this actually made my routine fairly well-balanced and it worked in raising not only the various levels of my understanding and speaking (I didn’t do much writing with Krio because of the inconsistency across writing systems I encountered), but also prevented me from burning out!

Even having the heaviest translation job of my life didn’t throw me off my routine!

 

  • Use YouTube Personalities as Your Virtual Friends and Mentors

 

Chances are, if anything on YouTube is in Krio (although I didn’t do a lot of documentary watching), I watched it. In some cases, I watched some videos as many as ten times on different days!

This actually bonded me to the creators and I saw fit to imitate them, their accents and the Salone personalities (because if you don’t have a connection to an associated culture of the language you will NEVER be fluent! At least this is my opinion).

A lot of people aren’t aware of this, but you actually come to imitate the various people in the media you consume. Yes, even in works of fiction! Given the unbelievably high standards I have set for myself, I have to choose my media very carefully, because often, especially in the smartphone world, you may end up spending more time with them than your real-life friends!

The great news for you as a language learner is that you can self-select virtual peers using TV Shows / YouTube Channels / other video content featuring characters and/or creators that speak your target language.

The same way that your peers will influence you professionally and in terms of their hobbies, your virtual peers will do the same. In this case, I got myself a Krio-speaking friend group in two-dimensions and it was fantastic! (Not also to mention other learners of Krio online through various platforms! Salone enthusiasts of the world unite!)

 

  • If you’ve studied a lot of varying languages, you’ll notice similarities peek in, and in the weirdest places.

Krio uses the word “we” as an all-purpose relative pronoun. That means, “Who, that, which”, as in “the person who (whom?) you are trying to reach is not available. Please call again later”.

Oh gee, I wonder what other languages I’ve studied that use an all-purpose relative pronoun?

Swedish (along with its Scandinavian siblings) uses the word “som” in the EXACT SAME MANNER that “we” is used in Krio, although “som” has usages that “we” in Krio does not have. I’d write more but I think that in 2017 people get bored really easily so if you’re really curious, write about it in the comment and I’ll explain it in more detail…

Bislama (the Ni-Vanuatu Pidgin English with French and local loanwords) in particular had uncanny similarities to Krio. “Nomo”, meaning “only” or “just” in Krio, is used in the same way that Bislama uses “nomoa” (and yes, Solomon Islands Pijin does the exact same thing). Bislama also used the word “se” to indicate an indirect statement, which means the “that” in “I think that you are going to want to learn Krio after reading this blog post”. Yes, both are related to the English word “say”.

Krio also did away with most of the accusative and possessive cases’ remnants in English. Imagine “us” and “our” being replaced with “we” (or “wi” in the case of Krio) and you’ll get an idea of something you may need to get used to with Krio. Tajik also uses nominative pronouns to indicate ownership similarly, although the execution is different.

“I heard once you pick up about four languages, the rest become easy”. Yes, but as long as you’re not staying limited to one family.

If you pick up French, Spanish and Italian one after the other, you’re going to likely struggle if you want to learn any East Asian language.

But given that the first languages I studied were French, Biblical Hebrew, Spanish, Ancient Greek, Talmudic Aramaic and Russian, there’s obviously more variety in that (and I studied all before I reached the age of 16).

Yiddish, Norwegian and Swedish, the first languages I reached true fluency in, were handed the keys based on my prior knowledge of a wide birth of languages (none of which I was conversationally fluent in five years ago), something that only just continues to endow me with an endless array of unfair advantages that it genuinely scares me!

 

  • Studying a Developing-World Language is going to be Different from Studying a Developed-World Language

 

Developing-world languages tend to be different from developed-world languages in the following way:

 

  • Significantly less internet content

 

  • Significantly fewer localization options

 

  • More focus on spoken forms rather than written forms (for comparison’s sake: when I was learning Solomon Islands Pijin and my first step was the Lonely Planet Phrasebook, I distinctly remember the phrase, “Relax, business letters are written in English!” [shortly afterwards they explained how to write a letter to your friend in Pijin].

 

  • Prospective language learners, especially from the west, often toss them aside as “insignificant” and prefer their colonial languages (such as English, French or Portuguese). Yes, you could get by with Standard English in Sierra Leone or the Solomon Islands. But you won’t understand the culture beyond a surface level without knowing the true language that unites these countries (I cringe already when I think of people telling me “I will never learn a creole language. Ever”. I could write a whole article about it and I probably will one day). Fun fact: China is actually going to be investing in teaching native African languages so as to build trust with the developing world. The U.S. needs to step up its game in this regard. The Peace Corps books are great, but they’re not enough by themselves.

 

  • Like many endangered languages, a lot of developing-world languages reflect the advanced vocabulary of their former colonizers and code-switching is common (yes, Irish-speakers from the Gaeltachtaí will use English in a shockingly similar back-and-forth manner when speaking Irish sometimes, not unlike what I’ve heard Krio speakers using between Krio and English!)

 

Learning Creole Languages, and Krio in particular, made me more aware of the true face of colonialism and empire as well as made me a better human being. I feel that knowing Krio language and culture, even in the short journey I’ve had thus far, taught me more about Sierra Leone and West Africa in general than any amount of photos or stories from my family members ever could (although no doubt I am grateful for them). I also had no clue that the Afro-Carribean Cultures and Salone Krio cultures were actually siblings, not also to mention the many different types of African-American cultures that exist throughout the US.

Now I know where to go from here: not only continuing my journey with exposure through Krio-language content throughout my life, but share with other people how I came to discover a land of fascinating, brave and articulate people without even having set foot on it!

Here’s an idea: look at a map of the world and think about where you would like to go and what cultures you’d like to experience. Pick a language you’d like to learn based on your thoughts, which I hope are running wildly and colorfully. You won’t regret it!

IMG_8420

 

 

The True Transformative Power of the Icelandic Language

Imagine having the ability to have spoken with your ancestors from 500 years ago. Imagine what you would learn from them, what sort of insights you would have about the way you and your family viewed the world, and even how minor things like their mannerisms and body language made you what you are.

From a physical standpoint regarding living beings, as far as I can tell, this is impossible.

But one language in my journey stood out, even more so than the dead languages I had studied and forgotten (namely, Ancient Greek and Latin), as one that was like that ancestor. Upon talking to him/her, it brought all of my interactions with the rest of its family members into place.

I am of course, speaking about the Icelandic Language. And this post is, of course, in honor of Iceland’s National Day.

2015-08-20 16.40.04

It goes without saying that the contemporary language of Iceland, while in name the exact same language that Leif Erikson spoke, is now a lot different.

For one (and NOT a lot of articles about Icelandic will mention this!) Icelandic took not only English loan words from recent times, but also Danish, French and Spanish loanwords from even further back. What more, a lot of the purist words from the Icelandic Language Academy did not end up sticking with the general populace (the exact same thing happened with the Hebrew Language Academy in Israel).

That said, it goes without saying that Icelandic is significantly more purist than many other languages that have had to deal with the same “dance” that they did (translate internationalisms vs. use them straight outright).

In fact, this is one aspect in which Faroese differs from Icelandic, by virtue of the fact that more Danish loanwords, many of them internationalisms, found their way into Faroese and not into Icelandic. (Although Faroese has significant fewer internationalisms than any of the mainland Scandinavian languages of Danish, Norwegian or Swedish).

Anyhow, I’ve come to write about what made the Icelandic language so transformative for me.

  1. It caused me to think about language evolution and what can happen to versions of a language over time.

 

The Norwegian of a thousand years ago would have been mutually intelligible to an Icelandic speaker. In fact, that same Old Norwegian was actually used in the latest “Civilization” game, with an Icelandic voice actor, no less!

 

Icelandic was (and is) very heavily grammatical, with a lot of case endings, three genders, verb conjugations and very much unlike what the mainland Scandinavian Languages are today.

For those unaware: a language like Swedish or Danish does not even change verb endings for person. It would be like saying I is, you is, he is, she is, etc.

The Mainland Scandinavian Languages did away with case endings although a small amount of idiomatic expressions survived that use them (hint: look for a preposition and then a “u” or an “s” at the end of a noun that follows!). Most Norwegian dialects kept the three genders, although Swedish and Danish reduced them to two, not unlike Dutch, in which the Masculine and Feminine became the “common” gender.

This also glosses over completely the fact that French and German words found their way into the Scandinavian Languages on the mainland while usually passing Iceland by.

What exactly accelerated language evolution? Perhaps low population densities and a lot of contact with foreigners, as well as heavily centralized authorities caused these simplifications to happen.

Given what happened to Icelandic’s immediate family members, it really makes me wonder what sort of language changes the next stages of human history will hold. Already we are witnessing an increasing amount of English content throughout almost all languages on the globe, much like the French and German languages impacted the languages of the Scandinavian mainland.

It’s truly a humbling perspective to have.

 

  1. It made me think about what language purity really what (and wasn’t)

To some degree, I’ve also had a very similar experience with Hebrew as well. Like the people of Israel, the people of Iceland have had prolonged contact with English-speaking armies, who brought along their music, television and, most infamously, their profanity.

For those unaware, Iceland had an American army presence throughout most of World War II, because the allies wanted to ensure that Hitler could not reach Canada from the Danish overseas territories (which could have been Hitler’s rationale behind invading Denmark in the first place). Ensuring a presence on Iceland, Greenland, and the Faroe Islands was of the upmost importance to the Allies.

Many, many articles have been in awe about the purity of the Icelandic language, and which is a little bit funny when you end up listening to Icelandic Rap and easily lose track of how often English words (as well as Anglophone cultural references) are used!

Purist language or not, every language has to share the world with somebody. Israeli Hebrew is the language of Abraham and David – with limitations. Modern Icelandic is the language of Leif Erikson and the first European-Americans – with limitations. That’s not a bad thing in the least, it just serves to show that true purism, especially for smaller nations, is not always within reach.

 

  1. Icelandic made me think about what smaller languages can be

 

Ask people about whether or not the Icelandic language has a future, and you’ll get many answers.

A few months ago, there was a well-publicized article about Icelandic being underused in technology (and I’ll have you all know that, while I’m writing this article, my Windows 10 system is in a [complete] Icelandic translation!) It told horror stories about 14-year-olds in Reykjavik choosing to chat to each other in English rather than in Icelandic, and that the world should be very worried indeed!

But at the Endangered Language Alliance meetings, I heard a different story: those holding up a language like Icelandic as THE success story for smaller languages. In all of recorded history there have been about 1,000,000 Icelanders tops. And yet, all of Disney’s animated canon is dubbed into Icelandic with all of the songs translated and rhymed! (Disney does this to a lot of other languages as well, no doubt, although obviously most of them are from the developed world. Also, the song translations are not thoroughly accurate reflections of the original English song lyrics, there are liberties taken but that doesn’t make it any less fantastic!)

With a language like Breton, I’m concerned for its future. I can’t always find a continuous stream of content, often a lot of people from Brittany have only a rudimentary knowledge of the language (if any at all). Comments on the internet written in Breton can be sparse, even when you know where to look. Breton seems to have been relegated to a niche environment, thanks largely to French governmental policy. That saddens me but that just simply means that I have to keep on maintaining my knowledge of Breton even more strongly.

But with Icelandic, I can easily hop onto almost any website in the country, and the comments sections will be teeming with Icelandic, the menus will be fully in Icelandic and unchallenged by the presence of any translations (most of the time). Anywhere in Icelandic settlements, even in the most touristy areas, I find that Icelandic is the dominant language I hear on the streets.

Thousands upon thousands of people throughout the globe have a desire to learn it, and many of them get permanently enamored with Icelandic, finding themselves with a treasure they’ll never give up.

The Icelandic-Language music scene is very much alive, with thousands of songs to choose from in dozens of genres. The government is actively interested in keeping the language alive, and I’ve heard that if you even go so much as to hint that the Icelandic language isn’t worth keeping alive, prepare to invite the distrust, if not in fact outright isolation, from your Icelandic peers.

Yes, in Reykjavik once or twice I encountered an ice cream store with the flavors written out in English rather than in Icelandic. I don’t doubt the problems that journalists have written about. And I think that more Icelandic products in the realm of technology need Icelandic localizations, even if it may not serve a very practical purpose in their eyes.

But whenever I think about what a small language can and should be, I would have to agree with my ELA friends and say that Icelandic is the platinum standard for small languages in the 21st century. If Breton or Irish or the Sami Languages or any endangered tongue on the face of the planet would be in the situation Icelandic is in now, there would be month-long celebrations held by its speakers.

 

  1. Icelandic Made Me Think about How to Learn Grammar and Difficult Pronunciation

 

“I’m going to try that evil language again!”, proudly exclaimed one of my students (whom I regularly teach Swedish). “I just seem to have trouble knowing when I should pronounce the ‘g’ hard and when I shouldn’t”

Not gonna lie: I considered writing a piece about “Why Icelandic is EASY”! And I thought for a while and I thought “Uuuhhhh…there are English cognates….uuuhhh…okay, good. Grammar? No….how about…pronunciation? Mostly regular but given how often Icelanders slur and leave out consonants….no…yeah, I got nothin’…”

I’ve struggled with all of my languages, even the English creoles. Got news for you: in language learning, you sort of…don’t have a choice…except for…to struggle…until you find yourself…not struggling anymore…

Icelandic was no exception. Reciting grammar tables didn’t really help. I got the pronunciation and I was imitating the voices I heard in the apps and yes, singers (not just local favorites like Ásgeir Trausti and Rökkurró but also the aforementioned Disney songs localized into Icelandic, some of which I’ve even sung at crowded karaoke bars to standing ovations! I tell you, I have this crazy theory that almost everyone living in the U.S. has a secret crush on Iceland. And it sometimes isn’t so secret…)

But I found myself at a loss for the first few months knowing when to use what case when and even if I was getting verb forms right.

What did I do?

Instead of doing the thing I would have done in college and just studied the tables endlessly until their stuck, (TERRIBLE IDEA by the way! Even with memory devices, it might not all stick!) I made a point to listen to Icelandic music every day for months at a time. Even if I couldn’t understand everything, I would be able to detect patterns involving prepositions, pronouns, and the way Icelanders actually pronounce words.

For more on Icelandic slurring, I bring you to my other success story about the Icelandic Language.

 

  1. Icelandic made me think of how, if enough people study a language, it will genuinely have an impact on the language’s future.

 

Few smaller languages (less than 1 million native speakers) are as popular as Icelandic (although Irish might come close sometimes).

I am thrilled to see, especially in light of the 2017 Polyglot Conference in Reykjavik (at which I will be presenting!), hundreds of people taking up the Icelandic Language, seeking to become a part of a culture that sometimes sees itself as under siege (did I mention how often tourists-doing-stupid-things-stories are featured in Icelandic news?)

Whether it be wanting to experience the Icelandic travel bug without leaving your hometown, wanting to experience this ancient culture, wanting to understand other Germanic Languages or perhaps out of sheer curiosity, these people are genuinely ensuring that the speakers of the Icelandic language know that all throughout the world, there are people that think about their mother tongue and want to keep it alive and let other people know about its treasures.

In an age in there are those that fear that a handful of cultures threaten to extinguish all others, I am a glad to be a part of this tradition that helps proudly hold our human heritage to the light.

 

And so can you!

 

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The Day I met Richard Simcott and Alex Rawlings I was wearing this shirt. Two years later, guess where they bring the conference? Coincidence? Maybe not!