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.

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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!

My New Facebook Quotes Section

On May 27th, 2017, my personal Facebook account turns ten years old.

Thinking of a way I could change the account to reflect my growth / changes since then, I decided to compile a number of quotes, one from each language featured in my video.

Thanks to issues with fonts I transliterated the Hebrew, Yiddish and Burmese. While I did the same for Russian and Ukrainian I also provided the original.

EDIT: I transliterated the Tajik portion as well.

Here you are!

Mervel zo ret, dimeziñ n’eo ket.
(Death is necessary, marriage isn’t)
– Breton Proverb

My a’th kar milweyth moy es ow brithel.

I love you a thousand times more than my mackerel

– Found on Cornish language learning forums for Valentine’s Day.

Nie mój cyrk, nie moje małpy
(Not my circus, not my monkeys)
– Polish idiom, meaning “I didn’t create this problem”

Ég skal sýna þér í tvo heimana.
(I will show you the two worlds)

– (Icelandic idiom meaning, “I will beat you up, very badly”)

Paasilerpara inuit kalaallit pissaaneqaqisut.
(This I recognize: the Greenlandic people possess a mighty strength.)

– Nanook (Greenlandic Band)

Tout ce qui n’est pas clair n’est pas français.
(Everything that isn’t clear isn’t French)
– Antoine de Rivarol

“Is fearr Gaeilge bhriste, ná Béarla cliste.”
(Broken Irish is better than clever English)
– Irish saying

“Cenedl heb iaith, cenedl heb galon”
A nation without a language, a nation without a soul
– Welsh proverb

Наша мета – знайти щось нове. (Nasha meta – znaiti shchos’ Nove)
Our goal is to find something new

– the Ukrainian Duolingo Course

Я скажу по секрету, между нами,
Самое главное – money, money.
За них сегодня можно все купить
Их нужно тратить, а не копить.

I am telling you a secret between us,
The most important thing is money, money
It can buy anything today,
It is necessary to spend it, not to save it.

– Leningrad, “Money”

Stilla kvøldarmyrkrið lokkar ljósini fram á skipum ið liggja við kai.

(A quiet evening darkness casts light forward from ships resting by the harbor.)

– Terji Rasmussen, Faroese Singer

“Cazi. Doida ja réidne goruda buhtisin. Dan éazi. Doida ja raidne.”

(Water, cleanses and purifies the body. This water. Cleanses and purifies.”)

– Sofia Jannok, Sami singer, “Bali Cahci” (waters of Bali),

Ven Shlomo homelekh volt dikh gezen, volt er gevolt hobn nor eyn froy.
If King Solomon would have seen you, he would have only wanted one wife

– (Michael Wex, in his Yiddish language phrasebook “Just Say Nu”)

Disfala Waes Tisa hemi tok olsem, “Laef blong yumi, hemi no fitim tingting blong yumi! !Ya, evrisamting hemi barava no fitim wanem yumi tingim!”

(Solomon Islands Pijin translation of Ecclesiastes 1:2)

Yu no talem se, wan sel nomo.
(Don’t ever say, ”just one shell”)

-the Ni-Vanuatu Kava Song

„MI NO WOK MANI –
BAI MI KEN GIVIM U PLANTI SAMTING
NAU U LAIK GO AWAY
LUS TINGTING LONG MI
MANGI LONG PELES
OI SORY LEWA
POROMIS YA OLSEM WANEM”
(“I don’t have a stable job, but I can give you lots more, now if you want to go away and forget about me, the local boy, I’m sorry, love, I can promise you this…”)

-Daniel Bilip, the “Nambawan hitmaker bilong Papua New Guinea”

Donde hay gana, hay maña.
(When there is something to win, there is a means to get it.)

– Spanish proverb
“Jos et mun tyylii tajuu, se meinaa että sulla ei oo tyylitajuu”
(If you don’t get my style, it means that you got no sense of style.)

– Cheek, Finnish rapper

“Jag vill ha en egen måne, jag kan åka till
Där jag kan glömma att du lämnat mig
Jag kan sitta på min måne och göra vad jag vill
Där stannar jag tills allting ordnat sig. ”

(I want to have my own moon that I can travel to,
There I can forget that you left me.
I can sit on my moon and do what I want
I’m staying there until everything gets better.)

– Ted Gärdestad, Swedish singer

“Leser aldri bøker, og se på TV er jeg lei
jeg liker Zappa, men Zappa liker sikkert ikke meg”

(I never read books, sick of watching TV,
I like Zappa, but Zappa sure doesn’t like me.)

Lars Kilevold, Norwegian singer, “Livet er for kjipt” (Life Sucks)

Du skal ikke tro, du er noget. Du skal ikke tro, at du er lige så meget som os. Du skal ikke tro, at du er klogere end os…

(You are not to believe, that you are something, you are not to believe that you are as worth as must as we are, you are not to believe that you are cleverer than us…)

– Law of Jante, Danish literary touchstone

Nu, az ma yihiyeh?
Well, so what? (Common Israeli idiom)

„Ich kann zu meiner Reisen
Nicht wählen mit der Zeit,
Muß selbst den Weg mir weisen
In dieser Dunkelheit.“

“I cannot choose the time
For beginning my journey.
I must show myself the way
In this darkness”

Wilhelm Mühler
April doet wat ie wil
(April Does whatever it wants)
Dutch Proverb

Em tempo de guerra, qualquer buraco é trincheira.
(In wartime, every hole is a trench.)

– Portuguese proverb

“Mu südames oled kirjutatud luule,
mida nüüd vaid loen.
Kuid ma tean: need sõnad heidan tuulde
ja vaikselt peitu poen,
vaikselt peitu poen.”

“In my heart you have written poetry,
That I am now reading
But I know: these words I cast into the wind
And I go into hiding
And I go into hiding.”

Ott Lepland, Estonian singer, “Sa Ju Tead”,

“Aki mer, az nyer”
(He who dares, wins.)
– Hungarian Proverb

Биёед, канӣ санҷем!
Let us try it.

(By-yo-ed, kanii sanjem!)

– Tajik sentence from the Tatoeba sentence database.

mooj\wa bemA dOO kheji\ shä’ mä.
(Even though it is raining, we will travel onwards.)

– Myanmar Word for Word.

Italiano – La verita ha una buona faccia ma cattivi abiti
(The truth has a good face but bad clothes.)
– Italian Proverb

polyglot moi

Absolutely no connection to the last quote there. Nuh-uh.

Mu Mátkkis Dávvisamegielain Birra

Odne lea Sámi albmotbeaivi, ja muhtumin mun jurddašan ahte mu dilli Sámi kultuvrain lea hui ártet munnje, ja maid jurddašit nu mu ustibat (muhto ii juohkehaš, mu mielas).

Dávjá jurddašan “Manne amerihkálaš / juvddálaš  ferte hupmat ja čallit Sámegiela? Manne son háliida riepmat dakkár mátkki, jus sun ii leat sápmelaš dahje skandinávalaš?”

Mu ádjá bearaš leat Ruoŧas eret, muhto dađi bahábut eat goassege leat deaivvadan. Mu human ruoŧagiela mu jagi Ruoŧas dihte, ja mun maid lean áigon oahppat buoret mu soga historjjá birra.

Sámigiela oahpahus mus ii leat eakti sivva, ja dábálaččat mus sivva ii goassege leat go mun áiggun oahppat ođđa giela (o.d. Kalaallisutgiella, Kornagiella, Inuktitutagiella).

Mu mánnávuođa áigge, mun ovtto  liikojin muohttagii  ja nai mun lohken stuorrát kárttagirjiid. Mun gehččen Eurohpá , ja jurddašedjen “ Orrutgo olbmot Finnmárkus ja Slavbard:is?”

Ruoŧas (go mun studerejin Stockholmas)  maŋážassii deaivvadeimme—Sámi Kultuvra, Dávvisamegiella, ja mun— Skansen:is ja maiddái  davviriikkalaš museas.

Mun duođas in goassege jáhkkán ahte Amerihkká  lea mu eakti ruovttueana, ja nai mus lea rahčamuš gaskkas mu soga bealit. Mu áhčči leat juvddálaš sogas eret, ja mu eadni amerihkálaš sogas eret (dál mu eadni lea nai juvddálaš , maŋŋil ovdal sin heajat).

Sámi máilbmi áddehaddá munnje oasi mu sielu ja fearána soga—sohka fearániin mii lea maid mu iežas eallimis

Sámi leavga maid lea hui čáppat:

sapmi

Mu eadni háliida gullat mu báddema “Sámi Soga Lávlaga” ja maid “Sámi Álbmotbeaivvi Lávlaga”.

Danne mun lean almmuhan videoid… didjiide…

VIDEO COMING SOON!

VIDEO COMING SOON!

Lihkku beivvin!

Where in the World is Samiland?

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Have you ever looked at a map of Scandinavia and ever wondered if people lived in that northernmost area that encompasses Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia?

Turns out that people do live there. (There are also residents of Slavbard in the Polar North, but that’s another story).

This area is commonly known by Americans as “Lapland”, which nowadays denotes a purely geographical meaning (as opposed to the geopolitical “Samiland”, which is an area with some autonomy from the Sami Parliament).

The inhabitants of Samiland were formerly known as the “Lapps” and the language as “Lappish”, but these terms have fallen out of use (even though derivatives of them still appear in place names). Instead, they are referred to as Sámi People and the Sámi Language, and the land is Sápmi, or Samiland.

How many people live in this area? About 70,000.

What sort of languages are spoken there? In addition to the national languages of the countries that own the territory on a map (Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish and Russian), there are the Sami Languages, or the indigenous languages of the indigenous Sami People.

(At this point I would like to say that whether or not I used the accent for “Sámi” is completely arbitrary.)

The most commonly spoken of these Sami Languages is Northern Sami, which I wrote about here.

The Sami Languages, all of which are endangered, belong to the Finno-Ugric Language family, and the Northern Sami Language in particular is about as distant from Finnish as English is from German. Both Finnish and Northern Sami use non-Latin versions of the months that denote aspects of that time of the year (unlike Estonian and Hungarian, which use the Latin names the way English speakers do).

There are many similarities in vocabulary besides, although Northern Sami does use fewer cases and more complicated “consonant gradation” (which is shifting a consonant in a word to a weaker form when it declines—in Finnish, “kaikki” [everything] would become “kaiken” [of everything] when declined in the genitive. Note that the “kk” becomes “k”. Northern Sami uses a similar system).

There are other Sami Languages aside from Northern Sami. Don’t ask me about them because I haven’t studied any of them. They are not mutually intelligible with one another, although their vocabularies are similar.

Here is the flag, my personal favorite flag on the face of the earth. I have heard a theory that the colors refer to Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia, but…like I know…

sapmi

The Sami are also well-known for a wordless singing known as “Yoiking”. You may have already heard yoiking before…if you have seen the opening titles for Disney’s Frozen. Yes, this was not an original creation, but rather the “Yoik of the Earth”. Have a listen and refresh your memory:

(Note: the latter portion of this version does involve a mashup with a Norwegian Christmas hymn).

Here is an a cappella version of the national anthem:

I could get into some of the politics of tensions that occur between the Sami and the various countries, but you are welcome to do research on that on your own.

In the meantime, why not treat yourself to some radio:

http://radio.nrk.no/direkte/sapmi

Or, if you would prefer, why not some television? (This links to the version with Norwegian subtitles, but you can easily find the same with Swedish or Finnish subtitles if you poke around the web, or ask about it in the comments).

http://tv.nrk.no/serie/oddasat-tv

I would like to dedicate this post to anyone who asked me about the Sami at any point. This is for you.

 

“Why Would You Want to Learn That?”

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It is no secret that there will be those who will discourage you from your language learning attempts (or other hobbies or interests, for that matter) throughout your life.

This is, interestingly, true for commonly spoken/learned languages as it is for those spoken by relatively few people.

I have gotten the question “Why Would You Want to Learn That?” several points when I bring up certain languages.

Most of the time this sentiment is just sheer curiosity…as a student in the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, why is something like Irish important to me?

Sometimes, however, I did get explicit discouragement, although certainly not often. Here’s a fact, though: speakers of more commonly spoken languages are almost certainly more likely to judge you negatively than speakers of less commonly spoken languages (who will be glad you made any variety of effort at all).

At many points throughout my life have I been seized by a desire to do something out of the ordinary. Chances are that if you are reading this, so have you.

True story: when I visited the Sámi Exhibition in the Nordic Museum in Stockholm I saw that the panels and writings were translated from Swedish into English and also into Northern Sami.

There was a booklet that came with the exhibitions that was bilingual Swedish / Northern Sami, and I had the thought of actually taking it with me and then learning that language Rosetta-Stone style (I’m referring to the artifact, not the expensive program).

I couldn’t do that because a notice said that I had to return the booklet.

I don’t really know exactly what seized me with the desire to have learned Northern Sami back then (Early 2013, if I recall correctly). Maybe it was the pretty flag or the costumes or my lifelong love of cold climates, or maybe I was just impressed by the way the words looked on the page.

The journey with Northern Sami did not begin in earnest until March 2014 (more than a year after I thought of learning the language from a museum booklet that I couldn’t take in the first place).

Looking back on that and also my experiences with other rarer languages, I developed the following system that I encourage you to try if you are ever captivated with a desire to learn something that may be “out of your character”:

Learn first. Find justifications later.

Your originaly desire for learning a new rare language may be “the words look cool”, but when you actually acquaint yourself with the culture, you can find songs that you wish you knew the meanings of, or encounter a small but vibrant film industry. And so when someone asks you “why do you want to learn that?” you can disarm them with something that makes sense, rather than your original motivation which might have been quite silly.

When someone asks me why I learned Northern Sami to any degree at all, I said that I wanted to find how its linguistic framework fit among the rest of the Scandinavian Languages and understand the story of the Sámi people as it is contained within the language.

Obviously this logical answer wasn’t really why I undertook the trek to begin with.

But I myself have had silly reasons for learning many languages.

I wasn’t too enchanted by Danish until I sat next to some Danish guy on a plane who was surprised that I correctly identified the language he was speaking. His demeanor  was so prevalent with hygge that I just had to take the language more seriously than I did. The fact that I had a small but noteworthy amount of Swedish and Norwegian in my arsenal at that point gave me more of an incentive to do so.

To date, I have tried to learn Irish unsucessfully a number of times since late 2008. Now with Duolingo’s course, I have finally embarked on a journey that I’ve been waiting for. I still can’t really say what makes the Irish language appealing for me—I guess that’s for antoher post. But will I find a justification for it? Most certainly. But that justification wasn’t the reason why I began.

Last night was Thanksgiving and I sampled pretty much every language that I knew to people who were throwing endless questions at me.

All the while it seemed that I had earned respect for just finding what I wanted to do, for whatever reason, and just going ahead and doing it.

I encourage you to do the same.

My Translation Adventure with Northern Sami ‘n Friends

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A week from tomorrow is my birthday. In looking for potential gifts and wish-list constructions, one click led to another and I found myself discovering something about Minecraft (a well-known video game with quite simplistic but cute graphics that I can’t really grasp the point of) being translated into many languages.

Since my travels have hardened my discipline, I’m usually not one for game-playing, but I was so intrigued that I had to take a look.

Turned out, the list of languages included the standard ones that most Americans can name off the top of their head, but then spun into complete unpredictability with Manx Gaelic and Cornish being featured (!!!!)

Both languages, for those unaware, had passed into extinction and have been revived. In the UN’s Atlas of Endangered Languages, these two are noted with the red pin (indicating “critically endangered”) with a letter “R” on it, indicating that it had been brought, pardon my expression, back from the bring.

It is interesting to note that the game is likely being used to further the revival attempts at both languages, even though neither translation is truly complete (Cornish is at 65% or so as of the time of writing, with Manx slightly over 70%).

Now here’s the most interesting part: Minecraft outsourced its translations to the public. What that means: you can create an account on CrowdIn, and start translating to whatever degree you want to, no matter who you are. Of course, those who know the language better will vote on your translations accordingly, acting as quality control.

Taking a look at its offerings, I noted that there was a Northern Sami translation and that it was not making signs of great progress (as of last week it was about 1%).

Keeping in mind the adage from the language encourager community that languages need to be experienced rather than learned, I snatched the chance, created the account, and then began translating.

My only experiences with the game dealt with watching some of my college friends play it (and try to hopelessly explain the game to me), but luckily this was no barrier in me getting to work.

A few days later, and the progress for the translation is now at around 14% or so, and when I’m in more of a working mood I’m likely to continue it.

Some of my thoughts / frustrations:

  1. There are lots of languages recognized by CrowdIn, possibly the longest list I’ve seen on anywhere that isn’t Reddit. Very interestingly, while they had offerings like Ewe and other languages whose name I only recall seeing once, Greenlandic / Kalaallisut was nowhere on the list.

 

Mixed blessing?

 

  1. A Material Notebook proved helpful. I had grammar tables and the like in my notebook that was right by my side. I had also copied the contents of a screenshot from Wikipedia that showed Kubuntu being translated into Northern Sami, and I had never thought that I would ever to put it to use like this when I first wrote it.

 

As it turns out, I consult multiple dictionaries for the translation, Giella Tekno (which is Norwegian/Finnish to Northern Sami and back to both), as well as two English-Northern Sami Dictionary lists, and another Norwegian/Swedish /Sami Languages dictionary. But clicking between the tabs proved difficult and really wore out my hand, after which I needed to take a walk.

 

  1. There was an original stage of self-consciousness, but I quickly got over it. I thought, “what if a Native speaker comes in and demolishes all of my translations?”, then I figured, “well, you know what, Jared? If you don’t get this done, who on earth is going to do it? Are you going to put your skills to use or are you just going to close the window and forget than anything ever happened?. Jared. Samiland needs you. You might not know it perfectly, but good enough is okay. And you can trust that others will modify your work accordingly…”

 

Further adding to the degree of self-consciousness was the fact that the language, as small as it is, is fractured (for those who don’t know, there are about 15,000 native speakers of this language at least, and definitely many others who learn it as a second language).

 

The word for “I” can be spelled either “mon” or “mun”, and I opted for the first one. Now among the books and websites that I was using, some of them did end up using alternate spellings and I might have not been perfectly consistent. But yet again, Minecraft does note that the “translations may not be 100% correct”.

 

Speaking of which, Facebook is also working on its Northern Sami Translation and it is showing almost no signs of activity, last I checked (which was last week or so).

 

  1. “My dictionaries aren’t showing up any word for X. Should I use the English word instead?”

 

  1. “My dictionaries offer multiple words, one that is more purist Sami and the other that is very clearly ‘Dárogiella’ (the “land language” which is either Norwegian or Swedish, depending on where in Samiland you are). Which one do I use?”

 

I am reminded of the same struggles in some other languages, specifically in Hebrew and in Greenlandic, where there are purist words and European loanwords (all over Europe in Hebrew’s case, Danish in the case of Greenlandic). Yiddish also comes to mind, with its blend of Germanic, Slavic and “Loshn-Koydesh” elements, all of which carry different connotations to a trained ear.

 

The situations are very comparable between the lot of them.

 

  1. “This language has lots of words for reindeer and lots of words for snow, but for some odd reason I can’t find any equivalent for word X (usually something related to technology)…odd…”

 

  1. CrowdIn gathers a list of your “preferred languages” as a result of your profile registration. This proved to be very useful, as I could reference the Finnish and Estonian translations, as well as those in the Scandinavian and West Germanic Languages (among many others) and note what routes I could take. (I usually checked my results with Google Search or Giella Tekno…you’d be surprised how much material there is online even for the smallest of languages…)

 

  1. Despite the fact that it was working, it didn’t really feel like work. I kept in mind Robert Benchley’s adage that “anyone can do any amount of work, as long as it is the work he’s not supposed to be doing at the moment” (note to world: I did not miss any assignments on account of this project).

 

  1. This exercise dramatically improved my vocabulary in all of the “preferred languages”, especially in Norwegian, Finnish and, of course, Northern Sami itself. A speaking exercise afterwards noted that I almost never was grasping for words or pausing as a result of this immersion.

 

I help translate things, and my languages get better…

 

And who knows? Maybe I’ll end up playing the game one day…

 

What a deal!

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?