How Similar Are Finnish and Hungarian?

When I was working my way up the Finnish ladder, I got comments from lots of people saying that it was similar to Hungarian, and interestingly when learning Hungarian now, I don’t get the reverse as often (or ever, actually, come to think of it).

So here comes the pieces you have all been waiting for, answering definitively once and for all how similar these two languages really are.

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My Gut Feeling:

I usually tell people that there are grammatical similarities and a handful of words in common between them (not also to mention the similarities in pronunciation and ESPECIALLY syllable stress), but that’s about it.

The Finno-Ugric Languages, which include Finnish, Estonian, Hungarian and the Sami Languages, do include a number of similarities:

  • A lot of cases (in the double digits in all of them, their dirty secret is that most of these cases are literally straight-up prepositions, which for some reason remains a secret to everyone except for those who actually, y’know, study these languages!)
  • No genuine future tense (use auxiliary verbs instead, much like English uses “I will” or “I shall” as opposed to verb alterations undertaken in a language like French. Some languages, like Estonian, use the present to indicate the future with no changes).
  • No he/she distinction (true in all of the Finno-Ugric Languages).
  • No verb indicate “to have” (a lot of languages in the world are like this, in Finnish you use “there is upon me a book” and in Hungarian you would use something like “there is my book” to indicate “I have a book”)
  • The syllable stress is on the first syllable. Always. This actually makes spoken comprehension LOADS easier!

There may be others that I forgot about.

But there are still a handful of words that resemble each other, not also to mention grammatical concepts that exist in one and not the other.

To say “I don’t know” in Hungarian, you would say “nem tudom”. The Finnish equivalent would be “en tiedä”. You can tell how similar these two phrases are just by looking at them.

But if you are expecting an advantage in one of these two languages because you know the other one, keep this in mind:

Finnish and Hungarian have a lot of grammatical similarities, but few words in common.

However, one odd trait that both of them actually do share is influence from Germanic Languages that rubbed off on both (Swedish idioms and loan-words in Finnish, German expressions translated literally into Hungarian. One such example of the later is that you would wish someone a “beautiful thanks” in both German and in Hungarian).

Interestingly Estonian AND Northern Sami ALSO have this trait (Estonian from German, Danish and Swedish and Northern Sami from Norwegian / Swedish). Your neighbors really do rub off on you, suffice it to say.

What’s more, Finnish and Hungarian also share a sense of vowel harmony as well.

What is vowel harmony, you ask?

Well, in Finnish there is a rule that states that all words (excluding a handful of loanwords and proper names from other languages) may contain vowels from one of the two sets of vowels:

There are front vowels: ä ö y

There are back vowels: a o u

And there are ones that can go in any word: e i

Words in Finnish that contain front vowel words MAY NOT contain back vowels (unless it is a compound word with multiple pieces in it). Likewise, back vowel words may not contain front vowels in them. Also, if a word contains only e’s or i’s in terms of vowels, it is a front vowel word.

This means that suffixes in Finnish take two forms, usually (unless these suffixes only contain e’s and i’s in their vowel makeup): you put the front vowel version at the end of a front-vowel word, and a back-vowel version at the end of a back-vowel word. The last noun determines which suffix you add (this is important with hyper-long compound words).

To turn a verb (or any non-question word) into a question, you put –ko or –kö at the end. Olet – you are. Oletko? – are you? En – I am not (or, more accurately I … not, where … is a verb stem put after the word en) enkö? – am I not?

In Hungarian, vowel harmony functions in the same way, and suffixes (including case endings, like in Finnish) will change their forms depending on the vowel makeup of the noun.

This is really funny to see in my Hungarian-translated Facebook, because the translation will determine the vowel harmony status of your name (and the names of your friends) and apply suffixes accordingly.(The Finnish translation worded things, last I checked, so as to avoid declining the names of people or places. Hungarian also avoids this when possible).

In the case of Hungarian (no pun intended), the same rules appear but with more instances of words that appear to violate vowel harmony.

Like in Finnish, suffixes appear in two (or sometimes THREE) forms, depending on the vowel makeup of the word. Like in Finnish, Hungarian has front and back vowels. Like in Finnish, Hungarian only factors in the last element in regards to what variety of suffixes go on the word as a whole.

So, now here comes a big question: If I know Hungarian or Finnish, how much will it help with the other one?

Answer: many of the grammatical concepts will align very, very well. In learning how to put words together, you’ll have déjà vu significantly often. You may even encounter words in common here and there.

But don’t expect to understand a significant amount of the other language, and concerning mutual intelligibility? Forget it. Because Finnish and Hungarian are as closely related as English and Albanian. Sure, there might be some occasional things in common, and they are distantly-related members of the same language family, as well as having similar influences  from nations that spoke similar languages, but aside from that, expect only the smallest fraction of a head-start in regards to vocabulary, and a significant head-start in understanding the grammar (even though the suffixes in their makeup have no resemblance to each other).

Have you had an experience learning any Finno-Ugric Language? Let me know in the comments!

 

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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!)

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

Video of Me Speaking 31 Languages (and Humorous Commentary): March 2017

It happened. I made my promise in October 2015 that my first polyglot video would come out before my birthday (which is November). Then I got Lyme Disease. Holding it off, I thought it was a good time for me to finally fulfill it.

Anyhow, I don’t know how many videos there are of people speaking Greenlandic, Tajik and Cornish within four minutes, but here’s one of them:

Some of my thoughts on each bit:

 

English: Since my “big exile” in which I hopped countries for three years, people who knew me beforehand said that my accent had changed. I tried to make it as neutral (read: American) as possible. I don’t sound like a Hollywood character (I think) but I think it is fair to say that my true-American accent is off the table for the near future. Ah well. It was giving me trouble anyway (literally the second post I made on this blog!)

Hebrew: Ah, yes, feeling like I’m presenting about myself in the Ulpan again (Fun fact: in Welsh, it is spelled “Wlpan”). I remember the Ulpanim…in which I was allowed to draw cartoon characters of my own making on the board whenever I wanted…or maybe memory wasn’t serving me well…wasn’t there a Finnish girl in that class?

Spanish: Certainly don’t sound Puerto Rican, that’s for sure. Having to listen to Juan Magan’s “Ella no Sigue Modas” on repeat for an hour (and undergo this procedure against my will about once every week for a semester!) certainly didn’t hurt my ability to develop a peninsular Spanish accent, though!

Yiddish: *Sigh* well this explains why people ask me if I learned Yiddish at home. It’s one of the most common questions I get, actually. I was not born in Boro Park, Antwerp or Williamsburg. I am not an ex-Hasid.

Swedish: “Rest assured, you’re never going to sound Swedish”. Yeah, thanks Rough Guide to Sweden, just the sort of encouragement we all need. I need to have a word with you! Also, that mischievous inclination was trying to tell me that I should just say “sju sjuksköterskor skötte sju sjösjuka sjömän på skeppet Shanghai” and be done with the Swedish section.

Norwegian: My favorite national language of Europe, worried that maybe I didn’t give it enough time. Also, my voice is deep.

German: I hope I get this grammar right…I REALLY hope I get this grammar right…I hope this is good enough to impress my friends…

Danish: Remember the days that I was struggling so much with that language that I almost considered giving up several times? Yeah, me neither. Was so worried I would screw this up. Then it occurred to me exactly how much time I’ve spent watching anime dubbed into Danish.

Finnish: With the exception of Cornish, the slowest language I’ve learned. I hope my accent doesn’t sound too Hungarian…and also! Notes for polyglot video-makers! If you know Finnish, add something with –taan /  -tään and -maan / -mään for instant cred! Works wonders! (These concepts are too hard to describe in a sentence). Also, how come it is that any Finnish singer/rapper, including Cheek, more clearly pronounces his /her words than almost any English-language singer I’ve ever heard in any public place anywhere?

French: I AM TOTES GONNA SCREW THIS UP. But hey, I think…my accent is good…fun fact…I learned this language as a kid…when it down, just use your Breton accent…

Irish: I…hope…that…people deem my pronunciation…acceptable…and that…I don’t set off accidentally …any…debates…

Cornish: HAHAHAHAHAHA I TOTALLY SOUND LIKE THAT ANNOUNCER FROM “RanG” HAHAHAHAH HA HA HA HA HA…in terms of my intonations…in my actual voice, less so…

Bislama: I wonder if anybody will figure out from this video exactly how much I’ve studied those Bislama-dubbed Jesus films to get that accent down…

Italian: Lived with two Italians, one in Poland and one in Germany, this is for you!

Icelandic: I’m a big fan of Emmsjé Gauti, maybe one day I’ll do this rap-cover polyglot video, in which I rap in all of the various languages. I’m gonna have a hard time finding Tok Pisin rap lyrics, though…

Dutch: I literally binged-watched Super Mario Maker playthroughs in Dutch the night before filming, because this was the accent I thought needed the most training. Did I get the grammar right…I hope I…did…oh, why did I choose to forget you for a year?

Polish: WOOOOOW MY ACCENT IS GOOOODDD. Pity it’s my “worst best language”. And the hardest language I’ve ever had to sing Karaoke in…time’ll fix that!

Tok Pisin: It will be interesting to see exactly how someone from Papua New Guinea would react to me speaking Melanesian Creole Languages.

Greenlandic: Is it just me, or does my voice very heavily resemble that of Marc Fussing Rosbach? (He’s a brilliant composer and you should really listen to his stuff!) Given that my first-ever single (still unpublished) was in Greenlandic, my accent can’t be THAT bad…

Russian: In my first take (which I did the day before) I sounded so much like a villain…I wonder if my Russian teachers from high school and college would be proud of me. Probably not, given that I gave up on Russian from 2013 until a few months ago.

Welsh: I’ve been doing this since January 2017 and is my accent really THAT good? “Norwyeg” is also harder to say than it looks. Not sure I got it right, even…

Tajik: My pose is so classy, and I sounded like a villain in this one but it was too cool to leave out. Can’t wait to actually get good at Tajik.

Faroese: Yeah, I didn’t study this language for nearly half a year. Not even gonna self-criticize myself for this one. But hey, listening to the music for accent training…makes me wanna go back! And also the most beautiful love song I’ve ever heard is in Faroese…guess that means I gotta relearn it before proposing…no idea when that’s gonna happen, though…

Myanmar / Burmese: I’M GONNA GET LAUGHED AT. And I accept it.

Breton: The first take literally sounded like gibberish so I listened to Denez Prigent’s complete album collection while walking outside. I think it fixed it…

Portuguese: I hope I made these two versions…different enough…

English Reprise: I made this video based on exactly what I would have wanted to encounter from a hyperpolyglot back when I was beginning. I hope this video is someone’s answered prayer.

Ukrainian: I BET DUOLINGO IS RESPONSIBLE FOR THAT ACCENT.

Estonian: Gonna relearn you, but right now, you get two words.

Hungarian: Ended with Hungarian as a tribute to my only living grandparent, Joyce Gimbel, for whom I will learn Hungarian for very soon indeed!

A Step-by-Step Guide to Learning the Language YOU WANT to a Level You Can be Proud of!

(Yesterday marks the half-a-year birthday of this blog)

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  1. A desire to learn a language cannot be forced. It must land on you, and it can land on you for all sorts of reasons, ranging from the professionally pragmatic to just plain silly.

 

Don’t force this desire to learn something and, when you get this desire or find yourself wishing that you knew Language X, proceed to the next step without hesitation!

 

  1. If it is a language whose sounds are familiar to you, proceed to Step 3.

 

If not, go online, find media, and familiarize yourself with the sounds of the language.

 

Entertain the thought that, one day in the future, you will be able to speak and understand this language to the degree that you can understand some or all of what is being said to you.

 

Throughout the entire learning process, get some music in your target language and play it regularly.

 

You won’t understand almost any of it at the beginning, but you will ease into it and your desire to learn the lyrics to your new favorite song in the target language will be a powerful motivator.

 

  1. Find out if the pronunciation of the language is fairly regular and intuitive (Finno-Ugric Languages and Esperanto are the easiest, some like Spanish and Dutch may be a tad harder) or has more “historical” pronunciation (English is the biggest offender, but any language with short/long vowels [Russian, Latvian, Cornish] or complicated but vaguely regular pronunciation rules [Danish, Irish, Faroese] may qualify).

 

If it is in the former category, find a pronunciation guide (online) and familiarize yourself with the sounds. Then, find an online phrasebook for free (Omniglot, Wikitravel, and their ilk) and practice saying these things out loud.

 

If it is in the latter category, find an audio phrase book or one with phonetic pronunciation. Recite things out loud and get used to some of the patterns. Remember, if your language is in this category, the pronunciation will grow on you as a result of the immersion which you will encounter later.

 

YouTube tutorials are also tremendously helpful at this stage, if they exist for your language.

 

For languages that have new characters, or have a set of characters that is impressively large (Chinese Character, Japanese Kanji…), use the same principles to ease into the new system, one letter or character at a time.

 

  1. Now what you want to do is build basic vocabulary. Flashcards can do, Anki, Memrise and DuoLingo are good candidates. I would suggest using a combination of these methods.

 

Your primary goal is to ensure that you can engage with material for native speakers as soon as possible.

 

Throughout this step, regularly check on native-language material (preferably for younger age groups) and see how you engage with it. Keep on building your vocabulary to a degree that you can understand some of it.

 

In the event that there is a certain film or show that you know so well that you practically know all of the lines by heart, even better. Use this to augment your vocabulary.

 

Don’t expect to understand everything.

 

  1. Once you have some passive understanding of the language, your goal is twofold:

 

5a. Gain an active rather than just a passive understanding of the language (by means of writing and speaking). Say things out loud to yourself, find a friend and write messages to him/her in your target language, set up a meet with said friend if possible.

 

Don’t be ashamed to use translation services—these are “training wheels” of sorts (and even when you speak a language fluently enough so that you can teach college-level classes in it, expect to use a dictionary / online translation sometimes!).

 

5b. The grammar…familiarize yourself with the verb forms via the programs listed in Step 4. Adjectives, verbs, declensions…know them to a degree to which you feel comfortable with, but don’t obsess.

 

My Finnish textbook has 34 different paradigms for nouns in declining. Greenlandic has 10. Don’t let it scare you, just note basic patterns and then, when you feel more comfortable with your abilities, return to the tables and the like and polish them.

 

  1. Now that you have both some active and passive understanding of the language, your goal is to perfect grammar even more sharply and to keep on using the language.

 

Keep on collecting words, keep on collecting idioms, keep on collecting songs, make the language a part of your life. Sideline a bit of your Native-Language entertainment / free time with that of your target language…

 

Keep on using your language to build friendships and maintain connections.

 

At this stage, expect embarrassment, mistakes, and sometimes even explicit discouragement (although hopefully you will encounter this one rarely).

 

You will note that others will respect you and your efforts and some may even show more than a hint of jealousy, but let no emotions dissuade you from doing anything further.

 

This is the step that actually never ends, and there is only one alternative: to forget the language by means of disuse.

 

But even if you do, the passive knowledge remains within you somewhere, waiting for you to come back to it. The verb forms are still there, you still have an anecdote or a song or a cool fact here and there…but, remember, the entirety of this project depends on Step 1: having that desire. If you don’t have it anymore, that’s okay. Don’t force it. Follow your heart and let it lead you somewhere else.

 

Whenever you think to yourself “it would be cool if I could learn language X”, think of this list, and return to it. Think of what acting on that thought could do, and think of what you will gain.

 

I haven’t regretting studying any language at all during my entire life. Chances are that you won’t either.

 

Good luck!

Languages in Article are Closer than they Appear

Upon studying many languages in a similar area, you begin to realize that each language tells a story—one of its own culture’s relationships with others, one of its own culture’s struggles, and also of its hopes.

Trying to list ways to prove that is something for another time.

But another thing that happens is that you get to see certain pairs of languages which seem uncannily similar to each other.

The fact that English and Icelandic/Faroese share many idiomatic structures shouldn’t surprise anybody (e.g. “I am with child”, made famous from the story of King David, parallels an Icelandic method of indicating ownership by saying “Ég er með…”).

But here are some other pairs that are more surprising.

The fact that English and Modern Hebrew share close idiomatic links is often overlooked by the many Americans and other English speakers who take Hebrew classes every year. This is in part because of the British Mandate of Palestine, but also because of American and English-Language influence on Contemporary Israel.

The American Olim brought their idioms with them from across the Atlantic, and many of them have impacted Modern Hebrew’s development very starkly. There are people in other countries (Germany and the Netherlands come to mind) who do use lots of English words in their native-language speech, but not as often do they translate the idioms into their languages. Modern Hebrew has done exactly that, in too many examples to even count.

For those of you in Hebrew classes: see if you can notice this more often, especially if you are in an upper-level class. (I’m not giving examples here because I’m afraid the left-to-right thing might screw things up a bit…)

Another example of European influence with a non-European language has been the exchange between Danish and Greenlandic (c’mon, you guys know me by now, of course I would mention it!).

Danish favorites, such as “lev vel!” (bye bye, meaning “Live well”, “tak for sidst” (“thanks for the last time”), “vi ses” (“We [will] be seen [by each other again]”) and “velkommen (“welcome”) got translated literally into Greenlandic, courtesy of Oqaasileriffik (the “Greenlandic Language Secretariat”, which creates purist words, place names, and personal names).

I’ll give an example: “Tikilluarit” means “Welcome” in Greenlandic:

Tiki – to come

Luar – to do something well

-it – you (singular

It is a literal translation of “come well”, which is exactly what “welcome” and “velkommen” and its Germanic siblings all convey!

All modern items (computers, typewriters, etc.) can also be conveyed in Greenlandic using Danishisms (computeri, skrivemaskiina, etc)

In their idiomatic structures, Finnish and German are quite similar. Wednesday in both Finnish and German indicates “middle of the week” (“keskiviikko” and “Mittwoch”), whereas in Swedish this isn’t the case.

The compounding of nouns is nearly identical in both languages and the sentence structure in Finnish is closer to German than it would be to Swedish. This is probably due to trade routes, although definitely some German structures that existed in Swedish were thrown over to Finnish as a result of Swedish control of the region.

A surprising amount of cognates similarly exist between Northern Sami and Swedish/Norwegian. One example is that “Stora/Store” (big) becomes “Stuoris”. The word for chair is “stuollu” (stol), the word for fox is “rieban” (my first Northern Sami word, actually, coming from Norwegian “reven”).

I was shocked to see how many of these exist in the language (I can’t speak for the other Sami Languages), and nothing that I saw in Stockholm’s Nordic Museum on the Sami People and Languages alerted me that this would be the case. Like the English idioms in Hebrew, the scope of these import words is quite mind-boggling.

And for a final pair I’ll leave you with Irish and Biblical Hebrew.

Yup. You read that right. A number of my professors mentioned it throughout the years, but I still don’t have a convincing theory as to why this would be the case.

Both languages lack indefinite articles. The idea of prepositions with a personal ending exists in both. The sentence structure in both is so congruent that I find it almost frightening.

That isn’t to say that they are all the same—Irish, like Spanish and Portuguese, differentiates between two states of being (“ser” in Spanish would be “Is” in Irish, and “estar” in Spanish would be “Tá”). In Hebrew, like in Russian, there is no present tense of the verb “to be” in conjugated forms.

There are also some cognates between the other Germanic Languages and Hebrew, “אֶרֶץ” vs. “erde” (German), “לְהַצִיג” vs. “Zeigen” (also German), and others that a professor of mine told me about but don’t come to mind too easily.

One thing that I truly have noticed: sometimes similarities can note a language’s diplomacy and history. But at other times similarities are just coincidences.

I have so many of these throughout my collection of languages and beyond that I could make a case as to how any two languages are related. But just because I can do it doesn’t mean that I should.

Or maybe you’re going to put me up to the challenge?

Playing Favorites? (October 2014 Edition)

One fine evening in New York that probably wasn’t as cold as it is now, I was asked on not a few occasions if I had a favorite language.

As much as I love all of my commitments, the fact is that I cannot budget everything equally (and I think that almost no one can) and therefore I (and many other polyglots) do end up playing favorites by default.

Don’t believe me? Have a look at the tag categories above.

And should you have the good fortune to have read other blogs written by those who have learned multiple languages in adulthood, expect something similar: some languages are mentioned in their writing more than others, and it is clear that the levels are not all the same and that those that are the best are likely those that they put the most time into.

IMG_3129

A Restaurant in Hania’s Old Town

That being said, I believe that there are multiple ways to choose favorites, and while I have no favorite language overall, I can say that I play favorites in specific categories.

And should you want to ask me for more categories, nothing is stopping you.

For one, most people who are not polyglots usually judge a language just by virtue of its sound. And concerning my favorite language sound-wise, there is a very clear-winner:

norsk flagg

Norsk Bokmål, as spoken in Oslo in particular, has maintained an allure for me every since I first heard it in Stockholm. The fact that it is very closely related to English in many regards gave me further incentive to commit time to the project.

One thing I noted about Norwegian Language Learners is that they tend to hop right into native-level material (even if for kids) a lot earlier than learners of many of the common “high school” languages (Spanish and French being the best well-known).

About the sound: most people from the rest of Scandinavia note that Standard Norwegian has a unique rhythm that is reminiscent of a lilting song.

Many of my Swedish friends are very much enchanted by the language and call it “magnificient” and “wonderful” and many other varieties of praise-laden names.

I was also recently asked by someone if there are localizations of well-known animated classics into Norwegian. Yes. Very much so…

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BIAibXgN2Lo

Then there is the system of a language, the way it works and the way words and sentences are formed. Again, a clear winner here:

kalaallit nunaat

When asked to describe how Kalaallisut (West Greenlandic) works, I will usually give people examples like these:

 

Sila = weather

Silarsuaq = world, the universe (literally: “big weather”)

Anori = wind

Anorersuaq = storm (“big wind”)

Nuna = land

Nunarsuaq = planet earth (“big land”)

Nunavissuaq = continent (land + place where something is found or done + big)

Illu = house

Illorsuaq = mansion (you get the idea)

Illoqarfik = city, village (house + have + place where something is found or done)

Pinnguaq = toy (something + little)

Pinnguarpoq = he/she/it plays (The dividing line between verbs and nouns in Greenlandic is so thin that some scholars argue that a division between them doesn’t exist)

 

Much like mathematics, virtually the entire language, minus loanwords (mostly from Danish) works in this fashion. There are suffixes that all have functions that you need to learn (not unlike mathematical signs).

Greenlandic is also home to my favorite word in any language, “qaqqaqaqaaq” (there are lots of mountains).

When I described this language to my mother (who only speaks English), she told me that the language “sounds easy”.

There are only two real difficulties with Greenlandic: (1) relative lack of learning materials (especially if you don’t know Danish) and (2) the fact that it is very much different from any language that is commonly studied (i.e. don’t rely on any cognates whatsoever, unless you have studied other Inuit languages).

And here is the language as spoken by Paul Barbato, an American (watch the other videos in the channel for the backstory):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S4cyMEOkhU4

Another important aspect is taste, and this time there is no clear winner, and I would tie Danish and Yiddish for first place:

Much like German and Dutch, Danish is also heavily insulted by many just by virtue of its sound. Drunk Norwegian is one of the tamer names I’ve heard, with the harshest being the unfortunate but memorable “Danish sounds like vomiting”.

Of the languages of Europe that are spoken by more than 1 million people, the two that are most closely related are Danish and (Standard) Norwegian. The written languages in particular are very close, but as one of my Swedish friends said, “I can read Danish, but when spoken, it sounds as strange to me as Chinese”.

As to Yiddish, it is probably the West Germanic Language that gets insulted the least but made fun of the most.

I have written on both of them here and here.

And now as to the languages that changed my life the most:

Two-way tie with two honorable mentioned: Greenlandic and Yiddish, and honorable mentions Finnish and Modern Hebrew.

Greenlandic enabled me to glimpse the culture of an island that everyone on the planet is familiar with but tend to not think of as a place where people live. The “push-pull” between the Inuit and Danish spheres of influence is a source of creative tension that powers the entire culture of the country. I myself am vegetarian and I dread the thought of seal meat. What I do not dread, however, is the world that opened up to me as a result of my venture and how it changed the way I see everything in the Americas in particular.

Yiddish is also a tension between many European elements and the cultures of the holy tongue (as far as Yiddish is concerned, this is a blend between Hebrew and Aramaic). It also enabled me to understand my culture in a way that most Jews today just cannot fathom, not just as texts or politics or prayers but as a way to taste life—a flavor concocted from too many lands to list.

As to Finnish, J.R.R. Tolkien taught himself the language and likened it to a wine cellar that few people venture into. The languages that he (make that “we”) created share influences from this language (What’s it with Finnish enthusiasts creating artificial languages? There must be something in it…as we would say, “katsokaa itse!” [see for yourself!]).

But most people associate Finnish with “being difficult” and little else.

And it is a shame…because Finnish has a tendency to be quite absurdly logical most of the time. I have never heard Hebrew described as an immensely hard language…

As for Modern Hebrew itself, it is a cultural salad, not unlike Yiddish, Dutch, and Estonian (and definitely many other languages about which I have scant knowledge).

Before Modern Hebrew, the language was merely something scriptural, something used for prayer.

After Modern Hebrew, it became the result of a grand experiment as to what would happen if you took a holy language and let it travel the world for a long time.

The result makes you think more about how a language can evolve, and where our languages are going and where they could go.

Quite a thought…

Reflections on Language Courses

“Language courses are crap”.

Or so one Spanish TA confided to me during my college years.

After about two years of not having any language courses, although having many others self-taught via immersion and conversation, between this week and next week I was thrown back into that world.

There was a time in which I thought that a language course was the only true gateway to learning another tongue.

How silly I was back then.

I’ve noticed something very different about U.S. Language Material shelves and those in various European countries.

The U.S. ones are often stocked with big books and expensive programs, and the variety of languages is regrettably small. However, between brands such as Assimil and Kauderwelsch, the rest of the world does seem to focus a lot on reducing the introduction to a language in a small book.

Guess which one I’ve found more useful?

Moving on…

I’ve had a few days of Hebrew classes since my full-grown polyglot chrysalis hatched earlier this year (I place March-May 2014 as the rough time frame of the hatching).

The one thing that I found the most telling is the fact that, in the Intermediate class (that I was asked to leave because it was too easy for me), the teacher used English more than I was comfortable with, rather than the target language, and spoke particularly slowly.

At literally no point in any of my language learning processes, except for at the very beginning, did I subject myself to material for learners that was deliberately slow (okay, except for Duolingo’s turtle feature).

This sometimes became a bit of a challenge, especially with highly inflected languages (Finnish was my first of the lot), because I remember that trying to process all of the cases took too much mental energy for me during my early stages. But, with persistence and the “just one more episode” mentality, I grew into them.

Another thing; many students just don’t try putting on a separate accent. To be honest, I sometimes find myself guilty of this in Hebrew. Efraim Kishon famously called Israel a land where everybody has an accent and, therefore, nobody has one (very true indeed, but probably truer in his day).

For most of my languages, however, I feel that speaking with too strong an American accent really isn’t an option (hence, I keep a collection of how many nationalities I’ve been mistaken for…but that’s for another time!) I think that, for the benefit of language learners everywhere, I should write a piece about accent reduction.

But for the American crowd: you guys are not alone. One thing I’ve noticed about most language learners (from literally everywhere!) is that they tend to not put on any accent at all.

For whatever its worth, even people from the nations that have a reputation for being “good with languages” (a term that is misleading on all accounts and serves no purpose aside from to comfort lazy efforts) tend to have virtually no different accent when speaking other tongues (English spoken in a Dutch accent is a case in point).

Perhaps as a native English speaker, it becomes a necessity because my goal is to reveal myself as “good enough” so as to keep the conversation in the language that I want.

Now, as to the advanced class: it truly is going to teach me how to deal with texts. But what it doesn’t let me do is “speed up the process”. There is a syllabus spread over the course of several months, and that syllabus doesn’t allow me to go at my own pace.

The fact that I know several other languages well enables me to become more confident when I speak the target language among my classmates. And this confidence really shows (interestingly I felt too self-conscious in my European travels to put this air on most of the time…but maybe when I’m out of the country the next time!)

It is also telling that, in a course, I don’t use the materials that I find the most “fun” to learn my languages (as I did on the immersion roads to fluency). I do what the teacher wants.

On the one hand, this helps my self-discipline. On the other hand, this will complicate my relationship with the target language, because the one thing that will kill all “chemistry” I have with a foreign tongue is the idea that it is being force-fed to me.

Now, as to whether I agree with the idea that language classes are “crap”:

I also have a bit of a suspicion that there might be some in the class that just see the course itself as the road to becoming “good” with the target language.

If I were a language teacher, I would preface my first class with this: it is my goal to guide you through the target language, but if you are to become good, you must do MOST of the work on your own. And that means truly making it a part of your life.

Americans aren’t the only ones who take a language for “x years” and forget it all. This happens everywhere I’ve seen.

I don’t have any talent for what I do.

If I want to learn something, I make it a part of my life. I make it a part of my routine. And the class is certainly part of my routine, but as an obligation upon which a grade of mine is dependent, there is no way that any language course will make me like a certain language more. If anything, it would make me care about it less.

That isn’t to say that I don’t care about the languages with which I have taken classes in (Hebrew, Yiddish, Russian and Spanish, and given how many languages I’ve learned without even setting foot in a classroom, this list will probably remain that way forever).

But between an act of love and an act of obedience, there is one task that will always win for me in my heart.

And you can probably guess which one.